The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

Gun and a Hotel Bible


It’s never a good thing when your Gideon Bible starts telling you fish stories.

(2019) Drama (Freestyle) Bradley Gosnell, Daniel Floren, Mia Marcon, David Shoffner, George Christopher, Delaney Milbourn, John A. McKenna, Wes Selby, Mark Laird, Zachary Fancey, Jimmy McCammon, Grace Fae. Directed by Raja Gosnell and Alicia Joy LeBlanc

Faith isn’t an easy thing to pin down. We don’t always know how strong it is; faith can come and go on a dime. We think we recognize it, but it is only when we are truly tested that we know whether or not our faith is real.

Pete (B. Gosnell) is facing just such a test. He’d met his wife Cindy (Marcon) in a seedy hotel bar. For him anyway, it was love at first sight. She was one of those women who just lights up a room; so full of life, so full of oy, every eye was on her. So he was surprised as hell when she sat down at his table and in the space of a night extracted his life story. Six months later, they were married. Should have been a happily ever after, right?

But life rarely offers us a happily ever after. The magic went out of the relationship and now Pete has discovered that his Cindy has been coming back to the same hotel every Friday night to meet Leo (Christopher) for an evening of passion. So, Pete has come to the hoteland gotten himself a room for Friday night. He packed light; a backpack, and in the backpack, a gun.

Gideon (Floren), or “Gid” as he likes to be called, has a pretty stationary life. He likes to do things by the book, which is understandable since he is a book – or perhaps more to the point, THE book – the Gideon Bible that is left free in hotel rooms for travellers to read. This particular Bible has been sitting in the same hotel room for six decades. He’s seen his share of tragedies and passions; one of his pages has been torn out by a stoner to use as a rolling paper “Judges. Ironic, huh?”) and on the back a child has drawn her own Picasso-esque masterpiece.

When Pete comes in, Gic strikes up a conversation, being an outgoing, people-loving sort. Gid quickly discovers what Pete’s intentions are and holds a conversation with Pete on the nature of faith, the inequities of translation and interpretation, and navigating right and wrong as he tries to guide Pete in a different direction than the one he’s planning on.

This movie had its beginning as a stage play, and sadly, hasn’t really risen past its beginnings. Most of the action takes place in the confines of a hotel room, and there is a stage-y feeling to the production and to be honest, to the dialogue as well. The rhythms here all scream “stage play” much more than they do “film”. Considering that the two co-stars co-wrote and starred in the sgtage version and co-director LeBlanc directed the original stage version, it isn’t so surprising. Raja Gosnell (Brad’s dad) is a veteran director of feature films; you’d think that he would have added a more cinematic quality to the production, but alas, no.

That’s not to say that this doesn’t have things going for it. The concept is imaginative and the opening sequence when Pete narrates how he and Cindy got together is pretty nifty and the movie tackles some pretty deep subjects. It is one of those rare movies that discusses faith from a rational standpoint, never feels like it’s preaching. I know a few theologians who are going to have some pretty stirring conversations based on this if they ever get to see it.

Gosnell the younger and Floren have a good chemistry and each does a pretty good job with their roles,Pete being scruffy and down on just about everything (as you might imagine) while Gid is a bit of a huckster, optimistic in an “Up With People” kind of vibe, and a little bit too into the Cubs. While the film is a brisk 60 minutes long, your tolerance for watching what is essentially an extended conversation will determine how much you’ll end up enjoying this movie. For me, it was thought-provoking enough to sustain my interest.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of imagination here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very stage-y; other than the opening scene, lacks a sense of being a film rather than a stage play.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play that debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTub]e
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Museum Town

Queer Japan


Totally fabulous, Japanese-style.

(2019) Documentary (Altered Innocence) Hiroshi Hasegawa, Tornato Hatakeno, Leslie Kee, Atsushi Matsuda, Junko Mitsuhashi, Saeborg, Vivienne Saro, Fumino Sugiyama, Nogi Sumiko, Gengoroh Tagame, Toh Ogura, Fuyumi Yamamoto, Chiga Ogawa, Caroline Kennedy. Directed by Graham Kolbeins

 

The United States has undergone a radical transformation in its attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Once actively hostile towards them (and that hasn’t completely gone away), the country in general has grown more tolerant, believing that same-sex marriages should be legal (and for now, they are) and that society in general should move in the direction of acceptance.

Japanese culture has long had gay and lesbian elements to it, but what is LGBTQ culture like at this moment? Vancouver-based queer documentarian Kolbeins attempts to provide a snapshot and in many ways, it’s like watching a ten hour documentary series crammed into an hour and a half. With cleverly designed graphics and a neon-dominated opening credit sequence that lets you know that you’re about to be dazzled, the movie tends to focus on artists and nightlife impresarios.

This is much like presenting a film on Queer America and focusing primarily on the drag queens of San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York and disregarding the gay community elsewhere, most of whom don’t dress up in outrageous outfits to look fabulous or, in many cases, to be shocking. In other words, we don’t get to see ordinary gay men and lesbians and transgenders trying to live their lives, escept in a few notable sequences.

We see some of the activism going on in Japan as those involved struggle to get Japan to put aside gender definitions and let people live essentially as they want to. Noted manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, who has written many manga (Japanese comics) with hyper-masculine gay characters as well as the popular family comic My Brother’s Husband, bristles at being asked “Why do you like having sex with men,” but also at LGBTQ community members asking him “Why are you into BDSM?” which he looks at as the same type of ignorance. He’s not wrong.

Some of the individual stories are fascinating, like that of performance artist Saeborg who constructs a gigantic latex pig that gives “birth” to human piglets who immediately swarm at the latex teats. She talks about how wearing rubber allowed her to feel truly free and to be the person she wanted to be. There’s lso the deaf gay couple who have to invent their own sign language symbols to communicate in a court of law the concepts they’re trying to get across. Or the anti-gay politician who laughs out loud when she hears that gay teens are more than six times as likely to commit suicide as straight kids the same age. One would hope that would be a career ender if an American politician did something similar.

The emphasis on the more flamboyant and extroverted members of the community while it makes for a more cinematic film also tends to ignore those who are quieter and less immediately identifiable as LGBTQ, and that is to ignore that change in this country largely came through the efforts of that segment of the community – although the outgoing and outrageous fun-lovers certainly contributed a great deal. I do like that this is a look into a different kind of gay culture – Japanese pop culture is kind of over-the-top to begin with and throw a heaping helping of fabulous on top of that and you really have a potent, frothy brew. One can’t deny that this is informative, although by the end of the film one begins to feel a bit punchy – there’s an awful lot thrown at you all at once and it’s forgivable if you feel a sense of overload after absorbing all of it. This is one feature length movie that perhaps might have been better served as a ten hour series, but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a worthwhile watch, particularly for those seeing what LGBTQ activism looks like in Japan.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a little bit of activism amongst the frivolity. An interesting view into a fairly taboo subject in Japan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends perhaps too much time on the more visually outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 people were interviewed over a four year interval for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris is Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gun and a Hotel Bible

Soul


There’s no doubt that Jamie Foxx has soul.

(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.

Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.

 

Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.

But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.

He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.

As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”

This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.

Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.

Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.

In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.

REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Queer Japan

Wonder Woman 1984


Did video kill the movie star?

(2020) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Palaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll, David Al-Fahmi,Kevin Wallace, Wai Wong, Doutzen Kroes . Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

It is somewhat ironic that the first Wonder Woman took place during the waning days of World War I which saw the world (although not depicted in the film) struggling with a global pandemic of the Spanish flu. The sequel has finally made it to theaters (and to streaming platform HBO Max until January 26th) after being delayed more than a year, argely due to the current global pandemic.

It is 1984 – morning in America, right? – and Diana Prince (Gadot) – the alter ego of Wonder Woman – still mourns the death of her love Steve Trevor (Pine) in an explosion at the conclusion of the Great War. She has managed to lie low for the intervening years, occasionally showing up in costume to foil a mall robbery. She works in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, along with a new colleague, the confidence-challenged and somewhat clumsy Barbara Minerva (Wiig). The two become friends, and work on identifying a strange artifact – it turns out to be the Dreamstone, a magic relic that grants wishes to the bearer.

Before they realize it though, the two women each make a wish – Minerva to be more like her new friend Diana, and Diana to regain her dead boyfriend. Each woman receives exactly what they wish for – and in Minerva’s case, she also inherits Wonder Woman’s powers. Steve returns, his consciousness inhabiting the body of a handsome man (Palaha). At first, the two are happy.

Television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a cross between Gordon Gekko, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, gets wind of the stone and decides to use it to become the dreamstone himself – with the power to grant wishes to whomever touches him. With a steady income of well-wishers, his failing business is turned around and Lord becomes a wealthy man in fact instead of just an illusion.

However, the Dreamstone was actually the creation of the God of Lies and it has a terrible downside – it takes from the user as much as it gives. When the President of the United States (ostemsibly Reagan) wishes for more nukes, the world is brought to the brink of destruction, unless Diana can find a way to stop it.

In many ways, this is a worthy successor to the first Wonder Woman and in others, it is disappointing. Gadot has proven herself perfectly cast as the Amazonian superheroine; beautiful and exotic, graceful in her action sequences, and possessed of a strength and confidence that makes her a tremendous role model for sure, but also not incidentally, a budding A-list movie star. She is quite frankly the reason to see this film; she’s spectacular in the part.

 

Pine is second banana here, and he seems comfortable in the role. He serves mainly as fish-out-of-water comic relief, evincing awe at period technology (the space shuttle, computers and cheese in a can. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle here; Wiig shows some real dramatic skill as Minerva, going from a put-upon, mousy nobody to a self-confident supervillain. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. Pascal as the huckster Maxwell Lord, is surprisingly bland; the part certainly shows some Trumpian overtones, but in the end Lord seems to have more of a heart than Trump, or at least so it seems. Still, I would have expected more spice out of Pascal.

There are some really great moments here – like a flight through fireworks – and some truly head-scratching moments as well. The opening prologue, set when Diana was a girl (Aspell) in a competition with fully grown women, nearly lost me at the get-go, while the shoot-out at the mall really made me wonder if I wasn’t about to watch Jenkins bomb after doing so well with her last film. Not to worry though; it does get much better as it goes along.

There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about a sex scene with the resurrected Steve Trevor and Diana. As Steve was inhabiting another man’s body, some people complained that this was essentially rape as the man whose body Steve was inhabiting couldn’t give consent. Far be it for me to besmirch sexual assault in any form, but could it be we’re getting oversensitive? I don’t think bodies driven by foreign consciouses are a big problem, or ever likely to be. Can we save our outrage for real world rape culture?

That said, this isn’t the home run that Wonder Woman was, but it’s not a strikeout either. It’s definitely a solid base hit, if we’re going to continue the baseball metaphor. Is it worth going to theaters for? I’m sharply divided on this. I think that it should be seen on the big screen in a big theater, but at the same time I can’t really justify the risk for those who might be concerned about picking up COVID and passing it along to loved ones. I think it was the right call for Warner Brothers to make it available at home and that’s probably where you should see it. However, once you feel comfortable going back to the multiplex, hopefully some theaters will show it as a re-release so we all get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: Gadot continues her ascent as a major star and Wiig delivers a bang-up performance. Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely uneven. Pascal is surprisingly bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is superhero action/violence as well as a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Wiig was Jenkins’ first choice to play Barbara Minerva, the role was initially offered to Emma Stone, who declined. Wiig was then offered the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 168/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Soul

Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984