Life Itself

September 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening
Directed by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)

Dan Fogelman, creator and executive producer of the hit NBC series “This is Us,” seems to have the television drama formula worked out better than most — a little yank at the heartstrings here, a heartwarming relationship there, a dash of solid character development and throw in some nonlinear storylines. After only two seasons, viewers and critics are eating it up.

As the writer and director behind the feature film “Life Itself,” however, using a similar template is a disastrous exercise in emotional manipulation and pretentious storytelling. It’s the kind of screenplay that needed a few more rounds of workshopping. As is, it should’ve been tossed into a bin of scripts destined to never be seen again.

It’s regrettable since Fogelman, whose first foray into filmmaking was 2015’s Al Pacino vehicle “Danny Collins,” assembles a more-than-capable cast led by Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Olivia Wilde (“Drinking Buddies”). Broken into five muddled and overwritten chapters, the film starts with an introduction to Will (Isaac), a sad sack of a man we see during his happier times when he’s courting the love of his life, Abby (Wilde), but also during his court-mandated counseling sessions with his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening).

In this chapter, Fogelman pulls out all the stops and crams the melodrama with so many unnecessary and contrived components, one may wonder if he thought he would even get to finish the last four segments. This part of the film includes a nod to the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Will goes back in time to see random moments in the past that will likely shape his future. It’s one of the many times Fogelman needlessly reminds the audience that fate will catch up to everyone eventually.

Fogelman mucks up his clichéd screenplay even more by employing the storytelling technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” a term coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961, which argues that a narrator of a story can’t be trusted because he or she is telling it from a single perspective. Fogelman essentially suggests that the storytellers he’s chosen to recollect their own memories might be remembering incorrectly. The decision to include this narrative device is a lazy choice that allows Fogelman to offer moviegoers various interpretations or perspectives of the same scene — scenes that ultimately fall flat.

As the film stumbles into the other chapters, Fogelman abandons most of his filmmaking gimmickry to connect Will and Abby to a host of other characters — their adult daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and a family living in Spain — but by then it’s fairly evident where everything will end up. Unfortunately, wallowing in a cinematic abyss of tragedy, pain and victimization is better suited for fans of the “Saw” franchise.


September 24, 2018 by  
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Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan
Directed by: Craig William Macneill (“The Boy”)
Written by: Bryce Kass (debut)

While it has sustained a strong interest among American folk historians and true-crime enthusiasts for decades, the story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892, has never received the cinematic attention that a crime of its notoriety would normally demand.

Four years after Christina Ricci portrayed the title character in the laughable Lifetime movie “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” which featured a lot of goth-punk music, the legendary murders are explored with more style and intimacy in director Craig William Macneill’s indie psychological thriller “Lizzie.” Despite a worthy effort by Macneill and first-time feature screenwriter Bryce Kass, Lizzie is more memorable for its foreboding atmosphere and believable performances by the film’s top-billed actresses Chloë Sevigny (“Lean on Pete”) and Kristen Stewart (“Adventureland”) than its storytelling prowess.

Along with setting up an ominous backdrop, Macneill and Kass should also be commended for depicting a host of unusual theories as part of the Lizzie Borden narrative, some of which seem to be loosely based on author Ed McBain’s 1984 novel “Lizzie.” In his book, McBain speculates that Lizzie committed the killings after her stepmother discovered she was having a tryst with their Irish housemaid Bridget Sullivan.

In “Lizzie” the film, it’s her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) — not her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) — who witnesses the lustful encounter between Lizzie (Sevigny) and Bridget (Stewart). The situation is complicated even more because Andrew is taking sexual advantage of Bridget and has also decided to make Lizzie’s uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) custodian of her inheritance, a move that aggravates his daughter.

There are also threatening notes being left at the Borden household that suggest someone else in town might have an issue with the family (“No one will save you from what is to come” and “Your sins will find you” aren’t exactly neighborly messages). When Lizzie and Bridget’s resentment comes to a boiling point, they devise a plan to rid themselves of the people who are harming them.

Shot beautifully by cinematographer Noah Greenberg (“Most Beautiful Island”), “Lizzie” is a somber revisionist interpretation that fails to reach the story’s full potential as the minimalist murder mystery it hoped to become. The chemistry between Sevigny and Stewart is palpable as the sexual tension mounts throughout the film, but there just isn’t enough substance behind the relationship to warrant an entirely new take on what took place inside the walls of the Borden home more than a century ago.


August 31, 2018 by  
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Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty (debut)
Written by: Aneesh Chaganty (debut) and Sev Ohanian (debut)

The tech thriller “Searching” is a welcome surprise. Although the subgenre is new – a film told exclusively through modern-day technology (iPhones, laptops, hidden cameras, etc.) – “Searching” proves that with enough creativity, a project of this kind doesn’t have to play out like a gimmick.

A movie such as “Searching,” unfortunately, will be copied and re-copied for years to come until Hollywood studios have exhausted its originality – see the found-footage subgenre after “The Blair Witch Project” debuted almost 20 years ago. Other computer thrillers have hit theaters before “Searching” (2014‘s “Open Windows,” 2014’s “Unfriended” and the 2018 sequel “Unfriended: Dark Web”), but it’s safe to say that this film is much more inventive and strikes some important and sympathetic themes.

Directed and co-written by first-time feature filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” begins with one of the most effective setups of 2018 – a quick montage of the happy life of a small family over the span of a few years through home videos, social media posts and other online platforms. When it’s revealed early on that mom (Sara Sohn) has died of cancer, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian hook viewers emotionally as dad, David Kim (John Cho), and his daughter, Margot, continue their lives on their own.

By laying a strong foundation for a pair of characters we’re about to go through the wringer with for the next 90 minutes, Chaganty and Ohanian understand that without those opening scenes, “Searching” would only resonate on a visceral level. Instead, with these scenes, it’s much easier to sense the frustration and fear David conveys when 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) goes missing after a late-night study session with friends.

Working with leading Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to search for Margot, David starts doing his own investigating by logging onto his daughter’s laptop and poring through her online behavior to see if he can find any clues. However, with Det. Vick and David running into countless dead ends, they both worry their window for finding Margot alive is closing fast.

Like the best true-crime feature dramas and documentaries, “Searching” is a gripping mystery that features a handful of clever plot twists and an underlying feeling of dread that is unshakeable. Skeptical audiences might think a film like this would be limited by the method it chooses to tell its story, but with a smart script and a heartfelt father-daughter relationship at its core, “Searching” is an absorbing and unique achievement.


August 24, 2018 by  
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Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and Polly Mann (debut)

The metaphor might be the most obvious of the year – a housewife and mother has to find a way to piece herself back together and obtain happiness via jigsaw puzzles — but “Puzzle,” like the hobby itself, is a comforting escape.

A remake of a 2010 Argentine film of the same name, “Puzzle” is a quiet and heartwarming drama starring Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (“No Country for Old Men”) as Agnes, the aforementioned wife and doting homemaker to her blue-collar husband and pair of teenage sons.

Agnes loves her family, but something is missing — something she can’t get from grocery shopping or Bible studying or recipe collecting. She is unfulfilled and wants to do something that will make her feel accomplished. She experiences this unfamiliar sensation when she receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday and realizes she’s a natural at putting it together. Traveling by train from her home in Connecticut to New York City to buy another, she is swept into the world of jigsaw puzzles when she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a lonely hobbyist looking for a new puzzle partner for an upcoming competition.

Of course, jigsaw puzzle competitions, or puzzles in general – as exciting as that sounds as a movie plot – isn’t the real reason Agnes and Robert connect. This isn’t a film like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” or “Akeelah and the Bee” where audiences are going to witness a competitor’s skill level rise as he or she prepares for a final, nail-biting tournament. No, “Puzzle” is about what is essential for Agnes’s growth as a person, which includes Robert’s passion for puzzles and his belief that Agnes can evolve into the independent woman she wants to become.

Replace puzzles with just about any other activity you can think of — bread making, swing dancing, bird watching — and you’ll likely have the same film as long as Macdonald and Khan are at the center of the narrative. Macdonald’s performance is intimate and subtle, lending itself perfectly to her restrained character. Khan, once again, is a master of monologue (“Life of Pi” and the third season of HBO’s “In Treatment” are great examples of this). Paired together, they form a beautiful platonic relationship that flourishes for nearly the duration of the film.

Sadly, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and first-time screenwriter Polly Mann, decide to bow to convention and make Agnes and Robert more than just friends by the third act. It’s a disappointing decision, but one that happens after we’ve already come to admire how their interaction with one another has expanded their outlook on life. “Puzzle” might be missing a few pieces, but it’s still a pretty picture.


August 16, 2018 by  
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Starring: Lee Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow, Kate Moss
Directed by: Ian Bonhôte (debut) and Peter Ettedgui (debut)

During a scene in the 2009 dramedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” an inexperienced fashion magazine assistant played by Anne Hathaway complains to her boyfriend about the pretentious nature of the fashion world. The magazine’s callous editor had berated her for an innocent, albeit clueless, remark she made about accessories.

“They all act like they’re curing cancer or something,” she says of the fashionistas. “The amount of time and energy that these people spend on these insignificant, minute details, and for what?”

If moviegoers can identify with Hathaway’s initial attitude about the garment industry — that putting something as frivolous as fashion on a pedestal is a pointless fascination — it’s probably safe to say that they’re not “Project Runway” fans nor are they likely to care about the difference between weft and warp knitting.

That doesn’t suggest, however, that, like Hathaway’s character, they can’t appreciate the hard work and effort it takes to construct something like an A-line skirt or cardigan jacket. Even if the names Christian Dior or Donatella Versace mean little in the grand scheme of things, one must recognize the artistic ability needed to be a successful fashion designer. That theme couldn’t be truer than in the documentary “McQueen,” a touching and deeply personal, rags-to-riches story of the late British fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. A fascinating tribute to McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010, the doc delves into his brilliant career and the inspiration behind his collections, and explores his devastating depression that ultimately led to his death.

Directed by first-time feature documentarians Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, “McQueen” represents the vision of the title protagonist through intimate home recordings, heartfelt interviews with family and friends and, most importantly, video of the intricate runway shows the highly-skilled designer staged. Like the cinematic equivalent of his couture pieces, “McQueen” is stunning and conspicuous. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is unconventional.

“McQueen” follows the standard documentary blueprint featuring a tortured artist and does so with satisfying, but not revolutionary, results. In recent years, films that have fallen under this category include 2012’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” 2014’s Academy Award-nominated “Finding Vivian Maier” and the Academy Award-winning 2015 Amy Winehouse doc “Amy.” “McQueen” isn’t able to reach those heights mostly because, as storytellers, Bonhôte and Ettedgui don’t match the creativity of their subject.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui attempt to customize the narrative by breaking it up into different sections (for example, “Tape One: Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Tape Three: It’s a Jungle Out There”), but it turns out to be a meaningless exercise in editing. Also unnecessary are transition shots of gold skulls melding with flowers that the directors use as some kind of metaphor linking life and death, which feels like an afterthought. Then, there’s the overdone piano score by British composer Michael Nyman (“The Piano,” “The End of the Affair”). Nyman’s music is lovely, but is out of place in “McQueen,” especially when the swelling classical arrangements overwhelm scenes where it would be more interesting to watch McQueen work meticulously in silence.

Despite some of these less than effective decisions, “McQueen” is at its best when the fashion designer, his thoughts and the clothes themselves are front and center. Secondary interviews with McQueen’s mother Joyce, sister Janet and some of his colleagues are illuminating, but nothing speaks to how McQueen was wired as much as the archived footage of him interacting with fabric and transforming it into something dramatic for the catwalk. It’s like watching a much more grounded version of Daniel Day-Lewis’ fictional fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in last year’s “Phantom Thread.” Both are driven by the desire to create something wholly original and perfect, even as it pushes them to the brink.

This obsession is evident when looking at McQueen’s entire catalog — from his stints with high-end fashion houses like Givenchy and Gucci to his own label. With these platforms, McQueen transcended the industry and gave audiences some of the most bold, controversial and thought-provoking works of art, which were inspired by everything from murder to mythology to technology. In one of his most famous shows, McQueen converted the stage into a psychiatric ward and blurred the lines between beauty and madness. In another, he sent his models down the runway dressed as rape victims, a decision that received backlash from critics for its heavy misogynistic tone.

But McQueen, as always, pressed on and refused to allow anyone to dictate the messaging he wanted to put forth as an artist and designer — unfiltered ideas that were many times conjured in the darker side of his psyche. If anything, “McQueen” the movie is a worthy testament to McQueen the man and illustrates the passion he had for his elaborate craft.


August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Directed by: Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”)
Written by: Spike Lee (“Bamboozled”), Kevin Willmott (“Chi-Raq”), Charlie Wachtel (debut) and David Rabinowitz (debut)

Filmmaker Spike Lee is angry. Actually, he’s seething. His ire for the Trump administration was evident this past May at the Cannes Film Festival where he repeatedly called the U.S. President a “motherfucker” for his weak response to the white nationalism seen during the protests in Charlottesville last summer. Lee’s rage is more than evident in his newest film, “BlacKkKlansman” – a cinematic return-to-form for Lee and his most significant and politically-jarring work since his 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.”

Directed, produced and co-written by Lee, this true-life joint stars John David Washington (TV’s “Ballers”) as Detective Ron Stallworth, an ambitious, black rookie cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In 1979, Ron saw a newspaper ad looking for men to join a local Klu Klux Klan chapter and decided to call up the number and pose as a racist white man interested in the organization.

Once he set up a line of communication, Stallworth teamed up with one of his white fellow detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to be the face of his invented bigot and infiltrate the group when they invite him out to meet. While Flip poses as Ron and collects intel on the KKK, Ron continues to speak over the phone to the group’s leaders, including KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Not long after, Ron (and Flip posing as Ron) are named head of the chapter.

In real life, Stallworth kept the undercover investigation a secret for almost 30 years, until 2006, when he revealed it to a reporter, and then, eight years later, released his book “Black Klansman.” Now, Lee has taken full control of Stallworth’s story as an activist filmmaker and uses it as an indictment on the president, his administration and the shameless, racially-divisive hotbed America has become since Trump started campaigning more than three years ago. Lee punches, and he punches hard.

It is obvious he has an agenda, so if you’re part of the Trump base, you’re not going to like what the Honorary Oscar winner has to say and how he parallels the current racial tension in this country to what Stallworth uncovered during his own daring mission. As apparent as it is, however, Lee’s intent doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship of his direction and the convincing tonal shifts that make “BlacKkKlansman” pivot from intriguing crime caper to biting contemporary satire so fluidly.

Also noteworthy is that during the more humorous scenes, Lee never steps outside the real-world situation in which “BlacKkKlansman” lives, unlike filmmaker Quentin Tarantino does with his hilarious KKK scenes in 2012’s “Django Unchained.” Lee keeps things grounded and seems to know when to jab and when to let the disturbing narrative speak for itself.

Christopher Robin

August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings
Directed by: Marc Forester (“Finding Neverland”)
Written by: Alex Ross Perry, (“Nostalgia”), Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”)

If you get a sense of déjà vu when you hear that there’s a new Winnie the Pooh movie called “Christopher Robin,” bear with us. Last year’s drama “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was a biopic on English Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and the inspiration that led him to write children’s books. In “Christopher Robin,” we return to the fictional world of Pooh, 30 years after Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien as a young Christopher) is sent to boarding school and leaves behind his fluffy friends in the Hundred Acre Wood in Sussex.

Ewan McGregor (“Moulin Rouge!”) stars as an adult Christopher, all grown up with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael) and heaps of responsibility as an efficiency manager at a struggling luggage company in London. His daughter is heartbroken when he has to skip out on their family vacation because his boss orders him to overhaul the budget on his weekend off.

It’s a theme we’ve seen countless times before: the balance of work and home life, and a father who can’t seem to understand which is more important. None of it rings very original in “Christopher Robin,” although the scenario is more complicated since Christopher is faced with not only family obligations, but also having to “put away childish things” once again when the huggable, anthropomorphic Pooh comes for a surprise visit, which leads to Christopher traveling to Sussex to get him home.

Directed by Marc Forester, who explored this same type of narrative in the 2004 fantasy biopic “Finding Neverland” about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, “Christopher Robin” doesn’t break any new ground with its human characters, but there is plenty to love when Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang come out to play.

The appearance of these computer-generated, vintage-looking stuffed animals is flawless, and their interaction with Christopher provide some of the best examples where live-action meets animation in recent memory. It feels like the actors and animated characters are inhabiting the same realm, which is a testament to the incredible creativity and realistic design by VFX studios Framestore and Method Studios.

As a family-friendly film, some viewers might be a bit turned off by the gloomy, quiet nature of the picture as a whole (“Christopher Robin” is more “Where the Wild Things Are” than it is “Alvin and the Chipmunks”), but the charm is never lost when Pooh is delivering one of his clever Poohisms (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day”) or even when Eeyore is sulking in sadness. If anything is impossible, it’s not being enchanted by the film’s many adorable qualities.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

August 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
Directed by: Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”)
Written by: Gus Van Sant (“Last Days”)

Three-time Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) stars as quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” a conventional biopic stifled by a screenplay that doesn’t allow its main character to flourish or make meaningful relationships.

Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), who made one of the most memorable biopics of the last decade in 2008’s “Milk,” works off his own script based on John’s memoir of the same name.

Although writing has been, at best, an inconsistent endeavor for Van Sant in the past, what saves “Don’t Worry” from losing its footing completely is Phoenix’s portrayal of the controversial Callahan, who we see in the film through flashbacks as an alcoholic 21-year-old kid from Portland, who becomes paralyzed in a drunken car accident in 1972.

Most of “Don’t Worry” focuses on John’s physical and emotional recovery after the crash as well as his effort to kick his drinking habit by finding support in Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA, he meets Donnie (Jonah Hill), the group’s leader whose easy-going demeanor keeps John’s addiction in check. Despite the importance of Donnie and the other AA members, Van Sant’s script keeps them at an arm’s length away and never really acknowledges their value.

The same can be said with the way Van Sant handles John’s love interest Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish physical therapist who feels like an afterthought as soon as she leaves the room. An hour into the film and it’s almost like John has been alone the entire time. Even more problematic is the fact that because of the way the narrative is constructed, John’s artwork, the most fascinating thing about his life from a cinematic standpoint, only makes an impression in the second half of the story.

When his cartoons are given their moment to shine, however, is when “Don’t Worry” becomes a charming inside look into a man’s comically dark and clever mind through the politically-incorrect doodles he creates on issues like physical disabilities, race, religion and anything else that would cause conservative readers to gasp. Van Sant enhances some of these scenes by having John’s drawings come alive on paper. The subtle animations of his scribbly characters bring a happiness to the picture that balances the sobriety storyline well.

Still, it’s too little too late for “Don’t Worry” when we get to anything that resembles a significant part of who John really is – from his artistic abilities to his friendships to some of the personal baggage that weighs him down. Phoenix gives a triumphant performance, but “Don’t Worry” needed more color – something like 2003’s superior “American Splendor.” Van Sant, unfortunately, thought it adequate enough to scribble in pencil.

Eighth Grade

July 27, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Directed by: Bo Burnham (debut)
Written by: Bo Burnham (debut)

Unless you are actually a teenage girl facing the anxiety and angst of adolescence head on, chances are you have no idea what the experience is like in 2018. But if you wanted to get close to understanding, Eighth Grade is probably your best bet. It’s an honest, heartfelt and often-times cringe-worthy exploration of one girl’s last week of middle school, a place that hasn’t been very kind to her for the last three years.

At the center of the story is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a socially awkward, 13-year-old girl who wants more than anything to show people she isn’t the shy, introvert everyone pegs her to be. Raised by her loving, single father (Josh Hamilton), who basically annoys her every time he opens his mouth, Kayla finds some solace on the internet when she posts YouTube videos where she gives advice to kids her age about how to be confident and “put yourself out there.”

These aren’t topics, of course, that Kayla is necessarily an expert to be speaking on. She gets tongue tied trying to talk to cute boys and has a panic attack at a pool party, but she is trying her best to step outside of her comfort zone and prove that there is an outgoing, happy-go-lucky person hiding underneath all those insecurities.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Bo Burnham, who got his start in the entertainment industry when he became YouTube famous himself in 2006 after posting comedy videos that went viral, Eighth Grade feels like it is coming from a place of pure love. At first glance, Burnham might not be the person who should be telling this story, but the authenticity, sincerity and dark humor flows from the narrative so naturally, one might surmise that Burnham could have been a teenage girl in a former life.

Of course, much of this realism comes from him working in congruence with the remarkable Fisher, whose past film credits include the first two Despicable Me movies and MacFarland, USA. Her performance is funny, adorable and purposefully clumsy and nervous, and there’s not a moment that goes by where you’re not rooting for Kayla to get whatever she wants out of life.

At a time when teens are inundated with limitless tools that keep them from making substantial connections with one another (when did an emoji replace actually telling someone how you feel?), Eighth Grade is a classic in the making. It might be a movie of its time (who knows what YouTube is going to look like in 30 years), but like the best that director John Hughes offered in the 1980s, Eighth Grade will span generations.


July 20, 2018 by  
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Starring: Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, Lewis MacDougall
Directed by: Shana Feste (“Country Strong”)
Written by: Shana Feste (“Country Strong”)

It’s nothing new in cinema when an eccentric old man is put in a car and dragged across a few states while he attempts to make a meaningful connection with another person in the vehicle. What better way to learn about someone than to spend a few days on the road together?

Actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte do it exceptionally well as a father and son traveling to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet 2015 film “Nebraska.” Alan Arkin won an Oscar for playing a heroine-addicted grandfather on an adventure with his dysfunctional family in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” With enough screen time, a sharp-minded senior citizen can usually impart some life lessons and words of wisdom for those willing enough to accept it.

Laura Jaconi (Vera Farmiga) is not, in fact, one of those characters. She’s not interested in anyone stepping into her lane, especially if that someone is her estranged 85-year-old father Jack (Christopher Plummer). When Jack is kicked out of his retirement home for growing weed, she has two options: let him move in with her and her rebellious teenage son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), or put him on a plane to Los Angeles to live with her younger sister JoJo (Kristen Schaal).

She chooses option two, but consents to making the drive from Seattle to L.A. when her father agrees to pay for Henry’s private school. Jack, however, has ulterior motives. With $200,000 worth of weed in the trunk of his vintage Rolls Royce, he recruits his grandson to help him unload the product during their trip down the West Coast, which includes a stop to meet Jack’s old friend Stanley (Christopher Lloyd) and Henry’s loser father Leonard (Bobby Cannavale).

While some complex themes like abandonment and redemption are touched upon lightly, there’s not much room for anything else to breathe with Farmiga’s exaggeratedly neurotic character overshadowing some of the more interesting relationships that should’ve been given top billing. Farmiga’s performance, in itself, is not bad, but Laura’ character is cliché, obvious and far from nuanced. She is an animal lover who takes in every single stray dog that she finds, a metaphor for the trauma she’s experienced throughout her life with an absent father.

Even then, “Boundaries” writer/director Shana Feste (“Country Strong”) never explores the troubled dynamic between father and daughter. We’re told Jack was a less-than-stellar dad — and we definitely see the effects of the flawed upbringing in Laura’s personality — but Feste fails to get to the heart of the issue. By the end, no one has grown emotionally or identified the root of the problem or learned anything about themselves or the people they love. Sadly, closure only happens because the credits start to roll.

Sorry to Bother You

July 20, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Boots Riley (debut)
Written by: Boots Riley (debut)

Embrace the absurdity. That’s the best advice anyone could give moviegoers who walk into the bizarre, dark comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” written and directed by rapper Boots Riley. It’s one of the most original films you’ll likely see all year, which, depending on your threshold for certifiably crazy storylines, could be a rewarding experience or one that frustrates you.

“STBY” is really an indie movie told in three substantially different acts, all of which progress (or digress, if you refuse to go along for the ride) into a stranger narrative than the one before. To begin, we’re introduced to Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man desperate to find a job and move himself and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his uncle’s garage apartment.

He gets the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder when he takes a job with a sketchy telemarketing corporation that promises him a bright and prosperous future if he is able to work his way up and become one of their elite “power callers.” With a promotion comes the opportunity to rub elbows with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the coke-snorting CEO of a controversial company that profits from slave labor.

The first act is clever and funny as we watch Cassius make sales calls and transport into the houses of the people he is trying to pitch. It’s an inventive way to show the intrusive nature of Cassius’ position and how little power he wields as an insignificant voice behind a telephone. Cassius starts to get the hang of it, however, when a veteran coworker (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” when speaking to customers. The trick works, and Cassius skyrockets to the top floor, to the frustration of his co-workers who hoped he would support their efforts to unionize so they could demand higher pay and benefits.

Seen as a sell-out — a theme Riley also explores with Detroit, an aspiring performance artist — Cassius pursues his capitalistic self-interest, which leads him to the discovery of what “power callers” are actually selling their clients, and calls into question Cassius’ own sense of moral responsibility. Riley piles on the surreal, politically charged metaphors and satirical scenes at a frenetic rate, so if you keep up, you’ll probably enjoy most of the insanity.

It’s the third act of “STBY” that’ll certainly be the defining moment for viewers who are on the fence about whether Riley lets his sometimes unfocused ambition as a first-time filmmaker get the best of him. What “STBY” has going for it in these final scenes is that it never loses its identity as a bat-shit ridiculous concept that doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. If anything, it’s refreshing to know there are creators bold enough to attempt something so risky and anarchic.

Three Identical Strangers

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, Eddy Galland
Directed by: Tim Wardle (“Lifers”)

The first 20 minutes of the stranger-than-fiction feature documentary “Three Identical Strangers” are joyous — a real-time retelling of the jaw-dropping scenarios that led to the reunion of three brothers who had been separated at birth 19 years prior.

“When I tell people my story, they don’t believe it,” Bobby, one of the triplets, says as he shares the incredible account that starts with him stepping onto the campus of a community college for the first time in 1980 and being immediately mistaken for who he would later learn is his long-lost brother Eddy. The tale becomes even more astonishing when a reporter writes a human-interest article on the boys, which quickly leads to the discovery of a third identical brother, David.

Directed by British documentarian Tim Wardle (“Lifers”), “Strangers” begins on an upbeat albeit bizarre note as we watch the lives of Bobby, Eddy and David meld into one. From countless TV appearances and interviews to a cameo in Madonna’s 1985 comedy-drama “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the triplets ride a wave of media frenzy and become overnight stars.

Beneath the fairytale, however, is something malicious. While the brothers seem content with simply knowing they have found each other, their parents begin to ask why none of them were told they were adopting a child with identical siblings. The truth starts to slowly trickle out and takes a dark turn to reveal a surreal narrative that centers on the psychological debate over nature vs. nurture and how hereditary and mental health factor into one’s sense of identity.

Without delving into some of the shocking twists in “Strangers” (it’s better if audiences know as little as possible about the triplets’ story when they walk into the theater), Wardle proves to be an expert in pacing. The way the film rolls out feels like a thriller. It’s reminiscent of other unexpectedly peculiar documentaries in recent years like 2010’s “Catfish” and 2012’s “The Imposter” but manages to shift into an even more somber tone than anyone could’ve imagined.

At the root of this story is Louise Wise Services, a now defunct adoption agency operating in New York that was considered the best agency on the East Coast for Jewish families looking to adopt. Through surprisingly candid interviews with a couple of people who worked for the agency in the 1960s and knew of the perverse incidents taking place, along with heartfelt interviews with the siblings, their families and other adoptees, Wardle has produced a documentary that is equal parts fascinating and disturbing.

By the film’s end, there are plenty of unanswered questions that might leave some viewers wishing things could have tied up a bit more definitively, but chances are this isn’t the last time “Three Identical Strangers” will make headlines. These families deserve more, and it’s Wardle’s highly engaging film that could get them the closure they seek.

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