Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Kids Are All Right

Jonah Hill Moves Behind the Camera for Coming-of-Age Skateboard Drama

 

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Mid90s
Starring Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges & Katherine Waterston
Directed by Jonah Hill
R

Jonah Hill has made us laugh in raunchy comedies including Superbad, 21 Jump Street and its sequel, This is the End and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He played Moneyball with Brad Pitt, howled with Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and voiced dragon trainer Snotlout Jorgenson in two animated How to Train Your Dragon flicks.

Now he’s taking us skateboarding.

Mid90s, which marks his first feature as a director and screenwriter, is a poignant, grittily realistic depiction of kids growing up in working-class Los Angeles circa 1994.

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Sunny Suljic

Sunny Suljic (recently in The House with a Clock in Its Walls) stars as 13-year-old Stevie, who admires his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea), even though Ian is an abusive, loutish bully. Ian slams back orange juice by the gallon, works out obsessively, collects sports apparel, plays videogames—and pummels Stevie whenever he finds out he’s been poking around in his bedroom, which is often.

Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is too distracted, self-absorbed and caught up in her own life to notice them, or whatever they’re doing.

With no anchor at home, Stevie drifts—and is drawn into a group of high school slackers he sees on a street corner, razzing a local shop owner, talking smack and showing off with their skateboards.

Stevie “trades up” his kiddie board for a real skateboard and is gradually assimilated into the group, given the affectionate nickname “Sunburn” (because of a comment he makes that amuses everyone). Almost everyone in the group has a nickname—except Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the oldest, and wisest, of the bunch, who dreams of “going pro” with his formidable skilz; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), closest to Stevie’s age, who initially takes the youngster under his wing and schools him on what’s cool…and what’s not.

“Listen to me,” Ruben tells him. “Never say ‘Thank-you.’ People will think you’re gay.”

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The camera loves “F—ks—t” (Olan Prenatt), a shaggy-blonde screw-up whose profane nickname comes from his favorite expression. The group gave “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) his moniker as a knock at his limited vocabulary; but he’s an aspiring filmmaker who documents everything with a handheld camcorder.

Hill grew up in upper-class L.A., and this isn’t his autobiography, by any means. But he clearly has an affectionate feel for these dead-end kids. Rich with textures and details of its era and its place, Mid90s is a confident coming-of-age slice of characters and situations that will resonate with anyone who was around during the time—even if you never set foot on a skateboard, or weren’t anywhere near Southern California.

The soundtrack—a mixture of tunes from a diverse slate of artists, from the Mamas and the Papas to A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill, mixed with original sonic-scapes from Oscar-winning Trent Reznor and fellow former Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross—sets a tasteful, moody, meandering backdrop, especially for scenes of young ‘boarders drifting breezily down the middle of a freeway at sunset, or teeming like lemmings all over a local park, then scattering and skittering away from “Five-O,” the cops.

It might shock some viewers when young Stevie and his friends talk scatological trash, or do things that push the film toward the far edges of its R rating. They smoke. They drink. And they have sex…sort of. (That scene actually quite accurately presents teenage “sex,” its prelude and its aftermath, as an awkward spectrum of emotions, from both sides of its young gender gap.)

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Alexa Demie & Sunny Suljic

The slightly older teenage girl (actress-singer Alexa Demie) who takes Stevie into a bedroom at a party is one of only two female characters in the whole film (the other is Stevie and Ian’s mom). This movie is about the boyz in the ’hood, and they’re mostly played by unknown actors; sometimes it feels like a documentary—maybe the one Fourth Grade is shooting throughout the actual movie itself.

These youngsters flirt with injury and danger; it’s part of the “lifestyle.” Stevie throws himself into it, partly to show he’s a scrapper who’s got what it takes, but also because he’s been tempered by the beatings of his older brother. Learning to master his skateboard, he repeatedly falls off. Later, he accidentally skates off the roof of a building. And later still, he’s involved in a much more serious incident.

“You literally take the hardest hits of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Ray tells him.

Bumps, bruises and broken bones aside, the movie is kinda sweet, often dreamy, and ultimately a tribute to a type of camaraderie among young, outlier, outsider friends of any stripe, anywhere, anytime. These kids have found each other, even if they haven’t found—and aren’t interested in—a place where they fit in the larger, grownup world.

Mid90s has an edgy, indie feel, and it probably won’t make a big splash with a big audience. It’s a small movie about a small group of friends, a scrappy “family” of wayward L.A. kids who live to “push on a piece of wood” on wheels. But it’s a formidable debut from a first-time director that announces his official arrival into a new filmmaking circle.

And its big accomplishment is heralding that Jonah Hill has found a place, another place, where he fits—and that’s behind the camera.

In wide distribution Oct. 26, 2018

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Trick or Treat

New ‘Halloween’ Marks Fresh, Frightfully Fun Return to Franchise

Film Title: Halloween

Halloween
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer & Andi Matichak
Directed by David Gordon Green
R

Trick or treat!

It’s that time of year—and Halloween is that kind of movie.

It’s certainly a treat seeing Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode, slasher cinema’s most celebrated scream queen, in the role she created back in 1978.

And it’s a bit of a trick what this movie does with its own franchise, a hefty collection of 10 reboots, sequels and revisions by various directors, dozens of other actors and wildly divergent plot lines. This Halloween basically pulls a disappearing act on all of them, except the original, wiping the movie slate clean and operating as if all the events that came before, in all those other films, never happened.

Poof! They’ve vanished.

All orange and a-glow with fresh, new thrills, chills and edge-of-your-seat jolts, this frisky, frightfully fun return to the franchise is full of tense, taut, pulse-pounding scares, enough slashing, stabbing, skull-smashing and impaling to provide some gristle for the gore-hounds happy, and terrific nods to the movie that started it all. (The original’s director, John Carpenter, is one of the executive producers, along with Curtis.)

The new one picks up where the first left off, in Haddonfield, Ill., 40 years after masked, mute Michael Myers went on the horrific Halloween-night killing spree that came to be known as the “babysitter murders.” One resourceful sitter, Laurie Stroud, escaped—but grew up forever traumatized by the experience.

Michael was locked away in a looney bin for endless psychiatric probing. And Laurie became Haddonfield’s local paranoid crackpot, living in a fortified compound with an arsenal of weapons, floodlights on her roof, multiple locks on her doors—and the certainty that Michael would come back to hunt, and haunt her again someday…or some night.

Maybe Halloween?

And she’d vowed she’d be ready for him, even if everyone else thought she was crazy.

Film Title: Halloween

Judy Greer (left) with Jamie Lee Curtis

Laurie’s obsession has alienated her now-grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), despite the entreaties of Karen’s own teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), a high school senior who begs her grandmother to let go of Michael “and get over it!”

Of course, Michael (played by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle, reprising his role from 1978) does escape, he does come back to Haddonfield and he does zero in on Laurie. The body count again rises as he blends in, hiding in mostly plain sight among the costumed ghouls and goblins on the sidewalks and streets on Halloween night. But another “trick” of the movie is how it sets up three Stroud women this time to ultimately confront him. Now, 40 years later, the world has changed in many ways, and the boogeyman meets a #MeToo generation with more than one score to settle.

Film Title: Halloween

Andi Matichak

Director David Gordon Green collaborated on the screenplay with Danny McBride—and that’s another trick. The pair is much better known for their rollicking, ribald comedy team-ups for TV’s Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, in which McBride also starred. But give them a masked killer, some sharp knives, a fireplace poker or a tire tool and a shotgun and they can certainly deliver the goods. The opening credits sequence—a reverse time-lapse of a rotten jack-o’-lantern coming back to its original, freshly carved state—sets the stage for their agile horror romp that deeply honors its hallowed roots, “reversing” the outright awfulness of some of its other so-called sequels, while notching its own crisp, definitive design into the iconic tale.

Film Title: Halloween

Gas station bathrooms…yuck!

A couple of scenes are consummate, tip-the-hat homages to the original, and others are smart, stylish new additions to the horror-film canon, blending tension, dark humor and shocking crimson splashes, spatters and smears of blood. Some gas-station bathrooms are yucky enough already, but you may never want to go inside another stall after…well, it’s never good when someone leans over the door and drops someone else’s teeth on the floor. And I’ve always thought those motion-activated backyard security lights were a bit creepy; kudos to the filmmakers for finally exploiting their horror potential.

The movie dabbles a bit in predator-vs.-prey psychology, and whether Laurie might actually “need” Michael, live her life for him, around the idea of him—and look forward to confronting him again.

“He waited for this night,” she says. “He waited for me. I waited for him.”

Just like this is a movie that Halloween fans have been waiting for—like kids anxiously wait for Halloween itself, its candy, its costumes and its frightful fun.

Trick or treat!

In theaters Oct. 19, 2018

Blast Off

Ryan Gosling personalizes Neil Armstrong in moving, masterful moon-mission movie

Film Title: First Man

First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling & Claire Foy
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon.

Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the focus of First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s monumentally intimate portrait of the former U.S. Navy aviator and engineer who became famous forever for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everything in the movie leads toward that climactic moonwalk moment; as one of the most documented events in modern history, we know it happened and we know it’s coming. But wow, is it ever an emotional journey getting there.

As space movies go, First Man isn’t a rousing character romp like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, nor a far-out cosmic mind-bender like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more sobering, introspective, contemplative and calculated in its depiction of Armstrong and the nuts and bolts of getting men into the great beyond.

The movie (based on Armstrong’s official 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen) makes you understand just how difficult, dangerous—and sometimes deadly—it was.

Film Title: First Man

Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous, immersive and often rapturous, a technically brilliant and sometime sublime bit of moviemaking that puts the audience inside the space program, and alongside the astronaut who would become the commander of Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land two people on the moon.

We’re inside cramped, claustrophobic cockpits with Armstrong and other space jocks, surrounded by analog dials, panels jammed with buttons, flip switches and read-out gauges of primitive 1960s computers. We hear the whoosh and hiss of rocket fuel through pipes, the rattle and racket of metal, the monstrous rush and roar of the combusting engines. We feel—or at least think we do—the nauseating, violent, skull-jarring shaking, spinning and rolling.

And the void of space is a majestic, unfathomable symphony of silence.

In the opening scene, we watch Armstrong—then a test pilot—guide an experimental X-15 rocket plane up, up, up, until he perches on the cusp of space. For one beautiful moment, he hovers there, savoring the awesome beauty, gazing at the spectacle of the thin, blue sliver of the atmosphere on the horizon against the vast, endless blackness of the cosmos.

But then he has a bit of trouble re-entering, of getting turned around and returning to Earth. For him, shooting into space is the easy part. Coming back down is hard.

Film Title: First Man

Claire Foy

Reuniting with director Chazelle from last year’s Oscar-winning La La Land, Gosling portrays Armstrong as silent, withdrawn, nearly expressionless and emotionally distant. He feels much more at ease in space than he does at home, with his wife Janet (an excellent Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown) and their two young sons. Perhaps some of that stems from the tragic death of their young daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, an event which haunts him—and also spurs him on.

First Man is about getting to the moon, but Armstrong’s “small step” required a sequence of many, many other steps ahead of it. We see some of the details, like the rigors of preparation (hang on for the “Multi-Axis Trainer,” a vomit-inducing beast that looks like cross between a giant gyroscope and a crazy carnival ride). We get an understanding of the prodigious engineering feats as well as on-the-fly, make-or-break decisions that go into missions—and the many things that can go wrong. We learn of the fatal setbacks, and the public opposition to such high-dollar, risky science.

Film Title: First Man

Jason Clarke

There’s a pack of other astronauts swirling around as NASA scrambles to gets its Gemini and Apollo programs off the ground (literally) ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Corey Stoll is motor-mouthed Buzz Aldrin. Lukas Haas portrays Michael Collins, and Shea Whigham is Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of solo astronauts. Kyle Chandler is Deke Slayton, also a Mercury 7 alum, now promoted to head NASA’s astronaut program.

And all are there to shore up the story around Gosling, who internalizes everything and distills it into an epic hero’s journey. Chazelle’s stupendous space saga—about America’s most significant astral achievement of all time—is grounded in a down-to-earth, existential tale of a man struggling to connect with his wife, his family and their children and his earthly life, even as—especially as—he zooms off to the moon.

The spectacular recreation of the lunar landing sequence, and Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, is punctuated with an immensely moving personal touch you never saw on TV. And the poignant ending of First Man suggests that sometimes, even when your job takes you on a trip of 478,000 miles, the journey you face when you return may be even longer, and much harder.

Like Chazelle’s La La Land, the lingering overtones of First Man aren’t celebratory, but something much more somber, reflective and meditative. It may not be the rah-rah, American-pie, flag-waving, space-race victory lap everyone’s expecting, but Chazelle and Gosling’s masterful moon movie is an out-of-this-world blast in a class all its own.

In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

Star Maker

Lady Gaga Shines in Bradley Cooper’s Sensational Directorial Debut 

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A Star is Born
Starring Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga
Directed by Bradley Cooper
R

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

What’s that sound?

It might be the early Oscar buzz for this film, which has already wowed audiences and critics at key film festivals that often point the way to the Academy Awards.

With A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper makes the leap to directing, as well as starring in the soaring, song-filled saga about a ragged superstar musician (Cooper) who falls for a younger, much greener singer-songwriter, played by Lady Gaga.

That “sound” might also be the tinnitus, the ringing in the ears of Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character. Combined with raging alcoholism and drug use, it’s put a serious drag on his once-thriving career—at the very moment he happens to meet Ally (Gaga), performing in an East Village drag bar, where Jackson has ducked in to get even more sloshed after a show.

Their eyes meet, their hearts sync and pretty soon they’re making music together, in more ways than one.

The sound you’re hearing could also be the songs—elemental, essential building blocks of the movie. But Cooper’s A Star is Born isn’t a musical; it’s a character-driven drama about two people who live and breathe music. The songs—almost all of them written originally for the film, and some by Gaga herself—become passionate, purposeful swaths of the story.

A-Star-Is-Born-5-72And Gaga, in her knockout debut leading movie role, sings the heck out of them. Cooper gives much of the spotlight to her, and she shines in a spectacular, rags-to-riches performance. We watch Ally emerge (we see her in the opening scene, literally, strolling past trash dumpsters in an alley) from her lowly street life to a become a dazzling, media-sensation pop princess.

Gaga built a real-life entertainment career out of being a popster chameleon, and part of the bedazzlement of her portrayal of Ally here is seeing her “bare,” with all that artifice and masquerade stripped away—down to her talent, her voice.

In one early scene, Jackson, fascinated by her fake eyebrows, wants to peel them off to reveal the real her. She tells him she’s always been self-conscious of her looks, in particular her big nose. “Your nose is beautiful,” he says, delicately caressing it with his finger.

In the movie’s many gorgeous, sweeping close-ups of Jackson and Ally’s faces, you see plenty of that beautiful nose—plus their lovely eyes, and their tears, when it comes to that.

Because, of course, what good is any love story that doesn’t give a good ol’ yank to the heartstrings? And this one has at least one major yank some folks might know is coming, especially if they’re familiar with how it’s been told before. A Star is Born was originally a movie in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1955 (Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

As Ally’s star rises and burns brighter and hotter, Jackson’s flickers and falters. Will her success eclipse his? Can their love survive? Is there a way she can save Jackson on his road of self-destruction?

A STAR IS BORN

The movie gets so many of the modern musical details right, from backstage scenes, limo rides and private airplanes to songwriting and recording sessions and live performances. It drills down into the business of music without ever losing the human touch around which the story evolves and revolves.

As an actor-director, Cooper shows particularly strong promise, with an eye for solid craftsmanship and visual detail and a willingness to let his co-stars shine. A scene at an awards show is a particular standout, when a drunken Jackson stumbles onto the stage to join Ally, accepting her trophy, in front of a giant, pixelated screen image of themselves.

We all knew Lady Gaga could sing; she’s sold more than 27 million albums, recorded and toured with Tony Bennett, performed at a Super Bowl halftime show and won six Grammys. She’s got some serious pipes. And if you saw her in her role as the Countess on the FX series American Horror Story: Hotel, you won’t be surprised to find out she can act. But A Star is Born is aptly titled—she has arrived. A movie star is born.

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Sam Elliott plays Billy, the brother of Cooper’s character, Jackson.

There are some outstanding supporting performances as well, including Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father), Dave Chappelle (as Jackson’s buddy) and Sam Elliott, who provides a meaty layer of backstory family drama as Jackson’s older brother, Bobby, a former musician.

There are only 12 notes on the musical scale, Bobby says. Every song ever written uses those same tones, just arranged a different way. “It’s the same story told over and over, forever,” he tells Ally.

Watch A Star is Born and you’ll see a dynamic, dramatic spin on an old, forever love story, a sensational, stupendous, star-making performance by Lady Gaga, and a super-impressive directorial debut by Bradley Cooper—and you’ll hear what everyone else has been buzzing about.

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018