CVIndependent

Thu08132020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bob Grimm

The Best!

1. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino said a lot of interesting things while promoting this movie, including a threat that he would only be directing one more film after this (and he’s backing away from that being his R-rated Star Trek idea, to the surprise of absolutely no one). So … depending on what he does next, this could be the last “big” movie from QT. If so, I’d say it’s a fitting finish. It’s also the best movie of the year.

2. Uncut Gems: Adam Sandler goes full-throttle nuts in what is easily the best performance within the best film of his career.

3. Midsommar: The horror genre had a banner year thanks in part to Ari Aster, who took terror out of the night and put it in broad daylight for this warped breakup movie. Florence Pugh—who gets my vote for Performer of the Year thanks to this, Little Women and Fighting With My Family—has established herself as a sure bet.

4. The Lighthouse: While this is more of a psychological thriller, there’s plenty of horror in watching farty Willem Dafoe and squirmy Robert Pattinson driving each other crazy on a remote island during a lighthouse-watch stint.

5. Marriage Story: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver break hearts in Noah Baumbach’s best movie to date, courtesy of Netflix.

6. 1917: Director Sam Mendes delivers perhaps his best film yet, about two British World War I soldiers trying to save 1,600 men before they advance into a German trap. It’s done to look like one continuous shot … and done well. This won a couple of Golden Globes, and while the Golden Globes are idiotic, 1917 is definitely award-worthy.

7. Waves: Startling performances all around and a tremendous visual flair make Waves a solid step forward for director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night). Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (also great in this year’s Luce) sparkle in this film.

8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The year’s most heartwarming story, with Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers, and director Marielle Heller creating sweet vibes.

9. Honey Boy: Shia LaBeouf returned with a vengeance this year, supplying both the screenplay and a gripping performance as his own dad in this autobiographical take on his pre-adolescent and teen years. Talk about public therapy. (The film was produced by Amazon and will be streaming soon.)

10. Us: As I said above, horror had a nice year, and Jordan Peele continues his march away from comedy toward scariness with this chilling doppelganger thriller.


The Worst!

1. Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker: The Force Awakens was written by Lawrence Kasdan, the guy who wrote The Empire Strikes Back. This one was co-written by J.J. Abrams and the meathead hack who penned Batman v Superman. That’s right: They handed the storytelling power for one of cinema’s all-time-great storylines to the man who crapped that monstrosity out of his computer. You thought the Return of the Jedi Ewok hoedown was a bad conclusion to the first trilogy? Well, say hello to Palpatine’s Hellraiser Disco Rave Extravaganza.

2. Rambo: Last Blood: It’s been fun seeing Rocky again in the Creed films. As for Sylvester Stallone’s other HGH-enhanced alter ego, the last two efforts in the series have seen … let’s say, diminishing returns, as his hair got shorter (just like Samson in the Bible!).

3. Glass: Just when M. Night Shyamalan was starting to restore my faith in his abilities, he unleashes this, a case study in how not to invent a movie franchise on the fly.

4. Cats: So I was watching this and just trying to survive. Suddenly, things picked up a bit when a song that actually contained a pretty melody sprang from the speakers. Turns out it was the song Taylor Swift wrote, a blossoming flower in the middle of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sewage dump. Taylor came out of the sky later in the film as a CGI human-cat monster and tried to save the movie, but all was lost by then.

5. Yesterday: I just couldn’t get behind this movie. The central character is a plagiarist asshole, and I hated his renditions of Beatles music. Stay home, and listen to the reissue of Abbey Road.

6. Dumbo/The Lion King/Aladdin: While Aladdin was just slightly bad, Dumbo was terrible, and The Lion King was a complete waste of time. Disney, I love you, but you have to stop with this nonsense. Don’t worry; you will still make money. Hell, the amount of dough I drop on coffee mugs in your souvenir stores rivals what these stupid movies made.

7. Hellboy: Maybe they should’ve let David Harbour be funnier in the title role? He kicked comedy ass when he hosted Saturday Night Live. But here, he’s a total dud as Ron Perlman’s replacement.

8. Mary Magdalene: Jesus was a lot of things, but super-boring wasn’t one of them. This pretentious slog was just an excuse for Joaquin Phoenix to hang out with girlfriend Rooney Mara and get paid.

9. The Dirt: The only thing cool about watching this shitshow was the knowledge that Mötley Crüe was over as a band. Now comes the news that those fucksticks will be touring again, which takes away any good vibe that could be experienced watching this.

10. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot: Some critics had the audacity to call this Sam Elliott film one of the year’s best. To those folks, I say: Mushrooms can apparently be a fun recreational drug sometimes, but you shouldn’t take them when you are writing your reviews or operating a band saw.

While they didn’t make the year’s Top 10 worst list, boos go out to Godzilla: King of the Monsters for being soul crushingly dull, and Joker, perhaps the year’s most overrated mediocre film. I was very excited for both … almost as excited as I was for the new Star Wars.

Screw you, J.J. Abrams!!!

A couple of British World War I soldiers stationed in France face a harrowing time in 1917, a war action/drama from director Sam Mendes that is one of last year’s greatest technological achievements in cinema—and one of last year’s best movies.

Mendes—along with his special-effects team, his editing crew and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (finally an Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049)—designed the film to look like one continuous shot. They do a seamless job, to the point where you’ll stop looking for the places where edits might be happening and just take the whole thing in. The story never suffers in favor of the filmmaking stunt.

Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping at the beginning of the movie. Blake is ordered to wake up and report to command; he takes Schofield along with him. The two pals figure they have some sort of assignment coming their way involving food or mail delivery.

That’s not the case. In a plot that reminds of Saving Private Ryan, Schofield and Blake get their unusual assignment: They are told to go beyond a recently abandoned German front line and reach the next British battalion. It’s up to them to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, one of them Blake’s older brother.

The movie is set in motion … and it never really stops. Schofield and Blake venture into a body-riddled, fly-infested battlefield with little time to spare. Deakins’ camera follows as if you are a third party along for the mission. The result is a completely immersive experience. Lesser talents may have made a film with a first-person-shooter video-game feel, but Mendes gives us something that feels hauntingly authentic and very real. He paces his film masterfully.

Familiar faces show up along the way, including Colin Firth as the no-nonsense general who must use two soldiers to deliver his life-saving message, because the land lines were cut by the exiting Germans. Other officers along the way are played by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, displaying varying degrees of regimental disgust and, understandably, only mild compassion. The actors all do a fine job of showing the frustrations that must’ve been grinding on these men.

As Mendes’ film clearly displays: World War I was awful and horrifyingly nasty. Captains stand in trenches weeping furiously as their officers try to advance. Sleeping soldiers are propped up in trenches, in such a way that you’ll wonder how anybody could’ve survived these conditions. Crashed pilots lash out at their rescuers. Rotting corpses float in every body of water the soldiers come across, be it a large pond or raging river. Large rats cause all types of mayhem.

Chapman and, especially, MacKay deserve credit for crafting two well-rounded, deep characters within this spectacle. Mendes and his performers achieve a nice balance of dramatic heft and technical wizardry. The story the film is telling is straightforward and uncomplicated, but it feels big and important, helped along by a magnificent score from Thomas Newman. Mendes, who co-wrote the film, dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred, a World War I veteran. It was the stories Alfred told his grandson that birthed the idea for this movie.

The film 1917 is a mammoth achievement, and a fine tribute to the men who fought in the Great War.

The film 1917 opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

Antonio Banderas delivers what may be his greatest performance as a director dealing with physical and emotional pains in Pain and Glory, a semi-autobiographical film from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.

Salvador (Banderas) is retired, struggling with migraines and back pain after major surgery, and unsure on whether or not he will continue in the art of filmmaking. He’s having bouts of nostalgia, leading him to be momentarily enthusiastic about an anniversary screening of one of his more beloved films. This brings him to the doorstep of Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor with whom he’s been feuding. They happily discuss presenting the film together—while, in a very impromptu sort of way, getting Salvador started on a heroin habit.

Flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood feature a fantastic Penélope Cruz as his mother, raising the precocious Salvador on little money in a cave-like dwelling. Banderas takes a reserved approach to the role that is unlike his usual attack—and it’s refreshing. It’s also profound.

Almodovar returns to form with Pain and Glory, and it ends on an optimistic note that could hint at a new branch of creativity for the great director.

Pain and Glory will be available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

There have been a lot of Little Women film adaptations. Most of you who go to the movies or watch them on TV are probably most familiar with the 1994 adaptation that starred Winona Ryder; the little vampire from Interview With the Vampire; and Batman. I recall liking that one. I mean, it had Batman and Vampire Girl in it, for God’s sake. And the girl from Beetlejuice!

Now comes the umpteenth adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel—and it’s safe to say this one is the best adaptation of the story. Ever. Directed by rising directorial juggernaut Greta Gerwig (the magnificent, ultra-fantastic Lady Bird), who has a vision with her films that declares, “Hey, we aren’t screwing around here!” her third feature effort is a stunner across the board.

It’s a beautiful thing to look at due to some of the year’s best art direction and camerawork. It’s chock full of tremendous performances, and it’s written and directed by Gerwig, whose vision makes this an admirable update of a precious work.

Saoirse Ronan, who also starred in Lady Bird, headlines as Jo March, eldest sister of the March clan, which also includes Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Ronan, not surprisingly, makes the intrepid character of Jo her own; she’s a budding writer who is trying to get her ideas past a crusty editor (Tracy Letts, who had a damn fine 2019).

Gerwig, in a departure from past adaptations, focuses more on the girls as adults, with flashbacks to their younger days. As a result, she has chosen not to cast Amy with two different actresses. Pugh, who is well into her 20s, plays Amy at every stage, even falling through the ice as a pre-teen. I’d say that was an odd choice, but the other choice would have meant less screen time for Pugh, and I say a big “no” to that. She doesn’t look like she’s 12, but who cares? She’s a master in every scene.

Timothée Chalamet steps in for Batman as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, and there couldn’t have been a better choice for the role. His first dance with Jo, where they go a little crazy outside on a porch alone during a party, is as timeless as movie dancing gets. Chalamet has such skill and charm with every line delivery that not a single second of his movie time is wasteful.

My one minor quibble with the film: Gerwig is so damned ambitious with the way she shows the many timelines—out of chronological order—that there were definitely moments when I was a little confused. Again, it’s a minor quibble, because even though Little Women is occasionally confusing, it is always enjoyable.

Filmmakers: This is how you do a period piece, dammit. It’s a fresh take that makes you feel like you are seeing a story for the first time, even when you’ve seen that story multiple times before. This Little Women also transports you to another time—and it doesn’t hurt to have Meryl Streep (as Aunt March) in your period piece. Always a good thing.

Driving it all home are characters you root for, played by one of 2019’s greatest ensembles. All hail Greta Gerwig for bringing this group together in delightful, superbly entertaining fashion.

Up next for Gerwig? Possibly a Barbie movie with Margot Robbie. I am curious to see how that one pans out. It’s going to be interesting if it moves forward … because films are always interesting when Greta Gerwig is at the helm.

Little Women is now playing at theaters across the valley.

So, as Cats started, I was actually liking it a bit. It looked weird as hell, and I could tell the cast was singing live on set—which I admire. But, after about five minutes, a malaise started to sink in that never lifted.

That malaise is due mainly to the fact that this musical sucks to begin with. No amount of CGI wizardry (which, sadly, this film doesn’t have) can save this blight on humanity. The music is god awful, except for a brief interlude during which a beautiful melody sticks out like a sore thumb—that would be “Beautiful Ghosts,” a song co-written by Taylor Swift that is actually good. They should’ve let Taylor rewrite the whole damn thing. She actually shows up for a brief stretch toward the end of the movie, a life preserver in a sea of shit that, unfortunately, is snatched away before you can really grab onto it.

Judi Dench stars as the apparent overseer of some sort of America’s Got Talent for felines. (I really have no idea what was going on in this movie.) The weirdness of the visuals, combined with the slog pacing and shitty music, will have you thinking you have a bad case of cat-scratch fever, or perhaps somebody dropped acid into your Coke Zero.

Apparently, there’s a new version out there with some fixed visuals. I saw the original version. Readers, I love you, but there is no way I am subjecting myself to this a second time.

Cats is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Bill Cosby is rotting in prison after being revealed as a rapist, and no standup comedians have been doing shows with kids lately.

John Mulaney to the rescue!

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, on Netflix, is sharply written, with a fun, darkly sarcastic tweak that should have both kids and adults chuckling. The joy of the show is that it isn’t dumbed down for kids. The kids are funny as all hell, and they even upstage the hilarious Mulaney on occasion. The music numbers are cute/funny, and the sketches all offer up solid laughs.

Guest stars include Richard Kind, David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal—proving he’s one of the funniest people on the planet, as a guy trying to create music without instruments. Bumper interviews with the kids provide funny revelations, including one from a girl who is afraid of pigeons. Standout musical numbers include one with a very strange math tutor, another involving a kid who only likes one kind of food, and a fine dance number about white ladies sobbing in the middle of New York City streets.

I’m hoping this isn’t a one off. John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch needs to be a series.

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is now streaming on Netflix.

In Fabric is one of 2019’s wackier movies. An unofficial homage to director Dario Argento by Peter Strickland, it follows a killer dress as the garment takes out victims during a busy shopping season. It has the weird score, the strange-looking fake blood that’s too brightly colored, and the sort of pacing that has made Argento a cult favorite.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste stars as a mom looking to get back on the dating scene after her husband leaves her … so she buys a dress. The dress burns her when she wears it and sometimes jumps on people after hanging around on the ceiling. Strickland somehow makes this sort of beautiful and silly, rather than just silly.

Later in the film, the story shifts to a soon-to-be-wed machine repairman (Steve Oram) who is also victimized by the strange garment. Fatma Mohamed takes the award for Weirdest Entity in a Weird Movie as a geisha-looking store manager who seems to know the dress has powers, but sells it anyway.

So, beware: In Fabric is a nutty, strange, ambiguous movie that isn’t for everyone. But if you do happen to like films about killer dresses, this is right up your alley.

In Fabric is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com

Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker is a disastrous, soulless squandering of the good will built up by The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

Director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy should’ve stepped back after producing this rancid film and realized that this franchise deserved a better sendoff. They should’ve eaten the dollars and started over. True fans would’ve waited for a real movie. But sadly, here it is, the last chapter in the Skywalker saga—a chapter that had me longing for The Star Wars Holiday Special in favor of it.

Let me give you some thoughts as the anger flows through me like the Dark Side of the Force. The first hour is virtually unwatchable—fast and furious, but with no editing flow and no sense of purpose other than to get you to the next scene. Fans looking for answers or meaningful storytelling will not only be bewildered, but pissed off. It’s now pretty clear that Abrams and friends had no firm plans when they laid out this trilogy: They were making this crap up as they went along.

The Force Awakens, also directed by Abrams, was a promising start. Heck, I will call it a classic. Then The Last Jedi happened, with Rian Johnson getting permission to go off the reservation with his storytelling—and he most certainly did. Some of the plotting choices in Jedi were odd, but at least that movie was a decent film that felt like a Star Wars movie, even if it was peppered with some laughably bad moments.

The Rise of Skywalker is a laughably bad movie peppered with occasional moments that don’t suck as much as the rest of the others.

The most regretful moment in Star Wars history stands as Princess Leia using the Force to float through deep space and save herself in The Last Jedi. Allowing the character to survive paved the way for what happens here, as “the last performance” of the great Carrie Fisher is cobbled together from outtakes—stuff that was originally meant for the cutting-room floor. It’s awkward; it’s obvious. It reminds of the way Blake Edwards insulted the late Peter Sellers with the posthumously released, and equally terrible, Trail of the Pink Panther.

For the first two trilogies, George Lucas, love him or not, had a solid story plan. He tweaked it along the way, but he governed over what was happening like a mad dictator, even when he wasn’t directing. There was a certain uniformity to the series. After Awakens, Disney and Abrams made the bold choice to hand the storytelling over to Johnson for Jedi (not unlike Lucas giving up directing control for the original trilogy)—and then they second-guessed their own bravery. The Rise of Skywalker is an unabashed Abrams apology for “missteps” of The Last Jedi, rendering the second film a complete joke, and doing everything it can to win back the fans that may have gotten disenchanted, continuity be damned. Some fans were displeased, but that didn’t mean they wanted the spine removed from one of their favorite movie-going experiences in favor of a Star Wars Happy Times mix tape.

As for the return of Emperor Palpatine, his footage plays like a bad Hellraiser sequel. If Palpatine would have had a presence or influence in the two preceding movies, his presence here might’ve made sense. Instead, the sound of his cackle reeks of storytelling desperation. And don’t get me started on the Death Star wreckage.

My advice: Pretend this movie never happened. Allow hologram Luke Skywalker facing down Kylo Ren in Jedi to be the end of the “Skywalker Saga,” and skip this one. Watch the superior The Mandalorian, and use the soul-healing powers of Baby Yoda on Disney+, along with the upcoming Obi Wan series, as your Star Wars fix.

Yeah, I know you are still going to see The Rise of Skywalker. I can’t stop you. This film is a debacle that no movie reviewer can prevent.

Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Adam Sandler is having a pretty good 2019. He made a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live; he re-teamed with Jennifer Aniston for the fairly watchable Murder Mystery on Netflix; and, oh yeah, he has just made what is, by far, the greatest film of his beautifully erratic career.

With Uncut Gems, Sandler joins forces with directors Benny and Josh Safdie (makers of the excellent Robert Pattinson vehicle Good Time) and delivers the kind of dramatic performance—fully committed and thoroughly proficient—he’s hinted at in the past with strong efforts in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. As Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry-store owner and gambling addict, Sandler catapults himself into the upper echelon of today’s fine actors. Not bad for the creative force behind Grown Ups 2.

It’s 2012, and Howard has gambling debts with a bunch of criminals, including Arno (Eric Bogosian), a relative who doesn’t give a shit that they’re related: Arno is owed money, and Howard will suffer greatly if he doesn’t deliver.

Howard’s solution is to obtain a black opal from Ethiopia, worth upwards of $1 million. That opal could free him of all his debt and set him on the path to prosperity, especially because NBA star Kevin Garnett (yes, that’s Garnett playing himself) is ready to give him all kinds of money, because he thinks the stone has powers.

Simply selling the stone at auction and solving his problems would be too easy for Howard; Sandler portrays him as a hyped-up, out-of-his-mind kook who screws up at every turn. Whether it’s with his store, his soon-to-be-gone wife (Idina Menzel) or his well-meaning mistress (Julia Fox), Howard is completely incapable of doing the right thing.

Sandler’s comedic abilities come into play, because Howard is so messed up that it’s often funny, and Sandler constantly mines the humor in that darkness. But in the end, Sandler isn’t in this for laughs—and Howard winds up being a complete character study: a sad man, addicted to chaos, who doesn’t know when to quit.

This is one of those roles that couldn’t have been played better by anybody else. Sandler was the actor the Safdies had in mind when they were writing the script, and while it took a couple of tries, they finally got their man—and they delivered a masterpiece.

The film doesn’t just thrive thanks to the performances; it’s bursting with style and originality. The Safdies adopt a visual and sound style that makes Howard’s crazed adventure a swirling trip. It’s edited with the sort of electricity that keeps one riveted, with psychedelic trips inside opals—and even Howard’s colon. Apart from being one of the year’s best films, it’s also one of the most original.

So what in the hell is going on with the awards so far? After the National Board of Review named Sandler its best actor, he got snubbed by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. (The critics guild I belong to, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, recently named him Best Actor.) Sandler more than deserves his first Oscar nomination here. His work stands alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Adam Driver’s in Marriage Story as the year’s best.

How will Sandler top this work? Honestly, I don’t think he can, but that’s not a dig on him: Uncut Gems is an example of finding an actor, finding his strengths, and displaying them in a way that amounts to perfection. Sandler will do more great things in his career, but it won’t surprise me if this is his apex.

Uncut Gems opens Friday, Dec. 24, at theaters across the valley.

Charlize Theron is uncanny as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, a hit-and-miss take on the sexual-harassment scandals that plagued Fox News thanks to the deplorable Roger Ailes, played here by John Lithgow under a lot of makeup.

The movie is propped up by terrific work from Theron, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as a composite character representing the many women who were assaulted or harassed by the likes of Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

Director Jay Roach is all over the place with his tone, with the film veering back and forth between dark comedy and serious drama. It never finds a balance, but the film has some good moments, especially thanks to Theron, who is amazing in every second she spends onscreen (and the makeup work is Oscar-worthy as well). Roach blows it with his portrayals of Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) and Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind); they come off as bad impersonations rather than true characters.

What should’ve been an important film comes off as a partial failure. Still, Bombshell is worth watching for Theron, Kidman and Robbie.

Bombshell opens Thursday, Dec. 19, at theaters across the valley.