The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator

The classic image of Hynkel (Chaplin) playing with the world in his hands.

Before the release of The Great Dictator, Hitler was a fan of Chaplin’s, so much so that it is rumored he modeled his mustache from the comedian. This makes me wonder why Hitler never shaved after the movie came out. After the release, it was unsurprisingly banned in Germany even after the war ended.

After years of his immortal tramp character had become one of the world’s most recognizable images, Chaplin finally decided to make a talkie (12 years after talking pictures were born). In The Great Dictator, he is not known as the tramp, but a jewish barber (though he is still nameless). After serving in the first World War (then called the great war), the barber survives a plane crash with a soldier he saved named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). The barber is in a hospital for years suffering from memory loss before he returns to his home country of Tomania, only to discover it is ruled by a new dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). A local neighborhood girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard, one of Chaplin’s wives in real life) supports the barber as he fights the higher power, even if the new appointed Schultz fails to get his soldiers to lay off of the barber.

As in all Chaplin films, there are a plethora of scenes that are classic comedic gags. The airplane ride at the beginning, the wacky slapstick on the street as the barber tries to stand up to the storm troopers, Hynkel playing with the world in his hands, and more to discover. We also get Jack Oakie as Napaloni (basically Benito Mussolini), the dictator of Bacteria. Their scenes together are ripe with comedic energy.

Oddly, the most popular scene in the film is the last five-minute speech given by the barber. In a way, it is out-of-place, because it makes the comedy automatically stand still and makes way for what is arguably Chaplin talking to the audience, not the barber. I am not saying I agree or disagree with what he says, only that the whole speech is a little superfluous to the story.

Parents, kids would be fine with this movie (no swearing or any sexual stuff), but I would at least think they should be old enough to know who Hitler was.

This would be the last time that Chaplin had played a man with a mustache on-screen. The film is not his best (that is always City Lights, with Modern Times a close second), but it is nice to see how Chaplin managed to fight back against the real life ruthless dictator of the 20th century with all the weapons he could muster. In his biography, he did mention that he would not have made the film if he knew ahead of time the horror that was going on for those under Hitler’s thumb at the time.

Thankfully, Chaplin pursued the film’s completion, one year before the United States went to war.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians

(From left) Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is introduced to her son Nick’s (Henry Golding) new girlfriend Rachel (Constance Wu)

Was I the only one confused by a title like Crazy Rich Asians? I am not sure. It was about a fourth or a third of the way into director Jon M. Chu’s film that I realized how perfect the title truly is. Are they crazy and rich or just “crazy rich”? The answer is a resounding yes. The words can also describe the film as well. Afterall, it is crazy that this is the first film western film in a quarter century to have an all Asian cast (the last was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club). It is rich in comedy, romance, and all out heart.

Also, it is Crazy how the lead actor Henry Golding is able to make his first film performance here so memorable. He plays Nick Young, who has been dating Rachel Chu (an instantly lovable Constance Wu) for over a year. His best friend Colin (Chris Pang) is getting married in one of the biggest weddings ever (more on that later). It is on the plane ride to Singapore that Nick breaks the news that his family is rich (which is a vast understatement).

As anyone (such as myself) who has a big family knows, this is truly one of the biggest steps in the relationship. Of all the family members, it is Nick’s mother (an impeccable Michelle Yeoh) who is the most critical. Their first meeting does go over well (sorta), though Rachel does tend to strike a better relationship with Nick grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu, who also starred in The Joy Luck Club).

What makes the film most endearing is how every cast member embraces their individual roles close to their hearts. One of the first characters we meet in Singapore is Rachel’s old college friend Peik (Awkwafina), who still lives at home with her dad (Ken Jeong). Jeong may be the only person who can tell his kids who refuse to eat that “there are starving kids in America”. Nico Santos also has a lot of scene stealing as Nick’s cousin Oliver, who is as theatrical as they come. Constance Wu is also quite convincing in the lead female role. She knows she is in a predicament (to say the least), but still approaches it with class, courage, and good humor (“I’m so Chinese, I’m an econ professor that’s lactose intolerant.”)

Parents, the PG-13 rating is mainly for language (I think I heard one F bomb) and suggestive material. There is no nudity or anything, yet there is a good amount of partying that brings a lot of suggestive material. I would say middle school and up.

If asked how rich these people are, the best I could say would be it would make Charles Foster Kane feel a little envious (only a little). Just look at the food (which will make you hungry) and the clothes and the decorations to see what I mean. I left the theater sad, feeling I wanted to know more about these characters and what happened after. Thankfully, I found out that the book the film is based on is part one of a trilogy, so there is more to come.

Simply put, Crazy Rich Asians is the film equivalent of a heartwarming hug.

 

Overall:  Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) tries to power through her last week of middle school.

I think it was around February of 2002 when my 8th grade English Teacher Miss Pearson told us of our main end of the year project: writing our autobiography. It wasn’t until a few years ago I found a surviving copy of it, and just took a glance at it not long after seeing Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. It brought back memories for me, from being the lead in the musical to not knowing my crush would show up at my graduation party (we won’t go there). It is clear the world and technology have changed since my days in middle school, but the feelings, insecurities, thoughts, and emotions are all still shared, which is what makes the film great.

With one week left to go, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is determined to push through despite her introverted nature. Even though she insists she is a talkative person, she still wins the award from her peers for being the “Quietest”. Like all teenagers, she is glued to her phone, posting on instagram and snapchat (one of her peers mentions how Facebook is not a thing anymore). Kayla is vulnerable, but still manages courage to post a new video, go to a pool party she knows no one wanted her at, and even talk to her crush Aiden (Luke Prael). All this is credit to the young actress Fisher who is nothing short of remarkable.

Her one source of constant empathy that she (mostly) refuses is her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). It is clear from the get go that, although she does love her dad, he is nothing short of a dork in her eyes. His heart is in the right place, but his brain needs some catching up (especially in the scene where Kayla is asked to hang out with some nice high school students). It isn’t until a later scene in the film where father and daughter have a truly touching, heart to heart talk.

My concern with the movie is the time frame. A lot happens to Kayla in the time span of just one week. While most of these things have happened to all of us at that age in one way or another, did it really happen in just seven days? Had the movie made the time longer (say a month, semester, or even the whole school year), my praise would be higher still.

Parents, this is another example of why I am not a fan of the MPAA. I am not doubting that the subject matter in the film is for mature audiences. After all, Kayla does look up a video on oral sex (nothing too graphic is shown) and there is one uncomfortable scene in the back seat of a car that thankfully does not go too far (a guy takes off his shirt). Still, kids are exposed to this type of talk (and, sadly, sometimes the situations) nearly every day at school (unless homeschooled). The film is R, but it is not anything that a High Schooler (or even a Middle Schooler) may not have witnessed before.

While there were no kids in the viewing of the film I attended, part of me wished there were. I would want to ask them how accurate of a film this was. My guess would be in the near perfect range.

 

Gucchi!

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Won’t you be my Neighbor? (2018)

won't you be my neighbor

“I like you Mister Rogers.”

I was one of the last of the Mister Rogers generation, toward the end of one of the great running children shows in history, probably second only to Sesame Street (which Rogers himself guess starred on). Won’t you be my Neighbor? is not the biography of the man Fred Rogers, but of the show he brought to countless kids, and, more important, the ideals it presented.

Director Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for 30 Feet from Stardom) starts when Rogers had the idea of the project. After his first show fell thru, the one we all know started in 1968, going up until August of 2001 (not including a response he made to the 9/11 attacks). We see interviews from those who knew and worked with him, including his wife and two sons. One of the key questions asked is if he was in real life the way he acted on screen, to which one of his sons answers, “Yes.”

 

Fred Rogers was not without his sense of humor. There are clips of subtle pranks pulled on him such as putting on the wrong pair of shoes, and a photo that made its way into his camera (for which his response is golden). Still, the determination in this mans mind and eyes are evident every time he was on screen. For me, the most powerful scene is when we see Rogers before the Senate explaining why money is necessary for what would become PBS. If the words don’t impact you, the reaction from Senator John Pastore will.

Another powerful part of the film is the story of a child named Jeff Erlanger. Anyone familiar with Rogers should know the name, but I still won’t say more, because the scene is mesmerizing on its own power.

(If you haven’t guessed by now, tears are going to happen in the course of this film, and maybe after).

Parents, there is some swearing from some of the people being interviewed, and we do see some of Eddie Murphy’s famous “Mr. Robinson” parody from SNL and one from Johnny Carson. Some of the kids in the theater I was at were laughing, though I doubt they understood all of it. I would say middle pre-teen and up.

It is rather ironic for a man as revered as Fred Rogers to know that he absolutly hated TV. It was that main reason why the ordained minister started the show in the first place. It has been fifteen years since his death, but it is beyond clear that his lessons and ideals will live on as long as people look for them.

If there was ever a movie we needed these days, it is this one.

Heck, the title itself is a question we need to ask more.

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary

Toni Colette’ Annie is having a few issues…

Not knowing anything about a movie before you see it can be rewarding, and the most recent prime example is Hereditary. Having not seen the trailer till after I saw the film (which is rather spoiler free), my only knowledge was that it starred Toni Colette.

With vibes of 2016’s hidden gem The Witch (both films have the same producers), Hereditary starts with an opening shot that will be dissected by film buffs for years to come. What a hook from the get go. Annie (Colette, who does ravishing work) is on the way to her mother’s funeral with her family. We learn their relationship was rocky, to say the absolute least. The person her mother favored was Annie’s daughter Charlie (striking newcomer Milly Shapiro). Charlie has a peanut allergy, which I mention because that is far from her worst issues. There is also Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s older teenage son. While kind-hearted, he is not one to shy away from smoking weed after school. Finally, there is Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who I am still not sure about. Is he a dullard or just fed up with the issues in his family? I am still on the fence.

The movie plays like a crescendo of horror, in that it does not just spurt out random scenes of “gotcha” moments so much as add more and more tension. You know a movie is doing something right when you realize you have not considered containing so much tension before.

The imagery of Hereditary is strikingly effective in a haunting way. The house in which the family lives should have star credit on its own. It is as neatly polished as the small figures and sets that Annie works on. The musical score only adds to the horror we feel (as all scary movies should).

Yet Hereditary is not completely a horror so much as it also becomes some bit of a thriller. Mixing those two genres may seem easy, but not all the time. Director Ari Aster (who also wrote the script) handles the balance of horror and sadness so well that the feeling you leave with is bound to stay with you for weeks.

Parents, this is in no way a movie for children. There is mild nudity (nothing sexual) that is a little easy to miss, but the horror aspect is sure to frighten anyone under the age of…actually, any age. High School and above.

I went to this movie with a close friend of mine. I have known him for a while, and have not seen him as shaken up as he was. After the film, I mentioned we would probably need to watch five to ten Disney movies (maybe more) to brighten us up again. I even mentioned to other friends to give him a hug just in case.

Consider that a warning. Well, a positive warning.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther

The Black Panther sticks another landing for Marvel

Perhaps it is late for me to say, but Marvel Studios is starting to mirror that of Pixar, in that it is hard for them to have a flop financially or critically (it helps when you partner with Disney). A decade after the universe was launched with Iron Man, Marvel Studios is still going strong, and now delivers one of their very best in Black Panther.

Introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther takes place just after those events, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is being crowned King of Wakanda. Wakanda is a country steeped in poverty, but only in the eyes of the outside world. We learn it is truly flourishing with technology that is beyond anything we have yet seen in a Marvel movie (or any other). At first, I was afraid it would be too much like Asgard (the home world of Thor), but Wakanda still manages to stand out as its own environment.

Before he can take his place as king, T’Challa/Black Panther must stop Ulysses Klau (the always reliable Andy Serkis) from stealing Vibranium (the key substance to Wakanda and its economy, not to mention weapons and armor). Helping him is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who manages to make a name for himself along the best of Marvel’s baddies.

What makes Black Panther so wonderful is the same formula that makes nearly all other Marvel films great as well. The actors take the roles seriously, but are still managing to have a lot of fun (especially Andy Serkis). Director Ryan Coogler (who also directed Jordan in Creed and Fruitvale Station) never has moments (well, maybe one or two) that drag on. We are enticed from the word go.

It also helps that, despite lack of screen time, every actor is giving all they got to the roles they play. Such actors include (but are not limited to) Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead‘s Michonne), Daniel Kaluuya (recent Oscar nominee for Get Out), Angela Bassett, and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us). When you see them on-screen, you know talent is erupting.

Parents, this is another Marvel movie, so if your kids have seen at least one (I don’t know many kids who haven’t), they are fine here. There is some swearing and violence, but no sexual content or nudity (despite some female characters wearing some revealing clothing, but nothing bad).

Is Black Panther the best Marvel movie? The vote is still out, but it is definitely in the running. It says a lot about an action/adventure movie when the action free scenes are as engrossing as the action scenes are (which are superb).

It is clear that 2018 now has its first great movie. And what a movie.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

The Post (2017)

The Post

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) discussing the possible future of The Post

 

I went into Steven Spielberg’s The Post with one question (well a few, but one that stood above the others): Is it possible for the movie to be watchable without thinking of the politics we are bombarded with 24/7 these days? I guess it depends on where you stand politically. All I am here to do is to say if the film is entertaining or not, and my answer is a resounding yes.

Set as almost a prequel to the king of all newspaper movies All the President’s Men (1976), The Post tells the story of the leaked Pentagon Papers, and how President Nixon (as well as previous ones going back to Truman) lied about the Vietnam War. The pages are delivered to the Washington Post (as well as the New York Times), but the latter publishes it first. Still, more papers are delivered to the desk of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who is firm on publishing the documents. Of course, it is up to the owner of the paper, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

It is clear that when you have a movie with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the acting will be rock solid. Hanks does have more of the showier role, but that does not steal any thunder from Streep (to be fair, who could do that to the actress?). They and the rest of the cast (including Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, and Alison Brie) have a palpable electricity in the air for the whole run time.

It occurs to me that movies that have to do with news media have to be have more truth than most any other film genre (if not, film critics would tear the film apart). I have never worked at a paper, but there does seem to be a lot of authenticity in the movie (even when Bradlee’s daughter is selling lemonade while everyone is sorting the papers). The film may not have been exactly how it all played out (it is an original script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer), but it would not surprise me if it did play out that way.

Parents, the film is PG-13. There is about five minutes at the start of the film that shows some action in the war (nothing too graphic) and there is also some swearing (none that stood out to me). I would say any middle schooler would be fine seeing this film.

The film is not completely in the league of Spielberg classics like Jaws, E.T., or Schindler’s List. Still, the film is a wonderful thriller for those tired of mindless action CGI effects that want thought and drama at the core. On that standard alone, The Post is a treasure of a film.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water

Not your average tale as old as time…

To say that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is weird take on Beauty and the Beast is a gross understatement. Thankfully, that is not a negative in the slightest. While this is only the second film of his I have seen (the other being 2006’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth), I am confident in saying that del Toro’s is an acquired taste, and I am one to gorge on it.

Set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute single woman whose life consists of janitorial duties at a research facility. True, a mute person may be looked at differently, but Elisa has such a charm about her it is impossible to not like her. Her two main friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

One day, the research facility gets an aquatic creature from the amazon, brought by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While the main scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to keep it alive (he has his own secrets to hide), Strickland wants it cut up and studied (he and the creatures did not get along “on the way back”). The only source of love comes from Elisa.

I pause now to not give away anything else, except to say that there was a feeling of resolution I felt as the story (written by Del Toro, with help from Vanessa Taylor) unfolded. It all made sense and made me feel content. Of course, it also does not hurt when you have some of the most stunning images of the past decade. They all speak for themselves.

You won’t be surprised that Del Toro wrote the characters with (most of) these actors in mind. Michael Shannon has always been great at playing a character that makes you feel a little queasy, but he kicks it up many notches here. There is one scene where he radiates all we have been coming to despise about sexual assault recently. His character is clearly the villain of the year. Of course, Octavia Spencer is pitch perfect (she has already won an Oscar for being a part of The Help). There is no way Zelda could have been played by anyone other than Spencer.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was Richard Jenkins (who the role was not originally written for) as the neighbor. When you think of his role, you realize it could have easily been too over the top and been the problem for the film. Yet Jenkins brings more than humor, but also subtly and depth. He is remarkable.

Still, it is Sally Hawkins who is the most human, palpable, and poetic. I have been a fan of her since 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky (which I still am mad she did not get nominated for at the Oscars), and here she truly has more of a chance to show she is one of the most underrated actresses we have. I know it is ironic to say, but her performance truly speaks volumes.

Parents, the film is not at all for kids. There is a good amount of swearing and violence, but also a handful of nudity scenes. While I am aware of nudity being a form of art (as it is shown here), there is one sex scene that I am not sure needed to be included (though it did show a characteristic of one of the characters). Either way, the R rating is totally accurate.

Still, the movie is a gem, and one of the year’s very best. It is already getting the Oscar buzz it surely deserves, and will be high way robbery if it is not nominated for Best Picture (let alone director, lead actress, screenplay….ok, you get the idea).

I left the theater, feeling the way all great movies should make you feel: Refreshed.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Florida Project (2017)

The Florida Project

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) trying to have a talk with Monee (Brooklynn Prince).

There was a time in my childhood where there was a five year stretch (give or take) that I was blessed to be able to go to Disney World (the last time was a Marching Band trip in my freshman year of High School back in 2003). It has been some time, though I now have a different reason to revisit the theme parks besides new rides and additions.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project explores the world outside of the walls of the Disney attractions of the state, a world I for one never had an inkling existed. The film shows this universe through the eyes of a six year old girl named Monee (Brooklynn Price, a stunning young actor). She lives in poverty with her mom Halley (an equally impressive Bria Vinaite). There is no explanation as to how they got into their current situation, nor a need to. The film’s plot is rather loose, but that is what is great about it: It seems like a total slice of life.

Indeed, I would have thought the film was a documentary if it wasn’t for one familiar face: veteran actor Willem Dafoe. He plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel that they mom and daughter stay at. He is all business, making sure all follow the rules, but he is also down to earth. The type of guy you know you can talk to when he is in a good mood, and even okay with occasionally letting the kids eat ice cream inside (provided it does not spill) and letting his desk be available for hide and seek. It also helps that he does look out for kids, especially in one scene where he fends off a certain suspicious character. You can sense Bobby is doing it not because of business, but because he does have a good heart. Certainly a turn from darker characters we have seen Dafoe play in the past. Expect to see him in the Oscar nominees this year for Supporting Actor (he may even win).

Parents, the movie is R for swearing and some sexual material (the only real nudity occurs when Bobby is telling a patron that she cannot tan in the nude). There is a lot of swearing (many from the kids) and thematic elements. Definitely High School and above.

Originally, I was going to say the film’s main flaw is that it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the more I think of it, the more that is not a flaw at all. Like 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project is about life in a place that we never see mentioned in daily life, and is both easy to miss yet still easy to access. I won’t give away the ending of the film, except that it is perfect, mainly for the characters we see in the last shot. Truly one of the year’s best films.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Mildred (Frances McDormand), the maker of the Three Billboards

Just when you think you have seen enough movies to know what the film makers are going to give you, you get a film like Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, a film full of drama, wit, comedy, surprises, heart, and clarity.

The story takes place just seven months after the rape/murder of a teenage girl in the town of Ebbing, Missouri. Despite work from the local police, the culprit has not been found, and the case is at a stand still. This does not sit well with the girl’s mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), who rents out three billboards on the road to the town (one that hardly anyone uses). They read,

“Raped while dying”

“And still no arrests?”

“How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Willoughby (played perfectly by Woody Harrelson) is no slouch at his job. Even as he is fighting cancer (which Mildred knows before she sets up the billboards), he is still a good, decent family man. The real slouch at the job is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who seems just a step or two up the ladder from Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons.

The movie is not about necessarily finding the murderer. No, the film is far too smart for that. It is about much more. It is about the life in a small town in the south. Mildred still takes her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, who, along with this year’s Lady Bird, is having a great year after his Oscar nominated role in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea) to school, has a visit or two from her ex Charlie (John Hawkes) and his 19-year-old girlfriend, and still pester the law enforcement community about letting her dead daughter get justice.

Martin McDonagh directs and writes the film in a precise way that he did for 2008’s In Bruges. There is drama, but it is so well seasoned with huge comic moments it is impossible to ignore. Apparently, McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred with McDormand in mind. It is not hard to see why. If anyone else played the role, you would find yourself saying “Too bad Frances McDormand is not playing this role”. In a nutshell, it is pretty much her best performance since Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson.

All the other actors are superior as well, but the other who may finally get his share at awards season is Sam Rockwell. He has been a great actor in many supporting roles of the past, but here he gets a chance to show transformation like I have never seen in him before. It is stellar work, and deserving of Best Supporting Actor consideration.

Parents, in no way shape or form is this film for kids. The movie deserves the R rating, which is mainly for swearing (as well as some violence). Mature High Schoolers and above.

When you think of it, even the title is genius. As I entered the theater, I thought the title was going to be too long, and off-putting. The fact that it is so simplistic a title is the uncanny mastery behind it. I haven’t even mentioned how I found myself saying “good” when the movie ended, hoping it would not outstay its welcome, or the mere fact that the film even stars the highly talanted Peter Dinklage.

Clearly, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the best of 2017.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2