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

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

To All the Boys I've loved before

There is palpable chemistry between Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter (Noah Centineo)

There are a good number of rarities that occur in director Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018). Such include teenagers that act like actual teenagers,  well talented acting youths, and a Netflix original that is actually enjoyable (unlike their recent film The Kissing Booth, which I would review if I could ever power myself through the thing).

But back to this film. Based off of a book of the same name by Jenny Han, the movie introduces us to Lara Jean (an extremely lovable Lana Condor). She is entering her Junior year of High School after her sister Margot (Janel Parrish) has left for college, leaving Lara Jean with her widowed dad (the always wonderful John Corbett), her little sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), and next door neighbor/former best friend Josh (Israel Broussard). I say former not because they grew apart, but because he was the former boyfriend of Margot, so a friendship would be difficult at best.

Since about the pre-teen years, we learn that Lara Jean has kept letters she has written to certain boys she has had crushes on over the years (Josh being one of them). Kitty finds out about the letters and mails them out. This is not because of Kitty being a mean, bratty little sibling. It is because she loves her sister and that love trumps over Kitty not knowing her sister will have a hard time for the near future.

While some recipients are no longer on the table (such as her freshman year homecoming date Greg who is gay, played by Andrew Bachelor), the main drama comes with Peter (Noah Centineo). He was Lara Jean’s first “kiss” during a spin the bottle game in seventh grade, and has just recently broken up with one of Lara Jean’s former friends Gen (Emilija Baranac).  Peter and Lara Jean therefore come up with an idea: pretend to be dating so that it makes Gen jealous enough to take him back. Of course, a couple of ground rules must be put in order (such as no kissing).

While one of the keys of the film is Condor’s screen presence, another is her chemistry with Centineo’s Peter. The main scene for me was in the local diner, where they actually stop “pretending” and have a serious talk (we learn Peter’s dad had left him and has a new family now). That scene made me realize how this movie was going to be much better than anticipated.

One thing that threw me off was I realized there was more romance in this romantic comedy than there would be comedy. That is not to say I did not laugh: much of the comedic lines comes from Lara Jean’s best friend Chris (Madeleine Arthur), who is a strong personality to say the least. There is also a great deal of coming of age ness that made me feel some shades of John Hughes. The movie truly digs deep into the realism of those first few stages we feel when it is not just us falling in love, but the other falling in love with us.

Parents, there is some swearing (not sure if I counted any F bombs), and talk of sex. While there is no sex in the film, there is a hot tub scene where two characters are making out and is (minor spoiler) mistaken as sex. I would say High School and above, but maybe Middle School. Maybe.

I am still not sure I like the title of the film. I know it is based on a book (which is in a series), but I just felt the title seems off-putting. Nevertheless, when you consider some of the bad original films that Netflix has (like the awful Irreplaceable You), it makes it all the more reason to state that To All the Boys I Loved Before is truly a diamond in the rough.

 

Overall: Three 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

Downsizing (2017)

Downsizing

The smaller the person, the bigger the life….

How great is the concept of Downsizing. If only the film makers had taken it to a better destination…

The movie starts with scientists in Norway finding out how to successfully shrink organic matter. Flash forward ten years or so (I admit I lost track because the movie has way too much flash forwards), and we meet Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) are having money issues galore. After having a talk with a former classmate (Jason Sudeikis), they decide to downsize, both literally and financially (all of their money would translate to much bigger figures).

During the process, Paul wakes up five inches short, but Audrey has backed out at the last-minute, meaning it will truly be a new life for Paul. A year later passes (again, too much flash forwarding), and we see Paul has met some new people in his life, like his upstairs neighbor (Christoph Waltz), who is a party animal. One day after the party, he meets a popular celebrity named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who shows him how much more is happening in Paul’s new world.

The movie does have amazing visuals, and great story elements about how we are able to change our lives, but the movie goes far into left field during the third act when they travel to Norway. I won’t give anything away, except to say that you will seriously find yourself scratching your head.

Still, the movie does have its good parts. All of the cast (including some cameos) have their share of fun. The main stand out though is Hong Chau, who goes far beyond playing a stereotypical asian women. She is simply playing a strong-willed (understatement) women who fights for what is right, regardless of her situation. Yet there is still fear beneath her tough exterior. It is ravishing work for her as an actor.

Parents, the movie is rated R for two main reasons: Swearing and Nudity. While the nudity is not sexual (it is shown mainly during the shrinking process), the swearing does creep in (especially toward the end, in a monologue that brought me to unexpected laughter). I would say High School and above (maybe very mature middle schoolers).

Alexander Payne (who directed and helped write the film) no doubt had a script that could have been far better, and I admit I am disappointed a bit with the film. It does add it a little too much stuff (it does clock in at two and a half hours).

Ironically, maybe the script should have downsized.

 

Overall: Three Stars ***

Logan Lucky (2017)

Logan Lucky

The Logan Brothers (Adam Driver and Channing Tatum), discuss a very elaborate plan…

Surprises are aplenty in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, a film that is proof that a script is still the most essential ingredient to any movie made.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that that the film’s screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, is perhaps not even a real person. Only through emails did communication with the “author” of the script ever occur. Regardless, it is some very strong writing.

The film opens in West Virginia, where a divorced man, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), is spending time with his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie). While dropping her off at her mother’s (Katie Holmes) house, Jimmy finds out that his ex is moving across state lines with her new husband (David Denman), making it more difficult for Jimmy to see his daughter (he has just been laid off his job in construction).

After a talk with his one armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver, showing us no signs that he is also Star Wars‘ Kylo Ren), he comes up with a plan to make money to afford seeing his daughter: rob the money being made at the NASCAR speedway where he has been working construction. To say the plan is meticulous is an understatement. I don’t know how long Blunt (or whoever wrote the script) spent, but it is well worth it.

There are others in the film that help out along the way, including two hillbilly brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) who only agree to help if it is for “moral” reasons. And while the movie does show some other celebrity cameos I did not expect (nor will I ruin), the best (and most surprising) is clearly Daniel Craig. His Joe Bang is an explosions expert, who not only plays a character that can go over the top, but is even subtle when he needs to be. I doubt I am alone when I had a hard time remembering that this is the same person who played James Bond.

Parents, the movie is PG-13, and it is mainly for some swearing (maybe an F bomb or two). There is no sexual content (despite a character telling another they are about to get  naked and not look), so I would totally say Middle School and up would be fine.

My only real problem with the movie are a few minor details, thinking that the plan may have been “too thought out”. It would be something I would have to watch the movie again in order to explain properly.

Luckily, Logan Lucky is a movie that is worth multiple viewings, the type you will find new things every time you watch it.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Disaster Artist (2017)

The Disaster Artist

“What’s my line?” asks Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), yet again.

What an enigma is Tommy Wiseau.

Actually, enigma is putting it lightly.

Ever since he made headlines with his masterpiece of atrocity, The Room (not to be confused with 2015’s much more superior film, Room), he is still somewhat of a mystery. Very protective of his private life, he won’t even give out his exact age (though research has shown he is now somewhere in his early sixties). He says he is from New Orleans, but now says he came to America from Poland.

One thing is for sure: It is thanks to Mr. Wiseau that we have The Room (2003).

Upon entering The Disaster Artist, I have not seen the entirety of The Room, but enough scenes to get a flavor of how awful it is. In generations to come, it’s only rival in the movie category of “so bad it is good” would be the garbage dump that is 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (which I have tried at least three times to watch and fall asleep at the same time).

The Disaster Artist is based on the book by actor Greg Sestero. In the film, he is played by Dave Franco (younger brother of James). Greg is an inspiring actor, but is far too shy on stage. In his acting class, he meets the bizarre Tommy (James Franco), who has no qualm with what others think of him. After a pinkie swear at the crash site of their idol James Dean, they move to LA, in search of stardom. When offers won’t come their way (including a memorable meeting with Judd Apatow), they decide to make their own movie.

If you are not as familiar with The Room, you may wonder where Tommy is getting all this money from. The thing is, so is all of his crew (including the script supervisor, played by Seth Rogen). As stated before, Tommy is very private about his personal life, and won’t share where he gets the dough. What is important to him is that this movie is made. After writing the script himself, production goes into play.

In short, it becomes a nightmare, as Tommy has everyone (even Greg) feeling queasy. Examples include a bathroom (actually just a toilet with a curtain cover) for Tommy only, he wants to shoot using both a film camera and a digital one, and shows one of the more comic sex scenes in film history (“Why is he having sex with her belly button?”)

James Franco is simply astounding as Wiseau (both of whom directed their respected films). He has the voice down to pin point accuracy, but the performance is more than just mockery. It is moving and subtle, let alone hilarious. Franco knows about flops (he, like me and everyone else, would hate to remember how he co hosted the Oscars), but also knows how to have fun at the same time as give us a character embodiment. At the end of the film, we see a side by side comparison of the real film and the one with Franco (to make the film almost all over again is serious dedication). The comparison alone is worth the price of admission.

Parents, the movie is not for kids. There is swearing, and some (minor) sex scenes (male rear nudity, as well has frontal, though the genitalia is covered). Mature High School and above.

After the movie ended, I found out that the real Wiseau (who I now strangely would love to meet) said he would only accept one of two actors to play him: James Franco and Johnny Depp. The fact that Franco knows this material and his subject inside and out (both in front of the camera and behind it) makes me a little nervous to say that Tommy Wiseau does have a little more movie knowledge than we give him credit for.

 

Overall: Three 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

Bringing up Baby (1938)

Bringing up baby.jpg

Hepburn and Grant have more shenanigans to deal with than just the leopard…

Nearly eight decades after it was released, Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby is still as fresh and hilarious and romantic and chaotic as it was when it was released. Parents, if you want to introduce your kids to classic Hollywood at an early age, here is a perfect candidate (and to get them to meet two of the biggest stars the movies has ever had).

In a nutshell, the film stars Cary Grant as David, a paleontologist who is hoping to get an offer of a million dollars for his museum. The problem is, he keeps running into the ever happy-go-lucky Susan, played by Katharine Hepburn. She has inherited a leopard named Baby from her brother in Africa. The situations in this movie are too complicated to explain in words, let alone worthless to try, since they are better to be experienced.

Grant performs effortlessly as David, who is undoubtably the cautious type. Still, it is clearly Hepburn who steals the spotlight (as she did in almost every single one of her movies). Her performance is dazzling. You wonder why it is she is not frightened (most of the time) of the awkward situations she gets into (my favorite is when she is thrown into jail). Perhaps the best answer would be that the role is so like Hepburn in real life that very little acting was required, if any at all.

Parents, there is really nothing to worry about at all for the kids (despite one character saying they went “gay all of a sudden”, but it is mainly played for laughs). Any age is fine with this movie.

I admit some of the parts did confuse me a bit, but they were far outweighed by my laughter, which occurred a lot.

Is this the best movie for Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn? Hard to say. They each made a trunk load of classics that will be around as long as movie goers search for them. Still, as stated before, it is one that is perfect to start with if you want to see some of the early days of classic comedy.
Overall: Five Stars *****

The Big Sick (2017)

The BIg SIck

Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) in The Big Sick

Wow, what a breath of fresh air is The Big Sick. It is truly unlike any romantic movie I have seen in some time, probably the best since 2009’s 500 Days of Summer. I sat there watching the movie, realizing I had no idea where it would lead me, because it does not follow the cliché plot points of other movies in the genre. True, part of it could be because it is based on the true story of how Kumail Nanjiani met his wife Emily V. Gordon, but since they both wrote the script (and what a script!), it is clear it was close to their hearts.
Kumail plays himself, a struggling wannabe stand up comedian in downtown Chicago. We get some great looks at what stand-ups are like moments before they go on stage (one being described as “Daniel-Day Lewis, except he sucks”. In the audience, he gets a heckle from a member, who is Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia). To say that they have great chemistry is a gross understatement.
The problem is that Kumail’s family is from Pakistan, so it is custom for him to marry a girl of his race. Every night at dinner, his mother (Zenobia Shroff) has to answer the door, because she has “casually” invited a woman over for dinner who happened to be walking by (Kumail keeps a box full of the woman his mother has tried to set her up with). He is also reminded by his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) that their mother and father (Anupam Kher) will kick Kumail out of the family if he decides to marry a girl from another race.
Not long after an argument between Kumail and Emily, Kumail gets a call that Emily is in the hospital with an unknown disease that forces Emily to be put into a medical induced coma. During that time, Kumail meets Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (the perfectly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.) Beth is clearly a bit more high-strung than Terry (who keeps notes at every meeting and discussion they have with Emily’s doctors). I will let you find out how outrageous Terry’s advice on love is that he tells Kumail.
The relationships that Kumail makes with all the characters in the movie is one of the best things about the film. Still, the strong point is the relationship he has with Emily’s parents. There is one scene where, in the hospital cafeteria, Terry invites Kumail to sit with him and his wife. The conversation they have is one I will not mention a word of, except to say it still has me laughing days after I saw the movie. Some may find the dialogue in that scene to be a little too risky for humor, but that is not why we laugh at it. We laugh at it because of the awkwardness of the situation.
Parents, the R rating is clearly justified. There is no nudity or sex scenes (some making out and characters waking up in bed after sex), but the film is rated R mainly for swearing. A lot of swearing (some sexual). Mature High School and above only.
Something that is very clear about The Big Sick is the fact that it clearly has a lot of scenes that tug at the heart. It is not just the fact that we fear for certain characters, but that we have sensed they have grown as people over the course of the events of the movie. That alone is essential to any film genre.
Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2