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

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 ***

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