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Luca

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Pixar movie about two boys who dream of riding a Vespa together, is only available on Disney Plus (a curious move, given that Pixar Animation Studios is one of the biggest money makers for Disney).

“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.  

This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. Hell, the entire first act is Luca’s parents attempting to shelter him from a world they feel wouldn’t accept him because of differences nobody (no human) can actually see. And to top it off, the movie was released during Pride month. While it’s not implicitly stated, “Luca” is very much a gay allegory.

And I want to root for a movie which sees Disney and Pixar’s first gay leads, when it’s just so obvious. And I will still do so. But to have the director Enrico Casorosa come out publicly and dismiss any homosexual themes, as Disney blames the fact that “Luca” didn’t get a theatrical release due to COVID, when “Cruella” a Disney release from a few weeks ago, is playing in theaters worldwide, is upsetting to say the least. But I’m also not shocked. This is Disney we are talking about. A corporation that will give the world a gay character, but in order to appease shareholders and conservatives, they’ll also downplay the significance of the character publicly. That said, is this still a beautiful movie that is one of the most important films Disney has ever produced? Most definitely. Two things can be true at the same time.

Final Thought: While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.      

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In the Heights

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

Adapted from the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical, by writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (who also wrote the musical stage play book) “In the Heights” is not just a love letter/song to Latin Caribbean culture, but also a look at a place where these cultures thrive as one; a place called Washington Heights in New York City.  

Told as a “tall tale” of sorts to a group of children, by a Dominican man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). He tells the story of his dream as a young man to move back to the Dominican Republic after living in Washington Heights since childhood. The musical also follows a handful of other characters. The two other prominent storylines feature Nina (Leslie Grace) a Puerto Rican student who recently dropped out of college and has come back home to the Heights to break the news to her father (Jimmy Smits) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) a young Latina with dreams of parleying her fashion design aspirations into a one-way trip out of Washington Heights.

These storylines spotlight some of the topical political issues and everyday situations many Latino/Latino immigrants living in the U.S. find themselves going through today. And these storylines are only amplified by a plethora of stand-out performances from the entire cast, but specifically Ramos, Smits and Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, an old Cuban woman with no children of her own, so instead she watches over the young people in this neighborhood. Merediz steals the show multiple times, injecting much needed life into this film’s lackluster initial hour. Her performance reaches its apex with her singing of “Paciencia Y Fe”, which is one of the most beautiful musical sequences put to film.  

Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Crazy Rich Asians) is seemingly a perfect match for this production. The choreography for most of the song and dance numbers are handled with tremendous care for the culture and implemented with a high caliber of cinematic flair.   

That said, with all of the love I have for this movie, I must say that it took me over an hour to get into it. OVER AN HOUR! This is a film of two halves. During the first hour plus, “In the Heights” is shockingly flat, there are pacing problems, a lack of stakes and songs which are tragically forgettable. Although, as I said prior, while the bones of the three main stories are a nice start, I found myself bored with Chu’s delivery. This is why it was so shocking when around the seventy-minute mark, “In the Heights” sees Chu wake up and flex on us all. Beginning with the blackout/” Paciencia Y Fe” sequence, Chu doesn’t look back, giving us musical perfection for the following hour. Why it took so long to get to that point is a mystery. But once it does, rising tides lift all boats, as the acting, the storylines, the dance sequences, even the songs all reach a level which rivals anything out of “West Side Story”.   

Final Thought: “In the Heights” is a story of acceptance, homecomings and suenitos, told in the hip hop cadence Miranda is known for. This is a love letter that eventually became something which exceeded my high expectations…just maybe fast forward a bit if you can.

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Two Distant Strangers

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Oscar nominated live-action short film starring rapper/actor Joey Badass, is now available on Netflix and is pretty much worth seeing on synopsis alone.

Written and co-directed by Travon Free, “Two Distant Strangers” follows a Black man who finds himself re-living the day he is murdered by a white cop.  Yes, this is a “time loop” movie, but it’s definitely elevated into something more profound and devastatingly current.

Free and co-director Martin Desmond Roe do a great job of transforming this “Groundhog Day” trope into something that feels brand new. They do this in part by removing the comedy element all together. Sure, there are funny moments, but this is no comedy.

The more interesting elevation technique used here stems from Free’s script, which refuses to stand solely on the traumatic visuals of a Black man repeatedly murdered by a cop for the thirty-two-minute runtime. As the brutality is happening, Free adds an additional debate element, attempting to engage with a segment of audiences who still foolishly argues that the problem of police brutality can be resolved through “healthy dialogue”. Risking that this particular debate element could take away from the film’s gut-wrenching visuals, Free moves forward with this juggling act. And though at first it comes off a bit melodramatic, as the final sequence unfolds and the credits roll, I have to say that his juggling act should and will be deemed a tremendous success.     

There is a turn a particular character makes near the end which really doesn’t work, only because the story suddenly becomes fully sci-fi. This segment (which only lasts about twenty seconds) comes off as a tad confusing, as the total genre shift seems a bit too big for the filmmakers to handle; if only for a moment. But much like 2019’s “See You Yesterday” (a sci-fi/social justice hybrid) the level of importance a story like this holds, told in this particular manner, supersedes any flaws this movie has.  

Final Thought: It works on multiple levels. The first being the face value nightmare of imagining what a Black man must feel like being trapped in a continuous loop where the end result is always death by cop. But it’s the second level, which in my opinion is the most biting; the one that will resonate the deepest. The idea that we (the audience) are watching the same Black man die in very similar ways over and over again, is the most aggressive parallel to what it’s actually like to wake up to the news of a Black person being slaughtered by the police seemingly every day. While it is a different day and a different Black body being snuffed out, the story we are watching is the same. And for me, this was the point. This is the reason, why it should not only win an Academy Award, but more importantly be mandatory viewing for every person fighting to end police brutality.    

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Feeling Through

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Available to watch on YouTube.

Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Live Action Short category, “Feeling Through” is a film about a chance encounter between two men in the middle of the night and the conversation which ensues. What makes this action noteworthy is that one of the men is both deaf and blind.

Yes, this synopsis may invoke “The Blind Side” or “The Help”; movies where a privileged person helps someone who is seen as having a disadvantage, and by the end is transformed into an enlightened privileged person, simply by assisting the “less fortunate”. In other words, “Feeling Through” might sound like it would be the type of story which exploits someone with disabilities in order to make non-disabled audiences feel better about themselves. But thankfully it never stoops down to that level. This is mainly due to an authenticity brought forth by the actor who plays the deaf-blind man; an actual deaf-blind actor named Robert Tarango.  This aspect creates a realness which overtakes the film as the two leads begin to communicate via alternative means. These scenes help “Feeling Through” become more about the idea of entering someone else’s universe for only a brief moment, in order to understand their world a bit better.   

As far as the Oscar nomination is concerned, this story based on an event from writer/director Doug Roland’s past, is nothing you haven’t seen before. In fact, next to the other nominees, it’s pretty vanilla. So, the focus of this film should and will be on the casting of Tarango and be seen as an important step towards normalizing the casting of deaf and blind actors in roles that are written as deaf and/or blind.

Final Thought: Executive producer Marlee Matlin has stated in recent interviews that during civil rights movements, those with disabilities are often left out. And that’s why this film is so important. While I would have loved a more creative story, witnessing a deaf-blind actor play a deaf-blind character in a film that is nominated for an Academy Award supersedes anything else about this film. This is a start. This is a move in the right direction.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Any movie chronicling aspects of the Black Panther Party is a welcome site to see, since even today all some people know about this organization stems from FBI propaganda. And while throughout the 1960’s and 70’s they had many prominent leaders, the best way to tell the story of the true potential of the Black Panthers is by telling the story of Chairman Fred Hampton. A man who sought to liberate all people, worldwide.

That said, this is not a Fred Hampton biopic, as you may be able to tell from the title.

Synopsis: We follow two Black men. Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) after the death of MLK, standing as the most notable rising revolutionary of the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement; the man J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed to be the Black Messiah. And then there’s Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a small-time crook who was apprehended for carjacking, blackmailed by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) and forced to infiltrate the Black Panther Party as an informant. 

Director and co-writer Shaka King takes a Martin Scorsese approach with his camerawork and directional style. Yet truthfully, the story of O’Neal and Hampton is so fascinating that it didn’t need the extra stylized push; although for the most part the film looks amazing. 

Unfortunately, there is an aspect of the direction which keeps “Judas and the Black Messiah” from being a great film. King doesn’t seem to know how to elevate a historical story past some well-choreographed camera movements. That is to say, while we learn about our two leads, going into the movie one might need to know a bit about the Black Panther Party and its major players during this time, to get the desired impact. This is not a movie that will give you much character backstory or historical context throughout, which is not a good look for a historical drama. Also, (I’ll just come right out and say it) the handling of the penultimate sequence was underwhelming, considering. Only lasting a couple of minutes (I’m sure this is accurate to true events) I feel that a more seasoned director would have lingered on said sequence, if only to give the climax the weight it deserved.  

The acting, on the other hand, is flawless. Kaluuya gives a performance that will go down in history as one of the best depictions of a Black revolutionary, alongside David Oyelowo as MLK and Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Stanfield is just as potent, making flesh and bone a character we are meant to despise for the entire film. And Plemons is forever great playing these baby-faced monster characters; and this role is no exception. 

Final Thought: Overall this film is an accomplishment, with historically important takeaways. In this we get to explore the Black Panthers as an organization, see a depiction of the Rainbow Coalition and understand the FBI’s historic role in carrying out assassinations; if you’ve been watching the news lately, you’d know that the FBI seemed to have played a huge role in the murders of our great Black leaders. And this all coming out of a major studio production, which is saying a lot.

Happy Black History Month.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Based on a play by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is quite a simple concept on the surface. Set in 1920’s Chicago, we follow Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”) and her band during a single recording session.  

But with any great piece of art, there are layers. These layers tell a generational tale of the Black experience in the United States. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is less a biopic or a snapshot of Black music, than it is a movie about trauma; Black trauma. Much like “A Raisin in the Sun” we are forced into a dingy claustrophobic environment and made to witness multiple generations of black people struggle to make sense of things, as the world around them continues to take and take.

With themes regarding a Black man’s place in society, the exploitation of Black people in general and how a black woman with power must conduct herself in order to survive, Wilson’s story (specifically the dialogue) is a symphony in and of itself. Sure, this was adapted to the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, but how could I not give all credit to Wilson, who is still the beating heart of this piece?

Most definitely the performances by Viola Davis (Widows) who plays the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) who plays a young trumpet player with big dreams and a whole lot of unresolved anger, are spectacular. They should not and will not be an afterthought in any credible critique.

Davis orders white men around, takes up space and contorts her body to play this imposing co-lead, having full control of the room as a black woman in the 1920’s. And Chadwick (RIP) gives an award worthy performance which rivals Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun”. It’s impossible for me to find a more accurate description of this, his final performance.

The direction from George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues) while not an afterthought, is the least spectacular aspect of this film. But it really doesn’t need to be anything more than a stage to showcase the talent on screen.   

Final Thought: While I praise the more recent display of “Black love” in Hollywood (showing Black affection and sex on screen) I do admire the display of Black rage showcased here. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives us something we only really get to see (en masse) in Spike Lee films. It validates and humanizes Black rage.

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Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Crude, sexist and “inadvertently” making fun of people, Borat is back! This time on a quest by his government to travel to the United States and bring a monkey (and subsequently, his daughter) to Mike Pence as a gift…you heard me. OK, this was either going to work or it wasn’t. And to Sacha Baron Cohen’s credit, it works “very nice”-ly.

Of course, this sequel will be compared to the previous movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakstan”. And while it may not resonate as a fresh idea, this is an anti-Trump, anti-Trump supporter, anti-Qanon sequel, which is a perfect example of the right place at the right time. Coming out just weeks before the election, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (at this point in time) is the better of the two films.

Nearly every hidden camera prank is well choreographed and executed. At the very least, it’s fascinating to witness what Cohen (who plays the Borat character) gets unsuspecting Americans to go along with. For example: Borat gets a feed shop owner to sell him a cage for his daughter to live in, he goes to a debutante ball and asks how much his daughter would be worth and gets a response, and yeah, there is that now infamous Rudy Giuliani “shirt tucking” scene.

As we should all understand by now, the point of this is to again put the Borat character into ridiculous and borderline illegal situations and see if ignorant Americans play along; and also, to showcase the worst that American capitalist/misogynist society has to offer.

Cohen’s previous satirical films (The Dictator, Bruno and “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) were directed by acclaimed comedic director Larry Charles. In my opinion, director Jason Woliner does a fine job of maintaining Cohen’s Andy Kaufman-esque vision. The “How did he pull this off?” reaction is still definitely there, you’ll still be surprised at how much he gets away with, and the shock value of it all is still entertaining and quite impressive.

While nearly every bit hits its mark, the addition of the Borat’s daughter storyline (played by Maria Bakalova) may bring the only real lulls in the film. Not to say that her storyline doesn’t work. The estranged daughter character actually is the glue that holds this thing together. Also, pushing this character to the forefront of many of the comedy bits, allows the Borat character to sneak around the background unrecognized. That said, in the final act things do slowdown in order to focus on the scripted material. During these moments my mind did wonder a tad, as I awaited the next prank.  

Final Thought: Cohen’s political satire television series “Who is America?” is better than this movie, mostly because the humor is streamlined, as there is no story to maintain. But “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” still displays what Cohen does best. Is the humor mean-spirited? Sure. But most of the people he makes fun of are Trump supporters, so it’s OK.  

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Antebellum

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Opening quite effectively, we follow a little white girl in a colorful dress skipping along a “Gone with the Wind” inspired plantation in the antebellum South. The camera then begins to explore the grounds, exposing the hidden horrors.  

In this directorial debut from writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (and trailers give it away, so calm down) a black woman (Janelle Monae) living in modern times, finds herself a slave trapped on a plantation. I won’t give anymore away than that, since the movie brings little more to the table than a strong premise and final twist. 

Everything I found disappointing about “Antebellum”, I found in its direction.

It’s not for lack for trying. First, there are sequences here which engage on a suspenseful level. And the depiction of this radicalized “Make America Great” inspired group of bad guy characters throughout, seemed current and eccentrically familiar.

But…

Although this is an R-rated slavery film, Bush and Renz’s depiction is tame. While one or two people are stabbed or shot, the lack of violence is startling. While I never seek out a movie clamoring to hear the N-word, the lack of realistic language used in this was noticeable.  Again, the directors placed more importance on the premise than visceral authenticity. Story aside, this is an emotionless vision of slavery, which doesn’t stand up to movies such as “12 Years a Slave” or “Django Unchained”. This is only an issue because it feels as though the intent of the filmmakers was to visually get close to these modern genre masterpieces.      

The protagonist is painfully one-dimensional. She is given one speech in the middle of the movie, regarding progressing feminism and racial inclusion. From that speech we are to assume everything else about her personality, since for the rest of the film she doesn’t seem to have one.  Does Monae do a good job in this lead role? Sure. She’s good in everything she does. She does the most she can with this cookie-cutter depiction of a successful Black woman.

Final Thought: Seems as though the filmmakers were content with a strong premise and promise of a twist ending being the thing which carried audiences through the hour and forty-five minute runtime. It does not. It’s a slavery thriller, with little gravity. There are stakes, but it’s all surface. Bush and Renz come off as either scared or unable to push this film to its limits. A better director would have handled things with more nuance and creativity and not allowed “Antebellum” to fall so flat. It’s not a horrible movie, just mishandled. Although, this may contain the best use of yoga in a movie, ever.

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The Devil All the Time

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“The Devil All the Time” is the nihilistic movie we deserve right now. Just to be upfront, this form of woefully depressing, life is meaningless storytelling is right up my alley.  

Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s acclaimed debut novel of the same name (he also serves as the narrator in this movie, oddly enough) by writer/director Antonio Campos, and set between World War II and the onset of the Vietnam War, this “Hillbilly Gothic” tale follows the lives of three groups of people, a war vet and his son, a couple of evangelical preachers and a couple of serial killers, all seemingly trapped in a hyper-religious area within the Bible Belt, whose lives intersect in random and vicious biblical ways.

To some, the things in this movie may come off as violent and random, but every action and event that happens to these characters has divine meaning to them. This is the key thing to understanding how these characters interact with one another and the dichotomy at play. These are characters who live in a closed off world crawling with random acts of violence and predatory preachers. It’s our job to watch them squirm. So, if that sounds like a painful experience, then “The Devil All the Time” will be a tough watch.

That said, with tons of moving parts Campos does a superb job of methodically maintaining this ever changing two hours plus story of relentless despair and making it engaging while teasing us with hope and a plethora of fantastic characters. 

The movie also stars Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Jason Clarke. I just made the runtime seem so much more tolerable, didn’t it? And the performances do not disappoint; especially from Pattinson, who is only in this for all of twenty minutes, but really shows why his willingness to take chances will eventually lead to an Oscar. Also, Jason Clarke does the best southern accent of any non-American, or even American actor working today. Someone had to say it.

Final Thought: If “A Serious Man” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” had a child, “The Devil All the Time” would be it and have a similar score.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Based on Iain Reid’s acclaimed 2016 book (which I’ve heard is fantastic and filled with tension), “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” the movie, is unfortunately very (cough cough) Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is one of the best screenwriters working today, I’m not denying that. But his directorial endeavors are at times, treacherous.

Beginning on a relatively entertaining foot, we follow a woman (Jessie Buckley) who is “thinking of ending things”, as she takes a trip with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents. Right from the get-go we see that these are two people who don’t belong together. As their personalities begin to clash, a breakup seems imminent. And all the while, throughout this unusually long car ride, the woman continues to internally repeat the phrase “I’m thinking of ending things”.

And then they get to their destination and we meet his parents (the parents played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis). And then time begins to alter. And then characters begin to push the term “acting peculiar” to its very limits. And then visuals attempt to approach the levels of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Adaptation”, but just can’t quite get there because Kaufman is not a director who seems to care about making sense. It’s at this point that the movie seemed to slip through Kaufman’s fingers, like a small child losing a balloon his parents just purchased for him not fifteen minutes prior.

The final hour is a hodgepodge of things nobody asked for. There are multiple sequences of characters referencing the musical “Oklahoma”, a diatribe concerning John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”, a talking pig, a random dance sequence which goes on so long it seems as though Kaufman is making fun of his audience for staying with this, and more!  

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” really bangs you over the head with its stream of consciousness narrative, while trapping us in a car with these two characters who seem more confused about where this story is going than I was.

The acting here, while overshadowed by the bonkers story, is led by two strong performances from Plemons and Buckley. Both are such enjoyable actors to watch, that your heart wants to stay with them long after your mind has checked out. Also, it’s a real shame that Jessie Buckley’s character is treated as an afterthought as the story progresses, since she is the most entertaining character of the film. Just saying.  

Final Thought: Sure, the visuals pop, Kaufman’s dry sense of humor works at times and the randomness is unsettling. It just simply all becomes so dreadfully unentertaining. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the equivalent of being forced into a conversation with a long-winded individual that you’ve been seated next to at a party. You might be able to tolerate the conversation for a while. You may even be entertained by a story or two along the way. But in the end, the entire exercise will become excruciating. I would rather watch any of Adam Sandler’s original Netflix movies, than sit through “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” again.

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