What I wrote the last 2 weeks…

Some original Peach Fuzz content will be coming this week, I promise. Also, a few longer interviews and some interesting features on the various publications are in the works. In the meantime, I’ve been writing for a few different sites as always.

For Cinema Sentries, I wrote about Ecuador’s Oscar submission for International feature La Mala Noche, the documentary about the first African-American NHL player Willieand the animated feature about Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s style and experiences in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles.

For Ready Steady Cut, I interviewed director Riley Stearns of The Art of Self-Defense, as well as a review of Harriet. I continued my NewFest coverage with reviews of And Then We Danced, Top 3, and Tu Me Manques.

For The Playlist, I did trailer reviews of Knives Out and Bad Boys For Life.

For Film Inquiry, I reviewed the animated feature Arctic Dogs.

For The Film Experience, I reviewed the Edward Norton-directed Motherless Brooklyn.

Look out for new stuff on the home site coming soon!

What I wrote this week…

This last week, I’ve had the honor of covering NewFest, NYC’s premiere LGBTQ film festival in its 31st year. I’m covering the festival for Ready Steady Cut, so that’s been my primary focus. As always, let’s break it down:

For Ready Steady Cut, I’ve been writing up review of NewFest films such as One Taxi Ride, Drag Kids, Cubbyand To the Stars. I also whipped up a review of Netflix’s Rattlesnake.

For Cinema Sentries, I reviewed Alice Waddington’s debut feature Paradise Hills.

For Film Inquiry, I wrote all about Big Mouth Season 3.

Lots of interviews incoming this week so look out!

 

NYFF Review: ‘First Cow’ and the warm, sneaky nature of friendship (and oily cakes)

If we’re going to simplify life, there are two ways to become friends with someone:

  1. You both meet, and you like each other, and so you become friends.
  2. You meet, you don’t really like each other, but then after some time together and likely some time apart, you start to like each other, and so you become friends.

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow explores the second type of friendship, deep in the backwoods of the Oregon Territory in the early 1800s. The film follows the companionship of two men, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee). Cookie is a man who loves to bake, and King is a man who loves to make money. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in the forest of the West Coast when Cookie finds King naked and on the run.

It would be easier to refer to them to their last names, as is the style of reviews and articles, but writing the word Cookie to describe Magaro’s lonesome, quiet character is just too much fun.

Reichardt crafts her own world, one based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond, in the two-hour runtime. We meet the camp’s Chief, Captain, town drunk, and errand boy. The first scene in the film features the great Alia Shawkat finding skeletons, only to never return to the screen. A cast of characters fills out around Cookie and King, but this is a story about these two men and the friendship that grows throughout the film.

It’s a story about two outcasts with specific skills, who find each other and decide to form a partnership. See, Cookie is a baker, one that can make oily cakes, and King is a master salesman.

First Cow is a film bursting with sweetness. It’s a mouth-watering journey of success, failure, and then survival. My focus throughout the film was on the oily cakes themselves and how they relate to the friendship they are keeping together. It’s important to add that they look delectable, and Reichardt sure convinced me of Cookie’s cooking capability.

Oily cakes, biscuits, are crumbly, sweet, fragile, and in this case, made with secrecy, sneakiness, and a bit of mischief. Cookie and King use a cow’s milk, the first one to come into the old camp, to make these delicious bites of goodness. They steal the milk from the Chief of the camp, and he even becomes one of their regular customers.

The oily cakes in this movie require patience, as does any good friendship. They require time to bake, and also time spent in line in order to order one, since they become the hottest commodity in this corner of the Oregon territory. These cakes are made out of a passion for baking, which is one of the reasons this movie stuck with me long after the viewing. Cookie just wants to save enough money to open a bed and breakfast down South, and King has joined him in this lifelong goal.

It’s a friendship born out of mischief, out of breaking the rules. These oily cakes require the two men to steal and lie, a formative bond for any friends. They require the men to get up early and stay up late, with every little conversation being a joy to the audience’s eras. We are in the cabin with them, just another cooks in the kitchen and criminals on the run.

It’s a warm film, headlined by a mighty yet gentle cow. The cow itself is a gorgeous animal. That much must be said in any article about this film. The acting in regards to this cow, especially Magaro’s tender touch, is sweet as can be, and every word spoken in the cow’s ears is wrapped in love. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

Magaro and Lee are both fantastic in the film, far surpassing the serviceable job they could’ve done due to the quiet brilliance of the script. They rose to the occasion, following Reichardt’s lead in making a film that blows you away with an almost impeccable latter half.

The film sneaks up on you, much like the friendship you’re watching. You can’t help laughing and relating to these men, even if they’re situation is one you’ll never experience. That’s the beauty of Reichardt’s storytelling and the power of a great onscreen friendship.

We watch a fragile partnership that turns into one of strength and dependence, and soon the oily cakes aren’t the only aspect of the dream. The dream includes both Cookie and King. They’re a package deal.

First Cow is about friendship, yes, but it is also about the oily cakes made by two men. You can’t have one without the other.

★★★★

First Cow is slated to be released March 6, 2020. Mark your calendars. 

Edit: Cookie was misspelled as Cooking and has now been changed to Cookie. A fun typo though. 

What I wrote the last 2 weeks…

What a time to be alive! Lots and lots of writing in the past two weeks. Let’s break it down.

For Cinema Sentries, I interviewed Harpoon director Rob Grant and reviewed the documentary Fantastic Fungi.

For The Film Experience, I reviewed Zombieland: Double Tap and did a little retrospective on A Serious Man.

For Ready Steady Cut, I reviewed Netflix’s Eli and Jojo Rabbit.

For Film Inquiry, I had my debut article, writing about film festivals and their severe lack of accessibility.

More reviews on the New York Film Festival are on their way, as well as a few new interviews and feature articles. Stay tuned!

NYFF Review: The luxury of introspection in ‘Pain and Glory’

Pedro Almodóvar has long been considered one of the world’s greatest working directors. He makes films that matter, winning most of the prestigious awards that film society deems important. He’s been tapped as one of Spain’s best filmmakers of all time, a lofty title with heavy expectations.

Almodóvar’s new film, Pain and Glory, has been praised by critics as a steady film rooted in the director’s own life, causing heartstrings to be pulled early and often. Pain and Glory stars Antonio Banderas in an arguably career best performance as director Salvador Mallo, successful in his own right. Almodóvar’s affinity for Penélope Cruz isn’t broken either, as she’s features as young Mallo’s mother.

The film is a moving piece of cinema, featuring unabashed honesty, an important queer character, and lots of drugs. It also give you exactly what the title says: tons of pain and a glimmer of glory. It’s a slow drama, with Banderas holding you captive during every minute of the timeline.

It’s fascinating and Almodóvar chose to make this film. It is far from his first film and very unlikely that it will be his last film. Almodóvar turned 70 this year. He’s been making films since the mid 1970s. He’s a master filmmaker that still is at the top of his game, yet Pain and Glory tells a different story if we’re looking at it with a literal lens.

Due to Almodóvar’s continued success, he had the opportunity to make a film like Pain and Glory. Most filmmakers will never have a chance to make a film as introspective as this one starring Banderas. Almodóvar isn’t most filmmakers. He’s earned this opportunity.

It is a luxury, though. Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical story is being seen by audiences all over the world. It’s a cultural, critical, and commercial hit. Part of the reason is because of the movie’s greatness, but there’s a large part due to Almodóvar’s name splashed across the front of every poster.

The ability and the luxury to look inwards to a captive audience is something very few in the world would be able to pull off and easily find funding for. The list includes the likes of Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and a few select others. It’s immense company, and Almodóvar tell this story in only a way that he can.

As we grow older, it’s natural for us to reflect backwards. It’s natural for us to look at all of the moments in our lives that were significant, or that tilted the scales in one direction or another. Letting the world see those moments play out on the big screen requires an honesty most of us don’t have, and a luxury most of us will never be given.

Pain and Glory is best watched with an open mind and an open heart. For young people, Banderas, the man known for Spy Kids and The Legend of Zorro, will surprise you in the best way imaginable. Almodóvar will make thousands of fans in the next few months. His introspection isn’t for everyone, but his aptitude for displaying his struggles in a meaningful and relatable way is one of a kind.

★★★☆

‘Gemini Man’ is a flashy gimmick that can’t stand on its own four feet

The idea of watching two Will Smiths battle each other for two hours is enticing. The trailer was enough for me to head on into the theater on opening night. The movie poster, flashing multiple Smiths and promising epic, superhero-esque showdowns, was a bit of icing on top. It was hard to turn down this movie, especially watching it on a big screen.

Gemini Man, Ang Lee’s directorial disaster, is a fun movie, but only part of the time. That’s the issue. It brings together elements of a successful movie: Will Smith being charming, Will Smith being an action hero, Benedict Wong being reliable, Mary Elizabeth Winstead being a badass, Ang Lee being a visionary, and even Game of Thrones’s David Benioff being a main-stage writer.

The movie opens on Smith, playing Henry Brogan, a fantastic name for an action movie lead. He gets his 72nd confirmed kill by shooting someone long-distance on a moving train. He goes back to his home in Georgia, though not one person in this film has a Southern accent, and puts up a birdhouse. He’s an animal man.

So much of this movie is ridiculous, and the chief problems are with the script, but we’ll trudge on. He cracks open a Stella, as Brogan has to be a beer man, and is set to retire from a life of governmental assassin work.

Smith soon finds out that he didn’t kill a terrorist, but rather a biologist! Then, his friends die, he gets hunted by his own government agency, grabs Danny (Winstead), and we’re off. A few fantastic things happen in the first 30 minutes.

  1. Brogan is seen drinking Stella Artois, Budweiser, and Hoegaarden. He’s drinking beer throughout the movie, and in the final scene, Budweiser boxes are blown to smithereens by gunfire. Lots of beer in this movie.
  2. When Brogan wakes up to find that his house is being surrounded, he’s fully clothed. When he wakes up Danny, she’s fully clothes, yet he says to her, “Get dressed.” That’s actually hilarious and no one can say otherwise.
  3. Brogan and his friends always use the same line when they cheers when taking a shot. “To the next war, which is no war.” How can you not love that?
  4. Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” plays and it’s truly not relevant but just a great song.

None of the above make this a better movie in terms of cinematic storytelling, but they do make the experience much more enjoyable.

The rest of the story plays out without much surprise: Brogan begins being hunted by Junior, his younger clone, and they have a few huge fights. Brogan convinces Junior that he’s being used and then they team up to take down the bad guy. One of the fights deserves a bit more attention though: the motorcycle chase.

The motorcycle chase is the best scene of the film and once it’s over, you wish you could watch it again. The younger clone, Junior, chases Brogan through side streets and busy streets and on rooftops, all while both are riding motorcycles. It’s fast-paced, fun, and entertaining as can be. It’s action movies at their best.

Outside of the that chase scene, the rest of the film ultimately falls flat. The gimmick of two Will Smiths begins to fade and you’re wishing the runtime was 20 minutes fewer. The dialogue is formulaic and the characters aren’t given a chance to grapple with the questions that could’ve been asked. Smith isn’t allowed the opportunity, by Ang Lee, to breathe life into either of the two roles, regardless of his commitment and stardom within the film.

The acting isn’t bad by any means by any of the main or supporting characters, and the cloning technology didn’t take me out of the film until the final scene. The action sequences were big, as promised, but the payoff was minimal. Our connection to Brogan, to Junior, and to this world was small and untethered. Not even a third Will Smith brought me the joy it should have.

The Will Smiths deserved better.

★★☆☆

 

What I wrote this week…

On this site, I wrote about the TV show Scrubs and how it’s perfect mix of drama and comedy led to some of my tears being shed.

For Cinema Sentries, I wrote a review of the indie horror flick Harpoon, a gory, messy movie that is more fun than I couldn’t imagined.

For Filmotomy, I finished up my coverage of the Femme Filmmakers Festival with four short reviews.

For Ready Steady Cut, I wrote a review of the new Netflix comedy Ready to Mingle and conducted an interview with the director of Sea of Shadows, a Sundance documentary hit.

Finally, I wrote my first article for The Film Experience, a review of the divisive Joker.

Many more reviews coming this week about the 57th New York Film Festival.

‘Scrubs’ made my cry. Here’s why.

When I was 12 years old, the Scrubs episode titled ‘My Last Words’ premiered. There are a few different storylines of the episode, but only one that this article is discussing: Turk and J.D. talk with a man during the last hours of his life. Scrubs never did mess around with titles and ‘My Last Words’ is exactly what it sounds like.

Things to note:

  1. ‘My Last Words’ was the back half of a two-episode premiere, jammed together with ‘My Jerks’, an episode that kicked off Season 8, the last great season of the show. ‘My Jerks’ is fine, but it lacks an emotional punch and is playing up to more laughs. Watching these two episodes together does create a tremendous building of emotion though, and so I stand by that decision, whoever made it.
  2. These two episodes were the first to be shown on ABC, after the show moved networks from its longstanding home of NBC.
  3. As I stated, I was 12 years old and about to turn 13, which means I was in 7th grade. Very impressionable and turbulent time for a kid, and I was unsure of what I liked or why I liked it.
  4. It felt like Scrubs was always on during this time of my life. I was constantly watching the show, though I wasn’t always keeping up on a week-by-week basis. It was an all-consuming phase.
  5. I found out that 6.7 million people watched this episode. If we say that one out of every two people cried, which is likely, that means at least 3.35 million people cried at the same time that I cried. That is just wild to think about.
  6. Scrubs had already been going for close to a decade. It started in 2001 and this was 2009.

This episode in particular

Scrubs came out 18 years ago, two days ago. Dr. Cox wouldn’t be proud of my tardiness. Each episode followed a pattern: happy, funny stuff to start, a little bit of heavy/sad news in the middle given usually by a J.D. voiceover, more funny stuff, and then really heavy/sad news at the end given by another J.D. voiceover. Shea Serrano details it with some hilarious eloquence for a piece at The Ringer.

Because of the above pattern, you can brace yourself for the sad times. You know that they’re coming and they become less sad. That is how it works for almost all situations in life, except for one: death.

The show has never shied away from death, as it’s featured in dozens of episodes. Patients dying is a regular part of working at a hospital and I’m assuming creator Bill Lawrence wanted us to know that.

In this particular episode, Turk and J.D., perennial best friends played by real-life best friends Donald Faison and Zach Braff, are having their annual steak night. It’s a big occasion with a song and dance.

They are also dealing with interns, one of them being a fresh Aziz Ansari. But that’s about it. Several main characters are not even mentioned or shown in the course of the episode, an oddity for the show.

This episode is fully about Turk, J.D., and their talks with a patient named George Valentine. Glynn Turman was tapped to play Valentine and boy was that a good choice by the casting director.

Valentine is in Sacred Heart because he’s dying and these are his final hours. He has a terminal illness and is going to drift off into an endless sleep on this particular night. Steak night night. This episode doesn’t have all of the funny parts of other episodes. There aren’t lots of “lighten the mood” moments. It’s about death and that’s it.

Why I cried

When J.D. finds out why George is in the hospital, he says, “We think of hospitals as places where people go to heal, but they’re also places where people go to die.” Unpacking the gravity of that sentence is an entire different article, but it hits you as if you forgot you were standing on the tracks.

Scrubs does that to you, as you often forget the bleakness of situations because you’re too busy laughing at “Giant Doctor” or Dr. Cox’s demeaning remarks or J.D. daydreaming once again. You don’t forget in this episode. Upon rewatch, it was the same arresting feeling I felt 10 years ago, and knowing the end didn’t make watching it any easier.

The three talk about death and how none of them are scared of it. The doctors have lost their fear over time, and George has had a good, long life. All he wants is an ice cold beer before he goes.

When J.D. and Turk find out that George doesn’t have family coming to stay with him in his final hours, they stay instead. “When you get down to it, taking care of a patient means more than anything, even steak night,” says J.D. It’s the reason they’re such good doctors and after seven seasons of learning, they’ve grown not just as medical professionals, but as people as well.

They pull up chairs and sit with George, talking about their fathers, their college days, and their views of an afterlife. J.D. even gives a rundown of his and Turk’s first day in heaven, a small respite to the sadness clouding the screen.

“I’ll tell you one thing. I sure didn’t think I’d go like this,” says George, finally speaking up after letting the two friends spout on. George’s entire life “boils down to these four pages”, or his will. He’s grappling with death. We see a man struggle in (almost) real time, a focus on a singular death in a show filled with dying.

Finally, someone says what every audience member is thinking. First J.D. pipes up, and then Turk affirms.

“George, I’m terrified of dying.”

“Me too.”

It’s a moment I’ve remembered for the last 10 years, and a reason I’ve always defended Scrubs. The comedy might miss at times and some dialogue might not work in today’s climate, but scenes like the on in “My Last Words” are unforgettable. They’re so important to watch and experience, and to see them while you’re young, it makes them all the more memorable.

This episode of Scrubs was the first time that a television show or a movie made me cry. I remember tearing up, curled up on our old green couch and covered by a homemade, blue-and-white checkered blanket. It wasn’t the waterworks, but tears were shed, and this so-called comedy was the reason.

It sounds weird but I didn’t realize that fiction could make you cry. I didn’t understand the power of film and television. Maybe I just didn’t allow other stories to affect me, too closed off by how I thought I was supposed to react. I’m not completely sure why this put me over the edge. I felt the wave crashing upon me once again though, 10 years and lots of life experiences later.

Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark” is still, and always will be, one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, a go-to when life takes a wrong turn, when disappointment hits or when heartbreak comes.

J.D. says something though at the end of the episode that has particularly stuck with me.

“I would just hope that my last thought was a good one.”

George’s last thought?

“That beer tasted great.”

Scrubs, thank you for everything.

What I wrote this week…

Busy, busy, busy week for the young Peach Fuzz Critic. On this site, I wrote about Ad Astra, James Gray’s space odyssey featuring the everlasting Brad Pitt. I attempted to dissect the many questions Gray is posing and some of the answers to those questions.

On Filmotomy, I wrote a few pieces for the Femme Film Fest, a fantastic online festival celebrating female voices in movies. I covered Chloe Zhao’s gorgeous heartbreak in The Rider, while reviewing three separate short films: Earth People Words by Dayna Reggero, In Full Bloom by Maegan Houang, and The Law of Averages by Elizabeth Rose.

On Cinema Sentries, I wrote about Los Tigres del Norte and their historic trip to California’s Folsom Prison. I watched a little film called Koko-di Koko-da, a Swedish horror-comedy-thriller flick that was just fantastic.

That’s about it! Thanks for following along. I’ll be doing this little recap each and every week so just you (mostly I) can remember the writing I did over the last seven days.

Cheers!

The ambitious questions of ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt and movies in space.

It’s been the day, the month, the summer, and the year of Brad Pitt. He’s shared that highest Internet honor with Keanu Reeves. While Keanu dominated the first half of 2019, Pitt has taken the virile title belt, jockeying for position by appearing on Ellen, avoiding the Oscars race, and starring in two massive films, one by Quentin Tarantino which I’m sure you’ve heard of, and James Gray’s new space odyssey Ad Astra.

Gray’s film is full of questions, some he cares to answer, some he prefers to leave dangling on the edge of space. The film’s plot interested me, but Gray’s character study on Brad Pitt as a man, a father, and a superstar was enthralling. It came in with huge expectations with a man at the height of his powers, focusing on his most vulnerable moments and delivering a space thriller, a bit of a generous categorization, for watchers to process.

Ad Astra asks these questions to Pitt, to Pitt’s alter ego Roy McBride, to the audience, and to society at large. Gray is attempting to tackle longstanding concerns and ideas in the span of two hours. It’s a film I enjoyed much more after reflection, and I’m already convinced a second viewing would act as a palate cleanser, rather than a bland main course that doesn’t satiate your hunger. I can’t stop thinking about Ad Astra, not about the film itself, but rather the uncertainties it can’t help raising.

Should we have the same profession as our parents?

In the film, Brad Pitt’s father was an astronaut, committed entirely to his job and to the places beyond Earth’s graspable elements. Pitt, playing McBride with self-efficacy and awareness, becomes an astronaut as well. His choice, a decision we’ve all thought about, to follow in his father’s footsteps is a choice with stages.

Stage 1: you idolize your father and you develop similar interests to him. This is more about acceptance than it is about passion. You, I, most people want to be loved by their fathers, so we pick up the same habits, learning about their professions. Stage 2: you reject your father (and/or mother) and want to be an individual. You’re in middle school and you decide to be your own person, choosing a path that your parents would never expect. Stage 3: you circle back around and are genuinely interested in the same profession as your father, or you find what you’re truly passionate about and follow that instead.

Many people I know have followed those stages at one point or another. There are of course exceptions, like Pitt, who falls somewhere in the middle of these stages. He hasn’t processed his father’s disappearance, or abandonment, and is dealing with decades of trauma throughout the film. He believes his father to be a hero, then a villain, then a hero once again, back to a villain, and finally just an old man that wanted to die. His choice to pursue his father’s livelihood has resulted in heartbreak and closure. He has been given the opportunity to save the world and lose his father in the same trip. Now that’s quite a job.

Pitt has the conflicting desires of wanting to be as successful as his father but also needing to be a better man than his father. He will never reach his father’s impact, nor stoop to his dad’s level of pain-infliction.

Answer: Roy McBride likely should have gone into real estate.

Ad Astra and Brad Pitt is a star.
Brad Pitt looking handsome. | 20th Century Fox

Does Brad Pitt look good in an space suit?

Come on. It’s Brad Pitt.

Answer: Yes. Of course. Why would we think otherwise?

What if our destiny, the path we choose to follow, is wrong?

Gray raises this contention through both Pitt’s portrayal of Roy McBride and his father, played by a wrinkly-as-ever Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride.

Roy McBride seems to be an astronaut because he hoped to one day find his dad in space, while Clifford McBride was obsessed with finding intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy. Clifford believes that his destiny is to find extraterrestrial life, and Roy, as we find out throughout the film, is chasing a destiny of finding living up to his father’s name and finding him once he knows he’s alive. Ad Astra is addressing failure on both accounts. Clifford has failed in his efforts to find what he’s been looking for, while Roy finds exactly what he has always wanted, only to be let down in the most severe way possible.

Once we study in and graduate from college, we are expected, by society’s standards, to choose a career path and stick to it. We were required to pick a major for a reason.  More often that not though, we change, we grow, and we adapt, leading us to switch the path we’re marching on. This is pegged as a mid-life, or for myself and the people I orbit, a quarter-life crisis. Clifford even has a three-quarter-life crisis towards the end of the film.

But it’s far from that. We are gravitating closer to fulfillment, something Clifford McBride never took the time to feel, and something Roy McBride seems to be grasping by the end of the film. His destiny has been altered, and in that way, it wasn’t his destiny in the first place.

Answer: Gray doesn’t know, and neither does Pitt. We choose something and just hope that it’s right. When we get pulled in an opposite direction though, we need to follow that tug. 

Is Brad Pitt okay?

This is one is a bit tricky. Just like in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt is playing a version of himself. He’s a lonely man in Ad Astra, with no wife, no kids, and dedication to his job. His family is rife with instability, and he doesn’t seem to be nurturing anyone outside of himself. He’s one-track, plowing his way forward, causing death and destruction around him, despite his best intentions. In the end, he’s successful, but he took an awful woeful path along the way.

Pitt has been in the public eye since 1991, when he had a small but memorable role in Thelma & Louise.

He’s been engaged or married to Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Angelina Jolie, all massive stars. He has gone through very public breakups and even more public divorces. He has six kids with Jolie, all of whom have grown up in the eyes of paparazzi. According to IMDb, Pitt has appeared in 80 films and produced over 50 films. He’s a busy guy with a shocking amount of fame thrust his way, properly earned in most respects.

None of us know how lonely or happy Brad Pitt truly is. Every long-form interview he gives, and he’s given quite a few in the past half-year, details his struggles but also his laid-back triumphs. Roy McBride is similar to Brad Pitt in more ways than one.

Answer: Who knows? It seems so, but it’s been a bumpy road to get there. 

Have we had too many movies (recently) about space?

People seem to be discussing this with some serious contention. There’s no need to compare Interstellar, GravityThe Martian, and Ad Astra. Let them be stand alone projects made by important directors highlighting fantastic actors.

Answer: No, space movies are great, but we might need to find some new stories, new angles to explore. Make a space movie with Adam Sandler and I’ll be in the theater before you can say “sandman”. 

What happens when a film tries to answer too many questions at once?

I’ve seen several reviews describing Ad Astra as a “slow burn” of a film. Usually, the result of a slow burn is the bubbling up of anger, frustration, or conflict. Gray’s film ended with a fizzle, not a bang. He’s tackling a monster amount of topics in a two-hour window. These questions are raised throughout the film, but there’s not nearly enough time to figure out the thought-provoking mess of his own creation.

The universe Gray crafted is commendable yet it’s surprising a film like this, a solemn character study with an $80 million budget, can still get made in today’s shifting industry. It’s a big, beautiful, bonkers film.

As Norman Vincent Peale, a famously positive man, once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” And Grey certainly is somewhere, even if he’s a bit lost, deep in the galaxy of stars.

★★★

Embracing the Gaga & greyness of ‘Hustlers’

Much has already been written about Lorene Scafaria’s third directorial effort Hustlers, though it’s only been in wide release for a few days. It sizzled onto the scene with a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the critical praise set fire to Twitter, a platform that dearly needs an extinguisher.

It’s a film that succeeds in the grey, teetering the line of morality. It’s a film about necessity and as said in the opening scene, “this is a story about control.”

The conversation has focused on Jennifer Lopez, because she’s absolutely fantastic and she’s Jennifer Lopez. She deserves all the praise she’s been given, and I hope the critics (and whoever hands out awards) continue to pile it on. She commands every scene with a star power akin to Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. An odd comparison on the surface, Gaga and JLo excel in these roles that feel designed for them. This doesn’t mean the roles are easy, rather they give each actor space to fill the screen, to display their rare and valuable skills to the widest audience available.

The more I think about this comparison, the more it rings true. JLo is, dear Lord I hope, a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, a category Lady Gaga lost in last year. The characters themselves are quite different, but the reactions they conjure up in audiences are closely aligned. When watching Gaga in A Star is Born, and JLo in Hustlers, you’re mesmerized. Nothing can pull you away from the screen. They snatch up every bit of your attention, every periphery of your sight. And it must be said that seeing these performers in a theater on the biggest screen evokes visceral, unstoppable admiration.

Their opening scenes are both on-stage, where they’ve been comfortable for decades. Both are performing a balancing act. Gaga sings an Edith Piaf tribute at the drag bar, and JLo dances to “Criminal” by Fiona Apple at the strip club, a faultless five minutes that’ll go down in cinema history as another reminder of her brilliance.  JLo bathing in the money being thrown wildly towards her is an energy we all need to embody. These characters are introduced in ways that are in the actors’ wheelhouses, immediately showing the audience what they can do. I can’t wait for future film students, over the next 20 years, to study JLo’s scene with a holy obsession.

It was Gaga’s first major film role, and it was JLo’s first role of this magnitude in quite some time. Both absolutely nailed it.

Music is vital to both characters, and Scafaria’s choices shouldn’t be undersold or undervalued here. Bravo for somehow getting the rights.  Scafaria picks the right song in the right moment throughout the film, and for that, we’re all thankful.

Comparisons aside, Hustlers is a stylish, slick, and speedy heist film that feels like a cross between Ocean’s 8 and The Big Short.  It’s what Ocean’s 8 was trying with desperation to be, and when another opportunity like that arises, I hope a female director is tapped to steer the ship.

Scafaria’s film isn’t black and white. JLo’s character, Ramona Vega, is the prime example. To the other strippers, she’s a mother, a leader, and an inspiration. She sidesteps the law with ease, moving with fluidity from apartment to apartment. She’s viewed as a loving mother, a savvy businesswoman, and a role model for the other strippers. Vega hosts the Christmas party, which is a real treat when it comes to Christmas montages.

Two things of note: during this montage, Vega is dressed all in white, and is the only one wearing a Christmas hat. She is the Jesus, the savior of the crew, pure and perfect in the eyes of the other women. Second, Constance Wu’s grandmother, her caretaker turned dependent, who has some unexplained money problems, mentions that she once danced with Frankie Valli. What a moment.

When you strip down the story that’s being told in Hustlers, it’s a stark contrast. Regardless of circumstance, the women in this film are drugging people and wreaking havoc in the lives of others, even if those others are awful themselves. Wu realizes the magnitude of their operation, whereas Lopez keeps moving forward unfazed. Our savior doesn’t mind mixing MDMA and ketamine in her Manhattan-overlooking kitchen. She’s Jesus, she’s Robin Hood, and she’s a protégé of the Sopranos and the Corleones.

The greyness of this movie is felt personally though. These characters are flawed, are struggling, and ultimately are (somewhat) relatable. We want to root for them, regardless of the damage they’re causing. They find family by proximity, and they work with what they have, making lives for themselves that previously were deemed unimaginable. We convince ourselves that they’re doing it out of necessity, yet every decision the characters make can be seen as right or wrong, depending on the argument and depending on your own experiences.

Scafaria crafts Hustlers so that the only option is to embrace this greyness. We embrace the flaws of Lopez, Wu, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart. We embrace the strip club and all of its cameos, not just on Usher night. We embrace these women, and we should. They’re badass in every way.

They deserve our embrace, but they sure don’t need it.

★★★

We shouldn’t forget about ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

I saw Joe Talbot’s directorial debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco about three months ago.  It was a Sundance award-winner with rave reviews, an A24 darling, and high on my list of 2019 movies I needed to watch on the big screen. I saw it on opening weekend, which was a limited release to seven theaters. My theater was filled, not packed. If it was a salad, we amounted to the croutons, not the lettuce.

What transpired over the course of the next 121 minutes left me speechless. There are several reasons a movie can transfix you. The acting can be spectacular. The cinematography can be sweeping and beautiful, finding angles you thought impossible. The story can resonate with depth that didn’t previously reside within your body. Or you can see art in a way you haven’t seen before. Talbot’s film accomplished all the above.

The 2-hour affair chronicles the futile attempts of Jimmie Fails, played by Talbot’s childhood friend and co-writer, the real-life Jimmie Fails. Both men grew up in San Francisco, soaking up the Bay Area’s gentrification even when they wished the fog would roll over the sunshine. The story is their collected experiences: their love towards a hometown and their uncertainty towards its unstoppable changes. It’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of art I’ve ever seen, and the shot of Fails dropping leaves onto Mont remains etched into my brain. Fails’ singular mission, though, unfolds like clothes thrown into the wash, locked, messy, and jumbled together with a speed that doesn’t allow your eyes to adjust.

Fails and his best friend Mont, played or rather achieved by Jonathan Majors, are in a movie-long tug-of-war to take back Fails’ childhood home, the one he believes was built by his grandfather, a Victorian mishmash of beauty in the Mission District of San Francisco. Fails’ effectiveness can’t be understated, as every scene has the feeling of a home-video, watched by an intrusive audience. There’s a power in telling your own story, a command that is rarely on display and hardly considered for opportunity.

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Currently, the film festival season is in full swing. Toronto, Venice and Telluride, along with NYFF later this month, have been vehicles for new films to garner widespread praise, gravitate performances to create Oscar-buzz, and shift the discussion to a select few directors and stories that the film community have deemed important. Last Black Man has been put in the back of the pantry, and to me, that’s a problem.

The relevance of these characters is not forced, but given to the audience. The effect of change emanated from this portrait of a hometown continues to cause me to stop on busy streets in New York City, just to remember to look at what surrounds me. I watched this film from a different state than my hometown, from a different state than my family and friends. I grew up driving up the coast to San Francisco, spending weekends there through college, appreciating the city more with each visit. It’s a painstaking painting of a city that’s been in flux for the entire 21st century.

Fails and Talbot spent close to a decade making this film. Their journey as filmmakers is as worthy of praise as their finished product. Every interview they give is inspiring for those that don’t have it all figured out. They’ve certainly become indie idols for young people across the country, especially those in the Bay Area.

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I’ve never watched a film that encapsulates loss like Last Black Man. As Jimmie’s frustrations burst and fester, the realization of pain and loss we’ve encountered grows stronger in each of us. It’s unshakable and for me, undeniable. It captures the emotion and realization we normally can’t put into words: when you don’t recognize your hometown, you don’t remember the roads, and your childhood home, full of the memories you made, belongs to another. The city, his home, has changed without Jimmie Fails. We’ve all been outgrown in our lives, unable to stop natural forces, unable to understand what went wrong, and desperately reaching to conjure up the past.

Jonathan Majors, as the feeble yet loving Montgomery Allen, deserves words of praise at this point. He deserved it much higher in article. Majors is remarkable, and is worthy, though not likely to be recognized, of a Best Supporting Actor nod by the Academy. His presence almost steals the movie from Fails, and it feels to be his hometown as well. He doesn’t fit in, either, and that’s what drew me to him. While Fails shows us what happens when you don’t fit into your city, Majors shows us, with immeasurable grace and ingenuity, what happens when you don’t fit into your community.

The supporting cast, Danny Glover particularly, are worthwhile in contributing to the mood of the film. An ensemble, with this many newcomers, with this talent is a feat in casting, directing, and pure opportunity. The dialogue is smart and a couple of lines are sure to be remembered by all who see the film. The chief of these being said by Fails to two griping (and new) San Francisco residents. “You can’t hate something if you didn’t love it first.” Truer words are sparsely spoken without an element of insincerity.

As big budget films with big budget actors shove into your timelines and into the larger public sphere, don’t forget about Talbot’s tale of loss. Don’t forget about Fails’ and Major’s human performances. And certainly don’t forget the way The Last Black Man in San Francisco made you feel. It’s one of the warmest love letters written this century.  It will and should last longer than the rest.

It certainly has the heart.

★★★★