June 25, 2019

5-16-19

5-9-2019

5-2-19

“Avengers: Endgame”

What the World Needs Now

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Y’know how I’m always looking for metaphors and clues in movies that might lead the way to saving our republic from the current rash of misanthropic evildoers? Y’know…those who would replace our democracy with autocracy for their own profit and narcissistic obsession. Well, someday I’m going to just review a movie. But this isn’t that someday. Nah…“Avengers: Endgame,” a surprisingly entertaining, jaunty ride to vicarious liberty is simply too rich with the stuff of the Four Freedoms to be treated as just another superhero movie. It celebrates and brims with the very idea of righteousness, replete with an utterly contemptible villain too hateful and too real to discount as mere comic book fiction.

 

Whether it’s because I’ve laboriously waded through and consumed way too much Marvel lore in the films leading up to “Avengers: Endgame,” or because the directors Russo wanted to reach the greatest number of viewers this go round, it seems the minutiae is kept to a minimum. While there are surely enough series details to satisfy those devotees who’ve practically eschewed all the conventional aspects of life in favor of total devotion to the alternate fantasy world Stan Lee created, I’d say this is the one you could recommend to your old Aunt Millie. Granted, it might be a bit of a lab experiment. I mean gosh, she hasn’t seen a movie since “Forrest Gump” (1994). Still, attired for the occasion in wig hat and high-heeled sneakers, it may be an epiphany for her.

 

Truth be told, I approached the newest “Avengers” with no small smidgen of trepidation. Weighing in at 181 minutes, that’s three hours and 60 seconds in human film critic’s time…meaning there’d be forces to distract me from my evaluative duties. Helpful pundits on the Internet offered all sorts of advice to potential viewers, including special guidance for moviegoers of a certain age understandably concerned with how nature might intervene. But the recommendation here is just go. You’ll catch up, or your sidekick will be happy to give you his or her subjective and probably erroneous take. No matter. As a parking attendant recently related on a totally different matter, “It’s all good.”

 

Fact is, though the seriocomic adventure tale, a panoply of the very latest computer magic to suffuse the silver screen, is rapid fire action most of the way, it is ultimately an exuberant kaleidoscope of technology, friendship and the separating of truth from the deceit of those who would bamboozle us. In a splash of inspiration so needed in our current state of affairs, wherein we agonize just who could smite the dragon (should it be a man, a woman, and what color of either?), the Avengers are an embarrassment of heroes.

 

Heck…there’s nothing much more fun than saving the world for democracy with some of your best pals, and our gallant, larger-than-life surrogates are especially adept at exampling that. Oh sure, they have their tiffs, and just enough soap-opera-like complications to prove they are indeed human and/or otherworldly. However, as is demonstrated time and time again when a group dedicated to a noble cause gets its head screwed on right, where there’s a will there’s a way.

 

Gee, you have to get a load of this bad guy. He is worthy of every effort our champions are able to summon in his defeat. But the depravity of Thanos (Josh Brolin) sways curiously from the usual. This baddy goes beyond the traditional antihero you love to hate. Grotesquely conjured, he is strikingly familiar in his zeal to destroy the world and remake it in his image. And of course he has the endorsement of the bootlicking grovelers and fawners who make the villain possible. Filmic heirs to the flying monkeys who backed the Wicked Witch of The West in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), they are the mob, ready to do the master’s bidding at any cost. But what’s their game? Are they so bereft of hope so as to support a monster that they know is at a minimum full of bunk, barely able to hide his disdain for their blind fealty, and at maximum just short of being the Devil incarnate? Those metaphors were giving me the willies.

 

But the group of teenagers behind me who nostalgically reminded of my nights at the Park Theatre with that old gang of mine, apparently feared not. Animated like a Greek chorus in their rousing, enthusiastic certainty that the title characters would prevail so long as they didn’t lose sight of the common goal that binds them, their optimism prodded me to indulge in yet one more metaphor. That they were young and cheering for morality to be victorious over corruption offered me hope that they might very well turn out to be the real-life Avengers we’ll need for a virtuous future.

“Avengers: Endgame,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Running time: 181 minutes

WO 4/25/19

“After”

Of Good Girls and Bad Boys

2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

It’s just not fair. The lady preteens and barely teens who attended a showing of “After,” presumably to look into the crystal ball and commiserate with future peer, Tessa Young, left it all to me. I was to see what was to be with the gal who embarks on her college career and that first real love They were much too busy chattering, texting or running back and forth to either the concession stand or the powder room to pay any attention to Katherine Langford’s decent but a tad treacly portrayal of the girl next door turned co-ed. Oh well, I figured, perhaps they read writer Anna Todd’s “After” series on Wattpad, whatever that is, and were only in attendance in the name of comparative literature.

 

It all has to do with fanfiction, apparently an Internet democratization of belles-lettres. I’m surprised it didn’t get a rise out of spell-check when I typed it. Which is proof that my fuddy-duddyism and failure to keep up with popular culture remain intact, and will surely leave me in poor straits should I unexplainably find myself a game show contestant. However, I here claim redemption in my accidental role as an Alexis de Tocqueville…the objective stranger in a foreign land. Dissolve the memes, keystrokes and all the nomenclature that goes into the secret handshake society of anything the Brave New World claims to have invented and “After” is, after all, a romance tale no more or less than something the Sumerians may have initially carved the template for in cuneiform.

 

Stylistically, however, “After’s” rather typical, coming of age anxieties, save for the contemporization of inserting a single mom (Selma Blair) to do lots of fretting, is more a literary cousin of the gossipy fare teenagers sopped up in the Roaring Twenties. A bit edgy and tastefully naughty, it’s the traditional tome that dabbles in the onset of maturity. The idea is that although it happens generation after generation, it always seems just a tad premature, especially to parents. We bemoan: Surely there must be a middle ground between seeing college as the license to rush into things adult or staying back at the old homestead to take care of Maiden Aunt Gertie until you become her.

 

That said, for all the reasons emotional and educational that said fare maintains its place just one rung up from Kiddie Lit, “After” fulfills its mission, replete with a comely heroine in Miss Langford and a would-be but troubled prince in Hero Fiennes Tiffin’s Hardin Scott. You blink quizzically….shouldn’t Hero Fiennes Tiffin be the character’s name, and Hardin Scott the actor’s? Alas, further proof that fiction may be taking over our reality…but enough about politics. This is a handsome boy with tsuris that his about-to-be lady fare is going to have to navigate before the closing credits roll.

 

You know the stereotype. He is the ubiquitously tattooed bad boy on the outside, yet capable of quoting from “Wuthering Heights” or “The Great Gatsby.”  But perhaps so could Hannibal Lecter. And because we’ve dealt with this dude in any number of beach blanket movies between 1963 and 1968, we are wary from the get-go. Even when some of his poor little rich kid mishegoss is divulged (his once abusive and since never forgiven dad is the school’s chancellor), we fear he is but a wolf in training.

 

Gadzooks, man! Modernization notwithstanding, Tessa Young is our fair maiden, and we’ll be damned if she can’t circumvent this potential obstacle to a promising destiny. I mean, she’s so sensible otherwise…studying to be an employable economist instead of an, ahem, idealistic writer. Yet there it hovers …the big distraction. We anguish…or at least are supposed to anguish. Is it not true that ‘tis better to have loved and lost, then to have never loved at all? Is it fair to wish that our damsel not be distressed by this rite of spring? Of this we ponder.

 

Meanwhile, Hardin Scott’s complicated circumstances can’t help but wreak havoc on our uninitiated romantic’s soul. Naturally there is the obligatory falling-out with Mom, who threatens to cut off Tessa if she doesn’t eschew this junior Lothario. Psst. She’s divorced and Tessa, in catty defense, informs the long suffering payer of her tuition, room and board that she’s “sorry if things didn’t work out” for her. Oy…bad. See what love can do? Later there’ll be slowly peeled clues that open a window of understanding and compassion into this troublesome BMOC. Whether they exonerate Hardin from his previously careless behavior is for you to decide.

 

Internet, shminternet, fanfiction or whatever, this is pulp soap opera for the PG-13 set, a schmaltzy primer about the entranceway to adulthood no matter its original method of delivery. All of which is proof positive that whether before or “After,” the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“After,” rated PG-13, is an Aviron Pictures release directed by Jenny Gage and stars Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Selma Blair. Running time: 95 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

4-18-19

“Dumbo”

A Relevant Elephant
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

Here’s what drives me crazy. Mostly everyone you and I know has been brought up on a steady motion picture diet of morality tales like this latest version of Disney’s “Dumbo,” based on the studio’s 1941, animated delve into the wiles and munificence of human nature. All the good lessons concerning proper human behavior are therein contained. And yet, look at some of these uncaring, inconsiderate curmudgeons young and old sharing the planet with us. This week I’m particularly down on the 30-something, balding Wall Street dude, sunglasses-attired, who passes you on the right in his 3 series BMW and then celebrates his belligerence by giving you the middle finger salute.

I ask you. What did I do besides buy into the sweet lesson taught by a little elephant born with giant ears who, despite his divergence from the quote-unquote norm, overcomes his circumstances through the heroic attributes that reside within him? Huh? I estimate that said BMW malefactor, for reasons of genetics, upbringing or astral intervention, sees Dumbo as a sucker for not using his flying powers to wreak revenge on the humans who at first scoffed at his diversity. Is that how he’ll explain it to his kids when he takes them to consume massive portions of gummy worms and cheese-saturated nacho chips at a theater showing “Dumbo?”

Happily, that’s not how about 60% of the parents will explain it to the good future citizens they’re raising. While there may be halfhearted, mostly unsuccessful attempts to smuggle in carrot sticks, celery and yogurt as substitutes for those nachos, Mom and/or Dad will more than likely recap the tale in après movie discussion with the humanitarian bent that the filmmaker intended. And, just for good measure while they’re on the subject anyway, a note or two about gun control, curtailing global warming and not voting for obvious bigots when they reach their majority might also be in order.

Albeit etched with a caustic edge to grant it a realistic PG instead of a Pollyanna G, director Tim Burton makes sure his “Dumbo” remake contains all the elements necessary for the ethical considerations that have been an integral part of fairy tales ever since Oog first adorned the cave walls with his template for Animal Crackers. This includes an instructively funny performance by Danny DeVito as conniving circus owner Max Medici who, by his example, illustrates not only the rationalizations often a part of making a buck, but also the struggle of conscience that may or may not lead to redemption.

Natch, for little ones looking ahead to the future and accompanying parents who like a good love story, the spark created between Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, the circus’ horse trainer extraordinaire recently injured in WWI, and exotic French trapeze artist Colette Marchant, fits the bill. Holt, the very image of fine and upstanding, is in one handsome package a single parent, a worker displaced by his disability, and the personification of uncompromising integrity. But, subscribing to the theory that lessons are best learned from peers, the bulk of the story’s primer on benevolence and honor is taught by his kids, Millie (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), two wise little apples who haven’t fallen very far from the tree. Dumbo couldn’t ask for better allies.

Handling the villain and semi-villain responsibilities respectively are Alan Arkin’s J. Griffin Remington, dispassionate captain of investment, and Michael Keaton’s P.T. Barnum knockoff and manipulator of souls, V.A. Vandevere. Both make no masquerade about their desire to capitalize on Dumbo’s talent no matter how it impacts him, his mother and everyone else who grows to love him.

And then there’s what we’ve all come to this circus movie for in the first place. It’s a little bit of a physics problem rolled into a philosophical thesis. The idea of a baby elephant that can fly advocates in a delightfully Aesop-like way that not only can we overcome obstacles of nature like gravity, but that much of our survival, salvation and ultimately our happiness itself hinges on the exercise of mind over matter.

Children of a certain age not yet jaded by the phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of whim and wonder that they’ve been inundated with ever since the mobile above their crib was sent spinning, will doubtlessly squeal with joy when Dumbo takes flight. And I suspect even that aforementioned, ungracious dabbler in stocks and bonds will agree that the movie magic employed to make the principal pachyderm soar majestically through the rafters of the big top is pretty darn good. But alas, unlike the prized offspring you may bring to the theater, the allegory of honesty and civility will be lost on him. Perhaps his kids will tell him that no matter the hurry, “Dumbo” would never pass someone on the right, let alone obscenely brandish his trunk in the process.
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“Dumbo,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Tim Burton and stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Eva Green. Running time: 112 minutes

4-11-19

“Us”

It Takes Two to Terrorize

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Point of disclosure: Save for classics like “Dracula” (1931) and “Frankenstein” (1931), I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror films. I’m not simply afraid of them, but rather, in the parlance of childhood, ‘a-scared’ of them. That is, until now. Gripping my armrests in anticipation of a body-elevating jolt whilst viewing film auteur Jordan Peale’s “Us,” his unconnected follow-up to the highly praised “Get Out” (2017), the epiphany dawned on me. Having lived through the last two years of the real-life horror that has masqueraded as American politics, I am immunized. Any fiction purporting to be horror pales in comparison to what the genuine article bodes.

 

I’d have just as soon sailed along on the River Styx of frightening movie entrees, cowering in the dark with each film I opted to review. But I am now from innocence tossed, legitimately terrified. You may be familiar with the hackneyed but all the same ominous scene I’ve been relegated to play out these recent months. I see the monster, but despite all my frantic screaming about his treacherous presence, most of the burghers in the village pay no attention …some of them even trying to censure my exhortations: “He’s blinkin’ blimey crazy, he is.”

 

So, while I sat there in anticipation of involuntary launch, I appreciated the finely skilled dabs and streaks of the cinematic art with which Mr. Peale is so obviously gifted. But I saw the fiction for what it ultimately was…a baby rattle that might temporarily distract me from my discomfort. All of which suggested that the only thing left for me to do was to turn my attention to the multifarious metaphors Peale was actually crafting, as opposed to the ones I concocted.

 

In short, there is much to munch on here if the basic fact of doppelgangers terrorizing the Wilson family as they attempt to enjoy their summer vacation isn’t entertainment enough for you. For starters, you’ll want to figure out from whence these Bizarro-type doubles emanated and, as the Wilsons oft plead in high-pitched fright, what exactly do they want?

 

Although the catastasis and wrap-up kind of explain it, I found said recap even more confounding and, worried that I might do myself harm, have finally stopped scratching my head over the matter. Besides, the wise path here is probably to just take the surface cataclysms as the chaff, the action to keep our hearts palpitating, while the headier, philosophical propounding is for us to theorize après theatre at the local diner with the Glucksterns. It’s their turn to pay. You offer to leave the tip.

 

Interestingly, and perhaps a slight sign of social improvement in the American landscape, Peale never calls conscious attention to the fact that the Wilsons, Adelaide and Gabe, and their children, Zora and Jason, are African-American. Rather, they are, apparent from their trappings, simply upper middle class. The one exception, which also informs that Gabe has been to college, is the Howard University sweatshirt he wears throughout the harrowing proceedings. However, while those of an analytical bent may read more or less into it than Peale himself intended, the symbolism of the plot’s two entities, one fulfilled, the other deprived, lends itself handily to a cornucopia of sociological conjecture.

 

That said, whether frightened or not by the often gruesome goings-on as the duplicates invade the Wilsons’s summer manse, we are soon put in the uncomfortable, bloodthirsty position of rooting for our previously happy family to kill the interlopers by any means possible. All thoughts of political correctness go flying out the window when it comes to movie demons. You’re free to hate, hate, hate as much as your blood pressure will allow.

 

But of course, muddled as the message may be, the parable at play here suggests that guilt for being a Have in a world teeming with Have-Nots is in order. Whether you can do something about it aside from being a human sacrifice is another matter. The visitants’ steady, petrifying encroachment, oblivious to all beseeching, seems hell-bent on revenge and not remediation.

 

Making all this illusoriness as real as your suspension of disbelief deems acceptable, Lupita Nyong’o earns a gold star as both Adelaide Wilson and Red, while Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson and Abraham is also commendable in his double duty stint. And, doing their fair share of representing the typical American family and its evil alter ego, both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are aces as the kids.

 

Granted, the “scare me, scare me” crowd may be disappointed by the dearth of old-fashioned, unremitting shocks to body and soul. But if one gives serious thought to this feature-length affirmation of cartoon pundit Walt Kelly’s theorem that we have met the enemy and he is “Us,” it’s probably the scariest prospect of all.

“Us,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Jordan Peale and stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Shahadi Wright Joseph. Running time: 116 minutes