REVIEW: “Minding the Gap”

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Filmmaker Bing Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois a struggling city of approximately 150,000 people. At 14 he was given his first video camera and almost immediately he began making his first short films. At age 19 he began a project concentrating on growing up in the skateboarding community. This would become “Minding the Gap”, now an Oscar-nominated documentary which is anything but ‘another skateboarding movie’.

For Liu “Minding the Gap” is a deeply personal exploration. He serves as director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer, but his deeper connection is with the subject matter itself. The film revolves around three friends: Keire, Zack, and Bing. The film’s deftly shot opening shows the friends skateboarding across a seemingly vacant downtown Rockford. We quickly learn this is more than just social time. It’s their time to release and escape from the hands life has dealt them.

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A heartbreaking through-line becomes evident the more we get to know these three young men. Keire is African-American and sports a million dollar smile and an infectious personality. But beneath the surface he struggles with troubling memories of his late father who, despite their complex past, Keire misses greatly. He’s such an endearing person and your heart aches for him.

Zack is a bit of a wild-child with an unhealthy love for alcohol. His edgy and reckless lifestyle was his response to growing up with a cruel and oppressive father. But he smacks headfirst into reality after his girlfriend Nina finds out she’s pregnant. Liu’s camera careful documents Zack’s attempted transition from rebellious rowdy to responsible father.

Later Liu brings his own personal story into focus revealing that he too was the victim of an abusive father. For Liu making the film is a means of catharsis and it opens up an opportunity for him to reckon with his painful childhood. His story seamlessly intertwines with the others making each feel distinct and personal yet all part of a single powerful and moving theme.

You can’t say enough about the film’s subtle transformation from an observational study of young adulthood to a piercing examination of domestic abuse and its lasting effects. Liu displays such control of his vision and a good sense of how to bring it all together. He shows it most in the editing room (alongside co-editor Joshua Altman) where they cut through nearly twelve years of footage yet still create something strikingly intimate.

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I doubt “Minding the Gap” would be as effective without fully embracing the cinĂ©ma vĂ©ritĂ© approach. The rawness of Liu’s images and the bare, unrestrained conversations are purely organic and sole-baring. There are instances where Liu is perhaps so dedicated to allowing things to play out naturally that people suffer as a result. It poses an interesting question of how much a filmmaker (particularly a documentarian) should get involved when he/she knows something bad has happened. And how much (if any) responsibility lies at their feet? This was a question I still struggle with concerning a couple of the film’s darker moments.

Still, there’s no denying the emotional gut-punch “Minding the Gap” packs. It’s all about the heart-breaking struggles of Keire, Zack, and Liu and the different life paths each of them travel. Will they be able the mend the wounds of past abuse? Will they repeat the sins of their fathers? It can all be pretty tough to watch. But just when we need it, we’re given one of those freeing skateboarding sequences – beautifully shot and full of smiles, laughter and energy. They offer us glimmers of hope for these young men, so full of life yet burdened by their pasts and uncertain of their futures.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Miss Bala” (2019)

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I found the very concept of “Miss Bala” to be promising. It’s a female-driven crime-thriller with a predominantly Latino cast and crew built around an interesting story premise and with plenty of big action. I found myself genuinely hopeful and rooting for the movie to offer a new and unique point of view.

We certainly get glimpses of that as director Catherine Hardwicke tries to walk the line between fresh and conventional. For the most part she succeeds. To my surprise “Miss Bala” isn’t wall-to-wall action with story beats only meant to move us to the next set piece. Instead Hardwicke and writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer give more attention to storytelling than to bullet-soaked bravado. If only the script had covered all its bases.

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The film stars Gina Rodriguez who gives a truly eye-opening performance. She plays Gloria, an ambitious make-up artist working in Los Angeles. She heads to Tijuana, Mexico to visit and help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. The trouble starts when the two friends go to a swanky nightclub in hopes of making connections with some of the pageant bigwigs. A shootout breaks out, Suzu disappears and Gloria finds herself in the clutches of a ruthless boy band…..errr… drug gang.

The leader of this young and often shirtless band of hoodlums is Lino (Ismael Cruz CĂłrdova). He tells Gloria he’ll help her find Suzu but first she has to do some jobs for him (not that she really has a choice in the matter). At the same time the DEA gets wind of her and demands she works as their mole in Lino’s gang in exchange for their protection. Gloria ends up a pawn between two warring groups and must play both sides in order to stay alive.

“Miss Bala” is most effective when it centers on Gloria’s quest to survive in a world dominated by devious, power-hungry men. Rodriguez sells fear and dread at the perfect temperature. Her emotions ring true and every action she takes feels as though they are coming from a real place. In other words she is no female take on John Rambo. Hardwicke’s perspective always keeps her humanity in focus.

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Where the film falls short is in its characterization of its villains. First off it never goes as deep as it should in describing who these violent baddies are. Does the strangely dreamy Lino and his goons work for a cartel? Are they middlemen or do they run the show? The other group is just as undefined – generic corrupt politicians somehow linked to a sex trafficking ring. It also doesn’t help that most of them are as smart as a bag of rocks.

“Miss Bala” lacks the edge you would expect from this type of movie and its story plays out in the most implausible way. I also think you could argue that the film comes a little to close to glamorizing gang life. But Rodriguez is really good and she’s given just enough to keep us invested in her and her survival despite the pieces around her sometimes falling short. She ends up being enough for me to recommend the film while at the same team fully realizing it could have been a lot better.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Mule”

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Even at the spry young age of of 88 Clint Eastwood remains a captivating presence behind the camera and especially on the movie screen. With “The Mule” he shows he still has the acting chops to carry a movie and he’s still a solid director who can tell a good story even if the material isn’t always up to snuff.

“The Mule” is based on a 2014 New York Times article by Sam Dolnick. It detailed the crazy true story of 90-Year-Old Leo Sharp and his life as one of the most prolific drug mules in history. For over ten years Sharp transported thousands of pounds of cocaine across the country for the Sinaloa Cartel. The article was adapted by screenwriter Nick Schenk who previously worked with Eastwood on “Gran Torino”.

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Eastwood plays Earl Stone (inspired by Leo Sharp), an esteemed horticulturist known for his award-winning daylilies. But with the rise of the internet Earl finds his once bustling greenhouse out of business. His family wants nothing to do with him after years of neglect save his soon-to-be-married granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl’s ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) aren’t as forgiving and with good reason.

Broke and estranged, Earl takes the job of a “mule” for a Mexican cartel. Several successful runs later, he finds himself rolling in cash and in good standing with the the cartel boss (Andy Garcia). He hopes to use his newfound wealth to regain his community status and make amends with his family but finds out nothing is certain in such a dangerous and volatile business.

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We also get a parallel story of a Chicago-based DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) hungry for a big bust. This story thread follows him and his partner (Michael Peña) as they try to plug the flow of drugs into the city. It’s inevitable that they and Earl eventually cross paths, the trailer tells us as much. Interesting idea but unfortunately everything about their investigation up to that point is so restrained that it offers very little in terms of suspense or drama.

It’s tempting to go into “The Mule” expecting a tense crime thriller. That’s certainly how the trailer frames it. There are moments of that, but ultimately this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s all about a man running from his guilt, seeing the light, but still left to reckon with the choices he has made. It’s this primary focus that makes “The Mule” work. And don’t let his age fool you, Clint Eastwood remains a fascinating and immensely watchable presence.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Malevolent” (2018)

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In the new Netflix Original “Malevolent” siblings Angela (Florence Pugh) and Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) own and operate Sayers Medium Service. It’s basically a paranormal racket where they dupe grieving clients into believing they can communicate with their loved ones or in some cases drive out their ghosts. I bet you can already see where this is going.

The story is set in 1986 Glasgow. I’m not really sure about the significance of 1986 other than it conveniently rules out cellphones and it forces the twenty-something hucksters to use older (and potentially spookier) recording equipment when pulling off their ruse. Regardless, Angela is contacted by Mrs. Green (a very good Celia Imrie) who lives in a creepy old foster home she once ran. Mrs. Green claims ghosts of the little girls haunt the home and she desperately wants them silenced.

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Angela turns down the job as she is growing more and more uncomfortable with their scam. After a little haggling over some old family baggage, Jackson calls Mrs. Green back and promptly accepts. Turns out he owes money to some pretty bad dudes and is in quick need of some cash. Along with their cameraman Elliot (Scott Chambers) and equipment operator Beth (Georgina Bevan) the siblings head to Mrs. Green’s remote and fittingly spooky place.

To no viewer’s surprise there is something freaky going on at Mrs. Green’s foster home. Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur leans on a handful of conventional horror tropes but wisely he never fully relies on them. Instead he toys with us about what we are seeing. Is it psychological or in fact ghostly? That question lingers until the macabre final act that feels slightly at odds tonally but admittedly fun and satisfying.

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Another strength is Pugh’s performance. She is the film’s emotional center and asked to carry that load throughout the movie. She’s an impressive young actress as evident by her work in 2016’s highly acclaimed “Lady Macbeth”. Here the camera puts a lot of its focus on her. The material doesn’t allow for a particularly dynamic performance but she is still consistently good.

While “Malevolent” does a lot of things right I still wouldn’t call it a game-changer or even particularly fresh. But several smart decisions turns it into a surprisingly effective genre movie. And in a day when really bad horror movies are churned out by the dozens, “Malevolent” does stand out. So perhaps it’s a little bit fresher than I’m giving it credit for.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Meg”

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One of the good things about seeing “The Meg” is that you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get. I give the filmmakers credit for not even attempting to hide what they are going for – goofy, preposterous and a whole lot of Jason Statham. It all comes down to whether it has enough fun, humor and self-awareness to keep us onboard.

Statham plays Jonas Taylor, the former head of a deep sea rescue team now ostracized after a mission goes terribly bad. Now, instead of saving people, he spends his days off the grid boozing in Thailand.

Meanwhile a billion dollar research station 200 miles off the coast of China discovers a new ecosystem below the floor of the Mariana Trench. A team descends to explore the discovery but are attacked by something really, really big leaving them stranded and with limited life support. That’s enough to bring back the blackballed Jonas to attempt a daring rescue.

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“The Meg” opens a bit slowly with the rescue mission which introduces the cast of characters and reveals the not-so-surprising threat. It’s a Megalodon, the mother of all sharks and thought to be extinct for 2 million years. The rescue attempt inadvertently unleashes the beast (gulp) and its up to the team to find a way to stop it. But as Jonas proclaims in one of my favorite cheesy lines “Man versus meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter”. Truer (and cornier) words have never been said.

The second half features director Jon Turteltaub fully embracing the 1950’s monster B-movie blueprint. Things get more absurd, the special effects get a lot bigger, and the story gets even more predictable. That’s not to say it isn’t fun. There are plenty of big popcorn movie moments and silly over-the-top action. And just when you think it’s taking itself too seriously, in drops a timely cheesy line of dialogue or a particularly goofy sequence.

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A pretty good supporting cast helps navigate the film’s megalodon infested waters. Li Bingbing plays headstrong oceanographer Suyin who runs the research station with her father played by Winston Chao. Rainn “The Office” Wilson pops as the station’s billionaire financier and hit-or-miss comic relief. Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose and a handful of others fill out the cadre of potential shark food.

While “The Meg” doesn’t exactly burst out of the gate and its balance between serious and self-aware is sometimes off, it still manages to do what it intends. Within its ocean of cliches, one-liners, and ridiculous man vs. sea monster set pieces is a fun and often hilarious bit of throwaway entertainment. Pay no attention to its attempts at feeling and romance. Just stay for the shark and the goofiness that ensues. That was enough for me.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

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What started as a successful but slightly schizophrenic pet project has evolved into one of my very favorite movie franchises. Aside from the common thread of their high-profile star, the first three “Mission Impossible” installments couldn’t feel more different. It was mainly due to having three very different directors, each with their own unique stamp. While I enjoyed each of them to varying degrees, it was still tough to put a finger on what the series wanted to be.

That started to change with “Ghost Protocol” from director #4 Brad Bird. It put pieces in place and set the table for director #5 Christopher McQuarrie and what would be the best “MI” movie to date. “Rogue Nation” not only felt connected to its predecessor beyond Tom Cruise’s presence, but it was incredibly well made and left audiences with a much clearer vision of what the franchise is shooting for.

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Fans of “Rogue Nation” rejoice. Christopher McQuarrie breaks the revolving director trend and returns for “Fallout”, a movie that ups the ante in terms of breathtaking action yet still tells a thrilling story that well serves its fabulous band of characters.

McQuarrie has been working towards “Fallout”, building its framework for several films now. He did uncredited rewrites for “Ghost Protocol”, co-wrote “Rogue Nation”, and handles the entire script for “Fallout”. This is his baby and he knocks it out of the park. Of course Cruise returns along with mainstays Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Also back is Rebecca Ferguson who debuted and stole the show in “Rogue Nation”.

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In a prologue 56-year-old (but far from looking it) Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is informed that three plutonium cores have been stolen by a terrorist group calling themselves The Apostles. They are an offshoot of the Syndicate (see “Rogue Nation”) ran by a mystery man named John Lark. Ethan calls in his IMF cohorts, the neurotic Benji (Pegg) and easy-going Luther (Rhames), to help regain the cores, but the mission goes awry and the plutonium heads to the black market.

Ethan is able to track the plutonium to Paris where a transaction is set to take place near the Grand Palais. Before he can head that way freshly christened CIA Director Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take along Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA ‘observer’ and Sloane’s own personal “hammer”. Basically he’s sent to make sure the mission succeeds whatever the cost. As Cavill says in his wriest and driest voice “That’s the job.”

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If you follow the series you know the story can’t possible stay in one location. In addition to Paris we make stops in Belfast, London, even Kashmir (played by Norway). Along the way we get a white-knuckled motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe, a foot race across London rooftops (which actually resulted in Cruise breaking his ankle), a mind-blowing helicopter duel through the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, just to name a few. The action sequences are nothing short of exhilarating, mostly done through traditional stunt work and practical effects. The touches of CGI make a handful of scenes even more breathtaking. And what’s best is McQuarrie shoots them with visual coherence. No indecipherable shaky cams and quick cuts. It’s something to behold.

But “Fallout” is more that credits-to-credits action. McQuarrie threads these sequences together with a classic-style spy story full of twists, double-crosses, intersecting plotlines and of course one big nuclear threat. In the middle of it all is returning “Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), an anarchist with a personal axe to grind with the current world order and with Ethan Hunt. His two-headed mantra “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace” is just as much directed at Ethan as to the world system. Adding another kink is the resurfacing of Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), once out of the game but now back in and with her own mysterious agenda.

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McQuarrie moves us through his wonderfully knotty plot at a crackling pace, tossing us enough twists and turns to ensure there is no downtime for measuring if every piece lines up perfectly. But it’s smart enough to keep us locked in and constantly guessing. And Cruise remains the heart of the franchise. His insane physicality and daredevil willingness to risk life and limb for every shot has never been more evident. But it’s the character-centric moments that speak volumes. He’s still a vulnerable hero, even a bit naĂŻve. And more than any other “M:I” installment, “Fallout” centralizes his unshakable moral code as key component of not just this film but the entire series.

“Mission: Impossible” continues to be the rare film franchise that actually gets better with age. “Fallout” makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel. Instead it takes the best elements of its predecessors and then cranks the dial past 10. Cruise and company’s ability to consistently up their game has culminated in this action movie masterclass that earns every ounce of acclaim it’s getting. Knowing their history I’m definitely onboard for more. But if the next movie’s mission, should they choose to accept it, is to top “Fallout” it could truly prove to be impossible.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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