‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ Review: A sweet friendship is formed while on the run

This review was originally published on KENS5.com and can be viewed here. 

 

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” was made for August. The movie, a soulful gem about the connection between a man with Down Syndrome and someone who believes his future has been discarded by his past, has a dog-days-of-summer feel to it—it’s unvarnished by needless complexity and through-lined with a potent tenderness as deeply felt as the humid environments Zak and Tyler walk, swim and float through on their journey.

At a time when young filmmakers are churning out ambitious genre fare, directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (also the film’s writers) have opted for the simple and endearing in their feature debut, the kind of American tale with a remarkable warmth that shines in its attraction to the seemingly unremarkable.

One of the more prominent roles by an actor with Down Syndrome in recent years, Zack Gottsagen plays Zak in “Peanut Butter Falcon” with enough energy to keep the lights on at a power plant. But at movie’s start, Zak can only focus that energy on one thing—breaking out of the assisted living facility he’s forced to stay in. Continue reading →

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“Alternate Endings” Review: HBO doc chronicles contemporary ways of approaching death, and of meeting it

This review was originally published on KENS5.com and can be viewed here. 

 

“I’m here for my daddy: Adam. He used to tell mommy to shoot him into space when he dies!”

The confidant joy with which a young boy says that to a room full of strangers in “Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America” is the thesis of the new HBO documentary from co-directors Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz. A movie about the unmistakably modern ways people are choosing to approach the end of their life – explored through six individual vignettes – O’Neill and Peltz succeed in encouraging us to have conversations about the inevitability of our last days and, more poignantly, showing that we can be the ones to begin that conversation instead of leaving it to our loved ones after we’ve already passed.

It’s a disquietly tradition-breaking idea, something the unassumingly straightforward “Alternate Endings” makes note of at the start. The movie explains that unorthodox methods of memorialization – ranging from the environmentally-conscious to the completely strange, and sometimes going off with a literal bang of a rocket – have disrupted a funeral business that rakes in $16 billion a year. That’s the sole statistic in a documentary fueled by empathy, appearing during a prologue set in a funeral convention (yes, really) where marching bands play alongside displayed coffins, cemetery brochures have the sunny disposition of open house catalogs and morbidity is a corporate commodity. Continue reading →

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Review: Some ghoulish fun with enticing ideas

From its opening moments, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes the nightmarish bluntness of its title – also the name of the yestercentury horror anthology series that inspired it – to heart, painting with broody aesthetics a late-1960s suburbia ripe for treachery, murder and spooky goings-on. Much in the vein of Guillermo del Toro, that master of the macabre and dark fantasy here lending his post-Oscar victory hand as producer, it’s a touch of the supernatural that brings the terror lurking underneath beds and in the twistedly imaginative minds of young children to the fore.

I didn’t have the experience of staying up all night fervid and sweaty after reading the novelettes the movie is based on, but judging from the legacy of a series that managed to puncture pop culture in a slightly darker vein than “Goosebumps,” this André Øvredal-directed adaptation is a more or less faithful recreation of its more intimate brushes with terror, of the isolation in anticipating some neglected evil incarnate that has its sights set on you and only you (the familiar concept of “It Follows” may owe something to Alvin Schwartz’s imagination). Early on in “Scary Stories,” however, these frights – appropriate as a supposed gateway horror for younger audiences, but it’s not like many of them won’t also be absorbing the upcoming, much more sinister “IT” sequel – barely function beyond the borders that contain them in specific scenes. Continue reading →

Review: In “The Farewell,” a drawn-out funeral is disguised as a shotgun wedding

The emotionally resonant and sharply-written “The Farewell” is so laser-focused on deconstructing the dichotomies woven into its narrative – individuals and society, emotions and gulfs, love and pain – yet the most acute yin/yang in this semi-autobiographical wonder of a movie from Lulu Wang is of the purely filmmaking kind: The movie is tantalizingly patient, unfolding with ease and confidence despite its foundational plot – the end of a life – calling for anything but patience, ease or confidence.

Yet the movie’s penchant for pensiveness, balanced by a kind of humorous caliber of caustic wit that’s universal in its domesticity, feels utterly appropriate for Wang’s movie, which feels like no less than a landmark in cross-cultural storytelling—and a too-rare example of a story that transcends the limits of its medium by acknowledging it shouldn’t try to meet them. Continue reading →

Review: “Yesterday” is a vapid excuse to listen to pop’s greatest songs

If the works of The Beatles are integral to a movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t acknowledges it, do The Beatles make a sound?

That ends up, unintentionally, being the thought-experiment driving the vastly underwhelming “Yesterday,” rather than its elevator pitch for the ages: What if you, a struggling musician, woke up to a world in which The Fab Four never existed? Directed by the typically-reliable Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is a two-hour long and winding road through two stories with clashing styles and sympathies, yet the most confounding thing about this project – one that would’ve worked better as either a 3,000-word experiment in “The Atlantic” or an 8-episode Netflix experience – is that neither justifies the existence of the other. Continue reading →

Review: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” examines a city and a friendship through the lens of identity

There are many moments in Joe Talbot’s new film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” in which serene sequences you expect to be able to sink into – the focused painting of a windowsill, the playing of a piano, the beginning of a life-affirming speech – are shattered all-too-early, interrupted by reality. And reality, in this movie, is a thing to reckon with at every street corner; its most enticing versions are manufactured, or else the ugliest of situations are dressed in bright optimism destined to burn out before we’d had a chance to prepare for it.

The film is one of the more hopeful stories of hopelessness I’ve ever seen. It’s stuffed with a Wes Andersian air of whimsy and engrossing shots of a city mired in gentrification, but also brimming with an urban melancholy spray-painted on the walls of commercial manifest destiny—though you wouldn’t know it by the pair of best friends at the movie’s center, its beating heart. Continue reading →

Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. Continue reading →

Review: In “Avengers: Endgame,” the MCU takes a victory lap and a moment to reflect

For how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven its willingness to be malleable in its storytelling, to allow filmmakers to both shape and expand what we categorize as a superhero movie, finality is something it’s never really concerned itself with.

Post-credits scenes, cameos and cross-pollination have become as much a characteristic of these films as tight spandex and daddy issues. We used to see individual superheroes exclusively on the frontlines of their own big-screen stories – Tobey Maguire never web-slung across the city alongside the Human Torch – but that’s become a relic of yesterdecade with the MCU’s steadily calculated erasure of narrative borders because of, and in service to, an overarching narrative that only began to become clear several films into the MCU’s existence.

Continue reading →

Review: ‘Hail, Satan?’ is an unexpectedly timely rejection of a toxic hive-mind mentality

The title of “Hail Satan?” is presented as a question. But from the viewpoint of this documentary on the contemporary non-theistic, activist movement that is the Satanic Temple, and the everyday people who run it, it’s pretty clear-cut – perhaps to the point of ironic confirmation, more likely to the point of semi-existential shock – who can or can’t legitimately call themselves a Satanist. At least by the temple’s definition.

The inquiry is much more affirming than you’d probably expect, and after just a few minutes you realize it would generate more rigorous self-reflection to ask yourself something along the lines of: “Do I want to get up and make myself a sandwich right now?”

Continue reading →

Una poca de gracia: Lou Diamond Phillips on his breakout turn as Ritchie Valens

[This article was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.]

SAN ANTONIO — Search the internet for video evidence of Ritchie Valens’s iconic-but-all-too-brief career as a Latino rock pioneer, and you’d find yourself searching for hours.

In fact, there’s only one bit of footage that’s easily found on YouTube—a brief performance by Valens in the 1959 movie “Go, Johnny, Go” that sees him crooning to some club-goers. That film is only 75 minutes long, features the likes of Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, and was released four months after Valens died in a tragic plane crash at just 17 years old.

The real-life story of Valens was over right as its second chapter was beginning. But its first has had such a profound impact on pop culture – specifically the timely infusion of Chicano influence into rock ‘n roll as the genre was beginning to blossom – that it’s easy to forget the California musician’s professional career lasted less than a full year.

That brevity also made things a bit difficult for the young actor who would portray Valens 28 years after his death in the film named after his biggest hit, “La Bamba.”

Continue reading →