Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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Ethan Hawke plays the pastor of a small, historically significant church--a man who appears on the surface to be intelligent, gifted and devoted to his faith. But he's actually in the grip of existential despair, drinking heavily and borderline suicidal. He takes up the cause of radical environmentalism, partly inspired by the suicidal husband of a congregant, and seems on the verge of a deadly mission. For most of the film, Hawke plays the role with restraint and deep conviction, and the somber visual style is very effective. The script by director Paul Schrader is literate and philosophical, superior to his more famous script for "Taxi Driver," with its wild and mostly improbable emotional swings. But in the final scenes, the reverend comes unwound and the emotional explosions are a mix of overwrought and ridiculous. (By then, the film has begun to play games with a kind of fantasy life in the reverend's psyche, but I think we have to accept the final scenes as being actual more than imagined.) It seems that Schrader can't resist hyper-drama and the excesses of a loner character in turmoil. This could have been a much stronger movie without such overdone dramatic paroxysms.
It's difficult to rate this documentary that tries to make a case for the extraordinary humanity of Fred Rogers and his attempts to create a more caring world through children. I never watched the show when it first appeared on TV, thinking it very Pollyanna and lame. But watching the documentary makes me at least appreciate the good heart that seems genuine in Fred Rogers, and I think it probably benefited many younger children who watched it religiously. The right-wing extremists shown in the film when they later blasted Rogers for supposedly creating entitled and narcissistic young people--this is so deranged and hateful that it's disgusting. As for the film itself, it's somewhat modest, limited and only partly successful. But it does call our attention to a man who stood out from virtually everyone else in our society, who seemed uncommonly devoted to cultivating the best in children and all of us.
This film isn't just bad, it's atrocious in almost every element of filmmaking. What makes it even more insufferable is that the film appears on numerous "best films of 2018" lists by prominent national critics. If I were a cynical guy, I might attribute that to a combination of misplaced white guilt and anxiety about maintaining one's liberal credentials. Don't misunderstand me--I'm all for confronting racism in the US, a racism that continues to this day and even has renewed political support from an unapologetic right-wing. But Spike Lee, a highly regarded director, has produced a film so amateurish, superficial, didactic, moralistic and dull that it seems to be the work of a recent film school graduate with a simple-minded script, a forced agenda combined with a total lack of vision, and a drunken butcher for an editor. The performance by lead John David Washington is decent enough but in the service of a role that is shallow and in a film that can't seem to decide between genres but does none of them well. The direction in particular is appalling--awkward scenes badly sequenced and shot, forced messaging, incoherent exposition, characters that seem to change orientation (like the police chief) without explanation, a lack of suspense or strong identification with the cartoonish characters, even oddly dim lighting and weak locations in many scenes as if to convey a dreary atmosphere in pseudo-symbolic visuals. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, emotionally strained or just flat. Topher Grace plays David Duke with no hint of real evil or charisma--just a weak affect--so it's hard to hate him as we might like. This is self-important propaganda that actually undermines its own righteous theme. A scene with Harry Belafonte describing the horrific murder of a young black man is shocking less for the brutality he recounts than for how awkward and unaffecting the entire scene is. The movie seems to end, then backtrack and sabotage itself, then tack on a jarring coda of scenes from Charlottesville--as if we would otherwise fail to see that vile racism persists. I begin to think Spike Lee does best when he has a film that doesn't tempt him into self-indulgent preaching, say like "Inside Man". Sermonizing in a film like this results in bad entertainment and insulting manipulation of the audience.
This film manages to be uplifting, sentimental, heartfelt, superficial, realistic and contrived all in one mix of mainstream entertainment. Quentin Aaron portrays Michael, the troubled and introverted boy who is big and talented at football but lost until taken in by wealthy Leigh Anne. Aaron's performance holds the movie together, when otherwise it might spin out into obnoxious or hokey sentimentality. No, Sandra Bullock isn't the key to the film's success, despite receiving an award for her performance. I consider Bullock a mediocre actress, one who tries to obscure her shallowness with stagey acting that looks just like acting. She's better than usual here, despite the one-note quality of her performance, and at times is somewhat charming as the determined surrogate mother for Michael. But she still tries to chew the scenery too much with over-acting. Her Oscar for this tell you only what a hopeless band of cheerleaders the Academy often is. The film works as much despite Bullock as because of her. If you want a tear-jerker with an inspirational message in a tidy package, this film will do nicely. It's not that deep, but it does succeed with a bit of tough love and a cookie.
This film is better than you might guess from the ridiculous % ratings shown.The synopsis of the film given on this page is wrong in several respects, and many of the pseudo-professional critics presented are also seriously off-base. That's becoming the norm for this site and for film criticism in general. This sequel is in many ways superior to the original. I thought the original "Sicario" was dramatic enough and well-acted enough to be entertaining action drama, but the kind of monotone bleakness and dour performances were a bit wearing. Emily Blunt was both unconvincing and unlikable in that first installment, so her absence is one of the blessings in the sequel. This time, the story and the characters are both more complex and nuanced, with principles Benecio Del Toro and Josh Brolin having their steely characters cracked by the circumstances to reveal more emotional depth. The inclusion of two impressive young actors also makes this new "Sicario" more intriguing as it pits the hardened warriors in a hopeless war against innocence not yet corrupted. As the Brolin character begins to see himself as more of pawn rather than a hero for a just cause, he starts to rebel a bit and find his own moral compass within a no-win situation. But again the star is Del Toro, who delivers a masterful performance that is rich, subtle and compelling-no longer just menacing, now he starts to redeem himself with emotional vulnerability. The ending clearly sets the stage for a third installment, but does so without seeming overly manipulative.