Miranda July Shows Us What It’s Like to Try to Become a ‘Kajillionaire’

1 Comment

Kajillionaire (CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez

Director: Miranda July

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for A Kajillionaire’s Worth of Language and Sexual References

Release Date: September 25, 2020 (Select Theaters)

Everyone wants to be a kajillionaire, isn’t that true? We simply won’t be satisfied until we reach that level of nonsensical wealth. That’s the driving premise behind Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire, which tells the story of a family of emotionally stunted scam artists trying to pull off their next big heist. As this movie demonstrates, the environments that we grow up in can lead us to behave in certain ways that look positively insane to outsiders. Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) sure looks resentful of the shenanigans her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) wrangle her into, but she doesn’t really know any other way to live.

I’ve been practicing a movie review routine lately in which I judge the success of the movie by whether or not it makes me want to do the thing that it’s about. So then, does Kajillionaire make me want to be a kajillionaire? Not particularly, thank you, I’m perfectly fine with earning just enough cash to be comfortable. But if I dig a little deeper, what I really should be asking is: would I like to make that cheddar by running confidence games with my family? I can see the kookiness of the appeal, which I’m sure the Dyne family and July would be glad to hear. But at a certain point, I need a foundation of logic and economic stability in my life. I think Gina Rodriguez’s character can relate. She plays Melanie, an audience surrogate type who’s a big fan of the Ocean’s 11 films and gets recruited by the Dynes during a turbulent plane ride and just has plenty of fun with the whole theatricality of their schemes. But eventually things get a little sloppy and way too much to handle for anyone with a decent amount of emotional maturity.

The limits of my particular reviewing strategy are obvious with movies like Kajillionaire when it’s clear that they’re not exactly advertising the behavior on display. But July does have a knack for generating empathy in a way that can make you wonder if you actually would like us to emulate her lead characters as they navigate their wacky and thorny situations. For Old Dolio, continuing to live with her parents doesn’t just mean continuously navigating an existence outside the law, it also means a living situation that involves renting an empty office space that keeps getting flooded with bubbles. And it further means reckoning with an “apology” in the form of receiving a set of presents for all the birthdays her mom and dad missed. So let me refine my question once more: do I want to live life on the edge and then ultimately find the wherewithal to strike out on my own as much as is necessary for my own mental health (as Old Dolio ultimately must)? Maybe for a couple of hours.

Kajillionaire is Recommended If You Like: Weirdo names, Baggy tracksuits, Random bouts of limbo

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Tremors

Movie Review: Gina Rodriguez Enlivens the Otherwise By-the-Numbers ‘Miss Bala’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Columbia Pictures

Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Anthony Mackie, Aislinn Derbez, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Thomas Dekker

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Drug Trafficking, Violence Shot Far Enough Away That You Don’t See the Worst of It, and Nudity Covered Up by Towels and Shower Steam

Release Date: February 1, 2019

What if you found yourself embroiled in a series of criminal activities because some bad actors forced you to do their bidding, and you somehow made it out alive? Would you think that this is a sign that you should transform yourself into a full-time badass? Would you maybe even suspect that the whole thing was engineered as a training exercise? This is the ringer that Gloria Meyer (Gina Rodriguez) goes through, and anyone watching Miss Bala (a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name) cannot possibly be anything but impressed by her resourcefulness and gumption.

Gloria is a makeup artist living in Los Angeles who heads south of the border to Tijuana to make her friend Suzu’s (Cristina Rodlo) face a work of art to help her win a beauty pageant. But then a trip to the nightclub leads to a disorienting succession of gunfire, kidnapping, and irreversible new life paths. As Gloria attempts to find Suzu after the two get separated, a drug cartel grabs a hold of her and forces her to do their dirty work. Then the DEA gets their paws on her as well, offering a potential chance to escape this predicament, though the price will not exactly be cheap. She quickly realizes that within the arena of the drug war, nobody really has her back. But as this is a star vehicle for Rodriguez, you know that Gloria will some way, somehow, emerge alive and on top. By the end, you might wonder if this was all a simulation designed to test her mettle, but that conclusion would ignore how chaotic the whole ordeal is, and the filmmaking makes it clear that her survival is never a guarantee.

Miss Bala hits hard as a character study, but it is fairly standard-issue as an action film. Gloria’s psychological development is abundantly present all over the screen, and there are few actors who can combine steely commitment and vulnerability the way that Rodriguez does. Director Catherine Hardwicke has a knack for getting her actors exactly where they need to be, but when it comes to the particular demands of the genre, she plays it safe. That means a standard-issue rough-and-tumble (though thankfully not too frenetic) editing style and a thrum-thrum-thrum score that sounds like it came from the stock music catalogue. So Miss Bala hardly reinvents the wheel, but it’s worth it to see Rodriguez’s face light up when she realizes that she’s a winner, baby.

Miss Bala is Recommended If You Like: Jane the Virgin but wish it had more drug trafficking storylines

Grade: 3 out of 5 Survival Tactics

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Smallfoot’ is a Bighearted, Non-Abominable Delight

2 Comments

CREDIT: Warner Bros. Animation

This review was originally publshed on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Yara Shahidi

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Falling Thousands of Feet with Few Lasting Consequences

Release Date: September 28, 2018

A surefire formula in storytelling is the whole ol’ switcheroo. Taking a timeworn trope and turning its perspective inside out has proven to be valuable on many occasions. Smallfoot runs with that idea, getting a lot of mileage out of reversing its approach to a common myth. It does not just presuppose a world in which Yeti do exist, but one in which there is an entire race of them with their own advanced society. Furthermore, to the Yeti, the existence of humans is the stuff of legends, thus the moniker of the mythical “Smallfoot.” It’s not the most profound premise, but it’s delightful enough to tickle those in the mood for wonder.

It all comes down to, as so many of these animated jaunts do, an interspecies friendship. Migo (Channing Tatum) is a Yeti on the verge of taking on some adult Yeti responsibility when his world rocked by the appearance of a creature with a less-than-gigantic footprint. He proceeds to venture down below the clouds to find the truth behind this encounter, which is when his path crosses with Percy Patterson (James Corden), a nature TV host desperate to restore his popularity. Both man and beast can speak intelligently, but Migo’s words sound like growls to Percy, and Percy’s sound like squeaks to Migo. Yet somehow a connection is forged, and the repartee is quite charming from Tatum and Corden, as well as Zendaya as a fellow Yeti who is especially enthusiastic about the existence of Smallfoots. Providing the ominous (but also unnervingly wise) counterpoint is Common as the Stonekeeper, a Yeti elder who knows the reality of Yeti-human history but propagates an elaborate mythology designed to prevent the truth from being exposed.

As you might guess based on its genre and some of its cast members, Smallfoot is a musical, which I found to be a tad exhausting. To be fair, that is my typical reaction to musicals, what with their inherently overly dramatic manipulation of emotions, and Smallfoot‘s songs do not do much to change my mind. But there is one number rapped by Common that wonderfully reveals the foundation of Yeti society and serves as the crux of the film. The tension driving the best moments of Smallfoot are all about being lost (or not quite lost) in translation. The fear and anticipation mixed up by this inherent confusion leads to a bunch of hijinks and a lot of intrigue and ultimately an attempt at peace and integration that offers hope that this motley world can make it with all of its mixed-up parts working together.

Smallfoot is Recommended If You Like: The search for Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, Happy Feet, Storks

Grade: 3 out of 5 Footprints

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Hybrid

3 Comments

CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

Director: Alex Garland

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Gator-Shark Attacks, Giant Bear Attacks, Swirling Intestines, and a Little Bit of Nookie

Release Date: February 23, 2018

Annihilation needs you to trust that sometimes disorientation can be good. Or at least, that it can be exciting. I will admit that disorientation does not necessarily work out so well for this film’s characters. The relative safety afforded the audience in vicariously experiencing this vexing and dangerous journey makes secondhand disorientation easier to defend. But still, I think the message here is the same for both participants and observers: venturing into the confusion is how to make the spectacle happen.

Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) ever since he took off for a highly classified military expedition a year ago, when suddenly he just reappears in their house one day. But Kane has essentially no memory of what happened, and it is clear soon enough that there is so much of his mission left to complete. So Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her and her team of scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to trek into Area X, the coastal location that Kane and many others have gotten lost in, and figure out what the hell is going on there.

I do not recall Annihilation specifying the exact geographical location of Area X. It is possible it did and I just missed it, which can happen when a film mentions a significant detail only briefly. But in this case it is appropriate that I would miss such a detail, whether or not it was actually omitted. Area X is surrounded by a liquidy substance, or perhaps “presence” is a better word, referred to as “a shimmer,” which disorients anyone who approaches or moves through it. When Ventress and her crew first awake in the area, they seem to have immediately lost days, maybe even weeks. If we as an audience feel like we are missing just as many details as they are, then writer/director Alex Garland is probably pulling off what he set out to do. What awaits all of us is a world of wonders that can be explained by science, even though science says they should be impossible.

Flowers of clearly different species are growing on the same branches. The team is attacked by a gator with shark teeth. Plants in the shape of walking humans have sprung up. Eventually these ladies recognize their own blood and DNA swirling and transforming. These combinations are supposed to be fundamentally incompatible according to life as we know it. Lena’s on-the-fly theorizing of this continuous mutation works as a sort of explanation of how mythical hybrid creatures or the monstrosities from genre films could come to exist if they were to exist in reality.

The crew confronts Area X and its inhabitants with a mix of paranoia, wonder, fatalism, and determination. Considering the constant transformation inherent to this setting, it could be argued that all or none or some indefinable combination of these approaches is the right plan of action. Appropriately, it is all rendered by a design and effects team inspiring awe on a thoroughly devastating scale. The lush greenery is both beautiful and explosive. The music, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is unnerving and entrancing, including a set of reverberating notes that the trailer has already made famous. This intoxicating mix also offers up a series of killer set pieces, including a riff on The Thing’s notorious blood test scene, but featuring the main animal from a creature feature imbued with the Freddy Krueger-style power to maintain the dying cries of its victims.

Annihilation hits that sci-fi sweet spot of a confusing, complicated premise that ultimately explains itself, but not in a way that betrays its intricacies or ambitions, or makes matters particularly comforting. This is visionary cinema, flourishing and fully realizing itself from glorious setup to perfect ending.

Annihilation is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, 2001, Fringe, Cronenbergian body horror, The design elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulholland Drive

Grade: 5 out of 5 Shimmers

This Is a Movie Review: Ferdinand is Not Your Typical Bull, But ‘Ferdinand’ is Your Typical CG-Animated Kids Movie

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, Jerrod Carmichael, Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe, Sally Phillips, Lily Day, Juanes, Jeremy Sisto

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Destruction Wrought by a Bull Who Refuses to Accept How Big He Is

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Based on Robert Lawson’s 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, the Blue Sky animated film Ferdinand is all about one of the most massive bulls in all of Spain. He is a beyond-perfect physical specimen for bullfighting, and in this country it goes without saying that calves spend their youths obsessing about the day they will get to face off against the matadors. But Ferdinand does not have the same pugnacious instinct as his peers. He would much rather spend his days on the farm, sniffing flowers, scarfing down carrots, and just hanging out with the preteen girl who dotes on him. But in a world that sees him as a beast, he must find a way to reconcile his hulking physicality with who he is on the inside.

Ferdinand the film, however, does not stick out from the pack as much as its titular character does. Its message of staying true to yourself is de rigueur in kids’ fare, and the CG animation, while certainly professional, does not pull off any truly lasting images. Thus, it lives and dies on the strength of its voice cast and the laugh-generating power of its gags. John Cena’s giant teddy bear persona is the correct vibe for Ferdinand, while Kate McKinnon is just right as the goat sidekick she’s versatile enough that she probably could have voiced any or all of the characters if the Ferdinand casting crew had been in the mood for that). While everyone else is at least adequate, the only significant standout is David Tennant as a heavily accented Scottish bull. Regarding the chuckles, there is some amusement to be had, as when Ferdinand sucks a caterpillar up his nose and sneezes it out as a butterfly or when the mostly blind owner of a china shop mistakes his tail for a feather duster.

Ferdinand also touches upon the fate of the bulls who are not deemed worthy of the bullfighting ring. I’m talking about the chop shop. This raises the question: are all films about talking animals secretly vegetarian propaganda? And if so, is that always, sometimes, or never intentional? A frequent, nigh-unavoidable trope of this genre is the slaughter that is just around the corner from failure or carelessness. When your lead character is an animal whose meat is favored by carnivores and omnivores, it is only natural to draw sympathy out of the threat of being eaten. Efforts to remain kid-friendly often result in daring escapes from pulverization as moments of triumph, and that is very much the case here. I do not mean to make a moral judgment one way or the other, but instead offer a philosophical pondering: are vegetarians drawn into working in the talking animal film business, or does the talking animal film business make its workers vegetarian?

Ferdinand is Recommended If You Like: Every Talking Animal Movie Ever

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 “Macarena”-Playing Flowerpots