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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Jonah Hill makes his feature-directing debut using his own script with Mid90s, the best movie ever made about skater culture—and a powerful film about familial dysfunction and the need for friendship.

Sunny Suljic (The House With a Clock in Its Walls) gives a breakout performance as Stevie, a kid living in a single-parent household with a head-case older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Stevie suffers massive beatings at the hands of Ian, and causes himself further pain with self-inflicted strangulation, skin burns and pressing on the bruises Ian created. In short … the kid has some major issues.

In search of some kind of identity, Stevie grabs himself a skateboard and starts hanging around some older kids at the skate shop. They include skaters nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and a younger kid simply named Ruben (Gio Galicia), because he hasn’t earned his nickname yet.

Stevie practices at night trying to do flips. He isn’t a natural, but he’s persistent. After a strange anecdote in a conversation circle, he earns the nickname Sunburn, and it sticks. He eventually becomes part of the group, and finds a less-crazy big-brother figure in Ray (Na-kel Smith), the group’s best skater, and an employee at the skate shop. Their kinship becomes the heart of the movie, especially when Ray becomes his sole stable influence as others in the group introduce Stevie to drinking, drugs and sex.

As Stevie’s social life takes off, his home life withers, including increasing violence from Ian and communication problems with mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston of Alien: Covenant). Hill shows some beat-downs that are particularly brutal; you get a true sense that Ian is one strike away from killing his little brother. After suspecting her kid is taking drugs and drinking, Dabney marches Stevie into the skate shop and scolds the group … something the skaters take surprisingly well.

Hill does an expert job of showing how important skating and these new friends are to Stevie in his development. The director doesn’t shy away from the bad influences—influences present in just about every high-schooler’s life. Suljic proves to be the perfect pick for Stevie; he’s a solid young actor (he was also the best thing about Clock in Its Walls). He’s a short guy, but when he bests Ruben in a street fight, you believe he can take the bigger kid. He brings a lot of passion to the role.

Hedges, so damned good in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Manchester By the Sea (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), delivers the film’s best performance as the nightmare older brother. He’s a psycho, but he has a vulnerable side that’s fighting to break out behind his pained eyes. He makes a major mark in his few, strong scenes.

It’s abundantly clear that Hill possesses solid directorial chops. A scene in which Stevie goes into his brother’s room despite death threats is both foreboding and awe-inspiring (Ian keeps a mighty clean, ultra-organized room), and this is where Hill starts effectively using an excellent, moody score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. As solid as Hill’s directorial choices are, this movie wouldn’t be what it is without its score. It’s basically a character in the film.

Mid90s employs a gritty, documentary look, and while it shows some skating stunts, the actual skateboarding scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. They act more as vital flavoring. The crux of the story here is the bond between Stevie and his posse, and the strained relationships at home.

Hill, like his buddy Bradley Cooper with A Star Is Born, has given himself a solid start in the directorial world. I’m eagerly anticipating what he chooses to do next behind the camera.

Mid90s is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ridley Scott’s third Alien film is an entertaining mashup of the overreaching-but-cool sensibilities of Prometheus and the old-school dread and “Ick!” factor that made the original Alien one of the best horror and science-fiction films of the 20th century.

Alien: Covenant continues the ruminations about the origins of man birthed in Prometheus while injecting a few more Xenomorphs into the mix. It will please fans of the first two films of the franchise who want the shit scared out of them, while also appeasing those who enjoyed the brainy (if somewhat confusing and inconsistent) ways of Prometheus.

While Scott leaned harder on the horror elements here, his budget is $30 million-plus less than what he had for Prometheus. That film constituted one of cinema’s all-time-great usages of 3-D technology, with flawless special effects. Covenant totally abandons 3-D (money saved), and features some CGI in the opening minutes that looks like something you would see in a low-budget Syfy channel offering.

The film more than makes up for that shoddy computer work once the crew members of the Covenant—a stricken colony ship in danger of not reaching its destination—sets down to scout out a new planet as an alternate, closer option. The expedition is led by a new commander (Billy Crudup) after the original captain passed away (in an eyebrow-raising cameo).

Things look encouraging at first: There is fresh water, breathable air and even wheat fields, on the plus side. After a quick search for a transmission they received drawing them to the planet, they discover the horseshoe ship piloted by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David the android (Michael Fassbender) at the end of Prometheus. After this discovery, the minus side begins to get a lot of check marks.

They are on the Engineer planet, the origin of Earth’s creation, and the place where they created the bio weapon meant to destroy us. David has been surviving on the planet for more than a decade, but where’s Elizabeth? Where are the Engineers? Only David knows, and David, as you might remember from Prometheus, is a bit dickish.

The film allows for another mind-bending performance by Fassbender: Not only is he playing David, but also Walter, the upgraded android from the new expedition. The two androids are essentially the devil and Jesus in this movie, and they share an interesting flute tutorial that suggests androids can have sexual/incest impulses. Fassbender, as with Prometheus, is the main reason to see Covenant.

That is, he’s the main reason to see Covenant besides the triumphant return of the Xenomorphs. The face-huggers and chest-bursters return, along with some new bad bastards including the back-burster and the face-burster. When they grow up (quite rapidly), they become all forms of H.R. Giger’s inspired creepy madness. Unlike Cameron’s Aliens, these Xenomorphs aren’t interested in cocooning. They are more interested in stuff like popping heads off and doing that claw-between-the-legs move that Veronica Cartwright endured in the original Alien’s most-horrifying moment.

Beyond Crudup and Danny McBride as ship-pilot Tennessee, nobody else in the cast really distinguishes themselves beyond being fodder for the aliens. Katherine Waterston is OK as the film’s main protagonist, Daniels, but her role ultimately feels like a greatest-hits compilation of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Rapace’s Shaw.

Where does this rank in the Alien franchise? I’d say fourth, behind Alien, Aliens and Prometheus, and just above the unfairly maligned Alien 3. It’s a good time for Ridley Scott and Xenomorph fans, and it continues the existential offerings of Prometheus. Had they taken the time to work a little harder on those early effects, and fleshed out the cast members a little better, it could’ve surpassed Prometheus.

Scott is promising at least two more films leading up to the events of his original Alien, while apparently putting the kibosh on the Aliens sequel that was in the works for director Neil Blomkamp. That’s the one that would’ve brought back Ripley, Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt.

Dammit! That would’ve been cool.

Alien: Covenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I can’t say whether Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s new firecracker of a movie is accurate; I didn’t know the guy. I can say that the performance is, dramatically, one of the best things you will see in cinemas this year.

Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by the ever-reliable Boyle (127 Hours, Sunshine), plays out in three parts: Apart from a few flashbacks, we see Jobs backstage at three significant product launches during his career. The film is expertly staged, playing out like the most entertaining and brutal of Shakespearean dramas.

As Jobs ties his bowtie and prepares to launch the Macintosh in 1984, his personal life is messing with his mojo. Estranged lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) is distressed over the paltry sum Jobs pays her and their alleged daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), in child support. Jobs is worth millions, but offers only hundreds per month—because he doubts his being the father.

Chrisann has some good arguments. A paternity test puts the likelihood of Jobs being the dad at more than 94 percent, and Lisa looks an awfully lot like him. This is no matter to Jobs, who spends years denying fatherhood—while reluctantly turning over more than the court-mandated amount of cash, because part of him really likes Lisa. He even names a computer after her.

We see Steve Jobs at his very worst, a man so obsessed with his company’s new gadgets that he won’t face the reality of his fatherly duties. Lisa, portrayed at different ages by Moss (6), Ripley Sobo (9) and a show-stopping Perla Haney-Jardine (19), is a girl any dad would be proud of—but Jobs can’t really be bothered. He has goofy-looking computers to sell.

While Jobs won’t be a dad to his daughter, he tries to be one to Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the engineer who actually built the board that launched Apple computers. Mind you, Jobs isn’t a good father figure. While he claims he will always protect and nurture Wozniak, he fails to come through on some key matters, including the acknowledgement of Wozniak and his team in the Apple legacy. 

Fassbender’s Jobs is every bit that charming man we saw while he was introducing computers, iPods and iPhones to drooling masses. He had such nice, warm tendencies in public that it was hard to imagine him as a bastard behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, his quick wit and ability to reason are often wielded as weapons against his perceived enemies, whether they be Wozniak, justifiably begging for recognition, or Chrisann, begging for money. As far as this movie is concerned, Jobs was a brilliant but not-so-nice man. In fact, he was a major dickweed.

The major coup is that Fassbender still makes Jobs likable. It’s easy to hate the man’s actions, and it’s also very easy to root for his redemption. Fassbender puts petal to the metal with this performance, and he never lets up.

Say hello to Seth Rogen … actor! In his few pivotal scenes, Rogen breaks hearts as Wozniak, a good natured, well-meaning man who obviously loves and admires Jobs, but can’t fathom his stubbornness. It’s a revelatory performance from a man who usually delivers laughs. This time out, you’ll feel his character’s emotional pain and hurt.

Kate Winslet, even though her accent morphs from time to time, is equally compelling as Jobs’ confidant and mother figure, Joanna Hoffman. It’s an incredible performance. The same can be said for Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the advertising giant who essentially became Jobs’ boss. That relationship is combustible at times, and Daniels blows up the screen.

Steve Jobs will make you forget Jobs, that other biopic that featured a heavily made-up Ashton Kutcher playing with an iPod. Fassbender and Boyle deliver the kind of movie Jobs deserved—warts and all. It’s a mesmerizing film about a complicated man.

Steve Jobs is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I abstain from weed because some people really shouldn’t do drugs. If you are like me, you might need two or three viewings to completely get the vibe and plot of Inherent Vice.

However, if you watch the movie while mildly high, you might follow everything in one shot.

I’ve watched director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film twice now, and it was almost like watching a different movie the second time through. I enjoyed it both times, but the language and proceedings made more sense to me on the second go-round. I must have some sort of latent stoner sensibility stored in my brain from bong hits in years past.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sloppy private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles who operates, inexplicably, out of a doctor’s office. When an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) goes missing, he conducts a haphazard investigation into her disappearance that involves dead people who aren’t dead, drug-dealers and kidnapped real estate moguls. All of these things are being investigated by a guy who is seriously high most of the time, and who pieces things together at his own mellow, clumsy pace.

Along the way, Doc comes across a parade of colorful characters—with each one played by a brilliant actor or actress. Josh Brolin is perfection as an unstable, macho cop with a penchant for kicking down Doc’s door. Phoenix and Brolin have a lot of fun making the characters bitter enemies, even though they’re almost chummy at times. Brolin’s final scene is, shall we say, surreal and bizarre on joyous levels.

Owen Wilson does some of his best work in years as a musician, believed dead, who has gone into hiding. He has scenes with Phoenix that are borderline brilliant, as does Martin Short as a lascivious dentist with a taste for young girls and pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Anderson may have given Short his best role since his SCTV days, even though Short is only in a few scenes.

Benicio del Toro shows up as Doc’s attorney; his character reminded me of his similar role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Reese Witherspoon caps off a great year by playing Doc’s uptight current girlfriend, and Jena Malone has a terrific scene as a wife who pleasantly and happily discusses her drug addiction and missing husband.

The mystery, if you want to call it that, ties up fairly cleanly. The film, despite what some folks are saying, has a beginning, a middle and an end that makes sense. You just have to work at it a bit.

The locations, clothing and hairstyles are very 1970s. The film plays like a stoner mood piece, swinging from relaxed to paranoid, unintelligible to highly coherent—as if you are going through the various phases of some high-grade kush.

You might be thinking, “Hey, this sounds a little bit like The Big Lebowski.” Lebowski was a lot cuter, and far funnier. Both stories do, however, feature a stoner dude investigating a missing person. (It should be noted that the Coens wrote and produced Lebowski 11 years before Thomas Pynchon put out the novel on which Inherent Vice is based.)

If you’ve never smoked weed, but have a friend that does smoke, go see the movie with them. You may not get it, while your friend’s mind will be blown. He or she will explain some things to you, and you’ll be all set for a second, more-informed viewing.

Also: Do not smoke weed for the first time before seeing Inherent Vice. The stuff out there now is pretty damn powerful, and the site of Phoenix’s Wolverine chops will surely freak out a first-timer.

Inherent Vice opens Thursday, Jan. 8, at theaters including the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews