Bugs & LeBron, Cage & a Pig, and More in Movies
Step into the wayback machine this weekend. Nostalgic for WB ‘toons playing basketball? Remember when Nicolas Cage could act, not just behave erratically? Recall a time when you could get a decent cheeseburger in a restaurant for under $15? It’s all here this weekend, plus a beautiful true romance, a gorgeous doc about trees, a ridiculous shark movie, and a reminder that Mainers can be pretty badass. Here’s the scoop.
by Hope Madden
A quick plot synopsis of co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski’s Pig suggests a very specific image. Nicolas Cage plays a hermetic truffle hunter whose beloved pig is kidnapped. He uses his particular set of skills to find her.
You are almost undoubtedly thinking this is John Wick, swapping Cage for Keanu and a pig for a puppy.
This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.
Cage’s legacy will rightfully be of an unhinged and singular talent—and also an actor who never turns down a gig. But every decade or so the stars align and Cage gets to stretch, he gets to underact. He hasn’t delivered as nuanced or thoughtful a performance since David Gordon Green’s 2013 film Joe.
Lurking, silent and disheveled, his character hitches a ride with the only soul who contacts him regularly, Amir (Alex Wolff, Hereditary), the slick wholesaler who takes his truffles off his hands each Wednesday.
As the two climb the ladder of potential kidnappers, from other outdoorsy truffle hunters to middlemen to chefs and higher still, Sarnoski mimics the beats of a vengeance thriller like John Wick or Taken, but he does this only to subvert expectations. It turns out, when your only real goal is to retrieve something beloved and lost to you, bloodshed doesn’t rank high in your thoughts.
A uniformly strong supporting cast and their priceless reactions to Cage’s vagabond presence not only illuminate the pretension Sarnoski hopes to call attention to in Portland’s high-end restaurant culture. They give the actor the chance to react.
Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.
I guarantee the folks to my left at this screening were here for Cage Uncaged!™ Hopefully they appreciated the fact that they didn’t get it.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
In theaters and on HBOMax.
by George Wolf and Hope Madden
You think the GOAT debate about hoop gets heated? Just wait ’til your twitter thread blows up with hot takes on the thespian greatness of Jordan vs. LeBron!
Yeah, that’s not likely to happen.
I can tell you Don Cheadle is a great actor, and he’s clearly having a ball as the high-tech heavy in Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Cheadle is Al G. Rhythm, a (what else?) algorithm inside the Warner 3000 computer system that has designed a can’t miss WB idea for LeBron James. But LeBron is not impressed, so Al decides to get even by pitting LBJ against his own 12 year-old son, Dom (Cedric Joe).
Dom is actually more interested in video game design than basketball, but feels pressured by his superstar Dad to follow in the family business. Al seizes on this rift, pulling father and son into the virtual world, stealing Dom’s design for a basketball video game, and offering a deal.
You guessed it: classic Tunes (featuring Zendaya voicing Lola Bunny) vs. some brand new Goons (basketball superstars including Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Turasi). A win for the Tune Squad puts the James family back to normal, but a loss means they’ll stay in the “server-verse” forever.
Adding WNBA stars and a new look for Lola are just two of the ways director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, The Best Man franchise) and the writing team succeed with an updated premise required for new sensibilities. Sure, the resolution of the father-son tension is predictable, but it manages a schmaltzy level of resonance amid the cartoon nuttiness that we’re really here for.
The antics of your favorite Looney Tunes characters (aside from an ill-advised, rapping Porky Pig) are classically looney, but the script also scores with some topical, self-aware humor aimed at the digital age, a classic Dave Chappelle bit, and LeBron himself (Dom: “Did my Dad leave?” Al: “That’s what he does, isn’t it?”)
And while the original ’96 Space Jam always smacked of product placement marketing, A New Legacy ups that ante, dropping LBJ and friends into any number of Warner properties, from Casablanca to Rick & Morty. Shameless, yes. Fun? Also yes.
As for King James, he follows that standout cameo in Trainwreck with a lead performance that alternates between awkward and decent. He does bring more natural onscreen charisma than Jordan (there’s reason MJ barely speaks in his TV ads), but I’m guessing the task of acting opposite cartoons didn’t help with James finding a comfort zone in his first lead role.
But LeBron sure looks at home on the court, and once everybody joins him (and I mean everybody – have fun scanning the crowd), Lee rolls out some frantically fun game action with plenty of visual pop. This Space Jam may follow some of the original’s playbook, but there’s enough “new” here to justify the title, and by the time the buckets and anvils start dropping, A New Legacy finds its own fun and satisfying groove.
At Gateway Film Center.
by George Wolf
Near the end of director Carlos López Estrada’s impressive 2018 debut feature Blindspotting, Daveed Diggs unleashes a blisteringly beautiful rap monologue. Estrada showcases the raw, extended wordplay to lay bare a character’s journey and a film’s soul.
Now, after joining the directing team on Disney’s enchanting Raya and the Last Dragon last year, Estrada returns to solo work – as well as the streets – with Summertime, an uplifting celebration of urban poets “spitting that emotional fire” amid an interconnected assemblage of L.A. stories.
Anewbyss & Rah (Bryce Banks & Austin Antoine) are a rap duo trying to build a following. Gordon (Gordon Ip) is tired of working in a burger joint. Brokenhearted Sophia (Maia Mayor) is stalking her ex-boyfriend and finds a kindred spirit in the thoughtful Marquesha (Marquesha Babers). Mila (Mila Cuda) is standing up to a bus riding homophobe while Tyris (Tyris Winter) is just searching for a good cheeseburger and documenting his quest on Yelp.
These are but a few of the many compelling personalities in this magnetic mosaic of poems, images, cultures and identities. Estrada weaves together the work of twenty-six different poets, each one spitting emotional fire to spare.
Anchored proudly in the City of Angels, Summertime drops the beats of a grittier West Coast bookend to In the Heights. There are dreamers of diverse backgrounds here, too, though these are the more openly wounded variety, finding comfort from channeling the hurt into writing.
But as raw as those wounds can get, the performers never abandon the humor, joy and hope that comes from upending conventions about who they are, where they’re from, and what they have to offer.
So many different threads in one 95-minute tour of L.A. probably shouldn’t work this well. Credit Estrada’s balanced vision and his wonderful cast of artists for making sure that stopping, looking, and listening to Summertime is a thoroughly rewarding thing to do.
Grade A –
I Carry You with Me
At Gateway Film Center.
by Hope Madden
If the final act of I Carry You with Me has a documentary feel about it, that makes good sense. Director/co-writer Heidi Ewing—known primarily for docs including Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka—takes on her first narrative feature by spinning a love story based in fact.
Ewing’s subjects, Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta, are NYC restauranteurs who fell in love in Mexico in the 1990s. Though Ewing grounds her fable in their present day, the bulk of the film waxes youthful and romantic back in Mexico.
Young, closeted Iván (Armando Espitia) dreams of putting his culinary skills to use so he can provide for his young son, whose mother rarely allows him to visit. He meets Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) and they fall in love, but dreams of the success that evades him at home propel Iván north.
And though the film’s title aptly captures the longing between separated lovers, it carries with it a great deal more. Ewing conjures the phantom ache that follows Iván the rest of his life without his son, his family and the home he knew.
Yes, the film, co-written with Alan Page, leads inevitably to the couple’s modern-day dilemma. They’ve worked their way up from nothing, lived and achieved the American dream, but are essentially caged. Iván’s son has grown up without him. He will never be allowed to come here, and if Iván returns to Mexico to see him he risks losing Gerardo and his American dream forever.
I Carry You with Me never feels like a blunt instrument. In much the way Ewing did with her documentaries, she weaves true tales with humanity and honesty so they resonate. A documentary’s best chance of affecting change is by helping an audience see themselves in the lives on the screen. Ewing did that with her many docs. She does it again here.
The Hidden Life of Trees
At Gateway Film Center.
by Brandon Thomas
Based on the 2015 book of the same name, The Hidden Life of Trees is a fascinating documentary that explores the complexity of how trees live, and how human beings have learned – and sometimes failed – to understand their slow-moving life cycles.
Jörg Adolph and Jan Haft’s film follows self-described “guardian of the forest,” forester Peter Wohlleben (also the book’s author) through a series of interviews and tours as he describes the complicated lives of trees – from their reproduction, their slow defense from bugs, and how certain trees have a social system. Wohlleben’s approach isn’t off-putting in a dry, clinical way – it’s full of passion and even protectiveness.
The Hidden Life of Trees uses stunning time-lapse footage of the German forests to get into the “meat and potatoes” of how trees work. It’s incredibly helpful in making the subject matter easily digestible for viewers who don’t have knowledge of the inner workings of forests.
This “dual personality” approach to telling its story helps The Hidden Life of Trees maintain a level of nimbleness. The sections focusing on Wohlleben teeter back and forth between the forester espousing scientific facts then suddenly switching to a more philosophical approach in regard to his overall impact on forestry. Wohlleben’s activism doesn’t feel born out of desperation. His activism is born out of pure love of the forests.
The time-lapse scenes feel much like a traditional nature documentary, and I half expected Sir David Attenborough to provide narration. The photography is so well done that it’s easy to gloss over the information being provided because of the film’s beauty.
Much of what makes the film work is in how it approaches what we might normally think of as mundane. Trees are a constant. They are found in every country and on nearly every continent. Most of us don’t give too much thought to the trees that line our street or populate our yards. But Adolph and Haft showcase that these living beings have agency even if we can’t see it with the naked eye.
The Hidden Life of Trees isn’t a preachy film. No, for a film so steeped in the plight of nature and conservation, it’s much more interested in educating and guiding the audience along.
by Rachel Willis
Coastal Maine is beautiful country, but there is a seedy underbelly of drugs, gambling, and crime that’s explored in director Joe Raffa’s film, Downeast.
Refining a story written by native Maine resident Greg Finley, Raffa’s focus is on a lobsterman named Tommy (Finley). Following a life-changing incident in which he ran afoul of area mobsters, Tommy tries to live with his head down, following his own moral code. The return of his ex, Emma (Dylan Silver), reopens old wounds.
The ‘townies’ are wary of Emma, whose questions threaten the tenuous balance the mob holds over the residents. Even Tommy’s loyalty lies with the town over his budding relationship.
There aren’t many new stories to tell, and if this one sounds familiar, that’s because it is. However, the film boasts compelling characters and wonderful attention to detail that help keep us invested.
From a technical standpoint, this is a well-made movie. Edwin Pendleton Stevens’s cinematography juxtaposes the coastal vacation town against a gritty, cold world that feels lifeless when summer ends. The empty winter boardwalk seems sinister compared to scenes of a beach crowded with summer tourists.
The actors inhabit their roles so organically that often you feel like you’re sitting with them in the local watering hole. Finley is at home with his character, but the others alongside him are just as natural. The only one who stands out as different is Silver, but it works because Emma is an outsider to this world—she talks tough like the rest of them, but she isn’t one of them, and her world view doesn’t align with the townies.
The film’s biggest issue lies with the characters’ motivations. While things seem straightforward in the beginning, they take a turn toward the unusual. Characters’ decisions make zero sense given what we know of them. Even the background players behave strangely. Plotlines resolve in head-scratching ways. It all detracts from the strong chemistry the actors create as members of a close, if tenuous, community.
There is a lot crowded into the plot, so some characters are shallow compared to others. The mobsters are one-dimensional villains, and while a case could be made that’s the truth in real life, it doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.
Downeast shows how important a strong screenplay is because, without it, you’re left with a beautiful, forgettable film.
by Hope Madden
It’s Shark Week! What’s the best way to celebrate?
Watching Jaws, obviously. But maybe you just did that because of the mandatory 4th of July weekend viewing. Then what?
Well, there’s a new movie for you to consider: Martin Wilson’s Great White.
There are so many shark movies. So, so many. It becomes tough to find something new to say.
Some are better than expected (The Shallows), some so bad they are almost worth watching (Sharknado), some masterpieces (Jaws, Open Water). Great White is none of those.
Michael Boughen’s script follows an Australian charter boat into unfriendly water. Cruisers include a rich coward, a haunted hero, a woman with history, a cook, a girlfriend, and, of course, a great white.
Wilson serves up a beautiful movie, beautiful people, gorgeous scenery, Hallmark-channel writing, and a Hallmark-channel score. The actual undersea footage is very borrowed from stock, although there are some cool looking aerial shots. Plus, a dude rides a shark, which is never not fun.
Katrina Bowden, as captain’s girlfriend and brains of the operation Kaz, poses. She exclusively poses and her emoting is so bereft of emotion that her big crying scene is shot from high above with voiceover wailing. It doesn’t help that so very much of her emoting has to be done underwater.
So much underwater emoting. So much.
Woman with a past Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) fares better. Most—though not all—of her emoting happens above the waterline and she proves to be as competent an actor as this script will allow.
Great White spends most of its time on a life raft with five characters and impending doom. Lifeboat did something similar in 1944—of course that was Alfred Hitchcock directing a script by John Steinbeck, a big vessel to fill.
Wilson fills it with lazy writing, superficial performances, contrivance and conveniences that descend into idiocy, and not the fun Sharknado kind. Just the plain old idiotic kind.
Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.