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The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Billed as a Trump-era satire, and given the fact that the premise involves a middle-aged, working class Mexican immigrant going head-to-head with a rich, bilious, selfish real estate tycoon who proudly skirts the law, you’d be expecting fireworks. That’s quite a culture clash and writer Mike White (School of Rock) serves up the making of a delicious and squirm-inducing evening as the titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a holistic massage therapist, is marooned at the house of a rich client (Connie Britton). They’re hosting a very famous, very influential business tycoon (John Lithgow), and his demeanor and perspective couldn’t be more opposite from Beatriz. As the night wears on, and the wine is consumed, Beatriz confronts these privileged and oblivious people. The most frustrating part about Beatriz at Dinner is that all the pieces are there for a terrific movie but White’s script goes slack in the second half. The film never really escalates the drama and you keep waiting for more confrontations. I think perhaps I wanted the stage play version of this story, a dialogue-driven debate between two combative characters buoyed by a sense of righteous indignation. Hayek is quite good and reminds you what kind of actress she has at her disposal. Her wounded expressions say volumes. The other problem is that this 85-minute movie ends on a note of baffling nihilism that left me cold. It’s like White threw up his hands and declared that as long as there are powerful men in the world like Trump, with an oversized influence the common man cannot compete with, then why bother trying to heal the world and make it a better place? It’s an abrupt ending and one that doesn’t feel in keeping with the character. I wish someone would take this story and adapt it for the stage and give it the treatment it deserved before White sacrificed all for his fatalistic message about the futility of trying in the Trump era.

Nate’s Grade: C+

School of Rock (2003)

School is now in session. Jack Black has long been a Hollywood oddity. He’’s a whirlwind of manic energy but it can be accurately placed (his breakthrough in High Fidelity), or misused on hollow roles (Saving Silverman). Black is also a credited musician with his band, Tenacious D. Writer and sometime actor Mike White is a friend of Black’’s and said he wrote the lead in School of Rock specifically for him. Will Black measure up with his first lead role, or will he be held back?

Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a thirty-something lead guitarist who takes rambling guitar solos and crowd surfs even when there’s no one to catch him. His band mates fire Dewey from the group for his outlandish behavior. Dewey’’s roommate (Mike White), and especially his harpy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman, generally wasted here) urge him to find a job and start pulling his weight. A call comes in for Dewey’’s roommate to substitute teach at a prep school. Dewey poses as his pal and enters the ranks of academia. When he finds out that his class plays instruments he organizes them into a band as a class project. When someone questions what they’’re learning, Dewey shouts that they’’re learning rock ‘n’ roll, which he says, “”Will test your head, and your mind, and your brain too.””

Black has showed scene-stealing ability in other films, but School of Rock gives Black the role he was born to play. His character isn’’t some high-minded jerk that learns the errors of his ways by having his rough exterior melted by the compassion of children. Heck no. Black’’s character remains rock’s willing soldier from beginning to end, but School of Rock gives him the chance to share his passion and instill it in the youth. Black’’s circus of eye bulging, energetic gyrations, and infectious excitement make a vibrant lead that can make us laugh at a moment’’s notice. It’’s a marvelous performance full of rock bliss.

Non-professional actors play the prep school kids that populate School of Rock. They smartly decided to have the kids played by real musical prodigies, so when they get jamming that’s real ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds putting people to shame with their musical ability.

The film isn’t anything new exactly. Its story is somewhat familiar, but it’s got an attitude all its own. School of Rock uses familiar elements and comforts the viewer, but its madcap energy, touching moments of heart, and ambitious belief that music can change lives will leave the viewer smiling from beginning to end. There wasn’t a second I wasn’t smiling or laughing while watching School of Rock.

School of Rock is a joyous movie that excels with sweetness. Let’s just get down to it and say the flick is monstrously funny, heartwarming, inspired, charming, entertaining and certifiably rockin’’ enough to blow you and your neighbor’s socks off. Don’t be fooled by the PG-13 label (which I’’m still scratching my head over), because School of Rock is the perfect film for families of all ages. It’s got a genuine tenderness most comedies lack, and it also has a consistently cheery sense of humor that never resorts to inane gross-out gags like so many current comedies. This is one to take the kids and grandma too.

In lesser hands this film could have been a disaster. The kids would come off as cloying, Black’s character would come off as a crude loaf, Joan Cusack’’s (a wonderful performance, by the way) principal character would just be an uptight bitch, and the familiar story would seem syrupy, like a Dead Poets Society with guitars instead of suicide. Under the smooth direction of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), one of the stalwarts of the 90s independent film renaissance, School of Rock strikes the right balance between warmth and Black’s uncaged craziness. Linklater has taken his indie sensibilities and assuredly given the film a heart that beats to the rhythm of rock n’ roll, that also never falters into sticky sentimentality.

School of Rock is an exuberant comedy, sharply written, with confident direction, cute kids, and the dynamic performance of Black. The movie will appeal to families, fans of Black, and people tired of feel-good formula films or those looking for a feel-good film. School of Rock will lift up your spirits and make you want to dance in your seat. I raise my goblet of rock and salute you, makers of School of Rock, for the greatest 108 minutes of fun I’’ve had this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Good Girl (2002)

Jennifer Aniston, a Friends favorite, has been getting attention for her less than attractive turn in adultery with The Good Girl. However, the movie’s biggest flaw is Aniston herself. The Good Girl can try and make her look as disheveled as they can, and they can try and make her wear as much unflattering baggy clothing as possible, but in the end we’re still watching Mrs. Brad Pitt groan about the purgatory that is Middle America. An actress of better caliber could likely pull off the rub, but alas, Aniston is not quite that actress yet.

Aniston narrates the disenchantment as Justine with her dead-end job working at a Wal-Mart-esque chain store and her dead-end marriage to perennially stoned house painter Phil (John C. Reilly). She longs for an escape and a change of pace from a grind where there appears none. Then one day a new teenage co-worker named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into her life and seems to represent the danger and vitality Justine has felt missing in her life for so long. Her affections are at first stalled in apprehension, but soon Holden and Justine are ducking into motels and finding excuses to get busy in the stock room. But soon enough the honeymoon ends. Justine learns more distressing items about the emotionally dependent and unstable clerk, like his real name is Tom (“Tom is my slave name” he tells her). What once seemed exciting is now becoming more perilous to cover up.

The Good Girl then descends into blacker territory with some unexpected turns, but also some more unbelievable moments. When confronted by Phil’s best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) about her infidelity she is given a rather unpleasant ultimatum that she gives in too way too easily. The longer the affair and messy cover up continues the more audience loyalties shift toward the victim, Phil. He admits he isn’t the smartest man or the best husband, but his feelings are authentic for his wife. And the more the audience views him the more they see that he truly does love Justine.

And again, we have to come black to that road block of a lead. A more accomplished actress could pull off this bittersweet role with aplomb and believability. A better actress could have slowed down the audience shift in loyalty away from her unfaithful protagonist. The supporting cast of The Good Girl has a lot more bite to them. Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) now seems to be an expert in the disturbed youth. Reilly starts off as a loaf but transforms into a sympathetic character that has his own touching moments of unannounced affection to Justine. Nelson gives the film some of its funniest moments along with the lethally deadpanned Zooey Deschanel. The lone stereotype in the bunch is played by Mike White (who wrote the film) as an overly enthusiastic Christian do-gooder.

It’s a pity The Good Girl has its anchor around the neck of Aniston and willing to go as far as she will take it, because The Good Girl is indeed a good film with some wicked moments of comedy and a well-written story. It’s just that Aniston’s acting limitations gravitate what could have been a better film.

Nate’s Grade: B

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