Enter Sandman

Awake

by Hope Madden

There are so few things I enjoy more in this life than sleeping. Sleeping is the best. I love sleeping. This is one of the reasons director Mark Raso’s apocalyptic Awake got under my skin.

But it’s supposed to, after all. It’s not a comedy. It’s a spare, clever idea about some kind of celestial happening that throws off our hard wiring enough that we lose the ability to fall asleep. This power surge affects more than just our own circadian rhythms, though. It also shuts down all electric power, including car engines.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) was tired already. She just finished the late shift as security at a local hospital when she picked her kids up for their day together—her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) goes more reluctantly than her young daughter Mathilda (Ariana Greenblatt). By the time Jill understands what’s happening, she realizes the kind of danger her daughter is in—from religious zealots as well as government officials—because Mathilda can sleep.

So, there you have it. There’s a fight against the clock (the film outlines in great detail exactly how this will disorient and then eventually kill you) for this mother to figure out how her daughter will 1) survive the apocalypse and 2) continue to survive once everyone else is dead.

Rodriguez drives the film with a believable mix of savvy, grit and growing brain dysfunction. Several of the population-gone-mad set pieces are eerie and smart, although others are underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

Raso, working from a script he co-wrote with brother Joseph as well as Gregory Poirier, picks at one or two modern-day concerns but truly breaks new ground only rarely. Moments from The Mist, War of the Worlds, and just about every outbreak movie make their way into Jill’s family adventure. Borrowed as much of this is, it still comes together in a way that feels fairly fresh.

Support work from Barry Pepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher and Shamier Anderson offers the adventure shape and character while Rodriguez gives it a pulse. And some really heavy eyelids.

Mr. Lonely

Kajillionaire

by Hope Madden

Can a film be absurd without really being cynical? That might be the miracle of Miranda July, who mixes heartbreak and humor like no one else.

Fifteen years since her groundbreaking Me and You and Everyone We Know and nine years since The Future, the writer/director returns to the screen with a film every bit as ambitious but perhaps more contained and intimate.

In Kajillionaire, a miraculous Evan Rachel Wood is Old Dolio Dyne, 26-year-old woman-child who knows no existence other than that of the low-rent cons she runs day in, day out with her disheveled but wily parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

Like Hirokazu Koreeda’s delicate 2018 film Shoplifters and Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 masterpiece Parasite, Kajillionaire disregards the idea of the glamorous con and settles fully into the concept of scam as a daily grind. And, like Koreeda and Ho, July uses this workaday world to examine family. Although July’s vision is more decidedly comedic and highly stylized, she hits the same notes.

The Dynes make their home in an abandoned office space that shares a wall with a car wash. Every day—twice on Wednesdays—pink bubbles descend that wall and it’s up to the Dynes to collect, discard, and dry, lest the foundation of the building become besot with dampness and mold. The precision clockwork (their digital watches are timed to go off) and the pink ooze become ideal identifiers of Old Dolio’s rigid yet surreal existence.

Things get unpredictable when Mom and Dad take a shine to Melanie (an effervescent Gina Rodriguez). She loves their oddball qualities and wants to join the team, but Old Dolio is immediately put off by the disruption, and more than that, by her parents’ doting affection for Melanie.

July is a sharp, witty and incisive filmmaker, but Kajillionaire benefits more from the performances than any of her other films. Wood is like an alien visiting human life, then imitating and observing it, and the performance is oddly heartbreaking.

Jenkins and Winger are reliably magnificent, and Rodriguez’s bright charm is the needed light in an otherwise gloomy tale.

The film hits July’s sweet spot: gawky introverts struggling to find, accept and maintain human connections. The humor works as well as it does because the whimsy and eccentricity in the film is grounded in compassion rather than mockery.

Mythbuster

Smallfoot

by George Wolf

So, while we’re down here debating the existence of Sasquatch/Yeti/Bigfoot, an entire community of them lives above the clouds, wondering the same about us shorter, wee-footed folk.

That’s a cute and clever conceit for a family tale that might look a lot like Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., which makes it even more surprising when WB’s Smallfoot instead flirts with becoming the most ballsy, subversive animated film since Zootopia. It’s a film with big ideas, some generic and some risky, but just too many to juggle into a truly memorable takeaway.

Channing Tatum leads the voice cast as Migo, an affable Yeti who has always bought in to everything his village’s “Stonekeeper” (Common) was selling, including the fact that the legendary Smallfoot wasn’t real. But then Migo sees one, which raises some questions, and questions themselves are a problem.

Migo, like all the Yeti, has been taught to suppress any questions he may have about the stones the Stonekeeper is keeping. Those stones guide the beliefs of the Yeti through the various statements written on each. You might even call them…commandments.

Woah.

Smallfoot raises eyebrows early, but once Migo manages to bring smallfooted Percy (James Corden) back to his village, it settles into a pleasantly entertaining mix of messages, music, and Looney Tunes-worthy pratfalls.

Tatum gives our hero a fine voice (though his singing is a bit thin), Corden is always fun and the support cast (including Zendaya, Danny DeVito, Gina Rodriguez and LeBron James) is capably unique, but co-directors Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig chase too many snowtrails.

Some moments, like the Stonekeeper telling Migo about the ease of deception, find their mark, while others such as Percy’s struggles with reality TV become overly familiar distractions.

The driving theme here is truth, and how very hard it can be to find. Question, be brave, explore science as well as faith. Maybe sing a song. Though Smallfoot doesn’t deliver on its radical beginnings, it finds a comfort zone less likely to spark partisan rancor in the aisle.





Safety Dance

Deepwater Horizon

by George Wolf

With a nice throwback vibe, crackling tension and terrific ensemble acting, Deepwater Horizon is a surprisingly compelling package. Director Peter Berg, surpassing his similar work with Lone Survivor three years ago, is again all about making sure a tragic true-life tale is told with proper respect for the heroes involved.

This tragedy was the worst in U.S. oil .drilling history, as the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, killing 11 crew members and exposing a scandalous gap in safety protocols from BP.

Berg, armed with a crisp, economical script from Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, introduces us to the souls involved with a rapid succession of quick vignettes from their day, just hours just before boarding the rig. Mike (Mark Wahlberg, as good as he’s ever been) gets frisky with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), while Andrea (Gina Rodriquez from TV’s Jane the Virgin) can’t get her car started and has to hitch a ride to the airport from her boyfriend, and so on.

Snapshots of crew members’ lives crisscross each other, and the film needs minimal screen time to get us invested in multiple personalities. This is a roadblock for scores of films that Berg and his writers sweep away. They give us people to care about, and they increase the chance that events to come will resonate. Extra points for providing helpful primers on drilling practices in ways that feel organic, such as Mike’s daughter rehearsing a classroom presentation.

The tension builds steadily, with a single bubble of air escaping from an undersea drill line, and leads to a spectacularly staged string of explosions that engulf the entire structure. Berg has long shown his skill as a tactician, and here he gets us breathtakingly close to the chaos with an authenticity that’s refreshingly unencumbered by CGI effects.

You may be reminded of more recent movies (especially Wahlberg’s own The Perfect Storm), but Deepwater Horizon has a retro kinship with classic disaster films of the 70s, along with an in-the-moment humanity that salutes the real players whose lives hung in the balance.

Verdict-3-5-Stars