Friday, May 19, 2017

Bubble Girl: EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING



Here’s one of those passable, cloying YA adaptations that’s totally artificial and utterly sentimental, torn between metaphoric exploration of romantic teen alienation and stupidly contrived conceits. Everything, Everything (so nice they named it twice) is about an 18-year-old girl (Amandla Stenberg) who has lived locked inside behind air filters and Plexiglas as long as she can remember. It’s for her health and safety, since her deadly immune deficiency was discovered by her protective physician mother (Anika Noni Rose). The girl has cultivated a rich and playful interior life through reading books, watching movies (always nice to see even a glance of Moonstruck), and checking in on support group chat rooms. But one day, a cute boy her age (Nick Robinson) moves in next door and, in a twist usually only found in stories like this, his bedroom window that looks right into hers. They make eyes at each other for a bit, then he writes his phone number on the glass. She texts. He texts back. It’s love at first emoticon, or maybe at first read receipt. The more she gets to know him, the more she wants to go outside, an urge we’re too swoon over despite the very real threat to her life if she encounters those germs floating in the world at large. Sure, the course of true love never did run smooth, but why risk everything (everything)?

Adapting Nicola Yoon’s book, the screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline) contorts itself to justify the romantic urges, finding tragic backstory and late-breaking twists to convince the audience that it’s all for the better. So it has a premise that’s barely convincing on a literal level and yet – and yet! – it’s often sweet and emotionally appealing because of the unassuming openness of its lead and the soft-spoken, underplayed loveliness of its metaphor. What is first teen love but the blushing sense of getting away with something? The movie doesn’t exactly work, but, hey, I’m not made of stone, either. Stenberg brings shy expressiveness to her confined character, able to communicate her deep yearning for human contact through bashful glances while also signaling the fierce intelligence behind her hesitant smiles and flustered flirting. She’s totally believable as a girl who has more time alone with her thoughts and who has read more than most her age, and yet has experienced precious little of what we’d call the real world. She’s able to give the movie the earnest innocent desires and curiosity that almost provide enough emotional oomph to make the construct work.

Although director Stella Meghie shoots the movie with a pleasant commercial gloss – all bright sets, soft lighting, gauzy close-ups, slick pop-music montages, and coy, implied PG-13 heat – it also gives the sense it’s as closed off as its main character. The darker implications of its premise remain unexplored, tossed overboard for the sake of maintaining a sense of teenage fantasy and persecution. But the way it allows space for Stenberg’s performance to ping off Rose’s strong, stern, maternal love gives the movie the small metaphoric charge it needs to be effective. It becomes, in its strongest moments, a movie about the lengths a parent can go to maintain a child’s safety, security, and purity. Starting with good intentions, this can result in a young person for whom flirtation, let alone dating, seems like a far riskier and fraught prospect than it should. This is a simple movie about teenage love that deploys its dramatic conceit to literalize the sheltered girl’s boxed in feelings, then watches as they’re coaxed out through a sense of determination and outside influences. She and her crush are cute together. He’s sweet. She’s nice. Meghie gives their texting an imaginary mind palace of a meeting spot – fantasies of actual dialogue in the likes of a retro diner and in outer space taking the place of text bubbles as they grow closer – and when they finally appear in the same room, share the same space, well, I said I’m not made of stone. Even middling movies can occasionally get their hooks in you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Once and Future KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD


Guy Ritchie takes a mythic English figure and turns his story into a scrappy ye olde Guy Ritchie-style story in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. With good gusto, he makes Arthur the nexus of a scampering rebellion, a gang who will become the knights of the round table plotting to take down an evil king and crown the rightful heir by heisting supplies, staging ambushes, beating back black-helmeted ne’re-do-wells, and sinking ships. They’re like the distant ancestors of the grubby, low-level criminals who populated Ritchie’s early works – Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla. This is fun at times, watching bantering, quick witted oafs and bruisers scheme their way into the highest positions in the land, and all for a noble reason. It’s especially charming because such a light touch and unassuming mode sits right next to the lugubrious solemnity of High Fantasy, dark magic swirling up stone walls, slithering snake women promising good luck in return for blood sacrifice, giant bats, enormous serpents, war elephants, magic rocks, and a sword in a stone. (That that last one is guarded by David Beckham cameoing as one of the villain’s henchman tells you something about the contrast set up here.) This isn’t nearly as fun a finished product as Ritchie’s spry, visually playful, charmingly plotted reimaginings – two red-blooded Sherlock Holmes adventures and a super cool Man from U.N.C.L.E. – but it has its charms.

The film errs on the side of gloopy CG confrontations and thin characterization, especially in its drearily predictable grand finale, but is otherwise fantasy filmmaking done up with pleasurable genre resonances. Its murky opening, quietly drifting across foggy green hills while mysterious magic erupts in the distance reminds me of nothing less than John Boorman’s brilliantly bonkers sci-fi Zardoz crossed with his Arthurian take, Excalibur. Fire blasts forth and a ginormous battle involves a king jumping his horse from a parapet onto an elephantine platform. This noble hero king (Eric Bana) is victorious, but abruptly betrayed by a nefarious usurper (Jude Law) who covets the crown (and works on self-taught Dark Arts, hoping to one day graduate to master Firestarter). A tiny orphaned prince is floated down the river – Moses style, in this never-ending parade of legendary allusions – and raised in a blisteringly rapid-fire montage that takes him from naïve boy taken in by kind criminals to a tough, streetwise brawler. Grown (into Charlie Hunnam), he’s as quick with his quips as he is with his fists, all swaggering confidence even when he’s doubting himself, like when that sword comes out of the stone and the kingdom’s revolutionaries (led by Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) scoop him up into their plots against the evil reigning o’er the land.

Generally easy going and light on its feet, despite plodding inevitably to a dull, clangorous climactic confrontation, Ritchie goes all in on his stylish energy. His films, good, bad, and in between (like this one), manage to be at once rough-and-tumble and smooth operators. He fills this telling with snap zooms, propulsive smash cuts, speed ramping, and zippy, fluid, computer-assisted dipping, spinning, and flying establishing shots. He also draws on his Rubik’s-cube-jumbled approach to what in other hands would be conventional setups and payoffs. Instead of long sequences of exposition leading up to bursts of action, he will often intercut the two, cross-cutting speeches and arguments and planning with execution. We see Arthur and his band of would-be heroes devise a trip into a monster-filled wasteland where he must learn to control his magic sword by placing it on a magic rock, their words carrying over as the soundtrack to a lightning fast montage of creature feature derring-do. This gives the picture a jumpy jangle, at once ponderously mythic and casually loping. No one has time to catch their breath between spasms of style, but the movie somehow accrues a sense of heavy sag.

It never quite finds a way to reconcile these competing tendencies, but as a Ritchie romp – co-written, photographed, scored, and edited by some of his familiar collaborators – it never quite loses its loose-limbed charms either. They’re there jolting and jumping underneath even the stateliest fantasy tropes, production design from Game of Thrones vets turned slightly askew, like when the Lady in the Lake appears to pull Arthur through an impossibly deep mud puddle in a dime-store adventure version of a memorably gross Trainspotting swim. So, it’s not totally satisfying. But it’s also not every day you see a movie that straight-faced sends its hero into battle against Rodents of Unusual Size, or includes a moment when a growling Jude Law cuts off a man’s ear and whispers one last threat into it. Those are the sorts of charming eccentricities of which these dusty big-budget boondoggles could use more.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Spaced: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2



A moderate blast of novelty was what Guardians of the Galaxy brought to the Marvel formula with a soundtrack of needle drops and a tone as breezily goofy as the characters it introduced (a cornball lead, a stoic green lady, a hyper-literal lug, a talking racoon, and an ambulatory tree man). This allowed the movie to build considerable affection, despite succumbing to all the worst tendencies of hectic, anonymous destruction in its protracted climax. So it was surely too much to hope Vol. 2 could have the same sense of unexpected. (The only thing that beats the sudden blast of “Come and Get Your Love” in that film’s opening is probably the trailer’s memorable use of “Hooked on a Feeling,” fitting for a multi-tentacled franchise whose films are always also advertisements for itself.) But what Guardians Vol. 2 has going for it is being the rare Marvel Cinematic Universe production that mostly consists of what works best about these pictures. Going light on overlong CGI slugfests and interlocking self-importance, this one is all about the likable characters, eccentric performances, pseudo-psychedelic visual atmosphere, off-kilter semi-Shakespearian sci-fantasy pulp family drama, earnest sentiment, a dusting of sarcasm, comic book splash pages and punchlines, topped off with screwball fizz.

In fact, for those of us who prefer these behemoths at their lightest, most frivolous and goofy, this one starts with payoffs and just keeps returning on that investment. Sure, it gets dragged down at its most static with long sequences of characters marveling at each other’s squabbles and petty exposition – worst is a living planet who walks us through tableaus of his life that are hollow visualizations where an evocative monologue would do. But when it works it works, a buzzy blast, a popcorn entertainment happy to be a good hang. Who cares if Chris Pratt (Star-lord) isn’t much of a dramatic performer and Zoe Saldana (Gamora) has the thankless task of scowling and posing while slathered in dull green makeup? The rest of the ensemble is crackling, from the good-natured single-minded Drax (Dave Bautista) to the chattering racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) to a dancing sapling (cooing voice-modulated Vin Diesel) to the bit parts made into meals by the appealing likes of Michael Rooker and Elizabeth Debicki. Best is Kurt Russell playing pure swaggering charm as what we soon learn is a literal manifestation of ego run amok. They’re all having fun goofing around in special effects, knowing they can go big and silly without upstaging the multicolored save-the-universe lightshow splattering around and behind them. 

There’s hardly anything to it, but writer-director James Gunn stages it with some visual panache, more confidently maneuvering the Marvel house style into interesting curlicues of delight and surprise. There’s an opening action sequence set almost entirely in the background of a shot focused on an oblivious adorable little guy dancing to ELO. (Predictably, but still successfully, the movie is set to greatest hits from any AM oldies station.) There’s a whistle powered arrow zipping around a ship, its trailing red laser beam allowing us to see its progress Family Circus style in the back of slow-mo frames and, later, through a massive, askew bank of security monitors. The whole movie is nothing but goofball details – a race of golden humanoids who pilot a hive of drone attack ships from a command center that looks like the palace of Versailles had an 80’s arcade; an antennae-wiggling empathic bug lady (Pom Klementieff) who tries her best but smiles in an unhinged grimace; a god whose self-justification for abandoning his family hinges on a close reading of the lyrics to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” 

It adds up to a good time at the movies, with lower lows that a great many of its franchise compatriots. (Its highs are also lower, but what are you going to do about it?) There’s still not much of a story going on here, and for all its zipping around and moments of dramatic import the impact is gentle and borderline forgettable. But the fizz and fun are good in the moment. Perhaps that’s the MCU’s biggest success. Barely any of these feel quite enough because they’re perfectly calibrated to leave you happy but wanting more.
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