Sunday, March 26, 2017

Low Wattage: POWER RANGERS


It wasn’t far into Power Rangers, a crude, clangorous and nonsensical attempt to make big budget franchise potential out of a live-action Saturday morning adventure show, that I felt my brain squinting to understand. So crass, ugly, and erratic, I found myself longing for the relative classicism of Michael Bay’s sumptuous visual eye and Brett Ratner’s crisp pacing. (Nothing like a terrible movie to throw under-appreciated pop filmmakers into a better light.) It’s not that I couldn’t follow it. There simply wasn’t anything to follow. Subplots are assembled haphazardly and developed in odd fits and starts. Worldbuilding careens between over-explained jargon and assumed prior knowledge of franchise lore. It’s at once punishingly faux-adult – built from buzzwords and edgy innuendo – and mind-numbingly juvenile – “They found their robo-cars,” I believe I heard the villain howl at one point. Who is it for? Why was it made in this way? Who will it delight, children’s entertainment buried under layers of phony character drama and filters of skuzzy dark grays and blues? Its incompetence is stunning, every canted angle, wooden melodrama, jumbled motivation, and confused exposition adding up to a punishingly dull chaos.

The plot, such as it is, is a generic superhero origin story, director Dean Israelite treating it much the same way he did time travel in his similarly smeary Project Almanac: as a fuzzy mess of familiar beats played off key. We meet a troubled Breakfast Club of diverse teens whose personal lives were seemingly assembled at random from suggestions drawn out of a hat labeled “sad backstory.” The white guy (Dacre Montgomery) is a former football star nearly killed in a car crash. (He happened to be fleeing police at the time and now is under house arrest, except for Saturday detentions.) The funny black guy (RJ Cyler) is on the spectrum, mourns his dead dad, and likes amateur treasure hunting. The white girl (Naomi Scott) has a confused subplot about sexting in which she’s somehow a bully we’re to think of as a victim. The Latina loner (Becky G) is maybe a lesbian. (Her subplot is half allusion, half wishful-think-piecing, if you ask me.) And the Asian guy (Ludi Lin) takes care of his sick mother, and for some reason they live in an abandoned boxcar by the railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere. Fortuitously, they all happen to be at the same quarry late one night when they accidently discover magic rocks that give them superpowers and also a massive underground spaceship that’s waited 65 million years for the Chosen Ones to find it.

The rest of the movie is simply about the teens overcoming their personal problems and interpersonal conflicts by training to become primary-colored armor people driving robo-dino-cars into battle against a green monster lady (Elizabeth Banks camping it up as the ridiculously named Rita Repulsa). She’s assembling a golden warrior giant out of fillings she rips out of the mouths of homeless people. Yes, all that and the teens are trained by a robot (voiced by Bill Hader doing a Patton Oswalt impression) and a wall from which protrudes a big Bryan Cranston face towering over them and speaking through what looks like one of those Pin Art toys. Any one bit of this has potential, but thrown together as a pile of clichés in a random hodgepodge of dim and poorly constructed images, it just grates and grinds. So humorless even the comic relief isn’t funny, it’s at once indebted to the mechanics of its source material and yet, in its muted monotonous teen-issues melodrama, also completely embarrassed of its candy-colored infantile roots. This is a movie for no one, cast expensively into the multiplex in hopes it’ll please someone. Unless you’re that someone, there’s nothing here for you.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tale Retold in Time: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST


Disney’s latest attempt to spin box office gold out of affection for their old masterpieces is Beauty and Beast. Less alive and animated than the 1991 drawings, which added up to a film of lovely, romantic elegance, this new live-action effort nonetheless fashions its own charms. The foundation is sturdy, and the elaboration is vivid, in the grand old Hollywood tradition of lavish widescreen song-and-dance epic spectacles. It has the same ornate backlot flavor, the voluminous colorful production design, the matte paintings (albeit now as CG swooshes), the masses of extras, pokey pace, and earnest sentiment that the lumbering musicals of the 1960’s accrued. Here, like in, say, Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello, Dolly!, is the charmingly stiff sweetness of eagerly putting on a show, of making sure every penny of a massive budget glitters on screen as famous faces sing their hearts out and dance as best they can, while the soaring score and witty lyrics make up for any doubts you may have about their performances. It’s easy enough to get caught up in the big-hearted gleaming nostalgia factory on display.

Differing from other recent Disney remakes, they haven’t enriched (Cinderella), reshaped (Maleficent), tinkered with (The Jungle Book), or overhauled (Pete’s Dragon). They’ve simply brought it back to the screen in new fashion. Despite the evident charm and ageless brilliance of the old music and lyrics, I remained skeptical that we’d be seeing anything other than an expensive reiteration, an animated classic unnecessarily elaborated into a glittering live-action repetition. The music bursts to life with the performers’ joy, and yet what is it but corporate karaoke at the highest level? And then, the real magic happened. I got totally swept up in the experience. The filmmakers rise to the challenge, using their evident love for and serious approach to the material to make something at once old and new, a concoction that hardly bests, and certainly never replaces or improves upon, Disney’s original telling, but instead finds a fine widescreen compliment to it.

Director Bill Condon, whose energetic and affecting Dreamgirls is one of the best theater-to-screen musicals of recent memory, invests in the heart and the spectacle, swooping the camera as its characters swoon and yearn. There’s poignancy and melancholy here, and even a touch of playfulness to its phantasmagoric romance, which contains a touch more backstory than its streamlined inspiration. Unlike the much-performed Broadway adaptation, this hugely crowd-pleasing film is never lethargic and rarely ridiculous in transposing the original’s vibrant visuals into something approaching live-action visualization. It’s loaded with glamorous visions decked out in resplendent production design and slathered in CGI accoutrements, real people and photo-real(ish) talking dishes and knickknacks investing in the emotion to this fantasy.

As the movie begins, past a brief prologue in which an enchantress’ curse turns a callow prince (Dan Stevens) and his servants into a Beast and his castle’s objects, respectively, it settles into the familiar rhythms of its inspiration. Small-town French girl Belle (the bookish beauty is played by Emma Watson, her casting surely a wink to cinema’s other great recent bookish charmer) laments her provincial life. The villagers chime in “Bonjour” for the big ensemble opening number that so quickly and wittily sketches in their small-minded attitudes and stuck-in-a-rut-routines, even bull-headed Gaston (Luke Evans), who mistakenly thinks Belle will fall for him.

Soon enough, Belle’s eccentric father (Kevin Kline) is stuck in the forgotten castle in the wild forests outside their town, a captive of the beast, and she trades her freedom for his. This becomes the slowly thawing story of connection as empathy and romance as understanding that you’d hope to see. Belle and The Beast (here a CG-assisted buffalo man, not as crisp as his drawn counterpart or as haunting as Cocteau’s makeup version in the forties, but nonetheless the right balance of handsome and perverse) come to realize they’re both outsiders. Yearning for acceptance they fear the town will never give them, they therefore have to find it for themselves. A great added detail to the curse has made explicit the townspeople’s lost memories of the castle and its inhabitants, lost to suffer alone. Crisply making sense of the simple emotional beats, the movie plays nicely in the familiar while providing an emotional texture that is different enough without distracting.

The story of the curse and the potential for true love’s kiss to life it is told through the usual boisterous musical brio – “Be Our Guest” and “Something There” – and the soaring title ballad, the late Howard Ashman’s lyrics as sparklingly clever as ever. Composer Alan Menken returns to the mix as well, stirring in lovely additions to the score and terrific music-box gentle numbers that add to the film’s emotional underpinnings. Now Belle gets a chance to sing mournfully and wistfully of her childhood, and her dead mother. The cast of animate inanimate objects (French period detail speaking with the great voices of Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Stanley Tucci) laments their lost “days in the sun.” And, most moving of all, The Beast thunders out a ballad brushing up against Brief Encounter depths to what he sees as a bittersweet potential end to his story.

Sturdy, solid, industrial-strength studio craftsmanship, the film stretches out with a reliably enjoyable and transporting balance of faithful recreations and sweetly subtle new grace notes (an extra sigh, an added look, slightly richer subplots for the objects and the villagers). These moving considerations serve up exactly the movie its audience of pre-sold fans expects while noodling around the edges for new emotional terrain on the margins. It's doesn't all work. A few of the classic numbers are a touch clumsy as reimagined, usually through awkward attempts at rooting it all in gravity and probability. Did we need to know where the spotlight in “Be Our Guest” came from? Not really. We’re already buying a talking candlestick. So the movie loads up the airy fantasy with some over-explaining. But in other ways, the film’s core is strong, and the intoxicating tug of fairy tale logic is embroidered with appealing new embellishments, and the production is lavishly phony, a blend of theatrical fakery and computerized production design melded in velvety cool blues and gold cinematography. It borrows its best moments, but pulls off a likable, even transporting, new entertainment, with the music magnificently flowing, the images a picture book theme park, every big emotional beat landing, and the moving finale misty and warm in the best way.  You’ve seen it before, but, oh, how it works again!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Kong Who Would Be King: KONG: SKULL ISLAND


At least the latest big-budget creature feature, Kong: Skull Island, works where it really counts: the creatures. It presents an island full of creepy crawlies and monster mashes, not merely the expected ginormous ape, but also: towering water buffalo, massive birds, a gargantuan octopus, and a family of creepy skull-faced lizards so humungous they’d leave even the biggest, meanest dinosaur trembling in their shadows. It may not have much in the way of character or personality, either for its actors to inhabit or for its filmmaking to display – it’s all borrowed from other, better, inspirations and thinned out in the process – but the effects department earned its budget and then some. It may have the colorful aesthetic gloss of an expensive A-level picture, but its heart has more in common with the junky B-movie big monkey Kong rip-offs than the lean and mean 1933 original or the epic melancholy of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.

Moving at an impossibly rushed clip – though to what end I don’t know, as there’s not much worth hurrying to that taking time to settle into the dread and fear couldn’t improve – the movie hurtles a large cast onto Skull Island. We’re told it is hidden behind a perpetual storm system, and the film is set in an analog 1973, a double explanation as to how the place has remained uncharted. The expedition helicopters over and almost immediately runs into the main attraction. This movie’s Kong is the size of a skyscraper. If he tried to climb the Empire State Building he’d crush it in a single stomp. (But though his enormity has grown, his personality, and the movie, is second rate to earlier Kings.) He quickly thrashes the interlopers, killing all the extras and leaving the Movie Stars to fend for themselves amongst the jungle beasties. Would that any of them be allowed a sliver of personality beyond audience recognition from previous roles. It’s hard to be dazzled by the destruction when Samuel L. Jackson’s stubborn colonel, John Goodman’s crackpot explorer, Tom Hiddleston’s tracker, and Brie Larson’s photographer, are merely there to pose in the pulp. They’re asked to sell unsellable empty roles, and thus hard to care about when juxtaposed with the senseless noise around them.

Also along for the ride are Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbel, Jiang Tian, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and John Ortiz. It’s a huge cast with little to do. What the film lacks in character in makes up in characters, splitting them up, sending them hither and thither across Skull Island, wandering aimlessly into one creature’s den after the next. When they encounter, say, a gargantuan log with eyes, their first instinct is to open fire. There’s no curiosity or awe here, only bloodlust. This extends to the lack of gravity given to the imagery, monsters treated as frivolous animal foes instead of creatures in their own right. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, plucked from Sundance to helm this Hollywood undertaking, loves watching the tech and the explosions and the bloodshed – and he likes seeing Kong the MMA brawler – but gives it none of the patient dazzlement of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. There is only the grubby beauty of the jungle landscapes – crudely standing in for Vietnam in the cinematic equivalent of mumbling your way through a muddled metaphor – and the drooling beasties as ILM dumps out their design book into the wilds of the frame.

Still, no matter how inane and inert the film often is, it crackles to life when John C. Reilly stumbles into the picture as a WWII pilot lost on the island for decades. He plays up the disorientation and madness of his character with unpredictable Brule-like spasms of awkward intensity and exasperation. He brags about his Kong lore, but is quick to admit he’s never actually spoken it aloud before. Single-handedly stealing the movie out from under the most talented cast assembled for something so frivolous in a long time (since, what, National Treasure: Book of Secrets or something?), Reilly offers up personality to spare. He upstages Kong, no mean feat when the sometimes-gentle giant’s every step rattles the subwoofers (except, of course, for the scene where he is suddenly in front of Larson in an open field despite what should’ve been an inescapably long, loud walk). The rest of the movie is just empty 70’s dress up run through a copycat Kaiju playbook, with whack-a-mole monsters and crudely manipulated archetypes. We’re supposed to thrill to the fussy visual touches around the edges – a crashing helicopter from the point of view of a bobble head on the dashboard; explosions seen reflected in sunglasses; a giant octopus slurped up like Kong-sized noodle soup – and forget we’re watching much less than meets the eye.

Friday, March 3, 2017

No Country for Old Mutants: LOGAN


Logan, the latest (and maybe last, but you know how money talks) Wolverine-centric film in the X-Men franchise, contains one of the most jarring moments I’ve ever felt in a superhero movie. It takes place after an unhurried sequence in the middle of the story in which our heroes stop to rest at the farmhouse of kind strangers. Sharing a meal, they enjoy quietly the generosity offered by this kind, warm, family of normal people. For a gentle pause, they aren’t mutants on the run in a hard-charging action movie. They simply exist in the world. When violence crashes back into the picture it crashes hard. There’s a mad scientist, an evil clone, shotguns and decapitations. The whiplash is harsh, discordant. I found I had been so involved in the humanity, the real character, of the prior sequence I was suddenly resisting the intrusion of genre dictates. But that’s part of the film’s gutting approach, with glum pessimism leaving barely enough energy to squeeze itself into the expected clichés that come with a cinematic superhero suit. It’s small-scale, soft-spoken, and soulful.

Inspired by the darkest and bloodiest of Wolverine comics, writer-director James Mangold (with co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green) makes a bracing, atypical vision, with stretched anamorphic subtlety in the staging and stubborn downbeat grime in the mood. (This is certainly less colorful than his Japanese-set The Wolverine.) For a while it’s quite exhilarating to knock about in a far future (yet too close for comfort) world where the X-Men are gone for unexplained reasons and mutant kind is slowly dying out. Once rare, now rarer, no new mutant has been born in two decades. Natural born, that is. The plot hinges on Laura (Dafne Keen), an 11-year-old test tube mutant fleeing the evil corporation that made her. Its lead scientist (Richard E. Grant) wants to make gene-spliced lab-grown soldiers from the greatest hits of X-genes. But now one young subject has escaped, and she ends up running into an exhausted Logan (Hugh Jackman) and half-senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart) hiding out in the middle of nowhere at the U.S./Mexican border. A mercenary (Boyd Holbrook) with a bionic hand gives chase, and the tired old pair of marquee mutants must once more do all they can to save the future of their kind.

Placed at the far worst-case-scenario end of the film franchise’s timeline, this entry has a sorrowful finality about it. Not a grand ensemble epic, this is instead a sad and lonely chase picture, imagining the dwindling mutant population as a demonized, hunted minority. Average folks see them as a distant memory immortalized in comic book legends of yore. Corporations are deputized to round them up, hound them to extinction, and extract monetized power from them all the way there. Mangold and company take this all very seriously (or, rather, as seriously as you can while still including an evil clone). It’s bleak, watching characters we love like Jackman’s Wolverine and Stewart’s Professor X miserable and weary, on the precipice of giving up or death, whichever comes first. Because we’ve seen these great performers inhabit these roles for nearly twenty years now, there’s tremendous audience affection on which to draw, making their plight only more poignant. The early going emphasizes their isolation, pushing them into corners of the frames, surrounded by crumbling structures or grotesque “normality.” When the mute young mutant shows up needing help, the tremor of sentimentality, of hope for the future, feels life sustaining.

Cranking the gore up way past PG-13 and well into R, the line on which the previous movies about a mostly-immortal healing beast man with metal claw hands were already dancing, the movie takes an interest in imagining the toll a life of superhero violence would take on a person. Add to that the sense of despair over a history of fighting for your cohort’s safety and ending up with nothing to show for it, the movie’s core of physical, psychological, and moral exhaustion is often harrowing. Affecting, mournful, and with genuine surprise and sorrow behind its deaths gives many a bloody slice and stab its due weight. Where most superhero movies take violence as mindless sensory overload, the X-movies have often been embodied, concerned with the horror of mutation and the squirming ways the human body can turn on itself. This one in particular feeds its exciting action sequences with simple staging and brisk splatter. Wolverine is a reluctant hero, here at his most reluctant, a feature-length version of his answer to the question asked about his claws in 2000’s X-Men: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

That Mangold can pull it off while still spinning a crowd-pleasingly amusing, exciting actioner is a testament to the resiliency and elasticity of the franchise, and the willingness of cast and crew to put real heart into the slow, simple, quiet moments. Jackman’s Wolverine has always had a wounded soul beneath his star-power charisma, and here he lays it bare. He’s raw, scraping together just enough power for one last good deed. It’s a fitting tribute to the character to make what may be his farewell to the role with such a considered, complicated, and, yes, mature, performance. His scenes with Stewart crackle with genuine affection and history. Their new dependent is a wild animal when provoked (revealing a kinship between the old warrior and the young fugitive). The three of them just might make it to safety, but what then? The end-of-the-line futility gives even the fleeting moments of goodness and sweetness a sour aftertaste. The film has a compelling commitment to a certain slicing serenity, suspense visceral and absorbing yet filtered through a state of zen weariness. It knows we’re all dying, the world is collapsing, and nothing will ever again be as good as it once seemed. But maybe it’s worth trying every day to make sure children are equipped with the opportunities to do better than us with what little we can leave them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sick Daze: A CURE FOR WELLNESS


A Cure for Wellness ends up another Hollywood movie about why being a workaholic is bad. And yet director Gore Verbinski makes the whole baroque horror atmosphere and plotting so intensely odd and unsettlingly drifting that I can’t help but admire it. Even as I found myself asking, “Why am I seeing this?” during the movie’s winding, repetitive middle, I couldn’t look away. (Well, except for the part with the aesthesia-free dental drilling. I had to squirm and squint then.) It’s set largely at a massive Swiss sanitarium set up in a sprawling nightmarish castle (one which houses centuries-old secrets, no less). There you can check out, but you can never leave. So discovers ambitious finance guy Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) when sent to retrieve his company’s missing chairman. The old man (Harry Groener) has been holed up in this place receiving aqua-therapy: steamed, dipped, dripped, and dunked while drinking plenty of fluids. And yet he never seems to get any better. And the head doctor (Jason Isaacs) insinuates he won’t any time soon. And the nurses won’t seem to call Lockhart a cab. And then he somehow topsy-turvy ends up a patient there himself. Now we’re all trapped, wondering how there could possibly be a way out of this Kafka-meets-Kubrick hall of body horrors.

As it begins we see dark ominous low-angle shots of a midnight modern cityscape, towering skyscrapers like one with a single glowing office in which a harried guy checks stocks and answers emails until he dies of a heart attack. It looks like a 90’s Fincher effort – mostly The Game – or the technological/supernatural isolation and paranoia of Verbinski’s own (great) The Ring. (He’s once again working with that film’s director of photography, Bojan Bazelli, brining the beautiful film in a similarly drained sumptuousness.) But by the time the young protagonist arrives at the health spa castle in the picturesque Swiss Alps, the whole production slips easily into a modern-day Gothic horror. (It’s not only the repeated eel imagery giving the movie its slithering, inevitable forward motion.) The place has a dark history, old lockets, hidden rooms, secretive groundskeepers, eerily unbending rules, stern authority figures, and a pretty, pale young woman (Mia Goth) with a mysterious past. Lockhart is drawn deeper into the hallucinatory hallways (think a Shining hospital) and the spooky subtext as doctors don’t quite say all they mean, and teeth fall out, urine samples have icky substances floating in them, and fellow patients are increasingly confused or confusing.

Running well over two hours, the script by Verbinski and Justin Haythe (Snitch) takes its time doling out clues and suspicions, only fully unspooling its knotty, baroquely upsetting backstory in its final moments. This gives most of the film over to atmosphere, wandering down the same halls, seeing increasingly suspicious behavior and ever more unhinged gross medical procedures. Here modernity has been thoroughly colonized by the Gothic imagination. Verbinski’s strong command of tone and genre has befitted his career resuscitating old modes with a twist. He’s made a ghost story (The Ring), westerns (Rango, The Lone Ranger), pirate movies (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), madcap slapstick (Mouse Hunt) and screwball heists (The Mexican), all old-fashioned forms told with newfangled vernacular. With Wellness he drags Gothic trappings into now, tapping into a potent feeling of gaslit befuddlement. He conjures an atmosphere of unspeakable wrongness, allowing an in-over-his-head protagonist to wandering the clammy corridors and sweaty stones with increasing unease. He’s slowly losing his mind, unable to put the pieces together, pacified only by flirtations with the mystery girl and the stunning mountain views. He could very nearly forget why he’s there, but for the sudden dips into disturbing escalation: locked in a sensory deprivation chamber, hallucinating a deer in the steam room, hearing odd whistling rattles from around corners and down dark vents.

The people running the spa are quite transparently up to no good, and their constant lies and obfuscations when asked direct questions don’t seem to matter. So what if Lockhart knows they are lying when their cult of wealthy health nuts is happy in a cocoon of misinformation? There’s a perceptive strain of anti-intellectualism hiding under mindless quantification happening here, wrapped up in a nasty, pulpy mystery. (Timely, no?) It answers the question of why we’re watching this queasy blend of inevitable and adrift plotting in the same way as the question of why our protagonist doesn’t just leave. We’re all too curious to see how this thing turns out. For a finale, Verbinski has the movie devolve into a faintly more standard grotesque scramble, with vulnerable nubile flesh juxtaposed with a monster’s drooping, drooling face while the hero takes decisive action. But the filmmaker maintains such a vice grip of stunning imagery and sustained, teeth-gritted gross-out tension, straight through to the final shot, that it’s hard to shake the film’s sinister insistent spell. It’s as slithery as a bathtub full of eels wriggling around a bathing woman who peers over the edge with an inscrutable stare. The movie is full of such mesmerizing, disturbing allure. It is masterfully directed mush.
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