Friday, February 21, 2020

Fate of the Furriest: THE CALL OF THE WILD

Chris Sanders, animator and director behind such modern family classics as Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, now gives us a Great Illustrated Classics gloss on the middle school staple The Call of the Wild. The movie sands down Jack London’s brutal law of club and fang, retaining its episodic pull devolving a pampered house dog to a more instinctual creature of the wilderness, but making it bloodless and glancingly brutal. Here’s a rich man’s dog stolen away to the Yukon on a Gold Rush dogsled, battered in silhouette, confronted with stock villainy from alpha dogs, until one day he stand with his snout held high as the leader of the pack. By the end, he won’t need human masters at all. Sanders places computer animated dogs — rendered with more expressive realism than Favreau’s brain-dead Lion King Xerox, due to a hint of humanity in motion capture movements by Terry Notary and a dash of cartoon to lolling grins and twinkling eyes — next to human actors and gleaming fake landscapes. It’s all tweaked and heightened, Janusz Kaminski making a glowing Bob Ross backdrop of perfect forests and postcard ready snowcapped mountains, with a picture book appeal. When a dog is dramatically backlit by the Auroa Bourealis, or a mossy cabin is encrusted with the most verdant greens in an oasis right out of Tom Waits’ Buster Scruggs chapter, it’s nothing less than simple a-man-and-his-dog perfection. Here London’s story of canine instincts and the interiority of the animals is more or less intact for the novel’s first half until the second veers into screenplay tricks, obvious setups and payoffs, and a dash of sentimental gilding of its reconfigured, dramatically convenient conclusion. We get avalanches and dashes to destinations and low-key panning for gold as the dog shares the stage with beefed up roles for humans. There’s a wisp of a background love story for two Quebecois mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), and a sniveling villain in a pompous rich prospector wannabe (Dan Stevens). And, best of all, throughout the film are the grizzled world-weary charms of a lovable Harrison Ford, whose ways with land and beast show him to be a true Jack London vision of benevolent masculinity. He’s grandfatherly and stolidly adventurous in all the right ways, and such a spry 77 that I’m not doubting a prospective fifth Indiana Jones as much as I was before. (Can you believe we thought he was nearly too old back when the fourth one came out, or that that one was twelve years ago?) What we’re left with is a movie of poses and personalities, pulled along by a classic story’s sturdy structure. It’s no great shakes, and no SparksNotes replacement, either, but it’s what, in earlier years, would’ve been a long-running kids’ matinee picture, a classy, square diversion with the right humble peaks of excitement and charm amidst a relaxed aged stars’ easy charisma and talented filmmakers’ perfectly phony visual splendor.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Flight Risk: BIRDS OF PREY

The key object in Birds of Prey is a priceless diamond everyone’s waiting for a pickpocket to defecate, and if that’s not a metaphor for the current state of superhero Hollywood, I don’t know what is. Here’s yet another movie that tries to wring originality out of the subgenre by swallowing another genre whole and attempting to digest whatever charm can be found by extruding it out the other end. In this case, we get a small crime picture, shades of noir, with circling mobsters and cops, that missing diamond, and a host of scheming tough gals whose competing agendas just might align long enough to take down some badder guys. It’s done up in a half-real pop art explosion of Gotham City, though this DC spinoff luckily avoids the toxic cheese of Suicide Squad and the pretentious thematic mess of Joker, the last two villain-centric Batman-adjacent pictures. This one’s just barely the best of the three, mostly by finding a genuinely wackadoo performance at its center. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix, shackled to an origin story that left lots of room for capital-A acting, but little in the way of coherent ideas, this film gets Margot Robbie in a tour-de-comic-book-force, squeaking and squirming and strutting and pouting and slouching (even, by the end, rollerskating) all over every line reading. We’re never meant to take her Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend, as a person. It’s hard to invest in the character’s plight, but it’s fun to see Robbie’s having a blast. Here she’s a bubble gum time bomb, a splash panel drawn in smirks and squiggles, in a movie that sets its tone as equal parts cotton candy and corroded battery. The whole thing’s sugar-high insubstantial and poison-dart smiley face cynical complete with sickly cutesy title cards and doodles on freeze frames. But I did like the overt musical Howard Hawks homage, and when she storms a police station with glitter bombs then, later, under the downpour of a misfiring sprinkler system. The movie’s a bad good time, or a good bad time, right up until you realize it’s nothing at all.

The screenplay from Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) is told in a jumble of chronology to bend the narrative to the scattershot personality problems of its main antihero, name dropped in the self-consciously wordy parenthetical subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. It’s like Deadpool if he was a fourth as self-aware and twice as pleasant company. We get the backstory of a half-dozen characters and endless wheel-spinning setup for most of the relatively slim runtime, just reason enough to give enjoyable performers occasion to swan around in silly caricature performances that are never quite funny enough to call comedic, and never once grounded enough to feel the weight of the stakes. There’s Rosie Perez as a no-nonsense detective, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a crossbow killer motorcyclist, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a deadly lounge singer, and Ella Jay Basco as the aforementioned pickpocket, a surly and precocious teen. Together they form the unlikely allies who’ll eventually confront the preening gangster played by Ewan McGregor and his bleach-blonde, face-peeling (a particularly, discordantly gross detail) henchman (Chris Messina). When the action finally hits, and the women all work together in a funhouse carnival climax, it’s a fun bit of cleanly cut and crisply choreographed action. The way there is a halting, stop-and-start maze of exposition and vulgar banter that’s both too much and not enough, holding the rest of the DC cinematic universe at arm’s length to protect its R-rated violence and cussing, while avoiding getting tangled in continuity dilemmas. It feels like its own thing, to the extent it can, though it has nothing on the joys of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam! Director Cathy Yan can stage action and set a scene in relatively eye-catching ways, and keeps the plates spinning fast enough to stave off complaints of the film’s thinness and predictable plot moves. There’s a diamond in there if you can wade through the rest of it.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Whatcha Gonna Do?: BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

There’s a new Bad Boys in town, a belated sequel to two early baroque Michael Bay efforts that teamed Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as wise-cracking reckless cops barreling down the heat-stroke, bass bumping, waterfront streets of Miami. This one is Bad Boys for Life. Why they didn’t save that title for a fourth entry, I don’t know. The fact that Bay didn’t return to helm the adventure gives it a style that matches its theme: these guys have to settle down. And so the movie — despite blasting its score and blowing up stuff real good — is a calmer, smoother affair. It may not have the wild stylistic flourish of Bad Boys II’s camera flying in circles through a cramped shootout or hurtling down a hillside as Hummers demolish a tinny kingpin village, but Robrecht Heyvaert’s velvety sun-streaked cinematography has plenty of deep colors and low angles. It looks up at the larger-than-life stars even as the characterizations bring them down to earth. And that’s always the appeal of these movies, the fact that these cops’ behaviors are at once over-the-top and cornball, a serious glowering cool slathered over japing insecurities. Here the plot concerns itself with one of the partners (Lawrence) looking to take a retirement and enjoy relaxing for awhile, and the other (Smith) on a mission to hunt down a mysterious gunman who tried to kill him. Guess which storyline lasts? Of course this means car chases, gun fights, and hand-to-hand combat, often culminating in elaborate pyrotechnic displays. It also now includes a team of youthful sidekicks (Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, and Alexander Ludwig), complete with drone surveillance and hacking skills in addition to professional-quality stunt driving and marksmanship, who highlight the fact that the young heroes of 1995 and 2003 are now, two decades hence, looking a little past their prime compared to the lean, tech-savy, pretty faces next to them. And yet, with swaggering movie star performances set to megawatt dazzle and scene-stealing charm, they’re not going to cede the spotlight easily. As if taking those cues, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, while dutifully fulfilling the look and style of a 90’s action comedy brought into the present day, stage everything simply and cleanly. It’s at a slightly slower pace than it was before, but rocketing forward with the requisite action at regular intervals. It tries to build a moderately heavier emotional architecture — with sentimental family interest, sad twists, and backstory info dumps — but falls back a few times into its creaky ideas of hand-waved police brutality and casual suspicion of masculine emotion. (The screenplay, massaged through a few drafts by a few hands, including action pro Joe Carnahan, who nearly directed, too.) It’s noisy and silly and thin, and reveals just how much Bay’s frenzied style propped up in the earlier pictures. But the stars shine so bright, the action kabooms so loud, and the tropes wring out enough satisfying conflict and suspense that it’s a fairly enjoyable time at the movies anyway.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2019

1. Us
2. Little Women
3. The Farewell
4. The Irishman
5. Once Upon a Hollywood
6. Dark Waters
7. Wild Rose
8. Hustlers
9. Transit
10. A Hidden Life

Film Out of Time Award: Amazing Grace

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically):
Alita: Battle Angel; At the Heart of Gold; Atlantics; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Brightburn; By the Grace of God; Climax; Doctor Sleep; Dora and the Lost City of Gold; Frozen II; High Flying Bird; High Life; How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; I Love You, Now Die; John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch; John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum; Knives Out; The Laundromat; The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part; Long Day's Journey into Night; The Man who Killed Don Quixote; Marriage Story; Pain and Glory; Parasite; The Report; Richard Jewell; Shazam!; Uncut Gems; Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Other 2019 Bests 

Other 2019 Bests

Cinematography (Film):
Ad Astra
The Beach Bum
Little Women
Once Upon a Hollywood
Uncut Gems

Cinematography (Digital):
Dark Waters
A Hidden Life
High Flying Bird
Long Day’s Journey into Night

Best Set/Art Direction:
Knives Out
Little Women
Once Upon a Hollywood

Best Hair and Makeup:
Little Women
Once Upon a Hollywood

Best Costumes:
Little Women
The Man who Killed Don Quixote
Once Upon a Hollywood

Best Stunts:
Ford v. Ferrari
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
Once Upon a Hollywood
6 Underground

Best Sound:
Alita: Battle Angel
Once Upon a Hollywood
Uncut Gems

“Catchy Song” — The LEGO Movie 2
“The Dead Don’t Die” — The Dead Don’t Die
“Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” — Wild Rose
“Lost in the Woods” — Frozen II
“Show Yourself” — Frozen II

The Farewell
A Hidden Life
Little Women

Ad Astra
Alita: Battle Angel
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
High Life
The Irishman

Screenplay (Adapted):
Dark Waters
The Irishman
Little Women

Screenplay (Original):
The Farewell
Once Upon a Hollywood
Wild Rose

Best Editing:
The Irishman
Little Women
Once Upon a Hollywood
Uncut Gems

Best Animated Film:
Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Best Documentary:
At the Heart of Gold
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
Knock Down the House
Leaving Neverland

Best Non-English Language Film:
By the Grace of God
Long Day’s Journey into Night

Best Supporting Actress:
Jennifer Lopez — Hustlers
Florence Pugh — Little Women
Margot Robbie — Once Upon a Hollywood
Zhou Shuzhen — The Farewell
Julie Walters — Wild Rose

Best Supporting Actor:
Winston Duke — Us
Song Kang Ho — Parasite
Shia LaBeouf — Honey Boy
Joe Pesci — The Irishman
Brad Pitt — Once Upon a Hollywood

Best Actor:
Robert DeNiro — The Irishman
Leonardo DiCaprio — Once Upon a Hollywood
Adam Driver — Marriage Story
Mark Ruffalo — Dark Waters
Adam Sandler — Uncut Gems

Best Actress:
Awkwafina — The Farewell
Jessie Buckley — Wild Rose
Scarlett Johansson — Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o — Us
Saoirse Ronan — Little Women

Best Director:
Greta Gerwig — Little Women  
Jordan Peele — Us
Martin Scorsese — The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino — Once Upon a Hollywood
Lulu Wang — The Farewell

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Now and Then: LITTLE WOMEN

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women faithfully adapts that novel’s cozy qualities, its warm-hearted temperament, closely observed sentiment, and its easy grip on its audience’s sympathies. The story of the four March daughters and their quiet domestic pleasantries and tragedies, relationships and developments, is put across faithfully with great spirited sisterly energy, as loving and honest as the best, closest sibling friendships. Certainly, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel of Civil War-era family life has produced plenty faithful adaptations before. Gerwig casts well, keeps a good pace, shepherds expert production design and textured cinematography, dramatizes every memorable scene, and has a keen eye for filmic detail. But what really lifts it off and sets it apart is the structure. She takes the two halves of the book — the early younger days where the young ladies are first flowering into adolescence and figuring out themselves and world; and then as slightly older young women as they mature into the adult lives they’ll live — and places them side by side. There are many other adaptations to reiterate the text in sequential order. Here it’s both familiar and fresh, enlivened by the contrast. Cutting intuitively between these two periods of time, each with their own conflicts and concerns, yet intertwined through the personalities of the women involved, there are echoes and comparisons, connections and collisions. Viewing the events in this way is a freshly productive way of understanding the classic story, of seeing anew how the decisions and personalties of girlhood directly inform and shape the outcomes of womanhood as they grow and change, either fulfilling their early dreams or deciding to go about them in a different way.

There’s great maturity and inquisitiveness here, seeing the grown-up concerns of money and careers and family obligations set against the children’s imagination and fervor and mood. It also serves to stack moments of great emotional peaks on top of each other, weddings atop funerals, recoveries atop deathly sickness, reunions atop separations, loneliness atop togetherness. And yet each scene works splendidly on its own, apart from the brilliant structural conceit, Gerwig imbuing the moments with tender humanity and deep wells of feeling. Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth), deftly balancing between the timelines with depth, energy, and poise, make believable sisters, jostling their differing personalties and divergent paths against each other over a consistent underpinning of love. (The rest of the cast — Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel — is perfectly assembled out of character actors who bring their decades of good work and reliable screen presences to the overwhelming sense of comfort and compassion, even in hard times, in this telling.) With an enveloping spirit of goodwill, charting the family’s dramas in sweet, sharp episodic detail, Gerwig builds to a climax of such tricky dexterity, an intertwining of plot catharsis with a sweetly considered, effervescently casual metatextuality that pays off with delicate, simple visual flourishes and an overflow of emotion. It sees passionately in Jo a creative spirit, all too aware of the compromises expected of her gender and class, headstrong in pursuit of her ambitions, and heartrendingly perceptive about her strengths and weaknesses, borne aloft in the end by the strength of her own story. What a thrill that Gerwig has not only built a fully satisfying, deeply moving retelling of a classic novel, but also builds into the bones a compelling argument about it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Playing with a Full Decade: FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 2010s

First, the prerequisite hand-wringing about list-making. Of course it's hard to wrestle down a decade into a list of ten movies. Ten years is too vast a span of time, with a variety of trends and ideas, fads and fashions, economic fluctuations and political conditions. What follows is my attempt to demonstrate movies I've found myself thinking of again and again, the cinematic experiences that seem to crystallize something essential about what it felt like to be alive as a cinephile like me in this time and place.

More practically speaking, I limited myself to one movie per filmmaker. That made it a tough call when picking a representative Spielberg or Coen brothers film, and an impossible one for other masters on productive runs this decade, hence no Soderbergh or Scorsese.

 Without further ado, here's a top ten, in alphabetical order. 

Bridge of Spies
First Reformed
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Social Network
The Tree of Life
Twin Peaks: The Return
Two Days, One Night

Not content to limit myself, I expanded my list to 100. To make it manageable I did impose some artificial requirements. Firstly, I picked exactly 10 movies per year. Secondly, I chose no more than one movie per filmmaker across the whole list. (Sorry, The Wolf of Wall Street and Lincoln and Personal Shopper and To the Wonder and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and...) I think of this as a snapshot of my taste as of right now looking back on the past decade. Comparing each year's list to my original top tens, I found hindsight, the passage of time, and my arbitrary rules resulted in fresh looks at what's lasted in my affection. Not comprehensive, exactly, I'm mostly posting this for my own time-capsule benefit, but you're more than welcome to poke around for recommendations.

Another Year
Black Swan
Never Let Me Go
A Prophet
Shutter Island
The Social Network
Step Up 3D
Tron Legacy

Certified Copy
The Interrupters
The Skin I Live In
The Tree of Life
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Trip

Cloud Atlas
Five Broken Cameras
Goodbye First Love
The Grey
Holy Motors
John Carter
Not Fade Away
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

At Berkeley
Captain Phillips
The Counselor
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Lone Ranger
Spring Breakers
12 Years a Slave
The Wind Rises
The World's End

Beyond the Lights
The Congress
Goodbye to Language
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Only Lovers Left Alive
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
Two Days, One Night
Under the Skin

Bridge of Spies
Clouds of Sils Maria
The Look of Silence
Mad Max: Fury Road
Magic Mike XXL
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mistress America

Certain Women
The Nice Guys
OJ: Made in America
Other People
Toni Erdmann
The Witch

Faces Places
Princess Cyd
Phantom Thread
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Twin Peaks: The Return

The Favourite
First Reformed
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Leave No Trace
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Never Look Away
Private Life
Support the Girls

Dark Waters
The Farewell
High Life
Little Women
Once Upon a Hollywood
Wild Rose