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

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cats & Dogs: CATS and TOGO

Cats is questionable on every level you can imagine: narrative, musical, aesthetic, anatomical. Only a movie so convinced of its tony, glossy, respectable, good-taste nature could fail on all counts so completely. It’s some kind of amazing. Those who set out to make a midnight movie inexplicable on purpose will be jealous, standing in awe for a true blue unintended wild pitch, a cracked cult classic in the making. I’m almost glad it exists for no reason but that there’s nothing else like it. It’s boring and fascinating, confusing and striking in equal measure. If it was an obscurity dug up decades hence — think bonkers musical movies past like The Apple and so forth — we might be better prepared to take its sheer unlikely collection of bad decisions as quaint eccentricity rather than an assault on our senses. It’s both, of course.

Built from one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most dubious musicals to begin with, the picture matches the stage version’s patchy story and sluggish pace. It’s about a group of cats milling about on the night of their yearly ritual in which their pseudo-supernatural queen (Judi Dench, so good she’s believable) chooses one lucky cat to die and be reincarnated. While they await her decision, one cat at a time steps forward and performs a little song and dance introducing their name and some quality they posses. There’s an abandoned young cat (ballerina Francesca Hayward). There’s a cat that lays around all day (Rebel Wilson), one that eats garbage (James Corden), another that likes milk (Jason Derulo) — all normal cat behavior. Then there’s a cat that rides on a train (tap dancer Steven McRae), and one that sits in a theatre (Ian McKellen). Fair enough. Then there’s a cat that’s a magician (Laurie Davidson) and a cat that’s some sort of evil sorcerer (Idris Elba) with a slinky henchwoman (Taylor Swift). The lonely old cat (Jennifer Hudson) is the best, because she gets to sing the musical’s one good song — “Memory,” the only one anyone unfamiliar with the stage production has heard going in. That’s the full extent of the movie, a weird shapeless thing faithful to its oddball roots. And yet what elevates it — or lowers it, your milage varying — is every cinematic decision that compounds disbelief by the second. Director Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech and the excellent musical Les Miserables, demonstrates powers of mad erratic imagination his earlier, safer prestige projects have heretofore shown little inclination toward.

He shoots it on a big unreal stage in scope from low angles, accentuating the feline perspective, and then proceeds to populate the proceedings with singing and dancing CG-human hybrid monstrosities straight from the uncanny valley. They are not the stage’s leotard and makeup creations; nor do they use digital wizardry to transpose motion-captured movie stars into the bodies of vaguely realistic cats. It’s instead a layering of digital fur over the bodies of the performers so that we have plenty of time to consider the human form ensconced in this animal texture. They never look like cats, and never like people. Instead of a digital extension of the artifice provided by stage makeup, it gives long close-ups and medium shots of expressive dancing and emotive singing an odd push and pull. How often do we actually stare at quivering lips and wrinkling noses as they fill the frame? We also get long opportunities to trace the contours of the muscles in hips and torsos as they ripple under artificial skin? The dancer’s posteriors, too, are distractingly human under long, twitching tails, in bodies both real and unreal, human and not. Their bodies are only further accentuated by the cats occasionally wearing snazzy little hats or coats, drawing attention to their otherwise completely bared fur. What a marvelously unhinged visual distraction, appealing and revolting in equal measure, depending on the movement or the camera angle. It’s an image of partially-real creatures — too human to be cat, too cat to be human — dancing in partially-real sets — occasionally extending into gleamingly fake city streets where the cats are either half the size of an average person or a fourth of the size of the average house pet. It’d be worth seeing if it wasn’t put to use for such baffling lack of effect for production numbers that rarely add up to much in a story that never coheres for characters that never develop. What an expensive boondoggle. It sure is something.

Far more conventionally satisfying animal filmmaking is Togo, a humble based-on-a-true-story programmer slipped out onto Disney+ in the shadow of splashier family fare at the multiplex this holiday season. If you recall Universal’s 1995 animated picture Balto, about a sled dog racing to deliver much-needed medicine into the wilds of 1920s Alaska, you know the gist, although this movie will tell you Togo did far more than him. Here Willem Dafoe is a stoic human face guiding his good dogs across the wilderness as the children of small town Nome sit afflicted with diphtheria, a fatal diagnosis if left untreated. He’s the sort of sensitive, stubborn man so driven, and so good at inspiring his dogs, that he’ll holler one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches over the sound of the whirling winds and cracking ice. Flashbacks fill in the details of the lead dog’s life, as he goes from an energetic pup in need of training to an underdog with the unlikely spirit and skill to lead the team through treacherous terrain at the behest of his kind owner. It’s a dog story, a real adventure told with low-key pace, rugged faces against awesome landscapes, natural hues, and beautiful nature-photography appeal. Director/cinematographer Ericson Core has a keen eye for these details. There’s great Jack London verisimilitude to the real dogs and settings, and the progression through the details of making such a journey at such a time with these resources. We meet a variety of grizzled characters and see tenderly realized portraits of townspeople doing what they can to help. And we see the toll it can take on those who do good despite the odds, even after their deeds are done. Throughout there’s great skill and tension on display, a driving forward momentum pinned to its elemental man (and dog) versus nature tale. It has a quiet, patient sense of narrative and emotional clarity as pure and simple as the task at hand. Just goes to remind you there’s nothing like a good old fashioned story told cleanly and simply.

Friday, December 20, 2019


And now we arrive at an ending, although we’ve been here twice before. Star Wars is now a collection of three trilogies: George Lucas’s great founding original and a largely terrific (divisive) prequel, and a sequel trilogy composed of deliberate echoes and remixes non-Lucas stewards have made. Back in the hands of writer-director J.J. Abrams, whose Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a skillful reboot in bringing the world back to life with new characters meeting the old, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest disappointment is that it’s in such a big hurry to end the story just as it was getting good. It has to rush to tie up loose ends while letting others linger, and making new ones along the way. The previous entry, Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, was an astonishing work, about as striking, surprising, and enriching as a corporate-mandated intellectual-property extension could be. It boldly deepened the stock personalities of aspiring Padawn Rey (Daisy Ridley), stubborn pilot Poe (Oscar Issac), and fresh recruit Finn (John Boyega), complicated the stormy interiority of villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), lovingly sent troubled old heroes into the sunset, and picked up the plot threads Abrams left dangling and ran with them. The future was wide open. After that film, it felt like the story could go anywhere in the galaxy. But now it’s time to end, and to do so we need a plot that moves at the speed of light, as spaceships moving at the speed of exposition need to hop planet to planet setting up the end game. Abrams simply steps back in, telling us right away that the conflict between the Imperial wannabe First Order and the woefully underpopulated Resistance is now, all of a sudden, at a tipping point. What’s new is old again. And vice versa.

As surface satisfying as it is to stage one last big galactic blowout, a confrontation of good versus evil with lineage stretching back across the trilogies, I found myself missing the characters already and wishing we could’ve set it up more thoroughly. Time spent zapping hither and thither is crammed into the first hour to set up the whiz-bang finale, each stop having the typically Star-Wars-ian menagerie of delights: fun creatures, cool robots, and a hodgepodge style all its own. There’s so much, cut so quickly, that there’s no time for this to settle, little patience for the character work of previous entries. That’s because the stakes are suddenly very high (although Abrams’ vision of the State of the Galaxy has nothing on Lucas’s brilliance at suggestive scope). This concluding chapter finds the evil Sith spirit of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) trying to come back to life and claim his place as leader of the Galaxy. (The gaps in narrative to make this make sense are begging to be backfilled with the ancillary materials this franchise has long enjoyed.) There’s high-energy action, zippy quips, reverent symbolism, and tearful goodbyes. (The narrative write-around for Carrie Fisher’s real-life death is strained, but better than writing her out entirely.) And yet, as it should, the film finds its center not in the voluminous fan service, a cast so overstuffed that great figures from past films are sidelined, or quickly, sparsely characterized new personalities destined for spinoffs of one kind (the usual books and comics and video games) or another (Disney+, here they come?). No, it’s in the faces of Rey and Kylo as they wrestle with the same old struggle their ancestors have in the stories told before.

There’s the push and pull of destiny and expectation, the draw of the dark side and the call to the light, the yearning for balance and the cravings for power. That their stories have been allowed to exist across three films as this peculiar connection — the one truly, beautifully unique addition to the canon in all this — gives these films their own power. Not just drafting off the hero’s journey architecture of the earlier trilogies, they gain from letting two fine actors play the psychic connection and the spiritual torment. Sure, it’s still in the context of space opera done up in glorious style with all the digital sturm und drang Disney can buy, but there’s a real charge between them. The movie’s at its best when it steers into the pulp fantasy spiritualism and romanticism — when the sky opens up, and there’s nothing but stars, and the voices of the past swirl and call. And though the past is fading away, and the present holds the promise of just more conflict like the ones we’ve seen before — dogfights and laser blasts doomed to repeat forever — in many iterations, the future is still unwritten. Ridley’s wild, vibrant eyes and Driver’s moody stares, her steady calm even in distress, his electric unpredictability even in control, bring them into two halves of a whole, the balanced force personified. They’re attuned to the film’s metaphysical undercurrent, even as Abrams world-building remains both imaginative and under-explained, a constant churn of movement and MacGuffins. It has this ice-and-fire emotional center latent in The Force Awakens, brought to the fore by Johnson and now taken to a fitting conclusion here. Abrams, always a fine technician of a filmmaker, here, with cinematographer Dan Mindel and the artisans in the effects departments, finds some of his loveliest images, and in the midst of the hurry and bombast brings it back to Rey. Fittingly, the hero of this trilogy is a scavenger, introduced digging in the wreckage of a story that came before her, and, by the end, has found something to hold onto.