Friday, July 12, 2019

Gator Raid: CRAWL

Crawl is a tight, smartly constructed creature feature. Running a trim 87 minutes, it gets its premise set up fast, the better to spend most of the time milking every last jolt out of it. In short order, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's tidy screenplay places a Floridian collegiate swimmer (Kaya Scodelario) and her handyman dad (Barry Pepper) in the crawlspace of the old family home with a hurricane howling towards them and an alligator slithering down the stairs. They’re doubly trapped, water rising and gator stalking. The entire narrative thrust of the film is hoping the pair will make it out alive. There's some attention paid to the father-daughter dynamic and their prickly estrangement, but it takes an obvious background place behind their immediate dangers. That the house rapidly getting swallowed up by the angry waters is on the market as a result of a contentious divorce is a fine character detail dovetailing with the plot, seeing as the characters will have to escape not just the building, but these bad feelings in order to reconcile. Nevertheless, it's almost exclusively about the predicament involving the gator threatening to gobble them up.

The movie is compelling and entertaining, with fine physical distress and desperation played out in close quarters and sweaty closeups. The story is shaped to exploit every best option they have for escape. Given that one’s an expert swimmer and the other has a fully-stocked tool belt, they’re better equipped than most. We watch as they pick a plan, then follow it as far as they can until — WHAM! — that option, too, is closed off. Back to square one. Find the next best way out. Try again. It’s a procedural one-thing-after-another thriller that builds and builds with a fun sense of “ugh, what now!?” around every corner. The gator’s presence is convincing. Its gory chomps (the only reason the movie is R) are considerable — a Best Makeup contender, if you ask me. The harrowing sound design is all eerie splashes and a constant backbeat of howling, pounding winds and rain. And the jump scares and swimming tension are expertly doled out. Director Alexandre Aja, who may never elevate material (give him a junk screenplay like Piranha 3D and you’ll get a junk movie), but who is a perfectly competent realizer of movies, does his best work here. He’s manipulating tension and surprise, often keeping the focus on his actors' wide-eyed expressions of panicked thought, and maintaining visual interest in a contained environment. All involved make the simple premise last just long enough to satisfy. It’s exactly what it promises on the tin. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

MIDSOMMARtime Sadness

Ari Aster is the latest new horror auteur du jour. He’s now written and directed two films of excellent formal control—slowly moving the camera, manipulating soft rustling rumbling half-heard sound, and staging grotesque action to precisely modulate a sort of austere art house unease. He gets the craftspeople working well together at the tops of their games. He populates his films with expertly directed casts of phenomenal thespians howling in anguish when they’re not stupefied or lobotomized by grief. These films have passages that are quite good, but are awfully vacant in the end, having moved on autopilot through standard horror tropes without much else deeper to consider. Sure, they’re slower and more artful than the swifter schlockmeisters would serve up. They summon dread like no one’s business. They ask you to descend with the characters in unsettling situations, but I find myself asking, head down for what?

Take his debut film, Hereditary, for example. It features a galvanic performance from Toni Collette. Playing an anxious, depressed woman in the troubled wake of her difficult mother’s death, she’s so palpably troubled her skin seems to hurt. As the film’s nasty shocks get gnarlier and creepier, she grows vividly agitated, a supremely uncomfortable unraveling all the more unnerving for seeming so real as the supernatural threat around her grows dark and deep. Unfortunately the creeping sense underneath these happenings is not primarily one of sick dread, but of gradual mundane predictability. (A brutal roadside shock early in the picture is the peak of its surprise, as things going bump in the night take on a pedestrian and dull been-there-done-that occultist mishegoss.) It slowly drains the gusto out from under its lead tour de force. One of the most impressive live wire performances in recent memory (my Best Actress in any awards that’d have me as a voter last year) is stranded in a movie giving up its promise minute by minute, sequence by sequence. It's gripping craft chasing down an increasingly unproductive concept.

I was glad to see Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, is a slight improvement. Although now between the two films we can make a short dreary list of things this writer-director finds scary — cult rituals, heads falling off, family members brutally dying, naked old people — and uses as predictably self-evident, his sophomore effort does slightly more to envelop its characters in their derivative horror plot as it imposes its dark metaphor upon them while pretending it's insightful. It’s a college-students-on-a-camping-trip movie, this time a group of grad students off with a pal to visit his tiny Swedish hometown commune. A spectacular feat of precisely photographed production design, it's a memorable, sinister wide-open clearing with cabins and crops and ominous symbols. Under the intense summer sun, the peculiar rituals of this insular community take on a procedural logic of psychedelic menace, the hallucinogenic tea causing the forest landscape to pulse and warp, the cheery threat of unfamiliar tradition ladling fatal openness on top of garden variety awkwardness. The crux is that the lead (Florence Pugh) is mourning an unspeakably upsetting family tragedy, and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) is an inconsistent support system. And so maybe these cultists — with their cooperation and hard work and dance competitions, and ritual suicide, and odd breeding habits — have figured out a way to support each other? She’s tempted, but it never quite syncs up in the way the movie expects it to, losing track of her perspective and making a few leaps by the end to force its conclusion for her. Wondering why, exactly, she allows herself to trust these people after her hugely traumatic opening family trouble, and again after initial distressing suspicions, makes the finale so very hollow. But the way there is often transporting, scene after scene of slow, straight-faced setup and baggy horror tropes (Will Poulter’s surly, sarcastic tagalong is terrific comic relief of a sort that could be airlifted into a Friday the 13th) and anthropological interest (the cult’s every ceremony goes on and on). Eventually side characters disappear without satisfying payoffs, violence gets increasingly gnarly, and we’re left with our lead couple’s falling out going up in flames. Ultimately just Hostel for people who prefer some slow-drip art house sheen to the blood and guts, it never quite activates its considerable potential, but the journey there is certainly well-crafted unease with fantastic performances. Aster might have a great film in him yet.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Inside the Box: TOY STORY 4

Pixar isn’t quite what it used to be, at least not consistently. Its latest feature, Toy Story 4, is clarifying both about what’s missing and about what the folks there still do better than anyone else. It may not be the tightly wound story its predecessors are; there’s little of the exuberantly relentless clockwork plotting with intricate emotional and comedic and thematic setups and payoffs woven seamlessly together. It's a bit of a jumble: hyperfocused in some areas and wearing thin in others. But it does have the warmest voice performances in the business — the direction coaxes the actors to feel so close and emotionally present in the scenes that it’s like they’re speaking directly to one’s heart. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this sequel inherently features some of the most heartfelt and heartwarming animated creations of all time. Why, they’re so culturally omnipresent and yet so carefully maintained and lovingly dolled out — just four films in twenty five years — they’re like returning old friends. It’s fun to spend time with them in a movie that’s lovingly animated and, though stretching, doesn’t betray the spirit of the series. What a relief it's not embarrassing, even if it never feels essential or vital, either.

Once more we’re taken into the world of toys that come to life when we’re not looking, a vantage point we’re granted through the eyes of Woody the cowboy doll (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear the spaceman (Tim Allen), and friends (like Joan Cusack’s cowgirl, John Ratzenberger’s piggy bank, and Wallace Shawn’s dinosaur) now living in the little girl Bonnie’s room after original owner Andy passed them on in the last film’s tearfully bittersweet final moments. These toys’ evolving relationship to their boy formed the original’s bolt of high concept invention into a trilogy about growing older and putting aside childish things — a bold (or something like it) gambit for a franchise built, at least in part, on branding and merchandising. And yet there was a sense of completeness there; one can enjoy the idea of these toys, even forming deep attachments to them, while growing up and moving on. It could’ve stayed that way.

Still, Pixar has spent the past decade reviving their old hits in sequel after sequel to great financial gain and fair to good artistic success. They’ve stepped away from the surprising emotional throughlines and vivid imagination to retread and doodle in the margins—a creeping sense of "been there done that," whether retrofitting a clever prequel (Monsters University) or retelling a previous film’s character arc with a new lead (Cars 3, Finding Dory). (Only Incredibles 2’s slam-bang comic book second issue escaped this inessential feeling.) Yet even when the movies are good, as they mostly are, they have a ceiling the company doesn’t when they instead are heading off with a clear fresh purpose and emotional high concept hook — hence Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco shine with the best of them. Alas, the feeling of constraint is the case here. The fourth toy story opens up a tightly closed loop and dangles more adventure and more emotive experiences. We didn’t need it, and it’s never as transportive or original, but it’s loose, clever, and fine.

The filmmakers are evolving the theme of growing older by making Woody an empty nester of sorts, relegated to the back of the closet gathering dust bunnies since Bonnie rarely plays with him. Besides, loyalty and love for a new generation aside, his kid was Andy. With him off to college, Woody is feeling without purpose. Good thing he must jump into action for the typical lost toy plotting, running hither and yon to save the girl’s missing craft project (googly-eyed Forky (Tony Hale) who steals every scene until fading into the background) who is being left behind at a vacation stop. It’s all high-spirited and well intentioned, if a little undercooked, a gripping enough chase with a blessedly kind heart and gentle spirit with some chills, spills, and giggles. (Also charming are new characters like a plush bunny and ducky (Key and Peele) and a Canadian daredevil action figure (Keanu Reeves) who get more screentime than some old favorites.) It's more of the same, visually more expansive, smaller in scope, and, though I'm unconvinced it builds a persuasive case for its conclusion, a fine entertainment. Where the picture really soars is the beautifully sincere performances, and in the stunningly beautiful animation. I may not have been as entirely involved in the story as in the early entries, or found the motivation as convincing, but I definitely did sit dazzled at the best-in-the-business CG animation. The light scatters through glass and twinkles in carnival colors off shiny porcelain. You can count the divots and scratches, the wear and tear, in every surface. Movement is mesmerizingly rendered—a stiff snap of a plastic hinge; a loose limping flop of a puppet’s legs; a weird wobble of a pipe cleaner arm that looks like the real deal in close up. It’s a dazzlement. The film is a heartfelt and enjoyable experience technically expertly assembled. If we had to have another one of these, they could’ve done much worse. But now I can’t wait for Pixar to put its exceptional technical achievements into a new Toy Story instead of another Toy Story.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Artist as an Old Man: ALL IS TRUE

“Cursed be he that moves my bones,” reads William Shakespeare’s grave site. And yet here we are, once again digging up and extrapolating upon what we know of his life to dramatize for our amusement and edification. The culprit this time is Kenneth Branagh, a fine Shakespearean actor and adaptor when he’s in the mood for it. His All is True — cheeky title, that — loosely adapts what can be surmised of the Bard’s retirement into a slow, stately, shallow portrait of the writer as an old man. Branagh, his face and hair sculpted into a rough approximation of Shakespeare’s portrait, looks appropriately tired. The colorful foliage at the Stratford-upon-Avon estate is in a constant state of rustling and fading. The sunlight always glimmers through the trees and windows with an auburn autumn glow. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the classy, boisterous, rumpy-pumpy rom-com Shakespeare in Love, the other relatively recent (alas, has it been over twenty years?) exploration — ahem, wild extrapolation and fictionalization, that is — of Will’s life. Its tone made clear it was a lark, a charmer, a swooning imaginary tribute inspired by the man’s youthful creative vigor. At least that film had great playwright Tom Stoppard pulling out all the witty stops. Branagh has screenwriter Ben Elton on a more wistful, sentimental, downbeat celebratory, soft and aged tack, conjecturing mournful familial strife and assorted matters of business and reputation that we’re meant to scan as perhaps true to life or at least the spirit of it. 

It’s a movie about a man who has been away in the big city and returns to a family he’s not used to living with, a man whose works are more beloved than he is. And so here we have Judi Dench (Shakespeare’s Oscar-winning Queen in the aforementioned earlier film, come to think of it), marvelously affecting as somewhat neglected, and poignantly illiterate wife Anne. Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson play two grown daughters — one a spinster and the other in a cold marriage. (But for brief glimmers, that’s the extent of their characters.) The family is haunted by the death, some years earlier, of young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), seen in ghostly flashback to bookend the film, climatically reciting some choice soothing lines from Midsummer Night’s Dream that are a direct route to misty eyes. The movie is mostly quiet and repetitive, sometimes unconvincing in its circling surface-level conversations. The flat, shallow observation is elevated only by the terrific performances and deepened by Branagh’s occasionally lovely theatrical blocking in uncommonly patient locked-off shots with characters artfully posed and moved in depth and space within the frame. Even so, it’s at its best when springing forth with familiar words from Shakespeare’s quill in a few, key scenes of richly upholstered language and sensitive framing—the boy’s final beyond-the-grave message; a close-up of Nonso Anozie in a cameo performing a speech from Titus Andronicus; a dialogue that melts into mellifluous sonnet recitation between Will and the Earl he admired (Ian McKellen). But that’s the problem with making a new drama out of Shakespeare’s life. No matter one’s good intentions, the writing won’t be as good as his. It stands out brilliantly — a burst of light throwing unflattering attention to the middling quality of every modest line and scene — flat, simple, obvious — around it.

Friday, June 7, 2019

X-piring: DARK PHOENIX

If Dark Phoenix is really the end of the X-Men movies as we know them — before they are pulled into the homogenizing force of the MCU by Disney’s Fox acquisition, as widely assumed — then I’ll miss them. Not because this one’s a good movie, though it has its moments, but because the series, ongoing since 2000, still has potential. It came out as the first in the wave of 21st-century superhero movies and, through its ups and downs, has endured as the most authentically comic-booky: a tangled web of retcons, and widely divergent tones and levels of quality depending on the writers brought on and the whims of its owners’ corporate culture. When it comes to quality control, the series has a much lower floor than much of its superhero competition , but also a much higher ceiling. The story of superpowered mutants struggling to find acceptance, even as they save the world from itself and themselves remains a potent force. X2 and Logan and Apocalypse, the best of the best, find poignant character attributes and personal stakes in the midst of pleasurable team-building melodrama and hurtling high-impact action sequences. At worst — Origins: Wolverine, for one — the ideas and iconography are jumbled and exploited for no clear organizing creative purpose other than keeping the cash flowing. Still, the constants — mankind’s fear of the other, the marginalized finding hope and family in community, debates about acceptance and activism, all wrapped up in sleek adventure, effects, and suspense — remain a palpable thrill when done right, and hit some fine nostalgic notes by this point, too. 

Ah, but it appears I’m eulogizing the series more than I’m responding to this new feature. Alas, it’s because it’s slipping from my brain faster than I can type. I was reasonably diverted for a while, and enjoyed a few sequences and the overall mood of the picture, but when the credits rolled I was already struggling to figure how the scant plot details filled a full two hours. Veteran X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg, making his directorial debut, too, picks up the story. Now a few features out from the Days of Future Past time-travel scramble, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is once again on the verge of a high-powered meltdown. Unlike Last Stand, which already loosely handled this plot as one of many it juggled in its cluttered cataclysms, this time it’s simpler, a matter of alien intervention. The completely uncharacterized aliens (led by a rarely glimpsed and mostly monotone Jessica Chastain) did some outer space mumbo-jumbo to Jean and hope to have her, I dunno, destroy the world or something. While we wait for Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) et al to figure out the source of the problem, Jean’s uncontrollable power surges lead her to run away from the Mutant School, increasingly, episodically isolated as they, and the world at large, grow frightened of her danger. That’s it.

This leads to an unconventional paucity of action. Although effects sequences are a regular, they’re small, and used more for punctuation and emphasis for a good chunk of runtime. A bit of a push one way and it could be The Fury; push it the other way and it could be Cronenberg. You wish. It’d be a decent place to sit, making for a tone of unease, confusion, psychic pain. But unlike the best X-movies, this one doesn’t dig deep, moves laboriously from one autopilot confrontation or conflagration to the next, and rather tediously repeats moves other films in the series have done before and better. I found myself sinking when I realized we were already at the end of it all, in the climactic battle, and found myself wishing the filmmakers could’ve found something more creative and fulfilling for its tremendous cast (Michael Fassbender! Jennifer Lawrence! Nicolas Hoult! And so on!) to accomplish, especially if this is to be their curtain call. This movie begins in a rousing space shuttle rescue and continues to vein-popping psychic tug-of-war, but loses early promise through limp drama, then ends in a dispiritingly mismanaged finale. It’s an endless sludgy CG shooting gallery — a deafening, deadening, hyper-violent sequence of anonymous shredded bodies pushing against (and occasionally crossing past, by my estimation) the upper limit of the PG-13. And for that trouble, the movie is oddly scaled, with potentially apocalyptic personal and universal stakes whittled down to a neon storm cloud and a cast of some of our finest actors scowling at it. Sheesh. What a way to go.

Friday, May 31, 2019

All Rise: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Godzilla: King of the Monsters lacks the majestic poetry of the 2014 reboot to which it’s a sequel. That film drew added thrill in its awestruck horror and tightly choreographed suspense sequences by emphasizing the vulnerability and inconsequentiality of any one human in the face of an enormous monster’s rampage. Its main human characters weren’t those who could save the day; they had no control over the plot. They simply could move through the frame, dwarfed by effects in the background, as the camera peered up into oblivion. This perspective led some to claim the film erred on the side of underdeveloped characters; those who clung to this line of attack were perhaps misdiagnosing their new sense of futility in the face of what used to be man-in-a-rubber-suit monster tussling in what might have once seemed a safely quarantined atomic-age metaphor. The sequel couldn’t possibly contain this masterful shock of vulnerability and design, especially since it was reportedly conceived with the task of providing more regular doses of kaiju destruction in a more conventional style. And yet it’s of enough a stylistic piece with the earlier movie to provide a consistent spectacle of destruction.

Where this new film extends its predecessor’s concerns may not be in the poetry, but can be found in its continued emphasis on humanity’s near total inconsequential response to the emergence of these monsters. Now not just Godzilla, the world is seeing a resurgence of many beasts those of us who know and love the old kaiju pictures will recognize in new, bigger, louder, scarier modern forms, including: fire-breathing pterodactyl Rodan; enormous moth Mothra; and three-headed, lightning-spewing hydra Ghidorah. As soon as you hear that a privatized research organization (led by returning cast members Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) has identified those hibernating beasts and is wrangling with the military vis-à-vis their respective threat potential, you just know these ginormous critters are going to wake up and demolish cities. You’d know this, too, because it’s the promise of a movie like this. And it does enough to satisfy that promise. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) makes the inevitable a faster, more cacophonous experience, escalating the last film’s patience and scale while maintaining its sense of humans dwarfed by the monsters’ behaviors. The ensemble of researchers and strategists, advisors and soldiers (a terrific cast of welcome recognizable faces including Bradley Whitford, Ziyi Zhang, Aisha Hinds, Charles Dance, Anthony Ramos, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) all seem to have an idea of how to control the situation, even as they fall into conflict with each other in the process of realizing they haven’t a clue.

In old-fashioned Godzilla fashion, there’s a lot of human drama to wade through between scenes of destruction. (We even have a standard sentimental rooting interest in a family — Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, and Millie Bobby Brown — torn apart by the factions.) Here we find characters who think they’re the solution, but find they’re the cause. It’s too late. Nature is past the tipping point. Humanity is no longer in control, if it ever truly was. There’s a potent climate change parable somewhere in here. We’ve made these conditions. Now we have to survive it. Monsters tear apart cities and collide in brutal throwdowns that pound the subwoofer and send particulate matter swirling across the screen. A beast unfurls its wings atop an erupting volcano. A massive beak catches an ejecting pilot with an almost-accidental dwarfing snap. A giant spider leg slices up through an oil well. A humongous dino-thing plows through a skyscraper shoulder-first. Dougherty does good work keeping some human element on screen to emphasize scale, and though his sequences are more about steady bombast than modulation, have a booming satisfaction in the lumbering personalities the creatures present. One roots for the big lizard like a prizewinning boxer up against the loathsome overdog, whooping at every success and cringing at every blow. It’s good, overwhelming fun, rumbling with occasional uneven human elements (par for the course, really) until I was satisfied to submit and bow down once more before Godzilla. Long live the king.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Superbad: BRIGHTBURN

Brightburn is a high-concept horror movie that gathers its dread not only from spinning a classic story in an opposite direction, but from pricking at a parental and societal fear with something approaching real psychological acuity. It starts with a childless Kansas couple whose farmhouse is rattled by a falling meteor that turns out to house a baby. This special boy fell from the heavens and they decide to raise him as their own. As he is entering puberty, he slowly discovers strange powers: strength, speed, flight, invulnerability, laser-eyes. We’ve been here before, but there is no heroism on the horizon. Like many 12-year-old boys, he reacts to his changing body as a source of confusion and shame. And yet, with no Superman pull towards virtuous self-discovering and inevitable do-good mentality here, he instead retreats into himself, his entitlement, his budding interest in pulling apart animals and lurking after pretty classmates. He grows secretive, hiding these urges, lashing out inappropriately. His adoptive parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are at a loss. What happened to their sweet little boy? He’s surly, distant, lying. It’s putting a strain on their relationship. The movie does well by treating this seriously with emotionally perceptive scenes of drama well played. It prickles with suspense drawn out of the simple parental concern that one’s offspring might grow — or twist or disappear — beyond understanding, beyond help, beyond control.  It put me in mind to wonder what mothers and fathers must feel when they find, much to their surprise, that their babies have grown up to be those who send death threats to critics who don’t like comic books or video games, who harass women, who become white supremacists or male chauvinists, who become mass shooters and serial killers. Where does the love go when the apple falls so far from the tree? How can one help a child who falls so far into such extremes? It may be set in pulp, a superhero slasher riffing on expectations. But it as an all-too-real insight at its core. Here, as we watch this boy — a terrifically chilling performance from Jackson A. Dunn who brings hauntingly cold eyes, a flat affect, and a vacant chilled stare — cross the line from puberty to sociopathy, to murderous intent, it’s unsettling predictable to watch him grow into his full violent potential. As director David Yarovesky capably stages Brian and Mark Gunn’s screenplay’s increasingly gross and bloody slasher film set pieces, a small but splattered body count steadily accrues in typical horror movie rhythms. Long silences, copious empty space, stings of orchestration, sudden movements, spurts of blood and viscera. It all grows out of its steadily upsetting premise. The movie only steps wrong in its end credits, which escalate a step too far for a credit cookie and give you time to contemplate how two key supporting characters have been misplaced in a rush to the end. But nonetheless, the film otherwise latches so firmly to its good idea, and keeps a tight focus on a parental relationship. It has a tight grip. The horror is not merely in the murders or the dark charge of a Smallville torn apart by growing superpowers gone wrong. It’s in the sense that this is a result of an American way that’s lost its way (an emptying modern small town far from the Norman Rockwell vision of Americana) and a look into the eyes of a well-intentioned mother — Banks trembling with steely resolve and unfathomable distressing betrayal — who sees her son slip into a heart of darkness.