Thursday, May 16, 2019

...Baby, One More Time: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 -- PARABELLUM

In case you hadn’t yet realized John Wick is positioned as a thinking filmgoer’s elegantly brutal action franchise, Keanu Reeves’ eponymous master assassin uses only a library book to kill a man in Chapter 3’s opening bout. (And he gingerly reshelves it afterwards.) The film picks up from the end of the mildly disappointing sequel to the cleverly simple original in which Wick was drawn back into the underworld life to avenge the death of his beloved puppy. The first sequel dealt with consequences — a film that was all build up to its protagonist breaking his professional code of conduct and consequently getting a death mark placed on him. It left him on the run on a dark and stormy New York City night, and that’s where we pick up with him now. Reeves, all zen cool surfaces under which coils deadly virtuosity and simmering exhausted rage, once again glides bruised and battered through a successively elaborate series of action sequences, some of the finest of not only this series but of his career, or anyone else’s for that matter. The expertly modulated and wittily staged combat — nearly as intricate and faux-improvisatory at its best as anything Jackie Chan did in his heyday; see the great early work with a display case of knives here! — all puts the normal green screen glop of most modern action to shame. Once again director Chad Stahelski stages it in loving takes that are longer and more visceral than its genre compatriots — the cinematography all neon, black velvet, wet asphalt, and crystal clear. Derek Kolstad's screenplay is shaped with fine crescendoes and shorthand, making quick work of establishing mysterious new wild cards (Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston), servicing old allies (Ian McShane, Lance Reddick), and introducing appealingly eccentric new baddies (Mark Dacascos and Asia Kate Dillon). He also finds excellent, exciting variety — hand-to-hand through an antique weapon shop, on horseback, amongst sword-wielding motorcyclists (a la Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess), through walls, and up and down a multi-level glass penthouse. Like a well-crafted musical — though here a clothesline of appealing narrative goes between shoot-em-up showstoppers — or classic pornography — here teasing buildup before bodies collide and weapons penetrate — the movie makes quick, effective work of moving in and out of our reason for buying a ticket without growing repetitive or exhausted of ingenuity. But it also knows the audience loves Reeves’ impassive determination mixed with hypercompetence cut with bone-dry humor, the franchise’s increasingly baroque mythology dripping in ritual and symbolism amongst hitmen and women, and the sheer delight of seeing where the punches and slashes and shots land. Why, even a cheerful villain, bleeding out onto the floor after a spectacular set piece late in the picture, has time to gasp, “that was a great fight, huh?”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Big Snore: POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Just hear the premise or see an ad and the shape of Pokémon Detective Pikachu appears in your mind in accurate chalk outlines. It’s the first live-action feature from the long-running video game/trading card/anime series about a world where a panoply of super-powered creatures live comfortably with humans. They’re animals that have specific skill sets — some breathe fire or water; others are strong or sleepy; still others work a kind of magic or have an amplified eccentricity. Many live in the wild; others are caught and cultivated by trainers. It’s a whole thing. The movie follows a 21-year-old guy (Justice Smith) from his small town to a big city where his investigator dad has recently been killed. At least that’s what he thinks until his pa’s partner Pikachu pops up speaking clues to his father’s whereabouts in the gently sarcastic perma-snark tones of Ryan Reynolds. Usually the Pokémon only chirp their own names Groot-style in a host of emotive varieties, so this unusual kinship (the young man is the only one who hears him) bonds them together. Now they partner to unravel the whereabouts of the missing man while stumbling, in flimsy faux-noir scenarios, into a coverup and evil plot that involves crooked businessmen, shady back alleys, a secret test site, and an underground Pokémon fight club run by Diplo. The movie — competently directed by the guy who made the quite good first Goosebumps and scripted by writers behind the late, great One Day at a Time remake and the co-writer of the fine first Guardians of the Galaxy — trots along at a good clip. It's nicely photographed and stuffed with cuddly cute CG pocket monsters waddling through the frames. Along the way, nothing is surprising, even the surprises, although I suppose its target audience of children and those who never outgrew a diet consisting solely of brands they liked as children, might not recognize an aged trope in this film if Roger Rabbit, let alone Philip Marlowe smacked them with it. (Still, even they will probably realize they liked some of these plot mechanics better when it was called Zootopia.) Its action is uninspired and humor falls flat. The human characters never come to convincing life; the Pokémon are never more than cameos, except for Detective Pikachu whose essential cute chirps are now charmless milquetoast quips. (Replace Reynold’s voice with the usual “pika pika” and the plot not only becomes marginally better, but an obvious twist makes slightly more sense.) It’s rote, routine, pleasantly hitting its marks in exactly the way you’d expect while whiffing on every opportunity to grow complicated, interesting, or anything beyond recycled devices and images that barely muster the energy to push nostalgia buttons. It had me leaving saying, “that’s it?” If its sole point is to recycle previous product in a new package, the least it could do is activate a few more childhood affections on the way.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Playing Politics: LONG SHOT and KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE

The charming, feckless rom-com Long Shot stakes out territory that’s pure political fantasy. For one thing, it’s a movie about an American government that’s mostly functional, with a respected and effective Secretary of State (Charlize Theron) working for a benignly buffoonish showbiz president (Bob Odenkirk). The movie even withholds party allegiances for most of the runtime — the better to get the partisans on board? — until admitting that, yes, as you may have suspected, an administration pursuing a sweeping climate bill and antagonized by a scummy billionaire propagandist (an unrecognizable Andy Serkis) can only be Democratic. It’s all middle-of-the-road empty moderate pablum as a backdrop for a somewhat successful charm offensive, as the Secretary’s world tour doubles as a trial balloon presidential run, and reason to hire a schlubby unemployed muckraker (Seth Rogen) as speech writer. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) and screenwriters Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) devise sparkling, even elegant at times, throwback rom-com tropes for Theron and Rogen to enact: the Meet Cute, the bantering getting-to-know-you dialogue, the swooning pop song montage, the first kiss, the lamentable falling out, the soaring reconciliation. It’s nothing you can’t see coming — save, maybe, the supremely R-rated scandal subplot that nearly derails their relationship, and the movie’s otherwise gentle (think sleepy, sentimental Veep) tone. But the actors’ chemistry and effervescent timing (Theron’s effortless power and Rogen’s shyly emphatic stumbling are a fine pairing) with the filmmakers’ sturdy craftsmanship makes it work. The nagging doubt I have about this breezy fluff of a charmer is that in order to tell a political story in these shock doctrine times, even in a glossy high-concept big-screen rom-com mode, they push ahead like the world hasn’t changed. Its shallow interest in its own backdrop — up to and including a limp ending that skips loads of potential fallout to get to a fake rush of faux-empowerment — leaves it less than the sum of its heart. 

There are no such hurdles to the engaging new political documentary Knock Down the House. It needs no false notes or Hollywood fiction to make a feel-good story of contemporary politics. Director Rachel Lears and crew decided to follow a sampling of liberal women running for Congress in the 2018 midterms. In engaging biographical snapshots, gripping and informative — and entertaining! — fly-on-the-wall filmmaking introduces Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin as they mount campaigns full of sympathetic personal motivation and heart-felt political engagement. And luckiest for the filmmakers, who happened upon a real star-making victory and make the most of it as the central plank of their storytelling here, is footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose run against an entrenched Democratic incumbent resulted in a surprise underdog upset, and whose charismatic, clear-eyed rhetoric creates obvious energy. In this behind-the-scenes look at campaigns in our gangrenously corrupt new Gilded Age, we see with effective immediacy the hard work of getting out the message: strategy meetings, door-knocking and hand-shaking sessions, debate prep, interviews. We see long hours, moments of doubt, and rushes of excitement. They don’t all win their races. And yet the passionate righteous anger and sensible moral clarity so clearly animating many activists and candidates is an invigorating balm for those feeling the ache of cynicism. The world only spins forward. Let’s catch up.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Out There: HIGH LIFE

That’s cruelty, says the daughter (Jessie Ross). Her father (Robert Pattinson) replies, What do you know about cruelty? He’s lived it. We’ve seen, deep in his past, he’s perpetrated it: a dog dead in a stream; a child bleeding into the earth. We’ve seen he’s later been the victim of it: one on a crew of death-row prisoners sent into space on a suicide science mission, a one-way state-sponsored ticket to a black hole with a fertility related side-mission. This has been his life. From what we see, cruelty is all he’s known. His daughter, however, had known only him. He’s been to her a man of patience and kindness, tender and hushed, cultivating a bright young woman and a verdant garden alone. Of the initial con-air space flight, the man and child are all that’s left, all that's life. They survive, and yet the man, especially, as the girl is an infant for most of the film, carries with him the knowledge that they’re a dead-end, drifting in solitude and silence to a black hole with no hope of long-term planning or furthering their humanity. 

Because Claire Denis’ film is, in her typical style, hauntedly elliptical and vividly tactile, High Life accumulates hypnotic power from this scenario. She cuts between the isolation of man and child, and the steady decline of the mission that ultimately brought them to this loneliness. It can be sensual, even gross — a film of any and every fluid that can spring forth from the human body — yet within a sterile setting, with long clean corridors and crisp sci-fi suits and screens steadily splattered with the residue of its ensemble’s tensions. There’s a doctor (Juliette Binoche) who seems to be channeling penance for her infanticide past into an unethical attempt to force procreation amongst her fellow prisoners. There are men and women (Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Gloria Obianyo, Ewan Mitchell, Lars Eidinger) trying desperately to control their bodies to control their futures, to control their garden to control their environment, knowing that it might all be futile as they’re stuck with their urges in a box steadily shooting through the stars. It moves forward; they go nowhere. Silence can be overwhelming. Dissolves become decay. The film’s mood sits here—slow, upsetting, penetrating deep into the throbbing background hopelessness of it all, the fleshy needs and spiritual bankruptcy of its characters. Precariously balanced between new life and inevitable death, between hope and despair, between connection and separation, the movie ultimately builds to a breathtaking final sequence of shots—brilliantly simple, with a mesmeric and thematic power that lingers. It answers the questions raised about how to raise a new generation in the wake of our mistakes, and about whether it’s worth plunging forward into the unknown alongside them, with a startling clarity and beautiful ambiguity. There they go. Shall we follow?

Friday, April 26, 2019

Finale Countdown: AVENGERS: ENDGAME

An endless cascade of encores and exposition, Avengers: Endgame is a thunderously melancholic machine most of the time, where the quips seem a little wan and the action visually slipperier yet more grandiosely apocalyptic. I suppose it's befitting a Universe that went through a culling last time, when purple baddie Thanos (CGI muscles and glob with the scowl and growl of Josh Brolin) snapped half the population to dust. This one's about the survivors trying to move on, while the remaining Avengers decide to live up to their name. It takes comic book leaps of disbelief as they do, eventually, after a long uneven buildup, and the movie's best moments are eruptions of satisfaction. Its worst are the sort of drooping anonymous action clutter and terse box-checking that so many of these devolve into. It also has a sloppy central sci-fi conceit that's basically successfully hand-waved in the moment, but makes less sense the more I think about it. Luckily, it is diverting, and, despite its runtime, provides very little to think deeply about later. The three-hour movie is stuffed with scenarios, a large-scale victory lap for an eleven-year project of culture-conquering moviemaking enshrining comic books as the prime fantasy of our time. We've gotten lost in them. Here we get to see every original main character (Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, Ruffalo) and a host of cameos (which Marvel commands thou shalt not spoil), revisit settings and conflicts, and go down memory lane, even as we hurtle once more to an inevitable showdown with the forces of darkness. The difference is that this one doesn't tease an open ending. There is not even a post-credit scene. The thing is, for once, embracing, more often than not, a spirit of finality for the whole thrust of the franchise. Sure, it leaves itself plenty of heroes and story potential for the future, but it works as a big, satisfying climactic splash page in its fever-pitch, effects-heavy, character-clogged frames in battles royale. At its best, I found myself glad I sat through the whole twenty-movie project in order to feel the small nods to and charming echoes and reversals of situations past. At its worst, I found myself puzzling over its enormous smallness, its undeniable scope and ambition curtailed and constrained by the formula and flat style, even at this pseudo-endpoint. Literally dozens of stars are isolated in their mix-and-match green screen poses, personalities to bounce off each other, action figures for directors Russo brothers and the usual MCU scripters and producers to assemble at will. It doesn't quite gather the zing or zest that enlivened last year's surprisingly nimble and large Infinity War. Luckily, the familiar faces have enough charisma and the plot has enough forward momentum and how'll-they-wrap-this-up? curiosity to make it all a decent popcorn multiplex time. I left as stupefied and overstuffed and vaguely pleased as after a fast food feast.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Big Ears: DUMBO

Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo does a disservice to every part of that phrase. It’s a Tim Burton film with a fraction of the visual whimsy and comedic timing, and with only the most pro-forma of his pet misunderstood-misfit thematic concerns. It’s a remake of a Disney classic that takes a simple parable of an awkward elephant learning to fly and makes it about a struggling troupe of circus misfits — looking for all the world like sad, boring performers cut from The Greatest Showman — that somehow manages to lose track of Dumbo himself for long stretches of time. I spent the first moments of the film straining to like it. I was charmed by Danny DeVito’s ringmaster; he plays it as a disheveled conman who’d love to go legit if only he could afford it. (He also sings “Casey Junior” under his breath as he stumbles back to his bunk. That’s cute.) I liked Colin Farrell as a freshly one-armed WWI veteran returning to his old stomping grounds to reunite with his precocious backstage kids (the adorable — and Burton-eyed — little Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and piece their family back together. It’s a fine echo of what little baby CG Dumbo is about to go through. But to find “Baby Mine” didn’t quite cue the waterworks for me was a first warning sign. After the promising opening, the plot set in motion here all happens too easily, tromping from expected beat to expected beat as Ehren Kruger’s screenplay goes into the most basic family film beats of easy believe-in-yourself symbolism and repetitive crisis-resolution shaping in every scene. Only Burton’s valiant visual attempts to spark life — fine Colleen Atwood costuming filigree; Busby Berkeley circus choreography; a striking bubbly Pink Elephant sequence; an Art Deco amusement park that often looks more Tomorrowland than the film’s ostensible 1919 period setting — briefly keep the film from just laying there dead on screen. The eventual conflict involves the scrappy circus facing a takeover from a fancy entertainment industry huckster (a game enough Michael Keaton who nonetheless doesn’t have a chance to cut loose). The guy is bent on taking over and commodifying anything he can, growing through expansion and losing the heart of the family entertainment biz in the process. Thus the only truly interesting part of this whiff of a picture is that Disney somehow allowed the movie to have a greedy Walt Disney type as a heartless showbiz businessman villain and stage a triumphant fiery finale in which a proto-Disneyland goes up in smoke. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mirror Mirror: US

Get Out was a brilliant directorial debut for writer/performer Jordan Peele, moving behind the camera after a great career in sketch comedy. It was an engaging entertainment: a horror movie with a deep sociopolitical engagement that was somehow both the driver of its premise and its source of laughs that catch in the throat. It was deadly serious, but worn lightly, with every setup pleasingly paid off. Now here’s Peele’s follow-up: Us. Unlike his first feature, this fright show is tantalizingly unresolved, dramatically ambiguous where the other was crystal clear, and with a slowly developing thematic conceit where the other proceeded plainly declaiming its theses. But that doesn’t mean the plot is a puzzle to be solved. The exact point its high concept can no longer be explained is the very point the movie leaps into the purely metaphoric as a troubled and unsettled vision of both the dark reflections of ourselves we can no longer ignore lurking underneath our society, and of the depraved deprivation that makes comfortable upper- and middle-class lives possible. The puncturing of those boundaries is the point: how unsettling, frightening, and destabilizing it is to confront this darkness when it can no longer be ignored. 

We start in 1986, where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz boardwalk, moseys into a funhouse that suffers a power outage and, stumbling in the dark, meets another little girl who looks exactly like her. Cutting on this moment of bewildered fright, Peele takes us — after a mesmerizingly simple opening credits sequence — to the present day, where this distant childhood trauma exists in the grown woman (Lupita Nyong’o) only as a faded dark cloud. It’s kicked up by her vacationing family — sweet dope husband (Winston Duke), teen daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), young son (Evan Alex) — heading to a Santa Cruz beach house. The place carries ominous associations for her, especially as her loved ones convince her to meet friends (a hilariously sniping shallow family played by Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and Cali and Noelle Sheldon) at the very beach and boardwalk that was the site of her doppelgänger sighting. Eventually her unease that underpins the warmly funny familial hangout scenes is proven correct when, that night, a family of doppelgängers stand silent, dramatically backlit, at the end of their driveway. (At this point, our four leads develop remarkable, distinctive doubled performances, as gifted and eerie and convincing as you’re ever likely to see.) As the movie slinks into scary home-invasion, slasher-film machinations expertly, chilling staged, these mysterious characters — looking malnourished and eerily unkempt, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding sharp scissors — move with precise, eerie, controlled movements. They communicate with guttural howls. It put me in mind of the 1896 Paul Laurence Dunbar poem "We Wear the Mask": "This debt we pay to human guile;/With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/And mouth with myriad subtleties."

The frightening, violent doubles reflect their better selves as if in a funhouse mirror. This is what our main characters would be if their comfortable lives were instead ones of neglect and pain; they've come to take their place. It’s scary stuff, potent to find the seemingly unstoppable forces of your destruction look just like you. Peele escalates the tension with an expert eye and razor-sharp script, becoming a litany of suspense and violence (a shame it’s a stretch to say it’s nearly a jeremiad to Get Out’s parable?) that plays off the character dynamics we so thoroughly learn and enjoy in the opening setup. (This is also the welcome wellspring of perfectly timed and executed comic relief.) The payoff is to deepen the characters through action as the film grows complicated, not through twists, although it has a few, but through challenging our assumptions and double-knotting the thematic concerns until it reflects a host of destabilizing questions. To discuss further the implications of its startling, evocative, resonant images would be to spoil the surprise and the fun. Let me just say this is an enormously entertaining, precisely controlled film. It builds, one expertly crafted sequence after another with nary a wasted image or line, until it becomes a complicated, richly developed, long-lingering jolt. At what cost do we survive? What will we do to get it? And what does it mean for us to deserve that survival? It leaves us with an expansive, haunting final image not unlike Dunbar's poem drew to a close saying, "We sing, but oh the clay is vile/Beneath our feet, and long the mile;/But let the world dream otherwise..."