Saturday, February 9, 2019

Brick to the Future: THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART

To make one LEGO Movie that’s a surprisingly sharp, cleverly constructed laugh-a-thon doubling as a sweet-tempered message about creativity is surprising enough. To do it again is some kind of miracle. In The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, returning screenwriters Phil Lord and Chris Miller, handing directorial efforts to Trolls’ Mike Mitchell, have built a pleasant and perceptive commercial comedy about sibling relationships. It’s couched in the garb of a post-apocalyptic parody, jumping off from the central metaphor of the first movie — a boy’s playland saga rendered in tiny bombast and Chosen One pastiche — and its winning final joke — his younger sister’s toddler-voiced Duplo blocks invading Bricksburg. Now, 5 years later, the first film’s characters are wallowing in young male adolescent fantasy, shirking the bright colors and poppy music for something more stereotypically brooding. The wasteland of destruction in which dopey Emmet (Chris Pratt), punkish Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and surly egomaniacal Batman (Will Arnett) now live is a broad parody of the stunted mindset that views grim and gritty and self-consciously dark as inherently more mature storytelling. Trouble comes when the Sistar system sends alien invaders to capture all but Emmet, taking them through the Stair-gate to see their Queen Whatevra Wa’nabi (Tiffany Haddish) who has plans involving the impending Ourmomageddon. (Subtle, the movie ain’t.) So it’s Pratt to the rescue, though he’s so hapless he’s quickly greeted and assisted by a galaxy-defending, raptor-training doppleganger (get it?). The whole thing becomes a goof on dark sequels with bleak cliffhangers while doing its darnedest to actually dig deeper into its central premise. It’s definitely less surprising and clever on a moment to moment basis — mostly for the obvious ways it can’t replicate the original’s surprise factor — but is a sharper, wiser, cleverer, and more empathetic moral vision than before, baked into the very structure of its plot. It becomes a movie about a boy who needs to learn growing up doesn’t mean giving into toxic masculinity, like hiding behind a false rough exterior that can’t let his little sister in, and that it's okay to embrace complicated emotions. That the message is carried about by a zippy, flashy, colorful adventure movie filled with bouncy action, loopy sight gags, loony non sequiturs, and a handful of supremely catchy songs is all the better for its intended audience. It’s all of satisfying complete vision, a fun kids' movie with a moral that’s truly centered instead of tacked on. Unlike, say, The LEGO Batman Movie spin-off, which was only a clever self-referential Russian nesting doll of product placement, The LEGO Movie 2 manages to repeat the feat of its predecessor by being funny and sweet and low-key sentimental enough to achieve escape velocity from mere crass commercialism, by being a movie first and toy ad second. If we have to have these, they might as well be this much fun.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Desolation Rows: THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

They Shall Not Grow Old is a film of uncanny and quotidian horror, of great sacrifice and great staggering normalcy in a time of nigh incomprehensible conflict. It’s also about film’s ability to capture history and its inability to ever really resurrect what is irretrievably lost. It’s an often staggering technical accomplishment because of and despite of its capacity for running up against technical limitations. Commissioned to commemorate the centenary of World War I’s end, Peter Jackson’s haunting documentary weds a trove of source materials into a transportive eerie exercise in historical footage. He takes a beautiful collage of first-hand interviews with elderly British Great War veterans, recorded by the BBC in the middle of the twentieth century, for a narration, the average experience of a soldier in this conflict described in vivid, lively memories. He lays it over film largely taken at or near the front, a steadily accumulating montage of documentary footage woven into a trench-side view of the war: large stretches of boredom and squalor punctuated by sheer terror, all held to the terrifying backbeat of irregular explosions — often in the distance, but one never can tell when it’ll smash into one’s position. The film starts powerfully, and yet as a rather standard exercise, nothing Ken Burns couldn’t do as good or better on an off day. There’s a square little nitrate-grey frame that shows us early days of enlistment and patriotic fervor. But then Jackson, in warfare filmmaking as intimate on out as his Tolkien adaptations are epic on in, introduces a visual conceit that blooms into unnatural life as the army ships out. The frame fills the screen, in subtle 3D and hushed, respectful colorization. Far from the Turner-produced classic-Hollywood-defacing crayon jobs of the late 80’s, this soft dusting of studiously researched color brings the crisply and carefully restored footage out of the distant past and into a collision with the present, a dusty history book blearily drawn through a scrim of modern technology creating the effect of an old memory clawing back to life. Sometimes the images are startlingly real, tactile muck and flashes of personality cracking and crackling on century-old images accompanied with invisibly convincing Foley and ADR. Other times the movement has a slight haze, the color and the grain — joined and often slightly above the image in a light, barely-perceptible dance of pans and zooms — creates a fortuitous ghostly dance. It’s a documentary of haunted immediacy, at once real and unreal, a researched recreation layered over a moving-snapshot memory, that tells a story of young men sent off to die. They are now forever stuck in the past, caught in the moment of bravery, camaraderie, fear, injury, and death. (This is an unblinkingly gruesome movie at times, uncensored and unflinching.) Jackson brings them to life through the words of men who are still astonished to have survived, and through film that, too, survives. It can be restored. They can not.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Broken: GLASS

For most of its runtime, Glass is an absorbing oddball genre effort. Would you expect any less from M. Night Shyamalan, who can so expertly keep a straight face and hushed tones in patiently developed high-concept dramas, horror and the uncanny slipping in around the edges? Here is a double sequel bringing two old hits together in one Franken-franchise, with James McAvoy's multiple-personality serial killer from 2017's Split chased by Bruce Willis's indestructible David Dunn from 2000's Unbreakable. They're fine twin pictures, the earlier one a slow-burn superhero origin tale told with uncommon depth of feeling and tremulous uncertainty in tense, unbroken long takes, the latter a jumpy, base, needlingly itchy supervillain reveal in a sweaty basement psychological bestiary. In the film's opening, the two fit together nicely, with Shyamalan near the peak of his filmmaking prowess, framing humane and sensitive performances from Willis and Spencer Treat Clark (returning as Dunn's son). It's a natural extension of Unbreakable's themes of loneliness and familial connection fractured through the burden of being blessed with unusual gifts. In the years since we last saw Dunn, he has remained a low-key vigilante, sensing the misdeeds in passerby's minds and taking action when necessary, emerging from moonlit shadows shrouded in a simple rain poncho. He has a sense of duty, doing what he can to make the world around him a marginally better place. He's searching for The Horde, the split serial-killer who has continued his abductions since the end of his movie. Bringing the characters together extends the themes of brokenness that one's innate capabilities can not heal, how damage of one's past inescapably informs the traumas of one's present, even and especially in forming relationships. It's nifty in classically Shyamalanian fashion, deliberate and precise frames, foreboding yet warmly orchestrated score, fastidiously cautious pacing. He's a consistently intentional filmmaker; even his missteps come from a place of earnest attempts at signaling his story's intentions. 

Then Glass moves into its lengthy second act set entirely in a mental hospital (an impressively sturdy facade imbued with Shyamalan's usual great eye for spacial suspense) where a specialist in delusions of grandeur (Sarah Paulson) treats the villainous genius mastermind Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) by bringing in the other two characters for unconventional group therapy. There the movie's absorbing melancholy mystery slowly fades in the face of a script that starts to spell its comic-book-101 cultural criticism a little too overtly and broadly. Though remaining a stellar directorial showpiece throughout, and featuring some engaged and thoughtful acting from all involved, the movie becomes self-conscious, with characters comparing themselves to superhero tropes and intoning seriously about silly details like turning to these pages as reflections of reality or instructions for planning. It's especially difficult to square with Shyamalan's ultimate conclusion for his film, which appears to tidily resolve its thematic concerns, both emotional development and cultural commentary, in a purposely upsetting underplayed subversion of our expectations, only to pull back in its own delusion of grandeur that ultimately flatters its characters' flimsiest ideas about real-world superhero potential. It kills any idea that reflecting real life through comic books is a productive exercise, only to tease the idea's resurrection. It's why the movie is a gripping acting and style exercise undone by a wish-washy final ten minutes that retroactively empties it out. Still, it remains a movie of fascinating choices right up through the end.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Playing THE FAVOURITE

The Favourite is a fabulously catty portrait of courtly power plays — one part seduction, one part poison, all calculation. Set in the court of Queen Anne at the height of England’s war with France, the ice-cold plot concerns a wicked love triangle in which sex and power are equal opportunity uses for domination and pleasure. The Queen (Olivia Colman) is a gout-wracked, alternately pathetic and powerful woman, a figure of ego and appetite. She’s floundering, lost in illness and a haze of emotional traumas, clinging to the tether provided by the powerful Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a confidant who firmly guides her decisions. There’s a love there, but the Duchess also enjoys proximity to power and the way it can bend to her benefit. Enter a new woman in the palace: an ambitious young chambermaid (Emma Stone) whose aristocratic family connections weren’t enough to keep her from careening to poverty, but did provide a foothold to climb back to the top. She’s obviously sizing up the competition and angling to become indispensable by any means necessary. Together the three of them jostle about, looking for avenues to dominate the others, securing their place at others’ expense, and seeking to fill yawning voids in their lives with authority and control, all pawns in games within games. The film is imbued with grotesque interpersonal gusto, like All About Eve let loose in Barry Lyndon as retold by a drunk historian.

Casting off any stiff or dusty sense of stereotypical period piece import, director Yorgos Lanthimos guides the proceedings with a sharp eye and quick pace, fish-eyed distortion in opulent rooms, charting the women’s ambitions and triangulations. He’s always good with morbid bleak humor in closed-system social claustrophobia — the imprisoned offspring of Dogtooth, the Kafka-adjacent singles scene of The Lobster, the doom-laden body horror-inflicted family of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But in this latest film we find a beating dark heart with an extra charge of writerly flourishes and crisp clatters of prickly quotable wit. Under his style, showing Robbie Ryan's cockeyed cinematography reflecting a fastidiously warped insular world of dark corners and devious plotting, there is a deliciously acid screenplay (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) carried off with deadpan-droll fastball-curveball-screwball mania between poised ornate title cards. Dialogue is daggers. Sharp wit drawing blood. Every scene a perfectly dark jewel. Accompanied by token men — a beautifully bitchy, bewigged Nicholas Hoult; a charmingly, vacantly pretty Joe Alwyn — the precisely charted emotional and political territorialism in these vicious, guarded, snapping performances maps out a vivid and literate display of power corrupting absolutely, until all human connection erodes into dissolves and rabbits. It's the sort of whip-smart darkly funny true story that lingers with a mirthful melancholy sting.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

No Virtue: VICE

Vice is a smug smirk with a burn-it-all-down cynicism fitted to the times. That may make it fleetingly, darkly satisfying from time to time. But it certainly doesn't make it a good movie. As written and directed by Adam McKay, the film is a bleakly jokey docudrama that rehearses a few decades of GOP governance, culminating in the disastrous George W. Bush administration. It does so through the life of one Dick Cheney, a man who has used a lifetime of proximity to power to make the world a worse place every chance he got. He, and his many helpers and collaborators, destabilized the Middle East, expanded the surveillance state, grew the size of the executive branch and judicial department’s unchecked power, loosened environmental regulations, coaxed partisan rancor and propaganda apparatus, ran an oil company, increased inequality, and quickened the advance of global warming. As played by an astonishingly transformed Christian Bale -- his often trim and muscular frame bloated and balding, shrinking in on itself even as he swaggers with confidence of a power-hunger greed monster convinced he's on the winning team -- the movie takes great pains to hit the major points of the biography and controversy sections of his Wikipedia page. He's up to no good, and the movie rattles about with all the energy of someone excitedly repeating someone else's muckraking. At least it has a point of view and digs in hard. No joke that the movie takes a late beat to underline the irony that at a certain point Dick became literally heartless. We see the heart slowly cooling and drying on a surgical table. It's wickedly apt.

Yet overall it is as jittery and anxious as McKay's prior irritating sojourn into recent history, The Big Short. It's wall to wall snarky voice over and chatty collages of contemporaneous pop culture and news detritus. Full of convincing performances doing a mix of mind-boggling transformative impersonations and recognizable faces doing re-enactments, Sam Rockwell does a fine W, while Steve Carell yucks it up three notches from Brick as Rumsfeld, Amy Adams clenches tight for Lynne Cheney, and LisaGay Hamilton and Tyler Perry nicely underplay Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell. But it never escapes a feeling that it's manic sober Drunk History or an extended collision between the History Channel and SNL. Free floating derision and contempt is a wail of helpless fury at the steady erosion of our culture, a chain of events that led us almost inevitably to our current low point. But a checklist of scandals is an unsatisfying replacement for analysis. Instead of using Bale's transformation for real psychological profiling or vivid melodrama or jangled political despair, it's simply a sloppy, thin, chuckling, hectoring, ain't-this-just-the-way superficial bromide. Only occasionally does it whip around to sting the audience — the last line of the picture, quipped in a credit cookie, is the worst condescension, so you might already be out the door. Elsewhere it assumes you’re outraged already about this recent history or, if not, need only a small nudge of education or reminding to get there. It is an attempted dark comic exorcism that leaves the demons in the plain sight.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Back with the Wind: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

What is there to say about Mary Poppins Returns? It’s been 54 years since we first met Julie Andrews’ practically perfect character. Now we have a long-unneeded sequel to Disney’s greatest live-action film. It is bright and well-intentioned. It’s expertly choreographed, handsomely adorned, sweetly designed, beautifully costumed, attractively photographed, nicely cast, suitably whimsical and filled with music. It’s also never more than half the movie Mary Poppins is. Copying its predecessor, the new film, directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) and scripted by David Magee (Finding Neverland), follows a family man tangled up in cruelties of the banking business while his adorable children are given magical advice by a supernanny who floats in on the London wind. Along the way, through much song and dance and episodic fantasy vignettes, the whole family learns a lesson. This time, the dad is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), an all-grown-up version of the lad in the first film. His children are delighted by the appearance of this new nanny, and he’s happy to see she’s returned and hardly aged at all. (She’s now Emily Blunt, who is perfectly adequate in the role. If you saw a Mary Poppins like hers in Disney World you’d be impressed by the likeness.) After all these years, Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) have explained away their childhood time with her as the stuff of overactive imagination. They’re about to be reminded otherwise. It’s a charming enough foundation, and the bank problems (facilitated by a suitably villainous banker played by Colin Firth) make a decent clothesline for what little narrative thrust there is, if also a deal more manic and hurry scurry business than the more leisurely 1964 version. But there’s simply little memorable or magical about this new film. In every song (from Marc Shaiman) and sequence, there’s a clear analogue to the original and the new comes up far short each time. A song-and-dance in an animated world? It’s no “Jolly Holiday.” A dance with some city workers? Even with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton himself) leading the lamplighters, it is no “Step in Time” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” A wistful song to comfort the children? It’s no “Feed the Birds.” And so on. I couldn’t help but compare as the movie by its very nature invites it. The whole endeavor is constantly threading instrumental versions of the original songs as underscore to tug on nostalgic heartstrings, a nice tribute but also a constant reminder those songs are better in every way: hummable, emotional, resonant. The new movie is merely, at best, a nearly passable facsimile in moments like a deep dive in the bath or a balloon flight over the park. Yet overall, it has fine notes, but doesn’t know the music. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Superb Heroes: SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and AQUAMAN

This holiday season has two of the better superhero movies in recent memory to cap off a year that saw just about a superhero movie a month. First is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated attempt by screenwriter Phil Lord (LEGO Movie), co-writer/director Rodney Rothman (Letterman’s Late Show), and directors Bob Perschetti and Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians) to make the great web-slinger cinematically fresh again. Part of its sense of novelty is found in its visual style, done in a wild mix of 2D and 3D animation, flat lines rendered in space around digital puppets and a color palate dappled and even slightly smudged and smeared like vivid comics newsprint. (It also judiciously pops on screen occasional narration boxes, thought bubbles, onomatopoeias, and Spidey-sense emanata.) It takes some getting used to, and even after settling in, the style can throw a curve ball into your vision from time to time. The plot, too, zips away from the usual Spidey origins. Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is dead, to begin with, killed trying to stop villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his scientist collaborator (Kathryn Hahn) from using a massive MacGuffin to open a portal to alternate universes. He almost succeeded. During the brief period it was open, a handful of surprising other Spider-people pulled from the back pages of old comics ended up in the wrong place and now have to get back to their own dimensions. But that’s all story grist to the main origin story for one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenager bitten by a radioactive spider and stumbling into his hero’s footsteps. It’s a silly, vibrant, heart-felt, exciting story that plunges an instantly endearing new Spider-Man into continuity loop-de-loops. He’s drawn with complicated family ties — his dad (Brian Tyree Henry) a cop; his uncle (Mahershala Ali) living on the edge of legality — and a caught-between-two-worlds bounce from his Brooklyn neighborhood to a private prep school. He’s already living a code-switching double life, and embracing his new wall-sticking, web-slinging persona adds a third. As he’s drawn into a comics commotion in progress — eventually meeting Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), listening to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz), and interacting with parallel Spideys including a middle-aged loser Parker from another timeline (Jake Johnson) — he also comes into his own. It all builds quickly and quippingly to a climax freed from the usual tiresome construction, turning kaleidoscopically hallucinatory as the time-space continuum threatens to collapse. Sure, it’s still ultimately just a super-team smacking around a bad guy and his henchmen while a giant glowing doohickey counts down to apocalypse. The bones of it all may not be as unique as its surface pleasures initially suggest, but it’s done in a genuinely visually dazzling style and finds a great new Spider-Man while its at it.


I had an even better time, to my surprise, with Aquaman. It’s a movie that, given the character’s potential for waterlogged nonsense and the DC Cinematic Universe’s ongoing creative underachievement (Wonder Woman aside), seemed an unlikely bet. Turns out it’s a blast. Director James Wan, the Conjuring horror-meister having honed his blockbuster skills with Furious 7, approaches the material with gleaming sincerity. He taps directly into his hero’s mythic proportions, believing in the legend wholeheartedly. Marvel is all about the Everyman (even Thor is played as a normie), but DC is all about Gods and works best when filmmakers remember that. Aquaman may begin the movie as Arthur, semi-heroic superpowered beach townie, but in the amped up muscle body of Jason Momoa and the guitar lick fanfare that accompanies his entrances, it’s clear he’s destined to take up Poseidon’s trident. The story is of pseudo-Shakespearean underwater politics as an exiled heir returns to reclaim his throne. The telling takes that at face value, as an excuse to stage enormous bioluminescent settings and find glittering, bright action adventure there and elsewhere. Arthur is the son of a Maori lighthouse-keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantis royalty (Nicole Kidman). Because the sea kingdom had laws against marrying a landlubber, they reclaimed his mother, banishing her to the deadliest depths. So of course Arthur is salty about his heritage, to the point where he won’t claim his birthright. The throne has fallen to a sniveling half-brother (Patrick Wilson) who is plotting to reunite the aquatic kingdoms (including Dolph Lungren, who commands a regiment of calvary riding enormous seahorses) and launch an all-out war on the land. Concerned Atlantians (like Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe) plot a coup and need Arthur to pull it off. Thus a globetrotting adventure begins for our reluctant hero, for a movie that’s sunny and high-spirited as its moves through red-blooded adventure pulsing with fun and bombast. Each new location is used for bouncy charms and buoyant exposition, zipping along so quickly and easily from plot point to plot point that its two-plus hours sail by. I didn’t even mind the prerequisite extended CG battle that swarms the finale, since Wan has rooted it in character stakes and has generated sufficient visual interest in the world building and creature design. It's fun just to be there. Plus there’s an angry ancient leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews. Can’t go wrong with that. It’s a fantasy of bounteous charms—from a scrambling rooftop chase over a charming Italian city, an octopus playing the drums,  and a glow-in-the-dark fight against nasty crustacean people, to an establishing shot of the Sahara set to the sweet sounds of an original Pitbull rap over an interpolation of Toto’s “Africa.” Here’s an earnest movie that’s equal parts grandeur and goofiness. That’s the sweet spot.