Friday, July 3, 2020

HAMILTON Tells His Story

Hamilton is a pop culture phenomenon that lives up to the hype. All but the most insanely hyperbolic are exactly right: it’s a major work. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton takes Revolutionary War history and projects it forward and backward in style, giving it Shakespearean dimension and modern musicality. Like the Bard’s History Plays, it’s a moment of our national story fitted to our times as a mirror and a comment. This is where we were, as told by where we are. The sung-through musical, written in verse dense with intricate clever rhymes and swirling motifs, is staged on a well-oiled machine of a production. The ensemble of characters has a depth of relationships, politics, and personalities as they circle each other, jabbing, hoping to build up their own lives with and against the politics of their moment, setting a scramble for status and satisfaction within the birth of a nation. You’ve likely heard the story by now. Hamilton (Miranda) has a lively, hard-charging ambition that sends him straight into pivotal roles in our nation’s founding, building his legacy and his family. The first act takes off with head-spinning rapid-fire biographical sketches and events in the overthrow of colonial control. The second act settles into the knotty political entanglements of forming a new government, and the increasingly complicated personal life of Hamilton. And all along it’s narrated by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who’s one part Judas, one part Iago, and two parts Salieri, whose jealousies and frustrations power his perplexed admiration for the title man.

Filmed over three days in the summer of 2016, the original cast’s performances in their original Broadway staging have been preserved in an excellent document of a movie. What prevents it from being a mere concert-film cash-in or a Fathom event live-stream is the way director Thomas Kail (also the show’s stage director) uses the camera to direct our attention and stay out of the play’s way. He uses his deep understanding of the staging to hang back in medium shot, capturing every bit of the theatricality in perfect proscenium awareness. It gives us the documentary sense of being there in the front row. But he also knows just when to get a tad closer, pushing in for a close up on a particularly emotional line, or slowly pulling back to capture the spirit of a moment. Kail allows this film’s audience to appreciate the craftsmanship and choreography, the theatricality on display, while following the fast-paced, densely plotted, endlessly quotable musical numbers and electrifying, deeply moving storytelling. The show is alive with possibility, with a haunting melancholy of historical inevitability hanging over it. Here are the founders’ great ideals, and here’s how far short they fell. In their greatness is also their fatal flaw. They were only human, after all.

We meet all sorts of characters from history books, brought down to life with human motivations and understandable urges — Washington (Christopher Jackson), Jefferson and Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Madison and Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan). King George (Jonathan Groff) brings scene-stealing petulance, while Hamilton’s loves (Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry) get big beautiful ballads and a swaggering intro. Their lives play out on a stage that can slowly rotate subtly enhancing the blocking or emphasizing a moment. The set is simple, and props are kept to a minimum, the better to glide through time and space as quick as a couplet, and stretching, suspending, or reversing in key moments with nothing more than a flourish of melody and the glide of a dancer. This documentary recording finds the joy of live performance in every second — watch the performers belt out notes and spit out rhymes as they dance and emote while sweating (or, in the case of Groff, literally spitting); they’re astonishing — just as the show itself finds hope and solace in the potential and promise of an art form, a country, a legacy. How lucky we are to have this film keeping this production for posterity.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Silly Season: MY SPY, SCOOB!, &
EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA

And so our strangest summer movie season in quite some time marches on. This weekend spent trawling the streaming services for new movies has turned up a motley assortment. My Spy, a formulaic tough-guy-teams-up-with-a-kid comedy, has finally been released, having been bounced from a few prime release dates over the past year by struggling distributor STX, then running into the misfortune of its last known theatrical debut penciled in right before COVID shut that all down. It’s now on Amazon Prime, which is just as well, because it seems destined to be the sort of movie that plays best in the background. (I wouldn’t rush out and get a Prime subscription for it, or for anything, really.) It stars Dave Bautista, an unusually contemplative wrestler-turned-thespian, who modulates his sensitive gravel pit of a voice down to layers of real melancholy and up to stoic fish-out-of-water deadpan. I always like that. Here he’s a tough CIA operative who messes up and gets demoted to surveillance duty with an energetic tech helper (Kristen Schaal). Quite accidentally, he gets roped into the life of the woman they’re supposed to protect after her precocious daughter (Chloe Coleman) breaks his cover and blackmails him into helping her with typical kid problems and events — bullies, career day, ice skating parties, and so on. I suppose if you’ve never seen this sort of movie before, it might play better to you. The kid is cute. Bautista plays reluctant warmth well. And Schaal gets off a few good one-liners. But director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) has no facility for the requisite action scenes in the third act, and the villain is a real drip, just a standard slightly-accented guy with stringy hair, a neat coat, and a remote detonator. It’s the sort of movie where you can figure out not just the ending, but every major plot beat, and there’s not an ounce of surprise or invention between.

At least Scoob! is out here trying something sort of new for what it is before it fails. It was going to be Warner Brothers’ big theatrical summer family movie until last month it got shuffled to VOD at $20 bucks a rental. Now it’s on HBO Max, a far better price for something that really only has curiosity and nostalgia going for it, and even then only for the first ten minutes or so. This CG animated Scooby reboot tries to turn the something-like-beloved cartoon series of teens solving mysteries with their pet talking dog into a whole Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe. So although it starts with a sugary-sweet how-they-met prequel prologue, followed by the original theme song lovingly recreated, it quickly pivots into noisy action-adventure fetch quest nonsense cobbling together bits of lore involving Dastardly and Muttley, Dynomutt, and Captain Caveman in a not-as-wacky-as-it-sounds 70’s Saturday Morning stew peppered with stale japes and instantly-dated pop culture references. The good vibes stop cold about 15 minutes in, when Simon Cowell steps in voicing his own waxy CG facsimile. This whole project plays like a bunch of wires got crossed back at the Intellectual Property mine, getting just enough other cartoons mixed up into Scooby’s to take it away from what makes that show fun, and not enough to make it into its own new thing. It’s just a standard whiplash candy rush of a nothing, shaping up along the same fault lines forgettable kids fare often does. I wish they’d gone all the way and also involved Josie and the Pussycats and Huckleberry Hound and Top Cat and Inch High Private Eye and what have you. No sense dipping a toe into the shallow end. Go full Roger Rabbit with it! Have some real fun! This is just a bland half-measure.

Over on Netflix is another familiar story: the underdog competition comedy. Here it’s set in the world of Eurovision, that extraordinary international campy pop music battle that has never really caught on in America as more than a niche interest. Like mimes, certain cheeses, and good pandemic response, some things are just more European than could catch on here, I suppose. Eurovision, although cancelled this year, is generally an annual delight, with winners over the years ranging from ABBA’s “Waterloo” to Celine Dion’s “Ne parter pas sans moi.” My personal favorite, and more typical of the event’s unique charms, is Finnish heavy metal band Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” a song performed with an electric organ pounding along with howling guitars while the band yelps out the melody while dressed like escapees from Mordor. So you can see why Will Ferrell might think he could fit right in. Thus Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is born. Here he co-stars with Rachel McAdams as an unlikely Icelandic band who’ve never gone farther than their small town’s pub, where the locals barely tolerate them unless they’re revving up the old drinking standard, “Jaja Ding Dong.” (The original songs in the movie are quite good, from this rinky-dink local tune, to the more elaborate contest songs, especially for how specifically chintzy and authentically over-produced they are.) One crazy thing leads to another, however, and the duo is improbably representing their home country on the Eurovision stage. There’s some little-fish-in-the-big-pond comedy here, and a mix of wackadoodle sentimentality as, gosh-darn-it, these over-the-hill wannabes just might pull it off and prove their doubters wrong.

Along the way to the expected results — a long, long way, running just over two hours — we get many elaborate production numbers cut with all the grace of a live awards show, silly costumes and props, wobbly accents, patter from rivals (like a slinky Russian pop star played with swivel-hipped sleaze by Dan Stevens), and loopy asides (like repeated references to a belief in elves that escalates to a Will-Ferrell-ian payoff). It’s all shot and paced rather indifferently by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) in an over-lit, flat style. Strangely, the cinematography looks better as a TikTok ad than on my 4K TV, for whatever that’s worth. It has the cheap Netflix look of their lesser programmers. And the plot itself is bone-deep derivative, certainly not worth the emotional investment it keeps trying to jolt to life with its estranged parents and scoffing suits and preening overdogs. It just doesn’t jell with the loose silliness of boat explosions and elaborate stage flops and endless cul-de-sac plot turns. Still, like the contest itself, the movie is never less than affectionate toward these misfits, and the songs are where it’s at. There’s a killer soundtrack of these goofy things — “Lion of Love,” “Volcano Man,” “Coolin with the Homies,” “Hit My Itch” — including a high-point faux-impromptu cameo-stuffed mashup singalong party. A leaner, tighter musical comedy would keep the good times rolling without the downtime for lumpy asides. But, hey, we’ll always have “Jaja Ding Dong.” And, if you squint a little, it’s almost like we got a Eurovision this year after all.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Miss Independent: MR. WRONG

Ellen DeGeneres is as omnipresent as celebrities get these days. We know it all. Over the past several decades she successfully worked up the stand-up ranks, headlined a network sitcom that was never more noticed than when she came out — a brave decision that also sent her into a showbiz wilderness for some years before her comeback playing the voice of an iconic animated character in Finding Nemo and dancing her way to becoming America’s nice, funny, pleasant talk show friend. The subsequent trials and tribulations of her public image — from being in an early celebrity gay marriage, to stumbling in her out-of-touch responses to our current political moment — her every career moment is well known to the general public. And yet, through love for and irritation with Ellen, not to mention nostalgia for 90’s pop culture, this knowledge all-too rarely includes Mr. Wrong, a failed attempt to turn her into a movie star. It was an instant flop and remains largely forgotten at best, a punchline at worst. The years have not made it a better movie, but what we now know about its lead makes it more weirdly compelling than it would’ve seemed at the time.

By 1994, Ellen’s charmingly observational stand-up got her a sitcom, the career path many of her contemporaries (Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, et al) followed. In her show, she maneuvered through mild farce with a group of friends. It was very 90’s, and coasted off her considerable charms. You can see why an executive would want her starring in a feature film. But in 1996’s Mr. Wrong, she’s the lead in a movie caught awkwardly between comedy and suspense. It’s immediately apparent why it has been forgotten.

She plays a single 31-year-old morning talk show producer who just can’t find a man. Surrounded by romances and well-intentioned pestering, she vows to ignore pressures to find a guy and settle down. Then Bill Pullman walks into her life. They have a brief affair – including unconvincing love scenes – until she follows a sinking feeling and breaks up with him. Her reasons double as explanation of the movie’s failings. “Sometimes it’s about chemistry, you know. Sometimes [it] works and sometimes you get an explosion, or a really bad smell.”

Pullman’s character has sinister notes from the beginning. His idea of a good time is shoplifting. He offers to break his finger to prove his love for her. (He does; she’s not flattered.) But after the break-up, rejection turns him into an entitled stalker demanding her hand in marriage. What starts as romantic comedy gets progressively weirder, closer in tone to Ben Stiller’s dark comedy The Cable Guy (also ’96) than what Nora Ephron had Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan doing at the time. (One wonders what Ephron’s sweet-and-tart tone could’ve brought to this project.) Here Pullman is aggressive, mailing expensive gifts, making a scene at the opera, lurking outside her window dressed as a clown (creepy), and trying to sabotage her career.

There’s an even creepier, and funnier, subplot about his ex-girlfriend (Joan Cusack). She’s hilariously deranged. We are told she once tried to assassinate Stevie Nicks. Eventually she kidnaps Ellen, attacking her with a jar of hungry ants before trying to stab her with a Swiss Army Knife. With Pullman and Cusack hunting and threatening her, Ellen hires a private investigator (Dean Stockwell) who doesn’t take the situation as seriously as you’d hope. It’s clear this is no usual rom-com, and it’s failings to be so shouldn’t be held against it. With these eccentric supporting roles, it’s working up to a dark farcical gender-swapped 90’s echo of the peak 80’s woman-scorned thrillers like Fatal Attraction.

As the threats to Ellen develop, director Nick Castle (best known for The Last Starfighter) uses suspense techniques. Low angles, rapid zooms, spinning 360-degree dollying, and emphatic insert shots make appearances. There’s a dissolve from an overflowing cup of tomato juice to a red train roaring by. This would be more effective if the screenplay (attributed to three writers, including Bill & Ted’s Chris Matheson and Bates Motel's Kerry Ehrin) wasn’t also tepidly joking around. Laughs are rare, and the tone is off. It’s wobbly, uncomfortable more than funny.

On Ellen’s talk show and in her stand up, if a joke doesn’t quite go over, she can sometimes sell it just by holding the pause, grinning until she gives a little half laugh, amusing herself. She uses that here, like she knew this thing was going to be a tough sell. Critics, understandably perplexed, wrote off the movie when it opened on Valentine’s Day weekend. It went on to earn just under $13 million before limping out of theaters. But now we know more about Ellen, and it makes Mr. Wrong more worthy of note.

It came out the year before she did, in a Very Special Episode and on Time’s cover. Now there’s poignancy to the panic setting in as her character struggles to extricate herself from increasingly scary heteronormative demands. The movie opens on Ellen wearing a wedding dress inside a Mexican prison, a statement of subtextual purpose (marriage can be a jail cell), before flashing back to the story’s beginning. The climax finds psychotic Pullman attempting to marry her at gunpoint. A children’s choir sings “I Want to Know What Love Is” as she walks down the aisle – in a double dolly shot straight out of a Spike Lee film – fearing for her life. It’s a good, if probably unintended, metaphor for the discomfort of anyone feeling pressure to fit into a norm they’re not meant to fit.

It’s not hard to see Mr. Wrong as a story of nonconformity. Everyone presses this poor woman into a relationship with Mr. Wrong, well past the point he’s clearly a danger. Seen from this perspective, it becomes a much more interesting film. Not a significantly better film, mind you, but interesting. Note how other characters don’t seem to find Pullman as odd or unrelatable as she does and how, right up until the end, no one seems to find events as strange as she does. The movie ultimately hinges on a woman loosening the shackles of hetero relationships and becoming a happier person for it. So what if the movie’s not good in the way its ostensible genre demands? Its very failures and retroactive subtext make it interesting, coloring in darker elements. It’s uneven, to be sure, but funny and creepy, with awkwardness more earnest and more fascinating than most guessed at the time.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Tragi-comic: THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND

Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island is another R-rated comedy about a man-child shuffling slowly toward self-improvement — but, true to Apatow at his best, it’s an affecting, funny one that rings with well-earned truth and sentiment. He knows what his imitators—so many we’re now well past the other side of the pale copies flooding theaters after his 2007 smash Knocked Up —have rarely been able to figure out. In order to make this plot work, we need duration and specificity, the stuff of James L. Brooks or Cameron Crowe or Mike Nichols when their dramedies are really cooking. Apatow can have that same sensitive touch, the confidence to let scenes and plot threads stretch out and amble along, and the wisdom to work closely with his actors to generate the kind of perfect hand-in-glove fit of role and performer. This new work is his best film since 2009's Funny People, that wise, bitter, rambling, melancholic movie that gave Adam Sandler his best role playing a big comedy star whose silly movies don’t quite feed his soul the way a happier life would. Now Staten Island takes Pete Davidson—the current SNL star whose painfully confessional "Weekend Update" standup bits are sometimes as awkwardly funny as his acting in the (admittedly often terribly written) sketches is occasionally cringeworthy—and makes with him his finest role.

The focus is on an emotionally stunted 24-year-old high-school dropout stoner whose deep discomfort with his own feelings and dizzyingly low self-esteem leads him into standoffish encounters with everyone he knows and loves. And those doesn't, too. He can’t handle change well, and therefore hopes by keeping his ambition low and resisting big life moments — relationships, graduations, moving out, getting work, seeing his family members grow — he’ll avoid that pain. When he was seven years old, his firefighter dad died on the job. Davidson vividly plays this pain behind the arrested adolescence; he’s prickly, sometimes slyly charming, often zoned out, but always fragile and clenched. Apatow, who co-wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus, allows him to start in a truly dismal place, and lets the film stretch to over two hours, generously granting this troubled person the patience and space to slowly, painfully turn a corner in his life. That Davidson draws upon elements of his own life story to make up this character is surely part of what gives it the spark of realism to the character’s psychology, which in turn allows us to understand all the more acutely from where he’s coming. It’s no spoiler to say the young man’s life is not totally solved in the end. But we can hope it’s enough of a start that he’ll believe it. And because we spend so long with him and the cast of characters around him, we can start to believe it ourselves.

The movie has the typically Apatowian character-driven ear for long, semi-improvised scenes that build up rapport between characters, and the sweetness that cuts the vulgarity. Ostensibly a comedy, it’s perhaps the least interested in punchlines of any of his films. It’s funny in the way life is, accidentally in fumbling torrents of awkward tension, or sweetly in characters’ joshing connections, or in the absurdity of escalating bad decisions. It accommodates different moods, and approaches with tenderness its characters flaws. (There’s a sequence in a pharmacy at the midpoint that I saw as Apatow’s version of the Safdie brothers’ sense of bleakly comic anxiety in films like Uncut Gems and Good Time, but with a kinder view of his characters' fates.) The slowly developed throughlines involve Davidson’s character’s attempts to find a life he’ll be okay with living. An early moment in which he casually talks about killing himself is harrowingly believable. So his often inadvertent betterment process involves hanging with a posse of ne’er-do-well drug dealer friends (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias), and a longtime girl friend (Bel Powley) he, much to her frustration, hesitates to make official. Even more fraught is his reaction to his family dynamics, as his younger sister (Maude Apatow) goes away to college, and his lonely mother (Marisa Tomei) finally starts dating again after 17 years of widowhood. The new man (Bill Burr) is also a fireman, a source of obvious tension for the young man who has yet to process his father’s death. Though he’s scarred over with hard edges and surly insults—not to mention the cavalcade of scribbled tattoos over his body— this death is still a raw emotional wound that bleeds easily with little prodding.

It’s the way Apatow and Davidson let the totally zonkered futility of his emotional state in the early passages play so unvarnished and uncomfortable, even in the context of a tone that accommodates bursts of laughs, that somehow can draw in a sympathetic audience even as his behavior clearly pushes people in his life away. His mother and sister worry about him, his mother’s new beau gingerly tests out possible avenues for bonding while trying to avoid getting hurt, or messing up his potential new relationship. Eventually, there’s room for growth, but the length of the film, and the willingness to let the plot wander, following characters not on one specific, over-determined arc, but on a winding path that maybe, just maybe bring them to slightly happier places, feel so full and finely observed. It doesn’t race to big gags or push hard to make recurring bits. It is light and weighty, an unhurried, confidently close film that builds to sentimental moments and earns them by playing them softly, and putting in the work building characters we can care about and believe in. It’s the sort of movie where we can start to anticipate—and dread—characters’ reactions to new variables, and can breathe a sigh of relief when they make a better choice, or smile as they find new comfort in a new task, an unexpected source of accomplishment and growth, or even just a late-night singalong where they all realize they don’t know the words but sing at the top of their lungs anyway. And isn’t that what making something of your life is all about?

They've Gotta Have It: DA 5 BLOODS

Landmines planted years ago are still harvesting death all these years later. So explains a woman (Mélanie Thierry), a descendant of a Frenchman who got rich as a colonizer in Vietnam, when she meets a group of Black American veterans who’ve returned to the country. She’s telling them what she’s doing out in the jungles, though they aren’t about to tell her they’re after gold they buried on one of their tours of duty over forty years prior. They’re all excavating past sins, she looking to clear her ancestor’s exploitation from her conscience, while the vets are hoping to take back some riches owed for theirs. The gold was American payment to collaborating villagers who were later napalmed casualties of the war. These soldiers found it and hid it for later—for our people, their afroed leader (Chadwick Boseman) assured them. Reparations. The woman’s statement, though, is also a signpost signaling an important theme running through Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a film about all sorts of landmines, long buried, blasting like new for characters who’ve gone to war but never really came back. Lee, at the full command of his powers as a master filmmaker, has made a film freely mixing present and past, genre and drama, violence and serenity, revenge and recompense. It’s as ambitious a film as he’s ever made. It knows all the right pressure plates to press to build suspense and ignite surprise, sharply, and with studied complexity. A pair of Vietcong vets buy Da Bloods drinks in an opening scene—signaling a film in which history has ways of hiding and revealing the unexpected, even in plain sight.

Here’s a film with full, textured characters who expand and deepen as the film goes on, capable of surprising us with new layers. It’s enough to remind you how simple most films are, how surface level they remain as characters are too thin to change, or grow along predictable lines. No, Lee’s screenplay (co-written with his BlacKkKlansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from a draft by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) knows too much about world history, and about film history, to stay on the surface. We begin with a reunion of the four surviving Bloods, whose bonds were forged in the heat of Saigon and the jungles beyond. It’s Ho Chi Minh City now, and the men have changed, too. There’s Otis (Clarke Peters) who walks with a limp, pops pain pills, and hopes to reconnect with a Vietnamese woman he left behind (Lê Y Lan). Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is softer, and Eddie (Norm Lewis) is richer—he offers to pay for them all, at least— than when last they saw this place. And Paul (Delroy Lindo), still wracked with PTSD which flares up around the sights and sounds of this place, smugly dons his MAGA hat, to the shock of his compatriots and his estranged son (Jonathan Majors). And yet none of them stay in the first impression we have of them—they are capable of more, rising to difficult occasions or succumbing to dreadful outcomes as the plot rises up to meet them. They all have grown weary and troubled with age, driven at this late stage to find the gold that they think will begin to restore what was taken from them by a pointless war that started their adult lives on a note of such violence and emotional toll. The film is bookended with archival footage of Black dissent—opening with Muhammed Ali explaining why he would not serve in Vietnam, and closing with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before a crowd about liberty. Lee gives the movie this mournful edge of righteous agitation, setting a key flashback scene during the war against a radio report of MLK’s assassination, Black soldiers left to wonder if their lives matter.

In true Spike Lee fashion, the film is no mere political sloganeering, nor does it reach for easy answers. Indeed, it proceeds first as a gripping entertainment and draws confidently its ambiguities before dropping rhetorical flourishes. The film is rich in allusion — a Heart of Darkness boat up the river to their buried Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a journey begun from an Apocalypse Now-themed bar. Old war buddies hang out, banter, reminisce, drink, and dance, and then the search drags on and the metaphorical storm clouds gather on the horizon. (The ensemble is terrifically convincing every step of the way, with Lindo’s escalating, sweaty, paranoia a clear standout as it builds to a startling paranoid monologue of Greek tragedy proportions, cut with a lens flare of astonishing grace.) Lee also confidently mixes film stock and aspect ratios — grainy square combat flashbacks and gruesome real war photography, digital scope present-tense, and taller frames swelling with terse suspense. It’s loose in its telling at first, freely cutting between tones and tensions, allowing us to know the characters and feel out their relationships to each other and to their lives. And then it tightens its grip as the action narrows in focus and the stakes get higher.

After all, this treasure hunt is a journey to confront the darkest moment of their past. It kicks up all sorts of memories, jealousies, regrets, and fears. And the film does, too. Memories of Vietnam war films, men-on-a-mission movies, elegiacally sweeping American epics and melancholic revisionist Westerns. They’re stirringly recombined in Lee’s trademark style, probing and provocative—here made contemplative and cynical, blisteringly violent at times and unmistakably, understandably aggrieved. Here’s a movie that knows all too well our American propensity for spotting potential landmines in our culture, then burying them, hoping against hope they won’t explode on us in the future. These vets, returning to extract a dream long deferred, fall into or respond against American traditions of greed, violence, exploitation, racism, and nativism. Their fallen comrade, whose remains now surely mark the spot, represents both trauma and treasure. And the soil in which their personal history took root might yet have death to harvest.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Neither Fish Nor ARTEMIS FOWL


Artemis Fowl goes the way of so many middling kids’ fantasy adaptations. It spends more time explaining itself than telling a story, sacrificing legible characterizations, comprehensible world-building, and even wonder itself in service of getting all of its information out there. And then it ends, at just barely 90 minutes, promising more adventures to come. But more what, exactly? Like so many of the bungled YA fantasy adaptations of the past fifteen years — Remember The Fifth Wave and I Am Number Four and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising? — it's an elaborate prologue that theoretically saves all the good stuff for later pictures. And yet what chance is there we’ll get it if there’s nothing to grab on to the first time around? This film, directed at his least Shakespearean and most journeyman workmanlike by Kenneth Branagh in what’s-the-point? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit mode, adapts Eoin Colfer’s book series about a 12-year-old prodigy who gets tangled up in a magical underground of fairies, dwarves, and trolls. The magical beings want to remain a secret, so, as the film finally kicks into gear, there’s a bit of a tussle when Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) decides to finagle a way to get a magical doohickey in order to rescue his father (Colin Farrel) from menacing mystery abductors. The screenplay takes the premise and squeezes it into over-familiar moves, dusty archetypes, and a plot that seems to have a few screws loose and a number of pages missing. It's opportunity that's missed, too.

There’s a nugget of a fun story there, though, especially as the Fowls’ actions bring a siege from a fantasy army commanded by a tough old elf (Judi Dench, raspy and serious) and wielding sci-fi weapons, a sort of contemporary militarized spin on fairy tales of yore with energy beams and zip-zappers and time-bubbles click-clacked out with rum-pa-pum-pum pacing. But the movie falls into the trap of over-explaining and under-delivering. It begins with what feels like non-stop expository voice over, first from overlapping in-media-res news patter, and then from a gravelly Josh Gad half-joking, half-intoning backstory upon backstory as we get slivers of scenes papered over by his explanations. (It’s also, sadly, not the worst thing Gad will do with his mouth in this picture, given a nasty CGI maw that inhales dirt so he can fire it rapidly out his backside.) Cutting between the world of young Fowl — looking cool as a cucumber in his skinny black tie and glassy-lensed shades, but not exactly selling the emotional stakes — and a plucky young fairy cop (Lara McDonnell), before drawing their stories together, the movie gathers its small suspense. But there’s never a good sense of why the glowing magic doohickey is important or why the villains want it or even who the real villains of the piece are. The more it tells us, the less it makes sense. By the time the movie finds its action — a rampaging troll in a foyer, or some moderately enjoyable visual flourishes when characters get wobbly and elongated falling through bits and blobs of a disintegrating time-stop glob — there’s some fun to be had. But it’s all curiously disconnected from a reason to care, and ends soon enough telling us that there’s more of this to be had. That’s unlikely. The characters never come to convincing life, and there’s never a good sense of where it could or should go from here.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Miss Jackson: SHIRLEY

With Shirley, director Josephine Decker makes the rare good movie about a real writer because she pushes down on a psychologically stormy speculative script with a heavy thumbprint on the scales of style. No dull recitation of biographical incident or overly prescribed reading of biographical detail as direct literary inspiration, she instead takes one sliver of a moment in author Shirley Jackson’s life — the creation of her 1951 novel Hangsaman — and expands and contorts it until it is a quivery, moody, push-and-pull of fraught relationships and fevered inspiration, falsehoods capturing a Jacksonian mood. The camera subtly drifts, flits, or shakes, the light contours with stormy grain or searing spots, and the jittery performances roil with turbulent interiority. Like Decker’s last film — 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline — it’s a movie about creativity and the act of creation. There the camera danced around an experimental theater group with the spirit of communal tensions. Here the camera, always close to the performers, or drifting between reality and the imagination, digs into the process of Jackson’s writing, putting her live-wire center-stage behavior — gruff and mercurial, mentally troubled and passionately literate — in an ensemble cast, but in a role that nonetheless dominates the film. It matches the ice-pick precision of her frightening writing — typified by her most famous work, the perennially anthologized short story “The Lottery” — in the way it lets unusual detail accumulate and dark impressions accrue. The world of a Jackson story is sinister and unsettled, a cruel logic gripping an illogical world, a disturbed discomfort, a madness bubbling out of desires’ inability to contain life’s mysteries. The movie crackles with the hunger of these unknowable compulsions. It’s a film that makes this writer’s literary imagination so powerful, it bends the experience of others towards hers, and blurs the boundaries between her fiction and her failings.

We enter her anxious world through the eyes of a pair of graduate students (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) who arrive to join Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) in their respective works. The novel-in-progress, a work of gothic fiction about a college girl, dovetails with themes and patterns as the older couple alternately attracts and repulses the younger one, together in conjoined downward spirals of despair and description, creation and envy. The gregarious older man brings in the younger as an assistant, and pushes him away as it looks as if he might be able to join the department, even as he draws him into his bad habits. The troubled older woman — Moss a fearsome force, bending whole scenes to her glowering unease or prickly poise, a storm of desires and disorders lending an unpredictable air to her every scene — hammers away at her manuscript, when she can manage it. Otherwise she marinates in her anxieties provoked by what she views as betrayals of her body, her agoraphobia, her visions of blood and sex.

The movie never exactly says Jackson’s dark stories were only possible because of her mind’s dark tracks, but merely that her fearfulness of her own mind was the same jolt of paranoia that threads through her prose, and that her writing is so controlled because she struggles to control herself. It avoids confining her, or the film’s startling, swooning, sumptuously sensual creepiness, to limiting biographical criticism. It’s far too artful, and tantalizingly interpretive, for that. As the film portrays her, Jackson knows too well how one’s mind could betray oneself, how one’s deep cruelty can project outwards and inwards in uneven proportion. As she pulls her new young assistant into her world, she places the seeds of their falling out. And so the movie is about the intensity of four character’s connections, a quadrangle of jealousies in cutthroat gamesmanship of tenure and manuscripts, appetites and apprehension, in a dance of disordered personalities. The quicksilver screenplay by Sarah Gubbins from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell is one of intense feeling and sharp dialogue — consumed with simmering fears and bursts of manic work, of fleshly failings and intellectual aims brought to vivid life by Decker's filmmaking.