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 completion, 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. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Old New World: ALADDIN

Disney’s project is to make its product synonymous with childhood and then sell yours back to you in perpetuity. (That they've only escalated their world domination plans over the years makes it less easy to root for them.) So here’s Aladdin, their latest live-action remake of a beloved animated musical. I’m as suspicious of this trend as the next critic, but I simply can’t deny that when they work they work. Here under the watch of Guy Ritchie, the man whose early work with British bruiser gangster pictures has flowered into my kind of breathless, eccentric Hollywood brand-extension products (the Downey Jr Sherlocks; the sleek, cool Man from UNCLE; the crackerjack crackpot King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), good old Aladdin becomes a widescreen charmer. Ritchie simply filigreed the edges as the film is otherwise safe, harkening back to a sort of old school backlot spectacle of dancers and color and costumes and Star Power, both of the Grand Movie Star and New Star is Born variety. It has Will Smith bringing back generous dollops of Fresh Prince charm, a more than welcome return, for the role of the motor-mouthed wisecracking Genie. It casts relative unknowns Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott — with smiling eyes, pleasant voices, and attractive romantic spark — as Aladdin and Jasmine. It wears a toothy grin and a snappy step, a light-stepping high-budget galumph, with flowing costumes and ornate interiors, applying modern effects (building Genie magic or sorcerer evil) and extended sets with digital matte paintings. The adaptation just paints on top of a sturdy structure — Menken’s original songs and score; the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-Genie-who-can-help-him-get-the-girl-and-clash-with-the-Sultan’s-conniving-vizier plotting — making a few new characters, adding a bit here and there to the princess role, and finding a fine thematic echo between the nefarious Jafar and the title hero. It’s not a radical reimagining (like Jolie’s Maleficent) or a sturdy retelling (like Branagh’s Cinderella) or a clumsy expansion (like Burton’s Dumbo) or a proficient retread (like Condon's Beauty and the Beast). It’s simply a fun time transposing a good story into another style. Of course it can’t match the original for zippy visual invention and iconically clean hand-drawn animated lines — not to mention Robin Williams’ voice performance that bends the film to it and overshadows everything around it. But what it does have is plenty enjoyable comfortable charm and nostalgia warmly bubbling up from multiple sources. 

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.