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.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Old Man and the Glum: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT and THE MULE

Out now are two pokey, eccentric movies from auteurs who have grabbed high pulp thriller concepts (hooks on which the marketing has been hung) and drained them of most suspense to turn them into loping meditations on masculine failings. Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule are queasy funny semi-thrillers about bad men and bad decisions, arriving at different and yet strangely sympatico conclusions about their otherwise dissimilar leads. They do bad things (though one’s are much worse than the other’s) and they spend their movies slowly accruing the need to pay for them, and to find someone to take them to their inevitable punishment. The films themselves as often as goofy as they are cynical, and swaddled in their directors’ usual peculiarities and peccadilloes. Is this a recommendation? Of a sort. They’re films for those predisposed to cut their filmmakers some slack, and willing to groove on their usual brand.

Von Trier’s film is about Jack, a serial killer. The man is an architect, but while his dream home goes unbuilt, his murders build in complexity. While we see a progression of vignettes, as bloody and grotesque as they are uncomfortable and even bleakly humorous, Jack (Matt Dillon) speaks to an unseen interlocutor (Bruno Ganz) in voice over. They comment on the events and victims (like Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan) on screen, and interrupt the narrative with digressions about philosophy, art, religion, fascism, and the functional form of cathedrals. Jack is casting about for a way to be whole. He could’ve been an artist, a philosopher, or a writer (or a filmmaker? nudge, nudge), but has instead found a grisly, horrifying outlet. He’s searching for a thrill, a kill that’ll fill the hole in his soul. In this way, it makes a cruel mirror image to Von Trier’s superior previous film, Nymphomaniac, which found a woman telling her life story in dialogue with a mysterious man. She, too, was looking to fill a need. She was sex obsessed, a far healthier drive than Jack’s and yet, taken to an addict’s extreme, the pursuit leads her to dark decisions and spirals of shame. Is this pair of films Von Trier commenting on his vision of the world? I am reminded of the cliche “there are two kinds of people...” It’s certainly of a piece with his pictures of cruelty and capriciousness to envision a “Men are Death; Women are Sex” world. But there’s something more self-loathing and self-reflexive about both pictures than those generalizations, and Jack is ultimately about an artist whose bad, frustrated impulses lead to a murder streak as fully detached from reality as his clammy sociopathy can make him. If only he'd built that house instead. (In a striking moment, there’s a montage of Von Trier’s own past films, as if in self-defense, saying his films may be cruel, cynical, misanthropic, and depressed, but who in the audience is actually harmed?) But what to do with someone who is obviously destined to burn in hell, yet still finds himself clinging to the hope that he can climb out? Von Trier has us look and see, though what we’re to make of it is unclear. Its nasty discomfort lingers, and its teetering vacantness does too.

Eastwood’s The Mule is, true to its director, a more straightforward ride. It’s about a failed family man (Clint himself) who put work in the prime position, who seemingly never heard of work-life balance as he’s travelled the country as a prize-winning horticulturist lapping up colleagues admiration while his wife, daughter, and granddaughter (Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga) miss him at every milestone. Thus, when he finds himself 90 years old, estranged and lonely as the bank puts his farm into foreclosure, he becomes a mule for a drug cartel. At first he is unwittingly ferrying duffel bags of drugs from Texas to Illinois and back again, taking the envelopes of cash and asking no questions. He’s half-naive, half-willfully ignorant. But by the time he figures out what’s up, he just becomes a witting mule instead. The movie is a road trip — there and back and there and back and there and back again — where the old man rarely has problems aside from the occasional gun in the face during contract negotiations with his employers, or a K9 officer he outwits with a slather of Bengay on his hand. He stops at roadside eateries and low-rent hotels, lazily touring the countryside and chatting with locals of all kinds. Sometimes he grumbles about kids these days. Sometimes he tries to reconnect with his family. All in all, a cash infusion seems to do him good. His late-life career change wins him accolades. At one point he’s even invited by the kingpin (Andy Garcia) to party at his Mexican mansion with boozy pushers and bikini girls who fawn all over the old man — a funny embellishment that seems like self-flattery on the part of the star director. The movie lazily pokes along, generating a token amount of suspense from crosscut investigation by officers (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne) intent on hunting this mystery mule. It all comes to a head, as it must, with an inevitable karmic collision and a last chance for honesty. Yet Eastwood is more interested in it all as a portrait of a crumbling world economy, in which more and more is expected for less and less. Everyone — the DEA, the banks, the cartel, the insurance companies, and so on — has a boss breathing down their neck demanding more productivity no matter the cost to themselves or societal bonds. No one takes responsibility. It’s middle managers all the way down, while the rich get richer and some people have to work into their 90s to survive. Eastwood, always a more astute political thinker as a filmmaker than in his public persona, generates a movie that’s as sharp as it is eccentric. It’s a most unusual, low-key, elderly movie. Much like his 15:17 to Paris from earlier this year, he’s indulging an almost-aimless travelogue, surrounding interesting ideas in sentimentality and goofy jokes he trusts his casual formalism to carry across. It mostly does.

Motor City: MORTAL ENGINES

Mortal Engines opens with the earth in the Universal logo suddenly stricken with disaster. Sickly purple explosions detonate on every continent. Life as we know it is over. Not since Waterworld has a post-apocalyptic action adventure gotten this quickly to the setup. By the time the movie proper begins, a thousand years have passed. Society has reconstituted itself on wheels. But this is no Mad Max. No, my friends, whole cities are on wheels. These are enormous, rumbling, smoke-belching monstrosities, with entire urban centers perched atop gargantuan engines and even bigger tank tread tires. The big cities, like London, slam across the scraggly European countryside, in pursuit of smaller cities they can harpoon and pull in to strip down for parts and resources. Municipal Darwinism, our villain sneers. A neat colonialism parable, too, especially as the film concerns a plucky multicultural group of rebels angling to take down London before it can execute its dastardly plan to take over the globe at gunpoint. As adapted from Philip Reeve's book by Lord of the Rings’ braintrust Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, and directed by that team's effects, pre-visualisation, and assistant director Christian Rivers, this new feature is a big fantasy adventure full of steampunk swashbuckling and a bevy of stylistic influences. It’s a bit Jackson, yes, but also the Wachowskis, George Lucas, James Cameron, Hayao Miyazaki and Terry Gilliam. It’s stuffed with stentorian exposition, rigorous bric-a-brac design overflowing world-building whimsy, intensely vivid pulp emotion, and large-scale action told in clear, splashy, sequences of thrills, chills, and spills. There is a joy to be found in a movie of this blockbuster appeal following its bliss in opening a new world for us to play around in. Expansive enough to accommodate its visual enormity (mind-boggling cityscapes on the run), but intimate enough to sell its oddball ideas (say, a deranged fatherly zombie terminator that’s both terrifying and, ultimately, some sort of heartbreaking), the movie bursts with ideas and adventure charting a new, yet familiar, course. The tone is pure earnest adventure, completely unembarrassed of its straight-faced jaunt through the sturdiest and broadest blockbuster myth making. It has a scarred orphan (Hera Hilmar) out for revenge, a pretty city boy (Robert Sheehan) about to be converted to the plight of the underclass, a stylish rebel (Jihae) in a flowing red coat and cool little sunglasses, a scene-gnawing villain (Hugo Weaving) out to swallow up anyone who gets in his way. It has a variety of clever set pieces — in a land of blimps, a scuzzy slave market and slimy hodgepodge outlaw towns, a floating oil-rig-turned-prison. And, above all, it has the visceral and imaginative pleasures of those big cities racing each other across ancient irradiated landscapes with a massive bass rumble in the soundtrack. What a blast!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

They Use Your Mind and They Never Give You Credit: ROMA and SUPPORT THE GIRLS

There's a quiet, gentle ironic counterpoint in Roma, a movie with two largely separate plot lines that nonetheless intersect for the simple reason that they're taking place in the same home. We follow the quotidian life of a maid (Yalitza Aparicio) for a well-to-do family in 1970s Mexico City. She does the cleaning and the washing and the cooking and the childcare as a beloved but backgrounded auxiliary member of the family. She's constantly told she's valued, but just as easily snapped at if there are, say, dog droppings in the driveway. Her personal life is a struggle, with a shiftless boyfriend who flees the instant she's pregnant, with no means to grow beyond her current economic and social standing, with an impoverished background, and with her hard job done for pennies, room, and board. And yet she keeps this struggle mostly to herself, cautiously maintaining good relationships with her co-workers and employers, genuinely loving the children in her care, and rarely allowing her turbulent emotional struggles to manifest as anything more than a deep sadness in her eyes. (Aparicio, in her first acting role, is quite good at showing this emotion flashing up and getting pushed back down.) The irony is that the family's troubles are less dramatic, and yet they act them out as melodrama -- a cheating father, shouting wife, wiggly kids, busted cars, screaming matches, and even a smack or two -- erupting in their normal daily routines. By setting these two approaches to life's struggles side by side, writer-director Alfonso Cuaron almost seems to be tiptoeing to the edge of saying only privileged people have the luxury of wallowing in misery. And yet this isn't a cruel movie, partially because it's gooey where it could be sharper, vague sentiment passing off as profound distance. 

Still, though he takes all the characters seriously, he imbues the maid alone with a quiet dignity. It locates the sweetness in the family's genuine love for her, while aware of how quickly she becomes just the hired help when need be. It's small. And yet the movie's an epic in the background even as it's an intimate slice-of-life drama in the foreground. A widescreen, black and white, period piece gleam to the images take in convincing city streets that seem to stretch for miles with every detail of a time and place just so. Cuaron's camera roves like Altman crossed with Lucretia Martel, catching snippets of dialogue in languid specificity, in long sequences as situated on place and deep focus as character or incident. Marvelous scenes like an extended Christmas party, or a trip to the movies, luxuriate in the vivid recreation of a warmly remembered space. Historical events -- an earthquake, a protest -- play out not as momentous reenactments, but as just another thing with which to put up between the other daily dramas. After nearly two decades working in big-budget genre fare (his Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity are some of the finest soulful spectacle around), Cuaron has painted a more autobiographical vision in his typical virtuoso style. Even so, there's a curious quality that leaves the film, as accomplished as it is, as more of an impression than a statement, a remove from its main character that views her with sympathy without ever quite understanding her. It mistakes depiction for comprehension, a strong silent stereotype for a complicated interiority, a virtue of presence counterbalanced by a deficit of interpersonal imagination. Thus it's a movie full of abundant visual and aural pleasure and emotional distance. 

That's not a problem with 2018's other movie about working class women, Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls. It may be less high profile, smaller in scale, and lighter in tone. But it's an even more serious effort of moral conscience and class consciousness. That it's somehow both unblinkingly candid about modern working class socioeconomic conditions, and a buoyant, charming workplace comedy filled with indelible characters, is a delight. It's set almost entirely in a small, independent Hooters-style sports bar and grill where the waitresses wear tight shirts and short shorts revealing acres of midriff and legs. The little place is ignominiously nestled in a homogenous suburban Houston sprawl, overseen by a warm, compassionate, no-nonsense manager (Regina Hall). During one eventful day, she tries to wrangle new trainee waitresses, deals with the restaurant's overbearing owner, maneuvers through a crowd of regulars and rowdy, ogling one-timers, and works to keep her longtime employees safe and happy. She knows the establishment isn't the fanciest or classiest, but doesn't look down on the hard work they put into the place. As she charges through a normal, tough day at work (it starts with her crying in her car, before literally putting on a happy face) she's determined to treat her employees like family, loving and supporting but able to be tough when necessary. The picture is a scrappy, expertly multitasking, bighearted, intimate comedy with finely textured notes of drama, spinning a small, tightly knit ensemble through the ups and downs of a day. And putting Hall in the center is its best decision, allowing her sweetness and her toughness to lend her easy authority and warm respect. It's clear why her waitresses love her. And why the grind of it all could get her down.

In Bujalski's style, unassuming humane generosity of spirit, every member of the ensemble emerges as a full formed, fully seen human being with wants and needs and rich emotional complications steadily revealed through action. There’s the woman (Shayna McHayle) who needs to bring her son to work until she can find a sitter. There’s the bubbly cheerful waitress (Haley Lu Richardson) who tries to keep the group's spirits up simply because she radiates kindness that's also it’s own sort of need. There’s the girl (AJ Michalka) who has regrets over how a new prominent tattoo will effect her employment. There's the woman (Jana Kramer) whose sudden financial troubles (to say the least) prompts the manager to throw an emergency car wash fundraiser. There's the grumpy, prejudiced owner (James Le Gros) who is exasperated by the drama. To this, Hall replies, "you want me to tell a group of 20-year-old girls no drama!?!" They will be who they'll be, and are worthy of love and understanding for no reason other than their humanity. In its low-key way, the movie makes an earnest observation about what a difference it makes when someone actually cares, and how difficult it can be to maintain that core goodness when some around take advantage or otherwise bring you down. So bright and clear-eyed, and at once loose and bubbly and totally serious-minded, the movie emerges as a sweet and melancholy day-in-the-life of tenuous minimum wage workers that genuinely sees and supports its characters, centering their stories and prioritizing them. It knows they can only laugh along for so long until they need a good cathartic scream into the void.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Downshifting: BUMBLEBEE

I can't blame Paramount for wanting to scale back and rethink their fading Transformers franchise. After five films from Michael Bay, the movies were inextricable from his auteur personality, for better and worse. Since his agreeably bombastic boy-and-his-car 2007 kickoff, they reliably served up colossal mountains of Bayhem, some of the most spectacular and sensational (quite literally) Hollywood can concoct, but in the service of a tangled nonsense mythology that got harder to parse by the minute. (Not to mention the whiplash plotting, tone-deaf gags, and self-conscious leering that oozed into the worst entries.) In fact, Bay's films became so convoluted in their world-building that I can't honestly tell you if the newest entry, a 1980s-set feature entirely focused on the scrappy yellow Bumblebee, is a prequel, retcon, or (in the immortal words of one David S. Pumpkins) its own thang. Regardless, the robots are part of it, and the opening warfare on planet Cybertron makes clear you're going to have to care about it in order to care about the narrative thrust of the movie that sends a wounded Bumblebee to hide from Decepticons on planet Earth while waiting for his Autobot pals to rescue him. It's familiar territory, but done in a smaller and (slightly) quieter style with director Travis Knight (Laika founder and Kubo and the Two Strings helmer) and screenwriter Christina Hodson out to make it a blatant character-based throwback. That the bulk of the movie is taken up by the cute yellow Transformer voiceless and hiding as a VW bug in the garage of a sad teen mechanic (Hailee Steinfeld) is just evidence this brand of Transformers movie is softer and cuddlier than the clattering junkpiles Bay enjoyed so much. Sure, one or two humans may get liquified and a couple robots are speared and dismembered, but this is trying its hardest to be consistently human-scale, even as its pro-forma plot devices and emotional tricks have only synthetic heart. 

It's not just tone and scale that've been brought down to size for Bumblebee. The design of the robot is rounded and playful, more toy-like in its conception, and with a crisp-lines, simple-movements appeal of a Saturday morning cartoon. He's discovered by the teen as she's dealing with a big emotional trauma -- the sudden death of her beloved father in the recent past, and now her mother (Pamela Adlon) has been seeing a dopey, well-meaning new boyfriend (Stephen Schneider). Now, wouldn't you know it, the young woman and the little Transformer who could just might bond and help each other heal and grow. They might even save the world while they're at it. That's the idea, anyway, as this movie, borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant, albeit without the convincing alien character work, creates an agonizingly predictable hiding-the-robot and learning-his-secrets teen dramedy cross-cut with a soldier (John Cena) and a scientist (John Ortiz) hot on the space invader's trail. It's anchored by Steinfeld, as winning as ever, whose charming screen presence can only sell so much of this nonsense. She's as good as in True Grit or Edge of Seventeen, but the material lets her down. It's as technically slick as anything the studios can pay for -- the craftspeople are doing their best -- but there's no there there stylistically. The comedy is flat, the drama is underwritten cliche, and the incessant oldies soundtrack tries its best to gin up nostalgic goodwill (the Guardians of the Galaxy trick for injecting personality in scenes that otherwise wouldn't play as well). It's full of likable character actors allowed a modicum of enjoyable moments -- I particularly liked Cena questioning his commander's trust in an evil robot by pointing out that they call themselves the Decepticons -- but the movie so obviously clunks its way through obvious beats and schematic development, ending at the same fireworks factory these things always do with half the resources and even less to impress. Say what you will about the Bays, but at least they were, at their worst, interestingly bad.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Lesser Than or Sequel To: RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET and CREED II

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a cacophony of good intentions and bad ideas all wrapped up in breathtakingly shameless corporate self-promotion. Because it's a Walt Disney Animation production it has the expected high level of production quality. The animation is brightly colorful, richly detailed and vividly lively, with genuine emotion in its characters' expressions, a sturdy stretch to their movements, and a quick wit in its visual bounce. It lacks, however, the timelessness of the studio's best work. The production is wedded to an idea that'll age like ice cream left outside on a summer day, one that's exploited for as many cringing product placements as it is good narrative and comedic potential. It takes the main duo of arcade video game characters from Wreck-It Ralph, the title guy (John C. Reilly) and Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), and contrives a reason for them to travel to the internet. There they find a land that's been cleverly designed under the guidance of Zootopia directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston. There are Funko Pop-shaped avatars of humans representing browsers zipping hither and thither through a digital metropolis that's half Coruscant, half Reboot's Mainframe. There are digital sprites representing code and algorithms: a sleazy pop-up promoter (Bill Hader), a nerdy search bar (Alan Tudyk), a trendy viral video softer (Taraji P. Henson), a cool mean streets race game heroine (Gal Godot). (Disney reliably gets top notch voice performance.) 'Tis all good so far as it goes, though mired in a sort of passé techno-Utopianism, its Information Superhighway vision not nearly as dystopian as anyone reading the news the last decade would imagine now. (A few family-friendly nods to the Dark Net and ads promising "sassy housewives" merely hint at the terrors Disney dare not name.) Though there is a fine throughline in which our heroes realize the internet enables their worst selves, projecting and exaggerating their insecurities on a global scale, the name of the game is largely product placement. They fly by Twitter, Facebook and Google, crash into Pinterest, and run through EBay. And in its most astonishing feat of corporate synergy, the film's peak of both entertainment and self-promotion, Vanellope ends up at Oh My Disney dot com, where she sees pavilions devoted to Star Wars, Marvel, and classic Disney animation characters. This dizzying sequence has a few good jokes and includes a mostly funny and warm princess reunion at which everyone from Snow White to Moana shoots the breeze in a green room. They're so much fun together I wondered why Disney didn't just skip the Ralph stuff loaded up with instantly-dated web links and do a straight up Princess Avengers. So there are some good ideas here, but they're buried under an exhausting barrage of hollow references and time-stamped winking. 


A much better time spent with Hollywood extending preexisting Intellectual Property can be had across the multiplex hall in Creed II. This crowd-pleaser continues the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed best known for his fights with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, returning for the eighth time in the role of his career), where Ryan Coogler left it a few years ago. It continues to be a frequently low-key, tender, and melancholic character piece restoring the fine emotional shadings of the earlier series' better entries. Between rousing boxing matches, shot with verve and sweat, and cut crisply and cleanly to emphasize every punch, every swing, every dodge, with strategic clarity, there's plenty of time consider Adonis's relationships with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), his mother (Phylicia Rashad), and his mentor, Rocky himself. As sturdily directed by Steven Caple Jr, this is compelling, sympathetic material, brought to life by Jordan's easy charisma and energy and the ensemble's naturalistic chemistry. It's a film built to care deeply and empathetically about the life of a boxer, one who is still fighting the shadow of his late father while trying to grow not only fame and skill, but the maturity needed to become his own man. So it's a finely shaded sports film, building real emotional life in its rise-fall-rise plotting, earnestly interested in its fathers-and-sons, rivals-and-family rumination. Because it cares so persuasively and persistently about its character's humanity, it's all the more effective and exciting when the bone-crunching boxing begins. I was surprised how invested I was, finding myself reacting with "oof!"s and "yes!"es at every turn of the matches. I was moreover surprised to see how deftly the movie, like its predecessor, mines pathos and subtlety out of some of the Rocky series' broader backstory. In this case, it's Rocky IV's super-Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who here is a weary human-scale antagonist, ruthlessly coaching his muscle-heavy boxer son (Florian Munteanu), to challenge Adonis. It's part revenge, part a last-ditch effort to vicariously restore the honor Rocky beat out of him thirty years prior. It works as a sharp tension, and a compelling obstacle, while also creating sympathetic interpersonal dynamics between the Dragos without overwhelming Adonis's story. All told, the Creed movies are thus far some kind of franchise magic, spinning new gold out of an old idea that seemed tired and silly, but now is invested with all this fresh interest. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

In Real Life: CAM

Like its Blumhouse cousins Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web, though without their all-on-a-screen gimmick, Cam is a horror movie that treats the fears inherent in internet spaces seriously, manifesting the way digital dilemmas bleed into real world anxiety. Unlike the more supernatural bent of those other films, however, this one gets its chilling premise out of nothing more than a hacked account and a mysterious imposter. It stars Madeline Brewer as a bright young woman who makes good money doing shows on a cam site. She’s not nude, but often as close as you can be to it. She flirtatiously solicits tokens from her anonymous fans, seen only, except for a couple high rollers, as a scroll of filthy chatter sliding up the side of her screen. Even before the film’s high concept creepiness begins in earnest, the early half-hour or so is the sort of film that sharply and observantly shows a particular life not often given attention. Here is a relatively new job category, or iteration thereof, at once marginal and omnipresent, hidden in plain sight, disreputable and isolated, yet highly visible, just a click away. 

There’s great specificity in the film’s portrayal, showing her ease with the block button, her cultivation of big tippers, her prep work, showmanship and carefully undressed modesty. She pays close attention to her ranking on the site, eyeing the more popular ladies with envy, but proud of cracking the top 50 most nights. Her hairdresser mother (Melora Walters) only knows she works as a freelance web developer. Her teenage brother (Devin Druid) knows what she does, but views it from a cautious remove. (His friends’ giggling viewership is not so easy for him to handle, though.) Her life is comfortable but secretive, at once on display and in the shadows. She is safely in control and totally vulnerable. Writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s startling and assured feature debut has such a spark of reality in this early going (undoubtedly bolstered by his co-writer, actual ex-cam model Isa Mazzei) that even if it didn’t become a horror movie it’d be a notable work. Luckily, kicking into a thriller gear churns the film’s interest in our digital vulnerability, and the ugly harassment women, in particular, receive when daring to take up space online, into a further dizzying, unsettling place. This cam girl finds her password won’t work and, while troubleshooting, notices her account is broadcasting. It’s her, but not her, and the website doesn’t, or can’t, help. She’s been hijacked by an uncannily accurate lookalike. Maybe it’s a troll. Maybe it’s a deep fake. Maybe it’s an algorithm. Maybe it's a glitch. Maybe it's all of the above. But it’s just too right and too destabilizing. This sends her on a spiral of paranoia and uncertainty, looking desperately for a solution before her life falls apart. It all culminates in a dizzying cascade of windows and mirrors, digital and real life collapsing and interacting, tabs within tabs. But all along the film's sensitivity to its lead’s emotional state makes it clear that the internet lives in a peculiar space, removed from reality and yet indisputably a large part of creating it these days. On the internet, as the old New Yorker cartoon goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. And yet our online selves become these digital doppelgängers with a life of their own that’s nonetheless a part of our own. It is real and not, a space where we are ourselves and not. And that’s scary enough.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Unhappy Trails: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

The Coen brothers’ return to the Western is slathered in referentiality and encased in fiction. Built as an anthology of six frontier stories, it’s framed quite literally by the turning pages of a dusty, worn book with the same title as the film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. Each story starts with a hand turning a page to a new painted image, a fresh title, a thick paragraph of prose. They all feature characters and settings, tropes and archetypes instantly recognizable: a prospector, a wagon train, a guitar-playing gunslinger, a stagecoach. Yet as the Coens spin their tales, it’s clear these are primal stories America tells about itself, a genre that mythologizes over dark truths, the realities of which unconsciously bubble up. The brothers play up this darkness at the heart of the American character, the cruelty of mankind, the empty heroism of frontier violence, the casual and capricious rot of greed amongst interpersonal relationships, upon a landscape, and in a national character. When the title character addresses the audience in the opening scene of the opening story, he takes issue with being called a misanthrope. His explanation strikes me as apt an explanation of the Coens’ worldview as any they’ve ever delivered: don’t expect much of anyone and you’ll never be disappointed. Trust in the Coens' filmmaking, however, rarely is for naught.

Here they’ve crafted a movie that’s an embrace and critique of the chosen genre in all its varieties. It loves the tropes, and casts doubt on elisions and implications. The vision of the West articulated here is obviously fiction, attention drawn to the artifice of the frame. The stories are informed equally by John Ford and Roy Rogers, Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, Mark Twain and Washington Irving, with a splash of Poe and Dickinson for good measure. (The Coens remain among our most literary filmmakers.) It begins with a singin’ cowboy who is casually a mass murderer, and for that he cheerfully approaches life and death. The story’s bounce, and the Looney Tunes storybook staging to its visual gags, belies its seriousness of disjunction — drawing attention to the mixed messages chipper Westerns can send. The stories grow darker and more unsparing as the film proceeds, descending from its opening whistling carefree carnage to an ill-fated bank robber, then an increasingly-marginalized traveling orator, a stubborn process-focused prospector, a wagon train where a death causes some of its members to renegotiate their futures, and finally a cramped stagecoach with tense passengers. Because they could not stop for death, it kindly stops for them.

Peopled with a bevy of fine actors delivering performances perfectly calibrated to the film’s tricky tone — clever, comic, and arch, but with tragedy picking at the margins before roaring up with a wicked undertow — the memorable faces and voices carry the film’s intent. The likes of Tim Blake Nelson and James Franco float a little above the action; Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tom Waits and Liam Neeson play things a little more straight; Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson are somewhere between. It's all of a piece with a film investing increasing dramatic stakes in the violence of survival. These and others fill out frames shot in the Coens’ rigorously playful visual style, Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp, digital lensing crafting an unusually vivid unreality to the environments, real and imagined. We are used to seeing the Hollywood Wild West of its heyday with a gauzy filmic nostalgia. Here it goes through the motions, but the unsparing digital finds new, harsher beauty. We’re never not aware this is a fiction, and yet on the strength of the literate scripting and clear-eyed performances, and the typically sharp Roderick Jaynes editing that goes where the brothers do, I got involved in the character’s predicaments, felt their fears and hopes, while still seeing the artifice of their construction, as well. The Coens know the pleasures of the Western, and the real pain and inevitable doom that meets these stories at the end. This isn't exactly a revisionist Western of the kind that sprang up in the genre's decline as darker and more explicitly and self-consciously tortured, but one that revives the old style for new purposes.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

With its second entry, the Fantastic Beasts series has become one of the most strangely paced film franchises. After an initial entry that felt like so much throat clearing introduction, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel sequel shows up with two more hours of introductory exposition. Initially announced as a potential series of five films, it appears Rowling has shaped the whole shebang like a novel. Two films in and we’ve only seen rising action. So leisurely paced it is that a film called Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t even worry overmuch about including its villain committing said crimes. The wizard supremacist of the title breaks out of New York’s magic prison in the zippy and zappy opening sequence, but then simply hangs out in scenic period Parisian locales talking with henchmen and underlings until the film’s final moments give him another monologue. (That this is nonetheless Johnny Depp’s best performance in years shows he can still inhabit a scene when he decides to do so.) The film develops like the setup in the early going of a pokey fantasy novel, so concerned with moving its characters into place like chess pieces on a board of world-building that’s slowly painted before our eyes. In the moment I wondered where it was going, and in the hours since I’ve asked myself why we’re supposed to accept such a slim sliver of story as satisfying. And yet I enjoyed my stay in the world, and took pleasure in Rowling’s pile-up of quirky characters, winking callbacks, and developments so convoluted and drawing upon such deep cut Potter lore I couldn’t figure out if they were surprise connections, retcons, or both. (I saw at least one critic scoff that she’s gone “full Lucas,” to which I can only say “if only.” I would’ve adored some magic Senate gatherings and discussion of wizard trade routes.) I could barely piece together who was doing what for why, but each scene — crafted by Wizarding World veterans director David Yates, production designer Stuart Craig, and costumer Colleen Atwood — is enchanting enough. 

Coasting on an author’s interest in expanding her world and an audience’s goodwill towards it, this is perhaps the first movie series that'll play better as a binge once the whole thing is out. For now we have another slice of time spent in the midst of small details hoping they’ll one day add up to a worthwhile big picture. I liked the small details in this one more than the ones in its predecessor; its tone is more even, and its character work is shorn free of the sense the filmmakers were kicking the tires of a new concept. Now hero wizard zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has grown into a continually endearing oddball center for such a spectacle, stammering and awkward, hunched and soft-spoken, but with his heart in the right place. The film finds him on the trail of a lost orphan (Ezra Miller) who turned into an inky black storm cloud at the end of the first movie. Scamander has been sent by young rascally Hogwarts teacher Dumbledore (Jude Law, with a hint of Richard Harris twinkle in his roguish eyes) who knows Grindewald is hoping to turn the poor missing boy into a pawn for evil purposes. Along the search, Scamander picks up with returning companions, some well-served by their key roles (Katherine Waterston, low-key charming with flat affect and neat black bob), others gladly along for the ride (Dan Fogler, fine comic relief with a hint of pathos), and still others (Alison Sudol) lost in an arc of which I could hardly make heads or tails. A host of other faces (including Zoe Kravitz as a Ministry of Magic agent with a dark past) appear to churn the incidents and backstory with fresh conflict and connections. Meanwhile, there’s a background simmer of growing sympathies for wizard fascism among some in the magic community that creates a mood of unease all-too relatable. (Nothing wrong with hearing Grindelwald out, one gullible witch says. Besides, his prediction that wizard rule could prevent a muggle world war sounds awfully convincing to 1927 Europe.) What does it all add up to? I don’t know yet. All I know is I basically went with it in the moment, enjoying a look in Paris’s answer to Diagon Alley and their Ministry’s archives guarded by hairless cats with huge glowing blue eyes. I liked seeing new corners of the world, found myself surprised to be charmed by the return of characters I’ve scarcely thought about since the last movie, and by the time the credits rolled I could’ve sworn we had only reached the film’s midpoint. I wasn’t ready to leave, mostly because I was basically enjoying the experience, but also because I was still waiting for the story to kick in.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Welles Wishes: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

One thing is abundantly clear as The Other Side of the Wind begins to unspool: here is a movie we will be thinking about as long as people want to think seriously about the movies. It's something of a miracle we can see it at all. The legendary writer-director-impresario-icon Orson Welles shot his film in the 1970s and partially edited it before his death in 1985. Ever since, it sat incomplete, the raw material locked away in a vault due to complicated legal disputes. Only now, at long last, has it been rescued and finished. (Morgan Neville's companion making-of documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead excellently recounts this backstory.) The result is a movie completed by editors and producers, many who worked as youngsters on the film's original shoot and postproduction, doing an approximation of the final cut Welles was working towards, an educated guess. And yet the film itself is Welles himself doing approximations and impersonations, building a wild kaleidoscope of footage, reflections within reflections within reflections. (That's an appropriate idea for a man whose career brought us memorable mirror sequences in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai.) It feels at once of its point of origin and of today. It proves Welles was always ahead of his time. After just one viewing, my head was spinning with its images and ideas, letting its novelty and ingenuity knock about my mind, slotting it into an idea of Welles' career while marveling, almost dazed, that there's a new Welles in the world. 

Like so many of his films, it has sensation of melancholy and memory throughout, starting by telling is the main character has died. He, an elderly Hollywood studio director (played by John Huston, reflecting and embodying his, his generation's, and Welles' impulses in a craggy, wily performance) grasping for relevance at the dawn of the New Hollywood, died in a car crash after his birthday party. The film is a ragged, unflinching recreation of his final day, a found-footage collage of LA excess, the old man surrounded by rings of cameras in addition to old friends, bitter colleagues, sycophants and hangers-on, young protégés and confused collaborators. (The astonishing cast includes such expert faces as Peter Bogdanovich and Susan Strasberg, and Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart among many, many more.) While they trade barbs and celebrate their creativity and needle each other with vicious power plays and prickly overlapping dialogue cut quick in a jangly jumble of mixed Academy Ratio film stocks -- deep inky black and crisp crinkly white or sharp grainy pale 70's color -- the director hopes to screen a work-in-progress of his latest film. Excepts from this work are generously apportioned throughout. Its long widescreen takes of artful nonsense -- a sensual and striking goof on mid-century Euro-art-house of the Antonioni sort, Welles clearly loving the experiment of playing at directing in another style, while proving he could've just flat out done that sort of feature if he'd cared to try -- focuses on a man (Bob Random) and woman (Oja Kodar, Welles' co-writer and lover) who chase each other in various states of undress through stark mise en scene: a car in the rain, an empty house, a vacant backlot. This unfinished film-within-the-film is in need of money to be completed, hence the director screening it at his party. There's a poignancy in watching a belatedly assembled film about an unfinished film, neither director living to see where it'd end up.

Cut with adventurous Wellesian tomfoolery and grandeur, the recreation seems a logical culmination of the artistic impulses that took him to The Immortal Story and F for Fake in the final decade of his directorial career. Like those films, but taken to a new extreme, the prismatic editing is playful and aggressive. The movie runs hot and cold. The view of arts and artists is both reverent and self-critical. The approach to sex is both prudish and frank. The story is both incomprehensible cacophony and clearly razor-sharp perceptive. It's as lacerating as it is invigorating, voices and styles layered and collapsed. Their truths and fictions blur and people build each other up and tear each other down in the same instant. It's beautiful and ugly, angry and elegiac. The final image, a movie screen slowly washed out as industry, as represented by a rumbling train, rolls on. Welles creates with Wind a picture that finds its central figure in a state of decline, like Kane, lonely in a crowd, lost amid the trappings of fame while machismo and desire and riches and artistry starts to dim. And yet it's also a film of an artist in full control. It's scattered without being scatterbrained. The filmmakers who ushered it to a finished form have done their best to maintain this aggressive and circular film's wild structure. If it was released back in 1970-something, it would've been a fine expression of an oft-mistreated and mis-understood auteur making a masterful movie fitted to the times. Now the distance of decades greets it as a revelation: a creative and compelling posthumous declaration that Welles never stopped. Scene after scene is filled with shots that are startlingly fresh and dazzling in construction, building a wholly inventive film, new despite their age. From beyond the grave, he still has much to show us.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Cracked: THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Disney's newest live-action fantasy is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. This movie has everything. A teenage girl (Mackenzie Foy) getting a locked bejeweled egg for Christmas as a present left behind by her recently deceased mother. Morgan Freeman sending her on a magical adventure. (He's wearing an eyepatch, making mechanical toys, and twinkling with grandfatherly wisdom.) A magical world half-Oz and half-Wonderland inside an enormous clock the girl enters in a Narnia-like fashion while searching for her egg's key. Four warring Realms built out of steampunk candy and leftover Burtonish production design ruled by the likes of Eugenio Derbez covered in flowers and Richard E. Grant covered in snow and icicles hanging like frozen snot off his face. Keira Knightley with cotton candy hair, Tinkerbell wings, and a squeaky Lina Lamont voice. Helen Mirren as a dastardly clockwork circus villain with roiling masses of mice and a nesting doll of balloony henchmen who seem to have rolled out of a Return to Oz deleted scene. A cheerfully subservient black soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who is given permission to self-actualize by a white authority figure over which he continues to fawn. Ballerina Misty Copeland in lovely, if abbreviated, excerpts from the original Nutcracker ballet introduced with a Fantasia-inspired silhouette orchestra. A non-stop score slathered over everything that slips sweetly between Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovsky-esque. Rows of CG soldiers amassing here and there. Comic relief bit parts for which no one wrote actual jokes. A hero journey plot so generic and rote the movie itself hardly believes it. An overblown yet dull hectic adventure climax that not only fails to satisfy on its own, but somehow drains the magic inherent in its source material so it's nothing more than one part gentle whimsy one part mindless cacophony. Reshoots so extensive both the original director Lasse Hallstrom and studio fixer Joe Johnston get directing credits. A chipper smart-STEM-girls through-line. An opening swoop through late-1800's London that's close to the one that opens Robert Zemeckis's excellent Christmas Carol. And over the end credits: Andrea Bocelli.

It's a mess. At first I liked the baroque decorative design and charming eccentricity. But the more it sputtered along into banalities and inanities my attention well and truly drifted. Why all the effort to do something so clunky and routine with a famous ballet, blowing it out to fit awkwardly in the trend of live-action action-adventure fairy tales? Why not just make a big-budget ballet movie, a faithful and simple adaptation, and save yourselves the trouble, Disney? You'd think that'd be hard to mess up. Instead the movie is both overproduced and under-imagined, over-complicated and under-thought, with genuine enchantment and sentiment replaced by cliche and hollow artifice. What a missed opportunity.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Mercury Rising: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

The way Bohemian Rhapsody tells its story is such an obvious mistake you wonder why they tried it this way. I guess you could say the same for director Bryan Singer’s behind the scenes behavior, which included alleged absenteeism and tantrums that resulted in a firing mere weeks before the film wrapped. (Eddie the Eagle's Dexter Fletcher finished the shoot, though his contributions fit right in Singer's glossily hollow approach by the looks of it.) Regardless, the movie hardly reflects that turmoil, or even the turmoil of its subject: iconic rock band Queen. Sure there are drugs and sex mixed in with the rock and roll, but somehow the rock biopic has ended up one of our most prudish sub-genres, as this PG-13 affair scripted by Darkest Hour’s Anthony McCarten and Frost/Nixon’s Peter Morgan elides most of its band’s bad behavior and scolds the rest. It hardly seems fun, and only fleetingly interesting, to be a rock star, even before frontman Freddie Mercury hits rock bottom. The telling follows a formula so tired it was already a dusty old cliche by the time Walk Hard spoofed it eleven years ago. It starts with Mercury amped up for the band’s memorable Live Aid performance near the end of his life before flashing back to the group’s origins. Along the road to success we see: the early scenes in which the guys stare into the middle distance as if they know they’re etching quotes for a future re-enactment; arguments with mangers and record execs, complete with the suit who says what will be their biggest hit won't be; tour bus montages and concert snippets with city names and headlines floating toward the camera; the twinkle of inspiration as classic songs emerge basically fully formed in jam sessions. We’ve seen it all before. The only difference is Queen, and the token amount of time spent with Mercury's immigrant background. The production design and costume work is spot on. The sound design bumps and bops. The performances — especially Rami Malek's Mercury, toothy grin and lithe bulging bravado, selling the man’s sexuality in ways the movie barely does — are top notch impersonations. When they’re singing in concert there’s a fun kick. The detailed climactic Live Aid recreation is almost worth the price of admission. Shame, then, that the breathlessly stale greatest-hits behind-the-music connective tissue barely digs into characters and never textures the world with more than surface color as it rushes through the highs and lows. It fills its scenes with people who stand around speaking the subtext out loud in between fun music. If it wasn’t so deathly dull half the time it’d be pretty good.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Young Adult: EVERY DAY; LOVE, SIMON; THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST; THE HATE U GIVE

If I was in the market for a corny opening line to frame this piece, I'd probably say 2018 is the year the YA adaptation finally grew up. After a decade devoted to chasing dystopian and monster metaphors of adolescent interactions with society's ills to increasingly tepid results -- the drop off from Twilight and The Hunger Games to this year's rote The Maze Runner: The Death Cure (though it had the series' best action scenes, for what that's worth) and The Darkest Minds (a disappointingly sluggish live-action debut for Kung Fu Panda 2's Jennifer Yuh Nelson) is stark -- they've started to turn away en masse from the superteens-save-the-world tropes. What started as novel became tired, and, The Fault in Our Stars aside, drifted further and further away from how teens actually live their lives. But this year serves to correct the trend. Even the most fantastical of the bunch, Every Day, director Michael Sucsy (The Vow) adapting David Levitan's book about a teenager who wakes up every day in a new body, stakes out new territory as a metaphor not just for the surging uncertainty of teen life in a troubled world, but for gender fluidity and the malleability of a person's physical presentation. After all, the young character falls in love with a sweet high schooler (Angourie Rice), but has to meet her again every day as a new sixteen-year-old -- a variety of races and sexes, each fleeting connection beaming with the same soul behind the eyes. The film works rather improbably, and at least is consistently trying something high concept and new. When it works, it really works. The same can be said of three other adaptations, even stronger for digging deeper, and hewing closer to the lived experiences of a variety of teens struggling to make sense of a very real world around them. 

Take Greg Berlanti's adaptation of Becky Albertalli's Love, Simon, for instance. It got some positive notice for being a rare major Hollywood studio film about a gay romance, but that's not the full extent of what's driving this film. It's not as simple as a rom-com with one partner gender-swapped. The movie, light and bouncy, but with a direct, sentimental line to a receptive audience's swoons, builds a whole gimmick of storytelling architecture around a boy's struggle to come out. Simon (played with every ounce of white suburban normality Nick Robinson can bring) leaves a reply on a schoolmate's anonymous student gossip blog, writing the words of the big reveal without appending his name. Then, to his surprise, he gets a reply to his reply, from another closeted gay boy at his school. They enter an email pen pal relationship, so now the boy spends his normal procession of teen movie scenes -- classes, lunch hours, parties, dances, football games, the school play -- wondering which cute guy he is secretly falling in love with. The mystery has a pure and exhilarating feeling of first love, and captures the mood of any romantic high schooler whose affections are as strong as they are fickle. He is convinced he's in love with a handful of guys in turn, but as they reveal information that disqualifies them as a suspect, Simon cautiously backs out before coming out to them. It's a movie cut with the pop feeling of a big glossy teen movie complete with wall-to-wall syrupy narration and soft-rock soundtrack, a blackmail subplot, a gaggle of lovable friends (like BFF Katherine Langford, who may have a secret crush of her own), warmly supportive parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel), and twinkly perfect upper-middle-class set design. There's an undeniable pull of emotion to the social pretzels into which Simon must twist himself before finally deciding to just be himself. It's a movie that strives in every second to make coming out seem at once something that makes Simon different, and yet exactly like everyone else. It makes the movie a comfortable and agreeable entertainment, immensely satisfying in its warm, funny, heartfelt coziness.

But if Love, Simon ultimately finds its emotions by making them specific yet widely applicable in a situation of discomfort but relative safety, The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes discovering sexual identity to a place more frank and more dangerous. It's set in the early 1990s, where high schooler Cam (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is caught in romantic fumblings with her girl friend (Quinn Shephard). She's not just struggling with coming out. Cam's struggling with survival, as her harshly religious family sends her to a Christian camp for gay conversion therapy, where she's told her desires are sinful and unnatural, something for which she deserves punishment and from which she needs to be cured. There amid the casual cruelty of the camp she finds many kids (played by the likes of Emily Skaggs and Christopher Dylan White) who earnestly wish to rid themselves of same-sex attraction, and a pair of friends (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck) who are torn between wanting to wait out their time here and break free to be who they are. Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, following up her small, chatty debut Appropriate Behavior, the adaptation of Emily M. Danforth's novel is practically trembling with empathetic insight. The young cast is shown in patient, direct shots that hold long enough to see their eyes melting with sympathy for one another. They're trying to stay supportive, and stay true to themselves, even though they can barely speak, let alone furtively act on, what they'd most like to admit. They can hardly explain or express what they really feel in this setting, and so they grow close through small talk, through singing along to the radio, through jazzercise, and mock-therapy sessions where truth sneaks in between the cracks of the propaganda of self-loathing they're fed. These kids aren't always insecure, but are feeling strong rushes of emotion, of connection, they can't parse in time to meaningfully express. It's a movie of characters whose confusions are deliberately perpetuated in a misguided attempt at correction, the disjunction between who they are and who they'll be. Because Akhavan is so attuned to the inner lives of her characters, giving the terrific ensemble space to grow and breathe at a natural rhythm, in a film so carefully modulated and shorn of easy melodrama or careless shock, the developments in interpersonal dynamics within the camp bubble up organically out of what we know of how these people think and behave. Even the camp's employees (Jennifer Ehle and John Gallagher, Jr.) are played tough and fair, shown as honestly committed to what they see as right, despite clearly being in the wrong. This character-focused approach, so tender and particular and kind, makes the film neither screed nor sermon. It's simply a clear-eyed look at these specific characters in this particular time and place. Satire and scorn -- which would, in the hands of a less confident and capable filmmaker, be entirely understandable, if less impactful, approaches -- are here eschewed for the simple patient power of observation. That's what makes it both persuasive and deeply moving. I rarely feel so close to characters as I did to these. 

Like Cameron Post, George Tillman, Jr's thoughtful adaptation of Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give approaches a sensitive subject from the characters out. It stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a 16-year-old girl growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood where poverty and its ill effects -- drugs, crime, violence -- are the reasons why her mother (Regina Hall) wants to send her kids to the white private school on the other side of town. A sense of duty to provide for their community is the reason why her father (Russell Hornsby) doesn't want them to move. He teaches his children to respect their blackness, to stand up for what's right, and to stay safe. Starr holds these truths to be self evident, though she is, like so many, an expert on code switching, shifting her slang and behavior when in her high school around her white upper class friends (all TV-actor pretty, like Riverdale's K.J. Apa and Girl Meets World's Sabrina Carpenter). She tells us she doesn't want to look "ghetto" to them, all the while cringing as they compliment her lit shoes and get down to R&B beats in the halls between classes. The movie builds a persuasive case about the indignities of racism and class -- about systemic injustice and staggering inequality -- by simply drawing out the facts of this girl's life. It's smartly situated in the personal, an undeniable understanding built from lived experience. Eventually there is conflict, as Audrey Wells screenplay efficiently reveals Starr's community to be constrained by the gangs that control her neighborhood. To get involved, even accidentally, with either one of them could spell disaster for her parents' big dreams of a better life. Both are groups of (mostly) men who will unfailingly protect one another, even in the face of an associate's over-the-line criminality, even and especially at the expense of the community. One is a gang of drug dealers (led by Anthony Mackie) who provide the illusion of easy money for so many disenfranchised youth in the neighborhood. The other is the police force, who circle the wagons when an officer kills an unarmed black man. Starr is caught between them, as a witness who could implicate both groups. The film plays out its smart, engaged, political story in an empathetic and emphatic style, not falling into easy message movie moralizing, but sitting squarely in the effect society's failings are having on one girl, on one family. Here's a movie set against the backdrop of a variety of ills -- racism, police brutality, poverty, addiction, disease, incarceration -- that never gets stuck in the misery. Tillman makes a film bursting with life, crackling with the warmth of a family and the complications of modern living. It's about a potential court case and a troubled community in mourning, but also about everyday parent-children discussions, and teen concerns about who is friends with whom and who is going to prom. Its big heart and studio movie gloss may lead it to state loudly and didactically some of its most important theses, but surely there are some things too important to risk not speaking clearly in a movie this generous, compelling, and widely accessible. It's a great entertainment with a lot on its mind.