Thursday, March 28, 2019

Big Ears: DUMBO

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mirror Mirror: US

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Begin Again: NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE

If a movie is released and no one notices was it even there? To take a detour for a moment: Too often the broad popular online film discourse is just film nerds talking to each other about film nerd movies. Who needs their umpteenth Marvel ranking or trailer analysis or an ending “finally EXPLAINED!!”? (Whatever that means.) They make the old “all thumbs” Film Comment argument about At the Movies look quaint, considering the new normal of hyperbolically aggregated press releases and bubbly ahistorical popcorn chatter makes At the Movies look like Film Comment in comparison. All this is just to say hardly anyone in film circles will tell you Warner Brothers' latest attempt to do something with the rights to Nancy Drew happened at all, or even that it's not bad for what it is: slight, cute, pleasant, girl power sleuthing. The exceedingly mild and unassuming Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase — so unassuming the studio itself barely seems to have noticed it turned up last weekend — is a modern reworking of Carolyn Keene’s long-running, occasionally-updated Depression-era teen detective books. Now that mostly means adding cell phones. This new version is a brightly lit, simply staged little movie following Nancy and her father moving from Chicago to a small town where her big city social justice spirit can do some good, and eventually leads to her exposing a Scooby Doo-level trick being played on a sweet old lady (Linda Lavin). Nancy is introduced skateboarding down Main Street to a bubblegum pop song, before getting asked by a new friend for help getting back at a bully. Revenge? No, “restorative justice,” Nancy says with giddy righteousness only a relatively carefree 16-year-old could muster. She's charming. A sweet rule-breaker in pursuit of truth and justice, it’d be hard not to hope she’ll succeed at whatever she puts her mind to, and even harder to think she won’t. She’s played by Sophia Lillis (the best part of the boring It movie lots liked a couple years ago) as a totally normal clever teen, using her smarts and her likable low-key charm to make friends and disentangle small-town conspiracies. Director Katt Shea (The Rage: Carrie 2) and screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera (The Handmaid’s Tale) take a break from their usual heavier adult-oriented genre fare for a simple, clean-cut, clear-minded, easy narrative. As Nancy is drawn into solving the old lady’s plight, it is resolved at just the right level of complexity and speed for its intended audience — its the sort of thing you’d hope would be seen by elementary aged kids and their grandmas. There’s just enough soft-spoken kid-friendly personality to make the characters almost lifelike. And the movie is just engaging and chipper enough to fit comfortably alongside its closest competitors: the better Disney Channel Original Movies. It does basically what it says on the tin, whether anyone noticed or not. I'd rather have a sequel to this than Branagh's Poirot.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Road to Nowhere: TRANSIT

Christian Petzold’s Transit is a story of refugees fleeing fascist forces that are taking over Europe. A German man (Franz Rogowski) sneaks out of Paris just ahead of a crackdown of some kind. He’s headed to Marseille, where he’ll wait for papers he'll need to flee somewhere safer — maybe Mexico, or America — or, failing that, he'll hike over the mountains. In this port city, he’s mistaken for a dissident writer whose immigration paperwork has already been completed. While he waits for his ship to come in, he’s surrounded by others stuck in the red tape — long lines, jumbled belongings, fraying relationships, dwindling resources. He sees the same faces again and again — a woman left stranded with two enormous dogs; a conductor; a doctor; a bartender; a soccer-loving boy and his deaf-mute mother; and a woman (Paula Beer) awaiting the arrival of her husband, a writer who promised their paperwork would be waiting for them. Pulling setup and incident from Anna Segher’s 1944 novel, Petzold’s film of people waiting in hope of exit visas could easily have fallen into a Casablanca riff, plumbing the familiar tropes of World War II fiction for its impact, much like his last film, the heartrending straight-faced melodrama Phoenix, used a rubble-strewn post-war 40’s landscape for its wickedly clever emotional twists. (Maybe Soderbergh in The Good German mode would’ve done Transit that way.) Instead, Petzold moves the book’s narrative essentially unchanged into something like present day, or maybe very near future, France. The image of modern cars and contemporary clothing, of current cruise ships, of militarized police, creates a haunting frisson of disjunction. If we saw this story, an episodic collection of displacement and strife slowly escalated through mistaken identity and competing loyalties, in vintage costume and historical affect, it’d be easier to contain in a safely time-stamped box. Here the danger, the quotidian responses to geopolitical strife, is both inextricable from the premise and a constant background given. It’s familiar and strange; it has happened before and can happen again — fascists marching in the streets. And yet Petzold hardly foregrounds this. He coaches his cast to give inscrutably troubled performances, portraying people hesitant and stumbling towards possibilities that may never come to fruition. It becomes a film of waiting, of people caught between where they’re going and where they’ve been, making connections to soothe their conscience or merely grasping at the last vital strands of humanity and compassion before the world forecloses their opportunities. Their lives have been smashed apart. They feel they just have to get on a boat and away from their broken homelands to start whole again. Would that it were so simple. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Noé Out: CLIMAX

Climax, the newest effort from French provocateur Gaspar Noé is playing at a multiplex near me. Presumably the long reach of the brand name pop art-house outfit A24 got it there. The theater’s showtime guide has it classified as horror. I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but am sure it was probably what caused at least a few of the disgruntled moviegoers to check it out in the first place. I’ll give the theater and the unhappy audience members the benefit of the doubt, though. It’s certainly a nightmare and, past a climactic tipping point, almost deliberately unwatchable, its final sequence shot upside down with a swirling camera tight on the floor in a room lit only with a flashing red light. But the way there is a delirious descent. It’s at first a movie about a dance troupe celebrating their first few days of practice with a raucous party. They’re rowdy and excited and on the prowl, a dense tangle of bodies in motion looking to drink, dance, and hook up. For a good long while it’s a stunning dance picture of inventive choreography and toe-tapping beats intercut with dancers paired off for often raunchy gossip. Alas, someone spiked the sangria, and the group falls slowly, then all at once, into a manic haze of panic, abuse, violence, and sexual advances, all set to an unrelenting club beat that pulses, pulses, pulses. Against the constant thump, thump, thump of the film’s backbeat — fading only when the long, swirling, canted, topsy-turvy takes slide down dingy corridors away from the dance floor before crawling back in agony and ecstasy — bodies writhe and dance, the thin line between beauty and disgust crossed early and often as the drugs take hold. A Step Up it’s not. It’s a film of mesmeric intensity and movement, the camera as restless and increasingly deranged as the impressive physicalized performances of a game and athletic cast — most recognizably, for American audiences, lead Sofia Boutella of Kingsman, Atomic Blonde, and Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. Noé tracks their descent into hellish mass delusion. He presents a tiny, increasingly claustrophobic group as a small sample of society that needs only the slightest push, the barest permission to shed inhibitions, to totally fall apart, for hidden desires and ugly impulses to tumble forth. It’s chaos. 

Noé’s film is loud, unrelenting, an escalating litany of depraved acts and solipsistic pleasure-seeking expertly timed and brilliantly arranged for complicated camera moves, acting and dancing as one. Some characters fall into themselves in zombified repetition or self-harm, while others burst forth onto others, clawing and grinding and kissing and even, in the end, killing. It’s the sort of upsetting film where one character admits she’s pregnant and another has someone locked in a breaker room, and still another has an overbearing overprotective brother, and you start dreading the worst case scenarios, knowing there’s a good chance it’ll get to them eventually. (There’s also a shoving match near an open flame that put in mind of the immortal lyric: “Somebody call 9-1-1/Shawty fire burning on the dance floor.”) That this is nonetheless Noé’s tamest film would be news to those poor unprepared multiplex audiences. Unlike his earlier provocations like the sticky Love 3D, or hallucinatory Enter the Void, or assaultive Irreversible, there’s hardly an explicit sex scene or extended unbroken-take attack to be found. Nonetheless, he’s up to his usual concussive filmmaking tricks, throwing puzzling title cards and percussive editing into the mix, tracking his characters’ devolution with single-minded intensity while always reminding us that he’s the mastermind in charge of all this nastiness. It’s a real intense piece of work.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Lung Patients in Love: FIVE FEET APART

The latest teen weepy romance to play at something closer to realism than dystopia is Five Feet Apart. Set entirely in a hospital, mostly in a row of three rooms where teens are getting cystic fibrosis care, the movie creates its own little world of medical jargon and warm lighting. It’s its own sort of fantasy — shorn of insurance discussion, and with grief-stricken parents kept artfully to visiting hours, while the nastiest infections and fluids are left carefully off-screen — creating a closed world where a girl (Haley Lu Richardson), her gay best friend (Moises Arias), and the hot new guy (Cole Sprouse) can spend all day and some nights together, growing closer despite their medically-required need to stay apart. That some of the bonding takes place over FaceTime and texts while they're isolated from one another brings it one step out of the hospital and closer to the teen audience’s daily lives, while foregrounding how alone yet not alone the disease has left these kids. Because the girl is a YouTuber chronicling her fatal prognosis’ progression through her life, we get plenty of real detail about the disease, admirable primers and, undoubtedly, valuable representation for those so afflicted. But the movie, as directed by Jane the Virgin’s Justin Baldoni and scripted by the book's co-authors Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is gauzier than it is unflinching, and more manipulative and sentimental than it is unsparing. It may be sensitively built around a real issue, and confidently buoyed by actors committed to digging into the real emotions therein, but it’s also not not a YA metaphor. There’s a scene where the girl, bruised and scarred, dripping sweat, hair stringy, looks at the boy for whom she’s falling — but whose bacterial infection would be fatal for her — and he looks back lovingly. She demurs, saying she looks awful. He disagrees. Isn’t that the wish fulfillment here? The romantic core burning straight through to the heart of the audience is thus: to feel seen as beautiful and worthwhile, even at your worst. That’s valuable enough. Is the movie manipulative on this score? Undeniably. But I was happy to let it play Geppetto on my heart strings. Richardson is heartbreakingly real as she presents her character’s pain, her youthful contemplation of mortality, and her relief at finding a connection with this brooding boy — however tenuous given their diagnosis, and circumscribed their interactions given the hospital rules. Is it often possible to make such a meaningful connection with a stranger while a patient in the hospital? Well, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2018






























1. First Reformed
2. BlacKkKlansman
3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post
4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
5. Private Life
6. The Favourite
7. Support the Girls
8. Unsane
9. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
10. Never Look Away

Special "Film Out of Time" Prize: The Other Side of the Wind

Special "Filmed Entertainment" Prize: Beychella

Honorable Mentions:

24 Frames, Annihilation, Aquaman, Bad Times at the El Royale, Black Panther, Blockers, Burning, Cam, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Death of Stalin, Eighth Grade, First Man, The Hate U Give, Hitler's Hollywood, If Beale Street Could Talk, Incredibles 2, Leave No Trace, Love Simon, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Minding the Gap, Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, Monrovia Indiana, Mortal Engines, Sorry to Bother You, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, A Star is Born, The Tale, They Shall Not Grow Old, Thoroughbreds, Tully, Upgrade, Zama

Other 2018 bests

Other 2018 Bests

Best Cinematography -- Digital
     Peter Andrews -- Unsane
     Bruno Delbonnel -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Alexander Dynan -- First Reformed
     James Laxton -- If Beale Street Could Talk 
     Thomas Townend -- You Were Never Really Here

Best Cinematography -- Film
     Gary Graver -- The Other Side of the Wind
     Chayse Irvin -- BlacKkKlansman
     Matthew Libatique -- A Star is Born
     Seamus McGarvey -- Bad Times at the El Royale
     Robbie Ryan -- The Favourite

Best Sound
     24 Frames
     Annihilation
     First Man
     Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
     Mortal Engines

Best Stunts
     Aquaman
     Manhunt
     Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
     The Spy Who Dumped Me
     Upgrade

Best Costumes
     The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Black Panther
     The Favourite
     Mortal Engines
     A Simple Favor

Best Hair and Makeup
     Bad Times at the El Royale
     The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Black Panther
     The Favourite
     A Star is Born

Best Set and Art Direction
     Black Panther
     The Favourite
     First Reformed
     Mortal Engines
     Roma

Best Editing
     The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     BlacKkKlansman
     First Reformed
     Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
     The Other Side of the Wind

Best Original Screenplay
     Andrew Bujalski -- Support the Girls
     Ethan & Joel Coen -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara -- The Favourite
     Tamara Jenkins -- Private Life
     Paul Schrader -- First Reformed

Best Adapted Screenplay
     Desiree Akhavan -- The Miseducation of Cameron Post
     Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters and Eric Roth and John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank             Pierson and Moss Hart and Alan Campbell & Robert Carson & Dorothy Parker -- A Star is Born
     Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty -- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
     Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott and David Rabinowitz & Charlie Wachtel -- BlacKkKlansman
     Audrey Wells -- The Hate U Give

Best Non-English Language Film
     Burning
     Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
     Let the Sunshine In 
     Never Look Away
     Zama

Best Documentary
     Hitler's Hollywood
     Minding the Gap
     Monrovia, Indiana
     The Sentence
     They Shall Not Grow Old

Best Animated Film
     Early Man
     Incredibles 2
     Isle of Dogs
     Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
     Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

Best Effects
     Annihilation
     First Man
     Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
     Mortal Engines
     Welcome to Marwen

Best Score
     Terence Blanchard -- BlacKkKlansman
     Nicholas Britell -- If Beale Street Could Talk 
     Carter Burwell -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Ludwig Goransson -- Black Panther
     Justin Hurwitz -- First Man

Best Original Song
     "Always Remember Us This Way" -- A Star is Born
     "Hearts Beat Loud" -- Hearts Beat Loud
     "Maybe It's Time" -- A Star is Born
     "Shallow" -- A Star is Born
     "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings" -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Best Supporting Actor
     Sam Elliott -- A Star is Born
     Richard E. Grant -- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
     Russell Hornsby -- The Hate U Give
     Cedric Kyles -- First Reformed
     Tom Waits -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Best Supporting Actress
     Olivia Colman -- The Favourite 
     Zoe Kazan -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Regina King -- If Beale Street Could Talk
     Rachel Weisz -- The Favourite
     Michelle Yeoh -- Crazy Rich Asians

Best Actor
     Steve Buscemi -- The Death of Stalin
     Bradley Cooper -- A Star is Born
     Paul Giamatti -- Private Life
     Ethan Hawke -- First Reformed
     Logan Marshall-Green -- Upgrade

Best Actress
     Toni Collette -- Hereditary
     Lady Gaga -- A Star is Born
     Kathryn Hahn -- Private Life
     Regina Hall -- Support the Girls
     Emma Stone -- The Favourite

Best Director
     Desiree Akhavan -- The Miseducation of Cameron Post
     Ethan & Joel Coen -- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
     Tamara Jenkins -- Private Life
     Spike Lee -- BlackKklansman
     Paul Schrader -- First Reformed



Friday, March 8, 2019

mid90s: CAPTAIN MARVEL

What is there to say? Captain Marvel is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this point you know if you like this sort of thing — eighty minutes or so of quips and exposition followed by thirty to forty minutes of CG crashbangboom and a tease for future entries. Me? I like the formula well enough, always less than the rabid fans, but sometimes more than the consistent detractors. This one stars Brie Larson as an amnesiac pilot who woke up as an alien super-warrior. Much like the MCU itself, Larson is sometimes charming as all get out, and other times a total vacant dud on screen. For her role here, she chooses a pleasantly dull middle ground that almost suggests interior life. Her super-strong jet-hands-wielding self crashes down to Earth in 1995, making this a prequel and allowing oft-creepy digital de-aging to find she and we are face-to-face(ish) with waxy younger Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. On our planet, she’s searching for the typical glowing gewgaws that’ll save or destroy the shape-shifting whatevers. It’s an excuse to do the usual Marvel thing: bright colors, smiling suspense, and glowing hero poses. It held my attention, and even entertained me from time to time. It wears its period detail fairly lightly, a few Blockbusters and CD-ROMs aside, and finds some likable spark in its lead’s scrambled memories. Co-writer and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose subtle, empathetic touch in small character studies like Half Nelson, Sugar, and It’s Kind of a Funny Story goes almost totally missing here, scrounge up some flashes of character that are not mere plot device. (Flashes of evocative moments in gloopy montage aside, character still mostly is plot, though.) Otherwise, Boden and Fleck mange the departments just fine, roping in the usual semi-coherent action and streamlined sci-fi designs and bringing on a nicely underplayed ensemble cast once again representative of the MCU’s usual tendency for finding overqualified bit players. (Jude Law! Annette Bening! Ben Mendelsohn!) The particulars of the experience are already vanishing from my mind like Thanos dust while I'm mere minutes from the theater as I type. But it was diverting enough while it lasted, if never as silly or involving as its best franchise siblings can be. You’ll probably read the typical corporate cultist fans overselling the picture and the predictable complainers overstating the case against it. From my perspective, it’s such a big, bland, easy shrug, I can’t imagine getting worked up about it either way.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fly Away Home: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Dreamworks Animation’s finest franchise comes to a rousing end with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. This trilogy capper is as robustly animated and deeply felt as its predecessors, brimming with detail and invention, welling with emotion satisfying and earned. If some of its adventure plotting seems thinner and more perfunctory this time around, its expansive heart and moving generosity towards its characters’ conclusion more than makes it an overall worthy finale. Writer-director Dean DeBlois and his creative partner Chris Sanders return us once again to the tiny village of Berk, where live the only Vikings who’ve learned to peacefully coexist with dragons. Because of this, they’ve been targeted by others who still view the beasts as pests to be eradicated, a direct challenge to their philosophy and to their still-untested young chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). As he makes moves to improve his people’s lives — and hopes to convince his sweetheart (America Ferrara) to marry him — a new enemy arises. The sinister villain (F. Murray Abraham) happens to be the very hunter who has killed off all but one of the Night Furies, the species of Hiccup’s beloved jet-black dragon Toothless. (That there may yet be hope for the Night Furies, in the figure of a pure-white female counterpart, is a fine reflection of the human hero’s romance.) So the plot of the film concerns the Berk-ians attempts to secure safety for themselves and their dragons once and for all, and the full finality of the machinations lend the film a sturdy weight as it approaches its climax. Moving quickly, it drifts behind and builds upon the foundation of the first two films, wringing all the suspense and affection out of the boy-and-his-dragon relationship as they have grown and changed and may yet find themselves going their separate ways — to grow apart, yet not alone, and hopefully not forever. Amidst the characters’ empathetically told developments, the action is swift and visually appealing. The production design remains a CG dazzlement of richly lit and staged computer images overseen by visual consultant Roger Deakins. The sweeping epic score by John Powell booms and floats with triumphant grace. Far more than merely the surface pleasures, and not only a warm nostalgic victory lap in a lovable fantasy world, the film finds a stirring and fitting end point for three films, taking its ensemble, and its core man-and-beast bond, to a suitable end at once surprising and natural. It’s a worthy final chapter indeed. What a relief to find a series that took off well, and then soared to even greater heights, come in for a fine landing.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

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

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

Friday, February 1, 2019

Desolation Rows: THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

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

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Broken: GLASS

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

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Playing THE FAVOURITE

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

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