Sunday, August 18, 2019

She's Not There: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about a genius architect. She (Cate Blanchett, in another of her textured, tightly-wound, woman-on-the-verge performances) is nearly a recluse and hasn’t worked in two decades. She’s in the middle of restoring a crumbling former girls’ reform school in Seattle where she lives with her high-level Microsoft project manager husband (Billy Crudup) and their adorable Antarctica-loving eighth-grader daughter (Emma Nelson). Bernadette is also nearing or at her wit’s end, with crippling social anxiety, barely able to force herself out of the house for fear of all the irritants in the world — namely, other people, especially the busybody school moms and neighborhood fussbudgets (most notably Kristen Wiig) whose relentless striving and nitpicking are understandably annoying. Bernadette raises annoyance to an art form, her sublimated or dormant creative energies healthily channeled into a close relationship with her daughter, and unhealthy antagonism with everyone and everything else. This is a set of very specific character choices, a collection of traits and circumstances that are singular, and therefore typical of a Richard Linklater project, a filmmaker who, above all else, makes vivid and textured film of specificity in their characters. Whether he’s looking at a college baseball team in the 1980s, or a flirtatious couple of strangers (or long-lost loves, or a married couple) wandering Europe, or a high school in the 70s, or a boy growing through the early-2000s, or a charming oaf scamming a school or covering up a murder, a Linklater film is one of observation and love. His are inquisitive and sensitive films that sketch in the characters’ hopes and dreams, behaviors and philosophies, ticks and eccentricities, into singular windows into particular people. Here, Blanchett’s Bernadette is given the space to unravel and maybe, just maybe, find her way. She rarely sleeps, she over-medicates, she has tense interactions with most everyone but her loving daughter (a tender relationship well-defined). It’s clear she can’t improve these conditions because she’s accepted this as her lot in life. She has the capacity to change for the better, but, like so many of us, she can’t find the first step on that journey.

There’s more to the standoffish Bernadette (and Bernadette, with its comfortable soft lighting and comfortable staging) than meets the eye. She’s surrounded by people who at first look like shallow types in a social satire — a comedy of manners in the overlap between an overpaid tech world and an upper-class private school enclave, the way Bernadette herself seems to see it some of the time — but Linklater and his co-writers, working from the novel by Maria Semple, strengthen and deepen every character with a inner life that glows through, even in unexpected ways. The story feints in a few directions every so often — clashes with the neighborhood, a therapist on call, a looming vacation, past disappointments and rash contemporaneous decisions. It lightly develops each scenario’s possibilities while drifting towards another, resisting outright farce or melodrama in favor of something more comfortably, naturally heightened, before finally resolving in unexpectedly simple and moving moods of potential for reconciliation of these disparate conflicts. It’s engaging and moving precisely because it’s so unhurried and genuine, gently funny and compassionately wrought, in tune with its main character’s mental energies and trends. The movie is as sharp and unpredictable on the surface, and yet as warm and clear underneath, as Bernadette herself. It’s a loving, but critical movie, one that adores its character’s potential without ignoring or valorizing her flaws. She is both wholly herself — a unique individual — and symptomatic of so many who slip away without ever leaving, resisting human connection and retreating into convenient shadings or outright fictions that allow resentments to fester and self-righteousness to inflate. Linklater’s soft, textured, clear-eyed humanism allows her this mistake without denying her — or anyone’s — humanity. She has a void so many feel, and tries to cover it up with excuses, or screens, or empty busyness. The movie, calmly, patiently observed, watches as those who love her try to help her until she can help herself. This quiet optimism guides the project to a gentle, loving moment of clarity, and a reaffirmation of what makes a life well-lived. A movie this compassionate and kindhearted doesn’t come along every day.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Call of the Child: DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

There has been no 2019 summer blockbuster more satisfying that Dora and the Lost City of Gold. A live-action remake of the nearly twenty-year-old Nickelodeon show aimed at toddlers who followed Dora as she explored the rainforest with a monkey, a backpack, and a map, the movie is a bright, sweet, funny adventure romp pitched squarely at the 8- to 10-year-old crowd and those who can access their memories of what it meant to enjoy a movie like this then. Like with his great Muppet movies, director James Bobin approaches the film at the exact right level of heartfelt excitement, giddy about making a movie of such gleaming all-ages enthusiasms. It starts with Dora as a precocious six-year-old tromping through her wild yard while her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are hard at work looking for a mythical long-lost Incan city of gold. The movie starts on such a likable note, the camera swooping toward their lakeside home in the middle of the rainforest, the instantly recognizable girl — a big grin, a tidy mop of bangs, a pink t-shirt, and orange shorts — waving and smiling as the camera approaches. “C’mon!” she shouts as she dashes off with giddy enthusiasm, her imagination-filled playtime roughly equivalent to the original show’s childlike whimsy. We skip ahead ten years and Dora (now Isabela Moner, who, on the strength of this and her megawatt charm in Instant Family and Transformers 5, should be a huge star) is sent to California to live with her teen cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in order to learn how to be around kids her own age in a city far from the wilderness. Her parents mean well. Although Dora is self-sufficient, boundlessly energetic, and hugely knowledgeable about the natural world, they don’t want to raise her to be comfortable only with a solitary jungle life. Besides, they’re finally off to the city of gold and don’t need her following along on this dangerous quest. The movie becomes a sunny fish-out-of-water comedy for a while as Dora’s plucky enthusiasm clashes with the surly teens in California High. (Moner is as good at this role as Amy Adams was in Enchanted.) They are instantly suspicious of someone so earnestly kind, obviously passionate, and genuinely guileless.

The kid-sized Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones plot kicks off when a treasure hunter (Temuera Morrison) kidnaps Dora, Diego, and a couple classmates from a school trip. They end up in the middle of the jungle, rescued by a bumbling archeologist (Eugenio Derbez) who says Dora’s parents are in trouble. So it’s a race to the city of gold through ancient ruins, quicksand, angry tribal archers, deadly animals, dangerous plants, and all the expected obstacles of such a story. Along the way, Dora is able to use her wits and her relentless positivity to help get her family and frenemies out of these jams. It has all the appeal of a bouncy adventure movie, and a core safe kindness that makes it totally kid-friendly. Best of all, it never takes Dora’s child’s-eye excitement as a joke. Though it contrasts her with the moody teens, and she’s at first a source of embarrassment for her city cousin, she’s not unaware of these differences. They laugh at you, Diego tells her. “I know. I’m not stupid,” she says, going on to insist that she simply has to be herself, the kind of girl who’d go to the school dance asked to “dress as your favorite star” and come encased in a giant cloth sun, and who’d grin and wave and say “we did it” to her classmates at the end of the school day. That this plays as generosity, a soft character moment in the middle of a jaunty adventure rather than didactic sloganeering, is all for the better. There’s a warm affection for her energy, and for the original show. Somehow it even manages to include a dash of fantasy, as one of the villain’s henchmen is a sparingly deployed masked talking fox named Swiper (Benicio del Toro) who steps straight out of the cartoon with only a bit of bristling fur realism to sell the silliness in this heightened version of our world. The whole production is animated by a love for its cute character and her world, cheerfully taking her cues to enjoy its every moment with a verve and a warmly funny spirit. After a long, dismal summer of failed big budget spectacles (and even the rare good ones, like John Wick 3 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were on the grim side), it’s nice to be reminded that a movie like this can make you grin from ear to ear for 100 minutes straight, and leave you walking out happier than when you walked in. It’s a true delight.

Dog Days: THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Third time was the charm for 2019 to give us a passable based-on-a-book, narrated-by-a-dog drama. We simply had to go from bad to worse first. For those prone to lap up these stories of human dramas told from the perspective and through the words of twinkly wisdom spoken from the mind of a furry innocent, this has truly been a boomlet of cinematic pandering. However, even for those of us who don’t mind a little manipulation at the movies now and again, it’s been a bit of an endurance test to reap meager rewards. Still, now that we’ve finally trial-and-error-ed our way to a decent version of the concept, I’m more than ready to let it go.

First, January gave us A Dog’s Way Home, in which an adorable pup gets lost and homeward bounds back. Along the way, she (telling the tale in voice over from Bryce Dallas Howard doing what sounds like a Ginnifer Goodwin impersonation) meets a bunch of people in vignettes alternately heart-tugging and gently (ostensibly) comedic. She also, in the worst decision of the movie, becomes friends with a CG mountain lion. This passage is particularly bad, not merely for the obvious effect breaking the movie’s soft, boring realism, but for thinking its animated animal could stand up to scrutiny in a movie with a real dog dominating most scenes. Some of the scenes work well — I was particularly moved by Edward James Olmos as a man experiencing homelessness— but most slide by in a bland sludge.

Next, and worse, May’s entry in the mini-subgenre was A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, which started the whole trend with a puppy whose thoughts slobber out in the voice of Josh Gad. The hook of these films is a proposition that dogs remember their past lives as they reincarnate. Therefore, this pupper latches onto a formative owner — a cute boy who’ll grow up to be KJ Apa, then Dennis Quaid — and keeps looking for him even after waking up a new pup at the end of each lifetime. The initial movie worked its concept pretty well, but this follow-up is a sloppy flop —a procession of scenes so overwhelmingly sentimental and unrelentingly melodramatic that it gives both potentially reasonable qualities a bad name. It’s a cavalcade of yanking reaction shots and sudden tragic revelations that’d almost make The Room’s breast cancer news look natural. Once again a dog runs through a variety of owners, each with a button-pushing emotional arc that is overtly calibrated to make you cry when you’re not laughing at Gad’s badly scripted gags. It’s a painfully syrupy drama shot and staged like a sitcom. If it works for you, I’m glad for you, because it’ll spare you the exasperation I felt from the beginning to an end so loopy I had a hyperventilating giggling fit trying to explain it to someone after the fact.

So it doesn’t take much for The Art of Racing in the Rain to top those. It works where they fail because the story it tells is a simple, affecting family drama that doesn’t need to be gilded with CG sidekicks or clumsy falsehood conflict. In fact, it’s the only movie of the three that would work just as well without the dog at all. It even allows some of its most poignant scenes to play out without the canine chorus entirely, trusting in the heavy-lifting its cast can do. It’s the story of a would-be race car driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who falls in love with a beautiful English teacher (Amanda Seyfried) whose wealthy parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) don’t approve of him. Hardly groundbreaking narrative material, but the cliches pile up in satisfying combinations, and the complications of the couple’s life together feel drawn from a gentle spark of truth. It cycles through birth and death, illness and recovery, legal troubles and financial struggles, all cannily high-pressure emotional situations bound to hit close to home at some point and wring the tears. There’s nothing here that’s implausible, except, of course, for the constant commentary from his dog. Enzo’s the name, and he sagely intones with the growling gravitas of Kevin Costner’s voice. (His line readings are so deep and gravely here, I found myself occasionally wondering if he hurt his throat getting that grit in his vocal cords.) He begins the film near death, and then talks us through the narrative in a feature-length flashback, explaining why the thoughts of a bouncy puppy come to us with the molasses grandfatherly rumble of a wise old man. He’s far more thoughtful a dog than the others in films of this kind. He’s keenly aware of his limitations and is prone to comment on Mongolian philosophy and automobile techniques, and express a bittersweet sadness that he cannot share words with his human family to explain how much he cares for them. What an odd perspective, but an undeniably effective one, though it just as often underlines emotional subtext in scenes already so tenderly acted that it’s like a movie reading out its own CliffNotes over its action. Nevertheless, it’s all in what you compare it to, and here director Simon Curtis invests in the reality of his humans so fully that its winks of canine fantasy rarely get in the way if you give yourself over to it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Lost Cause: THE DEAD DON'T DIE and SWORD OF TRUST

This summer gave us two small, mattter-of-fact, hard-edged comedies from veteran indie auteurs that reflect the dark currents of our contemporary national moment. First was Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the deadest of deadpan comedies, an affectionate zombie movie riffing on classically Romero metaphors of consumerism and cultural fatalism with an affect so flat that the stock genre characters are practically sleepwalking, even admitting to one another by the end that, hey, at least one of them comes by his hopelessness honestly. He read the script. (Jarmusch takes clear delight in slyly puncturing the fourth wall, like casually name dropping himself, slyly making a character a fan of the franchise that actor currently stars in, and having the Sturgill Simpson theme song under the opening credits become diagetic music a character will call “the theme song.”) He’s assembled an all-star cast to stand in simply posed scenes to react to the end of the world, as polar fracking causes the earth to knock off its axis, the days to last well into the night, and the dead to rise from their graves craving coffee and smart phones. These zombies bleed dust, like the life-force has already faded away. A small town’s cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny) basically give up before they even start, occasionally exiting their roundabouts and roundelays of dialogue and action to muster up a defense. But they, and everyone they meet in this Centerville, are practically flattened out by the inevitable despair — “this won’t end well,” Driver murmurs in his recurring line — and by the sense that they’re doomed to play out the end of the world to the bitter end. There’s nothing they can do to change what’s coming. The townspeople (Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits) make some efforts to protect themselves. Only some pretty city kids (a sunny Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) bring some light into this town — so of course they’re among the first to get targeted by the deathless flesh-eaters. Unlike his first pivot to monster movies, the pale, cool, Detroit vampires movie Only Lovers Left Alive, which grooved on an aesthetic interest and emotional investment in the artful boredom of its characters cursed immortality, here Jarmusch barely can bring himself to take the zombies seriously. It’s a means to an end, a way to riff and rumble, to enjoy the trappings and tropes and star personas evoked with characters who see everything crumble around them, who see no way out. He takes the doom seriously. It feels familiar, a fun house mirror to our current state of affairs, where most realize something very wrong is happening and yet all appear powerless to stop it. Even so, even in their state of near paralysis at the state of everything — with every loopy plot development that derails what you’d expect — they manage to muster the small courage to fight back. If this is the end, at least we can go down swinging.

Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a reaction to the current climate told in a more realistic mode: an intimate character drama told in the loose, improvisatory comedy style that is her hallmark. The mumblecore alum — who has since helmed some of the best episodes of Mad Men, Glow, and other prestige TV series, as well as some underrated low-budget movie star character comedies like the charming Keira Knightley/Chloe Grace Moretz film Laggies —here stages a suitably loony excursion into the world of conspiracy theories and alternative facts. It has a gooier sentimental streak, and a bright sitcom visual style, but, more often than not, has a sharp point. It finds a pawn shop proprietor (Marc Maron) attempting to find a buyer for a Civil War-era sword a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) would like to sell him. His younger employee (Jon Bass) discovers a YouTube page of Confederacy truthers who claim the Deep State has buried the real facts that would prove the Union army surrendered and actually lost the war lo those many years ago. Although neither the sword’s owners nor the shop’s staff actually believe this hogwash, they hope that the shady racists will believe the antique is all the proof they need — and will pay a five digit figure for it. Through circular conversations and alternately cynical and earnest connections, this unlikely group will stumble into this dark underbelly, encountering some shady characters (the funniest has to be a self-serious man who insists his name is “Hog Jaws”) and oddball motivations as the plot slowly stumbles to its kooky conclusion. It’s attuned to the financial strain of its characters, and compassionate for their relationship struggles and easy eccentricities. The performers are universally strong, working well together in fleshing out scenes with laugh-out-loud asides and sympathetic backstories. And the film will then spare no mercy in mocking the warped ignorance of those who cling to conspiratorial thinking, getting broader and sillier. (There’s even a fine, funny late turn of the knife where one main character proudly declaims that, although of course it’s ridiculous to assert that the Confederacy secretly won the Civil War, the flat-earthers are on to something.) Here’s a movie about the slippage of truth, couched in the humble terms of a struggling group of characters losing themselves in the pursuit of more stable ground. When we give up a little of ourselves to pernicious nonsense, it makes it harder to understand what’s really going on.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Waking Life: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (no relation to Eugene O’Neill’s play, as reportedly its Mandarin title more closely translates to “Last Evenings on Earth”) is as dazzling as it is baffling. It is interior to the point of near abstraction in its opening hour, a jumble of exposition and unintuitive narrative connections as scenes abruptly cut and collide. I found myself using its long silences to not simply groove on the imagery and absorbing sound design, but to try to retell the story to myself and check my understanding. It’s non-chronological in a way that frequently, resolutely refuses to help its audience put the pieces together. A man (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown because his father died. It makes him think of a friend who died many years ago. He meets a beautiful mystery woman in a green dress (Tang Wei, probably best known in the States for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). She is the mistress of the man who killed his friend. This is many years ago. They have an affair. Now it’s years later. There are other women: a sister, a lover, a mother, a fraudster, a singer. Gan gives us flashes of dialogue, circular scenes shot through with pauses and swooning camera moves that steadily paint in poetic filigree: rain down a windshield, curls of smoke from a dangling cigarette, a fruit reflected in a rippling pond. Gan, a talented 30-year-old director, in only his second feature, following his debut Kaili Blues, is startlingly assured as he once again presents us with his inspirations worn obviously on his sleeve in an overt, cool cinephile style — not exactly a bingo card reference spotter, but a fine synthesis of good art house taste. One can catch strands of David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the loose surrealism and straight-faced reworking of genre tropes in enigmatic ways. Here a standard noir setup is scattered and fragmented, the better to feel like a broken man rattling through painful snatches of memory. One can also spy, in its elegiac languors, a touch of Tsai Ming-liang, especially Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as it similarly wanders, circling locations from different angles, and finding inspiration in the movies, making a theater a central location. In murmuring voice over, our lead tells us movies are better than memory, because movies are always lies, while memory is the one playing tricks on us.

How wonderful, then, that Gan takes a leap out of this fragmented noir and into cinema in a cinema. Our lead falls asleep in a rundown theater while wearing 3D glasses and we enter his dream. It’s also in 3D, which Gan uses to orient us in a procession of spaces: a cave, a pool hall, a village square, a gate — varied depths and frames extended in ways only the extra dimension can. It is enveloping in ways that reminded me why we were all so taken with this new 3D a decade ago. What’s beguiling about this dream — filmed in a single unbroken take that lasts an eye-boggling hour to end the film — is how it takes the abstraction of its opening expository half and recontexualizes these inscrutable scenes and oft incomplete dialogues into sleepwalking symbolism. Stray comments, revelations, and conversations open up new emotional and visual possibilities —torches, ping pong, fruit, karaoke machines, a gun, a folk tale, a firework — as they circle back around very much like the brain reworks a day’s or a life’s stresses into dream logic. Suddenly, what felt simultaneously thin and obscurant — if undeniably beautifully photographed and inhabited, especially mesmerizing in scenes like the one in which a quietly weeping man in uninterrupted close-up eats an entire apple in real time — uncovers layers of meaning and portent as the film nods off into a lyrical and contained dream-space, tracing the surrealist architecture of its setting intuitively in flowing ways where the “real life” story resists interpretation and chronology. By the end there’s a sense of an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, and theatrically cinematic, for that matter. I doubt it would play as well if you stream it in 2D in the comfort of your own home. It’s a film that works best if you’re trapped with it and within it, enduring it, puzzling over it, resisting it, even, until it quite literally opens up news depths as its hypnotic final hour-long shot flies by as quickly as its opening 80 minutes are slow.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Cars Too: FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW

That Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is occasionally good enough as a passably preposterous summer blockbuster is a fluke of timing. Firstly, it’s arriving near the tail end of one of the more dispiriting summers for such franchise fare in recent memory. Secondly, and more importantly, it's on the bleeding edge of ridiculous in a franchise that has been trending ever further in that direction, arriving as the ninth in the Fast & Furious series. Who’d have thought that what started as a enjoyable, small-scale, heists-and-drag-racing action film would now, nearly twenty years later, be a full-scale comic-booky superspy blowout? This is also a spin-off feature starring two side characters who weren’t even introduced until the fifth and sixth entry, respectively, and both times as a Big Name antagonist to the main crew. Here bulky Hobbs (The Rock) and suave Shaw (Jason Statham) are conscripted as unlikely heroes in a race to save the world—although this time they’re not tied to the vehicular skill-set of Vin Diesel and company. Even though those movies eventually launched so far over the top they became about jumping a sports car between skyscrapers or outrunning a nuclear submarine by driving an SUV across a frozen lake, this one has a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier (Idris Elba) taking orders from a mysterious electronic voice (the better to cast a Big Name for the sequel without figuring it out now) commanding him procure a genetically modified virus that’ll wipe out most of the population. (“Genocide schmenocide,” sneers the villain who identifies himself as “the Bad Guy” in his first line.) They’ll need the help of Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirby) who’s an MI-6 agent framed for stealing the virus. The stage is set for a movie that's often going exactly where you'd guess.

The central characters make a fun trio — all bravado and colliding charismatic star personas bouncing off crass sorta punchlines and muscling through action — as the long-time series scripter Chris Morgan concocts a string of set-pieces exploding with cartoony verve between lukewarm comedy and cornball sentiment. It has cars flipping through CG explosions, a self-driving motorcycle catching up to its owner, an ATV smashing blindly and safely through glass warehouse walls, rounds of shoot-‘em-up cacophony, bruising hand-to-hand combat, and elaborate man-versus-machine fights. The action is mostly framed well by the director, John Wick and Atomic Blonde alum David Leitch, who nonetheless lets the size of the chaos get away from him. Not a bit of it has an ounce of weight. The stunts don’t merely strain credulity, they never have it in the first place. The threats never seem real, and the violence is all carefully bloodless and without a drop of suspense. The sunny sets, smirking tone, and sleek computerized varnish play the whole adventure off as a lark, tossing off torture and calamity as just another jocular turn of the screws, and the fate of the world as just an excuse to reunite estranged family members. That’s nice, I suppose, so far as it goes. The movie is a bouncy, high-speed frivolity, with booming sound design, a smoothly hectic pace, a couple fun cameos, and an undemanding passive entertainment value. It’s fine when it’s stupidly preposterous, but less so when it’s also preposterously stupid. The whole endeavor is sporadically entertaining, but more often flimsy and silly — even in comparison to the worst excesses of its franchise inspiration. At least it hits its stock marks and rote routes more often than not. Maybe next time they’ll be as inspired by the best of the predecessors instead. Bring on 2 Hobbs 2 Shaw.

Friday, July 26, 2019

What Has Been: ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a conjoined pair of rambling character sketches with a layer of true crime dread for a counterpoint, then oodles of his relaxed nostalgia and affectionate irony slathered on top. No one can construct a scene like him, overflowing with crackling dialogue and with every personality instantly memorable. Then there’s the cinephile, nearly scopophilic, pleasure of the way his films look and feel, with the camera’s long smooth moves on cranes and tracks, always in the right place, and the crisp, smooth flavor of the edits at unexpectedly apropos times. This one unfolds and unfolds and unfolds, incident following incident and who really knows where this interesting thing’s going. Only the true life historical references hint at a likely gruesome end. It’s 1969 in Los Angeles. We follow a melancholic, alcoholic has-been actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a TV cowboy lead who could’ve been a movie star, but has ended up in the last dregs of a dying studio system going paycheck to paycheck as a villain-of-the-week on any show that’ll have him. Between jobs he drinks with his old buddy and stunt double (Brad Pitt), who’s also his driver, handyman, and sometimes roommate. Next door is a new neighbor, and a reminder that showbiz stardom is always pulling in and elevating someone younger while pushing aside old news stars who can’t make it. She’s new It Girl Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), flush with new success. The name Tate will make anyone familiar with her eventual murder know this loose construction of scenes set in the twilight of a rapidly curdling Sixties is on its way to a dead end. Knowing, too, that Tarantino is known for staging spectacular suspense and violence, and has a penchant for going the extra ahistorical mile — like blowing off Hitler’s head in Inglorious Basterds or staging a one-man slave rebellion in Django Unchained — there’s an added suspense in wondering how far he’ll take his depiction.

It’s the dead end he’s contemplating here, simultaneously eulogizing and criticizing ways of life that were rapidly aging, and luxuriating in reviving the period detail his crew carefully recreates. The two men at the center are often pathetic figures of curdled cool — flubbing lines or ruining opportunities on set, wallowing in self-pity, shrugging off bad behavior — with flashes of their potential charms, never more than when behind the wheel of a roaring cool car zipping down the streets of Hollywood. They cycle through bemused or prickly encounters with a large, memorable ensemble of one- or two-scene wonders (Al Pacino! Kurt Russell! Dakota Fanning! Timothy Olyphant! Many more!) as one or the other hangs around a Western set full of cast and crew or an old Movie Ranch full of cultists. It's by turns silly, sad, and somewhere between. This movie carries itself with a relaxed confidence, most beguilingly wearing its heaviness lightly and its lightness heavily. Meanwhile Tate floats through her brief sequences interspersed as a bittersweet specter of a possible future, glowing happily, gazing at herself on the movie screen with delight and, later, cradling her pregnant belly. The movie — overall low-key amused, drunk on movie lore love, and loaded with scratchy needle drops, booming car radios, the soft hum of tube TVs, and the click-clatter of a projector whirring to life — carries with it this ambiguous sadness. No matter the outcome, this whole way of showbiz is on the way out, a freewheeling turbulent decade dying and, so, too, eventually, the analogue pleasures will grow fleeting and fade. Fittingly, it’s a movie of big small pleasures, fleeting, fading. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Everytime You Go Away: THE FAREWELL

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical feature The Farewell is a deeply moving work of tenderness and insight. It’s about a grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) with a fatal diagnosis — lung cancer, advanced, survivable for only months — and a family that loves her so much they won’t tell her the real test results. (“Benign shadows” her sister (Hong Lu) will comfortingly say instead.) In fact, they’ll have a cousin (Han Chen) and his girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) rush things along in order to throw a wedding, simply to give everyone a chance to see Nai Nai one last time. This gives the film a rich layer of dramatic irony over every scene, enhanced by cultural specificity. Our main character, struggling young author Billi (Awkwafina), is the old woman’s beloved granddaughter, a Chinese-American who sees in this sad news another connection to her homeland disappearing. She moved to New York at a young age, with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) attempting to start fresh with new opportunities. They haven’t forsaken China; they’ve merely moved, like Nai Nai’s other son (Yongbo Jiang), who brought his family to Japan years ago to pursue his line of work. (What fascinating immigrant stories, playing out matter-of-factly as an ongoing background context.) Thus the warm, loving, kindly opinionated old woman beams to have her family all together around her table — the first time in 25 years she marvels. In warm and prickly sequences of family togetherness, old memories are shared, old conflicts are gingerly prodded, and traditions are revived with great pathos and care. Everyone’s connecting — Wang gives us intimate Demme-esque head-on shots, the better to feel the warmth of a grandmother’s smile, the charm of an auntie’s matter-of-fact revelation, the compassion of a granddaughter’s yearning — as emotions rush in and are tamped down, only to bubble up in English so Nai Nai won’t understand, or later in hotel room tears. 

The movie is a direct, pure expression of a family in slow-motion unspoken crisis embracing their opportunity to spend time together. They're trying to carefully say their goodbyes, every nugget of wisdom suddenly precious, every hug held a little tighter and longer than usual. There’s love and sadness all around, a sense of time passing that must be held on to while they can manage it. Wang’s writing is sharp and sensitive, never betraying the characters with false conflict or forced sentimentality. She frames scenes to allow honest interactions that build and ramble like a real family’s hangouts would, and finds scenarios to draw out gentle humor and casual wisdom. It’s a film that feels lived-in, beautifully acted in every role, carefully composed to highlight the lead’s discomfort and displacement while taking great comfort in the grandmotherly presence that anchors and fills every scene. It’s the opposite of classic generational dramas like Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow or Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, in which the elderly are slowly marginalized. Here Nai Nai is the center of attention, in a film gently perched on the fragility of someone so beloved. The family loves her too much to admit to say goodbyes, even though it’s inevitable. How lucky they are to have her, and how loved she must feel to have them there, even when it’ll be bittersweet to see them leave. The movie has that same sweetly overwhelming power to linger in this irreconcilable need to appreciate love and then let go.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Circle of Strife: THE LION KING

Let me take the optimistic long view: Jon Favreau’s The Lion King should rightly be, years if not months hence, a forgotten curio lost in the sands of time. The latest, and easily the least, of Disney’s current remake cycle, it makes most depressingly literal the fact they’ve traded these mega-budget behemoths for the out-of-the-vault theatrical rereleases of yore. The filmmakers hired, excellent craftspeople, have been tasked with merely transcribing the 1994 original — beat for beat, often note for note, sometimes shot for shot — re-animating the pseudo-Shakespearean jungle conflict between an exiled lion cub prince and his murderous uncle in a computer-generated photoreal style that removes its charms, its imagination, its warmth, and its power. I feel a great pity for children who see this before (or, heaven forbid, instead) of the original, for they have been robbed of a genuine experience with a work of real creativity and energy. Instead, they will have seen a dreary, and worthlessly pedestrian remake that mistakes realism for visual interest, and brings only dirt-brown recreation where once was color and life and style. That Disney would plunder its classics for profit is one thing; some of these remakes have been good, and even the ones that aren’t have been interesting attempts. Here, though, they’ve heisted the magic entirely out of one of their greatest accomplishments, leaving only a deadening emptiness behind. Even when, from time to time, I didn’t mind sitting in the theater with it, I found myself wishing to go home and watch the real one.

Misconceived from frame one, the filmmakers are putting great effort after an unwinnable position. To the extent that it nonetheless finds sequences that work, it’s because they’ve taken them wholesale from the original — timing, composition, score, line readings. (Its best images, too, are copied directly — a cub’s little paw in his father’s literal footstep; clouds parting with ghostly splendor, a cleansing rain to wash away the prideland’s scars.) Yet there they feel fossilized, overdetermined, programmatic, lifeless, overfamiliar. When it strays from the original it’s somehow worse: replacing buoyancy with leadenness, caricature with zoology, a sparkle of life in clean hand-drawn lines with CG taxidermy. The lion’s share of the problem comes down to the inexpressiveness of the realistic creatures, which should have given rise to a Kuleshov effect-led reimagining of the visual language, but instead, leaning on the first film’s editing as storyboards for this one, it deadens every reaction shot. Try as they might to avoid the uncanny valley, hewing close to a Disney Nature style deemphasizing mushy mumbling animal mouths whenever possible, it makes the occasional cartoonier quips, references, and flatulence stick out uncomfortably, and gives all emoting over to the Pavlovian effect the songs and lines will spark in those of us familiar with the original. So much effort has gone to produce so little. Even the perfect casting (Donald Glover! Chiwetel Ejiofor! Beyoncé! Alfre Woodard! Seth Rogen! Billy Eichner! James Earl Jones again!) goes to waste in this flavorless, passionless, redo that constrains their personalities. The sooner forgotten the better, unless someone wants to go all the way back and get this excellent ensemble to work on Hamlet itself. Now that’s a reimagining I’d like to see.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gator Raid: CRAWL

Crawl is a tight, smartly constructed creature feature. Running a trim 87 minutes, it gets its premise set up fast, the better to spend most of the time milking every last jolt out of it. In short order, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's tidy screenplay places a Floridian collegiate swimmer (Kaya Scodelario) and her handyman dad (Barry Pepper) in the crawlspace of the old family home with a hurricane howling towards them and an alligator slithering down the stairs. They’re doubly trapped, water rising and gator stalking. The entire narrative thrust of the film is hoping the pair will make it out alive. There's some attention paid to the father-daughter dynamic and their prickly estrangement, but it takes an obvious background place behind their immediate dangers. That the house rapidly getting swallowed up by the angry waters is on the market as a result of a contentious divorce is a fine character detail dovetailing with the plot, seeing as the characters will have to escape not just the building, but these bad feelings in order to reconcile. Nevertheless, it's almost exclusively about the predicament involving the gator threatening to gobble them up.

The movie is compelling and entertaining, with fine physical distress and desperation played out in close quarters and sweaty closeups. The story is shaped to exploit every best option they have for escape. Given that one’s an expert swimmer and the other has a fully-stocked tool belt, they’re better equipped than most. We watch as they pick a plan, then follow it as far as they can until — WHAM! — that option, too, is closed off. Back to square one. Find the next best way out. Try again. It’s a procedural one-thing-after-another thriller that builds and builds with a fun sense of “ugh, what now!?” around every corner. The gator’s presence is convincing. Its gory chomps (the only reason the movie is R) are considerable — a Best Makeup contender, if you ask me. The harrowing sound design is all eerie splashes and a constant backbeat of howling, pounding winds and rain. And the jump scares and swimming tension are expertly doled out. Director Alexandre Aja, who may never elevate material (give him a junk screenplay like Piranha 3D and you’ll get a junk movie), but who is a perfectly competent realizer of movies, does his best work here. He’s manipulating tension and surprise, often keeping the focus on his actors' wide-eyed expressions of panicked thought, and maintaining visual interest in a contained environment. All involved make the simple premise last just long enough to satisfy. It’s exactly what it promises on the tin. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

MIDSOMMARtime Sadness

Ari Aster is the latest new horror auteur du jour. He’s now written and directed two films of excellent formal control—slowly moving the camera, manipulating soft rustling rumbling half-heard sound, and staging grotesque action to precisely modulate a sort of austere art house unease. He gets the craftspeople working well together at the tops of their games. He populates his films with expertly directed casts of phenomenal thespians howling in anguish when they’re not stupefied or lobotomized by grief. These films have passages that are quite good, but are awfully vacant in the end, having moved on autopilot through standard horror tropes without much else deeper to consider. Sure, they’re slower and more artful than the swifter schlockmeisters would serve up. They summon dread like no one’s business. They ask you to descend with the characters in unsettling situations, but I find myself asking, head down for what?

Take his debut film, Hereditary, for example. It features a galvanic performance from Toni Collette. Playing an anxious, depressed woman in the troubled wake of her difficult mother’s death, she’s so palpably troubled her skin seems to hurt. As the film’s nasty shocks get gnarlier and creepier, she grows vividly agitated, a supremely uncomfortable unraveling all the more unnerving for seeming so real as the supernatural threat around her grows dark and deep. Unfortunately the creeping sense underneath these happenings is not primarily one of sick dread, but of gradual mundane predictability. (A brutal roadside shock early in the picture is the peak of its surprise, as things going bump in the night take on a pedestrian and dull been-there-done-that occultist mishegoss.) It slowly drains the gusto out from under its lead tour de force. One of the most impressive live wire performances in recent memory (my Best Actress in any awards that’d have me as a voter last year) is stranded in a movie giving up its promise minute by minute, sequence by sequence. It's gripping craft chasing down an increasingly unproductive concept.

I was glad to see Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, is a slight improvement. Although now between the two films we can make a short dreary list of things this writer-director finds scary — cult rituals, heads falling off, family members brutally dying, naked old people — and uses as predictably self-evident, his sophomore effort does slightly more to envelop its characters in their derivative horror plot as it imposes its dark metaphor upon them while pretending it's insightful. It’s a college-students-on-a-camping-trip movie, this time a group of grad students off with a pal to visit his tiny Swedish hometown commune. A spectacular feat of precisely photographed production design, it's a memorable, sinister wide-open clearing with cabins and crops and ominous symbols. Under the intense summer sun, the peculiar rituals of this insular community take on a procedural logic of psychedelic menace, the hallucinogenic tea causing the forest landscape to pulse and warp, the cheery threat of unfamiliar tradition ladling fatal openness on top of garden variety awkwardness. The crux is that the lead (Florence Pugh) is mourning an unspeakably upsetting family tragedy, and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) is an inconsistent support system. And so maybe these cultists — with their cooperation and hard work and dance competitions, and ritual suicide, and odd breeding habits — have figured out a way to support each other? She’s tempted, but it never quite syncs up in the way the movie expects it to, losing track of her perspective and making a few leaps by the end to force its conclusion for her. Wondering why, exactly, she allows herself to trust these people after her hugely traumatic opening family trouble, and again after initial distressing suspicions, makes the finale so very hollow. But the way there is often transporting, scene after scene of slow, straight-faced setup and baggy horror tropes (Will Poulter’s surly, sarcastic tagalong is terrific comic relief of a sort that could be airlifted into a Friday the 13th) and anthropological interest (the cult’s every ceremony goes on and on). Eventually side characters disappear without satisfying payoffs, violence gets increasingly gnarly, and we’re left with our lead couple’s falling out going up in flames. Ultimately just Hostel for people who prefer some slow-drip art house sheen to the blood and guts, it never quite activates its considerable potential, but the journey there is certainly well-crafted unease with fantastic performances. Aster might have a great film in him yet.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Eurotrip: SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a Marvel Cinematic Universe product. It’s a testament to their quality control that the designation alone tells you exactly what you’re going to get. They all have charming casts, light tones, quipping dialogue, and hammering CG lightshows for action sequences. It’s all very hectic and bouncy, and even when all hope is lost, it’s never really gone. Even Endgame, which maybe broke the timeline bending over backwards to pretend these things have genuine emotional consequences, couldn’t keep Infinity War’s poker face for more than twenty minutes or so. All this is to say: the latest Spidey has lower highs and higher lows than its non-MCU predecessors. (For better or worse, we'll not soon have a Spider-Man as pure and strong as Raimi's, or as angular and messy as Webb's.) Tom Holland remains a spunky, boyish Peter Parker, this time abroad with his classmates on a European field trip. The ensemble of teens is an agreeable bunch, especially Zendaya whose low-key cool affect and compelling screen presence is the least showy and yet acts circles around the rest. (I suppose it says more about my level of maturity than the film’s that I found their teachers — capably, earnestly frazzled comedic relief from Martin Starr and JB Smoove — the most sympathetic characters and my rooting interest.) Predictably, superhero dilemmas follow the trip at every stop as the mysterious new character, aptly named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal, having fun, for what that’s worth), is fighting monsters and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson cashing that check) thinks Spidey should help. It sets up the usual conflict between Peter’s normal teen life (where he just wants to finally kiss his crush) and the demands of a Spider-Man’s responsibilities. (And what a nightmare for those poor teachers! I can't even imagine...) It’s all in the unfortunate shadow of Iron Man, who looms large in the space Uncle Ben should have. But at least returning director Jon Watts and his script team dispatch with Endgame’s implications with all the seriousness they deserve — a hand wave and a wink. Because by now we know the MCU is a franchise of frivolous nothings. Sometimes they’re huge fun; sometimes they’re dull time-wasters. And by now you know if you’re into it or not. This one is neither the best nor the worst. It simply is good enough to not regret it in the moment, though quiz me on it in a month and I’m sure I’ll draw some blanks.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Inside the Box: TOY STORY 4

Pixar isn’t quite what it used to be, at least not consistently. Its latest feature, Toy Story 4, is clarifying both about what’s missing and about what the folks there still do better than anyone else. It may not be the tightly wound story its predecessors are; there’s little of the exuberantly relentless clockwork plotting with intricate emotional and comedic and thematic setups and payoffs woven seamlessly together. It's a bit of a jumble: hyperfocused in some areas and wearing thin in others. But it does have the warmest voice performances in the business — the direction coaxes the actors to feel so close and emotionally present in the scenes that it’s like they’re speaking directly to one’s heart. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this sequel inherently features some of the most heartfelt and heartwarming animated creations of all time. Why, they’re so culturally omnipresent and yet so carefully maintained and lovingly dolled out — just four films in twenty five years — they’re like returning old friends. It’s fun to spend time with them in a movie that’s lovingly animated and, though stretching, doesn’t betray the spirit of the series. What a relief it's not embarrassing, even if it never feels essential or vital, either.

Once more we’re taken into the world of toys that come to life when we’re not looking, a vantage point we’re granted through the eyes of Woody the cowboy doll (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear the spaceman (Tim Allen), and friends (like Joan Cusack’s cowgirl, John Ratzenberger’s piggy bank, and Wallace Shawn’s dinosaur) now living in the little girl Bonnie’s room after original owner Andy passed them on in the last film’s tearfully bittersweet final moments. These toys’ evolving relationship to their boy formed the original’s bolt of high concept invention into a trilogy about growing older and putting aside childish things — a bold (or something like it) gambit for a franchise built, at least in part, on branding and merchandising. And yet there was a sense of completeness there; one can enjoy the idea of these toys, even forming deep attachments to them, while growing up and moving on. It could’ve stayed that way.

Still, Pixar has spent the past decade reviving their old hits in sequel after sequel to great financial gain and fair to good artistic success. They’ve stepped away from the surprising emotional throughlines and vivid imagination to retread and doodle in the margins—a creeping sense of "been there done that," whether retrofitting a clever prequel (Monsters University) or retelling a previous film’s character arc with a new lead (Cars 3, Finding Dory). (Only Incredibles 2’s slam-bang comic book second issue escaped this inessential feeling.) Yet even when the movies are good, as they mostly are, they have a ceiling the company doesn’t when they instead are heading off with a clear fresh purpose and emotional high concept hook — hence Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco shine with the best of them. Alas, the feeling of constraint is the case here. The fourth toy story opens up a tightly closed loop and dangles more adventure and more emotive experiences. We didn’t need it, and it’s never as transportive or original, but it’s loose, clever, and fine.

The filmmakers are evolving the theme of growing older by making Woody an empty nester of sorts, relegated to the back of the closet gathering dust bunnies since Bonnie rarely plays with him. Besides, loyalty and love for a new generation aside, his kid was Andy. With him off to college, Woody is feeling without purpose. Good thing he must jump into action for the typical lost toy plotting, running hither and yon to save the girl’s missing craft project (googly-eyed Forky (Tony Hale) who steals every scene until fading into the background) who is being left behind at a vacation stop. It’s all high-spirited and well intentioned, if a little undercooked, a gripping enough chase with a blessedly kind heart and gentle spirit with some chills, spills, and giggles. (Also charming are new characters like a plush bunny and ducky (Key and Peele) and a Canadian daredevil action figure (Keanu Reeves) who get more screentime than some old favorites.) It's more of the same, visually more expansive, smaller in scope, and, though I'm unconvinced it builds a persuasive case for its conclusion, a fine entertainment. Where the picture really soars is the beautifully sincere performances, and in the stunningly beautiful animation. I may not have been as entirely involved in the story as in the early entries, or found the motivation as convincing, but I definitely did sit dazzled at the best-in-the-business CG animation. The light scatters through glass and twinkles in carnival colors off shiny porcelain. You can count the divots and scratches, the wear and tear, in every surface. Movement is mesmerizingly rendered—a stiff snap of a plastic hinge; a loose limping flop of a puppet’s legs; a weird wobble of a pipe cleaner arm that looks like the real deal in close up. It’s a dazzlement. The film is a heartfelt and enjoyable experience technically expertly assembled. If we had to have another one of these, they could’ve done much worse. But now I can’t wait for Pixar to put its exceptional technical achievements into a new Toy Story instead of another Toy Story.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Artist as an Old Man: ALL IS TRUE

“Cursed be he that moves my bones,” reads William Shakespeare’s grave site. And yet here we are, once again digging up and extrapolating upon what we know of his life to dramatize for our amusement and edification. The culprit this time is Kenneth Branagh, a fine Shakespearean actor and adaptor when he’s in the mood for it. His All is True — cheeky title, that — loosely adapts what can be surmised of the Bard’s retirement into a slow, stately, shallow portrait of the writer as an old man. Branagh, his face and hair sculpted into a rough approximation of Shakespeare’s portrait, looks appropriately tired. The colorful foliage at the Stratford-upon-Avon estate is in a constant state of rustling and fading. The sunlight always glimmers through the trees and windows with an auburn autumn glow. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the classy, boisterous, rumpy-pumpy rom-com Shakespeare in Love, the other relatively recent (alas, has it been over twenty years?) exploration — ahem, wild extrapolation and fictionalization, that is — of Will’s life. Its tone made clear it was a lark, a charmer, a swooning imaginary tribute inspired by the man’s youthful creative vigor. At least that film had great playwright Tom Stoppard pulling out all the witty stops. Branagh has screenwriter Ben Elton on a more wistful, sentimental, downbeat celebratory, soft and aged tack, conjecturing mournful familial strife and assorted matters of business and reputation that we’re meant to scan as perhaps true to life or at least the spirit of it. 

It’s a movie about a man who has been away in the big city and returns to a family he’s not used to living with, a man whose works are more beloved than he is. And so here we have Judi Dench (Shakespeare’s Oscar-winning Queen in the aforementioned earlier film, come to think of it), marvelously affecting as somewhat neglected, and poignantly illiterate wife Anne. Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson play two grown daughters — one a spinster and the other in a cold marriage. (But for brief glimmers, that’s the extent of their characters.) The family is haunted by the death, some years earlier, of young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), seen in ghostly flashback to bookend the film, climatically reciting some choice soothing lines from Midsummer Night’s Dream that are a direct route to misty eyes. The movie is mostly quiet and repetitive, sometimes unconvincing in its circling surface-level conversations. The flat, shallow observation is elevated only by the terrific performances and deepened by Branagh’s occasionally lovely theatrical blocking in uncommonly patient locked-off shots with characters artfully posed and moved in depth and space within the frame. Even so, it’s at its best when springing forth with familiar words from Shakespeare’s quill in a few, key scenes of richly upholstered language and sensitive framing—the boy’s final beyond-the-grave message; a close-up of Nonso Anozie in a cameo performing a speech from Titus Andronicus; a dialogue that melts into mellifluous sonnet recitation between Will and the Earl he admired (Ian McKellen). But that’s the problem with making a new drama out of Shakespeare’s life. No matter one’s good intentions, the writing won’t be as good as his. It stands out brilliantly — a burst of light throwing unflattering attention to the middling quality of every modest line and scene — flat, simple, obvious — around it.

Friday, June 7, 2019

X-piring: DARK PHOENIX

If Dark Phoenix is really the end of the X-Men movies as we know them — before they are pulled into the homogenizing force of the MCU by Disney’s Fox acquisition, as widely assumed — then I’ll miss them. Not because this one’s a good movie, though it has its moments, but because the series, ongoing since 2000, still has potential. It came out as the first in the wave of 21st-century superhero movies and, through its ups and downs, has endured as the most authentically comic-booky: a tangled web of retcons, and widely divergent tones and levels of quality depending on the writers brought on and the whims of its owners’ corporate culture. When it comes to quality control, the series has a much lower floor than much of its superhero competition , but also a much higher ceiling. The story of superpowered mutants struggling to find acceptance, even as they save the world from itself and themselves remains a potent force. X2 and Logan and Apocalypse, the best of the best, find poignant character attributes and personal stakes in the midst of pleasurable team-building melodrama and hurtling high-impact action sequences. At worst — Origins: Wolverine, for one — the ideas and iconography are jumbled and exploited for no clear organizing creative purpose other than keeping the cash flowing. Still, the constants — mankind’s fear of the other, the marginalized finding hope and family in community, debates about acceptance and activism, all wrapped up in sleek adventure, effects, and suspense — remain a palpable thrill when done right, and hit some fine nostalgic notes by this point, too. 

Ah, but it appears I’m eulogizing the series more than I’m responding to this new feature. Alas, it’s because it’s slipping from my brain faster than I can type. I was reasonably diverted for a while, and enjoyed a few sequences and the overall mood of the picture, but when the credits rolled I was already struggling to figure how the scant plot details filled a full two hours. Veteran X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg, making his directorial debut, too, picks up the story. Now a few features out from the Days of Future Past time-travel scramble, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is once again on the verge of a high-powered meltdown. Unlike Last Stand, which already loosely handled this plot as one of many it juggled in its cluttered cataclysms, this time it’s simpler, a matter of alien intervention. The completely uncharacterized aliens (led by a rarely glimpsed and mostly monotone Jessica Chastain) did some outer space mumbo-jumbo to Jean and hope to have her, I dunno, destroy the world or something. While we wait for Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) et al to figure out the source of the problem, Jean’s uncontrollable power surges lead her to run away from the Mutant School, increasingly, episodically isolated as they, and the world at large, grow frightened of her danger. That’s it.

This leads to an unconventional paucity of action. Although effects sequences are a regular, they’re small, and used more for punctuation and emphasis for a good chunk of runtime. A bit of a push one way and it could be The Fury; push it the other way and it could be Cronenberg. You wish. It’d be a decent place to sit, making for a tone of unease, confusion, psychic pain. But unlike the best X-movies, this one doesn’t dig deep, moves laboriously from one autopilot confrontation or conflagration to the next, and rather tediously repeats moves other films in the series have done before and better. I found myself sinking when I realized we were already at the end of it all, in the climactic battle, and found myself wishing the filmmakers could’ve found something more creative and fulfilling for its tremendous cast (Michael Fassbender! Jennifer Lawrence! Nicolas Hoult! And so on!) to accomplish, especially if this is to be their curtain call. This movie begins in a rousing space shuttle rescue and continues to vein-popping psychic tug-of-war, but loses early promise through limp drama, then ends in a dispiritingly mismanaged finale. It’s an endless sludgy CG shooting gallery — a deafening, deadening, hyper-violent sequence of anonymous shredded bodies pushing against (and occasionally crossing past, by my estimation) the upper limit of the PG-13. And for that trouble, the movie is oddly scaled, with potentially apocalyptic personal and universal stakes whittled down to a neon storm cloud and a cast of some of our finest actors scowling at it. Sheesh. What a way to go.

Friday, May 31, 2019

All Rise: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Godzilla: King of the Monsters lacks the majestic poetry of the 2014 reboot to which it’s a sequel. That film drew added thrill in its awestruck horror and tightly choreographed suspense sequences by emphasizing the vulnerability and inconsequentiality of any one human in the face of an enormous monster’s rampage. Its main human characters weren’t those who could save the day; they had no control over the plot. They simply could move through the frame, dwarfed by effects in the background, as the camera peered up into oblivion. This perspective led some to claim the film erred on the side of underdeveloped characters; those who clung to this line of attack were perhaps misdiagnosing their new sense of futility in the face of what used to be man-in-a-rubber-suit monster tussling in what might have once seemed a safely quarantined atomic-age metaphor. The sequel couldn’t possibly contain this masterful shock of vulnerability and design, especially since it was reportedly conceived with the task of providing more regular doses of kaiju destruction in a more conventional style. And yet it’s of enough a stylistic piece with the earlier movie to provide a consistent spectacle of destruction.

Where this new film extends its predecessor’s concerns may not be in the poetry, but can be found in its continued emphasis on humanity’s near total inconsequential response to the emergence of these monsters. Now not just Godzilla, the world is seeing a resurgence of many beasts those of us who know and love the old kaiju pictures will recognize in new, bigger, louder, scarier modern forms, including: fire-breathing pterodactyl Rodan; enormous moth Mothra; and three-headed, lightning-spewing hydra Ghidorah. As soon as you hear that a privatized research organization (led by returning cast members Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) has identified those hibernating beasts and is wrangling with the military vis-à-vis their respective threat potential, you just know these ginormous critters are going to wake up and demolish cities. You’d know this, too, because it’s the promise of a movie like this. And it does enough to satisfy that promise. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) makes the inevitable a faster, more cacophonous experience, escalating the last film’s patience and scale while maintaining its sense of humans dwarfed by the monsters’ behaviors. The ensemble of researchers and strategists, advisors and soldiers (a terrific cast of welcome recognizable faces including Bradley Whitford, Ziyi Zhang, Aisha Hinds, Charles Dance, Anthony Ramos, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) all seem to have an idea of how to control the situation, even as they fall into conflict with each other in the process of realizing they haven’t a clue.

In old-fashioned Godzilla fashion, there’s a lot of human drama to wade through between scenes of destruction. (We even have a standard sentimental rooting interest in a family — Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, and Millie Bobby Brown — torn apart by the factions.) Here we find characters who think they’re the solution, but find they’re the cause. It’s too late. Nature is past the tipping point. Humanity is no longer in control, if it ever truly was. There’s a potent climate change parable somewhere in here. We’ve made these conditions. Now we have to survive it. Monsters tear apart cities and collide in brutal throwdowns that pound the subwoofer and send particulate matter swirling across the screen. A beast unfurls its wings atop an erupting volcano. A massive beak catches an ejecting pilot with an almost-accidental dwarfing snap. A giant spider leg slices up through an oil well. A humongous dino-thing plows through a skyscraper shoulder-first. Dougherty does good work keeping some human element on screen to emphasize scale, and though his sequences are more about steady bombast than modulation, have a booming satisfaction in the lumbering personalities the creatures present. One roots for the big lizard like a prizewinning boxer up against the loathsome overdog, whooping at every success and cringing at every blow. It’s good, overwhelming fun, rumbling with occasional uneven human elements (par for the course, really) until I was satisfied to submit and bow down once more before Godzilla. Long live the king.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Superbad: BRIGHTBURN

Brightburn is a high-concept horror movie that gathers its dread not only from spinning a classic story in an opposite direction, but from pricking at a parental and societal fear with something approaching real psychological acuity. It starts with a childless Kansas couple whose farmhouse is rattled by a falling meteor that turns out to house a baby. This special boy fell from the heavens and they decide to raise him as their own. As he is entering puberty, he slowly discovers strange powers: strength, speed, flight, invulnerability, laser-eyes. We’ve been here before, but there is no heroism on the horizon. Like many 12-year-old boys, he reacts to his changing body as a source of confusion and shame. And yet, with no Superman pull towards virtuous self-discovering and inevitable do-good mentality here, he instead retreats into himself, his entitlement, his budding interest in pulling apart animals and lurking after pretty classmates. He grows secretive, hiding these urges, lashing out inappropriately. His adoptive parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are at a loss. What happened to their sweet little boy? He’s surly, distant, lying. It’s putting a strain on their relationship. The movie does well by treating this seriously with emotionally perceptive scenes of drama well played. It prickles with suspense drawn out of the simple parental concern that one’s offspring might grow — or twist or disappear — beyond understanding, beyond help, beyond control.  It put me in mind to wonder what mothers and fathers must feel when they find, much to their surprise, that their babies have grown up to be those who send death threats to critics who don’t like comic books or video games, who harass women, who become white supremacists or male chauvinists, who become mass shooters and serial killers. Where does the love go when the apple falls so far from the tree? How can one help a child who falls so far into such extremes? It may be set in pulp, a superhero slasher riffing on expectations. But it as an all-too-real insight at its core. Here, as we watch this boy — a terrifically chilling performance from Jackson A. Dunn who brings hauntingly cold eyes, a flat affect, and a vacant chilled stare — cross the line from puberty to sociopathy, to murderous intent, it’s unsettling predictable to watch him grow into his full violent potential. As director David Yarovesky capably stages Brian and Mark Gunn’s screenplay’s increasingly gross and bloody slasher film set pieces, a small but splattered body count steadily accrues in typical horror movie rhythms. Long silences, copious empty space, stings of orchestration, sudden movements, spurts of blood and viscera. It all grows out of its steadily upsetting premise. The movie only steps wrong in its end credits, which escalate a step too far for a credit cookie and give you time to contemplate how two key supporting characters have been misplaced in a rush to the end. But nonetheless, the film otherwise latches so firmly to its good idea, and keeps a tight focus on a parental relationship. It has a tight grip. The horror is not merely in the murders or the dark charge of a Smallville torn apart by growing superpowers gone wrong. It’s in the sense that this is a result of an American way that’s lost its way (an emptying modern small town far from the Norman Rockwell vision of Americana) and a look into the eyes of a well-intentioned mother — Banks trembling with steely resolve and unfathomable distressing betrayal — who sees her son slip into a heart of darkness. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Old New World: ALADDIN

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

...Baby, One More Time: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 -- PARABELLUM

In case you hadn’t yet realized John Wick is positioned as a thinking filmgoer’s elegantly brutal action franchise, Keanu Reeves’ eponymous master assassin uses only a library book to kill a man in Chapter 3’s opening bout. (And he gingerly reshelves it afterwards.) The film picks up from the end of the mildly disappointing sequel to the cleverly simple original in which Wick was drawn back into the underworld life to avenge the death of his beloved puppy. The first sequel dealt with consequences — a film that was all build up to its protagonist breaking his professional code of conduct and consequently getting a death mark placed on him. It left him on the run on a dark and stormy New York City night, and that’s where we pick up with him now. Reeves, all zen cool surfaces under which coils deadly virtuosity and simmering exhausted rage, once again glides bruised and battered through a successively elaborate series of action sequences, some of the finest of not only this series but of his career, or anyone else’s for that matter. The expertly modulated and wittily staged combat — nearly as intricate and faux-improvisatory at its best as anything Jackie Chan did in his heyday; see the great early work with a display case of knives here! — all puts the normal green screen glop of most modern action to shame. Once again director Chad Stahelski stages it in loving takes that are longer and more visceral than its genre compatriots — the cinematography all neon, black velvet, wet asphalt, and crystal clear. Derek Kolstad's screenplay is shaped with fine crescendoes and shorthand, making quick work of establishing mysterious new wild cards (Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston), servicing old allies (Ian McShane, Lance Reddick), and introducing appealingly eccentric new baddies (Mark Dacascos and Asia Kate Dillon). He also finds excellent, exciting variety — hand-to-hand through an antique weapon shop, on horseback, amongst sword-wielding motorcyclists (a la Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess), through walls, and up and down a multi-level glass penthouse. Like a well-crafted musical — though here a clothesline of appealing narrative goes between shoot-em-up showstoppers — or classic pornography — here teasing buildup before bodies collide and weapons penetrate — the movie makes quick, effective work of moving in and out of our reason for buying a ticket without growing repetitive or exhausted of ingenuity. But it also knows the audience loves Reeves’ impassive determination mixed with hypercompetence cut with bone-dry humor, the franchise’s increasingly baroque mythology dripping in ritual and symbolism amongst hitmen and women, and the sheer delight of seeing where the punches and slashes and shots land. Why, even a cheerful villain, bleeding out onto the floor after a spectacular set piece late in the picture, has time to gasp, “that was a great fight, huh?”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Big Snore: POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Just hear the premise or see an ad and the shape of Pokémon Detective Pikachu appears in your mind in accurate chalk outlines. It’s the first live-action feature from the long-running video game/trading card/anime series about a world where a panoply of super-powered creatures live comfortably with humans. They’re animals that have specific skill sets — some breathe fire or water; others are strong or sleepy; still others work a kind of magic or have an amplified eccentricity. Many live in the wild; others are caught and cultivated by trainers. It’s a whole thing. The movie follows a 21-year-old guy (Justice Smith) from his small town to a big city where his investigator dad has recently been killed. At least that’s what he thinks until his pa’s partner Pikachu pops up speaking clues to his father’s whereabouts in the gently sarcastic perma-snark tones of Ryan Reynolds. Usually the Pokémon only chirp their own names Groot-style in a host of emotive varieties, so this unusual kinship (the young man is the only one who hears him) bonds them together. Now they partner to unravel the whereabouts of the missing man while stumbling, in flimsy faux-noir scenarios, into a coverup and evil plot that involves crooked businessmen, shady back alleys, a secret test site, and an underground Pokémon fight club run by Diplo. The movie — competently directed by the guy who made the quite good first Goosebumps and scripted by writers behind the late, great One Day at a Time remake and the co-writer of the fine first Guardians of the Galaxy — trots along at a good clip. It's nicely photographed and stuffed with cuddly cute CG pocket monsters waddling through the frames. Along the way, nothing is surprising, even the surprises, although I suppose its target audience of children and those who never outgrew a diet consisting solely of brands they liked as children, might not recognize an aged trope in this film if Roger Rabbit, let alone Philip Marlowe smacked them with it. (Still, even they will probably realize they liked some of these plot mechanics better when it was called Zootopia.) Its action is uninspired and humor falls flat. The human characters never come to convincing life; the Pokémon are never more than cameos, except for Detective Pikachu whose essential cute chirps are now charmless milquetoast quips. (Replace Reynold’s voice with the usual “pika pika” and the plot not only becomes marginally better, but an obvious twist makes slightly more sense.) It’s rote, routine, pleasantly hitting its marks in exactly the way you’d expect while whiffing on every opportunity to grow complicated, interesting, or anything beyond recycled devices and images that barely muster the energy to push nostalgia buttons. It had me leaving saying, “that’s it?” If its sole point is to recycle previous product in a new package, the least it could do is activate a few more childhood affections on the way.