Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Artist as an Old Man: ALL IS TRUE

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

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

Friday, June 7, 2019

X-piring: DARK PHOENIX

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

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

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

All Rise: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

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

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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Superbad: BRIGHTBURN

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Old New World: ALADDIN

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

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

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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Big Snore: POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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

Friday, May 3, 2019

Playing Politics: LONG SHOT and KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE

The charming, feckless rom-com Long Shot stakes out territory that’s pure political fantasy. For one thing, it’s a movie about an American government that’s mostly functional, with a respected and effective Secretary of State (Charlize Theron) working for a benignly buffoonish showbiz president (Bob Odenkirk). The movie even withholds party allegiances for most of the runtime — the better to get the partisans on board? — until admitting that, yes, as you may have suspected, an administration pursuing a sweeping climate bill and antagonized by a scummy billionaire propagandist (an unrecognizable Andy Serkis) can only be Democratic. It’s all middle-of-the-road empty moderate pablum as a backdrop for a somewhat successful charm offensive, as the Secretary’s world tour doubles as a trial balloon presidential run, and reason to hire a schlubby unemployed muckraker (Seth Rogen) as speech writer. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) and screenwriters Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) devise sparkling, even elegant at times, throwback rom-com tropes for Theron and Rogen to enact: the Meet Cute, the bantering getting-to-know-you dialogue, the swooning pop song montage, the first kiss, the lamentable falling out, the soaring reconciliation. It’s nothing you can’t see coming — save, maybe, the supremely R-rated scandal subplot that nearly derails their relationship, and the movie’s otherwise gentle (think sleepy, sentimental Veep) tone. But the actors’ chemistry and effervescent timing (Theron’s effortless power and Rogen’s shyly emphatic stumbling are a fine pairing) with the filmmakers’ sturdy craftsmanship makes it work. The nagging doubt I have about this breezy fluff of a charmer is that in order to tell a political story in these shock doctrine times, even in a glossy high-concept big-screen rom-com mode, they push ahead like the world hasn’t changed. Its shallow interest in its own backdrop — up to and including a limp ending that skips loads of potential fallout to get to a fake rush of faux-empowerment — leaves it less than the sum of its heart. 

There are no such hurdles to the engaging new political documentary Knock Down the House. It needs no false notes or Hollywood fiction to make a feel-good story of contemporary politics. Director Rachel Lears and crew decided to follow a sampling of liberal women running for Congress in the 2018 midterms. In engaging biographical snapshots, gripping and informative — and entertaining! — fly-on-the-wall filmmaking introduces Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin as they mount campaigns full of sympathetic personal motivation and heart-felt political engagement. And luckiest for the filmmakers, who happened upon a real star-making victory and make the most of it as the central plank of their storytelling here, is footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose run against an entrenched Democratic incumbent resulted in a surprise underdog upset, and whose charismatic, clear-eyed rhetoric creates obvious energy. In this behind-the-scenes look at campaigns in our gangrenously corrupt new Gilded Age, we see with effective immediacy the hard work of getting out the message: strategy meetings, door-knocking and hand-shaking sessions, debate prep, interviews. We see long hours, moments of doubt, and rushes of excitement. They don’t all win their races. And yet the passionate righteous anger and sensible moral clarity so clearly animating many activists and candidates is an invigorating balm for those feeling the ache of cynicism. The world only spins forward. Let’s catch up.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Out There: HIGH LIFE

That’s cruelty, says the daughter (Jessie Ross). Her father (Robert Pattinson) replies, What do you know about cruelty? He’s lived it. We’ve seen, deep in his past, he’s perpetrated it: a dog dead in a stream; a child bleeding into the earth. We’ve seen he’s later been the victim of it: one on a crew of death-row prisoners sent into space on a suicide science mission, a one-way state-sponsored ticket to a black hole with a fertility related side-mission. This has been his life. From what we see, cruelty is all he’s known. His daughter, however, had known only him. He’s been to her a man of patience and kindness, tender and hushed, cultivating a bright young woman and a verdant garden alone. Of the initial con-air space flight, the man and child are all that’s left, all that's life. They survive, and yet the man, especially, as the girl is an infant for most of the film, carries with him the knowledge that they’re a dead-end, drifting in solitude and silence to a black hole with no hope of long-term planning or furthering their humanity. 

Because Claire Denis’ film is, in her typical style, hauntedly elliptical and vividly tactile, High Life accumulates hypnotic power from this scenario. She cuts between the isolation of man and child, and the steady decline of the mission that ultimately brought them to this loneliness. It can be sensual, even gross — a film of any and every fluid that can spring forth from the human body — yet within a sterile setting, with long clean corridors and crisp sci-fi suits and screens steadily splattered with the residue of its ensemble’s tensions. There’s a doctor (Juliette Binoche) who seems to be channeling penance for her infanticide past into an unethical attempt to force procreation amongst her fellow prisoners. There are men and women (Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Gloria Obianyo, Ewan Mitchell, Lars Eidinger) trying desperately to control their bodies to control their futures, to control their garden to control their environment, knowing that it might all be futile as they’re stuck with their urges in a box steadily shooting through the stars. It moves forward; they go nowhere. Silence can be overwhelming. Dissolves become decay. The film’s mood sits here—slow, upsetting, penetrating deep into the throbbing background hopelessness of it all, the fleshy needs and spiritual bankruptcy of its characters. Precariously balanced between new life and inevitable death, between hope and despair, between connection and separation, the movie ultimately builds to a breathtaking final sequence of shots—brilliantly simple, with a mesmeric and thematic power that lingers. It answers the questions raised about how to raise a new generation in the wake of our mistakes, and about whether it’s worth plunging forward into the unknown alongside them, with a startling clarity and beautiful ambiguity. There they go. Shall we follow?

Friday, April 26, 2019

Finale Countdown: AVENGERS: ENDGAME

An endless cascade of encores and exposition, Avengers: Endgame is a thunderously melancholic machine most of the time, where the quips seem a little wan and the action visually slipperier yet more grandiosely apocalyptic. I suppose it's befitting a Universe that went through a culling last time, when purple baddie Thanos (CGI muscles and glob with the scowl and growl of Josh Brolin) snapped half the population to dust. This one's about the survivors trying to move on, while the remaining Avengers decide to live up to their name. It takes comic book leaps of disbelief as they do, eventually, after a long uneven buildup, and the movie's best moments are eruptions of satisfaction. Its worst are the sort of drooping anonymous action clutter and terse box-checking that so many of these devolve into. It also has a sloppy central sci-fi conceit that's basically successfully hand-waved in the moment, but makes less sense the more I think about it. Luckily, it is diverting, and, despite its runtime, provides very little to think deeply about later. The three-hour movie is stuffed with scenarios, a large-scale victory lap for an eleven-year project of culture-conquering moviemaking enshrining comic books as the prime fantasy of our time. We've gotten lost in them. Here we get to see every original main character (Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, Ruffalo) and a host of cameos (which Marvel commands thou shalt not spoil), revisit settings and conflicts, and go down memory lane, even as we hurtle once more to an inevitable showdown with the forces of darkness. The difference is that this one doesn't tease an open ending. There is not even a post-credit scene. The thing is, for once, embracing, more often than not, a spirit of finality for the whole thrust of the franchise. Sure, it leaves itself plenty of heroes and story potential for the future, but it works as a big, satisfying climactic splash page in its fever-pitch, effects-heavy, character-clogged frames in battles royale. At its best, I found myself glad I sat through the whole twenty-movie project in order to feel the small nods to and charming echoes and reversals of situations past. At its worst, I found myself puzzling over its enormous smallness, its undeniable scope and ambition curtailed and constrained by the formula and flat style, even at this pseudo-endpoint. Literally dozens of stars are isolated in their mix-and-match green screen poses, personalities to bounce off each other, action figures for directors Russo brothers and the usual MCU scripters and producers to assemble at will. It doesn't quite gather the zing or zest that enlivened last year's surprisingly nimble and large Infinity War. Luckily, the familiar faces have enough charisma and the plot has enough forward momentum and how'll-they-wrap-this-up? curiosity to make it all a decent popcorn multiplex time. I left as stupefied and overstuffed and vaguely pleased as after a fast food feast.

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.