Sunday, July 30, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

“Valerian and the city of a Thousand Planets” was supposed to be the comeback of European shlock-buster director Luc Besson. Having found lasting cult success with his sugary 1997 space opera “The Fifth Element,” which was also based on a French sci-fi comic book, many hoped that the mad scientist would get his mojo back with another high-budget passion project, after years of producing middling action programmers and throwaway children’s movies. While “Valerian” is too problematic and clunky to bring his style back into relevance, its gaudy visuals, cult aesthetics and zany idiosyncrasies are a welcome change of pace, even if the film as a whole is a garbled mess.

The plot centers on a young space cadet named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) who is sent on a mission to obtain a rainbow-colored, echidna-looking, Pokémon thing that sheds multiples of whatever you feed it, including pearls and diamonds. After he and his partner/lover Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) manage to smuggle the creature from the sweaty palms of a gangster space-hog voiced by John Goodman, the couple are then ping-ponged from one disconnected set-piece to another upon an intergalactic colony of disparate cultures and species who have occupied segments of a man-made city-planet. What the couple don’t know, while they’re gallivanting around the City of a Thousand Planets with a singing jelly-fish named Bubble (Rihanna), is that they’re mission is part of a larger government cover-up that deals with a destruction of a planet of peaceful oceanic villagers that were the casualties of a human civil war.

One of this feature’s many weaknesses comes from Besson’s struggle to find the emotional or thematic anchor within this episodic jumble of ideas. The movie zips along and throws enough at you to keep you entertained, but we can never be sure where the dramatic tension lies within the story. The bad guy and his master plan is revealed far too early and pseudo love story between Dehaan and Delevigne is underdeveloped and completely unconvincing. It’s only in the final third of the film, when these threads are supposed to pay-off, that we realize that Besson was too busy world building and stylizing to lay a proper foundation for these failed story components.

I can’t stress enough how miscast the leads are. DeHaan’s shy, brooding demeanor and boyish frame is completely at odds with the character of Valerian, who's supposed to be a jockish, Han Solo style, arrogant every-man. Likewise, young model-turned-actress Delevigne is supposed to be a deceivingly ditzy but strong-willed female warrior, but her icy performance and stern eye-brow delivery never gives the character enough warmth to counter Valerian’s aloofness. Neither of them are blessed with particularly deep or revealing dialogue to help them fill out these roles and from the first scene their chirpy banter falls flat and their romantic chemistry is awkwardly non-existent.

Still, while I didn’t care for the plot or character’s, I have to appreciate the picture’s total commitment to its over-budgeted, everything and kitchen sink insanity. Divorced from the importance of narrative cohesion, the aesthetic framework around it pops like a drag show, a light-up pin-ball machine and Vegas stage show all in one. The tone is light and bouncy and the visuals, while obviously digitally manipulated, have a cartoonish quality that reinforces the movie’s celebratory artifice. “Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets” is, by most accounts, bad, but it’s also fun and unique and lacks just enough self-awareness to enjoy as a piece of psychedelic, sci-fi kitsch.

Grade: C-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/July-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Valerian."

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming review

After a battle of tug of war between Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures, the rights of the Marvel’s flagship character Spider-Man has finally reverted back to its company of origin. We got our first glimpse of their version of the hero in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and here he’s back with his own movie, but unlike the two previous Spider-Man franchises, directed by Marc Webb and Sam Raimi, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is not interested in retelling the Peter Parker’s origin story or centering the action around a love story. 

Tom Holland stars as the film’s lead, and this story picks up right where his appearance in “Civil War” left off. Peter is 15 years old and having just kicked some butt with Avengers, he’s now desperate to do anything that can get their attention. Tony Stark/Iron-Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gives him and his automated spider-suit a ride back to his suburban home in Queens, but demands that the young lad keeps his web-slinging to a minimum and that he wait for an official call before jumping back into some serious action. Being a teenager with superpowers, Peter ignores these requests and stumbles upon an adventure in which he has to stop a group of local thieves from stealing and manufacturing alien technology to aid in their selling of dangerous and unstable weaponry.

Similar to Raimi’s Spider-Man/Green Goblin arc in his 2001 entry, Holland’s secret life of doing good deeds around his neighborhood is mirrored by Michael Keaton’s tech-inspired power-high as the villain The Vulture. The two paths cross and intertwine more and more as the story unfolds and their hero/villain dynamics are some of the strongest we’ve seen from Marvel Studios, who often struggle to portray compelling villain narratives.

Given that we’ve seen the Spider-Man origin story twice now, and we’ve seen him inspired to rescue a love interest by the movie’s end, I was happy to see this movie avoid those tired tropes. I am also very impressed with Holland’s upbeat, naïve take on the character, yet I found myself regularly pulled out of the film by Marvel’s insistence with interjecting this standalone adventure with its own branding. Because Spider-Man doesn’t have to prove himself to Mary Jane, squelch his guilt over his dead uncle or save the humanity of Harry Osborne, his sole motivation for being a superhero this time around is to someday join the Avengers. That’s fine, I guess, but by treating Spider-Man as just another Marvel fanboy it makes it harder for us to invest in his wants and desires as a protagonist and it renders the more dramatic moments of the film’s conflict rather light and minimal in scope.  

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a new take on the character. The supporting cast is full of a lot more color and diversity, Aunt May is now played by the younger Marisa Tomei (wish she been given a little more to do) and Peter even has an uncomplicated friendship with another geeky outsider named Ned, played by newcomer Jacob Batalon (wish he had been given a little less to do.)  I appreciate the small stakes of this Queens-specific story, the action scenes work well enough—in that expensive, unspecific way we’ve come to know from the MCU—and, generally speaking, I like the amiable tone of this version of Spider-Man, but every time Tony Stark had to fly in to save the day or every time another Avengers reference was dropped I found myself rolling my eyes at the Studio’s desperation to remind us that they’ve won IP rights back from Sony.

Grade: B

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/July-2017
Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Spider-Man: Homecoming."

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Baby Driver review

UK filmmaker Edgar Wright has made a name for himself for being able to both satirize and stylistically capture the appeal of whatever genre he’s sending up. “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” are meant to be entertaining through the use of irony and sarcasm, but when they full-tilt into the world of car-chases, shoot-outs, and robot/zombie attacks, it’s clear that Wright’s love for these genres is not ironic and he would like his posters hanging right next the George Romero and Jon Woo one-sheets, stapled on the walls of a 38 year old’s basement wood paneling.
Wright’s latest film “Baby Driver” sees the director putting his guard down a little by truly throwing himself in the deep end of action-movie waters, without his usual satire and comedy as a flotation device. Where his quick editing and source-music soundtrack selections were once used to enhance a scene’s comedic potential, it is now finely tuned to inform the movie’s intentionally detached style.

Ansel Elgort plays the titular Baby, a young driver who works as a getaway man for a powerful criminal ringleader named Doc (Kevin Spacey). After settling some debt with the crime boss, he is roped into working on one last job before he can drive to the west coast with his new sweetheart Debora (Lilly James.) Baby is forced to work with a Bonny and Clyde couple named Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez) and a loose cannon named Bats (Jamie Foxx). Of course, when plans are thrown out of whack, Baby has to think as quickly as he can drive and maneuver on the road.

The main stylistic theme set in motion from the first scene is Baby’s relationship to the film’s music. The movie is often scored by the music that the character is listening to within each scene as it is unfolding in real time. Here Wright seems to be employing his ironic distance to bring attention to the artifice of filmmaking itself, having the main character enacting his daily life like a director behind the wheel of his own movie. Baby is also an archivist of sorts, as he secretly records every conversation he has and later remixes parts of the raw audio to make danceable midi mix-tapes.

At every turn Wright draws attention to the movie’s movie-ness and, in turn, draws attention to himself as the movie’s stylistic architect.  More so than ever, this director wants to stand alongside this picture as a work of personal gratification. And yet, while it may be the project closest to his ego, dramatically speaking, its show-off quality and its lack of comedic framing renders the film an impressive but somewhat shallow middle-school science fare diorama, in which our eyes dart back and forth to follow the marble as it rattles through the device with precision.

Wright has studied the greats, and “Baby Driver” evokes the bright-eyed zip and tight choreography of the musicals of the 60s, such as “West Side Story,” as well as the work of mentor Quentin Tarantino (particularly, “Reservoir Dogs” and “True Romance”) and the work of Walter Hill (particularly, “The Driver” and the cult crime-musical “Streets of Fire”), but Elgort’s soft, near-wordless performance along with the economically written but stock nature of the screenplay creates for an movie that functions like an entertaining playlist of other movies.  

There’s absolutely a lot of fun to be had in cool-for-cool’s-sake nature of this picture and I don’t begrudge anyone who responds positively to this movie’s tightly considered mechanics. Both Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm turn in stellar scene-chewing performances and this is an achievement in cinematic aesthetics that works as a great popcorn companion. But while the film was perfectly likable I was never unaware of how desperately it wanted to be liked.   

Grade: B

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jul-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Baby Driver."

Sunday, July 2, 2017

All Eyez on Me review

At the time of his death in 1996 Rapper/actor Tupac Shakur was seen as a successful musician but a controversial figure in pop-culture, having been shot and imprisoned within the short span of his life as a professional “gangster” rapper in the early 90s. His message of message of ‘thug life’ and his profanity laced lyrics that detailed the hard conditions of inner city black youth made him the target of white politicians who tried to blame him and other hip-hop artists at the time for inciting violence towards each other and the police.

Despite the controversy that surrounded his life, in retrospect Shakur has become something of a John Lennon for American people of color. His lyrics were sometimes crass and violent but having been raised by an ex black-panther and trained in Elizabethan poetry at the Baltimore School for the Arts , his political views on poverty and class dynamics were decades ahead of his time, sharpening rhetoric that both the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement would classify today as #woke.  It’s too bad that director Benny Boom’s two hour and twenty biopic “All Eyez on Me” couldn’t live up to the expectations of representing Shakur’s life in a way that isn’t painfully literal or linear.

Newly discovered 2Pac lookalike Demetrius Shipp Jr. is a convincing lead and clearly has spent a long time studying the artist’s speech patterns, gestures and ticks.  Given that half the work is already done for him physically—the similarities are at times uncanny—it’s commendable that he also worked hard to internalize the role and bring forth an emotional reality to his character. Boom however did not make as a strong of considerations towards the project surrounding this performance, and what is left is an awkwardly paced, Wikipedia-scripted, birth-to-burial biopic that often feels like a made-for-TV melodrama that’s full of jarring transitions and hokey, soap-opera dialogue.

Danai Gurira as Tupac’a mother Afeni is usually dialed two or three notches above where her performance should be, and the who’s who of actors who stumble in to cameo as Tupac’s hip-hop contemporaries, such as Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard), Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis), and Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), are given so little to do and have so little agency in the plot that the movie quickly becomes a slide-show of hip-hop royalty. This, along with the incessant cutting back and forth in the timeline to explicate each scene with a jail-interview framing device that’s abandoned half way through, breaks up the dramatic tension, creating the feeling that the film is longer than necessary and obnoxiously episodic.

Among the larger problems plaguing the feature, there are a few moments that to aid the movie’s cinematic momentum. The concert sequences have palpably electric and they help to keep things lively. In the few moments of dialogue that aren’t incredibly on-the-nose, such as some of the tense exchanges between Pac and Suge and a small but nice scene with Shakur and his high-school girlfriend earlier in the film, the movie occasionally lands on the perfect frequency between blacksploitation camp and Oscar-clip self-parody.

Too much of the film is poorly executed to be great, but a decent 90 minute cut exists somewhere in this labored assembly. As is usually the case with biopics about past icons and celebrities, Benny Boom needed to narrow his scope and decide what story he wanted to tell about the artist, rather than skipping along the loose themes about death and redemption and daddy issues as they float past the narrative.  Since “All Eyez on Me” is currently our only 2pac movie we have, it will have to suffice, and the performance by Demetrius Shipp Jr. is something to behold, but the movie lacks the discipline and the economic storytelling that it needs to emotionally connect with an audience.

Grade: C-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jul-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "All Eyez on Me."

Sunday, June 18, 2017

It Comes At Night review

Trey Edward Shults’ meditation on paranoia “It Comes at Night” is a creeping thriller, about a family held together by fear.  Many filmmakers and storytellers have mined numerous post-apocalyptic scenarios to further explore the darkest corners of the human experience, and in that regard this picture prides itself in starring deeply into the abyss without blinking.

The film centers on a small family played by Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo as the parents Paul and Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their 17 year old son Travis. Only a few days after having to quarantine Sarah’s elderly father from the house,  later killing him and burning his body in the backwoods to insure that the deadly disease he contracted can’t be further spread, a stranger from a few miles away named Will (Christopher Abbott) begs the family for food and refuge for himself and wife and toddler. After arguing with his hopeful wife and sternly vetting the newcomer, Paul decides to aid in this rescue effort. Will and his young wife Kim (Riley Keough) are grateful for the food and sanctuary but the specter of tribalism and tragedy looms large over this stressful new dynamic.

Shults does a good job at establishing the emotional stakes of this story early on so that when even the smallest disturbances are breached, we are made as hyper cautious as our worried protagonists. Like John Carpenter’s 1982 meditation on paranoia “The Thing,” this film puts the characters in a position where common decency is not the rational choice in close quarters. The overarching themes about stubborn masculinity and loss of humanity in the face of panic are not new to this socially conscious sci-fi sub-genre, but it’s the directorial precision and complicated performances that set this film apart from the mountains of forgettable virus/zombie movies that precede it.

Some have complained that the film’s marketing campaign by distributor A24 has been misleading. The titl, as well as the jumpy trailer that focuses more on the viscera and eerie imagery  than it does the movie’s core family drama, have lead some disappointed viewers to believe that this was supposed to be more conventional horror film. While this experience is thoroughly entrenched in bleak tragedy and the implications of the plot are fairly horrific, the movie doesn’t ramp up every scene towards a jump scare and there aren’t any monsters or cannibals scratching on the outside doors of the protagonists secluded home. What that said, there is a strange omniscient point of view that hangs over the drama as it unfolds and it sometimes feels like a demonic hex that’s been put upon this sensitive circumstance.

“It Comes at Night” may not be the traditional horror programmer that people thought they were getting but it is a very dark film that’s meant to challenge our views on human empathy and familial loyalties. Cinematographer Drew Daniels uses minimal lighting schemes to sculpt his subjects out of ink-black darkness, and his slow push-ins on red doors and elongated hallways recalls the nightmarish imagination of David Lynch and monumental intimidation of Stanley Kubrick.  I can’t say that the sci-fi subject matter presented here is all together new or innovative and as a thriller the movie’s reveals are somewhat predicted, but the filmic craft exemplified and the actor’s dedication to their character’s emotional motivations elevate the stock premise into being a taught exercise in suspicion.

Grade: B+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jun-2017 

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "It Comes At Night." 

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie review

Children’s entertainment is often overlooked for its significant in the development of our creative minds. Kid’s media is what ultimately teaches us how to absorb information as adults. When it comes to film, kid-vid teaches us about genre, comedic /dramatic editing choices, as well as important cultural reference points. Children’s literature is equally significant in our developing minds, so when films are adapted from our grade schools’ book-fair catalog it’s worth noting how the translation from one media to another informs how the property is now being marketed to a newer generation. In the case of “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” we can see a direct influence from the source material mixed in with the modern comedic sensibilities of the voice talent and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (“Get Him to The Greek," “The Muppets”).

Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch voice George and Harold, two grade-school pranksters who spend more time in school hatching plans to humiliate their grumpy Principle Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) than they do studying. After school, they hang out in their tricked out tree-house drawing comic book adventures of their superhero creation Captain Underpants. Later, when a prank goes wrong with a cereal-box hypno-ring, Principle Krupp is put into a deep trance where he then behaves as their beloved hero. This is all fun and games for the duo until a real-life mad scientist super-villain named Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) is hired to teach at the school, where he plans to implement his devious schemes. It is then up to Harold and George to convince their dazed and deluded Captain Underpants to save the day.

Obviously, all of this is very silly and the movie revels in the source’s juvenile sensibilities. Stoller and company might have internalized the text as a celebration of the class-clown. In this world, science is boring, nerds and teachers and humorless and school assignments get in the way of creativity.  At one point we see that Krupp has even cancelled the school’s arts programs. For me there’s mixed messaging here, both emphasizing the importance of imagination and self-assurance and celebrating crass anti-intellectualism. The worlds of the creative arts and the worlds of academics don’t have to be mutual exclusive, but “Captain Underpants” curiously pits them against one another.

If I’m not analyzing the content as closely, as an animated comedy, the movie’s funny enough. Jokes about underpants, poopy pants and farting orchestras don’t really resonate so much with me anymore, but Stoller peppers the dialogue with occasional clever references and humorous turns of phrase, and the film contains a live-action sock-puppet aside that makes you wish the whole movie had committed to its low-tech charm.

“Captain Underpants” skews fairly young and a lot of its base humor left me cold, but there’s an appeal and whimsy about the world created here that makes it difficult not to fall in line with the movie’s mischievous irreverence.  The voice-actors bring allot specificity to their characters and the textured and stylized animation is easy enough on the eyes to allow for quick cuts, jumpy asides and rapid zooms. I can’t say that this will be a family movie standard in the coming years, but I can that it made me laugh and held my attention better than most films intended for the same audience.

Grade: C+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jun-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie."

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman review

Both critics and geeks have been justifiably nervous that the first female-fronted superhero film of our modern-day fanboy renaissance is being brought to us by Zach Snyder and Warner Bros’ DC Comics cinematic universe; the same universe that’s brought such us large-scale disappointments as “Man of Steel,” as well as last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad.” For many years, Marvel producer Kevin Feige was curiously noncommittal about the possibility of funding a female-driven entry into his web of interconnected action films, but in a rush to catch up with the successful Disney entity, Warners has released a “Wonder Woman” film that breaks the tradition of  their current output by being surprisingly good.

We were first introduced to Gal Gadot’s sword and shield wielding Amazonian as a peripheral character in “Batman v Superman,” but here director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allen Heinberg focuses in on her origin and gives us the emotional and philosophic context we need to truly care about the admittedly cheesy character. This time we meet Princess Diana as a trained warrior of the all-female demigod tribe created by Zeus to protect the human race. After the tribe has spent years hiding and training in their magically hidden island of Themyscira, awaiting for the day the Greek god Aries returns to finish them off, Diana discovers a human WWI spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who crash lands in their ocean. When he tells her of the devastations and atrocities he’s fighting in his home-world, Diana travels back with him to find and kill a German military leader named Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who she suspects is a disguised Aires orchestrating the stage for human destruction.

Jenkins, who was previously attached to direct Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World” before leaving the project over disagreements with the studio, has a firm hand on the pulpy tone of the source material. The first third of the film plays like a large-scale episode of “Zena: Warrior Princess” while the rest resembles the popcorn-flavored fantasy of adventure flicks like “Raiders of the Lost Arc” and “The Rocketeer.” These worlds are joined more seamlessly than one might think and the Jenkins’ focus on Diana/Wonder Woman as a sturdy center of consciousness allows us to accept and even admire her idealistic world-view when it comes to altruistic justice.

Gadot and Pine also bring a lot of life and pathos to their characters and unlike the DC’s recent cinematic output, this film allows for scenes to breathe and build to moments of action and suspense instead of always rushing to the next big set-piece. Much like Kenneth Branagh’s first “Thor” movie, “Wonder Woman” also includes fish-out-of-water humor as the warrior princess tries to wrap her head around the peculiarities of turn of the century Europe. 

Given that so much of this movie is entertaining and easy to invest in, it’s unfortunate that Patty Jenkins attended Zach Snyder‘s school of hyper-stylized action direction.  The battle sequences are filmed using his signature slow-mo-speed-up technique, occasionally pausing the action to frame corny, self-satisfied, music-video glory shots. The final battle between Wonder Woman and Aries separates Diana from the emotionally-driven war sequences, only so that the film can pay off the genre fans with an overpowered comic-book boss-battle, wherein the foes are shooting lightning out of their hands and trucks and building are flung back and forth. With that noted, it’s a common mistake for these kinds of movies to over-climax and I can’t fault Jenkins, who’s never directed a film on this budget, for sliding into an easy aesthetic trope.

“Wonder Woman” knows what works in the superhero origin drama and it plays its cards carefully. Unlike the previous entries in the misbegotten DCU, it doesn’t try to cram in loads of exposition and tangential DC Comics world-building for the sole purpose of setting up future sequels, remembering to succeed on its own as a standalone adventure. Many will write about the gender politics of the film and it is significant that this movie exists as it does for young girls to root for a hero of their own, though Pine and Gadot’s awkwardly suggestive banter sometimes undercuts the strong feminist themes. The film is a hair too long and slips into headache-inducing destruction by its end, but too much of it works too well for me to criticize the picture for simply leaning into familiar genre tropes.

Grade: B+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jun-2017
Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Wonder Woman."