Sunday, February 12, 2017

Split review

M. Knight Shyamalan’s latest film “Split” combines his love of Hitchcockian thrills and with his predilection for high-concept myth-making and fuses these obsessions in a way that’s surprisingly energetic and captivating. I have to say surprising because since the heights of his career in early 2000 Shyamalan has only recently come off a long losing-streak s. After big budget genre-flops such as “Lady in the Water” and “The Last Airbender” he lost of lot of credibility as a coherent storyteller with both audiences and critics alike. Halving his costs under the pop-horror banner of Blumhouse Productions, it seems that he’s now able to make smaller, more efficient work without the pretenses of prestige. 

James McAvoy is given the spotlight playing a troubled man named Kevin who constantly switches between multiple personalities. After a complicated battle of dominance between the personalities inside of his mind, he kidnaps three teenage girls in the hopes to appease a brooding darkness growing from within. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cook, the most introverted and ostracized of these women, and through this kidnapping experience she's forced to relive her past abuse. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula portray the other two girls who can’t understand why Casey has no will to fight. As they try to come up with clever ways to escape McAvoy’s underground lair, Casey tries to get to know and manipulate Kevin’s separate personalities.

We get to know McAvoy as a brutish clean-freak and fetishist named Dennis, a passive-aggressive English woman named Patricia, a nine-year-old attention-seeker named Hedwig, a nervous fashionista named Barry and a demonic force of nature known only as The Beast. While Dennis and Patricia--the personalities responsible for the kidnapping--have the most control over their host, the others have sought the help of a psychiatrist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's beginning to notice that her patient has something to hide.

Like any Shyamalan film, there’s a lot of plot here and his characters are subservient to the whims of the director’s set-ups and reveals. His depiction of mental illness has less to do with diagnose-able science and more with pulp mythology that’s rooted in past psychodramas and paranormal science-fiction.  If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and give in to the script’s wacky concepts, as a thriller, the movie works well enough. The ticking-clock set up at the beginning of the film allows for constant tension that keeps everything on a track, even as scenes digresses into long-winded explanations of the movie rules through clunky, expository dialogue.

McAvoy’s having a lot of fun with these multiple roles and approaches the film’s goofy plot with just the right amount on whit and sarcasm to aid in its occasional black comedy. Anya Taylor-Joy is more informed by her character’s flashbacks than by her performance, but her emotional stillness helps to ground the movie’s themes and dramatic stakes.

“Split” is a mixed bag; it’s overwritten, it’s a bit hokey and Shyamalan has some problematic and concerning ideas about abuse-survival as a means of martyrdom, but the film is never boring and it managed to keep me engaged with the story as it moved along.  Thrill rides don’t necessarily have to be realistic, and though I wish this ride hadn’t stopped every ten minute to explain something that didn’t need explaining, despite it's failings, I appreciated the end-result.

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

XOXO review

Netflix has created a seismic shift the world of film and television distribution. Not only are they producing several movies and series on their own, they are now releasing several projects bought from the festival circuit. Their platform has become so popular that its becoming less and less necessary to house older material, which would be a shame, considering they helped destroy video-store culture all around the country. 

Whatever. Netflix recently released a garbage dump of a movie about CW-looking ravers called “XOXO” and it’s barely a movie and it’s really stupid and I just can’t even.

This is supposed to be a portmanteau-structured narrative, which features Graham Phillips as Ethan, a laptop DJ who’s blowing up on youtube and whose best friend Tariq (Brett DelBuono) has booked him a slot on a desert EDM festival called XOXO. Attending the fest is Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland as an innocent suburban girl hoping to finally meet her online boyfriend for the first time, Hayley Kiyoko and Colin Woodell as a couple looking to cut loose before Kiyoko’s character Shannie moves away, and comedian Chris D’Elia plays aged hipster named Neil who can barely stand being in this movie as much I can barely stand watching it.

The plot is structured so that Ethan’s big debut at XOXO ties together these shifting story threads and all the characters are supposed to overcome their petty life complications through the power of thumping dance music and recreational drug use. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a culture that I’m a part of or know much about, but the movie never gives me a reason to be interested in the dance music scene or to invest in any of these competing character dilemmas. Furthermore, the actors are given terrible dialogue and they can’t seem to compensate that with any personality in their performances.

I would say this movie has tone issues, but I’m not sure if there was a pointed attempt at capturing a specific mood or emotion. The neon, black-light rave stuff is supposed to have a dark and mysterious effect on the drama, but the plot moves around so much and direction by Christopher Louie is so flat and cheap looking that it never registers as dream-like or psychedelic. Also, is this a comedy? There’s some clumsy attempts drug humor and misunderstanding humor but neither are groomed in a way that informs the rest of what’s going on. As the movie unfolds, you get the feeling that each scene and each set up was shot and directed with no consideration of how it would fit with the completed product.

For a film that’s all about the uniting power of music and community (I guess that’s what it’s about. *shrugs*) there’s nothing remotely effecting or memorable about the movie’s music either. Our hero Ethan’s hit song is barely hummable and it doesn’t stand out among any of the other bland EDM selections pulsing in the background.

“XOXO” is so lazy and slapped together that to even review as a real movie feels like a form of legitimacy that I’m uncomfortable participating in. It looks like low-grade television and it montages its way through the plot, racing to a pointless conclusion.  Even though it’s available to watch free on Netflix, your 90 minutes are better spent scrolling through their selection for something else.

Grade: F 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Founder review

Michael Keaton’s return to glory has been a personal joy. He’s a charismatic actor who can effortlessly work in both comedic and dramatic roles and he can even take a sinister turn if needed. So, when Keaton takes the lead in a middle-of-the-road, prestige picture like “The Founder” I still have enough enthusiasm for his comeback to wince through the movie’s hacky, on-the-nose dialogue and its thematic hypocrisies.

Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a failed salesman who finds himself at a new hamburger restaurant in 1950s San Bernardino California. This curiously-fast outdoor establishment is run by the two McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carrol Lynch). Together they came up with an expedient burger serving system that optimizes space and labor in such a way they can serve multiple people with practically no wait time. Kroc, who can barely sell a milkshake machine to keep his house, sees this new business as his golden opportunity and convinces the brothers to let him open multiple restaurants in as many states as possible. As Ray spends more time making deals and keeping up with the Joneses, his hubris takes over and his relationship with the original owners is tested with conflicting visions for the company’s future.

Since 2010 we’ve seen a string of these real-life American success stories as told like Greek tragedy to emphasize the cold and brutal nature of modern capitalism. “The Founder” wants to sit at the same table as “The Social Network” or “The Big Short.” It doesn’t, but it’s watchable.

 John Lee Handcock (“The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks”) is an industry-friendly workman director who can tell a story for the lowest-common-denominator.  The movie doesn’t want to challenge or offend too much, and even though the character of Kroc is pitched as a crude and Machiavellian personality, the movie almost admires his bootstrap initiative and moxie. This, combined with the obvious food-porn around the depictions of McDonalds burgers and fries almost commercializes product while also condemning the means for its success.

Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay doesn’t leave any room for misinterpretation. He holds our hands through pages of thudding exposition, with character’s explicating in broad monologues and quippy exchanges of dialogue their motives within the plot and the movie’s exact themes. You can probably count on two hands how many times the movie compares McDonalds to America and American values. Sometimes this TV-Movie-of-the-week obviousness gels with Handcock’s gee-golly, Greatest Generation, Norman Rockwell style, but most of the time it’s redundant and eye-rolling. 

Luckily Keaton, Offerman and Lynch are the leads and supporting performances by Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini and BJ Novak help to elevate Siegel’s pedestrian script. However, the great Laura Dern is completely waisted as Kroc’s mousy and neglected wife.

“The Founder” is kind of a dumb movie but it does what it says on the tin. I can’t help but see a more complicated and nuanced story to tell here and the beats of the plot are so safe and paint-by-numbers that it becomes difficult to swallow its anti-corporate message, but if you end up half-watching this on an airplane or in a hotel room you could probably do worse.

Grade: C+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Top-10 Films of 2016

2016 has been strange and surprising for all of us, and that’s also reflected in the films that came out last year. Many of the most anticipated blockbusters either underperformed or failed on arrival (“Assassins Creed,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Alice: Through the Looking Glass”), while the R-rated superhero farce “Deadpool” and a Winona Ryder starring, eight-episode Netflix miniseries about Dungeons and Dragons and parallel universes captured America’s imagination.

My favorite movies of the year seem to fill the cracks between Hollywood’s biggest wins and biggest losses, mostly showcasing talented filmmakers that remind us that the most standard genre paradigms still hold true if realized with filmic discipline and a passion for the subject matter.

10 – Tickled – New Zealand documentarian David Farrier falls down the rabbit hole of online competitive tickle-torture, and what started as an assignment to highlight a wacky sub-culture, descends into a lurid story about power, control, money, and online extortion. Doing for the internet what “Psycho” did for showers, this documentary takes wild and unexpected left turns and reveals itself to be one of the most tense and uncomfortable movie watching experiences of 2016.

09 – The Lobster – Colin Ferrell plays a lonely man who checks himself into an isolated single’s retreat to find a life-partner. Once there, he agrees with the management that if he’s unable to find a suitable mate he will forced to live his next life as a lobster. Yorgos Lanthimos' surrealist dark comedy gleefully queers the heterosexual experience and satirizes the arbitrary nature of human social constructs.

08 – The Neon Demon – It took me a few days to untangle the movie's meaning and discern the intentional camp of Nicholas Winding Refn’s fashion-industry horror story. Like a modern and perverse take on the Little Red Riding hood fairy-tale, refracted through the prism of expressive, euro-styled exploitation thrillers and sleazy camp-classics such as “Valley of the Dolls” and “Showgirls,” “The Neon Demon” never lets you comfortably judge the movie based on its genre expectations.

07 – Hell or High Water – It’s been a while since we’ve had a really great, down-and-dirty cops and robbers flick. “Hell or High Water”—2016’s top grossing indie release—is the type of thinking-man’s man-movie that we didn’t know we were craving. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play West-Texas bank-robbing brothers who’re out to steal from the same institution’s that took their fathers land after the Great Recession. Jeff Bridges plays the cowboy detective hot on their trail. Think “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” meets “Thelma & Louise.”

06 – Midnight Special – Jeff Nichols shows off his love for Spielberg’s sci-fi dramas like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with a paranoid fantasy about a young boy with special abilities who’s running from the government,
 while trying to communicate with beings from another world. The film’s brooding tone and eerie, atmospheric imagery is emotionally grounded by terrific performances from Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and child actor Jaeden Lieberher.

05 – La La Land – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance their way through Damien Chazelle’s archetypal boy-meets-girl musical, which uses the gloss of the Hollywood tradition to argue for the uncertainty of cinema’s future.

04 – Don’t Breathe – Horror movies can talk about today’s issues with insightful allegory, or they follow the footsteps of Hitchcock’s methods of audience manipulation and take us on a jolting thrill-ride. Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” chooses the latter and gracefully treads the water of the home-invasion thriller with suspenseful and well-crafted set-pieces.

03 – 13th Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary deconstructs the legal language of the 13th amendment which ended slavery only to pave the path for America’s prison-industrial complex. Racial divisions have been written into our very constitution and DuVernay carefully traces every civil-rights set-back to the passing of the 13th, showing us that our own justice system has replaced the plantation owners of yesteryear.

02 – Moonlight – What separated this film from the other character-driven, austere drama’s that sweep awards season, is its experimental and lyrical cinematic language. Barry Jenkins tells the story of a young black teen who grows up in poverty while he learns to repress his own sexual confusion, reminding us that ‘It Gets Better’ doesn’t always apply to every social situation. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Mahershala Ali all turn in fragile and deeply effecting performances as a boy who is forced to hide his emotional truth to survive his day-to day existence.

01 – The Witch – Robert Eggers’ folktale about a settler family in the 1600s who’re oppressed by a darkness from within their New England backwoods property sunk its teeth into me as early as February of last year and it still hasn’t let go. The craft and detail that went into this modest production serves to highlight the film’s allegorical concerns about faith, sin, doubt, evil, and perception. Everything from the performances by the mostly-unknown cast, the dark and striking cinematography and the thoroughly bleak presentation of the subject matter left me without a single thing to fault to find in this thoughtful and transcendent art-house horror. 

Honorable Mentions:
Star Trek Beyond, Arrival, Eddie the Eagle, Everybody Wants Some, The Nice Guys, Kubo and the Two Strings, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about  out year-end lists.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

La La Land review

This year’s “La La Land,” a romantic musical that takes place in modern-day Los Angeles, will likely see a lot of love throughout the awards season, and for good reason; it’s fun, it’s vibrant and it lovingly pays homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 50s and 60s, while still being accessible for a modern audience. But what makes “La La Land” more than just a cute genre exercise with a chipper cast of likable white people is director Damien Chazelle’s personal obsessions and anxieties that burns through the movie’s standard love story.

We’re first introduced to our romantic leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in an ambitious song and dance number that takes place on the freeway during deadlocked LA traffic. Chazelle establishes the long, swooping single-takes that dominate the showier set-pieces of the film, as well as the bright primary color scheme that evokes the eye-popping saturation of early technicolor cinema. Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress who spends more time at her dead-end studio coffee-shop job than she does on stage or film. Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz enthusiast who dreams of starting his own traditional night-club, while toiling away as a pianist at a cheap Italian restaurant. After a series of chance meetings in the world’s biggest small town, Mia and Sebastian begin a whirlwind romance that inspires the couple to reach for the stars, but as their personal ambitions inch closer to being realized, the seeds of resentment bud in the soil of their mutual sacrifices.

The best and worst thing you can say about this film is that the story is awfully simple.  The movie’s portrayal of relationship dynamics is very familiar and, generally speaking, the rise and fall structure within romantic comedy hasn’t been properly challenged since Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” But “La La Land” thrives on familiarity, both for aesthetic and thematic purposes. The use of Gosling and Stone--previously coupled in “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Gangster Squad”—suggests a classic on-screen couple that you’re already been primed to root for. This kind of metatexual referencing manifests visually to evoke the romantic musicals of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as well as lesser known world-musicals such as Jacques Demy’s 1964 “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” begging for audience’s enthusiasm in stunning displays of escapism. But just underneath the surface of all of this highly-technical celebration of genre exists a personal story, not about love won and love lost, but of a young artist grappling with a legacy that looms large behind him.

Chazelle was barely 29 years old when he gained a lot of attention for his brilliant psychological drama “Whiplash,” a much darker film about a young jazz musician who’s challenged to the breaking-point by his perfectionist music professor. If we can read that film as a post-adolescent expression of Chazelle’s angst as a young artist that's nearly-destroyed by his own scrutiny, then “La La Land” is the director’s concession and acceptance that his artistic success will likely be measured by those before him and that his work will always stand in the shadows of Hollywood legends.

Singer John Legend plays a successful sell-out musician who I suspect represents a lucrative creative path that Chazelle is hesitant to embark. He asks Gosling’s Sebastian “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?” Given how playful and referential the movie is with its genre trappings, it’s not a stretch to assume that Chazelle might to be asking these questions about artistic integrity to himself. Legend follows this up by saying “You're holding onto the past but jazz is about the future.”  

In progressing from the taut and wiry character study of “Whiplash” to the bombast of a showy cinemascope musical, Chazelle transitions nicely from emotionally interior storytelling to a style that’s deceptively extroverted but equally personal.  Gosling and Stone are posed and positioned in such a way that's flattering and believable but they're subservient to the overall vision of the project. As hard as they perform for their suppers and as good of chemistry they have on-screen, one could argue that the impact of their romantic arc is dampened by the post-modern conversation the filmmaker is having with himself and the audience. That aside, “La La Land” is an earnest crowd-pleaser that is largely designed to entertain on a more inclusive level, transcending the complicated dynamics the director explores within the text, the context and subtext. .

Grade: A-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

Long before Marvel and DC took a stab at the extended cinematic-universe idea, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” expanded in the form of comic books, novels, video games, cartoons and two Ewok movies, which then led into the much-maligned movie prequels. Now that Lucas himself has sold his intellectual properties to Disney, they’ve successfully kicked off a new trilogy with last year’s “The Force Awakens” and will be filling in the wait-times with tangential films that explore the other gaps in the established timeline.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” explains how the rebels were able to find the design flaw that allowed them to blow up the planet-demolishing Deathstar at the end of 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope,” but unlike the other prequels, this story doesn’t focus on any of the franchise's key players or any of the Han/Luke/Vader family drama. Here we're introduced to Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a runaway survivor of a raid by the Empire. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist and engineer who works for the Empire who is forced against his will to design the Deathstar. As an adult, Jyn finds a new family in a group of rebel fighters led by Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Given her connection to her father’s involvement with this dangerous new weapon, she must lead a group into the heart of the Empirical army to find a secret blue print that shows us where Galen hid the space-craft’s only weakness.

The movie also introduces us to Jyn's downtrodden band of misfits in Riz Amed as the skittish Bodhi Rook, Donnie Yen as the blind-swordsman Chirrut Imewe and Wen Jiang as his faithful partner Baze Malbus.  Alan Tudyk voices a sassy robot called K-2SO and Forest Whitaker shows up briefly the wild-haired bandit named Saw Gerrera who first rescued and sheltered our hero as a child.

Writers Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourn Identity”) and director Gareth Edwards approached this movie as a kind of “Seven Samurai” ensemble adventure, dampened by the bleak, war-is-hell overtones of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” They tease us with the promise of distinct characters and a fun high-stakes heist, but the script’s slavish devotion to its nuts and bolts macguffin-driven narrative and the lack of depth explored within the movie’s wide-spread cast makes for a surprisingly dull and joyless action experience. 

Felicity Jones is given nothing to do on screen besides hold the audiences hand from one set-piece to another and her fledgling romance with Diego Luna’s angsty Cassian Andor feels tacked on and unearned, as if the movie realized at the 80-minute mark that it forgot to establish a compelling emotional anchor.  The other emotional component between Jones and Mikkelsen as her long-lost father is truncated and treated less like substantive character motivation and more as a means for exposition.

The movie boasts some haunting images of the looming Deathstar, visible though the atmosphere of the doomed planets it hovers above, and the fight choreography is held-back and treated with more physical heft than we’ve seen in this sci-fi world before. This all becomes moot as the film devolves into a swirling montage of aerial dogfights and mindless destruction without enough personal moments with the characters to be invested in their outcomes.

Because there won’t be any direct sequels to this side-bar story, “Rogue One” takes some wild risks that are commendable, and its detachment from the kid-friendly exuberance of the previous Star Wars films allowed for the movie to embody a unique identity. Yet, the film arrived at this darker, more adult space at the expense the audience, who is denied a way to penetrate its sphere of despair.

Grade: C+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Nocturnal Animals review

With his second feature “Nocturnal Animals, fashion designer Tom Ford tackles the very things that inspires great art and how the different people in our lives leave impressions that help form our creative responses. This is a lofty theme and with his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan” Ford compares and contrasts two different genres and two different styles of visual filmmaking to comment on the formation the art and storytelling itself.

Amy Adams plays Susan Marrow, an icy and disconnected art curator who’s married to a traveling trophy husband named Hutton (Armie Hammer).  While Hutton is away on a clumsily obvious secret trip with his mistress, Susan receives a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book comes with a note about how the how the story was inspired by their turbulent history. The film then visualizes the contents of Tony’s book, in where Gyllenhaal also plays the main character of Tony’s Novel Edward Scheffeild. Edward is an easily frightened man who loses his wife and daughter to a gang of drunk rednecks after being forced off a West-Texas road after a car chase in the middle of the night. He seeks to punish these men with a rogue desert detective named Bobby Andels (Michael Shannon), a man of few words who no longer fears losing his job or his life to do the right thing.

 The film opens on an audience-testing slow-motion sequence where morbidly obese elderly women are shown dancing seductively to the movie’s melodramatic stringed score. This title sequence lingers on close-ups of sagging body parts before revealing these women are part of art exhibition curated by Adam’s dispossessed character. The mix between the grotesque the gorgeous permeates Ford’s every narrative and aesthetic choice here. The framing device about Susan rediscovering her young and complicated passion with the struggling writer of her post-college years is couched in the story to represent the ‘real-world.’ Yet the painfully stilted dialogue, the intentionally cold and bloodless performances within these scenes and the careful framing of Ford’s modern-art Los Angeles set-design presents a less relatable world than what is represented in the scenes depicting Tony’s pulpy and hyper-violent western/thriller manuscript.

With this strange juxtaposition, Ford tries to make the argument that success and wealth stifles creative expression by cutting the artists away from humanity, and in doing so, he proves his own point by constructing a film that is stifled by battling creative agendas. The two stories are supposed to be symbiotic and analogous but the movie lacks the necessary connective tissue to develop either story past their highly-stylized surfaces. Though pulpy and overly-treaded genre territory, the Coen Brothers-esq manuscript segments are far more engaging and impactful than the sterile soap-opera framing plot, which resembles the high-art sleaze of the 60s and 70s Italian filmmakers, as filtered through the steely cynicism of “Dead Ringers” era David Cronenberg. The two styles constantly trip over each other as the film cuts between them and their intended symbolic relationship reveals a disappointingly shallow connection.

“Nocturnal Animals” filled with a lot of style and the structure of the story attacks character-motivations and themes in a challenging and indirect way. This is a laudable storytelling approach, but it fails to meet those challenges in a way that doesn’t seem overly self-conscious and ill-considered by its director. Gyllenhaal gives two great performances and Michael Shannon does what he’s made a career of doing and gives the best performance in a problematic movie.  Adams is almost denied an emotional reality so that she can act as a vessel by which the movie’s (unintentional?) misogyny is accounted for.  What makes the film all the more frustrating is that its ambitions are the cause of its own failure.

Grade: C

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Dec-2016

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