Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lady Bird review

Quentin Tarantino once said of Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” “Yeah, it’s personal, but if it isn’t good who cares?” This was, of course, Tarantino’s lead into a strong endorsement of the indie filmmakers critically high-point, before Smith eventually squandered most his good will on half-baked stoner comedies and non-sense podcast fodder. But it’s this sentiment that comes to mind when reviewing actress Greta Gerwig's “Lady Bird,” her debut film as both writer and director. Based heavily on the 34-year old’s  own coming of age experiences in 2002 Sacramento, the movie plays as both a love letter to the California capital, as well as a tender-hearted comedy about a big fish in a little pond who’s awkwardly splashing her way to grander opportunities.

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high-school senior who is desperately trying to leave her small town life. While forced to live a lower-middle-class existence, fighting with her pragmatist mother (Laurie Metcalf) and preparing graduation from her strict Catholic education. As she tries on many new personalities she ready’s herself for a more cultured life at one of the prospective east-coast universities she hopes to attend. This is made explicitly known to her friends and family when she forces them to refer to her as Lady Bird instead of her given name. After deciding she needs an artistic outlet, her and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) take small parts in the school musical, just before Lady Bird finds a new group of partying, pseudo-intellectual parking-lot rebels. In the background of this, with the help of her out-of-work father (Tracy Letts), our protagonist tries to apply to as many out-of-state schools as she can without her easily-worried mother finding out.

Gerwig’s treatment of this coming-of-age story is grounded by its specificity. It’s not a story that has to take place in Sacramento to work, but in doing so the city becomes another character whose relationship with Lady Bird is just as nuanced as the other human relationships in the movie. This didn’t need to be set in 2002, but the music and wardrobe choices, as well as the pre-smartphone, pre-social media time-frame that’s captured here, keep the characters isolated in their suburban malaise that’s lovingly recreated. It’s also nice to see a story about a realistically middle-class family who is struggling financially but without shifting the narrative away from the protagonists

The other element that separates this effort from the film’s generic teen-movie lineage, is the quality of the performances combined with Gerwig’s funny yet truthful, conversational dialogue. The many prickly scenes between Metcalf and Ronan’s mother-daughter exchanges is like watching two tennis pros bat the ball back and forth without ever letting it hit the ground. These actors are totally in tune with each other but not at the expense of movie’s larger impact. As real and emotional as the acting is, it never overwhelms the story or dampens the scripts many comedic highlights. Actor/playwright Letts also has complicated arc throughout the story as his personal and professional failures are redeemed through his daughter’s naive ambitions. It’s a heartbreaking arc that the film doesn’t explicate in an overly sentimental way. 

Not only is “Lady Bird” an exceptional effort from a first time director, this has been one of the strongest films to come out this year--though it should be stated Gerwig’s collaborations with directors Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg was more extensive than the usual co-writer or actor. Every scene advances or complicates the characters and never lets them settle into a comfortable archetype, and the craft behind the earthy, amber-hued visual design of the picture also shows a level of stylistic confidence that elevates the project beyond either the teen genre or the usual Sundance crowd-pleaser.  Like any great filmmaker who understands how to balance story with style, Gerwig’s snappy dialogue and personal touches are in perfect sync with the rhythm of the narrative and in service to the overall quality of the final result.

Grade A+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Dec-2017

Listen to this episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Lady Bird."

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Justice League review

Well, whether we wanted it or not, Warner Bros have released the not-very-long-awaited “Justice League.” Of the film’s six central heroes (Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash) we’ve only been properly introduced to three of them.  This started with director and producer Zack Snyder’s 2011 “Man of Steel” and continued with last year’s misbegotten franchise booster-shot “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which teased a Wonder Woman cameo, who, earlier this summer, starred in what has so-far been the DC cinematic universe’s only coherent origin story.  Somewhere in all of that, we were also treated to the stylistically confused, tangential distraction known as “Suicide Squad,” which added nothing to the world of pop-culture other than insufferable Joker/Harley Quinn true-love memes and bad tattoo ideas.

But this is it; this what is what all that other non-sense was leading up to. This was supposed to be Warner’s live-action “Super Friends” that would rival the blockbuster assembly-line that is Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. How well did it accomplish this goal, you might ask? Well, unlike the bulk of the DCU’s previous efforts—“Wonder Woman” notwithstanding—“Justice League” makes narrative sense, insomuch that is has a beginning, a middle and an end, and for 10-15 minute increments the unintentional camp that comes from Snyder’s inability to understand cinema beyond its ornamental surfaces overlaps with the most base pleasantries that come with superhero genre storytelling.

A race of interdimensional locust people is brought upon our world by a demi-god warrior known as Steppenwolf who wants to transform our planet into an apocalyptic kingdom. Superman (Henry Cavill) is still dead, so Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) travels the globe to recruit the world’s strongest remaining meta-humans. These super-powered beings include the naive and socially-awkward Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the brutish sea-merchant and low-key water-god Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the surprisingly still-relevant Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the barely-necessary Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together they must prevent Steppenwolf from weaponizing three magic cubes that generate enough raw energy to transform our planet.

“Justice League” isn’t totally unwatchable but within an era with endless, formulaic superhero flicks, it reeks of being too little, too early. The story is practically Mad-Libbed from stock comic-book movie tropes and since most of the previous entries in this franchise failed to give us compelling arcs for these characters—some of which we are only getting to know here—it becomes impossible to invest in the film’s message of togetherness. The screenplay is front-loaded with catch-ups and mini-origins, setting up each hero and giving them individual goals to accomplish by the film’s end. Because these characters are so loosely drawn and inconsequential to the plot, this ultimately feels like a waste of time and a slow lead up to the movie’s more pressing concerns with its villain and the possible resurrection of Superman—which, by the way, is not all that interesting either.

As far as action-spectacle goes, this is one of the sloppiest visual productions to have ever come from this director. I haven’t always responded positively to Snyder’s style of green-screen-driven art design, the slow-mo action sequences, or the artificial lighting schemes and color-correction that makes the bulk of his work look like high-budget Linkin Park videos, but even on that level, “Justice League” struggled to blend the actors into their CGI environments and hiding the unnatural physics behind the wire effects. Despite its bloated budget, this feels like discount Zack Snyder, and with a story as shallow and rehashed as this, the movie's effects deficit becomes all the more severe.

You may have heard that this film is better than expected (or even good) because it has a better sense of humor. Yes, unlike the dreadfully serious “Batman v Superman,” there’s Marvel-style jokes and quip-y dialogue (perhaps penned from quip-master himself, Joss Whedon, who stepped in to complete the last leg of the production) and occasionally Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller help to keep the group dynamics lively as they plod from one telegraphed set-piece to another, but as a piece of cinema there’s nothing here original or compelling enough to make up for the multi-car pileup that preceded and laid the foundation for its making.

Grade: D+

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal/Nov-2017

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok review

Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” sits neatly into the newest phase of the post-millennial cinematic superhero boom; the ironic, smart-aleck phase. After years of sincere, emotionally grounded superhero films and a couple years of gritty, nihilistic superhero films, with the focus mostly on charismatic, reluctant savior archetypes, it would appear that the genre is now in a self-reflexive, experimental mood, no-longer interested in retelling the same tired Campbellian origin stories. This is best exemplified with the success of Marvel’s quirky “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, Fox’s snarky “Deadpool” movie and Warner’s recut and confused “Suicide Squad.” We’ve seen referential superhero comedies before, like Mathew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” and James Gunn’s pre-Guardians indie film “Super,” but it’s that these new films are made within the established cannon of their respective cinematic universes that their tonal risks are all the more pronounced.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor returns to the magic realm of Asgard, only to discover that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has failed to keep away his long lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), who was banished from the kingdom centuries ago for being a murderous war monger. Having returned stronger than ever, she pushes Thor and his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into a junk-yard planet that is ruled by a flaky aristocrat (Jeff Goldblum) who keeps his subjugated people entertained with gladiatorial battles. Thor is eventually captured by a binge-drinking ex-Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and forced to fight his fellow Avenger, Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, Hela has reclaimed the Asgardian throne and is making her plans to invade neighboring realms.

“Thor: Ragnarok” separates itself from the previous two entrees in the franchise by embracing this new shift into broader storytelling and wilder myth-making. The movie’s aesthetic is knowingly campy and filled with flashy, colorful visuals that zip through every frame. Along with Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-laden score, this new look and approach—very much informed by “Guardians of the Galaxy”—taps into a pinball arcade peppiness that activates every artistic choice New Zealand director Tiaka Waititi commits to. Unlike the first two Thor films, which were beholden to some earth-bound characters and natural settings to help fit the character into the norms of the conventional superhero mold, Ragnarok has untethered its earthly concerns and introduces us to a host of new space-ships, aliens, mythic monsters and ancient prophecies.

There are times when Ragnarok’s ties to the other Marvel films is cumbersome. Many plot points refers back to the other adventures by the Avengers and many of the movie’s in-jokes refer to what we have come to know about these characters over the last six years. As such, I’m not sure how well this installment stands on its own. The wild joy-ride this story takes us on is unpredictable and refreshing in its full embrace of silliness but there are also moments when the movie is throwing so much at us all at once, that things get momentarily cluttered and borderline incoherent. Waititi keeps all the moving pieces connected just enough that the narrative doesn’t split at the seams, but Blanchett’s darker Asgardian takeover plot is largely pushed away by the lighter gladiatorial stuff, with Jeff Goldblum looking like an extra from the 1980 disco cult-film “The Apple.” This isn’t a detriment to a movie that wants to be funnier and louder in its aesthetic approach, but it does leave the mechanics of the storytelling noticeably uneven.

Waititi took this material, which by 2013’s dower “Thor: The Dark World” had overstayed its welcome, and injected new life into it by strategically stepping away from superhero formulas. Everyone here is having a good time, and you should too. This is a wild, messy space-opera buffet, and as such, feel free to bring a bib and dig in. While there isn’t much here in the way nutritious substance beyond the simple joys of its creative surfaces,  but “Thor: Ragnarok” certainly lives up to its objective as being a spectacle with it's own comedic personality.

Grade: B+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Nov-2017

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Florida Project review

Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is a near-perfect snapshot of real-world Americana. Unlike the usual glut of LA/NY films about the lives of ad executives and graphic designers, Baker gives us the fly on the wall point of view of a lively Orlando motel filled with immigrants, tourists and vagrants who are all doing what they can to make it through day to day.  Hollywood routinely ignores the poor unless they wish to exploit them or turn them into cartoonish stereotypes, and while Baker doesn’t shy away from the grimmer realities of those who have slipped beneath America’s social cracks, he never judges them and gracefully creates a deep sense of untraditional family with his cast of mostly unknowns.

Newcomer Brooklyn Prince plays the film’s unofficial lead Mooney, a spunky six year old with a potty mouth and an adventurous spirit that gets her and her friends into trouble. Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) follow their instigator as they panhandle for ice-cream money, break into the hotel’s breaker room, and vandalize near-by abandoned homes. Mooney lives with her notably young mother Halley (Bria Valley), who sells hot merchandise and prostitutes herself to pay a weekly rent for their room at a Disneyworld-adjacent hotel, which is managed by the bighearted but overstretched Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe.

While there is clear character arcs the narrative there isn’t a clear three act structure with an inciting incident or second act moment of conflict to be resolved. Because of the movie’s impressionistic, montage approach to storytelling, some might find the lack of a “plot” frustrating. Baker doesn’t want to bog these characters down with a plot contrivance like a personal mission to achieve or a big problem to overcome. Instead this focuses more on the moments between the plot-points in our lives, and since most of this is being experienced through the perspective of a child, we are sometimes shielded from the harder aspects of Mooney’s daily experiences. What Baker creates is a painterly collage of brief moments of recognizable American childhood, where harder adult truths like making rent, finding free food and avoiding the police is treated like a fun game or a way of keeping yourself occupied during summer vacation.

With the exception of Dafoe as Bobby, who turns in a wonderful un-Dafoe performance as the hotel’s surrogate father, the rest of the cast blends into Baker’s attempt at documentary-style verisimilitude.  This means that the acting, like in Baker’s last picture—the iPhone filmed dark comedy “Tangerine”—is too real to focus on performance as an individual element. Much of the dialogue feels improvised and the children often scream and squeak their lines over each other, giving the audience the impression that they aren’t watching a movie, so much as peering through their window, wondering like a nosy neighbor just what the hell these kids are up to.  This, along with the non-traditional narrative structure, is likely to weed out viewers who are more accustomed to Wheaties- commercial style annunciation from their child actors.

The accumulative effect of “The Florida Project” is devastating if you’re willing to open your mind to its unique rhythm. The cinematography by Alexis Zabe combines the handheld immediacy of “Tangerine” with warmly lit, deliberate camera placement that recalls the moodier moments of last year’s Florida-based indie drama, “Moonlight.” Though all the individual components of the film work in harmony, with the exception of some random bathtub shots that are seemingly shuffled in to break up later scenes, the movie’s big takeaway is the compassion it displays for its characters and the tangible, relatable world they inhabit.    

Grade: A-

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal/Nov-2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Babysitter review

Netflix’s “The Babysitter” is a horror-tinged action-comedy with a surprising amount of charisma and charm. Surprising because it's directed by McG, best known for hacky schlock like “This Means War,” “Terminator Salvation” and the “Charlies Angels” movies, Here he scales down his budget and the broad scope of his desired audience, and in doing so manages to helm something that feels specific and personal, while also retaining enough visceral hijinks and well-intended snark to keep things entertaining.

The film centers on the relationship between a nerdy twelve year old named Cole (Judah Lewis) and his babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving). Cole is getting old enough to know that he’s probably too old for a babysitter, but Bee is everything a bullied brain needs in middle-school; she’s smart, she listens, she gives great advice and she’s smoking-hot. The only downside is she also happens to be the leader of a teenage devil-worshipers cult. One night, while Cole’s parents are away, he stays up late to see what Bee and her friends are up to, only to disrupt a murderous death ceremony, which kicks off a night-long game of cat and mouse between our worry-wort protagonist and this group of sinister high schoolers. 

This movie mostly works because of the well-established dynamic between Lewis and Weaving. We have to fall in love with Bee just as Cole does, so that when the story reveals her for what she is, we feel the same kind of betrayal. To the director’s credit, he does the proper leg-work with these characters so that the drama is informed and the action stakes are energized. Samara Weaving gives what would normally be a star-making performance as Bee--she’s confident, funny and powerfully sexy, without ever leaning into vacuous objectification. The versatility she displays with this wildly audacious role is better than any acting reel one could hope to cobble together.  Judah Lewis is also good at portraying believable innocents in a film that revels in poppy ultra-violence and subversive fun.  It’s for this reason that the other teens, played by Bella Thorne, Hanna Mae Lee, Robbie Amell and Andrew Bachelor feel all the more underwritten in comparison.

While Weaving and Lewis are fully realized and complicated from the page to their performances, these other roles are far more comfortable existing as basic teen horror archetypes, often spouting sophomoric, unfunny dialogue. But despite the quality imbalance between all the characterizations, “The Babysitter” still knows how to build small-scale action set-pieces with creative kills and effective moments of splattering slapstick.

Besides working well as a violent dark comedy, Brian Duffield’s screenplay also remembers to root everything within the context of an effective coming-of-age arc. As a result, this left-of-center project is without a doubt the most original and heartfelt film to come out of McG’s spotty catalog, and that’s saying something for a picture littered with satanic blood rituals, hangings and indoor car crashes.

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Oct-2017

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Happy Death Day review

There was a time, not too long ago, when horror movies used to be made for teenagers.  The 80s was full of populist scary flicks that catered to the 11-24 marked, with films such as “Friday the 13th,” “Fright Night,” “Slumber Party Massacre,” “Night of the Comet,” “The Lost Boys” and many more. Wes Craven’s first “Scream,” and its subsequent sequels and rip-offs, might have been the last era of that tradition. In its absence, we’ve seen grim supernatural chillers, cheap found-footage shocks and a small splattering of gore films, derisively labeled ‘torture porn.’  Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day,” released by Blumhouse Productions, tries to find that sweet spot between made-for-TV tween-age Halloween movies and the slightly more sophisticated slashers of the 1980s.

Jessica Rothe stars as Tree Gelbman, a young sorority girl who, on her birthday, finds herself waking in a strange boy’s dorm room after a hard night of partying. Quickly gathering her things and leaving, she’s goes about her day with smeared eye-liner and a short fuse, pissing off everyone she encounters, including Carter, the boy she presumably spent the night with (Israel Broussard), her college roommate (Ruby Modine) and the professor with whom she’s currently having an extra-marital affair (Charles Aitken). Her night ends at the end of knife held by a masked killer, and after she's murdered, she awakes on the same day, in the same bed, only to relive these encounters over and over until she’s able to outsmart her attacker.

The fun of this “Groundhog’s Day” premise is that Landon and his screenwriter Scott Lobdell can fully explore the geography of their set-pieces and they can tease the mystery element with a gimmick that allows the audience to play along with the protagonist. In this way, the movie succeeds in its slumber party ambitions, but it excels in its layered character work. Tree begins the film as a terrible person who has little to no regard for anyone other than herself. Her journey, by reliving a horrible death over and over again, is to explore who she’s wronged and what their motivations might be. In doing so, she is forced to think about the feelings of others and she is also forced to come to terms with her own past trauma that made her become so cold to begin with. This Scrooge-ish character arc might not be the most revolutionary angle to go with, but there’s at least an emotionally rooted purpose for it’s the screenplay’s high-concept.

All the performances are strong. Rothe has the most do, as she learns to become a better person throughout the runtime, but her eventual partnership with Broussard is also a highlight, as we watch them plan and scheme together like the Hardy Boys. The film only slips when it over plays its red herrings. An element is introduced near the mid-point that steps too far away from what was carefully established in the first third. This plot point is eventually dealt with in a way that’s satisfying and still rooted in character, but given the obvious mechanics of the plot, the placement of this story element is the only thing that registers as labored and forced.

“Happy Death Day” is a love letter to a simpler time in horror. It uses post-modern techniques to explore these simpler, somewhat optimistic themes, but in doing so, manages to cleverly deconstruct the slasher genre in way that isn’t too ponderous or academic.  It’s probably not as scary as it could have been but this is the type of horror date-movie that was made to enjoy some popcorn with, and sometimes that’s okay.

Grade: B

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Oct-2017

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 review

There’s a lot to admire about Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” This long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult-masterpiece attempts to step up the cyberpunk aesthetics and moody atmosphere of its sci-fi predecessor, while also tackling similar themes about the meaning of consciousness and what it is to be human. Given his past success with handsomely directed genre fare such as “Sicario” and 2016’s “Arrival,” Villeneuve’s involvement signaled to fans that this follow up would be a serious attempt at continuing the mysterious and oft-debated subject matter of the original. Serious is certainly a word that could be used to describe what we  ended up with here. The pulpy dime-store detective fiction that inspired Scott’s previous entry has now been glossed over with a more dreamlike, somber take on the material that fits more into Villeneuve’s bleak authorial world-view.

Ryan Gosling plays a bio-engineered police officer called Agent-K. He’s a Blade Runner that is hired by the LAPD to ‘retire’ older replicants that have gone rogue. While working on a case involving a shocking cover-up, in which a female replicant gave natural birth, he finds his mysterious past and his implanted memories coming into question. The further he digs into the case, he becomes more fervently pursued by his governmental employers, as well as the nefarious manufacturers known as the Wallace Corporation. Both of these parties have a lot to lose in the world finding out how much closer to humans the replicants have become.

This film boasts a large and eclectic cast including Robin Wright as Gosling’s tough boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto as the sadistic Niander Wallace, as well as relative newcomers like Ana De Armas as Goslings digital companion Joi, and Sylvia Hoek’s as Niander’s lethal mercenary Luv. Gosling is essentially our cipher into this world, traveling though his existential journey, which eventually leads us to Harrison Ford’s return as Rick Dekkard. But it’s the women in the film and K’s relationship to these women that dominates the narrative. Wright represents the sociological and bureaucratic structures that keeps K ignorant of his life beyond his function as a Blade Runner and replicant. Joi represents his yearning for something more profound, while the dangerous Luv represents his fear of the truth.  In some ways this backdoor approach to Gosling’s character diminishes his role as a protagonist, making him far less proactive in his own journey. As a result, though his performance is appropriate for the material, he’s can be a passive drip to follow. Nevertheless, Villeneuve gives all of these characters enough screen time and stakes in the plot to realize their motivations beyond their function as stock, pulpy archetypes.

Working again with cinematographer Roger Deakins, this movie is a marvel to gaze upon. The sleek production design and Deakin’s moody capturing of light and shadow, along with Villeneuve’s symmetrical shot set-ups and steady direction, creates for a monolithic, sometimes oppressive style that always keeps the eye engaged through this close-to three hour feature. Characters are often shot much smaller in the frame, placed around larger, totemic buildings and structures in the background and foreground, underlining the director’s point that they are overwhelmed by the cold, technological reality around them.

“Blade Runner 2049” only falls a little short in its ability to connect the audience with the movie’s larger themes through the characters wants and desires. This issue tries to correct itself through a few emotional arcs, the most successful being Gosling’s relationship with his IOS girlfriend—De Armas doing most of the heavy lifting there. But as a secondary plot point, it can’t lift the spirits of this admittedly dower project as a whole. However, it would also be a lie to call this anything less than an achievement of quality filmmaking. It’s large and ambitious without devolving into mindless destruction and the action set-pieces are always rooted in story concerns. Villeneuve is confident in his own cinematic abilities and though this work is colder than the 1982 neo-noir classic, it does advance the lore in a respectful and artful manner.

Grade: B

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Oct-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Blade Runner 2049"