Sunday, September 24, 2017

mother! review

Much has already been written about the commercial and critical failure of Darren Aronofsky’s latest release “Mother!” The film received an F rating from cinemascore, which polls snap responses from audience members as they exit the theaters. Nevertheless, Paramount Pictures, Aronofsky and his star Jennifer Lawrence have been trying their damnedest to defend this difficult experience, even as it’s been left hanging in the public square. But “Mother!” does have its fervent defenders. Some see it as a rich creation myth, while others enjoy it as a visceral display of blackly comic camp. I can see how these interpretations exist within the material but not necessarily how they redeem this messy passion project as a whole.  

Lawrence stars as the new wife of a much older poet played by Javier Bardem. They live secluded in the country where Bardem is trying hard to break his writers block, while Lawrence is rebuilding their home after a destructive fire. Their solitude is disrupted when a sick man played by Ed Harris and his wife played by Michelle Pfeifer wander into their lives and makes themselves comfortable. Just as things get awkward and their welcome becomes worn, more uninvited guests arrive and Lawrence’s character gradually begins to realizes that she has no control over the situation. Her sanity is further put to the test when the house itself seems like it's bleeding and responding physically to the emotional stress brought upon by these menacing guests and Bardem’s inability to recognize the problem at all.

That’s the simplest way to describe these events as they occur, but even this bare synopsis doesn’t do justice to the script’s wild arrangement. None of the characters have names and it becomes clear after twenty minutes or so that whatever we’re seeing is not to be taken literally. The movie itself is a poem, structured in stanzas instead of acts and with symbolic imagery standing in the place of plot points. Perhaps if audiences were warned of this before going in to see what was marketed as a psychological horror film, with a poster designed to evoke Polanski’s classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” they may have been more forgiving of Aronofsky’s indulgent storytelling. Then again, it’s also not hard to see how and why someone would lose patience with everything that's going on here.

When a film begs this hard to be asked what it’s actually about, the mind grasps for the nearest allegory. Is it a feminist story about the fears of domesticity? Is it about how celebrities are treated in the ever-present eye of the media? Is it about the complicated and sometimes exploitative relationship between an artist and his inspiration? Aronofsky himself has suggested that it’s an ecological allegory about man destroying mother-earth.  “Mother!” is about all of these things and nothing at the same time. As chaos mounts and tension builds within the contained interior setting of this country home, the movie’s meaning shifts and intensifies, sometimes focusing more on Lawrence’s fragile performance and other times on the broader big-picture stuff happening around her. The more broad and otherworldly things get the less of a handle the film has on its symbolism and more unintentionally funny it becomes.


While “Mother!” may go down as a “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar” sized failure, there are reasons to see it and reasons to believe that, like those films, it may find an audience in the future.  Lawrence’s protagonist is put through almost Lars Von Trier levels of humiliation and abuse and it’s difficult to follow her journey, but her commitment to the picture, which is almost entirely from her perspective, is thoroughly grounded in textured emotion. Pfeifer’s comic timing and vampy presence also helps to alleviate some of the picture's heavy-handed self-importance. On a technical level, Aronofsky’s subjective camera work and the film’s many shocks certainly deliver, even if the end result is naval gazing, self-serving and aggravating to watch.

Grade: C-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Sep-2017

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

It review

A faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It” has been a long time coming. Of course, there was the two-part miniseries that aired on network television in 1990, and though it hasn’t aged particularly well and was constrained from delving into most of the visceral terror described in King’s book, the series has its fans and Tim Curry’s performance as the evil clown Pennywise has become something of a cult-horror icon. The development of the first true cinematic adaptation of this novel has finally been realized by Argentinian director Andy Muschietti and with the help of New Line Cinema, this adaptation finally has the budget and the R-rating that it needs to realize this story with more creative freedom.

King has never been known for his brevity, but “It” stands as one of his largest and most ambitious works, containing over a thousand pages describing a group of bullied pre-teens who have to band together to kill the monster that’s been terrorizing their town of Derry, Maine. The book first tells the story of how the self-branded Losers Club meet while on their summer vacation, and then it revisits these same characters 27 years later, when they are forced to return to their hometown to once again destroy the evil entity they once thought was destroyed. For obvious reasons, Muschietti has decided to cut the story in half and streamline the remains, only concerning himself with the Loser’s as a kids, setting up a sequel for the adult half.  Here he does his best to balance their childhood traumas with that of their confrontations with the demented clown.

A group of child actors can always be mixed bag of performances and acting styles, but luckily for Muschietti, this cast has been assembled with care. Their reactions to the movie’s horrific imagery, as well as their perceived comradery as outsiders and friends is perfectly pitched. We’ve seen Jaeden Lieberher before in pictures such as “St. Vincent” and last year’s “Midnight Special,” but his performance here as Bill Denbrough steps up to the emotional weight of the character whose still mourning the murder of his younger brother Georgie. Finn Wolfhard, of the very King-esq Netflix series “Stranger Things,” also turns in a great performance as Richie, the group’s wise-cracker. The rest of the cast is a little less familiar, with Jeremy Ray Taylor as the overweight library geek Ben, Chosen Jacobs as the racially-targeted Mike, Wyett Oleff as the nervous Stanley, Jack Dylan Grazer as the hypochondriac Eddie, and Sophia Lillis as tough but fragile Beverly Marsh. The screenplay wisely gives each character enough screen time to build the necessary empathy and to underline the story’s dominant metaphors about over-coming childhood trauma.

As a horror film, this is somewhat conventional, but scary enough. Bill Skarsgard’s turn as Pennywise finds a delicate balance between mystery and menace, though it’s sometimes apparent that Muschietti leans into the devilish clown when he doesn’t know how else to build tension in a scene. As such, the more Pennywise is on screen the less we’re afraid of him. The scares are creative and sometimes intentionally blackly humorous—bringing to mind New Line’s flagship horror icon Freddy Krueger--but the film’s pacing, largely dictated by how and where the screenplay decides to skip around King’s tome of a novel, becomes repetitive and episodic towards the movie’s extended second act. All the important scenes are touched on and the book’s themes are still intact, but the rhythm of the film feels oddly metronomic and mechanical. The scares, while individually effective, sometimes cry for variation throughout.

As an adaptation, “It” has its problems, some structural, some tonal, but overall this is an imaginative and evocative horror film. What makes it stand outside of usual ghostly chiller that’s retreaded every year is the attention paid to its characters and their relatable woes as outsiders. The bullies and many of the adult roles lack the same amount of depth, but Muschietti’s sensitivity for his primary cast elevates and informs the movie’s broader monster shocks.

Grade: B

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Sep-2017

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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

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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."