Sunday, February 25, 2018

Black Panther review

“Black Panther” finds itself in a middle of an explosion of black-oriented superhero content. In 2016 Netflix released the first season of their Marvel series Luke Cage, featuring a black urban superhero and a soundtrack by New York hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest, and there's a second season set for release later this year. In response, the CW released the first season of the DC hero Black Lightning, which premiered January 2018. On the heels of this new hunger for racially diverse representation, Marvel released “Black Panther,” co-written and directed by black director Ryan Coogler and featuring a predominately black cast, with the hopes of still attracting the widest possible global audience.

This story imagines a free country in the heart of Africa known as Wakanda, which has been hidden and protected from colonists, war, famine, disease, or any of the other factors that have devastated much of the known continent. Through the abundance of a powerful alien ore known as Vibranium, Wakanda has become the most technologically advanced nation the world has never known, and by avoiding conflicts with other world governments, the area has been able to thrive in secret. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, the young heir to the Wakandan throne after his father, the previous Black Panther, was killed in the political bombings featured in "Captain America: Civil War."

T’Challa is alerted to action by an Oakland-based young freedom fighter known as Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wishes to challenge the African leader for the technology Wakanda is hoarding from the rest of the world’s black society. It’s then up to Black Panther to keep his land protected from any outside threat, whilst the nation itself is arguing whether or not they should risk exposing their power through defensive battle abroad. Along for the ride is the three women in T'Challa's life that help protect the hero in different ways; his warrior bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who works as a weapons specialist, and his politically active and ideologically driven partner Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).  

This incredible ensemble also includes Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Basset, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.  

Coogler’s first foray into large-scale, effects-driven action filmmaking features an exciting cast, wildly colorful production design, overt science-fiction premises and charged political points of view, and by most accounts, this mainstream Marvel release manages to hit most of its targets as the plot unfolds, but not without a few stumbles along the way.

Coogler’s cinematic training in independent film is a bit narrow and his camera placement is oddly closed-in. Much of film is done in traditional coverage, containing a lot of close-ups and mid-shots, which underutilizes the movie’s grand Afrofuturist production design and reveals just how much of the movie is actually spent on conversation set-pieces and walk and talks. Because the movie—to its credit--is more interested in battles of ideology rather than blockbuster action scenes, the few action pillars that hold up the longer dialogue driven sequences are open to harsher critique and don’t always satisfy the audience’s patience.  The best action moment in the film takes place at a casino in Busan, South Korea and it concludes with an exciting car chase. The ritualistic hand to hand challenges for the throne that take place on a Wakandan waterfall contains fewer effects but they have an emotional grounding in the story. In contrast, the concluding battle sequence as well as the final fight between Black Panther and Killmonger safely puts the movie on autopilot and concludes without surprises.

Despite my grievances with some of the technical elements of the film and the lack of sustained dramatic tension when it comes to the relationship between the hero and the villain—the script is often stretched too thin, trying to cover all its bases—I fully acknowledge that the reasons a person of color might be excited by this film are far more interesting than the reasons I might find fault with it. It’s not a perfect piece of genre filmmaking but it’s certainly unique and is working through a lot of bigger ideas, and if a Marvel superhero film can get teenagers to start talking about passivism, globalism, and post-colonialism without it feeling like homework, then I can forgive the pacing issues and the unintentional camp.

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2018

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox review

“The Cloverfield Paradox” is the third installment of this sci-fi anthology franchise and by far the least impressive of the three. Released by Netflix on Super Bowl Sunday, the same day the film was promoted during the game’s commercial interruptions, this space-thriller landed in the laps of its potential viewers with a dramatic thud. Director Oren Uziel and Doug Jung originally wrote this screenplay under the title “The God Particle," then acquired by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot company under the Paramount umbrella. After production began, the decision was made to include it as a spiritual successor to 2008’s “Cloverfield” and 2016’s “10 Cloverfield Lane.” This decision by Bad Robot to acquire unrelated scripts, to then include vague narrative threads to link them together in a similar cinematic universe has been increasingly arbitrary and forced in execution.

The film begins with a crew of scientists working in a space station designed to harness cosmic energy through the use of a massively powerful particle accelerator. Just below them, the earth is suffering from an energy crisis that has the world’s superpowers on the brink of war. It’s up to the Cloverfield team to bring back test results that will save us all. Unfortunately, upon firing up their super laser, the team is suddenly zapped into an alternate dimension on the other side of the sun, where the regular rules of reality are bent and nothing is familiar. Severed arms are writing secret messages, parts of the ship are found in the organs of their dead shipmates, and they find a strange female passenger caught in the walls and circuitry of the space station. The mission shifts to fixing the accelerator and getting back into their own reality.

Given how under-budget and schlocky most of this is, the picture features a talented cast of Hollywood notables such as David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Chris O’Dowd and John Ortiz. But it’s British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw whose story we’re following as the main character. Because she lost her family back on her version of earth, the character is met with increasingly moral conundrums through the stresses of the plot. It’s too bad that Raw's performance is the most stilted, as she has to carry the entire emotional arc, but she also has the misfortune of delivering painfully obvious dialogue.

Even with a premise this familiar--the movie liberally borrows from "Solaris," "Event Horizon," "Sunshine" and more-- it didn't have to be this bad. The special effects are fine but always noticeable when the movie shifts from “Battlestar Galactica” looking soundstages to CGI outer space exteriors. Uziel even uses the old Star Trek technique of tilting the camera while the cast pretends to brace for impact, which also reveals the film’s monetary limitations. This deficit combined with the hokey dialogue and poorly executed attempts at dread and tension kept me from investing in either the attempts at emotional storytelling or the movie's base genre appeal.

“The Cloverfield Paradox” is a failure and waste of money for those who invested in it, but living its life on Netflix it isn't likely to damage the reputation of Abrams or the future of the Cloverfield concept. I definitely encourage the idea of an anthology universe, in which Bad Robot can continue to champion these large-scale Twilight Zone episodes, but I can't abide the gimmick when it produces work as unoriginal and as poorly made as this. If Abrams and company wish to continue this project, I would suggest they write screenplays with a vision already in mind rather than buying cheesy spec scripts and half-heartedly branding them during production.

Grade: D+

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2018

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Paddington 2 review

Many adults were pleasantly surprised when 2014’s live-action adaptation of "Paddington" turned out to be watchable. Given that most of the animated properties of our past that are revamped into live action/animation hybrids (ala  "Smurfs,” “Garfield,” “Chipmunks") are usually mind-numbingly obnoxious, the warmth and wit of Paul King’s "Paddington" films have become a healthy change in the kid-vid diet. “Paddington 2” manages to improve on the previous entry by grounding the visual gags more effectively in storytelling while also managing to be even more ambitious when it comes to its many Rube Goldberg-esque action sequences.

Here King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby simplify the plot by focusing on a few tangible goals for the characters. Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) wants to buy an antique pop-up book about London for his dear aunt Lucy who’s still living as a cultured bear in Peru. Things go wrong when our cuddly protagonist is framed for the robbery of the book by an actor/vaudevillian/magician named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who happens lives down the street from Paddington’s adopted family. After the polite and naive bear is sent to prison, he has to convince his family to prove his innocents while also doing his best to make friends with the other hardened inmates.

Paddington is a believable character because the animation that brings him to life is surrounded by terrific actors who are as naturally animated in their expressions. Irish tough-guy Brendan Gleeson as the prison chef Knuckles pulls faces in the camera that shouldn’t work as broadly applied as they are, but somehow they do. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins are given more to do in the plot this time other than arguing whether or not they want to keep a clumsy bear in their attic, and by giving them more proactive roles they have more weight in the plot. Grant as the vein and foppish villain is camping it up with zero abandon, but King’s control of the movie's tone keeps every wild gesture and zippy one-liner contained in the context of our hero’s journey.

This installment of weaves together the title character’s mission through a series of creative and wildly visual set-pieces, such as the robbery of the antique store, a window washing montage and the many exploits of Hugh Grant’s master-of-disguise sleuthing. The film also indulges many beautiful sequences that imagines Paddington’s London as a flipbook come to life.  This is 3D cinema accomplished without the need for the annoying glasses and these sequences successfully welds together the CGI character with his modern, live-action environments. There are a few set-pieces that register as stock or somewhat familiar, such as a prison escape sequence that involves a laundry hamper and a final battle on a steam train. Neither of these scenes is executed poorly, though they lean into their clich├ęs rather than subverting them. But hey, this is a picture about a talking bear that’s obsessed orange marmalade, so…

King obviously has a vision for this silly franchise and his ear for dry comedic dialogue, combined with a creative visual sense and big heart for his characters elevates this experience beyond its base expectations as an electric babysitter.  It’s only a shame that content geared towards children has become so dumbed down and so cynical that a movie as effortlessly positive and crowd-pleasing as "Paddington 2" has become the exception to the rule.

Grade: B+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2018

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2017

Altogether, 2017 wasn’t a bad year for movies. Even if I had to travel to art houses to watch something worthwhile, there was never a shortage of interesting things to see. There were also a handful of mainstream movies such as Patty Jenkin's "Wonder Woman," Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” and  Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” that made an impression beyond their minimum financial requirements. My list contains many unabashed genre movies, including three monster movies, one superhero film, and two psychological horror films. In fact, only three of the films listed tell relatively common stories within a fairly naturalized version of the world we live in. Nevertheless, the list below represents last year’s films that stuck with me the most.

10 – Okja
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s subversive allegory tells the story of a girl who fights the powers of the food industrial complex to keep her genetically modified super-pig from being killed. It’s heartwarming, weird, campy, smart, disturbing, and politically conscious without forgetting to keep you entertained.

09 – Call Me by Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name explores first love and the complicated emotions associated with young hormones and queer awakening with the perfect proportions of guilt, lust, and righteous indignation. The performances by romantic leads Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are honest and the movie’s total sensory immersion within this 1981, summer vista in Northern Italy only helps to drench this dream-like romance in youthful idealism.

08 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Every year has a great crime film, and this year’s entry by playwright/director Martin McDonagh, while not without a few tonal and narrative stumbles along the way, left a lasting impression.  McDonagh embraces the story’s pulpy post-Cohen trappings while finding surprising ways to empathize with every morally complicated character in his southern-gothic murder ballad.

 07 – Logan
 “Logan” went far and above anyone’s expectations, considering it was the third spinoff from 20th Century Fox’s wildly uneven X-Men franchise. This hard-R action thriller only concerned itself with its comic book origins when it needed to advance the thoughtful arc of its title character. This is the type of action fare that originally set the bar for fanboys, back when movies like “Robocop” and “Terminator 2” were the standards, instead of toothless, PG-13 cartoons, designed by committee.

06 – Colossal
Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis explore gendered power dynamics and alcoholism in Nacho Vigalondo’s unique comedic fantasy “Colossal.”  The relationship depicted here is mirrored by (and perhaps in control of) giant monster attacks in Seoul, South Korea. This is unquestionably one of the most creative and underappreciated films released in 2017.

05 – The Shape of Water 
After a decade of playing in his toy-box and exploring new technology with films such as “Hellboy: The Golden Army” and “Pacific Rim,” Guillermo del Toro was in desperate need to scale things back and explore emotional storytelling again, and that’s exactly what he did with his spectacular inter-species, cold-war romance, “The Shape of Water.” This takes familiar sci-fi/horror tropes and weaves them into a sophisticated love story about living in the margins of society.

04 – Get Out
Comedian Jordon Peele released his post-racial horror-comedy “Get Out” just as our country began to reexamine the old prejudices that we had been trying to ignore for decades. His film cleverly reinterprets the tradition of paranoid, socio-political supernatural thrillers such as “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” but it’s also become a conversation piece around a time when Americans were forced to deal with the fact that polite racism is still racism.

03 – Raw
This Belgian horror film explores the sexual awakening of a college-aged vegetarian through the metaphor of cannibalism and manages to be vicious, disgusting, and painfully relatable at the same time. Scenes of grotesque mutilation and bloody meat-eating are fetishized through the laser-focused perspective of our confused protagonist. While being one of the gnarliest seat-squirmers released in recent memory, this also happens to contain one of the most honest portrayals of competitive sisterhood captured on film.

02 – The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s film about struggling families living week to week in cheap hotels outside Disneyworld was one of the more affecting movies I came across last year. This contains strong performances by children and non-actors and a subtle compassion that glows through the entire production. Baker presents these marginal lives with an insider’s objectivity that refuses to other them or turn into magically-wise gypsies.

01 – Lady Bird 
“Lady Bird” is my favorite film of the year for the sheer reason that it kept me in a good mood for at least forty-eight hours after I watched it. The level of specificity in its character dynamics and its 2002 Sacramento setting, alongside the underlying mother-daughter story and its themes about embracing your small-town roots, sets this film apart from the usual ‘quirky’ Sundance fodder. This is what great American filmmaking should look like.

Honorable Mentions: The Big Sick, Thor: Ragnarok, Downsizing, Happy Death Day, It, Blade Runner: 2049

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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Disaster Artist review

The cult-movie phenomenon “The Room” has had an interesting arc in pop-culture since its single-theater release in 2003. The film was a word-of-mouth curiosity among a growing fan-base of LA hipsters looking for a good chuckle, which then became a frequent subject of online conversation about the train wreck that is Tommy Wiseau’s (producer/director/star) vanity project. Only a few years later, Adult Swim began airing an edited version of the film, and soon enough, the movie began its new life an unintentional comedic masterpiece of so-bad-it’s-good paracinema.

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” tells the story of how Wiseau’s mess originally came together. The story is told through Tommy’s (James Franco) friendship with The Room’s second lead actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). After meeting in a San Francisco acting class, the two set their sales for Los Angeles, where they hope to break into film and television. Greg puts all of his trust in the enigmatic and independently wealthy Tommy, who refuses to disclose his age, his source of seemingly bottomless income, and his country of origin. After flailing from one audition to another, Tommy decides to write and direct his own feature, casting himself and his best friend as the movie’s stars. What ensues is the troubled conditions and inept filmmaking that lead to The Room’s now-quotable English as second-language dialogue, awkwardly hilarious soft-core sex scenes, and the film’s many football-tossing conversation set-pieces.

This eccentric biopic has a few notable standouts; firstly there’s James Franco’s wild and committed performance, in which it’s obvious that the actor has spent hours studying every tick and every idiosyncratic gesture of his ambiguously European muse. The story arc between Greg and Tommy, the rise and fall of their friendship, and how it making of their film relates to their careers and legacies is interesting and played with some amount of charm and heart, even if this angle is offset by a large chunk of the film that is more concerned with recreating fan-favorite moments from “The Room,” as well as Dave Franco’s unfortunate underacting. 

Sestero, who wrote the tell-all for which this film is based, is a whitebread, undescriptive Hollywood baby-face, but his role in Tommy’s life gives him a jolt of unearned intrigue. Dave Franco’s performance as the actor turned author never quite settles beneath the surface of either the movie’s comedic potential or its emotional intent. Because of this, James’ Wiseau performance becomes more of a long-form impression than a fully realized character.

Ultimately, there’s nothing that one can say about “The Room” that the “The Room” doesn’t already say about itself, and to devote a so much screen time on pointing out the untethered ego of its director and the film’s obvious artistic shortcomings simply becomes a tedious act of picking low-hanging fruit. With that said, “The Disaster Artist” is entertaining enough as an extension of a cinematic meme. If you’ve ever endured Wiseau’s 2003 opus, or, despite being objectively bad, you find it endlessly watchable because of its otherworldly tone, then Franco’s extended inside joke will give you enough laughs to justify its existence, but I'm not sure how well any of this will play for those who are entirely uninitiated.

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Dec-2017

Listen to this episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "The Disaster Artist"

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi review

Under the steady control of Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams, this third Star Wars trilogy has built upon the traditions of George Lucas’ mythology and pays homage to the type of fan-service that sells light-sabers at Toys R’ Us. But the director of the latest installment, Rian Johnson of “Looper,” “Brick” fame, plays the storytelling of this new sequel like a bored gamer who decides to break away from the core missions to see how far the boundaries the video-game will go. This isn’t to say that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is wildly off-topic or even experimental, but it does play with the expectations of the audience with narrative risks not seen in the franchise since Irvin Kershner’s 1980 sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back."

The story picks up where 2015’s “The Force Awakens” left off; Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) hiding as a hermit on a distant planet. There, she hopes to be trained in the ways of the force by the former Jedi master. Cocky flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the reluctant and frightful ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) are traveling with the Resistance, trying to survive the intergalactic pursuit of the imperial First Order, which is led by the vengeful Kilo Ren (Adam Driver).

Structurally, many of these story beats are very similar to those built into the plot of “The Empire Strikes Back,” and similarly, this installment wishes to disturb the canon with a few sharp left turns and a few shocking reveals. But rather than making his bed in the comfort of nostalgia, Johnson’s tricky screenplay also challenges Lucas’ classical, Campbellian tropes. Rey’s journey of self-discovery does not lead to self-assuring revelations about her past, and only further complicates her place in this battle between good and evil. Ridley and Driver share several scenes in psychic conflict, in which the characters bridge the bureaucracy of war and destiny to make a deeper connection that defies both of their places in their spiritual and philosophic struggle.  This potentially treasonous relationship is very well acted and is some of the most compelling drama the series has produced thus far.

We’re treated to another side story in which Finn and a young resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) travel to a space Casino full of intergalactic one-percenters to find a hacker who can help them stop the First Order from being able to track their ships whilst escaping in light-speed. This mission, while bouncy and played like a high-stakes movie heist, is also subverted and woven into the greater peril of Leia's command (Carrie Fisher) and difficult decisions made by her Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

Johnson’s visual take on the material is a little left of center as well, and the set design is often beautifully stark and minimal. His work with the actors is generous and thankfully he gives aged performers like Fisher and Hamill more to do in the story than to simply act as camera-winking cameos. This is a terrific action film and great advancement of the Star Wars canon.

Some long-time fans have bucked to the risks Johnson took with his entry, but what I appreciate the most about “The Last Jedi” is that, while it’s a half hour too long and some of the humor doesn’t land, this is one of the most story-driven installments the series has ever seen. Rather than serving a classical hero’s journey about good versus evil, the characters are now forced to move forward with a plot that has greater ties to their unpredictable motivations.

Grade: B+

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal/Dec-2017

Listen to this episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "The Last Jedi"

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Shape of Water review

Mexican born filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is fascinated by the idea that people are often drawn to what initially scares them, usually only because they fundamentally misunderstand themselves and the greater context of their own fears. As such, his films--both indie darlings like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” as well as studio blockbusters like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy"--are chock full of interesting and intricately designed monsters. As a visual artist and a storyteller Del Toro loves his monsters and for him, they always represent a complex emotional truth about the nature of humanity. With his latest film, “The Shape of Water,” the balance between his directorial compassion and his genre obsessions is blended delicately into a contemporary “Beauty and Beast” style narrative, with a central focus on diversity, tolerance, and equality.

The story is set in the cold-war 1960s at the height of the red scare. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor who cleans a secret government science compound. Things get interesting when an amphibious humanoid merman is captured from his underwater home in South America and brought into the facility to be studied. Some of the scientists wish to keep him alive to understand his capability to learn, and others, like the stone-faced, military-minded Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), plan to dissect the creature to develop new science to use against their Russian enemies. Hawkins secret friendship and eventual romance with the amphibious man leads to a rescue effort that involves co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), the sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and her graphic designer neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).

Given the time period this movie is set and the basic structure of the plot, it would have been easy to allow a story of this kind of coast of genre expectations alone. What makes the film stand out from being yet another high-concept take on “E.T” or “Free Willy” is Del Toro’s willingness to dig deep into a psychology of his characters and their worldview. The film's theme of what it is to be ostracized as a minority dominates and naturalizes the fantasy.  Hawkins’ character is mute, Spencer is black, and they both work as women in a government-industry dominated by white men. Likewise, Jenkins plays a closeted gay man, and it’s the unified ‘other-ness’ of this grouping of minorities that is manifested through the struggle of this abused and imprisoned merman. As we see the civil rights struggle in the background of this story, it becomes all the more evident that the creature's rescue becomes their rescue. 

The central love story between Elisa and this mysterious being, played with wonderful physicality by Doug Jones, takes risks and goes beyond the usual slow build to acceptance and eventual affection. Hawkins’ wordless performance strips away the possibility for coyness or coded language when it comes to all of her emotions and as the story progresses their love is expressed both emotionally and physically. This, along with Guillermo’s biting sense of humor, and the occasional jolts of visceral violence may alienate some audience members, but even if this is too weird for you to swallow, it’s difficult to deny the movie’s bold commitment to its premise.

Everyone already knows that Del Toro is Hollywood's current king of creature design and art direction. “The Shape of Water” is no exception. However, by putting his focus on one central creature, instead of a smorgasbord of weird looking monsters we are usually treated to in one of his previous films, he is able to dig deeper into the wider human world his characters inhabit. The 60s sets are well lit and creatively designed and the “Creature From The Black Lagoon” inspired look of Jones’ costume is textured and utterly believable, but it's Del Toro’s capacity to empathize with these characters and ground this world into an emotional reality that elevates this movie beyond its fairytale tropes and trappings.

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 "The Shape of Water"