Monday, June 11, 2018

Ibiza review

It’s increasingly obvious that Netflix doesn’t care what’s in their library of original content, so long as they can expand on and broaden said library. Who needs classic films and the hidden gems of cinema’s history when we can have fresh, direct-to-streaming movies like Adam Sandler’s tone-deaf western spoof “The Ridiculous Six,” the misguided fantasy/cop-drama hybrid “Bright,” or this year’s cold, dead fish of a buddy comedy “Ibiza.” Every once and while Netflix will treat us to a genuinely tasteful experience like the heart-breaking war drama, “Beasts of No Nation,” but more often then not, I scroll through my choices and see more and more dreck like “Ibiza.” Built on the dated premise that ‘female Hangover’ is still a winning hook to use in a Hollywood pitch meeting, “Ibiza” is at best an extended travelogue and at worse a silicon valley executive’s excuse for a tax write-off.

Gillian Jacobs plays Harper, a New York advertising agent who’s brimming with jittery affectation and professional neurosis. Harper’s supposedly evil boss (because the movie tells us to hate her) sends her to Barcelona to score a big deal with a client, but she decides to take her two selfish friends Nikki (Vanessa Bayer) and Leah (Phoebe Robinson) along with her, where they spend the trip dancing in clubs, popping pills and talking to hunky European guys. When Harper becomes obsessed with hooking up with a famous DJ (Richard Madden), the girls decide to move their party to the island of Ibiza. Can Harper get into the exclusive club to reconnect with her fantasy love-boat, dance all night and make it back to Spain early enough to prepare for her big meeting?

I don’t have a principled stance against an all-female comedy about girlfriends cutting lose and indulging a wild weekend getaway, but I do have a bias against hacky comedies in which the actors are tossed in front of the camera and forced to generate material on the spot because the screenwriter couldn’t be bothered to construct actual scenes. In the many sequences that meander in no discernable direction, three leads seem desperate to generate humor from the deep black void that is this movie, doing over-mannered impressions of who I assume are the most annoying people they ever met.  I’ve seen Gillian Jacobs play prickly and damaged in the Netflix series “Love,” as well as cute and bubbly in the sitcom “Community,” and I’ve seen Vanessa Bayer create interesting sketch characters on Saturday Night Live. Their performances here are so severely unfunny, but if I didn’t already know better, it would have been inconceivable that these people make their living in comedy.

It’s obvious the director (Funny or Die alum Alex Richenbach) lost complete control of the shoot when over forty percent of the runtime is devoted to techno dance montages and barely connected plot points that only exist to get the characters from one location to another. The story doesn’t advance so much as it changes the setting every ten minutes. I suppose the theme here is about friendship and self-discovery, but that’s almost entirely lost when the protagonist’s journey is based on hooking up with a vacuous EDM Prince charming that we barely get to know, and her friends constantly use each other for personal gain. “Ibiza” completely lacks in anything approaching reality, humanity or anything remotely recognizable as a true human emotion.

Grade: F

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/June-2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story review

There are usually two types of “Star Wars” fans; the people who watch it for Darth Vader and the people who watch it for Han Solo. Nobody watches for Luke Skywalker (Sorry-not-sorry). Because we already have two trilogies essentially devoted to the rise and fall of Darth Vader, it was almost a foregone conclusion that someone would build a story around the cocky flyboy turned space outlaw originally played by Harrison Ford. Ron Howard, who previously worked with George Lucas on the 1988 fantasy film “Willow,” directs “Solo: A Star Wars Story, “a tangential prequel that helps fill the gaps between the larger sagas, primarily focusing on Han as a youthful runaway.

Father and son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan begin this movie showing Han (Alden Ehrenreich) escaping an enemy occupied planet without his lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Proclaiming that he will one day return to save her, Han assumed the moniker Solo and joined the Imperial military to steal something large enough to buy a ship and return to his girl. There he meets up with a group of competing smugglers led by the cynical Beckett (Woody Harrelson). After joining, he makes a deal to help the group steal a volatile weapons payload for a dangerous arms dealer named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

 As the film progresses, we get to see the young Solo’s first encounters with the Millennial Falcon, the vein gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and his destined lifelong partner Chewbacca. We should expect the character’s greatest hits and catchphrases within this style of conceptual universe building, but it also smells a lot like fan-service, and as each of these moments pass, you can almost hear Kasdan’s red pencil drag a line through the list of directives ordered down from Mount Disney. That’s why I felt slightly guilty by the big grin that came over my face as the movie plopped these elements into the story like farmer filling the trough for his hungry pigs. I’ll be the first to admit that even as I acknowledge the pandering here, I enjoyed almost all of it.

Howard handles the sci-fi/western themes and the action sequences well. Hints of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the cult television series “Firefly” feel present here, even as those properties wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the influence of “Star Wars” in the first place—a classic example of the pop culture snake eating its tropes.  Handheld shaky cam obscures some of the ground combat, and the runtime feels about 15 minutes too long, but any motion picture that gives us a train heist, a prison escape and an aerial dogfight all within the same theater experience at least has a good understanding of what populist filmmaking should be.

Is “Solo: A Star Wars Story” essentially Star Wars fan fiction? Yes, but that doesn’t automatically make it bad, even if it doesn’t move the needle very far within the overall mythology. Ehrenreich carries everything adequately, even if his boyish take on the character isn't the spot-on Harrison Ford impression people are expecting. The supporting cast is all given enough to do to keep us invested in their place within the story as well.  There’s almost nothing that’s essential or impactful about this franchise mortar of a movie, but it’s highly entertaining and full of characters (new and old) that we want to spend our time with, which is more than I can for almost half of the other entries in the Star Wars cinematic universe.

Grade: B

Originally published in Idaho State Journal/June-2018

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"