Monday, March 6, 2017

Get Out review

Keagan Michael Key and Jordan Peele rose to prominence by using their comedic platform to discuss issues of race, sociology and identity, but Peele’s treatment of these topics as the basis of a mostly-serious horror film has added an urgency and anger that wasn’t always present in their Comedy Central show. With the election coming fresh off the outrage surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and having recently seen many young black men killed by the authorities, churches burned down and minority voting rights being compromised, this retrograde of civil rights has had an emotional and psychological impact on many non-white communities. 

“Get Out” takes the basic structure of the 1967 Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and subverts it with the sci-fi-horror paranoia of classics such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” 

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, the young African American boyfriend of Rose Armitage, played “Girls” star Allison Williams. They’ve been dating for five months and Chris has decided travel with his gal to upstate New York to meet her white, affluent, town-and-country family for the first time. While nervous about the encounter, everything seems to be relatively normal. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) clumsily tries to code-switch, speaking in what he thinks of as ‘street’ lingo, and is perhaps too quick to assure Chris that if he could have voted for Obama for a third term, he would have.  And while Rose’s hypnotherapist mother (Catherine Keener) is a little too insistent on helping Chris shed his smoking habits with a free session, basically, the two parents seem warm and accommodating. On the other hand, Rose’s MMA-obsessed brother (Caleb Landry Jones) displays an intensity that’s a little less predictable.

Things only begin to get especially strange when Chris approaches the family’s African American hired help, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel). They’re awake and active at weird hours of the night, they walk around dazed and unresponsive and they’re hostile or defensive whenever Chris tries to engage them in conversation. As the story unfolds and plot points are later revealed, Peele’s script continues to take bigger, wilder risks and digs deep into the overt social commentary that permeates the film’s subtext.

It might have been very tempting to portray the devious whites here as post-colonial, traditional conservatives from the south, but the movie instead chooses to tap into a much less obvious stereotype; upper-middle-class, educated neo-liberals. Peele examines the often-parasitic relationship between the races, and how some classes of whites will co-opt the struggle of the black experience for their own political or monetary gain, without ever giving back to the communities they exploit to successfully take power.

The movie brilliantly and thoroughly eases the audience into Chris’s perspective so that we are looking at every white character with as much suspicion as he is. When the privileged guests off the parent’s snooty garden party ask stupid questions like “what’s the African American experience been like for you,” even a white audience can feel the sting of condescension in that moment. Peele’s immersive subjective direction along with Kaluuya’s nuanced performance helps to sell what, stripped away from its political context, could come off as fairly goofy genre material.

“Get Out” is a step further away from the broad sketch comedy of “Key and Peele,” but it also provides many well-earned laughs of its own. LilRey Howery is cleverly placed as Chris’s best friend character Rod, working within the story as the audience’s cipher. Through jokey conversations with the protagonist, this character points out the inherent pulpiness of the plot and reminds us that this director understands and has a sense of humor regarding the horror/thriller traditions he’s working in. Nevertheless, when the rubber needs to hit the road Peele fully commits to his thought provoking thesis and allows his racial allegories to approach their brutal conclusions.

Grade: A 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/March-2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Lego Batman Movie review

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “The Lego Movie” conceptualized a meta world where many characters from different pop culture entities could collide and collaborate in support of the same comedic context. “The Lego Batman Movie,” takes this premise and explores the world of DC’s Gotham City. Here, the characters are aware that they are in a spoof, and the long-standing comic book lore is only used a basis for something broader, while also taking specific jabs at previous iterations of the caped crusader.

In this blocky, hyper-stylized universe, Batman (Voiced by Will Arnett) is an ego-maniacal loner who saves the city for attention at night, so he can enjoy the privacy to watch rom-coms and eat lobster in his mansion during the day.  His butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned that he’s walled away his emotions and isn’t reaching out to others for support. Even The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) doesn’t understand why Batman can’t appreciate their unique hero/villain relationship, so he takes it upon himself to prove that he’s Batman’s greatest foe, by releasing the world’s greatest supervillains on the city. This forces the stubborn Bat to save Lego Gotham from certain destruction by collaborating with his newly adopted ward Robin (Michael Cera) and the city’s new Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Roserio Dawson).

Obviously, much of this is supposed to be silly. The humor is tossed off as scenes quickly jump from reference to reference and joke to joke. The speedy pace of the film keeps things from drowning in its own absurdity but it also keeps things rather light and surface-oriented as well. Whereas the first Lego Movie had a statement to make about commercialization and the corporate nature of its own existence, there’s nothing quite as lofty or as subversive attempted in this straight-forward style parody.

Visually, the Lego novelty is used to good effect. The production design is stylish and appealing and many of the action scenes, while sometimes over-crowding the frame and edited too quickly to fully register, are creative and exceptional within the world of family-oriented entertainment.

Director and co-writer Chris McKay comes from the world of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, having directed many episodes of “Moral Orel” and “Robot Chicken.” Though “The Lego Batman Movie” is painted on a much larger canvass, it has the same disposable, premise-oriented frivolity of something like a “Robot Chicken” sketch, especially as characters from “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Jaws” are roped into the final act of the feature for meta-comedic effect.  

The approach here is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Given the sheer volume and variety of jokes, there’s enough laughs to justify the other bits that thud, but this scattershot, writers-room approach occasionally dilutes the overall vision of the project. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to create an actual story-arc with Arnett’s Batman and his adopted family.  Because that arc is never dropped amidst the joke-a-minute riffing and the visually cluttered Lego action sequences, the movie is allowed some amount of sloppiness so long as the story’s foundation can support it, and, for the most part, it does.

Grade: B- 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "The Lego Batman Movie"

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Split review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

XOXO review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: F 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Founder review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Top-10 Films of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

La La Land review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Jan-2017

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