Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Room with a View: “The Disaster Artist” is a Hilarious & Heartfelt Ode to Terrible Filmmaking

It takes a special kind of non-talent to create something as atrocious as the film “The Room.” It’s a film so flat out terrible that it seems to exist on its own plane of being. But how could a film about something so bad be so surprisingly good? Because the passion behind the love of the hatred of “The Room” propels the fantastic docudrama “The Disaster Artist” into legendary status as one of the great films about Hollywood and the film industry. Put it simply, “The Disaster Artist” is the “Ed Wood” for a new generation. It’s both a tribute and satire of such a horribly misguided piece of “art” that it seems to transcend time and space. Director James Franco has collected an impressive Robert Altman level cast to recreate the making of one of the most notorious films in Hollywood history. It’s brilliant, funny, scathing, and has an unexpected amount of depth and heart. It will leave you feeling as much as it will leave you laughing.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on the mysterious, aspiring filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his attempt to make his own Hollywood movie after being rejected by what seems like everyone in town. He's obviously a foreigner, with a thick Eastern European accent, (though he insists he's from New Orleans) and seems to be obsessed with no one finding out anything about him. He’s played by James Franco in a show-stopping, transformative performance that is half great impersonation and half in-depth character study. Tommy moves to LA with his aspiring actor buddy Greg (Dave Franco). Tommy is such a weirdo you’d never believe he was a real person. After several attempts to get into the film business Tommy writes his own movie script and Greg reluctantly agrees to co-star, despite the fact that his script for “The Room” is utterly atrocious. Tommy finances the entire thing from his own seemingly endless pockets and so sets off an adventure of Hollywood filmmaking that is the stuff of legends.

So let’s discuss. Why exactly is “The Room” such a terrible movie and why are people obsessed with it? The film has terrible dialogue, wooden acting, characters and storylines that come and go from the film for no reason, and such horrible production values you’d think a blind person directed it. It’s one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. Even the most talented filmmakers could never make a film this inept. The ineptitude really attracts people to “The Room.” People are fascinated by it; drawn to it. Like it holds some kind of cinematic power over them. The movie is more than just “so bad it’s good;” it’s so bad it’s legendary. Enter a group of filmmakers so obsessed with this piece of garbage, they had to make a movie about it.

As someone who loves films about filmmaking, “The Disaster Artist” hits all the right buttons. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also wrote the brilliant “(500) Days of Summer”) the film is a both a tribute and tease of “The Room” but more importantly it’s about a friendship and how easily that can be tested. The Franco brothers obviously have great chemistry together and easily slip into their roles. Alison Brie shows up as Greg’s eventual girlfriend which begins to drive a wedge between these two guys which actually has significant bearings on the “plot” of “The Room.” 

The film is also a character study of a mysterious eccentric who is unlike any other movie character you’ve ever seen. At times he’s lovable and at times he’s an asshole and Franco plays him with seemingly no effort. But there’s a degree of difficulty here and he pulls it off flawlessly. Wiseau, the character, isn't a complete moron. He just isn't very talented.  The other actors who show up to be part of “The Room” include everyone from “The Hunger Games’” alum Josh Hutcherson, to multiple Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver who all give great dual performances as struggling actors turning in horrendous performances. Franco’s friend Seth Rogen plays a member of the crew and other Hollywood icons Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith show up in bit roles.

The story of “The Disaster Artist,” oddly enough, is not unlike another so-bad-it’s-good cult classic, “Showgirls.” Both films are about eccentric people with mysterious pasts who struggle with achieving fame. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence. You really get the sense of love that is coming through the screen in “The Disaster Artist.” It’s fascinating to watch. Your level of enjoyment might be based on how well you know “The Room” but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Like “Ed Wood,” it’s more than just the making of a cult film; it’s about life, friendship, the creative process, and how none of that apparently made it into “The Room.” This movie is so good, it’s great.  GRADE: A 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Guitar Hero: You’ll Go Cuckoo for Pixar’s “Coco”

It’s rather ironic that with all this horrible controversy about a border wall between the US and Mexico over the past year, we now get a beautifully animated film that’s so rich and respectful of Mexican culture and tradition. Oh Pixar you did it again. It practically erases the critical slump you’ve had with a trifecta of “meh” releases including “The Good Dinosaur” (which I enjoyed for what it was), a fine, but unmemorable sequel “Finding Dory,” and the nearly unwatchable “Cars 3” (a film so misguided I couldn’t even bear to write even a scathing review of it). “Coco” is Pixar’s return to form and features everything you really love about a great Pixar movie: memorable characters, moments that make you cry, jaw dropping animation, and a clever and original story. In fact, “Coco” is so perfect that the only bad thing about it is that you’re forced to watch a subpar 22 minute “Frozen” short that prepares you for the feature film by forcing you to go through the five stages of grief.

“Coco” tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who loves music and aspires to be a famous guitar player like his deceased hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But his family forbids any form of music since Miguel’s great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband. Her family now makes a living as shoemakers and music is strictly prohibited. But Miguel, like so many Disney heroes and heroines before him is a rebel and has secretly taught himself to play guitar and still longs to be a musician. He then goes on the adventure of a lifetime when he’s accidently transported to the Land of the Dead during the annual Día de los Muertos and learns a lot more about his heritage.

This “Day of the Dead” celebration is where deceased family members are honored and remembered. Well this is a Pixar film so they’ve taken a real life tradition and turned it on its head in a really fun way. Dead relatives can “visit” the world of the living if their family members have displayed their photo in an ofrendo (an alter that honors a deceased relative during the celebration). They visit by going through a customs-like border area between the afterlife and real life. While in the Land of the Dead Miguel attempts to find his deceased hero and teams up with Héctor (Gael García Berna) a down-on-his-luck musician who is trying to crossover to the Land of the Living. Might I add that all the folks over in the Land of the Dead are skeletons that are gorgeous rendered? The world that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and their team have created is, in a word, astonishing.

And of course it’s not quite a Pixar masterpiece if you aren’t about to bawl your eyes out by the end. Music is the soul of the film and here the emotional song “Remember Me” (from the “Frozen” songwriting team) plays a crucial role. You’re probably wondering why the film is called “Coco” if the main character is a little boy named Miguel. Coco is Miguel’s extremely elderly great-grandmother and by the time the film enters its final act you are completely and emotionally sucked into this fantastic story. If you’re not fighting back tears by the end then you aren’t human. The film is about family, tradition, and the power of music and it’s another brilliant and funny piece of entertaining art from arguably the greatest animation studio ever. In other words, to miss “Coco” would be a crime against humanity. GRADE: A

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Female Trouble: “Lady Bird” is a Funny & Moving Piece of Teenage Americana

“Lady Bird” is, in fact, not a spinoff of last year’s first lady character study “Jackie.” When buzz for the film began whirling around the internet I mostly ignored it because what I assumed was a biopic of ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson didn’t appeal to me at all. This is not that film. The film is about typical suburban teenage life and strife, ie, I hate my life, I hate my town, I wanna get out of this place. Sound familiar? The film is headlined by a fantastic performance from two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (whose name I still can’t spell without looking at her imdb page). “Lady Bird” certainly isn’t the first film to tackle the ins-and-outs of being seventeen but director Greta Gerwig’s portrait of teen life feels so authentic I’d be damned if it wasn’t a true life tale. The story focuses on one year in the life of a 12th grader named Lady Bird and her sometimes contentious relationship with her mother. From the moment Lady Bird first throws herself out of her mom’s moving vehicle you’re with her and the film 100%. It’s not based on a true story but in a way it’s based on all of our stories; it’s immediate and immediately engaging.

There’s nothing particularly flashy or eye-catching about the filmmaking in “Lady Bird.” Writer/director Greta Gerwig, known for her charismatic performances in smaller, indie films (everyone should see “Frances Ha”), makes an auspicious debut behind the camera. And that’s probably because the Lady Bird character is probably ingrained in Gerwig’s soul and you can feel it. While this is far from the first film to portray realistic teenagers and family dynamics (we got a great one last year even “The Edge of Seventeen”), Gerwig just gets everything so right here. The filmmaker certainly knows where the main character is coming from, Gerwig attended Catholic high school in Sacramento and went to college in New York. For all intends and purposes the director IS Lady Bird. And even if you don’t relate to her specifically, someone you know will definitely remind you of her.

Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan who is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most talented young performers. The character is one of those rebellious, somewhat pretentious teen movie characters that is somehow immediately relatable. It’s a role actors would kill for. She doesn’t always do the most likable things (or the smartest things for that matter) but she feels genuine. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), has the hots for the cute guy in the school play (another outstanding Oscar-nominated young actor Lucas Hedges from last year’s “Manchester by the Sea”),, and has the occasional quarrel with her mother Marion (underrated character actress Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird hates Sacramento and wants to attend college in New York but her mother insists they can’t afford it. She gets sarcastic commentary from her adopted older brother who can’t seem to escape his supermarket clerk career. Only her dad (played by playwright Tracy Letts) seems to get her. Oh and Lady Bird and Julie occasionally eat the church wafers as snacks between classes and I have the strangest feeling that Gerwig probably did that at least once.

The female-centered film is a fascinating slice of high school life that takes place in 2002 and successfully reflects some of my own experiences growing up in the early aughts. Those expecting some kind of shocking revelation or big plot twist will be sorely disappointed. The film and its screenplay function to bring well-drawn characters to life in a naturalistic way, not to wow you with expert cinematic trickery. The movie is way more interested in making you laugh or feel something. The film has a wickedly delightful sense of humor. It’s has some keen life observations to make, some really fun vignette-like moments, a great sense of identity, and an emotional core that is sure to resonate with any adult who has ever been a teenager. So, essentially, everyone.  GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Signs: The Thrilling “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a Jet Black Dark Comedy

You never know quite what to expect in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It's a movie as eccentric as its title suggests but it's also an expertly written and acted searing drama about loss, vengeance, and a microcosm of the current state of affairs in this country. Oh and it's also wickedly funny. Sort of in the vein of “Fargo,” writer/director Martin McDonagh takes the tragic story of a mother's loss and turns it on its head in a way you rarely encounter in mainstream movies. Frances McDormand leads a fantastic cast as a woman hell bent on starting a war of words with the local cops who have yet to find her daughter's killer. In lesser hands it sounds like a movie-of-the-week tearjerker, but here it's a fiery indignation about the role of authority, the nature of violent crime, and the questionable morals of its central characters. Did I mention it was really funny? Oh right I did. This is a one of a kind movie-going experience and a fresh alternative to all that Marvel vs DC crap that's been going around.

“Three Billboards” revolves around a terrible, violent crime. The rape and murder of a teenage girl. But it takes place nearly a year after this horrific events (which we never see). Instead, the film doesn't focus on the victim but rather the questionable behavior of her grieving, pissed off mother Mildred (McDormand) who challenges the cops to solve her daughter's murder by purchasing three billboards just outside of town displaying a controversial message to the town's sheriff. The town is practically turned upside down as Mildred practically begins a war between her and the town's police force. There's the sympathetic Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who happens to be dying of cancer. And then there's bad-tempered Officer Jason Dixon (a perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) who trades nasty barbs with Mildred and anyone else who stands in his way. The billboards are a catalyst for what sets off violent confrontations. But it's also funny I swear.

The film comes from the mind of Martin McDonagh who showed off his flair for mixing crime, comedy, and drama in his critical hit “In Bruges.” He slowly peels away the layer in this story of horrible violence in small town America. He paints broader strokes that deal with racism, homophobia and the clash between cops and civilians that have made headlines around the country. But there's also quick wit here with his fascinating characters who are always making questionable decisions whether it's the “heroes” and “villains.” It's a fine line of course. All of this is wrapped up in a mystery that is really second fiddle to the tension unfolding among the characters.

The acting here is top notch. McDormand was born to play the role which feels like a fun echo of her good-natured Fargo character Marge Gunderson. Rockwell playing a difficult character to like is fascinating here. Harrelson plays off his southern charm in a way that completely fits. He's really the soul of the film (along with Carter Burwell's uneasy score). Caleb Landry Jones, who played such a creepy, nasty character earlier this year in “Get Out” is in opposite form here but no less charming. And there are minor but solid turns from Oscar nominees Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes. Oh and Peter Dinklage is there as well.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a fantastically original film. It has an amazing sense of time and place. There's nothing too flashy about it, but it features one of the most electric scripts of the year. It's witty and unpredictable and will stay with you long after it's over.  GRADE: A 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A League of their Own: DC’s Big Screen Team-Up “Justice League” is Fine but Underwhelming

Full disclosure: If I’m being honest, I could take or leave the first big Marvel team-up “The Avengers;” I enjoyed it at the time, but has since receded from my memory. I can’t recall a single plot element or joke that made me laugh. I’d rather watch any of the other Marvel films. I’d rather watch “Wonder Woman.” I’m dumbfounded that people rank it so high in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Released several months after the outstanding aforementioned “Wonder Woman” and practically days after the surprisingly fun retro-chic “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” easily feels disappointing in comparison but is nowhere near the trainwreck some have described. Have they never seen “Batman & Robin?” The thing that hurts “Justice League” the most is that “average” comic book films feel so slight and underwhelming when there are so many great ones already in existence. Having said that, there’s no reason someone can’t have an enjoyable experience with “Justice League” though it does feel much more like a product than the Marvel films do. The movie doesn’t feel depressing, overly long, or as self-serious as the previous DC outings and while some of the humor feels forced I’ll take what I can get when it comes to an already overcrowded marketplace full of caped crusaders.

One has to admire the courage it took to kill off Superman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Of course, no one will be surprised if the Man of Steel returns somehow. Superman has always been the weak link in this universe mostly because the filmmakers could never quite figure out how to make such a dated character feel relevant, even in such a shit-show of a world we currently live in. We already know Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is great and she’s great here as well, teaming up with grizzly Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) who wasn’t as terrible as most strangely hoped last time around. Then there are the newbies who we got flash of (pun intended) in “BvS.” There’s Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, injecting some fun but slightly awkward humor into the proceedings, Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa, perfectly cast as a beastly Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and probably the least interesting being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg/Victor Stone.

And now the real disappointment and I’m not alone here. Does anyone care much about “Justice League’s” generic CGI villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds)? I’d much prefer to see a human performance. Of course, why would we need five of the world’s most super humans to defeat someone like, say, The Joker? You need a big, bad villain whose goal is total destruction of the human race and/or planet. I get it, it’s just not all that interesting.

It must be said that director Zack Synder still sort of feels like the thing that makes these films so uneventful. He has made some very good movies, most notably “Dawn of the Dead” and “Watchman,” so he’s not incapable. But “Wonder Woman” gave us a fresh perspective and a new eye. We need some new voices in the DC world. “Justice League” has suffered from rewrites and such and even “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon was brought in to fix things up. Even the God himself couldn’t make this a perfect work of art. Bottom line: the film is fine, it’s entertaining, and it has finally reunited Danny Elfman and Batman. You could do a lot worse.  GRADE: B

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The ‘Rok: The Thunderous “Thor: Ragnarok” is Retro Fun with a Capital R

Let’s be honest, the Thor films have sort of been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So obviously they took a cue from the wild success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and injected a wonderful sense of fun, humor, and retro-coolness into the surprisingly enjoyable third Thor outing. Gone is the fish-out-of-water story that was the basis for the first “Thor” film and so is the convoluted “Portal”-like plot device of “Thor: The Dark World” and we finally get a wild comedic action-adventure that is completely amusing and funny from beginning to end. Hot off the silly horror-comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” director Taika Waititi goes full retro-vibe in “Thor: Ragnarok” which is a welcome change of pace for a series that always took itself a little too seriously; even 17 movies (!) deep into the MCU, the film is fresh, funny, looks cool, and the always charming Chris Hemsworth again proves his comedic ability is impeccable.

The last time we saw Thor (Hemsworth) at the conclusion of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” he was leaving Earth in search of Infinity Stones. At the beginning of “Thor: Ragnarok” he’s been captured by a gigantic, fiery demon creature. In a perfectly wonderful opening, Thor escapes his clutches while spouting snappy dialogue provided by screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost and learns of a prophecy of destruction known as Ragnarok. He returns to his home of Asgard to find a Shakespearean play version of his life unfolding live in front a captivated audience that consists of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Of course it’s really his evil adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. With the help of another Avenger Thor and Loki locate their dying father who tells them about their even more evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) who will basically take over Asgard once Odin passes. She does lookin’ like a wicked, futuristic Victoria’s Secret model stag complete with pointy antlers and everything. She destroys Thor’s hammer and he’s whisked away to a colorful foreign planet where he’s imprisoned and forced into a deadly gladiatorial death match with… you know who. Oh and there's Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblumy.

Oh boy, does anyone really care about the plots of this films? After sixteen of them we just want to see fun action and “Thor: Ragnarok” certainly delivers. The film is a visual treat thanks to Waititi’s flamboyant direction and the humor has thankfully been dialed up. There are some truly inspired bits here that are too good to spoil. Blanchett always makes a fantastic villain, but of course we knew that already. The film’s synth-heavy score by Mark Mothersbaugh completely works with the film’s colorful imagery as do some of the interesting song choices. It’s like an 80s cartoon come gloriously to campy life.

At this point are reviews even matter when it comes to the MCU? You know what you're getting into when you see one of these things. Marvel and Disney have proven that these movies are of high quality. Sure they don't always take many risks but they are unabashedly fun. Some are better than others. “Thor: Ragnarok” is definitely in the top tier. Even 17 movies in the film proves that the MCU still has plenty of fun tricks up its sleeves. Here's to 17 more!  GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Puppet Master: “Jigsaw” is Back Whether We Like It or Not

“Jigsaw” is the return of the peculiarly popular moralistic gore-fest “Saw” series which sort of got old before the first movie ended. The first film, released back in 2004, was a surprise hit. The film looked great from it's clever marketing campaign but director James Wan, who would later go on to better successes like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” had crafted a disappointing film from an ingenious premise. And then it went on for six more films with the advertising practically threatening the public with Saw film after Saw film every Halloween for seven years straight. All these years later, we now get “Jigsaw” a reboot of sorts that's overall not a very good movie, but is way better than it has any right to be. Like it's predecessors it still features bland characters we don't care much about, brutal and somewhat suspenseful death scenes, and a surprisingly delicious if preposterous twist that somewhat makes the entire thing watchable.

The “Saw” films were like the fast food of horror, constantly being churned out, terrible for you but people ate it up anyway. This new entry follows in the series' footsteps by providing a new batch of “victims” who are being tested by an unknown perpetrator. The film begins with five strangers locked in a room with chains around their necks. They're dragged towards a wall full of spinning buzzsaws and must give blood as a sacrifice. The game is only the beginning for these unfortunate folks. As these folks get picked off one by one by more and more gruesome traps a pair of detectives on the outside are trying to solve the mystery of where these bodies are coming from. It seems to be the work of the “Jigsaw killer” John Cramer who died a decade prior.

There's a lot of “plot” here that feels out of place in a movie that people see just to see annoying characters get hacked up. It's mostly confusing for a while when the detectives begin suspecting the forensic pathologists they asked to work on the case to begin with. It's all very eyeball inducing… until the final twist is revealed and then I sat up and was like “oh that's better.” The more you think about it the more ridiculous it really is but can you blame writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. They aren't exactly adapting Shakespeare here. They're also the guys who wrote the remakes “Piranha” and “Sorority Row.” So basically, don't think too hard and you might find yourself having a decent time.

If you were never a fan of the Saw films you may not be converted with “Jigsaw.” I'm somewhere in-between. The films were never all that “scary” but they did offer some pretty imaginative death scenes. They were basically the “Friday the 13th” film of the aughts: bad movies with great gore. New to the franchise are directors Peter and Michael Spierig. They follow the formula and make things interesting just enough to give the film the extra oomph to make it slightly better than anything that came before. “Jigsaw” is just good enough to recommend for those intrigued but others are wise to steer clear.  GRADE: B-

Monday, October 23, 2017

In the Loop: “Happy Death Day” is a Perfectly Winking, Goofy Twist on the Slasher Flick

Let’s hear it for Blumhouse huh? The production company really know what they’re doing when it comes to horror. Hot off the heels of “Get Out” from earlier this year is “Happy Death Day” which is basically “Mean Girls” meets “Scream” filtered through “Groundhog Day.” First of all it’s not exactly a rip off of “Groundhog Day” since a character even mentions the film at one point. The film uses that repeating day premise to basically tell a “Christmas Carol” type story about an unlikable person who becomes likable over the course of a ridiculous, fantastical situation. Except this time it isn’t a miserly old man, it’s a bitchy sorority girl who learns a lesson after repeating the last day of her life over and over again. “Happy Death Day” is a fantastic ode to the slasher subgenre with plenty of winking nods, a delightful cast, and a premise that never takes itself too seriously. It knows exactly what kind of film it is and just has fun. The film isn't the scariest horror flick to be sure, but it makes up for it with pure wit and charm.

Breakout star Jessica Rothe stars as sorority girl Tree Gelbman and she’s quickly obnoxious. She wakes up, disgusted that she’s in a dorm room and unable to remember the night before. She meets Carter (Israel Broussard) who took her home with him and she storms out of the room and back to the sorority house to start her day. It turns out it’s Tree’s birthday and she doesn’t seem very excited about it. Her dad keeps calling and she won’t answer the phone. We learn she’s sleeping with one of her married professors and is a generally unpleasant person. Then she gets murdered. Oh but then she immediately wakes up back in Carter’s dorm room and it’s the same day she just experienced. She got stuck in one of those pesky time loops you see in movies like “Groundhog Day” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” “Groundhog Day” tackled the comedic elements of that story and “Tomorrow” tackled the sci-fi action element. “Happy Death Day” applies it to the horror genre. And rather well I might ad.

Director Christopher Landon who wrote a bunch of the “Paranormal Activity” films and “Disturbia” really gets to the meat of the matter by giving us one of horror’s most interesting character arcs in quite some time. Horror films are usually too occupied with blood and guts to care much about the characters but here Tree is a full-fledged human being. She’s despicable at all the right parts but as she begins to live the same day over and over you get a sense of what’s been making her such a miserable person. And Rothe really brings her to life. By the film's end I wanted to hang out with her. Landon takes Scott Lobell’s witty script and just runs with it. Making some parts appropriately suspenseful and creepy (the baby mascot mask is equally eerie and silly) and making things funny at just the right moments. The film functions as a horror film should with plenty of things to make you jump balanced with plenty of tension-busting laughs. But it's not really all that frightening. But that's ok. There are enough bitchy catfights to make up for the lack of true scares.

It’s amazing how quickly you buy into the ridiculous premise in “Happy Death Day” (that’s thankfully never explained) and you find yourself rooting for something you started out hating. But that’s the point of course. Tree learns to be a better person by experiencing her own death over and over and over again. And for a film in which we’re forced to watch the same day over and over it’s surprisingly fresh and interesting each time and offers plenty of fun surprises along the way. This is highly recommended for genre fans who are willing to sit through something a little quirky, and purposely over-the-top in a fun, borderline campy way.  GRADE: A- 

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Battle of the Nexus: “Blade Runner 2049” is an Over-Stuffed, Slowly Paced Visual Treat

“Blade Runner” is one of those cult films that has just many ardent fans as it has detractors. “Blade Runner 2049” is much like its predecessor in that way. Many will absolutely love it, while many will be scratching their heads and trying to awaken their asleep rear ends. Like the first film, this new trip to the Blade Runner world is sort of a slog to sit through and while its visuals are nice and a handful of scenes are pretty spectacular, it doesn't quite add up to a completely rewarding and fulfilling cinematic experience. In other words, if you think “Blade Runner” is ‘kinda boring’ then just wait until you see the beautiful but lethargically paced “Blade Runner 2049.”

Ok ok, just calling a film long and boring doesn’t add up to much. And it’s impossible to call this movie terrible; it’s far from it. I love the world of this film. I love how the technology that was introduced in the first film has evolved here. (Let’s be honest, the 1982 film hasn’t aged very well) There is ingenious stuff to be found here for sure. I love the film’s take on Alexa-like AI technology. K (Ryan Gosling) has a holographic AI “girlfriend” named Joi (Ana de Armas, giving what is probably the trickiest performance in the film and she nails it). It’s his only real companion. This is a depressing, dystopian future highly reliant on technology of course. I love the grounded reality Gosling and D Armas bring to these scenes. Wonderful. Also great is a stunning performance from Sylvia Hoeks and her bangs, who bring terrifying robotic depth to a fantastic android villain.

Roger Deakins. The go-to brilliant cinematographer. Arguably the best living DP working today. It’s not surprisingly a visually arresting picture. What he can accomplish with light and color is breathtaking. Is this the best looking film he’s ever worked on? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly worthy of praise. I say it’s between him and Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) for Best Cinematography this year. The same goes for the music; Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s loud score is fine with faint reflections of Vangelis’ original brilliance. But great visuals and music can only get you so far in a film that’s pushing three hours.

The story is what’s hard to become emotionally involved in. In such a bleak future I find it hard to find anyone to really care about. Hampton Fancher (who wrote the original) and Michael Green’s script has a lot to say about technology and where it’s going. But it takes too long to say it. Is it even possible to describe the plot of “Blade Runner 2049?” I don’t believe in spoiling anything so all I’ll say is that Gosling is a young Blade Runner (one who tracks down and kills Replicants) who’s discovery will lead him to seek out Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character). There’s a mystery element to the film that follows closely to the “noir” style of the original which works here.

Denis Villeneuve is a fascinating filmmaker ("Arrival" and "Prisoners" are damn near perfect) and is graceful when it comes to paying homage to the original film while pushing things forward in a new and interesting way. In a lot of ways he was born to make a Blade Runner film. Looking at the slower paced, deliberate style of his previous efforts, it all makes sense. Every shot is composed so well; I find no fault in the direction, it’s the story that just doesn’t click with me. The performances work, Gosling fits in perfectly playing up his dark, brooding charm that he does best. The Blade Runner world works, and the evolution of this world all makes sense. The films complement each other greatly, but I found the first movie’s pacing is shockingly slow. And that similar pacing and longer running time makes this a challenging film to really love.

Fans of “Blade Runner” are sure to love this new vision. It furthers the story in a way that makes sense, but I can’t really say it offers much to those who never got the appeal of the first film. Movies based on Philip K. Dick stories are always something original to be sure. I always admire the technical aspects of both films. The set design, the costumes, the visual effects are all top notch. The actors are outstanding. The world of both films is unique. The fact that it favors contemplative scenes over action scenes is fine. I’m sure it’ll be remembered as a classic of the genre years from now like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Don’t really like that one either. GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Volley Girl: “Battle of the Sexes” Serves Up Some Fun 70s Nostalgia

“Battle of the Sexes” continues the 70s nostalgia streak that Hollywood has fixated on in recent years. There’s been funny stuff like “American Hustle” and “The Nice Guys” and thrillers like “Argo.” “Battle of the Sexes” is fixated on the famous “battle of the sexes” match between feminist Billie Jean King and chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The film is about so much more than just a tennis match. Its themes and social issues are just as relevant today as they were back then and the film presents us with a fascinating character study of two very different people who were united by their love of one sport. “Battle of the Sexes” is a glorious and authentic recreation of 1970s Americana and features dedicated performances from an outstanding cast.

“Battle of the Sexes” is really three stories in one. So for my money it’s totally worth the price of admission. One story is about a woman, married to a man, who falls in love with another woman and begins to act on her repressed feelings towards the same sex. Another story is about the woman’s liberation movement of the 1970s and the equal rights half the population felt rightfully entitled to. And lastly the film is about a self-proclaimed male chauvinist and compulsive gambler. Maybe huge tennis fans will be disappointed? I mean this isn’t your typical feel-good sports movie. Though there’s a bit of that of course. The film’s script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy juggles the storylines impressively.

The film focuses mostly on tennis star Billie Jean King—played by reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone—after becoming the woman’s tennis champion. It draws national attention and when she finds out she-and her fellow female players-won’t be getting as much money as male players, break off into their own division. It attracts the attention of aging tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell doing a sort of a creepy real life Austin Powers thing). The guy is a compulsive gambler and his wife (Elisabeth Shue, geez where’s this lady been?) has had enough. He figures his own way of redemption is with a special exhibition match between him and the world’s best female player. What better way to draw attention than male chauvinist pig vs. woman’s lib feminist?

Ms. King is dealing with her own conflict as she starts to have feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The only thing is that Billie Jean is married to Larry (Andrew Stowell) who  has pretty much functioned as a beard for the world renowned  tennis star. A large chunk of the film focuses on Billie Jean and Marilyn’s relationship with both Stone and Riseborough having tremendous chemistry. Stone goes beyond just impersonation and gives a magician, touching performance. It’s easily her most mature performance to date. Everyone gets a moment or two to shine including a great supporting turn from funny lady Sarah Silverman as plucky manager Gladys Heldman.

“Battle of the Sexes” is assuredly directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who rose to fame as the helmers of 2006’s breakout hit “Little Miss Sunshine.” They balance humor and drama magnificently. Emma’s story is very serious and Steve’s is more comical. The shift in tones works for the film and is dripping with 70s style, from the costumes and hair to every pan and zoom. The film has the prestige of a “based on true events” docudrama while making important points about where we are in society today. And it’s not afraid to present to us the type of characters who aren’t normally featured in mainstream films. There’s a palatable honesty there that really works. And I dug it.  GRADE: A-


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Boston Common: “Stronger” is a Powerful Tale of a Flawed, Reluctant Hero

“Stronger” isn't so much about the Boston Marathon bombing as much as what it's like for a normal person to experience a terrible tragedy. David Gordon Green the director behind silly stoner comedies “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express” and the upcoming “Halloween” reboot seems like the last person to be telling this story but his roots in independent dramas set the stage for a harrowing drama about a person who reluctantly became a “hero” in a time of tragedy. He's a flawed person and the film doesn't shy away from it. “Stronger” transcends your standard issue “based on a true story” drama by refusing to wallow in sentimentality and cliches and instead presents us with a serious character study about post-traumatic stress that is all the more powerful because the actors give complete, and moving performances.

Jeff Bauman was a regular guy when he showed up at the finish line of the Boston marathon to cheer on his his on and off again girlfriend. Then a bomb went off right next to him and his life changed forever. He lost his legs. And he was able to help identify the bomber. Very quickly, a photograph of him after the bombing became front page news. He became the face of the bombing. He was a hero because he survived. He was not only a victim of the bombing, but he was a victim of being thrust into the spotlight. He suffered for quite some time after the bombing only only having to deal with the loss of his legs but having to deal with constantly being thought of as a hero. It messed with his mind. And in “Stronger” Jake Gyllenhaal gives an outstanding performance as Jeff.

Through the magic of modern technology Jake's legs are wiped away onscreen and it's extremely convincing. There's even a joke at one point about how he's like Lt. Dan from “Forrest Gump.” His girlfriend Erin is played by Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany and she also gives a fierce performance. It might be easy to dismiss Erin's characters as “reactive” since most of her scenes involve watching the hell that Jeff is going through. But the onscreen chemistry between Jake and Tatiana is palatable. They feel like regular people. The stand out supporting player certainly is Miranda Richardson as Jeff's working-class mom Patty. She's eccentric in that Bostonian way and reminds me a lot of what Melissa Leo was doing in “The Fighter.” In fact, maybe it's just the accents, but the film sort of reminded me of “The Fighter.” That film's wasn't so much about boxing as it was about a family. In that way “Stronger” isn't so much about the tragic marathon bombings. John Pollono's script is about one man's experience in the aftermath of it and how it affects him and his immediate family and friends.

I imagine it would be a lot of pressure to be the symbol of “Boston Strong.” Being thrust into the public eye when you never asked for it is a lot to deal with. Add having to learn to walk again without legs is something most people couldn't even fathom. Green's film is small and intimate. In a lot of ways it's the complete opposite of last year's Boston bombing film “Patriots Day” which functioned as a thriller. “Stronger” is more interested in getting into the mind of a reluctant hero than making any political statements. It's a wise move in a movie that surprisingly refuses to play it safe. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a good Boston-set film.  GRADE: B+

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jennifer’s Body: “mother!” is One of the Weirdest Movies Ever; I Can’t Stop Thinking About It

“Mother!” is that crazy movie that your artsy film professor loves, made you watch in class, and no one gets. Think Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” or Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” Except it stars people you've heard of. If you haven’t even heard of these movies, it’s probably best that you skip “mother!” I’m sure most people are expecting to see a creepy home invasion thriller starring their favorite movie star it-girl Jennifer Lawrence. Wait, are audiences are turned off by the fact that there’s little exposition and weird stuff happens (like beating organs appearing when Lawrence touches the walls of her house)? If you haven’t walked out by this point you must be game for one of the strangest and far-out studio films I’ve ever witnessed in a multiplex. “mother!” will frustrate your mind, mess with your mind, confuse it and then challenge it. It’s a film that will hardly make a lick of sense as you’re watching it but just might come together if you discuss what the hell you just saw with those around you. And the internet, thank God for the internet.

Literally “mother!” is about a couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem who live in an isolated farm house. Jennifer is fixing up the place and Javier is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block. Their idyllic life is complicated by the appearance of a strange man (Ed Harris). Javier wants to be hospitable and Jennifer begrudgingly obliges. But then the man’s weird wife (Michele Pfeiffer) shows up and causes more chaos. At this point audience members should be screaming at the screen for Jennifer to kick these annoying house guests/strangers out of their freaking house. But can anything that is happening in this movie really be taken literally? Soon something tragic happens and Jennifer is STILL just trying to be accommodating. But everyone around her, including the eventual mob of people who show up at one point are just plain rude and refuse to listen to her.

And then Jennifer becomes a mother, literally. Like overnight. How can you NOT real this as an allegory, fable, metaphor for fill-in-the-blank.  (Like I would spoil it for you). Even if you “get” what’s going on, and most people, myself included, don’t really right away, many have labeled the film pretentious rubbish. That’s a fair criticism. However, this is the type of movie that makes zero sense while watching it but makes me want to learn as much about it afterwards. Think “Under the Skin” with Scarlett Johansson. Or “Enemy” with Jake Gyllenhaal. Those are fun movies to discuss and analyze, but aren’t exactly the most fun to actually watch. Nothing in these films are supposed to be taken literally but in that way a majority of this nonsense actually makes plenty of sense. If you’re willing to put forth the effort. I'll help: environment and religion.

This all comes from the twisted mind of Darren Aronofsky of course. Who traumatized art house audiences with his big breakthrough “Requiem for a Dream.” He’s sort of a shock artist. He knows that. He wants to get under your skin and show you something you probably haven’t seen before. He’s an assured director and makes very specific choices. The cinematography in “mother!” might even annoy you. So many tight shots. Jennifer Lawrence going up the stairs, coming down the stairs. Claustrophobia. There’s also no music score. The sound is the score. The film is a triumph of production design. The third act is an orgy of visuals and captivating choreography. It’s fascinating filmmaking, even if it seems to make no sense. But every decision is purposeful.

Do I recommend you see “mother!”? I found it captivating and frustrating. Your mileage may vary. There are some shocking images in here that most viewers aren’t used to seeing. Some will find it appalling. Some will find it disgusting. Some will just complain that it’s boring and makes no sense. I was never bored. But I was always confused. Maybe there’s one too many metaphors in there sure. I’m surprised mainstream audiences haven’t stormed the projection booth with pitchforks and tiki torches. But I have a question. Without giving too much away, if religion is still so darned popular today how come more people aren’t praising “mother!” as the second coming of Christ? You’ll know why if you take a chance.  GRADE: B+