Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Router Limits: The Clever “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is Rewarding and Emotionally Satisfying

How the hell did a movie with the phrase “breaks the internet” in its title make me cry? Curse you Disney, you did it again. The sixth consecutive CGI animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is yet another homerun. And I’m sort of surprised it works as well as it does. “Wreck-It Ralph” was so clever and fun it almost felt like Pixar had made it. While that year Pixar gave us the more traditional “Brave” which felt like a step back despite featuring a strong female protagonist. This time the lovable “bad guy” Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his colorful best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) enter the magical world of the literalized internet where they come across one crazy situation or character after another (including some familiar princesses). The film initially feels like it exists solely for overt product placement and silly puns but before you know it, in true Disney fashion, a truly moving story about friendship emerges in spite of the fast-paced chaos.

Can we just skip ahead to the part when all the Disney princesses show up? I won’t say anything specific other than it’s freaking awesome and hilarious. Most of the original voice actresses return to put a fun modern spin on their characters. In fact there is an entire masturbatory sequence set at a Disney fansite that feels all at once obvious and yet so truly humorous. They have a really fun time poking fun at themselves and it made me smile. There may even be an original song that I would love to hear sung at the next Oscar ceremony. Make it happen, Academy.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” benefits from knowing very little about the places it goes. And it goes to some pretty fun places. The film cleverly uses product placement in fun and interesting ways. Ralph makes great use out of a giant push pin from Pintrest. The writers have used clever ways to make use of popular bidding site eBay which is used as a major plot point. And I love how the search bar is just a guy who interrupts you as he tries to predict what you're going to say. The writers (Phil Johnston & Pamela Ribon) actually have a lot to say about the world wide web and things like social media and the state in which we live. All the filmmakers seem to be having a great time bringing this colorful and thoughtful film to vibrant life. And the voice actors aren’t half bad either. There is some great work from the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot, Bill Hader and more.

The first film was an ode to video gaming of another time. The second film feels a bit broader but still feels like it’s honing in on nostalgia, not unlike another similar film this year set in a digitized world “Ready Player One.” The film opens up and could have taken so many different routes but I think what they did present us with was ultimately very touching and clever. The message about how friendships and life changes was not lost on me and the parents being dragged to the theater by their kids. This is definitely another animated classic that you don’t need kids to appreciate. It’s funny, charming, has fantastic voice work, a fun music score, gorgeous animation, and like all the great modern animated films says something about the crazy world we’re living in.  GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

About a Boy: The Powerful “Boy Erased” is Hard to Forget Despite Its Movie-of-the-Week Trappings

“Boy Erased,” based on the memoir of the same name, follows a college student named Jared who is forced to attend religious gay conversion therapy. His parents are religious and he lives in the Midwest. Not the easiest place to be a gay kid. “Boy Erased” is a really great achievement for Joel Edgerton who is hot off his well-received directorial debut “The Gift.” This film is special because it tells a story that needs to be told and yet it almost feels like a backward step after the progressive ideals of the rom-com “Love, Simon” released earlier this year. Even though that film didn’t allow its main character to be out and proud for a majority of the story, here we’re forced to witness people saying and doing horrible things to innocent gay teens. It’s not always an easy film to watch but I find that it has a lot to say about how “gay conversion therapy” is such an outdated, cruel, and ridiculous concept. After “Love, Simon’s” upbeat ending, “Boy Erased” feels like such a downer even though it’s wrapped up in a tidy emotional bow by the film’s end. As powerful as “Boy Erased” is, with great work from its actors, the film is ultimately a beautifully polished TV movie-of-the-week. But that’s not really a bad thing.

Director Joel Edgerton is an actor. So there’s unsurprisingly great acting in his films. Lucas Hedges is fantastic in the film in a very internalized lead performance as Jared. Nicole Kidman doesn’t have much to do until the film’s second half when she realizes what her son has been experiencing. Russell Crowe has even less to do as the preacher father who is mostly responsible for sending his boy away. You do get a sense it’s because these people do love their son and they’re doing what they think is right, as ignorant as it may be. They're certainly not the open-minded parents we saw in "Call Me By Your Name." The gay conversion camp is every bit the nightmare anyone with even half a brain would think it’d be. Edgerton himself plays the head of the organization and he’s an intimidating presence. You heart goes out to all the other young people forced to be there. The script is also by Edgerton and he sort plays a bit with structure by filling us in on the events that led to Jared being sent away.

Edgerton doesn’t do anything fancy with his camera and instead lets his actors do the work. Besides a sort of flashback structure the film does little else to really wow the viewer. The actors do the work. Jared's fellow therapy inmates are a bit fleshed out. Gary (played by pop star Troye Sivan) is a kid just playing the part until he can be released. Jon (Xavier Dolan) is convinced his therapy is working and refuses to even shake another guy’s hand. What’s most disturbing about this place is how little Jared’s parents actually know about what’s going on there. How a parent could subject their child to something their given little insight into is just sad and disturbing. As heavy as the film can get the film actually offers a sense of hope and is ultimately extremely moving.

I won’t assume anything about director Joel Edgerton’s sexuality but it’s hard to imagine a straight man could but so much love and attention to a story about the trials and tribulations of a young queer man. It’s probably because a majority of the cast is Australian and foreigners just have a more progressive attitude than the average conservative American. In the end, even if the film isn’t necessarily a bold statement visually, the film’s story is very emotionally engaging as are the terrific actors. I think it’s an important film even if it feels like you’d rather be watching a movie where LGBT characters get to just be themselves. The film initially feels like an after school special but in the end I was converted.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Desperate Housewives: “Widows” is a Fantastic Heist Thriller With a Message

British director Steve McQueen’s last film was the Best Picture winner art film “12 Years a Slave.” It was a power film about survival. Five years later he brings us another film about survival albeit much more “commercial” but it still cares an important message this time about race and gender. Based on the 1980s British miniseries, “Widows” is a fantastic heist drama with equal parts social commentary and entertainment value. Its outstanding and diverse cast is captivating to watch, McQueen’s direction is stylish, and the twisty script is deliberately enthralling. This is  perfect mid-budget studio entertainment that is too much a rare breed these days.

When isn’t Viola Davis just plain captivating to watch? Every. Single. Time. Here she’s Veronica the wife of Harry (Liam Neeson) who has recently died in a botched robbery along with his other partners. His death hasn’t only left a void in Veronica’s life, but a rather large debt owed to local crime boss/politician Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal is running for a local alderman position against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who has a strong family history in politics. When Jamal and his brother/henchman Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya threatens Veronica she devises a plan to pull a job herself made from plans from the notebook her husband left behind. She recruits the widows of the other men killed in Harry’s botched job including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who are also strapped for cash. It’s sort of “Ocean’s Eight” filtered through the lens of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.

Working from a script written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, McQueen has crafted a gut punch of a film. It balances its characters and plot elements remarkably well. The film takes its time establishing these characters who have found themselves in a desperate, unfortunate situation. Veronica is a complex woman and as we learn more about her and her husband and a tragedy from their past that is a commentary about race relations in our current world it all feels almost too real. But the film is allowed to breath as the film focuses on a not too complicated heist (after all these women are inexperienced civilians). Moments of earned humor thankfully lighten things up here and there while suspense dominates the film’s final act with Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight-like score being the driving heartbeat. Visually speaking the film has plenty of outstanding camerawork and long takes from McQueen’s go-to DP Sean Bobbitt.

The performances here are all topnotch. The ensemble is simply sensational. The three leading ladies are all fantastic. Along with relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo (who just recently stole “Bad Times at the El Royale” from her more famous peers) as a babysitter who ends up as the ladies’ getaway driver. The men sort of have less to do and are more squarely filling out the Lillian roles rather well. And Kaluuya has an especially frightening presence a complete 180 turn from his Oscar nominated heroic work in last year’s “Get Out.”

For a story that originally came out nearly 30 years ago, “Widows” has a lot to say about race, gender, and politics. And it’s all wrapped in an entertaining bow of gunplay and car chases. It was a sheer delight to sit through in fact, entertaining and artistic to a fault. This is a film filled with an outstanding ensemble cast that is mesmerizing to watch; the fact that it features such strong roles for women and people of color is the icing on top of a perfectly executed cake.  GRADE: A

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Yas Queen: Freddie Mercury Biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” Will Rock You

“Bohemian Rhapsody" may not be the movie everyone wanted but it’s the movie we’ve got and for all intends and purposes it’s pretty damned good. It’s easy to piss on the film because of its notorious behind-the-scene troubles. Director Bryan Singer was fired weeks before the film finished shooting; another director (Dexter Fletcher) was brought in to complete the film and see it through post-production. The sour note is the fact that Singer received sole directing credit. Does that suck? Yes. Should the film be punished for it? Not really. “Mr. Robot” breakout Rami Malek stars as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and he’s simply stunning in the role. It’s as if he’s possessed by Mercury’s spirit; it’s impossible to take your eyes off him for over two hours. “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t going to win any awards for its originality; it hits all the standard music biopic notes: rise to stardom, drugs and alcohol, fall from grace, redemption. Music biopic screenwriting 101. But it does offer an electric lead performance and a standout ensemble, stunningly realized music sequences, and an emotional pull that I found strangely comforting. In the end, I was starstruck and film’s manipulations got me hook, line, and sinker. I loved every minute of it.

Rami Malek. I hope his charisma and equally introverted and extroverted vision of rocker Freddie Mercury will send him all the way to Oscar nomination glory. He’s transfixing; everything from his goofily over-sized teeth to his impressive moves, he becomes Mercury. It’s beyond just imitation. Sure he’s most lip syncing most of the time but it’s pretty seamless. His bandmates played by Joseph Mazzello (as John Deacon), Ben Hardy (as Roger Taylor), and Gwilym Lee (as Brian May) are all great and impressive doubles for their real-life counterparts. Lucy Boynton is good as the love the Mercury’s life Mary Austin.

The film is sort of a “best of” with plenty of well-staged music numbers featuring all the great Queen songs including a spectacular finale at their notoriously well-received appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Sweeping camera moves and spectacular sound design make you feel like you’re there. Then of course is all the drama that comes with music biopics. This is obviosly not the film’s strongest element but it works well enough.

Originally conceived by Peter Morgan who gave us, ironically, “The Queen,” the film went through many iterations before settling on the work of screenwriter Anthony McCarten. The film doesn’t feel overly controversial in the portrayal of Mercury or his band mates which is probably because surviving members were involved in the production. For a big budget studio-baked production the film doesn’t shy away from the queerness factor. Mercury is portrayed as falling in love with a woman but it becomes obvious to her, him, and to us as the film progresses that he’s not being true to himself. The film handles it well enough. Maybe if the film had been more “indie” things would have been handled differently but the film doesn’t “straight wash” Mercury in the slightest. McCarten’s script even takes liberties with some of the real life events and the historic timeline for creative and dramatic purposes but this isn’t a documentary. I don’t even think a narrative film about a real life person even exists that is 100% accurate.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was completely intoxicating from beginning to end. Maybe it doesn’t quite have the edge that many think is required to be completely honest about who Mercury was (the film’s PG-13 rating being proof of that) but did this film need dirty language and graphic sex just to seem more “realistic” or “true?” Hardly. It’s not as if it Disneyfies Mercury’s life. I found his outward struggles with fame and his inward struggles with himself relatable and ultimately moving. It’s even just impressive to have a studio backed film about such an iconic queer person. The film is solid entertainment, emotionally engaging, and unsurprisingly has a killer soundtrack that completely brings the house down. The extremely likable Rami Malek commands the screen and makes me want to listen to Queen nonstop until the end of time.  GRADE: B+