Thursday, December 28, 2017

Now Playing 1997-2017


In March 1997 Paul Markoff and I produced, hosted, and recorded our first episode of NOW PLAYING. This movie review show was created to run on the public, educational, and governmental access channel WOCC TV3, which was funded by the city of Westerville and operated by the staff and students of Otterbein University.  On December 13, 2017 we recorded our 550th, and final, episode.

WOCC TV3 is ceasing operations at the end of this year, so as the cable channel shuts down, so has production of the TV show.  I think it’s fair to say that neither of us could have expected that for almost 21 full years we would be on TV, with complete editorial control, to discuss movies.  Much of the show was given to reviewing films playing on a few hundred or thousands of screens, but it's a point of pride that we were able to be a rare place on TV devoting a few minutes to show clips from and talk about less widely familiar titles such as HOLY MOTORS, ABOUT ELLY, and THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER.  We’ve been very fortunate to have the platform and privileged that anyone would take the time to watch.

Contrary to what some might think, making the bi-weekly, half-hour movie review show was not a full-time job for either of us. As an Otterbein employee helping with WOCC operations, I have been able to incorporate producing NOW PLAYING as a small part of my work day duties. Paul holds a full-time job elsewhere. It would have been understandable if changes in life circumstances and demands on time might have brought about this show’s end sooner, but both of us have remained committed to doing it because it’s something we enjoy.

Still, NOW PLAYING would not have been possible solely because of our dedication to making it.  The show also needed the colleagues who granted permission for it to go on the channel and provided other behind-the-scenes assistance, not to mention the students who have worked as crew members as part of their education. We’re thankful to them.

We’re also thankful for the viewers, some of whom we’ve met by chance around town. For various reasons NOW PLAYING was more of an old media program and had little internet presence, so we’ve neither had the positive nor negative interactions with our audience that we might have had if this show lived online.

While NOW PLAYING's final episode will run for a few more days, this is not the end of us talking about films for those who are interested in hearing what we have to say. We’re developing a podcast with a new, to-be-determined name and hope to start making it available in January.  More information about it will be published on this site as we figure out the future.

Whether you have agreed with our opinions or not, we hope you’ve been able to find some of your new favorite films through our discussions on NOW PLAYING. Thanks for watching.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Post


THE POST (Steven Spielberg, 2017)

When the New York Times starts to publish reports from the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) bristles at the competition’s ability to break such big stories. In THE POST his newspaper is viewed as a local publication scratching for access to the President’s daughter’s wedding rather than a national outlet revealing how multiple administrations got the country involved with the Vietnam War. Even when the paper gets its hands on some pages from the classified Department of Defense studies, the Times is already ahead of them.

Opportunity arises when the Nixon administration pressures the Justice Department to impose an injunction blocking the Times from printing stories based on the Pentagon Papers. Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), but as he and other writers and editorial staffers work furiously against the deadline, legal concerns may kill their pieces. It’s ultimately up to Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the first woman in the country to hold such a high role, to decide whether or not to risk going to press. Not only does she and others risk being charged with a felony and a prison sentence, but such an action could also drive investors to pull their funding of the Post’s initial public offering.

Collected with LINCOLN and BRIDGE OF SPIES, THE POST completes an unofficial American civics trilogy from director Steven Spielberg. All three films depict the struggle to live up to the country’s foundational ideals and the openness needed for a healthy democracy to function. The camera glides around the official and unofficial newsrooms, and telephones are like physical extensions emphasizing the connections to spread the information to the masses. Still, many of the most consequential conversations occur in confined spaces, marked by characters closing doors and showing how the biggest decisions are made by a select few out of view.

Spielberg ensures that this isn’t stodgy history about the importance of a free press. THE POST is paced, shot, and lit like a thriller. The delivery of a shoebox is fraught with the uncertainty of the explosiveness of its contents. Although a cardboard container wrapped in twine is less ornate than the Ark of the Covenant, the low angle opening of it is treated as though it too holds unimaginable power. When the printing press rumbles to life to produce the Post’s first Pentagon Papers story, Spielberg makes its strength known by showing items bouncing around on a desk like the ripples in a cup signalling a Tyrannosaurus rex’s arrival in JURASSIC PARK.

THE POST recognizes that rights are meaningful as long as they are exercised. In that way the film honors the people who jeopardized their well-being for the greater good. Hanks has grown to stand for Hollywood’s conception of American decency, a modern Jimmy Stewart, and although his newspaper editor acts with self-interest, his position is built upon principles he believes are essential to free society. His performance crackles with humor and righteousness, in part because Bradlee is privileged to be able to express himself unquestioningly. Streep is more reserved but no less determined. THE POST often shows how Graham is overwhelmed in rooms by men and how women are often split off from where power resides. Streep is so good at showing how her character thinks through the situation and stands up for her choices even as her board and advisers challenge her decisions. THE POST understands that bravery can take many forms, even if it’s merely ink on a page.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Shape of Water


THE SHAPE OF WATER (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

The life of a mute cleaning woman in the early 1960s changes dramatically when she encounters the strange creature being studied in THE SHAPE OF WATER. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) found an amphibian man (Doug Jones) in the rivers of South America and brings this great discovery to an aerospace facility in Baltimore with the intention of using it in research to assist the U.S. in the space race with the Soviet Union. While working the late shift there, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) grows curious about this humanoid animal.

Injuries as an orphan have left Elisa unable to speak, but lacking a voice is no barrier to communicating with the amphibian man. Elisa feeds him hard-boiled eggs, plays him music, and teaches him signs. She is horrified by the abuse he receives from Strickland. When she overhears that the amphibian man is to be vivisected, Elisa is determined to break him out. She executes her plan with the help of her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and, to her surprise, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian mole posing as an American researcher.

As strange as it sounds, THE SHAPE OF WATER might be thought of as AMÉLIE meets CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s ravishing film swirls together fantasy, romance, black-and-white Hollywood musicals, and old monster movies into a simple and oddly affecting love story. The film emphasizes the power of being seen and accepted as one is, even if in this instance half of the unlikely couple looks like the sort of abomination spoken of in legend to terrify children. Through the perspective of del Toro, whose fondness for monsters runs through his body of work, and Elisa, who can identify with feeling out of place, the amphibian man is not to be feared but empathized with. Alexandre Desplat’s lush score feeds the sense of longing that pumps through the lovelorn characters.

Hawkins grounds the film with the soft heart and dancer’s grace she brings to Elisa. THE SHAPE OF WATER hinges on her expressiveness. Listening and reacting are often said to be the most important parts of acting, and Hawkins does both beautifully as she manifests her emotions and thoughts through the looks she gives and the smoothness of her movements.

THE SHAPE OF WATER cuts to the feelings, working in broad strokes and bold colors. The visuals are drenched in gorgeous, storybook tones indicative of the time in which the film is set and its fairy tale qualities.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Disaster Artist


THE DISASTER ARTIST (James Franco, 2017)

In TO DIE FOR Nicole Kidman’s aspiring TV news anchor is said to believe “you’re not really anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” For wannabe actor Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in THE DISASTER ARTIST, the same sentiment applies to the movies. Tommy envisions himself as a to-be-discovered Hollywood star, but as much as he wants it, no one else sees this indeterminately-accented, much-older-than-he-claims oddball as a screen idol. Deep down Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) surely doubts Tommy’s ability to make it too, but the timid nineteen year-old can’t help but be won over by the enthusiasm and unself-consciousness of his new acting friend. Plus, Tommy has an apartment in Los Angeles that he offers to share with Greg if he’s willing to make the move from San Francisco.

Rejection comes frequently for them in Tinseltown, but Tommy knows how he can turn their dreams into reality. He will write and fund a movie called THE ROOM for them to make. It’s all terribly exciting even as it becomes clear during filming that Tommy’s ambition far exceeds his abilities and his ego is jeopardizing other opportunities for Greg. To most of the cast and crew, Tommy is a laughingstock, but Greg still feels obligated to defend his friend.

Plenty of bad independent films are made every year and go unremembered and unseen. THE DISASTER ARTIST, based on the book Sestero co-wrote about the making of THE ROOM, describes the conditions for creating a cult film howled at as one of the worst movies of the century. If it weren’t for Tommy’s willingness to promote it and, more importantly, the notorious reputation and mocking laughter it produced, his passion project would have suffered a similar fate as so many other forgotten indies. Rather than hide from the derisive acceptance of audiences, Tommy embraced his role, doing his weird laugh all the way to the bank.

Tommy’s utter ridiculousness and Franco’s spot-on impersonation never cease to be funny. He’s able to convey how Tommy’s strength of conviction, not to mention a lot of money, is generally enough to get people to execute the strange and nonsensical choices in his creative vision. Tommy isn’t especially charismatic, but Franco locates a certain charm in his flat delivery, even if it is just affirming to people that they can become stars. In fact, he may be more encouraging to those in his orbit because he’s so obviously out of his element. If this guy can get a movie made, who’s to say I can’t break into the industry?

Nevertheless, THE DISASTER ARTIST peddles a false inspirational story that settles uncomfortably. While there’s value in accomplishing what you set out to do, Tommy receives tarnished glory. He achieves fame and acceptance but at the cost of demeaning himself. THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t seem to see any problem with that. The misguided opening scene features celebrity testimonials regarding their enjoyment of THE ROOM. That section plays like the cool kids egging on an unpopular student to act foolishly for their amusement. I laughed quite a bit during THE DISASTER ARTIST and the incompetent film it recreates, but as director Franco comes up short in examining the thematic complexity.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird


LADY BIRD (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Strong-willed high school senior Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a good idea of what she wants and is willing to pursue it tenaciously in the coming of age comedy LADY BIRD. Christine decides she would rather be known as Lady Bird and insists upon being called by the name she gives herself. When a boy captures her attention, be it sweet fellow thespian Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) or budding anarchist Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), she focuses on him like a sniper. While she has a deep connection with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), that relationship is susceptible to Lady Bird’s self-interested choices causing a rift.

Inevitably Lady Bird’s biggest conflicts are with her loving but equally resolute mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is quick to call her out for real and perceived shortcomings. Lady Bird’s dad Larry (Tracy Letts) is a soft touch, so Marion’s demanding nature helps to balance the parental qualities their daughter needs as she moves toward independence, self-sufficiency, and, if Lady Bird has her wish, far away from Sacramento.

Greta Gerwig is already established as a talented actress with a flair for comedy. She co-wrote and starred in the exquisite FRANCES HA, and with LADY BIRD she expands upon her gifts in character creation as the writer and director. This sharply observed film understands the hair trigger emotional state of adolescence, particularly in that transitional period from high school to college and youth to young adulthood. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. Lady Bird’s first kiss with Danny brings her the kind of overwhelming joy she can’t contain, but she plummets in an instant from that peak moment to the bottom of the valley when her mother chastises her for not putting away her clothes. Walking home alone after the kiss Ronan shows how Lady Bird is so happy she screams, covers her mouth, and doubles over, as if it’s only polite not to beam too much. That her unaware mother won’t let the feeling linger only increases the injury.

The loving tension in families, specifically between mothers and daughters, is central to LADY BIRD. The film opens with Lady Bird and Marion sleeping face to face in the same hotel bed and then bonding while listening to THE GRAPES OF WRATH on tape on the long drive home from college visits. They have a tight connection, yet that also means they can expertly press one another’s buttons and obliterate the peace that existed one second earlier. Lady Bird and Marion exchange cutting remarks while shopping for a dress in a thrift shop, but when Marion pulls the perfect one off the rack, they both light up like the noon sun.

Coming of age films are inclined to empathize more with the person growing up, but in LADY BIRD Gerwig fairly distributes the sense of who’s right and who’s wrong. Lady Bird can be an outspoken, self-centered brat, and Ronan leans in very humorously to the character’s attitude. She’s also more vulnerable than her exterior tends to reveal. Marion is tough, probably in an overcompensatory manner, but Gerwig’s screenplay and Metcalf’s performance detail how her sternness with Lady Bird comes from a good place and can be necessary.

LADY BIRD is a very funny movie with its witty dialogue and retroactively embarrassed observations of high school. The theater rehearsal scenes are the sort of thing that students would find fun in the moment and be mortified by in retrospect, especially if anyone not involved saw. The film also has a big heart for the complexity and challenges in being a teen and a parent, even if sometimes you can’t see the bigger picture until it’s in the past.

Grade: A

Mudbound


MUDBOUND (Dee Rees, 2017)

In MUDBOUND two families in the Mississippi delta farm the land, often with a great deal of difficulty, but while there is much they have in common in post-World War II America, their races make profound differences in how their lives unfold. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), from Memphis flush with the expectations of what being a landowner will bring. They soon are faced with the hard reality that the grueling labor and stark living conditions aren’t entirely what Henry had in mind when he purchased the property. Nearby with a wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and three children is Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a tenant farmer who wishes to own the land that his descendants worked as slaves.

Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) enlist when the time comes for the United States to enter the Second World War, and both come back seeing things differently. Ronsel has become accustomed to being treated more equally. He also leaves behind a German woman for whom he was great affection and seems restless back home. Jamie is haunted by the death he witnessed in wartime and often gets drunk to assuage the pain. The two bond over what they saw and did in the European theater even as such chumminess draws negative attention from the locals.

MUDBOUND’s screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees fluidly shifts among perspectives through weary narration stained with the disappointment and bitterness that colors the day-to-day realities and futures for these characters. All wish for something better but know that they seem doomed to be stuck in the mire.

Racism exerts a strong pull on what transpires, and MUDBOUND demonstrates how it destroys through overt and less obvious guises. Pappy’s virulent strain of hatred is the most appalling and easiest to condemn. Its consequences for those he targets and his own corroded soul are readily apparent. Rees also shows how a quieter, less loud form of racism tips the power dynamic. Henry does not make explicit threats or direct disgusting comments toward Hap and his wife, yet they know that if they don’t heed his requests, he won’t continue to ask nicely. Their interests are subservient to his, whether it’s jeopardizing their health or taking leave from their family to attend to his.

While MUDBOUND observes that the muck in this mindset drags everyone down, it also spots the potency of shared experiences to foster understanding that breaks down barriers. Hedlund and Mitchell give the richest performances, in part because their characters breach what separates the others.

Grade: A-

Justice League


JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, and a villain too strong for any other superhero to stop threatens to destroy the planet in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Thousands of years ago a coalition of gods, superheroes, and humans defeated Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Different parts of the alliance were responsible for hiding and protecting three cubes, but the Mother Boxes are no longer dormant. Their awakening draws Steppenwolf’s return to Earth so he can find and unify the Mother Boxes in his quest for immense power.

Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) know that they need assistance in stopping the pending apocalypse. Bruce Wayne’s search for other superheroes to join the team leads him to Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a university student known as The Flash for his superhuman speed, and Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), whose Atlantean heritage and abilities pertaining to water cause him to go by Aquaman. Diana Prince works on bringing into the fold Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a former athletic star referred to as Cyborg because of his post-accident cybernetic reconstruction.

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the DC Extended Universe’s equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s THE AVENGERS. While online fandoms engage in heated battles regarding which is superior, such distinctions seem increasingly silly when the two AVENGERS films and JUSTICE LEAGUE share Joss Whedon as a creative force behind both. As viewers it’s impossible to know how much influence Whedon wielded on the final theatrical version of JUSTICE LEAGUE, as he was brought in for reshoots and post-production while director Zack Snyder took time off to deal with family tragedy. Nevertheless, the comedic sensibility and overall lighter feel, especially in comparison to the brooding verging on nihilistic DC films, seem attributable to Whedon, who gets a co-screenwriter credit with Chris Terrio. It’s a solid comic book-like joke when The Flash pushes a few people in a truck to safety and then looks to see that Superman has relocated an entire building.

Although JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t as oppressive in tone or visual palette--this film looks notably brighter and more colorful than BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE--it has the personality of an instruction manual. This is a schematic assembly more than a story, and the lengthy build-up culminates in a third act battle that, like many of its superhero film predecessors, can seem interminable and less consequential because it’s simply a stepping stone to the next three years of sequels. JUSTICE LEAGUE can stand as a self-contained film, but it plays as an enormously expensive TV episode.

Gadot remains the best thing about the current DC films. While her character is an immortal, she brings the humanity lacking amid the noise and darkness. Miller’s Flash provides winning comic relief. Still, with so many superheroes to devote time to, not to mention their primary task, JUSTICE LEAGUE doesn’t accrue a lot of valuable character moments so much as it teases what you can get when each returns to their individual showcases.

Grade: C

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin


GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (Simon Curtis, 2017)

Wrestling with how to appreciate a work of art when the artist’s actions range from objectionable to abhorrent is nothing new, but in light of the number of sexual misconduct and assault allegations emerging in creative communities, such a question seems particularly worthy of consideration right now. Because 2017 seems to be the year of explaining why we can’t have nice things, along comes GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN to potentially ruin Winnie the Pooh. The author behind the beloved character didn’t do anything as horrid as what is dominating today’s entertainment news, but becoming aware of how he exploited his son in promoting the Pooh books introduces some acidity into the gentle mystique around them.

Years after serving during World War I, writer A.A. Milne (Domnhall Gleeson), who often goes by the nickname Blue, remains haunted by the experience. Blue wishes to get out of the city decides that he, his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their eight-year-old son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who they call Billy Moon, will move from London to the countryside. The new home in Sussex isn’t the cure-all for what ails him, though. Frustrated with his inability to work, Daphne leaves and vows not to return until he writes again.

Neither Blue nor Daphne are the most active parent, leaving the child care to the nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who Billy is attached to like a mother. When Olive needs to leave to care for her ill mother, Blue is left to watch over the boy for awhile. This time could have been yet another obstacle to his writing, but instead it inspires his most enduring work. Their walks in the woods and Billy’s play with stuffed animals, including a yellow teddy bear named Edward, generates a popular poem and then the Winnie the Pooh books. Daphne comes back home, and the works are massively successful. The public’s love for the books also prompts a keen interest in the real Christopher Robin. The Milnes eagerly involve Billy in the publicity cycle.

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN attempts to tell a rather acrid tale within a placid, storybook world. The prim and proper surface disguises the sourness of the material. It’s like taking a drink of what one thinks is light lemonade and discovering it is lemon concentrate. As directed by Simon Curtis, Gleeson and Robbie appear to be playing very loving and very emotionally distant parents. The actors aren’t at fault for the lack of consistency in which they interact with their screen son. Rather, Curtis seems to want to resist the truth as represented in the screenplay while achieving some measure of vindication on Billy’s behalf. Macdonald, playing a tender and concerned motherly stand-in, is the only one who comes across with any awareness of what is happening in this household.

It doesn’t help that GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN lacks a perspective. This isn’t Milne’s reckoning of his shortcomings as a father. Nor is the film viewed from Billy’s side as a kid or an 18-year-old who resents how the books affected his life. Curtis sands off the rough edges and tries to be sympathetic to father and son, but it simply isn’t credible in the way he tells is, especially the especially phony-seeming ending.

Whether Curtis deserves all the blame or if some can be attributed to Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan’s screenplay is difficult to know, but it is easy to see how GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have been much different in someone else’s hands. A hypothetical Terry Gilliam version might have played up the phantasmagoric fairy tale qualities of a child whose imagination is plundered for his father’s creative renewal and whose odyssey through the media circus denies his real self. Another director might have focused on how the trauma of war lingers long beyond the battlefield. Yet another might have zeroed in on the public’s weird fascination with child stars, made all the stranger here because Billy is the basis for a fictional book character. GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have rich thematic layers, but Curtis settles on a bland, psychologically confused way of exploring them.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 17, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

The celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) expects a brief respite from sleuthing on a three-day luxury train ride from Istanbul to London, but in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS he finds himself confronted with solving the killing of a fellow passenger. The murdered man is Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American businessman of questionable repute who tried to hire Poirot to protect him during the journey. As the suspect assuredly must be on board the express train, the case would seem to be an easy one to crack for someone with his considerable talents, but it proves to be possibly the greatest challenge of his career.

The social statuses of the passengers complicates the investigation, as who could imagine such esteemed or responsible people descending to act so primitively. Nevertheless, among those to be questioned are the husband-seeking socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Ratchett’s associate Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and the temperamental Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his reclusive wife Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). Not to be overlooked is Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s roguish friend and the director of the Orient Express. Tensions run high among the riders as an avalanche derails the train, leaving them isolated with the unknown murderer until help can arrive.

As director, Branagh packs the compartments with stars, recognizable faces, and the unfamiliar as we attempt to uncover the truth behind the murder alongside his prominently moustached detective. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a decidedly old-fashioned film and one that has been adapted often enough from the Agatha Christie mystery that for some there is no secret in the famous ending of this whodunit. Whether you know what awaits at the big reveal or not, the film’s success hinges on the interactions leading to it.

In that regard, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS can be a bit of a mixed bag. Michael Green’s screenplay unfolds in basic fashion, with Poirot interviewing one person, then the next, and so on. There’s a lot of shoe leather, and with so many suspects to interrogate, the film can ease into a pattern that lulls like the rhythmic clatter of a train on the tracks. Moving action outside the train minimizes the squeeze all parties should feel either as potential victims or as an unmasked killer. The solution should land with a more dramatic flourish instead of the lengthy but momentum-sapping explanation that details the logic and deduction.

While the film is less than fully gratifying as a mystery, Branagh uses the camera with big and bold movements and painterly framing, such as the scene when all the suspects are arranged as if in an elegant police line-up. His Poirot is also more vulnerable than the brilliant character can be portrayed. Although done with a much softer touch implicating the viewers than provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke wield, Branagh broaches the topic of whether a murder, even a fictional one, should be treated as light entertainment. A life has been lost, and the soul of the perpetrator is soiled for eternity. The most surprising quality in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is not putting the pieces of the puzzle together but examining why doing so is attractive in the first place.

Grade: B-

A Bad Moms Christmas


A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, 2017)

Even those families with relatively low levels of dysfunction can find the holidays to be stressful and chaotic. For the three female heads of households in A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS, the festive time of year ramps up the burdens they feel. Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) vow to take Christmas back this season, but the pledge faces a tough challenge when each of their mothers turn up on their doorsteps unexpectedly or unexpectedly early.

Amy desires a low-key Christmas with her kids and boyfriend’s family, but that plan disintegrates when her demanding mother Ruth (Christine Baranski) and agreeable father Hank (Peter Gallagher) show up with a punishing number of activities and expectations in the week’s lead-up to the big day. Before Kiki is ready, her clingy mother Sandy (Cheryl Hines) arrives and disrupts the home with her creepy lack of boundaries. Carla’s freewheeling mother Isis (Susan Sarandon) usually only turns up when she needs money, so Carla is suspicious of what brings her to Chicago after years of not seeing her.

Like BAD MOMS, its Christmas sequel spots and expresses real frustrations that mothers deal with. Much of the perceived success of holiday gatherings does tend to fall on such women, and the pressure and judgment felt from their own mothers, whether well-meaning or not, adds to the burden. While A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS identifies something emotionally and interpersonally true, the film is anything but a high-striving overachiever in finding humor in the stress. Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore lazily cobble together a bunch of cliches and rely heavily on music montages to pad out the running time. Much of the comedy is supposed to derive from suburban, middle class women using stereotypically unladylike language, but at this point in pop culture, it’s hardly as subversive or shocking as the filmmakers would have us believe.

The previous film disappointed by giving its three funny stars little to do that was actually funny. A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS doubles that, giving six actresses with comedic chops cut-rate fodder from which they are tasked to make an extravagant feast. Kunis gets a few funny moments in displaying her character’s humiliation. Bell hits the mark when trying to strike a balance in putting up with her mother and calling her out when necessary. Hahn sometimes connects with Carla’s unfiltered comments. Baranski, Hines, and Sarandon get the occasional good line, but overall the starpower in the film greatly exceeds the dimness of the jokes.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Buster's Mal Heart


BUSTER’S MAL HEART (Sarah Adina Smith, 2016)

For five years the scraggly-bearded mountain man dubbed Buster mostly eludes being spotted as he scavenges in the wilderness during the warm months and breaks into Montana vacation homes when the weather turns cold. BUSTER’S MAL HEART alternates between the police chasing him toward a showdown, the life he had before he withdrew from society, and his time at sea.

Prior to going off the grid, this fringe figure was known as Jonah (Rami Malek), a late-night hotel concierge with a wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and a two-year-old daughter. They live with her parents in a tense arrangement, so he dreams of one day buying some property and living off the land. One night at work someone proclaiming himself The Last Free Man (DJ Qualls) approaches Jonah about the societal illusion and the collapse in a few years with Y2K. Jonah may or may not fully buy into talk of a second inversion and how to escape the system, but he is happy to listen to what this stranger has to say.

Like MR. ROBOT, a TV series that features Malek, BUSTER’S MAL HEART is steeped in a paranoid world in which mysterious forces are at work behind the scenes manipulating the rest of us. Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s film is less plot-driven and more opaque, something along the lines of Shane Carruth’s mindbender UPSTREAM COLOR. The dreamy quality running through BUSTER’S MAL HEART isn’t so abstract to be thoroughly confounding, yet the resolution amount to less than the enigmatic elements trying to be pieced together. Smith employs religious symbolism in telling the main character’s tale, although this Jonah only seems fleetingly connected to his Biblical namesake.

Malek’s expressiveness performs the hard work of convincing that this weary family man could fracture, disappear into the countryside, and become the stuff of local legend. His eyes reveal how weighed down he is by frustrations of what his circumstances offer and the need to trick his body into getting a decent rest while the sun is out. They reveal Jonah’s internal vacancy and the opportunity for anyone to fill him up with even a halfway persuasive argument. Malek voices skepticism while those eyes appear to plead for the answers he hasn’t found. Even after his conversion of sorts in reverting to a more animalistic state, his civilized humanity shines through when face to face with those who assumes are blind to his reality.

BUSTER’S MAL HEART likely doesn’t succeed if the flashbacks with Jonah’s family weren’t so effective. Malek, Sheil, and Sukha Belle Potter as their daughter Roxy have minimal moments to flesh out a loving relationship facing the strains from personal finances, especially as they relate to living situation and expectations. The tenderness in their interactions and the rawness between Malek and Sheil emphasize the enormous support in this unit perceived to be threatened by those in the shadows.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Only the Brave


ONLY THE BRAVE (Joseph Kosinski, 2017)

In ONLY THE BRAVE Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) oversees a unit within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department that fights wildfires, but because they are not certified at the highest level, they are relegated to tasks he feels the team is overqualified for. With the help of the department’s Duane Stinebrink (Jeff Bridges), Eric gets his chance to get the team to the level of hotshots. He also convinces the mayor that as hotshots they'll earn more for hire to other communities than it costs to maintain the team. Among the firefighters is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a burnout who says he’s determined to turn around his life after fathering a daughter.

ONLY THE BRAVE holds up the honor and dignity of a group working tirelessly and selflessly toward a common cause. Although the men may carry themselves with a certain swagger, the danger in what they do is always apparent to them and the loved ones worrying as they rush off to stop a big conflagration. While Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Springer’s screenplay holds these men up as heroes, it doesn’t do so at the expense of portraying their flaws and the tensions among them. These guys must rely on each other, but the personality clashes and self-destructive behaviors that exist in every team are just as visible here. Such a large crew can make it difficult to get to know all of them beyond a defining trait or two, which is why Marsh, McDonough, and Taylor Kitsch’s Chris MacKenzie, the wilder spirit in this bunch, receive the majority of the focus. Still, ONLY THE BRAVE does well at providing glimpses of those who are no less important than the ones who dominate the story.

Director Joseph Kosinski shoots the firefighting scene with attention to the technical requirements and strategy involved in taming the flames gobbling up the land before they reach homes. The hotshots literally fight fire with fire, which sounds counterintuitive but proves to be a remarkably effective approach as long as the situation has been properly assessed. ONLY THE BRAVE houses deep respect for the people who do this work, and in explaining how they achieve positive results, it honors all those whose accumulated knowledge and losses allow for such remarkable achievements now.

It’s fair to assume that a film about civic protectors probably contains its share of tragedy. ONLY THE BRAVE fits into the tradition of memorialization for such people. Rather than doing so with a plaque, the moving images, in the literal and metaphorical senses, depict what some are willing to risk for the safety of all. Kosinski handles the inevitable scene of informing loved ones about deaths on the job with delicacy and power combining the joy and jealousy for those who survived and anger and sorrow on the part of those who don’t come home. There can be a tendency for empty valorization of sacrifice, as though death in service makes it more acceptable while denying the impact that resonates through those left behind. ONLY THE BRAVE acknowledges the heroism but respects that all of the ringing words of praise can never make up for what is given.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Gerald's Game


GERALD’S GAME (Mike Flanagan, 2017)

With declining intimacy in their marriage in GERALD’S GAME, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) go to an isolated lake house to spice up their relationship. She agrees to entertain his sexual wishes and consents to being handcuffed to the bed, but Jessie draws the line when he wants to play out a rape fantasy. Whether brought on by anger or something else, Gerald has a heart attack, collapses, and falls onto the floor when Jessie pushes him off of her. While her husband’s lack of movement and blood pooling around him is highly worrying, Jessie has a more pressing concern. She is shackled to the bed, cannot get free, and has no one nearby to hear her cries for help.

This desperate situation becomes more fraught when a hungry stray dog wanders into the bedroom. Seeking an escape of any kind, Jessie flees into her mind where she strategizes with herself, is taunted by her husband, remembers a painful child incident with her father (Henry Thomas), and avoids looking in the corner where she saw the death-like Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken).

The filmography of GERALD’S GAME director and co-writer Mike Flanagan reveals an aptitude for spinning psychological horror out of action largely confined to a house. Whether focusing on the brother and sister trying to capture evidence of an evil mirror in OCULUS or a deaf writer in the woods attempting to fend off a masked killer outside her home in HUSH, Flanagan demonstrates a knack for using location limitations to wring out the tension. The houses in these films don’t need to be inherently scary if they harbor an unhappy family history, expose vulnerabilities, or isolate, as in GERALD’S GAME. Although a dog licking its chops and the embodiment of death appear, the mind’s assessment of danger, coupled with its difficulty to produce a solution, generate the terror.

GERALD’S GAME shows that as a mental protection strategy, compartmentalization can be useful. Jessie bottles up her anxiety as best she can because it will help her survive. She summons strength by breaking things down into manageable bits and blocking out the rest as much as possible. Gugino’s performance relies on conveying an active mind scanning Jessie’s options for a solution. The character is bound and vulnerable, but Gugino displays the toughness and ingenuity that identify how constraints don’t have to make one weak.

The primary horror in this Stephen King adaptation is psychological. Flanagan expertly sets up the situation with a highly tense sequence that draws immediate identification with Jessie. While GERALD’S GAME pokes at mental discomfort, the director allows for one excellent gross-out moment that ought to provoke plenty of seat-squirming even if this film is only available to see on the smaller screens at home. In the film’s end Flanagan unnecessarily literalizes points, yet it’s hard to be too critical for the nice notes he plays regarding overcoming trauma.

Grade: B

Friday, October 20, 2017

Barton Fink


BARTON FINK (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991)

New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is fresh off a stage success in 1941 when Hollywood comes calling. Barton fancies himself as working toward a new theater for the common man, but he is reluctantly drawn to accept an opportunity that can help to finance much more of what he really wants to do. In BARTON FINK studio executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) couldn’t be more enthusiastic about hiring this writer in to bring his special touch to the pictures, but Barton soon learns he’s not going to be working on anything highbrow. Jack assigns him to pen a wrestling B-movie starring Wallace Beery and wants a screenplay by week’s end.

For his time in Los Angeles Barton strives to abide by his principles, choosing to take residence in the ramshackle Hotel Earle than the swankier places where the studio could put him up. Driven to distraction by the noise from the neighboring room, Barton complains to the front desk, resulting in Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the traveling insurance salesman next door, to come by to apologize. Charlie is a friendly guy, and he makes it a habit to drop by Barton’s room when he fears him enter. Although Barton wants to work, he has a hard time rejecting Charlie’s company. Anyway, he’s in state of paralysis in which he can’t get past describing the film’s first scene.

BARTON FINK unspools like the spiritual predecessor to last year’s Coen brothers’ film HAIL, CAESAR! Although they take place ten years apart, both are set at the fictional Capital Studios and initiate existential crises in their main characters. Barton’s most obvious conflict is an ill-timed case of writer’s block, but what brings it on is harder to pin down. Is he simply out of his element in a different medium? Can he not write because he thinks the work is beneath me, or is he not as in touch with the common man he reveres? The film is too slippery to identify as being about one particular thing. Stylistically it’s a supremely weird combination of satire, horror, film noir, and religious allegory. Still, at its core is the despair of not being able to escape the one’s own mind.

The aphorism of indeterminate origin “no matter where you go, there you are” succinctly describes Barton’s predicament. BARTON FINK puts forward that the writer might occupy a literal fiery furnace, one that makes the wallpaper glue drip and the decorative surfaces peel. It seems significant that the film begins and ends with shots of the wallpaper, the sort of thing one can’t look away from or would stare at while trying to pump ideas out of a dry mental well. Yet it’s just as plausible that the heat Barton feels is stoked by his own feelings of impostor-like inadequacy.

For all of the esteem Barton expresses for the common man, he doesn’t listen to the one in his midst. Charlie, a fellow as affable as they get, struggles to get a word in edgewise, and when he does, Barton doesn’t listen. A solution to his problem is right in front of him, but Barton is so preoccupied with what’s rattling around his skull that he can’t spot it. That grand cosmic joke stretches across Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. The suffering person’s inability to save themselves is a grand cosmic joke that stretches across Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. It’s darker in BARTON FINK, in part because the writer embraces that pain as if it is inherently holy.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (Noah Baumbach, 2017)

To friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the life of sculptor and retired professor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) looks like a success, but the man himself nurtures jealousy of his peers’ wider acclaim and animosity toward an art world that has failed to appreciate him sufficiently. He sold a work to the Whitney decades ago, yet it’s indicative of his status that no one is exactly sure where it is being stored. In THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED), Harold’s self-centeredness has contributed to the strained relationship he has with the three children his four marriages have produced.

Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), the two oldest, share a mother and the sense that they were never especially important to their father. Such treatment fuels Danny to be a doting dad with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). While Matthew (Ben Stiller) is perceived, not incorrectly, to be the favored child, he carries his share of grudges regarding Harold. Despite their frustrations, all three still seek approval from him. Danny and Jean strive to secure a retrospective show of Harold’s work. Although Danny objects, Matthew tries to arrange the sale of the big, costly New York City house where Harold and his current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) reside.

The episodic nature and title of THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) suggest that the glimpses of this dysfunctional family don’t tell everything but encapsulate the fundamental truths about them and viewpoints within this unit. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film depicts a period of critical transition. Danny has separated from his wife and needs direction. Eliza is starting college. Matthew is at a crossroads in his marriage and career. Harold is trying to adjust to retirement. Although the chapter-like structure leaves gaps, it contains the greatest hits and misses in Meyerowitz family history. Life brings new developments, but these events all tend to circle back to be understood through the lens of old resentments. The stories each person tells himself and herself have as much to do with constructing their identities as what actually happens.

Baumbach’s comedies about families often have a strong undercurrent of anger. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, among others, laugh at the ways people can get maligned and twisted in their most central relationships, but the humor provides a thin cover for bitterness. The characters in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES exist in the state of a soft boil. Their emotions are adequately hot without making them hard. Baumbach crafts a warm, humane movie accepting of people in spite of their faults. The Meyerowitzes aren’t going to resolve all of their differences in the course of the film or beyond it, but Baumbach shows why blood ties and shared history can be worth saving in spite of the aggravations.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES cast is superb at conveying the commonly understood order and unspoken, or whispered, opinions in families. Baumbach excels at capturing the dynamic in which each person assumes the role they’ve adopted through the years whether or not they’ve changed outside the family. He’s also really sharp and funny in observing how parents and siblings don’t fully understand what the adult kids do in their jobs and how watching TV together can be as meaningful as anything in maintaining the peace.

Sandler has proven to be a good actor when working with directors who can modulate his tendencies. Here he’s quite affecting playing a loving father who transforms into an ignored little boy desperate for validation when around his dad. His tender scenes with Van Patten reveal Danny at his best. His goodness is visible in how he’s attentive in a way that Harold wasn’t and isn’t and also in how she protects him when she knows he’s vulnerable. The ease and honesty they have with one another contrasts powerfully with how Harold and Danny communicate. Hoffman is funny and tragic as a wrecking ball of a patriarch, one whose narrow vision fails to acknowledge that in chasing acceptance from the world at large he’s missed the love those closest to him are so eager to give. A life has many potential narratives, but it’s the one we select, rather than what is written for us, that determines if we are satisfied.

Grade: A

Blade Runner 2049


BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

In BLADE RUNNER 2049 thirty years have passed since the events of the previous film, yet little seems to have changed for the better for those humans who haven’t moved off-world. Nexus-9 replicants are more obedient than the previous model of bioengineered humans. The Nexus-8s hiding out still face termination at the hands of police officers called blade runners. When K (Ryan Gosling) examines the property of his latest target, he finds a case whose contents could threaten to upset the balance of civilization.

The box holds the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth, and other evidence suggests that the child survived. As replicants were believed to be incapable of reproducing, K’s superior officer, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to find and kill the child. K’s investigation leads him to the Wallace Corporation, which has taken over where the Tyrell Corporation’s efforts ended. Founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to increase production of his replicants and thus greatly desires to have his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) find this wonder. K’s search will ultimately lead him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who holds the information everyone seeks.

Like its predecessor, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is an astounding visual achievement, with director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins contrasting the bleak, neon cityscapes with foggy, tinted areas outside dense populations centers. It all feels very unnatural, alien even, despite mostly taking place in southern California. Although there is a sense of too few resources for too many people in this dystopia, the framing highlights the disconnection. Characters are practically swallowed up by all of the space around them. They often live alone--K’s apartment is more like a cozy cell--and have seemingly no social circle. Work brings them into contact with others, but it encourages impersonal interactions and extends the sense of acting in isolation.

The most meaningful relationship in BLADE RUNNER 2049 is with technology. K has a virtual girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas). While interacting with this artificially intelligent hologram provides the kind of connection he wants, it is merely an illusion tailored to his preferences. Like Saul of Tarsus, K has a transformative experience, one that turns him from a persecutor of replicants to their defender. Awareness of a miraculous birth changes how he sees himself and others, rewriting what he has taken for granted. Villeneuve also uses the first few notes of a theme from Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF as a clue that challenges to the system can come from unlikely places.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is about as close to slow cinema as expensive Hollywood productions are likely to get, and it is pleasurable to luxuriate in its lulling sonic atmosphere and visual distinctiveness. The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Green is overstuffed with ideas that it is incapable of doing justice to them all. Style may overwhelm the substance, but what style it is.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The LEGO Ninjago Movie


THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, 2017)

Although estranged from his father, the fearsome Garmadon (Justin Theroux), teenager Lloyd (Dave Franco) still gets blamed for the terror his dad inflicts on the city of Ninjago. As leader of the Secret Ninja Force, Lloyd and five of his friends fight Garmadon in THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE. After many failed attempts, Garmadon finally defeats the Secret Ninja Force, leading Lloyd to deploy The Ultimate Weapon. What he unleashes causes even more chaos in the city, so Lloyd and his team must combine forces with Garmadon to go on a journey to find The Ultimate Ultimate Weapon and save Ninjago.

Like the two other LEGO films, THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE bursts with visual ingenuity and comedic irreverence. It moves briskly through an archetypal story that is vigorously seasoned with one-liners. The shots are crammed with details and jokes waiting to be discovered when stepping through the frames on a Blu-ray or digital file. There’s plenty to be impressed by, yet the sameness of this with the other films, in what I suppose is becoming the LEGO genre, render it as a solid effort lacking novelty.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is neither the inventive surprise that characterized THE LEGO MOVIE nor the exhaustively ambitious effort that marked THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. The style is well established, and even if the source property, a toy line and TV show, is less familiar to the masses, the premise borrows heavily from the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell identified as common to many myths. These aren’t necessarily negative factors. In fact the predictability may enhance its appeal as comfort viewing, especially for kids and parents eager to distract them. Newness in and of itself doesn’t makes something better, but the prefabricated quirkiness of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE dazzles less because it plays as though it’s been assembled from a tried-and-true set of instructions.

Freshness criticisms aside, it’s a consistently funny movie, which it achieves in part through the volume of jokes. THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE’s subtext about children coming to understand that fathers and mothers were and are people with lives extending beyond parenthood may be more subtle and complex for younger viewers to grasp, but it’s nice to find some thematic intricacy among the stylistic uniformity.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Battle of the Sexes


BATTLE OF THE SEXES (Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, 2017)

Having founded the first women’s professional tennis tour in reaction to being paid much less than the men, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was well acquainted with being undervalued because of her gender. In BATTLE OF THE SEXES she gets to defend women’s excellence on the court when retired tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenges her to a highly publicized 1973 match. Bobby is a loudmouth who belittles women as being inferior in tennis and daily life. While it takes some time for Billie Jean to accept her part in the TV sideshow, she welcomes the chance to prove what she and other women are capable of.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES places a lot of emphasis on the lead-up to the the consequential match between one of the best women’s players in the world at the time and a 55-year-old former champion. Billie Jean is dealing with personal and professional stresses that threaten to distract her from what she most wants to accomplish. Helping to run the tour steals some time and focus from training. Falling into a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) leads her to revelations about herself that she’d either ignored or denied as a married woman. On the other hand, Bobby relishes the carnival he constructs around the big showdown. He’s back to being the center of attention, even if he is acting like a piggish buffoon. For a man who seems to have lost his purpose in life and is afflicted with a gambling addiction, the Battle of the Sexes could help to fill both of those holes.

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton do excellent work with the meticulous recreation of the period and using the camera to illustrate the division. The placement of men and women within a room and often in separate shots highlight the frustration Billie Jean and her tourmates feel at being restricted by the men in power and cut off from what they deserve. Stone locates the right mix of drive, intensity, and vulnerability in Billie Jean to show a person who enjoys being in the spotlight but feels the pressure that comes with it in public and private life. Billie Jean’s story is served best in BATTLE OF THE SEXES, as the film empathizes more with her predicament, yet it doesn’t come at the expense of Bobby. His motivations and beliefs are not as clear as they might appear, and his demons make him seem sadder than the foolish role he gladly plays for the cameras.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES entertains even as Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay wobbles in spots and raises questions about if this is the best form for this story. This exhibition match provided the basis for an ABC TV movie starring Holly Hunter in 2001. A documentary would have been better suited for contextualizing the Battle of the Sexes. Regardless, the strength of the drama and the look make this tennis showdown worth revisiting again.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 22, 2017

Ingrid Goes West


INGRID GOES WEST (Matt Spicer, 2017)

INGRID GOES WEST begins with a distraught Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) crying as she scrolls through the bubbly Instagram posts her friend Charlotte (Meredith Hagner) makes from her wedding. Ingrid wasn’t invited, so she crashes the reception and maces Charlotte before being dragged off. Although it appears that this was a friendship that soured, in reality they barely know one another. Charlotte just happened to comment on one of Ingrid’s posts, leading the obsessive social media user to stalk her as though they were besties.

After a period of institutionalization, Ingrid returns home as isolated and lonely as ever now that her mother has died. Without any supervision, she reverts to bad behaviors and seeks a new person to fixate on. Ingrid zeroes in on photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). When she receives a tidbit of validation from her new target, Ingrid decides to use the money she inherited to move to California and hunt down her new best friend.

Make no mistake, Ingrid definitely has unresolved mental health issues, but the running joke in this dark comedy is that Taylor’s narcissism allows the distorted but symbiotic relationship to flourish. The “friendship” is mutually beneficial because it’s one-sided on both sides. Ingrid affirms everything Taylor says and does. She’s a mirror rather than a friend, but being like this gets Ingrid close to Taylor, which is all she wants. Taylor gets her ego stroked by someone who’s like the physical manifestation of her fawning Instagram mentions. Each person in the relationship matters only in the sense of what they reflect.

INGRID GOES WEST is savvy to the nuances of social media and smartphone usage. Not muting her phone’s keyboard provides an early indication of Ingrid’s pathology. Ingrid’s responses to posts are intended to seem casual but are in fact the result of several drafts that have her sweating over the least threatening way to indicate laughter without coming across as needy or deranged. Although writer-director Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith savagely dissect social media usage, they aren’t alarmists. When people are feeling more disconnected and superfluous, they identify the fundamental appeal of platforms that allow us to transmit idealized versions of ourselves and feel as though we are loved. How social media can be used isn’t a disease but a symptom.

If INGRID GOES WEST expresses contempt for anything, it is the predatory element that can drive the conversation. Taylor catches Ingrid’s eye because a magazine article pegs her as the new girl crush for readers. She’s not presented as someone who is interesting for whatever merits she has but as a trophy of sorts or this year’s product model to acquire. Conversely, Taylor’s persona is constructed on falsehoods that lay traps. Although purportedly a photographer, her real job is as an influencer. She’s paid to promote goods and services as though she’s sharing her tastes.

INGRID GOES WEST’s cast brings a pointed sense of humor to a world in which getting to know someone only goes as deep as creeping on their social media posts and lists of likes. Plaza tends to specialize in characters who are funny because they are so prickly. Part of the fun of her as Ingrid comes in how she disguises that aloofness and when she lets it show. For all of Ingrid’s purposeful and questionable actions, Plaza shows how this young woman is ultimately very naïve because most of her personal interactions are mediated through technology. O’Shea Jackson Jr. lends sweetness to the film as Ingrid’s incessantly vaping, BATMAN-obsessed landlord and sort-of boyfriend. Olsen is very funny exaggerating Taylor’s vapidity. The humor and horror of INGRID GOES WEST comes not from being a cautionary tale but the observation that, to a large extent, this is how we live now.

Grade: A-

Blade Runner: The Final Cut


BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT (Ridley Scott, 1982 and 2007)

Four artificial yet human-like drone workers known as replicants escape from laboring on a planet colony to running from the law in 2019 Los Angeles. The replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), are marked for death--or retirement, as it’s called in director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film BLADE RUNNER. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a weary policeman in the Blade Runner unit who is tasked with hunting down and executing these runaways. Although he harbors no sympathy for the creations of the Tyrell Corporation, his view of them becomes complicated when he meets Rachel (Sean Young), the latest replicant iteration and one that can pass even more convincingly as a real person.

BLADE RUNNER transports the world of mid-20th century film noir several decades ahead. With blazing neon signs and massive advertisements cluttering the polluted, rain-battered skyline, Scott’s vision, which itself owes a debt to METROPOLIS, has essentially defined how the future is expected to look on film. THE MATRIX and GHOST IN THE SHELL are just two examples of many that derive their looks from this seminal work. Thirty-five years later the images in BLADE RUNNER still dazzle with visual imagination in addition to being fundamental to establishing the oppressive atmosphere that permeates the story. The detective, his targets, and most of the individuals with whom they come into contact feel choked by the dystopian lives into which they’ve been delivered. Their environment reflects the restrictions occupying their minds.

Vangelis’ synth-laden score is evocative of a foreseen time in which the distinction between man and man-made begin to blur. Electronic melodies emerge from machine-like clanging and burbling, the human or human-like straining to rise above the mechanistic. BLADE RUNNER’s score also expresses the weight of the atmosphere, bringing to bear the darkness, fullness, and brittleness of the strange advances that have become commonplace.

In their loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples raise questions as relevant as ever regarding technology and how it affects our philosophies, our economies, our interactions, and the environment. BLADE RUNNER is more of a canvas for sketching out ideas for further consideration than a deeply argued text, yet it seems strikingly prescient in anticipating how modern life is becoming more inhuman.

Five versions of BLADE RUNNER have been available on home video: the U.S. theatrical cut, the international theatrical cut, the 1992 so-called director’s cut, the workprint, and 2007’s THE FINAL CUT. Despite being called the director’s cut, Scott was not as involved with that version, making THE FINAL CUT the best realization of his vision for the film. The obsessive may want to track down the other cuts or read up on the differences, but this version should serve most well.

Grade: A

Thursday, September 21, 2017

It


IT (Andy Muschietti, 2017)

In October 1988 Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) goes out in the rain to play with the paper boat his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) makes for him, but he never comes back, having been attacked by the sewer-dwelling Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). In IT Georgie’s tragic disappearance is curiously unexceptional. In Derry, Maine missing kids are like a seasonal crop. The next summer Bill remains persistent in his search for Georgie. The hunt he leads will bring him and his bullied friends, including jokester Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the lone girl among this circle of self-identified losers, closer to whatever evil emerges every twenty-seven years.

Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman don’t attempt to adapt all 1100+ pages of Stephen King’s source novel for this version of IT, yet the film still feels like it’s racing to cram in as much plot as possible in 135 minutes. It’s breathlessly paced, which is a positive quality in a monstrously sized page-turner and a detriment when trying to build suspense and instill horror in a movie. Films create more tension through the anticipation of something will jumping out of the shadows. Alfred Hitchcock explained that suspense comes from letting the audience know something will happen and stretching out the moments until that event, such as knowing when a time bomb will go off. Having that bomb explode unexpectedly in a scene is merely surprise, providing a jolt for a few seconds rather than the suspense of several minutes. Instead of massaging scenes for the inherent terror in skulking around dark places, IT exhibits a tendency to cut right to that fleeting payoff when the evil thing reveals itself.

While IT feels unsatisfactory as a scary movie, it is more perceptive regarding the nature of fear. What frightens people is individualized, making the evil in Derry so horrific because it looks different according to the observer. Whether one is unnerved by clowns or not, Skarsgård’s friendly manner laced with menace and Pennywise’s extra-long, front teeth, suggesting a predatory, animal-like quality, makes this particular manifestation of a sinister, supernatural entity so disturbing. The double bind of a welcoming figure who exudes a sense of malevolence stirs up unease that can be easier to intuit than explain. The way Skarsgård overenunciates his t’s, like a sledgehammer smiting a spike, puts one on edge.

IT director Andy Muschietti excels at capturing how kids act with one another and coaxes terrific performances from his young cast. Depictions of teenage life on film often veer toward idealized reminiscences or sensational portraits of trauma. IT recognizes that the casual cruelty and extraordinary kindness teenagers are capable of are points on a spectrum, and the simplicity of moving along that line is what can make this particular stage intimidating and exciting. The group of kids is clever but not in a precocious way. Their wisdom is still limited by their ages. Unlike the caricature of a character he was saddled with in THE BOOK OF HENRY, Lieberher portrays Bill with the vulnerability and fortitude believable for a teen wrestling with tragedy. Lillis impresses in playing Beverly as someone whose experiences have made her wise beyond her years and aware of her power. As horror, IT can be lacking, but as teen drama it can be quite effective.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Medicine for Melancholy


MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (Barry Jenkins, 2008)

Two strangers wake up after a drunken one-night stand at a mutual friend’s party and awkwardly interact in the harsh light of morning in MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Weggins) get coffee and share a cab ride, but he seems much more interested in building upon what happened the night before than she does. If it weren’t for her forgetting her wallet in the taxi, they’d likely never see each other again.

Micah tracks her down with a little difficulty. Jo’ doesn’t seem too keen to invite him into her spacious San Francisco apartment because, as she grudgingly reveals, she’s living there with her boyfriend, a curator who is currently in London. Nevertheless, Micah possesses a certain charm he deploys to persuade her to spend the day exploring the city with him. Although Jo’ sends him mixed signals, he’s happy to have the time together.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ first feature film finds him testing out themes and soaking up the atmosphere in ways he refined eight years later with MOONLIGHT. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY unspools as the inverse of BEFORE SUNRISE. The pair’s brief, shared time, roughly twenty-four hours, begins intimately and then works toward lively conversations about their views on all manner of topics. The film is also clearly indebted to Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and Claire Denis’ FRIDAY NIGHT, from which Jenkins borrows a song for the soundtrack. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY wallows in the romantic tension fueled by desire and loneliness fighting with personal circumstances that make such a relationship illicit.

Jo’ already being with someone hangs over her day with Micah, as does the fact that she’s dating a white man. Cenac plays Micah as a funny, down-to-earth guy, but his character doesn’t hide his resentments. He bristles at his position as a black man in a gentrifying San Francisco that would outprice him and those like him from the city and the shoebox of a studio apartment he rents. Meanwhile, Jo’ doesn’t have to worry about paying for the big place where she lives. Micah doesn’t accuse her of betraying her race, but the privilege he perceives her benefiting from is implicit in the frustration he expresses, particularly when he has a few drinks in him.

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY succeeds more at getting into Micah’s head than Jo’s. Jenkins lets the characters’ actions speak for themselves. While Micah’s motives are straightforward, the psychology behind Jo’s decisions are obscured more. She’s wary of revealing much about herself to Micah and displays an awareness that she shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing. Still, she submits to this encounter and takes an active role in ensuring that hanging out isn’t innocent socializing. Jenkins doesn’t need to explain all of Jo’s choices, but he could have done better at balancing our understanding of the two protagonists.

Cinematographer James Laxton’s work on MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY stands in sharp contrast to the visual style of his lighting for MOONLIGHT. Where the latter boasted sumptuous colors, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY is often bleached so that it almost appears to be in black and white. Like cautionary and prohibitory signals, faded yellows and reds peek out most prominently from the delicate, silvery images. In part Jenkins’ film is about how you interpret your surroundings. Although MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY exhibits potential checked by limitations of a young filmmaker, the visual cues Jenkins employs suggest he understands how to have images and words serve one another to achieve something greater than either on their own.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Glass Castle


THE GLASS CASTLE (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2017)

The Walls family doesn’t have much in THE GLASS CASTLE, but as far as father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) are concerned, that’s all part of the adventure in their nomadic way of life. Rex is an alcoholic who can’t hold a job for long and is often rushing his family out of town to avoid the police or those seeking overdue payment. Rose Mary spends her days painting and enabling Rex’s destructive behavior. The family moves constantly, relocating all over the western U.S. before the reluctant return to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia. The shabby home where they place roots is no glass castle, the long-promised and aspirational home Rex talks of building, but at least it provides some stability.

THE GLASS CASTLE is based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, Rex and Rose Mary’s second oldest child, and the film is told from her perspective. Played at different ages by Chandler Head, Ella Anderson, and Brie Larson, Jeannette admires and tries to help her father while regularly being disappointed by him. She eventually saves enough money to flee West Virginia, get a college degree, and become a professional success as a writer in New York City, yet her parents are the shadow she can’t shake. She lies about her family in social situations, and it’s not hard to see why. When Rex and Rose Mary move to the Big Apple, she does not avoid them, but she is ashamed that they are squatters who sift through the trash to survive.

Co-writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton studied those coping with trauma in his previous film, SHORT TERM 12. THE GLASS CASTLE also explores the cycle of abuse, although this time he focuses on the dysfunction within a single family. To the average person, the squalor and extreme poverty the Walls family lives in is horrifying, yet Cretton emphasizes how normal these conditions seem to those who don’t know anything different and have just accepted it. Rex and Rose Mary romanticize their dire situation, a strategy which comes off like self-protection and a manifestation of mental illness. They don’t beat their children, but the neglect and psychological damage they inflict is no less harmful. It is sad but altogether unsurprising to discover that the unhealthy dynamic Rex and Rose Mary raise their kids in looks better when compared to the upbringing he had.

Although viewers will surely leave the film unlikely to feel charitable toward the parents, THE GLASS CASTLE isn’t interested in judging Rex and Rose Mary. In it and SHORT TERM 12 Cretton seeks for the victim to move on from steeping in deserved resentment, as hard as that may be. Jeannette loves her mom and dad and despairs at the wreckage they’ve made of their lives and and its effect on her. Seen through her eyes, the film demonstrates enormous amounts of empathy and forgiveness while not discounting all the complicated and conflicted feelings churning inside the Walls children. THE GLASS CASTLE wrestles with how to integrate the positive qualities and memories with all of the pain those same people brought on.

When Jeannette is a child, Rex tells her about the point that’s hard to distinguish where a flame ends but heat is visible in a clear, wavering form. He explains that this place is between turbulence and order, where rules don’t apply. Rex and Rose Mary choose to occupy this space but fail to recognize that this zone distorts what is seen in it. They are not beholden to anyone, but their situation is stifling more than it is freeing. THE GLASS CASTLE carries you through a range of emotions with this family. Harrelson in particular is adept at showing how an important family member can attract and repel loved ones to the point of confusion. THE GLASS CASTLE permits the knotty family relationships to stand as complex, unresolved interactions, which is why showing the real people in the end credits seems like a mistake. Perhaps Jeannette and her siblings have worked through all their grievances, but the way the subjects of the dramatized story are presented, it comes across like an apology of sorts or a hastily applied but ineffective bandage. The film embraced the contradictions and opposing feelings, so it feels like being undermined somewhat with the conventional happy ending suggested when the real Walls family appears.

Grade: B

Monday, August 28, 2017

Logan Lucky


LOGAN LUCKY (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

LOGAN LUCKY is an oxymoron of a title that describes a West Virginia family for whom things seem to go south every time it looks like they’ve caught a break. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) was on the path to a professional football career until an injury ended that possibility. Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) served in Iraq without incident, only to lose his left hand and part of the forearm in an explosion as he was on his way out of the country at the end of his tour. Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) doesn’t put as much stock in the so-called curse, but Clyde more than makes up for her skepticism as he recounts family history that provides evidence for its reality.

When Jimmy loses a construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway through no fault of his own, he decides to apply the knowledge he gained there to improve his lot by illegal means. Jimmy concocts a scheme to steal the money the racetrack brings in from concession sales and convinces his brother and sister to assist. They know an explosives expert with the perfect skillset, except the right man for the job, the appropriately named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), is in prison. Jimmy has an elaborate plan in mind for breaking him out and getting him back behind bars without notice, but he needs to add Joe’s dimwit brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson) to the crew to get Joe on board. As thoroughly as Jimmy has prepared, everything becomes riskier when they need to execute the heist earlier than intended.

Director Steven Soderbergh ends his short-lived retirement from filmmaking with a hillbilly variation on his OCEAN’S trilogy. Rebecca Blunt, a first-time screenwriter suspected of being a Soderbergh or his wife’s pseudonym, accounts for all of the questions that might arise in LOGAN LUCKY’s unlikely and intricately plotted robbery. The wide frame and Soderbergh’s open compositions provide room to appreciate how big of an undertaking the heist is and the teamwork necessary to pull it off. The implementation of Jimmy’s plan delivers pleasure because of its finely tooled nature. Sure, this brazen theft is improbable, but the degree to which it has been thought out highlights the structural beauty.

While LOGAN LUCKY hits all the right spots as a heist movie, it’s equally adept as a comedy. The relaxed scenes unwind with amusement at the situations that develop in unexpected ways. A staged prison riot results in a funny negotiation between the convicts and the exasperated warden played by Dwight Yoakam. Joe Bang’s tricks of the trade provoke skepticism until he explains the chemistry and gets the desired result. Mellie’s verbal undermining of the husband of Jimmy’s ex-wife highlights the difference between knowledge and position as the beautician is better acquainted with cars than the auto dealer. The film delights in tweaking expectations.

It seems like accusations of mockery surface any time a film comedically portrays people from the heartland, but LOGAN LUCKY manifests a great deal of warmth for its characters. They may do ridiculous things or have silly ideas, but the film laughs at the frailties in the human condition, not because it’s gawking at self-proclaimed rednecks. The opening scene with Jimmy and his daughter conveys the great affection between the two as he works on his truck and she hands him the requested tools. This relationship informs everything that transpires in the film and is indicative of the generosity the main characters show one another. The emotional peak is reached at a children’s beauty pageant with the singing of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a scene that could have been mawkish but instead is quite affecting in getting to the heart of what motivates proud, put-upon people like Jimmy and his family. The hijinks and humor conceal the economic subtext, a familiar subject in Soderbergh’s films, but LOGAN LUCKY makes sure to remind that these ornery people are trying to exploit an opportunity just like those who profit off of them.

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Creep


CREEP (Patrick Brice, 2014)

In CREEP Aaron (Patrick Brice) accepts a videography job in the mountains not knowing much about what he’ll be recording other than it will pay well for one day’s work. Initially the remoteness of the location unnerves him somewhat, especially because his client Josef (Mark Duplass) startles him by banging on the window of Aaron’s car by way of an introduction. Aaron’s imagination also wanders a bit when spotting an axe in front of the house but dismisses it once he starts doing what he’s been hired to do.

That’s not to say everything is normal. Josef tells him that he wants Aaron to record him all day because he has a brain tumor, likely has just a couple months left, and wishes to document who he is for the unborn son his wife is carrying. For the first thing they record Josef disrobes and pretends to give his baby a bath. The interpersonal tension at the beginning doesn’t entirely go away, but by the time they finish it seems to have been a worthwhile experience for Aaron. He can’t find his keys when he’s ready to leave, though. The longer he’s in Josef’s home, the more concerned he becomes for his safety.

CREEP is shot with the first-person perspective, which has the effect of making the viewer present in the goings-on, if not exactly an active participant. The distance between the audience and the characters is shortened so that it feels like being in the room with them even if as an unacknowledged observer. The form charges the interactions so that they are direct and intense and not mediated through the camera. The fewer number of cuts emphasize being put on the spot in awkward situations. The uneasiness cannot be relieved because you are trapped in the moment as the recording rolls.

Duplass, who co-wrote the story with Brice, excels at straddling the line of being friendly and unsettling with his overly familiar manner. Josef is a little weird, particularly where he lacks boundaries, but it’s hard to discern if such quirks are harmless breaches of social etiquette or indicative of a deeper pathology. Duplass molds Josef into the kind of person who could be fun to be around in one instance and put you on guard in another. He doesn’t necessarily come across as sinister, yet Duplass doesn’t hide the calculation in how Josef tests Aaron’s limits under the guise of honesty. Duplass’ performance highlights how someone can give you the creeps even though there may not be tangible evidence of anything dangerous about him.

CREEP reveals itself to be about how propriety can be used against the person who strains to be polite. Because Aaron is genuinely a nice guy, he gives Josef the benefit of the doubt. He also gives him leeway because it’s how we’re taught to be from a young age. Even if Josef comes across as kind of strange, many people feel the reflex not to act overly judgmental when face to face with such a person. Doing so would be rude and only serve to amplify the awkwardness. CREEP considers how that civility could be a fatal flaw when the other party refuses to abide by the contract. On the surface not much in CREEP is objectively scary, but the context of what is said and done often makes it terrifying.

Grade: B