Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

Standard

seeking_friend

When ‘Seeking A Friend For the End Of the World’ came out in 2012, I was eager to see it as ‘end of the world’ plotlines have always intrigued me for the potential scope they have and perspective they can take. You could make a dozen films with that concept (dramatic or comedic) and they could all potentially be interesting viewing.

Alas, it never arrived in Australian cinemas as despite Steve Carell starring, it was a box office flop and had a lackluster critical response. I eventually saw it recently because, in a funny sort of way, the film’s failure made it more intriguing to me as I was curious to see where the film misused its premise.

As is often the case with these types of films, the film begins with an official pronouncement that all attempts to prevent an incoming asteroid colliding with the earth and ending all life on it have failed and only weeks to live remain. In New York City, middle-aged Dodge (Carell) is understandably lost as to how to react to this situation. While friends around him devolve into debauchery, Dodge initially sticks pointlessly to his dull daily routine (his wife having left him when the end of the world was official) until a chance encounter with British neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) who is grieving over her breakup with her boyfriend. While polar opposite personalities, they develop a friendship bordering on romance but will it survive the end of the world?

SAFFTEOTW can be analysed in two sections; as a broad comedy and as a melancholy take on romance in the worst possible situation.

As the former, the film is a failure. Its attempts at comedy fall consistently flat as they either misfire through poor execution (a workplace meeting where new job opportunities are discussed with weeks till the world ends sounds a lot funnier in concept than it does here) or scenes that just go nowhere. A scene where Dodge attends a party that turns into drug-taking and orgies (off-screen) drifts on aimlessly forever without even a mildly funny moment.

While the writing and direction (both by Lorene Scarfaria) are to blame, Carell’s performance doesn’t help either. He plays his character so inert and passive that he gives nothing to the other characters around him who then tend to overact as a result and any comedy possibilities are largely snuffed out.

Another issue is that there’s a seemingly endless array of fairly prominent TV/movie personalities in minor/cameo roles (Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, Gillian Jacobs, William Petersen amongst others). This has become a bit of a trend in modern comedy to cast like this and it often is distracting more than entertaining, especially when they try to ‘steal scenes’. Most of them don’t work here.

But as a melancholy take on romance when the world is ending (which takes up most of the film’s second half), the film is much more substantive; Scarfaria is clearly more at ease with the romantic and melancholy aspects of the film and perhaps felt obliged to put the comic elements in to make the film more appealing to potential audiences.

As well, Carell’s performance is much more suited to this part of the film as someone who transforms from a dull sad-sack to one who is reborn by finding love and challenging himself. Knightley is OK in her role although the rather forced quirkiness of her character (especially how much the film hammers home her love of vinyl records) is somewhat tedious.

What the film gets right is seeing a couple enjoying and getting to know each other so that basic scenes like them spending an afternoon at the beach is deftly charming. And a brief bit where Dodge sits on the floor of his apartment listening to Penny’s vinyl records is quite effective as well. These seemingly simple scenes work much better than the forced effort of the comedic scenes.

Also working well is the segment where Dodge visits his father (Martin Sheen) who he’s been estranged from for decades. The concept – a father and son reconciling at their final opportunity – seems somewhat unpromising as a rather cliched concept, but thanks for the sincerity of how it’s filmed and the performances of Carrell and Sheen it works surprisingly effectively.     

Even in the second half, the film isn’t perfect. There’s a segment where Dodge and Penny spend a night in jail which feels unnecessary and filler material. And it never really gets its timing right as a comedy.

But by its moving finale SAFFTEOTW has despite its flaws become a worthwhile viewing experience, quite touching and sweet in its own way. It’s easy to see why the film failed critically and commercially upon its release, but there are rewards for those who seek it out now.

Advertisements

Review: American Animals

Standard

Maybe you’re like me and occasionally be in a bank or some other place with valuable things and take a look around and wonder how, if you were to rob it, what would your plan be? I, of course, would never do it, because I would never, ever want to go to jail, but in the 2018 film American Animals, some college students decide to give it a go.

Set in Lexington, Kentucky, this true story involves a young man who attends Transylvania College (the coolest name of a school in the U.S., if you ask me). Their special collections room in the library contains some very valuable manuscripts, the cornerstone being a first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, valued at twelve million dollars. The young man (played by Barry Keoghan) sees that it is very lightly guarded, and shares this information with his best friend, a loose cannon (Evan Peters).

Using Internet articles and old heist movies as their guide, they plan to steal the books. They end up recruiting two others. Though the audience can see how stupid this is, they want to escape their humdrum existence, and as Peters said, have a life like the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. Keoghan rightly tells him that only happens in the movies.

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is an examination of quietly desperate youth, who want to have adventures and a great life but have no idea how to do it. This might have made a crisp little crime drama–the robbery itself is masterfully suspenseful–but Layton decides to elevate it to being some kind of metaphor for the eternal chasing of the American dream. A painting of a flamingo in the book is a frequent image–Keoghan even imagines he sees one on a road late at night. I can only suppose that a flamingo represents the exotic, the coastal paradise that the boys long for.

American Animals also makes another mistake that I see all of the time–it references movies that are better than it. Reservoir Dogs gets a lot of mentions (Peters decides to give them names that are colors, including calling the macho driver the moniker of “Mr. Pink”) and there’s even a clip of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. When I see or hear these references, it makes me realize I’d rather be watching those films.

I think Layton has a future as a director, but could probably use a stronger editor (the film is just under two hours but feels like it’s half again as long) and can save the messages. If you want to send a message, we all know, call Western Union.

Review: Solo

Standard

Much to my disappointment, Solo is not the story of American soccer goalie Hope Solo, but instead another Star Wars spin-off. I was going to type stand-alone, but at the end of the film it’s clear that they intend a sequel (given the soft box office, we’ll see).

And much to my surprise, I enjoyed Solo, which shows us the early days of Star Wars character Han Solo, now played by Alden Ehrenreich, who manages to capture Harrison Ford’s smirk and cocky attitude. A lot of the movie is sop to Star Wars fanatics–how did he get his name, how did me meet Chewbacca, how did he get the Millennium Falcon, etc., but at the base is a solid adventure movie, one that reaches back to the serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place.

Han lives on Correlia, a planet that is full of dark alleys. He and his girlfriend (Emilia Clarke) salvage for the local crime boss (a large caterpillar called Lady Proxima). He longs to get away and be a pilot. He manages to escape, but Clarke does not.

Three years later he’s in the Imperial Navy and runs across a band of crooks, led by Woody Harrelson. Reluctantly they take him and Chewbacca on (I won’t spoil how they meet) and spend most of the move trying to get a shipment of coaxium, or hyperspace fuel. Harrelson works for a creepy guy with scars played by Paul Bettany, and there’s a lot of twists, as you can’t be sure who is gaming who.

“Trust no one,” Harrelson says to Han, and if that line is familiar, it’s the basis for the film. Director Ron Howard, who took over late in the game, directs with an obvious touch–he’s no auteur–but at least he doesn’t get in his own way. Some of the action scenes are too murky–I’m thinking of one where Han guides the Falcon through a maelstrom and they are almost consumed by a giant octopus, but for the most part the film is engaging, if not a little too long.

Most of all, Solo is fun. There are some pirates that dress like Oakland Raider fans, a wisecracking, four-armed pilot, the immensely talented Donald Glover as a young Landro Calrissian, and most of all a new robot, L3, who has the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and is always in a bad mood. In a wonderful sequence, she tells Clarke that Lando is in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same way about her.

There’s also a cameo by a character long thought dead. I imagine it will be spoiled before too long.

I also think Harrelson is the glue that holds the film together. He’s really a terrific actor, something I wouldn’t have thought while he was playing dumb Woody Boyd on Cheers. Lately he’s done great dramatic work, in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he’s also latched on to several franchises, such as The Hunger Games, The Planet of the Apes, and now Star Wars. A role in a Marvel film surely awaits him. Clarke, for her part (she looks pretty fetching), is now in two of the pillars of nerddom: Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Her future signing at comic book conventions is secure for the rest of her life.

Review: Deadpool 2

Standard

“You’re dark. Are you sure you aren’t part of the DC universe?” Deadpool asks Cable, the villain in this installation of what should be a long-running franchise. This meta stuff is what fuels most of Deadpool 2, it’s kind of as if the writers just did their own Mad Magazine parody.

Ryan Reynolds returns as the foul-mouthed, quipping anti-hero (the level of profanity approaches David Mamet level). Since we last saw him, he’s been acting as a mercenary. In the grand tradition of Marvel’s Uncle Ben, he lets a criminal escape, which comes back to haunt him. He tries to kill himself, but since he can’t die he’s taken in by the X-Men, who make him a trainee (again, the only X-Men available are Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. In a funny shot the other X-Men are seen hiding).

Then the main plot kicks in, which is borrowed gleefully from the Terminator films (Deadpool even calls Cable John Conner at one point). A teenage mutant who can shoot fire with his hands will grow up to be a mass murderer, and Cable has come from the future to kill him. Deadpool, showing heretofore unknown paternal instincts, wants to save him.

The plot is secondary in Deadpool 2–it’s all about the gags. Some of them are very funny, as when Deadpool calls Cable Thanos (they are both played by Josh Brolin) or when Cable tells Deadpool he’s not a hero, he’s a clown dressed as a sex toy. In the mid-credit scene, Deadpool will shoot Ryan Reynolds before he can make the lamented Green Lantern film. A surprise cameo will show a famous actor playing a character called The Vanisher.

But all of this stuff doesn’t add up to anything significant. There’s a lot of yuks, but we really don’t care about the characters. When Deadpool has a long death scene (he says he hopes the Academy is watching) we know he’s not going to die–Deadpool 3 is certainly already in the works. How can you worry about a character who can’t die? The only really interesting character is Domino, a chick who is extremely lucky. She calls it a superpower, though Deadpool doesn’t. She’s played by Zazie Beetz, expect to see her in the next film.

I enjoyed Deadpool 2, but compared to other Marvel films it’s a sugary snack. Those can be refreshing, but you don’t want to make a diet of them.

Review: Tully

Standard

Tully has three acts that are all like different films. The first act is effective birth control, as it shows the horrors and drudgery of a pregnant woman (Charlize Theron) who already has two kids. One of them is a kindergartner who is repeatedly referred to as “quirky.” (The words autism or Asperger’s are never mentioned, but that would seem to be the case). The film opens with Theron brushing him to calm him down.

This continues after she gives birth, when she has post-partum depression (she had pre-partum depression, too). Her husband (Ron Livingston) is a nice guy but useless, as his routine, Theron says, is to come home from work, kill zombies, and pass out.

During this act we meet Theron’s rich brother (Mark Duplass), who suggests she get a night nanny–a person who will watch the kids while the parents sleep. Theron’s middle class world is contrasted with that of her brother’s, which is perfect and well-managed. A daughter’s talent for the talent show is pilates, for example. That his wife is Asian seems to be pushing it into stereotype.

Theron finally gets the night nanny, the title character, (Mackenzie Davis), and we’re into act two, which might be described as new-age Mary Poppins. Davis is young and thin and a free spirit who knows facts about all sorts of things and presents philosophical questions, such as since all our cells die and are replaced, are we the same person as we once were? She cleans the house spic-and-span and makes cupcakes and one can imagine that she did float in with an umbrella.

During this act, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it does, it thumps very loudly. The two women, who have bonded, go out for a night on the town. We get a twist ending that I didn’t see coming–if you want to see this film, do it before it’s spoiled for you, because it will make you reevaluate everything you’ve seen before. There’s some controversy about it, and reasonable people can disagree whether it works–you either buy it or you don’t. I did, because without it things don’t make sense. It does introduce plot holes, but it’s only a movie.

Tully was written by Diablo Cody, who has popped out three kids since she struck gold with Juno over ten years ago. It was directed by Jason Reitman. Both of them have curbed some of the preciousness of their previous work, and Tully is gritty and painful at times.

The best thing about it is the performance of Theron, who deglams and convinced me that she was a working class mom and not an internationally famous model/actress. A scene in which she removes a stained top, revealing her stomach after giving birth, prompting her daughter to ask, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” is sure to get recognition laughs from any women who have given birth. Theron reportedly put on fifty pounds for the role (plus effective prosthetics) but more than her physical transformation, it’s the deadness in her eyes, the casual refusal to hold her baby in the hospital, the anger at a nurse waiting for her to pee, that crystallize the difficulties that go along with childbirth.

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Standard

If you take a look at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, there’s almost too many characters to fit. All of the main heroes from the first 18 MCU films are there (except for Hawkeye and Ant-Man) and I wondered how the directors, the Russo brothers, would possibly give them all enough time. But I tip my hat, because they do. Some get more time than others (Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange seem to get the most screen time) but everybody gets their moment.

I read an article in which the author complained that there was no character development. That’s true–there isn’t time. And all of these characters got plenty of development in other films. The only character getting development is the villain, a huge purple guy with a big chin called Thanos (Josh Brolin). He’s obviously studied the Malthusian theory, because he wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population in order for more resources to be available. Of course he’s technically right, but our heroes aren’t about to let anyone kill trillions of beings.

In order to fully appreciate the film, you have to have seen most of the others. I watched Thor: Ragnarok the night before and I’m glad I did, because Avengers: Infinity War picks up right after that one ends.Thanos is after six “Infinity Stones” to gain absolute power, and Loki has one. Bruce Banner is aboard the ship, but gets zapped to Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum and fills him in on the threat. Strange notifies Iron Man, and pretty soon the ball is rolling.

The film works like a comic book, and I watched it with a smile on my face, as it made me feel 13 years old again. The heroes are grouped in bunches–Iron Man, Strange, and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) get aboard Thanos’ ship; Thor takes Rocket Raccoon and Groot to a planet where his hammer was forged (the forger is Peter Dinklage, as big as a house); and Captain America (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) go to Wakanda to meet up with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). The Vision has an Infinity Stone in his head, and he needs it to live, so the Wakandans try to take it out without killing him.Meanwhile, Thanos’ henchmen arrive to attack.

The rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bauttista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) try to prevent Thanos from getting a stone from The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). Thanos, who has killed thousands, has a soft spot for Gamora, whom he adopted. Later they will be joined by his other daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan).

The film cuts between these groups skillfully, just like a comic book. There’s arguments and humor (Downey remarks that Strange’s cloak, which can act independently, is “an incredibly loyal piece of outerwear,” and Cumberbatch calls Downey a “douchebag.”) Also, because contracts are up and actors have decided to move on, there is the possibility of irrevocal death. A huge body count at the end will certainly be fixed in part two, coming next May. But some who die have films coming up. A guy I knew writing for Marvel told me, “In the Marvel Universe, no one stays dead except for Uncle Ben.”

I had a great time at the movie. There’s plenty of action to go with the humor, which is always a big part of Marvel’s success. The heroes also are humanistic, willing to sacrifice for the greater good, and despite their arguments, they always have each other’s backs, so this makes one feel good. (When told the Avengers have broken up, Banner, who was gone for two years, says, “Broken up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”)

Try to watch this with an audience. When characters show up, they are cheered (I didn’t recognize Captain America at first–he hardly wears a costume anymore). When the end of the film comes, and people realize they’ve just seen two and a half hours of a film that is only half over, there were groans. But I think everyone will be back in a year’s time.

Review: Regarding Henry (1991)

Standard

regading henry

When looking back over mainstream Hollywood films of the 1990s, what sometimes interests me more than the critically acclaimed and highly popular are those films that seemed to have everything going for them but were considered disappointing and have been forgotten in the decades since. Once such example is the 1991 drama ‘Regarding Henry’.

At first glance it appears to have everything going for it. A quality cast headed by Harrison Ford at the peak of his popularity, a highly-acclaimed veteran director in Mike Nichols and an original script by a certain up-and-coming young screenwriter called J. J. Abrams.

But the critical reaction to the film was muted at best and with only moderate box office the film quickly disappeared from public consciousness. Looking at the film over 25 years later, does the it deserve a better reputation?

The narrative centres on Henry Turner (Harrison Ford), a self-satisfied corporate lawyer who is enjoying living the wealthy good life in Manhattan with his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter. However a chance involvement in a store robbery leaves him shot multiple times and with brain damage. He begins a slow road to recovery and his mental capacities are severely reduced… but his humanity seems to have returned.

The prime problem ‘Regarding Henry’ has is that while it has the veneer of sophistication and intelligence, far too often it takes the easy way out with obviousness. For example we know automatically when we first see Henry Turner that he’s a slimy, soulless lawyer because he has the Gordon Gekko slicked back hair (and smokes as well). And of course in his opening scene we see him skilfully defending a hospital corporation against the claim of mistreatment of a poor patient that we know is true. Indeed every single aspect of his personality and life suggests someone with no redeeming features.

On occasion the film is more deft at illustrating Henry’s shallowness. There’s a scene where he genuinely reconcile with his daughter after an earlier fight but because of his lack of empathy it only reveals his coldness and his narcissism. But these are generally few and far between.

But the main overriding reason the film struggles is because of the simplistic mindset coming from Abrams’ script. Instead of delving into the issues surrounding a wealthy family dealing with their main breadwinner losing all of their intellectual capabilities, the film seems to believe that Henry’s brain injury and reduced intellectual capacity is actually a good thing for him. As absurd as this concept is, it almost was obliged to go down this path because he was portrayed as such a cartoon villain in the early scenes.

Watching ‘Regarding Henry’ I had the same reaction virtually every Mike Nichols film I’ve seen from his post-1983 period: well-made and obviously helmed by an intelligent director but an insubstantial and inconsequential work. As I observed about his him on the film he made before this one – Postcards From The Edge – the reverence with which he’s treated even today rests almost entirely on his first four films made in the 1966-1971 period.

The contradictions in Nichols’ director appear regularly throughout. On one hand, considering a narrative that very easily could’ve lent itself to excessive sentiment and mawkishness, Nichols is impressively understated in how he handles the emotion of the plot. But what replaces it? Too many scenes are dispiritingly corny and simplistic (including the finale) which one would find it hard to believe would’ve been helmed by the him in the early stages of his career.

As for the acting, Ford is adequate in a fairly atypical role but he doesn’t provide much more depth to his character than the already superficial script does. In one of her early roles Bening (a Nichols regular) is her usual impressive self and makes something out of a fairly thin character. And the late Bill Nunn provides badly needed life to the film as Henry’s therapist.

For all its flaws, because of its all-round professionalism, pleasant New York locations and relatively decent budget (being a fairly prestigious Hollywood production in its day) ‘Regarding Henry’ is a fairly pleasant timewaster. There are many worse films that one could watch from 1991. But rewatching it underlined that the original critical assessment of it being a soft and disappointing film were on the mark.

Retro Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Standard

Fifty years ago this month one of the most written about films ever made was released. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a film unlike any other, and I don’t think there’s been one like it since then. I’ve seen it at least three times, but I still don’t understand all of it, and I don’t think anyone is supposed to.

The film is basically told in four parts, as if it were movements of a symphony. The first, “The Dawn of Man,” features hominids on the African savanna. They eat only vegetation. One day a strange black monolith, looking like a giant candy bar, appears, with a sound like a choir. The hominids are first afraid, and then embrace it. Presumably this gives one such early man the idea to use a bone to kill something. Next thing you know they are eating meat, and eventually use it to kill one another.

We can assume that the monolith was planted by an advanced civilization that is furthering human evolution. The next time it shows up it is buried under the lunar surface, so it is clearly in place for when man is advanced enough to find it. This section is the weakest of the film, with stilted dialogue and boilerplate sci-fi stuff. It also has a scientist using a videophone to call his daughter for his birthday. Even Kubrick and his collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, didn’t anticipate cell phones.

The third portion is the one most people know and is straightforward, as well as being suspenseful and even a bit funny. Two astronauts, along with three others in sleep pods, are on their way to Jupiter. They don’t know it, but they are headed to the third monolith, adrift in space. Their ship is run by a computer, HAL 9000, who is more human than they are. When he starts to take over things get a bit dicey. “Open the pod bay door, HAL,” is a memorable quote. When Keir Dullea gets back in the ship to shut him down, HAL, voiced wonderfully by Douglas Rain, says things like, “I can see you’re upset about this, Dave.”

The fourth movement is anybody’s guess. Dullea takes a space pod into some sort of gate, where there are psychedelic colors that probably were pretty groovy in 1968. He sees himself as an old man, and then becomes a fetus the size of a planet, aka the “Star Child.” I read that at one point the script had the Star Child exploding all the nuclear bombs on Earth, but Kubrick blew up the world in his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, and didn’t want to do it again.

Today the film is recognized as one of the greatest ever made but it took a while. Pauline Kael oddly thought it was “unoriginal,” while I think Penelope Gilliat hit it on the head when she said it was “somewhere between hypnotic and boring.” True, parts of it are boring. There is almost a fetishistic lingering on spaceships gliding through the ethos and men pushing buttons and doors opening. It takes maybe fifteen minutes for Dr. Floyd to get from Earth to the Moon in a spaceship, as we see the flight attendants serving dinner. I suppose the special effects were cutting edge and maybe Kubrick was showing off (he designed the special effects, and he won an Oscar for it, the only Oscar he ever won).

But, as Gilliat said, the tedium can be hypnotic. There are a lot of shots of ships, and one of the most famous cuts in movie history has the bone tossed by the hominid turning into a spaceship, a leap of four million years of human evolution in one edit.

I suppose I admire 2001 more than I love it, The HAL sequence on its own is a terrific short film, as is the Dawn of Man. A friend of mine mentioned that it couldn’t be made today, and that’s probably true, at least not how Kubrick made it. However, it was the highest grossing film of that year. It made Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra known to everyone, and it inspired one of my favorite Mad Magazine parody titles: 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.

Review: Isle of Dogs

Standard

To watch a Wes Anderson film is to enter his own peculiar world. Even though Isle of Dogs is set in Japan (for which he has taken some criticism), it is really his version of Japan. I suppose he chose that country because of its rigid cultural rules, although I’m only guessing.

In this version of Japan, in the future, there is a dog flu going around. The cat-loving mayor of Megasaki decrees that all dogs be exiled to a trash island off the coast. The first dog to go is Spots, who is the guard dog and companion the mayor’s ward, Atari. Soon all dogs are on the island, scrounging for scraps.

Atari, 12 years old, gets an airplane (I wasn’t quite sure how he did) and flies to the island, in search of Spots. He is aided by a pack of five alpha dogs, ostensibly led by Chief, who was a life-long stray. He is the most resistant to helping Atari, but the other dogs, who were pets, decide to help.

Those who know Anderson will recognize certain things–formal, stilted dialogue, labels (helpfully, he tells us the beginnings and ends of flashbacks) and bizarre, off-the-wall choices. For instance, Spots is able to shoot exploding teeth out of his mouth, and the trash island is mapped as completely as any real place.

This all makes for a pleasurable experience at the movies, but it’s not up to his last couple of films, Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. Dog lovers will appreciate it more (and cat lovers may be angry), as the film rests on the notion that dogs are our best friends, mainly because they are loyal.

As for the cultural appropriation claims, I suppose Shakespeare shouldn’t have written Romeo and Juliet because it was set in Italy. There can be no boundaries to the artistic imagination. That being said, I think he erred in making the leader of the revolt against the mayor an American transfer student with blonde hair and freckles. It is another in a long line of the “white savior” cliche.

Many Anderson regulars are on hand as voice actors: Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. Brian Cranston is great as Chief, and despite her being white, Greta Gerwig is wonderful as Tracy, the savior. Also in the cast is Yoko Ono, playing a scientist named Yoko Ono.

Review: A Quiet Place

Standard

A Quiet Place is getting great reviews, as it should–it’s a taut, well-constructed, intelligent horror film. But let’s not get carried away. Those who consider this some kind of landmark or instant classic may be reacting to the fact that the horror genre has been so poorly served in recent years. For those who love the genre, A Quiet Place should scratch an itch, but it does not transcend the genre.

Directed by John Krasinski, who also stars,  A Quiet Place thankfully spares us reams of exposition. A title card says “Day 59,” but we don’t know what that means. Presumably it is 59 days from the arrival of creatures with spindly legs and murderous intention. When we see Krasinski’s basement, a variety of newspaper headlines fill us in some more–the creatures are blind, but have superior hearing, so the way to avoid being eaten is, to quote Elmer Fudd, “be vewy, vewy quiet.”

A prologue shows us what happens when that rule is breached, as the family (wife Emily Blunt, daughter Millicent Simmonds, and son Noah Jupe) lose a family member. They live on a farm, and we have to wonder how Krasinski has built such an elaborate defense system without making a lot of noise. Blunt becomes pregnant, which means the couple made love without making a sound.

The tension exists around Blunt’s impending due date–how will she give birth without making a sound, and a nail in her foot is thrown in? How will they deal with a crying baby? Do the creatures have a weakness? (Yes, and it may remind some viewers of the Martians’ weakness in Mars Attacks!)

As mentioned, there are lots of questions, but these aren’t necessarily plot holes. We know, from the newspapers, this is a world-wide menace, but we don’t know if this little family are the last people alive. Krasinski tries to raise someone on his short-wave radio without success. Also, given the set-up the farm has, one has to wonder if the family were survivalists to begin with.

The acting is good. I’m starting to let go Krasinski has Jim Halpert from The Office, and Blunt is effective as showing pain without screaming. The star of the show, though, is Simmonds, who is actually deaf and playing a deaf girl (the reason why the family knows American Sign Language, which comes in handy). She was terrific in Wonderstruck. One can only hope there are enough roles for deaf people to keep her busy.

A Quiet Place is an effective thriller, but it’s insubstantial. It was out of my system by the time I got to my car.

Review: The Death of Stalin

Standard

Who would figure a movie called The Death of Stalin would be the funniest film of the year (I doubt that over the next nine months that will be proved wrong). With script and direction by Armando Iannucci, who made the equally uproarious In the Loop, and created the U.S. series Veep, he has taken a momentous and presumably solemn event and turned into a scabrous free-for-all.

The film opens with a farcical set piece. Radio Moscow has just aired a Mozart concerto. Stalin calls and wants a recording of it. Problem: they didn’t record it. So, fearing for their lives, everyone recreates the concerto. However, the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) doesn’t want to. She has no love for Stalin, who had her whole family murdered. She does it for money, but includes a note in the record sleeve wishing for Stalin’s death. He obliges.

This sets in motion a scrambling for power, as the ministers of his cabinet jockey to get on top of the other guy. The heir is Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) but he is extremely weak (he says at one point that he can’t keep track of who’s alive or dead) and has horrible hair (“did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” someone asks). The real juice is between Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), a whirligig of action (he shows up after Stalin’s attack in his pajamas), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD (they put all the people to death), a sadistic rapist. On the sidelines is Molotov (Michael Palin), who has escaped death by the hair of his chin, and then finds out his wife is alive, thinking she was dead (depending on who he is talking to, she is a treacherous slut or his loving wife).

The movie reminded me of both A Lion in Winter, with its elaborate chess game for power, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for the farcical aspects–there is a prize at the end, and only one person is going to get it, and the others may well be shot.

After so many films using Nazis as de facto villains, it’s nice to see the Stalinists, who were every bit as brutal, get their due (the Russians are not happy with this film, as they apparently have not learned the lessons that Germans did). The Soviet leadership is completely corrupt, and Stalin puts out lists, given to Beria, for those to be eliminated. Beria dreams up ways for some to be killed–he once strangled to death the elderly mother of a man about to be executed right in front of him–and because of these lists every man is completely afraid of Old Joe, down to recalling their conversations with him with their wives, and noting what jokes he laughed at and those he didn’t.

Eventually Khruschev will work to oust Beria, his strongest competition, and enlists the aid of General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) a raging erection of a man. The film is savage as it is funny, and some of the events hit like a punch to the stomach. If you are unaware of Soviet history I won’t spoil things for you, but the last shot is perfect, especially if you remember Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows.

The actors are all British and American, and use their own accents, thus Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) speaks with a Cockney accent. Iannucci forgoes everyone speaking like Boris Badanov. Everyone is wonderful, but Beale and Buscemi are the hearts that keep it beating. Buscemi has some great put-downs, calling someone a “camel cock” and “Slim Hitler.” As the ministers stand in front of Stalin’s coffin during the viewing, he tries to swap places with Malenkov, looking like the figure in a clock. “What the fuck are you doing?” Malenkov asks him. When Stalin’s imbecilic son (Rupert Friend) says he wants to speak at his father’s funeral, Kruschev says, “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly.”

Put it down now–The Death of Stalin will be in my top five for the year.

Review: Ready Player One

Standard

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One may hinge on two things: your love of video games, and your willingness to be bombarded by pop culture references, specifically those from about 1975 to 1990. Because, when it’s all said and done, Ready Player One is a valentine to those two topics, and not much else.

Steven Spielberg, who grew up in the ’50 and ’60s, has fully embraced the period in which he reigned, the ’70s and ’80s, to direct an adventure film about people who are basically just standing still. You see, in 2045, the world is so miserable that in order to keep their sanity, people escape into the world of Oasis, a massive MPG where they can be anything and do anything. The opening scenes of the film, which is set in Columbus, Ohio in a trailer park where the trailers are stacked like Jenga pieces, show everyone wearing virtual reality goggles and gesturing to whatever they are doing in the game. Given that most people live life now staring into their phones, I don’t think we’re far from that destiny.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a typical kid who spends all of his time in the game (we don’t hear about the employment of anyone–maybe they’re all on public assistance?). He has a few friends, such as Aech (Lena Waithe), and spends his time “gunting,” or Easter egg hunting. You see, (and the first five minutes or so of the film is all voiceover exposition, which really makes the movie start slowly), the inventor of the game, now deceased (Mark Rylance, channeling Garth Algar) put in an Easter egg that enables the finder to inherit his stock and control of the game.

Sheridan teams up with the sexy avatar of Art3mis (his name is Parzival, finder of the Holy Grail, hers is of the goddess of the hunt) and they set about finding all the clues necessary, all while the evil corporate guy (Ben Mendelsohn) employs hundreds so his company can take over the game. Mendelsohn played a similar character is Rogue One, in the long tradition of making guys in suits, or the Star Wars equivalent, being bad guys.

As I watched the film one thing became instantly apparent–most of it takes place in Oasis. In fact, Ready Player One is really an animated film (it would be eligible for the Oscar in that category, should the studio submit it). Like The Matrix, or Avatar, we spend most of our time with characters who are only representations of themselves. Though I don’t play video games (I bought a PS4 and then sold it because I never used it) I got used to this quickly. What I didn’t get used to was the barrage of pop culture references, which is dizzying. Some of them I didn’t know, such as Gundam, a Japanese robot of some sort. A deep knowledge of the history of Atari games is required for our intrepid bunch to solve the game.

These references, while one day providing the stuff for a drinking game (there’s Beetlejuice, take a drink!) take the film away from an exciting adventure and bog it down in nerdgasm trivia. Instead of relying on Gen X nostalgia, why not invent new things that surely would exist in the years from now until 2045? For kids of that year to be knowledgeable of Saturday Night Fever would be like kids today being attuned to Glenn Miller.

But still, Ready Player One is decent entertainment. The cast is okay (I will steal A.O. Scott’s line about Sheridan–“Agreeably bland, blandly agreeable”), with Waithe stealing her scenes. The performer that shines brightest is Olivia Cooke as Art3mis, who possesses a kind of stolid charisma–you’d be ready to follow her anywhere.

This is Spielberg’s biggest hit in a decade, so I suppose we should expect more trips into the Oasis. I’m okay with that, just show a bit more originality.

Review: A Fantastic Woman

Standard

Winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman is pretty fantastic, but is also on the cutting edge of changes in society, as it is about a transgender woman, starring a transgender woman.

From Chile, it concerns Marina (Daniela Vega) a waitress and singer, who has moved in with an older man (Francisco Reyes). He is fully aware of her past, but they have a sweet relationship. He takes her out for her birthday, they tie one on, and go home to bed.

But he awakes in the middle of the night feeling strange, and will die of a brain aneurysm. Vega is not technically family, so is pushed aside by his ex-wife and son, who state in no uncertain terms that she is not to attend the memorial or funeral, and to leave them alone.

This echoes a problem that longtime partners had in the U.S. before recent court decisions–someone who had been with someone for fifty years or more couldn’t make health decisions, requiring a family member who may have been estranged for years. As far as we have come in recent years, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by bathroom laws in North Carolina and this film, which shows a shocking level of ignorance about transgender people (she is assaulted by her lover’s son’s friends, calling her a “faggot.”)

More than that, A Fantastic Woman is about identity, and how much we invest in sexual parts to define who someone is. Vega is often seen looking into reflective surfaces, and in one striking moment is naked in bed, a mirror between her legs. In another clever scene, she must masquerade as a man to get into Reyes’ gym so she can open his locker. She was born a man, but her awkwardness pretending to be one is palpable.

A Fantastic Woman was directed by Sebastian Lelio with some restraint. Vega, a nonprofessional actor, brings the qualities that sometimes only amateurs can bring, as at no point do we see overacting–we just see truth. This is a very fine film. I haven’t seen all five nominees yet but I’m fine with this one winning.

Review: Thoroughbreds

Standard

I don’t know if I’ll see a more unsettling film this year than Thoroughbreds. A lot of people are comparing it to Heathers, but they’re off the mark in that Heathers was intentionally funny. Thoroughbreds is as about as serious as an autopsy, which one character will require.

I was amazed I was watching it in a multiplex, as it is certainly not a crowd pleaser. It doesn’t seem to have a CinemaScore grade, but it did manage to make over a million dollars last weekend. I have a feeling it will drop precipitously, and that’s not because the film doesn’t have merit.

Two affluent Connecticut high school age girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) used to be friends. Taylor-Joy went on to be popular and go to Andover, while Cooke is a sociopath (she admits she has no emotions) has been removed from school while being charged with killing a horse, but if I heard the film right, she performed a mercy killing (which doesn’t make sense if she has no feelings). Cooke’s mom hires Taylor-Joy to tutor her daughter for the SATs, and the girls forge a new friendship based on Taylor-Joy’s hatred of her step-father (a very good Paul Sparks).

What’s unnerving about the film, which was written and directed by Cory Finley, is the vacuum in which the film takes place. We see the girls’ mothers, and Sparks, but that’s about it. Taylor-Joy’s spacious mansion serves as a kind of heated bubble in which no air escapes. There seems to be no outside world. The use of music is just one example of this–there are long stretches of no ambient music, but when the score does kick in, it’s very eerie (it’s by Eric Friedlander).

Also, Cooke’s performance is scary good, so good that I don’t know if I’ll be able to shake it when I see her next (probably in Ready Player One). At one rare instance away from Taylor-Joy’s house, Taylor-Joy visits Cooke’s house. Her new friend is standing in the backyard, staring into space. There’s also a wonderful scene in which Taylor-Joy and Cooke are talking while Cooke plays herself in a game of chess with very large pieces. I’ll admit I found myself paying attention to her moves, which were all correct.

Thoroughbreds does have some humor. Taylor-Joy impulsively loosens the wheel on her step-father’s bike. The film cuts to him in bandages, which is drolly funny until he abusively dresses down his wife for asking about his welfare.

The movie’s ending is not completely satisfactory, as it doesn’t add up, but it will stick with you. Whether you want that or not is another question.

Review: Red Sparrow

Standard

Red Sparrow is a hot mess, a lurid adolescent boy’s fantasy, dressed up as a feminist empowerment statement. Manohla Dargis called it “preposterously entertaining,” I just call it preposterous.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who, after an injury, is desperate to keep her frail mother in good health. Her uncle, a deputy minister of some sort of secret service, offers her a chance to become a Sparrow, a spy who is trained in the art of seduction and assassination. She accepts, and is assigned to get to know an American CIA agent in Budapest (Joel Edgerton), who is being given information by a Russian mole. Her mission: find out who the mole is.

We haven’t had a good old fashioned cat and mouse spy thriller in a while, and we still don’t have one. I put the fault mostly on the director, Francis Lawrence, who doesn’t seem to have a point of view. If the film had stuck to being completely over the top, it might have been fun, but instead takes itself too seriously and becomes deadly boring at times. He might have followed the lead of his star, who gives a performance of strength and cunning, but I fear Francis Lawrence doesn’t have the chops that Jennifer does.

It’s interesting that the Russians are bad again (we can probably have Trump to thank for that), and I never noticed before how much Matthias Schoenaerts looks like Vladimir Putin. Other Russians are played by distinctly non-Russians such as Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons, and thankfully they don’t sound like Boris Badanov (the use of language in Hollywood films is always oddly done–these characters are presumably speaking in Russian when they speak amongst themselves, but also speak English, but they do in a Russian accent).

Charlotte Rampling plays the “Matron,” who is the head of the Sparrow training, what Jennifer Lawrence calls “whore school.” It is very similar to the school shown in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are trained to leave all their individuality behind.

Most of the second half of the film is wondering whether Jennifer Lawrence has become a double agent or not. I’ll admit this makes for good suspense, especially in a scene in which Edgerton is being tortured by a guy who likes to peel the skin off of people.

Red Sparrow is ludicrous. For one thing, great ballerinas don’t have the build that Jennifer Lawrence does. And much of the Twitter-verse is complaining about a scene in which she dyes her hair platinum blonde without using gloves and then goes swimming in a chlorinated pool.

The film is also extremely violent. I usually don’t care, but the violence was too much for even me.

I found Red Sparrow to be mostly unpleasant and unfortunate.