Thursday, March 22, 2018


"Hello? It's #MeToo."

At this point, I suppose we should interpret Steven Soderbergh's 2013 retirement from filmmaking a bit more broadly. He didn't quit, he just "retired" from traditional Hollywood filmmaking (not that his career was ever truly centered on that). Since he announced that so-called retirement, he's produced, worked as a cinematographer, created an HBO series and an accompanying app, and directed Logan Lucky, eschewing the big studio release machine to get that one into theaters. Sadly, that proved to be a failed experiment, as the film wasn't exactly a box office smash. (The movie itself, however, was great fun,)

Now he's back with Unsane, a solid B-movie thriller shot entirely on iPhones. It's a technique that works well for a film centered on paranoia, insanity, and obsession, since these are all things our smart phones can easily exacerbate on a daily basis.

Claire Foy (utilizing an American accent almost as grating as Kate Winslet's) stars as Sawyer Valentini, a single young woman who has recently relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania. She's started a new banking job, is doing her best to subtly ignore the not-so-subtle sexual harassment from her boss, and uses a dating app to hook up, insisting her dates will get what they want, as long as they promise to leave her alone forever after.

She's got a past she can't seem to shake, the victim of a stalker (Joshua Leonard) she thought she'd left behind in Boston. When she starts to see him out of the corner of her eye, and in the form of one of her hook-ups, she begins to question her sanity, and figures it might be best to talk to a therapist about it.

This turns out to be a very bad idea.

What follows is part Cuckoo's Nest, part Shock Corridor, after Sawyer signs the wrong documents and finds herself placed in "voluntary commitment" at a mental hospital where, of course, there's nothing that makes her seem crazier than her screaming that she isn't. It also doesn't help that she's convinced her stalker has followed her to the hospital, and is working under an assumed name.

Trapped in the co-ed facility, she makes an enemy in the corn-rowed, shiv-carrying Violet (Juno Temple), and a friend in Nate (Jay Pharoah), an ex-junkie who seems to be as misplaced in the nuthouse as Sawyer believes she is.

From the beginning Soderbergh uses his iPhone's camera to invoke a feeling of claustrophobia and voyeurism, with scenes of Sawyer that feel like they're being secretly filmed from a distance (which they actually were), and extreme close-ups that don't give any of the actors much breathing room. The lack of any traditional Hollywood glamour, in any aspect of the filming, from the make-up, to the clothing, to the casting, to the sets, gives everything a good feeling of reality, which is countered by our uncertainty over Sawyer's grasp of it.

The low-budget technique also lends itself well to a story that hearkens back to the cheap exploitation films of the 1970's and 80's, when the issues of the day would be repackaged into metaphorical thrillers centered on things like drug use, assault, and revenge. Sawyer is every woman who has ever been gaslighted after reporting an assault, harassment, or even just apprehension over a guy's overly enthusiastic text messages, and Unsane is the ultimate "told you so."

Friday, March 9, 2018

'A Wrinkle In Time' Could Use More Of The Latter

"I'd help you, Meg, but I can't move an inch in this thing."

There's a lot riding on Disney's A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first film adaptation of what is one of the most popular young adult books of all time; it's the first $100 million film to be directed by an African American woman; the cast is ethnically diverse; and the protagonist is a girl. Pair all that with the fact that the film is opening a few weeks after Black Panther, the biggest African American film success ever, a film I bet not even a surprise sequel to Black Panther could knock out of that top box office spot, and it's a lot of responsibility for one quirky science fiction film to shoulder.

And Ava DuVernay's film, from a screenplay by Frozen-scribe Jennifer Lee, is not an unmitigated disaster. It does a lot of things right, the best of which is wearing its heart on its sleeve; it's nice to see a kids movie that isn't bogged down by knowing winks or cynicism. (I cried more than once.)

Set in a city that looks a lot like Los Angeles, the story centers on brainy outcast Meg (Storm Reid), a teenager who's bullied at school by the popular crowd, while still mourning the sudden disappearance of her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. She lives with her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also a scientist, and her precocious, and possibly psychic, adopted five-year-old brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

After standing up for herself at school, she catches the eye of the popular Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller) who is soon telling the self-conscious Meg that he likes her hair (a bit taken directly from the book, given some complicated added meaning with the casting of a black girl as Meg), while following her home for dinner.

These early scenes, along with the flashbacks to a younger Meg in her father's lab, prove that director DuVernay has a gift for directing young actors, and an ability to convey the inner insecurities of teenage girls. Is there another young adult novel she's willing to adapt? Maybe one with a story firmly planted in reality? Because it's when the fantasy starts to enter the film that A Wrinkle in Time falters

The first problem is the three "Mrs," the guiding forces who, in the book, take on different forms, most often appearing as old women, a conventional witch, or just...light. In the film, they are, the majority of the time, youngish, and corpreal. Reese Witherspoon is Mrs Whatsit, the chattiest and youngest (by a couple billion years). Mrs Who, who speaks almost entirely in famous quotations, is played by Mindy Kaling. And Mrs Which, the oldest and wisest of the three, is played by Oprah Winfrey, because of course.

The choice to glitter up their faces to within an inch of their lives, and layer them with miles and miles of the most unflattering fabrics imaginable is perplexing. Perhaps Oprah's blonde locks, and layers of metal and metallics are supposed to make her appear regal and strong, but it mainly looks like she couldn't move much, which is probably why she spends most of the film standing in one place. (Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, is forced to run down a hill wearing three feet of pannier on the sides of her skirt. There's no way to make that look graceful.)

"How come Oprah doesn't have to run??"

The kids adventures across the universe start out promising on the lush planet of Uriel, with its flying flowers and jutting mountains. Less enchanting is Mrs Whatsit's transformation into a flying fig leaf (wither the winged centaurs of the novel?) in a scene that veers into the silly when it should be magical.

The film gets less visually interesting as it moves on, making a stop on a dark lava rock planet to visit a seer known as the "Happy Medium" (Seth Galifianakis, bringing his trademarked and much needed deadpan comedy to the part), before landing on the conformity-filled planet of Camazotz, home to the universe's dark force, known simply, as IT, which is visualized, once again, as something akin to molten lava.

Not enough time is spent in any of these worlds, and the film, though two hours long, feels oddly rushed. Disney made a previous attempt to adapt A Wrinkle in Time into a miniseries in 2003, and while the result was terrible, the format feels more fitting for the material. If The Hobbit can be made into three movies, the same could certainly be done with Wrinkle.

Because the moments that are supposed to be the most awe-inspiring fall flat, it ends up being at its best when it's at its simplest. The pure joy Charles Wallace conveys at the beginning of the journey makes his turn at the end all the more heartbreaking. (Young Deric McCabe is really good.) An emotional moment between Meg and her father is effective because it is just raw emotion on screen, special effects-free. And Mrs Which's words of wisdom to young Meg, about self acceptance and inner strength, work because they're true, and because it's Oprah up there. No bedazzled eyebrows needed.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Spare Yourself From 'Red Sparrow'

Red Sparrow is a thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian ballerina who turns into a spy. How could that possibly go wrong? It sounds just ridiculous enough to be fun, with the added star power of a kick-ass JLaw. Instead, Red Sparrow is a slow slog that features nary a single pirouette-turned-kick-to-the head. In fact, Lawrence spends a depressing amount of screen time being sexually degraded, beaten up, or both.

Which isn't to say her Dominika doesn't have her strengths. She is, after all, able to overcome a devastating (and absolutely horrific) dancing injury in the span of a few months, though it is a career ender. The end of her prima ballerina life also means no more Bolshoi apartment or medical care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson).

In swoops her lecherous uncle Vanya (!) (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Russian intelligence agent who offers to help her and her mother as long as Dominika offers herself up as bait in a sting operation against a government official. When things don't go as planned, and Dominika becomes an expendable witness, her uncle gives her a choice: death or whore school.

Actually, "whore school" is what Dominika dubs the spy program she's recruited into, although its students are officially known as "Sparrows." They're all good looking young Russians--both male and female--who are taught to use their sexual attractiveness and wiles to get what they need out of the enemy. In Domininka's case, that enemy is CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is working with a Russian mole her uncle wants to uncover.

Charlotte Rampling plays the icy head mistress of this school of espionage blow jobs, and she's one of a cast of several surprising veteran actors (Ciaran Hinds; Mary-Louise Parker; Jeremy Irons) who make an appearance, most appropriating unfortunate Boris and Natasha level accents.

Lawrence's isn't much better, though she gets the icy Russian blonde demeanor down pretty well, burying the natural effervescence she seems to exhibit when she's anywhere but on the big screen. This is the first film in which she's agreed to appear nude, and I suppose I can understand that decision, in a way. The nudity certainly isn't meant to titillate (though it no doubt will, for some), as it happens during a rape scene, a torture scene, and a scene where Dominika uses her body to intimidate a fellow Sparrow. It's nudity as the ultimate boner killer.

More perturbing is how often her character is beaten and tortured. Sparrows are taught to use their minds and their bodies, but not really how to fight, so the film isn't similar to something like Atomic Blonde, where the female spy gives just as well as she gets. 

But in watching it I realized, that isn't new territory for Jennifer Lawrence. Her break-out role in Winter's Bone includes a brutal beating scene, and her last film, mother!, featured even worse. Of course, she's not just walking through meadows in her big franchise roles either, but at least in The Hunger Games and X-Men, she's able to fight back.

Lawrence has said she's taking a bit of a break after this, and I hope when she comes back to the screen she departs from some of her previous choices, instead choosing a role that is clearly written for someone her age, not ten years older, doesn't include any punches to the face, and allows her to be the funny and naturally appealing woman that has been stifled in too many films.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Shimmer, 'Annihilation,' Shimmer!

If there's something shimmering/In your neighborhood/Who you gonna call?

Annihilation had a rocky road leading to its release, and in fact, is only making it to the big screen in the U.S., Canada, and China; Netflix will be streaming it for the rest of the world. The trouble seems to have stemmed from a fairly typical clash between studio bosses and the film's director, Alex Garland, and producer, Paul Rubin. Paramount found the film too "intellectual," Garland didn't want to make changes, and Rudin had final cut. Garland and Rudin won the fight, so it almost feels like the Netflix release is a bit of a punishment.

I think the studio's complaints were unfounded. The problem with Annihilation isn't that it's too heady; it's that it's not heady enough. It shoots for a 2001: A Space Oddity level of trippiness, but never goes full throttle, leaving us with an unsatisfying mutation of action, horror, and science fiction.

Natalie Portman stars as a Lena, an ex-soldier turned Johns Hopkins biology professor who is mourning the assumed death of her husband (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who left for a mysterious mission a year ago and never returned. She learns that his mission lead him to an area of the Gulf coast that three years prior had suffered some kind of meteor hit, resulting in a mysterious growing mass of seemingly destructive energy, nicknamed "the shimmer," that several teams of soldiers have entered, never to be heard from again.

Lena, determined to find out what happened to her husband, and possibly save him, volunteers to join a team of women set to enter and study the shimmer. They include the world's most intense psychologist (Jennifer Jason Lee, odd and riveting), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny).

Annihilation's diverse, all-female cast is something to be applauded, and it gets a lot of bonus points for that, especially since it's treated like no big deal. There's some vague mention of how the previous expeditions have all been men, implying that perhaps gender may play a role in a team's success inside, but aside from that, their gender doesn't really come into play, which is refreshing.

I just wish once they were inside the shimmer, they didn't consistently do stupid things. Part of their behavior can possibly be chalked up to what the shimmer begins to do to their minds. Shortly after they arrive they lose entire days, with no memory of how they set-up camp, or eating a third of their rations (an interesting bit of head-fuckery that is abandoned too quickly). So perhaps that's why, after almost losing someone to an attack by a swamp beast, they decide it would be a good idea hop in some rowboats and float through the swamp.

As for the other things they find in the shimmer, and what's causing the phenomenon, well, that's best left for audiences to discover themselves (which is why I'm not linking to the trailer, which gives way too much away). But I will say that, visually, it includes some truly memorable and beautifully colorful floral and fauna.

The women all have their theories about what is going on, and a big part of it seems fairly obvious; it's not something a biologist needs to explain, especially when said biologist's main reaction is, "You know that's literally impossible, right?"

Ultimately, director Alex Garland's need to answer some questions while leaving others a mystery is just an exercise in frustration. I'd have been happier never really knowing what the hell is going on, instead of trying to figure out a puzzle where half of the pieces don't even seem to fit. Annihilation tries to be a visually rich acid trip that causes one to question the self, the planet, and the evolution of life, but it left me longing for a higher dose.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Fear Of A 'Black Panther'

There have been, and will be, many excellent think pieces and critiques written about Black Panther, and it's likely anything I would have to say about it, or even could say about it in the short amount of time I have between seeing it and having to write a review, is going to (pardon the terrible pun), pale in comparison. So, I'm skipping a traditional review this time.

But I still have thoughts about it!

* First, all the hype, cultural importance, and expectation aside, Black Panther is an excellent comic book movie. Perhaps one of the best I've ever seen. That it can stand alone, completely apart from the Marvel Universe, and is accessible to anyone who has never seen a single Marvel movie, may irk some of the more diehard comic book fans. But I think it's one of the movie's greatest strengths.

* Last year’s Wonder Woman finally brought an iconic female superhero to the big screen. While the movie wasn’t perfect, what it symbolized was important: finally an opportunity for girls to see themselves in the superhero movies that permeate the theaters year after year. There’s even more expectation for Black Panther. Sure, there have been movies featuring black comic books characters and superheroes before (Blade; Hancock), but none have been based on a classic character, or been part of a major franchise. That the world has been craving this should not come as a surprise, and neither should the fact that it is a certifiable hit even before its actual release.

* I believe that anyone who isn’t descended from slaves can’t fully understand why black America would be craving this kind of story. So many American families have the luxury of being able to trace their culture all the way back to a village their ancestors might have lived in. But much of the African American quest for cultural identification ends at the point their stolen ancestors landed on the shores of America. Seeing a film that not only embraces and celebrates African culture, but presents it as the ultimate strength (Wakanda is, after all, the most advanced nation in the world), is important.

* Black Panther is an amazingly beautiful film. Director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who has been nominated this year for an Oscar for her work on the film Mudbound) present the land of Wakanda as an illuminated, shining fantasy of Afrofuturism, bordered by waterfalls, with cities steeped in traditionalism and hi-tech advances. Brightly colored open air markets are surrounded by elevated trains and the occasional passing space ship. Citizens are dressed in traditional garb, while utilizing the latest in tech gadgetry. It requires more than one viewing to soak it all in.

* There's an amazing fight scene in an underground casino, where Coogler has the camera follow various characters around the room as they fight the bad guys, that's seamlessly edited to look like a single shot, and it's glorious. It's followed by a car chase in Korea that ends with one of the film's biggest laughs (and there are many laughs to be had throughout).

* The cast is almost entirely people of color, with two exceptions. One is the evil arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and the other is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). I could have done without the token addition of Freeman, who serves no integral need to the plot. On the other hand, I appreciated Serkis's villain only in that he is ridiculous and completely expendable, giving way to the film's real baddie, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

* Killmonger is an extraordinary villain. He's not some alien superbeing with a goal of destroying the world. He's a human with some completely valid and rational beefs. And while what he ultimately wants to do is a little extreme, my main reaction was, "He has a point! Maybe it's worth a try!"

* Speaking of destroying the world: The destruction in Black Panther, when compared to the massive damage done to entire cities in so many Marvel movies, is relatively small beans, and that's really refreshing. It does not suffer from too many villains and too much destruction, (although the stakes for the characters themselves, and much of the world, couldn't be higher).

* Wonder Woman may have given little girls a superhero to relate to, but Black Panther gives them an entire army, in the form of the Dora Milaje, the all female special forces that serve as Black Panther's bodyguards. And how much did I love the casting of Danai "Michonne" Gurira as the head of the Dora Milaje? A LOT. She may risk being typecast as a strong black woman who knows how to swing a sword, but as long as she's OK with that, I am here for it.

* In fact, every single woman in the film--which also includes Angele Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, and the delightful Letitia Wright, seen recently in the "Black Museum" episode of Black Mirror--is presented as strong, smart, and independent. None are there simply to serve as eye candy or as a disposable love interest. And that is, in every sense of the word, marvelous.

And so is Black Panther.