Friday, April 20, 2018

'I Feel Pretty' Normal

Have you met my good friend Maria/The craziest girl on the block?

I Feel Pretty is the story of  Renee, an attractive woman who does not believe she is attractive, who wishes with all her heart that she were "undeniably pretty" and, after a bonk on the head at a SoulCycle class, wakes up to find her wish has come true.

It's important to realize that Renee isn't supposed to be some hideous troll, and casting Amy Schumer, a comedian and actress who has never been afraid to poke fun at her very normal, though certainly not "Hollywood beauty" level looks, is actually perfect. Renee is not an ugly woman, but she is a woman with extreme esteem issues. She is so convinced she doesn't stack up against the beauties that surround her in New York that she slinks through her life, apologizing for her very existence.

The fact that she works for Lili LeClare, a cosmetics company, certainly doesn't help with those esteem issues, especially since she's also stuck in the company's online division, which is just a two-person office buried in a Chinatown basement. She has two besties (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, both wonderful, if underutilized), and the three of them do single girl things like bar hopping, and posting a profile on a group dating web site, but none of this is enough for Renee. She can't help feeling her looks are preventing her from finding true happiness.

Which brings us to that SoulCycle class, a concussion, and her metamorphosis.

I Feel Pretty comes so close to doing something unexpected with Renee's transformation, but doesn't have the guts to follow through. I so wanted the movie to push the idea that Renee's head bonking merely changed her own perceptions of herself, so that when she looks in that mirror she sees not a completely different woman, but herself, and the magic lies in the fact that she no longer has any reason to believe she is anything less than beautiful.

But this isn't the route the movie takes. It's clear Renee thinks she looks like someone else because she's convinced her friends are never going to recognize her, (a joke that grows old quickly, especially since a few sentences from her friends could quickly prove to her that she hasn't changed at all). As a result, much of the comedy that follows is centered on the idea that someone who looks like Renee shouldn't be acting the way she's acting.

With her newfound confidence, Renee is free to apply for a front facing position at Lili LeClare, believing it's a stepping stone to a modeling career. That she gets the job owes less to her chutzpah and more to the fact that company boss, Avery LeClare (Michelle Williams, who basically steals the movie with her hilariously pale and motionless face, and self-consciously squeaky voice), believes someone who looks like Renee will be able to offer her insights into the "normal" women she hopes to sell her lower-priced "diffusion" cosmetic line to.

After meeting and essentially picking up a guy named Ethan at a dry cleaners (Rory Scovel, endearing as an insecure, Zumba-loving, beta male), they go on a date to Coney Island, where Renee decides to enter a bikini contest at a divvy boardwalk bar, and it's during scenes like this that the movie truly loses its footing. Renee, with her improvised t-shirt and rolled-up shorts "bikini," commands the stage like she's Henny Youngman in the body of Gisele Bundchen, cracking wise with the audience before grinding on stage. (In other words, she's not unlike the real Amy Schumer.)

In Ethan's eyes, she's to be envied, as she appears to be the least self-conscious, bravest person he's ever met. But the comedy is supposed to come from watching a perfectly normal looking woman roll around on stage, twerking, and pouring water on her chest. How ridiculous!

The movie also makes the mistake of eventually turning Renee into a narcissistic monster who tries to change her friends before abandoning them for prettier ones. Because of course it is impossible to be both confident and a nice person.

I Feel Pretty's ultimate messages, as clunky and ham-fisted as they may be, are at least good ones, even if they aren't particularly profound. Yes, all women have their insecurities, even supermodels. True beauty does, indeed, come from within. And most importantly, self-confidence can be the key to happiness.

If only it were as easy as banging your head on the floor to get it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

'You Were Never Really Here': It's Hammer Time

And the award for Best Use of Rosie and the Originals in a Film goes to...

You Were Never Really Here seems an odd venture, on its surface. It's an aggressively bleak and violent film by a female director, Lynne Ramsay, based on an aggressively bleak and violent novella by a writer, Jonathan Ames, best known for his comedic writing.

But it's actually not that surprising considering their collective of works. Lynne Ramsay's previous films include the brutal We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the exceedingly grim Ratcatcher, and Jonathan Ames demonstrated an obvious fondness for gritty detective stories with his comedic TV take on the genre, Bored to Death. And if you look close, there's some very, very dark humor to be found in the You Were Never Really Here, amidst Ramsay's unrelenting murk.

Joaquin Phoenix is at his most grizzled in the part of Joe, a middle aged New Yorker who lives with his aged and slightly senile mother (Judith Roberts). We get Joe's history in brief but visceral flashbacks. He's a veteran; a survivor, along with his mother, of domestic abuse at the hands of his hammer-wielding father; and he's been witness to the often horrific outcomes of human trafficking, a trade he fights against as a kind of vigilante-for-hire who has adopted his father's weapon of choice. (The film's marketing attempt to start a trending hashtag with #bringthehammer is a tad tone deaf.)

A senator hires Joe to help find his sixteen-year-old runaway daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a likely victim of sex trafficking, and Joe accepts the job with almost no questions asked. His one mistake.

You can never accuse Joaquin Phoenix of phoning in a role; he always throws his entire body weight at a character, and this time that body weight is bulked up, his battered dad bod on full display in several scenes. With his long grey hair and beard, cracked hands, and visible scars, just looking at him made me wince. And that was before he fights the bad guys.

The story owes much to classic noir and its tales of double crosses and corruption, but ends up straying just a little too far into the ridiculous. Maybe I've been watching too much Law & Order: SVU  lately (correction, there's no maybe about that), but the trafficking story Joe gets sucked into reeks of the kind of morbid and unbelievable exploitation and corruption you might find in a Very Special two-part episode of the series.

You Were Never Really Here almost falls into the camp of movie I detest, where bleakness is there for the sake of bleakness, and the audience is forced to witness horrible things they already know are horrible, resulting in nothing new learned, just agony. Ultimately Ramsay and Phoenix are able save the movie from that fate through the strength of vision and performance.

Ramsay fills the movie with some beautiful imagery that often belies its sad and tragic content. Johnny Greenwood's pulsating score pushes the film's brisk 90 minutes ever forward. A masterfully edited scene using night vision cameras and Rosie and the Originals' Angel Baby as its soundtrack gave me chills. And it all culminates with what I interpreted to be one of the most darkly comic endings ever (I was the only one in the theater who seemed to be laughing) with Phoenix forcing us to question Joe's commitment to never ending misery.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Silence Equals Life In 'A Quiet Place'

Shhhh...Be vewy, vewy quiet...

A Quiet Place has a gimmick almost worthy of a William Castle movie. Aliens have invaded Earth, and while they're fast and deadly, they're also completely blind and lacking in any kind olfactory gifts. But they can hear. And if they hear you, they will kill you. (I can just see Castle introducing the film, imploring audiences NOT...TO...SCREAM!)

With the above, I've given more exposition than the actual movie does, and that's a good thing. Co-writer, director, and star John Krasinski trusts the audience enough to thrust us right into the worst of this planet's new reality, opening with a title card that reads "89 Days After," and showing us a ghost town strewn with abandoned cars; walls plastered with "Missing" posters; a newspaper blowing in the wind, with a headline reading "IT'S SOUND!"; and one family, quietly wandering the aisles of a ransacked drug store, barefoot.

After a cruel lesson in just how important silence is in this new world, we jump ahead a year. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is now very pregnant. Together with dad Lee (John Krasinski, Blunt's real life husband ), they've created a silent haven farm, where their bare footsteps are muffled by carefully laid sand, Monopoly is played with soft tokens, not plastic, and dinner is eaten by hand on kale leaf plates.

They have a young son, Noah (Marcus Abbott), and a deaf, pre-teen daughter named Regan (beautifully played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, so good in last year's Wonderstruck). Their daughter gives the family a post-apocalyptic advantage: they can communicate with each other silently, using sign language.

While Reagn's deafness may seem like a deadly handicap--after all, she can never know how much noise she might be making, or if danger is sneaking up behind her--the film instead focuses on the advantages of her deafness, which is a nice change.

Krasinski, best known for his years playing Jim on The Office, has directed two previous films (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and The Hollars), and nothing in that oeuvre would lead one to believe he'd have such a deft hand when it comes to horror. I was reminded of the surprise I felt after seeing last year's Get Out. Where'd these comedic actors get their horror chops? But really, it shouldn't come as a surprise; horror, like comedy, is all about timing.

In a movie where sound is the biggest threat, you can be sure there are plenty of jump scares. But Krasinski plays cleverly with the trope, so that while those sudden loud sounds will make you jump, that reaction is two-fold. It's the visceral reaction we all have to sudden loud sounds, paired with the knowledge that those sounds may mean imminent death to our heroes. (There's also a funny nod to the cliched "cat scare," using raccoons.)

At a taut 95 minutes, A Quiet Place doesn't waste time leading to a relentless climax that is both a series of worst case scenarios, and a birthing scene that would make Scientologists proud. Much of it is basically a silent film, and the film's greatest gift is its cast, who all give masterful silent performances. Blunt is able to make us laugh and cry using just her eyes, and Krasinki is a master of the silent take, having honed his "re-acting" on The Office, where silent looks at the camera said more than dialogue ever could. This is a horror movie where instead of wanting to scream at the characters for doing something dumb, you'll want to scream for them, since they can't.

Monday, April 2, 2018

2018 San Francisco International Film Festival

The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this Wednesday night, and every year it comes around, I have fantasies of taking the two+ weeks it runs off, and just taking in as many movies as I possibly can in that span. I probably wouldn't see much daylight, but daylight is overrated anyway.

Alas, that's not possible, so instead, I comb through the schedule, make time for the movies I can, and make note of those I can't, in the hopes that they'll eventually get some kind of general release (something that's becoming more assured with the increase in streaming services, including from SFFILM itself).

Of course, it's not just the movies themselves; it's being able to see filmmakers and actors talk about their work; it's the tributes to legends; and, of course, the opening and closing night parties. Here's a dozen or so (and that's just scratching the surface!) films and events that instantly piqued my interest.

Opening Night: A Kid Like Jake
Wednesday, April 4, 2018 7:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Transparent director Silas Howard is scheduled to make an appearance at the opening night premiere of his new film starring Claire Danes and Jim Parsons as parents of a possibly transgender child. The opening night party follows at the Design Center Galleria.

Friday, April 6, 2018 6:00 p.m. Creativity Theater
Sunday, April 8, 2018 2:15 p.m. Victoria Theatre

If you're going to make a list of the best films of the 1970s, director Hal Ashby's name is going to appear on that list at least once, maybe twice, and possibly even six times. Amy Scott's documentary takes a look at his life and work, through his own words, and the words of those who worked with him.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Friday, April 6, 2018 9:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Neil Gaiman and John Cameron Mitchell team up for this tale of aliens and British punks in 1970's London. I probably don't need to say more than that, except that Mitchell and Gaiman are expected to attend this presentation, so you'll have to camp out pretty early to get tickets!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Saturday, April 7, 2018 3:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Monday, April 9, 2018 12:30 p.m. Creativity Theater

The trailer for this documentary about Mr. Rogers went viral a few weeks back, and I know it made me tear up watching it. Mr. Rogers was never cool, and if you admitted to watching him past a certain age, you were probably made fun of. These days it feels like it's those kids who made fun of Mr. Rogers who are winning, and championing kindness is no longer a societal priority. That's where the tears come in.

Tickets are at rush, but this one is definitely getting a theatrical release, so hang tight if you can't get into the festival's presentation.

A Tribute to Wayne Wang: Smoke
Saturday, April 7, 2018 7:30 p.m. Dolby Cinema at 1275 Market

This tribute to the Bay Area filmmaker doesn't feature one of his San Francisco-set films, alas, but the 1995, Brooklyn-set Smoke does feature a great performance by Harvey Keitel, and the opportunity to see it at the amazing Dolby Cinema theater shouldn't be passed up.

Saturday, April 7, 2018 10:00 p.m. Roxie Theater
Monday, April 9, 2018 9:00 p.m. Roxie Theater

One of the things I appreciate the most about the Festival is that every year they feature horror and genre films in their "Dark Wave" series of late night screenings. This rape Revenge thriller from France doesn't look like it's for the weak-hearted, but it certainly couldn't arrive at a better time.

Tribute to Charlize Theron: Tully
Sunday, April 8, 2018 7:30 p.m. Castro Theatre

Yes, Theron is scheduled to appear at this tribute which includes a screening of Tully, her second collaboration (the amazing Young Adult was the first) with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.

A Celebration of Oddball Films with Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra
Monday, April 9, 2018 Castro 8PM

If you've ever been to a screening of films at the Oddball Films archives in the Mission, I bet your brain instantly brings up memories of the smell of the place. It smells like movies. Sadly, Stephen Parr, the curator and master of the collection, passed away last year, and this evening pays tribute to the man and his cinematic passions, with a live performance by the Red Room Orchestra.

Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle
Tuesday, April 10, 2018 9:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 6:00 p.m. Creativity Theater
Tuesday, April 17, 2018 4:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre

I'll admit, it's the title alone that got me interested in this one. But in this case, this documentary about a Spanish matriarch who indeed lived her life goals of lots of kids, a castle, and a monkey, and has a hoarded castle to prove it, may live up to its title.

Centerpiece: Sorry to Bother You
Thursday, April 12, 2018 6:30 p.m. Castro Theatre
Thursday, April 12, 2018 8:00 p.m. Grand Lake Theatre

Bay Area musician Boots Riley makes his directorial debut with this surreal comedy set in Oakland. It kind of defies explanation, so I recommend watching the trailer, and then buying your tickets ASAP.

Godard, Mon Amour
Saturday, April 14, 2018 5:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Sunday, April 15, 2018 8:15 p.m. BAMPFA

This biopic focuses on the late 1960s life and career of nouvelle vague icon Jean-Luc Godard, and his relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky as they get swept up into the social movements sweeping France.

Bad Reputation
Saturday, April 14, 2018 8:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Joan Jett is scheduled to make an appearance at the screening of this documentary about one of rock and roll's most legendary rockers.

Closing Night: Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot
Sunday, April 15, 2018 7:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Did you know Gus Van Sant released a film last year starring Matthew McConaughey, set at the "Suicide Forest" in Japan? Because I sure didn't! Luckily, it sounds like Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, Van Sant's latest, is getting better buzz, and a bigger release. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as quadriplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan, and looks to include the offbeat humor that made Van Sant such a 90's darling. The director is scheduled to appear at this closing night screening, along with composer Danny Elfman.

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.

Friday, February 9, 2018

'Fifty Shades Freed' Is The Ultimate In Anti-Climax

With this butt plug, I thee wed.

The Fifty Shades trilogy comes to its end (oh, please let this be the end!) with Fifty Shades Freed, and it has me wondering more than ever just who these movies are for.

Clearly, the Fifty Shades books were beloved by millions of women who discovered you can read dirty books on the subway without anyone knowing, as long as it's on a Kindle. I could only get through the first one (barely) but I could understand the appeal to the same kinds of readers who enjoy romance novels, but want the sex a bit dirtier and rougher. Those women weren't afraid of dicks.

But apparently, the creators of the film adaptations--two male directors, and a male screenwriter (E.L. James's husband, Niall Leonard)--are. The posters promise you won't want to miss the climax, but that climax does not feature even a peek at Christian Grey's ultimate weapon, and that's some serious bullshit.

Three films without any full frontal male nudity isn't an accident. That's a conscious decision, and a clear indication the filmmakers do not fully appreciate the dirtiness of the books. Or perhaps Jamie Dornan has something to be ashamed of, and had a no-dick clause in his contract. To that I say, then hire someone else, because it's not like his performance couldn't be easily replaced. He's been a leaden presence (and not the good kind) through the end, further proving how much Dakota Johnson has had to carry the franchise.

Indeed, Johnson's Anastasia has been the series's only saving grace, while also being completely frustrating. She gives Anastasia a knowing sense of humor, never taking any of Christian's sex games too seriously and being snarky when it's required. She's one of the film's only sources of comedy, surrounded by plotlines and performances that are completely lacking in it.

The frustration comes in her Anastasia accepting the narcissistic asshole that is Christian Grey. It's obvious Dakota Johnson is smarter than the character she is playing, and she can only push through that stupidity so far before plot dictates she do something dumb, like marrying Christian Grey, which is how the film opens, with the wedding vows taking place over the opening credits, and Christian and Anastasia knowingly pronounced "man and wife," and not the more acceptably modern "husband and wife."

A honeymoon in Paris and Nice follows, with make-out sessions overlooked by the Eiffel Tower, and Ana's beachside toplessness frowned upon by Christian. It isn't long before their romantic interlude is cut short by the needs of the film's ridiculous thriller plot.

Fifty Shades Darker ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Ana's former boss Jack Hyde (HYDE!) stalking her and seeking revenge for his firing after he attacked her at work. Hyde is played by Eric Johnson, who was good on Showtime's The Knick, but is utterly terrible here, playing a perpetually red-eyed and unshaven character who began as a book editor, but has somehow turned into a master criminal who can easily sabotage helicopters, break into secure office buildings, and perform acts of cyber theft and arson. Of course!

Fifty Shades Freed's aim at the sexual thriller genre is as subtle as a Lifetime movie, and clearly filler; something to give the audience in between Ana and Christian's arguing over Christian's jealousy, and the sex, which, after three films, is no longer shocking in any way, even if Ana still manages to react to things like handcuffs like she's never seen anything like them before.

The Ana of Fifty Shades Freed is supposed to be stronger and assertive, insisting she have things like a career, and friends, and an equal say in her marriage. But she gets none of that without consistent pouting and push back from Christian. She never truly challenges the notion that while domination may be fun in the "playroom," it will get very old very quickly in every day life. And a marriage centered on sex and arguing with a domineering man about his constant needs can not be saved by babies and butt plugs.

Friday, January 12, 2018

'Phantom Thread,' Caught In A Gothic Romance

"I want your drama, the touch of your hand..."

There's something about putting on a perfect dress that has either been made for you, or at least feels as if it has. It can feel like somehow, this dress knows who you are; what you want to accentuate and what you want to hide, dress and wearer both bringing out the best in the other. The perfect dress can be a silent exclamation of self, helping you tell the world, "This is me, at my best."

It's almost a romance.

P.T. Anderson's Phantom Thread, centered on mid-1950's haute couture dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), is also an odd romance. Woodcock, along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, manicured perfection), runs the House of Woodcock from the same multi-storied, London building they both call home. Their clients include royalty and socialites, and Reynolds lives a rigid life that allows for a live-in muse, though not marriage.

As the film begins, he sits down to breakfast with his sister and the latest in what is clearly a long line of women who he keeps around as long as they provide some kind of amusement and inspiration. Once they become annoying, he is through with them. "Is there nothing I can say to draw your attention back on me?" his latest muse asks. There isn't, and it doesn't take long before Reynolds has moved on to another muse, instantly infatuated with the slightly gawky and endearingly clumsy waitress at a hotel near his country home.

Alma (Vicky Krieps), a German immigrant at least half Woodcock's age, appears to be the perfect muse for Reynolds, eager, open, and with the perfect shape. (Sister Cyril can't resist telling Alma "he likes a bit of a belly," as she records Alma's measurements at the end of Alma and Reynolds's first date).

Being fitted for a dress, and being praised for perfect proportions, ("It's my job to give you breasts," says Reynolds, after Alma apologizes for her small size), is a form of seduction Reynolds has likely used before, and Alma is not immune.

But Alma shows some steadfastness from the beginning, never letting him get the last word he so desperately seeks in almost every conversation. She questions his aesthetic, and challenges his rigidity. It's clear Alma will not be discarded so easily.

"I want your horror, I want your design..."

I've seen Phantom Thread twice now. I initially went into it with perhaps too much enthusiasm directed at the wrong thing. Combining one of my favorite filmmakers with a story centered on my favorite period of fashion (almost every dress I own is older than I am by decades), seemed like something too good to be true. I was expecting too much from the fashion in the film, which, while beautiful, is nothing that would have made it into the history books.

Upon second viewing, I realized that's kind of the point. Anderson and costume designer Mark Bridges did a lot of research, and were influenced by the work and lives of couturiers Balenciaga, Dior, and Charles James. But they didn't choose to just copy some of their most elaborate gowns. What Reynolds Woodcock creates is beautiful, but in many ways as staid and stiff as he is.

Near the end of the movie he goes on a rant after hearing a longtime client has begun to shop at a different house, searching for something new and "chic." He screams about how much he detests that little word, chic. Reynolds has singular vision, but he's been at it for years, and he doesn't seem too interested in innovation.

Once I got past obsessing about the clothes, I was better able to appreciate the intricacies of the story and the very, very, weird and Gothic romance at the center of it. Reynolds, like many a self-centered man, has major mother issues. He designed the dress for his mother's second wedding, and he is forever haunted by her, designing for her approval, which will never again come. A romance with someone like that might seem doomed from the beginning, but Alma's solution drives the film firmly into the realm of sublime dark comedy.

The film is not only about a romance, but is itself deeply romantic. Johnny Greenwood's classical and ever-present score is lush and almost a character unto itself; I can't imagine the movie succeeding without it, so integral is the mood it sets. Anderson was his own cinematographer, and photographs the film so that it frequently seems to take place on an overcast day, with muted light that allows its jewel-toned fashions to pop off the screen. (See it projected in 70mm if you can).

Daniel Day Lewis has famously said this will be his last acting role. Whether that's true or not, it's interesting to see him attempt to leave on a note of subtlety. This is not like many of the bombastic roles he's played in the past, but it is no less impressive. The way he is able to convey utter annoyance and contempt by merely flexing his jaw and turning his head illustrates more than screaming ever could.

His scenes with Vicky Krieps have a magical frisson, and it's fitting that a relative unknown should be cast against him. It's easy to assume she might wilt opposite someone like Daniel Day Lewis, but like Alma, Krieps doesn't do the expected in any of her scenes with him. In one of those scenes, an epic battle over a home cooked meal, its clear much of their dialogue is improvised, which gives the whole argument the sting of painful reality.

Two viewings of Phantom Thread may not be enough. Like the reaction to a well made dress, first you are taken in by its aesthetic. Then you can appreciate its construction. After that comes the joy in slipping it on again, and again...