Friday, August 10, 2018

'The Meg': OK, I'll Bite

"Pshaw. I thought you said this thing was big."

The Meg is a movie featuring Jason Statham fighting a giant, prehistoric shark called the megaladon. For some, that will be all the information you need to know you're going to stay far, far away. For others, like me, it's all you need to know to say, "Oh hell yes. I'm watching that."
That said, I did go into the movie with two pretty firm expectations. First, that Jason Statham would have to take his shirt off, and it being a movie set on the ocean, he be both wet and shirtless. Second, if he didn't at least try to punch the shark in the face at some point, I'd have to consider the film a complete failure.

It was with relief that I quickly learned that Statham hadn't been miscast as some kind of scientist, or a marine biologist. Instead, he's Jonas Taylor, a... guy who's good at rescuing people who are trapped in the ocean? I guess? The Meg opens with him and his team in the middle of such a rescue, trying to save a crew trapped in a sunken submarine. When he sees something huge start to crash into the side of the sub, Jonas makes the decision to leave a man behind in order to save his team and the rest of the crew, who ultimately don't believe his big fish story.

Years later, an underwater research facility called Mana One is exploring the Mariana trench, convinced it's deeper than previously thought. When a submersible breaks through the trench's cool, creamy, thermocline (delicious!) and is attacked by something huge, leaving them trapped, there's only one man who can help.

No, not Aquaman. Jonas Taylor.
Now, I'll admit, everything I know about deep sea exploration I learned from watching The Abyss, so I was under the impression that along with the dangers of underwater aliens, diving at those depths can be treacherous, with the need for slow decompression lest you risk the bends, or worse. But I guess Statham's character is special because all he needs to do is hold his nose, pop his ear drums, and he's good to go.

Like many a modern blockbusters, The Meg is a co-production between the U.S. and China. This is reflected in its easily translatable, and therefore often wooden dialogue ("That living fossil just killed my friend!"), and its casting, which includes Li Binbing as Suyin, an oceanographer, Winston Chao as her father, Dr. Zhang, and Shuya Sophia Cai as Meiying, Suyin's adorably precocious daughter. (The young actress's moments with Statham are surprisingly effective.)

The international cast also includes Masi Oka, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Ruby Rose, and Rainn Wilson as the token asshole billionaire funding the Mana One. Apart from that last one, The Meg isn't short on attractive cast members, including, yes, a wet and shirtless Statham (though, ironically it happens during a shower and not a diving scene).

Pretty people and a giant shark. What could go wrong? A PG-13 rating, that's what. The Meg is seriously lacking a commitment to going--pardon the pun--overboard. The death count, for a shark that could easily eat a bay full of swimmers in one gulp, is disappointingly slim, and the lack of cringe-inducing carnage means one's mind begins to wander.

I began to ponder why the shark was even bothering with these puny people when it had a whole ocean full of whales to snack on. Did it have some kind of grudge? The research center's deep dive into the trench is revealed to be the ultimate cause of the megaladon's escape to shallower waters, but we're also supposed to believe Jonas had a run-in with it years before, which, what? And also--

Hold that Jason Statham, free diving, going mano on mano with that megaladon?

All is forgiven, The Meg. All is forgiven

Friday, August 3, 2018

'The Darkest Minds' Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

At least there are no zombies

The Darkest Minds is the latest big screen adaptation of a science fiction YA book series centered on an outcast teenage girl. Let me stop right there and say, as prevalent as the set-up may seem to be right now, I'm all for it. We've had decades and decades of science fiction centered on outcast boys. We've got catching up to do.

The film has a formula, and it definitely sticks to it. You've got a post-apocalyptic landscape where youth is seen as a threat and expendable; a teenage heroine who is unique above all others; and some helpful color-coordination to help us keep track of who belongs where.

With each passing day our depressing present begins to resemble dystopian future more and more, so The Darkest Minds may benefit from timing more than actual profundity, touching on topics that include identity, sexual assault, child incarceration, and a government that can't be trusted.

In the not-too-distant future, children and teens are dying from a mysterious neurological disease. Those who survive quickly realize they have new abilities, ranging from increased intelligence, to superhero-level powers. Those with lesser mutations, (deemed levels Green and Blue) are rounded up and placed into camps. Those with deadly powers (Oranges and Reds) are killed, or used by the government as weapons.

Ruby (played as a child by Lydia Jewett and as a teenager Amandla Stenberg) is a mind-reading and mind-altering Orange passing herself off as a Green, struggling to mask her true self through six years in the camps. When she manages to escape she teams up with fellow runaways Liam (Harris Dickinson), a telekinetic Blue; Zu (Miya Cech), an Orange who can wield electricity as a weapon; and Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a Green with increased intelligence.

Their quest to find a rumored sanctuary for outcast super-powered youth bears a striking resemblance to The Walking Dead's journey to Terminus, and anyone who watched season five knows how that turned out. Then again, nothing in The Darkest Minds can be deemed original or even a superlative example of its formula.

And yet, its diverse cast managed to win me over. Amandla Stenberg's Ruby is vulnerable and appealing, appropriately terrified by her own Jedi mind trick abilities. Skylam Brooks's Chubs is the source of the film's rare comedic moments, and I wish there was more of him. I was rooting for their band of misfits the whole time, and wouldn't hesitate to watch the sequel that is clearly set up though unlikely to ever come. And if The Darkest Minds does nothing else, it will at least instill this fact into the minds of a new generation: never, ever trust a rich white boy with a popped polo shirt collar.

Friday, July 20, 2018

'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,' My, My How Can I Resist You?

Diggin' the dancing queens

I understand the appeal of jukebox musicals. Sometimes (OK, maybe most times), I much prefer going to a dive bar with a great jukebox over seeing a new band at a local club. There's comfort in the familiar, and knowing ahead of time how an evening's songs will make you feel.

One's enjoyment of the Mamma Mia! movies will, of course, depend, a lot, on one's tolerance for ABBA's musical catalog. My tolerance is pretty high, so, while I found the first film's plot a tad insipid, and the musical performances ranging from adequate (Meryl Streep; Amanda Seyfried), to excruciating (Pierce Brosnan), I still had fun watching it, if only to see which ABBA song would be force-fed into the plot next.

Of course, the soundtrack for that first film consists almost entirely of ABBA's greatest hits, which would seemingly leave Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with the choice to either rehash those numbers, or reach deeper into the ABBA catalog. It does both.

The film serves as both a sequel and prequel to Mamma Mia! In the now, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is re-vamping and re-opening the hotel in Greece her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep) spent the majority of her life working on. Will her three dads (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård) make it to the opening? Will her boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper)? Will her estranged grandmother? (Spoiler alert, she's played by Cher, and she's on the poster and the trailer). Or will weather ruin the whole event?

Since that's the extent of the drama in that plotline, the real soap opera plays out in the past, as we follow young Donna (Lily James) during that fateful summer in 1979 that led to Sophie's birth. Somehow, we're to believe someone who looks like Lily James grows up to look like Meryl Streep, which, yes, is preposterous, and we must also take the casting of the younger versions of her suitors with an equal grain of salt. It's only Jessica Keenan Wynn who is utterly convincing in the flashback scenes as the young Tanya (Christine Baranski).

Thankfully, these younger avatars have stronger voices than some of their older counterparts, which helps to justify the casting. And Lily James manages to turn a potential manic pixie dream girl into someone who feels much more lived-in and relatable. You don't doubt the infatuation of her three suitors.

One of the irksome things about the first film was how the choice of song didn't always feel organic to the plot ("Does Your Mother Know" is tied into a May-December flirtation that leads nowhere), or just features the actors singing at each other ("SOS," which is what I shouted after hearing Brosnan sing just one lyric.)

So while there are some greatest hits reprieves here, (it was hard not to sing along to "Dancing Queen" this time, especially when it turns into a dance number performed by hundreds of people on the island's docks), there are also more organic feeling numbers, like "When I Kissed the Teacher," which Donna performs alongside her pals Tanya and Rose during their graduation from Oxford, (look for a cameo by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus in that scene), and "Angeleyes," which gets a very theatrical rendering by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters.

And then there's Cher. To say her character in the film is ridiculous (she's supposed to be Donna's mother; Cher is two years older than Meryl Streep), is to just recognize the appeal of casting her. The movie grinds to a halt for her performance of "Fernando," as well it should. You may groan at the obviousness of the number. You may role your eyes a bit. But you'll be smiling the whole time. And that goes for Mama Mia! Here We Go Again as well.

Friday, June 22, 2018

'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom': Let Them Have It

What could be more fun than a dinosaur ER?
At this point in the seemingly never-ending Jurassic film franchise, it can safely be said that humans are idiots and they should just let the dinosaurs have the planet. After all, they had it for a lot longer than we have, and if it wasn't for a big dumb meteor it's likely they'd still be around. And if we had any doubts about who deserves this planet, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom peppers the film with plenty more reasons to take the dinosaurs' side.

Three years after the disaster at Jurassic World--which itself is reason number one to let humanity die; those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it (in a series of big budget sequels)--the dinosaurs that have been left to live amongst the ruins of the park on Isla Nubar are threatened with extinction when a dormant volcano on the island starts to erupt.

Former footwear-challenged Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now heads up the Dinosaur Protection group who are working hard to convince the government to take action and rescue the endangered creatures. But the government chooses to do nothing. (Reason number two: a spineless congress).

Enter the reclusive, elderly billionaire Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to the rescue. A former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Sir Ben believes the dinosaurs deserve to live, and has built them a secluded sanctuary island. He just needs Claire's help to capture the smartest dino, a raptor known as Blue. Of course Claire needs someone else's help with that, roping in "animal behaviorist," and Blue's trainer, ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).

Sir Ben, who is on his last legs, has entrusted his executor Eli (Rafe Spall) to head up the rescue, and through a smile filled with supernaturally white teeth, Eli convinces Claire he loves those dinos as much as she does. (Has she learned nothing about trusting things with big white teeth?)

The scenes on the island are the only point where we get to see the dinosaurs living their lives and doing their own thing, and that's a joy that the first Jurassic Park  exploited full well, before it turned to destruction. Fallen Kingdom gives us about five minutes of that before all hell breaks loose, and the dinosaurs are running for their lives from the volcano and some pretty nasty mercenaries--headed by a sadistic Ted "Jame Gumb" Levin--brought along to aid in their capture.

At this point the film sets the tone for the rest to come, as we witness the sad plaintive wail of a brachiosaurus who is left to die as the island is quickly engulfed by lava and ash. As my eyes began to well up with tears, I began to hate Fallen Kingdom.

It gets worse from there. For the remainder of the film, many of the dinosaurs are relegated to cages, drugged up, tortured, or on the verge of death. Fun! The villains are revealed, and they're one-dimensional one-percenters, who only see the money-making possibilities of dinosaur propagation. While the inevitable use of a mutated dino as a military weapon gets the most play, we never really know what the rest of the bad guys want them for. Big game hunting?  Exotic menus? Weird sex games? Whatever it may be, it just proves that the obscenely rich are the worst, (and reason number three that humanity should die off.)

The film is big and loud (so, so loud), but at the same time it feels claustrophobic, with some of the dinosaurs charging around a spooky old mansion like errant toys in a dollhouse whose floors somehow don't collapse under their weight. There's a lot of screaming and running, much coming from Sir Ben's precocious granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon). Oakland actress and comedian Daniella Pineda has a few good one liners as dinosaur vet Zia Rodriguez. But the bottom line is a movie like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom should be fun, not a depressing slog that makes you question humanity. I mean, if you've got Jeff Goldblum in your Jurassic movie and you only give him four minutes of screen time? A decision like that is proof enough we humans deserve to die off.

Friday, June 15, 2018

'Tag', A Bad Bromance

You mean to tell me, we're in our FORTIES?  
The creators of Tag really want us to know their film is based on a true story, mentioning that fact in the trailer, the poster, and the film's opening credits. And in the broadest sense, it is. (The true story actually involves a larger, older, and whiter group of men.)

I'm not sure if knowing there actually are middle-aged men out there playing Tag makes the movie's concept seem less or more stupid, but that's one of Tag's problems. It wants to recognize the sheer bizarreness of grown men playing Tag, while also couching it in some cloying messages about friendship and the death of youth.

Hoagie (Ed Helms) is the self-proclaimed leader of the man-boys. After learning their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is getting married, without inviting any of the Tag clan to the wedding, Hoagie sees it as the perfect opportunity to finally corner and tag the elusive and never-tagged Jerry, and ropes in businessman Bob (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker and perpetually stoned Chili (Jake Johnson), and the reliably deadpan Sable (Hannibal Buress).

The continuous game started when they were in junior high, and has a few rules. It only takes place during the month of May; there's no safe spaces, so you just might get tagged at funeral; whoever is tagged at the end of that month is "It" for the rest of the year; and no girls. That last rule is why Hoagie's ultra-competitive wife Anna (a manic Isla Fisher) can never actually play, although she's ruthless in helping and rooting for her husband.

We also learn amendments can be added to the rules, which is how the gang eventually gets themselves invited to the rehearsal dinner for Jerry and his future wife, Susan (Leslie Bibb): no tagging during the dinner, ceremony, or reception.

That still leaves plenty of opportunities to tag Jerry, and the means he goes through to avoid it are the film's better moments. Jeremy Renner may not have actually played Jason Bourne in 2012's The Bourne Legacy, but he's basically playing him here, setting up elaborate ruses, fighting off stealth attacks, and roping in utility players to act as decoys. These moments, in all their slo-mo glory, are not the least bit realistic, and in real life would likely result in, hospitalization, paralysis, or death. But Jerry's almost supernatural abilities can be fun to watch.

Also fun is some of the more relaxed banter between the guys, particularly between Hannibal Buress and whomever he may be speaking to at any given moment (and often, it's just to himself). But it's not enough. Most of the film is the equivalent of running in circles, which is the epitome of predictable. And an attempt to turn earnest near the end doesn't have the effect it should since up to that point the gag has been never knowing if anything is truth, or just an elaborate means to avoid getting tagged. Tag may be based on true story, but it fails to get real.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean's H8?

I'm just as stunned as you, ladies.

I usually write my reviews the week I see a film, posting on the day of release. I'm old school like that. I miss the days when you had to wait for Friday's morning paper to see if the new summer movie was worth seeing or not.

But these days, it's all about the "hot take," getting reviews out there as soon as possible. Despite that, I try to avoid reading most reviews before I've gotten a chance to write my own. As a result, when I'm done writing mine it sometimes comes as a big surprise to see that my opinion does not jibe with the majority's.

Last week I was felled by illness for a few days, unable to even look at a computer screen without being overcome with dizziness and nausea, so I wasn't able to finish my review of Ocean's 8 before my self-imposed Friday deadline. Because of that, I went ahead and checked out Rotten Tomatoes this weekend, only to find the film has a tepid ripe tomato rating. This was shocking to me because, and I'll put it bluntly, I fucking loved Ocean's 8.

It seems the general opinion is that it's good, as good as the Ocean's films that preceded it, but somehow it should have been better. That it's not enough to fill a sequel with a great female cast, a solid screenplay, and every trope that befits a good heist picture. There should've been more.

I can easily say I enjoyed Ocean's 8 as much as I did Ocean's 11, definitely more than Ocean's 12, and probably more than Ocean's 13, which I saw but have completely forgotten. It's not just a retread with a female cast, but cleverly creates a central heist that not only couldn't be pulled off by men, but is actually centered on women's frustrations, desires, and obsessions.

Along with the the fancy dresses and pretty jewels, there's a healthy dose of vengeful female rage, via Sandra Bullock's Debbie Ocean. There's also a starlet (Anne Hathaway) who is both vapidly vain and racked with debilitating insecurities; a Betsey Johnson-esque designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who fears she may have aged herself out of the industry with her latest dated collection; not to mention the presence of Rihanna herself, someone who embodies frustration, desire, and obsession. (Surely I'm not the only woman who feels that way about her?)

I'll say it again: Ocean's 8 is as good as the first Ocean's film, and better than its previous sequels. It's brisk and clever, has the twists we've come to expect from the series, ripples with wit, and is filled with excellent performances. And I don't get why, just because it's got a female cast, it has to be more than that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Hereditary' Chillness

Boo!...I mean, can I kiss you goodnight?

When we think about the things that really and truly scare us, it is rarely the monster-under-the-bed, serial killers, or alien invasions. It's more often things like suddenly losing your family; the inability to protect the vulnerable people you love; and maybe, losing your mind.

Hereditary is a horror movie that definitely recognizes the potential horrors of family life, and is at its best when it focuses on that.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist and mother of two who has just lost her own mother after an extended illness. Annie has mixed feelings about this death, as her mother was a secretive and often difficult woman.

Her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are also dealing with this loss in their own way. Peter and Steve take it in stride, perhaps recognizing it as a relief, while daughter Charlie is sadder. She and her grandmother were close, and it's clear Charlie was her favorite child, as odd as she is. Or perhaps because of that oddness.

A palpable level of gloom surrounds the family, due in part to their home, a beautiful but dark craftsman house in the middle of some wintery woods. Annie's artwork centers on detailed dioramas depicting pivotal moments in her life, and the camera often tricks the eye into seeing their home as one of Annie's dioramas. It's a creepy and great effect.

Also lending itself to the creep meter is Annie's realization that her mother had a secret life that may have been downright evil, and the mental illness that runs in Annie's family may not have skipped over her like she thought.

When a second, devastating loss hits the family, it pushes Annie to seek solace in an unconventional way, with the help of a fellow grief recovery group member (Anne Dowd), while also causing some of her long held resentments to rise the surface, fracturing the family.

Toni Collette's Annie goes through almost as many personality changes as her United States of Tara character. She's at times charmingly bewildered by the possible supernatural events that surround her, heartbreaking when she's trying to wrestle with her grief, and utterly terrifying when it appears her mind may be cracking.

At times Alex Wolf's performance as teenage Peter is woefully overshadowed by Collette, but he eventually gets some pretty intense moments of his own. Sadly, Gabriel Byrne is completely underutilized in an underwritten role.

Hereditary is definitely creepy,  and it allows its utterly shocking tragedy to permeate everything that follows. For the majority of the film, we never really know where its going, and ambiguity lends to the terror. But then it decides to stop the ambiguity, landing with a very heavy thud on one side, favoring the kinds of things that ultimately don't keep us up at night.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

I missed the window for my hot take on Solo: A Star Wars Story a week ago, so I'm not posting a review this week. Instead, here's an AMA between me and myself. No spoilers!

Q: Did you like it?
A: It was fine!

Q: But seriously, do we really need a Han Solo origin story?
A: No, of course we don't. But if they're going to insist on churning out these "Star Wars Stories," I'll take a movie centered on Han Solo over the proposed Obi-Wan movie any day. (Also, Obi-Wan had THREE prequels already! Obi-Wan is Obi-Done.)

Q: There's no way that Alden guy is as good as Harrison Ford though, right?
A: I'll admit something a little embarrassing here. When the original Star Wars came out, I was immediately enamored with Luke Skywalker, not Han Solo. Mark Hamill looked more like Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb, the subjects of my pre-teen crushes, than Harrison Ford did. Plus, Han Solo was very much an adult, and therefore kind of scary.

By the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, and Mark Hamill wasn't so pretty any more, I began to understand the rakish appeal of Han Solo. Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, a year after my mind had been blown by science fiction films like The Thing and Blade Runner, and it just felt hopelessly dated to me. Not even my burgeoning crush on Harrison Ford (thanks to Blade Runner) could negate the presence of all those damn Ewoks.

I like Han Solo. He was certainly much more *fun* than Luke Skywalker. But I never had his posters on my wall. Which might be why I came away from "Solo" amused and not annoyed by Alden Ehrenreich's take on the character.

Q: OK, what about Lando? How's Donald Glover?
A: He's great, and if they don't give him his own Lando movie, they're fools. He's also got a robot co-pilot who's one of the best droids in any of the movies EVER.

Q: Is there anything bad in it?
A: Emilia Clarke. She's pretty but maaaaaan, is she stiff.

Q: What's the key take-away/pull quote.
A: Solo: A Star Wars Story is fun space heist that both benefits and suffers from its Star Wars universe setting. And I can't wait for the all Chewbacca spin-off.

Friday, May 18, 2018

'Book Club': Sex And The Creaky

Movie still? Or a photo shoot for Town & Country?

When I found out there was an advance screening of Book Club scheduled on Mother's Day, I immediately thought what they wanted me to think: a perfect opportunity to take mom to the movies! But then I realized I actually love my mother, and shouldn't subject her to such dreck, especially on Mother's Day. Still, I mentioned the option to her, and she jumped on it. I guess mother knows best because it turns out, Book Club isn't that bad.

It's not that great, either, but as a vehicle for four stellar actresses of a certain age, it manages to hit all the mature lady buttons you'd expect it to. And if that sentence sounds dirty, it's because you can't walk away from a viewing without a bad case of innuendo-itis; the club's selection, as the movie begins, is Fifty Shades of Grey.

That the majority of them wouldn't have already read it may seem a little unbelievable, especially since their monthly book club started during their college days in the 1970's, with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. But I'll allow it, especially since most of them have had things other than sex on their minds for a long time. Aside, that is, from Vivian (Jane Fonda), a wealthy hotelier, and the Samantha of the group, who recognizes a profound lack of gettin' any in her friends, hence her choosing the bestseller as that month's pick.

None of the book club members is particularly excited by the choice. Not Sharon (Candace Bergen), a federal judge who hasn't had a date since she divorced her boring accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr.), 18 years prior. Not Carol (Mary Steenburgen), who has been married to her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), for decades. And definitely not Diane (Diane Keaton), who is recently widowed and dealing with two adult daughters who are convinced she's so feeble she should move to Arizona to be closer to them. But the book, or more accurately, the discussions the women have as a result of reading the book, lead to realizations for all of them, mostly centered on the men, or lack thereof, in their lives.

I have no love for the Fifty Shades series, but I've long maintained that if it somehow leads to unsatisfied women finally getting what they want in the bedroom, more power to them. What I take issue with is how the series makes an abusive and cold man seem like some kind of prize. And with that in mind, Book Club is kind of depressing. At its heart, it's a movie focused on four successful women in their later years who all seem to believe their lives would be much better if they either had a man, or could at least get more attention from the man they have.

Vivian, who has long believed in no-strings-attached sex, begins to question her lifestyle when an ex-flame (Don Johnson, father of Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson) shows up in town. Sharon, supposedly a powerful federal judge, is still hung up on an ex-husband she never even liked, while trying to build up enough courage to finally get out there by joining a dating app.

Diane's arc is the most entertaining, mainly because it's Diane Keaton at her most Diane Keatonish, paired with a surprisingly witty Andy Garcia, as the independently wealthy (because of course) airline pilot Mitchell. He is a prize, and they have a believable chemistry; you can totally buy their meet-cute romance.

All of the women are given scenes that display both their comedic and dramatic chops, but it's the moments that feature just them, screen legends, together and talking, away from any men, that elevates the film above your basic rote, multi-storied rom-com.

You may be shocked to hear this film is NOT from Nancy Meyers, the director behind "women of a certain age" hits like It's Complicated and Something's Got to Give. With its very white cast and perfectly manicured settings (every home is worthy of a magazine spread), it certainly looks like one of her films. The presence of Diane Keaton, playing someone named Diane, surely adds to the confusion. But no, this one comes from first-time director and screenwriter Bill Holderman (with a screenplay co-written by Erin Simms). And really, that's fine. There should be more than one filmmaker in Hollywood making movies for and about older women.

And if you're wondering which of the film's stars has the best plastic surgeon, my mother has a strong opinion on the matter: It's Don Johnson.

Friday, May 11, 2018

'Life Of The Party' Isn't

"Ben, honey, I love you. But I need my I can go make Spy 2."

I'm sure Melissa McCarthy loves her husband Ben Falcone very much, but the bottom line is she has to stop making movies with him. Life of the Party is the third film they've made together, with Falcone directing and co-writing (Tammy and The Boss being the others), and it just solidifies the fact that McCarthy succeeds much better when she's away from the creative influences of her husband. (Her best starring vehicles, Spy and The Heat, as well as her breakout supporting role in Bridesmaids, were all directed by Paul Feig.)

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a middle-aged mom who, immediately after dropping her daughter off at her senior year of college, is informed by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce because he's fallen in love with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen). Dropping her child off at the same school Dan forced her to drop out of when she became pregnant during their senior years sets the wheels turning in Deanna's head. She decides to take "lemonade and turn it into lemons" (as a future sorority sister tells her later) and go back to school to finish her archeology degree.

There's some obvious comedy to be had having Deanna enroll in the same school as her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), but after some initial horror, Maddie is mainly delighted by her mother's presence. In fact, most of the students she encounters are delighted by her, (except for a couple of mean girls who would be considered too cartoonish for even the worst '80s teen movie).

So then what's funny about a middle aged woman going back to school, having a great time, making friends, and achieving a life goal? Not much! Even Deanna's frumpy mom looks are done away with pretty quickly after a makeover from her daughter. The result is a perfectly lovely looking, slightly older woman, who is able to attract the attentions of the nearest hunk and fellow chardonnay lover, frat boy Jack (Luke Benward).

There were some groans from the audience when Jack and Deanna eventually hook up (though aside from some kissing, we don't see them get physical), but I appreciate that their relationship isn't used as a tool for shaming Deanna in any way. There's no scene of Jack pretending he doesn't know her with his buddies, or showing any embarrassment over his infatuation with her. (At one point he deems her his "Sexual Dumbledore," to which she replies that no woman ever, ever, wants to be compared to a grizzled wizard.)

But again, since that relationship isn't really played for laughs, it's another aspect of the film that And since McCarthy isn't allowed to do much more aside from being perfectly lovely and pleasant, it's up to supporting players like Gillian Jacobs, as a fellow college student who recently came out of an eight year coma, and Maya Rudolph as Deanna's devoted BFF, to supply a majority of the laughs, and they aren't given nearly enough to work with.

As the movie progressed, I began to tick down in my notes the number of times I actually laughed out loud, and emerged with two ticks in that notebook--and I can't for the life of me even remember what it was that made me laugh. And when a movie includes Maya Rudolph as a high strung best friend with an aggressively flippy hairstyle and you only laugh twice? You know it's a failure as a comedy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

'Tully': Maternity Left

Motherhood, Such a Blessing!

The way director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody's Tully is being sold, with a series of perky trailers, and a poster that brings to mind Lisa Frank, you'd think it was a lighthearted comedy about the toils, troubles, and ultimate rewards of motherhood. And sure, it is about that. But it's also something much darker, and in many ways universal, going beyond the experiences of motherhood, and into the pain of losing your youth forever to the curse of irreversible adulthood.

Charlize Theron's performance as Marlo, mother of two young children with another due any day, is raw, emotional, and free of vanity. She's won an Oscar for an un-glamorous role before, in Monster, but she's even more believable here, not just because she reportedly gained close to 50 pounds for the film, but because everything about her feels authentic and lived in. When she wearily takes off a stained shirt in front of her children, only to have her daughter ask, "Mom! What's wrong with your body?!" you don't doubt for a second that motherhood can wreck even an Amazon like Theron.

Marlo is 40 and this third pregnancy was not planned, though she's quick to label it, without much enthusiasm, "a blessing" when its commented upon. She's just beginning maternity leave from her HR job, so her days are centered on shuffling her kids to school, and dealing with son Jonah's special needs and her daughter Sarah's growing insecurities. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), has a job that's too boring for even him to explain, and it often requires him to travel. He does enough around the house and with the kids to be able to say he and Marlo "share" responsibilities, though of course that's not really true. Marlo knows once that baby comes, only one of them will be waking up in the middle of the night to feed it.

Marlo's wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) offers her the gift of a "night nanny," a service he and his wife used after their third child was born. "They're like ninjas," he says, coming in at night allowing the new parents to sleep, only waking mom when it's time to feed. Marlo doesn't like the idea of someone else bonding with her child, and dismisses the offer.

But when the monotony, sleep deprivation, and pressures of caring for three children take their inevitable toll--illustrated with an expertly done montage of neverending late night feedings, diaper changing, and breast pumping, driving home the idea that hell is nothing if not the endless repetition of parenthood--she makes the call, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives.

Davis's Tully is both ethereal and earthy; Mary Poppins in a belly shirt, espousing little words of wisdom about motherhood ("Kiss your baby goodnight; she'll be different in the morning...we all will!"), while also complaining about romantic entanglements with her female roommate. She cleans in the night, bakes cupcakes for the kids, and shares sangria and confessions with Marlo. The relationship and the relief it brings helps Marlo break out of her growing depression; "It's like I can see colors again!" she tells her husband

Screenwriter Diablo Cody's writing has often exhausted me in the past, with her apparent need to make every single line of dialogue clever. But with Tully she's calmed down a bit, allowing the unspoken to do some of the heavy lifting, while still inserting moments of her patented acerbic wit. (In a conversation with her sister-in-law about an upcoming school talent show, Marlo asks her what her daughter's talent is. "Pilates," she replies.)

Tully slyly becomes more than just a story of mother and nanny bonding, building up to a resolution that is surprising, and I imagine some may be bothered by it. But as watched it play out, I appreciated how subtle it actually was. Miss a line and you may miss that resolution altogether, and it's a testament to the film that it would fare no less for that.

Friday, April 27, 2018

'Avengers: Infinity War': Dust In The Wind

Wakanda Forever!

Ten years ago I saw the first Iron Man movie a week after seeing the first Sex and the City movie. It was an interesting contrast to see two films with equally eager, albeit demographically opposite audiences. Imagine an opening-night Iron Man crowd where everyone is dressed as their version of Tony Stark, and you'll understand what that Sex and the City opening night was like. I couldn't help but compare the two films, as they were both among the top movies of the summer. Ultimately, I decided I preferred Sex and the City's version of a New York fantasy (better shoes), but I could certainly understand the appeal of Iron Man and its new kind of comic book movie.

After the first Avengers film in 2011, I realized that I enter a viewing of most new superhero movies, especially those with multiple heroes, like it's going to be the last. Maybe this time, the big battle will end with the world being saved forever, and everyone will get to enjoy a life full of relaxation, sunsets...and a different kind of summer movie.

And in its own dark way, Avengers: Infinity War, an event Marvel has been building up to for the past decade, does satisfy that fantasy. One could walk away from it never needing to see another Marvel movie again, though I seriously doubt anyone who sits through its almost three hour running time isn't going to watch the sequel, due out next year.

And that's the thing; Infinity War deals some extreme blows, and some devastating losses. Moments made me tear up, and I left the theater genuinely sad. Of course, I've come out of superhero movies depressed before, but that depression was usually centered on disappointment (and OK fine, has only really happened after viewing a DC movie).

After a while, that feeling of grief was paired with a bit of anger. Marvel films rarely have true consequences, and what's the point of grief if the stakes aren't as high as they seem to be? How dare they dick me around just to insure I buy a ticket to part two? AND WHEN WILL THOSE TICKETS BE AVAILABLE??

It's ironic that one of Marvel's darkest films is also one of its most fun, with the character banter and personality clashes that have made so many Marvel movies memorable in full abundance. All the fan favorites get some screen time, some more than others (unless your favorite Marvel hero is Hawkeye, in which case, sorry, in so many ways), with multiple franchises coming together to fight Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Marvel Universe's ultimate big bad.

Thanos has been after six powerful "infinity stones" since the first Avengers movie, and as Infinity War opens, (immediately follwing the events of Thor: Ragnorak), he's gotten his giant purple hand on one more. Once he finds them all, he'll have the power to wipe out the universe with the mere "snap of his fingers."

One of my biggest gripes with comic book movies is villains whose goals never really make sense. They're usually centered on a desire to destroy the city/country/world/universe/whatever, with no real sense of why, or just what kind of existence they expect to have after that. All right big guy. You've destroyed the world. Now what?

But Thano's goals are very clear. He doesn't want to destroy planets or eliminate entire populations. He only wants to wipe out half of the universe's populations, indiscriminately, in an attempt to restore order to it all. With half of everyone gone, he believes, there will be no more fighting over resources, and those who remain will never want for anything again.

To Thanos, this is a noble goal. He chillingly rationalizes the destruction of half of the universe's population as necessary, as I imagine every perpetrator of a genuine genocide probably has. And he even earnestly presents a vision of his post-destructo life, which includes sitting on a mountain top, enjoying a sunset, satisfied with the knowledge that he's restored order to the universe.

Keeping the remaining stones out of Thanos's hands becomes the work of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, the nation of Wakanda, and some assorted cameo players, and for the most part, directors Anthony and Joe Russo do a good job of plate spinning. It's only near the end, as battles begin to take place at multiple locations, that the cross cutting becomes a little ridiculous. Nothing kills the excitement of a battle at Wakanda like cutting to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) crying on a planet in another part of the universe.

But really, it isn't the epic battles or fights that have made Marvel movies such pleasurable experiences, and the same holds true for Infinity War. What makes it memorable is seeing Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads with the equally egomaniacal Tony Stark; it's hearing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) try to convince his fellow Guardians that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn't the ultimate specimen of manhood; and it's seeing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) come down with a serious case of Hulk-itile dysfunction. It's the charm of all of these heroes that has made Marvel movies what they are, and it's the fear of losing even some of that--as unfounded as that fear may be--that will keep us coming back for more.

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.