Friday, February 15, 2019

'Happy Death Day 2U' Makes A Birthday Wish Come True

In an alternate universe, that shirt says "FML"

Last year's Happy Death Day was a charming surprise, a horror comedy that ultimately turned into a romantic comedy, cleverly using horror movie tropes in a Groundhog Day-inspired loop of murder, survival, and blossoming love. So how could a film that centers on repetition not spawn a sequel, that genre of film that almost always relies on repeating those things that made the first film a hit?

And indeed, Happy Death Day 2U, does just that, much to the absolute exasperation of heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) who, at the end of the first film, thought she had finally survived her never-ending birthday/death day. 2U begins where that film ended, with Tree and her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) celebrating a day that is finally not the 18th only to find Carter's roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), seems to be experiencing the same time-looping Tree just survived.

Turns out Ryan has been working on a science thesis that centers on a quantum reactor nicknamed Sissy. It was this reactor that set off Tree's original time loop, and when Ryan and his fellow science nerds attempt to correct his own looping by firing up the reactor again, it sends Tree back into her loop, but this time, in an alternative universe. So now while Tree is still fated to be killed at the end of each of her never ending days, the killer appears to be someone different. Also different? Her relationship with Carter, and the fate of another very important person in her life.

Just as characters in the first film openly compared what they were going through to the film Groundhog Day, this time they see their dilemma as more akin to Back to the Future II. Happy Death Day 2U also pays as much tribute to John Hughes as the original did, but this time it's Weird Science, not Sixteen Candles that you'll be nostalgic for.

And just like Weird Science, it's best not to overthink the science behind that reactor, and its multiple "algorithms", which require multiple tries, and thus require Tree to die multiple times so she can reset the day and they can try over. (These multiple deaths result in a peppy suicide montage that features Tree gleefully jumping out of a plane without a parachute, drinking poison, and leaping into a wood chipper, all painful forms of death I'm not sure I'd opt for, even if I knew I was going to wake up alive.) And as nonsensical as the scientific explanation for the time loops and multiverses may be, interjecting science fiction into the plot is a great way to keep the sequel feeling fresh.

Also, of all the movies 2U brings to mind, I think the closest match this time may be 2015's The Final Girls, another slasher comedy that was able to use the tropes of the genre to generate both thrills and genuine, tear-inducing drama. (Go stream it now!)

I was worried at the beginning of Happy Death Day 2U that Jessica Rothe was going to take a backseat to a new character and his time-loop story, because it was Rothe's comedic timing, rage, and her relationship with Broussard's Carter that were probably the best things about the first film. Thankfully, the beginning is a bit of a MacGuffin, and 2U is very much Rothe's movie. As long as she returns, I'll gladly repeat the experience for the Happy Death Day 3(D?) that is promised by film's end.

Friday, February 8, 2019

'What Men Want' Is The Usual

"I predict...I'm going to steal every scene of this movie I'm in."

Of all the supernatural powers a bonk on the head might give you (and apparently, that's a very common side effect for women with head trauma), hearing people's thoughts is both the one I'd least like to have, and least like to be in the presence of. Both scenarios seem like a living nightmare, so it always perturbs me a bit when the set-up is used as the basis for a comedy.

What Men Want is a remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, about a Chicago advertising executive who uses his newfound power to try and take down his female boss. The updated scenario moves the story to Atlanta, and a sports agency where Ali (Taraji P. Henson) is the firm's only female agent.

Working twice as hard as all the men in her office doesn't land her the promotion to partner she'd been hoping for, and when her boss (Brian Bosworth) tells her it's because she hasn't landed a client from the big three (NBA; NFL; MLB), and also because she doesn't "connect with men," she vows to land the next big basketball star by winning him and his eccentric entrepreneur father (Tracy Morgan) over.

If all that sounds a little conventional, it is. What Men Want follows every comedic beat and plot resolution you'd expect it to; nothing about it is very surprising, including the private inner lives of men.

When a combination of a psychic's drug-laced tea and a bonk on the head (partially caused by a collision with a giant inflatable penis), lands Ali in the hospital, she awakens hearing her doctor's thoughts, which are centered on his drinking and drugging problems. Once she leaves the hospital she realizes she can hear all men's thoughts, and, no comedic surprise here, those thoughts are usually centered on things like sex, food, or self doubt.

Henson has some deft moments of physical comedy, and is suitably sympathetic when she needs to be, but the cliched plot forces her character to learn some kind of lesson (which ultimately seems to center on her being less selfish, especially in bed), and that just gives credence to the idea that it wasn't sexism (and racism) that had been holding her back at work. It's a muddled message.

Ultimately, there are really only two reasons to see What Men Want. One is Tracy Morgan, whose inner thoughts are actually less weird than the things that come out of his mouth, and the other, much bigger reason, is Erykah Badu.

Her performance as the psychic/pot seller named Sister is a comedic tour de force, and a revelation. I had no idea the woman was funny! (Turns out, she studied theater in college and one of her first jobs was working for Steve Harvey.) Every moment she's on screen is a gem, and director Adam Shankman knows it, devoting half of the ending credits to her outtakes and improvisations. Turns out, I don't care what men want. I just want more of her.

Friday, February 1, 2019

'They Shall Not Grow Old' Brightens A Dark Past

Pictured left: Not Walt Disney

When I was in college, I saw the short film A Trip Down Market Street for the first time. The mini documentary is a real time, unedited look at pre-quake 1906 San Francisco. The camera is mounted to the front of the cable car as it captures people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages weaving and bobbing out of the frame before it reaches the end of its journey, when the cable car, and camera, does a 180. Newsboys then gather in front of the cable car, mug for the camera, and the film ends.

Watching it was a revelation; it felt like the closest thing to time travel we'd ever be able to experience. Because there's nothing staged about the footage, it captures the feeling of life at the time better than most photographs and film reels from the era can. I had a similar feeling watching Peter Jackson's World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, as if I were seeing a part of history with clear eyes for the first time.

Jackson is able to capture this time travel feeling in ways that are quite different from A Trip Down Market Street. This is not a real time, cinema vérité, glimpse into the past; it's very carefully constructed. Jackson and his crew took over 100 hours of archival footage from the British Imperial War Museum, edited it into a rough narrative, cleaned it up, colorized it, and time corrected it, getting rid of the jerky motion inherent in early 20th century film. Sound effects were also added (the din of artillery fire and bombings is a constant), as well as some dialogue (lip readers were utilized to figure out what was being said in the silent footage). Add 3D to the mix, and you've got perhaps the most immersive look into the Great War that's ever been produced. (Archival black and white footage filmed off the battlefield, in England and the French coast, bookends the film.)

The process is not, however, flawless. CG techniques are sometimes used to define soldiers' faces that have likely blurred and softened in the original old film stock, and the effect is often uncomfortably cartoonish. And it has to be said, there's something slightly ghoulish about meticulously colorizing the wounds on a dead soldier so that the blood is just the right color of darkening red.

What helps the film rise above mere visual effects spectacle are the voices of over 100 WWI veterans that narrate it. The humanity of those voices paired with the reality of the soldiers, marching, fighting, and goofing around like any modern solider might is a powerful reminder that they were indeed real men and boys, and not just silent faces lost to history.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Unbreakable 'Glass' Splits

Just give me some metal to bend and we could end this here!

Beware the ides of March, and the films of January, especially if said film comes with the label "from M. Night Shyamalan." No good can come of that, and the proof lies in Glass, Shyamalan's third film in what can only loosely be called a trilogy, one that began with 2000's Unbreakable, and was followed up by the thinly related Split in 2017.

Split centered on serial killer Kevin Crumb, (James McAvoy), a damaged man with multiple personalities, or DID (dissociative identity disorder). One of his personalities is known as The Beast, and he's a snarling mass of shirtless, sinewy muscle with super-strength and possible indestructibility.

Glass takes place a few weeks after the events of Split. Kevin has evaded capture and has four more teenage girls chained up and ready for the slaughter. (Kevin's torture and murder of teenage girls is never given the gravitas it warrants; it's cast aside as just an unfortunate side effect to his disorder, which is obviously far more interesting than some female victims.)

One of those victims was Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Split's Final Girl, who returns in Glass, seemingly none the worse for wear after her stay in Kevin's basement a few weeks earlier. We're to believe that since she came from an abusive home, she can recognize the pain that fuels Kevin, and may be be able to save him. So what if he murdered two of her schoolmates! He had an abusive mother!

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has less sympathy for the killer. In the 19 years since his encounter with Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), David has lived the life of an undercover superhero, donning his cape rain poncho to fight crime, garnering nicknames that range from "the Tiptoe Man" to "the Overseer." (He prefers the latter.) His hunt for Kevin, who has been nicknamed "the Horde" by the press, results in a wall and window smashing fight in an abandoned warehouse, and eventual capture by the authorities.

These "authorities" are actually headed up by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist "specializing" in delusions of grander. She's determined to prove that both David and Kevin are not as super as they think they are, and what better way to do that than to lock them up in the same facility Mr. Glass has been sitting in, basically comatose, for almost two decades?

She's such a calming presence, with her cream colored sweater dresses, and soft spoken demeanor, that you can almost buy that she merely wants to save these men. (Although, again, one of them is a serial killer, so maybe he doesn't really deserve saving?) But her whole premise, that they didn't really do the superhuman things they think they've done, could so easily be proven wrong--just have David bench press 500 pounds!--that I wouldn't blame you for thinking there might be something else going on. Because of course there is. This is an M. Night Shyamalan movie!

To be honest, I never really understood why Shyamalan became such critical darling, even if it was short lived. The Sixth Sense, which is almost universally recognized as his best film, was a solid enough supernatural thriller that it didn't need to rely on its twist ending to save it (which is good, since I saw that twist coming halfway through). And Unbreakable was a serviceable follow-up, with an intriguing concept--superheros are real, and comic books are their coded history--and an ending that wasn't so much a twist as a sucker punch.

But following those two films, twists and gotcha endings became Shyamalan's thing, to the detriment of story. If you start to think about the plots of Signs or The Village--at all--they become completely laughable. Badly written dialogue and overwrought performances didn't help, and a string of even worse films became the ultimate plot twist in Shyamalan's career: from critical darling to cinematic pariah.

I'll give Unbreakable this: it's succinct. I dare you to watch it now and not be a little surprised at the abrupt appearance of intertitles explaining the resolution. Glass is not so tight, depending on Jackson to spend most of the film's second half on exposition, detailing (again) his theory about comic books and superheros, his ultimate plan, and, in the film's only real bit of comedy, the tropes both comic books and the film we are watching depend on.

There's some satisfaction in seeing the Unbreakable characters again. How can you not root for Mr. Glass, just a little bit, once that side-parted afro, iridescent purple suit, and white ascot returns? And Willis's understated David Glenn, a character who does not scream "superhero," is ultimately just a nice guy trying to do the right thing. (Spencer Treat Clark also returns as David's son Joseph, as does Charlayne Woodard as Elijah/Mr. Glass's mother, in old-age makeup so heavy I was afraid it was going to plop off her face at any moment.)

And both Unbreakable and Glass contain an intriguing concept at their centers: what if there were superhumans and mastermind among us? How would that really play out in real life? But this is a concept that has been tackled more than once in numerous superhero movies that followed Unbreakable, and Glass's take on the subject now feels neither fresh nor subversive.