Showing posts with label New Releases. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Releases. Show all posts

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...


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Is Funny, Heavy, And Challenging

The welcomed return of this Rey of light.

While I loved The Force Awakens more than any Star Wars sequel or prequel since The Empire Strikes Back, I couldn't exactly argue against anyone who criticized its story structure, and how it's as much a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope as it is a sequel. That argument is valid, but that type of movie is what I, and many Star Wars fans burned by the prequels, needed.

So going into The Last Jedi, I was a little worried the story might take the same route, essentially giving us a soft remake of Empire. My worries were unfounded. While The Last Jedi acknowledges the inevitable comparisons to that second (or fifth, whatever) Star Wars movie by setting up some similar scenarios, it then does original and surprising things with those moments.

Yes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who found the elusive Luke (Mark Hamill, at full intensity) at the end of The Force Awakens, much like Luke finds Yoda in Empire, is all set to do some similar Jedi training with the aging master. And much like Yoda, Luke shows reluctance to be a teacher. But his reluctance isn't a mere test. He really doesn't want anything to do with the Jedi or the Resistance.

And as in Empire, our beloved band of players spend the majority of the movie separated. Finn (John Boyega), after initially recovering from his injuries on board the ship led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, sniffle), ventures on a quest with newcomer Rose (a great Kelly Marie Tran). And Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), demonstrates he's even more of the cocky pilot he appeared to be in his first outing. His first scene in the movie, with Domhnall Gleeson's smarmy General Hux, is also hilarious, and a perfect introduction to the film's comedic tone.

There's a lot of humor in The Last Jedi, and I imagine some may criticize it for it. But it's the kind of smart humor that was also present in the original trilogy, and sorely lacking in the prequels. (Which isn't to say the prequels were lacking in any attempts at humor; it's just that the humor usually relied on Jar Jar Binks saying something stupid or stepping in alien shit.)

Hello comic relief!

But the movie is also surprisingly heavy. Rian Johnson doesn't shy away from some basic facts. Luke and Leia are growing older, and the weight of their experience has them questioning the worth of the Resistance, especially since the Resistance has suffered some major losses. Are more worth it?

Rey continues to question her place in all of it, with the longing to find her parents as strong as ever. And Kilo Ren (Adam Driver), whose inner conflict can't be hidden from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), begins to question his place as the Supreme Masked Baddie. Almost all of the characters face moments where they must make some pretty tough decisions, and it all adds genuine tension to the film.

More tension than a lot of the battle sequences, to be honest, of which there are more than enough, with most centered on the need to stall the enemy so the Resistance can get something done in time. This is the longest Star Wars movie yet, clocking in at 150 minutes, and it has at least one ending too many, and a middle that sags a bit.

Still, its longer length does allow us to spend some time in some beautiful new worlds, like Luke's lushly green island, which is also home to some native creatures, including Porgs, the big-eyed, pot bellied birds that might convince you to become vegetarian; a gaudy planet filled with the galaxy's equivalent to one-percenters; and my favorite, a salt-covered world that reveals its blood-red center, a color that permeates the film.

It also leaves room for some good cameos. Along with the hyped cameos of Princes William and Harry (who, them playing storm troopers, are impossible to spot), also look out for Chewing Gum's Michaela Cole, model Lily Cole, and Justin Theroux. (I'll also have to see it again to figure out how director Rian Johnson worked the theme from The Long Goodbye, which was co-written by composer John Williams, into the movie, as the song title appears in the end credits)

One of my best movie-going memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1981. Seeing it on a weekend required standing in line for hours, so my family didn't get to partake in one of those opening weekend showings. But one weekday not long after it opened, my dad woke me up to get ready for school, and when I gave the usual complaint of "Ugh! I don't WANT to go to school" he said, "OK. Do you want to go see The Empire Strikes Back instead?" And we did.

Watching The Last Jedi, despite its faults, still managed to make me feel, more than once, like that excited eleven-year-old ditching school.


Friday, December 8, 2017

I, Tonya, You, America, Us, Guilty

You like me! You really like me!

Watching I, Tonya, I was reminded how batshit crazy the 1990's were. Along with acid washed jeans, platform sneakers, and crispy hair, the 90's were a golden age for tabloid stories. The internet didn't exist in the way it does now, and despite the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle, attention spans were longer. Tabloid stories were allowed to slowly build over weeks and months into craven dramas that captured the nation.

I'm talking things like Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco; John and Elena Bobbitt; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; Bill Clinton and Monica Lewlinsky; O.J. Simpson; and, of course, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, a story that includes tabloid gold and acid washed jeans and crispy hair.

I, Tonya takes an unconventional approach to that ice skating drama, mirroring the tabloid coverage it originally received. People weren't paying attention to the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story because of a sudden national love of competitive ice skating. It was because the story was perfect in its symbolism (she tried to break the leg of her competition?!), and at times completely absurd (a key player is named Gillooly?!).

Play the story straight, and you've got yourself a Lifetime movie. But play up the story's absurdities, add a dash of GoodFellas-era Scorsese-style editing and music cues, and you've got yourself a surprising movie that will make you laugh while your heart breaks a little for Tonya Harding.

Set up as a mockumentary of sorts, I,Tonya opens with titles asserting it is "based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly." These interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and Jeff (Sebastian Stan) are reenacted, with both of them in separate locations, both offering their completely unreliable retelling of the story.

Tonya's interview takes place in a dirty kitchen, dishes piled in a sink behind her. It's a nice nod to how an interview's setting can often illustrate an interviewer's intent, an intent often unbeknownst to the subject. From the moment Margot Robbie opens her mouth, and you hear her flat, West coast accent, you can tell this will be a performance that's a far cry from her work in films like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie has at least five inches on the 5'1" Harding, who also had a strong, muscular athlete's build. Harding in her heyday could probably take down ladies a lot taller than herself (and likely did during her short stint as a celebrity boxer). But Robbie manages to make you forget those physical differences by channeling Harding's essence. She's got the trailer trash swagger, paired with the vulnerability of a woman who has been beaten down her entire life, both literally and figuratively.

The story follows Tonya from the age of three, when her nightmare of a mother, LaVona Golden (an Oscar-worthy Allison Janney), insists the local figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), take her on as a student. Diane doesn't take girls that young, but can't deny the little girl has a gift.

LaVona's bullying doesn't stop at figure skating coaches. She's an objectively horrible woman, without a nice thing to say about anyone, especially Tonya, who is subject to her verbal and physical abuse throughout her childhood.

Of course LaVona insists it's all for Tonya's good. To her, this is what an effective stage mother does, and she offers no apologies for it during her interview moments, which are some of the best scenes in the film. Allison Janney talking to the camera, smoking, hooked up to an oxygen tank, while a pet parrot on her shoulder constantly badgers her has got to be part of her Oscar reel. (And the parrot deserves an award for Best Supporting Performance by a Bird.)

As Tonya leaves one abusive home she falls into another, marrying Jeff Gillooly, the first man she ever dates. It's not long before he's smashing her face into the wall and pointing guns at her, and while Tonya does fight back on occasion, the cycle of abuse assures she stays in the relationship way longer than she should, especially since it's Gillooly who eventually sets The Incident into motion.

"The Incident" is how the characters refer to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and seeing the ineptitude of the people involved--Paul Walter Hauser steals every scene he's in as Gillooly's idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt--it's amazing they got away with it for as long as they did, which, granted, wasn't very long. (One of I, Tonya's best choices is to limit Nancy Kerrigan's place in the story, giving her maybe three lines in the entire film, with one one of those lines being "Whhhhhyyyyy??????!!!!!")

The film takes Tonya's insistence that she had nothing to do with The Incident as fact, and makes a compelling case for that as truth. But ultimately, it didn't matter whether she had or not. Harding had a target on her back within the snooty skating profession from day one, never living up to their beauty standards, or their idea of respectability. It didn't matter that she was the first woman to do a triple axle in competition. She didn't fit the part, and they would never let her forget it. Eventually, and with some glee, neither would the world.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Good, The Bad, And 'The Disaster Artist'

A triumphant disaster

I first became aware of the phenomenon that is The Room by reading about it in Entertainment Weekly. Shortly after, Adult Swim aired it for one time only during their late night programming. That was the first time I watched it. It was edited for content, and ironically, that editing actually made it a better movie; there's only so much of director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau's bare ass one should be subjected to before it becomes cruel and unusual punishment.

Watching The Room is like watching a film created by an alien who is desperately trying to mimic human emotions and interactions. It's actually kind of an accomplishment for an actor to deliver every bit of his dialogue badly, but somehow, Wiseau manages it. That he can turn something as simple as "Oh, hi Mark" into a memorable line borders on amazing.

The closest I ever came to a communal viewing was watching the DVD while listening to its RiffTrax (recommended!), but maybe one day I'll actually check out a midnight showing (it still plays regularly in San Francisco) because watching The Room alone is something that shouldn't really happen more than once, and seeing it again is a hard urge to resist after watching The Disaster Artist, James Franco's ode to the legendary cinematic disaster.

Based on the book of the same name, written by actor and The Room costar Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), The Disaster Artist opens in the late 1990s "San Francisco," (like The Room, it is set in SF, but not actually filmed here), with a meet cute between Greg and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. Greg has just finished a terrible scene reading, and Tommy volunteers to go next. He chooses the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Names Desire, and proceeds to chew the scenery, almost literally. He wails. He flails. He starts to climb the rafters. Greg, who has just been criticized for being emotionless, is enraptured. Maybe he can learn something from this nut!

While James Franco will always be better looking than the real Tommy Wiseau, even with the fake nose and wig he dons, he does manage to capture Wiseau's other-worldly essence; that accent that can't be placed (Tommy insists he's from Louisiana); line delivery that makes it sound like he's perpetually stoned or bored, even when he's screaming; and the feeling that he's only ever half listening to anything anyone says to him.

Tommy and Greg become fast friends and decide to move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. That Tommy has apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't go unnoticed by Greg, nor his white BMW. But where Tommy gets his money remains as mysterious as his origins.

Once the inevitable happens, with them both failing to land any substantial gigs, that mysterious money proves to be a potential savior when Tommy decides to make his own movie. He pounds out a script on a typewriter, insists Greg take the supporting role (the lead is Tommy's, of course), and then purchases all the equipment needed to film the movie, instead of renting it. Oh, and he also decides to shoot it on both video AND film.

Up to this point, The Disaster Artist is a pretty standard "Hollywood hopefuls" story, albeit one with a character who says he's from Louisiana, sounds like he's from Poland, but might actually be from another world. But once it gets into the actual filming of the movie within the movie, it gives the majority of the audience what they've been waiting for: a glimpse into just how something like The Room came to be.

The cast that makes up the film's crew is filled with comedians and Judd Apatow alums, including Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, and Hannibal Buress, and most of the scenes centered around the filming are very funny. But we also get a glimpse into what a nightmare The Room must have been to work on, with Tommy refusing his actors water, insisting on walking around the set naked while shooting the love scenes, and a shooting schedule ("Day 52 of 40") that drags on and on.

You can't make a "good" bad movie on purpose. The best bad movies had every intention of being good movies from the start. But at this point, I don't even know if The Room really is a "good" bad movie. Parts of it are unbearably boring, and I could barely make it through the sex scenes once, let alone the multiple times the movie's biggest fans are able to stomach. Unlike the grassroots emergence of the cult following that followed a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room's cult success owes a lot to word of mouth from Hollywood insiders, those who stumbled upon it because of the enigmatic billboard that set up to advertise it, and the continuing existence of Tommy Wiseau himself, who, once he saw how crowds were responding to his movie, began to hype it as a black comedy. (Be sure to stay till after the credits for Wiseau's cameo.)

And I wonder if James Franco was drawn to the story because he felt some affinity to Tommy Wiseau. While Franco has now directed eighteen movies (18!!), he has never received the accolades I bet he feels he deserves. After that many flops, I can certainly imagine a director emerging from a screening of The Room filled with the fear that he's been making the same kind of movie this whole time. Maybe it just took a terrible movie to finally inspire James Franco to direct a good one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Warm 'Coco'

The family resemblance is striking!

It's a rare Pixar movie that doesn't cause me to burst into tears at least once during its running time, so there was no doubt that Coco, the studio's latest, which is primarily set in Mexico's folkloric Land of the Dead, and deals with familial loss and memory, was going to require me to make use of a handkerchief at some point. (Turns out, I'd need two.)

Coco is centered on 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a music-loving kid who happens to be from the "only music-hating family in Mexico." Way back when, Miguel's great-great-grandfather left his wife Imelda and young daughter Coco to pursue his musical dreams, and was never heard from again. As a result, the family eschewed music entirely, banning both its playing and enjoyment, instead turning to shoe-making, a skill passed down for three generation.

But Miguel can't resist the draw of music, which he knows is in his blood. He builds his own guitar in a hidden clubhouse complete with an altar dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in Mexico's history. His conflict with his family comes to a boiling point on Día de Muertos, as the family prepares for the yearly celebration that honors their deceased ancestors, with Miguel running away and magically finding himself in the Land of the Dead.

A living boy is about as shocking a sight in the Land of the Dead as a walking skeleton would be in the Land of the Living, but luckily Miguel is able to track down his ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who is being denied entry into the land of the living's Día de Muertos festivities for the first time since her death.

Coco's utilization of the traditions and folklore surrounding Día de Muertos is both clever and heartfelt. In order for the dead to return to Earth, someone on Earth must still be around who remembers them. The "proof" of this is a family's use of photos in their ofrendas, or altars. Imelda's photo is missing from Miguel's family's ofrenda, because Miguel has taken it. It's also the only existing photo of his great-great-grandfather (albeit not a complete one, as his face was torn out in anger, and has been missing ever since).

The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar's most enchanting worlds, unabashedly ethnic, filled with details you'll never be able to catch in a single viewing. Like the Mexican folklore that inspired it, it is vibrantly colored, walking the line between slightly morbid, and comically cute. Though the film is filled with walking and talking skeletons, they're never scary (the little ones should be fine), and their bony bodies are used to excellent comedic effect.

If I have any complaint with Coco, it's that it's a story Pixar has told many times before, centered on a lost character desperately trying to make it back home to family. With the addition of Miguel's daddy (or great-great-granddaddy) issues, Coco fits a little too comfortably into the Pixar formula.

But they can get away with these redundancies because the way they tell these familiar stories is consistently unique from film to film, and despite the formula, the emotional center of the stories never feels false.

In Coco, Miguel teams up with a raggedy skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal, in a performance that is both funny and heartbreaking), who is desperate to visit his family, but must remain in the Land of the Dead because there's seemingly no one left on earth who remembers him; once someone is forgotten, they cease to exist completely. That's the deep-seated melancholy at the center of Coco. The one commonality we all share as humans is our mortality, and it's a fact few truly like to face. But Coco gives us a warm vision of immortality, and its something every one of us has the power to conjure, every time we look through an old family album...


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wonder Woman Can't Save 'Justice League' From Dreary DC Depths


"Please don't spoil the appearance of a certain character who can be seen in most of the film's promos."

Oh, Warner Bros. You gave us three terrible DC movies in a row, but after Wonder Woman, which was both a box office success and a good DC superhero movie, I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you! But you've failed us all once again.

I feel the need to preface this review, as I do whenever discussing DC movies, with some history. In my youth, I only read DC comics; no Marvel. And Super Friends was one of my favorite animated shows. I'm a DC girl at heart. Which is why Warner Bros.'s bungling of the DC comics franchise continues to sting.

Justice League takes place shortly after the events of Batman vs. Superman. Superman (Henry Cavill) is still dead, and everyone is living in what looks suspiciously like Trump's America. Hope,  David Bowie, and Prince are also dead, and Muslim store owners are being attacked by bigots. This is all presented in an opening credits montage set to Sigrid's version of Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows. It's very similar to director Zack Snyder's Watchmen opening, and one of the film's few interesting moments.

The world is in mourning, but evil still lives, this time in the form of some flying demons that look a lot like Ohio's Mothman. They feed on fear. Batman (Ben Affleck) is on the case, and believes they're part of an impending invasion, and he can't fight them alone. He needs a team. An entire league, perhaps. A league of....JUSTICE!

Wonder Woman, who gets a great introduction near the film's beginning, is the first to join up. She knows these creatures are the minions of an ancient evil named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who long ago fought for control over three boxes that, if brought together, would bring about the world's end. Apparently, having read Tolkien's Lord of the Ring series, the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and the World of Men all knew they had to keep these rings boxes separated and hidden, forever. But Steppenwolf, re-born to be wild, is back, and on the hunt for the boxes.

When Zack Snyder had to step down from directing duties earlier this year, due to a family tragedy, Joss Whedon filled in, and while we can't be completely sure what Whedon directed and/or wrote, it certainly feels like the film's attempts at humor are the work of Whedon. Sometimes it works. Ezra Miller's Flash is delightfully eager, naive, and terrified (even if the way he runs looks a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio taking a jaunty stroll). And Jason Momoa's macho Aquaman has an amusing scene when he's under the influence of Wonder Woman's lasso.

But Ray Fisher's Cyborg is more of a plot device than an actual character, and much of the witty banter between the league feels painfully forced since there isn't a lot of time for the characters to build a genuine feeling of camaraderie.

And once again, a superhero movie is undone by its villain. Steppenwolf is, to put it simply, a huge pile of boring phooey. His biggest character trait is a horned helmet, and his motivation is never really clear, aside from the usual villainous goal of destroying the world, to which I ask, and then what? Seriously, what do all these bad guys want after that? To live for the rest of eternity in a hellscape with only themselves for company? Good plan!

Snyder shoots the action scenes with his usual murkiness, so that no shot lingers for longer than two seconds--unless he's using slow motion, which, per usual, he uses a lot--and the result are scenes that are supposed to be exciting but are actually just very loud blurs.

Justice League is not all bad. Along with Momoa and Miller's welcome presence (and damn me, but they actually make me hopeful for their solo outings), Gal Gadot is as effervescent as she was in her past two appearances as Wonder Woman. And at least Snyder knows how to give the fans a few moments blatantly designed to elicit cheers.

But it's not enough. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are iconic. It is from them that all other superheroes followed. Putting the three of them together in a movie should result in films that soar, not the dreary, dull, drags that have resulted. DC, we were rooting for you. But maybe some superhero movies should stay dead.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Mustache Overshadows All-Star Cast in 'Murder on the Orient Express'

And the award for Best Supporting Mustache Goes To...
At this point, re-adapting Agatha Christie books for TV or the movies is the same as re-adapting Shakespeare plays. Almost everyone knows the stories and plots; the fun comes in seeing how new actors, writers, and directors will approach and execute the material this time around.

Kenneth Branagh has famously adapted Shakespeare in the past, but Murder on the Orient Express is his first foray into Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and the result is an underwhelming, albeit beautiful film in which the all-star cast is too often overshadowed by a mustache.

That cast includes Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison, and Johnny Depp as the murder victim (that last one being genius casting, as I'm sure I'm not the only person of late who has had just about enough of Johnny Depp).

Some of the cast shines. Tom Bateman brings a welcome bit of comedy to his role as Poirot's gleefully immoral old friend Bouc; Michele Pfeiffer deserves a full-fledged comeback to the screen; and Daisy Ridley is as charming a 1930's governess as she is a space warrior.

Charmed, I'm sure
But a lot of the usual suspects get lost in the crowd, as can be expected in a cast this size. As Poirot, Branagh is bound to irk diehard fans of the character. Aside from the ridiculous mustache, he chooses to interpret the detective's famous fastidiousness as some form of OCD,  and gives him a mysterious lost love whose photograph he moons over when alone in his cabin.

The last theatrical version of Murder on the Orient Express was Sidney Lumet's 1974 version, which featured an all-star cast of Hollywood legends, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. It's a fine film, but I think it being held up as a standard to shoot for owes a lot more to nostalgia and its cast than to the quality of the film itself.

Branagh recognizes the limitations of shooting an entire movie  on a train. It can be claustrophobic and stagey. But the way he tries to liven up the cinematography is hit and miss. While it may seem like he chose a CinemaScopic aspect ratio because only that could properly display the width of his ridiculous mustache, in fact, it also lends itself well to long tracking shots that follow outside the length of the train as characters travel from car to car. There are a lot of moments shot through windows, or decorative glass, breaking the actors faces into symbolic triptychs, and the snowy landscapes and stormy skies are lovely.

More maddening are scenes where Branagh shoots from above, so all we can see is the tops of characters' noggins as crucial aspects of the mystery are discussed. And the film's active camera can't make up for some deadly dull plotting that makes one empathize with those trapped on an unmoving train

For all of Poirot's genius, the central mystery in Orient is not that hard to figure out. Once he guesses the true identity of victim, the rest of the pieces basically fall into place without much actual sleuthing on Poirot's part; it's an odd choice to launch a potential franchise with.

More in keeping with the Poirot fans love is the film's opening in Jerusalem, in which he solves a crime purely based on some scratch marks found on a wall. A trip to the Nile is hinted at as Poirot departs the Orient Express at film's end, and I say, go ahead and take that cruise, Poirot. Just visit a barber first.