Showing posts with label SFist Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SFist Reviews. Show all posts

Friday, October 27, 2017

'Suburbicon' Is A Mid-Century Modern Misfire



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I've followed George Clooney's career as director with guarded interest because his choice of material is always intriguing. He has a penchant for period dramas, often based on or inspired by real-life events, with all but The Ides of March taking place before the 21st century. But aside from Good Luck, and Good Night, I've always come away from his movies disappointed. Suburbicon is no different.

Once again, the choice of material sounds great, on paper. Based on an old script by the Coen brothers, with updates by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, the story takes place in the mid-1950's, in the picture-perfect and corporately monikered suburb of Suburbicon, in any-state America. It's home to families like the Lodges, with patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife, Rose, (Julianne Moore), who is confined to a wheelchair, her visiting twin sister Margaret (Moore, again), and son Nicky, (an amazing young Noah Jupe).

The neighborhood starts to come to pieces when the Mayerses, a black family, moves in behind the Lodges. Protestations begin at the local town hall meeting, and devolve into loud rioting in front of the Mayerses' home. Despite this, young Nicky befriends the similarly-aged Andy Mayers, after some urging from aunt Margaret.

One night, Nicky is awakened by his father, who tells him there are bad men in the house who want something, and they'll leave after they get it. With the terrorized family gathered around the kitchen table, the men--who seem to be on a first name basis with Gardner--chloroform them all, ultimately resulting in the death of Rose.

But young Nicky begins to suspect things aren't exactly on the up-an-up when aunt Margaret moves in permanently, and neither she nor his father seem too eager to actually find the men who murdered Rose.

The Coen brothers have used the crime-gone-awry plot several times, and there's plenty in the screenplay that clearly found its way into better Coen brothers films. Throughout Suburbicon, Clooney goes against the instincts of the script, and makes the choice to play the majority of the movie straight, (although the trailer falsely sells it as an arch Coen-esque comedy), so that when moments of comedy do come through, it feels completely wrong and tone-deaf.

One reason the film may have steered away from the comedy is the racial subplot. We can't be sure the original script didn't have the racial commentary this version does, but that subplot feels so painfully forced into the story that logic dictates it probably is what was added by Clooney and Heslov. Aside from Andy, no one in the Mayers family has identifiable first names, nor are they given much to say. They are simply symbols: the black family that chooses to counter racist violence with quiet dignity, just there to drive home heavy-handed symbolism about how the local bigots are too busy screaming at the innocent black family that just moved in to notice there are actual monsters living in the white house behind them.

This is the first movie Clooney's directed where he didn't cast himself in the role, and watching it I wondered if his presence would have helped. Matt Damon's performance doesn't have any steady footing. At some points he comes off as a scheming monster, and at others as a nebbish loser who is in over his head, and how he plays the two never meshes.

I do applaud the casting of Julianne Moore as the good and evil twin, both because it's a wry callback to her start on soaps where she played twins, and also because she's almost ten years older than Damon, and when was the last time you saw that kind of casting in a major motion pictures?

Oscar Isaac also steals the movie in his short role as a weaselly insurance adjuster who doesn't for one minute believe Rose's death wasn't premeditated. It's in his scenes that you can see the road the movie could have taken if the clumsy social commentary had been left out and the comedy simmering underneath had been played up.

But even when Clooney's movies fail, they're always beautiful to look at. I'm a sucker for mid-century modern design, and Suburbicon's art direction and costumes were spot-on and covetable. And the soundtrack, which hearkens back to classic Hollywood and the work of Bernard Herrmann, is also terrific. Combined it almost makes sitting through this terrible misfire worth it.

Almost.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Save Your Money, Let 'The Snowman' Melt Away



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

There is a lot of talent involved with the serial killer thriller The Snowman. Martin Scorsese was once set to direct, and he remains an executive producer. His longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut the film. Director Tomas Alfredson was behind the excellent, eerie teenage vampire flick Let the Right One In. And the cast is peppered with actors who have all given great performances in their past. And yet, The Snowman goes wrong in almost every way a movie can.

We can probably start with the name of the film's hero, which is Harry Hole. Now, I realize the character has been the center of a number of popular novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, and that in Norway, the name is pronounced "ho-leh." But no one in the movie speaks Norwegian, or even attempts a realistic Norwegian accent, so he's addressed as "Hole" throughout.

Which actually proves to be pretty apt, since the character as written and ultimately played by Michael Fassbender is a gaping black hole of nothingness. He's given no definitive backstory. His biggest personality trait is that he's a drunk, but he's never seen drunk after the movie's opening. He's supposed to be a brilliant detective whose work is taught to students in the academy, and yet all the sleuthing he does in the film consists of him reading files and ignoring the plethora of clues the camera seems to notice more than he does.

He lives alone, but is still in contact with an ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), having developed a fatherly connection with her fatherless teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates). Rakel has an amiable new boyfriend, Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) who doesn't seem to mind Harry's involvement, likely because Harry always seems to forget about the kid anyway. When a young detective named Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) joins the force, Harry becomes interested in one of her cases, centered on a missing wife and mother that seems to follow a pattern of similar disappearances in Oslo, and may have a connection to a murder in a neighboring city a decade earlier.

While the movie is set in Norway, everyone in the cast either speaks with their own accents, or a vaguely Nordic sounding variation. It's at the very least distracting, and at worst off-putting, like you've stepped into a weird, unidentifiable country where nothing seems to fit together or make sense. Everyone has Norwegian names, but they're pronounced wrong. It's winter and snow is everywhere, but no one wears gloves. Abandoned cabins on lonely mountaintops seem to be at the disposal of every citizen. And Harry Hole has no discernible personality, but women can't resist him. (Which, OK, Michael Fassbender. But still.)

The trailer and ad campaign make it seem like this is a serial killer movie where the killer plays cat and mouse with the cops, sending them taunting notes, and leaving behind grisly crime scenes with macabre signatures, but all of that is only hinted at. It's like watching the Cliffs Notes version of a longer movie. Clues are left behind and never investigated. (Are all the close-ups of cigarette butts left behind by the killer supposed to mean something? Or does the director just like how butts look in the snow? Are we supposed to think the film's prologue might be about Harry? And why does Harry carry his stuff in a plastic grocery bag?)

For some inexplicable reason, Chloë Sevigny plays twins. J.K. Simmons shows up as a local mogul campaigning to get the World's Cup played in Oslo. He also may or may not be involved in some kind of human trafficking, but he definitely enjoys taking pictures of women while using an unnecessary flash setting on his camera phone. Toby Jones has what amounts to a useless cameo that probably started off as a bigger role, but ended up with his character giving exposition and getting pissy at an office birthday party.

The whole thing is perplexing, and then becomes downright baffling when Val Kilmer shows up in a flashback, giving a performance so awkward I cringed during every second of his screen time. Kilmer has recently battled what might have been mouth cancer, which involved the removal of a tongue tumor that left him with an altered voice, which probably explains why every word of his dialog had to be dubbed in. But I feel like they still used Kilmer's voice, which at the time of looping had clearly not returned to normal. As a result, his dialog is limited and a lot of it is spoken while a camera is pointed at the back of his head. The rest of his performance is not memorable in any way an actor would want to be remembered, which just makes one ponder why they cast him in the first place.

I'll give The Snowman this: There is something appealing about a grisly story set in such pristine surroundings, and seeing the police trudging through snow makes you realize what a genuine pain in the ass it must be to process crimes scenes during a Scandinavian winter. The cinematography is lovely, and while switching the story's setting to a country that might have made more sense given its cast, it would have also meant losing the only redeemable thing about the movie: all that beautiful snow, those iced-over lakes, clean cities centered between gorgeous white capped mountains, and minimalist interiors. Alas, it is not enough to save a movie that is as emotionally engaging as your average IKEA catalog, with about as much plot.

Friday, October 13, 2017

'Happy Death Day' Is John Hughes With A Side Of Stabbing



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Happy Death Day does not hide its obvious debt to the film Groundhog Day — in fact a character comments on the similarities between the seemingly cursed heroine's plight and the plot of the 1993 film. But to call Happy Death Day the horror version of Groundhog Day is to miss the horror that's pretty inherent in any story about someone having to live the same day over and over.

In the new horror comedy from director Christopher B. Landon, whose previous work in the genre centered on the Paranormal Activity franchise, college student Teresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) doesn't get to wander around a bucolic small town for eternity, but instead must spend each day knowing it will end with her brutal death.

That day begins with Tree waking up in the dorm room of nerdy but definitely cute Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after an assumed one night stand. But Tree is an icy sorority girl who doesn't have time for pleasantries like learning his name, and is fast in taking that walk of shame back to her sorority house, also home to head mean girl Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and sweet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who presents Tree with a candle-topped cupcake because, of course, it's Tree's death day AND her birthday.

As the day progresses, it becomes clear Tree is not a nice person, and there are probably several people who wouldn't mind seeing her dead. The first time she meets that fate is while on her way to a frat party, as she takes a solo walk through a creepy tunnel. Because this is a horror movie, Tree does the dumb thing and proceeds down that tunnel even after finding a creepy music box playing the Happy Birthday song and seeing an even creepier person in a giant baby mask (the college's mascot is a baby) at the end of the tunnel.

Slasher movies are predicated on such tropes. You always have to have characters doing dumb things. They're also filled with varied, elaborate murder scenarios played out for each victim. And of course, a good slasher movie usually features bad girls who get killed and a good "final girl" who lives. Happy Death Day is clever because it wraps all of that into a single victim. Tree is the bad girl who must learn from her frequent dumb mistakes to avoid death AND become the good girl who saves herself from the inevitably unmasked killer.

The time loop gives Tree the opportunity to figure out just who is trying to kill her, so she can stop it, but unlike Groundhog Day, she can't take advantage of this endless loop to also learn piano or French, because her brutal deaths take their toll, leaving her weaker with each repeated day. Which might explain why the only fun she's shown having is a day she decides to spend walking around campus naked...which? To each their own I guess. But I might have gone with something like seeing if I could literally eat myself to death at a buffet.

Happy Death Day is better when it's a comedy (and a romantic one, at that) than when it's going for the horror, as it's never truly terrifying, and Jessica Rothe is more entertaining when she's making us laugh than when she's screaming. Her scenes with Israel Broussard grow from awkward to genuinely sweet, and the fate of their romance becomes more vital than figuring out who the killer is, especially after multiple red herrings are tossed our way. Ultimately, Happy Death Day earns its homages to Vertigo, Psycho, and Sixteen Candles. It's John Hughes with a side of stabbing.

Friday, September 29, 2017

'California Typewriter' Is A Love Letter To The Outdated



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The documentary California Typewriter is a love letter to the outdated — be it typewriters, thank you notes, mom and pop repair shops, or creativity that doesn't start with turning on a computer first.

Director Doug Nichol centers the film on an African-American owned shop in Berkeley called California Typewriter. Owner Herbert L. Permillion III, who worked for IBM for 20 years, opened the store in 1981 and has kept it running, with the help of his two daughters and repairman Ken Alexander, through the rise of home computers, smart phones, and tablets. After all, if turntables and vinyl can make a comeback, why not typewriters?

Several typewriter enthusiasts are also interviewed, though (maddeningly) none of them are identified in any way until the end credits. You'll likely recognize Tom Hanks, a collector with about 250 typewriters, who espouses the virtue of a typewritten "Thank You" note versus an email, something he'll routinely delete as quickly as the "seven seconds" it took to write and send. "Take 70 seconds to type me out something on a piece of paper and send it to me, well, I'll keep that forever," he says.

John Mayer, who never had to make the transition from typewriter to computer as he's not even 40, makes salient points about the built-in obsolescence of computers, and how all the material housed on all of our old hard drives is basically sitting in glorified garbage cans. Unless you printed that stuff out, it's as good as gone forever. So he bought probably one of the last new electric typewriters, and has taken to writing song lyrics with it, noting that there's nothing impeding his creative process — no spellcheck or blinking icon of distraction.

Writers Sam Shepard and David McCullough, neither of whom ever made the transition to tech, also talk about the typewriter's contribution to the writing process, with McCullough noting that without the visual proof of revisions, corrections, and changes, we're losing a valuable look into the thought processes of our creative thinkers and politicians. Shepard notes the tactile satisfaction of feeding paper into the typewriter and hearing and feeling those words slap onto the page.

We also meet a collector from Toronto who travels to San Francisco in hopes of purchasing one of the first typewriters made, based on original inventor Christopher Latham Sholes's design, and Oakland sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who uses typewriter parts — and ONLY typewriter parts — to craft figurative sculptures that include animal and human forms. To some, his work may seem blasphemous, but it's nice to see the symbiotic relationship he has with the California Typewriter shop. They give him the typewriters that are beyond redemption, and Mayer often ends up having a rare part the shop might need for a repair.

It's the scenes in that shop that are the film's most enjoyable. I wanted more of them. A tighter film could have been made with fewer segments on the enthusiasts and users (the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and Poetry Store poet Silvi Alcivar also make appearances) and more scenes showing the genuine love Permillion and Alexander have for their shop and their typewriters. It's infectious, and even a little thrilling watching their ingenious solutions to repairing items that have no replacement parts because, well, there are no replacement parts to be found.

When I was a kid, I had an old Smith Corona typewriter that weighed about 20 pounds, had an old ribbon that had been reused so many times it no longer typed in black but in muted grey, and whose keys had a tendency to stick together in certain combinations. But I loved typing on that thing. Sometimes I would type my own stuff, and sometimes I would just copy passages out of books, just because I liked typing; it made me feel smart.

Eventually I got an electric typewriter (a Panasonic) and I clung to that way into college. My friends had moved on to word processors and laptops (that also seemed to weigh about 20 pounds) by then, but I was convinced I wouldn't be able to write anything if the process didn't involve a first draft that was pen on paper, and a final draft that was typewritten. I'm not certain, but I think it was seeing how easy it was to edit something — removing and rearranging paragraphs and thoughts on the page — that eventually pushed me over to the dark side, and eventually I became convinced I couldn't write anything unless it was via computer.

But whenever I see a typewriter out in the wild — at a friend's, or a flea market — I can't resist going over and typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy hound dog" on it. I just love to hear the clack of the keys, and feel the reverberation of those letters hitting that paper. California Typewriter understands that love.

Friday, September 15, 2017

'The Force' Lays One Of America's Most Troubled Police Departments Bare



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Peter Nicks's The Force is a cinema verit—-style documentary focused on the Oakland Police Department as things stood shortly after the arrival of then-police chief Sean Whent in 2014. At that point, the Oakland PD had been under federal oversight for a little over 10 years, following a scandal centered on police misconduct, and Whent's mandate was to whip the department into shape, once and for all. Anyone who has lived in the Bay Area for the past three years knows that didn't happen.

But knowing how the story ends doesn't make The Force a bore. Watching almost feels like being embedded in the department. The film observes, but doesn't comment. There's no narration and it mostly stays away from talking-head interviews as it loosely follows a couple of new officers through their training, induction, and eventual patrolling. And while we don't learn too much about them, it still comes as a shock when it's revealed that one of them was involved with one of the department's (woefully abundant) controversial shootings.

Some scenes play out like a less sensationalized episode of Cops, as we're placed smack dab in to the middle of some police calls. These moments help illustrate how even something as seemingly straightforward as a call to help an injured pedestrian can evolve into a potentially deadly incident.

But understanding how an incident might turn deadly doesn't equal justification, and screen time is also given to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, its associated protests (including the one that shut down the Bay Bridge in 2016), and community gatherings where citizens are so fed up with the police violence that they even begin to volley ideas about how they might organize their own police force, as they've completely lost trust in the one that's been provided to them.

Peter Nicks, a longtime resident of Oakland, also directed the documentary The Waiting Room, about Oakland's Highland Hospital. He will reportedly follow up The Force with a doc centered on Oakland's education system. It's unlikely Nicks could have foreseen how much worse the Oakland PD would actually get when he started filming, and that becomes more evident when the now well-known underage sexual exploitation scandal hits the department. The film almost seems unprepared for it, with much of the exposition surrounding that story coming from local news clips and newspaper headlines.

Nicks doesn't vilify the police — they're more than able to do that themselves — and he doesn't pretend the city's protests were without their own violence. The film is about as bipartisan as you can get when it comes to the topic of the police and the growing civil unrest surrounding many of the nation's departments. Of course, that won't stop some from seeing an anti-police bias simply because the choice was made to focus a film on a police department with long-standing and very infamous problems. No, the Oakland Police Department is not every PD in America. But every PD in America would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Great Performances Help 'It' Float



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When I was 16, I read Stephen King's brick of a novel It in one weekend. This is both a testament to King's readability and to my dorkitude. I think I had read just about everything he had written up to that point, but for whatever reason — my being the same age as its young protagonists, the usual teenage angst centered on feeling like an outcast — It sucked me in. Four years later, in 1990, I watched the television miniseries. I was unsurprised that it wasn't very good; it was network television, after all.

The miniseries still worked its way into the public unconscious because of one thing, and one thing only: Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Clown, in which he somehow manages to twist the campiness of his immortal Frank-N-Furter into something both terrifying and (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious.

Needless to say, Bill Skarsgård has some big clown shoes to fill in the new big screen adaptation of It, and from the unsettling scene that opens the film, he most definitely does. He is creepy, but not so creepy that a little kid playing with a paper boat in a rain storm would run away screaming the moment his white face pokes out of a sidewalk gutter. Little Georgie is intrigued, amused, and eventually scared, but by then it's too late. What happens to Georgie is the most effective scare in the movie, because it is shocking in its brutality. But by the end of It, brutality becomes the film's driving force, and it gets a tad redundant.

While the book took place in the past and the present, the film sticks firmly in the past, this time not the 1950's of the novel but in Derry, Maine in 1989, at the beginning of summer break. Friends in their mid-teens who are most definitely not the most popular kids in school, the self-proclaimed Loser's Club is headed by Georgie's big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a pronounced stutter and is still living with the guilt of not being there to save his little brother, whose disappearance a few months prior remains an unsolved mystery. Richie (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things) is the smartass loudmouth of the group, forever making jokes that refer to his own dick; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is worried about his upcoming bar mitzvah; and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac and germaphobe.

Eventually the Loser's Club gets three more members: African-American orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs); overweight new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a girl with an unearned "bad" reputation.

There aren't a lot of adults in the film, and the ones who do show up are uniformly awful, from the parents to the teachers to the local police. The Losers are also hounded by a gang of bullies led by the psychotic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) who very clearly isn't all talk when he tells them he wants them dead. The icing on the crapcake that is life in Derry is the growing list of unexplained disappearances in town, mainly of kids close to the age of the Losers.

Director Andy Muschietti makes it clear that the only happiness the Losers are going to get is from each other, and the film's Stand By Me moments of summertime bonding, with swims in the quarry and bike rides through town are some of its best, allowing the group of young actors to shine (they are all outstanding) and their characters to develop personalities bigger than their assigned stereotypes.

But the rest of the film is relentless, as each Loser is introduced to the horror that is "It." Most of these scenes have the same kind of buildup and payoff, as the kids are confronted with supernatural manifestations of their worst fears, with an appearance by Pennywise at the end.

This is a bit of a problem. Pennywise shows up so often, usually running at the camera while baring his mouthful of teeth, that the monster begins to lose its shock value. And it doesn't help that all these scares (remember, there are seven kids, and they each get their own Pennywise moment) are crammed into a movie that's just over two hours long.

It's also hard not to think of Stranger Things when watching It, not just because they share some actors, but because Stranger Things wouldn't exist if Stephen King and It didn't exist. That inevitable comparison also shines a spotlight on the film's limitations.

With its limited running time and so many characters to follow, there's no room for the film to build up any real tension. True, the length afforded a TV series or miniseries can lead to indulgences that may become tedious (::cough Twin Peaks the Return ::cough), but when used well it can also allow a story to breathe, real suspense to build, and viewers to become attached to its characters, so that losses and consequences have more weight. The 1990 miniseries wasn't good, but at least it had a format more suited to this kind of story.

It ends with the title Chapter One. It's supposedly the first part in a proposed two-part series, with the second film to focus on the "now" parts of the book. And perhaps a real assessment of the movie's success or failure can't really be made until the series is viewed as a whole. As it stands, It (Chapter One) is worth watching for its crackerjack opening and the strength of its young cast, but mainly because of its inherent promise of (possibly) better things to come.

Friday, September 1, 2017

'I Do...Until I Don't' Is Disappointingly Conventional




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred in 2013's In a World... a charming comedy about the life of a struggling voiceover actress, a world she's very familiar with, as she has a number of voice acting credits under her belt. I was pleasantly surprised by the film's unconventionality, as it felt like a romantic comedy, but didn't actually devote that much time to the love story, focusing instead on her character and her family. Lake's follow-up, I Do...Until I Don't (I think...she likes ellipses) also plays with romantic comedy conventions, but this time the result, while occasionally funny, is not nearly as charming.

The story follows three couples who are suckered into participating in a documentary by the recently dumped and resultantly bitter British filmmaker Vivian (Dolly Wells). She's positing that marriage as a construct would work better if it was a seven year contract with an option to renew, and is hoping to prove her thesis by examining the lives of happy and unhappy couples in the town of Vero Beach, Florida.

Lake Bell and Ed Helms are Alice and Noah, a married couple creeping up on their tenth anniversary. They run a shades and blinds business together, and Alice has some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the marriage she isn't completely able to understand or explain. Noah's preoccupation with their failing business and their failed attempts to conceive a child mean he's pretty oblivious to anything else going on in their lives.

Alice is convinced Ed is attracted to her hippie sister Fanny (Amber Heard) who has recently moved to town with her boyfriend Zander (Wyatt Cenac) and their son Zenith, who, thanks to granola parenting, has yet to discover that television is a thing. The couple run an art collective, ascribe to polyamory, and look like they disavowed showering some time ago.

And then there's Harvey and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser), a couple reaching retirement age. Cybil is filled with a strong bitterness towards Harvey and their marriage that is never entirely explained. Part of it may be a result of estrangement from her adult daughter, Milly (Hannah Friedman), and part may just be the unavoidable contempt that kicks in after decades of marriage. Either way, Cybil is such a haranguing pill that it's hard not to root for Harvey to get on his late-life-crisis motorcycle and get the hell away from her.

All of the couples get suckered into Vivian's documentary, eventually discovering what is obvious from the beginning: that Vivian is a hack who will eagerly manipulate her subjects to get the result she wants. At first, the set-up reminded me a bit of Albert Brooks's 1979 comedy Real Life, a movie about an unscrupulous documentary filmmaker following around an all-American family. But Bell is too busy giving equal time the film's many characters to allow any real commentary on marriage or filmmaking to take shape before the hopelessly conventional ending hits.

Bell's script does have its moments, with some clever lines surrounding the awkwardness of sex and cohabitation ("Is this foreplay? Because I feel like I may have missed something crucial"), and she gifts her own character with an endearing awkwardness, cleverly masking her own beauty (Alice is convinced her sister is hotter) not with glasses and bad hair, but instead with a muted color scheme — blond hair, bland clothes — that turns her into a walking epitome of the color beige. But that kind of detail is missing from too much of I Do...Until I Don't, resulting in a film that feels as halfhearted as its title.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Winning Performances Keep Rap Musical 'Patti Cake$' Fresh



This review originally appeared on SFist.com

Going into Patti Cake$, I'll admit I had some trepidation. Is now really the time for a story about a white girl who wants to become a rap star? Also, didn't 8 Mile already cover this sort of thing well enough? But it didn't take long for Patti Cake$ to quell those fears, thanks to a completely winning performance by Danielle Macdonald as Patti.

Set in an unnamed town in New Jersey, where the Manhattan skyline is a constant visible taunt to those with dreams of making it there (or anywhere), Patti Dombrowski, AKA Killa P, AKA Patti Cake$ (and AKA Dumbo, to the bullies in town) is 23 but still lives at home, working part-time jobs as a bartender and a catering waiter to help support her alcoholic and perpetually unemployed mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty). She also has notebooks full of rhymes and big dreams, both figuratively and literally (her daydreams are brought to life onscreen) of becoming a rap star, like her idol and fellow Jersey-ite O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).

Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) provides her backbeats and choruses, and shares in her big-league dreams, pushing her forward whenever she doubts herself or feels crushed by the Jersey boys who won't ever let her forget her plus-size, white girl status. When Patti sees an open mic performance by a weird African American goth kid (Mamoudou Athie) who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist, she recognizes the musical genius behind his oddball facade, and convinces him to join her and Jheri.

Patti Cake$ is a musical, and it adheres to many of the cliches inherent in musicals; maybe too many — underdog status; meeting your idols; a final Big Show. And like most musicals, it succeeds or fails based on the strength of its music. Luckily, the music in Patti Cake$ is surprisingly catchy, especially when the oddball trio (with the addition of Patti's Nana on a vocal) lays down their first track "PBNJ" (also the name they give their band).


Director and screenwriter Geremy Jasper, who started out as a musician, wrote all the music and rhymes in the film. The result is nice blend of hip-hop and rock, with a touch of industrial. All the main characters in the film rely on music, in some way or another, to get them through the dreariness of their New Jersey lives, and I imagine Jasper's musical background and Jersey native status played a large part in making that feel believable, with some additional heavy lifting from the talented cast.

Bridget Everett is famous for her raunchy cabaret act, and the film definitely benefits from her larger-than-life presence and excellent singing voice, as her character tries to relive the glory days of her rock star hopeful youth. And Dhananjay's Jheri is funny, charming, and the ultimate hype man, both on and off the mic.

But Patti Cake$ would not be half as enjoyable without star Danielle Macdonald. Macdonald is Australian, but she manages the Jersey accent, and more importantly, the vocal swagger needed to convincingly sell all the raps in the film. Her Patti manages to have both pride and vulnerability, and such a belief in music (when she puts headphones on, Jasper shows her literally being lifted into the air by its power) that you can't help but root for her.  The story in Patti Cake$ may not be the freshest, but Macdonald's Patti most definitely is.

Friday, August 18, 2017

'Logan Lucky' Plays Delightfully Against Expectations



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I don't think anyone seriously believed Steven Soderbergh in 2013 when he announced, (not for the first time), that he would be retiring from feature films. And, indeed, that retirement ended up being more of a hiatus, as his focus moved to TV projects. Now he's back with the self-marketed caper comedy Logan Lucky, his first theatrical feature since 2013's Side Effects.

Set in the world of NASCAR, the film has obvious similarities to the Ocean's franchise (someone in the film even uses the phrase "Ocean's 7-Eleven" to describe the culprits). While the caper aspect definitely invites that comparison, I found it also brought to mind 1998's Out of Sight, my favorite Soderbergh film, for both its inclusions of more middle-to-lower class criminal masterminds (some of whom are slightly lacking in the mind department) and its clever use of flashbacks.

Channing Tatum is Jimmy Logan, a former small-town football star who lost his chance to make it to the NFL after an accident left him with a bad knee. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost his forearm at the very end of his military service in Iraq, so he tends to believe the local legend that the Logan family is cursed with a permanent unlucky streak.

When Jimmy loses his job as a tractor driver for failing to report his minor disability on his job forms and his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) announces she and her new family will be moving out of state and taking their daughter with her, Jimmy realizes he better come up with some money fast, if only to pay for a lawyer to fight for custody.

Jimmy's construction job was under the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, repairing sinkholes that had started to plague the track. In the course of his work, he learned the facility uses a pneumatic tube system to deliver cash from food and beverage vendors into a vault under the speedway. And thus, a plan to break into the vault is hatched.

Despite trepidation over the whole family curse thing, Jimmy convinces Clyde to come on board, and they both seek out the help of notorious safe cracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). As his name may suggest, he's less a safe cracker, and more of a safe-exploder. The one problem is that Joe Bang is in prison, due for release in a few months, and that's time the boys can't wait out. So, a plan to break Joe out and then back INTO prison is added to the caper.

The screenplay by Rebecca Blunt (who, most likely, doesn't actually exist) doesn't lay out the entirety of their plan up front, instead slowly letting the audience in on a scheme that includes the use of cockroaches, fake salt, and gummi bears, as well as the addition of more team members, including Joe Bang's slightly dim brothers Sam and Fish Bang (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid, both hilarious) and Jimmy and Clyde's sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser and ace getaway driver who should get her own movie.

Soderbergh's comedies have one winning thing in common, and that's an authenticity and looseness that comes from his actors and their dialog. Some might argue that he's painting these Southerners with a broad brush, and Driver definitely lays on the hee-haw accent a little thick. But there's never a feeling that he's looking down on them or Southern culture in general. And while the actors definitely have fun with their characters (particularly Daniel Craig, who I would have never even considered a possibility for an American comedy), they never mock them.

Logan Lucky also manages to play against expectations. It's a heist movie set at a NASCAR race and hardly features any actual race footage. It's a crime story in which no guns are shot, and what violence does happen is against a truly despicable character (appropriately played by Seth MacFarlane). There's even a prison riot that culminates in a hilarious bit of back-and-forth negotiations between a despicable warden (Dwight Yoakam) and a prisoner, centered on Game of Thrones.

It also manages to work in a completely unexpected final act that is only slightly soured by the addition of Hilary Swank as an FBI investigator whose only purpose seems to be to give the movie the type of ending it doesn't really need. But that's a minor complaint. It's rare that you can enter a film with full confidence that everyone involved knows what they're doing, and they're going to be excellent doing it. And in that way, Logan Lucky is the ultimate caper.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

'Ingrid Goes West' Is A Creepy Indictment Of Instagram Chicanery



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When we first meet Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) in Ingrid Goes West, she's crying over Instagram photos of a wedding, the typical golden filtered, "dream-fulfilled" posts anyone with an IG account has no doubt seen more than enough of. We quickly learn that Ingrid is parked outside that wedding, and instead of the usual eye-roll reactions to the photos most of us might have (and, incidentally, most of Aubrey Plaza's previous characters would have had), Ingrid barges into the reception and maces the bride in the face.

This stunt lands Ingrid a stint in a mental hospital, and once she's out, it's clear she hasn't exactly been cured. Living on a diet of junk food, in an empty house where the death of her mother still lingers in the dusty air, Ingrid continues to obsessively scroll through Instagram, hoping for Instafriendship by leaving comments like "Damn girl, that looks amazing! What's your email address?" on stranger's posts.

Eventually she finds the perfect object for her obsessions, an Instagram "influencer" named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) whose @_welltaylored_ account documents her meticulously styled Southern California lifestyle. Ingrid decides to pack the inheritance her mother left her into a backpack and heads west.

Social media makes it easy for Ingrid to stalk Taylor and find out where she gets her hair done, where she shops, where she eats her avocado toast, and where she lives. Thanks to that backpack full of money, Ingrid is able to remake herself in Taylor's image, including renting an apartment in nearby Venice, and through a dog-napping stunt actually befriends her.

Plaza plays against her usual deadpan and sarcastic character type, replacing it with awkwardness and dorky obsession, and it's a welcome change. But what does remain, and I'm not sure Plaza will ever be able to shake this off, is the sense of danger that always seems to be lingering behind her huge eyes. And that works perfectly for Ingrid.

Ingrid Goes West is a comedic thriller that brings to mind similarly obsessed tales like Single White Female, The King of Comedy, and especially Robert Altman's 3 Women, whenever the setting moves to the Southern California desert and Taylor's second home in Joshua Tree. Olsen's Taylor is the quintessential Coachella chick, all gauzy tops and slouchy hats, "slumming" it at Pappy and Harriet's for the photo ops. Her image is a tightly controlled vision of easiness, and in reality is just as fake and manufactured as Ingrid's.

The film also features some great performances from the men in the women's lives, including Wyatt Russell as Ezra, Taylor's top-knotted husband, an aspiring artist who paints catchphrases over thrift store paintings (Ingrid is his first and only customer); O'Shea Jackson Jr, who steals almost every scene he's in as Ingrid's pot-selling, Batman-obsessed, aspiring screenwriter landlord and love interest; and Billy Magnussen as Taylor's coked-out, Hollywood leech brother Nicky, who quickly sees through Ingrid.

Director Matt Spicer and his co-screenwriter David Branson Smith aren't really telling a new story here; movies about obsession are as old as the medium itself. What is new is the platform that fuels Ingrid's obsession. It's not by accident that Ingrid is thrust at us with no real back story and no explanation for her behavior. Ingrid may be a blank slate, but aren't we all the minute we click that "Create a New Account" button on a social media app?

Friday, August 11, 2017

'The Glass Castle' Sells Its Heroine Short



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

There are plenty of tales of drunken fathers with big dreams that can never be fulfilled, and plenty of stories of families who are as poor as dirt but nevertheless manage to find happiness and strength through the force of their familial bond. Hell, if you grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie books, it might even seem like that latter dynamic is built into the fabric of America.

But there aren't a lot of stories about women who come from backgrounds of desperate poverty, parental neglect, and family alcoholism, who then grow up to be successful writers dishing about the rich and famous for New York Magazine, while their parents, by choice, are rooting through the city's trash and squatting in an abandoned tenement. That's the true story Jeannette Walls told in her memoir The Glass Castle, but it's a story the movie version does not pay enough attention to.

When we meet Jeannette (Brie Larson), she has just spent the evening at an expensive restaurant with her investment banker fiancee David (Max Greenfield) and two of his clients. As she's riding home, she sees an elderly couple digging through a dumpster. The man seems to recognize her, but Jeannette ignores them. We soon learn those people are her parents.

As the film jumps back and forth in time, we see Jeannette as a young girl (a heartbreaking Chandler Head), one of four children of Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson). Rose Mary is a painter, Rex an aspiring inventor (a solar run house he calls a "glass castle" is his biggest aspiration), which means neither of them brings home much money, and both tend to focus more on themselves than on their children. So it's no surprise when young Jeannette almost burns herself alive making boiled hot dogs for dinner.

When creditors, the law, or any other kind of authority comes a knockin', Rex's first instinct is to take the family and run, moving from rundown house to rundown house, even sleeping under the stars when nothing else is available. But for Rex, this is all an experience, and to him, experience is what life is all about. "Everything else is a damn lie," he says.

And for a while, the family thrives on the adventure. But as the kids get older, the lack of roots, food, and any income starts to wear them down, so they reluctantly return to Rex's West Virginia hometown and a family that likely abused Rex both physically and sexually. The move does nothing to help Rex's drinking problem.

Ella Anderson plays the pre-teen Jeannette, and she turns in a really great performance, matching Woody Harrelson in scene after scene. In fact, it's hard to be critical of a film that doesn't contain a single bad performance, even when, as is the case with Watts's Rose Mary, they aren't given a lot to work with. Rose's only character trait is her love of painting, and while she occasionally challenges Rex, we never fully understand why someone sober and seemingly sane would choose to stay with a raging drunk like Rex.

In reality, Rose suffered from her own mental illness, but this is never alluded to in the film. Instead, we're just supposed to accept she's eccentric, and nothing else.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is smart to structure the film using back-and-forth chronology; the jumps into present day (actually, 1989) help to dampen the misery of those early years a bit when we see that Jeannette and the rest of the family gets out of West Virginia alive. Yet, a big chunk of the story is missing. After the Walls children realize no one is ever going to take care them, they resolve to take care of themselves, by going to school, earning their own money, and getting the hell out of there.

But the years that it takes them to do this is given about 10 minutes of screen time, and we never find out how Jeannette got to New York Magazine and learned enough about high society to be able to write a column about it, let alone live the life herself. Instead, the focus of the film is on Rex, and whether or not Jeannette will be able to forgive him for the troubled life he forced upon her, her siblings, and her mother.

Brie Larson does such a great job as the steely and resolved Jeannette (with the help of some severe 1980's shoulder pads) that I wanted to see more of her life, navigating high society, a hillbilly girl in pearls taking home everyone's leftovers after a fancy dinner out. A drunken father hoping for forgiveness as his life ends? It's an all too common story that, frankly, doesn't need another telling. Jeannette's rags to riches to repletion story does, and thankfully, her book is still around to tell it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

'Good Time' Will Take Your Breath Away



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Good Time begins with a close-up on a young man's face. When he speaks, the sound of his voice suggests that he has a developmental disability. His name is Nick, and he's with a psychiatrist who's performing a standard psychological test centered on proverbs and their meanings. It brings to mind the opening of Blade Runner, and its Voight-Kampf test ("Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about your mother..."), but the young man's reaction is much different from the replicant Leon's response; he doesn't react with violence, but instead, with a single tear that falls down one cheek.

He's responding to the frustrating limitations of his own mind, but he's also responding to the kindness the social worker is showing him and the realization that his future is not looking too bright. It's a great bit of acting, which becomes even more impressive knowing the actor is Ben Safdie, who, along with brother Josh Safdie, is also one of the film's directors.

It's also an intense beginning that gets even more intense when Nick's brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges into the meeting and takes Nick away. Connie doesn't think his brother needs any social services, and besides, he's got big plans for the both of them.

Those plans center on a heist. Connie has convinced Nick that after this one score, they'll be able to buy a farm where they can both live happily ever after — perhaps with Nick tending to some rabbits.

Nick and Connie both don eerily life-like masks and generic construction worker costumes, enter a bank, and proceed to silently rob it by passing notes back and forth to the teller. Connie is the bag man, and Nick is the muscle. But Connie is not a smart thief, and it isn't long before the cops are after them. It's Nick who gets nabbed.

The rest of the movie centers on Connie's attempts to get Nick out of jail, first by trying to get enough money to raise his bail, and then by busting him out of a hospital after Nick gets in a prison brawl. All of this occurs over the course of one very long night in Queens.

Robert Pattinson has had a very interesting post-Twilight film career. After all, he can afford to take on roles in low-budget independent films, playing characters that don't have to be attractive or even likable, and Connie is at times very unlikable. But as Pattinson plays him, you also can't help but root for him, even as he's using everyone around him to get what he wants through a combination of charm and mania. He's moving so fast that people get sucked into his schemes before they have a chance to understand what they're doing.

The Safdie brothers are masters at creating tension, even in relatively action-free moments. In one scene, Connie is at the bail bond office with his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hoping she can use her credit cards to raise the rest of the bond. One by one, everyone in the office gets on their phones, until eventually everyone is on a call, some screaming, some trying to hear over the screaming, all trying to get the bond posted before a judge leaves for night. I swear it gave me heart palpitations.

Sound plays up the tension throughout the film be it barking dogs; an alarm system that won't shut off; a guy who won't shut up; or, most of all, the film's brilliant techno score (by Oneohtrix Point Never). The film's intensity makes it feel like what we're watching is happening in real time, while the locations and settings drive home the authenticity. The Queens houses and apartments feel lived in and real, and if that Adventureland amusement park looks familiar, it's because it was actually shot at Adventureland on Long Island.

Good Time moves at such a breakneck pace that you don't really have time to take in a lot of its nuances as you're watching it. It wasn't until the movie was over, and I could breathe again, that I was able to recognize some of the things the Safdie brothers were focused on, including some sly commentary on race and the criminal justice system.

If I have one complaint, it's that sometimes it feels like the Safdies are sticking with the dramatic when a lighter hand would be better. I don't know if they're just bad at humor or unwilling to acknowledge the absurdity of many of the film's scenarios, but some scenes fall flat because the tone is off. Martin Scorsese, whose After Hours the film resembles in many ways, has always seen the need for humor even in his darkest tales, so it's exciting news to hear that he's executive producing their next film. I look forward to seeing how that possible good time plays out.

Friday, August 4, 2017

'The Dark Tower' Lands With A Thud



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I've read almost all of Stephen King's books, having started way younger than I probably should have (around age 10), yet The Dark Tower series never did it for me. I tried the first book, but its use of western and fantasy genres — the two genres I am probably the least interested in — meant it was a Stephen King world I wasn't willing to spend a lot of time in.

Still, I appreciated the series and its grandiosity, and how King used it as a means of tying all of his work together into one giant, interconnected universe, with the (literal) Dark Tower at its center. But after years of trying to bring it to the screen, with luminaries like J. J. Abrams and Ron Howard taking a stab at it (Howard remains as producer), The Dark Tower finally lands with a decidedly loud THUD in theaters this week.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, whose latest work was the period drama A Royal Affair in 2012, the film is rushed, flat, devoid of any real excitement, filled with terrible dialog, and anchored by a truly awful performance at its center.

The man behind that performance is Matthew McConaughey, whose "Man in Black" (AKA Walter, a ridiculous name that at least does not go without comment) resembles the type of greasy character you might find in a tacky nightclub, using his limited skill in "magics" to try and impress some drunk chicks. Complete with slicked back hair and a black shirt buttoned low enough to show off a gold chain, McConaughey spends the majority of his performance strutting and preening, at least when he isn't wielding his weaponized jazz hands.

Walter lives in a post-apocalyptic, old west looking universe known as Mid-World, and his chief goal, as it is with so many villains, is to destroy the universe — or at least the Dark Tower, the powerful monolith at the center of all of it all that somehow protects everyone from impending monster attacks. Walter has figured out that the only weapon that can bring down the Dark Tower is the mind of a psychic kid (as long as you strap the kid into a chair that can somehow suck out all that brain power out and beam it across the universe in the form of a mighty stream of fire), and he's searching for the most powerful ones.

Enter Jake (Tom Taylor), a boy living in New York who is suffering from nightmares and visions that feature a tower, a mysterious Man in Black, a Gunslinger, and some creepy rat-faced people who pass as human by wearing fake skin suits.

His mother (Katheryn Winnick) assumes this is all a result of trauma related to the death of his firefighter father, while his stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) just hopes Jake is nuts enough to be sent to a loony bin so he can have his mom all to himself.

Using his own dream-inspired drawings, Jake tracks down a house in Brooklyn that contains a portal to Mid-World, where Jake learns all his visions are real and the Gunslinger is an actual man.

That man is named Roland, he's played by Idris Elba, and he's the film's only redeeming feature. Any fan of Elba knows he can pretty much do anything, and through the strength of sheer magnetism he is able to sell the character of the Gunslinger; a lesser talent having to deliver some of the Gunslinger's dialog would have the audience laughing instead of cheering. (::cough:: McConaughey ::cough::)

I've long realized that when it comes to Stephen King, there are some things that work on the page that just don't translate well to the big screen. He can often get away with hokey dialog in his books, but once it's actually spoken aloud, it can become unintentionally comedic. And that's something that hampers a lot of The Dark Tower.

Jake, with his psychic powers (or "shine," as it is not so subtly called) and the Gunslinger and his ancient marksman skills team up to bring down the Man in Black, which means a return to New York, and the secret evil minion club that hides a portal to Walter's weapons lab. ("Brooklyn's hottest club is Dixie Pig. This place has everything: rat-faced boys in human skin masks, inter-dimensional portals; JACKIE EARL HALEY.")

Jake and the Gunslinger's New York adventure is the film's only highlight, but it's woefully brief, coming at the end of the film's scant 95 minutes. Now, I love me a short running time, and I don't think I'd actually want to see another minute of this Dark Tower. But the fact that it feels short to someone like me is a clear indication that this material needed a much larger scope. And while the original plan was for the film to lead in to a TV series, I can't see audiences clamoring for more after walking out of this.

Unless it's just a weekly show featuring Idris Elba in a long leather trench coat, glowering and shooting things. I'd watch the hell out of that.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

'War For The Planet Of The Apes' Is The Best One Yet



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When the Planet of the Apes franchise first tried a reboot in 2001, it was in the hands of director Tim Burton.The result, while pretty faithful to the look of the original series, was....not good. So when 20th Century Fox decided to try it again in 2011, I was skeptical. But the resulting Rise of the Planet of the Apes was vastly superior to Burton's film, and while it turned out to be the weakest of the trilogy, it did leave me eager to see where it would go, and the next film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a rare sequel that improved upon its predecessor.

War of the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the series, is set about two years after the events of Dawn, which saw the apes go to battle with humans at the foot of San Francisco's Market Street. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his growing tribe are living deeper in the California woods, trying to stay hidden from the man. But the man isn't having it, and as the film opens, soldiers crawl through the mist looking for the apes in a scene that brings to mind numerous Vietnam war films. ("Bedtime for Bonzo" and "Kill Monkeys" scrawled on the soldiers' helmets hammers that point home.)

Apparently, humans are no match for intelligent apes with spears, and the apes fight off the attack while sparing many of the men, sending them back to their leader as a sign of peace. But knowing their fortress is no longer a secret, the apes plan to make a pilgrimage to a new home.

Proving that humans are, indeed, the worst, the apes' peaceful gesture means nothing, and after another attack ends in death for some of Caesar's family, he vows revenge on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the leader of this army of men.

As in the previous film, the apes this time around are primarily CGI creations, headed by Serkis's Caesar. Which isn't to say Serkis is only providing a voice to an animated creation; as in the previous films, it's all him up there, a remarkable performance through motion capture technology. For the most part, the effects are pretty seamless, although far too often the ape dialog is obvious ADR; it's a good thing the majority of apes use sign language to talk.

One new addition who does speak is an aging chimp Caesar and his crew find hiding out in an old ski lodge in the Sierras. He tells them about his years in captivity, where humans only referred to him as "Bad Ape," a name he has adopted since it's the only one he's ever had. Bad Ape is played by Steve Zahn, and he is a delightful addition to the film, equal parts dotty old man and eager schoolboy. (I didn't know it was Zahn before I saw the film, but after about 10 minutes of his screen time, it was quite obviously him — another testament to the wonder of the technology and the animators' ability to transfer the minutia of a performance onto the screen.)

Another recruit to Caesar's revenge crew is a young non-speaking girl (Amiah Miller) the apes adopt after her father is killed. In a weird marketing move, several TV spots for the film make it seem like the story is centered around her, but in reality, she's more like a stray dog they just pick up on the way. They show her kindness (illustrating, once again, that these apes are more evolved than the majority of the humans left in the word) but she is never the center of their story, although her name and how she gets it is one the film's best nods to the original franchise.

Woody Harrelson's role as the Colonel is clearly modeled after Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, further driving home the Vietnam war analogy. He has one good scene with Sirkis's Caesar, but aside from that, he veers a little too far into cartoon villainy, especially when the extent of his plans are revealed. (Let's just say they involve erecting a wall, and making the apes pay for it build it. Join the Ape Resistance!)

Up to that point, the film feels like a simian western, with the ape clan venturing across the landscape on horseback, encountering enemies and allies along the way. I'll admit I preferred that to the latter half, which turns the story over to the War of its title, and the requisite gun fights and explosions that requires. But then again I've always preferred a good Western over a war movie.

It's a rare thing these days for a franchise to only get better as the series progresses. The first film suffered a bit from the silliness factor, headed up by the casting of James Franco as a scientist and the idea that somehow there are enough simians in the Bay Area that, were they all to break lose, they could easily number in the hundreds and take over the Golden Gate Bridge. But once the series got past just how the apes were able to gain enough intelligence to actually threaten humanity, the series settled into a good groove, resulting in what is easily the best film yet.

I'm not sure where the series might take us next (will it involve an astronaut?) and the success of this one will surely be the deciding factor if another happens at all, but I'm looking forward to seeing just where those damn dirty apes might end up.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Missing Minions Dampen 'Despicable Me 3'




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Despicable Me movies have never reached the level of the best of Pixar, Disney, or even Dreamworks' animated work, but they at least had the benefit of a steady stream of comic relief in the form of those little, yellow, different minions, especially if you're a sucker for fart jokes. But in Despicable Me 3, those minions are relegated a bit to the sidelines, probably because they've got their own franchise to carry and they have to save the best fart jokes for those movies. Unfortunately, it turns out the movie is a bit of a snooze when those yellow guys aren't on screen.

Gru (Steve Carrell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who are once again working for the good guys at the Anti-Villain League, are fired when they fail to capture super villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the former child star of a 1980's sitcom that was cancelled once he hit the awkward stage of puberty. The mega mulleted Bratt's revenge plan involves destroying Hollywood using his arsenal of 80's-inspired weapons, which include invasive bubblegum he shoots out of his jacket's shoulder pads, exploding Rubik's cubes, and a robot sidekick.

Gru, whose full name is Felonious Gru, discovers he has a twin brother named Dru, which, yes, means the brother's name is Dru Gru, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, But then again, long-lost twin sibling stories rarely do. Turns out their mother Marlena (Julie Andrews, who deserves more than the single scene she's given) split the twins up after birth as part of a custody agreement. Gru's father did not "die of disappointment" after his birth, as he was previously told, but went on to raise Dru to be a wealthy pig farmer on the island of Freedonia.

Dru is in many ways the polar opposite of Gru: rich, happy, and blonde. But Dru has spent his life wanting to be a super villain, and with Gru's arrival, he sees his chance to fulfill his dream.

Lucy and their three girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes, are also along for the trip to Freedonia, but would have been better off left at home for all they get to do. The storylines they're saddled with feel like nothing but afterthoughts.

"What can we do with these chicks?"

"How about we make the youngest one obsessed with unicorns, the oldest mistakenly betrothed to a nerdy Freedonian boy, and Lucy preoccupied with mom stuff."

"What about the middle girl?"

"Who?"

And, as mentioned, the minions are not along to help Gru and Dru for the majority of the movie. Instead, they spend most of their screen time in prison, Yellow Is the New Black style, in a series of scenes that are among the film's few funny moments. Those minions, along with a few of Balthazar Bratt's 1980's pop music-scored fight scenes (because little kids love the '80s?!) are the only things that keep Despicable Me 3 from being a total bore, but still can't save it from being anything other than Despicable Meh.

Friday, June 23, 2017

'Maudie' Is An Unromantic Romance



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Maudie, which tells the slightly fictionalized story of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, is probably one of the least romantic romances you'll ever see. This makes the film unique, but also a bit hard to swallow.

Sally Hawkins is Maud, a sheltered woman in her 30s who has been forced to live with her bitter aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) after her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) sells the family home. Maud has rheumatoid arthritis, and her family is convinced she'll never be able to look after herself.

When Maud sees a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) post an ad for a maid she answers it, showing up at his one-room house at the edge of their Nova Scotia town with a suitcase in hand.

Everett is a curmudgeon at best, downright mean at worst, but to Maud, his small house means freedom. So she does her best to tend to it, make him meals, and cheer up the shack with brightly colored paint.

There are hints that Maud loves to paint, but we don't actually see her paint a picture until after what is probably the most painful scene in the film: when Everett violently slaps her for making a joke in front of his friend Frank.

Maud uses art as solace, painting flowers on the wall through her tears, and Everett, perhaps feeling regret, lets her do it. The flowers spread through the house, and are joined by "cheerful chickens" and birds Everett is convinced are malformed looking fairies. Soon Maud's painting catch the eye of a sophisticated New York lady in snazzy shoes (Kari Matchett), who buys several painted cards before commissioning full paintings. Eventually, news of Maud's paintings spreads, as does their popularity...

Maudie plays out like a romance between two outcasts, but it's a hard one to buy because Hawke's Everett is such an unrepentant ass, and their coupling is to due to propriety, not love. They end up married, but only because they are forced to share the only bed in the house, and when Everett tries to have sex with her, Maud insists they get married first. (In the film it takes several months before they do, but in real life, it was mere weeks.)

I imagine Everett remains such an unlikeable guy so the story can stay true to life (the real life Everett sounds like he was even worse, which is a little hard to fathom), but by the end, we're supposed to buy that there was a genuine love between the two or them, and I just didn't.

While Everett does allow Maud to continue her painting, he does so begrudgingly, and pockets all of her earnings. They live over 30 years together in the same house, from the 1930's to the late 1960's, and aside from her paintings, the house never changes or improves.

The thing that saves Maudie from becoming a miserable viewing experience is Sally Hawkins. She's just a joy to watch. Much of her dialog is almost whispered, managing to get Everett to do what she wants with quiet but insistent words, giving several scenes much needed levity. Her Maud is disabled, but not dejected, always trying to stifle a smile that inevitably breaks through. Hawkins makes you understand how those happy, colorful paintings managed to come out of someone living such an austere life. Seen through her eyes, their tiny home is almost magic, with a single window that looks onto the entire world.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Kate McKinnon Steals 'Rough Night'




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When Bridesmaids came out in 2011 it was a turning point for female-led comedies. It was written by women, it centered on women, and most importantly, it made money, proving teenage boys are not the only people paying money to go to the movies.

For better or worse, it has since spawned a plethora of similar comedies, some of them straight-up copycats (I appreciate that Bachelorette's not even trying to pretend it wasn't, with a title that is easily confused with its inspiration), and some just starring Amy Schumer.

Now we have Rough Night, a thoroughly adult comedy about five college friends reuniting 10 years after graduation for a bachelorette weekend in Miami. The bride-to-be is Jess (Scarlett Johansson), a candidate for state senator who is running against someone whose "accidental" dick pics keep pushing him ahead in the polls. She's set to marry Peter (Paul W. Downs, who co-wrote the script with director Lucia Aniello), the kind of nice guy whose bachelor party consists of wine and cheese tasting.

The woman behind the hen party is Jess's possessive friend Alice (Jillian Bell), who, if she could, would probably not have invited anyone else. Alas, she is forced to include career activist Frankie (Broad City's Ilana Glazer, whom I am now convinced can only play herself), Frankie's former girlfriend, the rich and newly-divorced mom Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess's Australian friend, whom none of the other girls has ever met. I'm not sure if Rebel Wilson was offered the part of Pippa and turned it down, or if McKinnon just felt like doing an Australian accent. Whatever the case, she does a terrible version of one, which is to say it's great because it's so ridiculous.

The gals shack up in a beachfront, glass-walled home owned by one of Jess's political donors, next door to two swingers played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, a couple that is not subtle about their hopes for an eventual orgy involving all of them. Once out on the town, Frankie easily scores some coke, and they convince the senatorial hopeful to partake. Her opponent is winning with dick pics, what's she got to lose?

As tends to be the case when booze and coke are concerned, some bad decisions are made, which include ordering a male stripper/hooker off of Craigslist, not vetting him at all, and then accidentally killing him.

If this movie were about a bachelor party that ended with the accidental death of a female stripper, it would... probably make millions, who are we kidding?* Yes, some people would be rightfully upset about the death of a woman being the center of a comedy, but let's not pretend the thing wouldn't make money.

So I'm not going to wring my hands over Rough Night's central premise, especially because it's pretty damn obvious from the start that the "stripper" isn't actually a stripper, and is very likely a bad guy. The majority of the movie centers on the women trying to figure out what to do, coming to the terrible decision to get rid of the body, and then trying to do that to various levels of comedic effect. At the same time Jess's fiancé, convinced she wants to call off the wedding, decides to drive down to Miami, which results in one of the film's funniest scenes, involving an adult diaper, a semi-truck, and window washing.

Back when Bridesmaids came out, I gave it a favorable review, but noted that I found the casual moments between friends Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph much funnier than the scenes involving, say, public shitting. Rough Night isn't lacking in comedy — Kate McKinnon steals every second of her screen time, Ilana Glazer may not branch out much from her Broad City persona, but luckily, it's a funny persona, and Jillian Bell tackles the physical comedy she's relegated to with aplomb — but not for one moment did I ever believe these women would have been friends in college, let alone ten years later. It all felt as genuine as a friendship depicted in your average man-baby comedy starring Adam Sandler. But ladies, shouldn't we do better than that?

*Yes, I am familiar with Very Bad Things. No, that film is not an apt comparison, as it is far darker than this one — barely a comedy, at all — and features the death of a woman who is paid to have sex, which most strippers will tell you they most decidedly are not.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Cars 3' Grows Up With Its Audience



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I have a theory that I've, admittedly, not really done much to prove aside from talking to friends with kids: Pixar's Cars movies are the ones parents like the least, while their (often male) kids love them the most.

I know plenty of adults who can burst into tears just talking about Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but none who speak about Cars or Cars 2 with any genuine sense of fondness. And I tend to agree. I enjoyed the first Cars well enough, mainly because of its mid-century aesthetic, Route 66 setting, and its "stop and smell the roses" message. But Cars 2 was an exhausting assault of color and noise that made the fatal mistake of giving the sidekick the starring role. Neither film made me laugh that much, and they definitely didn't make me cry, which combined are the two things the best Pixar movies always manage to make me do.

Happily, Cars 3 feels like a course correction, with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) once again relegated to the role of comic relief and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in the lead. As the film opens, Lightning is racing again, although he's quickly coming to realize his glory days may be behind him, as more and more "next-gen" race cars join the competition. Those new-school competitors are headed by the unctuous Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a sleek black and blue model that can reach speeds over 200 mph thanks to modern tech and some advanced training methods.

An accident (that, be warned, might scare the younger kids) forces Lightning to return to Radiator Springs to recuperate, which mainly consists of his hiding out in his garage with the shades drawn and wearing primer grey paint, the car equivalent of "why even bother" sweats.

After a pep-talk from his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and some flashbacks featuring his beloved mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in a performance consisting of actual vocal outtakes from Newman as well as some impersonation), Lightning is convinced to suck it up and get back on the track (cue the Rocky III music).

Lightning's road to a comeback is also rocky, as Sterling (Nathan Fillion, with a voice that just oozes untrustworthiness), the new owner of Rust-eze, sees Lightning as more of a corporate mascot than an actual champion, placating him with a shiny training facility and a perky trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo, an inspired casting choice) who sees Lightning as an ancient relic.

Like the aforementioned Rocky movies, along with plenty of other "comeback" stories, what follows includes training montages, the aging champ clashing with his younger coach, throwing in the towel, and picking it up again.

But then Cars 3 does something unexpected, by propelling a female character into the center of the story. Putting aside the obvious fact that there are girls who like to play with cars, and boys who are happy playing with dolls, Cars, more than any of the other Pixar films, has always felt like a movie for boys, especially when its success has been centered around its car-centric merchandising.

Wonder Woman, which has managed to hold the top box office spot in its second week of release, has proven to be an emotional viewing experience for a lot of women, with reports of some bursting into tears seeing Diana take to the battlefield as Wonder Woman for the first time. I'll admit, I had to fight tears myself. And I had a similar reaction watching Cars 3.

Obsolescence and the fear of forced retirement might seem like odd choices for a children's film, but they're really not that odd in the Pixar universe. Their movies have often grown up alongside their audience; Toy Story 3 was similarly about adulthood, and passing things on to the next generation; Cars 3 follows suit. And in both, the future is female.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Bleak 'It Comes At Night' Is A Thoroughly Unpleasant Experience



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

It Comes at Night is a terrible title for a movie that has some horrifying moments but isn't really a horror movie, and where nothing in particular "comes at night." The premise — a post-apocalyptic world where some kind of disease has wiped out the majority of the population — is, after seven years of The Walking Dead, a bit old hat, though it isn't zombies the survivors have to fear here as much as paranoia, and themselves.

Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo are Paul and Sarah, parents to 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). When we first meet them, they are wearing gas masks and talking to a visibly ill elderly man. The man turns out to be Sarah's father, who has succumbed to an illness that has no cure, and is highly contagious.

What they do with the dying man may or may not be the catalyst to what follows, as the now family-of-three confronts an intruder who has broken into their sealed-up country house as they slept. After knocking the man out and tying him up, Paul eventually learns his name is Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he came to the house assuming it was abandoned, only looking for clean water to bring back to his wife and infant son.

Whether to trust Will and help him, release him and risk his returning with bigger numbers, or just kill him are the hard choices the family must make in this new reality.

It Comes at Night is a claustrophobic thriller, with the majority of the action taking place in the barricaded, multi-storied house, with the dense woods outside always holding the possibility of hidden danger. Director Trey Edward Shults's use of the tight spaces emphasizes how trapped the characters are, both physically and mentally. Slow tracking shots down dark hallways build up tension, and the film's pounding score pushes that tension to its limits. Travis use of the house's attic to eavesdrop, as well as the muffled and half-understood conversations he hears, only increase the sense of paranoia.

And yet... most of the film's scares rely on the overused "It was just a dream!" trope as Travis has a series of nightmares. After repeated use, that device begins to lose effectiveness, especially when it's the growing panic and paranoia within the house that's the source of the real terror. It almost feels like the gross-out moments and jump scares were crammed into the film as a way to sell it as a horror movie, and not the psychological thriller it is at its core.

Those expecting a horror movie that's filled with a lot of those gross and scary moments will likely be disappointed, while those who might appreciate the film's less horrific storytelling will probably be scared away by the marketing. One thing's for sure: No one who sees this is going to come out of it thinking it was any kind of fun; it's one of the bleakest movies to be released this year.

Friday, June 2, 2017

'Wonder Woman' Soars Under The Weight Of Expectation



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

There's a lot riding on Wonder Woman. DC movies have been nothing but one disappointment after another in recent years, so it almost feels like the success of the franchise is resting on Wonder Woman's Amazonian shoulders. The film can't even fail and still be guaranteed a reboot a few years down the line, like so many superhero movies before it, because there's no proof that it would be marketable, since there are no other Wonder Woman movies that can prove that.

So it's with much relief that I can say, Wonder Woman is the best DC movie in years. And while it is not the best superhero movie I've ever seen, it's one I wish had been around when I was a young comic book nerd, and one I hope every girl, nerdy or not, gets to see.

I'll admit, my hopes were raised the second Gal Gadot burst onto the screen as Wonder Woman during the climax of Batman Vs. Superman. She was that dark and depressing film's only bright spot, and judging from the cheers in the audience that night, I'm not the only one who felt that way.

The beginning of Wonder Woman ties into the ending of Batman Vs. Superman, and the upcoming Justice League movie, but thankfully doesn't spend much time on that before jumping into Diana's origin story, where she is the only child on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is fiercely protective of her, but young Diana wants to be as strong a warrior as her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who agrees to train her in secret.

In fact, all of the women on the island are battle ready, as it's their belief that one day they will be called on to defeat Ares, the god of war, once and for all. When Diana witnesses a plane crashing into the waters offshore, she rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who reveals that the world is, indeed, at war. Diana assumes Ares is behind this war, and despite her mother's protests, leaves with Steve Trevor to find and kill Ares.

In an odd bit of revamping from Wonder Woman's original story, it's not World War II that Diana is dropped into, but World War I. The revised setting means Diana is faced with a world with far more gender division and a much stricter dress code. One of Gadot's most endearing fish-out-of water moments is when she tries on various outfits and wonders how it is women are supposed to fight in such long skirts. She eventually settles on a belted tweed number and hat, though the glasses Trevor makes her wear, thinking they may help distract from her jaw-dropping beauty, don't last long.

While Diana is sure she's on a quest to kill Ares, Trevor knows they must defeat some much more earthly villains, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and his evil henchwoman Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), a mad scientist trying to create the ultimate chemical weapon. With three recruited henchmen of their own (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock), Steve and Diana set off for the battlefront. Once Diana arrives at the front lines and sees the hopelessness of the entrenched men around her, she doffs her tweed, readies her shield, and enters into battle.

This scene ranks up there with the best of the genre's superhero reveal scenes, and is the moment every Wonder Woman fan has been waiting for. It even helped me get past the colors of her costume (ugh, maroon!) and appreciate that she's allowed to wear actual leg armor and not just spandex boots.

Wonder Woman's biggest flaw is that nothing in the rest of the movie ever matches that battlefield moment, especially not the film's final showdown between Diana and the big bad. Watching the climax, I got the distinct feeling I'd seen it all before, from its airfield setting to the bolts of lighting that seem to be the go-to weapon of choice between bad guys and superheroes these days.

Also familiar is the overuse of "speed-ramping," that slow motion + fast forward effect DC overlord Zack Snyder is such a fan of and director Patty Jenkins might have been contractually obligated to use. Still, I'm not going to fault its need to give the majority of the audience what it wants, because Diana's strength is more than just her ability to deflect bullets with her matching bracelets and toss tanks like they're pillows. She's also smart enough to decode an enemy's notebook with one glance (she can speak over 100 languages), hip enough to know that real dancing is more than "just swaying," and confident enough to face her new world with bluntness ("London is hideous!") and earned entitlement.

Gal Gadot's performance is the perfect combination of wide-eyed wonder and steely-eyed resolve, and it doesn't hurt that she's also both drop-dead gorgeous and visibly strong. The movie itself (and to some, the entire DC franchise) lives or dies based on the quality of her performance, and she delivers.

I was strictly a DC girl growing up, and it is truly ridiculous that in the course of my liftetime, Warner Bros. has managed to release movies with three different Supermans, five different Batmans, but only one Wonder Woman. And it took them almost 80 years to do it!

And to add insult to injury, the movie has also been marketed horribly. That's one thing you've got to give to Marvel's parent company, Disney: they can sell their movies. At this point in time I should be sick of seeing Wonder Woman merchandise every time I walk into Target, Walgreen's, or even the damn supermarket. When The Force Awakens was released, I could buy Star Wars-themed mascara! (Because you know how much Rey loved her mascara?!) But I have yet to see any Wonder Woman jewelry, (gold headbands and cuffs!), or even eye-shadow pallets at my local drugstore — and let me tell you, Diana's battlefield make-up is flaw. Less. I want in on that action!

What is being marketed as a Wonder Woman tie-in?

A diet bar called ThinkThin.

Early in the film, Diana's mother warns her, "Be careful in the world of men, Diana; they do not deserve you."

She may be right.