Friday, January 15, 2021

'Promising Young Woman' Fulfills

Candy colored vengeance

Promising Young Woman is a gooey romantic comedy wrapped in a pastel colored, hard candy, revenge fantasy shell. It's also my favorite film of 2020.

I knew very little going into it, aside from what the trailer showed me (which, in retrospect, was probably too much; watch with warning), and I am thankful for that. The film is filled with surprises, and if I had truly known what to expect, I'm not sure it would have delighted me as much. (I promise no spoilers in this review.)

I also had no idea who the director was, so was a little shocked to learn it is Emerald Fennell, who I had just finished watching in Netflix's The Crown, where she plays Camilla Parker Bowles. (She's also head writer for the second season of Killing Eve.) Promising Young Woman is her feature film directorial debut, and it's one of the most assured debuts in years. 

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a young woman at the end of her twenties who works at a coffee shop, and still lives at home. Her best, and seemingly only, friend is the manager of that coffee shop (played by Laverne Cox). That's pretty much her life, aside from the nights she goes to bars or clubs alone, pretends to be blackout drunk, and goes home with men promising they only want to help.

Of course, they never actually do, and none are truly prepared to suddenly deal with the pissed off and completely sober woman they actually end up with.  

One of many things director Fennell gets perfect is the casting, starting with Mulligan, who is convincing in every persona she takes on, from every day, girlish barista, to drunken businesswoman, to stripper. The casting against type of the men in the film is simply genius; it's a veritable who's who of actors known for their nerdy nice guy roles, including Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, and, as the ultimate nice guy boyfriend, Bo Burnham (who's 2018 directorial debut, Eight Grade, was equally surprising).

Promising Young Woman is filled with appealing things. The pastel colored pastries in Cassie's coffee shop; her girlish manicure; the pop music soundtrack; a charmingly self-deprecating boyfriend who is also a doctor. It's also appealingly funny, but at its heart, its story is pretty grim. Fennell knows packaging the story in pretty things only makes the horror at its heart hit harder. I have no doubt once the closing credits run, some people are going to hate what they just saw.

Speaking of credits, I think my favorite moment in the film is during the opening credits, which plays out to the strains of a cover of It's Raining Men. As Cassie walks home in triumph after another successful evening, a walk that to any observer, may appear to be one of shame, she is catcalled by some construction workers across the street. She stops. She stares at them, not moving or saying a word. They continue to call out lewdly...she continues to stare in still silence. It’s disquieting because we are not yet sure how dangerous Cassie is, but that's also what makes it quite funny. And her stare is enough to turn her "admirers" into haters, as they start to scream insults at her instead, before turning and skulking away. 

Cassie's silent stare is like a mirror turned on her harassers, who see themselves, react in anger, but then slink away, hopefully in shame. In fact, everything Cassie does in the movie forces perpetrators and enablers to stop and see their actions clearly, perhaps for the first time. "Bad guys" are more than those who commit horrible acts. They're also those who see those acts, rationalize them, and do nothing. 

Promising Young Woman is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, October 23, 2020

'On The Rocks' Avoids Sinking

Promise not to whisper in my ear at the end of this, OK?

I've enjoyed every film Sofia Coppola has made, and straight up loved some of them. On the Rocks falls into the former column, but I think after a rewatch, it could very well fall into the latter.

Like 2010's Somewhere, On the Rocks centers on the relationship between a daughter and her loving though often absent father, although this time they are both adults. Rashida Jones is Laura, a writer married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), whose startup takes him away from her and their two daughters a lot. Laura begins to suspect those frequent late nights and trips away may be something other than work, and asks her father, Felix (Bill Murray) what he thinks. Big mistake. Felix, a constant flirt with a history of philandering, sees this situation through the prism of his own experience, and is sure Dean is cheating. He resolves to team up with Laura to prove it.

It's a simple set-up, and one that takes advantage of its New York setting, as the duo spend most of their time together either eating or drinking in fabulous locations like Bemelmens Bar. Jones proved herself a consummate straight woman in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation, and you need someone like that to play off of Murray, whose performance feels largely like a serious of improvisational moments. Without Jones, the film could have come dangerously close to becoming the Bill Murray Show, (not unlike his Christmas special, also directed by Coppola). Instead, through her Laura, we can see how easy it is to love a father like Felix, while also being utterly and completely fed up with him.

Sometimes the film can feel frustratingly frivolous, like when Felix is pulled over by the cops and breezes his way out of a traffic ticket. This same situation, had it happened to Laura's husband, who is black, would likely have a very different outcome, (that Laura is herself is mixed also goes largely unmentioned). 

However, I don't agree with criticism often lobbed at Coppola's films, that because they often deal with the lives of the wealthy and socially blessed that the films themselves are shallow and superficial. But I'll also acknowledge Coppola can demonstrate a level of tone-deafness that in the hands of a lesser director, and lesser actors, could sink a film. The lightness of On the Rocks is the very thing that lifts it.

 On the Rocks is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Friday, August 21, 2020

'Tesla' Illuminates, Dimly

Elon....I am not your father

Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla are having a moment. Last year The Current War, a long-delayed film centered on the beginnings of the electrical age, had a rocky release (it's a good looking drama anchored by solid performances from Benedict Humberbatch and Michael Shannaon, though a little dull). And this week brings us Michael Almereyda's Tesla, which tells basically the same story, through Nikola Tesla's eyes.

If you've seen any of Almereyda's other movies, particularly the Shakespeare adaptations that also star Ethan Hawke, you'll know not to expect a conventional biopic. I don't think Tesla really taught me anything about Nikola Tesla, or even why he was so revolutionary (and after watching two movies about it, I still can't tell you what the actual difference is between alternating and direct currents), but that's mainly because Tesla isn't out to educate. It wants to illustrate.

Hawke's Tesla is a brooder; an inventor who doesn't have the pomp and ego of his contemporary and former boss Thomas Edison (Kyle Maclachlan, apparently born to play the role). He's a misunderstood genius who can't seem to close the deal with the women who very obviously are infatuated with him. One of those women is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P Morgan, and she serves as the film's narrator, often breaking the fourth wall to tell us things like how a Google images search of Tesla will reveal only four different photos, or how the exchange between Edison and Tesla we just watched never actually happened.

Almereyda throws in a lot of avant garde touches like that, with rear screen projection standing in for actual locations like Niagara Falls, and Tesla breaking into a painful rendition of a Tears for Fears song. MacBooks and iPhones make cameos. All of this is to simply illuminate the legend that is Tesla, not expose him. This Tesla is a type, the overlooked genius who lived before his time, an easy-to-worship symbol of misunderstood brilliance. In the end, that tells us more about the kind of person who might idolize Tesla than Tesla himself.

Tesla is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.


'Chemical Hearts' Fails The Litmus Test


You do realize this page is blank?

Chemical Hearts, based on the YA novel Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, is borderline "sick lit," those tales of teenage romance wherein one or both of the protagonists is sick, dying, or seriously damaged.

In this case, the damaged teen is Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), the mysterious new girl in school who walks with a cane, reads Pablo Neruda, and dresses like a 90's grunge band. She immediately catches the eye of Henry Page (Austin Abrams), an aspiring writer whose average existence gives him nothing to write about. Grace and Henry meet cute when they both get roped into co-editing the school newspaper, although Grace has no interest in writing....anymore.

That she used to write, and used to be someone completely different, is a mystery Henry is determined to solve, even though Grace seems steadfastly attached to her gloom. But they are teenagers, this is a romantic drama, and they do what you'd expect of their respective tropes.

When I saw Lili Reinhart in last year's Hustlers, I assumed I was watching Brittany Murphy through half of the movie, until I remembered Brittany Murphy has been dead for years. I'm happy to say Reinhart is outgrowing the resemblance (though she should definitely play Murphy in any biopic that may come along, I'll have no debate about that), and her performance here is nothing like her naive stripper in Hustlers. Her Grace is soulful, wise, and heartbreaking. You don't doubt for a second that a slightly awkward wanna be writer would fall for her instantly.

That her Grace would want to have anything to do with Abrams' inert and completely uncharismatic Henry is what kills what could have been a heartbreaking love story. Looking back on the movie, I can vividly recall certain scenes featuring Grace, but when I think about any moment involving Henry, all I see is a pale, stilted teenager, virtually mute before the person who's supposed to change his life. It is said that the writer's role is to observe, but that doesn't make for a riveting romance.

Chemical Hearts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Friday, June 26, 2020

'Irresistible' Isn't

Cakes and pies? Now THAT'S irresistible.

Not having Jon Stewart around nightly to skewer the current President is a something I believe a huge swath of the country can agree has been a huge loss. I don't think Jon Stewart could have saved us from Donald Trump, but I do believe he would have at least made the last four years a little less painful.

At least, that's what I thought before watching Irresistible, the new comedy he wrote and directed. Now I'm wondering if the last four years have crushed him too.

While the film is set in a post-2016 election America, I will give it props for not giving Trump any screen time, or even much of a mention once the story moves past that cursed day after the election. But what helped to get Trump elected, and what has continued to fester since 2016, is certainly a big part of the story.

Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic campaign advisor who helped Hilary Clinton lose the election. But things like that don't ever seem to mean an advisor is now out of a job. They just move on to the next potential winner, who Gary believes will be Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), after seeing a viral video of the Colonel berating the mayor of his small town for cutting funding to a local aid program that benefits immigrant workers.

That the Colonel is a Republican farmer in, as the film titles it, "Rural America, Heartland USA" (or Wisconsin, you choose), is exactly why Zimmer zeros in on him. He "looks like a Republican, but sounds like a Democrat," and to Zimmer, someone like that could save the Democratic party--and himself.

The cynical, liberal easterner invading a salt-of-the-earth middle American town is not a new trope. Nor is the story of an idealistic newcomer to politics being manipulated and corrupted by the political machine. Which is why I spent the majority of the movie wondering why Jon Stewart was bothering with such a familiar and predictable story.

Don't get me wrong, familiar and predictable can still be entertaining, if the jokes and performances land. But Irresistible just isn't funny. Rose Byrne as a Kellyanne Conway-esque Republican counterpart has a few amusing moments, and is an indication of where the film could have gone if Stewart was willing to go a bit broader. But Carell's Zimmer spends the majority of the movie being pretty unlikable. And when he starts to develop an attraction to the Colonel's 20-something daughter (Mackenzie Davis) I really began to question Stewart's judgment.

And then...the movie takes a turn. I won't say more than that, but will say, Stewart's true intent becomes clear, and it's certainly better than the movie that proceeded it. But it's too little too late. The whole thing comes to a screeching end that left me thinking it would have made a much better Daily Show segment than the labored 100 minutes I just sat through.

Irresistible is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.