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.

Friday, May 29, 2020

'The Vast of Night' Sheds Light On Some Fresh Talent

"E.T. wants to phone who now?"

The Vast of Night, an impressive debut from director Andrew Patterson, from a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, was always going to find its way to Amazon Prime's platform, as they immediately purchased the film after its 2019 Slamdance debut. But it's unlikely it would also have been premiering at drive-in theaters were it not for our current situation.

And perhaps that's the only good thing to come of this pandemic, as a drive-in theater is the perfect venue for this 1950's-set tale about a single night in a small New Mexico town that may or may not be experiencing some UFO visitations. (For those not lucky enough to live near a drive-in, you can also watch it on Amazon Prime right now.)

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick star as Everett and Fay. Everett is a DJ at the local radio station, and the electronics nerd the high school calls when they're having technically difficulties before a basketball game. Fay is a high school student with similarly nerdy interests like tape recorders and photography, who also works the night shift at the town's telephone switchboard. We're introduced to them in a dizzying tracking shot that weaves through the high school gym and amongst conversations with fellow students, teachers, and maintenance men that may leave you a little discombobulated.

Eventually director Patterson narrows the scope, concentrating on Everett, Fay, and some weird sounds that are coming through the telephone lines. When Everett broadcasts the sounds over the radio, in the hopes that someone listening can identify them, he and Fay hear from some locals with very...interesting stories.

The Vast of Night isn't telling a new story, but it is telling a familiar story in an often unexpected way. There are some tracking shots and single takes that rank up there with the works of Sam Raimi and Martin Scorsese, but equally striking are the times the camera remains still, close on the actors (Horowitz and McCormick about both riveting), as they deliver dialogue that subtly reveals so much about their characters and their respective dreams.

If I have any criticism, it's the use of a framing device, one that starts, ends, and interrupts the story throughout, that presents the film as an episode of a 1950's Twilight Zone-type TV show called Paradox Theater. It adds nothing to the movie, and only managed to annoy me whenever it was used. Perhaps the director, realizing he wasn't telling a very "original" story, felt this framing would make it seem more unique, when in fact, it's everything else he does with the film that helps it rise above the cliched.