Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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

The welcomed return of this Rey of light.

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

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

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

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

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

Hello comic relief!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

I, Tonya, You, America, Us, Guilty

You like me! You really like me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

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

A triumphant disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Warm 'Coco'

The family resemblance is striking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Once Victim, Always Victim. That's the Law.

Sometimes I will rewatch movies just because I'm in the mood for a certain costumed era. If I'm itiching for 1970's slit skirts and fur, I'll watch The Eyes of Laura Mars. If I want to see 1930's craziness, I'll turn on The Women. And this past Friday I had a burning desire to watch a movie featuring women wearing bonnets, lace-up boots, prairie skirts, and corsets.

You would think I might have turned to something set on the American prairie, but instead I rewatched 1980's Tess, which takes place near the end of the 19th century in Wessex, England. It's a movie I've turned to for this same reason many times in the past.

Bonnet life forever.

I've loved Tess since I first saw it in 1982, (which you can read a bit about here), but it's odd that I haven't really viewed it in relation to director Roman Polanski's crime of rape until now.

He made it two years after his conviction for "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor," near the beginning of his exile from the U.S. In fact, the film, which is set in England, had to be shot in France since he would have been extradited had he stepped foot in the U.K.

I have a hard time separating a person's life from their work, as I imagine many do. I can't look at a movie like Woody Allen's Manhattan now and not be a little sickened by its central romance between an older man and a teenage girl. Do I still think it has one of the best movie endings of all time? Yes. But I just can't take the same pleasure in rewatching it now that I once did.

Tess is an odder situation. Rape is at the center of its story, but the presentation of the rape itself doesn't leave much room for an alternative interpretation. When it happens, Tess is clearly fighting against it, and Alec is clearly overpowering and taking advantage of her. More importantly, the rest of story centers on how she is unfairly blamed for her own rape both by the mores of the time, and the man she eventually falls in love with. The story clearly criticizes the societal hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that, maddeningly, still exists today.

An odd choice for lobby card image...

Was Polanski, in a way, acknowledging his own complicity in that hypocrisy by making the movie? I mean, I can't imagine he was so obtuse that he didn't see some parallels to his own life. Or did he make it thinking it might be some form of defense, as if to say, "See? This is what 'real' rape looks like. I'm not guilty of that!"

I have the Criterion version, which includes a lot of extras, and I thought I might get some insight there, since many of the extras include interviews with Polanski. One is called Once Upon a Time...Tess, and is a short documentary made in 2006 about the making of the film. It includes an interview with Polanski that's surrounded by details about his life and work. In it, the narrator refers to Polanski's 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey as "a consenting sexual relationship with a 14-year-old model."

Oh hell no. Under California law, a 14 year old (and she wasn't, she was 13) can't give consent to any sexual relationship, let alone one that involves being drugged first. Nice try though, narrator.

After that, the documentary returns to the interview, where Polanski is asked to expand on a previous  statement he made about how the making of Tess had been a "cathartic" period after his short stint in jail, and how the movie, like many of his films, might reflect some specific aspects of his life. Polanski skirts the question by immediately talking about his becoming a boy scout after World War II, and how that experience has influenced all of his work.

So much for that desired insight.

I'd like to think that Polanski was in some way acknowledging his crime by making Tess, mainly because I don't want his crime to hamper my enjoyment of the movie. It's selfish, I know. And I find myself making strained rationalizations whenever I rewatch my favorite Polanski movies as well. For example, Tess is the only movie he made after the rape that I actually like enough to rewatch, so I'm not really supporting his post-rape career. And I justify rewatching Chintatown and Rosemary's Baby because those were all made before his crime.

But it's not like he actually was some kind of boy scout before 1977. He was a notorious Lothario, and that rape in 1977 was not the first nor last time he had a sexual relationship with a minor. (He would go on to have another one with Tess's Nastassja Kinski, whom he met when she was 16.)

Sometimes you can't really control your reaction to a movie. You'll love something, or hate something for very personal reasons. Tess was the first period movie I didn't find incredibly boring, and the tragedy of the story stuck with me. When a literature class I was taking in junior high was reading Jane Austen, I persuaded the teacher to let me do a report of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles instead. I think even at that young age I recognized that life seldom deals you a happy and romantic ending. Better to embrace a beautiful tragedy and prepare for life's inevitable disappointments...

Despite it being made by someone who may very well be a monster, I can't help but deeply love the movie Tess; it's ingrained. That the movie itself seems to condemn men like the man who made it makes that love even more complicated.

I don't think anyone can or should be completely exonerated for their crimes just because they've created a moving piece of art that seems to address and condemn the very crimes they are accused of. But when that does happen, at least, at least, they've put something out there that might change the hearts and minds of people who might have very well followed in the footsteps of the criminal, and not the artist.

Tess meets her fate.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


I started this blog five years ago as a way of looking back at a pivotal year in my life as a movie lover: 1982, that amazing year that brought us The Thing, E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner, and the remake of Cat People (a movie I loved above all others for a long time).

This post explains why I decided to do it, and the 2012 archives are about the movies I saw in 1982. Well, almost all of them. I stopped when I got a new job that didn't really facilitate the time needed to write both this blog and my reviews of new movies. About a year later, that job ended, I got another one, and continued to write movie reviews for the San Francisco Appeal, and then SFist.

Last week, the owner of the Gothamist network of sites, which included SFist, decided to shut the whole business down after the New York writers voted to unionize.

The Lord does NOT love a working man.

I've decided to take those bitter lemons and try and make some sweet, sweet lemonade by revamping this blog and using it as a place to write about both new movies, (until I, hopefully, get another gig for those reviews), and old movies, (whenever the fancy strikes me).

I'm a lot luckier than some of my fellow SFist writers in that writing for the site was always a perk for me, and not my career. They've lost their jobs; I just lost the fun of contributing.

So I'm going to try and continue to have some of that fun here for a little while. I'm sure quality will take a hit since I won't have the amazing Eve Batey editing my work anymore; there will probably be a lot more swearing and bad grammar. You've been warned.

Finally, if you've stumbled upon this site and would like to read more of my previous reviews, I'm on Rotten Tomatoes, my San Francisco Appeal archives are here, and my SFist archives are currently available here, (for now...)

Stay tuned...

Friday, October 27, 2017

'Suburbicon' Is A Mid-Century Modern Misfire

This review originally appeared on

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.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Save Your Money, Let 'The Snowman' Melt Away

This review originally appeared on

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

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

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 22, 2017

'Battle Of The Sexes' Depicts The Triumph Against Misogyny We Need Today

This review originally appeared on

In any other year — or perhaps in an alternative timeline — Battle of the Sexes might have come off as a bit of feel good retrospection. Look how far we've come, baby! Thank god we've gotten past those days when men could loudly voice their misogyny and not only suffer no consequences, but actually gain fans from it! But post-2016, it almost feels like allegorical wish fulfillment. If only...if only.

The film compresses several years of tennis legend Billie Jean King's (Emma Stone) life into one, starting out with her parting ways in 1972 with U.S. Open director Jack Turner (Bill Pullman, putting his patented Pullman smirk to good use) after he refuses to offer female U.S. Open winners a payout equal to the men's. Turner is convinced audiences aren't as interested in women's tennis as they are in men's saying, "Men are just more exciting to watch. It's not your fault; it's just biology."

So King partners with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to start the Women's Tennis Association, pulling in the sport's top female players, along with an eventual sponsorship from Virginia Slims. These early scenes are among the film's most fun, filled with tacky 1970's hotel rooms, polyester tennis dresses designed by Ted Tinling (Alan Cummings), and a cast of sassy supporting players including Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals and Martha MacIsaac as Peaches Bartkowicz.

Stone, who spends the majority of the movie with minimal makeup and behind unflattering glasses (but thankfully, a more flattering haircut than the real King sported) doesn't exactly look like Billie Jean King, but she's convincing where it counts, with a straightforward, no bs demeanor and a convincing tennis serve.

But for a movie centered on tennis, there's surprisingly little of the sport featured. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton instead focus more on King's off-court life, as she grapples with her closeted sexuality after sparking with her hairdresser, Marilyn Burnett (Andrea Riseborough). King, who was married to Larry "Not That One" King (Austin Stowell) at the time, rightfully fears the impact her coming out might have on him, her career, and her conservative parents. But she also can't deny the attraction, and the two start an affair. (Where that relationship went isn't covered by the film, and you'd never guess from the movie how it would end up.)

Meanwhile, the once legendary tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is 55 years old, and is bored by the corporate job provided to him by the father of his rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who perfects resting fed-up-but-still-bemused face). The only fun he has involves gambling with his fellow over-the-hill buddies, in between visits to his shrink and Gamblers Anonymous.

Carell sports some distracting buck teeth, but his casting is otherwise spot on. Riggs, above all else, is a showman and a buffoon, and Carell's comedic timing serves the character well as he spouts off lines like "Sure women have a place on the court; who else would pick up the balls?" Is Riggs really a male chauvinist pig? Well, if there's money to be had in it, then yes.

King doesn't take Riggs's proposed "battle of the sexes" match seriously, despite the potential payout, knowing it really doesn't have anything to do with the sport but with ego and spectacle. But eventually, after Riggs plays a match against Margaret Court (a prickly Jessica McNamee), King begins to see that beating Riggs would be a symbolic victory too big to pass up.

And symbolic is all it really was. King beating Riggs didn't really prove anything. As Billie Jean voices in the film, "women's lib" wasn't (and isn't) about trying to prove women are better than men. It is about challenging assumptions that men are better than women simply because they're men.

It's an assumption women are still having to challenge, 44 years later. Symbolic though it was, Billie Jean King's win was a crowd-pleasing victory that helped bring women's liberation into the living rooms of millions of people, and as a result, some progress was made. If only there was some kind of symbolic victory an accomplished modern day woman could wield, further leading the charge of progress. If only...if only

Friday, September 15, 2017

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

This review originally appeared on

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

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
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

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

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.