Thursday, March 22, 2018


"Hello? It's #MeToo."

At this point, I suppose we should interpret Steven Soderbergh's 2013 retirement from filmmaking a bit more broadly. He didn't quit, he just "retired" from traditional Hollywood filmmaking (not that his career was ever truly centered on that). Since he announced that so-called retirement, he's produced, worked as a cinematographer, created an HBO series and an accompanying app, and directed Logan Lucky, eschewing the big studio release machine to get that one into theaters. Sadly, that proved to be a failed experiment, as the film wasn't exactly a box office smash. (The movie itself, however, was great fun,)

Now he's back with Unsane, a solid B-movie thriller shot entirely on iPhones. It's a technique that works well for a film centered on paranoia, insanity, and obsession, since these are all things our smart phones can easily exacerbate on a daily basis.

Claire Foy (utilizing an American accent almost as grating as Kate Winslet's) stars as Sawyer Valentini, a single young woman who has recently relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania. She's started a new banking job, is doing her best to subtly ignore the not-so-subtle sexual harassment from her boss, and uses a dating app to hook up, insisting her dates will get what they want, as long as they promise to leave her alone forever after.

She's got a past she can't seem to shake, the victim of a stalker (Joshua Leonard) she thought she'd left behind in Boston. When she starts to see him out of the corner of her eye, and in the form of one of her hook-ups, she begins to question her sanity, and figures it might be best to talk to a therapist about it.

This turns out to be a very bad idea.

What follows is part Cuckoo's Nest, part Shock Corridor, after Sawyer signs the wrong documents and finds herself placed in "voluntary commitment" at a mental hospital where, of course, there's nothing that makes her seem crazier than her screaming that she isn't. It also doesn't help that she's convinced her stalker has followed her to the hospital, and is working under an assumed name.

Trapped in the co-ed facility, she makes an enemy in the corn-rowed, shiv-carrying Violet (Juno Temple), and a friend in Nate (Jay Pharoah), an ex-junkie who seems to be as misplaced in the nuthouse as Sawyer believes she is.

From the beginning Soderbergh uses his iPhone's camera to invoke a feeling of claustrophobia and voyeurism, with scenes of Sawyer that feel like they're being secretly filmed from a distance (which they actually were), and extreme close-ups that don't give any of the actors much breathing room. The lack of any traditional Hollywood glamour, in any aspect of the filming, from the make-up, to the clothing, to the casting, to the sets, gives everything a good feeling of reality, which is countered by our uncertainty over Sawyer's grasp of it.

The low-budget technique also lends itself well to a story that hearkens back to the cheap exploitation films of the 1970's and 80's, when the issues of the day would be repackaged into metaphorical thrillers centered on things like drug use, assault, and revenge. Sawyer is every woman who has ever been gaslighted after reporting an assault, harassment, or even just apprehension over a guy's overly enthusiastic text messages, and Unsane is the ultimate "told you so."

Friday, March 9, 2018

'A Wrinkle In Time' Could Use More Of The Latter

"I'd help you, Meg, but I can't move an inch in this thing."

There's a lot riding on Disney's A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first film adaptation of what is one of the most popular young adult books of all time; it's the first $100 million film to be directed by an African American woman; the cast is ethnically diverse; and the protagonist is a girl. Pair all that with the fact that the film is opening a few weeks after Black Panther, the biggest African American film success ever, a film I bet not even a surprise sequel to Black Panther could knock out of that top box office spot, and it's a lot of responsibility for one quirky science fiction film to shoulder.

And Ava DuVernay's film, from a screenplay by Frozen-scribe Jennifer Lee, is not an unmitigated disaster. It does a lot of things right, the best of which is wearing its heart on its sleeve; it's nice to see a kids movie that isn't bogged down by knowing winks or cynicism. (I cried more than once.)

Set in a city that looks a lot like Los Angeles, the story centers on brainy outcast Meg (Storm Reid), a teenager who's bullied at school by the popular crowd, while still mourning the sudden disappearance of her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. She lives with her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also a scientist, and her precocious, and possibly psychic, adopted five-year-old brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

After standing up for herself at school, she catches the eye of the popular Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller) who is soon telling the self-conscious Meg that he likes her hair (a bit taken directly from the book, given some complicated added meaning with the casting of a black girl as Meg), while following her home for dinner.

These early scenes, along with the flashbacks to a younger Meg in her father's lab, prove that director DuVernay has a gift for directing young actors, and an ability to convey the inner insecurities of teenage girls. Is there another young adult novel she's willing to adapt? Maybe one with a story firmly planted in reality? Because it's when the fantasy starts to enter the film that A Wrinkle in Time falters

The first problem is the three "Mrs," the guiding forces who, in the book, take on different forms, most often appearing as old women, a conventional witch, or just...light. In the film, they are, the majority of the time, youngish, and corpreal. Reese Witherspoon is Mrs Whatsit, the chattiest and youngest (by a couple billion years). Mrs Who, who speaks almost entirely in famous quotations, is played by Mindy Kaling. And Mrs Which, the oldest and wisest of the three, is played by Oprah Winfrey, because of course.

The choice to glitter up their faces to within an inch of their lives, and layer them with miles and miles of the most unflattering fabrics imaginable is perplexing. Perhaps Oprah's blonde locks, and layers of metal and metallics are supposed to make her appear regal and strong, but it mainly looks like she couldn't move much, which is probably why she spends most of the film standing in one place. (Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, is forced to run down a hill wearing three feet of pannier on the sides of her skirt. There's no way to make that look graceful.)

"How come Oprah doesn't have to run??"

The kids adventures across the universe start out promising on the lush planet of Uriel, with its flying flowers and jutting mountains. Less enchanting is Mrs Whatsit's transformation into a flying fig leaf (wither the winged centaurs of the novel?) in a scene that veers into the silly when it should be magical.

The film gets less visually interesting as it moves on, making a stop on a dark lava rock planet to visit a seer known as the "Happy Medium" (Seth Galifianakis, bringing his trademarked and much needed deadpan comedy to the part), before landing on the conformity-filled planet of Camazotz, home to the universe's dark force, known simply, as IT, which is visualized, once again, as something akin to molten lava.

Not enough time is spent in any of these worlds, and the film, though two hours long, feels oddly rushed. Disney made a previous attempt to adapt A Wrinkle in Time into a miniseries in 2003, and while the result was terrible, the format feels more fitting for the material. If The Hobbit can be made into three movies, the same could certainly be done with Wrinkle.

Because the moments that are supposed to be the most awe-inspiring fall flat, it ends up being at its best when it's at its simplest. The pure joy Charles Wallace conveys at the beginning of the journey makes his turn at the end all the more heartbreaking. (Young Deric McCabe is really good.) An emotional moment between Meg and her father is effective because it is just raw emotion on screen, special effects-free. And Mrs Which's words of wisdom to young Meg, about self acceptance and inner strength, work because they're true, and because it's Oprah up there. No bedazzled eyebrows needed.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Spare Yourself From 'Red Sparrow'

Red Sparrow is a thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian ballerina who turns into a spy. How could that possibly go wrong? It sounds just ridiculous enough to be fun, with the added star power of a kick-ass JLaw. Instead, Red Sparrow is a slow slog that features nary a single pirouette-turned-kick-to-the head. In fact, Lawrence spends a depressing amount of screen time being sexually degraded, beaten up, or both.

Which isn't to say her Dominika doesn't have her strengths. She is, after all, able to overcome a devastating (and absolutely horrific) dancing injury in the span of a few months, though it is a career ender. The end of her prima ballerina life also means no more Bolshoi apartment or medical care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson).

In swoops her lecherous uncle Vanya (!) (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Russian intelligence agent who offers to help her and her mother as long as Dominika offers herself up as bait in a sting operation against a government official. When things don't go as planned, and Dominika becomes an expendable witness, her uncle gives her a choice: death or whore school.

Actually, "whore school" is what Dominika dubs the spy program she's recruited into, although its students are officially known as "Sparrows." They're all good looking young Russians--both male and female--who are taught to use their sexual attractiveness and wiles to get what they need out of the enemy. In Domininka's case, that enemy is CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is working with a Russian mole her uncle wants to uncover.

Charlotte Rampling plays the icy head mistress of this school of espionage blow jobs, and she's one of a cast of several surprising veteran actors (Ciaran Hinds; Mary-Louise Parker; Jeremy Irons) who make an appearance, most appropriating unfortunate Boris and Natasha level accents.

Lawrence's isn't much better, though she gets the icy Russian blonde demeanor down pretty well, burying the natural effervescence she seems to exhibit when she's anywhere but on the big screen. This is the first film in which she's agreed to appear nude, and I suppose I can understand that decision, in a way. The nudity certainly isn't meant to titillate (though it no doubt will, for some), as it happens during a rape scene, a torture scene, and a scene where Dominika uses her body to intimidate a fellow Sparrow. It's nudity as the ultimate boner killer.

More perturbing is how often her character is beaten and tortured. Sparrows are taught to use their minds and their bodies, but not really how to fight, so the film isn't similar to something like Atomic Blonde, where the female spy gives just as well as she gets. 

But in watching it I realized, that isn't new territory for Jennifer Lawrence. Her break-out role in Winter's Bone includes a brutal beating scene, and her last film, mother!, featured even worse. Of course, she's not just walking through meadows in her big franchise roles either, but at least in The Hunger Games and X-Men, she's able to fight back.

Lawrence has said she's taking a bit of a break after this, and I hope when she comes back to the screen she departs from some of her previous choices, instead choosing a role that is clearly written for someone her age, not ten years older, doesn't include any punches to the face, and allows her to be the funny and naturally appealing woman that has been stifled in too many films.