Friday, April 27, 2018

'Avengers: Infinity War': Dust In The Wind

Wakanda Forever!

Ten years ago I saw the first Iron Man movie a week after seeing the first Sex and the City movie. It was an interesting contrast to see two films with equally eager, albeit demographically opposite audiences. Imagine an opening-night Iron Man crowd where everyone is dressed as their version of Tony Stark, and you'll understand what that Sex and the City opening night was like. I couldn't help but compare the two films, as they were both among the top movies of the summer. Ultimately, I decided I preferred Sex and the City's version of a New York fantasy (better shoes), but I could certainly understand the appeal of Iron Man and its new kind of comic book movie.

After the first Avengers film in 2011, I realized that I enter a viewing of most new superhero movies, especially those with multiple heroes, like it's going to be the last. Maybe this time, the big battle will end with the world being saved forever, and everyone will get to enjoy a life full of relaxation, sunsets...and a different kind of summer movie.

And in its own dark way, Avengers: Infinity War, an event Marvel has been building up to for the past decade, does satisfy that fantasy. One could walk away from it never needing to see another Marvel movie again, though I seriously doubt anyone who sits through its almost three hour running time isn't going to watch the sequel, due out next year.

And that's the thing; Infinity War deals some extreme blows, and some devastating losses. Moments made me tear up, and I left the theater genuinely sad. Of course, I've come out of superhero movies depressed before, but that depression was usually centered on disappointment (and OK fine, has only really happened after viewing a DC movie).

After a while, that feeling of grief was paired with a bit of anger. Marvel films rarely have true consequences, and what's the point of grief if the stakes aren't as high as they seem to be? How dare they dick me around just to insure I buy a ticket to part two? AND WHEN WILL THOSE TICKETS BE AVAILABLE??

It's ironic that one of Marvel's darkest films is also one of its most fun, with the character banter and personality clashes that have made so many Marvel movies memorable in full abundance. All the fan favorites get some screen time, some more than others (unless your favorite Marvel hero is Hawkeye, in which case, sorry, in so many ways), with multiple franchises coming together to fight Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Marvel Universe's ultimate big bad.

Thanos has been after six powerful "infinity stones" since the first Avengers movie, and as Infinity War opens, (immediately follwing the events of Thor: Ragnorak), he's gotten his giant purple hand on one more. Once he finds them all, he'll have the power to wipe out the universe with the mere "snap of his fingers."

One of my biggest gripes with comic book movies is villains whose goals never really make sense. They're usually centered on a desire to destroy the city/country/world/universe/whatever, with no real sense of why, or just what kind of existence they expect to have after that. All right big guy. You've destroyed the world. Now what?

But Thano's goals are very clear. He doesn't want to destroy planets or eliminate entire populations. He only wants to wipe out half of the universe's populations, indiscriminately, in an attempt to restore order to it all. With half of everyone gone, he believes, there will be no more fighting over resources, and those who remain will never want for anything again.

To Thanos, this is a noble goal. He chillingly rationalizes the destruction of half of the universe's population as necessary, as I imagine every perpetrator of a genuine genocide probably has. And he even earnestly presents a vision of his post-destructo life, which includes sitting on a mountain top, enjoying a sunset, satisfied with the knowledge that he's restored order to the universe.

Keeping the remaining stones out of Thanos's hands becomes the work of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, the nation of Wakanda, and some assorted cameo players, and for the most part, directors Anthony and Joe Russo do a good job of plate spinning. It's only near the end, as battles begin to take place at multiple locations, that the cross cutting becomes a little ridiculous. Nothing kills the excitement of a battle at Wakanda like cutting to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) crying on a planet in another part of the universe.

But really, it isn't the epic battles or fights that have made Marvel movies such pleasurable experiences, and the same holds true for Infinity War. What makes it memorable is seeing Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads with the equally egomaniacal Tony Stark; it's hearing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) try to convince his fellow Guardians that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn't the ultimate specimen of manhood; and it's seeing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) come down with a serious case of Hulk-itile dysfunction. It's the charm of all of these heroes that has made Marvel movies what they are, and it's the fear of losing even some of that--as unfounded as that fear may be--that will keep us coming back for more.

Friday, April 20, 2018

'I Feel Pretty' Normal

Have you met my good friend Maria/The craziest girl on the block?

I Feel Pretty is the story of  Renee, an attractive woman who does not believe she is attractive, who wishes with all her heart that she were "undeniably pretty" and, after a bonk on the head at a SoulCycle class, wakes up to find her wish has come true.

It's important to realize that Renee isn't supposed to be some hideous troll, and casting Amy Schumer, a comedian and actress who has never been afraid to poke fun at her very normal, though certainly not "Hollywood beauty" level looks, is actually perfect. Renee is not an ugly woman, but she is a woman with extreme esteem issues. She is so convinced she doesn't stack up against the beauties that surround her in New York that she slinks through her life, apologizing for her very existence.

The fact that she works for Lili LeClare, a cosmetics company, certainly doesn't help with those esteem issues, especially since she's also stuck in the company's online division, which is just a two-person office buried in a Chinatown basement. She has two besties (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, both wonderful, if underutilized), and the three of them do single girl things like bar hopping, and posting a profile on a group dating web site, but none of this is enough for Renee. She can't help feeling her looks are preventing her from finding true happiness.

Which brings us to that SoulCycle class, a concussion, and her metamorphosis.

I Feel Pretty comes so close to doing something unexpected with Renee's transformation, but doesn't have the guts to follow through. I so wanted the movie to push the idea that Renee's head bonking merely changed her own perceptions of herself, so that when she looks in that mirror she sees not a completely different woman, but herself, and the magic lies in the fact that she no longer has any reason to believe she is anything less than beautiful.

But this isn't the route the movie takes. It's clear Renee thinks she looks like someone else because she's convinced her friends are never going to recognize her, (a joke that grows old quickly, especially since a few sentences from her friends could quickly prove to her that she hasn't changed at all). As a result, much of the comedy that follows is centered on the idea that someone who looks like Renee shouldn't be acting the way she's acting.

With her newfound confidence, Renee is free to apply for a front facing position at Lili LeClare, believing it's a stepping stone to a modeling career. That she gets the job owes less to her chutzpah and more to the fact that company boss, Avery LeClare (Michelle Williams, who basically steals the movie with her hilariously pale and motionless face, and self-consciously squeaky voice), believes someone who looks like Renee will be able to offer her insights into the "normal" women she hopes to sell her lower-priced "diffusion" cosmetic line to.

After meeting and essentially picking up a guy named Ethan at a dry cleaners (Rory Scovel, endearing as an insecure, Zumba-loving, beta male), they go on a date to Coney Island, where Renee decides to enter a bikini contest at a divvy boardwalk bar, and it's during scenes like this that the movie truly loses its footing. Renee, with her improvised t-shirt and rolled-up shorts "bikini," commands the stage like she's Henny Youngman in the body of Gisele Bundchen, cracking wise with the audience before grinding on stage. (In other words, she's not unlike the real Amy Schumer.)

In Ethan's eyes, she's to be envied, as she appears to be the least self-conscious, bravest person he's ever met. But the comedy is supposed to come from watching a perfectly normal looking woman roll around on stage, twerking, and pouring water on her chest. How ridiculous!

The movie also makes the mistake of eventually turning Renee into a narcissistic monster who tries to change her friends before abandoning them for prettier ones. Because of course it is impossible to be both confident and a nice person.

I Feel Pretty's ultimate messages, as clunky and ham-fisted as they may be, are at least good ones, even if they aren't particularly profound. Yes, all women have their insecurities, even supermodels. True beauty does, indeed, come from within. And most importantly, self-confidence can be the key to happiness.

If only it were as easy as banging your head on the floor to get it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

'You Were Never Really Here': It's Hammer Time

And the award for Best Use of Rosie and the Originals in a Film goes to...

You Were Never Really Here seems an odd venture, on its surface. It's an aggressively bleak and violent film by a female director, Lynne Ramsay, based on an aggressively bleak and violent novella by a writer, Jonathan Ames, best known for his comedic writing.

But it's actually not that surprising considering their collective of works. Lynne Ramsay's previous films include the brutal We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the exceedingly grim Ratcatcher, and Jonathan Ames demonstrated an obvious fondness for gritty detective stories with his comedic TV take on the genre, Bored to Death. And if you look close, there's some very, very dark humor to be found in the You Were Never Really Here, amidst Ramsay's unrelenting murk.

Joaquin Phoenix is at his most grizzled in the part of Joe, a middle aged New Yorker who lives with his aged and slightly senile mother (Judith Roberts). We get Joe's history in brief but visceral flashbacks. He's a veteran; a survivor, along with his mother, of domestic abuse at the hands of his hammer-wielding father; and he's been witness to the often horrific outcomes of human trafficking, a trade he fights against as a kind of vigilante-for-hire who has adopted his father's weapon of choice. (The film's marketing attempt to start a trending hashtag with #bringthehammer is a tad tone deaf.)

A senator hires Joe to help find his sixteen-year-old runaway daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a likely victim of sex trafficking, and Joe accepts the job with almost no questions asked. His one mistake.

You can never accuse Joaquin Phoenix of phoning in a role; he always throws his entire body weight at a character, and this time that body weight is bulked up, his battered dad bod on full display in several scenes. With his long grey hair and beard, cracked hands, and visible scars, just looking at him made me wince. And that was before he fights the bad guys.

The story owes much to classic noir and its tales of double crosses and corruption, but ends up straying just a little too far into the ridiculous. Maybe I've been watching too much Law & Order: SVU  lately (correction, there's no maybe about that), but the trafficking story Joe gets sucked into reeks of the kind of morbid and unbelievable exploitation and corruption you might find in a Very Special two-part episode of the series.

You Were Never Really Here almost falls into the camp of movie I detest, where bleakness is there for the sake of bleakness, and the audience is forced to witness horrible things they already know are horrible, resulting in nothing new learned, just agony. Ultimately Ramsay and Phoenix are able save the movie from that fate through the strength of vision and performance.

Ramsay fills the movie with some beautiful imagery that often belies its sad and tragic content. Johnny Greenwood's pulsating score pushes the film's brisk 90 minutes ever forward. A masterfully edited scene using night vision cameras and Rosie and the Originals' Angel Baby as its soundtrack gave me chills. And it all culminates with what I interpreted to be one of the most darkly comic endings ever (I was the only one in the theater who seemed to be laughing) with Phoenix forcing us to question Joe's commitment to never ending misery.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Silence Equals Life In 'A Quiet Place'

Shhhh...Be vewy, vewy quiet...

A Quiet Place has a gimmick almost worthy of a William Castle movie. Aliens have invaded Earth, and while they're fast and deadly, they're also completely blind and lacking in any kind olfactory gifts. But they can hear. And if they hear you, they will kill you. (I can just see Castle introducing the film, imploring audiences NOT...TO...SCREAM!)

With the above, I've given more exposition than the actual movie does, and that's a good thing. Co-writer, director, and star John Krasinski trusts the audience enough to thrust us right into the worst of this planet's new reality, opening with a title card that reads "89 Days After," and showing us a ghost town strewn with abandoned cars; walls plastered with "Missing" posters; a newspaper blowing in the wind, with a headline reading "IT'S SOUND!"; and one family, quietly wandering the aisles of a ransacked drug store, barefoot.

After a cruel lesson in just how important silence is in this new world, we jump ahead a year. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is now very pregnant. Together with dad Lee (John Krasinski, Blunt's real life husband ), they've created a silent haven farm, where their bare footsteps are muffled by carefully laid sand, Monopoly is played with soft tokens, not plastic, and dinner is eaten by hand on kale leaf plates.

They have a young son, Noah (Marcus Abbott), and a deaf, pre-teen daughter named Regan (beautifully played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, so good in last year's Wonderstruck). Their daughter gives the family a post-apocalyptic advantage: they can communicate with each other silently, using sign language.

While Reagn's deafness may seem like a deadly handicap--after all, she can never know how much noise she might be making, or if danger is sneaking up behind her--the film instead focuses on the advantages of her deafness, which is a nice change.

Krasinski, best known for his years playing Jim on The Office, has directed two previous films (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and The Hollars), and nothing in that oeuvre would lead one to believe he'd have such a deft hand when it comes to horror. I was reminded of the surprise I felt after seeing last year's Get Out. Where'd these comedic actors get their horror chops? But really, it shouldn't come as a surprise; horror, like comedy, is all about timing.

In a movie where sound is the biggest threat, you can be sure there are plenty of jump scares. But Krasinski plays cleverly with the trope, so that while those sudden loud sounds will make you jump, that reaction is two-fold. It's the visceral reaction we all have to sudden loud sounds, paired with the knowledge that those sounds may mean imminent death to our heroes. (There's also a funny nod to the cliched "cat scare," using raccoons.)

At a taut 95 minutes, A Quiet Place doesn't waste time leading to a relentless climax that is both a series of worst case scenarios, and a birthing scene that would make Scientologists proud. Much of it is basically a silent film, and the film's greatest gift is its cast, who all give masterful silent performances. Blunt is able to make us laugh and cry using just her eyes, and Krasinki is a master of the silent take, having honed his "re-acting" on The Office, where silent looks at the camera said more than dialogue ever could. This is a horror movie where instead of wanting to scream at the characters for doing something dumb, you'll want to scream for them, since they can't.

Monday, April 2, 2018

2018 San Francisco International Film Festival

The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this Wednesday night, and every year it comes around, I have fantasies of taking the two+ weeks it runs off, and just taking in as many movies as I possibly can in that span. I probably wouldn't see much daylight, but daylight is overrated anyway.

Alas, that's not possible, so instead, I comb through the schedule, make time for the movies I can, and make note of those I can't, in the hopes that they'll eventually get some kind of general release (something that's becoming more assured with the increase in streaming services, including from SFFILM itself).

Of course, it's not just the movies themselves; it's being able to see filmmakers and actors talk about their work; it's the tributes to legends; and, of course, the opening and closing night parties. Here's a dozen or so (and that's just scratching the surface!) films and events that instantly piqued my interest.

Opening Night: A Kid Like Jake
Wednesday, April 4, 2018 7:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Transparent director Silas Howard is scheduled to make an appearance at the opening night premiere of his new film starring Claire Danes and Jim Parsons as parents of a possibly transgender child. The opening night party follows at the Design Center Galleria.

Friday, April 6, 2018 6:00 p.m. Creativity Theater
Sunday, April 8, 2018 2:15 p.m. Victoria Theatre

If you're going to make a list of the best films of the 1970s, director Hal Ashby's name is going to appear on that list at least once, maybe twice, and possibly even six times. Amy Scott's documentary takes a look at his life and work, through his own words, and the words of those who worked with him.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Friday, April 6, 2018 9:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Neil Gaiman and John Cameron Mitchell team up for this tale of aliens and British punks in 1970's London. I probably don't need to say more than that, except that Mitchell and Gaiman are expected to attend this presentation, so you'll have to camp out pretty early to get tickets!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Saturday, April 7, 2018 3:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Monday, April 9, 2018 12:30 p.m. Creativity Theater

The trailer for this documentary about Mr. Rogers went viral a few weeks back, and I know it made me tear up watching it. Mr. Rogers was never cool, and if you admitted to watching him past a certain age, you were probably made fun of. These days it feels like it's those kids who made fun of Mr. Rogers who are winning, and championing kindness is no longer a societal priority. That's where the tears come in.

Tickets are at rush, but this one is definitely getting a theatrical release, so hang tight if you can't get into the festival's presentation.

A Tribute to Wayne Wang: Smoke
Saturday, April 7, 2018 7:30 p.m. Dolby Cinema at 1275 Market

This tribute to the Bay Area filmmaker doesn't feature one of his San Francisco-set films, alas, but the 1995, Brooklyn-set Smoke does feature a great performance by Harvey Keitel, and the opportunity to see it at the amazing Dolby Cinema theater shouldn't be passed up.

Saturday, April 7, 2018 10:00 p.m. Roxie Theater
Monday, April 9, 2018 9:00 p.m. Roxie Theater

One of the things I appreciate the most about the Festival is that every year they feature horror and genre films in their "Dark Wave" series of late night screenings. This rape Revenge thriller from France doesn't look like it's for the weak-hearted, but it certainly couldn't arrive at a better time.

Tribute to Charlize Theron: Tully
Sunday, April 8, 2018 7:30 p.m. Castro Theatre

Yes, Theron is scheduled to appear at this tribute which includes a screening of Tully, her second collaboration (the amazing Young Adult was the first) with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.

A Celebration of Oddball Films with Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra
Monday, April 9, 2018 Castro 8PM

If you've ever been to a screening of films at the Oddball Films archives in the Mission, I bet your brain instantly brings up memories of the smell of the place. It smells like movies. Sadly, Stephen Parr, the curator and master of the collection, passed away last year, and this evening pays tribute to the man and his cinematic passions, with a live performance by the Red Room Orchestra.

Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle
Tuesday, April 10, 2018 9:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 6:00 p.m. Creativity Theater
Tuesday, April 17, 2018 4:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre

I'll admit, it's the title alone that got me interested in this one. But in this case, this documentary about a Spanish matriarch who indeed lived her life goals of lots of kids, a castle, and a monkey, and has a hoarded castle to prove it, may live up to its title.

Centerpiece: Sorry to Bother You
Thursday, April 12, 2018 6:30 p.m. Castro Theatre
Thursday, April 12, 2018 8:00 p.m. Grand Lake Theatre

Bay Area musician Boots Riley makes his directorial debut with this surreal comedy set in Oakland. It kind of defies explanation, so I recommend watching the trailer, and then buying your tickets ASAP.

Godard, Mon Amour
Saturday, April 14, 2018 5:00 p.m. Victoria Theatre
Sunday, April 15, 2018 8:15 p.m. BAMPFA

This biopic focuses on the late 1960s life and career of nouvelle vague icon Jean-Luc Godard, and his relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky as they get swept up into the social movements sweeping France.

Bad Reputation
Saturday, April 14, 2018 8:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Joan Jett is scheduled to make an appearance at the screening of this documentary about one of rock and roll's most legendary rockers.

Closing Night: Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot
Sunday, April 15, 2018 7:00 p.m. Castro Theatre

Did you know Gus Van Sant released a film last year starring Matthew McConaughey, set at the "Suicide Forest" in Japan? Because I sure didn't! Luckily, it sounds like Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, Van Sant's latest, is getting better buzz, and a bigger release. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as quadriplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan, and looks to include the offbeat humor that made Van Sant such a 90's darling. The director is scheduled to appear at this closing night screening, along with composer Danny Elfman.