Friday, October 23, 2020

'On The Rocks' Avoids Sinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

 On the Rocks is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Friday, August 21, 2020

'Tesla' Illuminates, Dimly

Elon....I am not your father

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

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

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

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

Tesla is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

'Chemical Hearts' Fails The Litmus Test

You do realize this page is blank?

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical Hearts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Friday, June 26, 2020

'Irresistible' Isn't

Cakes and pies? Now THAT'S irresistible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irresistible is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, May 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2020

'The Trip To Greece' Is The (Final?) Word

C'mon! Gimme some Michael Caine!

The Trip to Greece, the fourth and (possibly) last in the movie (and TV) series featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's culinary adventures around Europe, is filled with a lot of things we can't do right now, like traveling, eating at restaurants, and trading jokes and imitations with a friend who is sitting closer than six feet away.

For some, the longing to do all (or at least most) of the above may bring on a level of envy so strong it may not seem worth watching. But to those doubters I'd stay give it a shot. Because of all the Trip films, The Trip to Greece hits a melancholy note that's perfectly befitting these times.

That said, the majority of the film is simply more of what we've come to expect from the series, and I don't say that critically. Director Michael Winterbottom knows that's what we want from the series. We want to hear Brydon and Coogan's competing impersonations (this time, dueling Dustin Hoffmans are the highlight, with Michael Caine oddly absent). We want to hear their backstabbing compliments and passive aggressive observations of each others' lives and careers as they visit ancient ruins, following in (some of) Odysseus's footstep. And we want to see delicious food served in beautiful Greek settings. (I'm not actually sure if this entry had fewer food and kitchen shots, but it felt like it did, though perhaps that stems from my aforementioned longing for an experience I can't have right now and wanting more, more, more.)

Ultimately, my longing was tempered by the sheer fun I had watching The Trip to Greece. It was a welcome diversion, and a lovely reminder that life has just been paused, not cancelled--we can still laugh! Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan have said recently this may not be the actual end of The Trip, hinting at a possible return in ten years. But who knows, after these months of not being able to do any of the things they've been doing for ten years on film, maybe they'll be itching to hit the road again, and bust out some tableside Brando impersonations sooner than later.

The Trip to Greece is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, May 8, 2020

'How To Build A Girl': Some Parts Are Better Than Others

The 90's were a wild time, kids.

Let me get something straight right off the bat: I adore Beanie Feldstein. I've loved her in everything I've seen her in, especially in last year's woefully overlooked Booksmart, one of my favorite films of 2019. If I know she's going to be in something, I will see that something eagerly. So, I would tell anyone who adores her as much as I do, yes. See How to Build a Girl.

That said, and it utterly pains me to admit it, she's just not right for the movie.

And the thing is, so much of her is right: Her physicality. Her lack of vanity. The glee that seems to exude from her pores. Her comedic timing. Her utter relatability.

But Johanna Morrigan, the girl of the title, is both 16 and British, two things 26-year-old Feldstein is not. And while she does a fairly good job pulling off the 16-year-old aspect, she fails at the accent, which is a particularly tricky "Black Country" lilt. I knew she wasn't getting it right when I could understand everything she was saying, but was wishing for subtitles from much of the rest of the cast. It's a huge distraction.

And oh, that's such a disappointment, because this is a movie every girl or woman who has ever fallen hard for rock and roll could love. Set in the early 1990's Johanna is the only girl in a family with three sons, two of whom are late in life twins, whose arrival has sent Johanna's mother (Sarah Solemani) into a funk. Johanna feels like an outcast, searching for her calling, using her wall of inspiration as a guide. (These photos of her cultural heroes, which include Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sigmund Freud, come to life and are played by the likes of Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, and Michael Sheen.)

After a humiliating appearance on a local TV show ends up costing her father (Paddy Considine) his border collie breeding business, Johanna answers a job notice from a NME-type magazine looking for writers, and sends in a tongue-in-cheek review of the soundtrack to Annie. When she shows up at the offices, proving she's real and not someone's idea of a joke, she convinces them to let her review a concert. And with that, she finds her calling.

Settling in to her new life as a music journalist results in a few personality changes, and Johanna becomes Dolly Wilde, merciless critic and wild child, a character who is neither charitable nor kind, but certainly gets her noticed. She makes an indelible mark in a field dominated by sexist fan boys.

Caitlin Moran wrote the screenplay, based on her semi-biographical novel of the same name, and the way the film has to speed through Johanna's story makes it hard to get ones bearings. I was surprised to learn that what I had assumed was a few years ends up being merely months. I almost wish How to Build a Girl was a series and not a film. Perhaps then Johanna's multiple personality changes would feel a little more consequential.

And, again, while Feldstein may not master that accent, and my annoyance with it took me out of the film more than once, I still enjoyed watching a story about a teenage girl doing things teenage girls often dream about doing, but rarely get to see themselves doing in the stories they watch.

How to Build a Girl is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Home Is For 'The Wretched'

Don't come any closer without a mask!

These days, it's hard not to view all entertainment through the lens of the world's current situation. The indie horror flick The Wretched presents both a nostalgic view of summers spent outside with *gasp* other people, and a current worst case scenario of just what might be happening in that neighbor's house you can't stop spying into because there's nothing else to do.

While the story starts with an effective flashback featuring a 1980's babysitter who really shouldn't go into that basement, the rest of the film takes place in modern-day Michigan, in an active resort town. Teenage Ben (John-Paul Howard) is in town for the summer, staying with his newly separated father (Jamison Jones), and working at his boating dock and rental business at the marina.

Ben befriends a fellow dock worker named Mallory (Piper Curda), after she initially hazes him for the obvious nepotism that got him his job. Why else would a teenage boy with a broken arm get a job that requires a lot of lifting? How Ben got that broken arm is one of the key facts the film doles out slowly. We're not sure we can trust him, just as he's not sure he can trust that seemingly hipster couple with two children who live next door.

At first his curiosity is piqued because the couple is youngish, the mom is hot, and they like to make out with their curtains open. But after one of the children hides out in Ben's house, terrified to go home, Ben starts to notice weird noises coming from their basement, and that mom sure isn't very friendly anymore...

There are shades of The Blair Witch Project (creepy stick figures and scary woods), and Fright Night (spooky neighbors no one else believes are spooky), in the film, but I especially enjoyed how director brothers Brett and Drew Pierce amp up the audible creeps, with creaking bones, and whispers in the dark. It's also gorgeously shot; the brothers are from Michigan and you can tell they both and know and love the beauty that can be found in their state. It may have you longing for warm summer nights outside, while appreciating the comfort and safety of your current shelter.

The Wretched is now available via most VOD platforms.

Friday, February 28, 2020

'The Invisible Man': #MeBoo

"It takes control and slowly tears you apart."

The Invisible Man, Universal's latest re-imagining of one of its classic movie monsters, couldn't be released during a more perfect time, the same week that Harvey Weinstein, a real-life monster, was  convicted of rape and sexual assault. Ironically, it's also his conviction that has me hoping movies like it won't need to be made anymore.

And that's not because the movie is bad! It's a very solid thriller. It's because the story is clearly influenced by the #MeToo movement, and serves as an elaborate bit of wish fulfillment fantasy for the untold numbers of women whose reports of rape and harassment are not believed. Perhaps now women's revenge can happen in the courtrooms and not on movie screens.

In the meantime, we have The Invisible Man, which wastes no time getting started, opening with an extremely well-executed bit of suspense, as we follow our heroine, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) creeping through a modern glass-walled, seaside mansion. She's drugged the man sleeping next to her, and it's clear she's trying to make an escape. A few things are established during that escape: whoever she's fleeing from is very rich, has some kind of high tech lab in his basement, and keeps a shock collar on his dog, so clearly, an asshole.

Once she's ensconced in the Oakland home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia is a bundle of nerves, too scared to even walk as far as the curbside mailbox. Her sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) is finally able to get some of Cecilia's story out of her: her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), was controlling, manipulative, and violent. He would have killed her before letting her leave.

Cecilia's paranoia that Adrian will find her is temporarily relieved when his brother (and lawyer) Tom (Michael Dorman) informs her that Adrian killed himself, and has left her a small fortune. But Cecilia is skeptical. Adrian wasn't the kind of man to just give up like that. And what is that creeping presence she can't seem to shake when the house is quiet and she's alone?

A movie like this can be frustrating, as we spend a huge chunk of it waiting for Cecilia to figure out what we already know, but Elisabeth Moss keeps it from getting monotonous. She gives the kind of performance that, were it not in a horror movie, would get all the nominations and awards. There's absolutely no vanity in it; for the majority of the film she looks like hell, alternating between terrified and fight mode, pleading with everyone to just believe her, no matter how crazy her story may sound. (They don't.)

The Invisible Man runs the genre gamut, employing aspects of horror, science fiction, and suspense. The scares play out like a haunted house movie might, and director Leigh Whannell fills his widescreen image with plenty of spooky empty space that may or may not actually be empty. The booming soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch also amps up the terror (it literally made the seats in the theater vibrate).

Ultimately, the horror at the center of The Invisible Man is both primal and timely. What do you do when you are being terrorized by a monster no one else can (or is willing) to see? And what can you do when people start to believe you're the real monster?

You fight. With all the tools available to you.

Friday, January 10, 2020

'Underwater' Sinks

Note: Not a still from Aliens. Or The Abyss.

It's never a good sign when a film's release is delayed two years, and it's an even worse sign when said film is released in the month of January, the chosen dumping ground for movie garbage. But such is the case for Underwater, the new deep-sea monster movie starring Kristen Stewart.

Kristen Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer on a deep water drilling rig, and she barely has time to finish her inner monologue about pessimism, brush her teeth, and put on a shirt before the rig starts to implode around her. She finds a handful of survivors, including Vincent Cassel as the Captain, and T.J. Miller as an annoying crew member who thinks he's hilarious (aka T..J. Miller). While they suspect an earthquake may be the cause, the weird growls heard on the drilling crew's last transmission give them pause. Nonetheless, Norah and crew must find a way to the surface, even if it means walking a mile across the bottom of the ocean.

I complain a lot about the length of current films, and have a longstanding belief that most could be cut down by 30 minutes and be much improved for it. Underwater is perhaps the rare exception to this rule. Its brisk 95 minute running time leaves no space for character development, establishment of place, or, really, anything other than confusion. Disaster strikes literally minutes into the film, before we've met anyone but Norah, and all we learn about her is she has good oral hygiene, has probably lost a life partner, won't kill spiders, and wears glasses she immediately loses, and never mentions needing again.

There are some tense moments of claustrophobic crawling through crushed hallways, but having no idea what this big underwater station looks like or what its lay-out is, paired with some maddening jump cuts that omit long swaths of time, the crew might as well be trapped in a storage locker. Once they don their diving suits and hit the water, forget it. It's impossible to see what the hell is going on.

My reaction to Underwater probably wasn't helped by the fact that, by mere coincidence, I had re-watched The Abyss two weeks before, and sure that movie has its flaws, but at least you could see what was happening! I'm sure director William Eubank thought Underwater's murky sea was both creepier and more realistic, and there's probably no way the water that deep down is as clear and brightly lit as James Cameron made it look in The Abyss. But you know what? I'll take that clear sea and its technicolor aliens over Underwater's murky depths any day.