Sunday, December 31, 2023

Best of 2023: Number Four

Promising Young Woman was my favorite movie of 2020, so I've been looking forward to Emerald Fennell's follow-up since then. When I heard Saltburn referred to as a kind of Brideshead Revisited and Talented Mr. Ripley mash-up, I knew, if nothing else, it would at least hit the aesthetically pleasing mark.

I was pleased to find it was more than that, although I feel like there's been some backlash against it of late, accusing it of being shallow or meaningless. I don't agree that its either of those things, but also think had it been made by anyone else, it wouldn't be getting that type of criticism. 

Saltburn has plenty to say about class, and yearning, both for a lifestyle and for people who will never have you. And man, does Fennell get the yearning part down; Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan have never looked more beautiful than they do in this film. I definitely had my moments of yearning watching them.

I'll say the movie also benefited a lot from seeing it in a crowded theater, as there are some moments in it, and if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about, that elicit such a comedic variety of reactions you don't usually hear unless you're watching a horror movie.

Saltburn isn't perfect, and I can't really argue with those who may issue with it's ending, though to me it works beautifully. I think the ultimate aim of the film is just pleasure and fun, and there's nothing wrong with that. As long as you aren't killing to get it.

Saltburn is currently streaming on Prime Video.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Best of 2023: Number Five

I'm always a little trepidatious about creating top ten or even top five lists every year, because I'm always certain there's some movie out there I haven't gotten a chance to see that could very well turn out to be my favorite when I finally do get to see it, one, two, or three years from now. But I have to say, I've done a pretty good job of seeing as much as I could in the past two months (over 60 films, if we're counting) so I am fairly confident that I can narrow it down to at least five.

5. May December and Priscilla

OK, I lied, it's really a top six, because I just couldn't decide between these two as my number five.

I saw Priscilla early in the "awards season," so while other movies definitely demoted it, it was still a movie that lingered with me for a long time. It's not a traditional biopic, and I can see how that might annoy some, especially when you compare it to last year's manic Elvis, which I did not like at all. In fact, I'd say Priscilla is the antidote to that headache inducing movie. It's a calm, introspective look at a period of time in one woman's life, from her point of view. And yes, Jacob Elordi, is too tall (I think this worked visually because it emphasized just how young Priscilla was when they met), and the period details are not entirely accurate (the heels are just all wrong), and you aren't going to learn a lot about either of them (if you're an Elvis fan, you already know everything, and if you aren't, Wikipedia is your friend).

But none of that ruined the movie for me. Priscilla is about memories, and teenage dreams, and adult realizations. It's another Sofia Coppola movie about sad girls in pretty rooms, and I am here for it.

I've watched all of my top movies more than once, but May December is one I watched again almost immediately, because once it ends, you kind of realize you've been watching a different kind of movie all along. I've dubbed it "the year's best camp melodrama horror comedy," because it's all those things, and maybe even more. (Let's not forget thinly disguised true crime drama!) 

Julianne Moore and composer Marcelo Zarvos both deserve an Oscar for the combined genius that is the "I don't think we have enough hot dogs" moment at the beginning of the film. Charles Melton definitely deserves one for his heartbreaking performance as a man who's slowly realizing he may be married to a monster. And Natalie Portman deserves one for that ending, which lets the audience realize she's....not as great of an actress as she thinks she is. It's an ending that really caught me off guard the first viewing, but then I heard more than one person compare it to the ending of Tár, and it all made sense. 

And while we're giving out Oscars, or at least nominations, give Todd Haynes one too (can you believe he hasn't been nominated for Best Director yet?), and definitely give one to screenwriter Samy Burch, for one of the best debut screenplays I've ever read.

Priscilla is currently available to rent, and May December is streaming on Netflix.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Barbie, Oppenheimer

Barbenheimer is here, and there has been a lot of online chatter about which order you should see the movies, should you choose to see them both (and I say you should). It seems most agree you should start with the darkness of Oppenheimer and move on to the brightness of Barbie, but I'm not sure I agree. 

I saw Barbie on a Monday night and Oppenheimer on a Tuesday night (one thing I will say: try to see Oppenheimer during the day, as it's three hours long, and the film's closing message may keep you up at night), and I was happy with that ordering. Both films are, in one way or another, cautionary tales, and some of the warnings expressed in the Barbie movie are fully executed in Oppenheimer, and that becomes more apparent if you see Oppenheimer with Barbie on your mind.

And Barbie was definitely a movie I was still thinking about a day later. Greta Gerwig has created a garishly pink, girl-power fantasy packed to the gills with gags, music, fashion, dancing, and philosophical questions. There is so much happening in almost every scene of the movie it's impossible to catch everything on a single viewing. It's borderline chaotic, but if you've ever been a child who plays with Barbies, this tracks.

Margot Robbie's "stereotypical" (as she deems herself) Barbie lives in Barbieland, a land essentially fueled by children playing in the real world. She wakes up everyday in her Dreamhouse, takes a dry shower, eats a fake breakfast, and floats into her pink convertible to drive to the beach.

Almost every Barbie in Barbieland is known as Barbie ("Hi Barbie!"). The President; the Supreme Court; doctors; construction workers. And almost all of the men are Kens (except for Allan, who is hilariously played by Michael Cera), and they spend their day doing their job, which is..."Beach."

Stereotypical Barbie's Ken is played by Ryan Gosling, and I cannot think of more perfect casting. (Of course Robbie is also perfectly cast, but there's also a funny breaking of the fourth wall moment that calls that into question). Gosling easily steals all of the scenes he's in and I would love it if he got another Oscar nomination for this.

When Barbie starts to develop a sort of consciousness, with thoughts of death, and visible signs of imperfection, Barbie and Ken enter the "real world," where Barbie discovers the horrors of objectification and Ken discovers the joys of the patriarchy. While Barbie's presence in the real world is seen by the president of Mattel (Will Ferrell) as a threat to the very existence of both worlds, Ken takes what he learns back to Barbieland, turning it into a Kendomland filled with bros drinking "brewski beers," playing guitar at the Barbies, or obsessing over horses and the Godfather movies.

The ultimate message is that neither type of monosociety is ideal, but I couldn't help but think of this Kendomland more than once when watching Oppenheimer. The Ken-filled land of Barbie does quickly devolve into war (albeit one that includes a terrific fantasy dance sequence), and Oppenheimer does, of course, center on the creation of the ultimate weapon of war. 

I liked Christopher Nolan's Memento a lot, but after that, I've found all of his films to be very loud, very busy, and very cold. He's Kubrick on steroids. Oppenheimer is all of those things, but Cillian Murphy's performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer is so riveting I could almost feel some emotion while watching it. I felt a bit more watching Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty, a character who for the majority of the movie is the troubled wife annoyed by her husband's work, but she eventually gets one of the best scenes in the movie. (Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer's earlier girlfriend, Jean, is not given enough screen time, especially considering the film's length and the fact that she's really the only other major female character in it.)

Oppenheimer like most of Nolan's other films, is loud, with a constant soundtrack that makes it feel like it is being constantly propelled forward, even though the movie is half flashback. Frankly, it's exhausting, but I have to admit, when the film finally does quiet, for the Trinity test, this sudden calm makes the scene all the more astonishing. It's perhaps the best sequence in any of his films to date.

I'm not one of those people who insists the only way to truly experience films is in a theater. But I do think Oppenheimer will lose a lot of its impact on a small screen. I saw it in IMAX, which was perhaps a little TOO big and loud, but there is no doubt Nolan knows how to use that format effectively. 

The Barbenheimer phenomenon pleases me primarily because it's proof there is room for an unapologetically pink feminist manifesto next to a deadly serious anti-war story in our existing cineplexes, and that plenty of people will indeed see both. It's a Barbenheimer World, and that's fantastic.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: No Hard Feelings

No Hard Feelings is being marketed as a gross-out sex comedy, something akin to films like American Pie or Superbad, but it's really more of a romantic comedy than a sex one (even if star Jennifer Lawrence does appear completely naked in it; more on that later).

Lawrence plays Maddie Barker, a Montauk, NY native who is fighting to keep the house she inherited from her mother. It's been paid off, but because of Montauk's rising property values, she can't afford her property taxes. When her car is repossessed, and she can no longer work as an Uber driver, she answers a Craigslist ad from some parents looking to hire a young woman to date their introverted 19-year-old son as a kind of pre-college crash course in sexual adulthood. Payment would come in the form of a used Buick.

Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is of course very suspicious when this thirtysomething woman starts to come on to him, and it's a running joke that everyone who meets Maddie assumes she's anything but his romantic interest, because she's so old. Her attempts to seduce him fail multiple times because Percy has been so sheltered he hardly recognizes them as attempts at all.

One of the biggest problems with the "classic" teenage sex comedies of yore is their inherent misogyny, so I will always appreciate any attempt to update the genre, especially if that update centers on a woman, gets rid of the objectification, but still retains the raunch the genre needs.  

No Hard Feelings definitely tries, and the scene featuring a full-frontal Lawrence, in which she fights some teenagers who have stolen her clothes while she's skinny dipping, seems to be a direct comment on the genre's need for nudity. She's definitely nude, but the scene is played for laughs, not titillation. I wanted more risky moments like that, but too much of the movie takes the tame route, seemingly not understanding that a modern raunchy sex comedy can have the sex, and the raunch, and still be worthy of a star like Jennifer Lawrence.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Elemental, The Blackening

Pixar's Elemental may end up being one of the year's most touching movies about the immigrant experience and interracial romance, even if it's set in a metaphorical world full of walking and talking earthly elements, not people.

The story centers on the Lumen family. Bernie and Cinder immigrate to Element City to start a new life, opening a store in a neighborhood that becomes the center for the majority of the fire elements in the city. Their daughter Ember grows up assuming she will take over the family business, until she meets Wade Ripple, a water element who, in typical romantic comedy fashion, she hates at first, but then grows to love, as he also opens up another world of possibilities for her future.

Having fire and water fall in love may seem like a pretty clunky and obvious metaphor for interracial dating, but it mostly works, due in large part to the charming voice performances from Leah Lewis as Ember and Mamoudou Athie as Wade. So many animated movies depend on casting wholly recognizable stars as the voice actors, and it can often feel inauthentic and unnecessary (ahem). I really appreciated hearing these unfamiliar voices, and was also delighted when I learned Wade was voiced by Athie, as he's an actor who has enchanted me since I first saw him in Patti Cake$ back in 2017. 

There's a subplot involving a growing threat to the Fire neighborhood that, frankly, didn't make a whole lot of sense, and felt wedged in, as though they didn't trust the love story was conflict enough. The only benefit to that storyline is it allows us to see more of the world that was created for the movie. Elemental is one of the most beautiful films Pixar has ever released; it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, and will benefit greatly from its eventual move to Disney+, where you can pause and explore all the visual glory of the elements and their world.

Horror comedies are always a risky endeavor, at least those that aren't straight up parodies. Lean too heavily into the comedy and you fail as a horror movie, and lean too heavily into horror and the comedy can feel off-putting. The Blackening does a fair job at both, with a heavy dose of social and racial commentary thrown into the mix.

Eight Black friends convene in a cabin in the woods for a combined Juneteenth and college reunion celebration of games, drinking, and recreational drug use. (Recognizing the horror cliche right off the bat, one character remarks "To be fair, it's more of a house than a cabin.") The movie's tagline and central joke references another horror movie cliche: if the entire cast is Black, they can't all be killed off first. And this idea of "Blackness" plays a central role in the life and death game the party guests are faced with.

The Blackening does a good job of distinguishing its multiple characters right off the bat, with identifiable personalities and foibles, but the stand-out is probably DeWayne Perkins, who also co-wrote the screenplay, as the group's lone gay friend, DeWayne. He's got the best lines (and the best costume changes). 

If the film has a weakness it's with its ultimate conclusion, which does not come as much of a surprise, and with the performance at the center of it, which was not convincing for a moment. But I'm willing to overlook a weak ending when what comes before it so much fun.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

I'm one of those people who does their best to avoid spoilers before seeing a movie, especially when it comes to genre films. That means I don't watch trailers (unless I'm forced to at a theater), avoid reviews, and stay away from internet chatter as much as I can before watching something that's bound to be filled with surprises.

But man alive, I wish someone had spoiled Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for me, because if I had had any prior knowledge of what happens in this movie, I probably would have skipped it entirely. Consider this review the kind of warning I wish I'd had, while being as spoiler free as possible.

Vol. 3 takes places after the events of the The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, and the gang's attempt to cheer up the depressed Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) apparently didn't stick, as the movie opens with Quill drinking away his sorrows on Knowhere, still mourning the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who, while no longer dead, is not the Gamora Peter once loved. Like the first two films, this opening involves a tracking shot set to a pop song, though in this case, it's not a peppy classic. Instead, it's an acoustic version of Radiohead's "Creep", and it's being listened to by an equally depressed looking Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, a fact that never ceases to amaze me). The tone for this sequel is set early.

Shortly after, Rocket's life is put in danger, and the remainder of the film is centered on a quest to save him, paired with flashbacks to Rocket's origin story, and as has always been suspected, there's a reason why he's never wanted to talk about that. It's because it's. Fucking. AWFUL.

I'm one of those people who has to check Does the Dog Die whenever I see there's an animal in a film, so I can make sure they make it out OK, or if they don't, so I can at least be prepared for it. Call me a pussy, but I just can not deal with seeing animals tortured or killed on screen. And I'm here to tell ya, that happens in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. A lot. And it is absolutely brutal to watch.

I'm not even sure if the rest of the movie that does not feature cruel experiments on cute animals, some of their deaths, and outright genocide is any good, because every time the film would jump from the horrible to our beloved gang of Galaxy Guards bantering and acting heroic, I was too distracted by the tears I had to wipe dry and the sobs I was muffling to really notice. 

Yes, I did laugh several times, and took particular pleasure in Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). I'd watch a spinoff focused on them in a heartbeat. But the drastic whiplash changes in tone made it hard to really appreciate the more lighthearted aspects of the movie. This is director James Gunn's final entry in the series, and perhaps his leaving explains some of the story choices he makes. The Guardians films are the Marvel movies I have probably enjoyed the most up until now, watching the first two more than once. But I don't think I can ever watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 again, and would only recommend it to those who really, really, really feel the need to complete the series. 

But don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Weekend Screen Seen: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Polite Society

Like many a Gen X gal, I was a huge Judy Blume fan growing up, reading many of her books more than once (and some, like Forever, and Wifey, at an age I probably shouldn't have). And, like many of her fans, I was worried when I heard an adaptation of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was set for the big screen. Would it be modernized? How could that even be done? And would it be watered down for an era where even being able to talk about periods is under attack?

Those fears were unfounded. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is a charming period piece (sorry) set firmly in the early 1970's, complete with training bras, maxi pads, and games of spin the bottle. And while I am not sure how well it may play with today's pre-teens, it will definitely please adults who grew up loving the book.

The way I remembered it, the book was centered on the anxiety Margaret feels about puberty and her changing body. But in actuality, religion plays just as big of a role in the story (which, given the "God" in the title, should not have come as much of a surprise). Margaret's interfaith parents (her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish), chose not to raise her without any religion, allowing her to decide for herself what she wants to believe in. We see Margaret attend Synagogue with her beloved grandmother Sylvia (a perfectly eccentric Kathy Bates), confusedly confess at a Catholic church, and confront the Christian grandparents who disapproved of her mother's marriage. The story presents such a measured approach to religion that I'm pretty sure it, and not the period stuff, is the real reason the book has been consistently banned over the years.

The cast, for the most part, is perfect. The aforementioned Kathy Bates steals every scene she's in, but Abby Ryder Fortson's Margaret is complicated and lovable. As Margaret's mother, Barbara, Rachel McAdams is able to convey the rebellion brewing within a housewife who is beginning to question her decisions. It's only Benny Safdie, as Margaret's father, Herb, who feels like odd casting. He spends so much of the film with a strange half-smile on his face that I wondered if he was playing him as a secret stoner. (Definitely not something I remember from the book.)

Director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a movie that I have to call "pleasant," but not in any derogatory way. There's nothing wrong with pleasant, and sometimes it comes as a damn relief. I spent the whole movie relishing the nostalgic sets, soundtrack, and costumes, laughing, occasionally tearing up, and just appreciating that these beloved characters were finally brought to the screen in a way that would make Judy Blume proud.

I wouldn't have thought periods would be a thing to tie Margaret and the action comedy Polite Society together, but mentions of a woman's "time" and "heavy flow" are used more than once in the film to get uncomfortable men to do what the women want. (Want to freak a guy out? Tell him to look for something in your purse and then say "ignore all the tampons." He'll jerk his hand out of that purse like you told him there was a cobra in it. Do they think we carry used ones around???)

Aside from that connection, Polite Society also centers on a teenage girl and her relationship with her family, with the underlying theme that girls should be able to carve out their own futures. Ria (Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a stunt woman, and spends her spare time filming her practices, with the help of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya). When Lena decides to give up art school after falling in love with a doctor, her Pakistani parents are pleased, but Ria is sure something just isn't right with her sister's fiance and over-bearing mother, and vows to save her from that horrible fate: marriage.

It takes a little while to adjust to Polite Society's meshing of genres, which include romantic comedy, Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner, and even horror, but writer and director Nida Manzoor knows how to balance them all, resulting in a film that is just pure fun, from start to finish.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Renfield, Mafia Mamma

"What if Renfield were a superhero?" is the underlying premise of Renfield, the new horror comedy starring Nicholas Cage as the famous count, living in contemporary New Orleans, and Nicholas Hoult as his long-suffering familiar, Renfield, who has grown tired of a lifetime of servitude, even if the perks involve immortality and the ability to always win a bar fight.

It's surprising to realize Nicholas Cage has only played a vampire once before, in the dark 1989 comedy Vampire's Kiss (and whether or not he really is a vampire in that movie is open to debate); a vampy, over the top, blood sucking, narcissistic character seems so right up his alley it almost feels like type-casting. And even though Dracula is really a supporting player in this tale, Cage makes the most of his limited screen time. Even when he's reduced to a blackened, smoldering char, he can deliver a line like no one else.

Nicholas Hoult's Renfield is a sympathetic killer; a pale, sad-sack loner in a threadbare wardrobe who uses his toxic relationship support group as both therapy and hunting ground. This Renfield doesn't just eat bugs for fun, instead, bug-eating is the source of his superpowers, which include strength, immortality, and acrobatic fighting abilities.

The violence in Renfield is absolutely ridiculous, and for the most part, hilarious (I mean, at one point Renfield impales one bad guy with an arm he's just ripped off of another), even if by the time the climactic finale arrived, I was a tad tired of the fighting. The movie packs a lot into its scant running time, and I found it most amusing when it focused on its characters, including Awkwafina as a sardonic, second generation NOLA cop, and less on the plot involving a crime family and an attempt to take over the world. I thought I was over superhero movies. Turns out I just needed mine to be a little more goth...and gory.

Renfield is now playing in theaters.

Over-the-top violence also plays a part in Mafia Mamma, a new gangster comedy starring Toni Collette as a suburban mom who finds herself the head of an Italian mafia family, a plotline that can only happen in the movies. Which is fine! I just enjoyed a movie about a man who gets superpowers from eating bugs! I'd just prefer my stupid movie plots to come with some good jokes. At least.

Listen, I don't blame Toni Collette for signing on to a movie that required her to travel to Italy, eat a lot of pasta, and make out with hot Italian men, no matter how terrible the script may have been. Sometimes the good time she's so obviously having results in a few minutes of entertainment, maybe even a smile. She's always a charismatic performer. But it's not enough. Instead of genuine laughs we get a running gag about her never having seen The Godfather, gangsters who spit every time a rival family is mentioned, and a woman with a metal leg everyone seems to forget she has. (That woman is played by Monica Bellucci, who deserves so much more.)

That the violence is often played for laughs would have worked a whole lot better if the rest of the movie veered more often into the realm of outright parody, or even fantasy. But director Catherine Hardwicke just can't seem to stick to a tone, and the result is DOA.

Mafia Mamma is now playing in theaters.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: A Man Called Otto, Women Talking, The Pale Blue Eye

At first glance, A Man Called Otto feels like a predictably lovable story about a cantankerous old man who Learns to Live Again with the Help of an Unlikely Friend™, especially when you see that ultimate nice guy Tom Hanks is playing that cantankerous old man. But the story actually gets pretty dark pretty quickly, giving what appears to be a predictable story an uneasy edge.

Casting Hanks as a grumpy old man may seem like an odd choice, but it works. Otto is a grieving widower who's decided he's had enough of the idiots that seem to be taking over the world, and isn't quiet about it. Quite bluntly, he's an asshole, and watching an asshole for two hours would likely be intolerable. Tom Hanks knows how to balance the sweet and the sour. Mariana Treviño is also an absolute delight as that Unlikely Friend™ who gets under Otto's skin.

 A Man Called Otto is now playing in theaters.

Sarah Polley's Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews, feels very much like a stage play; instead of Twelve Angry Men, we have Eight Angry Mennonites. These eight angry women live in a religious colony and are coming to grips with the knowledge that for years, men in the colony have been drugging them and raping them in their sleep. They gather together to discuss their options: Leave. Stay and fight. Or stay and do nothing. 

Women Talking is indeed a talky movie, but what talking! And what women! The key thing Polley does to remove the film from the confines of its inherent staginess is to focus closely and intently on the faces of the women doing all of that talking. It feels as if all of the actresses, devoid of obvious makeup, hair under scarves, are able to convey the truth of their characters instantly. All of the cast is excellent, but Claire Foy as the angry Salome and Rooney Mara as the beatific Ona stand out. If I have one complaint it's with the distracting choice to completely wash out the film of any real color, without going full on black and white.

Women Talking is now playing in theaters.

At this point I'm not sure it's possible for Christian Bale to make a movie where he doesn't look like complete hell and The Pale Blue Eye is no exception. Set in 1830, Bale plays a detective who is hired to investigate a murder at the West Point Military academy. His grizzled and grieving sleuth pairs up with an academy student named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), and at this point you can probably guess that things get weird. The film's eerie and atmospheric setting and cinematography does a lot of the heavy lifting until the ultimate twists that you will either go with, or roll your eyes at. Gillian Anderson and Toby Jones also star.

The Pale Blue is now streaming on Netflix.