Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Little Drummer Boy

Of the most notable Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated films dealing with the theme of Christmas, among them being Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Little Drummer Boy is arguably the worst. Fortunately, it's about half the running time of the others.

You likely can remember some of the songs for those other famous TV specials; you won't for this movie. Sure, there's the famous song of which the film is based on (here, it's sung by the Vienna Boys Choir), but that's it. And if you've heard that song before (which you likely have), you know the gist of the story. There's a young drummer boy out in the desert and he happens to stumble upon a group of Palestinian refugees. He plays his drum for the newborn baby because he has no other gift to give.

In this adaption, Teddy Eccles plays Aaron, the young drummer boy. He has a donkey, a camel, and a lamb, all of whom are meant to be comic relief (I think). Jose Ferrer plays the abusive traveling entertainer Ben Haramad, and Greer Garson narrates.

If you have a few minutes, listen to the song and avoid the film.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

On a miserable rainy night in London, a family from Singapore rushes in from the cold after a long flight. They've arrived at a private posh hotel. Despite their reservation, they find that it is not being honored by the hotel, whose staff likely didn't realize that Mrs. Eleanor Young was in fact an Asian woman. Eleanor is played by world cinema legend Michelle Yeoh, and this opening scene says everything about the character and her performance. The enormous exercise in patience and restraint that require her not to lose her temper when the hotel manager suggests she and her family explore Chinatown is evident.

Eleanor calls her husband and then returns to the hotel. The manager insists she leave or they will call the police. She is unfazed. The owner rushes down to enthusiastically greet her and announce that he has just spoken with her husband and is selling the hotel to the Young family of Singapore. The manager suddenly looks panicked. As she follows the soon-to-be-former owner of the hotel to his suite for a toast, she looks back at the manager and and his staff. "Do get a mop," she commands. "The floor's wet." It's one of the best scenes in the movie.

Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from the novel by Kevin Kwan, is the first major film from Hollywood to feature a predominantly Asian and Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club twenty-five years ago. It's disappointing that it has taken so long for another one. But given the success of this film, we may be heading into more diverse territory soon (hopefully).

Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, an economics professor at New York University. She's dating another professor named Nick Young (son of Eleanor). He's adorable but kind of frugal, using her Netflix password and things like that. But he invites her to Singapore for spring break so they can attend his best friend's wedding. Within a matter of minutes, the entire Young family and their network know of this Rachel Chu, and they can't stand her. Even though Rachel's mother is unaware of this gossip, she tries to warn her daughter as she heads abroad to meet Nick's family.

"Your face is Chinese," she tells Rachel. "You speak Chinese." But, she adds in English, "you're different."

She's right. According to the Hofstede Center, China is a collectivist culture that can be described as masculine (success-oriented and and driven), often acting with the "interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves." The Center also claims that "people should not have aspirations above their rank." This helps explain how Rachel will be viewed by Nick's family.

On the way to Singapore, Rachel discovers that Nick is not totally who he has led on to be. Given their private suite on the plane, Nick appears to be rich -- crazy rich. Or, as he tells her, "comfortable." He tells her that the money is his family's money, not his. His family is indeed rich, and their riches are spread out across the region. One cousin is a film producer in Taiwan. There's another cousin named Eddie (played by Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng), a big finance guy in Hong Kong. And then there's Astrid (played by Gemma Chan), a fashion icon and probably the only cousin that Nick likes. Rachel will eventually discover that Nick is practically royalty.

The wealth of Singapore is on display from the beginning (perhaps a little too ostentatiously). One of the best lines is as Rachel walks through the airport in Singapore and remarks that there is a butterfly garden and a cinema, while JFK airport only has "salmonella and despair." During another moment, a father lectures his children that they have to finish their lunch because "there's a lot of children starving in America." In the movie, there is a more-than-obvious critique of selfie culture, gossip, and classism, especially in relation to how Eleanor (the Tiger Mom version of The Devil Wears Prada) and the others treat Rachel. Eleanor's despising Rachel is more than apparent, though like in the beginning scene, she tries to make it appear subtle. She particularly dislikes the way Rachel chases her passion (so American), not to mention the fact that Rachel was raised by a single mother who waited tables and became a real-estate agent. It's actually kind of cringe-worthy when Rachel chimes in with Nick's family, because no matter what she says or how she says it, Eleanor et al will attack.

Wu's performance is as natural as they come, and it's the most delightful of the year. The only problem I had was the way she talks as a professor in class, but I figured that was more of a problem with the screenwriting. (Professors don't talk like that; they never have and they never will. It's an annoying trope that movies and television should get rid of.) In addition to Wu and Yeoh, Awkwafina as Rachel's friend Peik Lin is usually quite funny, like a combination of the slapstick of the Silent Era and the Fifties. Henry Golding as Nick is sometimes a little too charming, but it mostly works.

Crazy Rich Asians takes the typical approach to princess-making in romantic comedies and turns it on its head. Rachel already is perfect in an American context -- she's smart, talented, beautiful, friendly, humble, forgiving, and an NYU professor. But for Eleanor Young, she will never be enough. She becomes a princess and it still doesn't work out. So she has to embrace her Americanness and show Eleanor what she's made of. And when she does, she channels all the class, wit, and humility that she has. It's the very best moment of the film, and it goes without saying that you'll be rooting for her all the way.   


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place, the horror flick from earlier this year directed by and starring John Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt, is a most brave film in a genre that sometimes competes with itself to be the loudest in the room.

A Quiet Place doesn't do those usual tricks, and, as the title suggests, is remarkably hushed. There is hardly any dialogue. What little dialogue there is in usually in the form of American Sign Language. There is a score (a pretty good one by Marco Beltrami, who has written music for numerous horror movies, such as Scream and The Woman in Black), but it's not a dominating one like in Psycho or Jaws. All in all, this is a rather silent movie, and it pays off well.

At some point, the reviewer needs to explain the plot. I firmly believe that the less you know about this movie, the better. What I will tell you is that centers on a family living in a rural part of the country. Blunt and Krasinski play the parents of three young children (played by Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward. They are basically the only cast members in the film, which was somewhat low-budget with $18 million and yet it made more than $50 million in just its opening weekend.

The actors are terrific. Blunt has never been better, Krasinski delivers a performance so unlike what fans are used to seeing him as Jim in The Office, and young Jupe gives a particularly noteworthy performance. But the best reviews probably go to young Simmonds. Simmonds, who herself is deaf and uses American Sign Language, delivers a perfect performance of a young girl growing up in a world turned upside down. She blames herself for things that have happened to their family, and she argues with her father. The father (Krasinski) is (or was) an engineer, so he's constantly tinkering with cochlear implants but comes up short. The two argue, with one often disappointing the other. The family constantly makes efforts to keep quiet, and yet they face problem after problem. What makes matters worse for this family is that Blunt's character is pregnant and about to give birth; it goes without saying that such an act is not a quiet one, further complicating their efforts to survive.

Much praise goes to Krasinski for his acting and directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Let's hope many more horror films continue to be as smart and fun as this one.

Friday, August 17, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is back. With his provocative film BlacKkKlansman, "based on some fo' real shit," this part-thriller, part-drama, part-comedy flick is saturated with the kinds of societal critiques and questions that have made Lee an essential part of American cinema. He returned to this form several years ago with Chi-raq, but BlacKkKlansman is so much more unforgettable. Taking aim at the Lost Cause revisionist history of The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, Lee poses tough questions for every viewer to contemplate. And fortunately, there's basically everything you would want in a Spike Lee joint: thrills, innovative camera work, comedy, and especially social commentary (in a way that virtually no other American director can do). But his ability to capture joy in a movie essentially about human tragedy is exceptional; the "Too Late to Turn Back Now" dance scene in the bar is probably the best music moment of the year.

John David Washington (son of Denzel, Lee's frequent collaborator) plays Ron Stallworth, a young, eager rookie cop for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Bored with his tasks at the department, he eagerly asks for some kind of reassignment as a detective. He's only a rookie, and so he's brushed off. Eventually, he is charged with going undercover at a student rally featuring Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), by then known as Kwame Ture. At the rally, he meets Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Herrier, whose most prominent film performance was in her terrific performance as Liz Allan in Spider-Man: Homecoming last year), the president of the black student union. Romance ensues, and he's warned to remember his job. It also helps to remember his job, because Patrice hates cops.

Browsing through the newspaper at work, Stallworth comes across an add for the local KKK chapter. Practically out of boredom, he calls the number pretending to be a white racist, leaving a voice message filled with a long laundry list of racist expletives against virtually every group the KKK hates. It's the funniest scene in the movie, as his colleagues slowly drop what they're doing and listen in, totally stunned. The most humorous acting in that brief shot is Adam Driver, not usually known for his comedic abilities. Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, who is recruited to play Stallworth as the racist recruit once they are approved to go undercover and infiltrate the chapter to see if they are planning violent activities. While Zimmerman may be white, he also is Jewish, which means that not only does the KKK hate him, too, but if his identity is revealed, he'll also be in a tremendous amount of jeopardy. 

The investigation continues to gather information about the chapter's activities and their hints of violence. Stallworth even fools David Duke along the way. (Yes, that David Duke.) Duke is played by Topher Grace in his best performance in years. He says "darn tootin'" so often and with such an earnest grin that you might occasionally forget about everything Duke has said and done. Ever since he became a star in the TV show That '70s Show, Grace's film career has been mostly unmemorable. Here, however, he pulls off a very noteworthy performance. Additionally, Harrier really nails the role, and this is the first performance I've seen of Washington's, and he may have as prosperous a film career as his famous father.

There is hardly any complaint about the acting from the rest of the cast members, though Paul Walter Hause (who is very funny here), is practically giving the same performance as he did last year in I, Tonya as the village idiot. Isiah Whitlock, Jr. also appears briefly, and just as he did in Chi-raq, Lee gets him to do the "shiiiiiit" thing he did all the time in The Wire, but by now one might feel bad for him just to have these cameos in Spike Lee movies doing the same thing over and over again. And in more evidence of Bechdel Test failure, this is a film that is predominantly about men (even though in Stallworth's book, at least one female member of the chapter is mentioned). There are essentially only two female characters (and both of them fictional): Patrice and Connie. Ashlie Atkinson plays Connie, the adorably hospitable yet horrifyingly racist and violent KKK housewife, and yet she is so over the top. So, too, is Finnish actor Jasper Paakkonen, playing her husband, the clansman deeply suspicious of Flip. Most of the other cast is fine, however, especially the appearances by Alec Baldwin, Harry Belefonte, and Michael Buscemi (brother of Steve).

This isn't to say that there is nothing wrong with the movie. Like Argo seven years before it, BlacKkKlansman features an exhilarating climax that is easy to spot how untrue it is.

But the elephant in the room regarding this movie is Donald Trump and the alt-right, the modern-day, watered-down term for the KKK and neo-Nazis. Some of the anti-Trump stuff is a little too cute and a little too on the nose. Duke quickly tries to explain his goals by saying something along the lines of America needing to find its greatness again (get it?). Duke and his clansmen repeatedly yell "America first!" at their ceremony. (Duke could sue Trump for stealing all his stuff.) Trump, frankly, deserves this. His unbelievably shocking response to the Unite the Right violent rallies in Charlottesville last year and his unwillingness to condemn Duke and renounce his support during the 2016 campaign have permanently tied him to them. (He likely won't see this movie anyway.)

I want to end by writing that I don't want to reveal anything about the final five minutes. I just want to mention that it's about as powerful a conclusion to a film as you'll ever see.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

A fire-breathing female monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tale. "A chimera. That's what I'm seeing," one woman says to Marina in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica), the Chilean film directed by Sebastian Lelio that won the Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. It's a rather direct, yet common, way many of the other characters view her, for a variety of reasons. Some, like the brother of her partner, are at least somewhat sympathetic, though not often sticking up for her. (The brother at least calls Marina "ma'am" and, though meekly, reminds others that they should also refer to her using feminine pronouns.) Some treat her like she shouldn't exist, and some are downright violent toward her.

A Fantastic Woman is many things, but it is first and foremost a very good movie, deserving its acclaim. It's fairly captivating without making ostentatious efforts to do so. The film opens with a dazzling opening of the natural scenery of waterfalls, then it shifts to a man in a sauna. This man is Orlando; he's played by Francisco Reyes, who looks like he could be the Chilean Jeremy Irons. Orlando is a 57-year-old divorcee who is in a relationship with a new woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), a waitress and singer. They go out for dinner and dancing in Santiago to celebrate her birthday. They have a lot to drink and smoke a bit of pot. That night, Marina wakes up to find Orlando acting strange; he's short of breath and unsure what is wrong. She rushes to get him to the hospital, but he trips and falls down the stairs on the way.

At the hospital, he dies. The cause: an aneurysm. This isn't a thriller, but Orlando's family members and others start to believe that Marina might have had something to do with it, given the lacerations on his head. Marina is transgender, and Orlando's family is more or less disgusted by her and begin to suspect that there was foul play in his death. (Marina was too drunk to remember exactly what happened.) Whether it's being identified with the masculine pronoun or being forced to undress at the police station, it is apparent that Marina is going to have a lot of heartache and humiliation. One character calls her a perversion, while another asks if she's had "the operation". At one point, she is assaulted.


A feud begins between Marina and Orlando's family members. They want her out of the apartment, they want the car, and to top it all off, they want the dog, which Marina says was given to her by Orlando. Most insulting of all to her, they refuse to allow her to attend the wake or funeral.

Some of the symbolism is subtle, while at times it is laid on a bit much, like the inclusion of the Aretha Franklin song "Natural Woman". But the biggest highlight is Vega's performance. She show the audience so much, often with little more than her facial expressions. She demonstrates how Marina is shy, vulnerable, strong. She has agency, for the most part. "I'll survive," she says. Recovering from Orlando's death and struggling to deal with all she has been through since, she escapes to a debaucherous nightclub. In some kind of dream sequence, she leads a minute-lone, ethereal dance. Beyond her performance, the mesmerizing, hypnotic, old-fashioned score by Matthew Herbert is really remarkable.

This movie does not feel as if its job is to enlighten everyone on what it is like to be transgender. One will certainly get a sense of the difficulties, and one imagines that Vega channeled her experiences from her youth when she was bullied. I do really hope we'll be seeing a lot more work from Vega, who was listed as one of Time magazine's most influential people this year, and from Lelio.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Avengers: Infinity War

"Infinity is the end. End without infinity is but a new beginning."
-Dejan Stojanovic

I'll state upfront just how much I despised The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I found them to be overly ambitious, preposterous, overcrowded, and stupid. (These often are the problems found in many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.) My skepticism of this newest film, the nineteenth of the series in the past decade, called The Avengers: Infinity War, I think is therefore understandable. Virtually every protagonist who has appeared in the MCU so far is back, including the interesting ones (Spider-Man, Black Panther, and the Guardians of the Galaxy) and the dull ones (Vision, Scarlet Witch, and the Winter Soldier). Whether you want them or not, the band is back together, and they have a rather formidable foe to face.

That foe is one of the parts I was most skeptical of: Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. Despite Brolin having proved himself to be one of the great actors of our time, what little we could see of his Thanos in the marketing material looked weak, like computer game animation from the 1990s. However, Brolin as Thanos is undoubtedly remarkable in every scene, and the motion-capture technology used is stunning. He is a giant of a villain, with menacing eyes and a very peculiar chin. They may not be his most well-known work, but Brolin has appeared in a variety of comic book adaptions of all sorts over the years, from Men in Black III to Sin City: Dame to Kill For to Jonah Hex. And of course, he played Marvel villain Cable in Deadpool 2 (outside the MCU) just after Infinity War was released. But this is his best comic book performance. Thanos' only goal is to wipe out half of the entire universe, and he needs six Infinity Stones (magical rocks or something that have been appearing in different MCU movies) to achieve that aim.

Based largely on the 1991 comic Avengers: Infinity Gauntlet and the 2013 Infinity comic, the film basically starts right where last fall's Thor: Ragnarok finished; the Asgardian refugees are Thanos' first target. Thanos and his crew are on their way to Earth, and only the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) can warn other superheros. Barely escaping to Earth, he finds Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), but in some respects, they're too late. Slowly but surely, Thanos hops around the galaxy, successfully adding to his collection, and Earth (specifically a certain country in Africa) is last on his stop. Dr. Strange has one stone (the Time Stone), while Vision (Paul Bettany) has one on his head (for some reason). Both are on Earth.

More and more of these famous characters trickle in, and it seems that what has frequently been a problem in Marvel movies -- that of crowdedness -- actually turns out to be an advantage in Infinity War. Thanos kidnaps his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the gang basically all split up: Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange chase after some villains in a freighter; Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) chase after Thanos; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) join Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to attempt to rebuild his hammer (because why not?); and Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and others make their way to Wakanda to help King T'challa (Chadwick Bosemon) fend off Thanos' army.

The movie certainly feels like it goes on for infinity, with a whopping run time of almost three hours. And the climactic battle on Wakanda is almost as boring as it was in Black Panther. But other than that, there surprisingly isn't too much to complain about. There's fortunately a lot of humor, particularly thanks to the duo of Rocket and Groot (now a bratty teenager), and Thor is more like how we saw him last time as opposed to the old-fashioned nobleman of before. And since Cap and Stark aren't on speaking terms anymore, Pratt's Quill serves as a nice stand-in for the bickering and banter. In addition to all these returning characters, some of the new ones are quite interesting; the best new addition is Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Thanos' henchman, Ebony Maw. He's a particularly frightening villain, and an efficient one, taking delight in locking up Thor or slowly penetrating Dr. Strange's face with sharp knives.

The next Avenger movie comes out next year, and if that is too long for you, you're in luck: there are more Marvel movies on the way. In addition to the Marvel Comics character Deadpool making his return this year (again, outside of the MCU), other upcoming MCU movies will be Ant-Man and the Wasp this year and Captain Marvel next year before the next Avengers movie. Additionally, Sony will release a standalone Venom movie (and while it's not in the MCU, either, who knows if Holland's Spidey will show up). We're in for a very long ride.



Friday, June 15, 2018

Love Simon

Simon Spier has a fairly perfect life, or so it seems. His family comfortably lives upper-middle class lives with a gorgeous home. His young sister makes breakfast practically every morning, and whether it tastes good or not, Simon and his parents are so supportive and cheer her on. He's "just like you", but with a "huge-ass secret": he's gay. Dreaming of Daniel Radcliffe for a few nights and realizing that he wasn't into girls after a few awkward dates, he has come out to himself but not to others. In many respects, he cannot be blamed. There is only one out student at his school, and this student is constantly mocked. It is not uncommon for Simon to hear jokes from his dad poking fun at "fruity" people. He listens to a lot of friends and their "gaydar", and yet they appear pretty oblivious about him.

Love, Simon, directed by Greg Berlanti and based on the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, is being hailed as the first gay teen comedy released by a major studio. Love, Simon has all the familiar elements of a teen comedy -- first love, coming of age, discovering one's identity -- and yet in some respects it does them better. But it is remarkable that moviegoers have had to wait this long for one featuring a gay teen. Fortunately, it's a (mostly) good one.

Simon doesn't exactly know how to be gay. He Googles how gay men dress, and when he finally comes out to a female friend, she tries to elicit from him which guys he's attracted to, and yet he struggles to find the right words. When confronted by an enemy about his orientation, he can't even say the word "gay". So what's clear is that he's not ready to out himself, and he's certainly doesn't want to be outed on someone else's terms. Even in 2018, despite all the progress that has been made, it can still be difficult for queer people, especially young ones, to come out of the closet.


Simon, played by Nick Robinson, reads an anonymous post online from someone at his school who is also in the closet. Calling him Blue, he begins a pen-pal writing relationship with this person. (Simon takes the name Jacques.) The two share similar experiences, but don't reveal their identities. Who is Blue? Simon begins to guess. At first, he thinks it's a classmate named Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), then he thinks it's the waiter at the local Waffle House whom he flirts with. Then he thinks it's another guy, and soon he really starts to feel frustrated. But those are pretty low stakes. What really turns Simon's world upside down is that he forgot to log out of his Gmail account at the school library, and another student, Martin (Logan Miller), hops on the computer, finds the correspondences, and starts to use them to blackmail Simon. (Teenagers can be cruel, but not this cruel, right?) Martin really wants to date a friend of Simon's named Abby (Alexandra Shipp), a new girl at the school. Abby is not interested in Martin, but this will not stop him from applying desperate and cruel measures to get there. Simon feels he has no choice but to comply. Despite his friend Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) having feelings for Abby, Simon tries to sabotage that by hooking him up with Simon's best friend, Leah (Katherine Langford). This will theoretically help Martin get with Abby. Things start to get very complicated.

The screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger is decent, although the dialogue is often painfully annoying; no family talks to each other like that, with plans of a TV night. The movie is John Hughes in tone, but not in script. Principals and vice principals can be annoying (to students and teachers both), but none act as ridiculously as the one played by Tony Hale, who turns the character into the Jar Jar Binks of teen comedies, and it's a Razzie-worthy performance. No educator would talk to their students about Tinder dates. He literally ruins scenes.

There is so much to like in Love, Simon, and yet there is also so much to hate. I really, really enjoy Simon's journey and his story, but a lot of other parts genuinely hurt this movie. Mainly the adults, who overact and have stupid moment after stupid moment, particularly the vice principal and the drama teacher. This, plus the jokes which frequently fall flat, is what prevents Love, Simon from being a great film. That being said, the one veteran actor who is a joy to watch is Jennifer Garner as Simon's mother. She has warmth, empathy, and humanity in her that reminded me a lot of her performance in Juno from a decade ago.

Most of the movie is adequate. There's a clever sequence in which Simon images what it would be like if situations were reversed, if straight kids were the ones who would have "a secret" and would have to come out to their parents. And Love, Simon genuinely gets better as it goes, with a few powerful scenes sprinkled around in the final half-hour.


This movie channels all the mixed feelings many will have about their high school days (hopefully more of the good than the bad), and beyond that, I think it's not an exaggeration to say that this movie could change lives. Robinson's young brother came out while he was making this movie, as did Lonsdale at the cast party. If there had been a movie that championed queer youth as much as this movie does, perhaps more would have come out in previous decades.

See Love, Simon. Give it some time and try to get past the shaky first third. Reflect on it. Celebrate the novelty of it, the conventionality of it, and the joy of it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Maudie

The great Sally Hawkins gives such a full-bodied, theatrical performance in Maud, the 2016 drama directed by Aisling Walsh, that one anticipates she will abruptly shout "Acting!" the way John Lovitz used to on Saturday Night Live. Hawkins is the title character, Maud Lewis, the Canadian folk artist whose famous work mostly included outdoor scenes and some of which was purchased by Richard Nixon. As Maud, she is not ignorant of how her rheumatoid arthritis makes her sort of peculiar in the eyes of others. "Some people don't like it if you're different," she says at one point. From the very first moments we see her, she is required to express a variety of emotions within a matter of minutes: hope, anger, disappointment, desperation. And yet, it's not a particularly impressive performance in a fairly bad, overrated film.

Maud lives alone with her aunt (her parents have passed away and her brother essentially has abandoned her), and the two don't appear to get along too much, to the point where she does not to try it out on her own. There she meets Everett a rather shy, impulsive, fisherman prone to angry outbursts with little provocation. He also works at an orphanage, a place in which a man of such temper probably shouldn't work. Everett is played by Ethan Hawke, who channels his inner modern-day Harrison Ford disgruntlement and whose acting choices in the film more or less mirror those of Hawkins. His entrance serves as a rather creepy set up for a sort-of romantic pairing. Everett needs a housekeeper and Maud needs a home, so they agree to have her be hired. The following abusive dynamic between them is not dissimilar to what was depicted in last year's Phantom Thread. Everett insists that they share a bread to prove she's not a princess and barks at her when the floor is not perfectly cleaned. Maud laughs off rumors that she's his romantic partner or sex slave, while Everett slaps her if she tells a stranger the home is comfy. He is more concerned that she talks when he believes she's not supposed to over the fact that she has begun painting all over the walls of the house. He is abusive, to say the least, in so many ways. But he gets his redemption, so if the redemption arc in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri infuriated you, avoid Maudie.

Everett and Maud do decide to get married, and her aunt believes that Maud is the only one in their family who ended up happy. This might partly due to Maud's success as a painter. Maud Lewis was a real-life figure, and one in which the audience is to inherently root for. Maud's painting continues to become an important part of her identity, and she and Everett begin to sell them, though she doesn't make much for them. Everett's attitude remains that he is the one doing all the work, and he is never really admiring of her work. All of these segments are portrayed sort of as playful banter, which adds to the discomfort, in my opinion. There are no small performances in this movie, but no good ones, either. Even if there were, it wouldn't help, as the second half is unbelievably boring.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Solo

Solo (I refuse to use the subtitle because I think it's stupid), the fourth film in the famous franchise since Lucasfilm started its reboots in 2015, is the Star Wars movie nobody wanted. Neither, for that matter, was Rogue One, the first standalone movie Lucasfilm released the following year. But that film was a commercial and critical surprise (if that's the right word), becoming the second-highest grossing movie 2016 and the twenty-fifth overall. Solo, on the other hand, is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the estimated loss to Disney could be up to eighty million dollars. We all knew Star Wars fatigue was upon us; we just didn't know it would arrive so soon.

And why shouldn't it with this one? From the get-go, Solo looked like perhaps the most puzzling of the choices for a standalone film. A story about Rebel spies stealing the plans to the Death Star? Perhaps. An Obi-Wan Kenobi tale with Ewan McGregor returning to the role? Definitely. A story about a young Han Solo meeting a young (well, almost 200-year-old) Chewbacca? Nope. There was as much hype over this movie as there was for a standalone Yoda film (which to my knowledge is not happening). Given all the problems leading up to the release (original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord were fired, and Michael Kenneth Williams, who played the villain, was unable to return for re-shoots, so the character was re-cast), it might be considered a miracle that the film was even released. Ron Howard, who of course was directed by George Lucas in the 1973 film American Graffiti (also starring Harrison Ford), was brought in to finish the movie. Despite succeeding in getting the job done under difficult circumstances, for an Oscar-winning American treasure who has given us some of the biggest films of all time and has the weight of Lucasfilm and Disney behind him, I expected a lot more.

Solo just doesn't work, but not for the reasons you might expect. Han Solo has always been a favorite character among fans, and to see someone besides Harrison Ford in the role was a risky gambit. Here, the young pirate is played by Alden Ehrenreich, who is perhaps the least known of the cast that includes veteran actors Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, and Thandie Newton. It does take some getting used to, but he actually does a pretty effective job. He has that required charm and sarcasm and whit, but he is arguably overshadowed by Donald Glover, who is essentially the Renaissance Man of the year due to his appearance here, the popular music video for his song "This Is America", and the second season of Atlanta, the show that earned him an Emmy. Glover plays the younger version of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams in the original trilogy for the four people in the universe who haven't seen them), and he's delightful in every scene he's in.

Written by veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasden and his son Jonathan, and originally developed by George Lucas before he sold his company, Solo shows us the future smuggler escaping his home planet of Corellia and losing the love of his life, Qi'ra (played by Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame). Determined to return to his home planet and find her, he joins the Imperial Navy with ambitions of being a great pilot (and yeah, rescuing the girl). While in a fierce battle (that as far as I could tell wasn't really explained, but I doubt anyone would really care), he meets, as expected, his soon-to-be lifelong Wookie friend Chewbacca (played by Joonas Suotamo, who also plays the character in the other newer films). Then the two of them meet a smuggler named Beckett (Harrelson) who hires them to help steal some kind of chemical that I also did not care one bit about. Their first main test features a train sequence that actually is the least exciting train sequence since last year's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express


Beckett and his crew have a series of hiccups along the way, but eventually they are ordered to deliver boring chemical weapon thing to a crime lord named Dryden Vos, played by frequent Howard collaborator Paul Bettany. Vos is not as menacing as Darth Vader or as merciless as Emperor Palpatine, but he sure likes stabbing people with those light-knife things, and the scars on his face that change with his mood heighten the tension. While Bettany is mostly interesting to watch, the character is rather lame compared to other newer villains like Kylo Ren or Orson Krennic. (But his hair and snobbish attitude could make him a contender for being the grandfather of General Hux.) Other actors who appear are frequent Star Wars actor Warwick Davis (who was directed by Howard in Willow), Clint Howard (Ron's brother, who often appears in the movies he directs), Phoebe Walter-Bridge as a droid with a passion for liberation, and Jon Favreau as an alien member of Beckett's team. Finally, there is a cameo that is...interesting (and full of potential); I shall say no more.

There are some moments here that do work. Han shoots first here, so that will likely make fans happy. There are a few meta jokes about how Lando (or at least Billy Dee Williams' version of him) apparently couldn't pronounce Han's name. And the movie occasionally has a Western feel that allows it to shine. But for the most part, Solo feels boring and uninspired. Death scenes have no impact, and most of the twists are either puzzling or predictable. Unlike the previous three entries, there is no humor and no heart. Apparently one of the main reasons why Lord and Miller were fired is because they kept veering the film off into comedy territory, and if the bad jokes throughout are their fault, then they probably deserved to be fired.

Remember how angry everyone was over all the nostalgia in The Force Awakens? You might be surprised to hear that basically the only good parts of Solo deal with nostalgia, like Powell's use of the TIE fighter battle music right before using the asteroid music. Unlike most of the other main original characters, Han never had his own theme, until now that is. John Williams composed a theme to be used with John Powell's score, but you won't remember either as you leave the theater. And the cinematography by Bradford Young is so dim you will think there is a problem with the screen.

But perhaps my biggest complaint is of the characters: none of the new ones are interesting. Byond that, there is no exploration of how Han Solo came to be the way we know him. There is an explanation of things no one has ever cared about, like how he met Chewie and some information about his name. Some things that might have been interesting to explore are not, and part of the mythology of the character (like the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs) are forgettable. Creating a visualization of something we've known about our favorite characters for decades is possible (J.J. Abrams and crew gave us a captivating look at how James T. Kirk cheated the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek), but Howard et al are unsuccessful at it.

Is Solo the worst in the long reign of Star Wars? No. It's weaker than Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens but better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (and certainly better than the live-action made-for-TV movies of the 1970s and 1980s). There are still plenty more of these movies to come, whether we want them or not. Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy and her team must proceed with caution, because moving forward I have a bad feeling about this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Annihilation

The directorial debut of writer Alex Garland, whose most famous novel is The Beach and whose screenplays include 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later), SunshineNever Let Me Go, and Dredd, was Ex Machina from three years ago. It was a bold yet subtly eerie look at AI; not quite dystopian, but bordering on it. In his follow-up, Garland has adopted the novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation. In this story, there again is a "not-good place", called "the Shimmer", a quarantined expanse where creatures mutate, and yet this film is grander and features a lot more big swings. One of them is that Garland is not going to give a lot of answers, and while that may still work fifty years on with something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it doesn't work here.

It's not as if Annihilation does not try. Speaking of Kubrick's famous film, it does often look like Annihilation takes inspiration from the avant-garde sci-fi flick (along with AlienJurassic Park, and a touch of Pan's Labyrinth), certainly in terms of visuals. But pretty images do not make up for a lack of story and character development, and they certainly don't, on their own, inspire and excite viewers, or at the very least wake those who are bored out of their mind. Such is the problem with Annihilation.

The movie starts in an ominous way. A character named Lena sits answering questions, not sure of much, especially the whereabouts of her colleagues. She wears white medical clothing, quarantined, being questioned by a character played by Benedict Wong, and she seems totally dazed and confused, unable to recall anything of her nearly four months in the Shimmer. We can deduce that she is the sole survivor. Lena is a cancer professor and former soldier going through grief after the death of her partner, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac), a soldier who has died in a mission she knows little about.

This would certainly make Kane walking into her home even more surprising to her, but that he does. Still, something is certainly off about it. He doesn't feel well, and he is rushed to a hospital after falling into a seizure. Here, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells Lena about the Shimmer, how the scientists have "many theories, few facts" regarding the mysterious entity. Is it religious in nature? Extra-terrestrial? No one knows. Kane was part of team that tried to find out; they failed. He's in good company, as everyone and everything they have sent in to try and discover answers has never returned. Perhaps the environment kills them, or perhaps they go crazy and kill each other. Lena, determined to find an answer to what ails her lover, joins Ventress and other scientists: Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). She pointedly does not tell them about her connection to Kane, fearing it would "complicate" things.     

It's a real, real shame that a film with such intriguing female roles for great female actors has turned out so dull. In Ex Machina, women also had a majority of the roles, but it felt exploitative at times. Not so here. Thompson, though, is a real marvel in the movie. Her performance is so unlike her recent work in films like Creed and Thor: Ragnorok. She transforms into this character, a shy but clever individual, not in an ostentatious way, and the subtle choices she's made make her almost unrecognizable. I was a little more disappointed in the performances of Leigh and Rodriguez, who both overdo things, mostly in different ways. Portman is mostly fine, yet her being cast is another example of whitewashing in Hollywood, as the character in the original book series is described as Asian. (Additionally, Leigh's character is described as half-Native American.)

The Shimmer is like a macabre version of Neverland, a state park with a lush, green forest surrounded by a transparent layer that looks similar to oil mixing with water. Flowers have mutated into gorgeous new species. But almost immediately, the characters start to lose their memories. They've been there for days, and yet they can remember almost nothing. Adding to the Neverland quality is giant crocodiles, but these ones happen to have teeth similar to sharks.

Annihilation certainly requires a lot more patience than Ex Machine does. It's a lot sillier, too. The motivation of Lena's character to go on such a mission is too difficult to believe. Like Sam Neill or Jeff Goldblum before her, it is not plausible for her to accept. This movie is more Prometheus than Alien, and yet it thinks the reverse is true. The characters certainly seem like they're straight out of the former, as they don't feel they need protective masks when walking around the Shimmer. Garland and team try the whole less-is-more approach, and yet it often does not pay off. There are horror moments that are not frightening in the slightest, action scenes that aren't thrilling in the slightest, and the whole thing feels like it would work better as a spooky short story written by someone in middle school. Is Annihilation pretentious? Most likely. Boring? Definitely. Ultimately, there is not a single exciting or interesting moment throughout this film. Annihilation will challenge you to think, but who would be inspired to engage in such inquiry about a movie like this?