Friday, September 15, 2017



Ah, mother!

On one level, that's about all there is to say about Darren Aronofsky's new film, a movie that makes the director's Pi, Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream look like staid models of cinematic form and structure by comparison.

What is it, exactly, this film?  Because although it's being released by a major studio and features one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the leading role, mother! is not, by any definition, a traditional film.  But it's not quite experimental, either; even in its wildest moments, and there are some insanely wild moments, mother! doesn't remake or even toy with cinema-as-art the way directors did in the 1960s and '70s, when so much of moviemaking still seemed new.

mother! is, I guess, more of an art installation in your local cineplex, the work of a singular (but not single, I'll get to that in a moment) director who undoubtedly has a vision.  But what is the vision, exactly?  It's tempting to want to write, "Spoilers Ahead!" in a sort of traditional caution, but: When you look upon, for instance, a giant Hieronymus Bosch triptych, the more you know about it in advance, the more you appreciate it, or at least understand it.  Or at least can acknowledge what you are seeing.  Or something.

It's the same way with mother!  Or something.  So, if you're going to go see this crazed, frenetic, chaotic, apocalyptic, religious, surreal horror-comedy-disaster-melodrama, it helps to know a few things.  Like, it's a religious allegory.  I think.  One that has something to do with the way artists create.  Maybe.  And that carries a lot of Aronofsky's own guilt about his personal life.  Probably.  And observes how we live in insane times that are filled with religious zealots and overbearing, self-absorbed people who invade our lives even when we try to keep them away.  That last bit I'm pretty sure about.

So, you should know that about mother!, and you should know that if you go into it looking for a plot or thinking that it might be like Rosemary's Baby (check out that misleading homage in the poster above), you should know that you're going to be terribly disappointed.  You may end up like one of the half-dozen or so people who walked out of the opening-night screening I attended.  Or like the people I heard walking out of the theater who said, "I don't get it."

You probably won't get it.

I certainly didn't get it.

Or maybe I did, on some level.  I don't know yet.  I do know that it starts with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who is married to a much older man (Javier Bardem), and they live in the country.  Aronofsky seems to want us to believe they have some sort of idyllic life -- she has been fixing up the house for who knows how long (maybe forever, wink-wink) and he is a famous poet.  All they need is each other, there in that big house in the middle of nowhere.  You'd almost think they were Adam and Eve, until a chain-smoking, vaguely creepy guy (Ed Harris) shows up one day, followed not too long later by his sexually open, inappropriate wife (Michelle Pfeiffer).

More people show up.  The tranquil house is overrun by life ... and death.  And Mother (that is, the woman, that is, Jennifer Lawrence) is overcome.

By the way, no one has traditional names in mother!  It's that kind of movie.  Because, you see, it's all a big allegory.

mother! is going to attract a lot of attention among film enthusiasts because it breaks so many conventions, and because it heads into some of the craziest, most unexpected, most off-putting and deeply disturbing territory of almost any recent studio film I can think of.  There's a scene of cannibalism, and a long, loud sequence in which war and anarchy invade the house that Mother has built, in which Mother and the Man who will be Father to their Child have a cataclysmic disagreement over whether to stay safely inside the house or let the world in.

That's the kind of movie it is.

And visually, it's undeniably magnificent.  I mentioned earlier that it's the work of a singular visionary, but what's really extraordinary is that it clearly took many, many people to make this movie -- and they all were able to convey Aronofsky's grand ideas.  Actors, set designers, camera crew, editors; lots and lots of people worked on the movie, and yet, it is Aronofsky's accomplishment.  That may seem a silly thing to point out; after all, it's the same on every film, isn't it?  But the realization that all those people are in service to one man's ideas seems more relevant on this film than maybe any other.

Still, though, there's a big problem: It's not clear, not by a longshot, whether mother! is any good.  It's certainly something, and it's certainly an artistic achievement.  Aronofsky probably couldn't give a hoot about whether audiences will like it, he has made his artistic statement that will live on long after him, will see many lifetimes.  But did I enjoy mother!?  It's hard to say yes.  There were many stretches were I was fascinated by it, even drawn into the fleeting moments of linear storytelling; and there was no time during its entire two-hour length when I wanted to look away.  But I wouldn't want to do it again.

Filled with surrealist, disconnected, hyper-violent, warped and strange images, seeing mother! is like walking through an elaborate Halloween haunted house created by visual arts majors who are minoring in religious studies.  There are a lot of freaky moments that completely unnerve you, and there are other times when you're almost giddy with the rush of adrenaline it pumps into you.  It's an experience unlike any you'll ever have.

And one time through is most certainly enough.

Ah, mother!

Viewed Sept. 15, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, September 10, 2017



There's a cinematic recipe to It, which goes something like:

1 part The Goonies
1 part Poltergeist
2 parts Stand By Me
3 parts Stranger Things
Dash of Carrie
Pinch of The Shining

Mix thoroughly, and bake until almost but not quite done.  Best when served warm with a little slice of ham and a bit of cheese.

It's tasty enough and a lot of people will love it -- but for some, the experience will be both underwhelming and oddly unsatisfying, like being served a Big Mac in a fancy restaurant.  There's a particular irony to its almost unsettling similarity to the TV series Stranger Things, which, oddly enough, was deeply influenced by It in the first place.

I've never been enough of a fan of Stephen King's particular brand of writing to have tackled the 1,138-page behemoth of It the novel, nor did I watch the previous filmed version, which was presented as a two-part TV movie.  So, I was essentially unfamiliar with the basic plot of It other than knowing it was about a malevolent clown.  I walked into the theater prepared for and expecting a dark, forbidding horror film.  I didn't expect a gentle and tender coming-of-age story dripping in the nostalgia of an earlier, simpler time.

Funnily enough, that simpler time in It is 1989 -- a turbulent and pivotal time, to be sure, but hardly simple; the time of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the Exxon Valdez and the Afghanistan war, of Cold War and nuclear tensions, of AIDS and the savings-and-loan crisis.  It's far from the sun-dappled world of the 1950s, but then, I suppose part of the point is that the sun-dappled world of the 1950s was not as lovely as it seemed in retrospect, either.  (The novel is set in the late 1950s.)

But, few films have been as insistent about the almost magical power of youthful innocence as It does -- really, the only one that comes to mind is Stephen King's own Stand By Me, and there are times in It when you might as well be watching that earlier, superior film.

There's a group of misfit kids who hang out together and like each other.  There's a horrifying truth about the violent insanity of life waiting for them to discover.  There's a small town that they know they will have to leave.  But for now, there is this group of swell friends, best buddies who will do anything for each other.

One of them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie begins the movie excited about trying out a paper sailboat.  (It's sweet and mildly silly that the filmmakers think that kids were playing with paper boats in 1989.)  Bill is sick in bed so can't go out with Georgie, and when the boat gets stuck in a storm drain, it's returned by a sinister, killer clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, under a ton of makeup and augmented with lots of CGI), who then kills little Georgie.  That should be the setup for something out of Nightmare on Elm Street, another one of the 1980s movies that this film name-checks, but it never really gets going on that front.

Pennywise the Clown, who in actuality is some sort of shape-shifting monster, is creepy and sometimes icky, to be sure, but he's not all that scary.  He's a sinister threat, but the film's presentation of him is mostly a setup for the loving depiction of childhood group dynamics. The movie is at its best when it shows the group of kids interacting with each other. That leaves It feeling uncertain if it wants to be a horror film or a sweet-natured reflection on youth.  And even within its horror ambitions, does it want to be a character-driven or an effects-driven sort of movie?  It can never decide on any one of these approaches long enough, so it all feels disjointed, curiously unmoving and disappointingly un-frightening.

It is a film that wants to give you nightmares but makes so much effort to mix the horror in with sweet-natured, humor-laden observations about youth that the scary stuff is watered down, and ends up mostly being successful when it's accompanied by very loud bursts of music and sound effects.  It has to settle for jump scares rather than real dread.

The acting by the kids is uniformly terrific, particularly Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the sole girl in the group, Jeremy Ren Taylor as Ben, the "fat kid" who has a crush on Bev; and Jake Dylan Grazer as hyopchondriac Eddie.  The rest of the child actors are fine, and Skarsgård is best in his first scene attacking Georgie in a sewer.  Most of the rest of the time, his performance is overpowered by the incessant use of CG effects to depict the malevolent character.

The story is fine, the kids are really wonderful, and while It delivers on some of the visceral thrills, the movie never meshes its two parts effectively, and the final showdown between the kids and the clown is the kind of overblown, overproduced and murky sequence that mostly leaves the audience wondering why characters are doing what they're doing, and who is supposed to be doing what to whom.  The big confrontation is the worst thing about It.  That climax plays a lot like a creepier version of a Harry Potter film.

The best parts of It are the elements that seem feel like a remake of Stand By Me -- the easy rapport between the kids, the way they are determined to find things adults can't or won't find, and the way their own little skirmishes can become minor wars -- not to mention nostalgic talk about the entertainment of the time.

I confess I had no idea, until the final title card appeared, that It is actually the first of two parts.  That left me feeling mildly better about the movie, because a lot of motivations, ideas and actions are not explained in any satisfying ways in It.  The assumption is the important characteristics will pan out when Part II shows us the kids 27 years later.

Stephen King fans should be pleased about that response.  Everyone else, I'm not so sure.  Fitting the filmmaking trend of the day, it's not a standalone film, and if motivations, character development and even some plot points (like the origin and purpose of the clown) are unclear, it's because the studio and the filmmakers assume no one will complain that it's unfinished because, hey, it's a franchise!

But that makes it a less than entirely satisfying movie on its own.  Neither the best nor the worst Stephen King adaptation, it's the first part of a longer-term project, and can only be judged on its own as well and as fairly as you'd judge a movie if you walked out halfway through.

It as it is is more or less fine. It's not particularly effective as horror, at least not the kind that gets under your skin, and it's only mildly thrilling at times. It works best solely as a nostalgic reminiscence of an easier time that, in fact, wasn't easier at all.

Viewed 9/9/17 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, August 21, 2017

"Wind River"


It begins in loneliness, isolation and, yes, fear.  A solitary figure, it seems to be a woman runs through a hostile and unrelenting landscape, clearly afraid of whatever might be following her.  What has she done?  What has been done to her?

She collapses, and that's the moment that sets up the story of the bleak but utterly mesmerizing Wind River, which is set on a sprawling Native American reservation in Wyoming.  It's an area the size of Rhode Island -- 3,400 square miles with a population of 40,000 people.  But this isn't a society filled with cops and CSI investigators and the kinds of crime-fighting characters you see on TV.  Writer-director Taylor Sheridan, whose script for Sicario turned that into one of the most aggressive and disturbing crime dramas in a very long time, knows how to turn an stark, uncompromising environment into a backdrop for compelling drama, and very little about the Wind River reservation is anything less than stark and uncompromising.

This is not a film like The Revenant, in which the wilderness was seen as vast, untamable but beautiful, or a standard Western that's set against a backdrop of striking desert vistas, ready to be settled by strong-willed men and women.

Wind River is brutal.  "Did you guys get the memo that it's spring?" asks the freezing, shivering FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to a group of local law-enforcement officials who laugh at her joke from somewhere deep within multiple layers of fleece and down.  Jane has come from Las Vegas to investigate the murder on the reservation, and she has come alone.

It remains unspoken throughout Wind River, but there within the uncomfortable pauses and knowing looks, there's a clear message: Americans don't care what happens on Indian reservations.  Sure, maybe the casinos, but those are way out on the fringes of the territory; what happens deep inside, where people have their lives, is something we don't want to know about.

The most unnerving thing about Wind River isn't the mystery at its core, though that turns out to be pretty unnerving, but the way it lifts a heavy, opaque curtain on a part of American life that most people are quite content to keep hidden.  This is a world of desperation, with little access to standard resources, nothing in the way of the kind of daily support we are so used to receiving, and a basic assumption that, you know, they're Native Americans, they like it like this.

Within moments of arriving, Jane is aware that she -- and the couple of law-enforcement agents on the reservation -- is in way over her head.  She has no idea where to start.  She gets help from a local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hunter named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who works the land to keep predators away from the livestock.  He has spent his life looking for tiny clues in the snow and in the woods that other people would overlook.

Cory used to be married to a local woman.  They're divorced now, and she's bound and determined to get off the reservation and make something of her life.  She's not going to get caught here the way he has been -- trapped not just by the land and its circumstances but by memory: She and Cory used to have a daughter, who was also murdered.

Through sparse dialogue that spends almost no time on words it doesn't need, Wind River becomes increasingly complex.  The tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) knows a lot of things he wishes he didn't about the desperate lives of the people he protects.  The father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead girl does not know how to begin to grieve.  He is lost; another bit of his own history has been stripped away from him.

And then there is Natalie (Kelsey Chow) herself, whose story turns out to be nothing at all what we imagine it will be.  Wind River is like that, it begins with a lot of correct assumptions about what we think of Indian reservations and the people who live on them, and then it slaps them away -- violently, sometimes, even angrily.  But never with righteousness.  It turns out Wind River has a lot it wants to say, but writer-director Sheridan makes sure never to lose sight of the striking procedural drama at its core.  It's an aching, sad, maybe even bitter film, but it's also one of the best murder-mysteries in a long time.

Its large and convincing cast reflects the vast canvas on which the very personal story plays out, and though the movie has a lot of characters and a lot of story to tell, it's all held together by the two arresting central performances by Renner and Olsen.  Wind River uses Renner's sleepy, sad and slightly battered face to its best advantage; Cory is a man who is just on the verge of giving it all up himself.

And Olsen has the kind of strength and clear-eyed intelligence that people say movies don't give women a chance to display.  This one does.  Olsen is a revelation here, an FBI agent who maybe grew up herself watching Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling and has used that merely as the foundation for her own inspiration.  As played by Olsen, Jane is deeply aware of her limitations (early on, she's got one of the best off-handed bits of character exposition in movie history) and of her deep sense of justice and integrity.  She does not believe the people she is trying to help are being treated fairly, but she also knows there is little she can do about it except solve the crime and try to help them find some closure.  She'll follow the clues where they lead.

And where they lead is nowhere you'd expect.  Wind River reaches a thoroughly satisfying, genuinely unexpected climax: bloody, shocking, intense.  So much of the rest of the film has been slow and tense, like the buildup to a winter storm.  When it hits, it's a whopper.  So's this movie.

Viewed Aug. 18, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is going to convince exactly zero climate-change deniers that their position is wrong, and it may convince a few people that they should become evangelists for former Vice President Al Gore's impassioned endeavors, but first and foremost, An Inconvenient Sequel should be a good movie, and the problem is it's not.

Because it's not particularly good, An Inconvenient Sequel will be even more vulnerable to attacks from the right than it would have if it had been as incendiary, bold and committed as An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning film from 2006 that became a flashpoint for awareness of global warming.

The response to An Inconvenient Truth was both alarming and sadly telling -- rather than acknowledge the detailed and convincing scientific evidence Gore presented in his elaborate PowerPoint presentation, opponents began denying the facts, leading us, well, to where we are now in the world: If you don't like the information you're getting, just flat-out deny it.  The success of An Inconvenient Truth, as well as more liberal-leaning documentaries from filmmakers like Michael Moore, resulted in a slew of cinematic responses, especially from arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza, which took opinions and half-truths and distorted them into the form and shape of a "documentary."

So, the real challenge for An Inconvenient Sequel is to find a way to offset those quasi-documentaries and present compelling information in a way that is so incontrovertible that it can't be denied, while acknowledging the rise of conservative opinion-oriented commentaries that are presented as facts.  If An Inconvenient Truth was a small stepping stone on the way to our facts-versus-"facts" society, how would its sequel remark upon the role it played?

The answer is: It doesn't -- and it fails, sometimes stupendously, in the challenge to create a new, less partisan view of climate change, to win over the skeptics and showcase the way the earth has been changing in the last decade alone.

An Inconvenient Sequel certainly does present chilling, often downright depressing, evidence.  The scientific data along with the eyewitness video of weather-based calamities combine to sobering effect.  If the film focused on those elements, it would be a winner, a worthy follow-up to the eye-opening original.

Instead, An Inconvenient Sequel ends up being near-hagiography of Al Gore.  This is a movie made for people who see Gore as an innocent victim whose still-stunning loss of the presidency is something they'll never quite get over, who still believe we should have had eight years of President Gore and are still bitter about it.  An Inconvenient Sequel commits the tactical error of not making climate change the subject but of making Al Gore the subject.

In one galvanizing sequence, Gore visits Miami and sees the city overwhelmed by water that local politicians admit has only one source: sea-level rise.  He wades around in rubber rain boots while city officials express understandable shock at how quickly the predictions from the first film have come true.  But instead of adding to our understanding of the problem, the cause and the solution, An Inconvenient Sequel spends the next 10 minutes getting ready for a presentation, being interviewed by media, and proving how indefatigable he is.

I've no doubt that Al Gore is committed.  I've little doubt he is sincere that he does not want to be a politician anymore --though the movie more than hints that maybe he's still got it in him.  And in its most effective moments, An Inconvenient Sequel left me with little doubt about the benefits of solar energy.  (Though highly ineffective as a movie, An Inconvenient Sequel is a tremendous, and shameless, infomercial for Solar City.)

But it also left me thinking that it was all a huge wasted opportunity.  While it's interesting, and illuminating, to learn the details of the machinations behind the Paris accord, it's disconcerting that a movie theoretically 10 years in the making misses its chance to comment on climate-change deniers.  The original film was filled with scientific evidence, but this film makes no effort at all to attack the pseudo-science of skeptics.

More than a few times in An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore expresses regret that despite his efforts there is still a great deal of opposition, that despite the facts there are too many people who want to believe opinion.  Yet, An Inconvenient Sequel does far too little to undermine the deniers, much less to convert them to his way of thinking.  An Inconvenient Sequel is made for those who already believe.  That's a shame.

Viewed Aug. 5, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 29, 2017



You don't watch Dunkirk as much as you witness it.  There is no way Christopher Nolan's film can be called anything less than impressive.  It is a tremendous technical achievement, a film that is staggeringly well put-together.

But as a film, Dunkirk is a little like Titanic if the movie began and ended in the last reel and cut out all the stuff about Jack and Rose.  It's like Star Wars if the Death Star battle went on for two hours and did away with the plot.

In that way, Dunkirk is an apotheosis of big-budget cinema: an important, commercially successful filmmaker has convinced a studio to release a filmmaking experiment, one that does away with conventional notions of storytelling and character development in favor of editing, sound mixing and mise-en-scène.

There are recognizable actors in the film (Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance) but they aren't given the opportunity to blossom into characters.  Tom Hardy spends almost all of his screen time mumbling behind a face mask (a Batman in-joke?), while the younger cast members are interchangeable, as if Nolan intended for the audience to be confused about who's who.

Even dialogue is treated as disposable -- there are long, long scenes in Dunkirk where the characters are speaking but their words are vaguely incomprehensible.  Nolan, perhaps, wanted to extend the you-are-there gut-punch of Dunkirk to these scenes, to place the viewer into the midst of battle so fully that there's constant confusion that is not helped by only occasionally being able to hear what others are saying.

The end result is that Dunkirk is only intermittently engaging as a drama, even while it is almost always fascinating to watch as a piece of filmmaking.  As almost every article about the film makes a point of relating right up front, Dunkirk was shot on 65-millimeter film and in 65-millimeter IMAX by a director who refuses to allow cell phones on his sets, and the very fact that we know those things and they get reported explains quite a bit about the film as a whole: this is, first and foremost, a technical achievement.

Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese built their careers upon crafting jaw-dropping sequences that defined their films -- think of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, the shark attack in Jaws or the shower scene in Psycho.  The indelible marks of those tightly constructed moments resonated through the entire film -- and through entire careers.  Nolan takes that one step further and creates in Dunkirk a full-length sequence.  Every shot matters, every moment is impeccably constructed.

But when the whole film is "the moment," how do you know what the moment means?  Dunkirk begins and ends mid-scene, with little connective tissue.  It has a terrific construct of telling the movie from three different chronological perspectives, but that proves to be as much a technical feat as anything else.  There's really no reason to tell the story this way, except that it is a wonderful trick.

Every moment of Dunkirk is like a tightly wound gear that's ready to spring.  Even Hans Zimmer's score keeps pulsing and pulsing and pulsing but never quite reaching a crescendo: Like the movie itself, it's all just very loud.

The pity of all of that is that buried within the technological marvel of the movie is a stirring and heartbreaking story.  For all it gains in visceral impact (which is a lot), Dunkirk loses in humanity.  Leaving the audience simultaneously exhausted by its relentless intensity and perplexed by its insistence on telling its tale in ways that are neither linear nor conventional, Dunkirk fully engages -- even overwhelms -- the senses, just not the emotions.

Viewed July 29, 2017 -- Chinese Theater


Sunday, July 23, 2017

"War for the Planet of the Apes"


This is not your standard summer blockbuster, even by Planet of the Apes standards.  Fifty years after Franklin J. Schaffner's first classic, but comparatively hokey, movie comes this long, careful blend of action-thriller and neo-Western, an Apes movie that is no longer fun.

Note that I didn't say this Apes movie wasn't good -- it is, very good.  But the little jolt of amusement that has always been part of Planet of the Apes is all but gone.  This is a serious, solemn movie, with stakes about as high as they get: the fate of humanity.

Of course, the "rebooted" Planet of the Apes films have been flirting with that idea from the beginning, especially in the first movie, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which ends with the global spread of a super-virus.  In the second film, that virus has wiped out most of the planet, and the "apes" who were the unwitting source of the disease -- you may recall that they had been exposed to a virus that was used to deliver an experimental drug that magnified their intelligence by astonishing factors -- fought against both man and themselves in a struggle to determine who would rule the world.

This time around, simian leader Caesar -- played once more with ferocious intensity by Andy Serkis -- is in hiding, under constant attack by human soldiers who want to wipe out the apes, who pose a grave existential threat to the remaining homo sapiens.  Human soldiers have become more violent, and among their ranks are "donkeys," apes who, for a multitude of reasons, fight alongside man against Caesar and his super-intelligent ape-soldiers.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens with an extraordinary battle, shot with deliberate precision by director Matt Reeves.  This is a gorgeous movie, overflowing with craftsmanship.  If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second film in this series, seemed more like the plot-weary CGI clash of apes and man that I always feared the series would be, War for the Planet of the Apes wisely course corrects.  The story here is about the apes, who are struggling for their own survival.  (Once again, some of them speak using sign language, and some of them, particularly Caesar, speak with a command of the English language that would impress most native speakers.  It's one of those just-get-over-it leaps of faith the film assumes won't bother you; mostly, it doesn't.)

Just as Caesar and his followers are getting ready to leave their home in the forests of Northern California for a desert to the east, they're brutally attacked by a band of solidiers led by Col. McGullough (Woody Harrelson), who has seen way too many movies about the Vietnam war.  McGullough kills Caesar's wife and son -- and the war turns personal.

It's interesting that in a movie filled with animated characters, the most cartoonish are the humans.  McGullough and his army are the movie's weakest point, and as Caesar, Maurice (an orangutan, whose expressiveness remains one of the series' high points), Luca (a gorilla) and Rocket (a chimpanzee) search for the Colonel it becomes rather astonishing just how much we care about the apes and how meaningless the humans are.

Caesar and his band stumble across two important new characters, a funny and charming chimp named Bad Ape (tremendously well-played by Steve Zahn) and a little girl who the apes name Nova, and whose inability to speak proves to be a major plot point.  Bad Ape knows the soldiers are headed north to the California border, but doesn't know exactly why, and when they arrive Caesar finds that McGullough has captured and enslaved all of Caesar's followers.

The first 90 minutes of War for the Planet of the Apes movies at a brisk pace, and its wintry, High Sierra setting proves unexpectedly alluring, as does a rich and evocative score by Michael Giacchino.  But then War for the Planet of the Apes turns into a bit of a slog as it becomes a POW movie that proves the filmmakers probably watched too many old films when designing this one.  Just as it should be reaching its high point of tension, War for the Planet of the Apes flags.  The scenes between Caesar and McGullough, while well-played, go on far too long, and the climactic conflagration comes too late.

The film's final moments recall the culmination of Battlestar Galactica, another science-fiction story about a battle between humans and a race they created, and lead more or less directly into the 1968 original -- with about 2,000 years to play with.  That means War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the last of the new Apes movies.  In a way, that's a shame.  The film wraps up the saga of Caesar, who was just a baby in the first film and here is the wisest elder of all the apes, and brings the story nicely full circle.

Despite its faults, and its rather bleak view of humans as small-minded, violent and leaning toward fascist tendencies, War for the Planet of the Apes is a good movie -- and a perfect note on which to end its story.

Viewed July 22, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 8, 2017

"The Little Hours"


It takes about ten minutes to read the first story of the third day of Boccaccio's The Decameron, which I know not because I was a mediocre literature major but because I Googled it and read the story after seeing The Little Hours.

A quick recap for those of you, who like me, weren't paying enough attention in school -- The Decameron is a collection of stories, and the one on which The Little Hours is based says, basically, nuns are women, and women like sex as much as men, so just because they wear habits doesn't mean nuns are any less randy than anyone else.

As far as movie ideas go, it doesn't really jump out at you, but here it is anyway, and The Little Hours is endlessly amused by putting some pretty fine comic actors in medieval religious attire and letting them have at it.

The result is a bit like a bunch of graduate students in literature got together and made their version of Smokey and the Bandit.  They think it's absolutely hilarious.  You can practically see them cracking up just before and after the cameras roll.  It's a little surprising The Little Hours doesn't have a blooper reel running over the credits, the kind where Dom De Luise takes off his toupee and Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson can't stop giggling.

The trouble is, they're not actually being nearly as funny as they think they are, and the audience isn't really in on whatever the joke is.  There's really only one big joke in The Little Hours, which is that the three nuns at the center of the story talk in modern dialect and use the F-word a lot.  A lot.  Because nothing is funnier than a nun with foul mouth.

They're also horny nuns, living in a secluded convent in Tuscany.  One day, in a convoluted story that slogs on and proves Einstein was right by making 20 minutes feel like two hours, a hot guy named Masetto (Dave Franco) shows up in their midst, and the nuns, who are played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci, all decide they want to have sex with him.  (Well, one of them, the goofy-eyed one played by Micucci, actually decides she wants to have sex with the other nuns.)

There could be something crazy and farcical about the movie, but it's a listless sort of slog.  The actors all seem to be doing their own thing, none of them really connects with each other, especially not John C. Reilly as a priest who helps Molly Shannon (completely wasted here) manage the convent.

Little vignettes happen, and the way they're stitched together gives the movie the feeling of having been a bunch of improvised days on the set that someone assembled into a loose semblance of a plot. The only time anything ever gets close to the level of humor that the filmmakers must have thought they were achieving is when Fred Armisen shows up as a dumbstruck bishop who can't believe the stories he hears about what goes on in the convent.  He strikes the farcical tone the rest of the movie should have hit.

The poster for The Little Hours cites a real review from The Catholic League that calls it "trash, pure trash."  If only that were true.  Trash would have been a lot of fun.  The Little Hours is mostly kind of a bore.

Viewed July 8, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"Baby Driver"


Baby Driver crackles with the fire and energy of something new and completely unexpected, a dizzying combination of crime thriller and musical, a pairing that shouldn't work but succeeds at almost every level.

Writer-director Edgar Wright balances his film precariously on a high wire between inspiration and insanity, and keeps it beautifully tilted toward the former with an audacious mix of cinematic genres that makes Baby Driver such a shocking surprise.

Its opening sequence alone is worth savoring, a daring bank robbery set to a propulsive rock song that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) uses to fuel his escape.  It's like watching the kind of music video they don't make anymore, but with impossible-to-believe stunts and adrenaline-pumping action.  But this isn't even the most impressive sequence in the film's first few minutes, because it gives way to a stunningly conceived, intricately choreographed title scene that shows the main character doing little more than walking down the street ... but with such dazzling moves that it belongs in a musical.

Baby is just a kid in his early 20s, but he's already got a long history that involves dead parents, a foster father (CJ Jones) and a big debt to pay off to an Atlanta criminal (Kevin Spacey) who has a penchant for daring robberies and even more daring getaways.  That's why he has turned to Baby, whose own fascination with cars is inextricably intertwined with his love of music.  He's always listening to something -- he doesn't just have playlists, he has entire iPods for different moods.  There's a reason he listens to music all the time, one that is integral to the plot of Baby Driver, but to give it away would be borderline treasonous -- this is a movie audiences are best left to discover for themselves.

As the plot thickens with an assortment of criminals -- including some really sleazy characters played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez -- Baby meets a waitress (Lily James) who senses that the boy's mysterious job as a "driver" is turning him into a bad boy when he really only wants to be good.  That's one of the most engaging conceits in Baby Driver: No matter how much Baby keeps getting pushed into a life of crime, he resists.

But he can't completely ignore the heavy-handed urgings of his less-than-savory associates, and that conflict propels the film's plot while music -- an endlessly inventive array of songs and tracks -- propel its action and its visuals.

There's a moment when Baby Driver threatens to lose what made it special and devolve into a standard crime thriller, but director Wright catches it just before it falls and pushes it back onto that high wire to find a climax that's as heart-stopping and as engaging as the rest of the movie, even when it turns to over-the-top violence that feels excessive yet entirely earned.  Its good-guy-versus-bad-guy showdown strains under its excessiveness -- it's the one bit of the film that needs scaling back -- but it never breaks.

Elgort is one of the biggest reasons why.  As the peach-fuzz-faced Baby of the title, he's the beating heart of the film, and he's dazzling in a role that's alternately showy and low-key.  Baby doesn't say much, but he almost always knows exactly what he's doing.  Elgort is charming and in command of the complex role, especially in his flirtation scenes with James as his love interest and his tender moments with Jones as a deaf-mute father figure who loves the boy desperately.

Baby Driver begins with a sly intent to excite our senses but finishes with an emotionally resonant flourish.  Everything Wright has learned from a life of loving and making movies he puts to impressive use in Baby Driver, which uses an extraordinary array of cinematic tricks to convey both plot and character.  The movie tells its story in such a breezy fashion, and makes it look so incredibly easy, that it seems a bit of a shock to get to the end of the film and find that it resonates not just on a visceral level but an emotional one.  Crime thrillers aren't generally known for having complex, meaningful characters, yet Baby Driver delivers exactly that: In Baby it finds a hero who's a real rarity in an age of instant sequels -- he's a character we'd like to see again; Baby Driver leaves you wishing you knew what happens after the credits roll.

That's a rare feat for any film, but then, few movies are as inventive, daring and downright appealing as this.

Viewed July 4, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks




Of course "trigger warnings," the controversial labels designed to let sensitive audiences know that the content they are about to read, watch or hear might upset them, are silly ideas.  Works of art, even the most commercial, are designed to elicit a reaction.  Trigger warnings strip away the wonder and joy of discovery.

But if I've ever seen any film that might make the case for a trigger warning, Okja is it.  Visually captivating and meticulously crafted, Okja manipulates emotions with a skill that borders on alarming.  In wild and weird ways, it combines tender and quiet moments of beauty and grace with vicious satire and explosive, violent anger.

In a boisterous opening scene brimming with crazed energy that director Bong Joon Ho uses in flashy ways throughout the film, Okja sets up a simple story: sometime in the future, a profit-hungry company led by loony, megalomaniacal Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) develops a way to feed the world cheaply by creating a genetically modified "super-pig."  It sends 26 of these pigs all around the world for local farmers to raise, and after a decade the company will recall them all to determine the best ways to create even more of the massive, meat-laden animals that, its scientists say, can help end hunger.

For 10 years, one of those super-pigs, a female named Okja, has lived in the mountains of South Korea, where a sweet young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised the beast with tender love and friendship.  Like Elliott and E.T., they are inseparable, until the day Mirando's henchmen come to take the creature back to meet its fate.

The team of researchers sent to retrieve the pig includes hyperactive TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an ethically compromised Steve Irwin on crystal meth.  While Mija's grandfather distracts her, Wilcox and his cronies take Okja -- and when Mija finds out, she sets off on a mission to Seoul to find and rescue her friend.  During an extraordinary, hair-raising truck chase through the narrow Seoul streets and highways, in which Okja escapes, Mija meets the Animal Liberation Front, a ragtag group of radicals (led by Paul Dano) who believe the nefarious Mirando and Co. are up to no good.  

As a visual and action spectacle, Okja delivers, and Mija is a captivating heroine cut from the same cloth as a Spielbergian child hero from the 1980s.  With the help of the ALF, she discovers the grim fate that awaits Okja, and Okja the film becomes a painful, borderline unwatchable treatise against the consumption of red meat and the industry that sells us food.

This is where Okja runs into its biggest problems, as it sets up the greedy captialists and sell-outs behind the big "super-pig" experiment as cartoonish buffoons.  The stark reality of what they're doing doesn't match the silliness of their presentation.  Swinton is extraordinary as both flighty, lightweight Lucy Mirando and her no-nonsense twin Nancy; she's the kind of actress who knows how to plant nightmares in the minds of both children and adults.  But what to make of the cavalier way she throws around profanity?  The bad guys in Okja toss out F-bomb like confetti at a parade, a tonally harsh contrast to the childlike wonder of much of the film.

It turns out Okja is not at all meant for children.  When Mija and the ALF uncover what happens behind the scenes at Mirando's company, the revelation is graphic and disturbing, and once the film moves a step in that painful direction, it doesn't seem capable of stopping.  The climax is almost sadistic in the way it seems to revel in blood-soaked violence.

Yet Okja remains riveting -- despite the ways in which it taunts us to avert our eyes.  Even while I was captivated by the story, though, I had to wonder about its intentions: Is it trying to tell a grand adventure or is the goal to repulse its viewers from eating meat?  Is it meant to be a satire about the blood-stained hands of capitalists or is it meant to be a touching story about the bond of friendship?

Okja is never quite able to resolve its inconsistencies.  And yet there are elements of the film that are genuinely remarkable, including a chase sequence that is one of the few that has ever truly made me gasp.  It's a fantastically well-made film that is frequently splendid to watch.  But not everyone will be able to make it through -- certainly not children, who would seem at first glance to be one of its primary audiences, if it weren't for the profanity and the blood.

So, be warned: Okja might touch your heart deeply.  It also might just leave you nauseous.

Viewed July 3, 2017 -- Netflix

Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Big Sick"


Film titles can mean a lot.  Consider Terms of Endearment, a movie about a mother and daughter learning about each other through the ups and downs of their lives.  It's not called Cancer Daughter, which is probably for the best.  Million Dollar Baby works a lot better than The Paralyzed Boxer.

But The Big Sick puts its big second-act plot twist right there in the title for all to see, which is odd indeed because the first half of the movie -- which is a  charming culture-clash rom-com that takes a little bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and mixes it with Judd Apatow slacker heart -- does not even begin to hint at the "big sick" of the title.

For an hour, The Big Sick is about an ethnic protagonist who falls in love outside of his accepted mother-approved cultural boundaries.  The non-ethnic love interest, of course, doesn't really get the weird things the foreigner says and does, the restrictions placed on love by a well-meaning but non-America-conforming family.  There's even a big moment in which the romantic lead pleads with the family to understand that love does not always look the same across borders.

One of the ways The Big Sick twists that formula is by turning the protagonist into a male, a Pakistani who pursues a blond-haired American girl to the horror of his family.  These sweet and shiny elements of The Big Sick work well, even if they hold no surprises.  The mother is overbearing, the father understands the needs of the heart, there's a sibling who follows the rules.

One of the running gags in the film is how the family gathers for a weekly meal in their suburban Chicago home, exactly the kind that WASP-y Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore owned in Ordinary People, and just as they are getting to dessert the doorbell rings.  It's always a prospective suitor for the beleaguered son, who cannot bring himself to come out to his parents about his attraction toward non-Pakistanis.

This is tried-and-true stuff, and it works in The Big Sick because star Kumail Nanjiani is undeniably engaging.  Nanjiani based the film on his own life story, and wrote it with his wife Emily V. Gordon, who is the fair-skinned, blonde-haired American who shows up at a comedy club one day where Nanjiani is doing his act.  They meet, they have sex, they make plans never to see each other again -- and, naturally, they fall in love.  The movie might be based on real life, but it's got an unmistakably Hollywood gloss on it; Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as Emily are sweet, good-looking, clever and among the most adorable people in the world.

Nanjiani's thin voice and clever (but quite safe) sense of humor is matched by Kazan's wavering temperament.  They both seem awkward in their own skin, a sense of dislocation the filmmakers were probably going for.  But their wispiness also proves to be troublesome when the movie hits the brakes and makes a sharp but not unexpected (there's that title again!) turn toward maudlin.

Emily contracts a mysterious illness, which if it weren't finally named as a rare disorder might bear some striking resemblances to Ali McGraw Disease, in which a young, pretty girl is unfairly and melodramatically struck down in her prime.  Emily ends up in the hospital just a day or so after Kumail breaks up with her.  The juxtaposition of their angry and resentful break-up provides the contrast for the rest of the film, as Kumail comes to meet Emily's anxious, demonstrative parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

The second half of the movie becomes more about Kumail's relationship with the mother and the father.  It's good as far as drama goes, and Hunter, as always, raises the quality bar even higher.  Her presence lights up The Big Sick and provides a sense of purpose and drive that the younger actors never quite find.  If The Big Sick had focused entirely on Kumail's response to the crisis, it might have been unbearable -- the spark Nanjiani has on screen with Kazan diminishes in the film's second half, and his dramatic breakdown feels substantially less weighty on screen than perhaps it was in real life.

That doesn't mean The Big Sick isn't affecting -- it most certainly is, and has some timely and well-considered things to say (and ways to say them) about race relations and the world of white-on-brown suspicion in which we live.  The Big Sick also pulls off at least one seemingly impossible task: It offers up a joke about 9/11 that is not only painfully funny but manages not to be tasteless.  As for its its moments of mist-eyed melancholy, The Big Sick earns them fairly, even if it finds them a little harder to play and a little less satisfying than its romantic-comedy core.

Viewed June 25, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Wonder Woman"


Considering its title, Wonder Woman seems oddly uncomfortable with putting a female superhero front and center.  Its final title sequence, for instance, is the only place in the movie where the word "woman" appears on-screen, and even that is in relatively small print compared with a stylized "WW" that serves as the film's logo (see the poster above, which emulates what's in the movie).

Strange. To use the political buzzword, "optics" matter, so it's equally fascinating and disconcerting that throughout much of its running time, Wonder Woman (the pitch-perfect Gal Gadot) herself doesn't even seem to be the hero of her own film -- she's frequently trailing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who joins up with a couple of other male sidekicks to defeat the male nominal villain and the male supervillain, though to be fair there's also a female villain, who is disfigured and says comparatively little.

Could I just be too touchy or politically correct about this?  Well, maybe, but Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman all stand on their own, they don't have women explaining key plot points, helping them understand what's going on, and taking them where they need to go.  The men in those films know what to do, even though none of them (well, maybe Superman) are as naturally heroic and physically daunting as Wonder Woman.  Think about it: They all need at least full-body tights if not impenetrable body armor to do their deeds -- Wonder Woman's barely got anything on, and to me the point of that is that she's naturally extraordinary, she needs no help.

That's certainly the point of the first third of Wonder Woman, which is one of the more well-told and visually rich "origin" sequences of any of the latest wave of superhero movies.   The daughter of the Queen of the Amazons on a lush, invisible island, Diana grows up in a harmonious society that seems entirely peaceful even though its only real function seems to be to train warriors.  It's an all-female society, and the film skirts some of the more obvious questions about their everyday life while simply avoiding others.  It's campy, silly fun that winks at itself more than a little bit -- something the rest of the movie would have been well to do.

Diana's mother, Queen Hipplolyta, doesn't want her daughter to become a warrior, which frustrates the young woman until finally, the queen relents -- but only if Diana will train harder and become better than any other Amazon.  It's about that time that Steve Trevor shows up as his German WWI airplane (don't worry, he's an old-fashioned American good guy) crashes through the invisible barrier.  Long story short, he reveals to Diana that the world is engaged in war, and she vows to leave the island to help it.

Their voyage to Western civilization is the movie's best sequence, a warm, funny, tender sequence directed by Patty Jenkins in a long take that lets the actors sparkle and the writing shine, and even though it takes place at night it's the brightest spot in Wonder Woman.  The highest possible praise is that, thanks to this scene, Wonder Woman comes, for just a brief moment, close to the never-again-matched superhero heights of Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

The scene with Diana and Steve in the boat is everything you hope Wonder Woman to be, a pause in the action suffused with personality and humanity, and the movie even follows it up with a clever and funny scene in which Diana tries on early 20th century women's clothes.  It's Gadot, particularly, who makes the movie's colorful, playful first half work so well.

But when Wonder Woman gets down to action, something disappointing happens.  The movie takes on the desaturated, downbeat look of its DC Comics predecessors -- this being 21st century moviemaking, Wonder Woman can't have its own story, it must tie in to every other DC Comics film, both in story strands and in tone.  Around the midway mark, Wonder Woman becomes like all the rest, losing its unique feel and wonderful tone, replacing Gadot with a digital equivalent who can leap and run and move in ways that defy physics.

When the CG Wonder Woman takes over, Gadot's own energy seems to flag, especially in the too-many moments where she looks into Steve Trevor's eyes and seems to lose some of her strength.  She becomes reliant on him, and though Wonder Woman does finally realize this tactical error, it does so too late in the story, and its course-correction efforts don't quite work.  No matter what justification it uses for putting the man in the traditional role of the hero, that's still exactly what Wonder Woman does.

Yes, Wonder Woman herself does some spectacular things, and ultimately has to do battle with the two baddies (played by Danny Huston and David Thewlis), but she's only half of the equation, and when she finally does save the day the end result something happens that turns the ending unexpectedly dour and disappointing, and it's something that's hard to imagine happening to her male superhero counterparts.

Maybe it's just intended to add richness and depth to the character, and that's a fair argument, but it's a little perplexing, too, not because Wonder Woman can't have feelings but because Wonder Woman finds the beating, living heart that almost every other superhero movie has been missing, then squeezes the life out of it until the film behaves like all the rest.

There will be a sequel, not just because that's in the nature of superhero stories but because studio finances dictate it, and when that happens perhaps Wonder Woman can be both a wonder and a woman -- one who, like her forebears, needs nothing more than her wristbands, her lasso, her shield and herself, certainly not a man by her side helping her through it all.

Viewed June 3, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Monday, May 29, 2017

"Alien: Covenant"


There isn't a single moment of fear or dread in Alien: Covenant, which is just one of the many ways it is barely a distant echo of the original 1979 terror-in-space movie and its 1986 teeth-jangling sequel.  There isn't even a moment of any real surprise or discovery, just a lot of visual references to those original movies and an uncomfortable continuation of a story begun in the plodding Prometheus.

Prometheus, if you forgot, and it would be easy to forget, is a film that finally answers the never-really-asked questions of how the mysterious alien spaceship from that very first film ended up on the planet.  The explanation had to do with a race of giant humanoids who wanted to create things like the gods but ended up creating the alien, or something like that.  It's not flippant to say I don't remember: I don't.  A lot has happened in five years that distracted me from keeping the plot details of a quasi-Alien prequel at the top of my mind.  Frequently, I don't make it to the grocery store without forgetting half of the things I came for, so recalling the names and functions of all the characters from a middling movie made five years ago is beyond my mental capacity.  That's what I get for being middle-aged.

If I didn't much care for Prometheus, then why see Alien: Covenant?  Maybe it's like Barack Obama said: Hope.  One look at that long, sleek black head and those dripping teeth and you think about Ripley fighting off marauding hordes of them while carrying Newt through that about-to-explode building, and you think about how scary that first Alien movie was, and you think, "I've got to give this another chance."

Or, maybe it was just social-media peer pressure, insisting I forget about Prometheus (believe me, I've tried my best) and also the Alien vs. Predator movies, which I've thankfully never seen except in snippets on some FXXXXJr. channel at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, and about Alien 3 (which gave us David Fincher, so it's not all bad) and also about the one with Winona Ryder.  Maybe I just got too carried away with the prospect, at long last, of another proper Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott.

Then, even before the first scene finished, most of that goodwill got jettisoned into space just like the Alien always seems to do, and by the end of the first 30 minutes the rest of it was gone, too, but I stayed on to the end, hoping and hoping and hoping something would be different.

The first scene is a joyless one, in which David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, talks to his creator in a moment, we come to realize, that takes place many years in the past.  Then we meet the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship that is en route (for reasons never explained or even hinted at) to a distant planet to colonize it with 2,000 humans and 1,200 embryos, and apparently absolutely no training at all in science or exploration.

After the Covenant has a deep-space accident, the ship receives a static-filled distress call that -- really, as much as you may think so, I am not making any of this up to make it sound worse than it is -- the cowboy-hat-wearing Southerner named "Tennessee" instantly interprets as ... wait for it ... John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads.  What that means, of course, is that the crew decides right then and there that they've got to investigate, which maybe they might not have done so quickly if it had been a different 1970s artist.  Would Neil Diamond be so fondly remembered in 200 years?  Absent a crew member with big hair and eyeliner, would the Covenant have just floated right by a transmission emitted to the beat of a KISS song?

As any team of highly trained scientists would do, they decide they're going to scrap the mission they've all been training decades for and go ahead and just land on that new planet because, well, they're lazy.  (No, seriously, one of the crew members says something like, "Dang, we don't wanna get back in those sleep pods, we're bored already.")  So, without doing a shred of scouting, without donning any sort of protective gear -- not even the kind eighth-graders have to wear in chemistry labs -- and with absolutely no knowledge of this new planet whatsoever, they pay a visit.

Remember in the first Alien when John Hurt and Veronica Cartwright put on those amazing-looking but cumbersome spacesuits to investigate the source of the beacon?   Remember how the rest of the crew wouldn't let them in after the face-hugger burst out of that egg and latched itself to poor John Hurt?  Yeah, well, none of that happens here.  The crew of the Covenant puts on some L.L. Bean gear and starts walking around the planet they know nothing about.  One of them even -- no, I swear I am not making this up -- stops to pee and have a cigarette.

Bad stuff happens.  It gets worse when the really idiotic pilot of the landing ship decides to one of the blood-spitting, fast-dying crew members back on board, then accidentally blows up the ship when the alien bursts out of him.  So, the rest of the crew, wearing some fleece-lined corduroy outdoor jackets, is left behind.  Another one of them is infected, too, and just when you hope these really stupid people will be trapped on the planet forever, the lights will come up and the credits will roll just to be kind and save everyone from having to sit through the rest of the movie, you realize: This isn't even halfway over.

So, if you're still reading this, let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard the "brick joke," which begins with a guy building a house and realizing he has one too many bricks and throwing the last one over his shoulder, which appears to be the dumbest punchline ever, then the joke-teller tells one or two seemingly unrelated jokes, then the final one has a punchline that is something like: "The brick from the very first joke!"

Well, that's Alien: Covenant.  Because who should pop out of the middle of the wilderness but David, the humanoid robot from Prometheus and this film's prologue, who proceeds to take Alien: Covenant in a most distracting direction as he uncomfortably flirts with himself (in the guise of Walter, the Covenant's shipboard robot, also played by Fassbender) and starts spouting off some philosophies about being able to create life.  He also talks a lot about the lead character of Prometheus, and if you don't remember who that is or why she was important, Alien: Covenant isn't going to help you.

This part of the movie is a direct sequel to Prometheus, giving way, finally, to a third section that deals with the surviving crew's escape from the planet.  But at that point it had lost me.  The sheer stupidity of its main characters coupled with its inscrutable, endless references to Prometheus left me in a state that a science-fiction-horror-thriller should never leave its audience: bored.  I didn't care what happened to the crew, and I didn't care if I never see another Alien movie again.

Except Alien and Aliens.  At least we have those.  Forever.

Viewed May 29, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Berlin Syndrome"


Bleak, despairing, hopeless, shocking, disturbing, Berlin Syndrome is a vicious and intense film, an assault on the senses that tells an excruciating story but does it so impressively that it transcends its horror-thriller genre much in the way Hitchcock did with Psycho.

It might seem overly gracious to evoke the great director and one of his greatest accomplishments, but in Berlin Syndrome, director Cate Shortland takes a nasty little piece of storytelling and raises it to the level of serious filmmaking.  There's a lot to admire, but for many viewers there will also be a lot to abhor about Berlin Syndrome, in which Shortland walks right up to the boundary of acceptability and pushes on it as hard as she can without crossing over.

Last year, an execrable, inexcusable piece of trash called Don't Breathe tried to create a similar sense of dread but failed in every possible way, and while there's no comparison, it's worth noting how easily Berlin Syndrome could have been like that wretched, stinking piece of cinematic waste.  Almost nothing about Berlin Syndrome is, on the surface, at least, appealing, yet the final result is nerve-wracking, mind-bendingly tense and, if you can stand the brutality, very much worth seeing.

It begins with Clare, played by the astonishingly good Teresa Palmer, a dislocated, unhappy Australian tourist who wanders the streets of Berlin with the sort of detached melancholy that imbued Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.  She is neither a tourist nor an ex-patriate, she is a wanderer.  Just before leaving town, she runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome and gregarious local who charms Clare with his not-quite-perfect English and his frank assessment of the photographs she takes.

Clare, he insists, misunderstands his city by romanticizing its tortured, unhappy past.  Andi is just old enough to have known a divided Berlin and to have seen the effect that isolation and detachment had not just on the East but on the psyche of the entire population.  They have a daylong flirtation, then Clare tells Andi she's leaving town.

But she doesn't.  She finds him in a book shop, they admire Klimt's "Woman in Gold" painting, the one that was stolen away by the Nazis.  Andi takes her home.  Something doesn't feel right about it, but they sleep together anyway, and the next day Clare discovers that she can't leave Andi's apartment, which is tucked away in a desolate building.

Once-charming Andi has taken her captive, and Berlin Syndrome turns into both a vicious psychodrama and a twisted thriller.  Its script, by Shaun Grant, based on a novel by Melanie Joosten, creates two vividly conceived characters in Clare and Andi, and though we learn infinitely more about his violently unhinged persona than hers, Palmer and Riemelt are both compelling.  Rimelt's psychopathic calm produces a screen villain who genuinely belongs in the ranks of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter.  Palmer, on the other hand, is given a difficult task: Convey Clare's shock and anguish, her psychological despair, and a troubling descent into a state of acceptance -- while never losing our sympathy.

Berlin Syndrome is the horror version of the Oscar-winning Room, and though its horror-movie leanings prevent it from being taken as seriously as that harrowing drama that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.  This is a brutal, violent movie -- though its on-screen bloodshed is limited to just two tough-to-watch scenes, the psychological torture is even more disturbing.

But it's also a film that, should you make it through to the end (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't) is not one you'll easily forget.  Berlin Syndrome puts the audience through a similar plight as its lead character: You want to hate every moment, but as much as you try it holds you in a shocked, fascinated, terrified thrall.

Viewed May 27, 2017 -- Arclight Hollywood


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Star Wars" at 40

Five years ago, the collective critical (and audience) raspberry that greeted John Carter led me to think about what kind of reaction the original Star Wars might have faced if it had been released today.  Somehow, this essay became the single-most read item I've posted on my blog to date -- so as Star Wars turns 40, it seemed appropriate to run it again.  

Bear in mind, the below is fully imaginary and in no way reflects my own view of Star Wars.

By the way, for anyone not well-versed in Star Wars lore, that little factoid at the end of the first paragraph is actually true.  Star Wars opened in just 32 theaters on May 25, 1977, not because it was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, but because that's how many theaters were willing to play it.

** of *****

If robots who talk with fussy British accents, men in gorilla suits and endless laser-gun fights are your thing, then by all means give Star Wars a try, but don’t say you weren’t properly warned.  It’s a movie with such lousy buzz that even exhibitors who got advance screenings wouldn’t book it into their theaters.

To help defray undoubted losses on the reported $10 million budget – that’s twice the cost of an average movie these days – Fox finally managed to dump this bloated Saturday-matinee kiddie feature into a measly 32 screens on Memorial Day, a holiday better known for quick vacations than spending time in the dark.  At this rate, Fox will take whatever it can get, though its executives were smart enough to sell the rights away to writer-director George Lucas, who showed so much promise with the vastly superior, smarter American Graffiti.

In Star Wars, no-name actors (the biggest marquee name is Debbie Reynolds’ daughter) do their best to recite the kind of dialogue that might have already seemed dated when Buster Crabbe used it in the ‘30s.  They’re joined by some pained-looking, senior-citizen British names like Alec Guinness and, briefly, Peter Cushing, who ostensibly lend an air of credibility to the otherwise brainless goings-on, which have all been done before in Western and war movies -- for a fraction of the cost.

It’s a shame, really, because there are some nice touches, including truly groundbreaking special-effects work and a rousing score by John Williams that cribs more than a bit from Holst’s The Planets, but otherwise enlivens the ridiculously and unnecessarily convoluted plot.

See if you can keep up with me here: In another galaxy “a long time ago” (how’s that for originality?), an Imperialist government is waging a “civil war,” though exactly who is fighting who and why is never even addressed.  Note to the young director: If you’re going to use the word “war” in your title, you might do the audience the courtesy of explaining what the war is all about.

All we know for sure is the bad guys are so bad that the chief villain, the awkwardly named Darth Vader (yes, it’s that kind of a B-movie – and the hero’s last name is Skywalker), traipses around wearing black … with a cloak, no less.  He’s built a death ray that can blow up entire planets, so take that, Mr. Khruschev.  Someone has stolen the plans for the space station and hidden them inside a robot with instructions to deliver them to an old man on a planet that’s entirely made out of desert.

Meanwhile, a young boy finds the robot and gets hunted down by the bad guys while he learns about an ancient religion from an old neighbor, and together off the two go to hire a solider of fortune to help them get the robot back to where it belongs – and, of course, wouldn’t you know it, they stumble right into the path of the war, where they become unlikely heroes and save the day.  

If you’re exhausted reading that, just wait until you see Star Wars – though, given the utter lack of faith theater owners and Fox seem to have in it, it will be quite a feat if you do see it, outside of a 10 a.m. show some Saturday.  Star Wars may be just fine for the kids, but they’re not the audience that matters to Hollywood, and really Star Wars is just a small pit stop on the way to the summer’s most eagerly awaited films for grown-ups, like A Bridge Too FarThe Deep and Fox’s lavish The Other Side of Midnight.

But Star Wars is worthy of attention not only because of its exorbitant budget and what it says about the gambles involved with selecting and making films – but also because there are a few gems buried in this breathlessly paced nonsense, like the aforementioned score and the uncanny ability of Alec Guinness to speak lines like, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” with a straight face.

Particularly uncritical children may enjoy it; for adults, it’s a loud, crashing bore, an ill-advised attempt to transfer the undeniable charms of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into a big-screen, mega-budgeted spectacle.

Perhaps the low point of a film rife with them is the big cross between a bear and a dog, played by a man in a fur suit.  Just how unsophisticated did Lucas think his audience would be?

Star Wars will come and go quickly, so if you really want to try to make sense of its byzantine plot (communicated at the start by a visually impressive, endlessly wordy “introduction” that scrolls up the screen), you’d better check it out while you can; with such few theaters in the entire country playing it, it will have closed and moved on to smaller markets within the next couple of weeks.  Just don't say I didn't try to warn you.

Without doubt, Star Wars isn’t entirely unworthy – any movie that features American Graffiti’s Harrison Ford  shouting “yahoo!” can’t be all bad – but for those who prefer even a sprinkling of substance to their movie entertainment, this is one surround-sound "spectacle" you can skip.

Almost everything in this barely released, barely marketed mess of a movie has been done before, more cheaply and with infinitely greater charm and memorability.  For some, Star Wars may prove a decent momentary diversion (best to check your brain at the theater door) before we get on to the meat of the summer.

Lucas has said he created Star Wars as a throwback and homage to the kinds of movies he grew up with.  Sorry, Mr. Lucas, everything you’ve put up on screen has been done before – using 99.5% less money – and been done better. I liked Star Wars a lot more the first time they did it, back when it was called Buck Rogers.