Showing posts with label 2016. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2016. Show all posts

February 13, 2017

The Lobster and Cults of Singular Thinking

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz run for their lives in The Lobster.

It’s become easier with each passing week to understand dystopian films. Elected officials make statements that would seem hilarious if they weren’t so frightening. This is especially true when it comes to basic ideas of identity and respect for differences. When a candidate thrives under a message of bigotry and ignorance, it indicts all of us. This moment also gives close-minded thinkers the belief that they can speak freely with intolerant views. These issues all connect to the absurd world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, particularly ideas on romantic relationships. The strict rules of that society don’t seem as far-fetched when you consider them while under a potentially authoritarian leader.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay from Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Efthymis Filippou depicts The Hotel — the world’s worst singles retreat. Residents like David (Colin Farrell) have 45 days to find love or will become an animal of their choosing. He chooses a lobster (hence the title), which doesn’t seem like the best idea. There are many rules to follow at The Hotel, including the partner you choose. You can’t just lie and say that you love another person. A specific personality or physical trait has to match the other person. It’s eventually clear that these rules do not just apply to The Hotel. They are a core aspect of The City on the whole. Even the animals must find companions or risk extinction. The entire society thrives on coupling.

This premise is absurd on its surface, and it appears more outlandish because everyone plays it straight. No one but David even gets a character name in the credits. Ben Whishaw’s character is known as Limping Man, though you could also call him “Man Who Smashes His Nose to Get the Girl”. The set-up works as a comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments. It also clicks as an indictment of our culture, and that idea has only grown for me with each passing day. I’m married but can remember the days of probing questions from relatives about girlfriends and marriage. Loners are regarded with suspicion, and relationships that differ from the norm receive scrutiny. Fear of anything out of the ordinary remains a common trend in society.

What makes The Lobster more than a comment on marriage is the way it presents The Loners out in the woods. A lesser film would depict that group as free-thinking rebels like Denis Leary’s gang in Demolition Man. Instead, they also have restricted views and employ brutal punishments to offenders. People who flirt can face the “red kiss”, and I don’t even want to consider what the “red intercourse” punishment would be. Lea Seydoux plays the Loner Leader with a stone-cold detachment, and she enforces the strict rules without compassion. The Loners seem even worse than The Hotel because their choices defy our expectations.

The connective tissue between the Loners and The Hotel is the cult of singular thinking. This lack of nuance hits home when you consider the frustrations of our current political divide. It’s all or nothing, with little in between the sides. When David and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) fall in love, the response from the Loner Leader is quiet but vicious. She can justify the move with the rules, but it’s really just a cruel act. This type of logic is dangerous, particularly when it goes to people in power. Others will fall in line just to avoid a similar fate.

The Lobster works as a comedy and includes wonderfully odd moments, especially at The Hotel. John C. Reilly fits right at home in this setting. The romantic interactions are painfully awkward as characters look for any way they connect. If a couple starts to struggle, you can always give them a kid to change the landscape. It’s such a nihilistic look at relationships! The only true romance happens by chance, but there are few opportunities for long-term happiness. A society built on restrictions will stamp out anything that veers from the model. Lanthimos reminds us to stay vigilant against normalizing these rules; they can only lead to our destruction.

The Lobster is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended.

January 30, 2017

Hidden Figures and the Joy of Movies

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures.

It’s a scary time with horrible news lurking around every corner. Here in the U.S, the Trump administration is revealing terrible plans on a daily basis. There are many ways to combat these policies, including protests, calls to senators and representatives, and personal interactions. Where does art fall into the mix? It’s easy to dismiss movies as less essential during serious times like our current era. That is true in a certain way; there’s a lot more to do than just watch films. On the other hand, even prominent commercial releases can play an important role. They bring us together and can spotlight voices that are pushed to the background too often.

A perfect example is Hidden Figures, which arrived in theaters as just the right time earlier this month. The crowd-pleasing film tells a story that few of us know about the early days of the space program. It also provides three standout roles for African-American women that are far too rare. This isn’t a case where a white guy dominates the story and becomes the central figure. Instead, it’s the incredible work from Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer that takes center stage. All three give award-worthy performances as strong, intelligent women that worked behind the scenes at NASA during the Mercury program.

Cynics might dismiss this film as a conventional story that just makes audiences feel better about themselves, but that isn’t a fair assessment. Instead, it clicks because we’re on board with the characters from the start. It’s fun to just hang out with this trio even when they aren’t solving problems at NASA. That’s no easy feat. Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) aren’t just symbols of overcoming an oppressive system. They come alive on the screen as fully fledged characters with real hopes and dreams. It’s a joy to spend two hours with them and see their ultimate success.

Jackson’s big speech before a Virginia judge (Frank Hoyt Taylor) is a good example. The only way she can enter NASA’s engineer program is to take certain night classes, but they’re only at an all-white school. Jackson’s speech is pure Hollywood, but it still works because Monae injects such feeling into it. The way that she sells the judge on being “first” is brilliant and makes the scene crackle. Director Theodore Melfi brings the camera in close to focus just on the faces of Monae and Taylor; he makes it a personal moment between two people. Monae owns this scene and reveals (along with Moonlight) her impending stardom.

This human connection is at the heart of why Hidden Figures shines for such a wide audience. The crowd in my theater included kids, adults, and grandparents from diverse backgrounds, and there was huge applause at the end. I could tell it was connecting with most of us, including my seven-year-old daughter. The best Hollywood filmmaking feels effortless, and that airy feeling is all over this movie. Henson is the centerpiece as Johnson, and she endures a lot from the condescending white guys in her Space Task Group. It never feels like too much cruelty, however. The script from Melfi and Allison Schroeder strikes the right balance in showing the hardships while still delivering an inspiring story.

Henson delivers what is easily one of my favorite performances of 2016. Johnson is brilliant and knows she’s smarter than her co-workers yet follows the rules of that environment. Her gruff boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) understands her value but will only do so much. He fails to recognize her daily strife of running across campus to the bathroom until she breaks down. Costner’s hero moment in tearing down the sign doesn’t feel earned for him, but it draws a fist pump because it’s a victory for Johnson. Henson charms us from the start, and we’re definitely on her side. When a possible romance starts with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), we won’t accept him until she does.

It's convincing to see the institutional racism that each woman faces every day. The rules are written to keep Jackson from becoming an engineer, and people treat it like a fact of life. Johnson must drink from a separate coffee pot, use a different bathroom, and dodge other hurdles. The sexism from her all-male co-workers on Harrison's team is accepted as normal. Some of them mean well, but that accomplishes little under a rigged system. There's no margin for error for Johnson in this group.

Spencer earned an Oscar nomination last week for Best Supporting Actress, and she deserves the acclaim. She wonderfully underplays Vaughn’s intelligence and understanding of the office landscape. Vaughn recognizes the dangers of the IBM computers to their roles but sees the opportunities in mastering it. Her changing interactions with the stuffy Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) reveal her growing power. By using her mind and understanding the technology, Vaughn subverts a system designed to keep her down. Her heroic scene in leading the women of the West Campus to their new jobs is thrilling and quite a change from the cold NASA hallways.

I did not expect Hidden Figures to receive a Best Picture nomination because it’s such a crowd pleaser. There’s joy emanating from the screen, and the audience keys on that excitement. Certain beats are predictable, but that doesn’t mean they fail. Even relaxing moments like watching the three stars dance remain engaging. Each lead gets her chance to shine. With a modest $25 million budget, it’s also the type of film that’s become less common from the big studios. In looking for the big payday, they often miss the importance of telling new stories that connect with a general audience. See this film, and make sure you take your daughters with you.

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December 29, 2016

Love & Friendship Review (Whit Stillman)

Lady Susan manipulate Lord James Martin in Love & Friendship.

It’s difficult not to spend this entire review of Love & Friendship just raving about Tom Bennett. His comic work as the foolish Sir James Martin energizes the material from Whit Stillman. The wide-eyed Bennett injects the broad dose of silliness this film needs to counter all the proper behavior. Martin is basically the David Brent of this society; people tolerate him because of his status. The difference is that Bennett keeps his character endearing despite a lack of decorum. While others whisper in the shadows, he talks loudly about everything on his mind.

The surprising part of Bennett’s success is how little he appears. It takes a while for Martin to arrive on screen, and he largely occupies the background. Stillman wisely recognizes that spotlighting Bennett would be too much of a good thing. There’s little depth to this guy, and that lack of self-awareness drives other characters mad. Martin has lots of money, and that makes him a valuable commodity in a place where marrying into wealth is essential. A guy that speaks of the “12 Commandments” and jokes about peas is not a fabulous house guest. On the other hand, Martin is such a contrast from the guys around him that even his dumb ideas are likable.

I must also spotlight the great work of Kate Beckinsale as the lead; it’s easy to forget how charismatic she can be on screen. Her Lady Susan brilliantly twists guys around her finger and looks for every angle. The inventive ways that she hides her lack of money keep even the more suspicious people from seeing the truth about Lady Susan. It wouldn’t be proper to actually pay the woman who assists her; it would only hurt their friendship! Beckinsale has starred in five (!!!) Underworld films, and it’s refreshing to see her in such a commanding role. When Lady Susan isn’t on screen, the other characters spend all their time talking about her.

Love & Friendship reunites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, though it’s a much different relationship between their characters. Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson is a pal who marvels at hearing of Lady Susan’s deeds. The pair has a relaxed camaraderie on screen, but it’s mostly a secondary role for Sevigny. What’s interesting is the way that both speak openly about the dim-witted guys that surround them. There’s no guilt about wishing for Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) to get a disease as soon as possible. It’s a man’s world, but the guys actually have little power.

Stillman is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve yet to dislike one of his films. That trend continues here, though I wasn’t as thrilled as I anticipated. This story is based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen, and Stillman doesn’t veer too much from the expected style. There are gorgeous costumes and country homes where characters look for marriage. The change here is that romance takes a back seat to the best situation. Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) still believes in love, but she’s young. Most characters are resigned to doing the best they can in the confines of this social construct.

I’m drawn to Stillman’s biting and witty dialogue, and there’s plenty on display in Love & Friendship. Lady Susan is the perfect character for Stillman to convey his usual style. The screenplay feels a bit like a throwback to indies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Stillman injects his signature wit into the mix, and it’s a pleasant experience. Beyond the work from Bennett and Beckinsale, I don’t see as much that makes me want to dive back into this film. I’ve watched Stillman’s other four films many times, particularly Metropolitan. The Austen source material just wasn’t as enticing beyond the great work from Beckinsale and Bennett. Despite these reservations, I’m excited that Stillman has found success and can’t wait to see what he does next.

Love & Friendship is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is definitely worth your time.

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December 23, 2016

Rogue One Review (Gareth Edwards)

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One: A Modern Take on a Classic Adventure Story

We’ve reached a point with our technology where films are rarely massive events that draw audiences from every spectrum. It’s become a niche world thanks to greater options in TV, gaming, and other pop culture zones. There still are a few exceptions, however. Star Wars was the type of film (and series) that created obsessive fans for life. Parents initiate their kids into the cult at a young age through the movies, TV series, toys, and books. Now that Disney owns the franchise, they’re focused on building a new group of young fans that never leave. They’re also rewarding the patience of adults like me that became attached to the original trilogy in the ‘80s.

Rogue One is the latest installment in a series that will keep drawing huge crowds as long as films are relevant. Don’t get me wrong; I’m right there with the excited viewers. It took me a week to see it, but I wasn’t going to miss this event. I’m a few steps below fans that dress up as the characters and analyze every small link to the expanded universe stories. Even so, my mind will forever remember every little part of the original films (particularly Star Wars). I’m 40 and definitely a major part of the audience, and I played into Disney’s hands by taking my seven-year-old daughter to see it. We had a great time, and we were hardly unwilling participants either.

It’s unnecessary to describe the plot at this point. The storytelling is effective, but it’s already well-known to anyone that’s interested. I managed to avoid the specifics before seeing the film, and that improved the viewing experience. I watched each trailer a few times and understood the basic premise. It’s difficult to create a story where everyone knows how it will end; George Lucas struggled mightily to keep us engaged in the prequel trilogy. Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do a much better job here. The sense of inevitability doesn’t hamper the momentum too much. Even if Star Wars had never existed, we would understand how this type of adventure will function. The characters know this is probably a one-way trip.

An X-Wing makes a daring move to fly through a closing shield in Rogue One.

Rogue One benefits from the strong emotional connection that we feel to the Star Wars universe. We care about the fate of the rebels without unnecessary exposition. The stakes are clear, and witnessing the Death Star’s destructive power early in this film just reminds us of that fact. On the other hand, the familiarity is a crutch when fan service goes too far. The random appearances of Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba (from the Mos Eisley cantina) cheapen the project. I’d also love to have someone make the executive decision to retire lines we hear in every Star Wars film. Those quotes wink at the fans yet also take us out of this story.

Even so, some cameos feel organic and build a believable environment. The shots of the original Red Leader and Gold Leader (from deleted footage) in the attack on Scarif fall into this category. They’re familiar yet also work in the context of this movie. Darth Vader also connects because he’s directly involved in this story. Plus, it’s hard to argue with seeing him wipe out a bunch of powerless rebels in a lightsaber fight. He’s more frightening here than in any moment in the prequels. I know the Death Star plans get away, but I still wanted to shout “throw the plans out the door!” to the frightened rebel. It shows how much Edwards succeeds with this film.

I can defend most of the creative choices in Rogue One, but there is one striking exception. I recognize that advances in digital effects are one key to this movie’s success. However, the CG creation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is a mistake. Despite looking convincing at times, it feels unnecessary and appears slightly unreal in the eyes. Re-casting this character would have made sense and not been questioned. While paying tribute to Cushing, the choice to build his face digitally is distracting. That’s also true with the appearance by Princess Leia at the end, but it’s at least a quick shot. Tarkin plays a much larger role in the main story.

Looking beyond my few qualms, I found plenty to love within this film. The opening scene is set on a gorgeous planet and introduces key characters well. It’s easy to get on board with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) because the opener aligns us with her plight. Seeing her mother killed and father captured right in front of her would traumatize anyone. Jones under plays Jyn’s anger towards her childhood challenges well, and we can still see the emotional scars. There’s a lot riding on Felicity Jones’ shoulders, but she doesn’t perform like someone who feels the pressure.

Donnie Yen prepares to battle a group of stormtroopers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The most important thrill for me is enjoying the classic adventure story. Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) inadvertently pull together a mismatched band of committed rebels for the daring quest. Donnie Yen is great fun as a blind man with connections to the Force. The conservative rebel leaders want no part of their dangerous plans, so it’s up to this small band to do it. The odds against them are great, yet faith still means something. I don’t mean to get too cheesy when considering their plight, but it’s only been a few hours since the credits rolled. There’s a reason that Firefly is one of my favorite shows. I’m drawn to characters that try to do the impossible (it makes them mighty!). There are fewer wisecracks here, but the spirit remains.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to portray the mess of battling a powerful enemy on the ground. That sense of loss is evident in the slightly mad face of Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). He’s killed civilians and committed brutal crimes to fight the Empire. There’s no black-and-white feeling in this story. The rebels commit murder in the name of liberty, and they often do the wrong thing. The deaths are largely bloodless, but we feel the weight of each one. It’s a Star Wars tale for the modern world, and it’s easy to make connections to the Trump era. Fighting an enemy with all the control takes sacrifice; hope is often gained through paying the ultimate price.

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December 22, 2016

The Fits Review (Anna Rose Holmer)

Royalty Hightower plays Toni, a young girl who starts with boxing and moves onto dance.

Our story begins with quiet shots of 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) training at a boxing gym. The camera pulls closely in to her face and doesn’t cut away. We’re quickly immersed within Toni’s world of the Cincinnati community center with seamless effort. She trains with her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) and longs to join the drill team – the Lionesses. It would be easy to describe The Fits as a slice-of-life film, but that label is too limiting. In her directorial debut, Anna Rose Holmer crafts something more off-center than how it originally appears. Toni’s experiences don’t play out as expected, and the atmosphere becomes quite surreal.

Clocking in at just 72 minutes, this tale doesn’t feel like it needs another minute. Why are all blockbusters over two hours? They must justify the expense, apparently. Watching a contained story that makes its case with nearly every shot is refreshing. It’s also a plus to check out this film with limited prior knowledge. The first act seems to set up a look at how Toni will become a good dancer and learn about herself in the process. She does improve her skills, but little happens as expected here. When her fellow dancers start having “fits”, it sends Toni’s world into disarray. I experienced a similar feeling as an audience member.

The question hanging over the remaining time asks what is causing the seizures. Is the water contaminated? Are otherworldly forces at play? Holmer doesn’t try to explain the fits in a clear fashion, and that’s a wise choice. Instead, she builds a growing sense of uneasiness with each subsequent incident. The music from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans deserves awards consideration for how well it builds the mood. When Toni looks directly into the camera while the eerie sounds play in the background, a simmering fear grows inside us.

The final act arouses suspicions that perhaps the fits occur because the girls want them to happen. It’s a cynical take on the beautiful moments yet could speak to a teens’ need to conform. Toni’s friends ignore her because she hasn’t experienced the same thing. Instead of providing danger to avoid, the fits become a rite of passage. It’s no stretch to connect this moment to the shift into adolescence. There’s beauty in each fit despite the harm that’s happening to the subject.

It’s not surprising that Holmer collaborated with a real dance team (the Q-Kidz) as the performers. Their moves are far too original to come from actresses learning on the fly. These aren’t the expected group performances you might see in a Hollywood film. Instead, each girl shows her own style with remarkable agility. There’s striking intensity to the way they let loose and dare the others to match their efforts. This in-your-face quality is undercut by the way the fits reduce their control. The women are so powerful yet knocked down by this force.

Material in The Fits is rife for analysis from high-minded cinephiles, but that doesn’t take away from the joy in the movements on the screen. The climactic dance sequence is a beautiful display of life and energy that feels therapeutic in these troubling days. Diverse voices like Holmer’s (plus producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis) deserve a lot more attention. Kjerulff and Davis also co-wrote the script with Holmer (and comprise the collective Yes, Ma’am!), and we never hit expected beats. It’s a thought-provoking, moving tale that deserves a lot more attention.

The Fits is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. See this film.

December 21, 2016

Superhero Catch-up: A Civil War, an Apocalypse, and the Dawn of Justice

Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jeremy Renner star in Captain America: Civil War.

One side effect of making fewer trips to the movie theaters is bypassing so many prominent Hollywood releases. When I do have the chance to see a film on the big screen, I’m not going to waste it. I’d prefer to support projects that aren’t guaranteed to earn hundreds of millions at the box office. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; I’ll make an exception for Rogue One very soon. I just don’t feel the need to see your everyday blockbuster right away. The window before a DVD or streaming release is shrinking, and that trend should continue in the future.

Another benefit is always having so many options for home viewing in any genre. If I’m ready to watch powerful superheroes punch each other for two hours, I have plenty of choices. In the past few weeks, I finally spent (wasted?) my time and caught up with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse. I also re-watched Captain America: Civil War to continue this trend. They’re all superhero films with huge budgets, but each film is quite different from the others. By the end of the three viewings, there were no doubts about how I’d rank them.

I’m 40 years old and sometimes think of myself as a discerning movie watcher at this stage of life. On the other hand, I’ll admit to finding great joy in watching the CGI spectacle of so many comic book characters battling on screen. In the best cases, there’s also still a will to glean affecting drama from these conflicts. The trick is balancing the carnage with engaging characters and a light touch. Darker themes only click if there’s something beneath the surface. Let’s take a look at each of the three superhero films and how well they struck the right balance.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman fight Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)

Why did I subject myself to this mess? Despite many warnings from reliable sources, I couldn’t help myself. The giant square on HBO GO kept calling to me, and I couldn’t resist. Man of Steel wasn’t great, but the origin story and early scenes with Kevin Costner were interesting. The conflict with Zod fell flat, particularly with the excessive use of 9/11 imagery. Batman v. Superman is basically two-and-a-half hours of what I disliked about Zach Snyder’s first Superman film. The components all exist, but they’re put together in the wrong way. There’s no forward movement or logical progression from scene to scene. It’s just a disaster on every level.

The shame with this project is how many talented actors are involved. The cruelty in Ben Affleck’s Batman was strikingly different from other takes on the character. Henry Cavill has been good in other films; this Superman is just impossible to play. Gal Gadot has a good screen presence as Wonder Woman and could shine as the main character. Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Diane Lane do what they can with thinly written parts. The only real miss for me is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg plays eccentric better than insane, and this Luthor is barely connected to reality. Gene Hackman showed how less is more with this character. Dialing up every scene to ridiculous heights just takes us right out of the movie.

Digging further into the plot, it’s a poorly crafted set-up for the moment every fan wants to see. In similar fashion to Civil War, the movie only works if the Batman/Superman fight is compelling. Instead of an exciting clash of the titans, this battle is just brutal and nasty. The stakes don’t feel real, even when Superman appears to face real jeopardy. The resolution is a cop-out that springs out of nowhere. It also diminishes the raw emotion that Affleck throws into Batman. Bruce Wayne is a guy on the edge who’s inches away from descending into madness. The “mother’s name” twist reduces that anger to a glaringly obvious theme.

Batman v. Superman does the heavy lifting to help create an extended universe for DC, but it’s hard to care too much about it. We catch glimpses of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to set up next year’s Justice League, but they’re a distraction. World building can be exciting in the right hands, but it also can make filmmakers take their eyes off the ball. This film seems rushed and rarely takes a breath, which just wears out the audience. I know it’s not this simple, but cutting 10 minutes from the finale against Doomsday would make a huge difference. In fact, I might just cut Doomsday out of the movie altogether. The gigantic being is a symbol of the entire movie. It’s powerful, loud, and has no soul.

Oscar Isaac is the evil Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse.

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)

I’ve generally enjoyed the X-Men franchise since its first installment way back in the ancient days of 2000. At that time, just setting up a sequel was enough! Now that my old man rant is over, I’m ready to talk about this silly movie. There is no way that Bryan Singer can make the stakes feel high with a villain like Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). He’s basically a strangely voice bad guy right out of Stargate SG-1. That isn’t a criticism either. I love it when a comic book film leans into its ludicrous premise. Apocalypse and his four horsemen spend the movie walking around and causing havoc. The climactic battle is bombastic yet rarely seems dull. We’re free to have fun in this world despite the potential for the end of all humanity.

Another thing that separates this franchise from the DC universe is the fantastical aspects. When the big fight happens in front of a giant pyramid, the environment doesn’t feel real. Magneto tears up the ground and kills countless people, but there are few shots designed to connect us with reality. Despite some dramatic moments, it’s largely a cartoon. We don’t need anyone to comment about how a place is deserted before the destruction begins. We can care about the characters but don’t feel manipulated by obvious tropes either.

I don’t want to over sell Apocalypse, however. It feels like a step backward after the time traveling complexities of Days of Future Past. Fassbinder’s Magneto also is treading on familiar ground in his third appearance. He can only flip around from good to evil so many times. Fassbinder and McAvoy have an easy chemistry that makes us care about both characters. They just aren’t delving into much new territory. Newcomers like Sophie Turner (Jean Gray), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (Nightcrawler) don’t stand out as much. Turner has the largest role and does her best (particularly at the end), yet Famke Janssen still owns that part.

I was skeptical during the opening act but was largely won over by the way Singer and the production designers go for it. By the time Quicksilver (Evan Peters) was saving a dog with a pizza in its mouth, I couldn’t help but smile. It feels like the logical conclusion for this chapter in the X-Men saga. The grim apocalyptic world of Logan (based on the trailer) is here at just the right time. It’s time for a smaller story that doesn’t involve saving the planet from a super villain. The Wolverine had a similar vibe, and I’m thrilled that James Mangold is back from another outing with Hugh Jackman here. Next March can’t come fast enough for this intriguing release.

Captain America fights his last battle with Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo)

I caught up with the third Captain America film in the theater during a very busy time in life this past summer. Instead of being a much-needed escape, it mostly slipped from my mind. I enjoyed Civil War the first time, but it took a second viewing to solidify it as really good film. It’s basically the antithesis of Batman v. Superman. There’s a serious rift between two super heroes, but it’s an ideological one. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both are right in a certain way, and that makes the conflict resonate. It’s more than just an excuse to bring together the Avengers (and quite a few others) into one gigantic battle. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans sell the emotions of the split between two close friends. The Russo Brothers make it all feel effortless too.

Despite its epic length, this story doesn’t seem bloated or filled with unnecessary subplots. Spider-Man and Black Panther make their first appearances, yet they fit within the main plot. Neither pulls the spotlight away from the disagreement that drives the narrative. I was skeptical of yet another Spider-Man, but Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is a different guy. He’s younger and just getting started, so there’s glee in the way he approaches the others. Spider-Man gets a cute introduction and then shows his skills in the main battle. That’s it. This is an ensemble film where everyone has a role to play. There’s a team atmosphere even across the two sides.

The airport battle is amazing and lives up to expectations, which is an incredible feat. But it’s hardly the only reason to watch Civil War. I didn’t spend the first hour just waiting for everyone to fight. The story is gripping enough to make us forget that it’s leading to such a large confrontation. Individual character moments are just as strong as the action and are fun despite the high stakes. Slowing down the pace is also crucial to avoid pummeling us too much. Quiet scenes like one with the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) aren’t just ways to pass the time before the action. The fights only work if these scenes connect with us.

I’ve largely been a fan of the Marvel films, though I haven’t gone back to missteps like Age of Ultron since the theaters. What separates Civil War from that film is the feeling that we’re covering new ground. Iron Man and Captain America are shaped by what’s happened in the past, and references to previous films seem natural here. This success has re-invigorated my interest in Phase Three (I haven’t seen Doctor Strange yet) going forward. It’s my favorite blockbuster of 2016, and it would take a lot for another release to unseat it. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Other Marvel Reviews

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 3

December 7, 2016

Moana Review (Ron Clements, Don Musker)

The title character of Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, prepares to journey out to the water.

The Subtle Grace of Disney’s Moana

As a lifelong Disney fan, I’m well-versed in themes that permeate many of the studio’s films. This is especially true when it comes to princess stories. The lead character is sometimes a bystander in her own film. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example. The actions of the fairies, Phillip, and Maleficent truly set the course of Aurora’s life. She’s largely passive despite the film’s title. We’ve seen updates to this model in the past few decades, though heroines from the Disney Renaissance still were driven by the love story. Belle and Ariel are more active characters yet still aren’t independent of the old constructs.

Recent films like Tangled and Frozen have made progress in subverting the obvious love story, especially the latter film. Anna wants to find a guy, but she has no life experience and has made assumptions from reading stories. This brings me to Disney’s latest film Moana, which sheds a lot of the beats we expect from this type of movie. The quest to save the world is a familiar hero’s journey, but it feels new without the unnecessary subplots. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a strong and likable teenager that wants to make a difference; it’s easy to get on board with her story.

Moana is headstrong but has reasons beyond her personal need to experience the water. It’s rebellion against her father’s (Temuera Morrison) ways but with a purpose. His restrictions don’t connect to her gender or age either; in his view, everyone should stay on the island. Like he sings in “Where You Are”, the selling point is the place, not the social construct. Chris Jackson (George Washington from Hamilton) takes the singing duties for Chief Tui and does amazing work. Given the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, it’s no surprise to have Jackson involved.

The soundtrack’s other main songwriter is Opetaia Foa'I, who was born in Samoa. Miranda and Foa'I (along with Mark Mancina) build a collection of tunes that work brilliantly and complement the story. I could list almost any song as a highlight, but the one that really sticks with me is “We Know the Way”. Performed by Foa’I and Miranda, the song nails home one of the key themes. The image of Moana and her people sailing into the unknown while the song plays brings chills. Its return during the finale reinforces that Moana’s quest is about more than saving the world. She’s also working to bring the spirit of exploration back to her people.

One of the reasons that Moana connects is the diverse cast, which includes the voice of Hawaii’s Auli'i Cravalho as the lead. We also have Temuera Morrison and Rachel House, who both spring from Maori descent. Dwayne Johnson is a huge star, but his Samoan background also connects to this story. Johnson is the right choice to play the larger-than-life Maui, a self-absorbed demigod that is the key to Moana’ quest. Johnson (aka The Rock) even gets a chance to sing the memorable “You’re Welcome” and call out Maui’s huge contributions to this world.

In typical Disney fashion, the story gives Moana a few silly companions. They’re less grating than the normal examples, thankfully. One is a dim-witted chicken that delivers some big laughs. The other is actually the water itself, which gives Moana much-needed assistance. Bearing a surprising resemblance to the alien water creature from The Abyss, this being gives a few nudges to help its chosen one. Moana is yet another hero that’s uniquely qualified for this quest, but that point isn’t heavy-handed. There are no messiah moments. In fact, her love for the water does separate Moana from her people. It doesn’t feel like a stretch for her to be the choice.

Gramma Tala, voiced by Rachel House, gives encouragement to Moana.

Another key relationship is between Moana and Gramma Tala (Rachel House) — kindred spirits that both stand out from the norm on the island. We’ve seen this type of character in past Disney films (particularly Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas). However, the way that Tala approaches Moana with a little bit of mischief helps her feel new. She offers sage advice but also lets the girl find her own way. Tala’s final scene comes at the right time and veers away from just following the “wise old sage” trend. House’s deft voice work makes Tala click as her own character, not just as a helper for Moana.

What’s also refreshing is the lack of constant in-your-face jokes. With the exception of obvious peeing in the ocean gags, it’s more laid back than standard family films. A well-cast Jemaine Clement does get a lively scene as the giant crab Tamatoa. His performance of “Shiny” wouldn’t feel out of place on a Flight of the Conchords album. I also enjoyed the nod to Mad Max (and maybe Waterworld?) in the brief encounter with the Kakamora pirates. These energetic scenes help to make the 103-minute running time flow quite easily.

I have two young girls and have seen quite a few family films with them. Most are pleasant but don’t stick with you for very long. Moana is one of the exceptions where my opinion has grown stronger the more I think about it. The songs are still bouncing around in my mind. Directors Ron Clements and Don Musker led Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and they understand how to shape an effective tale. In this uncertain post-election haze, it’s refreshing to experience such a beautiful and graceful film. There’s a joy in taking this journey, and I can’t wait to see it again.

November 23, 2016

Moonlight Review (Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight and the Importance of Personal Films

In times of great sadness and fear, it’s understandable for cinephiles to huddle up and retreat towards escapist fare. Why face down issues that will only heighten stress? I’ve definitely pulled back from the daily barrage of distressful post-election news. My movie watching has shifted more to personal stories than blockbusters, however. Recent films like Certain Women and Morris from America feel more essential as chaos erupts on a larger scale. A timely example is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which portrays a convincing life across three unique performances. 

The story focuses on the life of Chiron across three time periods as he grows up in the South. What sticks with me about this film is the thoughtful way it approaches his experiences. Chiron isn’t a symbol of the current state of masculinity or race, though you can read plenty into his story. That approach dismisses the heart that’s present during each segment. We’ve seen schoolyard bullying, neglectful parents, and social isolation on screen many times. Moonlight stands apart through its emotional connections with the audience. When Chiron takes punches, we feel every one. There is no real gap between on-screen events and our experience.

This bond doesn’t mean this film is too broad or universal, however. Working from a story by Tarell McCraney, Jenkins presents an individual tale of struggle. Chiron’s classmates identify him as a homosexual well before he understands it personally. Throughout his childhood, everyone (including his mom) puts Chiron in a box and refuses to accept him. The opening scene involves other boys chasing him into a run-down building. This constant pressure makes him a nearly silent member of the community. There’s no sanctuary at home either. 

The opening act centers on Chiron (known then as Little) finding a friend in Juan (a remarkable Mahershala Ali). Their father-son relationship brings much-needed warmth to the first act. The scene of Juan teaching Little (Alex Hibbert) to swim reveals their unspoken connection. They’re doing an everyday thing like so many families. Juan is a drug dealer, but his job is inconsequential compared to his love for Little. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is a sharp contrast from Little’s manipulative mom Paula (Naomie Harris). This family unit brings normalcy, but it’s short-lived. There’s always the trip home to bring life crashing down to earth. 

The performances from Ali and Monae (in her first movie) strongly connect because they’re playing realistic people and not obvious saints. Juan sells drugs to Paula and plays a role in her downward spiral. Teresa does her best to help Chiron as a teen yet can only give a brief reprieve. The bullying gets worse and threatens more than just minor bodily harm. When Chiron (Ashton Sanders) stares into the mirror with blood streaming down his face, he seems capable of anything. The stone-cold look on his face when he returns to school is frightening. Even the strongest person can only take so much grief before he cracks. 

A pivotal relationship for Chiron is with his childhood friend Kevin, who is important to all three acts. Their re-connection in the final chapter provides a lot of heart and regret. André Holland plays Kevin as an adult with so much grace. No one understands what Chiron (known as Black on the streets) is experiencing better than Kevin. Their diner reunion brings some respite to a guy who’s closed off almost everything. He barely resembles the kid and teen we met but still has that soul beneath all the barriers. The sweet image that closes this scene offers a glimmer of hope. They’re still living in the same unkind world, yet can find comfort with each other.

It’s surprising to note how much Black differs from the guy we knew at a younger age. He’s a small-time criminal with gold teeth and a bulky frame. This world beat the quiet, emotional kid into submission. Black has grabbed a little power and won’t allow others to best him. Trevante Rhodes’ performance as Black doesn’t overdo the gloom. There are cracks in the façade, especially when Kevin calls. We still want Black to succeed and be himself. Rhodes says plenty with limited dialogue as the barricade slowly dissolves by the end. 

Moonlight takes its time and gives us a chance to understand Chiron’s world. Jenkins’ confident direction allows the scenes to flow naturally. The first act is quieter and conveys a sense of discovery from the young boys. The teenage era is more frenetic as the confusion and outside pressure grows. A languid certainty pervades the final act, where Black meanders through his life. That feeling shifts when he chooses to visit Kevin yet still has the quiet regret of adulthood. Jenkins’ personal connection to the material draws us into the story without forcing the issue.

It feels shallow for me to use this film to help calm my nerves about our future. On the other hand, it’s essential to support quality art from diverse voices. I can’t change the election results, so small choices make a difference. It all matters. The films, music, and literature that we support are important. It’s up to us to recommend work that expands our worldview. They aren’t just message movies either. It’s a lot harder to take a linear view of the world after exposure to a wider landscape.

Moonlight depicts the dark side of our social norms, but it’s not cynical. By showing the humanity of characters like Kevin, Juan, and Teresa, Jenkins delivers a picture that can raise our spirits. Life is a struggle, particularly for anyone marginalized like Chiron. Few give him a chance, but he’s still living out each day. When Chiron ultimately opens up to a friendly face, it reminds us that love is possible. The quiet ending offers peace and a little hope, through the internal conflict never really ends. 

November 4, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!! and Favorite Hang-out Movies

Blake Jenner and Glen Powell in Everybody Wants Some!! from Richard Linklater.

There are times when it’s thrilling to dive into a complex topic and search for meaning. Our quest for truth is not easy in a tumultuous world of fear and divisions. We long for something greater than ourselves and must believe there is a purpose. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just fun to drive around town singing along to “Rappers Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Who needs all the headaches? Let’s just hit the disco and dance the night away! That kind of thrill is everywhere in Everybody Wants Some!! — Richard Linklater’s warm look at the simpler times of college. Set in 1980 at the start of the school year, this laid-back story is a refreshing escape.

From the first notes of “My Sharona” and the close-up shot of car’s cassette player, Linklater induces fond nostalgia and a cool vibe. It’s easy to compare this feeling to the experience of seeing Dazed and Confused, and the tonal similarities are intentional. Linklater excels at making this type of movie look easy. Viewed through the eyes of newcomer Jake (Glee’s Blake Jenner), the life of a college baseball player looks magical. The guys spend their days drinking, dancing, and constantly looking for girls. They’re confident alphas trained to expect that women (and life in general) will fall for them.

These characters are ultra-competitive jocks that love giving each other hell, and they’re constantly sizing each other up with little tests. The battles are rarely mean-spirited, and camaraderie exists despite the jokes. Linklater played baseball at Sam Houston State in the early ‘80s, and that insider’s perspective brings nuance to each guy. Jake is the quiet and optimistic pitcher that seems comfortable across various groups. There’s the smooth talker Finnegan (standout Glen Powell), obsessive gambler Nesbit (Austin Amelio), goofball druggie Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) and superstar McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin). Linklater understands these guys and ensures that each one is a unique character.

Everybody Wants Some!! follows a structure of four nights of partying before the start of school. The first night nearly enters Wedding Crashers territory with its montage of sex with girls that barely register as characters. It’s all about hooking up, and there are plenty of women thrilled to have that opportunity. What makes this sequence partially work is its pure exuberance, particularly during the night at the Sound Machine disco club. They’re dancing to “Shake Your Groove Thing” without a care in the world. It’s hard not to smile at the joy on the screen here.

I should also remember that we’re seeing this scene from the guys’ point of view. The shot of five girls walking towards the players is like a fantasy scene. It’s basically an 18-year-old’s dream on display. The baseball players are the kings of the school, and they approach the world that way. It doesn’t excuse a few indulgences from Linklater into hero worship, but he connects with these guys based on his experiences. The club and house party scenes play like overly positive memories of a guy looking back decades later. It’s what the characters in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” might see when they dream about their magnificent past.

Given our present-day climate and sexist presidential candidate, it’s understandable if a film about guys looking to hook up feels a bit archaic. Heck, even the title is clear about the players’ goals. On the other hand, their testosterone-fueled efforts apply to more than sex. Watching them on the field reminds us how this team views their life as a conquest. The “some” that they want includes girls, drinks, and baseball success. With the exceptions of the early scenes, it’s mostly endearing. I’m far from a jock in this mold either; I was on tennis and swimming teams in high school. Still, I can identify with the competitiveness when it veers away from just finding girls.

Thankfully, the entire film doesn’t maintain the pace of that grand first night. After the excitement of reaching school and partying, nothing can match those heights. Of course, there are plenty of small battles to occupy the guys’ time before the next party. Everything becomes a referendum on their manhood, including foosball, pool, and tense ping pong matches. The prep for the next evening also reveals that no woman can match how much these guys love themselves. They lift weights in front of the mirror, trim their mustaches, and obsess over small details. Linklater puts the players on a massive pedestal and then reveals their little issues.

These characters are also cyphers for Linklater to explore the ‘80s music world. The first night covers disco, and we’re off to a country bar for some line dancing on night two. Just change the outfit and they’re ready to go! Even punk rock shows aren’t too much to handle, particularly when the band pulls out the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Jake calls out their identity crisis to Finn, who reminds him that it’s all in the service of their main pursuit. Plus, there’s a cool intersection of music genres in the early ‘80s. The rise of new wave and punk stands alongside ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and disco. We rarely see period films that understand that no one just listens to music from that exact year. It’s refreshing to have a mix that feels authentic and natural.

The story does switch gears with the romance between Jake and Beverly (Zoey Deutch), which is almost part of a different movie. She’s the only significant female character, and their scenes are sweet and down to earth. It’s refreshing to see the way Linklater ties the competitive drive of the athletes with that of theater performers. Even the theater kids could party! Jake and Beverly’s morning conservation on the water reminds us that we’re watching a film by the director of Before Sunrise. It also shows that Jake and his friends are hardly one-dimensional animals.

A major factor in liking these guys is their dorkiness. Seeing them sitting at the Sound Machine looking bored on their second night makes them more interesting. They also don’t treat the punks as outsiders either. Jake and Finn just try to ingratiate themselves and have fun. Even the silly rap scene over the end credits underscores them as goofballs. They walk around like big men on campus, but they’re still just young adults messing around. There’s little vitriol in the way they act, and the film approaches the world from their point of view. It’s definitely a male perspective, but not a vile condescension like we’re seeing from guys like Donald Trump.

The guys hang out together in Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! film.

The Joys of the Hang-out Movie

One of the main reasons I like Everybody Wants Some!! so much is the exuberance it shows in just hanging out and having a good time. It’s the type of film that draws angry online comments that it’s “not a movie”. I’m drawn to this formula, and Linklater is one of the best at doing it. Dazed and Confused is a perfect example, and he’s also mined similar territory in Waking Life and the Before trilogy. Those films were more intellectual yet share an interest in how we all come together. Another top pick is George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which set the template for using pop music as a soundtrack. It has quite a few similarities with Linklater’s style.

I've included some other favorite hang-out movies in the below list. These aren't a definitive ranking of the “best” choices and just reflect some personal winners. All deserve attention and are refreshing. It’s cool to just spend time with the characters at bars, parties, and other hot spots in their towns.

Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s first film depicts a group of high-minded college graduates dealing with life after school. Each character has an arc, but it’s secondary to just hanging with them. We don’t care if Otis (Carlos Jacott) gets a job; it’s all about his antsy neuroticism. The film’s star is the dry wit of the great Chris Eigeman, who sets just the right tone. Whether they’re arguing over trivia at a bar or avoiding broken glass on the floor, these characters fit my kind of humor.

The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman)

I could easily choose any of Stillman’s films for this pick plus the pilot of The Cosmopolitans. They all revel in the art of intellectual conversations while still being petty and real. The Last Days of Disco uses the club as a perfect backdrop for characters to talk about random issues. Eigeman again is a standout as Des, an even drier and more self-centered guy. Kate Beckinsale also shines as Charlotte, who’s nastiness is just part of her being. I’m still partial to Metropolitan on the whole, but Stillman really nailed the hang-out movie with his third film.

Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins explore San Francisco in Everybody Wants Some!!.

Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)

Failling more into the Before Sunrise realm, this low-budget debut from Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) spends 24 hours in San Francisco with two new friends (Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins) after a one-night stand. James Laxton’s cinematography offers a gorgeous view of the city as the couple gets to know each other. They attend a concert, see the sights, and even listen to a human rights speaker. It’s a romance for the modern age that never forces the issue.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (John Sayles)

This 1979 John Sayles film is also his first and depicts college friends reuniting 10 years later. Similar to The Big Chill but with more heart, this low-budget movie put Sayles on the map. The characters haven’t escaped their college selves, who were arrested for a political demonstration. There are no huge revelations, but it’s still enjoyable to meet these fully defined characters.

Let the Good Times Roll

It’s tricky with hang-out movies to set plot aside yet still keep our interest. There are plenty of examples where films tried this style and just sat there. What makes Everybody Want Some!! work is Linklater’s understanding of these guys. He was one of them. The small details make it click. It doesn’t hurt to have a killer soundtrack either. Even familiar tunes like “Whip It”, “Heart of Glass”, and “I Want You to Want Me” don’t feel ancient here. There’s also a little sadness underneath all the excitement. The story counts down to the first day of class and hints that nothing will match these first days. Like the Boss says, glory days will pass you by.

October 31, 2016

Certain Women Review (Kelly Reichardt)

Michelle Williams ponders her life in Kelly Reichardt's new film Certain Women.

It’s easy to pigeonhole filmmakers into specific categories by only skimming the surface. This method can help with setting expectations and aligning directors, but it also limits how we can approach their work. For example, Kelly Reichardt might slot into the slow or minimalist cinema style of filmmaking. That designation fails to appreciate the way she draws characters, however. Her latest film Certain Women reveals so much by simply watching the female leads. Reichardt pulls the camera in close and lets us connect without clogging the soundtrack with dialogue. The performers have room to develop their roles naturally on the screen.

Adapted from Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, this film depicts three individual tales connected by geography and mood. Characters briefly occupy the same space but aren’t aware they’re part of a single narrative. It’s a clever way to bypass the directorial manipulation of a lesser picture like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel while reminding us this is the same world. Reichardt (who also wrote the screenplay) spends about a half hour with each character and then circles back for a brief moment with each one at the end.

The segments function like short films but don’t feel too abbreviated. There’s a primary arc for each lead without cramming too much into it. These individuals have lives away from what we see. The grand Montana landscape is inviting yet still gloomy; we can feel the cold emanating off the screen. The sun rarely appears, but it’s hardly a depressing look either. Each story has its own atmosphere while sticking to the film’s style. The cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt (who also shot Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves) pulls the grays and browns to the front. The mundane, humble locations help avoid the gloss that can keep audiences at a distance.

We first see Laura Wells (Laura Dern) after a lunchtime affair in a grim apartment. She seems happy for the moment but resigned to leaving the brief haven. The married guy barely registers a grunt before heading back to his life. Wells’ face shows a weariness of someone who knows the score. When the guy calls later with bad news, she responds like it’s just another day at the office. Her law client (Jared Harris) is so needy to have a friend, and Wells is sympathetic to the point. His willingness to believe a male lawyer immediately after repeatedly questioning her assessment says plenty. The oldest of the three leads, Wells has faced the most obstacles yet keeps working. She even steps in to defuse a potential deadly hostage situation.

Reichardt brings the camera surprisingly close to Dern’s face, especially in profile. Her small-town charm fits the character perfectly. Wells tries to project confidence while struggling to pull it all together. She spends the first scene with Fuller with her shirt half-tucked after her rendezvous. It’s a clever way to show Wells’ inner mess without having her say anything about it. There are similarities in the way Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) maintains perfect-looking workout clothes. She’s used to being the boss and conveys that sentiment in every facet of her life. Williams’ melancholy face tells a very different story, however.

The centerpiece of Lewis’ story is a visit with her husband (James Le Gros) to acquire sandstone from their older friend Albert (Rene Auberjonois). This quest for something authentic drives Lewis, while her family grumbles along the way. It’s one of the few scenes where Williams smiles and seems content. Lewis seems in her element with a clear goal in mind. It’s much easier than connecting with her distant teenage daughter. Reichardt again pulls close to the performer’s face, and this allows us to see the cracks in Lewis’ cool façade. Just changing her clothes feels like an ordeal. Her beta husband seems to care yet doesn’t know how to connect. It’s only the smile in Williams’ final scene that gives us hope for her future. One step at a time is the key.

The most engaging story is the final segment where Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls in love with young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). It’s a quiet tale of two people with little in common. Jamie works on a ranch and moves deliberately, while Beth is stressed and antsy while teaching the night class. We see this crush from Jamie’s perspective as she looks for ways to connect with her new friend. The daily routine of tending to the horses and other animals differs from her growing interest in Beth. Despite the odds against it, we yearn for Beth to share Jamie’s interest. Their quiet horseback ride from the school to the diner hints that maybe something is there.

It’s refreshing to see a film with three award-worthy performances from female leads. Lily Gladstone in particular stands out because this is my first exposure to her work. She was recently nominated as a Breakthrough Actor by the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and it’s a well-deserved honor. Her best small moment comes when she believes that Beth won’t be in class. Her look of sadness quickly turns to glee when Beth arrives late. The subtle smile on her face says all that we need to know. Dern and Williams have also rarely been better, and that’s saying a lot given their careers. Kristen Stewart constantly reminds us that she’s more than a one-note movie star. It’s easy to see why Beth would draw Jamie’s attention.

Reichardt frequently uses the camera to give the audience a female point of view. While not obviously coming from the characters’ eyes, we can identify better with them by following their path. Other shots also take their time in showing regular people from the town. During one visit by Jamie and Beth to the diner, Reichardt first travels around the room and shows the various citizens. These aren’t the typical extras and resemble the people that would be eating at a truck-stop diner in the middle of nowhere. It’s another subtle way to create a believable environment.

The challenge for some audiences with Certain Women may be the lack of definite closure to any story. The open-ended situations (in most cases) don’t feel like a cheat, however. Reichardt takes a moment to show us how life will continue in each case. There’s no shocking twist or chill-inducing connection here. Each woman moves forward, and the tone doesn’t feel sad. Like all of our lives, the daily challenges never entirely go away. There are successes and failures, and all we can do is try to make human connections along the way.

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October 28, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 3 (Episodes 9-13)

Simone Missick holds back the crowds as Misty Knight in Luke Cage.

We’ve reached the end of another Marvel season, so it’s time for me to dive into the final five episodes of Luke Cage. Cheo Hodari Coker creates an interesting structure, though the drastic shift in the middle is tricky. When Diamondback arrives and becomes the new big bad, the show also changes into a one-on-one battle. It’s no surprise that the climax involves Cage and Diamondback fighting hand-to-hand in the streets of Harlem. They’re two nearly unstoppable forces that can’t help but come into conflict. Cage is ready to stand up for his neighborhood, even if he’s destroyed in the process.

The back half’s main conflict isn’t as engaging, but its themes effectively connect to our modern world. The militarization of police in particular is key to the villain’s plans. Alfred Woodard’s Mariah Dillard represents lawmakers that enhance the danger on the streets to gain more power. Her rhetoric is similar to the incendiary statements regularly spouted by Donald Trump. Playing on the public’s fears is a simple (and immoral) route to draw attention. It’s easier to rally the mob against an individual or cultural group than to discuss complex issues.

Another ongoing theme is the way the police force rises to act without considering what they’re doing. One cop beats a teenage boy due to rage at not getting the exact answer he wants. Even Misty Knight loses her temper and goes after Dillard in the box. The tense environment and threat of powerful enemies make the police behave rashly. It’s hardly a one-sided portrayal meant to demonize them either. We see cops of all races acting in a variety of ways. There are a few one-note idiots, particularly Sergeant Jake Smith (Lee Sellars), who refuse to see the obvious truths. They’re necessary for the plot but lack the complexities of better characters like Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman).

Burnt Back to Health

This final run begins with “DWYCK”, a one-hour episode that sets up the end. Cage spends the episode trying to recover from the Judas bullet wounds. It’s tough to build tension when we all know he won’t die. The episode’s conclusion marks the third time in the first nine episodes where Cage looks finished. It begins to feel repetitive by this point. This extra minutes do allow for more time with Dillard and Knight. Both are struggling but come out in different places. While Cage heals his body, they decide where their loyalties are and prepare for the next steps.

These episodes also continue the potential romance between Cage and Claire Temple. The show invests a lot of time in bringing them together with little mention of Jessica Jones. It will be interesting to see how these characters interact in The Defenders. Temple repeatedly helps Cage survive and urges him forward. Her no-BS attitude also keeps him focused. Unlike Jones, Temple doesn’t bring her own baggage. Cage and Temple share cute moments, though her character works better as a badass ally than as a love interest.

Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage in the Now You're Mine episode.

Trapped in the Club

The action centerpiece occurs in episode 11 (“Now You’re Mine”) with the typical hostage stand-off. It’s a little surprising to bring Cage, Diamondback, Knight, and Temple into one place with several episodes remaining. This timing guarantees the bad guy will escape to fight another day. The crisis showcases Temple’s ability to take advantage of how others underestimate her. She is the difference in saving her friends. Despite the tension, it's fairly generic. Even the trigger-happy SWAT team comes from a lesser show. This episode is key to the main arc's forward movement but falls short.

The most interesting part of “Now You’re Mine” is the way it reveals Diamondback’s lack of a real strategy. He’s just winging it and counting on bold moves to stay on top. Diamondback is essentially a quick-draw specialist from the Old West. He kills before his opponents can even move against him. Diamondback is actually similar to Cottonmouth in that regard. Both underestimate Cage and are rarely stopped. They also struggle with hatred from their own pasts. The look of exasperation on Shades’ face in the club is similar to how he looked with Cottonmouth. Neither plays the long game. It’s all about attacking what’s right in front of them.

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Harlem’s Importance

A prevailing theme across the season is the focus on Harlem's soul. A character like Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) is on the periphery, but his efforts to rebuild Pop’s barbershop feel important. On the other side, Dillard is dangerous because she can influence Harlem’s institutions. That’s much worse than the normal bloodshed. This setting feels lived in and more than just places where the action happens. The club's concert performances remind us that life and art keep going despite the turmoil.

Having so many talented African-American actors in this cast is so important. In particular, the presence of multiple female characters that are unique individuals is refreshing. Even when the story gets more generic, the performers sell it. The cameos from musicians and other cultural figures add depth. A wonderful scene in episode 12 (“Soliloquy of Chaos”) with Cage saving Method Man from a robbery is great fun. The follow-up scene at the radio station with Heather B., Sway, and Method Man is even better. We take a moment to breathe and have a few laughs, and that’s rarely a bad idea.

Diamondback and Luke Cage have their final fight in You Know My Steez.

Your Family is Jacked Up!

Misty Knight is my favorite Luke Cage character. She’s able to summarize a complex situation with one great line. It’s a relief to see how much her role expands in the final act. No bionic arm yet for her, though! Knight's comments about Cage’s past show what’s really driving the villain. It all goes back to family. Diamondback hasn’t been loved by many viewers, especially after the love for Cottonmouth. However, I enjoy Erik LaRay Harvey’s performance; he’s gleefully over the top and keeps taking it further. It's challenging for the writers to make that character fit inside the same environment. The Lucas family story never clicks, so there isn’t the emotional context we need.

When you boil it all down, Diamondback’s plan is to punch his brother to death. That seems like a dumb idea, even with his powerful tools. The Judas bullets were a good strategy and nearly worked. This plan has some holes. Their final battle has quite a few connections to the ending of Rocky V. Two former allies (from years ago in this case) have a street fight to settle their scores. Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison could be in the above picture, right? Cage even follows the Ali rope-a-dope strategy to win the day. Stallone also used this same approach for Rocky to beat Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Given the epic build-up to this fight, the end result is a strange one.

The finale (“You Know My Steez”) actually sends Diamondback to the hospital with 30 minutes left in the season. It’s similar to how The Wire resolved its main conflicts. The final half hour closes other plot threads and opens new ones. Cage’s rousing speech at the precinct reinforces how this show wears its heart on its sleeve. Daredevil often veered into nihilism, and Jessica Jones focused on her inner demons. Luke Cage depicts a guy who becomes a hero to stand up for his community. He doesn’t always win; Dillard and Shades are still out there. But Cage isn't hiding in the dark anymore.

Looking Ahead

Luke Cage’s ending also lines up the pieces for a showdown in The Defenders. The quick shot of Dr. Bernstein (Michael Kostroff) tending to Diamondback in the hospital sets up a more formidable enemy in the future. Diamondback will likely team up with Wilson Fisk and others to create an even greater menace. We’ll also probably see the other surviving villains (particularly Shades) again. Cage saved the day, but there are more enemies to come.

Fish discovering the folder should help Matt Murdoch or Foggy Nelson get Cage out of prison. That ending feels strangely positive because of the hero’s approach to his past. Cage is no longer running away from Carl Lucas. We’ve rarely seen that look of serenity on his face this season. He’s normally stoic but angry and unsure of his path. The rage and fear have left his soul.

Despite an inconsistent second half, Luke Cage still works on the whole. As an introduction to Harlem, it really clicks. The references to classic ‘70s films are reverential but not just an imitation. This is a new story that calls on the soul of past greats. The opening episodes set the scene so well, and the rest couldn’t match the high expectations. Still, I suspect that a future season will build on this one’s successes. The pieces are in place for an even better tale to come.

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October 25, 2016

The Invitation Review (Karyn Kusama)

Michael Huisman presents to his guests in the Karyn Kusama film The Invitation.

The Sadness and Ominous Dread of The Invitation

Misdirection can pay huge dividends in the right hands. Audiences begin with certain expectations and don’t feel as tense because we understand the framework. A perfect example is this week’s premiere of The Walking Dead. After waiting for months to learn the identity of Negan’s victim, the show pulled out the rug and killed a second (and more significant) character. It’s dangerous to play around with our expectations, however. Another example is the excellent thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, which spends most of its time convincing us a character is delusional. When the final revelation arrives, it both proves that theory and debunks it.

A similar feeling pervades Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, an independent production released earlier this year. A strange dinner party is obviously hiding something sinister, but it’s possible the main character is reading the signs incorrectly. His friends may have just grown weirder and aren’t preparing to enlist him in a mind-warping cult (or worse). Kusama holds back the reveal for so long that we begin to wonder if it’s all been a sham. Are we just witnessing eccentric adults talking about how they cope with a past tragedy? It’s still doubtful given the ominous directing style, but Kusama introduces doubts by holding back for so long.

The party takes place in one of those fancy Hollywood homes that I’ve only seen in movies. The former friends (and a few random arrivals) come together to drink gallons of fine wine and catch up about life. Scenes like this happen every night across the world. Of course, most don’t include videos showing the wonders of dying. That is just one of many odd choices by the party hosts. There are also traumatic memories in this house for Will (Logan Marshall-Green), whose son died there. Visions of the past haunt him, while his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) acts like all is well. There’s too much inner turmoil for Will to enjoy a dinner party.

The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the scene with Girlfight in 2000. AEon Flux and Jennifer’s Body were less successful, so it’s refreshing to see her behind the camera again for her fourth feature. From the very first shots, Kusama builds a sense of dread. Will and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) strike a coyote with their car, and he’s forced to kill it with a tire iron. This moment builds the ominous atmosphere and shows that Will is no patsy. He barely hesitates before the committing the violent act of mercy. The credits play with disorienting shots of the sky as the couple nears the party. This unsettling feeling matches Will’s struggles with re-visiting such a tragic chapter of his past life.

The dinner party mostly hits familiar beats and shows friends re-connecting after two years. There are the typical awkward conversations and frisky moves that come with wine. These scenes don’t really connect because it’s such a slow burn, and we keep waiting for something to happen. The script by Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi keeps the action mundane. The main reason the tensions remains are the slimy performance from Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones’ Daario) and odd work by Tammy Blanchard as the host couple. Both look like characters that plan to murder everyone. When add in the wild-eyed Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and ultra-calm Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), there’s definitely something amiss.

The standout scene is a monologue from Pruitt that takes a dramatic left turn. Initially a speech about love for Pruitt’s wife, it turns into something much darker. What makes it click is the serene look on the face of John Carroll Lynch. It’s similar to the way he approached playing the likely killer in Zodiac. Lynch looks like your typical suburban dad, but his eyes say something different. We spend the movie waiting for him to enact a sinister plan and take over the party.

Kusama is a native of St. Louis (my hometown), so I’ve always rooted for her success. She also got her start with John Sayles, who’s one of my favorite directors. Kusama shot The Invitation for $1 million and has earned solid reviews. I’m hopeful this is just the start of her resurgence. She mines a lot of suspense from a story where little happens for a while. It moves a bit too slowly and holds back the revelations for more than an hour. Still, there are few scenes that don’t induce dread. An exception is a gorgeous exterior shot of the lit Hollywood sky, but even that moment includes a possibly dangerous reveal. There’s no rest for Will or the audience.

Once the twist arrives, the results are surprisingly mundane. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, however. The suspense reaches such feverish heights that the mayhem is a relief. An earlier moment where Will sees Sadie practicing horrified faces in the mirror is more frightening than anything that happens later. Lindsay Burdge is the opposite of Lynch; she’s obviously nuts from the start. The mystery is how far her mania runs — typical Hollywood quirkiness or a true menace? Most of us can guess the answer to that question.

The Invitation’s prevailing theme is how we deal with loss. Will pulls inward (and grows the predictable beard), while Eden joins a fringe group. Kusama has talked openly about inspiration from her own tragedies. The interesting part is how she pulls that experience into a fairly standard thriller. We can read that sadness as a partial motivator or the film’s point. It’s a bit of both, and a clever final twist expands the story to more than the house. The severe approach to loss is widespread and reflects a broken society. Hope remains, but there are more battles on the horizon.

October 19, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 2 (Episodes 5-8)

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth meet on Luke Cage.

The superhero TV genre has come a long way in the past few years. There once was a time when talking seriously about these shows might seem strange. The success of the Netflix Marvel series (and ABC’s Agent Carter) has opened the door to more than by-the-numbers action. Daredevil went to surprisingly grim places, and Jessica Jones was really a survivor’s tale of abuse and rape. The bar was set ultra-high for Luke Cage, and its start didn’t let us down. However, the second-act challenges of its predecessors are hard to dodge completely. I’m intrigued by the tonal shifts during these episodes, but it feels like the show is still finding its way.

The often-disjointed middle episodes of the 13-episode Marvel seasons build a bridge to the ultimate conflict. This trend continues with episodes five through eight of Luke Cage. Following Pop’s death and the initial battle with Cottonmouth’s gang, our hero must regroup and decide where he stands. On the other side of the aisle, Cottonmouth reckons with his fading status in Harlem. His fall is the key arc of act two. Cage’s efforts weaken his enemy and set him up to fall. Of course, that defeat could signal the rise of a tougher adversary in his stead.

A notable change that we see is the rising darkness in Harlem; both Cottonmouth and Cage face their inner demons. It was fun to hang out at the barbershop and club in the opening episodes, but that charm slips to the background. The plot kicks into gear, which leads to more action. On the other hand, the conflicts follow a more predictable route. It’s a comic-book series, so this switch is expected. Still, the greater intensity doesn’t always lead to gripping drama.

The Tragic (Sort Of) Fall of Cottonmouth

It’s sad to lose Mahershala Ali from this show, but Cottonmouth’s demise is inevitable. Cage proves to Harlem that its crime boss is fallible. The arrest doesn’t finish the job but creates the tense environment that leads to Cottonmouth’s death. The flashbacks to his childhood in episode seven (“Manifest”) predict that the end is near. Events from decades earlier lead directly to the raw emotions that cause the murder. It’s a tragic end for a talented guy that never had a choice.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of Mariah Dillard, who initially appears to be the opposite of Cottonmouth. Alfred Woodard brings range to a character who’s frustrated with it all. Her cousin’s defense of Dillard’s childhood abuser is the final straw. This bloody scene approaches melodrama and is quite jarring for the once-airy show. We’ve moved away from the laid-back early vibes. That killing will haunt Dillard forever, and the darkness inside her will just grow. Her associate Shades is basically the devil on her shoulder that appears to help but really pushes her to greater depths.

Luke Cage has an interesting undercurrent about how social class plays a role in where people land. Crime made Cottonmouth’s family powerful, but it also locked him into a certain life. The club is his way to connect with his dreams of a different path. Dillard is desperate to prove she isn’t a cold and brutal person like Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Unfortunately, the pressure to be someone different makes Dillard just as bad (if not worse). Her political ambitions rest on the back of Cottonmouth’s crime world. Both are stuck in the life created by Mabel, and neither wants it. Dillard is still alive yet is dead inside after killing her cousin.

Another important subject is race, which is pivotal in understanding how Cottonmouth and Dillard act. They constantly push to prove they’re better than what others think. Her attempts to be reputable draw scoffs from journalists and even her own cousin. Society has trained Cottonmouth that crime is the only way. His giant painting of the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t just because of the music. That larger-than-life artist used his talents to rise up from the streets. Cottonmouth built the club into something grand, and Cage could tear it all down. Selling the club would be like chopping off an arm. Cottonmouth created it against the odds, but that achievement isn’t enough to escape past demons.

Claire Temple in Harlem

Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple also appears in episode five (“Just to Get a Rep”) and plays a larger role than usual. The constant messes in Hell’s Kitchen would be enough to push anyone to leave. The bridge across each Netflix series, Temple has a refreshing outsider’s perspective. Dawson is excellent, though her conversations with Cage about being a hero are too obvious. Their words are right on the nose and loudly proclaim the main themes. Dawson and Colter do their best to express genuine emotions, but there’s only so much they can do.

Thankfully, the writers know that Temple functions best as an active character. Her efforts to save a wounded Scarfe and them Cage himself reveal her mettle. There’s also a possible romance between Temple and Cage, which pushes Misty Knight into the background. She’s busy investigating Cottonmouth’s death and facing internal affairs questions. There’s no time to re-connect with the vigilante. I hope that Temple and Knight have plenty to do in the final episodes.

Luke Cage battles Diamondback in a theater in the episode "Blowin' Up the Spot" on Netflix.

Can You Dig It?

We finally meet the fabled Willis “Diamondback” Stryker at the end of “Manifest”, though it’s a brief scene. He takes center stage in episode eight (“Blowin’ Up the Spot”) with a loud “Can you dig it?” reference to The Warriors. It’s an over-the-top entrance for the season’s Big Bad. Shades has set our expectations high with his reverence of Diamondback, and it’s up to Erik La Ray Harvey (Boardwalk Empire) to sell it. He’s far more imposing than Cottonmouth, but the jury is out on whether the character succeeds. Diamondback pokes holes (literally) in the idea that Cage is invulnerable, and that fact should keep action scenes from getting repetitive. Our hero needs a weakness.

The episode’s final act devolves into a surprisingly ridiculous one-on-one fight inside a lavish theater. Diamondback springs from a campier world and utters awkward lines about his brother receiving more love. A few made me laugh and lessened the dramatic tension. The epic shot of Diamondback looming above Cage in the balcony sells the conflict, though. This guy has arrived to teach Cage a lesson in the grandest way possible. It’s hard to take the threat too seriously, though. Even when Diamondback shoots Cage again in the chest, it’s not that suspenseful. Cage falling into a trash truck is a new low for the character and oddly funny. He’s dying and has a body filled with shrapnel, and now he’s riding around with garbage. The shame!

This battle does energize a show that needed a jolt from its more dour progression. The style is much different from the extended hallway fights on Daredevil. The melodramatic scenes as Cage unites with a long-lost friend who’s actually his brother are also interesting. The tone is shifting more towards camp, but that may be okay. It’s challenging to strike the right balance of weight and fun, however. Dillard has turned into a cold boss, and Knight struggles with the loss of her partner and department pressures. The emotions are heightened while still falling into a “good vs. evil” comics zone. Diamondback’s call-out to The Warriors feels more apt by the end of “Blowin’ Up the Spot”. He’s a villain straight out of Walter Hill’s film.

Ready for War

Cage finishes this run of episodes in awful shape. The two Judas bullets are destroying him from the inside, and he’s wanted for Cottonmouth’s murder. Even so, I suspect he’ll rebound for a final clash with Diamondback. What’s less certain is how Dillard and Shades will fit into the mix. Her story needs a hook beyond avoiding her family’s shadow. Shades is now running the low-level henchmen; is he going to connect with Diamondback? Theo Rossi is getting more chances to shine as his character’s crime role increases. I’m curious to see where he’s heading.

We have lost some interesting story lines, particularly involving the barbershop. Is Bobby Fish still trying to re-open it? I’d like to see a return to that character because it connects our hero to the community. I also wonder if Knight attacked Temple purposefully to get placed on administrative leave. Her rage seemed real, but the show made sure we knew she was being watched. Knight will likely team up with Cage and take down everyone. Will they rekindle a romance? I’m still excited about this season but have more questions now.

Luke Cage keeps adjusting its tone and has made drastic changes from its opening episodes. On the other hand, it’s effectively used a slow burn to pull Cage back into the fray and remind him that he’s not invincible. Cage is one of many powerful beings out there, and his actions to stop Cottonmouth have caused unfortunate consequences. It’s been up-and-down, but I’m still on board to see how we finish. Diamondback is a gigantic character, so we’re heading for a grand conclusion.

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