Wednesday, January 10, 2018

La La Land / ***1/2 (2016)

The ambitious “La La Land” opens with a marvelous scene on a congested freeway overpass, where nameless extras vacate their cars to share in the moment of a colorful musical interlude. Their choreographed zeal is carried by near-perfect technical aptitude that sees the act lifted into the reveries of aesthetical greatness; the camera persists across four minutes of song and dance in one seemingly unbroken shot, and the routine is mirrored by dancers on top of cars that seem to stretch beyond eyesight. What nerve does any modern film have evoking that sense of skill in a moment already overflowing with the heedless optimism of old Hollywood nostalgia? For Damien Chazelle, the director who helmed the brilliant “Whiplash,” that obsessive pitch for perfection is never far from the hearts of even the most good-natured (or spontaneous) entertainers. What they must go through to make their dance moves seem as if they defy gravity, the discipline they endure to find the right key for any number of songs that emerge from their eager lips, is anyone’s guess. Here is a movie with a fascinating duality of values, driven by the same lighthearted spirit that yielded the musicals of the golden age, with an underlying reverence for a craft where the maddening mechanics might have seemed more troublesome than the effort was worth.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beauty and the Beast / ** (2017)

Once upon a time, in a faraway board room of a money-hungry movie studio, someone voiced an idea that signaled the beginning of the end of original concepts: “let’s take all of our animated pictures and remake them into live action ones!” Although the undertaking might have inspired intriguing subtexts, the standard remained depressingly derivative, inevitably leading to a cluster of endeavors that rarely expanded the imaginations of their viewers. And thus Disney gave voice to executives whose primary motivation was dollar signs, an impulse that paved the way for routine retellings of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Pete’s Dragon.” In rare instances, granted, were endeavors that added interesting spins to their premise (“Maleficent”) or even surpassed rather flawed sources (“The Jungle Book”). But when the decision to retool “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the finest of all animated achievements, came down the pike, the core of this capitalist motivation seemed no longer able to masquerade behind plausible convictions. What could today’s artists, really, do to a story that had seemingly been perfected in hand drawings? Was something undiscovered waiting among all those talking pieces of furniture? If anything at all can be said of the live-action rendition beyond a few isolated touches of skill, it’s that the director, Bill Condon, has effectively produced the first movie musical for the “Glee” generation. And that is not something to be proud of.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Shape of Water / *** (2017)

Eventually all moviegoers – even the most open-minded – will arrive at a moment that challenges their ability to tolerate arduous realities. One of mine came during the second act of “The Shape of Water,” when the lead character played by Sally Hawkins shares a detail with Octavia Spencer about the anatomy of the sea creature she has rescued. The preceding scene already leaves little to the imagination; as the camera rests at the entrance of her bathroom, she walks seductively towards the animal, disrobes and closes the shower curtain as they come to a very suggestive embrace. For most there is no possibility of mixed interpretation, and yet I was fully content to overlook what transpired for the sake of riding the film’s momentum. But Guillermo del Toro, the movie’s director, refuses to dismiss the discomfort with glossed over platitudes. That’s never been his style. No, he allows the event to become a topic of lighthearted exchange between she and her friend, who is marveled not only by the idea that this beast even has a penis hidden behind that thick mound of his pubic region, but apparently a very satisfying one. Their exchange leads to a strange chuckle, which the audience nervously joins in on. And there I am sitting in the dark, fidgeting uncomfortably, feeling as if I had been submerged in water that was brought to a very slow boil.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Most Volatile Year

If you were a movie enthusiast at all during the last twelve months, the persisting narrative was less about finding good entertainment and more about searching for necessary distractions. A substantial ration of that search came down to two ongoing controversies: the ethical implosion of the Trump administration, and the alarming news of sexual assaults coming out of Hollywood, both of which dominated the headlines like dark clouds lingering over our mental periphery. On any normal year either scenario would have warranted responses of shock and disbelief (if not vocal action), but in a climate where sexism and race relations have dangled dangerously off the edge of social balance, potential alarm was replaced instead with an almost paralyzing despair. In the recent past it would have been almost absurd to assume those problems running so rampant in the age of information. But now, after hate culture has risen back into fashion, each new revelation simply played like another reason to withdraw from reality.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi / **1/2 (2017)

Is it true, Luke? Are things really as dire as the scowl on your face suggests? From the first moment you turn around on screen, we no longer see the eager and zealous eyes that gave us everything we know about the Skywalker legend; in their place are spheres of broken hopes, a smile that is no more, hazy features concealed by time and age, and hands that grasp your old lightsaber only long enough to toss it over your shoulder in protest. Now comes the time to ask, in earnest: does the sacred order of the Jedi die with you, as the title of the latest movie may suggest? Or are you hiding something deeper from us, something that might inspire a hope as the darkness persists in enveloping a fragmented resistance across the galaxy? Without straight answers, without the slightest shred of optimism, how long do you expect our eyes to hold out patience? There is only so much your aspiring understudy, Rey, can compensate for. In times like these, of relentless peril and doubt, we barely have enough fight to find the silver linings. Give us something to work with here, or spare us the pain of a lingering uncertainty.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mother! / **** (2017)

The withered, aching heart of “Mother!” pulsates with the awe of an entrenched complexity. What seems to function as a mild excursion into the lives of isolated personalities becomes an endurance test for their sanity, disturbed by details that seem inconsistent, twists that are abstruse and an overreaching awareness that taunts, baffles, intrigues and ensnares the audience in the thick of great moral doubt. To gaze at any minute of Darren Aronofsky’s challenging opus is to sense its very nature to polarize all within its grasp; no two sets of eyes will find the same solution, and many will stagger away from the experience without a concise verdict. But no other film in the recent snapshot of time comes close to sharing its austerity – not even his own “The Fountain,” widely recognized (until now, at least) as his most mystifying. One’s understanding comes down to recognizing the effort as a concentrated descent into the membrane of narrative and artistic metaphors. While most are eager to exploit the suffering of the flesh and the cynicism of their sources for a shallow measure, here is a man who plunges right into the nervous system and encounters the very meaning of the living cinema.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Breadwinner / ***1/2 (2017)

Everything we know about animated films has been a lie. Years of hands-on education has perpetuated the illusion of simple childhood fantasies, where plucky characters become caught up in whimsical adventures full of color, laughs and catchy music. Their greatest architect, Walt Disney, powered that device so relentlessly that it has fueled nearly all his successors – including the Pixar brand, whose recent “Coco” brilliantly mimics that tradition. But now comes “The Breadwinner,” the closest a cartoon has ever come to removing the barrier separating childhood wonder from the deafening tragedies of the real world, and what its creators find is a power in conviction that challenges all we know about the medium’s elasticity. More akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth” than a mere yarn about goals or quests, the movie throbs with a confidence that is as alarming as it is heart-wrenching. Rarely are such stories aimed at the politically aware, and even more tenuous is the candid insinuation that storytelling can be the key to facing down the nightmares of a world designed to destroy our agile hearts.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist / ***1/2 (2017)

The first scene implicates the arc of the story: the underdogs versus the professionals. One of the former is seen in an environment he is clearly a novice in, acting out dramatic scenes in a classroom where stiff delivery suggests blatant disinterest. Greg (Dave Franco) says he wants to become a big movie star but is too caught up in the doubt of his material, and others look on with curious boredom as he mutters dialogue with robotic accuracy. Then emerges from the shadows of the back row a mysterious figure named Tommy (James Franco), who shows others that it is possible to be just as bad on the opposite end of enthusiasm – he reenacts a key emotional moment from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is so painfully shrill that others cannot wait for the ordeal to end. Yet Greg, sensing his fearless nature, gravitates towards him with curious allure. He admires the audacity, the ability to be so caught up in a performance that everything else – including the judging gaze of the audience – is superfluous. Does it matter that he is untalented, tone-deaf or oblivious? Not in the least. Behind those eyes is a focus that most aspiring thespians would be envious of, regardless of what any of it might amount to.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Copycat / *** (1995)

There is an ideological disconnect between those who study serial killers and those who are assigned to prosecute them. For the latter sorts it’s all about procedure, about connecting dots in a maze of riddles to identify a source that can be seen, touched and ultimately punished. Anything beyond those mechanics fall to deeper thinkers, who inhabit the underlying psyche as a means to find answers to the more probing questions – namely, what drives a person to the methodical precision of committing murder on a mass scale? “Copycat,” a thriller that borrows much of its structure from “The Silence of the Lambs,” features two such characters at the forefront of this descent. One is a psychologist specializing in serial homicide played by Sigourney Weaver, the other a deadpan police inspector played by Holly Hunter. Both lack the patience to work cooperatively with the other, and yet somehow they must, otherwise a recent surge of murders in the San Francisco area mimicking those of famous serial minds from the recent past could continue without interruption, even though they might be occurring with a critical pattern between them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco / **** (2017)

Any number of recent mainstream cartoons that find their way to theaters are in some way about the importance of family values, but Pixar’s “Coco” is the first in a while that is truly sincere about the concept. Never is there a sense while watching it that artists or filmmakers are weaving an illusion that is at the service of a shallow impulse, nor does it inspire the urge in us cynics to pick apart the formula in secondary exercises (a behavior, I willingly admit, that I used in Disney’s recent “Moana”). Like a drill plunging to the depths of a rich reservoir, here is a wonderful little film that finds a powerful source of inspiration while others barely scratch the surface of their wisdom, allowing many of us to forget we are hardened adults diminished by experience. For a precious few minutes I was not merely a movie enthusiast – I was a kid entranced by a spell, in a place of splendor and sensation, joining characters on a quest that felt created by magic rather than the pens of ambitious scribes. And if the feeling remains true that the studio’s output is as rewarding for adults as it is for children, their latest strikes an even more elusive chord: one that transports the oldest of codgers back to a time when our innocent young eyes were starved for exciting adventures.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Room / zero stars (2003)

Among a cluster of eccentric personalities that found their way behind movie cameras in the recent years, few have developed the notoriety of poor Tommy Wiseau. His is an identity that seems like it might have been invented in a laborious, almost masochistic imagination; soft-spoken in what could be a muddled Polish accent, here is a man of suspicious origins (not to mention independent wealth) who found success in San Francisco as an entrepreneur, possessed fragmented visions of grandeur and went on to fund his first movie entirely out of pocket in a time when independent cinema ebbed high in public demand. That result, “The Room,” has earned infamy as one of the most legendary aberrations of recent times, inspiring eventual cult status and ongoing obsessions in the minds of those who gravitate towards the common fodder of midnight movie revivals. Their reasons are not difficult to decipher; the mess before them was so utterly miscalculated in its inconsistent spontaneity that one could only laugh at the result, however uncomfortably. Even Ed Wood only went so far in his ridiculous indulgences. But is anyone who experiences Wiseau’s passion piece really admiring the disaster before them as some kind of audacious endurance test, or are they laughing at the expense of someone who doesn’t appear to know better?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Devil's Rejects / ***1/2 (2005)

The space inhabited by the characters in “The Devil’s Rejects” is a laboratory of unconventional challenges, of ambitious morality tests not ordinarily reserved for an ensemble of would-be horror movie casualties. Its existence comes down a tricky gimmick seized by Rob Zombie, the writer/director, who finds an interesting platform to stage the events on – one in which homicidal maniacs are hunted by a legal authority who seems driven by the same barbaric tendencies as those on their own killing spree. Driven earnestly by a mission he refers to as the “cleansing of the wicked,” this maniacal force – a Sheriff known as John Wydell – strikes a chord in others that clouds the certainty of a horrible act with that of a deserving retribution, and both sides of the equation meander in the outskirts of their inevitable confrontation like they are hoping to avoid the central point. That is not to say the movie itself is evasive about the issue it raises, but more to suggest the discomfort from asking the difficult question: when you castigate those who have committed heinous crimes with the same level of depravity, are you any better than those you punish?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shame / **** (2011)

We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.

When the observation is made by his sister late in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Brandon’s pride restricts him from reflecting on their relevance. Perhaps that’s because he is dealing with a sibling whose own caustic tendencies are far more obvious, displacing the necessity to contemplate his own. Perhaps he has no mirror to gauge a comparison. Maybe he lacks an understanding of them. Or maybe, just maybe, he has descended so deeply into his own precarious indulgences that he can’t make the distinction between self-respect and personal destruction, especially when it comes to a thinly realized addiction like sex. Then the point is further layered by the implication of the statement: what, indeed, was the catalyst in these two lives that allowed them to become lapsed versions of themselves? Should we be allowed to know, or would that only be superfluous? It is somewhere in this narrow emotional passage where this sad and powerful little film finds its devastating center, in a story where getting off is not so much a physical pleasure as it is an escape from a life that is otherwise directionless and isolated.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment / *1/2 (2016)

I may be going out on a limb when I suggest that “The Belko Experiment” has been manufactured by motivated filmmakers. Clearly molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series – where the scares are brought on by social and political unrests – here is a film that so agonizes over the effort to marry its violent nature with discussion-worthy contexts that there is little reason to contemplate skepticism. Someone high up, be it Greg McLean (the director) or James Gunn (the writer), was tapping into the most pointed trend of the times. But if I was paying attention to, say, a random soliloquy in one of the great Shakespeare tragedies, does that also mean I’m a fluent practitioner of the language? Can I turn around and recite the famous words of Hamlet while understanding the metaphorical nuance behind the conviction? A horror movie may not be in the same league as Shakespeare, of course, but there’s just about as much divide between those comparisons as there is between the concept of this movie and reality of those it imitates. A greater genre endeavor about the political ramifications of its terror will drive the point down to the guts of an issue, leaving one to contemplate the argument as their senses recover from an assault. What goes on in the frames of this film plays like an understanding of procedure but nothing of soul.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

It Comes at Night / ***1/2 (2017)

All that stands between them and the unknown is a red door. It is the sole entry point to a house isolated in in the wilderness, presided over by a man obligated to protect his family with obsessive conviction. What he – and therefore the others – fear beyond the boarded windows is referenced in whispers but never certainties, creating ambiguity when the narrative restricts their movements to a small space beyond the danger. Then, just as they lay to rest their grandfather after he contracts what appears to be a contagious disease, a stranger emerges in the darkness. Who is he? What is his agenda? How did he find their home, so far off the beaten path? A stand-off ensues, leading to an unnerving test that might reveal a critical detail – namely whether he, too, is afflicted with the sickness they dread. “It Comes at Night,” one of the more profound of recent horror films, contemplates a conclusion only out of necessity; it is about how fears blind us to the truth, the lengths we go to protect those we love and how compassion becomes lost when the horrors of a silent world lead us astray from the value of human grace.