Sunday, August 06, 2017

Passengers (2016) ***1/2

An interstellar vessel hurtles through space, full of hibernating colonists and crew, on a 120-year journey to a new planet. An unexpected asteroid field puts a strain on the ship's shields, causing one of the sleep pods to malfunction and wake up its passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt). Imagine Jim's growing horror as he discovers that 1) He is the only person awake on the ship. 2) They are still 90 years from their destination. and 3) There is no way for him to go back into hibernation. Jim goes through all the stages of despair as he exhausts every possible way to reactivate his sleep pod, get a message to earth, or break into the secure crew quarters to wake one of them up.

After a year of this frustration and solitude, Jim is bearded and depressed. Only two things keep him going. One is the robot bartender, Arthur, who can not only converse, but dispense bartenderly advice. The other is his growing infatuation with a sleeping fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer named Aurora Lane (I know, it's a stripper name. Just go with it.). Jim agonizes over what to do about Aurora. He can't reactivate a sleep pod, but he has figured out how to wake someone up from one. He could wake Aurora up and have a companion, but then he would have damned her to live out her life in deep space, missing out, like him, on the colony they are all destined for. Spoiler alert: He does it, and then has to live with the guilt. On top of that, there's a problem with the ship.

“Passengers” is beautifully filmed, with impressive space imagery, but at its core, it isn't science fiction. Jim's ethical dilemma is the beating heart of the story. Essentially trapped on a desert island, he has the opportunity to have someone join him on the island, but then, of course, she will be trapped there, too. How much solitude could you endure before you gave in to that temptation?

In the end, Jim and Aurora face the same existential questions we all do. We all at some point have to make the best of a situation that isn't what we wanted. When our dreams are utterly out of reach, how do we find a new dream? How do we forgive those who wrong us, and how do we forgive ourselves?

Considering the weight of the questions it deals with, “Passengers” doesn't have quite as much gravity as it should. You could rightfully accuse the plot of being a bit predictable, and wrapped up too neatly and too quickly. There's a lot of food for thought, but you have to cook most of it yourself, as the end of the film feels hurried. Still, this is a decent story with charming actors. Most of the reviews I have read on it were negative, but I think it's well worth a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Performance (1970) ***

“Performance” is ostensibly a crime drama, but what it is really about is sexual identity, or just identity in general. James Fox plays Chas, a British gangster who spends his days brutally intimidating people. He enjoys his work, perhaps too much. When he pushes the wrong guy's buttons, he winds up having to kill him, which puts Chas in trouble with his boss. On the run from the London underworld, Chas dyes his hair and rents a basement room in what turns out to be the home of a faded rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner lives there with his girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton).

Turner and Chas don't hit it off at first. Chas describes his new housemates as “long-hairs, beatniks, druggers.” Still, Chas can't help but be attracted to the ladies in the house, and he becomes fascinated, as well, with Turner's artistic energy. As he dallies with them, Chas starts to open his mind to his own artistic, and feminine, side.

This is definitely one for when you're in the mood for some art-house fare. The camera work is shaky, the acting is iffy, and the plot is really just a weak excuse to get to the orgies, gender-bending, and naked Anita Pallenberg. Still, “Performance” has a certain artistic spirit that can't be denied. James Fox is like a British Steve McQueen, tough and iconically masculine, which makes it rather trippy to watch Anita Pallenberg get him to dress like a girl. The chemistry between Chas and Turner is also interesting. The thrill that Chas gets from violence is not unlike Turner's artistic drive. These two complete opposites recognize a kindred spirit within each other.

As interesting as the movie itself is the controversy surrounding it. The rumor is that Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg had actual intercourse during the sex scenes. That wouldn't be all that scandalous except for the fact that Pallenberg was Keith Richard's girlfriend at the time. Meanwhile, the movie studio thought they were bankrolling a Rolling Stones version of one of those happy-go-lucky Beatles movies. Instead they got this weird, psychedelic experiment that was banned in many venues. It seems you can't always get what you want.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chinatown (1974) *****

Born of the marriage of German Expressionism and American, hardboiled detective fiction, film noir is a genre that keeps coming back around. The 1940's and '50s are considered the classic noir era, but directors to the modern day have continued to make starkly-lit, cynical movies about complicated men in suits who get sucked into the darkness of greed, corruption, and betrayal. Among the greatest of these is Roman Polanksi's “Chinatown.” 

 Filmed in 1974, in an America wracked by self-doubt, the movie is set in the hot, L.A. Summer of 1937, during a drought. The city of L.A. is fighting with rural farmers over every drop of precious water. During what starts as a standard cheating-spouse investigation, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers that someone is secretly dumping fresh water into the ocean. The cocky Gittes soon finds himself in over his head in a story with all the classic noir elements: a murder investigation, a scheming millionaire, an irritable police force, and, of course, a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway).

“Chinatown” could easily have been simply an homage to noir movies, but the perfection of its execution elevates it to a noir classic in its own right. Polanski's direction is spare and taut. The plot is complicated, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Jack Nicholson appears in every scene at his charismatic best.

“Chinatown” is about many things, not least of which is the impossibility of being a good man in a system that makes it impossible to do good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jake used to be a police officer, working in Chinatown. He found it to be a place where no one was interested in solving crimes, just in lining their own pockets and keeping things quiet. When he tried to do one good thing in the midst of all that, he failed, so he left the force to become a private eye. Now, Jake once again finds himself in a position to do something good, if only he can.

If you haven't seen “Chinatown,” it's really imperative that you check it out. The movie stands as one of the greats, alongside films like "The Third Man" and "The Long Goodbye". It holds up well to repeat viewings, and the nihilistic, final line, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” will haunt you forever.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Entonces Nosotros (2016, English title "About Us") ***1/2

We took a chance on this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. The risk paid off! This turned out to be a really charming, little Costa Rican romantic dramedy. It turns out it was Costa Rica's submission for the 2017 Academy Awards.

Sofia (Argentinean actress Noelia Castano) and Diego (played by the writer/director, Hernan Jimenez) are a couple in a 3-year relationship that has turned rocky. Diego, in particular can't get over the fact that Sofia hooked up with another guy during a period when they were on a break. He suggests a beach vacation where they can get away from all their old issues and reconnect. At the beach,however, they run into Malena (Marina Glezer), an old friend of Sofia's. The gorgeous Malena insinuates herself into their vacation and threatens to ruin everything, including Diego's plans to propose.

That's all there is to it. No one has superpowers or gets blown up. It's just a good, basic story about complicated love. The scenery is beautiful, as are the women. All three actors are excellent, especially Noelia Castana, who can speak volumes with a subtle change in facial expression. Jimenez, who is a professed fan of Woody Allen's work, put a lot of heart into the $400,000 film. The humor often induces more cringes than belly laughs, but it's enough to mellow the emotional honesty of the story. It might be a little TOO honest to be a good movie for a first date, but it's a great choice for a 100th date.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) *** --Spoilers!--

The struggle is over. Wonder Woman has finally made it to the big screen! Gal Gadot plays Diana, daughter of Zeus, raised by the Amazons to fight Ares, the god of War. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) teaches her history, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) teaches her to fight. Living on the magically-protected, man-free island of Themyscira, the Amazons assume that the defeated Ares is still off on his millenia of exile. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane through their magical barrier, they learn that Ares has risen again, in the form of WWI (“the war to end all wars,” LOL!) Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve, hoping to find and destroy Ares, thus putting an end to war and suffering.

I'm not really sure what to think about “Wonder Woman.” On the one hand, we are supposed to celebrate the gender-victory of the film's having been made at all. The studios have been very reluctant to invest in a comic-book movie with a female lead, especially after the failures of films like “Catwoman” and “Elektra.” Then there's the star, former Miss Israel, Gal Godot, who is so ridiculously good-looking that I would watch a film of her reading the phone book. Seeing her make things blow up while wearing go-go boots and a Wonder-Woman micro-skirt is probably worth the ticket price right there.

On the other hand, I can't look at Gadot without thinking that she has probably had a nose job, and maybe that sort of sums up my feelings about the movie. There's an inorganic feel to it. The plot and casting have clearly been carefully calibrated to draw in the largest audience possible. After all, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are counting on Wonder Woman and the larger Justice League universe to become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut to rival the Avengers franchise. They aren't going to risk a billion here or there to make a character or a movie more nuanced or complex.

Thus, “Wonder Woman” nips at the heels of some complex and controversial topics, but it never sinks its teeth into anything. We hear Steve's secretary (Lucy Davis, from the British “The Office”) mention women getting the vote, but then that's the last we hear of it. We hear a couple of characters of color briefly mention racial injustice, but ironically, their small, undeveloped roles represent the only people of color in the film.

The greatest missed opportunity in “Wonder Woman,” however, strikes at the very heart of the story. Diana sets out to defeat Ares, whom she has been taught is responsible for all war and evil. If he is defeated, she believes, mankind will return to its original, Edenic state. As she walks the earth learning of the evil that men do, she continues to blame it all on Ares. Steve tries to explain to her that things aren't as simple as “good” human nature and “evil” influence from some dark god, that every person carries within them the potential for kindness or for savagery. Even War and Peace are concepts that should not be oversimplified. As terrible and destructive as War is, it is also sometimes the lesser of two evils. Then, too, as the villainous General Ludendorrf explains, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self and be courageous, noble, better.

“Wonder Woman” could have skipped the numbing boss-battle at the end and instead explored these themes more deeply. Ares would have been more effective if he had remained a disembodied force, encouraging mankind's warlike tendencies, but ultimately more a manifestation than a cause. When Diana defeats General Ludendorrf, then is bewildered to see battle preparations continue, that is a great lesson for her character. It's a lesson that is undermined when she winds up engaging in fisticuffs with the actual Ares, a fight that we in the audience should know is pointless. WWI was not, as we know, the war to end all wars.

Superhero stories have done well in the last decade or so, and well they should. On the surface, they appeal to the fantasy of transcending human limitations. On a deeper level, the characters have tremendous allegorical potential. Part human, part superhuman, these characters are able to be archetypes in the same way that the mythological gods once were. The stories we tell about them help us learn about and define who we are. “Captain America” is the definition of patriotic, but he has concerns about massive government surveillance and control. Ironman Tony Stark is a brilliant billionaire who constantly struggles with the question, “Should I build powerful weapons to fight evil, at the risk that those weapons may someday be turned to evil ends?” These modern gods are all about contradictions, just as we humans are. For Diana's part, she wants to end all fighting, but she is, herself, a weapon, made to fight.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros didn't make “Wonder Woman” to explore these contradictions; they made it to make money. There is a better movie hiding in there somewhere, but fortunately it's still decent, blockbuster entertainment, if you can ignore the limited range of the actors, the mustache-twirly villains, the sometimes-sketchy CGI, and that tacked-on ending. I do recommend you watch it; just turn off your brain and enjoy your popcorn.

3 stars out of 5  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Don't Breathe (2016) ***1/2

I feel like there has been a crop of high-quality horror films in recent years. Maybe I'm just finally giving the genre a chance. This past year I have caught up on "It Follows," "Green Room,"  "Cloverfield" and "10 Cloverfield Lane," as well as the more recent "Get Out", all outstanding movies. Next up was “Don't Breathe,” by Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez. Alvarez's rise as a director is classic. In 2009, for about $300, he made a short, action film called “Panic Attack.” The film caught the attention of Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead”), who knows a little something about making high-octane horror films on a low budget. Raimi tapped Alvarez to direct his “Evil Dead” remake; the guy knocked it out of the park; and now Alvarez gets to write and direct his own projects.

The first of these projects is “Don't Breathe,” about a group of thieves who break into the wrong house. Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), are a couple of Detroiters with no money or job prospects. What they do have is their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose dad works for a private security firm. Alex is able to get access to alarm codes and house keys, which the trio use to commit small burglaries. They keep the crimes small at Alex's insistence, to limit police interest in them. Then Money gets a tip about a blind war veteran who may have a ton of cash in his house. The kids figure this is an easy way to make a score big enough to start new lives.

As you can guess, it isn't so easy. The blind vet turn out to be a badass, who knows his house like the back of his hand. In the dark, he is the one with the advantage, and it leads to a very rough night for Alex, Money, and Rocky.

You wouldn't think the story would work. To enjoy a horror movie, you need to identify with the terrorized characters, and who wants to identify with people who would rob a blind guy? It turns out, the movie takes time to develop the characters of Rocky and Alex enough that you actually sympathize with them a bit. Then they discover the blind guy's secret, which really turns the tables on the question of whom to root for.

“Don't Breathe” doesn't break new ground or subvert any of the classic horror tropes. The scares are of a type that we have seen before: The bad guy keeps coming back to life. There's a damsel in distress. You know the drill. Fortunately, thanks to very tight directing and charming performances, especially from Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy, “Don't Breathe” is a thoroughly enjoyable, scary good time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Suicide Squad (2016) *

Margot Robbie is distractingly pretty, which is a good thing for “Suicide Squad.” She helps to distract, just a little, from the lame plot, brain-dead dialogue, and otherwise crappy acting in this rush-job film about D-list comic book anti-heroes.

Robbie plays Harley Quinn, the mentally ill former psychiatrist who is the Joker's gangster moll. She gets recruited, along with a handful of other bad guys, to form a super-squad, a-la “The Dirty Dozen.” Other members of the team include Deadshot (a sharpshooting assassin played by Will Smith), Killer Croc, Diablo, and the Enchantress (an ancient witch-spirit inhabiting the body of model Cara Delevingne). This takes place after the death of Superman, and the U.S. government is nervous about not having their super-soldier anymore. Nervous enough to sign off on Agent Amanda Waller's (Viola Davis) plan to reform this group of super-villains and get them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

Before Waller can even assemble the team and put them to work against an outside threat, one of their own provides a crisis. The Enchantress breaks free of Waller's tenuous control and sets to work destroying Midway City. Rather than giving Waller and the government second thoughts about Suicide Squad, this disaster provides the impetus for Waller to spring her other pet villains from prison and send them on their first assignment. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Joker (Jared Leto) is working to get his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, back.

I find it remarkable that “Suicide Squad” is written and directed by David Ayer. Ayer wrote the screenplay for 2001's “Training Day,” which is an excellent, tightly-plotted film. “Suicide Squad” is a complete mess. The film rushes through the origin stories for these villains, then becomes completely incoherent about basic things like the passage of time, the order of events, and basic character motivations. When some character development is belatedly attempted, it fizzles. Most of the actors, including Jared Leto, wander through the film like they are on sedatives. Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an honest attempt to give some life to their characters, but the script gives them little to work with, and Robbie's on-again-off-again Jersey accent is almost as distracting as her beauty.

To the extent that you can extract any theme from this incoherent plot, it is that the whole idea behind the film is ill-advised. Agent Waller should have known she wouldn't be able to maintain control of the Enchantress, who can travel through space and time in an instant. Unsurprisingly, she has minimal control over the other squad psychopaths as well. Suicide Squad is a bad idea for fighting evil, just as watching “Suicide Squad” is a bad idea for being entertained.

1 star out of 5

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Handmaiden (2016) ****

Park Chan-wook's “The Handmaiden” represents a Korean re-telling of Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith,” an erotic, lesbian tale of crime and romance. Full of intrigue and surprisingly graphic sex scenes, the film represents that rare genre: a truly erotic movie that actually has a good story.

Tae-ri Kim plays Sook-Hee, a Korean pickpocket who gets a chance to move up in the world of crime. Con-artist Count Fujiwara recruits her to become a handmaiden to the rich, beautiful Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The plan is for Sook-Hee to spy on Hideko and help the fake Count seduce her. He will marry her for her fortune, then have her placed in an insane asylum. Sook-Hee is happy to go along for a share of the spoils, and Hideko should be easy enough to lure away from her cruel uncle, who makes her read rare, erotic books out loud to a kinky cadre of wealthy book collectors. Complications arise, however, when Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love.

Sarah Waters is known for her erotic stories about women, such as “Tipping the Velvet.” In “The Handmaiden,” she tells a tale of two women who decide to do an end-run around a system where they are at the mercy of cruel men. The Count uses Sook-Hee to try to cheat Hideko out of her fortune and her freedom. Hideko's Uncle uses her to titillate the old men who bid on his books. These two women look around and see a world of men, who will use them up, then toss them away. So they turn to each other.

“The Handmaiden” is listed as “Unrated” in the U.S., and it has several beautiful, intense sex scenes that would probably earn it an NC-17 rating. The film deserves more, however, than to be known only for its titillation factor. This is a beautifully filmed, beautifully acted grifter's tale, full of intrigue and double-crosses that will keep surprising you all the way to the satisfying end.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Coraline (2009) *****

“Coraline” is, to put it bluntly, one of the best animated movies, ever. Child or adult, you owe it to yourself to check out this gem. Based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, it is the story of a tween girl whose family moves to a big, old house. The place is so large that she and her parents only rent one floor. The other levels are occupied by a bizarre menagerie of characters, including a pair of old Vaudeville performers and a gymnast who trains mice. Then there are a stray cat and Wybie, an annoying boy who rides a motorbike.

Exploring her new home, Coraline finds a tiny door. When she finally gets it open, she is disappointed to find nothing but bricks behind it. Late one night, though, Coraline revisits the door, finding that it opens to a tunnel. On the other side she finds an alternate reality, one where her mother and father are much more entertaining and obliging, where everything is more enchanting. She soon discovers a dark side to this dreamworld, however, and it takes all of her wits to save herself, her real parents, and her real life.

“Coraline” works as both a straight, fantasy-horror story and as a metaphor for coming-of-age. Coraline's boredom and her dissatisfaction with her busy parents will be familiar to any tween or teen. The dark lure of a more exciting world without parents is a potent theme for a horror story aimed at a tween audience, but “Coraline” can be enjoyed by all ages. It is as close to a perfect movie as you will find.

It should come as no surprise that “Coraline” is so delightful. Besides originating with author Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman”, “American Gods”), the film is directed by Henry Selick, who is best known for the stunning “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Like “Nightmare,” “Coraline” is filmed using stop-motion animation. I don't want to be one of these crusty, old Luddites carrying on about how the old animation styles are better than the new CGI stuff. There are some outstanding CGI-animated films out there, including the “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” films. Nonetheless, there is something lush about the imagery in “Coraline.”

Beautiful animation, a rich story, and inspired voice acting from the likes of Dakota Fanning, Terry Hatcher, and Keith David (stealing every scene as The Cat). What's not to love?! Along with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline” stands as one of the great animated films.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Get the Gringo (AKA “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”) (2012) ***

There once was a time when Mel Gibson was a Golden Boy: young, handsome, faithfully married with a large family, and the apotheosis of conservative values in an otherwise Liberal Hollywood landscape. He was the guy Hollywood could point to and say, “Look. We aren't all a bunch of degenerates.”

It's been a long time since those days. Gibson is now the guy infamous for an anti-Semitic rant during his drunk-driving arrest. He cheated on his wife, fathering an illegitimate child, and is now divorced. He isn't young and beautiful anymore, either. Now his face is craggy and world-weary. Now he's another degenerate.

He's also a better actor now. As I discussed in the entry for the movie "Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut", Gibson's tarnished status has freed him to take roles and do things that he couldn't do as a Golden Boy. Like play a true, gritty criminal.

In “Get the Gringo,” Gibson plays an unnamed criminal who steals from other crooks and lands  in a very gritty, Mexican prison called”El Pueblito.” The prison is truly a little town, where inmates' families are allowed to come and go, bringing them all sorts of contraband. Some prisoners are even allowed furloughs, including the drug-lord, Javi, who rules “El Pueblito.” Gibson's character has to use all of his skills to survive in this world, while figuring out how to escape and get his money back.

“Get the Gringo” isn't by any means a classic, but it's a decent-enough crime-thriller. The movie gets its story told in about 90 minutes, which is way more efficient than most films today. The scenes are taut and terse, and the film doesn't waste much energy on sentimentality. Gibson's character is a hard guy with a decent side, but the film doesn't beat us over the head with that; they just let him do his thing. The movie went straight to video-on-demand here in the U.S., but it is tighter and more entertaining than most of the films that get cinematic releases.

3 stars out of 5