Monthly Archives: July 2017

Landline — 6/10

LANDLINE (2017, Gillian Robespierre)

Warning: might cause a serious case of déjà vu or at least a flashback to THE SQUID AND THE WHALE — New York City family, set 20 years before the movie was made, the dad is a failing writer undercut by his wife, the two kids react negatively to their parents’ marriage upheaval while exploring their own sexualities, uneven but interesting mix of comedy and drama, even a scene where the dad can’t find parking on his block. If Holm & Robespierre’s screenplay wasn’t directly influenced by Baumbach’s, the ghost of that great 2005 film haunts this in every frame.

What LANDLINE has going for it in the originality department, however, is the terrific sibling bond between Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn, the latter of whom seems destined for stardom with this breakout role. Their scenes together strike an earnest and believable chord of sisterly love and curiosity, and when the story slows down so the two of them can go swimming or braid each other’s hair and dance around stoned, the film crackles. But when some Duplass comes wandering in to remind us that the movie is still a lugubrious meditation on fidelity and relationships struggles, back down into the bog it goes.

John Turturro and Edie Falco are perfectly cast as the parents and turn in fantastic supporting performances, even when the script does saddle them with a couple of acting-class argument scenes. Slate, so terrific in Robespierre’s OBVIOUS CHILD, lets the ensemble take over more, ceding screen time so that her weird and infectious personality doesn’t dominate the tone. She’s still a force to be reckoned with, and the reason it’s worth seeing this eventually (you can wait for Netflix) is for her unpredictable reactions and lack of movie star self-absorption — as well as Quinn’s zero-fucks-given caustic abrasiveness. THE SQUID AND THE WHALE does win this battle in the end, but it’s not like it was a blowout or anything.

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Okja — 9/10

OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)

One of the keys to this ebullient, expansive near-masterpiece is in noticing just how much it values globalism and different-ness. Early in the film, our heroine Mija is sleeping atop her best friend and pet, the giant hippo-manatee-superpig Okja. When Okja rolls over, Mija does too, so she doesn’t fall off. This happens while both of them are unconscious – not only showing the bond they have, but since it all happens in wide shot, we also see the extreme physical disparity between them. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s twin characters Lucy and Nancy (between this and HAIL CAESAR! she’s having a banner couple years for dual roles) look identical, yet their relationship is fraught, and has a poisonous effect on the company and the public at-large. The less we are similar, the more we can and should connect. (This isn’t even mentioning a Korean character who gets “Translations are sacred” tattooed onto his forearm).

You might miss this message about crossing cultural and species boundaries, since the food-industry critique, anti-capitalism, and animal-activism messages are more front and center. But even with those, Bong is pointedly equivocal – the activists are just as wrong-headed at times, they betray each other and their missions are compromised by poor logic. This isn’t a Morrissey video. Bong still eats meat. The goal is to explore which values drive our behavior, and the consequences that come from perhaps overvaluing fame, popularity, money, or power over shared experiences, unconditional love, and unconventional bonds. After all, Mija wouldn’t even have a pet were it not for Mirando’s genetic engineering.

Not to make this review too much about the subject matter – formally, it’s dazzling. The special effects are sensational: Okja is from the designer who gave us the tiger in LIFE OF PI, and I’ve rarely seen such seamless CG work on screen. Add to that Bong’s sense of scale and proportion, and you get a work of visual beauty and comedy. Jake Gyllenhall is maniacally over-the-top but it works like a dream because he’s committed and knows what will make the character seem moored to the story. This isn’t just a stunt to show off Gyllenhall doing something new; it’s a controlled piece of physical performance art from the knees to the eyes and I couldn’t stop laughing.

On top of that, there’s the mastery of tone, which is something given just how dark and serious it can get between scenes of gut-busting hilarity. And here’s where I brag that I saw it at the only theater on Earth showing a 35mm print of it (even though it was shot digitally) with the director a few seats over – and his comments after the screening revealed him to be just as insightful as his film suggests. Even though seeing it with a big crowd made the comedy more uproarious and the sense of community stronger, I strongly urge everyone reading to head to Netflix where this is readily available for streaming. It’s one of those times where “you’ve never seen anything like it” is both true and good.

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Baby Driver — 7/10

BABY DRIVER (2017, Edgar Wright)

There’s a trend these days in action movie trailers of the music beats being accompanied by diegetic sound effects — most often it’s guns being cocked or fired, and punches being thrown. This can be done either brilliantly (cf. the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer), pretty good (FATE OF THE FURIOUS), or weakly and try-too-hard (AMERICAN ASSASSIN). Imagine this gimmick for an entire movie and you might want to cry. But imagine it done by a craftsman as skilled and giddy as Edgar Wright, and suddenly your ears perk up. That’s essentially what Wright is doing here, and he has pretty much made a musical out of a heist movie. Every detail from the clink of spent bullet casings landing on pavement to a passerby shouting into his mobile phone provides the soundtrack to the action, punctuating the music, accompanying the melody or the beat, and often driving the story. It’s a glorious feat of cinephilia, even if it’s in the service of a weightless and cold genre picture.

Wright has never lacked for a fun, spirited energy behind the camera, mixing his gorgeous eye for framing, economical use of camera movement, and whip-smart edits with a nod to filmmakers of the past — guys from Romero to Carpenter to Bay. Here he’s going for a combo of Walter Hill and Stanley Donen, and he drives donuts around poor Damien Chazelle’s flailing LA LA LAND. And in the way that musicals will cram exposition and dialogue into a few brief scenes before soaking in their extended dance numbers, Wright efficiently slips in just enough backstory and motivation to get us going, then lets his camera and the actors do the rest.

Once the plates are spinning, though, there’s nothing for them to do but eventually stop, and when they do stop there isn’t anything on them. I appreciate him going after a basic genre movie plot, but it couldn’t hurt to add a little spice to it. Maybe make Debora a little more of a human being; maybe give Jamie Foxx a reason to take the crew into the diner. Maybe don’t just coast through the last 10 minutes in neutral. HOT FUZZ similarly uses its form as its content and descends into a third act that gets too gore-killy, while THE WORLD’S END is an absolute gas until it’s not. Even SCOTT PILGRIM runs through the video game motions a few too many times. One of these days this guy is going to make a masterpiece, but until he does, it’s still pretty fun to watch a guy with this kind of command of sound and image make candy.

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