Star Wars: The Last Jedi — 7/10

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (2017, Rian Johnson)

Let me try to skip through the cultural baggage real quick: this is the most popular franchise of all time. Everyone has thoughts about it, it’s been going on for 40 years, and it isn’t that good. George Lucas was an excellent producer and a terrible director. It wasn’t a big part of my childhood (I only saw RETURN OF THE JEDI in theaters, and later PHANTOM MENACE). I’m not big on sci-fi/fantasy in general. There’s never been a great STAR WARS movie. My favorite of all these films is ROGUE ONE. THE LAST JEDI, however, is a close second.

This is a lot of movie. It’s maybe the second “biggest” movie I’ve ever seen, after AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (in terms of budget, size, length, ambition, scope, layers, plot, detail, and… stuff). Big is not necessarily Johnson’s strength — he’d never previously made a movie longer than two hours, and often contained them to locations like a high school or a farm house, even if they were outsized sci-fi mind-fucks. His episodes of BREAKING BAD were stream-lined (“Fly” takes place entirely in one room) and fiercely paced. He’s a genius. He’s the right director for STAR WARS. He has taken so much about this ridiculous universe and made it potent, funny, self-questioning, and invigorating. But it’s still in this universe, and the extent to which this episode is rather silly is the extent to which even as writer/director, Johnson couldn’t really get away from what’s at its core.

To wit, Luke and Leia. So, the original trilogy’s only good character (Han Solo) was killed off at the end of Episode VII, so Johnson is stuck forcing Abrams’s new characters (Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac) into situations with those two — and I just don’t care. Leia herself has become quite the leader after being a scared damsel in distress in Episode IV, but now she can levitate through space, unfreeze her body, and do all sorts of weird shit that makes no sense. For his part, Luke is still super annoying (he has two of the most insufferable “Well, actually…!” scenes of mansplaining in sci-fi history) and Johnson spends more time on his Irish sea-coast of a planet than he did at the LOOPER farm house. But who wants to deal with this tiny kid played by a bad actor (Hamill has slightly improved in the 40 years since Episode IV from awful to mediocre) grappling with the least interesting of several moral conundrums in this story?

Yet every time Johnson turns his eye to action, this thing lights up like nobody’s business, and becomes as armrest-clutchingly awesome as the franchise has ever seen. In the opening ten minutes a woman we’ve never met before has a terrific struggle with a remote control that’s as breathless a sequence as you’ll see this year. The depth in the frame every time something moves in space is like a slap in George Lucas’s face, rubbing in just how bad the previous films were with special effects and creative visualization. Then there’s a fight in the red throne room that has bad-ass weaponry and a hugely satisfying kill. I love how this looks, and when it hums, it sings.

But, once again, this is a lot of movie. It’s funny, if not emotionally involving. It’s two and a half hours long, and there’s father-son stuff (Kylo and Han, Luke and Vader, Rey and whoever-her-parents-are, etc.), stuff about the nature of war (“we’ll win not by killing what we hate, but by saving what we love”), and stuff about wrestling with inner turmoil over what you can choose to become. The best line from that part is when someone says that the burden of a master is that those he teaches will move beyond him. I think that’s Rian speaking to his part in a legacy of not just Star Wars movies, but cinema in general. Don’t hold on to the past as if it’s the best iteration just because of nostalgia. You learn from it. You improve it. You pass it on. And you see it become better. Now that’s food for thought: something smart and provocative, nuanced and complex? In a Star Wars movie? No wonder the hardcore fan boys don’t like this.

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Lady Bird — 6/10

LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)

If I had seen this movie in April or something, upon a quiet release, the tone of this review might be warmer. I’d still give it a 6, but I wouldn’t dwell on the negatives, which I’m warning you now I’m about to do. It’s just that the conversation around it now happens to be connected to award season, high critical consensus, and fawning praise over a debut people are heralding as some sort of masterwork. Thus, my reaction is to that, which naturally inspires a little heavy lean towards the critical in order to restore some sort of balance to a wildly overrated trifle.

At around 90 minutes, it feels like the first three episodes of a sitcom on Showtime — that isn’t any kind of evaluative judgment of the respective mediums of film and television; it’s just an observation that it might as well have begun episodes earlier or extended for more. The start and stop feel arbitrary despite the obvious character arc and final salutation of gratitude. But aesthetically, it also has the feel of something that’s more functional and less creative — far too many compositions are dull medium shots with flat lighting; the blocking and editing competent but never surprising or challenging. Gerwig’s script shares a DNA with the observant, whip-smart talent she brought to FRANCES HA, but let’s not start comparing her directing skills to Soderbergh or anything.

And at times the dialogue shows off in a way that betrays certain scenes and milieus. It’s funny that the driving instructor says “this isn’t really a thanking situation: you either pass or you fail,” but it also puts the pen ahead of the material, reminding us there’s more of an author here than there is a real world.

But the strength of this, and what ultimately makes everything about LADY BIRD triumph over its Sundance clichés and predictable story beats, is the cast. As the anchor, Ronan is razor-sharp and likable without ever asking for affection — she almost dares you to find her character grating but knows you never will. Metcalf is every bit her equal as the mother, reminding audiences that between this and her show-stopping episode of HORACE & PETE, she’s an actor far too underserved by Hollywood. Not to be outdone, Lucas Hedges continues to show how skilled he is at making every teenage boy he plays feel like someone you know rather than someone who has been written for you.

And then there’s Timothée Chalamet. I had no idea he’d be in this, and I’m about 72 hours fresh off seeing CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. If you got sick of me praising him in that, stop reading now. This kid is Tom Cruise. Cruise’s star wattage shone so bright in RISKY BUSINESS that you just knew he was the kind of movie star who only came around once a generation. I also assumed he’d be the last of his kind. But Chalamet is just that impressive — watch the way he says “that’s hella tight” in reaction to Ladybird telling him about the nun van prank. In three words you know everything he’s about (not to mention the kind of range Chalamet has, given that this kid is worlds removed from Elio). Gerwig may not be a great director yet, but you can’t be a great director unless you can allow for great acting, and with what she gets from so many people here, at least we know she has the potential.

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Call Me By Your Name — 9/10

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017, Luca Guadagnino)

The characters speak three languages throughout, but for a good stretch of this movie, they don’t even need to say anything. Guadagnino’s intelligent, beautiful direction says everything. You can start with the shoes. When Oliver shows up, Elio walks around in loafers every day. Oliver wears high-top Converse. After a particularly close shot of Elio’s POV of those sneakers, we soon see Elio wearing his own high-top Chucks… and eventually it’s Oliver in loafers. Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.

The blocking and composition is also evocative and sensual — Guadagnino manages to fit several characters in a frame without cramming. One clever shot of Hammer and Stuhlbarg researching in the library also shows Chalamet in the mirror. Elio is always watching Oliver, and the camera — especially in the first act — rarely shows one without the other. Unless, that is, it drifts up into a tree to show some ripening fruit.

That fruit, by the way, is one of the few things Guadagnino lays on a little thick. There’s enough natural beauty in the North Italian countryside pictured here that he doesn’t need to go overboard with so many metaphors. Peaches being picked is one thing; peaches being violated is another. There’s also a few lines in Ivory’s script I wish had been excised. Guadagnino needs to trust his own brilliant direction and leave the clunky lines alone. That said, perhaps the film’s best scene is a tender father-son conversation that serves as a career highlight for the magnificently accomplished Stuhlbarg, outdoing himself here with a monologue that’s wise, heartfelt, earnest, probing, and never condescending. It’s hard to imagine not being deeply moved by it.

As great as Stuhlbarg is (and, conversely, as… adequate as Hammer is), the standout is Timothée Chalamet, who crashes into this thing like a blazing comet from outer space. It’s a breakthrough as show-stopping as DiCaprio in ROMEO + JULIET, Farrell in TIGERLAND, or Exarchopoulos in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. He is 17 years old through and through, but he doesn’t play brooding or sullen. He’s passionate but reticent, smart but humble, and self-aware of his awkwardness and boundless energy. He’s asked to both display and hide nearly every emotion imaginable, and you will never catch him faking it. What a remarkable performance. And fortunately for him, Guadagnino has mounted a feature worthy of this star-making turn: it has a dozen of the most memorable shots of the year, perhaps the best of which is at a train station. Oliver is somewhere inside, unseen by Elio, whom we only see the back of, as the train is yanked away from us deep into the screen and beyond, hurtling faster and faster away from Elio’s motionless body. Then an arm reaches out to say goodbye, but it’s a different man, to a different loved one. There are so many people in the world, and they are going through so many different things all at the same time, often in the same place.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — 8/10

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017, Martin McDonagh)

Appeals to the 19 year-old version of me who was studying existential philosophy in college, but also appeals to my aesthetics and sense of humor, so this was a win all around. McDonagh seems to have perfected his pet genre of funny, dark melodrama that includes the stagey, two-handed chat-fest between introspective hitmen of IN BRUGES and the frustratingly empty and nihilistic meta exercise in revenge and forgiveness that was SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. This is the sweet spot: great dialogue, characters defined by action (and defined in interesting ways, ensuring there’s no good unsullied by some darkness, and no evil without a little goodness), and a huge depth of feeling throughout. A mid-film sequence (involving the first of Chief Willoughby’s wise, amusing, and bittersweet letters read in Harrelson’s characteristically humane voiceover) and the final five minutes are both profound enough to choke up even the most cynical members of the audience.

Within the first three seconds of the movie, which are the first two notes of the score, you’ll recognize Carter Burwell’s hymnal oboe sounds (the end credits confirmed for me Burwell’s contributions, though I’d have recommended a lawsuit if this wasn’t him), recalling MILLER’S CROSSING and other fine Coen brothers movies, a distinct signpost that we may be dealing with Coen-ish themes and modes of storytelling. And we are — not only in the casting of Joel Coen’s wife (FARGO’s Frances McDormand), but in the world view of funny, lovable Midwestern hicks caught up in the existential dilemma of a vast, quiet world uncaring for their silly dramas (bickering spouses, petulant teenagers, being an outcast dwarf, having cancer, misplacing your badge, etc.) and indulging in the entropy of a human condition reliant upon chaos, violence, injustice, confusion, miscommunication, prejudice, unhappiness, loneliness, and death.

There’s another British filmmaker who traffics in working class stiffs burdened by life’s uncaring lurch, and that’s Mike Leigh — whom I thought of a few times during this, so I wasn’t surprised to see that his longtime editor Jon Gregory cut this film. Gregory favors rhythm and comic juxtaposition over straight continuity; a more fluid, realistic editor might not have found the warm laughs that mark THREE BILLBOARDS.

Most of those laughs come from McDonagh’s witty dialogue (“Penelope said ‘begets’?”) but often that dialogue is focused on delivering the life-is-meaningless, create-your-own-reasons philosophy that would make everyone from Nietzsche and Camus to Wright and Beckett proud: “We’re all dying,” “We’ll figure it out along the way,” etc. And while everyone is basically a mouthpiece for McDonagh’s point of view, this doesn’t feel like a series of pithy platitudes — they come honestly out of the story. There isn’t a lot of backstory to flesh out this large cast; instead we learn about these people through decisions they make and actions they take, Johnnie To-style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. This includes PSYCHOPATHS veterans Rockwell, Harrelson, and Cornish, plus the amazing McDormand, an underutilized Dinklage (I don’t watch GAME OF THRONES so I feel like this guy has been missing since THE STATION AGENT and wish he was all over the place) and the hilarious, suddenly ubiquitous Samara Weaving (Hugo’s niece, whom I hadn’t heard of a few months ago, and now with THE BABYSITTER and SMILF, turns out she’s quite a talent).

McDonagh may still include a few too many writerly contrivances, misleading for the sake of point-making, and may still not trust his camera enough to say things without putting it in the script. But for a guy who makes a movie every four or five years, he’s improving by leaps and bounds, and he’s finally found a narrative rich enough and timely enough (it isn’t an accident that the group of townsfolk who band together to rebuild the billboards that protest a largely white, male police authority is made up of two women, two blacks, and a dwarf) to support those stinging, hilarious barbs that push all of my existentialist buttons.

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The Florida Project — 7/10

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

Now with six features under his belt (the last three of which I’ve seen), Baker has established himself as a workhorse keen on specificity and world-building. The difference with his latest is that the details of his world have a much larger resonance beyond the specifics on which he focuses. Whereas STARLET and TANGERINE had their fair share of humanism on display, they were introverted films too carefully examining their own bodies. Now the gaze is looking up from the navel and into the sky above, and that’s what lets the audience in. Finally, I was emotionally involved, and the individual feels connected to the universal.

The looming presence of Disney World shadows every scene, though we don’t get a glimpse of the actual kingdom until the final shot. We’re in a place that couldn’t be closer to family paradise, but also couldn’t be further away from it — there’s nothing here as squeaky clean, corporatized, or luxurious as a theme park. When the kids run past the sign for FutureLand, it says “Stay in the future — today.” But the future these children inhabit is one of economic depression and increased danger. Still, that ugly existence is shot with tender beauty by Baker and his production team, who manage to find the right pink Florida sunsets as a backdrop, and powerful wide shots for kids to drift their way through the frame. The world, and the future, is what you make of it.

Willem Dafoe (who has defied nature by managing to be exactly 46 years old for over three decades) plays his motel manager character as a caring protector, leader, and cheek-turner — as if he was reprising his Jesus role from Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. He usually reserves his anger for the worst threats to his domain: not the tenants, but creeps like the pedophile he scares off the property in his most heroic scene. When he has to clash with Bria Vinaite as the troubled young mother Halley (think a white-trash Sarah Polley), his threats are emptier — as annoyed as he gets, he won’t deprive her and her daughter Moonee of a home.  But he has a boss, too, and he still has to repair the ice machine.

Baker wisely avoids the poverty-porn trap that victimized BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD by refusing to condescend. A good balance of humor and objective distance helps the plot-free nature-doc aspects of it go down easy, and before you know it, a climactic close-up shot of Moonee crying is unshakably heart-breaking even though you know it’s manipulative. The pathos is earned, legitimately or not, just like every dollar Halley makes to pay her rent. And while a few of the vignette detours fail to resonate (the relationship with Scooty and his mom culminates in drama but not a payoff) and the directionless pace (trying too hard to match the directionless protagonists) kills some momentum, the distinct tone is what lingers. And all the complications, nuances, and moral grey areas keeping Baker’s shoes gum-stuck to the asphalt — they’re absolutely necessary.

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The Square — 8/10

THE SQUARE (2017, Ruben Östlund)

A sharp and sticky provocation that manages to transcend its didacticism and become something unshakable. Take, for example, the big voicemail scene towards the end. It sounds like Christian is spelling out the movie’s themes, and in a way he is. But then he goes on too long, well past the point you’d expect him to stop, and the speech takes on a different tone. Now it’s about character, not content.

It’s the sly, clever character development throughout that gives this lecture its flavor, most notably in the Elisabeth Moss scenes, which explore the stubbornness that Christian would need to handle every issue the way he handles it in the back half of the film. And his name — Christian — maybe not the most subtle clue, but this is really a movie about turning the other cheek, helping the poor, and doing unto others, etc. And while the first scene introduces the concept of what constitutes a work of art (is it its display, its intention, or something else?) it’s not until the show-stopping setpiece at the gala dinner where we visualize the incredibly blurred line between performance and reality; it’s a sequence that feels perfectly at one with the film’s tone, yet separated from the narrative in a beautifully theatrical manner.

Östlund is so gifted and confident in his direction that every scene (in what appears to be a disjointed narrative) ties in with the problematic art piece at its center. There’s the white square surrounding the cheerleading performance, the chimpanzee presaging the performance artist, and the use of off-screen space in the scene where Michael is babysitting the car and gets preyed upon. So many memorable shots: the overhead in the garbage dump, the shopping mall escalators, the extras on their phones, and even Dominic West in his pajamas. Viewers may be turned off by a filmmaker forcing you to endure his sociological study, but when it’s this invigorating, sign me up for next semester. I’ve got no problem being teacher’s pet.

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Blade Runner 2049 — 5/10

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

I bristle whenever the cool cinephile kids pick on Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. It’s dismissed as dorm-room posing, style over substance, and the meathead’s version of art cinema. This baffles me, since I find it as emotionally devastating, profound, and effective as any movie this century. Ridley Scott’s 1982 BLADE RUNNER, on the other hand, I can see generating that kind of scoffing. When I tried watching it as a kid, I fell asleep. When I tried again in college, I fell asleep. When I finally got through it a few years ago, I was still bored and annoyed. Some nice shots, a lot of bad dialogue, and themes worthy of no better than freshman stoner babbling.

Take it with a grain of salt, then, that this 2017-sized version left me cold as ice. But that doesn’t mean it it’s totally worthless — it’s yet another argument for putting Roger Deakins in the DP Hall of Fame (if such a thing existed). And the production design, Hans Zimmer score, and costume design is all eye and ear candy. But for a film so big, so bloated, so heavy with its own desperate attempts at profundity, it disappears like smoke the second you leave the theater.

The best stuff involves Villeneuve’s visual ideas for exploring the themes of virtual vs. human, especially the drawn-out sex scene with a hologram clumsily latching onto a person. Then there are the elemental images of water (a grand fight, drowning), fire, dirt (the future Las Vegas), etc. But in being so humorlessly focused on the themes of what it means to be human and to have memories, it crawls too far inside itself and almost doesn’t care if you’re even there watching at all.

The plot falls apart upon further investigation, but Villeneuve doesn’t even really care about it much (nor does producer Scott, picking up where he casually left off 35 years ago). Still, why lean so hard on those interminable, devastatingly bad Jared Leto scenes (come on, Jared, you’re making it really hard for me to keep defending you) and the gotcha flashbacks during the third act twist? The resulting experience is an exhausting one — nearly three hours of sci-fi atmosphere, serious hand-wringing, and noble attempts at making visual something that’s intangible and philosophical. Never thought I’d say this, but it could have used one of Gosling’s musical numbers from LA LA LAND, just to lighten the fucking mood.

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