Wakefield

May 28, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“The quality of mercy is not strained.” Wakefield quotes the Bard in what may be the pivotal moment of this evocative and sometimes muddy parable. And like “The Merchant of Venice,” this is definitely a parable, though perhaps more reminiscent of “The Prodigal Son” or “The Good Samaritan,” in that it almost seems to be a morality tale. What makes a man who he is? Is he defined by his job, his wife, his kids, his wealth, the choices he makes, his selfishness, selflessness, self-awareness? “Wakefield” seems to try and tackle all of these questions in 105 minutes. The film is based almost word-for-word on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name published in the New Yorker in 2008. In it, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) returns home from work late one night and decides to spend the night in the storage space above the garage and then never leaves. From that vantage point, he watches his family struggle with his disappearance, grieve and start to move on. It’s an odd and utterly unrealistic premise but Doctorow and director Robin Swicord are going after things more important than reality; they want to give us truth. This seems to be so much a story of its time. A middle-aged American man who appears to have it all (the wife, the kids, financial security, etc.) but feels trapped by the routine, the safe predictability, of his life. I suspect this character resonates with many many man today. The film plays out a fantasy that has probably run through these men’s heads countless times. And, it seems to be suggesting to them, you’re self-involved and casually cruel because nothing in your comfortable existence holds you accountable. In “Wakefield,” we spy on Wakefield’s unraveling in the same way he spies on his family. The entire movie rests on Bryan Cranston’s performance. He is in virtually every scene and has the vast majority of the lines. Fortunately, Cranston is a fantastic actor and this film allows him to showcase his talent. He gives a brilliant, sometimes absurd, sometimes deeply touching, performance. Unfortunately, I felt as though I should have been more moved than I was. I suspect the film would be much more affecting for someone who has been on either side of that struggle, but having never chosen to go the wife and kids route, there was little for me to connect to. So, despite the power of Cranston’s performance, it never landed deeply with me. That said, I still respect a film that asks tough questions of its audience and then doesn’t give us pat answers. The film ends word-for-word as the story did; as it should. And we are left to ponder the implications.

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Alien: Covenant

May 21, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The genius’s curse. A filmmaker redefines the industry with a groundbreaking film. The second in the series is as good as, or better than, the first. And then it all goes down hill… And we end up with “The Godfather, Part III,” ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, and now “Prometheus” and “Covenant.” In fact, it seems that Ridley Scott has fallen into the same trap that George Lucas did– the need to over explain, and therefore over complicate. Everything was fine when the Force was just the Force and evil aliens wreaked havoc on unsuspecting crew members. But now we have midichlorians and an unbelievably complicated backstory about how humans and the aliens came into being. It is all so ponderous and complex that it cannot help but slow the story down. When this film is focused on the aliens, it works. Scott has faithfully captured HR Giger’s imagery beautifully. We spin through disorientingly similar passageways on spaceships and in dead alien cities. There are some great scary moments and several good jumps to be had, just not nearly enough of them. These scenes, which helped to make the first movies such classics, are painfully few and far between. The rest of the time, we get Michael Fassbender talking to himself about life, morality and who cares what else. Too much of this film was tedious and sometimes baffling. There was an air of weightyness that hung over the whole story, as though Scott has something important he wants to say. Unfortunately, that becomes the focus of the film. The audience would have been better served had he simply made another really good horror film. It seems that, as soon as a director understands that they have created something important, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep working on it. The line between importance and self-importance seems to be an awfully thin one that is just too easy to cross.

Train to Busan

May 20, 2017 at 11:54 am | Posted in 2017 | 1 Comment
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Over the past two decades, South Korea has developed an incredibly rich (and undervalued) history of film. Across a variety of genres, Korean filmmakers have been producing fantastic works, including “The Host,” “The Handmaiden,” “Mother,” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.” I would add “Train to Busan” to that collection. Like “The Host,” it stakes a claim firmly within the Horror genre. In this case, we follow a group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse while on a train hurling toward rural South Korea. The confined space is used to maximum effect as panicked survivors have to fend for themselves against increasing numbers of zombies as they outbreak spreads from car to car. And these are not the lumbering, clumsy zombies of classic film; rather, we get screaming, maniacal, sprinting zombies, which only adds to the fun. And this film is definitely fun. It does everything a good zombie movie should do and it does it well. We have heroes and villains, a claustrophobic space, a goal that everyone is striving toward, and tons of violence, gore and close calls. In some ways, this film mimics the structure of another Korean film, “Snowpiercer,” though I much prefer this one. It relies less on visual spectacle and more on a taut and well constructed story. Substance over style. Like many Korean films, it sometimes strays from common American tropes, which means you cannot always predict how things are going to end up and that certainly adds to the fun. “Train to Busan” was, from start to finish, a thoroughly entertaining ride.

Your Name

May 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Makoto Shinkai directed this lavish anime movie based on his novel of the same name. Visually, it is everything you would expect from anime; as far as traditional (non-CGI) animation, this is some of the best I have seen in a long time. Each scene was rich with color and small details: reflections on glass, the movement of clouds, the closing of sliding doors. I was often so taken by the visuals, I stopped reading the subtitles, just so that I wouldn’t miss anything. The subtitles were actually somewhat of a problem and I would have preferred this film to be have been dubbed. The subtitles moved by sometimes very quickly and were often combined with supertitles, so that you had to read the bottom and top of the screen and it became a bit confusing. And this could be a confusing story. Steeped in magical realism, it tells the story of a boy in Tokyo and a girl in rural Japan who find that they swap bodies randomly from time-to-time. In the process, they learn about each other’s lives and figure out a way to communicate to each other and then it just stops. So, the boy goes on a journey to find her. The film’s mood is one of sentiment and pathos, punctuated by moments of slapstick humor. This is ultimately a romantic movie and reminded me of the old Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves film, “The Lake House.” Love made possible through magic. If you like that sort of thing, you will undoubtedly like this, and you may even find yourself shedding a tear or two. If that is just not your thing, then perhaps the beautiful visuals will be enough for you. They certainly were for me.

 

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

The Lost City of Z

May 1, 2017 at 11:06 am | Posted in 2017, James Gray | Leave a comment
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Read the book. That’s where I’ll start and, frankly, where I could end. I don’t know that there is much more to say about this rather uninspired film. New York Times reporter David Grann’s book of the same name was published in 2009. In meticulous detail, and after years of research, Grann outlines the story of Percy Fawcett’s obsession with the Amazon and with finding evidence for the lost civilization he knew had once existed there. Contrary to all of the thinking at the time, Fawcett was convinced that South America had once housed advanced civilizations (something that we now know is absolutely the case) and he spent much of the early 20th Century going back to the Amazon again and again to try and prove it. Grann’s book spends much of its time in the rainforest with Fawcett and his various compatriots. One of the most griping things about the book is how detailed it gets in describing the horrors of jungle life– mosquitoes, skin burrowing bugs, the endless heat. Grann also digs deeply into the psyche of this quintessentially Edwardian British man. He was a stereotype of the “stiff upper lip” and could be unrelentingly cruel and uncaring to others who lacked his herculean fortitude and will power. His obsession exhausted everyone who knew him, not least of all his family. His wife was forced to raise the family in virtual poverty for decades during his campaigns and his son so desperately wanted his approval that he eventually followed his father into the jungle. I say all of this because it is the meat of the story and it just isn’t in the film. It’s hinted at in parts but the movie lightly glides over everything of emotional substance and gives us instead a boys’ adventure tale based little on facts. This Fawcett is far more nobly portrayed. Also, even though this film clocks in at an exhausting 141 minutes, far less time is spent in the jungle. We get snippets of WWI, Fawcett family life and Royal Geographic Society drama. And, when we are in the jungle, the real experience of it has been replaced with Hollywood cliches like piranha attacks and arrows through books. In fact, the whole film felt like a cliche from 20 years ago. The cinematography was uninspiring (which, given the location, feels like a lost opportunity). None of the actors seemed to know what to do with their roles; they all seemed to be acting, rather than becoming their parts. The dialogue didn’t help. Everyone spoke in cliches all the time. By the end, I was so disengaged that I didn’t much care that we had, by at point, replaced fact with utter fantasy. This was a silly movie about a fascinating man. What a shame. As I said before, read the book.

Colossal

May 1, 2017 at 9:00 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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After a month of just not been particularly inspired by anything out there (I did try to watch “After the Storm” but slept through so much of it, I wasn’t able to write a review), I thought I would give the quirky new movie, “Colossal,” a shot. This is by far the largest film from Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (“Open Windows,” “The ABCs of Death”) and I have not seen any of this other work. So, I don’t know if this one is typical of him but it’s certainly not typical of anything else. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, as the real joy I had with this film was in trying to figure it out. Basically, a giant monster appears over Seoul and it is apparently being unconsciously controlled by Anne Hathaway. Strangeness ensues from there. The cast for the film is incredibly small. With the exception of some minor background characters, there is only Anne’s character, her boyfriend (played by Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” fame), the bar owner she grew up with (Jason Sudeikis from SNL, “We’re the Millers” and the “Horrible Bosses” movies), and two of his friends, played by Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and Austin Stowell (“Bridge of Spies”). And even that felt like a bit too much. I can’t see the value the two friends brought to the film at all, other than to distress the audience with their utter inaction. But, perhaps that was the point. This whole, odd production felt like it was playing at being a giant (excuse the pun) metaphor, even if I wasn’t sure what the metaphor was. Hathaway’s character is clearly an alcoholic and, for much of the film, I thought the monster was a metaphor for the destruction alcohol can cause in a person’s life; it can lay waste to your soul (get it? Soul/Seoul?). But, then the film suddenly took a much, much darker turn. Then the metaphor seemed to be playing at something much more disturbing and less clear. In the end, I couldn’t figure out what Vigalondo was trying to say and how the pieces were supposed to fit together. In particular, the ending just didn’t seem to fit. As satisfying as it was for the audience, it belied the whole metaphor because it bore no resemblance to real life and felt to me like it minimized the problem it seemed to be exploring. Hathaway does a good job of being the same charming, slightly goofy character we have seen before but the real strength of the film is in Sudeikis’s performance. He has real acting chops, beyond just comedy, and he gives a powerful performance in this genre defying film. The trailers make it look like a comedy/sci-fi film but it’s really a drama, and one grimly determined to get its message across. Vigalondo is trying to take on a colossal topic and I give him real credit for telling his story in a unique way. There are things that do really work here. It’s just not enough for me to recommend the movie. That isn’t to say I wish I had skipped it. I am actually glad I saw it; I just wouldn’t see it again.

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