Sunday, September 17, 2023

Dark and Stormy Fright: A HAUNTING IN VENICE

It’s fitting that such a theatrical ham of an actor as Kenneth Branagh, so good at making full course meals out of others’ words, would be drawn, as director, to inhabit others’ works. His directorial career is full of echoes and inhabitations both literary (Shakespeare, Shelley) and filmic (Hitchcock, Lean). This doesn’t always lead to a good movie, but he’s a man of ostentatious Good Taste in a jolly old English way as befits a graduate (and current president) of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His latest work as filmmaker, A Haunting in Venice, is his third turn with an Agatha Christie novel, returning as director and star in the role of famous detective Hercule Poirot. It is the best of these three—after Murder on the Orient Express’s airless exercises and over-gilded energy, and Death on the Nile’s expansive melodrama and bitter undercurrent. Compared to those, it has the smallest ensemble (Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly, and a two-man Belfast reunion). But such spareness successfully builds on this series’ best assets: a sense of world-weary cynicism held back by a relentless cold detective logic that makes even the darkest edges and dreary deaths solvable with a sharp mind and steady investigation.

This one’s literally dripping in atmosphere. The setting is a damp Venetian palazzo on a dark and stormy night, the wind battering the windows, waves crashing into the walls, lights flickering, faucets dripping, interiors clammy and steps slippery. He films it like Welles might, in intense canted closeups reminiscent of Mr. Arkadin and snaky shadows like Touch of Evil. (To keep what Leonard Maltin might call the “Wellesian tomfoolery” going, a cut to a shrieking bird has to be a nod to Kane, and an early shot of a dramatic iron-gated gondola garage and a masked and robed figure is reminiscent of the only extant scene of Welles’ abandoned attempt at Merchant of Venice.) These surface pleasures are fun and potentially shallow, but Branagh finds plenty of percolating character beats and sneaky suspense to keep interest boiling with pop depths somberly intimated. In this locked-room mystery, Branagh is cranking up the spookiness and the sadness in equal measure, letting a blurry, bleary, midnight mood creep around corners and lurk in shadows.

As always in these stories, the murderer is in plain sight, and the cast of recognizable names stumble about in fear and suspicion, driven backwards into their frazzled psyches and paranoia as they try to survive the night. Christie’s sense of social status and class concerns takes a backseat to the tightening tensions and grief-stricken group. They were gathered for a seance: a mother who lost her daughter, a father damaged by war, a young son grappling with his father’s illness. (The seance itself is a fine, formulaic balance between sinister silence and sudden smashes.) Now they’re waiting out the storm while Poirot and his mustache must ask them enough questions to figure out the ghost of a clue. They’re as haunted by death and mystery as the film is by its influences—and its somehow a pleasing combination. For all the plot’s twists and turns, biggest surprise for me, though, was discovering that I’ve grown quite fond of Branagh’s broad take on Poirot with his puffed-up eccentricities and earnest melancholy. Beneath the starched facial hair and chewy accent there’s a real character there.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Man Rehearses Machine: GRAN TURISMO

We’re so used to stories of man versus machine that there’s something peculiar about landing in a story that’s man merging with machine. That’s the uncanny element that made Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi debut District 9 such a sensation, and his followups Elysium and Chappie so divisive and confounding. To see a human swallowed up by something alien or robotic, and to emerge the other side something altogether transformed, treated as ambivalent, and maybe even net positive, is a head-scratcher. Thus I find Blomkamp’s filmmaking alternately compelling and off-putting, especially as he takes such potentially cold ideas—all the more so when they’re juiced with viscera-splattering action sequences—and slathers on sentiment and quasi-pointed uplift within their mechanical hearts. There’s really nothing else quite like it, for better or worse.

Somehow, though, in stepping away from sci-fi, one can find his personality still fits in a based-on-a-true-sports-story like Gran Turismo. Car racing is already a story of man melding with machine to do something greater than either could alone. This one adds the wrinkle of the eponymous video game. The narrative is loosely formed around real events in which the makers of the game convince Nissan and Playstation to bankroll an experiment by which the world’s best Gran Turismo players would get the chance to compete as real race car drivers. The movie casts its lead as a cute fresh-faced gamer and aspiring racer (Archie Madekwe) with a blue-collar dad (Oscar Nominee Djimon Hounsou) and mom (Spice Girl Geri Halliwell) who have their doubts as he leaps at this chance to live his dream. As we follow a pretty standard rise-fall-rise underdog story—would you believe the rich career drivers aren’t keen to share the track with an untested joystick jockey?—the young man is trained by an expert (David Harbour), boosted by a corporate climber (Orlando Bloom), and dogged by self-doubt.

The racing scenes are well-shaped and photographed for quick-paced car stunts. But the real charge in its heart comes from the way it allows the lead’s video game knowledge of tracks and tires to come in handy in real life. That’s the Blomkamp touch, letting the simulated dynamics of the game—down to the digital flourishes that visualize his memory of routes and alerts—turn into a thrill and an asset, as a real winner emerges from a melding with the machines. Even the real doubts, typified by a moving scene in which Hounsou and Halliwell watch a wreck on live TV and register the shock and uncertainty with only their eyes, fade in the midst of the momentum of the formulaically effective plotting. It’s selling a fantasy of man melding with machine that any number of gamers will find flattering, and makes for a sturdy car picture, a la such diverse pictures as Grand Prix and Ford v Ferrari and Talladega Nights, redone in a fresh coat of paint.

Friday, August 11, 2023

From Beneath: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM and MEG 2: THE TRENCH

The art of film appreciation is, to paraphrase Fritz Lang’s classic sci-fi silent Metropolis, a handshake agreement between the heart and the mind. We can find much to intellectually assess about any given picture, but inevitably the heart takes over, too. Thus it is that I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a good movie, but one for which my enthusiasm is muted. Whereas Meg 2: The Trench is a bad movie, and yet it’s one with which, I must admit, I had a certain amount of fun. It comes down to this. Mutant Mayhem, the umpteenth Ninja Turtles project, is a good version of a thing I’ve never much cared about, and for which my ceiling of potential enjoyment is apparently much lower than the average audience. Meg 2, on the other hand, is a giddily stupid sequel that never once thinks it’s doing anything else but serving creature feature silliness larded up with all sorts of cheap paperback thriller plotting. Neither movie asks to be taken seriously, which is all for the better. They’re flip sides of the same goofy coin: putting silly characters and sloppy monsters on the big screen for us to gawk at and laugh with and walk out reasonably pleased. I imagine anyone willingly buying a ticket and walking into a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem or Meg 2: The Trench will find exactly what they hope to see there.

Ninja Turtles is an animated feature that redoes an origin story for the ubiquitous amphibious karate teens. It’s a formulaic superhero tale that twins a toxic ooze catalyst for both heroes and villains. The latter is Superfly, a clear nod to blaxploitation down to the rumbling, street-tough Ice Cube voice performance. He’s a mutant bug who rallies his slimy siblings to steal lab equipment with the goal of assembling a machine to wipe out mankind. Luckily, the pack of plucky adolescent kung-fu tortoises in the sewers below have decided to surface and think they should stop him. They’re a gangly, likable bunch—largely indistinguishable but bubbling over with authentic teenage awkwardness, slang, and bravado. Anyone even vaguely aware of kids programming over the past four decades will recognize the shape of their style—the headbands, the ninja weapons, the love of pizza, the rat father. (He’s Jackie Chan now, and gets some appropriate fight choreography to match.) There’s something comforting enough to the fresh coat of paint slapped on a sturdy, predictable plot engine. Never once is the outcome in doubt. Of course the turtles will discover their powers and live up to their potential, while the bad guys will be defeated in a slam-bang fight downtown, and bigger baddies will lurk in the shadows to be teased in a mid-credits scene. But at least it looks neat and the squeaky cracking turtle performances have a real teen energy going. It’s nice to see them animated with a Spider-Verse-style scragginess, down to the wiggly penmanship, expressive line work, and layered visual jokes. It has a rat-a-tat rambling to the dialogue, and sequences stuffed with quick-witted gags and gooey sentimental heart you’d expect from a collaboration between Seth Rogen and a co-director on Mitchells vs the Machines. This might be as good as these turtle movies get.

Meg 2
is objectively worse, but I sure didn’t mind it in the moment. Imagine a simpler, dumber Deep Blue Sea and you’re onto something. Jason Statham returns to outwit enormous prehistoric sharks that’ve eluded capture at a scientific outpost meant to contain them. There’s a slog of exposition up top, a lot of soggy business about an ensemble trapped in dive suits on the ocean floor in the middle, and then a chomping spectacle at a beach resort that ends things on a toothy grin. Along the way we get gun-toting villains with a duplicitous boss out of a bad Michael Crichton rip-off, as well as a tentacled deep-sea beastie and eel-like lizard things slithering around making extra variables for the sustained climactic action. I could describe all the flimsy characters and simple interpersonal dynamics and cheap attempts at emotional investment. But really all the movie has going for it is a brisk pace and a willingness to just go for it. The director is Ben Wheatley, who usually does unsatisfying indie horror movies—though his best was winking feature-length shoot-out Free Fire, and his worst was a dismal, instantly-forgotten remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca for Netflix. Here he gets a chance to make a studio budget (boosted by an international co-production with Chinese backers and actors) colorful and bright and dripping in off-screen PG-13 gore. It’s so stupidly diverting I only wished it was even stupider. A little extra excess—and yes, I’m really saying a movie culminating in Statham stabbing a prehistoric jumbo-shark through the mouth with a broken-off helicopter propeller should be more excessive—could’ve made Meg 2 a classic of its kind. It’ll have to settle for agreeably crummy B-minus movie status instead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Center Stage: THEATER CAMP

If Theater Camp doesn’t become a Drama Club classic, it’ll be another bad sign for the future of movies. It may not be an exemplar of the form, but its shaggy, underdog affection for its characters and milieu makes it all the more charming. I can’t image anyone who is now or has ever been a theater teen who’d be anything but charmed. As satire, it’s knowing, but very gentle. It comes on like a grainy mockumentary, setting up the eponymous locale as a financially strapped institution perched on the precipice of foreclosure. Its owner (Amy Sedaris in a whirlwind cameo) is in a coma, leaving the task of running the summer to her wannabe influencer son. (When told about the budget for “straight” plays, he earnestly asks what a “gay” play is. “Musicals,” the stage manager answers.) The staff is well-meaning, but silly at best and pretentious at worst. Honestly, their curriculum leaves a lot to be desired, too. But for all the above seems set up for mockery, the movie finds only sweetness. Everyone means well. Conflict is easily patched over. And even the unlikeliest participants will have their moment to shine.

The plot itself is developed sketchily, in scenes that play out as loose skits—goofy classes, camp complications, personality quirks. The adults get the bulk of the work, with the kids largely confined to reliable reaction shots. And despite starting their summer off with a long list of productions, the movie quickly focuses on just one. It narrows into a reliable old format—the let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-our-beloved-space musical. Within that format, the movie finds an amiable, amusing approach that suits the affection it finds around every corner. It simply loves these ragtag theater kids and their teachers. There’s no interpersonal drama amid the campers, and the main problems the adults face are 1.) insufficient and/or misplaced confidence in their own talents, and 2.) outside financial problems from money minders who just don’t get artists’ goals. That doesn’t seem so difficult to overcome with some sparkles, jazz hands, original music, and a theatrical flair.

The loose, improvised feeling and communal spirit shine through the movie’s insistence that the show must go on. The fact that the main cast—Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin—are also the co-writers (and also, in Gordon’s case, co-director) is surely what gives the project its pleasant sense of hanging around. And in the end, when it leans entirely on the audience buying the transformative power of theater, well, the magic of the stage got to me, too. When one character lets his inner drag queen into the spotlight, and another bravely comes out as straight, as everyone takes the stage for a rousing group number celebrating their favorite summer spot, why, it’s almost like Theater Camp has room for everyone.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Fire and Ice: OPPENHEIMER

Oppenheimer is a historical epic that largely keeps the epic off screen.The war is raging, but we don’t see it. High level conversations are happening, and we only sometimes hear pieces of them. Bold-faced names walk through, but as just a string of colleagues, allies, and foils. Its enormity comes from our, and their, understanding of its title figure’s accomplishments, and how the ramifications continue to reverberate. This is all about character—how one man moves through his life and, one step after another, brings about the possibility to destroy the world in an instant. That’s heavy. The film is written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who is good at affecting a popcorn seriousness. His films—Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, a list of some of the more imposing blockbuster efforts in recent memory—move with portent, images that land with sturdy thuds and soundscapes that simmer and tremble and rumble. He makes enveloping moods of iced surface sensation, vice-twisting tension, and looming doom. For this new movie, he’s found a subject beyond space, beyond comic books, beyond sci-fi conceits that lets his skills expand into tough terrain that matches his moods. Like Dunkirk, his other film set during World War II, Oppenheimer is seriously serious. But unlike that movie’s relentless action focus on combat and survival, this is a brooding character piece through which the fate of mankind runs, and as such carries within it a heaviness that accumulates until the entire weight of the three hour runtime lands so hard in its finality that its effect is hard to shake. The movie, like the man at its center, looks upon his mighty works and despairs.

Nolan’s approach—a cold-to-the-touch sentimentalism, or sweeping high-concept pessimism shot through with messy stuff of human feeling—is here comparable to David Lean’s epics. Like Lawrence of Arabia, we can find in this new picture a vivid historical recreation writ large and small—major, world-shaping events that flow through the intimate experiences of specific people. Here, with Oppenheimer, we see a man whose scientific brilliance got him the job of overseeing the creation of the atomic bomb. Nolan sometimes fills the screen with cutaways to swirling electrons, arcing sparks, water drops and ripples. We get the sense the film, like its subject, can see to the whirling atomic heart of things, past the illusion of so many molecules tricking us into thinking we are on solid ground. Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer with a casual confidence in his intellect. He struts around deep into his theories, but struggles with putting them into practice. He’s willing to let others check the math and do the lab work. Though a womanizer—both his wife (Emily Blunt) and mistress (Florence Pugh) are drawn into his off-kilter charisma—and able to talk his way into contact with all the top scientific minds of his time from Heisenberg to Bohrs to Einstein, he can also be grindingly aloof, and unaware of interpersonal graces. He wants to sink into the deeper philosophical heart of science. That explains how haunted his gaze grows, as the implications of his ideas’ practical import grow all the more tangible as they escape his mind and enter the world.

In short scenes and snappy exchanges lensed with vivd filmic tones and chilly glow by Hoyte van Hoytema, and set against a Ludwig Göransson score in constant motion, we see a career on the rise. Oppenheimer’s academic work is on a collision course with a war, and a need to press his research into militaristic utility. There’s momentum hurtling things along, even as we see his personal entanglements—affairs, insults, Communist meetings—are vulnerabilities that may come back to haunt him professionally and emotionally. As his talents are requisitioned by the United States government, represented primarily by a no-nonsense general played by Matt Damon, a secret desert laboratory is assembled along with a team of the nation’s top scientific minds (a cornucopia of character actors at their best, recognizable faces that serve as quick-flash characterization and memory aid to hold onto in the lengthy swirl of activity). The movie picks up even more urgency from its propulsive process there. It’s behind-the-scenes of a bomb, with trial and error and jangling nerves from competing egos and ideas. The enormity of their project’s consequences is ever-present. There’s incredible tension on all sides. They feel they must succeed at all costs. And yet, what is that cost?

Adding to the sense of hindsight, and sorrowful retrospection, is the structure. We see the story flashing back from two post-war times: in color, Oppenheimer’s attempt to renew his security clearance, and, in black and white, a Senate hearing considering for a prospective cabinet position a bureaucrat (Robert Downey Jr) who clashed with Oppenheimer. Their responses to official questions guide us into the story of the bomb’s creation, a long, clear-eyed swirl of small roles and vivid impressions culminating in a fearsome test sequence. Nolan stages several heart-stopping moments, with bomb tests and other concussive effects masterfully manipulated sound and fury. But the fire and brimstone filter into other moments as well, as the film’s period piece pleasures of documents and interrogations and tense debates are filtered through the subjective perspectives—nightmarish sequences of fearful visions, quick flashes of paranoid suspicions or haunted memories mixed in with the forward momentum of historical reenactments’ inevitabilities and the scientific method’s rigid mix of theory and practice. It’s a movie about chain reactions, both the atomic forces unleashed by Oppenheimer’s work, and also the politics and people who collide and combine to form our world, or destroy it.

Dolled Up: BARBIE

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a live-action cartoon philosophizing specifically about Barbie’s place in our culture, and gender performativity more broadly. In gleaming pink dollhouse sets against a painted sky, it is artifice in search of a truth. (Squint and you could call it Wes Anderson’s LEGO Movie.) It works, blending bright, sparkling silliness with clever ideas and even some moving earnest heart. That it manages to pull it off well is a post-modern two-step, setting up a dialectic—Barbie is a force for girlish fun and breezy empowerment versus Barbie as pernicious faux-feminist message in a materialistic patriarchal image—that’s somehow simultaneously criticism and advertisement. I’d like to hear how Barbie’s corporate owners let that happen. It’s both an obvious celebration of Barbie-land, and an overt problematization, a rich text that won’t stop explaining itself. The movie has characters flat out speak its ideas and debate their meaning, but it’s so nonstop funny and visually appealing that it rarely feels forced. We’re in a fizzy existential crisis for a movie that’s poppy and peppy and almost profound.

Gerwig opens the movie with gleaming fakery. After a 2001-style origin montage, which winkingly asserts the arrival of Barbie solved every girls’ real-world problems, we meet Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) living her Dream Life in her own little world. It’s a land full of Barbies—President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and so on—who rule every profession, and their doting Kens who stand around and smile. (The well-cast world is populated with charmers putting on their best plastic grins.) Every day is a beach paradise, and every night is a dance party. But one night, during a bopping choreographed number to an original Dua Lipa song, she’s suddenly aware of her mortality. As her worry only escalates the next day, she’s informed by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) that she should go to the Real World and find her owner to fix this. The resulting story makes the boundary between her world and ours porous, as her new understandings earned through fish-out-of-water interactions also get into the heads of her fellow Barbies and Kens. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is a particularly amusing vector of this confusion, as he gets hyped up on harmful real-world masculine stereotypes and turns from a purposeless accessory to an amped up parody of maleness. Other Barbie associates always seemed aware of their vestigial status, like real discontinued Ken friend Alan (Michael Cera), and the world-building is so loose and light that the very emptiness of these figures is the point.

While our world’s gender politics intrude on the oblivious Barbie’s consciousness, the movie introduces a real woman (America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who alternately reject and entertain the fantasy Barbie offers. Here’s that dialectic, as Gerwig’s broad screenplay pushes and pulls at the delights and the dangers of the Barbie society, and our own. The CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell) wants her back in the box, so to speak, but she’s starting to think she doesn’t like it there. The movie gives Robbie a deceptively complicated part to play—the perfect doll, then the plucky doubter, all while teasing out the slow crumbling of her facade. It’s strangely moving to see. We project so much, for good and ill, on this toy. To see Robbie bring a sense of interiority to the plastic ad-spread design is to see fifty years of feminism collapsing in on her. But there’s a bubblegum snap to the writing, co-scripted by Noah Baumbach, that never lets us forget the silliness of its construction. And there’s inventive filmmaking that continually reveals surprises in cartoony tableau and theatrical flourishes (even a climactic dream ballet), a sparkling, knowing campiness that melts into something genuine about purpose and connection and mothers and daughters and growing older. Gerwig, with Lady Bird and Little Women, made movies that glow with inner life, and here she finds that spark in plastic hearts. Or, to put it even more accurately, the spark is how those plastic people reflect and refract our own self-images. After all, who wants to be boxed in by other’s expectations?

Friday, July 21, 2023

Accept It:
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — DEAD RECKONING PART ONE

I tend to love when a long-running franchise finds its melancholy, and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is no exception. The Tom Cruise action series has been reliably exciting, allowing his star persona to hone and sharpen along with his super-spy Ethan Hunt. They’ve fused as a man of singular focus and determination, willing to throw himself—literally his whole body—into pulling off incredible stunts. Hunt does it to save the world. Cruise does it to save the big screen blockbuster. Well done, both. The last few Missions Impossible, under the guidance of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, have been sharply cobbled together with an excellent sense of escalating stakes, clever crescendos of momentum, and suitably coherent spectacular action—always with a sense of peril from a convincing over-the-top realism. These are top tier entertainments. The great success of Dead Reckoning Part One is that it doesn’t lose those attributes, and, in fact, by stretching out over three hours of rising action (this is only the first of a promised two-parter, after all) allows it to grow more complicated, and more emotionally engaged. The story is another MacGuffin hunt—two halves of a key that’ll unlock a missing server that holds the brains of a rogue military-grade artificial intelligence—but by pacing itself, it allows for that sadness to creep in. McQuarrie and Cruise have made Hunt a man driven by a desire to avoid loss—not just global, but personal—and here’s a movie that doubles and triples and quadruples down on that prospect.

It considers the effects of being a man for whom the impossible is pulled off in wild stunts of teamwork and the effects such constant danger and close calls have on himself and his only friends—those who work with him. Cruise has always played characters who think they can outrun the gravity of a situation’s reality. (Look no further than Top Gun: Maverick, in which that urge is proven correct.) Impossible has always been a series playing with the potential to flail in the face of danger—remember him dangling over the alarmed floor in the first one. This latest Mission runs toward and with that gravity. Its melancholy is a fine new flavoring that finally taps a rich vein at which the previous pictures have merely glinted. But this is still, as one might expect from these pictures, a rip-roaring adventure with some of the best action thrills anywhere, photographed cleanly and clearly, edited with energy and style, and keeping every aspect in vivid focus without losing the thread. Each sequence—from a sandstorm firefight to airport sleuthing, a car chase through Rome, and combat on a runway train that builds to Buster Keaton levels of astonishing chain reactions—are cleverly stacked with multiple variables, complications, and suspense elements—pursuers, ticking bombs, causes and effects—that make for delightfully complicated thrills.

For however heavy the undertow, the movie stays light on its feet, playful, and propulsive. The action is staged for impact of objects in dizzying motion that balance on a mix of danger and delight. Picture a tiny car tumbling down a massive stone staircase, causing its handcuffed passenger and driver to switch places, all while a massive Hummer smashes down after them. And yet it’s that underlying sadness that lets such giddiness play against a somber backbeat that finds these characters in an almost existential crisis when confronting their latest foe. (No wonder there’s no conclusion.) When a charming new character (Hayley Atwell) is given the choice to join the team for this mission, it’s presented with a somber touch. She needs to know the consequences. This earned level of sadness gives the hugely entertaining movie a genuine whiff of finality. In these endless franchise plays crowding our multiplexes, a few are starting to find satisfying stakes can be found by intimating an actual end is looming. All the pleasures of the momentum machine herein feel all the more weighted toward danger, and make the complications all the more delightfully compounded.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Time After Time: PAST LIVES

Thirty-six is young enough to feel like a massive life change is still possible, but also old enough to have a lot of vivid “what ifs” that have closed off some possibilities entirely. I’m sure I’m not the first to draw a metaphor comparing living your life to catching a flight. If your childhood is the runway, and your twenties are takeoff, then your thirties have to be the point where you feel you’re at cruising altitude. You’re far enough along to relax into a routine, see the shape of the horizon, while still knowing you have a long way until you reach your final destination. What if? There’s still time. Here’s Past Lives, a wistful and fragile little movie borne aloft by those doubts and those “what ifs” as its 36-year-old characters turn inwards, and backwards, for just a few days. They’re in a blend of nostalgic reverie and deep contemplation that, together and apart, cause them to reflect on their lives’ routes so far, and the other paths that had to be foreclosed to get there.

It starts at the turn of the 21st century, where two 12-year-old South Korean classmates’ friendship is teetering on the edge of romantic feelings. They sit close in class. They talk on their slow walks home. Their moms arrange a date in the park. She cries after getting a lower grade on a test than she’d expected, and he calmly stands there, awkwardly, silently, supportive. It’s all very sweet and cute, a first blush of real, deep connection in a pre-adolescent way that arises out of affection and proximity. When her family immigrates to Canada before the next school year, they don’t see each other, they don’t speak, they don’t stay in touch. More than a decade passes. The movie’s main drama—softly spoken, precisely observed—happens in two following parts: a fleeting long-distance friendship, and a long-awaited reunion on the streets of New York City a decade after that. In their mid-thirties for the film’s present tense culmination, she (Greta Lee) is a married American, and he (Teo Yoo) has just broken up with his girlfriend back in Seoul. The emotional tension swells through the two time jumps ellipsis, empty narrative space we fill in with the context clues, and the nuanced performances in which whole decades well up through body language and eye movements, as every silence swells with the unspoken.

Though it has the raw material of overheated melodrama, the confident grace and simplicity of writer-director Celine Song’s debut feature carries off a poised empathy. It’s not building to the stuff of high drama, but of small realizations, shifts in thoughtful connection, self-knowledge, and lost potentials. It embodies the melancholy wonderings of a wandering mind, traveling back to those moments in life where another choice would’ve taken you an entirely different direction. This isn’t even a movie about regrets, per se. Her husband (John Magaro) is as well-adjusted and empathetic as you could ask. This allows for a movie about the headspace a reunion can generate—and Song’s sensitive writing and cozy filmic lensing allows for the characters to explore their complicated emotions kicked up by the grown person before them being simultaneously the tween they once knew, and a stranger they’ve never known. They see some lost part of themselves reflected back in a stranger’s eyes. The movie’s generous enough to play that out with compassionate contemplation, and the final emotional release is all the more potent for it.

Retired: INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY

The most incredible part of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is how quickly it promises little, and how thoroughly it proceeds to under-deliver even on that. The deficit of imagination starts from the first shot. Remember how Spielberg’s great adventure serials would always immediately signal their exuberant visual playfulness with clever transitions out of the Paramount logo and into the action in ways that cue us to the fun to follow? Raiders of the Lost Ark fades from the studio’s painted mountain to an actual one—a flourish announcing an exciting adventure filled with cleverness. Temple of Doom goes to an engraving on a gong—the better to tell us the following will be loud, splashy, over-the-top clamor. Last Crusade fades into Monument Valley—a Western throwback telling us it is back in the zone of a comfortable lark with real imposing danger—while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reveals a gopher hill—the better to signify the following picture will confound expectations with a mix of the self-referential and self-critical. Dial of Destiny, a much belated sequel helmed by James Mangold, and for which the raison d’être seems to be simply to cash in on one last chance for 80-year-old Harrison Ford to wear the fedora and wield the whip of everyone’s favorite action-archeologist, does something else entirely. New corporate owners mean we first see the Disney castle. Then we see the Paramount logo, followed by the Lucasfilm crest on a black background. We then cut to: a suitcase. There’s no attempt at making it a clever fade in or even a cute match cut. It just starts. I know it seems a small detail on which to focus, but the longer the movie went on, the more it seemed to typify the whole approach. Here’s a movie that cues us right from frame one to expect less.

The only one giving his all in this fifth and presumably final Indiana Jones movie is Harrison Ford. Every unadorned close-up of his aged face his full of pathos and experience that sells years of adventuring nearing its end. He’s now mostly done with field work, on the eve of retirement form his professorship, and feeling out of place in 1969. But of course a MacGuffin from his past—an ancient Grecian dial that just might have something to do with time itself—is suddenly the source of eager hunting from an ex-Nazi (Mads Mikkelsen, perfectly slimy) who’s hoping to beat a younger rogue archeologist (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, gratingly insincere) to its enormous powers. Good old Doctor Jones is the only one who can help. Or get in their way. Or both. It takes a long time for Indiana to get back in the whip-cracking spirit, and he often is without his trademark hat. He’s really, truly tired of all this. (There's nothing on that idea wasn't said more elegantly and effectively in Crystal Skull. We're in repeat territory here.)  But save the world he must, though Ford’s better at sympathetically selling the weariness and reluctance now than the hard-charging action, which is left to a de-aged CG version of himself in an interminable flashback prologue or computer-assisted stunts in the present tense stuff.

Mangold, whose Logan and 3:10 to Yuma show he can make sturdy adventure elsewhere, does this no favors by shooting everything too close, and in a phony digital sheen slathered over, while cutting quickly with modern zippy animated stunt people. Early limp chases on a train and through a parade look so false and play so low-energy it’s hard to get the pulse up to care. The Foley work might be the familiar thwacks and thunks with each booming punch and echoing gunshot, and what a treat to hear John Williams once again scoring a movie with his lush orchestrations. But the pacing is all off throughout—too smooth and routine and so blandly choreographed that it all slides right off the eyeballs in an instant. Ford is the only element that feels real, even and especially when everything’s growing flimsier around him. There are a few fine gambits here—the fantastical final act, especially, is bound to be divisive, though I liked it, if more for the attempt than the weak execution. But this whole movie is weak like that, simply tired and underdeveloped thorough and through. It’s loaded with clunky plot points, scarce characterization for most side characters, and with barely an interesting image, let alone a compellingly staged action beat. Previous Indiana Jones pictures were rollercoasters. This one just coasts.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Starred Up: NO HARD FEELINGS

Jennifer Lawrence is a Movie Star. If a dozen years of good performances in all sorts of genres, including anchoring the Hunger Games franchise and her multiple trips to the Oscars weren’t enough to prove that, here’s a new strong piece of evidence. In No Hard Feelings, she takes a character that’s slightly ridiculous, in a plot that’s a bit of a stretch, in a screenplay that’s a little undercooked, and filmed in a generic style, and edited to just-the-plot functionality, and easily commands the screen every step of the way. She makes the movie worth seeing. Now that’s a star. She lifts the familiar and the awkward into something entertaining, and even finds some honest sentiment in it all.

Her character is a struggling Uber driver who gets her car repossessed, so she answers an ad placed by a wealthy couple (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) who want a young woman to date their shy 19-year-old son (Andrew Barth Feldman) and “bring him out of his shell” before he heads off to college. If she can successfully seduce him, she’ll get a car. He can’t find out about the arrangement, of course. (Guess what’ll happen about an hour later?) The concept clunks and clanks as it falls into place, but Lawrence dances effortlessly across the lumpy writing and polishes every scene until it’s entertaining. Consider this exchange, in her job interview:

“I just turned 29. Last year.”
“So you’re 29?”
“Last year."
“And how old are you right now?”
“32.”

Lawrence makes lines like that sparkle with a blend of obvious half-joking deception and self-effacing sarcasm. At first, her character—though teetering on the edge of desperation—comes on way too strong, a broad burlesque of feminine wiles that purposely falls totally flat, wriggling in tight dresses and leaning into obvious innuendo. It’s only when she stops trying that something softens up inside her and she can’t quite bring herself to break the boy’s heart. Lawerence sells both aspects, a quick witted desperation turning into flailing false seductiveness becoming something low-key real and charming. She elevates the material with a quicksilver timing—when told the boy’s going to Princeton, she nods and deadpans “heard of it”—that surfaces class consciousness and real connection alike.

That the movie never quite becomes a hard-edged romantic comedy is for the better. Her boyish co-star is an endearing dork we might actually care about. His awkward charms and slow-thawing shyness are played real, and not judged. But what is judged is his cocoon of privilege. The movie’s dancing a tricky line there, and it’s Lawrence’s generous, and generally real, interplay with his insecurities and ignorance alike that makes a fine counterweight to all the ways these scenes could be played wrong. She makes it almost believable this over-the-top comic premise might leave these characters slightly better people by the end. Even when the movie takes an idea to excess—neither ostensibly comedic scene of clinging to the roof of a speeding car works, though the nude fight scene is a so-bold-it’s-funny total commitment to a bit—the filmmakers are lucky they have their star just barely holding the whole picture together.

I couldn’t quite believe that I was nostalgic for this sort of movie. Here’s an R-rated relationship comedy shaggily assembled and thinly plotted, perched entirely on the charisma of its famous lead and the general likability of its supporting cast. Ten or fifteen years ago this would’ve been par for the course—every few months you could expect one or two just like it. Now, though, when the big screen is often missing Movie Star personality pictures, not to mention comedies without guns or fantasy conceits, a movie like this is a breath of fresh air. How nice to see a movie in which the only real failing is its occasional preposterousness of behavior and some formulaic plotting. At least it’s the kind of preposterousness that’s trying to entertain at a human scale, and the formulas are old enough to feel like long-lost friends. Oh, here’s where she develops real feelings for the mark. Ah, here’s the moment when the secret’s revealed. Oh, here’s the reconciliation. How nice. That such sweetness can emerge from a filthy concept is not news, but here director and co-writer Gene Stupnitsky (in a vast improvement on his painfully awkward Good Boys) makes it feel fresh enough just by letting it happen again. It helps that he trusts entirely in Lawrence’s star power to elevate everything around her. She sure does.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Story Telling: ASTEROID CITY

Asteroid City is something of a skeleton key for Wes Anderson’s approach to filmmaking. It consistently tells you the whole picture is artifice all the way down—and surfaces genuine emotion on the regular anyway. That’s the Wes Anderson way. He’s always doing that—using his dollhouse designs, symmetrical blocking, picture-book precision, handcrafted effects, nesting-doll framing devices, play with aspect ratio, and deadpan witty dialogue to dig deeply into ideas and emotions that hit all the harder for having been approached slyly and indirectly. An audience can be dazzled by the parade of delights he seemingly unfolds with great whimsy, only to realize the subtleties and nuances of the earnest, deliberate intentionality behind his grand designs. Detractors who misinterpret his methods as shallow affectation or meme-worthy ticks or airless style betray only their own lack of depth.

For in a Wes Anderson movie, the apparent limits are what instead allow limitless capacity for deep contemplation. He presents us perfectly designed jewel box settings and finds his characters’ melancholies radiating, uncontainable, as they, and we, are forced to confront the messiness of art, science, family, religion, sex, violence, and everything that makes life. After his Grand Budapest Hotel found bittersweet endings in its screwball capers and romantic nostalgias cut short memorialized by a writer’s work and The French Dispatch an anthology of aesthetic reveries in a funereal tribute for a magazine editor—both pictures as political and elegiac as they are surface fizz—this new film foregrounds its form and telling even further. In so doing, it also furthers Anderson’s commitment to exploring the power of storytelling—not as a pat inspirational cliche, but as the vital stuff of human existence.

Of course a playful movie so deeply and delightfully engaged in ideas about how we explain ourselves to ourselves, and how our senses of identity and purpose are constructed, would be self-conscious as it searches for deep meaning. The movie opens on a host (Bryan Cranston) telling us we are about to watch a rehearsal for a play. In boxy black-and-white framing with theatrical lighting, we see an author (Edward Norton) at a typewriter, and the large cast assembled, and the rigging and stagehands and fakery in the wings. And then, as the story-within-that-story begins, it transforms into widescreen color full of its own artificial tricks—matte paintings, miniatures, stop-motion, and a small town where every window and door is its own proscenium arch. Here, at Asteroid City in 1955, a quaint nothing town in what’s cheerfully described as “the middle of the California, Nevada, Arizona desert,” we find a troop of Space Cadets with parents and a teacher along for a Star Gazing meetup around an ancient asteroid. The tiny motor lodge with individual cabins, next to a gas station and across from an observatory, is just another stage on which life can play out its little eccentricities.

At the center is grief, with a sad photographer father (Jason Schwartzman) telling his nerdy teen son and three cute little daughters that their mother has died. Their grandfather (Tom Hanks) is going to meet them there and drive them home, a necessity because the car just died, too. C’est la vie. It’s building a picture of a world where, no matter how much we seek to quantify and contain, people die, machines break, and the universe never loses its capacity for surprise. A mechanic (Matt Dillon) confidently tells the family that there are only two possibilities for what’s wrong with the car, only to quickly run into trouble and declare that the problem is “a third thing.” (Late in the picture, a character will matter-of-factly comment on a makeshift invention: “Everything’s connected, but nothing’s working.) More than once, a character asked “why” will respond with “It’s unclear.” And as we track back into the black-and-white world for expressionistic reenactments of the dramaturgical process, one actor will admit to not understanding his character or even the play itself. His director tells him, simply, “keep telling the story,” a phrase of advice that radiates back down into the fictions-within-fictions, and back up to us, too.

The look and tone is a fine blend of mid-century influences—Western-themed architecture and vintage technologies and designs and non-stop cowboy folk songs wafting over the town’s radios—and reflexively playful about the kinds of melodramas, both abstract and overheated, that a mid-50s writer might conjure. Knowledgeable audiences might clock the relation to the sandy sunlit widescreen staging of John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock or the Technicolor small-town anxieties in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, not to mention Thornton Wilder and Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and so on. (The town also has a roadrunner who chirps “meep meep,” a fine cartoon wink to foreshadow and top off the drama’s impending dusting of sci-fi elements.) And yet, for all this meta-text, we’re seeing a television special inside reenactments inside a rehearsal inside a production about a fictional town populated by dreamers and actors and schemers and scientists, every layer lost in losses and daydreams, grief and preoccupations. Perhaps an ecstatic peak of all this is when a kid performs a song, and as his classmates and teacher join in the dance, we see they’re being watched on a closed-circuit television. It’s all performances within performances.

Anderson keeps these meta-fictions spinning as an expertly choreographed and brilliantly staged nesting doll of fakery. It layers the colorful whimsy of its central story—the Star Gazers and the locals are soon trapped in town by a bizarre series of events, Close Encounters by way of Buñuel—in fictions and their tellings. It allows the movie to access both the charms of its simply plotted southwestern magical realism and its characters’ aching emotional issues, and the dizzying effort the telling. It gets at fiction itself—stories we’re told and stories we tell—and how we can get lost in it by giving ourselves over to what’s real truth within them—even kitsch, even obscure artful gestures, even when we’re unsure but “keep telling the story.” The film finds all kinds of rituals—religious sentiments, scientific methods, philosophical musings, method acting exercises, military orders, keynote addresses, backstage gossip—and notices with great melancholic empathy we’re all looking for, or clinging to, something that’ll explain our place in the vast mysteries of the universe. We need to find ourselves in the right story.

Although many of Anderson’s prior pictures allow the audience to get totally carried along in a compelling narrative and invested in characters in his controlled style, here he utilizes the grinning delights of his aesthetics of geometrical camera movements and perpendicular staging to make us always aware we’re sitting on the fourth wall. (There are even fleeting eye-contacts with the camera.) And here’s the magic: I still cared, deeply, about the characters at even the deepest levels of the fictions. There are beautiful moments of performance and writing that suddenly bring tears to the eyes with their emotional honesty. Anderson’s ability to suggest with the subtlest shifts and swiftest shimmers of interiority, whole lives behind the eyes, deep wells of regrets and confusion, longing and yearning flowers beautifully. I know I’m watching an actor playing an actor playing a character—the movie reminds us constantly—and yet, suddenly, I’m drawn in by his grief, or her confusion, or his confusion. An actress (Scarlett Johansson) in the story-within-the-story asks to run lines with a new friend and suddenly those lines (a mere half-glimpsed excerpt of another story) are somehow moving, too. It’s marvelous, the entire movie constantly making hairpin shifts between cold cerebral conceit and warm sentiment—committing fully to both and serving the thoughtfulness of each equally. The whole movie is this magic trick only a master filmmaker could pull off. It’s deeply poignant and intelligently articulated, a heady blend of heart and mind. It’s a director delivering a disquisition on his style and its intended effects, that also lands those effects with the very best of them. We’re so lucky to have Wes Anderson telling us these stories as only he can.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Sparks Fly: ELEMENTAL

Pixar’s Elemental takes the animation studio’s formula and narrows its focus until it’s something more, well, elemental. It reminds us that, for all the high-concept world-building their films have done—from the secret life of toys, to the various monster, fish, superhero, and car societies they’ve revealed—the studio’s best at making clear, clean metaphors to explore surprisingly nuanced human emotion. Sure, they have the impressively detailed and technically accomplished animation brightly and bouncily deployed for hurry-scurry high-energy kid-friendly plots. But underneath, and driving the action, can be sadness, loneliness, longing. They find vivid, broad expressions of complicated feelings—family therapy in the guise of rip-roaring entertainments. This latest picture is in a fantasyland where earth and water and wind beings live alongside each other. Their gleaming, towering metropolis is built for their comfort, and thus the immigrant fire people must eke out a living in this space that’s literally not built for them. These beings are made of the elements, little flickering flame folks and sloshing water drops and big burly clouds animated with fuzzy lines and indistinct boundaries that drift and blur. It’s an odd sight that quick settles into sense, a shifting cartoony delight, always in flickering, bubbling, flowing motion. Director and co-writer Peter Sohn finds quick-witted detail in the background, and lets the artifice of the place just be. The movie spends next to no time world-building, and instead spends its time situating a smaller character piece in the larger whole. This isn’t as robustly imagined on the macro level as top tier Pixar, but it gets so many little details right that the overall picture is engaging throughout.

Rather than expanding its immigrant story metaphor out into a Zootopia-esque disquisition on racist implications of infrastructure planning, it’s a small family story about a struggling store, and the fiery daughter who might take over, but for an unexpected romance burgeoning. Is this the stuff of a kids’ movie? It has the sparkle and dazzle and quick wit and zippy colors of one. But these emotions are tougher, and appeal to a complicated worldview. The marriage is pure picture book metaphor—not enough to take the world of its fiction as a real place, but as a whimsical outgrowth of something real. Pixar knows how to put the ordinary in extraordinary. And so the movie rests on a daughter hoping to make her father proud, and the tension between keeping the home fires burning and finding a new path. That’s represented by a cute water guy with whom she just might have chemistry. This grounds the movie in a romantic comedy formula that plays neatly off the dovetailing of stereotypes between the characters and their elements. The fire girl has a hot temper and smoky looks that make her beau boil. The water boy is a transparently guileless fellow, and is quick to find tears in his eyes. They’re told they shouldn’t be together—it might extinguish her potential, or cause him to evaporate. But, somehow, opposites just might attract, and Pixar’s once again good at letting consequences play out, both in their families’ emotional lives, and in the way bright light sparkles through water.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Less That Meets the Eye:
TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS

Let’s start by acknowledging that there’s a lot that’s just fine about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. It has a capable director in Creed II’s Steven Caple Jr., who knows how to work with actors, deploy a needle-drop, and make the computer-generated effects for the eponymous extraterrestrial shape-shifting vehicles look passably personable and, more importantly for the Hasbro overlords, pleasingly toyetic. It has engaging leads in Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah), who show a lot of star charisma as they occasionally overpower the flimsy material and breathe a little bit of life into cliched figures made up mainly of characteristics needed for plot utility. He’s an electronics-expert ex-military underdog with a heart of gold; she’s an ambitious museum employee dreaming of making an archeological discovery. They each get little moments up front to look something like real people before they're thrust into the explosions. That’s all fine. There’s also a decent use of a 1994 setting to allow for the plot to bump into some old tech in the set and car designs, and play era-appropriate hip-hop on the soundtrack—Digable Planets and LL Cool J get satisfying showcases. It’s also the right time period to introduce the Beast Wars characters, 90s-era Transformers that turn into animals. I can’t complain about any of that. These are good ideas deployed in largely non-irritating ways. But, as barely a sequel to the Bumblebee prequel and only vaguely a prequel to the original Michael Bay Transformers, the whole movie is pinned in by that larger overall sense of indecision.

Say what you will about Bay’s work, it makes huge decisive choices about what to show—staging the central alien robots towering over their human castmates, hurtling through action sequences shot for heft and scale. Those movies, for all their chaos and confusion, grounded outsized spectacle with a real sense of gravity and space, always filling the frame with a flurry of activity across multiple planes of perspective, placing its giants in motion against backdrops of forests and skyscrapers and small streets and recognizable architectural features to consistently place us amid the careening clashes and explosions in a state of concussed awe. Rise of the Beasts doesn’t bother. It largely takes place in wide open places or in frames that barely explore the spacial possibilities of its enormous aliens. It hops around the usual MacGuffin chase—to get Optimus Prime and his Autobots home they need to beat Unicron’s minions to the trans-warp key! Yes, the trans-warp key! I practically shouted it with them at a certain point of peak repetition—every stop on the journey loaded up with rumbling quips and bland formula. Then it ends in the usual all-CG conflict in a bland, grey field of nothing in the middle of nowhere as a portal in the sky threatens to explode the world. It’s all curiously small, holding back from the excesses of Bay’s efforts—shorn of most of his high-impact militarism, the leering objectification, and the casual prejudices, but the process has also leeched the enormity of the fireballs and visual weight. The memorable fun, in other words. It’s just a play-it-safe, by-the-numbers franchise entry where all the good ideas are buried in the vague nothing of its aesthetic choices and narrative familiarity.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Great Power: SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE

Plunging head first into the tangled webs of superhero canon, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse tells, improbably, the best superhero story the big screen has seen in ages. It does so by turning around and directly confronting the very nature of its telling. It features one of its antagonists sounding a lot like one of those whiny fandoms that complains about every deviation from the formula, and every divergence from the previously established canon. This guy gives a serious, glowering monologue in which he lays out the idea that certain characters simply must die, because that’s the way these stories are supposed to go. They die in every story, in every timeline, to serve the same purpose. In our world, that satisfies the conservative fanboy in the audience, and, indeed, a middling serving of cameos and connections is enough to keep the whole machinery of these franchises turning. But this group of filmmakers, including screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) and co-director Kemp Powers (Soul) among dozens of talented collaborators, are thinking beyond that here. What Across the Spider-Verse does by placing this idea at the center of its conflict is stirring stuff—and the kind of bold, inventive, imaginative storytelling that these sorts of stories are supposed to be about in the first place.

This clever eruption of animation and excitement builds beautifully off the distinctive pleasures of its predecessor, Into the Spider-Verse, that introduced us to dimension-hopping Spider-Men through the eyes of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager bit by a radioactive spider. So far, so familiar to the Peter Parkers we’ve known, albeit with a cool cultural specificity that is a modern-day, teenaged, half-Black, half-Puerto Rican New Yorker. But because his special spider fell through a hole between parallel universes, it immediately involved him meeting a selection of alternate Spideys—a Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), an anthropomorphic pig, a Japanese mech suit, and so on, including a crush-worthy spider-powered Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). That movie had its instantly lovable and sympathetic hero in Miles—as at home in his sleek form-fitting black suit as he is in Nikes and a hoodie—fitted in a stylish animated world that had a fluid hand-drawn-over-CG aesthetic complete with comic book affectations like faded overlapped multi-dot colors and zippy split-screen and text boxes with narration and onomatopoetic emphasis. The Spider-people from other worlds came trailing their own distinct styles—jagged CG and jumpy anime and inky black and white and so on. The sequel starts with Miles alone in his own universe, where he has plenty of quotidian Spidey troubles juggling school, family, and his secret identity. Soon enough, though, a seemingly dopey villain—voice with blasé nefariousness by Jason Schwartzman—opens damaging portals between universes, and it all tumbles into potential chaos again. The story quickly bests the original vision in two directions at once—digging deeper into Miles’ world and inner life, while exploding out in a dazzling variety, swirling with inventive style and cultural melange as a secret inter-dimensional squad (led by Oscar Isaac and Issa Rae) senses trouble in the multiverse.  

The result is a movie that’s a non-stop visual delight surrounding its sympathetic core. Each new world feels pulled from a different designer. There’s a scratchy parchment renaissance character, a Brit punk Spidey sketched on rumpled paper and traveling via collage, stiff-armed Hanna-Barbera style vintage beings, brief glimpses of stop-motion and even live-action worlds, and, my favorites, a dazzlingly detailed Indian metropolis and a world where wet watercolor backgrounds drip expressionistically as characters try not to cry. But at the center of it is one kid, trying his best to do right for his family, his friends, his crush, and his city. And isn’t that so authentically Spider-Man? There’s genuine capital-R Romance here, in all the outsized adolescent emotions that this particular superhero has always done so well. Think about the best moments in any previous Spider-Man movie. It’s not the action, per se. It’s the beats between, where characters really matter, and the stakes are built, not out of the world ending, but about a particular person’s place in the world. This movie knows that deeply—allowing for long scenes to breathe and accumulate real investment in the relationships on display in voice performances that are universally warm and committed. For all its wild and creative action—and there’s more here in even the first sequence than we get in most full length spectacles of this size—there’s the beating heart yearning for connections. Every twist and complication as the story expands and explodes earns its weight from this source—a boy who wants to make his parents proud, impress the girl, and save, not the world, but his world. This is Spider-Man storytelling at its finest, including a great cliffhanger that left me eager for the next issue.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Sea Again: THE LITTLE MERMAID

“Part of Your World” is the greatest Disney song of all time. Howard Ashman’s playful and emotive lyrics are perfectly matched by Alan Menken’s plaintive chord progressions. Together they tell the whole story—and literally nothing that follows can be said to lack the psychological grounding for an audience’s intensely felt sympathies. It’s a song that invites us into a girl’s yearning, in this case Ariel, a teenage mermaid who wants desperately to escape the provincial restrictions of her aquatic kingdom and learn something about the wide world above. “What’s a fire and why does it—what’s the word?—burn? When’s it my turn?…” she sings as the number reaches its emotional and melodic peak, dancing its rhymes around the word yearn without ever quite saying it, in a song that’s lyrically about the character’s lack of the vocabulary to fully express what she knows she doesn’t know. She’s yearning. And so are we. The song never fails to move me. Even the first few notes sets my tear ducts welling. They know what’s about to happen to me. And even though the story itself isn’t my total favorite of the Disney animated musicals, that it springs from this source makes me believe in it fully and completely in that moment. The grand symbolic romantic gestures of its thinly drawn prince and sparsely characterized kingdoms make sense only as outgrowths of this adolescent, and yet universal, need to grow and to know.

It seems to me that if someone’s going to remake Disney’s The Little Mermaid, they’d better get that exactly right. In the case of the company’s newest live-action adaptation of an animated classic, they get it right. Halle Bailey is in the lead role, and sells that need from the inner-most soul, her open, expressive face and reaching body language—paired with her lovely singing voice—communicate that combination of stifled curiosity and hopeful tension. Once that number happens, we’re on her side no matter what. The rest of the movie happens about how you’d expect, with her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, sleepily paternal) lashing out at her human curiosity, which sends her into the devious tentacles of Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy, in a passable karaoke performance). She’s gifted human form to woo the prince of her dreams (Jonah Hauer-King, handsomely anonymous). But the bad deal sends her ashore without her voice, leading to a romantic silent flirtation and much silliness from animal sidekicks, before it’s all resolved on a dark and stormy night. The adaptation lacks in surprise, and extends the story with a few new songs and added texture to the surface dwellers’ characters. But because it’s anchored so firmly to Ariel’s yearning, it maintains a certain dignity and investment.

The movie is, taken on its own terms, a fine fantasy musical. It has a sympathetic lead, a decently appealing romantic interest, and a handful of the best songs ever written for the screen. And yet, it’s difficult to take on its own terms, as difficult as it is to take any of these live action remakes of animated Disney musicals as an individual work of moviemaking. The former wouldn’t exist in this form if not for the latter. That makes it harder to look at the relatively lackluster staging of “Under the Sea” and, instead of enjoying the swirl of photo-realistic anemones and tortoises wriggling to the beat while the vaguely cartoony crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) croons, unconsciously compare it to the ecstatic joys of the zippy, gag-filled, color-explosion chorus number that is the original. Still, one can’t entirely resist the charms of such buoyant musical material, even at three-quarters the energy. (At least romantic classic "Kiss the Girl" has better staging.)

Director Rob Marshall, Chicago aside, usually bungles movie musicals—sorry, Mary Poppins Returns and Into the Woods and Nine, which have their moments, but generally flounder. Here, though, he manages to keep the bland aquamarine sogginess of his underwater visuals out of the way of the focus on the simple fairy tale logic and that core of emotion. Bailey’s Ariel carries it, partly because she gets that great number to get us caring, and partly because she is able to bring something like an inner life to her mute longing. Besides, the new screenplay by David Magee (of Life of Pi), when not dutifully redoing the original, has done some reasonably smart balancing, using a longer run time to flesh out the role of Prince Eric and the kingdom on land a bit. He’s now an explorer, too, and his interests harmonize well with Ariel’s. We can see all the more fully why they’re meant for each other—a good thing, too, since the movie runs nearly a full hour longer than the original. If we’re going to spend more time with it, we might as well believe it. I was brought along by the sturdy structure, and, when Ariel finally finds a way to be part of our world, well, I’m not made of stone.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Running on Empty: FAST X

I watched Fast X with a sinking feeling. Oh, no, I thought. This is what people who dislike the Fast & Furious movies sight unseen assume they’re all like. Here’s a nonsensically plotted movie with Vin Diesel’s scowling visage and big ensemble of honorary family, cartoon-logic special effects action, grunted monosyllabic emotionalism, short shorts, street races, super-spy silliness, convoluted call-backs, cringing humor, clanging cameos, and sentimental emotionality in a gear-head soap opera of the dumbest order in grindingly repetitive sequences of weightless noise and chaos punctuated by preposterous feats of vehicular mayhem. Sure, they all have bits of that, and that's often fun, but this one gets the mix all wrong. I imagined dials and knobs and levers and switches pushed around in a haphazard manner resulting in a cacophony of empty confusion. It has everything us fans love about the series, but it’s jumbled up in the wrong proportions with ineffectual execution.

New-to-the-series director Louis Leterrier just doesn’t have the subtle touch of Justin Lin, who directed five of the previous 10 entries. Lin often made the preposterous sing with clean emotional hooks and an eye for expressive action beats that leapt lightly over the possible into the excitingly excessive. Leterrirer falls shorts exactly how Furious Seven’s James Wan and Fate of the Furious’s F. Gary Gray did, but more so. They were over-cranking everything but the characters’ basic believability and the plot’s streamlined cohesion. He adds the latter, too. Maybe Lin’s the only one who can get the balance right, though Vin’s the one who really has the reins at the this point. Regardless, X makes me appreciate how much closer Wan and Gray got than Leterrier does.

It doesn’t help comparisons that the first action scene—indeed, the first scene entirely—is made up of clips reused from Lin’s Fast Five with X’s flamboyant villain (Jason Momoa) awkwardly CG retconned in. The whole project then peaks early with a just-the-wrong-side-of-preposterous sequence in which an enormous round bomb pinballs through the streets of Rome. (That’s the good stuff.) The rest is just so much scattered character work—fleeting sketches and disconnected gobs of exposition that ill serves most every returning character and a few new ones—amidst some of the franchise’s limpest fight choreography and dopiest plotting, near abstract in its confusion and lack of emotional reality. That, too, peaks early when Rita Moreno, tears in her eyes, hugs Diesel while the score swells with a treacly reprise of “See You Again.”

I felt myself straining to enjoy myself, or at least tell the straw man hater in my imagination that, no, they aren’t usually like this. That said, I did find it merely disappointing and perplexing more than outright enraging, like the movie’s an overworked engine running off the last wispy fumes of my affection for this whole dumb fun series. Perhaps landing more frustratingly incomplete than anything else, the movie, advertised as the first half (or maybe third) of a finale, simply throws a bunch of nonsense in the air and then ends abruptly. Maybe they’ll figure it out next time. (Maybe it’ll take yet another round of villain-to-ally arcs or back-from-the-dead or secret-relative revelations to really stick the landing again.) A satisfying resolution may not make this particular entry any better, but at least it wouldn’t leave the franchise stranded on the side of the road with nothing left in the tank. That’s the sinking feeling that had me slump out of the multiplex grumbling that the exuberant F9 would’ve made a better finale—so far.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Rocket Power: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 pays off a near-decade of investment I didn’t know I had in these misfit sci-fi heroes and this particularly eccentric and isolated corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It does so by offering what no other subset of the MCU has managed: an ending, full and complete, exciting and moving, and honest both to its characters and its tone. This is a rollicking adventure with wacky side characters and rambunctious action sequences. But it also really cares about these cartoony weirdos and has, in the end, found a reason to communicate that love through a vision of self-sacrifice in the name of an open-minded community. There’s a real idea here—about the futility of forced homogeneity, the futility of perfection, and the rousing power of ragtag diverse cooperation. And there’s vision of splashy colors and apocalyptic rumblings that set the characters on edge with a palpable sense of danger and finality.

The likes of earnest goof Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and killer green Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with her blue robot sister (Karen Gillan), talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), hyper-literal muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista), and simpatico alien empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are still a loose, funny ensemble. And here their problems are treated with a genuine frayed edge. The writing gives them a strong squabbling affection and heartfelt duty. They really care about saving their world and their friends and everyone they can. Funny how often comic book movies let that slip away these days. This one populates its widescreen invention with a menagerie of characters we’ve actually come to care about, and who actually care about each other and what they’re doing instead of merely posing in the chaos. How nice that this entry is somehow freed from the treadmill of franchise promises—which so often strand each Marvel movie as just an extended promise that the next one will have the really good stuff. That makes it the only MCU property to emerge from the Avengers cross-overs and Disney+ spinoffs not looking worse for wear. It helps that the Guardians are easily the best parts of the enjoyable Infinity War and hollow Endgame. And that makes one of the biggest laughs in this new one when Star-Lord deadpans a one-sentence summary of the latter.

In this Volume 3, writer-director James Gunn gets to really dig into who these characters are, what they’d need to be happy, and how to send them off with the most satisfying resolutions possible. He’s finishing his neat trilogy of brightly poppy space operas set to a classic rock mixtape backbeat knowing he has the audience goodwill to place the entire film’s emotional and narrative thrust on the tragic backstory of the talking, gun-toting CGI Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). In the present tense he’s been wounded and his friends need to steal a couple MacGuffins to revive him. We also get flashbacks to the mad scientist who created him, which serves a double duty of exposition seeing as the experimenter in question is also our Big Bad. (Chukwudi Iwuji plays him as a howling, calculating evil, with an eerie calm face literally stapled on.) The two timelines work well to provide a fine undertow of tension and care. So there’s refreshingly a lot jostling and juggling for attention, pleasingly overstuffed and productively messy when so many of its franchise brethren are under-stuffed and tidily hollow. By the time we get to the Guardians hoping to save the villains’ experiments as they revive Rocket, it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys looting Sid’s toy box. I couldn’t resist that hook’s emotional appeal.

It’s a movie overflowing with side-characters and incident, animated by a contagious delight in invention and a specificity in its characters. The main cast are deployed well, and the choice supporting parts are efficiently and effectively drawn, too, like an antagonistic golden super-guy played by Will Poulter as a cross between a terminator on the hunt of our heroes and a sweetheart hoping to do his statuesque mother (Elizabeth Debicki) proud. We also get a few memorable moments with a scruffy space pirate gone good (Sean Gunn) and a telekinetic canine cosmonaut (speaking through a translation collar with the voice of Maria Bakalova) that build neat payoffs of their own. Even the henchmen and thugs and bystanders are given vivid shorthand characterization, fun punchlines, and fleeting touching moments of humanity. Here’s a movie powered on the belief that we should see the characters as characters, and not just action figures or Easter eggs.

This is a bustling picture, a large-scale, all-engines-go sci-fi jaunt powered with enjoyable emotional manipulation. It all comes to a head in a successive series of slam-bang set-pieces in which spaceships careen and laser-guns go kaplow as mutants and aliens and freakazoids of every shape and size ooze and splatter and smash. There are clever, concussive action sequences booming with sound and invention in a living space station, on an exploding planet, and as a space fortress collides with a giant skull. That’s all neat Jack Kirby-style fireworks and design peppered with punchlines. But because it’s driven by this surprising well of affection for the characters, and a commitment to bring them to some kind of conclusion, it works as a crowd-pleasing entertainment, an outsized comic book spectacle with the heart and soul others of its ilk so often miss. In retrospect, it’s a trilogy that put in the work to make us love its characters as much as its creators do, and it’s great to see them fly off on one more grand adventure together.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Puberty Blues: PETER PAN & WENDY and
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET.

When Disney wants a live-action version of an animated classic to have some weight and elegance and freshness, it turns out David Lowery is the writer-director on whom to call. His Pete’s Dragon was a lovely, low-key coming-of-age fantasy that turned its fantastical conceit into something shaggier—a boy-and-his-dragon tale. Lowery’s non-Disney work, like The Green Knight, also proves he’s a literate, sensitive filmmaker. He can dig into a classic text and draw out its deep, resonant inner life while making it his own. And with these skills, he can, in the case of Peter Pan & Wendy, hook into authentically Edwardian romanticism while cleverly adapting the mythos to make it resonant for his purposes. He doesn’t exactly revive J.M. Barrie’s original text, or Disney’s animated version, beat for beat, though there’s a flourish of “You Can Fly” in the score. Nor does he draw out everything that makes the work last, the work of a scholar who might capture it by pinning it down. But what he does do is provide it a sense of life and space with windswept verisimilitude—location photography that’s lush and vivid on grassy cliffs and verdant forests full of moss and shadow. And within this convincing locale captured with a filmic eye, he pulls on one simple lively thread from the classic story of a girl who’s given a glimpse of Neverland: the dread of growing older.

Perched on the precipice of puberty—Peter and Wendy are here cast in the last possible week they can be simultaneously the oldest children and youngest adolescents possible, depending on the angle—here’s a movie that pushes on the urgency of aging. They’re at an age where choices and fantasies mingle—and where growing up might be the biggest, bravest adventure. There’s the usual tangle of business with Lost Boys and Captain Hook and Tiger Lily, though all that’s done with a graceful shorthand. And the beautifully casual diversity of the Boys—some are even girls—and the melancholy backstory for Hook (Jude Law, with more real pain than sneering cartoon) feeds into the ideas of aging as a process by which you discover truths about yourself. To deny yourself, or others, that adventure, even through fantasy, is, after all, a kind of conflict that Lowery’s happy to explore outwards with some fairy tale logic and a bit of piratical swordplay. The film’s most moving moment finds Wendy, having walked off the plank, seeing her life flash before her eyes—but forward, not back. That’s a perfectly sentimental moment. And so, though the movie has swashbuckling with weight and peril, and a grand, old-fashioned Kids’ Adventure spirit, it falls back on that smaller, tremulous time where anything is possible, and the passage of time is just about to fall in with the limits of age and nothing can stay the same.

Much less metaphoric about growing older is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which burgeoning young adulthood is a source of much literal curiosity and angst. Here’s a movie tenderly attentive to the tenderest of times in a girl’s life. Based on the classic Judy Blume book, it tells the story of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), a sixth grader whose life seems to be nothing but changes. Her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) have moved her from New York City to suburban New Jersey. She has a new school with new kids, and suddenly she’s getting crushes on cute boys and needs to ask her mom to go bra shopping for the first time, and her new friend group is made up of popular girls jealously testing their new ideas. Their gossipy preoccupations are starting to make Margaret nervous about when, exactly, she’ll be getting her period. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig keeps the movie loose, light, and episodic, so casually specific about moments in this girl’s life that there’s a generosity of insight just in the act of watching it unfold. There’s a comforting normality to what feels like, to its lead character, the first time anyone’s ever gone through such outsized changes. I suppose it’s true that, though most women go through this, for every woman it’s a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. This movie respects that balance.

But, also true to life, Craig keeps the movie balanced on all manner of youthful preoccupations—grades, parties, holidays, family dynamics, friendships, gossip, and vacations. Here’s a movie about a year in a life that doesn’t hurry toward big climactic melodramas, but instead leans back into the usual ups and downs of young adolescent life. Craig, whose previous film was the sharp and unusually perceptive teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, in which a high schooler’s life goes flailing after her brother starts dating her best friend, is a writer-director smartly able to balance the intensity of youthful emotions with the perspective to see them clearly in a more mature context. So here the girls’ fluttering of fears and fantasies is both intensely focused and cut with cute dramatic ironies. They don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s exciting and exasperating all at once for them, and their loved ones. The movie becomes a fully realized world for Margaret, a cozy 70s period piece that doesn’t condescend to its times or its characters. It simply lets them be.

Here’s a movie that knows life is a continual process of self-discovery. As such, it has the conviction to also dig plainly into thornier issues of family and spirituality, as our lead finds herself questioning whether she should be Christian like her mother or Jewish like her father. Neither parent particularly cares, but her loving paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates) and estranged maternal grandparents certainly do. The movie has a multi-generational generosity as it brings to life a story of mothers and daughters—especially in McAdams’ glowingly natural performance, built entirely out of lovely grace notes and simple gestures that communicate so much love and good intentions built out of an aging uncertainty. It ties Margaret and her mother together, as potential adolescent conflicts share space with an older vision of daily social struggles. Here’s a movie that says you’re never too old to feel awkward, and never too young to start discovering your confidence. You just have to find those who love you either way. Craig’s compassionate and clear approach is both respectful and honest—just the encouraging balance a young audience might need, and their parents can appreciate. This is a charming movie—so sweet and simple that it casts the gentlest of spells, and clears space for earning its characters’ learning.