Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tully (2018)

In my eyes, the rapport of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody proves to be one of the most eminent examples of cinematic "checks and balances." If one were to overpower the other, it could easily lead to things going awry. Jason Reitman is quite adept at adding a real heartfelt nature to his films, but at any given moment, one wrong turn or one precipitous decision could make it feel dissonant and tame. Diablo Cody has knife-edged sensibilities in relation to dialogue, but if left with too much power, it too has the potential to veer into the territory of self-impressed, contrived, annoyingly snarky, and vain hipness meant for the writer to chuckle at.

While both these individuals haven't really produced a "failure" or "miscalculation," they are both such disparate, eccentric filmmakers that you are almost waiting for the other shoe to drop. However, when together, they manage to create deliriously offbeat, yet stunningly humane films; films in which you can see the synergy and feel the sincerity. While Young Adult remains unseen by me, Juno, in my book, is the epitome of the all-encompassing vision and paradigm for a Cody/Reitman film: a quirky protagonist trying to figure out life, most often than not hiding behind Cody's acerbic, quick-witted dialogue, yet slowly exhibiting raw, unfathomable emotions.

However, with their most recent film, they've seemed to strip away, or at least understate, the gleeful quirkiness and hyper-sassy inclinations of their previous works and emphasize an emotional core more helplessly bruised than an apple used for a game of racquetball. It's bitter, it's eccentric, it's often painful, and it's a Cody/Reitman film. This time, they've introduced us to Tully.

Well, moreso Marlo, played by Charlize Theron. She's a mother of two and has recently given birth to a baby girl. However, her existence is anything but glamorous. She drudges through life disheveled and tired. She's let herself go, has no substantial emotional support from her husband, and her son has developmental issues, which cause him to be removed from school. At the suggestion of her brother, Marlo hires a night nanny, Tully, to care for the baby. Day by day, nursing session after nursing session, they form a special bond, which seems to enliven Marlo. However, how long shall this last?

Much like Marlo, this films drudges at a very quiet, muted pace, in a good way. In fact, the film doesn't particularly progress narratively, but veraciously. It doesn't exist to tell a story, but to showcase a barely living soul. Yes, we get Diablo Cody's typical brand of sharp, searing humor, but here, especially early on, any anecdote strikes coldly. Sometimes, vestiges of dark humor are sneaked in obliquely, such as Marlo and Tully having a heart-to-heart, all the while stealing bikes. This film subverts a content, fulfilling dream into a land of brutal seclusion. The characters, in the beginning, have scant emotional interactions. The aura, however, never feels one of detestation, but merely attempted adjustment. Life's a drone, but they know why they resume with the course of their lives.

It's rather refreshingly ironic that the emotional core of the film is it's weirdest character, Tully. She's a free spirit, she seems to have a very askew understanding of personal space, and hell, she encourages Marlo into having a threesome with her and Marlo's husband. She seems to almost have a quasi-homoerotic fascination with Marlo. She, along with a public school teacher from one scene, are some of the oddest characters and they're written with the most vim. This film seems to argue that unorthodox is, at the very least, exciting and relationships like these can be the most stimulating. The fact that Tully is a night nanny also introduces a special edge that works to the film's advantage. The dark, shaded, isolation of the night time makes it the most auspicious time for these ladies to fortify their bond.

However, given a succeeding plot twist (God have mercy to ANYONE who shall soil it for the unknown), it becomes apparent that Tully is more than just a name. It's a position, a service, an unorthodox, invigorating individual. Sometimes, it's found in the most unlikely of places. The way the film expresses this and brings it all home is the most crushing, devastating, yet fervently uplifting portion of the film. In true Cody/Reitman fashion, it's both life-affirming and disillusioning all at the same time.

One aspect of the film that I particularly noticed moreso than other Cody/Reitman films was the cinematography. Frequent Reitman collaborator, Eric Steelberg, has produced some of the most inciting, evocative camerawork I've ever seen. His camera seems to be as riveted and on edge as the viewers. The framing is, curiously, off-kilter at times, with some aspects of the shot not being totally in focus or only half in focus, but it manages to be the most assuredly applicable method of displaying the ennui and anguish of Marlo. All the while, is it aggressively taut and painfully observant.

Centered directly in front of that camera is the plaintive, haunting, checked-out face of Charlize Theron, delivering one of her strongest performances of her career. While she is physically presented as neglecting her body and flushing from her face and her skin spotlighting all of the particular blemishes, Theron emotionally uses very little embellishments. It's as if she has detached herself externally from any patent expressions of visceral exacerbation, but internally she is slogging through an unrelenting, unbearable battle. It's a staggeringly powerful, unadorned acting job, with her weapons of choice being a woeful, unfortunate comic timing, and an exhausted drained daze that says nothing and everything simultaneously. Her few histrionic outbursts are all parts hilarious, robust, and heartbreakingly captivating.

However, as strong as Theron is, I refused to overlook the transfixing performance of Mackenzie Davis as Tully. This role is actually a relatively tough one, because it would be so simple to be trapped in the pitfalls of the clichéd guardian/angelic helping hand who smiles, inspires, magically heals all of the problems, and leaves. What Davis does it that she never comes off as unctuous. Within two minutes of her appearance, she establishes Tully as a stoic, vibrant, entranced, and undisciplined young woman. She dons a hopeful gleam in her eyes, yet secretly radiates complexities that never seem to be fully addressed, resolved, or discussed about.

During this film, I never felt that I was watching it. I felt like I was experiencing it. I wasn't watching Theron transmogrify her body. I saw a mother who had given up trying to better herself. I saw Diablo Cody not writing dialogue, but boldly, brazenly letting out a therapeutic ululation for stressed-out mothers. I saw Jason Reitman not creating, but allowing; allowing us to laugh with, cry with, and pity this woman stuck in a beautifully hopeless part of her existence. Yes, I understand the aforementioned plot twist can be seen as quite damning, but the way I see it, it merely delivers the message that we all need a Tully. Sometimes, it just takes a moment to take a look in front or beside of you.

This isn't Diablo Cody or Jason Reitman's best film, but it's their most tragically consummate one. Throughout this film, I felt that this was the signal for the end of a chapter. Given the go-for-broke, subversive spirit and tilted humanity of Juno and Young Adult, this feels like what happens when that type of heedless immaturity and vital persistence comes to a dead end, leaving behind a battered, nakedly broken, lost soul. I can almost imagine Cody and Reitman saying to each other, "Now what?" after filming concluded. Whether you two have a few more films in you or not, I can only hope that you two can keep each other in line.

Also, Charlize, you can rough-up yourself all you want. You literally are still smoking hot, no matter how stretchy your skin is.

RATING: An enthusiastic three stars out of four



Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Quiet Place (2018)

You know, I think I've put my finger even harder on the true reason that modern horror films have been so stodgy. Now, for the record, I do feel that horror films have seen a minor shift of improvement, particularly with films such as Don't Breathe and Get Out. However, the positive reception of these films, in retrospect, seems less like mere surprise for such solid pieces of filmmaking and more like a desperately relieved expression of gratitude. It's as if one were trapped on a desert island for weeks and starving, then some random deus-ex-machina arrived with three years worth of Thanksgiving dinners, complete with apple pies.

However, to me, there is one element crucial to a strong, effective, palpable horror film: surprise. Now, this sounds relatively basic, but think about it. The feeling of horror stems from uncertainty, the unknown. Yes, shock can play into a horror film's appeal and strengths and it often does, but what filmmakers forget is that the shock is the aftermath, never the forethought. When a victim is about to be killed in a slasher film, the horror lies not particularly in the killing, but the lack of knowing beforehand as to whether they will be OK or not. The best supernatural horror films worked because (a) the uncertainty of the supernatural force or its source and (b) whether or not anyone will survive. Hell, even jump scares, at their core, can be scary because they deceived you into a false sense of comfort. You surrendered your conflicting thoughts of uncertainty and built a trust in the moment, only to have it be bludgeoned directly after.

The problem is that Hollywood typically thinks, plans, and executes according to trends. So, once a trend is spotted, there goes the surprise. So long were the days of shocking slasher films, because once it was all about being shocking, there went the initial, identifiable appeal that made them stand out. Gone were the days of scary supernatural horror films of the unknown because...shit, it wasn't unknown anymore! Everything was telegraphed and as easily marketable as possible.

And with A Quiet Place, it does seem to have an aura in the advertisements as a more marketable version of Don't Breathe. This could, possibly, be in part due to it being centered around a family, having slightly more prominent actors, and it seems to use word-of-mouth more to its cunning avail. So, seeing how it comes across as a more marketable version of one of the most unique, tense horror films of this decade, surely there's nothing more that could be added to a film with a similar premise, right?

Well...all I'll say is that A Quiet Place is actually quite an uncomfortable place, in ways better than its competition.

The films begins in a quasi-I Am Legend fashion. The year is 2020 and many places have been virtually evacuated. Stores are derelict and practically overturned and there's an unsettling serenity that lingers over these areas. Well, that's because sightless creatures are lurking about and when they detect a noise, they're ready to kill. In one town, Lee and Evelyn are married with three children and one on the way, trying to survive from these creatures. It's made harder on them when one of their three children, the youngest of the three, is killed by one of these creatures. Through it all, they valiantly do everything in their power to survive, with Lee trying to send a distress signal for them to be rescued.

I think it's revealing that Don't Breathe is a really good film and yet, this film manages to be 10 times better, specifically for two reasons. One: the situation and atmosphere are more dire. In Don't Breathe, there were brief pauses in the suspense to whisper and formulate. Plus, the last third kinda turned into a Human Centipede-esque, quasi-gross out film, albeit very muted and very well-done. Here, sound is virtually abolished and the creatures aren't some manipulative, cunning creeps. They're spry, bloodthirsty monsters, who will strike at even an ioda of recognizable sound. So, there is very sparse time to regroup and out-think them. If they catch you, there's no turning back.

This film really is scarier than Don't Breathe. It is the first horror film where I actually had to cover my eyes, because I was that horrified for these characters. Director/co-writer John Krasinski (yes, "Jim from The Office" John Krasinski) plays around so much more with the idea of sound being your worst enemy. In this film, though, it seems to dive into more about the need for liberation; the need for release. You pray for sound, just so they don't have to feel confined, yet you dread any sound because it could indicate their swift, fatal downfall.

And that need for liberation slightly plays into the other reason why this film is better than Don't Breathe: the emotional investment. In Don't Breathe, there was some substantial, shrewd character development, but it wasn't exactly bloated with transcendent, heartfelt emotion. Now, this isn't a disadvantage on Don't Breathe's side. It probably wouldn't have been as good if it did try to be heartfelt or emotionally raw. This film tries for that and it works extraordinarily well to its advantage. Not only are the characters adequately developed, but they all have a sweet, damaged core to them, seeing how they are all reeling from the loss of a family member.

The emotion of the film is firmly established and explored with before the tense scenes, making the characters more identifiable. The most gripping scenes were, obviously, the horror scenes. However, the most powerful scenes, the ones that lingered the heaviest, were the emotional scenes. One specific scene is straightforward in execution, oblique in meaning, and poignant in feeling. It's a scene that occurs between Lee and his son. They have experienced some liberation, as they are able to talk and yell at a waterfall where the creatures can't hear them. Eventually, they have a talk relating to the events that killed his younger brother. Lee says, "It's no one's fault," then it immediately cuts to Evelyn back at the house, crying.

In this scene, Lee and the son are able to relieve some stress and anguish, but she is unable to. She needed to hear that, too, to feel, again, some liberation, but in that moment, she is still carrying that pain, that emotional baggage, in addition to the horror of anybody leaving the house not returning. The potency of this scene makes it one of the strongest emotional moments of this or any other horror film. Another scene that stood out in the emotional department is during the morning after Evelyn gives birth. They both say, "It's a boy," but monotonously, with no joy, no verve, and undistracted by the situation at hand. They have not been put in any position to revel in this moment or enjoy it and given their environment, you can hear the mature, controlled level of not guilt, but moreso fear that strikes them in the soul. They have another body that could be gone as swiftly as it came. It's astounding how a horror film can pack an emotional punch on a human level, not just a visceral, self-inserting level.

On a technical level, this film excels at well. In a film focused on sound, they certainly use it in hauntingly effective ways. When any mere sound occurs, it's punctuated with all the bombast of a Transformers battle. To be fair, it could've just been me seeing it in Dolby in a reverberant, interactive chair, but given how the sound editors also worked on Transformers films, I'm going to just assume they know what they're doing. Even further, specific moments have no diagenic sound at all, in order to reflect the perspective of the daughter, who is deaf. A certain sound from hers does play into the climax and while I did go back and forth on whether I thought it was satisfactory or too simplistic, I feel that, in the end, it's clever how it's utilized.

The score, composed by former Wes Craven collaborator Marco Beltrami, has a specific motif to it, which adds to the ambiance. It's as if he, too, is aware of the character's limitations of sounds and uses the repetitiveness of the music as a way to keep everything in balance and safe. Wise work, Mr. Beltrami. The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen is beautifully brutal and dour. What's surprising is that for a film based on taut limitations, the shots are vast and wide and aren't claustrophobic in the slightest, which adds more seclusion and pain. Sure, the shots of the forest look gorgeous, but it is all imbued with that debasing feeling of separation and loneliness. Granted, there are some tight shots, but only when the tensions mounts up. Whatever the tone, Christensen uses the camera deftly and impeccably. The creatures themselves, while CGI, are actually some of the most realistic creatures I've seen in a horror film. They are actually crafted with a lot of detail and grotesque personality, particularly when the film hones it on the creatures' ear canals.

And of course, seeing how the emotion of the film is so powerful, the performances are all excellent. John Krasinski and Emily Blunt are married in real life, so it makes the chemistry and closeness of their characters of Lee and Evelyn all the more tangible, believable, and moving. Krasinski has a contemplative, emotionally intuitive, warmly thoughtful vibe that I've ever seen from him and Emily Blunt probably gives her best performance yet, being naturally sycophantic to fit the moment, which seeing how the director's her husband...yeah, I guess that's kind of a given. Her performance balances a humble pluckiness and a searing vulnerability, particularly in a scene where she has to hide from the creatures, all the while struggling with an injury. Oh, and while giving birth, too.

The performances are all great because they don't exaggerate or indicate the emotions. To complement the minimal audio, they play their characters simply and gently, only ratcheting up the emotion when it's fitting. The best student of this technique of raw naturalism is young up-and-comer Millicent Simmonds, playing the deaf daughter (while being deaf in real life) with a relatable defiance, a controlled sense of pathos, and a mild sneer.

You know, in an era where most, if not all forms of entertainment, are fighting to be symbolic, or outspoken, or trying to be complimentary with current, topical issues and climates, it's refreshing to see a film that's just a straightforward, scary film with a mildly subversive twist. I hear John Kransinski himself trying to preach that this film is supposed to be both a metaphor for parenthood and for our political situation. While I understand what he's trying to say, can't we all just enjoy entertainment for being entertainment, like we used to, every now and then? Just this once? However, I'm not upset or mad at him for this. I think this stems from something that actually is an enlightening thing to witness: we're getting bored with merely entertainment. Millennials, Generation Z, whomever you want to label, we want to progress, we're working towards progression, and we want our entertainment to reflect that. While I'm pleased to see creators of any form of media play around with satire or with complex social commentary, I choose to view this film as entertainment that manages to be horrifying, heartfelt, and technically adroit.

Wow, Michael Bay! You actually can be subtle. All you need is to keep letting other people direct movies for you. Sounds like a plan to me!

RATING: Three-and-three-quarters stars out of four

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Love, Simon (2018)

I can only describe it, assumedly, as being preternaturally complementary, mildly annoying, and a lethargic default when a really solid, critically-acclaimed, emotionally accurate teenage film is compared to the works of John Hughes. We've all seen it happen more than once and at first glance, it doesn't particularly seem to make sense. While of course it's easier, albeit less artistically nor personally fulfilling, to make a bad teen film, as opposed to a good one, and we suffered through an epoch of pretty juvenile, insufferable ones, typically relying on crude humor rather than crude truths, the good teen films we have received lately aren't exactly scant in supply.

However, what those good teen films have now that the good John Hughes teen films had then were an unfiltered perceptiveness of teenage sensibilities, legitimate humor that bridged the generational gap of the audience, an affectionate identifiability for their characters, and a variously executed, yet primordial feeling of isolated anguish.

I could create a post comprised solely of the names of these modern teenage films that possess these attributes, but today, we're talking about love...

Simon.

The film centers around our aforementioned protagonist. On the surface, he has a happy life with a warm, sweet-natured family and very dear friends. However, he has a deep secret: he is a closeted homosexual. The pressure to maintain this secret becomes slightly more bearable, in the wake of becoming online pen-pals with a secret admirer, who happens to go to his school and is also in the closet. In the midst of strengthening this developing relationship and trying to find the man behind the messages, he also must help a fellow schoolmate try and get with one of his friends or else his secret will be revealed to the entire school.

I could begin by merely reiterating the obvious cultural significance and emotional, moral bravura of having the homosexual identity of a character be the narrative focus of a film, but I'd rather discuss what makes it so strong in the context of this film and other teenage coming-of-age films, because much like Simon, there's more beneath the surface. Most coming-of-age films are about exhibiting the psychological and emotional metamorphosis of a character (hence the term, coming-of-age), but in most of those, it's usually facilitated and affiliated with a love relationship between the character and another, typically of the opposite sex, or it's linked with an incipient friendship and all its peaks, valleys, and revelations. 

In this film, yes, the plot revolves around Simon trying to figure out his mystery lover, but the main atmosphere of his story can be described with an adjective I just used: isolation. It's not the simplistic trope of one character bringing another character out of his shell or making him think more maturely. Most teen films rely on rapport, but this film is first and foremost about Simon discovering himself as a gay man. It's not about someone else necessarily making him grow, but about him growing on his own. The interactions with his mystery lover, while they do give him some valor and motivation, don't bring him totally out of his comfort zone. Because the other person involved is anonymous, the mood of the film is still taut, anxious, and once again, isolated, which mirrors the tangible feeling of dealing with your sexuality.

One specific feat of the film is that Simon's plight for concealing his sexuality doesn't center around intolerance, ostracization, or derision per se. Hell, he describes his family as "progressive." It's merely based around his contentedness on when he chooses to come out. One of the most emotionally effective scenes is when Simon berates a character for putting him into an awkward position, simply stating, "I wanted to come out on my own time and you took that away from me."

It's not always about the environment or about self-doubt, but rather a matter of specific, desired timing. Teenagers don't typically get to choose their schedules for anything. Their sexuality and when they choose to disclose it is usually (emphasis on usually) the one thing they can control. Kudos to screenwriters Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger for being able to comment on this, giving the gay-identity narrative a more heartfelt, honest, stripped-down angle to it.

Also, kudos to the screenwriters and for director Greg Berlanti for crafting a film this riotously funny. Not only is it funny, not only is it penetratingly funny, not only is it skeweringly funny, but it gives the opportunity for all of the characters to be funny. There are a lot of teen films that disproportionately allocate the humor, giving big laughs to some characters and mere cutesy, kitschy jokes for others.

This film is refreshingly inclusive, not only giving us big laughs from the teen characters, but from the parents, the principal (played with sheer, awkward virtuosity by Tony Hale), and even from the black drama teacher, who gets some real gut-busters. One example being when she confiscates a mini audio speaker from two troublemaking students and states she's going to sell it and use the money to get her tubes tied.

The performances are also uniformly, specifically precise. Nick Robinson has all the courage, vulnerability, and angst needed for the role of Simon, Jennifer Garner gives one of her most inviting, natural performances in years as Simon's mother, Josh Duhamel is stunningly, complexly fragile as Simon's dad, Logan Miller has a helplessly awkward gusto that he lends to the role of Martin, the schoolmate who blackmails Simon, and this film also managed to rope in two actors from Thirteen Reasons Why (Miles Heizer as Cal and Katherine Langford as Leah, one of Simon's closest friends). Given the themes of that show, they basically are legally required to give good performances, which they do.

HOWEVER...I do have one gripe with this film and I will do my best to explain without the use of spoilers, but it involves a fallout with Simon and his friends. For a film that's so meditative and insightful about gay identity and coming out and what not, I felt that this particular scene needed to be more thoughtful. There were so many more nuances and quiet, profound, emotionally consummate beats that could've been tapped into had they chosen a more warm, empathetic, and mature approach to this moment, instead of focusing on, in the grand scheme of things, mild errors on Simon's part and trying to penalize him at his most emotionally fragile state of being, without realizing the root cause.

Despite this, I commend this film. I commend this film for being able to make sexual identity both a hardship and a normalcy. I commend this film for being biting with its humor and with its truths. To me, this is the Same Love of "gay movies." It's not the first example of this kind of film. It's not the most harrowing example of this kind of film, but it's a universal breakthrough; that one step closer for the term "gay movie" to be not some simplistic appellation, but merely a component that doesn't define, but complements a film. And for that, I thank you.

Love, Stephen.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Foreword: "Oh, Stephen! Great timing! Way to get on this on the dregs of its popularity." I...well...eh.

So, I think it's official now. Sorry to all the milquetoast, simple-film-palate-possessing, sappy, romance-yearning, middle-aged, suburban white women of America, but black people have officially claimed and annexed the month of February, as far as movies go. The full-on invasion came last year with Get Out, a horror film that not only confronted the shrillness of white oblivion and ignorance and the ugliness of white, pseudo-bleeding heart passivity and sanctimony, but also delivered on its own as an eccentric, dark, penetrating comedy and an engrossing, visually unique horror film with a pro-black twist. Seriously, the black guys survived in the end. If that isn't iconoclastic of horror tropes, I don't know what is.

This year, we have...well, you've seen the title of the review, the box office returns, the impact it's had on the audience, the mystifying amount of toy revenue, which has since been stalled due to short supply, and you're still listening to Pray for Me on the radio, either voluntarily because it's rad or involuntarily because...fuck it, it's either this or Post Malone.

I can only purport that this is an ancillary cultural riposte to the Trump presidency; an effort by African-American filmmakers to rebut his notion of making America great again by making February at the movies great again. This is Black Panther! Hear it roar!

The film takes place in Wakanda, formed ions ago when four of five African tribes united after a war over a meteorite containing vibranium. When a warrior ingested an herb containing the material, he became the Black Panther. Vibranium is used in Wakanda to produce advanced technology and sustain their world, which is subterranean beneath a Third World country. T'Challa becomes the Black Panther after his father's death. When Erik Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue steal a Wakandan artifact, T'Challa, along with fellow Wakandian native, Okoye, and his former lover, Nakia head off to find and arraign them.

However, it is soon discovered there is more to Killmonger. He actually is the cousin of T'Challa, whose father killed Kilmonger's for spreading the secret of vibranium outside of the secure parameters of Wakanda. When Killmonger confronts what he sees as sheer betrayal to his fellow brothers and a disgustingly selfish refusal to help the world outside of Wakanda, he fights to seize the throne and become the Black Panther.

It's one thing for a superhero movie to excel due to a grand vision, a cult of personality, and visually striking, enthralling entertainment, but this is the first superhero film I see that is purely, unmitigatedly driven through vicious emotion and provocative, searing content. This film has so many cogent statements and allegories of black power, black culture, and black progression, sometimes expressed in straightforward, bold lines or through scraping, biting humor.

Consider a scene where Okoye dons a wig to look casual when on the trail to find Klaue. She says to Nakia, "I can't wait to get this thing off my head," celebrating black hair, or in her case, no hair, and attacking not just the stigma of black hair, but those who actively attempt to smother, forcibly conceal, and outwardly sublimate their natural style for cultural acceptance and to abscond ridicule. Or how about another scene where Erik Stevens, a white CIA officer who ends up allying with T'Challa, is barked at by an African tribe, identically to how blacks were barked at by...you see where I'm going with this. That specific moment is one of the most brazenly brilliant scenes I've seen in the MCU, in black cinema, and in all of cinema.

It's also enlightening, albeit completely applicable, that the superheroism of this universe is not a gross, lucky error or some horrid permutation, but actual power; a standard to strive and aspire for. It's not something to conceal or employ as a gimmick for an alter ego, but something to embrace and exhibit loudly and proudly and also is embedded intrinsically.  However, there is one theme that is conveyed both naturally and allegorically: black loyalty. This film seems to abhor betrayal on all parts: Killmonger's betrayal toward the protocol and structure of Wakanda, T'Chaka and N'Jobu's betrayals toward each other as brothers, and T'Challa's betrayal to the outside, indigent world. 

The film doesn't impugn radicalism, nor it is solely about finger-wagging at T'Challa for its seclusion and excessively stringent preservation of Wakanda, but it is moreso about finding the middle ground that preserves our bond. Destruction in the name of black grievances isn't inherently wrong, nor is a self-aggrandizing appreciation of black power, but either way, it is imperative to understand the source; the source of the destruction and the source of your acquisition of power, and determine whether or not you're justifying either. It's the ones who stand with our black brothers and sisters unconditionally that contribute to our progression and our incipient, ferocious strength.

The notion of understanding the source is, in my opinion, best conveyed in the first scene involving the Ancestral Place, which is, oddly enough, my favorite scene of the film. T'Challa enters the gorgeously, serenely dark Ancestral Place and is first confronted by the ancestors existing as black panthers. Again, how evocative and symbolic! Standing awestruck, face-to-face with black panthers who have to confront and fight the same struggles for generations and possess an almost melancholic, watchful alacrity for the next Black Panther to carry the torch. He then converses with his recently deceased father, who states, "A father's job is to prepare his child for his death. Have I failed you?" I've never cried at a movie before the half-hour mark and I still haven't, but this was the closest I've come to it. It is the apex of this film's masterful integration of content, emotion, and visual marvel.

On that note, let's talk about what keeps those butts into those seats. The visuals and action sequences are some of the most sprightly, rousing, and vivacious to ever exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The universe of Wakanda is one of the most vivid, captivating, and awesome settings ever portrayed on screen. When Wakanda shows any portion of its universe, you are locked in, continually impressed by this self-sufficient universe, crammed with surprises, yet always functioning and portrayed as a world filled with culture, nobility, and veneration. It's the most embracing, congratulatory, stately expression of Africa in pop culture since...shit, The Lion King?

The battle scenes are all marvelous, as well. While it's easy to immediately draw attention to the climactic battle scene or the stakes-driven, motive-fueled duels, my favorite is the casino fight, solely because a portion of it is done in ostensibly one continuous shot. This could seem dull and dissonant if done incorrectly, but the way the camera glides, rotates, and swerves up, down, and around is utterly immaculate. I feel that several Oscars should be in order for this film, obviously in visual design, but also for set design, costume design, lighting (why not), and for cinematography.

I personally would also give an Oscar nod to the score, a.k.a. the greatest superhero movie score ever! Move over, Williams! Take notes, Elfman! Hear it and weep, Silvestri! Ludwig Goransson has crafted, as of writing this, the most sweeping score of 2018, marrying a standard orchestral score with beautiful, percussive African soundscapes and hip-hop sensibilities. Of course, at the marketing center of this film is a pulpable soundtrack produced by hip-hop's Black Panther, Kendrick Lamar.

Kudos to director/writer Ryan Coogler, for not merely having a knack for timing and for effective storytelling, but also for talent. Not only does he reunite with Goransson, but also with Michael B. Jordan, portraying Killmonger. He and all the actors deliver potent, gripping, gut-wrenchingly nuanced performances. I honestly loathe that Killmonger is being marketed as the villain, because Jordan portrays him not as villainous, but as lost and as sincerely ardent for change; as someone who wants to repair, which he was not given the luxury of. Chadwick Boseman owns this role as Black Panther, being flexible and malleable to handle the nuances and gravitas, but also genteel and confident enough that he typifies what power is, in more ways than one.

Lupita Nyong'o plays it straight more-or-less as Nakia, but her presence is one with ripe with bonhomie and a sweet nature that you can't help but admire her. She exhibits enough valorous hope to inspire change, yet never intrudes on anyone else's sensibilities because she doesn't need to. She singularly empowers herself. Danai Gurira is ferally effective as Okoye, display doughty, steadfast, warrior sensibilities and a pitch-perfect comic timing. Oh, and remember when I discussed Get Out? Well, I'll be damned if this film and Get Out share an actor: Sir Daniel Kaluuya. I recall stating in my Get Out review that I was uncertain as to whether his performance was star-making. I guess I was right, but hell, if it means seeing his chill, charismatic smile in more movies, that's all I really need.

This film is not escapism. Escapism is just that: an escape; a means of circumventing the wretched realities of the modern world. This film is here, forcing us to confront the ugliness and inescapable blemishes of our world. What begins as a superhero film unveils as a story of hope, but with an undercurrent of pessimism. It states that we can and should use power to forward and ameliorate the conditions of mankind, but as long as the need to sustain power exists, it'll truly never be without its kinks.

I honestly get ebullient, thinking about a child of today growing up with this film yearly. As is, he'll see the visual flair, the epic narrative, and he'll hunger for that extra action figure, but I can't wait for that boy/girl to become a man/woman and can finally comprehend it. I don't know if we'll have another Black Panther or not, but to me, it's crucial that we don't. Let's not undermine the importance of this film, a film that manages to both conform to and evade the confines of being a sheer popcorn flick with numerous marketing potential. Once the magic of those toys are relocated elsewhere, the magic of this film will stick around. It sure has for me, earning the ranking of being my favorite superhero film of all time and being my favorite film of 2018 so far.

So yeah, Marvel. On behalf of all black people, you're welcome.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

You know, I think that this current time, more than never, is when audiences truly constitute what is classified as a flop. Sure, flops have existed since before the days of Ed Wood and his gobsmacking pictures, but I must ask: Has any group of consumers ever had second thoughts over their dissenting views of a film after they see it advertised as "Certified Fresh." That emblem didn't stop people from persisting that The Good Dinosaur is one of PIXAR's most mediocre pieces of work, or purporting that La La Land is overrated fluff, designed to appeal to the most pedantic, square and/or most trendy-nostalgia-loving crowd and possibly to spark a racial outcry if the Oscars night hadn't ended the way it did, or angrily insisting that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an appalling facsimile; a featureless, corporate product bereft of any sort of identity...

Or from The Last Jedi being described as "divisive." *sigh* Time for me to jump on that hype bandwagon.

The film begins with the First Order hot on the trail of the Resistance. During battle, Poe Dameron executes a counterattack on the First Order, which is successful in context of his intentions, but causes many deaths on his part. Soon after, Finn awakes, recovering from the wounds he obtained in the previous film. He embarks on a mission, along with a mechanic named Rose, the sister of one of the women killed in the battle, to find the Master Codebreaker to earn them access onto the main Destroyer and disable their tracking device.

Meanwhile, Rey has discovered Luke Skywalker on a remote island, beleaguered, disheveled, and a self-disgraced Jedi, who believes that he should be the last Jedi. In spite of this, he begrudgingly agrees to train Rey on the Force. However, he is getting some uncomfortable vibes from her, akin to his failed protégé, Kylo Ren.

One aspect of this film that struck me, moreso than in the last film, was the cinematography. I mean, it's gorgeous, to be sure, but it also feels more concentrated this time around. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin frames the film with such crisp focus and ferocious intent that it immediately transports the viewer and not merely engages them into this universe, but strikes it down on them in a good way. It's almost daring you not to paying attention to the obvious visual tricks (i.e. the green screen and certain obvious CGI moments) and instead instructs you to comprehend the weight of everything. It immerses the viewer into the environment and the emotions. And, oh boy, are there plenty of emotions!

When it comes to the emotional level, this is the strongest in the Star Wars franchise. Every possible feeling (the sadness, the excitement, the tension, the uncertainty, the confusion, the angst) is delivered with an august boldness to it. Every emotional moment just gives a searing, aggressive punch to the gut. The action sequences are more captivating in this film, not due to the visuals themselves, but because the stakes and the ramifications are more intense. Not only does every death hit home, but every almost-death feels that much more like a frightening close call. This is the first Star Wars film I've seen where the characters truly seemed in peril for their life.

It is, to my surprise, also the most philosophical and the most cerebral film in the series. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson has taken the controls of the Millennium Falcon this time and certainly possesses experience from off-beat films, such as Brick and The Brothers Bloom, to another intricate, Nolan-esque science-fiction film, Looper. He brings principles and ideas to this film that are second-to-none for this franchise. The idea of themes such as loss, love, failure, and regret being tackled sounds corny, but it is incredibly, powerfully cogent. The disgruntled master or the former wizard denouncing his own teachings is nothing new, but with Luke Skywalker, his perceived mistakes and his temperament and reaction to them bring a nihilistic, yet veritable edge to the film, stating that the Force shouldn't be used to deify Jedis because hell, it's not life's emollient. Life still exists, in spite of it.

It goes even further from that. In this film, the Force has telepathic benefits and Rey is able to communicate with Kylo Ren. The interaction between them is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of the film, as it's a rivalry with an element of potential respect and profundity. They both detect the same vibe in each other: the same ineffable facet that terrifies Luke Skywalker. However, Kylo wants Rey to cross over to the Dark Side and Rey wants Kylo to convert out of the Dark Side and reconnect with his good side and heal his inner trauma and turmoil, in relation to his family troubles.

However, in the midst of all this emotional bargaining between the two, Kylo sends Rey to her own personal darkness, with Rey expecting to confront some unpleasant moments of her past, but she finds no answers. Her silver lining seems to lie in the possibility of Kylo being reformed. Luke Skywalker believes that all darkness should be avoided and when one meets with darkness, they are doomed. However, Rey believes that the cure for darkness is not to ostracize and ignore it, but rather repair it.

That element of Luke's intentional avoidance of darkness pervades through parts of the film is such fiercely, stunningly astute ways, as in a scene where [a cameo I will not spoil] encourages Luke to burn all his teachings, because the Force will still continue to exist and even states the greatest teacher is failure. Typically, I would refrain from comparing a Star Wars movie to Inside Out, but this is some of the most spellbinding screenwriting that the franchise has presented.

The film also manages to get the same great actors of the first film to ameliorate their roles this time around. I could drool over Mark Hamill's impeccable, angst-ridden revamping of Luke Skywalker for hours, as I could over John Boyega, who has thus far not done anything to sully or revert his reputation. Oscar Issac is very effective as the warm-hearted maverick, Poe Dameron. Adam Driver's emo-esque image works impressively well this time around as Kylo Ren. In Force Awakens, when he was merely this force of power, his emo vibe was too distracting and separated me from truly buying the character outside of the mask. Here, it's still present, but when focused on the character's inner conflict and struggle and coming to grips with all parts of himself and how he uses his thoughtless, mindless, insatiable desire for power as a substitute, it is colossally powerful. In this case, the actor doesn't particularly dictate the strength of the character, but moreso the character's functionality and what the character has to confront.

Daisy Redley is, once again, fantastic as Rey, allowing herself to be inquisitive, uncertain, and sensitive internally, while maintaining her surface fortitude. And, of course, Carrie Fisher is a sweetheart. As she displays her warm smile, while simultaneously bearing that plaintive, forlorn gaze, it seems as if she could detect that this would be her swan song. She portrays Princess Leia with her unalloyed heart, unbeknownst to her that she would no longer be able to. R.I.P. to the Princess, indeed.

I can't say that this film tops the immaculate melding of wondrous magic and perfect escapism of Empire Strikes Back, my favorite Star Wars film to date, nor will I controvert the freshness and the ingenuity of the first film. However, this film truly is a triumph for Star Wars and for now. On a logical and emotional level, this film achieves heights previously inconceivable. As much as I adore J.J. Abrams, I'm already mourning for Rian Johnson, as he will not be returning to write and direct the next film. It's rather ironic that the best Star Wars film in years gets the solemn, glum subtitle.

Last Jedi? Fuck that. THIS is the new hope!

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco (2017)

So, how does PIXAR warm us up for the feature presentation this time? The short answer: They don't, but Disney does!

The short film, Olaf's Frozen Adventure, is not only the longest short film to precede a Disney feature film, but it's also their best, boasting beautiful animation, winsomely sweeping music, a breezy, crisp, amusing, and gently profound story, and it provides a return to form for the characters we've grown attached to. If this is any indication, I actually endorse and am anticipating that Frozen sequel.

It's also proof that both Disney and PIXAR can concurrently achieve the same outcome in the same immaculate, beautiful way. I had the same instant, infectiously visceral verdict twice. Frozen makes me happy. Coco makes me happy.

Coco begins with the story of a family that got torn apart. By music, so it seemed. At first, music united a certain husband and wife, but the husband decided to go off and play to the world, leaving the wife to be a single mom. Angered, she abolished all music and began a shoemaking business, which became a family business. Throughout the years, the family had two common bonds: making shoes and hating music.

That is, except for Miguel, who loves music, has a hobby for playing guitar, and idolizes the late musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. His zeal for music drives a wedge, at times, between him and his family. After running away, hoping to seek solace in a talent show for Dia de los Muertos and to confirm that he is his great-grandfather, he stumbles across la Cruz's old guitar. Once he strums it, he's transported to the Land of the Dead. In order to escape, he needs his family's blessing...but it may come at a cost.

This film was a tough one. Not in terms of watching it, but critically perceiving it. I wasn't awash with adjectives, nor was I given the urge to jump out of my seat and proselytize its mature, acute ideas. I was just mesmerized throughout the whole film. To me, the greatest feat of all was how they managed to treat Mexico, not just with dignity and veneration, but also without the sanitized, outsider, Americanized attitude that can linger over films like them. I mean, sure, it's still specifically an American film. The prevailing language is English, the dialogue contains an occasional truism on family and seizing the moment, and the "action climax" sometimes feels a little technical and clichéd, in a way which you've seen in American films.

However, the meticulous detail that has given to Mexico is whoppingly extraordinary. The Spanish they drop is relatively rudimentary and yet it still feels genuine and the niceties in speech of the locals, the all-Spanish signs, and the varied appearances of people are all on point. PIXAR has gone to space, ant farms, France, Scotland, and in prehistoric times, amongst a myriad of other locale, and yet this is the first time I felt that PIXAR immersed themselves in a world unlike their own; a world that seems bigger and more unique than they have ever experienced. Given how they are portraying Mexico, that's an enormous compliment.

And ALL of it is exhibited and constructed with glorious animation. I said that Moana might just be second place, in terms of solely animation in the Disney canon. Now, it's third, because Coco literally has some of the most precise and perfect animation I've ever seen. Ever. The gorgeous, stately colors are perfectly lit and composed, being either evocative and redolent of Mexican culture or contributing to an awe-inspiring universe. There is so much vibrancy, vividity, and virtuosity that describing it all needs a separate thesis. The character designs can be cartoony, but given how the humor is solid, that's just an aspect of the film. There happens to be a dog in this film, similar to the chicken in Moana, but way superior, because he (1) has more an emotional range and (2) is given more to do. The  Even the design of Coco, Miguel's great-great grandmother is resplendent, showcasing every wrinkle and squint to represent her debilitating condition.

In this progressive, bleeding-heart, delicate time in America, it can be seen as either a shrewd personal decision or a shrewd corporate decision on PIXAR's part to cast all Hispanic actors for the voices. Either way, it's a wonderful, gracious decision, as all the actors are perfect, especially ostensibly-12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez, who gives Miguel the innocent strength, juvenile boldness, wide-eyed, effervescent zeal, and the emotional heft needed for the role, as well as displaying an infectious charisma and nuance in the musical sequences.

Speaking of which, it would be a sin to have a PIXAR film with a music-centered narrative and not have music. And when one sets the stage of this having to do with Mexican culture and the recruit at hand is Michael Giacchino, you get a wonderfully indigenous, buoyant, and effective soundtrack, which does include some tunes all sung in Spanish. The song of the film, as stated by everybody, is Remember Me, but not particularly because of the song, but because of the evolutionary journey it travels. First, it's a cute song, then it's used humorously as "the obvious song," and finally, it's used as a painful plea to do just that, while also adding layers of regret and sorrow. All of it is beautifully culminated in one of the most emotional, tear-jerking moments in the Disney-PIXAR collection. *sniffles* Goddamn it, PIXAR! You did it again.

The story and content of Coco is enriching, as well. I wouldn't deem it the most influential (see the Toy Story films) or the most thoughtfully complex (see Inside Out), but it's the most emotionally effective. It manages to tackle death in a way that doesn't totally tackle it. This may seem like a cop-out, but how they add multiple layers to their conceits makes it all surefooted and finessed. The Land of the Dead contains the bridge, where lost ones cross over to the real world, unbeknownst to the living, to be with their families, on Dia de los Muertos. Instantly, it gives hope to not just kids, but adults that all deal with the queries and quandaries of not merely life after death, but the presence of the dead.

However, it doesn't stop there. It turns out there's another world, unbeknownst to the dead. It's a world the dead are sent to when they are forgotten. To kids, this aspect may be a little disorienting or just a simple part of a unique world, but to adults, this is likely one of the most audacious and sympathetically morbid things ever seen on film, specifically those who either don't care about death or don't care where they go afterwards. The insouciance of these attitudes can be stripped away when they ponder how much they contribute now, as a living soul. The film, however, doesn't do it to condescend, but rather inspire to not merely to settle as a human; to actually be a stand-out, but not always in the loftiest superlative.

Through all of this, death is never perceived as the antagonist, or even particularly redoubtable. There is a death scene in the real world, but it's done offscreen. The final scene of the film reinforces this film's tenets that death is life, not merely in the sense of being the final destination, but also in the sense that the dead don't leave. While it's an idea that being presented before, the methods of visual representation, emotional connection, and thematic conveyance as done by Coco make it a distinct, powerful story.

It's odd. The screening I attended was comprised all of adults. Granted, it was 9:00, but given their investment with the film, laughing, blowing their noses, wiping their eyes, akin to I, a 21-year-old, born one year after PIXAR's first film, it affirmed a specific belief of mine: the term, "just a kid's film," is more denigrating and debasing now than it ever has been before. Just because we'll always get our Emoji movies doesn't mean that the vogue isn't for children's film to progress, provoke, and challenge. Where My Little Pony lagged, Coco accomplishes, sustains, and consistently surpasses.

It's also proved my belief that Disney and PIXAR are the gift that keeps on giving. This film, surprisingly, can act as the half of a double feature with Detroit (thematically, of course. Don't try this at home, kids.). Both films possess heavy racial contexts and environments. While Detroit dealt with a group being infiltrated and having to cope with hell, Coco offers hope. In presenting the beauty of a culture and group of people, the film has been treated with respect, not just by the inhabitants of that culture, but by those who view it as foreign. The film offers hope that all cultures and peoples can be treated with the same honor and humanity in real life.

Also, through an ingenious plot twist that I won't spoil, this films offers us the image of an evil, maniacal, dissolute, arrogant figure beloved by many being exposed and censured for being a fraud, a phony, and a criminal. Given what's currently going on in Hollywood and our own society, this is both commentary and wishful thinking. Although, to all you PIXAR execs, keep it in your pants and/or to yourself. I want to belief the insertion of this aspect of this film is allegorical of the ills of our society, not ironic and hapless in revealing the ills of you.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Monday, October 23, 2017

It (2017)

Y'all know that the sole reason that this film is solid is because they covered the best part of the original film, right? Like, are you guys sincerely anticipating part two? I mean, if you are eagerly awaiting for a mummy being warded off by birdcalls, then...different strokes, I suppose.

It's funny. The history of Stephen King film adaptations, be it in theaters or on television, could not be further from spotless than if it was recorded in a notebook doused in warm water and then splattered with Gerber baby food. We all know the classics...and we all know the failures. And yet, out of all of them, the most captivating with audiences seems to be Stephen King's It. But why? Well, I guess that outside of the primary fear presented in the film, which has deemed the film "scary," it's also been the one that's been examined the most critically in the years after its release, with the prevailing discovery being that...*gasp*...it's actually not very scary. Or very structured. Or very good.

While the original, as a whole, is underwhelming (and, at times, ridiculous), I do admit that the first half is effective. Cornball at times, but still effective. Coming 5 years after one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King work of fiction, Stand By Me, the first half is adept in creating an ambience of naïve uncertainty, bravado, and natural camaraderie.

This film is that first half seen through the lens of 2017. Which means better.

The film takes place in Derry, Maine, a town that is witnessing a painful epidemic of missing children. According to the film, deaths and disappearances occur six times the national rate in Derry, Maine. During summer of 1989, seven children are being terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown, personifying each of their most deepest traumas and phobias and possessing the ability to attack any child, having killed the brother of one of the children, Billy, the year before. While horrified and tormented, they make it their mission to band together and destroy the monster.

In our era steeped in a perpetual obsession with nostalgia, there is a retro feel that envelops this film. The intro is shot in such a tint that it resembles the 80s and 90s. The score is gloriously retro and evocative, composed wonderfully by Benjamin Wallfisch. Above all, this film replicates the chemistry of the children in the original film with ease and passion. However, the film melds the amiable, good-natured camaraderie of the past with a 2017 sensibility of having an unflinching, veritable perspective on life and all its niceties.

Director Andy Muschietti, following up his directorial debut, Mama, with this film, perceptively and sagaciously accentuates the fact that these are middle school kids and their vibes and energies are right on the money, displaying raw innocence, adolescent awkwardness, and even unremitting nastiness and puerile vulgarity. Billy, the main character, isn't particularly a leader, so much as he's just unwilling to back down. Each of the other kids manage to inhabit individual authenticities, as opposed to hiding behind their prominent traits.

Beverly demolishes the "token girl" syndromes, allowing herself to be damaged and yet living life straightforwardly, carefree, and, occasionally, even emitting acerbic irony. Ben, the fat kid, is given much more of a heart and a warm humility, rather than just being a victim, and it helps craft an inadvertent, yet a fitting, engaging, and perfectly handled love triangle between him, Beverly, and Billy. My favorite of the bunch was Richie, bearing a fiercely salacious and riotously funny potty mouth. All of the child actors are damn impressive, having the forthright, unadorned nature and spirit that the roles require. As Henry the bully, Nicholas Hamilton gives a deeply cruel and demented performance, looking very similar to the bully from the original and yet beefing him up emotionally. Bill Skarsgard one-ups Mr. Curry as Pennywise. Curry was more entertaining, but Skarsgard is the more loonier and more scarier actor, occasionally resembling Johnny Depp, if Johnny Depp actually still took challenging roles.

Speaking of which, the scares. How are they? Well, to elaborate, the purpose of the novel and the original film, outside of compounding half of America's coulrophobia, seems to ostensibly be to combine fear and tragedy. Fear can spring from tragedy, or they can even be synonymous with each other. I can't speak for the novel, but in the original film, the fear aspect is the focus and seeing how it isn't incredibly scary, it falters. In this film, they coexist splendidly, not only exploiting tragedy, but also inadequacy. This allows for the film to expand, enlarge, and emphasize certain aspects of life to not just project fear, but to damage. Aspects such as racism, deadly fires, realities repeating themselves, personal losses, diseases, even the ramifications of sexual abuse (yeah, it goes there). 

Because the fear is from a provenance that's identifiable and real, it highlights and intensifies the supernatural surface horror even more. Skarsgard's Pennywise outdoes the original in one crucial department: action. In the original, Curry just seemed like some growling, cartoonish monster. I guess the intent was to make him seem more cunning and studied, but...Tim Curry doesn't really do cunning and studied, per se. I just never felt like the kids were in any formidable danger. This film...holy shit. Pennywise is a straight up leviathan, knowing not only how to torment and allure, but how to demonstrate his intentions. There were three specific scenes, in which Pennywise lunged at the kids, all the while shrieking and shaking his head, that absolutely terrified me. All of it comes to a head in a thrilling climax that produces some of the most jaw-dropping and vibrantly freakish special effects I've seen.

So, to condense all this and put it bluntly...pretty scary. Intelligently so, too, thanks to screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman. Also, props to the film company for timing the release of this film to be literally one year after that crazy clown phenomenon of last year. Like...seriously, am I the only one who noticed that?

Watching this film is a breath of relief after having to watch, for the most part, mediocre horror trailers that routinely remind me that we are always going to be awashed with uninspired, churned-out dreck made merely to capitalize on tried-and-true trends, ingratiate with flashier special effects, and to satiate the most simplistic film palates. They also remind me to (a) be grateful of and cherish the shining glories even more and (b) the shining glories will never lose their luster.

It's revealing how certain theatres have already rid themselves of six talking ponies after only two weeks and yet a month-and-a-half later, this film can still draw in a sizeable audience. I guess it's also revealing how up in arms we get when a fresh, enterprising horror film gets its 100% status unjustly stripped. What it reveals is that ingenuity and vigor is profoundly sought after in the horror genre, moreso by audiences than critics. This may not be Get Out, but it's...It.

So....y'all ready for part two? *groans*

RATING: Three-and-a-quarter stars out of four