Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

You know, I stated previously that my main quibble with modern horror films is that, while the expression and feeling of fear is complex, multifarious, and unlimited, the template for these films are anything but. I've also previously provided much acclaim for those that go the extra mile and attempt to match that natural, veritable level of complexity and layered intensity. And that'll be the case with Hereditary. The film both outwardly and obliquely expresses the fear of loss, the fear of failing as a parent, and the fear of perpetuating a negative family legacy. All of this coming from a supernatural horror film.

A24, please don't show any signs of slowing down.

Hereditary opens with a family comprised of husband/father Steve, wife/mother Annie, who works as a miniaturist artist, son Peter, and daughter Charlie. Their grandmother, Ellen, has recently passed away and the family, particularly Annie, is struggling to cope with the loss. The family is put into further turmoil when Charlie dies in a car accident caused by Peter. She soon afterwards meets a lady named Joan, who lost her son and grandson. Joan convinces Annie to communicate with her deceased daughter via a séance. However, this soon produces dire consequences. Will the family be able to recover? And how much did Grandma Ellen know?

With such a distinct, original studio such as A24, it doesn't surprise me that the film has such a unique style of cinematography, thanks to cinematographer Pawel Porgozelski. She has a unique way of framing that is wide, afar, and observant. It focuses on the scene, but gives everything proper space, as if it's letting the mood of the moment be the star. It uses close-ups, but sagaciously and sparingly. When they are used, they are used to probe in on the character's feelings. There are even instances where the camera focuses on the niceties and details of the house, thus personifying the house in a way.

Sonically, the film manages to stand out. While the dialogue is not muted by any means, sound editor Alfred DeGrand amplifies several emotional or minute sounds. Crying, breathing, a clicking tongue, the tinkering of a fork; all are accentuated and given as equal an importance and strength as the actual dialogue. And when we aren't being treated to the brilliant, atmospheric sound design, we get to witness one of the most awe-inspiring, unorthodox horror scores I've ever heard, composed by Colin Stetson. It sounds synth-driven, yet he primarily used vocals and manipulated clarinets to produce a motley of sounds. I haven't been invigorated and transfixed by a horror score to this degree since Herrmann's score for Psycho.

There are a lot of keen narrative moves from director/writer Ari Aster. When I first saw the advertisements, I thought that it would be a subversive, original twist on scary-child horror films, such as Orphan or The Exorcist. However, Charlie's decapitation within the first half-hour struck down that expectation. What's surprising is that the real core of the film is Annie and her slow, neurotic, emotional breakdown, first driven by grief, then by guilt, and finally by obsession.

The film is actually separated into two parts. The first half is a plaintive, meditative study on grief. The second half...is the consistently scary shit. Sometimes, you hear critics throw around superlatives, such as "non-stop," which are really rhetorical and superficial, at best. However, believe me when I say that the second half is nothing but non-stop scares.  The film manages to go beyond jump scares and actually utilizes some rather macabre, visceral methods in order to scare. And given how one adult male left the audience for two minutes at one point, I think it was effective. The fact that I can talk about indelible scares from the moribund, atrophying genre of the supernatural horror film, the genre that's still showing the rotten traces of Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, is astounding, but nevertheless, exemplary. And it all culminates to one of the most artfully bizarre, perverse endings I've seen in quite some time.

The performances are all captivating. Milly Shapiro goes from buoyant, vibrant, shrewd Matilda from Matilda: The Musical to portraying a cold, detached, troubled Charlie in this film. With the paltry screen time she's given, she manages to make an impact and leave you invested 'til her bloody end. Former Naked Brother Alex Wolff portrays Peter as a typical pot-smoking teenager that, emotionally, is rather weak and nakedly vulnerable. He manages to make us feel his angst and malaise without his excessive crying being overkill. Gabriel Byrne as the husband primarily stays in his lane as the straight man to all of the chaos, but he himself gets a few effective moments as he begins to feel the effects of the madness. Ann Dowd is deceptively beguiling as the frighteningly genial friend, Joan.

However, the stand-out, expectedly, is Toni Collette as Annie, looking like Julianne Moore bereft of any rest. Right off the bat, she enters the film drained and exhausted, but fervently and valorously attempting to stay warm. By the end, she's raving mad, desperately trying to get the love back from her family, as well as regain her sanity. The fact that her character is revealed to be a sleepwalker and a miniaturist artist on a time clock to meet her deadline for an art exhibition add to her insecurities and paranoia and seem to merely prod at and exacerbate her mental descent. It's horrifying yet tragically hypnotic to watch, on the level of Jack Torrance from The Shining.

"Spellbinding" is the word I would use to describe this film. Watching this film and how it deftly and effectively balanced genuine emotion and genuine horror made me wonder if this is the wave of the future; if filmmakers and filmgoers, as well, have the same plight of wanting to feel more than just horror. I mean, this generation does seem to be the one giving the most credence and evidence that just because something looks good doesn't mean it is. Given all these demands for change, I don't know if horror films like these are a secondary demand for change or a caution that things are changing. Either way, it looks like these up-and-coming horror filmmakers have inherited some good techniques.

Good work, A24. See you at Oscar time!

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


Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

You know, it's funny how life unfolds.

You start off creating these elaborate plans to keep yourself well-versed with the Star Wars canon, moreso polishing yourself and shaking off any rust. You plan to finish the half of the Star Wars films you haven't seen, or in the case of Attack of the Clones, haven't seen in a while, but then life overworks you, you get sidetracked, box office returns for the newest effort take a surprising turn for the negative, and then you just have to say...

Today, Solo will be judged solo.

The film centers on the lovable scoundrel himself, Han Solo, beginning as a child criminal from Corellia. As a member of a gang, he steals in exchange for food and shelter. However, he attempts to escape Corellia with his girlfriend, Qi'ra, and while he manages to escape, Qi'ra is stopped by officers and Solo vows for their reunion. After a failed stint in the Navy, he soon pairs up with a criminal, Tobias Beckett, and one Wookie, Chewbacca, and they all head off on an adventure to steal a fuel source, coaxium, all along the way encountering a smuggler, Lando Calrissian, and a reunion with Solo's girlfriend, Qi'ra, which may include some dark, awkward implications.

Honestly, the first quarter of this film left me feeling rather empty. I think, through it all, one of my main gripes was with Han Solo himself, Alden Ehrenreich. Now, this is definitely a make-it-or-break-it type of role for him. He's usually known for being a mere aspect in films directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers. He clearly surrounds himself with good company, but it's another thing to be a blockbuster leading man.

Apparently, Lucasfilm hired an acting coach for Ehrenreich shortly after receiving the role and...yeah, it shows. His initial impact and vibe for the first thirty minutes strikes as frustratingly unctuous. Every beat, every emotional shift, his delivery; all of them feel too precisely studied and too tightly disciplined. It feels less like Han Solo and more like an actor praying to God that the audience buys him as Solo.

However, it doesn't help that Solo as a character is hampered by a leaden, generic, appallingly rudimentary story in the movie's opening. This character, who has produced a legacy of being charmingly edgy, has his backstory curtailed to being an ambitious, loose cannon with a heart of gold, who is determined to be a pilot, despite him being an undisciplined ruffian. Oh, and his main pursuit is simply a girlfriend, because apparently, Star Wars films really like to take characters with ambiguous backgrounds and gargantuan spirits and dilute that package down to, "Sigh! I need my girlfriend back. Fuck power! Fuck the Force! I need love!"

The story begins so underwhelmingly that the most simple revelations of Solo's backstory feel contrived and forced. For example, it turns out Han Solo's name was given by a Naval officer because, fuck it, he has no family and he's there Solo. For a name with such gravity and such innumerable possibilities, it seems to be introduced, resolved, and brushed over rather abruptly. Or how about the fact that Solo's meeting of Chewbacca boiled down to Chewbacca was going to eat him and Solo managed to talk/roar his way out of it. Ignoring the fact that he doesn't speak Wookie to Chewbacca for the rest of the film, why couldn't there have been another monster trying to eat Solo and Chewbacca saves him from it? That would be more interesting than this humdrum, too-recycled-even-for-Disney route.

On that note, the first 30 minutes of the film showcases Tobias being happy with his lady and...well, I'm sure you can follow where I'm going with this. The story and the characters in the beginning are interpreted and realized so thinly and without any sort of pizzazz or vitality that it stultifies the action sequences. You just sit there watching movement...I guess...and speed...I guess, but there's nothing to engage or rile up the viewer. So yeah, the first half-hour or so is deadly dull.

And then, something happens.

The movie, specifically director Ron Howard (welcome to the galaxy, Mr. Cunningham) and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Luke, HE is your father), along with his son, Jonathan Kasdan, realize that Solo and all of the characters are physical beings, but work better as components. It dawned on me while I was watching this that this franchise is the most universal, cinema franchise for a reason. It's the superlative, most uniform example of the "greater sum of parts." The pacing, the visuals, the characters, the story, the motivations, the emotions, the philosophies, the logistics, the locations, the make-up; all of these factors need to be attuned with each other, in order to make a successful Star Wars film. If one aspect either lags or is too heavily punctuated and honed in on over another aspect, something's gonna feel off.

The solo reason (haha) why the first fourth of the film is so dull is because it focuses on the least interesting parts. We don't care about Solo's romance because it's a romance, but because of the alchemy and charm behind it. And that's what Ehrenreich, admittedly, does receive after a rocky start: charm. When he's allowed to stop trying to stand out on his own and instead is allowed to immerse himself in this world, that is when we see the dogged charisma that Harrison Ford laid the groundwork for. 

However, the other actors manage to stand out, as well. Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett supplies his idiosyncratic, delirious charm and furious, menacing spirit. Emilia Clarke, justifiably, goes from Game of Thrones to Star Wars, playing Qi'Ra. Much like Ehrenreich, she becomes much more intriguing as she grows out of a mere love-struck damsel and fleshes out into a torn, trapped, and vulnerable lady. And then, there's our universal black Everyman, Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. While, admittedly, he does struggle in some of the emotional moments, he spotlights the screen with a self-content smile that never leaves and his devilishly mellifluous baritone. Apparently, Billy Dee Williams himself instructed Glover to just be charming when portraying Lando. Thanks for the lesson, Mr. Williams. Now, we can have Glover for life, yes?

In addition, once the film becomes more surefooted, the action sequences become much more exciting. Also, in a shocking turn of events, Williams has turned over primary musical composition duties to John Powell, with Williams only contributing the basic themes. However, I never would have known, because Powell's score is just as soaring and sweeping as William's.

I guess it's fitting that Ron Howard directed this. I would describe him as a competent director, but not a masterful one. In most of the films I've seen from him (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, The Grinch), his ambition and energy are bar none, but his execution always seems too precisely quantitative. He knows just what action sequence goes here, what antidote goes here, what heartfelt moment goes here, but he never really seems to transcend beyond that. His movies are effective, but not necessarily masterpieces. However, while he may lack in a genteel, exquisite style, he makes up for in entertainment.

It definitely must've made for both an interesting and strenuous experience for Howard, what with it being his first Star Wars film to direct and one where he had to reshoot 70% of it, but Howard usually manages to do just enough. And here, he's done just enough. Donald Glover Beautifully Smiling for An Hour...er...I mean, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a solid place-holder in the Star Wars universe.

As a solo effort, it works just fine.

RATING: Three out of four stars

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!