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*'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

Monday, October 16, 2017

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)

Oh, what a week it's been for feminism. Not only has Harvey Weinstein been rightfully dragged through a morass of embarrassment and exploitative scandal, but I think the My Little Pony franchise may be back in the hands of the original fans.

I've elaborated on and on about how much of an astonishing and invigorating detour the MLP franchise has taken with the advent of Friendship is Magic. However, given the unexpected influx of male viewers, commonly known as "Bronies," it can be said that this show has been forced to allocate the adulation. While this development did help transcend gender expectations and reaffirmed the age-old adage that it's what's on the inside that counts, men have imposed an overarching, sanctimonious, haughty streak on feminism for years in a multitude of different versions. It was great that men could admit to liking something made to please little girls. However, dispersed amongst bronies is a mild aura of re-appropriation; a self-righteous, selfish, entitled latch on this franchise. Now that men was sharing a fandom with females, they feel that they must be entertained, as well; an additional group of mouths that have to be satiated.

Well, good news! My Little Pony: The Movie has cracked the code by making a cinematic translation so frothy, insular, and simplistic, it'll restore the obloquious perspective towards the men who go to see this and will proudly entertain little girls with seven years old being the maximum age.

*sighs* I'm a brony. Let's do this.

The film takes place in Equestria with Princess Twilight Sparkle setting up for the Friendship Festival, with a performance by Songbird Serenade (voiced by pop singer Sia) at the centerpiece. As Twilight and her friends prepare for the festival, catastrophe strikes! A vengeful, contentious unicorn, Tempest Shadow, comes to capture the magic of the princesses of Equestria and deliver it to her boss, The Storm King, in order to repair her damaged unicorn horn. With the other three princesses trapped, it's up to the Mane Six to restore harmony and joy to Equestria.

I'm disappointed to announce that this film doesn't have the vitality and spirit of the television series, which is currently in its superb seventh season. One aspect that drew my ire was the animation. In the television series, the animation is created through Adobe Flash, but the series has an edge to it, a unique flair to it, which draws upon multiple influences to create something stylistically singular and stunning. Here, the film was obviously was given a budget to refine and polish the animation, but surprisingly, it actually makes it look cheaper. Everything moves so sluggishly and stiltedly. The action sequences are not done with any verve or splendor. They act as merely segues from one scene to next, acting as oleaginously linear, but visually ho-hum. The animation shows such reticence and restraint, which doesn't allow for the superlative of effervescence in the characters.

In fact, the characters themselves are not as sharply presented. For the majority of the film, it seems to rely on Pinkie Pie to carry the film, bringing, to be fair, her signature zany, ruthlessly madcap humor that does translate equally on the small and big screens, making her the saving grace of this film. However, the rest of the Mane Six are seen not having personalities, but having traits, particularly to launch thin, one-dimensional gags, which only a few are amusing. Even Twilight Sparkle is a crushing bore. She's just in the forefront, not stoic or sagacious. Just a leader. Additionally, none of the emotional moments resonate whatsoever, either being perfunctory or just forced.

The rest of the characters are typical uninspired stock characters, whose purpose are only for the Mane Six to come in, charm them, and then move on to the next, with the exception of the seaponies, voiced with much fervor and energy by Uzo Aduba and Kristen Chenoweth. Tempest Shadow, while seemingly having potential for more depth in the beginning, unfolds into a predictable arc. Grubber, the henchman to Tempest, is a labored attempt at comic relief, who wears out his welcome real quick. And the Storm King? What a dull villain, acting more as an unrealized, lukewarm, satirical blueprint for a comic villain than a full-fledged villain.

I'll give credit, however, to one man: composer Daniel Ingram. This guy has such a distinct style of composition and songwriting, which leads to some of the strongest music in the show. This time, he outdoes himself, crafting the bounciest, catching, and enticing songs in the franchise. Most of these songs rank among the best Friendship is Magic songs ever and the visuals assigned to them are amiably animated and inviting. I have to get my hands on the soundtrack, but I'll have to skip that Sia song. Funny, seeing how the most middling and unimpressive song of the whole film is the one that's the lead single. Your call, Hasbro.

Throughout the film, I kept asking myself, what was the point of this movie? What was it trying to contribute to the series? What did it add? What was its purpose? I struggled to give an answer to that last one, because the humor's ratio of funny jokes to feckless ones is adequate and passable. I chuckled and even laughed out loud quite a bit and yet I was still feeling unsatisfied. That's when I put my finger on it. This film was not made to entertain or engage. It was made merely to amuse. It's all surface, locale, music, gags; everything to keep a child distracted, but not stimulated. That's not how the show operates. It tells such captivating stories and delivers such intricate, identifiable morals in twenty-two minutes than an entire 90-minute movie.

That doesn't make it a bad film, necessarily, but a dispensable one. Its problem wasn't cynical pandering or lackadaisical sensibilities, but under-ambitiousness. It strives to play it so safely and so subserviently to the easiest market that it forgets all of the other cylinders to fire, in order to make it enduring. Instead of Friendship is Magic, this film should've been subtitled, Friendship is a Mantra.

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Detroit (2017)

In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal masterfully expressed a helpless sense of tension and hazard with The Hurt Locker, resulting in a monumental Oscar win against Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron, and the trivial plaudit of it being my favorite war film to date. In 2012, a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, they tapped into the daunting, innate, post-9/11 fears of America, as well as its bold patriotism, with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that skillfully display that same tension-laced spirit, but with an added feeling of strength and strategy. In 2017, she retains these elements and introduces one more: fury. As shown in this recent cinematic endeavor, fury, at its apex, is not accumulated slowly. Fury, at its height, is an intrinsic emotion; human, valuable, and vital for change, or at least for issues to be brought to the forefront.

In 2017, she takes us back. To 50 years ago. To Detroit.

The film takes us to the beginning of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, where an unlicensed club gets raided. Looting, thievery and chaos between the locals and the authorities ensue, which results in a cancelled Dramatics performance, leading to its passionate lead singer Larry Reed and his friend, Fred, staying at the Algiers Motel. After a guest shoots blanks to authorities guarding the motel from the outside, the police round up all black guests and two white prostitutes and are ruthlessly tormented, debased, ridiculed, and tortured by corrupt officer Phillip Krauss. The film centers on the terse "before", tumultuous "during," and the precarious "after" of the riot.

I just elaborated on the narrative for this movie, which is odd because, in execution, it's not particularly a very narrative movie. While there is a thread, a linear blueprint isn't the salient focus. Rather, it feels more like a seamless, stream-of-conscious, documentary-like progression of the events of the riot. I know that that is the nature of film; for events to happen with surprise, as life does. However, this truly feels like a massive plain, specifically laid out for the life of a incendiary incident to germinate each and every day. It is merely heightened for dramatic purposes.

While this film has been receiving relatively solid acclaim (an 83% of Rotten Tomatoes), this film has earned a fair amount of detractors. Aside from Armond White (I'm trying to forget him as much as you all are, so moving on), this film has been criticized for not only omitting crucial details of the riot, but it also has been accused of having an overall hyper-sensitive approach, sentimentally and simplistically depicting events and over-victimizing black people and thus degrading and strangely contorting their struggle. And...I see some, repeat some, of those traits.

Bigelow tends to delineate heroes, whether warped, irrepressibly flawed, antihero-ish heroes, such as Hurt Locker's William James, or outspoken, belligerently irresistible presences, such as Zero Dark Thirty's Maya. This film is not fraught with heroes, but it does present some, such as specific military officials, in a way that is oddly angelic. Additionally, certain lines of dialogue, particularly a pleading line by Julie Ann, one of the prostitutes, do strike a note of excessive, ennobled pity and sweeping, simple sanctimony. HOWEVER, as far as it having that tone as a whole, fuck no!

Seriously, *spoilers*, the case involved graphic, appalling torture and mistreatment to an innocent group of people and was swiftly covered up, in the face of the holy spirit of social class and repugnant stances that are nepotistic toward the more privileged majority. Uh...sound familiar? Contrary to A.O. Scott's perspective, I feel that this is not a tale of "black helplessness or passivity," but a diorama to black reality. Even the final note of the film involving Larry singing a church song feels less like inspirational catharsis and more a bleak exhortation to sustain hope in the face of the ugly bludgeoning from the motley injustices they have and will face. Honestly, the summation of this can be seen in a scene at the Algiers Motel prior to the intervention of the police. Carl, the primer responsible for the incident, goes on a spiel to Julie Ann about being black in America, which happens to be the most impassioned, hardline, ferocious, and even most humorous scene of the film.

The characters range a gargantuan gamut of sensibilities and they are delivered with gritty, gut-wrenching performances. Algee Smith is a scintillating revelation as Larry, possessing a beautiful singing voice and lending a pensive, desperate vibe. The way he shows the unfolding of his arc, transforming from having an alacrity for stardom to a self-imposed need to retain and focus on his painful realities, is elegiacally enrapturing. I will, too, be damned if John Boyega has his time in the spotlight cruelly truncated because his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard that tries to assuage the situation, is astonishing. He has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington. After all, he has that same rugged machismo and edgy warmth that commands your attention.

It also helps that the filmmakers bestowed unto him a stealthily serviceable character. In many ways, he is similar to Forest Whitaker's Butler: a genial man, who is a quasi-inspirational semi-bystander, with two different factors involved: weight and action. He is a security guard that ends up working alongside the police and National Guard, but he is the one force that wants to maintain safety and sanity during this racially incited bedlam, getting involved when it's situationally acceptable and convenient to do so, but also staying silent a lot, as not to exacerbate anybody. However, as the actual case proceeds, his rage, guilt, and helplessness beset him. He's one of the primary protagonists and yet  he's never allowed to be fully heroic, which makes for an agonizing portrayal from Boyega.

However, the thief of the whole movie, of all the performances, is Will Poulter as Officer Phillip Krauss. I will most likely agitate the #OscarsSoWhite crowd by saying this about a movie with an overwhelmingly African-American cast, but I'm putting my Oscar ballot in for him. He fills to the brim with villainy, brutal hatred, and demonic self-interest. His cinematic transmogrification from innocuous teen roles to this despicable character is one of the most piquant and potent revelations since Mo'Nique's Oscar-winning turn in Precious. As well, his lack of physical maturity adds a deeper dimension to the character. His puerile appearance and actions serve as a perfect representation for immature adults that serve in the police or the Army as a subconscious method of sublimating a primal eagerness for power, for control, for, arguably, an insatiable thirst for blood. Additionally, the intro to his character initially exhibits him as the cop that is the closest to being on the side of the rioters. The juxtaposition of that with his subsequent actions leaves it to wonder if it was an off-kilter, deranged way to normalize and empower himself. It's a marvelous acting job.

Throughout the film, I was struggling whether which film was better: this or The Hurt Locker. I say that, because of an askew moment here and there and the fact that the first five minutes or so left me feeling rather cold, The Hurt Locker beats it by a overwhelmingly scant margin. Either way, the political contexts for both are staggering. Hurt Locker gained mainstream attention after the end of the Bush administration, which could give life to the argument that it's practically a morbidly droll allegory for the frivolousness of the Iraq War, with its lead almost reveling in his own slipshod, potentially destructive predilections. However, this film took me to a sundry of places. This is the most brutal, harrowing, pertinacious, frustrating, impetuous, apoplectic, loudest, tragic, angriest, and most uncomfortable film of 2017. It is also the best film of 2017 so far, a film utterly germane with current times. Every sound can be replicated by the disillusioned, aching voices of today. Without implementing or infusing any feminist iconography or dialogue into her films, she has become the most feminist director around right now, with more balls than many of her male compadres.

Given our current President's distasteful, egregious rhetoric, maybe we still are in 1967. But hey, we got to make sure we take both sides into account, right? Them damn alt-lefters!

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Sometimes, a specific style can be just as much burdensome as it can be awesome, particularly if used ad nauseum. It seems that the unanimous example for this is the cinematic compendium of Christopher Nolan. Keep in mind, I actually have nothing against the repetition of his own formula. He is one of the boldest, most captivating, talented, and orgasmically intelligent men in the business and I do concede that, despite people's issues with him, this remains the ultimate consensus. However, when he released Inception, my favorite Nolan film to date, in 2010, it was both the best and worst occurrence for him.

Yes, Nolan has made visionary strokes of cinema. Yes, he has pushed the boundaries of how one can tell a story. Yes, his ideas are meticulous, enlightening, and enrapturing to the point of mild convolution. None of this was new. However, this was the first time he integrate all of these traits and turned it into an unexpectedly commercial, accessible blockbuster. Yes, even more so than Dark Knight. However, while it was a cultural juggernaut, it did lead to more excoriating dissection of his subsequent films. The final entry of his Batman trilogy, while critically praised, was also panned for not having a cohesive, solid story. Interstellar, while critically praised, was also ridiculed for being a third-rate Inception in space, meaning that indeed, critical praise means nothing to the discerning Internet squadron. Oh, the venom I've encountered!

So after being away from film for three years, he decided to try the most daring thing he could possibly attempt: a film under two hours long with a story not originated by Nolan, but moreso through true events, executed with a relatively normal tone and with a cast that includes a former boy band member. In relation to his other works, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk certainly does go in a different...direction! *rimshot*

The film takes place during WWII in 1940. Thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded in Dunkirk after the invasion of France. They await deliverance and freedom from Dunkirk. With the assistance and support of the Navy and Air Force, a valiant plot is devised to evacuate thousands of British and French soldiers. The film follows all involved, whether tracking men hoping to heroes or those praying to be survivors.

While it is Nolan's most straightforward story, he, of course, can't make it too simplistic. One element worth noting is that it is told through three varied perspectives: of land, of air, and of sea. Honestly, when I initially heard of this approach, I thought they were going to tell it through each perspective individually and tell the story in a way that would be something akin to Pulp Fiction crossed with, like, Saving Private Ryan. But no, it is all concurrently, thus providing a more linear structure.

I must be honest that, while it assuredly makes sense in the context, I was sort of intrigued by the concept of telling each individually and then, maybe tying it all together near the end. Because Nolan goes with, well, the normal way, it does become a little less riveting, if one were hoping for something more lyrical and acutely disjointed. However, where the genius lies is his pitch-perfect timing and conglomeration of the three perspectives. At a piecemeal pace, sea becomes the sworn antagonist of land and water, representing capriciousness and the contingent aftermath of defeat. Land seems to symbolize security and air symbolizing freedom, but sea manages to threaten the nature of both of them. It's the ironic, hapless center of it all, even moreso than any other force.

That sense of dread and uncertainty lingers coldly and mercilessly throughout the film. Nolan is a sage when it comes to the usage of sound. He uses his dialogue sparingly and meagerly, which begets moments of silence, particularly in the first few minutes, that create a blunt, unwavering atmosphere of ambiguity. The mood of the film is personified through Hans Zimmer's august, crazily ambitious score. Zimmer shrewdly inserts dynamics and tempos in a way that feels as if he, himself, is experiencing the moment. The sound design perfectly captures all the nuances of the situation. When a bombing is coming closer, it begins muffled and increases in power. When fellow soldiers try to transport an injured soldier to safety, it almost begins routinely triumphant, but proceeds to grow more frantic, chaotic, and formidable, much like the situation at hand.

The music is probably the most expressive, vibrant character of the film, as is the cinematography. When the camera focuses on an actor, it is just that: focused. It is pointed and searingly contemplative, as if it wants penetrate through the characters' souls and psyches. Consider a scene after a group of soldiers recuperate after an air raid. Gibson, played by Aneurin Barnard, stays outside the ship and the camera fixates on his plaintive, hauntingly foretelling, afflicted eyes, as he almost predicts the ship being torpedoed before it gets torpedoed. Speaking of which, the grandiose cinematography is also apt at displaying whopping battle scenes and painful imagery, such as a wave of ducking soldiers during an air raid.

Because the technical aspects do such a tremendous job delivering raw emotions, the characters surprisingly enough aren't as heavily emphasized. However, they all are fortified by interminably capable and amicably convincing actors. Yes, even Harry Styles. His role, again, isn't heavily punctuated, but it does make his, and every other actor's role, more human. However, his abilities do come into the spotlight in a moment where his character is prodded to be all parts desperate, vulnerable, and paranoid. Other standouts include Kenneth Branaugh (duh), Jack Lowden as Collins, the determined, resolute pilot, and Cillian Murphy, who immerses himself as a soldier unbearably beset by the mayhem at hand.

However, as much as I admire the film, I would call it masterful, not immaculate. Given how he does, admittedly, have to surrender, or moreso keep in check, his propensities for his unbridled, complex story structures, it often does feel like a punctiliously detailed account of the Dunkirk evacuation; a historical guide, if you will. Because of this, the characters don't always feel specific. At times, they feel more like figures that happen to take a part in this salient historical event, which makes the handling of them feel slightly aloof at certain points. Also, I felt that, with all the film's grave, morbid discussions and demonstrations of survival, the ending was too easily intrepid and sentimentally positive, minus a gripping final shot. I understand it was, all in all, a positive turnout, but I felt that the grittiness and gravitas of those earlier moments was somewhat stunted and abandoned for the expected, bold, God-bless-our-heroes ending. Maybe Nolan was trying for a Spielberg moment or something. Given the ending to Private Ryan, you might not want to go too heavy-handed, Nolan.

Overall, Dunkirk is a brazen, magniloquent reminder of Nolan's technical, emotional, and intellectual prowesses. It may be his most accessible and most simple film to date, but Nolan at his most middling impressiveness is still better than most directors doing their damndest. And who knew that 2017, of all years, would be the year where I can finally relent in calling myself a Harry Styles fan. I don't whether this is a fluke or a sign of greater things to ensue, but the ante has been upped. The remaining members have to really up their game, in order to compete with you.

Who am I kidding? They won't.

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

You know, it seems as if life is formulated to plague and beleaguer us with regrets. One of mine is that I never got around to reviewing Fast & Furious 6 after I saw it in theaters in Philadelphia. In fact, I never tackled any of the Fast & Furious films. Given how this brand of "dick flick" are heralded as very polarizing and ripe with various perspectives, I'd rather not obfuscate or conceal mine. In summation, I admire them all for what they are and even for what they are not. But back to the sixth installment, I will share that the viewing experience was one of the most enthralling in my life. The whole audience was transfixed and invigorated on a level unseen by me at the time, hooting and cheering the entire duration of the film.

The salient reason I regret not reviewing Fast & Furious 6 is that I can't provide enough substantial context to justify and elucidate my following statement: Goddamn it! Goddamn you, Fast & Furious movies. Goddamn your tricky method of eradicating solid conclusions. Goddamn your brilliantly hypnotic promotion that never ceases to make me instantaneously surrender all currency I possess. And especially, goddamn your penchant for remaining a propulsive, addictive, entertaining franchise. I shall doubt thee nevermore.

The story, as if it matters, begins with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) enjoying his honeymoon with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). However, his world is turned upside down when a secretive, ambiguous woman named Cipher (Charlize Theron, rocking a very dubious, bewildering, and sort of uncomfortable hairstyle) convinces Dom to assist her in her objective to steal both an EMF and nuclear football, all the while going against him team. When he accepts, it soon becomes Dom vs. the Furious. Or is it?

I know it's early on, but allow me to revise a prior statement, which was "the story, as if it matters..." It actually matters ever so slightly. Don't get me wrong. The film is laced with its trademark implausibilities, plot contrivances, and especially its strained, baffling lectures on morality and family. However, in the prior installments, the story was on a very rudimentary, innocuous, 13-year-old-compiling level, laying out a very lucid, step-by-step, map for the plot. Here, there's a little bit more going on. 

It actually presents their most multifaceted, intriguing storyline in the franchise. The basic set-up of betrayal and enigma heightens the stakes and the solemnity. When Dom is ensconced in Cipher, Deckerd Shaw (Jason Statham, the most recent villian in the series) is brought in to assist them. While it's not particularly innovative, the route it goes is stocked with more narrative flesh and complexities than expected. Hell, the mere fact that Letty has to deal with her husband going down a villainous trajectory is itself a wistful quandary, delivered gravely and maturely. The story fully culminates, however, with a twist revealed before the second act that is so elemental to the story that it is my obligation to not reveal it, but believe me when I say that it is the most stunning. jaw-dropping moment in the story.

When a story's conflict is fortified and elevated, it creates fodder for greater character development, which begets stronger performances from the cast. The entire cast marry their characters with the ample dosage of doughty heroism, assured guile, stalwart gravity, and audacious humor. Honestly, the majority of the cast play their pre-established roles, but to the nth degree, i.e. Tyrese's energetic comic relief, The Rock's unwavering machismo, Jason Statham's measured minatory, etc. Charlize Theron crafts one of the juiciest, most delicious villains I've seen on film in quite a while, portraying Cipher with a straightforward, calculating authority and a wicked, ferocious gleam in her eye. However, it's Vin Diesel who has shown the starkest amelioration, exhibiting a passionate pain, muddled yet desperate acumen, and a thoughtful tenderness undiscovered through his entire career until this point.

But, fuck it. Let's talk about the good stuff. Ostensibly, these action sequences were crafted by a man with a perpetual snarl and a severe teeth clench, while jacked on cocaine because visually, this film is at the apex of the franchise. If others films can pointedly punctuate their climaxes, this whole film is a climax. Highlights include a chase in Berlin that concludes with a wrecking ball demolishing a bevy of police cars, a bustling, tumultuous fight in a maximum security prison, a moment where the Furious crew has to combat a tidal wave of cars in New York, many of which are in auto-drive, and a 20-minute set piece in Russia...on ice. Every action sequence delivers with such magniloquent awe and tantalizing gusto.

In an era of such ubiquitous technology and continuous Transformers sequels (yeah, I'll be sleeping in that day), this film shows that, yes, fast, snazzy cars, booming explosions, protracted fight scenes, and endless chases can still be surprising and resplendent. It's coincidental that F. Gary Gray directed this, because in 2015, he, similarly with this film, collaborated with Caucasian screenwriters for Straight Outta Compton. With this film, he integrates the grandeur, mettle, and bold, portentous dignity of action films stereotypically marketed to white audiences with the rambunctiousness, color, and inextinguishable energy of films stereotypically marketed to black audiences. 

With this pairing, he helps further the franchise's streak of being racially unified and universal. Given how Gray's cinematic spectrum ranges from Friday and Set It Off to The Italian Job, his touch of this franchise has proven to be the most fitting. This film is a consummate popcorn flick; the most pornographic, non-pornographic film of 2017, and a film that I can proudly ennoble with the honor of being the first Fast & Furious film I've seen that ranks above three stars. Ironic, seeing how it's the first one without the presence of Paul Walker.

*nervous chuckle* R.I.P. bruh.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Boss Baby (2017)

While observing the opening credits that reconstruct the Dreamworks logo as a baby mobile, I swiftly assessed that it was in spirit with what they are as a company now: a gimmick, a company that seems desperate to try and encroach on the zeitgeist when it has already found a comfortable spot in it naturally. I don't want to make it seem like I detest them, because I don't. However, Disney and Dreamworks are at the vanguard of the animated film enterprise and the difference between them is night and day. Disney creates with their heart, while Dreamworks creates with their head. Not to say that Disney isn't heady or clever and that Dreamworks is heartless, but their styles are unique unto themselves. 

Dreamworks' propensity for terse, one-line concepts, sassy, smart-alecky humor, and an irrepressible, ADHD-like energy allows for good films, but they seem to, for the most part, be merely to amuse. Additionally, they seem to be awfully proud of their few stand-out franchises, because their insatiable need for enduring works lead to additional franchises spawning seemingly inexplicably and prematurely. Hello Turbo, The Croods, Home, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and their ignominious sullying of my personal favorite religious cartoon of all time. Yeah, Dreamworks has, more often than not, made Netflix a very precarious, frightening place.

While I don't find Dreamworks virilent or callous by any means, I just never really find much potential with them, at least not enough to believe that they can transcend the patterns set forth by themselves, or at the very least, find a new approach to them. However, there does seem to be hope. Captain Underpants ignites the second-grade nostalgia in me with every promo. As well, Boss Baby gave me hope. Vacillating hope, which ultimately proved to be unfortunately prescient, but hell, I think it's the first time that a mediocre effort actually represents a possible sign of improvement.

The story begins with Timothy, an imaginative 7-year-old, who is perfectly content with his life with just him and his parents. However, an intruder bursts into his life: a baby brother. However, this baby has very specific eccentricities. He dons a business suit perpetually, his innocent, cherubic actions seem to have latent motives possibly linked to sabotage, and, most incredible, he can talk. He is the Boss Baby, sent to Earth to...

Hold on a second. I have to take a breath for this one because this...this is going to hurt.

*inhales* ...sent to Earth via a company called BabyCorp, where he is the manager, after being deemed unsuitable for the family lifestyle. Many babies are employed via BabyCorp, but lose these business skills and knowledge of BabyCorp as they grow older, specifically if they fail to replenish themselves with a Secret Formula that sustains their intellect. He has been sent to obtain reports on a puppy called The Forever Puppy, a puppy meant to stay young and adorable forever. BabyCorp, as well as The Boss Baby, are against this because according to their data, dogs are overtaking babies, in terms of cuteness and appeal. However, if Boss Baby fails his task, he will be forced to live the family way forever. He recruits Tim to assist him on his mission. In exchange, Tim will be rid of his new brother forever, leaving any hint of The Boss Baby untraced. However, they form a bond, as the Boss Baby questions whether or not family life may be apt for him.

Oh, the fucking agony.

I can say with no exaggeration that this has the contingency to be, quite frankly, the stupidest premise in the history of Dreamworks Animation. It's not disparaging or insultingly bad, but moreso painfully misguided. While simple on paper, it gets lost in execution. Every revelation, every surprise, every detail is at best, warmed over and at worst, ineffably asinine. I was tempted to run down a litany of films this rips off, but I will instead explain it simply. This film makes 2003's Good Boy! plausible by comparison. If you don't remember that film or are unaware, watch it and then proceed to recoil in horror from the validity of my statement. Additionally, it robs elements from, of all films, Baby Geniuses. Yeah, that whole babies acquiring copious amounts of human intellect and then suddenly losing it with age nonsense. Baby Geniuses, one of the worst talking baby products ever, did that first.

I tried, y'all. I tried telling myself that it was only a movie. Even with the most invasive plot holes, I can usually begrudgingly pass it off as, "Well, they needed to progress the story." However, the plot here is such an incoherent mess that plot holes stick out like a sore thumb. For example, the villain, Francis E. Francis (hardy-har-har), is the mastermind behind the Forever Puppy. He originally worked for BabyCorp, but after discovering that his body could not adequately handle the Secret Formula, he was fired and later invented the Forever Puppy out of spite and vengeance. 

Well, wait a minute. What happened to him forgetting about BabyCorp as he aged? Did his henchman have to keep reminding him? He says that he still has the formula, but it was stated that he can't drink it, so how does that work? For that matter, Boss Baby was able to transport Tim to BabyCorp via a very specific pattern whilst sucking on a pacifier. What if Boss Baby, by chance, sucked on it with the same velocity? Would he infiltrate BabyCorp? On top of that, when were dogs and babies ever dominant over another? From my perspective, the amount of cute dog media and cute infant media are basically equivalent as far as adulation goes and the admiration for dogs and babies are, yet again, on the same level. The way I see it, they can both be irritating and they both can leave shit stains on the floor.

That, in addition to another plot hole I will keep a secret, leads to another foible with the narrative. It's wrongheaded and yet so resolutely thorough. The movie expects us to take this as face value in the context of this world. The final third finishes laboriously with a lachrymose, inordinately syrupy conclusion, which tries to fake us out innumerable times in trying to get us to believe it isn't going to go the predictable route. Spoiler: they do. However, the problem with the movie's objective for us to take it seriously is that not only is there no cohesion, but there's not an ounce of realism. At the very least, it's not grounded.

With a premise like this, you can go about it one of two ways. One, you can abolish all sense of realism, which can work, or two, you can balance fantasy with veracity, which is more ideal, because it makes it more identifiable. Rugrats, for example, is the quintessential paradigm for the talking baby children's product. Not only does it have the pitch-perfect levels of eccentricity, energy, humor, and heart, it makes sure to emphasize that this is all through the perspective of a child. The babies talk, but they don't really talk, not so that it matters to adults. I never expected Boss Baby to be teeming with realism, but the filmmakers pretend that it is. 

It is limpid in this film that babies can talk behind their parents' backs, which is fine on a Toy Story level of storytelling. I can accept that, but goddamn it, two parents conceived a child that sports a tuxedo, a tie, and struts around with a briefcase, and they don't even bat an eye. The parents aren't even eccentric enough for it to be a joke that can propel itself. They're just stupid to be stupid. Hell, in this world, with all of the infants' discussions about the role dogs play in the decline of admiring infants, there are barely even any dogs seen in the film. And again, the final twenty minutes are clumsy with regards to providing any sort of sturdy link between what's supposed to represent reality and what is merely blatant fantasy. And as I reiterate, the aspects that aren't confounding are trite and rote.

This focus on such a profoundly erroneous story affects the humor, as well. Don't get me wrong. It has quite a few humorous moments permeated relatively evenly. However, the film is so fixated on creating an energetic tone and being so invested in its story and so ebullient in telling it that that same energy isn't properly or consistently allocated to the humor, so what we end up with are customary infancy gags and anemic attempts at gross-out humor.

So, with my ardent, vociferous disapproval for the script (sorry to screenwriter Michael McCullers), is there anything I liked? Well, yeah. Quite a bit, actually. In fact, on my spectrum, my opinions of the script and the animation are the vastest dichotomy I can produce. While the script is basically bullshit, the animation is breathtaking. On solely animation, I'd easily find a spot for this in my Top 5 Dreamworks animated films. Excluding a few stock, uninspired character designs (particularly the villain), the main characters, specifically Tim and Boss Baby, are animated so affably. On top of that, the backgrounds, the settings, the lighting, the color palette, the bold, hallucinatory, vibrant fantasy sequences, are all at the apotheosis of Dreamworks' animation.

While I am baffled and frustrated by the script, Tim and Boss Baby are developed finely, displaying a very gentle, likable, captivating chemistry, which makes me bemoan the fact that it has found a place in such a thankless script. It also helps that their voice actors do a lot to support their roles. Baldwin, while given gauzy material, does a serviceable job as Boss Baby. As well, I was surprised by newcomer Miles Christopher Bakshi. While I don't believe he will be a breakout star, he emits so much charisma and surprising aplomb that I am definitely in support of him receiving more roles. Even Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow are sweet and good-natured as the parents.

And yes, I will give the film some credit. At the very least, while I consider the script a squandered, feckless, bleary, overstuffed, incompetent tragedy of errors, I can, at the very least, concede that there was an ambitious chutzpah behind it. That's where I see it as a bizarre step in the right direction. This film does have a trajectory that it follows. It knows where it's going. The path is broken and unreliable, but the direction is definitive. I understand that it was based on a picture book, but that's no excuse. Trust me when I say that lack of material wasn't the issue with this film. It's underwhelming in certain aspects and overwhelming in others, as well as doing each in such grandiloquent extremes. So final verdict? Average.

RATING: Two out of four stars

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Get Out (2017)

You know, in these times, it's almost standard procedure to dismiss or pay no substantial heed to any viral image, perspective, or word-of-mouth on the Internet. Given society's penchant to stigmatize online content, as well as demean the millennials that produce their popularity by labeling them as superficial, entitled, impatient leeches (thanks for the empowering words, society), viral hits or predominant opinions expressed via online media are often deemed facile, futile, and/or bearing little weight. Sure, its power has been demonstrated and it can be taken into account, but there still seems to be overarching, holier-than-thou attitude to quarantine the viral Internet culture and deem it frilly. It seems as if popular opinion and Internet opinion are never seen as veritably amalgamous.

Not so with Get Out. The audience I saw this with was enraptured and enthralled. Every other person I talked to that saw it appreciated it tremendously. Online reviewers and Facebook posts have demonstrated their astonishment and advocacy. Critics ravenously accepted it, given the four-day achievement of a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes (down one point, thanks to Internet poltergeist, Armond White). Horror films are already seen as calculated and simplistic, so to find one that is not merely universal, but so vocally, expressively universal is basically an anomaly. And all of it is rightfully earned. If Don't Breathe was a breath of fresh air for the horror genre (that pun never gets old), Get Out is an aggressive, furious, ardent push to not just the horror genre, but its participants, exhorting them to step up their game.

The film centers on a couple, Chris and Rose, getting prepared to go off to Rose's family's house. Rose is white, Chris is black. While Chris is reticent of introducing himself to her white family, Rose ascertains him a joyous, non-strenuous time. However, as they arrive, the atmosphere is strange. The behavior of the family is rather eccentric and askew. What's odder is the behavior of the black people that reside there: a groundskeeper and a servant. It is slowly, but surely revealed that there is more to the family than meets the eye. Can Chris escape unscathed? And what can Rose do to help, if anything?

This film is a horror film, but for a considerable period of time, it dares you to label it definitely as such. The film is all parts traditional horror, psychological horror, and social commentary. The surprising brilliance of the film is that it doesn't try to integrate them concurrently, rather letting each facet operate independently, yet contextually, thematically unified in a cohesive whole. Its transitions are delivered totally and competently, mounting to one of the most exhilarating, rousing, and satisfying climaxes I've seen in a horror film in quite some time.

One admirable aspect of the film is its use of imagery and symbolism. During the opening of the film, Rose hits a deer on the way to the family's house. Afterwards, they arrive at the house, expound and elaborate on the incident, and Rose's father replies by describing them as rats, claiming that he'd mar any and every one of them if he had the chance. Deer are large, bold animals that are consistently being hunted, similarly to how it is said and shown that black people are being hunted and mauled with as little remorse and consideration as when deer are killed. However, while that example can be seen as rather patent, what about an example involving a stuffed lion? Chris' first formidable experience begins at the first night at the house in the middle of the night, during which he wakes up and turns a stuffed lion on the nightstand next to him in a direction away from him. After this, he roams about the house, has an unusual encounter with the groundskeeper and servant, and receives a terrifying hynopsis from Rose's mother.

Lions are seen as aggressive, primordially violent, and dangerous creatures that have to be tamed, just like similar stereotypes unfortunately targeted at African-Americans. In the viewpoint of certain members of white America, black people are animals that have to be controlled and repressed. However, stuffed animals are typically seen as adorable, positive mementos. Not all lions represent violence, in the same way that not all black people are inherently violent. The stuffed lion can be interpreted both as a call for open-mindedness and a warning of imminent danger that has gone unacknowledged.

Or how symbolism is utilized via a hit-and-run incident that killed Chris' mother when he was a child? That specifically can be affiliated to, in my opinion, the primary theme of the film: black consciousness, or "being woke." As Chris explains, his mother died outside his home and he did nothing but watch television. He inadvertently ignored the issue at hand. The black denizens of the Armitage household are uncomfortably obsequious and tragically accepting of their societal, or at least situational, role. In the eyes of the film, ignoring or accepting the presence of an issue does nothing but hinder, suppress, and debase change. Even if your mind is rowdy, the external silence is all that is expressed. Those who don't demand change are more malignant than those who misuse their power in the name of change. The All Lives Matter movement is more destructive than the Black Lives Matter movement could ever be. 

Furthermore, the thematic element of consciousness is perfectly utilized through the usage of a blind artist, Jim Hudson. He, a blind man, is more cognizant and observant of ignorance and the imperativeness of self-awareness and action than the sundry of white guests with perfect vision and are tragically, comically unaware of their own agonizing, awkward stupidity. However, he later pleads and wishes for Chris' eyes, nullifying his blindness and ostensibly his current state of thought. Even though he perfectly acknowledges the injustices and the plights of black people, he still can't evade his subterranean desire to abandon his way of thinking in lieu of simplistic self-sheltering. It's easier, in his mind, to be oblivious of another man's privations because he has more to gain that way. The aspect of aspiring to not acknowledge modern racism, despite its limpid evidence, is one that is generally unexplored and not discussed to the degree that it should. It is much more essential and much more complex.

While the heady content almost threatens to overshadow the performances on screen, they are still present and captivating. Of all the supporting guests of the household, Betty Gabriel specifically stands out as Georgina, the servant, delineating the role with a morbid, fragile, hopeless effusiveness. Bradley Whitford as Dean, Rose's father, truly elicits the creeps with his stilted, curiously milquetoast demeanor and Catherine Keener brings a dark, maternal quality to her role as Missy, Rose's mother. Allison Williams, resembling a young Jennifer Connelly, is sagaciously manipulative as Rose, shrewdly formulating any tactic to provide what is needed and yet receive what she wants.
However, the ultimate performance is Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the lead role. I don't believe this will force Hollywood to ennoble him as a leading man, but I am perfectly content with this being the apotheosis of his career. His performance is applicably varied, being stoic, genial, vulnerable, and militant whenever it is apposite to the situation, without it feeling contrived. Also, Lil Rel Howery as Rod, resembling Jordan Peele with more plentiful hair, provides raucous comic relief. Yeah, a film with such searing, intricate ambitions and context has legitimately effective comedy.

Speaking of Jordan Peele...remember him? One-half of Key & Peele? He co-produced, wrote, and directed this film. Films helmed by comedians have a sketchy, spotty history. The last one I can think of was, hell, 2009's Miss March and...let's not justify the existence of that cinematic nothingness by discussing it further. As far as this film, I don't whether this is a fluke or a harbinger for even grander things to come, but let me say this: Jordan Peele can direct. He can direct uniquely and masterfully. His knack for mise-en-scene is spectacular. The cinematography by Toby Oliver is breathtaking. When it isn't displaying scenes of haunting lyricism or lurid tension, its wide, scenic, panoramic shots heavily replicate an ambiance of uncertainty and malaise. 
The score is also perfectly orchestrated by Michael Abels. His usage of music is multifarious and audacious for a horror film. As opposed to relying on obvious dynamics and warmed-over horror chords, his style of application is extensive. At times, the score is retro with old-fashioned violins and even jaunty, antiquated easy listening music circa the '40s, which can be arguably described as white people music, thus augmenting the content. Other times, the score implements a quasi-optimistic, semi-sentimental, grandiose feel to certain scary moments, which is wholly atypical for a horror film.

Peele's directorial debut is as frightening, invigorating, audacious, and visionary as a seasoned professional's masterwork. At times, it feels experimental, but he manages to deliver the precise beats and notes to satiate an audience. Don't be surprised if in ten to fifteen years, it is being discussed alongside John Carpenter's Halloween, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, or Eduardo Sanchez' The Blair Witch Project as one of the all-time greatest horror debuts. It doesn't exploit African-American fears, but rather facilitates the expression of them and justifies the existence of them. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is certainly the most impressive and the most unexpected. If Spike Lee made a horror film, this is what it would be: blunt, brash, culturally relevant, unbridled, and profoundly engaging.

Also, I was already annoyed with ukuleles before this film. Now, I want them to be permanently abolished. Sooner rather than later would be appreciated.

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sing (2016)

Given its fairly fresh presence in Hollywood, it's hard to put a label on Illumination Entertainment as an animation picture studio. I mean, the Despicable Me franchise propelled them swiftly and they seem to have the ambitions to make distinct fare. I can see what they are trying to do, but who are they trying to be? Their movies have a farcical, smart-alecky, rapid-fire energy akin to Dreamworks, yet possess a genuine warmth and delicacy, more akin to Disney. It's hard to decipher whether they are trying to bridge the divide or inhabit two sensibilities simultaneously. 

This lack of a concrete, penetrable identity, from my perspective, has thus far been both limiting and liberating. They haven't that knockout film yet, but I believe they will. I don't know where they are going, but they are certainly on the right track. The Lorax, while bearing some substantial narrative flaws, came the closest to representing Seuss' style, visually. The Secret Life of Pets, while met with eye-rolling criticism, was such a lively concoction of humor, animation, characters, and voice acting that The Angry Birds Movie is still seething with envy. And their most recent film with the most humble, understated premise they have conceived is their best non-Despicable Me effort to date: Sing.

The film begins by introducing us to Buster Moon, a koala whose love of the theater eventually led him to open his own theater. However, he has produced nothing but flops and has found himself in considerable financial ruin. With the theater on the verge of shutting down, he has one more idea to save it: to host a singing competition with a grand prize, which later becomes $100,000. The contenders are Rosita, a pig who carries the hefty responsibility of caring for her negligent husband and their twenty-five piglets, Mike, an arrogant, self-absorbed, street-performing mouse, Gunter, a flamboyant, dancing pig, who becomes paired up with Rosita, Johnny, a gorilla who is involved with mobsters, Ash, a porcupine who struggles to escape her boyfriend's shadow and upkeep her own artistry, and Meena, an elephant with oft-debilitating stage fright. As the contestants battle their own struggles, Buster struggles to come through with the prize money, as everyone works to put together a dazzling show.

If there is one pervading vice I find in Illumination Entertainment, particularly their two recent films, it's their timidness and lack of zest in their beginnings. The first fifteen minutes of this film is slow, somewhat off-putting, not very funny, and it basically lays out the arcs of all of the characters, making it fiercely predictable. It doesn't spoil anything, but if you have any predictions of these characters within the first fifteen minutes, *spoiler,* you're probably correct.

Conversely, however, one of the their greatest strengths is crafting characters that are simple yet convivial. The character of Ms. Crawly, Buster's iguana assistant, is actually rather pointless and trite (sorry, director/writer Garth Jennings, who voiced Ms. Crawly). Most of her jokes are moribund, one-note, and go nowhere. However, Mike the mouse, voiced by Seth McFarlane, is the funniest of the contestants. He's so self-centered that he begins living the high-life before he even has the money to support it. Rosita, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, is such a lovable, gentle sweetheart of a character, but is more vivacious than the typical excessively loving, doting or overworked mother archetype.

Jennings is also shrewd enough to seamlessly, surreptitiously use some characters to make realistic points about artistry and performance. Rosita can sing, but has very little stage presence and is paired up with Gunther, voiced by Nick Kroll. Johnny, voiced by Taron Egerton, can sing, but he is also told to play piano for the show. These are indications that, yes, sometimes more is expected of you than your accustomed talent, which is a rather atypical message in a children's film. However, Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johannson, wants to perform original music and she crafts an original song that she is allowed to perform, which also sends the message that sometimes your mere abilities are enough. That dichotomy is existent in the entertainment business, but it is so rarely seen or have been expressed in movies and it's one that is very important to bring to the forefront and be made aware of.

Jennings has not only given us nicely presented characters, but paired them with voice actors that bolster their likability. Witherspoon, Johannson, Egerton, and Kroll do immense justice to their characters. Tori Kelly clearly has more comfort as a forceful, boisterous singer than acting as shy and modest, but for the role, she plays it convincingly. Matthew McConaughey has the naive optimism, the gentle charisma, and the blissful spirit that enlivens Buster Moon. I suppose it's fitting that McConaughey's most intriguing, bustling, and productive period involves two animated movies in 2016; a field previously unventured by him that he knocks out of the park both times.

One aspect that is absolute with Illumination Entertainment is their animation. While Secret Life of Pets cloaked itself in gorgeous, autumnal hues evocative of New York, Sing's climate in a city unique unto itself and it's simple, yet even more fetching. The animation is magnificent, displaying poppy, luminous, vibrant colors. A sequence involving the flooding of the theater is as enthralling, enrapturing, thrilling, and intricate as a marvelous action sequence. As expected for a film called Sing, the film features a wide array of musical numbers. What's rather surprising is how all-encompassing the music is. It doesn't tread the avant-garde waters, but it also utilizes more musical selections than the simple Top 40 playlist often present in kids' films. The music is used straightforwardly and humorously, as showcased specifically in the climactic competition that is all parts bizarre, riotous, lively, and warranting a shimmy in your seat.

Initially, I wasn't sure that this movie was going to resonate securely. I knew it would succeed financially, but I figured it would be just...cute. During its start, I thought that it would have been more interesting if the script had more of a bite or a satirical slant. However, this film is not just cute. It's entertaining, moreso than expected. It's not a grand slam, but in these progressive, boundary-pushing times of animation, sometimes just a simple, effective bit of entertainment is all you need. Sing, the last animated film released in 2016, is guaranteed to leave a smile.

RATING: An enthusiastic three stars out of four

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land (2016)

It is quite a feat when a musical film becomes universal. Seeing how the mere conceit and style of musicals are so polarizing, capturing the complete, consensual consciousness is practically an anomaly. A select few that come to my head are Singin' In the Rain, Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Grease, and a plethora of Disney movies. I assume that our current generation's obsession with delving into retro sounds and renewing archaic trends coupled with our desperate need for some positivity after a drudging burden of year we had to suffer through (Oh God, inauguration day's approaching us) has equated the enormous affection for Damien Chazelle's newest cinematic incorporation of music. If Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was his debut film and Whiplash was his full-on breakthrough into the public zeitgeist, then La La Land is the missing, albeit fully, unequivocally realized, piece for his cinematic trifecta.

The intro, while providing us with only a glimpse of what to expect thematically, sets the tone impeccably. An upbeat opening number uses music to offset the jarring, galvanic sounds of road rage to give us a peek of what certain strangers' "la la lands" seem to encompass. When it seems to come across as simplistic, we are then introduced to Mia. She's an aspiring, but down-on-her-luck actress, who works as a barista to make ends' meet. After a disastrous night, she meets (or, should I say, reunites with) a jazz pianist, Sebastian. He's obsessed with jazz and plans to open a jazz club named in honor of his idol, Charlie Parker, but he's failing to make ends' meet and an incident at a restaurant has just cost him his job. While, at first, they do not respond to each other kindly, they soon begin a winning romance, as they both become invested in each others' aspirations.

I must concede that this film, initially, caught me off-guard. At the start, I minorly struggled to discover Chazelle's intention. I mean, it seemed very straightforward, but I felt that I was missing something. It's set in modern day, so it clearly wasn't trying to be set in the 40s, but moreso trying to be an homage. However, the pieces still came across as heterogeneous. Part of it may have been that, at first, the story didn't compel me enough. Adequately, mind you, but not excessively. It seemed adorably, infectiously genial, but that was about it.

However, after the first third, I cracked the code promptly. This movie actually isn't a straightforward musical. It definitely has musical elements and I am not denying that it's a musical film. I'm saying that there is a bit more under the surface. It is more an embrace of nostalgia, not just conceptually, but thematically. Mia states that her love of acting stemmed from memories of watching vintage movies with her mother, specifically Casablanca, Notorious, and Bringing Up Baby. She seems to be more concentrated on the current times, which is where some of the anguish in her character can blossom from. She's so fixated on her current situation that, occasionally, she seems to let the innocence and purity of those memories evade her.

That can be said with Sebastian. He is impassioned about reviving jazz. He is clearly distraught and shaken about the overall disintegration of jazz and he hopes that his club can renew an interest in jazz. At the forefront, all the odds are against him, but his focus, determination, and his mere fascination of jazz cause him to turn a blind eye to those obstacles and he keeps pursuing his ultimate goal. Nostalgia is their "la la land," if you will. It's not a warning about being too heavily blindsided by it. It's not even a comment on the tragedy of possessing exorbitant amounts of nostalgic feelings. It's an encouragement to stay attuned to your nostalgic tendencies. All of it comes full circle during the final ten minutes, stating that even the most minute amounts of nostalgia can elevate and transcend wistful thoughts and cursed memories into those of effusive, unparalled joy. It's an audacious yet straightforward set of convictions Chazelle provides us.

Chazelle has the job title of filmmaker, the sensibilities of a musician, and the acumen and savvy forte to amalgamate the two fields. The musical numbers here are extraordinary. The songs themselves, while cute and upbeat, are best experienced with these visuals. Chazelle's knack for mise-en-scene is absolutely astonishing. The colors, the cinematography, the locations, the lighting; all of it seems like an ordinate painting coming to life. Chazelle recruited his Harvard classmate, Justin Hurwitz, to orchestrate the film and Mandy Moore (not the singer) to choreograph it and, by god, does he also have a knack for selection a top-tier crew. Hurwitz's orchestrations are marvelous, completely immersing himself into the spirit and context of this film, while Moore delivers some of the most taut, controlled, and lushest choreography I have seen on film in years. The Planetarium number is, quite fittingly, beautiful in an interplanetary way and the final music number, while not possessing the aggression and fury of the final drum solo from Whiplash, still stands alone as an exquisite, lovely, expressive, and dazzling musical piece. Additionally, the fact that he made Ryan Gosling look like a professional piano player is an achievement unto itself, although...he still could have used some Auto-Tune.

 Speaking of which, the performances are magnificent. Sure, John Legend is basically disposable, acting in the same vein of Aloe Blacc from Get On Up (seriously, y'all, don't quit your day jobs), but Ryan Gosling is absolutely winning, completely diving into Sebastian's obsessive, vigorous, passionate demeanor, sharply acting as the perfect male foil that was common in rom-coms of the 40s. However, the star of the film truly is Emma Stone as Mia. Stone has had many forays with characters that are both forthright yet fragile. This performance may just be at the zenith of that, possessing a biting wit, an inner facade willing to be exposed naked and raw, a warm smile, a delicate singing voice, and, above all, a fixated, intent-laden, transfixing, nuanced stare. Each and every time she delivers her protracted stare, it's utterly haunting and hypnotic. Chazelle's a master of dynamism and vibrancy, as opposed to nuance, but Stone gives him some credibility in that department.

Leave it to Damien Chazelle for making this film his blockbuster: a musical film that operates viscerally and cerebrally. It may not be a four-star classic, in my opinion, and I doubt it's going to spark a stark revival of movie musicals, but it's refreshing that one of the last films of 2016 can act not only as a therapeutic outlet for those who suffered through 2016, but also as a film that can enliven the spirits in any year. Given who we have to laboriously witness lead our country for the next four years...I can safely say that a "la la land" is exactly what we all need right now. A four-year vacation sounds just fine to me.

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