Monday, March 18, 2019

Five Feet Apart

Spoiler-free!

Can I still say I liked it, even if it didn't make me cry?

Because, while my eyes did moisten more than a few times, this teen illness romantic drama didn't ever get the waterworks going full-blast. Instead, I found myself smiling and feeling an unexpected amount of respect for the way this little story was told. Less nagging and more gently persistent.

Adapted by the book's authors, and directed by Justin Baldoni.

Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is living with cystic fibrosis. The idea appears to be to survive as long as possible. During a hospital stay, she notices another CF patient who doesn't take his regimen quite as seriously as she does. That is to say, he doesn't care at all, while she is legitimately obsessive-compulsive over it. Her OCD compels her to confront the new guy, who agrees to follow her example on the condition that she let him draw her. Thus, a friendship is born. But a dangerous one; new guy Will (Cole Sprouse) has a particular kind of bacteria in his lungs that exempts him from getting a lung transplant -- something that Stella is hoping for, and something she would lose if she caught his germs. Six feet apart at all times is the rule for CF patients. At that distance, can a romance really work?

Actually, yes. Yes, it can. All that's really required to make an effective love story is two characters that audiences can get behind; and that is this flick's shining achievement. Both in casting and characterization, it hits an appealing balance of tried-and-true familiarity with a fresh, naturalistic twist. Haley Lu Richardson is so adorable and charismatic that I can't believe it's taken her this long to land a lead romantic role. Stella's OCD tendencies that makes her micromanage others and spiral into extreme actions rings true, and it only makes her more likable too, as we watch her grasp for control. She also fulfills the archetype of YA lead girl, being naturally cute in a girl-next-door way, and spunky as all get out.

Now I want to see Edge of Seventeen again just to fully appreciate her in the role of the best friend.

Then Cole Sprouse does a perfect amalgamation of popular modern and classic archetypes. Will comes across as the edgy yet carefree charmer with a secret heart of gold, but he also completely pulls off the classical romantic hero atheistic of tall-dark-handsome-and-looks-great-in-a-black-trench-coat. This is complemented by the traditional hero arc he goes through, and it's strange how well the mixture works. Like a Mr. Darcy in sweatpants. And Lizzy has OCD! It's perfect. Watching those two interact was great; since they can't touch (and skip straight to making out and cuddling) they had to have actual conversations instead, and the relationship that developed between them feels actually, truly, developed.

Moises Arias as Stella's best friend Poe, who also has CF, and Kimberly Herbert Gregory as Nurse Barb are basically the only supporting cast worth mentioning, as they play into plot and themes and have memorable characters. Mostly though, it's just Stella and Will. Even their parents are often absent. In fact, their independence and the age of the actors led me to believe for about half the movie that the characters were 20-somethings too, and it didn't affect the story at all. They could've left ages out and saved me rolling my eyes over a declaration that "Tomorrow's my eighteenth birthday!" Sure it is, buddy. I mention this because this story sells itself as a YA romance, and sells itself short. It's really is a cut above while wearing the YA uniform.

He's come a long way from the Suite Life, I guess.

This brings me to the plot, which is decidedly the most complicated aspect, especially with avoiding spoilers. While watching it, it seemed to be all over the place in what it was saying -- but then it landed so hard, on such a strong conclusion, that in retrospect it feels more like it was searching for what was right (much like Stella does) instead of outright floundering. If that's the case, I can't fault it for taking the journey. I'd like to see it again just to see how my perspective changes. And its theme of love is possibly the best I've seen in a YA film; it knows the difference between romance and love, and ultimately and admirably concludes that love is the more valuable of the two.

Ironically, that decision was also the point at which the romance levels skyrocketed. It's been a while since I've seen a YA romance that really goes for a classically romantic flavor instead of putting a woke or cynical twist on it that lessens the effect. The fact that they can't touch is irrelevant to the building relationship, and then is absolutely vital to reach the high drama level it gets to so naturally. Nothing felt contrived to me. The worst I could say is that there are gaps of logic on occasion; the kind that I'd expect make sense if you read the book. And, I find myself saying this a lot these days, but if you need to have your expectations subverted, go somewhere else. This movie makes good use of romantic tropes.

It did surprise me a few times, just in a more natural, less "gotcha" way.

If you like romantic tropes and like to see effort put into making them work, Five Feet Apart is the place to be. Instead of ripping off The Fault in Our Stars, it's like it was inspired by it, and older works too -- the conversational romance of period dramas and the danger of Romeo and Juliet -- as a starting point to mix, match and create a personal love story. The film boasts an even pace, a mostly concise adapted plot, plenty of cute humor for balance, and two very attractive young people falling in love, growing, and learning, all while facing death. Heightened tragic romance at its modern-day finest. Its lungs may not work at full capacity, but its heart sure does.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Monster Trucks

Spoiler-free!

Hear me out on this one. I promise, I'm being serious!

When it released in 2016, Monster Trucks -- featuring the premise of tentacled monsters who exist inside and drive trucks -- was clearly for kids. If you saw the trailer you probably got a great sense of the ultimate ridiculousness. And why would it be anything more than literal monster trucks crashing into things? Nothing more is needed to sell its target audience. But this little gem undersold itself in marketing, and I'm here to set the record straight.

Directed by Chris Wedge (the Ice Age movies). Screenplay by Derek Connolly (Kong: Skull Island and the Jurassic World series). Combine the best and craziest aspects of those movies and you get an idea of what this is like!

Starring Lucas Till as Tripp, the high school kid, Jane Levy as Meredith the girl, Barry Pepper as the mom's boyfriend, Amy Ryan as the mom, Thomas Lennon as the scientist guy, and Rob Lowe as the evil bad guy oil tycoon -- oil drilling goes so deep that they hit an underwater pocket of water and three monsters who feed off the oil are launched up to the surface. One escapes and is found by Tripp who just so happens to have a truck sans engine. He discoveres that his oil guzzling new friend is a pretty awesome engine substitute. Meredith joins the gang. Next thing you know they're in full blown chase sequences running from the bad guys out to get "Creech."

And the chase sequences are AWESOME. But back up for a sec because the setup is on point. It's silly --duh-- but it hits the marks and doesn't fudge anything. There's no messing around, and it knows what we're here for, but it also knows what makes a story work and doesn't skimp in the build-up. The bad guy's bad character is established. It teases us by not showing the monsters during the drilling incident. The scene where Tripp meets Creech is actually two scenes -- one that plays like a horror movie, and then another where he and we see how he really is. And how is he really? ADORABLE. Like if Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon was a dolphin/octopus hybrid.

SEE??? He can be pretty scary if he wants too, and the whole species is a cool, thought-out creation.

Things get established. The movie understands quality and how to craft it; but it also understands that it doesn't\ need a plot like The Dark Knight in order to be a good action/adventure film. It plays to its genre, and its audience. Things are straightforward, utilizing established tropes as shorthand to get to the meat of the matter fast. The action is designed for maximum entertainment per square inch, and to that end, it doesn't pretend to be realistic. If it did, its whole existence would be hypocritical. Instead it embraces the natural parameters of its heightened, silly, and fantastical existence and plays into it, being the best it can be within that, and doing a stunningly good job at every aspect it tackles.

Like, I kinda hated Meredith at first because she was a too talkative Smart Girl, and underestimating the film's intelligence, I figured she'd stay annoying. I was wrong, and liked her by the end. Tripp and Creech's friendship is at the center of the movie, and they take their time showing us how the meet and get to know each other. Creech's species is quite intelligent and though he doesn't talk they understand each other and have a dynamic that's more than easy to get behind. Tripp has a contentious relationship with his mom's boyfriend, who's the town sheriff, and that takes some good turns too. And I particularly loved Barry Pepper being there. Also Danny Glover in a small role!

It so unabashedly embraces itself that it unironically plays Home by Phillip Phillips at the end -- and owns every bit of it.

Most of the movie is extremely predictable. A wonderful thing in this case. When watching it, you think, "What would be the most awesome thing that could happen right now?" You think of it, and then it happens, every bit as awesomely as you hoped. Subverting expectations may have its place, but it certainly isn't welcome here. This movie aims to deliver the goods exactly as ordered. Its plot structure is incredibly clean and succinct, with traditional three-act rises and falls that feel like a smooth-sailing roller coaster of glee. It's time for action? Done, with a bang. Humor? It goes for it. Romance? Well, friendship first, this is a family film. Emotional beats? Kids, you'd better believe there are emotional beats in this movie because that's the fuel that brings stories to life!

Seriously, I went into this expecting something dumb to make fun of and laugh at. Instead I was laughing with it, having the biggest blast of gleeful action I've had since who knows when. And, I was impressed at every turn by the level of stakes, and the sweet little cheesy heart. A movie about monsters driving trucks had me invested. I can't emphasize this enough. There may have been plot holes. I wouldn't care if there were. You could pick apart its logic. I don't care. It doesn't matter. It's the kind of movie that earns its existence beyond the shallow depth of something Cinema Sins could detect. It's clean, family oriented, displays positive relationships and positive themes, and most importantly -- Monsters. And. Monster trucks!

I genuinely feel sorry for the people who can't enjoy it because it's silly. Silliness in itself isn't a negative, and this movie is the evidence!

Ridiculous, yes, but with effort and care as it should be, not in some cheap and lazy kiddie fodder way. A silly and quality movie simultaneously. Even the CGI and creature designs are top-notch. It looks amazing, is amazingly heartfelt, amazingly fun, cheesy, dopey, and that supremely heightened kind of unaffected cool that makes me burst out laughing to see. Popping with bright colors, palpable joy, cute little monster eyes, and giant truck tires bouncing across open plains and down the sides of mountains. Monster Trucks is everything a kid could want. And that includes your inner kid, too.

Currently streaming free on Amazon Prime.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Captain Marvel

Thanks to Jacob Smith for featuring this review on his site! If you're interested in movie reviews, news, and opinion pieces from a conservative perspective, you should definitely check it out -- society-reviews.com!

Spoiler-free!

The MCU's latest origin story is also its first solo film for a female character. They put their absolute best effort into touting the movie as such, and after seeing it, I understand why all the emphasis was on pre-hype. One of Marvel's safest and least-daring films, Carol Danvers' introduction to the universe doesn't do much that's spectacularly irritating -- mostly because it doesn't do anything spectacular at all.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck but written by three additional people because all MCU movies all have to be camels at this point. 

We start out with a brief glimpse of the Kree world where Carol (Brie Larson) is serving in the Kree/Skrull war under Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). There's one shot of the Kree city outside her widow that looks like a magnificent scifi scape leaning towards noir-ish, cyberpunk-ish vibes, but we never see it up close. She does some training, she goes on mission, and eventually winds up stranded on Earth circa 1995 where she meets a younger, two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) and goes on a hunt for some people of her forgotten memories (Annette Bening) and (Lashana Lynch), all the while the Skrull Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and his crew are on her tail.

The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens and shape-shifting is an easy harbinger of fun. And the movie touches on its potential. It's the mid-90's which means grunge and kind of wonderfully cheesy music; and the movie touches on that, too. Carol wears band tees and ripped jeans, and the computers are super slow. Otherwise it could be set anytime. Style only seems to cross the movie's mind is when there's cool CGI effects to show off. Even the worst of the past MCU films have had tonal style and the dampener of the Marvel Brand isn't excuse for the blandness we get here. I wish they had fully embraced the grungy 90's and low-key cheesy spy thriller aspect it was all crying for. It could've been amazing with relatively little tweaking to the core story.

One thing I loved with all my heart: her helmet mohawk. 

The central heart of the story -- getting up when you're knocked down -- had a solid foundation, but I hesitate to call it a theme because the movie's attempts to present it as theme were grasping. Visually it had impact and you can practically feel them scrambling for a verbal iteration to match in the moment. The set-up for Carol's development is weak, and the part about her needing to control her emotions was left hanging. That didn't make sense to begin with as Larson's acting style is so reserved that her being overly emotional as the script says doesn't fly. And I'll will readily defend Larson's acting abilities. She can work wonders in indie films where everything's understated. But as a blockbuster-action superhero, her internalizing emotions gets lost in the total lack of nuance.

There were moments she made me laugh with her delivery and times she made me smile just by being happy and laughing with Fury. On the other side, I think she was miscast. She does look the part and all MCU actors give better performances elsewhere, but ultimately her inexpressive style only adds to the bland feeling that brings the movie down. The only person who seems committed to having fun here is Ben Mendelsohn. Samuel L. Jackson's natural charisma works so well for him that I can't tell if he was phoning in or not. He's also better elsewhere with better scripts. This script actively attacks him, making one very significant thing happen that does its level best to ruin his character with its abject stupidity. (Hint: it's to do with his eye.) Just another day at the old MCU!

Larson and Jackson had fun chemistry. The movie could've leaned hard into their dynamic and been better for it. But it could've leaned into anything and been better for it.

Fan-favorite Goose the cat was great -- when he was being played by a real cat. The disgracefully rendered CGI cat that he was half the time seems to have been animated by a person who has never seen a cat before. It moved like boneless dog. Other random things that bothered me was how Carol's hair was always curled. I felt like her stylist was sitting behind me with a hot iron, waiting for the camera to cut so she could run in and fix the falling waves. There are the expected Marvel Brand jokes to make me die inside. And they only play three era songs for a decent amount of time. One is horribly matched to a fight scene. The fighting overall was shot lazily to negate the need for good choreography. The good action beats came from special effects and infused drama instead.

Despite all this, I did somewhat enjoy myself for the most part. Perhaps simply because I expected a dumpster fire, and instead it was like watching the garbage truck come by your house; something vaguely loud to look at that isn't impactful in any significant way. They did manage to lose me eventually though, with a later twist. To "subvert expectations" is required in every movie now, and appropriately this subversion throws a wrench in the plotting. It flounders for a while before it settles into a new groove, no better than the original. Overall the whole thing feels like the result of cutting corners and skimping on budget -- but if anyone can take a slight risk and make a decent film for girl protagonist, it's Marvel! ... Right?

At this point, I'm not particularly interested in the supposed future Avengers line-up, and if nothing changes for Marvel it won't be hard to quit.

The temptation to pander and squeak by on as little effort as possible was simply too strong. And why not when you can trust the brand and the hype to sell the resulting painfully average product regardless of quality? A handful of genuinely enjoyable moments and splashes of shiny CGI among long stretches of middling boredom is all we are rewarded with for our loyal patronage. Captain Marvel isn't a terrible movie; nor is it good, or a waste, or a success, or hardly anything resembling a movie at all. It has more in common with an extremely competent exercise in running down a checklist. The soulless Marvel assembly machine grinds on.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot

Spoiler-free!

There's something special about this one. A tale of an American hero who secretly assassinated Hitler during WWII, and then thirty or so years later is hired by the American and Canadians governments to kill another danger to the world in secret -- Bigfoot.

Written and directed by Robert D. Krzykowski.

The title really does say it all. Beyond the words even, the blatant subtext implies a legendary type of fantasy. And the no-nonsense wording endows the tale with a straightforward seriousness. It is all that. But at the same time, it's absurd. Its comedy is dark, high-brow, and embedded in the details and straight delivery -- yet it's all so ridiculous. It felt distinctly like a legend in the way they feel impossible yet are told with such succinct confidence that you halfway believe it anyway. The fairytale quality. A handful of movies have obtained it in various ways -- Tim Burton films mostly. None that I've seen do it quite in this niche though.

The Man is Calvin Barr, played by Sam Elliott when he's older, and Aidan Turner when he's younger. Elliott edges out being the lead and more THE character out of the two portrayals, but when Turner is doing his part, you don't actively miss Elliott. They share a grand character, and each have their share of grand moments. They match each other excellently. Turner does an American accent but doesn't do the impression thing which would have to be tempting when sharing a role with Sam Elliott. Instead they genuinely feel like the same person at very different stages of his life. As the scenes switch back and forth between times, you wonder and imagine what might've happened in the gap that leads him to where he is. And eventually of course, we find out.

With a mustache they look remarkably similar.

Supporting characters are fun, though only Calvin's brother (Larry Miller) and girlfriend in the 40's (Caitlin FitzGerald) get more than one scene. Those two play dramatic roles important to the plot. There's also cameo type bits: Ron Livingston and Rizwan Manji are the men who ask Calvin to come and kill the Bigfoot. Ellar Coltrane plays a convenience store clerk in one of my favorite scenes. That scene feels exactly like when you're miraculously able hold in a smile while something hilarious is happening. There's also a Russian man who tells Calvin's fortune by giving him a shave before he sets off to assassinate Hitler in what is probably my favorite scene of all. The whole movie is compiled of distinct scenes. Each one feels important and necessary, but the why of it is strangely hard to define.

What's in the box he keeps under his bed? Why can't he seem to find the pebble in his shoe? Is there a determinable deeper meaning here conveyed through symbolism, or are we simply meant to take what we pick up? A few times while he's giving a deep speech it feels like the movie brushes up against a theme, but it flashes too quickly to give us a firm grasp, like a forgotten memory that you almost remember. I don't say this as a bad thing or good. It feels natural because of how individually each scene and sequence exists, but at the same time I was eager to understand what it was saying in certain terms, and after two viewings it still feels ambiguous. Sincere and deep, but undefined.

I didn't mention that there's romance in this movie. Well there is.

What I decidedly liked I desperately wish there had been more of. Only one thing absolutely satisfied my appetite for the specific taste this movie possessed, and that was the cinematography. Absolutely, incredibly, beautiful in a way that makes me giddy to see. It was epic and dramatic, but not in a blockbustery, overblown way. It was simplified, simple, and stoic. From the silhouettes against raging fire or evening sky, to plain close-ups where Sam Elliott looks over his glasses at someone and turns for a moment into a work of art. I loved the look of this tale. Then, they start out with the makings of a great soundtrack but lose interest once the movie gets going. I wish so much that they'd kept that up.

The last thing I loved that I wanted more of was the surrealist elements. So many movies could easily count technically as surreal. Fantasy and objectively strange things abound and have become normal in art. But here, it takes on a tone of surrealism that makes you take notice of the uncanny and the strange in the same way you might if you encountered them in real life. Probably a harder thing to accomplish that it might seem. The feeling comes and goes here, in varying degrees of strength -- a mirror imaged clock as opposed to battling the Bigfoot on a cliff -- and for my money could have happened twice as often. Those were the places and the ways this film shines.

The only significant flaw was that it should've been even more of the strange way it was.

Simple, real-life, far-fetched fantasy. A fiercely unique juxtaposition of seriousness and absurdity, yet pleasant and welcoming in tone; somehow it all mixes together with help from many breathtaking views, several memorable moments, and two endearing performances. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot may not be quite the stuff legends are made of, but since it is about the stuff legends are made of, some of that legendary status rubs off -- and even the brief and modest picture that results is gratifying.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - March

Wow, March already. February went a little crazy with my expectations. First I saw Velvet Buzzsaw even though I was on the fence about it. I decided it didn't look too scary and went for it -- and now it's my current favorite movie of the year! It was devilishly funny and smart and I read a lot into the themes that I adored. And the horror was perfect for me: not too scary but very cool. (Read my review here!)

The next unexpected thing was that I actually went to the theater to see Alita: Battle Angel, and I'm so glad I did. I fell in love with it. The world was every bit as cool as I wanted and Alita herself was magical. I said I thought she looked inexpressive in the trailer, but in the movie, she was perfect. Wonderfully animated, acted, and written! (Review here!)

I didn't go see The Lego Movie 2 though, even though I thought that was a sure thing. And last night I streamed The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. It surprised me the least but that was probably because I was expecting good things. So I should get a review for it out soon.

March movies always seems to have a lot of promise to me. It's like the wild-card month, where the best and the worst movies of the year are mingled together and you have to sort out which is which. What looks good you y'all?


Captain Marvel
Mar 8th; PG-13
Here's an opening statement for you: I'm actually kinda excited for this movie. About as excited as I was for Spider-Man: Homecoming anyway, which is definitely more excited than I usually am for MCU installments. Usually, I dread them. Still, the push-back and push-back-on-push-back over this movie is ridiculous. I wish everyone would chill, because if this movie sucks, guaranteed it's going to be for the exact same reason that every recent Marvel movie has sucked. Anyway I'm still looking forward to it because I've always enjoyed Larson's acting, it's set in the 90's and supposedly has an appropriate soundtrack, is a space-y movie, and Ben Mendelsohn is the bad guy. What's not to like? Well, there's all the Marvel stuff that I'm sick and tired of... but I'm giving it a fair chance.




The Kid
Mar 8th; R
Chris Pratt plays a bad guy in this. Like, a seriously, really bad, bad guy. So I'm sold on that alone, I've always wanted to know if he has chops to play against type. Very interested. Then approach it from another angle: Ethan Hawke western movie. Sold all over again! It's directed by Vincent D'Onofrio, and all those guys were in The Magnificent Seven remake together. I can just see them sitting around on set and planning this movie -- though logic doubts that happened. Throw in Dane DeHaan and a more R-rated, gritty tone, and I've lost count of how many times I'm sold. At this point I'm basically sure that I'll be hitting the theaters for it if I can. It kinda snuck up on me, and suddenly I'm eager to see it! The music usage in this trailer is seriously on point.




I'm Not Here
Mar 8th(limited); NR
One of those actor movies. It's got J.K. Simmons and Sebastian Stan and Maika Monroe, and the plot looks, well, I can't even remember at this point and I only watched the trailer a few hours ago. It looks boring but well-acted. I dunno, I'd consider watching if it came to a steaming service near me.




Triple Frontier
Mar 13th; R
It's a Netflix movie, so, basically... I'll watch it. I don't even really need to know anything about it. I know it'll be there, it has an appealing cast of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam (who I like now for some magical reason???) Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal, and that's all Netflix needs to attract me. The plot is one of those situations though where it's so clearly a bad idea yet the characters go for it anyway, so unless the movie itself makes it make more sense why they'd all agree to that plan -- it may ruin the whole thing even if the action is cool.




Starfish
Mar 13(limited); NR
Streaming May 28th, but I guess I'll put in here, so I can remember it once May rolls around. She's ostensibly the last person on earth and find a tape left for her by a friend, with clues on how to... solve something? Save the world? The movie looks pretty crazy but it's probably mostly a cerebral thing. Still, could be cool.




Five Feet Apart
Mar 15th; PG-13
I'd be kidding myself if I didn't include this one. I don't think I've ever seen a Sprouse brother act before. I never watched The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, but I've always known who they were because I was a part of a Narnia fan forum back in the day where people would regularly fan-cast them as the twins in The Horse and His Boy. That's a rabbit trail but the point is this is a cute dumb teen melodrama that's trying to bank off The Fault in Our Stars 5 years after the fact and I will probably watch it the absolute second its available for free because why the heck not? It also has the best friend girl from Edge of Seventeen, which I just watched the other day. So that's cool.




Captive State
Mar 15th(limited); PG-13
This looks like it could be absolutely awesome. I'm always down for a nice hardcore scifi movie and this alien takeover plot could definitely do the trick. It's like 1984 or something but with extraterrestrials. John Goodman is there, Vera Farminga, and it looks like the main character is Ashton Sanders, who I've not seen in anything yet, but he was the middle version of the protagonist in Moonlight so I expect he can do that acting thing. The only thing I'm not sure about is, it's proudly by the director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and... I did not like that movie. So if this follows it's footsteps too closely I can imagine it getting all the potential joy sucked out of it. Probably worth the risk though I'd say.




The Aftermath
Mar 15th(limited); R
Ugh, I dunno about this one, I'm on the fence about even including it in this post. Fox Searchlight seems to do a good job consistently picking up good movies, but even the appeal of hearing Alexander Skarsgård speak German doesn't seem worth sitting through a movie with this kind of frustrating "romance" plot, starring Keira Knightley.




The Mustang
Mar 15th(limited); R
This is different. Also, it's a horse movie. Last year, when a horse movie came out in March it wound up being my favorite movie of the whole year! That probably won't happen again, but this does have the same sort of simple, small and intimate tone. The reforming inmate and his horse. It looks good, it seriously does. Matthias Schoenaerts stars.




Us
Mar 22nd; R
I'm so scared of this movie, I can't even watch the trailer again. How in the world can I possibly watch the actual movie?!? Last time a trailer was too scary and I somehow got myself to watch the movie anyway I regretted it a bit. More than a bit. Ugh, it looks great, it looks terrible -- I think I'll leave it to the professionals for now. Maybe I'll ease into it and see Get Out first anyway. Same director. And if I like and can handle that, then we'll see.




Triple Threat
Mar 22nd; R
And it's streaming same day. Never not watch Iko Uwais movies -- ever since I finally buckled down and watched The Raid. I don't even need to see the trailer. Don't even need to know the plot. The action in this guy's movies are everything they need, and everything else is just a plus!




Dumbo
Mar 29th; PG
Disney's first live-action remake of the year, and the one getting the least flack. Certainly from me and here's why: It appears to be the least of a shot-for-shot remake of the three. It's got added characters and a seriously expanded plot. Human characters, and new human characters that aren't desperately trying to look like iconic animated characters. I also recently realized that I kinda enjoy Colin Farrell now (I think it was In Bruges that did me in) and he and his kids seem to be even more the leads than Dumbo himself. Ostensibly, they're changing it enough so it can be a worthwhile story in its own right. I'm surprised at how okay and hesitantly on board with this movie I am. They may reveal how they've ruined it soon enough, but as it stands I'm rather curious. Also Michael Keaton is the bad guy? Sounds good, solid plan.



Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

Spoiler-free!

Alita, the girl, is a cyborg -- a sophisticated robot with a human brain, made 300 years before she is found in a garbage heap by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) and reconstructed. She is a relic of a time past when things were made with care. And so is her movie.

They just don't make 'em like they used to anymore.

Alita is directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. It's based on a manga, so this cyberpunk scifi adventure (I can't even type those words without smiling) starts out with established and already well-loved characters ready for adaptation. I can't speak as to accuracy, but I get a strong impression that it was done with buckets full of TLC, based on the results. There are beautifully minute details, expert pacing, clever turns and subtle foreshadowing, and I didn't except almost anything it does. And it retains a distinct Japanese feel, from the world, to plot points, to tone, and right down to characterization; the heart and soul of the story.

The greatest of its characters is its protagonist, played through motion-capture by Rosa Salazar. I only knew her from The Maze Runner series where she was fine, though those movies are certainly not for showing off acting chops. And after watching the Alita trailer I had doubts over believability, characterization, and the design that made her eyes so big. Then the movie proved all those doubts unfounded one by one. At times I tried to imagine the mo-cap pajamas, but the standard was that my brain believed what it saw, and I had to try and twist it to see it as fake. Especially when live-action characters touch her casually and you can see the weight and existence of her. Motion-capture has always been fascinating to me, and it continues to make impressive advancements.

You can see Salazar in her effortlessly. And she is charm itself. 

But even then, characterization is where I was most wowed. I wish I was thirteen again, or that I could send this movie back in time to thirteen-year-old me, because she would have fallen hard for this movie, and the girl who powers it. Alita is naive, charming, tenacious, confident, totally unflappable, and as weird a moment as it was, my favorite part of her became clear when she declared that she gives all or nothing. She loves people with everything she has, or she fights them, and there's no in between. And she makes wise decisions over who falls in which category. She has faults and obstacles to overcome, and a spectacular origin story arc to do it in.

I was entranced by the balance of her; her sweet smiles and open heart (sometimes literally) countered by her ferocious and ruthless power, and her unwavering decisiveness. Thirteen-year-old me could've used a decisive fictional role-model. And after all that, the eyes that I raised an eyebrow at in the trailer... well they became as essential part of her. And with that realization I began to understand the care that must have gone into this film. She and her film weren't just haphazardly chopped together, but whoever made the decision to include her appearance so accurately must have known her well enough to understand how vital it was. It wasn't some lame excuse to use more mo-cap; it was the backbone of the whole story.

There's life behind those animated eyes. And that's the magic of motion-capture; it's made to capture motion, and somehow captures the soul too. 

The characters that surround Alita are there to support her, and it's within that role that they feel full and engaging. I've never liked a Christoph Waltz character more (though I do usually see him play bad guys) and I was eternally impressed by the love interest not being there only to be a love interest. Often the fate of female love interests but now feminism has only flip-flopped the problem; but this is a rare case. Hugo (Keean Johnson) doesn't cease to exist when he's not by Alita's side, is important to the plot beyond being a thing to fall in love with, has character, and to my gleeful surprise, even has good chemistry with her. Their side of the story is cheesy, sweet, compelling, and even has real stakes.

Alita's relationship with Dr. Ido is also compelling, has some neat twists to it, and some real-feeling moments of conflict. Rebellious teenager and everything. Those three make up the center of the movie. On the outside is people like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, who you could say were underused, but they work within their confides and do a good job. There's also Jorge Lendeborg Jr. who was totally normal (why oh why couldn't he have been like that in Bumblebee??) and Lana Candor who I think should pop up in more random movies. Ed Skrein made an extremely fun and uber cool villain, and Jackie Earle Haley was the big physical villain for fighting. Oh, an Eliza González of Baby Driver was there for a hot second too.

I honestly expected the romance to be an eye-roller. And it kinda was. But I fell for it anyway. It was a good eye-roller.

Even the naysaying grumpy old bores who don't like this film readily admit that it's an impressive feat concerning visuals and action sequences. I honestly expected there to be full-blown battles in this somehow, but wound up loving how static and small-scale it was. The biggest action was this hardcore sport called Motorball, that's like a roller derby mixed with basketball on a NASCAR track from hell. It's exactly as awesome as it sounds, and reminded me a bit of Speed Racer. The combat fights were typically one-on-one which is exactly my speed. They were small, and get personal fast. And brutal even faster. The PG-13-level violence shocked me every time, and the movie makes serious choices that it can't take back. And it makes them boldly.

It did things that I didn't want it to do and made me deal with it, and with that earned my full respect. I have a few complaints that boil down to personal taste rather than anything actually flawed, but can be summed up in that I wanted more. It seemed like Alita herself soaked up a lot of the budget, and while I am glad of the more intimate plot, the scale could've gone bigger visually for my money. The look of it was neat and certainly cyberpunk, but a clearer style and cleaner, more striking cinematography could've turned this compelling story populated by lovable character into an absolute trifecta of science fiction. Still, if budget was what prevented that, they made the cuts in the right place.

I love high aesthetic in my scifi, but character and story should and do come first. Anyway, there's slow-mo shots like this so who's to complain? 

I also want more in that I hope a sequel gets made. I'm tired of movies that only exist to sequel-bait, but I'll readily defend this, as that's not at all the case here. This movie was an origin story, and couldn't have existed without this first chapter. Though it leaves us with the impression that bigger things are to come, it stands on its own with a whole, completed plot; builds itself up carefully through emotional journeys, and developing characters and relationships; and doesn't leave anything unexplored in order to tease.

A beautifully versatile movie, it perfectly mirrors Alita's personality, hitting beats of silly camp, then melodrama; one second it's sweet and cute, and the next unexpectedly, disturbingly dark. It takes itself seriously, but is fun and unafraid to play around. Like its amazing and unique heroine, it's made with care of craftsmanship; and like its heroine, it works hard to discover what exactly it is, and then it is that, exactly, with undeterrable passion, and a heart that will never fail.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Dark

Spoiler-free!

When Jonas Kahnwald returns to school in the quiet town of Widen, Germany on November the 4th, 2019, all his schoolmates think he spent the last two months in France, but that isn't true. Really, he spent the time in a psychiatric hospital trying to recover from the trauma of his father hanging himself in the attic that August. All he missed was a local boy, Erik, going missing -- oh, and his best friend Bartosz is now dating the girl he likes, Martha. Things don't seem to be looking up, but at least they know where Erik kept his drug stash -- out by Widen Caves. A group of them go out there after dark, and some strange sounds and a wild sprint back to safety later, another of their number is missing. This time, Martha's younger brother Mikkel.

A German-language Netflix show, directed by Baran bo Odar, co-created with Jantje Friese.

What follows for the next nine episodes is a breathtaking downward spiral of ever-increasing complexity and interweaving madness that will leave your head spinning. There are so many elements going on in this show that I can't possibly hope to cover all of them. I'll stay away from plot for no spoilers, and unfortunately can't talk much about the characters either for the same reason -- plus there are just plain too many of them. Nearly 20 could easily count as main characters, and they all have their motivations, secrets, and conflicts with each other. At the center is always Jonas (Louis Hofmann), but even he doesn't appear in two of the ten episodes, so wide is this show's scope. Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), Mikkel's father and a detective looking for the missing kids, is the only person in all ten.

So, it's down to quality, technique, tone, and vibe then -- and I could talk about the latter two all day, but let's start at the top. I'm not sure how big a production this was in Germany, but it was either impressively big or incredibly efficient with what it had, because it comes across as massive. It opts for practical effects over digital whenever possible, and invests strongly in what it has. The casting director (Simone Bär) deserves a medal; you rarely see such obvious care put into the amassing of a cast, let alone one this big and this capable. And the score caught my notice by being so strange and mood-setting with odd percussion sounds, and weird airy hoots and screeches. Then the soundtrack is occasionally obscure and always to die for.

Some German, some English, some 80's classics, and some strange to amazing modern stuff.

Writing is clearly exceptional. I am amazed at how masterfully this complex plot was doled out for a steady build of wonderment. Every reveal has maximum impact. And I have to say I loved hearing the German language spoken by normal people. More often I hear it in WWII pics where it's made to sound as harsh as possible, but here it's so laid back and beautiful. Rich, with an edge, just like the show itself. Though I'm sure at least a little is lost in translation, the lines are smart but not showy, and nicely cryptic, forgoing blatant exposition, so many connections in the plot are made in reverse, which is a remarkably satisfying thing to accomplish.

The scifi elements are presented with such realism, and the character's reactions to them are the perfect level of confusion and acceptance that things never come too easily, but no one's annoyingly obtuse in understanding either. Objectively the show is paced slowly, but as you watch it, it feels relentless, like if you don't keep up, you'll be left behind. No serving things up on a platter here; we must dive in with the characters to discover and piece things together. Nicely, the show does give us the required information to solve a mystery before the character does, and this slow accumulation of clues helps. The first time I watched it, I was on the verge of being lost the whole time, and the mental challenge it presented was thrilling.

Even just keeping track of who is in who's family was a fun challenge!

One of my favorite things this show does is probably at least partially meant to provide a break from the mental strain, and it is that in the 3/4 mark of every episode (or nearly every) the plot will pause, and the soundtrack will gear up to a thousand and play a moody piece of licensed music while the show casually checks in on its characters -- usually not doing anything particular except being moody. The show does have consistent style throughout, but it's these moments that really leave an impact as to how incredibly beautiful this show gets. It lays it on thick, and without an ounce irony; and it's mesmerizing. This show doesn't hold back, doesn't apologize, and doesn't need to. It's fascinating, and richly decadent.

My other favorite thing is how well the characters are handled. We get to know them all deeply, and whether our knowledge leads to love or hate for them, it's always done with subtlety -- with sympathy for the bad ones and flaws for the good. I found it wonderfully satisfying to harbor hate for one particular character, but it doesn't lack in villains. And I naturally invested with Jonas' story most, but there's no lack of lovable, sympathetic, and fascinating characters either. Character arcs are a strange thing, and often are completed out of order, so that the journey is only perfectly clear in retrospect. Theme is remarkable, and remarkably well done: I almost wish I could explain, but even with spoilers I'm not sure I could do it justice. It seems to go deeper than I could find the words or the time to describe. Suffice to say, it left an impact.

"What we know is a drop; what we don't, an ocean."

Dark is streaming on Netflix. I recommend it as a science fiction mystery and drama; bleak, but determined to entertain with every moment. Comparable to Stranger Things, but with less pop-culture and comedy, and for more mature audiences. Its relaxed pace and dark tone won't be for everyone, nor its complex puzzle of characters and rare mature content; but another season is on its way, so now's the time to catch up if it at all appeals to your sensibilities. For me, I'm excited to see where these characters will lead us next -- with new interweaving mysteries, a fresh bounty of mind-blowing twists, that sweet, sweet mood-setting soundtrack, and patent German style -- eager to discover what the future holds for this magnificent treasure of a show.