Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Star Wars: Episode IX -The Rise of Skywalker

Spoiler-free!

Thank the Midichlorians it's over! When it was announced that J.J. Abrams was chosen as the director of the closing film for the Sequel Trilogy, I predicted that he'd attempt to please both fans and non-fans of The Last Jedi at the same time. A noble intention, that in retrospect, was doomed to fail. In his desperate endeavors to be as pleasing as possible, he was as safe as possible. But because of the groundwork laid down by his predecessor, even the safe answer was a risk; not so easy as a simple Copy/Paste of the classics. He had to tell the story as he saw fit, while moving forward with the story and characters from a starting point that probably intimidated him. Is it possible to tie together such a disjointed trilogy into a conclusion that holds together? Yes. Is it possible to please everyone? No.

Time for Rey to find her place in all this. Whether you like it or not!

In the end, I'd rather watch two hours of fanservice than be insulted for two hours (though neither are ideal) so The Rise of Skywalker comes out on the positive side, but not without the additional odor of Retcon. None of the films in this franchise respect each other, and the flow between them is understandably rough. Abrams spends half the film clawing his way back to a vision he can work with -- essentially making two films worth of content fit into the run time of one. It's rushed and messy; shaved of every second it could spare, and never given a moment to rest. But then he finds the place in which he wants to work, and around the third act everything settles into a compelling story again. Only one thread hangs on, fraying but intact, to tie the three films together; and that is the arcs of our heroine Rey, and her villain, Kylo Ren.

If I had my pick of any one thing to keep consistent between the films, that would be it, with no second place. That's what Abrams nailed down in the end, and though it's not exactly the way I would have written it, it works within the frame of both the movie and the last two movies' baggage -- and is genuinely good storytelling from a character perspective. Despite holes in the plot, I respect that. Rey (Daisy Ridley) will still be called a Mary Sue, I'm sure, but Abrams provides a reason for her exemplary untrained skills, and completes her arc with care and dedication. Kylo Ren remains the best written character of the sequel trilogy. Adam Driver doesn't have a pages of dialogue here, and even spends extended amounts of time in silence when you wouldn't expect it. With the solid foundation of the character, and Driver's talent for expression, Ren thrives under the treatment. He is the film's boldest choices, and its greatest payoff.

Rey and Kylo are the heart and soul of the film, which is the most important thing. Also, this movie has more than one lightsaber duels, and that's very important too. 

As for my used-to-be personal favorite, I was glad to see Poe (Oscar Isaac, who actually drew a short straw when he won a part in Star Wars) fulfill the role he was originally written for; "the Han Solo type." He keeps the temper Rian Johnson gave him while piloting the Millennium Falcon, flirting and quipping, and finally feels realized. And yes, he and Rey interact. Finally. I almost didn't even notice, and that's exactly how it should have been from the start. John Boyega's Finn unfortunately takes more of a backseat, having done all his growing in The Force Awakens. You can sense that there's no clear vision for the character, but he isn't in the way either; a welcome presence. While feeding the fans lines to placate them once, Abrams said that Rose was the thing Johnson did that he was most grateful for; watching the movie, that's clearly not true.

What I would guess Abrams is really most grateful for, is the establishing of Force Skype Calls -- or the connection between Rey and Kylo that allows them to interact at distances. Abrams takes it a step further in a neat way -- one of the movie's most creative ideas -- and useful to the plot, too. In fact, it seems most of Abram's creative choices here stemmed from working through choices that Johnson made. Sometimes it leads to the fulfillment of themes that I found impressively intuitive and subtle considering the action beats coming across like a cartoon hammer to the skull -- and sometimes it results in blatant retconning. Sometimes both at once! The movie is a mess because of it, but also not as milquetoast as it might have been had Abrams been allowed to merely execute a soft remake of Return of the Jedi. A fascinating trade-off, and something for which I'll gladly thank Johnson.

This movie elevates TLJ, but also wouldn't have happened without TLJ, so I guess really, they elevate each other -- and through that counterintuitive route, that means they succeed in doing what trilogy parts were meant to. 

We could spend hours in Whatifland, but I'll forgo it. This trilogy could have been many different things, but this is what it is: Abrams'. He has staked claim and it belongs to him. He did what he thought was best, and if it wasn't, I'm far too tired to devise how. Given the circumstances, this film is closer to a best-case scenario than I ever dared hope it'd be. The whole trilogy was a long series of stumbles, insecurities, misunderstanding of fans, and conflicting ideas, but, almost miraculously, the ending doesn't fall apart. It gets to where it was going. It makes it to a real end. I could mention that the end it finds is more than decent; far from dull, and at least in the ballpark of a resonating and moving story. (At most I got misty-eyed yesterday just thinking about it.) But all that's a mere bonus at this point. For most films, making it to the end of the story is a given; but given the disastrous road this one has endured, I cannot think of a better recommendation than to point out the end that this giant, turbulent, space adventure possesses, and say, "They did it."

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

I've been playing catch-up in November and didn't see anything that I mentioned yet. Though I did watch The King off Netflix (a November release that I overlooked somehow) and was impressed enough with it that I wanted to give it a review. (Read it here!) We got to the theater to see Jojo Rabbit, which was a wonderful little film, full of wicked humor and genuine heart. (Read my review here!) And I caught up on one that I wanted to see in theaters but never did -- The Peanut Butter Falcon. It was so good, clean, warm and full of adventure that I wish I had seen it in theaters, but I'm glad I've seen it now. (Review here!)

Now it's December (Merry Christmas!) and there's one last movie I need to see before my end-of-year list will be complete. And it's not Star Wars, though I'm looking forward to that, too. There's more than a few good looking releases coming before 2020 though -- I hope the decade ends with a fantastic month of movies!

What looks good to you?? See y'all again in the New Year!



The Aeronauts
Limited release Dec 6th, streaming Dec 20th; PG-13
Eddie Redmayne hires Felicity Jones to fly a hot air balloon for him so he can study the atmosphere. It says inspired by a true story, so you know it's 100% fictional, and it seems like the movie throws one obstacle after another at them to ramp up the action and tension aspect. Still it'll be streaming on Amazon since it's an Amazon production -- and it's an adventure! I'll always give adventure movie their due chance to impress.




Richard Jewell
In theaters Dec 13th; R
Now this Clint Eastwood film is actually a true story. About a security guard who found a bomb and saved a ton of lives, but then was smeared by the media who believed that he set the bomb in the first place. He fought them (my favorite Sam Rockwell play his lawyer) and proves his innocence, but the media of course didn't spread the truth like they did the lie. They'd already ruined his life, why bother to take it back? So Mr. Eastwood is making this film so that everyone will know and his name will be cleared in public perception as well. It's sad though, because Jewell died back in 2007. Still it's a story worth telling. I'm glad it's being told, and I'll definitely watch it.




Jumanji: The Next Level
In theaters Dec 13th; PG-13
The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan (and even Nick Jonas) are back for round two of this surprisingly fun reboot of the Jumanji franchise. I seriously don't expect this to rise to the same levels as the last one (genuinely good dumb fun can be hard to do with a big head but we'll see) but even if it doesn't it's not like it's going to ruin anything. A rare example of worry-free sequel!




Uncut Gems
Limited release Dec 13th; R
I may have heard of this one because it's an A24 production crime drama hype. But the only reason I'd want to watch is this: to see Adam Sandler do this level of acting. It's something I'm not surprised he had in him, and it's about time it came out.




Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
In theaters Dec 20th; PG-13
I mean... it's Star Wars, so I'll be there. I was happy when J.J. got the job for this movie, but still haven't been able to build hype for it very far. I expect it'll be about as good as The Force Awakens, but even if it turns out worse than The Last Jedi it won't really make much difference. One thing I know will happen, and that's all I need: Rey, Finn, and Poe, actually in scenes together. Whoever heard of a Star Wars trilogy where the leading trio only interact in the third movie?? But at least it'll happen before it all ends. Maybe it'll be fun, maybe not. I'm really just curious to see at this point!




Cats
In theaters Dec 20th; PG
Another case of curiosity. Insert curiosity/cat joke here, haha. This is such a bizarre mix of awful and unique. I can't tear my eyes away. I won't see it in theaters, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested at all. It's just to weird to ignore.




Spies in Disguise
In theaters Dec 25th; PG
This looks silly. And probably not very good. I'm sure it's more made for the actors, Will Smith and Tom Holland to mess around with than it is a story that's good, entertaining, and worthwhile in its own right -- but since I like the cast, I'm sure I'll give it a chance someday. I just kinda wish Tom Holland would stop wasting his career. Seems like Hollywood has him pigeonholed (pun not intended but I'll allow it) as the endearing goofy idiot and I'm already growing tired of it.




Little Women
In theaters Dec 25th; PG
Every once in a while you need a new adaptation of Little Women, and this one has top-notch production value that's getting me pretty excited. I loved Greta Gerwig's writing and directing in Lady Bird. Also the stars from that film, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet were great, and seem very well cast as Jo and Laurie perspectively. Emma Watson as Meg isn't ideal but will likely work, and I haven't see Florence Pugh (Amy) in anything yet but hear tell she's talented. I'd love to see this wind up being a high quality as faithful adaptation -- I don't think it's a guarantee, but here's hoping!




1917
Limited release Dec 25th; R
And THIS is most anticipated of the whole year! A WWI story, in which two soldiers must race to warn another group of an impending ambush. The film takes place in real time, shot as if it were one, long continuous shot for the entire feature. As cool as that sounds, that's also my biggest worry, that the gimmick will distract from the story. Or even that the story won't have been developed far due to reliance on the gimmick. There are many big names here -- Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden -- but the two lead are less known: George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Chapman was in Netflix's The King briefly, and MacKay has been doing impressive indie work for a while already. He's one of my current favorite actors, and I'm excited to see him lead a film that could easily be a favorite of the year, if all goes to plan!




Monday, November 18, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Spoiler-free!

In the movie to most thoroughly warm your heart this year, Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Downs Syndrome, runs away from the rest home where he restlessly stays with all the old people, and bumps into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) a borderline vagabond who's struggling to hold his life together in the rural Outer Banks of North Carolina. They form an unlikely team and go on the lam together, evading vengeful fishermen, and a pretty caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Their destination? Friendship, adventure, and a wrestling school, where Zak plans to meet his hero and fulfill his dream of becoming a wrestler.

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.

I feel like there's not much more I could say to tempt you if the premise doesn't already have you sold. You look at the characters there, and the situation they're put in, and the rest of the appeal of the film just falls into place. Unexpected bonds, high adventure in the American South, danger and fun laid out side-by-side; it's relaxed and easy-going like all true Southern films should be, but cares deeply about the characters and their journeys. All that it promises with perfect clarity through the set-up, and it delivers on every promise with an impassioned sense of duty. Oh, and did I mention romance? I thought romance was dead in film; not in The Peanut Butter Falcon!

There were two things I was sorely missing in 2019's line-up of new releases, and this movie filled both those holes in one go: Adventure, and romance. On the adventure side, it goes just about as far as it can without getting into a fantasy sub-genre. It has that otherworldly feel of the rural south (and I say that as someone who lives amid it) that it sinks deep into like a muddy river, and that world does the work of suspending your disbelief for you. It's true adventure -- with quests and perils, beautiful scenery and lots of walking. On that note the cinematography was lovely; there's a certain style that perfectly captures the laid-back feel of southern living, like in Jeff Nichols' Mud, and this one has it.

Even without the entertaining plot and neat, thoughtful characters, this movie is lovely to watch.

Then on the romance, it's weird to me how in general movies have lost touch with romance, especially if it's a side plot. It's somehow become annoyingly clinical, like filmmakers are afraid of having two characters gaze at each other and show the audience the moments that make the characters fall in love. I don't mind that filmmakers and trying new approaches to romance (for example this year, I appreciated the focus on friendship over romantic feelings in Five Feet Apart). Often I feel that films are holding back though, and even though this movie's romance is on the side, it wastes no time to get to it, or opportunity to develop it and make it sweet and appealing and everything romance should be.

The writers/directors are new to feature films and you can see the care of this first project in the craftsmanship. The movie remembers to pay off everything it sets up and ends every bit as well as it began, not losing steam or interest as productions with less passion behind them are wont to do. But it also is remarkably sure of itself, for the artists being new to the game. They have a great understanding of what makes films entertaining, pacing, and how to convey real meaning through the craft. The film feels personal. Apparently they made it for their friend Zack, so he could have an opportunity to dig into acting on a large stage, and that focus an intent comes through. That's what makes it appealing to audiences who don't know them or Zack from Adam.

Supporting cast includes Jon Bernthal (with less than 5 mins of screen time as usual haha) Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern!

I'm sure they worked hard at it, but they must have also gotten lucky, because the cast line-up is perfect, and not just because they nabbed big name stars like Shia and Dakota. They're big, and good actors, yes, but most importantly they fill out their roles beautifully. I hope Shia LeBeouf is back to stay because he's hit a new stride of acting that suits him; never more naturalistic or subtle or universally appealing as this troubled hero teetering on the edge of destruction. He's dark but not weighty. And Dakota Johnson has a soft strength to her that is impossible to mimic and ideal for this character. The more I see of her the more I love her. Zack is a perfect embodiment of this film's heart, and the three of them have grin-inducing chemistry together.

Some movies have magical timing, and this is one. It could have taken so many paths that would've led to an element not coming through properly, but instead everything fell together like clockwork, and I think the result is the best possible outcome; an immensely satisfying feeling. It certainly had perfect timing for me, swooping in, you might say, like a falcon, to save me from the frustration of films that fall short or miss opportunities to dig into the elements of stories that I want to see. I love that The Peanut Butter Falcon wasn't made for me, but because it was made for someone else, I get to see and love it as if it was.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Jojo Rabbit

Spoiler-free!

I hesitate to start this review of Taika Watiti's latest project, a hilarious and sad dramedy that satirizes Nazism, because I don't want to talk about Marvel anymore -- too late already. And anyway, I can't think of any better way to describe the way this movie succeeds in walking a thin and unexpected tightrope that even Waititi himself has previously failed to traverse.

No, I'm not going to compare the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Nazis. 

Maybe you liked Thor: Ragnarok, and the way Waititi used Marvel Brand humor in it. If so, go see this movie. If you thought Ragnarok was funny, you'll think this film is hilarious. What I'm here to say though, is a slightly more shocking revelation: that even though I hated the humor in Ragnarok, I still thought Jojo Rabbit was not only wonderfully hilarious, but also incredibly moving and upsetting, without forcing the comedy to give way to the darkness, or vice versa. It's a black comedy, but usually dark comedies don't make me laugh out loud. And usually laugh-out-loud comedies don't make my heart ache. So this little rabbit is a strange beast indeed.

Starring Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, a nine-year-old Nazi Youth recruit who dreams of being best friends with der Führer. An imaginary version of Adolf (played by Waititi) appears to him from time to time to council him in the ways of the Reich. Jojo's mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (the one-and-only Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls, and when Jojo discovers her, his loyalty to the Nazi ideology is tested in life-changing ways.

He comes of age and must chose a path as he is slowly taught what Nazism really is.

This film's greatest feature is its unique style of comedy. Everyone in the film does cheesy German accents, and most of the jokes, as expected, are about Nazism and WWII. But because Waititi writes with his very specific New Zealand-style comedy, the two elements blend in an inimitable way. The result is winning. The jokes are often dark, yet presented with such good-natured sincerity that the films stays light. Now comes the Marvel comparison. Because this movie, much like they, and specifically Thor: Ragnarok, attempt to blend humor with serious drama -- sometimes within the same moment.

If you know me, you know that this is one of the things that bothered me most about Ragnarok (and the MCU of late in general). Because when you put humor and seriousness together, the result always seems to be that the humor undercuts the serious drama and renders it null and void. I won't say that Jojo Rabbit's drama is equally as effective as it would be as a straight drama, but it is, without a doubt, as effective as it meant to be. It can hit hard. I think this movie does two things that the MCU has yet to try to make the mixture work: One, that it is a dark comedy in the first place, so even in the "pure" humor scenes there is always an undercurrent of the horrors that occurred in Germany during WWII.

From the horrors, it admirably refuses to shy away.

And the second thing that makes the mixture work is that it's done at a higher rate of swapping tones. The MCU (I'm sorry to write it this many times) will usually have a serious moment that is capped by humor. Jojo Rabbit, within the same amount of run-time, will have switched from humor to serious, to humor, to serious, to humor again -- and I think most importantly, it ends the exchanges with seriousness. That lets the audience know that ultimately, it's the real things; the heart and the drama, that is most important in the film. That makes a world of difference.

On that note, Sam Rockwell stole the show for me, being his usually brilliantly hilarious self with a role catered to him, that melts into poignancy later on. Stephen Merchant also hits a perfect balance of tones. Archie Yates as Jojo's Hitler Youth friend is a scene-stealer. Johansson tips toward drama as she's meant to and performs her heart out. McKenzie has that special, sweetly tough quality about her, and it works wonderfully. Waititi limits himself, which sharpens his wild-card character. And 11-year-old Roman in his introductory role carries the movie, despite all the seasoned acting strength that surrounds him. The movie is about him, and the focus on Jojo, his mind, his arc and his struggles, is sharp.

And it does it all while being riotously funny!

I'm glad the berating of this movie for making fun of Nazis didn't last long. Turns out there's clearly nothing wrong with making fun of evil, and neither does this movie forget that evil is what it's making fun of. It doesn't pull its punches but also never loses sight of the light that it wants to promote while it beats down the darkness. Its laughs won't soon grow old, but neither will its tender heart. Jojo Rabbit is a brave little film.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The King

Spoiler-free!

A Netflix film about King Henry V -- not the Shakespeare version, though it's certainly equally as speculative. Timothée Chalamet stars as Hal, who reluctantly takes the throne after Henry IV dies and Hal's brother who wants the throne (and Hal wants him to have it too) is killed in battle. The film then speculates on the reason why Hal decides to conquer France. And it's an interesting plot in the end, though I couldn't say whether it's based on truth. I expect not.

Directed by David Michôd (The Rover, Animal Kingdom), co-written with Joel Edgerton.

Any film about Henry V would be boring if it weren't speculative and even this one toes the line. But before I turn you off from it accidentally, I have to say I'm writing this review because I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting to. It's a flawed movie, but my ultimate goal here is to recommend it. With that noted, its main flaw from my perspective is a severe lack of personality. You almost don't notice all the great things that happen because the film has either no idea or no intention of serving them up in a cinematic, dramatic storytelling way.

Maybe it was trying to be subtle. It was certainly trying to be subdued, with its lingering shots on expressionless faces and dulled color palate. But more it seemed like it didn't know where to put the dramatic emphasis. Early in the movie there's a slow-mo section of Prince Hal and his degenerate bar friends getting drunk and laughing. The scene is played up and accompanied by dramatic music, but there was no emotional weight within that scene that would benefit from the enhancement. Later, moments that do carry emotional weight and could have used a stylistic pick-me-up are comparatively breezed by and left less effective.

Every time a character dropped an F-bomb it completely threw me back into the modern world. That may have been the biggest flaw of all.

Now, this is a flaw that could render the film boring to casual viewers, but if you're interested in getting a good story out of this, it is there. You just have to pay a little closer attention because the film isn't going to serves the highs and lows properly. The characters are the highlight. Chalamet underplays Hal in a way that works with the movie's dulled and subtle tone, giving enough detail to the performance that the character isn't lost. And he is written well, which is most important. Joel Edgerton is back in form with his endearing portrayal of Falstaff. And the other characters that weave in and out fill out the tapestry nicely. Ben Mendelsohn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sean Harris, Robert PattinsonTom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp, and Thomasin McKenzie all bring their brief characters to life.

The secondary problem is that the narrative has little structure. A flaw that can be traced back to lack of emotional rise and fall, and the brief interludes of characters. They are too brief, populating the story for moments, then fading away without having accomplished anything relevant to an overarching story, as good as their individual scenes may be. I quite liked Thomasin McKenzie as Hal's sister; but can't figure why the movie thought her a necessary or relevant inclusion. Once the end is reached you can see a trace of structure looking back, but in the thick of it the story seemed nothing more than a collection of irrelevant scenes and neat vignettes.

At 2 hours and 20 mins, you need to be able to dive in and appreciate that it takes its time, or else you'll just be counting down the minutes until it's over. 

The best of these moments were the battles. They were few are far between but were built up to and executed shockingly well. The one-on-one combat had a scrappy and unchoreographed feel to it that I appreciated, and the main battle against the French was planned and set up fascinatingly. The siege, though brief, looked incredible; in general, the effects and staging were of impressively high quality. If I had to recommend this film for only one reason it, would be the combat, though it takes up perhaps 20% of the film at best. The rest is lackadaisical-but-good character drama and emotionless-but-dedicated building to the fights.

Of Netflix-distributed products these days, it's far easier to do worse than The King than it is to do better.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - November

October was pretty slow, new-movie-wise. I spent most of my time catching up on movies like Dumbo and Yesterday, and then watching seasonal horror flicks as my nerves allowed. But the month started out fantastically with Joker, a beautifully complex movie that feels culturally important and closed off the season with a resounding bang. (Read my review here!)

Now Oscar season will gear up over November so there's a lot of movies that I think look objectively good but am simply not interested in. That's how it goes for me, and it's kinda sad. But there are a few that I definitely want to see so I'll probably stay busy. I just hope there's some truly great movies buried somewhere in there! What looks good to you this month?


Motherless Brooklyn
In theaters November 1st; R
Wow, how have I not heard of this one yet? Edward Norton stars. Edward Norton directs. Edward Norton writes. And it's a noir crime mystery movie set in the 50's and the PI has Tourettes. That sounds like the most awesome thing I've ever heard of! Reviews are sorta mixed so far, so maybe it's not amazing, but I don't think it'll have to be to be a winning movie in my book. The style looks epic, I like long movies, I like movies with singular visions, and I don't mind if noir mystery plots are boring or don't make sense as long as the characters are fascinating and unique. So. I'm sold.




Terminator: Dark Fate
In theaters November 1st; R
Here we go again. Just for fun, here's my ranking of Terminator movies so far: 1, 2, Salvation, 3, Genisys. This one I expect will go on the end, but who knows, maybe the returning cast will help it beat out that awful, un-spellable Genisys. Even though they're super old now. Ugh this movie just looks so lifeless. I just hope it's good to make fun of once it's streaming.




The Irishman
In theaters November 1st, on Netflix Nov 27th; R
Unless something changes I'll be going the Netflix route. I don't have a ton of interest in this but since it'll be on Netflix I'm sure I'll give it a chance. And I expect it to be good, even. Even with the de-aging which I still don't think is a good idea. It looks entertaining and stylish and has a cast that's worth seeing. I'm just neither excited nor uninterested.




Marriage Story
Limited theater release November 6th, on Netflix December 6th; R
The last thing. In the world. That I want to do. Is watch Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver get a divorce and go through a custody battle. But it's going to be on Netflix in December, so I won't be able to resist, just because it is Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Ugh. I would love it if the movie ended with them changing their minds and sticking it out for the sake of their kid and then realizing that was the best route after all.... but propaganda doesn't work that way.




Doctor Sleep
In theaters November 8th; R
A wonderful excuse to get my dad and other brother to watch The Shining with me! Also I'm always down for any movie with Ewan McGregor in the lead. It doesn't look exactly great -- certainly not the the same way The Shining was great -- but it does look quite fun in an action-y trippy, super dramatic way, and that's how I prefer my horror films.




Midway
In theaters November 8th; PG-13
I wasn't interested in this until I saw Patrick Wilson was in it. Now... I'm still pretty not interested. I mean sure it has a nice cast. Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson (who were in Alita together) Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, Luke Kleintank of The Man in the High Castle, Dennis Quaid... Darren Criss... Nick Jonas... haha. It just looks so annoyingly shiny. You know, that "everything looks too clean and bland to be real" look? This movie has it worse than anything I've seen before. No style. Nothing that seems tangible. Even the people look airbrushed. I hate it. Maybe the battle's done really well, but I'll probably still hate it.




Last Christmas
In theaters November 8th;PG-13
I don't really care for Emilia Clarke too much, but she's definitely at her very best in rom-coms, and Henry Golding was great in Crazy Rich Asians but seemed to miss out of the full romance potential he has in that, so hopefully he makes up for it here. It's probably too much to hope that it'll be streaming by Christmas but I seriously doubt I'll go to the theaters for it. I guess I'll see it when I see it, Christmastime or no. I won't expect much but it looks enjoyable.




Honey Boy
Limited release November 9th; R
I'm actually, really, strangely eager to see this. I'm not super interested in Shia LaBeouf usually, so I think the main reason this has sparked my interest is the apparently strange mix of fiction and reality that it is. It doesn't claim to be based on a true story, but it is about Shia's life. So it's from his perspective but not in a way that claims fact. It is (hopefully) more about the way he saw the world and his dad and himself -- and I find that fascinating. I love movies that are from an individual perspective. Beyond that, I love how much of Shia I can see in both Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe who play the "Shia" character at different ages. That kind of acting is reason enough to see it!




Danger Close
Limited release and streaming November 8th; R
A bunch of Australians and New Zealanders fight in the Vietnam war? Sounds pretty great, even if it is based on a true story. The trailer makes it look solid too. Like it has style and will be epic and dramatic. Starring Travis Fimmel, with Bullseye from The Punisher and Henry Bowers from IT.




Love is Blind
Limited release and streaming November 8th; NR
Haha, well, I feel like the plot is going to completely fall apart... but it's a romance movie starring Aiden Turner, so what can I say? I'll watch it. Never seen the girl, Shannon Tarbet before, but it also has Benjamin Walker, Chloe Sevigny, and Matthew Broderick.




Ford v Ferrari
In theaters November 15th; PG-13
This is guaranteed going to be one of those movies based on a true story where the true story isn't interesting enough to be cinematic by itself so a ton of embellishments and additions will go in, plus as much style and quality as the director can muster -- and it's still just going to boil down to an acting vehicle (Pun. Intended.) for Christian Bale and Matt Damon, so that they can compete over who gets nominated for best actor this year at the Oscars. James Mangold directing is the one thing about it that's remotely interesting to me.




The Lodge
Limited release November 15th; R
Ooo! A cult movie? With Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell and Richard Armitage? Sounds great as long as it's not too scary but who am I kidding it's probably too scary. Maybe I'll watch it next year for Halloween, I'm all horror-movied out at the moment.



Frozen II
In theaters November 22nd; PG
I'm just here to say, "No thanks."




A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
In theaters November 22nd; NR
I guess Oscar season is about to be full-swing. This movie looks sweet and genuinely good, but I really wouldn't take much notice without the buzz, as I never watched Mr. Rogers. I bet the movie will be good and I bet that Tom Hanks will get the nom, especially since it's for supporting instead of lead. And I very well might see it someday too, and probably enjoy it if I do. But the chances of it being a special personally meaningful film to me and next to zero. That's just how it goes, sorry.




Knives Out
In theaters November 27th; PG-13
I like a good, smart whodunit, and I like all of Rian Johnson's original films, so I definitely want to give this one a chance. But I hear tell of how it's more interested in politics than storytelling and that makes me wary. I was afraid after Star Wars that Johnson would embrace what that movie made him to the general public -- a kind of movie-making troll whose movies you like if you're from one side just on principle, and aren't allowed to if you're from the other. I'd like to enjoy this. But I'm going to judge it as a film and a story. Not on what it says. Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Ana De Armas, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell and Christopher Plummer.



Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Joker

Spoiler-free!

What I expected to be a dark and disturbing downer meant to leave me unsettled and unhappy, is instead an intense and scrutinizing look at a descent into madness and villainy, so thorough and unflinching that one can't help but see a reflection of themselves hidden within the frames. In a day when movies about villains are just movies about anti-heroes, and comic book movies are more commodity than art, Joker reminds us of how relevant and uniquely valuable a medium they can be.

Directed captivatingly by Todd Phillips, written along with Scott Silver.

Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role of the iconic villain in the rich setting of late 70's/early 80's Gotham City. Arthur Fleck is clown-for-hire striving to keep smiling in a rough and messed-up world. In gradual progression, the film shows us what it takes to transform him into the Joker that we know and love. The journey is too long and complex to break down, but the important thing is the way it draws you in to start. Though we know his villainous fate, we must be invested in the decent -- to take the ride along with him -- for the movie to make the impact it desires. Two or three scenes hook you at the beginning, and then the slow reeling in process begins.

I think it's wonderful that this film is making people angry. I can only imagine it's a visceral reaction to having a mirror thrust so unexpectedly in their face and showing them something that they don't want to recognize. I found myself doing a little soul-searching last night, that's for sure. But though this film is politicized, it isn't political. It doesn't show left and right, but rather an up and down balance of right and wrong. Gotham politics are similar to the divide and unrest in the real world today, but they are grown in an organic fictional environment rather than being transplanted to invoke cheap parallels. The fictionalization and over-the-top comic book style makes the open exploration on ideas palatable to a potentially stubborn audience -- exploring all sides of questions that we might otherwise dismiss offhand.

This is not a Conservative film; it doesn't push propaganda of any kind. But it does feel out of place with Hollywood content common to today.

People keep saying they handled mental illness badly in this film, and I'm not sure what they mean by it. What I saw was the subject being handled with care, and like the rest of the film's subjects, being explored from all sides. I found Arthur's illness to be the most constant source of empathy throughout his descent. Particularly the condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably when he feels entirely different. Everyone asks him, "What's so funny?" never understanding his mind as we do. Makes you think twice about judging people based on assumptions and appearances. In fact, the film refrains from any kind of judgement altogether, counting on the audience's moral compass to draw the right conclusion. The movie itself embraces the madness -- but never glorifies it. Every beautiful moment has horror in it, and every horrible moment, tenderness. There is always a balance of tone and no idea is presented without being challenged.

Phoenix's performance is precise and extreme; he runs wild with an exact and calculated grace and balances the evil and the good side by side with great skill. No one could doubt that he can play a scene with honesty and complexity; what's remarkable about this performance is the characterization: The way he runs. The way he laughs. The way he dances. The way he sees himself in his imagination. The twisted glee that pokes through his shell before it bursts out of him like a shot and blossoms into the full-fledged character with immaculate timing. To be honest, I expected his take to be more of a twist on the character, so seeing him open into full Joker so effortlessly once everything was properly developed was nothing short of astounding. It's the best performance of the year, but it's also one of the most full and complete performances I've ever seen. It's immensely satisfying, heartbreaking, and glorious.

Supporting actors include Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen and Shea Whigham. They are all great, but this is Phoenix's movie. 

The imagery of the movie is beautiful, as many movies are, but sets itself apart by serving to elevate the film beyond making it look nice. Framing is all about evoking a visceral response, and colors used to convey emotion. Sets and lighting play their part in setting the right mood too. Gotham has never been more beautiful, looming, bold, or grimy. Scenes are filmed with purpose behind the structure, and the effect is that the film feels richer, and more focused. Intentional. My favorite, and perhaps the most obvious example, is the huge flight of stairs Arthur must traverse to go home every day. He trudges up them in weighty gloom day after day -- until he snaps, and dances down them, having embraced the new life he's descending towards.

I've heard Joker declared to be not really a comic book movie at all, and though it isn't what is currently expected of CBM's, being free of action sequences and the narrative structure of good fighting evil, it's not true that it's a basic, "one man's descent into madness." Since when was being a popcorn movie a requirement of CBM's, anyway? DC especially has a dark richness to it that practically begs for serious and introspective character studies like this one. Iconic characters and fleshed-out fictional worlds used to examine truths, ideas, and perspectives -- without the baggage of reality -- in vivid color, and that heightened aspect that comic books provide so effortlessly. Through the lens of a comic book, this tragedy becomes art in a way it never could otherwise.

If DC continues in this direction instead of blindly following the MCU, we're in for a treat. 

Comic book films can be a lot of different things, and I'm glad to see that they haven't become completely pigeonholed yet. Joker is a difficult movie. Not so much because it's dark with disturbing aspects and a bleak ending. In fact, the ending isn't bleak at all, but you'd have to see the film to understand my meaning on that. Joker is difficult because it challenges you in ways you might not be prepared for; and connects with you in the same surprising manner. It moved me deeply, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I cannot wait to go through it again. No, it's not bleak; it compels you to search for hope.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - October

Bye summer! September went as planned and I saw both of my must-sees in theaters. It Chapter Two wasn't as great as Chapter One, but didn't leave me disappointed either (review) and Ad Astra rocketed itself up to be one of my favorites of the year -- and probably a permanent favorite of rich science fiction. It was everything I wanted it to be! (Review!)

Besides those I did some catching up from August. Ready or Not was a fun horror flick though not exceptionally so (review). It had a breath of fresh air quality to it. State like Sleep from January was interesting but unfulfilling though pleasantly noirish in tone (review). And, Body at Brighton Rock from April was a severe and incompetent disappointment (review).

Finally, there was the rollercoaster ride that In the Shadow of the Moon gave me. A September Netflix release that I missed in the roundup, I was briefly extremely excited for it, as it starred one of my favorite actors, and was solidly in the scifi noir genre, but after a few days of excitedly anticipating it, it was the biggest disappointment of the year. A maddening waste. I panned it as hard as I could in my review.

Now, October has a ton of big releases, and many that I feel like I should see, but not too many that I'm genuinely excited for. Here's hoping there's some surprises! What looks good to you this fine fall month?



Joker
In theaters October 4th; R
My only real worry concerning this movie is that it'll simply be too dark and intense for me to enjoy. I know there's a lot of controversy around it now, but I don't think it's possible to weigh in on the discussion until you've seen it. I'd like to see it, but I'm also scared to. Even Heather Ledger's PG-13 turn as the Joker unsettled me in ways that I didn't care for, and Joaquin Phoenix seems to have turned it up to 11, and then way past that. He's a fantastic actor and I feel like this will be one of those films that make an impact on the culture and become a must-see. I'm just not sure I'll get to the theaters for it.




Lucy in the Sky
In theaters October 4th; R
This one's getting panned in such a way that I can't figure out if it means I'd be less or more likely to enjoy it. I'm not a Natalie Portman fan, nor does it seem super exciting to watch a movie in which a person wants to go to space the whole time but little screen time is spent there, but -- I am a scifi and space movie fan, so I suspect I'll watch this someday whether I hate it or not.




Sometimes Always Never
Limited release on October 4th; PG-13
I think there's no hypothetical scenario in which Bill Nighy plays Sam Riley's dad in a movie and I wouldn't be interested in seeing it. This one is also about Scrabble, and Nighy's character looking for his other grown son who stormed out and disappeared after a bad game. The trailer has a sweet and sad yet comical tone to it that works so well with British films. I'll definitely give this one a chance!




Low Tide
Limited Release on October 4th: R
The guy from Alita: Battle Angel and Jaeden Martell as brothers in what looks like a slick southern gothic story involving gold coins and running from the law. Reminds me of Mud but in a more extreme, unrealistic way. Unrealistic isn't a bad or good thing, it just depends on if it's good and entertaining and has real meaning attached to it. I tend to like movies like this, but this one seems like it could be particularly good if it plays right. Looking forward to seeing if it does!




The Addams Family
In theaters October 11th; PG
Here's the cast on this thing: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, and Allison Janney. And yet. If you were to watch the trailer, you would realize -- this movie would be pure torture to sit through.




Gemini Man
In theaters October 11th; PG-13
If the de-aging Will Smith CGI is that noticeable in the trailer, just think how bad it'll look in the actual movie, where the screen is bigger and they can't mine the best shots to show off. But don't get me wrong -- I'm quite willing to watch this. Provided it's at home so I can laugh without bothering anyone.




Parasite
Limited release on October 11th; R
Everyone's talking about this and I know nothing about it, so I'm not anticipating it and probably won't go and try to see it in theaters, but I'll definitely keep it in mind for streaming days. The trailer is intriguing to say the least!




Zombieland: Double Tap
In theaters October 18th; R
Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin are all back. I liked the first Zombieland; I like zombie comedies; I like the cast -- I'll see the movie! Barring the possibility that it stinks and I lose interest, anyway. I'm not dead set on it but it does look like a fine fun time even if it isn't at the level of the original. And even if they steal jokes from Shaun of the Dead and overplay them.




Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
In theaters October 18th; PG-13
So Maleficent back to being evil? Classic cheap sequel, reverting the characters back to their original state and giving them the exact same character arc again. I did not like the first one of this, but I didn't like it in a way that I really enjoyed -- thinking about why and what could have been better, and for that reason I actually am curious to see this sequel. Also Sam Riley is back and there's a NEW and improved (?) actor playing Prince Phillip, so maybe we'll get some good romance this time! (Unlikely, but I can wish.) Ugh, this looks so bad, I actually feel bad for wanting to see it anyway.




The Lighthouse
Limited release on October 18th; R
Another that everyone's talking about. This one I'd probably be interested in on my own, for a few reasons. After Robert Pattinson was cast as the next Batman I've been a little more interested to check out a range of his work. That is probably why most people want to see this too, now that I think of it. Also I'm always intrigued by black and white movies. You can't be a good film fan unless you at least pay attention to A24 releases, and finally, stories set at lighthouses get my attention easily. Still, I kinda doubt I'll like it when it's all said and done. Hard to tell for sure, that's just my impression. I'll certainly give it a chance, and hope it's not too scary.




Jojo Rabbit
Limited release on October 18th; PG-13
When all is said and done, I WILL watch this movie, because Sam Rockwell is in it. As for the rest, I have loved Taika Waititi's work (What We Do in the Shadows) liked it (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and... not... liked it (Thor: Ragnarok). This looks closest in style to the one I loved so that's a good sign. I'm also not offended by people making fun of Hitler and Nazis through satire. The trailer makes me laugh, which is the best sign of all -- I think I may be even excited for this one!




Black and Blue
In theaters October 25th; NR
I've been on a kick of watching a lot of police body-cam videos recently, some for entertainment, some for educational purposes, so I imagine this movie would annoy me by having the footage be so "movie." It also seems too far-fetched that she can't find one single good cop to help her out. Still I do like one person vs the world kind of movies and I really like Naomie Harris, so I'll keep an eye on this. If it turns out cheap, or nothing but political propaganda, I won't bother.




Countdown
In theaters October 25th; NR
What if an app could tell you how long you have until you DIE??? This looks silly. I'll watch it at home with my brothers and it'll be a good time.





Sunday, September 29, 2019

In the Shadow of the Moon

Spoilers. Spoilers galore.

This movie starts out so well. Set in 1988 and starring Boyd Holbrook as a beat cop who latches onto a strange serial killer case, it's pulpy scifi noir, and I thought had a great chance of being one of my favorite pure-fun movies this year. But that was just the first five or ten minutes; by the time it ends, it's worked its way into being one of the most trite, self-righteous, garbage movies of the year instead.

It's like he's trying to do penance for being a man. Just keep elevating fun movies! Don't throw your career away on guilt-ridden garbage!

What caused the decline? As with most movies of recent days that have fantastic premises but flop into miserable piles of wasted opportunity, it boils down to an agenda. Films should have agendas; if they didn't, they'd never be anything but an unstructured mess of nothings. Most movies have an agenda to entertain, tell a meaningful story, or show a character grow into a better person. To be art! This movie's agenda? To promote an idea; the idea that some ideas should be restricted and punishable by death.

This movie says that if you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, you should do that, but not even to stop there, but kill his family and anyone who might have influenced him. (Otherwise they may simply influence someone else into being "Hitler.") It declares that to be a moral good and doesn't ever offer a counterargument. We follow the lead down the rabbit hole as he chases a murder suspect who reappears every nine years. He grows older and falls further away from his daughter in his obsession, until finally he is taught -- like in a Sunday school lesson time -- that the murderer is good, and that he must accept her deeds as such because one day he will believe as she does, and be the one to teach it to her in the first place.

This is the Antifa version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Plot twist! She's a time-traveler. And his granddaughter. When he first met her in '88, he killed her, and in 2015 when these realizations come, it is too late for him to fix anything, though she hasn't gone through it yet. Also, he's made a miserable life for himself and his daughter over the past 27 years, and none of his action resulted in anything. Understandably, he's upset. So, what happens after that? Nothing. He accepts it all like the good, contrived fictional character he is, and the film wraps up with a hopeful sermonette on the importance of saving the future by any means or some such BS.

Because the future is apocalyptic and the lead's granddaughter's mission is to kill just the right people in the past, whether they be innocent or guilty, to prevent the apocalypse. It's like if Skynet were presented as the good guys. They'd blame John Connor for the war (he did resist their takeover, after all!) and use that to justify killing Sarah Connor and anyone else who gets in the way. Their ultimate goal is to prevent a war! How could you possibly call that evil??

The movie aims to never allow the validity of their moral reasoning to come into question. There's no debate presented within the movie's pondering, and though the lead is crazed to stop the killer, he never argues with her once she explains her actions. She's clearly the twist good guy, and he is clearly just ignorant; misunderstanding the situation. This winds up hitting the movie's quality down from two directions. First, who is ever going to enjoy a movie where that boring monstrosity is the lead's arc? The film ends at his lowest point and he's never given a chance to overcome anything, decide anything, or have ultimate triumph. The "triumph" is taken from him and given to his granddaughter, who never earns her spot as hero.

Makes me want to watch The Predator. A dumb fun movie where he gets to be heroic. 

Secondly, it hits the movie from a messaging standpoint. These days all movies seem to have a message of some kind -- and by that I mean a meaning to takeaway that is intentionally added by the filmmakers. All good art has meaning of some kind, but I remember a day when that meaning was merely what the viewer saw in the art. And nowadays most films will add a little straw-man counter argument at least, so they can knock it down easily and make their message look even better. I suppose this movie was afraid of counterarguments. And well it should be; all it takes is for someone to point out that killing an innocent person is morally wrong, and the whole movie crumbles like a house of cards made of dry sand.

This whole movie is like if you were to cook a spaghetti noodle by dipping it incrementally deeper in the hot water. (The hot water is a metaphor for all this movie's indoctrinating hot air.) The end of the noodle you'd hold onto is the extremely solid premise and set-up. Then the longer the noodle soaks in the garbage water, the softer and limper it becomes until by the end it disintegrates into nothing -- overcooked until its structure fails.

The evil ideas on a pedestal here eat into every aspect of the movie. If they don't directly influence it, they distract from anything that could be worthwhile as the filmmakers clearly don't care about constructing a clever scifi mystery at all. The scifi and time-travel is a means to an end, never explained beyond a vague "the moon allows for it." They don't care about character, or they wouldn't have destroyed their lead to make their point. And they don't care about entertaining through world building or visuals or anything else. Good actors give lazy and contrived performances, and the action is messy, and unforgivably bland.

The antithesis of Minority Report. And Minority Report had the good grace to present the appeal of the other side.

I can ignore bad, even evil ideas if the rest of the movie is good and high-quality. I can even ignore if a movie is low-quality in technical aspects but at least has an entertaining story. I was open to forgive this movie's horrible progressively worsening slog of preaching and cheap storytelling; all it needed was to give me one solid thing to hold onto. One. It had a gigantic head start, being two sub-genres deep into my favorite genre, and starring someone who makes even the worst crap worth watching, playing a character set up with great potential.

How they lost it is almost beyond me. Almost. They failed and lost because even though their starting point was two steps away from a successful finish line, when the race began, they sprinted backwards. In the Shadow of the Moon is the sad and frustrating proof that any movie can ruin itself if it tries hard enough.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

On the GroupThink Podcast!

The other day I had the opportunity to be a guest on Tyler Hummel's (@AntiSocialCriti on Twitter) podcast -- something I've never done before -- and it was a great and different experience, discussing movies with my mouth instead of my fingers! I had a fantastic time having a nice, long conversation completely devoted to film.

We talk about the 2019 year of movies -- how it has shaped up so far, our specific highlights and low-lights, and what else we're looking forward to in the rest of the year. So if that sounds interesting, give it a listen below!


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Ad Astra

Spoiler-free!

This intimate and lingering space drama begins with thrilling words for science fiction fans: "In the near future." We follow the endeavors of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) astronaut, and son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) as he does his duty, always steady, calm, and sure. Through a vaguely noir-like narration of inner dialogue, he tells us that his persona of contentment is a farce; he is frustrated, unfulfilled and despondent. He needs purpose.

Written and directed by James Grey, with Ethan Gross as a co-writer.

Then dangerous waves of energy begin to hit Earth from the direction of Neptune. 40 years ago, Roy's father was on mission there, directed to scan the distant galaxies for signs of intelligent life. But communication was lost and the crew presumed dead after 10 years. Now the high ups believe McBride may still be alive, and they task Roy with getting a message to him. To do that he must travel to the Mars outpost via the Moon, and the journey promises danger and hardships. That, Roy can handle. His dad being alive? He's not so sure.

The first big clue that I was in for a treat with this film was when the high ups are instructing Roy on his mission and they say that to avoid suspicion (yes, it's a secret mission) he will fly commercially to the Moon. As a tourist. As you do. Once there, Moon Pirates are involved in a chase over the Moon's surface. It's beautiful, it's thrilling, it's all I could have hoped for. And through it all Roy remains the focus as a fascinating character. He has a reputation for calm; his heart rate never rises over 80 BPM, even in intense, life-threatening situations, but a breaking point is on the horizon which he's speeding toward.

Space films need to get on board with this direction; I would've watched an entire film about Moon Pirates. 

For once my being a science fiction fan backfired on me, because I noticed occasional holes in the space aspects. That's something that ruins movies like Gravity for me, but in this case, I tend not to care. The difference? Ad Astra never claims perfect logic or sound astrodynamics as Gravity did. The focus is on Roy, his quest, the people and challenges he meets, the cold beauty that surrounds him, and the mystery of what he will find; the fact that most of it is accurate and scientifically sound is a bonus. The movie is much more interested in being honest in the abstract, than by-the-rules in the physical. If the priorities are defined, which they are, it's easy to suspend disbelief as needed.

In tone and pacing, it begs comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey more than anything else, with more modern sensibilities and tighter action sequences. And one huge difference: it looks at humanity in an intimate way. Instead of focusing on lofty speculation, it drives itself far out into the dim and menacing reaches of space, then turns around and looks fondly back on the Earth and the individuals who populate it; stretching eagerly towards the heavens only to find there a deeper love and appreciation for what it dreams of leaving behind. That is exemplary of what I love about science fiction and space exploration in film.

The heart of the most pure science fiction is still a human one.

It starts with a small and simple but potent idea, and through the lens of the genre, magnifies it until it feels a big as the universe itself. That is the purpose of the science fiction genre, if there ever was one. Nothing else can take truths and expand them so far without bending them out of shape. And this movie does it so confidently. The idea is simple, and the execution smart, and everything the movie does points to it. When Roy meets the Director of Operations on Mars, (Ruth Negga in a brief but dense part) she muses about how she visited Earth once. What would that mean to someone not born there, the movie wonders. How would it impact them?

It also shows us characters who juxtapose with Roy. Donald Sutherland is a man whose physical weakness holds him back; and Loren Dean is a man whose mental weakness does the same. Loren Dean must love space movies. He's been in four, including playing NASA hero John Aaron in Apollo 13. He's like an Easter Egg for dedicated fans. Liv Tyler has a small role, and Tommy Lee Jones' performance was scary-good, but Brad Pitt is understandably the best of the lot. Though Roy is reserved, Pitt's performance ensures that it's never hard to understand him underneath it all. To the point where the narration feels nearly redundant. It's still useful though, to maintain a constant style and to delve deeper than facial tics and minute expressions are capable.

The only thing better than the performance of this stoic and complex character, is the character itself. 

As a fan, I don't much care that there are technical flaws here. But as a critic, I must admit they are there, detracting from the film. Whether those flaws impact enjoyment will depend on the viewer; as for me, the more I muse on the deep and meaningful beauty of the work, the less significant those little slip-ups seem. What I'm left with is a film I love as if it were flawless, while fully aware that there were a few things about it that passingly bothered me. A second view may see those things continue to dissipate, or perhaps make a resurgence. I am unsure which the future holds, but I can't wait to find out.

I'm already eager to see those gorgeously rendered space scenes and extraterrestrial lands again. To follow Roy on his strange journey again -- closer this time -- and to weigh every nuance as it passes by in its striking muted beauty. With all that adventurous and intimidating wonder, the quiet, regal honesty of the central performance, and the intimate story that is wrapped around it so tenderly, Ad Astra barely lifts a finger before it achieves heights worthy of its name.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

It Chapter Two

Spoiler-free!

What's more likely to be a great movie -- one that ends with the characters making a promise to return and fight the evil again whenever it may return, or one in which all they do is make good on that promise?

Directed, once again, by Andy Muschietti.

Given that Chapter Two and Chapter One come from the same singular book, Chapter Two has no real right to feel so much like a sequel. Ideally it should have a "Part 2" flavor. If the filmmakers knew how successful Chapter One would be, I bet they would have filmed both parts at once. Then the de-aging of the child actors wouldn't have been necessary, and the story could have been developed to flow better between the two films. As it is, the two parts feel out of sync with each other. One being bigger in size, and the other more compact yet weighty with substance.

Much like what happened with Season 2 of Stranger Things, this sequel is painfully aware of the wild success of its predecessor. You can see it in the kids' performances, who are much less organic here. Like they're putting on a show for an audience instead of digging into honesty and stretching their acting chops. And while the adults don't come across that way at all, their script does it for them on occasion, with throwaway callback lines. Such as when they go in the well house and Bev dryly proclaims, "Beep beep, Richie." Another thing the adults have going for them; they're way better at delivering comedy.

As a result, the adult's version feels lighter in tone.

Laughs came freely; as for scares, it hit Not Scary At All for me. They tried to match scary-levels with Chapter One, but the method degraded slightly; there are a lot -- and I mean a lot of jump-scare moments. And every single one of them follows the exact same pattern. 1. Thing might be scary. 2. Thing is maybe not so scary after all. 3. Pause pause pause... 4. THING IS SCARY! Inevitably, the thing morphs into CGI, half the time with aspects of Pennywise's face pasted on it. I actually prefer when horror film don't scare me, but it does bother me that so much time was spent of these ultimately useless moments.

From my perspective "scary" is a lot less important than simply "effective." And the only times these moments were effective is when it led to an actual kill. Those are the ones that take their time to craft the creepiness and the dread. The most effective part of the movie was waiting for a jump scare while the camera lingered on Bill Skarsgård, motionless, drooling, his one eye pointing out to the side. No CGI, just an effective performance, given time to breathe and settle before it bursts. Other horror elements were more varying degrees of cool, or neat, or messed-up, which works fine for me. Overcrowding and rushing were the problems there.

But casting was a resounding win!

I think it's universally acknowledged that the casting here is pitch perfect. Even the well-known actors, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader are fantastically spot-on. Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean were clearly cast more for their accurate appearances, but also deliver wonderfully on the performance side. Hader steals almost too many scenes, and my favorite was Ransone as Eddie. The best scene in the whole movie was their meeting up and having dinner. Their reactions to seeing each other again and how the nail the same feel and dynamic their kid counterparts did.

A better version of this film is out in the cosmos somewhere. I don't know how it works, but it likely required at least some changes to the first movie. It's a hefty story to swing in just two movies, so one great film and one slightly less-so isn't a disappointing result, especially if you consider less pleasant alternatives. This two-part series avoided disaster by breaking up repetitive material with elevating moments from a brilliant cast, and regular interludes of real, fascinating, quality content. My only real regret is that Chapter One ended in a more satisfying and thematically potent way.

No more floating, but I sure do hope Bill Skarsgård gets all the roles he could wish for after this!

The best ending of a series ideally belongs at the very end. But I loved Chapter One as is, so if that movie's greatness required this one to fall slightly short, I'll take it and be happy. Since this continuation isn't necessary to get a complete and satisfying story, there's no harm done either way. It Chapter Two is like the cherry on top of a giant sundae, or a red balloon in the hand of a clown; it doesn't add much in terms of substance, but it sure does complete the picture nicely.