Thursday, January 31, 2019



Surprise, surprise, Netflix has put out yet another low-key, small-cast, post-apocalyptic movie, that preaches about how we should take care of our planet. There was a time when the combined words of "low-key, small-cast, post-apocalypse" would send my sci-fi and deep character-loving side a thrill of excitement. Now it mostly just means a cheap way to get out a tired and impersonal message.

This one smacks interestingly of The Martian Knockoff, except in reverse. There's a scrappy scientist girl named Sam (Margaret Qualley) living in the ruins of Earth where the atmosphere is now toxic. Except on the top of her mountain home where the air is clean, she must always use an oxygen mask. She's alone -- more or less stranded while the rest of the earth has left and is living on a space station in orbit of Io, one of Jupiter's moons. They're looking for a planet to colonize, and her boyfriend writes her to join them. But she's too busy doing scientific experiments on bugs.

She looked so much like Rebecca Hall to me I was 100% sure she was her daughter or sister. Turns out she's actually Andie MacDowell's daughter. 

It feels like Martian lite. At one point she even has a bad storm blow through that destroys much of her hard work. She does science, but it's hardly explained and mostly fictional instead of science-y. She encounters a lot of problems to solve, but they're mostly introduced only so the audience can sweat for about two full seconds before she casually reveals that there's an easy way out after all. But they eke away from The Martian when Micah (Anthony Mackie) shows up. At first, I thought this would be a good thing. She wasn't bad alone, but Mackie's a reliable actor, right?

Well, I dunno, but he made it worse. At least before, it was interesting in that the only dialogue was her log updates or her voice-over reading letters to and from her space-boyfriend. The moment she spoke to Micah it seemed wrong, and from there a giant stall commenced, as everything had to be explained that was implied at the beginning. Their time hanging out lasts far too long before the final act begins and they have chemistry -- but in reverse. Like, every time they were in frame together I could practically see the magnetic fields that repelled them. Few weirder or more uncomfortable things have I seen on film.

So, so awkward.

Their time together is spent in revealing things about Sam that I'd already guessed and things about Micah that made him worryingly dislikable. Finally, The Martian template kicks in for one last dying breath as they need to travel a great distance in order to get on the last shuttle off Earth. But like the rest of this movie's obstacles, that one also goes nowhere fast. Eventually it settles into it's theme and moral -- that it's about one person trying to save the Earth. Reverse of The Martian again, which was about the whole Earth pulling together to save one person.

And that's where it just plain falls apart. I love a story that's about helping one person because there's intimacy juxtaposed with the grandeur that the life of one person is valuable enough to move the whole world; but one person slaving away to save something that has no soul -- as beautiful and valuable as it may be -- leaves me shrugging. I simply don't care. Perhaps if the film focused more on why she wanted the Earth to survive and made it more character-driven, but her desire seemed to be fueled by nothing, and then by a grasping connection to Greek mythology.

The scifi was SO low-key that they REALLY needed depth of character to make it work. And... they did try.

So besides the lack of an intimate character-study of fascinating and lovable characters, and being too low-key to include much science or science fiction, the movie does have a pleasantly relaxed tone throughout, and never dives into any of its aspects deeply enough to find anything to irritate me. Rather, it exists on a simple and elementary level to wax poetic in borrowed lines from the talented and knowledgeable, and to preach timidly on a subject none of us are strangers to. It is restricted by it's budget and knows it, but still can't find solid footing to work in on the small scale.

So, as far as low-key, small-cast, post-apocalyptic science fiction is concerned, you'd be far better of watching Sunshine, or The Road, or Young Ones; or even Z for Zachariah, but only in a pinch. None of those are on Netflix, you say? There's still last year's How it Ends to consider, with far better character work and eerie apocalyptic imagery. Io may be calm and unoffensive, but only because it's too meek and simplified to have anything of substance to say.

Monday, January 28, 2019

First Man


With his third film, the undeniably talented filmmaker Damien Chazelle tackles the story of the first man to walk on the moon, and in the effort to bring his story down to earth, turns him and the NASA Apollo team -- the biggest, baddest, most brilliant rock stars of geekdom -- into "a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood."

Oh dear. Here we go... It's like half the movie wanted to be in awe of them, and the other half wanted to tear them down and "show them for what they really were." The direction and the writing felt at odds.

My biggest issue is with the treatment of Neil himself. I know next to nothing about him, so I'll try not to speculate too far, but it seems to be that Chazelle's (but perhaps more the writer, Josh Singer's) intention was to humanize his story. To that end the film begins with the death of his young daughter, and Neil spends the next eight years of his life in what is presented as a constant state of depression. His goal of reaching the moon seems dangerously obsessive, yet oddly joyless, and his ultimate success more the result of mere luck than the kind of hard work, training, and discipline it certainly took in reality.

Part of this has to be attributed to Ryan Gosling's deadpan performance, which I'm sure was intended, but ultimately comes across as cold. There are subtleties there, but mostly I found that the filming style created performance out of little substance. Those eye close ups -- they convey an idea of what lies underneath an emotionless stare. However, the character is written to have so much instability that I would worry about NASA's vetting process if I were convinced his characterization were accurate. It's unfathomable to me that having already lost a child, and fully prepared to risk his life, he wouldn't value the chance to say goodbye to his children, no matter how confident he may be of his return.

This is going to sound meaner than I mean it to mean, but I felt equal connection to him when he was standing with his sun-shield up as I did when he was actively emoting. i.e., the film conveyed emotion FOR him, not THROUGH him.

It smacks of sensationalism -- and why not? There's a reason this story hasn't been told before. As magnificent and history-making an event it was, it was simply too by-the-numbers successful endeavor to make a compelling film. So an effort is made to make it seem as dangerous and duct-taped together as possible; even to the point of presenting factual errors and stretching the truth for drama. For his part, Chazelle literally shakes the audience, and goes deep into the visceral experience. Shot on film, grainy, handheld camerawork, high-contrast and glaring lighting; it's nothing if not dramatic. And to its credit this style makes the open and still photography of the moon's surface all the more striking later.

That sequence was by far the most grabbing of the film -- and it was all due to the contrast of filming style. Yet Neil's character has no such moment of contrast. With juxtaposition of highs, his lows may have been more deeply empathized with, yet he's consistently despondent and frustratingly aloof, to the point of returning to the very thing this film ran from: that the man was unrelatable; but it a way that paints him badly -- as immature and anti-social -- instead of the positive if unattainable status he's more deserving of, as an absolute legend of history.

Claire Foy is great because Claire Foy is always great. There has never been a time when she has been less great than she was at every moment in this movie. However, I didn't care for the role her character took in the story.

I know there has to be some who would disagree with me and identified with this character. It is a character piece, and is put on with subtlety and rawness classic to indie sensibilities. It lost me as a character study, however, and the loss was felt because there was no backup to keep me on the hook. As a science-fact space-exploration film, it hardly even tries. I had no expectation to start, but found myself again and again wishing for the audience-friendly science explanations and easy structure of Ron Howard's Apollo 13. That film is the perfect storm of understandable science, balanced characters full of emotional range, and true-story credibility.

It seems almost unfair to compare the two, but therein is exactly my point. First Man intentionally sets aside in-depth explanation of technical aspects to drill deep into the character of one man; and with that singular goal, still fails to capture my affection for that one character the same way Apollo 13 did for at least four characters, while spending half it time as an educational video about how to make a CO² filter out of duct tape and a sock. Still, Chazelle didn't set out to make Apollo 13, but his own creation -- and it is beautiful in his way. There were moments worth the frustrations -- mostly in the visuals which were remarkably great. Despite its failure to capture me, I'll certainly retain a level of respect for the work as a whole.

It's beautiful, and there's value and appeal to that. But it's the kind of value that will diminish and be replaced in time. I far prefer Chazelle's work when he writes for himself. Then the heart matches his style and tone.

First Man is undeniably a visceral, and carefully and artfully crafted film. From a fictional perspective it's handled well, feeling both massively epic and massively intimate. From a real-life perspective the efforts and heroism of its characters seems intentionally minimized. And from a personal perspective, that minimization edges on disrespect, the intimacy lacks attraction, and the epic scope conveys little more than a cool, clouded glance into one of the most impressive and awesome feats of mankind.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Circle

Major Spoilers.

Is this movie trying to be what it appears to be trying to be -- a movie about a good idea taken too far -- or is it trying to be what it is -- the most disturbing and effective anti-technology, anti-mob-rule, pro-personal freedom horror movie I've ever seen?

It's a tough call, but to say it meant to be as horrifying as I found it would be to give it more credit than I'm willing to attribute...

What I expected based on the trailer and critical reception was a technology-cult movie, starring Emma Watson, with Tom Hanks as the seemingly-nice but really rather evil cult leader, and supported by John Boyega and Karen Gillan, that turns into an espionage-esque thriller in the end, a la Eagle Eye or Enemy of the State. Avoid-the-surveillance-to-save-the-world kind of deal. That wasn't it at all.

So here's what really happens: Mae (Watson) starts the film with a friend from her neighborhood, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) who's notoriously off the grid and opposed to using social media. Mae gets an enviable job at The Circle, which essentially combines all social media and internet-things into one interface. She lives on-campus, and is strongly encouraged (and passive-aggressively peer-pressured) into taking part of the social media interaction with co-workers. It basically part of the job to be socially active in the community.

There was an underlying "off" element to it that was intentional. By the end I had no clue what it meant by it.

In her effort to further her popularity in this community, she shares a photo of a deer-antler chandelier Mercer made for everyone to appreciate. Next thing you know, he comes to her work to complain that he's received a plethora of hate-mail including even death threats from her followers, accusing him of being a deer-murderer. He doesn't kill the deer himself, it's hurting his business, and it's making him much more web-present than he's comfortable with. As they talk and she apologizes (she had no idea that would be the outcome) Circle community members gather around them, filming with their phones and calling him "deer killer" to his face. The scene is unsettling to say the least. But... casually.

Soon after, despite her thinking it all odd, and despite making friends with John Boyega, who it turns out, invented the interface and hates what it's being used for, she slips further and further into the social aspect, until, one day, for no determinable reason (or maybe I just can't remember) she does a thing called "going fully transparent" in which she wears a live-streaming camera on her shirt 24/7. This rockets her up in popularity, alienating her friendship with Annie (Gillan) who got her the job in the first place. She starts going to board meetings and participating in the furthering of the business.

One second she's scoffing at it, the next she's more involved than anyone.

A few ideas later, she's giving a presentation to the community, in which, because of the size that Circle users and her "fully transparent" stream-watchers has grown to, she makes an experiment. Can her millions of followers with their cameras track down a fugitive from justice? She starts a timer and it takes them ten minutes to locate and arrest an escaped convict. Then she asks for a suggestion from the crowd: who else should they find? Mercer, they say. She says no. They start a chant. Tom Hanks intervenes, and "encourages" her to give them what they want. Fine. She starts the timer, and less than ten minutes later, Mercer is dead; following a car chase with phone-wielding busybodies.

After that Mae goes home for a while to reevaluate her life. What was wrong with The Circle that it caused such a tragedy? Four days later she returns, goes full transparent again, and using her smarts and the pressure that her great following endows her with, essentially forces Tom Hanks (And Patton Oswalt? For some reason?) to join her in her full transparency, having already hacked their emails (even the super-duper-ultra-secret ones) and sent them out for the whole Circle community to see. The film ends with her having assumed control over the whole company by power of popularity alone, and revealing plans to force the whole world into participation and transparency.

Because people behave better when they're being watched; because secrets are lies; because withholding information from people is equivalent to stealing from them, and because participation in society is vital. Wow. For a moment, as the upbeat pop music played over the colorful pastel palate of the credits, I was downright angry. Then it occurred to me: perhaps that was the intention. If not for the upbeat credits and my conviction that Emma Watson would have never agreed to play that character if she saw her how I saw her, I might be fully convinced.

There's NOTHING this movie says that I agree with. I can't figure out what was meant sincerely and what wasn't!

So much sits so wrong, not just the part where she caused her friend's death and then doubled down on the promotion and distributing of the tool used to bring about his demise. She outs Hanks by force, and we the audience are never even told of anything he did wrong. Her friendship with Annie is repaired by Annie, when she quits her job and returns to the simple life in Scotland. She seems finally happy. Mae is happy for her. Then she immediately goes on with her final plan. She even plans forced participation in voting. And none of these things are argued against except that they will make you sick to think of them.

What I most found disturbing though, was the talking points that secrets are lies, (there's no rebuttal to that portrayed) and that not sharing an experience you've had with someone is really stealing from them. That's why Mae goes full transparent actually (there, I remembered). After she confusingly breaks the law to go kayaking at night, tips over and is only rescued because of surveillance cameras, she realizes that people wouldn't break the law if they were watched constantly, but even more importantly, realizes that because she didn't film her kayaking experience and share it with people (particularly those who are incapable of doing such a thing) she was selfishly stealing from them.

So, this movie says (and never offers a counter to this argument), if you watch a sunset, and don't take a picture for your Instagram feed, you're actually stealing from every person who would have seen it. The movie says this with such a serious, literal, "theme vocalized" tone that I'm having a hard time believing it meant it any other way. Based on the tone I picked up, it seems completely like the movie's intention was to show the ups and downs of technology, but ultimately to show how it's more good than bad. It succeeds in doing the opposite; but only by being terrible at doing the first.

The worst movie ever.... and it reads like prophesy.

Maybe the intention was to turn it all into the most subtle horror story of all time. Even then it's just plain bad. The plot is too convoluted, events are forced and senseless, the acting is terrible, the characters either bland (Mae) or wildly underused (everyone else) and it's completely lacking in style. It has the style of your average bland romantic dramedy, but there's no romance and the drama is sci-fi horror played like simple drama. Mae's actions are impossible to characterize or get behind, yet she's ever presented like a true heroine.

Perhaps two years ago when it was made it did come across as more extreme and obviously presenting a bad scenario, in which technology is used to destroy lives only to be further embraced for the damage by the masses -- but today it almost sounds... genuine. And that's the scariest thing of all.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Escape Room


Six strangers are sent fancy invitations to try out a new state-of-the-art escape room that's yet to be solved, with a prize of $10,000 for anyone who wins. While in the waiting room, they discover that the game has already started, and later, when the first of them die, they realize there's more at stake than an opportunity to win big.

Like... they could also DIE. So that's fun.

The initial, and only significant problem, is simply that I watched the trailer. I wouldn't say it revealed too much as you have to entice people somehow, but a side effect of it getting me to buy a ticket is that I knew more or less what would happen for the first thirty minutes or more. There was still details to see and characters to get to know, but it killed suspense and surprises more than a few times. So I recommend avoiding it, if you have so far. The movie is a pure-blooded, small-scale, gimmicky thriller and works well within those parameters.

A classic January thriller, and maybe it's the expectation of the month talking, but it wound up being better than your average beginning-of-the-year fare. Each of the six have a backstory -- a reason to be there, both thematically and structurally. They play off each other excellently, and probably the most fun thing about the film is how they argue and interact. I found them all interesting to a degree, and had a couple favorites to root for too. The movie isn't groundbreaking, and certainly not high art, but it crafts thrills to be sufficiently tense while not forgetting that it's entertainment. It's fun to watch, all the way through; know as you might that what you're watching isn't of particular high quality.

They sure do make good use of the certainly small budget though.

Still it has all the required pieces, and the pieces only seem to be ill-fitting once or twice. The ending, for instance, felt rushed and weak compared to the rest; but it's not the sort of movie that banks on the ending. If it meant to have shocking twists, I saw through them, but I never felt a lack because of that. Not all thrillers need a massive twist, and this one gets by on what you see. Namely, its characters, and its set pieces. Even with previews of what the sets looked like, it was still great fun watching the characters navigate them. None lasted to long or felt under-explored. The clues were perhaps simple, but making them easy to follow was the right choice for what the movie wanted to be.

The characters are: Zoey, played by Taylor Russell, who I recognized from Netflix's Lost in Space. She was good to the point of if I see her name for another film it will be a drawing factor for me. Also, Logan Miller as Ben. I've seen him in a few things, but he makes himself worthy of notice here for the first time. Deborah Ann Woll is Amanda, and though the actress was the most familiar to me because of Daredevil, she wound up being the biggest surprise. Then there is Tyler Labine as Mike who seems like he might just be filler, but makes himself stand out; Nik Dodani as Danny, who was amusingly annoying; and Jay Ellis as Jason. He was interesting, and that's all I'll say. The film never delves too deeply into their stories, but we do get a strong sense of who they are, and I found it easy to care for them.

But not so much that it was a buzzkill at deaths.

Obviously, this isn't a movie you shouldn't expect too much out of. It's not going to blow your mind with its plot, or present you with moving themes or award-worthy performances; but if you enjoy the genre, and gauge your expectations properly, this a diverting and fun time. It's paced excellently to hold tension and attention, and there aren't any glaring flaws to take you out of it all. As long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief, and are prepared for something a little over-the-top, I think you'll be humored with a film that is sincerely out to thrill and entertain, not just trick folks into wasting their money.

So no, it's not just the traditionally garbage month talking when I say this one earns a recommendation from me. 3/5. Would escape again.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Juliet, Naked

Spoiler free!

Don't mind the title; this movie is more pure than it sounds, I promise.

For fifteen years Annie (Rose Byrne) has put up with her boyfriend Duncan's (Chris O'Dowd) obsession with American rock star Tucker Crowe, who disappeared after releasing his first hit album, Juliet, in the 90's. Juliet, Naked is a demo version of said album that finds its way into Duncan's hands. Partway to get revenge for an argument, and partway because she finds the demo album boring, and exploitative of the original's success, Annie posts a scathing review on Duncan's fan site. Later she gets an email saying that she hit the nail on the head... that's signed Tucker Crowe.

An almost You've Got Mail kind of premise but without all the waiting and the initial hating.

And yes, Tucker is played by Ethan Hawke. He and Annie bond over email, describing their disappointing lives; Annie keeping their exchanges secret from Duncan, and Tucker juggling a life full of strained relationships that involves three ex-wives and five children. But this is a rom-com so eventually, when Tucker's London-resident daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) makes him a granddad, they take the opportunity to meet. Then other circumstances allow for an extended stay.

The movie takes care to make its protagonists likable despite the growth they need. For example, Annie never cheats on Duncan; and Tucker is determined to maintain a good relationship with his youngest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). His last chance to not mess something up, he says. And Annie herself longs to have children, in a refreshingly un-progressive turn. Her dynamic with Jackson is almost as cute as her and Tucker. And maybe it's the British rom-com thing to do, but everything feels so down-to-earth and realistic, but not at all in a cynical, "real-world grit" kind of way. It's just relatable, normal, life things. Except becoming pen-pals with a famous person of course.

It's based on a novel, so maybe that's where it's unexpected depth without the weighty tone came from.

My favorite is when Annie and Tucker meet in real life. It's awkward, yet not painful to watch, cut short and not screaming with unnecessary sexual tension. They really do become friends first. And in the inevitable scene where Tucker discovers that the weird guy who runs that fan-site of speculative misinformation was her boyfriend, things don't escalate like some rom-coms might push them to. No misunderstandings, no jumping to wild and angry conclusions for the sake of drama; just a character-driven relationship between two unlikely people.

Even Duncan isn't left out. One of the movie's best moments is the instance of Duncan meeting Tucker and not recognizing him. Also O'Dowd is the movie's most consistently hilarious aspect, but isn't tossed out once his usefulness to the plot is fulfilled. He even gets a few moments of poignancy, and I really liked what he had to say about art not being for the artist but for the consumer. Rose Byrne is as charming as ever, hitting comedy and drama equally well. And Ethan Hawke, always excellent, doesn't phone in because he's in a rom-com, and (with help from the script) turns his character into something fascinating and nuanced that you wouldn't expect.

And he sings. They wrote songs for the Juliet album which we hear, and he sings Waterloo Sunset live. Like, I probably should have led with that, right? (there's even a soundtrack available!) 

The rom-com genre may be dead, but Juliet, Naked makes itself relevant and worthy -- by being devoted to its characters beyond the romance that can be fabricated between them; by effortlessly avoiding dead pitfalls of the genre; by not relying on comic shortcuts and cliches; and by still appealing to rom-com sensibilities by being sweet and romantic and leaving you happy and satisfied in the end. For my money they could have sold the ending even more, but they can't resist adding a little extra as the credits roll that adds extra satisfaction and one more laugh to the more abrupt indie-style end.

Don't get distracted by the odd title. Juliet, Naked is more than meets the eye.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - January 2019!

Happy new year! I hope 2019 is full of great times and great movies for you all!

I got a few things done in December: I watched Mowgli, Dumplin' and Bird Box on Netflix -- but only reviewed Mowgli (review here). Oh well, none of them were anything special. Then went to the theater for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, (review here) which was absolutely wonderful and slipped into my top five of the year... and then Mortal Engines (review here) which disappointing by being a not great film and by making no money so there's no chance or continuation and redemption. I'm 100% going to read the books now.

AND THEN we saw Aquaman, (review here) because I'm a member of a family that goes to see all superhero movies. It was alright and a fun time. And finally, Bumblebee (review here) in a kind of spur of the moment decision because we were having our roof redone, and needed to get away from the noise. It wasn't super great but was fun and easily the best of the Transformer franchise.

Now it's January, and the movies are gonna slow down for a bit -- and that's great for me because all that plus catching up on 2018 releases that I missed made me a little overwhelmed with film. I wound up seeing 70 movies released in 2018, which isn't a lot compared to some cinephiles, but it was over twice my number from 2017! I enjoyed branching out a little more and took a few risks with movies I didn't think I'd like that payed off really well. I look forward to the surprises that 2019 has to offer!

Escape Room
Jan 4th; PG-13
The trailer make me a little uncomfortable though it definitely looks more thriller than horror, but my brothers are interested too so this may actually turn into a theater trip. I just hope it's good, because if it's not good it seems like it'd be torture to watch. People win a free escape room experience, but things get actually dangerous -- with a mildly familiar cast including Deborah Ann Woll of Dardevil, Taylor Russell of Lost in Space, Tyler Labine, and Logan Miller. It's got a tight vibe; I have hope.

State Like Sleep
Jan 4th(limited) NR
Very clearly a noir thriller with a nicely classic noir plot -- a woman gets into mystery after her secret-keeping celebrity husband commits suicide. Katherine Waterston stars with Michael Shannon and Luke Evans! I like that cast. I like noirs. I'm a go.

Jan 11th; PG-13
The original trailer I saw bored me to death and this one gives away too much, but the movie itself might be worth watching. Or it might just be weird or boring too. Keanu Reeves and Alice Eve and something to do with cloning humans, action/scifi stuff. I dunno, it really doesn't look very good. But hey, it's January. Par for the course.

The Upside
Jan 11th; PG-13
The trailer for this was really good, but I'm not sure if the movie itself will be. I get a feeling that all the best moment were put in the trailer. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston seem to make a fun team anyway. And Nicole Kidman. I like Nicole Kidman. Based on a true story, and also based on a French film. So was the French film based on a true story too? That's probably the thing to watch.

Jan 18th; PG-13
I still have to see Split before this comes out, but I liked Unbreakable a lot, so I have plans to watch, and hopefully enjoy. Not entirely sure of the crossover/team-up idea, especially since superhero movies do nothing but that these days, and the thing I loved about Unbreakable was how unlike a superhero movie it was. Still, that could still be the case. Bruce Willis should be the lead, but it seems like the movie's more about Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy's characters. I guess they are the most obviously interesting. I also like Anya Taylor Joy a lot, so glad to see her!

Jan 25th; R
This looks like a pretty good movie, but I can't exactly say I'm interested in it. Maybe I would be if I liked the cast, but Matthew McConnahey and Anne Hathaway? Again? I had enough of them together after five minutes of Interstellar. Still I'll try not to be prejudiced and keep an eye out. Maybe the story -- a thriller that doesn't seem to give away much -- will be worth it. If it isn't I won't bother.

The Kid Who Would Be King
Jan 25th; PG
I know it's a kiddie movie, and I really can't predict if it'll be good or bad, but something about it make me want to see it. Modern British school kids doing a King Arthur story... I dunno, it just seems like a great idea. The trailer looks adventuresome, and rather self-aware which could go well, or maybe not. Patrick Stewart is Merlin. Rebecca Ferguson is Morgana. And Andy Serkis' son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, is the lead. Kid's movies are tough but if they don't skimp on the actual movie this one could be a winner!