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.