Saturday, December 30, 2017

Available for home viewing: The LEGO Ninjago Movie ★


The pieces are all there, but they never really snap into place in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

The feature-film version of the long-running animated TV series Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu only superficially resembles its source material, and it pales in comparison to its cinematic predecessors. Maybe such diminishing returns were inevitable. It would be impossible to recreate the groundbreaking, lightning-in-a-bottle innovation of 2014’s The Lego Movie. We saw that earlier this year with the release of The Lego Batman Movie, which was consistently zippy and amusing but, inevitably, not quite as novel.

Now we have The LEGO Ninjago Movie, about a group of teenagers who are secretly ninjas, each with a special elemental power. Their challenge is to take on the evil Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), who also happens to be the father of the team’s Green Ninja, Lloyd (Dave Franco). But while the film is credited to three directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan) and a small army of writers, it results in only a few clever ideas that are chuckle-worthy, at best.

Its strongest bit is the introduction of a live-action cat within this animated setting — dubbed Meowthra in an homage to classic, Japanese movie monsters — who terrorizes Ninjago City when she’s accidentally summoned with a red laser pointer. But the enjoyment of the absurd sight of a cat knocking over Lego buildings lasts about as long as your average viral video — and then you’re stuck realizing how little there is to the script.

Part of the problem is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is primarily about Lloyd struggling with his daddy issues and Garmadon trying to figure out whether and how to be a father to Lloyd, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy’s infancy. And aside from Lloyd, the other ninjas are essentially interchangeable, which is a huge departure from the television show. The supporting players’ names and nature-related abilities are all the same — water, lightning, fire, etc. — but they have no discerning personalities beyond that. They are background noise. They are filler.

What’s so bizarre about that is that the longtime voice performers from the TV series — who’ve been playing these characters for seven seasons now — have all been replaced with better-known actors and comedians, who then get surprisingly little to do. Nothing against them — they’re all great and they’re solid voice talent, people you’re happy to see whether they appear in TV or film — but they’re not given enough material to justify overhauling the entire cast. The shift seems like a cynical ploy to make the movie more marketable.

For the record, they are Kumail Nanjiani (Jay), Fred Armisen (Cole), Michael Pena (Kai), Abbi Jacobson (Nya) and Zach Woods (Zane). Jackie Chan plays their wise leader, Master Wu, and Olivia Munn has a small supporting role as Lloyd’s mom, Koko.

LEGO Ninjago also suffers from its live-action bookend narrative structure, featuring Chan as a store owner who tells the legend of Ninjago to a wide-eyed kid. All that does is explain the presence of the cat and it gets the film’s pacing off to a sluggish start from which it never fully recovers.

What it could have used more of was world-building, literally and figuratively. What makes this place different from every other? What makes it better than the world of The Lego Movie, where everything was awesome? That movie efficiently and effectively laid out its parameters and characters. This one drops you in — so if you don’t know the show, you’ll have no connection to this setting. Having said that, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll be struck by how little the movie has in common with it.

Despite the grander scale (and bigger budget), the movie doesn’t use the Legos for the thing that makes them fun: the building aspect of them, the possibility of creativity, the way they allow you to push boundaries and come up with structures and characters that maybe don’t make any sense, but they’re cool-looking. LEGO Ninjago is essentially an ordinary animated film, with visuals rendered in Lego form.

And sometimes the visuals are so garbled, this may as well be a Transformers movie, especially as the ninjas climb inside their various mecha to fly/climb/fight/etc. against Garmadon to keep him from destroying Ninjago City. Along those lines, the sound mix often made it hard to hear the quips, one-liners and banter, especially during the big action sequences, of which there are many. Then again, the jokes and the energy as a whole lack the infectious nature of previous Lego movies.

Since we’re making all the inevitable comparisons, it’s hard to shake the sensation that Theroux is essentially doing Will Arnett doing Batman in the previous two Lego movies. He brings an amusing buffoonery to this alleged super-villain — a clueless bravado, a total lack of self-awareness — but we’ve heard this shtick before. Even the husky swagger of Theroux’s delivery recalls Arnett’s performances, and it serves as yet another reminder of how superior the predecessors were.

And as my 8-year-old neighbor pointed out after a screening of the film (between bursts of singing the TV show’s insanely catchy theme song) the ninjas don’t even do spinjitzu, their stylized martial-arts technique using their signature elemental powers. Not really — not until the end. But maybe we’ll see more of that in the sequel, which is certainly on the horizon, whether it’s merited or not.

Available for home viewing: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ½★

This review will be short and dismissive. The movie under consideration — Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — is, by contrasts, long and punishing. Its pleasures are so meager, its delight in its own inventions so forced and false, that it becomes almost the perfect opposite of entertainment. To insist otherwise is a variation on the sunk cost fallacy. Since you exchanged money for fun, fun is surely what you must have purchased, and you may cling to that idea in the face of contrary evidence. But trust me on this: This movie would be a rip-off even if someone paid you to see it.

Because, to be honest, it’s barely a movie at all. The first installments of the Pirates franchise conquered skepticism with exuberance and charm. Somehow, a theme-park ride combined with clever, madcap visuals and Johnny Depp’s scapegrace showboating added up to something fresh. But that spirit is long gone. Depp, as Capt. Jack Sparrow, goes through the motions like a washed-up rock star reprising his greatest hits in a half-empty auditorium. The images are so dark and muddy that you can’t see what’s going on well enough to know why you don’t care. The plot twists, Easter eggs and surprises are either obvious or labored. You can’t spoil something that’s already thoroughly rotten.

Now and then you get a reminder of why you might have enjoyed the earlier movies. There are a couple of nifty Rube Goldbergian action sequences — one with a bank vault, the other with a guillotine — that recall the berserk inventiveness of Gore Verbinski, the original director. But otherwise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg from a script by Jeff Nathanson, is a tedious rehash.

Two appealing young people (Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites) meet on a quest for a mysterious and powerful object. They are joined by Sparrow and pursued by old and new enemies: the British Navy; the greedy pirate Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush); and an army of ghouls led by the spectral Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), known as the butcher of the sea.

This goes on for more than two hours. You are invited to sit through every last name on the lengthy end credits for a teasing extra scene of a couple asleep on linen sheets, a reminder of how you might have better spent the time. It would be a spoiler to identify those bedfellows, but the bigger spoiler is that apparently another sequel is on the way.

Friday, December 29, 2017

From Best to Worst: The movies available for home viewing in 2017

(The year of the movie’s theatrical release is in parenthesis following the title)

THE FOUR STAR FILMS

1. Toni Erdmann (2016)
2. A Ghost Story (2017)
3. Paterson (2016)
4. 20th Century Women (2016)
5. A Quiet Passion (2017)

THE THREE AND A HALF STAR FILMS
6. Moonlight (2016)
7. Manchester By the Sea (2016)
8. I am Not Your Negro (2016)
9. Dunkirk (2017)
10. La La Land (2016)
11. Elle (2016)
12. The Big Sick (2017)
13. The Salesman (2017)
14. The Handmaiden (2016)
15. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
16. Fences (2016)
17. It Comes at Night (2017)
18. Baby Driver (2017)
19. Logan (2017)
20. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
21. Julieta (2016)
22. Colossal (2017)

THE THREE STAR FILMS
23. Get Out (2017)
24. Arrival (2016)
25. Loving (2016)
26. Logan Lucky (2017)
27. Personal Shopper (2017)
28. Wonder Woman (2017)
29. Norman (2017)
30. Hidden Figures (2016)
31. Wind River (2017)
32. Queen of Katwe (2016)
33. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
34. Allied (2016)
35. The Red Turtle (2017)
36. Certain Women (2016)
37. Moana (2016)
38. A Monster Calls (2016)
39. Stronger (2017)
40. Lady Macbeth (2017)
41. Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
42. Patti Cake$ (2017)
43. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
44. Maudie (2017)
45. Alien: Covenant (5/19/2017)

TWO AND A HALF STAR FILMS
46. Raw (2017)
47. Jackie (2016)
48. The Lost City of Z (2017)
49. The Beguiled (2017)
50. The Lego Batman Movie (2/10/2017)
51. mother! (2017)
52. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
53. Doctor Strange (2016)
54. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
55. Patriots Day (2016)
56. Brigsby Bear (2017)
57. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)
58. A United Kingdom (2017)
59. Bleed for This (2016)
60. The Light Between Oceans (2016)
61. Rules Don’t Apply (2016)
62. Cars 3 (2017)
63. Song to Song (2017)
64. Silence (2016)
65. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
66. Christine (2016)
67. Ingrid Goes West (2017)
68. Lion (2016)
69. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
70. Nocturnal Animals (2016)
71. The Founder (2017)
72. Atomic Blonde (2017)
73. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
74. Gifted (2017)
75. Victoria and Abdul (2017)
76. The Fate of the Furious (2017)
77. Trolls (/2016)

TWO STAR FILMS
78. Detroit (2017)
79. The Lovers (2017)
80. Girls Trip (2017)
81. The Birth of a Nation (2016)
82. Deepwater Horizon (2016)
83. T2 Trainspotting (2017)
84. Landline (2017)
85. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
86. Miss Sloane (2016)
87. Free Fire (2017)
88. Denial (2016)
89. Sing (2016)
90. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
91. The Glass Castle (2017)
92. Life (2017)
93. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
94. Going in Style (2017)
95. The Boss Baby (2017)
96. Gold (2017)
97. Live By Night (2016)
98. The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
99. A Cure for Wellness (2017)
100. American Assassin (2017)
101. Snatched (2017)
102. Inferno (2016)
103. Office Christmas Party (2016)

ONE AND A HALF STAR FILMS
104. Good Time (2017)
105. Before I Fall (2017)
106. Ghost in the Shell (2017)
107. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
108. Rough Night (2017)
109. The Promise (2017)
110. Wilson (2017)
111. Power Rangers (2017)
112. The Great Wall (2017)
113. The Comedian (2017)
114. Bad Santa 2 (2016)

ONE STAR FILMS
115. Split (2017)
116. The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)
117. The Circle (2017)
118. Despicable Me 3 (2017)
119. The Girl on the Train (2016)
120. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
121. American Pastoral (2016)
122. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
123. Passengers (2016)
124. The Space Between Us (2017)
125. The Accountant (2016)
126. The Mountain Between Us (2017)
127. A Dog’s Purpose (2017)
128. Assassin’s Creed (2016)
129. Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
130. The Dark Tower (2017)

HALF STAR FILMS
131. My Cousin Rachel (2017)
132. Baywatch (2017)
133. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
134. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
135. The Mummy (2017)
136. Fifty Shades Darker (2017)
137. The Book of Henry (2017)
 
NO STAR FILMS
138. Why Him? (2016)
139, Kingsmen: The Golden Circle
140. Collateral Beauty (2016)

Available for home viewing: Dunkirk ★★★½

Lean and ambitious, unsentimental and bombastic, overwhelmingly guy-centric, Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk showcases the best and worst of the director's tendencies. The best win out and the worst recede in memory when you think back on the experience — provided that you want to remember Dunkirk, a movie that's supposed to be grueling and succeeds. Less of a war film and more of a disaster (or survival) picture, it's an ensemble work that chronicles the evacuation of British soldiers who got trapped in the harbor and on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June of 1940, with the Germans, who had driven Allied forces practically out to sea, closing in for one last sweep.

If you were to make a list of every phobia you can think of, you'd have to tick off a lot of boxes after seeing this film. Fear of heights, fire, drowning, confined spaces, darkness, abandonment — you name it, it's represented in cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's nightmarishly clear images. It's close to the old-fashioned "Academy" ratio common to films made in cinema's early decades: squarish, tall instead of wide. That means that when you're in the cockpit of a fighter diving towards the water, or running behind an infantryman dodging German snipers, the idea of "tunnel vision," a phrase spoken by many a catastrophe survivor, comes to life onscreen.

The film will be seen in a wider format on most television/computer screens, but I doubt this will lessen the overall effect: this is a pile-driver of a movie, dropping one visual or aural bomb after another, with barely a pause to contemplate what it's just shown you. To watch it is to feel beleaguered. This was a period in which German military power was ascendant and hope for the United Kingdom's survival was starting to ebb. The story of Dunkirk has been told on film before, notably in Leslie Norman's same-titled 1958 feature, and there has been no shortage of other films about other battlefield rescues; but this one feels different, mainly because of how it's made.

Nolan, who also wrote the film's script, drops you into the middle of the action from frame one and keeps you there. This is an ensemble movie that doesn't just fail to delineate most of its characters through exposition but seems to take perverse pride in letting them scamper anonymously across the screen at flyspeck distance, getting lost amid crowds or merging with smoke or water. Scenes sometimes play out for minutes without audible dialogue, a rarity in commercial cinema made at this budget level; it's even rarer in Nolan's own films, which tend to clarify narrative via massive verbal exposition dumps. Nolan and van Hoytema hold shots longer than the Nolan norm, sometimes long enough to let you consider everything in the frame and decide where to let your eye settle.

Like a more restless cousin of Terrence Malick, who infused the combat picture with Transcendental philosophy in The Thin Red Line, or Robert Altman, who painted microcosmic panoramas of civilization in such films as Nashville and Short Cuts Dunkirk treats every person on that beach and in assorted nearby planes and boats as part of a collective organism, less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be. Dunkirk is what I like to call an Ant Farm Picture: it's a portrait of a society, or a species, fighting for its life. It's not hugely interested in the plight of individuals, unless they're trying to save themselves or others. If you get confused about who's who and what's what from time to time, you can rest assured that this is a feature of Nolan's methods, not a bug (pun intended).

Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot trying to blast German pilots out of the sky before they can strafe soldiers on the ground and sink boats in the harbor. He has maybe a dozen lines and spends much of the film behind a mask, as he did in his last collaboration with Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises; but he makes a strong impression anyway by treating the character as the sum total of his actions. Mark Rylance plays a civilian with teenage sons who is determined to pilot his small yacht to Dunkirk and rescue as many people as he can; there are lots of these self-appointed rescuers around Dunkirk; their ultimate organization into one of the twentieth century's boldest non-military flotillas is as inspiring as you imagine it to be. A trio of soldiers, one of whom is played by Harry Styles, rushes from the town to the beach and onto a long dock that stretches into the ocean; this is the only way that big boats can get close enough to shore to pick up the stranded. The would-be passengers pray that they can pile onto a ship and get out before more German planes shred them with bullets or bombs. Some of the characters, including Hardy's Farrier and Rylance's Mark Dawson or Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the highest ranking English officer on the scene, are given names. Others are identified only by their general appearance or actions, such as Cillian Murphy, known only as "Shivering Soldier"; he's pulled from the icy sea by Rylance's captain and strongly urges the crew to sail away from Dunkirk, not toward it.

The film has its share of stumbling blocks. One is the persistent anonymity of the characters; just because a gambit is a conscious part of the film's design doesn't mean it always works, and there are moments you may wonder whether treating supporting players as something other than glorified cannon fodder might have resulted in a film as emotionally powerful as it is viscerally overwhelming. Another miscalculation is the score, by Hans Zimmer, a Jungian din of booming drums, bum-vibrating synth chords, and cawing string effects that loses much of its power by refusing to shut up, even when silence or ambient war noise might have been just as effective, or more so. The overuse of Zimmer's music has been an issue throughout Nolan's career, but here may become an object of debate. The situations and images are so vivid that the score often seems to be trying to rescue a film that doesn't need its help.

I was more on-the-fence about the movie's intricate narrative construction, but once the film's visceral impact had faded, it was there that my mind wandered. Like most of Nolan's films, Dunkirk is obsessed by the relative perception of time. This is emphasized here by the cross-cutting of Lee Smith. Smith has edited all of Nolan's movies since Batman Begins — including Interstellar, which is explicitly about the idea of time passing more quickly or slowly depending on where you are. Dunkirk tells us in its chapter-like opening titles that one major subplot takes place over a week, another in a day, and yet another in one hour. Then the movie hops between them in ways that compress and expand time for poetic effect — making, say, a plane's run that probably took thirty seconds seem to take exactly as long as a sea rescue that lasted hours.

One could make a case that this amounts to over-intellectualization of a strong, simple tale. But that's been Nolan's m.o. from Following and Memento onward, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't fascinate me, even if a particular film isn't doing much for me scene-to-scene. It has often been said that trauma wreaks havoc with one's perceptions of time. This is one of the few works I can think of that considers that idea over the course of a whole feature, not just in self-contained sequences. (The backbone of Zimmer's score, appropriately, is a ticking clock.)

If somebody were to ask me if I liked this film, I would tell them no. I loathed parts of it and found other parts repetitious or half-baked. But, maybe paradoxically, I admired it throughout, and have been thinking about it constantly since I saw it. Even the aspects of Dunkirk that didn't sit right with me are all of a piece. This is a movie of vision and integrity made on an epic scale, a series of propositions dramatized with machines, bodies, seawater and fire. It deserves to be seen and argued about. They don't make them like this anymore. Never did, really.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Available for home viewing: Logan Lucky ★★★

In 2013, after making Side Effects, Stephen Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. Over the next few years, he kept busy, primarily as the main creative force behind the TV series The Knick, which he directed, executive produced, shot, and edited. But the lure of the big screen was apparently too great and the arrival of Logan Lucky has transformed the "retirement" into a "hiatus." Soderbergh’s return is welcome on a number of levels, chief of which is that this adds a competent story/character-centric director to the release treadmill.

Logan Lucky is a comedy-caper film about the heist of a large number of bills from the "secure" vault at a North Carolina speedway during a major NASCAR event. For about 90 minutes, Soderbergh seems to be channeling the Coen Brothers. The quirky brand of humor mingled with unique characters and oddball situations is just a stone’s throw away from the kind of material Joel & Ethan Coen love while echoing some of the elements Soderbergh previously toyed with in Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen. Unfortunately, while Logan Lucky is 3/4ths of a very good movie, the final half-hour becomes narratively unfocused as it strives to tie up some loose ends. Two new characters (one of whom is played by Hilary Swank) add little to the overall storyline and Logan Lucky ends up concluding with 30 minutes of anticlimax.

Although Logan Lucky works as a heist film, it neither amazes with its narrative contortions nor keeps the audience waiting with baited breath for the unveiling of some big twist. Most of the minimal tension is as result of the bumbling of the criminals — these aren’t the "brightest bulbs in the package" and it seems unlikely they’ll be able to pull off something major. At first, Soderbergh seems to be using regional stereotypes for comedic purposes, he pulls the rug out from under us by making us reconsider whether all the players are really as stupid as they initially seem. (Some undoubtedly are, but others…?)

The cast is comprised of A-list actors. Channing Tatum, who has been one of Soderbergh’s go-to actors for a while, plays Jimmy Logan, a recently unemployed construction worker who decides to replace his hard-earned pay with the ill-gotten gains from a robbery. Having participated in an excavation project under the speedway, he has the inside track on how such a robbery can be accomplished. He invites the participation of his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), and his sister, Mellie (Riley Keogh). However, the three of them aren’t enough. They need an expert safe cracker and the only one they know is the aptly-named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is currently incarcerated and therefore unavailable. Jimmy considers this a mild inconvenience and decides that the scheme will also involve breaking Joe out of prison so he can do the job then returning him before anyone notices he’s missing. Also appearing in Logan Lucky are such recognizable faces as Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Swank, and Seth MacFarlane.

Although most of the comedy in Logan Lucky is of the dry, off-kilter sort, there are some laugh-aloud moments. (I won’t detail them here since spontaneity is laughter’s best friend.) Jimmy’s character is the best developed of everyone which is fitting since he sits at the story’s focal point. He’s presented as a good natured, hard-working fellow who loves his young daughter, doesn’t dislike his ex-wife, is loyal to his friends and family, and aspires to be known as a responsible provider. He wants the crime to be victimless and, in that, he’s largely successful. Logan Lucky has a zero body count. Craig’s turn as Joe Bang is the movie’s highlight. Craig, with his bleach-blonde buzz-cut, clearly enjoys playing someone lacking 007’s suave mannerisms. Where Bond may prefer things "shaken not stirred," Bang likes them shaken, stirred, and smashed against a wall.

A minor off-screen controversy (not really but that’s how it’s being portrayed in some corners) accompanied the theatrical release of Logan Lucky (and I wondered whether this was concocted as a way to increase the movie’s visibility). The existence of the credited screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, was called into question by The Hollywood Reporter, which believed Blunt to be a pseudonym. This isn’t implausible — the only interaction the cast had with Blunt was via e-mail, she has no other credits to her name, and Soderbergh is known for using pseudonyms. Ultimately, it’s a red herring. Whoever Rebecca Blunt is, he/she has written a witty screenplay that maintains its narrative momentum until it begins unraveling in the meandering final half-hour.

Although Logan Lucky isn’t a homerun, it’s an enjoyable diversion and at least as worthy has half the movies being made available for home viewing this time of year. It’s good to have Soderbergh back, even if he never was really away.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: The Trip to Spain ★★

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoy one of the many meals during their Trip to Spain.
One way to enjoy The Trip to Spain, the third entry in Michael Winterbottom’s gags-and-gastronomy franchise, would be to periodically mute the sound. That way, the therapeutic calm instilled by the glorious Iberian scenery (photographed by James Clarke in shimmering, almost edible pastels) could be savored uninterrupted by the performative patter of the two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I imagine that the diners seated near them in the restaurants where much of this movie takes place would have been grateful for mute buttons of their own.

Like The Trip in 2011 and The Trip to Italy three years later, this latest cushy assignment sends the lads — once again playing Steve and Rob, mildly fictionalized versions of themselves — tootling around a randomly chosen region, sampling menus and trading banter. I hesitate to say jokes, because, unlike the bounce and zing of the first movie, the tone here is more sober and the humor more strained. Barely squeaking by on a familiar formula and flimsy narrative (Steve is writing a book; Rob is scribbling restaurant reviews for The New York Times), the actors convey a sense of going through the motions. Eating sumptuous meals without apparent relish, jogging separately through impossibly gorgeous towns, and firing off celebrity impersonations with wearying one-upmanship, they perform with the competitive reflexivity of the longtime double act.

Yet even artists as gifted as these two can only hitchhike so long on the charisma of household names like Mick Jagger and Michael Caine, and the dueling impressions that fuel the franchise have become effortful and repetitive. (One extended bit on Roger Moore is tortured to the point of desperation.) And though the spaces between the funny voices are filled with verdant hillsides and vanilla beaches that stretch the length of the frame, there’s an occasional sour edge to the comedic sparring.

This comes almost entirely from Steve, whose midlife anxieties — including an elusive, married lover and a neglectful agent — are the burr under the movie’s saddle. Plagued by disturbing dreams and career frustrations, he becomes increasingly distracted and crabby, until every comic utterance feels like a shot across the bow of mortality. This poignancy makes the picture less humorous but potentially more substantive than its predecessors. And as the men imagine themselves Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (daftly abetted by Noel Harrison’s 1960s hit The Windmills of Your Mind), the film’s failure to engage with these discomforts feels like a missed opportunity.

Instead, Winterbottom and his team — by means of an extremely strange ending — appear to be setting us up for a Trip to Morocco. Sorry, guys, but that one’s already been done.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Available for home viewing: mother! ★★½

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!
Kudos to Darren Aronofsky for having the courage to make this film. Kudos to Paramount Pictures for having the guts to send it into theaters befire making it available for home viewing. It’s too bad it doesn’t work.

With mother!, Aronofsky seems determined to baffle, infuriate, and divide his audience. Because of its nature, there are those who will love the film and those who will hate it. It thumbs its nose at conventions and goes off the deep end, unapologetically wallowing in self-indulgence and directorial excess. It would be unfair to say the movie doesn’t make sense — it does, after a fashion — but the method of storytelling is where mother! will make friends and enemies. Aronofsky abandons conventional narrative techniques and basic logic in favor of a metaphorical approach that embraces the power of individual images even if they make no sense.

After I finished watching mother!, I was prepared to write that I hated it. But, after a few hours’ reflection, I have to admit that the movie stayed with me and it invites rumination and discussion. And, as I watched it, I was never bored and remained interested to the end, if only to see where Aronofsky would take things next and how it would all end up. In some ways, I felt about mother! the way I felt about David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. So, instead of going hard to one side or the other on the rating scale, I have come down near the middle.

None of the characters have names. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young wife wed to a narcissistic older author (Javier Bardem) who, despite having once written a great novel, is now afflicted with what seems to be a permanent writer’s block. The couple have moved into the author’s childhood home, which at some point was ravaged by a fire. The wife, a skilled interior decorator (and, it would seem, carpenter, mason, and plumber) has essentially rebuilt the palatial estate from its ashes. But it may be haunted. At least there’s some pernicious force at work.

One evening, a "doctor" (Ed Harris) arrives at the door, explaining that he mistakenly believed the house to be a B&B. The author invites him in and, ignoring his wife’s misgivings, invites him to spend the night. The doctor is afflicted by an awful cough but, the next morning, he seems okay. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives soon after and the older couple makes themselves at home with the author’s blessing. Then, unexpectedly, the doctor’s sons arrive, quarreling over their father’s will. A fight ensues, one of the sons dies, and the author’s wife is left alone in the spooky house while everyone else goes to the hospital.

The first half of mother!, although not conventional by any means, gets by primarily on atmosphere and audacity. There are numerous extended takes and close-ups and these emphasize the sense of claustrophobia. The story’s excesses strain the bounds of credulity (as mourners inexplicably show up at the author’s house to offer their condolences to the doctor and his wife on the death of one son and the disappearance of the other) but don’t break it. That changes during Act II, when Aronofsky throws everything at the viewer including the kitchen sink. There are so many bizarre images that the movie becomes a kind-of cinematic Rorschach test — it can be whatever you want it to be. There’s violence, sex, dancing, feasting, quasi-religious rituals, and some of the most repugnant iconography imaginable. The climax is shockingly graphic and uncompromising, but the bleakness of that moment pales in comparison with the recursive aspect that follows.

This is one of the few times when I have felt that Lawrence hasn’t been up to the acting task set before her. Admittedly, she doesn’t have an easy job, playing the one "normal" person in a crazy world but she too often recedes into the background. She lacks the force of personality to connect with the viewer — something that would have made the story more nightmarish and immediate, rather than just a collage of twisted episodes. Bardem is perfect — suave, self-centered, oblivious, and ambiguous. We’re never quite sure about him, even after the curtain is pulled back. Harris and Pfeiffer are equally good, with Pfeiffer in particular owning the scenes in which she appears. Later in the film, Kristin Wiig pops up in a small part.

Aronofsky’s career has been a study in risks, from the quirky Pi and the nihilistic Requiem for a Dream to The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah. mother!, however, makes the least accessible of those movies seem almost mainstream. Perhaps the key to appreciating mother! (not necessarily "liking" or "enjoying" it) is understanding that the last thing Aronofsky has in mind is providing easily-digestible, commercial fare. To that end, he indulges his ego too often and becomes myopic about his vision. mother! offers an experience — whether it’s a good one or a bad one will be very much in the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Available for home viewing: Detroit ★★

William Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Detroit.
Watching Detroit, the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that by the the time the credits began to roll I was furious.

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching Detroit I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America. There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving — The Color Purple comes to mind. But Steven Spielberg’s film was based on a novel by Alice Walker and produced by Quincy Jones. Detroit was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.

Detroit is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. Detroit is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.

The film builds up to an extended sequence based on a real event, a police raid at the Algiers Motel in 1967 Detroit that resulted in the deaths of three young black men and the beatings of nine other people, including two white women. There is a shagginess to the narrative as it opens, giving a portrait of the civil unrest and riots that dominated Detroit at the time before placing the variety of characters introduced into a powder keg of a situation at the Algiers Motel. After the blood has dried and scars began to heal for the survivors, the narrative dashes through the investigation, trial, and aftermath of that night. There is an increasingly heavy reliance on newspaper clippings and actual newsreel footage meant to provide meaning and gravitas that only highlights the lack of a thematic center to grant the film any weight.

Bigelow has made a career out of zeroing in on the particular textures of American masculinity. It’s one of the reasons I particularly love her earlier work whether that be the sublime and unapologetically silly Point Break or the gloriously intense Near Dark. It’s this history that makes the surface level understanding of character so glaring. The film gestures at the ways black and white men are pitted against each other but doesn’t reckon with the historical lineage this conflict rests in. Consider when the two white women — Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) — are found hanging out with a black man recently honorably discharged, played by Anthony Mackie, just as the raid on the motel begins. This gets into complex territory about stereotypes of black men, the perceived value of white women, and white men’s fear that the film doesn’t know how to address meaningfully.

While John Boyega has been top-billed for his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who stumbles into aiding the blatantly racist cops and armed forces that realize the civil rights violations happening but do nothing to stop it, he’s too passive a character to leave much of an impression. In standing by his position as an authority figure and helping these white cops, Melvin becomes complicit in their horror. Boyega is a charismatic actor, but he gives a flat performance, although it’s the script that’s more of a problem. Mark Boal skirts around the issue of Melvin’s complicity, leaving an interesting story on the table. The standout from the cast proves to be Algee Smith, who grants his character, Larry, a soulfulness and yearning that grows more heartbreaking as the film continues, but even his performance is often undercut by directorial choices.

There are plenty of examples of racism in the film, but it's William Poulter’s performance as Philip Krauss, a cop who becomes a ringleader to horror at the Algiers Motel, that’s the most sickening. Krauss is quick to violence, virulently racist, and immensely cunning. He delights in beating the black men who realize he’s abusing his power but can do nothing to stop him even as dead bodies pile up. Bigelow doesn’t flinch from depicting Krauss’ horror, but she also doesn’t thoroughly indict him or the systems that allow men like him to survive.

Before the film’s theatrical release, a lot of fury was unleashed when it became clear that black women wouldn’t be important to the story. Films about black history seldom grant black women the importance they deserve. In Detroit, they are in the margins. They’re dutiful wives placing a gentle hand on the shoulder of their husbands; they’re silent spectators in courtrooms; they’re sweet motel clerks with no real weight in the story. An elder black female character voices dialogue that is the closest the film gets to any commentary: "No way would they do this to white men," she says angrily to a news reporter hungry for a good pull quote.

But Detroit’s disinterest in black women, despite significant time spent beyond the Algiers Motel, is the least of its problems. What leaves the film feeling grotesque and even a bit exploitative is its soullessness. I’ve had a theory for some time that you can determine how well a film will handle its black characters based purely on how it’s shot. Black skin tones vary widely, but here they’re often ashen, sickly, and lacking the complexity they deserve. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd hews toward a psuedo-documentary style that is perpetually in jittery, confusing motion. Bigelow and Ackroyd excel at creating tension until the Algiers Motel incident takes on the tenor of an extended trip into purgatory. The sweat and blood that drips down the characters' faces are granted such texture and focus I could practically smell them wafting from my TV screen. Bigelow is immensely skilled at action, and watching Philip pick off his victims definitely crackles with energy. But there is a noxiousness to the thrill of these scenes and the extreme close-ups of bruised black bodies, because the characters lack interiority.

The soullessness of the film only snapped into focus for me near the very end when one of the survivors, Larry, is shown singing at church. The church is important to the black community both as an emblem of hope and resistance. But this scene is shot exactly like the most disturbing moments at Algiers Motel. The camera moves much like a boxer. It bobs and weaves staying perpetually in motion. There is an anxious energy and bluntness that feels out of place as Larry sings in front of the black congregation.

Given how nothing has really changed in America for black folks, Detroit had the potential to be a valuable, even powerful, piece of art that could speak truth to power. But it lacks the authenticity necessary to become that. Bigelow and Boal don’t shy away from showing how loathsome Philip and his cohorts are. But they don’t go so far to indict them or grant enough context to their actions. There are also brief, disconcerting moments that present some white cops in a great light. Ultimately, I was left wondering who is this film really for? The filmmakers aren’t skilled enough to understand the particulars of blackness or bring the city of Detroit to life as another character. What is the value of depicting such nauseating violence if you have nothing to say about how that violence comes to pass or what it says about a country that has yet to reckon with the racism that continues to fester within its very soul?

Detroit is presented as a valuable portrait of a bloody, violent, and important moment of American history. The epilogue detailing what happened next for everyone involved over pictures of the real-life versions of the characters and story gestures at vital commentary about racism that the filmmakers never get a handle on. Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators are unable to meaningfully parallel this event to the present-day happenings they mirror. Watching Detroit, I didn’t see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Available for home viewing: Stronger ★★★

Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger.
There’s a great scene a little over halfway through David Gordon Green’s Stronger, in which Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs just above the knee in the Boston Marathon bombing, is trying to stand on new prosthetics for the first time. His face is pained and he mutters something about pins and needles, but everyone around him is just cheering, his mother shouting "You look awesome!" He doesn’t feel awesome. Stronger transcends your standard inspirational drama mostly through two fantastic performances, but also in the way it understands that trauma isn’t inspirational to the people who suffer it. During much of Stronger, Jeff will be told he’s a hero and reminded to stay "Boston Strong," but will question again and again just what that means. And then Green’s film subverts its own message about the commodification of tragedy to become something even more remarkable — a statement on the value of images of survival. Some of it is too broad, and I wish the film dug a little deeper at times, but this is one of those rare inspirational films that earns its inspiration.

Screenwriter John Pollono’s adaptation of Bauman’s memoir spends very little time on set-up, but Green and his cast make the most of it. We meet Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal), getting out of a sticky situation at his job at Costco so he can be in his lucky chair to watch the Red Sox game. They lost the last two because he wasn’t there. At the bar, we meet his beer-swilling family, played with sometimes-too-broad Boston accents and personalities by Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mom and Clancy Brown as his dad, along with Boston comic Lenny Clarke as another relative, and others who sometimes feel straight out of Boston central casting — love the Sox, drink before noon, yell over each other, etc. Jeff’s friends and family sometimes feel a bit too broadly sketched, but they’re captured lovingly.

We also meet Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Jeff’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, who just happens to be running in the Boston Marathon the next day. In what feels like an effort to try and win her back a bit, Jeff makes a sign to greet her at the finish line. He’s at ground zero when the bombing happens, and he loses both of his legs below the knee. He becomes an even bigger story when he reports that he saw one of the bombers. Not only is he a survivor, but he’s going to help take down the enemy. Jeff becomes an image for a nation in need of a hero. But Jeff, with Erin by his side, has to learn how to survive as more than just a symbol.

Green and Pollono are at their best here when they’re focusing on the details of Jeff’s situation in ways that gauzy melodramas usually overlook. There’s a striking scene in which Jeff’s dressings are taken off for the first time, out of focus in the background, as we stay on Jeff’s face in the fore. He can’t look, and so we don’t see them clearly either. He’d rather look into Erin’s eyes. He’s scared and in pain, and she’s the only lifeline. Other scenes of tactile process — like making casts for his legs or how hard it is to get in the tub — add gravity and realism to what could have been a more manipulative experience.

Of course, what really grounds Stronger is the work by Gyllenhaal and Maslany, both giving performances at or at least near the top of their already-notable careers here. They’re both remarkably committed physically, but it’s how completely they stay in the moment that makes Stronger work. We believe their situation entirely, never feeling like they’re merely pulling heartstrings to get a response or playing melodrama instead of truth. So many performances in inspirational dramas are all about the external mountain the hero or heroine has to climb, but Gyllenhaal and Maslany recognize that it is the internal drama that will make these characters resonate.

A few of the beats don't work — some inspirational scenes would have been more powerful if they had been just a bit shorter — and there are some "Boston atmosphere" moments I just didn’t quite believe (like the cop who asks for a photo after pulling them over). But every time that Stronger threatens to become just another piece of Hollywood inspiration, something happens to bring it back to Earth, most often through the smart choices made by Gyllenhaal and Maslany (and, of course, Green’s direction of them). Stronger feels sometimes manipulative — it would be difficult to tell this story and not come off that way — but I’d be lying if I said the manipulation didn’t work.

Jeff Bauman wondered aloud why he was considered strong just for being in a place that was bombed. He didn't consider himself a hero and shied from the spotlight. But the film about him becomes a striking testament to the power and human need for symbols of hope, and has the ability to be as inspirational to someone as Bauman’s true story. It understands the pain in Jeff’s face when he was standing for the first time, but also gets that for those who needed to believe in him, the moment was pretty "awesome."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: Atomic Blonde ★★½

Charlize Theron and her fight scenes are the best things about Atomic Blonde.
Atomic Blonde is going to make an excellent highlight reel. It already is one, in a manner of speaking, given that its strengths are lavishly violent, inventively choreographed fights that have been glued together by nonsense and Charlize Theron. The nonsense involves spies chasing secrets in Berlin just before the fall of the wall, which may suggest John le Carré but plays closer to a dumb and dumber take on Boris and Natasha. Mostly, the movie is an excuse to watch a beautiful, deviously clever female avatar as she is stripped naked, dolled up and repeatedly beaten down only to rise again.

This sort of spectacle — dress her up, dress her down, smack her around and wait for payback — isn’t new, even if moviemakers like to insist otherwise. What’s moderately different here is the sexed-up packaging of the violence in combination with Theron, who plays Lorraine Broughton, a spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a blond bob and a fondness for lethal heels. Like James Bond, Lorraine shoots to kill while remaining fabulously dressed to kill. This means she gets slammed around a lot, and takes almost as much punishment as she metes out. She’s a punching bag, but she’s also a fantasist’s dream girl: the avenging goddess, destroyer of men.

Lorraine gets plenty of opportunities to mix it up in Berlin, where the story soon turns into spy versus spy with washes of lurid color, topsy-turvy camerawork, loads of crashing cars and wall-to-wall pounding tunes. The airborne cars pirouette prettily, bashing and smashing with all the technological expertise production money can buy; the symphony of body blows, gun pops and crunching metal sounds fine and convincing. The tunes (99 Luftballons) basically just goose the violence and beg for laughs, having been chosen to elicit knowing smiles of recognition. At one point, James McAvoy sidles into the story looking all cool or something and wearing a smirk he needs to employ more cautiously.

For her part, Theron looks hot and color coordinated, with black-and-white outfits that suit her character’s ambiguity. Lorraine smokes and drinks and likes cold baths, preferably filled with ice cubes that do wonders for bruises and nipples. When she isn’t moodily bathing or staring — into a mirror, the distance, what have you — she does a surprising amount of walking. She goes here, promenades there, strolling down halls and mean streets that the director David Leitch turns into fashion runways. She doesn’t slip into rooms, she cat-walks, making entrances as if looking for trouble or paparazzi; it’s no wonder someone says she isn’t well disguised. Theron really is ready to play Bond.

Written by Kurt Johnstad, Atomic Blonde is based on The Coldest City, a darkly shadowed, minimalist graphic novel written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. As in the novel, the movie continually shifts between Berlin, where all the action happens, and an interrogation room in which Lorraine is being drilled by some intelligence types (John Goodman, Toby Jones). On the page, this bifurcation works, but on the screen it saps the story’s momentum, partly because there’s no violence in the room to distract from the genericism and puerility of the dialogue. At least in Berlin there are streets, beats and the sight of restlessly moving, twisting, slamming bodies.

As she does, Theron locks down your attention immediately, holding you with her beauty and quiet vigilance. (She lets you see that she knows you’re watching her.) Plenty of pretty people slide right off the screen. Theron, by contrast, holds you partly because she doesn’t seem eager to let you in, keeping you curious as she keeps you at bay with reserve and sphinxlike smiles. This distance adds to her mystery and it also makes the eruptions of violence more electric. As Mad Max: Fury Road confirmed, she’s a natural warrior, but it’s interesting here that each exertion and exhalation, each meaty, pulpy thump, also seems to be battering the fortifications that she has built around her.

Leitch was one of the directors on John Wick, a model of economic genre filmmaking, and he gives this movie’s action scenes the same pummeling, visceral quality. Lorraine punches and is punched, and her body is soon mapped by bruises and abrasions. It’s a lot of abuse for such puny returns, even if the fights are the best parts of Atomic Blonde. Leitch understands the expressivity of hand-to-hand fights and he frames them accordingly, pushing in when it counts and pulling back to show entire bodies in whirling motion. The closeness underscores the intimacy of battle while the distance underlines the performative aspect, allowing you to see both the choreography and the violent beauty moving forward and backward one bloody step at a time.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Available for home viewing: “The Dark Tower” ★

Idris Elba as Roland the gunslinger is one of the few bright spots of The Dark Tower.
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." With that great opening line, an obsession began for millions of readers of Stephen King’s series of books that would eventually be known as The Dark Tower. The first book was actually called The Gunslinger, and it was a relatively small volume of brilliant sci-fi/fantasy that used iconic imagery to begin the crafting of a world that would become as rich as those created by George R.R. Martin or J.R.R Tolkien. Over the next few books — The Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands, and Wizard and Glass — King did some of his best writing (the series would actually stretch to seven books and a series of comics, but it’s the initial quartet that holds a special place in my memory bank). I only mention all of this to place the failure of the long-delayed The Dark Tower in the right perspective: this isn’t just a mediocre movie — although it is most definitely that — it is a wasted opportunity to fulfill the promise of that opening line from 35 years ago.

Plagued by reshoots and dogged by rumors of poor test screenings, The Dark Tower once looked like it would be one of the more notable failures of 2017. Honestly, I kind of wish it was. As is, it’s more forgettable than loathsome, the kind of movie that occasionally rubs salt in your wounds by reminding you what could have been, but mostly just dissipates from memory as it's playing. The two leads here — Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey — work just fine in these iconic roles, and you just want to pick them up and put them in a better movie, one that doesn’t seem stuck in the valley between trying to satisfy hardcore fans of the series and the moviegoers who have never heard of Roland and Walter. By trying to do both, the movie ends up doing neither.

The problems start immediately. Someone probably thought that making Roland, the title character of the first book, the lead of the first film wouldn’t satisfy a wide enough demographic. And Hollywood is obsessed with stories of teenagers who discover their bad dreams or hidden secrets are actually the keys to the salvation of the universe. So, instead of the origin story of Roland (which will apparently now be told in a television series, also starring Elba), our protagonist here is really Jake Chambers Tom Taylor), an essential character in the books reimagined here as a troubled New York teen without much of a real personality. As with almost everyone in this film, he’s a device, a way to push the exposition forward to meet a contractually-mandated running time.

Here’s what we learn about the movie version of Jake, who is basically like the kid reading The Neverending Story in that he constantly tries to explain to the audience what's going on. Jake has prophetic visions of both the Gunslinger Roland (Elba) and the Man in Black Walter (McConaughey). He also has visions of a massive tower, which we learn is basically keeping the order of the universe. Walter wants to destroy this tower, and he knows that there’s a child out there with the power to help him do so. Of course, that child is Jake, who it turns out has the same power as the young man at the center of The Shining. He can read minds and other such things that Walter will harness to blow up the tower. The Dark Tower is filled with references for King nuts, including, among others, a moment where Roland glances behind a pin-up poster while looking for an exit (The Shawshank Redemption) and the numbers 1408 above a portal. Did I mention the portals? I got distracted. It’s easy to do so with this movie.

Roland, Walter, and eventually Jake cross between worlds through portals. It’s not long before Jake and Roland team up, but Jake questions whether his new gun-toting pal is going to help him save the tower or if he just wants vengeance against the man in black. A few other characters flit around the fringe of this thin piece of storytelling, but it’s essentially a three-character piece.

And two of those characters are actually pretty well defined. Elba brings a nice gravity to Roland that fits the character well, a combination of a man haunted by the ghosts of his past and driven to do what’s right to avenge them. And McConaughey dances on the edge of hamming it up in the villain role, reining it in just enough that one can see how well he could have been utilized with a better script and vision for the project.

Because that’s where this tower crumbles. The Dark Tower is hollow. It is soulless. It is a film that never quite figured out what it wanted to be, and so elected to be nothing much at all. Worst of all, it’s clearly been chopped up by those reported reshoots and test screening edits. There’s a scene with a demon in a house that just ends and much of the final act material features a Jake who looks a lot closer to puberty than when the movie began. Weird humorous bits feel like they have been spliced in, trying to find as big an audience as possible. And while some may criticize Stephen King’s more populist works, that’s a charge that could never be lobbied at The Dark Tower. These books had vision. They created worlds. They used iconic imagery to explore timeless themes. The film version plays it so safe and takes so few risks that its greatest sin is in being the one thing those formative books never were for so many people: forgettable.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Available for home viewing: Cars 3 ★★½

Sleek new Jackson Storm edges past older Lightning McQueen in Cars 3.
Cars and Cars 2, are outliers in Pixar’s lineup of critically acclaimed, family friendly blockbusters: the original made a fortune despite poor reviews, and the sequel made another fortune despite even worse reviews. A sort-of spin-off, Planes — which is not part of the extended Carsoverse, but was released by Pixar's parent company, Disney — got pounded like a piñata by reviewers, but it made so much loot that Pixar churned out a sequel, Planes: Fire & Rescue, one year later. And at no point in this timeline of movies about anthropomorphic vehicles did Pixar, a company that’s gone to great lengths to convince us that it never does things just for the money, seem to lose sleep over the prospect that we’d think they that's exactly why they were making more Cars and Planes films.

Lo and behold: here’s Cars 3, a smiley-faced Frankenstein’s monster comprised of bits and pieces lifted from every other sports film in existence. The screenplay rips off the main plot of the Tom Cruise racing picture Days of Thunder (knowingly, though; a supporting race car character is cleverly named "Cruz") and merges it with bits of Rocky III, the one where the champ went soft and had to find his edge again; Rocky IV, where the champ had to train in snowy Siberian woods to fend off a challenger who relied on steroids and fancy machines, and Creed, where the champ realized that passing wisdom on to the next generation can be as satisfying as acquiring it when you’re young. There is, at the level of plot and characterization, not a single major element in this movie that you haven’t seen elsewhere, possibly in a Cars or Planes film. Despite its lack of originality, as well as its lackadaisical storytelling and world building, it satisfies in that amiably weird way that only a Cars film can.

Champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been on top for so long that he has failed to notice that he’s not getting any younger. He’s challenged by a snotty, bullying wannabe-champ, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a super-high tech car that can go 200 m.p.h. without breaking a — well, cars don’t sweat, but you get the idea. Following a disastrous defeat by Storm, Lightning lets his sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) talk him into training in an elaborate racing simulation facility under a younger trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who excitedly but thoughtlessly describes him as "my senior project." When Lighting wipes out there, too, Sterling informs him that he’s mainly interested in using a retired Lightning as a pitchman for Rust-eze mud flaps. This leads the former champ to return to his roots in the rural holler where his late mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, playing "himself" via outtakes and a celebrity impersonator) learned skills and tricks that he passed down to Lightning. And it’s here that Rocky IV rears its meaty head, with a montage that contrasts Lightning and Cruz driving through woods and around dirt tracks against shots of Storm training in an indoor facility that looks like a place where a Bond villain might throw a Christmas party.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this film has a happy ending, but to its credit, for all its clichés, it doesn’t give us the ending we expect. The Doc-Lightning and Lightning-Cruz relationships suggest a passing of the torch, and Cars 3 finds a decent way to give us that, along with a sub-theme of female empowerment and a sincere belief in the idea that privileges have to be given up or amended if society, even a car-centric one, is going to keep evolving.

The film hedges its bets here, though, as if it’s trying to avoid a boycott led by the sorts of men who buy tickets to women-only screenings of Wonder Woman and think they’re striking a blow for civil rights. And the notion of a gendered car universe that grapples with sexism is discombobulating because the film mostly dances around the issue without mustering the nerve or the chops to properly deal with it. (When Lightning repeatedly diminishes Cruz as "a trainer" rather than "a racer," it sounds like he’s trying to put a female car in her place, and when Storm taunts Cruz, his insults evoke a male nerd taunting a female one for not being a "true" fan of the thing they both love.)

The notion of automotive gender and discrimination issues is not something the series ever tackled before; likewise the implication of a car caste system, where you're born into a particular automotive body and that defines the rest of your life, however long that is. Of course, this is a series in which cars can have baby cars, and there are car insects (or insect cars?), and in the second movie there are living planes, presumably to transport the cars long distances, inside of their bodies. And the tractors in these movies are coded as "cattle," which I guess are eaten by the other cars.

This sort of awkwardness is common in the worlds of Cars and Planes. The films draw jokey inspiration from the human world in ways that amuse in the moment but seem weirdly chilling when you think about them later. As many Cars and Planes obsessives have pointed out, dialogue and subplots in both and Cars and Cars 2 suggest that this world once included humans, which raises the prospect of a Terminator- or Maximum Overdrive-like machine rebellion. A joke in the first Cars referencing Jimi Hendrix makes us wonder if there was an actual Hendrix in the Cars world and if so, what happened to him. If there are no humans, why do the cars have door handles? The acknowledgement of World War II in Planes raises the question of whether there was a car Hitler, a car Hiroshima, and so on. Likewise, the rural Southern caricatures (many of these cars have bad teeth!) imply that geographical distinctions between the American North and South in our world hold true here as well, which in turns could mean there was a Civil War that pitted car against car, and that their descendants still argue over whether the war was about slavery or state’s rights.

As examples of imaginative commercial filmmaking, the Cars films range from mediocre to coldly impressive. The landscapes are photo-realistically convincing, the animators work small miracles making the cars seem lifelike and expressive, and the action sequences are stunning examples of how to deliver a lot of information quickly without confusing the audience. But as pieces of storytelling, the films are borderline inept by the standards of Pixar, a rare studio that exercises auteur-like control over every frame of every project they release.

And yet, against all odds, there is magic in these films; it just doesn’t have much to do with their excellence as, well, films. That’s a bummer for cinephiles but irrelevant to people seeking a movie filled with broad jokes, flashy action and canned moral lessons that will keep kids occupied for a couple of hours. In the end, it’s more fun to talk about the moon-sized logical loopholes in the Cars universe than it is to watch a Cars movie. I don’t know if that’s OK, but it’s something. At their best, these movies capture the sense of heedless, goofy play that consumed today’s adults when they were younger. When my son was a kid he used to make his Hot Wheels cars fight each other, using their front wheels as fists. Maybe Pixar can work a scene like that into Cars 4.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Available for home viewing: Ingrid Goest West ★★½

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West.
Ingrid Goes West comes close to saying something sharp about how social media promotes envy and the illusion of connectivity, but when a comedy chooses such an obvious target, it should have the courtesy to aim from an oblique angle.

Matt Spicer’s debut feature introduces Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) as an obsessive, dangerous app addict who crashes a wedding and pepper-sprays the bride, ostensibly for not inviting her. It turns out the bride wasn’t a friend, but merely encouraged Ingrid by commenting on one of her posts.

Ingrid’s next fixation is Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a social media gadfly. To get close to her, Ingrid moves to Los Angeles, visits a restaurant that Taylor has praised (repeating her order) and abducts Taylor’s dog as a pretext for returning it. As the two become besties, the movie makes the not-revelatory point that Taylor’s stage-managed life — including her dream of opening a boutique ("my Instagram, but in real life") — is barely less fraudulent than Ingrid’s.

Plaza is a whiz with timing and does a deft job of shifting viewers’ sympathy; her character can be loathsome or pathetic depending on the scene. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as her Batman-obsessed landlord, is every bit as funny and nearly walks away with the movie. Still, Spicer cops out by going with the obvious ending. Admittedly, he has tough competition. Real life already gave social media "influencers" a far more cutting sendup. It was called Fyre Fest.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Available for home viewing: The Book of Henry ½★

Jacob Tremblay and Jaeden Leiberher portray the sons of  Naomi Watts
 in The Book of Henry. 
I’m sure that I’ve forgotten some of the clichés and nonsense stuffed into The Book of Henry, but here’s a partial list: a sensitive child genius; a comically dysfunctional family; an overwhelmed single mother; a sassy waitress with a tattoo on her breast played by a name comedian; children acting like parents; parents acting like children; a young, beautiful female victim; the predator next door; an incompetent (but not unkind!) school bureaucrat; a fatal diagnosis; a ticking clock; a race against the clock; a cute doctor played by a TV actor whose name is on the tip of your tongue; and a female star who deserves far better.

A weepie, a thriller, a tragedy, a sub-Spielbergian pastiche, The Book of Henry is mostly a tedious mess. It was directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Gregg Hurwitz, and I suggest you skip it or catch it on the back of an airplane seat. You may like a few things, especially Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Henry with real feeling and deserves a long career. But you may wonder how long Jacob Tremblay, who was so good in Room, will be cast for his tremulousness. And you may also, after stifling your yawns, hope that the next time you see Naomi Watts it’s in a movie that plays to her strengths and doesn’t treat her or the audience so contemptuously.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 14)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Clemson 12-1 (2)
2. Georgia 12-1 (4)
3. Alabama 11-1 (3)
4. Ohio State 11-2 (8)
5. Oklahoma 12-1 (6)
6. Wisconsin 12-1 (1)
7. Penn State 10-2 (7)
8. Auburn 10-3 (5)
9. UCF 12-0 (9)
10. Notre Dame 9-3 (11)
11. Washington 10-2 (12)
12. USC 11-2 (14)
13. Miami, Fla. 10-2 (10)
14. TCU 10-3 (13)
15. Stanford 9-4 (15)
16. Virginia Tech 9-3 (16)
17. Oklahoma State 9-3 (17)
18. Northwestern 9-3 (18)
19. Michigan State 9-3 (20)
20. LSU 9-3 (21)
21. Memphis 10-2 (19)
22. Michigan 8-4 (22)
23. Washington State 9-3 (23)
24. North Carolina State 8-4 (24)
25. Mississippi State 4-4 (25)


Monday, December 4, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominations Predictions (December)

Changes from last month’s predictions reflected in parenthesis_

PICTURE
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
(no changes from last month)


DIRECTOR
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Steven Spielberg, The Post
(Greta Gerwig replaced Joe Wright)

ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post
(Margot Robbie replaced Jessica Chastain)

ACTOR
Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
Tom Hanks, The Post
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
(no changes from last month)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige (Mudbound)
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
(Mary J. Blige replaced Melissa Leo)

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
(no changes from last month)

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Call Me By Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Last Flag Flying
Molly’s Game
Mudbound
(no changes from last month)


ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
(no changes from last month)


CINEMATOGRAPHY
Blade Runner 2049
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
(no changes from last month)


COSTUME DESIGN
Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
The Greatest Showman
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
(no changes from last month)


FILM EDITING
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
The Shape of Water
(no changes from last month)


MAKEUP AND HAIR STYLING
Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
The Greatest Showman
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
The Shape of Water
(no changes from last month)


PRODUCTION DESIGN
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
(didn’t predict this category last month)


SCORE
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
(didn’t predict this category last month)


SONG
"Evermore," Beauty and the Beast
"The Mystery of Love," Call Me By Your Name
"Remember Me," Coco
"Stand Up for Something," Marshall
"This Is Me," The Greatest Showman
(didn’t predict this category last month)

SOUND EDITING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars, The Last Jedi
(didn’t predict this category last month)


SOUND MIXING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars, the Last Jedi
(didn’t predict this category last month)


VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars, the Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes
(didn’t predict this category last month)


ANIMATED FEATURE
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
The Lego Batman Movie
Loving Vincent

(didn’t predict this category last month)