Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Now I Must Give One Smirk, And Then We May Be Rational Again

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2007
Director: Jon Jones
Cast: Felicity Jones, JJ Feild, Carey Mulligan
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey is defined by a certain lack of plot and a coterie of hilariously biting, satirical characters, so it's probably the most likely entry to be adapted into a film that exactly fits my tastes. There's nothing I love more than a brisk, character-driven movie. But unfortunately, Northanger Abbey is perhaps the least known and least respected of her six novels, so it was never going to get the grandiose big-budget treatment of a Pride and Prejudice (take your pick which one I'm talking about).

It's just one of the endless pitfalls of having good taste.

In Northanger Abbey (the 2007 Masterpiece production, and boy oh boy is it going to be important to specify which one we're talking about as we get deeper into this marathon - there's literally two iterations of Emma from the exact same year), Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) is a young teen from a family of ten. She's invited on a trip to the town of Bath with some family friends, and she doesn't hesitate at her chance to get out and see the wider world, which she's only read about in books.

Unfortunately, her perceptions of the world and the people in it are entirely based on the plots of the Gothic romance novels she devours, so she has herself a bit of a vivid imagination that hasn't exactly prepared her for the mundane realities and pettiness of the people she meets there. Although she falls in love immediately with the handsome gentleman Henry Tilney (JJ Feild, who we just saw playing a Darcy analogue in Austenland), she encounters certain obstacles in the form of the lecherous boor John Thorpe (William Beck), who fancies himself in love with her; his sister Isabella (Carey Mulligan, who we will see playing one of the assorted sisters in Pride and Prejudice - get ready for a bunch of overlaps, because the British do not skimp on their Austen adaptations), a false-faced dilettante who fancies herself in love with Catherine's brother James (Hugh O'Connor), until somebody better comes along; and Tilney's father (Liam Cunningham), a dictatorial tyrant with a nasty temper.

She is also exposed to a great number of terrible hats, such is the danger of the outside world.

Northanger Abbey is very clearly a low budget affair, but the good thing about shooting in England is that the whole country is basically a period piece, so it doesn't weigh on your wallet to find some grand crumbling castle or other to shoot in. So the locations at least provide a level of production quality that isn't reflected in, say, the lighting. 

But one odd choice that makes itself immediately known is the way that Northanger Abbey sexes up the original storyline. This only rears its ugly head in a few cases - most notably in a dalliance between Carey Mulligan and someone who is patently not her fiancé, but also in some truly disgusting extras work that includes the line "she's a ripe peach ready for the plucking" - but it's a jarring decision that adds nothing to the work and doesn't commit hard enough to feel like anything more than lascivious window dressing. It's a horny movie, but it's still a Masterpiece Theatre production, so there's a very low ceiling for what is permitted here. It feels slightly at war with its own impulses, which I guess makes it in and of itself a perfect Jane Austen character, but definitely not a satisfyingly consistent narrative.

You can't just show SHOULDERS and expect to get away with it, Masterpiece!

Also there's no getting around the score, which is just tragically miscalculated. It's like the Harry Potter theme got co-opted by a Steamboat Willie short, and it cartoonishly underscores every minuscule movement onscreen. If it turns out it's not royalty-free library music, I'd definitely start to worry about the sanity of whoever composed it, because they clearly fundamentally misunderstand the tone of Jane Austen, and possibly humanity as a whole.

But hey, we can forgive a movie its budget if it's engaging, and Northanger Abbey is... well, it tries. The most important visual element introduced into the story is frequent Scrubs-esque cutaways to Catherine Morland's imagination of what any particular moment will be like. She recasts the important figures in her life into a grand Gothic soap opera that is tremendously fun to watch, and really highlights the character perhaps even more than the book manages to. Unfortunately, this element is dropped exactly where it is needed most - when Catherine's explorations of the titular home of the Tilneys lead her to some very dangerous, incorrect assumptions about the Northanger patriarch.

The plot of the third act suffers mightily from a lack of these fantasies, telling rather than showing the entire conflict that drives the climax. You need to have read the book to get even a drop of tension out of the plot at this point, and if your movie's success relies on a viewer having read the least well-known Austen novel, that is a gargantuan failure.

JJ Feild's face isn't a failure though, so that helps smooth things over.

But Northanger Abbey isn't all bad. The pacing is fleet-footed, zipping past so quickly, you couldn't possibly be bored. And while nearly the entire ensemble gives the kind of flat, utilitarian performance you'd expect from a Masterpiece production, the three leads all provide something exciting to watch.

Felicity Jones, on the one hand, is kind of awe-inspiringly terrible, and that's not nothing. She has a rough-hewn movie star charisma that you can't help but watch, even as she indulges in a routine of indicative gawping every chance she gets. It's like she's trying to be a mime or something, and it's fascinating, but you can see the potential for her to become to blandly functional leading actress we know her as today.

Acting circles around her are the real reasons to watch the movie: Feild and especially Mulligan. Feild's Tilney is rakish and charming without seeming too much like a romantic cypher, and he and Jones have a genuine chemistry. But enough about men. This is a Jane Austen novel, and Carey Mulligan is pulling out all the stops here, burying her character's hopeless self-absorption in a series of fluttery little genteel movements that are just aching to be watched rapturously by any fan of a good diva.

All in all, Northanger Abbey is a reasonably satisfying first venture into the world of Austen, if not particularly inspiring. There are going to be a lot of future movie stars lurking about these here parts, and that excites me, but turning her most shallow novel into an even more shallow movie doesn't exactly lend me toward recommending it.

TL;DR: Northanger Abbey is an unimpressive low budget TV movie with some surprisingly high wattage stars.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1189

Monday, March 19, 2018

Simon Says

Year: 2018
Director: Greg Berlanti
Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

There was a time in my life when I would have welcomed a Love, Simon with open arms. As a gay teen, I devoured stuff like this. Only, the thing is, I never had a Love, Simon. I came out circa 2010, which doesn't seem that long ago, but in gay years, it feels like centuries. Sure, I was living in a world that had already given us Another Gay Movie (a remake of American Pie that's kind of awesome and whose title falsely posits that there are enough gay teen movies around that you could possibly be sick of them) and Were the World Mine (a glorious musical that retools A Midsummer Night's Dream).

We no longer live in a world starved for gay YA content, but Love, Simon is still the first studio film with a considerable budget to tell the story of a gay teen. That's incredible. Only, pretty much every gay high school movie necessarily deals with the age-old issue of Coming Out, and you know exactly what I don't need at my stage of life? 

Although, to be fair, Coming Out is at least third on the odious gay movie cliché scale, behind AIDS and Let's Fix Some Straight People.

But whether or not I needed Love, Simon, the world deserves Love, Simon, flaws and all. We need to allow gay movies to be just as mediocre as every other movie, because how else will we achieve true equality? So let's not get mad, let's get cracking with that plot summary.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a regular average teen, just like you. Assuming that you are an affluent white person in a nuclear family with 2.5 kids and a gross income that's literally gross because you're rich enough to afford a nauseatingly oversized McMansion. Only he has a Big-Ass Secret! You guys, he's gay! (The fact that the opening monologue to this effect assumes that the audience is entirely straight is either an oversight or a reassuring sign that we're living in a post-homophobia world)

When a classmate of his - known only as Blue - reveals that he's in the closet on an anonymous secret-sharing web site, Simon contacts him under the pseudonym Jacques (inspired by a photo of a trip to France with his parents, just like every average family has). While he gets close to Blue via email and attempts to find out his true identity, he is being blackmailed by theater geek Martin (Logan Miller), who screenshotted his emails and is using them as leverage to get inside information on Simon's hot friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

He wants to come out, and he finds courage in Blue's emails, but he's worried about the effect it will have on his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and his best friends (Katherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).

Pictured, from left to right: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jurassic World, X-Men: Apocalypse, and 13 Reasons Why. These teens are doing just fine.

Honestly, Love, Simon is more than OK. It's... fine. Look, it's gentle and charming, and the fact that you won't be rolling in the aisles is mostly made up for with the warm-blanket atmosphere that permeates the whole thing. And Nick Robinson is game for the kind of low key character-based humor the movie is working with (the script is from the co-showrunners of This Is Us, who aren't exactly the second coming of Charlie Chaplin). The only people who really runs away with the humor here are the outspoken drama teacher played by Insecure's Natasha Rothwell, and maybe Tony Hale as the oversharing vice principal, though it would be nice if they hadn't clearly shoehorned him into random scenes in scenes so visibly nabbed in reshoots that you can taste the greenscreen.

What Love, Simon does get almost exactly right is the way emotions in high school play out, with all the big, stupid decision-making that that entails. These characters make fools of themselves in public about every twenty minutes, and their sloppy, overheated approaches to romance make you feel right at home. And anyone who has distractedly drifted through their daily routine while anxiously waiting for their phone to buzz with a message from a particular sweetheart will relate to Simon's achey, breaky hormones.

The film is also visually kinetic enough to keep the teen brain occupied, especially during the scenes where Simon imagines what Blue is doing, pasting on the face of whatever classmate he's hypothesizing his pen pal to be at that moment. Love, Simon shines the most when it's a romantic mystery, which it is for a good three-fifths of the time.

The question being who let this potential Blue get those highlights.

And there's one element I unequivocally love, which uses a repeat shot of Simon ordering coffee to show how even the tiniest details of his routine change with every decision he makes.

Unfortunately, those other two-fifths are Coming Out porn to the highest degree. I speak from experience when I say that I know full well that having liberal parents doesn't make the process any easier internally, but Love, Simon exists in a world where the stakes are well and truly null. What it gets right about the coming out process (the way the school will go ahead and assume you're dating the only other out gay kid in school - in my case, it's because I was, but whatever; the way it forces your heterosexual exes into a period of intense self-examination; the way you turn to the Internet for advice on how to live the Gay Lifestyle) is overshadowed by the toothless barrage of hyperbolically supportive conversations that form pretty much the entire final half hour of this movie.

There is an awkward Christmas scene that captures a family interaction in one perfect little crystal, but mostly Love, Simon ignores those feelings (and the repercussions of Simon's actions, especially as it relates to his hideously precocious younger sister) in favor of yet another tearful Oscar reel moment. Although, I will give credit to Jennifer Garner for selling the hell out of her Call Me By Your Name soliloquy in the third act.

Nothing but respect for MY Michael Stuhlbarg

There are a thousand teens out there right now who desperately need this movie, and I'm so glad they have it. But the parts that fail to speak to me aren't quite redeemed by what's ultimately a fun bit of fluff that isn't worth getting your panties in a knot over. There's no reason for an adult to watch it, other than to give that box office a necessary boost in hopes that they'll keep making these things and maybe strike gold at some point in the future.

TL;DR: Love, Simon is a charming little wish-fulfillment trifle.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1155

Thursday, March 15, 2018

People Are Strange

Year: 2008
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Gemma Ward
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I consider myself a wee bit of a horror expert, but one of my hugest blind spots has definitely been The Strangers, the 2008 home invasion film that was almost immediately minted as a modern classic. Now, I'm not here to strip it of that status, which it rightfully earned, but the reason I've been avoiding it for ten years is pretty similar to the reason I didn't love it as I watched it in prep for the sequel.

I don't need anything distracting Dennis from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The Strangers is about a couple: James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristin McKay (Liv Tyler). Their suffering begins long before the horror plot kicks in, because she has just refused his proposal at a friend's wedding reception (way to steal the thunder, my dude). They continue their planned trip to his family's summer house, but there's an icy rift between them that prevents them from talking in anything above a forlorn whisper.

Their night is interrupted seemingly innocuously when, in the middle of the night, an unseen girl knocks on their door, asking for Tamara. They turn her away, but when James is on a cigarette run the girl returns. It soon becomes evident that she's not alone, because she is one of a trio of masked strangers who have come to murder the crap out of this couple. Thus begins a Long Night of the Soulless, where James and Kristin struggle to survive in any way they can.

Those ways mostly involve walking veeeeeery slooooowly down hallways.

I do admire The Strangers for its bold formal choice at the beginning, pulling a Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a gravelly opening monologue about how this movie is "based on true events" that "totally happened, we promise." That's a fun move that shows how it's in touch with its horror predecessors, but it's probably the only thing about the movie that could be called fun.

Not that that's a problem. The bleak register The Strangers operates in has been a boon to many a classic chiller, but in my mind they work a little better when the movies are a little better. The Strangers has plenty of elements that really work, which we'll go into in a minute, but the pacing has some serious problems. And that's pretty shocking considering that, when all is said and done, by the time the super slow, feature-film-run-time-reaching credits roll, only one hour and seventeen minutes have elapsed.

For one thing, I just scrolled up to check something in the first paragraph and I thought I'd accidentally embedded the same screenshot twice in a row. Nope, those are two different scenes about thirty minutes apart, which should tell you just how committed to repetition this movie is: walk down a hall, hide in a small space, leave the small space, return to the small space, find a new small space, lather with blood, rinse, repeat. I understands the constraints of the low budget horror world, but the movie doesn't utilize the space for anything other than slow stalker shots of people who really should know to look behind them at least once every five minutes or so.

Also, the grainy handheld aesthetic the film uses just hasn't aged particularly well, but that's not entirely its fault, so I won't dwell on that one. And I hate to say it, because she does do well in the terror scenes, which are really the most important, but anytime Liv Tyler has a line of dialogue, it's delivered in a breathy whisper like she's in a hypnotic trance. Most of the movie isn't dialogue-driven, thankfully, but that vacant Marilyn Monroe burble drags you out of the movie like an electromagnet.

I wanna be stabbed by you, just you, and nobody else but you.

But all that aside, The Strangers is still spooky as heck. Home invasion movies are good at getting under the skin of just about anyone, but the masks are so spectacularly well-designed that they'll stick in your nightmares much longer than any of their peers. And the sound design is also pretty sharp, buffeting you with eerie silence until a sudden sharp shock slices through the tension. 

But one thing that really skeeves me out the most is the fact that the masked figures here are actually given a voice. It is established horror movie dogma that masked killers don't speak, because it is scarier that way. But when the doll face mask mutters one line in a cruel monotone, that's even creepier because it's not supposed to happen. By breaking the rules and conventions of the horror genre, The Strangers reached an even higher plane than those that came before, at least for one scene, and that's the reason it's a classic.

The atmosphere created by The Strangers is unassailable, and certainly the reason it has enjoyed such a sterling reputation in spite of its fairly major flaws.

That said, the bleakness and lack of catharsis in this movie isn't for everyone. You have to be in a certain mood to truly enjoy The Strangers, because it is not a movie designed to be enjoyed. It's designed to be a sensory battering ram, and it's just as blunt, crude, and powerful as you'd expect one of those to be.

TL;DR: The Strangers is a solid low budget shocker, though it obviously has its limitations.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 926
Reviews In This Series
The Strangers (Bertino, 2008)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Spy Who Shagged Me

Year: 2018
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts 
Run Time: 2 hours 19 minutes 
MPAA Rating: R

Hey guys, did you know that when young women grow up, they become sexy? Jennifer Lawrence wasn't a Disney kid so people didn't find her transition quite so jarring, but we're definitely at that point in her career now where "Katniss takes off her shirt for five seconds" is a selling point for a movie, so... do with that what you will, I guess.

Anyway, Red Sparrow!

It might have a color and a bird in the title, but trust me, it's no Black Swan.

In Red Sparrow, Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a major injury that prevents her from ever being able to dance again. But it doesn't prevent her from f**king, so her creepy uncle Vanya "Not Putin" Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her against her will in the Sparrow program, which teaches young Russian nationals how to be super-deadly sex spies. She pretty much fails at every lesson, but nepotism, so she's put on an assignment to seduce American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), whose hilariously alliterative name proves that original novel author Jason Matthews might have real-world experience with these matters, but he's still a pulp writer at heart.

Anyway, she is supposed to seduce the name of a Russian mole out of Nate Nash, but she is attempting to find a way to escape her ties with the Russian government and work with the Americans. Or is she? Because she's still working for Russian interests throughout. Or is she?
And also she gives herself an Atomic Blonde haircut because that's the requirement for female spies in the 2010's.

Or IS it?

Red Sparrow is all over the place, frankly, but some of those places are pretty fun. For one thing, the violence in the film is shockingly R-rated. It pulls some Gone Girl-esque maneuvers to lull you into a false sense of stuffy-movie security before pulling the trigger on some showstopping gore gag or other. It's very gross, and it actually feels like you're watching a movie that 1) is made for adults, and 2) keeps you on your toes. Anything can happen at any time.

Unless that thing is sex. Because as much as it throws itself full steam into its rating when it comes to blood and guts, this movie's approach to sex is about as bold and prurient as a My Little Pony episode. Yes, we see boobs for a bit, and even a brief glimpse of a penis (Equality! We did it!), but I can't recall a single sex scene where both participants were as close to fully clothed as physically possible. And in some cases, it kinda isn't possible, unless they were using her underwear as a prophylactic.

I'm pretty sure they're doing it in this screenshot.

And then you have the problem of not a single person in this movie performing with their actual native accent. It adds a weird sheen of surreality to Red Sparrow that doesn't do it any favors. But while the Russian accents vary from questionable to still-questionable-but-performed-by-Charlotte-Rampling, they are eclipsed by Edgerton's sweaty, faux-American twang. It's not like he hasn't done this sort of thing before, but being generally the only American character in the film, there's nothing to distract from how bizarrely strained he is.

He's still a stud though, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Red Sparrow also takes an incredible risk by being a flat 40 minutes longer than it needs to be, an indulgence it entirely fails to justify. Sometimes you do get wrapped up in the spy movie antics (a montage in the third act provides the kind of pulpy fun you're craving), but mostly it's a wholly average thriller presented with a total lack of flair.

But it's time to bust out those Best Supporting Actress 2019 betting cards though, because twenty minutes of Red Sparrow is rescued by an entirely unlikely heroine: Mary-Louise Parker, playing an American senator's chief-of-staff who is briefly wrapped up in the twisty international affair. 

Her character is a boozy, salt-of-the-earth type played with a pitch-perfect ear for campy excess without spilling over the edges of the film. She's acting on an entirely different plane from the rest of the film, and she leaps directly into your face with pure, electric energy. Not since Andie MacDowell prowled her way through Magic Mike XXL has an entire movie been redeemed on the back of one powerful cougar.

Do I recommend the movie? Probably not, but sitting through it wasn't like Russian prison torture. That's about all I can say to vouch for this one, make of that what you will.

TL;DR: Red Sparrow is a totally fine spy thriller with some fun R-rated frills.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 806

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Shimmer And Fade

Year: 2018
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

There are certain combinations of director and actor that you can't ignore. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. And with only Ex Machina as evidence, I'd already say Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac were one of those pairs. Of course, sometimes you get Edward Scissorhands and sometimes you get Dark Shadows, so there's always a risk there, but I wasn't not gonna go see Annihilation.

Gimme all the Oscar you've got, the shirtlesser the better.

OK, so the plot... The plot. It sure is a plot. I think. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a military veteran biologist who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been MIA on a military operation for a year. When he shows up randomly one evening in a near-catatonic state before falling terribly ill and internally bleeding all over her damn carpet, she realizes that his mission may not have been a particularly routine one.

She and Kane are taken to a military outpost in a national park that is the site of a mysterious phenomenon called the Shimmer, a zone surrounded by light that keeps expanding. Everyone who has been sent into this zone has never returned... except Kane. An all-female science expedition is about to make their way into this zone, led by the sketchy psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and made up of the brash Chicago paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), shy physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and nihilistic geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Lena asks to be able to lend her skills to the group and just maybe figure out what happened to her husband. When they enter the Shimmer, they discover an environment where the laws of physics don't apply, and mutated beasts roam the gorgeous, forbidding swamp. As they make their way to the lighthouse at the center, what they encounter will rattle them to their very DNA.

They also touch a lot of things without gloves, which is the most disturbing part of the movie for yours truly.

Annihilation is a very cerebral film, with a lot of different interpretations as to what's actually going on and what it might mean. This isn't dissimilar from Ex Machina, necessarily, but the way it goes about it is much more in-your-face arthousey. That's not meant as a detraction, but the ambitions of the movie to be a beautiful metaphor for a cavalcade of elements of the human condition are a little misguided, because for a lot of the time the movie just isn't that.

Honestly, the earliest comparison that comes to mind is The Cloverfield Paradox, with all the muddled popcorn movie baggage that comes along with that. With one dropped line in the beginning, they provide a decidedly liberal umbrella explanation for a whole cavalcade of random sci-fi bullshit, very little of which actively corresponds to any of the major thematic interpretations going on here. Annihilation wants to have its cake and analyze it too, but there's a lot of sound and fury in the first half of the film that just doesn't connect at the end of the day.

But sparkles!

But wow, what a gorgeous film it is. At least once every five minutes comes a shot that you could frame and hang up in your house, displaying the vast grandeur of the sci-fi universe it has created with all the awe-inspiring scale that it deserves. And the design of the plants and creatures in the Shimmer is excruciatingly detailed, drawing beauty from the grotesque and presenting sight after sight of nature turned on its head in appealing yet subtly unsettling ways. If this was just a travelogue promoting some semi-terrestrial safari, it would be a perfect movie. 

But there do happen to be humans in this movie and they are going through the motions of a plot, so there we are. The cast is mostly strong, but oddly the off notes come from the places you'd least expect them. Oscar Isaac, for one, isn't given a terribly prominent role, but is imprisoned inside a grating accent that just won't let him flourish, so it's a blessing that he's not onscreen that often. And Natalie Portman herself is probably being directed to be as bland as she is, but the ticking biological clock that is meant to generate suspense in the second half of the film is not in any way reflected by her physicality, and it falls entirely flat. And then there's the incomparable Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is making an incredibly strange series of choices that provide a restrained, keening performance that I'm not entirely convinced I like.

Gina Rodriguez, who has heretofore been known primarily for comedy, is the obvious standout here. She leaps from providing levity to ratcheting up the tension without making any huge, obvious shifts, letting a multitude of tones inhabit her character in a seamless, authentic manner. 

And if the performers aren't drawing you in, neither is the plot. Annihilation does generate a level of interest in its spooky mayhem for a while, as you're playing catch-up with what the hell is happening here in the Shimmer. But after more and more scenes of characters clubbing you over the head with dialogue that loudly announces "WE'RE GOING TO DISCUSS THE THEME OF THE MOVIE NOW!" with the obvious handicap that the more arthousey elements are grafted onto a basic sci-fi slasher structure, it just fails to impress on a structural level.

Don't get me wrong, when Annihilation gets into its third act, it leans in hard on those elements and finally cuts itself loose from anything resembling commercial entertainment. You can't watch the closing twenty minutes in any state other than transfixed rapture as it blends the ever-beautiful cinematography with the evocative motion of ballet to create something marvelous and cinematic, the likes of which haven't been seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey or maybe 2014's Under the Skin

Plus there is one moment with a bear that's flat-out the most terrifying scene of the year, I'm calling it now. So yeah, it's overall a win, but there's so much going wrong here it's more of a testament to how strong the movie is as a visual piece of craft more than an act of storytelling.

TL;DR: Annihilation is a beautifully achieved work of cerebral sci-fi, but it might not be quite as deep as it thinks it is.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1095

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Brooks' Brother

Year: 2018
Director: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler 
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's not groundbreaking to point out that there has been a dearth of imagination when it comes to Hollywood comedies, but seriously. Can we quit it with these titles? Girls Trip. Rough Night. Bridesmaids. Spy. Sisters. Dirty Grandpa. Good or bad, we're not doing these movies any favors with these relentlessly descriptive, boring titles. And let's not forget that on the slate for 2018 are Book Club, Eigth Grade, and Night School. Game Night is saddled with another one of these blah, nothing monikers, and that's no way to treat the best comedy of the first quarter of 2018.

Not that there was much competition for that, but still!

In Game Night, a  group of adult friends have a regular game night every week. So far, so simple. These friends are led by a competitive couple - Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) - who are having trouble conceiving due to Max's high stress levels. Filling out the ranks are high school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and empty-headed hunk Ryan (Billy Magnussen). Former game night attendee and monotonously enthusiastic Gary (Jesse Plemons) still lives next door, but he's not invited anymore since his wife left him and he has sunk into a life of solitude, weirdness, and creepy lurking. To complete the pairs, Ryan usually has a rotating coterie of identical bimbos, but this week he brought in a ringer: his intelligent and age-appropriate Irish coworker Sarah (Sharon Horgan).

And oh, what a week to decide to come! It turns out Game Night has a lot in common with that other boringly titled film: The Game. Max's show-off older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is in town and has arranged an interactive role-playing game where one of their number will be kidnapped and the others will have to follow the clues to find him. Unfortunately, Brooks is abducted by actual thugs and the line between game and reality swiftly blurs as they rush to rescue him from what may or may not be an elaborate ruse.

They don't take it as seriously as they maybe should, is the point.

Now, I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I did really like Game Night, but it's not quite the balm to save the bloated corpse that is modern comedy. That's a lot to ask of a movie anyway, but it's far from special enough to have any kind of lasting impact on the culture. It's just a funny movie that'll go in one ear and out the other, causing no harm as it passes through.

But, oh is it funny. This is partially thanks to a tight script that's not so reliant on improv and employs judicious use of callbacks to bring everything full circle into a satisfying whole. But it's mostly thanks to the freaking cast, which is a who's who of comic actors we love and comic actors we have done a disservice to by not having loved for many years already. 

Jason Bateman is the de facto lead here, and he does find a way to keep his normal schtick fresh by honing his timing to a stilleto-sharp point, but as the resident straight man he's easily upstaged by a collection of truly tremendous performances. Rachel McAdams (who has always been great, but who I never particularly recognized for comedy) is a particular standout, for her off-kilter line readings that allow even her most flatly written lines to leap off the screen with surprising energy. 

But honestly, it's impossible to look away from the people on the fringes of this cast. The first is Billy Magnussen, who has certainly learned how to use his impossibly sculpted body as a punchline in his previous roles in Into the Woods and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and somehow takes a one-note "dumb hot guy" role and twists it into something knowing and unique. He finds ways to give unexpected outlets to his dumbness, both physically and vocally. 

If someone could slip my number into the next script he reads, I'd appreciate it.

Lamorne Morris also accomplishes the elevation of what should be a grating stock character, giving his repetitive jokes a rhythm so impeccably tight it always catches you off guard. And then - finally! -there's Jesse Plemons, who should be waited on hand and foot by the Hollywood elite for how much talent he's given the world in his young life. The character he has created here is a work of art, an insurmountable force of gravity that sucks you into its awe-inspiring weirdness. It's so unique that it's very difficult to describe. I shan't exert myself, but suffice it to say that his strained monotone is both keenly disturbing and guffaw-inducing.

But enough about that. Any comedy can assemble a great cast, even if this one is especially, unexpectedly strong. Game Night actually shines as a piece of filmmaking, far more often than is common in this day and age. Although its commitment to its stylistic approach wavers toward the second act, this movie has an exciting aesthetic that mimics board games in a variety of satisfying visual ways, using kinetic editing and what I assume are CGI-altered aerial shots to provide an almost dreamlike atmosphere when transitioning from scene to scene.

And the more that's said about Cliff Martinez's darkly synth-fueled score, the better. I wouldn't have pegged the composer of Drive to be the perfect match for this goofy R-rated comedy, but that's why they don't pay me the big bucks. His music really highlights the surreality of the premise, providing the perfect airy counterpoint to this movie's blend of high concept comedy with jarring jolts of reality.

Game Night does exactly what it needs to do, and it does it with some sense of panache. That's all we really need, isn't it? It won't melt your face off with pure comedy, but it sure is an irresistibly affable film to spend 100 minutes with, and you won't catch me complaining about that for one second.

TL;DR: Game Night is a strong comedy, supported by excellent filmmaking.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1041

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Reviewing Jane: It Is A Truth Universally Acknowledged That A Movie Fan In Possession Of A Blog Must Be In Want Of A Marathon

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2013
Director: Jerusha Hess
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Yup, folks, this blog is about to get Jane Austen-ified. The boyfriend is taking a class where he has to read all six of her novels, and I thought I'd read along with him because like most humans on this planet, I'd only ever read Pride and Prejudice. We're halfway through already, and I've been enjoying it immensely. So you know what that means, readers... 

Get ready for a buttload of gentility!

In Austenland, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is hopelessly obsessed with the works of Jane Austen (I can't relate to that at all). Against the better wishes of her friends, she has sunk almost her entire savings into the trip of a lifetime: a resort that replicates Regency era romance with a troupe of actors and promises a (fictional) engagement by the end of the trip. But for somebody who has already immersed herself so thoroughly in Austen (although the screenwriters only seem to be aware of Pride and Prejudice and like one scene in Sense and Sensibility), the lines between reality and fantasy might just begin to blur.

Along with her fellow guests - the crass Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) who seems to think she's at some sort of fantasy whorehouse, and Lady Amelia Hartwright (Georgia King), who is freakishly thorough in her commitment to role playing - Jane (adopting the name Miss Jane Erstwhile) must battle for the affections of the foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), the rugged explorer Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the standoffish Henry Nobley (JJ Feild). But sometimes, when the fantasy becomes too overwhelming to her, she falls into the arms of employee/stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie), whose modern sensibility and scruffy reality she finds refreshing.

His New Zealand accent probably doesn't hurt, either.

Austenland is one of the most conceptually broken romantic comedies I've seen in a good long while. Because honestly, Jennifer Coolidge is kind of right. There is something really creepy and manipulative about this whole process, not to mention the fact that it probably breaks a half dozen laws and statutes. And don't even get me started on the fact that a trio of customers does not the rent on a Regency manor pay. But economics and ethics aside, we should probably allow a movie its concept, especially when it's one as audacious and bizarre as this one.

The comedy that the film is peddling - while not in the least bit in the vein of something Austen might actually write - is at least charming enough to keep the whole boat afloat. It's quietly silly in a very British kind of way, and it takes a bit to ramp itself up into something genuinely sparkling, but it hinges on a handful of truly great performances. Jennifer Coolidge, of course, provides an endless source of off-the-wall humor (according to the filmmakers, she could barely be pressed to memorize her lines and just said whatever she felt like), and although her character is entirely one-note, the delivery is still sublime.

But for once in her beautiful life, Coolidge isn't the best part of this project. No, that would be Georgia King, whose body-and-soul commitment to her character's commitment is the most hilarious thing I've seen in a long time. It's a loopy performance, providing a funhouse mirror interpretation of British gentility from someone who has absolutely no idea what that actually entails. She physically dominates the screen with a series of prim little hops and exaggerated gestures, all marinated in an extremely peculiar, chewy accent that never fails to astonish in its inadequacy. 

Look at all this comedy gold! And Keri Russell!

OK, to be fair to Keri Russell, the lead of a romantic comedy very rarely gets to be actually funny. She does her best to generate chemistry with every male lead and she succeeds, and that's the start and end of her duty to this movie. The men are of a piece less interesting than the women, though since when has that not been the case?

Beyond the actors, there's not much to look at in the film. It's presented in the rather flat, well-lit style of a comedy director who doesn't really feel like getting in the way. The soundtrack is pretty great, but digging any deeper past the characters isn't really worth your time. Austenland isn't about aesthetics. It's barely about plot! (And given the fact that it laughs off a sexual assault scene like it's a goofily eccentric bit of behavior, it's probably good that the plotting doesn't get center stage here) It's also a shallow scrape at the world of Austen, really underserving characters that really should at least pretend to know more about her books than the fact that Mr. Darcy was a grump. 

But insofar as it's about wish fulfillment and charm, it gets the job done. Sometimes you don't need depth in a movie. You need to laugh at talented actresses doing their best to tickle your funny bone, and there's more than enough of them populating Austenland to have a good time from start to finish.

TL;DR: Austenland is a bit nonsensical, but charming in a way that - while almost antithetical to the work of Jane Austen - keeps you from disliking a single minute.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 926

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Love Like Yours Will Surely Come My Way

Year: 2018
Director: Michael Sucsy
Cast: Angourie Rice, Justice Smith, Debby Ryan
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

These days, YA novel adaptations are about as common in movie theaters as sticky floors. But if there's one thing I could think of to spice up the dime-a-dozen slate of forgettable trifles like If I Stay or Paper Towns, it's author David Levithan. One of the best modern YA fiction writers, and certainly the best mainstream LGBT author for teens, he has a facility for language and inclusive storytelling that is boundless and exciting. Every Day is the first of his solo novels to be adapted into a film (he co-wrote Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely's No-Kiss List with Rachel Cohn), and I can't think of anybody more deserving.

Throw in Angourie Rice from The Nice Guys and I couldn't be more sold.

So Every Day has the kind of high concept that makes it impossible to explain without sounding like a lunatic, but makes perfect sense within about five minutes of screen time. Every day (hey, that's the name of the movie!), a consciousness named A wakes up in a different body. It's always somebody A's age, and always pretty near to wherever the last body was at midnight. Whoever's body A is in, they try to live life as that person (they have access to the person's basic memories, so it's not too hard), but living lives for others doesn't leave a lot of time to live life for oneself. Whatever oneself happens to be.

Enter Rhiannon (Angourie Rice). She's like a cat in the dark, and so forth. One day, when A is inhabiting the body of her loser boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith), she captures A's attention and thus begins a very confusing romance for both of them. A must come to terms with the way their actions affect the lives of the people they inhabit every day, and Rhiannon must realize that love must be pretty damn blind, if she's going to be with someone whose body and even gender is literally never the same twice.

Though they're mostly always cute, so the struggle isn't TOO real.

The interesting thing about a story like this, from a technical standpoint, is that all the responsibility for maintaining a consistent chemistry within this relationship falls on Angourie Rice. Seeing that it's hard enough for certain actors to maintain chemistry between just the two of them, this is another acting feat that proves Rice to be the real deal, even if the role - being a bit of a cypher for teen girls - is less showstopping than her Nice Guys character, which showed she could hold her own against heavy hitters like Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

But that's not to diminish the talents of her many, many, many co-stars (no fewer than a dozen different people play A, including Spider-Man: Homecoming's Jacob Batalon and It's Owen Teague). Justice Smith especially is kind of a revelation. We first meet him as inhabited by A, where he pours on the charm and sells that first, brilliant spark between them and Rhiannon. But once that spirit leaves him, he completely transforms. He's more different than if he had acquired a different body too, all spiky, surly physicality and tentative teen awkwardness. It's a physical and vocal shift displaying a skill and confidence that's stunning in somebody so young.

Oscars, keep an eye on these people.

Every Day really does have an interesting concept, and it does make a point to at least reference the diversity of the teen experience: A is fat, skinny, male, female, blind, trans, gay, straight, and everything in between. It's too gentle of a romance to dig into any of these experiences with the emotional depth it probably should have (save for a terrific scene about the responsibility of saving a suicidal teen), and like the equally gentle Timer, it's obsessed with exploring the ramifications of this particular high concept sometimes at the expense of finding a universal truth about human beings outside of the concept.

But it's impossible to dislike a movie this sweet. It's warmly funny when it wants to be, the picturesque Maryland settings get plenty of awe-inspiring landscape photography, it's primly, politely genderqueer in a way that's transgressive in a way so subtle you might not even notice, which is honestly the way we should be treating gender in modern teen movies. It's an Instagram-filtered approach to moviemaking that gives everything a pleasant glow, and while it's not a life-changing experience, it's overwhelmingly kind and delightful.

TL;DR: Every Day is a sweet high-concept romance, but it feels a little too light for its own good.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 791

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Census Bloodbath: Guten Morgan

Year: 1982
Director: David Schmoeller
Cast: Morgan Fairchild, Michael Sarrazin, Andrew Stevens
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

When you're reviewing a Morgan Fairchild slasher movie, do you really need to go much further than the phrase "Morgan Fairchild slasher?" It's not good, folks. But oh, we do find ourselves in a pickle when David Schmoeller's name pops up on screen. Attention must always be paid to the director of Tourist Trap, even if the highest peak his career did ever manage to reach was Puppetmaster. So here we're stuck with The Seduction, an early entry into the erotic thriller genre that is neither erotic nor thrilling, so is it even a movie?

Unfortunately, it takes 104 minutes to prove that yes, in fact, it is.

The Seduction takes a very familiar tack to anyone who has watched early 80's porto-slashers as closely as I have. Los Angeles news anchor Jamie Douglas (Morgan Fairchild in her first feature film) has found herself a stalker in Derek (Andrew Stevens of 10 to Midnight), a photographer who seems to be her neighbor but the geography of the movie isn't exactly clear on that front. And thus does the movie announce itself as a Windows-esque obsession movie rather than an out-and-out slasher. Although he does torment Jamie with knives in tow, and she is reporting on a chain of serial murders that have literally nothing to do with the plot, the body count remains resolutely, frustratingly low.

Among the cast members that Derek refuses to kill are Jamie's best friend Robin (Colleen Camp in an early role), a struggling model and commercial actress with the greatest outfits ever designed by cocaine; her assistant Bobby (Kevin Brophy of Hell Night); and her boyfriend Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), who seems positively elderly when placed next to Morgan Fairchild. So yeah, Derek makes threatening phone calls and follows her around and does stalker stuff. You pretty much get it.

Yeah, you get it.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Morgan Fairchild. I just think she only works as a reaction to who she used to be. She's great as a Chandler Bing's aging sexpot mother on Friends and in her cameo as maybe an actual angel in the gay comedy eCupid, and those roles wouldn't have existed if not for her early work, which they exist as a winking comment on. But let's admit that that early work isn't exactly the stuff of legend.

Transferring her skills from the TV drama Flamingo Road to the thriller genre involves a lot of sexy pouting in life-threatening situations and almost nothing else. She's easily outstripped by every other character, including Brandon - who is just a cardboard cutout of a vanilla extract ad. Honestly, Colleen Camp should have been the lead here, because she turns in a performance that's intriguingly prickly and angular, embodying the desperate need for attention and hardened, defensive exterior of someone who is totally failing at being famous. Even Kevin Brophy, who could rightfully call this a career high point, exudes charm and charisma in spades. They all run circles around Fairchild, who needed a couple more years under her belt to get perspective on what exactly her place was in the entertainment sphere.


The Seduction is at least trying for something in the scenes with Maxwell the cop (Return to Horror High's Vince Edwards), which comment on the fact that stalker situations weren't taken seriously in the 80's, just barely brushing up against how crimes against women were more normalized back in the day. But let's not pretend that The Seduction had some grand agenda here, it was just using real life facts to underscore how helpless and alone its sexy, sometimes topless protagonist truly is.

And there are a couple helpfully weird scenes that pique the interest every now and again. A pop psychologist character who appears randomly in one scene and never shows up again has a delightful turn, seeming to channel Zelda Rubinstein's future breakout role in Poltergeist. Plus. there's that line where Morgan Fairchild objects to getting a gun, because "what am I gonna do, pack a gun, take karate, and become some kind of street thug?" (Obviously her only reference for gang life is a bunch of early 80's TV movies). But these brief moments of incoherence don't make up for a total lack of interest in any of the proceedings onscreen.

I've already mentioned the fact that this film isn't in the least bit scary, and in spite of a couple nipples sprinkled in, eroticism is so far afield that it's sending postcards. There aren't even any kills to whittle down the surprisingly ample cast while we're waiting for the story to kick in! (spoiler: it never does) But on top of that, The Seduction isn't even particularly well-made. The final scene (AKA the only sequence where anything actually happens) is bizarrely edited, placing the killer inside the house to do a kill, then teleporting him back to his apartment so he can approach the house again to drum up some tension [sic]. It makes not the slightest bit of sense geographically or from a character standpoint, and the muddy cinematography elliptically swooping around to avoid showing gore they can't afford just makes the whole thing even more scattered.

If I wanted to watch a bunch of interchangeable men in tight pants and feathered hair run around not being scary, I would just watch an aerobics video. And if I want to watch an early 80's celebrity stalker slasher with an obnoxiously low body count, I would just put on The Fan. At least that movie has Lauren Bacall, a shirtless Michael Biehn, and some glittery musical numbers. The Seduction couldn't even dream of anything that interesting.

Killer: Derek (Andrew Stevens)
Final Girl: Jamie Douglas (Morgan Fairchild)
Best Kill: This really isn't much of a decision, so I shall abstain
Sign of the Times: Jamie has to use a phone booth to check her messages.
Scariest Moment: A threatening letter is slipped into Jamie's teleprompter and she automatically starts to read it aloud until she realizes what she's saying.
Weirdest Moment: A department store salesman attempts to sell Jamie a 55-pound solid silver cigarette lighter shaped like an elephant, and if it had come back in any capacity during the third act, this would have been a 10/10 movie.
Champion Dialogue: "What rattled your cage? Did you get a facial by mail or somethin'?"
Body Count: 2, oh so disappointingly
  1. Brandon has a knife thrown into his back in a hot tub.
  2. Derek is shot in the gut.
TL;DR: The Seduction isn't so much seductive as it is entirely stultifying.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1122