Monday, April 30, 2018

Marvel's Contract Negotiations: The Movie!

Year: 2018
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Cast: C'mon
Run Time: 2 hours 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

So, the time has come. More or less the entirety of modern cinema has led to this, the culmination of ten years of multi-million dollar blockbuster filmmaking. People online have made fun of Marvel's comment about Avengers: Infinity War being the most ambitious crossover event in cinema history, but people online don't have a great track record of thinking things through. Marvel is right. Infinity War is an act of pure Hollywood hubris, cramming as many successful properties into one punch-kicking chunk as humanly possible. It was either going to be the best movie ever made or a fully incomprehensible hash.

Unfortunately, because the world doesn't live in binaries like we want it to, Infinity War lands somewhere in between. But honestly, that's the best case scenario, because it could have been so much worse and frankly we as a species don't deserve the glory of what would have happened if they threaded that needle.

But we DO deserve Danai Gurira and Chris Evans' beard being in as many movies as possible, so at least we're getting that started.

Oh boy. This is the part where we recap the plot of the movie. Wish me luck. 

Umm... remember all the Marvel movies since 2008? Well, you'd better. Every character you've ever known and loved and a bunch of characters who you assume are from the ones you didn't see are in danger, because the big purple Jay Leno alien known as Thanos (Josh Brolin) is finally ready to bedazzle his Polly Pocket glove with the sparkly Infinity stones that have been cropping up oh so often lately. Once he collects them all, he can send in the box tops to receive his prize: the death of half the population of the universe.

Turns out, people don't like that idea, so pretty much everyone who has a superpower or who looks good in a leather catsuit have assembled to prevent this catastrophe on as many fronts as possible. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket (Bradley Cooper voice, Sean Gunn mocap), and Groot (Vin Diesel) search for a mythical god-killing weapon. Meanwhile the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy - Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) - head to cut off Thanos at the site of some Infinity Stone or other. 

Meanwhile meanwhile, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has disappointed girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) by hopping onto the ship of Thanos' right-hand monster Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) to save Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with stowaway Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are trying to bone in peace, but he's got a big ol' Infinity Stone in his head so he must be evacuated to Wakanda by war criminals Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the custody of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and also Hulk is there (Mark Ruffalo).

Did I miss anything? Oh yes, 45% of the cast. Well, I tried. I really did.

I'm getting why Thanos wants to destroy half of these people. It would really make things easier to follow.

Much like the screenwriters of Infinity War, I really don't know where to start. There's a lot of good in Infinity War and a lot of bad, but they're all hopelessly entangled. Maybe we should start with Thanos, who has been lurking in the background of this franchise since the end credits tease in 2012's Avengers. The movie really wants to have a sympathetic villain, but doesn't quite stick the landing. Maybe it's the fact that it's easier to relate to someone who doesn't look like a CGI gummy bear. Maybe they cashed in their small supply of Good Villain points to make Killmonger back in February. Maybe it's just the fact that every time the script shifts to its serious tone, the gears start to grind a little bit. I'm going to assume it's all the above, but let's discuss the latter.

The screenplay, from the writers behind your favorite Marvel entries including Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World, is kind of a mess. Whenever it attempts to get profound (as any apocalyptic movie is tempted to do), it adopts a clownish grimace and forces its characters through a gauntlet of the most maudlin, overwrought monologues yet known to man. Combined with the barbaric clunkiness of the exposition every time that rears its ugly head, a lot of sequences in this movie are just punishing to watch.

A scene where you can see exactly where it's going within seconds drags out its overheated drama for full minutes, jam-packed with explanatory dialogue that finds endless ways to rephrase "you say that things are THIS way... But they're THAT way!" Infinity War never cuts to the chase, and its complicated labyrinth of life-or-death contrivances, arbitrary ticking clock action sequences, and bizarre character motivations isn't smoothed out by how painful and empty the emotional scenes are.

But it's hard to drum up stakes when you know that there are going to be 18 more of these movies in the next, like, three months. Especially when the punches are as hyperbolically pulled as this one. The Marvel films have always had a problem with balancing the power levels of its various characters, but Thanos is so perilously overpowered that when he stoops to the level of a punchfight, you wonder why he doesn't just crush these people like ants. His strength and ability wax and wane exactly as the plot needs them to, and that almost completely neuters his ability to be an impressive villain. He's literally upstaged by his sidekick Ebony Maw, who has a crazy frightening countenance, a startlingly powerful telekinetic ability, and a much more mustache-twistingly eeevil approach to his work.

The fact that the movie doesn't realize how freaking terrifying he is just goes to show that you shouldn't add characters willy nilly when you're stuck with the ones you've been teasing for a decade.

This arid, emotionless state of affairs isn't helped by the cast, which is like 800 pounds of sexy glowering shoved into a five pound bag. Whether it's because they're finally grown tired of their characters or if they just feel like they don't have to try too hard considering they'll only get like five minutes of screentime, a lot of our team roster here is on autopilot. Much like the script, these performances are leaning hard on the assumption that you already know and love these characters and they don't have to try too hard to earn your trust.

Robert Downey, Jr. has obviously getting tired of playing Iron Man for some time, and Chris Evans has literally been fatigued by the lifestyle he's had to live to keep Captain America afloat, but their disinterest is front and center here. Mark Ruffalo also seems to have lost his hold on what exactly Hulk is doing in these movies, and some of the one-scene reappearances from actors like Idris Elba are clearly catnapping. And Gwyneth Paltrow is practically comatose.

Luckily, this isn't an actors' movie. This is a posing in tight shirts movie, and that more than does the trick. And a lot of material is patched up by the people who really are pulling their weight, usually the newer additions to the franchise. The Guardians of the Galaxy, fresh off their sequel, are still packing a comic punch that keeps the lighter tone in the air, Danai Gurira from Black Panther owns the screen with just a twitch of her lip, and Chris Hemsworth is still harnessing the Kiwi magic that made Tho: Ragnarok so special. Plus, Tom Holland is flat out great, giving me the only scene that actually impacted my emotions in any way at all.

Even though the Iron-Spidey suit is... questionable.

OK, finally we've transitioned into the good parts of the movie, of which there are quite a lot. In an infinite universe all things are possible, and there's no universe as big as the MCU, so there was always going to be just as much good as bad. Or... almost as much.

The action scenes aren't all spectacular, but they're definitely engaging popcorn cinema, and one fight that brings back the magical aesthetics of Doctor Strange is a decadent visual feast, reminiscent of Dumbledore and Voldemort's showstopping battle in the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Aesthetically, the film comes alive for a lot of its spacefaring adventures, painting worlds and landscapes we've never seen before with candy colors that are drunk on the visual potential of comic books. Not every setting is perfect (a climactic battle is staged in a location where everything is a different shade of "rust"), but there's a lot of big budget whimsy to be had here.

And when the script does shift to its lighter tones, the comedy pretty much always works. Obviously laughs are in the mouth of the beholder, but over the past few days since I saw this movie my mind has been irresistibly drawn back to a lot of the one-liners, of which I have retained a much higher quantity and with greater accuracy than even most straight-up comedy films I like. Again, the best of these are delivered by the actors who are actually trying, but everybody gets a shot at a line or two that undeniably works.

And... fine. Not all the melodrama is bad. I wish I could talk about it without spoiling it, but I can't, so I'll suffice it to say that a metanarrative decision on the parts of the filmmakers really drives home the emotional impact of an event in the third act, retroactively making it feel much more brutal than it felt, at least to me, in the moment. Ask me in the comments if you want more detail on that.

Anyway, there's really a lot wrong here, but I'm going to err on the side of enjoying popcorn cinema and forgive some of its sins in favor of the parts I did really like, at least on a shallow entertainment level. The sheer amount of balls they manage to juggle is impressive, and while it doesn't feel seamless, it's at least comprehensible, which it almost certainly didn't seem like it was going to be.

TL;DR: Avengers: Infinity War is surprisingly legible and certainly fun, but emotionally unavailable due to its jam-packed story.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1764
Reviews In This Series
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Follies And Nonsense, Whims And Inconsistencies Do Divert Me, I Own, And I Laugh At Them Whenever I Can

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: 2016
Director: Byrum Geisler
Cast: Ethan Sharrett, Chase Conner, Brandi Price 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The only thing shocking about the fact that they made a gay version of Pride and Prejudice is that it took until freaking 2016 to do it. This is homophobia at work, ladies and gentlemen. (For the record, I'm aware that there is a long history of queer Austen adaptations in theatre, but this ain't no blog about plays, is it?) That movie was called Before the Fall, and it is just as low budget and awkward as the gay cinema I came to know and love as a fresh-out-the-closet teen. So at least some things never change.

That and the fact that gay casting directors ALWAYS know how to cast a hot romantic lead. This is the first Darcy where I haven't had to squint real hard to find particularly appealing.

The interesting thing about Before the Fall is that in its update of the source material, it doesn't just gender-swap Lizzy Bennet. There's a lot of elements that are shifted around here, and it's actually kind of fun to see where they ended up, even if they were changed just for the sake of being different rather than any sort of narrative need.

Here's what we're dealing with. Ben Bennett (Ethan Sharrett) is an attorney in small town Virginia who accidentally insults the client of his coworker George Wickham (Jonathan Horvath). That client is Lee Darcy (Chase Conner), an alcoholic who pushed his girlfriend during an argument about the fact that they haven't had sex in a year. We're treated to a truly bizarre flashback about Darcy's dad working a gas station attendant while his son waits in the car, so we know that the man has been struggling with his sexuality.

Cut to several months later, when Nature Preserve board member Chuck Bingley (Jason Mac, who is unspeakably hot and should have been cast as Ben Bennett, but whatcha gonna do) brings Darcy - now in recovery - to a welcome party at Ben's. Over the course of a truly insane amount of hiking trips, the two are thrown into a tumultuous acquaintance that affects their lives forever, as well as those of Darcy's shrill, homophobic girlfriend Cathy Burge (Carol Marie Rinn) and Ben's BFF Jane Gardiner (Brandi Price), who falls for Bingley immediately and treats us to the film's only sex scene which is between two straight people for reasons that are entirely impossible to fathom.

Who invited you people? You have twenty of your own movies!

So basically, not only is there a gay element, but Darcy and Lizzy/Ben have essentially swapped personalities. Ben is the rich one whose pride is harming their relationship, and Darcy is the poor sap who is prejudiced against him thanks to an overheard comment. Does this alter the dynamics of the story in any way? OK, no it doesn't, but I feel like it should. We're too many degrees away from the source material for that to matter though.

Before the Fall is merely a lark. It plays with the toolbox provided by Jane Austen in ways that are fun to spot if you're as deep into her work as I am, but not entirely worthy of their own feature length motion picture. And some of the narrative wrinkles they add send the story down rabbit holes it can never quite recover from. Giving Darcy a girlfriend was a huge mistake (first of all, with the way their relationship makes them feel trapped, the filmmakers should have at least committed and made them husband and wife, otherwise it doesn't make a whole lot of sense), and leads to a lot of nasty little accidental subtext that implies that it's not abuse if it's not a felony, and that Cathy is the true villain in all of this because she's a shrill, hysterical woman. Painting her with a brush of homophobia and bitterness doesn't absolve Darcy of pushing her to the ground, which is a thing we see happen. In slow motion. Repeated three times like it's The f**king Graduate.

This is probably the right time to mention that the filmmaking itself isn't superb, but expecting any sort of technical brilliance from a hyper-indie gay film is like eating at Taco Bell and expecting not to spend an hour in the bathroom afterward. Shots awkwardly cut off people at the neck, the comic relief moments provided by two execrable gay stereotypes have the pacing of a drunken turtle, and the acting is a little underwhelming. This is pretty par for the course, honestly. 

Although, unusually, one thing Before the Fall does pull out all the stops on is its nature cinematography. If this were just a travelogue of Virginian hiking trails, it would be an unimpeachable masterpiece. The color scheme and gentle autumnal tranquility of any exterior shot sends you plunging into a perfectly serene mood, and that atmosphere does wonders for the mostly inane story playing out within its confines.

Forget these white doofuses, look at that beautiful lake!

So all in all, Before the Fall isn't a complete and total waste of time, just most of one. It's a gay film that neuters the sexuality of its leads, fails to understand its source material and the implications of the diversions it takes, and fails to drum up any sort of chemistry between the two leads in the first place. I know nothing about the ages or actual sexualities of Sharrett or Conner, so I won't blame either of those things, but Ben is presented as unbearably milquetoast and all of Conner's generally fine smoldering glances right off his impenetrable armor of blandness. 

This could be the fault of a script that fails to justify why anyone would particularly want to fall in love with him, and has Darcy's transition into a romantic lead take literally the entire movie. This could be the fault of an editor who has no idea how to drum up tension, even in scenes where characters are literally yelling at each other. This could be the fault of a complete and total misunderstanding of human relationships, and especially the blossoming of homosexual thought and feeling. It doesn't matter what the reason is, though. It's a weak little trifle any way you slice it, and there's no one ingredient that could have improved the listless mush of a story we're presented with here.

TL;DR: Before the Fall is a predictably mediocre effort, but it's more engaging than one might expect.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1128
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice 
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Q1 Review Purge

On account of the fact that my computer was out of commission all weekend, and I'm not feeling particularly inspired by any of the films I watched therein, let's break tradition and knock out some mini-reviews of three recent 2018 efforts.

Isle of Dogs

Year: 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the not-too-distant future, all dogs have been exiled to an island off the coast of Japan due to a suspicious outbreak of disease, and one young man takes a fateful flight over the water to rescue his dog with the help of a group of mangy strays.

I was honestly very surprised with how much I enjoyed Wes Anderson's previous animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. His fussy, twee aesthetic worked very well with the arch, British storytelling style of Roald Dahl's children's books. Unfortunately, it does not work quite so well with whatever Isle of Dogs is: an uncategorizable, scatterbrained mélange of post-apocalyptic gross-out humor, stunted emotional baggage, and wild misuse of Japanese-influenced design.

I will let other, more qualified, mouths speak on the specific impact of Wes Anderson's choice to set this story in Japan, but I will say one thing. The main character, whose name is Atari (strike one, dude), has a skin tone so yellow that it would a bowl of banana pudding jealous. Not only is it a bizarre, off-putting visual choice, it seems incredibly racially insensitive to boot, which is just... well, not great. This character is the entire lynchpin of the story, forcing you to contend with his questionable stereotyping for the entire run time. It's like if Mickey Rooney was the starring role in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

And whether or not this was Anderson's intention, because it probably was, the human characters on the mainland are underdeveloped in the extreme. I get that the dogs are the whole point of this story and it should focus on them as characters, but the amount of time we're forced to hop back and forth between the drama on the Isle with the cavalcade of stunted personalities who only get two or three minutes of screen time is intensely distracting.

The cast is reminiscent of a Valentine's Day movie, with way too many stars crammed in to give some characters enough time to actually make an impression, especially Scarlett Johansson's show dog Nutmeg and Greta Gerwig's American exchange student Tracy Walker. But these are female characters who are awarded to our male heroes for doing important things, so that's a very important role, y'know? Ugh.

It's hard not to get bogged down in politics, because Isle of Dogs kind of beckons in criticism. But look. It's fine. The dogs are amusing, the fussy sets are engagingly weird and gross, and it's a decent way to occupy 100 minutes. Is it worth sifting through all the morally and socially dubious messaging? Probably not. Just watch Fantastic Mr. Fox again. But I had a decent theater experience with this one, at the end of the day.

Rating: 6/10

Blockers

Year: 2018
Director: Kay Cannon
Cast: Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, John Cena
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

When three teenage girls make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night, their parents set out to make sure this doesn't happen.

As an ardent fan of the American Pie franchise, I must say that I'm glad the raunchy high school comedy hasn't given up the ghost quite yet. And while Blockers could never be the proper spiritual successor to that franchise due to the fact that the parents squirrel away as much screen time as the kids, it's as close as we're getting in 2018 and I'll take it.

Honestly, I don't mean to complain. I do like the parents. Presumably thanks to a Kay Cannon touch-up, the script isn't as reductive and sex-phobic as the trailer and synopsis made it seem. The parents all have their own warring motivations for preventing their children from having sex, and it stems from character flaws rather than a prudish morality play. Plus, I've long admired John Cena's comic acting (the fact that 2018 allows for a sentence like this to be written, says a great deal about the state of the world that I'm not ready to reflect on) and Ike Barinholtz always deserves a bigger platform. 

Then there's Leslie Mann, who is indispensible here. Her clingy mother routine isn't anything new (we've seen it as recently as Cheryl Hines in the also surprisingly terrific A Bad Moms Christmas), but she gives us some of the films most sterling perfect comic moments, especially a tearful goodbye scene that is a spine-tingling triumph of physical acting.

But still, you can't help but feel robbed of time with the film's three young stars, who shine bright enough to have led this movie all on their lonesome. Kathryn Newton is saddled with the most boring of the characters, but she maintains an easy chemistry with the other two: Gideon Adlon, who leads a sweet, surprisingly-transgressive-for-its-normalcy queer storyline and Geraldine Viswanathan, who is a pure magnetic presence the likes of which I haven't seen in a good long time.

Oh yeah, and the movie is funny too. I almost forgot. It's raunchy without being exploitative, that manages a terrific balancing act of six character arcs that all get their moments to shine. Just like Game Night, it's proof that scripts are actually pretty f**king valuable to comedy movies, Judd Apatow be damned. However, unlike Game Night, it doesn't offer a particularly unique aesthetic. Like most modern comedies, it's lit, shot, and cut well enough that it doesn't get in the way of the timing of the humor, but the energy of Blockers isn't coming from the filmmaking itself. Nevertheless, it's a movie I'd highly recommend, and certainly in the top 5 movies of the year so far, which is not something I thought I'd be saying at all.

Rating: 7/10

Truth or Dare?

Year: 2018
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Cast: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A group of teens on a Mexican spring break vacation stumble into a possessed game of truth or dare, where if they don't play they die in horrifying ways.

Truth or Dare isn't a film for me, at least demographically. I am a person who ditched class to go see Ouija in theaters, but let's not focus on that right now. And as much as I am a staunch defender of PG-13 horror and the potential that it has, the fact is, it still isn't for me. Would I have loved it if it was R-rated? No, probably not, but it just feels like it's operating at a level that I can't really reach anymore, even though the teens in the audience will probably love it.

There really is a lot to like about Truth or Dare. The characters and their conflicts are simply etched out, but interconnect in meaningful, narratively satisfying ways. The Final Destination-esque machinations of the game itself are delightful to watch unspool, and never ever boring. And Lucy Hale is a smart, capable performer who knows what she's doing with a script.

But the fact remains that, in my eyes, Truth or Dare pulled a lot of its punches. You'll never get on my good side by being progressive enough to include a gay character, but too gunshy to show more than half a second of him kissing a dude before demurely cutting away to something else and never mentioning it again. And then using his closeted sexuality to drum up drama for a dare, but completely excising the scene where's he's forced to come out to his father or die - which would have been the most flat-out horrifying scene in the movie, which is a little starved for genuine terror. At every turn this movie renders the character shallow, making him basically just a piece of set dressing.

While I do like the way the others characters are constructed, a lot of the movie is treated like that kid (who is played by a 32-year-old actor, naturally). The kills are noncommittal, the stakes of the game seem to ebb and flow as the narrative needs them to, and they don't even seem aware of the implications of their white characters stomping around Mexico destroying property and - in an early scene - physically assaulting a local with impunity.

This movie could have been much better. What it is is mostly entertaining, but its potential is so present and obvious that the fact that it didn't capitalize on it is even more frustrating than if it had never been there in the first place.

Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1470

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Reviewing Jane: A Quick Succession Of Busy Nothings

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: 1999
Director: Patricia Rozema
Cast: Frances O'Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Alessandro Nivola
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Mansfield Park has been described quite rightly as Jane Austen's most controversial novel, though not for the steamingly erotic reasons the marketing of the 1999 film would seem to suggest (and don't get your hopes up folks, suggestion is all there is). Mansfield Park is essentially a morality play, Austen's most po-faced and didactic work in her entire short career. The way it enforces the etiquette and strictures of Regency society can be punishing to modern readers, and requires a lot more context than most of her other work. It is not a novel for the impatient, so adapting a film from the story necessarily required a lot of adjusting and rearranging. Let's see how they did!

So far, so busty.

Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), a poor young woman who was sent at the age of 10 to live with her rich relations: the tyrannical imperialist Sir Thomas Bertram (the playwright Harold Pinter), the lazy opium addict Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan), and their children, the entitled drunkard Tom (James Purefoy), the well-mannered nice guy Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), and prissy, boy-crazy daughters Maria (Victoria Hamilton) and Julia (Justine Waddell). In the book, Fanny Price is a bland, passive character who is tossed around by these careless, larger-than-life personalities.

That didn't really work for making her the protagonist of a movie, so they have her a personality, and that personality was literally Jane Austen's. In a montage they show Fanny writing most of Austen's juvenilia (her early, posthumously published work), and they force her into the "anachronistically modern girl sarcastically fighting against the foibles of her time" mode in which most portrayals of Austen or her most beloved character Lizzy Bennett can usually be found. This completely and utterly destroys any reason this particular story had to exist, but whatever. Their lives get tangled up in lusty and romantic twists and turns when the seductive brother and sister Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) come to visit. Drama ensues.

They're certainly dressed for it.

We do really need to dig deep into the character of Fanny Price. She's the moral center of the book, and while there's no denying that she's a boring stick in the mud, there's literally no point to the story if she's not boring. She's supposed to be the steady center amidst the chaos of youthful licentiousness and adult hypocrisy whirling around her. By making her interesting, the story loses its lynchpin and the wheels rattle off, sending it all crashing to the ground.

It doesn't help that the other changes made to the material are entirely superficial, like adding a fresh coat of paint to a wall that's full of sledgehammer holes. As I already mentioned, this film was billed as a sexy, steamy romance, that element mostly relegated to a pair of scenes that require an extremely  liberal reading of the source material to mutate Mary Crawford and Fanny's relationship into a bizarrely sublimated lesbian affair. It's nonsense that exists only to be provocative, and it barely succeeds at that because of the way it pulls its punches, demurely hiding behind its implication.

The other major embellishment on the source material is the addition of a much more prevalent angle on slavery. In the book, it is only mentioned Sir Thomas Bertram has property in the South American colony of Antigua, though readers at the time would probably be aware he held slaves. But that fact is drawn into the light here, making his slave-driving an important facet of the narrative and the drama between his character and Fanny Price. Unfortunately, Mansfield Park completely fails to make any point about slavery and the way the family profits from it. It's just one more ingredient to some overbuild melodrama, and the big conflict about it (involving some way-too graphic depictions of rape and torture) is resolved offscreen, so it's obvious once again that the filmmakers were too shy to actually go through with their bold reinterpretations.

I mean, what's the point when we could be watching straight white people almost kiss?

Really, Mansfield Park is a thorough waste of time. But there's at least a spark of what the film could have been. It's still funny, as almost any Jane Austen adaptation has to be - at least briefly. The standout character is the same as the novel: Sheila Gish's manipulative, self-indulgent Aunt Norris. Her pert little reactions to hugely tragic situations are amusing to be sure, and any scene with her in it seems to perk up a bit, even visually speaking. She is present for most of the visually creative moments Mansfield has to offer. In fact, perhaps the best is a smash cut to the death of Mr. Norris, as described by Fanny in a letter to her sister (these letters, which are presented by Frances O'Connor speaking directly to the camera, are the only other times that the movie actually tries to accomplish something stylistically unique).

These sequences are few and far between, but the movie has the gall to end on a beautiful series of tableaux that gently break the fourth wall as we follow each of the characters' fates in the epilogue. When Mansfield Park actually uses the medium of cinema to breathe life into one of Austen's most lifeless novels, it accomplishes a great deal, but unfortunately they're mostly content to have the narrative crumble around them just like the walls of the titular manse.

The romance here isn't even compelling. Whereas in the novel, we see Fanny pining for her cousin throughout the entire story (gross), here her more active character causes him to pine for her, which deflates every scrap of drama that is supposed to be created by his fervent, blind interest in Mary Crawford. I'm not here to complain that they changed details from the novel. This is what movies do. But did they have to change the detail that fundamentally fuels the entire romantic conflict? It's monumentally fatiguing. Every choice that was made in this adaptation was the wrong one, and the budget doesn't provide for sets and costumes lush enough to redeem it by at least allowing you to sink into cozy period domesticity.

I obviously have a lot of patience with these things, so please don't take my warning lightly. Don't waste your time with this one.

TL;DR: Mansfield Park is a waste of time, embellishing a book that's not that interesting in a way that makes it even less interest.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1140
Other Films Based on Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park (Rozema, 1999)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Silent As The Grave

Year: 2018
Director: John Krasinski
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A Quiet Place might seem like a unique entry in the horror genre, but there's a lot of precedent for it in the Blumhouse Productions canon. They've already played with huge swaths of silence dominating the sound design in the Mike Flanagan home invasion thriller Hush, and they've already given a shot at the horror genre to a former comedian director with last year's explosively successful Get Out. But why not let others in on the fun? Platinum Dunes and Paramount have had a phenomenally successful opening weekend, and let's not begrudge them of earning that off the back of a movie that isn't lowest-common-denominator garbage.

Pictured: the weekend box office once A Quiet Place hit theaters.

In A Quiet Place, which was co-written, directed, and performed by The Office star John Krasinski, the world has been overrun by hideous demon monsters that in a matter of months turned the entire Earth into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. These monsters are blind, and they hunt by sound, so the tiny remainder of the population is forced into hiding, being as quiet as possible in order to survive.

We follow the survival story of the Abbott family: a beardy, overprotective father (Krasinski), a pregnant mother (Emily Blunt, his real life wife, and this sure must have been fun for them to make), a deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and a nervous, wimpy son (Noah Jupe). They get names in the credits but we don't ever hear them in the movie, so why bother?

All you need to know about him is that he is Jim and he does NOT know how to shush.

A Quiet Place is essentially a silent film: basically without any scrap of dialogue other than American Sign Language, only with all the lush sound design you'd typically expect from a monster movie. It's a fun experiment, and there's a lot to recommend it. 

First and foremost is obviously the aforementioned soundscape, which builds quivering tension through absolute silence. And when loud noises come cracking across your ears, it's not just to accentuate a jump scare. The sounds are scary not because of what they are, but what they mean. You might jolt because of the noise, but the fact that the sound is the very thing that immediately exposes the characters to danger doesn't allow you to relax, like any other horror movie shock gag. The way A Quiet Place sustains tension in its monster sequences is completely beyond reproach, constantly adding layer after layer of visual and aural complication to some immensely intense moments.

Plus, there are a handful of pretty stunning visual elements to accent this sound. Krasinski's use of red light (either from the emergency bulbs strung across their property or various other sources) bathes the frame in jagged streaks of color that crack open the aesthetic of the movie and give you something completely new and sleek to marvel at. These are the moments where the filmmaking really comes alive, because otherwise its presentation is pretty standard.

And, of course, you can't ignore the monsters. They're handled in exactly the right way. You get brief glimpses of them early on that make them even more terrifying because you can't quite make out their exact shape except that they're big and spindly and not friendly. But when you eventually see more of them, you can appreciate the fact that their design is still f**king uncanny and frightening. There are a couple extreme close-ups that are a little dodgy, but that's maybe ten seconds out of many many minutes of monster-fied terror.

But, in a way, isn't the true monster the fact that John Krasinski hasn't had a leading movie role until now?

Speaking of Krasinski, he has assembled a cast here that completely works. You're not gonna be blown away by any particular showcase moment (except for maybe one scene of Emily Blunt actually using her voice, with a hoarseness that belies years of disuse and neglect of her vocal cords), but they're all effective at drawing you into the terror, especially the kids who have no right being as good as they are.

Unfortunately, the characters themselves don't entirely serve the performers bringing them to life. The world of A Quiet Place is captivating and unique, but these archetypes are nothing we haven't seen before in a million post-apocalyptic movies or hell, even family dramas. They're rough sketches of human beings that are meant to draw up emotion because of what they represent rather than what they are, and the fact that they lean on pretty rigidly structured gender roles isn't really the format to get me on their side. Also the fact that there are an alarming amount of parallels to the characterizations in Signs are really not designed for my particular brand of entertainment.

This fact also doesn't help the slow pace of the first act, where we spend the most time with these people going about their daily lives. Their personalities are so empty and basic that their interactions aren't particularly engaging, and the way Krasinski chooses to linger in certain setup scenes can feel a little punishing.

But hey, it does It Comes at Night way better than that movie ever did, so that's a big plus in my book. I'll take a generic but effective horror movie any day. I feel like I was promised a new classic and I didn't get that, but what A Quiet Place is is still pretty neat. I've been parading around convinced that it was a Blumhouse picture for a good couple months now, and I was shocked to realize that I was wrong, because it feels exactly like their model: cheap, simple, and not always remarkable, but usually solid and reliable as popcorn entertainment. I hate being wrong, but that's really not a bad thing, I daresay.

TL;DR: A Quiet Place is a fun experimental horror flick that's a teensy bit more run-of-the-mill than I wanted it to be.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1020

Monday, April 9, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Think Only Of The Past As Its Remembrance Gives You Pleasure

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: 1940
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Cast: Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Mary Boland
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

It's probably hard to believe, but the current elite status that Jane Austen holds in popular culture hasn't always existed. Sure, she was a well-known enough author that she was certainly read by scholars and taught in schools, but the Austenite fervor that warps the minds of the heroines of Austenland or The Jane Austen Book Club is a product of the 90's, and the boom of Austen adaptations that came in the wake of the massively popular BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice.

So this entry will be one of the very few points that our marathon will dip into a point outside of recent memory. Although TV miniseries versions of Austen's work have been around since the beginning of time (the first recorded one seems to be a 1938 UK production of Pride and Prejudice made during the advent of television that was - obviously - sparsely viewed), only two feature length adaptations floated their way across the cinema landscape before the 1980's: a TV movie of Emma in 1948, and the topic we'll be discussing today: the Best Art Direction Oscar-winning Pride and Prejudice, from 1940.

It's also a nominee for Best Ridiculous Hats in this particular marathon, but there's some stiff competition.

Please tell me you know the plot by now. In old-timey England (this particular adaptation, led by - of all people - screenwriter Aldous Huxley, who is perhaps best known for the classic dystopian novel Brave New World, seems to transplant the setting from the Regency era to the Victorian era, but the hats and the accents are pretty much the same if you ask me), Lizzy Bennett (Greer Garson) is the second eldest daughter of the five unmarried Bennett sisters. When her older sister Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan, who played another famous Jane in the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man) falls in love with new neighbor Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester), Lizzy must contend with his haughty and supercilious friend Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier) as they enter a will-they won't-they relationship based on mutual distrust and prejudice.

So romantic!

1940 sure was a different time for filmmaking, and the ways in which this Pride and Prejudice is different from, say, the 2005 incarnation, are endless and fascinating. Cinema under the production code had a sort of old-fashioned gentility that you'd think would lend itself to Jane Austen's work, but the tropes and performance styles that the era brought with it make for an incredibly strange concoction.

To that point, the two leads here are excruciatingly miscast. Greer Garson is nearly twice as old as her character (Lizzy Bennett is no older than 21, and Garson was 36 when she starred in the film), but that wouldn't matter if she understood the role one tiny bit. She gives exactly the performance that one would expect from a glamorous movie star of the time, with all the elegant posturing, mincing gait, and overenunciated dialogue that would imply. She's not chewing the scenery at all. She's swallowing it whole. While anyone who has read the book would know that young Miss Bennett is (to use an odious, but popular term) "not like the other girls," Garson plays her like Queen Victoria herself. It's a complete obliteration of the character as written, and makes for a dazzlingly uncompelling protagonist.

Someone who would seem to agree with me is Olivier himself, whose active disdain for the project soaks through every scene he's in. And this is no mere speculation. During my brief period of research on this movie, I discovered no fewer than a half dozen quotes, all colorfully displaying his disdain for the film and practically every decision made on set. He never gets a foothold on the character, and plays him like any generically handsome leading man. So we have an aristocratic Lizzy and an apathetic Darcy forming a huge black hole in the center of the movie where their romance should be. It's nothing less than tragic.

Well, I guess it's technically a black-and-white hole.

Although literally the whole reason this story is being told - the romance - is such a dud, there is enough material working around the sidelines that this Pride and Prejudice is far from a bust. If any other work of 19th century literature had been reworked as a broad romantic comedy, it might have been jarring, but this approach draws out the inherent character-based humor in Austen's work, and the raucous personalities that bounce off of Lizzy during her journey to true love are all splendid.

At the top of the heap is Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennett. She is third-billed for a freaking reason, because she is the glue that holds this entire movie together. The character gets a lot more screen time than any other adaptation I've seen (and I'm already on my way to seeing a medically unhealthy number of these), and her portrayal of the woman as a conniving, meddlesome puppetmaster pulling the heartstrings of her children is a triumph of classic rom-com confection.

She walks into every scene like she owns the place, and her lively, amusing energy is irresistible. Her transparent desperation is so overheated that there's literally a carriage race within the first twenty minutes of the movie. That kind of setpiece isn't exactly common in Austen movies, and she is the only reason Pride and Prejudice generates the off-kilter, cheerful adrenaline that it does.

Mama sure does have a reason to be proud.

There are other characters worth looking at here (would-be cousin-husband Mr. Collins is especially pompous and obnoxious here, and younger sisters Kitty, Lydia, and Mary get their due; the former two as giggling tipsy maniacs, the latter as the uptight, try-hard geek she was always meant to be), but if this movie was a one-woman show with Mary Boland, it might just be the best comedy of the 40's.

Part of the reason these characters are allowed to sparkle so much more than other adaptations is Aldous Huxley's script, which restages many major scenes, embellishes some, and truncates others in the best combination possible. His additions to the script are clever and amusing, while still effortlessly fitting into Austen's tone and vernacular. The only damage he does is to make the bourgeois badass Lady Catherine more of a toothless goofball, but that would have required making the film even longer, and I don't think anybody particularly wants that.

All in all, Pride and Prejudice is a reasonably good time. The cheery library music and chewy British accents that remind you of nothing more than Georgia King in Austenland make for a mostly sweet walk through cinema history, and the fact that its terrible leads don't damn the movie to an early grave means that everything else here is working at full steam.

TL;DR: Pride and Prejudice is a surprisingly amusing romantic comedy, but the leads are woefully miscast.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1193
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Teen Homicide (Don't Do It)

Year: 2018
Director: Cory Finley
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

When you bill a film as the second coming of Heathers, you know I'll be first in line. Unfortunately, you can bill a film as whatever the hell you want. The advertisers weren't lying. Thoroughbreds is a pitch black high school comedy about murder, after all. But we should all know by now not to violate the cardinal rule of reminding audiences of a movie much better than your own.

Come to think of it, you're reminding me of The Witch too. Stop it!

In Thoroughbreds, well-to-do teenager Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is paid off by the mother of the only slightly less well-to-do Amanda (Olivia Cooke, who also held a starring role in Ready Player One, so this is a pretty big month for her) to host a tutoring session in the hopes that they'll become friends. This actually works, but probably not in the way mom was planning. It turns out that Amanda is an emotion-free sociopath, and Lily takes advantage of her total lack of conscience to plan a murder. 

She wants to take out a hit on her evil stepdad (evil is a malleable term here: we see him being generally disagreeable, but her perception of him is certainly skewed) Mark (Paul Sparks). They eventually draw in strung-out drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin, in what would seem to be his final role) to help with the plan.

He's the only one in the movie whose income is below like 10 figures.

Thoroughbreds is the writing and directorial debut of playwright Cory Finley, and it shows. It has all the limitations of setting and cast that a low budget debut would traditionally display, but it's also restricted to an absurdly small range of motion per scene, a pretty obvious holdover from the fact that this movie was originally written as a stage play. It's a static motion picture, and it never throws off the shackles of its theatrical origins. There's nothing wrong with a lot of scenes that are just two or three people talking to each other, but it's not presented with any particular cinematic flair. It's like eating a Pop Tart without any frosting. It's still a Pop Tart, but there's something so fundamental missing that it's not the same experience at all.

Now the script is pretty solid, of course. It's not as richly comedic as I was hoping, but there are certain dark situations and dialogue beats that raise a worthy chuckle. And the ideas it raises about emotion/the lack thereof in the teenage population, or how easy it is for wealthy people to toy with the poor are fun to chew on. 

It does tend to slip a bit too often into an over-literary mindset (this film is divided into chapters for absolutely no reason, other than to seem impressive and Smart), and the closing monologue leaves a lot to be desired - its attack on social media and technological advancements seems ripped from a completely different movie, because it has absolutely zero foundation in the story we've been watching. I don't think there's more than 90 seconds of actually even seeing a iPhone onscreen in the entire movie.

Look at these teens, so absorbed in their Chapsnats, not engaging with the real world, not going to Applebee's...

Everything in Thoroughbreds is kind of uneven in this way. Take the sound design, which sometimes creates incredible feats of audio, like the scene where the whirring of Mark's exercise machine keeps his stepdaughter awake. The noise builds and builds until she finally snaps, and you believe it. But most of the rest of the soundtrack is occupied with a truly unhinged score that sounds like composer Erik Friedlander is snapping rubber bands underwater. It's manic as hell, and while I secretly kind of like it, it's deeply distracting from the quiet dialogue-based story we're meant to be watching.

And then there are the two teen girls who lead the film. They're unequivocally great, and the fact that there are two teen girls bearing the entire weight of this movie on their backs is something tremendously fun and inspiring. Unfortunately, Anton Yelchin, who I like very much, seems to be acting in a completely different movie. He's being pushed into a cartoon character that would have worked in a film like Fright Night or even the bizarre Only Lovers Left Alive (he sure did make his share of vampire movies, didn't he?), but glances right off the grounded, intentionally flat performances of his co-stars.

Altogether I'm pretty sure I liked Thoroughbreds, but I'm absolutely certain that it takes someone of a very particular bent to love it, and I'm definitely not there. This movie makes me continue to be excited to follow the careers of Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, who I have seen and enjoyed in many previous genre efforts, but Cory Finley really needs to knock it out of the park next time to earn my trust.

TL;DR: Thoroughbreds has a solid dark comedy nugget at its center, but it's too stagebound to really do anything exciting with it.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 871

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Facts Are Such Horrid Things!

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: 2016
Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The thing about Jane Austen is that she only wrote six novels. That doesn't provide a lot of material for the endless adaptation machine, even given the way Pride and Prejudice greases the gears. So the only thing shocking about the fact that filmmakers began to dig through her assorted unpublished short works was that it took until 2016 for it to happen.

Love & Friendship, from director Whit Stillman (who directed 1990's Metropolitan, a loose adaptation of Mansfield Park that will arrive on the pages of this here blog sooner than later), was adapted from Austen's 50-page novella "Lady Susan," written by Austen most likely in her early 20's, shortly before she began drafting what would become her first published novel: Sense and Sensibility. One other thing about "Lady Susan": It's f**king awesome.

It's like RuPaul's Drag Race crossed with Breaking Bad and I'm not the slightest bit kidding.

I'm fairly convinced that Jane Austen is the inventor of the female antihero, because Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is one badass broad. A widow of some ill-repute who has just finished seducing the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin, who I do believe is Irish) away from his wife (Jennifer Murray) with no intention of returning his affections, she decides to shake the spot and take up residence at Churchill, the country residence of her former sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell, who is familiar with Austen work considering she played Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and her husband Charles (Justin Edwards).

Her plans to seduce Catherine's rich, handsome, and stupid brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel) are challenged by the unexpected appearance of her neglected daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, who was also in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as Georgiana Darcy), Frederica's foolish and unwanted suitor Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), and Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), the interfering husband of Susan's best friend and confidante Alicia (Chloë Sevigny). Like all Jane Austen works, the cast list is longer than a slasher movie, but trust me this all makes sense.

All you need to know for now is that Lady Susan orchestrates some Heath Ledger Joker levels of manipulation and subterfuge to get what she wants, any way she can.

That's why her hair is so big. It's full of secrets.

As much as I do enjoy the plot of "Lady Susan," probably the biggest challenge in adapting it is that the novella was epistolary: presenting the plot in the form of a series of letters sent between various characters. Love & Friendship can't entirely shake the constraints of that form of storytelling, and the way it finds ways to unite characters who are separated by distance (especially Mrs. Johnson and Lady Susan, who almost never speak face to face in the source material) are sometimes jarring and distracting, taking time away from the main thrust of the plot. 

However, Love & Friendship also does its best to embrace that epistolary format, and a scene where a husband is reading a letter aloud to his wife, the words appearing on the screen as he speaks them, is one of the most delightful of the film. There's a certain sense of formal daring to a lot of this movie, actually, at least in most of its early moments. For one thing, the characters are all introduced with their own title card, with a pithy descriptor introducing their function to the plot, which is a hell of a lot of fun. This playful meta humor doesn't travel very far past the opening thirty minutes, but it's strong enough that you're still thinking about it when the credits roll.

Beyond that, the filmmaking isn't particularly stunning, save for the way it spins a remarkably small budget into some sumptuous gowns, drawing rooms, and hats that never cease to bring joy.

Honestly, the criminally insane hats are one of the main reasons I'm doing this marathon.

Fortunately for any filmmaker without a lot of money, the crux of any Jane Austen adaptation is the dialogue and the actors, and both of these are perfectly prepared in Love & Friendship. Kate Beckinsale obviously gets the best, most bitingly sardonic lines as she outmaneuvers the dozen pawns in her game of love and lust, but the ensemble she is surrounded with is certainly up to snuff. The clear standout is Tom Bennett, who takes his character as written and tears him right off the page, bringing him to life with a clamoring of clipped Britishisms and awkward mumbles that will have you giggling so hard you can barely breathe.

The cast is a well-oiled machine, talking past one another at a swift rate that sweeps you up in their emotional interplay. The only two dark spots are Chloë Sevigny, who has trouble justifying her American accent and presence in general (the character is just a sounding board for Lady Susan and a vehicle for narrative drama who doesn't have much agency herself) in scenes that were already a bit wobbly, and Jenn Murray who is certainly funny but whose hysterical jilted wife schtick is far too shrill and hyperbolic for the genteel comedy-of-manners tone that the film has built up around it.

Austen is funny but she's QUIET, my dear.

But in spite of its occasional flaws, Love & Friendship is still one of the best, truest Austen adaptations out there. No Austen movie is a faithful resurrection of the author without an enormous dollop of biting, satirical humor, and this movie is a chock-full barrel of literary laffs. And there's one thing I've started to notice in these Austen adaptations. Obviously, dancing and balls appear in some form or another in all of her works, but if a film can lift up the obligatory dance number to something other than people fumbling around in period costume to fulfill a requirement, I count it as a success.

Take the dance sequence in Pride and Prejudice, which beautifully isolates Lizzy and Darcy by removing everyone else in the room during a moment of true connection. That's the high-water mark by which I measure these things, but Love & Friendship comes pretty damn close with a line dance that dizzyingly highlights the confused passing-along of lovers and friends that has happened since Lady Susan came into their lives. It's almost a ballet of Midsummer Night's Dream, cementing in a dozen lovesick character dynamics with just two minutes of physical movement.

So Love & Friendship might not be the best of these out there, but it's certainly top-tier Austen. It's fizzy and engaging, with a highly satisfying portrayal of one of her best characters holding court at the center of everything. What's not to like?

TL;DR: Love & Friendship is a funny, charming bit of Jane Austen apocrypha.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1283