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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Popcorn Culture: Best Picture Contenders, Vol. 2

I did it! For the first time in my life, I've actually seen every film nominated for Best Picture in a particular year! Am I glad it was this year? Probably not, but at least I can feel accomplished. Here are my mini-reviews for the final two bricks in that wall.

Phantom Thread
Year: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville 
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A meticulous and demanding couture designer meets and seduces a young woman, who becomes his muse and eventually enters a battle of manners and wills in the power struggle between him, her, and his spinster sister.

Phantom Thread is a hard movie to review, because it's so impeccably structured and designed that it's impossible to ignore the skill and craft that went into its creation. But it's at least a little difficult to find a foothold and manifest an active interest in the proceedings, which are appropriately chilly and at arm's length. 

There's hardly a fault in the visual world that Paul Thomas Anderson, costume designer Mark Bridges (who has worked with PTA since his debut, but more importantly worked on Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and Waxwork II: Lost in Time) and production designer Mark Tildesley (who worked on 28 Days Later... and aren't you glad you're reading my commentary, because nobody else would be telling you these important things) have created, which is pristine and precise from top to bottom.

The fun of this movie comes when you place the three actors into this toy box and send them spinning into one another. At first their interactions are as stiff and formal as the scenery, but as they settle into their roles, it quickly becomes clear that this is the ensemble of the year. I don't have a lot of respect for Daniel Day-Lewis' ostentatious style of preparing for a role, but he does do a good job, although he is conspicuously the weakest link in this trio. Krieps is doing tremendously subtle work here that quietly, almost imperceptibly builds toward an incredibly bold set of actions in the final act that you wouldn't have thought her capable of just 90 minutes before. And Manville is incredibly frightening as a woman whose stiff, prim confidence can weather any storm. With these two in the room, Day-Lewis just looks like a child play-acting that he's fancy.

I really did warm to this movie but he third act, but there's no avoiding the fact that at times it's quite dull, progressing from stiff scene to stiff scene at the pace of an arthritic snail. It's probably the artiest art film on the slate, and that just isn't really what gets my engine revved. But if you like angry, horny, twisted comedies of manners, it's worth it to stick around.

Rating: 6/10

Darkest Hour
Year: 2017
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Winston Churchill must find the strength to lead England into what seems like an unwinnable war against the Nazis, after he is voted prime minister by a parliament that has no real faith in him.

Darkest Hour has reputation already for being the most flagrantly terrible of the year's Oscar slate, but for my money no film is as actively anti-entertaining as The Post, so this film is safe from my wrath. Unfortunately, it has nothing to offer other than not sucking so hard your fillings dislodge from your teeth. It's the most aggressively average bit of Awards bait in a year full of projects that - good or bad - are all at least unique in some way.

Like all performances the Academy loves to reward, Gary Oldman does nothing to push the craft forward other than drowning himself in prosthetics and shouting as loud as he possibly can without having his fake jowls wobble right off his face. His portrayal of Winston Churchill is a screeching caricature, constantly winking at the history buffs in the audience while conspicuously failing to craft an actual human character.

We're meant to take his abuse of the other characters in the movie as a charming symptom of his passion and eccentric individualism. At least Phantom Thread had the decency to know how twisted its control-freak character was, we're supposed to root for this blowhard. And in the process of this extravagant yelling, every other character is shoved against the wall and flattened to one dimension at best as they act out a grab bag of real life scenarios, including - mysteriously - the decision to evacuate the troops at Dunkirk, which is just a grim reminder that you could have been watching Dunkirk instead of this movie.

The best thing I can say about Darkest Hour is that it's at least shot well. Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who shot the sumptuously gorgeous Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as well as Amélie and Inside Llewyn Davis) have a way of isolating Churchill inside the frame that isn't the least bit subtle, but is far more emotionally satisfying than any scrap of dialogue, for stimulating the audience using visual beauty rather than desperate wheezing.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 874

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Guns... So Primitive

Year: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o 
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

For a huge corporation dominating the box office, Marvel sure does manage to take some risks. Let's not pretend that these risks aren't carefully calculated and demographically analyzed within a nanometer of their lives to be as safe and sure as possible, but they're risks nonetheless. 

They hand movies to indie auteurs with only a few low budget gems under their belt (Taika Waititi earned his way to Thor: Ragnarok with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and James Gunn nabbed Guardians of the Galaxwith Super, a film that had literally 1% of that Marvel flick's budget), they adapt low-performing properties into mega-blockbusters (the aforementioned Guardians had two brief runs, and hadn't had a comic published in at least four years when the movie came out), and though all their movies have the same general sheen, they aren't afraid of changing up the tone and even genre of individual entries (from the paranoid political thriller of The Winter Soldier to the frothy heist antics of Ant-Man, there's a pretty wide range of material at this point). When you really take a look at the way they've gone at least a teensy bit out of their way to make sure their mass-market product is guided by interesting, dynamic people, it's pretty, well, marvelous.

Black Panther is a combination of all of these things, and way more. The character of Black Panther is a Marvel B-side, though he's right on the cusp of being a household name, at least in nerdier families. The director, Ryan Coogler, only had two films under his belt, though admittedly one of them was Creed, already a successful, critically acclaimed franchise extension. But most importantly, this is the biggest budget film ever to have a predominantly black cast, a black director, all while being the first Marvel film with a female cinematographer to boot. These are all very wonderful, and yes, capital-I Important things. While I personally wouldn't consider this kind of casting and hiring particularly risky (because I live in the real world, and am aware that all kinds of people can make all kinds of art), Hollywood has a tendency to view anything non-whitewashed as a potential financial loss. In the eyes of Hollywood, the near-future careers of many hard-working, diverse crew members depends on the success of  the mega-multi-million dollar Black Panther, as does the continuation of the box office juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's what I'd call a risk, and a very Important one.

Of course, the movie also has to be good in addition to important, but would Marvel take a risk on something that wasn't good?

Well, you got me there.

Spoiler alert: It's good. But first, the plot, which is blissfully as insular as it can possibly be from the greater orchestrations of the Marvel universe. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the death of T'Chaka (John Kani), King of the African nation of Wakanda, the throne has been passed to his son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, who is finally free from playing every significant historical African-American figure the country to offer). Wakanda, though it seems to be a third world farming country from the outside, is secretly a high-tech utopia thanks to its vast deposits of vibranium, a magical compound that does, I dunno, comic book stuff. It's magic.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Wakanda is as pleased with T'Challa being crowned King as his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and tech-genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). The five tribes of Wakanda slowly begin to splinter according to their various allegiances, but the real breaking point comes in the form of two villains: the chav-bro arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, using his actual god-given face) and his partner in crime Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who is three for three on Ryan Coogler films at this point), an Oakland native who has mysterious ties to the Wakandan War Dog tribe.

Everything swiftly descends into what you might just call a "game of thrones" involving every major Wakandan figure, including General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the bald, entirely female royal guard; W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, currently an Oscar nominee for Get Out), a friend of T'Challa whose overwhelming hatred of Klaue makes him unpredictable; Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa's former flame and an international spy who wants to use Wakandan technology to help those in need out in the world; and also Zuri (Forest Whitaker), but I'm honestly not really sure what he does. 

He mainly just delivers exposition and takes care of flowers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Black Panther how very political it is. It's necessarily about political engagement and the responsibility of upper-class minorities to reach out and help the oppressed (which honestly isn't as far from the general theme of superhero movies as you'd think, although it is much more fervently expressed here). Occasionally the movie gets a little didactic, especially in a clunky monologue it shoves onto Michael B. Jordan's shoulders midway through, but otherwise it's soaked with an urgency and vitality that's startling for a film with this corporate pedigree.

But that's yet another thing about what makes it Important, and I'm a little sick of dwelling on that for the time being. Because Black Panther is fun, and it doesn't serve the movie to forget that. A tremendous cast is delivering crackling dialogue here, with just enough of a snappy edge to remind you that you're watching a Marvel project, but still shedding the vestiges of Joss Whedon flop sweat and finding its own personality in the process.

I mean, there's no way you can deny how awe-inspiring it is to look at that cast list. These people are all from different genres, mediums, and levels of fame, but they come together to create something spectacular. Everyone is having fun here, even Lupita Nyong'o, who is saddled with a tragically generic love interest role. A bright spot here is certainly Letitia Wright (whose biggest credit up to this point has been the odious British TV series Cucumber/Banana, which I regretfully watched all of in my capacity as a recapper at The Backlot) as the eager younger sister, whose energy and vivacity light up the screen like a thousand gigawatt bulb, but sometimes it's hard to look anywhere but the villains.

Marvel has notoriously had a problem with crafting solid antagonists, and that issue is cracked wide open here. Klaue is maybe not the best example, but the anarchistic glee with which Andy Serkis digs into the role is immensely satisfying. Killmonger, however, in spite of the ridiculous name, is a force to be reckoned with. Michael B. Jordan takes a role that we've seen in every Marvel origin story from the beginning of time (a villain who is a dark mirror-image of the main hero's costume and power set) and tosses in about a dozen extra layers of prickly emotion, charismatic intimidation, and moral ambiguity. He's not just a one note slab of eeeeevil, but rather a complex, satisfying character who serves up the themes of the movie on a silver platter. And not for nothing, he's so good-looking it almost hurts. Part of being a movie star is drawing the eye like an electromagnet, and he's at full charge.

Dude knows how to rock a vest, what can I say?

On top of all that, Black Panther is probably the best looking Marvel film to date, although - to be fair - only recently has it seemed like they've been trying to create any sort of visual beauty in their movies. But it also inhabits a wholly unique space in the American cinema sphere, bringing the traditions and aesthetics of Afrofuturism to the grandest scale they've ever seen. From the costumes to the sets to the sweeping cinematography of Rachel Morrison, Black Panther fully invests in the color, patterns, and majesty of Africa to create an arresting visual schema that dares you to look away for even a second.

There aren't nearly enough high quality screenshots of the film yet for my liking, but here's a quick taste of some of what it has to offer:

In the future, we don't question that women are badasses.

Western clothing patterns can go f**k themselves.

Oh yeah, did I mention Martin Freeman is in this movie? Should I have? Eh, probably not.

Sometimes set designers just get it.

The bottom line is that Black Panther is spectacular, and it makes itself so by utilizing a perspective that's been long absent from modern cinema. The heavy drums that propel the soundtrack straight through your skull, the elegant simplicity of the sci-fi gadgetry that blends old traditions with hyper-futuristic tech, and the eye-searing color scheme that doesn't remotely feel 80's in the way that most bold color palettes have gone recently, none of it could have come from Western culture, and the fact that it has been given such a platform is a blissfully new, visually entrancing experience.

What does come from Western culture, however, is the plot structure, and it's nothing we haven't seen before. Marvel falls back on a lot of their favorite tropes and plot devices, so nothing in the plot itself is going to particularly shock you. And while the action sequences are fun (especially a trawl through the streets of Busan, a South Korean burg we should all know very well, and a fight on the edge of a waterfall), none of them are blow-the-roof-off unique, especially the too-busy, dizzying CGI-fest that closes the third act.

The reasons to watch this movie are ample, but the parts where it fails are exactly the elements that mark it as a Marvel project. It's not Black Panther's fault that a formula we've seen 18 times before is getting a wee bit stale, but this is one in a long line of movies that are doing something unique and memorable, but I probably never need to see again. And it's a shame, because the act of seeing Black Panther is exactly what makes it so incredibly satisfying. 

It's a triumph of aesthetic, world-building, character-creation, and political urgency, and I highly recommend it. But it's still a Marvel movie, y'know? Thank heavens they're taking risks, but they're never going to make something one hundred percent new. There's no shame in that, but there's also no   longevity.

TL;DR: Black Panther contains a lot of material we've seen before, but it's presented with a vision that we certainly haven't.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1767
Reviews In This Series
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Spanks For The Memories

Year: 2018
Director: James Foley
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

If that's not the best poster tagline you've ever seen, you've either seen a lot of posters or you have much better taste than I do. "Don't miss the climax" is precisely what this franchise needed, throwing caution to the wind and unabashedly embracing its status as frothy, sexy trash. Pretending to be anything else is futile and tedious. Of course, "pretending to be anything else" is exactly what the franchise loves to do, so let's not kid ourselves that Fifty Shades Freed was great, but props to whatever genius made that poster a reality.

Like, let's not kid ourselves about the reason people are watching these movies.

Fifty Shades Freed opens with the wedding of tenacious submissive Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and BDSM stalker-maniac Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), which is treated with all the gravity and care that the people who have waited years for this deserve: as a thirty-second montage during the opening credits. So now they're married, and boy oh boy does that not fix their problems!

Christian is still a control-freak who wants to punish her every time she disobeys an order (you know, like good husbands give). Anastasia still wants to live her own life in addition to fixing Christian (you know, like all good wives must do). And Anastasia's abusive former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) has somehow transformed from a vaguely sexy book editor into a Mission: Impossible villain and is doing everything in his considerable, inexplicable power to take down the Greys, including car chases, attempted kidnapping, and literally planting a bomb in Christian's file room.

Also, they argue a lot about whether or not they want to have a baby, because that's totally a conversation you should have two days after the wedding.

Is it just me, or are they getting married in front of President Obama's official portrait backdrop?

Just like Fifty Shades Darker, I do kind of love how the movie just throws you into the deep end of the plot, sink or swim. Don't remember that two-second scene where Ana pointed at a house while sailing to a Taylor Swift song? Don't remember the auction sequence that was sandwiched between Ben Wa ball sex scenes? Well f**k you, because they are major plot points now, and if you don't remember what happened, you clearly didn't spend enough money on the Fifty Shades franchise to deserve to know what's going on.

Unfortunately, that's just about the biggest compliment I can give to the film, and I'm not entirely convinced that a callous disregard for newcomers goes in the "pro" column for anybody but me. Sure, some of the (very few) good things about the franchise have continued on here, but they're considerably weaker this time around. For instance, Dakota Johnson is, as ever, the best thing about the movie. Although she almost exclusively is forced to interact with Jamie Dornan, whose powerful emotive vacuum leaches the shine off her talents, she still finds the opportunity to deliver the franchise's only genuine belly laugh (an embarrassed admission about the couple owning a pair of handcuffs during a tense moment).

And there are some campy moments that can be squeezed out of this sponge of a movie. I myself quite fancied the honeymoon sequence where, among the riches and elegance of Paris, Christian buys Ana a tacky charm bracelet. And I'm pretty sure a quick jet ski ride completes the franchise's bingo card of putting this couple on every form of transportation ever conceived by humanity. Also, the brazenly conspicuous way that pop songs are injected into the very tissue of this movie, at the expense of all dialogue and plot, is admirably mercenary.

I'm pretty sure you hear more words spoken by Ellie Goulding than by Anastasia Steele.

Unfortunately, there isn't enough camp here to generate more than a passing interest. It's enough that I never felt like the film was a slog at any particular point, but that's about the best I can say for it. Most of what's at play here is just plain bad-bad. The plotting, which has even more unpredictable, inscrutable, low-stakes melodrama than the previous film (which features a helicopter crash with absolutely no setup) and thus should be that much more delightful, is too dizzying and fragmented to be properly picked apart.

Plus, they've really doubled down on the sex here, which really also should have been a bonus, but the love scenes have historically been the least exciting thing about this all-too vanilla franchise. Sure, there are actual handcuffs in this one, which I don't think have actually appeared in the series thus far in spite of being on the cover of at least one of the books, but the artifacts in the massively appointed red room are just used as garnishes to frustratingly dull missionary sex. One gratuitously extensive scene involves ice cream being spooned onto body parts and achieves a remarkable kind of anti-eroticism that just turns the stomach. The only thing to recommend any of these scenes is that Christian Grey's ratty, nudity-obliterating sex jeans have basically become their own character in the most hilarious and faux-meaningful way ever.

But the sad fact remains that Dornan and Johnson have absolutely zero chemistry. It doesn't help that the film's overzealous casting director has given us both Tyler Hoechlin and Brant Daugherty in small roles, thus assuring that Jamie Dornan will literally never be the sexiest person in the frame. This is no slight on Dornan or his body, but just like Tom Cruise needs you to hire short people on set so he looks taller, you can't hide his light under the bushel of a former Teen Wolf.

So, yeah. Fifty Shades Freed is about as average as a big-budget kink picture can be, which makes it massively disappointing. This trilogy has wasted all its incredible potential to sink into trashy excess, and though between the three of them there is probably an 80-minute supercut of bad-good delights, there is no reason to watch any of these movies ever again.

TL;DR: Fifty Shades Freed has a ridiculous plot, certainly, but it's too focused on its boring sex to be a true camp classic.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1057
Reviews In This Series
Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
Fifty Shades Darker (Foley, 2017)
Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2018)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Rabbit Season

Year: 2018
Director: Will Gluck
Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Over the past month, my heart has warmed considerably to children's entertainment. After being bowled over by Babe, Paddington and Paddington 2 swept in with a double decker blow of adorable earnestness that laid me flat. I've always been open to watching kids' movies, but I'm typically a hard sell, so I was wondering if my resistance was finally beginning to crumble. So Peter Rabbit came at the perfect time to see if my dulled resistance just needed a non-masterpiece as a whetstone.

As an updated feature based on a classic British children's story, it has a very similar pedigree to Paddington, so what could go wrong?

Peter Rabbit begins with a story you know well. Mischievous bunny rabbit Peter (James Corden), with the support of his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie, for some reason), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, for slightly more understandable reasons), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, for no reason whatsoever) among other woodland creatures, sneaks into the garden of Old Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill, for a reason so nanoscopic that scientists are still debating its existence) to steal some delicious vegetables. So far, so familiar. Until the part where Peter Rabbit tries to shove a carrot up the old man's ass and then he dies of a heart attack. Yeah, I don't remember Beatrix Potter jotting down that one.

Bring in the younger, sexier cast! The rabbits have always been cared for by McGregor's sensitive painter neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), but when McGregor's fussy, city-boy nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) moves in, the rabbits are frustrated to discover that the two are falling in love. Thomas has managed to convince Bea that he is a wildlife lover, but in the meantime, he is engaging in a war against Peter Rabbit and his cronies, attempting to keep them off the property he has inherited and is attempting to sell.

Also, his laundry bill must be insane, considering all the produce that gets smashed into the fabric.

Peter Rabbit is actually two movies that are constantly warring with one another. The first is a delightful romantic comedy starring a pair absurdly underrated and hilarious actors. The second is an execrable "family friendly" hash of violent slapstick and clunky gags starring irritating CGI monstrosities. Peter Rabbit obviously only desires to be the latter, but the former keeps accidentally slipping in and reminding you how pleasurable this whole experience had the opportunity to be.

But let's focus on that good - perhaps even great - movie for the time being. Domhnall Gleeson is in terrific form here, flipping between big physical comedy and subtle, character-based humor without breaking a sweat. There's a sequence where he attempts to understand birdwatching that frankly belongs on his future lifetime achievement reel. Rose Byrne is given considerably less to do, considering that her character is clueless of the entire plot, but she provides an excellent foil for Gleeson's antics, and has a couple standout moments of her own.

The human plot is so swell that a huge belly laugh line is even given to a taxi driver character who appears in two scenes. There's more than enough to go around here.

But I literally can't even find a proper still of Rose Byrne, so that just goes to show how little the filmmakers value this film's strongest elements.

Ay, there's the rub. There's no way Peter Rabbit wasn't going to be about Peter Rabbit, but when he hops into the frame he brings with him everything that's unbearable and generic about the movie. At least the anthropomorphic animal CGI is mostly fine (save for one scene involving the rabbits in a football huddle, which we see at an angle that's downright criminal in its ugliness), but the second he opens his mouth you know you've been locked into an iron maiden of subpar children's movie material.

James Corden's performance style is what makes him perfect for a late night show: every word out of his mouth drips with the desperate demand that you find him charming and lovable. Honestly, this isn't a liability for a kids' flick, but when you combine that with the fact that the character is an unmitigated asshole, it's incredibly grating, like rubbing sandpaper directly on your eyes. For some reason, the screenwriters seem to think that the height of comedy is having a character make a joke, then immediately undermine it by either explaining it to death or making a quip about just how wacky they're being. 

Every gag is a one-two punch; an unfunny joke, then a follow-up that saps whatever minuscule scrap of energy it had to its name. Then there are all the requisite cliché details that come with being a movie for children in the 2010's: a million unnecessary dance sequences, random jokes "for the adults" (including a horribly misguided "pour one out for a fallen homie" gag that is repeated more than once, for heaven's sake), and an obnoxiously trendy soundtracks full of on-the-nose needle drops, including the most inescapable songs of the day (most egregiously "Feel It Still" by Portugal the Man, which is the most dangerously saccharine earworm this side of "Can't Stop the Feeling!" and "Happy").

None of them are BAD songs per se, but you wouldn't want to meet one in a darkened alley.

All of this is interspersed with incredibly violent slapstick that is just plain cruel (there's a gag about inflicting anaphylactic shock that has no business being in a movie not directed by, say, Quentin Tarantino) and occasionally nonsensical (a scene about McGregor being pelted with fruit while attempting to hold a conversation with Bea really tests the limits of Rose Byrne's ability to play oblivious). 

In short, almost nothing about these scenes that form 70 percent of the movie works on any level. There's the occasional spot of brilliance, like the 2D animated flashback sequence that uses the aesthetic of the original novels to tremendous effect, or a montage of Old McGregor's unhealthy choices that shows the filmmakers probably at least saw the trailer to Paddington. But in the end, it's all for naught. It's a noxious, irritating experience made even more painful by the fact that it mars what could have honestly been a pretty fun movie about two humans navigating a relationship, though it's quite self-evident that that was in no way the movie anybody wanted to make.

I'm happy those splendid moments are there, but there's no way they're worth sitting though the rest of this drivel. Also, on the Babe front, there's a "that'll do, pig" joke that made me want to screech with righteous fury. Rule of thumb: Don't strive to remind audiences of movies that blow yours so far out of the water you've entered the Earth's orbit.

TL;DR: Peter Rabbit is an irritating kids' movie, with just enough of a much better movie peeking through that it's not entirely a slog.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1170

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I'm Only Here For The Commercials

Year: 2018
Director: Julius Onah
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl 
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: TV-MA

I had to be at work during the Super Bowl this past Sunday, which I certainly didn't mind. I didn't have to pretend to care about football beyond a general distaste for anything Tom Brady says or does. I didn't have to will myself into watching the halftime show - normally my favorite part of the broadcast - put on by the human equivalent of a big bowl of vanilla extract. But I also didn't get to see the historically bold move by Netflix, dropping the newest entry in the Cloverfield franchise with a trailer announcing that the movie would be available to stream the instant the game ended.

Now that's a rollout you just can't ignore. And don't let the immediate social media blowback fool you, this project is exactly like Beyoncé's similarly released self-titled album: only OK.

But since when have you ever heard an online hot take expressing how fine something was? It can only be one way or the other.

The Cloverfield Paradox takes place in a not-too-distant future where an energy crisis is causing major strife on good ol' Earth. To help save a world that's teetering on the brink of a major war, a team of international scientists build the Shepard space station, their mission being to experiment with the world's largest particle accelerator to create a sustainable source for clean energy.

Only, they're playing in God's domain (and by God, I mean J. J. Abrams), so there's a high risk factor.  If the crew - including grieving-mother-who-is-basically-Sandra-Bullock-from-Gravity Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the stern Captain Kiel (David Oyelowo), the Irish maintenance crew member Mundy (Chris O'Dowd), German scientist Schmidt (Daniel Brühl, who has been cropping up in more and more projects since his turn as the milquetoast villain Zemo in Captain America: Civil War), and Chinese engineer Tam (Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha) - succeeds in their experiments, they might just tear a rift in the space-time continuum and cause a massive dimensional collision, unleashing a variety of monsters and adverse effects on the world in the past, present, and for however long it will take for these movies to stop making money.

I don't wanna spoil the plot here, but c'mon. They do the thing.

The Cloverfield Paradox is probably the worst Cloverfield movie, but what even is a Cloverfield movie anyway? The franchise itself doesn't seem to know. And if they keep just attaching the Cloverfield name to films that were developed without any plans of fitting into an increasingly massive monster series, they won't last long enough to figure it out. But if you have the foresight to detach yourself from any expectation at all that the film will be in any way remotely similar to the original film (hopes which 10 Cloverfield Lane should have dashed long ago), it's still a fun little sci-fi romp that's worth a look, though there's no way it could live up to the hullabaloo surrounding its rollout.

I'm going to say something that probably won't carry a lot of weight, but is exactly how I feel: if you liked the 2017 space horror movie Life, then you might just really dig The Cloverfield Paradox. It's a solid meat and potatoes sci-fi B-picture, with all the flatness of character that that implies. But hey, even Alien didn't bother giving anybody but its protagonist more than one trait.

The movie doles out a lot of bizarre plot developments that frequently seem contradictory or lack a proper explanation, but each individual moment is uncanny and watchable, keeping up a propulsive pace that sucks you in like the vacuum of space. Sure, The Cloverfield Paradox is a lot of goopy sci-fi nonsense, but since when is that a bad thing? The twists and turns that launch the plot into more and more deranged heights are fascinating and intense, promising another moment of gasp-inducing drama or solid body horror around each corner.

I bet Black Mirror is looking pretty safe and cozy right about now, huh?

And that cast! The players assembled here are vastly overqualified, and although not too many of their talents are taxed in any real way, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an astounding lead performance that grounds even the more forced plot moments in raw, genuine emotion. This woman is a movie star and she deserves all the success that Hollywood has to offer in this supremely weird time for motion pictures.

The only other actor who really makes a major impression is Chris O'Dowd, but unfortunately that's because he delivers some of the most odious comic relief this side of Jupiter Ascending. It's a testament to his skills as a comic that he can make some of his jokes land, but he sticks from the side of this movie like a rusty nail, ready to catch on your clothes when you least expect it.

OK, fine, maybe The Cloverfield Paradox is no masterpiece. But it delivers some gently futuristic background machines that whir pleasantly, plenty of Spielberg-adjacent flashing lights and special effects to gawk at in awe, and a largeness of scope that defies Netflix's limits as a streaming service. I've sat through spacebound flicks with a lot less to offer than this one, and it certainly doesn't deserve the disdain that comes from being attached to the increasingly worn Cloverfield name.

TL;DR: The Cloverfield Paradox is a loopy sci-fi thriller that does even less to serve Cloverfield fans than the previous entry, but it's still a fun genre riff.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 943
Reviews In This Series
10 Cloverfield Lane (Trachtenberg, 2016)
The Cloverfield Paradox (Onah, 2018)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Mysteries Of Sarah

Year: 2018
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Angus Sampson
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Winchester Mystery House is probably the most interesting, strange landmark in America to date. A seven-story maze of halls with staircases that led to nowhere and doorways that open onto ten foot drops that was under construction 24 hours a day, it's the kind of tourist trap that's both of architectural and paranormal interest. Any way you slice it, it's the perfect place to set a movie, and it's astonishing it has taken the world this long. What's even more astonishing is that the Winchester estate chose to make their big screen debut with this myopic dud.

The presence of Helen Mirren certainly must have helped, but why would SHE choose to be here? This film is just like the house itself, an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

The plot of Winchester is barbarically simple. The lawyers at the Winchester Repeating Arms company are "worried" that the majority shareholder Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) - who has become a recluse in her ever-expanding sprawl of a mansion, believing herself to be haunted by the spirits of every person ever killed by a Winchester rifle - is too mentally unsound to run the company. They hire hallucinogenic-addicted, grief-riddled psychologist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess her mental state and see if they can have her shares taken away from her.

I daresay it doesn't even count as a spoiler to tell you that she sure as sh*t ain't crazy. The house is riddled with ghosts, who spook Dr. Price to no end in a variety of mostly disconnected little vignettes until the Big Bad ghost reveals itself, whereupon this turns into a Conjuring rip-off starring Helen Mirren as Lin Shaye from Insidious. Bada bing, bada boom.

This is probably the only place in the world where tourism would actually increase after you make a horror movie about it.

I gotta hand it to the screenwriters here, they really did find a way to linguistically capture all the false starts and dead-ends that make up the twisted passageways of the Winchester house. The screenplay sets up so many threads that are either completely forgotten (like the good doctor's addiction to laudanum, which is completely dropped by the halfway point - though I really don't mind because there's nothing I like less than a "what's fantasy and what's reality?" theme in a movie where CGI ghosts are f**king people up) or hastily wrapped up in the turgid, busy finale.

And I shan't spoil things, if you somehow have such poor reading comprehension that you reach the end of this review and still want to check the movie for yourself. But let's just say that the final twenty-five minutes are some of the most exhausting horror movie boilerplate I've ever seen, erratically leaping from using well-worn tropes to paper over gaping plot holes to just pulling contradictory nonsense out of its ass in a weak, aching attempt to keep viewers invested. And the manner in which the Big Bad is vanquished is so laughably dumb, it'll remain in my quiver of awful movie scenes to discuss at parties for years to come.

You know what, I actually kind of like this screenshot. But don't be fooled into thinking it represents anything consistent or valuable about the movie.

The most astounding accomplishment of Winchester is that it achieves something I would have thought objectively impossible: it makes the Winchester Mystery House seem boring and bland. The bizarre geography and haphazard interiors should have provided at least an iota of interest and tension. Paranormal movie thrive on the inexplicable, and this house should have provided plenty of fuel to power a sense of menace, even if the ghosts weren't really providing (which they aren't, as the movie forces them through the hoops of a desperately generic haunting before undermining that with a revelation that just makes everything that came before confusing).

But no, this sprawling pile is rendered flat and lifeless by dull lighting that reduces it to a hazy gray background object, and a jagged editing style that refuses to connect any single room with another and make it all seem like a consistent structure. It's incoherent, but not in a way that highlights the natural incoherence of the structure. It bristles against every scrap of interest at every possible opportunity, plopping every scene into a jumbled pile that doesn't comment on any other in any meaningful way.

Just look at that... curtain? It's so... weird? Maybe?

But what of Helen Mirren, you ask? Well, she's certainly in the movie. And she probably had a lot of fun, but that certainly doesn't show here. It's not that she's not trying, but she's not pushed to do much of anything except sit still and stare gravely. The only way she could have saved the movie is if she milked the role of a reclusive, eccentric widow for all it was worth, making everything as big and purely camp as possible. By actually trying to do something realistic with her role, she recuses herself from that responsibility and tragically fades into the harried hash of a screenplay.

As for everyone else in the film, I could hardly pay them the compliment of saying they're even present. An actor I really like, the Aussie hulk Angus Sampson, has a scene or two and I'm happy to see him, but he might as well be the wallpaper. Scratch that, the wallpaper in the Winchester house would actually be interesting. And the de facto lead Jason Clarke can't justify the litany of Obviously Idiotic Horror Movie Character decisions he must make. 

At the end of the day, Winchester is an insult to the idea of the Mystery House, actively railing against the gargantuan promise and failing to do justice to a real life story that is loads more interesting than the rote, creaking ghost story told here.

TL;DR: Winchester is a major disappointment, wasting the incredible potential of a truly great setting and true story.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1019