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


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

1 comment:

  1. Gah, I dunno what's keeping me from seeing Idle of Dogs. Fear of being underwhelmed, or fear that Anderson could possibly have finally home too far?

    Even the nice version of Blockers sounds faintly risible, but I might rent it (possibly in a combo with Game Night, the little comedy that could, apparently). Truth or Dare, uh, going by your words, probably not. I could just watch Would You Rather? again. That one's got Jeff Combs.