Movie Reviews
Monday , July 24 2017

2017 Films … So Far

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

Alien: Covenant.  Michael Fassbender meets himself! Michael Fassbender kisses himself! Michael Fassbender kills himself!  And yet, Michael Fassbender can’t save this movie.  I confess that I thought Prometheus was pretty good genre fare (notwithstanding the bumpy third act).  But most fans of the franchise in which it shared a universe did not, so instead of making an earnest sequel to that 2012 prequel, director Ridley Scott offers this cinematic apology: a greatest hits of Alien motifs.  And little else.  (As a side note, I think I have stumbled upon a simple barometer for assessing the quality of the screenwriting of each entry in this franchise: the shorter/more inexplicable the amount of time it takes for one of those adorable little chest-bursters to grow to the size of a human off-screen, the worse the film.  And by that measure, this one ranks right down there with the AVP abominations.)  (Grade: C-)

The Belko Experiment.  The idea certainly had potential: a contemporary office is forcibly repurposed into a mashup of a Roman gladiator arena circa 100 B.C. and the Stanford Psychology Department circa 1971 A.D., where tape dispensers become the weapons of necessity.   But setting aside a few brief comedic/satirical moments/images, director Greg McLean and writer James Gunn seem to feel that we, as an audience, simply could not digest the mix of tones that the setup begs for, and instead, chose to take the low road to the dead-end where torture porn like Saw (2004) resides.  (Grade: C)

Casting JonBenet.  You’d think that a documentary that deals with one of the most notorious crimes of the 90s by defying the expectations of a contemporary Serial-fed audience and turning the movie camera back on the community where the crime occurred would be illuminating.  Or at least interesting.  But no, not so much.  (Grade: C-)

Colossal.  ”No, no. It has a vibe. But definitely not a theme.” … The conceit is given away right there in the trailer, and having seen the trailer or having seen the film, either way I could see this becoming a “cult hit”. And this is the second film I’ve seen of late that vaguely calls to mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), as well as Being John Malkovich (1999). But when it comes to absurdity, Nacho Vigalondo lacks the narrative and visual elegance of a Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, or Charlie Kauffman. Vigalondo has a capable and willing cast (Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudekis); but when it comes to building the (anti-)romantic relationship between the two main characters that drives the (anti-)allegory, not only can he not stick the landing, but he can’t even seem to find a runway.  (Grade: C)

A Dark Song.This atmopsheric, two-handed occult procedural rarely shows its low-budget seams as it slow burns its way into semi-familiar genre territory (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder (1990), 1408 (2007)).  Whether the ending works may just depend on what kind of person you are.  That said, these days I’m grateful for any horror film that’s not from James Wan (or the James Wan School).  (Grade: B)

The Discovery.  “From the director of The One I Love” drew me in to this one, and normally, this is the kind of “small” sci-fi that’s right up my alley.  In the midst of a curious mix of tone, I remained interested throughout the slowly-paced narrative that vaguely evoked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Until the End of the World (1991).  Of course, Rooney Mara is a big part of that maintenance of interest.  (This performance, in the wake of Side Effects and Carol, pretty much secures her place as my favorite A-list actress working today.)  That said, this is one of those films where it all comes down to the ending – specifically,  the writing and the execution.  Unfortunately, I will have to join the camp of detractors: without giving too much away, it really didn’t work for me.  (Grade: C+)

Free Fire. … About 18 minutes into the 74-minute shootout sequence in this 91-minute film, I came to the realization that the primary issue that I was having was the filmmaker’s failure to sufficiently establish the geography of the action and the relative placement of the characters.  I was fairly certain of how much time had passed, and 2 minutes earlier, I was on the IMDb app checking out the runtime, wondering if the 91 minutes also included the end credits, as well as glancing at the new trailers that were available and making a mental note of what to watch later … And then about 1 minute later, I was looking at my spousal unit and wondering what she thought of the one female character (Brie Larson).  I mean, she likes the post-Tarantino fare as much as the next person, I suppose.  But she tends to assume this stoic poker face during screenings, so who knows … And then, about 1 minute later, I came to the realization that Indian buffet sounded like the best gastronomical option for after the movie (I mean, why do I need to choose between tikka masala and tandoori chicken when it’s Sunday and I could have both).  Well, it was, at very least, a top 3 contender.  But we still had – let’s see – another 53 minutes, so … (Grade: C+)

Get Out.  I rarely change my initial grade of a film in any significant way, but it took a second viewing to get my arms around the endgame and come to … A (Self-Conscious, Self-Righteous) Appreciation of Get Out (2016).  (Grade: A)

Graduation.  With his first film in over four years, writer/director Cristian Mingu provides an over-the-shoulder view of a middle-aged man striving to spring his only teenage daughter out of the corrupt mire of contemporary Romania and into the enlightened mecca of the West.  When she is assaulted on her way to the final exams that will seal her emancipation, desperation sets in as good intentions pave a path to hell.  Fortunately, Mingu plays his cards fairly close to the chest as his difficult character grapples with the most fundamental of familial questions (e.g., can one be a successful parent without even trying to be a decent spouse? how much “good parenting” is actually motivated by regret and baggage?), as well as some more subtle political ones.  Still, coming from the filmmaker who brought us 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), the somewhat numbingly-paced narrative of Graduation feels like a bit of a disappointment. (Grade: B-)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  Fun. Funny. Lovingly rendered.  And I just cringe when I think about the inevitable team-up of Star-Lord and Captain America.  (Grade: B-)

Hounds of Love.  A heart-warming Mother’s Day tale!  (Grade: B)

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore.  Writer/director Macon Blair (star of Blue Ruin (2014)) has got his head, heart, blood and guts in the right place.  But this tale of revenge, as not quite wreaked by a depressive nursing assistant (the always welcome Melanie Lynskey), feels like a debut in all the wrong ways.  Too many lines fall flat.  Too many shots are poorly chosen.  Too much of the editing is choppy.  The entire rhythm of the film is just off.  (Grade: C)

Kedi.  Apparently, you can get too much cat video.  (Grade: C)

Kong: Skull Island.  For what these films aspire to be, I can safely say that I enjoyed Godzilla (2014) a good deal more than this rather soulless setup for the remake of one of the more campy cinematic memories of my childhood (although it seems pretty apparent that this particular “growing boy” is gonna have to grow a whole lot to match up with the big guy). While certainly not a rousing success, at least Peter Jackson went for it with King Kong (2005).  (Does anyone remember that ridiculously long T-rex battle?)  Yet in spite its attempt to sacrifice all of that boring character development for sufficiently frequent action beats, Kong: Skull Island ends up being a bit of a bore with CGI that seems even less convincing than it was over a decade ago.  (Grade: C-)

The Lego Batman Movie.  For ages 4 and up … And that’s not necessarily a good thing.  (Grade: C+)

Life.  An expensive – but ultimately disposable – piece of post-Gravity pop cinema, with the biggest positive being the wonderfully immersive opening shot and the biggest negative being the unintentionally anti-climactic ending.  (Grade: C)

Logan.  While this X-Men swan song* suffers from some of the same issues as other comic-book superhero films (too many inelegant plot machinations accompanied by too much exposition), writer/director James Mangold takes one of the most prevelant endemic defects of the genre (the stakes-less invulnerability of the characters) and turns it on its head: more than a Children of Men-inspired immigrant song, this is a film about mortality.  From the very first shots of Logan f/k/a Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Charles f/k/a Professor X (Patrick Stewart), we feel like it’s the end of the line for these sequestered, forgotten gods.  In a future that’s not so distant from our own, Logan is relegated to driving a limo for cash and scoring drugs from hospital orderlies to mitigate Charles’ seizures.  As the last survivors of the X-Men, the former’s contaminated body is degenerating as surely as the latter’s dangerous mind.  And when a young new mutant (Dafne Keen) inexplicably** arrives on the scene with the henchmen for a multi-national corp in relentless pursuit, the violence that ensues is distinctly palpable – and the collateral damage, genuinely tragic.  So for all that it aspires to be, Logan the movie is an admirably unexpected end to the series.*  (* yeah, I know, “The New Mutants,” coming in 2018!)  (** yeah, I know, it’s not so inexplicable)  (Grade: B)

The Lost City of Z.  I’ve seen James Gray’s last four films, and I gave all of them a solid B+ to B-.  Yet somehow I feel like I should be enjoying his work more.  Or less.  (Grade: B-)

Personal Shopper.  With Olivier Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria (2015), the big question on a lot of viewers’ minds is whether the award-winning Kristin Stewart can carry a whole arthouse film. Not exactly. … Without giving away too many of the essential mysteries, what we have here is a contemporary ghost/identity-crisis story (with echoes of those ’70s/80s European horror films). Stewart portrays a personal shopper for a Paris socialite/amateur spiritual medium waiting for a “sign”, and part of the problem I had with this film is that she can’t effectively emote beyond her one Millenial-who-couldn’t-give-much-of-a-shit note.  (No, it’s not “reticence,” it’s not “subtlety” – it’s a lack of range.)  But that’s not the only problem I had with this piece (which is filled to the brim with devils in the details that beg for repeated viewings) – e.g., I find Assayas’ editing – particularly, his sequence transitions – to be infuriating at times; that is, while I can appreciate narrative abbreviation, this is something else.  (Grade: C+)

Raw.  While heavy on the gore and the subtext (e.g., Freshman students being led on their hands and knees like a heard of sheep to … a rave!), this gender-inverted werewolf narrative left me oddly unaffected. It seemed to me and my companion like there was a lot to talk about, but we just weren’t that interested in doing so.  (Perhaps we shouldn’t have seen it at 10AM on a Sunday morning.)  (Grade: C+)

Snatched.  Wow, the public sure has turned on Amy Schumer. Sure, this kidnap caper is relatively forgettable, and the coupling of Schumer and long-lost legend Goldie Hawn is no dream team. But the first 10 minutes recalls some of the best of Schumer’s television work (is it feminist or post-feminist? I can’t get it straight), and it certainly passed the six-laugh test.  (Grade: C)

Split.  Without discounting the impressive performances all the way around, I am giving this one additional full letter grade just for the last 60 seconds.  (Grade: B+)

T2 Trainspotting.  To be sure, there is a certain benefit to watching Trainspotting (1996) and this sequel back to back (e.g., the parallels between the opening scenes).  That said, in pop art terms, any successful revisit of this rogues gallery of Scottish junkies would seem to necessitate striking a certain balance between (1) giving the fans what they want and (2) adding enough of its own meat to justify its existence.  What writer/director Danny Boyle gives the fans are plenty of callbacks, including an updated “Choose Life” speech; what he adds is a delicious source of drama/karma in the form of the would-be madame of Sick Boy’s dream bordello (Anjela Nedyalkova).  But in a sense, Boyle’s fundamental thematic question behind this anti-parable of betrayal and regret flies in the face of such a balancing act: how much can we really change who we are, even after 20 years?  And although Boyle should be credited for exploring that question (mostly) outside the well-trodden contexts of marriage and children, ultimately that exploration doesn’t cut very deep.  (Grade: B)

The Wizard of Lies.  Director Barry Levinson’s Wizard of Lies is rather underwhelming, much like the scope of the post-arrest revelations by its subject matter, fraudster Bernie Madoff (Robert DeNiro).  One of the principle hurdles I have with biopics in general arises when I know a bit too much about the subject matter – that is, I often have a hard time accepting the premises of a dramatic retelling.  In the case of Wizard of Lies, the difficult premise Levinson wants us to accept (as opposed to simply raising the issue) is that neither Madoff’s wife of five decades, nor his educated sons who worked in management capacities at his insular investment firm, were aware that Madoff was perpetrating the largest and longest Ponzi schemes in history until the eve of the day they turned him in to authorities.  At the time it was first unfolding, I was keeping up on the story, as I had a few clients affected by the scandal, and to me, the Madoff family’s pre-arrest actions (barely touched upon here) reeked of attempts at plausible deniability.  To paint them as victims is just a bridge too far.  (Grade: B)

Wonder Woman.  When I was 7 years old, I found myself wanting to tune in to each and every episode of Wonder Woman.  And I wasn’t sure why – I mean, it wasn’t that great a TV show.  But looking back, I’m sure my hypothetical psychiatrist would have a simple answer to that question: Lynda Carter, first instance of sexual attraction.  OK, yeah, TMI … To add some further disclosure as to where I’m coming from though, I really wasn’t impressed with DC’s debut of Wonder Woman in last year’s Batman v. Superman.  Frankly, it seemed like character inflation for the sake of glossing over a weak narrative (a common problem with superhero sequels), and frankly, I just didn’t recognize her in any meaningful sense.  And THEN there were the trailers to this standalone movie, which evoked the retro-war milieu of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – a film that I also did not care for … All that said, Patty Jenkin’s cinematic foray into the DC universe – well, at least the first two thirds – was a pleasant surprise that reminded me (in the best of ways) of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).  Robin Wright is a weighty choice for the mother-figure in the other worldly introduction (like Marlon Brando).  Gal Gadot brings a fantastic sense of strength and innocence to humanity’s would-be savior, Diana Prince (like Christopher Reeve).  And for my money, when it comes to first reveal awesomeness, the trench scene in this film ranks right up there with the skyscraper “You’ve got me, who’s got you?!” sequence (eliciting a couple of “woo!”-s in the screening I attended).  Unfortunately, this one also gets docked a whole grade for the painfully familiar CGI overload of the last 20-25 minutes, where it feels like the reins were abruptly handed back to Zack Snyder … Still, I can’t wait to see how MCU/Bree Larson respond.  (Grade: B)

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