Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O' Reilly
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some key plot details**

When it was announced that Disney's purchase of the Star Wars franchise would include the development of a series of standalone spin-off films, I winced. Or more accurately, I feared it for a number of reasons, a few of which are validated, but mostly dismissed by Rogue One, a much better than expected effort given all the trepidation, hype and nearly insurmountable expectations surrounding it. Call it what you'd like, but it's still Star Wars, and its hardcore fans, freshly basking in the critical and commercial success of The Force Awakens, expect greatness each time out. In fact, if we know anything about them at all, it's that they demand it. And that's essentially my entire problem with Disney doing this. If these standalone films are THAT great, how will that not make the other "real" ones seem less special or not dilute the brand? And if these spin-offs disappoint, we don't even need to get into the negative effects that will have, on both Disney's bottom line and the recently rejuvenated public goodwill toward the franchise after George Lucas stepped away. But, I also get it. It's silly resuscitating this franchise if you're not going to milk as much from it as you possibly can.

When it was decided this would be a dreaded "prequel," a whole new potential set of problems presented itself since a burning desire the see this universe expanded is held by only the hardest of hardcore fans. If Lucas' prequels taught us anything, it's that the more we actually learned about the backstory of the galaxy, the more uninteresting it became. Rogue One doesn't bore us with talks of taxation and trade tariffs, but it also doesn't feature Luke Skywalker or Han Solo either. Disney knows where its bread is buttered so they have to be careful, its grip on their property understandably tightening with each new release. A lot is on the line, and any director looking to recreate the franchise in their own vision need not apply. The man hired for this job is Gareth Edwards, who works well within those tight confines to makes something that's not exactly Star Wars, but isn't too far off from it either.

While I wouldn't go as far as some as some as praising it as the franchise's best film since The Empire Strikes Back, it's still a very good one that's darker and grittier than expected. It's more like a cover of a Star Wars film, only just not as close of one as J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, which was a reproduction so authentic it could easily be considered the real thing. While that's not necessarily a debit, it's also kind of all over the place, baring the hallmarks of many cooks in the creative kitchen. Despite these obstacles, it does all come together as an oddly thrilling experience, especially in the final 45 minutes, when these movies tend to feel most bloated. What works really does and what doesn't sticks out, but besides being an entertaining adventure and a solid Star Wars chapter, it's worth examining as a possible template of what to expect from these spin-offs moving forward.

A flashback introduces us to young Jyn Erso, whose father, research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is being threatened by Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to take his family and leave the planet Lah'mu in order to complete work on the infamous Death Star. With her mother killed and father taken into Imperial custody, Jyn escapes with the help of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial labor camp by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who takes her back to the Alliance, where she's informed of a rescue mission to retrieve her father, still working for the Imperial Army.

After a holographic message communicated from defecting Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) reveals her father has valuable information about a weakness embedded within the Death Star, Jyn, Cassian, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) set out to find him.  When complications arise involving the true intentions of the mission, it becomes clear that the Empire is not only stronger than expected, but its Death Star capable of even more mass destruction than imagined. Somehow, they have to obtain the blueprints, but with Krennic getting his marching orders from Grand Moff Tarkin and the shadowy menace of Darth Vader looming, it could very well end up being a suicide mission for the Rebels.

Forgoing the traditional opening crawl that's started each the preceding seven films in the franchise, Rogue One establishes itself early on as slightly different. The decision to abandon this but retain the "A Long Time Ago..." title card is a curious one, as is the call to hold back a bit with the familiar music throughout, picking and choosing their spots for Michael Giacchino's sampling of John Williams' original themes. There's a lot of housekeeping that goes on in the opening hour since Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script must introduce a slew of new characters and fill in enough backstory so that we're not completely lost and can connect the dots to the characters and events within the universe we are familiar with from the previous films.

While this isn't as tightly put together as The Force Awakens, with a lot of narrative stuffed in and transitions between locations not always seamless, at least it's a true prequel in every sense of the word. What occurs directly relates and even bleeds into the events of Episode IV and if the Death Star has started to become a narrative crutch for the series, it's hard to blame them for going back to it given its recognizability and importance. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this actually looks like one in that its dirty and grungy enough to have believably taken place before the events with which we're most familiar. Picking up where Abrams left off, there's still a healthier balance of practical effects and green screen CGI, with only two very notable exceptions. And as much as the comparisons to the Empire Strikes Back  seem a bit overblown, it is fair to claim that this is the and most crisp looking installment since then, with Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser again delivering stellar work, especially when it comes to the visuals in the latter half.

Of everything, character development suffers most as the story races along toward the battle at Scarif, which will occupy much of the film's final thrilling act. Casting was key and if Felicity Jones doesn't initially jump out as a typical Star Wars protagonist, she changes minds in a hurry. Of all these new faces, she was the one audiences most needed a connection to with and she manages it in both the combat scenes and more dramatic moments involving her father.  It's definitely a stark contrast to Forest Whitaker, who really hams it up, drawing unintentional laughs in his role as a Rebel extremist. But that's an improvement over the complete lack of entertainment a bland Diego Luna provides as Cassian, who's clearly intended to be a "bad boy" pilot in the vain of Han Solo, or more recently, Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron. Whether it was how the character was written, performed, or possibly a combination of the two, he instead comes off as a poor man's version of both, completely lacking in charisma and personality. More memorable is Donnie Yen as the blind monk Chirrut and Alan Tudyk, who makes the pessimistic, matter-of-fact K-2SO droid an inspired alternative to the R2's and C3PO's of the galaxy.

Perhaps no contemporary character actor could be better served in the part of an Imperial Military Director than Ben Mendelsohn, who's carved out a nice supporting career playing exactly these types of creepy, slimey manipulators. It may be kind of a one-note role, but he sure hits it thunderously well. And he does it under fairly unusual circumstances, acting in many scenes opposite the CGI ghost of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Guy Henry). In a development George Lucas would undoubtedly endorse (and is probably jealous he didn't get a chance to incorporate himself), modern movie technology can digitally resurrect deceased actors and fully immerse them into scenes opposite current performers. While we can joke about how this dreaded day has finally arrived, it's actually executed fairly well in this case and is likely less distracting than if Lucas were still at the controls.

It helps that Cushing always had a robotic presence and ghastly countenance that made him terrifying on screen, making him in many ways the perfect subject for this kind of a cinematic experiment. Whether we need something like this is another debate entirely, but those involved should at least be commended for pulling it off well, despite reintroducing a reliance on technology that previously hampered Lucas' prequels. If they wisely pick their spots it won't be a problem, but their other attempt at it in the film with a far bigger name comes off, at best, as a needless distraction. While those involved couldn't have known at the time they'd be digitally resurrecting another deceased actor in Carrie Fisher, that still doesn't explain why it looks so awful. Thankfully, it's quick,  logical within the framework of the story, and we still have her for an upcoming Star Wars film that will hopefully serve as a proper swan song for the actress.

Even the most casual of fans will be able to pick up on certain Easter eggs sprinkled throughout and cameos from familiar minor and major characters, occasionally showing up in the background or foreground of various scenes. Most of them work well and don't feel shoehorned in, but what everyone really wants to talk about is the film's worst kept secret: The reappearance of Darth Vader. Still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones but with two new actors (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous) taking over for David Prowse in the suit. And while not quite as physically imposing, there's no mistaking that the character himself is as formidable as ever. He has only a couple of brief scenes, but one in particular that comes late, puts to rest any concerns that his appearances wouldn't be carefully chosen or played for maximum impact. Not only was it worth the wait, but it's not a hotshot, adding a pertinent layer to the narrative.

Whatever its issues, Rogue One offesr something that no other installment preceding it did, except possibly the far inferior Revenge of the Sith. An ending with tragic resonance. Not completely, but enough to make you wonder how much Disney must have debated going with it. To their credit, it would have been easy not to and everyone still probably would have eaten it up anyway since it's Star Wars. But they did, and it's that decision, and the entire execution of the final battle that makes the film linger longer than it otherwise would. Fans like to know what they've seen on screen means something, and for this franchise, where the stakes are suddenly even higher than usual, Rogue One delivers that, and even a bit more.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Kheshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Lion earns its Best Picture nomination in its opening half, trusting the audience to not only comprehend, but become completely enveloped in a story that's initially spoken entirely in Hindi, and without the benefit of subtitles. It turns out to be a wise bet. The opening 45 minutes are so expertly calibrated and performed, brimming with lump-in-your-throat moments of disbelief, perseverance and astonishment, it was almost inevitable that whatever followed would pale in comparison. That it doesn't, at least completely, is somewhat of a tiny miracle, with much of that credit going to Australian director Garth Davis, who in adapting Saroo Brierley's 2013 autobiographical novel, A Long Way Home, temporarily refutes the theory that Hollywood filmmakers pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to depicting foreign cultures.

It opens with a mistake that has ripple effect on more than a few lives, but the true revelation might come in how frequently something like this occurs, or how little we hear about it. Then after a certain point, Luke Davies Oscar-nominated screenplay does kind of hit a wall, which has led to harsh criticisms that the film stretches out a 30-second spot for Google Earth to a two-hour running length. But there's just too much else it has going for it to make those completely complaints valid since, despite a weaker middle portion, the performances, cinematography and underrated musical score make it too powerful an experience to dismiss.

It's 1986 and a five year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guduu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger sister in a tiny, poor village in Khandwa, India. One night, when Saroo joins his brother Guduu for a night of train-hopping for food, Guduu leaves his napping little sibling at a station and when Saroo awakens to find his brother hasn't returned, he boards a train headed to Calcutta. Now completely lost and wandering around a city where he doesn't speak or understand the Bengali language, Saroo must survive on the crowded streets and rely on the help of strangers, some with motives more nefarious than others. After landing in the custody of police and eventually an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley and goes to live with them in Tasmania.

We catch up with him twenty years later as a young man (now Dev Patel), studying for his degree in  hotel management and involved in a relationship with American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But despite Saroo having a fulfilled life and more than anyone from his background could have hoped for, there's an incompleteness that eats away at him, stemming from a desire to track down his biological family and make sense of that night's events over two decades ago. While his adopted mother struggles with family challenges of her own, Saroo wrestles with the guilt and hope of finding "home," embarking on a journey of self-discovery sure to have a lasting impact on those he holds closest.

The opening section actually shares some similarities with the last entirely Indian-flavored Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner), Slumdog Millionaire. And while we know, like that film, we'll eventually be given our happy ending, the scenes of kids on the street here have a far different tone, especially when watching a scared young Saroo aimlessly searching for his brother in a perilous situation surely qualifying as an immediate "Amber Alert" if it took place today in the states. Even in 1986, as commonplace as lost, homeless children in India may have been, it's still kind of frightening to see through western eyes.

What really sells this is the editing and the likably adorable child actor playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, whose combination of wide-eyed panic and innocence, along with some steely determination, carries the first half of the picture, eliminating the language barrier for both him and us. It seems like eternity he's on the streets, avoiding kidnappers and potential child molesters on his way to who knows where. It's disturbing how few people care about kids like him running around in the streets and really do nothing even when they think they are. That is until, by sheer luck, he meets someone who finally takes the necessary measures to offer actual help.

After watching this five-year-old struggle to survive after being separated from his sibling, it's of little surprise the second half of the film would have to work hard to match the Dickensian heights of its opening hour, both in tone and quality.  But it works well as a logical next chapter, thanks largely  to the strong performance of a nearly unrecognizable Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, whose suddenly jolted into finding his biological family, but fears the ramifications of what going forward with such a plan could do to his adoptive mother, already at the breaking point dealing with her other adopted Indian son, the emotionally disturbed Montash. The casting of both the child and adult versions of this role are spot-on, as actors Kheshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa are so eerily identical in both manner and appearance you'd really think the filmmakers pulled a Boyhood, checking in with the same person twenty years later.

The entire second half really belongs to Patel, who nearly everyone had written off as a one-movie wonder after Slumdog Millionaire peaked almost a decade ago. And for a while there, it really looked like they were right. He returns in a big way here, a better, more mature actor, fully capable of handling the complexity of emotions running through Saroo as he embarks on his (Google) search for his birth mother. Just the very conceit of this true story could have been problematic on screen, but Patel takes what could have been a dramatically inert arc and draws us into his journey, which is as much internal as external. It helps that the first half of the picture was so strong, that our recollection of the opening half hour drives nearly all interest in the rest, with him filling in the blanks.

Rooney Mara's role and performance has been criticized by some as a throwaway, and while her work as Saroo's girlfriend Lucy won't be the first discussion point coming out of the film, it shouldn't  anyway. It's entirely functional since we need to know the man that young boy has become and what his life evolved into in the twenty years since the train station, not to mention what he could potentially be risking or giving up by doing this. Her part is what it is, and the never uninteresting actress serves it well, despite the nagging feeling she could have been given more. The other half of the equation is Nicole Kidman, who as Sue gets opportunities in the latter half to convey a woman crumbling at the emotional distance that's been put between her and her family, which has more to do with the struggles of raising the far less adjusted adopted son than Saroo's secret urge to reconcile his past.               

Intelligently addressing universal issues involving memory and identity, Lion tells a worthwhile, important story that most will feel more fulfilled having experienced. As for whether it manipulates, all movies do. The real question is how well. Aside from an unnecessary ending coda that spends too much time reinforcing a point the preceding hour and a half made perfectly clear (an epidemic these days), this more than passes that test, and does it with two phenomenal performances in the same central role, one which could easily be remembered as the year's most satisfying acting comeback.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Root
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest, most frighteningly realistic part of Jordan Peele's Get Out comes early, uncomfortably zeroing in on certain stupid things that certain white people say to black people in conversations to "prove" they're not racist. With every little action and comment you squirm since their obliviousness knows no bounds, terminally unaware of how ridiculous and ignorant they sound. Some of them are probably your friends, co-workers, teachers, neighbors or family members. And on occasion, I'm willing to bet those offenders have even included you and I. It would probably be insulting to suggest that the first sixty minutes of this horror thriller places anyone in the shoes of a black man being judged by the friends and family of his white girlfriend, but it does sure give us an eye-opening idea of what he'd have to put up with. That so much of this is subtle, even subliminal, to someone not consciously looking, is possibly its most unsettling aspect.

While making no mistake about the fact that Get Out is first and foremost a damning social commentary on racial tensions in America, what's been somewhat lost in the conversation is how slyly and expertly the comedian Peele (making his directorial debut) plays that hand. That is until he doesn't have to anymore, and audiences' worst fears, heavily hinted at from the very first frame, eventually come to fruition. Even with plenty of clues where this is going, it's still kind of jaw-dropping just how far Peele's willing to take this, to the point that you wonder how a project this socially, racially and politically charged even got the go-ahead.  You could quibble about where the plot eventually ends up, but good luck finding fault in how it arrives there, building genuine terror and suspense the entire way through. "Originality" isn't a word thrown around too often these days and while there are a few familiar genre elements at play, that definitely applies here.

When black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) takes a trip with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time, she confides in him that she hasn't revealed to them his race and doubts it will be an issue. Described by Rose as open and accepting people, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist Missy (Catherine Keener) warmly welcome Chris into their home and, almost right off the bat, something seems off. Whether it be Dean's overly enthusiastic boasting of having wanted Obama elected to a third term, his defensive explanation of why all the hired help is black, or Missy's insistence on hypnotizing Chris, it appears any concerns of not fitting in might be the least of his problems.

It only gets stranger from there, with an uncomfortable encounter with Rose's drunk, unstable brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), offensive interrogations from party guests, and the black live-in housekeeper Georgina (a brilliantly creepy Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) behaving like zombies. Confiding his suspicions by phone to best friend and TSA agent, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris realizes he's walked into something very bad, and while he wants to stay to support Rose, common sense tells him he can't get out soon enough, as what starts as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? very quickly devolves into Guess Who's Coming to Hell?

It may not be completely apparent until the final credits just how carefully the story is set up, playing on real-life anxieties and prejudices to draw the viewer in, as for much of its running length, the people and situations Chris encounters at the Armitage house are not only steeped heavily in realism, but painfully uncomfortable to watch. It's a key component that all these interactions, as disturbingly strange as they are, aren't so outright hostile that even he initially chalks it up to paranoia or nerves. It's easy to imagine an alternate director's cut of all these scenes that heavily emphasize that since Peele's ability to let audience's see through the protagonist's eyes at the true extent of this ignorant behavior is one of his script's greatest strengths. It's at work through every interaction at that house, whether it be a houseguest trying to chat Chris up about Tiger Woods or Rose's brother's obsession with his athletic abilities, even challenging him to a fight in one of many cringe-worthy dinner table moments.

Through much of this, Chris is about as good and patient a sport as anyone could be under some pretty degrading circumstances, and little known English actor Daniel Kaluuya skillfully walks a really tight rope, trying to remain calm in the midst of deplorable treatment masking itself as mildly disingenuous hospitality. It slowly gets to him, attempting to put on a solid front for Rose, played by Allison Williams as essentially the ideal girlfriend, even as the relationship eventually carries with it this unspoken racist implication that he'd be an idiot to screw it up, almost as if he should consider himself "'lucky" to land someone like her. In other words, don't rock the boat because you're the one being judged. All these racial overtones and undertones just keep building, boiling to the surface when the narrative bomb is dropped and a full-blown, insane explanation is given for what we've been seeing.

By the time Peele shows his cards and it's clear what's happening (the details of which land somewhere between A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives and Soylent Green), a shift has to come, and how well he pulls off this transition is what will make or break the movie for many. Mostly, it's a seamless one due to the fact that we've been pulling so hard for this protagonist since he walked into an already awkward situation with the best of intentions, realizing it's now a fight for  survival. And once it is, you'll again be scratching your head at how this was even made to begin with, and yet somehow Peele pulls it off, juggling sci-fi, horror, comedy and socially conscious drama as deftly as possible considering the unexplored thematic terrain.

Given how many different things are attempted, this all remains fairly consistent right up until and including the final scene, which frightens in much the same way the rest of the film does, just in a more literal context. It cleverly reminds us, in even the most extreme situations, how justified the protagonist's fear is, and how stagnantly ingrained society's view of him is. By masquerading as a horror film, before fully evolving into one, it's able to explore and tackle timely issues that could otherwise play as as a preachy sermon under more traditional circumstances. Instead, we get something that pushes the envelope just far enough to leave a lasting imprint. How much of one will have to bare itself out in subsequent viewings, which is something Get Out proves more than worthy of.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Hamilton, Michele Selene Ang, Steven Silver, Ajiona Alexus, Tommy Dorfman, Brandon Larracuente, Steven Weber, Mark Pellegrino
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In a recent interview, actress Molly Ringwald stated that if they were going to remake The Breakfast Club today, it would just be two hours of texting in detention. While she brings up a reasonable point, I'd like to have more faith that the creative forces would never let it come to that. And now there's a reason to believe it won't. Actually, thirteen of them. Netflix's much buzzed about, controversial 13 Reasons Why (based upon Jay Asher's 2007 best-selling YA novel) shares little in common with that seminal 1985 film, and yet her seemingly throwaway comment stayed with me long after its conclusion. High school is so often about labels and hierarchy and that movie was really the first to openly acknowledge it, for better or worse.

Jock, princess, nerd, rebel. It's so simple and true that many forms of entertainment have been reflecting it back at us ever since, some dumbing the formula down while others have been admirably attempting to refine and improve upon it. At first, it appears that 13 Ways will present yet another exhaustive variation on this, as its literary roots and Selena Gomez producing credit don't exactly inspire confidence from the start. I could feel my eyes starting to roll at the prospect of such a series in 2017 wrestling with timely issues such as school bullying and teen suicide through a rose-colored "young adult" glasses.

In just the first few episodes I cringed at the implication that the doomed girl at this story's center could even have the wheels set in motion for her eventual suicide by winning "nicest ass" and having what most would consider a pretty commonplace, if admittedly hurtful, start to her sophomore year. And that was the last trace of skepticism I remember having for the remainder of the episodes, which comprise an absolute thrill ride full of twists, turns and storytelling mastery not seen in this genre since the first season of Veronica Mars, from which this undoubtedly finds some of its inspiration.

Character by character, the layers start to peel away to reveal a situation darker and more morally complex than originally perceived. And no, there isn't anyone staring at their phones since the electronic device of choice is a SONY Walkman, used by our put-upon protagonist to begrudgingly listen to the thirteen cassette tapes he's now in possession of, detailing the series of events that led to a terrible tragedy. Or, if you're counting, multiple ones.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker
The characters we meet on these tapes most definitely can't be summed up in a single sentence or a one word description. Trampling over tropes and bucking convention, most are relatively popular and various shades of awful, with some slightly more redeemable than others. And all are vividly and brilliantly brought to life by a cast you can now collectively refer to as Netflix's Class of '17. And when the time comes for creator and showrunner Brian Yorkey to seriously tackle important issues like rape and murder, he does it, diving in head first without cutting any creative corners in seeing this saga to its thrilling but logical conclusion.

Shy, introspective loner Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) comes home from school to find a mysterious box on his porch. In it are seven double-sided cassette tapes recorded by his best friend and unrequited crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who killed herself two weeks earlier. The tapes serve as sort of an audio diary detailing the reasons for her taking her own life, implicating each of the thirteen people at school who will receive the box as a reason for her eventual suicide. After listening to the tapes they must pass the box on to the next person or risk breaking the chain, causing a separate set of tapes to be released to the public.

Of the recipients, Clay was closest to Hannah and is most shaken by the revelations found on these cassettes, his mind set on punishing those she singled out on them. It also puts him in the crosshairs of his considerably more popular classmates, all of whom have devastating secrets they'd rather keep buried, despite an impending lawsuit from Hannah's grieving, financially struggling parents, Olivia and Andy (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) With no knowledge of the tapes that could potentially be the smoking gun in their case against California's Liberty High, the Bakers angrily demand answers from administrators such as Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) and school counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), both of whom are put in the awkward position of legally placating them while protecting the school's academic reputation and its students in the face of unimaginable circumstances. And that's the problem. It should have been very imaginable from the start.

"Tape 1, Side A"
Star student athletes Justin (Brandon Flynn), Bryce (Justin Prentice), Zach (Ross Butler) and Marcus (Steven Silver), along with wild child Jessica (Alisha Boe), quiet, intense new kid Alex (Miles Heizer), goody two shoes Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), perky cheerleader Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) and creepy school photographer Tyler (Devin Druid) and poet/journalist Jeff (Brandon Larracuente) all have something to lose if the tapes get out. And they've all made Clay public enemy number one, knowing his closeness to Hannah and thirst for justice make him most likely to come forward to the police or her despondent parents.

Plagued by the guilt that he could have done something more and under constant threat by his classmates, Clay reluctantly listens to the tapes at the urging of his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who may know a lot more than he's letting on. When he ejects that last tape Clay will have his answers, but it's what he chooses to do with it that could have a lasting impact on all their lives.

The series makes a strangely bold choice early on, not depicting Hannah as a "good girl" or immediately attempting to solicit audience sympathy for her. She also wouldn't seem to be anyone's top candidate for bullying, which is precisely the point. She eventually gets there on all fronts, but does so organically as small events and tiny moments start to add up, magnifying in size and scope with every episode. She's a good person, but not an instantly likable one because of the poor decisions she often makes, frequently stemming from her desire to just be liked and accepted. At times, this borders on desperation despite her best efforts to cooly play it off. It's only when she's hanging out with Clay or they're working together at the Crestmont movie theater that we're exposed to a different side.

As one character puts it, Hannah's "drama" and the writers' willingness to embrace that she's put some of this on herself, while still acknowledging she's done nothing to warrants or deserve what eventually happens, only deepens the narrative. You can almost literally catch yourself yelling through the screen for her to just stop. Who cares what people think?! And then you remember it's high school and that's flat-out impossible.

What Could Have Been: Hannah and Clay
Whether it's her family's financial struggles, the transfer of her best friend to another school, or her own insecurity weighing her down, she's most "herself" around Clay, or maybe, like him, that's just what we want to believe. Through flashbacks that run through the entirety of these 13 episodes, we start to see the growth of a friendship he wishes were more if only he had the fortitude to make it happen.

Essentially the prototypical teen, Clay is neither popular or unpopular and we get the impression that his possession of the tapes in the wake of Hannah's suicide is probably the most attention he's ever received. It's tough to depict a teen romance, or even tease the idea of one without sappiness, but this one is done just right. By refusing to put a halo on her or suit him up in armor and then denying them anything close to a happy ending, we can just sit back and appreciate how their time together is handled, lifting the simplest of "boy meets girl" stories into this doomed tragedy.

We're left with the impression that even if Hannah had lived, there's simply no way she'd end up with Clay, or even someone like him considering the head space she's at. The point of no return in the series comes when even she starts to acknowledge her issues, realizing she needs help. And it's when she reaches out to her classmates that they instead pounce like animals. Australian actress Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah starts with this wide-eyed optimism we can't imagine shifting gears until it slowly does, as she's put through the wringer in a series of events that allow us to eventually see that life and future slowly drain from her eyes with each traumatic encounter.

Gone, but far from forgotten
Langford's complimented perfectly by Dylan Minnette, projecting this stoicism and internal sadness that slowly builds into a simmering rage when he listens to the tapes and discovers just how many people could have done more to prevent this tragedy or share some degree of responsibility in it. The list becomes endless and his problems coping infiltrate every aspect of his life, leading to one of the series' most memorable visuals, as Clay hallucinates a blood drenched Hannah lying lifeless on the hardwood floor during a school basketball game.   

Whatever flaws Hannah may seem to have become minor in the broad scheme of things when we meet the subjects of those tapes and learn that her classmates, some of whom she'd call "friends" at one point, are ten times worse because they project their issues onto everyone else. Some do it consciously, others by accident, but all share culpability in how they treated her. While Clay claims that getting revenge on those who are on the tapes is all for Hannah, as his journey progresses a good enough case can be made that he's really doing this to absolve his own guilt over not telling her how he felt when she was alive. In fact, everyone's preoccupation with the drama surrounding the tapes often causes them to miss things that are right in front of their faces, this time hurting each other in many of the same ways that drove Hannah to end her own life.

It's around the fourth episode or so that the series starts settling in and finding its groove, as the format of dedicating each tape to a person who somehow qualifies as a reason for Hannah's tragic act starts ingeniously paying off. You start to realize that the first couple of inciting events set into motion a series of incidents that lead to much bigger, damaging ones that spiral out of control, a "butterfly effect" of sorts that's directly referenced by Hannah in her narration, but may as well also apply to the show as a whole. Only adding to the intrigue and mystery surrounding her death is the fact that nearly all these actors are unknowns, creating a freshness and unpredictability that may have otherwise been absent with a cast full of major stars bringing baggage and preconceived notions to their roles.

Alex (Miles Heizer) goes for a swim
Other than lead Dylan Minette (who played young Jack Sheperd on Lost) and Miles Hiezer (a former Parenthood supporting player who's unrecognizable here with a nose ring and bleached hair), it's a good bet you haven't seen any of these performers before, or if you have, wouldn't remember. We meet them as Hannah does for the first time, and as the universe of the show expands, it becomes as much about them as her.

While it would be impossible to get into all the intricate backstories and motivations behind these characters without spoiling the show's surprises, the two that most stand out aside from the co-protagonists are the reckless Jessica Davis played by unquestionable future star Alisha Boe and Hiezer's dark, moody Alex Standall. Where they start when Hannah initially meets and befriends them compared to where the material ends of taking them is kind of staggering, with both actors proving themselves more than up to the task.

While all the acting has been widely and justifiably praised, when you think of the heart and soul of the show and the possibilities of it continuing past the immediate aftermath of Hannah's death, it's Jessica and Alex who immediately come to mind as having already gone to the most challenging places, but still having story left. Of the supporting cast, Boe and Heizer's performances may just travel the furthest in helping anchor the series as something that far transcends the genre constraints it breaks free from.

Hannah with mom Olivia (Kate Walsh)
It's easy to initially be perplexed Hannah's parents' obsessive quest to point fingers at the school without the audio evidence Clay is privy to, but the more we learn of the tape's contents and how the faculty handled the info they did have, her behavior can be viewed in an entirely different different light. Kate Walsh does gut-wrenching work as Olivia, a devastated mother tired and dissheveled enough to have been to hell and back, but with an unwavering sense of justice for her deceased daughter who she just knows in her gut was wronged. As Hannah's dad, Andy, Brian d'Arcy James is more measured and logical but even he can't deny the mounting evidence and growing suspicions, as much frustrated that their inability to financially make ends meet as a family may have somehow contributed to her sadness and stress.

The adults on the series are occupying an entirely different plane of reality than the teens, frequently oblivious to what's going on in their kids' lives. It's especially true of Clay's parents, Lainie and Matt (played by Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton), frustrated by their son's uncharacteristic behavior that consists of coming home at odd times beaten, bloody or drunk, skipping school, getting suspended and having random visitors over. It's possible that for no one else at Lincoln High or any real or fictional high school this would raise as many red flags as it does for the straightlaced Clay, and they know this. They just haven't figured out the cause and how it relates to Hannah's suicide, or their relationship, which they know nothing of. Lainie's leading the charge while her more laid back husband smothers him with kindness, but her complicated link to the school and its faculty may soon make for an uncomfortable conflict of interest.

All this serves to further build anticipation for when Clay arrives at his own tape, while continuing to cast suspicions on Tony, the one person who seems to know everything about them, acting as an eyes and ears for the audience and a guardian angel to Clay. Played by Christian Navarro (who should remind some of a more likable Wilmer Valderamma), his scenes opposite Minnette are some of the best, with his character only growing in impact and importance as we head down the final stretch.  

Clay and Tony have a talk
Like a great puzzle box, all the pieces start coming together at the end, and when they do, there's a renewed appreciation for what came before and the creativity it must have taken to arrive there. And in that thirteenth episode there's an physically and emotionally brutal scene that's not only difficult to watch and more than warrants its pre-show title card warning, but proves the creators were serious and sincere in their intentions. Getting to know these characters and being taken on this journey can only lead to one place, but whatever knowledge we have going into the inevitable suicide still can't fully prepare us for it.

The direction, editing and acting from those involved in the suicide sequence truly make it a nauseating, disturbing moment that feels like it lasts for hours, as it should. That I could barely watch tells me they did their job. If this is "controversial," then we can only hope that all shows are capable of courting controversy in such a brutally honest way. It's one thing to show someone killing themselves on screen, it's quite another properly handle everything that comes along with it. We're left not thinking about Hannah Baker's suicide, but instead how achingly close she came to not going through with it if only this or that happened differently.

I don't know how we get another season without Langford or the central mystery element that drove these thirteen episodes, but we will, and its impossible to not remain curious as to how. While there are many lingering threads and questions, you can't help but again be reminded of the Veronica Mars comparisons and worry given how that series never recovered once their mystery wrapped. As a standalone project it's so impressive that you'd just hate to see something this special limp on for multiple seasons to become "just another show." The question will be whether enough was done here to expand the universe and give the numerous remaining characters enough to move forward and work off of. Then comes the bigger question: Now that we have gone through all 13 thirteen tapes, will we see or hear from Hannah again?

Hannah reaches her breaking point
That 13 Reasons was executive produced and even partially directed by Tom McCarthy, the primarily indie filmmaker behind 2015's Best Picture-winning Spotlight, comes only as a surprise in so far as our perceptions of the material's possibilities going in. He shatters them, leaving all the results right there on the screen. The editing, direction, casting, performances, music choices and every seemingly minor, but eventually crucial detail like the cars the characters drive contribute to a fully immersive experience, surpassing anything that previously carried the perceived stench of "YA." He and directors Jessica Wu, Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin, Helen Shaver and Kyle Patrick Alvarez invest this with a depth and adult sophistication that also stands as a snapshot of our times, regardless of the ages of the characters involved.

If recording and distributing audio cassette tapes seemed far off when Yorkey's novel was written a decade ago, that time has added another layer aside from its now cool, nostalgic, old school appeal. It builds this bridge between the past and the present, giving the story a comfort and universality that speaks to everyone, reminding us that for all the complaints about cyber technology and social media ruining lives, at the end of the day we still bare the ultimate responsibility for how we treat each other, in seemingly even the smallest moments.

Netflix somehow does it again, producing a season of TV every bit as worthy of entering the cultural lexicon as Stranger Things and House of Cards before it. But what's more noteworthy is the steeper climb this had due to the added pressure of being taken seriously in a genre that rarely is. It's avoided here by not making a teen show at all, but a compelling adult drama with universal themes that happens to revolve around younger characters. Of course, that's easier said than done. As for the controversy? All it reveals is that this hit a chord by not holding back and daring to ask the tough, ugly questions no one's interested in going near. Those who find that morally reprehensible or disturbing would probably be better off not watching 13 Reasons. But those who do should be warned that once they start, it'll be impossible to stop.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Patriots Day

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, James Colby, Jimmy O. Yang, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O' Shea, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Depending on your opinion of very recent real life tragedies being brought to the big screen, Peter Berg's Patriots Day will either be a heavily anticipated or nervously dreaded experience. That the end result is positive can mainly be attributed to the realism and tension he brings to the sensitive material, which recreates an attack and subsequent manhunt sure to have many on pins and needles despite everyone's full knowledge of the outcome.  There are about two or three sequences in the film that are not only eye-opening in terms of the little nuggets of information provided, but in their depiction of both the disappointment and eventual triumph of the human spirit all within the span of a couple of days.

The usually inconsistent, over-the-top Berg shows surprising restraint, with star Mark Wahlberg taking on a semi-fictional role that's not only right in his wheelhouse, but firmly rooted in his own hometown, reminding us the gravitas he brings when properly cast in a part to suit his strengths. The entire picture is essentially broken down into sections, with character sketches sprinkled throughout. The attack, the shootout, the hostage situation, the manhunt, and most controversially, the interrogation.

While the tragedy occurred only four years ago, it's startling to consider just how much has already been forgotten about that day and in the hours leading up to 2013's doomed Boston Marathon. It's an excellently made, respectful encapsulation destined to be unfairly picked apart and unpacked due to the director's politics. But in this case, skeptics are reading into something that just isn't there. As the unnecessary mini-documentary that closes the film shows, Berg's film definitely conveys a point of view, but it's far from political and one you'd hope everyone shares.

When something like this happens, the immediate reaction should be anger and outrage, with any compassion reserved for the victims and their families. In fact, it's so obvious that you'd have to heavily question the need for the non-fictional epilogue closing the film, restating with real life accounts what was already conveyed in the preceding two hours. Whether it was a preemptive defense against unfair critics ready to slam the right-skewing filmmaker for even taking the project, there's no need for anyone to feel guilty for making or watching this. It's worthwhile, both for history and opinion, thankfully done well enough to leave little room for heated debate over its merits.

It's April 15, 2013 and injured Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is returning to work the Boston Marathon after a recent suspension, looking to prove he's put his issues behind him, taking marching orders from Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). But when two bombs are detonated near the finish line of the race by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), chaos and bloodshed erupt with the surviving victims being taken to local hospitals. Couples such as spectators Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and husband Patrick Downes (Chistopher O'Shea) are separated and unaware for hours whether their spouse is even still alive. With FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) taking over the investigation and working in conjunction with Boston Police, they begin to close in on their suspects. But the brothers won't go quietly, inflicting more damage until eventually being brought down by the law enforcement and citizens of a tough city who band together under the worst circumstances imaginable.

Berg does an admirable job setting the table for what's to come, introducing characters who we know, or maybe even specifically remember, play roles in the tragedy. Some are given more screen time than others, but a clear emphasis is put on law enforcement and Wahlberg's Sgt. Saunders, a composite of various real-life officers on duty that day. Told directly in a chronologically coherent way, title cards count down to the start of the race and the direct aftermath in the following hours are laid out as a compelling police procedural. It's hard to think of a box that goes unchecked, or a moment where are memory isn't jogged as to certain details that made the headlines, but without the specificity we get here.

The information we're privy to is especially insightful when concerning the actions of the bombers both leading up to and directly following the attack. It's also kind of frightening, as the perpetrators take center stage in a manner that could easily turn off those already made uncomfortable by the very idea of this film existing. We see their preparations, sloppy game plan for escape and the surprisingly tough fight they put up against Boston's finest. And of this is viewed through a likely accurate prism that shows them hanging out and arguing like brothers separated in age usually would. Tamerlan's clearly the mastermind and aggressor, taking his younger brother along for the ride, poisoning his mind a little more, a detail supporting the narrative running through the news at the the time.

From the recreation of the crime scene to painstaking video recognition techniques, a step-by-step process is shown to explain how the authorities went from literally no information to putting an entire city on lockdown until eventually descending upon the single surviving terrorist hiding in a neighbor's yard. If there's any issues with the film, they'd stem from it being so caught up in in the intriguing nuts and bolts of the event and its aftermath that it can sometimes come across as too rote or mechanical. It's a strange complaint considering Berg's the director, but this still works better as an action thriller than a historical drama. While the revolving door of major and minor characters makes it harder to be invested in any of them for lengthy periods, Wahlberg, Bacon and a couple of others get to shine through in their roles, with the likes of Goodman, Michelle Monaghan and an effective J.K. Simmons (as nearby Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese) trying to leave an imprint in lesser ones, the former unfortunately saddled as a stereotypical worried wife to Wahlberg's hero.

Ironically, it's two sequences centering around forgotten supporting players ignored by the media that land the biggest emotional blow. The first involves the bravery of carjacking hostage Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who summons a strength from inside that few could likely access during such an ordeal. On the other end of the spectrum is the jaw-dropping interrogation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's loyally subservient, radicalized wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) at the hands of Khandi Alexander's nameless "The Interrogator." That's who she's actually listed as in the film's credits and after you view the controversial scene (the best acted of the entire picture), you'll know why any other name or description couldn't possibly do her justice.

Since Berg lays everything out so logically it becomes an even bigger question mark as to why he chose to tag on a mini-documentary at the end of a faithful adaptation of events that hardly needs it. Where a quick glimpse at the real people posing with their onscreen counterparts, or even a simple graphic or title card onscreen updating us on those involved would more than suffice, we instead get something you'd more likely find as DVD extra, assuming that medium were still thriving or relevant. While it's unfair to entirely dismiss it or his intentions, the answer as to why Berg would make such a creatively questionable choice proves he has no agenda other than to pay tribute to the survivors and law enforcement. And as far as agendas go, that's a pretty good one to have.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Major Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

What you may not have heard about Passengers is how good a premise it has, exploring some morally deep and heady stuff for a mainstream sci-fi picture starring the two biggest movie stars working right now. For a while, it really has something, with a script that does what the best in this genre demands, painting its characters into a corner and pushing their buttons in such a way that all the filmmakers had to do was step back and let the actors and story organically take us where we needed to go. Halfway to three quarters through, it seems that's exactly where we're headed, until it's abruptly abandoned in favor of sending audiences home happy. Or more accurately, insulting our intelligence.

While still leagues better than it's gotten credit for, what everyone will probably agree on is that the wrong decision was made for silly commercial reasons in the final act. This happens a lot. That the film still works really well despite its conclusion is a testament to all involved since I refuse to believe the ending resulted from anything but wrongheaded studio interference. You may as well post those studio notes right up there on the screen since it's unlikely anyone will be considering much else in the final minutes. Labeled and marketed as a "sci-fi romance" Passengers handles both the former and latter part of that equation exceptionally well with two incredibly likable, skilled actors, but it's the ethical predicament presented at the get-go that will spark arguments and conversation. Had they stuck with that all the way through there's no telling what we could have gotten.

As it stands, this is still a consistently engaging endeavor, featuring performances, production design, music and writing more than a few notches above the standard. Then it just throws its hands in the air and surrenders, doing a disservice to both these actors and the audience. Even worse, the most obvious and effective ending is just sitting there on a platter ready for the taking. Hopefully, there were re-shoots and those scenes are laying around somewhere other than the recesses of our imaginations. Until that sees the light of day, I'll continue to deny the existence of the one we got, even if what precedes it provides unexpected thrills.

The starship Avalon is on a 120 year journey to a new colony called Homestead II, with 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members all comfortably resting in their hibernation pods, set to be awakened a month prior to arrival. But when mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years early due to a pod malfunction, he discovers that aside from an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), he's the only passenger awake on the ship, and faces years of isolation until his eventual death.

Depressed, suicidal and having exhausted the few potential options available to him, Jim discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and through her video profile immediately falls for the funny, beautiful journalist. He then makes the controversial decision to awaken her for companionship, thereby dooming her to the same fate as he, dying on this ship years before the rest of the passengers and crew arrive at Homestead II.  Once Aurora is revived, the two grow close, as Jim continues to conceal the truth that her "accidental" awakening had nothing to do with a pod malfunction, Unfortunately, the ship is faces other, bigger problems that could threaten the entire journey.

Right out the gate, the scenario is immediately compelling yet still somewhat of a slow burn as we watch Pratt's character come to the realization that something went very wrong and he'll be spending the rest of his days in solitude.  Him trying to figure out the technicalities associated with that and his slow surrender to that fact that there's no way out are reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Matt Damon's protagonist in The Martian. But while certain problem-solving scenes are similar, there's a key difference that actually works in this film's favor: It isn't intercut with a bunch of muckety mucks goofing it up at NASA. He can't contact home at all so while Mark Watney's life may have been in immediate danger in ways Jim's isn't here, this at least treats its premise of isolation and loneliness dead seriously. So when Jim opens that pod to awaken his sleeping crush it really means something, throwing gasoline on the fire of an ethical dilemma that's already kind of jaw-dropping in its implications.

Those familiar with Chris Pratt's TV career know how good he is and how much more personality and dimension he's capable of showing when not pigeonholed by the action hero mold he's been shoved into thus far on the big screen. In the opening hour and slightly beyond we get a big glimpse of that talent again because he's handed worthwhile material, even if I'll contend it was a mistake to have his character initially come out of the pod looking like he just stepped out of Gold's Gym.
There seems to this push-pull going on with Pratt lately, and through this entire film, where Hollywood is desperate to turn him into the next huge action star under their terms when his skill set doesn't necessarily line up with that, at least in the boneheaded way they want it to. He's better than that.

Often, Pratt's a quirkier and more fun presence than what he's given and if not more selective in his choices he could end up in a similar situation to Tom Cruise, currently on acting auto-pilot in action roles into his 50's. And while it's easy to argue that there are far worse places to be than in Cruise's shoes, this battle with Pratt hasn't really bled it's way onto the screen until now, with this, his best big screen performance so far. While it's almost entirely undermined in the film's final third, the humor, empathy and subtly he brings to this part is matched only by his co-star.

Lawrence and Pratt are simply great together. That's at least partially why the ending is so disappointing. Nothing has to be written to manufacturer or further drive home the connection between Aurora and Jim. They just have it and from the second he opens her pod the two actors have an immediate chemistry that's completely believable, stacking the deck even more until the big reveal comes. And when she does find out the truth and that hammer comes down, does it ever come down, with Lawrence giving a tour de force, driving home to gravity of this lie, which should carry huge repercussions. We witness a few of those, until the movie travels another, less interesting route.

I have no problem with the script veering in a more action-oriented direction, but when it starts leaning more on sub-par, video game looking visual effects than Guy Hendrix Dyas' amazing, Oscar-nominated production design, the film suffers. And the unsatisfying resolution pushes aside the central moral dilemma, until it pops up again at the end in an unwelcome manner meant to give us the warm and fuzzies.

It's almost become a long-running joke in romantic comedies and dramas that in the next to last act the girl finds out a lie the guy has been telling and pushes him away, only to run back into his arms at the end for no good reason other than to put smiles on faces. But this isn't one of those kinds of lies. It's huge and intriguing, with far-reaching ethical concerns about how men and women treat each other, all of which stand as a big compliment to screenwriter Jon Spaihts. Up until then this script is so smart that there's little indication it will lazily fall back on that well-worn cliche. But it does. Both characters can survive. She can even eventually forgive what he does. The ship can arrive safely at its destination years later.  If all this happened under reasonable terms without our strings being pulled or the central premise being undermined, it would be fine. 

While I'm slightly overselling the ending's problems to make a larger point, kudos should go to the talented, if previously nondescript director Morten Tyldum for executing a thankless finale as efficiently as possible. But there is an alternate idea that's floated around for the finish that would have easily taken this to the level it belongs. At the risk of instead reviewing a movie we didn't get, having Jim die to save the ship and passengers on board in the final act seems only logical, with the real kicker being that Aurora is left alone in the same isolated predicament he was. In a Twilight Zone-like twist, she can contemplate awakening a male passenger for companionship, continuing the cycle as the screen cuts to black. That would work brilliantly, standing as a cruel coda on the loneliness and selfishness of human beings put in extreme circumstances. Something like that is certainly more in line with the film's existential tone.

At least Passengers, even at its worst, gives us something meaningful to chew on, which is more than I expected given the brutal reviews and poor box office. That this was a decision or two away from greatness is what makes it so infuriating. Ultimately rescuing it is the pairing of Lawrence and Pratt, its ideas and how this world is so thoroughly realized on a desolate spaceship through the impeccable production design. It has a unique vision, and while some may be bothered by how it casually borrows elements from films like Kubrick's The Shining in the bar scenes, it never hurts to lift from the best, and there's little debate Sheen makes that character all his own.

Unlike last year's 10 Cloverfield Lane, at least it's final minutes don't hinge on a big reveal, the result of which makes or breaks the entire picture. In fact, none of what happens is much of a secret at all, given the studio's questionable call to have the film's advertising essentially spoil the ethical dilemma at its center. Whether it showed a lack of faith in the product or represented a desperate attempt to get potential moviegoers into seats, it may have been an unintentionally shrewd move. That scenario is what it has most going for it, inspiring enough thought and conversation to overcome a poorly realized ending that comes close to undoing the good that came before. That it still can't is reason enough reason to respect Passengers' intentions, while still wondering what could have been.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"I don't know if we ever figure our lives out and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."

If you had told me in advance that one of the very best films of the past year was titled 20th Century Women, I'd probably laugh. Because, let's face it, many things pop into your head upon hearing or reading a title like that. None of them are favorable, so I can only say I went into it primarily because of the favorable reviews, promising cast and an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination few know it even received. On paper, there are certainly worse choices out there, but that title. Is it a chick flick? Romantic comedy? A historical drama? A period piece?  After actually viewing, or rather experiencing it, and realizing it's none of those things at all, I've determined its admittedly artsy and somewhat pretentious title, while a nightmare for marketing purposes, is nearly as perfect as the film itself. Not to mention it's a real chore trying to come up with a better alternative.

It's difficult to fully articulate what 20th Century Women is "about" since it doesn't have what we're trained to recognize as a conventional movie plot or narrative. It's more of a memory of a specific time and place its characters will never have an opportunity to visit again. Yes, it's a coming-of-age film, on a surface level invoking comparisons to Almost Famous, American Beauty, The Wonder Years, and even a dash of The Ice Storm. And yet it's still kind of the opposite of those, as those comparisons fail to properly convey what Mike Mills creates, or rather maybe recreates here, in simultaneously depicting a watershed year in his adolescence while paying tribute to the life of his late mother without judgment or sentimentality. The title implies a focus on women, and there definitely is that, but what it's really about this young boy becoming a man in a world surrounded by women.

Despite its screenplay nomination, this isn't a "writer's movie" because it's doing too many other things exceptionally well to pigeonhole it. Flashbacks, voiceover narration, title cards, newsreel footage are so seamlessly infused into the narrative it's a small miracle we even know it's there, presenting them in ways both invisible and revolutionary. And then there's the music, which can't be discussed as merely a separate element of the film, but as the foundation on which it's built.
Name a character and chances are you'd likely be able associate them with a song since music isn't just on the soundtrack, but discussed, picked apart and analyzed at many points as a reflection of their lives. And none of this feels forced in any way, instead organically mirroring the generation gap at the story's core.

Santa Barbara, California. 1979. 15-year-old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in a boarding house that she runs. Her tenants include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-obsessed photographer from New York being treated for cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a carpenter and mechanic who once spent time on a hippie commune. A frequent visitor is Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17 year-old who climbs through his bedroom window to spend the night but won't have sex with him because she thinks it'll ruin their friendship.

Confused by Jamie's non-conformist behavior and finding it increasingly hard to connect with her teen son on any level, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie to help unofficially raise him. In doing that, she gets more than she bargained for, learning more about her son and even herself than was intended. And perhaps in the end, maybe learning nothing at all, as their complicated mother-son bond fades into the past and becomes a memory, stored alongside the time they spent with these wildly different personalities living under the same roof.

When the title card indicating the setting and year appears on screen and we see a kid coming up over the hills on a skateboard as composer Ryan Neill's ambient, Brian Eno-inspired 70's score kicks in, you just know to expect something special. And no, this isn't one of those indies full of quirky characters doing zany things. While they all have their idiosyncrasies, they're often steeped in a painful realism, its specificity carrying a universality that should ring true to anyone, regardless of age or era.

Having grown up during the Great Depression and even flown planes in her youth,  the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Dorothea rarely pulls any punches in her frank assessments of both her tenants and son, even if that brutal honesty rarely extends to her own shortcomings. She had Jamie when she was into her forties and is now faced with the unenviable task of raising a teen boy alone after her unseen husband walked out. That one of the first images we see is his car catching fire in a parking lot speaks volumes about that exit and its repercussions.

Due to her age, the distance in taste and values between Dorothea and Jamie is probably greater than it otherwise would be, so without a male figure in his life, it makes sense in her mind to lean on the two other women in the house to school him on how to treat women. Of course, it's also kind of a terrible idea for obvious reasons, least among the fact that Abbie and Julie don't have themselves completely worked out yet either.  Mills lets us know these characters by framing them within a specific context, their backstories occasionally dispensed via emotionally detached voiceovers from them or maybe even another character, or sometimes documentary-style footage depicting the era through which they've lived.

Books like Sisterhood is Powerful and historical events such as Jimmy Carter's famous "Crisis of Confidence" make their presence known, maybe without warning, but certainly not without purpose. Everything here has a purpose, and with all the tricks Mills has up his sleeve, his greatest one is using all these devices to create this sinking feeling of the passage of time. And as specific as all these people are to the place and period in which they reside, their stay there feels fleeting. It's sad and scary, the magnitude of how short not really felt until the film's final minutes, which emotionally hits like a oncoming train.

Played by Greta Gerwig in a brilliant performance very much unlike the optimistic, free-spirit she's played so naturally in various indies through the years, Abbie's a little deeper, darker and rough around the edges, but unquestionably has her heart in the right place. With her Bowie-like hair she serves as Talking Heads' fan Jamie's entrance into the punk music and their scenes together very much recall the even younger protagonist's discovery of his sister's record collection in Almost Famous, only without the warm, fuzzy feelings accompanying it and substituting The Raincoats for Simon and Garfunkel. But it's through her medical crisis that she and Jamie form their strongest bond, despite Dorothea's eventual objections of Abbie schooling him on the feminist movement, to which she can't relate to at all. Or if she can, came from a generation where putting a label on it would seem ridiculous.

Considering how laid back and flaky Dorothea seems at times, she's often stuck-up, judgy and unpredictably offended at certain things that mark her not as an inconsistently written character, but a richly developed one full contradictions that make her more real and relatable. Bening has to keep flipping that switch between empathy and shattering directness draped in comic sarcasm.  Few others could do it, and while I was never much on board with all the complaining about Bening's continued lack of an Oscar, that she missed out on even just a nomination for this, her most complex work, feels like the cruelest snub yet. Just watch the scene when Jamie accurately sums his mother up by reading a book excerpt and how Bening handles Dorothea's reaction. Cold and true to life, but not entirely unfair. And maybe right.

A less complicated character, but compelling just the same, is Elle Fanning's Julie, who has Jamie befuddled at why her recent promiscuity seems to exclude him, despite them sharing a bed every night. The daughter of a psychiatrist, she thinks she has it all figured out at 17 and isn't shy about providing a free diagnosis for everyone. Of course, this all masks the fact that she doesn't know much of anything and her outdated view of masculinity and advice to Jamie seems so outdated even by 70's standards that it's actually come back around again. Of everyone, she carried the most risk of coming off as one-dimensional given her age and purpose in the story for the protagonist, or so it seems. But created by Mills as a composite of various friends and ex-girlfriends from his youth, and delicately brought to life by Fanning (who owns 2016 with this and the Neon Demon) , she becomes more than just the memory or unrequited crush of a 15-year-old boy. Or more accurately, she's exactly that and all the pain that comes with it, which is why this all works so well.

Initially, it would seem we're meant to root for Jamie and somehow see Julie as a villain for withholding sex, but the movie's too smart for such simplistic shading. They're actually using each other to some extent, with him allowing this to go on with expectations of more, even as she uses him as a therapist's couch for all her problems knowing full well his feelings run deeper. But as one character bluntly tells Jamie, it's his job to put an end to it. She's not presented as a narrative construct who will "rescue" him from the doldrums of adolescence as would occur in a lesser script, but instead as a frustratingly real, unpredictable and not entirely likable girl he'll never end up with. 

It's easy to snicker at the casting of Billy Crudup as William given the nature of his iconic role in Almost Famous, only this character isn't there as a friend or role model to Jamie. It's made clear pretty early on that Dorothea discounts him as a male figure who could connect with her son, mainly because he seems like such a space cadet. But like most of the other characters he defies type or description, with Mills depicting him as kind of a male slut who women use and promptly throw away without getting to know him. It's neat gender reversal, but like everyone else, he's desperate for any kind of human connection, while also amounting to both more and less than he appears on the surface. Unsurprisingly, he's most in tune with older generational outcast Dorothea and the scene where they attempt to "understand" the music Jamie listens to is one of the film's finest.

The late 70's probably wouldn't top many fans or critics' lists as one of the greatest eras in music, but what Mills gets is that your favorite is whatever era you grew up in or associate with your strongest memories. And for what it's worth, he makes as good a case as any for this period with the song choices he makes, which are entirely reflective of not just the characters, but the tone and mood of the picture right up until the closing minutes when two songs are juxtaposed from entirely different eras you'd never expect to hear on the same soundtrack. And that right there is the movie, as different people with unique personalities and at various stages in life all randomly converge in this time and place. The saddest part is that they may never see each other again, as is often the case with the most important, influential people in our lives. They're here, make their impact and then, just as quickly, they're gone.

The semi-autobiographical events Mills recounts all took place the year I was born and it's kind of eye-opening since no one ever tends to know much about the events of their birth year. It's often just a set of numbers with little context since all the major milestones occur within the following decade and beyond. He assigns meaning to that number and to objects and possessions, alerting us to what a turning point in time this was for those who lived through it. From then on, things changed for them and couldn't possibly return to how they were. Sometimes the most important important questions to ask when a movie concludes is whether you'll miss the characters when they're gone and whether you care what happens to them after the credits roll. We do actually find out what their futures hold beyond that, even as we're still willing to give anything for an extra minute with all of them.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A few important attributes set Kong: Skull Island apart from your typical spring blockbuster, while still entirely managing to entertain and enthrall as if it is one. For starters, it's a period piece, which is completely unfamiliar territory for an action franchise. It's not everyday critics and audiences would describe a Kong movie by referencing Vietnam or discussing a compilation of rock's greatest hits from the era on the soundtrack. That's not to say all of this works, or is even that groundbreaking, but it serves as icing on the cake, enhancing what's already a surprisingly well crafted production that feels less like a desperate cash grab than any other recent action vehicle or franchise reboot of the past few years. You may as well call it Apocalypse Kong, in not only its obvious allusions to that war classic, but the fact that there's some artistic value on display here that earns some of those comparisons. It's actually well directed, branded with a visual stamp that isn't easily forgettable, bringing to life a screenplay that gets the job done in successfully reintroducing an iconic character with a mixed on screen track record.

It's almost become a running joke how studios have been cherry-picking little known, critically acclaimed young, indie directors to helm these gigantic tentpole franchises. Why? They're relatively cheap, grateful for the opportunity to make the kind of awe-inspiring spectacle they grew up watching, and are more often than not willing to be pushed around a little (sometimes a lot) by the studio. Of course, using these filmmakers as a vessel to cram their vision down unsuspecting audiences throats doesn't come without risks since some directors will inevitably acclimate better than others. But for every Fantastic Four horror story, there's a Jurassic World or Godzilla, which is more than enough for them to justify continuing the approach. And as cynical as that all seems, sometimes a happy balance comes out of this that manages to satisfy both commercial and creative concerns.

In 2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts wrote and directed a little movie called The Kings of Summer, and you can somehow tell the same person made this, despite it being over ten times the budget and scope. His vision successfully seeps through, proving he's one of the few indie filmmakers capable of mastering this sort of thing. We can't call him a sell-out, or at least if he is, does a good enough job hiding it, carefully threading that needle between mainstream acceptance and critical respect so many of his peers can't. And he does it in under two hours, thumbing his nose at the constant barrage of pointlessly overlong two and a half action spectacles we endure each year. Of course, we still get one of those universe-building post-credit sequence plugs. A brief, if unnecessary, reminder that no matter how well this worked, certain things will never change.

It's 1973 and with the U.S. just pulling out of Vietnam, senior government official with the Monarch organization, Bill Randa (John Goodman), seeks funding for an expedition to map out a mysterious location in the South Pacific cryptically known as "Skull Island" After meeting some initial resistance, he gets clearance to assemble a team, recruiting former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Vietnam helicopter squadron as a military escort, backed by right-hand men Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham).

Joining them for the ride is Monarch's seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and fesity, opinionated "anti-war" photojournalist Mason Weaver (Academy Award Winner Brie Larson). But immediately upon their arrival, it's clear this won't just be any expedition, as Packard's men begin dropping bombs that awaken a very angry Kong, who kills many of his men, leaving the remainder of the crew stranded and scattered on the island. But the giant ape may not be their biggest worry, with a more malevolent threat intent on making sure they never make it home.

Making its intentions clear early, the film's overall strategy stands in stark contrast to previous cinematic takes on the giant beast: Show Kong early and often. With little build-up other than brief introductions to the various characters and a few minutes designated to the assembly of the team, it's off to the island. There's no teasing here as Kong's impact is felt immediately, and once we lay eyes on him, it's obvious why they skipped the formalities and wanted to show him off.

A combination of CGI and motion capture performance, the monster (supposedly designed to invoke the 1930's version) looks as good as he ever has, instantly recognizable without really resembling the incarnation we saw in Peter Jackson's 2005 version, which also boasted fine effects work. It would be easy to call this design better, but it's probably more accurate to describe it as a little more expressive and distinctive enough for this reboot needed to step out from the shadows of its predecessors. As far as the creatively inspired call to set the story in the post-Vietnam, Nixon-era 1970's, it does give the narrative some thematic legs it wouldn't otherwise have, both in regard to certain characters' motivations and many of the aesthetic choices made. And it's those decisions, which to a point give this a look and feel similar to films from that period, is far and away the most captivating aspect of the entire production.

Ironically, an overstuffed soundtrack compilation of 60's and 70's hits do more to hurt that feeling than help since the plot and visuals were already doing a fine enough job. Calling this a great soundtrack wouldn't necessarily be wrong in terms of song choices, but it does beg the question whether it's possible to have too much of a good thing. A more conservative placement of music at carefully curated key moments probably would have been far more effective and impactful than drenching the first third of the picture in every famous classic rock song the studio was able to get their hands on. Henry Jackman's psychedelic, period-specific score goes a longer way in invoking the mood they're going for, and proves less distracting.

And since the priority is showing Kong as early as possible, the characters at first seem thinly drawn, at least until all hell breaks loose on the island and we find out who's made of what. Billed as the lead, Tom Hiddleston probably has the least developed character of the bunch, playing a one-dimensional heroic character who doesn't necessarily do anything heroic enough to stand out in any way. It's through no fault of his own that the screenplay is more interested in those who have a direct emotional connection to Kong. As Packard, Samuel L. Jackson returns to the same angry agitator that's been his stock in trade since the 90's, but this is actually one of his better performances since there's at least some motivation behind it, and as detestable as he is, the intentions behind his villainous behavior fit.

When Packard's obsession with downing Kong careens out of control,  the most dissenting voice is that of awesomely named photographer Mason Weaver, who's played by Brie Larson in her first post-Oscar role. In many ways she's the film's true focal point, with her character representing one of the biggest deviations from Kong's long outdated "damsel in distress" mythology. Unlike Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts, she isn't window dressing or set up as a love interest for the ape as we've seen in the past. It's of little surprise she's even great in something like this, with one particular scene providing what's sure to go down as the the film's most memorable visual. And to top it off, she looks like a total badass shooting a flare gun, squashing any concerns about her playing a screen hero, super or otherwise.

Skull Island works best when taking itself dead seriously, faltering only when it pauses for jokes. It's not as guilty as something like The Martian in that regard, but there's a time and place for that so it isn't unfair to wish the writers were more judicious in picking their spots. The only time it really works is whenever John C. Reilly's wisecracking Hank Marlow appears, a World War II lieutenant who crash landed on the island almost thirty years prior and makes it his mission to get this crew home.  That has more to do with the fact that it's Reilly playing him but there's no denying it's the strongest sub-plot, rightfully taking center stage at the end.

While most franchise movies die a slow, painful death near the two hour mark and limp for another thirty minutes to the finish line, this one not only avoids overstaying its welcome, but actually picks up steam. And because everything is so well directed and it looks and feels like the work of a real visual artist, it's almost impossible not to get greedy and wish for even more from the script. Or more accurately, less. As a franchise action movie with compelling action sequences, you also can't help but wonder how much of a difference it would make if this were a hard 'R' and they really went for the jugular, forgoing commercial concerns altogether. It may or may not have been as fun, but it's hard to take issue with what we get, which successfully signals that the iconic Kong is back with a vengeance.