Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Kindergarten Teacher

Director: Sara Colangelo
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Michael Chernus, Gael García Bernal, Anna Baryshnikov, Ajay Naidu, Rosa Salazar, Sam Jules, Daisy Tahan, Samrat Chakrabarti
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

If the goal of a teacher at all education levels is to help their students reach their fullest potential, just a nudge or push in the right direction can often let them know they're capable of more than they suspected. With the proper guidance, they can get there, and when it happens, this achievement accompanies a realization that the ability was actually in them along, and just needed some nurturing to reveal itself. In Netflix's disturbing and thought-provoking The Kindergarten Teacher, the title character lives and breathes to provide such inspiration for her students.

Under usual circumstances, this kind of devotion is admirable. What's not are the lines she's willing to cross to provide it, calling into question the very definition of the word "teacher," specifically when their involvement in students' lives starts to become about something other than the kids. Most would agree if there's a clear line, she jumps right over it, resulting in disastrous if not potentially dangerous consequences for those directly involved. It also has a lot to say about the pressures adults put on themselves and how easily they're capable of projecting them onto those least equipped to handle it.

Entrusted with a job requiring almost complete selflessness, she instead disappears into her own mind and insecurities, attempting to rectify her failures through an impressionable child. Using him to fill a seemingly unsatiable void in her life, it plays out like a horror movie with a situation that starts innocently, until escalating enough to where the tension reaches a boiling point.

While it becomes frighteningly apparent just how far this woman can go, we're still not quite sure the distance writer/director Sara Colangelo's script will, or how it can possibly resolve itself without manipulation. And yet it somehow does, in equally observant ways. Nothing that occurs couldn't happen, and it probably has, which only makes it that much more uncomfortable to watch. At its center is a revelatory lead performance from an accomplished but long underrated actress that's a subtle tightrope walk of emotions.

With two decades as an educator already behind her, New York-based kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gylenhaal) is merely going through the motions at home with husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), while barely trying to mask her dissapointment in unambitious teen children Lainie (Daisy Tahan) and Josh (Sam Jules). Determined to become a published poet, she takes night classes, only to find her work routinely picked apart and dismissed by both her peers and their instructor, Simon (Gael García Bernal). Creative salvation soon comes from one of her students, 5 year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a child prodigy who's capable of unexpectedly blurting out beautiful poems at will.

Looking to harness and mold Jimmy's untapped potential, Lisa makes him her personal project, rushing for a pen and paper whenever inspiration strikes and even going so far as to actually present his work as her own. The more she smothers him with attention the clearer it becomes that it isn't even really about him anymore. And in trying to "rescue" Jimmy from a passionless world she views as incapable of faciliatating his unique talent, her obsessive mentoring soon crosses into territory from which there's no turning back for either.

Open-hearted, quirky and achingly sincere, Lisa can't seem to comprehend how a child with so much to offer the world isn't being encouraged or intellectually stimulated in any way. But what Colangelo's script (which she based upon the 2014 Israeli film) is good at emphasizing is Lisa's slow-building inability to grasp the reality that this is still a five-year-old we're talking about. He's somewhat shy and withdrawn, but at the end of the day, he just wants to hang out with his friends and and play like all kids his age. It's when she becomes aggressively involved in his home life, making judgments about his frequently absent father (Samrat Chakrabarti) and even the babysitter (Rosa Salazar), that this may be about something else entirely.

Giving her best performance since Secretary, Gyllenhaal plays Lisa as disarmingly normal and competent when we first meet her. Her head may be a bit in the clouds, but we never doubt she's a good teacher, or at least was. It's only when the layers get peeled back with the introduction of this student that she slowly unravels, using him as a vessel to fix what she believes is her own failure of a life. In a memorable scene at home, her daughter even says as much right to her face.

More impressively, Gyllenhaal and young Parker Sevak's scenes manage to find that realistic sweet spot in an extremely disconcerting dynamic that will give all parents another reason to worry about sending their kids off to kindergarten. As Lisa's teacher, Gael García Bernal may not seem to have much of a role, but his character is important in that he's also being manipulated. That he only starts to take both a professional and personal interest in her when she assumes this new persona is further ammunition for Lisa to hate herself more, and double down on the deception. But he's no victim, guilty himself of abusing his position, proving to be in this for more than just the sake of art.      

It takes the characters in the script longer to figure out what's going on than we do, but in this case, that makes sense because it takes a while for Lisa to unravel. Only when Colangelo takes the premise and milks every last minute of queasy suspense from it, do Lisa's intentions and actions arrive at a destination that only in hindsight seems to be the most logical of resolutions. Trapped and with seeimgly no way out, she must come face-to-face with her actions, receiving punishment from the person most affected by them. That even in her lowest, most desperate point, this woman still can't help but teach might be the The Kindergarten Teacher's most powerful and pitifully sad moment. As the true magnitude of her actions settle in, it's a lesson learned too late, but perhaps just in time for those affected by what she's done.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suatamo, Paul Bettany
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes it pays to go in with reasonably low expectations. Such is the case with Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest in what was planned to be a long line of spin-offs (or "anthology" films) for the franchise, keeping audiences satiated between 2017's The Last Jedi and whatever comes next. Unfortunately, Disney miscalculated just how much recovery time fans would need following that polarizing experience, and despite the enormous success of the previous spin-off, Solo flopped, at least by Star Wars standards. As someone who was never behind the idea of these stand alones (thinking it would lead to oversaturation), but pleasantly surprised by Rogue One, I still entered this with heavy reservations.

From the questionable casting of the younger version of its title character to originally appointed directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired, to hardly a postive word being spoken or written about the project, it really felt safe to assume the worst this time. What I got instead was an extremely enjoyable entry into the franchise's canon, whether taken on its own or compared to the three other entries since Disney bought the property from George Lucas.

While Solo definitely isn't flawless, it's hardly deserving of the vitriole it's received. And if part of that stance truly has to do with expectations, the other half may stem from it just feeling right to get a comparitively low stakes outing after The Last Jedi. That's not to say it's uneventful, but rather all the weight and emotions surrounding Star Wars as a cultural enitity doesn't rest on its shoulders as it did with that film. Even for those who greatly admired what Rian Johnson was trying to do, there's still no denying it's kind of an ordeal. One made by someone who, for better and worse, was ambitious enough put his own stamp on it.

Contrast that with Solo, where Ron Howard is most definitely hired to do a job, a reliable last minute fix due to unforseeable creative issues. He was chosen because he's safe and Disney knew he would deliver a timely, inoffensive, workmanlike piece of mainstream popcorn moviemaking. And you know what? He does. That this a compliment speaks to the film's efficency, immersing us in a simple story that works, sprinkled with familar characters and a consistent tone. The guy knows what he's doing, and after all the thematic heaviness offered up in the franchise, it works as a fun diversion, while peeling back additional layers to the mythology that feel surprisingly organic and necessary.

Taking place ten years prior to the events of A New Hope, a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) flee the planet of Corellia, he escaping on an outgoing transport while she's captured and detained before boarding. Han vows to return to her, but after his expulsion from the Imperial Flight Academy, he falls in with a ragtag group of criminals on Mimban led by smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).

Han soon finds himself recruited by Beckett and his wife Val (Thandie Newton) to join pilot Rio Durant and a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on a mission to the steal heavily desired hyperspace fuel, coaxium, for scarred Crimson Dawn crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). But when best laid plans disintegrate and Vos threatens their lives, their only chance at survival rests on a dangerous job on the planet Kessel.

Enter smooth-talking, two-faced smuggler and pilot Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), whose reliable Millenium Falcon will provide the means of transportation, while his navigationally gifted droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) rides shotgun. Unfortunately, Han's biggest problem might be Qi'ra, who's now Vos' top lieutenant, and far enough removed from their time together on Corellia to give him pause about where her loyalty lies.     

For all the fuss about Rogue One lacking the legendary opening SW crawl, it's ironically present again here in a film many believe is undeserving of it. It's a small detail to point out (as if there's ever such a thing when talking Star Wars), but a sign that they were positioning this entry to be a big deal, with every intention of having it creatively hold up against the franchise's best. It doesn't, but comes closer than you'd think, while requiring an adjustment in perception in how we view the title character.

Whenever Harrison Ford's performance as Han Solo is discussed by fans, the conversation always comes back to that one scene in The Empire Strikes Back when he's being taken to his carbonite tomb and dryly responding to Leia's sudden declaration of love with a cocky,"I know." For years it's been held up as the ultimate anti-hero move, with Ford's brilliant improvisation exposing Lucas' writing deficiencies. That scene came to stand as the essence of what Solo should stand for and it was understood the actor stepping into Ford's shoes would have to posess that same rebellious charm and sarcastic spirit. In other words, good luck.

The problem with those expectations is that he's not that Han yet. He will be, and the strongest aspect of Solo is how you start to see the blueprint of it through this early adventure, which heavily shapes what he'll later become. For the origin story of Solo, the casting of Ehrenreich works to a certain extent, as he slides deeper into the skin of Han as the film progresses. But the story doesn't ride or die with his performance, and it thankfully isn't another Hayden Christianson situation where the actor isn't only miscast, but wooden, with the material he's given accentuating those weaknesses. 

While the first hour is full of fun little Easter eggs and character cameos and introductions, it isn't until about halfway in where the adventure really starts to rev up. The biggest relief is that the healthy balance of CGI with more practical effects Abrams and team have taken in the new series carries over here. There's a sense of fun surrounding this adventure that not only supplies an entertaining backstory to Han's first encounter with future sidekick Chewbacca, but a rebellious mentor who provides the template for what he'll eventually become, a romance threatened to be torn apart by a formiddable villain, and of course Han's infamous card game with Lando for the Millenium Falcon.

All is of this is solidly presented by Howard, making for an engaging space romp that calls to mind some of the more memorable scenes that took place on that ship and in the Cantina in A New Hope. Everything can't be gloom and doom all the time, so while the action is kept light and the narrative stakes lower than other installments, the thrills come from tracking these previous incarnations of familar characters. It's a small luxury, but one we weren't afforded in Rogue One, which fought and impressively won an uphill creative battle in getting us to care about an entire set of new characters embarking on an ill-fated mission.

While willing to accept a lot of this succeeds despite rather than because of Ehrenreich's performance, the same can't be said of Donald Glover's. On paper, his casting already looked promising, but on screen the Atlanta star becomes Lando, delivering a smooth, comic tour-de-force that's every bit what we've imagined the brash, younger version of the character to be. You can even see shades of Billy Dee Williams in it, as well as an ability to come through in some of the more dramatic moments such as a particularly involving one with an injured L3-37. He and Han's adversarial partnership might be the one big element in this story that successfully tracks with the original films. While I wouldn't go as far as to say it enhances the characters' "later" scenes together in The Empire Strikes Back, it does solidly support them. Even as strange as it is to consider that Ford and Williams were practically as young as Ehrenreich and Glover are now when they filmed them.    

As Qi'ra, Emilia Clarke gamely walks the line between her character's loyalty to Solo and her responsibilties to the sadistic Vos, with whom her survival rests. Originally meant to be depicted as a motion capture alien, they chose the right direction in using a facially scarred Paul Bettany, who has more presence than any technological effect. So does the biggest name in this, Woody Harrelson, who avoids the Samuel L. Jackson trap of making his role feel like a cheap Star Wars celebrity cameo, bringing some much welcome unpredictabilty and zaniness to Beckett.

Toward the third act, the plot takes a few turns that aren't only suprising, but make sense. They also go a long way explaining the type of smuggler and person Han becomes without flat-out explaining it, a flaw that sinks most prequels. There's also a major cameo that adds something and avoids serving as a distraction on the level of Leia's CGI appearence in Rogue One, which became more about technology than story.

In Solo, nearly everything comes down to the story, and one's reaction largely depends on what we wanted to know about the title character's past and how much of what's revealed matches or detracts from the info we already had. Or, more accurately, how pissed off will everyone get?  It's a shame to put it that way, but if The Last Jedi tought us anything, it's that. A closer, more objective look reveals that Howard and writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have a firm grasp on the Solo character, taking the series back to its roots in much the same way the The Force Awakens did. But as we're continuing to learn with this franchise, actual quality can become irrelevant in the face of fans' heightened wishes and desires.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Running Time: 96 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

As a reality-inspired single location survival story, Adrift makes its biggest mistake in wanting to have its cake and eat it too, jumping between a young romance and harrowing disaster tale, all while making it glaringly obvious which it prefers focusing on. A lot of scenes work when taken separately and each would have made a fine film on its own, but taken together, it comes off as somewhat of a mess.

Hardly helping matters is a plot twist we've seen at least six or seven times before in this genre that sucks out whatever remaining suspense could have been generated from the set-up. But labeling this development "manipulative" almost feels inaccurate, naively implying it comes as any surprise at all. The device has been repeated so frequently we're almost past the point of complaining, and despite a true story at least supporting its inclusion this time, common sense still doesn't.

Even with relatively strong performances from co-leads Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, much of the picture can't help but give off a YA All is Lost vibe, using the same initial premise behind that greatly superior Robert Redford 2013 survival at sea drama to craft a picture that instead shares more similarities with Woodley's own The Fault in our Stars. All is Lost was a movie that was about what it was singularly about and all the more affecting because of it, leading to a open-ended conclusion  that showed respect for its audience and encouraged contemplation.

This treats its survival story as almost window dressing, or a narrative roadblock in the way of the studio reaching their ultimate goal of selling tickets to teens and tweens interested in two attractive young leads staring longingly into each others' eyes. It's not spoiling anything to reveal a rescue eventually comes, or that by the time it arrives the script gets so caught up in the love story that you forget there needs to be one.

It's 1983 when Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) embark on a 6,500 km journey on the yacht "Hazana" from Tahiti to San Diego, sailing directly into the path of Hurricane Raymond. With their boat destroyed and Richard missing, Tami must use her ingenuity and survival instincts to fight off the elements, as well as inevitable starvation and dehydration, while stranded at sea for 41 days. With little hope for rescue, she survives on canned food, builds a makeshift sail and attempts to navigate her way to Hawaii. This ordeal is intercut with flashbacks to her initial meeting with Richard and their developing realtionship, tracing the steps they took that eventually lead to them boarding that boat, a fateful decision that would forever alter both their lives.

Based upon Tami Olham's own autobiographical account of events, "Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea," the film's skillfully edited in hopping between the two timelines in a manner that rarely feels jarring or confusing. Still, you can't help but wonder how this would register if instead of jumping between the disaster and meet cute flashbacks, we were given the linear story told to its conclusion. And that's not because the scenes involving Tami and Richard's relationship are poorly conceived, as many are quietly affecting and even occasionally moving, at least as far as screen romances go. But with time being split with the far more engaging survival-at-sea sequences, everything kind of settles into a predictable rythym, the narrative ambling along with no real forward momentum or tension. It's no sooner than when Tami's fighting to stay alive on the damaged vessel, that we're taken back a few months to Richard serenading her in a resturant. And transitions like those happen a lot. 

While it's easy to appreciate what director Baltasar Kormákur was going for in getting us to care about Tami and Richard's bond (and largely succeeding to an extent), the survival aspect of the film isn't given the breathing room it needs to leave its necessary impact. Part of this could be attributed to the PG-13 rating, which really does feel like a concession in that there's a nagging sense that the studio or filmmakers were holding back in some way, at least compared to other more brutal, harrowing on screen depictions of nautical disaster. It isn't lacking in realism so much as pure intensity, most of which is made up for by Woodley's performance.

As the firecely independent, free-spirited, relentlessly creative protagonist, Woodley's depiction of Tami is what the film really has going for it, her authenticity helping to cover that aforementioned imblance and fluff that exists within the narrative. Claflin's a natural too, but most of the workload falls on her in terms of carrying this through. Woodley's put through the emotional ringer and believable enough that her work walks right up to that line of award-level greatness without ever truly crossing it, if only due to the inherent limitations of a script that's frequently undercutting it.

That Tami's survival instincts almost completely hinging on the affections and support of a man results in an experience that couldn't feel less timely or more regressive given the curent cultural climate. If they goal was to make Adrift a full-fledged love story, maybe they just should have done that since it's nothing incredibly special otherwise. Instead, we're left with two halves of what could have been, struggling to form a cohesive whole.