Thursday, September 21, 2023

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Director: Daniel Goldfaber
Starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)   

Adapted from Andreas Malm's 2021 nonfiction book, the climate change thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline is nothing if not direct, uncompromisingly taking a clear stance while offering no apologies for its intentions. But however you feel about that or the characters' actions, it's hard not to respect how co-writer/director Daniel Goldhaber fully commits to the premise, showing in painstaking detail the nuts and bolts of a dangerously involved plan. And in daring to ask what exactly constitutes terrorism, it doesn't depict a winnable fight where everyone walks away unscathed. 

Bringing their own separate histories and purposes to the table, the characters are bound by a common goal, forced to put their trust in a group partially comprised of total strangers. Goldfaber picks a side without brushing morally relevant questions under the rug, condensing this timely, controversial issue into a tight procedural that takes some time to gather steam. But once momentum picks up, it tensely builds to a crescendo filled with curveballs and complications. For every problem solved, others unexpectedly pop up, as they race against the clock to pull off the impossible.

Having grown up near pollution generating oil refineries, young environmental activist and Long Beach, California native Xochitl (co-writer Ariela Barer) is grieving the death of her mother during a heatwave. But when friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Xochitl abandons her stalled campus divestment campaign in favor of more radical measures. Plotting an ambitious act of eco-terrorism, they recruit Theo's girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), film student Shawn (Marcus Scribner) and blue-collar Texan Dwayne (Jake Weary), whose family's land is being seized by an oil company enforcing eminent domain. 

Joining those five are Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American explosives expert from North Dakota and young, impulsively lawbreaking couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage). They converge at a small West Texas cabin, preparing to detonate homemade explosives along a recently constructed pipeline nearby and force an oil company shut down. But even with Dwayne's knowledge of the area and Michael's bomb building expertise, a variety of problems arise, threatening their plan and chances of escaping alive. 

The script takes an unusually sympathetic viewpoint toward characters who proudly view the terrorist label as a badge of honor. They see their actions as a last resort of self-defense against the untouchable refineries, even while it will take a lot of effort and trust for these different personalities to effectively co-exist.

If there's a lead, it's Barer, whose Xochitl not only comes up with the idea of destroying the pipeline, but proves instrumental in gathering this crew to do it. Her desperation is palpable, as is that of Sasha Lane's Theo, with both actresses bringing an unguarded authenticity to their roles, making it painfully personal for them in ways it may not be for the other characters. The exception is Jake Weary's Dwayne, who's driven by a controlled determination to even the score and protect his family.

Cutting between character flashbacks and suspenseful present-day cabin scenes, Goodluck's angry loner Michael demonstrates a scientific prowess matched only by his ability to keep the gang on edge while Jayme Lawson's Alisha gets  more than she bargained for after being dragged into this. Even criminal screwups Rowan and Logan have a more interesting dynamic than anticipated, their wildly unpredictable nature hanging over the operation like a dark cloud. All of them fit certain types yet remain believable as rebellious disruptors who would become embroiled in something like this.

Part paranoid thriller and vintage heist film, Goldfaber shoots the action in a grainy, documentary style, with most of the tension hinging on the uncertainty of everyone being able to cover their tracks and overcome unforeseen logistical challenges. But as nail biting as the actual execution is, it's the aftermath that shakes you, with an inventive closing credit sequence that questions what "getting away with it" actually entails. The phrase carries different meanings and implications for each, even if what binds them is a shared belief that the ends justify the means.

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Little Mermaid (2023)

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Jessica Alexander
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of all the recent live-action Disney reboots, The Little Mermaid always had the potential for the most to go wrong. Unlike the reimaginings of Cinderella, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin, much of its story takes place underwater, making a daunting assignment that much more difficult. And whether or not you feel those titles are purely cash grabs, few would argue the weakest aspect in each are the frequently underwhelming CGI effects. 

With a project so dependent on its visuals, director Rob Marshall can't really use the beloved source material for cover like the rest. That's apparent within the first few minutes, as the film's clunky look distracts from the few things it gets right. While every Disney entry will have a rabidly dedicated adult fanbase ready to pounce on any changes made to their childhood favorite, the problem seems bigger this time, since its entirely possible kids will be just as bored.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), a mermaid princess and youngest daughter of merpeople ruler King Triton (Javier Bardem) longs to visit the surface world despite his objections stemming from the murder of Ariel's mother by a human. While Triton enlists trusted advisor Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on her, his evil sea witch sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) has other plans, scheming to exploit her niece and brother's dissension to gain control of Atlantica. 

That opportunity arises when Prince Eric's (Jonah Hauer-King) ship crashes, prompting Ariel to venture above water and bring him to shore, saving his life with her siren singing voice. Desperate to see the prince again but fearful of her father's reaction, Ariel accepts a shady deal from Ursula that gives her the chance for a reunion, even as she must sacrifice her beautiful voice for human legs to finally join the other world she's desperately longed to be a part of. 

Given his big screen musical experience, Marshall wasn't necessarily the wrong choice to helm this and there's more than enough catchy, show-stopping numbers from the animated feature to believe the magic would carry over. Only it doesn't, mostly due to the effects work and art direction in the underwater scenes. To be fair, there aren't many films of any genre that truly capture such a setting, but this attempt is so jarring it's difficult to focus on anything else, as the actors appear supernaturally transposed into sea surroundings that look dark and inauthentic.  

The action does eventually shift above water with the impressive fiery shipwreck sequence, only to head back under for more bickering between Triton and Ariel. Despite a couple of changes that help with character motivations (like a new sibling dynamic between Triton and Ursula), writer David Magee fulfills the plot obligations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and the '89 version, leaving the rest up to how Marshall translate those elements to live action. 

Supporting creatures Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle generally retain their personalities from the original, but despite energetic voice work from Diggs, Tremblay and Awkwafina in the roles, only Sebastian gets enough screen time to make an imprint. The character's popular "Under the Sea" is an expected highlight, but even that's shortchanged by the tune's rearrangement and a flurry of cringy visuals.

Halle Bailey radiates Ariel's sincerity and innocence in the title role, boasting a tremendous singing voice when successfully belting out Alan Menken favorites like "Part of Your World" and "For the First Time." Those songs also don't undergo the lyrical revisionism that plagues "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Kiss The Girl," as certain lines are replaced with supposedly tamer and less offensive lyrics. While not the outright atrocity some have suggested, it does draw attention to a non-existent issue, which is the last thing Disney needs right now. 

When Ursula's curse renders Ariel mute, it robs Bailey of her biggest weapon for a long stretch and leaves the heavy lifting to a bland Jonah Hauer-King. Even by Disney's interchangeable generic prince standards, Eric hardly registers, as he and Ariel's scenes never ignite the sparks necessary to hammer home her massive sacrifice. 

Thankfully, Melissa McCarthy's comically sinister take on Ursula channels the tone of Pat Carroll's classic vocal performance while Javier Bardem subtly dials into Triton's overprotective motivations. And though her appearance is extremely brief, Jessica Alexander makes a strong impression as Vanessa, Ursula's human alter ego disguise.

Crawling to the finish line at an unnecessary two and a half hours, dissenters up in arms over the casting should have instead directed their ire toward the effects and pacing, not to mention just how little fun this is to sit through. Its second half exceeds the first, but even with the same music, characters and story beats as the animated classic, there's a lifeless feeling to the proceedings. Once we arrive at a key turning point halfway through, it already seems like checkout time, confirming this adaptation is more of a chore than the delight it should be. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mads Mikkelsen, Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Ethann Isidore, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Thomas Kretschmann, Olivier Richters, Karen Allen
Running Time: 154 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

In what should be considered a relief, James Mangold's Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a mostly satisfying send-off for the iconic character, easily surpassing 2008's widely reviled, underwhelming Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Though a far cry from the first three films in the series, it has sections that come close to recapturing that nostalgic sense of adventure, with others curiously feeling more like a modern facsimile of classic Indy. But it's a good time, anchored by a story that's surprisingly focused given the concerns going in.

This is bloated at over two and a half hours, but doesn't drag, and whatever 80-year-old Harrison Ford's physical limitations are, they're covered by a plot that accounts for the challenges of his role. Mangold follows the familiar Spielberg template, at least until a denoument certifiably insane enough to inspire more debate and discussion. But unlike Crystal Skull, you can actually envision viewers remembering and even revisiting this, possibly healing some of the wounds inflicted by that previous film.

It's 1944 and the Nazis have captured Indiana Jones (Ford) and Oxford archeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) while attempting to retrieve the Lance of Longinus from a castle in the French Alps. The Lance is fake, but German astrophysicist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) has possession of half the Archimedes' Dial, a mechanism built by Syracusan mathematician Archimedes that supposedly enables time travel. Indy and Basil escape with the Dial, but decades later in 1969, a recently retired Indy is visited by goddaughter and archeologist Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who believes he still has the object her late father Basil was obsessed with. 

Upon Indy discovering Helena's motivations for locating the rare piece aren't what he assumed, they're followed by Voller (fronting as NASA engineer "Dr. Schmidt") and the CIA, along with a gang of mercenaries helping him reclaim it to drastically alter history. Joined by Helena and her teen pickpocket sidekick Teddy Kumar (Ethann Isidore), Indy must find directions to the Dial's other half and stop Voller from opening the time fissure before it's too late.

A setting and era this different is something that's never really been explored in the franchise so the character's advanced age does present an opportunity to take advantage of a fresh scenario. And it's downright surreal observing the curmudgeonly professor and archaeologist floundering in 1960's New York City, riding the subway, watching TV and complaining about his neighbors blasting the Beatles. It further reinforces the idea he's stuck out of time, desperately clinging to history as the world passes him by. Never crankier, we eventually discover why, with Ford again expertly slipping into the role while sarcastically poking fun at Indy's seniority.

For all the fuss over the casting a female lead opposite Ford, Waller-Bridge's Helena isn't intended to compensate for the challenges of having Ford carry this on his own. Her backstory and connection to Indy fits the plot, with the actress bringing some screwball comedic timing to the proceedings and handling herself just fine in the action sequences. The least of this film's issues, she proves they made the right casting move in foregoing potentially bigger stars who may not have meshed as well with Ford. And despite some help, he's hardly relegated to the sidelines, nor is the character's attitude or demeanor a drastic departure from what we've embraced for decades. 

Ethann Isadore's kid sidekick is more derivative, clearly meant to invoke Short Round from Temple of Doom, but even his function suitably expands, adding a little extra kick to the narrative's machinations. As villainous Nazi scientist Voller, Mikkelsen creepily makes for one of Indy's more ambitious adversaries, mapping out a grand plan that wouldn't seem out of place in a Bond picture. John Rhys Davies returns in a smaller role as Indy's old pal Sallah while Antonio Banderas has an even tinier one as tactical scuba diver Renaldo. Thankfully, John Williams' legendary score is back as we remember it, with some additional flourishes. 

Mangold's staging and filming of the big action set pieces are highlighted by a horseback chase through NYC during the Apollo 11 parade and another with motorized rickshaws in Tangier. Both are superior to the murky 1944 prologue, which marks the franchise's most elaborate use of digitized technology yet, with a 25 minute sequence depicting a de-aged, deep faked version of Ford's Indy. It's pulled off reasonably well, but is still an odd fit for a property entrenched in retro influences like Saturday morning serials of the 30's and 40's.

You can't help but wonder if the opening is too much of a distraction, almost daring audiences to search for flaws and unintentionally harming what should be a fully immersive experience. And considering how Star Wars fans lose their minds over the briefest use of AI effects, a full half hour is a risky experiment. While trimming the sequence may have helped in covering noticeable shortcomings, it doesn't hurt to admit we might not be ready for this yet, at least to such an extent.

In a franchise with melting faces, extractions of human hearts and aliens the idea of time travel could still be a bridge too far for some fans. The hesitation isn't completely unwarranted since this veers further into the sci-fi realm than we've ever seen in the series, while maintaining the ancient mysticism that's defined other historical artifacts. The only difference here is how far the writers take it, actually following through on what's promised.

Larger questions are addressed regarding what transpired between Crystal Skull and the events of this installment, helping to explain how Indy ends up in this bitter place, latching on to the past like it's his last hope. How it fits into the plot is clever and certain to stir up more debate surrounding the creative choice made in the closing minutes. But it's safe to say common sense prevails, as the alternative would leave a dangling thread when all loose ends need to be tightly tied. An exciting, old fashioned blockbuster, Dial of Destiny goes out on top, upholding the spirit of the franchise while giving us the fitting final chapter we were owed fifteen years earlier.

Friday, September 1, 2023

The Beanie Bubble

Directors: Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash Jr.
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, Geraldine Viswanathan, Tracey Bonner, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Hari Dhillon, Ajay Friese, Sweta Keswani, Kurt Yaeger, Madison Johnson, Delaney Quinn
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★½ (out of ★★★★) 

Having already seen 2023 biopics detailing the creations of massively popular sneakers, video games, smart phones and specialty flavored snack chips, it should come as no surprise we're getting more. The Beanie Bubble could be viewed as the toughest sell of the bunch, even for those who fondly remember the brief Beanie Babies phenomenon of the mid 90's. Anyone not around for this consumer fad would probably still recognize these stuffed animals sitting on thrift store shelves today, unmistakably tagged with Ty Inc.'s ubiquitous heart-shaped logo. But as captivated as directors Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash's are by this, it's cruelly ironic how few are aware the "Ty" on that label refers to an actual person, company founder Ty Warner. 

That Warner himself has been largely forgotten by the public might be the most fitting punishment possible for someone who always craved the spotlight, at least according to this account. Heavily emphasizing his shortfalls as a human being and business leader, the script anchors his story around the women he backstabbed on his way to the top. Flamboyant and eccentric, the billionaire clearly had issues sharing or giving credit, fancying himself solely responsible for every facet of his success. With a script full of tropes that cover familiar territory, the film's straddling of two time periods and three intersecting stories does make for an occasionally fun, if flawed ride.

In tracking the rise and fall of toy manufacturer Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis) and the women essential to his triumphs, the film starts in 1983, where broke Arkansas native Robbie (Elizabeth Banks) struggles to make ends meet as an auto mechanic while caring for disabled husband Billy (Kurt Yaeger). But her friendship with odd neighbor Ty changes all that, as the two bond over his idea of a new "understuffed" line of animal toys. Robbie joins him in launching their own company, providing valuable insight that helps rapidly expand the business over the next decade. 

Flash forward to 1996 and Ty Inc. becomes a juggernaut, thanks in no small part to his loyal, hard working assistant Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), who introduces Ty to the internet despite his initial resistance. Around the same time, he starts dating single mom Sheila (Sarah Snook), but as she and her young daughters (Madison Johnson and Delaney Quinn) are drawn in by Ty's happy-go-lucky attitude, they'll soon get glimpses of his insecure, uglier side. Seeking to control everything and everyone, he proves to be less than the sum of his parts, ignorantly marching forward, unaware this giant bubble is about to burst.

For a film lacking a particularly distinctive style, it at least opens with an arresting scene, as a Ty delivery truck crashes, spilling boxes of stuffed animals onto the highway that are frantically snatched up by rabid passerbys. An obvious metaphor for the re-selling boom, the movie not only benefits from moments like those, but the beardless, unrecognizable Galifianakis' entertainingly bizarre turn, which grants Ty a complexity the screenplay rarely explores. It's especially true in the latter half when the character makes an abrupt turn that stems from what's implied to be a troubled, loveless childhood.

Since this frequently jumps back and forth between decades, Ty's transformation from fun loving goof into Elon Musk can't help but seem like an overnight occurrence. There's some background about his mentally ill mother, but given the primary plot revolves around him gaslighting the opposite sex, it's still unclear whether he specifically has problems with strong women, women in general, or maybe just people. Mainly, Ty comes off as a weird guy unhappy with himself, so credit should go to Galifianakis for overcoming the creative obstacles to play him exactly as that. 

Using Zac Bissonnette's 2015 book as their blueprint, the writers deliver one of the broader depictions of a greedy CEO, with Ty deteriorating into full blown parody by the time we reach the final act. From enterprising optimist to someone you wouldn't believe can find the bathroom on his own, he gets a lot of help from the women whose ideas and accomplishments he's more than happy to take credit for. Whether it's "lifting" Robbie up as their professional partnership evolves into an extra-marital affair, or unexpectedly sweeping the skeptical Sheila off her feet, Ty's constantly working some kind of angle. 

The most intriguing dynamic exists with whip smart assistant Maya, who forgoes her education and family's wishes she become a doctor to work for this supposed innovator. Watching her gently steer the clueless, egotistical Ty toward the online marketing possibilities of ebay is a real treat, especially knowing it's a concept he'll never grasp. Viswanathan's levelheaded performance as Maya sells this, her wide-eyed idealism quickly turning to exhaustive despair upon realizing she works for the boss from hell. Banks and Snook also impress, with the latter bringing grounded humanity to a fairly predictable arc. Her Sheila emerges as the more sympathetic of the two, if only because the character's connection with Ty is so personal, making his betrayal sting that much more.

Watchable as it is, this does play like a shallower version of everything Air and BlackBerry did better, glazing over beats and events without really digging into the psychology of its characters. For a while it works, but then just keeps going, to the point that you'd think it was originally conceived as an Apple streaming series. At just under two hours, it feels strangely longer, held together by the performances and a hope there's enough nostalgia left to carry its story over the finish line.       

Thursday, August 24, 2023

No Hard Feelings

Director: Gene Stupnitsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Laura Benanti, Matthew Broderick, Natalie Morales, Scott MacArthur, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Kyle Mooney, Hsan Minhaj, Zahn McClarnon
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's kind of amazing it took this long for Jennifer Lawrence to star in a major mainstream comedy, despite every indication she's always had the timing to make a huge impression in one. You can chalk it up to a busy schedule, the right project not coming along, or declining enthusiasm for the genre, but it just never materialized. Now, with the 90's throwback sex comedy No Hard Feelings, her invaluable presence sets the bar high for co-writer/director Gene Stupnitsky (2019's Good Boys), who also has to deliver on a promising trailer that probably left too little to the imagination. 

Borrowing elements from R-rated romps of decades past and boasting a clever, risky premise, it didn't take long for many to worry if the movie would go "soft," sacrificing laughs to deliver a serious moral message. But that's only the partial truth, as it's smarter and more low-key than anticipated, successfully mixing a handful of situational gags with a heartfelt coming-of-age dramedy that subverts a lot of what the advertising implied.

Maddie Barker (Lawrence) is a 32-year-old Uber driver and bartender living in her late mother's home in Montauk, New York that she owes taxes on. Facing bankruptcy when her car is repossessed, she notices a Craigslist posting by the Beckers (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti), a wealthy couple offering a Buick in return for a prospective young woman to "date" their shy, inexperienced 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) before he goes off to college at Princeton. 

While slightly older than the Beckers expect, Maddie talks them into giving her the job and assumes she'll bed Percy in no time, ignorant to any possible complications. After a shaky introduction and a few dates where they actually start enjoying each other's company, it's apparent this can only end badly for the teen, who's a lot more capable than his helicopter parents think. In the process, Maddie makes some unpleasant discoveries about herself, realizing this deal could carry far worse consequences than she assumed.

That Percy isn't the butt of all the film's jokes is a pleasant surprise considering the type of comedy this seems set up to be. It's almost too easy to portray him as an awkward, bumbling loser so there's a fair amount of restraint taken in the script and Feldman's performance to humanize him. He's introverted and withdrawn, but far from the lost cause his parents make him out to be, possessing a sense of humor and intelligence that suggest he's still just figuring things out. 

Even with Percy's parents causing more harm than good by pushing him into something he should be experiencing on his own, there aren't many males likely to complain about being in this particular scenario, so Lawrence has to work extra hard and does. So believably out of her mind as the overbearing, aggressively flirtatious Maddie, it makes sense he'd be somewhat terrified, especially considering the age gap. The real reversal is that this manufactured relationship is more damaging for her than him, giving you the impression he'll eventually be hurt, but survive and move on. She's a different story. 

At times Lawrence and Feldman play off each other so well you temporarily forget about the whole end game. As she gets Percy to come out of his shell, a stuck Maddie is reminded of her bad choices and strained relationships with married friends Sara (Natalie Morales) and Jim (Scott MacArthur) and jilted tow driver ex Gary (Ebon Moss Bachrach). They all look at her with pity, wondering if she'll ever come to the epiphany that it's time to grow up and move on.

With the big reveal eventually playing out smoother than expected, those craving an effort in the vein of American Pie or There's Something About Mary may be slightly disappointed. One of the few instances where it encroaches into that territory is with Lawrence's full frontal nude beach fight, which would rank as the most shocking thing in the picture if not for whatever's happening with Matthew Broderick's hair.

The damaged character Lawrence plays here isn't all that different from roles she's tackled in more dramatic turns and that isn't necessarily a negative. Even if it's tonally off or a little messy in parts, you still care about the two leads thanks to the delightfully dysfunctional chemistry she shares with Feldman. They both fully understand the assignment, even if certain viewers will gripe that this isn't worse, dumber or more offensive than they were supposedly promised.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Showing Up

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, André Benjamin, Amanda Plummer, Matt Malloy, Judd Hirsch, James Le Gros
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The best way of describing the down on her luck protagonist in co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt's latest, Showing Up, is as someone feeling defeated by life. This of course is Michelle Williams' stock in trade, having built her well deserved screen reputation on observant, thought provoking independent projects that rarely pull punches. Re-teaming with frequent collaborator Reichardt, it lands squarely in her wheelhouse, while also standing out as one of their more accessible ventures. And with people rather than an obviously manufactured narrative driving its plot, we get a quirky, offbeat look at the goings on in a small art community. 

While some may find it a slog or grumble it doesn't really go anywhere, it's not especially meant to, nor is the main character. Things have kind of settled into what they are, leaving us to make our own assumptions about how she's handled these challenges and what the future might hold. By the end, we sense a break in the clouds, implying that she might be in for better days than the previous ones, even as she continues to juggle a constant onslaught of personal and professional responsibilities.

Lizzy (Williams) is an artist who works as an assistant to her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett) at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, while also preparing for an upcoming showing of her painstakingly designed clay sculptures. Lacking hot water and unable to shower for several days, Lizzy complains to  friend and landlord Jo (Hong Chau), who casually brushes off the issue to prepare for two shows of her own. 

After Jo finds an injured pigeon Lizzy's cat attacked the night before and dumps the task of taking care of it back on her, Lizzy suddenly has less time than ever to work. She also has to deal with her eccentric father Bill (Judd Hirsch) taking in a freeloading hippie couple (Amanda Plummer and Matt Malloy), as well as her reclusive, paranoid brother Sean (John Magaro). With the show rapidly approaching, more disasters accumulate, but she must somehow forge forward, making a few important discoveries in the process. 

Right away you sense the instability in Lizzy's world, specifically when it comes to the dynamic with a mom who's also her employer, making their already strained interactions even more uncomfortable. It turns out everything about Lizzy's daily routine is steeped in that kind of awkwardness, as she's seldom afforded the time or opportunity to work on her clay pieces, which ironically consist of women posed in distressed states.  

Lizzy seems happiest and most focused when sculpting, but has little interest in the promotional hustle that the self-absorbed Jo's mastered, mostly by prioritizing her needs above anyone else's. It's almost a survival mechanism she's honed, unfortunately ensuring that her one tenant won't be showering anytime soon. Wishing she could let things slide off her back as easily, Lizzy resents herself for being too nice, envious of Jo's assertiveness. But whenever she unconvincingly tries to duplicate that, it just doesn't fit, and her frustration grows. Their rocky friendship forms the crux of the film and knowing so little about the history of it only makes these interactions more intriguing, allowing the actors to fill in the rest.  

Between an estranged father letting strangers crash at his house and a mom who dismisses his son's serious mental illness as some misunderstood form of genius, Lizzy has even less luck coping with her own family. Hearing voices and digging holes in the backyard, Magaro brings an unnerving tension to these scenes as Sean, with Lizzy and her mom treading carefully throughout, fearing any move they make could push him off the deep end. 

Inhabiting a deep thinker overwhelmed by work, family and a friend who seems to be anything but, Williams physically and emotionally disappears into this morose artist to the point she's nearly unrecognizable. Everything in her posture, expressions and body language subtly suggest a woman who believes she's fallen short of the career and life she envisioned, whatever exactly that may have been.

Hong Chau expertly plays Jo's inconsiderate behavior as coming from a lack of self-awareness rather than intentional maliciousness. It's far cry from her other recently acclaimed supporting turns in The Menu and The Whale, but a welcome one in its free-spirited obtuseness. André Benjamin brings a natural charisma to Lizzy's co-worker Eric, who operates the kiln at the college. He's complimentary of her work, while proving to be a little more oblivious than she thought.     

The only real bond Lizzy has is with the injured pigeon, likely since it's the one thing she feels capable of fixing. Despite it starting as yet another example of Jo taking advantage, she still recognizes her own fault in the situation and can't bare the thought of someone as irresponsible as Jo taking care of it. The totality of Lizzy's troubles come to a head when all these issues collide at her showing, resulting in a strangely symbolic but fitting realization.

The magic of Williams' performance is how it implies that self-consciousness and insecurity isn't unique to Lizzy, but partially a bi-product of this tiny creative enclave Reichardt immerses us in. As spare and minimalist as it is, the film still manages to be humorously uplifting in just the right spots, making it an easier watch than you'd expect, mesmerizing in how it captures the rhythms of everyday life. While watching Showing Up you can probably recall half a dozen indie titles it recalls in tone, but that doesn't diminish what Reichardt and Williams pull off, or lessen our interest in spending time with these undeniably eclectic characters.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Directors: Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic 
Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Kevin Michael Richardson
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Whatever you may think of it, The Super Mario Bros. Movie looks and feels exactly how most imagine the video game would if adapted into a large-scale animated family film for the masses. But more importantly, directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic capture the feeling associated with playing it and how that can be translated to the screen in ways that satisfy kids unfamiliar with Mario and parents who grew up on him. It's a delicate line to walk, bound to irritate some in the latter group with specific ideas about what the ideal approach should be, as many are still recovering from the disastrous 1993 live-action version that caused studios to swear off the property for decades. 

Illumination comes to the rescue with a refreshingly simple story that distills the character to its purest, most accessible form, hooking the next generation of Nintendo fanatics by sticking to what works and playing it safe. While the noticeable drawback is how closely it resembles all the other modern animated and Disney/Marvel related content, this at least deserves credit for landing on the higher end of that scale. A visual feast that delivers an Oz meets Lego Land vibe, clever Easter eggs are dropped for longtime fans without forgetting it's a kids movie through and through. And that's exactly what this needed to be.    

Italian brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) just opened their own plumbing business in Brooklyn, free from the reigns of their brutish ex-boss Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco). After a rocky first service call, the pair rush to the scene of a giant water main leak, only to be sucked into a Warp Pipe that takes Mario to the bright, candy colored Mushroom Kingdom ruled by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), while Luigi winds up in the Dark Lands, lorded over by evil Koopa king Bowser (Jack Black). 

Having gained access to the powerful "Super Star," Bowser threatens to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom unless Peach marries him, imprisoning Luigi to intimidate Mario. But after some much needed training from Peach, the red hatted plumber joins her and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) in attempting to free Luigi and thwart Bower's dastardly plan with Donkey Kong's (Seth Rogen) help. In the process, the brothers learn what they're truly capable of, both together and apart.

With only a handful of game titles to draw from in cracking a story, substantial legwork was likely necessary to flesh out the characters and make them more easily digestible. Matthew Fogel's screenplay smartly takes a straightforward approach, and before calling that a "dumbing down," it helps to remember the challenging task he's dealt. Since overcomplicating an already paper thin premise doesn't serve any meaningful purpose, the movie lightly fills in the blanks and rarely rocks the boat, mostly to its advantage. Mario's a great source of nostalgia for many, but after forty years of  jumping over pipes, eating mushrooms and rescuing princesses, our favorite short, mustachioed plumber in overalls doesn't need a showcase any deeper or more complex than what we get here. 

There's some confusion regarding Mario and Luigi's ages, at times acting like fully functioning adults running their own business, while also coming across as overgrown toddlers, complete with race car posters hanging on the walls of their adjoining bedroom. You can't help but laugh when a later flashback shows them as actual children, looking nearly the same, only slightly smaller and lacking their trademark facial hair. Otherwise, the presentation of these two are spot-on, establishing them as clumsy and endearing, before they're suddenly thrust into a fantastical scenario where Mario must rise to the occasion as a cowardly Luigi learns to overcome his fears. 

Luigi being held captive instead of Peach seems like a deliberate tweak to move past the dated "damsel in distress" concept, and even if this idea isn't as glaringly progressive now than in years past, it still gives Anya Taylor-Joy a lot to work with as the fiesty princess. Many have already complained about the voice casting of Chris Pratt and his attempt at a Brooklyn accent, but the performance is pretty much fine. It's just enough but not too much, with Pratt and Charlie Day bringing enough liveliness and likability to the roles that kids will lose themselves in the their wisecracking ways. As Donkey Kong, Seth Rogen pretty much plays himself in "take it or leave it" mode, but Jack Black exceeds expectations as Bowser, especially during his subversively hilarious singing interludes.

With respect to the slightly younger sibling, it's called Super Mario Bros. for a reason, so Luigi getting sidelined for a long stretch isn't a big issue, especially considering where that sub-plot goes. And game devotees will appreciate just how many details this slides in, like those immediately recognizable obstacles and traps during Mario's training, his Tanooki Suit and the catchy classic theme that provided a soundtrack to many childhoods. More popular songs are squeezed in, but even that works, as everyone involved recognizes how seemingly small stuff matters when attempting to please the entire audience.

Other than a third act Mario Kart sequence that sort of stalls out, the 92-minute run time is gratifying in a sea of bloated two and a half hour family films. If it's a little flat story-wise, that's understandable given the challenge, which could help explain why it took this long to get the franchise off the ground again. Given the limited number of avenues available to explore, the filmmakers shrewdly chose a sensible one, resulting in an effort that gets the important parts right, finally giving the character a chance to be seen and appreciated on the biggest stage possible.