Friday, June 16, 2017

Squadless: Suicide Squad Needs to Go Away

Movie Reviewed: Suicide Squad

Director: David Ayer

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: Zero Stars, maybe 1/2 * for make-up

So, I don't usually do this. I see fewer movies than I always want to, and I do not read reviews of recently released films before seeing them. I avoid trailers, generally, and I skip reading the puffy articles in Entertainment Weekly about upcoming films. So, I avoided much of the hype of David Ayer's Suicide Squad even though I do admit to having a color photo of Jared Leto's tattooed, grill-wearing Joker outside my classroom door. It is about government bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her recruitment of a super-secret-task-force of evil villains. But when high school students stopped by my door to tell me it was disappointing and they did not like it, I paid attention. How did such a big-budget spectacle go down in flames (especially if teens disliked it)?  And now that I have found time to watch Suicide Squad, I can confirm it is one of the worst movies that I have ever seen.

1. It feels edited in a way that hurts my head. My basic understanding is that the film was taken away from the director and recut by a film company that composes movie trailers. That makes a ton of sense because the film is a series of two-minute montages and quick cuts which replace storytelling and character development.

2. The film relies on clich├ęd musical cues that seem weird and strange. The soundtrack itself is fun, but I don't know why we are hearing Creedence, Eminem, and others in these little snippets that feel way too forced and too frequent.

3. There's bait and switch. This film is not a Joker film, and Jared Leto offers little more than a cameo. Sadly, the shadows of Harley Quinn's (Margot Robbie) origin story and his Arkham Asylum time are more interesting than anything else in the movie. And that's less than 90 seconds.

4. Characters spout off nonsense at a high ratio, including vagaries about being family (a family of misfit toys, I guess) in some attempt to offer camaraderie. Or, you get version of this tripe: "And we're the BAD GUYS!"  Or, this, "And, WE'RE the bad guys!"

5. Characters say "shocking" things to show how shocking they are.  It reeks of someone trying too hard to prove they are outrageous, like a kid cursing and looking around to see who hears.  I remember students carrying around 50 Shades of Grey and just waiting for an adult to ask them or challenge them about reading it. You are trying SO HARD.

6. The CGI is not good.  The villains (of the villains) are boring.  The twist is ho-hum.

7. There are too many characters in the film to care about or follow. I think there is a guy named Boomerang who has a Boomerang, an Australian accent, and slams beers. That's about it for character development.

8. Will Smith. His acting choices are just strange, devoid of his charisma and his intense power. A scene of his character Deadshot punching a bag in his cell reminded me of Ali and how much I wished that I was watching that film.

I was going to come up with 9 and 10, and then I gave up. This film is not worth spending more time than I have already spent thinking about it. I am just really glad that I didn't waste movie ticket and babysitter money on this dreck, though I did waste my time and space on my DVR. And, sadly, I think this was a compelling premise, undermined from within, and ultimately a missed opportunity.

Here's a parting shot: Vertigo never won an Oscar; Suicide Squad has one.

Wondrous Woman

Movie Reviewed: Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, "Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." We are in a better world in many ways than the one that I grew up in, and I welcome Patty Jenkins' new film Wonder Woman which delivers as both an origin story of the Amazon warrior and a very fun adventure film. Gal Gadot's performance as the eponymous warrior is so winning, so full of charisma and strength, that this film is impossible not to like. For whatever its flaws are, Wonder Woman offers a contrast to the conventional tropes of these films. Strong women are welcome as are more movies that pass the Bechdel Test.

The most powerful scenes in the film are in its roughly thirty minute opening scene in Themyscera, where the Greek mythology is outlined and where we meet a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and various mentors including Antiope (Robin Wright) doing all kinds of intense combat-training. There's swordplay and bows and arrows and daring stunts completed while riding horses. It is akin to Rosa Klebb walking through the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training area in James Bond's second film From Russia With Love: each physical task is more intense and amazing than the previous.  Diana yearns to be trained by Antiope despite her mother's warnings. When World War 1 fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on their beach, being chased by Germans who want to recapture plans that he has stolen, a brutal battle ensues that changes the insular world of Diana and her previously hidden life. Now, she must decide to engage with the world or to continue to hide behind a protective shield.

The scene shifts to war-era London after a wonderful conversation on a boat between Diana and Steve which is about as intense about gender and sexual politics as one would ever believe possible in a comic book film. We begin the conventional march towards completing a mission, with several memorable supporting players joining the cast: secretary, as Diana calls it, "a form of slavery" (Lucy Davis); sniper (Ewen Bremner); actor (Said Taghmaoui); guide (Eugene Brave Rock). Jenkins balances the film's intense themes and action with humor and various fish-out-of-water scenarios as Diana encounters the modern world. However, the central conflict is a powerful one: in a scene located in the trenches surrounding a No Man's Land, Diana encounters a woman cast out of her village by occupying forces, listens to her story, and is so moved by it that she is called to action. A ferocious battle ensues, heavy on the CGI and the Zack Snyder slow-motion fighting, but the impetus is a conversation and an emotion felt by the character. It is a human decision, an impulse based on grief, pain, revenge that leads to a decision which shapes the rest of the story. I cannot express enough that the strength of this movie lies in its quieter scenes and its construction, not necessarily in its big action scenes.

A word about those action scenes.  I loved the opening hand-to-hand combat training sequences and even the Germans on the beach, with the camerawork always being clean enough to follow the story and the action. It was riveting, reminding me of the opening of Gladiator. Then, the film descends into murky CGI and over-the-top jumps and flips, and I find myself a bit taken out by it. When Diana has super-powers and fights another similarly strong foe, I do not really understand the stakes and the rules. What does it take one person to defeat or kill another? I had the same problem in Superman when I just couldn't wrap my ahead around all of this throwing of people into buildings. How does Zod defeat Superman? How do we know when someone is winning a fight like this? Those concerns are no different here than in previous films of this type. I worry that these films have a director and then another director for the CGI fighting, and how do you mesh the two?

The film has a strong conclusion with a wonderful sequence that we get to experience twice due to the concussive ringing in the ears which Jenkins replicates for the audience. I forgive the film's telegraphing of its villain from a mile away and its sometimes clumsy handling of scenes. (The morning following an important shift in the characters is treated inconsequentially, as if the film is too shy to think about the implications of what it has done.) The examination of photographs on a bulletin board at the film's end has a quiet, powerful resonance, and it adds a haunted, elegiac quality to its frame. It is a very good movie which offers me hope for the future. I am excited to watch this film with my son and daughter someday.

Wonder Woman soars over the Bechdel Test. It has two or more women in it, all with names, who talk to each other about something besides a man. It has many strong, intelligent, compassionate, and wise women in it, all with names and importance (Antiope's legacy casts a shadow over Diana), who talk about their world, their lives, their feelings, their losses, and their legacy. So much more than what women characters have been regulated to in traditional superhero films.

Leia Organa, Clarice Starling, Leeloo, Trinity, Lola, Yu Shu Lien, and Beatrix Kiddo welcome you to the club, Diana. It needs to be larger.

Smash the door open for as many others as you can.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Guarding the Franchise: Fun Thrills and Tears in Capable Sequel

Movie Reviewed: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Date: 27 May 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

I think it is a testament to James Gunn's quirky weirdness as a director of perhaps the biggest film of the year that what I mostly remember, several weeks after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is the murderous interstellar rampage set to "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. There's slow-motion walking, Tarantino-esque nods, fun special effects as Yondu's whistle directs an orchestra of death, and it recaptures a bit of that jarring tone from the first film, the tone established by the unconventional placement of early 1980's pop music alongside space battles. Overall, I think that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 remains fun throughout, despite being overlong and overstuffed with battles, though I do not feel as enraptured with it as its original. That film was one of the best of the year and earned four stars from me.

After a mysterious opening scene with a flowy-haired, digitally retouched Kurt Russell driving a convertible on earth, Gunn opens the film with the familiar characters.  In a wonderful title card scene which undercuts our expectations, Gunn establishes that the Guardians are now tasked with protecting the universe for hire while squabbling within themselves. He carefully stages the scene with a ferocious monster but seems uninterested in showing us what we want to see.  Instead, we follow Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) as he runs playfully around the periphery of the scene. It is a charming beginning and establishes the relationship with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her race of golden warriors who trade protection for Gamora's seething sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The guardians must flee and separate as a result of Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) stealing some batteries and coming into snarky opposition with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), but another ship seems to rescue them at the last minute. A crash landing on a strange planet leads to both reunion and separation as Quill confronts aspects of his past, Rocket rejects the dynamics of the group, Gamora and Nebula discuss their tenuous relationship with their father and each other, and then there's Drax (Dave Bautista), who just seems to awesomely exists to be gigantically huge and titanically funny in his one-liners. When the strange ship lands, the Guardians separate, but unknowingly, they are being hunted by Yondu (Michael Rooker) with a price on their heads for their betrayal.

I won't say more because I don't want to reveal the plot's twists and turns, but Gunn crafts a satisfying tale set to an awesome soundtrack. At multiple moments, the screen is filled with such beautiful imagery and colors and planetary skyscapes that I marveled at Gunn's artistry and patience in holding the camera to let us enjoy the world. However, my main criticism is that the film is too long and too big-battle heavy, taking us away from the weird conversations and the relationships that ultimately distinguish this film among others of the genre. I think Guardians is at its best when the main characters are talking to each other, and there are just too few conversations like that is in this film. Gunn sacrifices those quieter moments for an expansive story, one in which sequel cultivation is a priority. That's why you get Sylvester Stallone showing up briefly and some other cameos at the very end. I think the best decision made by James Gunn was to promote Michael Rooker's character to featured player with more screen time and dialogue and more of a character arc. Rooker's Yondu is endlessly fascinating in look and action, and Yondu and Quill provide the emotional heft of the film in a surprising way. Gunn's use of Cat Stevens and Fleetwood Mac charms, and despite feeling like everyone needed to talk to each other more, I think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, often beautiful, meticulously crafted film that keeps laughter balancing tears, yes tears, in a summer blockbuster that showcases a ferociously violent Baby Groot in an off-kilter, strange twist on the traditional action-adventure. A welcome twist.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not So Hidden Anymore: Hidden Figures Soars

Movie Reviewed: Hidden Figures

Director: Theodore Melfi

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

Hidden Figures is so well-executed, well-constructed, and well-acted, that its success in the box office and in the Academy Award nominations is both heartening and completely expected. A story hidden from most Americans until now, Theodore Melfi's film crosses into the public consciousness as a reclamation of American aeronautical history in the Civil Rights Era, and an excoriation of the good old days. In Hampton, Virginia 1961, three NASA engineers Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) fundamentally challenge the corridors of power within NASA as the burgeoning space program struggles to get off of the ground. Katherine, a brilliant mathematician, finds herself working closely with Al Johnson (Kevin Costner), the gruff, no-nonsense team leader of the group tasked with keeping John Glenn safe while in orbit, a response to the Russians recent exploits, while also having to run across the compound to use the Colored bathroom. Dorothy, a visionary computer expert, sees the future of her work more quickly than those around her, forcing herself to learn IBM programming to make herself (and her team) indispensable in the coming age. And Mary struggles to earn the education necessary to be an engineer at NASA because of racism and sexism but figures out a way to learn what she does not know. In all three stories, which are woven together quite well, we see three women determined to challenge the power structure and keep challenging it.

Henson is the star here, given more screen-time for Johnson's struggles against administrators and policies and even the quiet racism of her white co-workers not wanting to drink from the same coffeepot as her. Henson conveys the dignity and the exasperated genius of Katherine G. Johnson, a woman whose insights made the impossible possible. Spencer and Monae are also decidedly great in their roles, and the film has an attentiveness to the costumes, hairstyles, set design, and cars of the era that is both beautiful and disarming. This time was not that long ago. Yet, why do we not know this story until now?

Hidden Figures has grossed over $168 million dollars, and I know of multiple grants for school children of all races and ages to go see the film in the theater. These women's achievements have not been forgotten, and the film tells their compelling story in a way that tugs at the heartstrings. These were real people, real women, doing work at the highest level that was needed by our government, and their voices were silenced, marginalized, and hidden until now. There was palpable relief during a key moment with Al Johnson and a sledgehammer, a decision with great implications for treating others with equality. I am excited to watch this film with my own children someday.

In her court case to be able to learn what she wants to learn, Mary Jackson states, "I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can't do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?" Here's to this film being the first of many reclamations of American history to show the myriad of people previously unseen, unheard, and hidden from our public consciousness. The American experience must uncover these hidden stories and show them in classrooms and movie theaters, in books and shows. We have no choice but to move forward and honor the truth in our past. Hidden Figures lights the way.

We've Arrived: Villeneuve's Innerspace Adventure

Movie Reviewed: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

An alien arrival movie that morphs into one character's existential journey, Arrival announces Denis Villeneuve's palpable talent as a filmmaker as well as the joys of the rug being pulled out from under the audience. In its more cerebral and emotional ways, the film recalls, in moments, both Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. After some slowing zooming in opening shots of an empty house with hauting score by Johann Johannsson, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Linguistics professor must join an Army force led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who are tasked with responding to one of twelve alien spacecraft that are hovering over different parts of the globe. Gigantic egg-like structures, these spacecraft offer chances for communication with life beyond our own, and Banks joins physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in approaching and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And then, the movie becomes almost a silent film for many minutes with the entrance into the floating egg being a tangible concern, the strange circulations of its gravity, and the logistics of movement within its spaces. Villaneuve lets us reorient ourselves gradually before showing the next reveal, a mixture of both the beautiful and the terrifying, as the communication goes from abstract to shockingly face-to-face. 

And the movie meanders in time with Louise considering her relationship with her daughter in the midst of the world-altering developments. And in a way, the arrival of these extraterrestrials might not be the biggest thing that Louise has on her mind, though her scholarly acumen and moves pay off in brilliant and marvelous ways. The film constantly surprised me in where it was going, and I found multiple reveals to be well-executed and upsetting in the best of ways. Villaneuve moves his camera beautifully with cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot Selma and was appropriately Academy Award nominated for his stunning work here), with lots of slow zooming in to increase tension and plenty of extreme wide shots that show the breadth of the landscapes in relief against the giant eggs. I cannot put into words the effectiveness of Johannsson's score; the Icelandic composer behind The Theory of Everything and Sicario has crafted a sublimely beautiful soundscape to accompany such a strange film. I found Amy Adams to be stellar in a performance that for much of the film is wordless or without the big moments that one would expect. And Renner and Whitaker are both wonderful in the supporting cast as well.

With Arrival coming on the heels of the more messy but compelling Sicario and even the flawed Prisoners, Villaneuve has announced himself as a major talent here, especially with the boldness of the last thirty minutes of the film. In a film that could have easily been two and a half to three hours (I'm looking at you, Interstellar, which I still enjoyed), Villaneuve takes less than two hours to concisely tell a moving story with gravity. The unconventional final sequences reveal a filmmaker filled to the brim with confidence, elan, and daring. I am haunted by Arrival and its hypnotic power; I feel that I will always want to return to its world and fall under its spell and its idea that we are ultimately not waiting for an external conquering or revelation. Instead, the epiphany will and must come from within. We announce and create our own arrivals.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tale as Old As Time: Beast Redux

Movie Reviewed: Beauty and the Beast

Director: Bill Condon

Date: 15 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Many times as I watched the live-action version of Disney's animated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast (itself a reimagining of previous versions, to me yet unseen), I cast my memory back fondly to the images, songs, and performances of that film. The 2017 version, while well-made and mostly well-cast, seems superfluous to me. I hate to call any movie a cash-grab, but the impulse to revisit this world seems guaranteed to be more about making a hit and less about making a film worth remembering. For my money, I will always prefer the 1991 film.

A back story is provided this time which is fine involving a lack of hospitality extended by a prince to a begging woman who visits a ball; the magical punishment ensues. Flash forward to the present. Belle (Emma Watson) hungers for more "than this provincial life" in a small village in France, and when her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing on a search for elusive flowers, she evades would-be-suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) and travels to the hidden castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens).   Belle sacrifices herself for her father, becoming a captive of the Beast and the castle's enchanted inhabitants.  Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) are all here and mostly fine.  The songs zoom by as petals from the enchanted rose fall; Belle grows to love the Beast's library, and he grows to convert his anger into kindness. There is a nice scene that flashes back to Belle's mother in Paris, a memory unseen by her until now. Thawing and dancing ensues. Meanwhile, Gaston plots against Belle's father and tries to figure out a way to win the one uninterested independent feminist in the village who despises him.

All the pieces are here. The new songs add little to the film's enjoyment; the old ones remain classics and spirited fun. The castle is a remarkable achievement, but there seems no one scene or moment as powerful as first seeing that dance between Belle and the Beast, given a rich cinematic spin in 1991 that seemed very different from previous Disney films. The film does no harm, I guess, and LeFou (Josh Gad) being in love with Gaston and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment at the end of the film is fun. Emma Watson really can do anything, here reunited with her Perks of Being a Wallflower screenwriter Stephen Chbosky. Luke Evans seems less capable as Gaston, maybe because Gaston's monstrosity seems small here. I imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Jason Momoa, so anything he does seems less than. I suppose it isn't fair to just compare it to its predecessor. Standing on its own, the film is fine and enjoyable but a bit clumsy and inelegant. If anything, I am more likely to watch the 1991 film now and show that to my son and daughter. You can decide if they are worth comparing.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Movie Reviewed: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Date Reviewed: 5 March 2017

Rating: ***1/2

What a trip! I am so glad that I knew very little about this film going in, so my review is going to be vague and preservative of the thrills and chills inherent in 10 Cloverfield Lane. A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees New Orleans and wakes up from a violent car crash to find herself underground, recovering from her injuries under the care of a survivalist (John Goodman). There's another man there too, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), recovering with a broken arm. Something has happened, apparently, above ground, and the retreating to this bunker necessary. Is it the apocalypse? War? Space invaders? Paranoia? All of them at once?

Development leads to development, and one of the wonders of Trachtenberg's film is the off-kilter feeling of getting your bearings, thinking you know where the film is heading, and then getting knocked down. Completely. The performances are wonderful, especially Winstead who must cover so many emotions within the confined space as she tries to out-think the growing chaos around her. Trachtenberg is a major talent here, allowing the tension to build and build. I think that the ending is simply marvelous in its boldness.

I do not want to write more. I admire this film, its construction, its surprises, its payoffs. I think it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, and I want to see more films like it. What holds it back from being perfect? I can't put my finger on it. I think revisiting this film in a few months will probably force me to revise this rating to four stars. Highly recommended.