Saturday, January 6, 2018

Well, here we are: Star Wars Episode Eight, The Divergence of the Force by The Mouse.

Movie Reviewed: Star Wars Episode Eight: The Last Jedi

Director: Rian Johnson

Date: 6 January 2018

jamesintexas rating: **

Failure is always an option, and I think The Last Jedi represents a failure of ideas at times despite its many wonders.  "The greatest teacher, failure is" says you know who in an appearance applauded for its puppetry and lack of CGI but another example of pillaging the past.  (Side note: Hasn't this character been through enough when I think of the Sonic-the-Hedgehog type stunts in Episode 2?)  I am also not sure if the creative forces behind this film and the aggressive release schedule which drives forward stories so quickly would align with the master's idea of learning from a failure.  A failure that makes one billion dollars in box office in only a few weeks.  I think that as a long-time fan, I am coming to terms with the world being a place where a new Star Wars film happens yearly and is just less special.  That is what it is.

The Last Jedi.  Even the title to this film lacks conviction and clarity because I do not know who it is supposed to refer to and what it means.  Rian Johnson's bloated, overstuffed take on the Star Wars universe stumbles in its own mythology, seems to mishandle the great Carrie Fisher's last onscreen performance as General Leia (unless maybe there is footage for Episode Nine?), juggles multiple story lines poorly, gives short shrift to characters like Rey and Finn as well as substance in order to fit in multiple CGI cute creatures and quasi-political and social commentary about arms dealing and weapon-building, and ultimately the film embodies the worst tendencies of Peter Jackson's finale in The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King, with an overlong, extended, indulgent denouement.  Here, Johnson flirts with making bold, radical choices with this storytelling and always blinks, never being courageous enough to shock or stir the audience.  In contrast, he is much more comfortable blowing up the tenets of the Jedi world, including the laws that govern them and the Force-ghosts in ways that provide quick storytelling shortcuts but up-end the universe itself without making sense.  And don't get me started on the jump to Hyperspace.

This film is a curiosity: a storyteller's decision to play in the world and muck it up, which I guess is his right, as this new trilogy is significantly farther away from George Lucas's vision than The Force Awakens would have made us believe.  In that film, J. J. Abrams offered a mishmash of old recycled into new, charmingly playing in the destruction of the world of the original trilogy with exciting, fresh characters like Rey and Finn and even Kylo Ren.  My favorite moments included Rey scavenging in the wrecked carcass of a Star Destroyer, now smashed up on the floor of her planet.  Now, the world constructed in The Last Jedi seems constrained by its script, in a rush to go here and there, while being a bit of a tale of sound and fury, as it were.  Many ridiculed George Lucas's focus on trade federations in Episode One; now, we have an entire movie devoted to running out of fuel?

After an exciting, WW2-esque opening battle, there are too many storylines to follow: Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver) dark journey and then rage; General Hux's (Domhnall Gleeson) grandstanding; the unconvincing bad guy Snoke (Andy Serkis); Finn (John Boyega) and Rose's (Kelly Marie Tran) journey to another planet and back to gather secrets to help their failing ship; sidelined flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac) clashing with autocratic Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern); Rey (Daisy Ridley) following Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) around until he agrees to teach her; and I think that's it?  There is an early fake-out death which goes far beyond the logic of this established universe and feels like a take from a Superman film.  I think that moment took me out of the film, and I struggled to get back on board.  It was distracting and still does not make sense to me.

To say this film signifies nothing is not true.  But whatever Johnson's vision is for this world, I am not sure I want in after this because there is some really strange altering of the world as we know it which offers some great visuals but sacrifices something in the process.  Johnson displays clumsiness and an unsteady hand throughout, which is evidenced by the film's inability to end.  The overlong quality of this movie betrays its own insecurities: Johnson wants to give us everything and nothing at the same time.  Rey engages in an Empire Strikes Back-ish quest to learn from Luke as teased in the closing moments of the previous film.  Luke's reluctance to join The Resistance and become her teacher are the most compelling moments of the film.  When the film is at its best, Skywalker storms around a rainy Ireland island in a cloak with Rey following and trying to engage him while also undergoing her own self-discovery.  Rey begins to psychically connect with Kylo Ren through Force telepathy, and her thoughts are never far away from her origin story.  Who are her parents?  What is her destiny?  How does she negotiate The Force and her newfound power?  Those are my favorite moments, and the more Rey, the better.  Rey and Finn are kept strategically apart this film, and I think that's a mistake because of the chemistry between the two characters, and dramatically, I think I just wanted more of Rey, though she does have a wonderful action sequence mid-film that repairs a missed opportunity in The Return of The Jedi.

As the latest two Star Wars films have proven, you show me an AT-AT, I'm probably on board because of nostalgia and the Hoth Battle being maybe my favorite moments in the series, close second being the forty minutes in Jabba's palace.  And there is a nice apocalyptic quality of some of the final sequence with its stark imagery, snow-like salt on top of red, blazing with light shimmering everywhere, but the final machinations of the film left me nonplussed, about which the less said, the better.  I was emotional in the final scenes, but I also think that part of that emotion was because the film seems to have sidelined its most interesting characters in plot lines that do not allow them to shine.  Ridley and Boyega are so fun to watch; they deserve to do more than just wait around.  Hamill does what he can with a Luke Skywalker that has been given this story line.  The performances generally are strong; I think I just was troubled by the arrangement of the film and storytelling, and some of dialogue is very clunky, even by Lucasian standards.

"We are what they grow beyond" says the green sage.  Growth, I guess, is debatable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017, 4K

Thursday, December 7, 2017

I Waited Sixteen Years For This?

Movie Reviewed: The Score

Director: Frank Oz

 Date: 7 December 2017

jamesintexas rating: **

The Score film.jpg

I waited sixteen years to see this 2001 film.  Here's the score:

Robert De Niro wins, I guess, but this tepid film signals a decline from his heist masterpiece Heat, and it sure isn't Ronin or Meet The Parents, both quite fun.

Edward Norton finishes second, but he's redoing his Primal Fear ticks and head bobs, and is more distracting than anything else.

The always excellent Angela Bassett finishes third in an underwritten character that is far beneath her talent.

Legend Marlon Brandon finishes fourth in a strange, sad final performance that just seems an ignominious end to such a stellar career.

I think that the film earns points for me because of the following:

1. It is filmed mostly in Quebec, and the Canadian streets, buildings, and jazz clubs are charming.
2. The jazz is quite wonderful, and Howard Shore, the great Howard Shore, does some very memorable, soulful work with the soundtrack.
3. There is a kind of workman-like dullness to the film that is nice.  Its stakes are not that high; its characters, not that hyperbolic; its MacGuffin, a French royal scepter which no meaning outside of its cash value.
4. Robert De Niro, for the most part, does not seem to be in much of a hurry as the world's most relaxed and pretty successful Canadian Jazz Club owner.  Neither is the film.  I think the opening scene encapsulates the whole film: there is a break-in without much panache or artistry; there are elements that we think are going to pay off big, and then they kind of don't; there is a lot of fading out of shots of De Niro traveling and traveling.  And then it is over.
5. There is a pretty cool extended shot of a torch cutting into a safe if you're into that kind of thing (maybe appealing for safecrackers?).
6. I'm never not interested in Marlon Brando, even just walking across a room or sitting in a bizarre basement pool room pontificating.

I do not mean to be chippy with this film, but I just think its ending feels unearned.  But more important than that, The Score is joyless and not much fun or funny.  That's okay, and it passed two hours of my team, but it isn't enjoyable.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Recording History: No Maps on My Taps

Movie Reviewed: No Maps on My Taps

Director: George Nierenberg

 Date: 19 November 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

No Maps on My Taps is an exhilarating social document, a chronicling of a disappearing art form by its denizens in the late 1970's, while also an exciting look at the lurching forward of culture from vaudeville until now, with its eye keenly focused on the controlled mayhem of the feet and bodies of legends Howard "Sandman" Sims, Bunny Briggs, and Chuck Green.  And, as a chronicle of these men and their art, Nierenberg has preserved them, has shared them, has allowed them to live on as I sat with 130 eleventh graders from my high school in Houston, watching this documentary at the 2017 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.  We know their names because of his film, which he watched with us and poignantly reminded us that he is the only person left from this film.  He tells their story.

Watching the film unfold, I was struck by its elegiac quality; these powerful performers lament their art's diminishment, especially in the face of rock and roll and other mediums.  They look backwards to the world of the 1930's with its films and shows focused on tap.  They enjoy being onstage with each other so much, each pushing the other to do better and better.  The footage from the 1930's is spellbinding, and the dancing, stupendous.  I wondered lots about Harlem in the 1970's which peeks in and around the edges, especially as Sandman walks the streets with his son.  His son must be nearly fifty years old now, and he has this document of his time with his dad.  I wondered about what art forms loved and embraced now will diminish in the next forty years.  Some of my students learned tap dancing when they were young; my conversations with the dancers among them made me think that hip hop has replaced tap in a way.  The Cross Country coach in me just marveled at their muscular control, their calves and ankles, their indefatigable rhythm and power. 

Chuck Green holds the heart and soul of the film, with his distant quality (the director revealed that he was struggling with much during the filming), yet his soulful uttering of the titular phrase is both sweet and hopeful.  No Maps on My Taps means, essentially, "No limits, Jonathan?" the philosophical underpinning of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another artifact from the 1970's, this one shared with me by my Cross Country coach Mr. Joe Newton.  To dance, to run, to create art is freedom: freedom from your constraints, your illness, your struggles.  Chuck, Bunny, and Sandman are all gone now, but this film holds them firmly in its heart, showing the beauty in these men and their love of tap and how it enriched their lives.  Thank you, George Nierenberg. 

Call it the Best Film of the Year.

Movie Reviewed: Call Me by Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

 Date: 13 November 2017

jamesintexas rating: ****

See the source image

Mr. Perlman, Michael Stuhlbarg's character, has a monologue at the end of this marvelous new film that detonated with an unexpected emotionality in me and resulted in a richer appreciation for all that came before.  Without revealing the contents of his epiphany, Perlman's naked honesty and perceptiveness expose the raw nerves of the film. I cannot remember being caught off-guard by such a transcendent and riveting moment in cinema in recent years.

Call Me by Your Name is a burgeoning love story, a collision of cultures between a seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) who is staying with his academic parents in a remote Italian paradise for the summer, the land of apricots and peaches and swimming, and "the usurper," Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate assistant of sorts who lives with them for six weeks and helps his father catalogue his work.  It is 1983, Elio has lots of time on his hands, to play piano and read, to meander the Italian countryside, to spend with possible love Marzia (Esther Garrel), but he is magnetically drawn to Oliver, with his towering frame, his clipped way of speaking, and his marvelous intellect (watching him correct Mr. Perlman is one of the film's many delights; them mocking his speech habits, another). Hammer's work here is sublime, making Oliver both overtly powerful and hypnotic while also private and secretive. And his cutting loose on the dance floor to the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" at two crucial moments in the film is both mesmerizing and cathartic.  As the summer drips away, the two circle around each other, tentatively negotiating their growing feelings all set amidst a backdrop of beautiful lagoons and cisterns, gorgeous bicycle rides through the countryside, and meals around parents and neighbors.  Where the film goes is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and the telling of the story was compelling in the way love works its way to and through Elio.  It reminded me of falling in love and all that entails.  The film imposes no artificial plotting or conflict other than time and its devastating ephemerality.

Director Luca Guadagnino is a new name to me, and I have never seen a film by him before, but now I want to more than anything. Guadagnino surprised me multiple times in multiple ways in this film: with his abrupt editing choices, mid-scene and mid-song sometimes that shift the chapters of the film forward; with his showing of the film frames at key moments, making the film more about memory and the past in its very tactile nature; in its final shot which lingers, painfully and truthfully after an epiphany of sorts is made.  I am grateful to have seen this film as part of the 2017 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, and the introduction to the film gave us a tantalizing morsel to chew on about a future film by this director.  I do not think the indicators of genre (drama, romance) or plot key words (gay relationship, teenage boy, lgbt, first love) do this powerful film justice.  I think about the role the parents play in the film, hungering for more from Mrs. Perlman (Amira Cassar), especially in a car ride scene fraught with raw emotion.  Her character, for whatever reason, seems confined to glances and looks and movements behind the scene, while Mr. Perlman gets the weighty, prescient, and elegiac monologue at the end of the film that still haunts me. 

I want to immediately return to the world of Call Me by Your Name now, read the book the film is based upon by author Andre Aciman, and in a second viewing, I want to appreciate even more the quiet, understated work of Chalamet and even the actors playing his parents, as there is simply more to consider (as there always is) when love shakes you to your core.  As the Psychedelic Furs sing, "Love my way, it's a new road / I follow where my mind goes," and dance like Armie Hammer in 1983. 

It is the best film of the year.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

mother! flipping strange.

Movie Reviewed: mother!

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Date: 17 September 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

A frantic, frenetic, claustrophobic journey through the unraveling of a life, mother! succeeds on the level of cinematic craftsmanship while faltering under the weight of its own self-importance.  The exclamation point intentionally reveals Aronofsky's motif of writing and creating Art (emphasis here on the capital A) which courses through the film, as well as signals the hyperbolic frenzy that is to be expected from the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah. Aronofsky has tackled gigantic, weighty issues in his films before while displaying visceral commitment to body horror and obsession. He is never uninteresting, and much of what is completely captivating by mother! is the commitment to tight medium and close-up shots of the eponymous matriarch (Jennifer Lawrence) and the poet, referred to in the credits as Him (Javier Bardem) as we begin the film locked inside of a creaking, ominous country house with work spaces and spacious kitchens and lots of rooms to wander into and out of in search of someone. He is creatively blocked and cannot write a word; she works steadily on rehabbing the house by painting it, when not cooking meals for them. However, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

The haunted house motifs, strange behavior of Him, as well as the mounting dread culminate in a marvelously uncomfortable extended scene that begins with a doctor, The Man (Ed Harris) knocking on their door looking for a room and sanctuary for the night. It could possibly be case of taking in a lost person, but there's more than meets the eye, quickly. In nods to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a far superior film), Aronofsky compresses time and has The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive to comfort the man, and things begin to escalate and escalate and spiral out of control. And despite brief interludes where Mother seems to be listening to and feeling kinship with the building itself (which is alive?), the sequences have a lucid, fever-dream quality that keeps jumping up in tone and severity that is only enhanced by Aronofsky's tight camera shots and swirling through maze-like rooms, following Mother. Without revealing much more, the film traces the line of The Artist as God in our culture, and the costs of such worship, before it goes completely off the rails by the third act where a commitment to entropy envelops the film as it returns to its opening, fiery shot.

mother! is not as shocking as it attempts to be, though it is hard to be shocking when it keeps staring at you dead in the face and screaming out loud, "Look at how shocking I am!" Aronofsky is trying so hard.  Instead, I view this work as an atmospheric tone poem, a long extended meditation on Art (with a capital A) and its emotional costs within the self and others. Kind of. Without more complexity, Jennifer Lawrence's character serves as a vessel for Javier Bardem's fears, anxieties, and more without being much more than a cipher. And at times, I didn't feel that Lawrence was up to the work of the character's constant searching and unraveling which plays against her work as intelligent, fierce heroines (see Rhee Dolly in Winter's Bone). Is Aronofsky trying to unpack the male desire to create in response to the female ability to give birth?  Is this all a modernized, tricked-out retelling of The Book of Genesis in the Bible with its many allusions to The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, being cast out, Cain and Abel, and more?  Aronofsky has greatness within him in the film's construction and especially its insidious music and sound design by Johann Johannsson, who was the elegant Oscar-nominated composer behind Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and here he uses voices as sound, echoing and buzzing off of creaking floorboards, doors being shut and open, spoons clattering against the edges of cups, all to ominous, eerie effect.  It is a tour-de-force performance of sound.  And when Mother leaves the room, she still hears most of the conversations, muffled but clear, as she tries to enter another part of the house but has to contend with the lingering words from other parts. Lawrence struggles at times here to be compelling, and I think that has to do with the way her character is conceived and written; Bardem has the full-blown egomania of The Artist at work in a bigger performance, though really a supporting one. The rest of the cast are excellent, with Michelle Pfeiffer being a stand-out. In Pfeiffer's scenes with Jennifer Lawrence, she stands toe-to-toe with her, uses her physicality and eye-rolling and devours her, in both words and actions, reminding us of Pfeiffer's cinematic power and great skill as an actress. I want to see more of her, please.

I'm still buzzing the morning after watching such a busy, strange, frenzied work which has some genuinely upsetting moments and seems fixed in the chaotic oeuvre of Aronofsky's other work and pet themes. I'm not sure that I want to watch this film ever again, and I understand its seemingly divisive reception upon its release this week. mother! is stressful and upsetting to watch. Part of the morning, I spent helping other teachers and community members rip out parts of a student's recently flooded home here in Houston, and as I pried up boards and nails, cracked out wood with crow bars, the old adage of "destruction being much easier than construction" resonated anew within me. I think that Aronofsky's commitment to destroying as he simultaneously creates results much of the vertigo that I experienced, but there is the lingering sting of wanting more from this film and its cipher characters than just a demolition derby and Bible concordances.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Ballet of Death: John Wick 2

Movie Reviewed: John Wick: Chapter 2

Director: Chad Stahelski

Date: 19 August 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

Image result for john wick chapter 2 images

I've made no bones about loving the first John Wick film, a kaleidoscopically kinetic film which someone in a stroke of pure genius called "the Citizen Kane of shooting-people-in-the-head films" which carried a dark menace of revenge through to its logical conclusion. As a terse, near-silent warrior, Keanu Reeves shined as the eponymous anti-hero, the man who got out of the business but lost his love and then his dog and then cut his way through hundreds of people in a bloody arc of revenge. Here, a high-speed chase scene opens the film with the clattering of a motorcycle rider falling of his bike down a cavernous Manhattan street; meanwhile, an outdoor black and white projection film of the great silent actor Buster Keaton streams on the side of a building overhead. It is an auspicious beginning for the sequel to the marvelous first film, and though it clearly loves its own mythology (and goes a bit overboard with it), John Wick: Chapter 2 has plenty to like and enjoy, along with some stunning camera work and action sequences that showcase Keanu Reeves as a performer capable of incredible movement and grace unleashing hell upon his enemies.

Wick is back and recovers his car before stockpiling his weapons in his basement, again, and pouring cement over them, again. And no sooner has he done that then he is challenged by Santino D'Antoni (Ricardo Scamarcio) to honor a blood-oath coin that he gave him, forcing him out of retirement to do one last job, this time in Italy, which may kill him. The film shuttles from the shimmery lights of NYC to the catacombs and old beauty of Italy as Wick figures out how to fulfill his oath and make his way back to his dog.

The highlights include the underground fighting which is just never-ending and endlessly inventive with Wick stashing weapons everywhere and finding new ways to dispatch his (mostly) faceless enemies. Cassius (Common) proves a formidable adversary and a hold-over from the first film, as does the mostly helpful kingpin Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick) who are there to remind us of the rules of this imaginary world with its mysterious coins and decorum of death. Reeves also shines in a hall-of-mirrors sequence with reflection piled upon reflection, a sort of call back to the end of the second Matrix film, with him opening and closing doors like James Bond in Scaramanga's playhouse, but this time it is with lasers and incredible colors and shimmery surfaces.

My only criticisms of the film are that the film overindulges its love with its own mythology and storytelling, has a diminished sense of propulsion through Wick's purpose for doing what he does being less primal and more diluted, and the world-building creaks a bit with the addition of The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, underused, though hooray for Matrix reunions!) and the allusions to The Council. Santino is fine as an enemy if not incredibly memorable or menacing. The ending seems ready-built for the inevitable third film, which regardless of diminishing returns, I will be there to see. Keanu Reeves, already a star and icon, proves endlessly watchable in fight scenes that place physical demands on the fifty-three year old that deserve a special Academy Award. 

Give Keanu the Oscar!

Image result for john wick chapter 2 images

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dead on Arrival: Live By Night Flounders

Movie Reviewed: Live By Night

Director: Ben Affleck

Date: 29  June 2017

jamesintexas rating: **

I think reading the book prevented me from ever really liking this film. Of course, I think probably I would have seen all of its flaws and disappointments even if I had not been constantly comparing it. But having just read Dennis Lehane's rollicking, gripping novel by the same title, it was impossible not to wish that Ben Affleck tamped down his own instincts and instead just give a bit more of the novel, of Lehane's snappy prose and plotting.  Instead, Live By Night gets bogged down in the swampy plot concisions that make me care less about most characters, rob the story of its power, and provide little of the fun of the story and the time period.

A robbery of a card game leads to a romance between a Boston policeman's son Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) and Irish waitress Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Of course, Emma's the girlfriend of mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and a robbery turned accident leads to desperate measures when Joe has to flee, and Emma ends up lost in the crash of a sunken car in the river.

Part 2 of the story takes place in Ybor City, Florida, where Coughlin becomes a big boss working for Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and coordinates the rum-running business of the 1920's Prohibition era. He falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana) who, sadly, is more of an idea than a fully-formed person in the film (unlike the book which delves deeply into her politics, her loves, and her psychology). Coughlin relies upon his wits and loyal friend Dion (Chris Messina) as he comes up against the KKK and the fervent anti-alcohol powers represented by born-again Christian Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), a compelling character whose return from Hollywood bears significant scars and horrors. Her storyline is a haunting one, but ultimately, the film just doesn't fully add up.

Affleck's got a good cast here with Messina and Saldana, Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson, but I think it might have been more interesting to cast himself as one of the feared bosses, Albert or Maso. Neither of the actors who play them has the gravitas to deliver a memorable performance, so the film has an imbalance. There's some action that is photographed well, and the film could stand to use more of its swampy, Florida locale. The ending does not have as much emotional power as it should.  For Affleck as a director, this film feels like a step backwards from Argo, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone. My recommendation? Read the book, and watch one of his other films.