Friday, November 17, 2017

Roman J Israel Esq. Review (2017)

Grade: C-

Through two films, writer-director Dan Gilroy already has an attraction to eccentric, persistent loaners who love what they do. In “Nightcrawler,” that loner was Lou Bloom, (Jake Gyllenhaal) a bulgy eyed parasitic wannabe entrepreneur who becomes a stringer in L.A. and proceeds to manipulate/screw over everyone around him. In “Roman J. Israel Esq.” that loner is the titular character, a stubborn and socially awkward Civil Rights lawyer played by Denzel Washington.

Instead of going to trial and arguing cases, Israel is most comfortable performing the behind the scenes duties—the administrative tasks and the mitigation work. He believes in doing things the old fashion way; he works on note cards and rolodexes. He has an old cellphone that he barely uses. Israel eats nothing but peanut butter sandwiches; the kitchen cabinets of his shabby inner city apartment are lined with containers of Jif. In other words, he’s a quirky dude! And he may not always know how to interact with people but he’s passionate about law and wants to make a difference.

Not surprisingly, Washington is in top form. Israel is more timid and clumsy, in how he talks and moves, compared to the characters Washington usually portrays. He’s so good at playing smooth, charismatic cool guys and calm authoritative figures that it’s a bit of a shock at first to see him play this quirky, spectrum-y lawyer. But he brings all of Israel’s idiosyncrasies to life with earnestness and some restraint.

The rest of “Roman” is loaded with potential. Israel’s life is suddenly thrown into chaos when his longtime lawyer partner dies and all of their clients are given over to a cold corporate law firm, headed by cold corporate lawyer George Pierce (Collin Farrell, who may as well be holding his script in his hands during his scenes. He’s positively robotic.). The film’s commentary on the impersonal, “assembly line” nature of corporate law firms is pungent. And Roman’s ongoing mission to fix a flawed legal system that encourages people to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to avoid harsher punishment is urgent; as is the moral dilemma Israel soon finds himself in. Does he continue to work and to try and reform the system for little in return, or does he sell out?

Unfortunately, those intriguing subjects and questions are let down by Gilroy’s bland screenplay, which relies more on telling than showing-- draining the film of vitality. In “Nightcrawler” there was a palpable sense of suspense propelling the action forward. We anxiously chomped on our nails and clenched the armrests of our theater seats waiting to see what Bloom would do next. We wanted to know how low he would go and how deranged he would become to achieve personal success. Bloom had a menacing, unpredictable aura about him that made the film endlessly fascinating.

 In “Roman” everything is telegraphed from the start. The narrative and character trajectory is neatly laid out in the opening scene and Gilroy tediously follows that blueprint beat by beat, bluntly explaining plot points and character motivations before reaching the predictably tragic conclusion. Even worse, the script is longwinded and verbose in a way that’s obnoxiously self-satisfied. Gilroy’s dialogue is riddled with clunky and pretentious metaphors that would even make Oliver Stone roll his eyes. The movie doesn’t need to be suspenseful in the way “Nightcrawler” was but it doesn’t need to be so heavy handed in its storytelling. “Roman J. Israel Esq.” has good intentions with its subject matter and Washington is magnificent but the overall execution here is underwhelming and unconvincing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Justice League Review (2017)

Grade: D+

While watching “Justice League” you can easily discern which version of the film is Zack Snyder’s and which version is Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in late to finish the movie after Snyder had to step away due to a family emergency. Snyder’s picture can be found in the stylish slow motion action scenes and the muted, air brushed visual aesthetic. It can also be glimpsed in the thematic gloominess.

On the other hand, Whedon’s “Justice League” is contained mainly in the script: the silly one-liners and comedic repartee between our heroes that eases some of the gloominess. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are a few funny moments--one involving Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) honesty lasso and the cocky Aquaman (Jason Momoa). But you can’t just tape some goofy zingers on top of a muddled and all around uninspired screenplay and expect a good movie to emerge. I laughed occasionally but I mostly groaned as the bland, messy narrative unfolded.

“Justice League” features yet another one-dimensional super villain, a mythical alien with a Viking helmet named Steppenwolf, (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to turn the world into a flaming hellscape, literally. His army of loyal demons resemble mutant zombie Man-Mosquitos and can apparently smell fear; a point that’s brought up twice and not really expanded upon. Steppenwolf uses portals to travel around the globe. He’s looking for three powerful energy cubes that will help him carry out his master plan. It’s obligatory for superhero movies to contain at least one portal and one meaningless Macguffin. “Justice League” has at least five portals and three Macguffins.

Anyway, while Steppenwolf is off doing his bad guy thing the rest of the world is in a dark place, due to Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in last year’s “Batman v Superman.” The opening credit sequence is a sad montage of people being sad about Superman’s death, racists harassing an Arab shop owner in Metropolis and a homeless man looking sad with a sign that reads: “At least I tried.” There’s unrest and very little hope, a perfect environment for Batman, (Ben Affleck, looking like he doesn’t want to be here) Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, whose entire performance consists of smart alecly comments) to join forces.

But they’re not teaming up to ease the pessimism and pain in the world, they’re teaming up to face off against a rote CGI villain in a climactic CGI battle and they have to recover three CGI MacGuffins. The apocalypse brewing at the center of “Justice League” is hollow and contrived. The comedic interjections further undermine the film’s serious intentions.

Maybe the most surprising thing about “Justice League” is that, at just under two hours not including credits, it’s not long enough. I’m all for action movies being leaner but this is clearly a big film that’s been severely abridged in the editing room. There’s a lot of ground to cover—establishing new bad guys, introducing new superheroes and having superheroes join forces. These are crucial narrative stages that have been squeezed into a small time frame and as a result the movie is in a constant state of fast-forwarding.  So much of “Justice League” is rushed, convoluted set up that our heroes don’t get a chance to gel as a unit and find a consistent comedic rhythm.

“The Avengers” worked because Disney played the long game. There were five movies that focused on the individual Avengers before they teamed up. Warner Bros. is trying to force things and it shows. “Justice League” has to do the work of four movies. Brand new character Cyborg goes from being a conflicted outsider who doesn’t want to join the Justice League in one scene, to an essential part of the team a couple scenes later, taking on tasks like he’s been a member for years.

Chunks of the film are so condensed and disjointed. A section involving Super Man in particular feels gutted, like the remnants of a larger sub plot. Emotional scenes between Superman and girl friend Lois Lane (Amy Adams, in a thankless role) are sappy and tonally inconsistent. When the team enters a top-secret base there are awkward lapses in logic and continuity. Maybe a two and half hour Snyder cut wouldn’t have been better but this trimmed down version doesn’t work.

Ultimately, I walked out of “Justice League” feeling apathetic more than anything else. The movie sets out to establish the core unit of the Justice League and it does so in the blandest way possible. There is comedy, sure, but it increasingly feels strained and out of place. The blending of Whedon’s wit with Synder’s aesthetic doesn’t feel organic. “The Avengers” was a satisfying commingling of heroes we had gotten to know, the result of years of build up and anticipation. “Justice League” is like a dull, tonally uneven TV pilot. But Whedon can walk away from this experience saying, “at least I tried.”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express Review (2017)

Grade: C-

Having seen Sydney Lumet’s faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” recently, I was worried my knowledge of the story and the solution to the mystery would taint my experience of watching Kenneth Branagh’s glossy star studded version. And for a while my concern was warranted. Branagh’s adaptation, which he co wrote with Michael Green, follows the source material very closely with few adjustments and it reaches the same conclusion.

However, to my surprise, that conclusion is still pretty damn impactful, not necessarily because of the murder itself but rather the profound effect said murder has on the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh). By the end, Poirot’s personal coda is altered; his strictly traditional notions of right and wrong are permanently ruffled. And he’s forced to see the world in a way he hadn’t before.

Unfortunately, getting to this point is a bit of a chore. While “Murder on the Orient Express” is never outright bad it’s consistently flat. The screenplay is stagey and telegraphed to a fault--draining the film of tension and urgency. Everything has to be spelled out for us, in lengthy monologues by the characters, (in which they spill potential motives) Poirot’s interrogations and flashbacks. Branagh’s oppressive theatrical style, combined with his faithfulness to the source material makes for a bland affair. A documentary featuring the actors from this movie playing one large game of Clue would be more exciting.

For the stylish and suspicious group of railroad travelers Branagh has assembled an impressive cast of old and new talent, including Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench among others. It’s a shame they aren’t given more to do. “Murder on the Orient Express” clocks in at an hour and fifty five minutes, a surprisingly brisk running time (given how many characters there are and the complexity of the mystery) that short changes its ensemble, hindering the characters from developing beyond a few scripted bullet points that may or may not connect them to the murder, bullet points that Poirot proceeds to spell out for us.  In this regard, the mysterious Count and Countess (played by Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) suffer the most, as Poirot blandly explains their backstory right to their face.

The short runtime also disrupts the picture’s overall flow. The narrative unfolds hastily and messily; character backstories and motivations seem to come out of nowhere. The backstory involving an American Army Colonel and his young daughter, which turns out to be a very important piece of the puzzle, is dropped into the narrative in such a casual and clunky manner that it’s devoid of significance. A murder mystery as elaborate as this one needs time to unravel with ease. Too often it feels like Branagh is trying to get through his story as quickly as he can.

Visually, “Murder on the Orient Express” is pretty but also a little drab. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is polished and there are a handful of dynamic tracking shots but the CGI exterior shots outside the confines of the train (on a snowy mountain, in Istanbul, in Jerusalem) are downright atrocious. They look unfinished and make the movie feel even more flat. I guess the filmmakers spent their entire budget on the actors and fake mustaches.

For what it’s worth, Branagh is very good as Poirot, bringing the character’s many quirks and inflated sense of ego to life. He gets the funniest lines in the movie and he sells the hell out of Poirot’s change in perspective at the end.  The rest of the actors do the best they can, with the exception of Depp and Josh Gad. Both men give overly strained dramatic performances that crumble like the very mountain that stops the train and kick starts our mystery.

Despite the life altering resolution, Branagh’s adaptation of “Orient” does little to justify its existence. You’re better off reading Christie’s novel or watching Lumet’s version.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Lady Bird Review (2017)

Grade: A

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird” is so effortlessly charming and easy to enjoy that within the first twenty minutes I thought to myself: I already want to see this again.

It’s a coming of age film, revolving around Catholic high school student Christine, aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) during her senior year, when she has to decide what her next step is. Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, a place she despises (she wants to go to college in New York where there’s “culture”) but also has a reluctant, sentimental appreciation for. The kind of appreciation we feel towards our hometown no matter how much we want to leave. Lady Bird is intelligent and well spoken but doesn’t really apply herself to anything. She wants to move to the east coast for culture but she doesn’t partake in much culture around her. Nor does she doesn’t appear to have any hobbies or passions.

In this regard, the movie is a witty, poignant chronicle of a bright but insecure teenager who has yet to figure out who she is. Throughout the film we see her try on a number of different identities with unsatisfying results; she joins drama club for a brief period. She befriends the rich, popular kids. She tries out teenage rebellion.  Of course, this is all very entertaining for us to watch and may possibly hit home. Though ultimately, “Lady Bird” is less about finding yourself and escaping then coming to terms with what you’ve got. Appreciating the good times you had growing up in your “awful” hometown and savoring the few substantial relationships in your life that you may have taken for granted because of egotism. The film ends on a bittersweet note of homesickness and ambivalence.

“Lady Bird” is full of recognizable characters and situations, recognizable both from other coming of age movies and probably your own life. Lady Bird has a hot and cold relationship with her strict but caring mother, (played by Laurie Metcalf) she smokes weed, loses her virginity, dates a couple of boys, has a couple tearful heart to hearts with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and uncomfortable conversations with guidance councilors. But there’s an honest, serio-comic vitality ingrained in Gerwig’s screenplay that’s unforced and immediately intoxicating. You want to keep watching. The character interactions are natural while the dialogue is sharp and detailed.

Gerwig gracefully balances adolescent comedy and drama in ways that feel familiar and fresh; tense patches of familial dysfunction compliment spontaneous, laugh out loud moments. At the very beginning, when her mother goes off on a harsh, tough love speech about college and Lady Bird’s future as they’re driving to Sacramento, Lady Bird jumps out the passenger door to avoid hearing the rest; a clever take on the classic teenager-storming-out-of-the-room scene.

Meanwhile, the direction is precise and elegant. Gerwig’s camera skips between Lady Bird’s various adventures and encounters with so much ease. The film gives off an easygoing vibe without meandering; Nick Houy’s editing is tight and a quiet yet noticeable momentum propels the action forward. Gerwig finds a sweet spot between slice of life character study and plot driven comedy.

Though none of this would be possible without Ronan who continues to prove she’s one of the best actresses working today--injecting her bratty but well-meaning heroine with an intoxicating sympathy and charm. Along with Gerwig, she makes “Lady Bird thoughtful, earnest, slightly melancholic and very, very funny. I didn’t want it to end. I could watch Lady Bird’s antics and sincere reflections all week. In fact, just inject this movie straight into my brain.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thor: Ragnorak Review (2017)

Grade: C+

“Thor: Ragnorak” (the latest entry in the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe) is at its most fun when the action takes place two or three realms away from the usual noise and CGI chaos that plagues the MCU. The middle chunk of the film (directed by New Zeland born up and comer Taika Waititi) takes place in a bizarre alien settlement known as Sakaar. There’s a massive junk pile wherein garbage from other realms are dumped via portal as well as a futuristic city with skyscrapers.

After a slightly tedious set up that prepares us for the predictable MCU movie “Thor: Ragnorak” is inevitably going to turn into, the God of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself in a Sakaar. He’s hammerless, fatherless and in the captive hands of Grandmaster, (Jeff Goldblum being his usual Jeff Goldblum-y self) a kooky, deranged fellow with jelled grey hair, a blue soul patch and a gold bathrobe. Thor faces off in a gladiator style death match against his old friend and co Avenger The Incredible Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who has, since the last “Avengers” film, gone mad and become a Sakaarian gladiator legend. At one point, Sakaarian citizens dance in the street wearing Hulk costumes and blow green powder into the air. “Dear White People” actress Tessa Thompson also makes her superhero film debut as an alcoholic Valkyrie warrior that downs half gallons like water.

Like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, “Thor: Ragnorak” benefits from being gleefully weird and isolated from the rest of the MCU. Amidst the political intrigue involving Captain America and Tony Stark, it’s nice to be blasted off into a strange new world where Jeff Goldblum portrays a flamboyant weirdo tyrant that forcefully pits two Avengers against each other. In these scenes, the picture plays like a goofy, freewheeling spinoff adventure in the Marvel universe: “Thor’s Trip to the Outer Rim.” There aren’t any blatant attempts to set up future “Avenger” films or characters.

The movie also benefits from the hotheaded comedic chemistry of Thor and Hulk, an excellent comic duo you probably hadn’t considered before. “Thor: Ragnorak” goes full on comedy, which is for the best considering these films involve literal Nordic Gods and other mythical beings fighting one other. Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost keep the jokes coming at rapid-fire speed. Everyone is so casual and snarky about everything. Yet to the filmmakers’ credit, the humor never hinders the action or stalls the pace.

Unfortunately, it’s not long before Thor, Hulk, the Valkyrie and Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (oh yes, Loki’s back and Tom Hiddleson is back to play him) must team up and go back to Asgard to save the universe from a supervillian and her undead horde. That villain is Thor’s spiteful older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, whose black eyeliner, armor and headdress gives her the appearance of a gothic deer) who wants to conquer Asgard and take over the rest of the universe.  Why do these movies always have to come back to the world being in danger? Why can’t Thor just be tired of doing Avenger stuff, go soul searching in the universe somewhere and end up as a gladiator slave? Why couldn’t the film be an offbeat, intergalactic, superhero riff on “Spartacus”? Why couldn’t there be a final confrontation between Thor and bizarro Jeff Goldblum? I wanted Waititi to stay in Sakaar and explore its eccentric texture and junk piles a little more. It’s far more exciting than the massive CGI battle that occupies the final third of this movie.

Aside from being rote, there’s no dramatic weight behind Hela’s threat to Asgard. Making a full on superhero comedy is great but you’re not going to also convince me that an entire race of people (the common folk of Asgard) is in any sort of real danger.  I imagine Waititi knows that and yet he still has to go through the bland motions out of professional obligation. The film goes from being silly and spontaneous to exhaustingly predictable. I felt like I could have got up and left the movie during this climax and not really missed anything. “Thor: Ragnorak” is a fun diversion until it has to turn into the same old superhero film.