Friday, September 22, 2017

"Mother!" and the Coat of Many Colors

I was finally able to catch up with "Mother!", Darren Aronofsky's ambitious new meditation on... something that has sharply divided critics and largely estranged audiences. Just a few thoughts.

All this is VERY spoiler-y. So desist if you desire to experience the film's surprises on your own.

First off, unlike many others I don't think giving a complete analysis of the movie necessarily gives everything away. It has not so much plot twists as a labyrinthine pit of meaning that grows more intense and more amorphous the deeper you go. Once you know it's a descent, it's just a matter of pondering where you're going to end up and what meanings you're going to take away from the journey.

And I think they are multitudinous. People have come forth with all sorts of interpretation of what the film "means," and I believe they're all right. Star Jennifer Lawrence herself has posited that her character is Mother Earth and her husband, called simply Him and played by Javier Bardem, is God. But it's clear this is Lawrence's opinion, not Aronofsky's.

I don't think the writer/director actually intended any single vision of "Mother!". It is literally all things to all people... and nothing to some, who will find it overly mysterious and arty. It's less a portrait or a parable than an impression, and we put as much of ourselves into the vision as the artist did.

Certainly there are plenty of religious themes. The interlopers barging in their secluded mansion, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, never named but credited as Man and Woman, are representations of Adam and Eve. Him is tickled with their presence, especially Adam, while Mother is irked at any intrusion. Aren't I enough for you? she asks Him repeatedly. He responds with protestations of love, but there's always a "but."

Man and Woman's sons, who show up and immediately get into a fight that results in one's death, are obviously Cain and Abel in this telling. The crowds of people who show up after are the rest of mankind -- messy, violent, worshipful of Him's poetry. The outcome of Mother's pregnancy follows pretty obvious Christ parables.

But I think there are also a lot of themes about parenthood, and the chasm between male and female gender roles. These take place on a simple humanistic level, where the characters cease on some level being allegorical and are simply who they appear to be.

I also believe the film has a lot to say about the role of the artist in society, and their relationship to their fans/followers. These types of movies can quickly become tiresome, particularly in the prism of Hollywood -- 'Oh please, tell me more about your struggles with fame, adoration and all those millions of burdensome dollars.'

But Aronofsky lays out his tale without a lot of obvious egotism, showing how the creative process starts as a singular act and the work ends up becoming something that is shared and dissected and stolen. The artist gives and gives, and takes and takes. Like Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation," "Mother!" is a Gordian knot that inextricably ties up the story being told and the role of the storyteller.

In a lot of ways, the movie is really about itself.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: "Rebel in the Rye"

"I sometimes wish I’d never written it. It’s made me a prisoner. I’m shackled by my own creation." --Jerry Salinger

This will be just a very quick and shorter review. The film's release was moved up suddenly, and the studio was only able to supply me with a screener at the last minute. I always prefer to give full-length, well-thought analyses of new films, but the limits of the distribution/marketing system -- not to mention my own numerous obligations -- sometimes prevent that.

But journalists, as opposed to authors, understand that sometimes it is better to publish something quickly dashed off than nothing at all.

"Rebel in the Rye" is a biopic of "The Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger from about ages 20 to early 40s, after which he never published another word and became a virtual recluse.

As played (very well) by Nicholas Hoult, Salinger -- "Jerry" to his friends, "Sonny" to his family -- was an angry young man who understood better than others that his sort of anger is just not sustainable over the course of a lifetime. "Catcher" was published when he was barely into his 30s, very young to be dubbed "the next great American novelist," but already struggling to grasp the angst that drove him as a teen.

The film, written and directed by TV veteran Danny Strong, based on a biography by Kenneth Slawenski, has essentially two halves. The first is about Salinger's relationship with Whit Burnett, the legendary Columbia writing professor and editor of Story magazine, who discovered and shaped many of the 20th century's greatest literary voices. They start as antagonists, gradually evolve into mentor/student, followed by friendship and estrangement.

It's another knockout performance by Kevin Spacey, who has the rare ability to utterly disappear into a character. A frumpled, boozy, distracted man, his Whit recognizes raw talent when he sees it, but also knows that great writers have to be willing to sacrifice everything for their craft. When you're willing to spend your whole life typing and never be published, he tells Jerry, then you'll know you're meant to be a writer.

The second, less effective portion of the film is about Salinger's wartime experiences that left him fractured and unable to write. This is a low-budget film, so there are no depictions of battles or such, just dreamy vignettes of huddling in foxholes, liberating concentration camps, being analyzed and dismissed by Army psychiatrists.

The film tries to shoehorn an untidy life into its 110-minute running time, so Salinger's brief marriage to a German woman gets very short shrift, as does his second marriage to Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton). They go from meet-cute to courting to raising family to resentment so fast, you'll miss the whole thing if you need a bathroom break.

I did appreciate how the film showcases portions of the writer's life that are less well-known, such as his devotion to Eastern meditation and yoga to help get over his war trauma.

Also popping up are Sarah Paulson as Dorothy Olding, Jerry's agent, who carefully navigates the pitfalls of the publishing game while genuinely caring about him as a person; Victor Garber and Hope Davis as his parents, who reacted to their son's gifts in very different ways; Zoey Deutch as Oona O'Neill, the unattainable girl Jerry woos and loses; and Brian d'Arcy James as the publisher who embraced "Catcher" when everyone else regarded it with befuddlement.

What the movie does best is show the development of Salinger from puckish kid to serious artist, and all the fits and stops along the way. He arrogantly insists that no changes be made to any of his short stories, resulting in a big break with the New Yorker getting pulled shortly before the war breaks out. Later, he finally agrees to meet with their editors and realizes they can actually improve his writing.

Salinger ultimately spent a decade developing the characters, the voice and the perspective that became "Catcher in the Rye." It's a reminder that great art never just springs forth like a thunderbolt from the gods, as most tellings would rather have it.

Usually, cinematic portraits of artists are better at revealing the person rather than their art, but with "Rebel in the Rye" the opposite is true. Salinger elevated his identity as a writer to such an extent that he ceased wishing to be the person he had been before. He shut out everything he felt was a distraction to his writing, which turned out to be... almost everything.

Review: "The Lego Ninjago Movie"

The whole concept of “Lego Ninjago” is just brilliant, from a marketing standpoint.

Kids love Legos and are positively insane for ninjas, or chop-socky action in general, and they also will watch almost anything animated. Throw all those things together and you’ve got something that smaller children, especially boys, are guaranteed to devour.

As the dad of 4- and 6-year-olds who live loudly the dogma of their Y chromosome, I am unnervingly well acquainted with the TV series, “Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” now in its seventh season.

I have to say that for a kids’ show, I’ve been impressed with the level of storytelling involved. The relationship between Lloyd Garmadon and his estranged father, the evil Lord Garmadon, has had permutations of Skywalker-ian complexity, with Lloyd starting out as a snotty kid and evolving into the “chosen one” Green Ninja.

After “The Lego Movie” became a hit, it seemed inevitable that the ninjas would get their own feature film. My kids, and to a lesser extent I, looked on with genuine anticipation.

So I have to say I’m disappointed. The veritable platoon of filmmakers -- with three credited directors, five screenwriters and seven people receiving story credit -- seem to have gone out of their way to toss the entire television series, even swapping out the whole voice cast for bigger names who, frankly, aren’t nearly as good.

The addition of live action sequences, which was probably unavoidable after Will Ferrell did it, is off-putting and disruptive, with Jackie Chan playing a stereotypical Asian shopkeep who has important lessons to impart. He also does the voice of Master Wu, the ninjas’ serene and mysterious teacher. There’s also a furrier addition late in the game that’s just goofy.

The movie is essentially an entire reboot of the Ninjago universe, with the six ninjas more or less back to square one in terms of their martial arts/elemental powers, relying instead on huge robot ‘mechs to battle Lord Garmadon. However, Nya, the lone female ninja voiced by Abbi Jacobson, has already joined the group, Lloyd (Dave Franco) is already grown up and the Green Ninja, and Zane (Zach Woods) has already been revealed to be an android, though he seems to be somewhat in denial about this.

Rounding out the crew are Fred Armisen as Cole, the earth ninja, Kumail Nanjiani as Jay, the lightning ninja and Michael Peña as Kai, the fire ninja. Olivia Munn voices Lloyd’s mom, Koko, who used to be married to Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who has blackened skin from a deadly snake bite, four arms and cries tears of fire. Talk about falling for the bad boy.

The story is sort of a very condensed version of the first few seasons of the TV show: the ninjas fight Lord Garmadon, then find themselves allied with him, leading to some tenuous father/son bonding between him and Lloyd, followed by some scorpion-and-frog-like realignment.

It’s an energetic movie, with cool martial arts action scenes and neat creatures. The biggest problem with “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is that they’re trying to force it into the template of “The Lego Movie,” with crazy quips and comedic asides.

It’s almost as if, instead of creating something new and cool, they were determined to re-use the same pieces in a different configuration -- like trying to build the boat using the parts for the tank. Whether it’s construction toys or movies, you just gotta let things be what they are.

Before I go, in the interest of fair journalistic criticism, I should report a couple of things. First, duty requires me to disclose that I nodded off a few times. I think this is the third time this has ever happened to me, and both of the others were also kiddie flicks that failed to hold my attention.

Also, my kids really liked the movie. We talked a little afterward about how it was different from the show, but it still came down to the fact that this movie included: A) ninjas B) Legos, and C) cartoons. So you can mark the target audience down as “sold,” even if dad was sleeping on the job.

Review: "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

Well, that was disappointing.

I absolutely adored 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” It was a dizzy, daffy parody of the spy genre that nonetheless was in unabashedly in love with cool gadgets, dastardly plots and slo-mo action scenes. And it featured a bunch of dashing guys in swanky British suits to boot.

So here comes the sequel, subtitled “The Golden Circle,” using the same core cast and creative team, and it’s a discombobulated hot mess of a movie. It's like going to a party where you like all the people, but somehow the conversations are lame.

What I enjoyed about the first film was the brash, giddy tone that combined R-rated mayhem with sharp comic zingers. It featured Colin Firth as Galahad, the oh-so-suave top agent of the Kingsmen, a private spy agency working secretly to keep the world safe. Their cover is as tailors, so they all sport the same style of clothes, right down to the striped tie and spectacles, which double as X-ray goggles and tactical display.

So why does the follow-up go so awry? Director Matthew Vaughn is back along with his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, based on “The Secret Service” comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Firth also returns -- despite the slight inconvenience of Galahad being killed in the last movie -- along with Taron Edgerton as Eggsy, his young Cockney protégé, and Mark Armstrong as Merlin, their Bond equivalent of Q, the master outfitter.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Galahad does indeed turn up again, missing an eye and most of his memories, though he does put all the pieces back together again in the end.

(Well, not depth perception...)

It’s also not a spoiler that the Kingsmen are attacked and mostly wiped out by this movie’s villain named Poppy, a bubbly billionaire drug dealer played by Julianne Moore, who’s built her own 1950s nostalgia town in the middle of a remote jungle for reasons that are never entirely clear. Her signature thing is burning a solid gold emblem onto her henchmen.

She’s got some robot guard dogs, a huge meat grinder (guess where that's heading!) and a plan to poison the entire world population of drug users, holding their lives hostage unless the U.S. president (Bruce Greenwood) legalizes narcotics.

Never mind that that would immediately put her out of business. But the conniving POTUS -- who seems to be a cocktail of the worst traits of Clinton, Bush and Trump -- has his own chess move to make.

The other big twist is that Galahad, Eggsy and Merlin team up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen, who are in the whiskey business and dress as drawling cowboys. I guess the Brit filmmakers don’t understand the difference between Kentucky and Wyoming.

Jeff Bridges shows up as their boss, and we think Channing Tatum is going to team up with the Kingsmen, but then something happens. Their real pardner is Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who carries a mean electrified whip and a few grudges of his own. Halle Berry plays Ginger, their counterpart to Merlin, who secretly yearns to get into the field.

The action scenes are energetic and fun, as the camera swoops around the combatants, the speed picking up and slowing down as needed to highlight an especially nifty move. This movie’s not nearly as gory as the last one, which may be a relief to some but was a letdown for me.

Elton John shows up as himself, kidnapped by Poppy and forced to play his songbook for her entertainment, right down to the iconic feathers-and-star-glasses outfit. It’s one of the most bizarre celebrity cameos I’ve ever seen, bloated and peevish and dropping f-bombs all over the place. I can’t imagine Sir Elton needs the money, so somebody must have talked him into this.

I haven’t even mentioned Poppy’s cyborg lieutenant, Eggsy’s Swedish princess girlfriend or the European rock concert where a tracking device is implanted in a very squirmy location. This movie has too many characters and a lot of moving parts, and many spin merrily in their own, untethered orbits.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” feels like pieces from three or four sequels, cut into bite-sized pieces that aren’t enough to satisfy and don’t taste good together.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: "Brad's Status"

“You’re 50 years old, and you still think the world was made for you.”
“…I’m 47.”

“Status” is one of those words that used to have a different connotation than it does now, due to the quiet revolution of social media. Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time “updating our status,” whether it’s an important life event or (more likely) sharing the quotidian details of our existence.

Most interesting is the phenomenon of social media envy -- looking at other people’s posts and feeling jealous about their fabulous new vacation, car, family portrait, concert they attended, etc. It’s a self-feeding loop, as people then feel compelled to share only the positive stuff going on in their life.

Not sure if anyone’s invented a term for that, but if not, may I suggest “status curation” as an option.

Brad Sloan is positively a ball of status envy. Though “Brad’s Status” does not specifically incorporate social media into its message, this smart black comedy/drama certainly feels the weight of those digital interactions. Brad is a seemingly normal middle-aged guy torn up by the relative success of his college chums.

Thematically, the movie is similar to Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends with Money” from 2006.

Ben Stiller is perfect for this role, and I have little doubt writer/director Mike White (“School of Rock”) crafted it specifically for him. There’s an underlying aspect of self-doubt and neuroticism to his comedic sensibility -- usually playing the smart, talented guy who feels that everyone else is much smarter and more talented.

I noticed that whenever Brad is feeling particularly diminished, director White always manages to place him standing next to taller characters, especially women. Stiller’s not a big guy, and his Brad seems to seethe passively when he’s vertically challenged by others -- as in a choice scene were a haughty restaurant hostess gives him a poor table, and literally looks down on him when he nicely asks for a better.

The story is structured around Brad taking his 17-year-old son, Troy (Austin Abrams), on a whirlwind of college tours/interviews in the Boston area, especially Harvard (where Troy wants to go) and Tufts, Brad’s own alma mater. Meanwhile, his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), is stuck at a work convention and offers her ebullient encouragement from afar.

They live in Sacramento in a nice middle-class house. Brad’s a former journalist who started running a nonprofit after newspapers went south, and Melanie has a stable government job. They seemingly want for nothing.

But four of Brad’s friends are big, famous successes, and it weighs constantly on him. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a former White House communications flak doing the high-power author/speaker thing. Jason (Luke Wilson) runs his own hedge fund and flies his big family around on a private jet. Nick (White himself) is an A-list Hollywood director who just had his house featured in Architectural Digest and hosted a fancy wedding (which Brad wasn’t invited to). Billy (Jemaine Clement) sold his dot-com startup for a bundle and retired at 40, now galivanting around Maui with his two girlfriends.

In his dour narration, Brad ponders the injustices of the haves and have-nots: “For them, the world isn’t a battleground. It’s a playground… a dream. It’s heaven, manifested.”

Troy’s a talented musician, and Brad thinks he's doing his fatherly duty by cautioning him not to get his hopes up. He’s surprised when the youngster relates that his guidance counselor feels he’ll get into Harvard, and anywhere else he applies.

Brad is stunned, and halts his self-pity train long enough to revel vicariously in his kid’s success… before wondering if he’ll start to envy his own son. He even wonders if Melanie’s happy, supportive nature failed to provide the impetus he needed to strive harder.

In case you haven’t figured it out, Brad’s a basically decent guy who blames a lot of other people for his problems, which barely even exist. Watching the movie, I kept thinking how nice it must have been to actually have the time/money to take cross-country trips with your dad to check out colleges in person. I did it all by brochure.

“Brad’s Status” is a funny movie with some unexpectedly deep pokes at our collective tendency to self-criticize and self-aggrandize. Take it from an award-winning film critic!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Video review: "Wonder Woman"

I sometimes stop to think why “Wonder Woman” is such a superior super-hero flick.

After all, it is fairly conventional in its storytelling structure: a standard-issue origin tale, in which a reluctant youngster acquires extraordinary abilities/status, applies them in the greater world in what they think are appropriate ways and later learns the pitfalls of that whole great powers/great responsibilities rubric.

It starts, I think, with this heroine and this actress. The superhero genre has gone through some interesting changes over the past two decades, but it’s still heavily predominated by male filmmakers presenting male characters for a male audience. The women are, literally, the background characters and the sidekicks.

Even Wonder Woman started out that way, as a third-act boost to -- and in many ways the best thing about – last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

There was a sad, reluctant quality to Wonder Woman in her few moments of non-fighting scenes, and we get to explore that fully and forcefully in her solo flick. Directed by Patty Jenkins – who had to wait 14 years between her first and second feature film directing credit – from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, the film re-introduces us to the character, fleshing out the flashy exterior in ways that surprise and touch us.

She journeys from naivety to poise, from innocent to hardened warrior and from privileged princess to self-imposed outsider.

And you cannot separate Gal Gadot from the success of “Wonder Woman.” She embodies the character’s strength and vulnerability, bringing a weighty presence you don’t normally see in a superhero flick. It may just be the best acting performance in this genre since… ever.

Chris Pine acquits himself nicely in the “romantic interest” role normally reserved for a female character, as an American spy infiltrating the German World War I war machine working on chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Danny Huston is his usual sneering self as the chief villain, but I was much more affected by Dr. Maru, the creepy scientist dubbed “Dr. Poison,” played so soulfully by Elena Anaya. With her broken mask and shattered psyche, the character is worthy of her own movie.

In the end, “Wonder Woman” triumphed not just because it was about a female hero, but because the people involved in making it obviously invested so much of their passion and souls into this wondrous film.

Bonus features are quite expansive and exquisite, and are nearly the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. The centerpiece is “Crafting the Wonder,” a comprehensive making-of documentary.

Probably the highlight is a series of featurettes called “A Director’s Vision,” as Jenkins takes viewers on exclusive behind-the-scenes journeys through filming several key sequences and themes of the picture. There is one bonus new scene and several extended ones, a blooper reel, and interactions with young female filmmakers, poets and other artists who have been inspired by Wonder Woman.

Other features explore her role within the DC Comics “Trinity” with Batman and Superman and creating the Amazonian army.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Blue Dahlia" (1946)

It seems everybody was happy with "The Blue Dahlia" but me.

It was another hit film noir for stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, in the third of their seven on-screen pairings together. It was the first Hollywood screenplay for Raymond Chandler, who got an Oscar nomination out of it (despite having to be bribed/threatened to stop drinking long enough to complete the script).

And the movie was another feather in the cap of director George Marshall, who enjoyed one of the longest and most productive careers in moviedom, working consistently from 1916 to the early '70s. Today, the film is widely considered the apotheosis of the noir genre.

Alas, I am not a fan.

I enjoyed Ladd's cool, slightly mean demeanor and how it contrasts with Lake's serene, angelic moll. The photography (by Lionel Lindon) is pretty stunning, shafts of darkness volleying across bright scenes and vice-versa. And there's an interesting rogues gallery of grim gangsters, spider women, joyless coppers, shifty snoopers and other colorful supporting characters.

But the story is just a complete mess. "The Blue Dahlia" is a dull, confusing mishmash of phone calls and anticlimactic confrontations.

Chandler didn't even mean for it to be a movie; he was writing a book, got stuck and was ready to chuck it. Producer John Houseman showed it to Paramount, which bought the story within 48 hours. Chandler was on-set during production, madly dashing off pages as the crew shot the movie even faster. The ending got changed around at the last minute because the studio was worried about portraying a wounded serviceman as a woman killer, as the writer intended.

Chandler bumped heads with Lake and confided he thought she ruined every scene she was in, famously dubbing her "Moronica Lake."

The story has many moving pieces, some of which barely seem to rub up against each other. Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a decorated Navy officer who has just returned home from the Pacific theater with chums Buzz (William Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont). Buzz has a metal plate in his head and reacts poorly to loud noises, especially hot swing tunes (which he dubs "monkey music"), causing him to go into agitated, violent fits. George is the calm-headed caretaker, and a lawyer.

Johnny decides to surprise his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), by not calling her in advance of his return. He finds her living in a swanky campus of hotel bungalows where there's always a party going on. Helen has been carrying on an open affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the slick owner of the titular night club and a reputed gangster.

Eddie's the sort to play the percentages, so he's ready to bow out when the husband returns. But Helen wants none of that. During a quarrel, she even reveals to Johnny that their son, whom she'd told him had died of diphtheria during his overseas deployment, had actually been killed in a car crash while she was driving drunk. Enraged, he pulls out his .45 service pistol to threaten her.

The long and short of it is Helen winds up dead, and we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out who the killer is. Buzz had also been in her bungalow that night, looking for Johnny and not realizing who she was; Marshal throws in a few leering, low-angle shots of Buzz looking crazed to heighten our suspicions. Eddie also swung by, so he would seem a likely candidate -- especially after we find out more about his past.

Meanwhile, Johnny was out walking in the rain and was picked up by Joyce (Lake), with whom he immediately hits things off. Later it's revealed that she's Eddie's estranged wife. Strangely, the movie never really follows up on the love quadrangle/wife-swapping angle.

Of course, rather than turning himself into the police Johnny decides to go find the killer himself. This results in a few encounters with seedy sorts, most notably Leo (Don Costello), Eddie's right-hand man at the club. He's very protective of Eddie, trying to steer him away from both Joyce and Helen, raising the obvious latent homosexual possibilities.

Also shambling around the perimeter of the tale is "Dad" Newell (Will Wright), the house detective at Helen's hotel. As near as we can figure, his job is to creep about the place, mentally record the doings of the residents and keep an eye out for opportunities to blackmail them. An older man and former cop himself, Dad is repeatedly offended when people point out his blatant motives.

The storyline is a grand example of how you can have things constantly happening but not really go anywhere. Johnny's DIY investigation never actually manages to come anywhere near pinpointing the killer -- the professional police get their man in the end -- and his ersatz romance with Joyce is a stop-and-start series of chance encounters. Ladd and Lake actually share perhaps 10 minutes of screen time together.

I lost count of how many phone calls there are in a movie. If they employed modern product placement back in 1946, I'd be willing to write the whole film off as an ad for Ma Bell.

Trouble is, phone calls aren't terribly exciting as cinematic fodder, or at least they weren't back then. Filmmakers hadn't yet come around to the idea of letting the audience hear the voice on the other end. So it's just some dope standing there holding up that old-timey hearing piece up to his ear, saying stuff like, "Oh?" "Really?" "You don't say." "I'll meet you right there..."

Johnny's in-person conversations with Eddie aren't much better, a roving game of innuendo and deflection. We keep waiting for them to just sock each other. Actually, that happens pretty early on, and we hope hopelessly for a rematch.

Even the eponymous flowers get a short shrift, as their lustrous ultramarine color just looks a dull, grayish black on camera.

"The Blue Dahlia" is a wonderful artifact to look at, an emblem of an older age and a then-new hard-bitten take on the movies. But all the pretty pictures don't matter if you haven't got a great story to tell.