“Before I Fall” suffers from the faux-profundity that a lot of teen-centered fiction falls into in the age of CW and Freeform TV series. This is nothing new, as I remember growing up when shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and other WB-ilk were aired. MadTV once did a funny parody of these shows called “Pretty White Kids With Problems”, and Lisa Loeb even sung the theme song. The reason why these shows exist is simple: teenagers are designed to be self-involved and pretentious. So, gussy that up with the with fulfillment of being as attractive and rich as the characters in those shows, portrayed by actors in their 20s, and you have all of the angst and “depth” of teenagers wrapped in a much better package than most teens experience in their actual formative years.

 
It wasn’t always like this. While the actors in the John Hughes coming-of-age films were often very attractive, they had a certain reality to them. Maybe it was acknowledging that characters in “The Breakfast Club” had legitimate issues beyond silly high school stuff, or it was the portrayal of topics like abortion in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Last American Virgin” that helped separate them from indulgent teen fantasy. Even something newer, like “Mean Girls”, at least gave us humor and a fish-out-of-water protagonist to comment on the Teflon world of teens as filtered through glossy fiction. Sadly, that self-awareness, or even those touches of reality, have been replaced by glossy soap opera masquerading deep fiction for teens. You see it on bookstores shelves as the YA books that don’t involve fantasy or the paranormal, and you see it on the CW and Freeform. Now, the latest example is “Before I Fall”, based on a YA book (which I read, but only vaguely remember), and directed with the icy color palette of a TV movie for 14-year-olds who write bad poetry in spiral notebooks. There is some skill at work here, with a good lead performance by Zoey Deutch and an at times really nice synth score, but it’s all just mediocre, self-serious mush.

 
Deutch plays Samantha, who is prettier than most of the girls most of us ever go to high school with, lives in a house that looks like it’s at least half a million dollars, and goes to the most expensive public school I’ve ever seen, with mountain views no less. She’s 1/4th of a clique of popular girls, lead by Lindsay (Halston Sage), who is a dialed-down version of Regina from “Mean Girls”. It’s Valentine’s Day, which the film annoyingly keeps calling “Cupid Day”, and Lindsay is getting ready to lose her virginity to Rob (Kian Lawley), her boyfriend for a year. Rob is an idiot and a drunken douche, and the film never convincingly shows us how Sam is able to date this guy for a year, or how Rob stayed with her for a year without cheating on her given how popular he is, or giving us any positive aspects to that character whatsoever. I know girls in high school (and beyond) often fall for assholes who are pretty and offer them nothing, but not NOTHING nothing. Most films at least make this type of character superficially charming.

 
Lindsay and the gang tend to make fun of other girls, as popular girls often do, including the class lesbian, Anna (Liv Hewson), which makes me wonder how, in 2017, this upper class school in a Liberal state only has ONE open lesbian. Then there’s Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who has really long, wavy hair. That’s all the film does to try to convince us she’s dark, or depressed, or socially ostracized. Juliet gets the worst treatment, and her continuing to commit to suicide in the film is a main plot point.

 
No, that’s not a spoiler, because this film takes the “Groundhog Day” idea and is about how Samantha keeps reliving this same day over and over, trying to change little and big things here or there. I remember in the book that she only lives this day for 7 days straight, but the movie makes it seem like maybe a month or so goes by trapped in this day. Sam tries to cope in different ways: acting out in anger, hanging out with her family, actually choosing the nice guy who was friends with her as kids and still pines for her (Logan Miller), which plays as geeky guy wish fulfillment in a film ostensibly aimed at a teenage female audience who, if they are crushed on by classmates, probably look more the way I did when I was 17 then Logan Miller looks now. Through all of this, Samantha evolves from a slightly-asshole-ish-but-normal teenage girl into a grown up person who can reflect on their mistakes and act with empathy toward everyone she knows, friend or foe. Jeez, most adults in their 30s don’t even grow up this much.

 
This isn’t a bad idea for a film, and maybe some grit and realism would have done it a world of good, but it feels hermetically sealed in a pretty perfume bottle. There’s some pretentious narration that basically boils down to the most annoying carpe diem aspects of “Dead Poets Society”, and the ending is problematic.

 
***SPOILERS FOLLOW**

 
Sam ends up breaking the cycle of the day by throwing herself into traffic, killing herself and saving Anna in the process, who we’re told through some bad ADR dialogue is probably no longer suicidal after this. Okay, but WHY does Sam have to sacrifice herself? She’s culpable in the harassment of Anna, sure, but does she have to suffer through repeating the day and die for it? If any supernatural force has the power to do this, why isn’t Lindsay being punished? She’s the main harasser, she made up a lie about Anna which started the harassment, and she was DRIVING the car this hit and killed Anna, driving drunk and not paying attention to the road. This story would be a lot more powerful, and show a much greater change in a character, if the main character were Lindsay instead of Anna. This movie picked the wrong protagonist.

 
***SPOILERS END***

 
“Before I Fall” is kind of enjoyable at times, but its self-importance is as irritating as a teenager’s blog. Its saving grace is capable direction, a nice score with some good song choices, and some good acting. Maybe I’m spoiled since I grew up in and just after the golden age of teen movies, John Hughes films and interesting stuff like “Heathers”. Kids today are being sold pretentious soap operas with little depth, disposable pretty faces, forgettable of-the-moment soundtracks, and facile moral lessons. “Before I Fall” is better than average on those counts, but just barely. C

Logan (dir. James Mangold)

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Logan” tries really hard to transcend the superhero genre. The stakes are fairly small, the film is very character centric, there are more dramatic scenes than there are action scenes, and the tone is a steady diet of gritty sadness. While some of the action is “cool” in the traditional sense, this isn’t a movie one would describe as “fun”, for the most part. If you were to judge this film by the first act alone, “Logan” really is more of a neo-western than a superhero film. That act, where we see Logan older and bitter, more tired and sicker than we’ve ever seen him, is truly phenomenal. After an opening bit of violence, the film settles in to wading into the sadness of Logan (Hugh Jackman) as he works as a limo driver, trying to raise enough money to buy a boat so that he, an ever-sickening Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and former mutant-tracker-turned-caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) can set out to sea, away from a slowly dying world.

Before the film forgets about its setting, we are told the year is 2029, and much like the afterlife for suicide victims in “Wristcutters: A Love Story”, the world is similar to our own world now, but slightly worse. We get some background details that the anti-immigrant sentiment is high, and that the effects of global warming are getting worse and worse. A main plot point involving GMOs comes up later, and sadly the film plays into anti-GMO sentiment (GMOs are safe, all scientific evidence points to them being safe, and it is sad that some people on the Left are ignorantly against them because the Left is supposed to be pro-science and rely on empirical evidence and not conspiracy theories, but I digress), but the surface reason for genetically modified corn is to deal with climate change’s effects on crops (as it is in real life). When we later find out that ***SPOILER ALERT*** mutants were eradicated by genetically modifying corn to poison those with mutant genes into extinction, it’s a very disappointing anti-science twist. ***SPOILERS END**

The story picks up when a woman, Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez), tries to hire Logan to drive her and a mute little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota. While no new mutants have supposedly been born in years, Laura is a young mutant with the same healing powers, and grafted adamantium skeleton, as Logan. Gabriella wants Logan to take the two of them to North Dakota, so that they may cross into Canada where there is, supposedly, a safe haven for mutants (shades of “I Am Legend” and “Waterworld” here with a mythical safe haven as the McGuffin plot driver). Logan doesn’t want anything to do with it, merely hoping to care for Xavier, who has some sort of degenerative brain illness which, went left unchecked, causes him to have seizures that, with his powers, tend to paralyze and hurt those within a certain radius.

There are, of course, shadowy corporate mercenaries after Laura, seemingly lead by Donald Pierce (Lloyd Holbrook), who has a cybernetic arm and, despite having knowledge of Logan and Xavier, is really only interested in Laura. Unless you haven’t seen an X-Men movie before, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the evil corporation has been experimenting on children to turn them into mutants so that they can be used as soldiers, because of course they would be. Laura was an escapee, and Gabriella was a nurse at the Mexican facility where the experiments were being done. The film goes out of its way to tell us that these kinds of experiments are illegal in the United States and Canada, but not Mexico, so the American-based corporation set up shop there (shades of outsourcing commentary here). The movie proceeds from this point on to be less of a neo-western and more of a road movie, with some scenes tipping into action and even one sequence which is almost horror movie-like.

The story of “Logan” is pretty predictable, and you know where it is going all the time. You know a special bullet will be used on a special villain in act three. You know the nice family that takes in Logan and the gang are going to suffer because of it. For a movie that seemingly wants to eschew the common tropes of a comic book movie, it sure hits all of the story beats in a traditional fashion. Sure, that first act is fairly original in structure and tone, and the second act is a lot of fun and features one absolutely extraordinary sequence involving a hotel/casino and one of Xavier’s seizures. The problem is that by the third act, we’re watching a traditional and kind of lazy X-Men film, when the first act set this up with the potential to be so much more.

I also have major problems with the Laura character. It is beginning to be something of a quasi-sexist trope to have these ass-kicking, young mute female characters. I am immediately thinking of Eleven from “Stranger Things”, but also River from “Firefly”/”Serenity”. The reason why I mind those characters less is because they have had an entire season of TV episodes to develop into fleshed out characters, whereas Laura has only a two hour movie to be an undeveloped character who is little more than a young, murdering plot device. While it is understandable that a young girl who is abused and experimented on to become a weapon (like River and Eleven) would be mute, this film lazily has her begin to speak for no internal movie reason other than the plot requires her to, and because the film needs comic relief after a very sad sequence of events. Then she speaks Spanish, which makes sense since she is Mexican, but she also has the ability to speak English and is attempting to communicate with Logan, who is not bilingual. So is the flurry of Spanish speech just for humor? If so it is semi-racist humor. “Oh, how silly of her to speak in her native language so fast. Speak English, you stupid little girl. Otherwise we just laugh at you.”

Also, despite the film trying really hard to make us feel something, it really doesn’t. While it makes sense for Xavier to be a shadow of his former self given his illness, the film doesn’t let us know what happened for him to hate himself. Granted, we can guess what happened from the details, and in some ways not knowing the full story is better and more in keeping with the western tradition, but it also keeps us from feeling the full brunt of the guilt he feels, and lets us not feel as sad when he meets the end of his character arc. As it stands, his character is a sad old man who gets an innocent family killed (which also might have resonated more if we knew what happened before, as it would be more tragic if he repeated past mistakes while trying to do good). As for whatever connection Logan and Laura are supposed to have, the film never really makes us feel it. They don’t connect as much as, say, the Terminator and young John Conner do in “Terminator 2”, another action-road movie of similar design to this one. I almost felt a little something with the Xavier arc, because Patrick Stewart is so damn good, but otherwise this supposedly emotional film didn’t moisten the eyes one bit.

If I seem like I’m being harsh it’s only because this film had the potential for greatness. The structure and tone of the first act is some of the best stuff I’ve seen in a superhero film. The second act, while not as tight, contains probably the best sequence in any X-Men film. But the character of Laura is fatally flawed and cliched, and the third act feels like it was written on autopilot. I don’t mind the traditional weak comic book villain that is a given for any Marvel film these days, but the way the climactic battle unfolds is exactly as you’d expect it to, with the mild exception of a villain’s expository speech being cut short with a bullet. If “Logan” had followed in the mold of its first act, and developed Laura into a character as opposed to a plot device that generates occasional humor, and if we had been allowed to feel more of the emotional burden placed on Xavier and on Logan (relying on the previous films is not enough, especially went one of them, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, is probably the worst Marvel film of the past 20 years).

Still, this is a fitting end to the Logan character, if indeed this is the end of Jackman playing the character. After the bad taste left in our mouths from “X-Men: Apocalypse”, it was nice to see an X-Men film that is actually of reasonably high quality (“Deadpool” functions as part comic book film and part satire of them, so I’m discounting that as an X-Men film, but I also enjoyed that one). “Logan” suffers from high expectations, and it starts off too damn good for where it ends up. B

Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Get Out” is one of the smartest films about race I have seen in a long time. By dealing with implicit racism and “positive” stereotyping (you know, like all black men being good at sports or having large penises) rather than the easy material of explicit, KKK-type racism,the film captures the more prevalent racism embedded into the national psyche. It’s easy for affluent, bourgeois white liberals to scoff at the rednecks and alt-right racists who speak out against Black Lives Matter and think every unarmed black man gunned down by police had it coming. It’s another for them to look inward and think about their own racial prejudices, benign as they may seem when left unexamined. Much like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives” were satirical horror films (both based on novels by the same author, Ira Levin) about upper class society not quite accepting feminism, “Get Out” is about upper class white society’s role in the perpetuation of racism against men and women of color.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer with a white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). They’re about to visit Rose’s family for the weekend, and Chris is worried that her family might not be as understanding of their daughter dating a black man as she seems to think they’ll be. Rose assures him that her parents are not racist, and in fact her father would have voted for a third term of Obama if he could have. “I voted for Obama” seems to have replaced “I have black friends” as the go-to white evidence that someone is not racist, and writer/director Jordan Peele knows it. On the way up, their car hits a deer. They called the cops to report it, and the cop wants to see Chris’s ID even though Rose was the one driving. Chris, living as a black man in the United States, is used to having to cater to white authorities despite having done nothing wrong, but Rose stands up to the cop, and that is that. This is the first of a few ways the film shows the audience, particularly the white audience, that living as a black man in America contains certain hurdles that white people don’t necessarily experience. If both Rose AND Chris had been white, it’s unlikely the cop would have asked to see the passenger’s ID for a simple our-car-hit-a-deer call.

All of this is going to set up something this film is doing to turn the horror genre on its head. Normally in a horror film the protagonist is a young (white) female, as that person has traditionally been seen as the most vulnerable person in our society. “Get Out” presents a number of racial-specific dangers to basically present its black male protagonist as specifically vulnerable under the circumstances, as a way of showing us how, in real life, black men are vulnerable in ways that other (white) people have the luxury of not being vulnerable in. If I, a white guy, get pulled over by the cops, I’m mostly worried about getting a ticket. If a black man is pulled over by the cops, these days he probably has to worry about getting murdered, or at the very least harassed to an extent that I, as a white man, would not be. Remember the ending of the original “Night of the Living Dead” from 1960? In that film the black male protagonist, after surviving zombies, ends up shot to death by the cops because they mistake him for a zombie. In “Get Out”, we are constantly worried that Chris might face the same fate because he’s black, and there might be a misunderstanding as to who is the victim and who is the villain.

When Chris and Rose arrive at her family’s place, things seem a bit…unsettling. Her father, Dean (the great Bradley Whitford) keeps using “hip” phrases like “my man”, as if he saw on TV that phrases like that are the sort of “cool” language you’re supposed to use around black folks. He also goes on and on the importance of learning from other cultures, about Jesse Owens showing up those damn Nazis at the Berlin Olympics and, yes, even Obama. he basically just stops short of saying “I am so very cool with you blacks.” The mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who wants to use hypnosis to make Chris quit smoking, and keeps making unsettling sounds with her spoon and a blue & white tea cup. The family also seems to have two black servants: a maid/housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and a groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). They seems like they stepped out of “Song of the South”, embodying the stereotype of the “happy negro” much like Uncle Remus did in that racist Disney film. There’s something…off…about them, and Chris picks up on it. They smile, but they speak in stilted, 1950s language, and seem a little dead behind the eyes.

Then there’s a family and friends get together on Rose’s family’s estate. All of these rich, bourgeois whites who don’t have much interaction with black people on a daily (or even yearly) basis keep trying to flatter Chris when, in actuality, they are being offensive. There’s the old guy who used to be a golfer and wants Chris to know that he’s met Tiger Woods and is “the best”. There’s the other old guy who says black people are “in” as the new cool thing (whatever that means). And then there’s the older woman who squeezes Chris’s bicep muscle, looks at Chris’s crotch in an unsubtle fashion, and has the audacity to ask Rose, in front of Chris, if “it’s true”, obviously referring to the black-men-have-large-dicks stereotype. That sort of fetishization of black men is rampant in American pornography aimed at white people, both the men who see a white woman being with a black man as degrading and to white women who view having sex with a black man as “taboo” or “exotic”. It’s a subject you don’t see confronted in mainstream film that often, and this one scene brings it to light.

At this same party, Chris runs in to Logan (Keith Stanfield), who looks dressed out of the 1950s and has the same odd, old fashioned cadence that the housekeeper and the landscaper have. Chris thinks he recognizes Logan, but there’s no way he could have known someone like this. Their interaction is odd, and then Chris takes Logan’s picture while his camera’s flash is on. Logan begins to bleed from the nose, shake, and tries to attack Chris after screaming “Get out!” By this point, Chris is sure that it’s not just these people are weird and implicitly racist, but that something abnormally sinister is going on here.

We get some comic relief from Chris’s TSA friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who basically tells Chris that these people are clearly insane and probably brainwashing black people to be their sex slaves. Chris shrugs that off, but agrees he should get out of there as soon as possible.

**SPOILERS FOLLOW**

 
What turns out happening is that Rose’s family, going to back to her grandfather, came up with a medical procedure to implant people’s consciousness into the bodies of others. The person implanted would have control, and the original inhabitant of the body would be able to see and hear everything going on, but would no longer be in control. Think John Cusack at the end of “Being John Malkovich”. So, this bourgeois white community has been using Rose to lure black men (and the occasional black woman) to this neighborhood, and the affluent white citizens have bid on these black men, in much the same manner as a slave auction, to be implanted into their black bodies. Why? Positive stereotypes. Maybe they want to be a black man so they can be a better athlete, or a better lover for their wives, or just because being black is “cool”. These people aren’t kidnapping blacks because they think they’re inferior, like the white supremacists do. They are kidnapping them because they think blacks, in some genetic and societal aspects, are SUPERIOR. That’s a helluva thing to base a film around. The fact that white people, despite being racist in the exact opposite way as your traditional racist, are still bidding on black people like chattel and reducing black people to empty vessels or property, is a searing indictment of how delusional and unperceptive some people in real life can be regarding their own prejudices. While “Get Out” is largely concerned with race, the class element is here too. Because this town is full of rich white people, whose wealth allows them to live in a place which geographically and economically isolates them from many black people, their perception of black people is skewed by lack of first hand knowledge, allowing them to objectify and idolize black people. This is a pretty “woke” film, as traditional films about racism, good or bad, don’t usually explore this particular razor’s edge of white attitudes toward people of color.

**SPOILERS END**

I also want to point out the excellent sound design and terrific score of this film. Some of the score is traditional horror movie stuff, but other parts, such as the opening theme, evoke the scores of 70s horror films from musicians like Goblin. The sound design, which pays close attention to making sounds that wouldn’t ordinarily be unnerving, like a spoon on a teacup for squeezing one’s fingers on an old leather chair, really add to the unease the audience feels while watching this film. While I wouldn’t call “Get Out” scary, it is certainly unnerving. The film makes you uncomfortable while you watch it (probably more so if you’re a black person watching it, I’d imagine). Discomfort is a feeling you don’t often feel at the movies, and as such it almost feels more powerful than if the film were more traditionally scary.

“Get Out” is incredibly intelligent and nuanced, but not so nuanced that an audience won’t get what the film is trying to say. Some horror film audiences might not be as astute (the kind of horror audiences who would rather see “Rings”, for example), but otherwise this is a really superb film using the horror genre as a vehicle to discuss areas of race relations not normally covered in film…or hell, anywhere really. Well done, Jordan Peele. Well done. A-

I still don’t have time to write full reviews of every film I’ve been seeing, so here’s more mini-reviews.

Silence
If I weren’t an atheist, I’d probably find this film more powerful, and thus better. As it is, the film is kind of interesting from the perspective of Japan viewing Christianity as a European imperialist tool to turn the peasantry against the ruling government. Still, most of the main conflict is about whether Christians will denounce their god to save themselves, or suffer to be martyrs like they believe Jesus was, and wether suffering as a martyr is selfish and prideful when falsely renouncing (because your heart and beliefs can stay the same regardless of your actions) could save others. As someone who thinks faith is the dumbest thing in the world, I mostly was angry that characters chose to suffer and die, or cause others to suffer and die, because they refused to disrespect for renounce a false deity. So to me, the film is about stupid, pig-headed people (the Jesuits), the sad brainwashed fools (the Christian peasants), and the ruling party which commits atrocities, even as it has legitimate grievances with imperialist religions. I have no one to care about or root for, and the film ended up being a well-shot, well-acted movie that was too long and contained characters I didn’t care about, or down-right loathed. C

Patriots Day
This film was better than I expected. I have a big issue with the fact that they turned this real life event into essentially an action film, full of tone-deaf one-liners and comic relief that I found disrespectful and unnecessary. I also hated the Mark Wahlberg character, who through plot conveniences is always involved in the action, and who is the one character in this thing who is not even a real person, making the inclusion of this annoying and unlikable character that much more egregious. There are also legitimate quibbles with the film glossing over political issues surrounding the attacks, like whether basically having martial law with a militarized police was really necessary, and about civil rights violations with regard to the interrogation of one of the bomber’s wife. Still, the film was often times powerful, and aside from a few moments of bad writing when the film follows the bombers, I found the film to be a tense and accurate depiction of the events as I recall reading about them. The touches to show that the film takes place in Boston are maybe a bit much (Dunkin Donuts! Stop & Shop!), and the epilogue at the end featuring the real people was too transparently an attempt to avoid criticism of cashing on on a recent tragedy and being disrespectful. I did like that the film spent almost as much time focusing on the victims as on the perpetrators, as many films about these types of tragedies only focus on the perpetrators and law enforcement. So, this is a deeply flawed movie with glaring issues, but the things that it does well, it does REALLY well. B-

 
Gold
This film was extremely loosely based on a real life incident that happened in the 90s, and the setting was changed to the 80s to…I dunno, I guess the filmmakers thought the 80s aesthetic was better to evoke better films like “Wall Street”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “American Hustle”, and other, better films this movie so desperately wants to be considered in the same category as. The story is mildly interesting, involving a failed mining executive and a geologist who strike gold in Indonesia, or seem to, and the hardships and possible crimes committed in the process, but the story doesn’t have as much meat to hold the whole thing together. Matthew McConaughey does a good job, and the film is perfectly watchable and entertaining enough, but its pretensions at being more only to fall way short hold this film back. There’s not enough social or political commentary to elevate this to be anything more than a TV movie story. C+

Manchester by the Sea and Fifty Shades Darker have been covered in Youtube videos, so I won’t write mini-reviews for them here.

The Comedian
The film has tonal issues between whether it wants to be a drama, a comedy, a dark comedy, or a dramedy. Individual scenes work, but the film has no narrative thrust to propel it forward. The idea of Leslie Mann falling for the much older Robert DeNiro feels like ludicrous wish fulfillment on DeNiro’s part (he championed this film and fought to get it made). The cast and cameos are pretty good, but not as good as they could have been. For a film co-written by Jeff Ross, he of the great Comedy Central roasts, this is a disappointing film that could have been a big screen version of “Louie”, or at least a Woody Allen-esque spin on the stand-up comedy world and aging, past-their-prime celebrities. The film was enjoyable enough to watch, but it feels like the screenplay got muddled up after a decent idea spent too long brewing. C+

 
The Space Between Us
This movie didn’t know if it wanted to be a Nicholas Sparks or John Green-esque YA love story, a fish out of water comedy, a drama, or anything else. The concept behind the film is quite good, and individual scenes are also really good here and there, but the film see-saws from slapstick to drama, with unearned drama and horrible dialogue, and keeps changing the intelligence level and naivety of its main character, that the whole thing feels like a mess. Another 2 or 3 screenplay drafts could have probably harnessed this thing into a good movie, as all of the elements for one are there (or maybe they should have handed the story to a different writer to polish it), but as it exists this is a jarring, inconsistent misfire. I liked enough of it to not hate it, but the bad parts are obviously, groan-inducingly bad. C

 
John Wick: Chapter 2
The first really good movie of 2017. While it lacks the emotions of the first film (it wasn’t just that they killed his dog, it’s that the dog was a gift from his dead wife, and the last connection he had the one piece of his life where he was happy), but otherwise this film is almost as good as the original. The action is spectacular, and again the camera doesn’t cut all the time so you can actually see and ENJOY the action and know where everything is in relation to everything else. The world-building and mythology is expanded upon without getting mired in exposition, and all in all this is a top notch, solid, and highly enjoyable action film. I loved it. A

 
The Lego Batman Movie

This is a cute and funny film, but not as gut-bustingly hilarious as I had hoped. As a satire of Batman, it works pretty well. I enjoyed seeing villains who have never been on the big screen before (Clayface, Egghead) included with the usual villains. The visuals are enjoyable, the voice acting was spot-on (loved Arnett’s Batman and Cera’s Robin, though I wasn’t as impressed with Galifianakis’s Joker), and if the film drags in the middle or loses its humor by the end, that awesome first act still makes up for a lot of the film’s sins. B

 
A Cure For Wellness
The biggest problem with this film is that it is a mystery where you can easily solve the mystery by the end of the first act. Also, the film goes on for 20 minutes too long and has some repetitive story beats that could have been condensed of excised entirely. However, this film is often visually stunning. The first act has a David Lynchian feel that, sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t quite have. I enjoyed that this film, which is of the Gothic Horror variety, had a nice tone of dread throughout and didn’t rely on jump scares (like many theatrically released horror films these days). The subject matter is similar to other films, but unlike “Shutter Island”, which was a film I felt was a waste of A-list actors and an A-list director since it was a mediocre B-movie, and thus angry that those talents weren’t used for a more worthy film, this film feels like it reaches a satisfactory level of quality. Dane DeHaan is an underrated actor, and he shines in this film. Mia Goth is also quite good as the female lead. The film’s social commentary is odd (sort of about feudal lords and the peasantry joining forces against the bourgeoisie…weird) and not as deep as it seems like it’ll be in that first act, but at least its there. This is also, so far, the only Gore Verbinski film I have actually liked. B

 
Fist Fight
This was just a fun movie. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, and while I didn’t laugh hilariously, there were enough small and medium-sized laughs for me to consider this a good comedy. They try to throw in some social commentary about the education system, but it’s lackluster and feels half-hearted. The callbacks to other Ice Cube movies and songs were cool, and the cast all played their usual roles to a level that I was pleased to see them do. It’s funny, I laughed a good amount of time, and I enjoyed myself. B

I had planned on writing mini-reviews for all of the movies I saw that I missed reviewing in the months of October, November, and December. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse for me. I got kicked out of my home by my ex and am currently crashing with friends until I can find a place to live. Unfortunately, most of the apartments down here want your monthly income to be 3Xs the monthly rent, which I do not make working part time as a movie theater manager. So, I am stuck looking for a full time job to supplement my part-time theater income while also going to school. Yeah. Writing reviews is not the highest on my priority list. So, here are some VERY SHORT mini-reviews:
The Birth of a Nation
Film has weird message about religious violence being justified, but has an unintentional atheist message since the pro and anti-slavery sides think The Bible supports their cause, leading on to the conclusion that religion is bullshit that people pick and choose an interpretation of to justify their own attitudes anyway. The director’s rape allegations do hover over the film, since rape plays two plot points. The film is good, but flawed by the director’s lack of perspective on religion. B
The Accountant
A very good action/thriller/drama that attempts to make a sort-of Aspie superhero. The film eschews cliche in many ways (the climax, no simple love story) and contains a great lead performance by Affleck. One of my favorite films of 2016. A-
Dr. Strange

The story is your average Marvel movie. No more, no less. What it does, it does well, and I was entertained. But it does no more than is required, and has very little imagination, though the visuals are often quite good. B

Arrival
An incredibly intelligent sci-fi films (released from a major studio, no less) that isn’t about war and explosions, but rather about the attempts to communicate and bridge gaps along cultures. The film is about diplomacy and empathy, while also socking you with emotion when it comes to the characters. Amy Adams was robbed of an Oscar nod. Aside from my contention that her character ultimately makes a horrible selfish decision that the film wants us to think is profound and correct, the film was one of the best I saw in 2016. A-
The Edge of Seventeen
A pretty by-the-numbers coming of age film that starts out as comedy and moves into dramedy. The lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld is quite good, and I enjoyed the humor and the characters, but this film doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done better in other films. It won’t stand out as a memorable teen film. B
Miss Sloane
A film political junkies will like. The twist ending is absurb and unrealistic, but the film largely works as a cynical indictment of the power lobbyists and media consultants have over Washington, and is something of a player’s guide to how people upset with the system can attempt to change it from within by adopting the opposing side’s playbook and not being afraid to get their hands dirty. B+
Allied
A shitty, sappy Hollywood ending capsizes what was otherwise a fun little throwback to Old Hollywood films (Casablanca being the obvious and overt influence). The film is a fun little mystery with pretensions of being more. B-
Bad Santa 2
Not nearly as good as the first film, but no one expected it to be. I laughed a decent amount of times, enjoyed seeing Christina Hendricks in a dirty little role, and just enjoyed some stupid, raunchy laughs. B-
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Aside from an unlikable main character who seems to be autistic (and does everything wrong for autistic characters, unlike The Accountant which felt right even though it skewed things for its narrative), this film was a worthy expansion of the Harry Potter franchise. Taking the world to the U.S. and creating a new magical government and bureaucracy and new, likeable supporting characters made this a fun little dip back into the world, even if it’s not as compelling or absorbing as the main franchise. B
Office Christmas Party
Mostly unfunny, wasting a talented cast (though Jason Bateman has been stagnating by playing pretty much the same role in all of his films, and Olivia Munn gets on my nerves). There are maybe 5 laughs in the hour and a half film, but most of the time I just sat bored, waiting for it to end. C-
The Founder
A surprisingly good film about how the original McDonald brothers created a small business and attempted to run it the way naive Conservatives view Capitalism to be. Then a guy named Ray Kroc comes in to franchise it, and he uses the way Capitalism ACTUALLY works to steal the business, become rich, and screw out the original creators. It’s about wealth by idea theft and legal/capital might over actual small business ingenuity. While the view of small business isn’t shared by my Marxist self, the film does a good job of showing how a pie-eyed concept of Capitalism is crushed by the harsh reality of it. B+
Split

Some part of the film are really good, and some parts are unintentionally hilarious, which is a flaw Shyamalan has suffered in many of his films. This is still probably his best film since Unbreakable, which was his last solidly good movie. James McAvoy gives a great performance (performances, really) in the lead role(s), and the ways that the film twists a real life disorder into something supernatural eventually makes sense when you find out this film shares a universe with another one of Shyamalan’s films. B-

That’s every movie I’ve seen in a theater that I haven’t had time to write a full review of. I don’t know when I’ll have time to write full reviews again. If you’d like, I’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with my financial expenses right now:
gofundme.com/daveandkarl

Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Moonlight” is the story of a boy, Chiron, shown at three different periods of his life. As a young child he is played by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes. The story is not much to write home about. Chiron is gay, though he doesn’t figure that out until he’s a teenager, even if everyone else knows it from the time he’s a child. Being gay is hard enough, even in 2016, but tack on being in poverty, and being Black, and having a mother addicted to crack (yeah, that’s a bit of cliché, no?), and you have the recipe for a really trying childhood. To its credit, “Moonlight” shies away from easy melodrama and focuses on character moments and has a tone of realism that allows the film to rise above its more clichéd narrative moments to be a film that is at times be heartbreaking.

When we first meet Chiron, he is running from some kids who are teasing him, and he takes refuge inside a boarded up crack den. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be the main drug dealer of the community. Juan is actually a good guy, save for the fact that he sells the drug that hurts his impoverished community, and is directly causing Chiron hardship by creating the environment in which Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) can lose her seemingly good job as a nurse to become a dope fiend (and possibly a  prostitute, though this is merely implied). We get the feeling that Juan doesn’t necessarily view himself as some gangsta crimelord or emulate Scarface, but is rather making the best living he can under his limited circumstances. We’re told he came from Cuba as a child, indicating his family probably came to United States with nothing and that Juan, therefore, didn’t have much of an opportunity to excel, especially being black, regardless of the “American Dream” many citizens of this country are deluded into believing actually exists. Juan takes a shine to the boy and becomes something of a father figure to him. He treats Chiron well, feeds him, and even his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) becomes something of a more responsible mother to the child. When Chiron is berated by his real mother, you see Juan’s remorse and inner turmoil with knowing he is responsible for Chiron’s life being irreparably worse due to Juan’s actions, and you know it kills him.

As a teen, Chiron is still teased by other kids. His mother is even more of an addict, and Juan has since died. The one bright spot may be Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in the teen segment, and later by Andre Holland), a boy who treats Chiron like a friend and gives him the nickname Black. Kevin seems to be straight, bragging about getting detention for having sex with a female peer, but then one night Chiron and Kevin share a sexual experience down by the beach, and we know Kevin is either bisexual or on the down-low.  In any event, Kevin does not experience the teasing that Chiron does, and is even liked by some of the very same kids who bully Chiron regularly.

Events transpire, and we then see Chiron as an adult, having followed in Juan’s footsteps and ended up a drug dealer in Atlanta. One day he gets a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t spoken to since an unpleasant event a decade earlier, and old unresolved feelings come flooding back, as does the realization that Chiron never became the person he was truly meant to be, or who he was inside, as he remained forever stuck in the circumstances life threw at him.

Each individual segment has moments of power. This is largely a movie about people interacting with people, and the things people leave unsaid between themselves. It’s about how we don’t have as much of a choice in life as to who we are as we think we do. It’s about struggles that are both universal and also very specific to sexual identity, economic status, and race. While I wish the story maybe didn’t hit as many clichéd story beats as we’ve seen from other films about Black poverty, or even gay teen coming of age films, the film does make up for this by having across the board phenomenal acting, and isolated moments of extreme power as we feel for the characters. While some characters, like Chiron’s mother, feel like a cliché, other characters like Juan and Kevin eschew clichés associated with their characters, revealing that behind archetypes of the ghetto drug dealer or the closeted gay Black man, are human beings with struggles and reasons that they have lived the lives they have lived, even if they are lives they don’t wish they had lived.

“Moonlight” is at time powerful, and the good moments far outweigh the more clichéd narrative issues. B+

 

“La La Land” is a film about many things. It is a film about nostalgia in general and classic jazz music and the silver age of Hollywood in particular. While a lot of Hollywood is driven by nostalgia in the modern era, as evidenced by the slew of reboots and the return of everything from “Full House” to 8-bit Ninentdo systems, “La La Land” specifically makes an argument that there is a difference between nostalgia driven by past art being of higher quality, and empty nostalgia based solely on remembrance. At a low point in his life, one of our two main characters, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is reduced to playing keyboards in a lame 80s cover band. While I myself love 80s music, it’s clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle does not (sample line of dialogue: “You don’t ask a serious musician to play ‘I Ran’” [the Flock of Seagulls song]), and is making a differentiation between being nostalgic for the heyday of jazz as being legitimate and worthy nostalgia because it is something better than what is being produced today, and nostalgia for 80s New Wave music.

The film makes no such comparison between modern filmmaking and Silver Age films, though barbs against modern Hollywood run rampant in the film. There’s a sleazy screenwriter who hits on our other main character, Mia (Emma Stone), by talking about his gig writing a modern-day reimagining of “Goldilocks” from the bears’ perspective, which is only slightly exaggerated from some of the crap mainstream studios have in the pipeline right now. There’s also a scene where Mia is on a double date and her companions are complaining about the modern day experience of going to the theater, citing the temperature of theaters and the rudeness of other patrons, and claiming that watching movies at home on a big TV is better. Any lover of film will recognize that argument and immediately hate the characters making it. This is contrasted with Sebastian and Mia seeing a screening of a Silver Age Hollywood picture (“Rebel without a Cause”) at an old school movie theater, and the later sadness in a montage of seeing that theater closed down because, well, modern audiences neither appreciate the movie theater experience, nor appreciate old movies like they used to, perhaps thanks to streaming replacing video stores and many streaming services lacking in classic cinema choices.

So yes, a lot of “La La Land” is an ode to film and music that was popular in the 1950s, but the specific focus on quality differentiates it from a reactionary knee-jerk idea (now clichéd) that the 1950s were universally better than the modern era. No, that argument is reserved for reactionary White American Conservatives, and that false nostalgia gave us President Trump and his promise to restore America to some faux remembered greatness, which to them is usually that same idealized 1950s, when it isn’t the Reagan 80s. What’s interesting is that “La La Land” itself is not simply a film attempting to emulate the 1950s. It is set in the modern day, and the film makes no bones about that. In fact, a lot of the film centers around how the modern day material conditions of society often infringe on the things that make us happy, and the ability to follow our dreams. When a ringing cell phone brings a musical number to an abrupt end, or the film breaks when attempting to watch a classic movie, the film is making a point with those many moments of the real, modern world insisting on interrupting happiness and destroying dreams. That is really the other thing that this film is about, the difficulty in following one’s dreams in the face of the unavoidable challenges of the modern world.

The film itself is structured to showcase that theme. When the film begins we see people stuck in a traffic jam, the likes of which are infamous on L.A. highways. Then they break out into song, in a stark contrast to their surroundings and situation, giving a setpiece we would never actually see in a real 1950s music of the “Singin’ in the Rain” variety. The incongruity displayed in that number sets the stage for the themes of the film as a whole. As the film goes on, the musical numbers go from upbeat to sadder and more somber. They also become less frequent. The visual style of the film goes from having bright colors and costumes, reminiscent of the 50s musical, to a more muted and realistic color palette. The choreography becomes less elaborate, and the camera moves around a lot less fluidly. The visual style of this film is heavily tied to express the film’s themes and messages, and the writer/director deserves all of the accolades possible for pulling it off. Those early sequences, where the camera moves around in a dizzying, kinetic, hypnotizing fashion are almost breathtaking, especially considering how long some of the takes go without a cut and how elaborate the choreography taking place is.

The music itself ranges from excellent, to good, to forgettable. “La La Land” isn’t a great musical, even though it is a great film, and that’s okay. The rough and tumble nature of trying to turn real life into a Hollywood musical is expressed by the mixed quality of individual songs, and matches the struggle the characters go through to become their ideal selves. Sebastian wants to bring back classical jazz and open up a jazz club where he can play true, uncompromised jazz music. Mia wants to be a famous Hollywood actress, but is held back by the garbage Hollywood wants to produce and the powers that be not caring about artistic quality. They struggle to make ends meet, to not be viewed as objects of pity or derision by those who know them, and to maintain their dignity and purity in their quests to achieve their goals. Compromise is inevitable, and no one can truly make it in either art form of music or film without at some point selling out at least a little bit, and the struggle becomes what level of selling out is acceptable and necessary, and at what point does holding back from selling out just make you stubborn and pretentious. Mia can’t get any good roles, so she’s convinced by Sebastian to write her own play and thus a good role for herself. Sebastian, hearing half of a phone conversation between Mia and her mother, knows that he seems like a loser to any outsider for not having a good, steady job, so he compromises and joins a band that blends classical jazz with modern music. The band is successful, and the music sounds good (at least to my non-jazz-liking ears), but he’s miserable and feels the music he plays is an abomination. The film wants its audience to ask if it is right that dreams are unachievable without heavy compromise based on largely economic and partially social pressures, or if it is wrong to expect to be able to achieve your dreams because life isn’t fair and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The film has maybe a mixed answer to this. There’s a little montage at the end of the film that shows an alternate version of events of this film if everything in our main characters’ lives went right after the first act. It’s a much different film, and a much happier alternate reality than the ones the characters actually inhabit. Does the film, and the audience, want that life for the characters? Of course. Was it ever reasonable to expect that for them, or anyone? No.

When Sebastian joins to band fronted by Keith (played by musician John Legend), Keith makes the argument that you can’t be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist. If you are too beholden to the past, you will never make anything new, never introduce the art form you love to new audiences, and what you love will die because you can’t accept change. The film, or at least Sebastian, originally treats Keith as practically the antichrist for holding this belief, but in the end “La La Land” is doing to the Silver Age Musical exactly what Keith’s band does to jazz in the film, and because of that audiences are accepting and loving “La La Land” even if they wouldn’t necessarily ever rent “Singin’ in the Rain” or “My Fair Lady”. So is Keith right, that art needs to change to survive, or is Sebastian right, that to change art into something it is not or is only partially what it used to be fatal to its quality and merely a slow death as opposed to an immediate one? I think the answer is that they are both right. Sebastian opens his club and it is a success, but Keith’s band is also a success. Perhaps the film thinks Keith compromised too much, and that “La La Land”, itself a compromise between and old film and a modern one (Prius jokes), threads the needle correctly, and that realistically, beyond arguments of right or wrong, there is no objectively possible way to create successful art and make enough money off of it to live without a degree of compromise for modern audiences’ tastes. My guess is that Chazelle accepts this reality, but finds it heartbreaking nonetheless. Also, while nostalgia for better art is understandable, especially when a lot of modern art (namely music and film) is abject swill, being strictly beholden to the past will only kill quality art. If quality art is to survive, it has to find where the acceptable level of compromise is. “La La Land” found it, so it is possible.

Beyond all this meaning and theme talk, it must be said that this film makes you care about its characters, who are well-performed by the actors even if their singing voices are merely better than average (don’t worry, there’s no Russell Crowe-level bad singing, it’s just not Broadway-caliber, which is fine). Sebastian and Mia aren’t the richest or most multi-layered characters, but you like them and enjoy seeing them on their journey and want them to be successful. I enjoyed the music, tapping my foot to many of the numbers, and I came close to crying at a couple of scenes, but ultimately did not do so. The film is funny and dramatic, and as much fun to watch as it was to analyze and think about. I loved it. A