Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher
Directed by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”)
Written by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”), George Lucas (based on characters created by)

It was 1977 the first time that cannonblast-of-a-musical-fanfare, yellow text crawl, and intrepid white runner-ship exploded across a celluloid starfield, changing movies forever. Forty years on, few phrases have the capacity to ripple the pop-cult zeitgeist like an upturned bedsheet in quite the same way as “they’re doing a new Star Wars.”

Toss it casually into your nearest social-media flea market of opinions and it’ll be met, in part, by a tide of cocksure pessimism, even anger – but know that these reactions are inflated artificially by their purveyors (even the most hardened and embittered of fanboy cynics and Han-Shot-Firsters) to castigate themselves for the inner flame of hope they dare not allow themselves to indulge.

Because that’s the power of this series: Even that wide (or at least vocal) swath of a generation that purports to feel intimately burned by the trio of p-words (sort of rhymes with “seagulls”) that “everyone hates” (disclosure: I don’t) would likely have to admit that their fear of feeling that way again is still tempered by a light side – a deep, secret longing to feel the wonder and awe they did when, as children, they watched a towheaded space-hick teenager thread the needle on a no-scope proton-torpedo shot that blew up a planetful of jackbooted, corrupt-establishment assholes. And of course it is. That fear and that hope coexist always, in all of us, swirled like chocolate-and-vanilla soft-serve, one amplifying the other. We’re afraid to wish for the feeling we grew up with, but we want desperately for someone to give it to us again, the same but different. So. Enter Rian Johnson?

Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” Episode 8 of the Saga That Launched a Quadrillion-Million (Toy) (Space)ships, takes the baton (almost literally) from J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” the December 2015 sequel that kickstarted a third trilogy under Lucasfilm’s new auspices at Disney. (Disney further cemented its “Star Wars” ownership this week – including new rights to the original theatrical versions of Episodes IV-VI – by purchasing 21st Century Fox). “Awakens,” despite its colossally daunting charge, acquitted itself more-than-admirably well: It delivered thrills, introduced winsome new players, and was for the most part received warmly, even enthusiastically, with perhaps its most common and agreed-upon criticism (a fair one, perhaps) being that it tried too hard and too often to call back to the original films. For my money, it was certainly a good time.

“The Last Jedi,” then, benefits not only from Awakens’ strong start, but more particularly from its predecessor’s having laid down backstory and development for such characters as First-Order-Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (John Boyega), orphan-junk-scavenger-turned-lightsaber-wielding-icon Rey (Daisy Ridley), and – despite the actor’s own demurrals, let’s face it – inescapably Han-Solo-esque fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). This legwork done, Johnson’s film is free to hit the ground running, and wisely does so, kicking things off with a rather breathtaking space-action sequence, engaging multiple concurrent storylines, and bringing faces old, new, and new-but-familiar into the galactic fold. At times, in fact, there almost seems (but doesn’t quite) to be too much going on: Clearly expository dialogue, which would otherwise chafe, is instead often welcome, as it helps explain (natch) and contextualize things that are happening quickly. Without spoiling much of anything (I promise): Rey has gone in search of Luke Skywalker (and found him, as we saw in “Awakens”), Finn decides to go in search of Rey, and Poe and Leia are alternately fleeing and facing down the First Order (General Hux [Gleeson], Kylo Ren [Driver], Supreme Leader Snoke [Serkis], et al.), who want the Rebellion quashed, because that’s what oppressive regimes like to do to rebellions. More happens, of course. But you don’t want me to tell you about that.

So. Does it work? As a film, and as a Star Wars film? In a word: Yes.

In another word: ABSO-PORG-ING-LUTELY.  Johnson is bold in his choices – and, more importantly, enacts his choices with the requisite confidence and style (and then some) to bring us along for the rollicking ride, even when we’re not immediately onboard. Further, again, so much is happening, and so much of it is so good, whatever’s questionable is easily and happily swept up by the consistent and captivating entertainment that surrounds it. One conceptually brilliant plot point/character motivation, for instance, doesn’t seem to get to breathe enough cinematically to have maximum impact, but is intrinsically such a stroke of genius that it nearly gets there on its own anyway. Johnson, who also wrote the film, uses humor early and liberally (and often notably modern-seeming humor, at that), which occasionally threatens to distract, tonally, but ultimately lands frequently enough to more-or-less justify itself. A few performances aren’t the sort in which one gets lost and forgets the effort being expended, but work well enough, for various reasons, to not break things up much. The porgs probably aren’t as cute (or omnipresent) as you think they are, but they’re still pretty freakin’ cute.

Much of everything else: Great.

Battle scenes, in space or otherwise, are gripping and spectacular. One of them contains a short action set piece that is, without exaggeration, one of the most instantly unforgettable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Visually, sonically, narratively, emotionally, it’s utterly, utterly stunning. We were at a press screening, full of critics – generally a more restrained audience (no whoops at the onscreen appearance of the words “Star Wars,” say) – and here there were audible gasps, surprised laughter, cheers, … even applause, I think. Ridley, as Rey, has come fully into her own. While she was certainly scrappy and charismatic in “Awakens,” “Last Jedi’s” Rey anchors and drives the emotional and narrative core of the film. Her focus is unblinking; her power undeniable. She’s one of a number of self-possessed, memorably heroic women in the film (there are a couple in even just the first few minutes), but Ridley’s transformation, and the calm certainty and resolve with which she carries vital portions of the picture, are astounding: She’s become the legend-in-the-making “Awakens” was hinting at, and I can’t wait to see more. The same could be said of Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose arc and inner turmoil are further explored and expanded, giving us a deeper, emerging portrait of a truly fascinating character – rendered so in large part by the actor’s quietly searing, often transfixing performance. Both actors are dialed in, and Johnson crafts a sprawling, compelling narrative around their interwoven fates — one that makes me want to keep watching.

Oscar Isaac, too, is phenomenal. He’s given much more to do this time around, and knocks it all out of the park. He flies like Maverick, disobeys orders for good reasons (like Maverick), and lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees buddies Finn (Boyega is as heart-on-his-sleeve magnetic as ever) or BB-8 (whom I could watch speedroll chirpily around for hours). (Side note: You deserve someone who looks at you the way Poe Dameron looks at Finn or BB-8. We all do.)

There are surprises to be had, and remembrances to be made. Go in willing to have a good time, and it might just be inevitable. Johnson tackles a monumental task with aplomb, paying deep homage in ways that feel integrated with and advance the story while putting his own stamps on it, as well. He knows how to create truly “cool” movie moments, but also how to weave them into the narrative so that they feel organic and earned. While Abrams is back at the helm for “Episode IX,” Disney has announced that Johnson will be directing an entirely separate Star Wars trilogy – which, following Last Jedi, sounds good to me.

The Disaster Artist

December 6, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen
Directed by: James Franco (“Child of God,” “As I Lay Dying”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer,” “The Fault in Our Stars”)

“The Disaster Artist,” a comedy documenting the creation of the cult-classic film “The Room,” is based on the book of the same name by co-star Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Over the years, I’ve become intimately familiar with both stories: the over-the-top tale of the film featuring Johnny and his love for Lisa, undone by her infidelity with Johnny’s best friend Mark, and the book featuring the equally over-the-top tale of how the batshit movie came to be.

The film, like the book, chronicles the meeting of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious man with an inscrutable accent and long black hair who looks much older than he says he is, and Greg (Dave Franco), a fresh-faced 19-year-old struggling to make it as an actor in San Francisco in the late ’90s.

Tommy and Greg become friends–in Tommy’s case, Greg is really his only friend–and move to Los Angeles to make it big as actors, despite Tommy’s eccentric behavior and his cryptic warnings to Greg to not tell anyone anything about him and his increasing jealousy of seemingly anything Greg gets that he doesn’t, like an agent, or something that steals Greg’s attention, like a girlfriend.

After they both struggle to find work, Tommy vows to write a film for he and Greg to star in and, with Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” as his inspiration, Tommy bangs out the script for “The Room” and digs into what one character calls a “bottomless pit” of money to produce his “All-American” vision his way, including the unorthodox practice of buying film equipment over leasing it and using it to shoot film and HD video side-by-side.

Tommy himself and the script for the film baffle crew members, including the script supervisor and de facto director Sandy (Seth Rogen) and director of photography Raphael (Paul Scheer), who both nearly quit over Tommy’s outrageous behavior, only to be talked out of it by Greg, the checks that are still clearing, and the notion that no one will see the film anyway.

Of course, the film saw the light of day in 2003 and became a midnight sensation thanks to Tommy’s paying to keep it in theaters (to qualify for the Academy Awards!) and an infamous, ominous billboard that lorded over Hollywood for more than a decade.

Easily his best film as a director to date (most of them are really weird and terrible), James Franco also disappears incredibly into Tommy, making him more than just a weird accent and greasy black hair, but also leaving the mystery of Tommy effectively intact. Sure, the audience might want to know some simple things like where Tommy came from, where he gets his money, and just how old he is–but the real Wiseau has never publicly revealed that either.

Franco’s wonderful performance, like the film itself, is easily on par with the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton biopic “Ed Wood,” that film a career-best turn for both, about a delusional, never-give-up director of terrible-yet-sincere movies that share DNA with “The Room.”

The question remains if “The Disaster Artist” will play to a crowd that isn’t familiar with “The Room” and all of its foibles. As someone who has seen “The Room” a dozen times or so, this question is difficult to answer, but without a doubt “The Disaster Artist” is delightfully hilarious and, like the inimitable Tommy Wiseau, has genuine heart.

Thor: Ragnarok

November 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson
Directed by: Taika Watiti (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”)
Written by: Eric Pearson (debut) and Craig Kyle (debut) & Christopher L. Yost (“Max Steel”)

As unloved as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Thor” franchise has been, it’s still been able to reach the coveted trilogy status. But with the latest film, “Thor: Ragnarok,” it’s abundantly clear that Marvel has decided to burn down the boring version of “Game of Thrones” that is all the Asgard stuff and slot the God of Thunder into a more comical role with a blatant “Guardians of the Galaxy” influence. It’s a great idea, really, and Chris Hemsworth has a clear gift for comedy, but the unwillingness to make a clean break from the tedium on the other side of the Bifrost keeps “Ragnarok” from achieving the same highs as Marvel’s other cosmic franchise.

The film begins with Thor hanging in a cage, conversing with a skeleton, before destroying a devil-ish creature names Surtur intent on bringing on Ragnarok—otherwise known as the destruction of Asgard. Thor returns home with the Surtur’s crown for his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne room, only to finally uncover that his mischievous brother Loki (Ton Hiddleston) has been posing as their father since the events of the last movie, “Thor: The Dark World.”

When Thor and Loki finally track Odin down on Earth, he’s at death’s door. When he dissolves into nothingness, it allows for the coming of his firstborn, a daughter named Hela (Cate Blanchett) who is determined to rule Asgard and conquer the universe. A battle with Hela in the Bifrost sends both Loki and Thor spinning off into space, stranding the Avenger in a junkyard on a remote planet where he’s captured and sold by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, the absolute best). There, Thor is forced into gladiatorial combat against the Grandmaster’s champion, none other than fellow Avenger Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who Thor will have to convince to help him in order to stop Hela.

New Zealand director Taika Watiti delivers solidly when “Ragnarok” goes for laughs – which are often wonderfully weird, especially anything with Goldblum – but falls into the same trap as previous directors Kenneth Branaugh and Alan Taylor before him, in that the palace intrigue on Asgard just isn’t interesting, no matter how much vamping Blanchett does in her villain role (also a bad move for the story: spoiling the Hulk reveal in the trailers, but that was probably unavoidable). Doubtless this was all at the behest of the studio at large, eager to move on to something more crowd-pleasing, but unable to resist putting a button on Asgard for the dozen or so people who could have possibly given a shit.

Mother!

September 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”)
Written by: Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”)

If you’ve ever had someone approach you and utter the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night,” and your first instinct was not to automatically run in the other direction before the storyteller began to describe their incomprehensible nightmare in extreme detail, you might find filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s new thriller “Mother!” profound in a bat-shit crazy kind of way. Aronofsky has created the cinematic version of sleep paralysis. It’s vivid, uncomfortably terrifying and once you snap out of it, you’ll never want to experience it again. Ever.

Without attempting to plunge deep into the psychobabble metaphors Aronofsky amplifies to frustrating proportions (this coming from a critic who loves some good symbolism), “Mother!” follows an unnamed married couple, played by Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), as they watch their quiet life get disrupted by the arrival of unexpected guests.

When a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up at their door and is invited to stay by Bardem’s famous writer character, the friendly gesture sets off a series of events that lead to the unraveling of Lawrence’s medicated character’s sanity as her mind and home fall apart piece by piece. Joining Harris’ character in overstaying his welcome is his boorish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and later their two bickering sons, who turn the visit from discordant to destructive.

Is every insane thing happening around Lawrence simply a figment of her imagination or is Aronofsky making it a point to draw a faint line between reality and possible hallucinations. Like Natalie Portman’s ballerina character in “Black Swan,” the existence of Lawrence’s lucidness is left to the viewer to wrangle over, but what is obvious is that Aronofsky has embraced his sprawling, chaotic narrative without remorse.

Maybe that’s a sign of a groundbreaking director. Aronofsky has created a picture about obsession and, in turn, has become a manic of his own making. He’s much better telling human stories like in “The Wrestler” or even “Requiem for a Dream, which is still just as nerve-wracking as “Mother!” It’s a bold move and he should be commended for the original and ambitious albeit preposterous content. What we could use less of Aronofsky doing, however, is making a film that doesn’t add up to much more than two hours of navel-gazing and waxing philosophical. With “Mother!,” he can’t seem to check his ego at the front door.

Patti Cake$

September 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty
Directed by: Geremy Jasper (debut)
Written by: Geremy Jasper (debut)

The underdog musician movie will never be as prolific as, say, the underdog sports flick, but if done right, the inspirational impact of the former might be enough to spur a regular visitor to the local karaoke bar to aspire to bigger and better things. The best examples in recent years include the 2013 Coen brothers’ drama “Inside Llewyn Davis” and the 2016 Irish charmer “Sing Street.” It helps when the soundtrack is memorable, too.

In “Patti Cake$,” first time writer/director and former indie rocker Geremy Jasper attempts to tap into his own autobiographical story as a frustrated musician in search of a break in the industry. He finds his muse in little-known Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, who portrays the title character, Patricia Dombroski (aka Patti Cake$, aka Killer P), a plus-sized white girl from New Jersey with dreams to make it as a rapper.

With an unsupportive mother (Bridget Everett of “Inside Amy Schumer”) whose life as a singer didn’t turn out the way she wanted after she got pregnant, Patti puts her own group of outcasts together to help her find a way to escape Jersey and reach a stage where riotous fans will chant her name as she spits rhymes. Included in her motley crew are her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), disabled grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mysterious pariah and anarchist Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who has all the equipment to lay down Patti’s sick beats.

Like the main protagonists B-Rabbit (Eminem) in 2002’s “8 Mile” and Djay (Terrance Howard) in 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” it’s easy to root for Patti because of the untapped talent she possesses and passion she has for the genre. Macdonald’s convincing performance as a rap artist (she’s far from it in real life) is impressive and effortless. The crowd-pleasing narrative, however, doesn’t raise itself above the clichés of other underdog pictures that have come before it. It’s a tough assignment for any coming-of-age film like this to find a unique angle to take, but very few of the themes that “Patti Cake$” tackles feel substantial.

Macdonald is the most consistent element of the drama and elevates the storytelling through her empowering and likable persona. If anything, Patti as an independent female character is noteworthy and important, especially since today’s hip-hop cultural landscape isn’t a burgeoning one for white female rappers (Kreayshawn, anyone?). For a first feature film, Jasper is best at creating a deprived setting and situation for Patti to revolt against through her music. Catchy original songs like “Patti $ea$on,” “PBNJ” and “mylifesfuckinawesome” add to some of the charming moments, but by not loosening its grip enough on the conventional formula and not fleshing out a lot of the relationships, “Patti Cake$” ends up being an exclusively solo show.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 7, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Jon Watts (“Cop Car”)
Written by: Jonathan Goldstein (“Horrbile Bosses”) & John Francis Daley (“Vacation”) and Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) & Christopher Ford (“Cop Car”) and Chris McKenna (“The LEGO Batman Movie”) & Erik Sommers (“The LEGO Batman Movie”)

No one wanted this, the third different Spider-Man film franchise from Sony in 15 years. Most of us liked the first two films starring Tobey Maguire from director Sam Raimi. I guess someone liked enough of Marc Webb’s first film in the 2012 reboot starring Andrew Garfield and a pre-Oscar Emma Stone to warrant the sequel that killed that franchise.

Spider-Man’s origin story, like Batman’s, should be etched in stone somewhere on a list called “Things We Never Need to See Depicted On Screen Again.”

But of course, in this golden age of comic book films, the most popular, kid-friendly hero can’t stay benched. Marvel came a-calling, offering Sony a deal they couldn’t refuse: let Spider-Man (which the studio has the film rights to) join Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and we’ll let you borrow elements for the MCU for stand-alone Spider-Man films, which sputtered out after “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” just as Marvel was kicking things into overdrive. This marriage begat the latest film featuring the wise-cracking web slinger, “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Picking up just after the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which is recounted by Peter Parker (Tom Holland) via social media videos, “Homecoming” focuses on Peter’s high school life while he awaits another call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to join up once again with the Avengers. Meanwhile, Peter dons his Stark-made Spidey suit—filled with tech, natch—to stop petty crime around New York. When Peter runs across some criminals using salvaged Chitauri tech, he inadvertently stumbles into the path of arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a once-honest man driven to the underworld when the government and Stark muscle him out of the salvage business. All this while he’s trying to win the affection of cute older girl Liz (Laura Harrier).

I don’t know  that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the best Spider-Man movie—a distinction that still belongs to Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2”—but it’s certainly the most fun. The movie is a genuine laugh riot at times, shamelessly aping the ‘80s output of John Hughes to mine hilarity from teenage awkwardness. Holland’s Peter feels like the first real “teenaged” Spider-Man we’ve ever gotten, and his clumsy pining over Liz and his nerdy goings on with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) are fun enough even without the web swinging. Alas, this is Marvel movie, though, and previous viewing of damn near everything that came before it, though not absolutely required, is highly advised. Though not as hefty a presence as marketing may have implied, Tony Stark hangs heavy over the film, especially in the suit, which at times makes Spider-Man seem more like a kid version of Iron Man that swings from webs instead of flying than the webhead everyone loves (also, where’s the spider sense, or the super strength?)

Still, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” almost improbably, delivers an essential, delightful version of a movie no one wanted in the first place.