Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: Love, Simon

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
"Love, Simon" is winsome, charming and, yes, groundbreaking. The picture - based upon Becky Albertalli's novel "Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" - is a mainstream teenage picture that is focused on a young man's coming of age story and, naturally, includes a romantic interest. The thing is that, in this case, the protagonist - Simon Spier (a very good Nick Robinson) - is a closeted young gay man who is trying to find the right circumstances to come out to his family and friends.

The film depends on fairly timeworn plot devices and, for lack of a better word, cliches - the chummy best friend of the opposite sex, a budding romance between two of the lead's other friends and a villain, who tries to blackmail Simon into breaking up two of his friends in order to pursue the fetching Abby (Alexandra Shipp). But while the picture relies on a formula that feels familiar in Hollywood dramas about teens, never before - at least that I can recall - has such a formula been utilized to tell the story of a gay kid. Typically, in these movies, such a character would be relegated as the witty sidekick.

As the film opens, Simon has been making email contact with another closeted gay kid from his high school who goes by the name "Blue" online. Neither knows the identity of the other, and this is the first budding romance that I can recall that primarily involves technology since Spike Jonze's "Her." Simon and Blue are confidantes and inspire one another to divulge their secrets to those close to them.

But first, Simon is blackmailed by Martin (Logan Miller), a theater kid who lusts after Abby and wants Simon to turn Abby's attention away from Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Simon's soccer playing buddy who also has feelings for Abby. To complicate matters, there's also Leah (Katherine Langford), Simon's best friend who clearly has feelings for him.

One of the elements that makes "Love, Simon" interesting is that - much like last year's wonderful "Lady Bird" - the film doesn't always require its lead to be valiant. In fact, he gets rightly called out by his friends after they discover his subterfuge to help Martin, even if his cause - not being outed - is sympathetic. And one of the elements that makes the film so charming is how - also similar to "Lady Bird" - it has love for all of its characters, including minor figures - such as Simon's little sister, his parents, a dorky vice principal who thinks that he is hip and a teacher directing the school play who gets some of the best one liners.

"Love, Simon" is a warm, funny and well made youth drama. Some might say that it isn't as radical is it could have been, but I disagree. The fact that a Hollywood studio has made a mainstream teen dramedy in the style of a John Hughes film that applies many of the usual cliches - although well handled here - and placed them at the service of a story about a youth's coming out is, well, something.

This is a year in which the biggest hit so far is a comic book - no shocker there - but one made by and mostly starring African Americans. Now, this film - which has the makings of a sleeper - is another sign that Hollywood is finally starting to listen and studios' rosters are becoming more inclusive. So, yes, "Love, Simon" is a groundbreaker - but it's also a lovely coming of age story that I'd highly recommend.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Review: Thoroughbreds

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Cory Finley's "Thoroughbreds" benefits from some moments of sardonic humor and solid performances by its two leads, but the film is an otherwise frosty faux provocation that never figures out its raison d'etre. The picture reminds me of the work of director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose debut, "Dogtooth," was an unsettling, absurd shocker that I really liked, but whose latest film, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," was a picture that was clearly trying too hard to be disturbing in a deadpan manner. "Thoroughbreds" belongs in the same category as that film.

The film is at its strongest during the moments when its two leads - Lily (Anya Taylor Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke - are navigating the terms of their uneasy, fraught friendship. Lily is a rich girl, whose Connecticut lawn is covered in ridiculously large chess pieces and has a mother who often appears barely there and a creep of a stepfather (Paul Sparks). Although we learn little about Amanda, other than that she slaughtered a family horse and ended up being institutionalized for a spell, it is clear that she is middle class. As the film opens, Amanda is being tutored by Lily, who is struck by the fact that her friend is incapable of feeling or eliciting genuine emotion.

Amanda shows Lily how to summon tears without actually feeling anything, and this scene is the closest to anything involving human emotions in the film. The only other character in the picture who exhibits what could be describes as heart here is a dopey drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin), whom the two girls attempt to rope into a plot to murder Lily's awful stepfather, who is verbally abusive toward his stepdaughter and wife.

The film is based on Finley's own play, and the picture is primarily confined to several locations - mostly Lily's house, giving it a stagey vibe. But the film's biggest drawback is that is never makes much of a case for existing. Much like "Killing of a Sacred Deer" or Michael Haneke's grim "Funny Games," Finley's film portrays the upper class as bored, sterile and casually cruel, but its laughs are too few to call it a satire. Its ending is also relatively anticlimactic.

Ultimately, this is a well polished and decently acted movie that doesn't appear to have much to say. It's not quite a comedy, somewhat of a thriller and a cultural critique that is missing, for lack of a better word, a thesis. I can admire its performances and Finley's sharp writing, but "Thoroughbreds" is otherwise lacking a purpose.

Review: A Wrinkle In Time

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Ava DuVernay's adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's novel "A Wrinkle in Time" is a film I admire that is both visually stimulating and well intentioned, even if it doesn't completely work as a movie. It's the type of picture that many people have been calling upon Hollywood to deliver for years - a blockbuster with a diverse cast in which the heroes are mostly women of varying ages. It's also encouraging that the two films dominating the box office at this moment - this film and Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" - were made by black filmmakers, one of whom is a woman. Hollywood has long passed over people of color and women to direct movies and it is heartening to see films being made that are more representative of both groups.

But while Coogler's jump to big budget blockbuster filmmaking has been a success, DuVernay's is less successful. On the other hand, while Coogler's first two pictures - especially "Fruitvale Station" - was very good, DuVernay's work - "Selma" and "13th," most notably - has been more substantial, in my opinion. So, it's a disappointment to say that "A Wrinkle in Time" is the first film in her oeuvre that could be considered a misfire.

One of the elements that works in the film's favor is its good-naturedness. The film's leads are good and conscientious people, and the picture takes an earnest approach to the material. Even the film's one human villain - a mean girl who torments Meg (Storm Reid), the film's protagonist - gets her shot at redemption, at least to an extent. In other words, this is a film that sees the good in others and mostly relegates evil to a nebulous being known as "The It."

I'm not going to delve too far into the scientific elements of the plot. But to summarize: Meg's scientist father (Chris Pine) disappeared four years prior to when the story is set after having discovered a way to travel the universe by using his mind. His wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a fellow scientist and Meg's younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) - whose name is repeated more during the course of this film than Forrest Gump said his own - is considered a genius.

One day, Meg is approached by three otherworldly beings - known as Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) - who tell her that her father is lost in the universe and that she can find him if she utilizes his method of travel via the mind. This, of course, leads Meg - who takes the journey with her brother and a young admirer named Calvin (Levi Miller) - to come face to face with "The It," during which she uses clues from the three Mrs. to complete her mission.

There are some great images in "A Wrinkle in Time" - a field full of flowers that move of their own accord and an eerie dimension in which Pine's character is trapped - but the film often overdoes it with the visual effects, often to the point of muting the story's drama. The filmmakers assembled a strong cast, but often leave them without much to do - Mbatha Raw mostly wears a look of concern, Winfrey makes pronouncements, Witherspoon is the ditzy Mrs. and Kaling's character can only speak via quotes by famous people.

DuVernay's previous works exhibited confident directorial control over their subject matter, whereas "A Wrinkle in Time" feels a little all over the place. For years, the book has been deemed unadaptable - full disclosure: I've never read it - and this picture, although charming and visually stunning in spurts, appears to prove that designation to be correct. It's a slight misstep from a great director.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Red Sparrow

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
"Red Sparrow" - based on the novel by Justin Haythe and directed by Francis Lawrence - has a grueling torture sequence that leads into a tense finale and clever plot twist. Unfortunately, these impressive 15 minutes are preceded by two hours of a mostly routine spy thriller. I've heard some raves about the book on which the film is based, but the movie comes off as merely a slightly grimmer version of "The Americans," albeit not nearly as good.

Jennifer Lawrence does her best in the role of Dominika Egorova, a ballerina whose career comes to a tragic end on stage after she breaks her leg. She is then swindled by her creepy uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a top ranking official in Russian intelligence, into a mission during which she must seduce a rapey Russian enemy of the state, who is then killed while in her presence. Dominika is given a choice - die or become a "sparrow," a Russian spy who is trained to seduce her victims to obtain information from them.

Dominika is taken to a school where she and her fellow students are overseen by a merciless woman played by Charlotte Rampling who forces the students to engage in everything from fellatio to rape in front of the other students for the purpose of psychological training. Despite the pervasive threat of sexual assault, Dominika takes to the career move pretty well and shows that she is astute as a spy. This catches the attention of Vanya's supervisors, including one played by Jeremy Irons who may not be entirely trustworthy.

Dominika's mission becomes entangled with another being carried out by a CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), whose penchant for not selling others out is observed in an early sequence during which he nearly ruins his career for the sake of saving someone else. Of course, Dominika and Nate are each assigned to tail the other, and their slow evolving "relationship" alternately appears faked and genuine.

One of the elements that keeps "Red Sparrow" from soaring is that the material - while certainly dark thematically - is also presented in one drab scene after the next. While watching this film, one might be led to believe that anything other than low level lighting is forbidden in Russia. Also, despite being in a majority of the film's scenes, Dominika is somewhat of a cypher. Yes, her character is supposed to be as such, but all we really know about her is that she's good at fending off creepy men and she doesn't want her ailing mother to suffer as the result of her actions.

"Red Sparrow" is certainly not a bad movie and its cast does what they can to enliven the proceedings. It's not until the film nears its finale that it picks up. The aforementioned torture scene is grueling, but adeptly filmed and choreographed. It's one of the more flinch-inducing hand-to-hand combat scenes of any recent movie that I can recall. There's also a twist in the picture's final scenes that is clever and expertly handled. Ultimately, it's a case of a little too late and a solid culminating 15 minutes can't quite carry the film. All in all, "Red Sparrow" is only a moderately effective spy thriller, but it has its moments.

Review: Foxtrot

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Apparently based upon an incident in which director Samuel Maoz sent his daughter some years ago to a bus stop to ride to school, only to learn that the bus was attacked by terrorists, and then later find out that his daughter had not boarded the bus, "Foxtrot" is an equally depressing and comedic film on the circumstances of fate amid the horrors of war. It's the type of film that builds and builds and eventually pays off, even if the building often takes a little longer than it should.

As the film opens, Israeli father Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler), receive a knock at the door from some Israeli military representatives, who tell the couple that their son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), has been killed. Daphna faints and is taken to bed, while Michael sits and stews at the absurd bureaucratic response from the military folks who have shown up at his door. Their constant insistence that he drink water every hour on the hour - even going as far as timing his cell phone for him to alert him when it's time to take a drink - as a method of coping is both good for a laugh and unsettling.

"Foxtrot" is split into three thirds. During the first, Michael and Daphna deal with their grief and are told how their son's funeral ceremony will be carried out. Michael's brother attempts to help, but ends up being more of a hindrance. Then, something that shocks the couple even more than their son's death occurs. They are told that there has been a mistake, and that Jonathan is actually alive. This leaves Daphna euphoric and Michael furious at the military's bumbling.

We then cut to a desert scene, where several young soldiers are posted and spend days in boredom. The young men sit and stare as a camel crosses back and forth along the road, where they are tasked with inspecting cars that pass through. The young men take their pleasure by discussing naked women and masturbation - Jonathan provides a classic story involving his father, a Bible that survived the Holocaust and a nudie magazine - and watching a can roll through their place of lodging, due to its imbalance caused by sinking into the earth. If the first third of the picture took a little too long to get where it was going, the second half is partly humorous, but also fraught with tension. Then, during one of the young mens' inspections, a tragedy occurs.

The final sequence of the picture takes us back to Michael and Daphna, who have received further news about their son's whereabouts. The two of them smoke pot together and engage in long silences at their kitchen table. Although this sequence is the least action oriented, it's also the most successful. The film has utilized the tension of the first two scenes to arrive at this one, which is powerful and moving. "Foxtrot" then ends on a note that brings its two tones together in a scene that is absurdly tragic.

If "Foxtrot" is imperfect, it is because it's first third takes up more time than it should, while its second sequence could have gone on longer. It's the final third of the picture that acts as the heart of the film and is, therefore, the most effective and most powerful.

Maoz's previous film was "Lebanon," a picture that was set entirely in an Israeli tank. Both that film and "Foxtrot" prove that the director has a unique take on the modern state of Israel, although this film has a universal quality to it. With "Foxtrot," Maoz has taken a personal incident and used it to comment on the current state of affairs in his home country, the grieving process and the absurdity of war. And, for the most part, it works.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review: Game Night

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
"Game Night" mostly works because it wears its ridiculousness as a badge of honor and has no qualms about veering off into the far fetched. There are so many scenes in this film that would never play out in the actual world as they do, but it works and the audience plays along because the writing is - mostly - sharp and the cast willing to embrace the film's preposterousness.

The picture kicks off with a scene during which its two leads - Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) - engage in what Roger Ebert once called a "meet cute." Both of them are highly competitive people who enjoy taking part in games, and meet during a game of bar trivia. Years later, they are happily married and hold weekly game nights with a group of friends - Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and his wife, Michelle (Kylie Bunburry), and a doofus named Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who gets some of the film's best lines.

Max and Annie are debating whether to have a child and, during an amusing early scene in the film, are told by their doctor that Max's rivalry with his older, cooler brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), is getting in the way of the couple conceiving. It just so happens that Brooks will be coming to town - and to one of Max and Annie's game nights - so everyone is on edge. And it's easy to see why as Brooks roars onto the scene in a muscle car and quickly captures everyone's attention, much to Max's chagrin.

One of the film's funnier subplots involves a creepy cop named Gary (Jesse Plemons) - a neighbor of Max and Annie who is now divorced from one of their friends - continuously attempting to get himself invited to game night. Most of Max and Annie's run-ins with Gary are outside of their homes, where he often stands stroking his small white dog and staring with a creepy intensity. The running joke involving Gary remains funny because it verges on being unsettling and a viewer is left wondering whether it will veer off into darker territory.

The comedy and story jumps into high gear after Brooks tells the group that he is signed them up for a role playing game in which one of them will be kidnapped and the rest of the group must figure out who snatched them. However, Brooks' own shady dealings catch up to him and he is actually kidnapped, while Max, Annie and their friends continue to think that they are still engaged in a game. At least for a while.

One of the elements that benefits "Game Night" is that each character - or pair - have their own distinctively humorous storyline. Annie and Max are the last to find out that they are in actual peril and a scene in which she has to remove a bullet from his arm left the audience with whom I saw the film screaming - although I'm not sure it was from laughter. Kevin and Michelle's drama stems from their having been together since they were teenagers and a slip of the tongue revealing that Michelle slept with someone else when they once temporarily broke up. The punchline to this particular plotline is especially funny.

Ryan is a moron and gets some of the film's best lines and he is paired with Sarah (Sharon Horgan), an Irish co-worker who is much smarter than he is. And, of course, Plemons is particularly funny as Gary. It's the type of bizarre performance that makes one appreciate the actor for being able to keep a straight face through it all.

"Game Night" is not a great comedy. It takes a somewhat gimmicky premise and rides it all the way. That being said, it's a fun movie and one that is completely divorced from realism. Hollywood comedies are, for the most part, a dime a dozen. It's a rare thing when one of them makes me laugh. This one did so heartily on at least several occasions.

Review: Annihilation

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Much like his debut, "Ex Machina," Alex Garland's sophomore film is a cerebral science fiction thriller that is unsettling, ponderous and occasionally mind-blowing. Coupled with last year's underrated and misunderstood "Mother!," the film is proof that Paramount Pictures appears willing to take risks on ambitious genre movies that do not guarantee commercial success.

As the film opens, biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) has given up hope that her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is still alive after he left a year prior on a top secret military mission and has yet to return. But then out of the blue, Kane reappears, but something is not quite right. He begins to exhibit symptoms of a deadly disease, so Lena rushes him to a hospital. But they are stopped on the way by military officials and Lena wakes up in a quarantined military base known as the Southern Reach.

There, she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who shows Lena an incredible sight behind the base - a large wall that appears to be a rainbow. At the film's beginning, we see what appears to be a meteorite striking a lighthouse - and this apparently has resulted in the wall, which scientists at the base refer to as The Shimmer. Ventress tells Lena that she and several other women - mostly scientists of some sort - will travel behind the wall and Lena, wanting to know what happened to her husband, insists on going with them. She is told that previous groups of soldiers have been sent into The Shimmer and Kane is the only one who has returned.

Once inside The Shimmer, something seems off. The women begin to doubt their own senses, become paranoid and often lose track of time. On more than one occasion, they are attacked by large, mutated animals - a massive crocodile, a deformed bear - and one of the women realize that The Shimmer is stealing their DNA for the purpose of creating its own beings. I can't divulge more because, on the one hand, I don't want to give away plot points, but also because I can't exactly explain the theories that the characters ponder.

Regardless, "Annihilation" is often frightening and tense. And it remains compelling because it is often difficult to predict where it is heading. As the women travel further into The Shimmer, their course becomes more perilous. But as the film reaches its finale, wonder takes over from fright during a pretty remarkable sequence during which Lena enters the lighthouse and comes face to face with, well, something. It's a scene that I'd imagine will be discussed for years to come and it's the most impressive sequence in the picture.

Although I admired its filmmaking and visuals, I liked "Ex Machina," if not loved it. I feel mostly the same way about "Annihilation." It might not be a genre classic, but it's certainly worth a look. There are a number of interesting ideas at play here, the film is suspenseful and the aforementioned finale is worth the price of admission alone. Garland doesn't seem to know exactly how to follow that scene, and the picture's final shot comes across as your typical genre ending in that it leaves the door open for sequels. But all in all, "Annihilation" is a thoughtful and unique sci-fi thriller that I'd recommend.