Sunday, April 29, 2018

Elliot Stabler: The Later Years


The raves go too far, as they usually do; but You Were Never Really Here remains a compelling piece of filmmaking, even as it only occasionally grasps that it is a narrative work, whether it actually wants to be one or not.

Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (based on the novel by Jonathan Ames)
With Jaoquin Phoenix (Joe), Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), and Judith Roberts (Joe's mom)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reviews from gulag: But Batman and Robin will never die!

And now, the rest: The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Power Rangers, The Greatest Showman, The Book of Henry, and Good Time.

It is not correct to call it "Michael Showalter's The Big Sick," and if you've seen it, you know why, inasmuch as it was barely directed in the first place, and it really does show: practically the only thing I remember at all about the look of thing (beyond "extreme bland semi-competence," anyway) is a match-cut montage of its protagonist driving an Uber, which, you know, is fine, I guess, and the whole movie looks exactly like what a TV show on the same subject might have looked like at the dawn of HD.  We don't expect much from our comedies these days, and with that bigotry of low expectations firmly in place, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick made a few waves back in the summer of 2017, when it was finally given its wide release, hot off the campaign of well-intentioned (and at least partly-deserved) hype that came out of its showings at Sundance in the January of that year.

There is, of course, plenty of bigotry to go around in The Big Sick, which tells the semi-fictionalized tale of how the sort-of interracial couple of Emily (Zoe Kazan) and would-be stand-up comedian Kumail (himself) hooked up after a bout of cute heckling and eventually got married, and also how, in between those two events, Emily keeled over and almost died after breaking up with Kumail due to his family's disapproval of either her whiteness, her heathenism, or possibly simply her non-Pakistaniness, but Nanjiani wound up dragooned into exercising a power of attorney over Emily anyway, at least for the limited purpose of inducing a medically-necessary coma when she got sick.  The big sick, as it were, and with her illness living up to that grandiose title, Emily Gordon winds up very much a tertiary character in her own romance, albeit one whose presence does continue to loom over the action even while she's doing absolutely nothing (though if you forgot, for example, what Emily's goals in life were before eating her coma sandwich, I think you could be forgiven).  Anyway: calling it a Kumail Nanjiani biopic that happens to co-star Gordon's parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) is probably a little more accurate than "a romantic dramedy about Kumail and Emily."

It isn't true that I have nothing against The Big Sick, but I do like it, because there is, after all, plenty to like about it.  The most obvious points of recommendation, beyond a doubt, are the Gordons, demonstrating for the billionth time that Hunter is an excellent actress, even if the role demands very little of her beyond "be a gruff but still-loveable small woman," and demonstrating for possibly the first time that Romano can invest a role with genuine heart; but that's unfair to Nanjiani, who carries the romantic and dramatic weights of his role reasonably well, perhaps even shockingly well, given that that apparently really is the only voice he has, and it was not well-designed for roles beyond his niche of the weird mostly-a-straight-man on Silicon Valley.  And there are a great many little bits here and there that are fun; if not a romantic comedy as such, the movie is still a comedy-comedy, and easily carves out some small place in the genre.  The best stuff, though, is funny only as a second-order effect: it's how scathing Nanjiani and Gordon's screenplay can be when presenting Kumail's stand-up comedian community, basically by simply showing it as I presume it was—absolutely terrible.  The highlight of the movie as a comedy is arguably Kumail's one-man show about the history of Pakistan, which he thinks is funny; the highlight of the movie as a drama is when he breaks down on stage and just starts monologuing through tears at his situation.  But there are about as many actual laughs in both.  This isn't Don't Think Twice, and The Big Sick doesn't have a lot of illusions about the general quality of Nanjiani's profession.

On the other hand, the whole pursuit feels slightly off, doesn't it?  Though it registers only subliminally, the fact that Nanjiani is playing himself as he was over a decade in the past (while his and Gordon's screenplay unwisely updates their story to the present) never quite stops getting in the way of a series of events that makes the most sense to have happened to a guy who was in his mid-twenties, rather than in his late thirties.  Probably by accident, then, you find yourself having to agree with Kumail's dad (Anupam Kher), that maybe this life just ain't for him.

Not that you find yourself agreeing with him, or his wife (Adeel Akhtar), very often, and this is what I actually do have against The Big Sick, which is how incredibly easy it lets off the Nanjiani clan for their egregious fucking racism.  The Big Sick really, really wants to be a feel-good movie about overcoming your upbringing (as well as the broader racism of American society at large), and it certainly has those elements (though this is another reason why Nanjiani's actual age sticks in the craw, of course: a man of nearly 40 years having to rationalize his way around his parents' bigotry is exponentially more pathetic than a man in his twenties doing so, and it's still laughably pathetic even then).  But it has no coherent critique of the family who spends a third of the movie's screentime trying to ensure a literal purity of blood, whereas Emily just flips like a switch when the movie needs her to (that is, at the last possible second, in a fairly solid romantic scene that really, really emphasizes just how much this screenplay is about Kumail), and while we can impose the real world onto The Big Sick if we want—it seems clear that whatever problems Nanjiani had in 2006, they were resolved to Gordon's satisfaction—Kumail the Character in This Movie simply isn't that convincing when he pleads that his past behavior shall not be repeated, because when he repudiates his family, he does it in the most bizarrely subordinate way possible, it sticks for about five whole minutes, and I sure as hell didn't see them change in the meantime.

Score: 6/10

Monday, April 23, 2018

Reviews from gulag: And with strange aeons, even death may die

Following on from yesterday, these reviews: Mary and the Witch's Flower and Woodshock.

I have a confession to make, which doesn't make me proud, and kind of puts paid to any pretensions I ever had to being an animation nerd: I'm not really sure I love Hayao Miyazaki.  I know I'm supposed to love Miyazaki, which is why I own a half-dozen Miyazaki films, all of which I... like okay, I guess.  I obviously respect Miyazaki and his legacy and all that.  Yet it is a legacy that casts a long, long shadow over Japanese animation, and my ambivalence toward Miyazaki's style is compounded when his successors in the field have tried to copy it.  Hence The Children Who Chase Lost Voices, one of the two big feature-length missteps (alongside The Place Promised In Our Early Days) that Makoto Shinkai made on his way to making his pair of mature masterworks, The Garden of Words and Your Name.

Hence also, and far more directly, Mary and the Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There and therefore formerly of Studio Ghibli itself, back before it was put on standby due to Miyazaki's (now-abortive) retirement.  A little bit of background, then: Mary was the first release of Studio Ponoc, the result of a sort of semi-accidental Don Bluthing of Studio Ghibli during Miyazaki's retirement/sabbatical, and somewhat consciously designed to be Ghibli's rightful heir.  This explains the poaching of Yonebayashi, and it explains also the film Yonebayashi made for them, which is kind of like someone's idea of Studio Ghibli, turned up to eleven in some respects and to zero in others, and which is also at least somewhat terrible.

The story (based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart) concerns young ginger Mary (huh) (Hana Sugisaki), an English girl sent off to spend a summer in the countryside with her great aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake); Mary is bored totally out of her gourd, of course, and we in the audience certainly sympathize, given that Mary spends an awful, awful lot of time stewing in its heroine's lazy, hazy forced-vacation.  On the other hand, Mary's shenanigans on the estate and in town, where she meets a colorful local jerk named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are cutesy-fun, and we know this is eventually going somewhere, thanks to the action-packed prologue that involved a broom-riding witch (another redhead) escaping an evil fortress and not looking back (so far as I recall) as it explodes.  The call to adventure comes when Mary follows a preternaturally-intelligent cat deep into the woods, where she finds a certain magical flower, identified later as a "fly-by-night," and also the broomstick left behind ages ago by the unnamed witch of the prologue.  (This actually takes two whole scenes, which is perhaps not ideal.)  At this point, she gets flower gunk on her new broom, and lo, it lifts her aloft to a world of magic, specifically the Endor College for Witches.

If this is a faithful adaptation of Stewart's 1971 novel, then I obviously cannot blame Stewart, but the reason Mary exists is, pretty clearly, because Harry Potter existed first; and, fittingly enough, you can even spot the little bespectacled warlock's doppelganger in a (somewhat forced and cloying) insert shot.  In any event, I doubt it's supposed to be Tim Hunter.  Mary takes a more circuitous route for its hero's journey,  because Mary is effectively a muggle on roids due to the fly-by-night, and while this is possibly more interesting on paper, it naturally ends up in the same basic place as Harry's more frivolous early dungeon-crawls; and the short of it is that Mary grifts her way into the school with her flower-buffed powers, which leads to something like the expected outcome, though in the process Mary also becomes aware that the school is a front for a sinister plot that only she can foil, led by two of Endor's distinguished faculty, headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Yuki Amami), and might-as-well-be-called-their-defense-against-the-dark-arts-instructor, Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata), an erudite reference I have chosen to be rather annoyed by.

So we have many of the characteristic Ghiblisms, starting from the very basic, that could probably refer to just about any fantastic fiction (a world of weird magic entered by a human child—it's more Ghibli if it's a girl, though), to the more specific (a caricatured old woman serving as the chief antagonist), to the stylization of the animated form itself, which is effectively indistinguishable from a turn-of-the-century Ghibli piece and which is probably the reason I find so many Miyazaki movies off-putting in the first place, though at least in Spirited Away, it was clearly on purpose.  Yonebayashi was a key animator on that, and it shows: Mary is awash in the squiggling, quivering, Kid's Kronenberg design ethos that gives the film's creatures and, er, magical fluids a strangely organic, even bizarrely sexual tinge, and I'll pretty much never enjoy that in a kid's entertainment, especially not one that's just way too pleased to revolve around the mechanic of a wee cartoon girl spilling blue lube out of a flower and having a hard shaft of wood get bigger in her hands before she shoves it between her legs.  I'd like to believe this is my hang-up, but I don't know any other way to read the images Yonebayashi's chosen—if there is a credible reason why a witch's broom must become tumescent, I'd like to hear it—but, sure, this sort of thing puts Mary quite squarely within the grand Ghibli tradition of Catbusses, horrifyingly-mutated forest gods, and whatever the fuck was going on in Yubaba's bathhouse.

The difference is that Mary, being a knockoff, does it without the quality of Miyazaki's imagination, or the sheer quantity of it. (Or of J.K. Rowling's imagination, for that matter.)  And it lacks, too, any of the deeper sense of mystical weirdness that Miyazaki's worlds always conjured, whatever other objections I might have had to their creation.  (Ironically, then, I kind of wish it were actually more of a Potter rip-off than it already is: by far—by far—the most enjoyable part of the film is the sequence where Mary bashes her way through her first day of "classes," simply because this is the only sequence that appears to be especially concerned with the Endor College as an institution, and hence packs the screen with practically all of Mary's cool visual and conceptual notions.  Plus, Harry Potter And the Secret of the 103 Minute Runtime would be, by default, my favorite Harry Potter movie of all.)

Instead of that, sadly, Mary gets a couple of lame villains with an evil plot barely worthy of a forgotten Saturday morning cartoon (not very Ghibli at all, that), and then takes its sweet time even getting to its several foregone conclusions—if you haven't figured out the mystery of the Prologue Witch about an hour before the film solves it for you, I don't know what to tell you, and when Mary finally twists, it chooses the least interesting way to actually go about doing it.  What you get in the end is a movie that's not really even interestingly abrasive in the way Ghibli fantasies often were, because it's too damn dull to be anything, really: nothing but a technically well-done rendition of character and creature designs that feel twenty or thirty years out-of-date, run through a plot dependent upon mostly-boring (and mostly-purloined) ideas, with no emotional hook that I noticed, and which stalls out almost the second it starts (which, again, is a good thirty minutes into the movie).  2017 was a pretty great year for anime, all told, but not because of this.

Score: 4/10

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Reviews from gulag: That is not dead which can forever lie

Admittedly, the past few months have been a little spotty: between work and personal obligations, and an unfortunately-mania-free depressive episode that feels like it's gone on for about four straight months, I've let Kinemalogue lapse into a weekly (bordering on biweekly) update schedule.  In the process, I missed the chance to talk about a bunch of stuff from last year back when it was still relevant.  Hence, it's mostly in the spirit of spring cleaning that I dump this first batch of short reviews for a bunch of movies that you probably only vaguely remember by now, and which I found so terribly interesting I didn't even bother writing about them at the time.  Am I selling it?  Anyway, today's reviews are for Marjorie Prime and Call Me By Your Name.

First up is by some significant margin the best of the items in the basket of unattended films I'll be dealing with over today and tomorrow, and the only reason I don't say "the best film from last year that I saw but didn't review, period," is because while I will eventually have to write about T2 Trainspotting (or, as it might have been titled by non-assholes, Trainspotting 2), I expect to do that in the context of a Danny Boyle retrospective, rather than in a lumpen review of various film-shaped objects.  Therefore, this one, which alone amongst this group actually did deserve something more thoughtful, is Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Jordan Harrison's play, Marjorie Prime.

The idea of a sci-fi play, by itself, already strikes me as somehow incongruous, even though there's clearly nothing but the silliest possible prejudice underlying this reaction—the genre of science fiction that deals with the offloading of human labor (physical or otherwise) onto artificially intelligent servants (fully-sapient or otherwise) began with a play, after all, namely Karel Capek's R.U.R., which—amongst other things—exported the very word "robot" into the English language.  Prime nobly extends that lineage one more time, finding a new task for our silicon friends to perform, and a stranger one: Prime posits the existence of an artificially-intelligent adaptive program, designed to keep the elderly company and help them retain their grip on their memories as they head, inexorably, toward the void.

Such a program, called a "Prime" (which seems ass-backwards, but I can accept this fictional branding of the software as an intentional irony) has been deployed to assist Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she fights her losing fight with Alzheimer's.  To this end, Marjorie and Marjorie's helpful, almost over-supportive son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) have set up the thing's holographic interface to resemble and sound exactly like Marjorie's dead husband Walter (Jon Hamm) as he was, around four decades earlier.  Marjorie's daughter and Jon's wife, Tess, is distressed by the whole situation, and (perhaps inevitably) can only look upon the automaton with the face of her late father with suspicion and a little bit of disgust; but she acquiesces anyway, because there is little else that even seems like it could help.  This "Walter Prime" tells Marjorie stories, all day, every day, intended to remind her of her past; but what's obvious from the very start is that Walter Prime can only know what he's been told by the living, and, indeed, the first conversation we find ourselves privy to between Marjorie and Walter is the key to unlocking what Marjorie Prime is actually interested in, when Walter spins the yarn about their very first date together, and Marjorie says it would be better if they'd gone to see a repertory showing of Casablanca.  (At this point, I forget exactly what it was they actually saw, so let's say it was, oh, Billy Madison.)

It is something of a miracle that Marjorie Prime manages to escape the heavy gravity of the basic Black Mirror premise which it resembles, and (more to the point) even the Black Mirror episodes which it specifically resembles.  (Take your pick, because it specifically resembles two of 'em, namely "White Christmas," which is also about Jon Hamm's ghost in a machine, or "Be Right Back," which is the one where Domnhall Gleeson plays a robot designed to replace a departed loved one, and who is therefore given license to act with even more awkwardly-miscalibrated emotion than he usually does.  Anyhow, they even use a pullquote on the poster that mentions Black Mirror, and ewww, that is some straight-up pandering, bandwagoning shit right there.  But damned if it isn't fair.)

But for starters, then, it's a miracle that Marjorie Prime itself never feels too much like a TV show—or like a filmed stageplay—despite an easy majority of the film taking place in a single location, and the vast majority of it taking place indoors (with the entirety of the action in any of its locations amounting to people talking to and often just at each other, or even effectively talking to themselves).  The very worst thing you can say about its aesthetic is that it sometimes trips over itself to be more dynamic, with tracking shots around the house that don't really justify themselves beyond proving the thesis, "this is an actual house and not a set."  But even these moments are relatively rare, and not especially distracting; the general impression is that of a very staid chamber drama, but an immaculately precise one.

As this is somewhat the case for many Black Mirror episodes, as well, the miracle that truly distinguishes Marjorie Prime (besides, I guess, the fact that it justifies its runtime, something only about half of Black Mirror's episodes actually do) occurs because Marjorie Prime is not pantswettingly terrified of the technology it imagines.  In fact, it doesn't even really care about the technology that much.  Instead, it finds it an interesting tool, and a starting-point for what it really wants to be, which is an examination of human families (which are rarely fully functional in the movies, and this is no exception) and, even more ambitiously, human memory itself.  It's a faculty that's awfully fallible in the first place—as the screenplay dutifully explains, what we remember is not any event itself, but the last time we remembered it, a copy of a copy at best—and one that's much more ephemeral than we'd like to admit.

In the process, it makes for a terribly upsetting depiction of a family dealing with Alzheimer's, essentially by default—you likely already noticed that the cast list is almost unfairly stacked in the movie's favor.  Smith (reprising her role from the stage, and, at 87, legitimately old as fuck) obviously steals the show.  But the show does not end with her, and Robbins and Davis each get at least one hunk of red meat of their own to chew on here.  Hamm, on the other hand, might not; but Hamm, in giving a semblance of life (though no more) to the first and most often-seen of the several not-all-that-intelligent artificial intelligences we meet, is also possibly giving Marjorie Prime its single most technically adept and interesting performance, managing the very subtle, philosopher-bait distinction between "computer you can talk to" and "person" with outright uncanny ease.  At this point, I'm on the edge of spoiling things; so let's just say that, in its final coda, it fully embraces its sci-fi conceit at last, in a way that is at once whimsical, darkly hilarious, and (I think) at least as insightful in regards to the humans that it's always been about as it is to the dumb ol' AIs it wasn't.

Score:  8/10

Monday, April 9, 2018

In a world where farts are against the law, one woman rises


It's a piece of crap that's better-looking than most pieces of crap, but that doesn't change its fundamental nature, and how anyone deigns to call this piece of crap "innovative," or even merely "scary," rather than "frustrating" and "unbelievably contemptuous"—not to mention "almost worryingly inhumane"—is beyond my ability to understand.

Directed by John Krasinski
Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
With Emily Blunt (Evelyn Abbott), John Krasinski (Lee Abbott), Millicent Simmonds (Regan Abbott), Noah Jupe (Marcus Abbott), and Cade Woodward (Beau Abbott)

Spoiler alert: high

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Steven Spielberg, part XXXVIII: Pop has finished eating itself, and now it's after you


The dumbassed pop culture stew and incredible visuals make it a great time at the movies, but the tension between what it says it is and what it actually is makes it more interesting than it ever had any right to be.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on the novel by Ernest Cline)
With Tye Sheridan (Wade "Parzival" Watts), Olvia Cooke (Samantha "Art3mis" Cook), Win Morisaki (Toshiro "Daito" Yoshiaki), Philip Zhao (Akihide "Shoto" Karatsu), Mark Rylance (James "Anorak" Halliday), T.J. Miller ("I-R0k"), Ben Mendelsohn (Nolan "Nolan Sorrento" Sorrento), and another actor whose name and face is in the marketing materials, but whose identity I won't spoil because it probably would've been a mild but nice surprise if I had not already known it ("Aech")

Spoiler alert: moderate