Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: Love & Friendship (2016)

Dreams do come true, about 25 years later.

I'm not too familiar with Jane Austen -- I only know what the movie adaptations have taught me, that among other things they are Hoiti^Toiti and they require 95% perfect of my attention. Love & Friendship stands apart from my impressions of her story content, and from Stillman for that matter, in the sense that the plot isn't driven by characters failing to communicate with one another but from one character coldly manipulating the others for not-quite-so-nefarious reasons.

Stillman is suited to the time period in the same way Whedon was suited for a modern Shakespeare adaptation. He is no stranger to elegance, subtlety or grace. Whit wisely allows his team of acting powerhouses to do the heavy lifting, and so there's not much to the film other than watching Kate Beckinsale's horrifying plan unfold before us, told in pieces to her best friend Chloe Sevigny (the Disco team is back!), and played in such a way that we can't help but admire the cunning. The film is a showcase of acting talents at its core, lifted further upwards with your constant curiosity at who's ahead of whom, dry jokes that take two seconds to reach their chuckle-points, and one jarring but well-timed gag using subtitles.

As with most of Stillman's work to this point, we have such a good time with the characters and the performances that when we are suddenly dropped into the closing credits, we are left with an intense desire to stay in that world longer. Then we remember that we are surrounded by 2 1/2 hour noise-fests and get whiplash reversing our position. Keep doing this, Whit.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Hope you like Christmas. Shane Black keeps his streak alive of recalling his usual trademarks (even a direct one from Last Action Hero) and gives us the gift of watching two lovable characters fumbling through a classic Schlubs v. Coverup scenario. No one writes reluctant partners, kills off background extras, or puts noir in a new setting quite like Black. Refreshingly, he's also unafraid of putting kids in incredibly adult situations ("Don't say 'and stuff.' Just say 'They're doing anal.'") and completely ignoring our discomfort at that prospect. An action film is an adult venture, but there's nothing that says it can't be fun for everybody.

It's a shame, therefore, that the plotting isn't as tight as Black's earlier efforts, that some jokes don't land and character arcs don't quite thread through the runtime; regarding that in particular, Crowe learning mercy even though describing the time he beat someone with a shotgun as the greatest day of his life and Gosling embarrassing his daughter with his drinking but solving a surprising amount of problems through it (and ending the film that way). These seem to be symptoms of a stretched pilot script, moments that would play correctly along a shorter time span and, at the very least, make a fairly major twist less obvious.

It's charming enough to make it all work. In a shockingly dismal year for Hollywood, The Nice Guys is not a beacon of hope but a torch in a mineshaft. It offers the opportunity for a sigh of relief, and it definitely deserves a sequel even if we all know it won't get one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

To succumb to my own bit of mythologizing, Marvel had to realize, along with at least half of their audience, just what a safe, by-the-numbers, boring-ass sequel that Iron Man 2 was, and that Favreau's gradual fade out of the franchise was either a cause or a symptom. It's a problem if even the true believers lament what could have been. Why else say yes to a bunch of seemingly crazy ideas from a madman if you didn't have something to prove?

Given all of the press surrounding Whedon and the tough Age of Ultron production, it's difficult to determine exactly how much leeway Marvel gives its helmsmen. Tony Zou, Every Frame a Painting video essayist and twenty-year old doomsayer, hypothesized on his twitter feed that working for Disney doesn't offer you more opportunities, it imprisons you. Maybe an accurate assessment for Kenneth Branagh, who directed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit between two Disney properties (one a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). It certainly scans for Jon Favreau (who directed Cowboys & Aliens and Chef before returning to direct a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). Can anybody get a Great Mouse Detective script delivered to Shane Black's office?

Black's personality does shine through in what is still recognizably a modern superhero film. Amid all his usual trademarks (including gratuitous naked breasts, appearing the only way they could: on a giant stuffed rabbit) and noticeably borrowed material from his previous work, this is an immensely satisfying action film. Instead of a dumb, reverse engineering of Stark's heart condition and resulting overconfidence(?), the demons he needs to conquer are much more serious (PTSD standing in for alcoholism and weaving into the soldier-for-hire plot). His journey's progression is earned with his own wit, through losing fights and then barely winning fights and then kicking some motherfucking ass in breathtakingly staged action sequences, ones that rank best in the entire series. Much better than being handed half the cure by S.H.I.E.L.D. and a deus ex solution hidden in a model.

But there are some fairly major flaws as well. The fusion with an 80's action film was bound to result in rejected tissue. The behavior of the villains are cruel enough to be off-putting, entering that Die Hard 2 level of sociopathic violence where killing goes beyond merely the cost of doing business, not Marvel's style at all. The middle section of the movie, Stark solving a mystery in a small town without a suit or an AI with a precocious youngster at his side, barely justifies itself before it concludes. Two decades ago, this would have been the whole movie. These days, we have toys to sell, don't we?

The (required) appearance of the Mandarin bumps into at least one unnecessary villain, one that should have been played by Sam Rockwell, and crowd an already packed movie. So much time is spent on "fun" that basic requirements are moved past too quickly. Clearer rules regarding the Extremis soldiers would have helped -- they seem to be incredibly scary and powerful, but they also can be killed if you hit them in one specific spot? Eh. Iron Man flying away on autopilot after his house is destroyed is a straight-up cheat, as well as the inexplicable disappearance of an Extremis soldier later in the small town. And it seems like Wing Attack Plan R (or whatever) should have been implemented much sooner... yknow, when people were falling out of the sky... or not at all. Oh shit, I forgot already, we have toys to sell.

Perhaps the most divisive entry into the MCU has turned me into somewhat of an apologist, a staunch defender of a movie I only like, not love. I'm telling ya, these giant moving parts may shudder and grind, but the suit flies. It's unfortunate that taking story risks has backfired on them, but I have a feeling that Marvel will be just fine. I hope Shane Black will be too.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: Knight of Cups (2015)

Christian Bale, indistinguishable from Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, wanders around the decadent wasteland of the Los Angeles overworld, hopping from girlfriend to topless girlfriend, mumbling something or other about a lifetime of regrets while the latest in filmmaking technology is used to say absolutely nothing. We'd sure feel bad about it if these people weren't so goddamned rich.

It is unsurprising at this point that Malick uses his legacy to strip his own work to its core, down to what is essentially a visual symphony of his own subconscious. Images are strung together randomly, title cards reference material we haven't read, narration is present because something has to be said, and the nudity is there to wake up the audience. Do the investors ever wonder if they were tricked into financing a vacation?

To be fair, there is a spark here that, had he hired the editor of the trailer, could have ignited into a fireball. If the staged earthquake near the start of the film led into the beginning of a plot, if scenes actually connected to those around it, if he had drawn parallels from the balsa wood sets on the WB Lot to the stone artifice of the city itself, if extemporaneous dialogue blurred with actors playing actors reciting lines, if he hadn't missed so many opportunities to build something, there could have been an actual movie here. Malick confining himself to a metropolic prison and drawing connections from metaphysics to the incomprehensible nature of the movie industry practically films itself, but even he couldn't resist falling back on his old standbys: shots of mountains and fields and oceans curving into the horizon and wasting our time with bullshit. More like Yawn of Time, right guys?

This long after 1973, I think I'm finally beginning to understand Malick. The man who always seemed so uninterested in screenplays and storytelling structure is exactly as he seems, no artifice no filter. Myth is biography to him, and that has become his own hell. The manifestations through the narration, actors speaking inaudibly, fish-eye lenses and slow dollys on nature, all of it comes from a man trying to break free of himself, a man hopelessly addicted to the search for meaning but unsuited to the task. Doomed.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black has proved, over the course of a few decades, that once a formula works, it can be used repeatedly and that people don't care much as long as you're only ripping yourself off. Turns out languishing in Hollywood gives you plenty of material about Hollywood, and what didn't get used in Last Action Hero can now be used here. Two mismatched characters forced into what essentially amounts to a marriage, solving a mystery with a powerful Aryan is at the top. Add some murders, dimwitted heavies, parties with topless women, a car ramming into a lake or a house, some saxophone, and set it around Christmastime. Repeat every four years.

There is a difference this time around: Black includes himself in the equation. The additional layer of acknowledging storytelling limitations and constant self-deprecation, along with Robert Downey Jr at the boost phase of a meteoric comeback, breathes new life into what otherwise would have been serviceable action-noir. The plot is so greased and moves so fast that it becomes unpredictable, even skipping over plot holes a la Wages of Fear (how did the body arrive in Harry's bathroom so quickly?) and dialogue charming enough so that it doesn't really matter. Gags-Per-Minute reaches new power levels and a spaced-out main character gradually learns over the course of the film that murder solves most problems. It is immensely satisfying.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Damsels in Distress (2011)

Christians in college, this time. Kay.

Greta Gerwig and her team of blank-faced sprites attempt to improve the morale at their college by implementing a strict regimen of tap-dancing, donuts, and hygiene awareness. Every once in awhile there's a hookup followed by a breakup followed by some dry comments and some more breakups. Surely you get the drill by now.

13 years later and Stillman has lost a measure of his edge. The settings he concocts are usually specific enough to be almost entirely unrelatable, but this one is a real doozy. This can't be anyone's college experience. It seems to be closer to a late-Shakespearian farce, rather than a comedy of manners, but for that to work there has to be actual farce. The plot is instead driven almost entirely by the dialogue, per usual, and fixates on less-than-funny character quirks ("How can you not know all the colors?"), bizarre repetitions ("He's an operator,"x16), and anal sex played for laughs (???). Worst of all, soft close-ups of two characters kissing grossly, get that shit out of your goddamned movie, every last one of you.

It's certainly watchable but fairly uneventful and very disposable, with no closure of story threads and what is most assuredly a waste of talented actors sitting at the ready. It should have been an Amazon pilot for a future TV show, which is probably how that Cosmopolitans project actually came about. Oh but don't bother looking for that or anything, Amazon hates their own work more than they hate the idea that you might want to watch it. Oh, this. Right. Uh... eh.

Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

It's bad enough trying to get a book published under your name while living in an apartment with people you dislike, but you also gotta worry about cocaine addiction, tax indictment, and violent punk rockers? Christ, it's so tough being into disco, I had no idea.

It's the 80s! Music is terrible, AIDS is right around the corner and the economy is about to tank. I'm confused, though...  are we uptight or are we loose- aw fuck it, this is a paaaaarty. Why worry? The only looming specter that haunts our characters is the possibility that they won't make it into the club that night. This outright deflection of what is actually the cause of their misery means that The Last Days of Disco possesses much more cynicism than the previous films, that the solution is to overcome themselves and each other. The theme compacts into another microcosm: Chloe Sevigny trades her true feelings for popularity and makes some poor decisions resulting in real high-stakes punishment, divvied by Robert Sean Leonard and his reprehensible outbursts of sudden celibate guilt. Goddamn.

There is a bit of a misstep, come the second half. The way this film decouples its boxcars really reiterates Stillman's disinterest in storytelling structure. After a small time jump, it seems like we're following a completely new set of characters, with new relationships and romantic goals. Those two are together? That guy always loved that woman? ... Huh. It makes it difficult not to think the worst, that there was no way to continue the film on its current course so Stillman had to invent a new one to force it into the satisfying closure he had in mind. Otherwise, you simply have to take his word for it.

At least there still exists the usual dry one-liners and strange conversations about nothing, including a classic argument about The Lady and the Tramp. It's fun at a consistent clip and charming enough to overshadow the large holes. This time.