Friday, July 28, 2017

A Lot Of A GHOST, Not Much STORY

Opening today at a few theaters near me:

(Dir. David Lowery, 2017)

I walked out of this extremely weird movie in a daze. I wasn’t sure what the hell it was that I just watched. I mean it’s a movie about a ghost who appears as a guy in a children’s Halloween costume - that is, seriously, a white bed sheet with eye holes.

Let me backtrack - the film begins with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple living in a house in semi-rural Texas who appear to be preparing to move. Affleck gets killed in an automobile accident and we cut to Mara identifying his body at the hospital. After she places the sheet back over his head and leaves, Affleck sits up and then walks through the building’s halls unseen by anybody because, you know, he’s a ghost now.

He makes the journey back to their house and stands there motionless watching Mara as she mourns. He watches her eat a pie. A whole pie. This scene feels like it goes on forever. Mara eats until she goes to the bathroom to throw up in the background.

Time passes and the ghost stands motionless watching Mara pack up and move away. A new family made up of a single mother and her two kids move in and he watches them. One night in a fit of anger (I guess) he throws and smashes dishes in the kitchen which scares them and they move out shortly after.

Then the house appears to be taken over by hipsters who have impromptu parties with pretentious discussions. Singer/songwriter, and friend of director Lowery, Will Oldham delivers a speech about mortality and the futility of time (I think) that perhaps spells out the movie’s meaning but I dunno.

At some point, the ghost waves to another ghost (identical bed sheet situation) through the window of the house next door and they speak in subtitles with no sound (the ghosts get subtitles but the Spanish-speaking mother and her kids don’t). The other ghost says he’s waiting for someone, but he forgets who. All through this, Affleck’s ghost scratches at one of the walls trying to retrieve a tiny note that Mara’s character wrote and left in a crack.

More time passes, and the house gets demolished by bulldozers, and a shiny, modern building is built in its place where the ghost stalks the glass halls. Then we go back in time two hundred years to when European settlers were taking over the land. He stands and watches as history repeats and ends up watching Affleck and Mara again, then he watches as Affleck becomes a ghost, who he watches from behind.

I wonder how much Affleck actually visited the set because for the bulk of the movie it could’ve been anybody under that sheet. Especially since you can’t see eyes behind the holes – just darkness.

The self conscious artsiness of this film, which is all told in long, stationary shots in a square aspect ratio, makes me think that Lowery is trying to get as far away from the commerciality of his last project, PETE’S DRAGON, as he possibly can. Horror fans will likely be baffled by it because, except for the moment the bulldozer comes crashing through the wall, it’s not a scary experience. Haunting is more what Lowery was going for, but while it does indeed have some effective eeriness, it just goes on and on without a truly meaningful point to be made.

There’s maybe a good 20-minute or so short film that could’ve been made with these elements that would spare us all the existential tedium. The only story here is the passing of time, and that was
nt enough to keep me engaged.

But it is a gutsy move for A24 to release a film such as A GHOST STORY during the overcrowded dog days of summer - I admire that - but I can only recommend this picture to people who like being weirded out – very slowly.

More later...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE BIG SICK: A Delight Through And Through

Now playing at many indie art houses, and opens wide Friday at many multiplexes:

THE BIG SICK (Dir. Michael Showalter, 2017)

This is one of the most buzzed about independent movies this summer, and it’s for good reason because it’s a real charmer.

It’s not your typical rom com as it’s a love story with an autobiographical bent, and it mixes in a considerable amount of emotional drama between its abundance of laughs.

The film concerns Pakistani Kumail Nanjiani, best known for his role as acerbic programmer Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, as a stand-up comedian/Uber driver who falls for Zoe Kazan as a woman based on Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon.

Gordon, who hails from Winton Salem in my home state, North Carolina, and Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay which depicts their early relationship when begins when Kazan’s Emily heckles Kumail during his act at a small Chicago comedy club. Actually she yells “Whoo!” but, as Kumail explains to her at the bar later, “heckling doesn’t have to be a negative.”

The two hit it off and hook up that night while watching THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back at his place that he shares with fellow comedian Kurt Braunohler. Emily and Kumail, despite that she says she’s too busy studying to be a therapist, begin dating, while his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) try to set him up in an arranged marriage.

Emily discovers this when she comes upon a cigar box of headshots of the many Muslim women that are vying for his hand (“Are you judging Pakistan’s ‘Next Hot Model?
), and after an emotional argument they break up. 

Shorty after, Kumail learns that Emily is in the hospital and has to be put into a medically induced coma, and he waits with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) who he’s never met before, and who know that the couple is broken up. Awkward!

Gradually Kumail and Emily’s folks bond with them even attending one of his stand-up slots. The scene turns ugly when a frat boy douche yells “go back to Isis” at Kumail, and Hunter’s character Beth goes off on him.

Since we know that in real life Emily came out of the coma, it’s no spoiler to say that that’s what happens here, but I’ll refrain from going further about the plot.

Nanjiani makes for a witty, likable lead who can hold his own in the well executed dramatic moments that dominate the second half of the film. Kazan is equally appealing, quickly quipping through the couple’s courting and effectively exhibiting more layers during her recovery. Although she spends the bulk of the film motionless in a hospital bed, Kazan shows in her awake scenes that she’s no “manic pixie dream girl” (Nathan Rabin™), and the chemistry between her and Nanjiani is palpable.

Hunter and Ramano nail their parts as Emily’s concerned parents, and there are short but sweet turns by the supporting cast including SNL’s Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Braunohler as Kumail’s fellow comedian friends, and Kher (a Bollywood legend who’s been in 500 films) Shroff, and Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s brother.

THE BIG SICK is a very amusing and heartwarming love story that proves that there’s life left in rom coms. The genre appears to have died out at the multiplexes, but with help from producer Judd Apatow, this indie refreshens the formula. As I’ve written on this blog before, director Michael Showalter in such films as THE BAXTER and THEY CAME TOGETHER, seems to have a thing about deconstructing rom com tropes, but it appears that he’s best here and in his last film, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, when he keeps the narrative grounded in relatable reality.

This is Showalter’s best film, the best comedy I’ve seen this year, and a winner all around for Nanjiani and Gordon and everyone involved. It’s a big success at my local indie art house, the Rialto, where I work part time, as I’ve heard a lot of loud laughter from the crowded theater every time it screens. A delight through and through.

More later...

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

SPIDER-MAN Brings It All Back Home

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:


(Jon Watts, 2017)

So I guess we’re supposed to pretend that those two Andrew Garfield AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies never happened, right? Well, with this shiny new reboot that establishes the character as a player in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) that’s incredibly easy to do.

We were introduced to the new web-slinging kid, Tom Holland, in the superhero-studded CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR last summer, and this film recounts that event from a different perspective via Peter Parker’s video diary of the event.

So we get to see just how Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in his eighth appearance as IRON MAN) got Peter to Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany, outfitted him in a cool new suit, and put him in place to steal Captain America’s shield at just the right moment.

But Tony doesn’t think that Peter is ready to be an Avenger yet, but our boy can’t wait to prove himself. He constantly calls Tony’s driver/bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau in his fourth film in the part), hoping that he can get in on some world-saving action but to no avail.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is building weaponary, including a mechanized flight suit that turns him into The Vulture (a character that dates back to 1963), out of the ruins of the alien tech from the attack on New York in the first AVENGERS movie.

Peter/Spidey comes across Toomes’ men robbing an ATM (all wearing Avengers masks) and in a gripping fight scene he is able to take them out, that is, until they start battling him with their alien laser gear. Despite this occurrence, Peter still can’t get Happy to return his calls so he sets off on his own to stop the Vulture’s evil doings.

Now that’s the superhero stuff, but there’s another movie here – a teen coming-of-age high school rom com in which Peter falls for one of his classmates, M.J. (Zendaya), and pals around with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who finds out his secret identity early on.

These genres smoothly intertwine with a lot of thrills and laughs throughout, and a some stellar action sequences including a Washington Monument set-piece that’s up there with the best scenes from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies from well over a decade ago. This is indeed the best movie featuring the iconic comic book legend since 2004’s SPIDER-MAN 2, and maybe the funniest MCU movie since ANT-MAN.

Holland makes a likably angsty mark as Peter/Spidey, carrying the movie through both its high octane spectacle and its adolescent hi jinks with relatable charm. Keaton chews through scenery with a fever that will make you forget BATMAN and BIRDMAN (well, actually it’s hard not to think of BIRDMAN as the costume looks like a metal version of his attire in that excellent Oscar-winner).

As much as he brings star power and his patented charm to the project, I’m not sure it was really necessary to have Downey Jr.’s IRON MAN around for this film, but as there’s no Uncle Ben, it seems the kid does need a mentor/father figure around and Tony fulfills that role fine. I was hoping for more of Tony flirting with Peter’s Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), who seems to have been cast to make the character a MILF.

It's also kind of funny to see Donald Glover in a small part as a criminal involved with Toomes as he was once rumored to take on the role of Spidey himself at one point.

Director Watts, whose third film this is after CLOWN and the Kevin Bacon thriller COP CAR keeps the pacing from dragging, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with a veritable committee made up of Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!), Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING won’t win over folks who hate superhero movies (or can't stand tons of CGI, no matter how flawless it is), but fans of the genre will eat it up. It’s a fun, and very funny piece of pure escapism that lovingly re-ignites the exciting spark that was missing from the last few entries, which, I’m sorry, I meant not to mention again.

Now that Sony, Marvel Studios and Disney are in bed together for this new run of Holland-starring SPIDER-MAN movies (including sequels and appearances in the AVENGERS series), it’s great to see that they’ve successfully brought it all back home.

As usual - stay for the after credits stinger (one of the funniest so far), and look out for the Stan Lee cameo - as for the other MCU callbacks, you are on your own.

More later...

Monday, July 03, 2017

BABY DRIVER: The Best Movie Of The Summer Is Here

Now playing at a multiplex near you, the much buzzed about movie that’s #2 at the box office (sadly following DESPICABLE ME 3):

(Dir. Edgar Wright, 2017)

Edgar Wright’s first film since 2013’s hilarious conclusion to the Cornetto trilogy, THE WORLD’S END, is the summer’s best film so far. It’s a wild ride concerning young newcomer Ansel Elgort as Baby, a getaway driver for a series of heists planned by Kevin Spacey as a slick, sinister crime kingpin named Doc. And the icing on the cake is that the nonstop action is fueled by a hip, hot nonstop soundtrack.

We meet Elgort’s Baby, who’s constantly plugged into one of his many iPods (“I’ve got iPods for different days, and moods” he explains), in the middle of a bank robbery with fellow felons played by Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González, synched to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. A chaotic car chase through downtown Atlanta follows in which Baby’s extremely fast-minded expert evading of the police makes Ryan Gosling in DRIVE look like an f-in’ amateur.

Baby continuously listens to music to drown out his tinnitus which was the result of a car accident that killed his parents when he was a kid. He lives in a shabby apartment with his foster father (CJ Jones), and makes mixes of sound bites he records daily adding beats and turn table effects.

Spacey’s Doc tells Baby that after one more job his debt will be paid off so he join a different crew made up of Jamie Foxx, Flea, and Lanny Goon for the robbery of an armored car.

The job doesn’t go as smoothly as before (meaning that there are casualties), but Baby is out of the game and goes legit taking a job as pizza delivery man. On a date with a cute waitress named Debora (cue: Beck’s “Debra”) he met earlier in the movie, he runs into Doc, who, of course, wants him to do one last job.

Wright’s film, which he’s had on the back burner since 1994, is full of kinetic energy with quick cuts, jolting thrills, and stunning visuals flashing by in intoxicating sequence after sequence. It recalls the exciting spark of Tarantino’s best work while being very much its own thing. It’s a shame that Wright’s ANT-MAN didn’t come to fruition (he was replaced by Peyton Reed as director due to artistic differences) but if that helped make this happen he still came out on top.

Elgort, best known for the DIVERGENT series and THE FAULT BEHIND THE STARS (though not by me as I haven't seen any of those movies), puts in an incredibly focused star-making turn in the title role. There were times that I wished he were cast as the young Han Solo in the upcoming STAR WARS spin-off. Especially since I hear that an acting coach had to be called in for Alden Ehrenreich.

My only complaint is that much of the cast gets lost in the mix. Although Bernthal makes a gruff, threatening mark in an early scene, he disappears for the rest of the movie (granted he does say “If you don’t see me again, it’s because Im dead but I wanted at least a call back). Hamm and González are very appealing in their sideline roles but don't really get much of a chance to make their characters very memorable.

However, Foxx does, ferociously sinking his teeth into his part as Leon Bats Jefferson III, who is deliciously trigger happy and quick to question Babys meticulous methods. Spacey does good work in his meaty roll as Doc, but its a part he could play in his sleep.

BABY DRIVER is so much fun that I’m really looking forward to seeing it again. Much of its well shot shoot-outs and crazy car stunt action goes by in such an ultra stylish blur (even including a song by the British band Blur) that I’m sure there’s a lot I missed.

And its rewatchability is also heightened by its amazing soundtrack, which will surely become a classic. Unlike, say, the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY series’ musical platters, it’s dominated by largely obscure artists like the Damned, Googie René, Danger Mouse, Big Boi, Carla Thomas, Run The Jewels, and Bob & Earl. Even the songs by the better known artists like Commodores, T. Rex, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys are deep cuts that are unfamiliar on film.

So take a break from all the summer superhero sequels and jump aboard the BABY DRIVER bandwagon. I seriously doubt that something better will come along this season.

More later...