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On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Given the high-profile treatment of a popular documentary and an awards-bait caliber feature, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people either thought justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was due for recognition or was about to die. On the Basis of Sex takes more than a few nods from 2012’s Lincoln, showcasing its subject trying to pass key reforms/legislation as a means of better insight into his or her lasting legacy. To that end the film is a success. It’s an intelligent legal procedural taking time to find judicial footholds, craft compelling arguments, and the back-and-forth challenges of overturning hundreds of years of precedent that viewed women as essentially lesser. If you enjoy rhetorical debates on legal minutia, this might be the movie for you. However, if you wanted to get a better understanding of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) the person, then you’re out of luck. She’s more or less the vessel for social justice and the film keeps her more as a lionized symbol for change than as a person. Her frustrations, such as being denied the same opportunities as men, are meant to serve as a reminder of the frustrations of the many. There are a handful of scenes with dismissive, doddering middle-aged men that feel too stagy, and yet I’m sure that these same curt comments and patronizing behaviors were a daily affair (and still are). Jones doesn’t feel like she has a full grasp on the character beyond as symbol (her Brooklyn accent is a bit slippery as well). You also get to process the reality of Ginsburg as a sexual being as she initiates PG-13 sex with her supportive husband (Armie Hammer). It’s kind of like thinking about your parents having sex. On the Basis of Sex feels a bit, ironically enough, too old-fashioned. It’s got dramatic courtroom showdowns, including an eleventh hour speech, and all the old Oscar bait tropes we’d expect from this sort of movie. It plays to every expectation of its audience. Beyond learning about the legal arguments, there’s nothing new or insightful here. Stick with the RBG documentary and hear the same stories from the real deal herself.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Rogue One (2016)

rogueone_onesheetaIn the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.

Not actually in the finished film.

Not actually in the finished film.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.

Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.

star-wars-rogue-one-teaserRogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.

There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.

getIt all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.

With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.

maxresdefaultLet’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.

Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.

Nate’s Grade: B

A Monster Calls (2016)

amc_onesheetA young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from a terminal illness. Her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) escapes into the world of his art and imagination to cope. This includes envisioning a giant living tree voiced by Liam Neeson who visits Conor to tell him three stories, and in the end he demands one from Conor. It’s a Hollywood cancer weepie with stylistic fantasy elements, kind of a Lifetime TV approach to Pan’s Labyrinth, and I must say I was rather unmoved through every drop of treacle. Part of my problem was that Conor has this larger-than-life fantasy creature… who only tells him stories, which lead to extended animated sequences that are beautifully rendered in watercolor paints. What’s the point of having a giant monster if all it does is tell you stories? He might as well be anything and any size then. The plot also follows a very familiar path as Conor must confront his grief and anger as his mother, one of those regular movie characters who become heavenly and wise when stricken with cancer, declines in health. I felt removed too often and kept at the fringes. Rarely did I care about these characters and that’s because the movie didn’t give me a reason to. Yes she’s dying, and yes he’s sad and troubled, but so what? A Monster Calls needed to lay more foundation with these characters who come across very thin. The ultimate purpose of the monster is a rather pat revelation and the emotional climax felt undeserving of all the swelling strings on the musical score. There just isn’t anything in A Monster Calls that separates it from a pack of maudlin imitators. The actors all do pleasant work but they aren’t given more than the barest characters to work with, which forces an audience to feel things simply by grief association. Coming from director J.A. Bayona, a visonary who startled and amazed with The Orphanage and The Impossible, I’m even more confused and let down that a man this talented would choose this. Also, at no point does a CGI tree monster Liam Neeson utilize any specific plant-based set of skills.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Inferno (2016)

inferno_ver3_xxlgYou know it’s a bad sign when the best part of your movie is the scenery. Inferno is the third in the Robert Langden series where Tom Hanks stars as the world’s foremost symbologist that traverses old European museums and cathedrals to solve mysterious puzzles. The Da Vinci Code was pretty bad, its sequel Angels & Demons was a marked improvement, and now Inferno is a depressing step backwards. Langden has to stop a madman (Ben Foster) from releasing a super virus that will kill half the world’s population. The villain’s plan requires him to wait and he has no reason to do so. Waiting only needlessly delays his goal and makes it more likely for him to get caught or fail. His plan is stupidly convoluted, but I didn’t expect that the good guys’ plan was also stupidly convoluted, relying upon fake blood squibs and disguises and for what? There are three competing, stupidly convoluted storylines that smash together. I simply could not engage with what was happening and felt I had little reason to care. The mystery aspect is pretty tame and the thriller set pieces are unmemorable save for a climax that at least feels like the highpoint. There was one interesting aspect that never fully gets developed and that’s the idea that Langden can’t trust his senses. He’s a man who relies on his arcane intellect and to turn that against him, as well as possibly draw in hallucinatory visions, was a smart move. It’s only more disappointing when they fail to do anything with this possibility. The myriad plot holes were clearer to me than the hackneyed plot itself. Inferno has some very nice footage as Hanks and Felicity Jones scamper from one Florence site to another and that’s the best thing I can offer about this mess.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Theory of Everything (2014)

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hysteria (2012)

The birth of the vibrator doesn’t seem like a tale that demands telling until you realize that the most prolific sex toy of all time started during one of the most sexually repressive cultures, Victorian England. In 1880, the plague of the era was a malady known as “hysteria.” Half the women in London seemed to suffer from this condition where, as the doctors of the times believed, a woman’s uterus had become unaligned and needed to be properly readjusted; the readjustment produced a “paroxysm” of relief. To treat hysteria, these trained professionals would oil their hands, insert them inside a woman’s vaginal canal, and apply alternating pressure. They were getting these women off. Hysteria presents a charming document about the invention of the vibrator, a miracle of modern science. However, I wish the movie had taken a more mature approach to the material.

The alignment process was an arduous one, and Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) needs a new set of hands. Enter Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a crusading young doctor who butts heads with the medical establishment over things like washing hands and germs. Under Dr. Dalrymple’s tutelage, the practice is never busier, relieving upper class women of hysteria. It’s going so well that Dr. Dalrymple would like to eventually pass the practice on to his young protégé, as well as his proper young daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Then there’s the doctor’s other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who clashes with authority, is outspoken about women’s suffrage, is critical of the limited role women play in society, and devotes her time to a lower-class shelter to provide refuge and education to those in need. She represents a brand-new kind of woman in time, and Mortimer cannot get a handle on her. Mort is suffering some pretty serious hand cramps from his line of work when he gets a splendid idea from his childhood friend and amateur inventor, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett). It seems with a quick fix, the electric feather duster may have other more scandalous uses.

Hysteria is short of being hysterical but it’s certainly charming and provides an interesting history lesson with a light touch. The very nature of women’s hysteria is a fascinating moment in history where men were bending over backwards to find medical assessments for what is, in essence, horniness. The fact that these women’s doctors were getting carpal tunnel from all the manually stimulation of their clients has got to be one of the strangest workplace hazards. In certain regards, the invention of the vibrator has saved lives, or at least the hands of medial practitioners. It’s probably also made a whole lot of women a whole lot happier. Feminine sexuality was just an obtuse concept to the well-educated men in charge. One character says, with absolute certainty, that women cannot achieve sexual pleasure unless through insertion. As another fun historical note of male ignorance when it comes to female anatomy, when Deep Throat was being banned in the U.S., the federal judge who deemed it obscene cited, in his writing, that one of the many dangers of the provocative flesh film was that it mistakenly exposed women to the idea of an orgasm without insertion. This is almost 100 years later and yet men in high places of power are still carrying on complete ignorance of something they very literally know very little about. In that regard, Hysteria is jolly fun as we watch women get their jollies. There’s always something fun about watching uptight characters cut loose, especially when they find pleasure that has been denied them.

Having a talented cast is also a benefit when you’re working in comedy. Dancy (Adam) plays our straight man with fine properness. He has a few moments where he gets to delightfully squirm thanks to bold women and bold topics. He’s got some solid chemistry with Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart), who is the feisty spitfire we expect in this sort of movie. Gyllenhaal is charming without being obnoxious, and her English accent is impeccable. Pryce (G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) and Jones (Like Crazy) are funny in their understated, stuffy British formal way, while Everett (Stardust) provides a great comedic jolt as the self-possessed, blithe technophile, ready at a moment’s notice for a good wisecrack. Sheridan Smith (How to Stop Being a Loser) also deserves special mention as a maid who was formerly employed as a prostitute. Her randiness is a nice counterpoint to all that Victorian repression and she pushes the movie further into sex farce.

While amusing, I wish the filmmakers would have taken a, dare I say it, more mature approach to a very interesting subject of history. The structure and very aim of the movie is that of a typical romantic comedy, which is a shame given the atypical subject matter. It’s pretty much a romantic comedy transplanted to merry old England. Much of the humor of the movie is divided into two camps: 1) watching the uptight Victorian-era Brits cut loose with decorum, or, 2) self-aware humor about the ignorance of the age. The first is always fun since we’re watching people sneak their true feelings through the wall of social repression. Director Tanya Wexler makes sue of a lot of sight gags and heartily enjoys cutaway reaction shots of ladies going orgasmic. It’s enjoyable but the fact that Wexler has to keep going back to the reaction shots for jokes, it loses its effect. Then there’s the self-aware humor built entirely upon dramatic irony, where the writers tweak the knowledge of a bygone era with all of our clever foresight: “Oh those stupid Victorians, not believing in things like germs and female orgasms.” After a while, the self-aware humor becomes tiresome. We get it; these silly Brits did not understand female health and proceeded to rule in their ignorance. I wish the movie left behind the easy jokes for some stronger social commentary. To this very day, we have men legislating women’s bodies and their reproductive rights (see: Oklahoma saying life begins weeks before conception, or Virginia demands medically-unnecessary vaginal probes for no other purpose than to shame women, and so so much more…). Ignorance knows no end, and one imagines the rom-com that makes fun of our current social mores and understanding.

It’s during the last act where Hysteria really starts to come apart at the seams. Beforehand, it’s been a fairly light comedy with some punctuations of commentary from Charlotte and her idealistic desire for equality. But then, and spoilers will follow, the movie suddenly transforms into a courtroom drama with Charlotte on trial. Her very mental health is on trial and if she’s found to be a hopeless case of incurable hysteria, then she’ll be shipped to a sanitarium and have her uterus forcibly removed. Wow. That is some heavy stuff for a movie that spent an hour making sex jokes. The courtroom setting leads to some pretty transparent speechifying; any subtlety goes out the window and we listen to messages about women’s suffrage, equality, and empathy. This conclusion feels like it was ripped from another movie. It’s tonally jarring. Then, after our lead takes his moral stand and confesses to his belief that there is no such thing as hysteria, that women are just stuck in sexually unfulfilling relationships in a sexually repressed age, everyone goes home to think about life. Then, thirty days later when Charlotte gets out of prison, she’s met by Mortimer where he, I kid you not, proposes to her on the spot. For a movie about breaking misconceptions about women, tying things up with a marriage proposal seems almost hypocritical. It also marks a pretty big leap in the burgeoning romantic relationship between Charlotte and Mort. It seems rushed and a strange way to end a movie about female empowerment. The rom-com elements have won out over any higher messages.

Hysteria starts strong but goes limp. Hysteria runs out of juice. Hysteria is a pleasant experience but doesn’t deliver a proper climax. Hysteria is not the feel-good movie of the year. The very nature of the movie lends itself to all sorts of innuenduous critical blurbs. It’s a rom-com transplanted to Victorian England and I wish that it tried a little harder with the material rather than settling for easy jokes relying upon the ignorance of the age. The cast is superb and the movie is certainly fun, but it falls apart in the end when the messages overtake the narrative. So what is the best Hysteria blurb? I’ve had better.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Like Crazy (2011)

The prevailing thought I kept having while watching the twee indie romance (?) Like Crazy was that this is like stupid. I spend fifteen minutes with the young happy couple, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), and then there’s already trouble. Rather than have to wait two and a half months to see one another again (a.k.a. eternity), Anna decides to overstay her visa because it’s not like that would be taken seriously in a post-9/11 world. Naturally, there are repercussions and Anna is banned from reentering the U.S., effectively putting a hitch in her romance. It’s such a short-sighted, impulsive, boneheaded decision, and it’s one that completely made me lose all sympathy for a couple that couldn’t bother to be apart for a mere two and a half months. Jacob and Anna try and hold it together but the constant starting and stopping, as well as the comforts of people closer, provide major roadblocks. I’m not a hardhearted person; I’m a sucker for a good romance. Many of my favorite movies of the past few years have strong romantic elements (Eternal Sunshine, Once, Moulin Rouge, WALL-E), but I felt next to nothing for this whiny, pitiful couple. First off, they’re only together for fifteen minutes before being ripped apart, which doesn’t exactly allow me enough time to emotionally engage. And then there’s the fact that these “crazy kids” have absolutely no passion between them, no spark, no nothing that would compel them to be together against all odds. You don’t feel anything approaching romance. And to top it off, Jacob has a perfectly lovely, charming, and available alternative played by the lovely and charming Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She even makes this doofus breakfast in bed. This movie felt like an entire montage of small moments that never accumulated into anything believable or compelling. I’ll take Lawrence and breakfast in bed and be grateful.

Nate’s Grade: C

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