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Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

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The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie intends to expand the world of a movie that was designed to sell toys and was far better than anyone ever imagined. It’s frenetic, silly, and paced at spoof level speed with genial gags flying fast every ten seconds or so. It’s also flat, and while intermittently amusing I only chuckled, at best, a handful of times. Will Arnett’s self-involved Batman was a fun side character in the original Lego Movie but there’s not exactly enough there for his own starring vehicle (Jack Sparrow Syndrome). He’s saddled with a weak plot about letting others get closer and not having to be a loner. Besides a brief comedy bit about a cataclysm, the movie could have just been a broad Batman movie. It doesn’t really utilize the landscape of a Lego universe in any way. While many of the jokes didn’t work for me, I knew another one was mere seconds later, so I shrugged off the misfires. The final act of the movie involves a separate league of villains, all conveniently connected to other Warner Brothers properties. Lego Batman wore me down after the opening sequence where Batman battles his entire rogues gallery. It was high-energy but its aim was just too low for my tastes, and the results made me appreciate even more the cleverness and plain comedic accomplishments of the original Lego movie. There aren’t any memorable moments or jokes and there’s far too much Batman rapping. It’s colorful, it’s wacky, it’s filled with fine vocal actors with very little to do other than Arnett and an amusingly awed Michael Cera as The Boy Wonder himself, adopted sidekick Robin. It’s an acceptable albeit numbing experience that I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t know if this is the start of Lego spin-off movies but if it is I hope others do better with their own building blocks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Sausage Party (2016)

sausage_party_ver2Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.

Nate’s Grade: B

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

What happens when the millennial generation gets its own (attempted) seminal movie? It stays home and plays video games, letting the film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, languish at the box-office. I guess that’s what happens when you finance a movie whose target demographic will just as readily download the movie for free off the Internet.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old Toronto slacker. He?s the bass player for the band Sex Bob-Omb, along with lead singer Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and acerbic drummer Kim (Alison Pill), a former ex-girlfriend of Scott’s from high school. The band’s biggest fan is 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who also happens to be Scott?s new girlfriend. The world of Scott Pilgrim is abuzz with this scandal, especially Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and Scott?s younger sister (Anna Kendrick). Scott insists it’s all on the level and he has no ulterior motives for dating a high schooler. Then he sees the mysterious and alluring Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who?s new to the area and American. Scott rabidly pursues her in what could best be described as stalking, eventually getting her to agree to date him. Trouble is, he hasn’t broken up with Knives just yet before starting this new venture. Scott is then confronted at the Battle of the Bands concert by a man who comes bursting out from the ceiling. He is the first of Ramona’s seven evil exes and Scott must defeat them all in order to earn the right to the violet-haired beauty. “Everybody has baggage,” Ramona says. “Yeah, but my baggage doesn’t try and kill me,” Scott wearily replies.

Visually, this movie showcases director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) using every crayon in the Crayola box. This is a visually resplendent film where every scene seems crammed with details to delight the eyes and light up the senses. It’s a rush to watch the kaleidoscope of colors and motions. The Scott Pilgrim universe clearly differs from our own. This is a realm that borrows heavily from old school video games, where people burst into coins when vanquished, where life-decisions are met with “leveling up,” where people have onscreen pee bars that will deplete after a trip to a urinal. Sound effects will routinely be verbalized on screen, everything from a “RIIIIIIIIIIING” of a telephone to the “Ding Dong” of a door. It’s amusing, though also easily overused. Jobs and stuff like that are for the real world, hence too square to be depicted. It’s this entire idiosyncratic comic book world treated like everyday reality.

The enormous display of style is impossible to ignore. Scott Pilgrim is a slick, flashy piece of entertainment that is riddled with nostalgic references for a select crowd. I appreciated how a nice walk was accompanied by the theme song from The Legend of Zelda, or that sound effects and onscreen graphics echoed the fights from Street Fighter II (don’t ask me which of the 800 versions). Scott Pilgrim is an excellent pop pastiche of a specific culture, namely a slacker, hipster, amiable, comics and gamer group. I myself was an avid Nintendo gamer back in my day, but I admit to waning interest when the games got too complicated and grisly (“Back in my day we had two buttons to push, one to jump and the other to shoot, and that’s how we liked it!”). The movie is an explosion of color, light, and (lo-fi garage rock) sound, which also might sound like the description of a seizure or a stroke to some. Like those ailments, Scott Pilgrim will be seen by some as an infliction. It’s hyperactivity and eagerness to please via nostalgic reference points will be what drives people to this film and what drives them away in equal measure.

The Scott Pilgrim graphic novels total six volumes and approximately 1200 pages, which means it?s not the easiest fit for a two-hour window. It also hurts that the Pilgrim books have a wide supporting cast of characters to tussle with, plus there?s the whole seven deadly exes thing which means the movie has to provide about a solid 20 minutes of set-up before finding enough time for seven antagonists (or boss battles, following gamer parlance) and a reasonable amount of resolution. Add on top of this the fact that Wright keeps the movie moving at an outrageous, ADD-addled pace, like the plot conveyor belt lever got broken and the scenes speed one after another. Everything about this movie feels fast and over caffeinated. The editing in particular has characters holding conversations where every line is in a new location, implying an added sense of movement. So you shouldn’t be too surprised when the Scott Pilgrim film feels like a whole lot of a little; it’s moving at the speed of light to entertain.

Because of the plot mechanics and oversized cast of characters, Pilgrim can give off the impression of shallowness. It seems like all style and little substance and that’s because the movie attempts to cram an entire series of stories, back-stories, and conflict into two hours. The film version only has enough time to attempt to give Scott and Ramona characterization, though both come across as weak-willed, tentative, and less than charismatic, wondering if either party is worth the trouble. The movie tries to paint over these differences through distraction and force of will. The large cast of supporting players all elbows each other just to be mouthpieces for one-liners. Knives actually comes across as the most complete character, consumed by her infatuation, heartbreak, and then quest for misguided vengeance. She’s somewhat dismissed and yet she is the most developed person on screen thanks to Wong’s endearing and relatable performance. The entire experience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can be somewhat fatiguing when there’s little evidence presented for emotional investment. The books supplied the reasons for caring besides the whole underdog angle.

The movie aims to be a battle over love, but it’s not entirely convincing. Scott appreciates Knives because she’s simple, a relationship he doesn’t have to invest much within, something casual and enjoyable while it lasts or until it becomes too taxing. Then he goes ga-ga for Ramona and stalks her, wearing down her defenses. He’s purely smitten with her and willing to do whatever it takes to earn her affections, though he can?t explain why he feels this way. Here’s a note to screenwriters: when characters are asked why they love somebody, do not have them say, “I don’t know.” But for Ramona, Scott is her Knives. He’s something easy that won?t break her heart, an escape from the jerks she’s been dating before. He?s low maintenance. He’s something to pass the time. There’s an interesting dynamic here, made even more complicated by the fact that Scott’s time with Knives blended with his time with Ramona. There was not a clear end point. The movie takes a literal approach to the idea of love being a destructive force of nature. Scott is punished throughout because of his infatuation with Ramona, but he persists despite the bruises. And he doesn’t even really know much about her. There’s an interesting statement somewhere there about the punishment we endure, sometimes foolishly, over the affections of people we may love, or convince ourselves of, but not even like.

It may sound peculiar but I’m paying Michael Cera a compliment by saying his performance in Scott Pilgrim is the least Michael Cera the actor has ever been on screen. Gone is his gawky, awkward, ironic shtick that has fast become the Cera persona in films like Superbad and Year One. Scott is unjustifiably confident in his life’s pursuits, and Cera gets to act cocky and quippy, even if it?s done with a wink. He?s an unlikely kung-fu star but then again he?s also an unlikely leading man. Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard) is cute but plays her part a bit too toned down, like Ramona’s still searching for the right medication combination. Culkin and Pill are both scene-stealers of the first order, doing so with unabashed and flippant sarcasm. Every scene is made better by their presence. Among the evil exes, Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) has plenty of fun as a dim-witted super-powered Vegan bassist (“Vegans are just better than other people”), and Jason Schwartzman epitomizes hipster snark with such relish. The film is exceedingly well cast from top to bottom.

I’ve read some reviews positing that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an elaborate fantasy taking place in the mind of its titular hero, that he blends his knowledge of comics and video games to help make sense of the troubled waters of relationships and lingering hurt from the demise of love. I think that’s a nice explanation but perhaps trying too hard to frame this film as some form of psychoanalytical commentary on modern youth’s interpersonal relationships and the value of love. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is really just a spastic, hip, clever wank that, as presented, gives little room or emotional investment. It?s a blurry, messy, prankish good time at the cinema that doesn’t translate into much more than the equivalent of sensory button mashing (video game reference). It’s fun while it lasts but it doesn’t have much beyond those astounding visuals to make it feel lasting, and I say this as a genuine fan of the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Alas, heavier discussions about the thorny, maddening issues of love are better left to more dramatic, and romantic, movies like Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even WALL-E. This movie is more preoccupied with spinning as fast as it can and then vomiting.

Nate’s Grade: B

Year One (2009)

This is a slapdash comedy that?s too toothless to be satire and too dumb to be witty. Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of banished cavemen who stroll through various episodes from the Old Testament, like Cain and Abel and a circumcision-crazed Abraham, before settling in for a wild time at Sodom. This uninspired riff on the Bible rarely lands any laughs. The comedic aim of the film is extremely low; the scatological humor consists of farting peasants, bestiality, eating poop, urinating on your face, genital mutilation, and lots and lots of pedophilic jokes thanks to a grotesque, lispy Oliver Platt. Year One (of what exactly?) is a big step back for co-writer/director Harold Ramis and a general waste of everyone’s time and talent. Black and Cera do have an interesting and playful ying-yang chemistry but they have so little to do given the rambling, episodic nature of the plot. The characters make anachronistic pop culture references or talk in self-aware circles, the celebrity cameos do little, and the jokes lack any lasting momentum. Somewhere Ramis wants to make statements about religion and faith but the flick is too timid to do anything, so the movie limps to a finish with its lame “be your own chosen one” message. This is a prehistoric comedy with rocks in its head.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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