Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Lobster It Up

Another movie I learned of from critics' "best of the year so far" lists was The Lobster, a darling of the independent circuit with a bizarre premise.

The dystopian world of the near-future gives single people 45 days to find a romantic partner. If they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choice. The story follows a man named David through this process as he checks into a "hotel" (a strange hybrid of clinic/senior home/singles retreat), resigned in advance to his certain failure and perhaps already looking forward to being turned into a lobster.

This movie feels like the result of someone trying to out-Kaufman Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind such bizarre (but usually entertaining) films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The "someone" in this case is a Greek filmmaker named Yorgos Lanthimos, whose other major touchstone here seems to be absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. There's certainly a clear vision here. It's just not one that held my interest for a full two hours.

The Lobster is an aggressively quirky film. Every performer acts with some degree of deliberate malaise. The narrative spends no time establishing anything; you just have to take on faith that the world works as these characters say it does, because it's rarely demonstrated on screen. And don't wait for a deeper meaning to reveal itself; the movie doesn't strike me as interested in allegory or subtext either.

Bringing convincing seriousness (and therefore, dry humor) to the movie is a cast of solid actors. Colin Farrell stars as David. The other characters (all without specific names) include Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and a number of interesting but lesser known British actors.

For a while, the concoction totally works. I laughed out loud several times during the first half hour as the parade of strange marched before me. For the next half hour, I remained engaged as I tried to anticipate where the story was going. But there was another hour beyond that where I just grew increasingly tired of the whole thing. I can't fault the movie for cheating me with false pretenses, as it makes no attempt to hide its nature. I won't claim the movie has no story, as it in fact becomes a rather conventional romance within its own oddball confines. But the movie remained strange above all else, and about halfway through, that simply stopped being enough for me.

I can see why some critics ranked this as a top film of the year. It's not a film snob thing, it's a "form over function" thing. And if that style of filmmaking is in your wheelhouse, then I'd wager you'll love The Lobster. But for me, it was only a C-.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In a Rush

The 2013 movie Rush was never high on my list, probably because auto racing isn't exactly my thing. (Beyond a background level of awareness that's inevitable when you're from Indianapolis, thanks to the Indy 500.) The movie did make it on my list, however, because of its director Ron Howard. High speed thrills just seemed like such a strange choice for him. Though he's by no means an exclusively art house type of filmmaker, the blockbusters he makes tend to be somewhat cerebral in nature. (See The Da Vinci Code. Well, not literally; it was average at best.) I was always a bit curious to see what was going on here that attracted his interest.

Rush centers around the rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. A rivalry builds between them throughout the 1970s, coming to a head during the 1976 season in which the championship seemed certain to go to one or the other.

I struggled with the pacing of this movie. It opens as a pivotal race in the middle of the 1976 season is about to begin, but then immediately flashes back to 1970 and recounts the intervening years over the first half of the film. I understand why the audience needs to see all this; caring about who wins the championship depends on caring about these two men. We need to understand who they are and how their rivalry developed. That granted, I think the movie could have done all that far more efficiently. Just 15 minutes in, everything we need is crystal clear: Lauda is a self-made star with confidence that projects as arrogance, while Hunt is an incorrigible thrill-chaser who bristles at rules. Watching the movie paint in all the side characters orbiting these men started to get tedious.

Of course, the movie knows exactly what it's doing in starting with that 1976 race -- that feels in many ways like the moment the story actually begins. Once the movie catches back up to its opening, the final hour is quite compelling. There's tension and emotion in turns, moments to bring you to the edge of your seat and moments that make you look away and cringe. It's all anchored by two great performances: Daniel Bruhl as Lauda, and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt. Both are quite unlikable at times, each in different shades of a similar sense of entitlement. Yet both are also sympathetic at times. You can root for either of them, and indeed do at different points in the story.

It's possible that another reason the first half of the film lags is that much of it is manufactured. It didn't feel "false" to me as such, but it did feel awfully familiar in a Hollywood sort of way, to a point where I didn't need to see so much of it. It turns out that much of this part of the story is false. The rivalry between Lauda and Hunt was purely professional, not personal as this movie portrays for dramatic emphasis. In fact, the two were roommates early in their careers and remained friends afterward. I'm okay with the needs of drama taking priority over faithfully telling a true story, but I'm not sure this movie struck the right balance in basically being half fact and half fiction.

Still, once Rush does get to the meat of the tale, I was totally with it. I'd give it a B- overall. It's by no means a "must see," but at least was considerably more entertaining to me than an actual auto race.

Monday, August 29, 2016

You May Think You Want Some, But Believe Me: You Don't

Writer-director Richard Linklater built up an enormous supply of goodwill from me with the outstanding Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight). I loved those movies enough to take the bad (Fast Food Nation) along with the good (Boyhood), and pretty much give anything Linklater makes a shot. But my goodwill was exhausted when I sat down to watch his newest movie, Everybody Wants Some!! (With two exclamation points, which I'm going to drop for the rest of this review.)

This movie has been billed as something of a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, and was dubbed by Linklater himself as a sort-of sequel to Boyhood (as it begins where that film ends -- with a young man arriving at college). This movie follows freshman Jake as he tries to settle in at college before the first day of class, socializing with the teammates on his new baseball team. And of course, as the title suggests, chasing sex.

I couldn't even finish watching this aimless two hours. Nothing coalesced that resembled a plot. No stakes or complications appeared. And while some have made a similar criticism of Boyhood (that the film is less a narrative than a series of events), that movie at least had a major advantage over this one. I'm not even talking about the inventive way in which Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years, I'm talking about something far more fundamental to a movie: compelling characters. Everybody Wants Some is stacked top to bottom with shallow, unlikable jocks. Every character is the same character -- a showboating, carefree cad who neither exhibits nor elicits sympathy.

It's hard to even get behind this movie as an extension of any kind to Dazed and Confused. This is not a movie that does for the 80s what that film did for the 70s. Everybody Wants Some is set in 1980, so the world we're shown hasn't really moved on from Dazed and Confused. Synth-pop has not yet dethroned disco. Neon has not yet replaced bell-bottoms. If you're looking for another dose of the nostalgic rush you got watching Stranger Things, don't bother. Indeed, this movie isn't different from Dazed and Confused, it's like Dazed and Confused on steroids -- every single character is Matthew McConaughey.

I looked online for a plot summary, just to see if I'd missed something here by bailing before the halfway point. But every synopsis was as meandering as the part of the movie I saw, reading like a four-year-old telling a story: "This happened... and then this happened... and then this happened..." (Um... cute, but are you going anywhere with this?) My brief research only confirmed my takeaway: Everybody Wants Some is weaponized crap.

As one of only 5 to 10 movies I failed to finish in my entire life, I can only give it an F. Avoid at all costs.

Friday, August 26, 2016

TNG Flashback: First Contact

With Star Trek: Generations having passed the movie torch from the classic cast, First Contact was the Next Generation cast's chance to stand alone... and shine.

When the new Enterprise-E thwarts a Borg attack on Earth, the cybernetic villains go to "Plan B," traveling back in time to assimilate humanity by stopping their first contact with alien life. Our heroes follow the Borg to the past, and soon face troubles on many fronts. Warp engine pioneer Zefram Cochrane is riddled with doubts about his destiny. The Borg are gradually taking over the Enterprise. And Data has been abducted by the Borg Queen for experimentation... and temptation. Can Captain Picard and his crew save the day and tomorrow?

I've never met a Star Trek fan who doesn't think First Contact is the best of the Next Generation movies. I think the reason for that is that there are so many measures by which one can view it as superior to the other installments. It has the biggest stakes, with all of Earth and the very future that is Star Trek itself hanging in the balance. It effectively combines adventure, science fiction, and even horror. The story has deep ties to the series, but the emotions it stirs don't depend on having seen the series.

That story came from the same writing team as Generations, Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore scripting a plot developed with producer Rick Berman. Berman felt that the best episodes of Star Trek (plus the fourth film, The Voyage Home) had all dealt with time travel, while Braga and Moore wanted to do something big with the Borg -- bigger than the show could ever have done. They decided to do both.

The script itself came less easily than that core "time traveling Borg" idea. The notion to travel to the Italian Renaissance and meet Leonardo da Vinci was dropped in the idea stages. There was a draft that had Picard replacing Zefram Cochrane in his historical flight, which Patrick Stewart felt kept the captain away from his greatest potential drama: facing the Borg again. The Borg Queen was introduced in a rewrite, after a studio executive argued that the film needed a specific adversary amid the Borg "zombies."

The finished script arguably has a few shortcomings, but they're mostly defensible in the name of focusing on what matters. The initial Borg cube is destroyed rather easily (front-loading the movie in a rather Empire Strikes Back kind of way)... but the movie isn't about that attack, of course, it's about the time travel. The Borg time travel with such ease that you wonder why this wasn't "Plan A" all along... but then, it's not like anyone would actually want a bunch of technobabble here (plus, the beloved Star Trek IV is equally flippant about time travel). The Borg have never historically been "zombies" like this, "biting" and "turning" their victims... and yet this horrific take on them is far more scary and visceral than their past portrayals.

In swatting away all those less important details, those inconsistencies, Braga and Moore are able to achieve many poignant moments. It's compelling for the crew to learn that their hero Zefram Cochrane isn't the man the future thinks him to be, and moving when Cochrane rises to the occasion and starts to become that mythic figure. Lily is a wonderul proxy for the audience, delivering great humor ("it's my first ray gun") and the movie's most powerful scene (the "blow up the damn ship!" confrontation with Picard). Worf and Picard get into a chilling argument. The moment of first contact with the Vulcans is as potent as any Star Trek fan would have imagined. A romantic subplot with Lily is wisely avoided (both with Picard and with Cochrane), in favor of a deep friendship instead.

The movie is also fun in a way Generations certainly wasn't (nor do I recall the subsequent films being). The Borg Queen's seduction of Data is creepy but also entertaining. There are fun cameos from Robert Picardo (as an Emergency Medical Hologram), Ethan Phillips (not as Neelix), and fan favorite Dwight Schultz (as Barclay). There's a crazy holodeck sequence -- not because it's necessary, but because it lets Picard loose with a machine gun. There are moments that cleverly puncture Star Trek's high-minded sensibilities ("Don't you people from the 24th century ever pee?"). Marina Sirtis gets to cut loose and show us a drunk Troi, in a moment that Jonathan Frakes seems to truly enjoy not as Riker but as a happy director.

And speaking of Frakes' skills as director, he succeeds not just in getting great performances from the cast, but in crafting the most visually dynamic of the Next Generation films. There are so many memorable shots here: the opening oner that pulls back from Picard's eye to reveal a vast Borg environment (and then returns to that eye in skin-crawling fashion), the moment the Borg Queen takes physical form for the first time, the reveal of the Vulcans, and more. Dutch angles and strange lenses are used to augment the tension of the Borg invasion.

Frakes also trusts other departments to deliver the goods. Jerry Goldsmith composed a moving, wonderful score (with some great new material, even if several melodies are lifted from Star Treks I and V). In costuming and makeup, the new look of the Borg is a quantum leap beyond what the TV show gave us. The movie goes on location to great effect -- to the mountains, and to an actual missile silo. We get new militaristic uniforms, new lighting, a new ship, and it all looks great.

There are really just a couple ways in which I'd try to shore up the movie. Foremost, I think it's a much better story for the characters on the ship than the ones on the planet. The Earthside story is much more about Cochrane than Riker, Troi, or LaForge, and I'd try to find a few more moments for them. Second, I'd retroactively not destroy the Enterprise-D in Generations. It's simply not as powerful to threaten a ship we hardly know (and scarcely get to see in an un-Borgified state). It would have been far more potent to see the ship we loved for seven seasons in jeopardy, being assimilated deck by deck.

Other observations:
  • In the opening minutes of the film, the enlarged bridge and shrunken observation lounge of the Enterprise-E (relative to the D) tells you all you need to know about what's important to this movie. Less talk, more action.
  • Four new CG starships were designed for the big opening battle against the Borg cube. Three would go on to appear later in Star Trek, but a computer glitch destroyed the model of the Noway-class vessel, and so it was never seen again.
  • Data being able to turn off his emotion chip undermines the big forward step of him having emotions. Plus, the Borg Queen then reactivates the chip anyway, meaning it was all just for a cheap gag.
  • Speaking of the Borg Queen, it's notable that this is the only Star Trek film where the main villain is female. Remarkable, and a bit disappointing, I'd say.
  • It's kind of hilarious that LeVar Burton finally got his wish to lose the VISOR, and then Geordi wears sunglasses in his biggest scene.
  • Reportedly, Tom Hanks was approached to play Zefram Cochrane -- and being a Trekker, he was actually up for it. But Hanks opted instead to make his feature directorial debut on That Thing You Do! Hanks or no, James Cromwell was a fine Cochrane. He'd been on Star Trek twice before, and also brought award credibility with his Oscar nomination for Babe. (And he wasn't the only Oscar nominee "guest star." Alfre Woodard was also a nominee, for Cross Creek.)
  • During production of the movie, a persistent rumor (fanned by LGBT media) claimed that the ship's new helmsman, Hawk, was going to be gay. Obviously, there's no indication of this in the finished film, and the producers have denied ever having that intention... leaving the gay character issue for another day
  • Two audio commentaries were release on the 2-disc DVD version of the film. Of those, Jonathan Frakes' track is a bit of a waste, as he just gets caught up watching the movie and joking about his directorial choices without offering much insight.
  • ...but writers Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore are again thoughtful as they were on Generations. They defend their "the audience doesn't care about the details" choices, talk about the flaws they see in the deflector dish sequence (even though fans seemed to like it), acknowledge how much Jerry Goldsmith's music helps the movie, and make note of this being the first PG-13 Star Trek movie. Of particular interest is a discussion they have near the end of the film, about the blessing/curse nature of Star Trek's elaborate continuity. They talk about how reviving Star Trek might well require some grand move to wipe the slate clean -- which is exactly what the reboot movies did.
  • Speaking of the reboots: their controversial (among some fans) use of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." It's worth noting that this movie got "there" first with Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (a great choice) and Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby" (a more questionable, goofy choice).
Star Trek: First Contact looks positively like a low-budget indie film compared to the modern Trek reboots, but The Next Generation really never looked better than this. Indeed, on the big screen at least, it never was better. I give the movie an A-.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Next Level Criticism

I've written previously about Filmspotting, an engaging podcast that examines films past and present. Filmspotting has been around long enough to generate its own spinoffs, and I've branched out into one of them, The Next Picture Show.

As stated at the start of each episode, the premise of The Next Picture Show is that no film exists in a vacuum. Comparisons to earlier movies are not only inevitable, but something to be encouraged. Releasing episodes in pairs, the podcast looks at a "classic" movie, then relates it to a current release.

The Next Picture Show differs from more conventional movie criticism in several ways. First, this is not about recommending or rating movies. This podcast is interested in the comparison between old and new, and sometimes one of those movies doesn't compare favorably. Second, it's a deep dive. Each hour-long episode is focused on just a single movie (or, in the case of the second episode of a pair, a new movie and its connections with the previously discussed movie). Third, it's a probing conversation. The podcast features not one or two critics but four, and their format is to each bring a broad discussion topic to the table for everyone to explore together.

Every episode I've listened to has been really provocative, getting me thinking in detail about a movie. Some of the pairings have been obvious, like the episodes examining the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens. Other pairings have had a sort of "film historian" quality, as when the first Toy Story was compared to the then-newest Pixar effort, The Good Dinosaur. Perhaps most intriguing of all are the episodes that delve into thematic connections between movies, as when Psycho was considered with 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The catch is, I can't listen to every episode. I doubt anyone could. This level of analysis can't take place if one is worried about "spoilers." And comparison between two movies is largely meaningless if you've only seen one of them. So really, you can only listen to the episodes that pair two movies you've seen. Which, even for a movie enthusiast like me, turns out to be not all that many episodes. (Though the existence of the podcast is making me think about chasing down particular movies for the sake of the comparison.)

The Next Picture Show podcast is an absolute A when you've seen both movies and can actually listen to it. But given how much of the podcast's back catalog is going to be "inaccessible" to the average listener, I think I'd have to call it a B+ overall. But it's well worth checking out if you're a film buff.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Last Year's Vacation

On a night when I was looking for some truly lightweight and undemanding entertainment, I watched Vacation, the recent reboot/sequel to the classic National Lampoon's Vacation. My expectations were low, and I was quite worn down and exhausted from a long week. Perhaps one or both of those factors played into my somewhat surprising reaction -- the movie was alright for a few laughs.

In a conscious repackaging of the original Vacation's premise, members of the Griswold family hop in the car for a cross-country road trip to Walley World amusement park. They have plenty of misadventures, gross-out gags, and hijinks along the way. The format here isn't an avalanche of jokes, but more a procession of sketches. They visit Debbie's college. They stop off at a "hot spring." They visit relatives. The movie sticks with each mini-premise for a while before moving on.

That the movie is effective at all probably has a lot more to do with the cast than the script -- it feels like several gags here wouldn't be funny on paper, but they work thanks to the game performances. Ed Helms uses his trademark earnestness from The Office to full effect as the fifth(?) actor to play Rusty Griswold in a Vacation movie. Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins have several great moments as Rusty's two sons, particularly when playing around with the funny notion of the younger sibling being the bully. And the strongest of the whole cast is Christina Applegate, who goes for broke with lots of physical comedy as Rusty's wife Debbie.

The episodic nature of the movie gives several other performers chances to pop up in extended cameos. The script gives some a lot to work with, as with Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Day, and Keegan-Michael Key. It underuses others, like Leslie Mann and Ron Livingston. And yes, there are appearances by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo too. It's a bit uneven overall; the movie is definitely stronger when focusing on the family and not the wacky side characters. Still, a good moment usually comes along before you get too restless.

I'd grade Vacation a B-. There are better comedies out there, but this one still delivers enough laughs to be generally worthwhile.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Party Time

Animation for adults is hardly an uncommon thing, but it's still apparently rare enough in America (even with South Park and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim around) that each new example gets a lot of attention. So people were shocked all over again a week ago when the movie Sausage Party arrived in theaters.

In a grocery store where all the food hopes to be purchased by one of the Gods and taken to The Great Beyond outside the store doors, a hot dog named Frank is hoping to be paired with a bun named Brenda. But when calamity forces them out of their packages and separates them from their friends, their adventures across the store reveal a terrible truth. "The Great Beyond" is a fiction, concocted to mask the horrific slaughter that awaits at the hands -- and mouths -- of the Gods.

I mentioned South Park deliberately in the intro, as this movie embraces the same spirit of delirious profanity as Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In particular, Sausage Party has a lot in common with Team America: World Police (in just how far it's willing to go) and The Book of Mormon (for it's barely coded message).

When the movie is in "funny" mode, it's hard-to-catch-your-breath funny. The Disney-style opening number (with music by Alan Menken, no less!) sets the stage for an opening act of hilarious jokes that run the gamut from gross-out humor, playing with stereotypes, parody, and everything in between. And the final 15 minutes are even better, and often even more shocking than funny.

In the "message" mode, Sausage Party actually has something to say -- and it goes about it more cleverly than most people would expect a "stoner film" to manage. The middle act is a not-at-all-subtle dig at organized religion, with a nice joke or two at the expense of overly smug atheists too.

The flaw of Sausage Party is that these two modes of the movie rarely work together at the same time. Half the movie (the bookends) is laugh out loud hysterical. The other half is just plain smart, and seems all the more so for coming when you don't necessarily expect it. But invert your point of view on that, and you could also say that half the movie isn't nearly as funny as it should be, and the other half is just a procession of stupid jokes. I don't mean to undersell the whole package, which is good overall, but I felt like it could have been even better, given the separate hints of greatness.

The cast here is largely made of the usual suspects -- Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Nick Kroll, Paul Rudd, and David Krumholtz. But there are also some new voices for this gang -- Kritsen Wiig, Bill Hader, Salma Hayek, and (incongruously and unrecognizably) Edward Norton. It's a solid ensemble that definitely elevates the funny.

I'd say Sausage Party merits a B+. I'd wager that's more than high enough for most people's hopes of it, though I'd have to say after seeing it that I might have hoped for even higher.