Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Celebration for the Dead

In reviewing Incredibles 2 last week, I mentioned that I'd recently caught up on another Pixar film I hadn't yet seen. That was last year's Coco, the story of a young boy's adventure through the Land of the Dead.

The movie didn't make the strongest impression on me right at first. It seemed a bit slow to get started, largely owing to a lot of exposition that has to be conveyed. (And which isn't always done in the most organic way.) The film is trying to place the audience in another culture that won't be readily familiar to everyone, and it's also setting into motion an atypically complex plot for an animated movie. There's a lot of track to lay before this train gets rolling.

Patience is rewarded here tremendously. Once the story really gets rolling, it's fantastic. It's a sweeping adventure, yet also intensely personal. It's dramatic and emotional, but doesn't feel unrealistic or broad even as it takes place in a very unrealistic and broad environment. Because the setup was so detailed, it's impossible not to see some of the plot developments coming, and yet that doesn't matter at all -- the joy of seeing the parts come together in a satisfying way far outweighs the need to be surprised by it.

Throughout, the visuals are amazing. Many Pixar movies are known for bright color, unusual settings, and smart character animation. Coco is a new benchmark in all of this for Pixar. Bright and iridescent, full of details, the Land of the Dead is a feast for the eyes. The characters are expressive as ever, and a particular triumph when it comes to the dead -- they do look like skeletons, but not in a way that's creepy or potentially frightening. The attention to the detail is remarkable, from huge crowds on one end of the scale to the particular fingering of a guitar to produce exactly what we hear on the other.

The cast is great throughout. Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are the most recognizable names/voices in major roles, but the movie really works as well as it does because of the performances by Anthony Gonzalez as young Miguel (the boy at the heart of the adventure), and Alanna Ubach as Imelda (Miguel's late, great-great-grandmother).

Knowing now how much I enjoyed it, I really should have made time for Coco a long time ago. I give it an A-. It also earns the #5 slot on my Top Movies from last year -- rather pointedly, I should say, kicking the Oscar winner The Shape of Water down a notch. If you haven't seen it yet, like I hadn't, do yourself a favor and make the time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Oh, Bother!

This weekend, I went to the debut film from writer-director Boots Riley, the eclectic Sorry to Bother You. If you've seen the trailer, here's how you might recognize it:

Cassius Green gets a new job as a telemarketer, dreaming of getting out of debt. It's going terribly, until a co-worker advises him that he won't be very successful sounding black on the phone. He should adopt a "white voice." As soon as he does, he begins to rise like a rocket through the company ranks. But he soon discovers just how dark and sinister the company is.

This really only scratches the surface of what's actually going on in this movie. It's a scathing package of social commentary. You'd expect it has a lot to say about racism, and of course it does, but that might only be about third or fourth on the list of topics it cares about. It's also an indictment of capitalism, corporate greed, the silent acceptance of the conforming masses, junk television, pretentious art, and a few more I'm probably not thinking of. (All while being the most pro-union movie to be made since Norma Rae?)

Along the way, the movie makes its points using a unique and heightened sense of style. This story does not take place in the real world, but a version of it you might see on The Twilight Zone. And its presented with a broad palette of strong decisions, from jarring edits to theatrical staging, from satirical dialogue to clever insert shots, and natural acting to outsized showboating. The end result left me with a feeling of "what just happened? what did I just watch?" more than any movie I could think of since Being John Malkovich.

There's a lot about this movie that's going to have to roll around in my mind for a very long time before I figure out for sure what I think about it. I know I'm generally positive on the movie, but I can't decide if its wild, scattershot approach is a bug or a feature... or if its even really as scattershot as my gut reaction believed it to be.

I can say I'm unreservedly high on the cast, led by Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. Both do an excellent job of portraying characters that aren't entirely likeable. Both characters make decisions you probably won't agree with, but thanks to the actors, you'll definitely understand them -- and you'll keep rooting for them instead of turning on them. The supporting cast includes great dramatic work from The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun, and an unhinged over-the-top turn by Armie Hammer. Minor (but entertaining) characters are played by Terry Crews and Danny Glover. And there's some hilarious voice-over work from David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Lily James, and Rosario Dawson.

For the moment, I'm feeling Sorry to Bother You lands at about a B+ in my view. It may rise or fall a lot over time as I ponder what it had to say and whether it feels especially insightful. (Or, even if it is saying something obvious, whether it gets credit for saying it at the right time, and in such a gonzo way.) If you check the movie out, I'd be curious to hear what you think. For sure, you'll have a lot to talk about (though perhaps not the words to articulate it).

Friday, July 13, 2018

Daa-Dum.... Daa-Dum... Daa-Dum....

I returned to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this week, as they returned to their Film in Concert series, presenting Jaws.

It had been many years since I'd last seen Jaws, and part of the experience was remembering that it's an even better movie than I'd given it credit for. I'd remembered it as "pretty good," but I thought still more of it this time around. I think this time, I gave more credit to the first half of the movie: the depiction of a politician beholden to the Almighty Dollar, throwing away common sense and decency in its pursuit and not giving a damn about the collateral damage. (For some reason, that resonated with me more than the last time I saw the movie.) The last half of the movie thrilled, as always, but I better appreciated the whole package this time around.

Of course, the star of the evening was not the film itself, but the famous score by John Williams, performed live by the orchestra. There were discoveries there too.

The bass strings and cello are every bit as important as you think and more. There were additional players in these sections, beyond the orchestra's normal complement. (They were also the only performers asked by the conductor to rise for the applause at the end, giving them a fun and deserved moment in the spotlight.) These are the sections that carry the famous shark theme, the theme I'd suggest is the most recognized in all of film history. (And you could also see them getting a workout at other times, too.)

The harp in this music is hyperactive even for a John Williams score, plucking out very precise melodies and only occasionally playing the sweeping runs for which a harp is most commonly known. The tuba is quite active too, playing the most prominent horn part in that main shark theme (a part that could have gone to french horns, but comes off more sinister for being played as high as a tuba will go). Percussion is busy in this one too (again more than usual for Williams), deployed rather steadily throughout rather than used more sparingly to accent moments.

A friend of mine had recently listened to the Jaws score and noted that, as brilliant as that main theme is, there was another strand of oddly bright adventure music in the score that struck him amiss. I was on the "listen-out" for this during the performance... not that it was hard to miss when it came. In interviews, Williams has said that he perceived an element of pirate adventure in the construction of the story, and this music is no doubt playing to that. It is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the score, I'd agree.

But moreover, what I think may really be going on there is that this "high adventure" music may be the only part of the score that sounds completely like conventional John Williams music. That's a bit backwards in terms of history -- this came before basically any John Williams score widely known today. But the style everyone knows is very much this particular, small slice of the Jaws music: prominent brass, bright melodies, and a strand of swashbuckler throughout.

What everyone remembers from Jaws is something entirely different. Critics have endlessly noted how director Steven Spielberg captured key elements of Alfred Hitchcock's style in making Jaws. Well, John Williams captured key elements of Bernard Herrmann's musical style in composing the score. Much of the music of Jaws (and certainly that iconic theme) sounds very much like an evolution and re-imagining of the music to Psycho, had it been composed for a full orchestra instead of strings only, with emphasis on the lower strings rather than the higher. Not that I think there are specific passages where Williams "copied" Herrmann, or anything so crude. The two compositions just seem cut from the same cloth to me, that cloth not being "typical John Williams."

Not that my appreciation for John Williams was lagging in any way, but this line of thought may have made me appreciate him even more. That "out of place" adventure melody really only seemed so to me in the sense that it wasn't fully compatible with this soundscape he'd created for this film, a soundscape that was essentially entirely out of his comfort zone. Making that choice, to do something unusual, couldn't have come easy. And it was a tremendous risk. (Famously, Spielberg was said to have laughed the first time Williams played for him on piano the "two note" theme for the shark. (It's more than two notes, by the way.)) John Williams took that risk, found this music, and it's beyond perfect for what this movie needed. If he also tacked on one sparingly used melody that doesn't quite gel with the rest, well, I can't begrudge him indulging in something more in his comfort zone. I hardly think it detracts from the genius of the rest, nor does it harm the whole of a really great movie.

Getting a chance to engage with this score I know less well than others made for a great night at the symphony. (Though it felt like maybe an expensive evening at first. Very, very little of the first half of the movie is scored. Fortunately, conversely, that felt like how much isn't scored in the second half.) Once again, the Film in Concert series delivered for me, and I'm looking forward to another one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Jungle Love

2017 closed out with two especially popular movies out in theaters -- Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Colons were in demand.) The latter certainly seemed like a fun ride, but not in a way that made me feel I had to rush to see it at the time. Instead, I recently caught up with it now that it's easily available at home. And indeed, it was a fun ride.

I know I've seen bits and pieces of the original Jumanji starring Robin Williams, but never the whole thing. I know I've read the original children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. None of this really matters, though, as there's really nothing to get "caught up on" here. The premise explains itself easily enough: some teens are sucked into a video game. And really, that's plenty for just shy of two hours of light entertainment.

That really is what Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is. It's light, not pretending to aim at more (nor really should it try). But it is a lot of fun. The movie leans hard into a variety of video game cliches, and generates plenty of fun for it. The jokes about cut scenes, re-spawning, weak NPC dialogue, and so forth never really get old. Yup, bad games are totally like this. It's funny.

Really, the weakest moments in the movie come when the script fails to follow this north star. It tries to build up a major villain using the techniques of bad movies and not bad video games -- giving us a pair of scenes with the villain that no human character is there to witness. Within the video game conceit, these moments should not be happening. And they're nothing but moments of pure mustache twirling, being mean to henchmen and displaying villainous powers that aren't used effectively in the climax of the film anyway.

The film's strongest moments come in watching the main actors play against type. Dwayne Johnson is the video game form given to the shy nerd, so Johnson gets to lampoon his own ever-confident, supremely manly image to great effect. Jack Black is the embodiment of a stuck-up, appearance-obsessed teenage girl, which is a comedic gift that keeps on giving.

The other stars aren't so much deliberately cast against type, but they nevertheless bring the funny. Karen Gillan gets to play a wallflower thrust into a Lara Croft-style video game persona, and does some wonderful physical comedy in adjusting to the change. And Kevin Hart? Well, I don't know that I've ever seen a whole Kevin Hart movie before, feeling that the cloying persona I've seen in trailers was more than enough. But I actually thought he was great here, and used in just the right amounts to be funny. Maybe one of his other movies might be worth a look some time after all?

I watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle fairly close to Game Night, and though I enjoyed both, I found a sharp contrast. Game Night tries harder to tell a story, and has many comedic peaks and valleys. Jumanji may not have had a lot of laugh out loud moments for me, but it did keep a smile on my face throughout. The two films took different routes to get there, but I'd grade both a solid B.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

That's Incredibles

I've had a mini-Pixar marathon over the last couple of days, catching back up with their most recent films I hadn't seen. I'm going to start with the one still out in theaters, Incredibles 2.

It's hard to overstate how different the cinematic landscape has become in the 14 years since the first Incredibles. Or, should I say, the "Cinematic Universe," as Marvel now has us all on a steady drip of superhero movies (with others chiming in regularly with their own efforts). The Incredibles was an oddity at the time, a sort of retro throwback.

The thing is, it still is to a large degree. If The Incredibles had been just a straight-up superhero movie, a sequel giving us more of the same would easily be mixed up in the shuffle of everything else. But that first movie was a cocktail of superhero, old-school James Bond spy thriller, and family drama. And so is its sequel.

Pixar has always made movies that play well for both adults and kids. But more than perhaps any other of their movies, the Incredibles films feel to me like they make absolutely no concessions to a younger audience. There are no cute animals. No characters tailor-made to be a toy every kid will want. The biggest comic relief character is an opinionated old fashionista with a weird accent.

Incredibles 2 embraces this identity and soldiers forward. The plot is dense and grown-up. It's also very current, even with the 1960s vibe permeating so much of what we see (and hear, in Michael Giacchino's again-excellent score). A married couple has to deal with a role reversal in job and home life. The lead role narratively (and the "bread-winning" role within the family) is taken over by a woman. Gender bias and feminism are key elements of the plot. Our protagonist is trying to push public opinion to bring about social change and civil rights. It frankly feels subversive that all this has been slipped into a major animated movie.

"Slipped in" feels like the right way to put it, though, because the movie still has all the high-octane action sequences you could ask for. Indeed, it's more clever about its action that a fair number of live-action superhero movies we've seen in the past decade. A handful of new characters are introduced, each with specific and highly visual superpowers that are very cleverly chosen to play off of each other and our established Parr family.

Really, the only major flaw is that the movie does drag just a bit it the middle act. It may be that one of the elements that makes it unique -- the domesticity -- works against it just a bit through this section. Watching Mr. Incredible struggle to be the stay-at-home Dad hits all the tired and familiar cliches you've seen many times before.

Still, I found Incredibles 2 to be a fun, enjoyable ride overall. I'd give it a B+. It's not quite good enough to break into the crowded upper tier of Pixar's best, but it's still a solid movie well worth seeing.

Monday, July 09, 2018

That's How You Get Ants

Marvel's latest film (and last of this year) hit theaters this weekend, Ant-Man and the Wasp. I quite enjoyed the first Ant-Man (more, I think, than most), and so I was looking forward to this one.

It was nice to have a Marvel movie again that was basically pure fun. Black Panther was certainly strong (and most people seemed to like Avengers: Infinity War more than me), but humor was definitely the garnish to those movies and not the main course. I was ready for something more along the lines of the 2017 slate (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok), and was fairly sure Ant-Man and the Wasp was going to fit the bill. It terms of tone, it certainly did.

In terms of quality, Ant-Man and the Wasp had a real double-edged sword of a plot going. It's all about the efforts to rescue Janet Van Dyne (Hank's wife and Hope's mother) from the Quantum Realm. On the plus side, I loved the scale of that. (That's not a shrinking pun). Our heroes aren't trying to save the entire world, they're trying to save one person who they care about on a very personal level. It's a story line that comes organically from character, and might be the most character-driven story in a Marvel movie. That's all great.

On the minus side, this personal story is inextricably woven with a mountain of silly technobabble. Scott Lang even comments on this at one point in the movie, making for a good laugh line, but ultimately not changing the fact that the execution of this very personal story feels quite impersonal at times. Since Doctor Strange's arrival in the Marvel universe, I'm just not sure that there needs to be this much phony explanation behind what we're seeing, particularly when one of the main characters doesn't understand it himself.

Still, the framework does serve well to provide exactly what I'd hoped: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a funny and entertaining movie. The jokes land well, largely thanks to two people in particular. Paul Rudd has crazy-ridiculous chemistry with everyone in the movie, especially Evangeline Lilly, Abby Ryder Fortson as his daughter Cassie, and Randall Park as the agent monitoring him. And again, as in the first film, Michael Peña steals every scene he's in with high energy and great timing. (One of the best scenes of the whole movie riffs on his machine gun delivery to hilarious effect.)

The action is pretty solid too, and here it's other performers who get to shine. Evangeline Lilly gets to kick a lot of ass this time around. And Hannah John-Kamen (well-known to anyone who watches Killjoys) is a potent adversary as Ghost. The action feels quite clever and specific to this movie; they get a lot of mileage out of shrinking/enlarging gags that you couldn't really do in another Marvel movie, plus phasing trickery with Ghost.

Sitting largely outside the action, Michael Douglas still adds fun to the proceedings. This time, we have Laurence Fishburne and Michelle Pfeiffer as well, forming the trio that definitely carries what drama the movie does have. (Side note: the "de-aging" CG effects that keeps showing up in these Marvel movies does keep getting better and better. The flashback scenes here showing these actors as we knew them to look in the 1980s is more convincing than ever.)

I didn't quite enjoy Ant-Man and the Wasp as much as the first Ant-Man. Still, I'd say it falls in the bottom of the window I'd call a B+. But surely Marvel already has its hook set in you and you'll be seeing it no matter what I say, right?

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Are You Game?

Earlier this year, as Black Panther reigned supreme at the box office, a low-budget comedy broke $100 million as quietly as can be done. Game Night is the story of a group of friends who find themselves out of their depth -- the scenario they mistake for actors staging a game for their entertainment turns out to be real criminals threatening their lives.

The cast makes this movie, and it is a great cast. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, the hyper-competitive hosts of the group's regular games. Max's swaggering brother is played by Kyle Chandler. Jesse Clemons is the profoundly creepy next-door neighbor trying to cope with his recent divorce. The ensemble is filled out with Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury.

Of the group, Clemons is really the only one adopting a "character," by typical comedy film standards. It's a tongue-in-cheek, quiet and intense performance that's inherently funny for being such a weird gear change from everything else. But that's not to say the rest of the cast isn't funny. It's just that the filmmakers opted for realistic characters to populate their ridiculous situation. You get a good mix of people mainly known for comedy (like Bateman), people not really known for comedy (Chandler), and people who haven't done comedy in a long time, but who are really great at it (McAdams).

The result is some enjoyable silliness. There's actually a commitment to telling a real story here with twists and turns, and character arcs that see everyone grow and change over the course of the story. As such, it's not wall to wall laughs. But it's all part of a smart "peaks and valleys" approach to the comedy here. If there aren't many smiles for a few minutes, don't worry -- soon will come a sequence that is (as they say) laugh out loud funny.

Beyond that, I think the less said about the movie, the better. There are some surprising and fun actors that pop up in smaller roles, but it's better to be surprised by them. There are some sequences that I could highlight as especially funny, mostly of a physical nature, but that would just be giving away the best moments like a bad trailer.

So instead, I'll just say that I was pleasantly surprised by this fun little diversion. I'd give Game Night a B. Love of games not required (though if you're here, you very likely do). Love of comedy will be rewarded.