REVIEW: Baywatch

24 05 2017

In the opening credits sequence of “Baywatch” – unoriginally set to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” – Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch converses with a surfer bro on the beach where he lifeguards. The chat has to be subtitled because, of course, Florida English is practically unintelligible to the untrained ear. It’s one of the few subversive or creative tricks the film has up its sleeve in a waterlogged two hour runtime.

What passes for clever throughout “Baywatch” is Mitch and the rest of his bathing suit-clad team engaging in middle-school level taunting by pulling out some new name to taunt Zac Efron’s Matt Brody, a Ryan Lochte-esque “him-bo” has-been swimmer. (The film appears to have wrapped before that Olympian’s robbery scandal in Rio, so the parallels do feel a little eerie.) “21 Jump Street” this most definitely is not. Seth Gordon’s film, which passed through the hands of six writers, takes far more pleasure in fitness porn and over-the-top humor than any kind of satirization or interrogation of its source television show.

There are hints here and there of a movie “Baywatch” could have been. Various instances of fraternizing between men display the faintest whiff of parodic homoeroticism – only to fade into a low-grade gay panic joke. The film plays like a studio-massaged bauble, selling products (shout-out to the Tag-Heuer product placement) and its stars’ chiseled physique above all else. It’s like a two-hour aquatic Equinox ad with some narrative propulsion added in for good measure – even complete with an unearned feminist zinger in its climax! The hit-or-miss humor is a generous life preserver to keep us from drowning in their consumerist ocean. C+

REVIEW: The Wedding Plan

23 05 2017

As one afflicted by chronic singleness syndrome (mostly by choice, or for lack of trying – look, this isn’t about me, ok?), many of the emotions along the journey in Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan” felt all too familiar. There’s the isolation of being an adult who hasn’t found a life partner as everyone else finds theirs, the impatience and judgment of everyone around you, and the occasional spurts of anger directed at the cosmic authorities for imposing what feels like a curse.

Burshtein’s protagonist, Michal, treks on towards the goal of a wedding in the ultimate act of defiance against these internal and external pressures. She holds a date for her nuptials on the final day of Hanukkah without a groom in place. Trusting in both her own charm and determination as well as divine providence, Michal bends the will of love to her own timeframe.

Michal’s oft-hapless desperation lends some levity to “The Wedding Plan,” though labeling Burshtein’s film a “rom-com” doesn’t do the experience justice. This trek towards the altar assumes continued gravity as Michal puts the cart before the horse in the matter of love. The unconventional move garners a wide variety of reactions from Michal’s suitors, though Burshtein’s lens on events also collects valuable information on her female counterparts. The men of this orthodox Jewish society espouse patriarchal beliefs, but the women also internalize and parrot them. One woman tells Michal that of course all men want an obedient wife; Michal, and Burshtein by extension, cast back a doubtful and inquisitive glance. 

REVIEW: Dheepan

22 05 2017

Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” tells an extraordinary tale rather ordinarily. The titular name does not technically refer to the protagonist but rather a man whose identity he must assume in order to flee Sri Lanka. Dheepan must enter France with the passport of a deceased man, along with a fake wife and daughter, in order to get past the country’s vetting. He’s willing to work hard for the future, but that future would likely not be possible if they knew his past involvement in the wars of his native country.

Most of the film takes place in their shanty housing in the outskirts of Paris, where the makeshift family attempts to survive in their new environment. The best moments of “Dheepan” take place when Audiard’s camera catches the moments of realness behind their adopted guises. It’s here we get the whole of the immigrant experience summed up in a glance. We can see the gratitude for a new country to take them in and the yearning for a country where they could no longer stay. We notice the desire for normalcy coupled with the constant fear of disapproving neighbors watching their every move with suspicion.

Where the film starts to sputter is when Dheepan gets drawn into the local drug and gang violence of his area. We know this story of hard choices in ignored, underprivileged areas outside the purview of urban hubs. Even with a topical, political spin, the back half of “Dheepan” lands with a thud. It’s not enough to blow all the goodwill from Audiard’s perceptive look at the perils of entry into France’s hostile environment. But it comes perilously close. B-

REVIEW: Daddy Longlegs

21 05 2017

Josh and Benny Safdie were not the first people to assume verité-style camerawork guaranteed emotional authenticity, nor will they be the last. But their Cassavetes clone “Daddy Longlegs” might just be the film that made me far too aware of how low-budget filmmakers can hollow out techniques just as easily as their studio counterparts.

The Safdie brothers obtain a remarkable quality of naturalism that pervades their shaky camera and grainy look … but in service of what? The filmmakers are so focused on the how that they lose sight of the what. “Daddy Longlegs” tells the story of a deadbeat dad that essentially amounts to little more than a cross between the first act of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (pre-Dustin Hoffman’s redemption) and “Blue Valentine.” He’s a mess to the point of being a danger for his two young children, but he does love them! That’s true in both the first frame and the last.

The film feels less like a character study and more of a chain of cringe-worthy events that further convince us of his complete lack of qualifications to be a parent. Narrative journeys are not a mandatory feature of cinema, and the stasis of a character often speaks just as loudly as a drastic evolution. But given the self-conscious naturalism the Safdies work so hard to obtain, it’s a shame that “Daddy Longlegs” amounts to little more than the latest variation on a familiar stock character. B-

REVIEW: Prince of Broadway

20 05 2017

The working class appear a decent amount in contemporary cinema, but few directors take the time to understand their world like Sean Baker. His technique is more than just an aesthetic superiority of neorealism or “poverty porn” meant to coddle the bleeding hearts of the audience. Baker gets down into the weeds and grapples with poverty on its own terms, examining how getting dealt a single bad hand can trigger a cascade of negative outcomes.

At the beginning of “Prince of Broadway,” the Queens street vendor Lucky (Prince Adu) sees his life take such a turn when an old girlfriend shoves a baby into his arms. She needs childcare for two weeks for some unexplained reason while she jumps town, and we get the sense that Lucky is her last resort. Not only does he have no parenting skills under his boat, but he lives by the seat of his pants hocking off-brand designer bags and, as an undocumented immigrant from Ghana, Lucky can scarcely fall back on a network of extended family to shoulder the burden of watching the baby.

Leaving an ill-equipped individual in possession of a baby has classically entailed the trappings of comedy (“Three Men and a Baby”) or poignant drama (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) … so long as the protagonist comes from means. In “Prince of Broadway,” the same inciting incident triggers the basic mechanisms of economic survival as Lucky wonders how to feed, house and monitor his son. The sacrifices and trade-offs he must make in order to fulfill the most basic human compassion to the young life in his care involve his very livelihood.

Baker understands that a story as seemingly commonplace as this one in Lucky’s world cannot involve mere transposition from an upper-middle-class milieu. Every decision carries enormous weight. Every event comes with massive aftershocks, many of which cannot be met with adequate preparation. He’s taken the time to understand the mechanics of Lucky’s situation, and while “Prince of Broadway” might not necessitate its full 100 minute runtime (subplots involving his boss could easily have been streamlined), there’s not a moment that does not demonstrate his empathetic eye for detail. B

REVIEW: Mediterranea

19 05 2017

As the refugee crisis in Europe continues to persist, we’re starting to see its effects in the continent’s cinema. Documentaries like “Fire at Sea” and numerous Oscar-nominated shorts are paying attention to the harrowing voyage to shelter in Europe, while narrative filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke are crafting narratives around the influx of migrants.

Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea” offers a perspective that, as of yet, seldom receives treatment on screen. It looks at refugees fleeing their homelands as more than just the physical incarnation of their tragedy. Carpignano surveys the whole of their existence, from low-wage labor to forming impromptu communities of support among fellow migrants. (As it turns out, one force that transcends national borders is an infectious pop ditty by Rihanna.) The characters complete the boat ride across the titular sea by the 30-minute mark of the film.

“Mediterranea” is far from revelatory in its narrative, but its simplicity and quiet dignity are worth the watch. When the fearful Italian villagers grow suspicious and disrupt the refugees’ shaky equilibrium, the effect is startling. More experienced, perceptive filmmakers will likely tackle similar stories to greater effect. But for now, Carpignano’s treatment provides a satisfactory window into a humanitarian emergency. B-

F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 18, 2017)

18 05 2017

Recently, I waxed existential on Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” in regards to what the monster represented thematically. To avoid reruns, I’ll spare the long introduction to symbolic genre interpretation and simply say my take on Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” utilizes a similar analytical framework – but from a different angle. Sometimes it’s not just the monster we should be looking at. The victims are also worth further inspection.

When the strange Korean river monster emerges from under the bridge in “The Host,” the creature snarls a certain type of person. The girl distracted on her phone. The family too busy watching TV to notice something out of the ordinary. If you choose to interpret obesity as a product of personal laziness rather than genetic predisposition, maybe you could lump the guy in a jersey two sizes too small for him in with this group. The monster is pretty clearly targeting people who are impeding contemporary society with their habits.

That’s far from the extent of Bong’s commentary on the time, part of the reason “The Host” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (as a reminder, that’s a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie). He crafts a great action movie that’s thrilling to watch from an entertainment perspective. As a rip-roaring adventure for Gang-du to recover his daughter Hyun-seo from the sewer prison of the monster, it’s a blast.

But if you come for the genre fare, stick around for the ribbing political satire. At every step of the way on their rescue of Hyun-seo, some arcane bureaucratic procedure or cruel governmental intervention holds them up. (From a current perspective, it looks like a sharpening of the knives for “Snowpiercer” just a few years later.) There’s comedy, malevolence, malfeasance and terror lurking in just about every scene – often times all at once, a pretty remarkable feat for any director to execute.