REVIEW: Life (2017)

8 07 2017

I fell in and out of sleep during Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” a fact I feel comfortable sharing because it did not seem to have any bearing on my comprehension of the film. As it turns out, I could zone out for 10-15 minutes at a time and jump right back in feeling like I had not missed out on anything.

This is probably attributable to two factors: 1) I’ve seen “Alien,” the seminal space horror film from which “Life” cribs heavily, and 2) a line of expository dialogue recaps any major development, including big action sequences. As loud and technically complex as these set pieces are, I found myself drifting off during them with stunning ease.

“Life” (not to be confused with the James Dean quasi-biopic from 2015) takes a familiar premise – discovering life in space – and fails to take it anywhere new. “Calvin,” as their amoeba-like alien foe is named by a young schoolgirl back on earth, proves a dangerous foe for the astronauts on board the International Space Station. There’s no particular joy in watching him outsmart the crew because he adapts to surmount their weaknesses at light-speed. Not even a sardonic Ryan Reynolds or a laconic Jake Gyllenhaal can bring some – wait for it – LIFE to the screen. C





REVIEW: The Founder

7 07 2017

There’s an emerging type of film perniciously stinking up theaters every winter. Let’s call it “Weinstein-core.” (But don’t, just indulge it for the sake of the review.)

This type of movie was developed at Miramax but perfected at The Weinstein Company. It’s a film with the prestige of high-caliber awards contenders but the cynical, commercial calculations of a Marvel project. It’s provocative and edgy, but only to a point; go too far, and they might be off-putting for an audience. These are made not solely for the sake of telling a story but with the consideration of and desire for an ancillary prize baked into creation.

Sometimes these are actually decent, and it clouds our ability to see “Weinstein-core” films for what they are. “The Founder” is perhaps the best viewpoint into their mechanics, in part because it’s a smattering of good and bad moments. But chiefly, it’s a paradigmatic case because the motives are so transparent.

“Increase supply, demand will follow,” repeats Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc at the start of the film. It’s his elevator pitch straight out of an economic textbook, yet the real purpose is to signal something to the audience: this an important movie about important things. It’s the story of the founding of McDonald’s, but it’s really about bigger concepts that we should put in quotes. It’s about “business.” It’s about “negotiation.”

Kroc is the perfect subject for a “Weinstein-core” film because, like this sub-genre, he’s never short on platitudes to disguise and sell a completely self-promotional idea. The smooth talk ingratiates him with the McDonald brothers as they seek to expand their finely tuned and mechanized burger restaurant. Eventually, however, the duo’s obsession with quality control butts heads with Kroc’s vision for aggressive economic expansion through real estate acquisition.

“The Founder” manages to squeeze some interesting drama out of that tension in the first half, but it really sags in a second half that consists almost entirely as a series of contentious phone conversations. These are written with little imagination and shot with even less. It’s a reminder of how much David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin could make this kind of material sing in “The Social Network,” a film that exists in the province of artists. “The Founder” is pure commercial product, a cinematic Big Mac – a standardized and unsatisfying meal, even if it might quell your stomach’s hungry grumblings for a short time. C+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 6, 2017)

6 07 2017

I first saw the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” in 2013, a time when its history of the LGBT community’s fight against bigotry for recognition and support in the face of a health epidemic felt like just that: history. The Supreme Court had yet to issue either of its landmark rulings, but the White House had come out in support of marriage equality. Prejudice still clearly existed, to be clear. Yet we seemed past a tipping point.

Fast forward to 2017. The White House didn’t issue a statement even acknowledging the existence of Pride Month. Amidst cries for justice from our most vulnerable citizens, we see a similar strategy from the government: avoidance, deprioritization and even outright lies. Suddenly, the members of ACT UP in the 1980s look like a great model for resistance. They organized and rallied around a clear call for action. They put pressure on organizations to make concrete steps in combatting the AIDS crisis. They carefully selected targets to mobilize public opinion in their favor.

For a viewer watching in the Trump administration, “How to Survive a Plague” meets the criteria of “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – your occasional acronym refresher) on the basis of its existence as a resistance toolkit. But David France’s documentary is so much more than just its practical applications. It strikes the delicate balance between recounting events via talking heads and letting them unfold authentically, just as it nimbly shifts between group dynamics and individual stories. The film bears its late ’80s-early ’90s lo-fi digital aesthetic on its sleeve, yet it feels searing, pressing and urgent. For someone like me who became aware of the AIDS epidemic around the time it was no longer a public death sentence, this rendering is vital both in remembering the past and preventing it from repeating in the future.





REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

5 07 2017

The “Spider-Man” series, in both its prior cinematic incarnations this millennium, have dealt with the consequences of giving extraordinary power to ordinary men. The web-slinger’s modern persona is the product of an individualistic Bush-era America where heroes were lone actors grappling with authority and treading near the line of vigilantism. He’s a symbol of the power of the one, overcoming self-made obstacles, vanquishing doubts and conquering evil menace.

But by the time that the lifeless 2014 iteration of the character, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” arrived in theaters, actor Andrew Garfield even acknowledged the hollowness of this interpretation. “The danger of these superhero films is that they maybe propagate a lie that what’s going to change the world is one man, or one woman, just being the beacon of light,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the way that it’s ever happened and it’s not going to be the way that it ever happens — I think it’s going to take every single person doing their small, massive bit to create a world, to create a society and a culture, that if we can imagine it we can do it.”

While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is far from the cooperative hero of “The Avengers,” he’s a step in the correct, more honest direction. Holland actually looks like the high school-aged kid that Spider-Man is; Garfield, by contrast, was 31 when his Peter Parker accepted a high school diploma. And from that starting point, director Jon Watts and a stable of six writers craft a superhero narrative around a lesson that resonates for adolescences both radioactive and regular. (We need not discuss the ending point, yet another reminder of the endemic inability for comic book adaptations to wrap up in anything other than a mind-numbing CGI pyrotechnics demo.)

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REVIEW: Collide

4 07 2017

What do you do when you’re making a vehicular-centered action thriller but you don’t have the stunt budget of a “Bourne” film or the pyrotechnic capabilities of the “Fast & Furious” franchise? Hopefully not what Eran Creevy does in his film “Collide,” which is to do a low-key version of those series and not to compensate by adding onto another element.

The easiest thing to do would have been further developing Nicholas Hoult’s Casey, an American living in Germany and participating in its seedy underbelly – until he falls in love with Felicity Jones’ Juliette. They enjoy a brief courtship and fall in love quickly only for her to develop a medical condition requiring dialysis and a hefty sum of cash. In order to cover the cost of her care, Casey delves back into the Cologne black market. One simple task, however, gets him caught in the crosshairs between two kingpins.

The vast majority of “Collide” details Casey’s escape, evasion of capture and ultimate showdown with his pursuers. That makes sense: look at the poster, watch the trailer, read the logline – this is a car chase and explosions movie. But I so desperately wanted them to mean more. Creevy fails to connect them back to the human core of Casey’s mission, which makes the scenes feel like soulless metal clanging and gears shifting.

He had incredibly capable actors in Hoult and Jones to hold the emotional center, too! Jones rarely gets to be more than an accessory in “Collide,” but there are moments when Creevy rests the camera on Hoult’s shifting eyes and restless face that speak volumes for his character. The film needed about twice the length of exposition on Casey and Juliette’s relationship to make the film work. That would be just 15 minutes added onto a movie that only runs an hour and 30 minutes, and it would have made all the difference. C





REVIEW: The House

3 07 2017

A government official yanks away a college scholarship promised to a local girl, deeming it “an indulgence we can no longer afford,” in the same breath as he rewards wealthy townspeople with luxurious new facilities. Is this a scene in Andrew J. Cohen’s comedy “The House,” or just another day on Capitol Hill? Show audiences in 50 years, and they will likely be unable to discern any difference.

As a series of gags loosely tied together by a hair-brained concept – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s would-be empty nesters opening an underground casino to pay their daughter’s college tuition, the film leaves a lot to be desired. Like most studio comedies, “The House” throws together big comedic stars, a winning logline and a few stabs at thematically and socially relevant humor. The latter works when satirizing police surveillance in the smartphone era and stumbles when attempting a few jokes about date rape.

Ferrell and Poehler tend to take movie roles written for them, or at least well-tailored to their strengths. Nothing about “The House” indicates the screenwriters penned the film with them in mind. Ferrell’s outsized physicality and Poehler’s acerbic verbal wit go sorely underutilized.

Yet, on the other hand, they’re great avatars for the kind of well-off urban angst “The House” so deftly sends up. These are people who, for the most part, have achieved prosperity but still feel let down. “We tried to play by the rules,” laments Poehler’s Kate Johansen, “and it got us nowhere.” This disappointment and dissatisfaction leads them towards criminal enterprise, fight clubs for soccer moms and insurance fraud. It’s worth considering why this premise does not collapse immediately.

Oh, and “The House” takes place in this imaginary, fairy tale world where public officials face consequences for stealing money from the public! Must be nice. B-





REVIEW: The Beguiled

2 07 2017

I’m accustomed to having strong reactions to Sofia Coppola’s films, both positively (“The Virgin Suicides,” “The Bling Ring“) and negatively (“Lost in Translation,” “Somewhere“). So perhaps the most shocking part of her latest work, “The Beguiled,” was how ambivalent I felt towards it. Most moments landed, others didn’t … but nothing really had much magnitude.

I can attribute some of this to my subject position as the viewer; “The Beguiled” is not a movie for me as a male. And that’s ok! There are no shortage of movies that indulge my viewpoint and gaze. (Like, basically all of them.)

After finding and rescuing Colin Farrell’s “blue belly” Corporal McBurney in the Virginia woods, a group of Confederacy-supporting women residing in a schoolhouse must toe the delicate line between rehabilitation and accommodation. Is he their prisoner? Guest? Somewhere in between? Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.

Coppola opts for a studied minimalism in “The Beguiled,” emphasizing the natural surroundings of the estate rather than any lavish decoration or dress. Most of the film focuses on the very thin veneer of southern gentility covering over the women’s pent-up sexual desires. The presence of a man, even the enemy, is enough to stir up some strange sensations not normally experienced in a single-sex environment.

At times, Coppola does let the libidinous activities overpower the psychodrama; it’s as if her characters slowly become little more than their sensual stirrings. And approaching the story with little first-hand experience of Southern culture, the coastal-based Coppola does tend to exoticize their particular strain of desire. But I’m happy to watch her explore these women’s impulses. They deserve treatment as subjects of erotic fantasy, not merely its objects. B