REVIEW: The Boss Baby

8 08 2017

Where DreamWorks lagged behind Pixar in pathos, they often made up ground with sheer creativity (see: the “Shrek” franchise). But even recently, the boy fishing on the crescent moon has ceded that ground to the jumping lamp. Their latest effort, “The Boss Baby,” starts the battle to take it back.

This movie pushes the medium of animation to its fullest, not to create a simulation of reality but to twist it in imaginative ways. What’s the point of being able to bend the rules if you’re just going to obey the ones established in a live-action world, after all? “The Boss Baby” gives the fanciful visuals a reason to exist, too, by assuming the point of view of seven-year-old Tim. He’s a storyteller by nature, and we get to watch him weave some pretty intricate yarns about the arrival of his baby brother.

In (t)his story, that baby’s foreign nature manifests itself as a slick-talking, suit-wearing tot voiced by Alec Baldwin. Tim reacts at first with suspicion to this time-sucking new addition to the family. But after their initial confrontations, the two unite on a common goal – promoting human babies over puppies in the battle to win over the souls of young couples – and begin to bond as brothers.

The storytelling conceit is a clever way to convey a story about fraternal connection. “The Boss Baby” does not merely seek to understand Tim’s perspective on events; instead, director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers assume his subjectivity fully. The concept does start to fall apart a bit as the brothers’ adventure begins to escalate – for example, does a young child really have the advanced knowledge of corporate structure trends to know to make a point about being replaced by someone younger? Still, the film delights by adopting the mantra of Mrs. Frizzle: “get messy, mistakes.” Seeing DreamWorks really gun for something special again is worth the watch. B





REVIEW: S Is For Stanley

7 08 2017

S Is For StanleyFantastic Fest

Watch “Room 237” or any video essay about Stanley Kubrick, and you’ll come away with the impression that the preternaturally gifted filmmaker is something of an automaton. His films contain such a precision that they almost seem to evince the work of an infallible creator.

Alex Infascelli’s documentary “S Is For Stanley,” on the other hand, shows a side of the director we tend not to consider as frequently: his human side. In a kind of real-life “The Devil Wears Prada” tale, the film tells the experiences of Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s personal driver for many decades. The director plucked him from the world of race-car driving in Italy to be his personal errand boy. Over the years, he performed tasks ranging from the tedious (guaranteeing candles for three years for “Barry Lyndon”) to the discomforting (getting high on secondhand smoke from Jack Nicholson on the set of “The Shining”) to the downright fascinating (interlocuting for Kubrick in the presence of great Italian director Federico Fellini).

But Emilio’s particular set of skills come most into play when Kubrick undertook the massive project of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the multi-year production that unfortunately became the director’s last. “S Is For Stanley” at times feels like it could be a glorious DVD extra on the Criterion Collection release for that film (fingers crossed it’s eventually coming), but Infascelli avoids the kind of hagiography or star worship that normally plagues similar profiles. He simply lets Emilio tell his stories, which are bound to be fascinating for any cinephile who simply wants to share his unique view of cinema history. B





REVIEW: The Call

6 08 2017

If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing an Academy Award-winning actress reduced to doing the cinematic equivalent of TV network crime procedurals, you’re in luck. Brad Anderson’s “The Call,” starring Halle Berry, exists. That’s about all you can say for it.

In the film, Berry plays 911 operator Jordan Turner, a woman who botched one call so badly that … she still keeps answering 911 calls. She should have trusted her gut because she ends up on the other line with Abigail Breslin’s Casey Welson in the process of her kidnapping. “The Call” does have its share of intense moments, to be fair, but you can see every plot twist and turn coming from a mile away. If it weren’t for the presence of someone like Halle Berry, so hell-bent on making it seem deadly serious, the film might play like a parody of these low rent thrillers. But alas, it’s the kind of soft lob up the middle that you expect.

When brushing up on the specifics of the film to write this review, I learned from the Wikipedia page that writer Richard D’Avidio originally envisioned it as a television series. This format confusion actually says a lot about the form of the finished film. “The Call” plays like a bloated pilot, something that easily has 42 minutes worth of watchable material but gets padded with filler stretching the length to merit a theatrical release. C+





REVIEW: Detroit

5 08 2017

Don’t believe the marketing. “Detroit” is not a film about a series of riots that took place 50 years ago. Those events merely provide the background for a stripped down story in which the long-flaring tensions between the police force and the minority communities they patrol reach a boiling point.

Not unlike director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s last joint, “Zero Dark Thirty,” they begin with a brief prologue of historical context. Then, it was the audio of phone calls coming out of the World Trade Center over a black screen; here, crucial subtitles establish the interrelated forces of geographic mobility driving the Great Migration and the suburbanization of America. When blacks move into an area, whites move out – but maintain their control over those spaces through aggressive policing. Rather than cohabitation, the more powerful group opts for occupation by proxy.

This is important to understand in “Detroit,” which hones in on a single portion of the half-century-old historical event. Amidst the unrest, a black man fires shots from a prop toy gun out a window, sufficiently spooking the police and National Guard on patrol into storming the Algiers Motel. A harmless prank quickly brings out the most terroristic impulses from the boys in blue – and yes, they are boys. The young guns recall a description of the police in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.”

From there, the film essentially functions like a hostage caper or a home invasion story. With her “Zero Dark Thirty” editor William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow ratchets up the tension by the moment as the police use every trick in the book to strip away all humanity from their suspects (several black men and two women in their company) in order to identify the shooter. Will Poulter’s unrepentantly lawless Krauss leads the charge to insult, harass and pit these friends against each other; calling his crusade against the dignity of blacks vigilantism does not even begin to do his despicable behavior justice.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Circle

4 08 2017

Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle” ran 491 pages. The movie adaptation of the book, co-written with director James Ponsoldt, runs a little over 100 minutes (when you exclude the credits). It appears they made the executive decision to tame that imposing length by keeping the events of the plot but dulling the nuances of the Juvenalian satire.

The Circle” maintains so much of the reluctance of the social media era that I found so compelling upon reading two years ago (ironically before I took a job working in social media). Eggers’ eponymous technology company powerhouse combines the compulsive networking capabilities of Facebook, the Big Brother-like tracking of Google and the hardware prowess of Apple into one frightening hydra. Perhaps as a matter of budget (just $18 million), Ponsoldt can never quite translate this behemoth into visual terms. On the page, Eggers can conjure up a compound of fanciful imagination to represent The Circle’s reach. On screen … Ponsoldt shows us a Beck concert for the staffers.

As Emma Watson’s Mae Holland begins her tenure at The Circle as a low-level gopher, she comes to embody a puzzling paradox of the digital age. Even as our awareness grows of the debilitating effect of a life lived online, so does these companies’ ability to keep us trapped. Yet rather than following Eggers’ original line of thought to its logical, terrifying conclusion, the film chickens out at the end. “The Circle” betrays its literary origins, leaving behind a hollow shell of platitudes spouted by characters who act and sound like little more than the function they occupy in the narrative.

This movie could be so much more because the book its based on actually is. If the film were a straight bomb, it might be easier to write off. Yet Ponsoldt’s work arguably does the most damage by being average. It’s not a mistranslation so much as it’s just a half-hearted one. C+





F.I.L.M of the Week (August 3, 2017)

3 08 2017

Kid-ThingMy brother is eight years younger than I am, and they happen to be situated just so that we’re of different generations. I’m a millennial, he’s “Generation Z” (a name I suspect they might outgrow and replace). One of the distinctive features of my generation, scholars claim, is that we are so-called digital natives. We came of age as the Internet did, and this has made us scrappy and able to navigate it nimbly as it evolved.

But our childhoods were, more or less, still analog. We mostly remember a world without the Internet, or at least one where it was not so omnipresent and omnipotent. Before my adolescence, I recall the Internet as a vehicle for obtaining information and simplifying certain tasks, not the time-sucking black hole that it is now. (Note: I opened Twitter as a reflex during the middle of that sentence as I worked out where it would end in my head.)

My brother’s generation will likely grow up not remembering what a world was like where people couldn’t access the power of the Internet from the palm of their hands. They won’t know what it was like to have a screen nearly everywhere to provide diversion and distraction. (Note: I was just compelled to do a Google Images deep dive of ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio photoshoots. I highly recommend this.) They won’t know what it was like to feel truly and genuinely bored. There’s scarcely a moment in today’s world where it isn’t possible to be productive in some way, shape or form. We’ve killed boredom, and we’re losing something as a result.

This is all a long wind-up to say that David Zellner’s “Kid-Thing,” the scrappy little indie that I’ve selected as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” effortlessly portrays a feeling that I rarely feel anymore: boredom. As Zellner documents the humdrum days of young Annie, a ten-year-old girl finding creative ways to pass her days on a Texas farm, he brilliantly captures the fruits of what comes from leaving children with nothing to entertain themselves but their own imagination. It’s a rich, textured invocation too, the kind that recalls the arduous processes required to make even the simplest idea come to pass.

None of this should make you think that “Kid-Thing” itself is boring. The film’s 80 minutes move along at a brisk clip as Annie moves from wild exploit to the next, be it pegging an oncoming car with a wad of (shoplifted) dough or shooting the carcass of a cow with a furious round of paintballs. There’s an interesting through-line involving a hole in the ground where a woman named Esther claims to be trapped, and … well, to me that just felt like another instance of a character letting her imagination run away with her. But I’ll leave that up to you to decide.





REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

29 07 2017

Spoiler alert: don’t expect any portion of the Scottish play in William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth.” The title of this Victorian-era chamber drama assigns the characteristics of the Bard’s villainous character to Florence Pugh’s Katherine. She’s a young woman who exerts more agency than Lady Macbeth, although she exhibits significantly less guilt for her transgressions.

As the new wife of a landed gent, Katherine serves the same purpose for her husband as Internet porn does for today’s men. She’s an object of his sexual desires but never an active participant, left merely as a spectator to his getting off. With no place to go in this suffocating matrimony, Katherine begins to seek strange release valves – chiefly, in the passionate embrace of a farmworker Sebastian who she witnesses beating her maid.

“Lady Macbeth” bears witness to the alternating power and powerlessness of the white woman in polite society. She can willfully exert force over domestics, and she often twists that to satisfy urges both sexual and violent. Yet she’s still hemmed in by cultural expectations and that damned patriarchy, which is quick to quash her initiative.

Most of these observations made themselves clear to me within the first 20 minutes or so of “Lady Macbeth.” It is, to borrow a phrase John Oliver once used to describe Donald Trump, “an open book that doesn’t have many interesting words in it.” Oldroyd fits his film with the cinematic equivalent of a corset. It’s rigid and composed with strictly limited capacity for movement. He establishes the film’s mood and thematic underpinnings quickly, but he never develops them in any meaningful way over the course of 90 minutes. The ending has a nice kick, although it’s hardly enough to overcome the taxing monotony that precedes it. B-