REVIEW: Wilson

27 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Somehow, despite it being my most anticipated film of Sundance, I wound up at the second screening of Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” while virtually everyone else I knew got tickets to the premiere. More than one person cautioned me that Woody Harrelson’s eponymous character, based on graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ creation, was so intensely dyspeptic that he was basically unlikable.

Now, to be clear, I often love unlikable characters. And when I sat down to watch the film, I did not find Wilson difficult to watch or enjoy. In fact, his particular brand of thorniness was quite a welcome contemporary spin on the garden-variety curmudgeon. In typical Harrelson fashion, the character is a foul-mouthed prankster determined never to take a moment too seriously or treat a person with full respect. But Wilson is something different. As he repels nearly everyone with whom he makes contact, he also tries to cure them of the modern malaise of isolation. Whether in the form of phones, technology or a hermetic bubble of their own choosing, Wilson violates arbitrary decorum to highlight the absurdity of our perpetual estrangement.

I read Clowes’ graphic novel over a year ago anticipating a 2016 Sundance bow for “Wilson” (full disclosure: I am well acquainted with the film’s director), and my faint recollection of the text relies on a simple joke structure where Wilson reacts with predictable atrophy at whatever situation thrown at him. Clowes’ script for the film, which included some input by Johnson, takes the character in a much more interesting direction. It’s similarly episodic, though the narrative quest of reuniting with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) to track down his previously assumed aborted daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) does provide “Wilson” with some structure.

The differentiating factor is that Wilson himself feels much freer and open as a character, which in turn makes his exploits far more interesting to observe. In Harrelson’s hands, he’s more than just a human incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. Wilson has some inner joy, some of which simply manifests itself in caustic comments that make others uncomfortable. Johnson and Clowes create a world in which everyone else is far too comfortable, perhaps even complacent, that they need Wilson to shake them out of their stillness. Watching the disruption proves quite entertaining. B+

Advertisements




REVIEW: Grandma

6 09 2015

GrandmaPaul Weitz’s “Grandma” gets underway once teenaged Sage (Julia Garner) shows up to humbly solicit funds for an abortion from Lily Tomlin’s Elle Reid, her estranged grandmother.  While Sage might be necessary to kickstart the story, there is no doubt the titular character really drives the engine of this compact road trip.  The journey is for Sage, but it is about Elle.

Weitz wrote the role of Elle for Tomlin, and the part fits like a glove.  Among the many traits of this multifaceted character, Tomlin gets to play up two qualities present in her most memorable performances: intelligence and idiosyncrasy.  Elle is a poet who peaked professionally in the ’60s and never quite found her footing again, scrapping together income to stay afloat from teaching and lecturing.

Now, widowed and still grieving the loss of her beloved partner Violet, the kooky Elle is even more stuck in the past than ever before.  She cuts up her credit cards for fun and tosses around the phrase “pod person” as if “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were as recognizable a cultural touchstone as “X-Men.”  Sage needs the most immediate help to procure her procedure, to be sure, but Elle also requires an attitude adjustment of her own.

As she drives her vintage car around town to solicit funds – and giving Sage a boot camp in Second Wave feminism in the process – Elle has to confront the pains of her past and decide the face of her future.  Decades-old layers of resentment frequently lead to some acerbic interactions, especially with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).  But the brilliance of Tomlin’s performance is that she never loses track of Elle’s raw emotion or her beating heart; she and Weitz nail the balance between sardonic and sincere.  The voyage with Elle proves all too short (only 79 minutes?!), though each moment along the way feels poignant and completely fulfilling.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Jurassic World

13 06 2015

“We want to be thrilled,” declares Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire to a set of interested investors at the beginning of “Jurassic World.”  One can easily imagine the very green director Colin Trevorrow, with only the indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed” under his belt, making the same kind of pitch to the corporate powers that be at Universal.

In a manner that recalls “22 Jump Street,” many lines at the opening of the film give a winking nod to the entire enterprise of jumpstarting a dormant franchise for a new audience.  In the 22 years the original “Jurassic Park” film hit the multiplex, a new style of action filmmaking has obliterated the level of craft in the genre.  These blockbusters – think Michael Bay and “Transformers” – operate under the philosophy of bigger, louder, harder, faster, stronger.

These films have become predictable, boring, and numbing.  We still marvel at the screen, sure, but we have come to expect the unexpected and see the extraordinary as ordinary.  “Jurassic World” invites that childlike sense of awe to rear its head once again after hibernating.  And in true Spielberg fashion, we receive the invitation quite literally through the perspective of a child.

The first time Trevorrow gives his audience a peek at the new Jurassic Park, now rebranded as Jurassic World, it comes as the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes his way through the crowd to get to the front of a tramcar.  He sees the giant entry gates, and the score by Michael Giacchino swells to the tune John Williams made iconic years ago.  In the succession of shots that follows, we see the many amazing dinosaur attractions (along with a plethora of corporate sponsors) and know his wide-eyed wonder is not misplaced.

The visual effects from “Jurassic Park” were impressive at the time, yet they now look a little creaky and dated.  I cannot imagine what technological advances could improve the look of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World,” which exhibit a breathtaking photorealism, though the CGI wizards will undeniably make me eat those words.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Carrie

19 08 2014

In terms of iconic decades-old horror movies, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” probably ranks just beside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel gave the world an unforgettable image – prom queen Carrie White soaked in blood – that most people recognize whether or not they actually saw the movie.

De Palma’s film has stood the test of time, however, not just on the stickiness of its imagery.  His take on “Carrie” is frighteningly well-made from a technical perspective, fusing eerie cinematography with a chillingly removed edit.  Not to mention, it is perhaps one of the best examples of fusing the ’70s “New Hollywood” spirit with the emerging commercial blockbuster.

So judging from the enduring strength of the original, there really appeared to be no reason for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie” to come along 37 years later.  Thankfully, the film is not an overly reverent retread that matches its original nearly shot-for-shot.  But even so, this “Carrie” is a shadow of its former self that never quite successfully justifies its own existence.

Original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen updates the story effectively with co-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, taking into account factors like the rise of the Moral Majority as well as the sad phenomenon of cyberbullying.  In a way, it’s sobering to see how little change there has been in the high school experience for poor Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz).  She is kept woefully uninformed about the real world by her fanatically religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) and is thus tormented by her peers for her naïveté.

Moretz’s performance brings all the tenderness from her work as a lonely teenage vampire in “Let Me In,” really allowing us to feel sympathy for poor Carrie.  And in stark opposition, Julianne Moore’s inspiredly demented work makes us absolutely despise Margaret.  (Also notable among the acting corps is Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars” making a great screen debut as a popular classmate of Carrie’s who jokingly asks her to prom.)

Though the acting is good, it’s not enough to overpower the lackluster filmmaking.  Pierce relies far too heavily on CGI effects to provide the horror, and they feel particularly uninspired with their low intensity.  Without the unconventional, unpredictable filmmaking impulses of De Palma coursing through the veins of this “Carrie,” the film lacks greatly intensity and excitement.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Descendants

14 03 2012

Mixing comedy and drama is a perilous task, but Alexander Payne makes it look like he could do it in his sleep in his remarkable new film “The Descendants.”  An absolute triumph of writing and directing, he finds the humor in the tragic situations and gravity in the funniest moments.  His pathos is unconventional and unexpected, leaving his words and messages lingering in your head for days.

Just like some of Payne’s previous films like “Election” and “About Schmidt,” he chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a prickly protagonist.  In “The Descendants,” it’s Matt King (George Clooney), the owner of a massive Hawaiian land inheritance.  After his unfaithful wife lapses into a coma after a freak boating accident, Matt must come to terms that he has been absent as the head of his family.  His role as the “understudy” comes to bite him in the butt as he is forced to assume both parenting roles actively on short notice.

Payne’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) begins its narrations through voice-overs from Matt that illuminate his thoughts.  We get a chance to fully grasp his frustrations, his anxieties, and his fears before we really get down in the mud with him during these trying times.  The narration slowly disappears as the movie progresses, but that hardly means we lose our connection to Matt.  Instead, Payne wisely trusts leading man George Clooney to take over control of communicating his character to the audience.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Marmaduke

13 06 2010

You don’t have to read my whole review as long as you take this away from it: “Marmaduke” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and you are truly stupid if you choose to waste a perfectly good 90 minutes of your life watching it.

Now that I have that very strong statement out of the way, you can either spend your time listening to me malign every big name involved in this movie or simply take my word for it.  I will be brutal and unsparing; this is the movie that will really bring out the critic in me.  I’ve been waiting to unleash my wrath on something terrible enough to deserve it.  So here it goes.

I have to admire the boldness of Lee Pace, Judy Greer, and William H. Macy who had the guts to show their faces in this movie.  They didn’t hide in the recording studio or inside the potentially lovable body of an animal.  They actually dared to be the human face of the movie, risking association with the movie for the rest of their careers.  These three ought to be sending the marketing people at Fox some very large gift baskets for not advertising “Marmaduke” very much, because the fact that it was such a low-key campaign may save their reputations from being forever tarnished.

You would think that Owen Wilson has enough sense to choose a movie that has some kind of substance.  But even if you don’t have much respect for Owen Wilson, you might think Keifer Sutherland does.  Or Emma Stone (Jules from “Superbad”).  Or George Lopez.  Or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin).  Or Steve Coogan.  Or Fergie.  Or Marlon Wayans.  Or Sam Elliott.

Like this cavalcade of stars?  Guess what, each and every one of them chose a movie that doesn’t deserve to take a poop in their yards.  Honestly, if any of these big names had shown their faces in “Marmaduke,” they would be firing their agents and calling their real estate agent to find the coziest cave in Beverly Hills.  It’s always a shame to see actors take on material that doesn’t deserve them, and “Marmaduke” is like a tragedy for each of these stars.  None of them put any effort into making this giant heap of poop any better, as if the subtext of every line is, “We feel you; we know this movie sucks.”

And don’t even get me started on the non-existent plot.  My theory is that the director scrounged a bargain bin of kids movies and came to shooting with the idea to rip off any one of them that might have worked.  So for every groan and eye roll you get in “Marmaduke,” you get to say to yourself, “Oh, I liked that better when I saw it in (INSERT ANY KIDS MOVIE TITLE HERE).”  So, by all means, if you want to feel immeasurable frustration with the endless banality Hollywood feeds to children, go right ahead and waste your life watching “Marmaduke.”  As the late Gene Siskel used to say, “It’s your life, and you can’t get that time back.”  D- /