Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The nine film Star Wars saga is now complete (for the time being). The Rise of Skywalker has a lot to tackle and resolve and the results are unsurprisingly mixed. Fans (and some critics) have a primal attachment to these films. A disappointing Star Wars film will trigger musings on childhood ending, while a good Star Wars episode may promise a new hope. Regardless of fan reaction, all nine of the films and their spin off stories are designed as adventures to inspire the imagination of young people. We tend to like or dislike these films based not on what they are, but on what they're not. Many will nitpick on Rise of Skywalker for what it's not, yet it passes for a space adventure film better than most, albeit with diminishing returns.

The trajectory of this sequel trilogy has followed that of the original. Like the original 1977 Star Wars, The Force Awakens for a brief moment rekindled a sense of adventure and mystery to a moribund franchise. The Last Jedi challenged audiences and offered some complexity much along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back. Rise of Skywalker resembles Return of the Jedi which concluded the original trilogy on a jaunty note, but eschewed the complexity of Empire.  

The story begins year or two after Last Jedi. The Resistance is still running on fumes as the First Order continues to conquer the galaxy. Rey is honing her Jedi skills with Leia. Poe and Finn try to rally the resistance as Kylo Ren tries to increase his power. Footage of Carrie Fisher from The Force Awakens allowed the saga to give her character a moving conclusion. Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando to represent the original trilogy as the old sage. Meanwhile, Emperor Palpatine (dispatched in Return of the Jedi) is somehow back in the picture

J.J. Abrams returned as director and moves things at a frantic pace, a pace so fast the movie starts to feel sluggish. There's way too much sleight of hand and bait and switch going on with the plot. When Abrams tries to take chances, the film suddenly backtracks and lets you know everything will be fine. The visual rhyming of The Force Awakens had a charm, here it gets exhausting. 

The film works better on the micro level. The principals Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega all gave it their best. They bring a nervous humor and manage to stretch their characters a bit, but not all that much. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is given a good arc, but under utilized. The cast contributed a lightness of tone to all the plot shenanigans. 

Rise of Skywalker is weighed down by the loaded history of Star Wars. The Last Jedi was all about letting the old ways die, but Rise of Skywalker cannot extract itself from the baggage of the past. The result is a remix of familiar Star Wars themes of boilerplate good and evil - concluding the saga on an uncertain beat. 


Friday, November 29, 2019

The Irishman ***1/2 (2019)

Many years in the making, The Irishman serves as the capstone to Martin Scorsese's cycle of mob themed movies, an anti-nostalgic epilogue to the passing of era, one rhyming with our own in uncomfortable ways. A fitting contrast to Quentin Tarantino's irresistible portrait of the late 1960s in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Irishman unfolds in blues and grays, a character study overcast with existential malaise told in dank Midwestern bars, hotel rooms, and offices. A gloomy film redeemed by Scorsese's steady hand, Steven Zaillian's literate script, and heavy duty performances from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino.

The film follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who by tricks of fate fell into the orbit of mob figure Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). CGI helped de-age the actors for a story spanning several decades, providing a verisimilitude that's never too distracting. A WWII veteran of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, Frank is an unassuming man familiar with violence. He never enjoys the act of killing, but he's really good at it. He also makes for reliable confidante to Bufalino and Hoffa. One could read the film as a dark version of Forrest Gump.

Pesci came out of retirement and here he's far cry from the violent psychopaths he played in Goodfellas and Casino, here he's a quiet and gentle man who wields great power. Pacino also delivers as Hoffa, portrayed as a besieged figure whose need for power and respect led to many disastrous decisions. By turns petty and sensible, Pacino exudes a wave of contradictions, by turns comical and tragic.

De Niro's performance is not dissimilar to his talk show appearances, cryptic and impenetrable. We never get inside the head of Sheehan, on the surface a simple man who powerful figures were drawn to and used to further their own ends. Taken deeper, there's something much more disturbing - the everyman hero turned on its head.

The violence, when it occurs, is never stylized or overstated. No music from Cream or Rolling Stones to accompany a beating, just an uneasy silence. When the climatic act of violence in the film occurs, it's brutal and heartbreaking. But what follows in the last act is a chilling denouement, chilling for its banality.

The Irishman is also a meditation on how violence has driven American history, most often carried out by white men who believed they were doing their duty. The question hangs - for what? Whatever the justifications - for the country, an organization, family, friends - all that's left is unspoken pain and regret. Yeah, The Irishmen is a downer movie, but a necessary one. There's no redemption. There's no repentance.

Primarily a story about aging men, many have pointed out the lack of women in the story, limited to wives and daughters who are oblivious to the lives their fathers and husbands lead. Anna Paquin appears as Frank's daughter throughout, but has little dialogue. The male dominated climate of film makes it colder and begs more questions about the past and today. 

An apt comparison would be Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, another film about a man who lived in high places but died forgotten. Many have called The Irishman the "anti-Goodfellas" in that it seeks to deconstruct the mythos of such films. Goodfellas is celebrated despite its critique of the lifestyle. The Wolf of Wall Street the same, but it also anticipated the Trump era with its portrayal of thuggish capitalism. The Irishmen explores power and corruption as interwoven into a fable of high tragedy - wintry and methodical.

With a 3 1/2 hour running time, Scorsese forces the audience to slow down and take in the story. We spend an awful lot of time with these characters and the movie sticks with you after watching it. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Doctor Sleep ***1/2 (2019)

Almost 40 years after its initial release, the story that began with The Shining is continued in Doctor Sleep. The story picks up with Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) decades after the events at the Overlook Hotel. As an adult Danny is still dealing with the trauma caused by his father and the Overlook. A redemption story above all else, Mike Flanagan's direction exemplifies character driven story telling.

The first part serves as an epilogue to the events of the first film with Danny and his mom Wendy relocating to Florida. One of the biggest risks of the film was recasting iconic characters played Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Scatman Crothers. Carl Lumbly replaces Crothers as Holloran, adding depth to the character who met an ignoble end in the original. An unrecognizable Henry Thomas appears as Jack Torrance. Casting new actors was the right choice instead of going the CGI route.

McGregor gives first rate performance as a recovering alcoholic who finds solace in a small New Hampshire town by working at the local hospice. An especially calming presence for patients during their final moments, Danny earns the nickname Dr. Sleep. McGregor is especially effective as playing Danny as child like, but never a simpleton. He's a decent soul who leads a quiet life until ghosts from the past start to reappear.

Newcomer Kyliegh Curran plays Abra Stone, a teen who shares Danny's gift. She has a lot to do in the story and in a way ends up becoming the protagonist. Curran and McGregor have a good chemistry in one becomes a moving mentor/student relationship. Cliff Curtis also anchors the story as Danny's best friend.

New threats come in the form of a gang that travels across country in trailers who abduct children for a nefarious purpose. Their leader "Rose the Hat" is played by Rebecca Ferguson as a New Age disciple gone wrong. She's charming and seductive enough to keep her from being completely despicable. Ferguson's speech cadence is especially effective, emphasizing words in mid-sentence.

Flanagan never tries to imitate Kubrick, but provides just enough call back to appease fans of the original. The Overlook Hotel plays a pivotal role and the music by the Newton Brothers channels the Wendy Carlos score. In a contrast to the overwrought It: Chapter 2, Flanagan has a knack for tapping into Stephen King's emphasis on childhood. Doctor Sleep has its own story to tell without resting on the laurels of the The Shining.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

A new documentary on the life and music Miles Davis explores his various incarnations as one of the great Jazz artists of the 20th Century. The film takes a straight forward approach and it mostly works. A combination of archival footage, new interviews with those who knew him, and Miles's own words set to narration provide worthwhile insight. His beginnings in East St. Louis and his coming of age in New York and Paris comprise the first act. A prodigy on the trumpet, Davis had a relentless drive to innovate, taking his sound as far it could go and never repeating himself. His encounters with racism and determination to be an independent black artist are also major themes. MIles kept the world at arm's length, never suffering fools, he could also be distant to those closest to him. Not a hagiography by any means, the film never shies away from troubling aspects of his life. He struggled with addiction and was abusive towards women. The release of Kind of Blue in 1959 brought international fame, a string of influential records followed. Periods of seclusion were usually followed by creative breakthroughs that allowed him to keep performing until his passing in 1991. An excellent primer for anyone unfamiliar with the music of Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool is an immersive trip into mid-century America.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Joker (2019)

Ominous cellos flutter throughout Joker in an original story focusing on the definitive Batman villain. Set in the early 1980s, Joker attempts to evoke the grittiness of 1970s movies set in New York. Such an approach holds endless creative possibilities, but there were also many bands who tried to emulate The Beatles. Going for a certain aesthetic may look and even feel like Taxi Driver or Prince of the City is only half the battle. While Joker does make you forget it's a comic book movie at times, Joker remains tethered to its comic book universe. 

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker in an intense, dark performance. One could expect no less from Phoenix, but it will remain in the shadow of Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight. The character here is somewhere between Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, a put upon misfit named Arthur Fleck living in a decaying Gotham City. He shares a place with his needy mother and tries to make a living as a clown and stand up comedian. His only joy comes from watching a popular late night talk show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur also struggles with mental health issues, struggling with a condition that causes bouts of uncontrollable laughter.

One night on the subway Arthur lashes out with violence after a group of Wall Street traders harass him. The turn to violence creates a change within Arthur and he begins to feel empowered. Meanwhile, like Taxi Driver, there's a political campaign in Gotham with Thomas Wayne running, a Trump like businessman who demonizes the poor. Arthur and Thomas are on a collision course that plays out in a slightly clever way.

There are some memorable scenes in Joker, mostly due to Phoenix's bravura performance. He'll often break into bizarre dance routines and oddly grows more charismatic as the story moves along. But when Joker tries to make a larger social statement it misses completely. The class war theme was explored in The Dark Knight Rises, but here it's even more simplistic. In a comic book story such an approach works, but it comes of as shallow in a movie trying to be more than that. The anti-climatic ending leaves us with an interesting performance trapped in a derivative landscape.

The controversies surrounding the release of Joker were a brilliant marketing gambit presenting the film as something dangerous. But the film offers minimal insight on humanity and the nature of evil, but instead revels in its own routine descent into darkness. 


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

An engaging space adventure, Ad Astra explores humanistic themes in the midst of a fairly stable future. Director James Gray has compiled an impressive filmography. From historical films (The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z) to intelligent character studies (Two Lovers and We Own the Night) he's one of the more consistent filmmakers of the past two decades. His first venture into Sci-Fi for the most delivers, avoiding pretension in a realistic vision of space travel. Brad Pitt proves a steady presence as astronaut Roy McBride in search of his father Clifford played by Tommy Lee Jones. 

In a decade of ambitious movies set in space there's been a new emphasis on the realities of space travel. From the space survival story in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and the pro-science swagger of The Martian, to the emo/trippy Sci-Fi of Interstellar, all these films are exploring the notion of humans surviving in space. French filmmaker Claire Denis offered a grittier, bleaker vision of space travel in High Life is an outlier to the recent trend. Ad Astra utilizes elements from all these films. There's also the unavoidable influence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

The future in Ad Astra depicts burgeoning colonies on the Moon and Mars. One sequence features chain restaurants on the Moon - looking like any bland airport. Various corporations have carved out spheres of influence on the Moon in a repeat of the wild west, resulting in a buggy chase that's highlighted in the trailer. People are still greedy, still killing each other over resources.

The primary plot device deals with power surges disrupting the electric grid on earth. Emanating from the far reaches of the solar system, the destructive power surges are connected to a mission commanded by Roy's father which embarked on a failed mission to make contact with intelligent life. Roy is drafted (against his will) to discover the the mystery of the mission to save the Earth.

Roy's journey takes him to Mars and beyond. Alternating between action sequences and quiet meditations on loneliness, at just under two hours the film is well paced. Once Roy reaches his destination the big reveal may disappoint some. Gray is more interested in the human condition whether it's immigrants in 20th Century America or Victorian explorers in Africa. Kubrick viewed human exploration as moving towards a destiny, while Gray's more grounded view of space exploration is more concerned with its effect on the human heart. 

As a study of masculinity, women are on the periphery on the story. Roy resents Clifford for abandoning him and his Mom when he was a child. Without children, Roy wants to avoid the mistakes of his father, not wanting to abandon his loved ones in pursuit of some lofty idea. Reconciliation is not the point here - it's catharsis. Not too far from his role as the stern father in Tree of Life, Pitt's quiet performance emotes a perseverance and burgeoning empathy. 

Technically, Ad Astra avoids showy special effects in favor of realistic ones. Space travel is free of the comforts in 2001 and utopia of Star Trek. A claustrophobic depiction of space travel, but still full of cosmic wonder. 

***1/2 out of 4

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Martin Scorsese on Spirituality and Movies

Actually when I was a little younger,there was another journey I wanted to make, It was a religious one. I wanted to be a priest. However, I soon realized that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don't really see a conflict between the church and movies - the sacred and the profane. Obviously there are many differences, but I also could see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience. and I believe there's spirituality in films even if it's not one which can supplant faith.

-Martin Scorsese from A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

One of my favorite quotes ever made about movies. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Goldfinch (2019)

Donna Tartt's bestselling 2013 novel gets the full on Hollywood treatment with mixed results. A sprawling novel that deals with grief, addiction, camaraderie between young men, the power of art, and many other things is a lot to tackle for a feature film. The Goldfinch is by no means a bad movie, just a diffuse one that never quite hits its stride.

The story follows protagonist Theo Decker, played as a young teenager by Oakes Fegley and as a man in his mid 20s by Ansel Elgort, on a series of Dickensian adventures. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art Theo's Mom perishes in a terrorist attack. Then he's taken in by a wealthy New York family the Barbours headed by matriarch Nicole Kidman who takes an interest in Theo. When his estranged father (Luke Wilson) enters the picture the story shifts to Las Vegas where Theo forges a close friendship with Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Boris is from Ukraine and leads a chaotic life fueled by alcohol. After some further misadventures, Theo ends up back in New York and becomes a prominent dealer in antiques. At the center of the story of The Goldfinch painting, a 1654 work by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. 

A glaring dichotomy between the film and the novel are the richness of the characters. The film limits them to being no more than rough sketches who appear and then vanish. Even with the 150 minute running time the movie feels more like an assortment of scenes loosely connected to each other. One wonders if a mini-series would be a better way to flesh out the story. The emotional high points are never earned, there's too much plotting going on. 

Despite the narrative confusion, there are some memorable moments. Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, Theo's ward and mentor, brings a quiet dignity and compassion to his limited screen time. Kidman does the same as she proves to be an unlikely confidante to Theo. Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard as young and older Boris respectively, bring an energy to the film - by far the most compelling character in the story.

Elgort is being groomed to be an A-list star, he'll be the male lead in Spielberg's West Side Story to come out next year, is no more than a cipher. Theo is surrounded by so many characters, his motivations often get lost within all the competing narratives. He never gets a moment to reveal his motivations beyond the obvious. The last act takes place in Amsterdam and becomes a clunky heist film. Not much is resolved at the end because so many plot points are left floating in the ether. 

Roger Deakins did the cinematography so there are some stunning visuals - it's a nice film to look at. Yet the sense of setting, such a strong component of the novel, is absent. Tartt provided a realistic sense of 2000s New York and the intricacies of modern Amsterdam, the setting becomes a character. The Goldfinch will inevitably be a case study on the do's and don'ts of adaptation. Maybe there's a better film in here somewhere.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It: Chapter Two (2019)

I'm surprised I did not see anyone mention on social media the Peter Bogdanovich cameo in It: Chapter 2, playing (what else) a movie director. There's one other notable cameo and many references to the Stephen King universe. A blockbuster horror film playing it safe in some areas and taking chances in others creates a memorable experience that may or may not have lasting value, the continual stream of scares exhausts at a certain point, but the characters are likable. 

The two It movies can be viewed as a love letter to King's work and 1980s pop culture in general. Chapter Two also drives home the metaphor of the evil clown Pennywise existing as a stand in for past trauma. The best and worst of modern blockbusters are in conflict throughout the three hour sequel: an attractive cast, high production value, and memorable visuals contrasted with an excess of bloated sequences heavy on CGI. 

The first chapter from 2017 worked well upon first viewing, but seemed static and listless at times on re-watch. The best aspect Chapter One was the Losers' Club that drew upon Stand by Me and other 80s standbys such as The Goonies and The Lost BoysChapter Two is also the strongest in that regard, childhood friends coming back together. Each member of the adult cast delivers a decent performances and are given equal screen time. 

The story picks up 27 years after the events of the first film. The Losers' Club have gone their separate ways. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer ensnared in an abusive relationship with her husband. Bill (James McAvoy) is a writer and Richie (Bill Hader) is a stand up comedian. Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect, Eddie (James Ransone) remains a hypochondriac and works as a risk assessor. Mike (Isiah Mutafa) remained in Derry as the librarian, writing a secret history of the town.

The opening sequence reveals the evil clown Pennywise is back and terrorizing Derry. Set at a carnival, a common feature of 2019 horror utilized in Us and Stranger Things, the film begins with an assault on a gay couple by a gang of homophobic teens. The indifference of the adult world to violence is a recurring motif in both films. A string of murders follows prompting Mike to call the Losers' Club back together. Now in their late 30s, none of them have any memory of what happened 30 years ago, but once they return to Derry the fog starts to clear.

After a slightly awkward reunion at a Chinese Restaurant they decide Pennywise must be confronted and destroyed. What follows are several scenes in the middle act with each character confronting a trauma from their past. These sequences are hit and miss, sometimes falling into cliche territory. The attacks by Pennywise are psychological, but the jump scares and CGI never pulls off an authentic scare.

The final showdown worked better than I expected, taking the story into more of a fairy tale direction. The production design goes into the realm of fantasy and culminates in a battle of wills. It's not a physical or technological fight and that felt refreshing and in the spirit of the source material (vastly superior to the low rent TV version from 1990). A moving epilogue that will draw comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption ended the film on a nice touch.

A drawback in Chapter Two is the overuse of Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard was frightening enough in the first film, but the character descends into parody here. There's an effective scene with Skarsgard appearing without makeup that did provide some dimension to the mythology of the clown. Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise in the TV Movie played him more as a wisecracking psychopath, here the clown is more in the realm of a classic monster.

I won't complain about the three hour running time, a story on this scale warrants it in the age of the Netflix binge. The cast keeps the film grounded in humanity.

Andy Muschietti directed both films and effectively brought a competent adaptation to the big screen. His style avoided pretension and kept the story moving along, well versed in Spielberg and King in channeling the hope and terror of growing up in America

*** (out of 4)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Beatles vs Stones: At the Movies

During a memorable sequence in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood an alternate version of The Rolling Stones song "Out of Time" plays at exactly the right time. The song captures the vibe of an era coming to an end, something the characters in the film are starting to come to terms with. It's worth noting The Beatles are noticeably absent from the Hollywood soundtrack. There could be a number of possible reasons: the cost of buying the rights, Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos did not see the right moment for a Beatles song, or maybe, as I would argue, Stones music is simply more conducive to movies. 

Here are some possible reasons why:

1) Stones music is more frenetic, more into the darkness, making it better suited to modern cinema.
2) Beatles music is too sacrosanct and personal to be effective in a movie.
3) Stones music better captures the transition from the 1960s to 1970s.
4) Beatles are still viewed as symbolizing the 'innocent" side of the 60s.

There are notable examples Beatles music being used in clever ways, but usually in the form of cover versions. Fiona Apple's dreamy version of "Across the Universe" in Pleasantville brings the movie to a surreal conclusion. There's Robert De Niro wistfully reflecting in Once Upon A Time In America as a muzak version of "Yesterday" plays in the background. The Mutato Muzika Orchestra did a sublime version of "Hey Jude" over the opening credits of Wes Anderson's droll 2001 film The Royal TenenbaumsThe solo work of the band has tended to work better in film. When "Imagine" plays at the end of The Killing Fields it's unbelievably resonant.

Yesterday from earlier this year serves as a test case of Beatles music failing to carry a movie. The premise of Yesterday imagined an alternate reality where the Beatles never became famous. When a fledgling musician from our timeline introduces their music to the world, which he passes of as his own (until a change of heart), he's propelled to super-stardom. But in 2019 Beatles' music plays as middle of the road indie-folk rock, attracting crowds united by their consumerism and passion for what's popular. Without any context, there's something hollow about the music.

From the beginning cinema and the Stones were well suited for each other. Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger as a decadent rock star featured "Memo From Turner", not a Stones song per se, but one with Jagger on vocals and some suggestive lyrics by he and Keith Richards. Martin Scorsese's breakout film Mean Streets used their music even more effectively. When Harvey Keitel enters the film "Tell Me" channels his ecstatic state of mind as he enters the club. "Jumpin Jack Flash" served as an appropriate introduction to De Niro's Johnny Boy. 

The Rolling Stones would be at the center of Scorsese's cycle of mob films running from Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. "Gimme Shelter" would be used in all three of them to potent effect. The apocalyptic lyrics with sexual undertones play well during the high points as the characters free fall to their fates. The use of "Monkey Man", "Let it Loose," and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin" enhance the dark themes of these films and the internal conflicts of the characters. 

Other directors have used The Rolling Stones to great effect. Stanley Kubrick ended Full Metal Jacket with "Paint it Black" as the sardonic end to his Vietnam War film. The Big Chill used "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (a song even more culturally loaded these days) to drive home a poignant moment. Wes Anderson has drawn from some of the quirkier cuts from their catalog to suit his distinct style. 

No doubt future films set in the 1960s and 1970s will continue to turn to The Rolling Stones. Part of the reason is also Mick Jagger's vocal style - employed more as an instrument to accompany the band instead of leading it. Never polished or melodic, Jagger's singing is always direct and on point. When The Beatles harmonized they made a beautiful sound, but the Stones had attitude. 

That's not to say The Beatles are a wash when it comes to movies. Go the Fab Four themselves: Do a triple feature of A Hard Day's Night, Help, and Yellow Submarine and you'll get great examples of using their music on film. Beatles' music tends to work best when it's inside their universe. For deeper cuts track down Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be (criminally not available in any format). 

People are so close to Beatles song, placing one in the middle of a movie borders on sacrilegious. Playing "Revolution" over a Nike commercial and the outrage it created was completely understandable. Placing "Start Me Up" over a Microsoft commercial appeared hip and cutting edge. 

The never ending Beatles vs Stones debate will go on indefinitely, but in terms of movies the Stones have a the advantage.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #7 Solaris (1972)

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarktovsky's Solaris is a haunting and beautiful Sci-fi film full of mystery. Methodically paced, Solaris is the Yang to the Yin of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Western Sci-Fi movies have their own preoccupations, usually with technology and gadgets. Even though Solaris is mostly set in space, technology serves as no more than an appendage. Tarktovsky is more concerned with the human condition in the universe.

The story centers on a psychologist (Kris) who is sent to a space station to investigate a series of strange events. Crew members have disappeared without explanation. There may be ghosts aboard. When Kris arrives the survivors are secretive and distant. His deceased wife Khari also returns, but it's not necessarily her. An intelligence seems to be manipulating the environment for unexplained reasons. 

Solaris is a film to be experienced. The first 40 minutes take place on a futuristic earth. Karl lives in an idyllic countryside with streams, blades of grass, in a blues and green landscape. He's being briefed about his mission through an archival film that looks like a staged documentary. Then a hypnotic sequence through a freeway into a city that goes on for about five minutes, transporting you to a different place.

Once on the space station the Solaris turns into a metaphysical mystery. Basic questions of life, death, and existence are all raised. What is the difference between dream and reality? What role does love play? Solaris defies interpretation, each viewing experience will conjure an array of emotions and responses.  


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood creates a sense of time and place you are loathe to depart as the end credits roll. The film marks a departure for Tarantino whose recent films like Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight are arresting chamber pieces memorable for their descent into cartoon violence (we get some of that here, but dramatically dialed down). Like Jackie Brown, Once Upon A Time is leisurely paced - allowing the audience to soak in the sun drenched period ambiance. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt is his stunt man Cliff Booth. Dicaprio and Pitt each received top billing, a call back to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno

Rick starred in a popular TV Western in the early 1960s and attempted to make the leap to the big screen with mixed results. Now he's reduced to doing guest spots on episodic television as the heavy. He's conflicted about offers to make Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a genre he considers a further step down the career ladder.

Cliff is a reliable and loyal friend to Rick, but is haunted by a checkered past. He's confrontational and displays some violent tendencies that go on display during an encounter with Bruce Lee. Cliff lacks direction and gets himself into odd situations such as stumbling upon the Spahn Ranch outside of Los Angeles where he discovers a gathering place for strung out hippies. Pitt and Dicaprio have a great chemistry, channeling the Newman/Redford buddy comedy dynamic.

Margot Robbie portrays real life actress Sharon Tate. A rising star married to Polish director Roman Polanski, Tarantino's camera follows Sharon around as she goes about her daily life. She goes to the movies, Hollywood parties, listens to rock records, and gladly signs autographs for her fans. The "fly on the wall" approach does conjure a sense of dread, but also a moving portrait of a young women enjoying life in Hollywood.

Tarantino sets specific tones for each story line that nicely blend into each other. DiCaprio's sections are all about acting and aging, the pressures of nailing a scene. Robbie's scenes are reminiscent of a light hearted cinema verite film. Pitt's are more action driven and suspenseful, not unlike the classic TV shows referenced throughout the film like Mannix and The F.B.I. Without getting into spoilers - the story lines converge in the final act. 

In the midst of all this is the changing culture of 1969. Although Easy Rider is never referenced (not to my recollection anyway), the New Hollywood directors were on the cusp of bringing their visions to American cinema. Studios were desperately trying to connect with a youth audience. Cliff and Rick symbolize old Hollywood and worry the times are passing them by. They despise hippies, but also find aspects of the counterculture attractive. Their shared angst about the future plays well with overarching theme of the film: the combined sense of excitement and loss during a time of transformation.

Tarantino's most mature and self-assured film to date, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood reminds us movies can still be transportive, evocative, and exciting.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #6: The Stepford Wives (1975)

Men (some) have always attempted to silence women. When his wife wonders why all the women act so strange in the neighborhood he tells her it's all in her head. When women assert themselves as a group some men get really nervous and defensive. Terms like socialist or communist will be tossed around, or the old standby Un-American. The Stepford Wives explores the patriarchal forces in post-feminist America.

The premise of the story is well known: men at the Stepford suburb are building sexy female robots to replace their wives who are getting older and more outspoken. When the film's protagonist Joanna (Katherine Ross) confronts the builder of the robots he challenges her, arguing women would've replaced their husbands if they had figured out the technology first, suggesting the war of the sexes was no different than the Space Race. The simplification speaks to the corrosive motives of these men. 

William Goldman's script adds depth to the already well written novel by Ira Levin. The themes resemble Levin's Rosemary's Baby: gas lighting, paranoia, and reactionary America. Joann is more savvy and self-assured than Rosemary, she's a mother and pursues photography. Her husband Walter is at least 10 years older, a workaholic lawyer who immediately joins the Men's Association of Stepford. Everything's idyllic at first, but Joann begins to notice strange behavior among the women. 

Joann befriends Bobbie, another newcomer to Stepford, an iconoclast wonderfully played by Paula Prentiss. Bobbie supplies comic relief and has a great BS detector. Joann and Bobbie start to investigate when they notice the other wives only care about housework and looking good for their husbands. They wonder if there's something in the water. But the conspiracy goes much deeper.

The Stepford Wives also satirizes consumerism and white flight. Like many middle class white Americans in the 1970s Joann and Walter moved into the suburbs for the "good schools, low taxes, and clean air." It's revealed at one time the community hosted feminist icon Betty Friedan suggesting a social ferment was arising, but it was quashed by the Men's Association. Joann feels constrained by the suburban setting, longing for the energy of the city. The inherent conservatism of the suburb seems to act as a check against the progressive milieu of the city. 

The lush look of the film makes the community look like a Disneyland fantasy of a suburb. The use of the supermarket as the spiritual center of the town reinforces the theme.

The Stepford Wives holds up remarkably well. A direct influence on Jordan Peele's Get Out and the Netflix series Black Mirror, the film has taken a new relevance in the current social and political climate. 

**** (out of 4)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Yesterday (2019)

Movies inspired by The Beatles have an erratic track record. The infamous 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured the Bee Gees and purported to be inspired by the epochal album. Across the Universe from 2007 clumsily tried to redefine Beatles music set to fictional vignettes from the 1960s. A better attempt was I Wanna Hold Your Hand from 1978, Robert Zemeckis's debut film on the early days of Beatlemania. The best remains The Rutles from Monty Python, a madcap satire. Even better are films featuring the Fab Four themselves - no movie will ever have the explosive immediacy of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night.

Yesterday imagines a world without The Beatles. Himesh Patel stars as struggling musician Jack Malik. After a worldwide power outage he slips into a different timeline. Lily James co-stars as his manager Ellie, she's the only one who believes in his music. A key flaw in the film is that it never fully explores what the world would actually look like without John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In Yesterday, things look pretty much the same as our own. 

Jack starts performing Beatles songs and his videos go viral. Ed Sheeran takes notice of Jack's talent and gets him a record deal. Kate McKinnon enters the picture as a greedy recordcompanry executive who wants to make big money off of Jack's music. He's conflicted, but the temptation of fame and money are too much to resist. 

The central conceit of Yesterday is that The Beatles were simply about the music. But they were also cultural revolutionaries who arrived at specific time within a specific historical context. Music from any era is mostly forgotten by the next generation, or will get sucked of its subversive meaning by the culture industry (e.g. Nike using Lennon's "Revolution" to sell shoes). 

Yesterday gives us the non-threatening mop tops. The soundtrack sticks mostly to the top 20 songs everyone knows, performed as uninspired indie rock. That's the gloomy conclusion I take from the film, it's yet another pointless exercise in nostalgia way too common in pop culture these days. Yesterday's false optimism is a burdensome weight to carry. 

A baffling scene towards the end (an extremely awkward cameo) speaks to the hollow premise of Yesterday. As a romantic comedy, Jack and Ellie's ups and downs are conventional. Stay at home and dust off Abbey Road.

** out 4

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #5: Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block is one of the best genre films of the decade. Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the film's razor sharp social commentary make it an instant classic deserving of a larger audience. Like the best Spielberg films, Attack the Block uses setting and character development to full effect. At the same time it's suspenseful and scary. Predating Stranger Things by a few years, Cornish's fresh approach not only paid homage to Spielberg, but built upon all those films from the Eighties.

John Boyega (in a star making role) stars as Moses, the thoughtful leader of a gang in South London. On Guy Fawkes night Moses and his gang rob a young woman Samantha (Jodie Whitaker) to impress the local ganglord HI-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). Our first impression of these characters is a negative one that plays on stereotypes: the non-white gang harassing a helpless white woman. Then a feral creature crashes from the sky and the alien invasion begins.

We get to spend time with the gang, getting used to their dialect and sense of camaraderie. They live in a low income section of London and know most of society fears and looks down upon them. At one point Moses wonders if the aliens were sent by the government to kill black boys. Once they realize the creatures are dangerous the boys take it upon themselves to defend the block.

There's a kinetic quality to the action sequences. Set to a hip hop and reggae soundtrack, the film zooms along at a frenetic pace. The script is smart and funny. Thomas Townend's cinematography provides a sense of space and place as we move along with gang on their bicycles and motorbikes. The nighttime lighting also looks amazing. Each character is given a distinct look that adds to the story. Minor characters are given memorable moments.

None of the characters are cardboard cutouts, each is given a memorable moment. Samantha eventually ends up joining the boys in their battle with the the aliens, but she never lets them off the hook for robbing her earlier in the evening. Moses redeems himself through the course of the night, realizing he made a mistake and atones for it. At the same time the film allows the audience to realize the social forces that led to the mugging.

Attack the Block is subversive because it's about empathy, slicing through heavy handed media rhetoric on issues of race, crime, and poverty. A genre film told from the perspective of the underclass against a world that pre-judges them because of their accents and backgrounds. Like John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York groups of disparate characters must work together against a common foe. 

So if you've not seen Attack the Block it's well worth your time. At 88 minutes the film flies by.

**** out of 4

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #4: Dark City (1998)

Dark City was part of the late 90s wave of "What is reality?" themed films that included The Thirteenth Floor, Existenz, The Game, and The Matrix. Film critic Roger Ebert championed Dark City as a modern masterpiece and even recorded a commentary track for the DVD. I suspect Ebert's influence opened the film to a whole new audience in the days when a critic held such influence. A combination of film noir and science fiction, director Alex Proyas's intriguing premise of a movie remains a classic.

Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man living in a strange city resembling an Edward Hopper painting. Murdoch is at the center of a murder investigation. His wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) sings at a Casablanca type nightclub and Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is on the case. Kiefer Sutherland plays a mysterious doctor who appears to know more than he lets on about the secrets of the city. Meanwhile menacing figures in trench coats out of a German expressionist film are watching everybody.

Dark City reveals its secrets at a methodical pace. The place is dreamlike and instantly compelling. It's a movie to watch after 3am. A philosophical theory popularized by Bertrand Russell known as "Last Thursdayism" speculates that all we know of the world may be from recent memory, maybe we were born last Thursday with implanted memories. How would we know? Blade Runner also plays with the idea, but Dark City takes it further. The scenario is like a well planned science experiment with serious side effects. What begins as a murder mystery turns in a speculative fable on what it means to be human.

Alex Proyas took inspiration from all the giants of German Expressionism like Fritz Lange and F.W. Murnau, and also looked to Orson Welles. Ebert's commentary does a great job of pointing out all these influences. He also speculated on where Proyas might go as a director, comparing him to Stanley Kubrick because of their meticulous approach to making movies. 

His return to Sci-Fi with I Robot starring Will Smith was a misfire. I've not seen Garage Days or Knowing. Gods of Egypt from 2014 also flopped. For years Proyas was in pre-production on an epic adaptation of Paradise Lost that was to star Bradley Cooper as Lucifer and feature an amazing supporting cast. I remember looking forward to that one, but it fell through for financial reasons.  It's always frustrating to learn about these unrealized projects from directors with great potential. Nevertheless, Dark City is a must see, a stunning vision worth multiple viewings.

***1/2 out of 4

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #3: Contact (1997)

Contact brought some high minded science fiction to multiplexes back in 1997. Based on the Carl Sagan novel, the film had been in development for several years. Coming off the success of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis took on the project. In its 20 year life span Contact has gone in and out of fashion. For starters, it's an easy film to pick apart piece by piece. Not everything works, and at 150 minutes there's an excess of plot. Few Hollywood films will even touch the science vs religion debate and Contact managed to pull it off with some nuance. The pro-science tone of the film, in spirit of Sagan's famous adage, "extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence" stands in contrast to the anti-science sentiments in the political sphere these days.

Jodie Foster stars as Ellie Arroway, an astronomer dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. Young Jena Malone plays Ellie as a child when she found her passion for astronomy as an escape to deal with the loss of her parents. Matthew McConaughey co-stars as an idealistic Christian who befriends Ellie, but will betray her at a key moment. Although the romance between them never quite comes off, their differing world views provide some thematic tension. McConaughey is believable as the spiritual guru and brings some energy to his scenes.

The film begins with a memorable opening shot that pans across the universe set to a lively soundscape of iconic sound bytes, it was the shot that envisioned to open Jodorowsky's Dune. Zemeckis maintained the pace well enough, especially in the many scenes with people in a room talking. Multiple screens are employed, a technique used in many of his movies. The sequence when the scientists discover the alien signal is also well shot, an impressive feat since everyone is looking at screens and yelling. Inserting CGI clips of President Bill Clinton are distracting and only served to date the movie. I speculate the purpose was to add a layer of reality as many media figures of the era also appear such as Larry King and and other figures from 90's era CNN.

After Ellie's team discovers a signal from the star Vega schematics are discovered to build a spaceship. Much of the drama in the second act revolves around who will be selected to go. Tom Skerrit plays Ellie's former mentor (Drumlin) and eventual nemesis, a stock character wrong about everything. Even though Drumlin's disparaged her work throughout the film, he gets selected because he's a believer. The public wants no atheists in space. Government officials played by James Woods and Rob Lowe who deny Ellie at every opportunity are also cardboard caricatures. When the first attempt goes awry, a reclusive billionaire played by John Hurt has a second ship prepared for Ellie. Her cosmic voyage at the end to be effective and even brave in the way it plays out, yet left many nonplussed.

On the science vs religion question, Contact aspires to split the difference. Both religion and science believe in powerful forces. One is based on faith and the other on evidence. Ellie's experience changes her, opening her to possibilities, but I would not agree she's been "saved" and will join the flock. The film ends with Ellie encouraging a group of children, directly addressing a young girl and encouraging her to be skeptical and to seek out her own truth. Foster's performance carries the film, we sense her isolation in a world where just about every man tells her she is wrong.

Carl Sagan passed away during the production of Contact, but his signature is all over the film. Sagan had a mystical way about him, he respected human spirituality as a moving expression or vessel of understanding the universe. He decried the increase in ignorance and pseudoscience in his book The Demon Haunted Earth. An apostle for science the world dearly misses, Contact is a good starting point for anyone interested to discover Sagan.

***1/2 out of 4

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #2: V For Vendetta (2005)

The pop dystopia of V For Vendetta builds and builds until is exhausts itself into a hollow spectacle. Based on the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore that was written as a response to the reactionary Thatcher regime of the 1980s. The film version came out of the post-9/11 era and there are numerous references to the rhetoric of Cheney/Bush. Never boring and full of imaginative imagery, V For Vendetta feels like Orwell's greatest hits filmed as a big budget MTV video.

The influence of Orwell's 1984 almost overwhelms the source material in this adaptation of V For Vendetta. John Hurt, who starred in a previous film adaptation of 1984 as Winston Smith, plays a Big Brother type leader who rules futuristic England with an iron fist. We learn the world has fallen into chaos and Great Britain's been ravaged by plagues and political violence. The regime is extremely conservative and targets anyone who challenges traditional values. One of the strongest sequences follows a female couple who were forced into a concentration camp for being open with their sexuality. The film does deliver a potent depiction of what a modern Fascist state might look like.

The story begins with Evey (Natalie Portman) accosted by two members of the secret police until she is rescued by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving). V then proceeds to blare the "1812 overture" over loudspeakers and blows up the "Old Bailey" (criminal justice building) in London. He lives underground and listens to his jukebox and spends hours reading literature. Charismatic and gentlemanly, he forms a beauty and the beast type relationship with Evey. Portman and Weaving both deliver strong performances, especially Weaving who is masked for the entire film.

The film remains aloof to what exactly V wants to accomplish. Is he an anarchist? A prophet? An agent of Satan? An agent of God? V appears to see himself as a catalyst for liberation from tyranny. Questions of terrorism are raised. Does an evil and repressive ruling class deserve a violent overthrow? When does a system get so corroded to the point where a revolution is necessity? Now that we are closer to this scenario in 2019 as opposed to 2005 the film remains relevant and unsettling as reactionary forces are now having their way in the West. V For Vendetta never provides a satisfactory answer to these questions, but does ignite a cinematic scream into the abyss. 

*** out of 4

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #1: Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star may not be as well known as other science fiction films from the 1970s, at least not on the level of Star Wars or Alien, but its influence is everywhere. Filmed over the course of three years by USC students, it was the first feature film directed by John Carpenter. Dan O'Bannon co-wrote and acted in the film. Anyone who's seen Jodorowsky's Dune knows the film caught the eye of the Chilean filmmaker who was developing the ill fated adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. Dark Star also sends up Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other heroic visions of space travel like Star Trek.

The film begins with a four man crew in a claustrophobic ship. Their mission is to blow up unstable planets to clear the way for colonization. In their endless free time they bicker with each other and have the same conversations over and over. Crew member Boiler spends all his time on the observation deck watching the stars float by. Doolittle dreams about surfing.  Talby is about to lose his mind, while Pinback (O"Bannon) is an annoying know it all. The ship's leader Commander Powell was killed in an accident, but remains alive in cryogenic sleep. Meals are eaten out of liquid tubes. Space travel here is a never ending wave of monotony, an empty existence with no purpose.

In an extended sequence of physical comedy Pinback tries to capture the ship's pet alien that's literally a beach ball (a scene that would be recycled in Alien). Later a malfunction prevents a nuclear bomb from dropping and creates an existential crisis. Doolittle engages in a philosophical discussion with the bomb that recalls HAL from 2001, a simple dialogue evoking Cartesian doubt and Plato's allegory of the cave. A poignant ending ensues as the crew members meet their fate.

Dark Star provides irreverent humor of many varieties. Boredom can be funny, especially ennui in the workplace in films like Clerks and Office Space. Pinback keeps a video diary where he talks trash about the crew and admits to impersonating an officer plays like a precursor to youtube videos. When they revive Commander Powell he asks, "How did the Dodgers do?" The look of the spaceship is grungy and things break down constantly. Everything from The Simpsons to Spaceballs owes something to Dark Star. The sound design is also inventive, clearly influenced by George Lucas's THX-1138.

A true collaboration between O'Bannon and Carpenter, both had long careers in Hollywood. Alien has an almost identical plot reconfigured as a horror film with a bigger budget. Carpenter would have a remarkable run of films including Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing. O"Bannon would play a major role in 80s Sci-Fi movies in writing and special effects. He also directed the 1985 cult classic Return of the Living Dead

***1/2 out of 4

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Dead Don't Die **** (2019)

Few filmmakers have deconstructed movie genres better than Jim Jarmusch. Whether it be the western with Dead Man, the vampire film in Only Lovers Left Alive, or mobster/samurai flick in Ghost Warrior - Jarmusch tells his stories in a minor key and The Dead Don't Die is no exception.

The film begins with the standard shots of a creepy graveyard. Chief Cliff (Bill Murray) and deputy Ronnie (Adam Driver) are investigating reports of stolen chickens. Murray and Driver are deadpan as a zoned out Andy Griffith and Barney Fife in the small town of Centerville, "a nice place to live." They're also vaguely aware they may exist in a horror movie. News reports start to come in of the earth's rotation being out of whack due to fracking, a rumor the energy department dismisses as alarmist.

Jarmusch regulars populate the film. Danny Glover runs the hardware store and Tilda Swinton goes full on mystical as the funeral home manager/martial arts master. Tom Waits appears as a philosophical Grizzly Adams and Steve Buscemi is the local MAGA man. The Americana here is still one of people having conversations in diners, cars, and gas stations. Centerville is the last place to get the news - receiving it through a huge RCA radio was an especially nice touch.

As a chamber piece The Dead Don't Pie has the feel of a 1950s screamers like The Blob or Them! George Romero's zombie films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are referenced several times in meaningful and clever ways. Driver's Deputy Ronnie states many times in a recurring joke, "this isn't going to end well." Welcome to 2019 America. 

The town is ill equipped and has no chance of stopping the zombie infestation. Centerville looks like a mid-century time warp with all of the old radios and cars featured on screen. The country music channel is the only one going. Everyone's clinging desperately to a sense of the past that's delusional and fictional. No one is looking to the future, everyone's lost in a retro time warp - not unlike the virtual world in Ready Player One. The line between the living and dead blurs in more ways than one.

Did I mention this a comedy? A more "dead on" than most of what passes for mainstream comedy these days. Jarmusch reminds the end of time will be a riot. The increasingly nihilistic tone of the in the last 20 minutes dares us to sit back and laugh at the macabre spectacle playing out. And stupid zombie movies. And stupid Americana. And stupid authority. The Dead Don't Die is a masterpiece in catharsis.