Thursday, April 28, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

***1/2 out of ****

I’ve always been under the impression that Richard Linklater is a director who usually gets what he wants. He continues to get modest-budget studio films shot and released even if such endeavors are losing their niche audience in theaters. When he makes a crowd-pleaser gig like School of Rock or Me and Orson Welles, it doesn’t look like a big compromise considering that he seems to enjoy the material while getting the studio respect necessary to do passion projects such as the true-crime comedy Bernie, the trippy sci-fi A Scanner Darkly, the twelve-year Boyhood project or his “Before” series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight).

At the risk of using an oxymoron, Linklater is the most casually ambitious director I can think of. He approaches any given project like he’s effortlessly following through with a dare and not much more of a thought than ‘Let’s see what happens.’ His second feature, Dazed and Confused had the audacity to follow in the footsteps of George Lucas’ American Graffiti as an all-in-one-night-teen-hangout movie with no famous faces –but with less story conflict and more fascination in the simplicity of observing a place and a time.

What’s amazing is that people dug it and it developed a cult following. The writer/director’s nostalgic communion of teen life in 1970s Texas connected with a lot of people.

In his new film, Everybody Wants Some!! the auteur quite deliberately – and successfully - hits all the same notes in his reflection of college life in the early eighties. The movie achieves an atmosphere similar to Peter YatesBreaking Away and you can expect historically accurate hair and clothing styles that range between cool and hideous. The soundtrack selections are on point too.

The only difference is that this premise is less likely to win the interest of the average viewer. Dazed had the benefit of reminding people of their teen years. Only a certain percentage of people have been to college and only some of those people were in a fraternity-like setting - and most people hate frat boys. Well… at least I do.

The movie is unapologetically steeped in the world of young jocks competing with one another, getting drunk and chasing girls as it follows a charismatic freshman enduring informal rites of passage with a house of college baseball players over the three days leading up to the first classes of the semester.

As with Dazed and Boyhood, Linklater uses the film to share his identity as a people-person who may conform to ritualistic behavior in order to fit in and make friends but still finds fascination in people who couldn’t be more different from those in his assigned tribe.

Each day in the film is marked with a visit to a different gathering representing a different kind of crowd, whether it’s at a country-western-themed bar or an underground punk club. The film expresses an interest in the variance of human factions, the individuals hiding within them and their respective philosophical outlooks, even if it’s all seen from the perspective of men engaging in obnoxious behavior.

With barely any actor who I found recognizable, I was satisfied with the fresh-faced cast in this film. I don’t think that Linklater has spent his career provoking the most realistic performances, but he’s a master of staging realistic situations, finding deep satisfaction in just watching his characters exist and experience life without imposing superficial situations. This movie is a party themed around an exclusive crowd, but as always, everyone is invited.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MY TAKE ON: Rogue One and More Star Wars Stories to Come

The trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has me very excited, regardless if it fails to be a great movie. Its director Gareth Edwards doesn't have the resume to guarantee the vast potential of Rian Johnson helming Episode VIII, but as I keep saying to prequel apologists everywhere, George Lucas' non-involvement will only make for a better Star Wars movie.

The content in the trailer does something very important: It shows me footage of the prequel that I was never given. You see, it took a little bit of retrospective realization that the biggest mistake of Lucas' prequel trilogy was that it didn't work as the first three episodes in a six-episode saga. Episodes I - III give away all the big secrets of Episodes IV - VI. 

If Lucas had been more clever, he might have invented all new characters who represent good people of the Old Republic and are told to turn to the Jedi for help. Eventually, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker get involved as mystical supporting characters but never divulge details about how their powers work. Eventually, it is implied that Anakin Skywalker has been killed, the Empire rises and a scary Sith Lord named Darth Vader is leading massacres of the Jedi -and any people who will not bow to the new Emperor. We never see what Yoda looks like; the Emperor is barely shown; there certainly isn't a cartoonish unfunny character intended as comic relief for infants; but above all, the films atmosphere of costumes and technology appropriately lead up to the limited production style of the original.

Rogue One looks to be the closest thing to such a vision coming true. Its detachment from the Skywalker family and its invention of all-new characters who exist in a time that appears as if it could lead up to only the minutes before the first grand shot of the first Star Wars movie. 

If there was anything that I appreciated about the 1997 Special Editions of the original Trilogy, it was the use of modern tools to recreate the film's spaceships and show them doing a little bit more. I could delve further into my opinion of those re-issues and the concept of digitally doctoring classic movies in general, but I'll save it for another entry. I'll just say that thanks to this trailer I've seen a dozen Star Destroyers surrounding the Death Star as it receives its finishing touches and I'm very stoked. 

Edwards and his co-writers (which interestingly includes ILM digital pioneer John Knoll) are likely to make a self-serious movie lacking the light-hearted element that made The Force Awakens work for me, but it's still more than likely be more effective at doom-and-gloom melodrama, digital cinematography, and special effects than Lucas' attempt at doing the same with Revenge of the Sith

I have yet to see Felicity Jones as anything more than a one-note actress with a pretty face, but this movie may not require a lot of emotional range from her character. Forest Whitaker looks over-the-top, Mexican actor Diego Luna looks a lot like Biggs Darklighter but doesn't speak in the trailer, Genevieve O'Reilly gets a second chance to shine as Mon Mothma (and not wind up on the cutting room floor of an inept prequel) and the briefly-seen Ben Mendelsohn is sure to be excellent.

Alexandre Desplat is among the best composers working today and demonstrates more versatility than any I can think of. I am very exited to hear what unique touch he has on the film's atmosphere.

I'm hoping that Disney/Lucasfilm choose to stylistically liberate themselves from the other Star Wars films in the "Star Wars Story" series. They could exercise the right to utilize the normally scarce cinematic techniques of the existing seven movies (Slow-motion, flashbacks, etc). I'd also be very happy if they don't use the Star Wars Theme and opening crawl at the beginning of any of them, reserving Williams' most famous piece for where it counts. 

I'm running out of metaphors for how Lucas wronged his own creation, so I won't use any. The beauty in what's happening now is that even when a subpar filmmaker is given a Star Wars project, if they really love Star Wars then I guarantee you that they love it more than George Lucas does and it may inspire their best work.

Midnight Special

*** out of ****

Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special is a science fiction film with a relentlessly dark tone that is only likely to engage hardcore fans of the genre - such as myself. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays against type in this thriller about a father on the run with a child, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who possesses powers that have captured the interest of a religious commune and the government.

It’s funny that in my review of Nichols’ excellent previous film, Mud, I jokingly compared it to E.T. because Midnight Special feels like a dark extended version of the third act to Spielberg’s classic movie.

Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Sam Shepard, and Kirsten Dunst all make excellent supporting characters in a story that may be escapist, but stays true to the southern, rural, blue collar atmosphere, which is a constant in Nichols’ work.

Another constant in his work is also short-spoken dialogue and an expectation for the audience to make connections. With this kind of character work on top of a heavy sci-fi mystery, I can’t deny that I found some of the film’s passages to be long and frustrating in their lack of emotional foundation. 

This is the kind of project that could have easily been developed into a TV show, but I’m glad that filmmakers like Nichols still believe in the self-contained form of a single movie as an experience, which one may want to re-experience if only to better understand it.


**** out of ****

Krisha is a movie with no famous faces, glamour or a feel-good tone – there is just about nothing going for it, aside from being a great movie. This festival favorite is about an aging mess of a woman struggling with sobriety in the upscale home of her sister on Thanksgiving. The movie manages to balance skillful cinematic techniques with a brutally realistic setting in the same way “Requiem for a Dream” did. The family gathering portrays suburban normalcy as a world of inescapable anxiety, through brilliant sound mixing and editing.

The film is so good at being true to itself that it has every reason to struggle in finding a wide audience, even though it will most likely engage anyone who bothers seeing it. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

** out of ****

Disney’s new “live action” version of The Jungle Book is another beautiful example of how far animation and effects artists have come with CGI creatures and environments. I’m still in awe of the ability to wield photorealistic imagery to any artist’s imaginative desire. Unfortunately, I’m gravely disappointed when all of this money, technology and effort are in the service of weak cinematic storytelling.

Disney is busy doing a lot of great things lately, but I’m not happy with their continued mission to remake their timeless animated classic films into quasi-live-action, quasi-musical, and quasi-entertaining special effects shows. In the case of the property of The Jungle Book, they already made a forgettable live-action version in the nineties, but this time, the production is much more ambitious.

This is where I have to explore the varied quality of Jon Favreau’s directorial career. Simple as it was, I found a lot of charm in his brief departure from mega-budget filmmaking two years ago with Chef. Most folks also seem to love watching Elf as a Christmastime classic and Iron Man was a wonderful launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the other hand, Iron Man 2 felt instantly stale, Cowboys & Aliens barely managed to pull off its daring genre combo, and now Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book is just… dull.

The story follows the orphaned boy, Mowgli, who was raised in an Indian jungle by wolves until it was decided that he must take a journey back to the world humans and grow up among his people, but he encounters dangerous animals and adventure along the way, which persuade him to stay in the jungle. 

The movie suffers from being tonally scatterbrained. The screenplay by Justin Marks (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) seems to depend on the vague arc of Mowgli finding courage, even though he doesn’t seem to lack any throughout the film. This version isn’t a musical, except when it decides to be one here and there. I was also reminded of Disney’s 2000 film, Dinosaur for sucking the majestic nature right out of its animal creations by giving some of them voices, which sound like contemporary comic personalities eager to talk about their first-world problems.

Quite often, the animation of the animals is so naturalistic, that the application of human voices seems as awkward as dubbing over footage of real animals. Admittedly, Ben Kingsley is a natural fit with Bagheera, the panther and Idris Elba works well as Sher Khan, the tiger. But then there’s Bill Murray’s Baloo, the bear, whose realistically limited facial expressions don’t fit the voice. This problem is even worse with various supporting animal characters, one of which is voiced by the late Garry Shandling.

While I haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s original story collection, I’m willing to go out on a limb (or hang from a vine) and say that this movie doesn’t bring us any closer his vision. Favreau strangely pays more tribute to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now when Mowgli visits King Louie (Christopher Walken), the giant ape, dwelling in the shadows of ancient ruins like Colonel Kurtz.

I also hate to pick on a child’s performance, but Neel Sethi’s challenging task in playing Mowgli has rather emotionally limited results. Granted, the kid probably had to use his imagination really hard while taking part in an animated film in the disguise of a live action one, but he doesn’t bring a lot of range.

Favreau, in interviews, has always struck me as a passionate guy with great insights, but sometimes successful directors don't show much evidence that they put their heart into a project. His generic family movie direction, Marks’ weak screenwriting and Disney’s lavish production (and ineffectual references to the animated version they're remaking) all seem to be in some kind of unintentional conflict. 

This is made worse by an overbearing score by John Debney, which renders the movie’s dramatic rhythm monotonous. I can’t be certain if kids will enjoy this movie or not. There are engaging moments and a creatively hypnotic look to the film, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Life of Pi or the charming comedy of the recent Zootopia –even though the movie feels like a mutant crossbreed between the two films.