February 27, 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Denzel Washington

Hey remember when Denzel made that movie about holding a hospital hostage to try and get his son medical care? It pretended to be an action movie, but was really a commentary on the messed up health care system of the US. This is kind of like that.

This movie has been panned pretty thoroughly by every avid movie watcher I know, and understandably so. It's not really a movie. It is, technically, of course, but it's so laden with morality speeches and over-the-top scenarios to demonstrate said morality that it feels more like something you show a high school class to provoke discussion. It's also really slow.

On the other hand, I didn't hate it. Maybe it's my bias toward social justice issues, especially those regarding the legal system and how it disproportionately affects low-income defendants and people of color, but the movie definitely hits those points without confusion. The plot arc is clear and Denzel you know, does his Denzel thing. His performance of the socially awkward (autistic?) but torch-carrying activist, though not necessarily consistent all the way through, makes the movie worth watching.

At the end of the day, I'm usually pleased I've watched movies like this. They are not the most entertaining, nor are they the type of movie I'd necessarily recommend to others. But it's not part of a blockbuster franchise and it made me think--a rarity these days. So while this movie is guaranteed not to actually win anything at the Oscars, I'm glad movies that try to convey a message are still being made and getting attention called to them. Maybe one of these days someone will actually make a "social issues thriller" that hits the mainstream.

Final word: John Q but for the legal system.

February 26, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell, et al

It's a Catch-22. I can't imagine anyone would watch this sequel without watching the first Guardians of the Galaxy, yet anyone watching this sequel after watching the first one must invariably be disappointed. It's not the writer's fault, I suppose. It's almost impossible to follow up a well-loved original. You have to retain everything people loved about the first movie while somehow trying to create new development.

What generally makes a movie successful is one (or more) of three basic things: good character development, exciting plot points, or some kind of twist the audience didn't anticipate. The first Guardians of the Galaxy had all three: we liked each of the characters (though none more than Groot, really), exciting adventures, and a lot of humor thrown in at just the right time. This second movie tried hard on points #1 and #2, but the element of surprise humor was sorely lacking. Instead, it seemed like we got a paler version of the first movie. A lot paler.

There was a giant gaping hole in the form of Groot. Sure sure, he's a baby tree now and he's adorable, but that only goes so far. And they stretched it much further than he could handle. Babies are cute; they can't serve as half the jokes in a movie. This isn't Look Who's Talking. And while the addition of Nebula added some dimension to Gamora's character, the addition of Ego seemed to do the opposite for Peter. Chris Pratt lost most of the charm he spent the first movie building up and when you're the main character, that's a blow to the entire movie. He was completely shown up by the supporting characters--I found myself wishing they'd cut away from his storyline so I could see more of Drax and Mantis.

In my review of the first movie, I mentioned that I'm able to overlook a predictable plot and cliche scenes when the rest of the movie is good enough. The rest of this movie was not good enough to warrant the same graciousness. Even Kurt Russell couldn't change that.

Final word: This is our life now. Franchises of mediocre movies that provide just enough entertainment to keep the masses from boycotting and demanding better quality storytelling.

February 23, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe


Where to start? Where to end? Does it really matter?

This movie is reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild. It hinges on the acting ability of a small child (who does an excellent job, by the way) and shows an intimate portrait of the day-to-day life of those living in poverty. And like Beasts of the Southern Wild, I found it mostly boring and kind of pointless.

Like, yes, they are poor. They have problems. I have both sympathy and judgment. But what else? Why should I care about these characters? Just because one is a child?

I don't mean to sound overly contemptuous. I tend to enjoy dramas that focus on the harsh realities of life. This one just didn't click for me. It was a series of events about people I never grew to care about, without an easily identifiable story arc. It's almost like a reality show, but with a lot less cursing.

It's not a bad movie, but I am confused about how it caught the attention of the Academy. I'm not sure what makes it stand out more than the average indie film, other than having Willem Dafoe in it. Who, by the way, is perfectly pleasant to watch but I'm not sure I would count it as one of the top five supporting roles of the year.

I just-- *head shaking* *shrug emoji* *question mark*

Final word: Not. For. Me.

February 21, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan

This is a movie that has been celebrated with a jubilation I haven't seen since Star Wars was resurrected, and rightly so. It is a huge barrier breaker, with an all-black cast, a black director, and an all around celebration of black culture, beauty, and power. It broke $400M opening weekend ($242M of which was domestic)--more than Justice League earned in its entire domestic run. To say this movie is having a moment would be an understatement.

There is so much to love about Black Panther. The costumes and setting are both beautiful and vibrant. Seeing a movie set in Africa without the usual signs of abject poverty and/or wild animals is both refreshing and sadly rare. The tech gadgets dreamt up rival that of a Bond movie. And Danai Gurira's portrayal of the warrior Okoye is so badass I briefly considered shaving my head while watching the movie.
But it's the overall message of the movie that is winning over audiences. This idea of a magical, peaceful kingdom in Africa--untouched by colonizers and a history of slavery--run by powerful black role models is something we have sorely needed. Even the prerogative of the villain, Killmonger (whose hair we really need to talk about), complicated with a thread of truth and morality, had to be overly violent just to make sure audiences knew he was supposed to be the bad guy.

So it is with all of these glowing compliments that I hesitantly say: I didn't love it. I loved a lot of the components of it (as cited above), but not necessarily the sum total. For one thing, the action sequences weren't the most exciting. Maybe I've been binge watching too much Vikings, but it's hard for me to see anyone a fearless warrior if they're holding anything more powerful than two hatchets. In all seriousness, how is it exciting to watch someone fight in an impenetrable suit that absorbs the power of a freaking grenade? Like, how can you even die? Where's the suspense? (Though at the same time, the conception of that suit is amazing. I want it.) For another, it was terribly predictable. I know, I know, superhero movie--maybe I'm asking too much, but considering how much else the movie got right, it would have been nice to have had at least one surprise in the thing.

I love that this movie was made and I am happy I supported it in going (on opening weekend, no less!). The joy it has brought people of color, I imagine, is similar to how I felt in watching the opening sequence of Wonder Woman. Representation matters. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that this movie didn't blow me away. It wasn't made with me in mind. And that's ok.

Final word: This movie was long overdue and a moment of reckoning for Hollywood's long-held  stereotypes of people of color.

February 7, 2018

Dunkirk (2017)

*string of shrug emojis*

I don't know the official numbers but my guess would be that WWII would be one of the most covered subjects in the history of film. It's understandable. Everyone learns about it in school, it has easily defined "good guys" and "bad guys," and oh yeah, we get to be the good guys.

The problem is, in such a crowded field of memorable WWII movies, it's difficult to stand out. What story hasn't been told by now? Enter: the battle of Dunkirk. It's an amazing true story, about an insane attempted rescue of soldiers stranded on the coast of France and surrounded by German soldiers. But if I learned anything from last year's Hacksaw Ridge, it's that a good story in real life doesn't not necessarily make for a good 2 hour movie.

For one thing, I couldn't tell anyone apart in this movie. Seriously. That's always a risk when you have a bunch of actors who aren't super prominent, but when they're all dressed in the same uniform, barely speaking, and covered in dirt and oil? If the camera hadn't zoomed in with intensity every couple minutes, I would have literally no idea what happened to individual characters.

Then there's the matter of Tom Hardy. It's not that I have a positive or negative view of him, but there was no point of casting him in the movie other than listing his name on the movie poster. He wears a pilot mask the entire time and you can barely even make out his voice, let alone words through the thing. The part could have been played by a mannequin and a voice over and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. It just seemed like a colossal waste of his time.

But even setting aside the casting issues, this movie is just dull. I can get behind a silent movie. I even liked The Artist. But this movie felt like it was trying to be much deeper and more meaningful than it was by going the limited-dialogue-route. It's just a bunch of events strung together by a bunch of guys that look the same. The only thing that makes it dramatic is the score. And I guess knowing it's a war movie so you know, bombs and stuff? Of course terrible things happen during war (because again, WAR), but it started to feel like Gravity all over again where it's like, how many terrible things can happen to one person in the span of a few hours? But at least this didn't have Sandra Bullock's panicked voice. Or really any voice, for that matter.

I don't want to say the movie was terrible because I made it all the way through without rolling my eyes, so that's something I guess. But it was such a pedestrian take on a story, dressed up as something deeper and more artsy, that the whole thing left me sort of annoyed. At the end of the movie I found myself saying aloud, "That's it?" And that's a perfect summary for it.

Final word: If more people read history books movies like this wouldn't have to be made and I wouldn't have to sit through them.

February 1, 2018

Molly's Game (2017)

Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner

It takes all of about fifteen seconds in to know this is an Aaron Sorkin movie. The fast dialogue, rapid cut scenes, tone balanced between serious and snarky--they're a dead giveaway. Of course, there are the random few crazies out there who don't care for Sorkin (I assume they exist, I've never actually met any), but for everyone else, this is a terrific return to form after the disappointing Steve Jobs two years ago. 

I try not to know a lot about movies going in so I don't place false expectations on them, but I will say I wasn't necessarily excited to see this one. For one thing, it has a really stupid title. I understand it's a biography and has the same name as Molly Bloom's real book, but that doesn't make it any better. Also, the previews do not do it justice.

First of all, this story is wild. Even more so than I, Tonya, which is really saying something. Of course I Googled the fact vs fiction immediately after watching the movie and was stunned to see how much of it was actually true. This woman has had a crazy life. Two crazy lives. And she's only 39.

Also, she is my new hero. Yeah, yeah, I realize there's the whole "she broke the law and was addicted to drugs" part but I'm willing to look past them because holy sh*t is Molly Bloom is a go-getter. She is the driven, successful person we all think we could be, if only we weren't so lazy. My husband and I always joke about how we hate people who are successful in more than one arena (like she's brilliant and an Olympic-level athlete and not hideous? Bitch!), but it actually makes sense since they probably work harder at everything they do than 99% of the population. Or they started out rich. Either or.

What makes this movie successful is Sorkin's ability to weave various elements, people, and timelines together in a coherent way that keeps the story fast-paced without confusing people with flashbacks and flash forwards. This movie nails just about every detail, right down to the tiny portions of fiction needed to hold the story together. Literally the only gripe I have about this movie was the unnecessary reappearance of Kevin Costner to have him mansplain Chastain's entire life. This movie shows so much female-empowered kick-ass-ness (yes I said it) that to add that scene felt like an annoying concession to keep the movie from getting too feminist or something.

I have a feeling this movie is going to be overlooked come Oscar time because on its face, a story about an underground poker game doesn't seem to have the gravitas of sexual identity or journalistic integrity or a mixed species love story set to French music, but that would be the voter's mistake. This has been my favorite movie of the season thus far. Then again, maybe it's just Sorkin.

Final word: At a minimum, this movie will make you finally remember who the hell Jessica Chastain is.

You should also know going in that "Player X" is Tobey Maguire in real life. I feel completely vindicated that I've hated him all these years. If I'd had a psychologist as a father, he'd tell me I subconsciously knew he was a terrible person all these years and my mocking the Spiderman movies was just a manifestation of those feelings. Ha!