Friday, July 21, 2017

Gonzo Planet: "Valerian" makes your eyes pop but can't make you care enough

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
137 min., rated PG-13.

Like Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s undeniably goofy but universally panned 2015 space opera “Jupiter Ascending” before it, Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” will likely become a cult classic when more audiences are willing to accept it in, oh, maybe the year 2030. Right now, though, this independently financed, $180-million-budgeted sci-fi fantasy adventure is a hot mess of gobbledygook that’s gorgeous to look at and sometimes fun to watch but empty where its heart should be. Adapted from a pre-existing property—“Valérian and Laureline,” the long-running 1967 series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières—that was said to have influenced “Star Wars,” it’s clearly an ambitious passion project for writer-director Besson to get the chance to swing for the fences and invite audiences to be tourists through each computerized environment in his new, exciting world with extravagant, innovative razzle-dazzle. A shame, then, that lead characters Valerian and Laureline are one-note duds, especially the first half of the couple, and the storytelling occasionally taking a dense, convoluted, expository page out of “John Carter.” It quite frequently dazzles and makes your eyes pop, but it won’t make you care enough.

In 2740, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are intergalactic government agents at a space station in Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. They’re partners, and they happen to be dating and talking about their future. Having their blissful vacation interrupted, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with their next mission to retrieve and protect a “converter,” the last-living species of the planet Mül that replicates anything it is fed. When they return with the hot commodity in hand, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) then alerts them that Alpha has become threatened by contamination, only for Valerian and Laureline to each be separated and rescue one another. Can these partners finally figure out who’s behind the genocidal war that dwindled the pearl-harveting civilization of Mül, and will Laureline stop resisting Valerian’s proposal?

Loaded with an unrestricted vision that borrows from “Total Recall,” “Blade Runner,” anything by Terry Gilliam, and even Luc Besson’s very own “The Fifth Element,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is so visually imaginative and gloriously bananas in ways that all summer blockbusters should strive to be. One can just see all 154 euros up there on the screen. The film’s opening-credits prologue might be its best and, then, its most breathtaking and immersive. First, a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” tracks the evolution of space exploration with humans from Alpha shaking hands with different alien species. Shooting 400 years later, the film grants time to admire and drink in the sprawling splendor of the harmonious Mül, a dreamy, idyllic beach planet, and its lanky, airless, androgynous race of inhabitants before a genocidal war nearly wipes all of them out. From there, the viewer is dropped into the middle of Valerian and Laureline enjoying the simulated beach setting and then instantly bantering like a couple arguing over who gets to be on top. They have a cheeky push-pull, but the majority of their one-liners are cornball clunkers and never especially funny. Both Valerian and Laureline have driver personalities, but he wants to marry her and she doesn’t think he’s ready to commit; their flirtatious sparring over a marriage proposal almost seems like an eye-rolling joke because we never get to know them.

Everything that doesn’t concern the actual plot is a thrilling technical achievement. When it comes to Valerian and Laureline’s mission, the stakes are never clear or palpable enough, and when it comes to their relationship, the intended drama and emotion just aren’t there. Luckily, there’s more than enough to delight the eyeballs to almost forgive the inadequacies of the script and its less-than-dynamic duo, but it’s ironic that the weak link of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” happens to be Valerian himself and his self-inflicted drama. Beyond a quick line about the loss of his mother that is addressed by a supporting character and then immediately dropped, nothing is learned about him. If this is the introduction of a franchise, or even if a sequel doesn’t ever see the light of day, shouldn’t the viewer know how Valerian became a federal agent in order to connect with him on his mission? Secondly, Dane DeHaan, one of the more magnetic and talented actors of his generation, is wildly miscast as Valerian. Smoldering and arrogant, we can believe, but DeHaan does not scream “ladykiller” with a rolodex of conquests, even though the script keeps insisting on it. He underplays so much that his delivery of would-be jokes feel more stilted than fun, and Valerian’s supposed arc comes out of nowhere. The headstrong Laureline isn’t written much better, but Cara Delevingne actually fares better than her fellow co-star and sells the playful repartee with the right amount of likability, confidence and feisty attitude. When the characters don’t have to keep talking about their relationship, one can more easily accept them as work partners who take turns saving each other.

For all of its flaws, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is too giddily overcrammed to ever be dull and will surely in no time find its passionate fans who see too-muchness as a big selling point. Writer-director Luc Besson still offers up so many dizzyingly weird and kaleidoscopic sights that it’s hard to dismiss the film too much. The aforementioned “converter” is an adorable armadillo-like creature that defecates pearls because, well, it can. Forced by a chatty trio of the platypus-like Doghan Daguis, Laureline sticks her head up the arse of a magical jellyfish to have her memory read. The desert Planet Kyrian transforms into a bazaar with the use of a virtual-reality helmet. Rihanna is her own special effect and delivers “wow” moments as shape-shifting “glamapod” named Bubble who spends her days doing cabaret acts in a red-light district and then finally finds a life-saving purpose for them when she helps Valerian, while Ethan Hawke gets to sport eye-liner and a nose ring chain as Bubble’s carnival-barking pimp. If Valerian and Laureline live to see another day and a sequel, they should either just let their eye-candy surroundings do the talking or actually have something more clever and interesting to say.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Fear the Ghost Sheet: “A Ghost Story” casts a poetic, profoundly moving spell

A Ghost Story (2017) 
87 min., rated R.

What happens after we die and leave those we love? Does the memory of us vanish or remain in our house? Do we leave behind anything? “A Ghost Story” is certainly not a conventional haunted-house film or even a horror film for that matter, but it ponders such questions of loss and leaving behind one’s legacy, as well as the mysteries of the hereafter. An elliptical, cosmically linked journey through the history of one house, spanning time and space, the film is a work of art that can't be spoiled because it's meant to be felt and experienced. Should anyone dismiss “A Ghost Story” for being soporific or not be taken with it will be missing out on writer-director-editor David Lowery’s  (2016’s “Pete’s Dragon”) poetic meditation of life, death and grief unlike any other, leaving the most open and willing viewers unprepared for its cumulative power and reflecting on his or her own life.

C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a couple living in a ranch home in Texas. They argue over moving; M wants to move closer to the city and C does not. One morning, C does not survive a fatal car accident when backing out of his driveway. As soon as M says goodbye to him at the hospital morgue, C rises up as a ghost, with the white sheet from the slab covering his whole body, and returns home. C has some unfinished business, acting as an observer of his wife, but like the note M leaves in the wall of any house she leaves behind, he is bound to the house, even after she leaves to move on with her life. Time passes and a new family moves in, but not even newly painted walls can discourage the ghost of C from finding his wife’s note hidden inside a crack in the wall. It’s the only piece of her left.

“A Ghost Story” is seemingly simple but emotionally and philosophically profound. The scope of the story starts small but widens as C soon exists on a supernatural plane, looking in at the world that pushed him out too early. As the ghost of C crosses over time as his house takes in new occupants, he is initially enraged, haunting a family and then later observing a party of soused hipsters. The film takes a little time from C to listen to one particular boozy guest (singer-songwriter Will Oldham), who waxes philosophical and, while feeling no pain, goes on a nihilistic rant about mankind’s artistic gifts to the world being all for nothing after the world ends. This scene, the most dialogue-heavy of them all, essentially sums up the bulk of filmmaker David Lowery’s existential aims. It’s not until C’s ghost enters a wormhole that takes him through the circle of life, finding himself traipsing through the future, the past, and then back to his life before death.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara reunite with director David Lowery after their work on 2013’s striking, Malick-y “Ain’t Them Bodies Saint.” Together, they re-establish their bond that feels nothing short of lived-in and never acted, and with their respective constraints (he’s underneath a white sheet and she has little dialogue), both actors individually cast such devastating imprints. Upending the childish perspective of a ghost in a sheet, Affleck communicates despair and loneliness with just a head tilt. Even when C comes across a fellow ghost, their exchanges are communicated through subtitles. As for Mara, there is a five-minute-long scene of M eating her feelings with a whole pie on the kitchen floor and then slowly erupting into tears, as the ghost of her husband watches her from the other room. It might be one of those scenes that gets everyone talking about, merely for Lowery’s gamble to shoot such a mundane activity in real time, but there is a deeply felt range of emotions that can be all found on Mara's face and conveys more than any dialogue could. One of the couple’s final moments together, too, is so authentic in its intimacy and how long Lowery and his DP holds the shot on them; in the wee hours of the morning after C and M are startled by a noise coming from their piano, they crawl back into bed and kiss and embrace one another before falling back asleep.

Imagining an actor walking around as the child’s idea of what an apparition looks like—cut-out eye holes, to boot—sounds almost too hokey and amusing to work, but that stark image, too, lends itself to a melancholic feeling. Given Lowery’s affinity for long takes and a languid rhythm, the film is fully handled with utter grace and poignancy. There is such a stillness to every frame that one can’t help but have their attention held in watching the bold execution of such a premise play out. Contributing to the film’s elegiac tone and hypnotic spell is the elegant lensing by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (2013’s “You’re Next”), all shot in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio resembling faded photographs. Another key ingredient is the music score by Daniel Hart, a frequent collaborator of Lowery’s, and it’s a superbly delicate piece of work that acts as the finishing touch on Lowery’s singular vision. Posing as one of C’s written and recorded songs, the immensely stirring “I Get Overwhelmed” by Hart’s band Dark Rooms also serves as the aching sadness felt by M, who’s transported back to the memory of her husband first sharing the story with her. Indefinable as an elevator pitch though it may be, “A Ghost Story” lingers and resonates as pure cinema that never dies. It’s forlorn and tender, beautiful and strange, quiet and lyrical, and challenging and evocative, and if one goes in with an open mind, it's a cinematic tour de force that makes you feel alive.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Intercutting Slaughters: Fairly effective "Killing Ground" offers little else than a time-flipping structure

Killing Ground (2017)
89 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

As if audiences needed another reason not to go camping in Australia or really anywhere, Australian horror-thriller “Killing Ground” is fairly effective in that regard, but it has little else going for it. Writer-director Damien Power advances from his work on short films with his feature debut, a solidly visceral and harshly unforgiving pic that’s lean and taut in its plotting and pacing, even as it shakes up linear chronology initially to tell its tale. There are two main timelines playing out that may or may not be occurring simultaneously, but it eventually becomes clear that the whole setup has been at the hands of a manipulative device. All that's left, then, is the exploitation of one-note creeps taking out nice, commonly drawn vacationers, and other films before “Killing Ground” have done that one better without such a storytelling gimmick and even more harrowing intensity and terror.

As soon as the couple arrives at a sandy, riverside clearing in New South Wales near Gungilee Falls to celebrate New Years, publisher Sam (Harriet Dyer) wastes no time to ask doctor boyfriend Ian (Ian Meadows) to marry her. At their campsite, they find an SUV and a neighboring tent but no sign of life. After their first night, Sam and Ian wake up to a flat tire and decide to end their trip a little early. Little do they know that German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), two gun-loving yahoos with a vicious canine in tow, have already been to that campsite and taken care of the family that’s now missing. Once the couple is separated, they’re both thrust into a terrifying ordeal.

Deceptively intricate and intriguing at first, “Killing Ground” unfolds as a three-tier narrative structure, interweaving one or two days apart between Sam and Ian, a family—a dad (Julian Garner), his wife (Maya Stange), their teenage daughter (Tiarnie Coupland) and their toddler son named Ollie (twins Liam and Riley Parkes)—and the two killers. How Damien Power and editor Katie Flaxman carefully transition from one piece of the puzzle to the next, it is riveting for a while, but at a certain point, it becomes clear that the film doesn’t have much else in store or on its mind. It’s still hard to take away the skilled talent behind the camera from Damien Powers, who guides spontaneous performances from his cast and capable cinematography by DP Simon Chapman (2017’s “The Devil’s Candy”) out of his wooded milieu.

The film admirably makes Sam more assertive than her male partner—and her wannabe maternal instincts do eventually kick in—and the catharsis at the end is satisfactory enough. More than any of German and Chook’s taunting menace (i.e. they aim to shoot beer cans off the heads of their victims but usually miss), there is one hair-raising tracking shot with a small child stumbling around in the background as Sam walks in the foreground to the car. As for much of the film, it’s just a tease that doesn’t really earn its occasional effectiveness and only pays off by making the brutality merciless for all ages. In spite of Damien Power showing artistic restraint where he can, “Killing Ground” pales in comparison to other films cut from the same blood-stained cloth, particularly fellow Aussie camping nightmare “Wolf Creek.”

Grade: C +

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Empty Box: Too many pulled punches water down silly "Wish Upon"

Wish Upon (2017)
89 min., rated PG-13.

A curious hybrid of a “be careful what you wish for” parable and a “Final Destination”-lite slasher is something one hasn’t seen in a while, though it feels closest to 1997’s dismal “Wishmaster,” itself an iteration of the 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. Trade a wish-granting djinn or a mummified monkey’s paw for a music wish box with a high school milieu and so it goes with “Wish Upon,” a discouragingly flaccid fractured fairy tale that seems to have been slashed to pieces in the editing room, not only speeding up the progression of the story but watering down the gorings. A film of this nature doesn’t exactly require gore or violence, but if it relies on the hook of a demonic wish box having a blood price, shouldn’t the freak accident-style deaths at least be effective and not look obviously truncated? Punches have been pulled and corners have been cut to earn a teen-friendly PG-13 rating.

After witnessing her depressed mother (Elisabeth Röhm) hanging herself in the attic of their family home when she was just a child, teenager Clare Shannon (Joey King) is now having trouble surviving high school. She has two best friends in Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser) but gets bullied by mean girl Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford) and pines after class hunk Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), while peer Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) has harbored a crush on her. When Clare’s junk-collecting father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), goes dumpster diving and finds an ornate music wish box with Chinese writing, he gives it to his daughter as an early birthday present since she’s taking a class in the language. As the box promises seven wishes, Clare makes a wish that her bully would “rot,” which she does, and that her crush would fall in love with her, which he does. See the pattern here? As each wish comes true, someone close to her gets taken from Clare—could it be her friend Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) or nice neighbor Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn)?—but as the box gives her a seemingly better life with financial riches, mall shopping montages and popularity, she likes the instant gratification, consequences be damned.

Something really creepy and thoughtful could have been done with this premise, but “Wish Upon” is pretty lame as both a horror movie and a nightmarish morality tale. Alas, the wickedly fun wish-fulfillment conceit is undermined by amateurish, heavy-handed direction by John R. Leonetti (2014’s “Annabelle”); a rushed, often dopey screenplay by screenwriter Barbara Marshall (2016’s “Viral”); and that damn compromised PG-13 rating that censors anything horrific in order to dodge an R. Early on, there is a little fun in Clare not being careful with the way she words her wishes and then seeing said wishes come to fruition, like the cruel Darcie Chapman waking up to her skin decomposing. From there, though, the film makes so many leaps that it’s hard to take any of it seriously, even as a real-world fantasy based on wishes. This film’s interpretation of popularity is having Clare walk into a party and have everyone (including a girl that hated her in the previous scene) cheering her on, and then after a character harms himself enough that an ambulance takes him away, he still shows up in school the next day. As much as Clare cries, there is just no weight to any of it. Also, for a director of photography on the first two “Insidious” films, Leonetti also shows none of the classy, atmospheric lensing and even little of the competence he displayed before, and no wonder because he isn’t his own cinematographer. 

The role of Clare, a modest, put-upon teen being enticed by getting everything she wants even at the price of others’ safety, was bound to make her a little less sympathetic in her rash and progressively selfish choices, but it’s hard to fault the accessible, baby-faced Joey King. Sydney Park has a vibrant, charismatic presence and provides levity as feisty gamer Meredith, one of Clare’s best friends, while Shannon Purser (best known as the gone-too-soon Barb in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”) deserved slightly more to do as June. Ryan Phillippe, now old enough to play a father, does what he can with such a thin role. Jonathan dumpster-diving with his friend across from Clare’s school embarrasses her, and why shouldn’t it? If he’s turning one man’s junk into his treasure, fixing it up and then selling it, that’s one thing, but it’s never made clear if Jonathan actually makes a living doing this. The viewer only ever sees the bearded Jonathan sitting around and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, until his once-failed jazz saxophone skills resurface and he can soon afford a razor.

When Clare finally realizes the price of her wishes and tries beating the curse, "Wish Upon" gets a little bit more interesting. As for the ways in which people meet their maker due to the blood price of the wish box, the film can't even get its calculated scares right, exploiting little fear with Victorian bathtubs, garbage disposals, elevator rides, and tire changes on the side of the road. The kills in the “Final Destination” series were usually unpredictable and elaborate by design but scarily unpreventable; the ones here are awkwardly staged, hilariously avoidable, and handled as perfunctory afterthoughts. Each set-piece builds with a modicum of squirmy suspense, but then cuts away so soon that a satisfying payoff is bungled; one death scene is so poorly shot and edited that one might actually miss how a character is impaled. Good for a few unintended giggles, the tame “Wish Upon” might satisfy undiscriminating teens who don’t yet have their driver’s license, but horror fans would have wished for a less silly script to tell this story. 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Nuns Gone Wild: Cast game to appall in often outrageous "The Little Hours"

The Little Hours (2017)
90 min., rated R.

There is a little Mel Brooks and some Monty Python running through the genetic make-up of “The Little Hours,” an irreverent bite of medieval lunacy that’s very amusing yet still stretched too thin even at 90 minutes. Loosely based on a collection of stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century text “The Decameron,” the film is farcical and anachronistic in that period nuns shout “fuck” a whole lot, but the source material is already about suppressed carnal desires anyway, so it seems only appropriate. Devout members of the Catholic Church will probably find all sorts of blasphemy with this convent-set sex farce or just not know what to make of it. With writer-director Jeff Baena (who already turned Aubrey Plaza into a zombie in 2014’s “Life After Beth”) attempting to make it more consequential than a nuns-gone-wild gimmick, “The Little Hours” is often comedically outrageous, even if it doesn’t take off as one might pray it would.

Set in 1346 in the Italian countryside of Garfagnana, “The Little Hours” begins with bored Sisters Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Genevra (Kate Micucci) verbally berating the groundskeeper at their convent, run by Mother Marea (Molly Shannon). The story proper begins when a manservant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is chased out of his master’s castle for committing adultery with Francesca (Lauren Weedman), the wife of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). Evading Bruno and his guards (Adam Pally, Jon Gabrus), Massetto comes across the boozy Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who’s just lost all of his convent goods in a stream. Grateful for the young servant’s help, Tommasso offers Massetto a job as the groundskeeper but asks him to pretend to be a deaf-mute, as the mouthy nuns harassed and scared away the last one. As soon as Massetto arrives, Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), who’s eager to leave the convent and be married, soon finds lust and give in to impulses that are deemed to be unholy. Pretty soon, the whole convent starts falling into wickedness right before Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen) shows up.

Many individual moments—like Tommasso’s reaction to Massetto confessing sodomy—hit their mark and are more sinfully funny than the whole, which doesn’t stick around long in the memory. When the comedy suddenly stops, it then ventures into being about something more, introducing the beguiling Marta (Jemima Kirke), who practices witchcraft and seduces the already-vicious Sister Fernanda and, by accident, Genevra. Under the direction of an outline rather than a shooting script by Jeff Baena, the cast is game to appall in a way that’s broad enough to remain silly, especially the foulmouthed, habit-clad Aubrey Plaza. The wonderfully offbeat Kate Micucci deserves props for fearlessly running with the arc of guileless busybody Sister Genevra, which involves a lot of streaking and hysterics, and though they're both not on screen long enough, Fred Armissen is priceless as the bishop and Lauren Weedman is a sneaky hoot as the lord's horny wife. As long as it stays on target, “The Little Hours” is a bawdy time with comic talent around every pew.

Grade: B - 

Truly, Madly, Deeply in Coma: "The Big Sick" a rare bird that deftly balances humor and pathos

The Big Sick (2017)
119 min., rated R.

Producer Judd Apatow seems to have a skill for finding fresh talent, getting their TV shows and movies made, and branding them household names, like Lena Dunham with HBO’s “Girls” and Amy Schumer with 2015’s “Trainwreck.” This time, it is stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who, with wife/co-producer/co-writer Emily V. Gordon, penned the script for “The Big Sick,” which tracks their courtship and how they never gave up on one another. As an autobiographical romantic comedy with a coma coming between the couple, it’s a great story that was probably told at parties and now gets to be shared with the world. Falling right in with Apatow’s wheelhouse but directed by Michael Showalter (2016’s “Hello, My Name Is Doris”), “The Big Sick” is the best-case scenario of a romantic comedy, handling tone with a delicate hand and balancing humor and pathos. It’s heartfelt, tonally deft and endlessly appealing.

The Pakistani-born Kumail, played by Kumail Nanjiani as a version of himself, is a struggling stand-up comic who moonlights as an Uber driver in Chicago. His family members are devout Muslims, expecting him to excuse himself and retreat to the basement to pray during each weekly dinner, but Kumail just wastes time and plays video games instead. His mother (Zenobia Shroff) always arranges a “coincidental” knock at the door by a single Pakistani woman for Kumail to marry, but again, Kumail has no interest. After one of his shows, Kumail singles out Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who amiably heckles him during his set, and strikes up conversation at the bar. They go back to his apartment and soon, even though they both keep saying it isn’t a good idea, Kumail and Emily begin dating. He can’t work up the courage to tell his parents about Emily, but Emily has told her parents about Kumail and can’t wait for them to meet her. After the couple has a big fight and stop talking to each other, Emily is hospitalized. A lung infection soon forces the doctors to put Emily into a medically induced coma that Kumail ends up signing off on. It then falls on Kumail to call Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who live in North Carolina. Upon the parents’ arrival, they don’t really see any need for Kumail to stick around, but eventually, the three of them find a mutual respect while waiting around for their girl to come out of the coma.

“The Big Sick” briefly reminds one of 1995’s cute Sandra Bullock vehicle “While You Were Sleeping,” but this isn’t some cookie-cutter romantic comedy. Even if one has no idea the screenplay was based on the couple’s so-crazy-it-must-be-true story, the film is rooted in a truthful, recognizable reality. And, if one already knows the outcome going in—yes, Emily eventually wakes up—there is still a lot to like in the destination. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon resist Hollywoodizing their story with obvious contrivances and manipulative emotions, and director Michael Showalter makes the varied shifts in tone look effortless. To even the most experienced filmmaker, a film juggling a true story about a relationship, an illness, cultural differences, the pressures of family and religion, and one’s career successes and failures would seem like a daunting task. Somehow, the film remains low-key rather than being driven by joke after joke. Most of the humor stems from many of Nanjiani’s small, smartly captured observations and insights, like Emily’s father asking Kumail about his “stance” on 9/11, but also the backstage scenes at the comedy club that recall Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” and the dinner-table interplay with Kumail’s family, including brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasurywala), and father Azmat (Anupam Kher). Best of all, it’s obvious that Nanjiani and Gordon wanted to tell their story as honestly as possible because they love these characters and generously treat them with an understanding that we, as people, are all flawed.

Popping up in bit roles since the early start of his film career (he was last seen this year in “Fist Fight” and has been a co-lead for four seasons of HBO's "Silicon Valley"), Kumail Nanjiani has a very engaging presence, comedically deadpan yet authentic and understated, and showcases untapped dramatic chops. Front and center, he carries the film with total ease in his first starring lead role and navigates an actual arc. Before Emily spends a large chunk of the film unconscious with a tube in her throat, the naturally lovely Zoe Kazan fleshes her out as a warm, likable, quick-witted and capable woman to make her feel like a real person whose presence is still felt. Together, Nanjiani and Kazan make for an adorable couple the viewer pulls for and wants to see work. 

Breathing room is given to the whole ensemble, too. As Emily’s parents, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play off each other wonderfully and each get their own time with Nanjiani. Hunter, in particular, creates a lived-in person with quirks, warmth and a mama-bear prickliness. When Kumail invites Emily’s parents to the comedy club to see his set and get their minds off of their daughter being in a coma for one night, Beth tears into a rude, ignorant frat boy in the audience who heckles Kumail with a racist remark; Hunter makes the moment enormously satisfying and keeps it in tune with her character. SNL’s Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler also turn up from time to time as Kumail’s stand-up buddies who alternately bust each other’s chops, pat each other on the back, and compete for slots at the Montreal Comedy Festival.

As in any Judd Apatow production, “The Big Sick” still doesn’t graduate from the standard in the technical sense. One refreshing find: compared to the loose, improv-heavy style adopted by Apatow and employed in almost anything he directs himself, this is a film that feels more concisely written and structured on the page. The final cut, however, could have afforded to lose about 10 minutes’ of fat somewhere, turning a very good film into a great one. That said, “The Big Sick” is that rare bird that keeps a lot of balls in the air and drops none of them. Ending on an elliptically sweet note that feels just about perfect, this is a downright darling summer tonic.

Grade: B +

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Early Years: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" matches Tom Holland's spry, giddy eagerness

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
133 min., rated PG-13.

We all know how Peter Parker became a spider-like superhero, so there’s no reason Sony Pictures had to start over from scratch again for the franchise's third go-round. Considering Sony already retooled the character of Spider-Man five years ago with Andrew Garfield in the suit—and 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” was a solid reboot with room for improvement in certain areas that came true in 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”—“Spider-Man: Homecoming” should theoretically seem like a cash-grab that nobody asked for, but it’s really quite the opposite. Dispelling all cynicism and proving wrong any negative preconceived notions, writer-director Jon Watts (2015’s “Cop Car”) and his band of screenwriters, Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (2015’s “Vacation”) and Christopher Ford (2015’s “Cop Car”) and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (2017’s “The LEGO Batman Movie”), wisely forgo rehashing Peter Parker’s origin story and let Peter be a kid enjoying his powers while trying to survive high school. In doing so, this fresh start is buoyant, giddy and outright fun but not without consequence.

Following his brief appearance in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” as Tony Stark’s new recruit for the Avengers, 21-year-old Tom Holland is the first actor playing Peter Parker to believably resemble a teenager. With a boyish appeal and none of the previous performers’ brooding, he puts his own spin on the often-played character with a goofy, disarmingly quick-witted enthusiasm. This time, Peter is a 15-year-old in his sophomore year of high school in Queens. His identity as the friendly neighborhood spider is a secret to everyone, including his loving Aunt May (Maria Tomei), until he sneaks back into his room in costume to find best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to whom he can’t lie. Pretending to have an “internship” with Tony Shark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter keeps pestering Stark’s driver/bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to join in with the Avengers for another mission and tries proving himself by protecting his neighborhood. Once Peter as Spider-Man catches a group of thieves in Avengers masks with high-tech weapons robbing an ATM vestibule, he stumbles upon a weapons deal involving construction team leader Adrian Loomes (Michael Keaton), who has been developing black-market weapons from exotic materials in the Avengers’ New York aftermath. On a smaller scale, Peter has a crush on classmate Liz (Laura Harrier), and with the homecoming dance on the horizon, he tries scrounging up the courage to ask her out. 

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens with a prologue, predating the Marvel studio logo, that sets up Adrian Toomes as a put-upon working family man being confronted by the FBI (led by Tyne Daly) for finding powerful debris in the city wreckage. Though it’s a little too familiar when checking in on Toomes as the resident villain, the film is at its absolute best when being a high school comedy with as many ties to the John Hughes Universe as it does the Marvel Cinematic Universe®. As the sixth feature film to star the web-slinger, this is the first incarnation, if memory serves, to truly revel in Peter Parker’s youthful energy and good humor throughout. Zipping right into an established tone, director Jon Watts takes audiences back to the moment in “Civil War” on the airport tarmac when Peter makes his appearance, albeit from a first-person, web-diary point-of-view. He’s still testing out his new superhuman abilities and showing them off to the heavy-hitters in hopes that he can bring something to the table, and his eagerness is so infectious. Watts keeps the film zippy and light on its feet, but he doesn’t leave something to be desired in terms of stakes. For instance, Peter needs to get to the Academic Decathlon in Washington, D.C., not only to compete but to save his peers from a bomb explosion in an elevator in the Washington Monument. 

Supporting Tom Holland is a terrifically diverse cast by his side: newcomer Jacob Batalon is a lovably sweet and hilarious standout as Peter’s inquisitive best friend Ned, who yearns to be his “guy in the chair; Marisa Tomei is dependably wonderful as Aunt May, who catches the eye of every man; Disney star Zedaya steals scenes with her deadpan delivery and comic timing as cynical classmate Michelle; and Robert Downey Jr. still gets his moments without phoning it in as Tony Stark, Peter’s tough-love mentor, as does Jon Favreau as Happy, who’s on Peter’s speed dial. Also, there’s a special appearance by Jennifer Connelly doing the calm and soothing voice of “Karen,” Peter’s Alexa-of-sorts in his suit. Finally, Michael Keaton is shrewd casting as the heavy—credited but never actually called “Vulture”—in that he was the first Batman, post-Adam West, and began a screen comeback in 2014’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance)” in the role of an actor who once played a superhero. Here, Keaton brings a compelling volatility and even a charitable amount of sympathy as the blue-collar Adrian Toomes rather than being boiled down to one-note evil, and the motivations for that character are far more grounded than the norm’s world-domination scheme. 

Helmed with creative passion and a punkish attitude emphasized by the use of The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is much more than a release-date filler tied down to the MCU. It is a genuine crowd-pleaser with a concentration on character and playful, fizzy humor. In this special case, six screenwriters on the script does not spell disaster or create a feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen but actually results in a cohesive vision with no dangling plot threads or unfinished business. There’s also a cute nod to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and a very funny running gag involving gym class educational videos, and the best post-credits “shawarma” of the Marvel movies gets featured here, playing on the notion of waiting through five minutes of credits. With the exception of a few battles between Spidey and Vulture that are a little murky in their staging, the action set-pieces are absolutely thrilling, too, particularly a Staten Island Ferry disaster. If there needs to be any comparison, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is about on par with Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002)—it’s not quite as great, though, as Raimi’s more emotionally mature “Spider-Man 2” in 2004—but the dead-on casting and winning performance of Tom Holland and a cheeky sense of humor lock it in as the latest satisfying iteration of the iconic comic-book character. As much as audiences probably didn’t think they needed another “Spider-Man,” lucky number six swoops in and makes the character refreshingly spry again. 

Grade: B +

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Cannibal Dystopia: “Bad Batch” has cool ideas but goes nowhere fast

The Bad Batch (2017)
118 min., rated R.

Ana Lily Amirpour instantly became a filmmaking force to watch in 2014 with her special “Iranian vampire western,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.” Unfortunately, “The Bad Batch” marks her sophomore slump, an empty exercise in style that’s not shy about its genre influences from George Miller’s “Mad Max” to any of its imitations and wannabes set in a dystopian wasteland. Amirpour puts enough of her own unique stamp on this wannabe cult item that it could only come from a single creative mind, but the film frustratingly lacks a detectable point and falls victim to self-indulgence. In many ways, it reminds one of Richard Kelly’s interestingly messy “Southland Tales.”

Deemed one of the “Bad Batch” with the number “5040” tattooed on her neck, society reject Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is booted out of Texas and into the desert wasteland with only a knapsack of burgers and a jug of water. Just as she begins her journey, she gets chased down and snatched up by a cannibal woman on a golf cart, costing her an arm and a leg, literally. She is about to become someone’s dinner at the hands of iron-pumpers, led by Cuban muscle man Miami Man (Jason Momoa), living in an airplane wreckage, but finds refuge in the town of Comfort. Five months later, Arlen, now with a prosthetic leg, heads back out to the desert and finds one of the cannibals’ golf carts. She ends up getting a little revenge by killing a woman and kidnapping a little girl (Jayda Fink) who happens to be Miami Man’s daughter. 

Continuing on the path of its opening half-hour, “The Bad Batch” might have been a fun down-and-dirty grindhouse pic. How this divisive, post-apocalyptic world of cannibals, bodybuilders and undesirables came to be is beside the point, but watching Arlen first being on her own with the hot sun beaming down on her, fending for himself, and then being attacked and captured, a certain amount of interest is sustained. Once it evolves into half-baked ideas and an unconvincing, emotionally ambivalent relationship that should hold more weight than it does, the film goes nowhere fast. 

English model-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse (2016’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) is a pretty specimen and does pull off the bad-girl persona okay as Arlen. Perhaps it fits the character, but she alternately seems a bit blank and dead behind the eyes sometimes. The pectacular Jason Momoa has a stoic, formidable presence, but it’s the out-of-nowhere relationship between his Miami Man and Waterhouse’s Arlen that the film can’t really sell. Getting more interesting as he ages, Keanu Reeves is effectively oily when he pops up as Comfort’s drug-peddling, porn-mustachioed founder known as The Dream, but like everyone else, one isn’t sure about his purpose in the narrative. Bringing up the margins as part of the film’s strange tapestry, a wordless and chameleonic Jim Carrey gets to wander the desert as a mute but wise hermit with a pushcart; Giovanni Ribisi is utterly wasted as a Comfort local with possible schizophrenia; and Diego Luna has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a rave DJ aboard a giant boombox on wheels.

There is vision here, but it’s not quite clear what that vision is supposed to be. It is certainly a good-looking film, full of colors even in the desert, with a killer eclectic soundtrack that includes Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” There’s just not enough “there” there, the monotone characters pretty tertiary (Miami Man might be drawn the most and that’s still being generous), but the sights are definitely bonkers, including The Dream strutting around with his pack of pregnant, rifle-toting concubines with matching T-shirts that read, “The Dream is Inside Me.” Like in her feature debut, Amirmour even finds somewhere to insert a skateboard and uses it to resourceful, amusing effect when Arlen must deal with the absence of two limbs. As is, “The Bad Batch” feels like a batch of cool, startling, weird and darkly funny parts that don’t add up to much. Keep making movies, Ana Lily Amirpour.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Despicable Twins: "Despicable Me 3" likable enough but quite scattered

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
90 min., rated PG.

The world could always live without a third “Despicable Me,” but as along as it fills a niche for the family film market and rakes in satisfying box-office sales, Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will keep making them. If 2013’s “Despicable Me 2” felt overstuffed but was still enjoyable, “Despicable Me 3” is a tacked-on sequel that’s amusing but ultimately disposable. The same directorial team, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, and screenwriters, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, remain faithful to the runaway-hit animated series but achieve even more scattershot diminishing returns. Speaking of “diminishing,” the yellow, pill-shaped, gibberish-speaking Minions, which were thought to be more effective in small, pill-sized doses, are actually missed with their reduced screen time, even after their inspiredly silly 2015 feature-length spin-off.

As Anti-Villain League agents, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig)—or, as Lucy calls them, “Grucy”—are living happily together with his three adopted daughters. The reformed villain and his wife are soon both fired from the AVL after they fail to catch international supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a washed-up 1980s child star who uses bubblegum as his most dangerous weapon. When Gru discovers he has a twin brother he never knew he had, he takes his family to meet his other half, the cheerfully rich Dru (Steve Carell again), sporting wavy blonde hair and living in the country of Freedonia. Meanwhile, Gru’s Minions end up in prison; Lucy wants to be a good mom and have mother-daughter time; Gru’s eldest daughter, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), misinterprets a marriage proposal from a local boy her age; and the youngest, Agnes (Nev Scharrel), wants to find a unicorn. With the brothers reunited and bonding, Gru desires getting his villainous mojo back by stealing a diamond with the help of Dru from Balthazar Bratt.

While “Despicable Me 3” is still too likable to be unendurable, there is far too much going on. When Gru tells Dru to focus, he might as well have been talking about the film itself. The script makes sure almost every character has something to do with a subplot after subplot, but it is at the cost of finding a focal point and everything vying for attention. The creation of Dru comes off more as a marketing gimmick and the opportunity for Steve Carell to play double-duty. Outside of some cute slapstick antics with the spandex-clad Gru and Dru attempting to pull off their first caper together, the makers don’t quite know what to do with Dru and don’t earn the twin brothers’ relationship as the emotional center. Sure, the target audience—every child that giggled at the Minions’ fart joke during the studio logo—will lap him up because, honestly, kids are amused by everything, but adults should get more of a kick out of the ‘80s nostalgia of Balthazar Bratt, who has a fondness for Michael Jackson and “dance fighting” his enemy. Voiced by Trey Parker, the purple jumpsuit-wearing shoulder-padded, mulleted-yet-balding Bratt is the most fun and comically inspired villain this series has seen.

There are zany, mischievous pleasures scattered throughout, and anything with the Minions is a highlight, including their trespassing into an “American Idol”-esque TV show and opera performance of “The Pirates of Penzance” that gets them thrown into prison. For the third time, Steve Carell is comfortable without being perfunctory as the European-accented Gru and seems to be having double the fun, now voicing needle-nosed twin brother Dru. Kristen Wiig also remains engaged in her daffy vocal work as Lucy. Get rid of Dru and up the participation of the Minions, and “Despicable Me 3” might have been even better off. As frantically paced and splashily animated as its predecessors, it’s still not bad as amiable trifles go. Hopefully the flash of a fake movie billboard for “Onions”—clearly modeled after the Minions in tear-producing vegetable form—is a sneak peek at what the Illumination animators can do beyond a fourth “Despicable Me” installment.

Grade: C +