Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Gerald's Game

GERALD’S GAME (Mike Flanagan, 2017)

With declining intimacy in their marriage in GERALD’S GAME, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) go to an isolated lake house to spice up their relationship. She agrees to entertain his sexual wishes and consents to being handcuffed to the bed, but Jessie draws the line when he wants to play out a rape fantasy. Whether brought on by anger or something else, Gerald has a heart attack, collapses, and falls onto the floor when Jessie pushes him off of her. While her husband’s lack of movement and blood pooling around him is highly worrying, Jessie has a more pressing concern. She is shackled to the bed, cannot get free, and has no one nearby to hear her cries for help.

This desperate situation becomes more fraught when a hungry stray dog wanders into the bedroom. Seeking an escape of any kind, Jessie flees into her mind where she strategizes with herself, is taunted by her husband, remembers a painful child incident with her father (Henry Thomas), and avoids looking in the corner where she saw the death-like Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken).

The filmography of GERALD’S GAME director and co-writer Mike Flanagan reveals an aptitude for spinning psychological horror out of action largely confined to a house. Whether focusing on the brother and sister trying to capture evidence of an evil mirror in OCULUS or a deaf writer in the woods attempting to fend off a masked killer outside her home in HUSH, Flanagan demonstrates a knack for using location limitations to wring out the tension. The houses in these films don’t need to be inherently scary if they harbor an unhappy family history, expose vulnerabilities, or isolate, as in GERALD’S GAME. Although a dog licking its chops and the embodiment of death appear, the mind’s assessment of danger, coupled with its difficulty to produce a solution, generate the terror.

GERALD’S GAME shows that as a mental protection strategy, compartmentalization can be useful. Jessie bottles up her anxiety as best she can because it will help her survive. She summons strength by breaking things down into manageable bits and blocking out the rest as much as possible. Gugino’s performance relies on conveying an active mind scanning Jessie’s options for a solution. The character is bound and vulnerable, but Gugino displays the toughness and ingenuity that identify how constraints don’t have to make one weak.

The primary horror in this Stephen King adaptation is psychological. Flanagan expertly sets up the situation with a highly tense sequence that draws immediate identification with Jessie. While GERALD’S GAME pokes at mental discomfort, the director allows for one excellent gross-out moment that ought to provoke plenty of seat-squirming even if this film is only available to see on the smaller screens at home. In the film’s end Flanagan unnecessarily literalizes points, yet it’s hard to be too critical for the nice notes he plays regarding overcoming trauma.

Grade: B

Friday, October 20, 2017

Barton Fink

BARTON FINK (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991)

New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is fresh off a stage success in 1941 when Hollywood comes calling. Barton fancies himself as working toward a new theater for the common man, but he is reluctantly drawn to accept an opportunity that can help to finance much more of what he really wants to do. In BARTON FINK studio executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) couldn’t be more enthusiastic about hiring this writer in to bring his special touch to the pictures, but Barton soon learns he’s not going to be working on anything highbrow. Jack assigns him to pen a wrestling B-movie starring Wallace Beery and wants a screenplay by week’s end.

For his time in Los Angeles Barton strives to abide by his principles, choosing to take residence in the ramshackle Hotel Earle than the swankier places where the studio could put him up. Driven to distraction by the noise from the neighboring room, Barton complains to the front desk, resulting in Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the traveling insurance salesman next door, to come by to apologize. Charlie is a friendly guy, and he makes it a habit to drop by Barton’s room when he fears him enter. Although Barton wants to work, he has a hard time rejecting Charlie’s company. Anyway, he’s in state of paralysis in which he can’t get past describing the film’s first scene.

BARTON FINK unspools like the spiritual predecessor to last year’s Coen brothers’ film HAIL, CAESAR! Although they take place ten years apart, both are set at the fictional Capital Studios and initiate existential crises in their main characters. Barton’s most obvious conflict is an ill-timed case of writer’s block, but what brings it on is harder to pin down. Is he simply out of his element in a different medium? Can he not write because he thinks the work is beneath me, or is he not as in touch with the common man he reveres? The film is too slippery to identify as being about one particular thing. Stylistically it’s a supremely weird combination of satire, horror, film noir, and religious allegory. Still, at its core is the despair of not being able to escape the one’s own mind.

The aphorism of indeterminate origin “no matter where you go, there you are” succinctly describes Barton’s predicament. BARTON FINK puts forward that the writer might occupy a literal fiery furnace, one that makes the wallpaper glue drip and the decorative surfaces peel. It seems significant that the film begins and ends with shots of the wallpaper, the sort of thing one can’t look away from or would stare at while trying to pump ideas out of a dry mental well. Yet it’s just as plausible that the heat Barton feels is stoked by his own feelings of impostor-like inadequacy.

For all of the esteem Barton expresses for the common man, he doesn’t listen to the one in his midst. Charlie, a fellow as affable as they get, struggles to get a word in edgewise, and when he does, Barton doesn’t listen. A solution to his problem is right in front of him, but Barton is so preoccupied with what’s rattling around his skull that he can’t spot it. That grand cosmic joke stretches across Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. The suffering person’s inability to save themselves is a grand cosmic joke that stretches across Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. It’s darker in BARTON FINK, in part because the writer embraces that pain as if it is inherently holy.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


To friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the life of sculptor and retired professor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) looks like a success, but the man himself nurtures jealousy of his peers’ wider acclaim and animosity toward an art world that has failed to appreciate him sufficiently. He sold a work to the Whitney decades ago, yet it’s indicative of his status that no one is exactly sure where it is being stored. In THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED), Harold’s self-centeredness has contributed to the strained relationship he has with the three children his four marriages have produced.

Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), the two oldest, share a mother and the sense that they were never especially important to their father. Such treatment fuels Danny to be a doting dad with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). While Matthew (Ben Stiller) is perceived, not incorrectly, to be the favored child, he carries his share of grudges regarding Harold. Despite their frustrations, all three still seek approval from him. Danny and Jean strive to secure a retrospective show of Harold’s work. Although Danny objects, Matthew tries to arrange the sale of the big, costly New York City house where Harold and his current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) reside.

The episodic nature and title of THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) suggest that the glimpses of this dysfunctional family don’t tell everything but encapsulate the fundamental truths about them and viewpoints within this unit. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film depicts a period of critical transition. Danny has separated from his wife and needs direction. Eliza is starting college. Matthew is at a crossroads in his marriage and career. Harold is trying to adjust to retirement. Although the chapter-like structure leaves gaps, it contains the greatest hits and misses in Meyerowitz family history. Life brings new developments, but these events all tend to circle back to be understood through the lens of old resentments. The stories each person tells himself and herself have as much to do with constructing their identities as what actually happens.

Baumbach’s comedies about families often have a strong undercurrent of anger. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, among others, laugh at the ways people can get maligned and twisted in their most central relationships, but the humor provides a thin cover for bitterness. The characters in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES exist in the state of a soft boil. Their emotions are adequately hot without making them hard. Baumbach crafts a warm, humane movie accepting of people in spite of their faults. The Meyerowitzes aren’t going to resolve all of their differences in the course of the film or beyond it, but Baumbach shows why blood ties and shared history can be worth saving in spite of the aggravations.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES cast is superb at conveying the commonly understood order and unspoken, or whispered, opinions in families. Baumbach excels at capturing the dynamic in which each person assumes the role they’ve adopted through the years whether or not they’ve changed outside the family. He’s also really sharp and funny in observing how parents and siblings don’t fully understand what the adult kids do in their jobs and how watching TV together can be as meaningful as anything in maintaining the peace.

Sandler has proven to be a good actor when working with directors who can modulate his tendencies. Here he’s quite affecting playing a loving father who transforms into an ignored little boy desperate for validation when around his dad. His tender scenes with Van Patten reveal Danny at his best. His goodness is visible in how he’s attentive in a way that Harold wasn’t and isn’t and also in how she protects him when she knows he’s vulnerable. The ease and honesty they have with one another contrasts powerfully with how Harold and Danny communicate. Hoffman is funny and tragic as a wrecking ball of a patriarch, one whose narrow vision fails to acknowledge that in chasing acceptance from the world at large he’s missed the love those closest to him are so eager to give. A life has many potential narratives, but it’s the one we select, rather than what is written for us, that determines if we are satisfied.

Grade: A

Blade Runner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

In BLADE RUNNER 2049 thirty years have passed since the events of the previous film, yet little seems to have changed for the better for those humans who haven’t moved off-world. Nexus-9 replicants are more obedient than the previous model of bioengineered humans. The Nexus-8s hiding out still face termination at the hands of police officers called blade runners. When K (Ryan Gosling) examines the property of his latest target, he finds a case whose contents could threaten to upset the balance of civilization.

The box holds the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth, and other evidence suggests that the child survived. As replicants were believed to be incapable of reproducing, K’s superior officer, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to find and kill the child. K’s investigation leads him to the Wallace Corporation, which has taken over where the Tyrell Corporation’s efforts ended. Founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to increase production of his replicants and thus greatly desires to have his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) find this wonder. K’s search will ultimately lead him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who holds the information everyone seeks.

Like its predecessor, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is an astounding visual achievement, with director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins contrasting the bleak, neon cityscapes with foggy, tinted areas outside dense populations centers. It all feels very unnatural, alien even, despite mostly taking place in southern California. Although there is a sense of too few resources for too many people in this dystopia, the framing highlights the disconnection. Characters are practically swallowed up by all of the space around them. They often live alone--K’s apartment is more like a cozy cell--and have seemingly no social circle. Work brings them into contact with others, but it encourages impersonal interactions and extends the sense of acting in isolation.

The most meaningful relationship in BLADE RUNNER 2049 is with technology. K has a virtual girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas). While interacting with this artificially intelligent hologram provides the kind of connection he wants, it is merely an illusion tailored to his preferences. Like Saul of Tarsus, K has a transformative experience, one that turns him from a persecutor of replicants to their defender. Awareness of a miraculous birth changes how he sees himself and others, rewriting what he has taken for granted. Villeneuve also uses the first few notes of a theme from Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF as a clue that challenges to the system can come from unlikely places.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is about as close to slow cinema as expensive Hollywood productions are likely to get, and it is pleasurable to luxuriate in its lulling sonic atmosphere and visual distinctiveness. The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Green is overstuffed with ideas that it is incapable of doing justice to them all. Style may overwhelm the substance, but what style it is.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, 2017)

Although estranged from his father, the fearsome Garmadon (Justin Theroux), teenager Lloyd (Dave Franco) still gets blamed for the terror his dad inflicts on the city of Ninjago. As leader of the Secret Ninja Force, Lloyd and five of his friends fight Garmadon in THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE. After many failed attempts, Garmadon finally defeats the Secret Ninja Force, leading Lloyd to deploy The Ultimate Weapon. What he unleashes causes even more chaos in the city, so Lloyd and his team must combine forces with Garmadon to go on a journey to find The Ultimate Ultimate Weapon and save Ninjago.

Like the two other LEGO films, THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE bursts with visual ingenuity and comedic irreverence. It moves briskly through an archetypal story that is vigorously seasoned with one-liners. The shots are crammed with details and jokes waiting to be discovered when stepping through the frames on a Blu-ray or digital file. There’s plenty to be impressed by, yet the sameness of this with the other films, in what I suppose is becoming the LEGO genre, render it as a solid effort lacking novelty.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is neither the inventive surprise that characterized THE LEGO MOVIE nor the exhaustively ambitious effort that marked THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. The style is well established, and even if the source property, a toy line and TV show, is less familiar to the masses, the premise borrows heavily from the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell identified as common to many myths. These aren’t necessarily negative factors. In fact the predictability may enhance its appeal as comfort viewing, especially for kids and parents eager to distract them. Newness in and of itself doesn’t makes something better, but the prefabricated quirkiness of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE dazzles less because it plays as though it’s been assembled from a tried-and-true set of instructions.

Freshness criticisms aside, it’s a consistently funny movie, which it achieves in part through the volume of jokes. THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE’s subtext about children coming to understand that fathers and mothers were and are people with lives extending beyond parenthood may be more subtle and complex for younger viewers to grasp, but it’s nice to find some thematic intricacy among the stylistic uniformity.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

BATTLE OF THE SEXES (Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, 2017)

Having founded the first women’s professional tennis tour in reaction to being paid much less than the men, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was well acquainted with being undervalued because of her gender. In BATTLE OF THE SEXES she gets to defend women’s excellence on the court when retired tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenges her to a highly publicized 1973 match. Bobby is a loudmouth who belittles women as being inferior in tennis and daily life. While it takes some time for Billie Jean to accept her part in the TV sideshow, she welcomes the chance to prove what she and other women are capable of.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES places a lot of emphasis on the lead-up to the the consequential match between one of the best women’s players in the world at the time and a 55-year-old former champion. Billie Jean is dealing with personal and professional stresses that threaten to distract her from what she most wants to accomplish. Helping to run the tour steals some time and focus from training. Falling into a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) leads her to revelations about herself that she’d either ignored or denied as a married woman. On the other hand, Bobby relishes the carnival he constructs around the big showdown. He’s back to being the center of attention, even if he is acting like a piggish buffoon. For a man who seems to have lost his purpose in life and is afflicted with a gambling addiction, the Battle of the Sexes could help to fill both of those holes.

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton do excellent work with the meticulous recreation of the period and using the camera to illustrate the division. The placement of men and women within a room and often in separate shots highlight the frustration Billie Jean and her tourmates feel at being restricted by the men in power and cut off from what they deserve. Stone locates the right mix of drive, intensity, and vulnerability in Billie Jean to show a person who enjoys being in the spotlight but feels the pressure that comes with it in public and private life. Billie Jean’s story is served best in BATTLE OF THE SEXES, as the film empathizes more with her predicament, yet it doesn’t come at the expense of Bobby. His motivations and beliefs are not as clear as they might appear, and his demons make him seem sadder than the foolish role he gladly plays for the cameras.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES entertains even as Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay wobbles in spots and raises questions about if this is the best form for this story. This exhibition match provided the basis for an ABC TV movie starring Holly Hunter in 2001. A documentary would have been better suited for contextualizing the Battle of the Sexes. Regardless, the strength of the drama and the look make this tennis showdown worth revisiting again.

Grade: B-