Monday, August 14, 2017

COOGAN AND BRYDON MAKE FOR A DELICIOUS COMEDY TEAM IN "THE TRIP TO SPAIN"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO SPAIN. (copyright 2017)
Where are the great movie comedy teams today? Long gone are the days of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Martin & Lewis. There have been some couplings that have brushed up against greatness like that, most notably Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the three movies they made together, but since then it’s been slim pickings. Which is even more reason it’s such a pleasure to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for their third film in THE TRIP series. This time they’re heading to Spain to take in the scenery, the local cuisine, and indeed, the piss out of each other. And it makes THE TRIP TO SPAIN one of this summer’s funniest films, cementing Coogan and Brydon as the closest thing to a genius comedy duo working onscreen today.

THE TRIP TO SPAIN, following THE TRIP in 2010, and THE TRIP TO ITALY in 2014, is another road trip movie showcasing comics Coogan and Brydon as they make a gastronomical tour of a European country. The movie once again has been culled down from the episodic series of the same name that runs on the BBC, but like its predecessors, each film does more than just cull the highlights from the series. They hone and focus on the flavor of the country and its best restaurants, as well as what it is like to be a comic traveling with another comic. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has produced and directed the TV series, as well as the movies, and he knows how to showcase the countries and the comedians with equal relish.  

Winterbottom has worked with Coogan many times before, most notably on the cinematic hit 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE back in 2002, so he knows the actor’s charisma and foibles intimately. Coogan is a gifted hyphenate: actor-writer-producer, most recently receiving all sorts of acclaim for PHILOMENA with Judi Dench. Coogan received Oscar nominations for producing the Best Picture nominee as well as writing it, and he won the BAFTA that same year for his adapted screenplay with Jeff Pope. Coogan is one of Britain’s brightest and biggest stars, a superb talent at farce, drama, romance, you name it. Yet, his actor’s insecurity impedes his enjoying such status and these films illuminate his struggle.

In THE TRIP TO SPAIN, Coogan is bigger and better than he’s ever been, but it doesn’t make him any happier. The man looks amazingly fit at 52, and he’s riding the wave of worldwide acclaim for PHILOMENA. Yet he’s still perturbed by every slight directed at him, whether it’s from travel mate Brydon who knows just how to needle him, albeit with a certain affection, or the hiccups along their journey together. When he finds out that the studio he’s hoping will greenlight his latest script decides to bring in another screenwriter to give it a polish, the air lets out of Coogan’s metaphorical tires. He’s been in show biz long enough to know the game, but he still feels every prick from the pricks running Tinsel Town. It casts a shadow over the trip, even though almost every scene is Spain is sunny and gorgeous.

Coogan's inability to roll with the punches has been a central theme of all three movies in THE TRIP franchise, and his pain is our pleasure. Watching this grouchy wit grumble about his plight is hysterical, even more so because he must face his shame with the ever-competitive Brydon right by his side. Coogan over compensates for his worries by dropping his PHILOMENA acclaim into many a conversation, but it’s not lost on Brydon. He serves as Coogan's frenemy and Greek chorus, calling him out on the name dropping. Yet, Coogan likes his foil enough to share some of his innermost secrets, like the fact that he's having an affair with a married woman. Brydon is sympathetic and even sage in his advising of his friend. And even though Coogan may be dour, misanthropic and occasionally self-destructive, it’s fascinating to watch him both need and reject Brydon. Navigating Coogan's ego is a minefield for both men, but it's funny as hell too.

Brydon is the one who's more of a sensualist, enjoying the luxury of their hotels and meals. Even as Coogan keeps everything at arms’ length, including the succulent feasts, Brydon sees it mostly as a gift. He's definitely a “glass is half full” type, whereas his companion is the opposite. Such crucial differences give these movies a philosophical aura, as the debate seems to be how to enjoy such trips. And with each film, Brydon is becoming more and more of Coogan's guardian angel, a man trying to lighten his dyspeptic soul. 

Brydon happens to be one of Britain’s shiniest stars as well and he loves clowning and being on. If he has any fault as blatant as Coogan's misanthropy, it's that Brydon seems to be unable to ever turn off his need to perform. Coogan desires moments where he can sit and brood in silence, but those moments seem to frighten Brydon as he feels compelled to fill them with bits and jokes. 

And what he brings to the table is hilarious. Brydon is a brilliant mimic, as well as ace at accents, and watching him perform is a pleasure. However, he pushes too far and then he grates like a car alarm that won't stop. Brydon has a natural warmth and wit, and doesn't need to strive so hard to impress. It would seem that Brydon feels the need to literally and figuratively sing for his supper, but having him along for these trips makes them truly fun for even the dour Coogan.

Of course, at his core, Coogan wants to entertain and be adored by audiences just as much as his friend does. That makes this duo truly two peas in a pod. Watching them compete for who can be the funniest and make the other laugh hardest is a lot of fun, but also a bit cringeworthy. Actors are awesome...up until they treat normal life as their stage, and their friends as unwitting audiences. Coogan and Brydon push so hard that sometimes their attempts at impressing the other borders on bullying. They're still boys trying to one up each other at jacks on the playground.  

The funniest bit in THE TRIP TO SPIN occurs when the late Roger Moore comes up in conversation and both Coogan and Brydon try to educate the other on the proper way to imitate the actor. They both do a killer impersonation of the man who played 007 in seven films, but their impressions go on and on and on as they try to best the other’s take. The Moore bit then becomes a running gag in this film, just as their imitations of Michael Caine and Al Pacino did so in previous trips. Even when the guys are dining with two female industry peers, they can’t help but let their competitive urges get the best of them. Brydon even continues to do Moore when less attention is being paid by the others at the dinner table. 

Brydon shouldn’t be as insecure, considering he’s got a grounded home life. We see his lovely house, loving wife and adorable young children. Still, Brydon wants more. He not only wants to be Ricky Gervais, a British comic fielding more offers than one can shake a shtick at, but it seems he wants to be Coogan. Thus, Coogan lords his superior resume over Brydon, boasting of his numerous BAFTA’s. Still, Coogan isn’t happy being Coogan. He seems to want to be someone like Steve Martin, a comic recognized equally for his range as an actor, writer and producer. At the very least, the acclaimed talent can't stomach a studio hack rewriting his material, certainly not after Oscar's recognition. Still, the greatest threat to both Coogan and Brydon are their own egos. The insecurities of these clowns crying on the inside are tragic in their way, but also very amusing. It's wonderful to have these films showcase such struggles. 

Even when they dress up as Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza for a Spanish PR magazine article, with Coogan taking the more prominent role of course, his frustration fills the screen. Coogan is a crank about it all, even while Brydon enjoys getting to be in the spotlight with him.  Celebrity is indeed a windmill, and it taunts Coogan while lifting Brydon.

Winterbottom clearly loves them both, though he’s more than willing to show their dark sides. What provides counterpoint to it is of course they gorgeous settings and the exquisite culinary art on display. Truly, these movies are a feast for the eyes and for the funny bones. And in a summer with too many sequels, prequels, and reboots that haven’t connected with audiences, this is one franchise that continually delivers. The only question is "Where to next for Coogan and Brydon?" The USA, particularly a restaurant tour of Hollywood, would seem like a natural for two such hungry talents. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE HITS & MISSES OF LATE SUMMER

Original caricature of Jessica Williams in the Netflix original film THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES.
(copyright 2017)
As we crest into August, there is already a nip of autumn in the air, and the airwaves are inundated with “Back to School” sale messages. That means the summer movie season is rapidly ending too. All the major tent poles have opened and thankfully some of them, like WONDER WOMAN, were quite worthy of all the money and attention they were rewarded with from the worldwide movie-going audiences. I’d pick that film, along with THE BIG SICK, as the standouts of the summer season. But before it’s all a memory, here are my reviews of five other films that have opened before the leaves start to fall.

ATOMIC BLONDE


For all the hype surrounding ATOMIC BLONDE, it’s neither the female JOHN WICK it wants to be, nor does it showcase Charlize Theron nearly as well as MAD MAX FURY ROAD did. This actioner does prove, however, that the 41-year-old actress can excel at kicking ass on screen better than just about anyone. In fact, in one expertly choreographed fight scene after another, she performs more believably than most actors and actresses half her age. Unfortunately, ATOMIC BLONDE also proves that spy films are truly just extended fight films these days. Where, oh where, is the spying?

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, one of those spies who favors standing out in a crowd with designer duds, heels that make her 6’2”, and a platinum hair color that could guide ships at night. She then complains to superiors that she was instantly made when she arrives in Germany to extract a scientist who’s turned against the Communists, but who is she kidding, standing out like a peroxide thumb? And if the film is going to be that ludicrous, then it needs more joy. Instead, it lacks wit and character and genuine thrills. We in the audience become almost as exhausted as Lorraine does as she must fight her way out of one big set piece after another. I'm not expecting realism, but for all the throw down, Lorraine doesn't ever seem too worse for the wear. 

The film is shot and choreographed with precision, but that should be the price of entry for any action film these days. Director David Leitch wins points for not editing heavily to mask the stunt woman amidst all the kicking and screaming. In fact, the film’s greatest accomplishment may be that it appears to be Theron doing all the stunts, and often in long takes. Kudos to her, but why couldn’t the script then give her some genuine witty quips before, during or after all that huffing and puffing? Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad gave all the characters in his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 a lot of  memorable dialogue, but here it seems as if he’s been neutered. Maybe it was curbed to allow the 80’s era production design by David Sheunemann to take center stage. (It does, with enough neon to fill Deney Terrio’s dream palace.)

When Lorraine’s not tying rope to an enemy to help break her fall when she jumps out a four-story window seconds later, or emerging from a tub filled with ice cubes to reveal her bruised but dynamite body, her personality seems that of a cipher. All the better to keep us thinking she might be the mole screwing up the allied efforts during the late 80’s Cold War one supposes, but couldn’t she have some interesting traits other than knowing how to reload guns and round-house kick? She's too cold, even for a Cold War thriller. 

Veteran scene stealers John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan are featured but given little to do other than stare at Lorraine as if she’s such a bad-ass, she takes their breath and voice away. And James McAvoy overacts through his obvious traitor role, but by the end, this spy film simply wears out its welcome. It needs to have the snap, crackle and pop of not just bones breaking, but of crackling entertainment. If it’s trying to be John Wick, albeit with a female lead, why not give it some, ahem, real kick? I don't think I laughed once. Perhaps Lorraine and Jonathan, as Ian McShane’s Winston is fond of addressing Mr. Wick, can team up for a cross-pollinated sequel together. Now that would be a helluva lot of fun.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES


If you want to see a strong female character kicking ass in a truly engaging way, check out THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, an original movie done for Netflix. It stars former DAILY SHOW correspondent Jessica Williams as a bright and feisty New Yorker trying to wrangle all that she’s got going on in her world. She’s quite the juggler too with all sorts of balls in the air. She writes plays, teaches drama to kids, has an active social life with family and friends, and she even excels as a fashion-forward funk icon. Jessica is brash, sexy, powerful and she dominates every entry in her busy calendar. Even when life serves her lemons, this Bea makes lemonade. And she does all that without ever once taking an ice cube bath.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES made its auspicious debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter and proved that filmmaker Jim Strouse knows how to write and direct clever, heartfelt comedy, as well as strong female characters. And in the vivid part of Jessica James, Jessica Williams proved to be a natural. She’s funny, fierce, beautiful and can wholly captivate the screen. And even when her character comes on too strong, often bullying or talking a mile a minute, Williams knows how to make her character accessible. She lightens her voice so that it softens the often rapid delivery of her dialogue. Williams always lets us see how Jessica is thinking too. Jessica may have most of the answers, but when she does not, Williams slows her character down and we watch the cogs turn in her brain. It makes her all the more vulnerable as she tries to manage a world that will throw her for a loop or two. 

Jessica James is thrown all kinds of curves in the film, most notably a suitor named Boone (Chris O’Dowd). At first, he seems the least likely match for her. He’s divorced, speaks with great uncertainty, and has his own eccentrics rhythms that don’t jibe with Jess. Still, she’s intrigued by him and dazzled when he throws out a witty retort demonstrating that he's not just clever but listening intently to her. They have some typical up’s and down’s in the standard rom-com kind of way you always see in these sorts of comedies, but this film mostly zigs where others would zag. And even though there is a definitive arc to their relationship, their romance never dominates the story. 

This is a character study, and Jessica has so much personality, it's enough for two movies. (A sequel seems likely because of that.) She even has ginormous hair, which seems to serve as a metaphor for how ginormous a presence she has. It goes along with her big brain, full heart, and huge zest for life. After all, Jessica James would be the first to tell you how “dope” she is, and indeed, I want to spend more time with this incredible woman. 

DETROIT


No one seem to be coming at the Caucasian filmmaker Jim Strouse for telling the story of an African-American woman in THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, but director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are getting a lot of heat for filming their take on how African-American men were victimized during a Detroit race riot in 1967. Both talents won Oscars for THE HURT LOCKER, and they worked on the Academy Award nominated ZERO DARK THIRTY too, so they are adroitly attuned to serious films with political messages, but does that preclude them from writing so specifically about the black experience? Some think so. I do not. 

Arguably, their angle on the horrible happenings on that July day when police brutally beat seven black men and two white women in during the infamous "Algiers Motel Incident", resulting in the death of three of the men, is done through the lens of violence more than the specifics of the black experience. Still, would this film have been better if a black filmmaker would’ve tackled this story? Perhaps. Ava DuVernay’s take on SELMA gave that historical film about Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on that Alabama city during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's an authenticity and perspective that it might not have enjoyed otherwise. But let's credit Bigelow and Boal for telling this story at a time when it needs to be told as too little has changed in respect to black lives and the police.

The main story, for those who may not be familiar with it, concerns the violence that occurred during a race riot in Detroit, Michigan during the summer of '67. A riot was incited when local police shut down a bar in a black neighborhood for its faulty liquor license and the ensuing protests were met with force. Soon, the Detroit police, along with factions of the National Guard were patrolling the streets and creating as much havoc as they were there to reduce. Then, a black man named Carl fired a starter pistol from an Algiers motel window in the direction of the guards. That led numerous cops and soldiers to invade the motel looking for what they thought was a sniper. Caught in the ensuing chaos were two musicians from the R & B group called The Dramatics, as well as two young, white prostitutes, as well as some other tenants who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Witnessing it all, as well as getting pulled into the morass, were a bystander warrants office and additionally, a local security guard.

That’s a lot of players in one drama, and the actors who play them do exceptional work bringing the dread to life. As Larry Reed of The Dramatics, Algee Smith makes a vivid impression, trying desperately to keep his wits about him as everything crumbles around him. Anthony Mackie is always great and he is terrific here to as a Vietnam veteran Greene who is pulled into what was essentially kidnapping and torture in that motel. And John Boyega (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS) makes you feel every inch of angst and panic in his role as the security guard Melvin Dismukes, one of the black men who lived to tell about what happened. (Dismukes helped guide this movie’s production and authenticity.) Then there are the three white racist officers, the culprits who held all these people against their will in the motel, and these vividly treacherous roles are played by Will Poulter, Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole.

All of them, along with Bigelow and Boal, are aware of the importance of this story and give the subject matter the proper reverence and details it deserves. DETROIT is a remarkably tense and moving film, as harrowing a thriller as you will see at the Cineplex this year. The moment-by-moment story of how the riots led to these out-of-control events caused by the utter abuse of the Detroit police is both riveting and yes, quite sickening. 

Other questions surrounding this film as it opened concerned whether it needed to be as violent as it is, showing virtually every blow and act inflicted upon those victims at the Algiers. Could the film have been just as involving and terrifying without having to show every hit? Probably, but I cannot fault the filmmakers for their commitment to showing as much of what happened as possible, and that includes all the violence. It’s difficult to sit through, obviously, but sanitizing it might have played as well, pulled punches. Bigelow and company should be applauded for not flinching, even if we are bound to.

THE DARK TOWER


Even though Stephen King is one of America’s greatest and most prolific authors, the film adaptations of his books are usually hit or miss. There have been outstanding versions, such as CARRIE, THE DEAD ZONE, MISERY, THE SHAWKSHANK REDEMPTION and THE SHINING, and there have been utter duds like FIRESTARTER and THE LAWNMOWER MAN. THE DARK TOWER falls into the latter category, a big miss. 

The eight-book series, a blend of western, sci-fi, fantasy and horror, deserves better than the scant 90-minute adaptation that opened in theaters, though it apparently has been designed as the pilot for a TV series to come. No matter, the complex and detailed narrative in his books, that which King describes as his magnum opus, deserves better than this light fare.

The biggest problem, other than trying to squeeze that many books into an hour and a half, is that the movie focuses on the 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) rather than the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) from the books. It ends up taking what was an adult story and turning it essentially into a YA title. And as a film aimed at 11-year-old boys, it’s not bad. In fact, it’s a lot smarter and better produced than most such features aimed at that demographic. Still, it seems almost shocking that this was how Hollywood approached material that should have had a GAME OF THRONES feel to it.

Not that it didn’t cast some heavyweight adult talent to try to raise its game, and indeed having Elba as Roland, and Matthew McConaughey play the villainous Man in Black gives this venture instant weight. Wisely, both underplay their roles, adding as much nuance and subtlety to the story as they can. It's just a shame that so much of King's nuance and subtlety is lacking in the screenplay here. But as you watch these two potent actors duel, the main thoughts one has are of the “What could have been” kind.

Gone is all the rich backstory of the Mid-World, a desert that resembles the Old West, yet is also forged with modernity and diversity beyond yesteryear. Granted, everyone talks about codes of the gunfighters and rules of the land, but there are alien monsters wearing human skins and plenty of folks with psychic powers that give it all a sci-fi sense of modernity. This is not your granddad's shoot 'em up. 

Jake comes into play as he carries with him special powers. His ESP and visions are called “The Shine” here, and yes, it's a reference to THE SHINING, one of King’s numerous references to his previous work in THE DARK TOWER. Jake's talents allow him to see visions of the Mid-World and the slaughter of many of its inhabitants at the hands of the Man in Black. It gives him nightmares, but when the Man in Black gets wind of the future, he's excited as this devilish prick wants to do away with the boundaries forbidding him from ruling both worlds.

To do so, this marauder must destroy the vaulted Dark Tower. It's the source of power in the Mid-World and the one thing standing in the way. (Think of it as a protective shield, if you will.)  The Man in Black thinks that the key to toppling it is using the incredible kinetic energy found in other children with the Shine, but when he discovers the stronger Jake, he realizes the boy is his meal ticket.  

Of course, Jake finds a way to get to the Mid-World first because he’s a smart kid, which is refreshing in this sort of thing. It also happens too fast in the story, but then everything here is rushed. All the better to get to that TV series, apparently. What’s a little bit of rushed exposition, after all, when it’s the long-form show that the producers really want to get to? In a word, plenty.

This is everything wrong with Hollywood today, as they chase franchises instead of concentrating on one film at a time. Just as Universal botched their introduction of their Dark Universe to meld all their monster properties together, this film too rushes through the basics and ends up defeating its greater purpose. The audience I saw THE DARK TOWER exited shaking their heads in disbelief that it was all done in an hour and a half. It reminded me of watching WATCHMEN in 2009. That expansive story, from the comic pages, was owed a long-form treatment too, but instead received a 2.5 hour theatrical movie. Some studio heads never learn.

The action scenes in THE DARK TOWER are perfunctory at best with nothing particularly memorable or truly exciting to them. McConaughey is having fun playing the bad guy, even though he’s dressed too dapper. He's too elegant for a Western and frankly, looks like he just got out of a joy ride in a Lincoln town car. Elba is always interesting, even if the color-blind casting here does raise some strange questions in relation to tropes of the Old West. Still, such issues are way down on the list of problems with this film. 

The one saving grace to it is the sense of humor that weaves throughout. It's a clever political joke when Roland accompanies Jake back to New York City to get guns and ammo and realizes that such things are plentiful in a society dripping with unchecked NRA clout. Of course, there are too many obvious jokes about food here and clothing differences from the two worlds, but they will make the 11-year-olds laugh. But even with the best gags, it can't erase the fact that all this comedy is playing after Jake's mother and stepfather have been slaughtered by the Man in Black. He gets over that way too fast, but then, everything is rushed here. King and his tome deserve far better. 

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER


Another politically skewed movie, as relevant today as the period piece DETROIT, is AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER. The second part of that title seems unnecessary, especially when the first part of the title says so much. It is a sequel that none of us should really want to see, but alas, we must. Since AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH came out in 2006, a lot of strides have been made in the world’s fight against climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not enough and this sequel was created to remind us of the work still to be done.

And while this one doesn’t have quite the shock value that the first documentary had, this sequel does have one yuuuggge antagonist. It's the current President of the United States as he is now the one inexplicably dragging his feet in the battle. China is onboard with the Paris Accords, Russia, too, but no longer the USA. This doc shows 120 plus nations agreeing to do their part back in 2015 and 2016, but here we now sit in 2017, with Trump deciding to sit it out.  

Hence, a sequel is needed now more than ever. What the film does showcase is quite positive nonetheless. Despite such setbacks, the inhabitants of this vulnerable planet are marching forward in the fight and one of those leading is of course, the tireless Al Gore. Most of this sequel showcases his work and how the former Vice-President continues to be a tireless champion of the cause.

In fact, this documentary, directed by Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk, essentially shadows Gore as he flies all over the world witnessing ecological catastrophes, helping galvanize the forces to combat the crisis, as well as help teach hundreds upon hundreds of advocates to become experts on global warming and go out and start teaching others about what's happening. We see Gore up to his knees in flooded streets in Louisiana, valiantly hiking up polar ice caps, as well as hob-knobbing with the world’s most powerful men and women at numerous political conferences pitched at slowing global warming. 

One of the most extraordinary sequences in the film is when Gore works with 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that India is part of a climate agreement pact. The powers that be in India had their feathers ruffled when some accused them of not doing enough to curb their country’s emissions, but through calm conversation and a “we’re all in this together” vibe, India was pulled into the agreement. It’s a primer on how true political discourse can achieve genuinely achievable goals. And thus, it is a film that everyone in the White House and Congress should be mandated to watch.

It’s especially ironic that at the end of a summer that has seen steam rise from the temper of the POTUS on Twitter on a daily basis, it's a film about climate change that demonstrates how so much can be accomplished when, ahem, cooler heads prevail. It’s an incredibly positive message and it helps make this sequel one of the more inspiring films of the year. So much good has been done in the past decade, and the film argues that we’re starting to win the battle. Now if we can just convince the White House. Al Gore has his work cut out for him.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

CARA DELEVINGNE IS LUC BESSON’S BEST EFFECT

Original caricature by Jeff York of Cara Delevingne as Laureline in
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. (copyright 2017)

There are many things that don’t quite gel in the new sci-fi adventure VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS from international filmmaker Luc Besson. The title character of Major Valerian is cut a little too close to the jib of Han Solo and Peter Quill, or for that matter, the James Kirk on display in the rebooted STAR TREK franchise. (Does every space hero now have to be a roguish wise-acre?) And while the talented Dane DeHaan may be 31 years of age, the very young-looking leading man comes off as if he’s still in his late teens and that throws off the idea of Valerian being an experienced military leader. And of course, this being a Luc Besson movie, the writer/director throws in so many ideas, so much manic energy, and so many eye-popping CGI special effects, that it’s hard to take it all in at times.
Still, this popcorn entertainment still has a ton to recommend it. For starters, Besson is a consummate showman. Few auteurs working today display as much zest, passion, and detail in every frame. The man has been an international filmmaking sensation for over 30 years now, giving the world the likes of LA FEMME NIKITIA, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE TRANSPORTER franchise, and the TAKEN franchise. In fact, one could argue that Besson is one of those filmmakers whose oeuvre has a distinct signature, putting him up there with the best of the best. You can identify a Besson film by many things - its energy, its production values, and its reliance on strong leads, often females. 

One of Besson’s greatest contributions to cinema is some of those strong women characters he's put onscreen. Arguably, his LA FEMME NIKITA started the whole sub-genre of kick-ass female driven actioners that are known and loved today the world over. (The upcoming ATOMIC BLONDE feels like a Besson film as evidenced from its trailer, no?) Besson gave us the likes of Natalie Portman, Milla Jovavich, and Zoe Saldana in such roles, and he wasn't shy about letting them dominate the action. While comic book movie fans are still waiting for a Black Widow stand-alone film from Marvel, it is Luc Besson who already gave Scarlett Johansson the lead in an action/adventure film when he cast her as LUCY.

Thus, it is not surprising that he’s given another actress a great, kick-ass role to play again, this time within VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. He cast actress/model Cara Delevingne as the other lead in the film, and her performance as Sergeant Laureline is the best thing in it. That’s saying a lot, considering the film contains dozens upon dozens of fascinating alien creations, enough production value for ten films, and a scenes-stealing performance from Rihanna as an alien shape-shifter. Delevingne holds her own against all of it, and she manages to be the one thing in most every scene that you simply can’t take your eyes off of.

I think Delevingne is a natural talent, an actress who knows instinctively where the beats are, how to read lines, and how to convey performance between those lines. As a model, she's had plenty of experience acting for years in photoshoots and on the runway. Modeling is a form of acting, something that she's been doing for years, and she knows how to convey many moods and styles to complement the clothing she's asked to show off. This is an actress who's learned a lot from all she's done in front of the camera. 

Delevingne has also talked candidly about battling depression when she was 15 years of age and that may be while there is a world-weariness to her performances. She conveys a seriousness and maturity well beyond her tender 24 years. The actress seems decades older in attitude and ability to convey complex emotions. 

The one time onscreen that she didn't succeed was when she seemed utterly lost amongst the special effects and herky-jerky CGI movements blended with her in the misbegotten SUICIDE SQUAD (2016). Yet, she has given  deep and moving performances everywhere else, especially in 2015's PAPER TOWNS and now, in this year's sci-fi epic. Delevingne not only distinguishes herself with an ability to recite dialogue that is often lost on models hoping to make the transition to an acting career (Ahem, Cindy Crawford!), but her work is rendered all the more impressive but what she instinctually layers in between the lines.  

Dare I say, it seems that Delevingne is investing her performances with a pain from her own personal experiences and it makes her onscreen creations all the more specific, vulnerable and wholly relatable. In PAPER TOWNS, she wore the resentment of being the object of affection by high school boys as a badge of dishonor. The sour looks that characterized her performance as Margo became the necessary armor needed to hold back the hordes of horny high schoolers. It helped make this accomplished coming-of-age film about her character's growth as much as that of the main character Quentin (Nat Wolff).

And in VALERIAN, Delevingne turns what could have been just another sassy, female partner role into something far richer. In her hands, the part becomes truly moving. The way Delevingne plays Laureline, she is a military operative who's faced a lot of abuse on her way up the food chain. Granted, this is a Luc Besson film, and it’s based on the popular comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” by Frenchman Jean-Claude Mezieres, so it’s not exactly “Sybil” or even “Gone Girl”, but there is pain in Laureline nonetheless. And Delevingne suggests a resentment in her that is always simmering just below the surface. 

For example, in the very first scene when Laureline wrestles with her partner/boyfriend Valerian on the holodeck beach scene, she does so with more anger than playfulness. It's as if she's fed up with taking his condescending sexist crap, even if he is her work partner and boyfriend. Laureline has dealt with far too much piggishness for it to be fun, even from him.

Throughout the movie, the hurt and maligned Laureline is on display repeatedly, even when she's not in scenes with other macho and condescending men. When she holds the last remaining Mul Converter creature left in the galaxy, (pictured in the caricature I drew for this post), she wholeheartedly relates to the animal's vulnerability and loneliness. His isolation echoes that of hers within the patriarchal military. They may be different species, but she relates to the little creature far more than her human counterparts.

Laureline feels isolated as a female member of her species throughout the rest of the film as well. When she's sentenced to quarantine by a male superior, she uses her feminine wiles to turn the tables on two oafish guards who don't believe such a looker could ever harm them. She kicks their ass but takes no real pleasure in it. Even though it's a funny scene, Laureline walks away disgusted that these men thought so little of her capabilities. 

And Laureline expresses indignation while having to explain to  Valerian why he needs to erase the sexual memory banks of his past lovers if he wants to marry her. The way Delevingne plays it, she's genuinely irritated by Valerian's need to hang on to what is essentially his 'little black book', so much so that we wonder if she wouldn't be better off with someone who appreciates her more. 

My favorite moment of Delevingne's performance is her reaction to Valerian's condescension when he orders her to stay out of the action and call for back-up during the film's climactic battle. Delevingne not only turns her glaring eyes into indignant circles and her mouth into a sneering pout, but she spits back her line at him. She orders him to do what he's ordered her to do while she rushes headlong into the danger to save the world. That moment got the biggest applause from the audience that I saw the movie with, and Delevingne and Laureline richly deserved it.

This is not to say that Delevingne’s Laureline is that dark throughout. She's quite the opposite, actually, as most of the time Laureline is brimming with energy. Make no mistake, both Delevingne and Besson know that this film is essentially a romp, but the actress is smart to make her character more serious where she can. Both filmmaker and actress use this futuristic fantasy to comment about sexism today. Women, and other minorities must continually fight for their inalienable rights, be it yesterday, today or tomorrow. 

Delevigne earns big laughs in the movie with a mere cock of her eyebrow (she's got two of the best in the biz) or a curl of her lip. Sometimes she seems like an old vaudevillian, mining shtick like an old Catskills performer. Her scenes with the three CGI elephant-snouted alien scavengers comes off like a routine out of an Abbott and Costello movie, and it's a hoot. And later in the film, when her Laureline discovers that the reason she has been forced to wear a wide-brimmed hat with an open top is to present her scalp to a captor as an appetizer, her eye roll is priceless. Even under threat of death, this woman warrior leaves us in stitches.

If anything, Besson could have made more out of Delevingne’s expert sense of comic timing throughout his epic. If you’ve ever seen her interviewed on a talk show, like last week’s appearances with Stephen Colbert or Chelsea Handler, you’d realize what a naturally breezy and self-effacing young woman this saucy Brit is. And until I did some research on YouTube, I didn't realize what a comic reputation she already has. Here's hoping that Delevingne gets cast in more comedies, or romantic comedies, for that matter. I bet she'd ace straight-up farces too. And additionally, she's quite a good singer. Could she do musicals? Why not?

A lot of people will miss Delevingne’s tart and thoughtful performance as Laureline in this film since it's already been declared a flop due to a fifth place finish this past weekend. Hopefully, the film will find more of an audience internationally or when it hits VOD because it truly is oodles of fun. And while Delevingne may be gorgeous, the most striking thing about the young actress is her keen self-awareness both onscreen and off. She's pretty damn smart, and funny as hell.

Monday, July 24, 2017

DUNKIRK IS GOOD, BUT SHOULD'VE BEEN GREAT


Christopher Nolan’s new movie DUNKIRK is a tense, immersive film that really puts you on the beach, on the sea, and in the air during the WWII rescue mission on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Hundreds of thousands of allied lives were saved by civilian boating efforts when British ships couldn't make it in, and the dramatic all-out effort by the Englanders helped galvanize the country and started to turn the war in their favor. Nolan's telling of it all is getting very strong reviews and helping to confirm his status as one of today’s most successful filmmakers. And yet…

Why was I let down by so much of this affecting period piece? And why am I continually let down by most of Nolan’s efforts? Why hasn’t he been able to shed the same mistakes that he makes in movie after movie after movie? Don’t get me wrong, DUNKIRK is a good movie, but it should have been great. It’s a phenomenal story and all the elements are there to have made it one of the greatest war films ever. But it comes up short due to some basic flaws, and they are similar flaws that have marred most of Nolan's other efforts. 

A PROBLEM WITH WRITERLY SHTICK

Filmmaker Nolan came to fame with his mind-bending thriller MEMENTO back in 2000, and ever since then he’s written everything he’s directed outside of INSOMNIA (2002). In MEMENTO, as you’ll recall, the story was told backwards to underline the increasingly forgetful mind of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffered from short-term memory loss. The conceit also served to disorient Nolan's movie-going audience, and indeed, the filmmaker screwed with our expectations and ability to track what we were seeing. The twisting screenplay won a ton of awards and established him as a bold new voice in the world of film.

Since then, however, Nolan seems to believe that such self-conscious conceits are one of his tropes to be employed continually. Thus, he’s written scripts that toyed over and over again with the audience, and even cheated us by withholding key information. It’s been a key part of his narrative in scripts like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and THE PRESTIGE (2006), and such gimmicks kept me from embracing either fully. In BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan bent over backwards to make us believe that Ken Watanabe was Ra’s al Ghul when it was truly the identity of the character played Liam Neeson. This became the “A-ha!” moment in the third act, making it seem smarter than it was, but such writerly shtick had the exact opposite effect. 

Such self-consciousness in his writing makes Nolan look like he’s wants desperately to be perceived as a brilliant writer. He wants us to think he's boldly and continually pulling the rug out from under us, but such attempts have now become a "bit". It seems more like a trick in his bag that he defaults to all too frequently rather than shrewd writing that is meaningful. Frankly, what would’ve been smarter in that movie would have been for Nolan to be more respectful of the decades old Batman foil of Ra's al Ghul and write him as he had been presented in dozens of past comic book storylines. Instead, almost none of the villain's famous lore was used in Nolan's story and it seemed to suggest that he may have even felt a sense of superiority over the proven material.

In THE PRESTIGE, Nolan also kept us in the dark, trying to stay ahead of the audience, and he used some positively hoary tricks to do so. His very opening shot in that film, of all the rolling black top hats in the wintry woods, doesn't get paid off until the very last shot of the film. It could have been explained a number of times throughout the film, but instead, Nolan withholds. He doesn't let us know fully how those hats are connected to Tesla’s copycat machine employed by Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) until those last seconds, and in doing so, Nolan probably felt he was maximizing the impact of the reveal, but by holding back so long it made the reveal feel much too blatantly manipulative.

And in that last scene, when all was indeed revealed, it became anti-climactic. The audience had figured out what's going on all on our own. As suspected, Tesla's machine could clone humans too, as well as those hats, and that allowed Angiers to clone himself and create his sublime disappearing trick. The reveal should have been more devastating to moviegoers than it ultimately was, and the reason it failed to be as powerful was that we knew what was going on before the big finish. Nolan kept us in the dark for far too long and his "A-ha" moment became one more akin to "Oh, that's what I figured." 

Worse still, Nolan created a major character in THE PRESTIGE who was a complete cheat storytelling-wise. The right-hand man of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), Angiers’ rival, is a character who appeared in dozens of scenes in the film and yet little is revealed about him and Nolan's camera gives him almost no close-ups. Thus, we got no real bead on the guy. Why is Nolan so stingy with him? Simple. It’s because he happened to be Borden’s twin, albeit in disguise to keep that fact hidden from others in the story. The character is played by Bale too, in not very effective makeup, but Nolan wanted to keep us from discovering who the character was and who was playing him. Thus, Nolan shot around him, but that's not normal for a major character, and if he needed to do so to hide major story points, as well as the actor’s identity who played him, then why do it in the first place? It's dishonest, and both the script and direction shouldn't have been so self-consciously cloying.  

Still, perhaps one could argue that such cinematic tricks work in a movie about, well, magicians. Fair enough, but then why does Nolan utilize similar narrative tricks in his war film DUNKIRK? Isn’t the story of the rescue dramatic enough without having to jumble around its timeline? Nolan starts by telling three different story threads – one on the land, another on the sea, and the third in the air – and he brilliantly converges them all together for the story’s climax. But before that he undermines his story threads by having one major character, that of shell-shocked British soldier Cillian Murphy, pop up in different scenes that are out-of-order of what we've been watching. 

This character also is not the focus of any of the three main storylines, so why complicate an already complex narrative triptych by employing such a self-conscious narrative trick? It takes the audience out of the movie. We start to question what we're watching, and it forces us to reevaluate what we've seen with a third of the film left to play out. It’s all just too gimmicky a move and again shows off Nolan’s need to continually screw around with his narrative structure. He's still trying to discombobulate us, just like he did back in MEMENTO. This story didn't need such a trope and it makes the genuine war drama start to feel crassly manipulative.


A PROBLEM WITH CHARACTERS

Nolan also has some real problems developing characters in DUNKIRK, easily the worst he's done in his film oeuvre. It's not surprising, however, as Nolan has had underdeveloped characters many times before. He's also rewritten and put his spin on characters who are known far and wide from their previous forms, without a lot of respect for their storied history.  

While many fans of Nolan's Batman films found his take on the Dark Knight incredibly admirable, especially after the debacle of what filmmaker Joel Schumacher did with the property, he was also criticized for his shabby treatment of well-known characters from the comic source material. Nolan’s take on Ra’s al Ghul was far from the classic comic book foil, one who was so beloved he ended up being ranked #7 on the IGN’s list of their Top 100 Comic Book Villains list. Where was the original character who was a conservationist, a loving and devoted father to Talia, let alone the man who greatly admired Batman's expert detective skills? 

And then there was the way Nolan presented the character of Bane (Tom Hardy) in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What we see in the film barely resembled the known brute from the comics or the various WB animated series. In fact, Hardy's Bane was so far afield, he should've just been an original character. And in all three movies, Nolan put far too much emphasis on Batman’s fighting skills. He became a bully and a thug. Where was the ‘detective’ side? The Caped Crusader has been described over the years as half ninja, half Sherlock Holmes, but you'd never know it from Nolan's adaptation. And why, oh why, would any director encourage Bale to use that god-awful growl to play the Caped Crusader? Batman isn’t a brute. He’s more Jekyll than Hyde, but Bale and Nolan seemed to equate guttural snarling with acting tough. How childish.

Nolan’s characters are often hit or miss, sometimes richly vivid and other times, seriously undercooked. Almost everyone who shows up in THE PRESTIGE is strongly conceived, but in INCEPTION, what character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt supposed to be playing? Basil Exposition (from the AUSTIN POWERS movies)? Other than that rotating hallway action scene, JGL’s character is there mostly to explain all the scientific gobbledy-gook to Ellen Page’s grad student. Often times, the more cast Nolan assembles onscreen, the more difficulty he has in making each of them be truly specific. And in DUNKIRK, he has dozens and dozens of characters playing a large part in the story, and virtually none of them register as much more than one-dimensional archetypes. 

In fact, each of his main characters seem to be given exactly a single trait to convey. Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain, racing to help rescue the stranded soldiers, is earnest. Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander is stalwart. James D’Arcy’s army colonel is worried. Tom Hardy’s pilot is intrepid. It also doesn’t help things that Hardy's face is covered by flight apparatus almost the entire film. (Nolan seems to think that Hardy's eyes are enough, since that's all we could see of his face here as well as when he played Bane.) Even newcomer Harry Styles, who does a good job as a British grunt, is mostly called upon to be one thing - panicked. Wasn't there time for him to sing a note or two to calm the waiting soldiers? Something to give him a little extra characterization, or even play off that casting choice?

Nolan’s greatest failure in his creation of characters for DUNKIRK is that of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, in his film debut). Ostensibly the lead, he has little personality, given the amount of screen time he's given. Sure, the boyish soldier manages to cheat death repeatedly throughout, but after two plus hours spent with the guy, I couldn’t tell you anything truly significant about him. He seems serious all the time, but then the whole situation is. Maybe Tommy is supposed to be more symbol than character, but even an everyman needs definitive traits. 

We know that Nolan liked rewriting DC characters who’ve been known for decades and decades, but why didn’t he rely on any of the known stories that are part of the Dunkirk history in his telling?  So many of the actual stories are nothing short of extraordinary, but you won't find any of them here. One British civilian canoed all the way to the shores of France to do his part, but you don't see moments like that in the film. Instead, Nolan writes fictional characters and yet fails to give them much of anything to define them. It's so frustrating, especially when one key character dies in the story and the most notable attribute he possesses is his argyle sweater vest. 

Perhaps a lot of character development ended up on the cutting room floor, but stronger characters would have helped make the film even more intense and it would have given the cast more to play with. Instead, they're sketchy and it keeps the characters at arms’ length. At times, the film feels almost dispassionate. And that's something a war film, particularly one about overcoming the most incredible of odds, should never feel like. 


A PROBLEM WITH TIME AND EXPOSITION

At the very beginning of DUNKIRK, some solemn white lettered titles appear on black screen to give us a sense of where we are in the story of WWII as the movie begins. One chapter is entitled “The Mole” and its story about the men stranded on the beaches will unfold over a week’s time. The second chapter is called “The Sea”, the one with Rylance's captain and his sons coming to the rescue in their civilian boat, and this part of the narrative takes place in a single day. The third strand is called “The Air” and it takes place in a single hour. We don't know this at the set-up as it seems that Nolan is creating parallel narratives. But this is not true in the least. Still, you wouldn't know it from the way Nolan starts things off. 

That means from the very get-go, Nolan is playing tricks with time and exposition once again. Even worse, he doesn't inform us of some of the basics of what was going on with WWII in 1940 to give any of these three threads proper context. If you're familiar with the story of Dunkirk you'd be fine, but even someone like me who knows more than the average Joe about the battle, was scratching his head in confusion as Nolan just dives in head first with precious little exposition. 

To make matters worse, Nolan entitles two of his stories accurately with the proper terms sea and air. The land story doesn’t get named accordingly. Instead, he calls that one “The Mole.” The name refers to a pier in Dunkirk, but unless you pay close attention in the hour after that, you might not realize that. Instead, moviegoers might be looking for a traitor in the story as that is what mole means to most of us. So why be inconsistent in the third title, let alone use a term that has a meaning that belies what is going on here? It’s the miscalculations like this, occurring in the very first seconds, that had me worried from the get-go. All Nolan needed to do was set things up with genuine historical grounding and call it "The Land", "The Sea", and "The Air." Was Nolan again trying to be way too clever again? 

What’s especially confounding as well is that the film is only 107 minutes long. The standard film length is two hours, so why not take advantage of that amount of time? Nolan should've expanded his story to include more character development and details from the real history of Dunkirk. At the very least, he could have used titles to give us a more thorough set-up. Usually, length is Nolan's worse sin. He loves to indulge his stories with epic lengths, even if they're essentially fluff. BATMAN BEGINS was 2 hours and 20 minutes, THE DARK KNIGHT clocked in at 2 hours and 30 minutes, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came in at a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes. Here, he has a legitimate epic and yet he shortchanges it. 

DUNKIRK does have so much to laud. It’s cinematography, production design, sound design, and editing are all top-notch. But this film feels too remote at times and it fails to create three-dimensional characters. It is tight, taut and suspenseful, and it showcases the valor of the allied effort and the utter craziness of war. And yes, its fractured storyline and editing do convey the  discombobulation that the soldiers must have felt as they rushed about, trying desperately to get off that beach. And in a summer of too many sequels and reboots, this film does stand out as wholly admirable adult fare. But DUNKIRK should have been more devastating than it is, and with stronger characters, less screenwriting shtick, and a better overall sense of what was going on within the specifics of WWII at that time, this could have been one for the ages. It’s still a must-see film, and one sure to be remembered in many ways come awards time later in 2017. DUNKIRK is a very good film. But it should have been a masterpiece.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT


The line between screaming and laughing can be razor thin. Both instinctual reactions in humans are similar, as they are spontaneous and impulsive. In horror movies, the line between the two is just as close, often predicated on how well a scare is executed. A moment designed to make one jump can instead turn to guffaws if not done right. It’s a problem in too many horror movies where amateurish acting, writing, or directing can turn even the most horrific bloodletting into B movie howls of laughter. Two movies out this weekend play in the field of the supernatural and beg examination of how well they pull off the eerie vs. the silly. One suffers from too many unintentional laughs while the other achieves a melancholic tone that is truly unsettling.

WISH UPON is a better than average horror entry, which is veiled praise as so many frighteners that open in theaters and VOD are cheesy duds, but its shortcomings keep it from even the upper tier of middling horror like THE PURGE or INSIDIOUS franchises. WISH UPON simply makes too many faux pas and earns too many stray giggles to be qualified as a success. It rushes its dread, it leaves its actors flailing, and it traffics in far too many tried-and-true clichés that have become so overused in horror that they’ve stopped being frightening. In fact, they’ve become far too easy elicitors of unintentional sniggering.


The movie starts with Johanna Shannon (Elisabeth Rohm), a stressed and bedraggled mother, going through the motions as she parents her young daughter Clare. Not long after, the little girl discovers her mom hanging from a noose in the attic, and then the narrative flash-forwards years later when the grown girl is now in high school. The clichés start with teen Clare (Joey King) standing out as a beautiful girl who just happens to be from the wrong side of the tracks. How many times have we seen this trope, from the SCREAM series to just about every John Hughes movie, for that matter? 

Still, this film acts as if she’s a novel creation. Boys don’t pay attention to this cutie, even though she’s got big, blue eyes and full lips tailor-made for staring at through study hall. She’s artsy and smart-alecky, and her enemy is Darcie (Josephine Langford), the most popular girl in school and the ultimate mean girl which has now become one of the most overdone defaults in movies. We're barely five minutes into this one and already the predictable is piling up hard and heavy.

In fact, Darcie is such a bad egg that she casually tosses her Venti drink right at the homecoming mural Clare has worked on for weeks. Of course, no teen ever reports such malfeasance to teachers in these kinds of movies, let alone are their ever hall monitors present to patrol the bullies, so evil Darcie gets away with it. Still, the audience knows that Darcie will soon get hers as the class bitch always does in these sorts of things.
Joey King as Clare in WISH UPON.
Indeed, the forlorn Clare will get a golden opportunity to wreak revenge sooner than later when her junk collector dad (Ryan Phillipe) brings home a mysterious Chinese music box he found in someone's trash. Thankfully, Clare knows  Chinese because she's studying that foreign language in school, and even if that plot point is a bit on-the-nose, at least she's able to figure out some of the Chinese inscriptions on the box. She discovers that it says the holder will be granted seven wishes. Even better, classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) has a cousin Gina (Alice Lee) who can translate the more complex Old-World text, which will turn out to be warnings that unfortunately for Clare, will come a reel or two too late.

And soon enough, Clare is wishing on that box, expressing her desire for Darcie to rot. Before you can say “the game is afoot”, Darcie contracts gangrene and goes to the emergency room to lose a few toes. From there, Clare starts to realize her power, and the wishes come fast and furious. She wishes for a better home and suddenly, she inherits the estate of her rich, old uncle. Then she wills the box to grant her the attentions of the hunkiest boy at school and sure enough, he's all over her. It all seems too good to be true, but then the family pooch ends up dying mysteriously and it goes downhill from there. (BTW...it's a sign of lazy screenwriting to use the family pet as an early, easy victim. Haven’t any of these spookmeisters ever read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat?)

The warning on the box finally gets translated and it tells that a blood sacrifice will be taken by the fates for granting the positive wishes that come true. Thus, those around Clare start to bite the dust each time she makes another selfish wish to better her life. It’s not a bad twist, and such moral debate fills in the scenes between the scares, but unfortunately WISH UPON squanders its chances to be truly provocative or mine territory that feels fresh and vital.  

King with Hi Kong Lee and Gina Lee in WISH UPON. 
Deaths start piling up around Clare, not surprisingly, and the film seems mostly interested in how garish the offerings are. Worse yet is that none of the deceased matter too terribly much because there's little character development of any of them. Barbara Marshall’s script doesn’t flesh out the victims much beyond making them cliched ‘types.’ And if she's mostly interested in their deaths, why isn't the bloodletting more clever?  

WISH UPON clearly wants its set pieces to resemble the intricate ones in the FINAL DESTINATION horror franchise, but there isn’t a fraction of their surprise here. Instead, we get the hoary old uncontrollable garbage disposal dooming a victim, or a slippery bathtub that becomes a deathtrap to a clumsy bather.

And because these scenes are all so obvious and even familiar, we laugh. We know what’s coming and we get way ahead of the film. Director Leonetti even rushes some of these scenes, as if he knew they were written too transparently and he doesn’t want to belabor them. He ends up cutting away way too fast and it gives his edits an abrupt, almost comical bluntness. These deaths should be terrifying or at least involving. Instead, we moan at how dumb the neighbor character is to blithely dig into the garbage disposal with her hand and then let her errant braid get caught in it so it breaks her neck. Disposable indeed.

And Leonetti lets most of his actors overdo their parts too. The strident pitch of most of the performances makes things even campier. King tries mightily to manage a sustained sense of panic throughout, but her character is just too slow on the uptake. We start to dislike her, not because she grows more and more immoral, but because it takes her forever to figure out what's going on. 

Leonetti even casts some actors here to give this venture some borrowed cool from better properties. Sherilynn Fenn of TWIN PEAKS plays the the woman with the betraying braid, and has about six lines, and Shannon Purser of STRANGER THINGS plays one of Clare’s more sensible friends, but that's basically the only trait her character shows. So how cool is it to have these people in your cast when they’re not even given much to do?

Shannon Purser with King in WISH UPON.
WISH UPON fulfills that middling sort of horror that is sufficient for 90 minutes of mindless entertainment, if that's all you want from frighteners, but it isn't the kind of movie that will stick with you. For as much attention as that magical box is given, I wish that the filmmakers had thought a little more outside of the box to give horror fans something fresher, scarier, and more worthy.

The other supernatural film making its debut this weekend is A GHOST STORY, written and directed by David Lowery, and it is one very special film. Don’t be misled by its title as this is hardly your garden variety ghost story. In fact, this arthouse effort is the farthest thing from your typical frightener. It’s a film about loneliness and unresolved lives. And it just so happens that the main character here is a ghost, and in that, a ghost that is a man wearing a sheet with two eye holes cut out.  

In this modern age of CGI, when ghosts can be rendered so skillfully that they can be as ethereal as the floating transparencies in 2017’s PERSONAL SHOPPER, or as vividly comic as the baddies in the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot last year, Lowery chose to go "old school" with his approach. It’s the most basic of Halloween costumes and yet, it doesn't seem silly here. In fact, the simplicity of this approach lends the ghost an accessibility it might not have had otherwise. 

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A GHOST STORY.
The movie establishes its simple humanity with that choice, as well as how the story unfolds from the get-go. The narrative here is all about little moments of life, not big Herculean events. The main characters are a young married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They're known as C and M here, respectively, and we observe intimate scenes of their time together. They live modestly, in a meager one-story house in a Texas suburb. He’s a struggling musician and tinkers through the day and night on the piano that came with the house, writing songs for her that she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate. Their marriage appears to be somewhat strained, and one night a bang on the piano spurs them to investigate and even contemplate their life together. Then, C dies tragically in a car crash not far from home, and it sends M on a journey of self-discovery. She tries to reconcile herself with her lost partner, as well as what she wants from life in the aftermath. 

When she identifies her husband’s body at the hospital, the camera stays on the slab in the morgue for an eternity of time. Finally, after minutes of stillness onscreen, the figure under the sheet sits up. And thus, the character of C is now a ghost, personified by the sheet and accented with eye holes. The main thrust of the narrative starts here as a study in loss and loneliness. The ghost personifies both as he returns home and can only watch M as she goes through her life in the house without him. 

The film starts to become  truly profound here. It's audacious to ask an audience to identify with such an inert character, but he ultimately becomes something akin to a silent film clown like Chaplin or Keaton. C is now tethered geographically to his house and unable to move on from it. His life as a ghost becomes utterly mundane in its way, as he can only wander from room to room, and await for things to happen to M to add meaning to his passive existence. He watches her sleep, he observes her coming and going, he wishes he could retrieve the note she stuffed into the wall to read it, but he cannot. It's a terribly sad void that C is now a prisoner in. His tiny home becomes his prison cell, or maybe worse, his tomb.



M is struggling too and we watch private moments where she becomes lost in her guilt or remorse. Sometimes she spins out of control into moments of desperation. One of those occurs when she sits down on the kitchen floor to dig into a pie. The camera stays on M forever as she consumes bite after bite, filling herself with mouthfuls of the dessert to perhaps fill the emptiness she's feeling. It's a tour de force scene by Mara as M chows down until she's sick, all the while being observed by the helpless ghost. 

The scene is excessive in its use of time - it felt like 5 minutes, easy, though I didn't clock it -  and it edges close to being a stunt, but what the scene is going for is to put the audience within her desperation and trap us in that scene with her. The dinky home is her prison now too. The camera work here by Andrew Doz Palermo is extraordinary, as it is throughout. Interestingly, Lowery had Palermo shoot the film in a tight, aspect ratio of 1:33:1 to make it all feel all the more claustrophobic. The frame is as prohibitive as the house. We’re boxed in, just like its residents. 


As mundane as things can get in the minutiae of their small world, the story never bores. Despite long takes that spend minutes upon minutes in stillness, a lot still happens within the context of the characters' loneliness. Eventually, we start to see M come to life again and open herself up to new directions. She takes on a new lover, and even beds him in the house, much to the chagrin of the ghost. But while C seethes, M finds purpose again. It leads to her to move on from him and move out of the house. 

The rest of the story stays with the ghost as he experiences new tenants, as well as ginormous physical changes to his surroundings. The house ends up being leveled by a bulldozer to make way for a corporate office complex. And sadly, even as the ginormous high-rise is constructed around him, the ghost of C still cannot leave. He doesn't know how. 

Lowery is clever to have a pretentious guest (Will Oldham) at a house party thrown by new tenants pontificate about the world and how change is inevitable. He goes on and on about everyone being a mere speck in the universe, and how time repeats itself and the world recycles. It sets us up for the ghost’s remaining journey as he lives a long, long time tethered to that land - through time, through the future, through reincarnation, and through a retracing of steps that brings back C and M to go through their life together all over again. The sad-sack ghost must not only watch all that he’s known crumble and/or die, but then he has to watch it all over again. It's as devastating as most screen deaths are in conventional horror.

There are a few ghost-like moments in the film that would be at home in most frighteners. A glass of milk is levitated, and dishes are thrown about when the ghost throws a temper tantrum. But the most disturbing moments come in those points of the story where we realize just how long and tedious this ghost’s existence is. He's stuck in limbo but it feels more like hell. 

Filmmaker David Lowery with Mara at Sundance this year.
The ghost is truly a compelling character even if he says nary a word or barely gestures in his sheet-covered state. Sometimes some droll, dark humor comes into play, like when C's ghost makes contact with another ghost he discovers in the window of a nearby home. They communicate with each other through stiff gestures and funny subtitles that explain what they're saying to each other. And through all of this, we feel Affleck’s droll, affecting presence. He may be under a sheet the whole time, but we feel him in there. It's a strange performance, granted, but an extraordinary one nonetheless. 

A GHOST STORY is a film that painstakingly makes every moment matter, even if they go on and on and on. Some of it is too self-conscious but most of it is utterly riveting. The skill and care of Lowery is evident throughout and his direction will stand as one of the year’s finest efforts. (The extraordinarily moving score by Daniel Hart should be remembered come awards time too.) This may be a story about a ghost, but it’s not a horror film. Still, I will be haunted by this one a lot longer than that WISH UPON music box.