Review: In transition from lobsters to ‘Sacred Deer,’ Lanthimos embraces cruelty

The latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos is one that somewhat proudly stands on an infrastructure of masochism, both implicit and explicit.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is uncomfortable virtually all the way through – for both its characters and for us in the seats watching through peered fingers. The Greek director/writer who broke out as a sort of demented Wes Anderson with last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Lobster” has now added a dash of Darren Aronofsky, and the result is one of the more original and – no matter how hard some will try to repel its sadistic vibes – unforgettable motion pictures of 2017.

Lanthimos once again employs the talents of Colin Farrell, who in many ways resembles his character from “Lobster” – dryly humorous with hints of subtle morbidity. In “Sacred Deer,” though, he isn’t searching for love or anything else. He’s completely content with what life has given him: A job as a top-notch surgeon, a wife, a family, the luxuries of watches with metal straps.

Instead, he’s keenly trying to keep something locked away.

Without going into spoilers, that something has led him to have a relationship with a teenage boy to whom he has a decidedly life-altering connection. It’s more personal than mentor-mentee, but something about Farrell’s hesitance keeps it from resembling a father-son bond.

“Sacred Deer,” in the early going, seems like a simple enough tale in depicting this admittedly admirable relationship, as well as the fairly unastounding family life of Farrell’s Steven Murphy, though he is matched step-by-step by a powerful and alluring Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Murphy.

But those who watched last year’s “Lobster” know simplicity isn’t what Lanthimos shoots for. The camera also knows it; most of the time it’s either keeping a safe distance, creeping behind our characters or lingering just overhead, as if catching the eye of Steven or Martin would send it scurrying away.

Soon enough, though, the audience starts to catch the hints too, and at one point, like a bursting dam, “Sacred Deer” goes from dark dramedy to even darker psychological horror. It seethes with an almost folkloric tone as it unfolds a tale of unbridled guilt, karma and revenge, and it also sneakily features one of the most magnetic performances of the year in Barry Keoghan’s Martin.

It’d be easy to say Martin is some hyperbolic representation of the struggles facing the denizens of Teenagedom, but his motivations are much more personal than, say, Christian Slater in “Heathers.” He’s a goosebump-inducing caricature of contemporary witchcraft who is simply — again, “simply” — seeking justice for Steven’s questionable past deeds, in ways that are simultaneously earnest and horrific.

At the same time, Keoghan breaks out from his Just Another Young Male European Actor™ shell to a force we now have to pay attention to.

Even when Keoghan isn’t on screen, there’s an undercurrent of malice that is impossible to ignore. Lanthimos infuses “Sacred Deer” with a seductive type of horror which, true to form, manifests itself in the bizarre and unnatural.

Much like Aronofsky’s polarizing “mother!” from earlier this year, it’s meant to be uncomfortable to witness, helped along by cacophonous sound design, an increasingly unsettling score consistently teasing an imminent doom, and some of the year’s most striking imagery for the genre. Throughout the cavernous rooms of the wealthy Murphy family’s house, ceiling fans are sometimes spinning at seemingly possessed rates. By a certain point in “Sacred Deer,” it wouldn’t be out of place for someone to be thrown up into them.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” can come across as emotionless. By comparison, even Lanthimos’s own “The Lobster” feels like “Singing in the Rain.” But what it might lack in emotional profundity it makes up for – whether we want it to or not – in monumental depths of madness as it puts the Murphys through increasingly heinous situations.

The scariest thing is that they are almost accepting of what is happening. Karma makes no friends, Lanthimos is saying.

In this world of sacred deer and unforgivable acts, cruelty isn’t simply suggested. It’s expected, and begrudgingly cherished.

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Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ gives train movies a bad name

You’re watching closely, listening intently. You’re trying to follow Detective Poirot’s keen instinct, while trying to resist the fact that you’ve lost him many scenes ago. You’re accepting the clichés, for whatever they’re worth, because you’re hoping it will all pay off in the end.

And then, all of a sudden, the end is here – seemingly out of nowhere, with little fanfare and even fewer clues that the mystery was ever close to being solved. The payoff? Miniscule.

That’s what it’s like watching “Murder on the Orient Express,” a modern retelling of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel that will undoubtedly be overlooked by the more notable movies of Oscar Season, and one which wouldn’t be very memorable even if it was released in March.

“Murder” follows the presumably world-famous Hercule Poirot, and what he lacks in implied physical strength he makes up for in keen-eyed intellect as he goes around cracking the uncrackable crimes. No small detail slips by him unnoticed, as shown by his introductory sequence that might contain 90 percent of the film’s energy.

He’s proud of his reputation, but not boastful, which is why a few days on the Orient Express as he travels to London provides a seemingly welcome respite.

Only it doesn’t (shocker). When a suspicious art dealer is murdered on the train while it is simultaneously, conveniently, temporarily thrown off the tracks by a mini-avalanche, how else should Poirot decide to pass the time but by solving the mystery?

“Murder” is a film which – unlike its protagonist – doesn’t know where its priorities lie. The snazzy, self-aware attitude teased by its Imagine Dragons-infused marketing is nowhere to be seen, and by the end it’s clear the film is more concerned with making grand statements about justice and vigilantism. But in the context of its convoluted and rushed plot that feels like they forgot to film a few scenes, we don’t ever figure out why we should care.

Perhaps a bigger mystery at the core of the Kenneth Branagh-directed film is the way it utilizes its ensemble cast. It’s speckled with Academy Award-caliber talent portraying diverse personalities a la “The Hateful Eight.” But “Murder” is inexplicably more interested in Branagh’s Poirot, who treads the line between tolerable a slightly absurd for most of the time we’re with him. Seriously, put the FBI on this. WANTED: Consistently tolerable performances.

Poirot’s dedication is authentic, but sometimes it’s a struggle to be fully on-board with Branagh’s depiction when it’s a cross between the Monopoly Man and a bumbling Inspector Clouseau. You’ll either not care about the individual “suspects” being considered or you simply forget about them, which is a shame considering how personal the plot turns as the dots begin to connect.

Up until the final moments, they’ve served as barely more than props.

Haris Zambarloukos is the eye behind the camera for “Murder,” and a lot of credit is owed to him for keeping the story as engaging as it is, even if its most engaging moments resemble a thriller with about a minute and 45 seconds of actual thrill. He does some interesting things with the lens, but in the end his talents can’t overcome a weak script and subpar direction.

The mysterious disappearance around the three-quarter mark of whatever humor and charm the film had for its first hour looms large, as does the sinking feeling that sets in when the audience realizes “Murder” isn’t nearly as thematically gripping as it needs to be to stand out in 2017.

It’s like your old uncle who likes to think he knows what’s hip, but really just ends up embarrassing you. Honestly, did the movie’s title have to steal the already-iconic look of one of last year’s best movies?

But perhaps that’s what Branagh intends – an ostensibly slow-burn of a film that, if nothing else, emits some semblance of a more classic form of moviemaking. You can pay close attention as our detective does, and perhaps even find out the killer before he does, but there’s still no emotional heft for it to mean anything once it’s all said and done.

That can make it a wonder of a film for some depending on your taste, but when Detective Poirot is still announcing an hour and a half into the proceedings that “There is a murderer within us!” it’s hard to believe Branagh was ever completely confident with what he had.

This isn’t the most absorbing mystery to grace the big screen in recent months, or even the best train movie in recent years. It might not be trying to be either. But most strikingly, the thing Branagh fails to recognize is that the question at the center of “Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t the whodunit as much as the whowantedthis.

 

 

“Murder on the Orient Express” is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

2017

Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model.

Indie director Taika Waititi proves to be a great hire for the studio, and it was an even better decision not to put a leash on him. Over on the other end of the Disney mansion, Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy continues to muzzle the creativity of filmmakers hoping to making a “Star Wars” movie all their own, resulting in mutual separations over the evergreen excuse of “creative differences.”

So it’s a joy to see Waititi go all in with his brand of humor and exuberance here for “Ragnarok,” which might be the most turn-off-your-brain fun MCU movie not titled “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The cast certainly acts like it. Chris Hemsworth is easily having more fun than he’s ever been afforded previously, Jeff Goldblum is delightfully Jeff Goldbluming all over the place, and Tessa Thompson is a hell of a lot of fun as Valkyrie.

Besides being visually exhilarating – some shots are so gorgeous and colorful they reminded me of a Pixar movie – “Ragnarok” also blends an unexpected number of genres. Parts of the story of Thor, Hulk and Co. working to take down the evil Hela depict a medieval tale of sorts set in the cosmos, one whose greatest statement perhaps is that everything happening on Earth really is incidentally insignificant compared to what’s in store for our heroes in the great beyond.

It also sprinkles in – no, dumps – loads and loads of humor. “Ragnarok” isn’t just off-beat funny like “Guardians” is; it treads into downright parody territory. Among the superhero tropes being mocked: Logic-proof wormholes, dramatic heroic entrances and villainous destruction, all to purely satisfying effect. The film’s essence thrives on a mantra of constant self-deprecation, even if it sometimes might serve as an excuse not to provide any ingenuity when it comes to plot.

With Waititi it’s all about style – taking a paint-by-the-number story of saving the world and injecting it with 1980’s arcade game-inspired pizazz. Hell, just compare the poster for “Ragnarok” to those of the previous two Thor entries; it’s like David Fincher has gone Dreamworks.

That being said, the first half is the much more fresh hour of the film before it delves into more typical superhero fare. It’s still humorous, but even Waititi had to know sustaining the weightless and breezy techno-cheese candor of the first hour would be difficult; there are still epic stakes here, and epic implications for the MCU at-large.

The aforementioned Goldblum is a welcome addition to the universe, as is Karl Urban as the conflicted gatekeeper between realms, and Cate Blanchett is sublimely devilish given what she has to work with. It’s not a lot.

As a matter of fact, just a few months after it seemed Marvel Studios had turned a corner when it comes one-dimensional villains via Michael Keaton’s revelatory turn in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it’s back to square one with Hela. Dubbed the Goddess of Death, she’s little more than an infinitely powerful figure with the appearance of an arachnid and a generally baseless ambition to conquer the universe.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is, very much so. And even if “Ragnarok” is fine going with the cliches from a storytelling standpoint, it makes Asgard’s plight pale in comparison to Thor and Hulk’s buddy-cop mission to escape the technicolored Sakkar when it comes to entertainment value. You’re almost willing the franchise to stay there and let Asgard be reduced to ashes. The personality of “Ragnarok” isn’t totally diminished in the final act, but you’ll catch yourself checking your watch for the first time once Sakkar is left for good.

As different as “Ragnarok” feels aesthetically to the first “Thor” and its completely forgettable sequel, it is undoubtedly a trilogy-capper narratively. Closure is given to more than one aspect of the God of Thunder’s story, while teasing new developments for the next slate of MCU offerings.

Whether Waititi remains on board for any of those future movies remains to be seen. But if Kevin Feige can thank the director for one thing (aside from what is sure to be a rather profitable opening weekend at the box office), it’s the reminder that the occasional sacrifice of pathos for good old-fashioned fun can be appreciated by moviegoers.

 

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Taika Waititi

2017

Gallery: 2017 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The annual International Balloon Fiesta is the premier event in the state nicknamed the Land of Enchantment, and it more than justifies that title.



For nine mornings in October, as long as the weather’s just right, the skies above Albuquerque — already awash in sunshine — explode with color as hundreds of balloons of all shapes and sizes take off from Balloon Fiesta Park, creating a perfect backdrop for photographers, spectators, nearby residents and even those commuting to work. 2017 was the 46th for the fiesta, which draws hundreds of thousands every year from across the state, country and world.






Vendors sell delicious food, local artisans show off their crafts, and New Mexico’s diverse and unique culture is placed front-and-center.









 

 

 

 


At night, balloons inflate and stay on the ground for the Glowdeo, providing a magical sight as the balloons’ flames light up the night and pilots talk to visitors.


 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos taken by David Alex Lynch with a Nikon D7200. Follow him on Instagram @alealejandro695, and on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. 

Column: Why, and how, I review movies

First things first, and believe me, based on some of the reactions I’ve gotten in the past, it bears importance starting out with this: I don’t consider myself a film expert.

If I did, I wouldn’t be writing about movies. I’d be trying my hand at making them. And potentially making a hell of a lot more money than I do now writing reviews (which amounts to exactly zilch. What’s up, Rolling Stone?).

But I don’t. I watch a lot of movies (some people might think too many. Sorry, Mom), and I feel like with each one I’ve seen – even the stinkers – I’ve learned something new about the medium. But through nearly 22 years and four months of life, never has that led to a particular desire to create a movie, no matter how much I respect the hell out of people who do, on any level.

But movies were my first love. For sure. Something about the medium has always resonated with me more, and continues to do so, than any other art form. The movie theater is my home away from home, the big screen an entryway into some special kind of nirvana that I can never get anywhere else.

And, starting fairly recently, the pen and notepad has been my companion to the theater.

Why I do it

I’ll admit it: I have an insatiable, somewhat pretentious, definitely obsessive need for people to know my thoughts on the films I watch. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Facebook for any amount of time, you probably knew that.

It’s a need whose obsessive nature correlates to how extremely good or bad I believe a movie to be. Yes, you should offer your time and money to go see Blade Runner 2049. No, you’d be much better off spending two hours of your life watching grass grow than seeing Suicide Squad.

When did I start doing that in formalized, written, extremely amateur blogger form? Weirdly enough, with 2014’s Chef. I spent my free afternoon that summer going to the theater to catch a film that looked interesting enough to be worth my money.

Actually, I was working at the movies that summer, so it was totally free. But that’s beside the point.

Who knows what it was about that day, that experience. I’ve never had a particular fascination with Jon Favreau (his movies are fine), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family is fine) or the food truck culture (it’s deliciously fine).

But something about that day, that experience of watching a movie alone and perhaps picking through details more than I had up to that point, led me to go home, immediately open up my laptop, and write down my thoughts.

In about 600 or so words that probably came across as more like thought vomit than a legible review, I gave my thoughts to the world on a simple movie about family and food. I threw them up on a blog that was created somewhat hastily the previous semester for a class. I shared it with my friends and family, inviting them to read.

And a new hobby was born that has since turned into a lifestyle I’ve become passionate about, over the course of the few dozen reviews I’ve written since then.

Money (small amounts) has come from it a handful of times. Criticism of my criticism has come more often. I even found myself driving back to my Albuquerque apartment with a New Mexico Press Association award one time because of it. Others have resulted in only one or two views, let alone recognition I never expect to receive.

And with every single page of indecipherably written notes I’ve jotted in dimly lit theaters has come a growing appreciation for the art form.

But I don’t do it just for myself. I want people to have an idea of what they’re getting into when they decide to take a trip to the hallowed halls of Cinemadom. That much has remained the same with my reviewing, and just like any good journalist, I try to stay as objective as possible.

The method to the movie madness

Since I’ve started writing about films, my consumption of other reviews and movie commentary of the written variety by others has increased exponentially. From Peter Travers to A.O. Scott to the various movie podcasts out there, I’ve tried to open myself up to as many perspectives about individual films as I can after crafting my own opinion of them.

Sometimes, I’m too stubborn to change that opinion. Sometimes, it’s completely changed the way I see a movie. That’s the beauty of any piece of art, after all – it’s subjective, and completely open to interpretation. That’s partly why I never consider myself a film expert; just someone with one opinion mixed in with a million others.

But among the (very) few things that truly irks me about some professional reviews: the free-for-all attitude when it comes to plot.

It isn’t really related to quality. Some of the best reviews I’ve ever read go all in when it comes to spoiling a movie. In my opinion, that goes against the purpose of reviewing new films.

For some, though, that’s the point – to discuss it freely and openly. And that’s fine. That’s their method.

But if you’ve never read one of my reviews for fear of the subject at hand being spoiled, know that that’s always at the top of my head. I rarely, if ever, go into details about plot beyond what is being explicitly expressed in a film’s marketing. The same might not be said for a movie’s themes, etc., but that’s my interpretation of it.

And it’s an invitation for you to interpret it your own way. At least, it should be. Because if I want my reviews to be a bastion for anything, it’s discussion.

Maybe that’s the journalist in me. I’ve always been taught that my first loyalty as a professional journalist is to the reader, and it wouldn’t do to have a movie spoiled if the reader hasn’t seen it yet.

There’s another big way my inner journalist has influenced my evolution of movie review-writing. I always try to stay as objective as possible. I’m not going to fib and say that some movies don’t affect me in profoundly personal ways; some of my favorite films do so every time I watch them.

But I also don’t believe that equating films to some of my personal experiences is the right way to go about it, at least for me. I know readers don’t care about how that one scene reminded me of that one kickback in college, or the way a line of dialogue took me back to a life-changing conversation I had with an important person in my life.

They care, in objective as terms as possible, about what they might experience when they go see a movie. The direction, acting, potential meanings, cinematography, etc. etc.

That isn’t to say I don’t write about a film’s emotional impact; not doing so would neglect the purpose of film. But I strive to do it in ways that I feel are intentional and far-reaching; writing about techniques with broad implications, whether those are societal or historical.

Simply put: I try to keep out the Me’s, Myself’s and I’s as much as possible, instead focusing on the audience and who I believe the film’s intended audience to be. Hell, even thinking about who that audience is is part of the fun when contemplating a movie I’ve just seen.

I’ve also adopted a bit of a different lens to watch movies through when I know I’m going to be writing a review about it later. That’s just what has naturally happened. I try to pay attention to some of the finer details that I might otherwise neglect. The way a line of dialogue is given. How a room is arranged. Why the camera dances at some moments and sits idly by at others, like just another member of the audience. Why the director do this? Did the scribe subtly mean X when she wrote Y?

Does that mean I might be more critical of a movie that I’d be blindly enjoying if I was just watching it to watch for my own amusement with my brain turned off? Sure, maybe…to an extent.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching movies in this way – which I’ve recently noticed I’ve been doing with any movie I see, whether it will lead to a review or not – it doesn’t do any filmgoer to watch a movie just to soak it all in, a way to pass the time.

Movies are meant to engage. They’re meant to challenge. They’re meant to show us things we’ve never seen before. To make us fall in love with, to get pissed at, to be utterly perplexed by the events unfolding onscreen.

That’s what I hope people get out of them (yes, even the bad ones). And also my reviews; I want them to spark some legitimate reaction. Above all though, I hope that people understand it’s just the thoughts of one interpretation in an endless sea of them. It’s a privilege to have the means to do it, to have a way to share them and to have people who read them.

Just don’t ever expect my experience to be an exact carbon copy of yours.

 

Review: In gorgeous ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ a new standard for sequels is set

There’s something that feels ironically punctual when experiencing “Blade Runner 2049,” 35 years after the debut of the iconic and innovative original continues to influence pop culture in ways we’ve become accustomed to by now.

Maybe it’s the fact that the long-gestating sequel was always waiting, in spirit, for Denis Villeneuve, like he was some long-awaited prophet whose destiny it was to accomplish the impossible on multiple levels (and accomplish, he has).

It could just be that we’re a little over a year away from when the events of Ridley Scott’s film take place – a bleak, dystopian take on impoverished 2019 Los Angeles that in many ways mirrors the personality some parts of the country have taken on: Desolate and deadly.

Now, in “2049,” that personalization is magnified. Replicants are still being hunted down, albeit now by their own kind. A bankrupt Tyrell Corporation has been acquired by a new company with unknown intentions. The environment’s pessimistic personality has evolved to a much darker characterization; one with cruel intentions.

And there’s a mystery to be solved, one with implications both far-reaching and personal. That “Blade Runner 2049” understands this from the first moments foreshadows its success as a visually hypnotic two-and-a-half hours of movie grandeur, and a sequel that magnificently builds on the intrigue and world of the 1982 original.

A large part of Villeneuve’s sensory kaleidoscope of a film follows K, the blade runner who – after a violent run-in with a skin-tone Dave Bautista who seems much bigger here than he ever did in “Guardians of the Galaxy” – begins to unpack clues to some larger revelations that come down the road. It isn’t necessarily the start of a full-blown war that Robin Wright endlessly alludes to in the trailers for “2049,” but early on the audience understands that the scope of what K is uncovering is far bigger than anything Decker discovered while hunting down a rogue group of Replicants back in 2019 LA.

To back up the intrigue of these revelations, “2049” goes all in to portray the world that would be affected by them. The range of environments that visual maestro Roger Deakins guides us through makes it seem like the entirety of “Blade Runner” happened within a few city blocks.

Here, we go to desolate countrysides, post-apocalyptic wastelands, scorched Chernobyls, geometrically astute corporations that pass more for deformed Rubik’s cubes than your typical techie offices (get with the game, Apple).

And of course, with the incessant and increasingly annoying BRAAAHM BRAAAAHMS of a Hans Zimmer score as a fellow passenger, the camera swoops, stalks and glides through morally bankrupt and constantly overcast Los Angeles (does this place ever see any sun?). With skyscraper-sized virtual ads and a stench of overpopulation, being on the street level with K is like traversing through an Alice in Wonderland of the “Black Mirror” variety.

It’s an atmosphere that is downright intoxicating in its futuristic dreariness, and a world that – from a technical level – provided me with a more memorable sense of awe than James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

It’s an environment that, like K, is grasping onto a sense of what it means to be human, and grappling with how being human has changed over the previous 30 years.

There’s much world-building here that also isn’t visually driven, but rather motivated by expanding on the lore that we now realize was only teased in the 1982 “Blade Runner.” Things have happened since then that, even though they are only referenced in bites, it’s clear they were earth-shattering. The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction

The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction from humans, leading to big questions about the state of humanity, and even its value going forward.

Who known if Phillip K. Dick ever asked the questions that “2049” poses, but the evolution of the franchise’s curiousity over the past three decades shows how important those questions are.

Not all of them are answered, however, and they shouldn’t be. Superfans of the 1982 film should also be consoled that even The Big Question surrounding Harrison Ford’s Deckard isn’t answered concretely. It’s a testament to the story and Villeneuve’s direction that it doesn’t have to be answered for us to know that, after learning what we learn, this world is in for more than it has ever bargained for.

But “2049” smartly puts those global implications aside as a subplot. It knows that it shouldn’t concern itself with such things. Even Jared Leto’s mysterious Niander Wallace doesn’t get a ton of screentime. Villeneuve is reminding us that, even after 35 years, the story of “Blade Runner” is still primarily the story of one blade runner in particular – Deckard.

Contrasting his and K’s journey and discoveries against their broader consequences, and against the more massive world their story takes place in, is the smartest thing Villeneuve could have done with this sequel, even if certain elements of the plot are too dense and far-reaching to take in at the first viewing. They’re not in any race against a world-ending clock — although a magnificently scary Sylvia Hoeks is hot on their heels — but the drama certainly reaches a crescendo all the same.

The magnetic build-up to those discoveries will be seen as more of a trudge by some, but for me, the film’s nearly three hours of running time flew by. It isn’t an action romp as the marketing may suggest but, like the original film, a very deliberate piece of filmmaking grandeur that confirms Denis Villeneuve as the most exciting director working today.

It’s bold and it’s tense, a kinetic dream of a film that is as technically entrancing as it is thought-provoking. That this film – that not many were asking for – was made when it was is an achievement, but experiencing it breathe with purpose is a bit of a miracle. It’s an intersection of mesmerizing world-building and engaging story that sets the template moving forward for not only contemporary sci-fi, but sequels of any genre.

In an age of seemingly needless reboot announcements and even more underwhelming execution, maybe that’s 2049’s most punctual message of all.

 

 

 

“Blade Runner” is rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

2017

 

Review: Emma Stone dazzles as women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Like the ostensibly unordinary back-and-forth dance that eyeballs engage in while watching a tennis match, so too does “Battle of the Sexes” breeze along fairly unspectacularly in telling the story of former tennis champion and feminist icon Billie Jean King.

And like a dramatic gaining of a point in tennis serves to remind the owners of those eyeballs that there is much more talent involved than they may realize, so too does Emma Stone turn in another forceful and endearing performance — one of the very best of the year, really — as King.

In the process, she gives the film — directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — a bit of redeeming quality. Not that “Battle of the Sexes” completely hits the net upon first serve, but it’s difficult to find very many things that separate it as an elite biographical offering, even as Stone plays and mesmerizes her way to potentially a second straight Best Actress nomination.

The story of Billie Jean King and her crusade against society’s ingrained sexism that sees her playing a nearly 30-years-her-senior Bobby Riggs is certainly a story that deserves to be told. King, a tennis champion in the early 70s who also championed equal wages for female athletes, also fought for LGBTQ rights later in life before becoming an early advocate for Title IX in sports, but the film doesn’t delve into that too much.

Instead, it focuses on her spirited drive to just get some damn respect. The method: Forming an all-women’s tournament to show that female athletes are just as big a draw as the men.

That later leads, by way of sheer, “Oh yes I can” attitude, to the iconic, real-life Battle of the Sexes — King’s match with former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, here portrayed by a seemingly hyperbolic but all too true-to-form Steve Carrell, who is channeling his inner Looney Tunes. That is, if Daffy Duck was deep down an egotistical, dogmatist brat who thought the world revolved around the XY chromosome.

Unfortunately for Dayton and Faris — as well as the audience — effectively contrasting Carrell’s cartoonish villainy with the very real (and very relevant issues) that the Battle of the Sexes represented is a tough endeavor. The film is made as authentically as possible, from the perpetual 70s cinematic tinge to the you-have-to-Google-it-to-believe-it antics of Riggs, and sometimes that works against it via uncomfortable tonal shifts.

The film breezes along for two hours, a perfectly fine Netflix watch that is mostly let down by its writing, but when Stone’s King is on screen, the film soars. Stone, fresh off a Best Actress triumph for “La La Land,” embodies everything about King — from her appearance to her confident glow to her personifying of a simple message: Women do belong on the same court as the men, and for the same wages.

But what the continually surprising Stone brings to the table feels restrained by lackluster writing; the script cheapens that important social commentary to where it feels almost tongue-in-cheek at times. And at others, especially in some early scenes, the fight for equality is presented in such black-and-white terms that you have to wonder why the struggle is ongoing for women decades later.

Thankfully, as the movie goes, it gets a little bit of a better handle on how complex the issue is, and just how cemented the psychology is that King is working to break through.

Carrell’s Riggs, meanwhile, hasn’t quite completely fallen from grace, but he sure is hitting every rung hard on the way down. On the cusp of a failing marriage and gambling addiction, he turns his attention to the headline-making King as the yin to her yang, the man who has no issues proclaiming to national media that his gender is superior.

The film wisely portrays Carrell as the one with seemingly nothing to lose and Stone with everything, raising the stakes of their historic match.

But even as Carrell and his feigned masculinity is one-half of the titular Battle, the film is largely driven by King’s journey, and her wrangling with the various things a professional athlete must contend with to be successful. An excellent Stone makes it a journey all the more heart-wrenching, and all the more inspiring.

With subtext that is uber-timely in a world where “pussy-grabbing” Trump is president, “Battle of the Sexes” does bring light to the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the world of sports (See: 2016 Olympic Games commentators).

But it’s the moments when that commentary is oversimplified that the film becomes self-defeating. The themes are important, but they’re tough to take seriously when the script’s portrayal of them borders on satire.

Dayton’s and Faris’s movie is still an entertaining time. It’s witty, with Sarah Silverman a standout as the organizer of the all-women’s tournament, and it truly breathes the era. It also doesn’t do anything particularly exciting for the biographical genre, as much as we hope it does with the importance of the character its story is centered on.

For as much a champion of women’s rights that King was, “Battle of the Sexes” burdens itself — and its message — by limiting the scope of her impact mostly to her feud with Riggs. And while that feud did come to represent her crusade against sexism at large, it still feels minimalized.

As a result, “Battle of the Sexes” feels like a triumphant one — it certainly has no trouble stating it is — but largely for reasons unknown, other than another stunningly spot-on turn by Stone.

 

 

“Battle of the Sexes” is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

2017

Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater.

Questions of the “What does it all even mean?” variety have certainly filled that discussion surrounding the latest offering from Aronofsky, as he continues to experiment the decade after receiving renown and even awards recognition for “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

But pervading those “what” questions, suitably, have also been a spattering of “how” inquiries. As in, “How far is this movie, and Aronofsky, going to go?”

“mother!” may be vague, ambiguous even, but it certainly isn’t subtle. It’s unusual turn after unusual turn, and even if you don’t realize you’re beating beaten mercilessly in allegory, you known damn well you’re being clubbed in the senses with freakish, non-stop non-sequitor.

It’s hard to call the 2-hour film anything short of a curiosity. You can join in the ride if you want by simply absorbing what’s on screen. But that’s not where the fun lies, unless all you’ve ever wanted from your movies is an Eli Roth offering that has something to say.

First of all, if there’s any movie you should know the least about before going into, it’s this one. (You can rest easy if you’re reading this before your first viewing that no major or moderate spoilers will be found in these paragraphs.) Though Aronofsky certainly has a major story to re-tell through Jennifer Lawrence’s trials and tribulations, it’s much more fun to Reddit up on those theories afterwards.

That’s because “mother!”, for as much a sensory experience as it is (Sound Editing/Mixing Oscars could be in the…mix) is awash in symbolism and aforementioned allegory. So much so that it’s a hell of a time trying to unpack it all. It’s a cerebral drama in seemingly the most grotesque and barbaric of visions, but one that certainly has statements to be made.

There may be a method to this madness, and there absolutely is a message.

It’s a message that will become clearer and clearer to some in the audience as Lawrence and company descend into a very particular kind of hell in the movie’s final act. But that doesn’t mean other themes aren’t at play; I counted three or four potential subjects that Aronofsky could have been critiquing/conveying/toying with in the first 45ish minutes.

I won’t divulge them. That would detract from your experience. But let’s grab a beer and discuss them afterwards, because this is a movie that drips with so many semantics and manifestations of the world at its carnal worst that you’ll be trying to connect the two for days afterward, even if you convince yourself you were completely turned off by Aronofsky’s unrestrained imagination.

Not everything in “mother!” is vague. There are certain details that stand out as red flags, clues to remember for later. The cues of isolation. Lawrence’s white clothes contrasted against the darker attire of nearly everyone else. The house being its own character, in a more literal sense than you’d expect.

I’m almost sure that some of those details were placed intentionally by Aronofsky to throw us off his scent.

With all this talk of a film that is a hell-bent on going to hell and back to tell the story of (SUBJECT REMOVED TO REFRAIN FROM SPOILING) through extended metaphor, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that “mother!” is lethargic.

Far from it.

It makes you uncomfortable as hell, sure, and has been proudly marketed by Paramount as “The most controversial movie since ‘A Clockwork Orange’” (Mel Gibson would like a word). But in an age where it’s so easy to get lost in a dreamlike trance with the majority of studio films (See: Marvel Studios), why not counteract that with a bit of nightmare to jolt us awake in our seats?

At the very least, the production value of “mother!”, given its solitary setting and symbolically layered premise, is something to be admired. This is the most no-holds-barred example of studio filmmaking in as long as I can remember, and in an age where Disney is firing up-and-coming visionaries for not conforming to what they want in a “Star Wars” film, that kind of creative freedom should be embraced. Here, it’s an absolute rush.

Even when there’s certain parts where the audience is torn between being utterly horrified or guffawing out loud. “It affects everyone in a different way.” It sure, does.

And now, a matter of filmmaking etiquette that Aronofsky presents front-and-center with “mother!”: Does the fact that a movie necessitates repeat viewing diminish its authenticity?

Personally, I am already booking the seat for my next showing. I wanted to return to this world immediately after the credits rolled. Not because I could equate some of what I was seeing on-screen with cinematic glee, per se, but because there were almost certainly some details that I missed, and larger ones that I still just need to figure out.

It stays with you in that way. At least, it did for me. And if I decide to give up and Google Aronofsky’s meaning, then I’ll probably watch it a third time with a whole new mindset. And I’d expect I’ll be satisfied in a different way.

Some asides: Music is absent in “mother!”, with Aronofsky instead electing for pinpoint attention to sound. From teacups breaking to more supernatural auditory occurrences, those are the director’s reassurances that once the movie gets from 0 to 100 mph, it rarely dips below 85.

The film also entirely follows Lawrence. We’re not just seeing the experience through her eyes, we’re living it; the camera is attached to her, and for the amount of closeups Aronofsky shoots of her, it’s surprisingly never a frustration decision. Bardem is the more tantalizing of the two, but that’s a result of the writing more than anything else.

Michelle Pfeiffer is her usual darkly sultry self, and Ed Helms is fine as the couple’s first visitor. Revealing other cast members, though, would be giving away too much.

What? I meant what I said about going in knowing the bare minimum. And the most bare minimum information anyone needs to know is this is a batshit crazy director at his batshit craziest.

Roger Ebert once said, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” If that’s the true barometer for a film’s success, then “mother!” might be the best film of the year.

At the very least, it’s an absorbing, boldly made and deftly innovative movie that challenges viewers in ways we should want to be challenged. If we got two or three “mother!s” every year, Hollywood would be better off.

And so would we.

 

 

“mother!” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Helms, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

2017

Review: ‘It’ a thrilling, if flawed, big-budget horror offering

There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.

Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.

The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character.

Enter: IT, Stephen King’s iconic (aren’t they all?) story of a killer clown preying on the children of Small Town, USA, and the group of Losers who take it upon themselves to destroy him.

King’s novel is a dense opus spanning decades, but director Andy Muschietti, along with the film’s four writers, deserve credit for telling a concise, first chapter of a tale that is also the most entertaining horror offering of the year.

The chemistry between the aforementioned Losers – a ragtag group of outcast teens with their own distinct personalities – is a marvel. The story revolves around their conflict with Pennywise, but the minutiae of their relationships with each other is as close as Hollywood has come to reviving the spirit Stand By Me. Jaeden Liberher is particularly excellent as the stuttering de-facto leader Bill, while Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame is a riot as living, breathing comic relief.

Sophia Lillis also puts in a breakthrough turn as Bev Marsh, though her story gets underwhelming when she becomes just another damsel in distress.

When Pennywise isn’t dominating the screen, it’s these kids we’re with, and it’s company that we’re more than happy to be a part of. They’re written adequately, bouncing back and forth between the typical teen angst and dealing with a killer clown. It’s a faithful compromise, so long as you can get past the occasional overindulgence on dick jokes and vulgar quips (the film’s R-rating isn’t solely for the scares).

They also all have their respective baggage that elevates their respective roles from would-be heroes to we-just-want-to-find-a-way-to-prove-ourselves-ers.

And then there’s Bill Skarsgård, who updates Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise with his own dastardly interpretation that is as creepy as it is addicting to witness. You can choose to cover your eyes if you want, but you’d be missing out on the movie’s best scenes.

The very best of those scenes might just be his introduction, a first greeting with the paper sailboat-toating Georgie – Bill’s younger brother who catapults the story into motion – that is equal parts tantalizing and brilliant. In about 90 seconds Skarsgård goes through the gamut of his sinister clown’s personality, from the cutesie-creepy laugh to glaring eyes that scream, “Hey, Georgie, get the hell out of there.”

Everything about those 90 seconds is perfect; from the “innocent” hello to its jaw-dropping ending, it’s a standout sequence of any film this year.

And unfortunately it’s Skarsgård’s only real opportunity at acting the part. From there on (until the final showdown), the CGI takes over, and Skarsgård – now having established Pennywise’s one bloodthirsty goal – is relegated to leering out from behind corners and whispering his victim’s names as if we are supposed to mistake the sound for wind.

It’s a bit of a frustrating turn, but doesn’t detract completely from the impact of when he is on screen. The most fun parts of the film are when he’s stalking the kids behind blood-red balloons, stalking his prey before pouncing on them in a standout haunted house thrill ride that proves the time is ripe for a live-action Monster House.

IT isn’t keep-you-awake-all-night frightening, but what it makes up for in sheer, Conjuring-esque terror it makes up for in visual flair and creativity, like a Jack-in-a-box that reveals a puppet much larger than anything the contraption is expected to hold.

Where IT really thrives, though, is in bringing to life the world of the homely-but-threatening town of Derry, Maine. Never before has a Stephen King world been brought to life so faithfully on an aesthetic level, right down to the sense that someone is always watching our lovable Losers.

When a theater marque advertising “The Nightmare on Elm Street 5” makes an appearance, you have to wonder if any other movie ever screens there.

That atmosphere only serves to heighten the sense of dread and stakes for the kids, who connect the dots in the town’s history en route to confronting whatever “it” is that is making children go missing. There’s an enticing bit of mythos that is teased, if not gently established, that hopefully is explored further in the sequel so that we can get a clearer picture of how much a force of evil Pennywise has been for years.

While the world of Derry is threaded with morbid undertones, it’s the occasional lapse in writing that keeps it from being one of the top three or four Stephen King adaptations (just being in the conversation is probably enough with how much the author has contributed to the genre). While the film for the most part balances its scares and humor well, at a handful of points the tonal shift is so jarring it’s as if the audience has entered the world of parody.

Aside from that, the ending leaves a little to be desired. It’s an entertaining confrontation between the kids and Pennywise, one enhanced by the aforementioned cinematic flair that helps make it a legitimate horror blockbuster. But when the stakes have been raised so high at various points in the previous hour-and-a-half, you can’t help but feel like the writers missed an opportunity to go for a dynamic, go-for-broke finish.

As a result, once the credits roll, it feels like perhaps the ride has been over for longer than we thought; we’ve just been sitting in the car waiting, craving another drop.

Still, those are minor complaints for what is entertaining big-budget horror. IT doesn’t worry about treading any lines between cheap thrills and story because it understands there doesn’t have to be a territorial divide, and its world-building is so brilliantly enticing – a wonder to see played out onscreen –  that it makes the wait for the sequel worth it.

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