Month in Review: May ’19

Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s that time again! Another month of cinematic magic to look back on, or . . . since it’s early in the year, perhaps lament the lack thereof. From yet more pointless biopics (Tolkien, if you take a look at the numbers, apparently only has $4 million worth of fandom, but that paltry figure surely betrays the popularity of his works and indeed of the man himself, whose fantastical realm created a global fraternity of deeply loyal, line-memorizing fans), to Dennis Quaid looking totally annoying and embarrassingly in need of a paycheck intruding your local cineplexes in this hackneyed home-invasion “thriller”, or even a lack of good animated films (Ugly Dolls — no thanks, no thanks), I’ve felt like Keanu Reeves wandering the arid Sahara in search of answers, or at least decent entertainment this month. (Oh but John Wick 3 delivered. Or, it delivered what we have come to expect from it by now and not a shred of texture beyond that.)

May did hold some intrigue, however, what with the Godzilla sequel (yes, I know you hated the first but I didn’t) and the Elton John biopic (admittedly bordering on gratuitous profiting too) both coming out on the same weekend. There have also been several interesting things popping up on streaming platforms that uh, yeah, I haven’t gotten around to yet — remember when I said I would do a whole month of streaming-based reviews? Thank goodness this is a blog and not an actual job. I’d be fired twice by now for not delivering. Maybe I should fire myself. I suppose it’s not too late to do such a thing (stream an entire month’s worth of movies that is, not fire myself). But I’m not setting any hard deadlines.

Before we dive into it, there’s just one other thing I’d like to mention. Note the new feature on the side, Beer With Me! This is something I’ll be maintaining casually as I stumble upon new beers that I like (and can confidently recommend) and maybe figure out some ways to incorporate my love of IPAs with my love of movies. Like, for example, I might feature a Beer of the Month in these recap posts — something that might actually justify this otherwise middling and superfluous feature I created. Give it a look, feel free to share comments/suggestions about what I should try next in the comments section here or, of course, on any of my posts.

Without any further verbal spewage, here’s what has gone down on the world’s most active movie-related blog in the month of May.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Other: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (Redbox)

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Seau


Bite Sized Reviews

High Flying Bird · February 8, 2019 · Directed by Steven Soderbergh · Calling all NBA fans! This is your movie. His second consecutive “portable” production, once again shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird tells of the creative maneuvers an ambitious, hard-working talent agent (André Holland) seeks to pull off in a bold attempt to put an end to the 2014 work stoppage that prefaced that season. Melvin Gregg plays Holland’s (fictitious) rookie client, Erick Scott, a gifted player both lusting after the glam and the glory of being a pro baller while being scarily unprepared for the realities of being a professional athlete. Deadpool 2‘s very own Zazie Beetz plays a crucial supporting role in both his personal and professional development. The script by Moonlight scribe and accomplished playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney draws undeniable parallels between old-fashioned slavery and NBA ownership (and if that seems sensationalist, consider the awful spectacle that befell the Los Angeles Clippers — incidentally that very same year, when then-owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team after audio recordings of him making some odious remarks about his own players were leaked to the public). Brief interviews with current players (Karl Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson) tie seamlessly into the narrative and give perspective on the pressures faced by rookies to perform in the modern game and age of Twitter. So, in case it isn’t obvious, High Flying Bird is a film of specifics — it’s inarguably the Ocean’s 11 director’s most esoteric project yet, with sport and business jargon abounding. High Flying Bird is also a notable step up in terms of picture quality, thanks almost entirely to the gleaming urban setting. Unlike the drab, murky interior shots that dominated (and plagued) his previous effort Unsane, here buckets of sunshine wash over the silver edifice of New York City, adding a sense of style and elegance to a narrative that isn’t afraid of tackling the ugly underbelly of the National Basketball Association. Insightful for fans, likely isolating and boring for everyone else. (4/5)

Venom · October 5, 2018 · Directed by Ruben Fleischer · Oh boy, where do I even start with this. I guess let’s start with I hated it, pretty much beginning to finish. The first standalone, live-action movie focused upon the (only bad) people-eating exploits of the anti-hero Venom, an alien symbiote who inhabits the body of disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), finding it a match made in alien heaven, is one I only wish I could un-see. The first half of the film obligingly fulfills some human drama quota, trudging through the consequences of Brock’s overreaching during a tense interview with self-anointed global savior Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, victim #1 of some truly terrible dialogue and bland, wanton villainy), his probing questions over what’s really going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Life Foundation causing his fiancee (Michelle Williams) to lose her job there and thus end their relationship, leaving Brock vulnerable to forcible alien penetration. When his superpowered alter-ego begins taking over in earnest, Venom swings like a bipolar teen from dull and no fun to sensationally goofy and downright dumb, the voice of Venom coming across as a misunderstood rascal rather than an extraterrestrial being of dubious morality. The movie hits a low with Williams shoving her tongue down the throat of said alien, the act managing to be both creepy and an utterly unconvincing change of heart in one fell swoop. Hits a high when the end credits roll. Okay, that’s not entirely fair — Tom Hardy at least deserves a nod for being a good sport, though neither he nor the rest of the talented ensemble (including Jenny “Marcel the Shell” Slate as a scientist with a conscience) are enough to elevate this clunker out of the lower echelons of superhero adaptations. (1.5/5)


What’s been your favorite movie this month?

Unsane

Release: Friday, March 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan Bernstein; James Greer

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is to date the most recognizable filmmaker to have publicly touted the virtues of making movies using your own smartphone. We aren’t talking Instagram videos of course, but full-length feature films. In this case, a gritty horror film about a young woman who can’t get away from her stalker. The director behind popular, lavish productions like Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic has now come to embrace the increasingly popular backpack-style approach to filmmaking as a means of avoiding unwanted financial headaches and focusing upon that which matters most — the actual making of the film.

Unsane was filmed entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Unfortunately the final product ends up being an indictment on that particular choice of tech. Much like our possibly mentally unstable protagonist, the film simply does not look well. The color scheme is pallid, almost sick-making in light-starved environments and the claustrophobic spaces into which we are forced do nothing but bring attention to the inferiority of smartphone cameras. I’m no expert on photography or cinematography, but as I understand it the iPhone does not give the user the option to adjust aperture (the hole in a camera lens that determines how much light will be let in) and Unsane‘s ugly aesthetic attests to these limitations. The story itself is not all that engrossing, but the entire enterprise suffers on a technical level to the point where the low overhead becomes very difficult to ignore, much less defend.

Unlike Sean Baker, who found great success in his 2015 street drama Tangerine, interestingly among the first few feature films to dabble in Apple, Soderbergh’s implementation tends to draw attention to style and like the worst of found-footage (which this film mercifully isn’t), ends up more as a gimmick than the product of creative budgeting. That’s an issue made more apparent by the fact that Unsane doesn’t move us the way it should, particularly in post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood. The performances are strong, especially that of star Claire Foy, but Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay doesn’t develop into much more than a fairly standard psychological horror in which the viewer’s perception of reality is constantly being challenged. Only, it isn’t constant. In Unsane, we are only for a brief moment unsure whether to trust the ‘hero’ or the needle-wielding orderlies against which she constantly rebels.

The British actress plays a driven businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini. The promise of a new, less complicated life awaits her in a new city, some 400 miles away from her hometown, her mother (Amy Irving) and her ridiculously maladjusted man-child of an ex, one David Strine (Joshua Leonard). But when one of her first attempts to truly move on turns south thanks to unwanted and repressed memories rising up at a most inopportune moment, Sawyer finds herself turning to a local mental health facility for answers. During the course of a promising discussion with one of the experts, Sawyer confesses she has contemplated suicide in her past. The next moment she is being admitted as a patient, apparently against her will. Her privileges and personal items are quickly forfeited at the door to some decidedly unsympathetic staff.

Unsane starts strong, but the disorienting effect created by a series of personal invasions quickly disintegrates like a pill in water. Chalk that up to how impatient Soderbergh is in steering the film to its bloody and predictable conclusion. The best part of the film is simply getting settled in at this really creepy, depressing joint. A 24-hour watch becomes a weeklong stint as Sawyer’s aggressive self-defense mechanisms are used against her as proof of her instability. In that time she meets a few of the patients, many of them wretches, like Juno Temple’s Violet. But then there is also Nate (Jay Pharaoh), who appears to be the only person willing to listen. More importantly, she also begins experiencing what may or may not be hallucinations of her ex, which sends her into more apoplectic fits that in turn send her into solitary confinement.

Sawyer’s descent is undoubtedly disturbing, even difficult to watch at times for reasons beyond the fact it is literally difficult to see what’s going on. The film touches on certain disconcerting realities of the social media age in that invisibility and anonymity are precious commodities, especially when you are the target of a stalker. (And not to keep pouring it on, but I really wish this dynamic wasn’t introduced by a needlessly distracting cameo.) Foy is a force to be reckoned with in her character’s darkest moments — and I hope this is what we are witnessing; I don’t know how it gets any darker than what goes down in the rubber room. And the fact she isn’t an entirely sympathetic individual gives Unsane more of an edge. There is such a lack of comfort everywhere you turn.

Indeed, those anticipating a Soderbergian take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Shutter Island would be better off re-watching those films and just imagining what they would be like with someone else at the helm. In fact they would be even better served going back to Side Effects, a film that spun a similar tale of corrupt institutions in cahoots with special interest groups — another in which we couldn’t ever be sure who was telling the truth. That film may have been convoluted and ultimately confusing, but given that both films deal in issues of mental health and the real-life nightmares pharmaceutical companies often induce, Unsane gives us the ability to compare. And it is the weaker film, even ignoring Soderbergh’s attempt to thematically merge grainy footage with his character’s fraying mentality.

And in case you want to know, I have a Samsung Galaxy S7. And I love the way it makes me feel like a pro when I take pictures.

Recommendation: Familiar B-horror filtered through a rather off-putting visual aesthetic makes for an iffy recommendation. If you support everything Steven Soderbergh has ever done there is a great chance you’ll like this more than me. I’m not subscribed to the thought he is a particularly original filmmaker, and that may have hurt me here. With all my issues with the way the film appears, it is still impressive what these guys are able to do in 10 days with a phone on what basically amounts to a selfie stick. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Tangerine

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 1.53.09 AM

Release: Friday, July 10, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sean Baker; Chris Bergoch

Directed by: Sean Baker

How I felt when I first tucked into indie dramedy Tangerine — yes, that film, the one shot entirely on the iPhone 5s — and how I felt when the last scene faded to black couldn’t have been more radically different feelings. Talk about a film that earns your empathy.

Introducing itself to the world at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and creating substantial buzz in film festivals the world over before opening in an elite listing of American cinemas in July, Sean Baker’s fifth feature plays out with genuine emotion and manifests as an eye-opening day-in-the-life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles. Offering transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor their break-out roles, Tangerine swells with emotion thanks in large part to the pair’s naturalistic, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking performances — performances that suggest these are much more seasoned actors than they really are.

The story tells of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, who learns the pimp she’s in love with has had an affair during the time she had recently spent in prison. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) breaks the news to her in the opening scene, setting the wheels in motion for the rest of the film by triggering a reaction within Sin-Dee that suggests a history of confrontational, violent behavior. Tangerine has no interest in dwelling in the past however; it beats a path forward on the sun-scorched, unforgiving streets of Tinseltown where people do what they must to get by.

It might seem surprising, counterintuitive even, for someone to have such a reaction when hearing one’s pimp has been seeing other women. After all, this is the kind of movie that has no qualms with describing flesh as product, where “the only thing that matters is the hustle;” in this gorgeously rendered production the world can be so cruel and ugly. That painful reality is also what makes the film so good. It takes some adjusting to, there is no doubt about that. And that, too, is a painful reality in and of itself: this is a scene largely overlooked in the industry.

Baker’s smart not to keep the focus entirely on Sin-Dee’s vendetta. Factoring into the equation is a subplot involving Alexandra trying to get people to attend a show she’s putting on at a night club later in the evening — it’s Christmas Eve — and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) who frequents transgender prostitutes when on the clock, with a wife and child waiting for him back at home. Indeed, the cast may not be extensive but it’s enough to suggest a world filled with all sorts of broken people in various states of — well, I would say ‘decay,’ but that seems . . . harsh.

Tangerine develops in such a way that you’re constantly questioning whether a script was involved, or if real people were grabbed off the street and asked to contribute bit parts. It’s a hybrid of reality TV and independent cinema, bearing traits of the former in the way characters talk, behave and treat one another. There can be a lot of drama, and if we’re talking strictly narratively, Tangerine boils down to little more than relationship issues. But focusing on the machinations of the plot ignores the soft tissue of humanity that lies underneath wigs and layers of make-up.

These aren’t people we start off easily identifying with or even liking all that much. It’s almost irrelevant that the characters we are dealing with happen to be transgender, though the distinction should still be made. This isn’t yet another indie featuring the pains of adolescence as a white cisgender male. The trio of key players all share in common a lack of self-control that, coupled with their uniquely challenging professions, make them worthy of pity. They may not ask for it, but they’re going to get it anyway. And it’s not the worst thing to feel sorry for people who are less innately vile as they are products of their environments, and possibly products of terrible upbringings.

That was the last thing I expected to feel for Sin-Dee when all was said and done. I didn’t expect to find myself finishing the film. That’s because I also didn’t anticipate the screenplay to become so involving that it obliterated any sense that Baker’s decision to capture everything on an iPhone was nothing more than a gimmick. In this film, we feel like we could have stumbled into the frame at any given point, not realizing what was actually going on. That’s a really cool feeling.

Tangerine

Recommendation: I don’t know if you can call it a classic, but Tangerine is an all-too-unique film even in an era where a growing percentage of up-and-coming filmmakers are electing to take vastly different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. It’s an important film as it deals with a number of socially relevant issues and features impressive performances from stars who are also far too rare in an industry that claims to be representative of a larger population. Tangerine is as good as any independent release I’ve seen and with any luck it’s a matter of time before more films like it start making the rounds.

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.villagevoice.com