Capsule Reviews: Kedi; A Ghost Story; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Marjorie Prime

A Ghost Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and more

Kedi

Kedi

Turkey. Directed by Ceyda Torun.

I knew that Islam reveres cats, but Istanbul takes that reverence to a whole ‘nother level.

The documentary Kedi portrays the stray cats of that ancient capital as a dominating force. Director Ceyda Torun ostensibly focuses on seven such cats—Aslan Parçasi, Bengü, Deniz, Duman, Gamsiz, Psikopat, Sari—to keep things easy to follow, but they stand in for the city’s entire feline population as a whole. The cats’ influence on the day-to-day life of Istanbul seems to equal that of their human compatriots, and Torun gets some remarkable footage (much of it shot at cat level) as they beg for food at restaurants, steal fish from outdoor market stalls, commune with people at cafés and street-corners, come and go as they please, and generally be, well, cats. I’m in awe of the patience Torun must have exhibited during filming. “Like herding cats” became a cliché for a reason.

But, as enchanting as an eighty-minute-long cat video or a visual travelogue of Istanbul would be, Kedi isn’t merely these things. It occurred to me that in an American city, a population of strays this large and visible would be considered a public nuisance. Torun interviews a number of people whose lives intersect with the cats’ in various ways—phrases like “owners” or “masters” or even “human companions” lack accuracy when describing these relationships—and it seems like Istanbul’s residents (these residents, at least) regard the felines almost as fellow-citizens whose claim to the streets of the city is as valid as the humans’ own.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

United States. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.

Casey Affleck dies and then becomes a cartoon-style ghost (a white sheet with two eyes painted on it) and stares at the changing world around him for an hour and a half.

About half this movie is really, really good. Mostly these are the bits where things actually happen. Unfortunately the other half is as dull as dirt, unless you’re the sort of person who fetishizes on spending five minutes watching Rooney Mara eat pie.

Also, I’m glad that Will Oldham showed up at the end of the second act to lecture the audience on the themes of the film, because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what the movie’s about otherwise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

United States. Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau.

The Marvel creative team took an odd approach to Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU: they made it as much about the Avengers (specifically, Iron Man) as it is about the friendly neighborhood web-head. The screenplay roots the origins of Michael Keaton’s villainous Adrian “Vulture” Toomes in the aftermath of the first Avengers film. The dominant relationship of the narrative is between Peter Parker and Tony Stark. In fact, Stark spends so much time in RJD’s patented “alpha-male-douchebag” mode that he effectively serves as the antagonist of the first half of the film.

It really doesn’t help that director Jon Watts doesn’t bring anything to Homecoming’s action and effects scenes that I haven’t already seen in a bunch of other superhero movies. Lots of herky-jerky camera work, incoherent CGI fight sequences, and the requisite footage of recognizable landmarks being destroyed. I hope everybody learns from Patty Jenkins’ work on Wonder Woman that it is indeed possible to construct an action sequence that’s both exciting and easy to follow.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of nitpicks that don’t really matter much. Tom Holland is the perfect Peter Parker—he’s Hollywood handsome but able to pull off geeky awkwardness; unfortunately the script places Parker at a STEM-oriented specialty school (even Flash freaking Thompson is a nerd here!), thus undercutting his outsider status. Was it really necessary to point out how hot Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is more than, say, zero times? Did the screenwriters really not realize how lame a certain supporting character’s last-five-minutes-of-the-film twist was?

The good news is enough works to make Homecoming worth watching even if it doesn’t exactly transcend its issues. I already mentioned Tom Holland. Michael Keaton delivers one of the year’s best performances, and I loved how the screenplay entwined his motivation with social commentary. Best of all, they got the tone of the non-effects and action sequences exactly right. Spider-Man works best as a local hero, keeping the streets of New York safe, and having a blast while doing it. Leave the world-saving to those whose powers, resources, and experience are more suited to the task. You know, people like Tony Stark.

Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime

United States. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.

One of the programs I had for my Commodore 64 when I was a kid was “Eliza.” It was a conversation simulator, kind of like a chatterbot: you’d type in sentences, it would respond. The conceit was that Eliza was a “Rogerian psychotherapist” and you were its patient. “I am dissatisfied with my life,” you’d tell it, and it would respond “Why are you dissatisfied with your life?” It wasn’t really artificial intelligence; it just spat whatever you said back at you.

I kept thinking about Eliza while watching Marjorie Prime. The titular “Prime” is an AI and hologram set up to simulate a specific person—for example, your dead husband Walter, who when he was 40 looked exactly like Jon Hamm. The thing about Walter Prime is that he has the real Walter’s voice and good looks, but you actually have to teach Walter Prime how to be Walter, by telling him what Walter was like. This can be quite helpful if you’re Walter’s 85-year-old widow Marjorie and you’re suffering from dementia.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” and although Marjorie Prime isn’t as dystopian as “Be Right Back” it still exhibits a certain ambiguity as to whether the interactions Marjorie, her daughter Tess, and son-in-law Jon (respectively Lois Smith, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins) have with various Primes are indeed healthy. How creepy is it to watch an elderly parent talk with a simulation of a younger version of another parent? And while our experiences and memories make us who we are, how can someone recreate us when they don’t know the things we wouldn’t talk about? (That’s quite apart from the theory, discussed early in the film, that when we remember something we don’t remember the actual event but the way the memory went the last time we remembered it, which is why memory is so wonky.)

Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, to be sure. However, the movie itself comes off as very actory and talky. I didn’t find this a problem, because Davis and Robbins put in career-best performances; I’m less familiar with Smith and Hamm, but they are excellent here as well. But Michael Almeryeda’s direction betrays the film’s roots as a stage play, which could alienate some viewers. Still, if you’re in the mood for a science-fiction film whose fantastical elements are so subtle you don’t realize you’re watching SF until someone throws a drink through Jon Hamm, give Marjorie Prime a try.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I also watched…

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017). Two more times!

Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) And why is the floor all wet, Todd?

Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

Capsule reviews of It,
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Theory of Obscurity, and more!

It

United States. Directed by Andy Muschietti, 2017. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton. 135 minutes.

Muschietti takes the same approach to the flashback half of Stephen King’s massive 1985 tome that he took to his Del Toro-produced début Mama: take a live-action performance, CGI it up, and throw it at a bunch of tweens. All that’s missing is Jessica Chastain (and she’s heavily favored to star in the sequel—although my ideal adult Bev would be Lizzy Caplan).

Astonishingly, it actually works, even if the parallels with Stranger Things are inevitable (but let’s be honest: Finn Wolfhard is the ideal Richie Tozier). The cast are the key to this, particularly Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis and Jack Grazer. Unfortunately, Jaeden Lieberher was a bit of a wash, but he didn’t impress me much in Midnight Special either.

But Bill Skarsgård, who plays the film’s titular clown-monster, deserves better than to be buried under all this CGI. He only gets to actually perform two or three times over the course of the film, and they’re easily the most memorable moments. More scenes like those would have made the difference between “very good horror movie” and “possibly the best horror movie of 2017.”

Mother!

Mother!

United States. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2017. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem. 121 minutes.

By the time I figured out what was going on, the film was three-quarters over—which turned out to be a positive thing, because that was also the point at which I stopped caring about what was going on. But hey, I’m glad that someone was willing to finance and distribute the most alienating film of Aronofsky’s career (and I’m saying this as someone who loves The Fountain). I mean, it’s quite an accomplishment to make a film with Jennifer Lawrence that nobody wants to see.

Theory of Obscurity

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents

United States. Directed by Don Hardy, 2015. 87 minutes.

In the late sixties, a quartet of disaffected artsy individuals made the journey from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California. Operating on the premise that artistic clarity could only be achieved by entirely hiding their identities from the public, thereby insulating oneself from the expectations of the outside world—they formed the Residents, the cult rock band to end all cult rock bands. They gained notoriety for wearing eyeball masks in public and released classic records such as The Commercial Album (forty songs, each exactly one minute in length), Duck Stab!, and The Third Reich ‘n Roll. They pioneered postmodern deconstruction of pop songs, musical mashups, and music videos as an art form.

Sadly, Don Hardy’s documentary Theory of Obscurity can only get so close to a group of artists whose commitment to anonymity is such that they refuse to speak for themselves on-camera. Hardy gets plenty of interviews with collaborators and admirers (including Penn Jilette and members of Devo, Talking Heads, Primus, and Neurosis), along with the band’s longtime management team, the Cryptic Corporation. But the Residents themselves don’t break five decades of precedent.

In his defense, Hardy does offer a few highlights, mostly of interest to hardcore fans, such as interviews with ex-Cryptic officers and a video recording of a 1972 guerrilla open-mic performance by the band’s (probably fictional) mentor N. Senada. But with these exceptions, very little material seems actually revelatory.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

United States. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto. 163 minutes.

The world may not have needed a sequel to Blade Runner, but since it has one, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that it doesn’t suck. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t the mind-blower its predecessor was, but then again it never could be, not after nearly forty years of future-noir and cyberpunk. What it does do is advance the aesthetic somewhat, bolting it to an intelligent and thoughtful story. This is the benefit of having Denis Villeneuve at the helm: while I’ll readily admit to liking Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I don’t think Ridley Scott’s treatment of the Blade Runner themes would have had quite the power.

My main criticisms are that the film is too long and does not feature enough Mackenzie Davis.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Ireland. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp. 120 minutes.

With his latest effort, Yorgos Lanthimos dials back his comedic sensibility (understanding that the definition of the word “comedic” shifts somewhat when applied to a Lanthimos film) to reveal something more nakedly disturbing.

Don’t take that to mean that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a conventional specimen of whatever the hell it’s supposed to be. If it’s a horror film, it’s one in the same way that Funny Games is. Lanthimos puts a textual layer between the characters and the audience, usually represented by the actors’ somewhat stilted and awkward line-readings (this filmmaker’s trademark; you’ll recognize it if you’ve seen The Lobster), rendering even the most intense moments a little chilly.

This works very well for the film’s antagonist (played by relative newcomer Barry Keoghan), whose dead-eyed stare emphasizes the disturbance in the character’s mind. Most of the rest of the cast aren’t so lucky, and only Nicole Kidman seems to be her character as opposed to acting (this is one of my favorite Kidman performances in a long time).

This is almost certainly Lanthimos’s intent, and in all fairness, I liked Sacred Deer a lot—I enjoyed its Kubrickian aesthetic sensibility. But I couldn’t help wondering if the film would work better if he took a more conventional approach.

Roger Waters: The Wall

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters updates his classic rock opera and is caught showing feelings of an almost human nature

Roger Waters stars in ROGER WATERS: THE WALL.

United Kingdom. Directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans, 2014. 132 minutes.

Roger Waters, the famously megalomaniacal former bassist, songwriter, and creative generalissimo behind Pink Floyd, spent the early 2010s touring the world with The Wall, the Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus. Waters updated the legendary stage show (so complex and expensive in 1980 that the band could afford to perform it in only four cities) for a new generation. He added a renewed focus on the tragedy and injustice of war and the corruption of government and the media, the topics that have dominated his work over the last three decades. This wasn’t the work of an irrelevant classic-rock dinosaur milking his back catalog for a quick buck. Waters (for all his faults) has never lacked passion and fury, and the performances crackled with a vitality surprising for a sixty-something artist touring a thirty-year-old record. He even managed to get his former bandmates Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason to join him for a night.

You had to be there, as the saying goes, but if you weren’t—or if you were (like I was, in 2010, at the United Center in Chicago) and want to relive the memories—Roger Waters: The Wall is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t possess the artistry of the top rank of concert films (Stop Making Sense, for example), it does approximate the experience with a minimum of fuss. The politicking is heavy-handed even by Waters’s standards. And I’m not sure why Waters and co-director Sean Evans think we’d rather watch Rog sing “The Trial” instead of watching the film projected on the Wall behind him.

But the band is in top form (although, really, would it have killed anyone to include the performances with Gilmour and Mason in the film proper instead of relegating them to DVD special features?) and the show contains many fine moments: dancing schoolkids banishing a giant teacher puppet; Waters performing a duet with a recording of himself from a 1980 gig; the “fascist” song sequence that leads up to the story’s climax. And let’s not forget Gerald Scarfe’s animations, grotesquely psychedelic yet timeless. It won’t be the last time you watch some blinkered authority figure talk out of his anus, I guarantee you that.

But the most compelling footage doesn’t document the performances. Interspersed between the concert sequences are scenes of Waters taking a road trip across Europe to visit the gravesites of his father (who died in Italy during World War II) and grandfather (who died in France during World War I). Waters’s songwriting has always been haunted by his father’s death, a loss he has often mourned through bombast. The sight of the seventy-year-old rock star blowing the funereal notes of “Outside the Wall” at a memorial in Anzio could be the most powerful artistic expression of that grief, due to its intimacy.

And what could be more appropriate? After all, the central theme of The Wall is the importance of reaching out and connecting to others instead of living “comfortably numb” but isolated lives. One hopes that Roger Waters: The Wall represents one more brick removed from its creator’s wall.

Roger Waters: The Wall

Capsule Reviews: October 2016

A documentary on one of the ’90s’ most notorious film flops, and a Friedkin film even Friedkin won’t talk about

First off:

Now that we have that taken care of…

Submitted for your approval, please find capsule reviews of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau and William Friedkin’s obscure early-’90s horror effort The Guardian.

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Six

Documentaries about movie posters and Kubrick, the latest from Benny Chan, and more

Day six’s offerings included documentaries about Stanley Kubrick and movie posters, the latest effort from Benny Chan, and more.

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Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up

The internet demands lists! The best of Fantastic Fest 2015.

Note to those who have been following my Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage: there isn’t any new content in this post, this is just the “Best Of” and Ranking segments broken off from the day 8 post for ease of reading.

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Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Eight

The final day! Featuring: Kurt Russell’s new Western Bone TomahawkLove and Peace, the latest from Japanese director Sion Sono; Sean Byrne’s sophomore effort The Devil’s Candy; the Czech documentary Daniel’s World.

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Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Two

On day two: the quirky Dutch crime drama The Glorious Works of G.F. Zwaen; Darling, the latest psych-horror from the director of Pod; the highly-buzzed Green Room, starring Patrick Stewart and Anton Yelchin and directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Murder Party); and more.

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