Arrival of Passengers

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CHRIS PRATT WAS PERFECTLY CAST in Guardians of the Galaxy.  Which is why he’s hard to take seriously in Passengers. Jennifer Lawrence, too, I have a hard time taking seriously these days.  Before she was the queen of A-List celebrity, I saw her in Winter’s Bone.  So I know she’s got acting chops.  But all the silly roles in silly blockbusters (stupid Hunger Games) and greatly overrated films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have taken their toll, as far as I’m concerned.

passengers-text-blockThose ratings.  Passengers was something of a test of Rotten Tomatoes.  Too often films with a high Tomatometer score, such as the other big Sci-Fi film this year, Arrival, I find phenomenally disappointing.  And too often I disregard films with low scores. And by disregard, I mean miss. Passengers — with a lowly 17% score among “Top Critics” — would have been one of those I missed, but I stuck to my gut instinct and was happily surprised.

Which, just like the non-failure of the AE-35 unit in 2001, just about does it for Rotten Tomatoes.  I’ll still refer to it, but that percent score by itself will neither compel me to, or dissuade me from, watching any given picture.

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Back to Chris Pratt.  His tongue-in-cheek countenance weighs a little on Passengers in the beginning, because after all he is in a quite dire, life-or-death situation.  But the film plays off that lightheartedness, and marries with it.  This is a tack the film takes which weakens it; a heavier tone could have turned this good film into a great one.

In other words, a little hokum runs as an undercurrent through the first half of Passengers, and Pratt fits that stream well.  The bits of corniness may be viewed as pandering to the lowest common denominator of audiences, and as I said a sterner approach would have produced better results.  Luckily though, this occasional dearth of depth is the film’s worst problem, and as such hardly ruins it.  I even liked Jennifer Lawrence.

I was sorely disappointed by Arrival, and the big “sci-fi” film of last year, The Martian.  Both highly regarded by critics, as reflected on the Tomatometer, and both really sucky movies.  The good news?  I reckon it’ll keep me writing these posts.  If I could find a source of criticism that I could rely on to only watch good movies, God knows I’d go with it.  But if it exists, I haven’t found it.

I very much liked Passengers, and it stuck with me through the night.  Overall very entertaining, and never boring.  The little glitches hold it to a solid recommendation at the top side of 7/10.

Comparison Notes: (Recommended): Moon

Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

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I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

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Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

Film Brief: Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson, whose last two features were the remarkable milestones The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.  By comparison, this latest work ten years later falls short.  It is overlong and a little sappy, but also does a decent job telling a compelling true WWII story with a bonus romantic set-up.  An extra serving of caveats to go with my marginal recommendation; 6/10hacksaw-ridge-text-block

Comparison Note: Saving Private Ryan

Does American Honey Stick?

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In my last post, I noted that good movies were either character-driven or story-driven. What I left off was that the best ones are both — which is where I hoped American Honey was headed.  There’s a lot of promise here early on, and I admit I was fairly well stuck on American Honey.

My criticism of Beasts of the Southern Wild was “these folks live in squalor, but they relish it.”  The same holds true here.  Where American Honey succeeds, in contrast, is in continuously putting our young heroine in risky situations.  But the movie fails by the same count — it doesn’t know where to take those storylines.  It skirts obvious but bold developments in favor of mundane relationship issues among this very loose group of young adults.

american-honey-text-blockStill though, like Beasts, we have a glimpse into a world of impoverished youth which I found mostly fascinating.  There’s a vivid intimacy and fresh honesty here.  But this is an overlong movie — nearly 3 hours — and it begins to repeat itself.  As always, story matters.  At the end of American Honey, you’ll likely be left asking, ‘so what?’ — and worse ‘what could have been?’

A couple more notes: I didn’t pick up on the square frame from seeing the trailer multiple times, but it sure was obvious on my screen: a completely unnecessary, distracting gimmick.  Regarding the film’s star, Sasha Lane: expect to see more of her.  Hopefully continuing with interesting roles, but don’t be surprised to see her in superhero costume. 6/10

Comparison Notes: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Short Term 12, Tangerine, The Master, Electrick Children, River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho

Film Brief: The Lobster

Me: “One for Scallop”
Ticket Window Attendee: “What?”
Me: “Clam”
Attendee: “Oh, uh…The Lobster?”
Me: “Yea, that one”

Even solemn love stories need to pick up the pace occasionally.  You might think of The Lobster as a cross between Couples Retreat in reverse and Logan’s Run.  I agree with Walter Addiego, SF Chronicle:

If you can live with its blemishes, “The Lobster” is a bracing experience

Critics were generally over the moon for this movie; me, not so much.  It wasn’t clear that the filmmaker really knew what he was doing with the story.  And I know not everything can be Being John Malkovich.  But it’s not good enough to have one little idea about romantic involvement and play it out for a couple hours.  Malkovich took one idea, then added another and another and another, brilliantly executing each one.  The Lobster is a yawner by comparison.

Still, it’s an interesting film that marginally works.   Definitely gets credit for throwing out a unique vector.  6/10

Comparison Notes (all better): Lord of the Flies, Her, Blindness, Under the Skin, Being John Malkovich

Kaufman’s Anomalisa

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Critics are generally bananas for this film.  Peter Keough of The Boston Globe does a nice job describing it:

Co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa” is animated in a hyper-realistic, oddly off, stop-motion style that produces an uncanny effect similar to that in Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped “Waking Life” (2001)….

But that’s not why “Anomalisa” is so strange. It takes a few minutes to catch on, and it would be indiscrete to specify what it is, but once you figure out what’s really strange about it you have entered the solipsistic prison of a tormented mind.

Anomalisa - text blockHe goes on to give the film his highest rating, and proclaims it best of 2015.  I was less enthusiastic.  My knock against Anomalisa is that it executed a singular, potent idea perfectly suited to a short film, but when drawn out to feature length wears a bit thin.

Those who are familiar with the masterwork Being John Malkovich will recognize its themes of identity and the state of being human.  The difference there was that collaborating with Spike Jonze, Kaufman’s story constantly evolved.  Anomalisa, by contrast, is monotonous.  Even with my reservations, I did find Anomalisa to be a captivating little picture with lasting impact.  7/10

Comparison Notes: See “Film as Soufflé

A Christmas Carol

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When you’re halfway through a film teetering on whether or not you like it, that’s not a good sign.  But when, at the same time, you never lose interest, there’s hope.  And it’s always better when a movie starts slowly and ends strongly than the other way around.  The final act of Carol builds in quiet understated power, enough to cast everything that comes before as requisite groundwork.  8/10