Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) (PG-13)

















I saw the newest "Star Wars" movie on opening weekend but I've resisted writing something about it until now. I'm not exactly sure why I wanted to wait, maybe the initial buzz about it has worn down slightly and I feel I can talk about it, even generally, without being at risk of spoiling and incurring the rage of the devotee. More than likely, I'm just lazy. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I waited because everything that was being written by critics and fans alike started to separate people based on their dedication to the series: die-hard fans and the casual viewer.

This distinction needs to be made, because a lot of the objections to the newest movie have been on the premise that it strays from true "Star Wars" territory in theme, narrative, and dogma (and I don't use that word lightly). Some ardent fans of the universe who have consumed all types of content across many mediums have voiced that this film lacks the je nais se quoi to call it a true "Star Wars" movie. Which begs the question: who was the movie really made for?

"The Force Awakens" was a safe movie. It had a safe plot and nothing too surreal or edgy to cause fans to abandon the newest trilogy. J. J. Abrams is just the kind of director to hire for this and "The Force Awakens" was a success because it played it safe. Having pacified fans and critics that the newest installments in the series were likely to be good, Rian Johnson steps in to take the reigns both directing and writing. If Abrams is safe, Johnson is experimental and it shows immediately.

"The Last Jedi" picks up shortly after "The Force Awakens" ends, as the First Order is attempting to finally eliminate the Resistance once and for all. The First Order has a trifecta of bad men in charge. There's Snoke (Andy Serkis), the Emperor Palpatine of his movies; then there's Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), our series' Darth Vader; and finally General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson)...and you get the idea.

As the First Order closes in on the Resistance, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to come back to the Resistance and fight. Her time with the old Jedi begins the thread that runs through the movie concerning past lives, regrets, and irreversible decisions. Much like the original trilogy, the audience is presented with flawed characters who may or may not be beyond redemption. Johnson seems keen to erase some of the sins of episodes I-III during these moments as his writing reinforces what The Force is and how it operates, and the dichotomy between the good and dark sides of the force.

With the return of the cast of characters, one rising star becomes clear: women. Women are generals, heroes, villains, strategists, and just as valuable as the men. This is a huge break in the Star Wars world, considering how Leia is the only lead woman in the original trilogy and practically the only woman who speaks in the movies. We can begin to see the beginning of something powerful with Rey in front as the Resistance relies on its female support.

One thing that stands out to me is how the movie treats time. It almost reminded me of Hitchcock's "Rope" (bear with me). The movie's narrative—without giving too much away—takes place in a finite amount of space and time, which loses some of the original 'magic' of the Star Wars world. While it does make for a more compelling action movie, the sense of grandeur the previous movies had, is kind of lost here. To combat this claustrophobic, pressurized sensation, Johnson creates an unnecessarily long diversion that ultimately isn't satisfying.

But, oh, the fight sequences. "The Last Jedi" knows how to handle action well and the almost intimate set pieces of the movie allow the tension to boil like a pressure cooker up to an explosive and very exciting third act, which in all fairness could have been twenty minutes shorter.

So let's return to the question of who the movie was made for. If it was made for the die-hard fans, there are some sequences that I can see being anticlimactic or even annoying; but as the casual viewer, these moments will just be part of the grander spectacle the movie presents. I would agree that this is the least "Star Wars" feeling movie of the new films. The "Star Wars" movies are arguably the biggest movies ever made and Johnson realizes that. His movie is, at times, unapologetically weird but it is made for mass consumption and I don't think I can fault him for that. "The Last Jedi" was made for as many people as possible. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Disney didn't own the rights; but that's another story.








Score: ★★★

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) (R)
















I make it no secret that I was not a fan of the original "Blade Runner" film. I have many grievances with it; but I won't waste time and spell them out here. Needless to say, I consider it nothing sacred in cinematic canon that demands its protection; and in an age of film where sequels and remakes keep disappointing, I was not anxious to see how the source material was treated.

All that being said, "Blade Runner: 2049" is an incredibly different movie than its predecessor in tone alone and I would say, for my taste, remarkably more successful. In its barest sense, it is a crime movie much like the original film was. The plot is very meticulous and structured fairly simply to the critical eye. One event leads to the next which leads to the next. The script doesn't try anything fancy simply because the film is a "science fiction" film.

At the movie's opening, K (Ryan Gosling) is announced as a blade runner. His job is to hunt down and "retire" old versions of the Nexus model replicants, bio-engineered drone like workers. Due to a malfunction of software, the previous versions aren't quite as obedient and must be eliminated.

One such mission leads to a few clues that K's superior, referred to for most of the movie as "Madam" (Robin Wright), feels are vitally important for preserving the nature of the status quo. She commands him to follow every lead and in doing so, naturally, the movie begins to unwind.

Like any dystopic science fiction, "Blade Runner: 2049" presents a series of events, impossible for our present yet possible for our future; but it is never patronizing or preachy. The movie's strength lies in the subtleties of its storytelling and its patience. This is a surprisingly long movie for a modern "blockbuster" and its pacing is always calculated. Although almost three hours long, the film never drags and every scene feels vital to the plot.
     
To recap the movie would be to not do it justice and to itemize the acting feels boring. The real star of the film is its look and Roger Deakins once again is victorious. The movie is beautiful to look at and burns slowly, all thanks to its lusciously bleak look of the future. What the original film attempted to do with its kitschy noir feeling, "Blade Runner: 2049" succeeds massively by stripping noir down to its to its baseline overwhelming depression.

Outlined as such, it seems hard to "enjoy" a movie like "Blade Runner: 2049" and I'm not sure I would use the word "enjoyable". For this, it defies the blockbuster genre. The movie is gorgeous but emotionally aloof, it's action without voyeurism, and it's important to itself without apology. In all this, the story and movie itself are still compelling and I think it's one of the reasons that makes Denis Villeneuve such an unconventionally great story teller. The same frustration that I experienced with "Blade Runner: 2049" is the same felt in "Sicario" and even "Prisoners". This time, it was even more tangible.

By the end of the movie, the slow, aching beauty of it all builds into a sensational crescendo that feels akin to the breathless moments in "Incendies" or the suspense of "Arrival". I felt pinned to my seat and unable to tear my eyes away.

Most surprising, however, is how the movie seems to resist cliche. In the background there are hints of commentary on humanity, servitude, and emotion; but it doesn't play out how I expected and I think this is, in part, due to its running time and the care it takes with the slower moments. Not only does it narrative seem impossible to predict; but so does the method of its storytelling.

I feel like it would be too easy to see this movie as somehow extravagantly biblical in its tones, due to its ideas of creation; but I think it's imperative to reject this idea. "Blade Runner: 2049" manages to succeed at being lost within its cohorts. This isolation of tone and style give the impressive impression to me that "Blade Runner: 2049" is somehow the very first true science fiction movie ever made. Of course, this isn't the case; but it does say something of its tonal impact.

The movie isn't made for mass consumption and is far less cheesy than the original; but this isn't a bad thing. "Blade Runner: 2049" deserves to be seen on the big screen for visuals alone; but ultimately the movie succeeds because it's the combination of a group of artists at the top of their game.





Score: ★★★★

mother! (2017) (R)













This review contains SPOILERS!
If you have a sense of privacy, or any sort of personal space bubble, "mother!" will get under your skin. Frustrating, sometime grotesque, pretentious in a way that only Darren Aronofsky can manage, the film balances on the high wire between surreal and elusively intelligent. What causes such a visceral reaction is having a space where the audience feels safe continuously violated.

The obvious movie that "mother!" has to be compared to is "Antichrist" by Lars von Trier. That film was about an Edenic (in name also) parable with an unnamed man and woman probing the horrors of child loss and female hysteria. Like "Antichrist", there is obviously something going on here that rings true of the Christian tradition; but the surrealism of the film sometimes makes that hard to unlock. We see the lead, known as Mother played by Jennifer Lawrence, consistently in close up leaning up to the house and feeling the heartbeat through her fingers. As the movie progresses a bloody dot appears in the floorboard. These images are held in focus for much of the movie and become watermarks for the building insanity of the picture.

Shot in a remote house that looks like the farm from season 2 of "The Walking Dead", "mother!" is a perspective piece, meaning that we rarely get a point of view (literally) that is not Mother's. She is living in this isolated house with a poet known as Him (Javier Bardem) who spends most of the first half of the movie whining about his lack of inspiration.

When strangers come to visit, Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), things become unhinged as the house starts to fall apart under their havoc. This house is what Mother has spent most of her time repairing and attempting to refurbish. We understand that it was at one point, falling apart; but she rebuilt it for Him, since it is his house.

The idea of possession and ownership is crucial to understanding the movie, which, one unraveled is a clumsy retelling of the Bible from the Christian tradition. The not so subtle naming of "Mother" and "Him" leads us into Christian iconography. Let alone, the swift and ultimately premature retelling of the Cain and Able story which pans out in less than five minutes and sets off the events that let us know the "earth" has been tainted with blood.

Consider Aronofsky's oeuvre prior to "mother!". The last feature film he made was "Noah" which was very concerned with Biblical stories even though it ignored a lot of the doctrine that fundamentalists would be shocked by; but at the film's end the takeaway was the power of faith over evidence. Now look at "mother!" which appears to me to be Aronofsky's own commentary on his last film. If "Noah" was about faith, "mother!" is about God as the ultimate villain.

The intricacies of the plot are not worth spelling out; but as the movie enters its final scenes and the madness descends the facades drop and we see the same eco-friendly sentiment as present in "Noah". While this may be an honorable goal, it's carried out in the most cruelly naive way. Jennifer Lawrence's Mother is a woman with a meek voice who ultimately reclaims ownership of her house from the poet and demands that everyone leave. She kills them. And is left in the arms of the Poet (see: God) who steals her literal heart from her chest and the cycle begins again.

Although the movie could be seen as a testament to female power, I would again advise looking at its similarity to "Antichrist". These are movie that are in awe of the feminine power, almost fetishizing it; but both executed by men. And it's this male voice that overpowers any nuance that may be present in the bones of the story. Mother is shouted over, brutalized, and the film enjoys watching it and enjoys shocking its viewer.

At the final scene, we are left with an idiotic God and, perhaps, a plea for mercy on the planet. Which could have just been made in a press release rather than this movie. Lawrence as Mother is not a strong enough actress to carry the film by herself. The one performance of note here is Michelle Pfeiffer's Woman, who is callous, seductive, and arrogant. But once again we are reminded of Aronofsky's take on the Garden of Eden and her performance, although positively evil at times, leaves a sour taste in my mouth because we see her as the genesis of the destruction.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part is seeing how the Bible lines up with the story of "mother!' but by the end of it, the self-indulgence of Aronofky's "horror" is far too much and it isn't easily accessible to the viewer. His esoteric ramblings make for a sub-par movie. It's disappointing.






Score: ★½

47 Meters Down (2017) (PG-13)
















It feels almost fruitless to examine "47 Meters Down" with any severity or critical eye since it's obviously not a movie that was made with any regard to "art". This is a cheap blockbuster, hearkening back to the original summer hit "Jaws" but without the budget or any real compelling characters or story. Really, the only thing is has in common with "Jaws" is that both films were made on Earth.

Lisa and Kate (Mandy Moore and Claire Holt) are sisters taking a vacation in Mexico. The film drops us in on their first few nights where they lounge by the beach, check out guys, and cry over Lisa's ex. That's why they're in Mexico, as is explained by Lisa in the first five minutes by firelight as she cries. It's because Stuart (the ex) said she was boring and left her. So she decided to call her adventure-ready sister and off they go to Mexico.

This new revelation of Lisa's love life is exactly the juicy bit of emotional blackmail that Kate needs to hold over her head to make her do things out of her comfort zone for the sake of social media ("think of how the pictures will look" she often says to Lisa). This is how they end up going out at night and meeting two men who offer to take them out to cage dive with great white sharks. Of course, it's a little off the books and slightly illegal; but Kate is gung-ho about the prospect and drags Lisa along. So they pop onto a boat and not even twenty minutes into the film, we have the set up firmly in place.

Naturally, things start going wrong. They're chumming the water, Lisa starts freaking out (though you couldn't tell from Mandy Moore's acting), and the men seem to be a little too eager to get the ladies into the ocean. But Lisa is determined to get a better Instagram profile, so she gets in the cage and they go down a few meters and then *duh* the cable breaks and they go to the bottom which is, you guessed it, 47 meters down.

The movie would like to pat itself on the back here for making an "Alien" like answer to the haunted house paradox. If you are in an old house with ghosts you can always just walk out; but if you're in space in the sea trapped in a cage almost 50 meters down, you can't just walk out. Separating the girls from the surface are the sharks, as billed on the posted "the world's greatest predator". In reality, the cleverness of the film is non-existent. This is a poorly budgeted Shark Week special. Anyone could create this problem, but it takes someone smarter to make it interesting.

There are glimpses of intelligence in the film, notably the determination to make some characters bilingual and use Spanish as much as possible. You'll get more jokes if you're more familiar with the language. This is perhaps the only good thing the movie has going for it, that and the beauty of the ocean and beach that doesn't last long as our heroines plunge beneath the surface.

One thing remains: get to the surface in one piece. Naturally, Lisa freaks out and here we see that Mandy Moore is just a terrible actress. Her crying and emotional scenes regrettably sound like something more out of an adult film than a wide release thriller. She is annoying as a lead and clearly the largest problem with the film.

With over an hour left in the movie and only way to go but up, somehow the film's writers manage to sink it even further. Directed and co-written by Johannes Roberts, a name of no current consequence in the film world, "47 Meters Down" attempts to stretch the running time. But it shatters quickly and the result is a messy finale.

"47 Meters Down" once again gives sharks the unfortunate rap of being killing machines that just want to eat people. While I might want them to make an exception for Lisa and Kate, they really don't deserve this movie against them.

The film is a mess; but sometimes that's exactly what you need. I laughed my way through it in an empty theater with one of my friends. It was grand; but know what you're getting yourself into. "47 Meters Down" implies depth; but the film is only surface level.






Score: ★★

Baby Driver (2017) (R)















This review contains SPOILERS!
To be in crime, we are told by hardened, trigger-happy robber Bats near the beginning of "Baby Driver", demands one be, in some part, a criminal.

"Baby Driver" is a movie about characters and choreography. It's a film composed around music, dedicated to rhythm, and centered around driving. The entire movie allows the audience to be a passenger of Edgar Wright's mammoth vehicle, whose calculated course is both unexpectedly deep and sensationally entertaining. Though "Baby Driver" features many set pieces and sequences that are spectacular and intense, its true strengths lie in its writing and its people.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the driver. He works for a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who sets up heists and robberies with small teams of notable criminals. Each job gets a new group of faces...except for Baby. He's always the driver. The lucky charm of the operation. With each new iteration the hardened criminals size him up and question him and his antics. The sunglasses, the silence, the earbuds. Each of these have their reasons and for each explanation the audience is given the ambient noise of the film is fleshed out even more. This is a film deeply committed to its sound, its rhythm, and its heart.

I know it sounds cliche. But a movie without a little dollop of sentimentality is a cold magic show, something akin to "Birdman". Yet with its heart,"Baby Driver" proves that it is much more than a flashy puzzle box or a movie built around its chase sequences.

Baby wants out. He's been working off a debt to Doc for a long time; but his time is coming to an end. He is told that after one last job, he will be done. This is perfect for him because he meets a lovely waitress at a local diner named Debora (Lily James). She's quirky and confident and the two make an immediate connection over their love of music.

A few cold characters stand in the way. One of them is Bats (Jaime Foxx). This is a man obsessed with the idea of himself. He is flashy in a way that is both dangerous and annoying. He says exactly what he thinks, or what he thinks the toughest version of himself would say. But he does not lack the muscle to back up his threats. He is one of the many that is skeptical of Baby's ability, which is shown first to the audience in the opening scene.

These chase sequences are more dances than elaborate "Bourne" moments. These are orchestrated chaos and impeccably precise. Every crash, gunshot, and siren is on beat. Baby's encompassing songs fill not only the audience's ears, but every facet of the film itself.

For a movie so impossible to separate from its rhythm and sound, it catches the audience by surprise to see a deaf man, Baby's foster father (CJ Jones), so close to the center of the movie. It's unexpected writing and it exemplifies what makes Edgar Wright such a powerful director. Because, after the movie is finished, it makes perfect sense and the idea of removing such a character would leave "Baby Driver" incomplete.

"Baby Driver" is filled with near perfect performances. Jaime Foxx is wily and dangerous. Kevin Spacey is cool and commanding. A most surprising Jon Hamm delivers an incredible performance and Lily James is charming and likable. The movie, as it should, belongs to Ansel Elgort as Baby. He's the perfect choice for the role and leaves behind all his teenage heartthrob cliches from "The Fault in Our Stars". This is the emergence of a "credible" artist, at least in the critical sphere.

Edgar Wright owes a lot to Martin Scorsese and pays homage to many of the director's trademark surprises and more importantly, his soundtracks. Even the name "Baby Driver" seems too similar to "Taxi Driver" to ignore; yet if anything "Baby Driver" is Wright's answer to "Drive". Nicolas Winding Refn's film touches on the same subject matter in some of the same ways (notably the idea of crime and the criminal as delivered by Bats) yet here Wright is far more clever and far more controlled on his approach.

Previously Edgar Wright was only known for comedies; but here he shows that he is one of the directors to watch. "Baby Driver" is brilliantly crafted, nuanced, and just a hell of a good movie. You should watch this on the big screen.









Score: ★★★★

Wonder Woman (2017) (PG-13)

















This review contains SPOILERS!
I was a child of the 90s, was not raised on comic books, and have no extensive knowledge of the universes either Marvel or DC that are ever expanding into fully realized film franchises. I have no comparisons to earlier iterations of Wonder Woman as a character and cannot say whether the 2017 reboot of the hero does the character any justice whatsoever. This is perhaps regrettable considering all the potential for nuances and sly jokes to fans; but my view will be more of a casual viewer.

"Wonder Woman" had a lot riding on its shoulders even before its release. For such a large character in the DC universe, it seemed like a film everyone wasn't willing to make. But DC was behind. They are trying to catch up to Marvel's reign of summer flicks and super hero movies. But instead of "The Avengers" we got "Suicide Squad" and Netflix didn't back DC, so instead we have "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice". In short, DC was falling way behind. So, in order to get the Justice League in shape, we needed a movie about Wonder Woman.

This is one of very few movies with a lead female as the superhero. The last notable major motion picture endeavors were "Elektra" and "Cat Woman" and those were both well over a decade ago. So "Wonder Woman" was already under scrutiny for the survival of the female lead...and it does not disappoint.

Patty Jenkins hasn't done a lot in her career that has impressed me. I didn't care for "Monster", her only other major motion picture and then few episodes she has directed of TV shows didn't leave a large enough impression to remain memorable. Yet, with "Wonder Woman", it's clear that she isn't an immature director and that mass appeal movies aren't a boy's club only.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is one of the Amazons. They were created by Zeus and remain that last vestige of warriors that can defend the Earth and humanity should Aries, the god of war, reemerge and threaten the planet again. This much is told to Diana from a young age; and she spends most of her early days learning to fight with the rest of the Amazons, even against the will of her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), queen of the Amazons. Under the tutelage of Antiope (Robin Wright), she becomes a strong warrior.

But she cannot stay in her hidden kingdom forever.

World War I rages outside the Amazon's hidden island until one man accidentally flies right through the fog and crashes into the ocean. His name is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he explains the predicament of humanity to the Amazons: the world is being destroyed.

Diana is set apart from other super heroes because she doesn't seem to draw her motivation or inspiration from the death of a parent or the need to be masculine and full of angst. Instead, she is driven by empathy. Her goal appears to be to eliminate the suffering of innocent people and many think of her as naive to do so; yet the movie challenges the callousness of the viewer and asks the audience to maybe reconsider the idea of what honor, justice, and empathy should look like. Honor, is not fighting for a war, honor is stopping a war so that innocents can stop suffering. The distinction is small. She helps others because she wants to, not because she feels like it's her duty.

The Germans once again feature as the villains, which is unsurprising and also a reminder of the patriotic history of early comic books. They are cooking up gasses ans potions that will kill thousands. With this power they could level cities in seconds and it reminds us in the 21st century, that not much has changed. Diana and Steve set out to destroy this super weapon before it's too late (and also try to find Aries along the way). They are accompanied by a slew of minor characters who don't have enough screen time to feel genuine; but are nonetheless very enjoyable.

The action sequences of "Wonder Woman" are well executed and exciting. Sometimes, they rely too heavily on the Zack Snyder method (who happened to get writing credit for the story) but as a whole the movie keeps them far enough apart and just epic enough to satiate all the desires for action an audience could have.

For me, the beginning of the film is weak and unnecessarily long; but once the story moves along, the film picks up speed and charges to the final scene. Some of the script tries to be funny and doesn't always succeed; but the humanity it gives to Diana is empowering for all.

"Wonder Woman" is a celebration of the female lead, the female director, and the hero as a loveable altruist. And on all three counts, I think it succeeds.





Score: ★★★

Diner (1982) (R)
















"Diner" attempts to provide of snapshot of the last moments of the 1950s within a certain circle of male friends. These guys were presumably close in highschool and now that they've move on to bigger things they find themselves unsure of the future, whether that's marriage, college, or traveling. Although not put together they always manage to have the resources to go to the local diner and have conversations about music, lovers, and sex.
Barry Levinson's directorial debut is the kind of movie that some might deem 'honest'. It presents several situations that many would find reflective of ordinary life. This is probably accurate, but the movie hasn't aged well and so as minor conversations and small wagers turn into larger narrative arcs, the "honesty" of the picture just consists of people being assholes and a timely soundtrack.
"Diner" owes a lot to Scorsese, particularly in how the movie sounds. The actors all speak in a very laid-back, important fashion about presumably nothing. And in "Seinfeld" fashion, this may be a movie about nothing...which is the point.
"Diner" thrives in the moments thought to be unworthy of film. This is a participation in what indie movies are doing. The more common narrative, by default, assumes that the movie will be exciting and noteworthy simply because of the nature of escapism. No one wants to watch a real time movie of a man filing taxes for three hours, drinking a cup of coffee, and taking a nap. In my mind, "Diner" tries for the moments that are between car chases and robberies, focusing on a group of pre-millennial millennials who are anxious about life, love, sex, women, and money...but most of all being men.
It's the holiday season in the twilight hours of the 1950s and five guy friends like to eat at a diner. If I was being cynical, that's the end of the movie. But we're supposed to push through and press on into the characters, finding them oddly charming and lovably ignorant. Which, for the first half of the movie, they are.
We see them roughhouse and argue about singers and drive around and eat and talk about girls and through their conversation the larger narrative arises: one of the guys is getting married soon and his betrothed has to answer a football quiz in order for them to get married.
Hilarious, right? Well, not exactly in a physical comedy sort of way and as the domestic abuse starts to emerge it becomes less pleasant and maybe more an attempt to mirror everyday life.
Money issues, the mob, women (who are so complicated, right?), music, etc—the movie juggles a lot of issues and a lot of minor arcs as friends come back into town, pregnancies happen, and the wedding gets even closer.
To me, "Diner" is a good movie and something I never want to touch again. Not because it's bad or harmful, I think it accurately represents an 80s mindset concerning the 60s. The reason I never want to see it again is twofold: 1.) it's really not that exciting and 2.) these characters aren't redeemable to me. Sure, it's the 80s so a little misogyny is expected; but "Diner's" treatment of female characters, particularly the Ellen Barkin figure, doesn't inspire warm fuzzy feelings inside me. The chivalry present is supposed to be when, upon manipulating a girl on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the truth emerges that this was all for a bet and everyone gets forgiven.
Maybe I'm too altruistic, or maybe I'm too critical—both are possible.
"Diner" is a good in the way "The Ice Storm" is a good movie. Both fantasize about the everyday life of suburbia, but "Diner" fails to make it compelling.







Score: ★★½