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The Greater Gatsby
23 August 2018
It's fitting that author Kevin Kwan has been heralded as the 'Jane Austen of the 2010s,' as the cinematic adaptation of his smash hit Crazy Rich Asians opens in a prim, stately British manor that the Bennetts would feel right at home at - then has its eponymous protagonists triumphantly turn the power tables on the stuffy Brits who have the gall to be racist to their faces. It's a purposefully reappropriative moment of triumph - an opening 'hell yeah' fist pump, coyly acknowledging the 25 years(!) of cinematic silence since Hollywood has bankrolled an Asian-focused story with a functionally entirely Asian cast. And, like Black Panther, 2018's fellow benchmark of Hollywood representation, it's about damn time.

And Crazy Rich Asians owns its rumbling fanfare of expectation with the jaunty confidence of a pair of Jimmy Choos sauntering down a runway. Replete with riotous humour and consummate charm, it's a two hour slice of flashiness, fashion, fireworks, and frivolity - bubbly, escapist silliness and sentiment with just enough heart and slyly satirical cultural critique to keep from becoming superfluously frothy. In short: it's a perfectly delightful romantic comedy, and a fun as hell time at the movies. Director Jon M. Chu handles his international audiences with care. His pacing is cleverly canny, starting with a slow ingratiation into the architectural (Merlions, Marina Bay Sands, and Botanical Gardens, oh my!), culinary (the food, the FOOD! Whatever you do, don't watch Crazy Rich Asians on an empty stomach), and cultural landscapes of Singapore - shot on dazzling location - before plunging down the rabbit hole into the dizzying wonderland of wealth. Cleverly, the story's melodramatic histrionics ramp up in direct correlation with the display of jaw-dropping money being thrown around, and the dramaaaaaa unfolding amidst a sea of private islands, million dollar earrings, and one of the most unforgettably over-the-top movie weddings lends it a firmly tongue-in-cheek, bawdy escapism, like the best kind of reality TV show.

Chu attacks his subject matter with a champagne pop of vibrancy, with appropriately flooring haute couture costumes and production values, and a candy-coloured aesthetic that brings the opulence to life so energetically you'll nearly want Ray Bans in the theatre. Initial fourth-wall poking flourishes (including a zig-zagging coloured line jaunting across the planet, in the WeeChat equivalent of a 1970s telephone split-screen) punch up the playfulness, but quickly fizzle out - probably for the best, lest they grow obnoxiously overbearing, but still indicative of the film settling a mite too comfortably into cliché. Still, the devilish cleverness of touches like the superb soundtrack, punctuating the party with Mandarin covers of on-the-nose Western songs like "Material Girl" and "Baby You're A Rich Man" (as well as a climactic accompaniment that somehow blends teary sentiment with hilarious incongruity, too good to spoil), are enough to stave off Great Gatsby showy hollowness, and keep the film playfully fresh and fiendishly fun.

Still, within the tsunami of showiness lies an intimate, affecting parable of love and family, with aspirations of modernity and shrouds of tradition going viciously head to head. The genius of Crazy Rich Asians is the populist accessibility of its story yet unique cultural specificity of its telling, and Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim's screenplay is careful to sprinkle in idiosyncratic moments specific to Southeast Asia, including interchangeably switching languages between English, Mandarin, and Cantonese and carefully delineating the cultural milieus of 'old' and 'new money,' to ensure the narrative's cultural roots aren't excessively diluted in the wash of its international audience (the peppering of knowing chuckles in my theatre would suggest they succeeded). Chu proves as adept at letting tender private moments breathe as fanning the razzle-dazzle of the loftier celebrations. He anchors several tearjerking emotional beats on scenes that would play as Asian stereotypes in most other Hollywood productions (a family making dumplings together; an emotionally charged game of Mahjong), thereby deftly reappropriating their authenticity. The film will inevitably draw crowds for its lavish blowouts, but it's the sweetness and resonance of the story that will linger long after the confetti and caviar settle to the floorboards.

Constance Wu makes for an irresistibly lovable lead, her disarming goofiness making her a perfect fish-out-of-water guide through the film's capitalistic culture shocks, while her sparky charisma and emotive vulnerability make her the perfect emotional fulcrum. As her secretly superrich beau, Henry Golding is consummately dashing, while Gemma Chan embodies sympathetic socialite Astrid's effortless elegance and deep sadness with ever fibre of her being. Still, the unquestionable show-stealing performance goes to the wonderful Michelle Yeoh. Cementing her standing in the annals of 'scariest movie moms,' Yeoh is terrifyingly austere and magnetic in her glacial stillness, so subtle and effective that she can summon a tidal wave of staggeringly intricate conflicting emotions with an almost indiscernible tightening of her jaw. Supporting them, rapper Awkwafina is surprisingly funny without overstaying as Rachel's bombastic comic relief friend, while Chris Pang and Sonoya Mizuno are delightfully down to earth and loopy respectively, headlining the wedding of the century. Finally, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos each take turns stealing scenery with side-splitting aplomb, while the incomparable Ken Jeong is customarily hysterical, perfectly encapsulating the flashiness of 'new money' with gleeful excess.

Crazy Rich Asians is a perfectly populist summer delight - a kaleidoscope of sensory delights and cinematic energy ensconcing a terrific cast bringing a quality story to life with honesty and humour to spare. Chu leaves us with enough of a hangover of giddiness to keep expectations fierce for the invariable upcoming China Rich Girlfriend. And if it continues to pave the way for more diverse, personal stories reaching international exposure in the meantime? Well, that's the most enriching (ha) outcome of all.

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Keeping the British end up
10 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Bond. James Bond. As of this writing, he's spawned 24 feature films, five decades of ravenous fandom, merchandising, video games, spinoff novels, innumerable parodies, museum exhibits - and a documentary made roughly ever year of his life trying to make sense of it all. BBC's entry, Looking for Mr. Bond: 007 at the BBC proves one of the most definitively enjoyable and comprehensive overviews of the 50 year 007 phenomenon - uniquely contextualized by rarely before seen BBC on-set retrospectives - even if their attempts to precisely pinpoint the why of Bond's enduring longevity prove as pleasantly elusive as any.

Bond is as much a shape-shifting escape artist as he is monolithic, and the franchise has always proven a fascinating microcosm of pseudo-individualized pop culture capitalism: the most stubbornly airtight core formula in fictional history tweaked and metamorphosed with each cultural trend du jour. Framed by Tamsin Grieg's crisp narration, Looking for Mr. Bond charts each reactionary twist and turn of the Bond franchise with or against the zeitgeist or its own successes and failures. For viewers who don't know their Moores from their Daltons, it's a succinct distillation of 007's growing pains, while still teasing out rarely articulated tidbits to appease the afficionat00s in the crowd: the camp levity of the execrable Diamonds Are Forever paving the way for the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the Roger Moore epoch; Dalton's well-intentioned, less promiscuous Bond being unfortunately lambasted as the '007 for the AIDS era' (just be glad you didn't have to survive the "PC Sux" vitriol of Reddit, Tim...); Judi Dench's casting as M being responsive to the real-life appointment of Dame Stella Rimington, first ever female director of MI5 in the early '90s, and so on. What really makes the documentary worthwhile is the access to archival footage unleashed from the BBC vault. Each anchored by different BBC presenters and comedians, Looking for Mr. Bond includes unprecedented behind-the-scenes footage from the early Connery, Lazenby, and Moore outings, including Connery, awkwardly half in character, escorting 1963 British viewership on a tour of Fort Knox for Goldfinger. Naturally, we come for the trivia factoids, but stay for the hilariously candid interviews from producers and stars refreshingly untainted by contemporary PR spins (when asked why he returned to Bond after a four year hiatus, Connery glibly deadpans "They offered me a bigger piece of the cake"). Interestingly, beyond the treasure trove of previously inaccessible footage comes an in-house unpacking of Bond's patriotic relevance in the early '60s 'British Invasion,' and interviewers following the franchise through the decades provides a clever intertext of the evolution and international exposure of British cinema through the years.

It's a distinctly top-heavy doc, with gloriously extensive coverage of Bond's '60s glory days and playful '70s reinvigoration (as Moore eloquently puts it, rather than outright self-parody, "inviting the audience to join in on the joke and have some fun"). Sadly, the pace grows increasingly scant over the decades, with poor Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig given increasingly short shrift by comparison, before coming to a jarringly abrupt (if not inglorious) halt with Craig's 007 meeting Queen Elizabeth for the 2012 Olympics - arguably, BBC chortlingly posits, the two most iconic figures in British pop culture. However, beyond this imbalance comes somewhat of a fumbling of the documentary's ongoing subplot: how to rationalize the elephant in the room wish-fulfilment enjoyment of a character (quite rightly) denounced by Dame Judi Dench (and prophetically preceded by world-weary interviews with Diana Rigg and Barbara Bach) as "a sexist, sexist, misogynist dinosaur; a relic of the Cold War." It's a question rhetorically posed, but conspicuously abandoned in the Brosnan/Craig years (no mention of Barbara Broccoli providing the franchise its first female governance, the perfunctory agency provided to later days 'Bond Girls,' or Craig's cringeworthy drag act for 2011 International Women's Day), leaving an initially substantive interrogation feeling irksomely superficial.

Those seeking more intensive accounts of the makings of each 007 outing can find more comprehensive behind-the-scenes accounts online elsewhere (or, for antiquated hoarders like me, on the Special Features of each DVD...). Still, for the nominally interested or Fleming fanatics alike, Looking For Mr. Bond is, on the whole, a brisk, informative, and enjoyable hat tip to the world's least secret secret agent, particularly in his fledgling years, and an hour well-spent. Just, please, don't ask poor Pierce if he misses the role any more. Hello darkness, my old James...

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Cargo (I) (2017)
Baby Die-r (or: What to expect when you're expecting... to turn into a zombie)
5 June 2018
New parenthood is practically synonymous with shuffling around feeling like a zombie, but it's a gag that Cargo is happy to literalize with poetic poignancy. And, as elevator pitches go, in a post-Romero/Walking Dead/Shaun cultural landscape where it seems more movie corpses rise than stay put, a cross-country parenthood road trip demonstrates surprising shelf life, especially when told with such sincerity and elegance. If Shaun of the Dead is a 'rom-zom-com,' Cargo is a 'zombifying of age' drama, employing its genre tropes towards a clumsy but surprisingly resonant character study about a reserved father adjusting to single parenthood, albeit one geared towards delivering more "FEEEEEELS" than "BRAAAAIIIINS."

The feature debut of directors Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling (adapting their 2013 short of the same name), Cargo's 'z-word' tropes are sparse, delivering more of an existential, elegiac Australian Wild that just happens to include shuffling cranium-crunchers. That said, when said undead do rear their heads (quite literally, in an intriguing internal mythology that reframes zombies as nocturnal scavengers, hiding their heads to recharge form the sun like bizarre ostriches), Ramke and Howling play them to the squishy hilt. Oozing, moaning, and shuffling with satisfyingly convulsive jerks (no early 2000s 'speedy zombies' bullsh*t here), Cargo's undead feel both nostalgic and a compellingly fresh threat - and, contextualized as metaphorical tribulations in the path to providing for a child, they establish thematic scope and reverence unseen in most campy contemporaries.

Still, calling Cargo the 'Australian Walking Dead' would be both misleading and somewhat unwarranted. Ramke and Howling do show the growing pains of debut directors fleshing out a one-act short, as their film's pacing lurches in a fashion not unlike one of their moaning mind-munchers. The screenplay is an equally bumpy ride, chock full of twists of convenience and infuriatingly illogical 'Don't go in THERE!!!" maneuvers, 'S-for-Subtle' anti-fracking commentary, and a somewhat uncomfortable reliance on troublesomely archaic 'magical native' tropes of the Australian Aboriginal tribes who float in and out of the conflict. There's almost the feeling of Ramke and Howling being tangibly pressured to justify Cargo's embellished runtime by somewhat overstuffing it with plot points and character cameos (young Simone Landers' plucky Thoomi is a plucky, entertaining road trip buddy presence with a compelling emotional arc of her own; Anthony Hayes' strangely persistent bogun baddie, though effectively creepy, has less staying power). While their screenplay has its fair share of harsh, brutal emotional honesty, it's still a shame to see it out of alignment with the elegance and thoughtfulness of its telling, as if trepidatious to simply breathe with expanses of meditative silence.

Ironically, it's in these moments of zen where the film is at its most unforgettably alive, drinking in the arid splendour of the Outback through gorgeous, sweeping panoramic shots, or simply allowing its leading duo to fill the space. Martin Freeman, who is proving to be one of the most underrated actors of his generation, is astonishingly affecting beyond the put-upon Bilbo Watson bluster he could do in his sleep. Effortlessly subtle and deeply emotional, Freeman is Cargo's beating heart through and through. Whether summoning reservoirs of primal joy interacting with his burbling bundle of baby, or bringing them crashing to the ground with his agonizing, tenacious clinging to life for her sake, Freeman tells the story more effectively with the slightest furrow of his brow or twitch of his mouth than any extraneous dialogue could. When Ramke and Howling clear the stage for him to simply be, Cargo shines - a somewhat spotty, but mature, emotionally haunting genre bender, and one of the most unique contemporary zombie films - and with no decapitation by Batman soundtrack to bolster it, to boot.

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'Tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous comedy, while paying respectful homage to a sea of troubles
30 May 2018
If you're one of the many who sneer that contemporary comedies play too much on offensive shock value, try this on for size: an American comedy, released only months after the country had shipped troops over to join the war, with the image of Adolf Hitler casually strolling down the street, only moments after his moustached grimace would have graced the screen in the newsreels. Indeed, between the film's brazenly audacious topicality and the horribly tragic pre-release death of its leading lady, it almost boggles the mind to imagine any audiences chancing a viewing of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be, let alone laughing at it. Thankfully, the benefit of hindsight reveals a true classic waiting in the wings. Taking its place alongside Chaplin's The Great Dictator as one of the bravest (and, by proxy, funniest) films of the era, To Be or Not To Be is a savage satire and comedy of errors, wordplay, and mistaken identities worthy of Shakespeare himself, in addition to being a palpably tense and engrossing war film in its own right.

If the notion of making an irreverent wartime satire while at once being sincerely deferential to the fears and hardships of the war might seem contradictory, it's a paradox that Lubitsch embraces full steam ahead. The genius of To Be or Not To Be is its being equal parts comedy and war film, vindicating the struggles of overseas troops while employing laughs as cathartic levity from the fear and uncertainty surrounding them. Appropriately, Lubitsch plays the claustrophobic, paralyzing outrage of the encroaching invasion of Poland and the nailbiting suspense of spying within the Nazi ranks to the hilt, while simultaneously lampoons the blustering bureaucratic ineptitude of a Nazi force fumbling to uphold their own doctrines, often side-by-side within the same scene. The film's screenplay is deftly intricate, with enjoyable meta-Shakespearian plays on disguises and mistaken identities seamlessly blending the strains of espionage and comedy. Still, Lubitsch is the master of the 'verbal repetition as punchline' gag, with several slow-burning bits (ranging from initially innocuous lines of dialogue to Benny's hysterically cringeworthy rendition of the titular soliloquy) building from chuckle-worthy to uproariously hilarious in tandem with the film's steadily mounting tension.

And, amidst the beats of irreverence and reverence (and moments of shocking, jarring darkness), Lubitsch leaves room for heart. Although the film's 'secret love' subplot between Lombard and Robert Stack's heartthrob pilot plays as a tad histrionic, the clarion sentiment Lubitsch invests into the film's overall agenda is far more resonant. Above all else, the film serves as a galvanizing wartime call to action: a bold parable to the propensity of every citizen to combat oppression, regardless of profession (or even competence). Here, the goofy dysfunctional troupe of actors are held as equally worth of heroic valourization as Stack's matinee idol pilot by being willing to lay down their lives to combat the Nazi uprising. It's an empowering testament to the human spirit that rings true without the artifice of propaganda, and, while lacking the infectiously rousing power of Casablanca's 'La Marseillaise,' Lubitsch's film is equally uplifting, albeit in a quiet and fundamentally sillier way.

Carol Lombard's tragically untimely swan song performance is truly one for the ages. Commanding the screen with effortlessly affable ease, she infuses the film's tenser sequences with palpable stakes and tension, while weaving in the reprieve of a mischievous twinkle in her eye to break the ice and invite laughter back into the frame. Jack Benny is similarly magnificent as "that great, great actor, Joseph Tura," being as reliable a repository of laughs in his subtly scathing facial expressions as his perfectly rapid-fire banter and quipping. Stanley Ridges is perfectly smooth riddled with menace as a suave Nazi spy, while the wonderful Sig Ruman blusters and sputters to jubilant perfection as a perennially outwitted Nazi officer.

Minor quibbles of pace and tonal balance aside, To Be or Not To Be is a remarkable juggling act, and as enjoyable as it is a triumphant feat of irreverent wartime defiance. Ticking dual boxes of being one of the most resonant and memorable comedies or war films of the Classical era, Lubitsch's film is an eminently revisable time capsule of the best gallows humour of the WWII era. Ah, what the hell - let's do one for the road: "SCHUUUULLLTZ!!!"

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God's lonely (hit)man (or: Take Tony Stark's advice - don't ask him to put the hammer down)
16 May 2018
In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix assured us that he was Still Here. But, plot twist: here, in 2018, we learn that he was Never Really Here! We've been living a lie; there's nothing inside!

Director Lynne Ramsay's fourth film in nearly 20 years shows her increasingly on track to Terrence Malick territory - in more ways than her lugubrious output. You Were Never Really Here is a curiosity: on paper an action thriller (you can practically smell the schlocky Nicolas Cage B-movie romp a less ambitious director would've coughed out), but shot like an arthouse drama, complete with a pace so meditative it verges on somnambulant. Initially, it's a slog, as Ramsay takes us through the worrisomely overfamiliar stagnant misery of sad sack hitman Joe (Phoenix)'s life at a snail's pace. We try not to fidget and frown, as we wallow in déja-vu, as Ramsay's film doesn't so much as nod at Scorsese's Taxi Driver as stop just shy of having Joaquin monologue at a mirror.

Yet, what starts as torpid quickly imperceptibly slides into crackling and hypnotic, as the content is buoyed and overpowered by Ramsay's deft telling. You Were Never Really Here is, unexpectedly, one of the most cinematically vibrant films of the year. Tom Townend's kinetically feverish, constantly askew cinematography trudges alongside Joe, sharing his dogged, bleary stupor with a grizzled, vividly dull aesthetic that suggests an Instagram filter of 'Bloodshot.' Jonny Greenwood's score perfectly accentuates the nerve-fraying fever pitch, a throbbing, fascinatingly disconcerting blend of Nine Inch Nails industrial belligerence, and mesmerizingly faux-peaceful Arcade Fire eeriness.

Not much happens in Ramsay's film, but the editing ensures that you are damn well never ready for when it does. You Were Never Really Here festers in a maddening ambiguity between hallucination and reality (not helped by the fact that crucial members of the supporting cast look so similar it can be difficult to tell friend from foe, assailant from victim - a blurring that is likely accidental, but fascinatingly effective). Then, when least expected, it blindsides the viewer with gruelling PTSD flashbacks and bursts of creatively grisly violence, and scenes that linger, serenely still, only to violently swell and collide with the chaotic unpredictability of a surging sea. It's a punishing but rewarding watch, and, as flinty and disengaging as it can be, filled with moments of unexpected beauty and emotion - plus a beard mighty enough to make Travis Bickle's mohawk jealous.

Still, as engrossing as Ramsay's cinematic trickery is, the film is unquestionably hung upon the slumped shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, and he does it proud. Pumped up to the brawny, pudgy physicality of a sad bear and looking like he's been awake for years, and seen too many things along the while, Phoenix is an astonishingly physical actor, etching each ounce of Joe's trauma, defeat, and dogged, belligerent hope onto his leathery skin, and using each twitch and crinkle of his face to speak volumes with a nearly wordless script. He's in almost every scene of the movie, and seems to singlehandedly keep its heart beating, his hangdog anti-charisma propelled by an infectious, furious resolve. Similarly, Ekaterina Samsonov shines in her few scenes as an abductee who, increasingly, shares more with Joe than his silence, and Samsonov keeps her performance brittle but rock-steady, as, increasingly, the film's real beating heart.

Doomed to always being billed as 'that one with the guy with the hammer - no, not Thor!', Ramsay's film takes its place as one of the most beguiling, sleepy sleeper hits of the year. You may struggle to stay invested or remember it, but fleeting moments - big and small, disturbing, beautiful, and disturbingly beautiful - will remain seared into your brain for ages to come. Though it may seem a flickering fever dream, I assure you: You Were Really Here. And your life is - curiously, grimly, and unexpectedly - better for it.

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Hell is other people
14 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
If there were ever a film that conveyed just about everything we'd like to leave behind from the 1960s, it's Rosemary's Baby. Discussed in furtive, worried whispers by older generations, and the 'can we watch it?' controversy in the wake of director Roman Polanski's legendary sexual scandal, the film has, through the decades, become enshrouded with the sort of titillating rebellious intrigue of sneaking into an R-rated movie under-age. The final product is hardly what you'd expect: a creeping psychological thriller that leaves most of its horror tropes offscreen, Polanski's film is more of an uncompromisingly caustic social satire, and is all the scarier for it.

It's a horror movie more in terms of gender politics than Satanic shenanigans, replete with some of cinema's most grotesque gaslighting, sleep-rape (distressingly laughed off in a further feat of 'oh the '60s' predatory patriarchy), and effective spousal prostitution, made all the ickier by the predatory shroud of its director. Scene by scene, flustered, passive Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is practically passed around like an eponymous joint by her vain, controlling actor husband (the sickeningly charming John Cassavetes), and their intrusively extroverted upstairs neighbours (the show-stealing, boorishly hysterical Ruth Gordon, gleefully stretching her syllables like a Looney Tunes character, and the pleasantly measured Sidney Blackmer), near-speechless as they backseat drive her social outings, sex life, home decor, fashion, food and drink consumption, and, particularly pregnancy.* When Rosemary makes one decidedly autonomous action, coming home with a trendy pixie cut, she's jokingly chided as irresponsibly impulsive, and unattractively boyish. Farrow is superb, commanding each scene with such an off-kilter, cheery charm that it's heartbreaking to see it inevitably extinguished, and perfectly essaying Rosemary's descent from her initial demure passivity into manic, bug-eyed, knife-wielding frenzy. It's tempting to write the film off as Polanski's patriarchal posturing, were it not for his subtly satirical undercurrent of critique. He drinks in each social faux-pas with a grotesque lack of hyperbole, colouring them as unforgivable (but, also, uncomfortably culturally common) with the wryest, jet-black sense of humour. Rosemary's Baby is, in essence, less a tale of the Antichrist than a scathing condemnation of the hellish people already inhabiting the planet. It's also effectively spooky, albeit predicated more on a (slightly less contemporary) steadily creeping sense of dread, with jump scares less common than surrealist dream sequences and teasingly vague political and religious critiques ensconced in acid trip sexual fantasies. Proceedings begin with an almost eerily sluggish pace, but Polanski mounts tension with Hitchcockian dedication (albeit with a touch less poise), playing each almost imperceptible sound and dialogue from the adjacent apartment as a source of ambiguously immeasurable threat. He's so singularly committed to snowballing into the film's fatalistic climax that it's easy to forget the film's airy, bourgeois openings in the thick of the frenzied, nail-biting suspense that comes.

Still, Polanski's cruellest joke is transforming us, the viewer, into the proverbial Judas, where we nearly start to turn on Rosemary as well. Polanski's taut editing and clever script keep things so teasingly ambiguous that we're (nearly) coerced into joining in the film's satirically antifeminist bent, anticipating all of the cultist conspiracy, lies, and murder turn out to be a product of her paranoiac overactive imagination - or worse: hysteria, or a bout of prepartum psychosis. The real twist? Things are exactly as they seem, delivering an unforgettably climax primed with chilling gothic fervour, and the darkest of humour - none moreso than in the final, haunting shot of Farrow's sphinx-like smile.

Time is less kind to Rosemary's Baby than other films of its ilk, as the garish sexual politics, benign scare tactics and initial snail's pace all war for the most antiquated of attributes. What is, sadly, timeless is the film's searing critical commentary of the beastliness of people, from the imbedded micromanagement of women's actions and behaviours, to the dark depths that people will stoop in the name of personal gratification. In terms of cinematic mission statement, Polanski seems to draw as much from the Bard as from novelist Ira Levin: "Hell is open, and all the devils are here!"


*In a feat of appropriately poetic grotesquery, this review was written on Mother's Day. Go figure...
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Rampage (2018)
Wreck-It Dwayne
23 April 2018
"Why. So. Serious?"

If any phrase has singularly hit the critique nail on the head for blockbusters of the last decade, it's Heath Ledger's iconic epitaph. For years after his swan song performance, those three words distilled to the most succinct film criticism, and a means of instantly calling out a slew of dopey Hollywood escapist romps, which, bloated with unwanted 'grittiness' and an overbearing sense of self-importance, obstinately refuse to just be FUN. Rampage, thankfully, isn't quite as big an offender, but it's treading dangerous thin ice. Adapting an arcade game where giant monsters break crap seems transparently like the sort of dumb, low-concept property designed to be bolstered by the artist-formerly-known-as-Rock's unquenchable charisma - and, in its best (and mostly climactic) moments, Rampage is cheerfully that, no strings attached. Unfortunately, it's a trek to the smashy smashy, with a disappointingly straight, mannered telling, disappointingly at odds with the film's indisputable popcorn stupidity.

Rampage the arcade game was a classic of unleashing the id. Players, embodying humans mutated into giant, monstrous animals, were encouraged to destroy as much of the game's nameless city as possible in a glorious gluttony of cathartic rage. On paper, it sounds like perfect fodder for a post-Roger Corman B-movie romp, a cheese buffet befitting the age of Sharknado. Here, it seems the joke is on us, with a budget and production values as high as the concept is low, including the full force of Lord of the Rings' Weta Workshops. Rampage's monsters look... really, really cool. And watching them chomp into each other and turn a city block into a parking lot is stupendously satisfying. Fights are vicious, survivors bloodied and managed, and the entire smackdown is infused with the kind of concussive weight and sense of consequence that most CGI slugfests spend millions more striving for. In fact, it's almost grotesque how vast the discrepancy is between how good the film looks and how simple and stupid it is. But, fun is fun, even indulgently expensive fun. Right?

Unfortunately, in the words of Jeff Bridges in (similarly dumb-'n-fun) R.I.P.D.: "Ya gotta earn that." Thus, swept along with the gloriously expensive carnage is (gasp) an accompanying solemn sense of self-importance (nooooo!). And thus, after a momentarily elating prologue in an exploding space shuttle, we're treated to loooooooots of time to get to know our human (boring!) protagonists. The problem? They're all 8-bit archetypes cluttered with extraneously overcomplicated traumatic backstories involving special forces PTSD and dead relatives, that, frankly, aren't that compelling. Precious moments that could be devoted to a gigantic, frilled, gator-boar-dragon massacring boats of helpless people are squandered on countless redundant cutscenes of instantly forgettable military grunts scowling, and tearful confessions in cornfields. Instead of the (far more interesting and fun) source premise of normal people going berserk mutated into monstrous beasts and lashing out in feral rage, Rampage is muzzled with dour animal conservation and anti-poaching subplots. Director Brad Peyton's telling is so robust and earnest that it's almost tempting enough to buy in - until reality kicks in, and we realize a movie called Rampage, unsurprisingly, isn't going to convince anyone to save the gorillas. And putting in so much painstaking work attempting to contextualize and justify the film's wafer-thin premise ultimately detracts from the fun.

Still, a little Rock goes a long way, and we get full value Dwayne firing on all cylinders here. He mostly plays it straight, signing like a credible primatologist, and it's impossible to imagine any other performer selling his strange buddy-cop relationship with George the gigantic albino gorilla more credibly and adorably. Still, false delusions of grandeur or not, that charisma can't be contained. And when he allows his customary twinkle flit back into his eyes as he spouts joyfully silly punchlines, or lets loose with a grenade launcher, howling with brawny bravado, or overpowers foolish foot soldiers with laughable ease, are the moments the film comes to life the most. Our dear Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, tries her best to live up to his Rock-ness, but her love-interest-scientist feels superfluous even for a film this superficial. She's fun, and distinctly out-performs the material, but her best attempts at grim personal trauma or comic relief wisecracking feel somewhat sour and undercooked. Malin Ackerman's flinty corporate scoundrel is as bland as they come, and instantly forgettable, though Jake Lacy is more fun as her goofball brother/co-conspirator. Still, Jeffrey Dean Morgan knows exactly how much scenery to chew as a curiously overstaying fed, with a cowboy twang worthy of Sam Elliot, and he's surprisingly entertaining for it.

We walk into Rampage eagerly expecting the plucky, action-packed silliness of 2017's Kong: Skull Island, but emerge with a film so top-heavy with sodden portentousness, sparse spectacle, and banal military jingoism that it tips dangerously close to the grim train wreck of 2014's Godzilla. But, when Peyton lets them fight, Rampage lives up to its name, with grandiose, dopey destruction bar none. Still, if we're going to have a budget this excessive, is it too much to hope for the spectacle to match it: more ridiculous, excessive destruction, more creative big things for the immense albino gorilla to smack its peers with - and without unwanted, unnecessary navel-gazing? Having blowouts this well-realized but cramped into the finale and sidelined for so many boring humans talking feels like running out of quarters at the arcade on the cusp of beating your high score.

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The Lady Eve (1941)
"Let us be crooked... but never common"
20 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
As far as Classical Hollywood meet-cute conventions go, 'girl meets boy with the resolute intent of robbing him, then falls in love with him only for it to not work out, THEN obstinately aims to make him fall in love with her as revenge' is about as progressive as it gets. But Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve stands the test of time for more than pulling the rug out from under romantic comedy conventions and gender roles. Hilarious, razor-sharp, and enduringly sweet (disguised under a protective layer of acrid cynicism, 'natch), The Lady Eve is a raucously fun watch, befitting its status as one of the poster child comedies and romances of the screwball era.

Sturges was a notorious traditionalist, and, as in his more iconic 1941 companion piece, Sullivan's Travels, committed to embellishing every story into a grandiose, larger-than-life epic of human experience. The Lady Eve, thankfully, is substantially lighter and nowhere near as maudlin, but still shows glimmers of the same dogged pursuit of human truth, lingering ever-so-slightly more on the ethics, aspirations, dreams, and regrets of our central card sharks, and the shroud of customary screwball class disparity critiques, than the average, comparable zany comedy would. This may cost the film the zippiness of a Howard Hawks (with a staunchly three-act structure lending itself to some lags in pacing), but Sturges is his own animal. He painstakingly engenders our sympathies towards his flesh-and-blood characters, allowing the emotional authenticity of each scene and sight gag to play, giving each character moments to breathe and win our hearts, knowing our investment in them will make their subsequent antics all the sillier.

It pays off, as the film is as riotously funny as it is emotionally resonant. Sturges' talented ensemble inhabit their characters like gloves, making their blistering repartee and wordplay and effortless physical comedy (including a generous helping of, arguably, some of cinema's best-ever pratfalls) sparkle with joy and authenticity. Sturges also shows a remarkable knack for playing the silliness of situations to their hilt (the film's latter half, where Stanwyck hides in plain sight, disguising herself as an aristocratic version of... herself, amusingly pushes the limits of suspension of disbelief, even for Fonda's adorable nitwit), but without ever plunging into a superficial farce. The film is also surprisingly cheeky, with Stanwyck's seductive schtick, rife with double-entendres ("Are Snakes Necessary?" being the most pricelessly tongue-in-cheek sight gag), coyly nudging the boundaries of the Hayes Code, which rounds out the fun with a conspiratorial wink.

As the titular card shark with a conscience, Barbara Stanwyck gives a powerhouse performance. She practically radiates snappy charisma, and, from her mischievous role-playing to her acid-tongued disparaging take-downs to her surprising emotional vulnerability, she's a scream and all too easy to love from start to finish. As her proverbial 'girl next door' target, Henry Fonda gamely plays against type to hilarious effect, and his meekly principled millionaire simpleton is so delightfully adorable that serving as the butt of almost every joke only adds to his affable presence. Finally, Charles Coburn also subverts his usual typecasting as a blustering blowhard, his shrewd card shark instead stealing scenes as nimbly as he does money, and exuding quiet menace as much as he does gentlemanly compassion.

The Lady Eve's yacht may be full of snakes and simpletons, but his film is rife with delight, as boisterously funny as it is clever and emotionally heartfelt. One of the greats of Classical Hollywood, the film is nearly guaranteed to swindle laughs and feelings from you in equal, copious helpings. By now, after seeing Stanwyck and Coburn at work, you've surely learned your lesson on betting against it.

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We're not gonna need a bigger film
14 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
For Ernest Cline, the prospect of The Steven Spielberg even acknowledging Ready Player One, let alone directing its cinematic adaptation, must have felt as head-explodingly awesome but utterly impossible as a high-five from Indiana Jones. And yet, in the words of a certain Doctor Malcolm: life found a way. And, to those (not unfairly) worrying that the iconic Spielberg would lack the ironic distance to do justice to Cline's hyperactive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mashup of 80s/90s pop culture nerd nostalgia: hold onto your butts.* It's been seven long years since Tintin, after which Fun Spielberg buried his head into the muted realm of historical biopics. But, like the Terminator, boy is he back, baby, and making up for lost time like nobody's business. In the thick of an entertainment industry currently ruled by the iron first of nerd chic, Spielberg's Ready Player One feels like a Donkey Kong-sized warm hug (with accompanying a-Ha soundtrack, natch) - an unironic love letter to loving things, told with consummate affection and plenty of gusto by a master storyteller. It's a visually dazzling, uninhibitedly indulgent kaleidoscope of nostalgia, old-fashioned in the best possible sense (mostly), and rambunctiously fun from Van Halen to Hall & Oates.

But, for those poor audiences who have never picked up a video game controller, fear not: there is more to Ready Player One than a 'Where's Waldo' of pop culture cameos (though it's hard to imagine a film that will ever benefit more from revisitation with freeze-frame capacity). It's a jubilantly jaunty grand ol' adventure romp - an action remix of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? meets Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory if you will, and easily as fun, albeit less groundbreaking, than both. The plot is a furious pinball of episodic adventures, which, necessarily, boils down and speeds up Cline's more expansive odyssey without losing its zippiness or stakes. Spielberg, to his credit, plays it straight with adorable old-school earnestness, even if some of the script's more overly convenient contrivances and antiquated gender roles that come along for the ride don't play nearly as well now as they would've in their heyday (Cline's novel unpacks toxic gamer masculinity a bit more deftly than Wade's more rudimentary heroism here).

Still, it's hard to nit-pick a transparently superfluous plot in the face of such a thrillingly dense virtual world. The film's visual effects are jaw-dropping, bringing each digital planet and avatar in engrossing game-world 'the Oasis' to life with such painstaking attention that we bypass the claustrophobic artifice exhaustion that would customarily come with such CGI overload. Even more laudable: anchoring the film with two plasticine-y Final Fantasy-esq avatars without them grating. Spielberg cleverly starts with a splashy racetrack blowout (far more exhilarating than the stale trailer footage would suggest), then ramps up the spectacle slowly, before letting it rip with a bonkers kitchen sink climax, almost deliriously fun in its crowd-pleasing excesses (The Iron Giant vs. Mechagodzilla? YES PLEASE). Alan Silvestri's joyfully thundering musical score (and a bevy of perfectly timed '80s tunes) triumphantly rounds out the fun, replete with its own collection of musical cameos. Great Scott, but there is fun to be had.

It helps immensely to see Spielberg reigniting his Minority Report flair for deliciously weird comedy beats. He finds such perverse glee in a room full of corporate stooges running menacingly on treadmills with VR headsets, like a call centre of gaming hamsters, or in tormenting audiences expecting a nonstop bubblegum fun-fest with a transparently indulgent second act foray into Kubrick's The Shining - a tonal shift so jarringly terrifying you can practically hear Spielberg cackling in the background. Still, even scarier is Spielberg turning his pop culture icon eye inwards, ever so lightly rapping the knuckles of those who deep dive a little too much into fantasy worlds, and gently reminding them to live in, and appreciate, the real world as well. It's a commentary that might rankle some of the film's key demographic, but essential to Ready Player One being more than blatant fan service: love what you love uninhibitedly, Spielberg and Cline urge us, but remember that pop culture is meant to accentuate the real world, not run away entirely from it. It's as profound as the film ever gets, but it resonates. No one wants to turn into a suited hamster-ball drone... right?

Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Lena Waithe are all perfectly pleasant as the lead gamers-turned-world saviours, appropriately fun and charismatic without ever rocking the boat of their cardboard cutout archetypes. Ben Mendelsohn adds an endearingly safe-effacing comedic undercurrent to what is otherwise a complete retread of his Rogue One sinister bureaucrat schtick, while T.J. Miller provides reliable comic relief as his caustically cantankerous muscle. Still, it's Mark Rylance who easily steals the show as Wonka-esq gaming maverick James Haliday. Adorably convincing as a ferociously antisocial tech geek, while conveying volumes of mischievous playfulness or voluminous regret with the slightly movement of his eyes or mouth, Rylance is as larger-than-life as he is profoundly human, and he elevates Spielberg's material immensely. Finally, though tragically restricted to an underserved cameo, Simon Pegg still blusters adorably like the best of them in his fleeting screentime.

Ready Player One is a distinctly niche film - enormously fun, but not always more than the sum of its parts, and those who can't tell their Space Invaders from their Galaga are, admittably ,likely to lose out on the full effect. But, if Lara Croft, Beetlejuice, Marvin the Martian, some Halo Spartans and World of Warcraft orcs racing down a freeway in a Delorean, 1960s Batmobile, A-Team battle van, Akira bike and more, dodging King Kong and a t-rex gets your blood pumping as much as mine is from writing that sentence, chances are you'll devour the film with a befitting bombastic, escapist gluttony. And that's a guilty pleasure worth dropping a quarter or two into.


*Yep - two Jurassic Park nods in two sentences. Deal with it, n00bz.
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A Quiet Place (2018)
Nailed it
10 April 2018
In December 2017, AMC theatres throughout the United States posted a notice outside screenings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, cautioning audiences that the film contained a 10 second segment with absolutely no sound, and that this was a deliberate artistic choice, rather than a technical error (sigh). It's easy to imagine John Krasinski nearly having a heart attack (or perhaps gleefully chuckling) in the final stages of editing A Quiet Place, imagining the bedlam he was about to unleash on mass audiences that terrified of the sound of silence. A cinematic Occam's razor at its finest, A Quiet Place is an unassuming genre masterpiece: an ingeniously simple conceit whittled down to its core essentials (think High Noon, but with less talking and more ravenous monsters with dangerously good hearing). It's told with such care, compassion, and furious gusto that, as I write this, an hour and a half after watching, my entire body still aches from 90s minutes of perennially tensing up in captivated terror.

Frights and fun aside, Krasinski's work is actually a thing of beauty, by the sheer act of shackling his audience down and forcing them to really listen. His film's sound editing is fiendishly simple, but damned if you don't tear shreds out of your theatre armrests with each crinkle of a falling leaf, or the faintest creak of a swaying door. Watching the film live in a theatre is a precarious experience, all too easily ruined by an audience unwilling to buy into the covenant of shared cinematic silence, where the slightest rustle or crunch of popcorn (let alone that most egregious of sins: a cell phone) feels almost profane in its intrusion. But, that blissful moment of a room full of people collectively holding their breath to the proverbial pin drop extent each time the film cuts the volume to nil is unforgettably powerful (and, yes, extremely deliberate and artistic). In short: Krasinski has made a film so painfully tense that it feels dangerous to breathe.

No Hollywood contrivances or asininely unmotivated horror here; not a scrap of unnecessary apocalypse exposition or thematic spoon-feeding. Just robust, honest storytelling at its finest, and an incessant sense of genuine, palpable threat throughout, balanced by moments so tenderly human it hurts. In Krasinski's hands (and playfully sadistic sense of foreshadowing), the most innocent child's toy or household item becomes a horrifying set piece unto itself - or an unexpected vessel for hope or peace amidst the omnipresent threat. Charlotte Bruus Christensen's creeping cinematography is exquisitely claustrophobic, lurking through and pillaging each nook and cranny of the inventively average farmhouse setting. Visual effects are used sparingly but effectively, lending just enough unique touches to an otherwise somewhat familiar creature design to make them feel sufficiently fresh and nightmarish. Rounding out the package, Marco Beltrami's musical score is as mercifully sparse as it is brutally chilling in its single drone simplicity.

But the film truly transcends genre not just as a flooring sensory experience, and feature-length jump-scare of the most authentic, least cheap variety. It's also, quite surprisingly, achingly emotional and daringly sweet - a tender, sincere tale of resilience, love, family, and quiet heroism in the face of unthinkable odds. Needless to say, the central foursome of Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe perform the hell out of it with universally superb, committed, and unspeakably (ha) loveable work across the board. If there's a single nit to pick, it's that the film leans pretty hard on conventional gender norms - but each character feels too authentic and heartfelt to succumb to stereotypes, with enough surprises and inversions along the way to keep things from reverting to full-on frontier mythology. Krasinski doesn't mess around with his storytelling, and we never once doubt the fact that no one is ever, ever safe. And we care for these nearly wordless people so damn much, that the constant, unwavering threat of losing them is agonizing.

I'd continue to wax poetic about A Quiet Place, but, the sound of my keyboard clattering away in the silence of my apartment is starting to make the hairs on my arms stand up. Just know that, by way of closing note, I'm emphatically crossing my forearms in an 'x' across my chest. Which, as we're oft reminded here, is sign language for 'love.'

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A Wrinkled Brow; A Waste of Time
9 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Mucking around with cinematic adaptations of the precious prose from audiences' childhoods is somewhat of a minefield - for every Lord of the Rings triumph, there's an insulting travesty such as ... well... The Hobbit. Tragically, there's much more than a whiff of the latter in Disney's big-budget shot at breathing life into author Madeleine L'Engle's metaphysical whimsy. Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time is a bloated but sweet movie you desperately want to like, gosh darn it. Sadly, it's too unsalvageable to even defend as harmless children's entertainment - so cataclysmically off-base that, rather than rescue it from Camazotz, you'd probably go out of your way to maroon it there, and save everyone from the heartbreak of its existence.

L'Engle's novel had a gentle otherworldliness in its whimsy, but the only thing 'otherworldly' in Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell's screenplay is that it reads like an extraterrestrial inhabitant clumsily trying to piece together how humans verbally communicate. The film drips with more grotesquely stale exposition than dialogue, with the unappetizing side order of characters reacting to the increasingly fantastic happenstances as if shot with tranquilizer darts, dopily shuffling from point to point without ever seemingly registering an emotional response. Fall into an immediate conversation about feelings with a boy you've never met? Already outlandish for a teenager. Travel across the universe with a passive-aggressive space-witch who eventually takes the form of a flying cabbage? Oh. Sure. Come face-to-face with the root of all unhappiness and evil in all multiverses? Meh. It almost defies belief that the director of the flooring, poignant Selma is capable of producing a film so shallow and emotionally stilted.

It would normally play as charming to have a children's film bounce with the same episodic stream-of-consciousness of a child's storytelling, but DuVernay is never fully able to corral the playful lilt of L'Engle's gossamer, episodic plot. Instead, the film lurches from blandly dazzling planet to confusedly extraneous supporting character with nauseating, plodding incoherence. Loopy yogi Zach Galifianakis and charmingly threatening Michael Peña do their best to raise laughs with their awkwardly out-of-place cameos, but even they fail to distract from how flat the razzle-dazzle of each new alien landscape in between feels. The film's expensive-but-unsophisticated visual effects, are, at best, benignly underwhelming (and what little wonder is raised by their colourful panoramas is immediately extinguished by the unwanted musical accompaniment of an asinine pop remix). Similarly, the ludicrously kitschy costumes do nothing to dispel the aesthetic of tackiness (poor Oprah looks like she should be engaged in a ray gun battle with Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon). If this is what $100 million looks like, it's not money well spent.

Things do pick up favourably upon our heroes' arrival at the forebodingly conformist alien hell-hole Camazotz. DuVernay excels at conjuring inventively creepy set pieces, some pushing the boundaries of what otherwise plays as a distinctly young children's film (perhaps a horror movie should be next on her docket?), and, briefly, the film is infused with the glimmer of actual stakes and emotional resonance. Naturally, it doesn't last long, losing steam with a stuttering dud of an ending, which takes all of the nonchalance of the (non)climax of L'Engle's novel, and drenches it with an uncomfortable excess of shouted sentiment (and if you thought the ending metaphysics of Interstellar were uncomfortable... hoo boy; just you wait), just in case the cloying moral hadn't quite sunk in yet. We almost relish the prospect of the children being tormented again as alternative.

DuVernay attempts her own 'Wrinkle in Time' by fusing contemporary setting and sensibilities with the antiquated language and uncynical sentimentality of L'Engle's novel. Her intent, evidently, is to show how much our jaded, modern world could benefit from an infusion of more old-fashioned whimsy - which is pretty hard to argue with. Unfortunately, the pairing of quaintness and contemporary is a perennially dubious fit, the twain influences serving to best illustrate each other's worst qualities rather than complimenting each other (Charles Wallace delivering a chirpy, James Stewart-esq monologue attesting to Meg's inner greatness in the face of her post-feminist schoolyard bullies is one of the most cringeworthy movie moments of the past several years - but don't worry: it'll have plenty of company by the time the credits roll here). You can practically taste how driven DuVernay is to make A Wrinkle in Time a children's film with a strong pedagogical moral barometer, including commentary on abusive parents and eating disorders, but, sadly, her film is too much of a disjointed muddle for any real impactful content to stand out. Instead of elevated and inspired, audiences are, sadly, likely to emerge as far more cynical and hopeless than before.

Even the film's impressive cast fail to elevate the overcooked, sinking ship of a film around them. Storm Reid feels like a fully authentic teenager (and is lackadaisically likeable in spite of that), but she's a tad too flat to sell her volcanic emotionality as a commanding presence - in short, more 'Meh' than 'Meg.' Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw easily steal the show, imbuing the film with its only dregs of emotion and charisma as her earnest scientist parents, but they're both too disappointingly underused to contribute all that much. As the trio of 'magical Mrs.,' Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, all feel simply uncomfortable, alternating unfunny banter with mawkish overacting and banal pep talks. Levi Miller is the dictionary definition of 'bland YA lead' as Meg's clumsily spontaneous love interest, while Deric McCabe is impressively adept at playing 'creepy child,' but is infuriatingly simpering as Meg's child genius brother.

Time is a precious commodity in today's day and age. Unfortunately, Disney's latest doesn't so much Wrinkle as waste yours. Pundits may complain that 'they 'may not make 'em like they used to' - but, what we learn from A Wrinkle in Time is that, disappointingly, sometimes it's best not to try.

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4 April 2018
'Enron.' To anyone born after 1995, it's a word likely to conjure blank stares - or 'wasn't he that Elf Agent Smith played in Lord of the Rings?' But, for those who lived through the largest corporate bankruptcy of the 20th century, Enron was far from a fantasy: it was a crime drama crossed with a disaster movie that broke the lives of its former employees more than Y2K ever would have. Enron was All the President's Men mashed up with Wall Street, directed by the Coen brothers, starring Tony Stark and Hannibal Lecter, as scripted by Tennessee Williams. There's even a third act cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really!). You couldn't make this stuff up.

Director Alex Gibney is wise enough to understand that doing justice to the Enron scandal requires two things: a) embracing the crazy head-on, and b) acknowledging that, for the vast majority of the world, energy trading, even the most unscrupulous kind, is unbelievably boring. After all, how else could a formerly inauspicious oil and gas company inflate itself into one of the most (faux-) successful companies of all time simply by, essentially, bluffing, and assuming the fine print would be too boring for anyone to check? Thankfully, Gibney is unafraid to peek under the dinosaur's skirt. Working off the novel of real-life intrepid journalist Bethany McLean, who lit the fuse of Enron's downfall (and also pops up here to issue words of cautionary wisdom), Gibney employs a bevy of talking heads, diagrams and simulations (cleverly crafted with the same wonky animation and contemptuous, snarky humour that Enron employed for their own PSAs) to succinctly boil down the obfuscating smoke-and-mirrors bullsh*t that allowed Enron to boast its way to a multi-billion dollar stock worth. His account - accessible as it is aggravating, titillating as it is tragic - is so plainly spelled out, that it's enough to make his entire audience feel like The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The story of Enron may be sordidly funny in its lunacy (at least for those unaffected by the bankruptcy), but Gibney crafts it like a murder mystery. Opening with the eerie snarls of Tom Waits' 'What's He Building In There,' the film preludes the unfolding cascade of corruption, cocaine, trading, strippers, dirt bikes, blackouts, and Bush with the suicide of an Enron former senior executive to keep a poignantly sour taste in our mouths, reminding us it's all fun and games until someone loses their soul, reputation, and life. Framed by Peter Coyote's coyly dry narration and an ingeniously catchy soundtrack (anyone who juxtaposes Tom Waits with Dusty Springfield is all right in my books), Gibney's documentarian style is playful but unobtrusive, and, above all else, clear. He devotes consummate care to unpacking the duplicitous accounting practices Enron exploited for their own short-term commercial gain, making them comprehensible without being dumbed down: mark-to-market (essentially determining present value by hypothetical future profits), and offloading and burying debt in sleazy, fictional dummy companies (with monikers as tasteful as "Death Star" and "M. Yass"). It's an emotional rollercoaster throughout, tonally rollicking between a cringe, the darkest of guffaws, and a sadly befuddled head shake, but Gibney rides the wave with breezy aplomb.

But, above all else, The Smartest Guys in the Room cottons on to Enron's fundamentally cinematic quality, and Gibney leans on the scandal's uncanny, stranger-than-fiction Hollywood tropes to make sense of the gas-bags who conned the stock market and the business world through brazen confidence and staggering, Icarian arrogance. Here (each introduced with their own Guardians of the Galaxy-esq musical motifs), we have Ken Lay - the political patriarch with the charm of the South, and the heart of a James Bond villain. Jeffrey Skilling - a Revenge of the Nerds turned Time Magazine darling cautionary tale, whose insidiously clever rule-bending lent him a swan song worthy of Macbeth. There's Andy Fastow, the Gordon Gekko accountant who spat in the face of the rules with Han Solo cockiness, and Lou Pai - the batsh*t executive who leapt off the sinking Enron ship to buy up most of Colorado with his pregnant stripper girlfriend - who... is too cartoonish to befit fictional counterpart. And, propping them up, an army of frat boy stock traders, whose boorish braying (opening mocking the "Grandma Millies" who lost power and lives as they whimsically whiplashed the deregulated California energy market), and coke-addled, bug-eyed grins, cheerfully admitting they'd literally stomp on each other's throats for a bonus.

Such was their ballsiness that making a documentary of them is less a matter of Gibney corralling footage and mouthpieces, and more a matter of him stepping out of the way, and letting them string their own proverbial nooses with their own hubris. So outlandish were they, that playwright Lucy Prebble was able to lift an alarming amount of direct quotes for her West End production that play like satirical hyperbole (Skilling's "What's the difference between the state of California and the Titanic? At least when the Titanic went down, the lights were on," and Lay's 9/11 response - "Just as American is under attack from terrorists, so are we under attack at Enron" can duke it out for the most tasteless). The lot of them would be slammed as caricatures in a Hollywood screenplay, but, captured sans social performance in their primal d**chebaggery... suddenly Enron becomes more chilling horror movie than documentary.

Years before Margot Robbie explained the real estate market in a bathtub and Leonardo DiCaprio blew a candle out of a prostitute's hindquarters came Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, still solidly holding its place as the third most entertaining film about the stock market. It's dazzlingly accessible and informative, and about as fun as an emotionally devastating movie about the fallout of a capitalism supernova could be. And, if there's even the slightest truth to Gibney's closing assertions that Enron paved the way for even more duplicitous corporate corruption, Enron's disturbing, mice-headed techno-dystopic 90s PR videos got one thing right: always, always, always ask "Why?" -9.5/10
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Hey - this isn't 'An Evening in Concert with Tony Clifton'! You tricked me, Netflix!
1 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Ever hear the behind-the-scenes stories of the Suicide Squad set, where a seemingly deluded Jared Leto would send his fellow cast-mates pig corpses, used condoms, and other such disgusting 'gifts?' Well, Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and the rest have Jim Carrey to thank for inspiring their daily discomfort. Carrey's petulance and mistreatment of his co-stars on the set of Man on the Moon showed his own belligerent attempts to get under the skin of the 'is-he-being-sh*tty-or-is-it-a-gag-is-it-even-funny-either-way' ethos that game-changing comedian Andy Kaufman would come to be known for. Or, was the exclusive, unearthed set footage of Carrey (reportedly buried by the studio so their star "wouldn't look like an asshole") its own meta extension of the performance for our benefit? That is the question that Netflix's Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond teasingly unspools - amidst the laughs, secondhand embarrassment cringes, shots of Carrey looking philosophical and wise with his 'serious artist beard,' and enough Danny DeVito incredulous eye rolls to the camera to fill an entire season of The Office.

The title's tiering is crucial, as The Great Beyond is very much a documentary about Jim trying to make sense of Andy - as a iconic performer, as a comedy paradigm shift, and of his own role in comedy in Kaufman's wake. As a character study of Carrey, it's superbly revelatory, opening the door (probably more than intended) to Carrey's loneliness, and constant yearning for connection at all costs, from childhood class clown to boisterously over-the-top movie star to present day recluse painter and armchair philosopher. His stories of writing himself an anticipatory million dollar cheque as a starving actor or willing the universe to provide him with a bicycle as a poor child growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, are strangely poetic in their melancholy - even more so, somehow, when his steadfast convictions turn out to actually come true, which he treats as a bizarre form of divine providence.

There's a sordid irony in that Kaufman's early career got mired in his 'impersonations' schtick, only for Carrey to deep dive into an impersonation of him, and director Chris Smith is careful not to oversell the juxtaposition, but rather let it speak for itself. He provides just enough (reliably hilarious) archival footage of Kaufman to contextualize the comedian and his cultural impact for unfamiliar audiences, before shifting the spotlight to Carrey. Assessed bluntly, Man on the Moon is, at best, a pleasantly rote vehicle for Carrey's unbelievably on-point embodiment of Kaufman (as even director Milos Forman himself seems to concede in behind-the-scenes footage here). Here, Smith provides a further wrinkle to the film being the unabashed 'Jim Carrey show,' as Carrey's belligerent refusal to break character seems altogether too large for the otherwise seemingly quite relaxed, unpretentious set he's part of.

Kaufman's gags, no matter how ludicrous or purposefully offensive, were always anchored in clear social commentary - poking fun at expectations, or mocking the pompous performativity of wrestling, tabloid journalism, or celebrity culture as a whole. Carrey's on-set antics, refusing to break character, and harassing his co-stars as Kaufman (or, even worse, as Kaufman's obtusely crude alter ego Tony Clifton), are as funny as they are cringeworthy - a prank at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion is particularly inspired. Still, it all plays here with a whiff of desperation - a yearning for the relevance, or rug-yanking mischief of Kaufman. Smith certainly coyly leads the witness by reprising "Imposter," a rap parody from Carrey's In Living Colour days, as a musical leitmotif throughout. Is Carrey's method madness here a p*ss-take on the prima donna movie star, or the real deal? Is the wacky, unsettling climate he conjured worth it in the name of art? Or, Smith teasingly leads us to wonder, does anyone apart from Carrey even particularly care?

Or, going even deeper down the rabbit hole, is it all an elaborate ruse, tantamount to the hoax fights of Kaufman's misogynist wrestling bit - a meta prank that the entire cast and crew were in on, reenacting their simulated discomfort for our hoodwinked benefit? Certainly, it's fair to be suspicious of director Milos Forman, Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti, and others conveniently having their befuddled reactions to Carrey perfectly framed in front of a rolling camera. Smith keeps things playfully ambiguous throughout, prodding at the ludicrous presuppositions of documentary 'realism' with Kaufman-esq glee, while still never fully showing his hand as to how many layers the onion skin of gag goes. Still, riddle me this: watch Carrey's contemporary serious, philosophical (and beardy) ruminations on his performance, art, purpose, and the universe (mostly pleasant and occasionally insightful hokum, though his reevaluating his later career through the lens of The Truman Show is really pushing it). If you didn't notice the faintest twinkle in his eye, midway through a solemn soliloquy, the moment he thinks the camera has stopped rolling, I'll eat my DVD copy of The Mask. Sssssssssssssscoundrel!

Jim and Andy may not provide particularly revelatory answers to the lofty questions it poses regarding the role, purpose, and justified means of art and creation (though its clever riff on the inherent performativity of documentary 'truth' suggests Smith is well aware such questions are rhetorical). Regardless, it's a fun and magnetic watch, thanks to the overflowing and unfathomably peculiar charisma of its eponymous subjects, who, Smith astutely understands, we could watch for hours. And, if Jim and Andy succeeds at anything, it's at ensuring that, in the face of his rubber-faced jubilance, seemingly cavernous loneliness, and in seeking purpose in his desperately on-point mimicry in the face of peer comfort or basic decency, we can't help but understand, and feel connected to Jim Carrey. To which Carrey would indubitably respond: "Theenk you veddy maatch."

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Annihilation (2018)
Moldy phoenix
29 March 2018
When it comes to cinematic alien invasions, our poor planet has been bombarded with onslaughts ranging from ET adorable to War of the Worlds sinister, and everything in between. And yet, in the face of 'take me to your leader' overexposure, we've never seen anything quite like Annihilation. Appropriately building from what is known into something fundamentally new, director Alex Garland fuses equal parts Big Questions science-fiction (the film's closest spiritual sibling is 2016's Arrival and its rendition of a sentient consciousness that is fundamentally non-human) with inventively disturbing body horror, and intertwining, fatalistic environmental and psychological allegories, all stitched together through a slow, Kubrickian creep into the metaphysical. And if all of that hasn't deterred you, you're probably ready for the deep dive into the Shimmer, and to press the pause button on reliable sensory intake and reality for a feverishly engrossing two hours.

Those familiar with Jeff VanderMeer's novel - the first of his 'Southern Reach' trilogy - are right to be suspicious: it's hard to picture a more medium-specific text relying more on surreal, dreamlike ambiguity, unreliable narration, and the unseen to convey its sense of infectious terror. Thankfully, director Alex Garland shows a knack for cinematically transmuting the dreamlike dizziness of VanderMeer's prose, with atmosphere and mise-en-scene so evocative the theatre air feels damp, and sticky, and our skin begins to itch. Garland's 'Area X' is as innocently beautiful as it is almost imperceptibly grotesque, with gorgeously unobtrusive FX lending the lush foliage a subtle sense of unease. As cameras airily drift through with a disconcerting innocence and sickening sense of dread, we begin to doubt our senses: is that nauseatingly fluorescent lichen speckling the trees moving, or was it just a trick of the light? Surely that wasn't an almost inaudible cry of terror in the peaceful breeze...? That flower assuredly didn't have a human face. That woman had all of her facial features intact... Right? The discomfort is woven uneasily together with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's unexpectedly zen musical score - an almost folksy guitar strum - that feeds into the film's tone of beautiful tranquility feeling nauseatingly 'off,' before showing its hand and imperceptibly morphing into a dread-inducing, spine-tingling drone that will haunt your conscious mind for hours to come.

Naturally, some things are lost in translation. Although Garland impressively avoids caving to easy Hollywood closure (though he does throw us a couple of bones of clarity to anchor the plot on - probably more nuggets of certainty than VanderMeer sprinkles through his entire trilogy), there's a distinct skeleton of conventional structure and contrivance that makes proceedings feel just a whit overly familiar (particularly in the climax) - especially in the face of the freshness of the unrepentant, unhinged ambiguity of VanderMeer's Southern Reach. It's tantalizing to imagine what cinematic boundaries might have been pushed by a slightly more daring auteur - a Tarkovsky, Jodorowski, or even Kubrick himself, all of who imperceptibly flavour the film - let loose in VanderMeer's wacky, macabre playpen. Regardless, Garland is a master of the inventively harrowing set piece, and his film's horrors are sparse but chillingly memorable, and just as effective in their anticipating as their execution. Garland's sensibilities are anything but cheap: each jump scares, gory dismemberment, and horrific mutation feels appropriate and strangely elegant in their grotesquery. Ultimately, however, Annihilation is less preoccupied with fright than destruction and rebirth (individual and collective), digging into a mature, existential examination of change, not as an ultimatum, but as an ongoing, morally transcendent process.

Natalie Portman's propensity to infuse dead-eyed flatness with such churning intensity makes for the perfect (un)emotional anchor amidst the throbbing madness that ensues, her unyielding, flinty making it her strongest work in years. Supporting her, Oscar Isaac* adeptly subverts his customary charisma with a queasily 'off' emotional disconnect, while Jennifer Jason Leigh commands the screen with an alarmingly coy sphinxlike grimness. Tessa Thompson, conversely, offsets the creeping nihilism of her surroundings with a soft-spoken, brittle sweetness, perfectly counterbalanced by the volcanic, combustive emotion of the scene-stealing Gina Rodriguez, cathartically the only character who seems properly perturbed by the encroaching wrongness of Area X.

Don't be thrown by the film's tepid marketing and the insinuated lack of studio confidence in a simultaneous Netflix release. Annihilation is bold, clear-headed, and unmissable for all science-fiction stalwarts, even if its chilling warp into brain-bending surreality may be anchored on just a couple too many nuggets of accessibility to fully capitalize on VanderMeer's feverish tone. Regardless, Garland has crafted one of the most atmospheric, inventively creepy, and existentially haunting movie romps of the past several years, sure to itch and nibble at viewer's brains with images and ideas long after the jarring reversion to normalcy once the credits roll.


*Yes, I know - Poe slept with Kylo Ren's grandmother! Have fun untangling that, intertextual Star Wars continuity nuts!
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I, Tonya (2017)
"There's no such thing as truth. It's bullsh*t. Everyone has their own truth, and life just... does whatever the f*ck it wants."
24 March 2018
Ahh, the biopic - the film genre with arguably the greatest margin for error minefield of them all. How to tell the story of a real-life subject, not in documentary form, passing on all pertinent information while dodging a delivery drowning in cliché and inorganic exposition? Well, self-directed rhetorical question, I'm glad you asked that - because here is our latest answer. Behold: I, Tonya, a film that captures the quintessential zippy delirium of the wild, almost unbelievable ride of Olympic skater Tonya Harding's rise to fame and subsequently infamy without selling short the human story underneath the media histrionics. It's playful, clever, at once sobering and maliciously fun, and, without question, one of the most original, evocative, and punchy takes on 'based on a true story' seen in ages.

Pundits of Hollywood biopics often sneer 'why not just watch the documentary?' - so, appropriately, director Craig Gillespie sneers right back with an apropos Tonya Harding belligerence, telling his film as a simulated talking heads 'faux-documentary.' It's an inspired way of sidestepping clichéd biopic trappings, as well as amusingly toying with their ostentatious pretentious of authenticity, complete with the ambiguity of multiple narrators who aren't as much unreliable as overtly contradictory - of each other, and even themselves. Riotously entertaining a Rashômon riff as it is, Gillespie spoon-feeds nothing to his audience, forcing us to draw our own assumptions and conclusions on Harding and her entourage, assessing each of their own complicity in the train wreck their story would become. It can be emotionally disconcerting having to sift through the uncorroborated scenes comprising the narrative - were Tonya's husband and mother really as horrifically abusive as depicted here, or are their depictions exaggerated by Tonya's traumatic memories, or hyperbolic embellishments? And how responsible WAS Tonya for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Gillespie remains playfully coy, with a jet-black sense of humour underpinning proceedings no matter how violent or terrible they get, forcing the viewer to themselves decide how emotionally resonant they find Harding's story without the guiding influence of Hollywood conventions.

In many ways, I, Tonya is as much a p*ss-take on Hollywood conventions as it is a fleshed-out telling of Harding's story. Like Tonya, it's noticeably rough and disheveled on the exterior, with hazy lighting and (presumably purposefully) endearingly clumsy editing capturing the faded lycra aesthetic of a daytime true crime special aired at the height of Harding's heyday - appropriately tongue-in-cheek for a film that so actively confronts class discrepancies and the superficial nature of public performance and award ceremonies (resulting Oscar wins notwithstanding, naturally). Conversely, as with the real Tonya Harding, the film finds its truest elegance and energy through skating, as Harding's performance sequences are invigoratingly entertaining, conjuring the breathless thrill of watching a triple axel (as CGI seamlessly simulates Robbie performing the seldom-repeated stunt).

Still, it's unquestionably the cast who land the film's proverbial jump, perfectly committing to a tone so emotionally sincere it verges on histrionic, in keeping with the bizarre escalation of Harding's story. Margot Robbie is at her best as the titular Tonya, employing her vivacious charisma and rough-and-tumble belligerence as a feeble shell for a woman desperately seeking validation in all the wrong places. Allison Janney has a ball crafting one of cinema history's most awful mothers, her endless tirade of sarcasm and abuse as darkly funny as it is chilling (and getting surprising mileage out of bantering with a bird, to boot). Still, Janney is too deft a performer not to play the character's notes of regret and perverse caring, and they register like the faintest flecks falling off a monolithically colourful and resonant performance. Sebastian Stan bravely undercuts his roguish, dopey charm with a streak of jarringly disturbing violence as Tonya's caustically unshakeable boyfriend/husband, while walking cartoon Paul Walter Hauser embodies Stan's doofus partner-in-crime with such hilarious conviction, watching him side-by-side the real Shawn over the film's credits is almost unnerving.

A breath of sardonic fresh air amidst 2017's Oscar contenders, I, Tonya is a deceptively clever slow-burner, with surprisingly resonant critical commentaries on emotionally handholding Hollywood storytelling, domestic violence, celebrity culture, and how the judicial system is swayed by the popular media narrative. It's also the most memorable film about skating since 2005's simpering Ice Princess, and beats the sh*t out of it in terms of watchability, and even good skating. And if anything about I, Tonya would be likely to appeal to the real Tonya Harding, it's that.

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Earful of cider - and how sweet it is
16 March 2018
Guys and Dolls really shouldn't have worked. Helmed by a director with no experience with musicals, starring two legendarily feuding leads, neither of whose singing styles (crooning/mumbling-with-notes) fit the piece, it's a testament to the fundamental fun of the Broadway show (faithfully adapted here) that its filmic companion is somehow all the more infectiously charming as a summation of its disparate parts. Call it luck, call it skill, but, over sixty years on, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's film remains one of the most beloved and enduring movie musicals of all time, and still well worth experiencing for the first or fifty-first time.

It's also somewhat of a time capsule for a genre in the midst of transition. Mankiewicz juxtaposing Michael Kidd's snappy, avant garde choreography with static sequences of the leads singing swooning songs to each other and the camera lands the film squarely betwixt classical and contemporary sensibilities. Amazingly, the duelling styles complement each other perfectly, infusing the seedy gambling sequences with a jazzy excitement, while painting the parallel romantic subplots with a gentle sweetness and elegance. Similarly, Mankiewicz shows a flair for infusing setting with personality, as the New York sequences bustle with a nervy energy, while colouring the dalliance to Havana with a sultry breeziness. At two-and-a-half hours, the film is indisputably overlong, but the gentle, teasing humour throughout, and little touches like the strangely eloquent gamblers and their strangely stilted, contraction-free dialogue make it a thoroughly pleasant romp, antiquated sexual politics and all.

That said, it's the dazzling, star-studded cast who really give the film its unforgettable lustre. As infamous sex symbol Sky Masterson, Marlon Brando is suave, sparkling-eyed charisma personified, practically gliding through his scenes with the lope of a panther. However, Brando is too consummate an actor to deliver a mere caricature, and he weaves his breeziness with a deceptively nuanced undercurrent of brusque pragmatism and soft regret, to better sell Masterson's somewhat forced character arc into decency. Despite his purported distaste at playing second banana Nathan Detroit, Frank Sinatra proves perfect casting, delivering the perfect blend of fast-talking weediness and bombastic romanticism to keep relentless bum Detroit a roguishly irresistible scoundrel. Jean Simmons is a scream throughout, bustling with such gusto and perfect screwball banter to selling her 'adorably corrupted buttoned up prude' schtick as fresh and natural, while Broadway carryover Vivian Blaine is exquisitely sharp and witty as she is shrill, lending her scenes with Sinatra a vivacious energy.

What might have seemed an ambitious gamble at the time now plays as a pair of loaded-ahem-"special" dice, as Mankiewicz's Guys and Dolls bubbles with a perfectly mischievous sense of fun and irresistible heart. It may be simpler, sweeter, and less memorable than other genre-defining classics such as Singin' in the Rain, but if you're seeking out a rollicking, robustly entertaining classical gem, you're in luck. And (you've been waiting for this), luck be a lady tonight.

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Bright (I) (2017)
13 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
'Lord of the Rings meets Lethal Weapon' reads as a film pitch cooked up in a basement by a 14-year old, doped up on hours of Diet Coke and Call of Duty - a 'high concept' only in the most literal sense of the world. Still, it's unexpected, goofy, and replete with playful potential that it just may have been crazy enough to work. The key to it working, naturally, being acknowledgement of how crazy it is. Unfortunately, that memo was one messenger eagle that director David Ayer and writer Max Landis didn't quite receive in time. And lo: the prophecy of the mischievous, tongue-in-cheek genre revisionism that might have been became consumed by a shroud of darkness - in ever sense of the word. And from that darkness - asininely self-important, drearily predictable, and executed with the lumbering, pitiful tactlessness of a hobbit let loose in a brewery - nothing could emerge. Least of all, anything Bright.

If a director's paramount priority is confidence in their project, Ayer certainly earned his paycheque, as it's impossible to imagine a more daftly earnest take on his given material, even from the director of the painfully idiotic Suicide Squad. Tackling his film's dissonant fantasy and gritty, urban crime tropes with a ludicrously self-important swagger, Ayer's film is so deliriously serious that, paradoxically, it's impossible to take even remotely seriously. For all the expansive potential of its conceit, Bright is a dour, plodding, paint-by-numbers cop thriller, replete with more MacGuffins, conveniences, cloying foreshadowing, and exposition than you can shake a glock at, all enacted with joyless stupefaction... and fairies.

Ah - but didn't you know? The fantasy creatures are A-LLE-GOR-I-CAL, a word Landis has clearly searched on Urban Dictionary while flossing with the pages of his Superman back issues. Behold: in the midst of the genre crossover nobody was craving comes a hackneyed commentary on contemporary racial tensions nobody was waiting for, as Landis wears his film's racial subtexts on his sleeve with customary insufferable smugness, and all the insight of a sixth grade civil rights essay. Characters don't speak dialogue so much as burp racial slurs at each other, in a staggeringly misguided thematic dead horse beaten long before the cameras rolled, from the offensively thuggish orcs to a stroll through the walking Gucci commercial of 'Elf Town' that can't help but amusingly recall Who Framed Roger Rabbit's 'Toon Town.' But hey - Landis is a man who got paid millions of dollars for penning the line "fairy lives don't matter," so this is the world we live in, apparently.

Amazingly, the clash of stale cop clichés and stale fantasy clichés only serves to amplify rather than negate one another, with the only mirth coming from Ayer's relentless street posturing lending the film airs of surreally heightened nonsense. If you thought watching actors spitting out the words "magic wand" with grim scowls on their faces wasn't silly enough, try watching Will Smith murder(?!) the rest of his police squad(!!) over a dispute for the so-called "magical WMD..." then falls prey to the outlandishly lazy "oops, I dropped the wand - y'know that thing that the entire conflict hinges on" conceit not once, but TWICE! All of a sudden, the "Starlight" Elf/Dwarf romantic triangle from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit isn't looking so stupid by comparison, is it?*

For a film called Bright (paradoxes are more plentiful than dialogue here), Ayer vomits up a murky soup of grisly hues ranging from 'cement' to 'muddy, bloody cement," while lurching from back alleys to cult Elven safe houses to strip clubs. Even the uninspired grey orc prosthetics blend into the visual muck, while the film's sub-par visual effects and perfunctory, sleepy shootouts and fight scenes do little to pep up the drab proceedings. The occasional flickers of visual inventiveness (in one shot, a distant dragon flaps by, framed by a cityscape sunset) are mere flirtations of the world and movie we'd love to burst out and explore if we could shake off the infuriatingly daft, small-minded story blinders we're shackled to.

(Side note: spending an entire movie announcing the triumphant return of 'The Dark Lord,' only to leave genre diehards suffering through this mess with fantasy blueballs, is particularly unconscionable salt rubbed into a wound of disappointment)

Even Will Smith's inherent charm is quashed under a veneer of sour, unrelenting unpleasantness, while the prosthetics-laden Joel Edgerton, bizarrely elects to play his put-upon orc officer as a dopey, sweet simpleton, making him arguably even more dislikable. The two hit upon embers of chemistry, and it's easy to imagine enjoying their banter under different circumstances, but their flamboyantly dissonant, but equally sloppy, performances range from drab to obnoxious here instead. Supporting them, Lucy Fry contributes nothing more than frustrating noise as an irritating riff on Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element, while Noomi Rapace, though promisingly conjuring kernels of sleek menace, is far too under-utilized a foe to generate much scenery-chewing threat. Still, muzzling the excellent Margaret Cho with a wholly unironic performance as a grim, kinda racist police chief, is perhaps the film's missed opportunity for fun. When even the career comedians don't get to provide comedic relief, you know something is rotten in the state of potential.

That rare bastardization of pop culture that would see both Tolkien and Shane Black fans cueing up to tape David Ayer to a chair, and force him to watch endless replays of Jared Leto's Joker, Clockwork Orange style, as penance, Netflix's $90 gambit may not have been as costly a bellyflop as it would've been as a cinematic release. But a proposed SEQUEL, with Ayer still attached?! The future is (you asked for it) not so Bright. In the words of its cavalierly disgraced lore: Bright shall... not... pass!


*Just kidding. It's still so stupid I probably sacrificed at least 15 brain cells just remembering it.
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The delightful struggles of the rich and beautiful
10 March 2018
Recently, when my mother was having a tough time, she creaked open her cupboard, and pulled out a well-loved DVD.

"Let's watch The Philadelphia Story. It'll be nice to disappear into the delightful struggles of the rich and beautiful for a while."

And, though it's an indisputably lovely watch for audiences old and new alike, whether watching for the first or thirty-first time, it's more than rote comforting, Classical Hollywood escapism that makes The Philadelphia Story truly special. It's seldom that we find a film with such modestly entertaining aspirations assembled with such consummate care, as director George Cukor's feather-light direction and perfect pacing allow the film to bubble like champagne, but sink in like a sumptuous feast - indisputably one of the most impeccably loveable and utterly unmissable films of its era.

Naturally, it helps to boast one of the most airtight, razor-sharp romantic comedy scripts of all time. Writer Philip Barry (adapting Donald Ogden Stewart's stage show) has as much fun peppering the film with the deliciously salty repartee as he does having his characters playfully massage every syllable out of the most riotously intricate names - from the mouth of Jimmy Stewart, the seven syllables of 'C.K. Dexter Haven' somehow emerge as a contemptuous political haiku. Cukor and his players have a ball poking fun at the ludicrous posturing of old money snobs, but the film's class divide is treated far more tongue-in-cheek and with tender sympathy than the savage, cartoonish satire of the average circa 1940 screwball.

The film's plot might suggest the gossamer silliness of a Society Magazine take on Much Ado About Nothing, but underneath the Russian Doll subplots of mischievous double-bluffs of masquerade and library and poolside meet-cutes (all delectably zany in their own right) lies a surprisingly rich, compelling, and fundamentally human story, bursting with emotion and heart. Underneath the marquee of comedy of manners zingers lurks an underbelly of genuine family drama, as affecting as it is entertaining, postulating that a yearning for genuine connection - to be really known, beyond social status, trappings, presumptions, projections, and posturing - is, perhaps, the most universal of desires, and the message hits home with the effervescent pop of a bottle of champagne downed a little too fast.

But, let's be honest: we're here for the legendary triple-act of Classical Hollywood heavyweights Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant. They do not disappoint, playing off each other with dazzling ease, and showcasing some of the most effortless banter and deep-set chemistry in cinema history. Hepburn has never been better than she is here - she imperiously commands the screen with a hailstorm of scathing punchlines, before embodying the self-esteem imbalance of a woman inundated with superficial praise, but seldom genuinely appreciated, to an unnervingly human degree. She's funny, sad, and almost unspeakably loveable, in an astoundingly heartfelt rollercoaster of a performance. Still, this is unquestionably the Jimmy Stewart show, as his sour, curmudgeonly indictments of the superfluity of wealth are as utterly hysterical, even moreso when giving way for a softer, poetic, recitations betray an aspiring artist beaten down by self-doubt and the financial impediments to wholeheartedly pursue his dream. A decidedly unconventionally subdued Grant rounds up the trio with the least showy performance, but his performance betrays staggering subtleties of inner emotion and past demons. Sneakily puppeteering his peers while firing off innocently acrid witticisms with his never-drier deadpan makes him an exquisitely sarcastic Greek chorus of sorts, and the mischievous twinkle in his eye is as entertaining as all the banter in the world. The rest of the ensemble are all magnificent in their own right, particularly Ruth Hussey as Stewart's perennially spurned, icily deadpan photographer companion, and twelve-year old Virginia Weidler, uproariously funny as the Lord family's gutsy daughter, belligerently unwilling to accept the stubbornness of her older family members causing mishap after mishap.

There's the occasional bump in the road where the film shows its age - the calamitous, climactic partner-swapping follies flirt with being too silly to sit comfortably, and it's nicer to just pretend the eyebrow-raising prologue, which treats spousal abuse as a rollicking punchline, just never happens (thank goodness for DVD track-skipping). But, on the whole, this is the highest, most delightful caliber of movie magic imaginable. Whether you need to laugh or cry (usually both), find an airy diversion from life's tribulations, or discover genuine insight in the interplay of immaculately constructed characters, you'd be hard pressed to find a more deeply satisfying watch than The Philadelphia Story. To quote our dear C.K. Dexter Haven: "My, she was yar."

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Black Panther (2018)
Spaceship Bugatti
7 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
There are some films where you can practically hear the history books writing themselves - though if all history books were as outrageously fun as Black Panther, university campuses would be bursting at the seams. Accompanying 2017's Wonder Woman as a triumphant one-two punch of unprecedented blockbuster representation finding record-breaking box office and critical success, Black Panther's real shock is that... yes, it is exactly as good as you'd hope. A robust, whip-smart, emotional, and superbly entertaining thriller as unafraid to dive headlong into contentiously topical politics as unabashedly indulge in superhero silliness. Some things are worth the wait.

And yet, after a dizzyingly gorgeous animated prologue, establishing the MacGuffin mythology of fictional African technology haven Wakanda, we wait even longer, as director Ryan Coogler deviates into a seemingly tangential Prologue 2.0 set in the slums of Oakland, California. It's a disorienting start (but don't worry; it's only moments more before T'Challa spin-kicks someone), but its coy foreshadowing heralds an important lesson: Coogler is an immaculately precise director unaccustomed to wasting a frame of film. No one could accuse Black Panther of being unambitious, with a plot encompassing human trafficking, international arms deals, salient commentaries on tradition vs. modernity, redefining power amidst a global economy, and roughly as many political maneuvers as an entire season of House of Cards (including brazen, poignantly tongue-in-cheek barbs about immigration and colonial history) - as well as, y'know, fight scenes, cool gadgets, and all that other superhero stuff. The seamlessness with which Coogler weaves together each seemingly disparate plot thread and theme is almost mind-boggling - and yet, his film is as much a cohesive entity as it is more than the sum of its parts.

Appropriately, for a superhero film whose production was inevitably delayed for decades due to its affiliation with a revolutionary political party, social politics comprise the core and foundation of Black Panther. Here, Coogler pulls no punches, but is never pedantic. We start out in fun but familiar territory, with a first act globetrotting takedown of Wakanda's arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaue (a gleefully scenery-masticating Andy Serkis, arguably Marvel's most downright fun adversary to date), reminiscent of a contemporary 007 romp (complete with T'Challa's own 'Q,' in Letitia Wright's hysterical, impossibly delightful Shuri). But, right when we begin to settle in and munch our popcorn, Coogler yanks the rug out from us, with a second act tonal shift that flips the film on its head, to the point where more than a few audience members will be left questioning the ethics and legitimacy of the hero we've spent the entire first half admiring as infallible. Enter Michael B. Jordan, who not only energizes the film with a furious surge of passion as he shifts from his early performative swagger to magnetic, fiery dogmatism, but shifts the conflict to a 'Malcolm X vs. MLK' critique of Wakanda's isolationist inertia in the face of contemporary racism and post-colonialism. It's a shockingly bold move for the normally sociopolitically safe Marvel, but it pays off, making the brewing climax not only breathtakingly tense, but an impressively nuanced conversation on ethics, empathy, and the real impact of a contemporary revolution. You won't find that in Ant-Man.

Nonetheless, Coogler has his priorities straight, and Black Panther balances its political core with a raucously fun comic book ride. Aesthetically, it's a triumph - the FX, art, and costume design are flooring in their imaginative intricacy, incorporating Tony Stark calibre technology into traditional African designs and costuming (force field cloaks?! cool!), lending itself to a pragmatic sci-fi futurism unlike quite anything we've ever seen in the movies before, while the pastel hues of the 'spirit world' are jaw-dropping in their beauty. The fight scenes are thrillingly fun, balletic as they are brutal (and while T'Challa's new suit, and its explosive release of kinetic energy, adds a fun new level to the customary punching, kicking, and clawing, it's in the hands, spear, and wig of Danai Gurira's scene-stealing, steely general Okoye, that the film is at its most fun and thrilling), and Ludwig Gorasson's musical score, layering traditional African chanting and instrumentation into brassy superhero swells, is addictively sumptuous. There are occasional fumbles - Coogler's pace occasionally lags and sputters, with a more meditative second act verging on the lugubrious (and a couple of "Remember who you aaaaaaaaare" heart-to-hearts with John Kani's deceased patriarch that can't help but have their gravitas undercut by snickering comparisons to The Lion King). Still, Coogler sinks it home with furious aplomb, steering (just) clear of conventional Marvel third act ennui with a 'kitchen sink' climax so furiously tense and bonkers (two words: WEAPONIZED. RHINOS) that all cinema armrests will be marked with the claw marks of being gripped by a captivated audience.

As the titular monarch, Chadwick Boseman delivers a remarkably grounded performance. Steering the film with a regal calm undercut with muscular emotion and crucially accessible doubt, the film revolves around his steady, magnetic presence, as the showier, scene-stealing bits are commanded by the trio of powerful women ensconcing him (the perfection of Wright, Gurira, and the luminous, passionately charismatic Lupita Nyong'o). Martin Freeman's befuddled fed provides 'fish out of water' access to Wakanda with customary dry wit; he's fun without (quite) overstaying. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett all elevate one-dimensional secondary characters with gravitas and class, while Winston Duke's M'Baku is so ferociously terrifying mitigated by some of the most precise comedic timing seen in years, he damn near strolls off with the film himself.

A staggering accomplishment as fun as it is masterfully thoughtful, Black Panther may not quite settle into The Dark Knight territory of genre-transcending masterpiece, but it pounces proudly at its footsteps, this decade's 'thinking audience's blockbuster with a conscience' to beat. Soak in the well-deserved fun, and let the BET's 2010 cartoon theme triumphantly play me out: "Black Pan-ther! Black Pan-ther!"

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10 Cloverfield drafts too few
5 February 2018
{no spoilers here - I know the Cloverfield drill}

Cloverfield has always been less a franchise than a multimedia event, thriving on surprise and unpredictability into the closest thing the 21st century has enjoyed to a thinly linked Twilight Zone. Case in point: a promising, albeit inauspicious sci-fi thriller 'God Particle' mysteriously unveiled as a Chapter III no one had been waiting for, but everyone proved excited for. Then: the ante was upped again, with an unprecedented day-of announcement that the film would be spontaneously released on Netflix on February 4th, over two months prior to its announced theatrical release date. Surprise! Sadly, for all of the furious rush and smoke and mirrors heralding its release, The Cloverfield Paradox is less paradoxical and more promising first draft - an energetic, engaging, and thrillingly tense sci-fi caper that proves disconcertingly hollow within, and the first Cloverfilm to fall short of its ratcheted up expectations.

In fact, Cloverthree-ld's primary paradox is how a such a fundamentally messy film can be, at once, so neatly proficient and accomplished in its telling. Boasting airtight direction by Julius Onah, impressively credible FX, crisp cinematography channelling a Ridley Scott Alien vibe, counterpointing the sweeping vastness of space and claustrophobic confines of a ship therein, and a robust, gleefully old-fashioned Bernard Herrmann-esq score by 10 Cloverfield Lane vet Bear McReary, it's a cracking ride, full of shocking twists, inventively gruesome visuals, and festering suspicions. The space station's international cast even wink at thematically functioning as a 'faux-UN in space,' flirting with just enough superficial sociopolitical tension without becoming tiresomely didactic. All this, and nary a trace of nauseating shaky-cam in sight (that's, like, so Cloverfield I, m'kay)!

But, post-film, by the time you grumpily interrupt Netflix from cueing an unwanted recommendation mid-credits, reality rears its monstrous head, with a persistent and ever-growing "Heyyyy, wait a minute...!" After gasping at the film's barrage of shocking happenstances, we're retroactively left with the buzzkill of picking up the pieces of all the (many) dangling, unresolved plot threads. With plot holes pockmarking the film like craters on the moon, and leaning on some of the wonkiest faux-convenient movie science in years, it's a film that reeks of a bold, fully-realized start perhaps particle-accelerated into being a bit prematurely.

And the culprit? Methinks the claw marks of a Bad Robot are abound here. Despite the name, mystique, and hype of being a surprise franchise-building, linking the-artist-formerly-known-as-God-Particle to the Cloverfield universe feels like somewhat of a clumsy, unnecessary retrofit, with hurried last minute rewrites (including some garish, eye-roll-worthy exposition) perhaps explaining the synergy of such a careful telling of such a careless plot. Still, even the internal logic clamours with red flags (none the least being the crew's magical, unexplained bilingualism, conversing perfectly fluidly in English with Zhang Ziyi's staunchly Mandarin-speaking engineer, more clumsy Hollywood convenience than utopic futuristic multilingualism), which increasingly threaten to distract from the spooky fun.

Thankfully, the excellent ensemble cast help carry a lot of the slack. They're given uniformly slim characterizations, but play them to the hilt, generating reliably terse, engrossing performances, particularly leads Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, and Roger Davies. Finally, although it sometimes seems like he's popped his head in from an adjacent movie, the always wonderful Chris O'Dowd remains a welcome repository of irreverently grim comic relief throughout.

It's genuinely rare and exciting to see a big-studio franchise play with expectation and delivery with such glee as Cloverfield, which is why the careless muddle of Paradox, mindlessly entertaining though it is, feels like a disconcerting step back. With any luck, there's life yet in the Cloverfuture, and that Abrams and co. have more future shocks and left-field distribution strategies up their cinematic sleeves. Let's just hope the shock of unfinished, baldly inconclusive faux-franchise scripts takes its place, along with dear shaky-cam, firmly in the annals of history.

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Must Love Asparagus (**with oil and salt; no exceptions**)
1 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the few actors in cinema history to be a consummate box office draw by being a 'Capital-A Actor' rather than "movie star," has found his true cinematic soulmate in Paul Thomas Anderson, a kindred obsessive perfectionist whose craft is so refined it verges on the sublime. If Phantom Thread is genuinely to be Day-Lewis' swan song, there couldn't be a more apropos note for him to retire on - a gruelling, winsome character study of the ripple effects of savant-level precision and control in the name of artistic perfection, and how it all unravels when the idiosyncrasies of something as blasphemous as another human's desires factor in. The fact that it's one of the most riveting, hauntingly beautiful films of the year should come as no surprise. What does come as a surprise is that Phantom Thread is also the closest thing to DDL and PTA making a romantic comedy(!) that we're ever likely to see - and the film is both slyly funny and deceptively romantic in its high culture austerity. Yes, really.

For those expecting the harrowing, existential despair of There Will Be Blood pitted with the world of haute couture - or, even worse, a more dour My Fair Lady - your favourite three-named gents are one stitch ahead of you. The cheeky irreverence of a protagonist named 'Reynolds Woodcock' is a hat tip towards the film's sly bawdiness peeking under the proverbial skirt of its prim veneers of ball gown elegance and severity. For, although Phantom Thread is 'about' fashion, muses, and breaking down the obsessive temperaments of auteurs who see any sacrifice and cruelty as worthwhile in the name of art, it's, at its thematic bedrock, really 'about' love. If, by 'love,' you mean a Freudian deconstruction of socialized imbedded neuroses and trauma, and the false illusion of closure from them. And who wouldn't?

Granted, it's a far cry from the vacuous pandering of your average Hollywood rom-com romp (although, in a movie about monolithic precision and control, Woodcock's foil, Alma, literally stumbles into the scene, in a delicious riff of a Hallmark-worthy meet-cute). Here, love and power - the loss, exchange, relinquishing, and struggle thereof - are inextricably intertwined. In Anderson's no-holds-barred study of subjugation, the immutability of two people's needs and wants crashing into each other like waves against a cliff face takes on an almost poetic level of allegory - a couture fairy tale, if you will. This is not to say that Reynolds and Alma have a healthy relationship; it's anything but. But, in the thick of Woodcock's histrionic flurry of standoffishness, selfishness, explosive fussiness, and every gradient of emotional abuse, there's a spark of surprising purity and sweetness at the heart of their maelstrom of incompatibility that is teased out and painted so immaculately that, in spite of itself, it's enough to make you believe there just might actually be somebody for everybody. And all without a single pop music makeover montage.

Appropriately, for a film whose protagonist utters the word "chic" with the vitriolic disgust of having just thrown up in his mouth, Phantom Thread has a classical elegance bar none. Here, Anderson manages to have his cake and eat it too, spinning a film that works equally well as a dazzling immersion into the world of high fashion as it does as a subtly snickering p*ss-take at its own outrageous pomposity. Anderson's cameras sweep over the film's array of exquisite dresses, ballrooms, and lush food spreads, almost pornographic in their jaw-dropping opulence, with a swooning, unsettlingly shark-like creep. Similarly, Jonny Greenwood's Age of Innocence-esq piano score is an exquisite simulacrum of claustrophobically swooning elegance, as beautiful as it is maddeningly fawning and slyly parodic. Still, the film's standout technical element is its hysterically hyperbolic sound editing, gleefully accentuating the most innocuous sounds to intolerable levels to ironically empathize with Woodcock's waning, condescending thresholds for interpersonal interaction. You'll never look at toast the same way again.

Interestingly, Day-Lewis may be the initial draw, but it's a trio of equally formidable performances that give the film its life. Naturally, Day-Lewis is so inherently magnetic that even a fleeting shot of Woodcock fastidiously plucking his nose hairs is (somehow) both riveting and revealing. Still, he weaves a playful twinkle in throughout, making Woodcock's soft-spoken tyrannical temper tantrums amusingly petulant, and softening the film's power imbalance. It's a immaculately controlled, but surprisingly lilting, funny, and perversely charming performance, and utterly unforgettable in its bizarreness. Incredibly, relative newcomer Vicky Krieps easily matches, if not outperform him, her Alma driving the film with a disarming calm in the face of Woodcock's histrionics. Her face a perennial mask of sphinx-like half-smile, Krieps delivers a masterpiece of the subtlest emotions and most microcosmic epiphanies. Contorting into the most inappropriate circumstances and slyly bending them to work in her favour, Krieps' eerie, ethereal pleasantness is as haunting as it is unpredictable. Finally, Leslie Manville as Woodcock's ferociously steely sister is truly remarkable, punctuating her monolithic rigidity with the most revealing tiny twitches in eyebrow or corner of the mouth that somehow tell more than a soliloquy. She's the least showy of the three, but just as unexpected, and searingly unforgettable.

Seldom has such a cauldron of tumultuous emotions been conveyed with such irreverent gentleness and loveliness, but Phantom Thread is a gleeful masterpiece of the unexpected, traversing its formidable cultural critique, ravaging character study, and philosophical treatise on gender, power, and compatibility with deadpan teasing and disarming sweetness. Its swooning dichotomy of lush, romantic trappings and flagrantly unromantic character interplay belies the fact that it may be the most revealing and unforgettable film about romance in years. Just like the private, achingly intimate messages Woodcock sews into his designer works, Phantom Thread nestles into the back of your brain, and it's a work of genius you will be proud and moved to sport and revisit for years to come. -9.5/10
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Mother! (2017)
I can't give you anything but Love, Baby
20 January 2018
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's a clear sign of how generally reviled Darren Aronofsky's mother! was, as it's monumentally clear that nothing like it - at least with a $30 million budget made by consummately safe Hollywood players - will probably ever be attempted or allowed again. That's somewhat of a shame, as mother! is a genuine risk, and doubly so made by a mainstream Hollywood studio. A bizarre social experiment in aggressively polarizing arthouse wackiness disastrously mismarketed as Blair Witch style horror (an entire other movie could be made about the inevitable Hunger Games diehards walking out, bug-eyed and traumatized), mother! is a ferocious howl into the wind of a film. It's a surrealist Biblical allegory by way of gruelling, abjective Von Trier/Jodorowski-esq social satire, with scathing commentary on ideological gender disparity, the environment, mass media, the artistic process, and the breaking point of societal social norms, punctuated with some of the most harrowing imagery committed to cinema in years. It's a rough, beguiling, frequently frustrating, and utterly uncompromising fever dream of a film, and an intentionally difficult watch. In short: not exactly an airy, carefree Friday night popcorn romp. Still, Aronofsky's feverish vomit of ideas and themes are (overall) worth sifting through and grappling with, if only for the delirious pub night conversation to follow.

In terms of what the film is actually about... that's a matter of interpretation. Allegories span the Book of Genesis to the experience of childbirth to the sheer angst of waiting for overstaying party guests to leave so you can finally go to bed, though Aronofsky teasingly suggesting the film play as a double-bill with his 2014 Noah is a bit of a hat-tip. The thematic common denominator, in short, seems to be that the world is a fundamentally sh*tty place - and a fundamentally sh*tty place to be a woman specifically. The pathetic fallacy sinks it home with appropriate ickiness, with blood oozing from floorboards and squirting from exploding lightbulbs, as the walls crinkle and burn, exposing a throbbing internal heart, in feverish episodes which could be anything from mini-seizures to foreshadowing. Aronofsky accentuates the isolation with a disquieting lack of music and sickeningly claustrophobic cinematography (you can count the number of shots not primarily filled by Jennifer Lawrence's face or body on one hand), making the Grand Guignol grotesquery and proliferation of bodily fluids of all kinds all the more in-your-face.

Still, in the face of the histrionics to come, it's the film's first act that crawls under the skin arguably more memorably. A black comedy of manners, Aronofsky allows his pair of perturbingly oblivious uninvited house guests (Ed Harris - goofily cheery with just a glint of sinister unpredictability, and the utterly terrifying, scene-stealing Michelle Pfeiffer, like the Angel of Death circa Sex in the City) to push the boundaries of social acceptability like a nightmarish version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. It's an appropriately unnerving calm(ish) before the storm, and subtly twisted enough to squeeze out barks of uncomfortable laughter amidst the frowns and cringes. For the love of God, get off the sink.

One takeaway, which has most viewers particularly up in arms, reads the film as a life-imitates-art parable of artistic muses and the creative process, and an uneasy romance between a demure young muse and a tormented Creator twice her age (hmm... that sounds familiar). Reducing the film as such doesn't quite do it justice, but the cynical eye-rolling at its problematically antiquated gender roles is very fair, just as the antiquated arthouse trope of women grotesquely, violently suffering to underscore a thematic point is done to grisly, unearned excess here. Naturally, it all escalates to a hysterical boiling point, where Aronofsky doesn't just jump the shark so much as pole-vault the seven seas here, with a batsh*t climax seemingly geared to offend as many mainstream sensibilities as possible, and prompting even the most jaded viewers' jaws to plummet like a cartoon pantomime of Jim Carrey in The Mask.

Nonetheless, in a movie rife with chaotic imbalances, Jennifer Lawrence's formidably commanding performance provides a gravitational anchor throughout. Functionally a timid, 1950s housewife plopped into the middle of The Revenant, Lawrence is in almost every shot of the film, and the sheer mountainous deluges of feelings that burst out of her as she is raked over proverbial and literal broken glass, as well as every other imaginable tribulation, is exhaustingly worthwhile. Javier Bardem is similarly sickeningly magnetic, an enigmatic mix of charismatic and charming as much as he is sterile and sinister. And, as the conflict elevates to increasingly kitchen sink levels of insanity, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie each pop up when least expected, generating performances as rawly affecting, only to disappear with as little fanfare.

Is there any value or remotion in mother!? Well, brushing aside all pontificating on how subjective an experience cinema is, it's safe to say that Aronofsky's film isn't meant to be 'liked' so much as seep in like a vicious hangover, its aftertaste like the sweaty, throbbing clarity that comes after a bout of violently throwing up. It's loud, abrasive, and clumsy, and its ideas are calamitously assembled at best (even Aronofsky, in the midst of animatedly unpacking his motivation, eventually sheepishly confessed "It's probably best not to overthink it"). But as a raw cauldron of feeling and primordial angst, mother! takes bold, unsolicited chances, and, as Hollywood releases are increasingly taken to task for being placid and safe, it's too much of a worthwhile experimentation of sweat, fire and bile not to champion, problematic, confusing, and displeasurable as it may frequently be. Suffice to say - whether you find mother! fascinating or traumatizing, it is one of the few movies you will genuinely never forget.

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Jitterbug Genius
14 January 2018
The year was 1938. Audiences, still reeling from the sucker punch of a not-quite shaken Great Depression and the spectre of looming World War, took to the moving picture houses, presumably for a peaceful diversion, a relaxing reprieve from the exhausting whirlwind that was their lives. Then came Howard Hawks and Bringing Up Baby - a film about as relaxing as taking a joy ride on the outside of a fighter jet (and scarcely quieter, albeit much more joyful). So relentlessly madcap that Hawks inadvertently coined a genre in an attempt to make sense of the antics of his cast of characters ("screwball," natch), Baby bombed at a box office - presumably due to a medical alert cautioning impending loss of consciousness from laughing too hard and incessantly. Revisited 80+ years after its initial release, the oft-imitated Baby remains the undisputed champion of the rollercoaster romp, swapping out balance, breathing, and very nearly common sense in exchange for a peerless barrage of overcaffienated hilarity. And, to quote the panting, sweating, bemused Cary Grant, in between cross-dressing and being doused in chicken feathers: "I've never had a better time!"

Hawks himself, retroactively denounced his film for being too relentlessly zany, and lacking even a single straight (wo)man to ground the insanity (with the pointed exception of Virginia Walker's staid, uninteresting and unromantic romantic interest). And, while it's true that 90 minutes of Hawks' marathon pacing and machine gun banter can start to feel wearying, excessively bemoaning having too much of a good time is more ridiculous than any of the treasure trove of antics Hawks parades through the film. And ridiculousness aplenty awaits. Whisking by on a typhoon of repetitious wordplay, double-entendres, slapstick, visual gags, half a zoo's worth of menagerie, and various states of Hays Code-baiting undress, Hawks hits Shakespearean levels of dignified bawdiness (think Much Ado About Nothing performed on a formula one track), then honks the Bard on the nose while passing him on the comedic freeway. It's rare and wonderful to see a comedy so singularly and purely committed to raising laughs at all costs, utterly eschewing pretences of anything beyond unbridled entertainment.

For Hawks, pacing is not so much a concept as a challenge. But, telling a story so willfully superfluous at such breakneck speed replete with the elegance of immaculate story structure and an incandescently clever script, makes watching the film akin to whizzing down a waterslide sipping a perfectly prepared cup of tea. Here, dialogue is not so much exchange as physical assault, as if the characters are attempting to push each other out of the frame with their sheer frantic barrage of words. Gone is the conventional class critique of the decade's convention: nothing and no one is safe from Hawks' voracious satire, as the rich, poor, men, women, scholarly, and illiterate are all socialistically denounced and revered as equally adorable nitwits, valuable only insofar as their capacity to be either driving or the butt of a joke. Hawks' irreverence feels consistently authentic and earned, however, even if it does mean the film's structural sophistication isn't echoed in depth in content or characterization. But who has time for those pesky things, anyway? Or breathing, for that matter?

Although the entirety of the cast shine in their respective moments in the spotlight, the film is indisputably anchored on an trifecta: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and a placidly mischievous leopard doing its utmost to undermine any fleeting attempts at normalcy. Grant is simply outstanding - nebbish but nimble, he runs the gamut of incredulity to insanity with boisterous ease, raising as many laughs from his flustered silences as his bombastic bursts of harried abandon. Hepburn is less performance than force of nature. A Tasmanian devil of whimsical chaos and incessant talking, Hepburn would toe the line of being infuriatingly nattering were her inherent charisma and charm not so radiant that her antics are not only gut-bustingly funny, but surprisingly sympathetic and sweet.

And the leopard? Top notch as well - and probably the most remarkably well-behaved one of the lot, at that.

A seminal seminar in 'everything but the kitchen sink' comedy keeping its dignity, Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its furious momentum and riotous wackiness, even if its lack of moments of zen make it a touch hard to know its protagonists beyond their pratfalls. For once, 'a laugh a minute' is more than a figure of speech - even if taking it literally would suggest that only a fraction of the gags in that given time span land have landed. Exhausting, exhilarating, and more coherent than any film this zany has any right to be, Hawks' classic is a triple shot of espresso, but from the most gourmet of cinematic roasts, and worth bringing up anew for years to come. In short: you can't give it anything but love, baby.

Now, I'll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!

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Boy (I) (2010)
Good as
9 January 2018
According to Hollywood, childhood is either a magical, shiny age of oblivious joy and discovery, or full of terrible people and generally sh*t. Thankfully, there's Boy, the brainchild of weirdo genius Taika Waititi, here to wallop us with a knuckle sandwich of truth, then share a melting popsicle with us, staring off at a hazy sunset through a black eye. It's a film ruled by a tyrannical bullsh*t radar, seething with raw emotion but flayed of any obnoxious coddling moralizing or contrivance. It knows that the happiest memories are often witnessed through tears, and that the most profound epiphanies usually come waist-deep in mud and manure... then turn out to be 100% wrong.

It knows that your idols matter, truly matter, even as you watch them disintegrate before your eyes. It's a film that knows that lying can sometimes be okay when the truth sucks too much. It's a film that knows that childhood means riding a dolphin brandishing a machine gun as much as it means having heart-to-hearts with your goat. It's a film with absolutely nothing to prove about people with altogether too much to prove.

It's a film that knows that buried treasure really is buried treasure, even if it's something altogether scummier. It's a film that understands exactly how beautiful and lonely New Zealand is. It's a film that knows that the Incredible Hulk is a hero, but that there's a reason people outgrow their childhood heroes. It's a film that knows that a beatdown is really a dance-off. It's a film that understands colour and music in a way that other films only dream they could.

It's a film that knows that children can withstand anything, and I mean anything, but that they shouldn't have to. It's a film that understands just how hard it is to miss someone, especially when they're right in front of you. It's a film that knows that not everyone is going to be all right, but some people will be, and that's all right.

It's a film that knows that sometimes you cast that weird kid from the background as your lead, because you just have a good feeling about him, and he turns out to act the pants off all the professionals because he just gets it. It's a film that knows that sometimes you cast the director as the kid's dad, because he's just too adorable and f*cked up not to.

It's a film that gets that sometimes you need to switch to cartoons to show the real truth, because live action film is too old-fashioned to believe in telekinesis.

And if you told Boy that it just might be one of the most wildly wonderful films of the past who-knows-how-long, it would probably sucker-punch you, then moonwalk away, flipping you off. But then it would crack a secret, fiercely proud smile when it was sure you weren't looking anymore. Promise you'll never tell.


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Patti Cake$ (2017)
You can't stop the beat$
31 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
'Hairspray for rappers.' '(Size 1)8 Mile.'

It'd be easy to write Patti Cake$ off from the onset as derivative and clichéd, but doing so would be the cinematic equivalent of kicking a mangy, adopted puppy who has yet to show you how damn good it is at doing tricks. Here, defying all odds, is an underdog tale of not judging a book by its cover turning into an uncanny exemplar of life imitating art, from the film's accolades as a crowd-pleasing Sundance darling, to the unexpectedly enjoyable and resonant final product. Cheerfully bubbling with gusto and sincerity, Patti Cake$, 2017's most unexpected pleasant surprise, is decided more fun and worthwhile than the sum of its parts, oft-trod as its parts may be.

The plot, inevitably, is a harmlessly rote affair, complete with ragtag posse, debilitating family drama, and that oh-so-convenient battle of the bands for a record deal (do those even exist outside of the movies?) as the carrot dangled as Patti's potential escape from 'dirty Jersey.' Still, director Geremy Jasper attacks it all with such ferocious earnestness and urgency that it's easy to walk down Patti's path of desperation and redemption with minimal eye-rolling. The on-location shooting makes for a resonantly despondent setting, dredging up every last inch of grime, crime, and lack of opportunities, as Patti's poverty and paralysis ebb out from the cigarette butt-riddled concrete and her cheap, cracked sneakers. Similarly, Jasper carefully paces his film so Patti's breakout rap prowess isn't too saccharine and convenient, but plagued with genuine doubt and inertia, making the catharsis of each musical win all the more earned.

Jasper is also carefully to neatly invert expectations to keep his film fresh amidst its framework. Right when Patti's Nana (an amusingly salty Cathy Moriarty) is on the cusp of empowering and balancing her granddaughter's perspective, she drops off with inglorious nonchalance, and 'Basterd' (hilariously opaque, scene-stealing Mamoudou Athie), Patti's industrial thrash metal collaborator, is a young, solemn African American man instead of the stereotypical basement-dwelling white nerd, who additionally turns out to be a) a privileged rich kid acting out, and b) a viable love interest. Still, appropriately, Patti Cake$ truly comes alive and is elevated by its killer soundtrack, chock-full of tenaciously energetic, ferociously catchy, and lyrically nimble rap tunes (anyone who can make a song about a sandwich acronym turn into so bombastic a throwdown beat is all right in my books). The film's finale, which neatly weaves all conflicting plot threads together into an emotionally supercharged duet between Patti and her mother, is as flooring and affecting as any major blockbuster emotional beat of the year.

Newcomer Danielle Macdonald truly shines as Patti. Apart from her surprisingly fluid rapping, Macdonald delivers a performance so loudly belligerent you can too easily see her drifting into the same white trash anonymity as the rest of her family, but gleaming with so much mischievous playfulness and deepest emotional honest that you yearn for her to hit the heights of her rap dreams. Supporting her, Bridget Everett is exceptionally brash, abrasive, and achingly sympathetic as Patti's mother - a former hair metal singer turned into tragic, dissolute cautionary tale. Finally, Siddarth Dhananjay gives an exceptional breakout performance. Practically glowing with an unquenchable twinkling, bouncing jubilance, Dhananjay brings the film most of its biggest laughs and more poignant inspirational beats, proving himself a vibrant talent considerably worth keeping an eye on.

So insistently big-hearted that it worms - or perhaps bludgeons -its way into the heart, Patti Cake$ is a perfect example of how to ride out cliché with disarming charm. Defying expectation, the film provides the year not only one of its most addictive soundtracks, but infectiously enjoyable crowd-pleasing interludes. It's silly, convenient, and doesn't reinvent the wheel, but Patti Cake$ is miles away from the message of its recurring hair metal screech - Tuff (to) Love.

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