2 ½ (out of 4)
Adam McKay is fresh off The Big Short, which happily sat amongst the most enjoyable of 2015's Oscar pool. His new film is equal in vigor, emotion and righteous aim, but Vice is half the film in potency. If not for McKay’s innate capacity to render the boring absorbing, as well as Christian Bale’s unassumingly perfect turn as Dick Cheney (a performance in debt to some of the best make-up work in years), Vice would feel a pointless affair, nothing more than a passing biopic. But McKay is more than aware of his audience, subject matter and the slippery slope when it comes to true stories.
Vice is, if nothing else, overwhelmingly entertaining. McKay’s script is packed with insight and cleverly recreated interplay between mythic modern political figures. Still, his yearning to relate complex social issues through a mainstream comedy lens just doesn’t coalesce as sharply as when he related the financial confusion of the 2008 housing market crash in The Big Short. In characterization – as this is more conventional Oscar bait – things are played very dramatically and Bale carries McKay’s interpretation of Cheney wherever need be.
But the cutaways, cute gags and grandstanding feel like a distraction, fueled nobly by outrage but executed with the narrow objectivity of a Michael Moore movie. Some of the gimmicks in McKay’s arsenal really work – Bale and Amy Adams exchanging Shakespearean dialogue before bedtime is a surreal moment – but his desire to make people laugh at true life absurdity seems entirely at odds with his passion to inform the masses on pressing, relevant truths.
3 (out of 4)
First off let's not pretend superhero movies are more than vaguely artistic. For god's sake they've been Hollywood's fat calf for nearly two decades. The fruits of the genre are conceived for a general audience even if they are often subliminally designed for children and overweight forty-year-olds. The only thing left to explore in superheroism after all the formulas and subversions have been exhausted is a few eccentric characters (why I've always been fond of those misfits called X-Men), unexplored settings and formal experimentation. Aquaman has everything it needs plus its own variety of deliriously campy pleasures.
I have to come out of the gate in defense because saying you care for a DC movie that's not Wonder Woman leads your audience to believe you are a contrarian. Aquaman is one of the best, if not the best, the DCEU has yet to offer. As the first film since Justice League made no impact on the world of superheroes one year ago, Aquaman is a spiritual rebirth for DC and a new page in Warner Brothers capeshit saga. It's a refreshing tonic rinsing out everything so dull and putrid about earlier entries.
Aquaman's story is anything but complicated yet beneath the surface level there are fathoms of context to unravel. It’s no secret the DCEU has floundered one release after another – Man of Steel was promising before quickly becoming excruciating and same goes for BvS, credit to Snyder’s ambitions misguided as they may have been. Suicide Squad and Justice League are so utterly flavorless they can barely be classified as films considering the very public studio meddling. Wonder Woman, imperfect as it is, became the obvious exception to the rule two summers past.
Aquaman doesn’t reinvent the wheel – there are no challenging narrative choices like Nolan’s Bat-trilogy or in Infinity War earlier this year. James Wan – the man behind Insidious, The Conjuring and the most acclaimed of the Fast & Furious series (number 7 to be exact) – has the touch of a pop craftsman and you can register his audacious approach to Aquaman from head to fin. Before the turn of the century there was never any hope a movie like this could’ve been even remotely possible conceptually – Wan's blockbuster works with a boilerplate origin story that would have felt familiar 20 years ago and in spite of this Aquaman overwhelmingly prevails as pure spectacle.
What can I say? The film is good clean fun – it applies epic scope to conventional adventure plotting and archetypal characters including the macho reluctant hero and the capable and incredibly sexualized love interest. It all feels kind of classic in its own fantastic if farcical fashion, though it's easy to see the clichés too. For me Wan's unmistakable vision is so kinetically gratifying even the clunkiest lines are forgivable – altogether he keeps the mood just serious enough to care about and just goofy enough to enjoy intensely. Aquaman strikes a deft balance of copious entertainment in spite of every perceived preceding limitation right down to the drumming octopus. This kind of preposterous extravaganza comes only so often. There's a satisfaction in seeing something so sensational be taken at face value, especially when the visual realization has been rigorously storyboarded.
The humor is there but unlike Marvel movies Aquaman doesn't break from established drama to wink at the audience about the whole affair, tempting as that might have been. With loads of CG scenery to chew, the fairly talented and inarguably well cast performers hold our attention. Jason Mamoa's interpretation of an undersea outlaw and Amber Heard's entirely appropriate merwoman princess role play to their respectively moderate strengths. Patrick Wilson and Willem Dafoe are far above this material but that doesn’t stop them from giving their all to such blatant schlock. The subaquatic monologuing and mythology is its own reward if you have an open mind. Exposition isn’t this film's strong suit but the Atlantian mythos is somehow much more interesting than that of Wakanda, Themyscira or Asgard.
What Aquaman really does is revert the superhero recipe back to the dumb escapist fare it was before The Dark Knight wrongly encouraged people to expect sophistication from their capeflicks. The original two Spider-Man films are among the best the genre has ever spawned but they are absurd to a tee whilst achieving the gusto of a comic book. All in all I can't explain such vivid revelry in viewing Aquaman other than it has all the kooky creativity of an old-fashioned cult classic burnished with expensive contemporary cosmetics.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is able to realize multiple objectives concurrently with The Favourite. He composes a flagrant, caustically comic farce of the same regal period piece dramas usually magnetizing Academy Awards attention while simultaneously conveying his own brutally realistic and reasonably tragic window to the past by stringently obeying historical accuracy.
Lanthimos is among the most innovative contemporary filmmakers. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, he emulates Stanley Kubrick’s approaches to direction while circumnavigating outright imitation. The genre whoredom, emotional opaqueness, impeccably detailed sets and costumes – not to mention the splendid camera strokes of superimpositions, symmetrical framing, tracking movements – all direct back to Kubrick's fundamental influence. But Lanthimos' own assortment of fastidious and uncompromising auteurist tendencies allow him to color in his own mysteriously idiosyncratic characteristics.
After the satirical dystopian romantic comedy The Lobster and the near-horror comedy framing of his mythologically-inspired supernatural thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the director’s third English feature continues to advance his tendencies toward surrealism and absurdism in relation to the most confused, disgusting and uncanny aspects of human nature. The tonal acrobatics Lanthimos is able to pull off in The Favourite are akin to the counterintuitive strangeness of The Lobster and his vexing, jet black sense of humor in Dogtooth. In addition to the historical posturing Lanthimos draws upon screwball elements, classic comedy of manners, seals them in subtle irony and psychological torment and wraps them in a dazzlingly fish-eyed bundle.
By never losing the pinch of woe within its gonzo hilarity, the gratifying oneups(wo)manship between the delicious lead characters lend The Favourite much of its cinematic grandeur. Lanthimos' efforts would be moot if not for evenly exquisite actors: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Nicholas Hoult are perfectly selected for their parts and do not hesitate to live up to them.
The fact that Lanthimos can both destroy and improve the face of the film's genre is a testament to his own indisputable talents and deliberately imposing vision. The cinematography, period flourishes, performances, scripting and editing are all of sublime repose. The deplorable crooning, coying and craning for attention is as disgusting as all the realistic vomit – palpable, deliberate disgust stains the ornate surface of The Favourite. This is baroque filmmaking at its finest as Lanthimos imparts tantalizingly modern cinematic formality.
3 ½ (out of 4)
No solitary superhero, not even Batman, has such a glut in film media. I wasn't anticipating Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for this reason alone until I found out Phil Lord, half of the duo behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the Jump Street films, was a screenwriter.
It was enough to get me to pay for a Sony animated movie – after Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was over the idea of Spider-Men that weren’t Tobey Maguire and wasn’t too keen on animated capeshit not directed by Brad Bird. Needless to say Into the Spider-Verse obliterated my mild expectations and is unexpectedly exemplary of the genre’s potentialities. It's a triumph of stellar visual conception, acutely funny scripting, inspired voice work, emotionally staked plotting and perhaps the weirdest superhero ensemble the silver screen has seen.
Using sci-fi gobbledygook to bridge realities and juxtapose great characters and voices, the Spider-Verse's cup runneth over in novelty and fun. John Mulaney as Peter Porker, Nicolas Cage as Noir Spider-Man, Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, Jake Johnson as an aged Peter, Kimiko Penn as Peni Parker and of course Shameik Moore as protagonist Miles Morales all fit and bring their bizarre characters to a strangely smooth place of relatability.
This Spider-Man is perpetually entertaining and appropriately invested in both pathos and danger. But a clever script and memorable characters are complimented with pristine visual motion, the actual look and feel of a comic book. The animation grain is constructed with a near-kaleidoscopic design – the speckled film surface perfectly blends the kinetics of stop-motion movement with the texture of polished 3D animation. Even the end credits are wondrous to behold – the entire visual design translates the wonder of a drawing coming to life, coalescing with seamless fluidity.
This is a stuffed Spider-Verse with many in-jokes for geeks and enough unregulated imagination to span an entire phase of the MCU. The bar has been raised for July's Spider-Man: Far from Home when it debuts with both Endgame and Captain Marvel still in multiplexes. That movie will be three times as expensive as Into the Spider-Verse but Sony's smartest play in years will have been easily the best thing to originate from Stan Lee’s most popular single creation since Spider-Man 2 changed the game 15 years ago.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Alfonso Cuarón has embraced the unencumbered creative freedom afforded him since he transformed the Harry Potter series from a line of kid flicks to the benchmark for mainstream fantasy in a post-LOTR world. His follow-up, 2006's Children of Men, is one the most mesmerizingly photographed movies of the 21st century and in company with the best films of our time too. He then took seven years to churn out Gravity – in every visual respect the work of a technical prodigy but worth significantly less in writing and performance.
Still, Cuarón has broken many barriers and was bound to return his privilege and prowess to the most antithetically personal playing field. The Mexican filmmaker hasn’t fashioned a film in his own language or country since the emphatically erotic Y tu Mama También so it was only a matter of time before a most welcome readjustment to a more practical artistic framework. With Roma Cuarón produces a poignantly quotidian portrait working both as a sincere slice of his own subjectivity and as a harrowing new installation in the director’s diverse and dominating filmography.
Far from exploding satellites, the restrictively domestic struggles of a modest housekeeper are showcased with uncommon clarity as Cuarón refurbishes his love of long-take experimentation. The 3D wizardry and handheld authenticity are substituted for swiveling pans informally illustrating action through up to 360 degrees of investigated space. The same simple camera motions capture tedious chores as bluntly as jolting violence and severe revelation. The extended single-shots are all justified in measured bouts of beauty. If you think the pivotal birth scene in Children of Men was intense, it has nothing on the analogous delivery sequence in Roma – Like Children, some of Roma's most traumatic moments are nonetheless awe-inspiring.
Cuarón comfortably elevates the definition of a Netflix original film with a particularly great film reputable enough to also earn a fairly wide theatrical release, setting a paramount precedent. The mode of viewing notwithstanding, Roma is a beautiful film in thought and sensation, sweepingly portrayed in monochromatic glory and humbly humanized by newcomer Talitza Aparicio.
2 (out of 4)
YA novel adaptations had their time in the sun but at this point trying to cash in on the faded fad is embarrassing. The Hunger Games briefly took residence in the void left by Harry Potter but since both disappointing Part's of the Mockingjay have long flown, the flashes in the pan since (your Divergent's and your Maze Runner's) haven't lasted long. From afar, Mortal Engines posited itself to revivify a dying trend of teen fantasies but its lack of pulse on arrival is more like the final nail in the coffin.
Alas, even with the screenwriting trio for The Lord of the Rings, Mortal Engines spins familiar tales as robotically as those enormous mechanized wheels. As always with the latest universe to develop, the hook (cities on the go, yippee) and the introduction to a newish world gets you involved and thinking, but the adventure in wait requires vested interest in stock characters. Lamentably, for all its intriguing trappings and borderline blockbuster commercial setup, audiences have barely taken the effort to shrug – it's the flop of 2018 and Universal is expected to lose as much money as they gambled.
The script by Peter Jackson – as well as his wife Fran Walsh and collaborator Phillipa Boyens – is far too truncated and whittled down to bare essentials to leave room for character development and an organic progression of stakes. Our key heroes and villains are so damn one-dimensional and every side character contributes little beyond explanatory exposition. It's no great sign that director and Jackson's right hand man Christian Rivers has no real filmmaking voice overpowering the belabored aesthetics and visual effects, neat as they often are. Obviously there’s not a minimum nine hours and three movies to dwell upon a gaggle of personalities as with this team's last two trilogies, but Mortal Engines is exclusively world-building and bustling plot and suffers enormously as such.
But 100 million dollars was never spent so efficiently. On every visual front, from set construction to costume design to CG 'splosions, Mortal Engines at least has the veneer of epic grandiosity. The production design is full of genuine craft but the script feels entirely rushed, like if a five-hour movie had every other page ripped from its screenplay. There are more than enough details of the dystopian cosplay wonderland to continually pique one's curiosity but the film plateaus halfway through and settles for predictable payoffs and dimensionless conclusions after the tour is over.
The film’s first act has something going but by the exhausting third act it can’t end sooner. Mortal Engines fundamentally fails to escape a sense of mediocrity that slowly envelops the film before taking it over completely by the routine special effects smackdown. Clearly the 2001 novel has imagination to spare in terms of contemporary youth fiction. The futuristic fantasy steampunk inspired Jackson and, especially just from the first and best scene, you can see the cinematic experience he dreamt of imparting. Too bad this film's moment for greatness and recognition is long past.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
so many briefings