Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Salesman Review (2017)

When sitting down to watch an Asghar Farhadi film (“A Separation,” “The Past”) you never know exactly what you’re going to get, what path you’re going to go down. “The Salesman” begins as a mundane domestic drama/slice of life portrait revolving around married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) as they and others put on production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play “Death of a Salesman.” Emad and Rana are looking for a new place to live, so at the advice of a friend they move into a recently vacated apartment. In fact it’s been vacated so recently that the stuff from the previous tenant (furniture, personal belongings) is still there, boarded up in a room.

From there, an intriguing and unexpected mystery slowly begins to emerge: who is this previous tenant and why did she leave her stuff? Right as Emad and Rana are beginning to collect information about this mystery person “The Salesman” pivots into crime/thriller territory. Rana is assaulted one evening, and that’s as specific as I’m going to get on that front, so as not to spoil it. Rana is left with a head injury and even greater psychological damage. She doesn’t want to be anywhere alone, she feels like a stranger in her own home and she’s even unable to work on the play. The incident also takes its toll on Emad; he wants to be supportive of his wife but he also wants to be proactive about the situation. When Rana chooses not to go to the authorities Emad is left feeling frustrated and useless.

Farhadi is a master at crafting naturalistic film suspense. There’s no dramatic music, flashy editing, or showey cinematography. In other words, he’s not trying really hard to make you feel tense. Instead, the forty five year old Iranian filmmaker (who just recently won his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) makes it look easy-- through deliberate yet steady pacing, a cleverly understated script that keeps the movie’s focus on its central couple and natural acting. Hosseini and Alidoosti give such restrained and nuanced performances, never letting the material or their roles drift into melodramatic territory. Overall, “The Salesman” is measured, quietly absorbing stuff. Even when the plot takes a wild turn or two Farhadi never allows the film to collapse into outrageousness and implausibility. Fed up with this incident and the toll has it has taken on his relationship, Emad decides to take matters into his own hands and “The Salesman” turns into a revenge drama. Though it’s not the revenge drama you expect.

Revenge is one of those romanticized concepts that can only be truly satisfying in fiction. On the silver screen, revenge being carried out can be oh so sweet--a vigilante taking the law into his or her own hands to punish a despicable person. I admit that I’m a sucker for a good revenge flick. But in real life, revenge usually isn’t that sweet. In most cases all it brings is more anger and heartache. In keeping with its naturalistic style, “The Salesman” opts for this more realistic outlook on revenge and is better for it. Emad becomes consumed with anger and sadness, causing him to be reckless and uncharacteristically cruel. Vengeance isn’t so satisfying after all; in fact it can actually make things significantly worse for you. Ultimately, “The Salesman” is more about the effects Emad’s pursuit of vengeance has on his already vulnerable relationship with Rana than the act of vengeance itself, making it one of the freshest movies about revenge in years.  


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Logan Review (2017)

Yes, James Mangold’s “Logan” is another “X-Men” film wherein mutants are pursued/hunted down by some ominous government or corporate entity. Yes, “Logan” is another “X-Men” film in which the grumpy and lonely Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) plays the reluctant hero and is forced to care about others. What’s fresh here (in the context of the superhero genre, particularly the Marvel films) is the tone, which is dark and vicious with an undercurrent of humor and fun, gleefully embracing the pulpier aspects of its narrative and genre. “Logan” hits hard while still being a fast paced, exciting, and accessible superhero picture.

Overall, Mangold’s film is a morose, intimate character-driven drama mixed with a stripped down old school action flick. Traces of the “Mad Max” and “Terminator” franchises can be detected (among others) and the film gives off a noticeable Western vibe in its visual and thematic elements--echoing such films as “Shane” and “Unforgiven.”

“Logan” is firmly grounded in reality; actions have consequences and people die. Not just evil henchmen but civilians--families, children. It’s the first “X-Men” movie to be rated R and it certainly takes advantage of that freedom. There are a number of vicious, bloody action sequences; within the first three minutes, as Logan fends off a group of carjackers, limbs are cut off and guts are slit open. “Logan” is the first superhero movie I’ve seen in a while where I’ve cringed during the action scenes. There’s visible and visceral pain being inflicted on screen.

While an R rating doesn’t guarantee a film will be good I think in the case of this character and this particular chapter in his life, the hard R is necessary. Wolverine may be the most tormented superhero outside of Batman. He’s lived for decades and has seen decades of pain and suffering. Time has molded him into a jaded loner—reluctant to help others because he’s afraid he’ll let them down, as he has before. In “Logan” we see Logan at his most angst-ridden and depressed. He basically wants to kill himself, or let himself be killed. He’s getting older, his wounds aren’t healing or they’re healing very slowly. He drinks at least a gallon of hard alcohol a day but that doesn’t appear to be numbing any pain.

However, as hard as he tries, he can’t get away from helping others. A young mutant named Laura, (Dafne Keen) being hunted by a shadowy corporation crosses his path. So, along with his old friend Charles Xavier aka Professor X, (Patrick Stewart) Logan attempts to bring Laura to safety. Mangold’s film provides a familiar but refreshing take on the Logan character. He’s as snarky and grouchy as he always is but this time there’s an additional dimension of vulnerability and mortality. This is a fading, more world-weary Logan who, when getting shot, isn’t so quick to get back up. Not just because he’s physically unable but also because he doesn’t want to. 

I also liked this version of Professor X, which, like Logan is familiar but different. Charles is getting older himself—deteriorating both physically and mentally. When we first see him (holed up in an old, rusty tank) babbling about whatever he resembles an old man in a nursing home with dementia. It’s a vulnerable side of the character we haven’t seen before. The theme of impending mortality resonates strongly throughout the picture.

And yet, for all this moroseness, Mangold doesn’t overdo it. He knows to balance it out with kinetic action sequences and visceral kills, along with moments of black comedy and comedic banter between Logan, Laura and Charles. This is after all still a movie about a muscular dude with metal claws in his hands, (who originated from a comic book) meaning it doesn’t have to be all brooding and depression. Near the end of the film there’s a shot of Logan charging after the bad guys, his claws out, arms facing forward, doing his best battle cry, an image that elicited a laugh from myself and the other critics at my screening. It’s a giddy, triumphant moment that embraces the inherent silliness found in all superhero movies, while also providing a brief and endearing glimpse at the Wolverine that once was. (The movie is full of these giddy moments).

Finally, “Logan” pretty much avoids all the annoying narrative tropes and clichés found in recent superhero movies. There’s no object McGuffin (no Infinity Gauntlet or Power Crystal to retrieve) or power-hungry villain who wants to destroy the world. The stakes are high without the whole world being in Jeopardy. The film’s road trip structure takes us out of the big city environment, instead being set in the wide-open plains of the Midwest and deserts of the southwest, (further giving the film a Western feel) meaning there’s no big city destruction. The protagonists don’t have to close a stupid interdimensional portal to save the day and there’s no cross promotion—which is by far the most annoying thing about superhero movies these days. It makes a lot potentially good films feel overstuffed and convoluted (“The Avengers: Age of Ultron”). “Logan” isn’t trying to set up future “X-Men” movies, meaning it stays focused on the narrative and characters at hand.

I have minor reservations concerning “Logan,” most notably involving an additional and superfluous antagonist who shows up part way through. But the more I think about Mangold’s picture the more I like it, which is rare for me. Even the recent superhero movies that I’ve liked somewhat (“The Avengers”) I don’t really have a desire to revisit them. I think “Logan” will have staying power; it’s dark and nuanced, appropriately bloody, and also fun (in the way that 80’s and 90’s hyper violent action movies were). It’s the best superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Get Out Review (2017)

Writer/director Jordan Peele’s clever and ambitious “Get Out, “ one of the only horror films to directly address race and racial relations, deals with a very specific kind of racism. I’m not talking about overt racism perpetrated by White Nationalists or Neo Nazis, or even apathetically tinged racism (someone seeing an article about the anniversary of the Selma march and saying “who cares?”) but a kind of indirect racism born out of awkwardness and naiveté. Usually, the perpetrators are trying so hard not to come off racist or offensive that they end up saying indirectly racist/patronizing things to whomever they’re interacting with, alienating that person, making them into “the other.”

This kind of racism is more fascinating than the overt, angry kind because the people who do it (often times well meaning, privileged white people who fall on the liberal spectrum of politics, but not all of course) don’t consider themselves to be racist. They might even become defensive, saying things like: “I have a black friend!” or “I love black culture!” Therefore, they don’t fully know what they’re doing.

Out of this complex, understated form of racism emerges “Get Out,” a feverish genre piece that can be described as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by way of “The Stepford Wives,” and even that description doesn’t adequately cover all the delectably absurd and disturbing turns Peele’s script takes.

We see this indirect racism immediately in the interactions between protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) affluent parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford, with snow-white hair and a beard, wearing big black glasses). Chris and Allison are visiting Dean and Missy for the weekend, staying at their massive estate in the midst of a secluded suburb, populated by other affluent white people.

 There’s tension in the air. Dean is dorky and awkward, trying to make polite conversation with Chris, but the things he says carry a racial undercurrent—he uses the phrase “my man” constantly when addressing him, and at one point brings up the fact that his maid and house keeper are black (and how “weird” is is since he and his wife are white. Yeah…dude, just stop talking) even though Chris never brings it up. He makes things even more awkward when he tries to emphasize that he’s not racist saying, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Chris takes these comments in stride, staying calm and collected. But things get weirder as the weekend goes on and Chris finds himself increasingly alienated from the family.  

In the traditional sense “Get Out” isn’t very scary. It’s suspenseful and creepy at times but it’s never terrifying or dread inducing the way a straightforward horror film like “The Shining” is, instead falling more on the side of horror-comedy.  In fact, a lot of times it plays like a parody of horror/suspense films; there are a handful of jump scares throughout that feel ironic. Thankfully, it’s a hell of a horror comedy; first time director Peele has a knack for creating tense, awkward interactions between his characters that are both amusing and quietly eerie, and delivers a handful of gnarly, over the top kills.

 Get Out” is also an inventive, thought-provoking social satire. Peele playfully critiques various clichés and stereotypes associated with African American culture and communities (the ignorant assumption that all black people know each other, for example) without being heavy-handed, and addresses the topics of slavery (a much covered subject in film) and racial superiority in the context of genetics in bizarre and unexpected ways.

The cast is great across the board. Relative newcomer Kaluuya gives a sturdy, understated performance, while Whitford is a hoot. At the beginning his Dean resembles an affluent, intellectual Michael Scott but slowly gets more sinister and poised. Meanwhile, Keener is effortlessly mysterious and evolves into the creepiest presence in the film. And then there’s LilRel Howery as Chris’s concerned best friend Rod, who pretty much steals every scene he’s in with his flawless comedic timing. It’s weird to call him “comic relief” in a movie that’s fairly comedic already but his fast-talking, semi dopey presence certainly helps to ease tension.

Admittedly, the climax does get to be a little messy. It’s still satisfying from a dramatic perspective but it can’t help but feel needlessly excessive and relentless at the same time. And there are other minor bumps and blemishes throughout the film, but it doesn’t matter in the long run because “Get Out” is a bold, entertaining, suspenseful and intelligent film. You can enjoy “Get Out” for its surface-level thrills and eccentricities but you can also look deeper--dissecting and analyzing its meaty racial subtext.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie Review (2017)

As much as I like Christopher Nolan’s gritty, noir-ish “Batman” pictures (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Dark Knight Rises”) there’s something refreshing about Chris McKay’s animated feature “The Lego Batman Movie” and its silly, freewheeling take on the Caped Crusader. In fact it might the most fun Batman movie to date.

From the very beginning, “The Lego Batman Movie” cleverly mocks the brooding grey and blue toned seriousness of the Nolan films (and all the other DC superhero movies that aimed to copy them, often times poorly. See “Batman v Superman” and you’ll know what I mean) along with the stale tropes associated with the superhero genre as well as action movies in general.

The film is packed to the gills with witty banter and pop culture references. In that regard it’s the first Batman comedy/satire. Not all of the jokes land but I found myself laughing more often than not. And sometimes the more mundane, understated gags hit harder than those the winky, snarky pop culture references. For example, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett, pitch perfect casting) walking around his giant mansion wearing a red bathrobe and his Batman mask, waiting for his lobster dinner to reheat in the microwave and then watching “Jerry Maguire” by himself in his home theater.

Considering that the premise of the movie involves a vigilante that wears a bat themed costume, and who fights antagonists like The Joker or The Riddler, it’s nice to see a movie that embraces that inherent silliness. Superhero movies don’t all have to be dour and grounded in reality. “The Lego Batman Movie” is a frenetic, fast paced, bright colored diversion that oozes with charm.

Yet, maybe the most unexpected thing about “The Lego Batman Movie” (a spin off of “The Lego Movie” from a few years ago) is the well-constructed and endearing story at its center that stresses the importance of family and companionship. Batman is portrayed as deeply egocentric, the most egocentric of any onscreen Batmans. Though he saves the city of Gotham from crime on a regular basis he’s more interested in himself and how awesome he looks (he has a “nine pack,” instead of a six pack!) However, beneath his reckless, arrogant exterior lies a deeply damaged and vulnerable man afraid of commitment and companionship.

I also got a kick out of the neglected bromance side plot between him and The Joker (Zac Galfianakis). The Joker is hurt that Batman doesn’t consider him his greatest enemy, acting like a wounded partner in a romantic relationship. Again and again, Mckay mixes absurdity with sincerity rather beautifully.

Instead of simply being a collection of gags and pop culture references poorly strung together, “The Lego Batman Movie” crafts a compelling narrative and fashions a fleshed out protagonist, making the humor more palpable.

Admittedly, the film can be a bit much. The screenplay (credited to five people) is occasionally messy as it attempts to cram as many pop culture references/gags as possible into its hour and forty-four minute run time. It can be overwhelming. On top of that, from the middle of the second act until the end, “The Lego Batman Movie” becomes more epic than it needs to be. When the film moves outside the world of Batman and DC it gets chaotic, resulting in a slightly tedious and cluttered finale involving yet another inter dimensional portal--the one stale superhero movie trope that this movie mocks but also falls victim to.

Even so, “The Lego Batman Movie” is a lot fun. I’m not sure whether it will stand the test of time like, say, “The Dark Knight” or “Batman Begins” (or even the Tim Burton Batman films) but in the moment it provides an amusing and endearing riff on the Batman mythology.