Monday, September 21, 2015

WILD TALES Is An Unforgettable Anthology


- Last year, WILD TALES was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars, but few in the US had the opportunity to see it until recently. The movie is now available to be seen on VOD and digital platforms, and it's 100% worth a watch. It's a completely crazy, mind-melting anthology film that calls to mind TV series like Black Mirror - as it looks at the extremes of human nature and morality, much in the same ways as the acclaimed show. Personally, I love this stuff - and the tales in Wild Tales are now etched in my memory in the same way as are the best episodes of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone.

WILD TALES comes from Argentinian writer/director Damián Szifrón - and the film stands as an intriguing look at Argentinian culture and tensions. Certainly, many of the film's themes are universal - but it also no doubt provides a slice of Argentinian life and a colorful look at the country and its people. 

But what Szifron does best is to act as a modern-day Rod Serling, presenting extreme stories that take their premises to dark, funny, and oftentimes jaw-dropping places. Take, for instance, the story of a wedding at which the just-married bride discovers that her new husband has been having an affair with one of her co-workers. What starts as a typical if melodramatic relationship drama escalates into one of the craziest, most insane stories I've ever seen on film - as the wedding devolves into a full-on battle royale of the highest order. Or take, for example, the story of an arrogant driver who runs into trouble on the road, when he gets into a spat with a rough customer who doesn't take kindly to getting flipped off. You think you know where the story might be headed, but Szifron pushes further - and further - until you can't help but be shocked at how far things go. The most Twilight Zone-esque of all the stories might be the opening segment, in which passengers on a plane discover they each have a startling connection to one another. It's a great little story - an EC Comics / Tales from the Crypt-esque parable that is just gleefully deranged.

WILD TALES is flat-out twisted at times - and I got the same feeling watching it as I did viewing Black Mirror. I've watched a lot of movies and TV, and I sometimes think I've seen it all. But WILD TALES goes to places I never expected and that really had my jaw agape. And it's great storytelling through and through.

There are some real standout performances throughout the film's various segments, and it would take a long while to run through them all. But I'll mention the knockout performance from Erica Rivas in the aforementioned wedding-gone-wrong story, as Rivas absolutely kills it  

To say too much about the plotlines of the various anthology segments would be to spoil a lot of the what-will-they-do-next fun of the film. So I'll simply say: give WILD TALES a look. It's one of the craziest, most memorable movies I've watched this year.

My Grade: A-



- A gritty, brutal, bleak, and very badass film - SICARIO features a couple of oh-damn performances and a searing look at the messed-up world of Mexican drug trafficking. If it wasn't already a done-deal before, post-SICARIO there can be no doubt that Emily Blunt is now, officially, the queen-bee reigning badass champion of the world. And while it was sealed and written many years back that Benicio Del Toro was in the badass hall-of-fame, SICARIO is a timely reminder that Del Toro is capable of super badassery on a level that few others have or will attain. Suffice it to say, when Del Toro says "welcome to Juarez," well, you know that stuff is about to go down. And go down it does.

SICARIO casts Blunt as Kate Macer, and FBI agent who is selected to join a government task force assembled to covertly ramp up the drug war against the Mexican cartels. In the name of plausible deniability, Kate enters a world filled with smoke, mirrors, and mysterious characters. One such enigma is Del Toro's Alejandro - a deep-cover operative with a past, a guy whose casual, detached manner just barely masks a rage that burns within. Whereas Kate is a by-the-book type who lived and died by the FBI, Alejandro represents the shady element that the covert border-wars embrace. Kate's increasing disillusionment with the task force's take-no-prisoners tactics run in parallel with her increasing mistrust of Alejandro and his agenda.

Director Denis Villeneuve crafted a moody, atmospheric, and very grim film with his last movie, Prisoners - but Sicario really feels like a step up. The action is gripping and uncompromising, and he helps to craft a story with a number of jaw-dropping twists and turns. What I like about Sicario is how the film doles out character beats around Kate in a way that fleshes her out without ever getting too soapy. But what we do see is how the trauma and stress of her FBI job can follow Kate home - in more ways than one. As Kate journeys further into the heart of darkness, she experiences a crisis of faith in which the people and institutions she trusts seem to each, in turn, betray her. Similarly, we slowly learn more about Alejandro, and go along for the ride as his true mission reveals itself to us in bloody and violent fashion.

There are some other notable performances in the film - namely, Josh Brolin as a good ol' boy government operative who leads Kate's mission. Brolin also recently appeared in a similar role in Everest, but he's better here - as it's a more nuanced role that uses the actor's natural charm as a smokescreen for his anything-goes ruthlessness. There's also a small but crucial role for The Walking Dead's John Bernthal - one which takes full advantage of the actor's unhinged intensity.

Blunt turned a lot of heads in her fantastic, iconic performance in Edge of Tomorrow. Now, she takes that same sort of raw toughness and seamlessly transfers it to a more grounded, real-world setting. In some ways, Blunt's performance here reminds me of Jodie Foster's in Silence of the Lambs - a hard-charging, gets-$%^#-done woman who still finds herself in over her head as she confronts true violence and evil. And Del Toro - the deliverer of much of said violence - is at his best in this one - at the center of at least a couple of jaw-dropping scenes that will forever be emblazoned in my memory.

SICARIO is a hard-boiled look at the drug war and the high price it takes on cities like Juarez that have, because of it, become complete hell-on-earth ground zeroes for violence and death. It's also a look at how far we as a county and as a people are willing to go - how over the line we're willing to step - if those breaches can remain covert and away from the public eye. In the haunted eyes of Blunt and Del Toro, we see, poignantly, the scars. So prepare to be disturbed and maybe a bit shaken by this one - but also prepare for a hard-hitting, ultra-intense action/drama that is a must-see of 2015.

My Grade: A-

Friday, September 11, 2015

Z FOR ZACHARIAH Posits That Guys Will Be Guys ... Even After The Apocalypse


- The first thing that's noteworthy about Z FOR ZACHARIAH is its loaded cast, with a trio of current and soon-to-be megastars front and center. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Chris Pine. Margot Robbie. Three of the most buzzed-about actors in the biz today. In theory, Z should be a perfect showcase for their talents. It's a small-scale story with a big premise: after a nuclear apocalypse renders much of the world inhospitable, three survivors converge on a miraculously still-green, still habitable valley on which an innocent farmer's daughter tends to her father's farm. The movie has its moments, and Robbie in particular shines. But very quickly, the film becomes a dramatic version of Last Man on Earth (the Will Forte sitcom), that essentially boils down to two dudes getting jealous of each other and fighting over who gets to be more-than-just-friends with Margot Robbie. What starts off as an intriguing post-apocalyptic thriller devolves into eye-rolling Harlequin Romance.

Director Craig Zobel does a great job of sucking you in to the movie's irradiated, post-disaster setting. As we are first introduced to Robbie's character - religious, affable, virginal Ann - and as we see her first encounter with the wandering, traumatized John (Ejiofor), I found myself eager to see where this was all going. And for a while, Z FOR ZACHARIAH plays out as a compelling story of two equally smart and capable survivors working together to get by and figure out how to live in this new reality. I liked the way that Chiwetel Ejiofor plays John at first - he's a good man, though scarred and sick, and there's real drama in his internal struggle as to whether to be a father figure or a lover/partner to the younger Ann.

But the subtle conflict and complex relationship between John and Ann is abruptly shaken up when Chris Pine's Caleb enters the picture. Almost immediately, it's clear that Caleb has his eyes set on Ann. Just as quickly, the movie becomes about the rivalry between Caleb and John. The speed with which the movie becomes a bro-vs.-bro battle is almost comical. And the way that this plotline ends up reducing Robbie's Ann to a mere prize to be won is frustrating. Because of course, despite all the build up and complex emotions that lead to Ann thinking about John as more than just a mentor figure, she is ready for a roll in the hay with Caleb pretty much from the get-go.

Perhaps there is a way to tell this story in a more effective, more powerful way. But as it stands, a film that starts out with a lot on its mind but that quickly becomes one-note. It goes from tension-packed to heavy-handed.

Robbie is definitely the stand-out here though - especially in those early scenes with Ejiofor. I hadn't seen her play this kind of role before - quieter, more subdued. Is she 100% believable as a virginal farmer's daughter? Not completely. But she acts the hell out of the role, to the point where I actually didn't realize it was Robbie at first. There's also an interesting dynamic of Ann as a person of faith vs. John as a non-believer. Again, Robbie sells it, but also gives Ann a number of layers so that she isn't just one-note. It's too bad then that the second half of the movie undoes a lot of what makes the character work so well earlier in the film. Ejiofor follows a similar arc - some great stuff, some real intensity in the early part of the movie. But that same intensity seems silly and cartoonish later on. As for Pine, he fares the worst of the bunch. It's partly just that Caleb is basically a walking plot device designed to inject tension into the film. But there's no subtlety to it - and the reveals that we might expect to come with Caleb never really do. He's a pretty one-dimensional character.

There are some really interesting ideas in Z FOR ZACHARIAH, and some real standout moments for Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor. But ultimately I thought the film did not live up to the potential of its premise. In Last Man on Earth, the whole joke is that Will Forte's Phil Miller is mostly motivated by a strong desire to get laid - even though, given the state of the world, it might do him some good to have other priorities. This movie elicits some eye-rolls by being so seemingly unaware that it's a dead-serious movie with the same comedic premise. Too bad - as the early part of the film makes clear - this could have been about much more.

My Grade: C+

Friday, September 4, 2015

AMERICAN ULTRA Does Entertainingly Hyperactive Acid-Trip Action/Comedy


- We've seen the basic set-up to American Ultra done before - a thoroughly-average guy finds out that he was secretly meant to be a kick-ass superspy - chaos and comedy ensue. But ULTRA has enough that's unique about it - including a legitimately involving central romance - that it stands out from the pack. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) gives the movie a frenetic pace that reminded me of similarly in-your-face action films like Kick-Ass. And writer Max Landis gives the film lots of personality, crafting a zippy script full of smart, quippy dialogue and plenty of twists and turns. AMERICAN ULTRA is the sort of new-school, genre-bending, over-the-top action/comedy hybrid that many mainstream critics are prone to dismiss. But if you're down with its insanity and stoned-out humor, there's a lot to like about this one.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike - a stoner who lives in a small town and seems stuck in a rut. He works at a dingy convenience store. He draws a comic book but can't bring himself to do anything with it or show his work to anyone. And he can't bring himself to leave. The one good thing he has going is his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Phoebe is hyper-tolerant of Mike's quirks and neuroses, and seems to compliment him in all the best ways. While she seems to be a similar brand of stoner-slacker as compared to Mike, Phoebe also seems to have a little more ambition, a little more vision, a little more fire inside her. She is, basically, what Mike needs. But tellingly, in an early scene, Mike wonders if he is in fact holding her back.

What Mike doesn't realize is that a lot of his existential issues have literal reasons for being. He can't leave his small town because the government doesn't want to. He is holding Phoebe back, because ... well, I won't spoil it. But what does soon become clear is that Mike's entire existence is one big lie. He isn't just some guy. He's a tossed-away government experiment - a would-be super-spy who is programmed to be an unstoppable combatant. When the program he was a part of was shut down, Mike's programming was "turned off," and his memories erased. Because of the mercy of his government handler, Victoria (Connie Britton), he was spared from the scrap heap and allowed to live a relatively quiet life, unaware of his true nature. But now, a new hotshot CIA official (played with great smarminess by Topher Grace) is out to exterminate remnants of the old program, and he has his sights set on Mike. Mike - and by extension Phoebe - now find themselves caught in a high-level power struggle. Only Mike's re-activated super-spy skills stand between them and a hail of government-issue bullets.

As you can probably start to sense, the cast here is fantastic. I'd forgotten going in how great Eisenberg and Stewart were together in the underrated Adventureland. Quickly though, I was reminded that the two have a great chemistry. The banter between them is funny and fast, but there's also a legit emotional core to their relationship that's actually affecting. Both actors tend to take their knocks from fans and the press, but both are perfectly suited for these parts. They are backed up by a strong turn from the always-great Britton, who manages to bring some gravitas to the movie's largely light-on-its feet tone.

That said, a lot of the real fun comes from the movie's rogues gallery of villains. Topher Grace is just wonderfully hate-able here, the kind of villain whose ass you can't wait to see get handed to him. Also great is, unsurprisingly, Walton Goggins. Fans of Justified saw Goggins embody one of the all-time great TV villains in Boyd Crowder. Here, he plays an even more unhinged character - the Joker-esque assassin known as Laugher. Since I've always thought Goggins would make a great Joker, it's a treat to see him play a true wild card. But what's even better is that the movie reveals a somewhat tragic backstory for Laugher that makes him more than just a kewl antagonist. Additionally, lots of welcome faces show up as part of the supporting cast. Tony Hale as Britton's conflicted colleague. John Leguizamo as Mike's wildcard dealer. Bill Pullman (!) as a government heavy. It's a very loaded cast - and seeing all these great actors bounce off of one another is a lot of fun.

The characters are given some really snappy dialogue thanks to Landis' script. There's no lack of energy in the film, and the fast-moving plot and always-crackling dialogue is a big part of that. Nourizadeh's direction, like I said, is of the Matthew Vaughan school of frenetic action and comic-book-style pacing. And that suits the over-the-top violence and physics-defying action scenes just fine.

If I have any complaint about AMERICAN ULTRA, it's only that it feels, at times, less like a complete film and more like a really solid TV pilot. The story takes us to a point where it feels like things are still just ramping up for our main characters. And in a world where a sequel may not be likely, there is a slight feeling of incompleteness. The real novelty of this story might have been in future chapters, as the relationship between Mike and Phoebe becomes more fully-explored. As is, what makes the movie most stand-out are the moments that spotlight the unique relationship between its two unlikely heroes. The finding-out-you're-secretly-a-spy stuff has been done. But putting all of that in the context of a stoner love story has not. I really like the way that the film provides sci-fi logic to explain the common feelings of going-nowhere, no-future angst that accompany the average quarterlife crisis. But it also sort of feels like Chapter 1 of that exploration - the origin story, sans the first real mission. The TV show Chuck covered some similar ground. But where Chuck had the trappings of a well-meaning, heart-filled sitcom, AMERICAN ULTRA is its acid-dropping, burn-out, grindhouse cousin. If that sounds like your cup of team (it definitely is mine), then give some love to this film - a much-needed original action film in a cinematic landscape overcrowded with rehashed concepts and cash-ins.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

MISTRESS AMERICA - No Sophomore Slump for the Baumbach/Gerwig Team


- I hope that the Noah Baumbach / Greta Gerwig team is one that we get many more movies from in the years ahead. The combination of Baumbach's wit with Gerwig's whimsy made Frances Ha one of the best films of the last few years. Now, the two have re-teamed for MISTRESS AMERICA, another farcical look at young adults in New York City. I'm not sure if their latest has quite the electric feel of Frances Ha, but it does, in its own way, really sizzle. Gerwig is such a fascinating on-screen presence - seeing her play a different sort of character in this one is a lot of fun.

Typically, we've seen Gerwig as the awkward ingenue paired with more worldly and experienced characters. Here, she's graduated to be this movie's Gatsby - the very embodiment of the young New York cliche. The film see's Gerwig's 30-ish Brooke get introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister, college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) prior to their parents' wedding day. Tracy has just moved to the city to go to school at Barnard, and though at first she's reluctant to reach out to Brooke, she soon finds herself excited to have this new pseudo older sister who can show her the ropes. Tracy is into writing, and she finds in Brooke a muse - a hopeless mess who knows everything and nothing all at once - a dreamer whose window to make her dreams come true is quickly closing. Brooke reveals that her current project - one of many - is to attempt to open a restaurant. Tracy is both convinced that the idea is doomed, but eager to help out both as a sign of sisterly bonding and as a way to get more material for her writing.

What I like about the Baumbach/Gerwig pairing is that Gerwig seems to soften Baumbach's bitterness and give his movies a more self-aware slant. In a non-Gerwig movie, the director might have made Brooke the sympathetic protagonist. But here, we see Brooke through Tracy's eyes, and she's the butt of the movie's jokes. Brooke is sort of scarily-accurate - the friend we all have whose refusal to follow-through on anything made them interesting in their twenties but increasingly hot-mess-resembling in their thirties. And yet, by sheer force of personality, Brooke and her ilk are able to scrape by and move from job to job,  relationship to relationship, social circle to social circle, life plan to life plan. In Brooke's eyes, she's still the college student with all of life's possibilities in front of her - or at least, that's what she tells herself to avoid a complete freak out. But Tracy and her college-freshman friends - convinced that it's only a matter of (not very much) time before their genius is discovered - look at Brooke with a mixture of admiration and fear. She's admirably still fighting their fight - except it's a fight that the wide-eyed freshman are sure they'll have wrapped up by graduation.

Lola Kirke is a real find as Tracy. She imbues Tracy with a familiar mix of too-cool-for-school and no-idea-what-the-hell-she-is-doing-at-life. She came to New York looking for her big New York moment, and like magic, her step-sister Brooke is a walking, talking New York moment. Kirke is really great here, and does a nice job of showing Tracy's gradual hardening as she grapples with whether to beat 'em or join 'em (as all college freshmen do). Gerwig, meanwhile, shows a previously-unseen manic energy - creating a memorable character in Brooke: a self-absorbed, self-delusional whirlwind. She'ss outwardly indestructible, but inwardly likely barely holding it together at any given moment.

The movie starts out as wryly funny, but edges closer and closer to all-out farce as it progresses. An extended sequence in which Tracy and Brooke (with Tracy's friend and his jealous girlfriend in tow) take a trip to Greenwich, CT to visit Brooke's rich, now-married ex-fiance (who's married to Brooke's nemesis, no less), devolves into a rapid-fire comedy of errors that is oftentimes laugh out loud hilarious.

It really is interesting, because MISTRESS AMERICA almost feels like a direct mash-up of Frances Ha and Baumbach's other 2015 film, While We're Young. But this film's manic screwball energy is what distinguishes it. At the same time, it's yet another film in which Baumbach explores generational themes. But where While We're Young sometimes felt misguided in its portrayal of twenty-something free-spirits, MISTRESS AMERICA, I think, hits at some essential truth about what it's like to be 18 vs. 30. That crushing feeling of being the same person, basically, but with less time and less options and more failure under your belt.

Aside from all that, this is the second Baumbach-Gerwig collaboration where I've just really dug the aesthetics. As with Frances Ha, there's a pulsating energy to this film that captures New York and its essence. Chalk up some of that to the mood-setting direction, chalk up some of it to the great music choices and score.

Baumbach seems to be making a real play these days to be the modern-day Woody Allen behind the camera, with Gerwig seemingly the neurosis-ridden intellectual heir to the characters that Allen so often played in his movies. The two have a powerful creative collaboration going, and this is a fine sophomore effort from them. More, please.

My Grade: A-