Irregular Checkup

Babyteeth

by George Wolf

Why would a first-time feature director make sure her camera lingers a few extra beats on one of those old karaoke videos where the visuals bear no relation to the lyrics being sung?

Because it’s a sly reinforcement of the abrupt, defiant way that Shannon Murphy is telling the story of Babyteeth, and of the unconventional soul at the heart of the film.

That soul would be Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a seriously ill Australian teen who literally bumps into the 23 year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) while waiting for a tram.

She likes his hair, so he gives her a haircut. She brings him home, and suddenly Milla’s parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) have something new to worry about.

“That boy has problems!” Mom shouts.

Milla answers, “So do I!”

True enough, and Rita Kalnejais delivers a debut screenplay that embraces the tough and the tender while taking us inside a fraying family dynamic.

Mom Anna used to be a impressive pianist, but she struggles to stay off pills and keep her tears at bay. Dad Henry is a psychiatrist who handles Milla’s illness in a more pragmatic fashion while he develops a strange fixation on the pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay).

Mendelsohn and Davis are customarily excellent, each reinforcing the different ways that grief can manifest itself, often pulling them closer and increasing their distance in equal measure. In lesser hands, the eccentricities of these characters could have dissolved into caricature or misguided comic relief, but Mendelsohn and Davis each bring a weary stoicism that keeps both parents grounded.

Scanlen, fresh off playing Beth in last year’s glorious revision of Little Women, is completely transfixing as a girl impatient to experience life. The more Milla is reminded of her sickness, the more she rebels, and Scanlen finds a mix of courage and fear that never feels false.

The whiff of death in coming-of-age dramas has often been reduced to manipulative claptrap, but Murphy takes a bulldozer to that notion with an ambitious narrative that does not allow you to get comfortable.

She introduces themes using chapter titles (some generic, some genuinely touching), transitions very abruptly and leaves some matters unexplained. Murphy’s approach is uniquely assured, requiring our attention but rewarding our emotional investment, as the few mawkish leanings are swept away by the film’s wickedly perverse sense of humor.

After years of directing shorts and TV episodes, Murphy lands on the big screen as a vibrant new voice. Like Milla, she is setting her own pace in the search for the beauty in life, and Babyteeth finds that beauty in unexpected places.

Just a Girl

Captain Marvel

by MaddWolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen—not to mention earthlings and aliens alike—and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s – especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass—as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, act 1 still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, and stands strong on its own while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

 





Merry, Indeed

Robin Hood

by Hope Madden

Hey, do you guys remember Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur? I mean, of course you don’t. It made like $9.

Had it been anything other than a global box office disaster, a likeminded retooling of the British legend of Robin Hood might have made sense. And yet, here we have it: a poor man’s Guy Ritchie (Otto Bathurst) trying to anachronism his way through the old bandit’s tale.

Taron Egerton stars as the Hood, billed by imdb as “a war-hardened Crusader” but coming off more as a precocious 12-year-old. He’s joined by battlefield adversary and post-war comrade John (Jamie Foxx), who insists on calling him English regardless of the fact that they are in England and, you know, every single person is English. (Let’s not even talk about his accent.)

Eve Hewson and Tim Minchin round out the merry band as the politically liberal/inappropriately dressed Marian and the only actor who doesn’t embarrass himself, respectively.

Ben Mendelsohn shoulders the evil Sheriff of Nottingham duties this go-round. If you only know Mendelsohn from Ready Player One, Rogue One or Dark Knight Rises, please believe me when I say that he needs to stop playing scenery-chewing baddies. He is one of the most versatile and talented character actors in film today. Please go watch literally anything else he’s ever made. (Give yourself the gift of the Aussie film Animal Kingdom.)

Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly blandly reimagine Robin of Loxley’s origin story, casting aside any historical authenticity in favor of hip fun. Tragically, the result is never hip and rarely fun.

The film details some ludicrously debauched ties with the church and a global plot to bilk a few hundred peasants of more money than the whole of England would possess. Where do all those golden bowls and goblets come from? How many peasants are dining so flamboyantly?

They also reach to give the sheriff some Trumpian moments, though that backfires as well. As fine an actor as Mendelsohn is, it is tough for him to come off as a dumb ass.

The score feels cribbed, the action is video-game superficial and the costuming came directly from Forever 21.

Why did they make this movie again?





Shall We Play a Game?

Ready Player One

by Hope Madden

Ready Player One may be the most Spielbergian of all Spielberg movies. It’s Spielberg on Spielberg. Meta-Spielberg.

You get the idea.

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is so miserable for so many that they spend all day, every day inside their video games. OASIS is a virtual world where you can play anything against anybody at any time.

The creator of OASIS and every devoted gamer’s hero, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), died several years ago and has built a challenge into the game. The winner will own OASIS (and its trillion in worth) outright.

And that’s it. A ragtag group of nerds (led by Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) must learn to work together so they can defeat the megalomaniacal tech firm run by a guy who doesn’t even like gaming (Ben Mendelsohn).

What? Misfit kids teaming up to learn from a master nerd and beat the suits? Smells like Spielberg!

Ready Player One is a celebration of gamer culture in the same way that The Lego Movie indulged in the sheer joy of building with Legos. It is also an 80s pop culture nerd’s wet dream. You want to see a guy wearing Buckaroo Banzai’s while driving Marty McFly’s DeLorean romance a girl on Tron’s bike or run across a bridge made of the Iron Giant? Done.

Want to know what the Zemeckis Cube does? (Bill and Ted know.)

The entire assortment of John Hughesisms is set to righteous beats from Bruce to Blondie.

And that’s where the film could easily have become fluffy nonsense were it not for the genius move of taking an 80s fanboy icon (Spielberg) and allowing him to simply provide an undiluted version of every nostalgic gimmick he has ever hatched.

Every time he borrows from himself or leans on old tendencies—tendencies he’s been trying to shed since 1985’s The Color Purple—it feels like it’s meant to be.

It’s basically a Spielberg movie inside an ode to Spielberg movies.

Plus, oh my God I want a The Shining video game!

Unfortunately, that’s all it really is. The performances are hammy fun but certainly not revelatory. The story is thin enough that it doesn’t get in the way of all the cool FX and callbacks. You’ve seen it all before, you just haven’t seen it quite this unabashed, with frame after frame nearly bursting with the exuberance of some kid whose parents just demanded he put down that homework, crank up the tunes and start gaming already!





Fightin’ Words

Darkest Hour

by Hope Madden

Back in the day—before the mustachioed Commissioner Gordon or the bewitching Sirius Black—back in the way back of the 80s and 90s, Gary Oldman was known for disappearing into real-life characters. Whether it was his Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald or Ludwig Van Beethoven, Oldman could cease to be, leaving nothing behind but the most amazing reimagining of true life.

So the fact that he’s magnificent in Darkest Hour should come as no surprise.

Besides his physical transformation, thanks to what may be the single greatest achievement in fat suits in all of moviedom, Oldman convinces by capturing the spirit of Winston Churchill.

In retrospect we know Churchill’s fighting spirit was desperately necessary— his nation was facing unfathomable odds and dealing with an establishment’s inclination toward surrender. But it’s Oldman’s performance that makes us understand why so very few were able to trust not just Churchill’s vision, but Churchill.

With the aid of an excellent turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine, Oldman makes the Prime Minister knowable: driven, insecure, passionate, drunk, uncertain, romantic and somehow lovable. The performance is effortlessly layered and authentic and honestly the best work the veteran actor has done in decades.

Credit a crisp screenplay by Anthony McCarten for providing context by way of illuminating points of view, each one deftly animated by an understated ensemble delivering nuanced performances. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, in particular, quietly but assuredly manifest the uneasy but shifting perspective of a nation on the brink of possible annihilation.

Joe Wright’s direction sometimes feels fanciful given the seriousness of the story, but he works mightily with his poetic camera to enliven what could otherwise have been a claustrophobic chamber piece.

Instead, he’s crafted a fine bookend to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Darkest Hour glimpses the backroom politics that led to the ingenious and breathless rescue of England’s armed forces the summer of 1940. It lacks the gut-punch or cinematic mastery of Nolan’s film, but it does boast one hell of a performance.





That’s No Moon…

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It is a Star Wars story, no doubt about that.

Familiar crafts and creatures are scattered about, buoyed with a stream of cameos that begin as clever and escalate to downright ovation-wothy. And, at the film’s core is a story of wayward fathers, longing children, and the paradox of “confusing peace with terror.”

Why this sudden pearl-clutching over the politics of the Star Wars universe? There’s been a “final solution” tilt since the outset (they are called stormtroopers, after all), and Rogue One takes us back to when the Empire’s prized Death Star had yet to be completed.

As an act of conscience, Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) designed the Death Star with that fatal flaw that is exposed when viewing the original blueprints. It’s up to Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) and her band of rebel fighters to capture that file and ensure daddy’s flaw is exploited.

Sure, we know how it all turns out, but connecting those dots becomes a thrilling, thoughtful bit of fun.

Jones makes a fine hero: brave, righteous and naive – or, perfect for this series.

She and Mikkelson join a full slate of very talented character actors – from the genius Ben Mendelsohn to the under-appreciated Diego Luna to the up-and-coming Riz Ahmed. They’re part of an adventure that butts up against the New Hope, bridging tales swirling around that far away galaxy.

Like JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story peppers the action with welcome humor and continually reminds viewers of the film’s place – chronological and geographical – in the saga.

One or two of the tricks up director Gareth Edwards’s (Monsters, Godzilla) sleeve come up short, but the majority land with style. With his team of writers and a game cast, he takes us back to the height of the Empire’s smug attitude – their belief in their right to silence those who oppose them and dictate to a voiceless population with impunity.

It’s a clever, thoughtful slice of entertainment entirely apiece of the Star Wars history. It’s also a reminder that there is always hope.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





Not the Same Old Grind

Mississippi Grind

by George Wolf

Two gamblers – one a smooth talking charmer and the other a desperate loser – team up for a high stakes road trip to New Orleans, taking all the action they can along the way.

It may sound like a cliche waiting to happen, but if you think you know where Mississippi Grind is heading, think again. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) don’t do same old same old. The writing/directing team is more interested in slowly immersing you in a new environment, letting simple truths drip from the intimate details of their characters.

Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) has a growing list of gambling debts and a daughter he never sees, but things might be looking up. The high-rolling, confident Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits down at Gerry’s card game, buys him a drink (“not the cheap stuff, either”) and suddenly Gerry thinks he’s found a lucky charm.

Curtis agrees to Gerry’s idea for the road trip, but questions linger. Sure, Curtis can work a room with the best of them, but is it all just to find his next hapless mark? The film wouldn’t work without two sublime performances to drive it, and there’s no question it works.

Reynolds has never been better, keeping just enough of his usual smirking smart ass persona to give Curtis an extra layer that makes him hard to pin down. Mendelsohn is less of a surprise, as he might be the most consistently great actor that nobody knows. He keeps Gerry a constantly evolving work, equal parts thieving liar and gold-hearted schlub who just needs a break.

Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton both make effective use of their limited screen time as working girls who get a visit from the southbound duo. They not only give us added glimpses into the souls of Gerry and Curtis, but they’re also real characters unto themselves.

Boden and Fleck introduce each new locale with postcard perfect shots free of almost all life, another reminder our interest is Gerry and Curtis and where they are going, both literally and figuratively.

With enthralling characters, mesmerizing performances and filmmakers confident enough to stay their own course, it’s a hugely satisfying trip.

Verdict-4-0-Stars