Sunday, May 22, 2016

At the Movies

As a palate cleanser from all things Drumpf/Miller, let's touch on a few flicks of recent (and distant) vintage:

Jurassic World -- Solid, tight, clean direction, uses John Williams' classic score instead of the usual action movie classic-hit nonsense. I don't watch many action movies, and when I do, it's usually because it's a slow weekend afternoon and nothing else is on, and something comes up on HBO. (Stay thirsty my friends!). Also, I go into this sort of movie with low expectations -- keep the action rolling, the actors should be having fun, that sort of thing. Anyone watching an action movie that expects art is either an idiot or an asshole, probably both.

Like every other green-screen extravaganza, this is strictly standard Hero's Journey fare, and you should be able to predict the mosasaur-vs.-tyrannosaur finale an hour before it occurs, but it's all done with a fairly high degree of conviction. Chris Pratt manages to try convincingly to channel a Gary Cooper type, though you can almost hear him squinting at times, and they put Bryce Dallas Howard in enough athletic tank tops to almost make you think she's A-list hawt, though Scarlett Johansson would have thrust those bad girls right in your fucking face. I stayed awake all the way through it, so that's most of the challenge right there. Grade:  B+

99 Homes -- This is a small, under-the-radar movie about a very unsexy subject -- the foreclosures of the so-called Great Recession, and the people who profited from the misery -- but is a quite effective portrait of a specific time and community of economic peril. It all comes a bit unglued in the third act, but getting there is immensely rewarding, due in no small part to strong performances by (seriously) Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, the latter of whom, I humbly predict, will win an Oscar within the next five to seven years. Shannon and Garfield play off each other amazingly well throughout, and while the subject of this movie is depressing, the execution of it is anything but. Grade:  A-

 The Witch -- If Terence Malick made an early-America horror movie, it would look much like this. Writer-director Robert Eggers takes a period, folkloric tale and captures its essence. Rather than a high-falutin costume drama with buckle-hats and such, Eggers utilizes epistolary dialogue from early seventeenth-century Massachusetts and handmade period clothing to establish a setting for what becomes a truly suspenseful story.

The movie stars Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson (Finchy from the British Office) and Kate Dickey as the devoutly religious parents of five young children, from teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) to infant Sam. The puritanism of William (Ineson) causes the family to self-exile from their already-small village to an even more remote area bordering the then-untamed wilderness. This is where Eggers' direction shines, in the patient, lush exterior shots showing both the vastness of the family's location and the haunting closeness of it. The period dialogue can be difficult to understand at times, but ultimately lends well to the overall atmosphere of remoteness.

Anyone who's ever been in a forest, especially in the afternoon, as the setting sun dapples through the trees, slowly augmenting the coming of night and mystery, knows the vestigial feeling one gets in the gut at such a time and place. The Witch showcases that limbic instinct again and again, to great effect. It's too bad, but no surprise at all, that this movie didn't go anywhere on its release; 'murkins need either "found footage" guff or superhero mashup bullshit to get them by between their hourly infusions of fat and high-fructose corn syrup and processed sawdust. But if you have the patience (and it's only 90 minutes, but no green screens), this is a wondrously-shot small-scale tale of dread and isolation. Grade: A-

Purple Rain -- When Prince passed away last month, it was tempting to jump on the internets bandwagon and make sure you all knew what a transformative figure he was in my life, just like everyone else made sure to do. But that wouldn't have been entirely true; while I certainly regarded him as a fine guitarist and songwriter, it just didn't seem right to grab that particular wheel at that particular time.

But the wife and I have gone back and listened to several of Prince's albums since his untimely demise, and it seemed like an opportunity to introduce our daughter to what was undeniably a major shift in music and video of the Eighties. Sure enough, the "movie" part of it is absolutely a product of its time -- poofy hair, cheesy acting, half-assed cinematography, an overly personalized plotline.

And yet on watching this relic for the first time in thirty years (in my case), there's no getting around the fact that the music holds up amazingly well, not only in the concert sequences, but in the exterior shots. The motorcycle scene during Take Me With U is beautifully shot, sun shining down on the road through fall leaves as Prince takes Apollonia to the lake for her impromptu skinny-dip. Pretty much every scene with musical accompaniment is superior to the rest of it, though there's no small amount of brownie points won in having Clarence Williams III as Prince's abusive dad.

One of the major differences between the "soundtrack" album and the movie is that the title track ends the album, which is especially poignant now, while the movie closes with I Would Die 4 U and Baby I'm A Star after Purple Rain, which has a more triumphant feel. It turned out to be surprisingly rewarding to do both, to listen to the album and to watch the movie, to see the innocence and potential of what (who) was arguably one of the most influential musicians of the last generation. Grade: B+

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