the_shallows_posterThe Shallows (2016)

Starring- Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedone Legge, Sully Seagull

Director- Jaume Collet-Serra

PG-13- bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgdxIlSuB70

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is on vacation in Mexico to go surfing at the secluded beach her late mother used to visit. As the sun sets, she decides to catch one last wave — and is set upon by a nasty great white shark. It takes a bite out of her leg, and she only just makes it to the safety of a rock before it takes even more of her. Now, slowly bleeding out and losing time as the rising tide threatens to overtake the rock, she must find a way to survive and make it ashore.

I ought to be the easiest sell in the world for a movie like The Shallows. If you’re making a horror movie about the ocean, you’ve basically got a giant easy button in front of you as far as I’m concerned. Everything about the ocean absolutely horrifies me; even benign Discovery Channel documentaries set me on edge. That is a massive expanse of nothingness with an alien world buried in darkness below you and numerous inhabitants that are bigger, faster, and stronger than you and have lots of teeth. No, thank you. And sharks strike me as nature’s most perfectly terrifying death machines; I find Jaws almost unwatchable.

Short version: The Shallows ought to have reduced me to a puddle of goo in the corner within fifteen minutes, and after it pulled relatively decent reviews, I fully expected it to do exactly that.

Instead, it bored me a little, made me chuckle at inappropriate moments, and largely didn’t scare me all that much. Jaws plays me like a fiddle, but The Shallows, if anything, numbed me to the things I am most afraid of and got me to the point where it didn’t bother me all that much. That’s an achievement in its own right, but not the sort that’s great for a horror movie. I’m afraid I have to sit out on genre fans’ appreciation of this one — not only do I dislike it, I think it’s on the verge of being outright terrible.

Its flaws are plentiful — the herky-jerky direction, the combination of blazing lighting and yellow color correction, the awkwardly framed text message conversations in the beginning, the labored characterization (the first fifteen minutes of the movie is the main character finding ways to shoehorn information about herself into every conversation she has), the labored dialogue (it’s the sort of movie where the characters say everything they see and do out loud in case the audience didn’t get it) — but its chief problem is that it’s really, really dumb, and it’s never quite clear how in-on-the-joke it is.

Sometimes, that’s part of the fun — some of the most entertaining genre flicks out there make it impossible to tell whether you’re supposed to laugh at what you’re seeing. But it’s really difficult to manage that tone — just serious enough to be believable, just goofy enough to make you wonder. It’s hard to say why it works when it does and why it fails when it doesn’t. Ultimately, The Shallows’ ridiculousness very rarely became entertaining for me. Abstractly, a lot of the stuff that happens in this movie sounds really awesome (two words: fire shark), but I just didn’t find it fun in the moment. It’s a little too grim and gritty, I suppose; it buries you in that atmosphere and never lets you leave it long enough to read something as silly, so you only notice it after the fact. Or I did, at least.

The movie did freak me out early on, albeit not for anything it did. That was completely on me. The main character arrives on the beach, gets in the water, and I was anxious for a solid minute solely because I was watching people in the ocean, which is a condition that should not exist under any circumstance. The mere image of someone sitting on a surfboard with legs dangling on either side is enough to send alarms blaring in my head. Basically, I wasn’t accustomed to the premise yet and remained in a state of terror until I finally relaxed a little.

If anything, it slowly gets less scary after the shark is introduced, which seems like it ought to be impossible. As movie monsters go, I just don’t think it’s that good. I mean, okay, I would probably bash my head on the rock until dead before I got into the water with it, but that’s in real life; as a horror movie villain, it’s too contrived. I accept it with the territory of a movie like this that the shark will be unusually intelligent, to a near-human degree, because the real thing isn’t half as oppressive — it’s not going to come upon a group of humans, kill several of them, and then stalk the survivors for the length of a feature film. And the problem with The Shallows isn’t so much that the shark is smart (though the scene where the movie gives it a friggin’ motivation definitely pushed it a little bit toward “too stupid to be scary”) as that it’s selectively smart. Sometimes, the shark knows exactly how to get to the main character; other times, it neglects to do things it could easily do solely because it would end the movie. You feel the narrative machine moving the pieces. It all becomes too predictable — made worse by the trailers, which spoil every single quality scare in this movie. Like I said — contrived.

And that may be why the movie in general didn’t work for me — I could tell where it was going. Every scene just thuds toward its inevitable conclusion. There isn’t a lot here I hadn’t seen before; to some extent, I wonder if Jaws didn’t ruin the shark movie by defining it so thoroughly that every other installment almost has to borrow its techniques. There are a few sequences that would have been effective if the trailers hadn’t spoiled them for me, but the movie comes by most of its scares using the usual tricks of the trade. With a horror movie in particular, you need to feel as though anything can happen; after all, there’s nothing quite as scary as the unknown. The Shallows, on the other hand, stays almost entirely in known territory. Blake Lively bluntly states what she’s going to do and then does it, and maybe the shark gets a near-miss in there somewhere. Every now and then, it borrows a survival horror trope seemingly out of obligation (i.e., main character tries to eat live animals after being stranded for, like, four hours, because that is what the main character does in movies like this). Only the climax is surprising, and even then, only because the main character summons random knowledge out of nowhere and executes confusing plans that are impossible to follow and only make sense after they’ve crashed to a halt and all the potentially fun stuff is over.

It made it tough to care about the characters — well, character; all of the other roles are bit parts at most. Not until near the end did I ever feel like the protagonist was in palpable danger; the shark absolutely will not bother her on the rock even though it clearly could and has already demonstrated the intelligence necessary. And the movie struggles to tie any sense of jeopardy into the fact that she’s bleeding out. Her leg doesn’t bother her except for the scenes where it does, and every now and then, we get a stray shot of her vision getting kind of blurry. Even so, it never affects her when it matters. While she’s stranded on the rock, she sort of adopts an injured seagull also trapped there, and I cared significantly more about that bird than any human character in the movie (they even gave it a credit — its name is Sully Seagull, which is adorable, and I demand a Best Supporting Actor nomination).

There just isn’t much about The Shallows that thrills me. It has a couple of good scenes and manages a few decent scares early on, but for the most part, it was a dud — obvious, predictable, and sometimes a bit too dumb without the humor or joy that would justify it. The Shallows already appears to be generating a small cult following, but it looks like I just can’t be a part of it this time.

the_fits_posterThe Fits (2016)

Starring- Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Makyla Burnam, Da’Sean Minor, Lauren Gibson, Antonio A.B. Grant Jr., Inayah Rodgers

Director- Anna Rose Holmer

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfHnykLOjH4

Eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) decides to move from her brother’s boxing class at the local community center to the dance team, but it isn’t long before the other girls being suffering mysterious and terrifying fits.

The Fits is more a tone poem than a story or an in-depth examination of its characters or ideas, but it’s a good one. Its modesty and its lack of any obvious desire to shake the foundations of the earth render it somewhat unmemorable in the overall cinematic landscape but, strangely, make it eminently satisfying in the achievement of its own minor ends. It seems unlikely to be anyone’s favorite movie of all time but connects itself indelibly to the concepts it depicts, becoming a sort of frame of reference for future portrayals.

At 71 minutes, it’s barely even feature length, but given its simplicity and focused nature, that’s more than enough time for it to fully luxuriate in its characters and themes, and to do so with silence and subtlety. It isn’t particularly dialogue-heavy, and it’s one of the few such films able to do so without feeling as though they’re reinventing reality, the characters ambling around doing their level best not to talk to one another because they’re playing to an audience they fear will find it overly obvious. The Fits’ sobriety is organic, something that comes from the characters and situations rather than something forced upon them. The movie is thoroughly anchored in the perspective of its protagonist, Toni. She’s a quiet, lonely girl with no friends we can see, and she has no idea who she is or wants to be. So, she doesn’t talk much, and no one else much talks to her. It sometimes seems as though the movie only uses dialogue to prove it doesn’t need it — most of what’s said isn’t all that important; it’s Toni wandering through conversations she isn’t a part of. Were it not for two or three scenes where the words are important, you could almost mute the television and still appreciate The Fits exactly as much.

It’s a 71-minute meditation on the awkward, lonely, and anxious years just prior to adolescence — preteens looking at teens and feeling both envy and fear, striving to be more like them while simultaneously failing to understand their world. And I use the word meditation deliberately — The Fits isn’t a complex movie trying to deconstruct is themes or arrive at answers. It’s like music; all it’s trying to do is capture the feeling of it. The central metaphor is sometimes so close to the reality that it becomes a touch superfluous, but for the most part, it works — concrete enough not to feel condescending and abstract enough to connect you to the emotion more directly than the logic. The Fits is like music; it’s trying to package this weird part of our lives, filtered through its creators’ perspective, and make it felt.

For the most part, it does a tremendous job. The Fits is mainly an exercise in visual language, proving the ability of movies to establish their stories and characters through implication, positioning things and people so we understand their relationships. It focuses only on its most vital components — it hardly ever leaves the community center, and it tells us next to nothing about its characters other than what they do there. Toni’s home life and neighborhood and school performance are a total mystery by the movie’s end, but that’s fine; those things aren’t important to what the film is trying to do. It’s spare, but charmingly so — and visually superb as well. The film is, as stated, trying to play to one’s feelings — all movies are, but this one almost to the exclusion of everything else — and it does an excellent job of using the camera, at first, to emphasize Toni’s relative isolation, and then, gradually, to bring her into the world as she joins the teams and forms relationships and is challenged. “Evocative” is a word people mostly use in order to sound smart, but it’s the best one I can think of to describe The Fits’ style.

That I don’t have anything more to say about it shouldn’t be taken as commentary on its quality or how interesting it is, only how simple and narrowly focused. If I have little to say, it’s only because the movie has little to say, but it says it beautifully. It’s small, stripped-down, and unpretentious, and thus is unlikely to dominate the cinematic conversation anytime soon, but it perfectly occupies the little niche to which it aspires. It is, put simply, a good film.

the_nice_guys_posterThe Nice Guys (2016)

Starring- Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Kim Basinger

Director- Shane Black

R- violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxW4LZCYfvs

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed P.I. who’s only particularly good at the part of the job that involves bilking his employers out of more and more money. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is unlicensed and mostly only offers services in beating up people who need a good beating. March is searching for a missing girl; Healy is working for said girl, who doesn’t want to be found. But when she goes missing for real and people connected to her start turning up dead, March and Healy team up to find out what’s really going on in L.A.’s seedy underbelly.

I have not been a fan of the cinema of 2016 thus far. I say all the time that I want movies to either be really good or really bad, because either one is interesting; it’s the stuff in the middle I can’t stand — mediocre, generic, forgettable. 2016 has been one long stream of “stuff in the middle,” and I’m slowly losing my ability to tolerate it. The percentage of “average” reviews I’ve written — “eh, wasn’t good, wasn’t bad” — seems incredibly steep given how much of the year has elapsed and how many movies I’ve seen. I can’t remember ever feeling so bored with a year in movies.

So I cannot even begin to tell you how badly I needed The Nice Guys and what a tremendous relief it was. And it’s entirely possible I’m grading it entirely on a curve because I will embrace anything that exceeds the industry standard at this point. All I can say right now is that I friggin’ loved The Nice Guys. Finally, after months in the cinematic desert, an oasis of originality and fun and intelligence and personality and style! I thirst no longer.

It’s a period piece Lethal Weapon with the comedy dialed way up, but it never loses sight of its “buddy cop” roots. You only ever see these movies for the characters, and March and Healy are headed straight for a well-earned spot on the list, right next to Riggs and Murtaugh. On paper, they’re a somewhat stereotypical pairing — Healy the dumb strong guy and March the wimpy smart guy. Thing is, Healy isn’t that dumb and March isn’t that smart — or at least always has enough alcohol in his system to balance it out. They’re perfect foils for one another, not only because of the obvious ways in which they get one each other’s nerves but because of how organic their eventual (and inevitable) friendship becomes. March is annoying, Healy is violent, humorous conflict ensues, but they’re also lonely guys who doubt their own goodness and aren’t sure what mark, if any, they want to leave on the world. There’s a shared empathy between them that gives them a believable connection.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling absolutely slay it. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember Gosling ever doing something this openly comedic — he’s been in a few light rom-coms, and The Big Short was a little irreverent, but nothing with The Nice Guys’ deranged energy. It fits him like a glove; there’s no strain whatsoever in the performance. And his role asks a lot of him, too — March and Healy take turns being comic relief and straight man, since the characters are wired to cause trouble for one another in different ways, but March still gets the lion’s share of the laughs (and there are plenty). He’s a freewheeler who begins each day with no overarching plan, explicitly planning to wing it. He’s also a coward with a low threshold for pain and a serious case of “screams like a girl.” Gosling goes broad with the comedy, emphasizing the slapstick element and the character’s extreme reactions, but he goes subtle with the drama, never allowing the humor to fully displace you from March’s personal demons.

Crowe is asked to do subtler work — Healy isn’t smart, but he isn’t a hopeless idiot, so the movie can’t go for the obvious dumb jokes. Instead, it emphasizes the main way in which he’s different from March — he lives an extremely regimented lifestyle. When he has a goal, he’s laser-focused on it. He doesn’t dance around obstacles; he punches them in the face. Crowe has to sell the comedy in smaller moments, and he nails it — it’s Healy helpfully and very casually explaining to his victim exactly how he’s going to injure him and what he ought to tell the doctors in the ER; it’s the brief pause when he’s midway through the “easy way or hard way” bit, realizes he already beat the guy up, and has to let his brain reset for a second. It would be easy for the movie to let Healy do the heavy lifting in the plot, because March is hopeless in a more obvious way, but every time Healy starts taking charge, it hits you with a potent reminder that there’s a reason he’s not the ideas guy.

Gosling and Crowe are great, and they both get the movie stolen out from under them by a 15-year-old girl. I came for Crowe and Gosling, but I stayed for Angourie Rice, who plays March’s preteen daughter Holly. In any other movie, she’d be a combination of victim and motivation, a figure meant to humanize the rough-around-the-edges protagonists. Here, she becomes the Penny to March and Healy’s Inspector Gadget, the spirited (and incredibly snarky) little girl who’s actually saving the day while the adults bumble around, screwing everything up. The Nice Guys is an R-rated buddy cop action comedy that somehow got a 90s “kid saves the day from evil corporation” B-plot mixed in there. I rarely see the sort of confidence in child actors that Rice projects here — she’s acting opposite Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling and has to present as an equal to them, and she goes toe to toe with them. Her handle on comic timing is truly rare in her age bracket as well.

It’s good fortune the filmmakers found someone like her, because Holly is the point where the movie was either going to be made or broken, since the character is basically the thematic lynchpin of the entire thing. The Nice Guys is the sort of fun movie that also spoke to me a bit, so it pretty much hits the zenith of my personal taste. It’s focused on that weird cultural moment when one generation becomes the old guard and a new one starts to take over, and while there’s a certain boomer/Gen X/millennial specificity in its rhetoric, the decision to set it in the back end of the 1970s lends it an apolitical generality that allows it to be a bit more nuanced in its messaging (in addition to having fun with the visual style of one of American culture’s more colorful decades). The kids are all right, and they’re not, and no one is, and that’s no one and everyone’s fault at the same time. The movie has a bit of fun with the arbitrariness of what we perceive as cultural decline — blaming younger generations for the gravest moral problems of our times because, you know, they swear and use slang we don’t understand and have a more laissez-faire attitude toward sex and their music sucks and whatnot. Meanwhile, there are real problems in the world that no one’s talking about. So I think it’s important that this movie’s heroic cast ends up being this weird coalition of children and hippies and porn stars and older characters learning to embrace their roles in a changing world, fighting against systemic rot that was there long before any of them were born and will be there long after the last of them die. Only Shane Black could make a movie as hopeful as it is cynical, and often at the same time — the powers that be are always going to be the powers that be, but we can choose how we live in that shadow and what impact we have on the things we can meaningfully affect.

It’s half-sincere and half-satirical. The movie manages to maintain a certain internal seriousness but keeps everything light enough to play as comedy. We understand why what’s happening makes sense to the character even as we recognize it as absurdity. The Nice Guys is always walking a tonal tightrope between its comedic and cop movie elements, and it somehow stays on the right side of that line throughout. It has a labyrinthine film noir plot but centers it on such ridiculous devices that unraveling it almost doesn’t matter. Black is good at turning the dial up and down when necessary; he can go from a slapsticky action movie death to a real and deeply felt one on a dime. This movie is fun, first and foremost, and has very little pretense about that. It means to be a hilarious ride, and it surely is that. The Nice Guys is easily the most fun I’ve had with a movie all year. For both consistency and volume, it’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in a while (yes, funnier than Popstar); not only is the cast nailing it, Black continues to demonstrate a talent for escalating a joke, knowing how long to wait before paying off a setup, and turning scenes on their head at the exact right moment (there’s a confrontation in a projection booth that involves all three and is easilymy favorite scene in a movie full of potential favorite scenes). And though the action is, by nature, somewhat grounded and infrequent, The Nice Guys achieves a level of 80s action movie glee that a thousand other movies and TV shows have been bending over backward trying to do over the last few years. And despite all that, when this movie wanted me to be sad, I was sad.

The Nice Guys works on every level. It put a big dumb smile on my face that rarely faded — and when it did, only because the movie wanted it to. It manages to play as homage and stay perfectly within its director’s wheelhouse while also staking truly unique ground. With so many people complaining that Hollywood doesn’t make original movies, I can only assume this one…

Oh, it only grossed seven million dollars over its production budget? That’s why they don’t make them more often, guys.

Anyway, The Nice Guys basically made this year for me and restored my faith in great movies. Please don’t break it again, 2016.

arq_posterARQ (2016)

Starring- Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Shaun Benson, Adam Butcher

Director- Tony Elliott

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY0DGLrd9GY

Ren (Robbie Amell) and Hannah (Rachael Taylor) wake up as armed intruders burst into their bedroom in search of something — possibly the sustainable energy machine, the ARQ, Ren built for TORUS, the corporation that rules every aspect of their ruined world. Ren resists and is killed…only to wake up at the beginning of the day once more. He realizes that the ARQ, for unknown reasons, has created a time loop and begins living the same morning over and over again, striving to stop his invention from falling into the wrong hands.

Hey, it doesn’t suck! That’s an admittedly low bar, but it’s where I am with Netflix originals — and it’s also a sight better than I expected ARQ, a low-budget Edge of Tomorrow with a cast and crew of relative unknowns with somewhat shallow resumes. Although, to be honest, “doesn’t suck” is almost the highest praise I’m willing to offer it.

ARQ doesn’t suffer from active terribleness so much as rarely going the extra mile. It’s never as interesting as it could be. The premise becomes little more than a sci-fi twist on what is otherwise a fairly ordinary home invasion thriller. The particulars of it are unique enough that ARQ certainly had the potential to be something very interesting and not just a cheap riff on Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow. In essence, the premise here is not just one person waking up at the beginning of a time loop every time he does; as the film goes on, the other characters slowly become able to recall the previous loops as well. So it becomes a situation where multiple parties in conflict remember how the day progressed previously and try to manipulate that to their advantage. The movie could easily have become an extremely complex house of cards that every character is trying to keep standing, the domestic thriller version of Primer, slowly becoming so complicated that the characters lose track of themselves and no longer have any clue who remembers what or what everyone else is going to try next.

ARQ never really gets there. Every now and then, a character manages to turn the tables in an interesting way, playing off his or her foe’s weaknesses, figuring out what they do and do not know about the situation; mostly, it just turns into a series of scenes where characters chase each other around a house with no objective other than to do something other than what got them killed the last time. Eventually, for the sake of my own sanity, I stopped thinking about what I would try to do in their shoes because I realized the characters were never, ever going to do that (there comes a point where it would be extremely beneficial for the characters to just talk to each other about what’s happening, but it takes forever for them to finally do so — and even then, they don’t try to strategize or do anything that would meaningfully give them an advantage). The movie tries to build it all into that aforementioned house-of-cards complexity but doesn’t really earn that plot twist when it arrives.

It mostly isn’t interested in emotions — at least, none other than the cheesy and thudding variety. It mainly goes all in on the relationship between Ren and Hannah, which is, to be fair, much more interesting and original than is typical of domestic thriller romantic leads. It’s heavy-handed, though, and the ending feels like an answer to questions the movie was never asking. Thematically, my best assessment is that the movie is about the will to keep fighting, but its strained attempts at developing its world (it wants to drop you in the middle of a situation and sketch the world outside broadly and ambiguously, but it also wants you to know how cool its ideas are, so it spends its first half-hour or so as a frequently disorienting parade of exposition) make the landing a bit sticky, mostly because it never fully justifies its characters’ path to that point.

This is quickly turning into one of those reviews where I’m retroactively uncertain why I liked the movie, so let’s get to the nice part now. ARQ is, if nothing else, still a taut and effective home invasion thriller, the sci-fi element aside. Maybe it only trades in the most basic emotions behind such a situation — a place of safety and warmth broken by sudden violence and terror — but it works. The movie already clocks in at a scant hour and twenty minutes or so, and that time flies. It’s propulsive, it’s always going somewhere. The time loop elements may not be as heady as I wanted, but they keep the inherently repetitive story from getting boring — each new “day” introduces new wrinkles, whether that’s another character becoming aware of the loop or a character learning something the others will soon forget. The plot doesn’t follow the predictable path of a movie like this — fight, die, learn from mistake, fight longer, die, learn from mistake, fight even longer, die, and so on. Because the movie is always throwing new wrenches into the works, the loops are capable of being radically different from one another; they’re constantly changing. The repeated days don’t simply require the characters to learn but to adapt, to analyze what happened to them during the previous loop and then guess how their enemies will respond to that. The movie mostly doesn’t force the characters into certain unwavering types; all of them are there for different, conflicting reasons, and those motivations sometimes lead their storylines in directions you wouldn’t expect at the outset.

Basically, the movie isn’t all that smart — or at least, not smart enough to navigate its admittedly unwieldy premise. But if nothing else, it knows how to play on your nerves and keep its limited scale feeling (mostly) fresh and (mostly) tense. It didn’t change my life or my mostly negative outlook on the current state of Netflix original movies, but, eh, I had a good time. And there’s your quote for the Blu-Ray (that will never exist).

popstar_lonely_islandPopstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Starring- Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd

Directors- Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone

R- some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHC7guX-FCk

A documentary crew follows Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), a former boy band member turned solo pop superstar, in the days leading up to the release of his new album — which tanks horribly, sending him on a downward spiral of self-destruction. 

The state of modern pop music is an endless wellspring of abject stupidity so readily apparent that it exists beyond the point of satire, so perhaps Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoppingwas always fated to being incredibly obvious and struggling to establish a more extreme version of incidents like the Justin Bieber Anne Frank House debacle. However, pop music is also wide open for skewering, so perhaps Popstar was also fated to being hilarious, which it is, quite regularly.

Basically, it isn’t a smart movie — well, it is; there just aren’t any new insights or particularly clever angles left to apply to such low-hanging fruit as this. But it’s a very, very funny movie, and since it’s a comedy, I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s probably the most important thing for it to get right.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Andy Samberg’s movies, but I’ve always begrudgingly found The Lonely Island kind of amusing; they’re among the few musical comedy acts capable of crafting songs that actually sound like they could be pop hits, just with (intentionally) stupid lyrics. The parody is usually pretty sharp; it’s heavy-handed, but they make that bluntness part of the joke. They also have a gift for the absurd and a great sense of how to gradually escalate things; their best songs only get funnier as they go.

Since Popstar was billed as a Lonely Island movie, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s among their better efforts, nor that it’s strong for the same reasons as their best music. The humor is on-point and well-timed, and almost every bit ends funnier than it started. I’m sure this movie, like so many other comedies throughout history, is heavily improvised, but it doesn’t feel like it. We’re living in the age of improv right now, and I go into almost any modern comedy preparing myself for the myriad bits that either don’t work or drag on well past their expiration date while the performers slowly and noticeably start to run out of ideas. Popstar has almost none of those moments. Almost all of the jokes work as intended and go on exactly as long as they need to. They start out lightly amusing, gradually ratchet up into the big laughs, and then stop right after they’ve peaked. Only one or two scenes find the stars struggling interminably to breathe life into a bit that isn’t working.

Popstar also isn’t overly taken with its own cleverness. It doesn’t worry that some people might not get the joke. It’s content to slip a gag into the margins, where only the most attentive people will see it. A lot of the songs go by very quickly and are jam-packed with too many rapid-fire jokes to catch them all on one viewing. And even the larger bits are delivered very casually — which only makes them funnier. The actors don’t let on that they know they’re in a comedy. They deliver their stupid lines like they mean them, and the movie doesn’t punctuate them with reaction shots or the “well, that just happened” sort of dialogue to make sure everyone knows how funny it is. I wouldn’t call the movie dry; it’s much too over-the-top for that. But it approaches the comedy in an unobtrusive sort of way that allows the jokes to be funny on their own without the kind of embellishment that overextends them.

It also knows how to use celebrity cameos correctly, which is a rare gift indeed. Granted, it has an advantage over other such films as a result of its mockumentary style; all it has to do to slip a celebrity into the mix is have him or her contribute to the interview segments. But it also includes them in the “story” as well, sometimes playing characters and sometimes as themselves. And the cameos work because A) the movie doesn’t call excessive attention to them, B) they’re actually independently funny and would, in many cases, work without the celebrity, and C) they either play to that celebrity’s strengths (the various comedians in the TMZ parody scenes, which rate among the movie’s funniest) or otherwise play off of that celebrity’s public image (Justin Timberlake’s extended cameo). Also, as a result of what I can only assume was very dark magic, all of the cameos, interview segments and narrative appearances alike, are very natural — almost none of the celebrities, mostly music industry figures, are obviously LOOK MA I’M ACTING; they say their lines very realistically and without the obvious strain of people with no idea what they’re doing. And some of them manage to do so even when they have to say or do something stupid; one celebrity’s line delivery after the Jeep song is so stone-faced it’s downright inspired.

Also — and if you listened to the soundtrack, you already know this — every song in this movie is uniformly fantastic. This is career-best work for the Lonely Island guys; even the songs that only qualified for the end credits are hilarious. Universal Pictures, please do everything in your power to get “I’m So Humble” a Best Song nomination in 2017. I’m begging you.

The only reason the movie isn’t great is that the script leaves a little something to be desired. I get it — it’s both a comedy and a mockumentary, so it isn’t supposed to be particularly narrative; nevertheless, it would benefit from structure and propulsion. Popstar feels like it left a lot of material on the cutting room; it throws a ton of elements into the mix and only ever pays off about half of them. Joan Cusack has what, on paper, sounds like a substantial role but is only in the movie for maybe two minutes and does absolutely nothing; Bill Hader gets a big introductory scene and then completely vanishes out of the rest of the movie. Outside of the three Lonely Island guys and maybe three supporting characters, just about everyone is mostly pointless. The movie feels directionless; there’s no drive behind it, no rhyme or reason informing what it chooses to show us and why. It’s a wandering collection of jokes with only minimal connective tissue. The effect is that the movie feels slack despite its minimal run-time, constantly chasing tangents.

Even so, as someone who struggles to enjoy the popular comedies of his generation, Popstar comes as a breath of fresh air — a movie that knows how to create and structure a joke and does so over and over and over again from beginning to end. And as someone who struggles even more to enjoy the popular music of his generation, it’s downright therapeutic (albeit never in a mean-spirited way — the Lonely Island guys have to love pop music at least a little to imitate it as well as they do). It’d be a great movie with a little refinement, but as it stands, it’s still one of the funnier comedies I’ve seen recently.

high_rise_2014_film_posterHigh-Rise (2016)

Starring- Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner

Director- Ben Wheatley

R- violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKPghZ5cc_E

In the 1970s, physiologist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a tower block designed to be a town of sorts, with in-house grocery stores, restaurants, swimming pools, and gyms. The wealthiest residents are concentrated near the top of the high-rise, with the poorest on the lowest floors. Laing’s presence and seeming immunity to class prejudice destabilize the social hierarchy, and as tensions between the highest and lowest floors escalate, the high-rise threatens to become a nightmare for all its residents.

Well, that escalated quickly.

I say that as a joke, as an appraisal of my biggest problem with High-Rise, and as an inadequate expression of the mix of equal parts admiration and bafflement I feel toward this, already one of the strangest films in a year that has produced an abnormally high percentage of strange films. High-Rise not only feels like a movie I’m not yet ready to assess but one that no one is ready to assess. It’s either ahead of its time or exists outside of time entirely. It will take years and hundreds of critical reevaluations before culture collectively decides whether it’s a work of genius or madness or both. It’s a little bit thriller, a little bit black comedy, a little bit post-apocalyptic, a little bit hifalutin art film, a little bit political treatise, a little bit none of those things, and a lot weird. I find its impenetrability as fascinating as it is frustrating.

My current inclination is to call it an ambitious disaster, but wow is it ever ambitious, and it may be a disaster on purpose. I don’t know that High-Rise ever really says anything, but it certainly never stops talking — about class and the way it impacts people based on their individual circumstances, about the arbitrariness of money (i.e. a number that has no inherent meaning other than what we mutually agree to assign to it), about the forms and mechanisms of social stratification, about society’s abstract rules and the ease with which they can collapse, about the illusion of power and what happens when people collectively decide to strip it of its legitimacy, about the themes of class and capitalism one expects a movie like this to expound upon, and on the day-to-day strangeness of this thing we call being human. It’s simultaneously intensely political (it concludes on a radio broadcast of a Margaret Thatcher speech) and completely apolitical — half because it’s so difficult to figure out what the movie is saying concretely and half because it’s above that sort of ham-fisted partisanship, and anyway, it’s about the collapse of our social and political systems when people decide to ignore them, not how said systems will rush in and save the day. Or maybe not. I’m just trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about, really.

High-Rise rarely ceases to compel. Often, it becomes engrossing in a completely alchemic sense, one that exists outside the capacity of narrative and thematic analyses to explain. It’s always going somewhere, always doing something, always bringing new ideas to the forefront, and rocketing from one tone to the next so quickly and so heavily that it becomes impossible not to anticipate whatever it’s going to do next. It’s a mess, but it’s certainly a provocative one.

It exists somewhere in the middle ground between literalism and metaphor, which may be a problem.

Apparently, film culture has collectively decided that it’s unfair to compare it to Snowpiercer, and I understand — the two movies are trying to do very different things (in that I’m pretty sure I know what Snowpiercer is trying to do and I haven’t the first idea with High-Rise) — but can’t help but do it anyway. They have similar voices; they play more as parables not meant to be literally understood (the relationship between the high-rise and the world outside is never really established, and the movie attempts no explanation of the impossibility of its existence, or why the residents don’t simply leave when everything goes to hell). They’re elaborate metaphors meant to be interpreted, or so it seems. Still, Snowpiercer finds a sort of narrative balance that eludes High-Rise — the worlds of both movies are equally implausible and impossible to pick apart logically, but the characters in the former nevertheless register on a somewhat human level and act and react in ways that suit narrative drama.

High-Rise respects the rules of “traditional” storytelling for a while, but the moment it decides to incite the central conflict, that goes out the window immediately. It’s hard to say that a movie really “explores” an issue when it isn’t testing its questions on characters who behave in ways we expect; all it has left is to dive deeply into the metaphor, though what anything symbolizes in High-Rise, I have no idea. I just know that read literally, the point is something closer to “don’t mess with people’s electricity or swimming pool, or there will be violent orgies within, like, two hours.” The conflict here goes from zero to one hundred and then onward to infinity with a snap of Ben Wheatley’s fingers. Afterward, scenes kind of hover around unmotivated, becoming increasingly philosophical and bizarre until the whole thing disappears into the stratosphere. The tone accommodates all of the insanity and exercises surprising control in its vacillations between brutality and Terry Gilliam-esque satire, so it never fails to be fascinating; it simply falls a bit short of actually being satisfying.

That’s my “one viewing” take, anyway. I can’t even begin to guess what I’d think after a second, other than to say that it would be something different — better, worse, I have no idea; I just know there’s no way any of this ever plays the same way twice. Words can’t quite capture exactly what High-Rise is or what it feels like to watch it, which could be construed as a recommendation — and I wouldn’t mind it being taken that way. High-Rise is just High-Rise. It’ll either be a classic or a cult classic, and whatever fate is in store for it, I won’t regret having experienced it in person.

money_monster_posterMoney Monster (2016)

Starring- George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham

Director- Jodie Foster

R- language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr_nGAbFkmk

Lee Gates (George Clooney), the host of the Mad Money-style financial show Money Monster, is in the middle of an episode on the overnight crash of a corporation he previously recommended when Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), an angry investor who lost everything, breaks into the studio and takes Gates and the crew hostage, forcing them to investigate the true reason for the sudden downturn live on the air.

Money Monster is the feature-length version of Margot Robbie’s scene in The Big Short — fun and kind of stupid, albeit not obviously on purpose in this case. It lacks the broader scope of The Big Short, instead attempting to do what that movie’s brief celebrity cameos did — wrap laser-focused Wall Street explainers, focusing in this case on the way finances are complicated by design in order to prevent the public from seeing through them, into slick and entertaining packages people will actually watch.

The more limited focus isn’t the problem so much as Money Monster’s skin-deep examination of the issues it wants to tackle. It positions itself as an aggressively political movie, but it isn’t really. It struggles to find that appropriate balance between the thriller elements and the political themes, or better still, integrate them; too much of the movie aims for the tried-and-true tropes of the mid-budget thriller, filling its run-time with scenes of cops debating their approach and a guy down the street digging for information or the corporate people wringing their hands about the PR disaster. Very little of it is anything more than tangentially connected to the things Money Monster purports to be about.

So what we get is limited and not particularly nuanced. Money Monster isn’t an entertaining way to sharpen your mind so much as a fairly ordinary thriller that merely invokes hot-button political subjects. I didn’t love The Big Short, but at least it knew what it was doing and allowed things to be complicated and difficult. Money Monster says, “Wall Street bad”; The Big Short said, “Wall Street mostly pretty bad but for variety of interwoven political, cultural, and financial reasons that can’t easily be repaired without painful season of soul-searching and hard work.”

Also, The Big Short was loosely based on true events and therefore existed somewhere adjacent to our existential plane. Money Monster is fictional and totally absurd. That doesn’t manifest in the superficial Wall Street commentary so much as the premise itself. This movie is constantly testing one’s suspension of disbelief; occasionally, it shows flashes of self-awareness but fails to nail down its tone as some elements turn increasingly silly. This live TV hostage crisis unfolds in such a Hollywood manner and with such obvious twists and soap opera theatrics that, if it happened in real life, I would absolutely believe it was an extremely ill-advised ratings stunt. The movie frequently cuts to people glued to their televisions as events unfold, and I don’t buy that in our cynical age — sure, people would watch, but they would either think it was a joke or treat it like one (there’s one scene that establishes that a part of the program has already become an Internet meme, and it’s impossible to tell what the movie means to say by this — are we supposed to shake our heads, laugh ironically, laugh earnestly?). And the hostage-taker is ultimately a little too stupid and aggressive to completely earn the sympathetic villain-hero status the film tries to apply to him. I empathized with him but never really liked him, and the movie definitely starts asking you to in the final reel — which is also the point at which the whole thing reaches peak absurdity. The movie only gets weirder as it goes; every time you think it’s gotten as implausible as it possibly can, it somehow goes the extra mile.

Thing is, that sort of implausibility tends not to bother me all that much as long as the movie adheres to some internal logic, which Money Monster mostly does. I could only accept it as pure fiction, but ultimately, accept it I did. You won’t find any particularly earth-shattering craftsmanship on display here, but it’s still a decent enough thriller. Mostly, that’s the result of the cast. George Clooney is perfect for this kind of role — a charming but sleazy guy who has a conscience buried somewhere in there. He’s able to be decent and self-serving at the same time, someone you irrationally trust even though you strongly suspect he’s planning to sell you out somehow. And I’ll still go to bat for Jack O’Connell — he was the best thing about Unbroken, a movie that ultimately failed to become the cultural event people thought it might be; and he’s one of the best things about this. I’m concerned that his continued appearances in mostly mediocre, overlooked movies like that one and, well, this, coupled with him having one of those faces that’s just kind of forgettable (at least to me), will condemn him to obscurity, which he doesn’t deserve. He has real leading man charisma; he commands your attention in every scene, which is no mean feat acting opposite human camera magnet George Clooney.

And anyway, the movie’s a brisk and mostly propulsive watch — it tends to let things become a little too boring before it adds a new wrinkle, but usually it catches up quickly enough to stay on its feet.

Basically, Money Monster is a fun enough thriller that I mostly had an okay time. Just don’t expend any more thought on it than you would your average blockbuster.