Review: Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

Long Day’s Journey into Night is as disorienting as films come, shifting in and out of the past and present, dreams and reality, with little to help differentiate. There’s a girl and a gun, and that’s all we really need anyway.

This is a film defined by its structure, essentially a film in two distinct acts. This transition is separated by the title drop, which pops up over halfway through the film. The first half is one of restlessness, capturing the atmosphere of tossing in your sleep with dreams that don’t quite connect as your subconscious wildly struggles to fill in the blanks. The Tarkovsky influence is obvious; if you think the similarities to Mirror are mere coincidence, writer/director Bi Gan makes sure to include a sense with interior raining to drive the point home.

Such disorientation can sometimes be more unpleasant than not, and with Bi Gan borrowing so much from slow cinema philosophies, the first act can feel like a chore. But much like Cuaron’s Roma, there’s a purpose to the tedium; Gan is lulling us into a false sense of understanding before flipping into a completely different mode.

It’s the back half of Long Day’s Journey that justifies the whole experience. Like the first, this segment is marked by a distinctly dreamlike atmosphere; but if the first half is defined by a dream you can’t make sense of, the second is marked by growing awareness – yes, this is a dream, but Luo is gaining control.

Bi Gan employs an impressive technical feat to capture this atmosphere. This entire sequence is one enormous long take, traversing from a cave down a mountainside into a remote village, making sure to feature precise actions just to highlight the seeming impossibility of such a daring act. The opening vagueness is replaced with the blunt; it may be difficult to line up how these two halves line up, but the on-screen action in this sequence is more easily digested. If it lacks clear narrative logic, there’s heavy emotional weight.

Like the best surrealist works before it, Long Day’s Journey is a film that demands to be puzzled over; it gives an immediate sense that something has been missed, something that can be etched out with just the right level of care and attention. This is a film that gives back what you are willing to put into it.

This is an admittedly difficult film to review; I’m struggling to wrap my head around what I experienced here. While I’m unsure of certain plot points, I can easily say this film carries an overwhelming atmosphere of great beauty. So many shots carry a resonance even if I can’t fully place what they mean; never before has a title drop left me so shaken.

While it’s easy to emphasize the back half, the first half is similarly lined with mesmerizing moments. The opening shot implies an impossible physical location; a conversation on two sides of a fence is suggested to be at a prison but the background suggests an endlessly open area; a scene as a man cries while eating an apple in full hits with a surprisingly emotional punch. Bi Gan commands a stellar visual language.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of those challenging films designed with a very specific audience in mind; but if you belong to that cinematically-inclined group, this is likely to leave quite an impression. By abandoning narrative cohesion, Bi Gan has crafted a film with an evocative, almost mystical atmosphere.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Aladdin (2019)

At this point, reviewing the Disney remakes and reboots feels as repetitive as the films being discussed; despite their narrative differences, they all follow the same design philosophy, largely falling back on simple film techniques as if they’re mere products instead of artistic productions. They ride off the success of their source material and rarely aspire to anything more, never exploring the possibilities provided by putting these stories in a new medium.

Aladdin does a good job sticking to its source material – Dumbo strayed and was worse for doing so, but a good writer could do something more. These remakes will never supplant the originals, so there needs to be some attempt to add a unique flavor; give a reason for these films to exist alongside the originals. Instead, Aladdin acts as an attempted replacement, which does no favor to either the original or this remake.

There’s plenty about this film that looks nice; it just doesn’t look as nice as the original. What could give these films an extra edge to coexist with the originals is seeing the world in a live action form; the sets and costumes are all nice enough. But because these remakes are so quick to fall into the routine of medium close-ups and shot-reverse shot editing, we rarely get a chance to just digest the visual design. There are a few moments where Aladdin attempts a longer take, especially during musical numbers, but they’re largely reduced by obvious reliance on CGI.

For whatever reason, Aladdin seems to have chosen Will Smith for an extra bit of star power to sell the film – I don’t think this film needed any recognizable star to sell. Is anyone going to see this movie due to his presence that otherwise wouldn’t? He’s passable, sometimes funny in his antics but really lacking when it comes to the musical numbers. Someone with a louder screen personality could have added an extra bit of flavor, but Disney appears resistant to anyone who might push these works past the familiarly pleasant.

It’s difficult to believe this is the same company that produced the originals; Disney has a history of playing it safe on a narrative level, being a company specializing in family films, but their films are marked by unique designs, distinct use of colors, and musical numbers that would sometimes fall into the surreal. These remakes are overly concerned with a sense of ‘realism’ that doesn’t match the tone or lend anything particularly charming to the experience. Everything appears muted compared to the original, similar enough to lack purpose and bland enough to lack inspiration.

One of the few notable changes between films is Jafar; like most classic Disney villains, the original is larger than life. The Jafar here is a lot quieter in his presence, and while this does work within the film, it also doesn’t particularly add anything. The original Jafar is striking and threatening; Disney doesn’t benefit by acting restrained. There’s also a notable new number by Princess Jasmine titled “Speechless,” which, again, is fine enough but doesn’t have the weight of any of the songs from the original.

Aladdin is acceptably average; nothing it does is particularly impressive or egregious. However, it will always be weighed down by the fact there’s an indisputably better version. This offers no reason to check it out instead of just revisiting the original, which has a tighter narrative and stronger presentation. I can mention that I did have fun with it, but that’s not worth much when I would have had more fun with the original. There are movies of lower quality this year that at least carry a sense of purpose, something unique to themselves.

Aladdin is exactly what we all knew it would be, Disney exploiting its own properties because they know it will make bank. The source material is good enough that this remake still carries many pleasant (if comparatively muted) moments. Disney knows how to make a functional film, but movies should do more than just function.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Brightburn (2019)

Brightburn offers a promising take on the superhero genre, clearly riffing on Superman by offering the story of an alien child who lands on Earth and is raised on a quiet farm as if he were human. It’s classic “What If” fodder; where perhaps the most famous comic to change up Superman’s origin simply switches his landing to the Soviet Union, Brightburn instead presents an all-powerful being with ill intent.

This is a film that opens on a shot of a bookcase with at least four separate books on fertility, the camera panning to show the eventual adoptive parents getting ready for yet another attempt before being interrupted by the crash landing. The entire film has this amateur quality, over-explaining every detail as if we’re completely incapable. For example, Brandon Breyer, our evil alien child, comes up with a signature that he leaves at his crime scenes – we get scenes of the sheriff finding this marking at both, and then another where he goes back to his office to match up pictures of the two to show that, yes, he recognizes the connection.

The movie sold itself on James Gunn’s name, but it was written by his brother and a cousin and directed by David Yarovesky, a man with little experience but carrying a clear connection to Gunn considering his credits. It’s hard to view this as anything beyond classic Hollywood nepotism, a film elevated to a bigger budget and release than its screenplay deserves.

While promising a dark twist on the Superman mythos, Brightburn has little ambition beyond any run-of-the-mill ‘creepy child’ story. The whole tension of such a plot should be a family coping with the realization their beloved child is turning into a monster, but we simply gloss over their bonding and Brandon’s transformation is too sudden to have any real impact. The Gunns also take the most boring option for why Brandon becomes evil; it’s no internal discovery or inherent trait that bubbles up as he grows, but rather outside interference that essentially amounts to brainwashing. He simply isn’t the same character before and after, which voids any sense of emotional weight.

With any horror movie, I think it’s important to question what acts as the source of terror; Brightburn‘s narrative hook is a fresh domestic horror concept, suggesting a family with a dark secret that they must either learn to accept or perish. Brightburn all too quickly pits Brandon against his family; he is posited as an outsider, completely negating the familial connection. The Gunns don’t even suggest the parents might go along with his atrocities out of misguided love; they are immediately wary once they see clear signs of his lunacy.

Because of this, the source of horror instead stems from an untouchable, mindless killer hunting down innocent people; Brightburn is a slasher film. This could be fine; a superhero slasher would also be a unique concept, but instead of relying on tension, Brightburn simply tries to be as gory as possible. As the trailers were far too eager to show off, there’s a disgusting shot of a woman pulling a piece of glass from her eye. It’s not scary, it’s just gross and discomforting. This scene sets an atmosphere where, instead of being afraid for its characters, I’m instead annoyed with an expectation that any moment of horror is going to be unnecessarily crude.

Having any tension during these moments would require some sense of character, but I really can’t make any firm statement about who these people are. The entire family is purely defined by their perception of Brandon; what do his parents do besides worry about him? Do they have their own lives? The only reason Brandon goes after anyone is because they seem aware of his evil side, but he also does absolutely nothing to hide that aspect. A typical slasher keeps the villain at a distance, but Brandon is just as vapid while being a central focus.

Brightburn is a prime example of why writing matters so much more than a strong concept; there’s so much promise here, but the Gunns do nothing besides perhaps blocking a better writer from tackling a similar idea for the next several years. Don’t be fooled by the superhero coating, this carries all the weight of a Conjuring universe spin-off.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Booksmart (2019)

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, is a stellar tale of two intelligent best friends who realize on the eve of high school graduation that the kids they derided for having fun actually ended up getting into the same schools. Taking this information as a wake-up call, the two end up on a journey of identity and self-discovery.

Booksmart stays tightly focused, largely set over a single night as Amy and Molly desperately search for the party hosted by the most popular kid in school. In some sort of Gatsby-inspired curse, they wander from wrong location to wrong location, hitting all the other parties by mistake.

A film like this rides on the essence of its characters; each of these parties is imbued with how the host (sometimes wrongly) views their own image – much of this movie finds characters having to take a hard look in the mirror as they realize no one they’ve grown up with really knows them, at least not in the way they’ve come to know themselves.

What is the self, anyway? True to life, those characters who aren’t questioning this seem assured of their own standing – but most are lost in a game of identity, grandstanding with a certain image to hide the uncertainty bubbling beneath.

Being a proper take on the high school experience, Booksmart is in many ways crass – this is a comedy of drugs, lust, and cringe-inducing awkwardness. However, none of these jokes operate at the expense of the characters; if they appear to be, it’s only so the film can later come back and question why. A movie like this can only reach such heights with a certain level of sincerity that Wilde delivers with grace.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are phenomenal as these two best friends. The movie expertly starts us off by giving these two some alone time, engaging in an intentional bout of awkward dancing. Amy and Molly are dorks, but they’re dorks with an awareness and appreciation of that fact. It’s only in the presence of others that they fold and put up visible barriers.

This quality stretches well beyond the leads; this is a rare story that fleshes out nearly every character it introduces. The standout here is Billie Lourd as Gigi, the depressive rich girl who just keeps popping up, an almost mystical figure that adds to that bizarre sense there’s some outside presence guiding the girls through this night. We meet Jared, the other rich kid who hands out shirts with his own face printed on the front, comically pathetic until it becomes understood as ignorant desperation. Most of the characters get some sort of arc, revealing something way beyond our tainted first impression – the whole film glides by, eventually jumping between characters as it nears the climax.

This movie is going to be compared to Lady Bird for obvious reasons, both covering the feeling of high school graduation and also featuring Beanie Feldstein in a prominent role – but the film I kept drawing comparisons with is Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Beyond being tales of awkward school life, both films really understand the power of sound.

Where Eighth Grade would seamlessly blend montage through ambience, Booksmart backs its best scenes with an equally stellar soundtrack. A scene that follows Amy through a pool becomes mesmerizing with the assistance of Perfume Genius’s achingly beautiful “Slip Away,” while LCD Soundsystem’s gently longing “Oh Baby” helps wind down the eventful night. These choices are so precise – and the film is smart enough to hit an emotional height during a key scene by reducing sound altogether.

Like Eighth Grade, Booksmart pushes beyond simple humor and acts as a constant reminder of the dread that underlines growing up in a community where you know the same group of people for years, and despite all that time together, no one really sees you. This carries the same sort of awkward humor that drives the most brutal cringe comedies, but by showing the characters as at least somewhat aware of their flaws, this awkwardness is marked with a certain anxiety. Teenage awkwardness is understood by this film as largely rooted in kids trying and failing to present the image they want to be seen with.

Booksmart should go down as one of the all-time great high school comedies, one that balances a hysterical script with truly meaningful observations. This film is a celebration of those early academic years, not by idealizing youth but by acknowledging how wonderful it is that we manage to carry through such adversity and come out with a better sense of self. Like the characters it studies, Booksmart is a film of several layers, one that masterfully merges teen antics with self-aware statements about why teenagers perform the way they do.

5 Stars Out of 5

Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick has become a definitive name in modern action cinema. The first film established a certain visual flair by leaning hard into gun fu tropes, while Chapter 2 ramped it up with an ever-expanding world while maintaining focus on phenomenal choreography. The series carries an almost surreal air, giving just enough information to link these sequences of violence together, and Chapter 3 – Parabellum runs wild with the threat established at the end of the previous film.

A common complaint I’ll have about modern spectacle films is their apparent need to justify the visuals. Films like Alita and Detective Pikachu dive into concepts they don’t need to as if it will add some sort of meaning, as if a unique style isn’t reason enough. John Wick stands above so many action films because it realizes just how little you need to give; its minimal set-up lends the franchise an ethereal quality. Watching Parabellum is like falling into a violent dream.

For the third chapter, the world of John Wick has already been set in motion; assassins line every street, the entire world coming down on our protagonist who just wanted to avenge his dog. Parabellum basks in the freedom allotted by the end of Chapter 2 – however, this also means the film lacks the sense of escalation from the previous films. How do you go further than this suggestion that the organization is literally everywhere?

What it lacks in mystique, Chapter 3 makes up for with stunning choreography – this has always been a high point of the series, but it reaches new heights here. A motorcycle chase along a bridge, an attack dog-assisted shootout in Morocco, a barn with weaponized horses – each scene is striking in its physicality while touring several vibrant locales. We know what John Wick can do with a pencil, but what about a library book?

Chapter 3 introduces two new major characters, one which reinforces the mystique while the other adds an entirely new layer to the franchise. Asia Kate Dillon appears as the Adjudicator, carrying a severe presence (and a pair of gloves) as they promise future hellfire upon everyone that dared to assist John Wick during the previous film. They appear emotionally void, a heartless enforcer of the High Table’s will – just inhuman enough to remind us that this world is a mere simulacrum of our own.

Zero, played by Mark Dacascos, becomes an absolute scene stealer. Despite its bizarre nature, most everyone within this franchise treats their situation as they should, living in states of paranoia that any stranger could be in a position to profit from their death. Zero, however, operates as a disconnected fanboy, someone who admires John Wick and hunts him down as much because he wants to see the legend in action as he feels guided by the High Table.

This character carries an almost humorous tone, but his presence is so out of place that it instead turns uncanny. In such a dire world, a character this carefree is the best way to capture someone truly mad. One thing I found lacking in the first two John Wick films was a compelling villain for Wick to face off against; the villains were people in power, not ones who did their own fighting. Despite not being the true villain of the story, Zero plays a perfect dragon to the High Table, allowing the film to build up to a distinctive climactic battle.

John Wick is simply the most consistently strong action franchise Hollywood has put out in decades. It has never missed a beat, pushing past easy options to make sure every scene carries some new purpose, whether building its macabre world or exploring radically stylized methods of violence. The series has always been a beautiful ballet of blood and bullets, and the third manages to outshine its predecessors on nearly all levels.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Detective Pikachu takes perhaps the world’s most financially successful media franchise, known for quirky creatures battling one another, and turns it into a rather mundane mystery. With the help of a talking Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith) searches for his missing father. They journey through several colorful places, plenty of Pokemon popping in for brief yet effective cameos.

This is a movie defined by its fan-service – and, surprisingly enough, I think that indulgence benefits the film’s form. So many shots are designed around the idea of leaving enough room for background events. It’s an excuse to fit in more Pokemon than necessary for the narrative, but it lends the film a dynamic visual energy. At its peak, Detective Pikachu is a living, breathing world full of these beautiful creatures.

The designs themselves have been a central focus leading up to the film’s release, and while they were a bit hard to digest at first, I think they work surprisingly well in motion. Pikachu is absolutely adorable, and the visual effects team really captures the minor nuances of the species involved. I loved little bits like watching a group of Pancham crawl over their annoyed Pangoro parent, or a Treecko clinging to the glass of a receptionist’s desk. There’s so much life in these computer-generated creatures.

Because so much effort is put into showing off the Pokemon, Detective Pikachu manages to avoid a lot of the technical hang-ups I have with the modern Hollywood style. While it does fall back on the usual shot-reverse shot style, there’s usually flavor to each angle, each shot framed to incorporate some background Pokemon. It’s not doing anything awe-inspiring, but for a blockbuster-type film that could have easily fallen back on the popularity of its franchise, it’s a visually pleasing experience.

Unfortunately, the story is rather bland. This could be fine, as I feel most people were going into this just to see Pokemon brought to life, but it’s one of those cases where the story actively detracts from the selling point. Detective Pikachu falters about halfway through with a sequence that finds Tim and Pikachu with reporter Lucy and her Psyduck. There just aren’t as many Pokemon during these scenes, and with a flat story, this moment really drags.

The interactions between Detective Pikachu and Tim are largely effective throughout the film, but every other human character is laughable. Lucy’s opening dialogue is atrocious, and the final act goes completely off the rails (at least in regards to the narrative). This movie is loaded with fun sequences that never quite come together – I don’t know why the man behind Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels was put in charge of what should be an important entry in one of the world’s biggest franchises.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Detective Pikachu is heavily tied to your investment in the franchise. While I might be coming off rather harshly, as someone who has played multiple Pokemon video games over the past month due to the hype caused by the mere existence of this film, I really did enjoy myself. I just know they could have done better.

The main thing I found myself thinking after watching the movie is how much I would have loved to just have more scenes to quietly watch Pokemon go about their daily activities. Minimize the plot – in the end, this is a film where the most compelling elements are stuck in the background. Bring those to the foreground; have Pokemon actually battle each other as a central focus. Even a pseudo-nature documentary could potentially work, but don’t bog the experience down with a subpar detective story.

I put Detective Pikachu in the same camp I put Alita: Battle Angel. This is a movie that has all the right elements for a strong visual spectacle, but it gets caught up in a story it doesn’t seem all that interested in telling well. Like Alita, I think there’s more good than bad, but it still requires sifting through the bad. Despite these flaws, Detective Pikachu still has enough going for it that any fan should walk away happy, but with a longing for a sequel that cuts to the chase.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Wine Country (2019)

Six middle-aged best friends decide to celebrate a 50th birthday by taking a trip to Napa Valley. It’s a comedy of old friendships, women clashing over issues that have gone unstated for years. Starring Amy Poehler (who also directs), Maya Rudolph, and a bunch of other SNL alumni, a film like Wine Country should hopefully have at least something to offer on the comedy front.

Despite their presence, Wine Country is simply uninspired – it has all the styling of a made for TV movie, which seems to be Netflix’s standard quality line. There’s nothing very cinematic about this experience; if you’re setting a movie in Napa Valley, you think you’d want to fit in a few nice shots of the vineyards, as it’s a wonderful countryside. But, no, Wine Country serves up little beyond medium shots of people speaking, never paying much attention to the location it named itself after besides a few establishing shots – it’s real easy to joke that Poehler and friends simply wanted a paid vacation.

Naturally, a film like this is focused more on its writing and performances, specifically humor, and while some jokes land, it never goes beyond much of a chuckle. The highs aren’t very high and a ton of moments fall flat – the women involved in this movie have much better work I’d rather revisit. My one exception is Paula Pell, and not just because I’ve never really encountered her before – Val’s story simply covers fresher territory than the others, following her as she falls for a woman much younger than her.

I started writing this review as soon as I closed my Netflix tab, and I’m already struggling to recall the highs. Instead, I find myself focused on how tone deaf the whole thing feels. These characters are swimming in personal issues, but they’re all so specifically upper-middle class that it’s hard to relate. Marital and work drama is a bit harder to sympathize with when the same characters are also dropping hundreds of dollars on novelty goods.

There’s one scene in the middle of the movie that really drags everything down with it. Val’s crush, the waitress from their first night, invites the group to her art exhibit. She’s portrayed as this shallow caricature making obviously meaningless art, and we end up with a scene where a bunch of well-off white women publicly tear into the art of a queer Asian woman who, again, works as a waitress. It’s all so condescending, falling back to that old cliche of how ‘coddled’ the young people are these days.

This would work if the point of the movie was to explore a bunch of rich white women being awful, but then this movie expects us to sympathize with those same awful characters. You can’t have it both ways, which suggests Amy Poehler doesn’t understand just how unlikable she made these characters. I really don’t care that Ana Gasteyer’s Catherine feels constantly left out by her friends; she’s a drug-obsessed workaholic who’s rude to service workers. It’s not like this film is filled with these negative scenes, but the lack of much positive means those are the moments that stick out.

Wine Country is a typical Netflix release, with no sense of artistry and a halfhearted attempt at an already familiar script. What’s disappointing here is that it involves people who are typically better than this. I think someone needs to give Poehler a big ‘oof’ for this one.

2 Stars Out of 5