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

Review: High Life (2018)

Claire Denis’s first English language film follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a death row inmate who signs up to be a human guinea pig, shot into space with eight others for an experiment involving childbirth. This is a film lost in time, starting with Monte alone with a baby girl before cycling back to explore what happened aboard the doomed vessel.

High Life is a film with the apparent goal to decontextualize to the point of disorientation. Bodies become mere objects – the word that kept popping into my head as I absorbed this overwhelming experience was ‘dehumanizing.’ This film does not play lightly with its central concept; these are people who were already pushed to the breaking point within polite society, now enclosed together with draconian orders and no one around to truly enforce them.

To drive the point home, this is a film loaded with sex but rarely pleasure. Our first such scene is perhaps the most positive, but shot in such a way to corrode any sense of joy. Instead, the scene exudes a horrific sense of desperation as Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist of questionable past with free reign over the others, goes wild within the literal sex machine inside the ship. She contorts with a violent elegance as the machine takes on new forms around her. The box leaks a milky fluid while in use – the one source of physical pleasure for the inmates is marked with a key visual source of disgust for the audience. Denis wants us at a distance from her characters, inflicting terrible fates upon those who likewise inflict terror upon others. In High Life, pleasure is a zero-sum game.

High Life speaks more through visual language than with words – in fact, the little bit of expository dialogue largely detracts from the experience. There are shots ingrained in my mind, from bodies floating in space as the title drops to the almost incomprehensible finale. ‘Viscera’ defines this film, from the raw emotional experience it will breed within anyone who fully engages to the seemingly endless stream of fluids that permeate the screen.

I have honed in on the violence, the cold treatment of bodies, but what I don’t want lost in all this is how revelatory this was as an experience. High Life drew out a deep sense of wonder in me, bordering on awe. It’s a familiar tool used well here, to start off with confirmation that most characters are already dead. Our focus is guided to look past the deaths of characters to question what it all means – there’s a powerful rhythm to how everything falls into place. This sense of wonder isn’t lost as we trudge into the unknown future, following Monte and the child as she grows, an innocent born into a doomed world.

This film borders on fantastic – but the dialogue really blunts the impact. One particularly out of place scene finds a man being interviewed about the prison experiments, a conversation between two characters that we’ll never see again. This is a film carried by a fervent, almost undefinable energy; why bog it down with a scene that serves no purpose beyond unnecessary narrative exposition?

I could easily forget that one moment (really, I did forget until reflecting on the film), but I had similar trouble with the daughter’s dialogue. High Life is dense to the point of abstraction, but the treatment of this character instead comes off as shallow. Even unrelated to what’s being said, a lot of lines simply seemed to be mumbled.

Despite these grievances, Claire Denis created what I would consider an essential film for art house lovers – few films this year have lifted me to such an emotional height, and its overwhelming atmosphere is a rare gift. High Life forcibly denies itself a wider appeal, but for those who are open to what it has to offer, I’m certain it will become a new favorite.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Long Shot (2019)

Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) finds himself unemployed after the media site he works for is bought out. A friend drags him to a party to cope, where he happens to run into Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), his childhood babysitter who has moved on to a career in politics, currently working as the US Secretary of State. She is getting ready to kick off a presidential campaign and decides to take on Fred as a speechwriter – this, of course, leading to a risky love affair.

Long Shot is a film that does some things very well while simply putting no effort anywhere else, a work carried by a very comedic script and strong performances. Yet even on a writing level, I have pause – while the jokes are funny, the framing structure is rather flimsy.

For whatever reason, my attention kept being drawn to the relative silence of the film. There isn’t much of a score at all, with only a few scenes featuring an admittedly strong selection of licensed songs. I’ve certainly seen tons of movies with little to no non-diegetic sound, which means there must be something else at play – I blame the editing, leaving too big of a lull between jokes and doing nothing to fill the time between.

Long Shot is similarly lacking with cinematography, even more than the average ‘modern Hollywood’ style I find myself complaining about – there are so many close-ups of people simply speaking. On a surface level, this is such a bland film both aurally and visually, an absolutely lazy form of presentation.

Luckily for everyone involved with the project, a strong cast of comedic talents carry the film. Beyond Seth Rogen falling into a familiar role as a disheveled, opinionated mess and Charlize Theron perfectly capturing a comically bizarre take on a serious woman in power, many of the minor roles manage to steal their scenes. Bob Odenkirk plays the president, a former actor more concerned with making the leap from television to film once he’s done than his current role as the most powerful man in the world. Odenkirk is perfect at capturing that sort of self-serving narcissism. Andy Serkis plays an unrecognizable old man named Parker Wembley, the media tycoon that bought out Fred’s former company that is now setting his eyes on controlling Charlotte’s political stances. He’s as slimy as he needs to be, ugly enough that I felt bad for whoever the actor was before realizing it was Serkis caked in makeup.

The cycle of strong minor performances really highlights the overall feeling from this film – it’s a series of individually strong moments that don’t add up to much. Strangely, I could buy the central romance, but the politics are so glazed over, too much of it falling conveniently into place. I get that the filmmakers don’t want to ruffle any specific feathers – one obnoxious scene brings up the whole ‘you can be friends with someone across the aisle’ angle (largely obnoxious because I can’t believe a man such as Fred, who has built a career out of his charged political beliefs, wouldn’t have discussed these things with his friends) – but it ends up not saying much of anything at all.

But, oh boy, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t fun. I can forgive much of these complaints and say this is a movie well worth checking out if you simply want to be entertained for a few hours. If you like the kind of crude comedy Seth Rogen tends to star in, this should be exactly up your alley. It doesn’t aim for anything higher, but did anyone expect more?

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace is one of those mythical works of cinema that will forever be known as much for its troubled production and release as it is for its quality. Released over 40 years after being recorded in 1972, this is a simple concert film, a look at Aretha Franklin as she records both the best selling album of her own career and the best selling gospel album of all time.

This is an interesting document – it seems most of the truly legendary musical acts of the 20th century have at least one major cinematic work, and we have finally been graced with Aretha’s. It’s clear from looking into the production issues that a lot of time and effort was poured into making this presentable. But I can’t help but feel there’s something lacking – as nice as it is to see Aretha perform, it feels all too basic.

This film falls more on the Stop Making Sense end of concert films, sticking almost entirely on the performances. What makes Stop Making Sense one of the all time great films is how Talking Heads incorporates visual ideas into their performances – the slow addition of band members through the beginning, David Byrne’s massive suit, his frankly bizarre dancing. Amazing Grace lacks that visual spark, largely consisting of Aretha either sitting at a piano or standing at a podium. There are a few fun audience shots here and there, but that’s to be expected.

Standard isn’t too big of a sin – Aretha Franklin is one of the best musicians of the 20th century, and simply having such a recording is important for historical purposes. But I’d say this is far from one of the great concert films – it doesn’t help that, while being her apparent best selling album, Amazing Grace isn’t exactly what I think of when I think about Aretha Franklin. It’s so singular and niche, it really doesn’t capture the scope of her career. As Reverend James Cleveland says near the start of the film, Aretha Franklin could bring her energy to pretty much any song – there is power here, even to a non-religious person, through her phenomenal skill as a vocalist. But everything is so sedate in this setting that I really wish we could have a similar film where she tackles her popular classics.

Because it stays so focused on the music, there isn’t much information to be gained. The Reverend and her father both speak a bit about Aretha’s life, but it’s all rather simple information.

I don’t really have much more to say on this one – if you want to not just hear but see Aretha Franklin perform, this seems like the perfect release. But I’m not sure how much weight I would put on it otherwise. Because it chronicles a rather specific part of her career, I couldn’t imagine using this as an entry point for a new listener, which I could with something like Stop Making Sense. For Aretha, I think it’s best to give I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul a spin – Amazing Grace is simply a fun extra detail for those who really adore The Queen of Soul.

3.5 Stars Out of 5