Mini Reviews (February 2018)
The Cloverfield Paradox, Entanglement, Poop Talk, Winchester, Better Watch Out, Lady Bird, The Insult, Happy End
The Cloverfield Paradox (February 5/18)
The third installment of the Cloverfield saga, The Cloverfield Paradox follows a group of scientists and astronauts as they attempt to solve Earth's energy crisis by kickstarting an experimental device. Filmmaker Julius Onah delivers a striking opening stretch that's as inventive as it is engrossing - the opening credits alone are incredibly well done - and The Cloverfield Paradox progresses into a compelling first half rife with memorable, stand-out moments. It's clear, as well, that the movie benefits substantially from the efforts of a uniformly top-notch cast, with stellar performers like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Aksel Hennie, and Elizabeth Debicki infusing their respective characters with perhaps more depth than the screenplay affords them. (And it's worth noting, too, that Chris O'Dowd steals every one of his scenes as a somewhat off-the-wall engineer.) And while the film remains quite watchable from start to finish, The Cloverfield Paradox segues into a fairly hit-and-miss midsection that seems to invent a new problem for the crew to fix every 15 minutes or so (ie there's not much momentum here or the feeling that it's all building towards something). The erratic atmosphere is compounded by a third act that's not quite as satisfying as one might've hoped (ie this isn't a story crying out for a slasher-like villain), and yet The Cloverfield Paradox, bolstered by a willingness to answer questions raised by the first two movies, ultimately establishes itself as a decent sequel that seems to promise further adventures in this universe (which would not be unwelcome, certainly).
Entanglement (February 8/18)
Entanglement casts Thomas Middleditch as Ben Layton, a depressive figure still reeling from a recent breakup and coping from a few failed suicide attempts when he meets and falls for a quirky woman named Hanna (Jess Weixler) - with the movie detailing the rocky trajectory of their inevitable relationship. There's little doubt that Entanglement gets off to an almost unreasonably underwhelming start, as director Jason James, working from Jason Filiatrault's script, delivers an excessively off-the-wall opening stretch that's rife with eye-rollingly idiosyncratic elements (eg a montage of Ben's unsuccessful efforts at killing himself). The introduction of Weixler's oddball character only perpetuates the movie's off-puttingly wacky atmosphere, as Hanna comes off as a prototypical example of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and, as such, it becomes virtually impossible to work up any real interest in or enthusiasm for Ben and Hanna's ensuing relationship. It's clear, then, that Entanglement benefits substantially from the stellar work of its two stars, as both Middleditch and Weixler deliver impressively strong work that's often far more considered and nuanced than the material seems to deserve. And although the actors' chemistry together ultimately translates into a somewhat watchable vibe, Entanglement's third-act twist, which attempts to bring context to the otherwise silly narrative, isn't able to pack the punch that James is obviously striving for and it's finally impossible to label the film as anything more than a lamentably forgettable misfire.
Poop Talk (February 14/18)
An almost astonishingly one-note documentary, Poop Talk boasts an assortment of familiar (and not-so-familiar) comedians talking about and relating stories of excrement in all its forms - with the film featuring appearances by, among others, Pete Holmes, Rob Corddry, Nikki Glaser, and Eric Stonestreet. It's clear almost immediately that director Aaron N. Feldman is going for a vibe similar to that of 2005's The Aristocrats, as Poop Talk relentlessly jumps from sound bite to sound bite from its various subjects, all of whom have been filmed in bland, nondescript locations. It's clear, then, that the movie, also like The Aristocrats, suffers from a hit-and-miss feel that only grows more predominant as time progresses, although, to be fair, the movie does feature a small handful of admittedly compelling, laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes (including Kumail Nanjiani's story of his youthful belief that he'll stop pooping if he eats just the right amount of food). Feldman's ongoing efforts at padding-out Poop Talk's 68 minute running time ensures that the movie is rife with unfunny, uninteresting segues, to be sure, and there's little doubt that certain subjects simply have nothing of value to contribute to the conversation. (This is especially true of virtually all of Nick Swardson's comments.) By the time Feldman begins eliciting his participants' thoughts on toilets, Poop Talk's place as a passable short that's been clumsily expanded to feature length has been confirmed - with the film best suited and destined to a life as clips on YouTube. (It would actually benefit from such a truncated presentation, undoubtedly.)
Winchester (February 19/18)
Inspired by true events, Winchester follows turn-of-the-century doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) as he agrees to travel to a sprawling California mansion and analyze the mental health of the grieving widow (Helen Mirren's Sarah Winchester) residing there - with spookiness ensuing as Eric becomes more and more convinced that the estate is also home to a seriously disgruntled ghost. It's clear immediately that filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig aren't looking to deviate too far from the haunted-house formula, as Winchester contains virtually every touchstone and cliche with which the genre is associated - including unreasonably deliberate pacing, a proliferation of eye-rolling jump scares, and a mid-movie emphasis on the central character's investigation into the spirit's past. The latter inevitably establishes itself as the movie's most aggressively underwhelming and flat-out needless element, as there's never a point at which the viewer is able to work up even an ounce of interest in Clarke's character's exploits - which is surprising, certainly, given the actor's decidedly above-average work here (and this is to say nothing of Mirren's typically commanding turn). And although the narrative's been peppered with a few decent sequences - there is, for example, a pretty compelling interlude involving a possession - Winchester ultimately comes off as an especially lackluster entry within a crowded and mostly disposable horror sub-category.
Better Watch Out (February 21/18)
Better Watch Out follows teenage babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) as she arrives at a residential home to take care of a young boy named Luke (Levi Miller), with the evening taking a definite turn for the sinister after armed intruders make their way inside the house (although this ultimately turns out to be the least of the characters' problems). It's a fairly familiar premise that's employed to consistently lackluster effect by director Chris Peckover, as the movie, though suffused with likeable protagonists, suffers from an overt lack of tension that drains the effectiveness from each and every scene. And although it does become clear that the suspense-free atmosphere exists for a reason, Better Watch Out segues into a midsection and second half that ultimately doesn't fare a whole lot better (despite the inclusion of a genuinely surprising twist). The most obvious problem with the movie's lackadaisical narrative lies in its inability to convincingly establish the threat, as there's simply never a point at which the antagonist is able to become the fearsome and frightening villain that Peckover has clearly intended - with this problem compounded by a performance that remains wholly unimpressive from start to finish. And although the third act boasts a handful of appreciatively brutal kills, Better Watch Out closes on a fairly underwhelming note that confirms its place as a disappointing misfire.
Lady Bird (February 27/18)
Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut, Lady Bird follows Saoirse Ronan's title character as she attempts to navigate the final year of her high school experience - with the film detailing Lady Bird's squabbles with her parents (Laurie Metcalf's Marion and Tracy Letts' Larry) and her relationships with two very different boys (Lucas Hedges' Danny and Timothée Chalamet's Kyle). Writer/director Gerwig delivers a familiar yet charming narrative that contains virtually all of the touchstones one associates with the coming-of-age genre, and yet, for the most part, Lady Bird comes off as a pervasively affable dramedy that benefits from Gerwig's relatively authentic approach and a smattering of superb performances. In terms of the latter, Ronan's excellent turn as the movie's conflicted protagonist is matched by an exceedingly strong supporting cast - with, in particular, Metcalf and Letts delivering seriously impressive work as Lady Bird's exasperated folks. And although Gerwig's screenplay is rife with sometimes unreasonably recognizable elements - eg Lady Bird squabbles with her parents, Lady Bird has boy problems, Lady Bird drops her unpopular friend for a popular one, etc, etc - Lady Bird, notwithstanding an ending that comes about five minutes too late, comes off as a solid debut from a promising new filmmaker.
The Insult (February 28/18)
A well-intentioned misfire, The Insult follows city employee Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) as he raises the ire of a bigoted mechanic (Adel Karam's Tony Hanna) while attempting to do his job - with the ensuing conflict between the pair paving the way for a long, contentious court case. The Insult immediately faces an uphill battle in terms of capturing one's interest thanks to Karam's seriously obnoxious and unlikable protagonist, as filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, working from a script cowritten with Joelle Touma, establishes Tony as a smug, smarmy villain right from the get-go and, eventually, attempts to transform him into a sympathetic figure. (The degree to which this simply doesn't work is palpable, as it's as absurd and ridiculous a maneuver as attempting to soften a virulent Ku Klux Klan member.) And although the movie's initial courtroom encounter is admittedly quite riveting, The Insult progresses into a fairly absurd midsection devoted entirely to Kamel and Tony's drawn-out and progressively tiresome court case - with the trial's one-note nature compounded by Doueiri's decidedly less-than-subtle approach (ie it's never not completely apparent what Doueiri is attempting to do here in terms of the movie's political message). The director's heavy-handed sensibilities ultimately render the film's few positive attributes moot - this isn't surprising, certainly, given that Doueiri actually stops the narrative to deliver a history lesson about midway through - and it goes without saying, finally, that The Insult is a misbegotten endeavor that isn't able to make the searing impact intended by Doueiri.
Happy End (February 28/18)
An almost prototypically underwhelming effort from Michael Haneke, Happy End follows several members of an affluent French family as they go about their lives over the course of a few especially eventful weeks - with the narrative detailing, for example, the exploits of a troubled young girl (Fantine Harduin's Eve) sent to live with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz's Thomas) and an older man ( Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges) determined to kill himself. Filmmaker Haneke's now eye-rolling penchant for attempting to jolt the viewer is firmly in place right from the outset, as Happy End opens with the apparent death of a hamster and proceeds into a comparatively tame narrative that nevertheless boasts a handful of "shocking" (yet ineffective) moments. Haneke, working from his own screenplay, delivers a meandering narrative that generally resembles a typical domestic drama (albeit one that withholds pivotal information from the viewer until the last possible minute), with the ongoing inclusion of seemingly nonsensical elements and segues certainly perpetuating Happy End's semi-watchable yet thoroughly hands-off atmosphere. (What are we to make, for example, of a thoroughly bizarre karaoke sequence?) The somewhat captivating final stretch ensures that the whole thing ends on a relatively strong note, though it's ultimately unable to compensate for an otherwise uninvolving atmosphere.