Tag Archives: aubrey plaza

Obsession and Class from Coast to Coast: Good Time and Ingrid Goes West

In case any of you are worried, this isn’t a thinkpiece connecting these two movies. I know nothing about New York or LA as I’ve spent my entire life in the South and have spent a grand total of 5 days in both cities combined. I just wanted a “smart” way to connect two movies that I’ve seen and wanted to talk about because the content gods demand it.

Without further adieu…

Good Time

Good Time is less a movie than an adrenaline shot straight into the bloodstream. The Safdie Brothers have crafted a breathless descent into the underworld built out of tension and neon underlined by pulsing synth and captured with a camera that can’t seem to calm down.

It’s the story of a day and a night. A botched bank robbery lands Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) in hot water as his mentally handicapped brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is put in jail. The money Constantine got is basically useless (thanks to a dye pack), so he has to find 10,000 dollars in a night to get his brother bailed out and back under his care.

Good Time is the kind of propulsive and brutal thriller that only works like it does because it has a human heart beating at its core. This is an unfliching film, undoubtedly. It’s a grimy underbelly, an urban center that’s sprawling and unromantic, a poor side of New York that you don’t really see in films more often concerned with the artists and the wealthy of the city.

Yet, this is a movie that has an undeniable empathy for the people just trying to get along, just making something out of whatever they can find. Constantine is a criminal and a destructive person, ruining things for basically everyone he touches. But there’s no malice, he doesn’t carry a gun, everything feels like an animal lashing out for survival. And at the core, there’s a care, wanting his brother to be okay and healthy in the way that only he thinks is right.

That’s the animating impulse of Good Time, seeing what happens when fundamentally decent people are put into circumstances that make them into criminals and bad people. What survival really does take.

That animating impulse is also at the core of a career-best performance for leading man Robert Pattinson. His Constantine is constant, nervous energy, barreling forward constantly through every space, controlling and trying to control the situation in the hopes that he can finally pull his life together. Far from his normal reserve, Pattinson is all twitch, following along with the propulsive energy of the film and occupying every bit with breathless abandon. His final shot is a small masterpiece.

Credit must also be given to Benny Safdie, who takes on a tricky role (one that perhaps should go to an actual disabled actor) and does it with far more grace and sensitivity than anyone could expect. A man who just wants to live his life and do his best, who wants someone to care, Safdie pulls out a phenomenally reserved performance balanced against Pattinson’s constant motion.

It’s a film that balances those ideas. Moments of silence followed by moments of violence, all lit by neon. There’s not a blacklight or tube that the Safdie and Cinematographer Sean Price Williams don’t love and it gives the film an eerie alien glow, the feeling of looking into a world that isn’t your own. The score by composer Oneohtrix Point Never contributes, a beautiful and deafening synth that overwhelms the senses. This is a movie that patently refuses to back off you until the bitter end.

Outside of its final shots, the movie has trouble sticking the landing and has issues pulling its meaning. There’s also a thinkpiece to be had on its sterotype-based women characters. Good Time‘s never-stop, never-let-up, never-surrender imagery makes it hard to let that sink to deep in while you’re watching.

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West

Like if The Social Network was a cringe comedy instead of a sickeningly prophetic drama (that and Silicon Valley and you get all the problems with the tech industry octopus), Ingrid Goes West basically is one of the few movies to talk about “kids and their technology these days” without feeling technophobic, without feeling outdated already, but actually managing to dig under the surface of the place that public social media exhibition has taken in our lives.

After the death of her mother, an incident at the wedding of a friend/acquaintance/probably total stranger, and a stay in a mental hospital, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) decides to make a change and move out West to Los Angeles, California! Of course, it’s to follow and become best friends with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer, so it’s not all necessarily better.

Ingrid Goes West is something of a cringe drama. There’s plenty of dry, sharp comedy, but it’s not so much playing the cringe for comedy. This isn’t necessarily something like The Office. The cringe is revealing, the discomfort is about the people living through it. It’s like pulling your fingernails, it’s designed to make you talk.

Aubrey Plaza has never had a role that, while being slightly out of her wheelhouse, seemed more perfect for her. Rather than playing someone who doesn’t give a fuck, Ingrid gives entirely too many fucks. She’s desperate for approval and there’s this underlying sinister note to basically everything Plaza does that makes her a great villain and an even better broken person.

Plaza owns every bit of this film, scary and deeply relatable and making a frustratingly undynamic character feel like she’s going through the gamut, but by no means is she the only strong performance. Olsen is pitch-perfect casting as Taylor Sloane and she does a great job with the material given. O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing Batman-obsessed Dan, her landlord and confusing crush, is pitch-perfect, is playing the one truly decent human being in the film and projecting every ounce of that in a bonafide star turn.

There’s a lot to admire here, a strong and critical look at social media without indulging in technophobia or kids these days-ism is rare enough. I just wish director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith might have pulled a little more out of the material.

The raw materials are great and well-crafted, but it never quite feels pulled into a cohesive whole. The story goes in and implies a lot of different directions, but they never really end up going anywhere. Ingrid is incredibly well-explored and Dan is given plenty of nuance, but Taylor ends up one note for most of the movie, really underplaying Olsen’s skill. There’s an inherent frustration to a movie where no one learns, but it feels difficult to find the coherent ideology underlying everything.

Grade: B+

 

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Review Round-Up: Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planet and The Little Hours

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the sort of project birthed in the world to be an example of a high budget failure. After all, the whole thing:

  • Is starring two stars who have more name recognition than most, but less box office draw than almost all.
  • Is coming from a director who’s had huge successes and numerous flops.
  • Is based on a property that’s really big to a very small audience.
  • Looks really expensive because it is really expensive.
  • Has…some competition.
  • Has an entire advertising campaign based largely around hiding what the living fuck is happening in the movie.

It’s a shame because had this project been less blatantly thrown to the wolves, Valerian might have had something like a cult success. It’s rare to see a film this large feel this singular or bizarre or truly visually rich and there’s a lot going on here that is admirable. Yet it’s also not hard to see why this film is fated to do so poorly. It’s a total pacing and narrative mess and has so little charisma in and between the people leading its movie. It’s so good at things other major studio films are bad at, and so bad at things other major studio films are good at..

I’m not gonna bother summarizing all that much. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are agents working for the Human Government in the far-flung future. They look related but are not and Valerian has the hots for Laureline. They get sent on a mission to protect the Commander (Clive Owen) (whose actual political authority is ill-defined) and get wrapped up in a mystery involving a rat/frog that shits out pearls, colonialism, and various large set-pieces.

Let’s start with what it’s good at. Valerian is easily one of the most visually impressive movies to come out on a large scale in some time. Not necessarily speaking cinematographically or from an effects perspective, both qualities are strong if not necessarily over-the-top. I’m speaking from a design and imagination perspective.

Luc Besson has crafted a truly fantastic and alien world. Every frame is showing off something different or bizarre, every detail is creative. It’s just so much fun to pick through every moment and find something new, something that shows off the real power of cinema. There’s an actual inventiveness to the world-building, too rarely seen.

You’ve also got some great set-pieces. And by some great set-pieces, I’m talking very specifically about the Rihanna shape-shifting performance in the middle, which again all goes into the imagination that this film speeds with. It’s a movie that I can’t describe to you, you really have to see it to believe it.

It’s just hard to find the core of the movie here because the movie is deliberately distancing from the people pulling you through this world. Characters like Rihanna’s shapeshifter or Ethan Hawke’s space pimp (seriously) provide way more flavor than our leads, who have trouble ever sufficiently generating a belief that they like each other, much less that they’re madly in love. Delevingne is definitely at least the more interesting screen presence, but neither generate much more than a shrug.

It’s also that the movie around them maybe just never finds the momentum to pull things forward. Valerian is afflicted with a weirdly slack pacing, an already sprawling narrative never feels zippy enough to address everything that’s happening. And it’s a shame because there is some really strong material here. No spoilers, but Valerian gets essentially into an anti-colonialist message that demands empires take responsibility for their misdeeds. Good shit, but it’s a slog to get there.

Valerian is by no means as bad as its place in the landscape might tell you. It lacks the rapid clip that its contemporaries move at, as well as the often strong character work that populates the rest of the landscape. But a movie this bold and imaginative deserves some sort of consideration.

Grade: B-

The Little Hours

The Little Hours is perhaps one of the most literarily high-minded UCB improv shows ever. It’s not adapted from a particularly deep ASSSSCAT riff, but mostly improvised (by affiliated performers) and based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it can’t escape the weird worlds it’s been pulled between.

Perhaps that’s why The Little Hours never fully comes together. The tale of three ribald nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci), the officials who run their convent (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly), and the young man up shit creek who needs to hide out there (Dave Franco), The Little Hours seems poised to be a rollicking raunchy comedy with an unconventional setting.

Yet it’s also a surprisingly faithful retelling of that original Decameron story and plays into those dramatic beats. There’s plenty of time spent on the actual dramatic contours of these characters, poising the movie to be closer to something like a dramedy, a raunchy movie that actually wants to explore these characters.

Director/writer Jeff Baena has certainly set out for ambitious waters, and on that, I admire it. Yet I think it has troubles truly navigating what it needs to do to make it through the course it’s charted.

Much of it starts at this film’s pacing issues. It’s a weirdly slack, slow, low-energy film for the dirty, loud, raunchy jokes it’s trying to tell. You can perhaps see what the intention was. That you would break up this idyllic Italian landscape with these filthy jokes. But The Little Hours never gets up the energy to sell these jokes, delivering Andrew Dice Clay with the energy of Todd Barry, never feeling like it’s doing it on purpose.

That means from a comedy perspective, nothing is necessarily landing. It feels odd to say it, but I can literally see what they’re trying to do here and in theory I find it funny. But that pacing and the weird underplaying snuffs most of the jokes in the bed and The Little Hours never really gets more than a snort out of me. This movie is mostly improvised, and it kind of feels like talented improvisers who aren’t quite pulling things together.

Without the comedy working, the drama is mostly just hard to hook into. You care about characters and people who make you laugh, and when they don’t, the drama is just…there. Fine, I guess, nothing is bad. But not worth price of admission.

I wish I had more nice things to say, because I admire the ideas here. It’s a bold setting and it really does go off the rails in some interesting ways. But when the basic genre never feels like it works, it’s hard to recommend much about it.

Grade: C-

 

An Appreciation of Legion’s Existence and Why Jordan Peele Should Direct a Blockbuster

There’s not any real connection between these things, but it’s Thursday March 30th, both of these things are on my mind and I don’t quite want to make a full article out of both. So, without further adieu.

An Appreciation of Legion’s Existence

Wednesday night brought the season finale of Legion, the first live-action television show from the X-Men universe (that actually happened, unlike Generation X). Noah Hawley’s always off-kilter, never quite fully graspable drama garnered tons of critical love and just as much critical antipathy. In other words, Legion has people talking and arguing and giving shots cross the bow.

I come down on the side of critical love, in case anyone was wondering (You weren’t, I’m relentlessly positive). Legion is like nothing else on TV, a show that’s visually daring and as bold as narrative television gets. It’s relentlessly fun with some of the most bonkers action sequences I’ve ever seen on TV (a late-season fight plays out as a silent movie, complete with intertitles). It’s got a group of great actors all full of charisma, anchored by now-crowned leading man Dan Stevens and the show’s bedrock Rachel Keller. That group is then taken into the stratosphere by Aubrey Plaza, who legitimately deserves every award possible for her work on this show and for defying every image had of her. Plus, its first season actually managed to have its mysteries and then turn them into a satisfying narrative that it actually resolved.

But this isn’t just so much me elucidating the successes of Legion, there’s plenty of people who attack it in a more interesting way than I ever could. More, I want to simply step back and appreciate how insane it is that a show like this exists and appreciate what it’s managed to contribute.

Let’s be clear what Legion is. It’s a show that essentially allowed itself to exist outside of narrative reality for the overwhelming part of the season. It’s a show that compressed time down to the point where 3 episodes of the show took places over maybe half a second. It’s a show that was absolutely willing to go in its own direction and didn’t particularly feel the need to catch you up until it felt it was the right time.

In other words, it’s a show that pushed its medium, that felt as thought it was actively trying to carve its own path. You have to appreciate a show that took a property and made its own name and its own bones with it.

You also have to appreciate a show that almost single-handedly revived the cultural significance of the X-Men. The X-Men have been the red-headed stepchild in our brave new superhero-filled world, but between Legion and Logan, the two have made X-Men something exciting again because each leans into the inherent oddity and tone differences of the properties.

So yeah, Legion exists. That’s awesome.

Why Jordan Peele Should Direct a Blockbuster

For those of you who haven’t heard, Warner Brothers seems to be courting Jordan Peele, Hollywood’s hottest commodity after directing the smash-hit Get Outto direct one of its upcoming genre properties, either anime remake Akira or surprising DC Comics hot potato The Flash. 

The question here isn’t so much his suitability for either of those. Get Out showed a steady directorial hand and knowledge of genre tropes (a knowledge that’s been infused to all his work so far) that pretty much makes him capable of anything and makes me excited to see him direct either.

I will say that Akira would be more interesting. It’s a specifically Japanese story and I’m not thrilled about an American version, but courting Peele seems to point towards the one workable version of this thing. Akira spoke to a specific youth disaffection with Japanese society and the feeling that it exploited and abandoned them, a lost generation.

I sort of feel like, just maybe, that’s a story a Black male director could tell about the African-American youth experience. Set it in future Atlanta, cast a group of great young Black actors, have an artist as smart about race as Jordan Peele with a budget? Might be absolutely worth the years that people have been trying to get this potential shit off the ground.

Like I said, if there’s any way we’re going to tell an American story of this, Jordan Peele could be the one to pull it off. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Rather, we’re talking the general resistance I see to Peele doing a big-budget studio project at all, working with comic book/adapted property. There seems to be a general resistance to the idea of him not sticking with his planned “social horror” project and to the idea of him “giving into the machine.”

Look, I’m not necessarily thrilled that we won’t get more Get Out-style movies right away. We should absolutely have a hundred like it, all from Peele’s hand. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Peele takes a swing at big-budget directing.

First off, he absolutely has the talent for it. Get Out is a lot of things, but its most exciting story is the announcement of Peele as an amazing director. Only the most horrifying micromanaged studio project suffocate the talents of the best directors, see Alien 3. But given that the success of Get Out gives Peele more negotiation room than Fincher on Alien 3, and given that it’s Warner Brothers, I don’t think that should be the concern here.

The other is that taking company man swings like this are necessary. Doing the studio film is how you get big budgets for original movies and dream projects. Christopher Nolan doesn’t do The Prestige without Batman Begins or Inception without The Dark Knight. Guillermo del Toro makes Hellboy because of Blade 2. David Lynch makes Dune and talks Return of the Jedi for the hopes of making the smaller pictures that have made his name. Hell, Ava DuVernay is filming Wrinkle in Time right now.

This isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate reasons Peele might want to make Akira or The Flash. But I’m also saying that being willing to work on these big pictures with less personal attachment is what’s going to launch him into the stratosphere he deserves to be in, what makes him the money and gives him the trust to make things that are truly daring and expensive. And a good relationship with Warner Brothers is not a bad way to do that, their business model is giving people a fuckload of money to do whatever.

Peele is undoubtedly one of the next great directors, to the point where I wonder if it will be trivia that he was once a great sketch comedian. He can and should take some time to earn studio capital and has the talent to make something great while he does it.

Legion Season 1, Episode 1: I Can’t Believe This Show Actually Exists

Let’s begin with a brief history of the way that the X-Men and the various surrounding mutants have been treated in live-action over the years.

Like shit. History complete.

But seriously folks, if there was ever a franchise more consistently underperforming to its potential, it would be the X-Men. A rich group of characters with potent dramatic scenarios ripe with tension and subtext and cultural potential that constantly get shoved into action movies and action movies. Great individual portions (Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender) have never amounted to a necessarily cohesive whole, and it’s a universe that has ultimately had more failures than successes.

Which makes Legion (based on the character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz) all the more impressive for simply how much of a success it is coming out of a franchise that has so often settled for good at the best. This isn’t just “good for a superhero show.” This is great television, announced by a pilot that packs one of the most potent opening punches I’ve ever seen.

So…What The Hell Just Happened?

Legion is the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man currently living out his years in a mental ward after a schizophrenia diagnosis and a psychological break that has left him disconnected from reality. He shuffles through with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), going to his appointments, taking his pills, occasionally seeing his sister Amy (Katie Aselton).

One day, he meets another patient named Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller). She doesn’t like to be touched. He falls in love with her. On the day Syd is released, the two kiss, which causes David and Syd to switch bodies. Syd loses control and unleashes a torrent of power from David’s body, which draws the attention of the Government.

This is then intercut with scenes of interrogation by a mysterious figure (Hamish Linklater) who appears to be working with a shadowy governmental organization to keep David under their control, as they believe he may be one of the most powerful mutants who’s ever lived. This is also intercut with flashbacks to David’s childhood and his breakdown, flights of fancy (including a Bhangra musical number), and the recurring appearance of the unsettling “Devil with the Yellow Eyes.”

There’s a lot going on here, this is as linearly as I can tell the basics of this story.

What Works?

Where do we start?

This is probably one of the most aesthetically and formally ambitious television shows…ever. Showrunner and director of the pilot Noah Hawley has thrown down the gauntlet with the first episode of Legion. This is a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, hallucinatory dose of pure television insanity. 60s clothing and architecture clashes up against modern technology and villainy. The aspect ratio shifts constantly, there are time loops and unknown visions, and as I said, David and his mental ward companions break into a dance number.

I hate to be so cliche, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this on TV. Legion doesn’t care whether or not you can follow it, it’s so confident in the twistiness of its vision, borrowing heavily from Kubrick and the psychedelic and avant-garde filmmakers of the 60s. There’s something to admire in the basic level of a show that’s asking you to follow along with it and not necessarily minding if it leaves you behind. There’s such amazing confidence here that creates something so…fun out of something so fundamentally challenging.

See, this is where Legion crosses into great television. It’s mired in mythology and heavy ideas and psychedelic terror, but it glides through all that with such a sense of excitement, a giddiness that it brings you along with on every step. You’re having a lot of fun with what’s happening here, seeing the next twist the story will take, seeing the next little dark joke, marveling in the next visual firework.

Hawley seems to have abandoned necessarily sticking to the canon (the same success that led to the amazing Fargo) for finding the human and the extraordinary inside the property. It’s X-Men, but it feels like the product of a unique storyteller.

A storyteller who knows how to tell a story that welds its form to its function. You, the viewer, are absolutely as disoriented and as disconnected from reality as David is. You have no anchor on what the reality is, Hawley makes sure to keep you as off guard, as questioning as David. As the plot snaps into focus, we start to find our legs in the show, we lock into a story and into a reality.

It helps that there’s an extraordinary amount of talent here. Hawley’s direction I’ve said enough about, but his script crackles too, as much as it’s willing to let words get out of the way for images. It’s also willing to keep everything from getting buckled under the weight of “THIS ALL MATTERS” portentiousness and just have some fun.

Legion is also gifted with Dan Stevens at its lead. Stevens is a remarkable actor, absolutely in control of every aspect of his physicality and gifted with a truly staggering amount of charisma. The only thing Legion really takes from him are his good looks, turning him strung-out, but even through that he shines. His David is perfectly calibrated, constantly searching and processing and sorting through the haze of his unreality. There’s a casualness to his performance that really stands out, an acknowledgement of how normal this pain has become for him.

His supporting cast is still largely untested, but Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza definitely intrigue right away, and I’m dying to see what else they’re going to be able to do with them down the course of this show.

What Doesn’t?

If there’s anything I didn’t love here, it’s the future potential this pilot sets up. The plotline is clear here but the concern is how they’re going to keep this up while keeping some semblance of forward motion. Or more accurately, how do they balance the two of them? Legion could be a show of constant and incredible dazzling that becomes frustrating because it never really goes anywhere. It could also abandon all that makes it so unique in the pilot for a more conventional narrative. The pilot doesn’t do much to reassure how it’s going to pull off being a weekly show.

Soundtrack Cut of the Week.

There’s some great tracks, including “She’s A Rainbow” in slightly on-the-nose musical cue and “Happy Jack,” the track that kicks things off. But this week’s winner is “Pauvre Lola” by Serge Gainsbourg. It plays over the Bhangra number and is so delightful and unexpected and exactly what this show needs.

Fan Theory of the Week.

So, what is the Devil with the Yellow Eyes? Let’s go ahead and give out what I’m sure is the most common theory right now. Meet Mojo.

Mojo_(Mojoverse)_0001.jpg
Just saying what we’re all thinking.

Mojo is an X-Men villain who functions something like an intergalactic reality TV show producer. Besides the physical resemblance, there’s recurring motif of being monitored, of being watched, and David seeing the parts of his life playing out on TV, in addition to Hawley’s playing with aspect ratio and the cinematic form of the show. The possibility of Hawley using this whole thing to play with the idea of prestige television is too juicy to pass up, and Mojo could turn a show already playing with reality into an even more meta exercise. Food for thought.

Grade: A-