Kicking the Tweets

Mermaids (1990)

Sliding Scales

In the late 1980s, pop culture anointed Winona Ryder to be the omniscient, angst-ridden voice of a movie generation. Between narrating Edward Scissorhands’ bookend bed-time story; Heathers’ journal-reading snark; and Mermaids’ tumble down Memory Lane, the actress’ sweet, wobbly delivery invited audiences into her characters’ confidence; her wide outsider’s eyes evoked the eternal teenage conflict between pre-adult hesitancy and the brazenness of unchecked youth. By playing it straight in worlds dominated by wildly askew main characters, Ryder grounded these films’ truly out-there critiques of reality.

The trouble with Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids (based on the novel by Patty Dann) is that Ryder plays 15-year-old Charlotte Flax with the same quirky gusto that Cher puts into the role of her mother, Rachel. The Flaxes (including youngest daughter Kate, played by Christina Ricci) change cities and states with alarming regularity, thanks to mom’s near-clinical fear of commitment to men, to jobs, to setting down roots. Progressive stuff for 1963, and the latter part of the film zeroes in on Charlotte’s expressions of rebellion, which include smoking, talking back, and sleeping with a local handyman (Michael Schoeffling) nine years her senior.

These acts break the bonds of repressive Catholic guilt that have at once weighed Charlotte down for much of her life, and offered her a constant source of discipline and ritual in a household where both are dirty words (ironically, Rachel is a non-practicing Jew). Unfortunately, Ryder’s narration in the first half plays like cartoon thought balloons, turning "unclean" impulses into ham-handed jokes in scenes that often follow Cher’s character having done something equally off-the-wall. Throw in Bob Hoskins’ jitterbugging eyebrows (they’re attached to the semi-character with whom Rachel becomes briefly infatuated), and you have a calamitous overdose of “comedy” that leaves reality so far behind that entire stretches of story cease to mean anything.

Not surprisingly, the film’s shift toward a more adult tone coincides with the death of John F. Kennedy. As the world faces a dark new reality, so, too, do the Flaxes learn that if they’re going to survive as a family, they need to at least confront the void at which they constantly hurl barrels of sarcastic avoidance. Even then, it takes a near-drowning incident involving Kate to bring matters into focus; I was relieved that screenwriter June Roberts (and, by extension, I assume, Patty Dann) don’t try to “fix” the Flaxes by having them suddenly understand the benefits of conformity. They’re still oddball creatures deserving of their own travelling ecosystem, but they adopt just enough of the outside world’s social norms to be considered more than dysfunctional.

This is a nice little arc, on paper. But the reality of watching Mermaids is not so rewarding. The movie feels like a betrayal of Ryder’s gifts, relegating a master empath to sideshow-attraction status and pulling something akin to an identity switch in the second half.


Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town (2018)

I Dare You to Love Me

As a title, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town does two jobs:

A) It grabs moviegoers’ attention in an overcrowded marketplace that is, frankly, starved for audacity.

B) It challenges media outlets to run uncensored coverage of the film and, consequently (or at least potentially), grows its audience.

Both scenarios are plausible and obnoxious, which is also a great way to describe wannabe L.A. rocker, Izzy (Mackenzie Davis), whom we meet as a fiery train wreck in progress. She wakes up in a stranger’s bed with no idea where she is, how she got there, or how good (or bad) the sex was. Her catering outfit is smeared with wine (or possibly vomit mixed with blood and wine), and the creaky floors in this alien house make it difficult to leave without stirring her unconscious partner.

He wakes up and (re-)introduces himself as George (Lakeith Stanfield), a bookish helicopter pilot who mistakes Izzy’s small talk and request for a lift back to her friend's house as a sign of genuine interest. Izzy is still hung up on her ex, Roger (Alex Russell), whom, she learns via Instagram a short while later, is having an engagement party that night. With no car, no money, and nowhere else to go (her expectant friend has just kicked her out), she hustles, pedals, and scoots across L.A. in the hopes of convincing Roger to rescue her from a life of directionless poverty.

Izzy is almost impossible to like at the outset. But writer/director Christian Papierniak subtly and superbly flips our expectations during this long, weird journey so that, by the end, we follow the arc of his character’s narcissism from a place of aggravating self-involvement to one of enlightened self-improvement. Somewhere between begging for odd jobs from a shut-in computer programmer (Haley Joel Osment); to catching a glimpse of things to come in a lovelorn pack-rat (Annie Potts); and singing a duet of Heavens to Betsy’s “Axemen” at a Christmas party, her mission to whisk Roger away from wedded bliss becomes murky: Does she have anything to offer Roger beyond nostalgia and youthful passion? If so, is it fair to herself to hide out in the past instead of forging a meaningful future?

Like Trainspotting, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town starts as an energetic, hyper-stylized ode to irresponsibility before settling into a fittingly somber mood. Papierniak underscores Izzy’s addiction to romanticized notions of fate through rose-tinted dream sequences and a nine-chapter structure marked by rock-club-poster title cards. As the film progresses, these elements take on new form and meaning, which track with the engagement party countdown. Izzy comes to realize just how much the world around her has moved on while she spent years reeling from a series of professional setbacks and personal betrayals (not all of which involve Roger).

Papierniak's visual execution of this theme is remarkable. Those dream sequences smash-open the movie, and Izzy's subsequent freak-outs and manic unpleasantness are played so big that it's easy to dismiss her as a character. In later chapters, the director dials back the quick-cutting and the focus on oddballs, introducing us to Izzy's dysfunctional family and, at long last, to Roger. In one of my very favorite scenes from any movie, Papierniak uses light and close-up to transport the star-crossed couple from their turbulent present to their idyllic early dating life and back again. It's here that Mackenzie Davis dredges up Izzy's deepest vulnerabilities, playing them as earnestly as the callous notes she'd employed for much of the rest of the film.

From this pivotal scene onward, Davis and Papierniak break through the layers of self-deception and doubt that have held Izzy back for nearly half a decade. Even in a zero-hour twist during which things seem to work out in the unlikeliest of ways, the screenplay and performance find their way back to truth. It is here, faced with the real-world understanding of what relationships are, what they aren't, and what they could be, that Izzy discovers her inner rock star--the badass who's unafraid to give the middle finger to anyone, even if that person is some pathetic and no-longer-useful version of herself.

Believe it or not, I've left out a lot of story details. This pains me, but there are performances and revelations in Papierniak's film that I would spoil only under penalty of death--no matter how much it pains me not to be able to praise them. The third act (or, I guess, the final three chapters) infrequently stall out in "surprise relationships" mode, but they lead to some wonderfully heartfelt confrontations, so we'll call that a draw. Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town takes some getting used to, and the title tries way too hard to stand out. But if that's what it takes to put eyeballs on one of the year's best, most surprising films, so be it.


Lu Over the Wall (2017)

Water You Afraid Of?

You can read politics into most anything these days, and doing so has become America's second national pastime. It's a fun, infuriating, and potentially dangerous hobby, the full effects of which we likely won't know for forty years. But in the meantime, why not burn the midnight oil wondering about what a sitcom does or doesn't mean; whether a musician's outrageous behavior can be pinned on mere theatricality, bona fide insanity, or (heaven forbid) deep-seated yet potentially unpalatable beliefs; or whether or not an animated Japanese film was really meant as a critique of a world increasingly divided by myths and misconceptions?

Masaaki Yuasa's Lu Over the Wall is a charming, family-friendly animated feature that jumps off the screen with upbeat music, hyper-alive colors, and a title character whose endearing sweetness may give you cavities. Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida create a near-tangible reality within the Japanese island village of Hinoshi. The small population seems evenly split between technology-obsessed teenagers; too-busy-to-do-anything-but-work adults; and a winnowing population of elders who guard against an ancient superstition involving Merfolk.

The waters surrounding Hinoshi are dangerous, you see, inhabited by vicious creatures who devour and/or abduct anyone foolish enough to venture outside the city after dark. This narrative has prevailed through generations, inspiring a tradition of hanging white-painted sea urchin husks outside homes and business (it represents the sun), and spawning the legend of nearby Merfolk Island, where no one dare tread.

Enter Kai (Shôta Shimoda), a sullen teen transplant from Tokyo who finds himself drafted into a burgeoning rock band by peppy local aspirants Kunio (Sôma Saitô) and Yûho (Minako Kotobuki). When Kai joins his new friends at their practice space in the ruins of Merfolk Island, he meets Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a sprightly child mermaid who is attracted to the group's songs. In this world, music is not only figuratively transformative, it changes Lu's floppy fish tale into a manic set of dancing legs.

Lu Over the Wall follows in the tradition of E.T., with a small team of sassy kids protecting their lovable alien discovery from the suspicious adults all around them. Lu uses her abilities to help Kai in a swimming contest, thwart bullies, and even open up to his dad, still reeling from a recent divorce. Of course, trouble comes calling when Lu is discovered by the townsfolk during an impromptu flash mob at the beach (it's actually weirder than it sounds), and the movie unfolds as a cautionary tale about the dangers of holding on to outdated beliefs and prejudices in the face of new evidence (and, going a step further, the dangers of not allowing that evidence to be presented).

All hell breaks loose on Hinoshi as Lu's father, a cunning and very protective antrhopomorphized shark, comes looking for his daughter. The ensuing carnage creates an atmosphere in which action replaces communication, and it's only through dumb luck that both humankind and Merfolk don't wipe each other out. It's like a grim version of The Lego Batman Movie's climax, in which unlikely alliances band together to save the day--minus the shiny, irony-coated plastic of that film's overall mood. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that everything works out in the end, since the climactic flooding of Hinoshi leads to some genuine disaster-movie scenarios for which parents will definitely want to be in the room.

I don't know if the writers and artists who created Lu Over the Wall set out to comment specifically on American politics, or if their film is simply a recurring tragedy that pops up across nations and generations. Whichever the case, both children and adults can learn a lot from Lu, Kai, and the various factions that come into conflict as a result of their "forbidden" friendship. We really do need to learn to talk to each other; to listen to each other; and to recognize the dignity of the self, even amidst typhoons of accusation, rumor, and presuppositon. If people who hold opposing political, religious, or social beliefs can't find commonality beneath our myriad divisive labels, we'll be forced to accept the harsh judgment of cosmic commonality, which will drown us all, indiscriminately.


Terminal (2018)


Just as Gotham City and Metropolis are separated by a puny river in the latest incarnation of DC’s movie universe, I’d imagine there being less than a millimeter’s distance on a map between Frank Miller’s Sin City and The Precinct, the equally hard-boiled urban setting of writer/director Vaughn Stein’s Terminal. Both towns are ridiculously small, thematically colorful, and populated exclusively by lascivious, alcoholic bruisers and femmes fatale whose overlapping adventures reveal corrupt institutions held precariously intact by shadowy voyeurs. But in terms of mystery (a selling point of any good noir), these films are worlds apart.

Terminal’s (ahem) terminal narrative flatness can be traced back to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, which posits that “all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie's plot: This 'mystery' person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous." In a movie like Terminal, whose main cast is only five roles deep, well, let’s just say the character economy isn’t exactly bustling—which is a problem when the eighth-of-the-run-time climax hinges on a revelation that one might deduce from watching the first five minutes (or glancing at the movie poster).

Margot Robbie plays Annie, a sometimes-waitress/sometimes-exotic dancer/sometimes-something-or-other, who wants nothing more than to ascend the Precinct’s underworld, which appears to be based around a perpetually empty train station overseen by the elusive Mr. Franklin (see poster for details). Annie lays out her plan to a priest during confession: she’ll turn the city’s top assassins (Max Irons and Dexter Fletcher) against each other, simultaneously proving her worth and filling a vacuum. Coinciding with the “A” Plot is a side story in which Annie counsels a despondent diner patron named Bill (Simon Pegg), who, following a cancer diagnosis, can muster neither the courage to live nor to die.

Taken on their own, and in Stein’s capably stylish hands, these ideas could have made for fun (if familiar) twenty-minute vignettes in a Netflix anthology series. Unfortunately, there’s an hour-plus of filler stuffed in between the fleeting bursts of momentum, resulting in a pace-challenged collection of dramatic set pieces disguised as a movie. It’s gaudy filler, too, marked by Lit 101 allusions to Alice in Wonderland and  Film 102 references to Pulp Fiction—complete with a suitcase Maguffin and contentious banter between two colorful hitmen, one of whom is named Vincent.

It’s fun to watch Robbie and Pegg stretch as performers: the former exploring a more nuanced brand of crazy than she exhibited in Suicide Squad; the latter refining his unique blend of empathy and black humor, which pays off in ways so unexpected as to require a Usual Suspects-style re-watch.

Then there’s Mike Myers. I don’t envy the actor’s high-wire balancing act, which requires creating a creepy, pathetic new character that does not also bring to mind the comically pathetic characters in his repertoire. He falls off the rope early on. Worse yet, a late-stage costume change conjures specific memories of an iconic Myers identity, inspiring titters rather than the tingles I assume Stein had hoped for. At this moment, the film officially shrinks from city to subdivision, channeling soap-opera surprises and the end of Sucker Punch (ham minus Hamm, as it were).

I can recommend Terminal as a good time, visually. Stein’s feature-film debut commanded my attention and respect, particularly in the handling of sets and shots that feel at once crayon-playful and tetanus-filthy. His take on the “rabbit hole”--a bottomless, glowing chasm that cuts to the Precinct’s perverse heart--is the one Alice reference that lands without a sickening thud, and I will definitely be on board for whatever story calls to him next. I just hope it’s a destination instead of a tourist trap at the end of an unkempt, unremarkable highway.


Traffik (2018)

Arresting Developments

I was tired heading into Act Three of Traffik. The novelty had worn off, and whatever dashes of style that writer/director Deon Taylor brought to his city-couple-in-small-town-danger thriller, it seemed, wouldn't be enough to save this gussied-up chase-through-the-woods picture. The film's title and premise hint at an international sex-slave ring, but with a half-hour to go, the strongest connection I could draw was Paula Patton running around in a tight, dirty red top. Few would have blamed me for cutting and running.

This, my friends, is why you never, ever, ever walk out of a movie before it's over. Though Taylor subconsciously homages The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and its myriad imitators) throughout, Traffik stops just short of settling for a horror climax in which the beautiful, bloody, half-naked girl kills the bad guys and stomps out a global conspiracy with her will to live and a well-swung axe.

Let's rewind.

Brea (Patton) and John (Omar Epps) are a mid-thirties couple on the verge of getting married. John's best friend, a fast-talking, trouble-making sports agent named Darren (Laz Alonso), gives them the keys to the Sacramento mansion where his clients luxuriate in their off time. On their winding drive up the mountains, John and Brea stop to refuel and, of course, end up at a horror-movie gas station. Between the shifty cashier, the leering biker gang out front, and the strung-out waif dropping ominous clues to Brea in the bathroom, our heroes should very well have headed back home and asked Darren if their palatial getaway had a helipad they could use instead.

But, no, the movie continues on up the mountain, where Brea and John discover they're not alone. I won't dive further into plot developments, except to say that not everyone lives through the inevitable home siege initiated by a mid-level pimp (Luke Goss) on a mission to get back evidence of the titular sex-trafficking organization. Instead, I'd like to talk about the three bright, shining keys to Traffik's success.

The first is Patton. Her performance teetered on annoying for much of the film. Brea, ostensibly a respected and very intelligent journalist, acts like a giddy, guy-fantasy girl right up to the moment when all hell breaks loose. Patton plays her as airy, seemingly always on the verge of hysterics (similar to the reasons people made fun of Jennifer Love Hewitt in the 90s). In the end, though, as Brea comes to terms with what she's really up against, and the life-altering choice she makes in order to confront it, you can see wisdom flood into Patton's eyes. Intentional or not, the filmmakers give us a character who embodies Traffik's mission statement: beneath the comparably ridiculous lives led by so many Americans lies an undercurrent of human exploitation and misery that, once seen, cannot be scrubbed from the soul.

Speaking of soul, cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights the cosmic spark that elevates Taylor's writing and direction. The veteran DP brings the same "A" game to this $5 million indie as he did to mainstream powerhouses like Heat and the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp. His technique evolves with the story, framing and lighting earlier scenes involving a circle of well-to-do friends with all the aspirational gloss of a casino-resort commercial; later, as Brea sinks into the gooey, black depths of conspiracy, Spinotti gets down in the muck with her (and drags us along, gasping), only to emerge with a tarnished version of that initial carefree aesthetic. In transition, eagle-eyed viewers will catch an homage to L.A. Confidential's misty, back-lit climax in which the villains prepare to close in for the kill--another Spinotti special.

I mentioned before that Traffik's premise was in danger of being lost somewhere in the second act. Fortunately, Taylor doesn't let us off the hook, and jumps genres on a dime in the final stretch. Brea comes face to face with the horrors of modern-day slavery; as she points out to another character late in the film, the technology might have changed, but the deplorable practice is practically as old as human history. Taylor doesn't turn his thriller into a "Message Movie" per se, but he makes it impossible to dismiss Traffik as a disposable joyride in which good triumphs over evil. By the time the credits role, I dare say you'll be compelled to find out what you can do to knee-cap this very real global epidemic.

The movie is far from perfect. We are presented with two instances of police assistance showing up way too quickly (like, Harold & Kumar quickly); there's the missing-sat-phone-case incident; and Darren's secret coke habit manifests in a way that is both inconvenient and unintentionally (?) hilarious. There's also not enough Missi Pyle in the film. This is wholly a matter of personal bias, but I could watch an entire film about her local-sherrif character (true in her early scenes--doubly so by the end).

So, yes, on first viewing, Traffik was just compelling enough for me to be disappointed that the second act appeared to devolve into a movie I'd seen a hundred times before. But that last half-hour--damn, it's good. I tend to rate thrillers based on how many times I reflexively go hand-to-mouth in shock. Taylor got me twice. More importantly, at the end, I put my hand over my heart in a rare display of exhilaration and indescribable sadness.