Sunday, August 07, 2016

Star Trek Beyond/Suicide Squad/Jason Bourne (mild spoilers)


When you set up an alternate timeline, what should you do with it? That question confronts the creative team (producer J.J. Abrams, co-writer Simon Pegg, new director Justin Lin, etc.) behind the Star Trek franchise in the new Star Trek Beyond. The previous installment Into Darkness was a disappointing retread of the Khan storyline with a starry turn from an uncomfortable-looking Benedict Cumberbatch. That film seemed to be fan service for an audience that was happy with the Khan film it already had, thank you very much, and if you saw it and questioned the creative direction of the franchise then you weren't the only one. Bringing in Simon Pegg (who already plays Mr. Scott) in as co-writer on Beyond was an inspired idea. Pegg, co-writing with Doug Jung, has an irreverence of spirit that Star Trek could use right now, and Beyond is an exuberant if sometimes too busy attempt to work with a new formula.

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew spend most of Beyond on an previously unknown planet after their ship is destroyed in a surprise attack by Krall (Idris Elba), who wants an artifact that Kirk has hidden on board. Idris Elba is powerful actor, and he's good here, but Krall's motivations are too hastily crammed in during a late scene and I was confused as to why the character's appearance changes. Judging by the action scenes - and Beyond has more action than any Trek film I remember - Justin Lin is happy to be here, but while Lin is good at conveying a sense of the Enterprise as a physical object he sometimes loses track of characters during battle scenes. The charisma of the cast saves Lin though, with Quinto, Karl Urban (as McCoy), and Sofia Boutella (as an alien who allies with the Enterprise crew) especially good. There are a few ideas tossed around about how the Federation's vision of galactic harmony might not work for everyone, but at its heart Beyond is descended from Westerns or war films in which a small group of people must do a difficult thing. Star Trek got better by getting simpler, a lesson that other film franchises would do well to remember.






  • Suicide Squad
    spends so much time setting itself up and introducing everyone that it's no wonder the actual story feels so wildly inconsequential. I had some hope for this film because of writer/director David Ayer (Fury, Training Day), whose previous work suggests he understands that there is no such thing as meaningless violence. Ayer's world view is probably best reflected in the character of Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin whose taste for his work has waned because of separation from his young daughter. Deadshot is part of a Dirty Dozen-type crew put together by a government official (Viola Davis) who isn't sure how to protect America in a world without Superman. (Oh yes, we're back in the "DC Universe") Also on board is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), psychiatrist turned moll of the Joker (Jared Leto, in a role that Ayer treats as a subplot). Robbie is both the best and worst thing about Suicide Squad; she gives her scenes an welcome jolt of nervous energy but Ayer isn't really interested in how damaged the character is. (More details here.)

     
    The plot involves a witch who has inhabited the body of a Squad member (Cara Delevingne) and requires Deadshot and the others to kill an untold number of civilians whom the witch has turned into her army. The fact that Suicide Squad takes itself a hair less seriously than Batman v Superman makes Ayer's turn to Urban Disaster Porn all the more callow, and it reinforces the idea of the DC Universe as an airless and joyless place. I had my issues with the latest Captain America film but at least most of the Marvel pictures make a nod towards how their characters fit into the civilian world. I'm looking forward to seeing Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman fight in World War I, but otherwise the DC horizon - box office records be damned - is looking bleak.






  • If characters in a movie are going to look at video monitors as much as they do in Jason Bourne then it helps to hire a couple of Oscar winners to do the looking. Star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass didn't strictly need to to make a film about Jason Bourne popping up on the CIA radar after all these years, but Jason Bourne benefits greatly from the fact that Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander play the people chasing Bourne. While the new film is entertaining enough, it falls into the already too-familiar plot about the dangers of implementing an all-powerful surveillance system. Marvel, James Bond, and even Fast & the Furious have all been there. There's a nod to Eurozone financial troubles when Greengrass stages a chase during a protest in Athens, but the attempt to flesh out Bourne's motivations for joining the Agency feels like something that should have been done already. Indeed, the take away from Jason Bourne isn't the danger of overreach by intellgence agencies or Greengrass and his talent for shooting action. You'll walk out of Jason Bourne thinking: They want to make more.

    Saturday, July 16, 2016

    By the Sea


    I wonder if back in the heady days of Tomb Raider anyone could have guessed what a chilly director Angelina Jolie would turn out to be. Unbroken was a dull film of a great story, and in By the Sea Jolie (who here wrote and directed under the name Angelina Jolie Pitt) goes the High Art route in telling a story of a failing marriage. Roland (a game Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) arrive at a French seaside hotel - we're sometime in the late '60s/early '70s - where Roland hopes to do some writing. Is Roland a successful writer who's blocked or merely an someone with aspirations to greatness? Good luck figuring it out, because the film fails to convey anything about the act of writing. Vanessa is unhappy for reasons which aren't revealed until late in the film but which aren't hard to guess. Roland's writing sessions turn into drunken conversations with a bartender (Niels Arestrup) who also serves as a Dispenser of Truth while Vanessa alternately sulks, reads, and spies on the honeymooning young couple next door.

     That's right, honeymooners next door. Is By the Sea Jolie's attempt to write an Albee play? This insistently theatrical conceit finds Vanessa and Roland playing voyeur while Lea and Francois (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Popaud) enjoy the first days of their marriage. While Jolie's performance contains some moments of touching vulnerability, her script leaves Vanessa a mystery in the end. An extra on the DVD suggests that Jolie regards Gena Rowlands as something of a guiding spirit. Excellent choice, but By the Sea only brushes up against the volatility of Rowlands' greatest work. Jolie can direct, but here's hoping her next film has more fully fleshed out material.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2016

    Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


    Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is loosely inspired by a Craigslist post written by Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam Devine and Zac Efron), two brothers looking for dates for a family wedding. Given its origins the film is funnier than it should be, and that is due to the way the leads fully commit to playing dumb. Efron's Dave is marginally smarter than his brother, but the two are embracing the bro life much to the displeasure of their father (Stephen Root). Ordered to bring "nice girls" to the wedding of their sister (Sugar Lyn Beard), Mike and Dave take their search to the Internet and wind up minor celebrities on the Wendy Williams show. Down and out best friends Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) see the brothers' on television and quickly devise a plan to manipulate the Stangles into a trip to Hawaii. Mike and Dave works best when everyone is being crazy; Efron has already proven in the Neighbors films that he can play an almost baroque level of stupidity, while Kendrick reveals a previously unseen talent for broad comedy and the ever sarcastic Aubrey Plaza is used perfectly. Supporting roles are filled out by funny actors like Mary Holland, Alice Wetterlund, and especially Kumail Nanjiani.  The energy sags when the plot requires people to start being nice to each other and reevaluating their lives, but until then Mike and Dave will do for a fix for those missing their summer dose of Apatow.

    Sunday, June 12, 2016

    The Nice Guys



    Shane Black's hugely entertaining and very funny The Nice Guys is a private eye picture with jokes. The distinction between that description and straight comedy is a meaningful one, as Black (still best known perhaps for writing the original Lethal Weapon) respects the detective genre and doesn't ignore the consequences of violence. The heroes - or "tarnished heroes", as Black described them on a recent podcast - are private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and unlicensed, low-rent enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). In 1977 Los Angeles the two are working opposite ends of a case that touches the porn industry, Detroit auto companies, the Justice Department, and a missing young woman (Margaret Qualley). The case, while comprehensible, is only the excuse for a movie about people on the margins that finds two top-drawer actors stepping out of familiar territory.

    Ryan Gosling, on something of a comic run after this and The Big Short, plays March as a man who has forgotten how talented he is. Drinking too much and guilty after a personal tragedy, March is barely able to care for his daughter Holly when Healy arrives at his door. Special mention must be made of Angourie Rice as Holly; she more than holds her own with older costars and pulls off all the moments when Black's script (written with Anthony Bagarozzi) makes her the film's conscience. Gosling is as loose and funny as he has ever been, and he and Crowe are able comic partners. Russell Crowe either gained weight or padded up for this role, but when two thugs brace him at his apartment Healy is able to dive over a couch and come up firing. There's a slapstick quality to much of the gunplay, and Black turns the hotel where the climax takes place into a sort of life-sized Rube Goldberg machine with March falling off ledges and through multiple layers of glass. The laughs don't obscure the fact that the bullets hit people, and the death of one character is carried out with a brutality that calls the efficacy of March and Healy's mission into question.

    In the podcast I linked to above, Shane Black describes how his early love of pulp detective novels influenced his writing. The end of The Nice Guys has a rueful cynicism that would do John D. MacDonald proud, but the joy of how Black executes his tale is a welcome gift from a sometimes cold cinematic universe.

    Sunday, June 05, 2016

    The Lobster



    The Lobster runs societal conventions of coupling and connectedness through a dark, satirical gauntlet, and the result is tonally unlike any other film I've seen in a great while. A man named David (Colin Farrell), newly single, is sent to a hotel where he and all the other new single guests are put on the clock. If they don't find suitable partners within 45 days then each will be turned into the animal of his or her choosing. David, whom Farrell plays in low-key schlub mode, chooses a lobster for the animal's long life span and fertility and is congratulated on his originality by the hotel's manager (Olivia Colman). David makes a couple of male friends (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) at the hotel but finding a new partner is slower work; it involves awkward dances and trying to find the one characteristic that will signal a perfect match to a female guest. What exactly is going on here? The Lobster comes from the find of cowriter/director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose earlier Dogtooth (unseen by me) was a smaller scale story of an attempt to control understanding of the way we perceive the world. Lanthimos finds no joy or even much humanity in the prospect of the hotel guests partnering up. David and his fellow singles are forced to watch bizarrely dry demonstrations in which a hotel maid (Ariane Labed) and her coworkers act out that the reason to be together is so that things like choking or sexual assault might be avoided.

    David and his friends can extend their stay by hunting "Loners", a band of single people who live in the forest outside the hotel. Each Loner captured earns an extra day's stay, and David is smitten with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) whose hunting skills have given her over 100 extra days. The Lobster is narrated by a Loner (Rachel Weisz) that David eventually develops a connection with, but the film pushes the two towards an unforgiving conclusion after the existential Loner leader (Lea Seydoux) takes violent action. (The Loners aren't allowed romantic entanglements.) To say more of the plot would be to spoil the ironic ending, but the last shot of the film will make you consider just exactly whose story we've been watching. The Lobster is finally a story about the way the world pushes our hearts towards a certain kind of order even when it's only what we think we want. After seeing it you'll never worry again about whether you and your date have anything in common.

    Friday, June 03, 2016

    Love & Friendship/The Family Fang



    Whit Stillman's brisk adaptation of Jane Austen's little-known novel Lady Susan finds the writer/director far removed from his 1980's films of just-privileged-enough young people figuring it out. Given that Love & Friendship - Stillman's retitling is apt - departs to such a degree in setting from Stillman's earlier work it is a pleasure to report that the new film finds the director in confident form. The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is on the hunt for a new husband and the financial security that marriage brings. Lady Susan's quest brings her into the orbit of a sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell) whose own brother (Xavier Samuel) seems amenable to Susan's advances, but word of the controversial Lady's involvement with a married man (Lochlann O'Mearain)has preceded her. The world of the film is filled out with Susan's American confidante (Chloe Sevingy), her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and a dim aristocrat (the very funny Tom Bennett) who hopes to make Frederica his wife.

    The way that Beckinsale's Lady Susan bounces between these characters in pursuit of her own security turns Love & Friendship into a riff on social codes, which is of course just where Stillman wants to be. The way that Susan will be received, or not, and the future of Frederica are all subjects for scenes of great comic energy until, at last, one of the many letters written during the film is read by the wrong person at the wrong time. Beckinsale never tires during a succession of scheming scenes, and her private talks with Sevingy are a welcome diversion, but the movie for all its energy makes the character more a spinning top than an actual person. That's why Susan's offscreen fate is merely described while Stillman ends the film with Frederica finding a home that makes both emotional and fiscal sense. Lady Susan is surely minor Austen, the characters are broad takes on the ones we know from her major novels, but Stillman has turned her marginalia into tart and very entertaining summer pleasure.

    The Family Fang finds two fortyish siblings (director Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman) in various states of dissipation just when their well-known performance artist parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) have either vanished - leaving behind a bloody car - or pulled off their biggest "piece" yet. Bateman and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (working from a novel by Kevin Wilson) want to make a film about the metaphorical killing of one's parents, but the film trips over itself with obviousness by doing things like including a song called "Kill Your Parents" as a plot point. Much time is also spent on flashbacks to the Fang parents (played younger by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn) and their artwork, but the film never convinces that what the Fangs are doing is important or interesting. It's easy to see how Bateman's character might have been warped by things like being manipulated into kissing his sister during a school play, but Christopher Walken is so good at playing a very specific type of arrogance that his character must have soured his kids on life in a thousand subtler ways too. Watching Bateman and Kidman play sad and screwed up is fun for a time, but the movie gives them an ending it hasn't earned and so ends up being a collection of parts that don't quite cohere.

    Sunday, May 29, 2016

    Captain America: Civil War



    Captain America: Civil War is a film with multiple agendas. The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Marvel's attempt to make a self-interrogating superhero film, one that explicitly considers the uses of power and its possible consequences. We'll get to the other agenda in a moment, but you might remember another recent film which pitted familiar characters against each other in attempt to explore a superhero's role in the world. Civil War, directed by Marvel vets the Russo Brothers, is a more entertaining piece of work by leaps and bounds than Batman v Superman. By this point Marvel knows what its people want, and this latest outing is better shot, better paced, and lighter in tone than the bloated DC effort. Also, it isn't dark outside all the time.

    With the obvious comparison out of the way, how good is Civil War really? The answer is a qualified "Not bad"; the story springs along efficiently but the script by multiple writers doesn't go deep on the political questions the film wants to address. A opening fight in Africa leads to a moments I don't think I've ever seen before in a film like this: A superhero (Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch) whose powers have gone awry is immediately confronted with the consequences of her actions. That incident leads the Secretary of State (William Hurt) to issue an ultimatum to the Avengers. Either they sign a treaty and accept United Nations control or they will be considered outlaws. The central conflict is between the pro-treaty Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), who's deeply distrustful of institutions after the events of The Winter Solider. A large cast of other characters including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are forced to choose sides.

    A film in which Captain America forms a sort of do-gooder Hole in the Wall Gang as a thorn in Iron Man's side sounds promising to me, but Civil War quickly abandons the political for the personal. Captain America - who was just fine working on behalf of a government in WWII - is motivated not by principle than by a desire to help his friend Bucky aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) evade capture after Bucky is blamed for a terrorist attack. The backstory about Bucky's unwilling participation in a super-solider program is laid on smoothly enough and there's a crackling fight/chase scene that starts in an apartment and movies to a highway - the action scenes find new ways to use urban space - but once Bucky enters the picture the idea of the film as a political argument goes away.

    Several times in Civil War one character says of another some variation on the line, "He's not gong to stop." (Yes, it's always he. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch don't have much to do here.) As the action builds to an airport fight involving even more characters (What's up, Ant-Man and Hawkeye!) it becomes clear that in fact they are at some point going to stop. The lack of a sense that anyone could die saps energy from Civil War; it's never clear what anyone's end game is and that includes the film's ostensible villain (Daniel Bruhl), whose plans are both admirably human-scaled and not that well though out. What's more important for the film's core audience is the way Civil War serves as a delivery system for new Marvel characters. (Here's that other agenda I mentioned earlier.) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) enters the story when his family suffers an Avengers-related loss, and a young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is recruited to web up and join the fray. Both of these characters will headline their own films soon, and both are charismatic enough here. What they don't do is make up for the overall lack of focus. As Marvel builds out its world I wonder if future films will find a way to be as grounded as this one wants to be.