Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Glass Castle


The Glass Castle tells a messy story neatly. The new drama, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of how one family overcame its own weakest member in order to survive. Yet to the film's detriment Cretton can't quite resist the temptation to leave the story in a comfortable place. Walls's book recounts her family's peripatetic existence. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson in a frightening portrait of half-understood inadequacy) was a soldier whose alcoholism and distaste for authority set the family moving from town to town, always in poverty. (The title refers to Rex's never-realized dream house.) Rex's worst tendencies were for too long enabled by his wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a self-absorbed artist who in the opening scene is too distracted by her work to make Jeannette lunch. Jeannette (played as a child by Chandler Head and then the very good Ella Anderson) attempts to cook hot dogs and sets herself on fire. There is more time on the road - Jeannette and her siblings are forced to ride in the back of a moving truck - and there are more towns, but the Walls eventually land back in Rex's hometown in West Virginia. We go back and forth between Jeannette's childhood and Jeannette in 1989, played as an adult by Brie Larson. Jeannette is now a writer for New York magazine, but her weekly gossip column doesn't fulfill her broader ambitions. Her fiance David (Max Greenfield) is both loving and financially comfortable, but again something is missing. Seeing her parents on a New York street ignites a spiral of memory in Jeannette that drives the film emotionally. The Glass Castle is filled with incident, mostly to do with Rex's drunkenness, and Cretton films Jeannette's disastrous swimming lesson and a fight between Rex and Rose Mary without cutting away from how frightening those moments were. Yet for too long the story feels out of balance, as we watch Jeannette and her older sister (Sarah Snook) frantically save money to move to New York while the 1989 version of Jeannette remains something of a cipher. Brie Larson acts here with supreme control and gives a convincing performance as someone feeling out her life in the moment, but Cretton's script doesn't let us know her very well. Moments where Larson does let go, like during an arm wrestling match between David and her father, are riveting but the character doesn't seem to have any life other than dealing with her fiance and family. Too much time is spent on Larson playing Jeannette as a high schooler, where we are given to understand that she discovers her calling as a writer.

Destin Daniel Cretton's screenplay, cowritten with Andrew Lanham, is doing a hard-sell on the themes of Acceptance, Forgiveness, and Understanding. Rex's behavior is given partial justification once the family returns to West Virginia and his own mother (Robin Bartlett) is introduced. As the film goes it slides onto a track where we can feel confident that Jeannette's feelings about her parents - which boil over at her engagement party - will be resolved. Will Jeannette become estranged from her family? Check. Will Rex's drinking catch up with him? Yes. Will father and daughter have a final meaningful conversation? You got it. Jeannette's memories of her girlhood with her father become noticeably kinder at this late stage, with Harrelson getting a sort of seize-the-day speech about "attacking demons." The desire to mitigate our feelings about Rex may be a natural one, but it saps the film of some emotional honesty it had earned when Rex threatens to throw Rose Mary out a window. We leave the Walls family with Jeannette hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for her siblings and her mother. Stories of Rex are delivered with laughter and tears, but have Jeanette or the film earned this moment of exhalation? The Glass Castle has been adapted with great skill and conviction, but by working too hard to contextualize Rex it only describes the surface of what he gave to his daughter.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Detroit


Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit aspires to be nothing less than a consideration of African-American experience, one filtered through a few horrific days in 1967 Detroit. The bar that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set for themselves is an insanely high one, and their success will no doubt be perceived in terms of how audiences feel about more recent events in American society. Whatever Bigelow and Boal's specific intentions, the issues raised in Detroit are a part of our national discourse. In thinking about the film it's worth thinking both about to what degree its fair to critique a film on the basis of the climate surrounding its release, and the amount of responsibility that artists owe their communities. Detroit begins with opening titles detailing the Great Migration, the massive movement of African-American population to the North and Midwest that began after World War I. Further titles also allude to the subsequent movement of whites from urban centers to the suburbs and the fact that Detroit's African-American population was policed by a mostly white police force. Bigelow puts these titles over illustrations that evoke the mid-20th century painting of artists like Jacob Lawrence, and the effect is oddly distancing. It is as if Bigelow and Boal want us to know that we are about to view the results of a sociological experiment, one whose subject is something not quite of our time. The film proper begins with a police raid on an after-hours club, a raid led by an African-American detective (Chris Chalk) who is nervous about completing his work before the neighboring residents can express their anger. A bottle is thrown, a fire is lit, and Bigelow details the subsequent riots with a mix of archival and staged footage cut together. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is depicted urging citizens not commit violence against their own neighborhoods, while Bigelow also includes a clip of the real Governor George Romney calling out the National Guard.

Detroit is in part a film about how people function in relation to institutions, and the first main character we are introduced to is Detroit Police Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) Early in the riots Krauss fatally shoots a man stealing groceries. After being hurriedly questioned by a detective Krauss is told he'll probably be charged with murder and then told to return to duty. The fact that the police department of a major American city appears to have no means for self-examination in a moment of crisis shouldn't surprise anyone who has been watching the news, but the moment is still chilling. Will Poulter as Krauss looks unprepared to be a cop in this film, and that's deliberate. The casting is a masterstroke, as is the choice to have Poulter play the character as in over his head rather than overtly racist. The counterpart to Krauss in Detroit is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Where Krauss attempts to use the power of the police as a shield, Melvin works on the margins of power structures because it's all he can do. We see Melvin at work bringing coffee to National Guard troops when shots are fired from the direction of the Algiers Motel. The Algiers Motel incident is the center of Detroit, and Bigelow has turned what occurred there into a sustained exercise in tension. We travel to the Algiers with aspiring Motown star Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Lattimore). The two are seeking refuge from what's happening on the streets, as earlier that evening Larry's group The Dramatics had been pulled from the stage as nearby rioting intensified. Larry and Fred fall in with another group at the Algiers that includes Carl (Jason Mitchell), who gives a memorable speech about the limits of black agency against police power. There are also Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white women that Larry and Fred hope to know better. When a starter pistol is fired from a window, the resulting police response ends with three dead men and Melvin accused of murder. Krauss is the Detroit PD officer in charge at the scene, and the actions of he and his men are a toxic combination of racism, fear, and unpreparedness that the actors play expertly. All of the actors - including Anthony Mackie as an unlucky veteran - are superb here and Bigelow doesn't pull back from the horror of the situation. (There is a cutaway to a State Police Captain, who knows something is wrong but doesn't want the responsibility of intervening.) Melvin tries to distract by leading a search for the gun the police are convinced is there, but even then we're always aware of just how confined the space at the Algiers is and how narrowly even more violence was averted.

The Algiers sequence is so compelling that the rest of Detroit seems somewhat perfunctory by comparison. The investigation of the officers' behavior at the Motel is curiously elided, we don't see Krauss's partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole) being questioned and so it's a surprise when their confessions are thrown out. The subsequent trial feels rushed, and it's not even made clear that Melvin was actually put on trial and acquitted in federal court alongside the policemen. The character of Melvin illustrates why Detroit doesn't easily bend to rules of dramatic structure. We're conditioned to expect that Melvin will do or say something to mitigate what's going on, but of course if he had interfered with cops it would likely have meant his life. Boyega plays the role with great charisma, but the character winds down awkwardly along with the rest of the procedural part of the film. The conscience of Detroit is located in Larry Reed, who survives the Algiers but can no longer participate in making music for the consumption of white people. Bigelow ends Detroit with Larry singing a gospel song, and just as with the titles at the beginning the choice serves to tamp down our emotions. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had a responsibility to tell the story of Detroit as accurately as they could. They have done so with great skill, but the choice to frame the story as a historical tragedy rather than the result of institutional racism and incompetence might mean the film will matter less than it should. But then again, it isn't Bigelow and Boal's job to make us angry about abuses of police power. Artists in any medium owe us honesty, but it's up to us to decide what comes next.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Atomic Blonde


From the first moments of Atomic Blonde we are invited to consider the physical presence of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a British intelligence agent, as she recovers from what appears to be a severe beating. In considering Broughton we are also of course considering the presence of Charlize Theron as action star, Oscar-winning actor, and sex symbol. If "Charlize Doing Things" could be a genre, then Atomic Blonde would be its peak. Atomic Blonde has a plot - a stapled together contrivance of familiar tropes including a stolen list of agents' names and an errant station chief - but its chief pleasure is the sheer force of personality that Theron brings to the film. Broughton is called in by her superior (Toby Jones) to recount the details of an operation gone bad in Berlin. (We're in 1989, just before the Wall came down.) Before we're even out of the framing scenes Broughton has managed to insult the CIA officer (John Goodman) in the room and to establish that she knows her boss has his own agenda. The story that Lorraine tells is about a mission to retrieve stolen information, but before she has been on the ground an hour she has already survived one assassination attempt and met eccentric Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy). Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, one of the filmmakers behind the first John Wick film, and it's with the action sequences like that initial attempt on Broughton's life that Leitch gives this film its personality. Leitch favors long takes in which various assailants run at Broughton or otherwise attack her, and the mostly hand-to-hand combat is visceral and non-stylized to an amazing degree.

Late in the story Broughton must protect a source (Eddie Marsan) and deliver him and his information safely to the West. Her plans go bad, and the resulting fight on a staircase and through an apartment is an apparent single take that leaves Broughton barely able to stand. It's an all-time sequence that combines technical skill and stamina, and the moment where Broughton tries to stand and immediately slides back down is the moment that Atomic Blonde gets to where it wants to go. There's more of course, Broughton escapes after a car chase and the rest of the film is a series of reversals and recriminations. I didn't care as much about the late plot movement (including the involvement of a French agent played by Sofia Boutella) because I couldn't stop thinking about the immediacy of what had come before. Theron's physicality and Leitch's talent for staging actually transcend the genre mechanics and create a kind of pure action cinema that's worth watching on its own. If Lorraine Broughton comes back in a sequel I'd love to see a better script, but the character shouldn't change a thing.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Big Sick


The Big Sick is the story of how Kumail Nanjiani, comedian and Silicon Valley co-star, met his wife Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardner here) and stood by her side during her serious illness early in their relationship. Nanjiani plays himself, he and Gordon wrote the script together and director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow sublimate their own styles to serve this unusual story. There is also another story in the film, one about the balance between assimilating into American life and honoring one's own traditions. In the film Emily breaks up with Kumail when she discovers that he has been - against his will - meeting Pakistani women at his parents' insistence to enter into an arranged marriage. Kumail's parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) don't know about Emily and view marrying a Pakistani woman as Kumail's only option. We find out early on that Kumail has discovered his own values: told by his mother to go downstairs for daily prayers, Kumail sets the timer on his phone and waits out the time by watching YouTube instead.

The early scenes of Kumail and Emily together hit familiar meet-cute touchstones. Kumail flirts by writing Emily's name in Urdu, and she tells him she's too busy with graduate school to date but still takes his calls. Nanjiani and Kazan play well together though - Kazan is luminous and Nanjiani surprisingly charismatic when arguing with his parents about the future. When Emily is put into a medically induced coma Kazan's energy goes out of the movie and is replaced by that of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's worried parents. There is no plot as such to this segment of the film, or it might be more accurate to say there are too many plots. We detour into the parents' marriage and into Kumail's comedy career, but a romantic comedy where one partner isn't awake couldn't do much better than these actors. Hunter, highly caffeinated, is a ball of worry and misplaced anger while Romano is very good as a conflicted man working out how he feels about his own marriage.

Judd Apatow leaves his mark on most projects he produces (Bridesmaids), but he also knows how to support a strong vision (Girls). The Big Sick isn't as loose and bawdy as other Apatow films, though Nanjiani and Apatow both share a love for scenes of comedians ribbing each other. (The denizens of Kumail's comedy club include characters played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and David Alan Grier.) There is also a very funny running bit about Kumail's one-man show about Pakistan that feels like it came from the ashes of something real. Anyone who has followed Nanjiani knows how The Big Sick turns out, but at the end the focus on adults making decisions is very welcome. There are no last scene of Trainwreck hijinks here. In a summer of the familiar, The Big Sick has found an audience and introduced new talent to the screen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk


Six soldiers are walking through an empty town. One tries to drink from a hose, another looks for a used cigarette. They do not speak. Gunfire from an unseen source erupts, and the soldiers try to defend themselves. Five men whose names we never learn are killed. Only Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) gets away. The previous six sentences are the opening sequence of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's visceral but supremely controlled film about the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. A title card tells us all we need to know: Germans have pushed Allied soldiers to the Dunkirk beach, where they are being pounded by air while the Allies hold on to a shaky perimeter. The British have no mechanism for evacuating 400,000 men. When Tommy makes it to the safety of the perimeter we get our first look at what is happening on the beach, a kind of organized nothingness. Soldiers queue up for ships that aren't coming - water conditions made it impossible to take men directly off the beach in large boats - while wounded men are evacuated at a ship docked at the "mole" (a large jetty). As the Germans continue to bomb, the officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) can only contain damage and keep the mole clear for the next ship.Nolan cuts away from the beach to two other story lines. When the British Navy calls for civilian help to evacuate soldiers, a man (Mark Rylance) pilots his boat across the channel to see what he can do. Two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage with German fighters in an attempt to protect those on the beach.

Dunkirk breaks our idea of what a war film can or should be by fitting in to neither of the two models that we're accustomed to. There isn't a "mission" to accomplish here other than to survive, and though we keep returning to Tommy on the beach there isn't anything special about his situation or about the men (including one played by pop star Harry Styles) he eventually falls in with. Nolan wrote the screenplay for Dunkirk himself, and he spends no time in the script (reported to be only seventy-six pages long) making a moral case for the war effort and in fact never shows German soldiers. The most patriotic moment we get is a recitation of Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but where Nolan places Churchill's words and the performance of the actor delivering them render them highly ironic. Yet Dunkirk isn't a critique of war either, this isn't Nolan's M.A.S.H.. It's a film about what it feels like when a torpedo hits the boat you're on - the film's most terrifying sequence - and the choice to sacrifice some so that others might live. Filmmakers have spent millions of dollars trying to evoke the emotions that Nolan gets here by just holding the camera on Kenneth Branagh's face for a few seconds. Tom Hardy's performance as the pilot Farrier is entirely behavioral - almost all of his dialogue is about fuel consumption - but the character's heroism doesn't need to be commented on. The one strand of Dunkirk that maybe shouldn't work but does is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson. Rylance is essentially playing the Soul of the British People, a pillar of duty and rectitude who doesn't reveal his personal motives until the job is done. It's a role that in lesser hands could have been a delivery system for whatever message the filmmaker wanted to impart, but Nolan keeps the character on task and Rylance underplays gorgeously. Mr. Dawson's rescue of a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and the soldier's subsequent behavior are the closest that Nolan comes to a conventional examination of war's psychological effects.

The last section of Dunkirk ties the film's three plots together in ways that aren't entirely surprising. It's here that the film feels most constructed, as if the script were a problem to be worked out. I'm not sure that film needed this tidiness when what has come before was so experiential, but the economy of Nolan's choices creates a tension that otherwise might have had to be ginned up with speeches and back story. It's no accident that Dunkirk is Nolan's shortest film since his debut, it needed to be. Dunkirk is a major advance for both Christopher Nolan and the war film, and if Nolan keeps working in the non-fantasy space then it also points to fascinating work to come.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Beguiled


Virginia, 1864. A young girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) is picking mushrooms when she comes across a wounded Union Corporal named McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods outside her boarding school. Amy brings the Corporal to the school and their meeting is the beginning of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, a drama of last chances and unspoken hopes made with Coppola's usual understatement and without an ounce of storytelling fat. Coppola is the second director to film Thomas Cullinan's 1960's-written novel, and while I haven't seen Don Siegel's 1971 version with Clint Eastwood it is hard to imagine Siegel elevating the emotional lives of women the way that Coppola does here. (A glance at the trailer for the Siegel version suggests a different take on the McBurney character.) In Colin Farrell's performance McBurney is whatever the women need him to be- he's a friend to young Amy, a conversation piece to Jane (Angourie Rice), and at first an irritation to headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) - but the woman who pins most of her hopes on the Corporal is the lonely teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).Coppola's screenplay never forgets that McBurney is a soldier in enemy territory, and Farrell's performance always carries the suggestion that McBurney is aware of what can be gained from each encounter with the women. When McBurney seems to achieve the upper hand after an act of violence the film points towards a bloody conclusion, but in the last shot Coppola reveals just where her priorities were all along.

Most of The Beguiled takes place inside the decaying mansion that now serves as Martha's school. Coppola puts all of the women in the same shot as often as she can, either in prayer or around the piano or at the dinner table. There is little camera movement until the film's last act, and the effect that Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd achieve is one of stasis. Martha and her charges are trapped with the war ending and the Union Army closing in, and the addition of McBurney to the household only pushes the women together further even as emotional fissures are exposed. Coppola and Le Sourd also chose to shoot in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which highlights the claustrophobia - we're always aware of how small the rooms are - and also evokes older films. As well-chosen as Coppola's visual strategies are, they wouldn't mean a thing if it weren't for her actors. Kirsten Dunst (who worked with Coppola in this) as Edwina achieves a moving plainness that I'm not sure she has ever been asked to play. Edwina, first seen teaching French to Alicia (Elle Fanning) and the older girls, sees McBurney as a way out and it's a tribute to Dunst that we're genuinely not sure she has ever imagined a different life before. McBurney seems to have feelings for Edwina, and when she begins to dress more boldly - wearing dresses that expose her shoulders - the effect is both touching and little awkward. Nicole Kidman plays Martha as a sharp knife under a blanket of good manners, and while I loved Dunst's performance I also wanted more of Kidman and Farrell together. The only performance I'm not sure of is Elle Fanning's as Alicia, who is moonstruck by attraction to McBurney but plays the character as a touch too pouty and modern.

The Beguiled ends with an image of Miss Martha and her girls together, having achieved a measure of freedom but still very much prisoners of the world around them. The shot probably carries more weight now than even Coppola intended, but it's also another strong choice by a director in superb control of her effects.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Baby Driver



In Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, style is a currency. The new crime film was shot in and supposedly takes place in Atlanta, but in Wright's conception the city takes on a sort of heightened flatness. It might as well be anywhere. The background is a dull mass of city streets so that the robbers pulling various jobs for Doc (Kevin Spacey) can pop and preen and zing each other while our hero known as Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives them away from the cops. The opening post-robbery chase is refreshing for how precise it is; we're right with Baby as he switches freeways and hides his car between two others of a similar make and color. Back at the hideout there's some figurative chest-bumping among the gang - I could have done with more from the robber played by Jon Bernthal - and we learn Baby's story. The accident that killed Baby's parents left him with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that Baby drowns out by constantly playing his iPod. Baby also has a habit of recording the conversations of those around him and turning them into what the script generously calls "music", and if you're thinking that recording criminals might not be the smartest choice then this isn't your first time at the movies.

The character of Baby is anything the movie needs him to be at any given moment, but Edgar Wright forgot to write a person. Baby speaks less than any of the other major characters, but Ansel Elgort can't pull off the air of mystery required for Baby to win the heart of sweet-faced waitress Debora (Lily James). The robberies become more violent when Bats (Jamie Foxx) joins the crew, and Baby is upset by the violence until the film needs him to be able to commit violent acts to escape. (Baby Driver is very much a “last job” film.) Again, Elgort is too passive here. Even the celebrated wall-to-wall music – everything from Jonathan Richman to Young MC - is little more than a tic and a thing for characters to talk about. Baby’s musical taste is perfectly catholic and he seems to have almost no opinions about what he listens to. My favorite character in Baby Driver is Buddy (Jon Hamm), who robs to support a drug habit and his wife and fellow robber Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Hamm – and Foxx too – both play their characters as if they know they’re in a genre movie, but Hamm adds a layer of worn-out menace. Buddy is the one character in Baby Driver who makes me believe that things are at stake. The energy and goodwill of Baby Driver are palpable, but Wright needed a better foundation below his shiny surface and an actor who could better hold the film’s center.