Sunday, December 04, 2016

Allied



Allied concerns a woman who may be masquerading as someone else, and the new film directed by Robert Zemeckis is indeed one type of story pretending to be another. The central action scene, in which Allied agents Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco in 1942, comes early and is on full display in the trailer. The scene is the culmination of the first act of Steven Knight's script, in which Max and Marianne are thrown together in Casablanca; playing at being husband and wife turns to love and the couple go to London, marry, and have a daughter. (Again, this is all in the trailer.) Max learns a year later that Marianne may be a German spy. This is a promising setup, but it's also a smokescreen. Zemeckis and Knight aren't really telling a spy story. Max and Marianne love each other deeply, and Allied is in fact an investigation of whether their love will survive the chance that Marianne is a traitor.

For a film set in the world of espionage Allied contains remarkably little tradecraft after the story returns to London. Max, a Canadian military officer, has some kind of job working under a stodgy British commander (Jared Harris), but until Marianne's loyalty is called into question all we see him do is put on a uniform and joke around with colleagues. Marianne, who we're told is an agent of exceptional boldness, seems to lose all interest in work after becoming pregnant. If the problem with the not boring but still uninvolving Allied had to be summed up in a sentence then it is that it's a film about characters and not about people. Knight's script doesn't give his stars room to maneuver, and even their minor interactions are weighed down by plot implications. Brad Pitt is unaccountably stiff in the Casablanca scenes and then has little to do but fret and worry. It's a dull performance and the filmmakers seem to have misunderstood what we want from Pitt. It doesn't help Max has no one to talk to. Lizzy Caplan is badly miscast as Max's sister, is barely concealing her lesbian affair in a way that doesn't seem quite right for the period.

The end of Allied is a flurry of activity. Max has caused one soldier's death by investigating Marianne against orders, and he risks more lives on an unlikely mission to occupied France. Allied wants to keep a revelation up its sleeve as long as possible and that means Marion Cotillard can only sit and wait, being a devoted wife and mother all the while. The filmmakers only seem interested in Max's point of view, and Marianne becomes a more passive character as Allied goes on. Given the setting and stars involved Allied should have been at a minimum much more fun, but this overthought film doesn't know what to do with its ration of promise.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Rules Don't Apply/Edge of Seventeen



Rules Don't Apply is reportedly a passion project of its writer/director/star Warren Beatty's, and indeed the film has the feel of something labored over and tinkered with. At one point in its development the film might have been a romance between Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver working for Hughes, and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). At another it could have been a sort of farce about an aging and eccentric Hughes (Beatty, making up for in energy what he lacks in depth) running around the globe with Frank and fellow driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) following behind and putting out fires. The film we actually have shoves these two conceits together and winds up being both tonally inconsistent and emotionally flat. Ehrenreich and Collins have a good rhythm together in the early scenes; both Frank and Marla come from conservative backgrounds and are figuring out how to make their way in a world that doesn't share their values. Why is Marla in Hollywood? Beatty's script has her signed to an RKO contract but Marla herself says she's not an actress and is in fact only good at writing songs. There's a song called "Rules Don't Apply" within the film that Marla has written which is performed in almost back-to-back scenes for Frank and Hughes. The song has an aphrodisiac effect and ignites a major plot point which is only barely paid off at the end of the film. Lily Collins, who is very winning even though Marla has to speak mostly in declamatory paragraphs, is meanwhile shoved to the fringes of the story.

 Warren Beatty never decides what story he wanted to tell in Rules Don't Apply; there are good actors floating around all over the film but most of them have nothing of consequence to do. Annette Bening is funny and brittle as Marla's religious mother but Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Dabney Coleman, and Haley Bennett (among others) are on hand just to move the plot along. The film doesn't examine Hughes as more than a collection of tics - there's a mass of detail about financial dealings that is just an excuse for scenes of Hughes freaking out and talking about ice cream - and as a result a moment of reckoning at the end falls flat. But we do hear that damn song again.


  Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, asks us to believe that high-school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) would only have one friend. I had a little trouble believing that Nadine wouldn't find another smart but disaffected student to bond with at her large suburban high school, but Nadine's growing self-awareness about her own situation makes the film work anyway. Nadine's friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) has just started dating Nadine's popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), and Nadine finds herself alone on the fringes once again. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderfully uningratiating here. Craig's script doesn't try to make us sympathize with Nadine, who sometimes can be a real jerk to her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and everyone else around her. The scenes between Nadine and her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) have a comic snap because both characters want to be doing something else. There may never have been a teacher in film who less wants to play the role of life coach than Harrelson's very funny Mr. Bruner. Craig doesn't resolve everything at the end, and that choice may be the biggest reason to keep an eye on this filmmaker. Nadine is given a window into a different life, and it's up to her to do the rest.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moonlight



The word "normalize" has been much in play in our cultural conversation lately, whether in reference to gross personal behavior, extreme political views, or the idea that the way many of us get our news may have swayed a Presidential election. In this heightened context to normalize is a bad thing - but if the new film Moonlight helps normalize the idea of complicated black masculinity in cinema then it will have done us an incalculable service. Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney), is a gorgeous surprise and of the year's most vital American films. Jenkins breaks the story into three chapters, starting with the chance meeting of a Miami drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in a star making performance) and young boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). There is a sense in which Little, and the man he will become, is the character we most need to see on screen in 2016 - a year when black Americans felt themselves under siege by civil institutions in a way they perhaps haven't for decades. Little, whose real name is Chiron, is on the run from bullies when we meet him and Juan offers him a meal and ride home with a quick stop to introduce Little to his warm girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Little's mother (Naomie Harris) isn't thrilled with Juan, especially when Juan catches her using drugs on the street. The rest of Moonlight is the struggle that these adults will have for Little's soul.

 This opening section of a Moonlight is a beautifully shot film about childhood. Jenkins keeps his camera at Little's level so that we perceive every sensation just as Little takes it in, from a first time at the beach with Juan to the menacing stares of other boys during a game of keep away. The way the boys look at Little isn't just a function of their horseplay; they perceive something in him that won't manifest itself until later. Little's mother perceives the same thing, and this contempt for his weakness combined with her descent into addiction makes home the least safe place in Little's life. Jump forward a few years and the teenager before us, now called Chiron again, is played by Ashton Sanders. Chiron's life is one of piercing loneliness: there are more bullies, and a mother lost to drugs, and no helpful adults. Ashton Sanders has marvelous, expressive eyes and he says more with them about what's in Chiron's heart than his few lines of dialogue ever could. Chiron's only connection is with his friend Kevin (played in this section by Jharrel Jerome). The sex act the two young men share is the moment in Moonlight when Chiron is most fully himself with another person, but Chiron also knows that it sets him apart from the loud, rough, "normal" teens who beat him up. Jenkins handles this moment with the same delicacy he displays throughout, avoiding any hint of sentiment of preachiness and viewing the moment for what it is: a fork in the road of a human life.

 In the final section of Moonlight Chiron is known as "Black" and is played by Trevante Rhodes. An act of violence has set Black on a course to end up like Juan just as Kevin (played here by Andre Holland) reenters Black's life with a phone call. Much is left unsaid in the long scene of Black and Kevin's reunion; there's an awkward mix of happiness, nervousness, and attraction that Jenkins wisely doesn't get in the way of. There is a wobbly moment where Black chooses words over actions where Rhodes is slightly stiff, but Jenkins doesn't make too much of it and is smart enough to know that an easy resolution to this story would ring false. The end of Moonlight brings Black to the doorstep of a richer and more complicated life, one that will have made the journey worth it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Arrival


Arrival is a splendidly restrained science fiction film, one that in fact may not become as successful as it deserves to be because of the subtlety with which it addresses its concerns. The film's "political" message - relevant these days to a remarkable degree - is really a human one: Our civilization can only survive through sharing knowledge and an openness to consideration of all possible outcomes. It's a message that director Denis Villenueve handles with a welcome light touch after the heavier Prisoners and Sicario. I'm not sure whether or not the structure of Arrival was Villenueve's idea, but the way that our assumptions about film grammar are toyed with keeps the film from didacticism. Arrival requires close attention, but the rewards are worth the effort.

A prologue gives us information about linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). A child and a marriage, both gone now, and we find Louise living a life where her ocean view is the only company. Louise appears to have no girlfriends or even close colleagues, and so when 12 alien craft appear at locations around the world she has no one to share her anxiety with. Her first visitor is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants Louise to translate the aliens' language. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (a warm Jeremy Renner) are on their way to Montana. The scenes of Louise and Donnelly trying to communicate with the aliens - who communicate in circular symbols that represent complex thoughts -have a sense of wonder that's leavened with reality. Can Louise become fluent in the aliens' language before their true purpose is carried out? Will another country (China is the main concern here) get nervous and attack one of the spacecraft? The CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is ready to pull the plug when Louise translates one of the aliens' first messages as "Offer weapon".

It would be giving away too much to describe more plot, but part of the pleasure of Arrival is the craft that Villenueve and his team bring to the story. Villenueve isn't afraid to draw out the tension in a moment, and the combination of the familiar (a scissor lift) and the frightening (the lack of gravity) in the humans' first entry into the alien ship is exactly right. The nervousness of Louise and the others in this scene is pitched perfectly, and the whole film is helped by the simple elegance of Patrice Vermette's production design. Amy Adams gets to show all her cards here; it's a sublime turn that contains hidden depths, and Adams pulls off the always difficult feat of appearing to think believably on screen. The screenplay can't quite hold everything that it wants to: There's a subplot about some soldiers who want to attack the aliens that feels rushed and a Renner voice-over is used to compress the passage of time. But these are minor issues. The climax of Arrival involves a simple conversation between people from different cultures, and this excellent film dares to suggest that nothing could be more important than that.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Doctor Strange


The new Marvel film Doctor Strange was directed and cowritten by Scott Derrickson, who must have thanked whomever or whatever he worships for the fact that Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in a surprisingly prickly turn) isn't as well known to most current audiences as Captain America or The Hulk. Derrickson's previous directing credits include Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and while I haven't seen those films it doesn't feel to harsh to say that Marvel wasn't about to hand Derrickson one of its show ponies. Doctor Strange the comic book hero dates back to 1963, but the new film's successful opening weekend probably says more about Marvel brand loyalty than it does about built-in love for the character.

All that said, Doctor Strange is a brisk entertainment that welcomes Cumberbatch into the Marvel Universe, where he should jolt several existing characters out of complacency. (I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch interact with Robert Downey, Jr.) The opening scenes quickly cast Strange as a man whose colleagues - including Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) - admire him for his talent and detest him for his ego. After an accident ends Strange's surgical career he journeys to Nepal, where an order of sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) trains him in the mystic arts. These training scenes follow a familiar pattern, with Swinton's Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shaking their heads and offering tough love. What makes this part of Doctor Strange work though is Cumberbatch, who plays Strange throughout as a man getting by on his intellect as much as what he learns from his masters. The sight of a superhero thinking about something other than the challenges of heroism is a pleasant surprise, and Cumberbatch suggests Strange's arrogance slipping away as the story turns back towards New York and the usual threats to the world as we know it.

Of course there is a villain; he's a sorcerer gone bad named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to turn the Earth over to a trans-dimensional being named Dormammu, who will then do ... something. There's a to-do about eternal life and time being a villain, but the final confrontation is handled with a welcome light touch. Fights earlier in the film make splendid use of the characters' powers in a way that makes the street-shifting in Inception look ponderous. The term "comic book movie" will continue to be a divisive one, but Doctor Strange fills that bill in the best sense - it's bright, fast, and shiny with a true hero at the center.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back


Jack Reacher is the hero of Lee Child's long-running series of thrillers; he's a former MP who when we find him is living a sort of hilariously off-the-grid life that involves hitchhiking around the country and stumbling into a series of evil conspiracies. I use the world "hilariously" with caution since there's really no humor in the Reacher books. Reacher is laconic to the end, not even finding the woman that each novel offers him as partner and sometime love interest worth more than a cursory scene of opening up.

Never Go Back, directed by Edward Zwick (who a long time ago directed Glory) is the second film in which Tom Cruise has played Reacher. This time out Reacher is enjoying a telephone flirtation with a Major Turner (Cobie Smulders),  who now commands his old unit. When Reacher turns up for a promised dinner date he finds Turner in prison and charged with espionage. The rest of the plot involves defense contractors, a prison escape. a Mardi Gras parade, and a young woman (Danika Yarosh) who may be Reacher's daughter. Given that Cruise produced Never Go Back it's surprising how perfunctory it all feels. The villains are barely sketched out and the charm of Reacher's intuition always being better than everyone else's wears thin over the course of two hours.

I recently heard a podcast claim that the two best Tom Cruise movies are Jerry McGuire and Edge of Tomorrow because they deconstruct the Cruise persona. Never Go Back is working on a parallel track; because Reacher is so non-verbal there's little use for Cruise's charm. so he has to rely on charisma and physicality. Cruise makes all that work well enough, but movie star energy is not enough to prop up a underwritten movie.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Girl on the Train


The Girl on the Train would seem to to have all the surface qualities we want in an adaptation of a bestselling thriller. Tate Taylor's new film (adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from the novel by Paula Hawkins) contains sex, violence, reversals, a self-consciously elaborate structure, and an idea or two about relationships. Why then does The Girl on the Train feel so thin? The answer I think is that Taylor made his film to be the cinematic equivalent of book-club fodder, a vehicle for the raising - but not the exploring - of issues that allows audiences to congratulate themselves on keeping up with "important" pop culture. The Girl on the Train does work as a superficial entertainment, but just barely.

The filmmakers of The Girl on the Train owe an enormous debt to Emily Blunt, who plays the title role with a much-needed sense of abandon. Blunt is Rachel, an unemployed and alcoholic divorcee who spends her days riding the Metro North rail line past the house she once shared with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Tom has married and had a child with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman with whom he cheated on Rachel, and the couple employ their neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) as a nanny. Rachel watches Megan and her husband Scott (Luke Evans) from the train too; she doesn't know the couple but idealizes them as a symbol of the happy life she no longer has. Why did Rachel and Tom get divorced? Rachel believes its because of her inability to get pregnant and subsequent turn to drink, but the bulk of the film is structured as Rachel's return to clarity. Rachel sees Megan kissing another man (Edgar Ramirez) from the train. Megan disappears soon after, and Rachel attempts to solve the mystery while figuring her own life out along the way.

All of this plot is the foundation upon which Emily Blunt performs remarkable notes of anger, sadness, and grief. I don't think I've ever seen someone play drunk on screen quite like Blunt is here; she slows Rachel's internal rhythms down as the alcohol takes over. Blunt is almost matched by Haley Bennett, who was a loyal frontier wife in The Magnificent Seven but here suggests a self-absorption born out of deep sadness. (The shot of Megan being ignored after an exercise class tells you all you need to know about her life.) At one point during a love scene Bennet appears to look directly into the camera. It's an odd choice but an appropriate one, since Megan believes she only exists if other people see her.

The mystery of what happened to Megan clicks along to a bloody conclusion, but the procedural elements of the story (which involve a welcome Allison Janney as a detective) obscure why it resonates in our present moment. Two female characters - Megan and Rebecca Ferguson's Anna - who look alike by design each want opposite lives; Anna is looking for tranquility with Tom while Megan wants to be free from her jerk of a husband. Yet each character is thwarted by an implacable male rage. Sound familiar? The film doesn't do much with this tension; we get several flashbacks to explain Megan's story and her ambivalence about motherhood, but the big reveal feels more like an excuse to give Bennett a nude scene. It's never clear how Megan wound up with Scott, and I felt sorry for the actor Luke Evans - his character is both thoroughly unpleasant and stuck outside the main action.

Tate Taylor made his name as director with The Help, another adaptation. That film did all but speak its subtext out loud; here Taylor skips along on the surface of the plot and lets his actors save the day. The Girl on the Train is passable - especially, I'll bet, if one hasn't read the novel - but it travels through its tunnels just a little too quickly.