Sunday, March 18, 2018

Love, Simon

Coming out stories should always be told. That idea is central to any fair consideration of Love, Simon, a sweet-natured teenage drama set mostly in a large American high school. 17-year old Simon (Nick Robinson) is counting down the days to graduation. Simon is a theater kid - he's in the ensemble of the school production of Cabaret - whose friend group includes longtime BFF Leah (Katherine Langford) and soccer player Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale). Director Greg Berlanti, working from a YA novel by Becky Albertalli, sets Love, Simon in a kind of high school utopia. There appears to be almost no social stratification at Simon's school; the athletes and the theater kids eat lunch together and even a more awkward student like Martin (Logan Miller) can attend Bram's Halloween party. Simon has told neither his friends nor his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) that he is gay. His only outward expression of his sexuality is an email correspondence with "Blue", another closeted gay student. Martin discovers the emails when Simon forgets to log out, and he threatens to out Simon unless Simon fixes him up with his friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

Love, Simon is heavily plotted, and much depends on the existence of a school-wide blog on which students can post anonymously. (That seems like a real thing.) All of the maneuvering that Simon does to appease Martin distracts from what is the both the film's biggest dramatic problem and its most hopeful element. Watching Simon get coffee and rehearse with his friends, it simply never seems likely that they would turn on him if they knew the truth. If that is where we are with white privileged teens coming out in 2018, that's wonderful, but it means that the only things holding Simon back are his own insecurity and Martin's threats. Simon's dad makes a mildly homophobic joke at one point, but Simon's parents are unfailingly warm and supportive once he comes out. Indeed, the only time Simon's friendships are really in jeopardy is when his friends learn that he hasn't been honest with them. Simon's coming out would no doubt be easier if he had another out gay person to model, but the school's only other out student appears to be the unabashedly gay Ethan (Clark Moore). Ethan and Simon have a moment of connection when two bullies disrupt the lunchroom with a crude prank, but the film mostly uses Ethan to suggest that Simon could have it worse.

The best scene in Love, Simon besides the rah-rah ending is the confrontation between Simon and Martin. It in this scene that Berlanti makes his case for the centrality of the coming out moment and the fundamental right of each person to have it in their own way. While Simon's world may be a bit too comfortable for Love, Simon to achieve real gravity, it is a welcome addition to a canon of films the existence of which should only become less unusual as time goes by.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time/Red Sparrow

A Wrinkle in Time is a tough ask for any filmmaker in 2018. The novel by Madeleine L'Engle was published in 1962, and is full of both scientific concepts and a quasi-religious understanding of how the universe works. Director Ava DuVernay's new adaptation is working from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell which turns the story into a fable of self-empowerment for young Meg Murry (Storm Reid). We meet Meg four years after the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine), a scientist whose work involved ideas of universe spanning travel that get laughed out of the room at an early presentation. Once a bright student, Meg is now a sullen child who lands in the Principal's office after striking back against a bully (Rowan Blanchard). When a stranger named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) arrives at Meg's home one night the truth is revealed: Meg's father is still alive but it will take Meg becoming a "warrior" against an existential darkness - known as "The It" - in order to bring Doctor Murry back home. A Wrinkle in Time is an expensive proposition even for Disney, with a budget just north of $100 million. Considerable attention has been paid to designing the story's various worlds, which include a green planet where Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) get a lesson in flying from a transformed Mrs. Whatsit. The film's climax takes place on a planet called Camazotz, a place which can be whatever The It needs it to be. There's a disorienting scene on what appears to be a crowded beach, and later a blank white space all the scarier for it plainness. If only Meg's interior journey had been as interesting as her physical trip. The script doesn't ask anything of Meg other than that she acquire a sort of generalized belief in herself at the urging of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (a miscast Mindy Kaling), and their leader Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Winfrey's regal performance, all comfort and encouragement, is an extreme distillation of what people respond to when they say Winfrey should run for President. But Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling are playing an idea as opposed to playing characters, and while we know Meg is intelligent - DuVernay starts the film on a charming scene of young Meg and her father in his lab - her attachment to the scientific concepts in play is too thin and the stakes never take hold. In her final battle with The It Meg is presented with an alternative vision of herself as a sort of Mean Girl with fancy clothes and straightened hair, but given the natural fluidity of teenagers the image seems oddly inconsequential. Why shouldn't Meg change her look if she wants to?

There is a bigger problem with A Wrinkle in Time, but mentioning it feels somewhat mean-spirited. The character of Charles Wallace speaks often and at length in the film. We're made to understand that while Meg succeeds through finding courage, the prodigious Charles Wallace has some sort of psychic connection to forces beyond human understanding. With all that's required of the character - who at one point is possessed by The It - the child-actorish performance of Deric McCabe isn't sufficient and the film loses emotional power because of that. A Wrinkle in Time contains enough messaging and star power to be a meaningful film if it can reach its intended audience of young girls, but it is too broadly conceived to be more than a pleasant curiosity for everyone else.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballerina who in the opening scenes of Red Sparrow suffers a grotesque accident onstage. What Dominika does once she finds out who caused her injury promises some nasty, Black Swan-style fun. Red Sparrow instead is an involving but not terribly original espionage film that suggests Dominika's resourcefulness and comfort with violence - the film is studded with violent scenes - make her a natural candidate to be a Russian agent. A "Sparrow" undergoes intense psychological training at a special school run by a headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) who views her job solely in terms of service to the State. Complications ensue, including the existence of a mole inside the Russian government and the American agent (Joel Edgerton) trying to protect that source. No one fully trusts Dominika, not even her powerful uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), but no one can seem to do anything without her involvement either. Good actors flit around the edges of Red Sparrow, including Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker,  and Joely Richardson, and the casting may be the film's saving grace. Jennifer Lawrence is admirably committed, but Dominika remains somewhat opaque and the audience is too often catching up to the character when we should be right with her. Red Sparrow isn't bad, but it is lightweight Le Carre.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Annihilation (spoilers)

Annihilation ends more or less the same way that writer/director Alex Garland's previous film Ex Machina did, with something resembling a person but not quite human loose in the world. The idea of a kind of variant humanity, whether created by human hubris in Ex Machina or through just whatever is happening in Annihilation, seems to fascinate Garland. In Annihilation Garland is working from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the first in what is known as the "Southern Reach" trilogy. Garland has made significant changes to the novel, both for storytelling purposes and to bring forward the theme of self-destruction. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and also a former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year. Kane, still a soldier, had last been seen leaving for a covert mission that Lena is unable to learn anything about. When Kane returns to Lena in a state of medical collapse the government intervenes. A psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains the truth: Kane is the only survivor of a mission inside "Area X", an area of unknown origin that is expanding outward in the Southern United States. Previous missions have produced neither survivors nor information about what Area X - bounded by an opaque layer known as "The Shimmer" - really is. Lena volunteers for another mission behind The Shimmer, this one led by Ventress, in the company of a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez, a breakout star), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and a surveyor (Tuva Novotny). All of this is related by Lena after she returns to a perplexed interrogator (Benedict Wong). Something has gone very wrong.

Jeff VanderMeer's brief novel Annihilaton immerses his characters (known only by their occupations) in the sensory overload of Area X, a place where we are given to understand that the DNA of the world we know is being warped into something else. A film by necessity can't be as abstract, and Annihilation in Garland's conception is a going-on-a-mission film. That means we need emotional connection to the characters, and while Portman's Lena gets grief over her husband - a much larger presence than he is in the novel - the rest of the team has backstory wedged in by Novotny's Cass during a canoe ride. While the cast is up to everything asked of them, all the specifics we learn about them are easily the most conventional part of Annihilation. Jennifer Jason Leigh, acting with supreme control, gets a central speech that feels more VanderMeer than Garland. These details don't matter, Ventress tells the others, because Area X happens to everyone in different ways. There are sequences in Annihilation of extraordinary and frightening visual invention, and a small percentage of the audience may bail on the film after the scene where Kane (seen in a video recovered by the team) cuts a fellow soldier's stomach with a knife. Monsters come later, and they are the stuff of bad dreams. It seems odd to praise the production design of a film which is so heavily located in forest, but Garland and his team have created an Area X that is all the more frightening for how close it comes to being familiar. When Lena gazes on the cause of Area X, even the visual effects have depth and texture.

Early in Garland's Annihilation there's a shot of what could be a meteor striking the lighthouse where Lena finds herself at the end of the film. That shot might feel wrong to those who read the novel, but in Garland's conception Lena confronts something that might both be and not be part of herself. It is a stark, wordless sequence that will satisfy depending on how comfortable one is with ambiguity. In both the novel and the film of Annihilation Area X is constantly changing and growing, and in the ending Garland gives us change is very much on the way.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther (mild spoilers)

A few years ago the idea that a major studio would entrust the next film in their "Cinematic Universe" to an young African-American filmmaker best known for directing Sylvester Stallone to an Oscar nomination would have sounded pretty unlikely.Yet now we have Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, a bracing work of personal vision and political engagement combined with studio resources. Black Panther the character has been around since the 1960's, but his relevance to 2018 concerns has driven enthusiasm and conversation to a level that Marvel will find hard to match. While much of Black Panther takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, it is Coogler's conception of a country coming to its own place in the world that gives his film such a unique moral urgency. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to become King of Wakanda shortly after the assassination of his father T'Chaka (John Kani), an event you may remember from Captain America: Civil War. T'Challa is a Prince, but also a protector. In the guise of Black Panther he assists his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) in a mission to disrupt human traffickers so that Nakia may come home for his coronation. To the rest of the world Wakanda is an impoverished country, but we learn in an animated introduction that a meteor has provided Wakanda with a mineral called vibranium that has facilitated incredible technological advances. Suri (Letitia Wright, infectiously charming and a  source of comic relief) is T'Challa's younger sister and serves as a sort of Q to his Bond, having designed a new Black Panther suit contained in a necklace and displaying a particular talent for controlling vehicles remotely.

Black Panther also contains a second prologue, a scene set in 1990's America involving the death of a Wakandan named N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown). It is this death that, in the body of the film, will drive not only the conflict between T'Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) but also Coogler's central thematic concern. Wakanda is a nation that exists on its own terms, without the African economic deference to the West that we think of in discussions of foreign policy. What does Wakanda owe the rest of the world? More specifically, what does Wakanda owe black people in other countries? T'Challa believes that protecting his country's independence is paramount, but Killmonger wants to use the Wakanda's vibranium resources to start a worldwide revolution. The idea of geopolitical agency is one of many veins running throughout the film, including questions of how sons must reckon with their fathers' sins and when loyalty to a state conflicts with loyalty to an individual. Though Wakanda has never been colonized, Black Panther also reckons with the legacy of European colonialism. We first meet Killmonger looking at relics taken from Africa by British soldiers, and T'Challa later journeys to South Korea to recover such a relic from the mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). The Korean trip turns into the film's best action set piece, a shootout which turns into a car chase which Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (an Oscar nominee for Mudbound) shoot with a kind of perpendicular visual logic that I don't think I've ever seen before. The climactic battle is a large scale melee that makes use of the conceit that the Black Panther suit can store kinetic energy. Characters react when hit in a self-aware, exaggerated way that calls attention to the use of digital effects, but the one-on-one fights in which T'Challa must defend his throne from challengers are far more visceral.

All of the ideas contained in the screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole wouldn't matter if Black Panther didn't function dramatically and visually. Coogler has cast the film marvelously well, with great attention to the strong and varied women that the source material requires. Danai Gurira is a standout as the warrior Okoye, head of T'Challa's all-female royal guard and torn by her sense of duty when Wakanda's throne comes under threat. Gurira, a cast member on The Walking Dead, gives the kind of performance which I hope she'll get the chance to repeat as the world of Black Panther crosses over with other Marvel films. Nakia and Suri are also full participants in the action scenes, with Lupita Nyong'o transcending any kind of cliches about what a romantic lead in these action-heavy films should do or be. Chadwick Boseman has been saddled with the burden of playing African-American historical figures in recent films, but in Black Panther there are no expectations to live up to and Boseman gives T'Challa a wonderful kind of tired dignity that turns into something deeper and sadder as the film goes on. The large supporting cast is filled out by such talents as Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out, Forest Whitaker, Isaach De Bankole, and Angela Bassett as T'Challa's mother. All of these actors enrich their roles, and they benefit from the pan-African costume design of Ruth E. Carter.

Black Panther contains a fully realized world of tradition and accountability the likes of which big-budget genre franchise films weren't really built to contain. While I can appreciate the film as something rich and satisfying, I can never really know how it will resonate with so many of the people who've already driven it to box-office success. From an article in The New York Times Magazine by Carvell Wallace:
The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. “Black Panther” cannot help being part of this. “Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says the director Ava DuVernay, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” She and Coogler have spent the past few months working across the hall from each other in the same editing facility, with him tending to “Black Panther” and her to her much-anticipated film of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” At the heart of Wakanda, she suggests, lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?” she asked me. “And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Shape of Water

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) scrubs floors and cleans toilets at a government research facility in 1960. Elisa is mute, and her only friends are her closeted gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Making Elisa the hero of a film, as Guillermo del Toro does in The Shape of Water, sounds like a recipe for a humdrum, workaday Mike Leigh-style story of working class lives. But Elisa is special. How do we know? Giles tells us in the voice over that opens the film, referring to Elisa as "the princess without voice". The Shape of Water, which del Toro wrote with Vanessa Taylor, is as good-looking and atmospheric as one would expect from del Toro. The cinematography by Dan Laustsen and production design by Paul D. Austerberry achieve a sort of heightened institutional blandness, a space in which threats could be human or something beyond our understanding. It is a handsome film, with good performances and a fairy tale message about finding love both within one's self and in the world. So, why wasn't I more moved?

The lab where Elisa works is being used to house a character who is credited as "Amphibian Man" (Doug Jones), brought to the lab from South America by a government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) and subjected to confinement and torture while the scientists try to figure out what to do with him. All credit to those responsible for the creation and execution of the Amphibian Man's costume. Among the authority figures at the lab, only the gentle Doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) seems to view the treatment of the creature as cruel. Everyone else is just interested in how the creature can help America beat the Russians. Elisa sneaks into the lab to share her lunch with the Amphibian Man, and she quickly becomes determined to be his protector. Every character The Shape of Water is exactly what the film needs them to be at any given moment. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa as a spitfire coming into her own. It's a marvelous physical performance, with Hawkins able to communicate everything she needs with a look or simple gesture. From the opening shots of Elisa's morning routine we know Elisa possesses a sort of secret confidence that is just waiting for a purpose. But the film sort of gets out of the way of Elisa in an odd sense. In one scene Strickland tells her to limit her time by the creature's tank, and immediately after that we see her smuggle in a full-sized record player in order to serenade the creature with jazz. Hawkins is given excellent support by the also Oscar nominated Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, but both of their characters suffer from the amount of time the film requires them just to tell us what Elisa is saying. (Very little of Elisa's sign language is subtitled.) Giles gets a small subplot about an unhappy work history and a crush on a counter man at his diner, but Spencer's Zelda gets only some generic lines about a dull husband until the very end.

Both Elisa and Hoffstetler, working separately at first, are trying to protect the Amphibian Man from Strickland. Michael Shannon plays Strickland, who reads positive thinking books at work, as an overcranked example of mid-century American masculinity. Strickland has a wife and kids, but he's also a candy-chomping workaholic who works for a general (Nick Searcy) who could end his career. By the end of The Shape of Water Strickland is literally falling apart, and del Toro's opinion of this particular American mode of being might as well be printed on the poster. There is a climactic act of violence which - along with an earlier scene in Elisa's apartment - feels like del Toro working a bit too hard to make his points. The Shape of Water is as immersive as any del Toro film this side of Pacific Rim, but I'm not sure I ever felt the effort as I do here. We never know exactly who the Amphibian Man is or what he can offer the world, for The Shape of Water ends with an act of magic that makes everything all right.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


On the way out of Hostiles I was pretty sure I heard a woman say "It sucked." I wonder if she wanted something faster paced, a film that is as tense as the opening sequence in which the husband and children of settler Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) are killed by Comanches in 1892 New Mexico. Perhaps she wanted a film with more moral clarity, one in which the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is as much of a villain as those Comanches. If the Native Americans are villains, then that means that Cavalry officers like the racist Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) must be the heroes, right? Oh, for a simpler time. Hostiles, written and directed by Scott Cooper, is a Western that aims to interrogate the nature of the American project - specifically, the treatment of indigenous peoples by the government and military of the United States. Blocker, a veteran of heavy combat on the verge of retirement, is ordered by his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) to escort Yellow Hawk and his family from the Army's prison in New Mexico to the Cheyenne tribal grounds in Montana. Blocker's view of Native Americans isn't subtle as the film sets itself up: he views them as inferior and bears a particular grudge over the death of friends and fellow soldiers in combat. It is worth noting that also present as Blocker receives his orders is a journalist named Wilks (Bill Camp), the first of many voices to remind us that America's treatment of those who were here first involves a great deal of violence too.

The bulk of Hostiles is the journey from New Mexico to Montana, with Blocker and his party discovering Rosalie Quaid and bringing her along to safety. Christian Bale plays Blocker with a ruthless interiority, as a man with only the barest access to the emotions that the trip brings up. Blocker is capable of a gruff courtliness with Rosalie and of a necessary pragmatism when he decides to let Yellow Hawk travel without chains, a decision made after the travelers take casualties in another Comanche raid. Bale never foregrounds either Blocker's keen intelligence - he's capable of fluently speaking Yellow Hawk's language - or the sense of weariness from too many battles fought, and the film is better for it. The forward motion of Hostiles is all about survival in the moment, and the cliffs and valleys of the Southwest familiar from so many Westerns have never quite looked so threatening as they do here thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The romance of the West that we know from older films has no place in Scott Cooper's conception.

Also in the traveling party is Blocker's trusted second-in-command, a Master Sergeant named Metz (Rory Cochrane). We first meet Metz at the fort, where in a speech to Blocker (who is reading something in Latin) he envisions the own end of his career and reveals that he has "the melancholia". Later, Metz recalls his first kill to another soldier (Jesse Plemons) who has come straight to New Mexico from West Point. Hostiles is incredibly self-aware in the way it doles out reminders that white Americans are implicated in decades of warfare over Western land. Besides Metz there is also Willis (Ben Foster), a soldier convicted of murder whom Blocker agrees to transport from one fort to another along the journey. Blocker and Willis are old colleagues, and Willis wastes no time in reminding Blocker and us of past sins. Another officer's wife (Robyn Malcolm) gets a dinner table speech about the humanity of Native Americans. The effect of all this talk adds up, and by the time a Montana rancher (Scott Wilson) asserts that his property rights trump Blocker's orders the didacticism has undercut both narrative tension and Blocker's coming into his own as a man. Meanwhile Cooper  largely wastes the charisma of Wes Studi, who as Yellow Hawk has little to do but stare meaningfully into the distance. (Adam Beach and Q'orianka Kilcher are also underused as Yellow Hawk's family.)

The ads for Hostiles call it "The best Western since Unforgiven". Both films share a concern with how violence serves authority, but Eastwood's natural economy as a filmmaker makes Unforgiven a more effective work. Unforgiven was of course not directly concerned with Native Americans, and while Cooper's ambition is laudable Hostiles works too hard to be about everything. Hostiles doesn't "suck" - it's too skillfully made - but it ends in the same place that it leaves Sergeant Metz, lost in sad ideas.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is exactly what one would expect from an Oscar-season Winston Churchill film, a brisk and highly performative story of the few weeks in 1940 between the ascension of Churchill (Gary Oldman) to Prime Minister and the "We shall fight on the beaches" speech to Parliament after the Dunkirk evacuation. In Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk this speech is read from a newspaper by a soldier who has just made it back from France. The context is highly ironic, since the soldier and his colleagues don't yet understand that their country regards them as heroes. Anthony McCarten's script for Darkest Hour isn't interested in ironies. McCarten and director Joe Wright cast Churchill's public words as a straightforward call to action, an evocation of all that's good and right about the British people. Churchill views fighting the Nazis to the end as the only honorable choice, an opinion that puts him into conflict with advisors like Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). The most lively parts of Darkest Hour remind us that Winston Churchill's greatest weapon was language. Churchill is constantly dictating to his secretary (Lily James) and revising at the last minute, and the scenes in the House of Commons make it clear that Churchill understood how a well-chosen phrase could swing momentum to his cause. Later scenes such as an encounter with citizens on the Underground and a surprise visit from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, doing a more stoic riff on the same monarch depicted in The King's Speech) feel cooked-up and less specific, as if the filmmakers were reading from a recipe book about Great Man Cinema.

Gary Oldman as Churchill is exactly as big as the role requires. Oldman plays the big speeches to the rafters, and is appropriately imperious with staffers and more vulnerable with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is easy to say that Oldman's performance is the "kind of acting that wins Oscars". That isn't wrong, but that says more about the Oscars than it does about the performance. Oldman is asked to do quite a lot here while working with a substantial makeup job, and he succeeds in making Churchill a person as opposed to merely an avatar of righteousness. Joe Wright keeps finding ways to isolate Churchill amid the bustle of the British high command - there's a memorable shot of Churchill ascending in an elevator in total blackness - and the strategy works well against the size of Oldman's performance. For all its pace and energy Darkest Hour never really decides whether it is more interested in British politics or in Churchill as irascible genius. Halifax and Chamberlain are slightly cartoonish in their determination to foist peace with Hitler on the country, and there is a certain point at which Lily James's secretary character just stops being afraid of Churchill after a tearful first meeting. The film that finds Churchill in all his complication is still to be made, and I wish a better job had been done here at explaining how some early failures - Gallipoli is mentioned - shaped the man. Darkest Hour isn't an unworthy attempt for all of its obviousness, and its only overarching flaw is wanting you to like it a bit too much.