Sunday, March 26, 2017
Dax Shepard played Crosby Braverman, the lovable screw-up brother, on the NBC series Parenthood for six seasons. The role of Crosby gave Shepard a chance to show a broader range than his screen credits (including When in Rome and Let's Go to Prison) had allowed. Shepard was very winning on the show and it seemed to signal a turning point in his career. It's sad news then that with CHiPs, which he also wrote and directed, Dax Shepard has now appeared in two of the worst films I've ever seen. (The other one is this.) CHiPs is based on the late 1970's television series about California Highway Patrol officers; it isn't a show crying out for revival and Shepard may have actually made those who remember it like it less. Rookie officer Jon Baker (Shepard) and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (played by Michael Pena and actually an FBI agent) are thrown together to investigate a series of armored car robberies that may point to a cabal of dirty Highway Patrol officers. Vincent D'Onofrio bellows and lumbers as the lieutenant who Baker and Ponch pursue through a series of surprisingly violent action scenes, but the plot is really just an excuse for the film to achieve an unusual trifecta. CHiPs is not only misogynistic and homophobic, it also hates the straight white men at its center. If you can imagine a world in which adult men are terrified of getting too close to each other in a locker room then you're living in the CHiPs universe. Shepard not only acknowledges gay panic he seems to regard it as a source of the film's comic energy. The women of CHiPs, most notably Kristen Bell as Baker's scheming wife, are uniformly sex-obsessed and there is even a scene in which the "not hot enough" Patrol officers are openly mocked. Baker and Ponch don't get off any better. Baker is an former pro bike rider who's addicted to pain pills and Ponch is a sex addict, and these choices are all the more inexplicable because they aren't paid off or resolved in any way. CHiPs is resolutely unfunny and should be ticketed for not being over soon enough.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) has had it. She is thoroughly tired of the small indignities of everyday life, from being stuck behind a pickup truck that has working smokestacks to being cut in front of at the grocery store to her job as a nurse's assistant who has to hear the (sometimes inappropriate) last words of dying seniors. Simply put, as Ruth tells her friend Angie (Lee Eddy), "Everyone is an asshole." It is this existential frustration that drives I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, the 2017 Sundance Jury prize winner by first time writer/director Macon Blair. Ruth reaches her limit when her home is broken into, and it's what she does next that drives the action of a film best read as a very black comedy about an America most of us don't even brush against. The police are indifferent - a detective (Gary Anthony Williams) on Ruth's case is more concerned with his impending divorce - so Ruth enlists her eccentric neighbor Tony (a very funny Elijah Wood) on a campaign to get her stuff back.
On the surface I Don't Feel at Home looks like some low-budget, neo-Tarantino '90s thriller. There are violent men like Marshall (David Yow) and violent acts on Ruth's path to recovering her laptop, silver service, and medications, but the genre trappings exist just to resolve the story. Melanie Lynskey is superb at playing a very specific kind of unhappiness (see here and here), and Macon Blair knows just how to use that skill to his film's advantage. I Don't Feel at Home is about what happens when Ruth's depressive worldview runs up against something even worse. There is a moment of exhilaration when Ruth tracks down her computer, which has already changed hands once, but it's a fleeting one and doesn't help Ruth's feeling of violation. Later Ruth finds her silver, suffers an injury, and accidentally hurts an old man, and it's that chaos that animates what Blair is doing. The sense that even the smallest effort to get a piece of one's own could lead to suffering is a theme that's only going to get more relevant, and even though Blair shot I Don't Feel at Home months before the 2016 election it's not out of line to call this the first film set in Trump's America.
Blair's script missteps when he tries to create some emotional dynamics among the criminal gang (there are two younger robbers played by Devon Graye and Jane Levy), but he hints at a way out for Ruth when she tries out a ecumenical church that Tony recommends. Don't get the wrong idea, I Don't Feel at Home doesn't have a spiritual message. Religion might provide Ruth with some momentary relief but the grace note of her visiting the church is scored with a vintage Echo & the Bunnymen song. By the end of the film Ruth has begun to find her way back, but the last words Blair chooses to let us hear are those of two men arguing about burgers. The best thing about I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, besides Lynskey's performance, is this tension. There are moments of peace, but there is always a fight somewhere.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Kong: Skull Island takes place mostly in the 1970's, but the new film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a very modern notion of our relationship to cinema's favorite gorilla. There is no capturing Kong and bringing him back to New York in this new Kong. This time we're the monsters, invaders of Kong's home island who will survive only if he allows it. It's 1973, the last days of the Vietnam War. A scientist named Randa (John Goodman) wants federal backing for an exploratory trip to the "uncharted" island that we already know (because of a prologue set in World War II) is home to Kong, who is rendered impressively by the visual effects team. Randa and his team are accompanied by a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson), and the whole group is flown in by soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard is the type of soldier who is disappointed when a war ends, and Jackson plays him with an advanced-level degree of jaw clenching.
As soon as we're told of the plan to drop "seismic charges" on the island it's obvious there's more going on here than pure science. Most of Packard's soldiers - who were only days away from going home - are killed and the leads must find their way to a rendezvous point where they can be rescued. The most entertaining thing about Kong besides the creatures is John C. Reilly as the man who clarifies Kong's role on the island. Reilly brings a broad good humor that's lacking in the rest of the characters, who are busy arguing and searching for weapons. Tom Hiddleston seems bored, but that's because he doesn't have a character to play. Hiddleston functions only as a sort of avatar around which the rest of the characters orient themselves, just as Brie Larson's spiky photographer is nominally an audience surrogate who is asked to do little more than run and jump.
Kong should be the most appealing character in any Kong film, and he certainly is here. The filmmakers succeed in giving him personality and in winning our empathy. The fights between Kong and other creatures have the needed degree of awesomeness, but it's too bad the characters around Kong aren't worth climbing a building for.
Sunday, March 05, 2017
From the opening scene of Logan it is clear we're in unfamiliar territory. Logan (Hugh Jackman) wakes up in the back of a limousine to find a group of men trying to steal his hubcaps. The situation escalates and The Wolverine's claws come out, but if you haven't caught an X-Men film in a little while then you may be surprised by how old and worn Logan looks. The very existence of Logan the film, the latest entry in a multibillion dollar franchise, is the biggest surprise though. Director James Mangold (who also made the previous Wolverine) has made a scaled down superhero film about the seasons of life and the responsibilities that we bear to each other even when mutant powers enter the equation. Logan is something genuinely fresh in the cinema of comic-derived film, a self-contained kind of post-superhero epic that explicitly nods to older forms. The particulars are sketched in quickly: It's 2029 in a world that has largely forgotten about mutants, who we're told are no longer being born. Logan is hiding out in Mexico and caring for the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and driving the limo to make money. The X-Men only survive as characters in comic books, and it's the comics that bring a special young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, good as a child who has never seen the world) into Logan's path.
What plot there is in Logan involves the attempt to take Laura to a (possibly mythical) hideout for young mutants while fleeing from the private army of a company that wants to weaponize mutant children. But Mangold and his co-writers didn't overload the script with monologuing villains - Richard E. Grant actually underplays the evil scientist - or ethical debates. It is hard to think of another comic-derived film that is so concerned with the psychic toll that killing plays on its heroes. Logan is a violent film, and Mangold films Logan and Laura fighting their pursuers in a brutal, close-up style that's just stylized enough to not be unpleasant. Yet there isn't any triumphalism in the violence, and as Logan goes on we realize that for Logan the identity of The Wolverine is like a costume that he can't take off. This notion is made explicit in scene where the characters watch a bit of Shane, a moment that pays off in surprising ways during the final battle. Most of Logan takes place in open Southwestern and Midwestern landscapes, so when the choices of Logan and Xavier (whose powers emerge in frightening seizures) affect those around them the consequences are immediate and specific. It would be unfair to spoil the way that the film brings Logan to a reckoning, but the choice is both a visual treat and dramatically effective. We're watching a film about a man who wants to leave the battlefield but who can't find a path anywhere else.
Hugh Jackman has always been a winning presence, but he has never been quite as committed and soulful as he is here. The emotional range the role of Logan requires is brought into full relief by the script, and Jackman more than delivers. He's not just a terrific superhero - this is first-order acting. Patrick Stewart, playing a dying king, is very much in his element as well. The only thing I don't like about Logan is the possibility that in a few years there will be a new film that renders Logan non-canonical, but until then let's appreciate what we've been given.
Jordan Peele's Get Out involves racism, interracial relationships, betrayal, and shocking behavior masked by privilege, but none of that would matter if it weren't so honest. Peele uses horror tropes because the plot demands it, but this scary enough (and sometimes very funny) first feature is really concerned with the discomfort that Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) feels about meeting the wealthy parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) at their lakeside home. Peele is interested in all of the awkwardness that Chris feels as Rose's father (Bradley Whitford) tries to ingratiate himself and her mother (Catherine Keener) offers to hypnotize him so he'll quit smoking. Then there's the party scene where rich white people ask Chris about his sexual prowess and if he's good at golf. The only non-white guest at that party is a man (Lakeith Stanfield) who seems familiar but doesn't act like himself, and it's at this point that Chris and his friend (Lil Rel Howery, providing fine comic relief) begin to put the horrible pieces together. A film this smart and closely observed heralds a successful writing/directing career for Peele, who here has a strong point to make: We're nowhere near as far along as we should be.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
A Cure for Wellness is a "horror" film only in a nominal sense. The new film directed by Gore Verbinski serves up a platter of mood, production design, imagery, and a too big portion of exposition and then dares us to be scared. The script by Justin Haythe (Haythe and Verbinski share story credit) begins in an almost empty Manhattan office building where a man named Morris suffers a heart attack and dies. Apologies to the actor who played Morris; his name isn't included here as the character's death only matters to the film because it allows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to get a promotion and a corner office at the financial services firm where Morris worked. Lockhart is ambitious and talented but also unscrupulous, since it seems his deals have jeopardized a much-needed merger. As penance to his bosses Lockhart is tasked to Switzerland, where one of the firm's partners (Harry Groener) has suffered a breakdown at a spa. Lockhart's job is to bring the older man back so the merger can be completed.
The bulk of A Cure for Wellness takes place at the spa run by Doctor Vollmer (Jason Isaacs, who between this and The OA is cornering the market on handsome evil). There is a large slab of exposition about the spa's location being where a 200-year old prince with some strange ideas about his heirs faced a peasant revolt, and we get more of the story from a patient (Celia Imrie) that Lockhart meets during one of his many unsuccessful attempts to leave the spa. What exactly is so scary about the spa and its healing waters, surrounded by mountains so beautiful that - according to a girl (Mia Goth) Lockhart meets - "no one ever leaves"? (Also, why is the film 2 and a half hours long?)Haythe's script makes some general statements about the soul-sickness of modern life and the frailty of the body, but the film makes better use out of the ornate and labyrinthine spa set. Lockhart gets lost in a steam bath upon his arrival and later trespasses into restricted corridors that seem to go on forever. A Cure for Wellness mentions The Shining it its ads, and Verbinski at moments is able to wring some scares out of physical space in the same way Kubrick did.
A Cure for Wellness becomes a mystery for Lockhart to solve, and he does so in a climax that shoves together some familiar horror tropes. It all means much less than it might because of the vein of misogyny running through Haythe's script. All the nurses at the spa are blonde and cold, and Goth's character's placement in a pool full of leeches at a key moment is a blunt summation of what's happening on Vollmer's watch. Only Celia Imrie has any fun as a patient who might be crazy, and she isn't onscreen long enough for it to matter. Dane DeHaan as Lockhart is physically right - you believe he might actually be sick - but the character is such a blank that all DeHaan can do is look sweaty and nervous in scene after scene. A Cure for Wellness locates its horror too far in the past and in doing so fatally dilutes its intended effect.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
I never got around to John Wick on its release in 2014. The idea of an action film starring Keanu Reeves that had something to do with a dead dog didn't exactly inspire confidence. Besides we're all busy, right? John Wick of course became a surprise hit, and when I finally saw it I enjoyed the way it used Keanu Reeves's odd intensity and the lengths gone to in order to create the film's insular, assassins-only universe. Here we are then with John Wick Chapter 2, with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returning. (For the story of how Stahelski went from stuntman to director, go here.) Keanu Reeves is back too of course, and the opening sequence of Chapter 2 finds Wick cleaning up business from the first film involving yet another Russian gangster (Peter Stormare) and possession of a certain vintage car. As in the first Wick Stahelski shoots action in wide shot, letting performance do the work as opposed to editing. Characters run at John Wick from all directions, and are dispatched with a gunshot, knife, or martial arts move, and Wick doesn't come through unscathed either.
Watching both John Wick "chapters" within a week produces a kind of exhilarating deadness, a state in which one both admires the technical skill and spatial coherence on display in the shootouts and grows tired of how inconsequential the gunplay feels. Part of the fun of the first John Wick was figuring out the rules that the characters operated under. The gold coins, the always on call cleanup crew, the cop (Thomas Sadoski) who's both indifferent to and fascinated by what's happening, and especially the hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane, back for Chapter 2 in an expanded role) all set boundaries for the film's moral universe. The fact that nothing in the first John Wick after the home invasion seemed to have any real world consequences gave a kind of permission to enjoy that film's succession of shootouts and betrayals, and we could feel comfortable knowing that at least some rules - no killing at the hotel - did apply. John Wick Chapter 2 attempts to build that idea out with unfortunate results.
So, what is John Wick Chapter 2 "about"? The plot involves an old debt of Wick's and an Italian named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants a seat at the "High Table", which seems to be the worldwide governing council of assassins. Wick is forced to shoot his way out of Italian catacombs and knife his way out of a subway car, and the closer that Wick and his adversaries - there are extended fights with characters played by Common and a silent Ruby Rose - get to the "real world" the more uneasy the film becomes. When Wick fights a man on Italian streets there's not a civilian to be found, but when the story returns to New York there are action scenes in public spaces, and the shakiest moment involves Wick quietly exchanging silenced gunfire with Common's character over the heads of an unwitting crowd. Either the behavior in Chapter 2 means something or it doesn't, and the use of extras only as obstacles creates a sour aftertaste. It is also worth mentioning at this point how boring much of Chapter 2 is. Characters take exaggerated pauses between lines, the initial setup is very slow, and time is wasted explaining the attributes of various weapons that could have been spent on the power structure of the world we're in. Why isn't McShane's Winston afraid of the High Table? Who is the character played by Laurence Fishburne other than a man who turns up at just the right moment to provide Wick the help he needs?
The climactic shootout of Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors, which is as close as the film gets to having any of its characters look at themselves. There's an epilogue of sorts which suggests that Wick will be in hell soon if he isn't already there, and I hope that if there's a third Wick chapter the filmmakers will commit to grounding the story in a way they couldn't pull off here. Free John Wick!
Sunday, February 05, 2017
Why does the film Lion have its title? The reason isn't revealed until the end credits, but by then it almost doesn't matter. This Best Picture-nominated story of survival and of finding one's place in the world is so urgently acted and skillfully shot that we would go along with almost any title we were given. Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly - the film is based on his memoir - who when we meet him is a five year old in India in 1986. Saroo is played as a child by Sunny Pawar, an exceptionally natural performer who is perhaps the film's greatest asset. An accident sends Saroo by train from his rural village to faraway Calcutta, where he neither knows anyone nor speaks the language. The Calcutta train station is shot by director Garth Davis as a nightmare of human activity. Bodies flow in waves and bounce off of each other, and because Davis finds a visual language to match Saroo's experience we barely see the grown-up faces. Saroo doesn't understand everything that is happening to him but his instincts serve him well. He manages to hold his own long enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a kindly Australian couple.
The first half of Lion is a Dickensian tale of courage, but once Sue and John have adopted Saroo's angrier brother Manosh the film cuts to the late 2010's. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, is a student with a new girlfriend called Lucy (Rooney Mara) and career prospects. One day Saroo and Lucy have dinner at the home of an Indian classmate; the evening is convivial until someone comments on how Saroo (who hasn't shared his story with the others) can't eat Indian food with his hands and a childhood memory is triggered. The second half of Lion is an of-the-moment tale of asserting one's identity. Saroo, encouraged by Lucy, begins trying to figure out where his home village is via Google Earth. The two shakiest moments in Lion occur after Saroo - whose search seems to take over his life - begins looking for his home. Saroo gives a speech to Lucy that invokes "privilege" which seems to come out of nowhere, while Kidman's Sue recounts a childhood incident that led to her forgoing having children in favor of raising a "brown-skinned child". Both of these scenes are redeemed by strong acting - Dev Patel has never been this forceful on screen - and they hint at a direction the movie fortunately doesn't go in, one in which Saroo's Indian heritage is interesting simply because it's unfamiliar to Western eyes. The screenplay by Luke Davies pulls back though, and the resolution to Saroo's journey is very moving. Lion works because it is content to keep things on a human level and not mythologize either its characters or its setting. It's also a good story well told, and that in itself makes it worth the experience.