Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is an invitation to consider the people and the things around you. A family member can be a source of great comfort, but innocent mistakes can have life-changing consequences and the responsibilities that we bear to one another can sometimes push us to our limits. At the same time, everyday things transcend their purpose and take on new meaning in a family's life. What makes A Quiet Place - directed and cowritten by and also starring John Krasinski - so effective are the ways that things and people we are comfortable with are pushed just slightly out of focus. Also, there are monsters. In a near future that looks very much like our present, society has collapsed. Humanity has fallen to a race of predatory creatures that cannot see but which respond with speed and violence to the slightest sound. We don't know exactly where the Abbott family lives, but they seem to be among the very last people left on Earth. The Abbotts are Lee (Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward). Routines are established which are matters of survival: sign language, walking barefoot on paths laid out in sand, and emergency procedures to follow if the very worst should happen. Any mistake, like the one that happens during an after dinner game of Monopoly, could mean the end of everything. There is a way in which Krasinski establishes the normal rhythms and dynamics of the Abbotts' lives in a tight 90-minute film that is very touching, all the more because we know how close the danger is. Krasinski plays Lee with a harried dignity that he hasn't shown onscreen before. He's the family's rock in the best sense but the strain is showing, especially when Regan refuses to try another in a series of homemade hearing aids that her father has made for her. Regan, carrying guilt over a previous accident, is beginning to assert her independence and to wonder where she fits into the family. Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf, is an amazingly expressive performer who is asked to carry much of the film's emotional burden. When Krasinski cuts to Regan's point of view he drops the sound out entirely, a choice that is never used for cheap scares but rather to dramatize just how unusually difficult her fight to stay alive is. A Quiet Place builds to an extended climax during which the family is separated, and Emily Blunt's Evelyn gets a full emotional arc to play in just few shots. (It's not a spoiler to reveal that the film's longest stretch of dialogue occurs in a homemade soundproof room.) But to say too much more would dilute the pleasures of this highly experiential film. Krasinski's direction is confident, with only one moment of yada-yada exposition required, and the ensemble work from the actors is excellent. A Quiet Place is filled with the love and anxiety that parents feel for their children, and it shouldn't be written off just as a well-made genre piece. The combination of craft, imagination, and emotion put forward here is truly urgent and personal cinema.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Isle of Dogs

The new Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs is fanciful enough to be a story that one character might tell another in one of Anderson's other films. It is easy to imagine Sam and Suzy killing an afternoon in Moonrise Kingdom with the tale of a young boy, the dog he seeks to find, and the evil uncle keeping them apart for his own ends. Anderson returns here to the stop-motion animation he used in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the result is an illustrated book that has come to life in some alternate universe. Anderson's eye for visual detail serves the material well, as scenes from television broadcasts, operating rooms, and (stylized) dog fights are animated with a precision that gives texture and depth to the world. That's to say nothing of the voice cast. In the near future a Japanese city is threatened by an outbreak of "dog flu". Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whose family has controlled the region for centuries, proclaims that all dogs will be collected and quarantined on "Trash Island" as a public health measure. The Mayor's young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) makes his way to the island in search of his loyal dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). That much story is about all that Anderson needs really. We're with Atari and the pack of dogs who find him - led by Bryan Cranston as the defiant stray Chief - as they traverse the larger than initially thought island. Chief and his pack bicker amongst themselves over whether and in what manner to help Atari, with Edward Norton's Rex especially funny for his insistence on parliamentary procedure. Back on the mainland an exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) determines to expose the city's corruption and rescue the dogs. Other dogs are played by Anderson regulars such as Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Tilda Swinton with an easy sense of ensemble that probably belies the circumstances under which the actors were recorded.

Isle of Dogs can best be read as a sort of parable about empathy and the dangers of othering. It has been described as Anderson's most "political" film, but while the relevance to real-world events is there the timing of the release creates a context that perhaps wasn't planned for. Empathy is an idea that transcends countries and cultures. While it is fair to ask why Anderson chose a Japanese setting for Isle of Dogs, the film is aware of what it's doing in a way that Mayor Kobayashi is not. All of the human Japanese characters speak their own language without subtitles. The translations are diegetic, mostly provided in scene by an interpreter character (Frances McDormand) or displayed as words on a device. We are always aware we're watching a film taking place in another culture, and Anderson doesn't try to explain or caricature anything about Japan or to assert the superiority of one culture over another. We can't totally divine Anderson's intentions of course, but it is not unreasonable to imagine he set Isle of Dogs in another culture to emphasize the universality of his central theme. (Good companion reading for Isle of Dogs might be this much-shared blog post.) Wes Anderson will no doubt return to the live-action world in future projects, with all of the familiar visual flourishes and characters caught in the nooks and crannies of their melancholy. But Isle of Dogs reveals both an unfamiliar kindness and a moral bent in Anderson not much seen before, making his future work not yet imagined to feel both wanted and quite necessary.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ready Player One

In the future there will come a day when, because there is nothing else to do, most people will spend a significant amount of time in a virtual reality world known as The OASIS. They will familiarize themselves with works of pop culture from the 1980's for a chance at winning a game created by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric game designer who created The OASIS and is using the game to determine who will control OASIS after his death. As one might expect, a large corporation wants to mess everything up. If the previous three sentences sound to you like a depressing conceit for a film then you may want to stay away from Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline. We get a dose of exposition from Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in Columbus, Ohio who exists in OASIS under the name Parzival. (I think I missed the explanation for why all the real-world action takes place in Columbus.) It's 2045 and Wade lives in "The Stacks", a residential slum made out of old cars and shipping containers. The world has disintegrated because of societal calamities like the "Bandwith Riots", and Wade and virtual friends like Aech (Lena Waithe) spend their time competing in challenges to find the first of the three keys that will unlock the location of an "Easter Egg" that Halliday hid in the OASIS before his death. Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) runs a corporation bent on taking over OASIS and monetizing it. Sorrento has an army of game players at his disposal to compete in challenges or to debate Halliday's taste in vintage Atari games, but Mendelsohn isn't above trying to rig the contest when the chance arises.

The basic plot of Ready Player One contains possibilities that Ernest Cline couldn't have seen when he published the novel in 2011. The issue of corporate influence in online spaces isn't new, but it has only become more pressing as we move into - for the moment - a post-net neutrality age and come to grips with the fact that our personal data is at risk even with companies that proclaim themselves benign actors. A toxic strain of fanboy culture is ever present on our social media platforms, and gatekeepers seem intent on feeding us more servings of the same content. How disappointing then that Spielberg - working from a screenplay by Cline and Zak Penn - engages with none of this in Ready Player One. Wade Watts as written is a hole at the center of the film, valuable to the story only because of his command of Halliday's pop culture tastes. Other OASIS residents like Art3emis (Olivia Cooke, by far the best thing about the film) view saving OASIS as a political act, one that will keep the space open and stop Sorrento from using players who have accrued too much "debt" inside OASIS as forced virtual labor. It's no spoiler to say Wade eventually comes around to Art3mis's way of thinking, but even then he seems more motivated by a crush than by newly discovered ideals. Olivia Cooke is making a specialty of playing characters more vital than the males she's supposed to be supporting. In this film festival darling (which I hated), the main character only discovered Cooke's character had an artistic talent when it was too late because he had never bothered to ask her a question.

Throughout Ready Player One we get glimpses of familiar characters from the worlds of video games and films. A little Chucky here, some Iron Giant there, and hey there are some Master Chiefs fighting with the good guys during the climactic battle. Spielberg even invents a set piece not in the book in which Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, and their friends Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) must find a clue inside a recreation of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Most of the characters we see are avatars for players inside OASIS, and Ready Player One doesn't ask questions about the future of a society in which one's cultural allegiances and command of minutiae determine one's value as a person. A nameless young woman (Rona Morison) is singled out among Sorrento's team of "Oology" experts - researchers into how the OASIS reflects Halliday's taste. She anticipates the final challenge for Sorrento's game players, but when Parzival is being tested she is cheering him on. Has she broken ranks with her employer, or does she just appreciate Parzival's skill? What happens to an Oologist in this society? We'll never know, but she might well end up like a young Halliday: alone and dreaming her IP-saturated dreams.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Death of Stalin/Blockers

Armando Ianucci'sThe Death of Stalin begins at a concert in 1953, where a pianist (Olga Kurylenko) and orchestra are performing a Mozart concerto. In the radio booth, the man (Paddy Considine) producing the broadcast for Radio Moscow receives a phone call. Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) would like a recording, but the performance wasn't recorded. What to do? The way that Stalin's request is answered in this very pointed and very funny satire is an initial statement of the film's central theme: Power - and the need to maintain it - trumps everything, including institutions and especially individuals. The Death of Stalin is based on a graphic novel, and it doesn't purport to be a strict retelling of historical events. After Stalin dies from a cerebral hemorrhage the struggle for succession is on. Stalin's deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) assumes the role of General Secretary, but both Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) know that Malenkov doesn't have the ruthlessness required to hold on to power. Iannucci stages the succession of arrests and executions of Soviet citizens at Beria's orders as a sort of industrial process, with prisoners moving in and out with comic efficiency. The lists that Beria creates are subject to change on a whim however, and after Stalin's death the politician Molotov (Michael Palin) is spared. In a strong cast Palin is a particular standout, as the way Molotov is willing to denounce his wife even after he learns that Beria has secretly kept her alive would feel right at home in a Monty Python sketch. But the dark heart of The Death of Stalin is Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the security chief who was responsible for making Stalin's enemies disappear. Beale plays Beria as a man who has accepted his own methods as entirely logical, and as one who believes that his power will allow him to exercise his appetites without challenge. It's a performance that plays in the same comic ballpark as the rest of the cast, but Beale and Iannucci ground Beria by giving him a blind spot to his accountability. Things only begin to go bad for Beria when he can't produce a friend of Stalin's daughter (Andrea Riseborough) that he had executed years before. His position becomes tenuous as the more pragmatic Khrushchev moves to consolidate power.

The Death of Stalin is very much the film one might expect from the creator of the television series Veep, another bleakly funny vision of the collision between politics and humanity. Iannucci doesn't make explicit connections between the Soviet Union of the 1950's and the current American situation, but an attentive reading of the film can't help but produce thoughts about the current administration and its uses of power without nuance on issues like immigration. When leaders believe there are no true checks, then authority granted by the people turns into something dark and ugly - the maintenance of power for its own sake. Laughter at The Death of Stalin is a perfectly legitimate response, the film is tonally perfect and well-executed by a first rate cast. Yet let your final thought as the lights come up be this: It is the story of a country that no longer exists.

The broad comedy Blockers, directed by Kay Cannon, is the story of two parents (John Cena and Leslie Mann) who work together in an attempt to stop each of their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night. A third parent (Ike Barinholtz) joins the group but has his own agenda: He thinks the girls' plan is a natural expression of their growing up, and he wants to make sure the adults don't ruin the night for his own daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon). Blockers is best when it stays with the daughters, Sam and her best friends Julie (Kathryn Newton) and Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan). All three young women are funny and intelligent, perfect expressions of self-aware teenage life circa 2018. (I can imagine all three liking Lady Bird - the character - while at the same time finding her a bit of a mess.) Julie wants a romantic night with her boyfriend (Graham Phillips), and Kayla is looking for a good time with her date (Miles Robbins) - a lab partner known as "The Chef" for his skill at putting drugs into baked goods. Sam is attending prom with a guy (Jimmy Bellinger), but she is really a lesbian who's attracted to Angelica (Ramona Young) but not out to friends and family. This is all rich ground for a teen comedy, but the script by Brian and Jim Kehoe keeps returning to the anxieties of the parents. Leslie Mann has proven she's game for anything in Judd Apatow's films, but here she doesn't have much to do besides fret about her own life choices and Julie going across the country to college. (Mann has one great physical comedy bit involving hiding in a bedroom.) John Cena meanwhile bears the brunt of the film's broadest gags, and while he has a natural warmth he isn't quite a strong enough actor yet to make his character more than a caricature. The script for Blockers reportedly began life as something called Cherries, which sounds much worse, but the insistence on making the parents good with everything that happens turns the daughters into objects of parental neuroses in a way that takes some of the glitz off of prom night.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Unsane (spoilers)

In 2013 Steven Soderbergh directed a film called Side Effects, a nominal thriller about a young woman of questionable mental stability and the for-profit medical system that saw her as both a patient and a customer. Side Effects was a mess of plot and ideas, not sure what kind of film it wanted to be or even who the main character was. At the time it was billed as Soderbergh's last theatrical release before his "retirement" from movies, and the idea that it would be our last glimpse of Soderbergh seemed unfair. 5 years later Soderbergh is back with Unsane off of The Knick and Logan Lucky, and the new film is a more sprightly but still muddled return to Side Effects territory. The thoughtfully named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) seems to be doing well at her undefined financial job. We meet Sawyer as she is firmly defending her bank's interests to a client, and her too-interested boss invites her to travel with him to a conference. Sawyer's Face Time call with her mother (Amy Irving) suggests a young woman embracing life in a new city. But why does Sawyer does seem so sad when she hangs up? Why does she eat lunch alone? The answers come later, after Sawyer has sought out counseling at a local private clinic and unknowingly signed papers that "voluntarily" commit her to treatment.

Unsane, like Side Effects before it, is a movie about for-profit medicine. A patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah) fills in the details for Sawyer and for the audience, and Nate also just happens to have a cell phone that no one knows about. The clinic where Sawyer and Nate are patients is really more of warehouse - we see a endless series of bland institutional hallways - where people are housed until their insurance stops paying. If Sawyer just had to wait out her week-long commitment she could make it, but one day when she is lined up to receive medication the sight of a male nurse (Joshua Leonard) evokes a panicked reaction. The nurse's name is George but Sawyer insists he is David, the man who has been stalking her for two years and who forced her to move to another city. A flashback involving an uncredited Matt Damon as a security expert reveals that Sawyer is right: the nurse is actually David, who has acquired a false identity.

After David's intentions are revealed the film has a problem. The details of the clinic's malpractice are pushed to one side, used to break the tension of Sawyer's attempts to free herself. The strangest and best scenes are the confrontations between Sawyer and David in a padded cell, where Sawyer must outwit David and in which the intrusion of another patient (Juno Temple, going for it) produces the film's most frightening image. Soderbergh shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 plus, and so almost everyone looks both too dark and oddly dirty at the same time. The scenes of orderlies going through Nate's things and of cops searching the clinic are given perfunctory staging, and the camera doesn't move much except for a sequence of Sawyer running down hallways. But the immediacy of the camera in the padded cell scenes is unnerving, and Claire Foy's best moments come when she is making David believe she's not really the woman he loves. Unsane would be too much of familiar ingredients if it weren't for Claire Foy, who has the talent, charisma, and beauty of a movie star and who isn't afraid to be unsympathetic. If Soderbergh is the mind behind Unsane, then Foy is the heart. An epilogue reveals that Sawyer has been deeply damaged by her experiences, and Soderbergh uses the last shot to indicate a stoppage as opposed to an ending. It's fair to hope that Soderbergh has Evil Medicine out of his system, but his experiments like Unsane are fascinating even when flawed.

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.