Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Characters are together in a confined space. They don't know each other. A murder occurs. Who did it and what does it mean? No, I'm not describing a new entry in the Saw franchise but rather Kenneth Branagh's new film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh having a great time) is last-minute addition to the passenger list for a journey across Europe when a murder and an avalanche throw the travelers into confusion. Poirot's fellow passengers include an unpleasant art dealer (Johnny Depp in an out-of-tune performance), a governess (Daisy Ridley), and a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in search of a husband. Poirot is prevailed upon to solve the case, and what else is a detective to do? The film is essentially a series of confrontations, with Poirot questioning the passengers and slowly finding out that their connections to the murder victim are more complex than they first appeared. Each scene reveals a new layer to the mystery, though the identity of two passengers traveling on diplomatic visas (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) gets buried under a layer of too-fast exposition. Branagh is winningly haughty and vain as Poirot and I could have watched more of him fussing over the shape of his breakfast egg, but he is also an actor capable of projecting great intelligence and in Poirot's interactions with the passengers there's little doubt that he will come out ahead. I wish that Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green, could have found a way to better integrate a large amount of exposition into the main story. Changing the structure of the plot might offend Christie purists, but much depends on things that occurred before the train journey starts and spending some time outside the train would have avoided several scenes that function as information dumps. It also would have meant that actors like Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz would have had a bit more to do, and the film would have felt less like an echo chamber for Branagh's performance.

Other than Depp's, the one performance that didn't work for me was Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. I think Branagh and Green are actually combining two characters here, but in any case while of course there's nothing wrong with changing the race of a character the film then goes out of its way to call attention to Arbuthnot's race for plot purposes. That isn't Odom's fault, but he's not convincing as a British person or as someone involved in a romance that turns into a late revelation. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, or Judi Dench. Branagh wants this story to ask questions about the nature of justice, but in a film so constructed around one star performance the moral issues don't resonate. Murder on the Orient Express is an adequate Sunday afternoon diversion but it is overstuffed and - even running under two hours - a little clunky. A talented cast can't quite save this from feeling like a film that didn't really need to exist. Kenneth Branagh's next case shouldn't be quite so cold.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Quick referral

I'd meant to do this before but please check out BHS62, a new blog written by my father Stanley Crowe. Dad's most recent post is a review of the Mike Leigh film Meantime (available on Criterion), and he's writing on everything from classical music to current events.

Thor: Ragnarok

There is something bracing about Thor: Ragnarok, something fresh and surprising about how much fun a superhero franchise film can be when it isn't too weighted down with metaphor or psychology. Much of the credit for the pleasures of the third Thor film - an installment that no one was asking for - goes to director Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who broke out with this and who in addition to directing turns in a funny performance as an ambulatory pile of rocks named Korg. Waititi has gotten around the challenge of upping the stakes from previous films by refusing to do so here. The script for Thor: Ragnarok written by three of the Marvel house team reflects the franchise back on itself by refusing to invent reasons for what the characters do to matter. Waititi fills the screen up with heavily stylized imagery, and the comedic skills of the actors do the rest. The unusual choices are welcome but they also make this third (Final?) Thor film feel like a curiosity, one that barely connects to the larger Marvel project. I can't recall a film that I've enjoyed as much as Thor: Ragnarok while being less emotionally engaged.

We begin with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in captivity, narrating to himself and to us. I wanted the narration to run throughout the film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off style, but soon enough we get a conversation between Thor and a demon (voiced by Clancy Brown) about the impending fall of Asgard that is really just background for a gag about Thor on a spinning chain. When Thor finally makes it back home, he finds brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) enjoying himself in ways that are too funny to spoil. The existential threat to Asgard comes in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death and sister of Thor and Loki. Hela's powers have become too strong for Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to control, and she has returned from banishment to claim what is hers. Cate Blanchett as Hela is the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok, and her dry performance is both success in itself and a comment on the tropes of comic book film villains. Hela only wants power, so there is no need for exposition about her plans. (The scene where the villain explains themselves in a film like this is what I call the "Harness the power of the Sun" moment.) The deliberate and very funny boredom of Blanchett's line readings is just the vinegar Waititi needs when he cuts away from Thor and Loki, who have become stranded on a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, speaking of line readings). The section of the film involving Thor being forced into gladiatorial combat against Hulk (Mark Ruffalo again makes for a neurotic Bruce Banner) is funny but also feels the most functional, as if Waititi and the writers realized they had to get all of the key characters moving towards the next Avengers film. Tessa Thompson adds welcome energy as a boozy Valkyrie, first seen drunkenly falling off her spaceship and eventually appealed to in Thor's plans to save Asgard. Thompson has had one of the oddest careers in current movies, with her first major film credit in a Tyler Perry film no one remembers (For Colored Girls) and her breakthrough coming in another sequel that no one was asking for (Creed). Here Thompson is asked to be alternately funny and a badass, and her performance promises her a steady income in Marvel films to come.

There is, of course, a battle which brings all of the major players together as well as Asgard's gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba), a knight who has fallen under Hela's spell (Karl Urban), and a large group of Asgardian citizens. As much fun as it was getting to this point, why does none of this feel like it matters? Thor: Ragnarok is in its way a sort of glass-fronted box of a film, one that's a pleasure to look at but too insular to linger. (Mark Ruffalo as Banner is as close as we get to a character who isn't an alien or a god.) I didn't know how much I needed a superhero film that contains sequences that look like the cover of a Yes album, or one in which Cate Blanchett is costumed like the Mistress at a Sierra Club dungeon. I'm arguing against myself here, because the heavy-handedness of most films in the genre can feel stultifying. But as pleasurable as Waititi's aesthetics are, they don't point to a new way forward. (I could be proven wrong if Ryan Coogler's Black Panther hits big next year.) Thor: Ragnarok ends with our heroes in space Battlestar Galactica-style. They're headed to Earth, where Avengers: Infinity War comes out in 2018. I'm pretty sure they'll make the release date.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


Breathe is the fact-based story of Robin Cavendish, a British man who contracted polio in Kenya in the late 1950's and became an advocate for Britain's disabled community until his death in 1994. The early scenes of William Nicholson's screenplay show Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) wooing Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) at a cricket match and whisking her off to Africa, where he worked as a tea broker. Director Andy Serkis - the motion-capture acting legend directs here for the first time - moves through this part of the story quickly, and at first I was afraid that Breathe was going to be a sort of sturdy, chin-up melodrama with scene after scene of Cavendish overcoming obstacles. We don't even really learn that much about Cavendish in these scenes. One of his colleagues delivers a speech early on about "willpower", but when Cavendish is stricken with polio and new mother Diana must get him to back to England all we really know about Cavendish is that he loves his wife and is being played by our greatest living ex-Spider Man. Breathe falls squarely into the "Disabled Person Beats the Odds" genre, but it is separated from the pack by two soulful lead performances and a sense of activism about disabled lives. (Cavendish's son Jonathan produced Breathe.) Nicholson's script is always making us think about the way we see people with severe disabilities, from the scenes in which an officious doctor (Jonathan Hyde) is dismissing Diana's efforts to bring Robin home to a funnier moment at a party where Robin's friend laments about his love life to a paralyzed man connected to a respirator. Robin gains freedom of movement thanks to a wheelchair invented by another friend (Hugh Bonneville), and in its second half Breathe becomes more strident about the way we don't want to look at others who make us uncomfortable. When Robin visits a German hospital the disabled patients he sees are just heads protruding from respirators like in a sci-fi nightmare. It's the film's most striking visual moment and it inspires Robin's speech to a medical conference about not viewing the disabled as prisoners. Garfield delivers the monologue wonderfully, and he's as angry or charming or loving by turns as the screenplay requires. The first moment where a newly at-home Robin almost dies is chilling in its ordinariness, and Garfield has a stunning bit of acting as a man maybe breathing his last. Yet I wish I had a better sense of the man whose life I was watching unfold. Serkis isn't interested in what initially connects Robin and Diana, he's more engaged with how Robin functions within the story as an avatar for the disabled. While Serkis and Nicholson don't pile on the sentiment, the moment where Robin asks his family to let him go shouldn't feel quite as schematic as it does. To say that Claire Foy as Diana fares better is of course to play into what Breathe is doing, since her character isn't bound by the same physical limitations as Garfield's. Andrew Garfield is already an Oscar-nominated star and Foy deserves to be. Her Diana is terrifically warm, but Foy makes her more than just an Earth Mother. Foy locates very specific wells of anger and fear in Diana when things look at their worst, and if you've seen The Crown you know how indomitable she can be. Yet the film lets her down somewhat as well, because Foy doesn't get many scenes where Diana isn't required to respond to Robin's needs at that precise moment. Breathe doesn't bother with explaining either Robin or Diana's family or financial situations. Diana has twin brothers both played by Tom Hollander - wouldn't it be wild if Serkis was actually doing a motion capture performance as one of the Hollanders - who suggest a sort of shabbily comfortable background, but besides a couple of tossed off lines no one in Breathe ever worries about the cost of Robin's care. Andy Serkis shoots Breathe like a handsome TV film. He's careful to call attention to the beauty of a sunset or a country view as Robin observes them, and there are a few POV angles from Robin's bed. But Breathe is an actor's show. When I saw the trailer I thought that Breathe looked like a too-obvious Oscar grab. In fact it is better than that thanks to its two leads, whose work transcends a film that is very personal but not quite human enough.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (spoilers)

The beginning of Blade Runner 2049 offers some quick titles to update the story. The Tyrell Corporation, responsible for manufacturing "replicants" in the original Blade Runner, has failed and the use of replicants as slaves stopped for a time. A tech baron named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has since reintroduced replicants to the world, only this time they are designed to obey. No more inconvenient rebellions. A few older models like Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) still survive, but the profession of "Blade Runner" still exists too and the older replicants are being systematically hunted down and retired. All of this would be useful information if only Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay co-written by original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher, didn't forget about these facts so quickly. In the new film the Blade Runner in question is known as K (Ryan Gosling), and the filmmakers don't waste any time establishing him as a replicant. Although K appears to have some free will, he obeys his superior (Robin Wright) without question and appears to have no qualms about his charge to retire the older replicants. When K isn't working he goes home to a small apartment and a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas) who he brings with him via a sort of mobile hotspot. If replicants in 2049 are built as accessories for humans, then why are all the humans so angry at K? Why are there obscenities scrawled on K's apartment door? Most importantly, why did the makers of Blade Runner 2049 put a cipher with compromised free will at the center of this film? The conception of K plays into Ryan Gosling's worst tendencies to be stoic, but Gosling can't be blamed for the way the script keeps the film's level of urgency in check. Blade Runner 2049 is almost three hours long, and since K can only figure out the film's central mystery - the possible existence of a child born of two replicants - at the pace others allow him to that means that Villeneuve has plenty of time for shots of characters silhouetted against hazy backgrounds and K walking (very) slowly through abandoned cityscapes. Blade Runner 2049 gave me what I wanted from a Blade Runner film in terms of look and mood thanks to the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and the other designers, but I got too much of it and not enough of what it means to be human in a world where humans come off an assembly line.

We are introduced to Jared Leto's Niander Wallace early on, in a scene where he inspects a nude replicant and then kills her because (it seems) she is incapable of bearing children. The plans Wallace shares with his replicant aide/enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who gives the film's most charismatic performance) involve another leap forward in replicant production, but they require the child that K has discovered was born 30 years before. Wallace doesn't return until late in the film, and while Leto's fussy performance isn't missed the character's absence makes it hard to remember what's at stake. K is also pursuing the child of course even though after a certain point people stop telling him to. In fact K lies to his boss about his progress on the case, a behavior that seems out of sorts with what we've been given to understand replicants are capable of. But again, no one is in a hurry. There's time for a sex scene involving K, Joi, and a sex worker (Mackenzie Davis) who seems a little too comfortable with replicants. Later K visits an orphanage where memories - possibly implanted ones - of his childhood are triggered. All of this of course is buildup to K's discovery of Deckard (Harrison Ford) hiding out in what I think is supposed to be a blasted out and empty Las Vegas. Ford, beautifully weathered and with a voice that sounds like the concept of roughness, adds a welcome layer of gravitas to the proceedings as he fills in the backstory of his relationship with Rachael (Sean Young) after the original Blade Runner concluded. If K and Deckard became partners at this point the story would have taken on some welcome emotional depth, but Deckard gets sucked back into the Wallace storyline and is mostly a passive figure in the final act while K - left alive for reasons that aren't clear - discovers the existence of a brewing replicant revolution in a subplot that goes nowhere. The ending of Blade Runner 2049 is satisfying for one or two characters, but it will shock those who appreciated the rigorous endings of Prisoners and Villeneuve's other earlier films.  The order of the world will go on for humans and "skin jobs" alike.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

American Made (spoilers)

Doug Liman's American Made is nominally the story of Barry Seal, a pilot, drug smuggler and operative for the U.S. government who was murdered by the Medellin Cartel in 1986. Seal is played by Tom Cruise with a shaggy haircut and great energy, but the film badly misjudges its tone and doesn't seem that interested in the colorful facts of Seal's life. Liman, working from a script by Gary Spinelli, tells Seal's story as jaunty comedy of 1980's excess. Seal and his (fictional) wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) are just starting a family in the late 1970's when Seal is approached by the CIA - Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal's handler - to fly over Central America and take pictures. On a trip to Colombia Seal is solicited by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and the Medellin Cartel with an offer to fly cocaine into the country for money that will beat Seal's CIA salary. Seal agrees, and the rest of the film is the story of his toggling between his jobs and operative and criminal. Tom Cruise is at his best when he's harried, and he's very appealing in the scenes where Barry has to placate a worried Lucy or talk down an angry Contra leader. But Seal as written is a man without political convictions, he exists in the moment and the film depicts the way Seal handles the outrageous amounts of cash he is paid as a kind of domestic farce that eventually grows tiresome. By the time Seal's activities start to catch up with him and real-life figures like Oliver North (Robert Farrior) enter the story Liman has blown any chance to pull off the change in tone that he attempts. The film's version of Seal is so defiantly self-absorbed that the idea of the federal government bailing Seal out of a state prosecution in Arkansas ("Governor Clinton on the line.") plays as nonsense. Wouldn't the government want someone they could control? American Made gives Tom Cruise a chance to stretch to his comic side, a good move Cruise should make more often, but the film's lack of an opinion about its own main character fatally undercuts a good central performance.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Song to Song

My relationship with Terrence Malick began in college, when as part of a freshman English assignment I had to watch Malick's debut film Badlands and prepare a presentation with a classmate. I knew Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek of course, but at the time I had never heard of Badlands or its director. To describe the experience of a first viewing from over 25 years ago feels like a reductive exercise, one that would just end up being sentimental. I do remember that I loved Badlands immediately, though at the time I responded more to the dryness of Martin Sheen's performance - which of course hides the characters sociopathy - than the contrast between Spacek's narration and the violence that her character observes. Spacek's voice over in Badlands is among the greatest in American film, both brilliantly acted and the perfect execution of Malick's intention, and it is equalled and maybe surpassed by the narration of Linda Manz in Malick's next film Days of Heaven. The Criterion edition of Days of Heaven has a sort of all hands on deck commentary track from Malick's collaborators, and the biggest revelation for me was the level of Malick's indecision over where to place certain cuts of Manz's voiceover. When an artist is as inscrutable as Malick we like to think that the work springs forth fully formed, but for Malick as with any other director it isn't always clear what one has until the editing room. Twenty years later Malick released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones's novel and a film arguably more famous for its production than for what ended up on screen. When I saw The Thin Red Line, which spreads the narration among a large cast, I knew instinctively that I was seeing a late career masterpiece but I now wish that I had bought another ticket and sat through the next show. (I later felt the same way about The New World and The Tree of Life.) The Thin Red Line seems to me a clear statement of Malick's great subject: Man is inextricably connected to the world around him while also being in opposition to that harmony. Later The New World would deepen and expand the argument, with the performance of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas contrasting with the bearded, angry colonists to represent everything Malick wants to say about how far we are from the "state of grace" he describes in The Tree of Life.

After The Tree of Life Terrence Malick could have retired with an unimpeachable reputation as the Thoreau of American film, but he has continued to work and has produced a series of films set in contemporary America. I wrote something about To the Wonder here, and Knight of Cups seems to me the first film in which Malick fails to dramatize his ideas in a way worth watching. In these later films Malick relies almost entirely on voiceover, with the internal monologues of various characters playing over dialogue scenes that we hear very little of. The effect can be maddening when there seem to be external things at stake in the films (To the Wonder) or when as in Knight of Cups we simply don't have enough information to find our way into the film. Malick's most recent release is Song to Song, a 2017 drama largely shot and set within the music community of Austin, Texas. One of the first things we see in Song to Song is the crowd at a large outdoor concert - muddy, sweaty, colliding with each other and full of life. Malick returns to these images later on, and seems to use them as an substitute for the more familiar nature shots of earlier work. Our reaction to music puts us just a little bit further towards harmony with ourselves and the world. The central presence in Song to Song is an unhappy woman named Faye (Rooney Mara), who at various times is the lover of both a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling) and a wealthy, debauched producer called Cook (Michael Fassbender). Faye gets the bulk of the narration, and the strongest through-line of Song to Song is her journey towards both personal happiness and a larger sense of meaning in her life. Faye is a musician too, we see her on stage with Patti Smith (who appears in several scenes and serves as a sort of kind of guiding spirit for Faye) and Cook offers her a contract as an attempt to pry her from BV. There is actually quite a bit of plot in Song to Song, including Cook's marriage to Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and BV dating someone played by Cate Blanchett, but the film loses momentum whenever Malick goes away from Faye.

Rooney Mara might never have been challenged as an actor quite the way she is here, since Malick's choices to insert narration or music mean that everything in a shot might have to be conveyed through a look or a movement. Mara is up to the task, and as the film goes on the accumulation of moments create a moving portrait of a person lost within a storm of sensation. Faye is carried along by the choices and needs of those around her, but Malick's technique suggests how Faye could become worn down simply by the fact that it all never seems to stop. At one point I sensed that Song to Song was moving towards a conclusion, as Faye balanced her attraction to BV with the security offered by Cook. Then I realized that the film had only been going on for forty-five minutes. (It runs just over two hours.) Some time is devoted to BV's family situation, but Michael Fassbender as Cook gets the better of the deal. It's fascinating to think about whether or not Fassbender considered what sort of film Song to Song was likely to be, whether he knew that Malick would give as much weight to a shot of him jumping around like a monkey as to any of his dialogue scenes with Mara. Whatever the process, the result is a physically free performance the likes of which we really haven't seen from Fassbender before. Too bad then that the character of Cook functions more as a vehicle for Malick's ideas about manhood and art vs. commerce than as an actual person. The same can be said for Gosling's BV, who gets a half-baked subplot about a dying father. The relationship between Cook and Portman's Rhonda, a waitress whom he picks up in a diner, feels as though it could be its own film or was maybe carved out from another Malick idea. Portman is the worst served of the four leads, given very little screen time to express her self-loathing as she is sucked into Cook's lifestyle.

It would be a betrayal of Malick's worldview to resolve Faye's story neatly, but while trying at times Song to Song is the best application of his signature techniques to a film set in the present. There are too many films fighting for space here, but it's a relief to see Malick's need to find beauty and meaning in everyday life articulated still with such curiosity. To put it another way:
"I've been thinking what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor, checking out the Earth underneath."    -Linda Manz, Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick is still checking out the Earth almost half a century after his first film, and we're lucky that the exploration continues.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River

A young woman - frightened, injured, and underdressed - makes her way across a snowy landscape at night. A few minutes later, a herd of sheep are menaced by wolves in the same countryside. The opening scenes of Taylor Sheridan's Wind River promise something dark and unforgiving, almost too much so. The crime film, Sheridan's feature directorial debut after writing Hell or High Water and Sicario, is a grim story of people carrying the weight of living in rough country. But there is also considerable emotional nuance, thanks in large part to an excellent lead performance by Jeremy Renner. Renner plays Cory Lambert, whose job for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to track and hunt predators in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We learn early on that Lambert has a Native American ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) and young son Casey (Teo Briones) who don't live on the reservation, but a sadness hangs over their house and Sheridan doesn't reveal right away why Wilma seems so unhappy with Casey visiting his grandparents at Wind River. The frightened young woman that Sheridan began the film with is named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and Lambert finds her body while tracking a lion behind the house of his former in-laws. The discovery brings both tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) and a young FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, quite good and far away from her Ingrid Goes West role), who is smart enough to realize that her awkward interaction with Natalie's father (Gil Birmingham) is a sign she'll need Lambert's help with the case.

The dynamic of an emotionally withdrawn man and a less experienced woman could easily go wrong, but Sheridan balances the relationship intelligently. Banner isn't green, she's undermanned, and the resignation of Graham Greene's Ben over the chance the murder won't be solved is a tidy symbol for the powerlessness that everyone on the reservation feels. Sheridan is interested in people living in difficult landscapes, and his version of the country in and around Wind River is of a cold, empty place that offers no opportunities for its people. Lambert is a useful guide through the both the literal and cultural wilderness of Wind River but he isn't a cop, and Banner is on her own when violence breaks out early in the investigation. To say more about the story would spoil the experience, but the ugliness and smallness of those responsible for Natalie's death is even more striking when placed in relief against the bleakness of the country. The last section of Wind River includes a flashback to Natalie's last night, and it's a set piece of slowly building horror. Fair enough then that when the case has concluded - the climactic violence is immediate and disturbing in a way I don't think I've seen before - Lambert and Natalie's father can simply sit together in a grief they share. (A title card announces that there is no law enforcement data kept on missing Native American women, which appears to be generally true.) Jeremy Renner has never quite balanced intelligence, charm, and unhappiness the way he does here, and his performance is so quietly charismatic that I wouldn't even have minded if Lambert and Banner had gotten together. (They don't.) Wind River is an adult entertainment of a kind we need more of, a work of mature storytelling that doesn't forget to be human.