Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Girl on the Train

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 09, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

We need films like Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, but we need them to be better. To tell the truth about the shortcomings of The Birth of a Nation doesn't feel especially brave now, but after the film screened to an ecstatic audience at Sundance earlier this year and then was sold for a record-breaking price it was hard to find a disparaging word about it. Part of the rush to take down the film has to do with Parker himself; the director/star appeared to be surprised that an old rape charge resurfaced in the time between Sundance and the film's release. (For more details, read this.) But there are aesthetic reasons to dislike The Birth of a Nation as well, and as someone who has reviewed Woody Allen films without discussing the director's personal life I can hardly review The Birth of a Nation based on the fact Parker might be a rapist and is at best a creep.

The Birth of a Nation is the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), a slave who in 1831 led a rebellion in which many white slaveowners and their families were brutally murdered. (The film puts that number at about 60.) In an opening scene the young Nat is hailed as a prophet during a sort of mystic ceremony, and it's part of the conceit of Birth of a Nation that Turner (who later sees visions) is connected to things beyond this world. Unlike Solomon Northup, whose story was the basis for 12 Years a Slave, Turner was born a slave and was only taught to read due to the intervention of the wife (Penelope Ann Miller) of the man who owned him. The film makes clear that Turner was taught the Bible while being denied access to works of literature and science, and indeed Turner later takes the justifications for his actions from Scripture. Parker's script pays lip service to the idea that white slaveowners used Christianity as a means of control - Turner's new master (Armie Hammer) makes money by renting him out as an itinerant preacher who is expected to preach subservience to other slaves - but the film never goes beneath Turner's surface-level anger.

The bulk of The Birth of a Nation is a series of indignities visited upon Turner, his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and other slaves. Parker has an irritating habit of placing the person or thing he wants us to pay attention to right at the center of the frame, and his shot selection is a reflection of the film's overall feeling of a headlong charge. He is working in a different key from Steve McQueen, who in 12 Years a Slave found obscenity and suffering both at the most basic human level and in the way that slaves were used as a form of currency. Parker's bluntness is the wrong kind of bluntness for this story. Spike Lee would not have been shy about making an explicit connection between Turner's fury and the activism of King, Malcolm X, Black Lives Matter, and others, but instead we get a weird flash forward in which a young boy who encountered Turner and his rebels is shown as a member of the Union Army during the Civil War. Nate Parker appears to believe that Turner's physical bravery is the most important thing about him, and his choices result in a disappointing and shallow film.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Magnificent Seven/Snowden

The fact that the new remake of The Magnificent Seven takes on capitalism so squarely is either the most or least surprising thing about it. Mining baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, working hard to underplay menace) wants the residents of a small town called Rose Creek to pack up and sell out in order to expand his operations. The Rose Creek church is burned in the opening scene, a twist that Paul Thomas Anderson probably cut from an early draft of There Will Be Blood. Bogue has bought off local law enforcement and doesn't have a problem flaunting his control, so it's up to young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to look elsewhere for some help. Emma convinces an itinerant peace officer named Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) to sign on to defend Rose Creek, and the scruffy team that Chisholm assembles soon arrives to train reluctant locals to defend themselves. Besides familiar faces Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D'Onofrio there are also Byung-hun Lee (deadly with a knife), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (an outlaw gunfighter), and Martin Sensmeier (a Native American unwelcome in his tribe) to round out the ensemble and make the cast of The Magnificent Seven more diverse than some European soccer teams.

I wish all the actors had been given some room to flesh out their characters. Washington doesn't have much to work with but his charisma and some revenge motivation that's shoehorned into the script, and Pratt remains charming and unruffled throughout. (Hawke and D'Onofrio make something out their roles on pure personality.) Fuqua and co-writer Nic Pizzolatto also miss a chance to have Bennett's character interrogate the bonds that tie these men together, but that's probably too much to expect from the man who created True Detective.  The film builds to a battle scene involving dynamite, a Gatling gun, and children hiding in a basement. The sequence is surprisingly long but it doesn't drag thanks to the time Fuqua has taken to establish the geography. And what of Bogue? The confrontation between Bogue and Chisholm is wisely cut short; having Chisholm act purely out of a desire for revenge would have turned the film sour. The Magnificent Seven is an efficient and skillfully made entertainment that is surprisingly lacking in soul. It's the kind of film that someone thought would look awfully good on a balance sheet.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good in the title role of Oliver Stone's Snowden as the NSA coder turned world's most famous whistleblower. Stone's film sees Snowden as a hero, someone whose revelations began a process of changing the way that people relate to their government. Whether one agrees with that opinion or not, the film Stone has made is less about metadata and privacy than about Edward Snowden the man. Snowden, who joined the CIA with only a GED, is presented as an eager but naive student who soon demonstrates his abilities to Agency superiors played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage. In the film's telling Snowden receives various postings around the world while working for the CIA, NSA, and assorted contractors. At each stop Snowden's faith in the government is soured by revelations about surveillance and data collection while at the same time his relationship with his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) hangs in the balance. Gordon-Levitt and Woodley craft a lived-in portrait of a relationship under stress, but Snowden the movie has more on its hands than it knows what do with. The film is a restatement - in the broadest possible terms - of Snowden's arguments about what might happen if government surveillance goes unchecked. Stone doesn't explore how we got here; the relationship between the government and telecom companies is unexamined as are the the uses and possible misuses of the collected data. It also isn't clear what makes Snowden a rising star in government circles except that he's fast. There will no doubt be another film about Edward Snowden, and the I hope the next one does a better job putting Snowden's actions in relief against the complicated world.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Star Trek Beyond/Suicide Squad/Jason Bourne (mild spoilers)

When you set up an alternate timeline, what should you do with it? That question confronts the creative team (producer J.J. Abrams, co-writer Simon Pegg, new director Justin Lin, etc.) behind the Star Trek franchise in the new Star Trek Beyond. The previous installment Into Darkness was a disappointing retread of the Khan storyline with a starry turn from an uncomfortable-looking Benedict Cumberbatch. That film seemed to be fan service for an audience that was happy with the Khan film it already had, thank you very much, and if you saw it and questioned the creative direction of the franchise then you weren't the only one. Bringing in Simon Pegg (who already plays Mr. Scott) in as co-writer on Beyond was an inspired idea. Pegg, co-writing with Doug Jung, has an irreverence of spirit that Star Trek could use right now, and Beyond is an exuberant if sometimes too busy attempt to work with a new formula.

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew spend most of Beyond on an previously unknown planet after their ship is destroyed in a surprise attack by Krall (Idris Elba), who wants an artifact that Kirk has hidden on board. Idris Elba is powerful actor, and he's good here, but Krall's motivations are too hastily crammed in during a late scene and I was confused as to why the character's appearance changes. Judging by the action scenes - and Beyond has more action than any Trek film I remember - Justin Lin is happy to be here, but while Lin is good at conveying a sense of the Enterprise as a physical object he sometimes loses track of characters during battle scenes. The charisma of the cast saves Lin though, with Quinto, Karl Urban (as McCoy), and Sofia Boutella (as an alien who allies with the Enterprise crew) especially good. There are a few ideas tossed around about how the Federation's vision of galactic harmony might not work for everyone, but at its heart Beyond is descended from Westerns or war films in which a small group of people must do a difficult thing. Star Trek got better by getting simpler, a lesson that other film franchises would do well to remember.

  • Suicide Squad
    spends so much time setting itself up and introducing everyone that it's no wonder the actual story feels so wildly inconsequential. I had some hope for this film because of writer/director David Ayer (Fury, Training Day), whose previous work suggests he understands that there is no such thing as meaningless violence. Ayer's world view is probably best reflected in the character of Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin whose taste for his work has waned because of separation from his young daughter. Deadshot is part of a Dirty Dozen-type crew put together by a government official (Viola Davis) who isn't sure how to protect America in a world without Superman. (Oh yes, we're back in the "DC Universe") Also on board is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), psychiatrist turned moll of the Joker (Jared Leto, in a role that Ayer treats as a subplot). Robbie is both the best and worst thing about Suicide Squad; she gives her scenes an welcome jolt of nervous energy but Ayer isn't really interested in how damaged the character is. (More details here.)

    The plot involves a witch who has inhabited the body of a Squad member (Cara Delevingne) and requires Deadshot and the others to kill an untold number of civilians whom the witch has turned into her army. The fact that Suicide Squad takes itself a hair less seriously than Batman v Superman makes Ayer's turn to Urban Disaster Porn all the more callow, and it reinforces the idea of the DC Universe as an airless and joyless place. I had my issues with the latest Captain America film but at least most of the Marvel pictures make a nod towards how their characters fit into the civilian world. I'm looking forward to seeing Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman fight in World War I, but otherwise the DC horizon - box office records be damned - is looking bleak.

  • If characters in a movie are going to look at video monitors as much as they do in Jason Bourne then it helps to hire a couple of Oscar winners to do the looking. Star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass didn't strictly need to to make a film about Jason Bourne popping up on the CIA radar after all these years, but Jason Bourne benefits greatly from the fact that Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander play the people chasing Bourne. While the new film is entertaining enough, it falls into the already too-familiar plot about the dangers of implementing an all-powerful surveillance system. Marvel, James Bond, and even Fast & the Furious have all been there. There's a nod to Eurozone financial troubles when Greengrass stages a chase during a protest in Athens, but the attempt to flesh out Bourne's motivations for joining the Agency feels like something that should have been done already. Indeed, the take away from Jason Bourne isn't the danger of overreach by intellgence agencies or Greengrass and his talent for shooting action. You'll walk out of Jason Bourne thinking: They want to make more.

    Saturday, July 16, 2016

    By the Sea

    I wonder if back in the heady days of Tomb Raider anyone could have guessed what a chilly director Angelina Jolie would turn out to be. Unbroken was a dull film of a great story, and in By the Sea Jolie (who here wrote and directed under the name Angelina Jolie Pitt) goes the High Art route in telling a story of a failing marriage. Roland (a game Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) arrive at a French seaside hotel - we're sometime in the late '60s/early '70s - where Roland hopes to do some writing. Is Roland a successful writer who's blocked or merely an someone with aspirations to greatness? Good luck figuring it out, because the film fails to convey anything about the act of writing. Vanessa is unhappy for reasons which aren't revealed until late in the film but which aren't hard to guess. Roland's writing sessions turn into drunken conversations with a bartender (Niels Arestrup) who also serves as a Dispenser of Truth while Vanessa alternately sulks, reads, and spies on the honeymooning young couple next door.

     That's right, honeymooners next door. Is By the Sea Jolie's attempt to write an Albee play? This insistently theatrical conceit finds Vanessa and Roland playing voyeur while Lea and Francois (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Popaud) enjoy the first days of their marriage. While Jolie's performance contains some moments of touching vulnerability, her script leaves Vanessa a mystery in the end. An extra on the DVD suggests that Jolie regards Gena Rowlands as something of a guiding spirit. Excellent choice, but By the Sea only brushes up against the volatility of Rowlands' greatest work. Jolie can direct, but here's hoping her next film has more fully fleshed out material.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2016

    Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

    Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is loosely inspired by a Craigslist post written by Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam Devine and Zac Efron), two brothers looking for dates for a family wedding. Given its origins the film is funnier than it should be, and that is due to the way the leads fully commit to playing dumb. Efron's Dave is marginally smarter than his brother, but the two are embracing the bro life much to the displeasure of their father (Stephen Root). Ordered to bring "nice girls" to the wedding of their sister (Sugar Lyn Beard), Mike and Dave take their search to the Internet and wind up minor celebrities on the Wendy Williams show. Down and out best friends Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) see the brothers' on television and quickly devise a plan to manipulate the Stangles into a trip to Hawaii. Mike and Dave works best when everyone is being crazy; Efron has already proven in the Neighbors films that he can play an almost baroque level of stupidity, while Kendrick reveals a previously unseen talent for broad comedy and the ever sarcastic Aubrey Plaza is used perfectly. Supporting roles are filled out by funny actors like Mary Holland, Alice Wetterlund, and especially Kumail Nanjiani.  The energy sags when the plot requires people to start being nice to each other and reevaluating their lives, but until then Mike and Dave will do for a fix for those missing their summer dose of Apatow.