Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015


Every movie I saw in a theater in 2015, ranked on a 5 star scale. In chronological order:


Unbroken - 2.5 -   Selma - 3.5   -   Inherent Vice - 4 -    Imitation Game - 3 -     Foxcatcher - 2 -    Wild - 3.5 -    Cake - 2 -    Whiplash - 3   -    American Sniper - 3.5  -    A Most Violent Year - 4  -  Jupiter Ascending - 1  -    Kingsman: The Secret Service - 1.5  -    Mr. Turner - 4  -    The Duff - 3.5  -  Run All Night - 3  -    Still Alice - 3  -    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - 2  -    It Follows - 3.5  -    Leviathan - 4  -    Furious 7 - 2  -    While We're Young - 4  -    Ex Machina - 3.5  -  Mad Max: Fury Road - 4  -    Far From The Madding Crowd - 3  -    Aloha - 2.5  -    Jurassic World - 2  -  Inside Out - 4  -    Love and Mercy - 3.5  -    Dope - 3.5  -    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - 2  -  Magic Mike XXL - 3.5  -    Trainwreck - 3  -    Amy - 4  -    Ant-Man - 3  -    Ricki and the Flash - 3.5  -    Paper Towns - 2.5  -    Irrational Man - 1  -     The Gift - 3.5  -    Diary of a Teenage Girl - 4.5  -  Mistress America - 4  -    A Walk In The Woods - 1.5  -    Grandma - 3.5  -    Black Mass - 2.5  -    Sicario - 3.5  -    Sleeping with Other People - 2  -    The Martian - 3  -    Bridge of Spies - 4  -  Crimson Peak - 2  -    Steve Jobs - 3.5  -  Truth - 2.5  -    Spectre - 2  -     Suffragette - 3.5  -  Spotlight - 4  -    Brooklyn - 4.5  -    Creed - 3.5  -    Trumbo - 3  -    Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 4 -   Joy - 3

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Joy



Joy is a Christmas gift for those who like their Jennifer Lawrence films pitched to manic heights. Now that the Hunger Games franchise has concluded and Lawrence’s work in the X-Men films is wrapping up, can we expect more projects like this one from America’s champion of celebrity privacy? Joy is Lawrence’s third film with writer/director David O. Russell, and like American Hustle and the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook it is filled with an energy and bustle that eventually resolves itself into something more conventional. Russell loosely based his script on the life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), whose early ‘90s invention of the “Miracle Mop” ended her paycheck-to-paycheck existence and made her a fixture on cable shopping channels. While Mangano’s career sounds like a fine case study for business schools, what David O. Russell has turned her life into is a fable of Lost American Ingenuity. As a girl, the film’s Joy (played as a child by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) is endlessly creative but the divorce of her parents (played with great relish by Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen) puts her on a track through marriage to a failed singer (Edgar Martinez), motherhood, and a series of dead-end jobs.

When Joy is telling the story of Joy’s disappointing home life and subsequent inspiration the film keeps up a surreal comic tone that’s as fun as anything Russell has ever done. Some of Lawrence’s best scenes come when she’s struggling to balance the needs of her kids and her bickering parents and ex - all of whom are for a time in the same house - with her own frustrations. Russell stages a dream sequence that puts Joy inside the soap her mother watches obsessively (cheers to Susan Lucci for agreeing to parody her own image), and when Joy is confronted by her unhappy childhood self the little girl reminds her that “We used to make things.” I half-expected an Arcade Fire song to begin at this point, but in fact it’s just this on the nose sort of writing that starts to drag the film down. Once Joy has the idea for the mop the rhythm that Russell has built up begins to dissipate in a blizzard of details about molds, production costs, marketing, and Joy’s jealous half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm). When Joy takes her mop to the then brand-new QVC channel Russell first holds on Lawrence seated; he shoots the stomachs of the men she’ll be pitching to as they talk over her head. If the rest of the sequence had been that pointed it might have been great fun, but the film stops so that the QVC boss (Bradley Cooper) can cut off a subordinate’s dirty joke and then deliver a sermon on his own resume and how the channel operates. There’s no irony here save for Melissa Rivers doing a cameo as her mother Joan, but QVC boss Barry Diller is mentioned with great reverence. (Barry Diller is the former head of 20th Century Fox, the studio whose logo appears at the beginning of Joy.) For a moment it’s as if we’re watching one of those How-They-Did-It documentaries on CNBC.

Joy ends with an epilogue flash-forward to a wealthy Joy and Cooper’s now suppliant executive. Family members are posed outside Joy’s office door, now merely hangers-on. Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) tells us in voice-over of all that Joy will achieve in years to come, but it would have nice to see some that inspiration while the film was still going on. As Joy comes to the brink of financial ruin, Lawrence’s performance becomes a study in doggedness. Joy’s father and his wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) keep explaining to her that she doesn’t understand “business”, but instead of dramatizing that Joy is smarter than they are all Russell can do is have Joy save herself through the force of Lawrence’s personality. There is even self-administered haircut to signify Joy’s sense of purpose. Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star who’s also a good actor, and she pulls off the final confrontation easily - the other guy was never in the game. Joy may in fact be the best role that Russell has given to Lawrence, it contains the most opportunity for shading, but Russell’s script front-loads the character arc and then it’s as if he got distracted. When Lawrence struts away from the scene where Joy’s future is secured, she looks happy but also as exhausted as the audience feels. When the real Joy Mangano left that meeting - which surely occurred under different circumstances - I’ll bet she was thinking about what came next.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (mild spoilers)


(I slapped a spoiler warning on this to be safe, but I went out of my way not to get plot-heavy here. As always, read at your own risk.)

 2015 has been an unhappy year for those of you uncomfortable with the idea of Women Doing Things in Movies. First there was Charlize Theron in George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road, playing a woman whose every action was a middle finger to the damage men had wreaked upon the world. Theron’s performance upended the movie to such a degree that it’s difficult to imagine Tom Hardy coming back for another round as Max; the world he’d be returning to is one he left in hands that manage quite well on their own, thanks very much. The commitment that Miller made to making Fury Road about women angered certain dark corners of the Internet, and anyone who had a problem with Imperator Furiosa will be driven to rage by a moment that occurs early on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Our collective allergy to spoilers means that much of the discussion about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars must be had in quiet conversations between people who first reassure themselves they’ve all seen the movie. (Those slackers who haven’t will be sent to buy the drinks.) So, I’ll be as vague as I can…..

When Abrams introduces us to Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley), she is scraping out a life on a desert planet that could be (but isn’t) Tatooine. Shortly after meeting the mysterious Finn (John Boyega) - whose origins we know long before Rey does - the two come across a cherished piece of the Star Wars universe sitting almost forgotten, as if no one knew the battles it had seen. The image of Rey taking control, actually steering the story in a new direction, is an unexpectedly powerful one. The moment works not just because Ridley is a gifted actress; it’s also the signal of a generational shift. “This is not the Star Wars you’ve known,” Abrams is saying. “It now belongs to you, and you, and you.” There is room for everyone in the new Star Wars universe, and Abrams (co-writing with Michael Arndt and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan) takes the time to spell out just what kind of lives Rey and Finn might have had if not for stumbling into the first stirrings of a new galactic war. But stumble they do, right into the path of Kylo Ren (played with terrific force by Adam Driver). Ren (Or should I call him Kylo?) is the biggest surprise of The Force Awakens, a villain in conflict over his relationship to The Force. Abrams expands an idea implicit in the original trilogy - that even someone who has mastered the Dark Side has a boss - to great effect here, and he’s helped by Adam Driver’s gift for playing fine shades of immaturity.

If you don’t understand the political situation depicted in The Force Awakens, you’re probably not alone. Kylo Ren is part of the First Order, a group seeking to restore some version of the old Empire. Rey and Finn soon find themselves part of the Resistance, where they each find purpose and meet some characters familiar to us. (Harrison Ford, bringing welcome vigor to the role, is especially touching as Han Solo.) There is also a Senate that keeps the lights on, but let’s not sweat the details. The Force Awakens is a piece of thoroughly enjoyable franchise cinema that is better than almost anyone had a right to expect. Even the scenes of ships shooting at each other have a kick I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from a Marvel movie, and the ending promises that whoever is writing Episode VII will have plenty to work with. The one criticism that The Force Awakens is vulnerable to is the recycling of plot elements from the earlier films, but even recognizing that fact won’t spoil the experience. The decision to have Rey and Finn believe the events of the original trilogy are folklore feels odd at first, but I think it gives Abrams permission to evoke the older films. It’s important that Rey meet Han, Luke, and Leia and understand that these people are real and that these things happened. How you’ll feel about The Force Awakens depends on the degree to which you want the film to feel familiar. It’s hard to deny the pleasure of the warm feeling that The Force Awakens brings up, but there is also an energy and drive at work here that the prequels sorely lacked.. I’d call it….. A New Hope.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trumbo



Trumbo is a civics lesson, but it’s a very entertaining one. The life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) feels like a passion project for director Jay Roach, who is helped enormously by a game and talented cast. Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and best paid screenwriters in the late 1940’s, just at the time when Congress was looking for Communist influence in the movie industry. Trumbo’s refusal to disavow Communist Party membership or name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee led to his jailing and the beginning of the blacklist. “The Hollywood Ten” - Trumbo and a group of other writers including Arlen Hird (a composite character played by Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) - couldn’t work and were forced to write schlock movies under pseudonyms for the likes of producer Frank King (a very funny John Goodman). Roach and writer John McNamara have fun with Hollywood conservatives of the period; Helen Mirren makes a cold Hedda Hopper and ex-TV leading man David James Elliott caricatures John Wayne. But the film’s heart is with Trumbo, his colleagues, and his family. Diane Lane is underused as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, but when she finally gets a scene of confrontation with her husband she makes the most of it. The same goes for Elle Fanning as the oldest Trumbo daughter; Lane and Fanning’s strength gives Cranston something to play against.

Bryan Cranston is good at playing arrogant men, but as Trumbo he’s allowed to show flashes of wit, intelligence, and kindness that those who only know him from Breaking Bad may not have seen. McNamara’s script doesn’t elide the fact that the B-movie script mill Trumbo set up took a toll on his family, but it also kept his friends in work. Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird (the most politically rigid character in Trumbo) points out an irony the film celebrates, which is that Trumbo was a man of genuine principles who also thoroughly enjoyed the attention and money that the movies offered. If there were ever moments of doubt, the film’s version of Trumbo doesn’t mention them. As more famous Hollywood liberals like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) are forced to betray themselves, Trumbo keeps working to the point of exhaustion. Dalton Trumbo won two pseudonymous Oscars during the blacklist - including one for Roman Holiday - and after a decade of struggling his talent enabled him to reclaim his identity thanks to the intervention of producer/star Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) on Spartacus. The film concludes with a speech Trumbo (who died in 1976 at age 70) gave to the Writers Guild, one which Cranston plays beautifully as acknowledgement of all that was lost during a time when America turned on itself. Trumbo is a message movie, and the message is this: We survived, but just barely.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Creed



The very existence of Creed is as unlikely as Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson, and the film itself is a bracing left turn for a franchise that has always stood outside of the discussion about Hollywood’s love of a sure thing,. Rocky came out in 1976, but the Oscar-winning original (Best Picture and Director; Sylvester Stallone received nominations for acting and writing) is neither part of the narrative of that decade’s outsider cinema nor remembered as an early blockbuster in the manner of Jaws. Creed arrives almost a decade after Rocky Balboa seemed to mark the series’ end, and the new film is a tribute both to the imagination of cowriter/director Ryan Coogler and to Sylvester Stallone’s willingness to get out of the way. Adonis Johnson is bounced around inside the foster system as a boy after his mother dies; we first see him in 1998, brawling with another boy and being placed in solitary confinement. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) is Adonis’s lone visitor; she adopts the boy and tells him the truth. Mary Anne is the widow of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed and Adonis is his son, the product of an affair.

In 2015, Adonis (played as an adult by Michael B. Jordan) is restless despite a comfortable life and a good job in Los Angeles. He fights in Tijuana but the trainer (Wood Harris) at his father’s old gym doesn’t want him in the ring with real contenders. It’s when Adonis moves to Philadelphia that Creed really begins. He seeks out a reluctant Rocky Balboa as a trainer and begins the committed life of a champion-in-training. The affection and specificity with which Ryan Coogler portrays the insular Philadelphia boxing community is my favorite thing about Creed. The gyms that Adonis trains at are differentiated in detail, with Rocky’s gym being of course the more authentic and down-at-the-heels. Rocky Balboa is known wherever he goes in his city, and Sylvester Stallone gives a warm, self-effacing performance that suggests a physically powerful man in the autumn of his life. Rocky dispenses a lot of wisdom in Creed, and Stallone has the gift of making each maxim seem like a new thought. Coogler found more than a match for Stallone in Michael B. Jordan, with whom he worked in the auspicious Fruitvale Station. Jordan is cast in that film and often in his television work (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) as man whose demons threaten to overtake him, and that’s the case here too. The physicality- Jordan is more than believable as a boxer - and commitment the role demands erase any thoughts of repetition though, and Coogler and Jordan even pull off a sequence in which Adonis leads a group of bikers through the streets in a kind of aria of self-definition. The flashes of playfulness and vulnerability that Adonis does show with his musician girlfriend Bianca (strong Tessa Thompson) are welcome. Bianca, a woman with her own life and concerns outside of her relationship, is a complement to Adonis and not just a cheerleader. She’s the girlfriend that he - and the film - both need and deserve.

Creed presents a rich world, but it’s also operating within the superstructure of the sports film. Coogler tries to his best to leap past all the exposition about why the current champ (Tony Bellew) would want to fight Adonis, but those scenes serve as drag on a movie that runs over 2 hours. As much as Michael B. Jordan is physically right for the role of a top-flight boxer, the training scenes don’t suggest that Adonis has the ability to do anything more than out punch an opponent who’s more than a physical match for him. Rocky can (maybe) make Adonis a champion, but does he really have the stuff of a great fighter? More importantly, the anger and ambivalence that Adonis feels about the name “Creed” don’t entirely track given that the Creed family took him in and that Apollo didn’t exactly leave his family by choice. The chip on the shoulder that Adonis has to have for motivation, the one that has caused him to act out both as child and adult, is a note that Creed keeps coming back to without providing any more context.

Creed ends with a shot of two men looking into a future that, despite their abilities, is still one circumscribed by luck and the limits of the sphere in which they move. It’s an honest end for a 2015 film that delivers most of what it promises and that always looks out for the underdog.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Brooklyn



Brooklyn would seem on the surface to be a film almost deliberately small in its concerns. A young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) arrives in 1950’s Brooklyn from a small and sleepy Irish village. Eilis has a department store job lined up and a priest (Jim Broadbent) who’s acting as her sponsor and guide. A period piece about a young woman growing accustomed to New York and discovering herself would go down very easily with Ronan playing the lead, but the filmmakers - director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby are working from a Colm Toibin novel - push through to something richer and more specifically about the American immigrant experience. Brooklyn is a film about two places, New York and Ireland, but to an even greater degree it’s about how the world only spins one way.

Before Eilis leaves for America, we follow her and her girlfriend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) to a village dance. Nancy leaves to dance with an admirer, and Crowley holds a shot on Eilis that Saoirse Ronan turns into a great little bit of acting. Ronan manages to put all of Eilis’s boredom, frustration, jealousy of her friend, and thoughts of the future into one close-up, and for a few moments we can’t wait to leave for America with her. What does it mean then that Eilis’s departure for America is played as a sad occasion? It’s more than just loved ones saying goodbye to each other; Hornby’s script is very clear that Ireland holds nothing for Eilis but also that her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) have no realistic possibility of leaving,. Crowley pans the crowd on the dock to show a host of mothers and fathers and siblings, each saying goodbye to someone on Eilis’s boat. This is what a country losing its future looks like. Eilis’s first weeks in America are marked by extreme homesickness; she can’t fake the necessary effervescence at her salesgirl job (Jessica Pare is perfectly cast as the manager) and doesn’t fit in with the other young women at her boarding house. The boarding house scenes are the closest that Brooklyn comes to a sort of conventional broadness, but Julie Walters is very funny as the landlady and Crowley and Hornby take care to make sure each of the other women is individualized. These scenes make up a small part of the film, but they’re carried off with great wit and are the first step towards Eilis changing her definition of the word “home”.

A further step occurs when Eilis meets a sweet Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance. He takes Eilis to Coney Island - recreated with the same stylized attention to detail as the rest of the film - and eventually to dinner with his warm but not overplayed family. But when a major life event calls Eilis back to Ireland it’s an open question just how strong the pull of home will be. Ireland offers Eilis a reunion with Nancy, a job, and perhaps a future with the financially secure Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Hornby’s script doesn’t shortchange just how gossipy and provincial Eilis’s life might become though. The way that an old woman whom we only see in one scene becomes excited about Eilis saying “Jim and I” is a perfect example of the nuanced way that Brooklyn separates the two societies available to Eilis. It would be unfair to discuss any more of the plot, but when Eilis makes her choice it is both difficult and honestly moving.

Brooklyn looks back with perfect clarity to contrast the openness and promise of America with what was then a narrow future in Ireland. Yet America isn’t presented as a blur of brands and skyscrapers, nor is Ireland a nightmarish backwater. The sensitivity of the filmmakers is only helped by the performance of Saoirse Ronan, whose emotional pitch never wavers from what’s needed at any given moment. Last week I referred to Spotlight as an “American” film in the way it approaches its subject, and though I hesitate to repeat myself I think the word applies here in a different way. The possibilities of America are presented as a means to a way of life, but their superiority is never asserted because the filmmakers remember something true about this country. We all come from somewhere else.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Spotlight



Spotlight is a measured but powerful film about how The Boston Globe researched and reported the 2001 story of the Boston archdiocese and its handling of sexual abuse by priests. Directed by Tom McCarthy (who cowrote with Josh Singer), Spotlight is also the story of a how an American institution thought to be in decline - the daily newspaper - took on another institution that one character in the film describes as “thinking in centuries”. “Spotlight” refers to the Globe’s investigative team, a unit headed by “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) whose star reporter is the dogged Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). The Spotlight team is used to picking their own stories and not working under time pressure, but new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, committing to an unshowy role) pushes the reporters towards the story of abuser priest John Geoghan and the question of whether Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) knew of Geoghan’s behavior. The investigation quickly expands as the team learns of new abuser priests and meets new victims.

The cast of Spotlight is full of familiar faces and strong performances; Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also play reporters on the Spotlight team. But the film’s best performance is given by the actor playing a character who serves to highlight just what a small town Boston really is. Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing victims who is outside the city’s legal establishment. (Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan play high-end lawyers whose allegiances are called into question.) Garabedian, who Tucci plays with a wonderful, harried dignity, is at first reluctant to speak to Rezendes but eventually puts him in touch with some of his clients. While Robinson and the other Spotlight reporters uncover the Church’s practice of settling abuse claims outside the court system it’s Garabedian who points out just how much the Church influences Boston society. In one conversation Garabedian asks Rezendes, “How many Armenians do you know in Boston?” It’s the outsiders like Garabedian who sound the alarm in the Boston case, but the city’s sons and daughters on the Spotlight team - Robinson calls the Globe a “local” paper - are charged with spreading the word about just how much damage was done. Stanley Tucci is brilliant in this role; it’s a master class in character acting, as Tucci conveys volumes about the way Garabedian approaches his work just by the way he eats a salad or sits at his desk.

Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer aren’t afraid to detail the laborious work of reportorial process. Their script eschews almost all melodrama and aren’t-we-noble backslapping for a series of phone calls, hushed conversations, and internal debates about how much time and latitude the reporters have to work with. It’s Schreiber’s Baron who pushes the team to go beyond the issue of identifying abuser priests to look at systemic corruption in the Church, while Robinson’s boss Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) looks for vulnerabilities in the reporting. A scene in which one of the reporters learns a Church “treatment center” for priests is in his neighborhood threatens to become indulgent, but McCarthy cuts the moment off with a restrained button shot. The Spotlight team is urged by one prominent citizen (Paul Guilfoyle) to “get on the same page” with the Church, but the scope of the story and the number of people affected are too big to ignore. McCarthy wisely cast unknown actors as victims - and in one case as a priest the reporters stumble across- and the ensemble puts a human face on decades of abuse.

With it’s detail-oriented approach to journalism and its view of how a large institutions work with and against each other, Spotlight recalls such wide-angle lens works like All the President’s Men, The Wire (Thomas McCarthy played an unscrupulous reporter on that show), and the nonfiction book A Civil Action. Like those works Spotlight is a triumph of storytelling, with the script maintaining the broad framework of the investigation while not losing focus of the people affected. McCarthy, who has previously directed small character studies like The Station Agent and Win Win, has made a mature and vital American film which is certainly one of the year’s best. The last shot of Spotlight takes place after the team’s story has been published, and it suggests just how many more stories of that kind remain to be told.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Persona



It’s easy to laugh at Persona now. The black-and-white cinematography, the direct address to camera, the stylized movements, and the meta-cinematic touches all suggest a seriousness that we no longer stomach these days in our “art” cinema, and here I’m using “art” to refer to anything outside the run-of-the-mill studio product. Even niche films or films given the highest level of attention in American independent cinema must with very rare exception come to market through a studio pipeline, and so often those films are content to answer questions instead of ask them. Take two 2015 releases, While We’re Young (which I liked) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I didn’t). Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is a skillfully executed comedy that suggests that even in one’s 40s it is still possible to live and to love well, and that there’s room for an occasional hip-hop dancing class. I’m doing the film a disservice; it’s very funny and also insightful about the reasons that people in their 20s are interested in cassette tapes and like to use the word “artisanal”. But at heart Baumbach wants to make his demographically narrow audience comfortable, and when the result is this much fun there’s nothing wrong with that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance winning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wants to reassure that we can always grow and change and become better people. (Spoiler ahead) A teenaged boy stands in the room of a girl who has recently died, and among her things he discovers some art projects that reveal a talent that he didn’t know she possessed because he never bothered to ask. Our hero is affirmed in his self-absorption even in a time of tragedy; the memory of his friend is still alive and he didn’t even have to do any work. This is what passes for challenging.

I’m not going to pretend I understand Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film about an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has stopped speaking and the nurse (Bibi Andersson) hired to care for her at a seaside house. We’re told that Elisabet Vogler, the actress, is “healthy”. There are no modern notions of mental health at play here; Elisabet, confronted with career, motherhood, and (in one scene) images from Vietnam, has made a philosophical choice to retreat. The lack of a psychological explanation for Elisabet’s behavior is part of why I think Bergman doesn’t mean the film to be viewed in strictly realistic terms. The other reasons are the constant reminders we are watching a film, from the surreal prologue (the image of a boy looking at the projected image of a woman becomes meaningful) to the moment in the middle when the film appears to disintegrate in the projector. Persona is, formally, a work of art designed to advance a view of the crushing effects of being alive. Bibi Andersson’s Alma is the audience for Elisabet’s non-performance, and Andersson is brilliant at charting Alma’s slow attraction to and then duel with her patient. Elisabet is a blank slate onto which Alma can spill her story of a bizarre sexual encounter, her feelings about her career, and a possible future with an unseen boyfriend. As the connection between the two deepens Alma begins to teeter on the edge of choices that frighten all her assumptions about herself.

What does life mean? How does one cope? Is engaging with friends, family, or lovers really a meaningful act? The “drama” in Persona comes from how Alma answers these questions and it’s to Bergman’s credit that he leaves much to us to figure out. The film isn’t about two personalities “melding” or switching - an idea made famous thanks to one of the most sensual shots in the history of cinema (see the top of this post) - as it is about making a choice to live in the world. That universality is the reason the film has endured despite the trappings that now seem dated. Persona, like all great works of art, holds the mirror up to anyone lucky enough to discover it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Suffragette



The best films about political activism put a human face on to a cause, and by that standard the energetic Suffragette is a success. The new film, directed by Sarah Gavron, begins in 1912 when the fight for women’s voting rights in England was changing tactics from civil protest marches to a more aggressive form of disobedience. Laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, with her usual intelligence and deep sensitivity) is caught in the middle of one demonstration, but initially she chooses to forgo the movement in favor of her job and life with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son. What Suffragette - written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) - is very smart about is the way that personal circumstances can determine political choices. For Maud, the way her boss (Geoff Bell) leers at the teenage laundry girls and the fact that Sonny takes their life for granted are fuel for her interest in woman’s suffrage. Morgan’s script doesn’t ignore class differences; the shot of Maud walking in to testify in Parliament is all we need to be reminded just how far she and her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are removed from power.

Maud’s choices begin to have real consequences at home, but she has begun to perceive injustice in the world and is inspired by the commitment of women like Edith Ellyn (an understated Helena Bonham Carter). All of the women view real-life activist Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a very brief performance) as their leader, and the most conventional scene in Suffragette is the speech Pankhurst gives to rally her supporters. That speech is interrupted by the police, and the movie keeps cutting away from the women to follow the cop (Brendan Gleeson) who is charged with tracking their activities. It’s questionable how much the film needs this alternate point of view, since the time spent with the police could be used for more scenes of the women’s experiences, but Gleeson - a big man who doesn’t act like one - is the right actor to play a man who’s watching the world around him change. The climax of Suffragette is based on an incident involving Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), an activist who planned to disrupt the Epsom Derby with a pro-suffrage message. The film suggests that Davidson’s actions turned the country around on women’s suffrage, but an epilogue reveals full voting rights were not in fact granted until 1928.

Suffragette is saved from being just another period piece by the strength of its cast and by the direction of Sarah Gavron, who favors hand-held cameras and has an interest in what people reveal behind their eyes. Gavron’s choices gives the film a vitality that speaks to the present day; it’s easy to imagine Occupy protestors in small meetings like these or in confrontation with the police. The women of Suffragette are as human and as scared as anyone would be in their situation. The fact that Suffragette tells that truth is the greatest strength of the film.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Spectre



Spectre is meant to provide a Grand Unified Theory of Daniel Craig-era James Bond; it wants to be the film that both explains Bond the man and that connects the storylines from Craig’s previous Bond outings. Given the care taken by director Sam Mendes (currently overseeing the franchise) and the other filmmakers to serialize the last few Bond films, it’s then disappointing that Spectre turns out to be such a desultory offering. Mendes still knows how to pull off an action set piece, but two central performances display a surprising lack of urgency while the all hands on deck script huffs and puffs to give Bond his dark side. It’s impossible to say how much Daniel Craig’s public reservations about continuing to play Bond may have affected the making of Spectre, but maybe the Bond franchise should take the out given here and prepare to move on.

The British intelligence services are still reeling from the events of Skyfall. Judi Dench’s M has been replaced by Ralph Fiennes’s, a character who worries about the future of human intelligence in the new surveillance state. M has a new rival in a character called C (Andrew Scott), who’s pushing British participation in a new global surveillance system that will mean the end of Bond and his fellow “double-Os”. Does this sound familiar? The similarities of Spectre to elements of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Kingsman, and even Furious 7 suggest the need for a weekly conference call for franchise screenwriters. Omniscient surveillance will quickly become a hackneyed plot hook unless filmmakers figure out a way to put government overreach on a human level, and even Edward Snowden couldn’t do that. Where does all of this jockeying for position leave James Bond? We find him in Mexico City, where his efforts to foil a terrorist plot lead to a chase and a helicopter fight that disrupts festivities on the Day of the Dead.. Bond is grounded by an angry M but soon takes off for Rome to discover the meaning of a mysterious symbol he found in Mexico. A harried M can’t offer support, so Bond is on his own with only Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) aware of his movements.

A description of the plot of Spectre doesn’t convey the strange fitfulness of the film. Action sequences - my favorite being a plane vs. car chase over snowy countryside - alternate with slow scenes of exposition and an couple of rushed romantic interludes. (Monica Bellucci has a too-brief role as a not very Merry Widow.) When SPECTRE (the criminal enterprise, not the movie) reveals itself it comes in a scene that’s played so slowly it’s as if a sketch troupe had invaded the film and were rehearsing off book for the first time. SPECTRE is a clearinghouse for a variety of criminal activity; it’s led by a man called Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) whose favorite topics are global surveillance and the movements of James Bond. Waltz is the only actor in the film whose performance is worse than Daniel Craig’s. Oberhauser’s motivations are admittedly sketchy but Waltz seems too tired to find any wit in his role and in one scene is upstaged by a rolling office chair. Daniel Craig seems thoroughly disinterested in his work as Bond, and if his performance here is meant to convey the character’s soul-sickness then the choice doesn’t work. Craig does take energy from Lea Seydoux; she plays the daughter of a former SPECTRE agent and the way she allies with Bond on her own terms feels downright refreshing. Other bright spots include Dave Bautista as a SPECTRE heavy (his fight with Bond on a train is the film’s high point of physical exertion), Monica Bellucci, and Whishaw’s dry work as Q.

Wherever James Bond goes from here it is hard to see the franchise moving forward with Daniel Craig. The decision to give Bond a real backstory was a bold one, but Spectre offers little in the way of payoffs and it’s unclear what another Craig turn as Bond would offer either audience or actor. Let Idris Elba or Clive Owen or Hayley Atwell or Doctor Who be the next James Bond. The future is now.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Truth



Truth takes place in the weeks before the 2004 election, when a 60 Minutes report alleged that President George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas National Guard in the early 1970’s. The documents that CBS News used to support the story were almost immediately called into question, and CBS subsequently apologized for the story. 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was fired after an investigation, and iconic anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) left the network a few months later. If writer/director James Vanderbilt - working from Mapes’s book about the story - had let us play reporter along with his characters then Truth might have been a thoughtful piece of entertainment. However, Truth is too hung up on its characters’ ideals. Vanderbilt’s screenplay becomes didactic on the notion of what constitutes “journalistic integrity” and the result is a frustrating missed opportunity.

Mary Mapes was a well-established producer at the time that the Bush story came up; Truth opens with 60 Minutes airing the Mapes-produced story of U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and then being given free reign by her bosses to report whatever story crosses her radar. The idea that Mapes, Rather, and their colleagues all went to a bar after the story aired feels like a Sorkinesque touch, but more on that later. The true provenance of the Bush documents, especially a memo in which a commanding officer refuses to evaluate Bush because he hasn’t been on base, will probably never be known. Truth hints at a hidden world of Texas good-old-boys with an axe to grind against the Bush family, but the colonel (Stacy Keach) who hands over the documents to Mapes and her researcher (Topher Grace) is the only one who’s individualized. Vanderbilt chooses instead to stay with the slowly eroding certainty of Mapes and her team (which also includes characters played by Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid) that the documents are genuine, even as the right-wing blogosphere charges that they could have been recreated on Microsoft Word.

Near the end of Truth Mapes is made to appear before a panel investigating the way CBS reported the Bush story. She denies a question about whether she and her team found Bush “guilty until proven innocent”, but the charge sticks. The central error that Truth makes is its insistence that asking the question is paramount. There’s little sense of the process that Mapes’s team went through to arrive at the decision to run the story other than the involvement of a couple of document experts, one of who is skeptical about their veracity and one who is cut out of the story because he isn’t a good interview. Blanchett’s Mapes is a harried everywoman who as the film goes on becomes increasingly unstrung. It’s a carefully worked out performance, but again Blanchett is done no favors by a script that gives her character a single motivation. Vanderbilt’s version of Mapes is a woman in search of a father figure who unintentionally ignores her husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and lives to please Dan Rather. The casting of Robert Redford as Rather is an odd choice since Redford - All the President’s Men excepted - isn’t an actor known for disappearing into the role of a living person. Still, Redford gets at the weird, detached quality Rather sometimes has, and his fall from grace at CBS now feels like the end of era.

Both Mapes and Rather are given speeches about journalistic values in the last scenes of Truth that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Newsroom episode. If only James Vanderbilt hadn’t felt the need to teach us a lesson, because there is a good movie to be made about the Bush documents and the way that CBS handled (or mishandled ) the story. The irony is, it’s the questions that CBS didn’t ask that mean we’ll probably never know the truth.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Steve Jobs



We think we know Steve Jobs already. That fact represents the challenge faced by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle in turning Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) the man into Steve Jobs the movie. Depending on one’s point of view, Jobs was either a visionary with an uncanny ability to anticipate our desire for good-looking technology or a huckster whose ascent into the American Free Market Hall of Fame was the result of piggybacking on others’ work. How to film such a life? Sorkin has arrived at a sort of insistently theatrical structure that almost demands a second viewing, one that puts the important details of Jobs’s personal life in relief against the background of professional high- and lowlights. The result is a film of dizzying intelligence that captures a - not The - version of an inscrutable man.

Steve Jobs takes place on the days of three important product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the ill-fated NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac a decade after that when Jobs came back to Apple as CEO. On each day, minutes before going onstage before an eager audience, Jobs is forced into a series of conversations he’d for the most part rather not have. Jobs’s Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (an excellent Seth Rogen) wants him to acknowledge the importance of the Apple II computer since that machine kept the company afloat while the Macintosh struggled. Right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) urges Jobs to manage expectations for each new machine and is the only one close enough to lecture him about his personal life. CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) is on hand to celebrate and argue with Jobs by turns as each man’s fortunes change. Most important is Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), whose daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine as a young woman and two younger actresses) Jobs eventually accepted as his own. Were all these people there each time? It doesn’t matter, because Sorkin (working from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs) is using the people in Jobs’s orbit to shine light on the man’s contradictions.

Steve Jobs is the best role Michael Fassbender has had in a studio film, and Fassbender makes the most of it. His Jobs keeps ego, ambition, and self-doubt in play at all times and - in a film that doesn’t brake for sentiment - is very moving in a scene when Jobs confronts just how badly he may have failed Lisa. The climactic argument between Jobs and Wozniak is a stunner of a scene, and the way Boyle stages it (two men yelling across a large auditorium) supports my theory that Steve Jobs could work just as well if staged as a play. Wozniak wants Jobs to acknowledge Apple II, and by implication the idea that Apple for a time survived despite Jobs. Fassbender’s Jobs, on the verge of a rebirth, can’t do what Wozniak asks, and in the performance we can see how much denying a friend cost Jobs. (By the way, there’s still a great movie to be made about the early days of Silicon Valley.) The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Jeff Daniels particularly good as a man who knows when he’s outgunned and Michael Stuhlbarg finding offbeat notes as a colleague who treads into Jobs’s relationship with Lisa. Kate Winslet’s role is primarily to move the film along, but she manages to infuse Joanna with great good humor and some needed jolts of anger. Each of these supporting characters is written in relation to Jobs, but all of the actors fill out their roles and suggest people with their own lives and concerns.

Picking out details from Steve Jobs obscures the fact that Sorkin doesn’t crack the mysteries at the center of his hero’s heart. There’s an expository arc about Jobs’s childhood that I think is meant to serve as motivation, but while Steve Jobs is structurally daring and terrifically acted (Danny Boyle’s direction is largely unobtrusive) it is also a film about a man who fetishized presentation. Maybe that’s the point. Steve Jobs gave us the future and then went away before we knew how or why he did it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Crimson Peak (mild spoilers)



In a world where the franchise is King, referring to a filmmaker as a “genre director” means their career is headed in the right direction. There was a time when studio directors churned out Westerns and gangster films and were regarded as nothing more than assembly line workers until the French gave us the auteur theory. Now, a degree of success with a small, personal film means a shot at resurrecting a major franchise and maybe even bigger things after that. (I’m looking at you, Colin Trevorrow.) The career arc I’ve just described could easily have been that of Guillermo del Toro, whose early work (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) led to a shot at the Blade series and eventually to the never-realized The Hobbit. It isn’t too hard to imagine del Toro - burnished by the success of Pan’s Labryinth  and the affection bestowed upon the Hellboy films - with a comic book movie directing gig of his own. It would have been a joy to see a filmmaker with del Toro’s love of myth, visual imagination, and ability to recast familiar tropes take on the Marvel universe. What would del Toro’s Hulk have looked like?

But del Toro has kept to his own path: writing books, turning one into a TV series (The Strain), and now returning to the director’s chair with Crimson Peak. What a pleasure it would be to report that del Toro’s imagination has broken new ground once again, but the underpowered Crimson Peak is the director’s most disappointing film to date. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a shy young woman with literary aspirations in early 20th century Buffalo. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy builder who made his own way in the world. When English aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town with a business proposal Carter’s distaste is obvious, but the intervention of fate finds a smitten Edith married to Thomas and living in the Sharpe mansion alongside Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). It isn’t giving too much away to reveal that Thomas and Lucille aren’t what they seem. They’re con artists, but to what end? The Sharpe family home is a remarkable affair, crumbling into the earth above the family’s clay mines and with a rotting roof that lets snow pile up in the front hallway. Thomas E. Sanders’s production design is an unqualified success, but when Edith starts seeing ghosts in her new home the film begins to lose its way.

What del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins have come up with is the kind of story that, if it were a novel, the characters in an E.M. Forster novel might have read as a guilty pleasure. The movie can’t support the weight of del Toro’s need to insert supernatural goings-on, especially since Edith is quite capable of figuring out something’s wrong on her own. (The elastic actor Doug Jones turns up as one of Edith’s visitors.) The ghosts feel imposed rather than organic to this material. Back in Buffalo there’s a doctor (Charlie Hunnam) who’s also learning how much trouble Edith is in, and when he turns up at the mansion the Sharpes’ plans are revealed in their full horror. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have much to play here as Thomas; he’s charming enough but isn’t given a scene to act in which we see his allegiances begin to change. Jessica Chastain gives a performance of exquisite control as the troubled Lucille, and I badly wanted Crimson Peak to turn into a battle of wits between her and Edith. Indeed, my biggest issue with del Toro here is that he has cast two of the best actresses currently working in film and he can’t think of anything for them to do other than fight with knives at the end.

Crimson Peak is a very good-looking film that never transcends the genre limitations of the script, It should have mattered much more that Edith is a writer, for instance, and why doesn’t Edith play the secret cache of wax cylinder recordings the first time she finds them? Del Toro has earned the benefit of the doubt though. A few years ago on Charlie Rose I heard him discuss his creative process - dreams were a big part - and even now I’ll bet he’s working on taking us somewhere new.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies


Bridge of Spies is the new Steven Spielberg film, co-written by the Coen Brothers with an assist from history. It's a very satisfying entertainment that demonstrates Spielberg can still do several familiar things well. There are set pieces brought off with great skill, like the opening sequence in which a group of FBI agents pursue Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through the New York subway system of 1957. The immersion in the period is complete thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the design team, and a set of broadly humanist values is affirmed with neither cloying nor sentiment. That last achievement is due in large measure to the performance of Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the Brooklyn insurance lawyer assigned to Abel's defense after the FBI charges him as a Soviet spy. Donovan, a family man whose wife (tart Amy Ryan) is nervous about the Abel case, believes there are grounds to challenge Abel's arrest, but the judge (Dakin Matthews) isn't buying it and the CIA (personified by Scott Shepherd's Agent Hoffman) expects Donovan to agree not to try too hard.

James Donovan is a terrific role for Tom Hanks. The script conceives of Donovan as man grounded in decency, determined to do his job despite public disapproval and the displeasure of his boss (Alan Alda). "Every person matters" is Donovan's credo, and driven by that idea Donovan convinces the court not to impose the death penalty on Abel. Hanks is allowed to use his natural earnestness and good nature to great effect, both in scenes with Abel (whom Mark Rylance underplays marvelously) and with Donovan's family. Bridge of Spies is strongest when it views the Cold War as a series of moving parts. Donovan argues that a living Abel could be traded for a potential American captured on Russian soil, and early on the film cuts away from Abel to tell the parallel story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers was the U-2 spy plane pilot shot down in Soviet skies and convicted in a show trial, and Donovan is asked by CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Powers and his fellow pilots aren't individualized too much, and that choice serves the film's idea that all the characters have jobs to do against the larger political backdrop. At the same time more could have been done to differentiate Powers from Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student detained in East Berlin whom Donovan also wants to bring home over the CIA's objections. 

The last section of Bridge of Spies involves a series of meetings in a divided Berlin, with Donovan shuttling between Soviets and Germans who present a series of competing agendas. The most Coen-like moment of the film occurs here, when Donovan meets a loud collection of Abel's "relatives", but again these scenes are really a testament to the keen ability and presence of Tom Hanks. Donovan, stricken by a Berlin cold in a great humanizing touch,  is warned by Agent Hoffman that he must present himself to the Soviets as acting independently. Hanks makes Donovan both shrewd and scared, and the script doesn't gloss over just how much improvisation was involved in his mission. Bridge of Spies ends with Donovan back home and on the train. He sees some children climbing a fence, a shot that alludes to something he saw in Berlin. The sight seems to disturb him, and the moment goes to heart of the film's message. People aren't the problem, but rather the walls that keep us apart. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Book I Read: Going Into The City by Robert Christgau


Going Into The City is Robert Christgau’s memoir of a post-World War II New York childhood and decades as a rock critic. The book is full of a hungry, scattershot energy that anyone who has spent even a short time in New York can’t help but recognize. It is also a book that could have been written for me, and if I’d read it at 22 instead of 42 I wonder if it might have changed the direction of my life. Born in 1942, Christgau was- and is - a voracious reader. He describes a fast journey from Dick and Jane to reading Book-of-the-Month Club fare (Kon-Tiki) by age nine. As a young reader I shared Christgau’s velocity but mostly lacked his ambition, though I do remember putting away 1984 in fifth grade (the year of the title, it was in the air) and also an infatuation with The Making of the President books a little later. I was notorious for rushing through assignments so that I could read, a habit that was greeted with mostly good-natured chagrin by my teachers. In the same 5th grade year the only thing that could interrupt my extra reading was a trip to the school library, where a primitive “computer lab” allowed me to play state capital games and write programs in BASIC.

Christgau went to college at Dartmouth and began to discover a few things about himself that would define the rest of his life. Again, I relate. There’s a reoccurring attraction to smart women that would continue right up through his (still extant) marriage. The joys and trials of both Christgau’s marriage and his previous long relationship with the critic Ellen Willis are described in great detail, with evaluations of sexual taste and ability (including his own) made as perhaps only someone who came of age in the 1960’s could pull off. More germane to Christgau’s writing career is the idea of “contingency”, an idea he discusses at length that seems to have come from the waning of his Christianity and a liberal arts-fed dislike for “-isms” of any kind. Christgau’s contingency becomes clearer as he arrives in New York and finds work as a journalist: a distaste of elitism and theory, a healthy populism, and a lack of interest in labels are all a part of the superstructure that Christgau outlines. I wrote too serious movie reviews in college before I’d read much or any Sarris, but the auteur theory never made much sense to me. Kael all the way, though for a time in my 20s I did sit through too many bad action movies in the hope that something profound about the director would reveal itself to me.

The purpose of these few words isn’t to draw parallels between my life and that of Robert Christgau, nor is it to suggest that my nonprofessional writing in any way approaches the skill or insight of the “Dean of American Rock Critics”. (Christgau has been published in many outlets but is most closely identified with The Village Voice.) Rather, it’s to express my pleasure at finding connection in a book that evokes what it was like to have a press pass in New York City of the 1960’s and ‘70s. Christgau saw and listened to music constantly of course; the book is full of thoughts on pop, rock, jazz, disco, rap, and the “alternative” rock of the ‘80s and beyond. But there were also film and theatre, and outsized personalities like Patti Smith and David Johansen. Christgau’s enthusiasm for art bubbles over these pages; he stops the narrative of his life for mini-essays on personally meaningful works from Crime and Punishment to Jules and Jim to Sister Carrie. I’ll spare you what my list would include, but the exhilaration on display in Christgau’s writing about these favorites is irresistible to anyone of a similar mind.

Christgau’s central metaphor is, of course, “The City”. Christgau grew up in Queens, and his Manhattan is both the center of the world and the home of frontiers both personal and creative. I don’t have the same connection to New York, but in my desire to describe art on paper I am part of a great tradition.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Martian


Ridley Scott's The Martian is a film about rolling up one's sleeves and getting to work; it's set in a world where phrases like "Work the problem" are currency among the characters. The Martian might just be one of the best films ever made about the value of a good education, but in an odd way the script's insistence on order is also what prevents the film from being a classic work of science fiction. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist who's part of a NASA team on Mars; we eventually learn the mission is part of a larger series of Mars missions known as "Ares". A storm forces the astronauts to quickly evacuate, and during the confusion Mark is struck by debris and presumed dead. The story (Drew Goddard adapted a novel by Andy Weir) then splits into three parts: The very much alive Watney must use his scientific training to survive inside the NASA habitat on Mars, the other astronauts begin their journey home on the Hermes under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and the NASA director (Jeff Daniels) attempts to deal with the fallout from the apparent death of an astronaut.

Watney narrates his days on Mars into the log at the NASA habitat, and with the possible exception of Tom Hanks there isn't a better actor suited for the role of a galactic Crusoe than Matt Damon. Damon gives Watney a steadiness and good humor we all wish we could have in such a situation, and he's perfectly credible as a man smart enough to invent agriculture on another planet. Much time is spent on how Watney grows food and establishes communication with Earth, but Goddard's script forgets to tell us what if anything Watney has to go back on Earth. There are jabs of emotion when things go wrong, but Watney the man is never put in relief against the enormity of his situation. To put it another way: In The Martian Mars isn't another world, it's a problem to be solved. The crew of the Hermes (which also includes Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan) is so resolutely professional that the scene in which they consider whether to attempt to rescue Watney almost feels superfluous. Like everyone else in The Martian, these astronauts are team players who wouldn't think of not doing their jobs.

No one involved in The Martian meant for the audience to leave the theatre wondering about the purpose of the space program, but that's a question the scenes involving Jeff Daniels and the NASA employees on Earth bring up. Here the financial and technical effort required to save Watney is balanced against Congressional support for future missions. Leading the charge to save Watney are two scientists (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong) and a touchy-feely flight director (Sean Bean); their work is monitored by Daniels and a press agent (Kristen Wiig) who don't have much to do except say "Hold on a minute." It's a far cry from the scene in Apollo 13 when Ed Harris pours a box of stuff on a table and says "Figure this out." The idea of NASA as an institution to be protected as opposed to a knockabout group of test pilots and scientists is depressing, and it doesn't serve the film well at all. The closest we get to old-school NASA invention are Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis (both believable as science geeks) as younger NASA employees. Glover has an especially good scene where he outlines a rescue plan, and The Martian could use more of his spirit.

Complaining about The Martian leaves a slight bad taste. The film is extremely well-cast, and Scott makes the empty terrain of Mars feel as alien as he can. There is a genuine appreciation for science and scientists and Matt Damon gives a fine, low-key performance that is without doubt the work of a movie star. Shouldn't we be happy with all of that? Maybe, but the schematic nature of the story becomes numbing after a time. More importantly, I missed those early NASA guys and their incredible desire for discovery.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sleeping with Other People



Sleeping with Other People, written and directed by Leslye Headland, is an odd misfire of a film. It’s a romantic comedy that wants to be both edgy and traditional, and Headland’s script winds up skirting a lot more tropes of the genre than she would probably like to admit to. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet in college when Lainey’s desired hookup is missing in action. The two enjoy a night together - the first sex for both - and then don’t think about each other much until the film jumps a decade forward to present-day New York. Jake has become a womanizer who’s on the cusp of selling his company to a woman (Amanda Peet) whom he wants to bed. Lainey is a teacher still in the thrall of that missed hookup from college; he’s now an OB/GYN played by Adam Scott (admirably playing against type) who in his first scene takes a willing Lainey on his office desk,

Did I mention there’s a lot of sex? Jake and Lainey agree to become platonic friends with a large helping of sex talk on the side. A code word (“mousetrap”) is established for when the two become aroused in each other’s company, and at about this point the film’s central question becomes clear: Can men and women be friends? We’ve been here before, although Harry and Sally never talked this dirty. The script keeps setting up obstacles for Jake and Lainey to be together, including Peet’s businesswoman, a single dad (Marc Blucas) who meets Lainey at an Ectasy-laced child’s birthday party (Edgy!), and Lainey’s admission to medical school. For a moment I even thought Headland was setting up jake to be both a Manic Pixie Dream Guy and the 2015 equivalent of Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, but she wisely turns a corner before things get that bad. The script winks at the idea that Jake and Lainey are sex addicts, but in fact they’re just bad at relationships and also at seeing what’s in front of them. Alison Brie makes something sad and human out of Lainey’s conflicts. Lainey might be the most fully realized role Brie has ever had, and she responds with a fearless performance while Sudeikis is largely trapped by the conventionality of his role. A funny supporting cast (Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, Andrea Savage, Katherine Waterston) helps make Sleeping with Other People watchable, but finally this film is a commuter train that’s hitting all the stops.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Sicario


Sicario is a well-made and unremittingly intense drama about fighting drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border. Somewhere in the middle, I realized what was missing: politicians. Director Denis Villeneuve includes neither stock footage of U.S. Presidents declaring no-nonsense policy about drugs nor a character meant to stand in for the idea that America not only fights the spread of drugs but holds the moral high ground in doing so. The highest ranking official we meet is a bureaucrat played by Victor Garber who, when his agent Kate (Emily Blunt) questions the legality of an operation, can only say that “the boundary has been moved”. The boundary is in fact invisible for most of Sicario, which operates from the premise that Mexican drug cartels can now only be fought in the shadows via guerrilla tactics.

Taylor Sheridan’s script begins with a grabber of a sequence in which Kate and her F.B.I. colleagues stage an Arizona raid that leads to the discovery of a cartel mass grave. The shot of a government personnel vehicle smashing through a wall is a tidy way of summarizing the blunt U.S. policy that hasn’t worked to this point; indeed Kate later acknowledges to her skeptical partner (Daniel Kaluuya) that the Bureau’s anti-drug activities are ineffectual. Kate is tapped for a task force by an operative (Josh Brolin, with a wonderful sense of workaday optimism) whose motives aren’t immediately explained. She is soon across the border in Mexico with a team bringing back a high-value cartel target to the States, and helping (in a sequence of exquisitely controlled tension) fight off an attack at a crowded border crossing. Also on the team is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro in his best role in years), a sober Mexican who seems to be able to anticipate the cartel’s moves. Emily Blunt is well-cast as Kate, a pro who’s out of her depth in a world where she can’t show weakness. Blunt has played many types of roles in her career, but her recent reset as an action star would seem to be a positive development in regards to the types of stories we see onscreen. Kate’s frightening encounter with a seemingly friendly cop (Jon Bernthal) is one of Blunt’s best scenes, as it’s the moment the cartel’s reach becomes clear while also being proof of the physical work Blunt did for this role.

Denis Villeneuve directed the very dark films Prisoners and Incendies, the second of which I thought tipped over into silliness. Here a bleak worldview is hidden behind a sheen of government-sanctioned ordinariness, and Villeneuve is helped greatly to achieve this feeling by the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. The varieties of types of light in Sicario (a Mexican term for “hitman”) almost can’t be counted, from the institutional glare of a border turnaround point for immigrants to the evening glow outside a Texas bar. Sicario could easily disappear under a flurry of plot twists and scenes of interagency conflict, but Deakins grounds the movie in something specific while at the same time making the border battlegrounds feel like an alien world.

My only quarrel here is with a subplot involving a Mexican cop (Maximiliano Hernandez) that the script ties too neatly into the story of Alejandro, who of course has his own agenda. Alejandro’s story, when we hear it, is both too conventional and too thin. It’s explained rather than dramatized and it’s why the last act of Sicario doesn’t work quite as well as it could despite another well-done action set piece. Perhaps the comparison is too pat, but Sicario feels like the anti-Traffic in the way it suggests that humanizing the people on both sides of the drug war really makes no difference. The business will continue; the only surprise is how well we’ve all adapted to it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Black Mass



Everything about Black Mass suggests its desire to take a place among the great crime movies. The slow, studied pace, the carefully thought out framing, the period detail, and the use of well-known actors in small roles are all evidence that director Scott Cooper thinks the story of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is something Very Important indeed. Bulger was the gangster who cut a violent swath through South Boston (“Southie”) for two decades; he ordered from the full menu of criminal enterprise from dealing drugs to running numbers, and he had no hesitation about violence with rivals or traitors. Black Mass focuses on the way Southie native and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, having a good 2015 with this and The Gift) recruited Bulger as an “informant.” It isn’t giving much away to reveal that Bulger used his relationship with the Bureau as a pass to expand and intensify his criminal activity.

The story that Black Mass is telling contains within it the film’s biggest problem. The screenplay (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) points out that Bulger and his “Winter Hill” gang were relatively small-time before Connolly came along, and that Bulger used the FBI as a means of pushing the Mafia out of Boston in order to expand his domain. The problem is, that’s all there is to Bulger’s story until it all came crashing down. Johnny Depp succeeds in making Bulger scary, but he doesn’t quite succeed in making him a person because there isn’t one on the page. There isn’t anything tragic about Whitey Bulger, only a dedication to using crime to make his life. The film stops to introduce Bulger’s wife (Dakota Johnson, whose character walks out of the story) and young son, but Bulger’s vulnerability is gone in the time it takes Depp to raise an eyebrow or turn his head. As the details of Bulger’s activities pile up - there’s an interlude involving jai alai and a miscast Peter Sarsgaard- it becomes harder to see Bulger as anything other than the villain in his own story.

The other strand of Black Mass involves Connolly’s machinations within the FBI to advance his own career and (later) protect Bulger and his state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) from scrutiny. Both Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, the one female given something to do) and partner (David Harbour, very good) become afraid of Bulger, and his superiors (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) chafe at how slowly Bulger provides intelligence. Why does Connolly choose Bulger over the Bureau? Connolly grew up with the Bulger Brothers and the script suggests that neighborhood loyalty trumped his allegiance to uphold the law. (I actually wouldn’t have minded a prologue with the characters as children. ) Joel Edgerton skillfully plays a man trapped by circumstances even as his life falls apart, but again there’s something missing here. Connolly’s loyalty to the Bulgers becomes too dogged by half, and his fate should carry more weight than it does. Black Mass is vivid and engaging thanks to  Scott Cooper’s eye and to its large and lively cast - W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons, and especially Rory Cochrane all add quite a bit as Bulger’s crew - but Bulger was so purely about self-aggrandizement that we won’t think of him the way we think of Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. After fleeing Boston in 1995, Whitey Bulger was on the run until being arrested in California in 2011. What did he do all those years? That’s a movie I would watch.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Grandma


It is mildly surprising that Grandma hasn’t drawn approbation from the same voices that called Mad Max : Fury Road part of a feminist conspiracy. The way that writer/director Paul Weitz’s script treats abortion as an unwelcome but necessary event in the life of many women is welcome for its lack of hand-wringing or clichéd rhetoric. The right to terminate a pregnancy is treated as just that, a right, and it’s that choice that brings high-schooler Sage (Julia Garner) to the doorstep of her grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) one morning. Sage is pregnant by a disinterested boyfriend (Nat Wolff) and needs money to pay for an abortion. She’s afraid of her high-powered mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden, who enters late in a role that’s a hair too obvious) and thinks Elle is her best chance for help. Her appointment is in 9 hours.

Grandma is an assertion of not only of a woman’s right to reproductive choice, but also to her own irascibility. Elle, a lesbian poet first seen breaking up with a younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), is still mourning the death of her longtime partner and not inclined to live up to anyone’s expectations. We don’t hear much about Elle as a parent, but Harden and Garner play their roles with an edge that suggests temper runs in the family. The day that Elle and Sage sped together is a tour through Elle’s past, and the encounters with a café owner (the late Elizabeth Pena) and a tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) reveal Elle as a friend by turns loyal and combative. Elle is, as the Grandma poster says, Tomlin’s best role since Nashville, and it’s a case of perfect casting. The biting wit of Elle feels perfectly tailored to Tomlin’s personality, but Tomlin keeps a reserve of emotion bubbling underneath that suggests that while Elle has plenty of memories she doesn’t have many regrets. (Grandma is not a film that traffics in sentiment.) Most surprising is Elle’s encounter with her ex-husband Karl, played by Sam Elliott in a searing cameo. Karl is a man still in love, and his reaction to Elle’s request for help points up the fact that choices made in the moment can have deep resonance in the future. This is an excellent performance by Sam Elliott, and one that points to a career that might have been.

Grandma isn’t a message movie it’s a human movie. Weitz ends with a reconciliation, but he offers little resolution. The final shot of Elle serves both as valentine to the character and a perfect summation of Lily Tomlin’s career. This story of complicated women might just be one of the most needed films of the year.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Alex of Venice


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very good in this drama, a well-shot film that suffers from a lack of dramatic stakes. Winstead is Alex, a an environmental lawyer working out of a Venice, California storefront (for an uncredited Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose life seems as career oriented and driven as that of any Manhattan defense attorney. Alex's husband George (Chris Messina, who also directed) is tired of playing the house husband, and after George takes off to fulfill vague artistic ambitions Alex must juggle career, her 10-year old son (Skylar Gaertner), and her live-in, pothead father Roger (Don Johnson, good as a man fighting off his own decline).

With this much plot in play the movie could go anywhere, but Messina (working from a script whose authors include Katie Nehra, who plays Alex's sister) is content to let Alex of Venice be a shambling story of a woman coming back into herself. The potential issues raised by Alex's attraction to the man (Derek Luke) her firm is opposing in court are never explored, and much time is spent on Roger's casting in a local production of The Cherry Orchard. Roger is a once-famous TV actor humbled by being cast as the old servant Firs, and the reason he has such trouble remembering his lines is developed too late to add more than symbolic value to the story.

Thank goodness for Winstead, who gets to show flashes of anger, sadness, and sexuality too often denied her. This is Winstead's best role since Smashed and further indication that she is a seriously undervalued asset. Alex of Venice is a fine calling card for what she'll do next.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Mistress America


It is a pleasure to watch writer/director Noah Baumbach work with such confidence in Mistress America, a warm, funny, and brisk variation on themes explored in this spring's very good While We're Young. If Mistress America appears the slighter film of the two at first, stay with it. Baumbach, who co-wrote with leading lady Greta Gerwig, trusts both his cast and his own skill enough to let the heart of the film emerge late amid some spot-on character acting by an ensemble of unfamiliar faces.Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman new to Manhattan who's having a hard time making friends. Scenes of classes and hall mates and an awkward connection to fellow freshman Tony (Matthew Shear) trip by until salvation arrives in the form of Brooke (Gerwig), the 30-ish daughter of the man Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is going to marry. Greta Gerwig is already a star in the way that the band Dirty Projectors (who make a brief appearance here) are; that is to say that one seeks out a Gerwig performance for something left-of-center in a very specific way. Gerwig's collaborations with Noah Baumbach have shown a wider audience that she's also a very good actress, and as Brooke she is committed to a kind of brazen mania that - most of the time - hides the bruised heart underneath. It is a remarkable performance.

Tracy is smitten with her older almost-sister, but she is also canny enough to use Brooke as the model for a short story that may gain Tracy admission to a snobby campus literary society. Tracy's narration is the text of this story, a work that from what we hear sounds stylish but immature. Tracy doesn't get how self-aware Brooke is underneath the talk of starting restaurants and creating apps. When Brooke is approached by a high school classmate who harbors an old grievance she apologizes to the woman's former self but not to the adult, because she can't understand how someone could lick old wounds when the search for one's true purpose is still very much in progress. Brooke's quest for financing to start a restaurant called "Mom's" leads to a long, knockabout sequence at the Connecticut home of an ex-boyfriend named Dylan (Michael Chernus) who has the cash to bail Brooke out. Along for the ride are Tracy, Tony, and Tony's hilariously possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), who isn't above using Tracy's story for her own ends. Dylan turns out to be an insecure mess, still thinking about his college radio show but given bluster by money. Dylan's childless wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) puts up a hard outer shell, but she also hosts a book club whose members are all pregnant. Brooke receives a phone call during this sequence that provides Gerwig's best acting moment of the film; listen to the way she responds when her father tells her that "Home is a bus ride away."

The only character in Mistress America who isn't facing uncomfortable truths (until she is) is Tracy, whom Lola Kirke plays with a confidence that we always understand is almost totally misplaced. (Tracy is one of those freshman shocked to receive a "B".) Everyone here is on the hustle to claim their own identity- the mere act of living in New York demands it - and Baumbach and Gerwig honor the search while also wringing out many, many laughs. There is a spiky kind of energy in play here that Baumbach hasn't shown before; it's further indication both that Baumbach is still learning what he's capable of and that Greta Gerwig came along at exactly the right time.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Gift


Anyone watching the trailer for the new thriller The Gift might be forgiven for thinking that the film looks like an update of ‘80s and ‘90s genre pictures. You know the ones, films like Pacific Heights, Single White Female, or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle in which menace enters the lives of innocents in the person of a vengeful or mentally ill stranger. What The Gift - written, directed by, and co-starring Joel Edgerton - gets right is the way it challenges our expectations of who the innocents are and where the menace comes from. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago for Simon’s job in the security industry. A throwaway line early on reveals that for Simon the move is a sort of homecoming. The fact that he’s from the area is important and the casual nature of the reveal shows the confidence Edgerton has in his control of information. The house that Simon and Robyn move into has plenty of windows and a gorgeous view, and Edgerton is very adept at using the space to create tension. (There’s always a feeling someone could pop up at a window or around a corner.) One day in a store Simon is approached by Gordon (Edgerton, excellently creepy), who says he and Simon went to high school together. Why does Simon seem so nervous?

As Gordon’s gifts and visits become more unsettling, The Gift slowly begins to work on challenging our sympathies. Simon’s abrupt dismissal of Gordon’s awkwardness would seem to mask a deeper problem, while the gradual revelation that Robyn is recovering from painkiller addiction introduces the idea that her nervousness at being home alone is psychosomatic. Edgerton’s script is very well structured, it slides into Scenes from a Marriage and then back again beautifully, but it wouldn’t work if Jason Bateman didn’t commit to playing a jerk. Simon seems to get what he wants - a pregnant wife, a promotion at work - with relative ease, but when the film starts to turn against him the Bateman’s series of small, specific acting choices take on a new meaning. Rebecca Hall is equally good, giving depth to what could have been a one-dimensional role. The final revelations of The Gift are remarkable for their economy; having someone watch a DVD isn’t a standard thriller climax. But the skill with which the film turns tables and settles scores is remarkable in its thoroughness, and I admired the way one character’s sympathies are left a mystery at the end. The roiling emotions of The Gift make for a bracing surprise. Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a vital performance of a familiar tune.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Paper Towns/Irrational Man (mild spoilers)



Paper Towns is the latest slice of cinematic earnestness based on the writings of John Green, whose The Fault In Our Stars served as a lesson about death for a generation who can’t quite remember what happens in those middle Harry Potter books. This new film, directed by Jake Schreier, is a pleasant but formulaic piece of work that owes a debt to John Hughes films of the 1980’s in the same way that The Fault In Our Stars owes a nod to Love Story and an apology to Anne Frank. Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a straight arrow Orlando teen who one night joins neighbor and former childhood friend Margo (Cara Delevingne) as she carries out an evening of revenge pranks on her cheating ex and her former girlfriends. Margo Roth Spiegelman - her full name is spoken aloud many times - is a brain with an artist’s soul, one who’s full of maxims about living an authentic life and scorn for her suburban existence. Delevingne can’t really suggest much of Margo’s supposed depth, but she looks good in an aviator’s cap and isn’t on screen that much anyway.

I shouldn’t dismiss Delevingne that bluntly, except that that’s exactly what Paper Towns does. Margo disappears after her night with Quentin, and among the questions Quentin doesn’t ask her when they meet again are “Do you have enough money?” and “Where are you sleeping?”. The character of Margo is meant to talk back to the trope of beautiful and eccentric women opening guys up to life, but the film is actually concerned with Quentin enjoying his last few high school weeks with his buddies (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith, both fresh-faced and funny) as they obsess over Margo’s whereabouts and attending their first party. To put it another way, Margo is a human version of the glowing case in Pulp Fiction. Margo will literally become a myth while Quentin will go on to be slightly happier. I would have had it the other way around.

*** Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is a complete non-starter, a tired recycling of Allen tropes (life’s value, murder plots, age inappropriate relationships) constructed around a preposterous performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix plays a philosophy professor who existential despair is cured by the attentions of a student (Emma Stone) and by his use of murder as self-actualizing tool. I’ve rarely seen a good actor look less invested than Phoenix does here, but I’m even more concerned that Woody Allen has lost the ability to tell a story in a dialogue and images. Both Phoenix and Stone’s characters have on-the-nose voiceovers which elide almost every bit of spontaneity and surprise in their scenes. Was it just cheaper to tell the story from a recording booth? Only Parker Posey, as a faculty member after Phoenix, has anything fun to offer. Posey’s brittleness is well-used here and her scenes are the only time that the film feels like it could go somewhere worthwhile. Emma Stone is wasted, and Irrational Man winds up as a limp disappointment.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Ricki and the Flash



Meryl Streep doesn’t seem comfortable in the early scenes of Jonathan Demme‘s Ricki and the Flash. Streep plays Ricki (real name Linda), a L.A. bar-band musician whose dreams of stardom led her to leave her Midwestern family years before. When Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer) has been left by her husband, she returns to Indianapolis and a to a family that had given her up. If Ricki and the Flash were a different, lesser movie it might have revealed Ricki’s hidden genius or led to a scene of deep reconciliation between Ricki and her children, but writer Diablo Cody isn’t one for taking the easy way out. That discomfort Streep plays is true to Cody’s script, because Ricki isn’t very good at life.

Ricki and her band (“The Flash”) have settled into a steady house-band gig; they have a way with classic rock covers - not so much with “Bad Romance” - and Ricki has even edged into a tentative romance with her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield). Demme and Cody treat Ricki’s L.A. scene with affection, but her life isn’t romanticized. There’s a regular crowd of dancers and drinkers at Ricki’s bar. Jonathan Demme hasn’t lost his eye for casting odd-looking faces, but he also doesn’t shy away from Ricki’s shabby apartment or her demeaning job at “Total Foods”. But the heart of Ricki and the Flash is in the Indianapolis scenes, and it’s good to see that Cody hasn’t lost her taste for trolling what she sees as emotionally stultifying Midwestern life. As good as Streep is, my favorite thing in Ricki and the Flash is Mamie Gummer as Julie, who - wearing an X T-shirt and drinking kombucha - has an first scene worthy of Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film. Later there’s a spectacularly awkward family dinner that Julie disrupts with truth-telling; Gummer is so raw I’d almost believe she’d been directed to improvise. Ricki and Julie seem to be making progress, but the Indianpolis idyll (which includes a pot-smoking scene involving Kline’s Pete) is interrupted by the return of Pete’s new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Maureen is the most formulaic thing about the film, she exists solely to threaten Ricki’s new connection to her family and even McDonald can’t do much with so little screen time.

The last act of Ricki and the Flash involves Ricki’s attendance at the wedding of her son (Sebastian Stan). It’s to Cody and Demme’s credit that there’s genuine tension over whether or not Ricki will misbehave or be driven out of town by uptight country-clubbers. Compare the wedding scenes here and in Demme’s Rachel’s Getting Married. The scowling faces that greet Ricki’s toast are, the film seems to suggest, are of a world that Ricki’s son and his bride are orbiting whether either know it or not while the wedding in Rachel is a multicultural group hug. All this to say that Ricki and the Flash is that rarest of films, one with a strong writer’s point of view. Cody is emotionally honest enough to write a script about two people who never should have gotten married, except they did. The film ends with a small triumph while also not shirking the fact that more complications lie ahead. Ricki and the Flash is, finally, the marriage of three of cinema’s great humanists - Demme, Cody, and Streep. Also, you can dance to it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ant-Man (mild spoilers)


Ant-Man is a light-footed and winning superhero movie, one with human-sized stakes and a sense of its own silliness that’s too often lacking in the genre. If only the writers (including Edgar Wright, Peyton Reed directed) didn’t have to tie the story into the larger Marvel Universe, because it is the Marvel scenes that bring Ant-Man to Earth and promise a less interesting future for the character. Comics fans will know that the Ant-Man character has a long and busy history, but the rest of us may be surprised to know that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is the second man to don the shrinking suit. Lang is a just paroled burglar with a do-gooder streak, and it’s only desperation that brings him to the home of original Ant-Man Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). No superhero movie would be complete without at least one scene of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and Douglas pulls off the explanation of the shrinking - due to something called the “Pym particle” -  like he was born to it. The plot involves an attempt to prevent Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from selling the shrinking technology, but the pleasures of Ant-Man come from watching Rudd’s Lang discover his inner hero.

The visual wit on display in Ant-Man might be due to Peyton Reed, or Edgar Wright, or some combination, but it’s definitely the best thing about the movie. Pym teaches Lang how to control ants, and the sight of a shrunken Lang interacting with ants like they were farm animals is just one of many delightfully off-kilter images. The final fight between Cross and Lang takes place in the bedroom of Lang’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and Cross and Lang fighting on Cassie’s toy train is worthy of a William Joyce children’s book. (There’s also a great sight gag in this scene involving a well-known children’s character.)  The sequence in which Lang, with the help of Pym and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), trains to break into Cross’s lab is full of visual jokes. I especially liked the image of Lang  popping through the soil in Pym’s back yard like a mutant gopher.I’d happily watch a movie with Paul Rudd, who plays Lang as a well-intentioned rogue with a soft spot for his daughter, as the leader of some kind of hip Ocean’s 11 gang. Michael Pena is very funny as Lang’s motor-mouthed sidekick and the two montages of exposition his character narrates are gentle mockeries of laborious genre storytelling.

But of course we’re in the Marvel Universe, and Lang must fight with a second-tier Avenger while the post-credits scenes signal Ant-Man’s involvement in future movies. There’s a prologue relating Pym’s departure from S.H.I.E.L.D  and a certain villainous collective pops up. All of this is necessary for the larger Marvel project, but that’s no reason to look forward to Ant-Man getting subsumed into The Avengers. Ant-Man is a charming intermission between acts of Marvel’s ongoing space opera. Enjoy it, but don’t get used to it.