Sunday, December 18, 2016

Manchester by the Sea/Rogue One



Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a notebook of memory, grief, and loss that in lesser hands would descend into sentimental nonsense but in fact is a masterpiece of temper and modulation. Lonergan was a playwright before he turned to writing and directing films, and his command of structure and economy is on full display from the moment that Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never better) descends in a hospital elevator to view the body of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lonergan cuts to a hospital scene from the brothers' past, the moment when Joe learns he suffers from congestive heart failure. In just a few moments we learn both what kind of man Joe was (Chandler gives him an essential kindness) and that the mouthy Lee isn't yet capable of understanding what the diagnosis means while Joe's wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) can't handle it at all. The roiling emotion on display is maintained throughout Manchester by the Sea, which follows Lee's unexpected assumption of the guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and Lee's own attempts to come to grips with the memories that Manchester evokes.

There is a big hook in Manchester by the Sea, one that yanks the film around a sharp bend and makes clear just why Lee is so anxious to get his nephew settled and get back to his unexceptional life as a janitor in Boston. Here Lonergan risks changing our empathy with Lee into judgment, but his attention to detail cuts short any sense of the film tipping into melodrama. We've seen the boisterous domestic life that Lee enjoys with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams in top form) and their children and in just one scene of the couple clowning around in their bedroom Lonergan conveys just how much love exists in the marriage. Michelle Williams creates a fully realized person in very little screen time. When we meet Randi again in the film's "present" her haircut in sharper and more chic but the same reserves of love remain just under the surface.

While Lonergan is engaged with deep emotions it must also be said how lively and funny Manchester by the Sea can feel at times, especially in the scenes between Lee and Patrick. Lucas Hedges, who was good as a brat in Moonrise Kingdom, is a very unactory performer and he's just the right person to play a 16-year old concerned with girls, bands, hockey, and finishing high school on his own terms. Patrick gives back as good as he gets in his exchanges with Lee, and the humor keeps the film's sadness from becoming overwhelming. Casey Affleck's performance as Lee will change how you think of him if you only know him from Good Will Hunting, that weird documentary with Joaquin Phoenix, or even his Oscar-nominated role in The Assassination of Jesse James..... Lee lives an empty life but not because it's all he can handle. The specificity of Affleck's performance reveals Lee as man very familiar with how the world works but unable to muster anything to fight it.

Manchester by the Sea is working at too high a level to offer its characters easy answers. Lonergan begins and ends the film on the water. The opening shot finds the brothers' boat out for a family fishing trip, with miles of Atlantic Ocean stretching out ahead. The final shot is tighter and offers only a little water in view. Our lives close in on us, Lonergan seems to say, but there's always something ahead.

Rogue One is a good action film and a pretty good Star Wars film too, though it's hard to watch without thinking about all the reports of tinkering involving cowriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy supposedly oversaw reshoots and the question of what the film we were going to get looked like is one we'll probably never answer. Officially credited to director Gareth Edwards, Rogue One is the story of the stolen Death Star plans that we find Princess Leia with at the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope. Felicity Jones brings unexpected swagger to the role of Jyn Erso, broken out of prison and tasked by the Rebels with gathering intelligence on the Empire's "Planet Killer". If you've watched trailers for Rogue One you know that Jyn has a specific motivation for joining the Rebel cause, and the storyline involving her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the most conventional part of the film. Can no one in this world do anything that doesn't involve their father. There's a crew to accompany Jyn, including a soldier (Diego Luna) with a competing agenda and a blind swordsman (Donnie Yen, who brings physical grace previously unseen in the franchise) who is the closest thing going to a Jedi. Yen's character uses The Force as a sort of mantra, and though The Force is mentioned by many characters it here fails to register as an idea for the first time in the Star wars series. This is a film about soldiers and war and it culminates in an extended battle scene that brings Darth Vader into the action. The most significant Imperial character is named Orson Krennic, who is played by Ben Mendelsohn with a frustration that middle managers in all galaxies will identify with. Rogue One is a fun watch thanks to Jones and the action scenes, but it strains to connect to earlier films in a way I'm not sure it had to. There's world-building and then there is completism, and here there's trying to have it both ways.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Miss Sloane


Miss Sloane would like you to know that lobbying is a blood sport, a winner-take-all affair in which tactics trump ideas and those who make a difference are the ones most skilled at outflanking their opponents. We learn all this in almost so many words from Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a high-end Washington lobbyist who in the opening scenes is being advised to plead the Fifth before Congress by her lawyer. Sloane has run afoul of a Senate committee chaired by Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) for her actions while lobbying on behalf of the government of Indonesia. Are we really about to watch a political drama in which characters fight over palm oil?

Thankfully the answer is no. The hearing which bookends the movie is a function of Sloane's actions working in favor of a gun control bill. Sloane is first approached to work for the gun industry, but to the surprise of her boss (Sam Waterston) she leaves her job and takes her team to a smaller firm run by the idealistic Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Schmidt's firm is working against great odds to pass the bill and for a time it looks as though Sloane's aggressive tactics might secure the 60 votes required to beat a filibuster in the Senate. The battle to get those votes is the bulk of Miss Sloane, but if you're hoping that battle involves a large tote board with names of Senators and people erasing numbers then you won't be disappointed.

It is always a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain act, and as Elizabeth Sloane she is by turns indomitable and vulnerable in a way that's never less than arresting. It's a good thing that director John Madden was able to cast an actor as Elizabeth whose personality is so forceful, because the script by Jonathan Perera doesn't give much Chastain much of a character. Elizabeth is Type A and never seems to sleep - the movie gives her an addiction to amphetamines and then forgets about it - and her only personal interactions are regular appointments with an escort (Jake Lacy) who's a little too interested in learning about her career. We never know how Elizabeth got to this point in her life or career or what motivates her to do things like have a Senator followed by a parade float sized rat or out her colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on television as a survivor of gun violence. Miss Sloane contains a number of scenes in which someone asks Elizabeth "Why are you like this?", but we never really know.

One shouldn't go into Miss Sloane expecting a Sorkinesque political romp. Elizabeth shares a walk-and-talk with her assistant (Alison Pill) and some zippy byplay with a peer (Michael Stuhlbarg) when we first meet her, but Perera's script isn't taking place in a world where everyone operates with good intentions. The film is weirdly concerned with the place where ideals and tactics meet, and it seems to argue that Sloane's methods are justified by the fact that she believes in her cause. This belief makes her a "conviction lobbyist" in the film's parlance, while Waterston and Stuhlbarg's characters are merely paid flacks. The script is on the nose on this point, and Sloane's team repeatedly tells their new co-workers that sometimes it's necessary to get dirty to do some good. It all leads to a hearing room scene that's a tumble of revelations and witnesses, and we learn just why Sloane is so good at anticipating every variable. It all means much less than it might have. Jessica Chastain almost saves Miss Sloane from collapsing on itself, but this house of cards wasn't built to last.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Allied


Allied concerns a woman who may be masquerading as someone else, and the new film directed by Robert Zemeckis is indeed one type of story pretending to be another. The central action scene, in which Allied agents Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco in 1942, comes early and is on full display in the trailer. The scene is the culmination of the first act of Steven Knight's script, in which Max and Marianne are thrown together in Casablanca; playing at being husband and wife turns to love and the couple go to London, marry, and have a daughter. (Again, this is all in the trailer.) Max learns a year later that Marianne may be a German spy. This is a promising setup, but it's also a smokescreen. Zemeckis and Knight aren't really telling a spy story. Max and Marianne love each other deeply, and Allied is in fact an investigation of whether their love will survive the chance that Marianne is a traitor.

For a film set in the world of espionage Allied contains remarkably little tradecraft after the story returns to London. Max, a Canadian military officer, has some kind of job working under a stodgy British commander (Jared Harris), but until Marianne's loyalty is called into question all we see him do is put on a uniform and joke around with colleagues. Marianne, who we're told is an agent of exceptional boldness, seems to lose all interest in work after becoming pregnant. If the problem with the not boring but still uninvolving Allied had to be summed up in a sentence then it is that it's a film about characters and not about people. Knight's script doesn't give his stars room to maneuver, and even their minor interactions are weighed down by plot implications. Brad Pitt is unaccountably stiff in the Casablanca scenes and then has little to do but fret and worry. It's a dull performance and the filmmakers seem to have misunderstood what we want from Pitt. It doesn't help Max has no one to talk to. Lizzy Caplan is badly miscast as Max's sister, barely concealing her lesbian affair in a way that doesn't seem quite right for the period.

The end of Allied is a flurry of activity. Max has caused one soldier's death by investigating Marianne against orders, and he risks more lives on an unlikely mission to occupied France. Allied wants to keep a revelation up its sleeve as long as possible and that means Marion Cotillard can only sit and wait, being a devoted wife and mother all the while. The filmmakers only seem interested in Max's point of view, and Marianne becomes a more passive character as Allied goes on. Given the setting and stars involved Allied should have been at a minimum much more fun, but this overthought film doesn't know what to do with its ration of promise.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Rules Don't Apply/Edge of Seventeen



Rules Don't Apply is reportedly a passion project of its writer/director/star Warren Beatty's, and indeed the film has the feel of something labored over and tinkered with. At one point in its development the film might have been a romance between Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver working for Hughes, and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). At another it could have been a sort of farce about an aging and eccentric Hughes (Beatty, making up for in energy what he lacks in depth) running around the globe with Frank and fellow driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) following behind and putting out fires. The film we actually have shoves these two conceits together and winds up being both tonally inconsistent and emotionally flat. Ehrenreich and Collins have a good rhythm together in the early scenes; both Frank and Marla come from conservative backgrounds and are figuring out how to make their way in a world that doesn't share their values. Why is Marla in Hollywood? Beatty's script has her signed to an RKO contract but Marla herself says she's not an actress and is in fact only good at writing songs. There's a song called "Rules Don't Apply" within the film that Marla has written which is performed in almost back-to-back scenes for Frank and Hughes. The song has an aphrodisiac effect and ignites a major plot point which is only barely paid off at the end of the film. Lily Collins, who is very winning even though Marla has to speak mostly in declamatory paragraphs, is meanwhile shoved to the fringes of the story.

 Warren Beatty never decides what story he wanted to tell in Rules Don't Apply; there are good actors floating around all over the film but most of them have nothing of consequence to do. Annette Bening is funny and brittle as Marla's religious mother but Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Dabney Coleman, and Haley Bennett (among others) are on hand just to move the plot along. The film doesn't examine Hughes as more than a collection of tics - there's a mass of detail about financial dealings that is just an excuse for scenes of Hughes freaking out and talking about ice cream - and as a result a moment of reckoning at the end falls flat. But we do hear that damn song again.


  Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, asks us to believe that high-school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) would only have one friend. I had a little trouble believing that Nadine wouldn't find another smart but disaffected student to bond with at her large suburban high school, but Nadine's growing self-awareness about her own situation makes the film work anyway. Nadine's friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) has just started dating Nadine's popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), and Nadine finds herself alone on the fringes once again. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderfully uningratiating here. Craig's script doesn't try to make us sympathize with Nadine, who sometimes can be a real jerk to her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and everyone else around her. The scenes between Nadine and her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) have a comic snap because both characters want to be doing something else. There may never have been a teacher in film who less wants to play the role of life coach than Harrelson's very funny Mr. Bruner. Craig doesn't resolve everything at the end, and that choice may be the biggest reason to keep an eye on this filmmaker. Nadine is given a window into a different life, and it's up to her to do the rest.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moonlight



The word "normalize" has been much in play in our cultural conversation lately, whether in reference to gross personal behavior, extreme political views, or the idea that the way many of us get our news may have swayed a Presidential election. In this heightened context to normalize is a bad thing - but if the new film Moonlight helps normalize the idea of complicated black masculinity in cinema then it will have done us an incalculable service. Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney), is a gorgeous surprise and of the year's most vital American films. Jenkins breaks the story into three chapters, starting with the chance meeting of a Miami drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in a star making performance) and young boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). There is a sense in which Little, and the man he will become, is the character we most need to see on screen in 2016 - a year when black Americans felt themselves under siege by civil institutions in a way they perhaps haven't for decades. Little, whose real name is Chiron, is on the run from bullies when we meet him and Juan offers him a meal and ride home with a quick stop to introduce Little to his warm girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Little's mother (Naomie Harris) isn't thrilled with Juan, especially when Juan catches her using drugs on the street. The rest of Moonlight is the struggle that these adults will have for Little's soul.

 This opening section of a Moonlight is a beautifully shot film about childhood. Jenkins keeps his camera at Little's level so that we perceive every sensation just as Little takes it in, from a first time at the beach with Juan to the menacing stares of other boys during a game of keep away. The way the boys look at Little isn't just a function of their horseplay; they perceive something in him that won't manifest itself until later. Little's mother perceives the same thing, and this contempt for his weakness combined with her descent into addiction makes home the least safe place in Little's life. Jump forward a few years and the teenager before us, now called Chiron again, is played by Ashton Sanders. Chiron's life is one of piercing loneliness: there are more bullies, and a mother lost to drugs, and no helpful adults. Ashton Sanders has marvelous, expressive eyes and he says more with them about what's in Chiron's heart than his few lines of dialogue ever could. Chiron's only connection is with his friend Kevin (played in this section by Jharrel Jerome). The sex act the two young men share is the moment in Moonlight when Chiron is most fully himself with another person, but Chiron also knows that it sets him apart from the loud, rough, "normal" teens who beat him up. Jenkins handles this moment with the same delicacy he displays throughout, avoiding any hint of sentiment of preachiness and viewing the moment for what it is: a fork in the road of a human life.

 In the final section of Moonlight Chiron is known as "Black" and is played by Trevante Rhodes. An act of violence has set Black on a course to end up like Juan just as Kevin (played here by Andre Holland) reenters Black's life with a phone call. Much is left unsaid in the long scene of Black and Kevin's reunion; there's an awkward mix of happiness, nervousness, and attraction that Jenkins wisely doesn't get in the way of. There is a wobbly moment where Black chooses words over actions where Rhodes is slightly stiff, but Jenkins doesn't make too much of it and is smart enough to know that an easy resolution to this story would ring false. The end of Moonlight brings Black to the doorstep of a richer and more complicated life, one that will have made the journey worth it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Arrival


Arrival is a splendidly restrained science fiction film, one that in fact may not become as successful as it deserves to be because of the subtlety with which it addresses its concerns. The film's "political" message - relevant these days to a remarkable degree - is really a human one: Our civilization can only survive through sharing knowledge and an openness to consideration of all possible outcomes. It's a message that director Denis Villenueve handles with a welcome light touch after the heavier Prisoners and Sicario. I'm not sure whether or not the structure of Arrival was Villenueve's idea, but the way that our assumptions about film grammar are toyed with keeps the film from didacticism. Arrival requires close attention, but the rewards are worth the effort.

A prologue gives us information about linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). A child and a marriage, both gone now, and we find Louise living a life where her ocean view is the only company. Louise appears to have no girlfriends or even close colleagues, and so when 12 alien craft appear at locations around the world she has no one to share her anxiety with. Her first visitor is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants Louise to translate the aliens' language. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (a warm Jeremy Renner) are on their way to Montana. The scenes of Louise and Donnelly trying to communicate with the aliens - who communicate in circular symbols that represent complex thoughts -have a sense of wonder that's leavened with reality. Can Louise become fluent in the aliens' language before their true purpose is carried out? Will another country (China is the main concern here) get nervous and attack one of the spacecraft? The CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is ready to pull the plug when Louise translates one of the aliens' first messages as "Offer weapon".

It would be giving away too much to describe more plot, but part of the pleasure of Arrival is the craft that Villenueve and his team bring to the story. Villenueve isn't afraid to draw out the tension in a moment, and the combination of the familiar (a scissor lift) and the frightening (the lack of gravity) in the humans' first entry into the alien ship is exactly right. The nervousness of Louise and the others in this scene is pitched perfectly, and the whole film is helped by the simple elegance of Patrice Vermette's production design. Amy Adams gets to show all her cards here; it's a sublime turn that contains hidden depths, and Adams pulls off the always difficult feat of appearing to think believably on screen. The screenplay can't quite hold everything that it wants to: There's a subplot about some soldiers who want to attack the aliens that feels rushed and a Renner voice-over is used to compress the passage of time. But these are minor issues. The climax of Arrival involves a simple conversation between people from different cultures, and this excellent film dares to suggest that nothing could be more important than that.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Doctor Strange


The new Marvel film Doctor Strange was directed and cowritten by Scott Derrickson, who must have thanked whomever or whatever he worships for the fact that Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in a surprisingly prickly turn) isn't as well known to most current audiences as Captain America or The Hulk. Derrickson's previous directing credits include Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and while I haven't seen those films it doesn't feel to harsh to say that Marvel wasn't about to hand Derrickson one of its show ponies. Doctor Strange the comic book hero dates back to 1963, but the new film's successful opening weekend probably says more about Marvel brand loyalty than it does about built-in love for the character.

All that said, Doctor Strange is a brisk entertainment that welcomes Cumberbatch into the Marvel Universe, where he should jolt several existing characters out of complacency. (I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch interact with Robert Downey, Jr.) The opening scenes quickly cast Strange as a man whose colleagues - including Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) - admire him for his talent and detest him for his ego. After an accident ends Strange's surgical career he journeys to Nepal, where an order of sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) trains him in the mystic arts. These training scenes follow a familiar pattern, with Swinton's Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shaking their heads and offering tough love. What makes this part of Doctor Strange work though is Cumberbatch, who plays Strange throughout as a man getting by on his intellect as much as what he learns from his masters. The sight of a superhero thinking about something other than the challenges of heroism is a pleasant surprise, and Cumberbatch suggests Strange's arrogance slipping away as the story turns back towards New York and the usual threats to the world as we know it.

Of course there is a villain; he's a sorcerer gone bad named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to turn the Earth over to a trans-dimensional being named Dormammu, who will then do ... something. There's a to-do about eternal life and time being a villain, but the final confrontation is handled with a welcome light touch. Fights earlier in the film make splendid use of the characters' powers in a way that makes the street-shifting in Inception look ponderous. The term "comic book movie" will continue to be a divisive one, but Doctor Strange fills that bill in the best sense - it's bright, fast, and shiny with a true hero at the center.

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.

    Sunday, June 12, 2016

    The Nice Guys



    Shane Black's hugely entertaining and very funny The Nice Guys is a private eye picture with jokes. The distinction between that description and straight comedy is a meaningful one, as Black (still best known perhaps for writing the original Lethal Weapon) respects the detective genre and doesn't ignore the consequences of violence. The heroes - or "tarnished heroes", as Black described them on a recent podcast - are private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and unlicensed, low-rent enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). In 1977 Los Angeles the two are working opposite ends of a case that touches the porn industry, Detroit auto companies, the Justice Department, and a missing young woman (Margaret Qualley). The case, while comprehensible, is only the excuse for a movie about people on the margins that finds two top-drawer actors stepping out of familiar territory.

    Ryan Gosling, on something of a comic run after this and The Big Short, plays March as a man who has forgotten how talented he is. Drinking too much and guilty after a personal tragedy, March is barely able to care for his daughter Holly when Healy arrives at his door. Special mention must be made of Angourie Rice as Holly; she more than holds her own with older costars and pulls off all the moments when Black's script (written with Anthony Bagarozzi) makes her the film's conscience. Gosling is as loose and funny as he has ever been, and he and Crowe are able comic partners. Russell Crowe either gained weight or padded up for this role, but when two thugs brace him at his apartment Healy is able to dive over a couch and come up firing. There's a slapstick quality to much of the gunplay, and Black turns the hotel where the climax takes place into a sort of life-sized Rube Goldberg machine with March falling off ledges and through multiple layers of glass. The laughs don't obscure the fact that the bullets hit people, and the death of one character is carried out with a brutality that calls the efficacy of March and Healy's mission into question.

    In the podcast I linked to above, Shane Black describes how his early love of pulp detective novels influenced his writing. The end of The Nice Guys has a rueful cynicism that would do John D. MacDonald proud, but the joy of how Black executes his tale is a welcome gift from a sometimes cold cinematic universe.

    Sunday, June 05, 2016

    The Lobster



    The Lobster runs societal conventions of coupling and connectedness through a dark, satirical gauntlet, and the result is tonally unlike any other film I've seen in a great while. A man named David (Colin Farrell), newly single, is sent to a hotel where he and all the other new single guests are put on the clock. If they don't find suitable partners within 45 days then each will be turned into the animal of his or her choosing. David, whom Farrell plays in low-key schlub mode, chooses a lobster for the animal's long life span and fertility and is congratulated on his originality by the hotel's manager (Olivia Colman). David makes a couple of male friends (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) at the hotel but finding a new partner is slower work; it involves awkward dances and trying to find the one characteristic that will signal a perfect match to a female guest. What exactly is going on here? The Lobster comes from the find of cowriter/director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose earlier Dogtooth (unseen by me) was a smaller scale story of an attempt to control understanding of the way we perceive the world. Lanthimos finds no joy or even much humanity in the prospect of the hotel guests partnering up. David and his fellow singles are forced to watch bizarrely dry demonstrations in which a hotel maid (Ariane Labed) and her coworkers act out that the reason to be together is so that things like choking or sexual assault might be avoided.

    David and his friends can extend their stay by hunting "Loners", a band of single people who live in the forest outside the hotel. Each Loner captured earns an extra day's stay, and David is smitten with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) whose hunting skills have given her over 100 extra days. The Lobster is narrated by a Loner (Rachel Weisz) that David eventually develops a connection with, but the film pushes the two towards an unforgiving conclusion after the existential Loner leader (Lea Seydoux) takes violent action. (The Loners aren't allowed romantic entanglements.) To say more of the plot would be to spoil the ironic ending, but the last shot of the film will make you consider just exactly whose story we've been watching. The Lobster is finally a story about the way the world pushes our hearts towards a certain kind of order even when it's only what we think we want. After seeing it you'll never worry again about whether you and your date have anything in common.

    Friday, June 03, 2016

    Love & Friendship/The Family Fang



    Whit Stillman's brisk adaptation of Jane Austen's little-known novel Lady Susan finds the writer/director far removed from his 1980's films of just-privileged-enough young people figuring it out. Given that Love & Friendship - Stillman's retitling is apt - departs to such a degree in setting from Stillman's earlier work it is a pleasure to report that the new film finds the director in confident form. The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is on the hunt for a new husband and the financial security that marriage brings. Lady Susan's quest brings her into the orbit of a sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell) whose own brother (Xavier Samuel) seems amenable to Susan's advances, but word of the controversial Lady's involvement with a married man (Lochlann O'Mearain)has preceded her. The world of the film is filled out with Susan's American confidante (Chloe Sevingy), her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and a dim aristocrat (the very funny Tom Bennett) who hopes to make Frederica his wife.

    The way that Beckinsale's Lady Susan bounces between these characters in pursuit of her own security turns Love & Friendship into a riff on social codes, which is of course just where Stillman wants to be. The way that Susan will be received, or not, and the future of Frederica are all subjects for scenes of great comic energy until, at last, one of the many letters written during the film is read by the wrong person at the wrong time. Beckinsale never tires during a succession of scheming scenes, and her private talks with Sevingy are a welcome diversion, but the movie for all its energy makes the character more a spinning top than an actual person. That's why Susan's offscreen fate is merely described while Stillman ends the film with Frederica finding a home that makes both emotional and fiscal sense. Lady Susan is surely minor Austen, the characters are broad takes on the ones we know from her major novels, but Stillman has turned her marginalia into tart and very entertaining summer pleasure.

    The Family Fang finds two fortyish siblings (director Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman) in various states of dissipation just when their well-known performance artist parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) have either vanished - leaving behind a bloody car - or pulled off their biggest "piece" yet. Bateman and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (working from a novel by Kevin Wilson) want to make a film about the metaphorical killing of one's parents, but the film trips over itself with obviousness by doing things like including a song called "Kill Your Parents" as a plot point. Much time is also spent on flashbacks to the Fang parents (played younger by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn) and their artwork, but the film never convinces that what the Fangs are doing is important or interesting. It's easy to see how Bateman's character might have been warped by things like being manipulated into kissing his sister during a school play, but Christopher Walken is so good at playing a very specific type of arrogance that his character must have soured his kids on life in a thousand subtler ways too. Watching Bateman and Kidman play sad and screwed up is fun for a time, but the movie gives them an ending it hasn't earned and so ends up being a collection of parts that don't quite cohere.

    Sunday, May 29, 2016

    Captain America: Civil War



    Captain America: Civil War is a film with multiple agendas. The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Marvel's attempt to make a self-interrogating superhero film, one that explicitly considers the uses of power and its possible consequences. We'll get to the other agenda in a moment, but you might remember another recent film which pitted familiar characters against each other in attempt to explore a superhero's role in the world. Civil War, directed by Marvel vets the Russo Brothers, is a more entertaining piece of work by leaps and bounds than Batman v Superman. By this point Marvel knows what its people want, and this latest outing is better shot, better paced, and lighter in tone than the bloated DC effort. Also, it isn't dark outside all the time.

    With the obvious comparison out of the way, how good is Civil War really? The answer is a qualified "Not bad"; the story springs along efficiently but the script by multiple writers doesn't go deep on the political questions the film wants to address. A opening fight in Africa leads to a moments I don't think I've ever seen before in a film like this: A superhero (Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch) whose powers have gone awry is immediately confronted with the consequences of her actions. That incident leads the Secretary of State (William Hurt) to issue an ultimatum to the Avengers. Either they sign a treaty and accept United Nations control or they will be considered outlaws. The central conflict is between the pro-treaty Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), who's deeply distrustful of institutions after the events of The Winter Solider. A large cast of other characters including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are forced to choose sides.

    A film in which Captain America forms a sort of do-gooder Hole in the Wall Gang as a thorn in Iron Man's side sounds promising to me, but Civil War quickly abandons the political for the personal. Captain America - who was just fine working on behalf of a government in WWII - is motivated not by principle than by a desire to help his friend Bucky aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) evade capture after Bucky is blamed for a terrorist attack. The backstory about Bucky's unwilling participation in a super-solider program is laid on smoothly enough and there's a crackling fight/chase scene that starts in an apartment and movies to a highway - the action scenes find new ways to use urban space - but once Bucky enters the picture the idea of the film as a political argument goes away.

    Several times in Civil War one character says of another some variation on the line, "He's not gong to stop." (Yes, it's always he. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch don't have much to do here.) As the action builds to an airport fight involving even more characters (What's up, Ant-Man and Hawkeye!) it becomes clear that in fact they are at some point going to stop. The lack of a sense that anyone could die saps energy from Civil War; it's never clear what anyone's end game is and that includes the film's ostensible villain (Daniel Bruhl), whose plans are both admirably human-scaled and not that well though out. What's more important for the film's core audience is the way Civil War serves as a delivery system for new Marvel characters. (Here's that other agenda I mentioned earlier.) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) enters the story when his family suffers an Avengers-related loss, and a young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is recruited to web up and join the fray. Both of these characters will headline their own films soon, and both are charismatic enough here. What they don't do is make up for the overall lack of focus. As Marvel builds out its world I wonder if future films will find a way to be as grounded as this one wants to be.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2016

    Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising



    The 2014 comedy Neighbors didn't strictly require a sequel; the ending found new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) happily settled into their new house and former frat president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) working as a shirtless model outside a clothing store. Teddy seemed to have found his level, but as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opens it turns out he's still working retail and about to be kicked out of his room by newly engaged former frat brother Pete (Dave Franco). Neighbors 2, directed by the returning Nicholas Stoller from an all-hands-on-deck script, is a blunt but very funny sequel that doesn't quite touch the fleeting nature of the college experience in the same way the original did but which is still very funny. Mac and Kelly are expecting their second child and looking to sell their house and move to the suburbs. The 30 days that the Radners are "escrow" - there's a running joke about their ignorance of the term - are a nervous month of running out the clock. At the same time, freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) reject the rush process and start their own sorority next door to the Radners. With Teddy switching sides in his quest to be "of value", the war is on.

    The greatest achievement of Neighbors 2 is the way it gives Shelby and her Kappa Nu sisters room to be just as bawdy and funny as the frat guys we met last time out. Kappa Nu's mission is to throw parties that aren't "rapey"; there's a strong feminist streak and a few great sight gags involving everyone from Hillary Clinton to the Minions. The only time the comic momentum slows down is when the script calls for Shelby to bluntly state the purpose of Kappa Nu: individuality, identity, sisterhood. As the plot unwinds - a major set piece involves the Radners' efforts to steal a bag of marijuana - the escalation starts to feel a little labored until the inevitable call back to the air bag joke of the first film. What saves Neighbors 2 from collapsing under script mechanics is the willingness of Rose Byrne and (in a smaller role) Carla Gallo to go full out for a laugh. Chloe Moretz is committed but lacks Byrne's comfort with this kind of material. Neighbors 2 has an admirably progressive spirit and as many belly laughs as I've had in a long time. It may be a better sequel than we deserve.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2016

    Keanu



    Keanu is the first film to star the comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and it’s a winning showcase for their brand of smart absurdity. If you only know Key & Peele through YouTube clips and shared Facebook posts of their late Comedy Central show then prepare yourself; they’ve broken into feature films in a way that should satisfy hardcore fans while also landing new ones. Family man Clarence (Key) drops by to visit his cousin Rell (Peele) after Rell’s breakup only to find that Rell has a new love: a kitten that Rell names Keanu has shown up on his doorstep. (We learn in a prologue that Keanu has escaped a shootout worthy of a ‘90s Michael Bay film.) Keanu brings Rell back to life, and Rell is soon using the kitten as model in a movie homage calendar - stay for the credits. Keanu disappears after thieves hit Rell’s apartment. Rell enlists Clarence - single for the weekend when his wife (Nia Long) and daughter leave town - and the two hunt for Keanu through some unsavory parts of Los Angeles.

    Clarence and Rell’s journey brings them into the orbit of drug dealer Cheddar (Method Man) and his moll Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). The plot requires Clarence and Rell to adopt “street” personas for a sizable portion of the film, and - while Keanu is more broad comedy than satire - the choice does have a point. It doesn’t strain belief to think that Peele (who wrote the script with Alex Rubens) might have an interest in the masks African-American men wear in society, even the ones they assume unconsciously. Clarence and Rell posing as members of Cheddar’s crew provides for some broad belly laughs, but the running joke about Clarence liking the music of George Michael (and the way that Rell and others react to that) is more pointed. In one of the film’s best scenes, Clarence convinces a group of younger men that Michael is black; the gag plays as both hilariously off-kilter and as an odd moment of self-justification. The end of Keanu loses steam a bit as it mocks action movie tropes - there’s even a second drug dealer (Luis Guzman) - but Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key have found a new stage for their unique and much-needed talents.

    Sunday, April 03, 2016

    Eye in the Sky



    Eye in the Sky wants us to consider the moral, legal, and logistical issues caused by the American and British use of drones in the War on Terror. The opening minutes of the film efficiently lay out the situation: A British colonel named Powell (Helen Mirren) has intelligence of a gathering of high-value targets in Nairobi. The targets include British and American nationals, including teenagers, known as members of Al Shabaab. The plan is to coordinate with Kenyan troops to capture the terrorists, but a small drone controlled by a local agent (Barkhad Abdi) gets a shot of suicide vests and explosives inside the terrorists' meeting place. Suddenly the mission changes, and Mirren's colonel must convince a host of superiors and politicians to approve a drone strike on the meeting and avert a terrorist bombing.

    Director Gavin Hood (who also appears as an American military officer) bounces the action between several continents with energy and confidence. We always know where we are and why we're there. Most of the non-African scenes takes place in Powell's command center and in an office at Whitehall where a general (Alan Rickman in his final screen appearance) leads a group of politicians through the events. There are also Americans involved: We follow the pilots of a drone (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who serve as the "Eye in the Sky" and who will be called upon to fire the missile if ordered. Eye in the Sky, written by Guy Hibbert, has all the ingredients for a dark satire about the Western balance between politics and the prosecution of war. Hibbert's greatest idea is the lack of a final decision maker for the mission. Several politicians (including Ministers played by Iain Glen and Jeremy Northam) weigh in with equivocations, but the decision making process seems to have no center. The unseen Prime Minister and American President are insulated from accountability by their subordinates.

    What complicates the decision to fire the missile is the appearance of Alia (Aisha Takow), a young Kenyan girl selling bread next to the terrorist compound. If the missile is fired Alia will certainly be killed in the explosion, but if the terrorists leave the compound the potential loss of life is much greater. The inclusion of Alia in the story is a form of special pleading on a par with Spielberg's red-coated girl in Schindler's List, and it sentimentalizes a situation which the makers of Eye in the Sky has already dramatized with great ruthlessness. Hood and Hibbert's argument is rigged to such an extent that we discover Alia's family is secretly educating her and letting her use a hula hoop (away from the eyes of disapproving adults) while the most wanted terrorist is a white British national who was "radicalized" by an African man. The playing to liberal sympathies is complicated by an ending that asks us to empathize both with those caught by accident in the War on Terror and with the Westerners making decisions about those same people. A film about the implications of drone warfare is certainly overdue in 2016, but the case that drone warfare is amoral is overstated here. Eye in the Sky will be remembered as Rickman's final film - and he brings great soul to a man who spends most of the film sitting at a laptop - but as a political work it is too broad by half.

    Saturday, April 02, 2016

    Work by Friends: Chris White's Unbecoming



    (Full disclosure: Chris White, Emily Reach White, Teri Parker Lewis and other people involved with Unbecoming are friends of mine. Click here for more details on that and to read a review of one of Chris’s earlier films.)

    I’m often daunted by the short film form, just as I am as a reader by short stories. The limitations of each form make the truths uncovered that much more powerful, and there is a case to be made that the work required to uncover those truths is more difficult. There is a reason we’re still reading the stories of Chekhov, Welty, and Cheever after all. Writer/director Chris White has worked in the short form before, and I even made my film debut in one effort, but the new Unbecoming finds White working with confidence on more challenging material. White bills Unbecoming, a 40-minute anthology of 5 short films, as a “Southern Gothic Comedy”, but don’t get the wrong idea. White isn’t interested in the comedy of Southern eccentricity so much as what has always interested him: the honesty, joy, pain, and pleasure of real moments between people. In the first chapter of Unbecoming a lonely, dignified older man (Michael Forest) shares a few minutes with a woman (Patti D’Arbanville) searching for her lost goat. The conversation they share offers a brief connection - and possibly a new reading of American history - but White’s script doesn’t force anything. Goats come back, and life goes on. Later, two other lost souls (Teri Parker Lewis and Jack Peyrouse) have some cross-generational conversation during a chance encounter at a fast food joint, That middle section feels the most conventional, as though the idea of the piece hadn’t fully been fleshed out, but the other chapters more than make up for it. The funniest chapter involves a bookish teen (Natalie Belz) and the self-involved coach (Aaron Belz) minding her in in-school suspension. After watching the young lady puncture Coach’s hopes with a few words I think that White may have a great high-school comedy in him.

    My favorite chapter of Unbecoming is the fourth, which is also the most ambitious. It’s here that White reaches for all the power of a great short work in a story that touches on love, aging, choices, and most of all memory. (There’s also a gag about a local landmark that’s too good to spoil.) Lilly Nelson is excellent here as a woman who loves the man (Bill Mazzella) who doesn’t know how to handle her. There’s a scene of foreplay between Nelson and Mazzella that feels like something out of a French New Wave film and that serves as a testament to the creativity that come from limitations. White ends Unbecoming with a musical grace note in a scene between brother and sister (Shua Jackson and Phyllis Jackson) at their father’s funeral. That moment speaks to two of White’s larger concerns in this short collection: Time never stops, and we all just have to do the best we can.

    Saturday, March 26, 2016

    Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice



    So, this is what we’re doing now. We are bringing our superheroes to Earth, both literally and metaphorically, and turning them into unhappy humans who interrogate the meaning of their own power and develop strong opinions on how it should be used. We are screwing around with imagery that evokes 9/11 to suggest the damage that unchecked superhero powers can create. We are having beloved characters fight with each other for the thinnest of reasons. We are blowing shit up. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aspires to nothing less than to be the termination point for an one era of superhero films and, I guess, the departure point for another. Dawn of Justice begins with the end of Snyder’s Man of Steel, the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that tears apart Metropolis. Snyder includes shots of citizens fleeing billowing dust clouds on city streets that serve as a perverse kind of escapism, as if it would take aliens and nothing else to bring down buildings in a major American city. One of the casualties of the mayhem is a building belonging to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) which is in the process of being evacuated when it collapses. Eighteen months later and Wayne still broods on the loss of his employees, though it’s hard to tell because in Dawn of Justice Affleck’s Batman is little more than a scowl and some high-end gadgets.

    In the new DC Comics Universe, which Dawn of Justice is mean to kick off, “Justice” is a funny word. Neither Batman nor Superman seem interested in participating in a system of due process and accountability for those they apprehend. Instead both want to do exactly as they like and each finds the other’s methods over the top. Wayne is offended when Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams, whom I feel I should remind you has five Oscar nominations) leads to the loss of innocent lives. This incident is told secondhand to the committee of a Senator (Holly Hunter) who is worried about Superman going bad, and the narrative distance means it’s hard to gauge just how out of control the situation became. Meanwhile Superman - in his Clark Kent guise, and here Kent is just a device to move the plot along - doesn’t like how rough Batman plays when bringing down low level hoods in Gotham. Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are actually in pursuit of information held by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who takes the camp out of this character for once) which might prove inimical to Superman’s interests. Snyder spends a great deal of time on Wayne’s search, a choice which pushes the film’s running time out to 2 and a half hours but also leads to Wayne crossing paths with Diana Price (Gal Gadot, warming up for next year’s Wonder Woman film). Wayne spends so much time sitting in front of screens that at one point he has a dream-within-a-dream, a scene which introduces another familiar DC character and also fails to suggest that anyone involved with Dawn of Justice possesses DePalma-like levels of psychological complexity.

    Dawn of Justice could be as serious-minded as it liked and I would even forgive the violence if only Snyder had injected even a fraction of the joy that earlier Batman and Superman films possessed. That sentiment no doubt sounds like the carping of a man who’s angry that new toys don’t look like the ones he grew up with, but consider: we’re supposedly living in a time where films are being made and studios run by people who grew up as “geeks” or “nerds” and yet I don’t remember the last time I saw a superhero use his powers without considering the moral responsibility. (Maybe Ant-Man, but the pendulum began to swing somewhere around the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.) Where is the joy of flight, or even the novelty of a utility belt? I couldn’t help but think about the children who were in the theatre where I was watching Dawn of Justice. I’m talking about the actual children, not the overgrown ones. They’ll never thrill to Christopher Reeve’s Superman saving lives at the Eiffel Tower or be confused by the emotional dynamics between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Instead they, and the rest of us, are treated to Martha Kent (Diane Lane) being terrorized by armed goons and Lex Luthor playing Doctor Frankenstein in the remains of a Kryptonian spaceship. The child sitting with his father next to me loved seeing Superman fly but grew oddly quiet during the civics lesson.

    The extended climax of Dawn of Justice occurs in a series of empty buildings that Zack Snyder finds various to shoot blowing up or crumbling into rubble. It’s practically promised at the end that these sequences will motivate the action in some future DC film and that more heroes will be required to fight off new evil. Those films will no doubt have their audience, but they had also better matter much more than this one did. I didn’t care that Bruce Wayne wanted to kill Superman because this Wayne is barely a person. Christian Bale’s Wayne wasn’t the most fun guy, but you at least believed he watched a basketball game now and then. Dawn of Justice is the “high” point of the movement to replace the wonder in superhero films with sheer spectacle and debates about the uses of power. The idea that the people in films should be frightened of the heroes protecting them - a theme that has crossed a number of franchises - has never been less appealing or provocative than it is here, and with any luck we’re moving away from its repeated use in blockbusters. Oh, wait a second, 2016 still has films called Civil War and Suicide Squad yet to come. I’ll probably see them both, and so will you.

    Tuesday, March 22, 2016

    Some Thoughts on My First Murakami Novel


    I’ve just finished reading Norwegian Wood by the acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Having heard Murakami celebrated for years - I worked in a bookstore for over a decade - and even mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, I can report that Norwegian Wood is a novel that from what I can make out is far removed in theme and style from the author’s best-known works and was probably not a good choice with which to begin reading him. Set during the turbulent years of 1969 and 1970, Norwegian Wood is the story of the relationship between a student named Toru and a young woman named Naoko. The two had known each other for years before falling in love because Naoko was the high school girlfriend of Toru’s best friend Kizuki, who has committed suicide before the novel begins. Naoko and Toru take long Sunday walks through Tokyo, but soon Naoko withdraws and eventually becomes a patient at an odd sort of spa/hospital which Toru visits as his schedule permits. Toru becomes friends with Naoko’s older roommate Reiko during his visits, and she counsels him about Naoko and about his feelings for a free-spirited fellow student named Midori whom he has met back in Tokyo. To reveal more would be unfair, but the question of Naoko’s mental health becomes central to how all of the characters resolve themselves.

     It has been some time since I read a novel in translation, and the language barrier may account for some questions I have about Norwegian Wood and about Murakami’s work in general. I was planning to write a kind of insouciant “5 Questions about This Novel” post that I might have slapped up on Tumblr, but these are actually things I want to know before I pick up another Murakami novel.

     1. Characters in Norwegian Wood have a habit of saying exactly what’s on their minds. Is this trait a Murkami thing, a Japanese thing, and/or a translation thing?

     2. At one time or another the three central women in Norwegian Wood all want to sleep with Toru. Do Murakami’s other men do as well?

     3. Several characters in Norwegian Wood commit suicide. Again, there’s something here in Japanese culture that I don’t understand and I wonder if it comes up in other Murakami novels.

     4. Do Murakami characters refer to books and music as often as these characters do? Because I liked that. 

    5. I was under the impression there was more “Magic Realism” in most Murakami novels. Is this true?

    6. What does Haruki Murakami think of the “Shoshanna in Japan” storyline on Girls?

     If you’re a Murakami reader and can answer any of these question then you would be performing an invaluable public service.

    Saturday, March 12, 2016

    10 Cloverfield Lane (mild spoilers)



    10 Cloverfield Lane is J.J. Abrams playing with us and doing it well. When the trailer appeared online a couple of months ago it wasn’t apparent if Abrams had produced a sequel to his surprise hit Cloverfield or if he was merely indulging a taste for surprises already displayed in Super 8 and the introduction of a certain smoke monster to a certain TV island. The finished product is a well-executed genre film that may (or may not) connect to an already established cinematic universe. After watching the film the inclusion of the word Cloverfieldin the title feels like quite a tease; producer Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg (working from a script co-authored by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) play to our love of the movie franchise while delivering something small, shocking, and mean.

    We don’t know why Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her unseen fiance in the opening scene. Trachtenberg doesn’t let us hear the phone message she leaves him but instead plays the insistent score of Bear McCreary over shots of Michelle clearing out of her apartment. One stop at a spooky Louisiana gas station later and Michelle is waking up after a car accident in the well-stocked underground bunker of a man named Howard (John Goodman) whose intention seems to be to keep her alive. Howard tells Michelle she can’t return to the surface; a biological attack of unknown origin has left everyone dead. The bunker’s other occupant is a hired hand named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a gentle sort who thinks Howard is to be trusted. The heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane is Michelle’s effort to find out if that’s true. A close-quarters film like this one is of course actor dependent, and Abrams and Trachtenberg have nailed casting with the pairing of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Winstead has wound up in more than a few horror films over the years, but she’s capable of much more - see Scott Pilgrim or her Oscar worthy turn in Smashed - and is perfect for what turns out to be a psychological duel. Her natural intelligence is well-matched with John Goodman’s richly detailed study in paranoia. It’s terrific to see Goodman’s turn his charm into something menacing; the more we come to understand Howard’s motivations the more his references to an absent daughter hint at a disturbing past.

    The tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane is released after an act of violence, and your opinion of the ending is a function of your tolerance for ambiguity. We can reveal that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a good actress even when fleeing and fighting; in the unfortunate event that someone ever remakes Alien then Winstead would make a fine Ellen Ripley. It does seem likely that there will be more Cloverfield films at some point, and while Abrams’s desire to vary casts and tones is appealing it also wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep Winstead around. 10 Cloverfield Lane - a film we didn’t need and weren’t aware we wanted - is a pleasant diversion made with some craft, and in a film where there’s this much fleeing that is good enough for me.

    Saturday, March 05, 2016

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot



    The word “resources” gets used several times in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. News producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) winds up as a war correspondent in 2003 Afghanistan because her network’s resources are stretched due to the beginnings of the Iraq War. Later, a network president (Cherry Jones) ponders using fewer resources in Afghanistan because in the three years Baker has been there the story has become less vital to Americans. When thinking about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which Fey produced along with Lorne Michaels, one might regard it as a case of misspent resources. What could have been a darkly funny film about what war reporting does to people is instead a film in which the U.S. Military, other reporters, and the entire nation of Afghanistan serve as the supporting cast in the story of Kim Baker acquiring a backbone. Baker - the film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Kim Barker - has almost no field experience when she arrives in Afghanistan and is dependent on her local guide Fahim, played by the very non-Afghan actor Christopher Abbott. Kim proves her courage and impresses a general (Billy Bob Thornton) by getting close-up footage of a firefight, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a movie about military strategy.

    The action of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers 2003 to 2006, years when Afghanistan receded from the American consciousness as the Iraq War increased in intensity. Kim gets some traction by reporting on gender issues, but Ficarra and Requa cut away from a scene in which a group of Afghan women get to meet Kim and express their concerns. Instead we get more of the frat house life at the journalists’ base, where Kim’s friends Tanya (Margot Robbie) and Ian (Martin Freeman) encourage her to get over her unfaithful stateside boyfriend (Josh Charles). There is also an Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) who it turns out is around only for plot purposes, since neither Kim nor anyone else seems that interested in what kind of country Afghanistan is becoming. Instead there’s a late twist - involving Kate getting Thornton’s general to commit men to a dangerous mission - that offers Kate an opportunity to advance her career; she doesn’t hesitate to seize her chance, though weirdly Robbie’s Tanya is judged for doing exactly the same thing. Tina Fey is mostly up to the role of Kim, though I never bought the idea that Kim was in danger of thinking the extremes of war zone life were “normal”. Whomever made the choice to make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about Kim’s self-actualization did so at the expense of dramatizing the lived experience of soldiers and journalists on the ground. The result is a film that looks big and feels small, one that traded Fey’s comic voice for jokes about Muslim women covering themselves. WTF indeed.

    Monday, February 29, 2016

    Son of Saul



    This year’s Foreign Film Oscar went to Son of Saul, a first feature from Hungarian Laszlo Nemes which follows an Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz through several hellish hours. We know almost nothing about Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) except that he is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the movement of other prisoners into the gas chamber and with the subsequent disposal of their remains. One day Saul finds a young boy barely alive after the gas; the boy dies during an examination but Saul believes the boy to be his illegitimate son and decides to bury him. The rest of the film is his quest to do so. Much of the discussion around Son of Saul has been about Laszlo Nemes’s shooting style; for almost the entire film Nemes shoots Saul in close-up or shows us only what the character sees. This choice means we only hear scattered references to what other prisoners are doing - a group is planning an uprising - and that various atrocities take place out of focus, at the edge of the frame, or are conveyed only through sound. Other prisoners are barely individualized except for Warszawski (Levente Molnar), a man whose lack of understanding of Saul’s behavior seems to represent the feelings of everyone else.

    Son of Saul is not an easy watch. Nemes’s determination to avoid false uplift or aesthetic distance (there’s not a master shot to be found here) keeps us firmly within the realm of Saul’s perceptions. That’s a frightening place to be but also a tiring one, as Rohrig’s inexpressiveness makes Saul’s refusal to engage with his fellow prisoners hard to read. Whether the boy is actually Saul’s son is called into question - another prisoner tells Saul “You have no son.” - but a bigger issue is the film’s lack of a moral framework. Nemes wants to put the poignancy of Saul’s desire to bury his son in opposition to the other prisoners’ efforts to organize and fight, but the film only sets up the situation without investigating it. Indeed, it isn’t clear why the other men would enlist Saul in their plans for an uprising; his mission to transport materials that the men need goes wrong when he wanders into a group of new prisoners in search of a rabbi. The other prisoners in Son of Saul haven’t forsaken religion; the first rabbi that Saul approaches tells him he will say the Kaddish for his son but that a proper burial is logistically impossible. But Saul’s fellow prisoners see survival as an imperative that Saul never seems to consider. We’re told in the opening titles that members of the Sonderkommando were executed after a few months as a matter of course, and Warszawski and the other prisoners feel their time running out. “You failed the living for the dead,” Warszawski says to Saul, and later when another prisoner comes back for Saul during the escape it’s a pointed contrast to the image of Saul almost being dragged underwater by his son’s remains.

    I recently watched another Oscar-winning film set in a concentration camp, Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters. That 2007 film told the story of “Operation Bertrand,” a Nazi plan to destabilize Allied economies by flooding them with counterfeit currency. The Jews forced to produce the fake money lived in relative comfort in the camp, and the film establishes their role in the infrastructure of the Nazi war effort while also dramatizing why they needed to resist. In Son of Saul, giving the audience the eyes of one prisoner - the film most definitely does not “get inside his head” - heightens the emotion but also elides the particular systematic nature of the Nazi evil, and that is a mistake I can’t ignore. When we last see Saul he is experiencing a moment of connection that the film hasn’t earned. While I respect Nemes’s stylistic choices I also don’t think they work; Son of Saul is finally a film where artistic ambition gets in the way of lessons that we should never stop learning.