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.