Sunday, May 07, 2017
The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt from a novel by Dave Eggers, never really had a chance. The new film is the story of Mae (Emma Watson), who parlays a college friendship with Annie (Karen Gillan) into an entry-level job at a tech company called The Circle. Eggers's novel is techno-utopianism taken to its logical extreme, a world in which the erasure of privacy and a vision of worldwide "connectedness" are presented as a cure for all societal ills. The novel's Mae, who is encouraged by her coworkers to think of The Circle as a surrogate family, is a true believer. So, what went wrong? The speed of tech is now the speed of life, and The Circle arrives after real events have made the film moot as a critique.
The public face of The Circle is Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a sweater-wearing innovator who's constantly introducing new ideas at the company's "Dream Fridays". Bailey preaches the vision of information sharing and openness through products like a small wireless camera called "Sea Change", but the sudden humiliation of a Senator who's investigating the company (in an underdeveloped subplot) suggests there may be other agendas at work. It was smart to cast Hanks in this role - he wears his normal good humor like a mask here - but the trope of the tech corporate officer as benevolent creator has long since been deconstructed. In other words, we know Jobs and Gates were in it for the money. While the screenplay (by Ponsoldt and Eggers) never gets too specific about Bailey's darker ambitions, a scene involving a Congresswoman (Judy Reyes) becoming "transparent" (putting her public life online) is presented as the first step to a consolidation of political power. (There's a terrible scene later involving a plan to use The Circle to register voters.) Neither the film nor the novel mention anyone from the corporate world becoming transparent however, and the failure to address how The Circle could get its advertisers to act against their own self-interest feels like a hole in the story's logic. It's worth pointing out here that Emma Watson plays Mae as eager to please but skeptical, a choice made no doubt to keep audience sympathy even when Mae behaves badly. I wasn't surprised that the filmmakers swapped out the novel's ending, but the ending we get is a nothing. The Circle will keep on largely as before, but it won't do all the stuff that made people uncomfortable.
A running theme throughout The Circle is the lack of privacy in a truly connected world. Sea Change cameras are everywhere at the corporate campus and even in the home of Mae's parents. Her father (the late Bill Paxton in his final film) suffers from MS, and Mae trades away their privacy for a chance to get her parents on the company health plan. Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) is a devout off-the-grid type, and the turning point of the film involves his death during the debut of a new Circle application. Here again real life has overwritten what the film is trying to do. What would happen in the culture if someone's death occurred on Facebook Live? We know now the answer to that question is not very much. While The Circle's ability to collect and consolidate information is presented as a threat to individualism - John Boyega plays a Circle developer who raises privacy concerns - in fact an ascendant Circle would probably almost have to become something like the Facebook described in this article. The Circle would be a media outlet run by people who aren't journalists and vulnerable to being co-opted by forces whose agendas it didn't share. The Circle is vague about where Bailey and his partner (Patton Oswalt) might be going, so much so that the misuse of social media in the 2016 election seems even more horrifying. The people who made The Circle weren't prepared for the truth.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), last seen departing with drug deal profits meant to be shared with his friends, is running on a treadmill at the beginning of T2 Trainspotting. He slips, falls off, and appears to be knocked unconscious, but the moment is never referred to again. The meaning of this sequence is made clear right about the time Mark, who had planned to go back to Amsterdam after visiting Edinburgh for the first time in 20 years, tells his friend Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) that his marriage is over and a merger will soon cost him his job. Mark and his friends are bad at life. Danny Boyle didn't need to make a sequel Trainspotting but he made a good one. T2, while as lively and profane as a fan of the original would hope, is a film about men at a particular season of life in which familiar things are tossed aside like the junked cars piled up outside Simon's pub. There's a plot involving Simon enlisting Mark to help open a brothel for the woman (Anjela Nedyalkova) they're both attracted to, but the best moments of T2 occur when Boyle and writer John Hodge evoke the ghosts of the characters' younger selves. Signature shots (the men on the train platform, Mark almost getting hit by a car) are repeated, and Boyle even digitally integrates images from the original Trainspotting into new footage. (This could easily be unbearable, but it's served up in just the right amount.) It would be hard to better portray "lost time" in visual terms than in the moment that Spud (the excellent Ewen Bremner) sees the younger men chasing each other down the street. Spud is the biggest surprise of T2, the character is now a recovering addict trying to come to terms with fact that others need and want him in the world, and Bremner gives a carefully modulated performance that never asks for our sympathy.
The other major character back in T2 is Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who is the most angry about the money Mark stole 20 years ago. The presence of Begbie means that T2 must climax in violence, and the fight in the not-completed brothel is the most perfunctory part of the film. Boyle tries to inject as much visual energy as he can here and throughout the film with freeze frame, faux old home movies, and surreal touches (a salute to George Best is great fun), but the pleasure of T2 isn't the violence but the sense of Mark and the others gaining just a little bit of purchase on the rest of their lives. T2 can never occupy a cultural moment like the original film did, but it does honor to its source in a way that feels almost old-fashioned.
The Japanese animated film Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, feels very Japanese in its concerns about teenagers transitioning to adulthood, mortality, and the fluidity of time. Your Name was a huge box-office success in Japan, and while that likely won't happen here the film is still worth seeing. The specificity of the world in which Tokyo teenager Taki and the country-raised Mitsuha live is not only a pleasure to look at but also what allows the film to be relatable to a broader audience. Shinkai mostly avoids the expected comedy of what happens when Taki and Mitsuha switch bodies. Your Name is about children turning into grownups in a society that may not have room for them, and the urgency with which Taki and Mitsuha try to discover what is happening to them is rendered with indelible poignancy. The two teens experience their body switching as a series of dreams - they each can't remember the other's name for very long - and that conceit is film's central metaphor. The way that time moves forward while our younger selves constantly recede can feel like a dream, one that Your Name renders with terrific sensitivity and craft.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
Full disclosure: Kaitlyn Eastin is a personal friend.
Science fiction feels like the right genre for these times, for a period in which norms are disappearing in our politics, our culture, and in the way we identify ourselves. Even as norms change basic drives for connection and community still remain, and it's that tension that is at the heart of the three linked short films that Greenville, South Carolina filmmaker Kaitlyn Eastin (aka MJ Slide) has titled The Smoke Trilogy. Eastin wrote and directed all three installments (Catherine Dee Holly is credited as co-director), and in two of them she plays Jules Riley. Jules is a "gardener", a bounty hunter of sorts, paid to find "mods" - synthetic creatures indistinguishable from humans - and "decommission" (turn off) them when their contracts expire. The cost of Jules's work to her soul is a major through line of The Smoke Trilogy. In the first chapter (Smoke Like Echo) Jules must decommission Tess (Rachel Summers), a mod built to resemble Jules's sister Tristan. Smoke Like Echo is a two-hander, a confrontation in the woods that's as much about Tessa's new sentience as it is about Jules's pain. The rest of the trilogy is the road to Jules and Tessa forming their own kind of family in a world that builds people and then throws them away.
It's fun to see Eastin grow in confidence as an actor and director over the three films. Five Point Mend, the second chapter, is a domestic interlude that finds Tessa pondering the future with a human boyfriend named Booth (Fray Forde) and another sentient mod named Moby (Will Crown) who serves as a kind of philosophical guide. The final chapter is called Wide Bent Crowns and it's here that we're really immersed in the world of the series as the now retired Jules must confront a life she thought had been left behind. There's a long take in this last chapter where we hold on Jules at a critical moment, it's a challenge for any actor and Eastin rises to meet it. The direction and editing (by Tori Beach) are faster and more fluid and the final confrontation between Jules and her former employer Dex (Beth Hill Martin) has some genuine emotional stakes. To be clear, The Smoke Trilogy is a dense, somewhat disorienting text that might not pay off narratively after first viewing but that does function as a complete work. The disorientation doesn't feel accidental though; we're being asked to live in the question of just what our humanity is worth. The Smoke Trilogy is to a large degree about the families we choose, and its existence is an example of the creative energy of the place where it was made. I'm happy to champion it as the work of a friend and as a product of Greenville's film community.
Sunday, April 02, 2017
The new Ghost in the Shell arrives as a "problem" film, in this case one in which discussions of representation and appropriation subsume any evaluation of what's actually on screen. Based on the 1995 anime, the new Ghost in the Shell has been on the cultural radar since the casting of white American Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. Motoko, known as "Major", is a mechanized human (a human brain in a constructed body) working as a police officer in near-future Japan. In the new version Major and her team report to Defense Minister Aramaki ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a major cultural figure in Japan) and work to fight illegal hacking of modified humans. Major's closest relationship is with Doctor Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the corporate scientist who designed her and serves as mother figure, but Ouelet's boss Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) views Major only as a weapon and a product.
Ghost in the Shell is working with some fairly sturdy genre tropes about the individual lost in a world where technology encroaches on humanity. There are also ideas about corporate-sponsored authoritarianism in play, though a weird distinction is made between Cutter and his company (evil) and the government (benign) as represented by Aramaki. What director Rupert Sanders and his writers can't do is put us inside the head of someone who doesn't understand what it means to be human. It's a high bar to clear, and we're told repeatedly that Major feels disconnected not only from herself but from those around her. But when Johansson (who plays Major with the correct sense of looking down at herself) walks down the street she could just as well be her character from Lost in Translation. There's a brief interaction between Major and a sex worker (Adwoa Aboah) that feels as if it could go somewhere, but Sanders cuts away as if he were afraid of the moment. What sense there is of Major's distance from the world comes not from writing or acting but largely from design. The urban Japan of the future, seen mostly in daylight to avoid any Blade Runner-style sleekness, is dingy and crowded. If there is space between buildings it is taken up with giant holographic ads, and there's a sense of Major as one more cog in an always humming machine.
Major and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) are in pursuit of a hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who is killing scientists that work for Cutter's company. The unfolding of Kuze's true purpose and of his connection to Major is the most rushed and uncertain part of Ghost in the Shell. There is a mention of an alternate computer network, but it's never explained, and Pitt doesn't get much time to develop a character. Sanders runs into trouble with the revelation of the past that Major and Kuze share. The memory is staged in hazy semi-darkness so Sanders can avoid having to show young Kuze and Motoko as Japanese children, but that choice costs the moment any emotional resonance. That's right, Johansson and Pitt are playing Japanese people kidnapped as children whose brains have been put into constructed white bodies. It's an awkward fact that the film gets around as quickly as possible, though one of the strongest scenes involves a moving Kaori Momoi as Motoko's mother.
It is hard to argue that cultural appropriation within a text mitigates the cultural appropriation of the text's existence, but the absurdity highlights what I think is a somewhat misplaced outrage. Of course white people shouldn't play Japanese people, but Ghost in the Shell concerns a specific universe in which to some humanity is less important than social control. (Draw any parallels to 2017 at your own risk.) "Major" is a construction, a product, and it's as easy to imagine Cutter (a white man) making a thousand more white versions to sell all over the world as it is to imagine him building Japanese or black versions as needed. I don't believe that Johansson's casting is objectively a good or appropriate thing, but it does serve a function within the argument that Ghost in the Shell is making about how it's becoming easier for people to be used as parts in a machine. The "Ghost" of the title refers to the humanity lurking within Major's manufactured body. If Ghost in the Shell doesn't quite work it's ultimately because the film doesn't trust its own dark, strange ghost in favor of something bright, shiny, and obvious.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Dax Shepard played Crosby Braverman, the lovable screw-up brother, on the NBC series Parenthood for six seasons. The role of Crosby gave Shepard a chance to show a broader range than his screen credits (including When in Rome and Let's Go to Prison) had allowed. Shepard was very winning on the show and it seemed to signal a turning point in his career. It's sad news then that with CHiPs, which he also wrote and directed, Dax Shepard has now appeared in two of the worst films I've ever seen. (The other one is this.) CHiPs is based on the late 1970's television series about California Highway Patrol officers; it isn't a show crying out for revival and Shepard may have actually made those who remember it like it less. Rookie officer Jon Baker (Shepard) and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (played by Michael Pena and actually an FBI agent) are thrown together to investigate a series of armored car robberies that may point to a cabal of dirty Highway Patrol officers. Vincent D'Onofrio bellows and lumbers as the lieutenant who Baker and Ponch pursue through a series of surprisingly violent action scenes, but the plot is really just an excuse for the film to achieve an unusual trifecta. CHiPs is not only misogynistic and homophobic, it also hates the straight white men at its center. If you can imagine a world in which adult men are terrified of getting too close to each other in a locker room then you're living in the CHiPs universe. Shepard not only acknowledges gay panic he seems to regard it as a source of the film's comic energy. The women of CHiPs, most notably Kristen Bell as Baker's scheming wife, are uniformly sex-obsessed and there is even a scene in which the "not hot enough" Patrol officers are openly mocked. Baker and Ponch don't get off any better. Baker is an former pro bike rider who's addicted to pain pills and Ponch is a sex addict, and these choices are all the more inexplicable because they aren't paid off or resolved in any way. CHiPs is resolutely unfunny and should be ticketed for not being over soon enough.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) has had it. She is thoroughly tired of the small indignities of everyday life, from being stuck behind a pickup truck that has working smokestacks to being cut in front of at the grocery store to her job as a nurse's assistant who has to hear the (sometimes inappropriate) last words of dying seniors. Simply put, as Ruth tells her friend Angie (Lee Eddy), "Everyone is an asshole." It is this existential frustration that drives I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, the 2017 Sundance Jury prize winner by first time writer/director Macon Blair. Ruth reaches her limit when her home is broken into, and it's what she does next that drives the action of a film best read as a very black comedy about an America most of us don't even brush against. The police are indifferent - a detective (Gary Anthony Williams) on Ruth's case is more concerned with his impending divorce - so Ruth enlists her eccentric neighbor Tony (a very funny Elijah Wood) on a campaign to get her stuff back.
On the surface I Don't Feel at Home looks like some low-budget, neo-Tarantino '90s thriller. There are violent men like Marshall (David Yow) and violent acts on Ruth's path to recovering her laptop, silver service, and medications, but the genre trappings exist just to resolve the story. Melanie Lynskey is superb at playing a very specific kind of unhappiness (see here and here), and Macon Blair knows just how to use that skill to his film's advantage. I Don't Feel at Home is about what happens when Ruth's depressive worldview runs up against something even worse. There is a moment of exhilaration when Ruth tracks down her computer, which has already changed hands once, but it's a fleeting one and doesn't help Ruth's feeling of violation. Later Ruth finds her silver, suffers an injury, and accidentally hurts an old man, and it's that chaos that animates what Blair is doing. The sense that even the smallest effort to get a piece of one's own could lead to suffering is a theme that's only going to get more relevant, and even though Blair shot I Don't Feel at Home months before the 2016 election it's not out of line to call this the first film set in Trump's America.
Blair's script missteps when he tries to create some emotional dynamics among the criminal gang (there are two younger robbers played by Devon Graye and Jane Levy), but he hints at a way out for Ruth when she tries out a ecumenical church that Tony recommends. Don't get the wrong idea, I Don't Feel at Home doesn't have a spiritual message. Religion might provide Ruth with some momentary relief but the grace note of her visiting the church is scored with a vintage Echo & the Bunnymen song. By the end of the film Ruth has begun to find her way back, but the last words Blair chooses to let us hear are those of two men arguing about burgers. The best thing about I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, besides Lynskey's performance, is this tension. There are moments of peace, but there is always a fight somewhere.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Kong: Skull Island takes place mostly in the 1970's, but the new film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a very modern notion of our relationship to cinema's favorite gorilla. There is no capturing Kong and bringing him back to New York in this new Kong. This time we're the monsters, invaders of Kong's home island who will survive only if he allows it. It's 1973, the last days of the Vietnam War. A scientist named Randa (John Goodman) wants federal backing for an exploratory trip to the "uncharted" island that we already know (because of a prologue set in World War II) is home to Kong, who is rendered impressively by the visual effects team. Randa and his team are accompanied by a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson), and the whole group is flown in by soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard is the type of soldier who is disappointed when a war ends, and Jackson plays him with an advanced-level degree of jaw clenching.
As soon as we're told of the plan to drop "seismic charges" on the island it's obvious there's more going on here than pure science. Most of Packard's soldiers - who were only days away from going home - are killed and the leads must find their way to a rendezvous point where they can be rescued. The most entertaining thing about Kong besides the creatures is John C. Reilly as the man who clarifies Kong's role on the island. Reilly brings a broad good humor that's lacking in the rest of the characters, who are busy arguing and searching for weapons. Tom Hiddleston seems bored, but that's because he doesn't have a character to play. Hiddleston functions only as a sort of avatar around which the rest of the characters orient themselves, just as Brie Larson's spiky photographer is nominally an audience surrogate who is asked to do little more than run and jump.
Kong should be the most appealing character in any Kong film, and he certainly is here. The filmmakers succeed in giving him personality and in winning our empathy. The fights between Kong and other creatures have the needed degree of awesomeness, but it's too bad the characters around Kong aren't worth climbing a building for.
Sunday, March 05, 2017
From the opening scene of Logan it is clear we're in unfamiliar territory. Logan (Hugh Jackman) wakes up in the back of a limousine to find a group of men trying to steal his hubcaps. The situation escalates and The Wolverine's claws come out, but if you haven't caught an X-Men film in a little while then you may be surprised by how old and worn Logan looks. The very existence of Logan the film, the latest entry in a multibillion dollar franchise, is the biggest surprise though. Director James Mangold (who also made the previous Wolverine) has made a scaled down superhero film about the seasons of life and the responsibilities that we bear to each other even when mutant powers enter the equation. Logan is something genuinely fresh in the cinema of comic-derived film, a self-contained kind of post-superhero epic that explicitly nods to older forms. The particulars are sketched in quickly: It's 2029 in a world that has largely forgotten about mutants, who we're told are no longer being born. Logan is hiding out in Mexico and caring for the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and driving the limo to make money. The X-Men only survive as characters in comic books, and it's the comics that bring a special young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, good as a child who has never seen the world) into Logan's path.
What plot there is in Logan involves the attempt to take Laura to a (possibly mythical) hideout for young mutants while fleeing from the private army of a company that wants to weaponize mutant children. But Mangold and his co-writers didn't overload the script with monologuing villains - Richard E. Grant actually underplays the evil scientist - or ethical debates. It is hard to think of another comic-derived film that is so concerned with the psychic toll that killing plays on its heroes. Logan is a violent film, and Mangold films Logan and Laura fighting their pursuers in a brutal, close-up style that's just stylized enough to not be unpleasant. Yet there isn't any triumphalism in the violence, and as Logan goes on we realize that for Logan the identity of The Wolverine is like a costume that he can't take off. This notion is made explicit in scene where the characters watch a bit of Shane, a moment that pays off in surprising ways during the final battle. Most of Logan takes place in open Southwestern and Midwestern landscapes, so when the choices of Logan and Xavier (whose powers emerge in frightening seizures) affect those around them the consequences are immediate and specific. It would be unfair to spoil the way that the film brings Logan to a reckoning, but the choice is both a visual treat and dramatically effective. We're watching a film about a man who wants to leave the battlefield but who can't find a path anywhere else.
Hugh Jackman has always been a winning presence, but he has never been quite as committed and soulful as he is here. The emotional range the role of Logan requires is brought into full relief by the script, and Jackman more than delivers. He's not just a terrific superhero - this is first-order acting. Patrick Stewart, playing a dying king, is very much in his element as well. The only thing I don't like about Logan is the possibility that in a few years there will be a new film that renders Logan non-canonical, but until then let's appreciate what we've been given.
Jordan Peele's Get Out involves racism, interracial relationships, betrayal, and shocking behavior masked by privilege, but none of that would matter if it weren't so honest. Peele uses horror tropes because the plot demands it, but this scary enough (and sometimes very funny) first feature is really concerned with the discomfort that Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) feels about meeting the wealthy parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) at their lakeside home. Peele is interested in all of the awkwardness that Chris feels as Rose's father (Bradley Whitford) tries to ingratiate himself and her mother (Catherine Keener) offers to hypnotize him so he'll quit smoking. Then there's the party scene where rich white people ask Chris about his sexual prowess and if he's good at golf. The only non-white guest at that party is a man (Lakeith Stanfield) who seems familiar but doesn't act like himself, and it's at this point that Chris and his friend (Lil Rel Howery, providing fine comic relief) begin to put the horrible pieces together. A film this smart and closely observed heralds a successful writing/directing career for Peele, who here has a strong point to make: We're nowhere near as far along as we should be.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
A Cure for Wellness is a "horror" film only in a nominal sense. The new film directed by Gore Verbinski serves up a platter of mood, production design, imagery, and a too big portion of exposition and then dares us to be scared. The script by Justin Haythe (Haythe and Verbinski share story credit) begins in an almost empty Manhattan office building where a man named Morris suffers a heart attack and dies. Apologies to the actor who played Morris; his name isn't included here as the character's death only matters to the film because it allows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to get a promotion and a corner office at the financial services firm where Morris worked. Lockhart is ambitious and talented but also unscrupulous, since it seems his deals have jeopardized a much-needed merger. As penance to his bosses Lockhart is tasked to Switzerland, where one of the firm's partners (Harry Groener) has suffered a breakdown at a spa. Lockhart's job is to bring the older man back so the merger can be completed.
The bulk of A Cure for Wellness takes place at the spa run by Doctor Vollmer (Jason Isaacs, who between this and The OA is cornering the market on handsome evil). There is a large slab of exposition about the spa's location being where a 200-year old prince with some strange ideas about his heirs faced a peasant revolt, and we get more of the story from a patient (Celia Imrie) that Lockhart meets during one of his many unsuccessful attempts to leave the spa. What exactly is so scary about the spa and its healing waters, surrounded by mountains so beautiful that - according to a girl (Mia Goth) Lockhart meets - "no one ever leaves"? (Also, why is the film 2 and a half hours long?)Haythe's script makes some general statements about the soul-sickness of modern life and the frailty of the body, but the film makes better use out of the ornate and labyrinthine spa set. Lockhart gets lost in a steam bath upon his arrival and later trespasses into restricted corridors that seem to go on forever. A Cure for Wellness mentions The Shining it its ads, and Verbinski at moments is able to wring some scares out of physical space in the same way Kubrick did.
A Cure for Wellness becomes a mystery for Lockhart to solve, and he does so in a climax that shoves together some familiar horror tropes. It all means much less than it might because of the vein of misogyny running through Haythe's script. All the nurses at the spa are blonde and cold, and Goth's character's placement in a pool full of leeches at a key moment is a blunt summation of what's happening on Vollmer's watch. Only Celia Imrie has any fun as a patient who might be crazy, and she isn't onscreen long enough for it to matter. Dane DeHaan as Lockhart is physically right - you believe he might actually be sick - but the character is such a blank that all DeHaan can do is look sweaty and nervous in scene after scene. A Cure for Wellness locates its horror too far in the past and in doing so fatally dilutes its intended effect.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
I never got around to John Wick on its release in 2014. The idea of an action film starring Keanu Reeves that had something to do with a dead dog didn't exactly inspire confidence. Besides we're all busy, right? John Wick of course became a surprise hit, and when I finally saw it I enjoyed the way it used Keanu Reeves's odd intensity and the lengths gone to in order to create the film's insular, assassins-only universe. Here we are then with John Wick Chapter 2, with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returning. (For the story of how Stahelski went from stuntman to director, go here.) Keanu Reeves is back too of course, and the opening sequence of Chapter 2 finds Wick cleaning up business from the first film involving yet another Russian gangster (Peter Stormare) and possession of a certain vintage car. As in the first Wick Stahelski shoots action in wide shot, letting performance do the work as opposed to editing. Characters run at John Wick from all directions, and are dispatched with a gunshot, knife, or martial arts move, and Wick doesn't come through unscathed either.
Watching both John Wick "chapters" within a week produces a kind of exhilarating deadness, a state in which one both admires the technical skill and spatial coherence on display in the shootouts and grows tired of how inconsequential the gunplay feels. Part of the fun of the first John Wick was figuring out the rules that the characters operated under. The gold coins, the always on call cleanup crew, the cop (Thomas Sadoski) who's both indifferent to and fascinated by what's happening, and especially the hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane, back for Chapter 2 in an expanded role) all set boundaries for the film's moral universe. The fact that nothing in the first John Wick after the home invasion seemed to have any real world consequences gave a kind of permission to enjoy that film's succession of shootouts and betrayals, and we could feel comfortable knowing that at least some rules - no killing at the hotel - did apply. John Wick Chapter 2 attempts to build that idea out with unfortunate results.
So, what is John Wick Chapter 2 "about"? The plot involves an old debt of Wick's and an Italian named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants a seat at the "High Table", which seems to be the worldwide governing council of assassins. Wick is forced to shoot his way out of Italian catacombs and knife his way out of a subway car, and the closer that Wick and his adversaries - there are extended fights with characters played by Common and a silent Ruby Rose - get to the "real world" the more uneasy the film becomes. When Wick fights a man on Italian streets there's not a civilian to be found, but when the story returns to New York there are action scenes in public spaces, and the shakiest moment involves Wick quietly exchanging silenced gunfire with Common's character over the heads of an unwitting crowd. Either the behavior in Chapter 2 means something or it doesn't, and the use of extras only as obstacles creates a sour aftertaste. It is also worth mentioning at this point how boring much of Chapter 2 is. Characters take exaggerated pauses between lines, the initial setup is very slow, and time is wasted explaining the attributes of various weapons that could have been spent on the power structure of the world we're in. Why isn't McShane's Winston afraid of the High Table? Who is the character played by Laurence Fishburne other than a man who turns up at just the right moment to provide Wick the help he needs?
The climactic shootout of Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors, which is as close as the film gets to having any of its characters look at themselves. There's an epilogue of sorts which suggests that Wick will be in hell soon if he isn't already there, and I hope that if there's a third Wick chapter the filmmakers will commit to grounding the story in a way they couldn't pull off here. Free John Wick!
Sunday, February 05, 2017
Why does the film Lion have its title? The reason isn't revealed until the end credits, but by then it almost doesn't matter. This Best Picture-nominated story of survival and of finding one's place in the world is so urgently acted and skillfully shot that we would go along with almost any title we were given. Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly - the film is based on his memoir - who when we meet him is a five year old in India in 1986. Saroo is played as a child by Sunny Pawar, an exceptionally natural performer who is perhaps the film's greatest asset. An accident sends Saroo by train from his rural village to faraway Calcutta, where he neither knows anyone nor speaks the language. The Calcutta train station is shot by director Garth Davis as a nightmare of human activity. Bodies flow in waves and bounce off of each other, and because Davis finds a visual language to match Saroo's experience we barely see the grown-up faces. Saroo doesn't understand everything that is happening to him but his instincts serve him well. He manages to hold his own long enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a kindly Australian couple.
The first half of Lion is a Dickensian tale of courage, but once Sue and John have adopted Saroo's angrier brother Manosh the film cuts to the late 2010's. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, is a student with a new girlfriend called Lucy (Rooney Mara) and career prospects. One day Saroo and Lucy have dinner at the home of an Indian classmate; the evening is convivial until someone comments on how Saroo (who hasn't shared his story with the others) can't eat Indian food with his hands and a childhood memory is triggered. The second half of Lion is an of-the-moment tale of asserting one's identity. Saroo, encouraged by Lucy, begins trying to figure out where his home village is via Google Earth. The two shakiest moments in Lion occur after Saroo - whose search seems to take over his life - begins looking for his home. Saroo gives a speech to Lucy that invokes "privilege" which seems to come out of nowhere, while Kidman's Sue recounts a childhood incident that led to her forgoing having children in favor of raising a "brown-skinned child". Both of these scenes are redeemed by strong acting - Dev Patel has never been this forceful on screen - and they hint at a direction the movie fortunately doesn't go in, one in which Saroo's Indian heritage is interesting simply because it's unfamiliar to Western eyes. The screenplay by Luke Davies pulls back though, and the resolution to Saroo's journey is very moving. Lion works because it is content to keep things on a human level and not mythologize either its characters or its setting. It's also a good story well told, and that in itself makes it worth the experience.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, is the story of African-American women working at NASA in the early 1960's and the contributions that they made to America's space program. The three women at the center of the film are all historically important and are acted with great energy, but Melfi and cowriter Allison Schroeder (working from a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly) have chosen to tell their story in the most crowd-pleasing way possible. Hidden Figures reduces its characters to just that - figures - and the film's self-satisfaction about their triumphs saps the moral urgency that could have provided a dramatic shape. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, cast against type) is introduced in prologue as a math prodigy, and her abilities soon land her a position as a "computer" (someone who makes mathematical calculations and checks others work) on the team working to put an American in Earth orbit. White colleagues like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and project head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) tolerate Katherine at first but her talents soon reveal themselves, and I wish that Melfi and Schroeder could have found a way to demonstrate how much Johnson's mathematical ability added to NASA efforts. Instead we get numerous scenes of Katherine writing numbers on a chalkboard while her colleagues look on and, in the film's worst scene, Henson has to give a loud speech about segregated bathrooms to her boss in front of a room full of scientists. Perhaps some version of this happened but the scene plays like an on-the-nose movie moment as opposed to a human moment. Whenever a white character at NASA is called on their racism they go to a default setting of grudging respect, so Katherine's speech is immediately followed by Costner's character tearing down a "Colored Restroom" sign.
While Katherine is helping put John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space we also follow her friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Both Spencer and Monae lend their roles a simmering anger that Hidden Figures needed more of, but their stories are rounded off at the corners. Vaughan is portrayed as the only person who can get NASA's new IBM computer to work, and Jackson (who Monae plays with wonderful charisma) wins a court case to be allowed to study engineering. The white characters standing in opposition, including a supervisor played by Kirsten Dunst, aren't much more than placeholders and Hidden Figures rolls to a stop by scrolling through a litany of details about the considerable amount that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson achieved in their careers. Hidden Figures is a welcome addition to our understanding of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960's, but it needed more than good intentions.
When Clint Eastwood's Sully begins it seems to be about the way that America loves to chew up and spit out its heroes. It's 2009 and Captain "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is being celebrated for landing a passenger plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike with no loss of life. Yet Sully is haunted by what could have happened - Eastwood alludes to 9/11 in the imagery of Sully's nightmares - and the NTSB investigators think he could have made it safely back to a runway. Sully the film is really a celebration of doing one's job well; the film turns on the idea that Sully and his first officer (Aaron Eckhart) needed time to summon their experience before reacting to an unexpected situation. Tom Hanks as Sully is a triumph of self-effacement, and Eastwood wisely doesn't overexplain the seriousness of the situation on board the flight or the level of complexity and improvisation needed to bring the plane down safely. It isn't easy to dramatize thinking on screen, but Eastwood and Hanks here find a way to make it vital.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Mike Mills's 20th Century Women is based on memories of the director's mother, here called Dorothea and played by Annette Bening with a wonderful dry steeliness. Dorothea grew up during the Depression - 20th Century Women is set in 1979 California - and her childhood informs both her resolve as a single mother and her confusion over the way her 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is growing away from her. Mills got his start as a designer of album covers and director of music videos, disciplines which require a certain economy, yet as a director (here and in 2010's Beginners) he's not afraid to be discursive. Dorothea takes in boarders to pay the bills, and punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup, terrific and funny as a man too sensitive for his own good) are a part of Jamie's everyday life. Abbie, William, and Jamie's friend Julie (Elle Fanning) - who spends many nights sleeping platonically in Jamie's bedroom - are each given their own inner lives and all five main characters share in the narration. 20th Century Women is a notebook of incident and memory but it's a well-organized one, as tightly structured as an emotionally resonant bullet journal.
What "plot" 20th Century Women contains come from Dorothea's feeling that she doesn't know how to prepare Jamie for the next phase of his life. She enlists Julie (who is a critical couple of years older than Jamie) and Abbie's help with Jamie's education, hoping that as a trio the three women can prepare him to be a good man. Elle Fanning plays Julie with a sadness that she doesn't usually get to show in other roles; it's a kind of well-meaning self-absorption. Julie, the daughter of a therapist, is unhappy about her own life but not shy about talking to others in therapy-speak. Mills could have pushed these two towards a romance but instead makes Julie's selfishness - she won't face the fact Jamie loves her - an engine for Jamie's growing up. We learn all the characters' fates at the end of 20th Century Women, but Julie's is the most unresolved. Greta Gerwig's Abbie takes a different approach: She starts a running dialogue with Jamie about feminism and punk rock, two subjects that animate her life. The film does a beautiful job wringing poignancy but not sentiment from the late punk years, which Dorothea tells us will come to a close with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mills finds beauty in the image of bodies bouncing off each other at a show and great humor in Dorothea and William trying to sing along to a Black Flag song. It's all an outlet for Abbie, who uses punk to work out the emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis. Again, Mills gives a very good actress a chance to change how we think of her. Greta Gerwig is a peerless comedienne but in 20th Century Women she gets to be angry, pointed, afraid, and (because the writing is so good) a very specific kind of adult. It's a performance that's good enough for a spot in awards conversation alongside Bening, not to mention a sign of a career reaching new heights of depth and maturity.
20th Century Women would be just a cute trick with its montages of vintage punk photos and period black-and-white shots if it weren't for Annette Bening. Calling acting "brave" is always a tricky thing, but this film succeeds because Bening plays Dorothea as a 55-year old lower middle class mother and nothing more. Dorothea doesn't know she's a hero, and the tension between Bening's natural indomitability and the family's fragile circumstances is very moving. As Jamie reads his mother passages from feminist works Dorothea begins to consider her own emotional needs for the first time in a long while. Bening only gets a few moments alone in the film, but of course she's good enough to convey what's going on in Dorothea's head with just a look. The lives of Dorothea, Jamie, and the other characters don't stop when 20th Century Women ends. This is personal material and Mills is too honest to try to impose a dramatic shape. Dorothea's fate is delivered in a single line of narration because to handle it another way, a flash forward or end titles, would violate the film's gorgeous specificity. We come of age one day at a time, and 20th Century Women is a coming-of-age story in the best sense. This is the story of that time a few women and a few words changed everything.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Rodrigues and Garupe are welcomed by villagers but still forced to live like outlaws, hiding during the day and only saying mass after dark. Ferreira is elusive, only a rumor (when he finally arrives Neeson gives the kind of performance no one has asked him for in some time), and Rodrigues feels the lack of a larger divine presence as a test of his faith. It's useful to think about the set of principles for living that one might call "Christian" as something separate from the doctrine and dogma of "The Church" in Silence, and a question the film puts to the viewer is what The Church has to offer in real terms when people are being oppressed. When the local Governor (Issey Ogata) arrests a group of men who had sheltered Rodrigues and Garupe the two can only hide and watch in horror. The two are upset as men but ineffectual in their official role, and Silence frequently puts Rodrigues (who soon separates from Garupe) in the position of watching and being unable to act. It's an unusual state for the main character of a film to be in, but Andrew Garfield makes it work by giving Rodrigues a careful internal arc of doubt and regret. Garfield spends much of the film with a beard and long hair that's untied; it's worth noting how empty he looks when forced to appear clean shaven later on. The hair is just a clue to what's going on with the character: we're watching a man crumble from the inside when his lived experience comes into conflict with faith.
When Rodrigues is captured with another group of Japanese Christians he is kept in a separate cell and treated reasonably well. It's assumed he'll save his fellow prisoners by becoming an apostate, and Silence pauses to consider why he doesn't. There's an argument made that human vanity keeps one from living a Christian life, or in other words that Rodrigues needs to see himself as adhering to a doctrine to such a degree that it keeps him from a truly Christian action. This seems a very Eastern idea and Scorsese lets it ride, having great sympathy for the selfless Japanese Christians while trapping Rodrigues in the consequences of his own behavior. Martyrdom doesn't come easy in Silence. The complexity of the film is attested to by the fact that an audience of any degree of faith will find something in the work, from the constant faith of the villager Mokichi (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) to Rodrigues and his confusion at God's inaction. Scorsese can't answer all the questions raised by Silence and he doesn't have to. The film is a late work in the best sense, not a summing up but an asking of deeper questions. While Martin Scorsese will no doubt turn to more familiar stories in future projects he has done some of his best work here, creating a work of great richness that deserves deeper study.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Damien Chazelle's La La Land was written before the writer/director made the Oscar-winning Whiplash, and indeed La La Land has the markings of an early, youthful work in which emotion trumps ideas and what themes there are come at us in a loud, declamatory style. La La Land is the story of the love affair between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an actress and a musician who meet in Los Angeles and begin a relationship with each other after half the film is over. Both Mia and Sebastian are trying to ignore the fact that their dreams are headed for a reckoning. Mia, who by day serves coffee on a studio lot, is growing tired of auditions that lead nowhere while Sebastian can't sacrifice his ideals about jazz long enough to open the old-fashioned club he imagines. Yes, jazz. If you saw Whiplash you may remember that Chazelle's idea of becoming a true artist involves the mastery of old forms. We see Sebastian playing along to old records and dragging Mia to a club, but it isn't clear that he has much drive to make new music that deviates from a kind of 1950's-'60's idea of good jazz. In other words, Sebastian could have been played by Ken Burns.
La La Land is strangely conservative in its idea of how people become successful or influential in creative fields. Sebastian is challenged on his musical principles by a friend (John Legend) who hires him for a slick fusion project that becomes improbably successful. The argument that Legend's character makes is that being too devoted to the past makes it harder to change the future, and he's right. There is no chance that Sebastian will "save" jazz just by opening a club, and I'm not sure La La Land is really a "musical" just because its characters sometimes burst into song. The two large-scale opening numbers testify to the glory and possibility of Los Angeles; they have some energy but after that none of the songs feel necessary and neither Gosling nor Stone is confident enough in what they're doing to make them work on personality alone. Ryan Gosling is a particular disappointment if you enjoyed his work in The Big Short or The Nice Guys, because the framework of the film doesn't allow for the wicked comedy that Gosling is capable of. Emma Stone fares somewhat better and she's really what makes La La Land worth sitting through if anything does. There isn't anyone in movies I'd rather watch ironic-dance to a Flock of Seagulls song, and Mia is the more active of the two main characters. She writes a one-woman show for herself that no one comes to and she seems to at least have an idea of what she is and isn't capable of relative to the business she's in. Stone is just as tentative as Gosling in performing the songs though, and that tentative quality is matched by the songs themselves because they provide insight into the characters in only the most general terms.
The climax of La La Land is a dance sequence that imagines an alternate future for the characters. It's visually inventive and stylized in a way the rest of the film isn't, save for a number at the Griffith Observatory that would have been more delightful were it not an explicit Rebel Without a Cause homage. Even though I don't think La La Land works - it's paced much too slowly, for another thing - this final sequence demonstrates that Chazelle might have a musical in him if he can dream bigger and get other forms of music out of the way for a second. In other words, don't make a jazzical. La La Land looks set set to receive a number of awards in days to come, but like Sebastian's jazz it's only an imitation of something brighter.
Ben Affleck's dull Live by Night spends a great deal of time explaining how a thief named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes to be the enemy of an Irish gangster (Robert Glenister) and the ally of an Italian gangster (Remo Girone) in 1920's Boston. Most of the film - adapted by Affleck from a Dennis Lehane novel - actually takes place in Florida, where Joe becomes a rum kingpin as an agent of the Italian crime syndicate. The central idea at play is that Joe secretly wants to be punished for his crimes, but the script and Affleck's performance never really lets us into Joe's head to find out. (Affleck as Joe provides an on-the-nose narration.) When trouble comes it comes in the form of characters played by Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher, and Elle Fanning, who as a teenaged evangelist has one great scene of self-awareness. I don't know what to make of the fact these characters are all members of one family, but the plot winds on and actors like Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, and Chris Messina (who seems to have based his performance on characters in older gangster movies) are introduced and then put on the sidelines. Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's first Lehane adaptation, suffered from plot issues but had energy and pace. Live by Night feels like a step backward; it's a musty museum piece that is never more than what's right in front of us.