Sunday, December 31, 2017

All the Money in the World/The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World gained a certain notoriety in the fall of 2017, when just weeks before the release date Scott reshot a significant portion of the film with Christopher Plummer stepping into the role of J. Paul Getty in place of the disgraced Kevin Spacey. All the Money in the World is the story of the 1973 kidnapping of Getty's grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation) and of Getty's initial refusal to pay the ransom. The early scenes are a quick primer on how J. Paul Getty made his fortune in oil, and these early shots are really the only part of the film where digital sleight of hand is evident both in Christopher Plummer's insertion into shots and in making him look younger. (Christopher Plummer is 88 years old, and J. Paul Getty was 83 when he died.) Young Paul Getty is in Rome because his father John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) has been given a job in the Getty Oil empire that he doesn't want and isn't prepared for, but the dominant presence in Paul's life is that of his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). By the time of the kidnapping Gail and Getty II were divorced, and it is Harris - who describes herself as "not a real Getty" - who must prevail upon her former father-in-law for help.

The kidnapping of Paul Getty takes place against the background of 1970's European political terrorism and kidnapping for profit. David Scarpa's screenplay (based on a book by John Pearson) doesn't go into much detail about the kidnappers' non-financial motivation, but these kidnappers are a fairly haphazard group. Paul forms a tentative bond with Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who is the just the first of the group to accidentally let Paul see his face. It's just such an error that leads the police to raid the spot where Paul is being held, but by that point he has been sold to a businessman (Marco Leonardi) who wants to use Paul as a way to his grandfather's fortune. The procedural parts of All the Money in the World are well-executed but feel familiar: there are scenes of Gail confronting the Italian police and arguing with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-CIA operative hired by J. Paul Getty to find his grandson. The details of the case and of Paul's captivity - save for a frightening scene of mutilation - could be drawn from any number of movies, and the phone calls between Gail and Cinquanta function as exposition more than as a way to build character or tension. The film works much better as a study of privilege, with Christopher Plummer excellent as a man who views people as assets and a historically unequaled fortune as a perilous financial situation. It would have been very easy given the time constraints of the reshoots for J. Paul Getty to have come off as a cartoon, but Plummer achieves so much more by doing less. Michelle Williams is equally good as Gail, a woman of nominal privilege - no one believes she can't get the ransom money - who in fact is almost powerless to help her son. It is Gail who first pushes her husband to appeal to J. Paul Getty for a job and she is delighted when one comes through, but after the divorce Gail must play a different game with the Getty family and Williams gives her a scrappiness that makes the second half of the movie hang together emotionally. She also isn't afraid to make Gail unsympathetic, and pulls off a scene where Gail complains that people don't believe she isn't rich. Ridley Scott doesn't skimp on the irony of where Gail finds herself in the end, when she appears to get something that she thought she wanted all along.

All the Money in the World is a strongly acted film that doesn't quite transcend its crime-movie frame, but in telling Gail's story it does have something to say about money both as a means of access and of control. While the film will get outsized attention because of scandal, it works as a smart entertainment that deserves to be seen.

Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a sculptor, but not as well-known as his friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch). He's also a father, but not as naturally as his sons Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Danny (Adam Sandler) are to their children. Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)is the story of what happens when Matthew, Danny, and their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) must confront their aging father with all of their ambivalence and love. Baumbach has always been interested in self-centered, irascible fathers and their emotionally stunted children, but in Meyerowitz he tempers the angst with a humor that feels closer to recent work like Mistress America. Arguments and awkward encounters are cut away from abruptly, and while Stiller and Sandler are playing fully realized characters they also get to indulge their talents for physical comedy. A medical crisis brings the family together in the film's second half, including Danny's daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) and Harold's wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). If The Squid and the Whale is a touchstone film on living through one's parents divorcing, then here Baumbach is equally good on how divorce affects adult children. (I can't recall a film so specific about what it means to have a half-sibling.) Old resentments return and traumas are recalled, but Meyerowitz isn't a film about not being able to outrun the past. There is a life ahead for the Meyerowitz children, and it begins with something as simple as Jean's new haircut or Danny's attraction to a woman (Rebecca Miller) he knew as a child. By the end both Harold and his work are in a sense filed away, and the Meyerowitz kids are racing towards the middle of their lives.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Winter catch-up: The Last Jedi and The Disaster Artist (mild spoilers)

As we come to the end of 2017, my joy in one particular strand of cultural conversation remains unabated. Whenever people - for the sake of argument we'll call them "White men" - collectively freak out on social media because a new film doesn't look enough like they think it should, I am delighted. When I was in elementary school I took great pleasure in coming home in the afternoons and watching reruns of the Adam West Batman television show. The Batman series was art-directed within an inch of its life, used animated words ("Pow!") on the screen during fight scenes, and featured a rotating cast of villains including Julie Newmar as Catwoman and Otto Preminger as one of three actors to play "Mr. Freeze". I loved the show, but in time the reruns were taken away and my interests changed; if memory serves there was a Diff'rent Strokes phase. When the first Tim Burton Batman film came out, I was 15. The color scheme was different, Bruce Wayne had a girlfriend, Prince did the music, and there was an appealing idea ("Bruce Wayne is weird, right?") unspoken in the film that the series wouldn't have recognized. Had Twitter or Reddit been available, it is hard to imagine that I would have run to social media to start petitions or claim that my childhood had been violated. Instead I marked the Batman film as something I enjoyed but was slightly too old for and moved on.

One of my first (pre-Batman) memories is the opening of the original Star Wars. Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the pinnacle of childhood-ruining media, at least until someone doubles down and gender-swaps Stranger Things. In continuing the story of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, excellent), Johnson exhibits a refreshing disdain for the Jedi/Dark Side binary that has roiled social media but that actually signifies a turn towards a darker and more adult Star Wars universe. Johnson also doesn't care much about the fan theories that animated discussion in the two years since The Force Awakens. The questions of Rey's parentage and of the agenda and identity of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) are summarily answered, but they don't function as engines to move the story forward. I'd argue that - on a thematic level at least- the most important part of The Last Jedi involves the thief played by Benicio Del Toro and the moment that he reveals to Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (winning newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) that the ship they've stolen belonged to an arms dealer who serviced both the First Order and The Resistance. We've already heard from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that the Jedi order needs to die, but it's in the scene on the ship where Johnson does away with the idea of "good" and "bad" characters in this universe that we've all grown up with. A film that I didn't expect The Last Jedi to evoke for me was Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer, a much more tightly constructed work in which heroes and villains matter far less than the facts that we all live in the same moral universe and must relate to structures of power in our own ways. The entire question of the Jedi Order and whether they accomplished anything at all could serve as the basis for a film that will never be made, but the conceit that their teachings are an unquestioned path towards goodness is shoved aside in the "training" scenes between Luke and Rey and more importantly in the multiple flashbacks to Luke's fateful encounter with Kylo Ren. Depending on which version you believe, the Jedi and their ways are either too easily turned away from or simply outmoded. These are daring stances for a Star Wars director to take, but Johnson doesn't compromise.

The Last Jedi is the most visually beautiful Star Wars film. There is a shot late in the film of Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, given much to do) looking out over a desolate planet that sums up the last forty years of life in this world. Two separate acts of heroism by Resistance fighters are called out, one at the end of a thrilling action scene and the other as a stylized moment of frozen horror. The climax occurs on a planet where the red dust that the battle sweeps up is a symbol of the human cost of war. Rian Johnson won't - and shouldn't - direct every future Star Wars film, but The Last Jedi serves notice that franchise films can be heightened, and do (or not do) fan service, and still look great with the right director. The next installment of the "Skywalker" Star Wars films will, it is said, be the last. It will answer questions and tie up stories, but the series is already moving on into a rich world of complication and human conflict that will also, you know, determine the future of the galaxy. There is already a much larger discussion being had about how social media can amplify the toxic nature of fandom, but if a certain backward-looking segment of the Star Wars audience isn't along for the ride then so be it. Enjoy that "Young Han Solo" movie, guys.

Shout out to the guy sitting in front of us at The Disaster Artist. He quoted lines and guy-splained to his friends that James Franco's new film is the story of the making of the celebrated 2003 film The Room, often hailed as one of the worst films ever made. Franco directs and also plays Tommy Wiseau, the inexplicably wealthy and not self-aware director and star of The Room. I wonder if the guy in front of us would have reacted on first viewing The Room the same way as the audience at the premiere scene did in The Disaster Artist. The audience, heavily made up of people who've worked on The Room is at first horrified by the technical incompetence but almost instantly switches gears and begins to cheer for the film as an object of ironic adoration. In this version of events, Wiseau likewise is brought round to the idea that his film will live in infamy even before the premiere is over, in a moment that plays as wish fulfillment. Franco's performance is a skilled imitation, but since no one has ever been able to figure out Wiseau the man the character doesn't have much of a soul. Still we do have The Room, which I knew little about going in. Loving derision is a valid response to art, but watching the object of that derision created doesn't make a good film. I hope the guy in front of us enjoyed it.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

What kind of art do we need right now? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the English and Irish playwright (The Pillowman) turned filmmaker. Whether or not McDonagh intended his film to be of this moment, Three Billboards arrives in a year when the prejudices of established power structures and the behavior of police and other civil institutions are at the forefront of cultural conversation in America. McDonagh addresses those subjects with the same bitten-off, hard-won humor and spurts of violence that will seem familiar to those who know his work. Three Billboards sees an America roiling with tension and bitterness over differences in race and class, and also makes room for characters facing more existential problems in their own lives. One such character is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who when we meet her is a few months past the rape and murder of her daughter Angela. No arrests have been made, so one day Mildred - using money from the sale of her ex-husband's tractor - rents three billboards to post a message calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress on the case. Willoughby is a beloved figure in Ebbing, and the billboards are perceived as an attack on the very goodness of the town itself. Mildred, who seems to have few interactions with people other than her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is dismissed as a woman driven mad by loss.

Three Billboards wants to be many things, but it isn't especially interested in being a mystery. Willoughby is sincere in his sympathy for Mildred and in his desire to solve the case, but all leads have run cold and there is no new evidence coming in. McDonagh is more interested in observing the town's underlying civic order and pointing out how close it is to slipping away. Willoughby can pacify Mildred - in the moment - while also controlling the racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), but we find out in an early scene that the Chief has been diagnosed with cancer and that the prognosis isn't good. As Willoughby's energy fades the rest of Ebbing becomes more and more chaotic. All of this would be much more trenchant if McDonagh weren't enjoying himself so much. To answer the question I put at the beginning of this review, a kind of art that feels less necessary these days involves Europeans broadly characterizing American mores. McDonagh's natural theatricality makes Three Billboards feel like a broad swipe at American culture from someone who doesn't really want to get too close to it. McDonagh isn't interested in social realism, the Ebbing of this film never feels very much like a real place. Key locations like the police station and the office where Mildred rents the billboards from a nervous young man (Caleb Landry Jones) are across the street from each other, creating a convenient stage for two of the film's most violent scenes. Much attention is paid to shots of blood, such as in Mildred's altercation with a dentist and (in a moment that feels very false) Willoughby yanking out his Iv in the hospital. McDonagh lingers on a shot of Harrelson's blood on a hospital wall as if to say that we're all one bad doctor's visit away from the same fate.

Frances McDormand is as much of a spitfire as one might expect in Three Billboards, never compromising on Mildred's anger while also finding moments of dark humor. A flashback points out that Mildred maybe wasn't such a great parent, and McDormand plays Mildred's confrontations with her ex-husband (John Hawkes) with just the right level of resentment and fear. A less successful subplot involves Mildred crossing paths with a character played by Peter Dinklage, and McDonagh isn't shy about people using the word "midget". Neither McDormand nor Dinklage really look like they know what their scenes should be. The best casting decision McDonagh made though was Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby. Harrelson gets to play a wonderful warmth with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and children while projecting a kind of basic American competence on the job. (Abbie Cornish is actually a distraction as Willoughby's wife, she forgoes an American accent and I didn't believe Willoughby would have fallen for her.) But McDonagh wants to place heavy symbolic weight on what happens to Willoughby, and it's more than the film can bear. In its second half Three Billboards becomes more interested in Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon, and McDonagh's broad take on the character as a blight on the American grain shifts the film into an almost operatic gear of social satire. Dixon is a showy role and Rockwell's performance matches the film tonally, but McDonagh is only nominally interested in the character's possible redemption. Willoughby has been reduced to a guiding spirit at this point, giving everyone instructions, and while he offers Dixon some hope the end of the film suggests that violence is Dixon's only way of really relating to others. The character's racism is situational - offhand references to torture and an insertion of the N-word - and the script doesn't take the time to show how Dixon's racial attitudes and relative power might do more insidious work upon the lives of Ebbing's residents of color. Of whom there appear to be about four. Martin McDonagh is more interested as a writer in the havoc people can wreak than in the way that individuals rub up against institutions, and it's that misplaced emphasis that reduces Three Billboards to well-acted curiosity.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Novitiate/Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Novitiate is set in the 1960's, at a time when the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II") was reforming and liberalizing the practices of the Catholic Church. Vatican II put Catholics on either side of a divide, depending on one's views. The changes involving saying Mass in vernacular languages and acknowledging the beliefs of non-Catholics either seemed like a welcome engagement with modernity or an unforgivable dilution of the Church's authority. Maggie Betts, here writing and directing her first feature, puts her characters right in front of the coming change and lets them figure out who they want to be in a post-Vatican II world. Cathleen (introduced as a child and played as a young woman by Margaret Qualley) discovers the Church as a girl while in the company of her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen's father is barely a presence in her life, and to Nora's surprise she finds great comfort in the nuns like Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell) who are teachers at her new school. A teenaged Cathleen proclaims her desire to become a nun, and the rest of Novitiate takes place at the convent where Cathleen becomes a postulant under the supervision of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

In Betts's script, becoming a nun is an end in itself. Cathleen and her fellow postulants refer to themselves as being "in love" with God, and Betts calls out the bridal imagery in the scene where the girls finish their time as postulants and enter their novitiate. The film doesn't place the idea of being a nun in any context, and it isn't clear why Cathleen is attracted to the possibility of life inside the convent more than the idea of serving as a teacher like Sister Margaret. Maybe that's why even though Margaret Qualley so thoroughly commits to the idea of Cathleen as swooning and God-struck, her performance feels so stifled. It's hard to express what Cathleen and the girls are striving towards in dramatic terms, so Betts keeps breaking away from the postulants to comment on Church politics. Melissa Leo plays Reverend Mother as a fountain of barely suppressed rage, first at the perceived insubordination of the young teacher Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron, who gets some Malick-style voice over that the film then forgets about) and then at the Archbishop (Denis O'Hare) who mansplains Vatican II to her. Again there's a lack of context here. Reverend Mother tells the postulants that the Church has given her her "work", but we never see the character do anything but find other people inadequate. It's in the scene with the Archbishop - O'Hare nails the character's sanctimony - that I think Novitiate gets confused about what it's doing. Reverend Mother clearly finds many of the Vatican II changes too liberal, and in fact she hasn't even told the other nuns about them. But when confronted by the Archbishop she is also angry that women weren't included in the Vatican's process.  That thing you did that I don't like? It's also sexist. If the end titles of Novitiate are to be believed, we have actually been watching a film about the Catholic Church's betrayal of nuns. As Cathleen and the others prepare for another set of vows they notice the convent seems emptier, and we're told that the mid-1960's was a time of nuns' departure from the Church at historic levels. If we're to take the scene in which Reverend Mother tells the older nuns - who are never individualized - as as a dramatization of Betts's views on Vatican II, then Novitiate reads as an unhappy and backward-looking film. Cathleen and her sisters deserved better.

The actor Griffin Dunne has made a documentary about his aunt Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist probably best known now for her writings on grief. The film Lady Bird opens with an acerbic Didion quote about life in her hometown of Sacramento, and fortunately Dunne was able to put more of Didion's sensibility on screen with an extended interview. Though readers may be most familiar with Didion's book about her late husband John Gregory Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking), Didion is no sentimentalist and has a journalist's eye for the telling detail. Didion describes a famous moment - encountering a child whose mother had given her LSD - depicted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as "gold", and it's this detachment that makes it clear at once why Didion is a great writer and what it must have been like to live with her in the 1970's. Dunne skillfully weaves together news clips and the testimonials of colleagues (Calvin Trillin, Hilton Als), but the interview with Didion is the film's center. Worn by time and opened up by loss, Didion - now 82 - is lively but clearly preoccupied by work already done as a writer, wife, and mother. (Didion's adopted daughter Quintana died in 2005.) The greatest achievement of The Center Will Not Hold is to make the woman shown receiving a medal from President Obama seem beautifully and honestly human.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is a startlingly assured directorial debut, and it certainly deserves a place in the conversation about the best American films of 2017. Gerwig, who also wrote the script, has made a film that succeeds in both being a first-rate coming of age comedy and also a moving character piece about a parent and a child coming to understand each other. Sacramento, 2002: Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who has dubbed herself "Lady Bird", is entering her senior year at a private Catholic girls school. Lady Bird is smart but an underachiever in the classic mode, more likely to declare her plans to go to college somewhere in the East where "writers live in the woods" than to actually make a plan to achieve that goal. When Lady Bird isn't vexing her mother Marion (an excellent Laurie Metcalf) by jumping out of moving cars she is hanging out with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and - on a whim - auditioning for the Sondheim musical that her school is producing with the boys from the neighboring school. Lady Bird is an episodic film, one that conveys the late teenage feeling of moments piling up without resorting to sentiment or cliche. The plot unfolds over Lady Bird's senior year, one in which she meets a boy she loves and then entertains the possibility of someone new. But to dwell on the story would be to reduce Lady Bird to the sum of its events. This is very much a movie about self-discovery. Saoirse Ronan is capable of great poise as an actor (Brooklyn, Atonement), but she is warm and open here even in the scenes where she's fighting with her mother. Those fights reveal just how much each woman needs the other to understand her, and they also serve as Lady Bird's unsentimental education in adult problems. Lady Bird's parents are dogged by money worries - Tracy Letts is Lady Bird's loving but sad father - and Lady Bird's first reaction is to gravitate towards wealthier classmates like Danny (Lucas Hedges) or the popular Jenna (Odeya Rush). As in any teenage movie things don't turn out as planned, and Lady Bird is confronted with her parents' problems as the possibility of college in the East becomes more real and her relationship with Howard Zinn reading rich kid Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) begins to slip away.

With a sharp script and actors as good as Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who has a stunner of a long take as Lady Bird prepares to leave for college, Lady Bird could have been above average even with less confident direction. But what a pleasure to see how cinematic a naturalistic film about people talking can be. The script clues you into what it's doing with a pair of scenes that Gerwig places next to each other. Danny breaks down as he confesses a secret to Lady Bird, who can only offer comfort in return. Gerwig then cuts to a conversation between Marion, a psychiatric nurse, and Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Father Leviatch is the beloved drama teacher who led the school production of Merrily We Roll Along but has left without explanation before the spring production of The Tempest. (He is replaced by the football coach.) In just a few lines, Gerwig establishes that Father Leviatch is suffering from a severe depression and that she intuitively understands how to help him. This scene isn't necessary for the plot - we never see Leviatch again - but it connects Marion to Lady Bird in ways that neither character will ever speak of. Both women are full of a great love, but sometimes their expectations of this world don't match their reality. Gerwig later treats this idea of disappointment with some playfulness, in a scene where Marion and Lady Bird attend open houses together. Lady Bird is learning to see all kinds of people for who they are over her senior year, from her parents to loyal Julie to self-absorbed Kyle. But Gerwig reserves the films most beautiful sequence for Lady Bird and Marion. As college freshman Lady Bird speaks to her family's voice mail, Gerwig cuts between moving parallel shots of Marion and Lady Bird that serve as a closing  statement: We are always opening the gifts others have given us. Lady Bird is gorgeous.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League

The Wikipedia entry detailing the production history of Justice League reads like a Russian novel, one full of competing visions of the future and frequently dashed hopes. Remember when George Miller, late of Mad Max: Fury Road was supposed to direct? Or when someone named D.J. Cotrona was to play Superman? The Justice League we have now received is of course supposed to be the sort of quarter pole of the "D.C. Extended Universe", the film meant to consolidate earlier success and point to characters and films yet to come. The only problem with that narrative is the truth: Critics and a large chunk of the audience have rejected the D.C. films (other than Wonder Woman) as bloated and self-serious, and this final version of Justice League is the product of well-reported reshoots and rewrites by Joss Whedon after credited director Zack Snyder stepped away due to a family tragedy. So, what do we have?

Justice League is a film that is eager to please. It wants you to know - Chris Terrio and Whedon share writing credit - that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are good people and very engaged with their superheroic responsibilities. Also, being some sort of oceanic royalty is awesome, man. Jason Momoa as Aquaman speaks and behaves as if he's an enforcer in a 1990's action movie who really digs surfing on the weekends. There is also a character named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who due to a lab accident has become Cyborg and functions in the film as a sort of half-human USB drive. Every time the good guys need information or some technological task performed, Victor (who is acquiring power as the film continues) has the interface necessary to move the plot forward. Finally, Ezra Miller plays Barry Allen, a.k.a The Flash. Miller is the comic relief of Justice League, playing Barry as a geek who's thrilled to discover what his powers can be used for. It's an appealing performance, and the only one other than Gadot's that I would want to watch carry a film on its own. Barry's speed also helps set the visual template for the film, and probably for future D.C. projects as well. When The Flash accelerates everything else slows down, and it looks as if he's running through a color-saturated poster or an image from a video game. There is some visual comedy with the character's speed, but not too much. Coming in at just under two hours, Justice League isn't messing around. While we're on the subject of video games, the copious use of visual effects signals that D.C. films are taking a turn away from the Urban Gloom Hauteur of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Quite a bit of Justice League looks as though it would be best enjoyed on an Xbox, especially the scenes where our heroes do battle with Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). These scenes take place only in what I'll call something other than our physical reality, but that doesn't matter because even after spending over two hundred million dollars on this film the best that the studio could do was have iconic characters do battle against a World of Warcraft extra. Steppenwolf's plan is explained at length and involves appearances by Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta and Mera (Amber Heard), who is either Aquaman's love interest or his assistant. (I look forward to Mera being an underwritten character in a future Aquaman film). If Steppenwolf can unite three all-powerful boxes then the world will essentially turn into something that looks like Mordor before gentrification, though it isn't clear if humanity would survive or if hard currency would surrender to Bitcoin.

If Justice League points to a new house visual style for D.C., well then at least they commit to it. What's less acceptable is how rushed and scattershot the film feels, more like a notebook of ideas than a finished script. The Steppenwolf plot feels so inconsequential because it's balanced with the possible return of Superman (Henry Cavill) from the fate he suffered at the end of Batman v Superman. Bruce and the others need Superman's help to defeat Steppenwolf and also to make more films. I actually don't hate Justice League, it's lighter than other D.C. films and not too long, but there's a feeling of putting pieces in place that pervades the whole enterprise. Franchise fatigue isn't a new complaint, but the D.C. films in particular give off an air of every choice being made so others can be made down the line. Do you think we won't see those boxes again? There is even a hint that Bruce Wayne may be looking to pass off the Bat gear to someone younger. If D.C. is smart they will take a lesson from Wonder Woman and open up their "Universe" to new storytellers and new characters that aren't burdened by so much expectation. I'm looking forward to that Wonder Twins film.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Characters are together in a confined space. They don't know each other. A murder occurs. Who did it and what does it mean? No, I'm not describing a new entry in the Saw franchise but rather Kenneth Branagh's new film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh having a great time) is last-minute addition to the passenger list for a journey across Europe when a murder and an avalanche throw the travelers into confusion. Poirot's fellow passengers include an unpleasant art dealer (Johnny Depp in an out-of-tune performance), a governess (Daisy Ridley), and a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in search of a husband. Poirot is prevailed upon to solve the case, and what else is a detective to do? The film is essentially a series of confrontations, with Poirot questioning the passengers and slowly finding out that their connections to the murder victim are more complex than they first appeared. Each scene reveals a new layer to the mystery, though the identity of two passengers traveling on diplomatic visas (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) gets buried under a layer of too-fast exposition. Branagh is winningly haughty and vain as Poirot and I could have watched more of him fussing over the shape of his breakfast egg, but he is also an actor capable of projecting great intelligence and in Poirot's interactions with the passengers there's little doubt that he will come out ahead. I wish that Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green, could have found a way to better integrate a large amount of exposition into the main story. Changing the structure of the plot might offend Christie purists, but much depends on things that occurred before the train journey starts and spending some time outside the train would have avoided several scenes that function as information dumps. It also would have meant that actors like Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz would have had a bit more to do, and the film would have felt less like an echo chamber for Branagh's performance.

Other than Depp's, the one performance that didn't work for me was Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. I think Branagh and Green are actually combining two characters here, but in any case while of course there's nothing wrong with changing the race of a character the film then goes out of its way to call attention to Arbuthnot's race for plot purposes. That isn't Odom's fault, but he's not convincing as a British person or as someone involved in a romance that turns into a late revelation. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, or Judi Dench. Branagh wants this story to ask questions about the nature of justice, but in a film so constructed around one star performance the moral issues don't resonate. Murder on the Orient Express is an adequate Sunday afternoon diversion but it is overstuffed and - even running under two hours - a little clunky. A talented cast can't quite save this from feeling like a film that didn't really need to exist. Kenneth Branagh's next case shouldn't be quite so cold.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Quick referral

I'd meant to do this before but please check out BHS62, a new blog written by my father Stanley Crowe. Dad's most recent post is a review of the Mike Leigh film Meantime (available on Criterion), and he's writing on everything from classical music to current events.

Thor: Ragnarok

There is something bracing about Thor: Ragnarok, something fresh and surprising about how much fun a superhero franchise film can be when it isn't too weighted down with metaphor or psychology. Much of the credit for the pleasures of the third Thor film - an installment that no one was asking for - goes to director Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who broke out with this and who in addition to directing turns in a funny performance as an ambulatory pile of rocks named Korg. Waititi has gotten around the challenge of upping the stakes from previous films by refusing to do so here. The script for Thor: Ragnarok written by three of the Marvel house team reflects the franchise back on itself by refusing to invent reasons for what the characters do to matter. Waititi fills the screen up with heavily stylized imagery, and the comedic skills of the actors do the rest. The unusual choices are welcome but they also make this third (Final?) Thor film feel like a curiosity, one that barely connects to the larger Marvel project. I can't recall a film that I've enjoyed as much as Thor: Ragnarok while being less emotionally engaged.

We begin with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in captivity, narrating to himself and to us. I wanted the narration to run throughout the film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off style, but soon enough we get a conversation between Thor and a demon (voiced by Clancy Brown) about the impending fall of Asgard that is really just background for a gag about Thor on a spinning chain. When Thor finally makes it back home, he finds brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) enjoying himself in ways that are too funny to spoil. The existential threat to Asgard comes in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death and sister of Thor and Loki. Hela's powers have become too strong for Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to control, and she has returned from banishment to claim what is hers. Cate Blanchett as Hela is the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok, and her dry performance is both success in itself and a comment on the tropes of comic book film villains. Hela only wants power, so there is no need for exposition about her plans. (The scene where the villain explains themselves in a film like this is what I call the "Harness the power of the Sun" moment.) The deliberate and very funny boredom of Blanchett's line readings is just the vinegar Waititi needs when he cuts away from Thor and Loki, who have become stranded on a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, speaking of line readings). The section of the film involving Thor being forced into gladiatorial combat against Hulk (Mark Ruffalo again makes for a neurotic Bruce Banner) is funny but also feels the most functional, as if Waititi and the writers realized they had to get all of the key characters moving towards the next Avengers film. Tessa Thompson adds welcome energy as a boozy Valkyrie, first seen drunkenly falling off her spaceship and eventually appealed to in Thor's plans to save Asgard. Thompson has had one of the oddest careers in current movies, with her first major film credit in a Tyler Perry film no one remembers (For Colored Girls) and her breakthrough coming in another sequel that no one was asking for (Creed). Here Thompson is asked to be alternately funny and a badass, and her performance promises her a steady income in Marvel films to come.

There is, of course, a battle which brings all of the major players together as well as Asgard's gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba), a knight who has fallen under Hela's spell (Karl Urban), and a large group of Asgardian citizens. As much fun as it was getting to this point, why does none of this feel like it matters? Thor: Ragnarok is in its way a sort of glass-fronted box of a film, one that's a pleasure to look at but too insular to linger. (Mark Ruffalo as Banner is as close as we get to a character who isn't an alien or a god.) I didn't know how much I needed a superhero film that contains sequences that look like the cover of a Yes album, or one in which Cate Blanchett is costumed like the Mistress at a Sierra Club dungeon. I'm arguing against myself here, because the heavy-handedness of most films in the genre can feel stultifying. But as pleasurable as Waititi's aesthetics are, they don't point to a new way forward. (I could be proven wrong if Ryan Coogler's Black Panther hits big next year.) Thor: Ragnarok ends with our heroes in space Battlestar Galactica-style. They're headed to Earth, where Avengers: Infinity War comes out in 2018. I'm pretty sure they'll make the release date.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


Breathe is the fact-based story of Robin Cavendish, a British man who contracted polio in Kenya in the late 1950's and became an advocate for Britain's disabled community until his death in 1994. The early scenes of William Nicholson's screenplay show Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) wooing Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) at a cricket match and whisking her off to Africa, where he worked as a tea broker. Director Andy Serkis - the motion-capture acting legend directs here for the first time - moves through this part of the story quickly, and at first I was afraid that Breathe was going to be a sort of sturdy, chin-up melodrama with scene after scene of Cavendish overcoming obstacles. We don't even really learn that much about Cavendish in these scenes. One of his colleagues delivers a speech early on about "willpower", but when Cavendish is stricken with polio and new mother Diana must get him to back to England all we really know about Cavendish is that he loves his wife and is being played by our greatest living ex-Spider Man. Breathe falls squarely into the "Disabled Person Beats the Odds" genre, but it is separated from the pack by two soulful lead performances and a sense of activism about disabled lives. (Cavendish's son Jonathan produced Breathe.) Nicholson's script is always making us think about the way we see people with severe disabilities, from the scenes in which an officious doctor (Jonathan Hyde) is dismissing Diana's efforts to bring Robin home to a funnier moment at a party where Robin's friend laments about his love life to a paralyzed man connected to a respirator. Robin gains freedom of movement thanks to a wheelchair invented by another friend (Hugh Bonneville), and in its second half Breathe becomes more strident about the way we don't want to look at others who make us uncomfortable. When Robin visits a German hospital the disabled patients he sees are just heads protruding from respirators like in a sci-fi nightmare. It's the film's most striking visual moment and it inspires Robin's speech to a medical conference about not viewing the disabled as prisoners. Garfield delivers the monologue wonderfully, and he's as angry or charming or loving by turns as the screenplay requires. The first moment where a newly at-home Robin almost dies is chilling in its ordinariness, and Garfield has a stunning bit of acting as a man maybe breathing his last. Yet I wish I had a better sense of the man whose life I was watching unfold. Serkis isn't interested in what initially connects Robin and Diana, he's more engaged with how Robin functions within the story as an avatar for the disabled. While Serkis and Nicholson don't pile on the sentiment, the moment where Robin asks his family to let him go shouldn't feel quite as schematic as it does. To say that Claire Foy as Diana fares better is of course to play into what Breathe is doing, since her character isn't bound by the same physical limitations as Garfield's. Andrew Garfield is already an Oscar-nominated star and Foy deserves to be. Her Diana is terrifically warm, but Foy makes her more than just an Earth Mother. Foy locates very specific wells of anger and fear in Diana when things look at their worst, and if you've seen The Crown you know how indomitable she can be. Yet the film lets her down somewhat as well, because Foy doesn't get many scenes where Diana isn't required to respond to Robin's needs at that precise moment. Breathe doesn't bother with explaining either Robin or Diana's family or financial situations. Diana has twin brothers both played by Tom Hollander - wouldn't it be wild if Serkis was actually doing a motion capture performance as one of the Hollanders - who suggest a sort of shabbily comfortable background, but besides a couple of tossed off lines no one in Breathe ever worries about the cost of Robin's care. Andy Serkis shoots Breathe like a handsome TV film. He's careful to call attention to the beauty of a sunset or a country view as Robin observes them, and there are a few POV angles from Robin's bed. But Breathe is an actor's show. When I saw the trailer I thought that Breathe looked like a too-obvious Oscar grab. In fact it is better than that thanks to its two leads, whose work transcends a film that is very personal but not quite human enough.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (spoilers)

The beginning of Blade Runner 2049 offers some quick titles to update the story. The Tyrell Corporation, responsible for manufacturing "replicants" in the original Blade Runner, has failed and the use of replicants as slaves stopped for a time. A tech baron named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has since reintroduced replicants to the world, only this time they are designed to obey. No more inconvenient rebellions. A few older models like Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) still survive, but the profession of "Blade Runner" still exists too and the older replicants are being systematically hunted down and retired. All of this would be useful information if only Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay co-written by original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher, didn't forget about these facts so quickly. In the new film the Blade Runner in question is known as K (Ryan Gosling), and the filmmakers don't waste any time establishing him as a replicant. Although K appears to have some free will, he obeys his superior (Robin Wright) without question and appears to have no qualms about his charge to retire the older replicants. When K isn't working he goes home to a small apartment and a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas) who he brings with him via a sort of mobile hotspot. If replicants in 2049 are built as accessories for humans, then why are all the humans so angry at K? Why are there obscenities scrawled on K's apartment door? Most importantly, why did the makers of Blade Runner 2049 put a cipher with compromised free will at the center of this film? The conception of K plays into Ryan Gosling's worst tendencies to be stoic, but Gosling can't be blamed for the way the script keeps the film's level of urgency in check. Blade Runner 2049 is almost three hours long, and since K can only figure out the film's central mystery - the possible existence of a child born of two replicants - at the pace others allow him to that means that Villeneuve has plenty of time for shots of characters silhouetted against hazy backgrounds and K walking (very) slowly through abandoned cityscapes. Blade Runner 2049 gave me what I wanted from a Blade Runner film in terms of look and mood thanks to the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and the other designers, but I got too much of it and not enough of what it means to be human in a world where humans come off an assembly line.

We are introduced to Jared Leto's Niander Wallace early on, in a scene where he inspects a nude replicant and then kills her because (it seems) she is incapable of bearing children. The plans Wallace shares with his replicant aide/enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who gives the film's most charismatic performance) involve another leap forward in replicant production, but they require the child that K has discovered was born 30 years before. Wallace doesn't return until late in the film, and while Leto's fussy performance isn't missed the character's absence makes it hard to remember what's at stake. K is also pursuing the child of course even though after a certain point people stop telling him to. In fact K lies to his boss about his progress on the case, a behavior that seems out of sorts with what we've been given to understand replicants are capable of. But again, no one is in a hurry. There's time for a sex scene involving K, Joi, and a sex worker (Mackenzie Davis) who seems a little too comfortable with replicants. Later K visits an orphanage where memories - possibly implanted ones - of his childhood are triggered. All of this of course is buildup to K's discovery of Deckard (Harrison Ford) hiding out in what I think is supposed to be a blasted out and empty Las Vegas. Ford, beautifully weathered and with a voice that sounds like the concept of roughness, adds a welcome layer of gravitas to the proceedings as he fills in the backstory of his relationship with Rachael (Sean Young) after the original Blade Runner concluded. If K and Deckard became partners at this point the story would have taken on some welcome emotional depth, but Deckard gets sucked back into the Wallace storyline and is mostly a passive figure in the final act while K - left alive for reasons that aren't clear - discovers the existence of a brewing replicant revolution in a subplot that goes nowhere. The ending of Blade Runner 2049 is satisfying for one or two characters, but it will shock those who appreciated the rigorous endings of Prisoners and Villeneuve's other earlier films.  The order of the world will go on for humans and "skin jobs" alike.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

American Made (spoilers)

Doug Liman's American Made is nominally the story of Barry Seal, a pilot, drug smuggler and operative for the U.S. government who was murdered by the Medellin Cartel in 1986. Seal is played by Tom Cruise with a shaggy haircut and great energy, but the film badly misjudges its tone and doesn't seem that interested in the colorful facts of Seal's life. Liman, working from a script by Gary Spinelli, tells Seal's story as jaunty comedy of 1980's excess. Seal and his (fictional) wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) are just starting a family in the late 1970's when Seal is approached by the CIA - Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal's handler - to fly over Central America and take pictures. On a trip to Colombia Seal is solicited by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and the Medellin Cartel with an offer to fly cocaine into the country for money that will beat Seal's CIA salary. Seal agrees, and the rest of the film is the story of his toggling between his jobs and operative and criminal. Tom Cruise is at his best when he's harried, and he's very appealing in the scenes where Barry has to placate a worried Lucy or talk down an angry Contra leader. But Seal as written is a man without political convictions, he exists in the moment and the film depicts the way Seal handles the outrageous amounts of cash he is paid as a kind of domestic farce that eventually grows tiresome. By the time Seal's activities start to catch up with him and real-life figures like Oliver North (Robert Farrior) enter the story Liman has blown any chance to pull off the change in tone that he attempts. The film's version of Seal is so defiantly self-absorbed that the idea of the federal government bailing Seal out of a state prosecution in Arkansas ("Governor Clinton on the line.") plays as nonsense. Wouldn't the government want someone they could control? American Made gives Tom Cruise a chance to stretch to his comic side, a good move Cruise should make more often, but the film's lack of an opinion about its own main character fatally undercuts a good central performance.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Song to Song

My relationship with Terrence Malick began in college, when as part of a freshman English assignment I had to watch Malick's debut film Badlands and prepare a presentation with a classmate. I knew Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek of course, but at the time I had never heard of Badlands or its director. To describe the experience of a first viewing from over 25 years ago feels like a reductive exercise, one that would just end up being sentimental. I do remember that I loved Badlands immediately, though at the time I responded more to the dryness of Martin Sheen's performance - which of course hides the characters sociopathy - than the contrast between Spacek's narration and the violence that her character observes. Spacek's voice over in Badlands is among the greatest in American film, both brilliantly acted and the perfect execution of Malick's intention, and it is equalled and maybe surpassed by the narration of Linda Manz in Malick's next film Days of Heaven. The Criterion edition of Days of Heaven has a sort of all hands on deck commentary track from Malick's collaborators, and the biggest revelation for me was the level of Malick's indecision over where to place certain cuts of Manz's voiceover. When an artist is as inscrutable as Malick we like to think that the work springs forth fully formed, but for Malick as with any other director it isn't always clear what one has until the editing room. Twenty years later Malick released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones's novel and a film arguably more famous for its production than for what ended up on screen. When I saw The Thin Red Line, which spreads the narration among a large cast, I knew instinctively that I was seeing a late career masterpiece but I now wish that I had bought another ticket and sat through the next show. (I later felt the same way about The New World and The Tree of Life.) The Thin Red Line seems to me a clear statement of Malick's great subject: Man is inextricably connected to the world around him while also being in opposition to that harmony. Later The New World would deepen and expand the argument, with the performance of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas contrasting with the bearded, angry colonists to represent everything Malick wants to say about how far we are from the "state of grace" he describes in The Tree of Life.

After The Tree of Life Terrence Malick could have retired with an unimpeachable reputation as the Thoreau of American film, but he has continued to work and has produced a series of films set in contemporary America. I wrote something about To the Wonder here, and Knight of Cups seems to me the first film in which Malick fails to dramatize his ideas in a way worth watching. In these later films Malick relies almost entirely on voiceover, with the internal monologues of various characters playing over dialogue scenes that we hear very little of. The effect can be maddening when there seem to be external things at stake in the films (To the Wonder) or when as in Knight of Cups we simply don't have enough information to find our way into the film. Malick's most recent release is Song to Song, a 2017 drama largely shot and set within the music community of Austin, Texas. One of the first things we see in Song to Song is the crowd at a large outdoor concert - muddy, sweaty, colliding with each other and full of life. Malick returns to these images later on, and seems to use them as an substitute for the more familiar nature shots of earlier work. Our reaction to music puts us just a little bit further towards harmony with ourselves and the world. The central presence in Song to Song is an unhappy woman named Faye (Rooney Mara), who at various times is the lover of both a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling) and a wealthy, debauched producer called Cook (Michael Fassbender). Faye gets the bulk of the narration, and the strongest through-line of Song to Song is her journey towards both personal happiness and a larger sense of meaning in her life. Faye is a musician too, we see her on stage with Patti Smith (who appears in several scenes and serves as a sort of kind of guiding spirit for Faye) and Cook offers her a contract as an attempt to pry her from BV. There is actually quite a bit of plot in Song to Song, including Cook's marriage to Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and BV dating someone played by Cate Blanchett, but the film loses momentum whenever Malick goes away from Faye.

Rooney Mara might never have been challenged as an actor quite the way she is here, since Malick's choices to insert narration or music mean that everything in a shot might have to be conveyed through a look or a movement. Mara is up to the task, and as the film goes on the accumulation of moments create a moving portrait of a person lost within a storm of sensation. Faye is carried along by the choices and needs of those around her, but Malick's technique suggests how Faye could become worn down simply by the fact that it all never seems to stop. At one point I sensed that Song to Song was moving towards a conclusion, as Faye balanced her attraction to BV with the security offered by Cook. Then I realized that the film had only been going on for forty-five minutes. (It runs just over two hours.) Some time is devoted to BV's family situation, but Michael Fassbender as Cook gets the better of the deal. It's fascinating to think about whether or not Fassbender considered what sort of film Song to Song was likely to be, whether he knew that Malick would give as much weight to a shot of him jumping around like a monkey as to any of his dialogue scenes with Mara. Whatever the process, the result is a physically free performance the likes of which we really haven't seen from Fassbender before. Too bad then that the character of Cook functions more as a vehicle for Malick's ideas about manhood and art vs. commerce than as an actual person. The same can be said for Gosling's BV, who gets a half-baked subplot about a dying father. The relationship between Cook and Portman's Rhonda, a waitress whom he picks up in a diner, feels as though it could be its own film or was maybe carved out from another Malick idea. Portman is the worst served of the four leads, given very little screen time to express her self-loathing as she is sucked into Cook's lifestyle.

It would be a betrayal of Malick's worldview to resolve Faye's story neatly, but while trying at times Song to Song is the best application of his signature techniques to a film set in the present. There are too many films fighting for space here, but it's a relief to see Malick's need to find beauty and meaning in everyday life articulated still with such curiosity. To put it another way:
"I've been thinking what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor, checking out the Earth underneath."    -Linda Manz, Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick is still checking out the Earth almost half a century after his first film, and we're lucky that the exploration continues.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River

A young woman - frightened, injured, and underdressed - makes her way across a snowy landscape at night. A few minutes later, a herd of sheep are menaced by wolves in the same countryside. The opening scenes of Taylor Sheridan's Wind River promise something dark and unforgiving, almost too much so. The crime film, Sheridan's feature directorial debut after writing Hell or High Water and Sicario, is a grim story of people carrying the weight of living in rough country. But there is also considerable emotional nuance, thanks in large part to an excellent lead performance by Jeremy Renner. Renner plays Cory Lambert, whose job for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to track and hunt predators in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We learn early on that Lambert has a Native American ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) and young son Casey (Teo Briones) who don't live on the reservation, but a sadness hangs over their house and Sheridan doesn't reveal right away why Wilma seems so unhappy with Casey visiting his grandparents at Wind River. The frightened young woman that Sheridan began the film with is named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and Lambert finds her body while tracking a lion behind the house of his former in-laws. The discovery brings both tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) and a young FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, quite good and far away from her Ingrid Goes West role), who is smart enough to realize that her awkward interaction with Natalie's father (Gil Birmingham) is a sign she'll need Lambert's help with the case.

The dynamic of an emotionally withdrawn man and a less experienced woman could easily go wrong, but Sheridan balances the relationship intelligently. Banner isn't green, she's undermanned, and the resignation of Graham Greene's Ben over the chance the murder won't be solved is a tidy symbol for the powerlessness that everyone on the reservation feels. Sheridan is interested in people living in difficult landscapes, and his version of the country in and around Wind River is of a cold, empty place that offers no opportunities for its people. Lambert is a useful guide through the both the literal and cultural wilderness of Wind River but he isn't a cop, and Banner is on her own when violence breaks out early in the investigation. To say more about the story would spoil the experience, but the ugliness and smallness of those responsible for Natalie's death is even more striking when placed in relief against the bleakness of the country. The last section of Wind River includes a flashback to Natalie's last night, and it's a set piece of slowly building horror. Fair enough then that when the case has concluded - the climactic violence is immediate and disturbing in a way I don't think I've seen before - Lambert and Natalie's father can simply sit together in a grief they share. (A title card announces that there is no law enforcement data kept on missing Native American women, which appears to be generally true.) Jeremy Renner has never quite balanced intelligence, charm, and unhappiness the way he does here, and his performance is so quietly charismatic that I wouldn't even have minded if Lambert and Banner had gotten together. (They don't.) Wind River is an adult entertainment of a kind we need more of, a work of mature storytelling that doesn't forget to be human.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film which turns 40 in 2017, begins with a marvelous sequence of disorientation. We are in Mexico, and the the characters gathering near a small village are almost overwhelmed by wind and dust. Introductions are made and questions are shouted, and an American cartographer named Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is drafted as the interpreter for a French scientist named Lacombe (Francois Truffaut). Lacombe, Laughlin, and their colleagues are in Mexico to see a group of planes reported missing in World War II. The planes have appeared on a tiny Mexican airfield, still in working order but with the crewmen unaccounted for. Later on the scientists will find a lost ship in the desert and track reports of mysterious sounds in India. A globe-hopping film about UFO's and dashing scientists sounds very much like the work of the Steven Spielberg we came to know in the 1980's, when Spielberg turned the credit he had earned making Jaws and Close Encounters into a series of era-defining hits. But Spielberg was a different filmmaker in the mid 1970's, still very much taken up with issues such as divorce and suburban living, and in viewing Close Encounters across forty years what resonates isn't the aliens but of course the people. The research of Lacombe and his team is background to a film about messy lives, about our faith in institutions, and the lengths that those institutions will go to in order to manipulate the people they serve. It is useful to remember - as Spielberg points out in a short documentary before the new re-release - that Close Encounters was written and made in the immediate post-Watergate years, a time when the underpinnings of American society felt shaky in a way that audiences these days might appreciate. Spielberg wrote the script for Close Encounters in a time of high paranoia about what our government might do to us and just how much we didn't know.

The heart of Close Encounters lies in Indiana, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) raises his family and works for the power company. The sheer messiness of the Neary house will feel familiar to any child of the 1970's. Where today both parents and children might retreat to the their devices, then there was no place to go for anyone to have a moment's peace. Roy's personal space seems to take up most of the living room and has encroached on the space of his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), so all that's left is for one of Roy's young sons to climb into the youngest child's playpen and bang a doll to pieces. It is little wonder then that when Roy is ecstatic when he encounters flashing lights and a flying structure while answering a call one night. The lights are something of Roy's own, only he soon discovers that he isn't the only one who has seen them. Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) sees them too, and she meets Roy while following her young son Barry (Cary Guffey) away from their house. (Barry's father is never mentioned.) Barry Guiler is in fact the first character we see to be enchanted by whomever is out there. Barry's toys - in a scene that seemed wondrous to me when I saw Close Encounters as a child - come to life and eventually lead him out of the house. Later the same lights that Roy sees will come back for Barry and the Guiler's house will come alive again, this time to terrifying effect. The fear that Spielberg creates in the scene of Barry's abduction has a tactile quality, and a sense of the everyday turning against us best represented in a shot of the Guiler's upright vacuum turning itself on and chasing Jillian and Barry. The obsession that Roy and Jillian share over what they've seen - Roy is searching for meaning and Jillian for her son - puts them on a course both towards each other and in conflict with almost everyone else. On viewing Close Encounters as an adult the emotional crux of the film is the arc of Roy's disintegration. Unable to stop thinking of a tower shape, Roy pulls further away from Ronnie and his children until a long sequence that begins with Roy throwing bushes from the yard through his kitchen window and ends with Ronnie leaving with the kids while still in her nightgown. One element of Close Encounters that doesn't play as well in 2017 is the fact that this fight scene is the last time we see Teri Garr or the children in the film. It is as if Ronnie and the kids were needed only to get Roy to the place where he can construct a giant mud sculpture of what he soon comes to know as Devil's Tower in his living room, and then were ushered out a side door. It is hard to imagine Spielberg handling these story elements the same way today, but in the mid-1970's he may not have known how to put families back together.

When Roy and Jillian - who sees the same tower that Roy does - arrive at Devil's Tower in Wyoming the government is already there. Spielberg spends quite a bit of time on scientists and generals figuring out the aliens' message, and the discovery that Devil's Tower is the preferred landing spot for our visitors involves a group of government scientists rolling a giant globe down a hallway in a hilarious bit of inefficiency. Lacombe is with the government here, although he seems more interested in figuring out how to communicate with the aliens through music. (The famous John Williams five tone "alien greeting" is remarkable for its simplicity.) When the decision is made to go to Wyoming the government trucks are disguised with Coca-Cola and Piggly Wiggly signs - familiar things working against us - and the "toxic spill" that causes an evacuation around Devil's Tower is carefully stage managed. What can't our government do? After Roy and Jillian escape quarantine and climb the mountain, Close Encounters makes a choice to privilege the wonder that Roy and Lacombe are feeling over anything else. I haven't studied the various cuts of Close Encounters closely enough to know what shots come from what version, but there's a moment where an alien ship comes so close to the humans that it appears the characters are interacting with a giant toy. The most effective part of this climactic scene is the most human, as Barry and other abductees are returned to Earth. Jillian is almost forgotten about once Barry comes back, since she's unable to share Roy's sense that the spaceship offers some kind of fulfillment. The last time we see her she's snapping pictures like a supportive aunt. The sight of the aliens themselves doesn't offer any solutions for her.

Seeing Close Encounters 40 years later is a great pleasure despite the objections raised here. There is something very winning about the way we are invited in and asked to consider the world both tangible and beyond our understanding. Steven Spielberg's craft has only improved over the years, as has his sense of how the movement of history affects people. The imagination and vulnerability on display here are signposts to all that was to come.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ingrid Goes West

Aubrey Plaza plays the title role in Ingrid Goes West, a dark comedy about the hollowness of online lives. Plaza's Ingrid Thorburn is first seen obsessively liking Instagram pictures of a wedding in real time before storming uninvited into the reception and pepper spraying the bride. After a hospitalization Ingrid returns home to the sight of her late mother's hospice bed in still in her living room. Armed with an inheritance and newly infatuated with Instagram "star" Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), Ingrid decides to start over in Los Angeles. Ingrid Goes West was directed by Matt Spicer, who wrote the script with David Branson Smith. Spicer is the first director to figure out what to do with Aubrey Plaza, who seemed for a time to be headed for a future of being the most memorable part of movies you were never going to see. Plaza is as edgy and wound up as the role of Ingrid requires, but she also gives the character a degree of self-awareness about her own failings. Ingrid rents a room from Dan (a charming O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a Batman-crazy screenwriter, and proceeds to figure out a way to have her life collide with Taylor's. If Ingrid Goes West were just the story of a sad woman doing increasingly inappropriate things to preserve a friendship founded on lies then it wouldn't be worth watching. The film would probably feel a good deal like a feature-length version of those climactic conversations on the television show Catfish. Where Spicer and Smith's script goes right is the way it considers a life lived on social media as performance. Ingrid's plan is successful, and she quickly becomes fast friends with Taylor and her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell). The Instagram pictures from Taylor's account that we see are a stream of perfectly arranged furniture, minimalist interior design, and locally sourced meals. Joan Didion is quoted in one post, and I'd love to know where Taylor and later Ingrid found copies of The White Album with the retro dust jacket. (I found a copy with same jacket here, and it's a first edition.) Of course there are tensions behind the heavily designed bliss of Taylor's persona. Taylor and especially Ezra are worried about money; it seems Taylor has "forced" her husband to quit his stable job with the idea that Ezra has untapped artistic talent inside him. The art of Ezra's that we do see is hilarious, and Ingrid ingratiates herself with the couple by paying twelve hundred dollars for what appears to be a picture of horses upon which Ezra has printed "#squadgoals". Soon Taylor and Ingrid - in Dan's borrowed truck - are off to Taylor's second house in Joshua Tree, and Ingrid is beside herself with bliss.

Ingrid Goes West could have gone more deeply into the idea that Ingrid and Taylor are really both pursuing the same intangible dream, but the plot kicks in with the arrival in L.A. of Taylor's brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen). Nicky finds Ingrid suspicious right away, and his attention is only briefly diverted when Ingrid brings Dan to a pool party and announces he is her boyfriend. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is very winning as Dan, who seems to be attracted to Ingrid in spite of her behavior and comes close to pulling her out of her own head. Much humor is drawn from Dan's love of Batman, and the sex scene in which Ingrid plays Catwoman will probably become a social media phenomenon of its own. It is unfortunate then that the appealing Dan-Ingrid relationship is defeated by story elements - an aborted kidnapping, Ingrid betraying Taylor's secret - that feel devised just to push events to a resolution. When Ingrid hits bottom, out of money and haggling over the price of toilet paper, the speech she gives into her iPhone (and then posts) is the best acting Plaza has done onscreen. But if you also feel like you're being set up for a final stinger, trust that instinct. Even though too much story comes to close to the end, Ingrid Goes West establishes a tone and for the most part follows through. The next time you're on Instagram, remember this: sometimes avocado toast hides deeper issues.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Logan Lucky/Valerian

In a recent New York Times article Steven Soderbergh proclaimed that he had lost interest as a director in working on "anything that smells important". It seems it was in part the difficulties involved in financing and making Soderbergh's Che that drove the filmmaker into a "retirement" which involved mostly working on The Knick instead of feature films. Soderbergh has now returned with Logan Lucky, his first theatrical release in four years, and while the film lacks any sense of self-seriousness it is the furthest thing from unimportant. The charms of Logan Lucky come from the film's insistence on working as a pleasure for adults, and it's that same insistence that makes it such an outlier in today's mainstream cinema. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) works on a construction crew at Charlotte Motor Speedway but lives in West Virginia near his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), sister Mellie (Riley Keough), and brother Clyde (a deeply funny Adam Driver). Jimmy's crew is tasked with preventing sinkholes at the Speedway, but when Jimmy is fired he decides to use the knowledge he has acquired about how the racetrack moves its money to secure his family's economic future. Part of the great fun of Logan Lucky is its self-awareness about its own genre, and how it uses exposition to develop character. When we first meet Mellie - who Keough plays with a crackerjack intelligence - she gives an overly detailed explanation of the route taken driving Sadie to pageant practice. Sure enough, it's Mellie who does the driving when the heist is on. Later Jimmy and Clyde recruit Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of a prison visiting room to blow the Speedway vault. If Joe seems to know quite a bit about the salt substitute he puts on his eggs then let's just say there's a reason why.

As funny as Logan Lucky is, the script by Rebecca Blunt (who may not exist) is never arch. Channing Tatum plays Jimmy, a football star derailed by injury, with a layer of disappointment that the character doesn't know what to do with. The best thing that happens to Jimmy during the film isn't the chance at a payday, but rather his passing encounter with a nurse (Katherine Waterston) who remembers him from high school but doesn't care about Jimmy's Golden Boy narrative. Waterston's character probably isn't in the film enough, yet the emotional honesty is welcome amid all of the mechanics of the heist. The only comic element that doesn't work involves a race car team owner (a broad Seth MacFarlane) who crosses the Logan brothers at Clyde's bar and then encounters them again at the wrong moment. The heist itself is a skillful set piece, with subtle misdirections - Joe Bang's stopping to buy Gummi Bears is important - and just a hint that the partners in crime are turning on each other. While the robbery is going on we are also cutting back to a "riot" at the prison Joe Bang was once incarcerated in, and to the warden (Dwight Yoakam) who's trying to save face. The last act of Logan Lucky involves an apparent betrayal, Sadie's pageant performance (between this and Free Fire, John Denver now signifies lost innocence), and the arrival of an FBI agent (Hilary Swank) assigned to the case. The movie isn't interested in the follow-through on a procedural level. Swank's character is given only boiler plate things to say and do, and the momentum sags a little here. The explanation of what "really" happened during the crime - an elegant extended flashback - is very pleasing though, and it feels of a piece with the decency and intelligence of these characters that has already been established. Logan Lucky is a "caper" film in the same way that Soderbergh's Ocean's films are, but there is a welcome layer of humanity and, yes, warmth here that demonstrates Soderbergh is interested in more than going over the same ground. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. You were missed.

In Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an galactic cop named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is in love with his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Valerian spends the first part of the film hitting on Laureline and soft-pedaling the fact that he has already acquired a reputation as a ladies' man. Later, he proposes marriage. If none of that sounds interesting then wait; there's a plot involving a lost planet and nefarious goings-on at the International Space Station, which has now become a busy crossroads for the Universe. What Besson can't deliver in character or plot - the villain's identity isn't a surprise - he makes up for in visuals. Valerian is overflowing with aliens all designed to with exhaustive imagination, and the City of a Thousand Planets is a dizzying and overcrowded utopia. Besson must have gotten the wrong lesson from Kubrick's 2001. Here as in The Fifth Element, space is teeming with life and computers only work some of the time. Dane DeHaan can't quite handle the level of comic-book swagger required for Valerian, and it's actually Cara Delevingne who seems more tonally in sync with what the film is trying to do. Valerian is the cotton candy of this summer at the movies.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle tells a messy story neatly. The new drama, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of how one family overcame its own weakest member in order to survive. Yet to the film's detriment Cretton can't quite resist the temptation to leave the story in a comfortable place. Walls's book recounts her family's peripatetic existence. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson in a frightening portrait of half-understood inadequacy) was a soldier whose alcoholism and distaste for authority set the family moving from town to town, always in poverty. (The title refers to Rex's never-realized dream house.) Rex's worst tendencies were for too long enabled by his wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a self-absorbed artist who in the opening scene is too distracted by her work to make Jeannette lunch. Jeannette (played as a child by Chandler Head and then the very good Ella Anderson) attempts to cook hot dogs and sets herself on fire. There is more time on the road - Jeannette and her siblings are forced to ride in the back of a moving truck - and there are more towns, but the Walls eventually land back in Rex's hometown in West Virginia. We go back and forth between Jeannette's childhood and Jeannette in 1989, played as an adult by Brie Larson. Jeannette is now a writer for New York magazine, but her weekly gossip column doesn't fulfill her broader ambitions. Her fiance David (Max Greenfield) is both loving and financially comfortable, but again something is missing. Seeing her parents on a New York street ignites a spiral of memory in Jeannette that drives the film emotionally. The Glass Castle is filled with incident, mostly to do with Rex's drunkenness, and Cretton films Jeannette's disastrous swimming lesson and a fight between Rex and Rose Mary without cutting away from how frightening those moments were. Yet for too long the story feels out of balance, as we watch Jeannette and her older sister (Sarah Snook) frantically save money to move to New York while the 1989 version of Jeannette remains something of a cipher. Brie Larson acts here with supreme control and gives a convincing performance as someone feeling out her life in the moment, but Cretton's script doesn't let us know her very well. Moments where Larson does let go, like during an arm wrestling match between David and her father, are riveting but the character doesn't seem to have any life other than dealing with her fiance and family. Too much time is spent on Larson playing Jeannette as a high schooler, where we are given to understand that she discovers her calling as a writer.

Destin Daniel Cretton's screenplay, cowritten with Andrew Lanham, is doing a hard-sell on the themes of Acceptance, Forgiveness, and Understanding. Rex's behavior is given partial justification once the family returns to West Virginia and his own mother (Robin Bartlett) is introduced. As the film goes it slides onto a track where we can feel confident that Jeannette's feelings about her parents - which boil over at her engagement party - will be resolved. Will Jeannette become estranged from her family? Check. Will Rex's drinking catch up with him? Yes. Will father and daughter have a final meaningful conversation? You got it. Jeannette's memories of her girlhood with her father become noticeably kinder at this late stage, with Harrelson getting a sort of seize-the-day speech about "attacking demons." The desire to mitigate our feelings about Rex may be a natural one, but it saps the film of some emotional honesty it had earned when Rex threatens to throw Rose Mary out a window. We leave the Walls family with Jeannette hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for her siblings and her mother. Stories of Rex are delivered with laughter and tears, but have Jeanette or the film earned this moment of exhalation? The Glass Castle has been adapted with great skill and conviction, but by working too hard to contextualize Rex it only describes the surface of what he gave to his daughter.

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit aspires to be nothing less than a consideration of African-American experience, one filtered through a few horrific days in 1967 Detroit. The bar that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set for themselves is an insanely high one, and their success will no doubt be perceived in terms of how audiences feel about more recent events in American society. Whatever Bigelow and Boal's specific intentions, the issues raised in Detroit are a part of our national discourse. In thinking about the film it's worth thinking both about to what degree its fair to critique a film on the basis of the climate surrounding its release, and the amount of responsibility that artists owe their communities. Detroit begins with opening titles detailing the Great Migration, the massive movement of African-American population to the North and Midwest that began after World War I. Further titles also allude to the subsequent movement of whites from urban centers to the suburbs and the fact that Detroit's African-American population was policed by a mostly white police force. Bigelow puts these titles over illustrations that evoke the mid-20th century painting of artists like Jacob Lawrence, and the effect is oddly distancing. It is as if Bigelow and Boal want us to know that we are about to view the results of a sociological experiment, one whose subject is something not quite of our time. The film proper begins with a police raid on an after-hours club, a raid led by an African-American detective (Chris Chalk) who is nervous about completing his work before the neighboring residents can express their anger. A bottle is thrown, a fire is lit, and Bigelow details the subsequent riots with a mix of archival and staged footage cut together. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is depicted urging citizens not commit violence against their own neighborhoods, while Bigelow also includes a clip of the real Governor George Romney calling out the National Guard.

Detroit is in part a film about how people function in relation to institutions, and the first main character we are introduced to is Detroit Police Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) Early in the riots Krauss fatally shoots a man stealing groceries. After being hurriedly questioned by a detective Krauss is told he'll probably be charged with murder and then told to return to duty. The fact that the police department of a major American city appears to have no means for self-examination in a moment of crisis shouldn't surprise anyone who has been watching the news, but the moment is still chilling. Will Poulter as Krauss looks unprepared to be a cop in this film, and that's deliberate. The casting is a masterstroke, as is the choice to have Poulter play the character as in over his head rather than overtly racist. The counterpart to Krauss in Detroit is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Where Krauss attempts to use the power of the police as a shield, Melvin works on the margins of power structures because it's all he can do. We see Melvin at work bringing coffee to National Guard troops when shots are fired from the direction of the Algiers Motel. The Algiers Motel incident is the center of Detroit, and Bigelow has turned what occurred there into a sustained exercise in tension. We travel to the Algiers with aspiring Motown star Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Lattimore). The two are seeking refuge from what's happening on the streets, as earlier that evening Larry's group The Dramatics had been pulled from the stage as nearby rioting intensified. Larry and Fred fall in with another group at the Algiers that includes Carl (Jason Mitchell), who gives a memorable speech about the limits of black agency against police power. There are also Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white women that Larry and Fred hope to know better. When a starter pistol is fired from a window, the resulting police response ends with three dead men and Melvin accused of murder. Krauss is the Detroit PD officer in charge at the scene, and the actions of he and his men are a toxic combination of racism, fear, and unpreparedness that the actors play expertly. All of the actors - including Anthony Mackie as an unlucky veteran - are superb here and Bigelow doesn't pull back from the horror of the situation. (There is a cutaway to a State Police Captain, who knows something is wrong but doesn't want the responsibility of intervening.) Melvin tries to distract by leading a search for the gun the police are convinced is there, but even then we're always aware of just how confined the space at the Algiers is and how narrowly even more violence was averted.

The Algiers sequence is so compelling that the rest of Detroit seems somewhat perfunctory by comparison. The investigation of the officers' behavior at the Motel is curiously elided, we don't see Krauss's partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole) being questioned and so it's a surprise when their confessions are thrown out. The subsequent trial feels rushed, and it's not even made clear that Melvin was actually put on trial and acquitted in federal court alongside the policemen. The character of Melvin illustrates why Detroit doesn't easily bend to rules of dramatic structure. We're conditioned to expect that Melvin will do or say something to mitigate what's going on, but of course if he had interfered with cops it would likely have meant his life. Boyega plays the role with great charisma, but the character winds down awkwardly along with the rest of the procedural part of the film. The conscience of Detroit is located in Larry Reed, who survives the Algiers but can no longer participate in making music for the consumption of white people. Bigelow ends Detroit with Larry singing a gospel song, and just as with the titles at the beginning the choice serves to tamp down our emotions. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had a responsibility to tell the story of Detroit as accurately as they could. They have done so with great skill, but the choice to frame the story as a historical tragedy rather than the result of institutional racism and incompetence might mean the film will matter less than it should. But then again, it isn't Bigelow and Boal's job to make us angry about abuses of police power. Artists in any medium owe us honesty, but it's up to us to decide what comes next.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Atomic Blonde

From the first moments of Atomic Blonde we are invited to consider the physical presence of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a British intelligence agent, as she recovers from what appears to be a severe beating. In considering Broughton we are also of course considering the presence of Charlize Theron as action star, Oscar-winning actor, and sex symbol. If "Charlize Doing Things" could be a genre, then Atomic Blonde would be its peak. Atomic Blonde has a plot - a stapled together contrivance of familiar tropes including a stolen list of agents' names and an errant station chief - but its chief pleasure is the sheer force of personality that Theron brings to the film. Broughton is called in by her superior (Toby Jones) to recount the details of an operation gone bad in Berlin. (We're in 1989, just before the Wall came down.) Before we're even out of the framing scenes Broughton has managed to insult the CIA officer (John Goodman) in the room and to establish that she knows her boss has his own agenda. The story that Lorraine tells is about a mission to retrieve stolen information, but before she has been on the ground an hour she has already survived one assassination attempt and met eccentric Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy). Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, one of the filmmakers behind the first John Wick film, and it's with the action sequences like that initial attempt on Broughton's life that Leitch gives this film its personality. Leitch favors long takes in which various assailants run at Broughton or otherwise attack her, and the mostly hand-to-hand combat is visceral and non-stylized to an amazing degree.

Late in the story Broughton must protect a source (Eddie Marsan) and deliver him and his information safely to the West. Her plans go bad, and the resulting fight on a staircase and through an apartment is an apparent single take that leaves Broughton barely able to stand. It's an all-time sequence that combines technical skill and stamina, and the moment where Broughton tries to stand and immediately slides back down is the moment that Atomic Blonde gets to where it wants to go. There's more of course, Broughton escapes after a car chase and the rest of the film is a series of reversals and recriminations. I didn't care as much about the late plot movement (including the involvement of a French agent played by Sofia Boutella) because I couldn't stop thinking about the immediacy of what had come before. Theron's physicality and Leitch's talent for staging actually transcend the genre mechanics and create a kind of pure action cinema that's worth watching on its own. If Lorraine Broughton comes back in a sequel I'd love to see a better script, but the character shouldn't change a thing.