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

Detroit


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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Big Sick


The Big Sick is the story of how Kumail Nanjiani, comedian and Silicon Valley co-star, met his wife Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardner here) and stood by her side during her serious illness early in their relationship. Nanjiani plays himself, he and Gordon wrote the script together and director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow sublimate their own styles to serve this unusual story. There is also another story in the film, one about the balance between assimilating into American life and honoring one's own traditions. In the film Emily breaks up with Kumail when she discovers that he has been - against his will - meeting Pakistani women at his parents' insistence to enter into an arranged marriage. Kumail's parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) don't know about Emily and view marrying a Pakistani woman as Kumail's only option. We find out early on that Kumail has discovered his own values: told by his mother to go downstairs for daily prayers, Kumail sets the timer on his phone and waits out the time by watching YouTube instead.

The early scenes of Kumail and Emily together hit familiar meet-cute touchstones. Kumail flirts by writing Emily's name in Urdu, and she tells him she's too busy with graduate school to date but still takes his calls. Nanjiani and Kazan play well together though - Kazan is luminous and Nanjiani surprisingly charismatic when arguing with his parents about the future. When Emily is put into a medically induced coma Kazan's energy goes out of the movie and is replaced by that of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's worried parents. There is no plot as such to this segment of the film, or it might be more accurate to say there are too many plots. We detour into the parents' marriage and into Kumail's comedy career, but a romantic comedy where one partner isn't awake couldn't do much better than these actors. Hunter, highly caffeinated, is a ball of worry and misplaced anger while Romano is very good as a conflicted man working out how he feels about his own marriage.

Judd Apatow leaves his mark on most projects he produces (Bridesmaids), but he also knows how to support a strong vision (Girls). The Big Sick isn't as loose and bawdy as other Apatow films, though Nanjiani and Apatow both share a love for scenes of comedians ribbing each other. (The denizens of Kumail's comedy club include characters played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and David Alan Grier.) There is also a very funny running bit about Kumail's one-man show about Pakistan that feels like it came from the ashes of something real. Anyone who has followed Nanjiani knows how The Big Sick turns out, but at the end the focus on adults making decisions is very welcome. There are no last scene of Trainwreck hijinks here. In a summer of the familiar, The Big Sick has found an audience and introduced new talent to the screen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk


Six soldiers are walking through an empty town. One tries to drink from a hose, another looks for a used cigarette. They do not speak. Gunfire from an unseen source erupts, and the soldiers try to defend themselves. Five men whose names we never learn are killed. Only Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) gets away. The previous six sentences are the opening sequence of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's visceral but supremely controlled film about the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. A title card tells us all we need to know: Germans have pushed Allied soldiers to the Dunkirk beach, where they are being pounded by air while the Allies hold on to a shaky perimeter. The British have no mechanism for evacuating 400,000 men. When Tommy makes it to the safety of the perimeter we get our first look at what is happening on the beach, a kind of organized nothingness. Soldiers queue up for ships that aren't coming - water conditions made it impossible to take men directly off the beach in large boats - while wounded men are evacuated at a ship docked at the "mole" (a large jetty). As the Germans continue to bomb, the officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) can only contain damage and keep the mole clear for the next ship.Nolan cuts away from the beach to two other story lines. When the British Navy calls for civilian help to evacuate soldiers, a man (Mark Rylance) pilots his boat across the channel to see what he can do. Two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage with German fighters in an attempt to protect those on the beach.

Dunkirk breaks our idea of what a war film can or should be by fitting in to neither of the two models that we're accustomed to. There isn't a "mission" to accomplish here other than to survive, and though we keep returning to Tommy on the beach there isn't anything special about his situation or about the men (including one played by pop star Harry Styles) he eventually falls in with. Nolan wrote the screenplay for Dunkirk himself, and he spends no time in the script (reported to be only seventy-six pages long) making a moral case for the war effort and in fact never shows German soldiers. The most patriotic moment we get is a recitation of Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but where Nolan places Churchill's words and the performance of the actor delivering them render them highly ironic. Yet Dunkirk isn't a critique of war either, this isn't Nolan's M.A.S.H.. It's a film about what it feels like when a torpedo hits the boat you're on - the film's most terrifying sequence - and the choice to sacrifice some so that others might live. Filmmakers have spent millions of dollars trying to evoke the emotions that Nolan gets here by just holding the camera on Kenneth Branagh's face for a few seconds. Tom Hardy's performance as the pilot Farrier is entirely behavioral - almost all of his dialogue is about fuel consumption - but the character's heroism doesn't need to be commented on. The one strand of Dunkirk that maybe shouldn't work but does is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson. Rylance is essentially playing the Soul of the British People, a pillar of duty and rectitude who doesn't reveal his personal motives until the job is done. It's a role that in lesser hands could have been a delivery system for whatever message the filmmaker wanted to impart, but Nolan keeps the character on task and Rylance underplays gorgeously. Mr. Dawson's rescue of a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and the soldier's subsequent behavior are the closest that Nolan comes to a conventional examination of war's psychological effects.

The last section of Dunkirk ties the film's three plots together in ways that aren't entirely surprising. It's here that the film feels most constructed, as if the script were a problem to be worked out. I'm not sure that film needed this tidiness when what has come before was so experiential, but the economy of Nolan's choices creates a tension that otherwise might have had to be ginned up with speeches and back story. It's no accident that Dunkirk is Nolan's shortest film since his debut, it needed to be. Dunkirk is a major advance for both Christopher Nolan and the war film, and if Nolan keeps working in the non-fantasy space then it also points to fascinating work to come.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Beguiled


Virginia, 1864. A young girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) is picking mushrooms when she comes across a wounded Union Corporal named McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods outside her boarding school. Amy brings the Corporal to the school and their meeting is the beginning of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, a drama of last chances and unspoken hopes made with Coppola's usual understatement and without an ounce of storytelling fat. Coppola is the second director to film Thomas Cullinan's 1960's-written novel, and while I haven't seen Don Siegel's 1971 version with Clint Eastwood it is hard to imagine Siegel elevating the emotional lives of women the way that Coppola does here. (A glance at the trailer for the Siegel version suggests a different take on the McBurney character.) In Colin Farrell's performance McBurney is whatever the women need him to be- he's a friend to young Amy, a conversation piece to Jane (Angourie Rice), and at first an irritation to headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) - but the woman who pins most of her hopes on the Corporal is the lonely teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).Coppola's screenplay never forgets that McBurney is a soldier in enemy territory, and Farrell's performance always carries the suggestion that McBurney is aware of what can be gained from each encounter with the women. When McBurney seems to achieve the upper hand after an act of violence the film points towards a bloody conclusion, but in the last shot Coppola reveals just where her priorities were all along.

Most of The Beguiled takes place inside the decaying mansion that now serves as Martha's school. Coppola puts all of the women in the same shot as often as she can, either in prayer or around the piano or at the dinner table. There is little camera movement until the film's last act, and the effect that Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd achieve is one of stasis. Martha and her charges are trapped with the war ending and the Union Army closing in, and the addition of McBurney to the household only pushes the women together further even as emotional fissures are exposed. Coppola and Le Sourd also chose to shoot in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which highlights the claustrophobia - we're always aware of how small the rooms are - and also evokes older films. As well-chosen as Coppola's visual strategies are, they wouldn't mean a thing if it weren't for her actors. Kirsten Dunst (who worked with Coppola in this) as Edwina achieves a moving plainness that I'm not sure she has ever been asked to play. Edwina, first seen teaching French to Alicia (Elle Fanning) and the older girls, sees McBurney as a way out and it's a tribute to Dunst that we're genuinely not sure she has ever imagined a different life before. McBurney seems to have feelings for Edwina, and when she begins to dress more boldly - wearing dresses that expose her shoulders - the effect is both touching and little awkward. Nicole Kidman plays Martha as a sharp knife under a blanket of good manners, and while I loved Dunst's performance I also wanted more of Kidman and Farrell together. The only performance I'm not sure of is Elle Fanning's as Alicia, who is moonstruck by attraction to McBurney but plays the character as a touch too pouty and modern.

The Beguiled ends with an image of Miss Martha and her girls together, having achieved a measure of freedom but still very much prisoners of the world around them. The shot probably carries more weight now than even Coppola intended, but it's also another strong choice by a director in superb control of her effects.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Baby Driver



In Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, style is a currency. The new crime film was shot in and supposedly takes place in Atlanta, but in Wright's conception the city takes on a sort of heightened flatness. It might as well be anywhere. The background is a dull mass of city streets so that the robbers pulling various jobs for Doc (Kevin Spacey) can pop and preen and zing each other while our hero known as Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives them away from the cops. The opening post-robbery chase is refreshing for how precise it is; we're right with Baby as he switches freeways and hides his car between two others of a similar make and color. Back at the hideout there's some figurative chest-bumping among the gang - I could have done with more from the robber played by Jon Bernthal - and we learn Baby's story. The accident that killed Baby's parents left him with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that Baby drowns out by constantly playing his iPod. Baby also has a habit of recording the conversations of those around him and turning them into what the script generously calls "music", and if you're thinking that recording criminals might not be the smartest choice then this isn't your first time at the movies.

The character of Baby is anything the movie needs him to be at any given moment, but Edgar Wright forgot to write a person. Baby speaks less than any of the other major characters, but Ansel Elgort can't pull off the air of mystery required for Baby to win the heart of sweet-faced waitress Debora (Lily James). The robberies become more violent when Bats (Jamie Foxx) joins the crew, and Baby is upset by the violence until the film needs him to be able to commit violent acts to escape. (Baby Driver is very much a “last job” film.) Again, Elgort is too passive here. Even the celebrated wall-to-wall music – everything from Jonathan Richman to Young MC - is little more than a tic and a thing for characters to talk about. Baby’s musical taste is perfectly catholic and he seems to have almost no opinions about what he listens to. My favorite character in Baby Driver is Buddy (Jon Hamm), who robs to support a drug habit and his wife and fellow robber Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Hamm – and Foxx too – both play their characters as if they know they’re in a genre movie, but Hamm adds a layer of worn-out menace. Buddy is the one character in Baby Driver who makes me believe that things are at stake. The energy and goodwill of Baby Driver are palpable, but Wright needed a better foundation below his shiny surface and an actor who could better hold the film’s center.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Circle (spoilers)


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

T2 Trainspotting/Your Name



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

Work By Friends: Kaitlyn Eastin's The Smoke Trilogy


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

Ghost in the Shell (spoilers)

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

CHiPs


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

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore


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


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

Logan/Get Out



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


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

John Wick Chapter 2 (mild spoilers)



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!