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.