Friday, February 12, 2016

Dead and Loathing It: DEADPOOL

At last there’s a movie for anyone who really wants a cheap R-rated X-Men movie. Deadpool, a comparatively low-budget and almost entirely disconnected spin-off of Fox’s superhero mutant team-up franchise, follows a sampler of the exploits of a smart aleck mercenary (Ryan Reynolds) who is cured of cancer and given regenerative powers like Wolverine’s. Ah, but the mad scientists who do it (led by the new Transporter Ed Skrein and Haywire’s Gina Carano) have vague and nefarious ulterior motives. This leaves the guy left for dead a scarred and burned mutant with a bad attitude. He’s out for revenge, putting on a tight red suit and mask and calling himself Deadpool, determined to kill everyone who wronged him. That doesn’t sound very heroic, and indeed he resists the label the entire way through a movie of nonstop profanity and violence interrupted only by its protagonist’s wall-to-wall interior monologue. He turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience in a motormouthed outpouring of cynical snark, as if winkingly calling out its own shortcomings and relentlessly lampshading the usual superhero formula will inoculate it against criticism.

It’s faithful to the original comics creation, presenting an arrogant self-aware fourth-wall breaker engaging in huge amounts of potty-mouthed violence. He talks to us, dictates some edits, calls for needle drops, and even moves the camera at one point. Mostly he just comments on the events in progress with juvenile wisecracking, or spits out cultural references and self-deprecating comments. He tells us the budget was cheap, Reynolds is a bad actor, and nods towards the franchise’s knottiness. (He throws out an action figure from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and upon hearing a reference to Professor X he asks, “McAvoy or Stewart?”) The movie goes out of its way to smarmily flatter the audience for catching the references.

But for all the screenplay (by Zombieland’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) literally protests that this isn’t the usual superhero movie – taking potshots at the competition while admiring its own casual vigilante gore, filthy language, and mind-in-the-gutter exploitation – this is a movie undeniably built on the bones of a thoroughly exhausted and totally predictable origin story structure. It opens with a nasty fit of bloody action – crunching cars, flying decapitations, and viscera splattering on road signs – before flashing back to happier times that slowly catch us up. It fills in details of his pre-power days, introduces his comic relief buddy (T.J. Miller) and his lost love (Homeland’s Morena Baccarin), and the wrongs done to him. Then it’s back to the action, as X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), stepping in as if from a better, brighter movie, reluctantly join superpowered fights hammering toward a conclusion.

The edgier elements may be turned up to 11, but the more it loudly and repetitively claims to be something new and innovative, the less it seems true. The movie is terminally impressed with itself, convinced putting blood, boobs, and bad words in a standard superhero revenge actioner inherently makes it better. The script, and the chatterbox commentary from Deadpool, has the wit of a particularly unimaginative adolescent boy, preoccupied with bodily functions, focused on sexual and violent fantasies, and punctuated with four-letter words and bullying insults. Puerile and putrid, it finds sex acts, gory kills, and vulgarity equally giggle-worthy.

As a result, Deadpool is irritating, repetitive, and deadening. It’s a smug, smutty, and self-satisfied movie as ugly as it is off-putting. It drains all natural charisma from its performers, sending them through bland effects sequences dirtied up with extra splashes of strained irreverence and material trying so hard to offend it’s just sad. Give director Tim Miller (an effects’ artist making his feature debut) some (very small) credit for wanting to stretch the superhero movie a bit, but maybe we should stop complaining about the genre’s homogeneity if this is what passes for trying something different. The characters are thinly sketched. The look is flat, flavorless, and grey. The tone is a swamp of pointless nihilism laughing at itself. The plot is too thin for narrative propulsion, and too hobbled by its smirking protagonist for emotional investment. Everything’s a bad joke, and nothing is worth taking seriously, although the movie has enough bravado and posturing that it’s clear it convinced itself it’s a hip puncturing of the genre instead of a mean-spirited affirmation of its nastiest impulses.

And then there’s its repellent, often disgusting, love of violence. The movie revels in it, not the choreography or the spectacle but the visual fact of innards spurting from wounds, projectiles ripping flesh, and blades impaling organs. There’s an extended slapstick gag about Deadpool breaking his hands and legs and wobbling around in pain before he heals himself. It’s loud, overextended, pointless, and uncomfortable, but par for the course in a movie that treats a gunshot to the head as a punchline – not once, not twice, but every time. It’s no funnier than the tired improv insults and cheap shots that pass for humor in the rest of the movie. This all adds up to an interminable experience, none of the best parts of superhero movies and all of the worst, plus a whole bunch of added irritants.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Feels Like Taking Crazy Pills: ZOOLANDER 2

You have to be a smart filmmaker to make something so gloriously dumb. Fifteen years after directing, co-writing, and starring in Zoolander, a featherlight and endearingly silly cult comedy about a dim male model caught up in an assassination plot, Ben Stiller has revived his character for a sequel that’s bigger, louder, and dumber. It’s uneven and unnecessary, and takes some time to really get going. But it’s also an admirable sustained effort of Hollywood money and craftsmanship put towards utter nonsense. Absurd and unusual, Stiller strains the limits of the studio comedy for completely unsubstantial goofing around with a ridiculously good-looking and totally preposterous premise. Is it a good movie? That’s hard to say. It barely hangs together at times, overstuffed with story and unconcerned with anything but a wobbly weirdness. But who says it has to be any more than that?

The movie finds Zoolander retired, living, as he puts it, “as a hermit crab” in the remote wintry wilderness of northernmost New Jersey. We’re told in a blitz of fake news footage that shortly after the first movie his wife was killed and his son was taken away by child services. That’s awfully heavy backstory to ladle on such a frivolous film, especially paired with a strange sideways 9/11 reference. But then Billy Zane (playing himself) treks out to convince Zoolander to start modeling again and win back his son from the orphanage. This kicks off an overflowing movie that’s in addition concerned with Zoolander’s equally dim old rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), who has also been retired for over a decade, nursing anxiety over a facial scar and a complicated polyamorous romance with a dozen people, including surprising celebrities and a handful of random people (my favorite: a chimney sweep who lingers in the background of shots). He agrees to join Zoolander on the quest to be relevant in the modeling world once again.

Together they encounter a whole mess of plot. There are professional frustrations with a hotshot hipster designer (Kyle Mooney, hilariously affecting dopey mispronunciations and fumbling confidence), a conniving Italian fashion mogul (Kristen Wiig, wearing Lady Gaga gowns and adding three extra syllables to every word), a suspicious orphanage manager (Justin Theroux, with a powdered George Washington wig slapped on top of dreadlocks), and the looming threat of old villain Mugatu (Will Ferrell, deliriously and wildly campy). There’s also an Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz) investigating the mysterious murders of several pop stars (including Justin Bieber, in a cameo that’s 90% stunt double which serves as the film’s violent cold open) and a search for the Fountain of Youth. There’s a lot going on. The movie feeds exaggerated excesses of the fashion industry into a glossy spy movie’s extremes, inane ornate designs mixed with thundering score, concussive transitions, and a hurtling tangle of conspiracies.

A key early mistake is assuming we care about Zoolander and Hansel as characters, but by the time the plot’s spinning on its crazy way, the movie itself has forgotten that it ever even feinted towards taking any emotional underpinning at anything close to face value. Even as the subplot involving the long-lost son becomes the best part, Stiller knows this is all totally unserious, an elaborate goof. He, with co-writers Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg, create a reason to stuff the film chockablock with innuendos, misunderstandings, malapropisms, sight gags, cameos, baroquely offbeat production design, wackadoodle characterizations, and more than a few baffling decisions (like making Fred Armisen play a freakish, mostly CGI 11-year-old for one scene). Cinematographer Dan Mindel (of The Force Awakens and other fantastical action films) gives it all a shiny thriller gloss and bright comedy sheen, playing up every absurd detail with a grainy poker face.

Stiller simply lets the unexpected striking nonsense flow. There’s a scene late in the picture where a boy is locked in a clown-themed dungeon with a giant plastic pig face on the wall drizzling lard out of its snout. Elsewhere a car flips over a dozen more times than you’d expect. A former swimsuit model explains she became a secret agent because her large breasts prevented her from graduating to runway work. A ghost serenely explains that she doesn’t care about anything anymore, because she’s dead. A long-secret connection between male models and rock stars is revealed by a music legend who patiently says they’re only separated by two genes (talent and intelligence). Not every joke lands. (An extended bit with Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender fluid model is cringe-worthy.) But with a movie this densely dizzy with oddball ideas loosely held together by a flimsy plot, it’s a pleasure just to be along for the ride. I had a big dumb grin while waiting to see what insubstantial surprise silliness was around the next corner.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Did anyone really read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I guess I’d always assumed Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mashup of Jane Austen’s classic book with zombie schlock was a gag gift at best, built for a quick smirk at the title the first few times one saw it, but destined for remainder bins and yard sale stacks. Now it’s a movie, so I guess someone had to get around to cracking the spine. I was surprised to find that its Hollywood incarnation has been made by filmmakers who have taken its premise rather seriously. The title makes it sound like a joke, but in practice it is both a Regency zombie movie hobbled by an overreliance on Austen’s novel’s structure, and a passably earnest Austen adaptation constantly interrupted by lowest Comic-Con denominator brain-munching action. What an odd mix. Odder still is that writer-director Burr Steers almost gets away with it.

I suspect it’s far too much zombie for Austen fans and far too much Austen for zombie fans. It is possible, though, that you might be like me and sit closer to the middle of that particular Venn diagram, in which case you might find some small diversion here. After all, what with most Austen novels having been adapted several times over, and Pride and Prejudice in particular getting at least two essentially perfect cinematic expressions (last in 2005, from Joe Wright), and the modern zombie Romero-knockoff apocalypse now a walking dead subgenre, it’s worth indulging an experiment in trying something new. I’m all for period-piece monster movies and reimagined classic literature, and everyone involved in this particular idea seems reasonably committed to seeing it through. But this high-concept blending serves to slowly eat away at both halves of its genre mashup.

The story of the Bennet sisters and their mother’s desire to marry them off loses a good deal of sociological fascination when the war is not with France but with the undead, and the young ladies are not merely a reflection of 19th century English mores but are trained in the art of fighting zombies. (They're treated like classic lit pinups in the process.) We see Elizabeth (Lily James, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) and her sisters (including Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote and Insurgent’s Suki Waterhouse) cleaning guns and sharpening blades, tucking them in leather holsters under their skirts. They’re combat ready. But a story of zombie destruction loses a great deal of urgency when so much narrative space is given over to the relationship dynamics and developments Pride and Prejudice’s narrative of romantic negotiations requires.

All this straight-faced seriousness makes for an often monotonous film, balanced between loud bloody jumpy horror violence and tony emotional appeals. It’s a Pride and Prejudice from an alternate universe. As Elizabeth Bennet, James, who is constantly shot to show off cleavage just about heaving out of her dresses, nearly makes her emotional journey work in the midst of this nonsense. The movie’s cleverest moments come from literalizing Elizabeth’s verbal sparring by turning it into actual combat. There is a Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a clenched, standoffish rich bachelor whose heart is destined to melt for her. This time he’s an expert zombie hunter in a leather tailcoat. Other suitors include the usual: a sincere young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), a proud George Wickham (Jack Huston), and a comic relief Parson Collins (Matt Smith, pretty funny, too). And Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is also a zombie slayer, wearing an ominous eyepatch and sporting two swords.

The result is neither a successful Austen adaptation nor a satisfying zombie story, the inclusion of each a detraction from the other. But however poor the fit, it mostly held my interest as I watched Steers – whose past work with high concepts has gone both surprisingly right (17 Again) and horribly wrong (Charlie St. Cloud) – and crew keep the film’s central disjunction from tipping over into camp. The cast acts like they’re in a serious literary adaptation, and Remi Adefarasin (also cinematographer on handsome British historical dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age) shoots glossy period detail, old buildings, and beautiful green fields without a wink. But then, shambling hordes of undead drip into the frame and it’s back to the decapitations and shots to the head that the horror crowd wants to see.

The idea of putting a zombie movie in a historical setting is a clever one, and the Regency period, so rich with literary and cinematic antecedents is as good as any. It enlivens the old tropes somewhat to see them enacted by people in period costume and preoccupied with centuries old concerns. But this potential glimmer of inspiration is largely squandered as the movie slowly loses energy to its plodding plot. If you’re going to make such a mashup, why not cut loose from the source materials and let the imagination run wild? Instead, it sticks awfully close to zombie clichés and the structure of Austen’s original story. Still, Steers’ film may very well be the best one could do with such an inherently broken premise. It’s a swing and a miss, a dumb idea done blandly. I just wish they hadn’t dragged Pride and Prejudice into this, though it’s at least more respectful of it than Mark Twain, who wrote, “Everytime I read [it] I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Now there’s an idea for a literary zombie movie.

Friday, February 5, 2016

No Business Like Show Business: HAIL, CAESAR!

There’s a zen saying that suggests, “The most dangerous thing in the world is to think you understand something.” This could be a good description for the outlook of any Coen brothers’ film, works invested in ambiguities and absurdities of human lives as reflected in the worldviews and systems that control them. One man’s belief is another man’s mystery, and Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career out of stories of existential crises told through oddball humor and offbeat suspense. Their latest is Hail, Caesar!, a film full of people who think they understand, having figured out deep reverence for some larger ideological force or another: the Bible, Das Kapital, Hollywood’s studio system. But where does that certainty get them? It’s the early 1950s, and a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) is heading into a day that’ll be full of complications to test many a person’s certainties, a straight-faced screwball panic, or maybe philosophical wrestling on laughing gas. Either way it’s a pip, but with typical Coen precision and deliberateness.

Sustained goofing on classic Hollywood, a day-in-the-life on the backlot not too far removed from Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s, the Coens follow Brolin’s studio suit from set to set wrangling stars, quelling complaints, and staving off controversy. The fictional Capitol Pictures is hard at work on several movies: a bathing beauty musical, a wordy melodrama, a dancing sailors movie, a singing cowboy picture, and a Biblical epic. Bopping between the films in progress we’re presented with a great imitation of Hollywood iconography: a little Robert Taylor here, some Esther Williams there, with Gene Kelly, Roy Rodgers, and others thrown in for good measure. It’s like a bleary Turner Classic Movies binge if you kept passing out and dreaming ridiculous connective behind-the-scenes tissue between disparate films. The Coens have fun conjuring up winking nods to historical references points, and mimicking the style of 50’s filmmaking. (Lap dissolves, rear projection, matte paintings and more show up.) It’s in love with its pastiche, but has enough distance to maintain an aloof absurdism.

Between fun sketches of films within the film we’re treated to a stew of behind-the-scenes silliness, wacky shenanigans that find increasingly offbeat expression on their way to some head-scratching conclusions. (“Accept the mystery,” as a character from the Coen’s great, maybe greatest, work A Serious Man might say.) Hail, Caesar! is set in motion when work on said Biblical epic is thrown into jeopardy when its star (played with daffy blockheaded charm by George Clooney) is kidnapped by two devious extras intent on delivering him to a clandestine meeting of Hollywood subversives in Malibu. This is, of course, the day’s biggest problem for Brolin’s harried studio middleman, who’s fielding a job offer from an aircraft manufacture, but can’t quite shake the fun of all this show business. He tries to keep the story quiet, even as ransom notes show up and there’s a dozen other problems needing his attention. Who ever said his job was easy?

This is the Coen’s fizziest man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown story, like the better, more downbeat, though still plenty funny, Barton Fink or Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis played in a major key. Brolin scurries around dealing with an unmarried ingénue (Scarlett Johansson) whose pregnancy is a problem for her innocent image, a Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who is an awkward fit for a drawing room drama by a fancy director (Ralph Fiennes), and competitive twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) sniffing around the smell of scandal. A host of studio employees (played by the likes of Channing Tatum, Clancy Brown, Wayne Knight, and Frances McDormand, to name a few) scramble through the story, most getting a few amusing moments bouncing off Brolin’s clench-jawed determination. He’s grinding through the day, keeping total calamity at bay. Sure, a job overseeing airplane factories would be easier, but wouldn’t he miss the fun of racing around Los Angeles, dealing with all the kooks and their crisises?

In its meandering way, Hail, Caesar! takes the usual Coen delight in dialogue, peculiar turns of phrase, droll patter, looping repetition, dry sarcasm, airy eccentricities, and narrative dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. And all this, of course, serves only to reveal characters dancing over the deep abyss of uncertainty. Like a softer version of what their sharply cynical Burn After Reading did to the espionage game – turning paranoid thriller mechanics on their ear to amplify the absurdity and the impossibility of “making sense” – this film asks if cinema – with all its egos, pretentions, and petty gossip – is serious business. The answer is: not really. Show business is cut from some deeply silly cloth. But it’s no better than anyone else who claims to be doing important work – a priest, a rabbi, a pawn of the military-industrial complex, a studio stooge, a Communist. That round-up sounds like a cast list for a great joke, and that’s what the Coens try for here, staging scenes in which all the above, and more too, make themselves out to be figures of fun when they take themselves too seriously.

The film often feels slight, busy goofing around, doodling with silly details and funny performances, Roger Deakins’ brightly lit, primary color-popping cinematography letting wacky backstage antics and a variety of movie genres bleed off the backlot and into conversation with one another. But it picks up weight as it punctures windbags’ hot air and scoffs at those who are too sure they have the perfect understanding of anything – history, economics, politics, morality, you name it. Everyone’s spinning their own stories about how the world works, but their boats are easily rocked. Shouldn’t there always be room for doubt, like an actor delivering a passionate speech, but forgetting his closing line? The movies, this film seems to say, may be frivolous gossamer illusions, but isn’t anything we cling to in order to make sense of our lives? If we’re going to lose ourselves in soothing fictions, it may as well come from dazzling Technicolor fantasies lighting up the silver screen.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Village of Pandas: KUNG FU PANDA 3

A fine conclusion to its trilogy, Kung Fu Panda 3 is as energetic and visually dazzling as you’d hope and expect from one of DreamWorks Animation’s very best franchises. What’s so continually satisfying about this series is its tradition of making what are effectively animated kung fu movies. Sure, they feature anthropomorphic cartoon animals living in a cartoony simulacrum of ancient China. But these are films with interfamily conflict, wizards and warlords, masters and students, training montages, action balanced between clever slapstick and dangerous dance, and heaps of mystical spirituality where inner peace and self-knowledge are the most effective skills and power the most awesome moves. I like imagining that somewhere there’s a kid who gets into vintage Jackie Chan or Shaw Brothers films because they’re so over the moon about this fun string of movies about a panda who learns to be a kung fu master.

These movies are plenty fun on their own terms, too. 3 picks up with Po the panda (Jack Black) and his kung fu teammates (tiger Angelina Jolie, mantis Seth Rogen, viper Lucy Liu, crane David Cross, and monkey Jackie Chan) enjoying down time in the peaceful valley they’ve saved twice over. Having become The Dragon Warrior and coming to peace with his tragic past, what’s left for Po to do? Well, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po he needs to complete his training by finding inner strength. To do so, he must truly know who he is. Luckily enough, his long-lost biological father (Bryan Cranston) shows up in the village, eager to reconnect with the son he had to abandon all those years ago, and teach him the panda way. This gets Po excited, even though his adopted goose father (James Hong) fears his little panda cub will leave him forever. There’s a moving and special adoption story told with care through these silly figures.

But what would a kung fu movie be without external conflict? This one has a growling bull (J.K. Simmons), a villain defeated five centuries ago, escape from the spirit realm with an army of solid jade henchmen in tow. He’s on the rampage, out to capture the souls of all kung fu practitioners who stand in his way, and turn their lifeless bodies into more zombie soldiers to do his bidding. To learn how to defeat them, Po must travel to a secret panda village where maybe, just maybe, he can connect with ancient, long-forgotten panda magic. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger neatly – maybe too neatly – tie together his inner struggles with the needs of the action plot, leaving plenty of time to deliver heaping helpings of cute roly-poly panda antics. They’re adorable, and love to eat, hug, roll, dance, and sleep. What’s not to like? And then, when it’s time to get serious about defeating evil, they spring into action with the best of them.

Returning director Jennifer Yuh, who last time around broke the record for highest-grossing feature directed by a woman, works with co-director Alessandro Carloni (a longtime DreamWorks artist) to stage the film in bright, beautiful colors. It’s an extravagant explosion of fast-paced visual delights, swirling primary hues filling out lush exteriors and intricate architecture, snapping into high-contrast action when the adventure gets going. Where plot and character are concerned, this is a repetition, a riff on previous conflicts with character arcs consisting of reworked aspects of the first two films. But in motion, the movie moves and sings with contagious energy, each image colorful and intricately designed, bursting with zippy and clever choreography. Best are a mêlée that finds unexpectedly productive kung fu uses for pandas’ inherently cute lazy habits and bookending vibrant zero-g clashes in the spirit realm smashing swirls of glowing magic light through floating boulders.

The story boils down to the same be-yourself platitudes so many family films do, but at least it has the decency to be woo-woo mysto about it, and use it to hold up exciting, amusing, trippy, and striking imagery. The animators bring an elaborate fantasy look of the kind DreamWorks has been trying out these days (with this series, as well as their How to Train Your Dragons, Rise of the Guardians, and The Croods), even throwing split screens, hand-drawn interludes, and extreme color gradients into the mix of lush and buoyant imagery. As a combination reiteration and finale of the trilogy, it may not have the novelty of the first, or the weight of the second, but it is fun. If this is the last we see of Kung Fu Panda, it is a worthy conclusion and a perfect place to stop: with Po learning to love his two dads and be his best self, and with confetti, transcendence, warm and fuzzy reunions, and an angelic choir singing Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” in Chinese translation.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Watership Down: THE FINEST HOURS

Like a Norman Rockwell painting poured over The Perfect Storm, The Finest Hours is a sturdy, old-fashioned picture. Based on the true story of a 1952 Coast Guard rescue of a tanker split in two by horrendous winter weather, the film tells its tale in a rather conventional way. We meet a stubborn do-gooder guardsman (Chris Pine) and the sweet girl (Holliday Grainger) who’d like to marry him. Then the storm hits, the tanker is in trouble, and the man’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) sends him out on a small boat with a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) to do the impossible. Their boat is tossed about by the waves and winds, equipment malfunctions, and the sun sets. Meanwhile, the men on the tanker (over 30 of them, including Casey Affleck and John Ortiz) are struggling to stay afloat, with no way to make contact, and thus no way of knowing if help is even on the way. It’s a simple story, but the story is simply engaging.

A live action Disney movie, it looks and feels more or less like it would if the company made it in 1956, 66, 76, 86, 96, or 2006, modern tech aside. There’s a fine layer of timeless Hollywood gloss over it, and a proficient element of spectacle as special effects buffet the boats out in the storm and softly falling snow coats the coast in a sparkling snow globe lighthouse look. And in the midst of this is a dependable cast playing people who are largely identifiable types, but given just enough personality and interior lives for rooting interest beyond making it out alive, and to suggest a reality beyond the big studio lights on the sets and CG. The situation is inherently dramatic – true life-or-death stakes, with survival hinging on how well these people can do their jobs, and on the whims of nature. The screenplay (by The Fighter’s Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy) is smart not to undercut the proceedings. It crests perilous waves of cliché to find clear sailing to the heartstrings.

It borders on corny, but it never quite gets there, kept afloat by its forward momentum and reliably sturdy construction. Who’d have thought Craig Gillespie, the director of the Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-RealDoll movie Lars and the Real Girl and the fun Fright Night remake, would turn into a decent helmer for Disney based-on-a-true-story fare? With Finest Hours he improves on his dull sports movie Million Dollar Arm, this time telling an interesting and compelling narrative with good clarity for its process and perspective. We follow each boat’s progress through the storm, cutting between them, and some judicious glimpses of those fretting on the shore, hoping against hope that their guys will make it back alive. There’s a chaste romance at stake, and a couple dozen souls stranded in a rapidly failing craft. That’s plenty heart-tugging drama to get invested in, and a cast willing to play it earnestly.

The sequences on the listing half-tanker are the strongest, Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing crisply following a committed cast of character actors chewing on accents and sloshing around a convincingly dangerous waterlogged set, coming to terms with the long odds confronting them. The film is full of towering waves, howling winds, groaning bulkheads, straining chains, swinging beams, straining rudders, whirring propellers, and spasms of sparks and smoke. Gillespie focuses on these tactile details, in sharp, routine frames constructed to show off the heroic efforts taken by various crewmembers to save as many lives as they can. It’s a film that feels the movement of the bobbing waves, the strain on an engine as a boat takes on weight, and the taxing whir of overpowered pumps slowly letting water creep higher up the engine room. It’s an engaging film of sturdy craftsmanship, the sort of feel-good inspirational fact-based family film I’m glad Disney hasn’t entirely given up on making in the shadow of their mega-blockbuster fantasies.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mother & Child: JAMES WHITE and ROOM

In James White and Room, two of 2015’s sharpest, most intimate, and intelligently moving dramas, the stories of a mother and her son take center stage. These are films with rich emotional terrain in claustrophobic settings, relationships trapped in place, with characters hoping for a miraculous way out to better futures. In James White an aimless twenty-something is caring for his mother as she slowly dies of cancer in her New York City apartment. In Room, a kidnapped young woman lives imprisoned in a shed with the 5-year-old she had with her captor and rapist. The films follow two very different dramatic scenarios, traumatic events where the love between mother and child is the only lifeline. The sons are naïve, confused, easily frustrated. The mothers are strong, complicated, and sad. And there are no easy answers.

James White is the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond, who makes a great first impression with a film of uncommonly blistering emotional honesty. The title character (played by an intense and sorrowful Christopher Abbott) is a painfully relatable rootless man in his late twenties – jobless, single, stuck. He’s a guy theoretically with many options for creating a life for himself, but can’t figure out where best to start, or how to find his break. This could be the start for an Apatow-ian man-child redemption arc, complete with a potential new love interest (Mackenzie Leigh) and a funny friend (Scott Mescudi). But Mond, through a close, expressive camera and sharply perceptive script, excavates arrested adolescent clichés to find deep, overwhelming reservoirs of pain and truth underneath. Here’s a young man who is truly stuck, not only by immaturity, or the obligations of taking care of his ailing mother, but by a helpless feeling as he sees the comfortable future he’d always assumed he’d have slipping away. He can’t see a way forward, so he’s just waiting for life to start.

Cynthia Nixon, as his dying mother, delivers an astonishingly complex portrait of a sickly woman who sees the struggles of her son and wishes she could help, even as she leans on him to get through each day. She knows there’s only so much encouragement she can provide before he needs to find on his own the initiative and lucky breaks that’ll help him move forward. She doesn’t want him using her illness as just another excuse to stay put. Sure, she’s scared of dying, but she’s also worried about leaving her boy to figure out the world on his own. (She’s been separated from his father, who has died shortly before the film begins, an added mournful layer.) Slow-motion grief is displayed in agonizingly precise emotional specificity, as are the frustrations of being young and disconnected from those around you. It’s not every young person who has to watch a parent die. It’s one thing to head out into the so-called real world to start your own life. It’s another thing entirely to have no parents to go back to.

An early scene finds James in a club, alone, listening to his own music through headphones. He’s always separated, distant, suffocating in his sadness and stasis, even when talking to friends and flirts. Selfish, bitter, angry, anxious, and mean, James isn’t always a pleasant figure, but that’s what makes Mond’s film so satisfying an unflinching character study. It’s a film of compassion towards its characters, but never indulges their flaws, understanding them without excusing them. This makes moments of fleeting pure goodness and connection all the more transcendent. In the film’s most moving and devastating scene, James uses his tendency to live in his own interior world to extend an invitation to his mother, using a shared imagined cozy future to provide some comfort. They talk about a time, years from now, when she’ll be the warm grandmother and he’ll be the happy family man. They know it’ll never arrive, but can still take solace in this oasis of hope and connection in a world stretched thin with sadness.

While James White is about a mother slowly fading away, hoping her son finds some way out of his depression, Room concerns itself with a more literal captivity, where hope is for a more literal freedom. And yet it finds in its potential True Crime luridness – screenwriter Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel, was inspired by similar real life stories – a wisely observed empathy. Steadfastly humane, and gentle in its decidedly non-sensationalistic approach to the nastier moments, the film is attuned to the psychological effects of its scenario on all involved. The mother (Brie Larson) is both victim and protector. The boy (Jacob Tremblay) has never known any different. He thinks Room is the entire world, and everything else is imaginary outer space. When his mother finally decides to tell him the truth, at a level he can understand, it’s a shock. He doesn’t want to believe, but then, slowly, he begins to understand that they need to escape.

The first half of Room is claustrophobic, intensely small. The mother leads her boy through exercises, tries to teach him as best she can, and feeds him with supplies dropped off by the captor on his weekly trips to rape her. (The boy is hidden away in a wardrobe where he can’t see the attacks on his mother.) This is intense subject matter, softened but not diminished by its perspective, narrated by the kid in a precocious and innocent voice. There’s great narrative and emotional clarity, as the film presents its character’s thoughts with ease, Larson and Tremblay doing impressive work communicating interiority with a shift of appearance. The camera is close, always ready to catch faces in motion, in dramatic outbursts and microexpressions alike. And yet the movie never grows visually stale, always finding clear and casual ways to chart their predicament without imprisoning the viewer alongside them.

When it, at last, approaches a pivot point, the film grows richer still, allowing us to see how difficult it would be to go on living with such a massive trauma, such lingering confusion. There’s an entire second half to the story that continues well past where other, lesser, versions of this story would claim victory, then catharsis, then stop. Donoghue keeps going, committing to the concept so fully she wants to see it through, consider its implications from all sides. We go beyond the room. We see other characters. The world opens up, as overwhelming as it is a relief. And there we find the movie’s real power sits not in its skillful conjuring of unimaginable trauma, but in its wise and compassionate understanding of how thoroughly such a scenario would complicate one’s life.

There’s no easy resolution, and the messy emotions it invokes in the characters will take a great deal of time to heal. By allowing us access to the mother’s conflicting and confusing feelings – great love for her child, but great fear and resentment for the situation that led to his creation – that’ll make healing a long, difficult, and in some ways impossible challenge. This is a film that’s smartly concerned with the impact of its ideas. The strong script and tremendous performances make this director Lenny Abrahamson’s best film. He brings it to vivid life by focusing it all on the emotional core, modulating the production design, from expansive smallness of captivity, to exterior wide spaces pressing in, as he creates a convincing world of complicated psychological territory seen through the eyes of a child, and through the lens of connection between mother and son. Love can’t conquer all, but it sure can help.
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