Monday, October 26, 2015

Mac Man: STEVE JOBS


Steve Jobs was a brilliant designer and a difficult person. He was a free-thinking creative and a prickly perfectionist. He was partly responsible for some amazing technological innovations and an often unrepentant jerk. This is not only the conventional wisdom about the man who co-founded Apple Computers. This is the sum total of insight Steve Jobs, a handsome but empty Hollywood prestige picture, brings to the table. Here was a man full of contradictions, who oversaw the creation of the Macintosh computer and the iPod, and yet in the process of being an insufferable genius got fired, and then rehired, by the company he helped create. A mystique about him as a cool figure, a Silicon Valley guru with crossover appeal lingers. All that is interesting, but the film breaks down the story into obvious binaries – work and family, art and commerce, intellect and empathy. It’s overwritten, obvious, and thinly developed.

At least it’s not a conventional biopic like 2013’s Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs, which blandly recounted the broad strokes of his life. Aaron Sorkin has written a predictably wordy script rather thrillingly, at least in theory, structured around three product launches: the 1984 Mac computer, the 1988 NeXT cube, and the 1998 iMac. Each represents a phase of Jobs at Apple. The first shows us the man at his early peak, right before he sets in motion the events that’ll lead to his dismissal. Next, we see Jobs in exile, struggling to make a computer with enough buzz to reclaim his tech genius status in the industry and the media. Lastly, we see his triumphant return, launching the product line that eventually leads to the iPod and iPad. Michael Fassbender, in a deftly chatty but mostly unconvincing performance, plays Jobs as a man always performing, dominating a room with his outsized expectations, willing reality to distort to his desires.

Each segment takes place backstage before a press and shareholders event, Jobs pacing, contemplating his speech, and focusing on last minute details. Each time, the same sets of characters run up to engage him in conversations that are exclusively variations on the same exact themes. Jobs’s assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet in a slippery accent) runs behind him fixing problems and treating him with tough maternal concern. Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) shows paternal interest, sagely contemplating his colleague’s flaws before erupting in frustration. An engineer (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants Jobs to go easier on him. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants more public recognition for his department’s contributions. And Job’s estranged ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and their daughter he refuses to acknowledge (as a teen, Perla Haney-Jardine, pre-teen, Ripley Sobo, and at first little Makenzie Moss) have emotional appeals.

It sure is convenient they all showed up to have similar arguments before these three different big moments, and it’s tedious to watch the repetitions develop. (The best scenes break out of the structure in flashbacks, like a dramatic board meeting backlit by a rainstorm, and an early argument in the company’s garage origins.) I don’t care one bit if the movie’s conceit is true to the real events or real people involved. I only care that it doesn’t work emotionally or dramatically to reduce everyone down to a monotonous need expressed repeatedly and in too-similar ways. Sorkin’s vision of Jobs is a surface level expression of deep contradictions, juxtaposing him through lengthy walk-and-talk dialogue with characters representing differences in business, technology, or family, and watching him clash with them to get his own way. There are small fluctuations in his personality, but by the ending, with a swell of music, slow-mo, twinkling lights, and meaningful glances, I wasn’t entirely convinced he arrived at new understanding about himself any more than we had a better understanding about him than we had in the first five minutes.

This Jobs is very much a Sorkin figure. He’s whip smart and successful in his chosen profession, able to speak fluently and elegantly about his ideas (like The American President, The West Wing, and so on). He’s a distant prodigy who wants to help people in the abstract, but has difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and who thinks he can fill a hole in his heart with impressive invention (like Zuckerberg in the brilliant Social Network). The man’s been shoehorned into Sorkin’s old tricks without the overarching narrative interest or emotional specificity to excuse such tired troubled-man-of-greatness tropes. The movie says a lot, pages upon pages of monologues and diatribes spoken well by a talented cast. But for all the metaphors and cute turns of phrase, they’re really not saying much at all. What more do we know about who these characters are, or what they feel, or what they mean to their industry or to our times? Not much.

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), one of our most reliably visually eclectic and propulsive filmmakers, leaves most of the pyrotechnics to the screenplay’s verbal loop-de-loops. But he, with cinematographer Alwin Küchler, makes sure to indulge his interest in color and texture – lingering on a table with brightly colored notes reflected in Jobs’s glasses, setting a confrontation in a cavernous room crowded with overturned chairs, or throwing faded archival footage illustrating a metaphor on a blank wall behind a character. He has sharp blocking and canted angles cut together with pep from editor Elliot Graham. But there’s none of Boyle’s usual constant forward movement, excitement, dread. It’s curiously inert: a somnambulant approach that matches the strained profundity of the overall picture. Steve Jobs is at least trying to be something different, but it’s still the sort of movie that ends its big emotional climax with a man looking at his daughter’s Walkman and promising to invent a way to put 1,000 songs in her pocket. The movie is too clumsy and obvious for its own good.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Boo: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION


It was fun while it lasted. With the sixth Paranormal Activity, subtitled The Ghost Dimension, the novelty of what was, at times, our greatest minimalist horror franchise has worn off. At its best – most of 1, all of 3, and bits of the rest – simple strategies like locking down the camera for agonizing long takes, establishing repetitive editing and patterns of behavior, allowed the audience to lean in and really scrutinize the frame. Scares came slow, but rewarded patience and attention, creeping up on normal situations until the ghostly invasions were less and less easy to dismiss. Through this subtlety, jump scares really popped, and the basic elements of horror filmmaking – dark shadows, mysteriously moving objects, sudden noises, and footsteps of unknown provenance – were far scarier than a more baroque, explicit approach would manage.

Until now, the series featured admirable restraint, resisting the temptation to go big, to show more, to use additional items from the modern horror toolbox. Where the series has gone wrong in the past has been its moments where too much was revealed: flat answers to supernatural mysteries, intimations of larger importance, or a crowd of cultists nefariously standing around. The problem with The Ghost Dimension is the ghost, which director Gregory Plotkin (editor on four previous entries) and screenwriters Jason Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, and Gavin Heffernan see fit to reveal. The movie pulls back the curtain on the heretofore invisible haunting, revealing the being’s ultimate goal, and tying up as many loose ends from across the entire series as it can manage. It still tries the whole setting-up-cameras-around-the-house thing, but it escalates so quickly and develops so stupidly that’s by the time we arrive at an overly literal nihilistic conclusion, it’s only mildly unsettling at best.

We start with a new family living in what used to be the house from the 80s-set Paranormal Activity 3. They’re the most boring of all the families featured in the franchise. Best is an adorable little girl (Ivy George) ready to talk with Toby, an imaginary friend who’s really the house ghost. The parents (Chris J. Murray and Brit Shaw) are having her sister (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and his brother (Dan Gill) staying with them because Christmas is right around the corner. Holiday decorations are everywhere in the set, but are exploited too rarely. A battery-powered Frosty the Snowman comes to life singing in the middle of the night, and that’s worth a jolt, but why put two plastic Santas next to a fireplace if they were never going to be set ablaze? Talk about your missed opportunities. Anyway, the father finds an old camcorder left in a corner of the basement. Through it he sees otherwise invisible spectral dust. He thinks it’s a glitch, but quickly has more than enough evidence to know their house is infected with, you guessed it, paranormal activity.

Soon enough the family is setting up cameras all over the house, catching the disruptions that grow more violent and dangerous by the night. They know what’s wrong so much faster than any other family, and yet seem the least capable with figuring out their next best move. By the time they’re calling around looking for a priest, it’s too late. Toby is on the move, preparing a portal to his ultimate aims. The vintage camcorder shows us the underwhelming ghost as a mass of smoky dark CG tendrils materializing out of floating dust. The trick is that somehow this movie is both shot on VHS and in 3D, allowing the fuzz of video noise to float in front of the audience while the spirit’s components float in an overly-dimensional space. It’s a weird effect, unsettling and odd. Seeing the being behind the otherwise unknowable thunks and grabs sucks the air out of the scares. You can see them coming.

Like most long-running franchises, Paranormal Activity is no longer about anything but itself. It even has the characters find tapes that are what we know to be the raw footage of some previous installments, setting up a funny meta line: “They filmed everything!” We know the deal. Now, instead of midnight jolts setting your mind racing with questions about just what does happen in your house while you’re asleep, the narrative is all tied up in the tropes of its own making. We need to proceed through a variety of nights as the people are slow to understand the problem. They’ll ask the girl why she was out of her bed, pressing her mysteriously bloody hand against the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night. She says she doesn’t know. They shrug and set up the tape for the next night. It’s endless. Then it becomes long murky shaky shots of people running down dark hallways calling each others’ names and swearing. The filmmakers have hit the bottom of the series’ bag of tricks, and the last remaining ones – showing and explaining the ghost while unnecessarily providing answers – are only disappointing.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Center Stage: JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS


An unlikely down-tempo, live-action, very loose adaptation of an 80’s cartoon, Jem and the Holograms is a watchable feature likable at heart. It’s an ordinary star-is-born rock and roll movie made with some earnest attention to what makes some modern stardom different. It starts when Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples of ABC’s Nashville), a shy teenager, puts on a pink wig and David Bowie face paint, then sings one of her original songs into a camera, introducing her alter ego as “Jem.” Embarrassed, she thinks she deletes the video. But one of her sisters (Insidious 3’s Stefanie Scott) uploads it to YouTube, where somehow this modest, unassuming thing goes the most viral possible. The whole world is asking, “Who is Jem?” A record label emails about signing a contract with her. She’s reluctant, but her sisters (the others are Chasing Life’s Aurora Perrineau and The Fosters’ Hayley Kiyoko) are excited, and ready to be her band. You’re Internet famous, they tell her.

Ryan Landel’s script has a largely benevolent web culture play the petri dish in which a layer of authenticity can grow, ready to be plucked fresh and naïve from obscurity to be co-opted by corporate interests. These modern trappings give the movie its way into the usual star-on-the-rise metaphor for finding your true self. Jerrica and her sisters kiss their guardian (Molly Ringwald, projecting maternal warmth) goodbye as they are taken to Los Angeles and bankrolled into showbiz by a record executive (Juliette Lewis, delighting in fun line readings) who tells them they can’t be who they are. A flashy presence – introduced strutting in silver pants – she’s only interested in selling “Jem,” in selling the mystery. A snappy businesswoman, Lewis selling every sneering retort and forceful order, she plans new looks with a team of stylists, coaches, choreographers, musicians, and one cute intern (Ryan Guzman) young enough to flirt with love interest status.

The girls spend their time trying on other’s expectations, trying to decide who they really are in the crucible of celebrity. “I’m having a secret identity crisis,” Jem says, even as her public image is an instant sensation, the public clamoring for her first concert. Their boss puts them up in the company mansion, and has three pop-up concerts planned to unveil their first three singles. She expects them to conform to her rules: no social media, no bad behavior, and no staying out past curfew. With a group dynamic that’s sweet and encouraging, the young women are excited by the glamour of Hollywood just on the horizon. They argue, but interpersonal conflicts are mild, as they mostly get down to the business of building their brand while staying true to themselves. It’s sweet, a charming story of glitter and sparkles and sisterly love that stays totally PG in its portrait of the downside of instant celebrity. Once the contract is signed, will they even have time to sing together for fun? (Hint: you bet.) It’s like a squeaky clean Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

Loaded with lots of fashion montages, hangouts, and performances, it hits the beats you’d expect, plus an unexpected but not entirely unwelcome prominent subplot about Jem’s late inventor father’s unfinished robot. Named 51n3rg.y (pronounced “synergy”), the thing, looking like two silver spheres stacked on an RC tire, bleeps to life and intermittently leads the girls on a scavenger hunt for its missing parts. The only remaining vestige of the far more outrageous fantasy cartoony source, aside from a weird sequel tease in the end credits, it’s another metaphor for piecing your identity together out of the past and future with the help of those closest to you. That’s nice, part of the movie’s utterly pleasant approach, where the story is a little cliché and larded with underfed melodrama – romances and professional jealousies flicker, then fade fast – but effective anyway. The girls are generally kind, their only conflict how to stay friends amidst the craziness. And Lewis plays not so much a villain, but takes for granted she can make or break these girls, and will do so depending on how it helps her.

The movie is intercut with amateurish YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr videos from Jem fans, sometimes providing a Greek chorus of testimonials to the power of being yourself, other times featuring music that flows into or out of bits of score. Often distracting, it still makes a nice point about web content as the soundtrack of our lives, even if it pushes way too hard on the sentimentality. People like Jem for the image they’re sold, but do the crowds like the real her? The girls are positioned as avatars of authenticity who bring their normalcy into outsized pop music, creating songs that are catchy, and certainly no better or worse than what you’d hear on the Top 40. Their performances are entertaining, high energy. (A funny detail is a tossed off line bragging that MTV, Billboard, and Slate are competing for exclusives about Jem.) It’s not hard to see why they’d be popular, but it’s also easy to tell they’re the sort of look a record label could fill with any halfway decent group of musicians.

It’s a midpoint between the director Jon M. Chu’s Step Up 3D, far and away his finest work yet, and his portrait-of-a-young-star documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Jem is colorful, with fun costumes and bubbly performances, wall-to-wall pop music, while having a gentle perspective on the novelty and fluke luck it takes to break into the industry via social media, buffeted by viral communal energy and corporate demands. It’s a slick and relaxed movie, often content to fall back on stereotypes, but in appealing ways. It’s comforting to know the nice people won’t finish last. There’s something kindhearted and real at its center, a lack of cynicism about connection and community leading to its best moment: a club losing power mid-performance, but the show going on acoustically, the beat held in stomps and claps, the stage illuminated by the glow of a hundred strangers’ phones.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Who You Gonna Call: THE LAST WITCH HUNTER


The Last Witch Hunter has wild ideas hidden in generic trappings. It features a gleefully nonsensical plot, a mysterious original(ish) concoction of mythology, and plenty of striking fantasy horror imagery. It starts in a murky distant past where men wielding flaming swords clash with shape-shifting witches in the cavernous roots of a massive dark tree that we learn is the source of the Black Plague. Then, we skip forward 800 years into the future – our time – to find the one remaining Witch Hunter. The dying Witch Queen cursed him with immortality, and so he has spent his centuries resigned to hunting down the evil witches and warlocks making the world a worse place. He does so under the careful watch of a supernatural council hidden in the bowels of a New York cathedral, the better for his Catholic priest assistants to help him. All that’s wonderfully ridiculous, and refreshingly nutty, but it moves in heaving clunks of bland thriller mechanics and endless expository dialogue.

The Witch Hunter is Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a towering bald tough guy who swaggers around showing magic users what’s what. There’s a scene in which he enters an underground bar for magic people and they preemptively flee. The owner (Rose Leslie) lets him know that her kind view him as a genocidal fascist, which, considering the whole single-mindedly hunting their kind for centuries, seems like a fair enough label. Still, we’re to understand Kaulder is a kindhearted guy out to indefinitely imprison only bad witches. That’s nice. He’s soulfully mourning his mortality by staring off into space, hiding his psychic wounds behind a jaded exterior. His priest chaperone (Michael Caine) chastises him for always running late. “Time works differently for me,” he rumbles. Diesel has commitment, and investment in the loopy ins and outs that helps bring some reverence to the ridiculous.

Caine’s priest tells us plenty about the history of the Ax and Cross, a secret order of Catholic officials who have passed the Witch Hunting legacy down one at a time for centuries. A new, younger one (Elijah Wood) is waiting in the wings. The movie starts to shape up like a buddy cop movie in a conspiratorial cultish underground monster movie mode, investigating, say, a blind warlock (Isaach De Bankolé) whose butterfly-infested bakery uses mind-altering grubs in the dough. Soon, though, they learn the long-dead Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) has minions (like Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) plotting to revive her and take over the world with her Plague once more. This leads to one of the movie’s best moments, where the camera pushes in on a character who has put two and two together and murmurs the one place that has enough dark power to restore this dormant evil to full life: Witch Jail.

It’s a race through dream spaces and nightmarish hallucinations to find the MacGuffins necessary to restore order to the world and stave off a malevolent resurrection. The main problem is Kaulder’s memory, though it is totally understandable that he can’t remember a crucial detail from 800 years prior and thus must hunt down a spell that’ll restore him. He teams up with the bar-owning witch and his priests to walk around explaining the rules of the magic, the monsters they encounter, ancient curse antidotes they need, right when each new factor appears. Sure, there are swordfights and spells cast and glowing doodads flipped around. But mostly those involved make sure to thoroughly explain what they’re about to do, and then, once done, explain what they just did. And even then I still didn’t really understand every detail.

It’d be more fun if the screenplay by Cory Goodman (Priest) and Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold) would let its characters shut up for a second, take a deep breath, and be more than exposition spigots, because director Breck Eisner (Sahara) does a credible job selling the outlandish ideas visually. When a sorceress uses a necklace to awaken a tree monster, it’s not hard to figure out the causal relationship. And when a sword impaling one character causes pain in another, the connection is clear. We don’t necessarily need people tiresomely expounding. Just move along. Show us cool things. I liked the Witch Queen’s look: like a life-size woodcarving brought to life, with a mop of greasy spaghetti hair and a thick brain stem braid. It’s icky and creepy. And when she’s dead (the first time) she looks like burnt firewood. It’s all the better for remaining mysterious, unexplained. This is a movie about deep, dark magic threatening to burst forth from underneath the surface of modernity, and instead of urgency or menace, it’s just neat to look at.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Man Who Went Into the Cold: BRIDGE OF SPIES


A powerfully humane legal drama, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies tells the story of James Donovan, an American lawyer who, at the height of the Cold War, was asked to defend an alleged Soviet spy. Donovan’s humble professional commitment to fairness, justice, the value of hard work, and the worth of all persons takes his case much further than he ever expected, into the halls of United States’ power and beyond, into shadowy negotiations between foreign powers. This causes much fear and prejudice directed towards him, his family’s doubts and worries about the stigma of providing legal aid to an enemy spy validated in the sneers he gets when recognized in public, and by the bullets shot through their front window by some angry concerned citizen. Even the cops responding to that frightening incident wear a how-could-you snarl.

This is a story that affirms with beautiful moral clarity aspirational bedrock American values, but not the sanctimonious sort used as smarmy stand-ins for greed, intolerance, and crypto-fascism. It’s a hopeful movie with Capra-esque ideals upheld and uplifted: kindness, compassion, empathy, and the willingness to do what good you can. Late in the film the lawyer, weary from his task, confides, “It’s not what other people think. It’s what you know you did.” We see Donovan as a man who values his logic and thinking, preparation and good judgment, tenaciously following his moral compass. Who else could embody those qualities but Tom Hanks? With every passing year his screen presence embodies more easy everyman paternal gravitas, the sort that used to be found in Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy, vintage Atticus Finch, or evening newscasters. His projecting steady moral certitude goes a long way selling this earnest material.

Of course it also helps that Spielberg is a master filmmaker whose works are almost unfailingly absorbing and well crafted yarns. Here he’s taking talky scenes of legal process and tense negotiations and making them riveting. He has a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, masters of dry dialogue and complicated plotting, and the effect is watching great voices working seamlessly together. From a draft by Matt Charman, they’ve generously provided an unrelenting tick-tock pace and fluid crackling conversations. It’s a true story told with warm humor and disarming expressions of wit and character in every exchange, a lively and reverent story that’s as entertaining as it is moving. Donovan is a character who exudes decency, and who is generally a nice guy, stubborn only in his belief that even one person can make a difference. It’s amazing how much humor and suspense can be wrung out of good old plain niceness.

Spielberg opens with a great silent cat-and-mouse espionage sequence that introduces the Soviet spy (Mark Rylance, calm, sly, meticulous, droll, unknowable) as he’s captured. From there the film quickly sets up the trial, intercutting Americans abroad who are on a path to importance in the plot later on. Complicated geopolitical terrain and historical context are brought to life with immediate vivid clarity, while characters’ dynamics are established with wordless flickers of expression and clever blocking. The sharp dialogue is nonstop, and Spielberg knows his way around a scene, moving lightly and clearly through exposition, allowing clever turns of phrase to land with pleasing snaps. The storytelling economy is breathtaking, especially as a potentially muddled everyman-turns-LeCarre plot unspools with riveting precision and perfect focus. There are scenes with layers of subterfuge, where characters we’ve never met are, through smart placement of details, instantly understood to be putting on a show for the sake of spycraft.

For spycraft is what enters the film as the CIA understandably wants to use the captured spy for their own interests, using him as leverage in some high-stakes, top-secret Cold War negotiations. A wry handler (Scott Shepherd) ends up recruiting Donovan for the task as civilian middleman for the government’s offers, the better to disavow if it all goes wrong. This creates a complicated scenario in which Donovan is more prepared to follow the letter of the law than agents eager to punish the Russians in any way they can, and through which the layman can never be sure how much truth is being told by any other person he’s talking to, even and especially suspicious Soviet and East German agents (Mikhail Gorevoy and Sebastian Koch). The air is thick with Cold War paranoia as frigid and frosty as snow-swept Berlin streets. Spielberg has once again entrusted a film’s look to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who here captures every bit of the uncertain situation and the sturdy man at its center in fluid camera movements and gorgeous textures, bathing grey areas in cold blue and white glow from every light source.

Spielberg and crew create a sympathetic political drama, attentive to actors’ movements and expressions in relation to one another with gentle precision. (His longtime editor Michael Kahn provides sharp cuts and meaningful juxtapositions, while accommodating unshowy one-take master shots.) It thoroughly humanizes every participant. We see little home life (though what we do is drawn in great shorthand by the likes of Amy Ryan and Eve Hewson), little of the men whose lives are being potentially traded by their governments. Instead, we’re to view people as the movie tells us Donovan does: as equally valuable human lives. Take, for instance, Rylance’s caught spy, who dryly assesses his plight, sees Donovan as an admirable advocate, and in the end emerges not as a martyred other or enemy combatant, but as a man, warm, pragmatic, and doing his best. We see in the faces of every man in a suit a person who’s juggling expectations of bosses and countries, who might be convinced to do what’s best through nothing more than the right smart argument.

Like so many of Spielberg’s historical dramas, Bridge of Spies puts his skill for crowd-pleasing spectacle to use illuminating sharp complicated ideas. In this case, hard-fought optimism emerges from clear and refreshing political resonances. It’d be difficult not to think of our gridlocked national discourse while watching a movie squarely situated on a talking cure, the value of compromise, of speaking with those you hate or distrust to find mutually agreeable ways forward. (It makes a fine pairing with his last film, Lincoln, in that regard.) Donovan realizes there are reasons to find fault with life behind the Iron Curtain, seeing fleeing Germans gunned down on the wall, knowing an American POW is tortured in interrogation that’s certainly “enhanced.” But still he insists the Americans treat their prisoner well, ensures a fair trial, and follows due process every step of the way. Hanks wears this American heroism in all its exhausting, modest, rewarding weight. The film is a deeply moving vision of a man doing the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Things That GOOSEBUMPS In The Night


Goosebumps, an energetic kid-friendly monster movie using R.L. Stein’s long-running series of young reader horror books as inspiration, is the best Joe Dante movie Joe Dante didn’t make. Sure, it doesn’t have his wicked satire (a la Small Soldiers or the Gremlins movies), but it shares with his sensibilities an expression of movie love, indebted to B-movie creature features and giddy with manic matinee action. It finds a small Delaware town overrun with cartoony beasts ripped straight from the pages of Stein’s books. That’s not just an expression in this case. Screenwriters Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Laraszewski’s conceit is that the author himself conjured these evil creatures with a magical typewriter, trapping them within the pages of his manuscripts. When a series of unfortunate accidents send his library fluttering to the wind, it’s a mad dash to save the day. The author of these nightmares is the only one who can wrangle them.

Jack Black plays Stein in a performance amusing for its oddball stillness, projecting light gravitas from behind thick glasses and deliberate movements. He clamps down his natural unrestrained comic charisma here, using a theatrical clipped voice that’s Vincent Price adjacent, ending up projecting a funny self-seriousness. I especially liked a running joke about his feelings of inferiority to Stephen King. We meet him as a standoffish neighbor who glowers at a teenager (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) who’ve just moved in next door. The boy strikes up a flirtation with Stein’s daughter (Odeya Rush), who we soon learn is forced to stay inside so as not to let her father’s dangerous literary secret out. But of course the boy’s suspicious of this arrangement, and totally crushing on the girl, so he calls a new nerdy friend (Ryan Lee) to help him investigate. Then, of course, the aforementioned accidents lead to a whole nutty chain of events and monsters everywhere.

As Stein and the teens scramble to make things right, the town is destroyed in a carnival funhouse of light frights and sprightly action, springing giggling good monster movie jumps and laughs with each new sequence. Confrontations with werewolves, zombies, towering bugs, nasty gnomes, wicked aliens, laser-wielding robots, an invisible boy, and more careen through a progressively more battered downtown, eventually converging, as all teen-centric films must, at the Big School Dance. Along the way, they encounter inattentive and ineffective authority figures entirely unprepared to help in such a strange situation. There are silly cops (Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund), a goofy aunt (Jillian Bell), and doofus teachers (Ken Marino), an ensemble fully stocked with ace comic character actors who are a little underutilized, but at least don’t wear out their welcome.

Fast-paced and sometimes inventive, the action sequences make good use of several typical horror movie locations: a locked house, an abandoned store, a cemetery, a school. The speed to the incidents and slapstick approach to unreal violence cackles along, making this less a scary story, more a rollicking adventure. A maniacal ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (voiced by Black, twisting his speech into a Joker’s howl) leads the various beasties in an attack on their creator, making for a fine villain to chase and flee, and eventually confront in a satisfying climax. The characters remain thin types – the hero, the tortured creator, the coward, the girl – but the quartet have funny chemistry, and fly through the film’s mostly sturdy construction. They hold their own against a flurry of effects and effectively staged stunts, including some nifty flipped vehicles. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe makes bright, colorful images dusted in a layer of mildly menacing atmosphere, creating a pleasant fall chill to the sparkling fun, with Danny Elfman’s bouncy score animating its gentle macabre spirit.

Director Rob Letterman, formerly of DreamWorks Animation, keeps the movie hopping along nicely with a slick, smooth approach that makes it all seem just the right kind of dangerous. It’s safe enough to be only fun, but chaotic enough to get carried away with its light popcorn thrills. It’s fast, funny, and enjoyable, pinned in only by its token emotional journey for the lead boy, who gets a deeply weird romantic payoff, and a struggle with grief that’s quickly dropped. Goosebumps is too busy having fun with its horror mash-up to stop for such mushy stuff, I guess. That’s just as well. It’s a fine evocation of the books (there are now nearly 200 of them) that were all the rage when I was in elementary school and continue to be popular amongst some kids these days, a movie mixing and matching its monsters to find appealing kid-friendly action. It’s not millennial nostalgia or children’s pap. It’s sweet crowd-pleasing entertainment with cross-generational appeal, casually expressing a terrific and, oddly enough, uncommon kid’s movie lesson: writing is great, reading is fun, and cultivating your imagination saves the day.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Shivering Heights: CRIMSON PEAK


“Ghosts are real,” Edith Cushing says. She tells us twice, bookending Crimson Peak with her declaration. The film’s writer/director Guillermo del Toro certainly believes this, too. He’s not playing around. He uses ghosts not for cheap shocks, but for deeply intertwined thematic importance and emotional resonance. He respects their mythological importance, as well as their psychological underpinnings. It’s what gives his dark fantasies such heft, mingling magical realism with more elaborate flights of fancy. He knows ghosts are not merely frightening. They’re expressions of deep sorrow, of lingering pain, of trauma’s echoes haunting those left behind. His latest film is indeed a ghost story, but one that uses the spirits as an added flavoring in a richly wondrous, baroquely designed story of high emotion and uncanny delights.

The ghosts are a metaphor. That’s another repeated line, as Ms. Cushing (her last name a tribute to Peter Cushing, no doubt) is an aspiring novelist in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. She's hard at work on a manuscript for a haunting story. Played by Mia Wasikowska as a smart, shy young woman bristling against patriarchal constraints, she’s determined to follow in her hero Mary Shelley’s footsteps and publish her macabre tale. An editor tells her to add a little romance. She reluctantly decides to do so, but only a few chapters’ worth. This is one of Del Toro’s meta winks, a flickering of levity in a serious, sumptuously appointed production imbued with his love for gothic romance in every frame. Cushing’s father (Jim Beaver) is a rich man who welcomes a mysterious Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) with an investment opportunity. The stranger doesn’t receive Mr. Cushing’s money, but walks away with the daughter’s heart, much to the chagrin of the charming young ophthalmologist (Charlie Hunnam) she ignores.

What comes next is a feast of period detail, as we waltz through a ballroom, glide into boardrooms, stroll along leafy autumnal parks, and end up nestled in drawing rooms where softly murmured sweet nothings are implied. Soon enough, Ms. Cushing is swept away to her new beau’s remote family mansion deep in the English countryside, where he and his severe sister (Jessica Chastain) intend to mine copious runny red clay out of the soil, turning a profit in the process. Chastain, in a series of dramatic flowing gowns, is bewitching, a completely controlled performance of a woman so elegantly tightly wound, it’s not if she’ll snap, but when. Hiddleston is suave and sinister, with something hollow about his affections. Wasikowska, showing eager curiosity mixed with grief and infatuation, plays a romantic slowly frightened by what she finds. It’s all so alluring, and so dreadful, even in the same instant.

The house is vast and creepy, crumbling with loose brick, sinking into the soft ground, the clay seeping around floorboards and bubbling out of pipes. It’s a lovingly photographed spooky place, one of the great movie spaces in recent memory. There are dark corridors, locked rooms, drafty windows, fluttering insects, dusty corners, voluminous curtains, dripping cavernous basements, looming portraits, a rickety elevator retrofitted along a spiraling staircase, and a hole in the entryway’s ceiling letting dead leaves or snow flurries flutter down. But it’s not just a visual feast of a haunted mansion. It’s a dark, creaking home full of cold mystery, richly decorated with rotting glamour, and possessed with the spectral memories of long buried secrets. Translucent skeletal ghosts howling while evaporating smoky red tendrils are an alarm alerting Ms. Cushing that all is not well in this house.

Del Toro, with co-writer Matthew Robbins, unravels mysteries with a pulpy brio, telling his tale with a studied patience for lurid detail and swooning with strong emotions: love, terror, and the riveting power of the sublimely, beautifully perverse. It transcends pastiche (or camp throwback) because he’s not interested in making a tribute to stories and styles he loves. He wants to make a story that’ll sit comfortably alongside the classics. This confidence of design and intention lends the film’s movement, structure, and appeal a sense of history. Its machinations resonate like an old tale, like settling in to read a great forgotten book you’ve discovered tucked away in the corner of a cozy library, rich in complex archaic language and lush generous plotting that slowly sinks in like a comfortable chair beside a roaring fireplace.

Del Toro draws on inspirations both literary – Austen and the Brontes, Ann Radcliffe and Daphne du Maurier – and cinematic – Hitchcock and Lewton, Corman’s Poe cycle, Hammer horror. The result is uniquely his own, preoccupied with hidden histories and deadly secrets, soulful monsters, and innocents most prepared to tremblingly, yet bravely, confront the evils around them. When Wasikowska, dressed in a lacy, frilly nightgown a slightly warmer white than her pale skin, heads down a dark clammy hallway armed only with a lit candelabra, it’s a classic image of this sort of story. It’s easy to see her as a source of hope amidst so much eerie unquiet. (There are also echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and other Del Toro films past.) Dan Lausten’s cinematography is soaked in colors: blood reds, bruising blacks and blues, velvety purples. The film is sensual and sensitive, a completely transporting waking dream.

As the dark truths about the situation bleed through the lush gothic romance, the film culminates with gore and shock, true to its melancholy heart. Through the paranormal activity, and the lavish historical setting, Del Toro swoops with his haunted characters, finding in swirling cloth and swift stabs personal tragedies exhumed, sins divulged, and betrayals revealed. It is hugely entertaining and entrancing, and in the swirling emotional climaxes, it finds great artful truth, wedded to brilliantly, intoxicatingly stylish horror-tinged melodrama. It says the past is rarely finished with us, so we may as well give over to what it wants, the better to help us fight our way to recovery. Ghosts come in a variety of forms. Some float down halls. Others live within us, reminding us of pain we need to heal, trauma we must endure. The suspense: how we emerge intact with a great story to tell.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Casualties of War: BEASTS OF NO NATION


Beasts of No Nation is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of civil war in an unnamed African country. It takes as its inciting incident an attack that leaves a young boy orphaned, then conscripted into an army of child soldiers. It’s certainly not an uncommon trope of world cinema to put a young child in harm’s way as a pure prism through which to view the evil that men do, and to tearfully consider the resiliency of the human spirit even and especially in the face of a tragic loss of innocence. See Grave of the Fireflies, or Empire of the Sun, or Pan’s Labyrinth, or Forbidden Games, or, you get the picture. But where those films found authentic and nuanced juxtaposition of the beauty of childhood and the horror of war, Beasts of No Nation is content to be gorgeously grim and thin.

Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (of tense immigration thriller Sin Nombre, a functional Jane Eyre. and the overrated True Detective’s first season) certainly has a command of filmmaking craft, making a technically well-made picture. It’s attractively photographed with lush jungles and dusty villages, staged with slick competence for violence and chaos, and cut together with a languid patience that turns action eerie and stasis thickly slow. He tells a harrowing story (adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel) through numbing aestheticized glossiness, wallowing in misery and violence while swooning on its own style. A pretty and forceful work, it’s nonetheless a self-satisfied approach to a real world crisis, content it’ll shock and jolt with its strong performances and confident unease without a need to dig beyond the upsetting surface details.

Early scenes show us a happy boy (Abraham Attah) with a wide smile and easy laugh. He runs through his village playing with friends, joking with family members, and having a good time. Sure, he knows there’s a war going on, but it’s far away, and the soldiers stationed at the outskirts of town are pleasantly willing to chat with a bunch of kids. But soon the conflict arrives, his family is dead or missing, and the film’s rambling charm is cut short by fear. Enter a commandant (Idris Elba) and his army of lost boys, a collection of young men from their pre-teens into their twenties who do his looting and killing in the name of freeing and protecting their country. (Here’s where the film’s lack of geopolitical specificity muddies easy comprehension of the various combatant’s objectives.) For the boy, nothing will be the same again.

Through persuasive indoctrination scenes, the boy comes to believe his only option is to fight for this army. He’s told his combat will avenge his dead father and brothers. He’s told he will one day be reunited with his mother. The cost is high. The commandant abuses his underlings in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally, and sexually. He puts his new recruits through a brutal hazing, building hardened soldiers out of innocent boys trapped under his command. They toughen, growing callous under his forceful command. When the boy is handed a machete and told to kill a prisoner with it, he hesitates, then slams the edge of the blade into the pleading man’s skull. He’s frightened, partly because of his panic, but partly because of the sense of power, agency over life and death. It’s a good, cheap metaphor for systems of abusive power and how they are passed down through generations. What follows is a procession of horrors and battles—gore, torture, psychological mind games, drugs, weapons, ambushes, and heavily implied rape.

One scene sparks to life: a freshly victimized boy limps out of the commandant’s room; another boy sees and offers silent support. They lean on each other, wordless understanding passing between them. A moment like that shows how much simple humanity is otherwise missing from the spectacle of monotonous pain. But it’s right there in the performances, strong work in a frustratingly vague movie. Attah, in a very strong acting debut, goes from adorable scamp to shell-shocked veteran in a performance of great pain and sadness. Elba, on the other hand, is an unknowable presence, a towering charismatic evil whose only characterizing comes from his greed and ferocious calm, even as he strengthens his grip out of flashes of insecurity. He’s warm and terrifying, like a demented football coach, giving pep talks before sending boys to die.

Fukunaga moves from miserable detail to miserable detail, with nothing more to say than “Isn’t this awful?” And it is, obviously and clearly in every aspect of the situations. But there comes a point where unflinching misery becomes simple gawking. The pain is undifferentiated, unmodulated. We’re to be in awe of its awfulness, but it makes for a thin experience, one simple idea expressed repeatedly with no context, no insight, no additional nuance or tenderness, and no forward momentum. It’s one brutal obvious point after the next. Fukunaga can stage a rough battle with clarity and make it hurt, but his interest in the horror of war seems perfunctory, with pretty sun-dappled images and a swooning score of distanced dazed synths. The characters remain sparsely understood, a sea of background extras behind two leads who work hard to provide additional layers behind first impressions. They’re compelling despite a film that’s more interested in showing off its pretend realism than digging into its scenario’s real moral dilemmas.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Inequality for All: 99 HOMES


Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield are opposing economic forces in 99 Homes, a deliberate and obvious recessionary American thriller set in the scraggly, ugly, ragged edge of the popped housing bubble. The older man is a Grim Reaper of real estate, evicting exhausted homeowners in a flurry of bullying panic, the better to flip the house for a nice profit. He’s colluding with banks, police, and lawmakers to line his pockets, exploiting loopholes, cheating the system, and calling that winning. The younger man is one of his victims, a single dad who, along with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern), is thrown out of his family home after an unsuccessful appeal. Desperate to make money any way he can, he takes a job working for the very man who so slimly kicked his family to the curb. The young guy wears jeans and smokes; the older guy wears suits and vapes. They’re a study in contrasts, naïveté versus cynicism, good intentions versus heartless greed, together making the Faustian bargain we call the American dream.

Painting in big strokes, writer-director Ramin Bahrani combines the low-key observation of his breakthrough indies, films like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, intimate class-conscious portraits of marginalized urban poverty, and the swaggering melodrama of his overripe corporate-agriculture-fighting-family-farms message movie, the pleasurably outsized At Any Price. The blend is an uneasy mix of scene chewing monologues and pokey naturalism. We follow Garfield as the need for money draws him into the shady underbelly of Florida real estate, the vulture capitalists preying on misfortune sown by the very industry in which they operate. “We don’t bail out the losers!” Shannon snaps, as if he’s prepping to open a Trump fundraiser. He’s made to speak the film’s moral perspective by shouting the opposite, unblinking in the face of the tragedy Bahrani wants to portray. Garfield, on the other hand, is asked to simply inhabit its lessons.

Towering over his new employee, Shannon’s shark lays out his worldview: America is a nation “of the winners, by the winners, for the winners!” It’s screaming blunt moralizing, while the movie’s message is better imbued in Garfield’s uneasy posture and embarrassed expressions as he’s forced to serve eviction notices, suddenly on the other side of the very shock he experienced not so long ago. He is living in a cheap motel room with his son and mother, surrounded by other similarly displaced families. Then he heads out on the job, where he’s creating insecurity in lives of people just like him. It’s a nasty position in which to be, especially when the siren song of material success shows him McMansions glittering for those who are able and willing to step on others to get there. This is the sort of deeply felt hot-button message movie that so cleanly and clearly lays out an obvious wrong, that its most agonizing moments caused bile to build up in the back of my throat.

Watching economic devastation and its exploitation is hard to take, especially as Garfield’s pained expression and torn conscience run up against the cold eyes of Shannon’s harsh money-grabbing, property-cheating worldview. It’s all too real, and yet Bahrani pushes past the immediate feeling of right and wrong, overemphasizing the devilish bargain with overheated speeches and undercooked characters. They’re symbols, no matter how good the actors are. Garfield is every blue-collar worker shoved out of a comfortable life, and Shannon is every suit who did the pushing. There’s not a lot of nuance here in the design, a defeatist plot loaded with coincidences, built only to shine a light on a murky corner of wrongdoing presented in obvious dichotomies. The muddy digital photography, at times a nearly unwatchable storm of fuzzy washed-out pixels, is an inadvertent compliment to the film’s unsatisfying approach: it’s too bright, and too smeared, starkly revealing too much while flattening the picture.

Still, what keeps this well-intentioned monotonous one-note movie marginally interesting are the performances. Garfield and Shannon are allowed space to breathe complexities into their characters that aren’t necessarily inherent in the material. The former reveals mild shark-like ambition through his psychological and economic turmoil, shaking off sadness to earn some dough, while the latter lets sneaking warmth bleed in around the edges of his evil eye for exploiting his worst tendencies. Then there’s Dern who plays the pure conscience of the movie, with literally nothing more to do than register the wrongness of what’s going on around her. She somehow makes that into something like a real character, a minor miracle. But what Bahrani does with these characters is so schematically obvious, clashing two mirrored men in an uneasy business relationship to the breaking point, the better to leave us wrung out with reminders of our country’s debased and broken response to continually deepening inequality.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Falling with Style: PAN


With Pan, director Joe Wright, responsible for tony literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) and one rip-roaring art-house actioner (Hanna, his best), plays around with the Peter Pan mythos, imagining a prequel. He and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age 4) present one possible origin story, in which a precocious rambunctious orphan boy gets whisked out of his miserable mortal life and sent on an introductory adventure to Neverland. The result is a silly/serious synthesis of every boy’s adventure trope from the past century plus. Narratively speaking, it ends up undoing the central stunted tragedy of the boy who never grew up by making it a hero’s journey, a chosen one fulfilling his destiny. There’s never any doubt Peter will earn his Pan, a word the native Neverlanders use to mean bravest warrior, just one of many ultimately pointless new wrinkles this movie adds to Barrie’s old story.

Nonetheless, it’s an intermittently charming oddball throwback, with swashbuckling pirates wearing painted clown faces, earnest belief in sparkling magic, and a grand swaggering parade of stereotypes through cluttered design overflowing with oddities, a half dozen styles of costume jammed together with a flourish. Its tones are a mishmash as well, half scary self-seriousness and danger (one boy plummets to his death), half winking light joke. That’s what you get when a dull formulaic plot is colored in with eccentric detail. It doesn’t work, exactly, but at its best it spoke to the parts of my brain still in communication with my 11-year-old self, content to see strange new sights navigated by a moppet who trades his dismal earthbound childhood for colorful adventure. It’s my grown-up self who grew tired of so much zippy CGI chaos and schmaltz.

We start in an ugly London orphanage like straight out of a Roald Dahl book. It’s the height of World War II, but we quickly learn the sense of danger the kids face is less from constant threat of German bombs, more from the nasty nuns who sneer and scoff, hocking up phlegm and scorning fun while promoting Dickensian chores. So when Peter (Levi Miller) is captured by pirates who pay off the nuns to allow them to kidnap new recruits, it’s scary, but also a nice change of pace for him. The scoundrels take the kids on a flying pirate ship to a Neverland conceived as a floating cosmic island beyond time and space. There the orphans are put to work in the fairy dust mines under the watch of the villainous Blackbeard, who leads them in a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sing-along and explains that shirking work equals certain death. Things are looking strange already.

Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard is certainly an original creation, in that its collection of parts has never been assembled in quite this way before. He loves Nirvana and The Ramones, huffs fairy dust to stay young, has no compunctions about murdering minor miners, and ruthlessly maintains unsafe working conditions. He wears a jet-black wig, has a sickly pallor, and twirls his mustache in gestures big and theatrical enough to be seen in the back of the balcony the next theater over. His boat’s figurehead is an elaborate carving of his own likeness. He’s a piece of work, but not much more than the rest of the cast. Everyone’s giving exactly the performance required of them, and it is a certain amount of fun to see each actor’s interpretation of “wild eyes” and “strange mannerisms,” including a shifty rogue named Hook (Garrett Hedlund with a lopsided Harrison Ford grin and speaking in a gravely John Huston voice) and a dopey stooge called Smee (Adeel Akhtar, stammering and twitching).

Those guys decide to help Peter escape the mines. Why? Because he can fly. It turns out there’s a prophecy saying a boy who can fly will show up and free everyone from Blackbeard. But Peter doesn’t believe this, so the movie turns into a long wait until he realizes the inevitable. Much contemplation of CG vistas and tromping through gaudy effects sits between. In the jungles beyond the mines, Peter and the others discover a multicultural tribe of rebels, like a collision between noble savage stereotypes and a craft store. They have a trampoline, dress in rainbow-colored duds, speak in broken English and grunts, and try to kill our leads, until their princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, strangely vacant) learns about the Chosen One and plans to throw him off a cliff to see if he can fly. The thin characters and their relationships never develop beyond the scantest of details, the better to allow the goofy visuals and plot to take over, grinding through increasingly monotonous spectacle as Blackbeard chases this lost boy.

Other jungle discoveries include tribesmen who explode in primary color puffs when shot, blindingly glittery crystal caverns, and large creepy birds who sound like clanking wind chimes as they move due to being skeletons, albeit ones with sparsely feathery wings and animated eyes spinning in empty skulls. We also meet giant crocodiles and a bunch of mermaids who all have bioluminescent electric eel tails and Cara Delevingne’s face. None of this coheres, a collection of details arranged without adding up to a convincing or complete fantasy world. It’s such a strange collection of influences and inspirations, from Barrie and Dahl, to pirate movies, adventure serials, Spielberg and Lucas, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Moulin Rouge! Such vibrant strangeness (excellent work from production designers, art directors, set dressers et al) is funneled into a generic, flat, predictable, boring package. It’s a messy, uneven picture trying so hard to be whimsical and fun, it simply feels forced. It’s big-hearted and softheaded.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Drug War: SICARIO


Sicario is a War on Drugs thriller with lean focus and expansive dismay. It finds terrifying situations and moral uncertainty in every scenario. Cartel violence is bleeding in the drug trade, causing chaos in Mexico and tension in border towns. But does that justify a swaggering ends-justify-the-means form of policing? This movie is drained of any semblance of triumphalism, so thoroughly unsettled by violence and corruption that it can’t even begin to think its way to a happy ending. We start with a taskforce led by a driven agent (Emily Blunt) investigating a kidnapping, slamming into a drug house in suburban Phoenix and finding walls lined with dead bodies, and a potentially fatal surprise in the shed out back. Soon the agent is pulled into a secret mission to take down a drug lord across the border. It seems like a good idea, but soon she questions her colleagues’ motives and tactics as the body count grows. They’re hunting people who do bad things, but must they do bad to do so?

That’s not an uncommon theme in crime fiction, blurring the lines between cop and criminal, painting in grey strokes. But what is uncommon here is the bottomless detached despair behind the slick surfaces and excitements. Blunt quickly finds herself marginalized, used as bureaucratic cover, or tasked with watching for deadly complications as the men leap forward ready to kill anyone suspicious. The leaders of the mission are a gruff flip-flop wearing Texan (Josh Brolin), who is determined to strike at the cartel within Mexico, saying his job is to “dramatically overreact,” and a reserved mystery man (Benicio Del Toro) who quietly refuses to tell his newest colleague where he comes from or what his goals are in any detail. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay slowly develops the group dynamic as Blunt is brought along without being brought in. She’s there to help them, but they don’t seem to value her. She’s just another competent armed body to throw at the problem.

The camera follows steadily as this small group of law enforcement professionals hunt down leads through torture, intimidation, and deception, then attack selected targets in sudden, painful violence that’s over in quick splatter and rapid-fire flashes. But even in the downtime, a droning dread keeps suspense sickly simmering underneath. Director Denis Villeneuve is good at that, his missing-children thriller Prisoners and doppelganger head-scratcher Enemy making heavy existential draining disturbance out of concepts that are plenty unsettling to begin with. Sicario is his best film yet, taking a tense simmering score and patient camera slowly pushing and fading to create a world where danger can come from anywhere, where it’s not only difficult to decide what to do about bad guys, but it’s impossible to know who has your back and who hopes to use you as bait. It’s an old bromide to say two wrongs don’t make a right. This movie finds lines already crossed by tactics in motion before we, or Blunt, joins.

Forces on both sides of the conflict have gone from potential good intentions to chaotic bad outcomes, to a wrong, a wrong, a wrong. Getting right side up again is fraught. The film’s visual strategy is to literalize the blurry divisions between lawful actions and illegal intentions, between outsiders and in-groups, by creating dividing lines in many shots. We see light and shadow, glass-walled offices and long border fences, walls and cells, windows, balconies, curtains, and conference tables. Anything where people can find themselves physically or symbolically separated from others or from the outside world is casually deployed to create a sense of disjunction, of being stuck apart on two sides of any given issue. In one casually striking moment, Blunt is in a parking lot near a highway off-ramp, framed so the “WRONG WAY” signs are visible behind her. It’s hard to know what’s right, when the boundaries in every moment are so clear and yet so easily thoughtlessly crossed.

A thriller and a mystery, Sicario is serious crime pulp, grimly satisfied to follow process and arrive at what it thinks are harsh truths about cycles of violence and the inscrutable differences between legal killings (state sanctioned, or at least overlooked) and illegal ones. (“Sicario” means “hitman,” opening text informs.) There’s a responsible weight as violence is shot for impact, but not for thrills, choosing instead to linger on drips of blood or mutilated bodies instead of the moment of visceral excitement. At one point Blunt stands on a Texas rooftop, looking across the border to see flashes of distant Mexican firefights. “You like fireworks?” an officer asks. It’s a movie that doesn’t deny the allure of the action, and yet can’t be entirely satisfied by its trauma. After a long gut-wrenching sequence set in claustrophobic tunnels and in eerie green night vision, the climactic killings take place just off screen, dramatic and matter-of-fact, the frame’s focus on a hitman’s dispassionate glare.

Villeneuve’s consistent overwhelming sense of dread gives the violence and threats, and attendant paranoia, a feeling of a sickness spreading, infecting all who go near it. The characters who care about the ethics of the situations grow only more rattled. The ones who feel righteous about their actions grow only harder, more distant. Both move together through a tactile movie, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins capturing sharp images with vivid details (dust motes, dried blood, bruises, gouges, bullet holes, bandages), and with stately establishing shots like something out of The Shining’s opening finding police caravans snaking to their destinations or a plane’s shadow slowly lurking across desert canyons. In its specificity it creates a picture raw and cold, finding its leads in increasingly suspenseful and surprising encounters. But it is not cold out of heartlessness. It is a film of frightening clinical despair, with only worry and tension, and no clear moral answers.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Robinson Crusoe on Mars: THE MARTIAN


Remember the great scene in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 where, desperate to find a way to save stranded astronauts in a failing spaceship, NASA engineers are presented with a box of spare parts and told to figure out how those fit together as a makeshift solution? The Martian is that scene for over two hours. In its opening sequence the first astronauts on Mars evacuate the planet during a sandstorm that knocks one of their crewmates off the medical signals and into the deadly dusty darkness. They think he’s dead and leave him behind, where he wakes up alone and afraid with a desolate lifeless planet all to himself. He has to find a way to make 60 days worth of supplies last up to four years, the time it could take to get someone back to pick him up. And that’s only if he can make contact with Earth sooner rather than later.

It’s a surprisingly absorbing experience to watch one man think his way through complicated story problems. Sure, it’s the sort of mystery that’s impossible to think through faster than the characters on screen. But there’s a certain convincing popcorn logic to the whole string of science thought experiments presented for our Robinson Crusoe on Mars in a relatively hard sci-fi premise. No alien twists or sudden water-filled oasis on the horizon, he can only stay in the pressurized makeshift lab or wander out with his spacesuit to scavenge whatever mechanical bits he can to make his unexpected extended stay survivable. Though it wouldn’t be hard to root for anyone’s survival in that situation, it helps that he’s played by Matt Damon, a likable enough presence on screen, equivalent to stranding peak James Stewart or Tom Hanks. He’s corn-fed Americana aw-shucks smart, putting one foot in front of the other.

We watch as he tries to power his life support systems, grow crops, and phone home. Back on Earth his NASA colleagues (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, Donald Glover) quickly notice movement in satellite photos and start working on ways to get in touch, and get him back. In between are his traveling crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie), unaware the man they’re mourning is alive and might be calling on them to help, too. All those actors are great, believable in their competence and drive, with great timing delivering complicated dialogue. It’s one of those big Hollywood ensembles where the characters are the sum total of their job descriptions (their titles pop up on screen at each intro) and the recognizable faces are meant to fill in the unspoken rest. No one has time for backstory, personal problems, or emotional appeals. There’s not even a token villain. It’s all can-do cooperation and high-stakes business.

I’m sure the armchair rocket scientists in the crowd could still quibble with the results, but at least the filmmakers have a nuts and bolts commitment to showing their work. The characters walk through each new option or development with lots of technobabble patter and math lab/science center jargon, talking through variables, calculations, and equations, triangulating timetables and press releases while weighing the needs of the many with the needs of the few. This could be dull, especially in the relentless exposition and talky narration cutting down on potential poetry of space flight and lonely unearthly vistas of red-tinted desert. But what makes it work is the crisp tick tock editing, cutting for suspense and propulsion between people crowding around computers and white boards and the lonely plight of the one man they’re mobilizing brainpower to save.

Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) has adapted Andy Weir’s book into a screenplay balancing determined problem solving, often clever and surprising, with a mild but charming wit cutting through the heavy material. It’s not glib banter. It’s the light needling and gallows humor of serious smart people who are good at their jobs, but feeling the pressure. It plays into director Ridley Scott’s interest in world building, process, data displays, and men on missions, allowing him to turn this Cast Away meets Gravity by way of Randall Munroe's What If? into something his own, an easily tense space survival story, even if the end is not once in doubt. The Martian has some visual overlap with his Alien/Prometheus world in cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s unfussy 3D views of production designer Arthur Max’s functional worn-down tech and austere sand-swept Mars terrain. But Scott also has relaxed fun with it, making amusing tension out of, say, Damon struggling to duct tape a depressurizing suit shut, or finding room for a fun disco soundtrack. It’s an efficient and entertaining workmanlike brainteaser of a movie.
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