Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bored to Death: INFERNO


There are worse movies than Inferno, movies so inept, confused, ill-considered, or offensive they’re impossible to defend let alone sit through. But that makes it all the more depressing to realize Inferno is the only thing a movie can be that’s worse than bad. It is boring. I don’t mean to say it is slow or off-putting or strange or lazy. No, it is just deafeningly empty from the first frame to the last, completely devoid of interest or entertainment. If it was a bad movie it could at least kick up ludicrous silliness or something so mind-bogglingly tone deaf it’d be worth unpacking. Here we simply have a movie with no real reason to exist, incapable of making an argument for itself. It merely is, playing out with all the excitement and urgency of a talented group of Hollywood craftspeople signing off on a contractual obligation. It’s the kind of movie so tediously uninteresting you wonder if it was possible everyone was sleepwalking behind the scenes, or maybe trading sightseeing tips for their European downtime on Sony’s dime.

Clearly a commercial commitment, Sony couldn’t indefinitely sit on the rights to Dan Brown’s successful books about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, not after director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks turned them into two good-sized hits already. The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) were not great thrillers, but at least they had their pulpy fun pretending their plot mechanics were wrapped in learning, with history lectures and Catholic conspiracy. Any movies that can feature both lengthy art appreciation monologues and Paul Bettany as a self-flagellating albino monk (in the first) or Ewan McGregor as a Cardinal parachuting out of an exploding helicopter (in the second) can’t be all bad. These were fairly self-serious works, B-movies impressed by their own footnotes and inflated with big budgets and big stars. Still, nothing prepared me for how exhausted and joyless Inferno was. Compared to this new film, its predecessors are models of humble, slight, and economical filmmaking. This one stumbles through an endless bleary plot without a single second of rooting interest, believable stakes, or photographic interest. 

It starts with Langdon (Hanks) waking up in a Florence hospital suffering amnesia from a head wound. His doctor (Felicity Jones) tells him he was attacked. Confused and suffering hallucinogenic flashes of horror imagery – the movie takes glum grotesqueries as humdrum – Langdon flees with his caretaker after a policewoman opens fire on them. Now he must remember why he’s now wrapped up in a globetrotting art-adjacent adventure, racing to prevent an apocalyptic event. Because he’s done sort of thing twice before he’s well equipped to get up to speed as he fumbles around the scrambled passages of his mind. Maybe it has something to do with the visual representation of Dante’s Inferno he finds in his pocket, and which has been altered to include clues to a hidden cache of plague virus that would wipe out 95% of the world’s population if unleashed. You can see why the World Health Organization, which this movie imagines operates as an international SWAT team, is hot on their trail. The mystery is why they think Langdon has something to do with it.

I can forgive many an incredulously strained plot, but see if you can follow this. Say you were a brilliant but eccentric sociopathic billionaire scientist with a goal of reversing the world’s overpopulation with your custom-made plague. You’ve hidden it in a bag that’ll blow up on a certain day and time. Would you: A.) tell no one, sit back quietly, and let it do its thing; or B.) throw yourself off a building, leaving behind an elaborate set of art-history scavenger hunt clues leading to your biological weapon of mass destruction? I get when Langdon is investigating a conspiracy with historical roots why sussing out clues in paintings and monuments is a helpful strategy, but why would Inferno’s villain (Ben Foster) create new clues on old art? If he was really intent on kickstarting the apocalypse, why leave room for a professor to figure it out and stop you? There’s little motivation behind anyone’s behavior in this movie, including WHO agents (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Omar Sy) and a mysterious fixer whose office is aboard a freighter in the Adriatic (Irrfan Khan). They change sides a couple times each for seemingly no reason other than cheap surprise.

Inferno is a movie that’ll test a lot of assumptions. Think between Ron Howard directing and David Koepp writing they could surely cobble together a half-interesting story? Think national treasure Tom Hanks could reliably deploy his star power? Think a supporting cast of fine actors could bring something to the table? Think some solid, reliable Hollywood craft – cinematography from occasional Howard collaborator Salvatore Totino, score from the busy Hans Zimmer – could at least render a movie watchable? Prepare to be disappointed. It’s an entire movie of people going through the motions. It can’t even make stunning locales in Florence, Venice, and Istanbul look like the good museum-hopping travelogue thriller it could’ve been. The movie is cramped and ugly – maybe the better to emphasize its villain’s complaint about too many people? – and the way the plot unfolds around an amnesiac hero is treated for mere confusion. This only serves to hobble what should be a swaggering Hanks by making him squint and stagger while reading clues to the other characters, dragged along by the boring plot without clear drive or goals of his own. He can’t remember why he’s there or why he should care, and I could relate. The only reason to see this movie is if you want a dark room in which you could nap for a couple hours.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cruise Control: JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a largely lackluster action movie that’s nonetheless further proof Cruise is one of our best action stars. He’s simply believable. In 2012, we first met his Jack Reacher, writer Lee Child’s ex-military drifter who specializes in helping people out of tight spots before leaving on the next bus out of town, with a compelling mystery, crackerjack plot, and crisp staging from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. It made the character a good fit for this stage of Cruise’s persona. He’s aged into a presence of pure drive and effortful effortlessness. His Mission: Impossibles are the best way to see his smooth-yet-grizzled total confidence and sly dry humor, but Reacher allows him to play it in the lowest, coolest key. It’s not hard to imagine Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood in the role fifty years ago. Here Reacher survives a low-functioning sequel with his coolness intact. It’s like a dud episode in a procedural you otherwise enjoy.

This time around, Reacher heads to Washington D.C. to meet an army friend (Cobie Smulders). Once there he discovers she’s in prison, framed for a crime he knows she wouldn’t commit. Turns out she’s run afoul of a scheming defense contractor who spies Reacher’s inquiries into her case and decides to frame him, too. So Reacher breaks her out of prison, then goes on the lamb to clear their names and bring down the mysterious arms-dealing scheme that can afford to send trained assassins all over the place. It’s technically a mystery, but it operates at a simple level, showing all the cards pretty early and then watching as Cruise and Smulders arrive at the conclusions of which we’re already well aware. I mean, one look at the hitman (Holt McCallany) hiding behind sunglasses and stubble, or the cadaverous General (Robert Knepper), and it’s obvious who the bad guys are and what their conspiracy is.

It plays like a highlight reel, all outwitting and reversals of power, Cruise swaggering into a room and outsmarting everyone or, when that fails, punching all the right guys to get the job done. There are some small pleasures to be found, like Reacher walloping a man in the head by punching through a car window. But under director Edward Zwick’s bland craftsmanship and co-writer Richard Wenk’s routine plotting, it’s a little mushy, overfamiliar, bland. We get a car chase, and it’s just screeching tires and inevitable conclusions. The gunfights are just mindless rounds and big booms. The fistfights are bruising, but inelegantly choreographed. And the central spine of investigation isn’t so much finding and piecing together clues as the characters luckily ending up in the exact right place for the story to keep churning them along. It’s like watching a smarter movie on fast forward, moving past each scene before it can settle into a better, more effective rhythm.

Aside from Cruise’s dependability, the most enjoyable aspect of this movie is its 80’s-sequel-style jerry-rigged family until. Cruise and Smulders end up watching out for a fifteen-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh) who needs their protection, leading to amusing scenes where she pouts and complains and the adults have to say things like, “now, listen here, young lady.” There’s even a whole to-do about the girl sneaking out to try some investigating of her own, leading to the stern paternal figures awkwardly falling into the sitcom “We were worried! Where were you?” speech. It’s not much, but it’s there, just one of a few fine small touches. Other fleeting pleasures include learning Smulders can do that Tom Cruise run: stiff spin standing straight up, rigid arms swinging with mechanical precision, a grim stare of determination sharpening the eyes. It’s funny to see them together, two perfectly speedy pedestrians hurtling the human body as fast as it can go. You take your mild enjoyment where you can get it in a polished boredom, a middle-of-the-road programmer. If we meet Reacher again, let’s hope it’s in a better movie.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bored Game: OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL


Once you get past the surprisingly pleasurable vintage appeal to Ouija: Origin of Evil, you’re left with a fairly routine, fairly dull little horror movie. Ah, but those vintage affectations are so very pleasurable. I appreciated the effort. Setting the story in 1967, writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) wraps the movie in period detail. It’s like watching an odd Mad Men spin-off slowly sinking into haunting clichés. The costuming and set-design are midcentury on-point. The sound has a warm, soft, soothing vinyl quality. The pacing is soft; the image is quiet. The title cards have era-appropriate fonts. There are even some fake reel changes, perhaps the biggest shock of pleasure the film’s digital projection has to offer those of us who can remember the soft pop of the changeover, preceded by a fleeting black oval in the corner, accompanied by the faint scratches on the soundtrack and the little wobble on the cut. I realize this isn’t much, but it’s worth noting anyway.

The rest of the movie is standard modern horror elements that’ll be familiar to anyone who has seen better recent genre entries like The Conjurings, Insidious, The Possession, and so on and so forth. At least it’s much better than the worse, first attempt to turn Ouija boards into a horror series in 2014’s hacky, forgettable paranormal slasher. Origin of Evil has a frazzled single mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and two troubled girls (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson) mourning their father, evil spirits, bad dreams, a kindly priest (Henry Thomas), a nice older boy hanging around (Parker Mack), whisperings, apparitions, a possessive ghost (Doug Jones), things going bump in the night, and a house with a Dark Secret Past. There’s not a single surprising moment in watching these components come together as they add up to pretty much what you’d expect. The younger girl whispers with her new ghost friends after using a Ouija board to attempt contact with her dead dad. Now the whole family is in danger. Would you have it any other way?

Because the movie is rooted in its period – with small talk about the space program, and records spinning, and the soothing glow of black and white TV turning eerie with the late night Indian-head test pattern – there’s often just enough to distract from the conventional machinations of the plot. And the cast plays it like it’s happening to them for the first time, Flanagan giving them enough room to play it straight. The mother is a phony psychic with fake séances for which her daughters hide behind doors and in cabinets to provide some surround sound scrapes and thumps. They begin the movie cynical, inured to the very real supernatural around them, expect for the youngest, who believes too much. This is the setup for an opening, the most vulnerable starting lines of communications with the dead, the others too unbelieving to catch on to the problem before it’s too late. Not even the priest can figure it out before that house is a lost cause.

Once it all goes wrong, the mother tells her oldest daughter to go wait outside. “Splitting up seems like the worst idea,” the teen spits back, the movie’s one winking acknowledgement that we’ve been here before. Even its eeriest moments have echoes of better horror movies past. The little girl serving as a conduit for an evil something-or-other screams by stretching her mouth open with her chin unnaturally low, creepy and reminiscent of the Scream mask. So on a level of story, scares, and invention, it’s pretty much a whiff. It’s the kind of mediocre that, though it’s never all that involving or scary, is at least relatively watchable throughout. Flanagan’s a good enough filmmaker to make the routine pleasing, even comforting in its old-fashioned good looks. But this sort of comfort-food throwback horror runs completely counter to a good movie, removing genuine shocks or the simmering discomfort that burrows under the skin. Think about how James Wan’s Conjurings use period affectations to enhance the mood instead of settling into cinematic comfort food. Ouija: Origin of Evil is just a nice looking and sounding nothing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

In or Out: CLOSET MONSTER


Oscar witnessed a brutal assault when he was a child. A teen was attacked by a group of bullies behind the elementary school. The local news called it a hate crime. When he asked his father why it happened, his old man replied, “He was gay.” As that information sank into the boy’s malleable brain, still reeling with shock over seeing such violence first-hand and not entirely sure what “gay” even means, his father leaned over and tousled his shaggy blonde locks, saying that’s why he should get a haircut. This cements gayness as a danger in his young mind, as something for which you can be targeted. It’s coded and confusing. The times may be a-changing, but curious people wrestling with their sexuality can still too often feel shame, self-loathing, and denial. By the time Closet Monster catches up with Oscar as a high-school senior (Connor Jessup, fresh from a heartbreaking performance on American Crime; he was a troubled teen wrestling with identity there, too), the baggage of his early understanding of what it means to be gay hangs heavily on his burgeoning same-sex attractions.

Here’s a sensitive movie closely attuned to its central character’s predicament, using notes of whimsy – some dark, others light – to animate his internal conflict. He’s an inexperienced and curious young man, artistic, loyal to his best friend (Sofia Banzhaf), bitter about his parent’s nasty divorce, cramped in his small hometown, desperate to get into a cinema makeup program in a New York City college. When he sees a new co-worker (Aliocha Schneider) at his minimum wage hardware store job, he can’t help but notice the young man’s strong jaw line, curly hair, French-Canadian accent, toned arms, strong back, slim waist. The camera cuts to these features as they catch Oscar’s eye. The film feels the attraction, and as Oscar takes it in there’s a roiling in his gut. We hear burbling on the soundtrack as he’s hit by attraction so strong it feels like a body horror eruption, growling and moving under his skin. These are no mere butterflies in the stomach. Oscar feels this curiosity, this heat, as something sudden, unexpected, and painful. He can barely admit to himself that when he sees this young man, he wants to impress, wants to hang out with, and wants to touch him.

When he gets home, his hamster (who speaks to him, and only him, in the voice of Isabella Rossellini) says, “You’re in love.” He denies it. But he certainly won’t resist, as the new co-worker becomes something like a friend. It’s hard to say if this guy is exceptionally flirtatious or just vaguely European, but it’s easy to see Oscar’s happy to spend time with his crush, even if it means ignoring his other friend, or raising the suspicions of his homophobic father (Aaron Abrams, as a sometimes-loving father increasingly a slave to his own problems). He feels so alone in his feelings – isolated from his parents even as he moves between their houses; unable to share his curiosities about sexuality with even his oldest friend; stuck working a job he doesn’t like while waiting and hoping he’ll hear back from the college to which he’s applied – he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s confused, questioning. It’d be easy to say he’s closeted, but that’s not quite the case. He doesn’t even know what he is. He needs time to think, space to explore, permission to find himself. And until he get it, his emotions are going to continue feeling like they’re eating him alive from the inside out.

It’s not quite a horror movie, even as writer-director Stephen Dunn digs into some shocking images as part of his approach. The hate crime in the beginning involves a metal rod, which later appears in a nightmarish hallucination protruding from Oscar’s pants. Even later, at a costume party he’s attending despite his father’s protestations, Oscar vomits, and it looks to him like he’s spitting up bloody screws into the sink. The movie visualizes the boy’s pain on a visceral level with these touches. Although its magical realism can quiver with angst and violence it tends more to manifest in subtle ways, like a rejection letter turning every word on screen – in a note, on a sign, on the walls – into “unfortunately,” and, of course, the talking hamster who is his only respite from deep soul-churning loneliness. Dunn, in a most impressive feature debut, makes the film a dreamy, hazy, deeply empathetic character study, a throbbing, pulsing soundtrack and beautifully grainy cinematography sticking closely to Oscar’s mood. The film’s surrealistic touches aren’t a distraction, but amplification, a dramatic outward bursting of conflict that largely exists burrowing deeper and darker inside him, ready to eventually explode.

Jessup, so good at projecting a deep unspoken yearning mixed with shy determination to avoid disappointment even as he’s frustrated by his limitations, finds great poignancy in his struggle. Oscar is quiet, unsure, struggling to realize his full potential in the usual coming-of-age manner, asking the basic 18-year-old’s questions. Who am I? Who will I be? What do I want? But the context – sexual confusion, social awkwardness, repression, and internalized homophobia – is so tender and so raw, heightening his sense of turmoil. This is a film that understands that these questions are intense, and the adolescent mind interprets every variable through a complicated and dramatic lens. Dunn is smart to keep the movie small, to not reach too far for grander import or flashier melodrama. It’s a movie about wanting a kiss, arguing with a parent, deciding where to go to college, and arriving at a place where you can let go of past trauma. It’s about the monsters you find in your own mind when trying to hide your truth, especially if you’re hiding from yourself.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bad Math: THE ACCOUNTANT


The Accountant is a stupid movie dressed up like a smart one. At its core the picture is pure preposterous pulp. Ben Affleck plays a brilliant autistic accountant whose globetrotting financial consulting for black market crime lords and other shady types makes him a man who knew too much. The film follows him into a cat-and-mouse game with hitmen hired to eliminate him and the federal agents hot on his trail. That’s absurd, but the filmmakers have taken it very seriously. Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge) layer in tragic backstory, piling up childhood bullying, stern fathers, absent mothers, jail stints, and more building a picture of the accountant as a sad figure. His autism is treated as both a superpower and an embellishment of his sadness derived from an inability to connect. He lives a lonely lifestyle, moving from identity to identity, dragging his laundered life savings in a pristine Airstream trailer. We’re supposed to see the dim, pale Seamus McGarvey cinematography and the ridiculously overqualified supporting cast and find the whole thing profound. And yet, for whatever glimmers of insight and import it has, the only developments it can think of are loud, tedious exchanges of gunfire.

At least the cast tries its hardest to pull off the silliness with the actors providing their best grave expressions and deadpan exposition tones. Anna Kendrick plays a plucky junior accountant who discovers a problem in the books of a wealthy robotics CEO (John Lithgow). Jon Bernthal leads a team of mercenaries who travel the world looking to take out loose ends for anyone who can afford to pay the bills for what’s clearly a well-funded mini-army. J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson are agents who sit in offices explaining their research to each other before finally getting out in the field, where Simmons promptly sits down and talks us through a lengthy info-dump. (At least they’ve found a new setting.) These are all talented performers, and sometimes it’s worth admiring how much the greats can do when given so little on the page to play. They – and Jean Smart, and Jeffrey Tambor, and Robert C. Treveiler, and Alison Wright, and the rest – spend their screen time here acting like the premise is believable. Because they’re invested in the reality of a story that begins with an accountant-turned-criminal mastermind and ends with a few wild twists and a shoot-‘em-up like something out of Jack Reacher or John Wick, it almost works.

There are sequences where the movie wears its grim self-importance lightly, allowing little quips and small acknowledgement of its exaggerated qualities – like Affleck’s long-range target practice observed by a shocked farmer – to show it’s in on the joke. A movie about a super-accountant has to know it’s attempting something a little off the beaten path, even if it’s trying to shove it into the usual mid-budget Warner Brothers’ crime picture mold. But the trouble comes when the movie presents its very earnest, hugely clumsy, ideas about autism. It’d be free to be sillier, pulpier, and drastically more satisfying if it weren’t for incongruous message movie aspirations. Its opening scene is a tearful one with concerned parents trying to get help in the wake of a diagnosis. Its final moments are of would-be inspirational autism acceptance sentiment. But, in between, Affleck’s accountant is a collection of ticks and cutesy affectations meant to signify his challenges at every turn. This is all well and good in theory, but it’s sloppily integrated, used for comedy of the haha-he’s-unusual kind and to drive the plot as convenient explanation for his superpowers of cognition.

Part of the problem is the difficulty in believing Affleck as an accountant capable of, say, comprehending and analyzing fifteen years worth of corporate ledgers over night. If he was the type of performer who projected deep reservoirs of unspoken intelligence, maybe the film wouldn’t have to hit his ticks so hard. That wouldn’t solve the fundamental miscalculation of wedging a well-intentioned message into a totally frivolous affair, but would at least make it fit a smidge better. Affleck, despite clear hardworking smarts in interviews and behind the camera, simply isn’t good at looking like the smartest guy in the room on screen. He’s always at his best playing average guys bumping up against the limits of their wits – Gone Girl, To the Wonder, Extract, Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon. Here he’s playing at virtuoso skills, trying hard to make sense of a character written symptoms out instead of inside in attempt to write a person who happens to have a particular perspective. It’s just not playing to his strengths. In that way it’s a mirror of the movie as a whole. It wants to be something it’s not, resisting its most appealing goofiest impulses every step of the way.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Sidelined: MASCOTS


Christopher Guest’s Mascots introduces us to plucky weirdos driven to get in big foam costumes and wiggle around to delight and excite a crowd. There’s a husband/wife team (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) who play a turtle and an octopus for a low-rent baseball team, a chipper Brit hedgehog for a soccer team (Tom Bennett), a loopy arts’ college armadillo (Parker Posey), a football teams’ oversized plumber (Christopher Moynihan), and a grouchy Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who dresses as a giant fist for hockey games. They’re all driven to find success, powering forward with boundless positivity and love of the game in the pursuit of a silly dream: the grand prize at an annual mascot convention. If this sounds like it’s falling into Guest’s formula, you’re correct. It’s another of his mockumentaries involving an affectionately teased subculture. But unlike his great earlier comedies and their targets, Waiting for Guffman’s community theater, Best in Show’s dog competition, and A Might Wind’s folk music revival, Mascots lacks crucial specificity. Trying too hard to whip up eccentricities, it’s a flat, dull attempt at resuscitating a form that’s past its sell-by date.

Superficially, Mascots has everything that made earlier Christopher Guest movies great. It has the subculture. It has the large ensemble of funny people, including many of the performers who populated Guest’s earlier works and some welcome additions. (Present and accounted for are Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, Jr., and others.) It has the bright, flat mockumentary style allowing for the humor to loosely arrive at tossed-off lines. It’s has the casually ridiculous spoken with only a hint of bemusement and straight-faced silliness unfolding for an unemphatic camera. It’s agreeable. But, wow, is it not funny. Maybe it rises to the level of gently amusing from time to time, and the whole picture never quite tanks into something totally contemptible, but that’s certainly a far cry from the best Guest can do. This is his first movie in a decade, and the problem is partly what happened to the comedy landscape while he was away.

Firstly, the mainstream mockumentary style was more refreshing and novel when he took the form from the classic This is Spinal Tap, in which he co-starred, and applied it to his own silly trilogy. With Guffman and the rest, there was the spark of invention in seeing big, funny ensembles improvise their way to hilarious, endlessly quotable dialogue in scenes assembled with verite deadpan and plot pushed along by interviews with the characters. Now, after two versions of The Office, Parks & Rec, Modern Family, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and so on and so on, the style has been wrung out. Add to it Mascot’s half-heartedness with which it deploys the gimmick – with many scenes including cuts to impossible camera angles – and it just feels tired. Besides, at least those other mockumentaries were plausibly exaggerated looks at actual groups. The extrapolated and invented mascots and their rivalries and competitions here simply isn’t a culture with much connection to the real world. It’s not a parody of a real group of people; it’s simply goofing around based on a sliver of recognizable interest. (And if you think the plot is overfamiliar diminishing returns, wait’ll you see how Guest revives his memorable Corky St. Clair to flatlining results.)

Secondly, the improv style has also come to dominate the comedy film scene. From the Apatow productions – which expand their runtimes with long, loose scenes of characters cracking each other up – to every comedy that pauses its action for punchline roulettes in which the cast takes turns throwing out insults. (These have long stopped seeming like scenes and are more a matter of spitting a bunch of possible jokes and hoping one lands hard enough to excuse the rest. It’s coverage, not choices.) The shaggy scenes in which talented people find their way to a naturally funny bantering chemistry is no longer unfamiliar territory. And when it’s handled so carelessly as it is with Mascots it just feels sad. As a big fan of his earlier work, seeing Guest’s formula returning in such a diminished state is dispiriting. Sure, there are fleeting moments of good humor – like a hotel with a “John Wayne suite” downgrading a disappointed guest to the “Slim Pickens” – but there’s otherwise a desperation in scenes devoid of interest and missing laughs. I smiled a few times, chuckled a few more, but was otherwise thoroughly bummed out by how pale an echo of old favorites it is. Compared to other modern comedies, at least it’s not unendurable or ugly. It’s watchable. But the dead air is deafening.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lost and Found: CERTAIN WOMEN


Kelly Reichardt is one of our finest filmmakers. Her keenly judged eye for detail and sense for powerfully felt interiority imbues her films with casual and precise empathetic observation. Her latest is Certain Women, a trio of gem-like short stories so patiently unfolded and deeply considered, each moment, each shot, each breath is used to further their gripping emotional trance. Like the best short stories – these are adapted from the works of Maile Meloy, whose direct prose is of such concision and power she reads to me like nothing less than an Alice Munro, or a modern woman Hemingway – they turn on small shifts of emotion or perception, tremble with unspoken or thwarted desires, and snap shut with satisfying finality nonetheless played with notes of ambiguity. These are stories of isolation and loneliness, of women who need to make connections, feel satisfaction in their lives of quiet desperation. Set in beautifully austere small towns and open spaces of the northern midwest, Reichardt visualizes the quotidian with a poet’s spirit, and understands her characters’ deepest yearnings down to a molecular level.

Here’s a movie that inhabits its characters lives. We don’t just observe their strife or contemplate a crisis. We live with them, understand the rhythms and dramas of their days, and become so closely attuned to their personalities it’s possible to feel the entire weight of a story change in a silence, a stillness, a pause. Reichardt sees these women with great warmth and understanding. We meet a lawyer (Laura Dern) whose troubled client (Jared Harris) is frustrated by lack of progress on his disability claim. Then we spend time with a woman (Michelle Williams) who is scouting limestone for a house she’s building out in the country with her husband (James Le Gros). A stone pile they find belongs to an old man (Rene Auberjonois) with an emotional attachment to the building it once was. Then there’s a young professional (Kristen Stewart) stuck as an adjunct night class instructor, driving hundreds of miles in the dark to and from the course no one else wanted to teach. One student (Lily Gladstone) comes in from tending horses all week looking for a fleeting moment of human connection.

Every role is perfectly cast, sensitively observed, and naturally performed. Watch as Dern sneaks back into work after a long lunch with her lover, her shirt untucked on one side. We can tell that’s unusual, but there’s something about the way she goes about her exasperated day that tells us it’s not the first time she’s let a small detail slip. Later, as her case files are used in a way loaded with danger, we wonder if her drive toward honesty is going to lead her to a bad outcome. (She confides she wishes she was man, but only so her professional life would be easier since a client would listen to her and say, “okay,” instead of continuing to debate.) Williams sneaks in a smoke before meeting her husband, then watches as he presses the old man to make a sale a little farther than she’s comfortable with. This is hardly a showy drama. It’s a story about the subtle pushes and pulls of an awkward encounter. They’re not saying all they could, or maybe should. Everyone has little secrets, small competitions, carefully tentative lines of inquiry.

The thematic strands of the first two stories coalesce in the last, and best. As the inexperienced teacher, Stewart looks uncomfortable with the gaze of the class on her. She shifts and squirms, consults her notes a bit too faithfully as she avoids direct eye contact. (She is cautious and self-conscious about opening up, as evident in a scene in a diner where she wipes her mouth with the napkin without unwrapping it from the silverware.) Gladstone – her open expressions and clenched voice, a shyness barely cracking open in the presence of what she feels, or hopes, is a kindred spirit – is desperate for someone to talk to. Her job isolates her in the fields and the barns, hard work for poverty wages. She looks forward to the class not because she’s passionate about the subject – truth be told, she’s not even technically enrolled – but because she likes exchanging small talk with the instructor. It comes to a head with a long drive, and an agonizingly heavy pause.

Here’s a film with its key capstone suspense sequence simply a long silence while the audience – if on the right wavelength – stretches in rapt engagement wondering if someone will close the gap and say what they need to say. All three stories patiently consider hushed, routine, repetitive lives into which sudden emotional surprises build slowly to small shifts in approach or understanding. It’s an entire feature spun out from a recognizable, relatable, small but fraught instant: the tremulous moment where you’re standing across from a person you’d like to know better and just can’t find the words to bridge the distance. Reichardt has cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frame the proceedings with a calm camera, aware of the vast the landscapes and the psychological distances between people. She is a tender filmmaker whose restraint has a relaxed rigor. She tells stories of everyday life for people on the margins – at a forest retreat (Old Joy), in poverty (Wendy and Lucy), on the Oregon Trail (Meek’s Cutoff), and in an eco-terrorist enclave (Night Moves). In each, her close attention to the smallest of shifts in mood and demeanor subtly and respectfully draws out the profundity of lived experiences. Certain Women is her best work to date.

Monday, October 10, 2016

God Save the Tween:
MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE


Barely passable entertainment for anyone in the market for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid rip-off, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is an undemanding 90-minute tween sitcom. Aside from the programming on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, there’s little in the way of live action antics for kids to enjoy, so in that limited sense this fits a niche. But somehow I bet even children will find the whole picture drifting with the whiffs of second-hand inspiration. Based on a book series by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, it takes a familiar route. There’s a lead kid, a middle schooler who likes to draw and narrates his misadventures with family, friends, and teachers. But unlike Greg Heffley, the constantly embarrassed Ben Stiller type anchoring the Wimpy movies, Middle School has a protagonist who is mostly confident and the coolest rebel in school. His problems aren’t internal so much as a constant barrage of awful adults ruining his fun. Rafe Khatchadorian, the silliest kids’ book character name I’ve heard in ages, breezes into a new school ready to take on the establishment, willing to wage a covert prank attack on the stuffy suits and the petty rules.

I don’t know what made me feel older while watching this movie. For a while I thought it would be that I found the adults perspective more relatable and reasonably amusing while the kids were simply going through a hackneyed plot with obvious beats. But then, late in the picture, a girl patiently explains what a VCR is and that did it. I’m officially watching these young people movies through old eyes. Maybe that’s why I took the most delight in seeing comedian Andy Daly play the rules-obsessed principal. He has a way of smoothly projecting bland competence while oozing condescension and being totally transparent about his insecurities. It’s funny enough. His second in command is Retta, who here is the exact opposite of her Parks & Rec free spirit, snapping at students to keep them in line and getting the obligatory knocked-over-by-hundreds-of-balls-falling-from-a-closet gag. Elsewhere is the only teacher we meet, a trying-too-hard-to-be-cool-and-relatable one (Adam Pally). Then there’s Rafe’s warm single mother (Lauren Graham) with a monstrously dumb boyfriend (Rob Riggle). They all seem to be enjoying themselves.

The grown-ups have the mild eccentricities and heavy lifting, but the kids aren’t so bad. They’re likable enough. Rafe (Griffin Gluck) slowly pulls back some layers on his tween bravado, revealing some real emotional pain fueling his rebellion. Doing respectable work with their stereotypes are his silly friend (Thomas Barbusca), his crush (Jessi Goei), and his precocious little sister (Alexa Nisenson, who gets the cutest quips, but is also good in a surprisingly dramatic scene late in the game). They get some good lines, and the young audience won’t care so much that the adults in the crowd will be restless. The kids fit the movie’s tone as a light, soft, well meaning, and generally genial kids’ comedy. It even has some unobjectionable ideas to impart. His sketchbook drawings may come to life in distracting animated daydream interludes, too dull and flavorless to really add to the narrative, but there’s something nice about his artistic spirit. It adds to the movie’s basically harmless messages of self-empowerment, creativity, teamwork, and appropriately mild anti-authoritarian impulses.

What is middle school but a time to start chafing against the restrictions of childhood? A movie like this lets the tween id run free in (mostly) squeaky clean safe environments where nothing too bad will ever happen. Rafe can put sticky notes all over the school or fill a trophy case like an aquarium, dye his principal’s hair, shred standardized tests, or fill the sprinkler system with paint. But it’s all for a good cause in this comfortably consequence-light vision of the world. (And the pranks are so unwieldy and impractical there’s little worry of kids copying. Not that that’ll necessarily stop them from trying.) Of course it’s a movie with some instantly dated cultural references (like a tired swipe at the Kardashians) and booming contemporaneous pop music. It’s also a movie with a chaste crush, a few implied profanities, and a final comeuppance for the meanest adult including a wagon full of manure. Directed with a brisk, bright, bland style by Paul Blart’s Steve Carr from a screenplay by Kara Holden (a Disney Channel Original Movie veteran), the movie’s not worth getting worked up over. It does about what you’d expect at the level you’d assume, no better and no worse.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Track Changes: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN


The Girl on the Train has all the right ingredients for a polished tawdry thriller, but it never really gets cooking. There’s a missing woman. There’s a cast of talented performers assembled to play suspects. There’s a glossy, handsomely photographed look, like its upstate New York setting is a high-end furniture catalogue with roiling undercurrents of jealousy, abuse, addiction, and intimate crime. There’s a solid, dependable director at the helm in Tate Taylor, whose previous films The Help and Get on Up also had some interest in complicated women’s roles. And there’s Emily Blunt acting her heart out in the center of the movie as a depressed, alcoholic, unreliable witness at her wits’ end, who either did or did not see something integral to the investigation. The stage is set for something interesting, but the movie is instead a total snooze. Its mysteries are haphazardly developed, its tension is erratically sustained, and its characters remain flat types.

Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson adapts Paula Hawkins’ bestseller with a scrambled chronology and shifting points of view. It’s a Three-card Monte plot, shuffling back and forth in time and perspective while withholding key information just because it can. By the time the pieces finally stop moving the picture comes up empty. Its central character’s confused mental state motivates the jumbled telling, which takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to its least helpful illogical conclusion. Blunt’s girl on the train is depressed. The dual shocks of learning she can’t have a baby and being left by her husband (Justin Theroux) for their realtor (Rebecca Ferguson) haven’t helped. Nor has incessant drinking improved her life, leaving her stumbling, slurring, blacking out, and missing time. It’s not uncommon for her to ask her roommate (Laura Prepon) what she did last night, a habit that carries over from her ex. She’s used to being out of control and not remembering. But she’s sure she saw the missing woman (Haley Bennett) on the night of the disappearance.

There is a dusting of interesting thematic work here. Blunt is playing a woman who is told stories about her life she has no choice but to believe given her condition. She, in turn, enjoys looking out the train window during her commutes, making up little stories about the people whose lives she glimpses for a few moments a day. That’s how she feels she knows the missing woman enough to try to give a statement to the detective on the case (Alison Janney) or approach the woman’s shocked husband (Luke Evans) or therapist (Edgar Ramirez) to slip some of her information or delusions into their narratives. Ah, but how to do that while seeming sane? It’d take a sharp mind and sober social skills to pull that off, and she can only fake it for so long. Besides, she’s not totally sure she didn’t have something to do with the vanishing. The movie takes us into flashbacks narrated by the missing woman describing her sad life, then back to Blunt wringing her hands over the state of things. This interest in the stories people tell to convince themselves of one thing or another is a good enough hook to make the lackluster execution all the more disappointing.

Taylor handles this material with some confidence. He trusts his close ups of Blunt’s tear-streaked face and woozy booze-soaked flashes of memory to carry across the haze through which the facts can be glimpsed. He’s also sure his oblique references to horrible things – a character’s tearful monologue about the death of her infant; a bludgeoning; a pattern of emotional abuse – are worth springing as surprises and then cutting away before the visuals get too rough. But ultimately there’s just not enough there there. The twists are artificially delayed through obfuscation, stretching out obvious developments for the sake of the story’s deliberately frustrating structure. (We can’t be sure of anything until late in the picture, by which point it’s hard to retroactively care.) And the whole ensemble of terrific performers (down to two scenes for the always great Lisa Kudrow) are stuck playing slight types whose actions are determined by the circuitous plotting and whose decisions and developments hinge only on the dictates of the surprises. Worst, there’s never any compelling question pulling it along. I was so frustrated by the film’s thin psychology and unforthcoming shiftiness I simply didn’t care where the missing woman went and whodunit. I was merely waiting out the runtime.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Crime and Punishment: 13TH


To solve our nation’s problems, we must understand their causes, and not just the easy, obvious causes that are most convenient to solve. In 13th, a powerful and persuasive new documentary from Selma writer-director Ava DuVernay, there is an explanation for mass incarceration and implicit bias, the twin ailments afflicting our criminal justice system. But our current crisis of overcrowded prisons and police brutality has roots that run deep. DuVernay builds a history of oppression in this country, showing how the evils of slavery were removed by the Civil War only for the routine dehumanizing of people of color to remain a constant in our society. She begins with Reconstruction, as slaves became criminals, locked up or lynched for the simplest of reasons, if any at all. The myth of black criminality was pervasive, a worry that freedom unleashed permission for a people to roam the South unchecked by white power. DuVernay draws a line from the KKK to the prison industrial complex in a smart, complicated, multi-faceted, well rounded, dazzlingly intellectual and undeniably emotional sociopolitical argument.

Here DuVernay is working in the tradition of documentarian Adam Curtis (his masterwork, The Power of Nightmares, a stunning recounting of the parallel rise of neo-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalism) and historian Howard Zinn (whose People’s History of the United States viewed the past through how it affected the least among us). Like them, she's synthesizing a vast amount of information, drawing connections, placing old and familiar stories and ideas next to fresh takes and new juxtapositions. It adds up to a history of white racial resentment and poisonous stereotyping as the prime driving forces behind American politics of the last 150 years. What is Jim Crow but an effort to rebuild a mechanism by which to prevent black people from entering white society? What is Nixon’s Southern Strategy but coded messages to whites letting them know the progress of black civil rights will be slowed? What is the War on Drugs, with its lopsided sentencing, but a method to punish people of color more harshly? What about the 1994 omnibus crime bill, privatized prisons, and militarized police forces? The film takes us right to present day, current discussions inevitably informed by the decades of buildup. 

DuVernay doesn’t argue that explicit, intentional racism is always the cause of laws’ consequences, but that it’s merely the soup in which we swim. Black people are viewed as criminal at a rate disproportionate to the percentage of actual crime. She reminds us of 1915’s Birth of a Nation codifying the image of dangerous black men, and of the nightly news and tough-on-crime campaign ads far more frequently parading dark skin in front of the camera as code for crime. She shows us Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and many more civil rights leaders and recalls how they were hounded by law enforcement and, in many cases, cut down in their prime. She unflinchingly shows us photographs of lynchings, footage of hoses and dogs deployed on peaceful protestors, of unarmed black men gunned down in the street by fearful and angry police. Our problems are not new, they are simply old problems found new form. DuVernay begins by showing us the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, albeit with the proviso that it’d still be allowed as punishment for crime. This is a movie about how, in ways both intentionally and unintentionally, the amendment’s language has taken on the sneaky force of a powerful loophole.

13th collects perfectly judged archival footage to mix with a collage of talking heads from the across the political spectrum. We hear from historians, journalists, activists, politicians, lobbyists, and more – everyone from Henry Louis Gates and Michelle Alexander to Newt Gingrich – as their words are interwoven to tell the complicated story. (A few choice times she skewers a wrongheaded interviewee with judicious cross-cutting to the truth.) Stirred in with the usual graphs and text and lyrics of the modern message doc, these witnesses and chroniclers tell the narrative of our country’s last 150 years as a clear-headed examination of underlying, recurring problems. This film asks its audience to consider the core rot in our body politic and how it has continually transfigured itself every time we think we’ve gotten close to cutting it out. Systematic prejudice reconstitutes under the cover of new ideas or identities, continuing to propagate unfathomable and unfair harm, often before we even recognize its new form. The reinvention of oppression needs to be met with a radical compassion, recognition of the worth, the humanity, of every person. This movie is a good start.

Rise Up: THE BIRTH OF A NATION


A straightforward reenactment of Nat Turner leading a slave uprising in 1831 could make for a great movie. It hasn’t yet, but I hope someone will get it right. The one great film about Turner, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, is a documentary interested in how little we can truly know about the man, due to the fact that so much of his record has been muddied, falsified, exaggerated, and expunged over the years. We know plenty about the white people he and his rebels killed. The slaves doing the killing, however, remain in many ways unknowable. Turner lives on as a complicated, ambiguous figure, heroic for fighting back, condemned for the brutality and totality of his tactics. Women and children were slaughtered, but so, too, did slavery butcher and brutalize a people. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but then again there’s nothing right about letting a wrong go on unimpeded. These are richly complicated ideas, but Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation simplifies and uncomplicates it in its telling.

Parker wants to make a big statement. The actor clearly has passion in the project, taking it as his subject for his debut as writer-director. It’s his Dances with Wolves, his Braveheart, a way to throw his Hollywood clout behind a picture built to flatter his own ego while making a big, broad period piece about racial injustice. You certainly can’t doubt that he’s thinking about making a dramatic statement, to shine a light on a moment in our nation’s history that’s too often ignored or consigned to a footnote in textbooks. His determination to right a wrong extends to the title, elbowing D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film of the same name – a stirring Civil War epic that concludes in lengthy sequences of appalling black stereotypes and the KKK riding to the rescue – into sharing the spotlight with a tale more accurate and attuned to the moral arc of time. There’s little avoiding our current political climate in scenes of slobbering white men demanding slaves’ papers even when they have no reason to suspect them of a violation, in unarmed black men gunned down by people who feel justified in their control over and fear of their bodies.

But it’s no surprise that a movie about American slavery would be so harrowing and upsetting in dealing with sensitive and traumatizing material. What is surprising is how Parker brings so little illumination to his subject, trusting his audience to bring the loaded contemporaneous associations and historical context into the theater with them. He glosses past Turner’s upbringing, a young slave boy allowed to read because of his interest in the Bible, who then becomes a preacher rented out to other plantations in order to keep their slaves docile through the opiate of twisted scripture. It’s told in obvious gestures and borrowed imagery, as if he figured we’d seen 12 Years a Slave and Roots and the rest so he could let it play out in shorthand and stock types. But unlike those other, better works – and the many others besides – Parker’s tale isn’t interested in deepening our understanding or complicating our assumptions or peeking into the lived experience of the institution. He’s too interested in flattering himself as a performer – giving him tearful reactions to traumas others are dealing with, and providing opportunities for grand speeches and inspiring low-angle shots – to allow anyone in the talented ensemble (Dwight Henry, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union...) to make more than fleeting impressions.

Shooting it all in a pale blue digital glow which softens even the harshest violence, Parker simplifies and streamlines the narrative, to the detriment of his larger goals. It’s a fascinating story of Christian scripture as a double-edged sword, the preacher teaching the slavers’ self-serving self-justification version of bondage and freedom before turning and using the fire and brimstone of righteous anger to foment a rebellion. But Parker makes Turner’s story into simple Chosen One willpower – complete with mystical prophecy, cloudy visions, and an angelic symbol – and easy morality. He’s upset by what he sees, but is finally jolted to action because of an attack on his wife (Aja Naomi King), a woman reduced to a prop, her suffering the literal background of his story. Then, in the revolt itself, the real facts of the case – indiscriminate murder, followed by indiscriminate reprisals – are glossed over to create a more convenient tone of uncomplicated tragic martyrdom and comfortable retribution. The nice white people live. The ones who start nice but grow mean are attacked off screen. The worst of the whites (like Jackie Earle Haley, who does most of the worst) die slow, bloody deaths on screen as if it’s only a simple matter of revenge instead of also an attack on an institution.

This leaves the movie too often looking away, not digging into the nastiness and moral complications of the surrounding context. Its beginning is evocative, Turner silhouetted against a stained-glass window while his master (Armie Hammer) bleeds out. Its aftermath is powerful: a long, slow pull back to reveal body after body lynched, hanging in a tree while “Strange Fruit” anachronistically appears on the soundtrack. But after the sluggish build up, the central event is too indifferently staged and over before you know it. We came to see a story about a man, but he’s blandly developed. We came to see an uprising, an attempt to spark a Civil War that ended in horrible defeat. And then it, too, is used for the least effect it could have. The events within The Birth of a Nation are inherently powerful, and kick up provocative and complicated questions. But the movie itself does too little with this powder keg on which it sits. To the extent it’s interesting it’s in spite of itself, not because. The events that should be shocking feel routine, and no character emerges as fully humanized, not even the Turner who is so scrubbed of all complications even as he draws all focus. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Welled Up: DEEPWATER HORIZON


Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon is a compelling, workmanlike, gearhead recreation of a tragedy that was a prelude to an ecological disaster. He’s not so much concerned with artificially inflated human drama or even in the resulting fallout from the 2010 deep sea oil rig explosion that left several BP employees dead while millions of gallons of crude gushed into the ocean. Berg’s films (from Friday Night Lights to Battleship) are always most interested in group efforts. This one’s about systems failing, and a group who must survive as best they can when it blows up in their faces. There’s the usual disaster movie opening acts which introduce a variety of recognizable actors showing up to work on the rig and the various tensions slowly straining between the men who are there to put in hard work and the men who are there to cut corners. The sharply drawn division between the laborers and the money men put me in mind of The Towering Inferno, while the somber just-the-facts tick-tock of daily routine felt more in line with the grim United 93. The synthesis of these two approaches is compelling enough, but the movie really comes alive when it all blows up.

Because Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) take such an interest in the mechanics of the Deepwater Horizon in the movie’s throat-clearing beginning, with loving looks at the machinery including a camera sliding up the main pipe’s muddy buildup like a colonoscopy, there’s no need for belabored explanation later. Because they let us know how it’s supposed to work, they can let the pressure build until the rig erupts. We know what’s wrong. The way there provides human stakes, letting us watch good average capable workaday guys trying their hardest to make the task of seemingly impossible corporate orders – personified by meek dopes in polo shirts – work anyway. There’s Mark Wahlberg doing his earnest best, and Kurt Russell commanding attention and respect (and rocking a fine mustache). There’s no-nonsense Gina Rodriguez and sweet Dylan O’Brien and kind Ethan Suplee. They’re likable, but then there’s John Malkovich, bald and chewing through a splendid accent as the guy from the head office willing to push forward without completing all the necessary safety checks. Even if you didn’t know where this is going, you’d know where this is going.

You’d certainly know something’s about to blow if you paid attention to the heavy-handed foreshadowing. Before leaving for the rig, Wahlbeg and his wife (Kate Hudson) watch their adorable moppet show off her visual aid for a career day explanation of her dad’s job. It’s a Coke can she manipulates like it’s underground undersea oil. As the scene ends, the can ominously explodes. Later, Russell is handed a safety award by visiting company men, a scene crosscut with Malkovich barking at underlings to ignore a warning about unsafe pressure in the pumps. So the movie lays it on a little thick. But when the danger flares, the movie’s ready to turn its eye on knobs, dials, gears, switches, buttons, keys, screens, alarms, propellers, tubes, signals, readouts, levers, and more into watching every one fail. As the whole oil rig comes crashing down around the characters, they spring into action, trying to contain the mess or, failing that, getting themselves and their co-workers to safety. Everyone on screen is coated in grease, mud, and blood. It becomes a loud, cacophonous series of explosive sequences, one perilous development leading inexorably to the next as everything falls apart.

There are political points to be made through a story like this, but Berg keeps that ambiguous. It’s a celebration of hardworking human spirit and a condemnation of heartless profit motives driving them to doom. It’s a business calamity with bloody casualties, bailed out by civic good. We see the coast guard fly into action (an echo of Sully, the other recent-event-turned-movie of the moment), and the people on board the rig do all they can to help their fellow workers. There’s a thrill to watch such dramatic life-and-death circumstances play out on the big screen, the effects large and convincing, the booming sound design rattling the theater seats with every new blast of the inferno. But there’s also sadness to the spectacle. When one man sacrifices himself to stop a piece of equipment from falling on others, Berg holds close on his wincing face, then watches as he’s blown out a window, smacking into a bulkhead on his way out of sight. I fleetingly wondered what it would be like for the real man’s family to see this movie, and I hoped they wouldn’t. And yet the movie is so effectively produced, I was fascinated by its every development, as the best laid plans of men go horribly wrong in spectacular fashion.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Chess to Impress: QUEEN OF KATWE


In the broad outlines of its narrative, Queen of Katwe looks like standard inspirational based-on-a-true-story Hollywood product. But what elevates the material here is a warm specificity and gentle, humane subtlety. It tells the story of a girl growing up in extreme poverty in Katwe, Uganda. She doesn’t attend school. Her widowed mother and three siblings scrape by selling cheap corn in the crowded marketplace. Hunger and the constant looming threat of eviction are ever-present concerns. One day she discovers a kind man running a program where he offers porridge and chess lessons to local kids. Food and fun draw her in, but passion for the game soon consumes her. She dreams of becoming a Grandmaster. The more she plays, the more she practices, the more it seems like this is a dream within reach, if only she can make it past the societal, economic, and structural impediments standing between a poor African girl and the world stage.

Director Mira Nair takes this terrific story and imbues it with a closely attuned sense of place and space, both in the details of the character’s lives and situations, and in the way their environment and experiences inform their worldviews. Nair is always a quiet, precise observer of humanity. Her works about culture clashes (like Mississippi Masala) and immigrants (The Namesake), rituals (Monsoon Wedding), radicalization (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and the past (Vanity Fair), show an adept ability to inhabit a particular cultural context from the inside out instead of the usual outside in. Queen of Katwe is humbly remarkable in this way. Nair, from a screenplay by William Wheeler (Ray Donovan, of all things), sets the characters’ lives as the norm, with not a hint of an outsider’s eye or Western point of view intruding. This isn’t an exoticized or aestheticized foreign poverty. This is the everyday lived experience of real people, presented as such, understood with compassion and empathy, and used as the fertile soil from which its hard-fought successes can grow all the more inspirational for it.

The warm, believably lived-in spirit extends to the lovely performances. The lead girl (Madina Nalwanga) is intensely sympathetic as her timid steps into the world of chess blossom into passion, her natural talent so evident she’s soon way ahead of the rest. The other children are a fine ensemble chorus, from an adorable little boy excited to win and tearful when losing, to a sweet dimpled girl who loves the feminist power of the Queen ruling the board and throws a fit at a competition when an older competitor removes her precious favorite piece. There’s something refreshingly unaffected and natural about the child performances here. Meanwhile, the chess teacher (David Oyelowo) is so pure-hearted and good that he’s almost unbelievable, but for the weariness in his irrepressible drive to make a difference. He, too, had a rough beginning to his life, and current financial concerns, and though he left and got an education he has returned with the mission of helping children. He’s able to connect in the enriching and encouraging manner of all the best teachers.

Lupita Nyong’o plays the lead’s mother, struggling to get by but rising to every challenge. She’s suspicious of an activity that’ll take her children away from the daily selling in the streets, but also begrudgingly accepts that it just might win them the chance to go to school on a scholarship. Nyong’o carries a life of hurt in her eyes, deepening and strengthening our understanding of her perspective, and her tragic backstory, in just a glance, or a meaningful stare. Here scenes play out with such pained tenderness, it’s the subtlest and most mature (but not inappropriate or out of place) subplot I’ve seen in a family movie in ages. Together the adults in this story make up a fine core of goodness, representing how even people who agree they want the best for a child can approach the task with honest differences. Even the usual board members and rules keepers in the sports movie structure are well-intentioned, if infuriatingly small-minded at times (also a requirement of the form).

This is the best, smartest, and most honest Disney based-on-a-true-inspiration competition-based drama since Remember the Titans. It takes what could easily be sentimental or button pushing and instead treats the material seriously and respectfully, trusting in its inherent power. It doesn’t talk down to family audiences or find artificial reason to inject white or western perspective. Nair simply sees her characters where they are, regards their quotidian daily demands and chess strategy, and shows them with great clarity and minimum explanation, trusting the audience is smart enough to figure it out and follow along. This is a movie in which conflict arises naturally out of the pressures of the game and the struggles of their lives. Nothing is artificially pumped up for the sake of drama. It’s a strong, smart, and patient movie about strength of spirit and sharpness of mind, honed through hard work, good luck, and inner power. It more than earns its crowd-pleasing uplift.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Heist Guys: MASTERMINDS


Inevitably, the best part of any Jared Hess movie is whatever The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes about it. Brody is the film critic most on Hess’s wavelength, able to enjoy his films’ fussy eccentricity, aloof absurdism, and reliance on characters who are stumbling stupid dopes. I look forward to reading Brody’s takes because, aside from the fact he’s a terrific writer worth reading even if you disagree with his position, I wish these movies worked on me like they do him. From the outside, they seem fun, with goofy premises and promising casts of talented performers. There’s his 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, the surprise hit about a gawky high school nerd, and Nacho Libre, with Jack Black as a monk moonlighting as a luchador. His best, though still uneven and hard to hang with for their entirety, are Gentlemen Broncos, in which Jemaine Clement plays a pompous sci-fi author, and Don Verdean, starring Sam Rockwell as a fraud Christian archeologist. These all sound like fun movies, but I always watch them slightly perplexed, delighting anytime a rare laugh surfaces. In Hess’s style the humor is often hermetically sealed in a signal my brain can only intermittently pick up.

Hess’s latest is Masterminds, a movie about a group of dim schemers who attempt to pull off a massive heist and then flail around in its aftermath. It’s based on a true story, loosely I hope. If you ever in your life find yourself in a situation so bad you look around and think to yourself, “this could be a Jared Hess movie,” something has gone terribly wrong for you. The characters here are all sad members of the working poor, and the movie’s perspective is aggressively condescending and dismissive. They work minimum wage jobs, live in trailers, and shop at big box discount chains, and Hess shoots every scene to emphasize the grotesque, the tacky, the pitiable. There’s not an ounce of empathy or sympathy in the film’s mocking construction or approach, desperate people willing to do dire things for dumb reasons squirming under pressure for our amusement. Of course a movie could theoretically get away with being cruel or mercilessly satirical, but not one so purposeless as this. It’s only out to deride and denigrate, looking down its nose in heartless smirking scorn.

At least the talented performers are bright enough to sneak in some endearing, even amusing, touches now and then. They try, anyway. Zach Galifianakis is an awkward armored car driver head over heels for his shift partner (Kristen Wiig). When her dumb friend (Owen Wilson) asks her to seduce the sap into stealing $17 million in cash from the warehouse after hours, she’s willing to go along with it. The driver doesn’t know he’s being duped, and that the woman he thinks he’s colluding with in heist and in love is never going to go on the run with him. He’d be better off staying home, following the law, and marrying his creepy fiancé (Kate McKinnon). Alas, the heist goes off and goes wrong, drawing the dogged pursuit of a weary FBI agent (Leslie Jones) and a wacky hit man (Jason Sudeikis). The plot is rigged against them all – and there’s something extra squirm-worthy to consider the real people in the real story seeing themselves presented in such a funhouse-mirror farce – but the actors involved scrape out enough eccentric line readings to make it seem like a comedy.

Remarkably low-energy and scattershot, the movie slowly grinds to its conclusion through increasingly broad and mind-numbingly exaggerated silliness involving kidnappings, death threats, disguises, stupid mistakes, lazy coincidences, and strained stakes. Hess doesn’t take advantage of the inherent comedy of his cast or concept. Instead it drains into gross out gags – a gooey bit about biting into a tarantula is so puss-filled it made me gag – and preposterous developments – like a hit man easily tricked into thinking a man with his stolen birth certificate is, in fact, a long-lost crib mate. It’s not heightened so much as artificial, with shallow, static framing always straining for oddball intent with claustrophobic fussiness and flat affect instead of coming by its weirdness naturally. Maybe there’s some way to understand the movie’s creative spark or unusual perspective, but I can’t find it. Aside from a few promising flickers here and there, the whole thing plays out like dead air to me. I left scratching my head, completely unaffected, a little repulsed, more than a little annoyed, and eager to see what Richard Brody had to say about all this.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Monster House:
MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a Tim Burton movie through and through. It’s yet another of his stories about pale loner weirdos confronting an abrasive normality that has no idea what to do with them. Here’s where I’d list off a few relevant comparisons from the filmmaker’s back catalogue, but we all know in this case it’d just be a complete list of his work, from Pee Wee and Beetlejuice to Batman and Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood and Big Eyes to Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows and on and on. This particular iteration, adapted by screenwriter Jane Goldman (Stardust) from the book by Ransom Riggs, locates a group of fantastical freak show oddities hidden in an orphanage in Wales wilderness and a time-bending bubble of stasis that protects them from prying normal eyes. Their secret is out, though, in the creepy bedtime stories of a grandfather (Terrence Stamp) whose mysterious death sends his teenage grandson (Asa Butterfield) off in search of the peculiar children.

That sounds simple enough, and it’s certainly sufficient reason for Burton to play around with eerie horror imagery. By the time the grandson finds the peculiars he sees an invisible boy, a girl as strong as ten grown men, a firestarter, tiny twins in spooky masks and white burlap suits, a surly teen who can animate the inanimate, and a girl lighter than air who must wear lead shoes to keep her grounded. It’s the sort of hard-edged whimsy that’s fine creature fantasy and can also hit genuinely unsettling notes, especially by the time their headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, underplaying her wild-eyed chirping mode), informs the lad that they’re being hunted by tall, pale, long-limbed, faceless tentacle-squirming invisible monsters and their haunting masters (led by a campy, pupil-less, white-haired Samuel L. Jackson). It involves a disgusting plot to eat the eyeballs of peculiars everywhere in a bid for immortality, a slight shift after the villains’ plan to suck the lifeforce out of shape-shifting birds backfired in gnarly fashion.

As I recount the basic facts of the plot this doesn’t sound so complicated. But in practice it plays out as a ton of unwieldy setup that must be hurdled to get to the fun parts. Instead of drawing its point-of-view character – and, by extension, the audience – into the world, clearly establishing lines of conflict and reasons for suspense, the film progresses as a jumble of fits and starts. It leads to confusion. As I watched grotesque tableaus and cute creepiness I took some delight in the off-kilter Burton-y visual aspects – although its images are curiously scrubbed clean of the textures and atmosphere with which his other films excel – but it wasn’t cohering. Worse, it wasn’t providing a narrative engine, or a reason to care. It’s one of those teen fantasy novel adaptations where every faction has a name and every backstory has its corresponding jargon and every gesture is imbued with meaning readers can intuit while leaving the unfamiliar in the cold. By the time it is finished introducing everybody and sets up the stakes, it turns into something much more reasonably diverting. But even then it’s hard to be too invested in the happenings.

There’s a fun conclusion involving nonsensical time travel, a tapestry of teamwork powers in action, teeth-gnashing villain monologuing, and fun unreal effects work. Burton’s facility with CG still doesn’t match the thrill of his early days with makeup, miniatures, and stop motion tricks, but at least here it’s blended in with the slightly softer visual sense. Until the movie finally dispenses with cloudy setup and gets down to action, there’s no sense of true invention, all the best moments passing quickly while the plot follows a glum drumbeat of its own convoluted internal logic. There’s an artifice that’s not like the giddy creativity of early Burton or even the confident self-referential Gothic Hammer Horror-riffing that he’s played so enjoyably before. No, here it’s just phony, with a stiff lead performance (Butterfield clearly stifled under a so-so American accent) animating a painfully routine Chosen One secret-powers-and-totally-unconvincing-romance-subplot scenario. Even the peculiars themselves aren’t full characters so much as visual gags we’re meant to love for their adorable qualities while being alternately charmed and creeped out by their macabre features. The whole movie is a mixed bag, with maybe just enough to like jumbled in with a lot to endure.
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