Friday, May 29, 2020

Listen to the Skies: THE VAST OF NIGHT

The Vast of Night
is a small feature cloaked in the mysteries of twilight and the possibilities of mid-century speculative fiction. It is a confidently hushed work of mood and tone so spare and so careful that I felt myself practically holding my breath lest I break its fragile, entrancing spell. It’s set in a small southwestern town at the tail end of the 1950s, a time when the future was still something imagined with regularity, the promise of technology and research more open to possibilities than closed-off with dystopian alarm. The film takes place all in one night. Most of the town is crowded into the school gymnasium for the big basketball game. This leaves our characters — two cute, bespectacled teens, giddy with energies of curiosity and potential — alone in the darkness that stretches across the horizon. They have jobs to do, he (Jake Horowitz) the only radio station employee on duty, and she (Sierra McCormick), a brisk walk away, manning the town’s switchboard. Their isolation is broken up only by the crackles of static over the airwaves and the pools of brightness under the sparse streetlights, the warble of the music over the radio, and the hushed conversations they have over the lines. They clearly like each other, and have sweet chemistry, but their affection is unspoken subtext behind their teasing interests in each other’s nerdy pursuits. These teens are creatures of small-town comfort and analog habits and the film follows suit, much like the camera tracks along in its long opening sequences. The camera glides down the town’s alleys and sidewalks, through the crowds a block away, and then settles still and attentive as the characters lean intently into the mysteries of the night. The film builds its power over their isolated connection, leaning into sophisticated sound design, layered in like a radio play over the perfectly composed frames that allow for the actors, and the patient pacing, to breathe, inviting you to lean in with them.

It proceeds with slow-drip suspense as the characters find the empty nocturnal streets reason to let imagination run wild. Unless they aren’t imagining things. An unidentifiable signal — bursts of whirring electric something — cuts into the phone lines. It briefly interrupts the radio broadcast. Is something out there? The characters call back and forth from the station to the switchboard, as microphones crackle on, connections are clicked in with a clank, the radio fuzzes and reel-to-reel tapes are futzed with. Each new tactile technological wrinkle — cutting edge for their time — draws them deeper into their wondering, inspired, no doubt, by a prevailing science-speculation urban legend of the time, that the broadcast might be coming from unseen visitors above. First-time director Andrew Patterson sustains a simple story, a tremulous fermata of mysterious tension, stretched across just shy of an hour-and-a-half, without a wink or a smirk, and without tipping its hand. I almost wish it didn’t have to literalize its suggestions in its final moments, but they achieve a haunting inevitability nonetheless. The movie’s subtle showiness — taking in its note-perfect performances and tactfully evocative camera work, and trusting we’ll recognize we’re in sturdy storytelling hands — comes from its reserve, letting its narrative unspool in long phone conversations, half-whispered recollections in dark rooms. It doles out its information with teasing, natural ease, letting its endearing lead characters’ increasing need to know what’s happening develop along with ours. Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger somehow sidestep cliche in what could’ve been a familiar story by clinging so tightly to these characters and their moment-to-moment experience, painting in precisely calibrated expressive detail like the best Ray Bradbury short stories or Twilight Zone episodes. It gathers up a haunting power, balanced between period signifiers and the ineffable possibilities in the enormity of the night sky.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Cooking the Books: BAD EDUCATION

Bad Education is set in schools, but concerns no actual classes, and certainly not any dynamics of students and teachers. It doesn’t tell us about curriculum or class sizes or demographics or unions — but it does crow that the schools at its center, a well-funded Long Island district, have a growing reputation for sending kids on to prestigious colleges. It’s a fact that causes local real estate to steadily grow, and to attract the sort of high-earning parents looking to keep their offspring on cushioned, easy paths to privilege. That we don’t know any details about the schools’ actual contents beyond that seems to be part of the point. Director Cory Finley, whose chilled observational eye was attuned to a dead-eyed emotional violence of bored rich girls of suburbia in his accomplished debut feature, the creepy domestic drama Thoroughbreds, now turns his attention to a house of cards built out of criss-crossing pressures on school administrators. He finds there, in this based-on-a-true-crime picture, a cauldron of false appearances that brew up the opportunity for massive embezzlement. Finley keeps the film’s style cool and collected, staging unassumingly and clearly scenes that take in squirming unease as officials get suspicious, the frazzling of authorities as they’re implicated, and the icy office power plays as various administrators makes moves to preserve their own prestige and influence. He’s out to show how so much of a whole town’s educational and economic interest can be built out of not looking too closely at the details when the big picture appears rosy.

It’s a film full of people projecting an idea of themselves into the world, desperately trying to hide the shallowness and sneakiness beneath. Yet it starts with one of the uncomplicatedly good characters: a reporter for a high school newspaper (Geraldine Viswanathan), tasked with an article about impending construction, who starts poking around in the finances of a new capital outlay project. Something doesn’t add up. Then the ne’er-do-well son of the district’s assistant superintendent (Allison Janney) gets caught using a school credit card around town. There’s scandal brewing, and the charming, hollow superintendent (Hugh Jackman) finds his unflappable local celebrity calm breaking a sweat as he tries to keep it secret, minimize the damage, and keep up appearances of success as it all threatens to fall apart. He’s a man of secrets — a closeted gay man, yes, and also carrying on an affair with a former student, and sneaking off for cosmetic procedures — who has intermingled his reputation with that of his schools. He likes looking like an important man, a big grin and slicked back hair matching his easy superficial charm. We see him quizzing himself on teacher’s names and positions so he can slide through a faculty mixer with chummy ease. He works hard to keep up the looks of a man on top of the world. Jackman plays the razzle-dazzle well, and cuts it with a hunger and a sadness. He’s a desperate man, even before scandal erupts. Maybe he really wants to help students; there’s a real note of melancholy when he admits to sometimes missing being in the classroom. But he’s consumed with keeping his secrets, and so too, in its own way, is the community. Finley’s movie is a narrow character study, tunnel-visioned into the tick-tock details of how some well-regarded community leaders lose their reputation because that was all they had. The movie is poignantly sympathetic to the damage they caused themselves with their sociopathy, and subtextually troubled by the ways that psychological problem is aided and abetted by similar surface-level impulses that can be the only thing holding a community together.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Bookish: NORMAL PEOPLE

The trick of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, the buzzy, intimate coming-of-age sort-of-romance published last year, is that it’s closely observed, but incredibly narrow. We are treated to scene after scene in which the interest is entirely in the gestures described, the subtle give and take of awkward adolescent power plays, the earnestness with which its characters trick themselves into and out of interpersonal relationships while chasing an elusive something that’ll take them to the rest of their lives. The point, in other words, is in the subterranean emotional development conjured by Rooney’s descriptions, and not so much the story itself which starts at a place of pro-forma young adult relationship — he’s lower class popular; she’s more well-off but an outcast; they’re drawn together and yet mutually agree to keep it a secret, sometimes — and is then dressed up in artful elision, skipping weeks or months at a time, with Rooney describing mostly intimate bedroom moments, or polite chatter at dreary high school and college parties. How normal, indeed. It was also a bit stifling for this reader, for as well drawn as these normal moments are, and how deeply the author knows her characters’ minds, that’s about as far as the book imagines. It has texture, but no space. Therefore the interest is not in what they do, but in how they feel about it. We’re in their heads.

This presents a problem for directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (of British theater and television), and a team of writers including Rooney herself, in turning the novel into a miniseries. When stripped of interiority, the plot is incredibly mundane, and when each scene is dutifully staged with naturalistic performances from fine young leads (relative unknowns Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal), the whole thing goes vacant. Without imagining how to present the minds of these characters cinematically other than the occasional cross-cut flashbacks, we’re left with scenes of those boring parties and molasses-paced exchanges. The bigger ensemble scenes play out on occasion with what suddenly sounds like boring teen soap dialogue, the college scenes are built out of English major Mad Libs, and yet the pillow talk between the leads is soft and stumbling, more raw than the poorly imagined setups to their grinding payoffs. But no matter how committed to the naked emotionality of these young people the performers are, the filmmakers aren’t interested in framing more than a two shot, or tight close-ups in shot/reverse shot conversations between flatly lensed establishing shots. The whole thing — six slow hours over the course of twelve thirty-minute episodes; long for a movie, short for television, in another one of these intermediary neither-here-nor-there slogs — is inert. The leads are stranded in the dishwater dull visual style, stretching to communicate the unspoken in ways the writing and production can’t complement.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Frame Story: THE PHOTOGRAPH

The first pleasant surprise of The Photograph is to find it a major Hollywood studio’s attempt to give us a romantic drama about believable people in real situations. How infrequently these days are we confronted with movies at this level of gloss and polish that purport to be about recognizable human emotion. The second pleasant surprise is that it works all the old genre tropes and trappings while allowing its characters space to breathe. Here’s a movie about grownups falling in love, a process that’s halting and takes its own shape, allowing the contours of their interests and careers to take them on a circuitous path back to each other. Is there a happy ending? Surprisingly, whether it’s destined for weepy, triumphant, or somewhere bittersweet between remains uncertain right up until the final moments before the credits roll. What a likable spot to find yourself, in a wide release movie where the lives of the characters dictate the development of the plot instead of the other way around. In the leads are two fine young talents who brew up good chemistry together. Issa Rae plays a precise professional in mourning; her photographer mother has recently passed away, leaving the young woman to curate a retrospective. Lakeith Stanfield is the aspiring journalist who finds his way to the story and hopes to woo her into an interview. One electric look between the two of them, and it’s clear there more wooing to do. And yet because they each have their professional concerns, the attraction and the dating has to find its way shyly into tender spaces and stolen moments. They’re full lives looking to make room for one more.

Writer-director Stella Meghie gives the movie a gentle sensuousness. It is tactile — a box of negatives, a dusty record, a simple radiant yellow dress, a dappling of raindrops, a wineglass coyly sipped — and smooth, layering in a languorous jazzy score as the frames are drinking in a soft smile, a lingering glance, a gentle brush. Is this coupling meant to be, or meant to be fleeting? Their story is set against flashbacks of the photographer mother’s own early struggles with love. As a young woman (Chanté Adams) she too tried balancing the needs of the flesh and the needs of the artist, the desire to be with by her small town lover (Y’lan Noel) and the impulse to move to a big city and create. Placing the generations side by side, Meghie’s screenplay, recalling the best of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s heartfelt relationship dramas,  develops its themes patiently, in well-drawn comparisons and contrasts. The movie is warm and melancholic, allowing its characters to be people — warmly funny, guarded and cautious, flirtatious and alive — with thoughts and ambitions that may not fit the cliched movie romance moments. But isn’t it pretty they might think so?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Bring It On: CHEER

Cheer is a rousing sports story that sees sharply, and with complexity, its appealing cast of characters. For a six-part documentary miniseries streaming on Netflix, its patient compassion and well-judged depth gathers up cinematic quality. (A great deal of the service’s own Original Movies can’t manage that.) It takes as its subject competitive cheerleading, which could lend itself to surface level television tabloid trash — think the risible true crime freak show Tiger King streaming one click over — but at every moment it resists. Like Steve James’ classic Hoop Dreams — a three-hour documentary following two young basketball players over years in early-90’s Chicago — it takes a sport seriously as a means of understanding not just a subculture, but as synecdoche for race and class, and here gender and sexuality as well. In Cheer it means seeing the incredible performers of Navarro College in small-town Texas as they’re tumbling and stunting, flipping and flopping, pushing their bodies in a hybrid of dance and acrobatics. But it also means seeing the diversity of lives drawn together in this common pursuit; cumulatively, the team is a portrait of modern young lives yearning for purpose and belonging, aching to actualize potential and coexist in fulfilling relationships as a larger community is built up around their pursuit of excellence.

The project is inspiring without being sentimental, clear-eyed without growing unsympathetic, deeply invested in these lives without putting them on rubbernecking display. As we learn about the cheerleaders’ home lives and pasts, we see this group of young people as a cross section of America today. In their stories are abuse and inequality, prejudice and dysfunction. And yet here they are, pushing on, ready to pull together and become a team. Competitive cheerleading is a feat of bodies in motion, muscles straining in the best moments, bones battered and broken when it goes wrong. The filmmaking sets the record straight, resisting the cutesy triviality of cheerleader stereotype. They’re high-level athletes, and the constant looming deadline of national competition tightens the vice on the stakes surrounding the character studies. With detailed specificity, digging into the specifics of this sport and these team members, the filmmaking gathers incredible force: a picture of memorable personalities in perilous pursuit of perfection. Like all the best sports movies, it’s about the thrill of a team pushing past emotional and physical damage to build a makeshift family that’ll last longer than the outcome of the big game.

The documentary succeeds with the good fortune of finding captivating characters — personalities that read on screen and develop with all the patience and care of a well-told story— and serving them well. The filmmakers expertly edit the footage in a coherent narrative of criss-crossing individual storylines, compelling and deeply invested in each individual’s outcome as much as the team’s. Because the project cares deeply about their lives — their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and challenges — the film gathers tremendous empathetic suspense. These cheerleaders come from all over the country, drawn to what we’re told is the best cheerleading program in the country, under the perfectionist eye of hard-driving coach Monica Aldama, a tough taskmaster and caring den mother. We hear stories of the cheerleaders’ lives up to this point. Some have spent time homeless; others are wounded from tense family situations; still others are social media influencers — cheerlebrities, if you didn’t know. Some suffer from lack of parental influence; others have dominating stage parents. They all find something they need in this sport, and this coach.

Under the watchful camera of the talented documentary team — directed primarily by Greg Whiteley, whose sensitivity here matches his 2013 campaign film Mitt; he has an eye for drawing out human drama with compassion in the face of unflinching reality — the subjects and their stories are as rich as a well-wrought narrative’s. The more we learn about the players, the more we can grok the pain and promise behind glances in rehearsal footage, track the dynamics between them, and recognize voices as they rise above the shouts in the din of the echoing gym. They become not just stock figures in a doc that expertly uses a sport’s season structure to build narrative momentum. (Each title card announcing the number of days to the championship is a fresh twist of suspense as injuries pile up and excitement grows.) The subjects are real people, after all, throwing themselves body and soul into the one thing they enjoy most, developing themselves as young people in flux, pushing themselves to the limit for something bruising and beautiful — and all too brief. (There's also a key aesthetic choice in the last hour -- forced by permit issues -- that becomes a good conceit, letting the team itself take charge of the framing at its climax, a last burst of immediacy for a project so attuned to their stories.) There is no professional cheerleading of this sort. This is the end of the line. This is it. The final moments are poignant, not merely for the outcome of the competition and where the individuals hope to go from there, but for the release, and the vivid sense of loss. It consumed their whole lives. Now what? And so in the heat of the build up, they go all out. They compete and they collide; they struggle and they grow; they work together, and, for fleeting, terrifying, perfect moments, they fly.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Bad Cop: COFFEE & KAREEM

I know a bad movie is the least of anyone’s problems these days. It’s even less of a problem, in fact, now that new releases are confined to streaming where ending your misery in a bad choice of a movie is as easy as clicking away or smashing that fast forward button. This weekend, Netflix has served up Coffee & Kareem, a truly execrable cop action comedy. That it’s directed by Michael Dowse, whose similar mismatched buddy actioner Stuber flopped hard in wide release last summer, makes it an even more apt reflection of the state of current cinema. At least Stuber was filled with charming personalities, sending Kumail Nanjiani as a hapless Uber driver criss-crossing town with Dave Bautista as a growling cop who must desperately catch a criminal despite just having laser eye surgery. It’s not great, but it has all the good bones of a Hollywood action comedy: decent action sequences, fine bantering chemistry, and agreeable supporting turns by fun character actors. It gets the job done, and fit the big screen well. Even though it was a good time at the movies, exactly what was advertised on the tin, it’s apparently the kind of movie audiences don’t really see anymore, at least not in the numbers that justify a full theatrical release. So here we are, firing up the latest Netflix Original and finding once again that they’re just not up to par. The good original movies they produce or purchase — from the auteur efforts to the rare enjoyable B-pictures — are the outliers.

This new one is just dire. At first I was willing to give Coffee & Kareem points for a punny title. It introduces a mild-mannered Detroit police officer (Ed Helms) whose girlfriend (Taraji P. Henson) has a profane, standoffish tween son named Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh). So it’s like a cop comedy. So: cops like donuts. Donuts and coffee. Coffee and cream. Coffee and Kareem. Ha. Kinda cute. But then we see the badge. He’s officer Coffee. That’s his name. Okay. We’re pushing it. So the movie’s a bit full of its own tricks. But then the cavalcade of nastiness begins, with thinly sketched caricatures and cliches veering quickly into a loud shuffle of stereotypes across every scene. There are motormouthed precocious vulgar inner city school kids, swaggeringly stupid gangsters, a mother who is as often a prop as not, and a gruff chief with transparently maniacal crooked cops. There are cluttered action scenes and flippant gun violence interspersed with constant references to police shootings and irreverent joshing about race (or, failing that, child abuse) that spins back in retrograde essentialism. It never transcends the tropes and assumptions baked into something so stumblebum about its content. Some of the performers are doing what they can with this material. Betty Gilpin, for one, is spinning something like interesting out of a mediocre script for the second time in just a few weeks — it makes The Hunt look better by comparison. The picture is badly calibrated from the first scenes, like an early one in which Kareem talks about his member while eating candy on the toilet in a public restroom, then a scene later he describes which acts he’d like to perform. The whole thing’s just sad when it's not unpleasant. It’s pitched at a high level of annoyance, with grating performances and the kind of flop sweat second hand embarrassment that settles in as you see actors flailing in a movie that’s giving them less than nothing for their efforts. It may be a throwback to 80’s action comedies, though it can’t muster their aesthetic or narrative or comedic appeal, and only has the ugly attitudes down pat. It’s not entertaining; it’s depressing. Rent Stuber instead.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Two for the Road: THE HUNT and BLOODSHOT

With movie theaters closed in the face of a global pandemic, we are about to have a radical transformation of moviegoing for the next few months (at least). Us frequent moviegoers will feel the brunt of it in our habits. Personally speaking, I haven’t gone more than a week without seeing something in a movie theater since George W. Bush was president. This will be quite an adjustment for us all, with only VOD titles and whatever the streaming services upload for our amusement passing for current cinema. Multiplex employees will hopefully continue to get paid by the big chains (deepest shame for those companies that don’t), and if you can buy a gift card or membership to a local independent or nonprofit theater now, that’d be a good investment in making sure they stay around. These are strange times, and they ask much of us. Movies are the least of our worries, but as an already weakened (through competing forms, corporate consolidation, eroding interest, and streaming malaise) aspect of our culture, it’s natural to wonder about their long term viability in the face of all this disruption.

I, for one, will find some small solace in the ability to finally catch up on the unwatched discs my collecting habit has piled up over the years. I’ve already dug into the stacks for some long runtimes I’ve been putting off. Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) — a finely textured cop drama that accrues more than it unfolds — and Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) and Nixon (1995) — divergent and yet complementary fevered midcentury epics, and reason enough to think the name Robert Richardson is one of those talents basically synonymous with cinema — have been recent highlights. Nonetheless, whenever movie theaters open up again, it’ll feel so good to see that big screen light up with a new movie. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. Tears of joy will follow, no doubt. Still, I saw a few movies last week before everything fell apart to social distancing and self-quarantine and working the day job from home. Given the state of world affairs, and the entertainment business, I’ll probably be among the small number who can actually claim to have seen these movies in their original release. Small bragging rights, to be sure.

One was the cursed release of The Hunt, a controversial Blumhouse horror effort that got its initial release scuttled by political forces last September. You see, the premise is that rich liberals have kidnapped a handful of conspiratorial red state folks to hunt them for sport. Some conservatives, the sort who love to play dumb and aggrieved to whip up gullible audience’s anger, claimed the movie was against them, irresponsible, and a totally inappropriate concept. This leaves aside, of course, the fact that the trailers and advertising clearly set up a film in which the hunters were the obvious villains and the heroes the plucky underdogs being hunted. If anything, the voices calling for its removal — up to the highest, dumbest levels of politics — would like this movie, if only because they’d misunderstand it the other way. Not that it’d be entirely their fault. No, director Craig Zobel (of the superior upsetting Compliance) and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (the showrunner and a writer on HBO’s brilliant, sociopolitically sharp Watchmen sequel) have made a movie so sloppily both-sides that it condemns ultimately only the discourse. It asks, aren’t we all angry these days? And never stops to interrogate why. Maybe the unactualized movie about the divide in this country being only superficially between right and left when it’s really between rich and poor that lingers unexamined behind this premise would’ve been better for being clearly stated. Instead we have heads blown off and limbs torn away — sometimes in jokey manners — for maximum splatter impact, and a fine lead performance from Betty Gilpin (Glow) as a Deep South wage slave who — surprise! — is an educated woman capable of taking on the big bad (Hilary Swank). There’s that sort of wishy-washy condescension all over the picture. Some of the action is passably done, but when your ostensible social commentary ends up only saying that people are too mean on Twitter — which, yes, but also, that’s a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself — then you need to go back for another rewrite. Instead of being actually provocative, it’s a shallow incitement, and as such, merely boring.

Better is Bloodshot, a dopey small-scale superhero movie of the kind you might’ve seen in the late 90s, maybe catching it between Spawn and Blade. It’s refreshingly throwback in its appeal in that way, proud of its few good visual tricks while mostly playing it safe as a modest mid-sized star vehicle for a man of rumbling stoic charisma. Based on a character from Valiant Comics (one of the competitors to the Big Two of Marvel and DC that arose in the peak comic book era three decades back), it follows a soldier (Vin Diesel) who is killed, then resurrected by a biotech startup. The head of the company (Guy Pearce), a doctor and inventor, is proud to move beyond artificial limbs into this new feat: tiny robotic nanites in the blood that gives his experimental patient nearly unlimited ability to regenerate tissue and bone in the event of injury. The poor muscle man awakes with memory of his death, and soon sets out to get revenge. It’s almost like this super solider idea is what the company had in mind all along (hmmm), as they do nothing to stop the newly alive solider from executing a plan that involves crashing head on into an armored car and walking straight into hundreds of rounds of gunfire from the private army protecting the bad guy (Toby Kebbel). That’s a fun sequence, shot under a red light and cloud of flour, with each digital squib on our hero a curlicue of instant robotic recovery, each blood cloud a swirl reentering and reconstituting him. Alas, as fun as it can be, the whole arc of the movie grows repetitive, as any reasonably alert viewer is miles ahead of the protagonist in figuring out the derivative plot twists, and the action sequences never quite figure out a way around the problem of a character that can’t be injured. Still, the filmmaking of the action is brisk and cut confusingly close, giving enough of a sense of energy and speed-ramped dazzle to approximate excitement. Director Dave Wilson is yet another alum of VFX house Blur, following Tim Miller (Deadpool) and Jeff Fowler (Sonic the Hedgehog) into a feature debut. (It’s the best of the three.) He crafts the central visual ideas well enough as the action becomes a swirl of nanite clouds and shrapnel amid powerful punches. And the character of Bloodshot himself benefits from the soulful stillness of Diesel. He’s unstoppable, but he’s not happy about it. There’s some unshakeable baseline appeal to his star persona in the terse, glum Riddick or Witch Hunter sci-fi mold. What we’re left with is a grindingly competent B-movie, totally forgettable and destined to be a passable time waster on cable or streaming. And yet, as the last theatrical experience I’ll have for a while, I’m fonder of it by the day.