Wednesday, December 4, 2019

High Hopes: WILD ROSE and THE AERONAUTS

The year 2019 turned out to be a big one for British director Tom Harper. Previously best known on these shores, if at all, for 2015’s perfectly agreeable modern Hammer horror effort The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, his output this year encompasses two major prestige efforts. At least, that’s how their American distributors have positioned them. The films themselves wear their prestige qualities lightly, and, though they hail from dependably Oscar-y sub-genres and have the glossy handsome look of respectability about them, there’s a generosity of tone and humanity of spirit that enlivens what could be predictable, and makes imminently watchable works. The more successful of the two was this past summer’s small sleeper hit Wild Rose, a film about a scrappy Scottish woman (Jessie Buckley) and her quixotic dream to be a big American country star. It may seem an improbable dream, especially once you see she’s a single mom just out of prison with two kids waiting for her with her mother (Julie Walters). Immediately, a cynical viewer might start slotting the potential storyline into a conventional mode. If she can’t make steps toward her goal, we’re looking at kitchen-sink social realism. If she can, we’re looking at a sentimental rags-to-riches. But Nicole Taylor’s sharp and entertaining screenplay is wiser than that, imbued with a sense of specificity and heart that never steps wrong. It has both heartbreak and hardship, every success hard-won, every setback painfully felt. The result is a movie as warm and wise and true as the best country story songs. Buckley plays the lead as determined, optimistic yet realistic, sparkling and spunky and, yes, a helluva country singer. (The music is wall-to-wall and excellent.) We can see her dream should become true, even if others can’t. She’s charming and talented, but only a half-step ahead of sadness or despair. She’s falling behind fast — bills to pay, kids to raise, an ankle monitor that limits her ability to take advantage of a fluke of good fortune, let alone take a gig. That her mother sternly advises her to give up feels as kind as it is cruel; but so, too, is her wealthy employer (Sophie Okonedo) as she advises her to go for it. There’s no easy answer. Here’s a movie that is an unusually warm and clear-eyed look at what so often becomes behind-the-music cliche or pat blindly-follow-your-dreams foolishness. It understands with poignant, matter-of-fact clarity how difficult in can be to accept a lucky break and turn it into something bigger when you’re starting from a place of such disadvantage. The quotidian struggle, the painful mistakes, and the missed opportunities make the glimpses of success all the more powerfully bittersweet in a movie this vibrant and full of life. It earns every ounce of its uplift.

Harper’s other film of the year, opening just in time for the holidays, is the shallower and yet more visually striking The Aeronauts. It’s a based-on-a-true-story period picture whose commitment to the true story ends with the fact that there was an important hot air balloon experiment in 1862 England. The film really is as simple as it sounds: a pilot (Felicity Jones) and a weather scientist (Eddie Redmayne) want to see how high they can take a hot air balloon. It goes up really high, which, as you might expect for the first time such a thing has happened, gives them all kinds of wonderful views and terrifying complications. It gets cold. There are storm clouds. And how does one land this thing? This is the full extent of the film’s present-tense action, with the characters’ backstories filled in with studious flashbacks that pad out the runtime and give some emotional scaffolding to the awe-struck imperiled figures adrift in the skies. With such a thin story structure, Harper is free to demonstrate a true This is Cinerama or even L'arrivée d'un train level of simple visual power. It’s a case of a wow, look at that thing go! conception executed well, expertly realized and utterly convincing in its blend of practical and computer effects. When on the ground, George Steel’s cinematography has fine, overfamiliar, burnished period piece style, shot in scope with all the finest frippery of mid-1800’s detail in the costuming and production design. But get it up in the air, and the frame opens to full IMAX height, conjuring the most vertiginous filmmaking this side of Zemeckis’ skyscraper tightrope The Walk as they lean over the edge or, worse still, climb up the rigging. It thus builds great tension out of the mere height of the thing, gaping in wonder as the balloon passes through clouds or drifts above a town, or gripping tight as the characters must scramble around the balloon. Because Jones and Redmayne are capable at playing charm and vulnerability, it’s always evident that they’re one wrong decision away from plummeting and they do enough to make one hope not to see such a thing. They hold their own against the immense backdrop of this spectacular view. From such a simple idea comes a movie that’s captivating enough, capable of reminding one that a relatively simple story’s ability to be told on a scale of this enormity is one of the reasons we go out to the movies.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Body Politic: THE REPORT and QUEEN & SLIM

Two movies out this weekend take politics as an explicit subject and make it personal. Their ideas and ideals are embodied in flesh and blood characters who are sensitively drawn and inhabited. They also come out of dependable lineages: one a based-on-a-true-story procedural docudrama, the other an agitprop thriller-of-sorts. The former is The Report, a rare directorial effort for its screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who has written a number of Soderbergh films from this past decade. As with those works — like Contagion and The Laundromat — this one has a cool layer of clinical just-the-facts terseness that’s continually enlivened by an impassioned ensemble. It follows a determined Senate staffer (Adam Driver) assigned by his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), to lead an investigation into the CIA’s use of torture — infamously euphemised as “enhanced interrogation” — in the War on Terror. Over the course of years, he doggedly reads through thousands of documents and takes testimony of whistleblowers, all the while given the run-around by two administrations who’d rather not dig up too much of a mess. In fact, the CIA itself refuses to make its employees available for official interviews, stonewalls every attempt to corroborate basic facts, disputes every finding of which they catch wind, and disappears critical documents from the servers to which they have granted access. The film is as single-minded in its drive toward justice as its main character, seeing it maddeningly delayed and denied even as the mounting evidence is ever more sickening and overwhelmingly convincing.

Burns cuts all character down to the bone, devoting no time to the personal lives of these figures. Instead, it’s all back rooms and black sites, plush offices and austere conference rooms in which the critical work of keeping citizens safe with high ideals of transparency and ethics is regularly plowed under or studiously ignored by people too cowardly to do anything about it lest they jeopardize their job, or the power of their office. A swirl of recognizable actors in suits — Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Scott Shepherd, Matthew Rhys, and more — speak the roles’ serious points with clipped professionalism and excellent shorthand personalities. Burns juggles an enormous amount of facts and faces, in ways reminiscent of All the President’s Men and Spotlight, with clarity and intelligence, navigating the competing goals and half-spoken power plays that consume this search for truth. A thriller about research, it makes its claims and proves them thoroughly and in dramatic fashion. It’s compelling every step of the way, and, by picking its moments sparingly and well, earns its righteous indignation in tense monologues and grim final title cards. I was reminded of an aphorism Soderbergh tweeted years ago: “When the person in charge won't get to the bottom of something, it's usually because they are at the bottom of that something.”

Queen & Slim is a woozier affair, dreamy and romantic even as it never loses a fatal undercurrent sparked by its provocative what-if? inciting incident. It starts with a first date, hesitant and awkward. He (Daniel Kaluuya) is a sad-eyed Costco clerk looking for a fun night; she (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer looking for a temporary reprieve to her loneliness. His car ever-so-slightly swerves, barely crossing a lane of traffic, but enough of a reason for a cop to pull them over. Driving while black appears to be the charge, and when the officer gets flustered and frustrated that they haven’t been drinking and have no contraband in the vehicle, he takes offense at an honest inquiry and pulls a gun. By the end of the confusion that follows, the cop is dead on the side of the road. The accidental cop-killing couple is left with no choice but to run, certain that no police force in the country would believe it was self-defense. What follows could be a white-knuckle chase picture, but is instead a languid road trip as they make their way south in hopes of avoiding capture, perhaps somewhere below the border eventually. There’s a sense of futility and doom to their endeavor even before a garrulous pimp (Bokeem Woodbine) calls them “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” Director Melina Matsoukas — the filmmaker behind striking music videos, including a portion of Beyonce’s brilliant Lemonade — gives it all a glowing style, contemplative and deliberative, with perfectly-composed stretches of moody lighting, expressive blocking and poised motion. She has a great eye. The film photographs skin so it glows, places so they shine, poses so they become easily iconographic. There’s a moment where Queen and Slim get their picture taken lounging on the hood of a car and, even before it shows up again, knows it was a memorable image — it’d make a great poster or t-shirt if and when the movie becomes a cult object.

There’s a carefully composed cool to the film, which could perhaps run counter to the underlying anger at the unfairness in this world, but is poignant as the characters themselves wrestle with knowing that what they’ve done and who they are will be reduced, their complicated emotions and lives whittled down until their legacy is mere legend. Lena Waithe’s script plays off the justified outrage from a decade marked by tragic viral cell phone videos of police executing unarmed black people, and the resulting swirl of attention ending in the officers, more often than not, getting away with it. That the film opens with a forceful reversal of the sadly typical conclusion is a tremendous jolt. Its energy powers the film through its dull patches and misjudged moments. The uneven episodes on their trip — encounters with a variety of black folks, a few white wild cards, and a handful of cops — are sometimes tense, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always poised in the same hazy mood of melancholy. It’s as uneven and prolonged as it is lit up with ideas. Even when the film goes totally off the mark — there’s a violent plot turn in a protest that’s both more than the film needs and cross-cut with a steamy sex scene; that throws the film off balance for next few sequences — it’s not for lack of trying.

Throughout the lead characters are specific and symbolic, their romance as real as the positions into which they are placed can be forced. It’s never entirely a character drama it often is. The people can be too composed under the style. And it's never fully the blaxploitation riff it skirts around -- resisting the potential for genre play most of the time, even as it leans on some of its signifiers. It's both and neither. The film is too serious-minded to be reduced to tropes, but too energized by its premise to avoid it entirely. Call it prestige exploitation. What’s ultimately moving about the picture, though, is how these characters are allowed to be with each other, in the ultimate bad first date that lingers and expands, trapped together with plenty of time to connect and contrast until the inevitable end. At one point, Slim asks why they can’t just be — a question that hangs over the film as the promise of extrajudicial violence hangs over the characters. Who would they be if they weren't now defined by the constant potential threat to their bodies?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Cutting Class: KNIVES OUT

One of writer-director Rian Johnson’s greatest qualities is his ability to surprise without sacrificing his trustworthiness as a storyteller. His films are idiosyncratic without being unduly erratic, thoughtfully engaged with their chosen genres without stepping outside of their tropes, capable of grand loop-de-loops surprising audience expectations while making the outcome beautifully air-tight inevitable. He’s a mainstream filmmaker — recently with appealing sci-fi spectacles like moody time-travel assassin thriller Looper and the soulful, satisfying Last Jedi — aware of both the necessary elephantine expressions of recognizable story mechanics and burrowing termite interest of carefully selected specific details. He can take us effortlessly into places we’d never expect, because at every step of the way, we know we’re in good hands. He’s as clever as he is knowledgeable. His new film, Knives Out, is a wickedly well-done murder mystery, indebted indisputably to hundreds of detectives stories of yore, and yet plays out its story so fluidly and delightfully that it feels fresh nonetheless. As the movie begins, an elderly millionaire mystery author (Christopher Plummer) has been found in his study with his throat slit and a knife in his hand. The local cops (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are prepared to call it a suicide when a well-known detective (Daniel Craig, with a melodious Southern accent) steps in to consult on the case. He’s prepared to look at every detail again, and scrutinize every member of the dead writer’s squabbling, privileged family. Sure, the case appears open-and-shut, but he just wants to see it with his fresh eyes, eliminating no possibilities and no suspects. Holmes and Poirot and Dupin would be proud. In Johnson’s hugely entertaining screenplay, bristling with witty asides, barbed feints, and prickly offhand political resonance, the family members are interviewed, with plenty of brisk, bantering back-and-forth editing into and out of interlocking flashbacks sketching in the moments leading up to the mysterious death. So many have motives, and so many witnesses weave in and out of other’s stories, that it’ll take a while to untangle the knotty web, to winnow the suspects' bratty rich-kid motives from those capable of murderous intent.

It’s a terrific ensemble, perfectly cast, every person on screen, down to the smallest one-scene roles, quickly, expertly characterized with energetic shorthand and snappy individualism. There’s the regal real estate mogul daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her duplicitous husband (Don Johnson), and their entitled grown boy (Chris Evans); a business-manger son (Michael Shannon) and his glowering alt-right offspring (Jaden Martel); a shallow daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her differently-shallow daughter (Kathryn Langford); and, in the center of the madness, a home health aide (Ana de Armas) whose sweetness and good heart made her a kind companion to the late old man, but leaves her on the outside looking in as the vultures circle. Whodunnit is of course the primary question, but as Johnson unravels his tale, the why’d-they-dunnit becomes as interesting. As in all good detective stories, the personalities and the accumulation of clues are as deeply pleasurable as the eventual reveals where the puzzle snaps into place, and Johnson places each new piece on the table with stylish verve. The whip-smart cutting and pace stays just ahead of the characters and just behind the mystery’s solution, while never going out of its way to hide its cards or throw up false tangents to shake off the scent. It all falls into place with a logical snap, each payoff set up, even when you didn’t realize it at the time. The production design — a big house full of creaky staircases and teetering bookshelves and morbid knickknacks — is a handsomely cozy setting, fitting such a tale. As one investigator quips, the old man lived in a Clue board. The camera work is energetic and inspired — and, oh, so beautifully textured — without distracting from the cool logic of the proceedings, while the characters are broad yet warm, at once caricatures yet imbued with all-too-understandable humanity. It’s richly developed, never just a film of pawns in a master-mystery-mind’s game. That’s how well this game is played. This is the best film of its kind in quite some time.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hurt Too Deep: MARRIAGE STORY

Marriage Story starts at an ending. The couple has decided to divorce. Aside from warm flashback montages that open the film as a stream-of-consciousness exercise held in a marriage counselor’s office, we don’t see the good times. Or rather, we only glimpse what must’ve been good times reflected in bad times as we hear the parties puzzling over the fault lines in the relationship. As the divorce grows more fraught and contentious, formal negotiations and lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as a trio of well-observed caricatures) drain the couple’s resources and their capacity for forgiveness. In order to convince themselves that the strife of splitting up is worth it in the end, they need to start telling themselves a marriage story that minimizes the good times. It’s a film of people drifting apart who, upon deciding to split, snowball down opposite sides of a hill, the distance between them rapidly widening as their differences start relatively small and grow irreconcilable. This is literalized when she moves to Los Angeles, leaving him in New York. The space between them becomes as insurmountable as their actual distance. When their lawyers talk to one another more than they do, any hopes of an easy, amicable split are gone for good.

There’s a pang of painful truth running through every scene of Noah Baumbach’s screenplay. (That some of the details align with his own divorce some years earlier lends it an added patina of extra-textual realism.) He brings the dilemma to life on screen with the relaxed ease of a graying master, an expert at dramatizing his clever, literary dialogue with a perfectly judged long-take or a sudden crushing tightness in a well-chosen cut into a close-up. The filmmaking here is warm and sharp, halfway between his elegant Meyerowitz Stories’ deeply-felt intergenerational dynamics and his bruising The Squid and the Whale’s emotionally penetrating divorce dysfunction. As the two halves of this film’s fractured marriage, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are compellingly complicated. They are painfully human, both capable of careless selfishness and achingly vulnerable empathy. The result is prickly scenes riding a razor’s edge, with clear care between the two of them even when twisting small slights into defining statements of purpose, or escalating a legitimate concern into an avoidable verbal collision. The film’s structure pulls the picture’s sympathies between the two of them — much like their young son is suddenly navigating two parental relationships instead of seeing them as a United whole. “He’s just telling you what he thinks you want to hear,” one says to the other, about their son’s desire to make his parents happy, even in this most stressful situation. But aren’t they all just telling themselves about the past in a way that’ll make their present choices go down easier? The real marriage story is the justification they need along the way.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Ice to See It: FROZEN II

Frozen was a clever musical fairy tale in the best Disney Animation tradition, with instantly classic showstopper numbers and a fine focus on sisterly connection over romantic love. Now here’s Frozen II, a rare full-fledged theatrical follow-up to one of the studio’s animated hits. It’s not the movie its predecessor was: darker, weirder, more of a wispy epic fantasy quest retrofitted on the original’s economical emotional purity. Returning writer-director Jennifer Lee, co-director Chris Buck, and the whole Disney team’s best idea is to take the first film’s happy ending as a mere pause—asserting from the opening number here that nothing is permanent. (Not even the first film’s fan base, as a character early on looks straight down the faux-camera and quips “you all look a little bit older,” a lyric that lands with fleetingly poignant impact.) The new picture takes as a given that the emotional complexity of its lead sister duo’s relationship to each other and to their royal positions is a complicated, evolving thing. This welcome note of complexity is furthered by the movie’s rather lovely approach to conflict, which manufactures no new villain. Instead the filmmakers are content to make new stakes out of mistakes of generations prior whose effects are still felt in their modern day, and the chance that the current generation may lack the capacity or the will to fix a slowly evolving, yet inevitably apocalyptic problem before it’s too late.

You see, long ago their kingdom isolated a nearby indigenous population, and in the present are confronted with a violent weather pattern — fire! wind! earthquakes! — that escalates. Only Ice Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), now blooming with frosty super-heroine potential, and her plucky sister Anna (Kristen Bell), now wiser than her earlier naive lovestruck state, can trek their way into the north, following a literal call to adventure to save their people. So, yes, it’s a Disney princess musical about the twin problems of a country’s unexamined tribalism and stubbornness in the face of a crisis, and about how what you need to move forward may not fit with the easy happy ever after you thought you’d gained. All this and Josh Gad’s singing comic relief snowman, too. It makes the movie a slightly woolier affair, and gives it a potent minor key counter melody that never quite resolves. The songs themselves are also heavier, a Broadway base undergirding a mix of heavy metal and emo inspiration with harsher toned guitars and mopier introspection, including an 80's-style power ballad for Jonathan Groff. I bet the whole thing's bound to be one of those prickly, bittersweet family movies that becomes a fondly remembered curio for today’s kids who’ll return to it a decade or two hence and think, wow, can you believe that’s what that was? It doesn’t quite hit it out of the park like its inspiration, but what a satisfying swing of a sequel to admit that growing into the person you’ll become is a never-ending process, a goal always just past the horizon, and still have you leave the theater humming.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Man Down: THE IRISHMAN

The song is familiar, but the mood is different. Here’s a tale told not in the first flush of a youthful thrill, but at an end where it can be quiet, contemplative, funereal. In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese returns to the subject of crime and its vast systemic corruption — the source of so many of his memorable, dazzling, energetic, probing films: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street. But here it is at its saddest, and most somber. Even the Glory Days, where the Tough Guys are flush with money and our lead character is drawn into the club with praise and success, are presented as just some guys doing what they felt needed to be done for their jobs. One day after the other. A job is a job is a job. It may give you what you think you need, but at what cost? Scorsese has always hit these notes of moral perspective, of interpersonal ambiguity. Here the characters are aware of their compromises and the inevitable emptiness from the jump. It is told to us from the nursing home by an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) whose lonely, ailing life places, with the sharply soft cinematography and cutting between three points in time, the futility that settles over the story. The bustling activity scripted by Steve Zaillian for the sprawling three-and-a-half hour film takes us from low-level mob enforcers in post-World War II Pennsylvania, to teamster hustling and negotiating in Chicago, to the halls of power in the Justice Department. Every step of the way — ascending a ladder of upward mobility from unionized truck driver, to mob enforcer, to a trusted helper for powerful men — Frank demonstrates a sense of duty and loyalty to his bosses and coworkers, whoever they may be. He wants to build his American dream, provide a secure life for his growing family. And yet the moral compromises of a corrupt system take his hard work and use it to consolidate the power of those above him, at the cost of his sense of self. His violence and his connections give him everything, and strip from him his certitude. He's digging his own grave.

The film, as elegiac as it is suspenseful, floats between the tangled, overlapping worlds of business, politics, and the mob in mid-20th-century America. Frank is able to navigate between them because they are, as the film portrays them, overwhelmingly similar worlds of backroom deals, underhanded tricks, and power plays. He’s drawn into the orbits of two men. In one he finds the soft, sinister, avuncular tones of a hometown mobster (Joe Pesci) who seeks to keep his friends and family close and comfortable, whatever the cost. In the other is the loud, brash, combative teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose bellicose pursuit of power for the working man is also flagrantly consolidating power for himself. The interactions between these men are cleverly staged and entertaining sequences with an undercurrent of sadness. All three leads, delivering forceful, nuanced, humane performances, are skillfully digitally de-aged in the early going, and yet retain the gravely stiffness of age; as the effects fade away, it’s as if their true selves — tired, desperate, sad — are being exposed as life wears them down. As incident and characterization accrues, the film gathers its power. The whole weight of its runtime comes down upon the final sequences, where a line or two, or a significant silence, takes on outsized power. By the end, Sheeran understands the ways in which the hard work he did was all for naught, for which his support of a system was a work of quiet cowardice. He saw his soul eroding slowly and surely as he saw what was happening around him. He participated in it to eke out a meager middle-class life for his family, and in the end is left alone, reaching impotently for human or spiritual connection that his time on earth has slowly bled away. What a powerful portrait of regret and quiet desperation. Yes, how exciting to feel important, to be part of something, to build a good reputation — to network and negotiate and stand up for yourself and play a role in history where the people you meet might be on the nightly news tomorrow or a decade from now. But how sad if, in the end, the consequences leave you nothing and no one. It’s a rise and a fall, but here, from this character’s deathbed perspective and in the hands of a mature master filmmaker, it feels like falling the whole way through.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Waking Life: DOCTOR SLEEP

One of the better belated sequels of recent vintage, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep has the unenviable task of continuing Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic Stephen King adaptation The Shining. To do so, he's using King’s own recent novel sequel, which already imagined a life for a now-grown Danny Torrance, the boy who once was terrorized in the events of the original story. But what a stylistic risk to dive back into the cinematic terrain so thoroughly colonized by Kubrick’s vision, the expertly creepy craftsmanship with the extra frisson of elevation, the prickly raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck patience and precision of its long takes and eerie echoes in the cursed Overlook Hotel. Flanagan’s film can’t match that, but it has a similar pervasive dread, and a low simmering unease that pervades every moment. It helps that the film is both totally indebted to its predecessor and off on its own track, telling a new story in slightly different modes than Kubrick’s. Flanagan is a fine horror craftsman, probably best known for polishing up the likes of Ouija: Origin of Evil, which would’ve been more dubious in lesser hands. His steady, sturdy work over the past decade or so has been growing prominence and promise, and here comes into its fullest and most satisfying expression. The film is hushed and restrained, methodically plotted and shot with a ghostly chill. We may have left the confines of the Overlook, but the memory of its menacing potential lingers over these new events. Flanagan doesn’t use the earlier film lightly or cheaply; instead he builds upon its unresolved tensions. It neither closes off nor riffs pointlessly on the iconography. He extends its implications, expands its world, and — though it can’t match the ineffable, startling, singular qualities of its inspiration — builds an absorbing related one of its own.

The Shining is an intimate story of madness eroding a family, alcoholism and isolation acting as evil bedfellows that imperil a mother and child as a father is drawn into darkness. It’s harrowing and contained. Doctor Sleep, however, is both the opposite and of a piece. It’s an echo of tone and style — long takes, austere compositions, carefully gathered portent — in a film that’s more sprawling and open-ended. It’s about a son trying to atone for the sins of the father, about recovery from trauma and addiction as a tenuous and fraught desire to go toward the light. Danny (Ewan McGregor) is now a middle-aged recovering alcoholic working in a small-town hospice. His use of his magic, his shining, is limited to making the patients feel peaceful in their last moments. He’s clearly trying to fix his own life post-addiction (one early sequence's ugly consequences recall a few memorably frightening moments in Trainspotting). And he's also, in some small way, trying to put some goodness back into the world. He’s been haunted by ghosts of his childhood, by memories of what the darkness in this world is capable of corrupting. He’s slowly drawn into a story that sprawls across psychic spaces and the vast plains of America, a story about potential squandered, the vulnerable violated, and weakness exploited. He feels their pain. There’s a 13-year-old (Kyliegh Curran) who is just starting to reach out into the telekinetic connections her shining offers her. She’ll get the attention of Danny—voices echoing across the distance bringing their like-minded powers together. She’ll also get the attention of evil shiners, a roving band of them (led by a beguiling, charismatic Rebecca Ferguson) who feed vampirically off the shine of others.

Thus the stage is set for conflict, much of which takes place through the eerie mental connections made between the characters, an invisible force lurking underneath normality on the surface. The actors have such open, sensitive faces, and are directed into states of completely earnest reactions to the story’s tender interpersonal moments and potential for broad horrors. They feel convincingly real, and the film patiently doles out their lives, not rushing to a scare, but allowing a picture of quotidian living punctured by the surreal. I found the leads intensely appealing, and cared for their plights. The inevitable gnarly gore effects, sparingly revealed, are all the more effective for it. The result is a movie where the characterizations are as compelling as the overall atmosphere and genre trappings, where a fragile connection between strangers who just want to help is delicately sweet, and where the evil plans of dark people feels as real and menacing as it is outlandish and stylized. Flanagan lets the movie go on typical King detours, the rising action building fleeting, memorable vignettes with characters we may or may not see again: townspeople with whole lives fleshed out in a single scene; sympathetic victims compassionately portrayed before their inevitable tragic ends; compelling amoral figures whose backstories were as fraught as our heroes' before they took a different path. But captured in a tightly controlled mood, patient cutting, and icy-warm cinematography, it’s always building to a crescendo equal parts nostalgia, catharsis, and room to grow. If it will have the classic status of its predecessor remains to be seen. But what a finely crafted, satisfying film in its own right.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Hopped Up: JOJO RABBIT

What would’ve made Jojo Rabbit provocative around, say, 1939 or 1949, is instead well-trod and simplistic territory. Its thinness threatens to cheapen its sweetness and short-circuit its obvious anti-hate aims with sentimental obviousness and misfiring satirical tone. Set in Germany during the last gasp of World War II, the action follows a fanatical, adorable 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who desires nothing more than to be a good Hitler Youth and catch a Jew for the Führer. He begins the film at a Nazi summer camp, pitched by writer-director Taika Waititi as a Fascist Moonrise Kingdom, with fastidious framing for boys in short pants and cockeyed grins learning to toss grenades and burn books in between their classes of anti-Semitic curriculum. There we meet the ensemble of mincing Nazis straight out of "Springtime for Hitler" — a dopey low-ranking officer (Sam Rockwell), his close (maybe very close) second-in-command (Alfie Allen), their overeager third-in-command Fräulein (Rebel Wilson), and a cavalcade of cruel Aryan teens and tweens — as they march about with sloppy accent work and inconsistent characterization. It’s always on the edge of overdoing it, tipping over from stale exaggeration into loosey-goosey cartoony lightness that verges precariously on endearing buffoonery. Of course, eventually, it sends the viewer smashing into the horror of it all with their ugly beliefs casually spouted and violence a constant underlying threat. We’re at once to fear and mock them. The movie furthers its insistence on their inherent ridiculousness with preposterous costumes and stumbling stupidity, while showing us judiciously — and maybe too sparingly — dead bodies strung up in the city square or rubble from bombed out buildings.

Meanwhile, Jojo himself is given an imaginary friend, a wildly exaggerated caricatured Hitler (Waititi himself) who whispers Nazi talking points between chummy buddy comedy shenanigans. The conceit is essential to the way Waititi makes his point about the way the ideology loomed over boys like Jojo, and yet I think it’d be a better movie in almost every way without it. It toes a tricky line, risking softening the cruelty into cutesy asides, while bolstering a potentially fine metaphor about the ways the brutal, simplistic talking points of a tyrant could worm their way into the internal monologue of impressionable young boys. At one point, a clownish Gestapo agent (Stephen Merchant) will turn up in Jojo’s room and, upon spying propaganda posters on the wall, praise the lad for showing such admirable “blind fanaticism.” (One wonders if the movie’s punches would land harder if it were set in present America, and the boy donned a red ball cap instead.) The movie’s vision of childhood innocence channeled blindly into an evil worldview comes to a head as he discovers his saintly mother (Scarlett Johansson) — presented as a subtle anti-war protestor nonetheless maintaining a bubble of carefree protection for her son — has been hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Why the mother would chalk up their differing ideologies to political disagreement, let alone allow her son to sign up for the Nazi camp given her political concerns and quiet resistance activism is beyond me. At least his eager indoctrination is sent into conflict as he grows to care about the hidden girl, spending hours getting to know her and brewing a crush in the process. Why, she’s just like them, he discovers, although the process of allowing this personal connection to detox his brainwashing proceeds in the fits and starts of a boyish brain.

Because the movie is wedded to Jojo’s perspective, it excuses some of the shorthand and naiveté in the way the characters and situations are developed. Waititi’s filmmaking — as you’d expect from the guy who brought us the melancholy silliness of What We Do in the Shadows and who is on the short list of auteurs who managed to put personality in a Marvel product with his Thor Ragnarok — is sprightly and energetic with smash cuts, goofy asides, and German-language covers of classic rock on the soundtrack. The child performances are ebulliently charming and effervescently precocious. Some of the humor — a scene of protracted “Heil”ing, or an enormously cute sidekick kid (Archie Yates) who gets the best lines and gives the best hugs — really works, a sweetness and a sadness sitting together quite well. But the movie also ramps up the sentimentality, and looks for easy equivocation and borrowed insight. It often avoids the real nastiness and violence undergirding the situation — allusions to the darkest horrors made briefly, if at all — while allowing notes of grace in the unlikeliest of persons. Moments of tragedy are held just off screen, giving Jojo reason to grow in his understanding of the world, while allowing the audience to remain comfortable, crafting cutesy Nazis in such a way that the satire occasionally loses its teeth. The movie does find a character at its center who is wonderfully realized and expressive, with a kind of self-reflective performance from young Davis that shows wisdom beyond his years in portraying a boy slowly gaining glimmers of awakening perspective. Yet he does this while the filmmaking around him is, ironically, a tad too juvenile to truly confront the horrors it is ostensibly using as the moral gymnasium on which its character is to stretch and grow. (A final battle scene is stunningly mismanaged, with its cartoony Nazis stumbling into very real conflict — too heightened to sting properly.) I couldn’t dismiss the movie’s craft, good intentions, or the fine debut at its center, but its inability to go any deeper than its surface of recycled weren’t-Nazis-silly? and can't-we-all-get-along? observations are another story. I appreciated its attempt, but the overly-simplistic rendering of the world leaves it feeling shallower and shallower the longer I think about it. I loved Jojo enough to wish the movie was up to the task of telling his story in the full complexity it deserves.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Classed Up: PARASITE

Fiendishly clever, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a slippery thriller. It appears to set up a simple haves-and-have-nots parable with an immensely likable family who easily and charmingly stumble their way into a long con. Impoverished, unemployed, and living in a dingy basement apartment, the couple and their grown children slowly, then all at once end up employed at a gullible rich family’s enormous mansion. It’s an easy gig, one they don’t intend to start until it’s too easy to avoid. They just insinuate themselves in one at a time, first the son (Choi Woo Shik) becomes an English tutor, then the daughter (Park So Dam) an art therapist and so on. They secretly, subtly orchestrate reason to eject a current coworker, then pretend they’re recommending a friend of a friend to the boss instead of a family member, playing the part of helpful strangers. That the families are funhouse mirror images of each other — a mother, father, daughter, son set of four, though different ages and ambitions — adds to the grooving on a clever visual contrast. The leads’ cramped apartment with the concrete walls practically closing in, their only window revealing a gross view of a dumpster, feels even smaller and more cramped when compared to the empty spaces in palatial rooms at their employers’ home where their massive windows open onto green garden lawns and copious sunshine. And yet, when the storm eventually comes, Kyung-pyo Hong’s glassily precise cinematography makes the mansion an ice-cold gilded cage, a diorama of portent and cruelty. As the movie (scripted by Bong and Jin Won Han) complicates its initial setup, the stakes grow higher. It becomes a story concerned with collateral damage, as the lies of this con family come back to haunt them. The giddy kick of its early trickery twists into sequences of darkly funny escalating suspense. The whole thing is awfully entertaining and deeply unsettling, even, maybe especially, when it’s never quite in the way you’d guess.

The ingenious structure invites us into a Robin Hood scenario with heist movie pleasures. The deceit is charming, and the poor family is easy to root for. They have such warm chemistry with each other, and take such obvious delight in their cons — father and mother (Song King Ho and Chang Hyae Jin) beaming with pride as they throw themselves into this new family project of sorts — and, besides, these rich folk are so simply and happily tricked. Besides, they're doing good work and the wealthy family can afford it. The film sees the arrangement as common, and mutually parasitic. The con may have gotten the poor family the job, but they’re still servants, beholden to the whims and calls of wealthy patrons who, no matter how benevolent and generous they may at times be, are nonetheless at a constant low boil of condescending classist judgement and unexamined learned helplessness. Never quite a broad poison-pen satire, but never quite gritty realism, the movie is perched and poised between the two as it sketches this dynamic. Who is hurt in this situation? Potentially everyone, as Bong twists the knife. In this world, the film says, dignity is easily lost, and difficult to gain. “They’re only nice because they’re rich,” one family member says as the others express a kind word about their marks.

Bong’s earlier pictures were also keenly invested in detonating inequitable social structures. Literal class warfare erupts in the dazzling sci-fi actioner Snowpiercer, while monstrous downstream consequences of medical experiments bubble up in The Host, and factory farming crosses with genetically modified food gone wrong in Okja. Those films are splashy mainstream entertainments, and here his pet themes get intimate and queasy. The film serves up uncomfortable dynamics, with fellow workers tossed aside with no regard for the consequences of their schemes, and emotions of vulnerable children toyed with. Bedevilingly, the movie draws discomfort across class lines, confusing the central tension by highlighting how easily those of us in the working class might throw each other under the bus for the short-sighted privilege of a slightly more comfortable place of inequality. The warmth and love of the leads is cut with the burbling blackly comic and tensely developed suspense of how it’ll all unravel for them and whose pain will get hidden away in the process. Even the final unexpected conclusions — and every concussive twist leading up to it — deliberately eschew easy answers. We get sequences that could be either righteous catharsis or overt tragedy, but it’s the touch of a master filmmaker that manages to give us simultaneously both and neither. It’s a movie that astonishes in the moment in the wonder of a good story well told, and lingers long after, its messy implications permanently unresolved.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rinse and Spin: THE LAUNDROMAT

Steven Soderbergh films have always been political, about systems and process, about inequalities and the thorny knots of injustice that get codified into structures. They’re hugely entertaining and in a variety of genres, but the throughline is unmistakable. His Erin Brockovich and The Informant! and Traffic tell of people fighting systemic corruption. His Contagion and The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble and Unsane and Side Effects tackle the ways in which people are ground down as cogs in the machinery of society or fall through the cracks. Even his comparatively lighter larks — like stripper drama Magic Mike, spy thriller Haywire, the glossy Hollywood heists of Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, or his scrappy, iPhone-shot, NBA negotiation dazzler High Flying Bird — manage to dramatize the haves-and-have-nots in snazzy packages. (He also made the sprawling epic Che. You get it.) His latest, The Laundromat, is his most direct statement, a loose, uneven, episodic collection of tales scripted by Scott Z. Burns that build to a straight-to-the-camera rhetorical flourish that straight up tells the audience it better wake up and smell the corruption before it’s too late. Here’s a movie about the shell game of the global economy, refracted through a law firm whose involvement with tax avoidance schemes was a big ticket item of the massive document dump a few years ago known as the Panama Papers. It’s all about shell corporations and trust funds and bank accounts where the laws are beneficial and the difference between money laundering and the cost of doing business is simply how much your accountants can get away with.

Although the movie teeters among gripping procedural elements, meandering stylistic flourishes, and winding narrative digressions, it adds up to a complicated and damning picture of the world’s wickedest loopholes. A pair of wealthy, smooth talking lawyers (Gary Oldman, hamming it up, and Antonio Banderas, all smooth and unctuous) narrate once in a while, in obvious, smarmy, condescending fourth-wall-breaking monologues about their schemes and successes. They connect the various episodes, and as fun as the performances are, their big caricatures threaten to throw off balance a film that’s otherwise far more attuned to the consequences of the moral rot and corrosive greed at play. (Think The Big Short if it was good.) There’s a small-town widow (Meryl Streep) hunting down the location of an ever-shrinking insurance payout as it travels through various parent companies and corporate debt transfers. There’s a duplicitous accountant (Jeffrey Wright) on the radar of a determined investigator (Cristela Alonzo). There’s an African businessman (Nonso Anozie) whose blackmail and bribery comes home in a mean way. And there’s a European suit (Matthias Schoenaerts) whose dealings with a wealthy Chinese woman (Rosalind Chao) includes threat so casually chilling that it contains a literal cut like Un Chien Andalou’s most famous shock. Every anecdote is at once darkly funny and boilingly upsetting, compellingly futile yet cut with a sharp stab of empathy for the underdog. Amidst its smooth, sliding camera and deliberate artificial touches (snarky chapter breaks, smirking asides), it’s keenly aware the meek haven’t inherited the earth, and mourns with them as their meager plans for small savings are stomped out by the wealthiest’s quasi-legal scams to get wealthier. It says the global economy is a shell game, and Soderbergh is smart to see it through to its logical conclusions. He states his conclusions flat out, boldly and broadly, a message movie with an exasperated edge, as if he’s letting out a dispirited sigh, saying, “I’ve been trying to tell you…”

Friday, October 11, 2019

Seeing Double: GEMINI MAN

While watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, I found myself keeping a mental list of what works well and what works not at all when dealing with a high frame rate. Like the master filmmaker’s previous film, the under-appreciated Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, this new movie was shot at 120 frames per second. Unlike the usual 24 frames, this higher rate causes everything to look at once hyper-real and hyper-fake, so crisp and clear the action on screen is too much to take in, every detail jumping out, small sudden movement feeling like it is moving at one-and-a-half speed. It worked for that prior film, an intimate PTSD drama about a solider on leave, where the discombobulating visual element in which everything seemed slightly unreal and off played out an aspect of the protagonist’s discomfort. But here, in service of a script that has a clever high concept swallowed up by cliched characters and standard thriller plotting, the effect is startlingly disconcerting. At worst, it is motion smoothing — the bane of cinephile’s home theater settings — done up on the big screen and it took me most of the movie to adjust my eyes. Here’s what looks incredible: long static takes, fast vehicles moving against a steady background like clouds or ocean, slow-motion, and close-ups. (That last one is how you know Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong and Clive Owen are great actors and that Lee remains one of our finest directors of them, their gazes penetrating not only the crackpot screenplay but the hyper-alert visual style, as well.) Here’s what looks thoroughly wrong throughout: pans, tilts, dollies, fast cuts. In other words, it often works either for or against the form. A long establishing shot or a soft emotional moment or a steady action beat or a slow-mo flourish jumps off the screen. A quick cut or a shaky cam or even just a basic push in causes the background and foreground to slide and glide and smooth out in the most eye-boggling ways. I found myself closing my eyes from time to time. Perhaps the problem, then, is not necessarily the high frame rate itself, and more the fact that the added frames short-circuit the usual blockbuster film grammar. If a pan makes everything feel erratic down to the molecular level, but a locked off shot looks stunningly immediate, more rethinking about what it means to design a film has to happen when deciding to use this tool.

Speaking of rethinking, the script could’ve used a few more drafts. It’s been in the slow-cooker of development hell, and the final product has credits for Darren Lemke (Shazam!), David Benioff (Game of Thrones), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), but the thing has only a great concept going for it. Will Smith plays a super-assassin who finds out something he wasn’t supposed to know, and is thus targeted by his own government handlers (led by Owen). He’s on the run with a reluctant accomplice (Winstead) and an old pal (Wong). There are action scenes of moderate cleverness that get better and better as they go. The finale — with slow-mo and explosions and a high-speed machine gun a perfect match for the HFR — ends up the best representation of the film’s small thrills and soft emotional curlicues, but comes to an awfully simplistic, unsatisfying denouement. Often, though, the movie defaults to characters expositing towards each other and making decisions that are convenient more for the plot or blocking than any other good reason. Lee does nice work amplifying Smith’s isolation — the look plays into it here — and distance from normality, his precision and his skillset keeping him from connecting with others. He also makes fine metaphor out of the high concept, eventually sending Smith on a collision course with self-awareness, forced to come face to face with his own actions in the guise of his younger self. (He plays him literally, in a CG creation that is often staggeringly real, except for the Uncanny Valley moments in which he is staggeringly not.) But Lee’s usual poetry is subsumed by the script and by the camera, and his notes of human connection get buried under limp quips and a sluggish pace. The man behind such tender heartbreakers as Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain previously had no problem injecting that humane and sensitive attentiveness in his bigger, visually inventive spectacles like Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his comic-panel-cutting take on Hulk. But with Gemini Man, he’s a bit lost, with those grace notes, those earnest moments — gentle connections, authentic emotion, unexpected resonances — all too fleeting. I found myself straining to enjoy it more, even as my eyes strained to adjust to its style.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Clowning Around: JOKER

Joker represents strained seriousness from two angles. It’s a comedy writer-director in Hangover helmer Todd Phillips trying his hand at a character drama, and it’s a subgenre in the superhero movie dressing up in the clothes of more penetrating artsy fare. Given that our culture spent the last decade telling us to take both comedians and superheroes Very Seriously as signifiers of Great Import, this collision was, I suppose, inevitable. (And yet, recall Logan, a superior comic book movie pitched at adults and drawing upon decades of accumulated character history while embracing its goofy/cool sci-fi elements, was released just a couple years ago and was all the better for not resorting to playing prestige drag.) Here we have a movie that purports to tell an origin story for Batman’s most famous arch-nemesis, but in a simmering unease of ground-level mental anguish, shorn of all but the most obligatory references to the comic book lore. It’s the story of a mentally ill loner (Joaquin Phoenix) whose tenuous grasp on his place in society is crumbling. His elderly mother (Frances Conroy) is ailing; his day job as a clown is as depressing as his dream of becoming a standup comedian is unlikely. He’s prone to fits of uncontrollable nervous laughter, appears skeletally thin, and moves through the world in a near-constant state of flinching from others. This is a fantastic performance from one of our best. He inhabits the role’s cliches so fully that it becomes intense and wounded and something like real, or at least imbued with a ragged, gnarled discomfort that comic book movies otherwise studiously avoid. Phoenix sees this as an excuse for a wormy, squiggly, loose-limbed mania. He cowers in the corner or slides Astaire steps down a corridor, dancing pantomime or twitching in anguish. It’s raw and wild, and yet so studiously performative that its somehow both vividly alive and wholly performative. It’s electric like a fake live wire in a haunted house.

The movie that surrounds Phoenix — thin tin-eared pop psychology, contradictory sociopolitical moralizing, and clanging winks to comics past — doesn’t exactly let him down, but never gives the rest of the characters or situations the same level of introspection or interest. Nonetheless, its immaculately designed crumbling urban squalor — Gotham has never looked more grotty, though I missed Nolan’s elegance and Burton’s Gothic shadows and Schumacher’s baroque camp — shot with grainy glamor and scored with thrumming uneasy strings proves Phillips is a fine copycat craftsman. He’s taking his cues from a collision at the influences factory. The film is widely reported as a cross between Scorsese classics Taxi Driver (Joker’s simmering discontent, societal isolation, and violent impulses a match for Travis Bickle’s) and King of Comedy (an unhealthy obsession with a talk show host, here played by that film’s star, Robert DeNiro), but it surely also takes its cue from the countless big city vigilante fare of the 70s and 80s. (There’s a Bernie Goetz-style inciting incident that takes Gotham’s class warfare from a low boil to a raging protest, a city with a Death Wish.) Here, though, the politics of Gotham are a grubby muddle. A city with sleazy rich guys (like a certain Wayne patriarch) who are nonetheless victims of a populist uprising and a violent mob of impoverished citizens who carry signs that say “Resist” carries with it interestingly confused valences no matter how beautifully lensed. If Phillips can’t populate his secondhand style with a similarly nuanced point of view and captivatingly conflicted ideas, he still manages to make a decent canvas on which his lead can create.

Phoenix is precise even when the movie isn’t sure what to say, or double-underlines its biggest faux-intellectual symbolic gestures. (At one point he sees a sign that says “Don’t Forget to Smile” and Sharpies out the “Forget to.” Get it?) No other character is allowed to be more than a cog in his story — even when played by such great actors as Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, and Brian Tyree Henry, who spark some life into totally flat roles — because the movie is so solipsistically wedded to its main character’s mindset. This can create odd moments of frisson, where the movie’s empty provocations — violence or cringe humor that is somehow never as jolting or uncomfortable as it would be in, say, a Scorsese picture, or a Jody Hill project — come uncomfortably close to making its villain protagonist a sympathetic underdog, nearly excusing his sociopathy. But Phoenix takes care to shy away from antihero temptation and complicates what, in lesser hands, would’ve seemed as routine as it is. He make sure Joker is just a pathetic man, undoubtedly a victim of society (funding cuts for his low-income mental health treatment, for starters) but nevertheless going about his life in unhealthy patterns. It’s like a dark, simple little character-based comic miniseries, with Phoenix as the artist who gets to give his own riff on a classic figure. In the end, it’s engaging and interesting almost despite itself, and never as upsetting as it thinks it is. No, it’s small, and sad, ending not in triumph or action or thrills or chills, but one individual’s pain metastasizing into a city at large. That it’s set to fester as long as DC needs stories from Gotham is one thing. But that real life individuals are emboldened to make their pain (real or imagined) society’s pain is another entirely. Even if the movie isn’t quite equipped to explore it with rigorous nuance, the filmmakers’ fingers are on this terrible pulse.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Garlanded: JUDY

Judy, in standard biopic fashion, is as intermittently moving as it is surface-level false. At best, it works, yet even there its sentimental button-pushing is an artifice that never quite cracks the central problem of how to represent the interior life of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. Here is Judy Garland, at the end of her life, drinking and pill-popping, lashing out at hecklers and quivering vulnerably and almost satisfied before the adoring crowds at her limited engagement at a London club. In six months she’ll be dead. Screenwriter Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold, crafting a tasteful-to-a-fault film with little visual or verbal flair, don’t really know what sort of story to tell, and are content to rehearse the standard takes on her story, and the easy psychologizing about what went wrong. We get fleeting flashbacks to her time making The Wizard of Oz. In some ways, the first scene is the film’s best, as vaguely lecherous MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) leads a young Judy (Darci Shaw) out of a dark space of backstage doubt and onto a fake Yellow Brick Road set, and at one point in his monologue about how she’s so much better than “normal” girls in the audience they fleetingly make startling eye contact with the camera. We’re implicated in this moment, a culture devouring her without considering her personhood, but in the rest the blame is put on the studio serving her pills to go and pills to drop, working her nonstop. Then the bulk of the movie puts Judy at the other end of her career, with Renée Zellweger admirably inhabiting the role. She deserves all of the praise, as the movie is literally nothing without her. There were moments watching her stalk the stage or curled up despondent in her hotel suite or bitterly arguing with an ex-husband (Rufus Sewell) where I found myself thinking I was not watching an excellent impersonation, but Judy herself. That's movie magic. She’s a movingly fragile performer here, wasting away, crumbling inward, yet still able to pull it together to blast out a “Trolley Song” here and there. It’s a beguiling, interior performance, fully fleshing out what the film otherwise sketches in with cliches and received conventional wisdom about its subject. The scenes that most overtly deal with her persona or cultural import — an encounter with a gay couple outside the stage door, and one flashback with a dopey Mickey Rooney in a fake diner — are both moving and contrived, both true and not true in an instant. But they, like Zellweger, get at the simultaneous fragility and power that Garland possessed, what made her a star and keeps her alive. This shapeless movie can't extinguish the fire at its center.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

TV Movies: BETWEEN TWO FERNS and DOWNTON ABBEY

This weekend saw two small-screen short-form programs make the leap to feature length. The more improbable is Between Two Ferns: The Movie. It has its modest viral-video sketch-show origins in Zach Galifianakis’ funny, awkward, faux-amateur interview online shorts. He plays a fumbling marble-mouthed ignorant weirdo who alternately incisively insults and dopily repels his celebrity guests as they sit in a poorly-lit studio decorated only with two ferns. Their interactions — loosely scripted by Galifianakis and co-writer/director Scott Aukerman — are just funny enough to last the length of a usual online clip, perfect to be passed around on social media. So the prospect of making it a movie — even a a slim 80-minute one — is unlikely to work well. Somehow it does. This isn’t because it’s well-plotted. No, the thing’s a shambles, with an endless setup of mockumentary shenanigans and exposition like it’s emerging from a mid-aughts time-capsule launching into the barest bones road trip drudgery you’ve ever seen. Will Ferrell (playing a coked-up, cowboy-hat wearing, media-mogul version of himself) sends Galifianakis on a quest to make 10 new episodes of Between Two Ferns in only two weeks. Succeed and he’ll get a his own lifetime late-night talk show. “I’m a white man and I’m straight,” he deadpans. “I deserve this.” That’s pretty funny. So off they go, our lead dope and his three-person production crew — they’re equally dim-witted, with one saying, in response to a waiter asking if she’s ever seen a chicken strip, “I’ve never even seen a chicken wear clothes” — with the flimsiest excuse to string together a bunch of cameos for interviews that you could’ve seen one at a time over the course of weeks on FunnyOrDie. Somehow, though, each successive desperate, squirmy interview session compounds the amusing interest from the last. It’s an uneven delivery system, but it contains Galifianakis’ concept at or near the top of its game for the most part. Throughout it’s often laugh-out-loud surprising as he’s asking questions that toe the line between jokey insults and actual sharp commentary, sometimes riffing on unfair media reputations (simply repeats dated digs without much spin), other times cutting close to the bone (asking, say, a Marvel Superhero Actor what it feels like to sell out, or a British thespian if his accent hides his lack of talent.) Other times he spins off into fumbling malapropisms or loopy tangents. It’s all amusing enough. There’s a nothing plot line strung up between the pieces, yet, since the thing has been confined to a straight-to-streaming release, there’s no good reason not to skip ahead to the good parts once you tire of the rote story elements. I’m sure Netflix won’t mind.

Gentler and more coherent is Downton Abbey, a big-screen continuation of the handsome British soap that ran for six seasons on PBS here in the states. It concerns the lives and loves, the scheming and dreaming, of an upstairs/downstairs situation on a Yorkshire estate. The Crawleys lives upstairs in their palatial rooms as they deal with upper-crust society problems, while their devoted servants deal with grubbier working-class problems and feel great loyalty to their employers. I’ve never seen an episode of the series, but the movie is sure cozy, welcoming in a host of little dramas with characters who hit the ground running. It mercifully wastes no time with a roll call and just gets on with it, assuming its audience either remembers them all fondly or can get up to speed fast enough. (It does, though, sweep lovingly in slow establishing shots of the big house. Downton Abbey is to this movie what the Starship Enterprise is to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) It’s 1927 and the King and Queen send word they’ll spend the night at Downton during a tour of the region. This sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy, prompting little bits of business and drama for pretty much the entire cast of the series. There are romances and jealousies, negotiations and preparations. It’s stately and fussy, and warmly cliched. I have the feeling screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who wrote all the seasons of the show and also did this sort of big house tizzy in Altman's far superior Gosford Park, is much like Mark Twain’s description of James Fenimore Cooper. He has a small bag of narrative tricks and loves to methodically take out each one every time, "never so happy as when...working these innocent things and seeing them go." At least it’s high-gloss pseudo-sophisticated.

Series’ veteran director Michael Engler makes it look like high-gloss television with blandly digital flatness in a scope frame. The cast is marvelous to a person, and the sets are clearly well-loved. The whole thing clips along like a leisurely Very Special three-parter. With so many characters to juggle and conflicts to serve, there’s never too much time to mind the simple framing or dawdling low-stakes plot mechanics. It’s so charming and light — the audience warmly chuckling with recognition or sending waves of affection in the direction of their favorite performers. The clear standout is Maggie Smith, a delight as the wickedly clever Countess who rules over the proceedings, snipping and sniping from the sidelines and stealing every scene. Even this Downton novice entered aware of her beloved status in the role. My, how that’s deserved. It’s all a pleasant mood. Still, there’s a general irritation I felt at the film’s politics, which are so cozily depicted a byproduct of the conceit’s warm bath of nostalgia over a rigid class system. It’s a movie about servants who just want the honor of helping the rich folk, and the progressives among both classes reluctantly admitting that, gee, the aristocracy sure is genteel and well-meaning and, gosh darn it, might as well go on forever. By the end, I almost found myself wishing the same for Downton. I’m sure fans will be delighted.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Heist Life: HUSTLERS

Hustlers is a crowd-pleaser with the old-fashioned charm of a good story well-told. What a pleasure to sink into a narrative for the sheer enjoyment of the one-thing-after-another pile-up of Based On a True Story incident, carried along by the compelling characters and the story’s energy and suspense, bolstered by a game ensemble of winning performers. It tells the story of a stripper (Constance Wu) who is taken under the wing of the club’s stunning, confident pro (Jennifer Lopez). They’re living the high life, raking in the big bucks at a New York City strip club frequented by Wall Street types. It’s 2007 and the market can only go up. Alas, as the recession hits and the finance money dries up, the club hits difficult times. What are these enterprising women to do? Why not scam? Lopez swaggers into the ringleader position all high-heels, tight dresses, and fur coats. She glows. With one strut onto the stage, one shrug of her coat, one spin on the pole, you can tell why her character is the one who draws the most attention, who all the other strippers are drawn to and look up to. This is a remarkable performance, poised and sexy, sly and self-aware, off-the-charts charismatic in a low-key but megawatt way. This is star power. Wu is quickly taken in with the plan. We can see why.

The movie is, beyond its surface pleasures, a fine-tuned look at the women’s friendship, an early scene of reconnection swelling with booming cornball late-aughts dance pop as their eyes meet and the plan hatches. Every step of the process is told with engaging verve through these compelling characters and the crackling screenplay’s tick-tock tightness and loose, funny chatter. The duo plan to rope in dopey high-rollers and invite them back to the club where they’ve negotiated to take a percentage of whatever they can get the guy to spend there. It’s better than stripping. All they need to do is keep the pretty ladies distracting the guy so the beer is flowing and his credit card is swiping. “He needs to be able to sign the check,” Lopez smirks as she lays out the strategy, which eventually includes secretly slipping some MDMA into the mix to keep the guy happy, and giving him a consoling pep talk if he calls back later. “You were having so much fun,” she’ll coo. Wu wonders what’ll happen if they get caught and a guy calls the cops. Lopez laughs. “And say what? I spent $5,000 at a strip club! Send help!”

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, whose Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has sweetly swooning bitter comic apocalyptic mood and The Meddler so astutely charts the relationship between a grown daughter and her lovely overbearing mother, Hustlers has a sparkle of fun over the despair at its core. It loves hanging out with its lead women, and with the crew they gather — Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and sometimes Madeline Brewer — to keep the scam rollling. They skim just enough to keep going, but never enough to get in trouble. They hope. Scafaria balances among the sheer hangout caper joy of their successes, their bubbly genuine care for each other, and the omnipresent financial despair that drives their work. Side-hustles and part-time jobs are around every corner. Apartments shift radically in size. Some days are a warm holiday of presents and dancing. Some days are spent with nasty men urging ugly awfulness into their ears. What a thrill they feel in the control over their lives, their finances, their futures.

Booming with constant well-curated pop music and sleek camera moves, floating along with propulsive editing and a melancholy past-tense structure — Wu gives an interview years later to a sympathetic reporter (Julia Stiles) to narrate some events — the movie is an excited recounting of their scheme. It grooves on the populist rage underpinning the con. Lopez chews into exposition about a taxonomy of Wall Street types, and how unfair it is that so many of them conspired to make themselves richer at everyone else’s expense, then got off without so much as a sniff of a jail sentence. The movie pushes its points forcefully — the final scene even comes right out and says the thesis the movie otherwise does a good job of embodying without doing so. But it’s just as interested in the bonds between its characters, the strain struggle puts on them, and the lengths they’ll go to stay afloat. It’s hugely entertaining, but with this undeniable sharp-edged sadness underneath.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Send in the Clown: IT CHAPTER 2

It Chapter 2 has all the defects of its predecessor, but adds a considerable number of benefits, as well. The first half of Andy Muschietti’s handsome mixed-bag Stephen King adaptation took a story about adults reencountering a trauma from their past — the book slides back and forth between the origin of their fears and a present day confrontation with them — and told just the kids’ stuff. It was a grindingly mechanical and, for me, joyless experience. You could’ve set your watch by the predictable jump scares, while the surface-level discomfort and vaguely defined supernatural threats never gained any complexity or momentum. It was a procession of grotesque jolts delivered at a regular pace. Now, though, the sequel production shifts attention to the adult versions of those kids and finds itself immediately richer and more evocative in the process. It can’t help but add to its similarly-shaped funhouse collection of loud shocks and obvious shivers a layer of complexity and character the earlier lacked. It 2 becomes a melancholic creepy tale about returning to your cursed hometown long after you’ve forgotten whatever meaning it once held for you, about reconnecting with people you once knew to find you’ve grown apart. In both cases, it's a sad story about finding that, though you have something foundational binding you to places and people of your past, once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on. Still, they find power in remembering, and in forging new connections with old friends, despite, and maybe because, of their overlapping formative damage. In fact, reconciling past traumas with current selves just might save them all.

So here we have Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy and James Ransone and Jay Ryan and Bill Hader entering the frame instantly carrying the baggage of an encounter with evil and fear personified, but distantly, as a vague memory. (Key flashes back to the kid cast create a fine Proust-lite echoing.) The one friend who stayed (Isaiah Mustafa) calls them back to creepy little Derry, Maine — still weirdly underpopulated. It’s been nearly 30 years, and now once more there’s a killing spree from demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard, still really going for it, if given less to do this time around, more mascot than believable menace). They’re the only ones who discovered this truth. They thought they stopped it then. They better do it better now. It’s all fetch-quest, ancient-exposition nonsense dolled out just to get the plot going, a similar effects-heavy, mood-light factory dark ride of pneumatic jolts. But the production is sprawling and goofy, maybe not digging into the darkest of King’s implications, but certainly attuned to the terror — a hate crime kicks things off, and, later, a boy gets his head brutally squashed by a chomping monster mouth — as it eyes its ensemble with sympathy. It takes a roller coaster shape paced out so each disconnected episode in the middle — a fine apportionment of scares with each actor getting one set piece to call their own — gives everyone a nice loop-de-loop in center stage. Meanwhile Hader gets to run comic relief circles around every scene without shortchanging his big crying-jag moment at the end. It’s more relentless popcorn fun than a deep unease, a horror movie that deals with horrific moments without getting truly scary. But, a rambling, nearly-3-hour movie balanced between past and present, it gains a heft and a satisfaction the first half of this cinematic version deliberately withheld.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dead Man: THE NIGHTINGALE

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is too honest and too true to satisfy with easy answers. Its setup is pure rape-revenge melodrama thriller, but its plot’s progression throws complications in the development to enhance its resistance of typical genre thrills. It makes tragedy quotidian, the price of being alive as an oppressed class. Set with all the grim grit and grime in the frontier Western outback of colonial Australia, the movie finds an Irish woman (Aisling Franciosi) an indentured servant at a military outpost. She’s years past earning her freedom, but the sneering British commander (Sam Claflin) refuses to give her the paperwork. When her husband (Michael Sheasby) dares confront him on this fact, the Brit responds by raping the woman, murdering the man, and killing their baby. This sequence is among the most unendurable brutalities I’ve ever witnessed in a film — unflinching without being explicit, so strong in its sound design of a wailing baby and slamming bodies, and quick shots of rough gestures. So painful it is that I was relieved when the silence following a cut to black was broken by an audience member softly gasping, “Oh, God.” The woman is left for dead. She summons the courage to report the brutality to a higher regional authority. The old man behind the desk sniffs at her to calm down and watch her tone. “You expect me to believe a woman’s word over a soldier’s?” he asks, even as she clutches her infant’s corpse. It turns out the culprit and his men have just struck out for another town days away, so she saddles her horse, grabs her gun, and hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her catch them. The movie wears its ideas on the surface, torturous developments gripped tightly and simply as the tension-filled pairing — each deeply suspicious of the other — slowly realize they’re both victims, and should put aside their differences to fight back.

But rather than accelerate into Tarantino-esque fantasy of historical vengeance (as good as those are), the movie goes slow, gathering dread and letting the sick sensation of its early implications settle and churn. After the brutal opening, I wanted nothing more than to see the men responsible brought maximum pain. But the movie sits in the long journey with its lead, as the deepest of mourning and the strongest of trauma settle on her like a roiling storm, conflicting her intentions and dragging her steps slower and slower. Kent, whose previous film was the excellent, chilling, depression-monster horror movie The Babadook, here roots the terror in the realities of life for an Irish woman and an Aboriginal man in this time of brutal white British male domination. It trades on Westerns' iconography — the lone rider, the rifle, the horse, the native guide, the sun on the horizon, and the silhouetted figure in the doorway to wide open spaces. But its cold digital clarity locates a specific and overwhelming stifling world. Every character — even our lead — participates in the systems creating the brutal conditions: racism, colonialism, patriarchy. Everyone drips in it: the casual misogyny, the sexual violence, the cruel prejudices. A helpful man snaps at his wife. People sympathetic and evil alike growl “boy” at older servants of color. Threat of harm hangs over interactions. The movie is a cauldron of righteous fury, and of bleak reality. It quakes with justified rage at the worst of men, and knows that, in mankind’s direst moments, there can be no happy solution. We are left with no good options. The damage has been done. To kill one evil man, no matter how narratively or personally satisfying, nonetheless leaves in place the evil systems that allow for him. Kent painstakingly drains every bit of potential payoff from her genre setup, leaving only the emptiness, futility, and pain.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

She's Not There: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about a genius architect. She (Cate Blanchett, in another of her textured, tightly-wound, woman-on-the-verge performances) is nearly a recluse and hasn’t worked in two decades. She’s in the middle of restoring a crumbling former girls’ reform school in Seattle where she lives with her high-level Microsoft project manager husband (Billy Crudup) and their adorable Antarctica-loving eighth-grader daughter (Emma Nelson). Bernadette is also nearing or at her wit’s end, with crippling social anxiety, barely able to force herself out of the house for fear of all the irritants in the world — namely, other people, especially the busybody school moms and neighborhood fussbudgets (most notably Kristen Wiig) whose relentless striving and nitpicking are understandably annoying. Bernadette raises annoyance to an art form, her sublimated or dormant creative energies healthily channeled into a close relationship with her daughter, and unhealthy antagonism with everyone and everything else. This is a set of very specific character choices, a collection of traits and circumstances that are singular, and therefore typical of a Richard Linklater project, a filmmaker who, above all else, makes vivid and textured film of specificity in their characters. Whether he’s looking at a college baseball team in the 1980s, or a flirtatious couple of strangers (or long-lost loves, or a married couple) wandering Europe, or a high school in the 70s, or a boy growing through the early-2000s, or a charming oaf scamming a school or covering up a murder, a Linklater film is one of observation and love. His are inquisitive and sensitive films that sketch in the characters’ hopes and dreams, behaviors and philosophies, ticks and eccentricities, into singular windows into particular people. Here, Blanchett’s Bernadette is given the space to unravel and maybe, just maybe, find her way. She rarely sleeps, she over-medicates, she has tense interactions with most everyone but her loving daughter (a tender relationship well-defined). It’s clear she can’t improve these conditions because she’s accepted this as her lot in life. She has the capacity to change for the better, but, like so many of us, she can’t find the first step on that journey.

There’s more to the standoffish Bernadette (and Bernadette, with its soft lighting and comfortable staging) than meets the eye. She’s surrounded by people who at first look like shallow types in a social satire — a comedy of manners in the overlap between an overpaid tech world and an upper-class private school enclave, the way Bernadette herself seems to see it some of the time — but Linklater and his co-writers, working from the novel by Maria Semple, strengthen and deepen every character with a inner life that glows through, even in unexpected ways. The story feints in a few directions every so often — clashes with the neighborhood, a therapist on call, a looming vacation, past disappointments and rash contemporaneous decisions. It lightly develops each scenario’s possibilities while drifting towards another, resisting outright farce or melodrama in favor of something more comfortably, naturally heightened, before finally resolving in unexpectedly simple and moving moods of potential for reconciliation of these disparate conflicts. It’s engaging and moving precisely because it’s so unhurried and genuine, gently funny and compassionately wrought, in tune with its main character’s mental energies and trends. The movie is as sharp and unpredictable on the surface, and yet as warm and clear underneath, as Bernadette herself. It’s a loving, but critical movie, one that adores its character’s potential without ignoring or valorizing her flaws. She is both wholly herself — a unique individual — and symptomatic of so many who slip away without ever leaving, resisting human connection and retreating into convenient shadings or outright fictions that allow resentments to fester and self-righteousness to inflate. Linklater’s soft, textured, clear-eyed humanism allows her this mistake without denying her — or anyone’s — humanity. She has a void so many feel, and tries to cover it up with excuses, or screens, or empty busyness. The movie, calmly, patiently observed, watches as those who love her try to help her until she can help herself. This quiet optimism guides the project to a gentle, loving moment of clarity, and a reaffirmation of what makes a life well-lived. A movie this compassionate and kindhearted doesn’t come along every day.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Call of the Child: DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

There has been no 2019 summer blockbuster more satisfying than Dora and the Lost City of Gold. A live-action remake of the nearly twenty-year-old Nickelodeon show aimed at toddlers who followed Dora as she explored the rainforest with a monkey, a backpack, and a map, the movie is a bright, sweet, funny adventure romp pitched squarely at the 8- to 10-year-old crowd and those who can access their memories of what it meant to enjoy a movie like this then. Like with his great Muppet movies, director James Bobin approaches the film at the exact right level of heartfelt excitement, giddy about making a movie of such gleaming all-ages enthusiasms. It starts with Dora as a precocious six-year-old tromping through her wild yard while her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are hard at work looking for a mythical long-lost Incan city of gold. The movie starts on such a likable note, the camera swooping toward their lakeside home in the middle of the rainforest, the instantly recognizable girl — a big grin, a tidy mop of bangs, a pink t-shirt, and orange shorts — waving and smiling as the camera approaches. “C’mon!” she shouts as she dashes off with giddy enthusiasm, her imagination-filled playtime roughly equivalent to the original show’s childlike whimsy. We skip ahead ten years and Dora (now Isabela Moner, who, on the strength of this and her megawatt charm in Instant Family and Transformers 5, should be a huge star) is sent to California to live with her teen cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in order to learn how to be around kids her own age in a city far from the wilderness. Her parents mean well. Although Dora is self-sufficient, boundlessly energetic, and hugely knowledgeable about the natural world, they don’t want to raise her to be comfortable only with a solitary jungle life. Besides, they’re finally off to the city of gold and don’t need her following along on this dangerous quest. The movie becomes a sunny fish-out-of-water comedy for a while as Dora’s plucky enthusiasm clashes with the surly teens in California High. (Moner is as good at this role as Amy Adams was in Enchanted.) They are instantly suspicious of someone so earnestly kind, obviously passionate, and genuinely guileless.

The kid-sized Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones plot kicks off when a treasure hunter (Temuera Morrison) kidnaps Dora, Diego, and a couple classmates from a school trip. They end up in the middle of the jungle, rescued by a bumbling archeologist (Eugenio Derbez) who says Dora’s parents are in trouble. So it’s a race to the city of gold through ancient ruins, quicksand, angry tribal archers, deadly animals, dangerous plants, and all the expected obstacles of such a story. Along the way, Dora is able to use her wits and her relentless positivity to help get her family and frenemies out of these jams. It has all the appeal of a bouncy adventure movie, and a core safe kindness that makes it totally kid-friendly. Best of all, it never takes Dora’s child’s-eye excitement as a joke. Though it contrasts her with the moody teens, and she’s at first a source of embarrassment for her city cousin, she’s not unaware of these differences. They laugh at you, Diego tells her. “I know. I’m not stupid,” she says, going on to insist that she simply has to be herself, the kind of girl who’d go to the school dance asked to “dress as your favorite star” and come encased in a giant cloth sun, and who’d grin and wave and say “we did it” to her classmates at the end of the school day. That this plays as generosity, a soft character moment in the middle of a jaunty adventure rather than didactic sloganeering, is all for the better. There’s a warm affection for her energy, and for the original show. Somehow it even manages to include a dash of fantasy, as one of the villain’s henchmen is a sparingly deployed masked talking fox named Swiper (Benicio del Toro) who steps straight out of the cartoon with only a bit of bristling fur realism to sell the silliness in this heightened version of our world. The whole production is animated by a love for its cute character and her world, cheerfully taking her cues to enjoy its every moment with a verve and a warmly funny spirit. After a long, dismal summer of failed big budget spectacles (and even the rare good ones, like John Wick 3 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were on the grim side), it’s nice to be reminded that a movie like this can make you grin from ear to ear for 100 minutes straight, and leave you walking out happier than when you walked in. It’s a true delight.