Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Playing with a Full Decade: FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 2010s

First, the prerequisite hand-wringing about list-making. Of course it's hard to wrestle down a decade into a list of ten movies. Ten years is too vast a span of time, with a variety of trends and ideas, fads and fashions, economic fluctuations and political conditions. What follows is my attempt to demonstrate movies I've found myself thinking of again and again, the cinematic experiences that seem to crystallize something essential about what it felt like to be alive as a cinephile like me in this time and place.

More practically speaking, I limited myself to one movie per filmmaker. That made it a tough call when picking a representative Spielberg or Coen brothers film, and an impossible one for other masters on productive runs this decade, hence no Soderbergh or Scorsese.

 Without further ado, here's a top ten, in alphabetical order. 

Bridge of Spies
First Reformed
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lemonade
Margaret
The Social Network
The Tree of Life
Twin Peaks: The Return
Two Days, One Night
Us

Not content to limit myself, I expanded my list to 100. To make it manageable I did impose some artificial requirements. Firstly, I picked exactly 10 movies per year. Secondly, I chose no more than one movie per filmmaker across the whole list. (Sorry, The Wolf of Wall Street and Lincoln and Personal Shopper and To the Wonder and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and...) I think of this as a snapshot of my taste as of right now looking back on the past decade. Comparing each year's list to my original top tens, I found hindsight, the passage of time, and my arbitrary rules resulted in fresh looks at what's lasted in my affection. Not comprehensive, exactly, I'm mostly posting this for my own time-capsule benefit, but you're more than welcome to poke around for recommendations.

2010:
Another Year
Black Swan
Never Let Me Go
Poetry
A Prophet
Shutter Island
The Social Network
Somewhere
Step Up 3D
Tron Legacy

2011:
Certified Copy
Contagion
Hanna
The Interrupters
Margaret
Melancholia
The Skin I Live In
The Tree of Life
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Trip

2012:
Amour
Cloud Atlas
Five Broken Cameras
Goodbye First Love
The Grey
Holy Motors
John Carter
Not Fade Away
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
ParaNorman

2013:
At Berkeley
Captain Phillips
The Counselor
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Lone Ranger
Spring Breakers
12 Years a Slave
The Wind Rises
The World's End

2014:
Boyhood
Beyond the Lights
The Congress
Goodbye to Language
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Manakamana
Only Lovers Left Alive
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
Two Days, One Night
Under the Skin

2015:
Blackhat
Bridge of Spies
Clouds of Sils Maria
Joy
The Look of Silence
Mad Max: Fury Road
Magic Mike XXL
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mistress America
Tangerine

2016:
Cameraperson
Certain Women
Lemonade
Moana
The Nice Guys
OJ: Made in America
Other People
Sully
Toni Erdmann
The Witch

2017:
Coco
Downsizing
Dunkirk
Faces Places
Logan
Nocturama
Princess Cyd
Phantom Thread
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Twin Peaks: The Return

2018:
BlacKkKlansman
The Favourite
First Reformed
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Leave No Trace
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Never Look Away
Private Life
Support the Girls

2019:
Dark Waters
The Farewell
High Life
Hustlers
Little Women
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Parasite
Transit
Us
Wild Rose

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cats & Dogs: CATS and TOGO

Cats is questionable on every level you can imagine: narrative, musical, aesthetic, anatomical. Only a movie so convinced of its tony, glossy, respectable, good-taste nature could fail on all counts so completely. It’s some kind of amazing. Those who set out to make a midnight movie inexplicable on purpose will be jealous, standing in awe for a true blue unintended wild pitch, a cracked cult classic in the making. I’m almost glad it exists for no reason but that there’s nothing else like it. It’s boring and fascinating, confusing and striking in equal measure. If it was an obscurity dug up decades hence — think bonkers musical movies past like The Apple and so forth — we might be better prepared to take its sheer unlikely collection of bad decisions as quaint eccentricity rather than an assault on our senses. It’s both, of course.

Built from one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most dubious musicals to begin with, the picture matches the stage version’s patchy story and sluggish pace. It’s about a group of cats milling about on the night of their yearly ritual in which their pseudo-supernatural queen (Judi Dench, so good she’s believable) chooses one lucky cat to die and be reincarnated. While they await her decision, one cat at a time steps forward and performs a little song and dance introducing their name and some quality they posses. There’s an abandoned young cat (ballerina Francesca Hayward). There’s a cat that lays around all day (Rebel Wilson), one that eats garbage (James Corden), another that likes milk (Jason Derulo) — all normal cat behavior. Then there’s a cat that rides on a train (tap dancer Steven McRae), and one that sits in a theatre (Ian McKellen). Fair enough. Then there’s a cat that’s a magician (Laurie Davidson) and a cat that’s some sort of evil sorcerer (Idris Elba) with a slinky henchwoman (Taylor Swift). The lonely old cat (Jennifer Hudson) is the best, because she gets to sing the musical’s one good song — “Memory,” the only one anyone unfamiliar with the stage production has heard going in. That’s the full extent of the movie, a weird shapeless thing faithful to its oddball roots. And yet what elevates it — or lowers it, your milage varying — is every cinematic decision that compounds disbelief by the second. Director Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech and the excellent musical Les Miserables, demonstrates powers of mad erratic imagination his earlier, safer prestige projects have heretofore shown little inclination toward.

He shoots it on a big unreal stage in scope from low angles, accentuating the feline perspective, and then proceeds to populate the proceedings with singing and dancing CG-human hybrid monstrosities straight from the uncanny valley. They are not the stage’s leotard and makeup creations; nor do they use digital wizardry to transpose motion-captured movie stars into the bodies of vaguely realistic cats. It’s instead a layering of digital fur over the bodies of the performers so that we have plenty of time to consider the human form ensconced in this animal texture. They never look like cats, and never like people. Instead of a digital extension of the artifice provided by stage makeup, it gives long close-ups and medium shots of expressive dancing and emotive singing an odd push and pull. How often do we actually stare at quivering lips and wrinkling noses as they fill the frame? We also get long opportunities to trace the contours of the muscles in hips and torsos as they ripple under artificial skin? The dancer’s posteriors, too, are distractingly human under long, twitching tails, in bodies both real and unreal, human and not. Their bodies are only further accentuated by the cats occasionally wearing snazzy little hats or coats, drawing attention to their otherwise completely bared fur. What a marvelously unhinged visual distraction, appealing and revolting in equal measure, depending on the movement or the camera angle. It’s an image of partially-real creatures — too human to be cat, too cat to be human — dancing in partially-real sets — occasionally extending into gleamingly fake city streets where the cats are either half the size of an average person or a fourth of the size of the average house pet. It’d be worth seeing if it wasn’t put to use for such baffling lack of effect for production numbers that rarely add up to much in a story that never coheres for characters that never develop. What an expensive boondoggle. It sure is something.

Far more conventionally satisfying animal filmmaking is Togo, a humble based-on-a-true-story programmer slipped out onto Disney+ in the shadow of splashier family fare at the multiplex this holiday season. If you recall Universal’s 1995 animated picture Balto, about a sled dog racing to deliver much-needed medicine into the wilds of 1920s Alaska, you know the gist, although this movie will tell you Togo did far more than him. Here Willem Dafoe is a stoic human face guiding his good dogs across the wilderness as the children of small town Nome sit afflicted with diphtheria, a fatal diagnosis if left untreated. He’s the sort of sensitive, stubborn man so driven, and so good at inspiring his dogs, that he’ll holler one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches over the sound of the whirling winds and cracking ice. Flashbacks fill in the details of the lead dog’s life, as he goes from an energetic pup in need of training to an underdog with the unlikely spirit and skill to lead the team through treacherous terrain at the behest of his kind owner. It’s a dog story, a real adventure told with low-key pace, rugged faces against awesome landscapes, natural hues, and beautiful nature-photography appeal. Director/cinematographer Ericson Core has a keen eye for these details. There’s great Jack London verisimilitude to the real dogs and settings, and the progression through the details of making such a journey at such a time with these resources. We meet a variety of grizzled characters and see tenderly realized portraits of townspeople doing what they can to help. And we see the toll it can take on those who do good despite the odds, even after their deeds are done. Throughout there’s great skill and tension on display, a driving forward momentum pinned to its elemental man (and dog) versus nature tale. It has a quiet, patient sense of narrative and emotional clarity as pure and simple as the task at hand. Just goes to remind you there’s nothing like a good old fashioned story told cleanly and simply.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Return of the Jedi: STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

And now we arrive at an ending, although we’ve been here twice before. Star Wars is now a collection of three trilogies: George Lucas’s great founding original and a largely terrific (divisive) prequel, and a sequel trilogy composed of deliberate echoes and remixes non-Lucas stewards have made. Back in the hands of writer-director J.J. Abrams, whose Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a skillful reboot in bringing the world back to life with new characters meeting the old, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest disappointment is that it’s in such a big hurry to end the story just as it was getting good. It has to rush to tie up loose ends while letting others linger, and making new ones along the way. The previous entry, Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, was an astonishing work, about as striking, surprising, and enriching as a corporate-mandated intellectual-property extension could be. It boldly deepened the stock personalities of aspiring Padawn Rey (Daisy Ridley), stubborn pilot Poe (Oscar Issac), and fresh recruit Finn (John Boyega), complicated the stormy interiority of villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), lovingly sent troubled old heroes into the sunset, and picked up the plot threads Abrams left dangling and ran with them. The future was wide open. After that film, it felt like the story could go anywhere in the galaxy. But now it’s time to end, and to do so we need a plot that moves at the speed of light, as spaceships moving at the speed of exposition need to hop planet to planet setting up the end game. Abrams simply steps back in, telling us right away that the conflict between the Imperial wannabe First Order and the woefully underpopulated Resistance is now, all of a sudden, at a tipping point. What’s new is old again. And vice versa.

As surface satisfying as it is to stage one last big galactic blowout, a confrontation of good versus evil with lineage stretching back across the trilogies, I found myself missing the characters already and wishing we could’ve set it up more thoroughly. Time spent zapping hither and thither is crammed into the first hour to set up the whiz-bang finale, each stop having the typically Star-Wars-ian menagerie of delights: fun creatures, cool robots, and a hodgepodge style all its own. There’s so much, cut so quickly, that there’s no time for this to settle, little patience for the character work of previous entries. That’s because the stakes are suddenly very high (although Abrams’ vision of the State of the Galaxy has nothing on Lucas’s brilliance at suggestive scope). This concluding chapter finds the evil Sith spirit of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) trying to come back to life and claim his place as leader of the Galaxy. (The gaps in narrative to make this make sense are begging to be backfilled with the ancillary materials this franchise has long enjoyed.) There’s high-energy action, zippy quips, reverent symbolism, and tearful goodbyes. (The narrative write-around for Carrie Fisher’s real-life death is strained, but better than writing her out entirely.) And yet, as it should, the film finds its center not in the voluminous fan service, a cast so overstuffed that great figures from past films are sidelined, or quickly, sparsely characterized new personalities destined for spinoffs of one kind (the usual books and comics and video games) or another (Disney+, here they come?). No, it’s in the faces of Rey and Kylo as they wrestle with the same old struggle their ancestors have in the stories told before.

There’s the push and pull of destiny and expectation, the draw of the dark side and the call to the light, the yearning for balance and the cravings for power. That their stories have been allowed to exist across three films as this peculiar connection — the one truly, beautifully unique addition to the canon in all this — gives these films their own power. Not just drafting off the hero’s journey architecture of the earlier trilogies, they gain from letting two fine actors play the psychic connection and the spiritual torment. Sure, it’s still in the context of space opera done up in glorious style with all the digital sturm und drang Disney can buy, but there’s a real charge between them. The movie’s at its best when it steers into the pulp fantasy spiritualism and romanticism — when the sky opens up, and there’s nothing but stars, and the voices of the past swirl and call. And though the past is fading away, and the present holds the promise of just more conflict like the ones we’ve seen before — dogfights and laser blasts doomed to repeat forever — in many iterations, the future is still unwritten. Ridley’s wild, vibrant eyes and Driver’s moody stares, her steady calm even in distress, his electric unpredictability even in control, bring them into two halves of a whole, the balanced force personified. They’re attuned to the film’s metaphysical undercurrent, even as Abrams world-building remains both imaginative and under-explained, a constant churn of movement and MacGuffins. It has this ice-and-fire emotional center latent in The Force Awakens, brought to the fore by Johnson and now taken to a fitting conclusion here. Abrams, always a fine technician of a filmmaker, here, with cinematographer Dan Mindel and the artisans in the effects departments, finds some of his loveliest images, and in the midst of the hurry and bombast brings it back to Rey. Fittingly, the hero of this trilogy is a scavenger, introduced digging in the wreckage of a story that came before her, and, by the end, has found something to hold onto.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Bayhood: 6 UNDERGROUND

Michael Bay’s 6 Underground gives him the opportunity for breathless Bayhem at its most gleefully cool and cruel. It has bullets, blood splatters, and bodies splattered and splayed — a crooked general killed in slow-mo with a gunshot through a cigar he’s smoking; every car crash sending bodies flipping out of windshields and side doors. It has large-scale stunts and impressive high-speed driving, every angle chosen for velocity and carnage stunningly shot and staged. In the rare down times we see, lovingly photographed, Bay’s other recurring images: product placement, ladies’ long legs, glowing screens, and dazzling architecture flying by in whip-fast establishing shots that linger and leer just long enough to get the visual pleasure. It tells you everything you need to know about the film’s aesthetic that, after one of the film’s team of protagonists is speared by a forklift, the group’s funeral dinner is Captain Morgan and pizza. Or that there’s a car chase through an art museum scored to a dubstep “O Fortuna.” Not since Bad Boys II has this vulgar auteur been extended a free hand for a blank check hard-R pulp action vision so untrammeled. He spent the last twelve years in franchise land, helming five Transformers movies (some good, others not) that bent the kids' toyline mythos to his style, with brief detours for a bombastic satirical true-crime picture (Pain & Gain) and a gory militaristic siege movie (13 Hours). Here he’s back in the world of macho braggarts, fast cars, machine guns, and mini-skirts that made his name back in the mid-90s days of The Rock and the first Bad Boys. This movie has a simple story told convolutedly. We have a ragtag quasi-vigilante black ops team of experts who’ve faked their own deaths to move around the world secretly. (When asked if The President signed off on the plan, one quips, “No, he can’t even spell it.”) There’s a tech guy (Ryan Reynolds, now in a permanent state of semi-Deadpool energy), a spy (Melanie Laurent), a doctor (Adria Arjona), a hit man (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a parkour guy (Ben Hardy), a sniper (Corey Hawkins), and a driver (Dave Franco). There’s an evil dictator (duh) in a stereotypically vague faux-Third World country, and the protagonists are gonna take him down. Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s screenplay has a whole lot of repetitive rigamarole between just three action sequences of incredible duration and complication, with lots of cross-cut suspense and violence and all manner of stunt work at the highest level of skill. Explosions! Profanity! Geysers of blood and sparks and water and smoke! Dizzying heights and incredible combat! It’s cranked up and spat out—fast movement, vibrant colors, collateral damage—at the audience in balletic brutality and eye-popping intensity. So loud and splashy it’s a shame most will stream it on Netflix, it proves Bay remains one of the only maximalist stylists operating at this budget level who can wield the effects for maximum impact while still allowed to foreground his own preoccupations, for better or worse, in every frame.

Jungle 2 Jungle: JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL

These new Jumanji movies Jake Kasdan (of Walk Hard fame) is doing are big frictionless machines of weightless frivolity. They’re adventure films without stakes. They have character based comedy swanning about in broad burlesque stereotypes. They have violence without danger, eccentricities without personality, sex appeal without sex. They’re basically meaningless, and I can hardly retain details of them. And yet they’re something like fun in the moment, and I think of them only fondly. That they happen to be hugely appealing nothings strikes me as a matter of their throwback appeal to a time where a blockbuster can be premised simply on the hook of a high concept and the promise of Movie Star personas on brightest display. The first one — oh-so-loosely inspired by a slim picture book, and the Robin Williams movie of the same name about a jungle board game come to life — took a bunch of teens and yanked them into a jungle adventure video game they had to win to leave. It took obvious delight in seeing The Rock and Kevin Hart and Jack Black and Karen Gillan playing up insecurities of their inner teen players while expressing bewildered curiosity at their adult avatars’ caricature aspects. The Rock is shocked he’s strong, Hart he’s short, Black he’s fat, Gillan she’s midriff-bared male gaze fantasy, and so on. The Next Level does it one better, in the now old fashioned tradition of a sequel just redoing its predecessor with slight twists here and there. This one adds new characters and scrambles the avatars, so even though we’re once more tromping through moderately clever CG action sequences that vaguely comment on the samey repetitions of video games — rope bridge races! dune buggy chases! mountain fortress sneaking! — the personalities are funny and fresh. Now The Rock is impersonating a cranky grandpa played by Danny DeVito by scrunching his face and shouting, and Hart is a charmingly befuddled Danny Glover by lowering his voice and slowing it to just south of molasses. They’re continual delights, surprising and amusing. (And that Black plays the black teen and somehow never irredeemably crosses a line counts as a small Hollywood miracle.) It’s fun! The action is free of sense, while adhering to strict formula. The body swap silliness and jokey quips come frequently enough to keep the laughs coming and the slapstick, though still oddly underutilized for the premise, works just fine. And then where I found the movie oddly half-moving is in its earnest play with identity, a causal, inclusive, warm-hearted fluidity that makes something charmingly sweet out of The Rock looking with grandfatherly love at Awkwafina and calling her "grandson."

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

For the Beauty of the Earth: A HIDDEN LIFE

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4:17
 
From Terrence Malick, among the most earnest and spiritual of all filmmakers, comes A Hidden Life, a story of how difficult it can be to live a moral life in extreme times. How timely, and how timeless. In its persuasive, all-enveloping, overwhelming style, it’s a story of how small one person’s struggles can be against the enormity of nature’s landscapes, and the apocalyptic stakes of global conflict. And yet, one person’s struggles are enormous, a massive interior space with a thousand interconnected emotional tendrils tying him to his family, his community, his country, and his world. What is done to the least, is done to all. Malick’s interest in the interconnectedness of one another and to larger spiritual sensitivities, so beautifully explored in the expansive Tree of Life and the interior To the Wonder, is here aligned with a historical narrative that adds a dread trajectory, a sense of dark doom chugging like a distant locomotive underneath the pastoral beauty. It takes place in Austria during World War II. A farmer (August Diehl) and his wife (Valerie Pachner) live a simple life planting, harvesting, doing household chores, looking after his elderly widowed mother, and raising three adorable daughters. And yet, what has happened to their country? Their fellow citizens are enthralled to a bigoted strongman who goads violence against minorities and uses bellicose invasive rhetoric against their foreign neighbors, who cages those he deems unwanted, and threatens to crush any dissenters, as a lack of deference paid to this ruler makes one a traitor. It is probably inevitable that this peaceful farmer will be called to the front, and forced to pledge allegiance to Hitler to do so. Failure will mean imprisonment, torture, death. He prays. He talks to his wife. He consults his priest. And yet, when the time comes, only he can decide how deeply held his beliefs really are. The movie builds an accumulation of detail, piling up Malick’s attention to casual poetry of everyday life: a small dazzle of light on the ground, the soft soothing wind through the grass, the gentle play of a child, or the comfort of a ritual. We feel all too acutely what the evil of the world evokes to protect, even as it erodes and destroys.

Malick, pushing his discursive, intuitive editing and sensitive, wandering camera into emotive abstraction of late — Song to Song and Knight of Cups, his circuitous stories of romance and mental anguish against semi-autobiographical showbiz backdrops, are perhaps the loosest and most hypnotic films on the bounds of mainstream cinema in recent memory, at once empathetic and abstruse — here weds his style to a narrative with a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of one man’s stubborn refusal to swear loyalty to a cause he rightly views as evil. In the early going, Joerg Widmer’s crystal-sharp scope cinematography finds enormous natural beauty dwarfing the farm, threatening to swallow up their village with overwhelming beauty. How can there be danger in a place so close to nature, so close to God, the mountains stretching high until fog and clouds are one, vast verdant fields and flowing hilly pastures canting at steep angles offset by the tilting camera. Everything is at peace, but as virulently patriotic villagers stormily invade the spaces of the farmer and his wife — skulking at the edges of frames or sauntering up drunk on prejudice and wagging index fingers — it’s clear the toxic influence of the Nazi propaganda is awakening ugliness that’ll be hard to contain or reverse. The masks are off, the farmer murmurs in one line of Malickian voice overs that run, per his custom, in spare, direct, moving monologues used as lyrical counterpoints and underpinnings to the gorgeous montages cut cleanly and evocatively in his typically poetic rhythms. As the film’s arc pushes the farmer into smaller boxes, backing him into political corners that become prisons figurative and literal, he holds fast to his deep moral belief that to assist the Nazis, no matter how trivially or even to simply save his own life, is to become one. No amount of hectoring from neighbors or pleading from elders or punishments from government officials can change his mind. It’s a tragedy about the toll goodness can take; it dares to look at the damage doing the right thing can inflict upon a person, upon a family, when everyone around is succumbing to the wrong things simply because it’s easier to go along to get along. It’s one thing to know there’s a deep evil stirring in your countrymen; it’s another entirely to risk everything to resist being a passive witness to it. One small personal act of resistance will not change the grand scheme of things. But what if the greater cost is to do nothing?

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Into the Storm: DARK WATERS

You know the legal thriller is really working when the faxing sequence is tremendously suspenseful and exquisitely cathartic. By the time it gets to that point in Dark Waters, the film had its hooks in me something fierce. It’s based on the true story of a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who, after years as a corporate attorney for chemical companies, takes on the case of a family friend of a friend, a small-town West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows are dying off. He thinks it has something to do with the DuPont landfill next door. Intrigued, the big city legal expert pokes around in the case, and the deeper he looks, the darker the picture grows, until he’s convinced he has mountains of evidence proving the corporation has been covering up the danger of one of its most popular chemicals, and has turned a blind eye to the systematic poisoning of the community around its main factory. Ah, but proving it in a court of law, let alone getting fair settlements for the victims, is another thing entirely. A tense film of determined investigation and slow-boiling righteous indignation, director Todd Haynes fully inhabits the mode required of this sharp film of creeping dread and knife-twisting legal complications. Haynes is a filmmaker always sensitive to his character’s moods and attuned to the ways in which society’s structures affect them. Look no further than his swooning, ice-pick-pointed melodramas like Far from Heaven and Carol, in which prejudice and romance are inextricably tied up, or his underrated Wonderstruck, in which secret family trauma echoes across time, or his cult classic unauthorized Karen Carpenter movie Superstar, in which Barbies play all the roles as both experimental provocation and a soulful evocation of a pop star’s objectification made literal. In Dark Waters, the threats to the environment are slowly revealed through documentation and study, and the pollution oozes as sinisterly and secretly as the ways in which the companies maneuver to avoid responsibility. Shorn of overt message movie sentimentality, the film is grimly clear-eyed about how the struggle takes a toll on the human beings at its center, and is as determined as its lead to see it through.

The deeper it goes, the harder it is to shake. Ruffalo has a perfect exhausted energy, ground down by the system, even as he’s enlivened by his newfound purpose. He goes from being a comfortable corporate lawyer, to needing to pull apart the system from the inside out. He risks losing his good-paying job for daring to question the human costs of the business he once was paid to defend. His wife (Anne Hathaway) and children are sympathetic, but as the years stretch on with little progress, it’s hard to watch the toll it takes on him. How does one fight something so overwhelming, when those paid to ignore the problem can outspend and out-wait your efforts? Haynes understands this human fragility is both the reason for protections against corporate malfeasance, and for why it’s so difficult to make them count. He expresses this in the methodical turns of the story — a piercing stab of dread and regret as each new horror sinks in, and the futility of the attempts to fight it threatens to linger indefinitely — and in the blocking that emphasizes the quotidian lopsidedness of the struggle. One striking moment finds Ruffalo small in the frame next to his boss (Tim Robbins), a tall, imposing presence who is often sympathetic, but also conscious of the effect this hitherto profit-less crusade has on their other chemical-company clients. The shot accentuates their physical differences to highlight their unspoken power differential. Its this soft power of paychecks and workplace dynamics (the shadowy, fluorescent cinematography emphasizing sterile-yet-sickly boardrooms and business dinners as eerily as cattle’s illness) that’s discouragement as much as the overt corporate skullduggery and legal maneuvering. So, too, are the disappointed townspeople who see the dogged pursuit of accountability drag on and on without satisfying resolution, and, besides, doesn’t DuPont bring great jobs to town? (A host of great character performers fill out both sides of the case, with constant well-drawn human interest in the legal tension.) It’s no wonder, caught in the middle, our lead grows tired. Unappreciated, underestimated, under pressure, he’s weary. We see how it’s poisoned him; the only cure is to keep fighting for the truth.

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.