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'arrivĂ©e 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.