Thursday, September 21, 2017

mother!: In a Pastoral Bliss, Houseguests Open the Gates of Hell

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky's "mother!"
The first shot in mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s head-spinning fever dream of a movie, is of a woman wreathed in flame, gazing impassively into the camera. It’s a bracing introduction, but it’s fairly mundane when judged against the standards of this film, which treats—or perhaps torments—viewers with all manner of twisted, hallucinatory imagery. Is this testament to mother!’s genius or its inanity? The answer, even more so than with most pictures, is likely to be a matter of individual taste. Yet Aronofsky’s commitment to his demented vision is so absolute, so uncompromising, that mother! is all but certain to elicit a response, whether it be delight or disgust. By the time the closing credits roll on this maddening, mesmerizing movie, you may not be entirely sure what you just saw, but you’ll know for sure that you saw something.

What you see most of the time—and this is a decidedly sound piece of filmmaking strategy—is Jennifer Lawrence. For all the otherworldly sights in mother!—the bleeding floorboards and breathing walls, the glistening crystals and charred flesh—none is quite as compelling as its lead actress’ face. The camera, operated by Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, spends roughly half the film studying Lawrence in intimate close-up, watching in quiet amazement as she creates a topography of human emotion. Her eyes widening and narrowing, her countenance rippling into expressions of anger, confusion, and dismay, Lawrence pulls you in, trapping you inside her character’s headspace, a surreal nightmare from which there’s no escape.

Friday, September 15, 2017

It: School's Out for Murder

Fear is universal, even if it’s also personal. We’re all afraid of something, but our fears are typically our own. As many pop-culture artifacts have done before, It attempts to trade on this inherent tension between the institutional and the individual, conjuring a parasitic, metaphysical evil that torments its victims by transforming into the very thing that terrifies them most. In this, the film invites you to imagine being confronted not just by the nightmarish visions visited upon its characters, but by the horrors of your own heart.

“What are you afraid of?” the trailer for It asks ominously. Good question. My own list of fears is quite lengthy, and while it contains a number of garden-variety phobias—snakes, rats, heights, etc.—it also includes a few anxieties specific to my temperament and amateur occupation. Like, say, the fear of being trapped in a theater watching a 135-minute horror movie that is by turns repetitive, silly, and dull.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Ingrid Goes West: California, Here She Comes, with Hand Bags and Hashtags

Aubrey Plaza is a compelling nutcase in "Ingrid Goes West"
Obsession goes dark in Ingrid Goes West, Matt Spicer’s funny and sad debut feature about a profoundly lonely person and the phony friendship she foists upon a vapid quasi-celebrity. The misery and the menace of the stalker is nothing new in cinema—Spicer’s screenplay (co-written with David Branson Smith) even name-checks Single White Female—but here the trope of classical fixation is, ahem, filtered through the distinctly modern lens of social media. The movie’s protagonist is decidedly deranged, but she’s also strangely sympathetic, perhaps because she represents the logical extreme of a culture that tallies friends and competes for followers. When you’re constantly uploading exquisite images of your sun-kissed California lifestyle to thousands of adoring fans, isn’t it only rational to expect a rando from Pennsylvania to become unhealthily attached to you? #justsaying

Not that Ingrid Goes West is a crotchety, Luddite take on How We Live Now. While the script exhibits fluency in the linguistic and behavioral quirks of social media—the hashtags and emojis, the constant scrolling and double-tapping—it is too smart and savvy to insult an entire generation of potential customers. Ingrid Goes West is persistently scathing, almost as a matter of principle, but it directs its scorn toward its characters, not its viewers. And while it uses contemporary technology as its entry point, the feelings that it traffics in and stirs up—loneliness, jealousy, fervor, fear—are emphatically age-old. #instawisdom

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Good Time: One Bad Night on the Big Apple's Mean Streets

Robert Pattinson stars in the thriller "Good Time"
I’ll say this for Good Time: It has personality. Awash in a toxic sludge of neon and grime, it is a distinctive, assaultive film, made with energy and aggression by its sibling directors, Josh and Benny Safdie. It is also a deeply unpleasant experience, and not in the way it seeks to be. Desperate to rattle you with its jittery style and glammed-up ugliness, Good Time instead just feels punishing and self-indulgent, mistaking excess for excitement and confusing shock with craft.

In their previous feature, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies explored the agony of urban drug addiction, plucking actual addict Arielle Holmes off the street and then building a movie around her sad circumstances. (Holmes went on to appear as one of Andrea Arnold’s itinerant magazine salespeople in American Honey.) Most critics praised Heaven Knows What for its grubby authenticity, but I found it cold, slack, and unrelentingly miserable. I feel much the same about Good Time, which is marginally less bleak and slightly more polished but shares with its predecessor a defiant disregard for visual coherence. Working again with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who also shot Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth), the Safdies favor extreme, unsteady close-ups, the camera hovering near the characters’ faces like a drunken dermatologist. Some might call this approach intimate. I’d call it a mess.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Logan Lucky: Robbing That Racetrack, and Maybe Stealing Your Heart

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver plan a robbery in "Logan Lucky"
Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) regaling his 10-year-old daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), about the creation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It’s a colorful tale, complete with serendipitous car crashes and an all-night jam session, and Sadie asks her father if he perhaps admires the classic ballad because of the story behind its genesis. Jimmy responds that, while he appreciates the ditty’s backstory, that isn’t what makes it special. “I like the song because of the song,” he says.

It’s a sweet, disarming scene, quickly establishing the film’s gentle and laid-back vibe, but for cinephiles, it takes on a meta context. Those of us who mourned Soderbergh’s announcement in 2013—that, after releasing two movies that year (the slightly overrated Behind the Candelabra and the decidedly underrated Side Effects), he was retiring from filmmaking—could be forgiven for cherishing Logan Lucky simply because it heralds the return of one of American cinema’s most gifted and versatile directors. But while I’m delighted to have Soderbergh back in theaters (during his so-called retirement, he made two seasons of The Knick for Cinemax), my appreciation of Logan Lucky doesn’t stem primarily from him ending his self-imposed hiatus. To paraphrase Jimmy: I like the movie because of the movie.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wind River: Danger in a Strange Land

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner hunt a killer in "Wind River"
The chill runs bone-deep in Wind River, the astute and mournful second feature from Taylor Sheridan. After penning two electric screenplays that sweltered in the suffocating Southwest heat, the actor-turned-writer-turned-director has turned his gaze north and flipped his thermometer upside-down. Taking place on the titular Indian reservation in Wyoming (filming took place in Utah), Sheridan’s newest movie is cold and stark, the snow blanketing its landscapes and its characters like a paralytic force. The opening shot, of a teenage girl racing barefoot across a frozen plain in the dead of night, will make you shiver. Don’t expect to warm up anytime soon.

Not that Wind River is emotionally icy or remote. Quite the contrary; it’s a lively crime picture that’s also unusually elegiac, as interested in grief as it is in thrills. Sheridan’s protagonists may be ruthless—Benicio Del Toro’s vengeful assassin in Sicario can still trigger nightmares, while Ben Foster’s wolfish reprobate in Hell or High Water gunned down innocents without hesitation—but they are also motivated by anger and loss. Wind River’s hero, a Fish and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert, is a literal hunter, a killing machine with a rifle on his back and a hole in his heart.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Detroit: Black and White and Dead All Over

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit"
Detroit opens with a police raid on an African-American nightclub, an edgy incursion that concludes with dozens of black patrons being forcibly loaded into paddy wagons. The movie, which takes place in 1967, was released in theaters on July 28, 2017. That same day, the President of the United States said this:

So, yes: In an era where virtually every American movie feels unnervingly topical—from franchise films to alien adventures to romantic comediesDetroit resonates even more than most. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it rakes up considerable muck, tackling two intertwined issues—endemic racism and police brutality—with unapologetic frankness. This relevance almost automatically makes Detroit worth seeing; it’s rare for a film to firmly exist in both past and present at once. But if you can set aside its political significance (not that you should, of course), what emerges is a strange, decidedly uneven movie. Helmed by a filmmaker renowned for her precision, Detroit is oddly undisciplined, chaotic, even flabby. Yet it is also, at least during its extended central passage, a gripping, nightmarish tale of sweaty panic and helpless inevitability. It doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going, but it sure shakes you up in the process of getting there.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde: She's a Lady, and a Killer

Charlize Theron is cool as ice in "Atomic Blonde"
These boots are made for kicking in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s sexy, overstuffed actioner of new-age kineticism and carefully curated retro cool. Forged of tactile black leather and stretching what seems like acres up to their subject’s knee, the boots adorn the statuesque body of Charlize Theron, that South African goddess with a 14-year-old Oscar and a newfound thirst for blood. As a one-armed warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showcased a bristling physicality that meshed nicely with her more classical qualities. She has all of her limbs back in Atomic Blonde, and good thing too, since she does roughly as much talking with her fists—and those boots—as with her mouth.

If anything, there’s too much dialogue in Atomic Blonde, which tends to stall whenever its heroine isn’t in slick, liquid motion. Adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300—you get what you pay for) piles on the spy-speak and the Bournean intrigue, layering the busy plot with triple agents, double-crosses, and a single ungainly framing device. It isn’t incomprehensible, exactly, but Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick before departing its sequel to make this film, has little use for all this blather. He’s much more interested in cranking up the music—the post-punk-heavy soundtrack here feels like the offspring of a union between The Americans and Deutschland 83—and unleashing his leading lady as an unstoppable force of lithe, purposeful destruction.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dunkirk: War Is Breathtaking Hell

Soldiers swim to rescue in Christopher Nolan's staggering "Dunkirk"
There have been bloodier war movies—grisly productions committed to depicting the visceral horror as bullets tear through flesh. And there have been more provocative war movies, those that reenact armed conflict to make a political statement on its nobility or its lunacy. But there has never been, in my estimation, a war movie of such relentless, gripping intensity as Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s stunning World War II epic. The adjective “white-knuckle” has wilted into cliché, but as someone who spent the majority of this film with his fists clenched in involuntary apprehension, allow me to offer a word of advice: Before seeing Dunkirk, clip your nails. Otherwise, you’re liable to tear them right off.

The sheer magnitude of Dunkirk feels unprecedented, but it’s in keeping with a director who has made a career of smuggling brainy, stimulating ideas inside packages of overpowering brawn. Size matters to Nolan, and not just in the way you might think. Yes, Dunkirk is a gigantic film, shot extensively on 65-millimeter IMAX cameras, which help convey the enormity of its scale. (For the record, I watched the film projected in non-IMAX 70mm, though I intend to make a trip to the IMAX for round two.) But even as he’s painting on a sprawling canvas—showing you the vastness of a beach, the infinite reach of an ocean—Nolan is simultaneously compressing the carnage, paradoxically resulting in an expansive claustrophobia. Consider an early scene on the title city’s famous coastline: Thousands of soldiers scattered along its sands freeze in unison, their ears picking up the faint whine of an approaching German bomber. The horizon seems endless, but there’s nowhere to go. As the plane zooms past overhead, all they can do is flatten their bodies and cross their fingers.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: No More Monkeying Around

Andy Serkis' Caesar is on a mission in "War for the Planet of the Apes"
Columns of soldiers goose-step in perfect rhythm, staring upward with reverence at their messianic leader. Behind them, enslaved prisoners, chained and starving, lug giant blocks of stone, piling them into a towering wall. A flag, emblazoned with religious symbolism, hangs firmly alongside an embankment, like gang colors marking territory. The loudspeakers blare an anthem, and the foot soldiers unleash a thunderous war cry.

You might think, from this bleak and jingoistic description, that I’m discussing a documentary on the Third Reich. But the anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and the flag is colored red, white, and blue. So when the leader orders his zealots to purge the world of an inferior race, he isn’t just marshaling his troops for battle. He’s putting America first.

Such is the chilling subtext of War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ tense, bracing new saga of conflict and community. As you can gather, the politics on display here are not exactly subtle, even if their allegorical impact may be more acute than intended. (Shooting took place well before the 2016 presidential election.) But while the film’s nationalist rhetoric and iconography may feel distressingly plausible, they are not the movie’s primary draw. No, what makes War for the Planet of the Apes so successful is that it’s a genuinely thrilling action movie, replete with exhilarating combat sequences and grand adventure. Had it been released ten years ago, it would still feel essential, getting both your blood pumping and—in more of a surprise—your tear ducts flowing.