Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Post: Stop the Presses, or Else

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg's "The Post"
Describe The Post in terms of its plot, and you risk making it sound like a bore. Here is a based-in-fact film about a band of huffy journalists who squabble with a cadre of wussy pencil-pushers about whether to publish a newspaper article; these are not typically the raw materials of exciting drama. Yet because we currently live in a society where the government openly wages war on the press, The Post is one of the most important political movies of our time. And because it has been directed by Steven Spielberg, it is also one of our most enjoyable.

In recognizing the former, one should be careful not to ignore the latter. The unnerving topicality of The Post threatens to overshadow just how effortlessly it works as a piece of cinema, how sharply crafted and exquisitely performed it is. Employing his characteristic care and vigor, Spielberg has almost imperceptibly transformed the film’s bustling narrative—a thicket of murky backroom meetings, lavish dinner parties, and complex legal proceedings—into a rousing and supremely entertaining production. Contemporary circumstances may have rendered The Post regrettably relevant, but this movie would be a delight to watch regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Call Me by Your Name: One Lazy Summer, a Dance of Desire

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in "Call Me by Your Name"
“So what do you do around here?” Oliver asks Elio early in Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s feverish, unusual love story. In response, the 17-year-old ticks off a number of banal activities—he reads, he swims, he parties—but his answer basically amounts to, “Not much.” Over the course of its 132-minute running time, Call Me by Your Name stirs up a broad array of emotions—desire, heartache, anger, elation, grief—but what it perhaps evokes most effectively is that ineffable state of boyhood restlessness, the feeling of being suspended in a cocoon where nothing of consequence ever happens. Elio is something of an intellectual and musical prodigy (“Is there anything you don’t know?” an amused Oliver asks), but as the movie opens, he is nevertheless waiting for his life to begin.

By the time the film ends, he’ll have undergone a transformative experience that will feel largely familiar to enthusiasts of coming-of-age cinema. Yet while Call Me by Your Name travels well-covered narrative terrain, it is not exactly typical. It is, in essence, a strange telling of a normal story. In chronicling the standard tale of a young man discovering himself, Guadagnino has retained the basic elements but altered them, glazing them with a peculiar finish that mixes awkwardness with compassion. To watch the film is to feel by turns frustrated, surprised, confused, and blissful—you know, kind of like falling in love.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Darkest Hour: Taking Power, Then Feeling Powerless

Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill in Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour"
Let us dispense immediately with the obvious and unfortunate comparison: Darkest Hour is no Dunkirk. It isn’t designed to be, of course; Joe Wright’s terse examination of Winston Churchill’s tumultuous ascension to Prime Minister is styled as an informative docudrama and a thoughtful character study, not an epic war film. Still, it’s rotten luck for Wright’s movie that it opened a mere four months after Christopher Nolan’s, given that the gap in intensity between the two films equates roughly to the length of the English Channel. It’s tempting to suggest pairing them as a double feature—after all, both chronicle the fateful events of Europe in May of 1940, albeit from opposite sides of the Channel—but in the wake of the pulverizing heroics of Dunkirk, the political brawls of Darkest Hour feel more like a palette cleanser, or maybe a sleeping pill.

Again, this (dis)similarity is not Darkest Hour’s fault. And while it’s unlikely to get anyone’s pulse racing, this modest movie sports its own elegant pleasures, chief among them affirmation of its director’s silky cinematic talents. Ever since his feature debut (the deeply underrated Pride & Prejudice), Wright has demonstrated a knack for wielding classical tools—camera placement, composition, lighting—in ways that feel invigorating rather than staid. His formidable abilities are again on display here, operating with a visual panache that does wonders to enliven his wobbly, predictable narrative. In Wright’s hands, shafts of sunlight and swirls of shadow become characters in their own right, turning every frame of the film into its own gorgeously told micro-story. There’s always something stunning to see on screen in Darkest Hour, even if you’re also invariably just watching crusty old men argue.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Molly's Game: Shoving All-In, with Her Cards and Her Soul

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Aaron Sorkin's "Molly's Game"
Molly’s Game is about an obscenely intelligent drug addict who wields her intellect and verbal dexterity to achieve professional fortune and personal satisfaction. Which drug addict, you might ask? The film’s protagonist is Molly Bloom, the so-called “Poker Princess” who ran outrageously high-stakes games of Texas hold ’em for movie stars, hedge fund managers, socialites, and other reprobates. But scrub the gender-specific pronoun from the description, and we could just as easily be talking about Aaron Sorkin, the uber-literate Oscar-winner who battled substance abuse on his way to becoming one of America’s most recognizable and divisive wordsmiths. It’s easy to see what attracted Sorkin to Bloom, and to perceive Molly’s Game—his crackling, robustly entertaining directorial debut—as a kind of cracked-mirror self-portrait, as well as a flick about a babe with brains.

Yet even if Molly’s Game is in part a stealth vanity project for Sorkin, it also functions as a well-calibrated response to one of the most common complaints lobbed against him: his inability to write strong roles for women. With her sky-high stilettos and low-cut cocktail dresses (“the Cinemax version of myself”), Molly can occasionally suggest a male screenwriter’s fantasy of feminine sexuality—in fact, she makes this very point to one of her clients who pathetically confesses his love for her—but she is too forceful a presence to be reduced to a mere object. Brought to flaring, ferocious life by Jessica Chastain, Molly reveals herself as a number of things over the course of the movie—a manipulator, a visionary, a lamb, a lioness—but in no way is she a minor player.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: As a New Hope Emerges, an Old Fight Rages On

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"
For all its deafening noise and frantic activity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens concluded with a quiet and surprisingly stirring image: the aspiring Jedi named Rey (Daisy Ridley) tentatively approaching the long-vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, as if you didn’t already know), reaching out to offer him his cherished lightsaber. It was a tantalizing ending, one that sent Star Wars fans—a sect that, according to the box-office receipts, appears to constitute most of the known world—into a state of delirious anticipation that has persisted for two full years. So it is difficult to exaggerate the audacity with which The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga (excluding the standalone Rogue One), chooses to resume this fateful encounter set on the verdant island planet of Ahch-To. Rather than expressing gratitude or even curiosity toward Rey’s arrival, Luke simply accepts the weapon, grimaces, and promptly flings it over a cliff.

This is a hilarious scene, a swift and brutal undercutting of fans’ long-gestating expectations. Yet it also symbolizes the refreshing streak of independence that Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi’s fearless writer and director, has brought to cinema’s most gargantuan franchise. The Force Awakens was a fun and spirited adventure, but it also felt somewhat safe, J.J. Abrams carefully returning the enterprise to the tracks that George Lucas’ (unfairly) maligned prequels so gleefully leapt off. The Last Jedi, by contrast, is a more interesting and exciting movie, flawed in its own ways but charged with genuine unpredictability and risk. In taking the reins from Abrams, Johnson pledges fealty to no one—not even Star Wars fans.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Shape of Water: A Tale of Monsters, and a Creature Too

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water"
It’s tempting to call The Shape of Water a monster movie, given that it revolves around the mysterious arrival of an amphibious fish-man—an imposing humanoid creature with slimy, mottled skin, webbed hands, and a nasty temper. And indeed, this inspired whatsit from Guillermo del Toro is replete with disturbing images and ghoulish presences: severed, decomposing fingers; a mutilated housecat; nefarious Russian communists; Michael Shannon’s sneer. Yet while The Shape of Water is suitably invigorating—as he demonstrated in Crimson Peak, del Toro knows how to set a mood and build suspense—it isn’t really a fright flick. It isn’t really any single type of movie, in fact, preferring to hopscotch across genres with dexterous fluidity. The result is a delicate, beguiling film that’s simultaneously familiar and original; you’ve seen the various pieces before, but you’ve never seen them assembled quite like this.

Some of them fit together better than others. A playful and enthusiastic remodeler of classic movies, del Toro takes evident delight in braiding together seemingly conflicting strains of stories; his last feature, the robot-kaiju mash-up Pacific Rim, was basically $190 million worth of giant toys crashing against one another, an appealing idea marred by uncharacteristically poor execution. The Shape of Water is a gentler, more thoughtful picture, but it still shows some seams from where its director has stitched its disparate elements together. As an underdog caper and a spy thriller, it’s entertaining without being especially exciting. But as a romantic fantasy, it largely soars.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Revenge, Best Served at a Simmer, Then a Boil

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer"
Weirdness is Yorgos Lanthimos’ calling card. His breakout film, Dogtooth, was about three homeschooled adult children who were so shielded from the outside world, they didn’t understand the concept of names and they perceived housecats as deadly animals; that’s weird. His follow-up, Alps, tracked a troupe of performers who interrogated the critically injured as they died, then impersonated them for their families; that’s also weird. And his best movie, last year’s The Lobster, took place in a dystopian society where singles who failed to find romantic mates were transformed into animals; that’s very weird. So it’s something of a shock that The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’ punishing and baffling and routinely astonishing new film, arrives bearing no hallmarks of obvious strangeness.  It’s set in a Cincinnati suburb. It focuses on a happy and healthy nuclear family. Its characters attend casual barbecues and black-tie functions. Nobody kills a cat, and nobody gets turned into a dog. Has Lanthimos, our foremost purveyor of allegorical absurdity, lost his edge?

Hardly. Not that this movie, which is one of the more harrowing features I’ve seen in several years, is a sneaky bait-and-switch. Despite its ostensible banality—its tree-lined streets and sterile hospitals, its family dinners and choir practices—The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t trying to lull you into complacency. Lanthimos may be unsparing toward his characters, but he plays fair with his audience. He announces his severity with his strikingly grotesque opening shot: a close-up of a man’s open chest cavity, his heart thump-thumping like a ghastly metronome. The camera gradually pulls back, revealing the hands of a doctor snipping flesh, and as the horns of a Schubert oratorio blare on the soundtrack, Lanthimos makes plain that he’s out for blood.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco: The Music Is Lively, and So are the Dead

A young boy finds stardom and death in Pixar's "Coco"
Part ticking-clock thriller, part throwback musical, part family weepie, Pixar’s Coco strikes a smart balance between new-age innovation and old-fashioned storytelling. It lacks the creative virtuosity of the studio’s greatest works: the shimmering grandeur of Finding Nemo, the emotional sophistication of Inside Out, the bravura silence of Wall-E. But while Pixar may have previously set the bar for family-friendly entertainment to be unfathomably high, it’s unfair to measure each studio’s new release against its past triumphs. Judged on its own terms, Coco is an agile and rollicking children’s film, mingling spirited action and characteristically stunning technique with wholesome sentimentality. It’s tier-two Pixar, which is another way of saying it’s pretty damn good.

It’s also beautiful, which should go without saying. Visual magnificence is a quality that we take for granted in Pixar productions—it’s simply a matter of appreciating the newest details and the whimsical flourishes within the richly textured environments and limber animation. Coco conjures a world of dazzling luminosity and ceaseless invention: arcing bridges made of bright-orange flower petals; an electric-blue swimming pool in the shape of a guitar; a skylit district of pulsating buildings, threaded together by spiraling staircases and curved viaducts. The characters, meanwhile, move with exquisite dexterity, their wonderfully expressive faces matching the well-pitched vocal performances. The people in this movie look and sound decidedly alive, which is curious, given that most of them are also dead.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Lady Bird: Desperate to Leave the Nest, But Still Learning to Fly

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird"
There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment late in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s funny and piercing and achingly humane directorial debut, that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s warmth and lucidity. Christine, the tempestuous teenager at the center of Lady Bird who insists that everyone refer to her by the film’s title, is repainting her bedroom. As a ribbon of white varnish rolls over the formerly pink wallpaper, it obliterates the printed names of two boys that Lady Bird had previously scrawled into the wall. Those names, which once filled Lady Bird with ardent longing, have been erased, the desires they inspired living on only as relics of her own memory. The implications are plain: Time passes. People change. And life—forgive me if you’ve heard this before—goes on.

Movies, however, must end. Yet when the final frame of Lady Bird cut to black, I was not ready to be done with it. I preferred to linger a few moments longer in the finely textured world that Gerwig had conjured with such candor, intelligence, and care. Perhaps I was simply overpowered—by the film’s sincerity, by its humor, by its grace—but I like to think that I was expressing fidelity to one of the clichéd-but-undeniable truths that this movie articulates with such heartbreaking clarity: When you love someone, it is hard to let them go.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: To Catch a Killer, with Instincts and Interviews

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express"
The concept of a whodunit set on a train carries with it a tantalizing geometric contradiction. Trains are rigid vehicles, traveling robotically along a designated pathway with no room for deviation or improvisation. Mysteries, by contrast, zig and zag, circling around and doubling back along pronged avenues of key clues, red herrings, and dramatic twists. Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh’s sleek but staid transliteration of Agatha Christie’s much-adapted novel, seeks to mine the tension inherent in this incongruity, lumping a dozen-odd suspects and one dead body inside the claustrophobic confines of an immobilized caravan. It’s a suspenseful setting, but it serves as scaffolding for a disappointingly bloodless and familiar story. You know the drill: Everyone is a suspect, nobody can be trusted, and freighted expository flashbacks are just around the bend.

Our conductor on this less-than-thrilling ride is Kenneth Branagh, the stately Irish actor who often moonlights as a mercurial director. (In addition to a number of Shakespeare productions, he has helmed a Marvel movie, a Tom Clancy adventure, and updates of both Frankenstein and Cinderella.) He pulls double duty here, showcasing his knack for filming panoramic vistas while also hamming it up as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous and ingenious detective. (Previously essayed on the big screen by both Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, Poirot is probably most recognizable in the form of David Suchet, who played the sleuth for 24 years on British TV.) Donning a flamboyant Belgian accent and a mesmerizing handlebar mustache that a taxidermist must have pruned from Kurt Russell’s exhumed Hateful Eight corpse, Branagh’s Poirot is a savant who, much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, is not especially modest about his own intellect. “I am probably the greatest detective in the world,” he declares to a roomful of gobsmacked observers; one suspects he added the adverb as a mere courtesy.