Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Holiday movie roundup: The Big Short; James White; Joy

The holiday season is a time for gifts, and in 2015, the multiplex delivered its usual assortment of delightful treasures and lumps of coal. Due to time and space constraints (OK, mostly time), the Manifesto is providing shortened, capsule-like reviews for the numerous theatrical releases we saw during the holidays. We'll begin with three movies today, followed by an additional three next week.

Let's dive right in, beginning with a comedy about utter disaster.

The Big Short
The Big Short is a docudrama about a dark time in recent American history, when millions of people lost their homes, their jobs, and their faith. Did I mention that it's a comedy? That seems absurd, but cognitive dissonance is this movie's stock in trade, and it proves an appropriate response to an insane situation. Director Adam McKay (best known for Anchorman, plus some lesser Will Ferrell comedies), adapting Michael Lewis's best-selling book, recognizes that humor is the perfect mechanism for conveying outrage. The Big Short is a laugh riot, but it is also a screed, coursing with fury and indignation. It makes you laugh, but its primary purpose—its reason for assembling such a bevy of cinematic talent into a movie about something as dry as financial markets—is to make you angry.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens: Getting the Cantina Band Back Together, with New Faces at the Fore

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens"
Amid all the majestic sights and sounds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the dogfights and lightshows, the exotic environments and the aircraft careening through outer space—no image hits harder than that of a stormtrooper's helmet smeared with blood. That shot, which comes during an otherwise typical firefight early in the film, clubs you with the force of a wampa ice creature, and it establishes that director J.J. Abrams is invested in bringing the humanity back to this towering franchise, with its legions of fans and its box-office dominion. The Force Awakens is as loud and actively busy as any Star Wars movie—this is the series' seventh episode, in case you needed reminding—but it's also rooted in its characters, trading George Lucas's unparalleled mastery of action (and utter disinterest in actors) for some good old-fashioned storytelling. Obi-Wan Kenobi once remarked (somewhat infamously) that stormtroopers shoot straight. Abrams shows us that they bleed.

And so do filmmakers. The digital effects of The Force Awakens are impressively invisible, but you can still see the sweat that Abrams poured into this production, the heartfelt labor of a true fanboy. He's undertaken quite the challenge, tasked both with servicing the masses of ticket-buyers who consider Star Wars their personal property and with propelling the franchise forward into uncharted space. It's a line he straddles with extreme caution, but he mostly gets it right. The Force Awakens is not the best Star Wars movie, nor is it the most dazzling. But it remains a sturdy, highly satisfying production that flashes glimmers of true greatness, and it skillfully advances the series' mythology while simultaneously reuniting us with old friends long gone. This may not be the work of a Jedi master—Abrams is more of a tinkerer than a virtuoso—but then, it's the everymen who made Star Wars so appealing in the first place.

Friday, December 18, 2015

From Clone Wars to Death Stars: Ranking the First Six Star Wars Movies

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back"
I like the Star Wars movies.

That may appear to be a banal assertion of preference—after all, every cinephile makes it his business to like or dislike individual motion pictures—but nothing involving this behemoth of a franchise is ever quite so simple. To be sure, Star Wars is deeply embedded into our divisive popular culture, and there are undoubtedly two distinct camps of moviegoers who classify as fans or non-fans. But for the former, what exactly are we fans of? At times, it feels like George Lucas's saga of good and evil has morphed from a sextet of discrete films into an altogether different beast, a shape-shifting leviathan of toys and memes and videogames and literary spinoffs and special editions and virulent fan petitions. This is a perfectly happy consequence of the series' success, and I don't begrudge my brethren (OK, and myself) from using their passion to transform a half-dozen films into the cultural equivalent of an AT-AT, implacably marching toward its goal (merchandising!) and crushing everything in its path. At the same time, the franchise has grown so monolithic that it's become increasingly difficult to evaluate the Star Wars movies as, well, movies.

I am hardly immune to this phenomenon. As with many men (and plenty of women) of a certain age, I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, which was a staple of my childhood (and, almost assuredly, a harbinger of my cinematic taste). But because I came to the franchise so young, I didn't watch the original trilogy so much as absorb it, to the point that it simply became a strain of my movie-viewing DNA. To wit, I don't even remember when I first saw the Holy Trilogy (though I do remember how—my father dutifully recorded the first three films from their HBO broadcasts onto VHS tapes before such practice was popular). And I certainly don't remember experiencing what I've now learned to be one of cinema's all-time most stunning reveals: that [redacted] is [redacted's] [redacted]. That was simply a piece of information that I grew up knowing, like my home address or Ty Cobb's career batting average. The three much-maligned prequels, which I actually watched in the theater in high school and college, are of course different, but I still inevitably filtered them through my childhood conception of the first three films.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Creed: With a Legend in His Corner, a Young Man Enters the Ring

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in "Creed", a sequel to "Rocky"
The main character of Creed is an aspiring boxer striving to make a name for himself, and to evade the giant shadow cast by his father, a former legend of the sport. And Creed itself is on a similar mission. This movie, which was directed by Ryan Coogler from a script he co-wrote with Aaron Covington, is the sequel to Rocky, the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976 and one of the most beloved sports films of all time. (Technically, it's the sixth such sequel, but let's forget about those intervening installments for the moment.) That fact poses a monumental challenge for Creed: It must pay tribute to its predecessor while also standing as its own, fully realized creation. That it passes the first test is no great feat; as soon as Sylvester Stallone eases into the frame, shoulders sagging from the weight of playing the American icon that defined his career, the film instantly connects with its cinematic ancestor. What is more surprising—and more satisfying—is how Creed establishes itself as an enjoyable boxing movie in its own right. It doesn't break much new ground, but it doesn't need to. Like its hero, it relies on a combination of agility and determination to deliver a rousing experience that is simultaneously comforting and exhilarating.

As its title suggests, Creed is not primarily about Stallone's Rocky Balboa, the Italian-American prizefighter who captured the hearts of Philadelphia (and the rest of the country) 39 years ago. Its protagonist is instead Donnie Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan, the former television actor from The Wire and Friday Night Lights who finally broke out two years ago in Coogler's earnest drama, Fruitvale Station. Donnie is a bright young man who works a desk job at an unspecified Los Angeles corporation, where he has just earned a promotion. Despite his relative success, his heart isn't in finance, and he moonlights as a boxer in Tijuana, where he routinely pummels opponents at seedy underground rings. That's where we first meet Donnie as an adult (the film begins with a quick prologue that illustrates his penchant for roughhousing as a child), the camera approaching him cautiously from behind, observing the muscles rippling down his back as he psychs himself up before delivering a brisk, savage beatdown of an unworthy foe. As soon as Donnie lands the knockout blow, he starts to remove his gloves before the fight is even called, a silent indicator of both his talent and his arrogance.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Good Dinosaur: Lost Lizard, Seeking Family, Finds a Friend

A giant lizard and his boy, in Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur"
To say that The Good Dinosaur is a mediocre Pixar movie is to praise it with faint damnation. For the past 20 years, the pioneers of computer-generated animation have been churning out imaginative, provocative entertainments on a regular basis, with nary a dud in the bunch; hell, the studio released a stunning masterpiece on the human condition just five months ago. So if you find yourself grumbling that this latest entry fails to climb to the extraordinary heights of Pixar's (now owned by Disney) greatest films, remember that we grade these movies on a curve. An easygoing charmer, The Good Dinosaur may not be as transcendent as Wall-E or Finding Nemo—in fact, it doesn't come close. But it remains a durable and intermittently astonishing work, with typically splendorous animation and an emotionally satisfying third act. Two decades ago, Toy Story rewrote the playbook on how animated movies can be made. The Good Dinosaur is less revolutionary—it plays by the rules—but its by-the-book approach has its own gentle appeal.

The film boasts a tantalizing premise that seems novel, until you realize it's just window-dressing for a typical lost-boy narrative. It ponders a scenario, conveyed economically during a silent prologue, where the meteorite destined to wipe out the dinosaurs actually missed the Earth, resulting in a planet where giant lizards and humans coexist. That universe is rife with possibilities—one of which, sheer disaster, formed the backbone of the biggest-grossing movie of 2015—but the primary characters are essentially dinosaurs in name only. The hero is Arlo (voiced, in an irritating whine, by Raymond Ochoa), an anthropomorphized apatosaurus (think brontosaurus, but with a longer neck) and the runt of a family of mild-mannered herbivores. They live a peaceful farming life on a sun-dappled field that's only a shade removed from Little House on the Prairie. Arlo's father (Jeffrey Wright) is a stoic but warmhearted patriarch, while his mother (Frances McDormand) is a cliché of maternal kindness. Arlo himself is somewhat useless, too weak to perform hard labor and too fearful to stop small pests from harming the crops. Arlo's perpetual petrifaction prevents him from "making his mark", which, as his father tritely explains, involves planting a muddy footprint on the side of a corn silo.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — The Revolution Is Being Propagandized

Natalie Dormer directs Jennifer Lawrence in the final installment of "The Hunger Games"
The Hunger Games is a franchise about progress. It chronicles a revolution, in which the effectively enslaved rise up against the ruling class, striving to topple a ruthless system of oppression and install a more democratic form of government. It is bitterly ironic, then, that each successive movie in the series has been progressively worse than its predecessor. The original Hunger Games, based on the first of Suzanne Collins's three taut novels, was a bracing dystopian drama, hypnotically terrifying in its assured depiction of a society that used children for blood sport. It was a feat that the first sequel, Catching Fire, largely repeated—it lacked the initial installment's spark but compensated with craft. The third movie, continuing an artistically dubious but commercially inviolable studio practice, covered roughly half of Collins's final book, Mockingjay; it struggled to infuse energy into relatively lifeless material, but it nevertheless had its virtues, with strong performances from a phenomenal cast and an electric final 20 minutes.

And now we've come to the end with Mockingjay, Part 2, which ought to bring the franchise to a bold and powerful conclusion. Instead, this fourth and final film feels woefully inert, not only lacking in excitement and intrigue, but also missing the reliable filmmaking competence that suffused the prior entries. It's as if the director, Francis Lawrence, who has helmed each of the three sequels (the original was made by the enigmatic Gary Ross), simply became too exhausted with the labor of transmuting Collins's terse prose into moving pictures. The most damning thing about Mockingjay 2 isn't that it's bad—it's that it feels so tired. The franchise may have its faults, but it galvanized a legion of teenagers with its punchy themes and robust storytelling. It deserved better than to go out with such a pitiful whimper.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Brooklyn: Welcome to the United States. Now Start Your Life.

Saoirse Ronan, center, as an Irish immigrant in John Crowley's soaring "Brooklyn"
Brooklyn is a movie about an immigrant seeking a modest life on America's rocky shores. In these tumultuous times, that alone makes it an interesting artifact. But while it is a thoroughly global production—it was directed by the Irishman John Crowley from a screenplay by the English writer Nick Hornby, adapting a book by Irish novelist Colm Toibin, and it is being distributed here by the American studio Fox Searchlight—it is not concerned with current political or social issues. In fact, it has little interest in contemporary complexities at all. On the contrary, Brooklyn—with its period setting, its classical warmth, its swooning simplicity—is proudly, almost brazenly old-fashioned.

That is a dangerous label to apply to a movie, one that suggests either snobbish nostalgia ("They don't make 'em like they used to!") or sneering modernism ("Old movies are so dated!"). But Brooklyn is neither a strained tribute to pictures of the past nor a wistful critique of the uncertainties of the present. It is instead its own creature: funny, tender, a little bit treacly, and entirely true. At its core, Brooklyn is about nothing more than a woman searching for happiness. Watching it, you will have no struggle finding the same.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spotlight: Inside the Confessional, Abuse Reigns, and a Story Beckons

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton, and John Slattery get to work in "Spotlight"
Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's meticulous and provocative reconstruction of the Boston Globe's exposé of systemic abuse within the Catholic Church, is an investigative drama about a newspaper. This essentially marks it as a double dinosaur. The journalism industry may not be extinct, but it is changing so rapidly—an ever-morphing mélange of instant reactions, hot takes, and online clickbait—that it scarcely resembles the model of old, when ravenous readers folded oversized pages and inked their hands with newsprint. And Spotlight itself, with its sprawling cast and its long, talky passages, is something of a throwback, an ode to the muckraking magnificence of All the President's Men. Yet it would be a mistake to perceive this fleet, largely exhilarating film as a mere exercise in halcyon-tinged nostalgia. It is too persuasive, too urgent, to function simply as tribute. Spotlight may dredge up horrors of the past, but its ethos—a near-primal insistence on the eternal value of hard work and nose-to-the-grindstone reporting—renders it thoroughly present.

Following an unnecessary cold open set in the late '70s, the movie begins in July 2001, at the drab, messily adorned offices of the Globe. The title refers to the paper's four-person investigative team, spearheaded by editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), and staffed by reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). It operates as a quasi-independent pod, supplementing the Globe's daily coverage with longer, more exhaustive pieces. The stories are designed to be hard-hitting, but they also require months of scrupulous research, and when Robby explains the process to his new superior, incoming editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), he is met with a raised eyebrow. Periodicals need to report the news, but they also need to make money, and a question hangs in the air about the sustainability of this old-fashioned, low-output research squad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Spectre: Secret Agent Man, Haunted by His Past

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond, Agent 007, in "Spectre"
James Bond may be a spy, but he's also a known quantity. Britain's most daring and debonair secret agent has been gliding cavalierly across movie screens for the past half-century, consistently dazzling us with his savvy and his pluck, even as we have grown accustomed to his nonchalant displays of implausible superheroism. The sheer volume of the Bond canon—23 films, some inevitably better than others, but all adhering more or less to the same basic template—makes the prospect of a new film featuring Agent 007 both challenging and liberating. It is difficult by now to impress us, we who have watched Bond consistently outfight and outwit his foes, whether via car or plane or parachute. But familiarity can breed opportunity as well as contempt, and recent Bond pictures have illustrated the franchise's capacity for growth, even as they have dutifully paid homage to their forebears.

Spectre, the fourth James Bond movie to star Daniel Craig (and the second directed by Sam Mendes, following his superb Skyfall), is both the most traditional and the most ambitious of his quartet. It conforms to the established formula with jovial style, bombarding us with outlandish action sequences, beautiful women, luxury cars, and exotic locations. But it also attempts to serve as a conclusion of sorts, a culmination of the franchise rebooting cultivated by the first three Craig-led pictures. The aspiration may be admirable, but the results are decidedly less so. As a classic Bond movie, Spectre is perfectly adequate, a collection of reasonably impressive moments that do little to distinguish themselves from prior entries. But as a piece of serialized storytelling, it is startlingly misguided, a poorly judged attempt to retcon the previous films into the building blocks of a larger scheme. Spectre raises itself up as the Big Bad, but it really just brings the Craig era to its low point.

Friday, November 6, 2015

From Dr. No to Skyfall: Ranking Every James Bond Movie

Daniel Craig as James Bond, Agent 007, in "Skyfall"
For most of the franchise's 53-year history, the James Bond films have been less like movies than systematically engineered products. Ian Fleming's haughty secret agent was never meant to be a superstar—his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, is a brisk and brutal affair, lacking the humor and insouciance that came to define the films—but after the success of Dr. No in 1962, the producers quickly realized they had a hot property on their hands, and they gradually grew it like they were cultivating a bumper crop. Every Bond movie is nominally different, but most conform to the same winning formula, marrying outlandish action with winking charm and faux sophistication. The series' sheer predictability is part of its point; there is an enjoyable sense of familiarity to each new entry, a feeling of participation as you wait for it to dutifully hit all of the expected beats. And there is also pleasure in seeing how different directors attempt to rearrange the same essential ingredients—the megalomaniacal villain with his invincible henchman; the hot babe with the cheesy name; the vehicular mayhem; the gadgetry and the globe-trotting; the shaken-not-stirred martinis and the groaning double entendres; the mannered introduction of "Bond, James Bond"—into a different action-adventure stew. The pop-star-powered ballads that play over the ornate opening credits may change, but the song remains the same.

At least, it did. Over the past decade, the Bond movies have indeed changed, and not just because Daniel Craig is blue-eyed and blond. They still follow the same basic template, but where earlier Bond films felt weightless and carefree, the three most recent installments have been darker and heavier, grounded in more recognizable human emotions and wrestling with the distinctly grave notions of fallibility and loss. Agent 007 remains the most supremely sophisticated spy in the land, but Craig plays him with an alarming lethality and gravity that are new to the series. This rebooted Bond still sips martinis, but he also struggles with the taste of blood.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Room: Within Four Walls, Two Lives Unfold

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson, in "Room"
The boy lives with his Ma in Room. Not the room, not a room—just Room. To preface the proper noun with an article is to suggest the possibility of other rooms, different rooms. But there is only Room: Four walls, a ceiling with Skylight, and beyond that Outer Space and Heaven. That is all there is. That is the world.

A harrowing, heartbreaking drama from Lenny Abrahamson, Room is a film of many virtues—superlative acting, tender writing, enormous feeling—but its greatest achievement is immersing its audience into the boy's state of mind, articulating how he perceives this tiny, cloistered space that is his entire universe. The screenplay is by Emma Donoghue, adapting her novel, which she wrote from the perspective of the boy, named Jack (portrayed on screen by Jacob Tremblay, in an astonishing performance). Her script is a model of economy and minimalism; she supplies Jack with a few quick voiceovers that concisely set the scene, but otherwise, she and Abrahamson simply drop you into this strange, unsettling place and let you puzzle things out for yourself.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Steve Jobs: Thinking Different, and Big, and Mean

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender, and Kate Winslet star in Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs"
Steve Jobs was undeniably a great man, but was he a good one? That question, along with many others—What is the true purpose of technological innovation? Why did the Macintosh look like it was grinning? Is that really Kate Winslet?—is tackled forcefully and adroitly in Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle's exhausting, exhilarating biopic of Apple Computer's founding father. A portrait of an artist as an obsessive young man, this manic, mostly marvelous movie wisely sidesteps the unconquerable challenge of condensing Jobs's entire adult life into a two-hour film. But while its scope is sensibly narrow, Steve Jobs nevertheless allows you to glimpse the magnitude of its subject's vision, and to feel the intensity of his longing. It is not another generic movie about a tortured genius; it is wholly its own movie about this tortured genius.

Speaking of troubled smart people, the screenplay for Steve Jobs is by Aaron Sorkin, which practically makes it a clandestine autobiography. (In fact, it is a loose adaptation of a book by Walter Isaacson.) Perhaps America's preeminent wordsmith, Sorkin is renowned for creating characters who are brilliant, driven, and insufferable—you know, kind of like Aaron Sorkin. It's small wonder he wanted to write about Steve Jobs, who is portrayed here, in a fantastic performance by Michael Fassbender, as equal parts visionary, egomaniac, genius, and jerk. The German-born Irish actor, who appears in every scene in the film, is blessed with a colossal screen presence (recall his magnificently loathsome turn in 12 Years a Slave), and he is effortlessly hypnotic in front of the camera. But there is more to Fassbender's performance than sheer charisma—every narrowing of his eyes, every curl of his mouth, conveys a precise combination of intelligence and condescension. The Jobs we meet here isn't just a man with a prophetic plan; he's a higher power who's so convinced of his superiority, he can't help but look down on humanity with despair and disgust.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Crimson Peak: A Haunted House, Bleeding and Beautiful

Mia Wasikowska enters a haunted house in Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak"
Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is a frivolous, ravishing movie that invites a referendum on the very pleasures of moviegoing. This frustrating and satisfying film, which del Toro directed from a script he wrote with Matthew Robbins, is destined to divide audiences, not because it will elicit disputes over its quality, but because appreciation of it hinges entirely on the vagaries of subjective taste. Narrative purists who prioritize plotting and screenwriting above all else will doubtless be vexed by the clumsiness of its dialogue and the banality of its story. Formalists, however, will take rapture in its splendorous visuals and in the lush refinement of del Toro's craft. It is, in binary terms, either a terrible good movie or a magnificent bad movie.

Let's begin with the bad. From a storytelling standpoint, Crimson Peak is disappointingly rote, if not entirely dull. Set aside its fantastical prologue—in which a child is visited by the ghost of her newly dead mother, a black phantasm with spindly fingers who whispers gravely, "Beware of Crimson Peak"—and you might mistake it for a lavish period costume drama (if admittedly the first costume drama ever to take place in Buffalo). The year is 1891, and the object of attraction is the amusingly named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, persuasive as ever), the peculiar daughter of a pompous aristocrat, Carter (Deadwood's Jim Beaver). Edith is a bit like Cinderella without the wicked stepsiblings; she is mocked by the gentry for her oddness, even though she does draw the admiration of a handsome doctor (Charlie Hunnam, who headlined del Toro's Pacific Rim). A classic Jane Austen heroine, Edith is unlucky in love but spirited in life, and she brazenly channels her energy into the masculine pursuit of fiction writing.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bridge of Spies: In This Cold War, It's Chilliest Indoors

Tom Hanks stars as a lawyer over his head in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"
The protagonist of Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg's sage, supremely enjoyable Cold War thriller, doesn't much look like a hero. With his graying hair and natty wardrobe, his appearance suggests a man more comfortable on the golf course than the battlefield. He doesn't act like a hero either, not in the strictest sense of action; he never picks up a gun, and he spends half the movie sniffling, complaining about his cold. "I just want to go home and go to bed," he says, more than once. These are not words you expect to hear from the hero of a spy flick. But even if James B. Donovan is not the square-jawed archetype who anchors most war pictures, he is a profoundly heroic character, effortlessly earning your admiration even as he's quietly lifting your spirits. And Bridge of Spies itself is a sly, delightful piece of Spielbergian misdirection. Through the careful application of his typical late-period formula—namely, the combination of superb technique and wistful patriotism—Spielberg makes you feel, watching this film, as though you're bearing witness to something grand. The trick is that you are, even if you're also just listening to people talk.

Talk was the name of the game in the Cold War, a decades-long battle of bluster and braggadocio. Bridge of Spies instantly plugs into that atmosphere of boiling tension—the sense of constant threat, followed by perpetual inaction—during its brilliant, wordless opening sequence. A Brooklyn man picks up a ringing phone, listens impassively, then heads to the subway. A pair of FBI agents (including The Wire's Domenick Lombardozzi) cautiously tail him, then lose him, and then, in their frantic search to relocate him, literally run smack into him on a staircase. That was close! But in addition to serving as a wry piece of anticlimax, this non-chase sets the stage for the mounting anxiousness and fakery to come.

Friday, October 16, 2015

99 Homes: Lost Your House? Just Buy Another One.

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon grapple with evictions in "99 Homes"
George Carlin once famously scoffed, "Your house is just a place for your stuff." But to writer-director Ramin Bahrani, a house is something far more than that. Bahrani, whose previous films include the very good Goodbye Solo (about a gregarious cab driver connecting with his sullen fare) and the very bad At Any Price (about a farmer struggling to keep pace with his competition), makes movies about the existential plight of the common American man. His heroes are hardy, blue-collar folks who nobly toil at their labor while evading the wrath of pitiless institutions, seeking to do little more than provide for their families. That is why, to Bahrani, a house—or, more accurately, a home—is not simply a receptacle. It is instead a birthright, an important symbol of the foundational American dream and a sacred place of familial tradition and honor.

Which makes Rick Carver, the licensed real estate broker at the center of Bahrani's 99 Homes, something of a bad guy. Actually, that's being kind. In the context of 99 Homes, Rick is an utter reprobate, the embodiment of corporate greed and inhuman selfishness. We first meet Rick, who is portrayed with snarling relish by the great character actor Michael Shannon, in the film's electric opening shot, which begins in a bathroom where an anonymous man has just committed suicide via pistol; the camera then glides to Rick and follows him as he strolls through the deceased's house, barks unsympathetic orders to the sheriff, and heads out into the bright Florida sun before sliding into his luxury sedan. The suicide, we quickly learn, occurred after Rick informed the nominal homeowner that his house now belonged to the bank. Tragic, right? It's just another day at the office for Rick, who makes his lavish living capably and remorselessly representing various banks, helping to evict residents who have failed to make their mortgage payments and whose homes have entered foreclosure. Though he operates in Florida, he is essentially an instrumentality of Wall Street, a man who executes the will of corrupt and unfeeling conglomerates. He may not be the devil, but he's basically the devil's agent.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Walk: Race to the Top, But Don't Look Down

Joseph Gordon-Levitt defies death as Philippe Petit in "The Walk"
Robert Zemeckis's The Walk tells the story of Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who one day in August 1974, to the surprise and delight of thousands of unsuspecting New Yorkers, tiptoed back and forth across a wire stretching between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Midway through the film, Philippe and two confederates slink into a Manhattan electronics store and ask to purchase an interphone. The proprietor, a sharp fellow named J.P., suggests they buy a walkie-talkie instead, but Philippe refuses, explaining to his comrade in rapid French that cops can listen in on walkie-talkies. This statement raises the eyebrows of J.P., who it turns out speaks French (his initials stand for Jean-Pierre, and he is played very well by the American actor James Badge Dale); he assumes that this motley crew is intent on robbing a bank, and that they're in dire need of some help.

Strictly speaking, J.P. is wrong—Philippe has no plans to steal anything, except perhaps a few moments of immortality. But in cinematic terms, J.P. is on the mark. The Walk, in its elemental form, is a crime caper. Its story, which it tells with considerable glee and marginal distinction, is that of a gang of lawbreakers who conspire to evade police detection and carry out a seemingly impossible objective. In this way, it is a successor to classic heist pictures like Rififi and Ocean's Eleven. What distinguishes this one is that, where most capers thrive on the planning of the crime rather than the actual execution, The Walk achieves its power in depicting Philippe's improbable, death-defying triumph. For the majority of its runtime, it's a fun, frothy film: nicely acted, convincingly staged, and thoroughly familiar. Then Philippe steps out on that wire, and this modest, unmemorable movie becomes unforgettable.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sicario: A Land with No Laws, a War with No Heroes

Emily Blunt gets in way over her head in "Sicario"
For a film of such engulfing darkness, Sicario spends a surprising amount of time in broad daylight. In a different story, its frequent aerial shots of the Southwest's rolling hills and dusty deserts might feel enchanting rather than foreboding. Yet right from its electric opening sequence—a daytime FBI raid in suburban Phoenix on a cartel stash house, the kind where all the residents pack shotguns, and cadavers line the walls like asbestos—Sicario turns that pervasive sunlight into a mirage. A vicious, lacerating depiction of the Mexican-American drug trade, the movie slowly and systematically snuffs out the slightest flicker of hope. They say drug use is a victimless crime, but in this arid land, narcotics distribution is a literal cutthroat industry, a ceaseless cycle of violence, corruption, and death.

Sounds fun, right? You'd be surprised. Yes, as a political think piece, Sicario is powerful, persuasive, and even enraging. But what makes it a great movie—something more than just a forcefully conceived polemic—is that it is also crackerjack crime fiction. Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is a pulse-pounding piece of prime-cut entertainment, one that thrills just as much as it chills. It is both literally and metaphorically explosive, and while its suffocating bleakness may get you down, its taut plotting and bracing technique will knock you out.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian: Lost in Space, But Not in Spirit

Matt Damon is alone on Mars in "The Martian"
The Martian is a movie about a man stranded on a deserted planet, first left for dead, then scrambling frantically to survive. You might think, from this brief and terrifying description, that it is a horror film, or at least a gritty survivalist fable—Cast Away in space, or Gravity on barren land. Yet the most surprising and satisfying thing about The Martian, which is based on a best-selling novel by Andy Weir and is directed with characteristic competence by Ridley Scott, is how much fun it is. Certainly, there are moments of dread, and the protagonist continually faces the prospect of imminent death. But for the most part, this film is warm, inviting, and even comforting. There may be gravity on Mars, but The Martian feels positively buoyant.

It doesn't start out that way. In a brisk and chaotic prologue set on the red planet, a group of astronauts led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) attempt to fight through a storm of swirling debris. During the squall, a piece of equipment breaks loose and slams directly into the chest of Mark Watney, catapulting him off into the desolate distance. After a desperate search, Lewis has no choice but to abandon hope, and she and her crew hightail it out of there before Mars can claim five additional victims.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice: For Queen, Rook, Self, and Country

Tobey Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice"
In 1972 in Iceland, Bobby Fischer attempted to become the first American-born man to win the World Chess Championship, seeking to wrest the crown from imposing Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. Now, if you think that sounds challenging, try making a movie about it. Sure, sports films are only tangentially about the sports themselves, but they almost always revolve around some degree of dynamism or athleticism, some sort of physical heroism for the camera to capture. But Pawn Sacrifice, Edward Zwick's dramatization of Fischer's famous battle against Spassky and the Iron Curtain, is about chess, which is basically the least cinematic sport imaginable. Zwick's seemingly impossible task is to transform a thoroughly sedate affair—one in which two men stare at carefully sculpted figurines, furrow their brows, and think—into an actual thriller of tangible urgency and excitement. He mostly succeeds. Functional, beautifully acted, and curiously engrossing, Pawn Sacrifice resembles the best traditional sports movie Zwick possibly could have made on this subject. In other words, it isn't half-bad.

The film opens in medias res, after Fischer has forfeited the second game of the Championship (the rules provided for up to 24 total games) and has barricaded himself in his rented cottage, flinching at the slightest sound. It then flashes back to his childhood in New York, a predictable device that immediately illustrates both the benefits and the drawbacks of Zwick's orthodox approach. The flashback, which is mercifully brief, does its job: It bluntly illustrates that Fischer (played as a young boy by Aiden Lovekamp and then as a teen by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is both a genius and a prick. Expressing the former element proves problematic for Zwick; unable to telegraph Fischer's virtuosity visually, he settles for dialogue, with adults repeatedly gushing about the boy's brilliance, followed by a montage of handshakes soundtracked to laudatory notices from newscasters. (To be fair, Zwick initially toys with using graphics to convey Fischer mentally maneuvering pieces on the chessboard, but it's a gimmicky tactic that he wisely abandons.) But he efficiently articulates Fischer's petulance, as when the youth loudly berates his mother without a hint of remorse. This kid has no time for sensitivity—he has chess to play.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Mass: Cops and Gangsters, Caught in a City's Undertow

Johnny Depp stars as Whitey Bulger in "Black Mass"
James Whitey Bulger was one of the most notorious mobsters in United States history. What, don't believe me? Just watch Black Mass, a movie that repeatedly and insistently trumpets Bulger's legendary place in American gangster lore at every shrill turn. It features no shortage of people, whether harried law enforcement agents or cowed criminal cohorts, braying about Bulger's illegal exploits and moral contemptibility. Yet the oddest thing about this adequately entertaining movie, which was directed in workmanlike fashion by Scott Cooper and features a dream-team cast, is that for all its vociferous proclamations, it reveals very little about who Bulger was, what he did, or how he eventually became one of the country's most wanted fugitives. Yes, he kills a few people over the course of the film, and he threatens a few others, and he certainly seems very mean. But to the extent that he ruled Boston's underworld for two decades as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, well, you'll just have to take Black Mass at its word. It presents a litany of testimony swearing to Bulger's evil, but therein lies its flaw: It tells, but it does not show.

This does not mean that there is nothing to see. To begin with, there is the unforgettable sight of a blue-eyed Johnny Depp. Those eerie cerulean irises (the product of contact lenses), along with slicked-back pale-blond hair and prosthetically rotted teeth, combine to give 2009's sexiest man alive a truly frightening countenance. And while one might quibble with the subtlety of Depp's performance as Bulger—which is to say, there is none—it is impossible to deny the ferocious commitment he brings to the role. Often the target of critical ridicule for his unfettered flamboyance (which can, of course, yield spectacular results), he is all business here, those unblinking, alien blues teaming with a snarling Beantown monotone that befits Bulger's blunt, monolithic persona. He rarely raises his voice, but he is always threatening, whether he's coolly berating an underling or, in the film's most quietly terrifying scene, exerting his will over a colleague's wife. He is not someone you wish to cross.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Visit: Nice to Meet You, Grandma. Could You Put Down the Knife?

Grandma goes crazy in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Visit"
The Visit, a chintzy tale of low-budget horror, is the best movie M. Night Shyamalan has made in over a decade. This, of course, is hardly extravagant praise. But while Shyamalan, the cinematic-wunderkind-turned-critical-punching-bag, has helmed his share of recent misfires, those failings suffered less from a lack of artistic talent than a poor sense of scale. Certainly, his recent output—Lady in the Water, The Happening, After Earth—could charitably be deemed "not good", but all three of those films had their minor virtues, particularly their director's gift for nifty camerawork and provocative imagery. (Even the misbegotten Last Airbender had one good scene.) The problem was that Shyamalan didn't want these movies to be good; he wanted them to be great, to be revolutionary, to capture the zeitgeist. Sadly, his clumsy storytelling dashed those hopes, and when you added his ham-fisted dialogue into the mix, the laughable writing masked the visual artistry. Shyamalan's recent films didn't fall short of greatness so much as they fell off a cliff.

The Visit is not a great movie (not even close), but the key to its relative success is that it doesn't want to be great. This is a slender, modestly mounted fright flick—sometimes scary, sometimes funny, frequently ridiculous—and its lack of ambition frees it from the shackles of grandiosity. That in turn gives Shyamalan greater freedom to flex his filmmaking muscle, which he does with aplomb, repeatedly delivering memorable set pieces and exquisite framing. He's always been good at that stuff, but here he hasn't weighed himself down with a ponderous storyline, making this the first time he's ever seemed relaxed.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Queen of Earth: Woman on the Verge of a Total Collapse

Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss are so-called friends in "Queen of Earth"
Queen of Earth, the fourth feature from writer-director Alex Ross Perry, is a razor blade wrapped in translucent silk. It takes place almost entirely in a single, idyllic location—a sun-dappled New York lake house—where two seemingly close friends are ostensibly lounging on vacation. But despite the beauty of its setting and the privilege of its characters (one is the daughter of a famous artist, the other an apparent heiress), this grim, unsettling picture is by no means soothing. It is, rather, a barbed psychological study of one woman's gradual descent into madness, and of another's pain and helplessness. It is the kind of film that asks far more questions than it answers, chief among them: Why do people remain friends? Do we ever really know one another? Do we even know ourselves? Most importantly: What the hell is going on in this movie?

The latter inquiry is probably best directed at Virginia (Katherine Waterston, the femme fatale from Inherent Vice), the relatively stable half of Queen of Earth's lakeside duo. She is the aforementioned heiress; her parents own the resplendent villa, a cozy slice of serenity tucked next to a placid lagoon and surrounded by multihued leaves. Virginia is a layabout—she's supposedly on holiday, but it's unclear exactly what she's taking holiday from—but she can at least credibly distinguish between fantasy and reality. The same cannot be said of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, going for broke), Virginia's spasmodic companion who opens the film in a state of extreme agitation and only grows more disheveled from there. Catherine's face is the first thing we see in Queen of Earth, her blue eyes flashing anger as tears streak through her smudged black eyeliner. She's getting dumped by her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), and she isn't taking it well. In the first of many extended close-ups that define the film's intimate aesthetic (Perry cuts away only once), the camera watches nosily as Catherine sobs, seethes, and howls, eventually screaming "Go!" in a guttural rage. This woman, Moss makes inescapably clear, is badly damaged. She could really use a vacation.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Super-Spy Shuffle, with a Smile and a Wink

Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Henry Cavill are charming spies in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
It is telling that the best scene in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie's fun and frivolous update of a forgotten '60s spy show, involves a man quietly helping himself to a sandwich. That would be Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill), a crack thief-turned CIA agent who, during the scene in question, finds himself fleeing from angry German sentries after breaking into a heavily guarded warehouse. He begins the sequence—along with his grudging partner, KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (The Social Network's Armie Hammer)—attempting to outmaneuver 'ze Germans on a speedboat, but during the chaos, he gets thrown overboard. Any reasonable movie would keep the focus on Kuryakin, hurtling alongside him as he evades his pursuers through heroism and ingenuity. Instead, Ritchie stays with Solo as he calmly finds his way to a pickup truck, where he happily discovers a Little Red Riding Hood-like basket of goodies. As Solo uncorks a bottle of wine and carefully tucks in a bib, the boat chase featuring Kuryakin rages on in the background, orange flames silently erupting into the black night sky. Yet only after savoring a bite of his stolen sandwich, then emitting a weary sigh of annoyance, does Solo come to his partner's aid.

This is a very funny scene, but it's also illustrative of Ritchie's commitment to lightness as a mode of storytelling. To say he favors style over substance almost gives him too much credit. What really matters to him is buoyancy, which is why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. floats along in a state of perpetual ease and winking insouciance. Evoking a James Bond picture from the Roger Moore era (there is even a spectacularly cheesy double entendre), it is difficult to imagine a spy film less interested in generating danger or suspense. It's pointless, but at the same time, it persuasively suggests that having a point is overrated.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Z for Zachariah: A Garden of Eden in a Land of the Dead

Margot Robbie is the last woman on Earth in "Z for Zachariah"
The apocalypse has long fascinated filmmakers, and no wonder. From the black comedy of Dr. Strangelove to the commercial satire of Dawn of the Dead to the blunt-force survivalism of I Am Legend, the concept of the end of the world yields fertile cinematic soil for eager directors to till. But the marvel of Z for Zachariah, Craig Zobel's solemn and soulful third feature, is that it isn't really about the end of the world at all. Certainly, it recognizes the starkness of its reality, but it shows only the barest of interest in exploring the origins of its inciting event. (The sum total of its exposition occurs when a character muses, "Maybe something with the weather patterns.") Instead, Z for Zachariah uses the apocalypse as scaffolding to explore a genre that is far more cataclysmic: the domestic melodrama. Zobel doesn't care how civilization collapsed. He wants to know how hearts break.

Not that this lush and expressive film is remotely lacking in ghoulish imagery or toxic atmosphere. From its opening moments, which follow a hooded figure clad in Hazmat gear prowling through a barren landscape, Z for Zachariah silently communicates the calamity that has befallen the planet. That figure is Ann (Margot Robbie, an Australian giving her best shot at a Southern accent), the lone remaining denizen of this unhappy valley that's located somewhere in Southern Appalachia. Ann's hair initially appears lank and her face is caked with grime, but this isn't one of those cheesy uglification jobs, and her natural luminescence quickly shines through because, you know, Margot Robbie. One day, this solitary looker spies John Loomis (a terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor), a civil engineer wandering a dusty road in a comically oversized "safe suit". He futzes around with a Geiger counter and then, upon confirming that the air is uncontaminated, strips off his suit and lets out a bellow of euphoria, tears streaming down his face; with that, in less than 30 seconds and without uttering a single syllable, Ejiofor makes his character's agony and ecstasy known. Indeed, John is so excited by having finally found a safe environment that he stupidly wades into a nearby pond without first testing the water, which is, Ann frantically informs him, radioactive.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Hungering for Sex, Love, and Womanhood

Bel Powley gives a breakthrough performance in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
The very first line of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller's uneven, appealing coming-of-age story, is "I had sex today"; it is immediately followed by a very Fifty Shades of Grey-like exclamation, "Holy shit!" But despite her youth and initial lack of worldliness, Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is no Anastasia Steele. She is not timid, nor is she entranced by notions of masculine dominance. She is instead a confident, eager, and often foolish femme who does not apologize for her desires, even if she does not entirely understand them. "I like sex," Minnie tells us early on, and in case you didn't believe her, she clarifies, "I really like getting fucked!" That may strike some as vulgar, but the most satisfying thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl—beyond the powerful performance at its center—is its frankness in discussing sexual desire and its attendant emotions. Minnie is the hero of her story, she wants sex, and she refuses to cast herself as the victim.

Though she is very much that, at least in one sense. Minnie, as you may have gleaned from the film's title, is a teenager—fifteen, to be precise. That's young enough as it is, but it becomes alarmingly so once you learn that the person she is so happily, repeatedly tumbling into bed with is her mother's thirtysomething boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Yet Heller, who also wrote the screenplay (adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's novel), is not interested in the legal or moral ramifications of Minnie and Monroe's illicit union. She is more concerned with exploring how it makes Minnie feel: how it affects her sense of self, her demeanor, and, most distressingly, her relationship with her mother (a very good Kristen Wiig). In so doing, Heller puts a tremendous amount of weight on Powley, a 23-year-old British actress appearing in her first American feature (the movie takes place in 1970s San Francisco). She shoulders the load with aplomb, capturing Minnie's vitality and hunger while also revealing glimmers of her fragility.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Phoenix: Back from the Dead, But Something's Off

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss dance with deception and death in "Phoenix"
Suspension of disbelief is typically a viewing requirement at the multiplex, not the art house. Superhero movies and science-fiction flicks are expected to stretch the boundaries of reality in ways anathema to dialogue-driven dramas and period pieces. Phoenix, Christian Petzold's electric, implausible anti-love story, is the type of muted, modestly scaled film that you wouldn't expect to ask audiences to take a giant leap of faith. But it does precisely that, hinging on a conceit that, if rejected, threatens to topple the entire enterprise. If you refuse to accept the cornerstone of Phoenix's vertiginous plot, you may struggle to find rapture in its supple technique and vast emotions. But if you surrender yourself, you are likely to become intoxicated by its smoky beauty and limitless longing.

I strongly urge you to try your best, though my urgings are insignificant compared to those of Nina Hoss. A German-born actress best known to American audiences as one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's weary spies in A Most Wanted Man (and also the anchor of Petzold's sobering Cold War film, Barbara), Hoss delivers a transcendent performance as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who was shot in the face during the war (in a wise decision, the details of the shooting are never explained), and who begins the film wrapped in bandages. She's returning to Germany with her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, perfectly crisp), in order to undergo facial reconstructive surgery. When the doctor asks Nelly whom she wants to look like, she demands that he return her to her original self. "You won't look exactly the same," the surgeon warns her, and the subtitles for that line might as well be accented in bold.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Straight Outta Compton: Defying the Cops, the State, and One Another

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E come "Straight Outta Compton" and into the multiplex
F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A., a rap supergroup featuring Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Cube's real-life son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). For those of you not well-versed in late-20th-century hip-hop lore—not that I have anyone in mind—"N.W.A." stands for "Niggas with Attitude". It does not require a degree in linguistics or cultural studies to recognize that this was a provocative name for a gangster rap group, particularly one that delivered such ferocious, uncompromising anthems about racial inequality and police brutality. The problem with Straight Outta Compton—what caps it at the level of passable entertainment rather than world-conquering triumph—is that it relays N.W.A.'s history through the form of dutiful hagiography. The members of N.W.A. became legends largely because of the way they upended existing notions of how music could be made, but Straight Outta Compton hits most of the expected beats (though it skips a few others) without ever straying from the sheet music. The result is a perfectly enjoyable movie that often feels like a carefully curated Wikipedia entry.

That doesn't make it bad. Much of Straight Outta Compton is easily entertaining, especially its zippy first half. It helps that the actors are appealing, particularly Hawkins, who's able to convey Dre's musical genius without letting loose on the mic. Behind-the-scenes glimpses of artists sculpting their work are always satisfying, and an early scene of Dre coaxing Eazy on his delivery (for a track that would become "Boyz-n-the-Hood") demonstrates N.W.A.'s dedication to musical craft as well as social upheaval. And once Paul Giamatti shows up as music impresario Jerry Heller (marking the second time this year he's played a wig-wearing manipulator of 1980s talent), the movie tracks the methodical process by which a handful of young rappers became objects of fan worship and, more importantly, persons of governmental interest.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The End of the Tour: Talking About Writing, and Other Demons

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel talk (and talk) in "The End of the Tour"
Writing in the New York Times in 1996 about Infinite Jest, the magnum opus from David Foster Wallace, the critic Jay McInerney wrote, "While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences." I feel similarly about The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt's compassionate, provocative, and occasionally dull recreation of the five-day period shortly following the release of Infinite Jest, in which Rolling Stone's David Lipsky trailed Wallace on his promotional rounds. It is not an especially kinetic movie, and if it is in no hurry to go anywhere, its luxuriant patience occasionally creeps into stasis. But it is also a sharply scripted and profoundly affecting character study, tenderly depicting two writers who are deeply committed both to their specific jobs and to the grander notion of composing meaningful words. Wallace and Lipsky both believed that their prose, as painful as it was to conceive, might actually mean something. The End of the Tour nobly honors their commitment, even if certain stretches of its narrative feel meaningless.

The movie opens in 2008, with a dumbfounded Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, even better than usual) learning of Wallace's suicide, a tragic event whose dark shadow looms over The End of the Tour. It then flashes back 12 years, revealing Lipsky as a hungry and energetic young writer who keeps hearing about this rapturously received tome called Infinite Jest. Animated by both jealousy and disbelief, he scoffs at the reviews claiming that this mammoth novel heralds the arrival of the next Pynchon. Then he reads it. Not long after, he's pleading with his editor at Rolling Stone to interview Wallace for a celebrity profile, and then he's jetting off to snowy Illinois, hoping to reconcile this generation-defining book with the mere mortal who wrote it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Gift: A Thriller of Victims and Villains, But Which Is Which?

Joel Edgerton stalks Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman in "The Gift"
In an early episode of Seinfeld called "The Male Unbonding," Jerry finds himself trapped in an unwanted friendship with a childhood chum named Joel (Veep's Kevin Dunn), a selfish and fatuous oaf who fancies himself Jerry's best bud. Eventually, Jerry can no longer bear Joel's boorish behavior, and he attempts to "break up" with him; this leads to Joel blubbering in public, followed by Jerry swiftly backpedaling, then spending the remainder of the episode inventing excuses (choir practice! tutoring my nephew!) to avoid seeing him. In theory, this pattern of evasion continued indefinitely, but because Seinfeld was an episodic sitcom, Joel was never heard from again. Still, I've often wondered: What might have happened going forward between these two self-involved men? Would their asymmetrical friendship have faded naturally, with Joel gradually taking the hint? Or would something else—something more traumatic—have occurred?

The Gift, Joel Edgerton's dark and disturbing thriller, plays like a twisted version of "The Male Unbonding". It examines the process by which adults attempt to extricate themselves from undesired relationships, but it also refracts that process through a fun-house mirror. In "The Male Unbonding", Jerry gamely suffers through Joel's antics, repeatedly rolling his eyes, always accompanied by a chorus of laughter. In The Gift, the eye-rolls have given way to cold stares, and the laughter has been replaced by screams.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: Keep Hold of That Plane, and Your Breath

Tom Cruise keeps on trucking in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"
Just what is the Rogue Nation, anyway? Is it the Syndicate, a group of presumed-dead spies working covertly to kill or corrupt fellow agents across the globe? Is it the IMF (that's "Impossible Mission Force", not "International Monetary Fund"), a disgraced organization that operates without oversight and that has come under legislative fire for its "wanton brinksmanship"? Or could it be the Mission: Impossible franchise itself, a series of supremely entertaining smashes that exhibit no interest in playing by industry rules? In an era of world-building and synthesis—of movies meshing with TV and of Batman battling Superman—these films are largely self-contained, eschewing continuity in favor of methodical reinvention and authorial vision. (Each installment has been helmed by a new director.) Models of energy, style, and craft, the Mission: Impossible movies don't care about building a world; they just want to astonish an audience.

And does Rogue Nation ever do that. The fifth and flashiest entry in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation is a fleet and exhilarating affair, dazzling viewers with gripping stunt work and expertly conceived set pieces. To complain that it elevates action over story is to miss the point. Here, the action is the story. Each crackerjack chase sequence, each audacious stunt, each close-quarters combat scene—all are executed with the rigor and thoughtfulness typically reserved for screenwriting. When two men in this movie trade blows while cartwheeling along a rafter beam hundreds of feet in the air, you aren't just taking in an obligatory fight scene. You're watching art.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ant-Man: For This Superhero, It's Go Small or Go Home

Paul Rudd brings his bemused charm to "Ant-Man"
Given that it's a movie about a man who turns into a bug, it's only fitting that Ant-Man feels small. That is part criticism, part compliment. Ant-Man is not especially memorable; it does not dazzle like The Avengers, nor does it charm like Guardians of the Galaxy. But in an age where bloated superhero franchises buckle under the weight of obligation and fan service, it's almost refreshing that Ant-Man—the concluding chapter in Phase Two of the scrupulously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe—feels so cheerfully trivial. Sure, Tony Stark's dad shows up in the prologue, and the post-credits stinger ties it in with next year's Captain America offering, but for the most part, this is a minor movie about a down-on-his-luck dad trying to get a job so he can pay child support and see his daughter. It is not exactly the stuff of legends, but there is valor in its modesty.

And in its lightness. Ant-Man benefits from a relaxed, nonthreatening tone that makes it feel less like a superhero adventure than a hangout flick. That begins with its casting of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a reformed thief trying to make it on the straight-and-narrow. Rudd has never displayed great range as an actor, but he's developed into a quasi-superstar through sheer affability, not to mention a gift for bemused reaction shots. His presence lends the film a laidback vibe that it mostly embraces, which helps deflect the absurdity of its plot and the stupidity of its pseudo-science.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trainwreck: She's a Downtown Girl, Living in a Man's World

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader find love in "Trainwreck"
They may both tower over the modern comedy world, but Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer aren't very much alike. Apatow's works, particularly The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are best known for the overgrown man-children at their center, but they're also curiously wholesome and sweet. He relies heavily on crudity and profanity, but he does so in the service of a romantic ideal—the notion that love can conquer all obstacles and generate true happiness—that is pure, cornball formula. But Schumer is a deconstructionist. She has ascended to the apex of the comedy landscape precisely because of the way she obliterates formula, exposing stereotypes and upheaving convention. Trainwreck, which Apatow directed from a script written by Schumer, is the funny, fascinating, and somewhat frustrating attempt to reconcile these two disparate voices into a unified song. Like its protagonist, it is often at war with itself. And, like its protagonist, it is vulgar, confused, warmhearted, and generally a hoot to hang out with.

Schumer plays Amy (in case you doubted the story's autobiographical bona fides), an unapologetically promiscuous boozehound whom one might call a slut or a female stud, depending on one's level of sexism or enlightenment. The idea that women can be funny, frisky, and lewd should hardly have been a revelation in 2011, but it was novel enough to turn Bridesmaids (which Apatow produced) from a well-made, modest comedy into an outright phenomenon. Now, Trainwreck extends that sense of gender liberation to the bedroom. That's where we first meet Amy, tumbling between the sheets with an anonymous schmo, extracting pleasure from him before feigning sleep to avoid the obligation to reciprocate. "Don't judge me, fuckers," she admonishes via voiceover. It's an odd plea, given that she spends most of the movie judging herself.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: The Schmaltz in Our Stars

This is a sappy movie about Greg and Earl and the Dying Girl
I often censure movies for being generic; no film is more hollow than one without a personality. The flip side, however, is the movie that pummels its audience into submission via a surfeit of quirk. This is why Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's skillfully made, unrelentingly precious, ultimately insufferable weepie—is a strangely worthwhile brand of disappointment. It is by no means lacking in individuality, and it sporadically sparkles with wit and ingenuity. But it channels its eccentricity in frustratingly clichéd ways, bludgeoning viewers with an onslaught of tackiness and schmaltz. It tries very hard to win your heart, and its calculated efforts to do so make it both laudable and oddly detestable.

Here is an example of this movie's shtick: During one of his shaggy-dog voiceovers, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) analogizes hot girls—in particular the oblivious manner in which they exert their sexuality and power over horny boys—to moose inadvertently trampling over helpless chipmunks. It's a cute enough metaphor, and the first time Greg describes it, Gomez-Rejon cuts to a crude piece of claymation that playfully illustrates two such animals acting out that very scenario. That's a wry bit of visual inventiveness and formal looseness, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl can't let well enough alone. For the remainder of the movie, every time the token hot girl carelessly touches Greg's shoulder, Gomez-Rejon returns to that image of the anthropomorphic moose and its pitiful chipmunk victim. The film desperately wants you to sympathize with the chipmunk (and, by proxy, Greg), and it actually half-succeeds; by the time it ends, you, too, will feel like you've been stomped on repeatedly.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Magic Mike XXL: Forget Your Day Job, It's Time to Party

Channing Tatum and co. are back for "Magic Mike XXL"
A few months ago, I saw a movie about an inveterate warrior who gets pulled back into a turbulent conflict, and who uses his ingenuity and physical prowess to triumph in battle. A few days ago, I saw another movie with a similar storyline, about a legendary figure who grudgingly returns to the battlegrounds of his past, relying on both his cunning and his skill to achieve immortality. And while the two films are undeniably different—Mad Max: Fury Road is about a life-or-death struggle set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, whereas Magic Mike XXL is about a stripper performing in Myrtle Beach—their dissimilarities, from a filmmaking perspective, are almost incidental. The traits that made Mad Max: Fury Road such a sensation—the no-holds-barred attitude, the revelatory practical stunt work, the palpable swagger—apply with equal force to XXL. Both worship at the altar of cinematic excess, and both thrill their audiences with their verve and dexterity. It makes little difference that, while Max faces a hail of bullets, Mike is bombarded with "a tsunami of dollar bills".

In conventional critical terms, Magic Mike XXL might appear to be a bit thin. It has no real plot to speak of, it is not especially interested in character development, and it is positively disdainful of plausibility. Certainly it lacks the lacerating bite of its predecessor, which benefitted from Steven Soderbergh's artistry, expertly camouflaging a wolf's tale of loneliness and manipulation in the sheep's clothing of glamour and decadence. (For this sequel, Soderbergh has passed directing duties on to his longtime assistant, Gregory Jacobs, though he returns as both cinematographer and editor, working under his usual twin pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard.) But virtually none of this matters. XXL doesn't have time for trifling concerns like plot and character, and watching the movie, neither will you. You will be too busy cheering its electric set pieces and succumbing to its infectious spirit of euphoria.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dope: A Harvard Wannabe Gets a Thug Life Education

Shameik Moore gets in over his head in "Dope"
An early scene in Dope, Rick Famuyiwa's highly entertaining mess of a movie, perfectly encapsulates the film's tone. It features its protagonist, a black high school student named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), fleeing with his two best friends from a pair of Los Angeles gangsters. It's a frenetic scene, with Malcolm and his pals riding pitiful bicycles while the thugs give chase in a roaring red El Camino. Then, as the desperate teenagers pedal across an overpass, the camera suddenly switches to a static wide-shot, revealing that the overpass is labeled, in austere capital letters, "Thurgood Marshall Justice Plaza." That level of silent wit—the confidence to quietly slip in a reference to America's first black Supreme Court Justice in the middle of a frenzied chase sequence—is indicative of Dope's sly sense of humor, not to mention its hectic, erratic sensibility. This mélange of styles and tropes is far too chaotic to be a great movie, but it's precisely that sense of unruliness that makes it so much fun.

Dope initially scans as a lively satire of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton's seminal coming-of-age story about black youths growing up on hard streets in hard times. Malcolm, the son of a single mother, lives in The Bottoms, a crime-ridden district of Inglewood. His neighborhood is swimming in drugs and beset by gang violence (the red-clad Bloods are especially prominent), and he's under constant threat of thievery or worse. Yet Malcolm, contrary to expectation, is neither a reprobate nor a victim. He is instead, as Forest Whitaker's playful opening voiceover informs us, a geek. He dresses like a goofball, he rocks a ludicrous high-top fade, and he and his aforementioned friends, Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Transparent's Kiersey Clemons), are utterly obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture. His top priority is not avoiding jail or scoring drugs—it's getting into college, which is why he's penned a singular application essay entitled, "A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube's Good Day."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inside Out: Sweet Emotions, and Sad Ones, Too

Five emotions wrestle with one another, and more, in "Inside Out"
At one point in Inside Out, the two main characters walk under a lettered archway that reads, "Imagination Land." It's a fitting marker, given that this movie is the latest (and nearly the greatest) offering from Pixar, that cinematic factory of innovation and ingenuity that has been delighting audiences for two decades with its inimitable blend of vibrant animation and smart storytelling. Also fitting is that the protagonists are named Sadness and Joy, as these are the two primary emotional responses that Inside Out deftly, generously evokes. You will undoubtedly experience pangs of sadness in watching this poignant portrayal of a child in crisis, struggling valiantly to process her swirling feelings of confusion, alienation, and loss. As for joy? That comes from everything else.

The ostensible hero of Inside Out is Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a plucky, relatively normal 11-year-old whom we first meet moving with her parents from the ice-covered lakes of Minnesota to the bustling cityscape of San Francisco. Yet while Riley is the film's chief human character, she is not its focal point. Rather, Inside Out takes us inside Riley's brain to explore the workings of her emotions, which we discover are literal beings themselves, with their own bodies, minds, and temperaments. They include Fear (Bill Hader), a jumpy lavender fellow with a bowtie and a prominent proboscis; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a greenish girl with wavy hair and perpetually rolling eyes; and Anger (Lewis Black, naturally), a squat and fiery hothead who regularly bursts into flame and whose color you can probably guess. Rounding out this fantastic five are, of course, Sadness and Joy; Sadness (The Office's Phyllis Smith, perfectly cast) is a rotund blue figure who wears oversized spectacles and shuffles her feet morosely, while Joy (Amy Poehler, ibid) is the yellow-skinned, cobalt-haired pixie who serves as the group's perky, quietly flawed leader. These five personifications of feeling—exposed nerve endings made real—operate in concert (and occasionally in conflict), huddling over a gadget-laden control panel and helping to shape Riley's experiences, her emotional reactions, and, really, her entire life.