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.