Thursday, December 29, 2016

Passengers: Boy Meets Girl, Stranded Amid the Stars

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in "Passengers"
It is an unwritten rule that every movie set in space must feature a scene where a character suddenly begins to run out of oxygen. Passengers, the diverting, flawed, occasionally fantastic romantic thriller from Morten Tyldum, is no exception. But the scene in question, which is both exciting and exasperating, arms critics with an all-too-apt metaphor to describe the broader film. Here is a movie that begins with enormous promise, sustains that promise for well over an hour, and then slowly, steadily runs out of air. It gasps for breath, its limbs flail helplessly, and its brain, deprived of precious nutrients like logic and plausibility, shuts down.

But if I'm writing less of a review than an obituary, allow me to express the hope that Passengers—which has been unjustly savaged by critics—may rest in peace. Its ultimate demise should not invalidate the genuine delight and intrigue it provided while it was still alive. By which I mean, for its first two acts, Passengers is a whole lot of fun. Visually, it's sleek, sharp, and sexy, with a slick, antiseptic production design, fetching costumes, and a pleasing color palette. And narratively, it tells an engaging story fraught with genuine moral conflict. A high-concept sci-fi think-piece, it will undoubtedly draw unflattering comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's inspired less by Kubrick than Kieslowski, and if its answers to its philosophical quandaries are less than satisfactory, it at least has the courage to pose such dilemmas in the first place.

Friday, December 23, 2016

La La Land: Sing Me a Song of an Era Bygone

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle's magnificent "La La Land"
The movie musical didn't need to be resurrected, because it never died. It has become fashionable for misty-eyed critics to pine for the glory days—of Busby Berkeley and Bing Crosby, of Rogers & Astaire and Rodgers & Hammerstein—but the twenty-first century has featured more than its share of quality musicals, from Chicago to The Last Five Years to Moulin Rouge. Yet the continued vitality of the musical shouldn't diminish the staggering triumph that is La La Land, the astonishing tour de force of song, dance, and joy from Damien Chazelle. To declare that this sweeping, soaring film has salvaged the musical from obscurity would be both inaccurate and reductive; La La Land is far too vibrant and versatile to be trivialized as the savior of a particular genre. All the same, it may well serve a broader critical function—simply uttering its title can now operate as a reflexive retort whenever anyone dares to bemoan the quality of modern movies. The musical may not be dead, but La La Land reaffirms that cinema itself is very much alive.

Of course, anyone doubting the medium's endurance probably hasn't seen Chazelle's prior film, Whiplash. That brilliant drama chronicled the corrosive relationship between a virtuoso drummer and his ferocious conductor, a fascinating dynamic that revealed the dark underbelly of the pursuit of greatness. With La La Land, Chazelle has retained Whiplash's relentless energy, but he has swapped out its obsessive fury in favor of a grand romanticism. The director is undeniably enraptured with the musicals of yesteryear, in particular Jacques Demy's classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but his filmmaking is too vigorous and inspiring to be motivated purely by nostalgia. Instead, he has harnessed his considerable formal powers to tell a story of piercing emotional clarity, if one that also happens to pay heartfelt homage to Tinseltown's rich history. His abiding love of old movies has allowed him to make a spectacular new one.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Still Rebelling, Now with a Cost

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, and Alan Tudyk in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"
Of the infinite memes that sprang out of the original Star Wars trilogy, one of the most random derives from a moment of startling quiet in The Return of the Jedi, when a rebel leader is delivering an expository info-dump. As she's rambling about battle stations and deflector shields, she suddenly pauses, then drops her voice and solemnly murmurs, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." There are no Bothans in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but there is quite a bit of death, and not just involving hundreds of haphazardly slaughtered stormtroopers. This counts as a surprise. The Star Wars franchise isn't devoid of darkness, but it has generally prioritized fun and escapism; while Rogue One largely stays on brand, it isn't especially concerned with joy. Instead, the predominant theme of this interesting and frustrating film—which was directed by Gareth Edwards from a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy—is sacrifice. It's a genuine war movie, one about the soldiers who wade through the mud, risking their lives so that the rest of us may glimpse a better tomorrow.

If that sounds turgid, don't worry—this is still a Star Wars movie, with all of the excitement and mythology that such an undertaking entails. Yet Rogue One occupies a curious place within Disney's newest and most profitable cinematic universe. Whereas the official episodic saga resumed last year, after a decade-long layoff, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One is the first of the studio's "anthology" series, films that both take place within the canonical realm and simultaneously stand apart from it. (Continuing this pattern, 2018 will see the release of a Han Solo movie, starring Hail, Caesar's Alden Ehrenreich, while a rumored Boba Fett film is tentatively slated for 2020.) In theory, this concept will allow filmmakers to expand the Star Wars mythos into uncharted space, using the series' existing, minutely detailed template to tell bold and innovative stories. But because the franchise's fan base is so entrenched and protective of its collective property—and because directors must satisfy their corporate overlord's commercial imperative to please those fans—veering too far off course is a dicey proposition.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nocturnal Animals: Brutality Is Skin Deep

Amy Adams is a wreck in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals"
Title sequences can do more than just convey rudimentary information about a film's cast and crew—they can set the mood, introduce a plot, establish a theme. So what to make of the opening credits of Nocturnal Animals, which impassively present a parade of naked, obese women dancing in slow-motion as firecrackers explode around them? Is this garish display meant to be revolting? Titillating? Provocative? Profound? Forced to guess, one might argue that the director, Tom Ford, is attempting to draw a line between happiness and despair, remarking that beauty and brutality are often intertwined. (To do so, one would first need to ignore the accusations of body-shaming that have dogged Ford regarding the sequence.) But that isn't quite right, because the dirty joke of this dirty movie is that, much like its jarring opening credits, it means absolutely nothing.

Which is not to say that Nocturnal Animals is unsightly. Far from it. A famous fashion designer making his second foray into cinema (following the well-received, overwrought A Single Man), Ford fails to weave the gorgeous with the grotesque as meaningfully as he'd like, but he nevertheless supplies ample quantities of both. For the former, he casts Amy Adams (always a good start), dresses her in ravishing clothes, and plops her in the middle of an austere, pristinely manicured Malibu mansion. Adams plays Susan, a paragon of first-world materialism; she owns an art gallery, attends fancy parties, and is married to a handsome husband (Armie Hammer) who regularly jets off to New York to close deals and screw mistresses. Despite her wealth and creature comforts, Susan is plainly disenchanted with her life—she needs a jolt of excitement to jostle her out of her ennui.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Loving: Found Guilty for Finding Love

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as a real-life couple in "Loving"
Loving is a very pleasant American movie about a very unpleasant time in American history. It tells a story of adversity, perseverance, and ultimate triumph, and it proceeds in a rigorous straight line, with minimal eccentricity or embellishment. This is perhaps to be expected, given that Loving belongs to a specific subgenre: the earnest and well-meaning docudrama. But it is also something of a surprise, given that its writer and director is Jeff Nichols, whose previous films (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) were largely off-kilter and opaque. Nichols tends to focus on odd protagonists—a delusional laborer, a wandering gangster, an alien boy—but even more central to his filmmaking are his disdain for convention and his gift for unpredictability. Yet anyone with access to Wikipedia could comfortably predict how Loving will play out.

This does not make it bad. On the contrary, it can be satisfying to watch a familiar story unfold on screen, particularly when it is well-told and well-acted. And of course, the movie's theme—that stoic decency can defeat senseless bigotry—is a worthy one, equally relevant now as when the events of the film took place. Still, the challenge for Nichols is to make Loving stimulating as a piece of cinema as well as a lesson in history. Given his meat-and-potatoes approach to this material, it's a marvel that he even half-succeeds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Manchester by the Sea: After Death Strikes, Life Shuffles On

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, in Kenneth Lonergan's heartbreaking "Manchester by the Sea"
Manchester by the Sea opens with a scene of tranquil, quintessentially New England bliss. As a trawler glides through Massachusetts Bay, an uncle gently teases his six-year-old nephew, lightly dropping his "R's" while warning that child-chewing sharks prowl these waters. It's a vision of serene, understated happiness in a film that subsequently grows heavy with melancholy and loss. You might think that the sweetness of this introduction is but a feint, a setup that lulls viewers into dropping their guard so that they can be more easily knocked out. Yet while Manchester by the Sea is primarily a tragedy—few movies are so profoundly, terribly sad—it is not exactly a downer. Instead, it somehow manages to be life-affirming as well as shattering, to reveal glimpses of light and hope within its miasma of heartbreak and devastation. It derives its enormous power not just from its literal tragedy, but from its emotional honesty.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives alone in a wintry Boston suburb. In its prosaic early scenes, the film efficiently establishes Lee as competent, sullen, and a bit of an asshole. He snaps at clients, brawls at bars, and seems generally incapable of human connection. His solitary routine of changing lightbulbs and shoveling snow is interrupted when he receives word that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives in the titular hamlet an hour-and-a-half north of Boston, has just died of a heart attack. That's dreadful news—in a brief moment at the hospital, Affleck silently conveys the bond that Lee shared with his sibling, and the depths of his pain—but it isn't exactly surprising, given that Joe had been suffering from congestive heart failure for the past decade. The real shock comes when Lee meets with a lawyer to read Joe's will and discovers that he is now the guardian to Patrick (Lucas Hedges, very good), Joe's 16-year-old son.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Allied: Sex and Spies, with a Side of Suspicion

Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt are spies with secrets in "Allied"
Beautiful, enigmatic, tantalizingly seductive, brimming with feeling—am I describing Allied, or Marion Cotillard? Is there a difference? Robert Zemeckis' World War II thriller has much to recommend it—slick pacing, gorgeous costumes, a taut script by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight—but the unequivocal highlight is Cotillard's hypnotic performance. At once exquisitely graceful and nakedly emotional, the actress effortlessly commands your attention whenever she's on screen. The only problem with Allied is that she isn't on screen nearly enough.

A handsome period piece, Allied opens in blinding sunlight, as a lone solider parachutes into the deserted sands of French Morocco. This is Max (Brad Pitt, holding his own), a Canadian intelligence officer on a mysterious assignment. He slips on a wedding ring and makes his way to Casablanca, where he locates his wife, a socialite named Marianne (Cotillard), who in actuality is neither a socialite nor his wife. Instead, Marianne is a fighter for the French Resistance—she and Max, who have never met before, have been tasked to pose as a couple while carrying out a dangerous mission. Knight's script initially leaves the details of that mission murky, though we know the stakes are high and the odds are low; when Marianne asks Max to estimate their chances of survival, he tersely replies, "60-40. Against."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Moana: A Girl and a God on the High Seas

Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho are on an adventure in Disney's "Moana"
Midway through Moana, the iridescent and irresistible new animated adventure from Walt Disney Studios, an observer sizes up the title character: "If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess." The speaker is the demigod Maui, and along with his other impressive talents—shape-shifter, warrior, chest-thumper—you can add meta commentator. Disney is as much a cultural institution as a movie studio, and Maui's blunt assessment of Moana's effective nobility—she feebly objects that she's the daughter of a chief, not a king—reflects the company's evolving self-awareness. Now in its ninth decade, the Mouse House has churned out countless tales of feminine royalty, films that are, depending on whom you ask, either exciting and empowering or formulaic and stereotypic. Moana is, in one way or another, all of these things. Yes, it's yet another journey of self-discovery, featuring yet another plucky heroine of high birth, one who follows in the well-trodden footsteps of Aurora, Ariel, and Anna. And so what? There are far worse blueprints to hew to, much less to subtly reengineer and reinvigorate. Winking commentary aside, Moana doesn't reinvent the (spinning) wheel, but it does capably tweak and troubleshoot the Disney formula, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable movie that's by turns playful and poignant.

This incremental progress begins, of course, with the film's setting. Long criticized for its emphatic whiteness, Disney has endeavored in recent years to diversify its universe, and Moana continues that trend, taking place in Polynesia. Whether this represents legitimate growth or mere tokenism is not for me to say; in any event, I am less interested in the political dimensions of this movie than its cinematic ones. And as a piece of storytelling, the opening act of Moana is pleasant but unremarkable. Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is the restless daughter of a local chief, dutifully obeying her tribe's customs but constantly feeling a silent tug from the Pacific. You know the drill: She feels unfulfilled with her routine, and she chafes at her father's insistence that she never venture beyond their island's barrier reef. In other words, she's a lot like Ariel. Or Merida. Or Rapunzel. To paraphrase another famous Disney character who will be returning to theaters early next year: There must be more than this provincial fishing life!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Magic Takes Manhattan, But Does It Still Spark?

Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne are troubled magicians in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"
Standing in the middle of a verdant forest where his bedroom used to be, gawking upward at a supple thunderbird the size of a small whale, Jacob Kowalski confirms that he is not in fact dreaming. "I don't have the brains to make this up," he admits. But J.K. Rowling does. The Harry Potter author has a limitless imagination, and the mega success of her seven novels (and eight corresponding movies) derived from her peerless ability to fuse her gift for make-believe with traditional, stalwart stories about bravery, sacrifice, and the coming of age. Among the innumerable virtues of her opus was its deceptive discipline; though the books grew progressively longer, they never felt unwieldy, and Rowling stuck to her promise of concluding Harry's tale with the seventh volume. (Contrast this with George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, where the writer once wrote a book so long that he had to cleave it in two, and where disgruntled readers—not that I have anyone in mind—are currently gnashing their teeth awaiting the sixth installment.)

Yet while the 2007 release of The Deathly Hallows may have marked the end of Harry's personal saga—a journey that remains inviolate, untarnished by special editions or alternate versions—his creator has started to gently expand the world he occupies. This began this past summer, when the London stage debuted Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play based on a story that Rowling co-wrote and that centers on Albus, Harry's troubled teenage son. And it continues now with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling's first foray into screenwriting. You might consider the very existence of this movie (and the four that are rumored to follow) to be a vulgar cash-grab, a mercenary move from a selfish artist intent on squeezing every possible penny from her adoring fan base. I prefer to view it as a fascinating opportunity. Because Fantastic Beasts takes place in the land of Potter but is not based in any substantive way on her prior work (technically, the title stems from one of Harry's school textbooks), Rowling has given herself the chance to conceive something both comfortingly familiar and wholly original. She can return to her beloved magical universe and, at the same time, start from scratch.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Handmaiden: Don't Trust Anyone, the Help Least of All

Kim Tae-ri is a servant with a secret in Park Chan-wook's amazing "The Handmaiden"
Murder, deception, hot sex, cold death, severed fingers, poison cigarettes, vials of deadly blue liquid, monsters lurking in the basement—The Handmaiden, the exquisite and electrifying thriller from Park Chan-wook, has it all. A fire-breathing romance wrapped inside a stately period noir, it is simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque, a rampaging id colliding with a meditative superego. That may sound contradictory, but The Handmaiden doesn't need to choose between beauty and excess. Over the course of this serpentine, deliriously entertaining film, excess becomes beauty.

Nothing about this frenetic, fastidious movie is traditional or predictable, except perhaps that it feels like the logical next step of Park's career. Deemed a provocateur ever since he crashed onto the cult scene with Oldboy, Park has taunted and delighted audiences with his singular combination of immaculate craft and utter debauchery. For me, Oldboy strayed a bit too far toward the latter (I've yet to see the other two films in his "vengeance" trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance), but he smartly tweaked his formula with Thirst, a warped love story that used vampirism to explore the insatiable need for human connection. Then came the terrific Stoker, a cold-blooded tale of Gothic horror that Park set in the sweltering heat of the American South. Now he returns to his native South Korea, but while The Handmaiden finds Park going back home, it demonstrates that his virtuosic command of cinematic language is more vibrant than ever.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Arrival: They Come in Peace, But What About Us?

Amy Adams is a troubled linguist in Denis Villeneuve's mesmerizing "Arrival"
Arrival is a movie that asks a lot of weighty, philosophical questions—What does it mean to be human? How do our memories inform our sense of self? Are we alone in the universe? Are we alone with one another?—so let's begin with a question typically asked of movies: What is it about? The answer, naturally, is a matter of perspective. From a literal standpoint, Arrival is an example of "hard" science-fiction, a piece of popular art that contemplates, with scrupulous discipline and serious pragmatism, what might actually happen if aliens suddenly appeared on Earth. That description is accurate, but it both over- and undersells the merits of this complex, thought-provoking film. On a deeper level, Arrival is a meditation on human connection, or lack thereof: the ties that bind us, the prejudices that plague us, our twin capacities for hope and fear. It isn't about aliens. It's about people.

That's a lofty goal, and the challenge for Arrival, which has been directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on a short story by Ted Chiang), is to fully explore its intellectual inquiries while simultaneously supplying frissons of drama and suspense. It's a delicate balance that the film doesn't always strike perfectly—it's a little slow, and the integrity of the storytelling is occasionally compromised by a few one-dimensional minor characters. On the whole, though, Arrival is a consistently fascinating and sporadically transcendent achievement, the rare movie that demands being grappled with and argued about.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Doctor Strange: Do No Harm. Save the World.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a sorcerer in Marvel's "Doctor Strange"
Doctor Strange opens with a dizzying, disorienting sequence of eye-popping incredulity. Somewhere in a South Asian monastery, a man in a robe rips a few pages out of a heavy, important-looking book, then flees from a hooded figure. While running, the man waves his hands and opens a portal to a different continent, and the action suddenly shifts to a brightly lit European metropolis. There, rather than engaging in hand-to-hand fighting, the combatants somehow will objects into motion, and their very surroundings—the buildings, the pavement, the sky itself—seem to twist and contort around them. When I watched this scene, I had absolutely no idea what was happening; now, having seen the entire film, my understanding is only marginally improved. Yet while I was (and remain) clueless, I was nevertheless riveted by the sheer vigor of the filmmaking, the visual dynamism and formal audacity. The ability to induce this sensation—a feeling of awestruck confusion and slack-jawed wonder—is the greatest achievement of Doctor Strange. It may not make a lick of sense—the more it attempts to clarify itself, the more tedious it becomes—but damn is it cool.

Eventually, anyway. Setting aside its discombobulating prologue, the opening act of Doctor Strange functions as a reliably formulaic superhero origin story. Its protagonist, Stephen Strange, is a supercilious New York neurosurgeon, the kind of only-in-the-movies doctor who routinely performs impossible procedures with unmatched skill and unflappable calm. He is as callous as he is capable, and while he may be a medical genius, he's something of a social misfit; it's almost as if Sherlock Holmes has swapped out his pipe and deerstalker cap for a surgical mask and gloves. That impression, of course, is hardly coincidental: Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the immensely talented English actor who first wriggled his way into most viewers' hearts as the titular detective on the BBC's Sherlock. Here, he's just as smart but even more disdainful. When he pauses during a particularly perilous operation to tell a subordinate to stifle his wristwatch (because its ticking second-hand is interfering with his concentration), you can taste the haughty intelligence dripping off him.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Moonlight: From Boy to Man, with Submerged Desires in Tow

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight"
A tender, piercing, achingly sad story of loneliness, Moonlight sneaks up on you. In empirical terms, it's fairly modest: It is short, it was made on a limited budget, and it stars no high-profile actors. But as it progresses, this brittle, forceful film surreptitiously accumulates a startling amount of raw power. It doesn't quite knock you out—it is too nuanced and compassionate to wield its intensity as a sledgehammer—but it still has the capacity to paralyze you.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight chronicles the life of Chiron (pronounced shy-ROAN), a young, gay black man growing up in Miami's impoverished Liberty Square. It unfolds as a series of cinematic chrysalides, considering Chiron at three different stages of growth. In the first, he is a scrawny nine-year-old derogatively dubbed Little (Alex Hibbert), suffering the abuses of local bullies and living in squalor with his crack-addicted mother, Paula (a heart-breaking Naomie Harris). In the second, he is a sullen teenager (Ashton Sanders), more self-assured but still subjected to the same violent rituals of prejudice and persecution. I will leave the details of the final phase of his metamorphosis to the viewer, except to say that Chiron grows into a puissant adult who now goes by the name of Black (Trevante Rhodes).

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge: In the Shadow of Death, Bearing Witness, But Not Arms

Andrew Garfield is a pacifist at war in Mel Gibson’s "Hacksaw Ridge"
Early in Hacksaw Ridge, a jittery blood donor attempts to impress a pretty nurse with a spectacularly cheesy pickup line. Yesterday, when she jabbed a needle into his arm, was the first time they'd met; today, he insists that he needs a transfusion because ever since he saw her, his heart's been beating so fast that he's nearly out of blood. "That's pretty corny," she responds, but when he asks if that makes it bad, she blushes and continues, "I didn't say that." Hacksaw Ridge, the fifth movie directed by Mel Gibson, is also pretty corny—OK, it's very corny. It is also sappy, grandiose, and preachy. Does that make it bad? Not by a long shot.

That aforementioned blood donor is Desmond Doss, played as an adult with sly, aw-shucks charm by Andrew Garfield. We first meet him as a boy (portrayed by Darcy Bryce) in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where he roughhouses with his brother before inadvertently knocking him unconscious. Fearing for his sibling's life, the young sinner slumps into an adjoining room, where he gazes at a crude illustration of a murder, ornamented with the text of one of the Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill." This blunt, didactic sequence quickly establishes two things: one, Doss will grow up to be a deeply religious pacifist, and two, Gibson has no use for subtlety.

Friday, October 28, 2016

American Honey: Heading Door to Door, Looking for a New Life

Sasha Lane is a woman on the road in "American Honey"
A scraggly valentine to the majesty and misery of the pursuit of happiness, American Honey is a sprawling, glorious mess of a movie, one that both gladdens and maddens. The first stateside film from the British director Andrea Arnold, it is nothing less than a grand statement on the quixotic fragility of the American dream, even if it is also a quiet, poignant character study. This duality—ambition fused with intimacy—is tough to pull off, and on occasion here, the panoramic threatens to overwhelm the personal. But the pluck of American Honey cannot be denied, and neither can its heroine, a wellspring of defiance and heartbreak who is fittingly named Star.

Played in a searing debut performance by Sasha Lane, Star is an 18-year-old living in an Oklahoma backwater; when we first see her, she's rummaging through a dumpster, searching for food. She's down on her luck, no question, but there's a calming matter-of-factness to the image, and both Arnold and Lane ensure that Star doesn't come across as yet another wretched lass in need of salvation. Still, things could certainly be better, as we learn during a swift and economical prologue. Arnold has never been one for hand-holding—she plops you down with her protagonists and lets you uncover their mysteries for yourself—and American Honey is gratifyingly devoid of exposition. All it takes is a quick, mostly silent scene in Star's modest apartment—where her boyfriend is handsy and a Confederate flag adorns one wall—and it's clear that she wants to break free from the shackles of her routine. So it's hard to blame her when she lugs her young half-siblings to a bar, dumps them with their mother, and sprints off into the hot southern night.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Girl on the Train: Three Women's Lives, Going off the Rails

Emily Blunt is suspicious and suspected in "The Girl on the Train"
The key test for any whodunit is whether it would still be compelling if you already knew the answer. Sure, the closing reveal in Psycho is legendary, but that shower scene is terrifying regardless of the identity of that knife-wielding woman. (For a more recent example, the least interesting element of The Night Of was the (apparent) confirmation of the actual murderer; the show was far more powerful as a tragic character study and a virulent examination of our justice system.) The "who" in "whodunit" is secondary—what really matters is the how and, more importantly, the why. With one singular exception, The Girl on the Train fails this test. It is so preoccupied with drawing out its central mystery that it never invests that mystery with any real resonance. As a result, its ultimate resolution is unlikely to inspire anything beyond the simple recognition of, "Oh, that's who done it."

This is especially curious, given that the majority of this film's viewers will enter the theater already armed with the answer to its central question. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, The Girl on the Train is based on the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, a book that scratched the melodramatic itch of millions of fans of suspense literature, whether railway commuters or otherwise. Given that Taylor can't pull the rug out from under the feet of readers who have already fallen to the floor, you might think that he would attempt to create a different hook. Instead, he appears to have faithfully—at times ploddingly, at times bracingly—transmuted the novel to the screen, fashioning the film as a persistent guessing game. The Girl on the Train functions as a sort of murderous Whack-a-Mole: Everybody is a suspect, no one can be trusted, and as soon as you peg one character as the culprit, another more likely candidate pops up. Was it the wife? The shrink? The guy in the suit (who is literally credited as "Man in the Suit")? Who knows?

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Birth of a Nation: Black Men Fighting Back, Then and Now

Nate Parker in the complex, controversial "Birth of a Nation"
No movie exists entirely within its own bubble, but the clamor surrounding The Birth of a Nation is so loud, it's threatened to silence the actual film. When it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation was hailed not only as a good movie—it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award—but as a timely and potent corrective to the monochrome of the Academy Awards, which were squirming through the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite. But in August, reports surfaced that Nate Parker, the film's writer-director as well as its star, had been charged with rape in 1999 along with Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a story credit with Parker. In 2001, Parker was acquitted (Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal); then, in 2012, his accuser killed herself. This tragedy—combined with the fact that the film features a rape whose accuracy has been questioned—ignited a firestorm that has engulfed the picture, resulting in boycotts, short-circuited interviews, and a marketing campaign that could charitably be described as tentative. Both the breadth and the volume of the rhetoric surrounding The Birth of a Nation's release make it challenging to look past the movie's context to see its content.

Yet here we are. By which I mean, my job as a film critic is not to analyze The Birth of a Nation's Best Picture prospects, nor is it to reconcile Nate Parker the person with Nate Parker the artist. (It is certainly not to determine the validity of the sexual assault allegations against Parker or to assess the prospect of causation with the alleged victim's suicide, tasks for which I am wholly unqualified.) It is instead to evaluate this movie as, well, a movie. And on that score, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Birth of a Nation is how ordinary it is. What we have here is a prototypical biopic, alternately stimulating and stultifying. You've seen movies like this before, which means you are much more likely to remember this one for what it represents than for what it contains.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Deepwater Horizon: The Ship Is Sinking, and So Are Profit Margins

Mark Wahlberg in Peter Berg's "Deepwater Horizon"
At one point in Peter Berg's geopolitical action thriller The Kingdom, Jamie Foxx tells a Saudi official, "America's not perfect, but we are good at this." The "this" he's referring to is criminal investigation, but as Berg's career has gone on, his films have played as a variation on this central theme of American competence. He makes movies about strong-willed, muscular men and women who excel at problem-solving and crisis management. It's historical fiction with a nationalist tint; in recreating specific, disastrous events, Berg venerates the broader (and, in his view, distinctly red-white-and-blue) virtues of teamwork, loyalty, and perseverance. The guy who played Linda Fiorentino's hapless patsy in The Last Seduction has somehow fashioned himself into American cinema's chief patriot.

Well, maybe vice-chief. Berg's current leading man of choice is Mark Wahlberg, our great nation's consensus avatar of blue-collar heroism. In Lone Survivor, the fact-based story of a kill mission in Afghanistan gone awry, Berg put Wahlberg through an especially brutal ringer, chronicling how a brave solider used his strength and his smarts to avoid seemingly certain death. Now the director and his star have returned with Deepwater Horizon, a meticulous reenactment of the explosion (and resulting oil spill) that destroyed a rig off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. The names may have changed, but Berg's template remains the same: Deliberately establish the players and the setting, then scrupulously illustrate how everything gets blown to hell.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Morris from America: In a Strange Land, Father Still Knows Best

Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson in "Morris from America"
Early in the modest and winsome crowd-pleaser Morris from America, a father scolds his son for writing vulgar, misogynistic rap lyrics. When the son counters that his father curses constantly, the father explains, "I'm not mad because it's explicit, I'm mad because it's bullshit." That judgment applies to parts of Morris from America itself. A slender study of disenchanted youths, the film is sometimes false and artificial, even when it postures as authentic. Yet the incisive honesty with which the father delivers his verdict exemplifies what makes this small, heartfelt movie worth watching. As a portrait of a teenager straining to find himself in a cruel and uncaring world, it's fairly rote. But as a story of the fragile-yet-powerful bond between parent and child, it is wonderfully specific and true.

The son in question is Morris (Markees Christmas), and you can guess where he's from. The more interesting detail is where he lives; Morris resides in Heidelberg, the touristy German town where his widowed father coaches soccer. His status as an immigrant lends some spice to the film's otherwise mild recipe. By which I mean, despite its European location, Morris from America—which was written and directed by Chad Hartigan—fits snugly within one of the most durable genres of American independent cinema: the coming-of-age story. It tells the tale of a diffident outsider who struggles to connect with his peers and understand his elders, but who also, thanks to the careful nourishment of his confidence and the attentions of a pretty girl, gradually discovers how to accept and assert himself. As the movie progresses, you can be sure that Morris will fall in love, make some questionable decisions, get his heart broken, lie to his father, and ultimately learn some valuable life lessons.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: On a Spit of Land, Still Lost at Sea

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in "The Light Between Oceans"
Derek Cianfrance isn't subtle. His movies traffic in heavy sentiment and obvious themes, and they are systematically designed to induce trauma and heartache. If he were less talented, this would feel like manipulative hackwork, but thankfully, he's as skilled as he is blunt. In Blue Valentine, he performed a brutal autopsy of a marriage while it was still alive, in the process coaxing superlative performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. He followed that with The Place Beyond the Pines, a striking, generational crime saga of failed fathers and sons. His new film, The Light Between Oceans, maintains his twin fixations on matrimony and family, striving to wring sweat from your brow and tears from your eyes.

It does not quite succeed. The movie is too deliberate, too mannered, to incite the response it so plainly seeks to provoke. But there is still much to admire in The Light Between Oceans, beginning with its superlative craftsmanship. This is a gorgeous film, with magnificent cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, the talented lenser who gave us the unforgettable tracking shot in True Detective, as well as the ethereal beauty of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake. Here, capitalizing on Cianfrance's preference for shooting on location, he delivers frame after frame of stunning naturalism: gentle sunrises peeking over a hillside, waves crashing onto rocky shoals, ships slicing through the mist like wooden blades. These images are accompanied by the tinkling piano and whispering woodwinds that could only be orchestrated by the great Alexandre Desplat. It's all rather lovely.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Sully: He's Not a Hero. Just Ask the Government.

Tom Hanks is a haunted hero in Clint Eastwood's "Sully"
In the dreadful 2012 flop Trouble with the Curve, Clint Eastwood plays a grizzled baseball scout who has grown disgusted with the sport's increasing reliance on analytics and technology. "Anybody who uses computers doesn't know a damn thing about this game," he growls at one point. His irascible critique encapsulates the film's worldview, namely, that the classicist's wisdom of observational experience will always vanquish the modernist's reliance on statistical data. That broad thesis is now the animating force behind Sully, Eastwood's brisk, hackneyed, intermittently diverting reenactment of an American tragedy that wasn't. It's the kind of movie where the officious villains blindly trust computer simulations, only to be taken aback when they're informed that they've failed to account for that most vexing of variables: humanity.

The majority of the humanity in Sully derives from Tom Hanks, an actor who, luckily for Eastwood, could imbue a paperclip with an aura of moral and professional authority. Here he provides the necessary blunt-force gravitas as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot better known as, well, you know. The film opens with anonymous voices screaming Sully's name as an airplane glides above the streets of Queens before crashing into a skyscraper. It's a nightmarish image, which makes sense, given that it is born from Sully's nightmares. In actuality, as you will no doubt remember, things went quite differently: On January 15, 2009, after U.S. Airways Flight 1549 suffered power failure in both engines due to bird strikes, Sully successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 souls on board. The incident was swiftly dubbed "the Miracle on the Hudson", with Sully as its chief architect. Roll credits.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings: In a Land of Magic, a Storyteller on the Run

In "Kubo and the Two Strings", three strange heroes on a quest
The opening voiceover of Kubo and the Two Strings admonishes viewers not to blink. Closing our eyes, we are told, will result in the death of the film's hero. It's a bold gambit that could potentially induce groans from the audience, were it not accompanied by a ravishing image: a woman and her baby in a tiny canoe, surging forward against a giant wave, as rain lashes down and the moon shines ominously. It's an enthralling sight, one that renders the narrator's warning superfluous—who could possibly look away from such a scene? But that narration, beyond establishing the life-or-death stakes, speaks to the movie's larger purpose. Kubo and the Two Strings isn't just a story about an artist. It's about how artists tell stories.

The artist-in-chief of Kubo is Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika, a studio that occupies a unique space in the American cinematic landscape. Eschewing the digital wizardry of Pixar and DreamWorks, Laika instead makes movies via stop-motion animation, that laborious method of physically manipulating individual objects for illusive effect. (This playful scene illustrates just how mind-bogglingly arduous the technique is.) Its first three films—Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls—married this painstaking approach to an off-kilter weirdness, resulting in distinctly original pictures that were always interesting, if not quite astonishing. But Kubo and the Two Strings, which is Knight's directorial debut, is the studio's best movie yet, combining the doting meticulousness of its prior works with a sweeping, stirring narrative and richly drawn characters. The style may be new-fangled, but the storytelling is old-fashioned in the best ways.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Don't Breathe: He's Just a Blind Guy. How Scary Can He Be?

Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy are in over their head in the thriller "Don't Breathe"
At one point in Jurassic Park, Sam Neill attempts to evade a T-rex by hiding in plain sight. His theory—supported by years of paleontologic research—is that the dinosaur's visual acuity is based on movement, so it won't detect him if he stands stock still. It's a riveting scene (most scenes in Jurassic Park are), forgoing the kineticism of the typical chase ("must go faster") in favor of terrifying immobility. Don't Breathe, the taut and accomplished new chiller from Fede Alvarez, essentially extends this concept to feature-length. It's a horror movie that bottles the genre's rushing adrenaline and redirects it inward; here, rather than running away, the only way the characters can escape the monster is by being very, very quiet.

That monster—the film's tyrannosaur, if you will—is Stephen Lang, the grizzled television actor who briefly lit up the big screen in 2009, with colorful parts in Public Enemies, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and (most memorably) Avatar. In the latter, he played a bloodthirsty warmonger named Miles Quaritch; his heavy in Don't Breathe makes Quaritch seem positively pacifistic. Here, he portrays an unnamed, solitary Iraq war veteran who owns a modest two-story home, a surly rottweiler, and an even surlier disposition. As soon as you see him in the cold open dragging a bloody body down a deserted street—an ill-advised flash-forward that dilutes the movie's considerable tension—you can see the darkness in his soul.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water: Paying Off That Mortgage, No Matter the Cost

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in "Hell or High Water"
The dusty Texas landscape of Hell or High Water is dotted with brightly colored billboards, each promising salvation to those in need. The path of this purported deliverance is not spiritual but financial; neatly lettered signs like "Fast Cash" and "Debt Relief" court blue-collar laborers who are behind on their mortgages or their bills. The striking visual contrast—between the glossy print of the highway advertisements and the dilapidated cars and trucks that drive past them—hints that these assurances are illusory, a cruel commercial ploy to exploit the perpetual suffering of the working class. It's an accurate impression, as the movie is, in part, a damning indictment of corporate avarice, one that recalls the impotent rage of The Big Short, only with the gleaming skyscrapers of the Big Apple replaced with the vast and desolate ranches of the heartland. Hell or High Water is in many ways a classic heist picture, but the true thieves depicted here are the banks.

That may sound a tad polemical, and it's fair to criticize Hell or High Water for tarring and feathering an avatar of exaggerated evil that has already been burned in cinematic effigy. (Recent examples include 99 Homes and Money Monster, though the closest comparator here is Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik's seamy underworld yarn that embellished its pulpy narrative with persistent commentary on the government's post-Katrina nonfeasance.) But this smart, soulful movie is too nuanced—and too compassionate—to be reduced to its talking points. Its message may be broad, but its details are thrillingly specific.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sausage Party: Imagine All the Foods, Losing Their Religion

Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, Edward Norton, and David Krumholtz as foods in "Sausage Party"
The community at the center of Sausage Party is a vibrant melting pot, a diverse cross-section of ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths. But this neighborhood is also unified in its theism—although it hosts a number of different sects, most of its residents believe in some higher power. Some sing hymns together, while others pass down oral histories of their divinities; virtually all of them contemplate the existence of life after death and hope one day to ascend to a spiritual plane. In essence, this bustling hub of worship exhibits the kind of cultural variety that you might find in any American metropolis, where people regularly attend churches, synagogues, or mosques. There's just one small difference that distinguishes the characters of this movie: They're all foods.

The premise of Sausage Party, which was co-written by longtime best buds Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, sounds like an idea that they cooked up while getting stoned on the set of This Is the End, their woozy apocalyptic hangout comedy. (Virtually the entire voice cast of Sausage Party appeared in that film, while Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, who both executive-produced it, also receive screenwriting credits here.) That movie used the Rapture as scaffolding for a thoughtful investigation of male friendship and insecurity, and Sausage Party features an even crazier concept that masks an even more provocative study of human behavior. Curiously, it's the latter that leaves a mark. A self-professed work of "adult animation", Sausage Party is frequently funny and persistently filthy, but its commitment to excess suffers from diminishing returns. It's the skewering of organized religion that really stings.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Nerve: Gotta Catch 'Em All, Your Life's on the Line

Kimiko Glenn, Emma Roberts, and Miles Heizer in "Nerve"
The teenagers in Nerve are slaves to their smartphones, blindly following their devices' directions even when they appear to be leading them toward certain death. This makes Nerve a very silly movie, though perhaps not as silly as it would have seemed a month ago. The recent Pokémon Go craze—in which people fixated on their Androids have stumbled into robberies, corpses, and murder—lends Nerve more than a whiff of topical relevance. What could have been a stupid and implausible dystopian thriller now becomes something resembling a cautionary tale, a didactic fable that concerned friends can relay to their Pikachu-obsessed peers. Unfortunately, while it's less implausible than it might have been, it's still pretty stupid.

Which doesn't mean that it can't be fun. Directed with style and snap by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Nerve is a big-screen experience that takes great heed to remind us how tethered we are to our pocket-sized monitors. Using a variety of flashy tracks—frequent POV shots, distorted camera angles, translucent screens, text running through images both horizontally and vertically—Schulman and Joost keep your eyes busy, soaking the frame in a neon-drenched aesthetic that recalls Spring Breakers. From the outset, Nerve doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and its narrative only deteriorates as it goes along, but it's consistently eye-catching.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jason Bourne: Angry Assassin Remembers, Again

Matt Damon returns in Paul Greengrass' "Jason Bourne"
Jason Bourne is a superhero. He may not have a costume or a secret identity or alien powers, but he's nevertheless invincible, terminating his enemies with extreme prejudice and casual efficiency. What made him interesting in the past was his struggle to reconcile his superhuman combat skills with his search for self—there's a reason that the first novel in Robert Ludlum's original trilogy was called The Bourne Identity. Doug Liman's 2002 adaptation of that novel was thrilling not just for its explosive action sequences but for the way it emphasized its protagonist's confusion and vulnerability, amplified by Matt Damon in a performance of tender brutality. But now, three movies later—four if you count The Bourne Legacy, in which Jeremy Renner stood in for Damon as a Bourne-like surrogate—Jason Bourne knows who he is. The mystery has vanished; all that's left is the brutality.

When we first meet Jason in this new movie that bears his name, he's lying low in Greece, numbly participating in underground bare-knuckled boxing matches. (In this, the film oddly resembles the opening of Creed.) Beyond establishing the obvious—that even at age 45, Matt Damon still looks awfully good with his shirt off—this curt opening sequence is designed to demonstrate Jason's isolation. Yet it tells us nothing we didn't already know. Jason starts this movie alone, and he ends it alone. There is no character progression, no soul-searching, no catharsis, no real meaning of any kind. Where Jason Bourne was once a superhero, he's now morphed into a different sort of genre staple: the looming figure who moves implacably toward his quarry, inexorable in his silent bloodlust. He's the killer in a horror movie.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Deep in Space, a Crew Bands Together

Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella, and Chris Pine in "Star Trek Beyond"
"Things have started to feel a little episodic," Jim Kirk confesses at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, the fleet and fun third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. He's musing about his role overseeing the increasingly routine voyages of the Starship Enterprise, but it doesn't require a doctorate in meta to connect his observations to the other vehicle he's piloting, namely the Star Trek franchise itself. Kirk's opening voiceover articulates the central challenge that every studio-sanctioned cinematic series faces: How do you continue serving your fans but prevent the proceedings from growing stale? Can you deliver something more without just providing more of the same?

Star Trek Beyond—directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, taking the reins from J.J. Abrams (who has since migrated to a different galaxy)—doesn't entirely solve this paradox, but it does thread the needle about as well as a big-budget three-quel can. Light and lively, with a refreshing focus on character and a blessed scarcity of mind-numbing spectacle, it's a satisfying continuation, one that cannily plays up the franchise's strengths (interpersonal dynamics, cheeky comedy) while minimizing its weaknesses (lack of stakes, weightless space battles). It may be just another episode in the adventures of the Enterprise crew, but it's a damn good episode.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ghostbusters: Slime, Ghouls, Women, and Other Scary Stuff

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters"
Can women be funny? Is Chris Hemsworth just a pretty face with an accent? Should fans of a beloved classic feel rightfully outraged when it's remade featuring members of a different sex? The answers to these questions are so obvious—for the record, they are "yes," "no," and "are-you-serious-just-shut-the-fuck-up"—that we hardly needed a reboot of Ghostbusters to answer them. But perhaps this loose, breezy new film, which arrives in the polarized age of the hot take and the down-vote, can still teach us something, something beyond the seemingly hard-to-grasp axiom of "don't judge a movie before you actually watch it". If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that action-comedies are advised to focus on the comedy rather than the action. When the heroes of this revamped Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig from a script he co-wrote with Katie Dippold) are stuck in the lab, trapped in the subway, or confined in any other location where they can joke, whine, titter, and bicker, this movie is a blast. When they're actually busting ghosts, it's a snooze.

Thankfully, the proton guns and laser rays stay hidden for most of the film's first half, allowing Feig to unhurriedly assemble his team of all-star comediennes. Naturally, this begins with Melissa McCarthy, Feig's regular lead who shot to fame (and an Oscar nomination) five years ago in Bridesmaids and last year delivered a career-best performance in the underrated Spy. (When the Golden Globes honor McCarthy 30 years from now, her clip reel had better feature this.) McCarthy plays Abby, an eccentric scientist who has devoted her life to researching the paranormal. She even long ago wrote a book on the topic, the recent publication of which consternates Erin (Kristen Wiig, in her comfort zone), the manuscript's co-author who is currently up for tenure at an exalted university. (How exalted? When Erin tenders a recommendation letter from a Princeton professor to her dean, he advises her that she obtain a reference from a school that's a bit more prestigious.) Once a true believer, Erin has spent years trying to distance herself from her collaborations with Abby, so she's none too pleased that they've resurfaced.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Swiss Army Man: A Story of Adventure, Friendship, and Farts

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in "Swiss Army Man"
"The big bucks are in dick and fart jokes," Ben Affleck's character memorably quipped in Chasing Amy. Something tells me that he wasn't thinking of Swiss Army Man, an aggressively absurd, surprisingly saccharine comedy from the writer-director team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels). This bizarre movie, with its gigantic premise and diminutive budget, does not possess a commercial bone in its proudly misshapen body. But for all its surface weirdness and gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man proves to be a fairly conventional story of isolation and redemption, with broad themes that would fit snugly inside a Disney film. It's standard self-help shtick, only with more farts and boners.

The source of both is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to do his utmost to distance himself from his signature screen persona), a waterlogged corpse whom we first see washing up on a remote beach. His arrival interrupts the attempted suicide of Hank (Paul Dano), a bearded loner who, believing himself to be marooned on this tiny spit of land, has given in to despair. Manny is hardly a good candidate to improve his circumstances, given that he is dead. But in death, he has acquired a peculiar superpower: He can pass gas on command, and his flatulence is so powerful that he can serve as a sort of catatonic motorboat. And so, Hank straddles Manny's lifeless body, pulls down his pants, and rides him off toward the mainland "like a jet ski". (If only Manny had appeared off the coast of Mexico instead of California, he would have made poor Blake Lively's life a whole lot easier.)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The BFG: Off to Giant Country, and Packing Light

Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance, in Steven Spielberg's "The BFG"
For a director who is renowned for purveying inspirational entertainment, Steven Spielberg's resume is surprisingly light on kid-friendly pictures. Sure, E.T. imprinted his inimitable brand of humanistic fantasy upon an entire generation, but beyond that, The Beard has largely eschewed family-oriented fare, preferring to smuggle his predilection for warmth and decency inside colder, darker films. (The only real exceptions are the ill-received Peter Pan sequel Hook and the underloved animated romp The Adventures of Tintin). Hell, he turned down Harry Potter. Still, Spielberg at his core is a crowd-pleaser, and in adapting Roald Dahl's beloved children's classic The BFG, he's clearly invested in delivering excitement and wonder to a new era of wide-eyed kids.

Judged against these lofty goals, The BFG is a failure, even if it is also, on different terms, a worthy accomplishment. This weird, amorphous movie is by no means going to become a staple on cable television, destined to be re-watched over and over; it will not be endlessly quoted in the schoolyard or relentlessly imitated at the multiplex. (In fact, it is already fizzling at the domestic box office.) But in failing to craft a cultural touchstone, Spielberg has done something arguably more impressive: He's made a children's movie that's interesting.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Shallows: The Bold Babe and the Sea

Blake Lively takes on a shark in "The Shallows"
Water, water is everywhere in The Shallows, and there isn't a drop to drink, though that's due less to its salt than its color. Not long into this lean, mean thriller from Jaume Collet-Serra, the tranquil blue of the sea's waves gets stained with blood, and a peaceful getaway transforms into a harrowing struggle of survival. It never becomes anything more than that, but that's part of its charm. The Shallows may lack the towering ambition of Gravity or the scrupulous minimalism of All Is Lost, but its gritty flair and appealing star nevertheless make it a worthy entrant in the "man vs. nature" canon. At the very least, it will have you thinking twice the next time you consider wading into the water.

Not that The Shallows' opening act is particularly frightening; in fact, if you ignore the scary tone-setting prologue, it's positively idyllic. Our protagonist is Nancy (a revelatory Blake Lively), a medical student journeying to a secluded Mexican beach that her mother once told her about. It's as advertised, with golden sand leading into a majestic gulf whose giant waves render this isolated inlet a surfer's paradise.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding Dory: Remember, Remember, the Fish Blue and Tender

In "Finding Dory", Marlin the clownfish and Dory the tang are back for another adventure
One of the many running jokes in 2003's Finding Nemo—that magnificent maritime adventure from Pixar Animation Studios—was that its main character, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), was a clownfish but was spectacularly unfunny. In fact, Marlin was a neurotic grump, far more prone to panic than humor. He's still grousing about anything and everything in Finding Dory, but one of his complaints stands out. "Crossing the entire ocean is something you should only do once," he grumbles. It's a gripe that might as well be chum to metaphor-hungry film critics—not that I have anyone in mind—looking to compare this sequel to Finding Nemo, which remains one of Pixar's greatest achievements. The computer-animation pioneer is renowned for many things—breathtaking visuals, witty dialogue, mature themes smuggled inside kid-friendly packages—but perhaps its defining trait is its commitment to originality. This is, after all, the studio that has told tales of culinarily gifted rats, silent robots, and anthropomorphized emotions. Which brings us back to Marlin's gloomy, profound question: Is it really worth crossing the ocean twice? That is, can a straightforward sequel really be worthy of joining the animation giant's formidable canon?

Yes and no. What, you were expecting a straight answer? Fine, I'll be blunt: Finding Dory is not as good as Finding Nemo. Yet even that seemingly straightforward assessment comes with a caveat, namely: so what? Comparing sequels to their originals is a reductive way of evaluating them on their own merits; that's especially true when said original is one of the best movies of the prior decade. Finding Dory may, er, swim in the shadow of its progenitor, but that shouldn't preclude us from weighing its standalone value as a movie.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Conjuring 2: The Kids Are All Right, Until the Demon Shows Up

Vera Farmiga is haunted by demons in "The Conjuring 2"
Everything undead is alive again in The Conjuring 2, a skillfully constructed dispensary of the heebie-jeebies. Directed by the 21st century's preeminent purveyor of nightmares, James Wan (Saw, Insidious), it's a methodical exercise in modern horror, with all of the required elements: a haunted house, a possessed child, jolt-scares, intrepid investigators, and shadowy things that go bump in the night. There's not a whole lot new to see in this dark, foreboding film, but in horror, familiarity can breed fear as well as contempt. When coming face-to-face with The Conjuring 2's predictability, you may be inclined to roll your eyes, but then, you may be too afraid to open them in the first place.

The original Conjuring didn't reboot the horror genre so much as reinvigorate it, reminding viewers that scary movies can be patient and legitimately disturbing rather than just loud and schlocky. It also demonstrated just how effective a director Wan can be. Having traded in the vulgar sadism of Saw for something more contemplative, he proved to be a master of the slow build, wringing tension from ostensibly mundane images and objects. The Conjuring was horror as negative space, turning the absence of incident into its own clammy terror. By the time Lili Taylor chose to play a seemingly innocent game called "hide and clap" with her young son, I practically needed a ventilator.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Lobster: Looking for Love as the Clock Ticks Down

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in "The Lobster"
Early in The Lobster, the deadpan, depraved, deeply romantic black comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos, a woman discusses the unsuitable hypothetical couplings of various animals. She notes, for example, that a wolf and a penguin could never live in harmony. "That would be absurd," she scoffs. Fair enough. But when it comes to Lanthimos, absurdity is relative. The Greek director's prior film, Alps, followed a four-person troupe of bizarre ambulance-chasers who waited for people to die, then impersonated the deceased for the bereaved's benefit (in return for a fee). Before that he made Dogtooth, a nightmarish study of three home-schooled teenagers who had no names, learned a false language, and regarded house cats as ferocious beasts to be decapitated on sight. Dogtooth was consistently fascinating, Alps intermittently so, but both depicted their human grotesqueries so persuasively that they were easier to admire than adore. The Lobster is different, even as it's more of the same. It retains the hypnotic surrealism of Lanthimos' earlier work, but it also possesses something even more startling: a heart.

All of Lanthimos' films operate on multiple levels, working as tidy, intimately scaled pieces of off-kilter esoterica while also asking big, loaded questions about social customs and human relationships. Here, he's exploring the freighted topic of love. That's hardly a novel hook for a movie, but The Lobster is less interested in defining love than in examining how we view it as a symbol of status. And so it inquires: Are married people truly happy? Are single people really alone? When we claim that we are in love, what do we mean? Is coupledom a shield against the sadness of isolation, or is it a prison that suppresses freedom and individuality? And if you get caught masturbating, shouldn't you be forced to stick your hand in a burning-hot toaster?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse—It's the End of the World, and They Feel Whiny

Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult in "X-Men: Apocalypse", with the kids in the background
Evil's days may be numbered, at least if Marvel's X-Men: Apocalypse is a harbinger of things to come. No, I'm not suggesting that this creaky, silly movie has solved the world's problems, or even cinema's. Instead, it seems to be inadvertently tolling the funeral bells for comic-book villainy, that once-robust institution of camp and calamity. To be fair, the forces of evil were already looking a bit frail. The good recent Marvel movies—namely, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Civil War—succeeded not because of their villains' appeal but their absence; both films were essentially hangout comedies that derived their pathos from rifts between their heroes, not battles against fearsome foes. Now, future filmmakers might well be tempted to go that route, as X-Men: Apocalypse illustrates the perils of hitching your movie to a lackluster heavy. Comic-book characters may be virtually invincible, but there is nothing more fatal to the vehicle that carries them than a lousy bad guy.

The baddie here is En Sabah Nur, though he's better known as Apocalypse. (He ominously informs us that he's been called many names throughout history, though "His Blandness" is not among them.) We first meet him, during a screechingly awful prologue, in ancient Egypt, which he rules as a pharaoh. A sort of vampiric mutant, Apocalypse has acquired enormous power by siphoning the abilities of lesser mutants into his own body, a process that director Bryan Singer conveys through amateur laser displays and muddily conceived 3-D visuals. During one particular transfusion of super-blood, things go awry, and Apocalypse finds himself entombed in one of his pyramids. Humans being the meddlers that they are, a cult eventually disturbs his slumber, and he emerges in 1983, ready to let loose five millennia worth of pent-up aggression.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Nice Guys: Reluctant Heroes Shoot Off Their Mouths, Their Pistols

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in Shane Black's "The Nice Guys"
Shane Black loves misfits. His screenplay for Lethal Weapon spawned countless derivative buddy-cop movies, but its heart lay in the fragile eccentricity that made Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs such a dashing and dangerous hero. His script for The Last Boy Scout paired two fallen losers—a disgraced ex-Secret Service agent (Bruce Willis) and a former football star (Damon Wayans)—then watched with glee as they stumbled into a ludicrous plot involving illegal sports gambling. And Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his directorial debut, starred Robert Downey Jr. as a hapless unemployed actor whose motor-mouthed speech was exceeded in speed only by the bullets whizzing past him. All three movies indulge in hard-boiled genre thrills—double-crosses, overbaked conspiracies, larger-than-life villains—but they're elevated by a writer's true love for his characters and his words. Now, Black is back with The Nice Guys, a caper-comedy that both exposes the director's worst tendencies and showcases his unique brilliance.

The flaws of this disposable, delightful film are obvious. It's too long, its action is dull, its violence is pointless, and its plotting is simultaneously overcomplicated and undercooked. With a different director, these deficiencies might be crippling, but with Black (who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi), they're trivial. You don't watch The Nice Guys to see what happens next. You watch The Nice Guys to hang out with the nice guys.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Money Monster: Angry Investor Wants Answers, or Else

Jack O'Connell and George Clooney in Jodie Foster's "Money Monster"
Money Monster is a fanciful parable rooted in a real-life catastrophe. In December of 2007, the U.S. economy crashed, and the Great Recession began. People lost their homes, their jobs, and a whole lot of their money. The financial markets have since rebounded, but for many, the acrid scent of the collapse still lingers. Attempting to capitalize on this continuing bitterness, Money Monster paints a portrait of Wall Street as a rotted abscess, festering with corruption and venality. You've never seen America's big banks depicted in such an unflattering light. Well, unless you've seen The Big Short. Or Margin Call. Or Too Big to Fail. Or Inside Job. Or a newspaper article or blog post that was written at any point in the past eight years.

You get the picture. This movie, which has been directed by Jodie Foster from a script by a trio of screenwriters, isn't saying anything new. But topicality is hardly a requirement of cinematic worth, and while Money Monster isn't remotely insightful, it is rarely uninteresting. Some of this is to its benefit: It sports a decent premise, it's surprisingly funny, and it features excellent actors who take their craft seriously. But the real fascination surrounding this silly, vacuous, ultimately disastrous thriller is of the morbid variety. Watching it, you are compelled to wonder just how a picture of such pedigree could disintegrate into such a puddle of idiocy. Perhaps it's all a clandestine metaphor designed to mirror the tumultuous nature of the recession itself. It raises your hopes through bluster and recklessness before it crashes—hard.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Captain America: Civil War—Dissension in the Superhero Ranks

A host of heroes charges the field in "Captain America: Civil War"
Early in Captain America: Civil War, a character called Vision (Paul Bettany) muses on his brethren's tendency to antagonize. "Conflict breeds catastrophe," he gloomily intones. Maybe so. But at the movies, conflict is the engine of drama. Yet while the Marvel Cinematic Universe comprises films that feature plenty of fighting, they're largely lacking in genuine excitement. The Avengers sequel had its Whedonesque charms, but it ultimately amounted to a bunch of costumed warriors trading blows with an army of faceless flying robots. Ditto for Iron Man 3, except there, the robots were the good guys. Ant-Man was fitfully funny, but it was still an absurd movie about a dude who talked to bugs. Thor? Please.

The recent exception to this institutional lethargy—setting aside the terrific Guardians of the Galaxy, which was literally a universe removed from the rest of the MCU—was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, it was less a superhero movie than a paranoid thriller, and its stripped-down quality lent it a rare spark of intrigue. Now the Russos are back with Civil War, a far more unwieldy but no less thoughtful superhero extravaganza. Like all Marvel movies, it's large and loud, with special effects and action sequences galore, but it nonetheless feels rooted in its characters rather than its gee-whiz battle scenes. Every comic-book film has combat; Civil War has actual conflict.