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.