Friday, April 29, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!: College Ballplayers, Hazed and Amused

Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, and Tyler Hoechlin in Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!!"
Ah, college. Remember your freshman year, when all you did was guzzle beer, smoke pot, and bang hot girls? Sadly, neither do I. But whether Everybody Wants Some!!—the fun, effortless, secretly sweet new film from cinema's slacker emeritus, Richard Linklater—is a clandestine autobiography of its director's misspent youth or a fantasy of testosterone-laced revelry, it doesn't much matter. This movie is such a relaxed pleasure, jocks and nerds alike will find its embrace to be irresistible. It's wreathed in a halcyon glow, but it never dreams of suggesting that the past was better. That would constitute a judgment, and there's none of that here.

There isn't all that of much of anything, unless you count warmth, intelligence, and continuous humor. This absence of substance—not to be confused with illicit substances, which flow freely—comes as no surprise. Linklater has made a career out of what might be called epic minimalism, compressing grand, sweeping stories into spare, economical packages. Three years ago, he delivered Before Midnight, the concluding chapter of a trilogy that somehow traced the entire trajectory of a single (and singular) relationship by way of three seemingly mundane single-day episodes. Then he gave us Boyhood, the outrageously ambitious account of a child's maturation, filmed in discrete stages over the span of a dozen years. One of the remarkable things about Boyhood was that it was defiantly unremarkable, eschewing typical story beats in favor of quiet character moments and thoughtful exploration.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Jungle Book: Welcome to the Digital

Neel Sethi as Mowgli, alongside Bill Murray's Baloo, in "The Jungle Book"
If it hadn't already experienced one two decades ago, Walt Disney Pictures would be in the midst of a renaissance. Even ignoring its partnership with Pixar, the company's animated division has been on a hot streak, producing a string of critically and commercially successful hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and a little film called Frozen. But where the mouse house's animation department continues to place a premium on forward-thinking, original storytelling, its live-action complement has preferred to look backward, rebooting classic studio properties for the millennial age. A few of these efforts have been successful—The Muppets was wonderful (its sequel, less so), while Maleficent put a fresh and exciting spin on Sleeping Beauty—but the concept of dusting off golden oldies for a new audience remains both predatory and lazy, an easy substitute for real creativity. Last year's Cinderella was perfectly fine, but it offered no real reason for its existence beyond seeing quality actors stuffed into ravishing costumes. Now comes The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling's popular anthology, which in 1967 Disney turned into a beloved cartoon musical, and which is now receiving a live-action adaptation.

Though perhaps I should put "live-action" in quotation marks. It is true that this movie features a flesh-and-blood actor in Neel Sethi, a 12-year-old Indian-American who plays the iconic Mowgli with competent cuteness. He also does it basically by himself, appearing in front of the camera alongside a potpourri of CGI animals that prowl across digitally rendered landscapes. (There are even rumblings that the movie could compete in the Best Animated Feature category at next year's Oscars.) In the process, The Jungle Book strives to position itself as a new classic for the current generation of Disney-reared children, trying to combine the plucky joy of the prior cartoon with a tinge of contemporary seriousness. In this, it fails. But it remains notable as a signpost that marks the continually disappearing line between the corporeal and the computerized, illustrating just how skilled Hollywood technicians have become at turning artifice into art.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Midnight Special: Bright-Eyed Boy, Phone Home

Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon in "Midnight Special"
Alton Meyer is a strange boy. His nature and purpose are a subject of fierce dispute—some view him as the messiah, others as a danger—but there is no disputing his oddness. He has visions. He speaks in tongues. He has a knack for randomly uttering classified government information. And every so often, beams of bright blue light emanate from his eyes. This is not your typical eight-year-old.

And Midnight Special, the fourth film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, is not your typical movie. Exactly what it is, however, is harder to determine. Is it a science-fiction thriller? A magical fairytale? A parable of governmental interference? An admonition of cultish groupthink? Midnight Special carries hints of all of these, and its fractured, enigmatic identity is both tantalizing and, ultimately, dissatisfying. Its pieces are all strong—solid acting, impressive craft, moments of raw power—but it is so resistant to coherence that those pieces just sit in isolation, never coalescing into a compelling whole. It refuses to conform and ends up just being formless.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Eye in the Sky: Where Collateral Damage Is a Cherub, and Our Collective Soul

Aaron Paul in "Eye in the Sky"
Eye in the Sky is the kind of movie that seeks acclaim simply for existing. It is designed to ask thorny questions about geopolitical warfare in the terrorist age, to make you plumb your conscience and grapple with the inherent tensions between morality and security. It's a noble objective—these are questions that we all should be asking ourselves, and our elected officials—but Eye in the Sky fails to execute its mission with the necessary nuance. It feints at complexity, but it is actually shrill, a didactic sermon that is less interested in probing than proselytizing. Ultimately, the only question it asks is this: "Are you willing to murder an angelic young girl just to stop a few terrorists?" Answer wrong, and ye be judged.

To be fair, Eye in the Sky takes its time before it sheds its camouflage of earnest inquiry. In its opening scenes, it hopscotches around the globe, introducing us to the various players who will take part in its game of philosophical purgatory. These include: Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British military commander stationed in Sussex who is remotely overseeing an operation in Kenya; Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final onscreen performance), Powell's superior who monitors the operation from London, in a roomful of anxious bureaucrats; Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, in his first role since Captain Phillips), a Kenyan field agent providing ground support; and Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), an Air Force pilot in Nevada charged with manning the surveillance drone that gives the film its title.