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 Pok√©mon 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.