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.