Thursday, December 28, 2017

Molly's Game: Shoving All-In, with Her Cards and Her Soul

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Aaron Sorkin's "Molly's Game"
Molly’s Game is about an obscenely intelligent drug addict who wields her intellect and verbal dexterity to achieve professional fortune and personal satisfaction. Which drug addict, you might ask? The film’s protagonist is Molly Bloom, the so-called “Poker Princess” who ran outrageously high-stakes games of Texas hold ’em for movie stars, hedge fund managers, socialites, and other reprobates. But scrub the gender-specific pronoun from the description, and we could just as easily be talking about Aaron Sorkin, the uber-literate Oscar-winner who battled substance abuse on his way to becoming one of America’s most recognizable and divisive wordsmiths. It’s easy to see what attracted Sorkin to Bloom, and to perceive Molly’s Game—his crackling, robustly entertaining directorial debut—as a kind of cracked-mirror self-portrait, as well as a flick about a babe with brains.

Yet even if Molly’s Game is in part a stealth vanity project for Sorkin, it also functions as a well-calibrated response to one of the most common complaints lobbed against him: his inability to write strong roles for women. With her sky-high stilettos and low-cut cocktail dresses (“the Cinemax version of myself”), Molly can occasionally suggest a male screenwriter’s fantasy of feminine sexuality—in fact, she makes this very point to one of her clients who pathetically confesses his love for her—but she is too forceful a presence to be reduced to a mere object. Brought to flaring, ferocious life by Jessica Chastain, Molly reveals herself as a number of things over the course of the movie—a manipulator, a visionary, a lamb, a lioness—but in no way is she a minor player.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: As a New Hope Emerges, an Old Fight Rages On

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"
For all its deafening noise and frantic activity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens concluded with a quiet and surprisingly stirring image: the aspiring Jedi named Rey (Daisy Ridley) tentatively approaching the long-vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, as if you didn’t already know), reaching out to offer him his cherished lightsaber. It was a tantalizing ending, one that sent Star Wars fans—a sect that, according to the box-office receipts, appears to constitute most of the known world—into a state of delirious anticipation that has persisted for two full years. So it is difficult to exaggerate the audacity with which The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga (excluding the standalone Rogue One), chooses to resume this fateful encounter set on the verdant island planet of Ahch-To. Rather than expressing gratitude or even curiosity toward Rey’s arrival, Luke simply accepts the weapon, grimaces, and promptly flings it over a cliff.

This is a hilarious scene, a swift and brutal undercutting of fans’ long-gestating expectations. Yet it also symbolizes the refreshing streak of independence that Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi’s fearless writer and director, has brought to cinema’s most gargantuan franchise. The Force Awakens was a fun and spirited adventure, but it also felt somewhat safe, J.J. Abrams carefully returning the enterprise to the tracks that George Lucas’ (unfairly) maligned prequels so gleefully leapt off. The Last Jedi, by contrast, is a more interesting and exciting movie, flawed in its own ways but charged with genuine unpredictability and risk. In taking the reins from Abrams, Johnson pledges fealty to no one—not even Star Wars fans.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Shape of Water: A Tale of Monsters, and a Creature Too

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water"
It’s tempting to call The Shape of Water a monster movie, given that it revolves around the mysterious arrival of an amphibious fish-man—an imposing humanoid creature with slimy, mottled skin, webbed hands, and a nasty temper. And indeed, this inspired whatsit from Guillermo del Toro is replete with disturbing images and ghoulish presences: severed, decomposing fingers; a mutilated housecat; nefarious Russian communists; Michael Shannon’s sneer. Yet while The Shape of Water is suitably invigorating—as he demonstrated in Crimson Peak, del Toro knows how to set a mood and build suspense—it isn’t really a fright flick. It isn’t really any single type of movie, in fact, preferring to hopscotch across genres with dexterous fluidity. The result is a delicate, beguiling film that’s simultaneously familiar and original; you’ve seen the various pieces before, but you’ve never seen them assembled quite like this.

Some of them fit together better than others. A playful and enthusiastic remodeler of classic movies, del Toro takes evident delight in braiding together seemingly conflicting strains of stories; his last feature, the robot-kaiju mash-up Pacific Rim, was basically $190 million worth of giant toys crashing against one another, an appealing idea marred by uncharacteristically poor execution. The Shape of Water is a gentler, more thoughtful picture, but it still shows some seams from where its director has stitched its disparate elements together. As an underdog caper and a spy thriller, it’s entertaining without being especially exciting. But as a romantic fantasy, it largely soars.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Revenge, Best Served at a Simmer, Then a Boil

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer"
Weirdness is Yorgos Lanthimos’ calling card. His breakout film, Dogtooth, was about three homeschooled adult children who were so shielded from the outside world, they didn’t understand the concept of names and they perceived housecats as deadly animals; that’s weird. His follow-up, Alps, tracked a troupe of performers who interrogated the critically injured as they died, then impersonated them for their families; that’s also weird. And his best movie, last year’s The Lobster, took place in a dystopian society where singles who failed to find romantic mates were transformed into animals; that’s very weird. So it’s something of a shock that The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’ punishing and baffling and routinely astonishing new film, arrives bearing no hallmarks of obvious strangeness.  It’s set in a Cincinnati suburb. It focuses on a happy and healthy nuclear family. Its characters attend casual barbecues and black-tie functions. Nobody kills a cat, and nobody gets turned into a dog. Has Lanthimos, our foremost purveyor of allegorical absurdity, lost his edge?

Hardly. Not that this movie, which is one of the more harrowing features I’ve seen in several years, is a sneaky bait-and-switch. Despite its ostensible banality—its tree-lined streets and sterile hospitals, its family dinners and choir practices—The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t trying to lull you into complacency. Lanthimos may be unsparing toward his characters, but he plays fair with his audience. He announces his severity with his strikingly grotesque opening shot: a close-up of a man’s open chest cavity, his heart thump-thumping like a ghastly metronome. The camera gradually pulls back, revealing the hands of a doctor snipping flesh, and as the horns of a Schubert oratorio blare on the soundtrack, Lanthimos makes plain that he’s out for blood.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco: The Music Is Lively, and So are the Dead

A young boy finds stardom and death in Pixar's "Coco"
Part ticking-clock thriller, part throwback musical, part family weepie, Pixar’s Coco strikes a smart balance between new-age innovation and old-fashioned storytelling. It lacks the creative virtuosity of the studio’s greatest works: the shimmering grandeur of Finding Nemo, the emotional sophistication of Inside Out, the bravura silence of Wall-E. But while Pixar may have previously set the bar for family-friendly entertainment to be unfathomably high, it’s unfair to measure each studio’s new release against its past triumphs. Judged on its own terms, Coco is an agile and rollicking children’s film, mingling spirited action and characteristically stunning technique with wholesome sentimentality. It’s tier-two Pixar, which is another way of saying it’s pretty damn good.

It’s also beautiful, which should go without saying. Visual magnificence is a quality that we take for granted in Pixar productions—it’s simply a matter of appreciating the newest details and the whimsical flourishes within the richly textured environments and limber animation. Coco conjures a world of dazzling luminosity and ceaseless invention: arcing bridges made of bright-orange flower petals; an electric-blue swimming pool in the shape of a guitar; a skylit district of pulsating buildings, threaded together by spiraling staircases and curved viaducts. The characters, meanwhile, move with exquisite dexterity, their wonderfully expressive faces matching the well-pitched vocal performances. The people in this movie look and sound decidedly alive, which is curious, given that most of them are also dead.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Lady Bird: Desperate to Leave the Nest, But Still Learning to Fly

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird"
There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment late in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s funny and piercing and achingly humane directorial debut, that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s warmth and lucidity. Christine, the tempestuous teenager at the center of Lady Bird who insists that everyone refer to her by the film’s title, is repainting her bedroom. As a ribbon of white varnish rolls over the formerly pink wallpaper, it obliterates the printed names of two boys that Lady Bird had previously scrawled into the wall. Those names, which once filled Lady Bird with ardent longing, have been erased, the desires they inspired living on only as relics of her own memory. The implications are plain: Time passes. People change. And life—forgive me if you’ve heard this before—goes on.

Movies, however, must end. Yet when the final frame of Lady Bird cut to black, I was not ready to be done with it. I preferred to linger a few moments longer in the finely textured world that Gerwig had conjured with such candor, intelligence, and care. Perhaps I was simply overpowered—by the film’s sincerity, by its humor, by its grace—but I like to think that I was expressing fidelity to one of the clichéd-but-undeniable truths that this movie articulates with such heartbreaking clarity: When you love someone, it is hard to let them go.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: To Catch a Killer, with Instincts and Interviews

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express"
The concept of a whodunit set on a train carries with it a tantalizing geometric contradiction. Trains are rigid vehicles, traveling robotically along a designated pathway with no room for deviation or improvisation. Mysteries, by contrast, zig and zag, circling around and doubling back along pronged avenues of key clues, red herrings, and dramatic twists. Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh’s sleek but staid transliteration of Agatha Christie’s much-adapted novel, seeks to mine the tension inherent in this incongruity, lumping a dozen-odd suspects and one dead body inside the claustrophobic confines of an immobilized caravan. It’s a suspenseful setting, but it serves as scaffolding for a disappointingly bloodless and familiar story. You know the drill: Everyone is a suspect, nobody can be trusted, and freighted expository flashbacks are just around the bend.

Our conductor on this less-than-thrilling ride is Kenneth Branagh, the stately Irish actor who often moonlights as a mercurial director. (In addition to a number of Shakespeare productions, he has helmed a Marvel movie, a Tom Clancy adventure, and updates of both Frankenstein and Cinderella.) He pulls double duty here, showcasing his knack for filming panoramic vistas while also hamming it up as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous and ingenious detective. (Previously essayed on the big screen by both Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, Poirot is probably most recognizable in the form of David Suchet, who played the sleuth for 24 years on British TV.) Donning a flamboyant Belgian accent and a mesmerizing handlebar mustache that a taxidermist must have pruned from Kurt Russell’s exhumed Hateful Eight corpse, Branagh’s Poirot is a savant who, much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, is not especially modest about his own intellect. “I am probably the greatest detective in the world,” he declares to a roomful of gobsmacked observers; one suspects he added the adverb as a mere courtesy.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok: God of Thunder, Bringer of Rain, Cracker of Jokes

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston smirk and squabble in "Thor: Ragnarok"
Midway through Thor: Ragnarok, a creature called Korg—a soft-spoken gladiator whose body is composed entirely of lumpy blue rocks—informs the God of Thunder that the planet they’re currently inhabiting doesn’t really make sense. It may not be coincidental that Korg is voiced by Taika Waititi, the film’s director and impish guiding spirit. A New Zealand native best known for his fanciful comedies (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Waititi may not seem an intuitive choice to helm Ragnarok, the third Thor-centric feature and the seventeenth(!) installment in the corporatized mushroom cloud that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet Waititi’s gift of whimsy proves perfectly suited for the MCU, thanks to a deceptively similar set of priorities. The Marvel movies, for all their lumbering technological clamor, have typically been better at dialogue and character than at action and story, and Waititi embraces that hierarchy with energy and savvy. He realizes that, if you’re going to make a senseless comic-book movie, you might as well make it fun.

And make no mistake: This movie is senseless. Perhaps comic-book aficionados can assemble its random artifacts and fantastical esoterica—fire demons and bi-frosts, eternal flames and infinity stones, cryptic prophecies and resurrected skeletons—into an intelligible map, but even an intimate understanding of Marvel mythology cannot provide Ragnarok with any narrative logic. Nor can it instill any legitimate stakes or tension into a product that is, in broad strokes, entirely predictable. (Given Marvel’s commitment to the perpetual expansion of its sequel-happy universe, it is hardly a spoiler to declare that no Avengers were harmed in the making of this film.) But unlike the first two Thor pictures—which felt leaden and lifeless, weighed down by their ostensible otherworldliness—Ragnarok seizes on its own silliness. When it comes to enjoying this frolicsome, jokey adventure, the plot’s lack of relevance proves irrelevant.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thank You for Your Service: Back from War, Now Fighting Demons

Miles Teller and Beulah Koale struggle with PTSD in "Thank You for Your Service"
In the best scene in American Sniper, a one-legged veteran (Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff) cautiously approaches Bradley Cooper’s titular Navy SEAL in an auto shop and warmly thanks him for saving his life during battle. It’s a moment that ordinarily would play as sweet and triumphant, but instead it’s awkward and tentative, as Cooper’s laconic soldier is utterly incapable of handling such direct gratitude. Now, Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall homes in on that discomfort with Thank You for Your Service, a humane and sober movie that tackles the war after the war.

Based on a book by David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service is a film of such unimpeachable decency—well-intentioned, understanding, respectful—that it’s virtually impossible to disapprove of. But those same qualities make it difficult to enjoy, or even really admire, as a piece of cinema. It’s more message than movie, and while the message—that post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious illness, and that many of our veterans need psychiatric help far more than they need banal platitudes—is undoubtedly worth conveying, the delivery system lacks oomph. It’s a movingly penned essay that just happens to unfold on screen.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Florida Project: The Tragic Kingdom

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in "The Florida Project"
It’s a funny thing, how a movie can sneak up on you. Take The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s striking and incrementally devastating new film, which transpires over the course of a languid summer in a low-rent motel complex just outside of Orlando. An attentive humanist with a keen eye for illuminative details, Baker is committed to conveying the sweaty tedium that afflicts his hard-luck characters. In fact, he so convincingly captures the housing development’s collective lethargy—the sweltering heat, the pervasive boredom, the maddening feeling of having nothing to do—that he is almost too successful. For the first half hour that I spent watching these restless children scampering around bland parking lots and darting through paint-peeling hallways, I found myself stifling a yawn. So imagine my surprise when, as the movie barreled into its mesmerizing climax, tears welled in my eyes and my heart pounded in my chest. The Florida Project starts with a snooze. It ends with a sledgehammer.

Not that its beginning is entirely disposable. Even when the movie flirts with narrative monotony, it always offers something visually arresting. Baker’s last film was Tangerine, a day-in-the-life story that was notable not just because it starred two transgender actresses, but because it was shot entirely on an iPhone. The Florida Project, by contrast, is triumphantly widescreen, with a brilliantly vivid palette and elegantly composed frames that recall the formal mastery of Raise the Red Lantern. The opening act essentially functions as a tour of the neighborhood, a candy-colored district dotted with dopily themed motels, indistinguishable strip malls, and rinky-dink food stands. The pastels keep popping, from the cheery orange glow of a grocery to the powder blue of a gift shop to the gentle lavender of the titular housing complex, a bleak and raucous purgatory called The Magic Castle.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories: The Kids Are All Wrong

Misery reigns in "The Meyerowitz Stories"
You might think, upon learning that The Meyerowitz Stories stars Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller—and that it includes a scene where the two slap-fight and wrestle pathetically on a university quad—that the movie is a stupid comedy. It isn’t, though it does feature a number of acrid laughs and a few displays of idiocy. Instead, The Meyerowitz Stories is another of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s incisive portraits of insecurity and indecision. As with many of his films, it’s sharply observed, making it more thoughtful than enjoyable; Baumbach’s talent for conjuring realistically flawed people is so pronounced that it becomes almost uncomfortable. Watching this astute, upsetting movie, you are likely to wince frequently, partly because its characters tend to behave terribly, and partly because you will recognize in them slivers of your friends, your family, and yourself.

Told in a seemingly patchwork fashion that’s deceptively coherent, The Meyerowitz Stories is in some ways a genealogical exercise, examining the strained relationships that form the branches of a cluttered family tree. The crusty patriarch is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor of minor renown who is constantly explaining to polite listeners why his work is so underappreciated. He is more enamored of his art than of his three children, each of whom carries lingering scars and resentments from their childhood. Danny (Sandler) once had aspirations of being a musician, but he ended up a house husband, and he’s now crashing in his father’s Brooklyn brownstone after separating from his wife. His sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), works a dull office job in Rochester but often drives down to the city to help keep the peace and laments that nobody pays attention to her. And their half-brother, Matthew (Stiller), long ago escaped the family’s suffocating New York vortex for LA, where he thrives as some sort of accountant (Baumbach is intentionally vague on the details) but battles marital woes and middle-age ennui.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: A Dark Future, Bathed in Beauty and Sorrow

Ryan Gosling in Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049"
Tears do indeed fall in rain in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s grave and gorgeous sequel to Ridley Scott’s 35-year-old cult classic. Consider those tears an easter egg for the original’s ardent admirers. A vocal pocket of cinephilia can surely recite from memory the original Blade Runner’s “tears in rain” speech, delivered mournfully by Rutger Hauer on a desolate rooftop all those years ago. But while the passion of those fans doubtless drove the development of this follow-up, Villeneuve’s film does far more than simply pay homage to its predecessor. When I say that I’ve seen Blade Runner 2049, what I mean is—to quote the first line of Hauer’s soliloquy—I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

The exquisite craftsmanship of Blade Runner 2049 is staggering, but it is not exactly surprising. Over the past several years—beginning with Prisoners, then continuing with Sicario and Arrival—Villeneuve has demonstrated his ability to deliver robust, stealthily provocative genre films inside striking and elegant packages. And his regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins (aka “the legendary Roger Deakins”), is responsible for some of this century’s most breathtaking images, most notably in works by the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes. Blade Runner 2049 represents these two artists operating at the absolute peak of their visual powers. This is, quite simply, a movie of flabbergasting beauty. Scene after scene reveals new marvels: a cloaked figure venturing into a burnt-orange desert, clouds of dust swirling around him; a sepulchral, yellow-tinted palace, where light and shadow swim on the walls; a giant glowing hologram, backlit by the night sky, beckoning to her minuscule quarry, a mere man who—like the rest of us—can only gape upward in awe.

Friday, October 6, 2017

American Made: I Feel the Need, the Need for Greed

Tom Cruise is a cocksure pilot, again, in "American Made"
By all rights, American Made should play as a tragedy—a sobering study of moral decay and rampant corruption that can only conclude in sadness, irony, and death. Its hero is Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot-turned-drug-runner who liaised with Colombian traffickers on behalf of the CIA, and who became the target of numerous investigations by an alphabet soup of domestic law enforcement agencies (the DEA, FBI, and ATF all sought their pound of flesh). From this description, you might suspect that the movie is depressing. Quite the opposite—it’s a blast. That’s because its director, the perennially underappreciated Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity), approaches the material less like a cop or historian than an end user. So while American Made studiously chronicles Barry’s rise and fall, it isn’t principally interested in bringing its protagonist to justice. It just wants to get you high.

This is refreshing. Cinema suffers from a glut of grim gangster movies, and while many of them are compelling, they often blur together in their fetishized violence and relentless dourness. American Made, by contrast, proceeds with a lightness of touch that, paradoxically, highlights its darker undertones. It leaves a mark precisely because it isn’t trying too hard.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

mother!: In a Pastoral Bliss, Houseguests Open the Gates of Hell

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky's "mother!"
The first shot in mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s head-spinning fever dream of a movie, is of a woman wreathed in flame, gazing impassively into the camera. It’s a bracing introduction, but it’s fairly mundane when judged against the standards of this film, which treats—or perhaps torments—viewers with all manner of twisted, hallucinatory imagery. Is this testament to mother!’s genius or its inanity? The answer, even more so than with most pictures, is likely to be a matter of individual taste. Yet Aronofsky’s commitment to his demented vision is so absolute, so uncompromising, that mother! is all but certain to elicit a response, whether it be delight or disgust. By the time the closing credits roll on this maddening, mesmerizing movie, you may not be entirely sure what you just saw, but you’ll know for sure that you saw something.

What you see most of the time—and this is a decidedly sound piece of filmmaking strategy—is Jennifer Lawrence. For all the otherworldly sights in mother!—the bleeding floorboards and breathing walls, the glistening crystals and charred flesh—none is quite as compelling as its lead actress’ face. The camera, operated by Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, spends roughly half the film studying Lawrence in intimate close-up, watching in quiet amazement as she creates a topography of human emotion. Her eyes widening and narrowing, her countenance rippling into expressions of anger, confusion, and dismay, Lawrence pulls you in, trapping you inside her character’s headspace, a surreal nightmare from which there’s no escape.

Friday, September 15, 2017

It: School's Out for Murder

Fear is universal, even if it’s also personal. We’re all afraid of something, but our fears are typically our own. As many pop-culture artifacts have done before, It attempts to trade on this inherent tension between the institutional and the individual, conjuring a parasitic, metaphysical evil that torments its victims by transforming into the very thing that terrifies them most. In this, the film invites you to imagine being confronted not just by the nightmarish visions visited upon its characters, but by the horrors of your own heart.

“What are you afraid of?” the trailer for It asks ominously. Good question. My own list of fears is quite lengthy, and while it contains a number of garden-variety phobias—snakes, rats, heights, etc.—it also includes a few anxieties specific to my temperament and amateur occupation. Like, say, the fear of being trapped in a theater watching a 135-minute horror movie that is by turns repetitive, silly, and dull.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Ingrid Goes West: California, Here She Comes, with Hand Bags and Hashtags

Aubrey Plaza is a compelling nutcase in "Ingrid Goes West"
Obsession goes dark in Ingrid Goes West, Matt Spicer’s funny and sad debut feature about a profoundly lonely person and the phony friendship she foists upon a vapid quasi-celebrity. The misery and the menace of the stalker is nothing new in cinema—Spicer’s screenplay (co-written with David Branson Smith) even name-checks Single White Female—but here the trope of classical fixation is, ahem, filtered through the distinctly modern lens of social media. The movie’s protagonist is decidedly deranged, but she’s also strangely sympathetic, perhaps because she represents the logical extreme of a culture that tallies friends and competes for followers. When you’re constantly uploading exquisite images of your sun-kissed California lifestyle to thousands of adoring fans, isn’t it only rational to expect a rando from Pennsylvania to become unhealthily attached to you? #justsaying

Not that Ingrid Goes West is a crotchety, Luddite take on How We Live Now. While the script exhibits fluency in the linguistic and behavioral quirks of social media—the hashtags and emojis, the constant scrolling and double-tapping—it is too smart and savvy to insult an entire generation of potential customers. Ingrid Goes West is persistently scathing, almost as a matter of principle, but it directs its scorn toward its characters, not its viewers. And while it uses contemporary technology as its entry point, the feelings that it traffics in and stirs up—loneliness, jealousy, fervor, fear—are emphatically age-old. #instawisdom

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Good Time: One Bad Night on the Big Apple's Mean Streets

Robert Pattinson stars in the thriller "Good Time"
I’ll say this for Good Time: It has personality. Awash in a toxic sludge of neon and grime, it is a distinctive, assaultive film, made with energy and aggression by its sibling directors, Josh and Benny Safdie. It is also a deeply unpleasant experience, and not in the way it seeks to be. Desperate to rattle you with its jittery style and glammed-up ugliness, Good Time instead just feels punishing and self-indulgent, mistaking excess for excitement and confusing shock with craft.

In their previous feature, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies explored the agony of urban drug addiction, plucking actual addict Arielle Holmes off the street and then building a movie around her sad circumstances. (Holmes went on to appear as one of Andrea Arnold’s itinerant magazine salespeople in American Honey.) Most critics praised Heaven Knows What for its grubby authenticity, but I found it cold, slack, and unrelentingly miserable. I feel much the same about Good Time, which is marginally less bleak and slightly more polished but shares with its predecessor a defiant disregard for visual coherence. Working again with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who also shot Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth), the Safdies favor extreme, unsteady close-ups, the camera hovering near the characters’ faces like a drunken dermatologist. Some might call this approach intimate. I’d call it a mess.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Logan Lucky: Robbing That Racetrack, and Maybe Stealing Your Heart

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver plan a robbery in "Logan Lucky"
Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) regaling his 10-year-old daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), about the creation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It’s a colorful tale, complete with serendipitous car crashes and an all-night jam session, and Sadie asks her father if he perhaps admires the classic ballad because of the story behind its genesis. Jimmy responds that, while he appreciates the ditty’s backstory, that isn’t what makes it special. “I like the song because of the song,” he says.

It’s a sweet, disarming scene, quickly establishing the film’s gentle and laid-back vibe, but for cinephiles, it takes on a meta context. Those of us who mourned Soderbergh’s announcement in 2013—that, after releasing two movies that year (the slightly overrated Behind the Candelabra and the decidedly underrated Side Effects), he was retiring from filmmaking—could be forgiven for cherishing Logan Lucky simply because it heralds the return of one of American cinema’s most gifted and versatile directors. But while I’m delighted to have Soderbergh back in theaters (during his so-called retirement, he made two seasons of The Knick for Cinemax), my appreciation of Logan Lucky doesn’t stem primarily from him ending his self-imposed hiatus. To paraphrase Jimmy: I like the movie because of the movie.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wind River: Danger in a Strange Land

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner hunt a killer in "Wind River"
The chill runs bone-deep in Wind River, the astute and mournful second feature from Taylor Sheridan. After penning two electric screenplays that sweltered in the suffocating Southwest heat, the actor-turned-writer-turned-director has turned his gaze north and flipped his thermometer upside-down. Taking place on the titular Indian reservation in Wyoming (filming took place in Utah), Sheridan’s newest movie is cold and stark, the snow blanketing its landscapes and its characters like a paralytic force. The opening shot, of a teenage girl racing barefoot across a frozen plain in the dead of night, will make you shiver. Don’t expect to warm up anytime soon.

Not that Wind River is emotionally icy or remote. Quite the contrary; it’s a lively crime picture that’s also unusually elegiac, as interested in grief as it is in thrills. Sheridan’s protagonists may be ruthless—Benicio Del Toro’s vengeful assassin in Sicario can still trigger nightmares, while Ben Foster’s wolfish reprobate in Hell or High Water gunned down innocents without hesitation—but they are also motivated by anger and loss. Wind River’s hero, a Fish and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert, is a literal hunter, a killing machine with a rifle on his back and a hole in his heart.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Detroit: Black and White and Dead All Over

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit"
Detroit opens with a police raid on an African-American nightclub, an edgy incursion that concludes with dozens of black patrons being forcibly loaded into paddy wagons. The movie, which takes place in 1967, was released in theaters on July 28, 2017. That same day, the President of the United States said this:

So, yes: In an era where virtually every American movie feels unnervingly topical—from franchise films to alien adventures to romantic comediesDetroit resonates even more than most. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it rakes up considerable muck, tackling two intertwined issues—endemic racism and police brutality—with unapologetic frankness. This relevance almost automatically makes Detroit worth seeing; it’s rare for a film to firmly exist in both past and present at once. But if you can set aside its political significance (not that you should, of course), what emerges is a strange, decidedly uneven movie. Helmed by a filmmaker renowned for her precision, Detroit is oddly undisciplined, chaotic, even flabby. Yet it is also, at least during its extended central passage, a gripping, nightmarish tale of sweaty panic and helpless inevitability. It doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going, but it sure shakes you up in the process of getting there.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde: She's a Lady, and a Killer

Charlize Theron is cool as ice in "Atomic Blonde"
These boots are made for kicking in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s sexy, overstuffed actioner of new-age kineticism and carefully curated retro cool. Forged of tactile black leather and stretching what seems like acres up to their subject’s knee, the boots adorn the statuesque body of Charlize Theron, that South African goddess with a 14-year-old Oscar and a newfound thirst for blood. As a one-armed warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showcased a bristling physicality that meshed nicely with her more classical qualities. She has all of her limbs back in Atomic Blonde, and good thing too, since she does roughly as much talking with her fists—and those boots—as with her mouth.

If anything, there’s too much dialogue in Atomic Blonde, which tends to stall whenever its heroine isn’t in slick, liquid motion. Adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300—you get what you pay for) piles on the spy-speak and the Bournean intrigue, layering the busy plot with triple agents, double-crosses, and a single ungainly framing device. It isn’t incomprehensible, exactly, but Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick before departing its sequel to make this film, has little use for all this blather. He’s much more interested in cranking up the music—the post-punk-heavy soundtrack here feels like the offspring of a union between The Americans and Deutschland 83—and unleashing his leading lady as an unstoppable force of lithe, purposeful destruction.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dunkirk: War Is Breathtaking Hell

Soldiers swim to rescue in Christopher Nolan's staggering "Dunkirk"
There have been bloodier war movies—grisly productions committed to depicting the visceral horror as bullets tear through flesh. And there have been more provocative war movies, those that reenact armed conflict to make a political statement on its nobility or its lunacy. But there has never been, in my estimation, a war movie of such relentless, gripping intensity as Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s stunning World War II epic. The adjective “white-knuckle” has wilted into cliché, but as someone who spent the majority of this film with his fists clenched in involuntary apprehension, allow me to offer a word of advice: Before seeing Dunkirk, clip your nails. Otherwise, you’re liable to tear them right off.

The sheer magnitude of Dunkirk feels unprecedented, but it’s in keeping with a director who has made a career of smuggling brainy, stimulating ideas inside packages of overpowering brawn. Size matters to Nolan, and not just in the way you might think. Yes, Dunkirk is a gigantic film, shot extensively on 65-millimeter IMAX cameras, which help convey the enormity of its scale. (For the record, I watched the film projected in non-IMAX 70mm, though I intend to make a trip to the IMAX for round two.) But even as he’s painting on a sprawling canvas—showing you the vastness of a beach, the infinite reach of an ocean—Nolan is simultaneously compressing the carnage, paradoxically resulting in an expansive claustrophobia. Consider an early scene on the title city’s famous coastline: Thousands of soldiers scattered along its sands freeze in unison, their ears picking up the faint whine of an approaching German bomber. The horizon seems endless, but there’s nowhere to go. As the plane zooms past overhead, all they can do is flatten their bodies and cross their fingers.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: No More Monkeying Around

Andy Serkis' Caesar is on a mission in "War for the Planet of the Apes"
Columns of soldiers goose-step in perfect rhythm, staring upward with reverence at their messianic leader. Behind them, enslaved prisoners, chained and starving, lug giant blocks of stone, piling them into a towering wall. A flag, emblazoned with religious symbolism, hangs firmly alongside an embankment, like gang colors marking territory. The loudspeakers blare an anthem, and the foot soldiers unleash a thunderous war cry.

You might think, from this bleak and jingoistic description, that I’m discussing a documentary on the Third Reich. But the anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and the flag is colored red, white, and blue. So when the leader orders his zealots to purge the world of an inferior race, he isn’t just marshaling his troops for battle. He’s putting America first.

Such is the chilling subtext of War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ tense, bracing new saga of conflict and community. As you can gather, the politics on display here are not exactly subtle, even if their allegorical impact may be more acute than intended. (Shooting took place well before the 2016 presidential election.) But while the film’s nationalist rhetoric and iconography may feel distressingly plausible, they are not the movie’s primary draw. No, what makes War for the Planet of the Apes so successful is that it’s a genuinely thrilling action movie, replete with exhilarating combat sequences and grand adventure. Had it been released ten years ago, it would still feel essential, getting both your blood pumping and—in more of a surprise—your tear ducts flowing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Big Sick: Funny Games, Then the Coma

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in "The Big Sick"
“There’s not just going to be a magic spark,” a mother tells her son early in The Big Sick. “You have to work at it.” Honestly, has this woman never seen a romantic comedy? One of our most durable and pleasurable genres, it is undergirded by the notion that cinematic serendipity—the meet cute, the screwball misunderstanding, the shop around the corner—is very real, and could happen to you. Well, what better way to illustrate this than by telling a true story? The script for The Big Sick, Michael Showalter’s sweet and sensitive new movie, was written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and it chronicles their first date, ensuing courtship, and subsequent complications. Emily is portrayed by the terrifically talented and perennially underrated actress Zoe Kazan, but Nanjiani plays himself, lending further authenticity to a production already steeped in personal and locational detail.

Yet while the pieces are in place for The Big Sick to establish itself as a contemporary rom-com classic, it doesn’t quite do that—not because it’s a bad movie, but because it isn’t really a romantic comedy at all. Sure, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and for its first half-hour, the film executes the rom-com playbook with competence and conviction. As it progresses, however, The Big Sick becomes harder to pigeonhole. It operates, at varying times and often simultaneously, as a ruminative character study, as an exploration of the American immigrant family, and—most startlingly and most effectively—as a weepie.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Local Schoolboy, Coming of Avenging Age

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"
Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are great movie characters, albeit for different reasons. Peter’s appeal is one of drama and narrative; ignore the whole vigilante crime-fighting thing, and he’s the perfect embodiment of nerdy boyhood angst, a decent kid juggling the all-too-familiar teenage problems of school, work, and girls. But Spider-Man’s allure is distinctly cinematic. His particular abilities—the way he springs from one edifice to the next, the way his sticky webs lend his movements physicality and coherence—are uniquely suited to visualized heroism. When Peter struggles to muster the courage to ask a crush to a dance, you can empathize with how he’s feeling. When Spider-Man strains to yank two halves of a splintering barge back together, you can understand and anticipate what he’s actually doing.

Perhaps this blend of thoughtful characterization and dynamic action explains why Spider-Man: Homecoming is Sony’s sixth title to feature Spidey in the last 15 years. Or maybe the studio just likes making money. In any event, Homecoming cannily capitalizes on its hero’s twofold potential, even if it falls short of genuine triumph on both fronts. The gold standard for Spider-Man movies—and for all superhero movies, for that matter (hell, maybe for all movies, period)—remains Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s transcendent fusion of bold adventure and plaintive desire. This ain’t that. But Homecoming, which was directed by relative newcomer Jon Watts from a script by a bevy of writers, is at least a quality effort, a spirited quasi-reboot that captures its hero’s quintessential pluck and delivers a few moments of exhilarating web-based suspense.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver: Start Your Engines, and Your Jukeboxes

Ansel Elgort is an unflappable wheelman in Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver"
As much music video as movie, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is part symphony, part sonic assault. The music plays wall-to-wall in this giddy, extravagant thriller about a gifted getaway driver who’s paralyzed unless he’s blasting funk and soul into his ears by way of white earbuds hooked up to a rotation of oh-so-retro iPods. Stricken with tinnitus, the oddly monikered Baby (Ansel Elgort) can only concentrate when he’s listening to classic jams, the better to drown out the incessant humming. This fusion of underworld pulp and musical obsessiveness is Baby Driver’s raison d’être; there have been countless films about bank robbers and quite a few about wheelmen, but this is surely the first where the driver snaps at his cohorts to wait before commencing a heist because he needs to restart a song to regain his rhythm.

Baby’s condition is in part a clever conceit, an excuse for Wright—the pop-culture connoisseur who once interrupted a life-or-death action sequence in Shaun of the Dead while his characters discussed which old vinyl records were worth saving—to cram the film’s soundtrack with his favorite tunes, ranging from The Beach Boys to Queen to Young MC. Yet it’s also possible to view Baby’s affliction as a surrogate for his director’s own peculiar anxiety. A supremely capable and distinctive filmmaker, Wright here piles one flourish on top of another so that Baby Driver eventually reaches vertiginous heights, threatening to topple under its own weight of cinematic cool. It’s a blast, but it can also feel like style for its own sake, Wright working so feverishly to keep you entertained that he seems terrified of that inevitable moment when the music stops.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cars 3: Vroom and Doom

A scene from "Cars 3", in which cars drive like cars.
Pixar’s best movies are so amazingly, miraculously good, their lesser efforts can become underappreciated by comparison. The common phrase “second-tier Pixar”—often applied to, say, the fairy-tale familiarity of Brave, the slobs-versus-snobs hijinks of Monsters University, or the poky adventure of The Good Dinosaur—necessarily implies a sense of relative failure, even if all of those films are variously rewarding. But the Cars movies are different. It remains vexing that the wizard studio—presumably motivated by merchandising rather than storytelling—has insisted on turning its least interesting property into a commodified, pandering franchise. (Of course, Pixar’s other trilogy is literally about products that are purchased for children, but the Toy Story pictures also happen to be great.) When the first Cars dropped in 2006, it immediately claimed the title of “worst Pixar movie ever made”, its airy pleasantness overshadowed by the string of ingenious hits that had preceded it. Five years later, Cars 2 took that title for its own; a stunningly stupid action-comedy centered on Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater (a character who makes Jar Jar Binks seem fascinating and three-dimensional), it wasn’t just a comparative disappointment—it was a legitimately bad movie.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about Cars 3 is that, following its release, the unofficial tally of “Bad Pixar Movies” remains stuck at one. That’s because this latest sequel—harmless and piddling, with just a whiff of thoughtfulness and originality—is too innocuous and well-meaning to be bad. But neither is it good enough to qualify as second-tier Pixar, a designation that confers with it an attempt at beauty, ambition, and imagination. Even the studio’s weaker films at least try to be memorable, but in its relentless congeniality, Cars 3 seems calculated to make as little impact as possible. No wonder its characters constantly drive around in circles.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Comes at Night: Something Toxic in the Air, and a Virus, Too

Christopher Abbott and Joel Edgerton in "It Comes at Night"
There are no zombies in It Comes at Night, unless you count the vacant, dead-eyed stares that regularly materialize on each of its characters’ stricken faces. An eerie shiver of a horror-thriller, it’s scary less for its shocks than its sober observations on human nature. When a body is burned in the film’s harrowing opening sequence, the corpse never reanimates, though it does emerge in a spooky, silent nightmare, darkened eyes shooting daggers of ill will. In this movie, the dead stay dead. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.

The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night takes for its premise that all-too-plausible scenario that has beckoned to many an aspiring artist: the apocalypse. Doomsday has long fascinated filmmakers, who relish the chance to turn a universal fear—it’s the end of the world!—into a personal vision; the last few years alone have given us works as varied as the demolition derby of Mad Max: Fury Road, the steampunk allegory of Snowpiercer, and the bro-sploitation comedy of This Is the End. It Comes at Night is quieter than those movies, but it is arguably more unsettling. For Shults, the collapse of civilization creates the opportunity to explore how people relate to and value one another, pitting civic values against Darwinian impulses. The picture he paints, much like the ghastly mural that adorns one of the walls of the house where the action occurs, is far from pretty.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman: Lady First

Gal Gadot in "Wonder Woman"
As she rushes headlong across a barren wasteland toward entrenched enemy troops, the Amazon gathers speed and momentum, hair streaming behind her as she deflects oncoming bullets with a flick of her gauntleted wrists. It’s a sequence of breathless verve and grandeur, but it earns an extra meta kick thanks to its setting. The year is 1918, and the location is the western front in Belgium. This means, as students of military history surely know, that the Amazon is charging through not just any field but a particularly named stretch of mud: no man’s land. The metaphor is almost too perfect. Superheroes have done all sorts of impressive things in modern movies, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that a costumed warrior has obliterated both German soldiers and the Hollywood patriarchy in one gorgeously filmed swoop.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating. After all, the broader statistical data about women both behind and in front of the camera remain dispiriting, and just as Wonder Woman the heroine cannot win World War I on her own, Wonder Woman the movie—the first high-profile superhero film to feature a female director and star—cannot by itself cure an industry that continues to be plagued by sexism. But it’s a start. Still, advancements in representation aside, the question remains whether this movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, qualifies as a victory of artistry as well as diversity. Thankfully, Jenkins has made a spry and enjoyable adventure, if one accompanied by many of the flaws endemic to the genre. It’s far from great, but it’s mostly good enough.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Under the Streaming Radar: 20 Good Little-Seen Movies You Can Watch Right Now

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis in the underrated "Sleeping with Other People"
Every week, my father and I discuss which new movie(s) we’re going to see in the theater during the upcoming weekend. Last week, however, the conversation didn’t last long, as the two high-profile new releases—the fifth entry in a moribund blockbuster franchise and a big-screen adaptation of a hacky ’90s TV show—barely reached 50% on Rotten Tomatoes combined. Frustrated over the lack of quality options at the multiplex, my father grumbled, “Thank God for Netflix.”

Sarcasm aside, my father’s faux-religious praise for a multimedia company spoke to the behavioral trend that’s been emerging among American adults over the past decade: We don’t like going to the movies anymore. Of course, that isn’t strictly true; though the total number of tickets purchased may have stagnated, we still gave theaters more than $11 billion of our money last year, so let’s not eulogize the communal moviegoing experience just yet. But the appeal of the streaming service—a mode of viewing that combines a broad selection of options with the convenience of never leaving the couch—exerts a strong pull on many grown-ups (particularly those with young children). Why go through the hassle of hiring a sitter when you can just rip through three episodes of Master of None or Thirteen Reasons Why after the kids are in bed?

This impulse typically manifests in terms of television shows—the Manifesto’s most-read post to date remains a piece I wrote six years ago listing 10 great TV series available on Netflix (thanks to the vagaries of the market, six of those shows are now streaming on different services)—but there’s no reason it can’t be redirected toward feature films. And don’t even try arguing that you lack sufficient time to watch a full movie; if you can binge-watch an entire season of Stranger Things in two nights, I’m pretty sure you can find 90 minutes to watch a closed-end thriller.

To that end, the Manifesto has compiled the following list of 20 good movies that are currently available on widely popular streaming services. Now, obviously, this list is by no means comprehensive. First, in an effort to spotlight movies with a limited following, we’re focusing on under-the-radar releases; only two of the 20 titles highlighted below exceeded $5 million and the domestic box office, and none surpassed $15 million. Second, we’re not including any movies that we formally reviewed here over the past few years, as we’ll let those reviews speak for themselves. (I encourage readers to arm themselves with the invaluable JustWatch app and then scan our fully ranked lists of movies from both 2015 and 2016 to locate high-quality streaming titles. Relatedly, The Handmaiden is available on Amazon Prime.) And last, because modern audiences are scared of “old” movies, we’re restricting ourselves to films that came out this decade; just remember that cinema has existed for more than a century, and there are plenty of classic titles available to stream if you’re ever feeling nostalgic for the glory days of Bogart and Bacall.

Let’s get to it (and remember, thanks to the fickle nature of streaming content, availability of these titles is subject to change):

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Alien: Covenant: Still Meddling, Still Dying, but with Double the Robots

Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender in "Alien: Covenant"
During one of the best scenes in Alien: Covenant, a robot tells an antiquated model of himself why he was ultimately decommissioned. “You were too human,” the current version bluntly informs his predecessor. “Too idiosyncratic.” The explanation makes sense—the older model’s uncannily lifelike behavior unsettled his mortal masters—but it carries with it an undeniable sting of irony. Covenant, the sixth entry in the Alien franchise and the third directed by Ridley Scott, is a vigorous and impressive piece of mass-market entertainment, a finely calibrated horror film that boasts expert effects work and pulse-pounding set pieces. Yet it is also clearly the product of corporate assembly, a sequel to a prequel that ably perpetuates the series’ mythology but does so with minimal distinction or ingenuity. It’s a bit like that newly updated cyborg who lectures his elder counterpart: sleek and efficient, but not idiosyncratic enough.

Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Alien movies. If you haven’t watched Scott’s classic original (which is slightly overrated, but that’s a different discussion), you are likely to be gobsmacked by the spectacle of violent death and physical suffering that the director has arrayed before you. Setting aside Sigourney Weaver’s spunky and sexy performance, Alien achieved cinematic immortality for two reasons: its historically great tagline, and John Hurt’s upset stomach. Seeing as Covenant cannot hope to match the former (though “The path to paradise begins in hell” isn’t half-bad), it strives to one-up the latter. Throughout this movie, nasty critters burst out from within the insides of unsuspecting human hosts, spilling blood and splintering backbone in the process. Alien enthusiasts may have seen this before, but they likely haven’t seen it this excruciating and visceral.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Saving the World, One Wisecrack at a Time

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"
In the middle of the hectic opening set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the green-skinned alien Gamora reproaches two of her squabbling colleagues: “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” It’s a sensible request that comes from the troupe’s most sensible member, but at the risk of mansplaining (human-splaining?), allow me to point out the flaw in Gamora’s logic. Whereas the typical superhero extravaganza centers on its high-octane action sequences, the first Guardians of the Galaxy made its mark by inverting the formula; it emphasized writing and character, pushing its passable pyrotechnics into the background. With this franchise, the bickering isn’t ornamental—it’s the main attraction.

That canny focal adjustment made the original Guardians a welcome antidote, a rejuvenating tonic that helped offset the fatigue brought on by the glut of superhero pictures constantly invading the American multiplex. The challenge now facing James Gunn, returning as both writer and director, is how to reconcile the bracing freshness of the first installment with the rigid demands of the cinematic universe. The standard operating procedure for comic-book sequels is simply to take what worked the first time around, then blow it up to even greater dimensions, but spunky originality isn’t so easily amenable to magnification. How do you bottle lightning twice?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Unwelcome to the Jungle, But Pressing On

Charlie Hunnam in James Gray's "The Lost City of Z"
The soldier finds the mission underwhelming. Sure, he once trained with the Royal Geographical Society, but that was ages ago, and he barely remembers his studies. Why should he be the one tasked with mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia? He’s a warrior, not a surveyor. Yet by the end of The Lost City of Z—the grand and grave historical epic from James Gray—the soldier’s reluctance has transformed into obsession. This touching, tragic film chronicles its hero’s gradual descent into something like madness, even as it acknowledges the nobility of his pursuit and the dignity of his character.

For all of the death and misery that it uncovers, The Lost City of Z is not exactly a downer. Gray, once known for his gritty thrillers, has of late developed an odd and interesting talent: He can make human suffering seem strangely beguiling. His Two Lovers put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer, but it also recognized the thrill of newfound romantic attraction. And while The Immigrant essayed the challenges facing Marion Cotillard’s woebegone traveler with unflinching directness, Gray’s lustrous craft shaded her predicament with tenderness and hope. Now with The Lost City of Z, he examines the ecstasy and the agony of mania—the fanatical need to prove yourself, no matter the mortal cost.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Free Fire: Shots Squeezed Off, Insults Catapulted

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire"
Near the end of David Mamet’s Heist, two rival criminal factions engage in a shootout on a pier. It’s a fairly unremarkable scene, except that standing in the crossfire is Bergman, an irascible fence played by Danny DeVito. As the bullets whiz past him, Bergman transforms from a tough-talking hoodlum into a conciliatory wimp, yelping in protest, “Put the fucking guns down, let’s just talk!” Free Fire, the latest whatsit from the English auteur/weirdo Ben Wheatley, essentially extends this bit of off-kilter gunplay to feature length. It assembles a motley crew of hooligans, junkies, and reprobates, then sets them loose on one another in a display of inept savagery that’s more pitiful than lethal.

That phrase might also describe Wheatley’s prior films, which have relied on showy extremism to enliven themes and narratives that are fundamentally banal. These include Kill List, a glum study of blue-collar ennui that morphed into a grisly and tasteless horror movie, and High-Rise, an initially fascinating but ultimately unwatchable satire that squandered a terrific cast in favor of incoherent montage. (I haven’t seen A Field in England, but Variety assessed it as combining “imagination-teasing ingenuity” with “a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence”, which seems to fit.) Qualitatively, Free Fire represents a dramatic improvement for Wheatley, but what’s most interesting is how he’s improved. No longer straining to confound audiences with his avant-garde brilliance, Wheatley has instead chosen to wield his gifts for the old-fashioned virtue of entertainment. Free Fire has little heart and even less depth, but compared to the arduous nature of Wheatley’s past works, its breezy emptiness is oddly refreshing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why You Need to Watch Netflix's "13 Reasons Why"

Katherine Langford is dead and hating it in "13 Reasons Why"
High school is a crucible. It can be at once wonderful and terrible, a paradise of joy and discovery and a battleground of spite and cruelty. It’s the claustrophobia—for four consecutive years, you spend an inordinately high percentage of your time stuffed into the same space, surrounded by the same people, chasing the same dream of escape. That pressure-cooker environment explains why every emotion, every experience, feels heightened: Every friendship is destined to last forever, every fight rends you in two, every romance is Shakespearean in scope. At times you wonder if you understand anything, but what you know for certain is that nobody understands you. And whenever something bad happens to you in high school, it doesn’t feel like a discrete event, a fleeting moment in the anthology of experiences that will shape you as a person. It feels like a cataclysm.

Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself. But I am also speaking for Hannah Baker, the stricken, haunted protagonist of Netflix’s sweeping, searing new drama, 13 Reasons Why. As played in a breakout performance by Katherine Langford, Hannah is the series’ focal point, its magnet for the emotional turbulence that so forcefully buffets the students of its nondescript suburban high school. Sad, sweet, hopeful, and scared, Hannah is in many ways a typical teenager—a drama queen to some, a wayward soul to others. She is the show’s lifeblood. She is also dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Your Name.: Trading Places, and Finding Feelings

Two teens trade places in "Your Name."
Part playful comedy, part wistful romance, part sci-fi mind-bender, Your Name. (yes, the period is part of the title) is a strange and beguiling experience. It’s a movie that nimbly hopscotches between tones and across genres, but it always demonstrates firm commitment to its characters. Visually, it’s a beaut, but the loveliest thing about it is its tenderness.

The ultimate intensity of Your Name.’s emotions sneaks up on you, given that the film initially scans as a poppy Japanese update on America’s cheesy ’80s comedies. Taki (voice of Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a high school student living in the clattering hub of Tokyo, is a typical teenage protagonist—comfortable with his male pals, awkward around his female crushes, and nursing a nagging worry that his existence lacks real meaning. The same is true of Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a dreamer living in the country village of Itomori; she has a relatively peaceful life going to school and making traditional sake, but she longs for the bustle of the big city. Residing in decidedly different worlds, Taki and Mitsuha have no connection to one another, except for one little thing: Intermittently and inexplicably, their minds get swapped into one another’s bodies.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: All That Glitters Is Not Code

Scarlett Johansson is a troubled android in "Ghost in the Shell"
Is Scarlett Johansson superhuman? In recent years, the one-time ingénue from Lost in Translation has played an assortment of otherworldly women who fit the bill—the sociologically curious alien of Under the Skin, the cerebrally enhanced anomaly of Lucy, the preternaturally gifted warrior of the Avengers films. (The only foe whom Black Widow can’t seem to conquer is the studio that refuses to green-light her own franchise.) But even beyond her portrayals of these exceptional characters, Johansson herself has demonstrated an uncanny, seemingly inhuman ability to dig, well, under the skin, to invest her fantastical creations with quiet longing and simmering grief. That talent proves crucial to Ghost in the Shell, yet another futuristic flick about a faux-human figure wrestling with the concept of her own identity. On the page, the film’s heroine is a fascinating but familiar archetype. Johansson makes her a character.

Good thing, too. Repurposed from the hit Japanese anime from 1995, Ghost in the Shell is a brisk and surprisingly contemplative affair, but it doesn’t have much original to say about the (in)human condition. It’s easy to perceive its central story—set in a glossy dystopia where man and machine have melded—as a greatest-hits compendium of classic science-fiction cinema. There’s a dash of the chilly aesthetic of Blade Runner, a pinch of the caustic irreverence of RoboCop (though lacking the broad comedy of The Fifth Element), a heaping of the cyberpunk chic of The Matrix. Yet despite its composite nature, the dark and sleek universe of Ghost in the Shell still manages to look and feel reasonably novel. It borrows, but it doesn’t steal.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Provincial Remake, But Some New Magic Flickers

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in Disney's remake of "Beauty and the Beast"
“You can’t judge people by who their father is,” Mrs. Potts sagely intones. This preoccupation with parentage is new to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon’s half-enchanting, half-enervating remake of the 1991 animated classic. But while Mrs. Potts’ wisdom is undeniable—she speaks in the voice of Emma Thompson, after all—it is impossible to view this latest child of Disney without considering the long shadow cast by its progenitor. Every work of art must be judged on its own terms, yet the question lingers: Was there a genuine reason to make this movie, an artistic justification beyond the piles of cash that the studio is already raking in? Or, to turn another of Mrs. Potts’ observations into a question, is there something there that wasn’t there before?

Yes and no. Operating under the all-seeing mandate of a corporate overlord, Condon and his screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, have transported the original’s two-dimensional drawings into spit-and-glue live action with a predictable degree of fidelity. This immediately lowers the remake’s ceiling; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is perhaps the laziest form of filmmaking. Yet this new incarnation of Beauty and the Beast, while expectedly faithful to the original, is not entirely a retread. Narratively, it has some additional backstory, which is arguably extraneous but which nevertheless adds heft to the movie’s thematic interest in the bond between parents and their offspring. Musically, beyond the instantly hummable hits from one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of the ’90s, it exhibits a handful of original songs, several of which are lousy but a few of which are actually pretty good. And of course, it features the services of a litany of estimable British and American actors, who help imbue an otherwise commercial enterprise with artisanal craft.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island: Doing the Monster Mash, Upriver in Vietnam

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston take a gander at King Kong in "Skull Island"
One of the lasting lessons of Jaws was that shrouding your monster in mystery elevates its threat level; over the film’s first half, we grow to appreciate the terrifying power of its man-eating shark, but we don’t actually see the beast for well over an hour. Kong: Skull Island may aspire to the heights of classic ’70s cinema, but it deems this particular piece of Spielbergian wisdom to be hogwash. Here, we glimpse the titular ape almost instantly, and while he’s obscured by shadow during the prologue, by the time the first main set piece rolls around, we’re treated to the sight of King Kong in all his massive glory. He’s big, he’s mean, and you had better believe that he’s going to knock your puny little helicopter right out of the sky.

Subtle and suspenseful, this is not. But while Kong: Skull Island is undeniably blockheaded, its bluntness is also kind of disarming. Here is an unpretentious big-budget movie that is unapologetic in its prioritization of action and spectacle. If you want thoughtful storytelling or complex characters, go to the art house. Here there be monsters.