Thursday, April 07, 2016

Defending Your Life

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991)

Having been struck head-on by a bus after going left of center in his new car, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) comes to in a place that looks a lot like the western United States but is not on Earth. In DEFENDING YOUR LIFE the Los Angeles advertising man learns that he is dead and has been brought to Judgment City for a four-day review of his life. As all of his life has been recorded, the trial-like setting will feature the prosecution and defense presenting footage of his actions in an attempt to prove to two judges what motivated his actions. If he is determined to have lived with courage, he will proceed to whatever comes next in the universe’s design. If Daniel is found to have lived in fear, he will be returned to Earth to try again.

Daniel is a neurotic sort, so naturally this process, which his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) insists is not a trial, makes him anxious. He can’t fully enjoy what Judgment City has to offer, from the chance to discover one’s past lives to the ability to eat all you want without gaining weight, because he wonders how his life will be assessed. Daniel is somewhat able to take his mind off of this whole ordeal when he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman of the same approximate earthly age. He finds himself quickly falling in love with her, yet he resists to a degree because of his expectation that she will be moving forward while he will be sent back to Earth.

Perhaps the cleverest and funniest conceit of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that Daniel has no firmer grasp on how things are supposed to work in Judgment City than any of us do in our mortal lives. He can look for meaning in his surroundings, but without understanding how the place works, it’s all conjecture. Daniel is just as insecure in this way station, worrying about how the number of days being reviewed in his case and the modesty of his accommodations might be indicative of the verdict that awaits him. For this short period he is in a spot where fear should not be a factor, yet it continues to drive his choices and outlook. To make matters worse, everyone assures him that he doesn’t need to fret about anything. As writer, director, and star, Brooks taps into the nagging feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t, especially when they appear unconcerned.

Brooks has fun with the idea of a bureaucratic layover on the spiritual plane. Waiting room coffee table books are all photographs from God’s eye view, even of Judgment City. While the deceased are taken to places that resemble where they are from, there’s something amusing in the thought that mundane urban and suburban architecture would be soothing for souls in transition. Brooks also humorously envisions that even in death one can be made to feel small. Daniel has to sit through a blooper reel of his pratfalls and mistakes. Bob pokes fun at humans like for the low percentage of their brains they utilize compared to Judgment City’s residents like him. Insecurity, it seems, is something to be overcome to progress in the eternal.

While Brooks’ character has a nervous energy about him, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE provides a warm, funny space to consider larger questions of existence. Brooks challenges the notion that courageous and fearful behavior are clear cut from one another. Rather, what can appear cowardly may be a sign of internal strength and what seems brave may just be a survival instinct. Streep bestows a peaceful air upon Julia, who lived less fearfully than Daniel, yet even she is not wholly free of hang-ups. Typically an exploration of self doubt would wrap with a skeptical or ironic tone, but Brooks finds a way to conclude DEFENDING YOUR LIFE that feels hopeful and honest without betraying the protagonist’s cautious nature.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Knight of Cups

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick, 2015)

KNIGHT OF CUPS follows Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter lost in the wilderness of Hollywood and all of the temptations it has to offer. Writer-director Terrence Malick compares Rick’s experience with a story about a father who sends his son west to retrieve a pearl, except the boy forgets his mission as he is seduced by what this new land puts before him. Success has brought money and an unending flow of beautiful women to Rick, but it has separated him from his wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and brought tension between him and his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). Like Rick, who is referred to in the title, every significant character is given a chapter named after their corresponding tarot card. Each segment looks at how each person affects the wandering dreamer.

Malick continues to push his style to greater abstraction in KNIGHT OF CUPS. This film may show the limits of its utility. Malick employs a thin line of narrative for hanging his meditations in voiceover about the pursuit of God and love and alienation from it amid a world that distracts from the eternal by making beauty and novelty easily accessible to stave off boredom. Characters are heard on the soundtrack before they’ve been introduced and often sound the same, so it can be difficult to parse whose thoughts we’re hearing, although Malick may be more interested in the totality of the statements than assigning any to particular voices. The technique is freeing in that it allows the viewer to float along with the experience and confounding when trying to understand specifically what Malick is saying. For better or worse, the actors are symbols, even more than in his previous film.

After THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, how much one is willing to submit to the ride probably depends on one’s tolerance for Malick’s mystical poetry. The film unspools like a waking illusion, with Rick hazily roaming through the dream factory rich in material things and impoverished spiritually. It helps that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing imagery of manmade opulence holds interest even if one loses the threads of philosophy and theology that hold KNIGHT OF CUPS together. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film in which the camera swoops among the people and tilts upward as if in worship and humility.

Christian or faith-based cinema tends to be narrowly defined to the kind of pat homiletics in stuff like MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN. Certainly those very straightforward types of films are more accessible on an aesthetic level than the sound and image pastiche Malick favors, but both are searching for something higher. KNIGHT OF CUPS dwells in the sinful entertainment capital to understand how one can be led astray and might be led out. If there can be multiple denominations within the predominant western religion, why can’t there be different ways for art to contemplate the nature of the divine too?

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Miracles from Heaven

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN (Patricia Riggen, 2016)

In MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN the Beam family appears to have as close to a perfect life in their spacious ranch house in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson) feel blessed to have three daughters and an ever-expanding number of dogs, although mom may not be thrilled every time a new one is brought home. Kevin has opened a big veterinary clinic. Christy worries a little that they might have overextended themselves in launching the business, but she and her family are regular churchgoers with faith that God will see them through whatever may come.

Christy finds that faith tested when middle daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers) becomes sick and seems to be getting worse despite medical professionals assuring her and her husband that there’s nothing seriously wrong. When Anna is finally diagnosed correctly with an intestinal disorder, the news could not be more disheartening. The condition is incurable and does not permit Anna to eat. Christy is distraught, finding her only comfort in the hope that a Boston specialist will take Anna as a patient and be able to alleviate her considerable pain.

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN treads lightly as a story of tested faith, but it allows Christy to have the space to turn away from the church in a manner that makes sense even for believers. The strain of her daughter’s struggle, the lack of hope, and the cruel judgment of others as to her piety and how a deficiency in it might be responsible for the situation provide sufficient reasons for Christy to turn away from religion. Because this film’s purpose is to witness, MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN is careful to avoid Christy rejecting God outright but instead has her distance herself from a higher power, like putting something in storage that she does not have use for currently. God is there if she needs it, especially when she doesn’t think He can or will intervene.

While MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN makes room for that doubt, it is saddled with the narrative and filmmaking problems endemic to faith-based films, particularly those grounded in evangelical Protestantism. Primarily this is a matter of message above all. Randy Brown’s adaptation of Christy Beam’s real-life account of what happened to her daughter has two clear purposes. It is to assure those who are born again that their faith is the one true way, and it is to welcome non-believers to the light without being too Jesus-y. The first intention shows in doctors broadly dismissing Christy’s protests that something serious is wrong with Anna because, after all, they are the experts. This gets complicated when one doctor is a comfort to Christy and Anna, but the film reminds that he’s no match for God. It also comes across in the sense of superiority over a father who doesn’t his sick daughter tainted with that God stuff. In the film’s view prayer is like a wish slot machine that you just have to keep pumping enough quarters into until you hit the jackpot.

It’s no surprise that MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN plays best when it’s taking it easy on the sermonizing and merely letting the characters inhabit the stressful circumstances. The middle portion with Christy and Anna in Boston succeeds best because focuses on a parent and a child coping with hard things. A better film would have looked closer at the financial problems this medical predicament would put them in, especially when it just pays lip service to their stretched bank account mentioned early on. Although Anna’s illness is an emotional drain on the rest of the family, the film deals with them with a token scene or two. Perhaps most distressing is how MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN seeks to glorify God in on Anna’s unexplainable healing without fully appreciating the smaller kindnesses she and Christy received throughout the trying times. The message may be to open one’s eyes to how God is reflected in the words and deeds of others, but the film prefers something showier.

Grade: C-

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Brothers Grimsby

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY (Louis Leterrier, 2015)

Although it’s been twenty-eight years since he was separated from his little brother, Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) continues to hold out hope that they will be reunited. In THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY Nobby is tipped off that Sebastian (Mark Strong) will be at a London charity event, but he’s unaware that his sibling will be in attendance as an MI6 agent intent on taking out an assassin. Nobby’s bumbling greeting of his long-lost brother leads to Sebastian accidentally shooting one of the very people he was supposed to be protecting.

With the nation’s security service in hot pursuit of him, Sebastian reluctantly agrees to let his eager brother hide him at the crowded flat he lives in with his wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and nearly a dozen kids. Sebastian’s return to their working class English hometown of Grimsby, sister city to Chernobyl, is short-lived as professional killers follow him there. Before long he and Nobby are traveling to South Africa and elsewhere around the globe to foil an evil mastermind’s plot to terrorize the planet.

Like THE DICTATOR, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY features Baron Cohen’s antics in a scripted scenario instead of the mix of quasi-documentary and fiction in BORAT and BRUNO. He’s credited as one of three screenwriters on THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, and it’s the funniest thing he’s made since BORAT, although, as with his other work, your appreciation depends on how high your tolerance is for the outrageous and offensive. Like the hardscrabble buffoons that Nobby lives among, this is a comedy of exceptionally low taste. For instance, one of the most memorable scenes features the brothers hiding in an elephant’s vagina while their host is visited by a line of amorous pachyderms. The extended bit is as filthy and uproarious as one might imagine.

As base and scatological as THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is, the vulgarity seems cheeky and cheerful in large part to Baron Cohen’s amiable doofus. Perpetually clad in an England soccer jersey and resembling the lead singer of Oasis, Nobby is a genial family man who is willing to endure all sorts of indignities for the sake of being with his brother again. This sweetness is critical in striking a balance with all of the disgusting stuff that, while nasty, doesn’t come across as mean. Some may find that a couple jokes cross the line into racial insensitivity, but for a film that takes big risks for laughs, most don’t seem to come from a cruel place.

Director Louis Leterrier, possibly best known for THE TRANSPORTER and its first sequel, brings credibility to THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY’s action scenes. During the opening credits the first-person POV chase with Sebastian tailing a suspect serves as a good example of the breakneck excitement in such sequences and a funny riff on spy movie setpieces. The action matters in THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, but ultimately the film strives, like the James Bond and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series, to find its purpose in showing the audience something it can’t believe it’s seeing. In this case that means howling at grotesquely swollen anatomy and an unconventional method for containing the threat of weaponized rockets.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Shotgun Stories

SHOTGUN STORIES (Jeff Nichols, 2007)

Long-held resentments and a feud between two sets of half-brothers is triggered when their father dies in SHOTGUN STORIES. To Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs), and Boy (Douglas Ligon) their father has been dead to them since he abandoned the family and subsequently straightened up and started a new, respectable life. Their dad also produced three boys with his second family, and his preference for them is evident by the fact that they all have proper names.

Son stirs up the bad blood between clans when he crashes the funeral to speak ill of the recently departed. His words provoke a brief confrontation between the antagonistic half-brothers but don’t lead to anything of consequence by the grave. Still, the offense gets Mark Hayes (Travis Smith) and his siblings itching for a fight. Even if they do their best to stay clear of one another in the small, central Arkansas town, a clash seems inevitable.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols excels at capturing the shorthand that families, especially brothers, often communicate in. Terse conversations among Son, Kid, and Boy reflect a common understanding that allows them to discuss emotional matters without having to spill their guts to one another. Each inherently knows what the others are thinking whether things go unsaid or are spoken around. Nichols makes good use of the actors in letting their subtle facial reactions and lack of comments clearly fill in what is going on in the characters’ heads. The affection and protectiveness that Son, Kid, and Boy feel for each other isn’t proclaimed in any grand manner, yet it comes through in their actions and clipped discussions. The spare style, especially as it ties in with masculinity, is perhaps reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.

Nichols also has a strong grasp of location and social conditions in SHOTGUN STORIES. Part of the conflict between the half-brothers comes from the economic disparity between them. The younger Hayes brothers may not be rich, but they live in nice homes and have a family farm to attend to. Meanwhile, Son and Kid scrape by with jobs at a fish farm, and Boy coaches youth basketball when it’s in season. Son has his hopes for more money pinned on learning how to count cards so he can win at the casino. Kid sleeps in a tent outside Son’s house while Boy stays in a conversion van that he parks at the dam because it’s cheaper than getting an apartment. Nichols doesn’t gawk at their poverty or fetishize it but rather depicts it as the reality that the characters know and accept, even if they’d like to be better situated.

As his first film, SHOTGUN STORIES shows Nichols’ promise and his need to develop as a dramatist. The build-up to the showdown between the half-brothers is filled with tension, but the film loses intensity when the grudges boil over into violence. While the spartan nature of the screenplay mirrors how these men remain relatively closed off in their personalities, Nichols draws them in fairly broad strokes. He benefits from Shannon playing Son, as he suggests a complex interior life for the oldest brother. Shortcomings aside, SHOTGUN STORIES tells a Shakespearean tale by way of the American South and points toward better things to come from its talented filmmaker.

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)

Having left her fiancĂ©, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is not in a good place emotionally as she drives across Louisiana in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. After being knocked out during a nighttime car accident, she awakens in a bad physical place. She finds herself on a mattress with her right leg chained to the wall of a locked concrete room. Michelle is visited by Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that he saved her life by pulling her out of her wrecked car and bringing her to his bunker while an unspecified attack has rendered outside uninhabitable. He isn’t clear on what specifically has happened. All he knows is that everyone Michelle knows is surely dead.

In time Howard grants her more movement around his well-stocked underground shelter. Also occupying it is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped build the bunker and rushed to it for safety when the unknown event happened. Emmett and Michelle don’t fully trust Howard, who comes off as a paranoid survivalist, but with his broken arm and her injured leg, they are limited in their abilities to physically overpower him. The limited information they have about what’s going on above ground also discourages a possible escape. For now they’re better off playing board games, doing puzzles, and enjoying whatever other entertainment options are available while biding what could be a couple years until it’s safe on the surface.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE exists within the same universe as Matt Reeves’ 2008 thriller CLOVERFIELD, although the films stand as separate works that lack overlapping characters. Such knowledge is a tip-off to the mystery about what the trio is burrowed away from, but the greater uncertainty lies in Howard’s motivations. By preparing for a doomsday scenario that seems to have arrived, his suspicious nature is validated. Howard is weird, but the limited evidence also means that he’s correct. Goodman plays Howard as a creep emboldened because his fears have become manifest and thus allow him to exert excessive influence on what Michelle and Emmett can do and say. Goodman is terrific straddling the line of acting like those around him have the freedom to do as they please while never letting them forget that he holds their fates in his hands. Sometimes it’s what he implies, like telling Michelle that she’ll learn to enjoy cooking. In other actions the threat is explicit, such as the fact that Michelle is still locked in that barren room at times. Goodman is often scarier as Howard when he’s putting on the appearance of being nice, which poorly disguises whatever pathology drives him.

Winstead is excellent at showing how Michelle maintains the peace around a volatile personality. She locates the character’s strength by having Michelle play along with whatever placates Howard even as she schemes to find out the truth of the predicament for herself. There’s not much meat to the part, but Winstead brings solid determination to it.

Director Dan Trachtenberg maximizes the tension in close quarters, whether it’s the stifling experience of bunker life or the claustrophobia of crawling through a ventilation shaft. Even if the three people living there were on good terms, at some point it would feel like the walls are closing in on them. Every word and movement is heightened in this tight thriller because upsetting the fragility of the environment can be the difference between life and death.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015)

With its title conveyed in the NATO phonetic alphabet, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT hints at the main character’s heedlessness in becoming a war correspondent and astonishment at what she finds to be normal in that environment. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is tired of spinning her wheels writing lightweight scripts at a cable news channel, so when her employer seeks on-camera talent to cover the war in Afghanistan, she grabs the opportunity even though she’s not prepared for the inherent hardships and danger. She has a boyfriend who is often traveling but no kids, which frees her to accept the initial six-month assignment.

Beginning in 2003 Kim sets up her base in Kabul in a place akin to a ramshackle hostel for international journalists. Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) gives her a crash course in the dynamics of the place, particularly in regard to her high desirability in a spot with few western women and many men. Scottish photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) becomes a friend who would like to get more familiar with Kim. Interpreter Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) tries to be protective of her even as she takes unadvised risks. Kim gets hooked on the thrill of reporting from a war zone while the public back home increasingly is losing interest.

In WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT Fey stays largely true to the persona she’s developed in films and TV shows but adapts it for a setting more serious than audiences are used to seeing her in. Once again she’s a clever, funny, fortysomething single woman with an unfulfilling personal and professional life, but in this situation there’s little time to spend fretting about her disappointments. Kim’s intelligence and sharp wit function as shields, if not weapons, in a hostile land. She is quick with withering remarks and crude rejoinders, in part because it’s what survival in the male-dominated culture demands, yet there’s a limit to how much her verbal assertiveness can protect her. Fey is good at showing how Kim mounts her defenses while remaining aware of her vulnerability. Her funny performance demonstrates that her character can drink and swear like one of the boys but still faces disadvantages because of her gender.

Kim rediscovers herself during her time in Afghanistan, but WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, based on Kim Barker’s book about her experiences, resists being EAT PRAY LOVE goes to war. The film is Kim’s story of personal growth, but it also depicts the lack of change where she’s reporting from. Robert Carlock’s screenplay observes the absurdity and sadness in war-torn Afghanistan. It’s funny that Kim doesn’t recognize the scam of a boy crying over the broken eggs he was going to sell on the street and heartrending to realize that he’s out there doing it out of necessity. There’s humor in a local mistaking an African-American soldier’s presence as meaning that the Russians are now black, yet it points out the decades-long, unresolved conflict in the region.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa maintain the tricky harmony of laughing at the strangeness of a war zone without demeaning those who endure bombings, searches, and gun battles. Alfred Molina’s portrayal of an upper Afghan official who drops thinly veiled come-ons to Kim is the one out-of-tune exception to WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT’s tonal balance. Molina’s performance contains menace as he implies receiving sex for secrets, but the threatening aspect of him is overshadowed by his clownish behavior. Otherwise WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT stays clear-eyed while taking an askew view inside the bubble of war.

Grade: B