Friday, April 07, 2017

Raw


RAW (GRAVE) (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Justine (Garance Marillier) grew up in a vegetarian household, and she fully intends to maintain her principles when she begins veterinary school in RAW. Animals are for assisting, not eating. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has been going to the school, but rather than provide full cover for her inexperienced sibling, she insists that Justine learn to deal with the hazing that the older students dole out. Justine is willing to put up with most of the demands, like how to dress or address her senior peers. She draws a line, though, when asked to consume raw rabbit liver.

Assuming Alexia refused to take part in the ritual, she calls upon her for support. Instead Alexia eats some and then forces one of the organs into her mouth. Justine has a bad reaction, breaking out all over in a rash. This first taste of meat will not be her last, as she finds herself craving it in spite of how she was raised. Having erased one taboo, Justine finds herself wanting the truly forbidden, human flesh.

Writer-director Julia Ducournau applies the art horror treatment to an otherwise familiar coming of age story. RAW is about a young adult on her own for the first time and who experiments with the freedom that comes when there are no watchful eyes. Justine’s turn from herbivore to cannibalistic carnivore is just an exaggerated version of the sheltered kid who goes to college and engages in all manner of reckless acts because mom and dad aren’t nearby. RAW’s provocations aren’t reactionary means for a moralizing end but disturbing and, at times, darkly funny observations of the wildness that can come with independence.

Ducournau depicts the gore like an anthropologist might nonjudgmentally write about a custom that is revolting to her native culture or as a naturalist might consider a predator . The matter-of-fact quality to the violence lends more potency to it and queasily charges scenes of Justine wolfing down shawarma and gnawing on a raw salmon fillet. The ferocity of her appetite and how she tries to mitigate it make up the internal struggle she needs to resolve.

Marillier presents Justine as a meek and disciplined person who hasn’t questioned the world. She knows the rules and abides by them, so facing a fundamental conflict between her guideline and the group’s norm casts everything in a new light. Marillier doesn’t cut an intimidating presence, yet in discovering her taste for people, she builds uninhibited danger into the mere way she looks at someone. Not knowing what you are capable of until you try can be a good thing. In RAW it’s also the scariest thing to learn about oneself.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 06, 2017

T2 Trainspotting


T2 TRAINSPOTTING (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Twenty years after stealing money from his friends in TRAINSPOTTING and absconding to Amsterdam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh, Scotland. The death of his mother in T2 TRAINSPOTTING brings Mark home after such a long time gone, but he decides to revisit his old pals while he’s back in town. The intervening years have not treated them well. Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) continues to struggle regularly with a heroin addiction. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has switched up the drug that has him hooked these days, and he indulges in it in the time between running a failing pub and blackmailing the men he entraps with the help of Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), a Bulgarian woman who sees herself as more business partner than girlfriend. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a long-term prison sentence, which is to Mark’s benefit until the volatile Scot escapes. Despite what he says, Mark’s life isn’t substantially better than theirs.

Although Mark provides restitution to Simon for what he took two decades ago, Simon still smarts at the betrayal. He intends to gain his revenge by rekindling his friendship with Mark, teaming up on a business venture, and then ruin him. Mark’s reunion with Spud resulted in saving him from killing himself. Now Mark hopes to supplant his friend’s harmful addiction with a healthier one. Meanwhile, Begbie returns to his old ways and looks forward to having his son join him in his illegal pursuits.

In TRAINSPOTTING twentysomething junkies Mark and Simon talked about the brief window in life when you have “it” and then “it” is gone. They’re speaking in regard to musicians, actors, and athletes, but they could just as well be referring to their future selves. Their lives were certainly nothing spectacular then, but through the gloom of their unsatisfactory present in T2 TRAINSPOTTING and the fog of nostalgia, that period looks like their heyday. As a young adult Simon believes that everyone accumulates years and can’t hack it anymore. He’s correct in the sense that if you choose to live by such a philosophy, what a drag it is getting old.

So the characters wallow in their self-pity and self-destructiveness, striving to regain what mostly wasn’t so great the first time around. They return to bad habits, make many of the same mistakes, and, incidentally, have their share of good times. In both films director Danny Boyle shows what could attract them to such wasting-away lifestyles and sets their zonked-out bliss to pulsing soundtracks. It doesn’t look like my idea of fun, but Boyle succeeds at showing the attraction even as he offsets it with ample scenes illustrating the high costs.

T2 TRAINSPOTTING isn’t as joyful as its predecessor and appropriately so. However misguided, there’s more romance in youth being careless than middle-aged men behaving the same way. While this lot has often decided poorly, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge place these choices within the context of the economic limitations in their surroundings. It’s not an excuse, but it is a symptom. As Boyle does frequently in T2 TRAINSPOTTING, the thrilling final sequence juxtaposes the past and the present. It also bookends the films with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. While a lot hasn’t changed for the character as the remixed track roars, there are some differences to give hope that maybe the past won’t always be repeated.

Grade: B+

A Monster Calls


A MONSTER CALLS (J.A. Bayona, 2016)

In A MONSTER CALLS Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is old enough to understand that his mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill but doesn’t have sufficient years to deal properly with the emotions her sickness brings. He struggles to sleep at night and is bullied at school during the day, all the time worrying about the welfare of this dearly beloved mom. Conor has no one else he can safely confide in. He is at odds with his grandma (Sigourney Weaver) and is upset with his dad (Toby Kebbell), who has remarried and lives a continent away in Los Angeles.

From his bedroom window the British boy can see in the distance a mighty yew tree in an old church graveyard. One night at 12:07 the tree transforms into a monster that confronts Conor. The Monster (Liam Neeson) tells him that he will visit him at the same time to tell three stories. When the last tale has been told, it will be time for Conor to share his nightmare.

The Monster’s stories of royal deception, medicine versus faith, and an invisible man are sumptuously rendered in watercolor animation but not exactly suited for bedtime. Each challenges Conor with contradictions and unfairness than clear-cut examples of good triumphing over evil. For a boy seeking restored order, these complicated parables do not provide immediate relief. If anything, they reinforce the inequity handed to him and the person he loves most. Yet the Monster is helping Conor through the grieving process and giving him the tools for owning up to the truth that pains him most of all. There’s just no easy solution for guiding him to that point.

Director J.A. Bayona treats this weighty material with Spielbergian flourishes. The fantastical elements in A MONSTER CALLS lift the film above the mostly barren country terrain, not for the purposes of escape but to gain greater perspective. Bayona makes impressive use of scale to convey the emotional difference between something obsessed over in close-up and taken in with a wide view. The film’s interiors can be as dim and suffocating as the mental experience of fixating on a problem.

Like Steven Spielberg, Bayona displays a deft understanding of a child’s point of view in extraordinary circumstances. A MONSTER CALLS doesn’t feel as though an adult’s sensibility is imposed on it. Conor is given the leeway to be vulnerable and lash out, which MacDougall does without sentimentalizing his character. He plays the part with the protective toughness that a kid might naturally develop in the absence of greater support from grown ups. A MONSTER CALLS approaches the ordeal with imagination and empathy to allow the young to manage the worst.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Kong: Skull Island


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

When satellite imagery reveals the location to the unexplored Skull Island in the South Pacific, the race is on to get there first. In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a U.S. government official with the organization Monarch, quickly assembles a team of soldiers, scientists, and adventure seekers to claim whatever mysteries the place may reveal. Taking the lead is tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). With the Vietnam War just concluded, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men provide the squadron to protect and transport everyone to Skull Island through the nasty weather that encircles it.

None of them are prepared for encountering its enormous creatures, including the ape known as Kong and his reptilian-like predators. Those who survive the casualty-riddled arrival on Skull Island are separated, with Conrad’s group, which includes photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), crossing paths with American pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Marlow wrecked there during World War II and has lived among the natives in the intervening years. He considers getting off the island to be a foolish venture but has a makeshift boat in need of repairs that might help if they want to take the risk.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND believes bigger is better, from its unbelievably huge monsters to a primary cast big enough to field two softball teams. The number of main players can be a problem because there are so many characters to serve, even if just in a minor way to give each a distinguishing moment. For all of the mayhem, there’s not a heightened sense of danger because there are plenty of targets. Losing one or five doesn’t have an appreciable effect. They’re all types, even the presumed leads, rather than well-rounded protagonists. Reilly manages to stick out because of his funny and distinctive oddball nature.

To a large degree the lack of character-driven material doesn’t matter all that much as long as there’s enough spectacle. KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers in that area. Whether Kong is swatting helicopters like flies, wrestling with a giant octopus, or battling his nemeses, the intimidatingly-dubbed skullcrawlers, the special effects impress as state of the art illusions and in their scale. While this and the 1933 KING KONG are not equals as films, the descendant understands the thrill of showmanship in its roots.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND spins a K-tel collection of Vietnam War film rock hits and is casual with its references to APOCALYPSE NOW, but there’s no grand vision of commentary about foreign conflicts or colonialism. That is all window dressing on a monster movie with an entertainer’s eagerness to please. If you want to see cinema’s great ape smash stuff up with the latest technology has to offer, KONG: SKULL ISLAND certainly delivers the goods.

Grade: B

Friday, March 24, 2017

A United Kingdom


A UNITED KINGDOM (Amma Asante, 2016)

In 1947 London Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is studying in preparation for when it is his time to become king of his home nation Bechuanaland, now known as Botswana. He meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) at a social occasion in A UNITED KINGDOM, and rather unexpectedly the royal African man and white English woman fall in love. An interracial relationship is complicated enough in their time and place. Their decision to get married is also of considerable controversy back in southern Africa where he is to rule. Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi (Visu Kunene) has been leading until his nephew is ready to accept his role as heir to the throne, but he finds the marriage unacceptable, as do other members in the family and tribe.

Seretse finds persuading his own people to be less troublesome than getting the support of outsiders. The British government takes a keen interest in Seretse and Ruth’s relationship because of the economic stakes it has in the region and the continent. In a cruel twist in this fact-based story, the politicians call him to London and then ban him from returning while his pregnant wife is back home. The couple makes the difficult but principled decision to fight for their right to be together even if it means being separated by borders for an unknown amount of time.

A UNITED KINGDOM studies the personal within the political while focusing on the strength, resilience, and romance shared by a wronged man and woman. Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert flesh out the injustice with the broader picture in which the Khamas lived. Their marriage did not merely have local implications. Bechuanaland was under the protection of the United Kingdom. The British government wished to appease Bechuanaland’s neighbor South Africa, which was in the process of instituting apartheid. In their view, mistreating one couple for the sake of political favor and prospective economic gain seems justifiable despite the moral implications.

As with her previous film BELLE, Asante dives into history to select a fascinating but lesser known story of a person of color. Recently the actress Thandie Newton talked about the difficulty for black actors to find work in the U.K. because of the number of period pieces that tend not to have roles for ethnic minorities. A UNITED KINGDOM and Asante’s prior feature push back against the theoretical argument that there aren’t good tales to tell. If anything, something like this benefits from the unfamiliarity of its protagonists and the circumstances they confronted.

That relative novelty helps offset some of the earnestness that marks A UNITED KINGDOM. The film’s sincerity is not a fault, but it can play for stretches like a well-meaning lesson about a past society’s unfairness. The performers give it a big boost. Oyelowo brings dignity and a clear-eyed perspective to his part, yet he doesn’t shy away from letting Seretse simmer with anger at the powers that be that would undermine his authority and entitlements. He commands attention with grace rather than force. Pike demonstrates Ruth’s sensitivity to the situation in which she has chosen. Here’s a woman who is treated with suspicion for rightfully following her heart. She fights as she can regarding international matters, yet on a local level she respects the difference of opinion in a way that proves her deserving of the trust she needs to gain. Although A UNITED KINGDOM follows a template for its story of overcoming historical offenses, Oyelowo and Pike succeed at making these people feel human even as they conduct themselves with incredible patience.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Morgan


MORGAN (Jake Scott, 2016)

Risk management consultant Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) arrives at a remote property to determine how the corporation should proceed regarding a product in development, a synthetic humanoid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Although just five years old in real time, Morgan has developed at a highly accelerated rate, appearing to be a female in her late teens or early twenties. In MORGAN Lee prefers to refer to this gray hoodie-clad being as a genderless it, but the scientists who have nurtured her growth, particularly behavioral analyst Amy (Rose Leslie), tend to view her as a young woman.

Lee has come to assess if the project with Morgan should continue after this embodied artificial intelligence savagely attacked one of the workers. Much rides on Morgan’s psychological evaluation, and she does not take well to the provocations made by her interviewer, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti). It falls to Lee to clean up the mess he creates in pushing his subject to a breaking point.

MORGAN echoes the documentary PROJECT NIM, about an experiment to raise a chimpanzee as a human, and the science fiction thriller EX MACHINA with its robot that might pass as a real person. While rich thematic possibilities exist in considering the ethical quandaries and unanticipated effects of such scientific trials, the film by director Jake Scott and screenwriter Seth Owen settles for being a Frankenstein-like story absent a brain. MORGAN’s premise is established but never expanded upon, leaving it as something that looks good at the design stage but lacks an animating force.

MORGAN’s visual style, especially the bunker-like building with its sleek interiors, are highly reminiscent of EX MACHINA too. Some of the similarities may be attributable to the genre, yet calling to mind a much better recent comparison does this film no favors. Side by side, MORGAN looks like the shell of a futuristic suspense movie, one with an appealing exterior alone that also has nothing to distinguish it from more robust competitors.

The film’s familiar but attractive foundation and surfaces hold enough interest that its diminishing returns make it feel like a squandered opportunity. The cast, populated with recognizable faces in small roles, promises something better than what they have to work with. Taylor-Joy, who first came to notice in THE WITCH: A NEW-ENGLAND FOLKTALE, is effectively eerie as a character trying to integrate the programming within her biological casing. In failing to tap into the potential of its scenario, MORGAN is vulnerable to being evaluated primarily on its narrative ingenuity, of which there is little. It takes all of the turns one expects in a schematic manner. Although it does so efficiently, MORGAN functions like a machine that can accomplish a task quickly even as it doesn’t deliver anything desired.

Grade: C

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Morris from America


MORRIS FROM AMERICA (Chad Hartigan, 2016)

Relocating to Heidelberg, Germany with his soccer coach father Curtis (Craig Robinson) isn’t easy for thirteen-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) in MORRIS FROM AMERICA. While his dad tries his best to keep his spirits up, Morris has no friends and just a modest grasp on the different language. His tutor Inka (Carla Juri) suggests he spend some time at the youth center to meet people and work on his German in a social setting.

Being an African-American--not to mention the only person of color--marks him as an outsider from the other teens. His aloofness doesn’t help either. Fifteen-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) shows some friendliness toward Morris, although she also sends a number of mixed messages. Desperate for a closer connection with anyone, especially a girl, Morris latches onto Katrin like a life preserver even though it’s unclear if she’s toying with him.

MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a fish-out-of-water tale and coming-of-age story, with the greater emphasis on the protagonist’s first steps on a journey toward growing up. Both scenarios require learning how to translate, be it a foreign language or social cues. Morris is doubly disadvantaged in that he must navigate an unfamiliar culture while searching for his sense of self too. As such, he’s more susceptible to following the crowd. Writer-director Chad Hartigan is perceptive in developing a situation in which a basically good kid might find trouble by virtue of being lonely.

As played by Christmas, Morris is endearing without ever seeming pathetic or stupid. There’s vicarious joy in seeing him light up when Morris receives the kind of attention he desires and pain when intuiting how he misreads people and then puts up buffers in response to actions that hurt him. Christmas invests Morris with pride and emotional intelligence even as he is clumsy in interpersonal communication. He indicates Morris’ mental calculations on the spot of whether he should hold back or not in the scenarios he faces. It’s a canny performance that reveals the child Morris still is and the adult he imagines himself as but is not yet equipped to be.

Robinson doesn’t receive a lot of screen time in MORRIS FROM AMERICA, but he makes the most of what he gets. He shows Curtis to be a loving father who can be uncertain how best to deal with the adolescent in his midst. Curtis is more comfortable with being in Germany, yet as a widower he’s also undergoing an adjustment made harder with a son at a transitional age. Robinson occupies the space where he can seem like the cool dad but has no problem responsibly exerting his power as a parent. He expresses that he understands what his son is going through, especially with what he chooses to address directly. Still, he doesn’t shy away from punishing Morris as necessary. Robinson’s performance is affectionate and knowing. He’s the heart of a forgiving film that observes the humor and frustration of being a teenager.

Grade: B

Friday, March 10, 2017

Before I Fall


BEFORE I FALL (Ry Russo-Young, 2017)

High school senior Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) wakes up on February 12 expecting it to be an eventful day. It is, just not in any way she could have imagined. In BEFORE I FALL Samantha and her friends are on the way home from a party when they are in a terrible car accident. Dying in the crash jolts her awake only to discover that it is February 12 again. At first Samantha thinks she just had a bad dream, but as the day progresses, she finds that everything is repeating. The more Samantha learns what happens on this fateful day, the more determined she is to change the events. Nevertheless, altering her actions seems to have no effect on the loop she is inhabiting.

While much is at stake in BEFORE I FALL, this teen drama variation on GROUNDHOG DAY lacks the richness of the obvious influence for the young adult novel on which the film is based. Related to that, part of the problem exists in not having a clear sense of Samantha’s character before metaphysical complications enter her life. She runs with the popular crowd at school yet doesn’t seem as deserving of such a drastic lesson, unlike Bill Murray’s arrogant weatherman. The arc she travels from insensitivity to enlightenment covers just a small amount of ground. Occupying this purgatory is an unduly harsh penalty for what amounts to a mystical experience in encouraging greater empathy.

The relative mildness of Samantha’s shortcomings can make a significant portion of BEFORE I FALL dramatically unsatisfying. Is such an unhappy circumstance foisted upon her really merited for a teenager who can be a little sharp with her younger sister and mother and less than charitable toward some classmates? Although this aspect can work against the film, it leads to a philosophically nuanced observation by the end. It’s bold for BEFORE I FALL to posit that the small deficiencies in kindness can have ruinous results. Samantha may just make a tiny impression on the world, but the butterfly effect’s amplification of such words and actions means that she’s helping to spread negativity, even if it is invisible. The film isn’t couched in religious terms, yet it reveals itself to be an exercise in following the Golden Rule.

Deutch is an open performer who projects fundamental decency to the point that it can be hard to believe that she’s as bratty and self-involved as the film needs her to be. It’s less a fault of the actress than it is of the screenwriter and director. Samantha’s sensitive and searching qualities are never in doubt when Deutch is called upon to confront the challenge before her. BEFORE I FALL succeeds based on watching how her character responds to the test.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Get Out


GET OUT (Jordan Peele, 2017)

In GET OUT Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is right to be a little worried about meeting the parents of his his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). She’s not told them that he’s black, although Rose shrugs off his concern about his race mattering to her family. Things can be a little uncomfortable when they arrive at the private estate, but the tension is more because of Rose’s mom Missy (Catherine Keener) and dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) awkwardly conveying their ease rather than signaling objections to the interracial relationship. They even try to smooth over any wrong ideas Chris may get from spotting two black servants working in their home.

While there doesn’t appear to be any reason for alarm, the weekend gets weirder for Chris after Missy hypnotizes him to help him stop smoking. Chris and Rose have unknowingly come to the Armitage house when Missy and Dean throw an annual party, so he also feels out of place among a bunch of monied older white people. He’s relieved when he sees another young black man, Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), in attendance, but his atypical behavior heightens the sense that something isn’t right.

With comedian Jordan Peele as writer and director, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that GET OUT might be a humorous update of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. It’s been fifty years since the then-controversial movie about a white woman accompanied by her black fiancé paying a surprise visit to her liberal, upper-class parents. After all, a lot has changed in American society in the intervening time. While there are satirical and comedic elements to GET OUT, most notably with Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s suspicious friend, Peele guides the situation to play as horror. The monster of racism hasn’t disappeared; it’s just hidden itself better.

Peele has fun playing with appearances. Kaluuya goes to great pains to be agreeable as Chris. He doesn’t want to create a stir when a police officer presses him for his ID after they hit a deer even though he wasn’t driving. Rose pushes back strongly, calling out the demand for what it is, but her insistent response is also a function of the privilege she has because of her race. Chris would have every right to protest too, but the situation might not play out the same. Rose’s parents and the party guests overdo it in trying to show their enlightened viewpoints or interest so that their politeness is laced with offense. Chris’s amiable and unassuming behavior, which has helped him in code-switching until this situation, proves to be what makes him most vulnerable.

Peele’s directing debut displays a strong visual sensibility and a great amount of forethought. The way one character runs initially reads as a broad joke, yet it carries a larger meaning. There are numerous other examples that demonstrate the care with which seemingly insignificant details are pregnant with implications. GET OUT isn’t a scary movie in that it doesn’t induce armrest-gripping. Rather, the terror in it comes from perceiving the way Chris experiences the world differently from the white characters.

Grade: B

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Belle de jour


BELLE DE JOUR (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre (Jean Sorel) have been married for a year and are very much in love, yet she remains frigid toward her doctor husband. In BELLE DE JOUR Séverine holds sex and love as separate things but desperately wants to be intimate with Pierre. She fantasizes about being roughed up and degraded, secrets which she doesn’t dare share with him.

One day a friend tells Séverine about an acquaintance who is turning tricks. The notion repels her as a wealthy and refined woman, yet she is also fascinated by the idea and questions her husband about his familiarity with brothels. Her friend’s lover Henri (Michel Piccoli) mentions where high class women can work as prostitutes, so, unable to shake her curiosity, Séverine pays a visit to Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). Because Séverine insists on just working afternoons, Madame Anaïs gives her the name Belle de jour.

Although not explicit in depiction, BELLE DE JOUR’s subject matter was surely hot stuff upon its debut fifty years ago. The film retains its erotic properties because director Luis Buñuel and his frequent co-writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière rely on suggestion and mystery to convey Séverine’s fantasies and journey. It’s an acknowledgement that, like the clients with varied preferences and fetishes, what one may find arousing, another may not. So BELLE DE JOUR does not get hung up on what specifically fuels Séverine’s primal urges but rather concerns itself with how those fixations make her feel and act. The sound of carriage bells recurs in her sexual daydreams, but the meaning is entirely inscrutable to anyone but her. As Buñuel was a noted surrealist, the lack of definitive interpretation is part and parcel of his style, but it also suggests that her predilections were set in ways that even Séverine may not understand.

Fantasy and reality are inseparably blurred in BELLE DE JOUR. While some scenes are clearly dreams, it is difficult to say for certain how much occurs in Séverine’s inner life. Perhaps most or all except for the final scene are imagined. Then again, that last scene could be a vision of how she might feel once all of her guilt is laid bare and open communication with her husband is something she can finally engage in. Accordingly, Deneuve withholds telegraphing Séverine’s emotions for others, including the viewers. The pleasure and disgust the character experiences belongs to her. Whether intentional or not, Deneuve’s casting makes for an intriguing comparison with REPULSION, in which her character’s frigidity manifests in a more horrific manner.

Not to wield BELLE DE JOUR as a club, especially because it is considered a masterpiece of world cinema--and thus not a fair fight--but it is informative to view it in relation to something like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and its sequel. The contemporary films employ representation as provocation, yet the lack of ambiguity is precisely why the most salacious moments seem dispassionate and mechanical. BELLE DE JOUR and the FIFTY SHADES movies are self-serious, but Buñuel’s work is more artful, personal, and intellectualized in a European manner while the FIFTY SHADES films have been reduced to their basest elements and homogenized for mass consumption.

Grade: A

Friday, February 24, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

After taking care of some loose ends from the first film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) learns that returning to retirement from being a professional assassin is no easy feat. In JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, he must make good on the favor he was granted to get him out of the killing business in the first place. Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) wants to ascend in the underworld and thus calls in John Wick on the blood oath he made. He’s to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). If he refuses, Santino will see to it that John Wick loses his life. If he succeeds, he will most certainly be hunted by any number of his merciless colleagues until they have delivered his death.

Composed with an eye for fight scenes and incessant gunplay that are coherent, JOHN WICK and its sequel aim to resolve the complaints that today’s action films are mostly a flurry of cuts among jostled cameras. Stuntman and stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski showcases what he specialized in with frames that capture the combat from head to toe and sequences that connect the action rather than making them sensation at the expense of legibility. Stahelski highlights a love for stuntmen in an impressively long and funny tumble down multiple sets of steps. He finds humor when hitmen are firing at one another in a public space but using silencers and trying to shield their weapons to keep from drawing attention and setting off mass panic.

Like its predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, brings a graphic novel aesthetic to Hong Kong-styled action of the 1990s. Draped in inky black and steel grey, plus the sepia tone for scenes in the assassins’ hotel The Continental, this is a dark, lush world befitting those populating it. Reeves is magnetic as an anti-hero whose ability to kill is beyond ordinary human ability but is as flesh and blood as those he takes out.

While there’s a lot to like about JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, there’s also a tedious quality to it that didn’t let the sequel lift off like the original did for me. The world-building in the first film is relatively minimal, just enough for a taste of how things function where killers find neutral ground at a hotel that accepts payment in large gold coins. Derek Kolstad’s screenplay doubles down on that mythology in the sequel, but it clutters what might have otherwise been a lean, mean hail of bullets and fists.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Cure for Wellness


A CURE FOR WELLNESS (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

When a Wall Street financial services firm’s CEO writes that he will not be returning from the Swiss spa where he is vacationing, rising company star Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is called upon to bring him back. In A CURE FOR WELLNESS Lockhart expects to pop into the sanitarium at the top of the hill, get his boss Pembroke (Harry Groener), and go back to New York City, but the staff are not inclined to make things so easy. The spa’s director Volmer (Jason Isaacs) relents somewhat to demands to talk to Pembroke but requires Lockhart to return later in the day to see him. As Lockhart’s driver is taking him down the hill, they are in an accident. Lockhart wakes up with a broken leg and discovers that he’s been admitted as a patient at the spa.

The facility specializes in hydrotherapy but does not seem like an ordinary wellness center, even if accepting that it operates like one might have a century or more ago. For example, it seems that no one who checks in appears to check out ever. Old movers and shakers in international business without family members make up the clientele except for a girl named Hannah (Mia Goth). This place in the Alps is built on the ruins of a castle supposedly burned down by villagers who were outraged by a purity-obsessed baron who wished to marry his sister.

With a mysterious retreat looming over a village populated by resentful residents, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is rooted in a mix of early literary horror and fairy tales. Director Gore Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli find extravagant beauty amid the psychological terror at a resort that would have been the height of luxury in the middle of the nineteenth century. The pale blue and white interiors could function as soothing surroundings for those on the mend, but they also connote something sinister because of the rigid and blank uniformity. The tanks that patients use for rehabilitation look more like torture devices, although the film’s production design turn them into peculiar but aesthetically pleasing marvels of old technology.

The foundation and look of A CURE FOR WELLNESS are inviting in all their polished insidiousness, but the significant characters fail to make an impression. Although Lockhart suffers from a childhood tragedy and an advanced case of a corrupted corporate soul, he is not as complex as the screenplay’s structure tries to make him out to be. He’s also not particularly quick on the uptake regarding all of the strange goings-on at the sanitarium. Secrets surround Hannah, but she doesn’t know them. What gets revealed about her won’t come as a surprise. Isaacs’ Volmer stands out a little more in putting a calm face on a suspicious character, but his character is mostly surface, even if he isn’t to be trusted.

For a widely released major studio film, A CURE FOR WELLNESS has to be one of the weirder offerings to come down the pike in awhile. The sheer oddity helps to propel it through a nearly two and a half hours that aren’t needed. While Verbinski has a few memorably chilling images up his sleeve, especially one for those sensitive to seeing dentistry practiced, the emotional beats fail to connect. He’s striving to evoke the reactions of Grand Guignol but yields a more tepid response.

Grade: C+

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro


I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck, 2016)

Using the words of the writer James Baldwin, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO looks back on race relations before and during the civil rights era in the United States and draws connections to the way things are today. The film is structured around Baldwin’s abandoned book about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom the author knew.

Baldwin’s eloquent and pointed commentary comes directly from him via archival footage of talk shows and speeches. Baldwin was a teenage preacher, and his performative talents are evident as his presence leaps off the screen when sharing his considered opinions. Here is someone who had been living abroad for a number of years but chose to return and become engaged with the struggle back home. There’s a snap to his point of view because of the passion and intelligence supporting what he has to say.

Baldwin’s words are also delivered through Samuel L. Jackson’s weary voiceover, a stark counterpoint to the “on” personality that comes across in Baldwin’s public appearances. That vocal quality suggests what Baldwin, who died in 1987, might sound like all of these years later when many of the fights he waged are still ongoing, even if the shape of the conflicts have changed. Fifty or sixty years have passed since these divisive issues came to a boil in American civilization. Old images of the outright hostility can be shocking for those of us who have only ever encountered it as history. While progress has been made, Peck’s film underlines the fact that the dream of the 1960s continues to remain elusive in some ways. Jackson’s narration conveys the aggravation and tiredness of the long wait for societal ills to be cured.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is not a film that seeks to reassure, nor should it be. It’s a challenge to those in the majority who consider themselves to be good people yet whose actions, whether actively or passively, don’t back up such a self-conception. The defiance in the title slaps back at the nation’s original sin. It’s up to the recipient to determine if that smack should be taken as an affront or a wake-up call.

Grade: B

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lion


LION (Garth Davis, 2016)

Based on a true story, LION tracks a boy from rural India who gets incomprehensibly lost in 1986, is adopted by an Australian couple, and uses technology twenty-five years later to search for his family. Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar as a boy and Dev Patel as a young adult, falls asleep on a train platform while waiting for his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who has taken off to work during the evening. When Saroo awakens, Guddu is nowhere to be found. He looks for him on a train but gets stuck on one that is not carrying passengers and takes him more than a thousand kilometers away from home.

The five-year-old boy arrives in Kolkata unable to speak the different dominant language in this part of the country. He doesn’t know his mother’s name, and no one can find the town he calls home on a map. For awhile Saroo must survive on his own on the streets, including eluding those looking to take advantage of him. Eventually a stranger takes him to a police station, but with no responses to the notices placed in newspapers, he is put in an orphanage. John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt Saroo, so he is flown to Tasmania to begin a life with a new family. As a young man he feels the urge to find his biological family. With the emotional support of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and a landmark image from his memory, Saroo obsessively scans Google Earth to locate where his home is.

The events in LION are primed for the most persistent heartstring-tugging, yet director Garth Davis holds the story at a cool remove. It’s the difference between recognizing a dire situation and feeling it. The Dickensian first half features its share of harrowing moments. Saroo quickly learns that trusting anyone is dangerous, which only serves to keep him on the streets longer. Even when help of a sort is provided, the boy is trading one bad situation for another. His adoptive parents are extraordinarily kind, but moving from one continent to another is also laced with trauma. Davis expects these developments to be moving at face value. Instead LION flirts with a wallow in miserabilism.

In the second half Saroo is a young adult who identifies more with his Australian upbringing than his Indian heritage. His newfound longing seems more like dramatic convenience than something that has been eating at him every day for most of his life. The search itself, while an incredible feat, is not dynamically portrayed. LION gets caught up in the process of Saroo’s story. Here’s how he got lost, here’s how he was saved from bad circumstances, here’s how he tries to answer what has been a mystery for many years. The particulars aren’t uninteresting, but they come at the expense of empathizing with Saroo’s experience.

Saroo struggles at the two stages depicted, yet LION mostly shows him rolling with whatever he faces. Perhaps the person whose life inspired the film was so easily adaptive, but smoothing over his emotional journey robs the material of the power inherent in it. What Saroo endures as a kid is inconceivable, but it’s handled from the point of view of an uninvolved observer than the subject. Although Patel does the most with what he’s given to express the character’s anguish, he’s challenged to find multiple ways to keep striking the same note. What could have been a potent tearjerker in LION ends up resembling a skillful but unmoving recreation of a remarkable tale.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Split


SPLIT (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

Being abducted and locked in a cell-like room is terrifying enough for three teenage girls in SPLIT. Even more disturbing is discovering that Kevin (James McAvoy), the man holding them against their will, has multiple personalities. Like anyone would be in the situation, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are at wit’s end. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s more of an acquaintance of than a friend with the other two, appears to have gone into survival mode as she assesses how they might escape.

Their best bet is through Hedwig, Kevin’s child personality. He taunts them with the information that they are there as sacrifices for The Beast, but he’s also naïve enough that he might be fooled into bringing Casey to his room, which he says has a window. On the outside the girls’ best hope is Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She doesn’t know what he’s done, but she has a good relationship with him and senses that there may be a power struggle among Kevin’s personalities that could have caused him to do something terrible.

Although it’s probably unfair, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has a reputation as a filmmaker whose works succeed or fail based on their plot twists. Not that there aren’t surprises in SPLIT, especially the exclamation point of a scene in the end credits, but in this film what you see is what you get. Shyamalan settles into the scenario to reap it for all of the possible terror. His use of close-ups and preference for longer takes than is typical for current Hollywood genre pictures creates a sense of claustrophobia. Cinematographer Michael Giouliakis captures horrific beauty in the musty setting where much of SPLIT takes place. Whether hinted at or depicted, the film’s brutality comes in bursts that conjure the feeling of helplessness.

People dealing with trauma, often poorly, recur in Shyamalan’s films. His characters tend to resist accepting the way things are through a kind of willful blindness. Whether questioning God or a stand-in authority figure, Shyamalan’s protagonists reject reality for a more comfortable but self-harming illusion. What differentiates SPLIT from his other films is that he weaponizes existential anger and confusion. Underneath the thriller elements are a story about coping with abuse and choosing whether mental and physical scars provide a means of protecting oneself or destroying others.

SPLIT’s portrayal of multiple personality disorder is not going to be supported by the DSM-5 or getting a ringing endorsement from the American Psychiatric Association. (It would be fascinating to do a detailed comparison of how the director portrays therapists throughout his filmography.) Still, McAvoy does an excellent job of being convincing and quietly menacing in Kevin’s various personalities. There’s nothing actorly about the performance, yet he crafts distinct individuals in his different guises. Shyamalan and McAvoy collaborate to hit the proper tone with a tricky character who could be laughable. When he’s dressed and acting as Patricia, it’s unsettling to see this guy with a shaved head who believes he is an officious woman. That earnest belief in the moment, regardless of the truth, is why SPLIT disturbs.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Silence


SILENCE (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

In SILENCE Japanese authorities are persecuting priests and their Christian converts. Particularly distressing to those outside the country is the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard from in years and is rumored to have apostatized. Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are convinced that their mentor would have never denied his faith in public and set out on a mission in 1639 to find their missing colleague.

Their guide into the hostile land is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). Although his manner causes them to question his honesty, he is their only option for sneaking into Japan, which has banned Christianity. Kichijiro brings them to a community of secret Christians that they minister to as possible until the villagers fall under suspicion of the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Rodrigues and Garupe go their separate ways to protect the people and to continue their search for Ferreira.

SILENCE has been a longtime passion project for director Martin Scorsese, who co-wrote the adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel with Jay Cocks. It is sort of the inverse of the filmmaker’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which sought to understand Jesus as a human. In SILENCE Scorsese tackles the impossible struggle of a person to live according to the model of the divine. The trials and tribulations Rodrigues experiences are at first an affirmation of what he believes and bring him closer to God. He is following the example set for him and takes glory in being able to live and prove his beliefs in such an immediate way. The more he strives to be an imitation of Christ, especially as the challenges increase, the more he realizes that he is incapable of enduring such burdens.

Scorsese doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrible executions and torture of avowed believers, but for Rodrigues and the other priests the Japanese are abusing, the mental and spiritual suffering is as bad, if not worse. If God’s love is real, why would he allow such awful things to be heaped on those who worship him? Rodrigues is also faced with the question of whether it would be so unforgivable to make a public demonstration of rejecting Christianity by trampling a fumie if it means avoiding death or severe punishment. Is placing one’s foot upon a carving of Jesus or the Virgin Mary while under extreme duress something God cannot pardon, especially if humans were created as fallible? Rodrigues decides that it is OK for the Japanese Christians to deny their faith if it means saving themselves, yet his refusal to do the same means that miseries will be visited upon all of the people he sees himself as serving. Is he not exhibiting the sin of pride by not apostatizing and thus perpetuating the persecution?

Scorsese uses the sound of crickets and its absence to suggest something all around us whether it can be seen or not. The silence does not necessarily indicate something is not present, but it also doesn’t mean that it is there. For those who apostatize, they have acted in a way that says one thing, yet it is not possible to know what exists in their hearts. SILENCE studies religious commitment as a personal matter, one between a believer and the deity, regardless of the declarations in the square or the temple. Certainly such demonstrations cannot be discounted, but are they the only things that matter? Scorsese has made a monumental work of faith that defies easy answers to theological questions yet cuts to the quick of what it means to believe.

Grade: A

Friday, January 27, 2017

20th Century Women


20TH CENTURY WOMEN (Mike Mills, 2016)

Fifty-five-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on her own in 1979 Santa Barbara, but as he is coming of age in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, she worries that she isn’t doing enough to help him become the man she would like him to become. The only man with any consistency in her life is William (Billy Crudup), a handyman renting a room in Dorothea’s large home. While he is the kind of masculine and thoughtful type she’d like Jamie to model, her son doesn’t really have anything to do with him.

Instead Dorothea turns to the two other female presences around Jamie on a daily basis. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her mid-twenties, is also a boarder and fulfills something of a cool older sister role. Seventeen-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s closest friend. She often sneaks into his room late at night to talk and sleep by his side. Although Jamie wishes they were romantically and physically involved, Julie insists that their closeness is strictly friendship. Jamie listens closely to the guidance of these women, hoping in part that taking their advice will help him develop a closer relationship with his mother.

The communal atmosphere in Dorothea’s house extends to the perspectives the film collects. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN unspools like a memoir with multiple authors, as the most central characters contribute voiceovers about the situation at this specific point in time and what the future holds for them. Dorothea and Jamie are the nucleus, but those orbiting them for this fleeting moment adopt a primary role from time to time. Writer-director Mike Mills builds the fluctuating dynamic by being deliberate in revealing the protagonists’ connections, which often aren’t what they might appear to be on first glance.

Mills jettisons some of the affectations that marked his previous film, BEGINNERS, resulting in a looser tone that rides the wave these characters have caught. Although he shares how things will turn out for those in the household, there’s no sense of grand design in getting them there. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN takes a snapshot of a pivotal time but not one with an accompanying a map to follow. All of the characters share a rudderless quality as they live through a transition they might sense but are impotent to steer through.

Despite the stylistic flourishes that might stake a directorial voice, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is rooted in the performances. As a first-time mother at 40 and a child of the Depression who feels attracted and resistant to a more freewheeling life, Dorothea straddles the generational line. She wants to understand the appeal of Black Flag but is more partial to the more tuneful songs of Talking Heads. Bening displays Dorothea’s struggle to integrate open-minded and more rigid parenting as loving and present yet emotionally cool and inexplicably distant. It’s a hard balance to strike but one that shows why Jamie searches for a tighter bond with his mother. Zumann plays Jamie with a sponge-like quality that is endearing rather than needy. Fanning finds the perilousness of the idealized, self-possessed girl who is racked with her own neuroses. Gerwig inhabits the restlessness of not yet living how you envisioned adulthood. Crudup exudes the nature of a blue collar sage, yet like everyone else, William is merely drifting. For as much uncertainty and tension they face, Mills uses the voiceovers, with their future knowledge, to reassure that it’s OK if we can’t plot every step through the world.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sing


SING (Christophe Lourdelet and Garth Jennings, 2016)

Theater-owning koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is on the verge of losing his prized performance space. Buster puts on a singing competition as a last-ditch effort to save the theater in SING, but a mistake on the flyers promises $100,000 for the winner than the intended thousand bucks.

The purse attracts all sorts of wannabe stars to the auditions. Among those making the final cut are Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who is unfulfilled as a mother and housewife; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who’d rather be singing than helping with his mobster clan; heartbroken rocker porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson); and Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a crooning mouse with gambling debts. Shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) really wants to participate, but her stage fright holds her back.

SING is an animated comedy for two groups: those who love hearing five- or ten-second snippets of popular songs in celebrity karaoke and those who are really invested in AMERICAN IDOL’s audition episodes and storylines. It’s not bad per se so much as it is perfunctory. SING has a good tempo and enough familiar songs--or their hooks--to seem pleasantly mediocre. As it can be cut up almost infinitely into bite-size portions to promote it, a cynical view might lead one to see its value as a product to help pad a studio’s bottom line, not as anything with aspirations of being more than content. All it needs to do is look sufficiently cute amid the clutter of advertising to take the kids to it.

Some of the voice casting choices are curious, especially McConaughey as a koala. Wouldn’t Chris Hemsworth have provided the star power and a more geographically sensible pick? But then this feels like something created and assembled by a computer algorithm than by artistically motivated people. SING is the simulation of what blockbuster children’s entertainment is supposed to look and sound like.

SING's best joke by far is that brief moment when a sheep bleats the first word of the chorus from Seal’s "Kiss from a Rose", although the animal chosen to perform seems like a missed opportunity for the type of inside joke for adults that these movies love to wink with. The hammy, German-accented pig Gunter (Nick Kroll) is sporadically amusing. Parents who want to get out of the house or distract the kids would be better served going to MOANA again than patronizing SING.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hidden Figures


HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

The space race with the Soviet Union is at fever pitch in HIDDEN FIGURES, a historical drama that helps give due to some African-American women key to the United States effort in John Glenn’s launch into orbit. The three featured in the film work at NASA in a segregated pool where they are known as computers, meaning they confirm the math in the calculations. When the need arises for someone skilled in analytic geometry, Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) gets called up to a branch where she’s doing critical checks for manned rocket launches. Although she knows her stuff, Katherine still runs up against racism and underestimations of her abilities.

Back at the computer pool, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is struggling to get recognition for being the supervisor in everything but title and compensation. She also foresees the installation of new IBM hardware as the imminent obsolescence of everyone in her unit, so Dorothy sets to learning how to program the computers that will likely replace her. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is encouraged to become an engineer but cannot take the necessary classes because they are taught at a whites-only school. She pursues legal means to allow for her professional advancement.

HIDDEN FIGURES gives the conventional treatment to the stories of three exceptional women whose contributions to the space program aren’t widely known. Like following the steps to solve an equation, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi executes a methodical approach. The technique in achieving the result can’t be blamed for getting the job done effectively. HIDDEN FIGURES is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser operating within the standards of prestige cinema, but a little more creative risk-taking would have been appreciated among the familiar rhythms and character arcs.

Henson, Spencer, and Monáe anchor the film with intelligence and appeal. Henson projects strength and resourcefulness as Katherine strives to do her best for the team. Even when she goes against the grain, it’s rooted in the mission, not her own acclaim. Spencer conveys a sharp, ingenious mind attuned to the surroundings. She’s not a fighter per se, but she perceives how to win the battles in a less combative manner. In small roles in HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, Monáe hints at a cinematic personality that can leap off the screen if given bigger parts. She doesn’t ooze attitude for its own sake but as a weapon and armor.

While there is a broad quality to how HIDDEN FIGURES depicts the open racism of the time, Melfi does well in allowing audiences to recognize what was considered acceptable without engaging in excessive scolding from today’s perspective. It’s more powerful to watch Katherine break down to her supervisor about the overt indignities and microaggressions she faces on a daily basis that the white men and women she works with don’t notice. Dorothy’s white counterpart played by Kirsten Dunst addresses her by first name while Dorothy responds with her co-worker’s title and surname. Melfi doesn’t draw attention to this distinction, yet it’s clear what the difference in how they refer to one another means in regard to power and respect.

Grade: B

Friday, January 13, 2017

La La Land


LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Through the unchanging seasons of Los Angeles the musical LA LA LAND follows the romantic ups and downs between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Although their paths cross knowingly and unknowingly, their friendship doesn’t blossom into a love story until music and the movies brings them together in a way that seems predestined. Neither is living their dreams. Mia is auditioning for likely lousy television shows. Sebastian broods over his desired location for the jazz club of his dreams being occupied by a trendy business.

Together, though, they push each other to make strides toward what they want. Sebastian encourages Mia to write the one-woman show that can showcase her abilities. She persuades him to take a job in a band whose music doesn’t meet his purist standards but pays well enough so he can save toward opening the club he envisions.

An original musical for the screen and an unabashed throwback to those from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the French New Wave, LA LA LAND bursts with color and energy. The ebullient opening number, a single unbroken take on a gridlocked highway, serves as a dazzling introduction, and the staggering finale, which reimagines the film’s key moments, sends one reeling out of the theater from writer-director Damien Chazelle’s deft touch and Justin Hurwitz’s music. Everything in between proves swoon-worthy too, with the standout being Mia’s sung audition that puts the final act in motion.

Talk of the magic of the movies can be deserving of eyerolls, especially at awards time, but LA LA LAND merits such effusive praise. Through theatrical lighting, judicious editing, and heightened or fantastical sequences, it envisions a world of promise and joy even among the disappointments and hardships. The lighter than air spirit and exquisite beauty caress the mind and the heart, transforming LA LA LAND into an instant mood-lifter.

Part of the tension in LA LA LAND comes from Sebastian’s insistence on jazz continuing to exist per the terms of an old ideal. While the film may appear to side with his snootiness as he holds his nose playing more contemporary and accessible music, Chazelle challenges the notion that something was better or purer way back when. After all, jazz as Sebastian prefers it is more of hobbyist’s curio that is destined to near-extinction if it doesn’t adapt to the times. LA LA LAND views the film musical in similar terms, that without accounting for the tastes and realities of today, it too is as good as dead. Gosling and Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, but they are serviceable dancers and singers, with Stone the more at ease of the two. The system that existed for screen hoofers and belters has not been in place for a long time. Casting stars rather than more gifted but unknown performers is a compromise, but it’s one that allows something as wonderful as this to be made.

Grade: A+

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Passengers


PASSENGERS (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

Everyone aboard the spaceship Avalon in PASSENGERS is to be in a state of hypersleep for most of the 120-year journey to Homestead II. Unfortunately for Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), he is accidentally awakened about thirty years into the voyage, meaning that if he can’t get back in that suspended state, he will live the rest of his life and die before anyone else comes out of their hibernation chambers. Jim has his run of the spacecraft, for the most part, but the company of just humanoid bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) and the servant robots.

For a year Jim studies and works to no avail to figure out how he might save himself. Inconsolably lonely, he becomes enchanted with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer and fellow passenger he learns everything about. Finally Jim decides to awaken her so that he will have someone to share this doomed time with. Aurora doesn’t know that he is responsible for what has happened to her. She and Jim don’t become close right away, but considering the circumstances, their bond naturally becomes tighter, with Jim’s secret just waiting to be exposed and ruin everything.

The early section of PASSENGERS with Jim on his own cuts to the humor and terror in his predicament. He is relieved to send a message to someone who might be able to help, but the punchline is that it will take decades for his distress call to reach anyone. Jim essentially has his run of the ship, but he’s still at the mercy of the automated access provided by the price level at which he booked his ticket. Everything is so close and yet so far away in this TWILIGHT ZONE-like scenario.

That Jim would choose to subject someone else to the same fate is understandable even if it is a morally indefensible choice. Desperation can make fools of us all, and his situation would be enough to push anyone to the edge. The problem for PASSENGERS is not the decision Jim makes but how it deals with the repercussions of his actions. Morten Tyldum’s direction and Jon Spaihts’ screenplay view Jim as a romantic hero. They allow Aurora to have her time to feel angry and betrayed, but ultimately the film treats Jim as Adam if he didn’t need God’s intervention to provide him with a companion. PASSENGERS implicitly states that Jim deserves Aurora, an aspect that gets magnified with Pratt’s puppy dog charms.

PASSENGERS also bungles the ending. Even being exceedingly generous in allowing how Aurora might come to reevaluate the state of things, what she decides rings false. On a dramatic level it also clanks because the opportunity for Jim to atone for his sins is dismissed in favor of rewarding him. PASSENGERS’ tone deafness mistakes feelings of male entitlement for romance. The saying goes that all’s fair in love and war, but that sentiment can justify horrors. If the film were capable of viewing the story through Aurora’s lens, PASSENGERS might have succeeded. Instead it doesn’t notice the warped perspective.

Grade: C