Friday, October 23, 2015

Cop Car

(Jon Watts, 2015)

Two runaway boys stumble upon an unattended sheriff’s cruiser in the Colorado countryside and decide to take it for a joy ride in COP CAR. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) appear to be ten years old at most. While that’s old enough to know better to make the choices they do, the gravity of their actions is lost on them. They have fun getting their first taste of driving a vehicle without a video game controller and attempting to fire the guns they find in the backseat.

The patrol car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), and as is to be expected, he’s not at all happy to find it missing when he returns. The boys would be in a world of trouble no matter what police officer’s car they could have taken, but in this case they swiped one belonging to a lawman who was in the midst of disposing evidence that unmistakably proves his corruption. Something incriminating remains in the trunk, which makes the sheriff’s urgency to retrieve it all the greater.

The boys in COP CAR display the obliviousness of youth, especially to the real danger they put themselves in. It’s no judgment of their intelligence that they say and do the kind of stupid things that might occur to unthinking kids but a reflection of their impulsiveness and inexperience. Director and co-writer Jon Watts mines their actions humor and terror. Of course they assume they can drive the car because they’ve played MarioKart because it’s the kind of logic a preteen might employ. It’s horrifying when they play with guns or speed down a lonely country road because they aren’t aware of how reckless they’re being.

To a degree every character of consequence is a bumbler in a manner similar to those in Coen brothers films. While COP CAR can be funny as things unravel and stakes heighten, the tension that develops is its primary asset. Watts demonstrates his ability to construct scenes loaded with apprehension as events pile up and in miniature, as when the sheriff tries to use a shoelace to break into a locked car. The film’s narrative leanness is only a shortcoming in that it doesn’t quite have enough material for even a pared down running time.

COP CAR delivers no backstory because it isn’t necessary. The film lives moment to moment, and the suspense intensifies as it builds to the convergence of its relative innocents with the antagonists. COP CAR turns somewhat cruel in the final act, which is probably a more accurate reflection of how an incident like this might be resolved, but it leaves a bitter taste that comes across as contrary to the scenario’s tone for the majority of the film.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Walk

THE WALK (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

THE WALK dramatizes an act that would be unthinkable for almost everyone. In 1974 street performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) went out on a tightrope he and friends secretly strung between the top of the World Trade Center’s towers.

Whether or not one knows Petit’s story or saw MAN ON WIRE, the 2008 documentary about his achievement, THE WALK makes no secret that Petit doesn’t die doing the seemingly impossible. The character narrates the story from the platform at the Statue of Liberty’s flame as if telling a magical tale to a child at bedtime. The danger is readily apparent in what Petit attempts, but the film’s tone treats the act as a flight of fancy that transforms the imaginative power of buildings some considered ugly. Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as a whimsical scamp, just the sort of plucky misfit who grants others the ability to see what is before them in a different light.

While THE WALK works from the knowledge that nothing bad befalls the protagonist, the act of viewing it, particularly in IMAX 3D, can be fraught with triggers for the acrophobic. When director Robert Zemeckis shows Petit balancing on a wire one hundred ten floors above the Manhattan ground, it gives an almost dizzying sensation despite being safely planted in a movie theater seat. I found even the build-up to Petit’s daring performance, as he and a collaborator skitter about the roof of one of the towers, to induce uneasiness regarding the height at which they are working. Like GRAVITY, which granted viewers the feeling of hurtling through space, THE WALK is marvelous as an experience that tricks the brain into what it is like to be in a precarious position.

Grade: B+

Crimson Peak

CRIMSON PEAK (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

In CRIMSON PEAK Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer of ghost stories, although the publisher wishes she would come up with something more conventional and romantic. Edith admits that the ghosts are metaphors for the past, but she has been visited by the spirit of her mother bearing the warning not to go to Crimson Peak. She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) when they come to Buffalo to find investors for his invention. Thomas and Edith become romantically involved against her father’s objections, but after tragedy strikes, Edith weds Thomas and accompanies him to his crumbling family estate in England.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has made it a point of emphasis while doing the publicity rounds that despite the film’s ghosts, CRIMSON PEAK is not a horror film but a Gothic romance in the tradition of JANE EYRE and REBECCA. In truth there’s not really much romance in it either. Edith and Thomas’s marriage is an arrangement of convenience and exploitation. Although feelings change, CRIMSON PEAK never boils with erotic passion between husband and wife or inside one of them.

And yet while CRIMSON PEAK lacks heat or surprises in its conventional story, del Toro captures the imagination with sumptuous visual treats throughout. The spacious, decrepit house is a marvel of production design and art direction. The intricate costumes manifest the emotional undercurrents, with Edith dressed as though she’s wearing a chrysalis while living at Allerdale Hall and Lucille bound in what she wears as tightly as she and her brother are connected to their home. The clay-reddened snow that looks like it’s been bloodied is such a striking image, especially with that imposing manor looming over it. These elements contribute to the mood, which del Toro treats with primary importance rather than investing energy into the familiar plot. The romance, it turns out, is with the look and feel of rotting mansions and scarred psyches. In that CRIMSON PEAK has more than enough to keep one captivated.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 10, 2015


SICARIO (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Having been noticed for doing excellent work on the kidnap rescue team, Phoenix FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invited to join an interagency task force in SICARIO. She flies with Department of Defense advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a lawyer named Alejandro Benicio Del Toro) to El Paso on a mission that isn’t exactly clear to her. The longer she’s with them, the more Kate begins to question the legality of what they’re involved in.

As SICARIO explores what is done in the shadows in the war on drugs, viewers share Kate’s lack of clarity about the situation she’s participating in. With the camera moving forward director Denis Villeneuve takes Kate as the audience’s proxy deep into spaces where safety is far from assured. The scenarios become more fraught as the film progresses. The tension in the opening attack on a house where abductees are suspected to be held is exceeded in Kate’s voluntary baptism by fire as the team goes to Juarez and back. Villeneuve continues to turn up the heat, whether it’s within the walls of a military base, secret border-crossing tunnel, or kingpin’s home. These scenes come with an adrenaline charge and the distinct dread of the dangers in tight quarters.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan capture the thrill and horror experienced when going along for a ride to the dark side. SICARIO isn’t concerned so much with considering if the tactics used to make an impact on the cartels are above board. Whether as an unwitting participant or informed objector, Kate isn’t really in a position to be able to alter the actions she witnesses. Chances are if she’s not willing to play ball, those calling the shots will simply find someone else anyway. Speaking out may make Kate feel better, but doing so is likely just the quickest way to put herself at even greater risk.

Blunt is convincing at demonstrating the mental and physical toughness to perform in the field with no certainty of what awaits behind the doors she enters and walls surrounding her. Kate feels frustrated that her legitimate efforts aren’t making a dent in the bigger fight, yet she doesn’t approve of the secret activities attempting to gain a semblance of control in the situation. Matt’s heedless disregard for challenges to his authority make him a frightening yet effective character, and Brolin intimidates and amuses with the cocky assurance of someone who has license to do as he pleases. SICARIO doesn’t flinch as it stares at the violence that’s part and parcel of cartel activity here and abroad and supplies no easy solutions in its tangled, gripping story.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 09, 2015

I'll See You in My Dreams

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (Brett Haley, 2015)

Retired widow Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) likely still has plenty of good years ahead of her in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, but she seems resigned to being on a slow, uneventful march to the end even though it’s been twenty years since her husband died in an accident. Carol’s friends encourage her to move out of her house and join them in the retirement community. They also try to persuade her to go out with men again, an idea she begrudgingly humors at a disastrous speed dating event, but she prefers to keep her own place and ignore potential romantic possibilities.

Then out of the blue two men with whom she enjoys spending time pursue her company. Carol’s new pool cleaner Lloyd (Martin Starr) is intrigued that she was once a singer before settling into a career as a teacher. Although he’s a few decades younger than her, Lloyd identifies her as a kindred spirit drifting through daily life. Bill (Sam Elliott) is a charismatic new resident at the retirement village who takes a shine to Carol the first time he lays eyes on her. He possesses a palpable charm that attracts Carol despite her insistence that she doesn’t want to get remarried.

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is foremost a performance-driven film, and Danner makes a good anchor. She plays Carol as someone who can acknowledge the good things life has given her while feeling cheated that fate hasn’t always been kind. As Bill observes, there’s a bitterness at the core of Carol, even if it’s not a quality not necessarily on view at all times. Danner molds Carol into someone who is independent and, by all appearances, strong yet has a wounded nature that makes the character cautious. When she sings at karaoke and connects with the guys wooing her, she makes the hurt disappear.

Elliott maximizes his limited scenes with Danner, projecting the satisfaction and confidence that Carol often lacks. Bill has mystery about him just like she does, but Elliott doesn’t wear it like a shield. His rambunctious appeal leaves no question why Carol might take notice of him. As her younger love interest, Starr presents Lloyd as a mirror to her. The pull they feel toward each other comes from spotting their similarities, particularly in how they express themselves.There’s plenty stated and unsaid between them, and their awkwardness only gets in the way when they stop being in the moment.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley has a soft touch for letting items represent other things. A shot of flowers in the foreground perhaps elicits a stronger emotional response than if the characters involved shared the frame. Bill’s omnipresent unlit cigar is just a cigar, although it stands in for how he is approaching life at this later stage. The rat that lurks around Carol’s home is a regular reminder of the grief she still has not been able to eliminate from her surroundings. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS provides a funny and moving glimpse of a slice of life that the recipient would rather trade for a different one.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Intern

THE INTERN (Nancy Meyers, 2015)

70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) finds retired life unfulfilling, so in THE INTERN he looks for an apprenticeship opportunity that will put him back in the working world. Ben’s introduction to the high tech business environment comes via the senior intern program at a startup e-commerce fashion retailer in Brooklyn where he’s assigned to be the intern for the site’s founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Although Ben is well-liked and effective around the bustling office, initially Jules doesn’t see the value in letting Ben assist her with the zillion and one things keeping her busy.

Jules is justifiably preoccupied with maintaining standards and overseeing the growth of her eighteen-month-old operation . She’s also being pressured by investors to hire a chief executive officer. The rationale is that a more seasoned manager can ease her workload and continue the company’s expansion, but because she would be giving up some control, the request feels like a potential demotion.

Middle of the road crowdpleasers like THE INTERN are something of an endangered species at the movie theater. It’s too modest for those drawn to the almost-weekly spectacle films striving to be blockbusters and those looking for artier or prestige-driven fare. This type of film has virtues like telling a story simply and intelligently and being appealing without forcing it. Writer-director Nancy Meyers specializes in this kind of mainstream entertainment that doesn’t always get its critical due. With THE INTERN she produces one of her better creations. It’s a warm, funny film that fleshes out two engaging characters not bent according to the situation’s restrictions.

When De Niro has father or father figure types, he’s still usually a tough guy, but in THE INTERN he’s a delight playing the equivalent of the workplace’s grandpa. Through his dress and demeanor he carries a quiet dignity about the character. It’s critical that Meyers writes Ben as resource waiting to be tapped than an expert itching to spew the knowledge he’s amassed from a lifetime in business. De Niro embodies patience in THE INTERN. Ben truly is grateful to have the chance to work with Jules.

The harried thirtysomething businesswoman trying to balance career and family is often a thankless role, but Meyers is smart in demonstrating that Jules is right to want to be in command of her path, even if society’s expectations can be a burden. THE INTERN doesn’t hide the trade-offs or judge the decisions Jules must make. Hathaway conveys the strain of trying to have it all while attempting to appear in good spirits through the challenges.

THE INTERN soaks up the good vibes from De Niro and Hathaway acclimating to one another and finds room for humorous subplots that aren’t essential to the main storyline. A heist-like operation in which Ben and some other guys at the office break into Jules’ mother’s home to delete an e-mail may be the most amusing scene in the film.

Grade: B+