Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nocturnal Animals


Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) and novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) were married while graduate students in New York City, but since things ended badly nearly twenty years ago, they have not been in touch. The intervening time has apparently provided Susan much of what she believed Edward could not give her, although in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS she shows no indications of living a more satisfying life. Susan enjoys professional success but appears to draw no fulfillment from it. Her marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) is chilled. While they keep up appearances, they are also in financial distress.

Susan has long had a problem with insomnia, a condition which becomes more pronounced as she reads the manuscript Edward sends to her out of the blue. In his violent novel she envisions her ex as the protagonist, Tony, a sensitive husband and father who becomes obsessed with revenge after three scuzzy men abduct, rape, and kill his wife and daughter. In the story within the film, Tony gets assistance from Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a police detective who wants to see justice done whether it’s achieved within the law or not.

With the structure of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS writer-director Tom Ford intends for Susan to experience the lingering anger Edward has felt since the dissolution of their relationship. Art is one way to feel empathy for others, and the novel functions as Edward’s passive-aggressive vehicle for breaking through the hard exterior Susan has accreted. Susan slices her finger opening the package before even reading a page, metaphorically foreshadowing the sharp-edged nature of the novel therein. From the story within the film to the framing device and flashbacks Ford uses match cuts and others edits to connect Susan to the fictionalized and past versions of a man intent on making her understand the rage she stirred within him.

In Edward’s book, also called NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the inciting event results from his desire to defuse a situation in which he is essentially helpless. The men who drive Tony off the road and harass his family are not bound by the rules of civility. Knowing full well they intend to cross over and cause harm, the aggressors taunt him like playground bullies holding their fingers half an inch from their victims and feigning innocence by saying that they’re not touching them. In an extended and incredibly tense sequence the leader, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his cohorts menace Tony, his wife, and daughter by sinisterly going through the motions of politeness before advancing to more hands-on terrorizing. Through his character Edward lays bare the vulnerability and lack of a choice he suffered from at Susan’s hands.

Shannon adds hard-bitten humor as Edward’s opposite, the manifestation of the kind of tough, practical man who can facilitate revenge without damaging his conscience. Abel Korzeniowski’s darkly romantic score steeps NOCTURNAL ANIMALS in film noir. While Susan didn’t set out to make Edward her sap, she ultimately treated him like a sensitive fool. His long postponed response produces an indirect confrontation that is no less emotionally savage for his means of delivering it. Ford executes quite the trick in having this overdue and brutal conversation take place like a thriller in which the principals share only a mental space.

Grade: B

Friday, December 16, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

The death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) prompts Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to return to his hometown, but he intends to go back to Boston as soon as he can even though all that’s there for him is a handyman job. In MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, named after the town where he can hardly bear to be, Lee has funeral arrangements to tend to and, more importantly for the time being, needs to look after his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) as his mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) has not been in the picture for years.

To Lee’s surprise his brother made him Patrick’s trustee and guardian. Although he loves his nephew, it’s a responsibility that Lee does not want, at least if it means coming back to live in Manchester-by-the-Sea again. The place is burdened with memories of life before his divorce from Randi (Michelle Williams) and the looks and reactions from those who see him around. Patrick understandably resists the idea of being uprooted. Lee assumes the caretaker role in the meantime while trying to find a solution that will be satisfactory for both of them in the long run.

Heartbroken and despairing, Lee refuses to forgive himself for the tragedy in his life. It becomes clear that he had a valid reason for moving away, but in doing so he also separates himself from the family support system that he needs. His small and dim basement apartment suggests that he has done the closest thing to burying himself. If it wasn’t for Joe pushing him to purchase some furniture, his living arrangement would be as spartan as a cell, which is what Lee acts as if he deserves. Affleck does extraordinary work occupying a character who hates himself on a deep level yet is compelled to honor the obligations he feels he owes and those bestowed upon him. Lee’s pain is genuine, and he accepts it as his cross to bear rather than something for him to perform. By not seeking empathy in his portrayal, Affleck attracts it.

Grief runs through MANCHESTER BY THE SEA like a fault, something abrasive grinding away that is ever present yet unexpected when the energy from it explodes. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan explores the strain of life after death on the living with great sensitivity for how the sense of loss can emerge and how people deal with it. Grief can strike from encountering something innocuous or without any prompting whatsoever. It takes the form of outbursts and self-inflicted damage. The individualized nature of grief also means that there’s no single answer for easing it. Lee and Patrick’s interactions in the wake of Joe’s death are far from perfect, but there’s beauty in how they fumble their way through a difficult situation together.

Although MANCHESTER BY THE SEA can be profoundly sad, it features a fair share of humor. Lonergan recognizes that grieving isn’t constant wailing but pushing through the days and returning to routines. Laughter is a part of that, and the film finds a lot funny in the little ways people may try to distract from what makes them uncomfortable and the sarcasm that creeps into conversations.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA opens with Lee, Joe, and a young Patrick out fishing. Lee asks the kid who he’d pick to be with if he could only have his uncle or his dad with him on an island. It’s a warm scene with him teasing the boy when he naturally picks his father. As circumstances play out, neither Lee nor Patrick will really have a choice in the matter. The film closes with Lee and Patrick on that same boat. It’s not what either would want, but they’ll make the best of it that they can.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 15, 2016


MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

MOONLIGHT tells the story of Chiron through three stages of his life, each distinguished by the name he goes by. It begins with him in grade school referred to as Little (Alex Hibbert), a name thrust upon him by the other kids because of his small stature. Little tends to get picked on and not fight back. As the film begins, he outruns the other boys to hide in a boarded up apartment often used by drug users in the Miami neighborhood. Cuban drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds Little and decides to look out for him until the tight-lipped boy tells him where he lives so he can take him home. Little lives with his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), but Juan and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take an interest in the boy and become like secondary parents.

Little grows into the gawky Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a quiet teenager who still draws his share of abuse from classmates. It has long been apparent to others, especially his mother, that he is gay, even if Chiron is just gradually discovering his sexuality. Longtime friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is more assured in who he is and sees someone similar, if less confident, in Chiron, but the high school environment obstructs them being together in a way they both need.

Chiron develops into the bulked up Black (Trevante Rhodes), who looks the part of the drug dealer in Atlanta that he has become but remains the sensitive soul he’s always been. Out of the blue Black gets a call from Kevin (André Holland), who is working at a diner back home. Feeling the pull to see him again, Black drives back to Miami to reconnect.

The main character in MOONLIGHT is asked who he is, and that search for identity connects the three parts. Chiron first goes by that belittling nickname and then the birth name given by his often cruel mother. He adopts the name Black as an adult, but he doesn’t really have ownership of that tag as it was what Kevin started calling him when they were nine. At each stage he is known according to how others see him. He hasn’t really had a chance to assert his true nature, so the inner Chiron gets suppressed to conform to expectations or avoid drawing attention. Juan tells Little about a neighborhood woman who said that black boys look blue in the moonlight. The blueness extends to Chiron’s emotional composition.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins infuses MOONLIGHT with a sense of longing that gives Chiron’s maturation a tragic arc while it dangles the possibility of happiness. Juan, Teresa, Kevin, and, eventually, even Paula possess the potential for helping Chiron become actualized in a way that he’s not been able to do on his own, yet fear and passivity hold him back. The film’s superior final third swells with the nostalgia and restrained passion of Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Black’s reunion with Kevin could break him free of the loneliness and uncertainty that has defined him. The question remains if he can finally submit to showing his genuine self and living like that.

MOONLIGHT boasts an outstanding ensemble. Jenkins elicits consistent performances across the three actors playing the central character so nine-year-old Little is visible through teenage Chiron and twentysomething Black. Ali humanizes what could have been a clichéd character into a complex individual who can see the damage his livelihood causes. He atones for it as he can by demonstrating love for Little. Jenkins makes smart choices in showing Juan living what passes for an ordinary life rather than the extravagant lifestyle that might be associated with a Miami drug dealer. In her brief time on screen Monáe makes an impact as the soft but firm mother figure Chiron needs while Harris uncovers the ugly and pitiable nature of a mother racked with too many of her own issues to support her son properly. Holland’s relaxed essence makes a lovely contrast with Rhodes’ tentativeness as they size up who the characters have grown into being. With MOONLIGHT Jenkins finds majesty in the search for self.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)

Smart and strong-willed seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always felt like an outsider at home and among her classmates. Her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is popular and can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of their parents. She never seems to see eye to eye with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Her father was one of the rare people who understand Nadine, so when he dies unexpectedly, she feels she’s lost her foundation. Now a high school junior in the comedy-drama THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, her longtime best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is virtually the only person who helps Nadine feel less alone.

This key relationship dissolves when Nadine discovers Krista being intimate with Darian. She considers it a betrayal of the highest order and thinks that demanding that Krista have nothing to do with her brother will right the wrong. To her surprise, Krista refuses to stop being involved with him, leading Nadine to cut off communication with the person she’s closest to. Now feeling more isolated than ever, Nadine reaches out to Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who has awkwardly shown interest in her. She also turns to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whose lunches she interrupts with her anxious chatter and a dramatic announcement that she’s going to kill herself.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig recognizes that people in general, and teenagers in particular, can get so obsessed with the stuff swirling inside their own heads that they fail to understand what others are dealing with and invite more of the problems on which they fixate. Nadine would likely deny that she’s a narcissist because she isn’t vain, but her self-absorption runs deep. She nurtures her aggrieved feelings and think they make her special, possibly even superior. Nadine clings to a limited and melodramatic worldview that is inward-looking to the point that she blinds herself to the misery she’s generating in her life and those around her. It’s apparent that she’s always been uncomfortable with herself and takes that out on others too.

Nadine is a complicated character, both self-hating and sharply funny, sometimes cruelly so. Steinfeld does a remarkable job of molding the self-involved teen into someone who can be exasperating without snuffing what’s inherently likable about her. She makes her into someone that can be empathized with yet never pitied. When she does something that embarrasses her or who she’s with, her actions evoke laughing and cringing. Nadine has a tendency to be her own worst enemy. Steinfeld doesn’t try to ingratiate herself for the audience’s benefit but inhabits Nadine’s naked neediness and confusion as the natural state of teenage existence.

To that end, Nadine’s interactions with Mr. Bruner go a long way in humanizing her and gaining perspective. To someone overhearing parts of their conversations in the hallway, the teacher’s sarcastic give-and-take with his emotional student might sound grossly insensitive. It’s funny and at least a little alarming when THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN opens with him brushing off her intention to commit suicide, but the more we come to know about how they talk to one another, the more his dry humor in serious conversations is how he’s able to signal that he cares without getting touchy-feely, which neither of them seem oriented toward being. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN doesn’t dismiss what Nadine is going through as a phase, but through Mr. Bruner it is capable of taking the long view to relate to her anxiety and know that in time she can get past it.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 02, 2016


ALLIED (Robert Zemeckis, 2016)

Canadian operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beauséjour (Marian Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance, pose as husband and wife in 1942 French Morocco for a mission to assassinate a German ambassador in ALLIED. Marianne has been busy befriending the Germans in Casablanca prior to Max’s arrival. The partners are previously unacquainted and know the danger of becoming close, but the intensity of their assignment and playing of their roles in a convincing manner leads to their relationship developing into something more personal than noble work for the cause.

Max and Marianne succeed at their bold task and survive, but rather than going their own ways, they decide to get married. Back in England Max gets approval for Marianne to join him there. Although World War II still wages on, they settle into a life together with a baby girl. Marianne trades intelligence work for being a wife and mother while Max continues to play a key role in the fight from London. After a year or so Max is called in thinking he’s going to be offered a promotion but instead is told that Marianne is suspected of being a German spy. He refuses to believe the accusation but grudgingly goes along with the operation to test her loyalty. Although he’s warned not to look into the question further, he desperately searches for answers that will ease his dismay.

The uncertainty of knowing who to trust and what to believe stand out as occupational hazards for secret agents. The design of ALLIED brings that to attention with sets and digital backgrounds that are convincing enough to seem like real settings and yet are also noticeable as constructed reality on a studio lot. This is not a matter of the special effects work not being up to par but a deliberate choice by director Robert Zemeckis to emphasize the thematic tension. The more deeply involved the viewer gets with the story, the more the illusion, or movie magic, takes hold that we can trust what is seen. Likewise, Max has greater difficulty separating what is authentic and what could be deception between him and Marianne as his commitment to believing in her innocence becomes more fervent.

Considering the filmmaker, this is an interesting twist in how he uses special effects. With films like THE WALK, FORREST GUMP, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and the trio of computer-animated features in this century’s first decade, Zemeckis has strived to make the trickery invisible, to make the fake seem realistic. ALLIED doesn’t disguise the technical wizardry involved but instead leaves room for the viewers’ brains to blur the separation between practical sets and environments that exist as ones and zeroes on a computer hard drive. In this regard, belief creates reality despite what may be visible to challenge it.

Steven Knight’s screenplay also uses the scenario to explore marriage and the truths two people invest in a relationship to keep it strong. Without the suggestion of Marianne’s activities, she and Max could likely go on living happily ever after, but the doubt introduced gnaws at him despite what he thinks he knows. It calls Max to dispute everything between them even as he desperately wants to trust her. Still, how much can anyone really know another person? As a wartime and psychological thriller, ALLIED finds that most vulnerable point and examines the fallout when it is exposed.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 01, 2016


MOANA (Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, and Chris Williams, 2016)

A tribe on an island in the Pacific has everything it needs in MOANA and thus lacks the impulse to explore what is beyond their home. For the teenage Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), this conservatism can be frustrating, as she has an adventurous soul. When the coconut harvests yield spoiled crops and fish vanish from the waters inside the reef, Moana’s suggestions to go outside their comfort zone are overruled by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison).

Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House), something of a free spirit herself, encourages Moana to follow her instincts. She sets her on a course to find the Polynesian demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and help him return the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess’ stone he stole. His theft, which he did to please humans, unleashed the darkness upon the world that is now causing the problems at home. With her own wits and the help of the ocean--her stupid pet rooster Heihei provides no assistance--Moana goes on her journey to save everything and everyone she loves.

MOANA fits safely within the Walt Disney animated musical tradition but makes enough variations on their princess movies to keep it from feeling stagnant. There’s no love interest around to sidetrack her from the matter at hand, and her animal sidekick is of negligible use. Johnson’s voice work as Maui and the gags with a mini version of the character tattooed on the buff demigod deliver much of MOANA’s humor. Despite his status in the universe, he’s often brought down to size by the film’s plucky heroine.

The South Pacific setting allows the animators to impress with the tropical landscapes, and as much of the film taking place on the ocean, they also get to showcase the latest and greatest in replicating water with computers. The songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Broadway superstar of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda provide an injection of bright fun. Mancina and Miranda’s “Shiny”, performed by FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’ Jemaine Clement as a treasure-hoarding crab, is a highlight, especially with the funny and nightmarish visual accompaniment.

While the animation dazzles, MOANA can feel a little too familiar to stand out from its numerous competitors. In this regard the slender tale may be hurt somewhat by its economy of characters. Other than the two primaries, the ocean itself probably has the most impactful presence.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Blue Jay

BLUE JAY (Alex Lehmann, 2016)

By coincidence former high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) are back in their sleepy hometown at the same time when they spot each other at the grocery store in BLUE JAY. It’s been around twenty years since they last interacted, so this unexpected reunion is marked by the awkwardness of seeing someone for whom your feelings are complicated. Jim is single and, it would seem, not satisfied with where he is in life. Amanda is married with two stepchildren and appears to be in a good place but lets on that something undefined is lacking. Initially it looks like their encounter will be limited to small talk while shopping, but they decide to catch up over coffee and eventually go to his old house to keep the nostalgia trip going through the night.

The characters in BLUE JAY and BEFORE SUNSET have sharp differences between them, particularly regarding the duration of their old relationship and the span of time since they were last together, but both films circle around similar questions of wondering what might have been and being seduced by the possibility of rekindling what was. When Amanda first spots Jim and vice versa, they display a pronounced hesitancy over whether to say hello and exchange common pleasantries. While tentative at first around one another, they are obviously simpatico as they warm up through reminiscing about the good times they shared as teenagers. It’s apparent that both harbor unresolved feelings yet strive to carry on like there’s nothing uncomfortable. Still, tension lingers between them, presumably over some distant event that split them up way back when.

BLUE JAY hinges on the performances of Duplass and Paulson. They speak almost every line and, whether alone or together, occupy virtually every frame except for the pillow shots that establish location. Duplass and Paulson are marvelous in nonverbally expressing the strain that proliferates in their early attempts to catch up and funny in the tortured ways they say things to avoid emotional slip-ups. They’re walking through a proverbial minefield during the entire film, but in the initial scenes they’re doing so as though they can only take baby steps. When Amanda recognizes Jim at the grocery, you can practically hear the gears shifting in her head as she calculates if it is wise to draw his attention.

As Jim and Amanda gradually let their guards down, the chemistry that they surely had is undeniable. They listen to old recordings they made and goof off in a manner that lets them be their dorky teen selves again but is also fraught with the unspoken issues between them. For a time it is pleasurable to be the carefree people they no longer are. Duplass and Paulson carry themselves with awareness of the danger in their actions if they’re not careful. This balancing on the knife’s edge is what makes BLUE JAY so often thrilling. When the emotional time bomb that has been ticking in the background finally explodes, it envelops this intimate drama in poignancy.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


TROLLS (Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, 2016)

In TROLLS the tiny title characters are joyful creatures whose days are filled with singing, dancing, and hugging. Darkness enters their celebratory existences when the much larger, monstrous Bergen find the trolls and learn that eating them is the one way they can experience happiness. The Bergen set aside one day each year for eating trolls, but when the time comes for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to taste his first troll, the scrappy little optimists escape and go undetected for twenty years.

Their safety comes to an end when Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the happiest and most positive of all the trolls, puts on a massive rave noticeable from great distances. Chef (Christine Baranski), the Bergen who was banished from town when the trolls got away, sees the party. Excited at the chance to get back in the good graces of the Bergen, she tracks down the trolls and captures some. Poppy is determined to go to Bergen Town to save her friends and eventually is joined by Branch (Justin Timberlake), a pessimistic, survivalist troll who always suspected this horrible day would come.

TROLLS is rendered in eye-searing colors and features its share of trippy visuals, making the experience of watching it akin to mainlining Junior Senior’s impossibly peppy “Move Your Feet”, which Poppy sings as part of a buoyant pop medley. These small creatures with bright, upswept hair make no apologies for being cheerful, enthusiastic, and loving because they’ve identified that happiness comes from within rather than being consumed. There’s probably a mild contradiction in that message, as the film is based on toys after all. Nevertheless, TROLLS is more committed to being insistently upbeat and gloriously weird than shamelessly pushing product.

TROLLS’ unfiltered strangeness is one of its most appealing qualities. The humor holds appeal for adults because it’s so off-the-wall yet isn’t pitched at them. It simply indulges silliness to the nth degree. A sequence in which a cloud with skinny legs requests a high five from Branch in exchange for some critical information makes for a hilarious routine in which the gray troll is cajoled to make the smallest gesture of happiness. Kendrick’s perky voicing of Poppy and Timberlake’s glum Branch make a funny contrast.

The story in TROLLS is sufficient, although the film is best when it’s riffing and letting its freak flag fly. Pop music is cleverly incorporated and brings some additional energy to this sugar rush of a film.

Grade: B-

Monday, November 21, 2016


ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

In ARRIVAL twelve alien spacecraft appear around the globe and hover above their locations. No one knows why the ships, named shells, are here or how to communicate with the aliens inside them. The United States military turns to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to interact with the squid-like visitors they call heptapods.

As a science fiction film, ARRIVAL is often stirring. Director Denis Villeneuve builds the suspense and conveys the wonder in the simple act of entering the ship. Fear and awe mix as they slowly make their way in the cavernous black corridor to a large room with a transparent wall behind which these mysterious visitors emerge out of the fog. When Ian brushes the side of this huge structure, Renner’s reaction evokes the giddiness of a baby learning about the world through touch. Adams is more sober because the most pressure really is on Louise, but the intense interest she shows in wanting to bridge the communication divide is no less a way of displaying her reverence for the opportunity entrusted to her.

The main dilemma in ARRIVAL is the inability to understand the other. A lot is riding on the humans and heptapods comprehending what is being said. First there’s the obstacle of spoken and nonverbal language. This fades as the issue of deciphering written symbols becomes more prominent. Even if these shapes can be interpreted according to their denotations, are the connotations being picked up too? Other teams at sites around the world are doing similar work but don’t always reach the same conclusions, presenting further barriers to a situation in which errors in decoding could be catastrophic.

While it uses the trappings of first contact with beings elsewhere in the universe, ARRIVAL is ultimately about empathy, particularly when points of view among two parties are, in this case, literally alien. Being able to see and feel from all sides is the best defense available. Adams makes Louise the rare hero who can save the day through listening and contemplation. The film itself takes the whole view idea to heart, as seeing it a second time brings out shades that would be easy to miss the first.

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Attack the Block

ATTACK THE BLOCK (Joe Cornish, 2011)

Despite keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings as she makes her way home to an apartment in a public housing complex, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) runs into five teenage delinquents on a night of revelry in London in ATTACK THE BLOCK. As they’re stealing her phone and ring, a meteorite crashes into a nearby car, causing a distraction that lets Sam get away shaken but unharmed. Moses (John Boyega) starts rooting through the car for anything worth taking when a creature scratches him and runs away. The boys chase after the small hairless alien, and Moses corners and kills it.

They take the body to the drug dealer who lives on the top floor of their tower block until they can figure out what to do with it. From the high vantage point they can see all of the other meteorites falling around the city unnoticed among the fireworks. Moses and his crew go out to do some more alien hunting, but the next ones they encounter are bigger, like a cross of a gorilla and a dog with glowing teeth and without eyes, and relentless in chasing the teens. While running from them, they cross paths with Sam riding along with the police. Although Moses is handcuffed and locked up in the back of their van, the aliens make quick work of the cops. Sam gets away from the teenagers again, but knowing that she’s a nurse, they track her down in the tower to help when one of them is bitten by an alien. Like it or not, she is stuck with them if she’s to survive the aliens attacking the building.

With its mix of science fiction, comedy, horror, and action, ATTACK THE BLOCK has the makings of a cult hit. Writer-director Joe Cornish’s film is too slim in character and story to deserve elevation to word-of-mouth classic status--it’s more minor than major--but it is an entertaining romp that benefits from maintaining a local focus. The world could be coming to an end with this invasion, but for these characters that encircles the borders of their neighborhood, not the entire globe. Although they don’t have much on this block, they’re going fight for what little is theirs.

The spirit of ATTACK THE BLOCK is freewheeling fun, yet Cornish struggles to establish that tone by setting up teenage muggers as the points of identification. He’s aiming for an antihero in the vein of John Carpenter’s films. Moses and his associates are hard to cheer on, though, when their introduction is robbing a vulnerable woman and being unrepentant about it. Their criminal activity seems to be indulged out of a sense of boredom or fun, just kids being kids, than desperate need. That doesn’t sit particularly well for a long time and can hardly be dismissed even when the usual sops are thrown in to explain why Moses is the way he is. Cornish has more success in softening the toughness of Moses and the other boys through comedy that undermines the poses they are adopting. The influence of Edgar Wright, one of the executive producers, is readily apparent in ATTACK THE BLOCK’s humor regarding its self-destructive characters; it could just stand to have more of it earlier in the film.

Cornish has room for improvement in developing his characters and the thin premise, but ATTACK THE BLOCK boasts enough cleverness for it to satisfy on a basic level. The alien’s teeth, which can initially be mistaken for eyes, are a nice design flourish. The action demonstrates the ability to employ modest means to craft excitement. The humor and elements of surprise bolster the anything-goes spirit. ATTACK THE BLOCK is infused with the brashness of youth, a quality that gives it a spark and leads to some less desirable choices.

Grade: B-

Friday, November 04, 2016

Certain Women

CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Although the vignettes in CERTAIN WOMEN are fleetingly connected on a narrative level, they are strongly unified in telling the stories of small town Montana characters who want to be seen, or seen in a particular way. Their personal and professional invisibility does not extend from a lack of trying. In fact, it’s because their efforts go unacknowledged or are rebuffed that their exasperation grows. In each story writer-director Kelly Reichardt provides the space to observe these women closely and empathize with what they are thinking and feeling regardless of if they express such things in a demonstrative way.

CERTAIN WOMEN is comprised of three stories, each about a woman with thwarted desires. In the first segment Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is a lawyer with an insistent client who refuses to accept that he has no further recourse in an injury claim against his employer. Fuller (Jared Harris) has been doggedly pursuing more compensation to no avail for eight months. He also can be volatile, leaving Laura struggling to get through to a man who doesn’t want to listen. In the second part Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is building a new home with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and wants to purchase the native sandstone that Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old man they know, has piled up on his property. Gina gets frustrated that Albert doesn’t appear to be interested in talking to her and that Ryan undermines her in the conversation. The third story focuses on a rancher (Lily Gladstone) who randomly wanders into an adult education course on school law taught by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). The rancher has no interest in the subject but is curious in getting to know Beth, who makes a four-hour drive each way twice a week to lead the class.

Laura wants her professional expertise to be respected and heard. Gina wishes not to be thought of like a boss by her husband and daughter and needs Albert to recognize her presence. The rancher is lonely and wants Beth to understand the affection she feels. CERTAIN WOMEN benefits from being, top to bottom, surely one of the best acted films of the year. Notice the internal conflict in Dern as she reluctantly gives a ride to Fuller and wrestles with when and how to tell him off as he voices his anger about the situation he’s in. You can see her doing the calculations of how to deal with a client who values a man’s opinion much more. Williams’ excellence comes in having a full awareness of what is happening around Gina and adapting to what she thinks others want while not showing her cards. With Stewart and Gladstone there’s the tension between someone not self-conscious and one who is hyper-aware of her feelings and tamps them down so as not to be embarrassed. So much of CERTAIN WOMEN is transmitted by watching these actresses think and interact with their environments.

Beyond the broader concerns of the characters, Reichardt is interested in capturing the small details, gestures that speak to the humanity and quirks of the individuals. At a diner Beth wipes her mouth with the napkin still wrapped around the silverware. Laura leaves half of her blouse untucked after a rush to return to work after a midday affair. The dumb, self-involved questions in the night classes provide funny punctuation to the the end of those scenes. Reichardt is so good at building the characters through these subtle movements and silence that whole existences seem to be realized in just slices of life.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (Mike Flanagan, 2016)

With the help of her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso), a high school sophomore, and nine-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) makes a living in 1967 as a fortune teller out of their Los Angeles home in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. Alice doesn’t have a gift that allows her to commune with the dead but views what she does as a different form of counseling for those who need it. To add some variety to her sessions, she purchases a Ouija board.

Alice’s husband was killed by a drunk driver, and she and the girls are still in pain because of his absence. One night Doris uses the Ouija board to attempt to contact her father. She seems to succeed, as well as being able to see and communicate with other spirits that may be less friendly. Doris’ facility with the Ouija board leads Alice to think that her daughter has the supernatural gift that she does not. Lina becomes increasingly troubled by Doris’ behavior. When she finds pages of notes her sister wrote in Polish, she takes them to their school principal, Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas), in the hope that they can be translated. What he learns is not reassuring.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is a prequel to the so-so 2014 horror film OUIJA, although knowledge of its predecessor is unnecessary. The board game instigates the action but does not play a major role. Ultimately this is all just an excuse for Hasbro to try to sell some toys. Still, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan incorporates the board effectively, especially when showing the view through the planchette. As the camera peers through it, the limited perspective in a dark room heightens the feeling of vulnerability.

Flanagan picks his spots to show the malevolent forces threatening the Zanders’ well-being. He recognizes that the power of suggestion can often be as scary or more frightening than what can be seen. The board itself is not a fearsome object, yet the evil energy mentally invested in it something taboo charges its appearance on screen. OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL’s most disturbing scene is a conversation Doris has with a boy interested in Lina. The little girl describes in great detail what the sensation of being strangled is like. The unsettling nature of what she is saying exists only in the mind, yet it conjures such strong feelings and images. When a character reaches inside a hole in the wall or crawls through a tight duct, the empathetic impulse that puts the viewer in that person’s place injects tension simply from imagining what it would be like.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL puts a nice twist on fear of old things through its period setting and form as a film. Flanagan adds reel change markers and slight warps on the soundtrack when they take effect, adding a little raggedness and sense of unpredictability to the digital file being watched. Again, it’s working toward creating a state of mind that anything could happen, often for the worst.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Invitation

THE INVITATION (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

After a tragedy and the subsequent dissolution of their marriage, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his friends don’t see his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) for two years until they all are invited to a lavish dinner. The situation is especially awkward for Will in THE INVITATION as the party in the Hollywood Hills is being hosted where he used to live, which is also the site of the accident he’s still grieving over. His girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and social circle are especially concerned about Will’s frame of mind. Eden and David have a disquieting sense of calm about them that gradually unnerves everyone when they begin testifying about the group that have brought them inner peace.

For the last two years they were often in Mexico with The Invitation, a New Age-like self-help organization that some consider a cult. The presence of two other group members also adds stress to the dynamic of the gathering. When David leads their guest in a game learned from The Invitation, the party becomes more uncomfortable. Will is deeply bothered by the weird tone of the evening and suspicious of Eden and David’s tranquility, but friends reassure him that the reunion was never not going to be awkward.

THE INVITATION plunges Will and the others into a scenario that seems off from the get-go, yet by identifying with his traumatized character, it’s uncertain if feeling ill at ease is the product of personal anxiety or the hosts’ behavior. Director Karyn Kusama brings the film along at a slow boil and subverts distrust at enough points to call Will’s perspective into question. Is he actually disturbed, or is he right to be on alert? THE INVITATION feasts on the tension between trying to go along with the crowd while simultaneously feeling discontent. Even if the rest of Will’s friends aren’t entirely on board with the way the night is shaping up, they are convinced that restoring old relationships is worth the trouble.

For a significant portion of its running time, THE INVITATION provides the experience of being confronted with soft but insistent peer pressure. It’s like dealing with a salesman who is friendly, if a little too familiar, and won’t take no for an answer. The guests are being plied with expensive wine, which lowers their inhibitions, but when all want to heal old wounds, they will be inclined to adapt despite any objections they may want to make. Kusama understands that suggestibility comes gradually in a strained environment like this. Although Will’s friends are sympathetic to the resistance he puts up, they just want to make the circle whole again. The nerve-racking nature of the party emerges in weighing desires versus a flight response that is pinging like crazy.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 21, 2016

Under the Shadow

UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Life in post-revolutionary Iran for Shideh (Narges Rashidi) delivers one reminder after another of her vulnerability in UNDER THE SHADOW. Shideh’s political activities as a student during the revolution are held against her when she wants to return to school to become a doctor. The ongoing Iran-Iraq war takes her physician husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) to a battle zone as part of his governmentally required service. Iraj suggests she take their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) from Tehran to the less attacked city where his parents live, but they have made her feel like she isn’t capable of caring for her child, so leaving is out of the question in her mind.

The constant threat of an air raid is always in the background. When a missile strikes her apartment building and leaves a big crack in the ceiling, the recognized danger of the circumstances becomes even more apparent. Watching over her daughter grows more stressful. Dorsa fears the djinn, or a demon-like spirit, that a mute neighbor boy tells her about. She falls ill after the apartment is hit and seemingly will not recover. Dorsa is also inconsolable over the loss of her doll, which, if the folktales are to be believed, the djinn has taken and is using to attach itself to her. Shideh dismisses talk of spirits as superstition, but as the girl’s behavior becomes stranger and she herself starts to believe she is seeing and hearing things, the easier it is to think that something supernatural endangers them too.

UNDER THE SHADOW is keenly attuned to civilian life under a restrictive regime and the terror of wartime. Writer-director Babak Anvari uses the horror filter to examine the psychological effects of having limited freedom and enduring years of bombing campaigns. Shideh has a comparatively privileged existence, yet, like all other women, she cannot go outside with her head uncovered and must hide the illegal VCR in their home that she uses to work out to bootleg Jane Fonda exercise videos. Her social position and the vigilance she must practice takes such a toll on her that it becomes the new normal like the routine of taping the windows to protect from the shattered glass if their building is bombed. Whether the djinn is imagined or not, she is right to fear the intangible forces controlling aspects of her life as a woman.

Although not subtle thematically, UNDER THE SHADOW is more judicious in how it produces scares familiar to genre filmmaking. The djinn is seen sparingly, with Anvari wringing a lot of tension out of something as mundane as Shideh looking out a window or taping a crack. The fright arises from uncertainty. That extends to Shideh’s feelings of inadequacy as a mother. Like THE BABADOOK, the film delves into what it is like to deal with the sense of not being able to keep a child from harm when the expectations to do so rest with you. UNDER THE SHADOW’s directness may be somewhat too neat, but it’s effective nevertheless.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Girl on the Train

(Tate Taylor, 2016)

When taking the train to and from Manhattan, Rachel (Emily Blunt) sees Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband at their home and imagines the idealized life they must have. One day on her commute in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, she catches Megan with what appears to be another man. Witnessing this sends her speculation reeling when Megan goes missing and is feared to be dead.

Rachel may have played an active role in the young woman’s disappearance, though. Her drinking is known to lead to blackouts, and she engages in stalker-like behavior with Megan’s nanny Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is the woman Rachel’s ex-husband had an affair with and then married and had a child with. The more Rachel inserts herself into the case, the more her own motivations come into question.

The novel and film of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN have been positioned as successors to GONE GIRL, the lurid yarn also about a missing suburban wife. In both cases the comparison may be invited but isn’t earned. While GONE GIRL grooved on a sick and funny energy about it, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN aims for a strained seriousness that doesn’t fit with the rather ridiculous twists and turns the story takes. Despite the attempts to create unreliability with its primary character, the mystery never becomes particularly compelling. The nonlinear structure is the biggest hindrance, tossing out revelations and questioning what is known as director Tate Taylor is trying to organize it all for viewers to follow. The shifting perspectives out of the gate and slow ramp up to the investigation don’t help with putting the mystery in motion.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN falls flat as a whodunit but is intriguing, if spotty, in looking at the roles women are expected to play when of marriageable and childbearing ages. How they react when things don’t go according to plan, they don’t want to follow the script, or they find the dream unsatisfying are more fertile territory for the film to explore. The emotional undercurrents are more credible than the veers in the plot. For as sensational as the crime at the center is, Taylor nicely underplays moments, like the reveal of Rachel’s alcoholism, which is suggested before the evidence is shown. The problem is that THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is better in the margins than it is in the text.

Grade: C+

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Meddler

THE MEDDLER (Lorene Scafaria, 2015)

When her husband dies, it’s only natural that Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be closer to her television writer daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) in THE MEDDLER. Lori loves her mother, but she cannot take the constant calls and texts from her, not to mention when she drops by the house and lets herself in. Marnie means well, and although she wouldn’t admit it, she’s still grieving for her husband two years later. Nevertheless, Lori finds some relief in going to New York City to shoot a pilot and leaving her mother behind.

In her daughter’s absence Marnie lavishes her attention on almost anyone. Among other things, she volunteers at the hospital, babysits for Lori’s friends, and drives an Apple Genius bar employee to night classes and helps him study. There doesn’t appear to be room for another man in her life, yet she is gradually won over by Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a retired cop turned movie set security guard.

Lorene Scafaria writes and directs with great sensitivity and humor about the complications of love in various forms. THE MEDDLER deals with the loneliness of losing a spouse and parent and the tension found when the need to be close to a loved one can be the very thing that pushes her away. Although the film has autobiographical aspects, Scafaria pinpoints the general frustration that can exist between an adult child and parent when the latter has trouble giving space. The strain between Marnie and Lori is borne out of love. Scafaria empathizes with each as they engage in a delicate dance to stake out their own territory without stepping on each others’ toes. They need each other in the worst way but just haven’t been able to establish boundaries.

Sarandon projects such warmth as Marnie that it’s easy to see why she would be so wonderful and, at times, maddening as a mother. She means well to a fault and is so obviously fond of Lori that being the object of her affection is like being smothered in hugs. Marnie can be a bit of a snoop, but Sarandon plays her free of malicious or guilt-inducing intent. Her identity seems to have flowed from being a wife and a mother, so with one of those parts of her missing, she puts all her energy into the other. Marnie is selfless to a point that can be problematic, at least in how she compensates for the things she feels she doesn’t deserve. For the most part she’s not self-conscious, so it’s fun to see her interact with Zipper, whose non-threatening nature disarms her in a way that causes some necessary but unwelcome self-examination.

Like Scafaria’s excellent first film SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, THE MEDDLER is based in sadness but isn’t so depressed that it can’t laugh at what life brings along. She sees what can be funny about being spotted by your ex on Valentine’s Day while having dinner with your mom, saying the right words without the proper context to a TSA agent, and disposing of a loved one’s ashes. THE MEDDLER charms not through force but by possessing a good heart.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 07, 2016

Queen of Katwe

QUEEN OF KATWE (Mira Nair, 2016)

Katwe, a slum on the fringe of the Ugandan city of Kampala, is not the likeliest place for a chess champion to emerge, yet it is where Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) calls home and picks up the game to a startlingly effective degree. In the fact-based QUEEN OF KATWE Phiona comes upon missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) distributing cups of porridge and chess instruction to other children. She and her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) become interested and find learning the game to be a welcome break from trying to make a thousand shillings per day selling maize in the market and among traffic so their family can survive. Since their father and a brother died, their mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), has struggled to provide enough for them, their rebellious sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and younger brother Richard (Ivan Jacobo and Nicolas Levesque).

Driven by his religious faith and experience as an orphan, Robert wishes to improve the lives of the kids he teaches through sports ministry outreach. He sees the possibility in Phiona not only to do well in chess competitions but also to escape the poverty around her. He sacrifices so his students can play against those much more fortunate and relishes their success. He does what he can to give them education. Still, Nakku is suspicious of Robert’s intentions and fears the effects on Phiona of the hope and dreams she may develop from seeing what exists beyond their harsh daily existences.

QUEEN OF KATWE is made in the inspirational sports movie mold with an underdog fighting her way to the top through skill and perseverance. Reduced to its plot, the film would be relatively unremarkable, just one more tale of triumph over adversity, yet director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler do something wondrous in telling Phiona’s true story. Nair’s strong sense of place captures the difficult living conditions and the moral challenges involved in growing up in extreme poverty without wallowing in miserabilism for its own sake. Nair doesn’t deny that the children can be happy as they work and play. There’s no question that Phiona’s family and those they live among have hard lives, but the film doesn’t condescend to them. As a family film stamped with the Walt Disney brand, some of the more unpleasant implications in the compromises to meet needs are hinted at, yet it’s not a matter of skirting the issues than being age-appropriate.

QUEEN OF KATWE is not explicitly a faith-based film, a term usually intended for the type of blandly reassuring and proselytizing movie meant to turn out church groups in droves, but it is deeply informed by the Christianity of its main characters. Religious belief is integrated into these protagonists through their actions rather than through statements or Scriptural quotations. While QUEEN OF KATWE looks admiringly at them, the film notices the burden associated with living by such principles. Nakku refuses to forsake what she holds dear in exchange for minimal necessities. Robert must decide between his commitment to the work of a servant of God and a career that will pay him more to care for his wife and child. The film treats their Christian faith as an ideology that guides their lives rather than a slogan.

Best known for playing Martin Luther King Jr. in SELMA, Oyelowo is just as charismatic in QUEEN OF KATWE. He exudes a softer presence here, one that gains strength through quiet insistence than the rousing speech. When he rallies the kids who feel that they don’t belong among their richer peers and tries to convince Nakku of Phiona’s potential, Oyelowo persuades because he speaks from a place of empathy. Nyong’o does affecting work through how Nakku watches her children. Nalwanga anchors the film with the determination she brings to Phiona. In observing the fundamental decency of these people, QUEEN OF KATWE identifies that being a champion may come with a medal or a trophy, but it doesn’t need to.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Deepwater Horizon

DEEPWATER HORIZON (Peter Berg, 2016)

The somber drama and action in DEEPWATER HORIZON recreate the events surrounding the worst oil spill in United States history, but despite the good intentions of honoring those who were endangered, injured, and killed, it’s kind of the cinematic equivalent of a commemorative plate. The imagery calls for hushed voices and bowed heads in solemn remembrance while also stoking righteous anger about why the accident occurred. The action impresses as a technical exercise, yet being thrust into the catastrophe with the men and women aboard the doomed rig remains a curiously distant viewing experience.

Deepwater Horizon sat about forty miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico with the task of preparing wells for others to come in and extract the oil. The crew is already more than a month behind schedule in April 2010 when the crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) return. BP employees are pushing to speed up the process, even if it involves cutting some corners on safety. After a test result that raises some questions as to what it means, oil company man Vidrine (John Malkovich) insists that work proceed as though everything is shipshape.

Problems aren’t manifested immediately, but when they arrive, they have devastating consequences. The blowout and subsequent explosions engulf the rig in flames. The fire could seemingly burn forever because of all that oil gushing onto the ship from deep below the ocean. The distance from ship to shore means that rescuers cannot get to them right away, meaning that those who survived the initial blasts, especially those who did not get to a lifeboat, remain in danger from the fire and flying debris.

Director Peter Berg’s spatial awareness of the offshore platform provides capable guidance around the disaster site and conveys the sheer size of what is above and below the water. The hellish environment blooms when the bright interiors are smeared in orange and smothered in black. Berg batters the audience with the chaos and terror that would be felt when trapped in such a situation. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Hand do a solid job of laying out the process that contributed to what happened. While the trauma in the moment and the reasons for it are undeniable, DEEPWATER HORIZON fails to connect on a human level.

Establishing scenes of Deepwater Horizon workers with their families and the tearful news and reunions in the aftermath are meant to provide the emotional connections in an otherwise impersonal film. These scenes simply aren’t sufficient in building vested concerns in them beyond the standard response of not wanting people to be horribly killed. DEEPWATER HORIZON doesn’t spare BP for its contributing role to the disaster, but the cartoonishly villainous Malkovich performance jerks the film out of the realistic depiction Berg sets out to achieve.

Grade: C

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)

THE MERMAID (MEI REN YU) (Stephen Chow, 2016)

Like the mythical half-human, half-fish, THE MERMAID (MEI REN YU) combines two dissimilar species to create something rarely seen. Director Stephen Chow, known best in the United States for SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG FU HUSTLE, takes his brand of broad comedy and merges it with social concerns regarding the environment and conspicuous consumption. The transitions between message boosting and silliness can make for some jarring shifts. Opening shots of devastation to land, water, and animals are followed by an over-the-top scene of a fraudulent museum of exotic animals being run out of the owner’s apartment. The result is like alternating graphic portions of the documentary THE COVE with goofy gags. While the beginning and the climactic fight between men and mermaids take some disorienting sharp turns, Chow keeps this unusual amalgamation of moral imperatives and comedic hijinks from becoming heavy-handed.

When playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) purchases nature and wildlife reserve Green Gulf, it does not seem like a sound investment, but he is using sonar transmitters in the surrounding waters to drive away the dolphins and other marine life, thus enabling reclamation that will yield huge profits. In THE MERMAID some of the creatures in the sea, now forced to reside in a rusting freighter, are determined to fight back. The half-human, half-fish population assigns Shan (Jelly Lin) to seduce their nemesis so that she or the others can get close enough to kill him.

Shan’s sweet disposition makes her an unlikely temptress and assassin. As she and Liu Xuan begin to fall in love, it becomes more difficult for her to carry out the order to end his life. Liu Xuan’s business partner Li Ruo-lan (Zhang Yu Qi) has romantic interest in him, so she doesn’t like that Shan appears to have captured his heart and might be changing his mind about development plans for Green Gulf. Although Liu Xuan is gradually becoming aware of the detrimental impact of his actions, half-man, half-cephalopod named Octopus (Show Lo) still desires to eliminate the person responsible for all of his kind’s suffering.

Chow brings a cartoon’s sensibility to much of THE MERMAID’s humor. Shan’s initial attempt to assassinate Liu Xuan with sea urchins or stab him with a crudely made dagger is beautifully choreographed as her actions are thwarted through unseen obstacles and unexpected movements. A riotous scene with Liu Xuan trying to convince the police that he was abducted by a mermaid feels like something out of Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny as a sketch artist teasing the victim. THE MERMAID gets a lot of laughs out of all the wrong ways to draw something half-human and half-fish.

As a live-action film with assists from iffy visual effects, the film’s comedy sometimes plays as being more sadistic than it might in an animated movie. A romantic spin on an amusement park ride results in Shan and Liu Xuan barfing even as they’re enjoying the time together. Octopus disguises himself as the lovers’ chef so he can kill Liu Xuan but ends up having several of his tentacles seared, chopped off, and ground because the other cooks mistake them for the meal’s ingredients. The pained reactions to the trauma that Octopus tries to hide are very funny even as the comedic violence is made more concrete than is ordinary. Chow demonstrates playfulness as he pushes the humor slightly beyond the limits of what an audience might anticipate. THE MERMAID’s boldness and mix of tones can make for some awkwardness, but the anything goes attitude is responsible for the heights it reaches.

Grade: B

Friday, September 23, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Travis Knight, 2016)

Childhood for the one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) is magical and mystifying in the stop-motion animated KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. He brings origami to life as he tells enchanting stories to the villagers near the cave where he and his mother are hiding out. Kubo can shred his three-stringed musical instrument, a samisen, like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD’s Doof Warrior, although no fire shoots out of the neck. While these are marvelous skills for a kid wield, there is much for him to be concerned about. His mother is ill, and and his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), has killed Kubo’s samurai father and is responsible for the eyepatch the boy must wear. Kubo’s mother insists that he always carry a monkey totem and be home before sundown lest her two sisters (Rooney Mara) and the Moon King find them and complete the task they did not finish.

One night Kubo stays out past his curfew with the predicted tragic results. The Sisters torch the village and try to harm Kubo, but his mother uses her magic to save him and send him on quest. To defend himself from the Moon King Kubo must search ancient Japan for an unbreakable sword, impenetrable armor, and invulnerable helmet. Helping him on his journey are Monkey (Charlize Theron), which is the enlarged totem brought to life, and the samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a forgetful, wise-cracking insect.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS comes from the animation studio Laika, which, with the films CORALINE, PARANORMAN, and THE BOXTROLLS, has developed a reputation for delivering quality children’s fare that is unafraid of handling material that can be visually and thematically darker. The deep oranges and dark blues dominate the palette for a story steeped in legend, like something witnessed through the flickering flames deep in the belly of a cave. The stop-motion animation provides a tactile sense of wonder at the imaginations tapped to bring this fantastical and early historical world to life in the style of folded paper.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS puts two kinds of immortality in opposition. The Moon King offers Kubo the chance to live forever with him among the stars, although the price to be paid is his one good eye. Alternatively, the boy can find strength and inspiration in the memories of his deceased parents to resist the Moon King and, in turn, survive through generations because of the bravery he shows. This may sound like rather heavy subject matter--and it is, implicitly--but director Travis Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler treat this as a grand challenge to be met with the spiritual guidance of his mother and father than an oppression heaped upon a protagonist unsuited to deal with it.

The film is not left wanting for humor, however. Theron’s voicework reveals a delicacy in the figure entrusted to assist Kubo, but she also brings a sarcastic edge to Monkey, especially as she clashes with Beetle. At face value McConaughey seems like a curious casting decision, as he makes no effort to alter his Texas drawl, but the warmth and orneriness in his voice serves the act-before-thinking character well. The love-hate dynamic between Monkey and Beetle produces some amusing sparring. Likewise, Kubo’s journey encompasses the spectrum of emotion, concluding with a beautiful testament to the ties that bind. The importance of family is hardly a new theme for children’s entertainment, but the gentleness and unsentimentalized handling of it in KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS allows the idea to be seen anew.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Don't Breathe

DON’T BREATHE (Fede Alvarez, 2016)

Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) keep cash in their pockets by breaking into houses and committing small thefts in the Detroit area in DON’T BREATHE. Alex’s father runs a home security company, so the three thieves know how to disable the systems and have access to keys for the properties they target. Rocky and Money are eager to skip town for California but need a big score to make that possible.

Rumor has it that a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) has squirreled away a large amount of cash from a lawsuit over his daughter’s wrongful death in a car accident. The blind man lives alone in a neighborhood that has been otherwise abandoned. From scouting his place, it appears that he doesn’t leave very often, which would be a problem for them in almost every other instance. Ordinarily they wouldn’t rob a residence when someone is in it, but based on the homeowner’s visual impairment and the supposed $300,000 waiting to be taken, they decide it is worth the risk. Things don’t go according to plan, though. The blind man becomes aware of the intruders in his home and locks them in with the intention of killing them.

Although the blind man’s home has numerous points of egress, director and co-writer Fede Alvarez does nimble work in eliminating escape routes for the thieves to maintain the tension. When they find what seems like a sure way out, the option is inevitably removed for a sound reason. Alvarez treats the house as a labyrinth whose dead ends also contain some unwelcome surprises. Rather than battering the audience with lots of quick cuts and a clamorous soundtrack, DON’T BREATHE provides space via longer, smooth shots to let the dread-raising hunt develop and through the quiet stillness necessary for the hunted to avoid detection.

For all of the solid effort put into sustaining a high degree of uncertainty regarding who will endure the ordeal, DON’T BREATHE’s brief, in media res opening seems like a significant dramatic mistake. With the limited number of characters trying to flee the house, revealing one of those who will survive at least close to the film’s conclusion reduces much of the guesswork and thrills related to this person’s path to that point. It isn’t a fatal error, as Alvarez is skilled at conveying the urgency of individual moments, but the choice seems misguided in view of the care put into the thriller’s suspenseful design.

Although DON’T BREATHE features no conventional heroes, Lang’s blind man is, without question, the villain. The character already is at an advantage by knowing the layout of the house, and with some scenes occurring in near or total darkness, his blindness can serve as an edge he holds over his prey. Lang’s rippling arms and intense demeanor solidify his position as the predator. The thieves, while clearly on the wrong side of the law, are in over their heads. Levy in particular registers the terror of the situation and the instinctive will to live beyond the traumatic experience. The requirement to hint at potential sequels is a lamentable staple of the genre--continuing this story seems like a fool’s errand--but it doesn’t undermine the scares DON’T BREATHE musters.

Grade: B

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Damien Chazelle, 2009)

In GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH the splashy Hollywood musical of yesteryear converges with low-budget independent filmmaking that draws inspiration from the French New Wave. The jaunty orchestral music by Justin Hurwitz suggests a widescreen Technicolor extravaganza. Instead, writer-director Damien Chazelle employs the jazz score and songs for the intimate and boxy black-and-white 16mm frame. As the music swells, it stands in stark contrast to the drab, grainy monochrome images and thus reveals the rich emotional symphony inside the characters.

The story is the essence of simplicity. Jazz trumpeter Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) are a happy couple in Boston until he meets the flirtatious Elena (Sandha Khin) on the subway. Guy breaks up with Madeline and takes up with Elena. Madeline drifts for awhile before relocating to New York City and finding a new man. Still, Guy and Madeline seem to have difficulty letting go of what they had together.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH places greater emphasis on mood than story. Naturally, this is best achieved in scenes built around musical performance. At a cramped house party Chazelle captures the feeling of having a good time while shoulder to shoulder with friends and acquaintances. In an unbroken shot the camera whips back and forth to see a singer and the trumpeter performing in close quarters but separated from the observer by the crowd and a passageway. A production number at a restaurant conveys more through song and dance about Madeline’s pent-up frustration and her decision moving forward than a mere plot point. While the comparatively bigger moments are the most demonstrative in expressing feeling, Chazelle is also capable of bringing the interior experience of loneliness to the surface through tight close-ups and lingering medium shots.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH deconstructs the film musical to its basic elements: a guy, a girl, and a song. Perhaps with a nod to Godard, Chazelle and his co-editor collapse time and dispense with narrative details that can be inferred from the gaps. Unlike the impeccably cut WHIPLASH, which Chazelle made after this, the editing rhythms are more ragged and make this relatively short feature feel much longer than 82 minutes.

Whether or not GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH was Chazelle’s thesis film, it comes across as an ambitious project mounted to cap the pursuit of a graduate degree in the arts. The filmmaker’s raw talent is on display while the learning happening behind the camera remains evident. While the roughness in Chazelle’s debut adds some vitality, the film may be more of interest as an intriguing first pass than as a wholly successful enterprise. Based on the huge leap from this to WHIPLASH, it’s exciting to anticipate how his upcoming musical LA LA LAND with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone might turn out.

Grade: C+

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water

HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie, 2016)

The Howard brothers turn to a life of crime to save their deceased mother’s West Texas ranch in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has already done hard time for stealing, so he has no compunction about holding up branches of the bank they owe in order to raise the capital to retain ownership of family property. Toby (Chris Pine) is less enamored of the idea of using illegal means to provide for the well-being of his two sons living with his ex-wife, but if this is the only option available to him, then at least he can concoct a plan that will hopefully keep them or anyone else from getting hurt.

Tanner and Toby try to strike early when fewer people are around and stick to stealing loose, low denomination bills in the cashiers’ drawers so that the money is untraceable. Their thefts aren’t big enough to attract the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaving the pursuit of these bank robbers to Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is close to a retirement he’s less than eager to settle into, so he welcomes the opportunity to mix it up in the field perhaps one last time.

HELL OR HIGH WATER alternates scenes between duos on opposite sides of law with the expectation that at some point their paths will cross. Dividing the time about evenly gives space for empathizing with the circumstances that have brought Tanner and Toby to this point and to admire the ingenuity of and poetic revenge in the thieves’ methods. What they’re doing is wrong, yet it doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted either. The split focus also permits the lawmen to take on some added gravity. Rooting interests may favor the righteous brothers, but Marcus and Alberto come across as principled upkeepers of the code.

While the recession and its aftermath weigh on characters grieving for what has been or will be lost, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote SICARIO, manages to carve out ample room for humor. Foster has a grand time savoring the bond Tanner forms through crime with his less enthusiastic sibling. HIs character would probably commit these acts for kicks, so being able to carry them out in the name of self-justified justice and familial preservation is the icing on the cake. Bridges’ gruffness is never not a source of amusement. He busts the chops of his partner in a way that is easier for men in a tough job to express affection. Marcus baits Alberto with cracks on his heritage and may get under his partner’s skin on occasion, but mostly they give the sense of mutually respecting co-workers who have to tease one another to share the closeness they feel.

HELL OR HIGH WATER takes delight in the color found in declining small towns dotting the landscape. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the scene in which an elderly, no guff-taking waitress asks for the Rangers’ diner orders by barking “What don’t you want?” at them. Coming from her it’s an accusation more than a question. 88-year-old actress Margaret Bowman makes a meal of her handful of lines by pinning them to their seats with enough sharp attitude to castrate a bull in a single flick. In a film that examines the motivating force of taking what one feels is deserved, such behavior could not be encapsulated more effectively.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sausage Party

SAUSAGE PARTY (Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, 2016)

With computer-animated foodstuffs discussing the involvement of a divine force in their lives, SAUSAGE PARTY bears some similarity to VEGGIETALES, although the relentlessly vulgar comedy with an atheistic perspective makes abundantly clear where it parts ways with the Christian lessons for kids. There’s no denying the boldness of SAUSAGE PARTY in using the forms of animation and raunchy comedy to explore something more serious than audiences might expect. Imagine TOY STORY, in which inanimate objects receive a revelation about the whims of those they are devoted to, and cross it with the muddled theology and scatological comedy of Kevin Smith’s DOGMA for some approximation of what has been cooked up.

The items on grocery store shelves patiently await the day when they will be chosen by the gods, otherwise known as the shoppers. WIth the 4th of July nearing, chances are greater for many that their time to discover the life that awaits beyond what they can observe is imminent. Among the faithful waiting their turn is Frank (Seth Rogen), a sausage who hopes to be selected at the same time as his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who is in a package next to his on an endcap display.

Indeed, fortune smiles upon them when a woman puts them both in her cart, but a returned jar of of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) warns that the paradise they’ve been promised does not exist outside Shopwell’s doors. An accident separates Frank, Brenda, Sammy the bagel (Edward Norton), and a contentious lavash named Kareem (David Krumholtz) from the items that leave the store. Also left behind in the scrum is Douche (Nick Kroll), who is damaged and discarded. He holds Frank accountable for his fate and vows revenge. Meanwhile, Frank learns that Honey Mustard was right about the horrible truth outside the grocery and wants to share the news with the others.

SAUSAGE PARTY is every bit as self-satisfied and strident as any evangelical entertainment meant to witness to the masses. Those looking for well-reasoned arguments critical of and against religious beliefs best look elsewhere from the gleeful bomb-throwing here. The screenplay by Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir possesses the intellectual swagger of a college freshman with a smidgen of exposure to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. The rebellious pushback manifests as reductive posturing masquerading as cogent thought. Such a shrill response to faith kind of makes the film as humorless as those the makers might accuse their opposition of being.

SAUSAGE PARTY also treads the line between ironic stereotyping and demeaning characterizations based on ethnicity, sexuality, and creed. For comedians pushing boundaries to mock unenlightened thinking, this is notoriously tricky terrain. In execution SAUSAGE PARTY’s jokes play closer to regressive reinforcement than comedic immolation of stereotypes. The filmmakers pay a lot of attention to the planks in the eyes of those with whom they disagree but fail to notice those in their own views.

Grade: C-

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Pete's Dragon

PETE’S DRAGON (Don Chaffey, 1977)

Pete (Sean Marshall) and his best pal, the cartoon dragon Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas), run away from the abusive, dirt-encrusted Gogan family that bought the orphan to perform manual labor on their farm. In the musical PETE’S DRAGON the boy and his protector wander into the fishing community of Passamaquoddy hoping to make a fresh start. Elliott can turn himself invisible, which he does so as not to spook the townsfolk, but as might be expected with a big, friendly monster galumphing through town, he creates a mess in his wake, thus earning Pete the scorn of most of these new people.

Nora (Helen Reddy) spots Pete--but not a cloaked Elliott--as they prepare to take shelter in a cave along the coast. She operates the lighthouse with her probably alcoholic father Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and invites the boy to come with her for a warm home and meal. Like Pete, Nora is also adrift, having lost her fiancé Paul (Cal Bartlett) at sea a year ago. Nora quickly takes a shine to Pete, and he to her even if the rest of Passamaquoddy’s citizens hold his dragon accountable for the fishermen’s now-empty nets. More trouble arrives when Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his traveling medicine show come crashing into town. The doc’s assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) tells his quack boss about Elliott, whom he encounters when he and Lampie are getting loaded. Dr. Terminus considers a dragon to be a jackpot to harvest for his elixirs and potions and plots to acquire Elliott, whether by purchase or force.

With his bottom-heavy physique and two small, pink, bat-like wings, Elliott does not look a creature that nature designed to function. The same goes for the disproportional PETE’S DRAGON. Nearly three-quarters of its slightly more than two hours seem like first act establishment. There’s a remarkably small amount of time devoted to Pete and his animated friend but more than enough to go around for the shilling and scheming by the snake oil salesman. The pacing lumbers too. When multiple conflicts converge in the final quarter, the resolutions take seemingly forever.

Although the song “Candle on the Water” and the original song score earned the film two Academy Award nominations, this is not a classic Disney musical. The music and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn result in a set of passable but unmemorable show tunes. The Broadway-style mugging in the performances attempts to inject feeling into the emotional void of a screenplay. Pete ought to be a really sympathetic character. The film doesn’t make a fuss about the treatment he previously endured, but it’s unmistakable that the Gogans beat the boy. Nevertheless, Pete gets lost among the other storylines. Everything that unfolds happens in such a schematic manner that it fails to achieve the impact that a more focused script might have.

The hand-drawn animated Elliot is integrated nicely into the live action, but the character lacks personality. The biggest miscalculation may be having Elliott communicate through gibberish and clicks rather than speaking (although he can say “boo”). This just leads to is Pete performing a lot of translation. When Pete chastises Elliott for ruining everything in town and then makes up with him, it’s a potent emotional moment because it’s a rare occasion that the two are interacting rather than Pete serving as a conduit to explain Elliott’s side of the conversation. Remove the fantastical element and PETE’S DRAGON is essentially a boy and his dog searching for a home, yet it fails to develop the relationship between them or Pete and his newfound family beyond broad strokes.

Grade: C-

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bad Moms

BAD MOMS (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, 2016)

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) manages to juggle two kids in school and all the associated obligations, part-time work at a coffee co-op that’s more like a full-time job, and the culturally expected duties of an American wife at home. When she discovers her man-child husband having an affair via webcam, she kicks him out of the house. In BAD MOMS Amy can deal with a failing marriage, but she can no longer put up with the demands of the Parent-Teacher Association president Gwendolyn James (Christina Applegate). Her refusal to go along with rigid PTA orders puts her on Gwendolyn’s enemies list but wins her the appreciation of Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), two other overwhelmed mothers.

As a single mother and shameless flirt, Carla is pleased to make the acquaintance of someone else who has run afoul of the school’s parental hierarchy. Kiki is just happy to socialize with anyone, as her four kids give her virtually no time for herself. Amy, Carla, and Kiki are tired of the pressure to live up to an unattainable standard and thus vow from now on to be bad moms, although Carla was kind of already on that path regardless. If they want to do lunch and hang out at the movies in the middle of the day, so be it. They enjoy cutting loose for a while, but inevitably their flouting of the unspoken rules for mothers begins to have adverse effects on them and their families.

BAD MOMS is written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the duo that also wrote THE HANGOVER. While the women get to exercise some of their worst behavior, within reason, the film contains the sentimentality and platitudes of a Mother’s Day card, albeit one with a lot more dirty words. Unlike THE HANGOVER’s Wolfpack, whose raucous and destructive behavior gets accepted with a wink because boys will be boys, the moms don’t behave irresponsibly to a similar degree. The moms, of course, aren’t really bad; they just feel that way because of how they and others have defined their societal roles. Even within a film providing fleeting wish fulfillment for mothers, BAD MOMS has a hard time letting these women enjoy some guilt-free relief because we know somebody has to keep everything just so and it won’t be dads, amirite. *fist bump*

In fairness, the double standard gets challenged with Hahn’s Carla, who presents herself as an exception to the hard-striving mother ideal. She doesn’t seem to sweat her questionable actions or much of anything. When the moms share stories of parental mistakes, only her anecdotes cross the line between female bonding through mutual understanding and thinking about calling children’s protective services. Where Amy and Kiki are held back as characters because they are ultimately intended to be empowering figures, Hahn gives a bawdy performance that delivers on the concept of suburban moms breaking bad. Carla isn’t trying to impress anyone, so Hahn is allowed to let her wildness be expressed most humorously.

Bell’s reactions are quite amusing when Kiki unwittingly finds herself and her hooded sweatshirt being used to demonstrate how to manipulate an uncircumcised penis. She’s also funny responding to any bit of socializing like patiently-awaited scraps from the table. BAD MOMS is less sure of how to use Kunis’s comedic skills and often resorts to the jokes stemming from her aggression and humiliation. Overall, the film leaves the lingering feeling that these funny women and others in the cast have been shortchanged by a screenplay that finds the idea of moms who buck the norms to balance their lives as parents, spouses, and individuals more hilarious than the reality of them doing it.

Grade: C