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