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