Sunday, January 14, 2018

Available for home viewing: Marshall ★★★

The filmmakers behind Marshall understand what it takes to make a successful bio-pic. Instead of using a "greatest hits" strategy that attempts to cram an entire life into two hours, they have targeted a single representative event from the life of 20th century icon Thurgood Marshall. By limiting the film’s time frame, the narrative is allowed to breathe and, as a result, we get a distinct snapshot not only of the main character but of the setting that resulted in his becoming historically important.

The focus of Marshall is the 1941 trial of The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. At the time, Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), one of the NAACP’s star lawyers, is traveling around the country litigating questionable cases with black defendants. Most are in the South but the organization, needing an influx of donations from wealthy supporters in the North, sends Marshall to Connecticut in January 1941 to team with local (white Jewish) attorney Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). The case is steeped in racial undertones. Wealthy socialite Elaeanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) claims to have been raped multiple times and thrown over the side of a bridge by her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown). The case sets off a mass hysteria that results in white folk firing black servants. After speaking with Spell, Marshall is convinced of his innocence.

The resulting trial Is a media sensation. Prevented by Judge Foster (James Cromwell) from speaking in court because he’s not a member of the Connecticut bar (he is only allowed to "silently" advise Friedman), Marshall uses written notes and facial expressions to act as Friedman’s marionette. He also lets his voice be heard in the papers, giving daily speeches on the courtroom steps. The prosecutor, avowed bigot Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), is friendly with the judge and the jury looks as unfavorable as one can envision for a black man in 1941. But Marshall’s investigative tenacity and Friedman’s growing comfort with criminal litigation shine the light on a truth that’s tragic from many angles.

The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell was not one of Marshall’s most famous cases but it provides the filmmakers an opportunity to illustrate the characteristics that made him a respected lawyer and civil rights figure. Unbowed in the face of discrimination, he fights back rather than knuckling under. He is fierce and willing to go toe-to-toe with any foe. The family sacrifices he makes are shown, albeit briefly — his wife suffers a miscarriage and, rather than being at her side, he has to remain at the trial. At the time when Marshall is set, the title character is still a quarter-century away from being named as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, but the seeds of what would lead Lyndon Johnson to nominate him are in evidence.

The movie does a little "myth busting" as well. It’s widely accepted that the South was highly racist during the 1940s. It was, after all, the era of Jim Crow. (Brown v. Board of Education, one of the cases instrumental in dismantling Jim Crow laws, was argued by Marshall in front of the Supreme Court in 1953.) However, racism was still alive and deeply-rooted in the more "progressive" North. For all of its intolerance and segregationist mindset, Greenwich might as well have been deep in Dixie as in New England.

Marshall takes liberties with the historical record but the basic facts are accurate. The movie unfolds more as a courtroom drama than a traditional bio-pic and one can make an argument that it’s as much about co-counsel Friedman as it is about Marshall. In fact, Friedman is the one with the discernable character arc, evolving from small-town insurance lawyer to nationally-known civil rights attorney. Marshall, already a famous and accomplished man at the outset, is little changed at the end.

This is Boseman’s third high profile bio-pic in five years (he also played Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up), an indication of how in-demand he is. In addition to playing real people, he is Black Panther, the first black superhero of the MCU. His portrayal of Marshall isn’t likely to earn Boseman an Oscar nomination but the performance illustrates his versatility and force of personality (think Paul Newman during his prime). Gad, known better for semi-comedic roles, acquits himself admirably in a purely dramatic part. He and Boseman evince sufficiently strong chemistry for a mismatched buddy film element to emerge. The supporting cast also includes Dan Stevens (who, like Gad, is an alumnus of the live-action Beauty and the Beast).

The Thurgood Marshall I remember was an old man in black robes. When he resigned from the Supreme Court in 1991 due to failing health, the outpouring of respect and admiration was overwhelming. Dead for a quarter-century, Marshall has become a name in history books; this movie — fiery, well-constructed, and compelling with all the twists and turns viewers like in a courtroom drama — lifts the man off the text book page and imbues him with a movie hero presence. It’s engaging and inspirational but, in terms of what it reminds us of, it’s also important.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Available for home viewing: Rebel in the Rye ★★½

Rebel in the Rye, which tells the story of author J.D. Salinger, falls into the pernicious trap that ensnares many a bio-pic: trying to present too broad a chronology in too limited a time. Utilizing an unwieldy structure that involves a flashback, writer/director Danny Strong attempts to cram about 16 years of Salinger’s life into 105 minutes. As a result, there’s a sense that important events are glossed over, relationships are truncated, and the central character becomes lost in the rapid progression of the narrative. In fact, the movie is so insistent on grinding forward that we never get a strong feeling for Salinger the person. He will remain as much an enigma to viewers of this movie as to those who don’t see Rebel in the Rye. The film offers little more depth about the writer than his Wikipedia article and considerably less than one would get from reading the semi-autobiographical The Catcher in the Rye.

The story picks up in 1939 when Jerry Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) enrolls in the creative writing course of Professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the editor of Story magazine. Whit becomes Jerry’s mentor and pushes him to become a real writer. Everyone, except perhaps his father (Victor Garber), recognizes his talent but Whit helps Jerry harness it. At the same time, Jerry flirts with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the debutante daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Jerry and Oona’s relationship is chaotic and filled with emotional ups-and-downs so when she leaves for Hollywood to pursue stardom, it seems likely they’ll never see one another again. Soon after, Jerry sees a newspaper headline announcing her marriage to Charlie Chaplin.

One thing Rebel in the Rye accomplishes with some degree of proficiency is depicting the craft involved in Jerry’s writing. Representing an author’s mindset is difficult for a visual medium like cinema to achieve, since writing is an internal process, but Strong captures some of this. Jerry speaks of his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, becoming his "companion" during his time spent in Europe for World War 2 and how, once he returns home, it’s difficult for him to continue writing The Catcher in the Rye because thinking about Holden reminds him of the atrocities he experienced. This is by far the most compelling aspect of the film; it’s the only time we get something from Rebel in the Rye that doesn’t seem extracted from a Cliff Notes biography.

The post-war era is rushed through and attempts to tie up Jerry’s relationship with Whit are fundamentally unsatisfying. Not long after The Catcher in the Rye’s publication, Jerry becomes a recluse but the film is unable to effectively dramatize this phase of his life, instead offering a simplistic explanation for the cause: a combination of his growing fascination with Zen Buddhism and his need to escape distractions.

The performances are fine. Hoult brings more than a little of Holden Caulfield to his portrayal of Jerry. Irrespective of the age difference between the fictional character and his creator, the actor understands how much of the latter was in the former. The most "human" character is Whit Burnett; Spacey plays him with a mixture of rapier-sharp sarcasm (early in their relationship) and parental nurturing (later). Hoult and Spacey work so well together that the movie is inevitably better when they’re both on-screen — something that happens far too infrequently.

To date, there has never been a movie adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye because Salinger refused to sell the rights. It’s possible that those who control his estate may reverse this in the future. Until then, however, this is the closest we’re likely to get to seeing Holden on-screen. Unfortunately, in its quest to tell the whole story of J.D. Salinger, Rebel in the Rye speeds along too fast for us to enjoy the little things that would have made an oblique biography more satisfying. This chronology hits all the high points but leaves us longing to explore all the untouched valleys in between.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Available for home viewing: Transformers The Last Knight ½★

Transformers: The Last Knight opens and closes with chaos. The first scene features bodies flying everywhere as flames pierce the sky in Michael Bay’s reimagining of the Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin’s magic is a gift from the alien robots so many know and love. The last scenes, and this is no spoiler if you’ve ever seen a Michael Bay movie, feature bodies flying everywhere as metal and flames pierce the sky. In between, there’s a bit of mythology, some running and screaming, a ton of slo-mo, a dash of racism, a great actor wasted in a character who could have been named "Exposition Dump," and so much incoherent noise that you’ll want to bang your head on your coffee table just to get some rest.

After two sequels that took the fun spirit of the Transformers and turned them into something with the artistic depth of a Monster Energy Drink, Bay appeared to reboot the franchise with the relatively solid Transformers: Age of Extinction. He found one of our most charismatic leading men in Mark Wahlberg, gave him an awesomely perfect name like Cade Yeager, filled out a better-than-average supporting cast, and provided major set pieces across the world, including leveling a bit more destruction at Chicago. AoE suffered from Bay Bloat (165 minutes!) and some of the other technical problems of the previous sequels, but it offered hope.

Hope dies during Transformers: The Last Knight. From the very beginning, this is an incoherent mess. Cade’s daughter and her boyfriend — both memorable characters from the last film — are gone, the daughter written off with a couple of horrendously manipulative beats about her being at college and Yeager being on the run. He can save the world but he can’t see his daughter. Whatever, fine, but also gone are Stanley Tucci (other than a brief cameo as Merlin in the opening scenes) and Kelsey Grammer. The villains of the first film are replaced here by a purely CGI enemy named Quintessa (Gemma Chan), an interstellar being who wants to use the home planet of the Transformers to destroy Earth by basically crashing them into one another. She’s such a cartoonish, poorly designed villain that she never feels like a real threat.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Last Knight picks up relatively where the last film left off. Optimus Prime is headed back to his home planet to tell the universe to leave Earth alone. Yeager is now in hiding, as being a massive alien robot is still against international law, and he's still aligned with the remaining Autobots. He’s "in hiding" in the biggest auto field in the Midwest, but those kind of logical leaps are easy to let slide in a blockbuster when it’s working. He has a new assistant (Jerrod Carmichael), is working on repairing Bumblebee, and gets a spunky preteen sidekick who feels like the character sitcoms used to add late in their run when everyone knew the original kids got too old (think Sam on Diff'rent Strokes). And then pretty much all of the set-up — including any sort of immigration analogy about the fear of foreigners represented by the hunted Transformers — is thrown out. There’s a point in the script when you can literally tell when it was handed to a different writing crew. It starts as one movie and then, bizarrely, takes a hard-right turn to England and becomes something else entirely.

You see, Yeager found a talisman on a dying transformer, and that relic ties him to the long and storied history of the aliens. As these films have grown in budget, Bay has piled on more and more mythology, and I think the reason this is billed as the final chapter is because there’s literally nowhere else to go. Through remarkably expository scenes courtesy of Sir Anthony Hopkins and John Turturro, we learn that people have known about the Transformers for centuries and that notable geniuses like Mozart and FDR helped keep their existence a secret. In return, the robots gave the human race gifts, including the Transformer watch that killed Hitler. No, I’m not making that up.

Weaving the mythology of these killer cars into world history isn’t a bad idea, and reflects the tongue-in-cheek pleasure these movies could have been (I’d watch the heck out of Bumblebee vs. The Third Reich) but it’s all so thinly and poorly handled here. Before you can truly enjoy it, we’re back with the revelation that Cade now has a connection with the Transformers (because of the talisman and because of some other nonsense I couldn’t begin to explain) and his new gorgeous friend Vivian (Laura Haddock) is the only one who can wield Merlin’s staff, a necessary skill to save the Earth.

You’re saying, "How could a movie that weaves together metal dragons, Merlin’s staff, Sir Anthony Hopkins and world-killing aliens be all that bad?" Because it’s just not fun. More than any film Bay has made, The Last Knight is incoherent to the point of parody. Action scenes are poorly choreographed, dialogue is weaker than ever, and plot twists make no sense. At one point, the leads are on a submarine and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. Not only is it transparent that no one involved bothered with the plot — Wahlberg has never given such a lazy performance as he does here — but the editing and effects are stunningly shoddy. There’s no geography to any of the scenes, so you can’t tell what the heck is happening. At least the last film had a few action set pieces that worked and the third film had the destruction of Chicago to wow viewers. This film does not have a single memorable action sequence in it. And it starts at such a ridiculous pitch that it has nowhere to go — Yeager is reintroduced shooting a robot in slow motion. Bay has always been willing to forego things like rising action or building tension to try and blast viewers to their seats from first frame to last. But it gets so exhausting to watch another movie that starts at 11 and then never varies the volume.

Here’s where the chorus of Critic-Proof Franchises kicks in. Michael Bay made this for fans of the franchise and not the notoriously-hard-on-it critics. Diehards will ignore that I liked the first film and parts of the third and fourth films (the second is still a cinematic abomination). I get it. We love to forgive the failures of franchises we adore. Even critics do that. But even fans of this series have to take a hard look at the outright, shocking laziness of this movie — one that does the bare minimum to lure home viewers. Even in bad action movies, there’s often a glimpse of artistic potential gone awry or attempts to entertain that just didn’t work. I began to actively try to find that here, to find a way to see how this went off the rails. I came to the conclusion that no one cared. There’s just so little effort to make sense or make it interesting, even for the fans. It was a contractual obligation and a paycheck. They could have called it Transformers: Someone Needs a New Beach House.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Available for home viewing: Good Time ★½

Nick and Connie Nikas are brothers, like Josh and Benny Safdie, the directors of Good Time. Nick — played by Benny Safdie — is mentally disabled, while Connie (Robert Pattinson) might charitably be described as an idiot. Motivated by a volatile mix of desperation and bravado, he involves Nick in a poorly planned, haphazardly executed bank robbery. You can bet money on a disastrous outcome, though you might not foresee the precise sequence of mayhem and farce that unfolds on the streets of Queens over a single freezing night. The caper includes an after-hours visit to an amusement park, a soda bottle full of LSD, a case of mistaken identity and plenty of chases, beatings and narrow escapes.

The Safdies are as clever and crafty as Connie is inept and impulsive. Good Time, their third co-directed fictional feature — after the autobiographical Daddy Longlegs and the addiction romance Heaven Knows What — moves smartly and propulsively to the stressed-out strains of daniel Lopatin’s edge-of-a-heart-attack score. The smudgy, grimy urban landscape — emergency rooms, fast-food restaurants, blocks of modest, over-mortgaged, squeezed-together houses — is shot (by Sean Price Williams) with a fastidious avoidance of prettiness. The story doesn’t twist and turn so much as squirm and jump like an eel in the bottom of a rowboat. The biggest surprises confirm what an unbelievable slimeball Connie is. He’s about as hard to root for as any movie outlaw you can think of.

And yet, partly because Pattinson’s movie-star incandescence can’t quite be obscured by facial hair and bad lighting, and partly because of the immutable laws of genre and spectacle, you sort of have no choice but to root for him. You’re stuck with him, and you might as well make the best of it. The Safdies have explored this kind of ambiguity before. In Daddy Longlegs, the wayward father, played by Ronald Bronstein (a character based on their own father), was appalling and charming in almost equal measure; his charisma both enabled and camouflaged his wanton irresponsibility. You might have recoiled in horror at his recklessness, but you couldn’t deny that he loved his kids.

Connie, for his part, adores his brother and has a way with dogs. While these traits don’t exactly make him likable, they grant him a minimal benefit of the doubt. His manipulation of his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) isn’t nice, but on the other hand she is so whiny and needy that you can’t feel too bad. Connie also has the good luck (at least as far as the viewer’s good graces are concerned) of falling in with the one guy in Queens who could make him look like a criminal genius — a gangly doofus named Ray (Buddy Duress), who has been spending his first days out of jail aggressively pursuing the opposite of rehabilitation.

This pair is not exactly Butch and Sundance, even in their own addled, delusional minds. And while Ray is hapless and almost heroically stupid, Connie is a more complicated, less clownish figure. He has a hint of heart, as well as a cruel, predatory streak that the Safdies expose for shocks and laughs, daring you to either take offense or take the joke, and banking on your queasiness in either case.

It doesn’t take much looking to notice an ugly racial dimension in Connie’s behavior, though most critics seemed to overlook it when the film was shown in Cannes this spring (at least from the reviews I read). When the Nikas brothers carry out the bank job, they wear hard hats, reflective vests and dark latex masks that function as crude, criminal blackface. Later, Connie takes advantage of a Caribbean immigrant (Gladys Mathon) and her granddaughter (Taliah Lennice Webster), sweet-talking and bullying them into aiding and abetting him. A black security guard (Barkhad Abdi) becomes another brutally abused pawn in Connie’s senseless game.

This pattern does not seem accidental. The question is what it means — what degree of self-consciousness or critical distance Good Time brings to its depiction of bottom-of-the-barrel white privilege. You could infer a satirical dimension if you wanted to, or even a righteous indictment of what a lowlife can get away with if he has Pattinson’s complexion. Or you could look at the film’s riot of racial signifiers — the musical and pop-cultural references as well as the demographics of the setting — as a form of trolling, a coy, self-disavowing provocation.

But the distinction doesn’t really matter, since the movie’s chief investment is not in the fates of any of its characters, nor in anything like realism, but rather in its own cool. Sometimes it flaunts its clich├ęs — Nick’s disability, and Benny Safdie’s slack-jawed portrayal of it, is a big one — and other times it cloaks them in rough visual textures and jumpy, bumpy camera movements, so that a rickety genre thrill ride feels like something daring and new. It isn’t. It’s stale, empty and cold.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Available for home viewing: American Made ★★

The makers of the based-on-a-true-story black comedy American Made fail to satisfactorily answer one pressing question: why is CIA operative and Colombia drug-runner Barry Seal's story being told as a movie and not a book? What's being shown in this film that couldn't also be expressed in prose?

In telling the true story of American airplane pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Jumper) choose to overstimulate viewers rather than challenge them. They emphasize Barry's charm, the exotic nature of his South American trade routes, and the rapid escalation of events that ultimately led to his downfall. Cruise's smile is, in this context, deployed like a weapon in Liman and Spinelli's overwhelming charm offensive. You don't get a lot of psychological insight into Barry's character, or learn why he was so determined to make more money than he could spend, despite conflicting pressures from Pablo Escobar's drug cartel and the American government to either quit or collude.

But you do get a lot of shots of Cruise grinning from behind aviator glasses in extreme close-ups, many of which are lensed with hand-held digital cameras that show you the wilds of Nicaragua and Colombia through an Instagram-cheap green/yellow filter. American Made may be superficially a condemnation of the hypocritical American impulse to take drug suppliers' money with one hand and chastise users with the other. But it's mostly a sensational, sub-Wolf of Wall Street-style true crime story that attempts to seduce you, then abandon you.

The alarming pace of Barry's narrative, designed to put Cruise’s charisma front and center, keeps viewers disoriented. It's often hard to understand Barry's motives beyond caricature-broad assumptions about his (lack of) character. In 1977, Barry agrees to fly over South American countries and take photos of suspected communist groups using a spy plane provided by shadowy CIA pencil-pusher Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Barry is impulsive, or so we're meant to think based on an incident where he wakes up a sleeping co-pilot by abruptly sending a commercial airliner into a nosedive. This scene may explain why Barry grins like a lunatic as he explains to his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) that he'll figure out a way to pay out of pocket for his family's health insurance once he opens an independent shipping company called "IAC" (Get it? IAC - CIA?).

Barry's impetuousness does not, however, explain why he flies so low to land when he takes his photographs. Or why he doesn't immediately reach out to Schafer when he's kidnapped and forced by Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and his Cartel associates to deliver hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the United States. Or why Barry thinks so little of his wife and kids that he packs their Louisiana house up one night without explanation, and moves them to a safe-house in Arkansas. There's character-defining insanity, and then there's "this barely makes sense in the moment when it is happening" crazy. Barry often appears to be the latter kind of nutbar.

There are two types of people in American Made: the kind that work and the kind that get worked over. It's easy to tell the two apart based on how much screen-time Spinelli and Liman devote to each character. Schafer, for example, is defined by the taunts he suffers from a fellow cubicle drone and his own tendency to over-promise. Schafer doesn't do real work — not in the filmmakers' eyes. The same is true of Escobar and his fellow dealers, who are treated as lawless salesmen of an unsavory product. And don't get me started on JB (Caleb Landry Jones), Lucy's lazy, Gremlin-driving, under-age-girl-dating, Confederate-flag-waving redneck brother.

But what about Lucy? She keeps Barry's family together, but her feelings are often taken for granted, even when she calls Barry out for abandoning her suddenly in order to meet up with Schafer. Barry responds by throwing bundles of cash at his wife's feet. The argument, and the scene end just like that, like a smug joke whose punchline might as well be, "There's no problem that a ton of cash can't solve."

American Made sells a toxic, shallow, anti-American Dream bill of goods for anybody looking to shake their head about exceptionalism without seriously considering what conditions enable that mentality. Spinelli and Liman don't say anything except, "Look at how far a determined charmer can go if he's greedy and determined enough." They respect Barry too much to be thoughtfully critical of him. And they barely disguise their fascination with broad jokes that tease Barry's team of hard-working good ol' boys and put down everyone else.

Sure, it's important to note that Barry ultimately meets a just end, one that's been prescribed to thousands of other would-be movie gangsters. But you can easily shrug off a little finger-wagging at the end of a movie that treats you to two hours of Tom Cruise charming representatives of every imaginable U.S. institution (they don't call in the Girl Scouts, the Golden Girls or the Hulk-busters, but I'm sure they're in a director's cut). If there is a reason, good or bad, that American Made is a movie, it's that you can't be seduced by the star of Top Gun in a book.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Available for Home Viewing: Despicable Me 3 ★

With its combination of vaguely European stylings, a storyline that effectively combines slapstick and sentiment and the scene-stealing antics of the gibberish-spouting sentient Twinkies known as the Minions, Despicable Me (2010) was a breath of reasonably fresh air in the crowded feature animation marketplace that went on to be a massive success throughout the world. The inevitable Despicable Me 2 (2013) was an equally big hit from a financial standpoint but lacked the freshness of the original and the storyline was largely forgettable. And even though the Minions once again more or less stole the show, even they began to wear out their welcome a bit. That became especially obvious in the spin-off vehicle Minions (2015), a film that did little other than illustrate to youngsters the notion of there being too much of a good thing. Now comes Despicable Me 3, a depressingly rote piece of corporate product that has so little on its mind other than presumably making hundreds of millions of dollars that you half expect the ticket sellers to include copies of Comcast’s latest earnings report with each disc rented or sold.

Having been inspired by his three adorable adopted daughters — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Grier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) — to give up a life of super-villainy, Gru (Steve Carrell) is working as an agent for the Anti-Villainy League alongside new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). As the film opens, the two try to stop the fiendish Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former kid star from the 80’s seeking revenge on the world for cancelling his TV show ("Evil Bratt"), from stealing the world’s largest diamond with the aid of a robot sidekick, scientifically enhanced bubble gum and a keytar capable of playing the most familiar musical riffs of his favorite era. Although he saves the diamond, Gru lets Balthazar get away and as a result, the new head of the AVL (Jenny Slate in a strangely brief role) fires both him and Lucy. No sooner has Gru suffered this professional setback than his personal world is rocked as well when he is contacted by his heretofore-unknown twin brother Dru (also Carrell) and invited to meet him at his home on the faraway land of Freedonia. (If the name "Freedonia" rings any bells with you, consider that a potential signal that you might be just a little too old for this film.)

Gru and the family fly off to Freedonia and discover that Dru is fabulously wealthy and handsome. But just as the even-more-depressed Gru is about to leave, Dru confesses the real reason for summoning his brother — he wants his sibling to teach him the tricks of the super-villain trade so that he can also carry on in the family tradition. Gru refuses at first but since Balthazar has managed to steal that diamond in the interim, he figures that if he can break into Bratt’s lair — an isolated compound topped by a giant Rubik’s Cube — and steal it back, he and Lucy will be reinstated in the AVL. While the two brothers bond and plan their heist — complicated slightly by Dru’s incompetency at even the rudiments of being a villain — the others have their own mini-adventures as well — Lucy struggles to find her way into her new role as the mother to Gru’s daughters, little Agnes becomes obsessed with the notion of finding and adopting her very own unicorn and 12-year-old Margo, in an especially weird turn, takes pity on a boy during a weird cheese-related dance ritual and apparently finds herself engaged to him as a result. As for the Minions, they all abandon Gru early on when he refuses to return to being a villain after getting fired and go on a series of misadventures that land them in prison and on a televised talent show, where they perform what is easily the strangest version of the Gilbert & Sullivan show-stopper I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General to turn up in a movie since the release of The Pirate Movie.

Although the Despicable Me movies have tried to appeal to viewers of all ages, they are aimed primarily at the younger set — how else to explain the presence of two fart jokes in the opening title card? The problem here is that the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to concoct a story out of elements that will hold little appeal to that target audience. It is highly doubtful they will care about Gru’s worries about the loss of his job, his attempts to bond with his long-lost brother, Lucy’s attempts to be a good mom or Margo’s accidental engagement. Moreover, the whole Balthazar character is liable to baffle and confuse them more than anything else since he is a joke inspired by popular culture trends of an era long before they were even born. Meanwhile, their beloved Minions are so disconnected from the main proceedings that they could have been eliminated entirely from the film without affecting things in the slightest. Perhaps the producers were trying to skew a little older on the basis that the kids who embraced the original film are themselves older and more sophisticated. My guess is that if those particular viewers are viewing movies at home would be more inclined to try Baby Driver and leave this for their younger siblings.

For most of the people involved with the film, Despicable Me 3 is a payday pure and simple and have responded accordingly. Carrell’s Gru, who seems to consist of equal parts Bela Lugosi and Tommy Wiseau, is still an amusing character but he doesn’t do anything new or interesting in his secondary turn as Dru. The other regulars show up and do their thing while regular supporting players like Julie Andrews and Steve Coogan appear just long enough to ensure future residual checks before disappearing entirely. (Apparently they couldn’t get Russell Brand back into the fold, though the way out that has been devised is kind of funny.) As for Trey Parker’s work as Balthazar, it is more disconcerting than anything else because whenever you hear his voice, you half expect him to go into full South Park mode, a move that would have left the PG rating in the dust but which certainly might have perked things up a bit.

Of course, all of these criticisms are fairly academic since Despicable Me 3 is basically the closest thing to an at-home sure thing, even in a season when most of the would-be sure things have been crapping out to one degree or another. Despite the problematic storytelling, little kids will probably still like it because it is colorful and noisy and filled with silly slapstick, though my bet is that they won’t embrace it to the degree that they did the original. As for parents and guardians charged with watching this with their tykes, it will keep the kids occupied for 90 minutes and they can at least enjoy the 80s-era hits on the soundtrack (with the Madonna classic Into the Groove getting the best play of the bunch) while waiting out the clock. Besides, it isn’t as if it will linger in their minds for too long since the whole enterprise is even more instantly forgettable than Despicable Me 2, which may be its only real accomplishment.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Available for home viewing: The LEGO Ninjago Movie ★

The pieces are all there, but they never really snap into place in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

The feature-film version of the long-running animated TV series Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu only superficially resembles its source material, and it pales in comparison to its cinematic predecessors. Maybe such diminishing returns were inevitable. It would be impossible to recreate the groundbreaking, lightning-in-a-bottle innovation of 2014’s The Lego Movie. We saw that earlier this year with the release of The Lego Batman Movie, which was consistently zippy and amusing but, inevitably, not quite as novel.

Now we have The LEGO Ninjago Movie, about a group of teenagers who are secretly ninjas, each with a special elemental power. Their challenge is to take on the evil Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), who also happens to be the father of the team’s Green Ninja, Lloyd (Dave Franco). But while the film is credited to three directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan) and a small army of writers, it results in only a few clever ideas that are chuckle-worthy, at best.

Its strongest bit is the introduction of a live-action cat within this animated setting — dubbed Meowthra in an homage to classic, Japanese movie monsters — who terrorizes Ninjago City when she’s accidentally summoned with a red laser pointer. But the enjoyment of the absurd sight of a cat knocking over Lego buildings lasts about as long as your average viral video — and then you’re stuck realizing how little there is to the script.

Part of the problem is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is primarily about Lloyd struggling with his daddy issues and Garmadon trying to figure out whether and how to be a father to Lloyd, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy’s infancy. And aside from Lloyd, the other ninjas are essentially interchangeable, which is a huge departure from the television show. The supporting players’ names and nature-related abilities are all the same — water, lightning, fire, etc. — but they have no discerning personalities beyond that. They are background noise. They are filler.

What’s so bizarre about that is that the longtime voice performers from the TV series — who’ve been playing these characters for seven seasons now — have all been replaced with better-known actors and comedians, who then get surprisingly little to do. Nothing against them — they’re all great and they’re solid voice talent, people you’re happy to see whether they appear in TV or film — but they’re not given enough material to justify overhauling the entire cast. The shift seems like a cynical ploy to make the movie more marketable.

For the record, they are Kumail Nanjiani (Jay), Fred Armisen (Cole), Michael Pena (Kai), Abbi Jacobson (Nya) and Zach Woods (Zane). Jackie Chan plays their wise leader, Master Wu, and Olivia Munn has a small supporting role as Lloyd’s mom, Koko.

LEGO Ninjago also suffers from its live-action bookend narrative structure, featuring Chan as a store owner who tells the legend of Ninjago to a wide-eyed kid. All that does is explain the presence of the cat and it gets the film’s pacing off to a sluggish start from which it never fully recovers.

What it could have used more of was world-building, literally and figuratively. What makes this place different from every other? What makes it better than the world of The Lego Movie, where everything was awesome? That movie efficiently and effectively laid out its parameters and characters. This one drops you in — so if you don’t know the show, you’ll have no connection to this setting. Having said that, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll be struck by how little the movie has in common with it.

Despite the grander scale (and bigger budget), the movie doesn’t use the Legos for the thing that makes them fun: the building aspect of them, the possibility of creativity, the way they allow you to push boundaries and come up with structures and characters that maybe don’t make any sense, but they’re cool-looking. LEGO Ninjago is essentially an ordinary animated film, with visuals rendered in Lego form.

And sometimes the visuals are so garbled, this may as well be a Transformers movie, especially as the ninjas climb inside their various mecha to fly/climb/fight/etc. against Garmadon to keep him from destroying Ninjago City. Along those lines, the sound mix often made it hard to hear the quips, one-liners and banter, especially during the big action sequences, of which there are many. Then again, the jokes and the energy as a whole lack the infectious nature of previous Lego movies.

Since we’re making all the inevitable comparisons, it’s hard to shake the sensation that Theroux is essentially doing Will Arnett doing Batman in the previous two Lego movies. He brings an amusing buffoonery to this alleged super-villain — a clueless bravado, a total lack of self-awareness — but we’ve heard this shtick before. Even the husky swagger of Theroux’s delivery recalls Arnett’s performances, and it serves as yet another reminder of how superior the predecessors were.

And as my 8-year-old neighbor pointed out after a screening of the film (between bursts of singing the TV show’s insanely catchy theme song) the ninjas don’t even do spinjitzu, their stylized martial-arts technique using their signature elemental powers. Not really — not until the end. But maybe we’ll see more of that in the sequel, which is certainly on the horizon, whether it’s merited or not.

Available for home viewing: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ½★

This review will be short and dismissive. The movie under consideration — Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — is, by contrasts, long and punishing. Its pleasures are so meager, its delight in its own inventions so forced and false, that it becomes almost the perfect opposite of entertainment. To insist otherwise is a variation on the sunk cost fallacy. Since you exchanged money for fun, fun is surely what you must have purchased, and you may cling to that idea in the face of contrary evidence. But trust me on this: This movie would be a rip-off even if someone paid you to see it.

Because, to be honest, it’s barely a movie at all. The first installments of the Pirates franchise conquered skepticism with exuberance and charm. Somehow, a theme-park ride combined with clever, madcap visuals and Johnny Depp’s scapegrace showboating added up to something fresh. But that spirit is long gone. Depp, as Capt. Jack Sparrow, goes through the motions like a washed-up rock star reprising his greatest hits in a half-empty auditorium. The images are so dark and muddy that you can’t see what’s going on well enough to know why you don’t care. The plot twists, Easter eggs and surprises are either obvious or labored. You can’t spoil something that’s already thoroughly rotten.

Now and then you get a reminder of why you might have enjoyed the earlier movies. There are a couple of nifty Rube Goldbergian action sequences — one with a bank vault, the other with a guillotine — that recall the berserk inventiveness of Gore Verbinski, the original director. But otherwise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg from a script by Jeff Nathanson, is a tedious rehash.

Two appealing young people (Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites) meet on a quest for a mysterious and powerful object. They are joined by Sparrow and pursued by old and new enemies: the British Navy; the greedy pirate Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush); and an army of ghouls led by the spectral Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), known as the butcher of the sea.

This goes on for more than two hours. You are invited to sit through every last name on the lengthy end credits for a teasing extra scene of a couple asleep on linen sheets, a reminder of how you might have better spent the time. It would be a spoiler to identify those bedfellows, but the bigger spoiler is that apparently another sequel is on the way.

Friday, December 29, 2017

From Best to Worst: The movies available for home viewing in 2017

(The year of the movie’s theatrical release is in parenthesis following the title)


1. Toni Erdmann (2016)
2. A Ghost Story (2017)
3. Paterson (2016)
4. 20th Century Women (2016)
5. A Quiet Passion (2017)

6. Moonlight (2016)
7. Manchester By the Sea (2016)
8. I am Not Your Negro (2016)
9. Dunkirk (2017)
10. La La Land (2016)
11. Elle (2016)
12. The Big Sick (2017)
13. The Salesman (2017)
14. The Handmaiden (2016)
15. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
16. Fences (2016)
17. It Comes at Night (2017)
18. Baby Driver (2017)
19. Logan (2017)
20. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
21. Julieta (2016)
22. Colossal (2017)

23. Get Out (2017)
24. Arrival (2016)
25. Loving (2016)
26. Logan Lucky (2017)
27. Personal Shopper (2017)
28. Wonder Woman (2017)
29. Norman (2017)
30. Hidden Figures (2016)
31. Wind River (2017)
32. Queen of Katwe (2016)
33. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
34. Allied (2016)
35. The Red Turtle (2017)
36. Certain Women (2016)
37. Moana (2016)
38. A Monster Calls (2016)
39. Stronger (2017)
40. Lady Macbeth (2017)
41. Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
42. Patti Cake$ (2017)
43. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
44. Maudie (2017)
45. Alien: Covenant (5/19/2017)

46. Raw (2017)
47. Jackie (2016)
48. The Lost City of Z (2017)
49. The Beguiled (2017)
50. The Lego Batman Movie (2/10/2017)
51. mother! (2017)
52. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
53. Doctor Strange (2016)
54. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
55. Patriots Day (2016)
56. Brigsby Bear (2017)
57. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)
58. A United Kingdom (2017)
59. Bleed for This (2016)
60. The Light Between Oceans (2016)
61. Rules Don’t Apply (2016)
62. Cars 3 (2017)
63. Song to Song (2017)
64. Silence (2016)
65. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
66. Christine (2016)
67. Ingrid Goes West (2017)
68. Lion (2016)
69. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
70. Nocturnal Animals (2016)
71. The Founder (2017)
72. Atomic Blonde (2017)
73. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
74. Gifted (2017)
75. Victoria and Abdul (2017)
76. The Fate of the Furious (2017)
77. Trolls (/2016)

78. Detroit (2017)
79. The Lovers (2017)
80. Girls Trip (2017)
81. The Birth of a Nation (2016)
82. Deepwater Horizon (2016)
83. T2 Trainspotting (2017)
84. Landline (2017)
85. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
86. Miss Sloane (2016)
87. Free Fire (2017)
88. Denial (2016)
89. Sing (2016)
90. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
91. The Glass Castle (2017)
92. Life (2017)
93. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
94. Going in Style (2017)
95. The Boss Baby (2017)
96. Gold (2017)
97. Live By Night (2016)
98. The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
99. A Cure for Wellness (2017)
100. American Assassin (2017)
101. Snatched (2017)
102. Inferno (2016)
103. Office Christmas Party (2016)

104. Good Time (2017)
105. Before I Fall (2017)
106. Ghost in the Shell (2017)
107. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
108. Rough Night (2017)
109. The Promise (2017)
110. Wilson (2017)
111. Power Rangers (2017)
112. The Great Wall (2017)
113. The Comedian (2017)
114. Bad Santa 2 (2016)

115. Split (2017)
116. The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)
117. The Circle (2017)
118. Despicable Me 3 (2017)
119. The Girl on the Train (2016)
120. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
121. American Pastoral (2016)
122. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
123. Passengers (2016)
124. The Space Between Us (2017)
125. The Accountant (2016)
126. The Mountain Between Us (2017)
127. A Dog’s Purpose (2017)
128. Assassin’s Creed (2016)
129. Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
130. The Dark Tower (2017)

131. My Cousin Rachel (2017)
132. Baywatch (2017)
133. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
134. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
135. The Mummy (2017)
136. Fifty Shades Darker (2017)
137. The Book of Henry (2017)
138. Why Him? (2016)
139, Kingsmen: The Golden Circle
140. Collateral Beauty (2016)

Available for home viewing: Dunkirk ★★★½

Lean and ambitious, unsentimental and bombastic, overwhelmingly guy-centric, Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk showcases the best and worst of the director's tendencies. The best win out and the worst recede in memory when you think back on the experience — provided that you want to remember Dunkirk, a movie that's supposed to be grueling and succeeds. Less of a war film and more of a disaster (or survival) picture, it's an ensemble work that chronicles the evacuation of British soldiers who got trapped in the harbor and on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June of 1940, with the Germans, who had driven Allied forces practically out to sea, closing in for one last sweep.

If you were to make a list of every phobia you can think of, you'd have to tick off a lot of boxes after seeing this film. Fear of heights, fire, drowning, confined spaces, darkness, abandonment — you name it, it's represented in cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's nightmarishly clear images. It's close to the old-fashioned "Academy" ratio common to films made in cinema's early decades: squarish, tall instead of wide. That means that when you're in the cockpit of a fighter diving towards the water, or running behind an infantryman dodging German snipers, the idea of "tunnel vision," a phrase spoken by many a catastrophe survivor, comes to life onscreen.

The film will be seen in a wider format on most television/computer screens, but I doubt this will lessen the overall effect: this is a pile-driver of a movie, dropping one visual or aural bomb after another, with barely a pause to contemplate what it's just shown you. To watch it is to feel beleaguered. This was a period in which German military power was ascendant and hope for the United Kingdom's survival was starting to ebb. The story of Dunkirk has been told on film before, notably in Leslie Norman's same-titled 1958 feature, and there has been no shortage of other films about other battlefield rescues; but this one feels different, mainly because of how it's made.

Nolan, who also wrote the film's script, drops you into the middle of the action from frame one and keeps you there. This is an ensemble movie that doesn't just fail to delineate most of its characters through exposition but seems to take perverse pride in letting them scamper anonymously across the screen at flyspeck distance, getting lost amid crowds or merging with smoke or water. Scenes sometimes play out for minutes without audible dialogue, a rarity in commercial cinema made at this budget level; it's even rarer in Nolan's own films, which tend to clarify narrative via massive verbal exposition dumps. Nolan and van Hoytema hold shots longer than the Nolan norm, sometimes long enough to let you consider everything in the frame and decide where to let your eye settle.

Like a more restless cousin of Terrence Malick, who infused the combat picture with Transcendental philosophy in The Thin Red Line, or Robert Altman, who painted microcosmic panoramas of civilization in such films as Nashville and Short Cuts Dunkirk treats every person on that beach and in assorted nearby planes and boats as part of a collective organism, less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be. Dunkirk is what I like to call an Ant Farm Picture: it's a portrait of a society, or a species, fighting for its life. It's not hugely interested in the plight of individuals, unless they're trying to save themselves or others. If you get confused about who's who and what's what from time to time, you can rest assured that this is a feature of Nolan's methods, not a bug (pun intended).

Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot trying to blast German pilots out of the sky before they can strafe soldiers on the ground and sink boats in the harbor. He has maybe a dozen lines and spends much of the film behind a mask, as he did in his last collaboration with Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises; but he makes a strong impression anyway by treating the character as the sum total of his actions. Mark Rylance plays a civilian with teenage sons who is determined to pilot his small yacht to Dunkirk and rescue as many people as he can; there are lots of these self-appointed rescuers around Dunkirk; their ultimate organization into one of the twentieth century's boldest non-military flotillas is as inspiring as you imagine it to be. A trio of soldiers, one of whom is played by Harry Styles, rushes from the town to the beach and onto a long dock that stretches into the ocean; this is the only way that big boats can get close enough to shore to pick up the stranded. The would-be passengers pray that they can pile onto a ship and get out before more German planes shred them with bullets or bombs. Some of the characters, including Hardy's Farrier and Rylance's Mark Dawson or Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the highest ranking English officer on the scene, are given names. Others are identified only by their general appearance or actions, such as Cillian Murphy, known only as "Shivering Soldier"; he's pulled from the icy sea by Rylance's captain and strongly urges the crew to sail away from Dunkirk, not toward it.

The film has its share of stumbling blocks. One is the persistent anonymity of the characters; just because a gambit is a conscious part of the film's design doesn't mean it always works, and there are moments you may wonder whether treating supporting players as something other than glorified cannon fodder might have resulted in a film as emotionally powerful as it is viscerally overwhelming. Another miscalculation is the score, by Hans Zimmer, a Jungian din of booming drums, bum-vibrating synth chords, and cawing string effects that loses much of its power by refusing to shut up, even when silence or ambient war noise might have been just as effective, or more so. The overuse of Zimmer's music has been an issue throughout Nolan's career, but here may become an object of debate. The situations and images are so vivid that the score often seems to be trying to rescue a film that doesn't need its help.

I was more on-the-fence about the movie's intricate narrative construction, but once the film's visceral impact had faded, it was there that my mind wandered. Like most of Nolan's films, Dunkirk is obsessed by the relative perception of time. This is emphasized here by the cross-cutting of Lee Smith. Smith has edited all of Nolan's movies since Batman Begins — including Interstellar, which is explicitly about the idea of time passing more quickly or slowly depending on where you are. Dunkirk tells us in its chapter-like opening titles that one major subplot takes place over a week, another in a day, and yet another in one hour. Then the movie hops between them in ways that compress and expand time for poetic effect — making, say, a plane's run that probably took thirty seconds seem to take exactly as long as a sea rescue that lasted hours.

One could make a case that this amounts to over-intellectualization of a strong, simple tale. But that's been Nolan's m.o. from Following and Memento onward, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't fascinate me, even if a particular film isn't doing much for me scene-to-scene. It has often been said that trauma wreaks havoc with one's perceptions of time. This is one of the few works I can think of that considers that idea over the course of a whole feature, not just in self-contained sequences. (The backbone of Zimmer's score, appropriately, is a ticking clock.)

If somebody were to ask me if I liked this film, I would tell them no. I loathed parts of it and found other parts repetitious or half-baked. But, maybe paradoxically, I admired it throughout, and have been thinking about it constantly since I saw it. Even the aspects of Dunkirk that didn't sit right with me are all of a piece. This is a movie of vision and integrity made on an epic scale, a series of propositions dramatized with machines, bodies, seawater and fire. It deserves to be seen and argued about. They don't make them like this anymore. Never did, really.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Available for home viewing: Logan Lucky ★★★

In 2013, after making Side Effects, Stephen Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. Over the next few years, he kept busy, primarily as the main creative force behind the TV series The Knick, which he directed, executive produced, shot, and edited. But the lure of the big screen was apparently too great and the arrival of Logan Lucky has transformed the "retirement" into a "hiatus." Soderbergh’s return is welcome on a number of levels, chief of which is that this adds a competent story/character-centric director to the release treadmill.

Logan Lucky is a comedy-caper film about the heist of a large number of bills from the "secure" vault at a North Carolina speedway during a major NASCAR event. For about 90 minutes, Soderbergh seems to be channeling the Coen Brothers. The quirky brand of humor mingled with unique characters and oddball situations is just a stone’s throw away from the kind of material Joel & Ethan Coen love while echoing some of the elements Soderbergh previously toyed with in Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen. Unfortunately, while Logan Lucky is 3/4ths of a very good movie, the final half-hour becomes narratively unfocused as it strives to tie up some loose ends. Two new characters (one of whom is played by Hilary Swank) add little to the overall storyline and Logan Lucky ends up concluding with 30 minutes of anticlimax.

Although Logan Lucky works as a heist film, it neither amazes with its narrative contortions nor keeps the audience waiting with baited breath for the unveiling of some big twist. Most of the minimal tension is as result of the bumbling of the criminals — these aren’t the "brightest bulbs in the package" and it seems unlikely they’ll be able to pull off something major. At first, Soderbergh seems to be using regional stereotypes for comedic purposes, he pulls the rug out from under us by making us reconsider whether all the players are really as stupid as they initially seem. (Some undoubtedly are, but others…?)

The cast is comprised of A-list actors. Channing Tatum, who has been one of Soderbergh’s go-to actors for a while, plays Jimmy Logan, a recently unemployed construction worker who decides to replace his hard-earned pay with the ill-gotten gains from a robbery. Having participated in an excavation project under the speedway, he has the inside track on how such a robbery can be accomplished. He invites the participation of his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), and his sister, Mellie (Riley Keogh). However, the three of them aren’t enough. They need an expert safe cracker and the only one they know is the aptly-named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is currently incarcerated and therefore unavailable. Jimmy considers this a mild inconvenience and decides that the scheme will also involve breaking Joe out of prison so he can do the job then returning him before anyone notices he’s missing. Also appearing in Logan Lucky are such recognizable faces as Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Swank, and Seth MacFarlane.

Although most of the comedy in Logan Lucky is of the dry, off-kilter sort, there are some laugh-aloud moments. (I won’t detail them here since spontaneity is laughter’s best friend.) Jimmy’s character is the best developed of everyone which is fitting since he sits at the story’s focal point. He’s presented as a good natured, hard-working fellow who loves his young daughter, doesn’t dislike his ex-wife, is loyal to his friends and family, and aspires to be known as a responsible provider. He wants the crime to be victimless and, in that, he’s largely successful. Logan Lucky has a zero body count. Craig’s turn as Joe Bang is the movie’s highlight. Craig, with his bleach-blonde buzz-cut, clearly enjoys playing someone lacking 007’s suave mannerisms. Where Bond may prefer things "shaken not stirred," Bang likes them shaken, stirred, and smashed against a wall.

A minor off-screen controversy (not really but that’s how it’s being portrayed in some corners) accompanied the theatrical release of Logan Lucky (and I wondered whether this was concocted as a way to increase the movie’s visibility). The existence of the credited screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, was called into question by The Hollywood Reporter, which believed Blunt to be a pseudonym. This isn’t implausible — the only interaction the cast had with Blunt was via e-mail, she has no other credits to her name, and Soderbergh is known for using pseudonyms. Ultimately, it’s a red herring. Whoever Rebecca Blunt is, he/she has written a witty screenplay that maintains its narrative momentum until it begins unraveling in the meandering final half-hour.

Although Logan Lucky isn’t a homerun, it’s an enjoyable diversion and at least as worthy has half the movies being made available for home viewing this time of year. It’s good to have Soderbergh back, even if he never was really away.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: The Trip to Spain ★★

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoy one of the many meals during their Trip to Spain.
One way to enjoy The Trip to Spain, the third entry in Michael Winterbottom’s gags-and-gastronomy franchise, would be to periodically mute the sound. That way, the therapeutic calm instilled by the glorious Iberian scenery (photographed by James Clarke in shimmering, almost edible pastels) could be savored uninterrupted by the performative patter of the two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I imagine that the diners seated near them in the restaurants where much of this movie takes place would have been grateful for mute buttons of their own.

Like The Trip in 2011 and The Trip to Italy three years later, this latest cushy assignment sends the lads — once again playing Steve and Rob, mildly fictionalized versions of themselves — tootling around a randomly chosen region, sampling menus and trading banter. I hesitate to say jokes, because, unlike the bounce and zing of the first movie, the tone here is more sober and the humor more strained. Barely squeaking by on a familiar formula and flimsy narrative (Steve is writing a book; Rob is scribbling restaurant reviews for The New York Times), the actors convey a sense of going through the motions. Eating sumptuous meals without apparent relish, jogging separately through impossibly gorgeous towns, and firing off celebrity impersonations with wearying one-upmanship, they perform with the competitive reflexivity of the longtime double act.

Yet even artists as gifted as these two can only hitchhike so long on the charisma of household names like Mick Jagger and Michael Caine, and the dueling impressions that fuel the franchise have become effortful and repetitive. (One extended bit on Roger Moore is tortured to the point of desperation.) And though the spaces between the funny voices are filled with verdant hillsides and vanilla beaches that stretch the length of the frame, there’s an occasional sour edge to the comedic sparring.

This comes almost entirely from Steve, whose midlife anxieties — including an elusive, married lover and a neglectful agent — are the burr under the movie’s saddle. Plagued by disturbing dreams and career frustrations, he becomes increasingly distracted and crabby, until every comic utterance feels like a shot across the bow of mortality. This poignancy makes the picture less humorous but potentially more substantive than its predecessors. And as the men imagine themselves Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (daftly abetted by Noel Harrison’s 1960s hit The Windmills of Your Mind), the film’s failure to engage with these discomforts feels like a missed opportunity.

Instead, Winterbottom and his team — by means of an extremely strange ending — appear to be setting us up for a Trip to Morocco. Sorry, guys, but that one’s already been done.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Available for home viewing: mother! ★★½

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!
Kudos to Darren Aronofsky for having the courage to make this film. Kudos to Paramount Pictures for having the guts to send it into theaters befire making it available for home viewing. It’s too bad it doesn’t work.

With mother!, Aronofsky seems determined to baffle, infuriate, and divide his audience. Because of its nature, there are those who will love the film and those who will hate it. It thumbs its nose at conventions and goes off the deep end, unapologetically wallowing in self-indulgence and directorial excess. It would be unfair to say the movie doesn’t make sense — it does, after a fashion — but the method of storytelling is where mother! will make friends and enemies. Aronofsky abandons conventional narrative techniques and basic logic in favor of a metaphorical approach that embraces the power of individual images even if they make no sense.

After I finished watching mother!, I was prepared to write that I hated it. But, after a few hours’ reflection, I have to admit that the movie stayed with me and it invites rumination and discussion. And, as I watched it, I was never bored and remained interested to the end, if only to see where Aronofsky would take things next and how it would all end up. In some ways, I felt about mother! the way I felt about David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. So, instead of going hard to one side or the other on the rating scale, I have come down near the middle.

None of the characters have names. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young wife wed to a narcissistic older author (Javier Bardem) who, despite having once written a great novel, is now afflicted with what seems to be a permanent writer’s block. The couple have moved into the author’s childhood home, which at some point was ravaged by a fire. The wife, a skilled interior decorator (and, it would seem, carpenter, mason, and plumber) has essentially rebuilt the palatial estate from its ashes. But it may be haunted. At least there’s some pernicious force at work.

One evening, a "doctor" (Ed Harris) arrives at the door, explaining that he mistakenly believed the house to be a B&B. The author invites him in and, ignoring his wife’s misgivings, invites him to spend the night. The doctor is afflicted by an awful cough but, the next morning, he seems okay. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives soon after and the older couple makes themselves at home with the author’s blessing. Then, unexpectedly, the doctor’s sons arrive, quarreling over their father’s will. A fight ensues, one of the sons dies, and the author’s wife is left alone in the spooky house while everyone else goes to the hospital.

The first half of mother!, although not conventional by any means, gets by primarily on atmosphere and audacity. There are numerous extended takes and close-ups and these emphasize the sense of claustrophobia. The story’s excesses strain the bounds of credulity (as mourners inexplicably show up at the author’s house to offer their condolences to the doctor and his wife on the death of one son and the disappearance of the other) but don’t break it. That changes during Act II, when Aronofsky throws everything at the viewer including the kitchen sink. There are so many bizarre images that the movie becomes a kind-of cinematic Rorschach test — it can be whatever you want it to be. There’s violence, sex, dancing, feasting, quasi-religious rituals, and some of the most repugnant iconography imaginable. The climax is shockingly graphic and uncompromising, but the bleakness of that moment pales in comparison with the recursive aspect that follows.

This is one of the few times when I have felt that Lawrence hasn’t been up to the acting task set before her. Admittedly, she doesn’t have an easy job, playing the one "normal" person in a crazy world but she too often recedes into the background. She lacks the force of personality to connect with the viewer — something that would have made the story more nightmarish and immediate, rather than just a collage of twisted episodes. Bardem is perfect — suave, self-centered, oblivious, and ambiguous. We’re never quite sure about him, even after the curtain is pulled back. Harris and Pfeiffer are equally good, with Pfeiffer in particular owning the scenes in which she appears. Later in the film, Kristin Wiig pops up in a small part.

Aronofsky’s career has been a study in risks, from the quirky Pi and the nihilistic Requiem for a Dream to The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah. mother!, however, makes the least accessible of those movies seem almost mainstream. Perhaps the key to appreciating mother! (not necessarily "liking" or "enjoying" it) is understanding that the last thing Aronofsky has in mind is providing easily-digestible, commercial fare. To that end, he indulges his ego too often and becomes myopic about his vision. mother! offers an experience — whether it’s a good one or a bad one will be very much in the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Available for home viewing: Detroit ★★

William Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Detroit.
Watching Detroit, the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that by the the time the credits began to roll I was furious.

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching Detroit I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America. There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving — The Color Purple comes to mind. But Steven Spielberg’s film was based on a novel by Alice Walker and produced by Quincy Jones. Detroit was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.

Detroit is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. Detroit is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.

The film builds up to an extended sequence based on a real event, a police raid at the Algiers Motel in 1967 Detroit that resulted in the deaths of three young black men and the beatings of nine other people, including two white women. There is a shagginess to the narrative as it opens, giving a portrait of the civil unrest and riots that dominated Detroit at the time before placing the variety of characters introduced into a powder keg of a situation at the Algiers Motel. After the blood has dried and scars began to heal for the survivors, the narrative dashes through the investigation, trial, and aftermath of that night. There is an increasingly heavy reliance on newspaper clippings and actual newsreel footage meant to provide meaning and gravitas that only highlights the lack of a thematic center to grant the film any weight.

Bigelow has made a career out of zeroing in on the particular textures of American masculinity. It’s one of the reasons I particularly love her earlier work whether that be the sublime and unapologetically silly Point Break or the gloriously intense Near Dark. It’s this history that makes the surface level understanding of character so glaring. The film gestures at the ways black and white men are pitted against each other but doesn’t reckon with the historical lineage this conflict rests in. Consider when the two white women — Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) — are found hanging out with a black man recently honorably discharged, played by Anthony Mackie, just as the raid on the motel begins. This gets into complex territory about stereotypes of black men, the perceived value of white women, and white men’s fear that the film doesn’t know how to address meaningfully.

While John Boyega has been top-billed for his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who stumbles into aiding the blatantly racist cops and armed forces that realize the civil rights violations happening but do nothing to stop it, he’s too passive a character to leave much of an impression. In standing by his position as an authority figure and helping these white cops, Melvin becomes complicit in their horror. Boyega is a charismatic actor, but he gives a flat performance, although it’s the script that’s more of a problem. Mark Boal skirts around the issue of Melvin’s complicity, leaving an interesting story on the table. The standout from the cast proves to be Algee Smith, who grants his character, Larry, a soulfulness and yearning that grows more heartbreaking as the film continues, but even his performance is often undercut by directorial choices.

There are plenty of examples of racism in the film, but it's William Poulter’s performance as Philip Krauss, a cop who becomes a ringleader to horror at the Algiers Motel, that’s the most sickening. Krauss is quick to violence, virulently racist, and immensely cunning. He delights in beating the black men who realize he’s abusing his power but can do nothing to stop him even as dead bodies pile up. Bigelow doesn’t flinch from depicting Krauss’ horror, but she also doesn’t thoroughly indict him or the systems that allow men like him to survive.

Before the film’s theatrical release, a lot of fury was unleashed when it became clear that black women wouldn’t be important to the story. Films about black history seldom grant black women the importance they deserve. In Detroit, they are in the margins. They’re dutiful wives placing a gentle hand on the shoulder of their husbands; they’re silent spectators in courtrooms; they’re sweet motel clerks with no real weight in the story. An elder black female character voices dialogue that is the closest the film gets to any commentary: "No way would they do this to white men," she says angrily to a news reporter hungry for a good pull quote.

But Detroit’s disinterest in black women, despite significant time spent beyond the Algiers Motel, is the least of its problems. What leaves the film feeling grotesque and even a bit exploitative is its soullessness. I’ve had a theory for some time that you can determine how well a film will handle its black characters based purely on how it’s shot. Black skin tones vary widely, but here they’re often ashen, sickly, and lacking the complexity they deserve. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd hews toward a psuedo-documentary style that is perpetually in jittery, confusing motion. Bigelow and Ackroyd excel at creating tension until the Algiers Motel incident takes on the tenor of an extended trip into purgatory. The sweat and blood that drips down the characters' faces are granted such texture and focus I could practically smell them wafting from my TV screen. Bigelow is immensely skilled at action, and watching Philip pick off his victims definitely crackles with energy. But there is a noxiousness to the thrill of these scenes and the extreme close-ups of bruised black bodies, because the characters lack interiority.

The soullessness of the film only snapped into focus for me near the very end when one of the survivors, Larry, is shown singing at church. The church is important to the black community both as an emblem of hope and resistance. But this scene is shot exactly like the most disturbing moments at Algiers Motel. The camera moves much like a boxer. It bobs and weaves staying perpetually in motion. There is an anxious energy and bluntness that feels out of place as Larry sings in front of the black congregation.

Given how nothing has really changed in America for black folks, Detroit had the potential to be a valuable, even powerful, piece of art that could speak truth to power. But it lacks the authenticity necessary to become that. Bigelow and Boal don’t shy away from showing how loathsome Philip and his cohorts are. But they don’t go so far to indict them or grant enough context to their actions. There are also brief, disconcerting moments that present some white cops in a great light. Ultimately, I was left wondering who is this film really for? The filmmakers aren’t skilled enough to understand the particulars of blackness or bring the city of Detroit to life as another character. What is the value of depicting such nauseating violence if you have nothing to say about how that violence comes to pass or what it says about a country that has yet to reckon with the racism that continues to fester within its very soul?

Detroit is presented as a valuable portrait of a bloody, violent, and important moment of American history. The epilogue detailing what happened next for everyone involved over pictures of the real-life versions of the characters and story gestures at vital commentary about racism that the filmmakers never get a handle on. Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators are unable to meaningfully parallel this event to the present-day happenings they mirror. Watching Detroit, I didn’t see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say.