Sunday, July 15, 2018

Available for home viewing: Beirut ★★★

Beirut is, without a doubt, an imperfect thriller. The narrative is at times too dense, some aspects of the ending are too pat, and there are some internal inconsistencies the movie never explains. But, damn, is it good to watch a movie that expects the viewer to pay attention and that doesn’t pander to the least common denominator. Back in the 1970s, many thrillers were like this, with suspense developing out of the story rather than grafted on top via preposterous action sequences. And, although those kinds of movies have their place, they have almost entirely supplanted films like Beirut which, although still viable for popcorn-munchers, are a shade more serious (without becoming pretentious).

The movie’s prologue, which transpires in 1972, introduces us to charismatic, good-natured diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), whose duties in Lebanon require that he balance relations with the locals, Israel, and the PLO. One night, when he’s hosting a party, a group of gunmen storm his home, killing his wife (Leila Bekhti) and kidnapping Karim, the 13-year old Mason is planning to adopt. Karim’s terrorist brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), is behind the attack.

The main story transpires 10 years later. Mason, a burnt-out drunk, is living a meaningless life as a labor mediator when the government comes calling. An offer he can’t refuse has Mason board a flight from Boston to Lebanon, where he learns that everything has changed. He is greeted by three officials with questionable motives: Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham). One of their co-workers, Cal Riley (Mark Pelligrino), has been kidnapped and his captors, members of a splinter Palestinian terrorist group, have specifically requested that Mason act as the negotiator/go-between. The reason becomes clear as people from Mason’s past, including Karim and Abu Rajal, resurface.

As is often the case with spy thrillers, whether they transpire in Cold War Berlin or some more exotic locale (such as civil war-torn Lebanon), the chief pleasure is observing how the hero, through his superior skill, knowledge, and training, navigates a minefield of seemingly-unsolvable complexity and stays a step ahead of his adversaries (and, on some occasions, his allies). Movies of this sort don’t demand much in the way of physicality from the hero but they require that he be mentally tough. Mason fits the type — when he’s required to run, he keeps yelling for the leader to slow down so he can keep pace, but he overcomes alcoholism and rust sufficiently to complete the mission. The ending is overscripted but satisfying nonetheless.

Were it not for Mad Men, Hamm might be considered a good-looking character actor. His stint in the popular TV series has allowed him to take on leading roles and this is one of his best to-date. Hamm presents Mason as smart and capable, but he’s also a loose canon and sometimes reckless to a fault. There’s a reason for this: he’s expendable, knows he’s expendable, and doesn’t particularly care. His carefree approach to life ended 10 years ago and there’s often a haunted look in his eyes. The movie is about redemption — something made evident in a grim scene where he confronts Cal’s wife, who was once one of his closest friends.

Brad Anderson (the one-time indie filmmaker who has morphed into an accomplished television director) helms with a sure hand, ratcheting up tension at the right moments while keeping things moving. The film doesn’t rocket along at a Bourne-like breakneck pace but neither does it crawl like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It finds a happy medium while giving us a character we can root for and a scenario we’re interested in.

Sadly, the viewing receipts for Beirut will likely show what distributor Bleecker Street suspects — that viewers aren’t much interested in this story. It’s not a sequel. It’s rooted in a true historical situation that works better for those with at least a cursory understanding of the real-life situation (although Mason tries to explain things in an early, awkward expository monologue). It doesn’t feature any superheroes. And it penalizes those who aren’t strictly paying attention to the story. For me, these are all good things and help tilt the movie into the "recommend" category. Beirut held my attention and, although it’s not among Tony Gilroy’s top scripts, it’s solid enough to invest a couple of hours watching.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Available for home viewing: Pacific Rim Uprising ★★

Is this the future of blockbuster movies? Films made with more concern for the international box office than the domestic one, where the universal language is the clash of pixels? It’s no secret that, based exclusively on its U.S. receipts, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 Pacific Rim didn’t earn the right to have a follow-up. But the movie was big in China and that led to Legendary Pictures (which was purchased by a Chinese corporation) and Universal Pictures coughing up the money to make Pacific Rim Uprising. Like most unintended second installments, this one is superfluous — a remix of moments, scenes, and images from its predecessor infused with the need to make everything bigger and louder.

Even more so than Pacific Rim, Uprising is a throwback to the Japanese monster movies of the 1970s. The cutting-edge computer-generated special effects make things higher priced but not necessarily better. Fortunately, director Steven S. DeKnight (making his feature debut after previously writing/directing/producing episodes for TV series like Daredevil and Angel) doesn’t go "full Transformers" — a degree of restraint that at least makes the sequel watchable, if not "good" by any reasonable definition of the word. The core problem is the same one many soulless, effects-oriented films encounter: the more we’re exposed to fight scenes like the ones Pacific Rim Uprising presents, the more monotonous they become. There’s not a lot of variety here — it’s just giant robot-on-giant robot or giant robot-on-hideous alien.

In Pacific Rim, del Toro showed not only an affection for the genre in which he was working but the ability to transform stereotyped characters into living, breathing human beings. Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, and Rinko Kinkuchi weren’t just actors thrown into the movie to give it a live-action component; they were the heart and soul of the story, and that’s one reason why Pacific Rim worked. Its absence is why Uprising often doesn’t. Speaking of the original’s main trio, Elba’s character remains dead, Kinkuchi has a small part that is disappointing in all aspects, and Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket isn’t mentioned. Raleigh’s absence is notable, although apparently he was in the original screenplay but, when Hunnam wasn’t available (due to a conflict), a rewrite changed Raleigh into the new character of Nate Lambert (played by Scott Eastwood).

Uprising opens 10 years after the Battle of the Breach. Although the world hasn’t been bothered by a Kaiju since Stacker Pentecost gave his life to help seal the Breach, the Jaegers continue to stand at ready. New recruits are trained under the tutelage of the old Rangers and rogue Jaegers are routinely captured and/or disabled. Jake (son of Stacker) Pentecost (John Boyega), who has been making his living as a thief and scrap merchant, is brought back into the fold after being arrested stealing a disabled Jaeger’s power core. Along with him comes the perky Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who painstakingly created her own mini-Jaeger.

Pentecost is reunited with his estranged partner, Nate Lambert, and commanded by his sister, Mako Mori (Kinkuchi), who has risen to a position of power in the current administration, to help train the recruits as an alternative to going to jail. All is not well, however. A powerful rogue Jaeger, Obsidian Fury, launches a devastating attack, and this is only the first strike in a new war. As Jaegers fight other Jaegers, the Kaiju patiently wait for an opportunity to open a new breach and resume their attack on Earth.

The film’s first half contains a fair amount of dense exposition to go along with half-hearted attempts to humanize some of the cardboard characters. The only one who emerges with a hint of three-dimensionality is Jake and that’s more because of Boyega’s likable performance than anything in the screenplay. Boyega invests his protagonist with the same quirky insouciance that he brings to Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy, although Uprising allows him to slide into the Han Solo-inspired role of rogue-turned-hero rather than being sidelined as was the case in The Last Jedi. And, although his sidekick in this film, plucky Spaeny, doesn’t exemplify great character-building (she’s the classic tough girl who finds purpose in the struggle against evildoers), she and Boyega share a better chemistry than Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in Jedi. Eastwood is more notable for his startling resemblance to his father (Clint Eastwood) than for anything he does acting-wise. Two other holdovers from Pacific Rim are the "dueling doctors" of Hermann Gottieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Newton is given a larger and more interesting role than the one he had in the previous film; unfortunately, the range demanded for the part exceeds Day’s capabilities.

Once the narrative wades through the undertow, Uprising gets to the things most movie-watchers have sat down to see: the fight scenes. Although competently crafted, they’re overlong (especially the climactic bit of silliness, which takes place on Mt. Fuji in what I assume is an homage to all those Japanese monster movies) and not terribly exciting. The incorporation of humans into the fights (by putting them inside the Jaegers) provides a level of investment that’s absent from the Transformers movies but this device would have worked better (as it did in Pacific Rim) if the characters had been more than interchangeable background pieces. We care about Jake and perhaps Amara but not really anyone else.

Viewers with low but reasonable expectations will probably be satisfied with what Pacific Rim Uprising offers. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is — a second chapter made primarily for an overseas audience that hasn’t yet tired of the wonders that excessive CGI can bring to the screen. Like nearly all unnecessary sequels, it’s the wedding of "bigger is better" with "more of the same." Unfortunately, all the little subtleties that made Pacific Rim charming are lost in the new film’s mayhem. This is B-movie material with an A-movie budget. There’s an audience out there for stuff like this but I don’t think it’s as large as the filmmakers hoped when they scoped out the possibilities for additional installments. It’s hard to see much of an upside for Uprising.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Good night, Tab

Perhaps you had to be there, at that time, at the right age. I was a teenager in the 1950s and Tab Hunter was a big freaking deal. Looking back on it now, I don’t really understand why except perhaps that time became known as "The Era of the Teen Idols." I can’t say I ever sought ought a movie simply because Tab Hunter was in it -- the only Hunter movie I remember going to see was Damn Yankees and that had nothing to do with Tab Hunter. In fact, at one point Hunter really made me mad. He recorded this song called Young Love, a cover version of a tune done much, much better by country singer Sonny James. But Sonny James wasn’t a household name. He wasn’t a teen throb. So Tab Hunter’s awful version of this song climbed to No. 1 on the charts. James’ far superior recording of the same tune did OK, but to this day I blame Tab Hunter for stealing the glory from Sonny James. Still, Hunter’s death last night seems like another nail in the coffin of a time I do hold dear, a simpler time, certainly a more innocent time. It was, however, a far more sexually repressive time — I joke now that the only person who really had any fun during the 1950s was Dwight Eisenhower. But there you have it. That was Tab’s time.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Available for home viewing: Finding Your Feet ★★½

At times, Finding Your Feet tries too hard to be viewer-pleasing. The romantic comedy from director Richard Longcraine offers all the highs and lows demanded by the genre. The "twist", to the extent it can be named as such, is that the characters are in their 60s and 70s. Despite this, the story unfolds much as it would for lovers in their 20s or 30s, with the same giddy moments and "romantic complications." Although not entirely unappealing, the narrative is overfamiliar with nary an original plot point to be found. Admittedly, the typical romantic comedy thrives on tropes and clichés but the pandering in Finding Your Feet is so extreme that it gets old fast.

One of the few differences between working with retirement-age characters as opposed to those who are a generation younger is that bachelorhood (or bachelorette-hood) is more the result of unfortunate circumstances than choice. Finding Mr. Right (or Ms. Right) isn’t an opportunity for a lifetime of bliss but a way to cheer up the twilight years. "Happily Ever After" for these individuals might be more in the line of a few years or a couple of decades at most. Sandra (Imelda Staunton) is single because she catches her philandering husband of 30-plus years, Mike (John Sessions), in a compromising position with her best friend, Pamela (Josie Lawrence). As a result of the subsequent separation, she moves in with her sister, Bif (Celia Imrie). Bif’s friends are all unattached for various reasons. Charlie (Timothy Spall) has the saddest story: his wife, suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s, is in a care facility and no longer recognizes him. Ted (David Hayman) is a widower who sometimes wonders whether life is worth continuing. And the pragmatic and vivacious Jackie is a five-time divorcee who may or may not be on the lookout for husband No. 6.

Finding Your Feet has its share of amusing moments and some of the dialogue is filled with sly asides and quips. There’s also a great, laugh-out-loud sight gag featuring a man who gets an eyeful. Overall, however, the screenplay, credited to Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft, feels lazily assembled from the detritus of other romantic comedies with a little The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Full Monty thrown in for good measure. Putting aside the ages of the performers, there’s nothing to differentiate this movie from many other crowd-pleasing romantic comedies. It feels more warmed-over than fresh and interesting. I was disappointed because Loncraine did a great job with similarly comfortable elements in his sports-themed romantic comedy Wimbledon.

The cast is populated by accomplished actors, all of whom are in fine form. Staunton plays a role she could essay in her sleep as the uptight Sandra who gets in touch with the free-spirit she once was. Imrie is her impish older sister — a woman who has never settled down and enjoys early morning swims in freezing cold water. Spall, one of today’s finest character actors, uses his hangdog face to good effect as Charlie, Sandra’s second chance at love. Joanna Lumley steals a scene or two (as is her wont) as the salty Jackie. She has the film’s best one-liner.

Perhaps aware that simply telling the story of Sandra and Charlie’s late-life courtship might not satisfy the running time demands of a feature, the filmmakers incorporate a dance competition and elements related to the mortality of a character. As a result, we get to experience a geriatric chorus line (I say this with great affection — the dance numbers are among the film’s most energetic sequences). The movie also tries very hard (too hard, actually) to get us to tear up. Loncraine’s manipulation feels more than a little heavy-handed.

I can see where Finding Your Feet might work for those who are interested primarily in a story that feels like it was assembled using a checklist or template for feel-good movies. The cast is top-notch and the characters are sufficiently likable but the movie’s vanilla narrative repeatedly offers unsurprising plot points to the degree that the whole endeavor seems like an exercise in been-there/done-that. Finding Your Feet isn’t so much a bad movie as it is an unnecessary and ultimately forgettable one.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Available for home viewing: A Wrinkle in Time ★★½

Along with such titles as The Hobbit, A Wizard of Earthsea, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Book of Three, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is mandatory reading for young geeks in training. The book’s reputation as "unfilmable" (enhanced by the colossal failure of a 2003 made-for-TV flop) is deserved and this lavish new version, featuring A-list talent and shepherded by acclaimed director Ava DuVernay (Selma), does nothing to change that. Saddled with an unevenly paced screenplay and overly reliant on generic CGI, A Wrinkle in Time argues that the only way to experience the universe envisioned by L’Engle is through her writing.

Although advertised as a family-friendly feature, A Wrinkle in Time is a poor choice for younger children. The glacial pacing of the first half-hour, coupled with less-than-easily-digestible chunks of exposition will cause many kids under 10 (and a few adults as well) to squirm in their seats with impatience. Not until the movie reaches its midpoint and the main story kicks into gear does the film’s narrative accelerate. DuVernay’s strength with interpersonal relationships and character-building is evident. The strongest scenes are the most intimate ones, including a moment between Storm Reid and Chris Pine that brings tears to the eyes. Unfortunately, DuVernay is unable to present the backstory in a compelling fashion and she’s out of her depth when choreographing lengthy CGI sequences. She makes the key mistake of believing that just because the screen is filled with wondrous special effects that the audience is going to be awestruck. Eye candy doesn’t equate to immersion; in fact, as boredom sets in, the impact is the opposite.

Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s script encapsulates most of the book’s main plot points while losing far too many of the details. The resulting story feels rushed and artificial and lacks the charm and wonder of the novel. Reid is magnificent as Meg; many scenes work because she sells them with an unforced performance and innate charisma. Also impressive are Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her parents, although their scenes are limited. Sadly, three key supporting characters — Oprah Winfrey as the regal Mrs. Which, Reese Witherspoon as the flaky Mrs. Whatsit, and Mindy Kaling as the sedate Mrs. Who — are miscast. Mrs. Which is eclipsed by Winfrey’s personality — the character can’t escape from the actor’s shadow. Mrs. Whatsit comes across like a poor person’s Glenda the Good Witch. And Mrs. Who seems largely pointless. These characters add little more to the movie that famous faces moving the plot in a preordained direction.

As the movie opens, we’re in DuVernay’s wheelhouse with A Wrinkle in Time presenting Meg’s background. Once a good student, she has become sullen and withdrawn since the disappearance four years ago of her scientist father. A believer in the power of the wormhole-like tesseract to allow him to explore the universe, he vanished one day, never to return. The arrival of the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit in the neighborhood perturbs Meg and her mother, but leaves her super-genius younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), unfazed. Mrs. Whatsit is soon joined by her cohorts, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who, and present Meg with a way to find her father. Accompanied by Charles Wallace and a school friend, Calvin (Levi Miller), she reluctantly enters a tesseract and finds herself on a distant planet. There, she discovers the first clue about what happened to her father — it involves a mystical being of great evil, called only "The It," which spews its poison throughout the universe. To pursue a rescue, Meg and her companions must venture to a planet at the heart of the darkness and find a way to overcome what they encounter there.

Following a lugubrious beginning, A Wrinkle in Time settles into a groove, although many of the few action sequences (especially the climactic one) feel like outtakes from a Marvel superhero movie. The final solution, which involves the power of love, is less convincing on screen than in the novel. In fact, that’s a recurring problem with the movie. Things that work on the written page as a result of L’Engle’s strength as a storyteller often feel false or contrived in the film. That’s partly because the limitations of a 109-minute running time disallow the level of exploration demanded by the narrative and partially because tethering the imagination to CGI images rarely results in anything less than a disappointment.

A Wrinkle in Time feels like a labor of love and, on those occasions when it works — primarily the "small" moments when special effects take a back seat to genuine expressions of emotion and humanity — it offers a glimpse of what the filmmakers were striving for. Unfortunately, the slow pace of the first hour coupled by the tedium of a CGI overload, reduces A Wrinkle in Time to one of Disney’s most lackluster big-budget releases since The BFG.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Available for home viewing: Unsane ★★★

I’m a sucker for movies that question the sanity of the main character and thereby cause the viewer to wonder about the reliability of the narrative. Such films, if made right, can offer a wild ride. Unsane, Steven Soderbergh’s second post-"retirement" movie (following Logan Lucky) offers such an experience. Although the ending is generic and needlessly protracted, the production as a whole is suspenseful — full of diabolical little twists as it ventures deep into an uncomfortable territory using the trail blazed by Misery.

For Soderbergh, it’s no longer just about making a movie; it’s about doing something interesting. He’s arguably the most budget-conscious big-name director working today and his release model, handled in conjunction with partner Bleecker Street Releasing, didn’t follow the traditional "carpet bombing" method of advertising. Unsane was filmed using an iPhone (the 7 Plus, to be precise). Although the resulting images might not be suitable for a conventional film, the occasional distortion around the edges, the unusual aspect ratio, and the odd shot composition work perfectly for a story in which the sanity of the protagonist is in question. The director (who also shoots and edits his own work, albeit pseudonymously) also avoids employing any big-name stars (who come with big-name salaries), with the exception of one recognizable cameo.

Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a thirtysomething woman who is starting a new job in a new city. She’s already receiving rave reviews for her work and an offer from a lecherous boss to accompany him on a trip to a conference. But, despite her employment success, all is not well with Sawyer. On a hookup-gone-wrong, we learn that she has…issues. She’s prone to hallucinations and, as she confesses to a psychiatrist, she’s suffering from a form of PTSD related to a stalker incident. Now, she sees the man, an obsessive named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), everywhere. An offhand comment makes the therapist believe she could be suicidal. She is presented with a sheaf of papers ("all routine") that she foolishly signs without reading, thereby acquiescing to a 24-hour period of voluntary commitment, where a violent outburst turns one day into seven. Inside, she finds a friend in Nate (Jay Pharoah) and an enemy in Violet (Juno Temple). Her mother (Amy Irving) works tirelessly to achieve her daughter’s release. But Sawyer soon realizes she may have bigger problems than laying low and taking her meds when she recognizes one of her caretakers as her stalker, David Strine. But is he there or is she imagining him?

Soderbergh enjoys keeping us guessing and the odd cinematography resulting from the iPhone enhances our uncertainty about everything we’re seeing through Sawyer’s perspective. This isn’t Limbo, however. The movie doesn’t take us on a journey into ambiguity and leave us stranded there in a state of perpetual frustration. There’s a clear resolution to the question of Sawyer’s sanity. The filmmaker doesn’t want to alienate viewers. We’re not talking about another mother! here, although there’s considerably more artistry evident in this production than in the typical horror/thriller.

To a large extent, the success of Unsane relies on the performance of Foy (best known for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown), who is in nearly every scene. Foy displays astounding range — from the quiet depression of a woman trying to reclaim her life to the intensity of someone gathering the fragments of her sanity. In between, there are bouts of hysteria and scenes in which Sawyer gives off the vibe of someone unhinged trying to pretend to be normal. Soderbergh and Foy work to keep us off balance.

Unsane’s bare-bones approach to the genre would probably earn the approval of Blumhouse, the horror factory known for preaching this doctrine: low grosses are only problematic if budgets are high. Soderbergh’s first foray into horror generally takes a high road, focusing neither on gore nor a high body count. Like Hitchcock in Psycho, this is more about slow-building terror and suspense than jump-scares and careless violence. If the movie’s ending underwhelms due to the banality of the resolution, that’s one of the few aspects of Unsane that disappoints in this edgy, captivating motion picture.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Available for home viewing: Gringo ★★

As counter-intuitive as it might sound, chaos only works in a movie when it is carefully controlled and focused. Tarantino is one of several masters of this technique and there’s a sense during the course of Gringo that director Nash Edgerton (brother to the actor Joel Edgerton, who appears in this film) is trying for something similar. Suffice it to say that whatever alchemy Tarantino has unearthed, Edgerton hasn’t mastered it. Gringo is messy and at times incoherent, filled with pointless subplots and confounding "twists." It uses a flashy approach in an attempt to cover up the weak storyline and is so strangely paced that it takes forever to get into the story and develop a connection with the main character. (The unnecessary flashback structure for the setup doesn’t help.)

Distilled to its essence, Gringo is about an American businessman named Harold (David Oyelowo) who, while trapped in Mexico, becomes the target of three or four different groups of kidnappers and hitmen who want to use (or abuse) him for various reasons. His enemies are many; his friends are few. Among the former are his boss and supposed best friend, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton); his boss’ lover and co-executive, Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron); Richard’s mercenary brother, Mitch (Sharlto Copley); assorted Feds and drug cartel members; and a pair of incompetent nincompoops who run the hotel where Harold is holed up. His only real friend is sunny Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), whose quasi-romantic interest in Harold is as unlikely as it is unbelievable.

The film is fast-paced but that proves more exhausting than exhilarating. It’s hard to develop much of a rooting interest in Harold because the character is so thinly written. To the extent that Harold comes to life, it’s more to Oyelowo’s credit than either Edgerton’s direction or the writing (credited to Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone). Harold, having played by the rules all his life, decides to color outside the lines to get a piece of the pie that everyone around him is gobbling down. So he fakes his own kidnapping during a south-of-the-border business trip, thinking the insurance company will pay the ransom, only to learn that his buddy Richard canceled the policy. Uh oh. That’s the first indication that Murphy has decided to lay down the Law. Edgerton goes for a mixture of black comedy and action but the former isn’t sufficiently funny and the latter isn’t especially exciting.

Theron gets a chance to go way over the top; she clearly relishes the opportunity to play a deranged, amoral Type A personality who drops f-bombs left and right, uses her body as a weapon (poor Alan Ruck wants desperately to be a target), and sees everything and everyone as a stepping stone up the corporation promotion ladder. It’s such a wild, unbridled performance that, despite crossing the line into caricature, it can’t fail to rivet the attention. When Theron isn’t on screen, the movie becomes almost monochromatic and, since she’s stuck in a supporting role, she’s not around long enough to save the production.

There’s no sense that Gringo was intended as more than a throwaway mid-level action/comedy with mild box office aspirations. The narrative contains some clever moments but the resolution somehow feels like a cop-out, perhaps because we’ve seen it so many times before. I finished watching this vaguely annoyed — as if the filmmakers had thrown away some promising ideas and elements in weaving together a thoroughly generic chase movie and pretending it’s something special by employing ineffective stylistic choices. A less hip, less erratic story that took the time to make Harold more than a narrative pawn might have resulted in a more enjoyable experience.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Available for home viewing: Double Lover ★★★

This review contains spoilers. I try to be discreet about them but they are there.

No one can dance through genres as blithely as Francois Ozon. From the comedic drama of Water Drops on Burning Rocks to the mystery of Under the Sand to the eccentricity of the musical 8 Women and the slow-burn suspense of Swimming Pool, Ozon has consistently refused to be pigeonholed. His films vary from serious, art-house pieces to borderline-exploitation. Double Lover comes closer to the latter than the former as the director establishes himself in a territory adjacent to Hitchcock on one side and Cronenberg on the other. Thematically, the movie touches on issues of duality and psychology but often uses shock tactics (such as the kind of close-up you rarely see outside of porn or a gynecologist’s office) to shake things up. Double Lover may not represent Ozon in peak form but it’s too weirdly entertaining to dismiss out-of-hand.

For his leads, Ozon has turned to Marine Bacth (with whom he previously worked on 2013’s Young & Beautiful) and Jeremie Renier (not to be confused with the American actor Jeremy Renner). Renier has the plum role, being asked to play twins with different personalities — one who seems earnest, hard-working, and solicitous and the other who is Type A, arrogant, and domineering. It’s enjoyable to see Renier explore the part (reminiscent of what Jeremy Irons did in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers). Bacth, who physically resembles a cross between Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara, is no less compelling because of the way her personality shifts as the story progresses.

When the movie opens, Chloe (Vacth) is paying a visit to her gynecologist. She’s experiencing stomach pains but there doesn’t seem to be anything physically wrong. The doctor suggests a psychologist and she’s soon seeing Paul Meyer (Renier), whose calm demeanor puts her at ease. Their sessions develop an almost uncomfortable intimacy with Chloe confessing highly sexual dreams and Paul straining not to become emotionally invested. Ozon films these scenes using a split-screen style that makes it appear as if they are face to face with only inches separating them and, even when not using this technique, he ensures both are in every shot.

The inevitable happens — erotic transference and counter-transference. This ends the therapist/patient relationship but opens up a romance that results in Chloe and Paul moving in together. For a while, the benefits to Chloe are obvious — she’s happy and upbeat, she smiles, she gets a new job (as a museum guard), and the pain in her belly goes away. Then, perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time, she sees something disturbing: Paul speaking intimately to a woman. When she confronts him, he denies even having been in the vicinity of where the incident took place. Chloe goes there the next day and meets Paul’s doppelganger, Louis Delourd — also a psychologist, not to mention Paul’s estranged brother. Chloe enters into therapy with Louis but, despite looking like her lover, he has a different personality and his approach to their sessions is to act on the sexual tension rather than talk about it. However, even though Paul denies having a brother, there are deeper secrets yet to be revealed.

The trick of employing an unreliable narrator is keeping the audience in the dark for as long as possible. Ozon does an excellent job in that. There are times when the imagery becomes so distorted that it’s impossible to accept scenes as being anything other than dreams or fantasy (such as one moment that appears to have been influenced by the most gruesome sequence in Ridley Scott’s Alien) but Ozon keeps us unsure. For much of the movie, we teeter back and forth between accepting what we’re seeing and wondering whether we’re being led astray. The final reveal is twisted and forces a re-evaluation of the entire movie.

I can see some viewers hating where the movie goes and thinking that the change-up is a cheat. It may be, but it’s thematically logical and the groundwork for the revelation is carefully seeded throughout (watching Double Lover a second time is a different experience). Ozon doubles down on the theme of duality not only as it applies to Paul/Louis but as it applies to Chloe in a less obvious fashion. The ending re-aligns how we think about the characters while keeping the twins/doubles motifs in the forefront.

Double Lover unfolds in three acts. The first is a relatively sedate love story. The second is erotically charged with copious nudity and graphic sex. The movie was released theatrically in the United States on the same weekend as Fifty Shades Freed and Ozon shows what the E.L. James movie series is missing when it comes to sex, chemistry, and heat. Naked bodies aren’t enough — there needs to be electricity, which there is between Chloe and Louis. Finally, the third act enters the psychological thriller rabbit hole where things become contorted before being explained.

Ozon’s artistry is perhaps the only thing to keep this from B-grade thriller territory. There’s a lot of talking but some of the pretentious dialogue seems like an attempt to make Double Lover more intellectual than it is. The movie appeals strongly to our basic instincts and is enjoyable on that level. I don’t think this is for everyone — the home viewer needs to be willing to be liberal in terms of screen sex and not intimidated by a plot that doesn’t play by conventional rules. It’s quite a ride.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Available for home viewing: Mudbound ★★★½

At the heart of Mudbound, director Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, is the relationship that forms (and the consequences of that relationship) between two World War 2 veterans — one white and one black — in the deeply segregated rural areas of Mississippi during the 1940s. These two men, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), have much in common except the color of their skin. In reaching deep into the ugliness of a racist South, Mudbound strips away the romanticism sometimes associated with it and shows that, while friendships were possible between white and black people, the pernicious aspects of Jim Crow made such things fleeting and furtive. The movie, like the book, takes a long, hard look at the system of racial inequality that defined this time and place, and reminds viewers of the price to be paid for surrendering to our base instincts.

Mudbound tells its story primarily through flashbacks of two interconnected families. The (white) McAllans come to Mississippi to fulfill the life-long dream of Henry (Jason Clarke) to farm the land. Swindled out of renting an ideal house, he is forced to bring his family — wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and two young daughters — to a leaky shack with no plumbing or electricity. Accompanying them is Pappy (Jonathan Banks), an unrepentant racist who sees everything through a lens dirty from decades of bile and hatred. Henry’s dashing younger brother, Jamie, is currently off to war, earning a captain’s rank as he flies bomber runs over Germany.

The Jacksons live as tenant farmers on the McAllans’ land. Hard-working and deeply devoted, they have lived and worked there since the slave days. The patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), dreams of bright future for his children. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), cares for her family and works the fields while keeping her distance from the new white folk, whom life’s lessons have taught her not to trust. The eldest Jackson son, Ronsel, is serving his country in Europe as a tank commander in General Patton’s army.

The end of the war brings about changes when Jamie and Ronsel come home. Both men are subtly altered by their experiences. Jamie suffers from severe PTSD and uses heavy drinking for self-medication. Neither Henry nor Pappy is sympathetic to him, although Laura offers him a kind ear (and perhaps a little more). Ronsel’s suffering is more internalized but he finds himself angry and adrift, missing a woman he left behind in Germany and disgusted that, despite having served his country with distinction, he is regarded at home as a second-class citizen. He and Jamie are drawn together by their common experiences and develop a friendship that ultimately has profound consequences for them both.

Mudbound turns a clear gaze on racism in many of its forms and guises, both large and small. There are the obvious aspects, like the constant threats of violence, the segregation of buses and store entrances, and the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. And there are the subtle ones, like the entitlement of some whites who, although seemingly respectful, expect subservience from blacks, or the way sharecropping is rigged to force many black farmers into states of near-slavery. The film also shows the contrast between how black soldiers are treated overseas and what awaits them on their return.

The characters are as carefully developed as the setting. With one exception, every member of the ensemble boasts a three-dimensional personality with a discernable arc. To enhance this, six of the seven primary individuals are given voiceover monologues that provide the viewer not only with valuable background information but with a window into their thinking. The exception, Pappy, is less a person than an embodiment of the worst of racial hatred. Pappy has no redeeming qualities. He is vitriol personified. The real villain of Mudbound is racism but, since it can be difficult to effectively dramatize the struggle against an ideal, no matter how heinous, Pappy provides an effective stand-in.

There is a tendency of movies made about the pre-Civil Rights era South to depict it as an idyllic place forced into decline by the cycles of poverty and deprivation resulting from the failed secession. Mudbound strips away the faux nobility germinated by misplaced nostalgia. The land upon which so much depends for the McAllans and the Jacksons is a quagmire or, as Laura states in her opening monologue: "When I think of the farm, I think of mud … There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything." The production design takes these words and gives them visual life. I can’t think of a less appealing place to spend my life than the plantation where the McAllans have settled.

Strong performances abound but the three that stand out are those of Hedlund, whose tortured charisma embodies a once-proud, confidant man eviscerated by experience he relives every night; Mitchell, whose quiet dignity gives testimony to the strength of his character’s soul; and Banks, whose portrayal of unvarnished evil is chilling. Mulligan, Clarke, Morgan, and Blige are all solid but none resonate as forcefully as the other three.

Mudbound makes few missteps. One arguable flaw is the inclusion of a family of poverty-stricken white farmers who are turned away by Henry because of the father’s poor work habits. Although likely intended to provide a contrast to the Jacksons and perhaps even an indication of the thing Henry fears becoming, these characters are thinly sketched and their story is inconsistently presented.

Rees has chosen to remain faithful to the ending of the book while, at the same time, injecting a hopeful note. Jordan wrote the final passages of Mudbound as a series of speculative, "what if?" moments. While maintaining the text of those sentences, Rees takes away the question marks and replaces them with exclamation points. It’s the perfect way to conclude the saga, making it an affirmation of human determination and dignity.

Note: Mudbound was released by Netflix in a limited theatrical distribution. It is not yet available on Blu-Ray/DVD, but can be viewed at home via Netflix’s streaming services.


Monday, June 25, 2018

A piece of trivia concerning a Babe Ruth no-hitter

An apology and a denial. First, I apologize missing the 101st anniversary of this historic, albeit somewhat trivial, event by two days, but I must admit I spent too much time celebrating the Mavericks draft. Second, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor I actually witnessed this event. Sure, I’m up there in years, but I’m still younger than a number of trees you could find among the giant redwoods of Northern California.

Babe Ruth (you might have heard of him) was the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox on June 23, 1917, in a game at Fenway Park against the Washington Senators. The first batter he faced was Ray Morgan and Ruth walked Morgan on four straight pitches. At least home plate umpire Clarence "Brick" Owens thought all four pitches were out of the strike zone. Ruth, however, was convinced his second and fourth pitches should have been called strikes and when Owens called ball four on Morgan, Ruth charged off the mound and screamed at Owens: "If you’d go to bed at night, you (expletive deleted), you could keep your eyes open long enough in the daytime to see when a ball goes over the plate!"

You can imagine Owens’ reaction. He told Ruth to shut up and get back on the mound or he’d be tossed. Ruth countered: "Throw me out and I’ll punch ya right in the jaw!"

That was the breaking point. Owens threw him out and, true to his word, Ruth actually tried to punch the ump in the jaw. He missed, however, and hit Owens a glancing blow behind the umpire’s ear. Still, Owens fell to the ground.

Ruth’s punishment? He was fined $100, handed a 10-game suspension and forced to give a public apology.

But that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. What makes this episode historic is that Ernie Shore was summoned from the bullpen to relieve Ruth. Sam Agnew had to replace Boston catcher Chester "Pinch" Thomas who was also ejected as part of the Ruth-umpire fracas. During the first batter Shore faced, Morgan, the batter Ruth walked to begin the whole affair, was thrown out trying to steal second. Shore then retired the next 26 batters in a row without giving up a hit or a walk and Boston won the game 4-0

For close to the next 80 years, Shore’s feat was determined to be a "perfect game" because he was on the mound for all 27 outs. It stood that way until sometime in the 1990s when it was reclassified as a "combined no-hitter."

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Available for home viewing: Tomb Raider ★★½

Tomb Raider may be the most faithful adaptation of a video game to-date. Unfortunately, faithfulness to the source material doesn’t always result in the best cinematic experience and this is one of those occasions. The Tomb Raider video games are action-oriented with playability being the key component to what makes them work. Reducing a game — any game — to a conventional movie turns it into something passive, thereby robbing it of its single most valuable element. Action sequences in a game can be exhilarating because the player participates in them. There’s a sense of accomplishment. Watching as a film on a home TV screen, the same sequences become rote because there’s little suspense. The director, after all, is the ultimate player, so it’s a given that the character is going to succeed. The result is a dilution of suspense; action without suspense can be dull and repetitive.

This is the second time the saga of Lara Croft has been brought to the screen and, for this iteration, the main character is being played by Alicia Vikander (replacing Angelina Jolie, who took on the role in the 2001 film and its 2003 sequel). Hands down, Vikander is the best thing about Tomb Raider. She’s tough, buff, and gorgeous. She’s as strong and capable as any male action hero and director Roar Uthaug (who made the disaster film The Wave) never reduces her to the level of eye candy or a kick-ass sex symbol. For her part, Vikander isn’t treating this like a paycheck. She’s committed. She worked out obsessively to bulk up for the part and did all her own stunts. Plus, as a bonus, she brings her Oscar-winning skills as an actress to bear in a couple of emotional scenes that the screenplay sneaks in between action set pieces. (In one, Lara has to cope with something video game characters almost never face: the impact of the "first kill.")

Tomb Raider is, alas, an origin story. When we first meet 21-year old Lara, she’s at loose ends — the daughter of wealthy businessman and adventurer Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), she refuses her inherited fortune because she won’t sign the papers declaring her missing father to be dead. So she scrapes by on the money she earns from odd jobs until one day she discovers a clue that hints at where her father (if he’s still alive) might be. Accompanied by Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), the son of the man Richard hired to transport him, Lara heads for a mysterious Pacific Island where the amoral Trinity corporation has set up a dig site. Led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), Trinity’s mercenaries are searching for the tomb of an ancient queen. Once opened, the sarcophagus may hold the key to world domination … or world destruction. Through a combination of physicality and brains, Lara becomes the only one who can stop Vogel’s push to bring home the goods to his employers.

Following an exposition-heavy first 20 minutes, which features flashbacks and various character-building shortcuts, Tomb Raider switches into all-action mode and, as one might expect from an adaptation of this video game franchise, there aren’t a lot of "down" moments. All the expected Tomb Raider tropes are present — if it’s in the game, it’s in the movie. At times, gamers may feel their thumbs twitching as if using a controller to impel Lara’s movements. The action, like the plot, is straightforward, lacking the cliffhanger tension that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so compelling. The Tomb Raider games were obviously inspired, at least in part, by the 1981 film, but this second generation revival feels more like a retread than an homage. There’s something missing.

Considering that the average Tomb Raider (or similar) video game contains anywhere from eight to 16 hours of content, the film feels stripped-down and truncated. The plot is straightforward with only a single predictable twist and little in the way of narrative complexity. There’s plenty of shooting (with guns and bows), jumping, climbing, and falling. The bad guys are entirely one-dimensional and, with the exception of Lara, the good guys don’t fare much better. Vikander shines. Goggins tries hard to be steel-eyed and nasty but he did a better job of it in The Hateful Eight. West (playing Vikander’s father for the second time, after also serving that function in Testament of Youth) is adequate, if underused. Kristin Scott-Thomas and Derek Jacobi have cameos as high-up employees in Lord Richard’s company.

Viewer reaction to Tomb Raider may vary based on expectations. Those who care more about a cinematic recreation of the video game than a movie that can live and breathe on its own will likely be thrilled with the final result. Those hoping for something a little more along the lines of Raiders of the Lost Ark may find cause for disappointment. Raiders was about more than a strong hero careening from one action scene to the next but that’s all that Tomb Raider offers. Even as a mindless popcorn movie, I found it strangely unengaging — action without suspense, momentum without tension. I wouldn’t mind playing the game based on the movie but was less enthused about the movie based on the game.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Available for home viewing: An Ordinary Man ★★★

This character study compensates for certain narrative hiccups and a bland sense of time and place by offering an effective performance by Ben Kingsley to go along with a story that asks difficult questions and goes to places many similar films would avoid. In fact, every time An Ordinary Man seems to be headed into a minefield of clichés, it takes an unexpected detour and the film’s final such excursion comes like a gut-punch. The clinching moment is presented so matter-of-factly that it’s difficult not to be shocked by the scene — even if you see it coming.

Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man transpires in the former Yugoslavia and follows attempts by a war criminal, known only as "The General" (Kingsley), to avoid capture. The General is presented as a cold, emotionless man who is most likely guilty of the things of which he has been accused (the massacre of thousands of men and boys under his command). Nevertheless, we see from his infrequent interactions with others that there are plenty of people willing to harbor him, raising the age-old question of where the dividing line exists between "patriot" and "monster." The General has sufficient self-awareness that he might place himself in the latter category; others would see it differently.

After being relocated by his chief protector (Peter Serafinowicz) to a new apartment, The General comes face-to-face with an unexpected visitor — the maid, Tanja (Hira Hilmar), who cleaned the place for the former inhabitant and was oddly not informed of the change of resident. Suspecting an assassin, The General first grills her then has her strip naked to check for concealed weapons. Convinced that she may be legitimate, he tells her to get to work, then criticizes her methods and asks her all sorts of inappropriate questions. This seems to be the beginning of a friendship — or at least a mentoring relationship — but nothing in An Ordinary Man is quite that simple.

For viewers, the most difficult aspect of watching An Ordinary Man is coping with the largely sympathetic portrayal of a man whose past misdeeds put him alongside the vilest characters brought to the screen (at least in serious, non-escapist productions). Silberling doesn’t necessarily expect us to empathize with The General but he at least wants to provide a level of understanding. His approach brings to mind all sorts of philosophical arguments about what constitutes "evil" and whether those who are thus named consider the label valid. This is a far cry from Silberling’s previous directorial outing, the horrible Land of the Lost, which badly damaged his Hollywood career.

Kingsley (exhibiting a bit of the same flair he displayed in Sexy Beast) is superb but he is matched, line-by-line and scene-by-scene by Hilmar, an Icelandic actress whose profile has been on the rise in recent years. Kingsley effectively conveys The General’s complexity, including his arrogance, his sense of entitlement, and eventually his guilt, pain, and self-loathing. The only thing questionable about the actor’s performance is his accent, which is a weird cross between Cockney and Scottish, with some other inflections thrown in. Hilmar develops Tanja into a solid foil for The General whose motivations are more complex than what we first assume them to be.

As befits a character study, Silberling doesn’t rush things. An Ordinary Man is slowly paced but doesn’t suffer as a result. The lead performances, their peculiar chemistry, and their evolving relationship (which thankfully doesn’t include a romantic component) keep us engaged. It’s a little disappointing that, despite being filmed in Belgrade, the movie is unable to capture a strong sense of place, but that’s a minor quibble. An Ordinary Man depicts the many shades of complicated character with a minimalist plot that doesn’t demand complicity from the viewer to provide a glimpse of understanding.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Available for home viewing: Love, Simon ★★★

Love, Simon is, at it’s core, a crowd-pleaser about an "average" high school guy who finds love in the most unlikely of places. Part romantic-comedy, part coming-of-age story, it recalls the more innocent "high school" films of the past, where the focus was on love and romance rather than sex and lust. Love, Simon’s twist is that the title character (played by Nick Robinson) is a closeted gay boy who chafes at keeping his true self hidden. Because the film wants to be upbeat, uplifting, and teen-friendly, it studiously avoids darker, more realistic themes and plot points, opting instead to offer a fantasy world where things (mostly) turn out right. That’s not to say it marginalizes the difficulty of coming out for a teenager, but it glosses over some of the negatives in favor of an idealized result.

Seventeen-year old Simon Spier, who narrates the story, is smart, witty, and self-aware: all the qualities necessary for the voice of a movie that wants to be smart, witty, and self-aware. Simon knows he’s gay; in fact, this has been the reality of his life for four years, and he hasn’t told anyone: not his caring, educated mother, Emily (Jennifer Garner) nor his good-natured, somewhat dense father, Jack (Josh Duhamel), nor his younger sister, Nora (Talitha Bateman). His three best friends — Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Abby (Alexandra Shipp) — are equally in the dark. The only one who knows is "Blue," a gay boy Simon anonymously swaps text messages with (with Simon using the moniker of "Jacques" to hide his own identity). But when a fellow classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him, Simon senses the walls closing in and decides he may have no choice but to throw open the closet doors and emerge.

Love, Simon is charming and likeable in much the same way that heterosexual teen comedies can be charming and likeable. Although the plotting is at times clunky (with the blackmail device in particular seeming artificial), the dialogue is believable and the characters are nicely rounded. It doesn’t take much for us to root for Simon to find true love and hope that when the inevitable happens, his life will take a turn for the better. Although sometimes deviating from the source material, Becky Albertalli’s Young Adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film retains its core themes.

The movie was directed by Greg Berlanti, whose previous credits include The Broken Hearts Club and Life as We Know It. He keeps the tone light as befits a mainstream audience more interested in being entertained than seeing a serious film about the difficulties of coming out. To be sure, Love, Simon doesn’t sugarcoat the experience and aspects of Simon’s struggle are depicted but, aside from some of the less savory elements surrounding Martin and his blackmail, Berlanti maintains an upbeat mood. The screenplay is also surprisingly chaste. Sex (the act) is rarely mentioned; Simon’s sexual identity is reflected by phraseology along the lines of "he likes" or "he is attracted to." The PG-13 rating is reflective of the MPAA’s overt conservativism as opposed to actual content (main character is gay = automatic PG-13). For the most part, this is PG material (although there is one f-bomb and a few off-color remarks).

Robinson crafts an immensely likeable Simon — as appealing as any of the teenage protagonists in a John Hughes comedy. And, although he is attentive and helpful, the movie doesn’t wreath him in nobility. The things he does to protect his secret (at least in the beginning) are far from laudable and, when they come out (as such things must do in movies that don’t deal in ambiguity and dangling plot threads), there are consequences. The strongest supporting performances belong to Langford as Simon’s gal-pal, Leah, and Shipp as the feisty Abby Suso. Miller’s Martin is thoroughly detestable, but that’s the point. The adults, including Garner and Duhamel, are forgettable. A Garner monologue surprisingly falls a little flat.

Love, Simon contains its share of manipulation but doesn’t tip the balance too far toward sentimentality. The movie succeeds in its goals: provide accessible characters, offer a solid (if somewhat idealized) depiction of the difficulties faced by closeted gay teenagers who are afraid that revealing their secret will destroy their lives, and offer the moment that all rom-com lovers demand from titles in their favorite genre. It’s a well-made, affable movie that should provide an entertaining two hours for all but the most virulent homophobes.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Available for home viewing: I Kill Giants ★★★

The concept of a child creating an imaginary world as a retreat from reality isn’t new to either movies or literature. In fact, one of the most beloved of all family films, The Wizard of Oz, employs this conceit. More recent endeavors like Pan’s Labyrinth and A Bridge to Terabithia, have taken darker turns. Perhaps the best of all of these, 2016’s powerful A Monster Calls, is the closest cousin to director Anders Walter’s feature debut, I Kill Giants. Based on Joe Kelly’s award-winning comic book series (with a screenplay credited to Kelly), the film follows the day-to-day travails of a teenage girl, Barbara (Madison Wolfe), who finds refuge from the ugliness of her existence in a world filled with giants and monsters.

In a head-to-head comparison with the oh-so-similar A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants draws the short stick. That’s not to say it’s an unworthy film. Quite the contrary — it’s just not on the same level as J.A. Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel. I Kill Giants is well-acted, does amazing things with a limited budget, and effectively tugs at the heart strings once we recognize what Barbara’s real monsters are. The scenes of bullying are uncomfortably credible (not the white-washed version often presented in mainstream films — I’m thinking of Wonder here) and there is an opportunity for a catharsis.

Barbara, who lives in a house on portion of the New Jersey coast that in no way resembles any beach I have visited there (filming took place in Belgium and Ireland), is immersed in geek culture. She’s a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic, although she doesn’t have any friends to play with her. Her older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots), who functions as her guardian, offers to join a game but Barbara demurs. She is interested in playing with her self-absorbed brother and his friends, but their interest goes no farther than games that involve consoles and TVs. Barbara is also a baseball fan, with Phillies paraphernalia littered around the basement where she has set up an indoor fort.

Barbara’s D&D obsession has bled into her real life. She is bullied at school by a girl named Taylor (Rory Jackson), whom she treats with contempt. Her free time is spent in a nearby forest and on the beach, where she has set up traps to confound the giants that she believes haunt the woods and may be coming to destroy the town. She encounters Sophia (Sydney Wade), a new girl who has just moved to America from Leeds, and the two form a fragile friendship. Sophia is fascinated by Barbara’s fantasy-world but doesn’t buy into it and begins to search for a way to help the girl. This desire is shared by the school’s psychiatrist, Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana).

I Kill Giants effectively blends the fantasy and real-world elements into an engaging whole. Although not as successful as the films I cited earlier in blurring the lines between what might only be in the main character’s mind and what is really happening, I Kill Giants nevertheless works as an examination of how children use make-believe as an escape mechanism. As the movie approaches its climax, Barbara must face not only her metaphorical adversary but the underlying darkness.

The narrative is at times uneven. The movie spends a little too much time on Barbara’s romps through the forest — these are the least compelling scenes in the film — and it fractures the story by trying to flesh out the stories of Karen and Sophia but (lacking the necessary screen time) not quite getting there. The film might have worked better had it remained 100 percent from Barbara’s perspective. Scenes in which the protagonist doesn’t appear feel disconnected from the rest of the production.

Poots and Saldana add their names to the project but, although they give solid turns, their roles are secondary. The star is relative newcomer 15-year old Wolfe, whose performance is note-perfect. Despite having previously appeared primarily in minor TV and movie roles, Wolfe easily carries I Kill Giants, imbuing Barbara with a mix of spunk and fragility and showing how even the most self-sufficient of loners sometimes craves companionship.

The marketing aspects of I Kill Giants play up the Harry Potter connection — the involvement of producer Chris Columbus being the link — but the comparison does a disservice to this film which is a vastly different kind of story. The fantasy elements are just that — fantasy — and the CGI is used sparingly. Although we see the giants as Barbara sees them, the glimpses are fleeting. (The lengthy sequence in which she explains their origins uses 2D animation.) I Kill Giants is about coping, surviving, and hopefully emerging stronger at the end. The vivid cinematography, affecting performance by Wolfe, and lack of saccharine allow the film to resonate not only with the teen target demographic but older viewers as well.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Available for Home Viewing: Black Panther ★★★½

During the past year, several of the studios releasing superhero movies have upped their game, moving into new territory without tossing aside the tropes that differentiate comic book-inspired fare from its traditional action/adventure cousin. 20th Century Fox started things with Logan, a stylish meditation on sacrifice and mortality. DC followed with Wonder Woman, a celebration of kick-ass femininity. Now, in 2018, along comes Black Panther. Although seen by some as the final lead-in to the ultimate Avengers story, this movie is much, much more. In fact, save for some plot linkage at the outset, Black Panther never lets on that it’s even in the same universe as Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and the rest. This is the closest Marvel has come to making a stand-alone tale in many years. Even Doctor Strange felt more connected to the larger MCU.

In agreeing to co-write and direct Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, who previously made Fruitvale Station and Creed, ensured that he would have carte blanche about how he presented T’Challa’s story. While remaining faithful to the character’s comic book backstory, Coogler takes the film in some unexpected directions. There’s action aplenty but it’s intermingled with more serious-minded and thought-provoking material. If there has ever been a more political superhero movie, I can’t think of it. Black Panther is in-your-face with its political perspective, neither soft-peddling its allegorical aspects nor shying away from an ideology that may be controversial in some circles. The movie embraces the philosophy of inclusion, rejecting competing notions of isolation, nationalism, and imperialism. It goes so far as to used the word "fool" when describing those who would "build barriers." Black Panther isn’t content with characters in cool costumes pummeling each other in a special effects-laden setting.

Although this represents the first full outing for the Black Panther character (who made his debut in Captain America: Civil War), it’s more of an "introduction story" than an "origin story." Coogler’s approach is similar to the one Tim Burton used in 1989’s Batman — don’t waste the audience’s time with a blow-by-blow description of how the Black Panther got his powers and what he initially does with them. Instead, tell a real story and sprinkle in the details along the way. It’s a more satisfying method of storytelling that what we sometimes have to slog through with initial forays.

After a prologue, which provides background, context, and an establishing scene set in 1992, the action shifts to the modern-day. The setting is the small (fictional) East African country of Wakanda. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is mired in the third-world and, like its neighbors, struggling with poverty and a lack of resources. That image is a sham, however — an illusion maintained by Wakanda’s superior technology to hide the nation’s true nature from those who would plunder its most valuable resource, the mineral vibranium. The wonders of Wakanda are known only to its residents.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the throne after the events of Captain America: Civil War (in which his father is killed in a terrorist bombing). Armed with technology developed by his super-scientist sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and accompanied by his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the head of the military, Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa travels to South Korea to capture an amoral mercenary named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is selling vibranium on the black market. On this mission, he encounters CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who previously appeared in Captain America: Civil War. The mission to bring Klaue back to Wakanda ends in failure. T’Challa returns home not with a criminal in tow but with the critically injured Ross, who takes a bullet to save Nakia. A short time later, a stranger, Erik Killmonger, appears at Wakanda’s border with an unconventional gift and a shocking story — one that allows him to challenge T’Challa in mortal combat for the right to lead Wakanda.

Black Panther is the first MCU movie to feature a black superhero as the title character. (It is not, however, the first Marvel movie with that distinction. Wesley Snipes’ Blade, who made three appearances in the late 1990s and early 2000s, broke the "color barrier", although the cinematic superhero landscape of that era was much different.) Black Panther celebrates its blackness, ensuring that nearly every role — big, small, and in-between — is played by a black actor. On some level, Black Panther is a pushback against a Hollywood culture that shies away from "black films" made for mainstream audiences. The director takes things a step further by employing a reversal of a typical stereotype. Many white-dominated movies feature a token black character (an inclusion that allows them to claim "racial diversity"). Coogler flips this by making Freeman the token white character. Aside from Freeman and Serkis (old buddies from their Peter Jackson days), the only non-black actor with any noteworthy screen presence is Stan Lee, making his expected cameo. (Lee, along with Jack Kirby, created Black Panther in 1966.)

The film’s chief villain, the angry and revenge-minded Killmonger, is a different sort of bad guy than what we’re accustomed to getting in superhero movies. Unafflicted by megalomania, Killmonger is motivated by a personal animus and a desire to use violence and chaos to redress the worldwide oppression of black people. He intends to use the resources of Wakanda to achieve that. He is perhaps the most nuanced antagonist ever to emerge from the MCU tapestry. He is not demonized; in fact, the screenplay goes to great lengths to emphasize the tragedy of his genesis and how, were it not for the misguided actions of "good" people, he might never have become the man he became. In keeping with superhero movie expectations, there is a climactic battle between Killmonger and T’Challa but, unlike the resolution of Wonder Woman, it’s not an anticlimax and the conclusion of the struggle is not by-the-numbers.

In casting Black Panther, the filmmakers have assembled a group of today’s best young black actors, with a veteran or two thrown in for good measure. Boseman’s T’Challa is a fine addition to the MCU (something we can see now that he has more than a supporting part) — a versatile performer whose previous roles include Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get on Up), and Thurgood Marshall (Marshall). Michael B. Jordan makes his third appearance for Coogler, following leads in Fruitvale Station and Creed. Nyong’o, Gurira, and Letitia Wright play the three strong, self-assured women who fight alongside T’Challa. Angela Bassett, as T’Challa’s mother, and Forest Whitaker, as his mentor, represent an older generation. Freeman and Serkis help connect Black Panther to the MCU.

Black Panther is arguably the most audacious movie to emerge from the MCU to-date and has to be in the conversation when considering the all-time best comic book-inspired stories. Although the structure is rooted in the superhero tradition, the production rarely feels limited by that classification. It takes us to new places and sloughs off the generic label that adheres to many films of the genre, providing an experience that is by turns exciting, emotional, and funny. This is 2018’s first great motion picture — a title that will surely be remembered when "end of the year" bests are discussed.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Available for home viewing: Annihilation ★★★½

Science fiction means different things to different people. For some, it’s the quasi-fantasy/space opera of Star Wars. For others, it’s allegorical space-faring material like Star Trek. And for still others, it encompasses a strongly technical, scientific, and/or visionary aesthetic. Annihilation, like Alex Garland’s previous endeavor (and directorial debut), Ex Machina, falls into the category of films that embrace Big Ideas in ways that presuppose viewers are intelligent and attentive. Is that asking too much from the average movie-watcher?

Annihilation is to genetics as Ex Machina is to robotics although the films are related only in their lack of conventionality and willingness to challenge viewers. Liking Ex Machina is no guarantee of liking Annihilation or vice versa. In terms of tone, Annihilation is a close cousin to Arrival. There’s the same dark atmosphere and bleak sense of discovery. Annihilation has its share of action — including one horrifying encounter that ratchets up the tension to an almost-unbearable level — but this movie, unlike something produced for mass audiences, is about what happens in the calm moments between the loud, splashy sequences.

I often find non-linear narrative structures to be lazy and unhelpful except in cases where there’s a story-based reason for it, which is the case here. Annihilation opens with a woman, Lena (Natalie Portman), being questioned by a man wearing a decontamination suit. Her memory is vague — she is unable to give clear answers to simple questions. We follow her story through a series of flashbacks with Garland frequently jumping around in time, back and forth, forth and back, as it suits his method of storytelling.

In the past, we meet Lena a year after the disappearance and presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). She’s emotionally closed-off and his sudden, unheralded return shocks her to the core. She’s painting a bedroom and, turning when she hears a noise, sees him in the hallway. But there’s something wrong with Kane. He’s cold and emotionless. His dialogue consists of mumbled answers and half-phrases. Then he starts to bleed from the mouth before going into convulsions. The government whisks him away and Lena with him. She soon learns that he was part of a super-secret group of volunteers who entered a mysterious area called "The Shimmer" (aptly named for the nebulous curtain around the perimeter). Despite being the sole survivor, his condition renders him unable to provide any useful information. Another party is going in and Lena petitions to be included.

There are five of them — all women and all highly educated except one. In addition to Lena, a biologist, they are: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychiatrist; Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a gregarious paramedic; Cass (Tuva Novotny), a friendly anthropologist; and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The enter The Shimmer hoping to unlock its mysteries and find a way to retard its expansion. They are armed only with some guns and their intelligence. To survive, they will need both those things — and perhaps more.

Discovery is an important part of the journey that Garland takes the viewer on. The movie makes us an invisible member of Lena’s group; a mute presence on her shoulder. We learn only what she learns; we see only what she sees. Like her, we sometimes have to fit together the pieces of a puzzle — the screenplay doesn’t do it for us by force-feeding the answers. To the end, there’s a layer of ambiguity. The final scene can be interpreted in various ways.

Paramount Pictures did not do much to market Annihilation. The reason may have to do with a film the company distributed last year: mother! There are some superficial similarities but, where mother! was an example of directorial excess with a greater concern with "vision" than story, Annihilation is a different sort of movie. Yes, it’s equally unfriendly to audiences interested only in a superficial, visceral experience, but Annihilation has a well-defined narrative that offers a degree of resolution. It doesn’t leave the viewer feeling cheated and duped, although I would be lying if I claimed the ending won’t frustrate some. Paramount’s concerns about the movie’s dim commercial prospects (a fair worry, by the way) resulted in a rift with the production team and a decision to limit the publicity push.

Portman has entered a phase of career where she’s no longer interested in doing roles solely for pay or exposure (no more Star Wars or Thor for her). It’s easy enough to see what attracted her to this project — similar qualities to the ones Arrival used to seduce Amy Adams. Portman gives a nuanced performance as a woman navigating a tumultuous period of her life, showing all the ways in which she has changed ("change" and mutation being key themes). She is supported by a mostly-female supporting cast that includes veteran Leigh and another participant in the Thor universe, Thompson. Isaac, who appeared in Ex Machina, returns to work with Garland again; his part, although pivotal, is limited.

Annihilation makes you think. It makes you wonder about the mysteries of genetics and the fragility of DNA. It makes you think about what happens when parts of the body no longer feel familiar and how quickly those changes can arise. It asks about the human capacity for self-destruction and it explores the power of guilt. Admittedly, the climax almost seems prosaic for a movie with this much to say but, while offering some of the film’s most impressive images, it satisfies a need for closure. Although Garland’s unwillingness to compromise may limit his viewership, it has resulted in a film whose ideas and philosophy demand thought and dissection and are not easily dismissed or forgotten.