Captain Fantastic ***
Bucking the seasonal movie empty spectacle approach, Captain Fantastic is about something. Despite the title, which might stir images of a superhero story, this is a human drama about the bonds that hold and sever families and the conflict between two very different philosophies surrounding how to raise children in today’s world. Matt Ross’ screenplay occasionally stumbles (especially late in the proceedings) and the ending opts for a too-facile resolution but the director/writer offers moments of genuine power and pathos that make it easy to forgive the missteps.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has taken a back-to-nature lifestyle to an extreme. He and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have moved to an isolated Pacific Northwest homestead to raise their six children: Bo (George MacKay), Keilyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Reillian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). When Leslie is admitted to a hospital for treatment, the task of raising the children falls on Ben’s shoulders. The daily regimen includes not only the intensive studying of literature, mathematics, science, and history but a full diet of physically taxing activities and chores. When Leslie takes her own life, Ben is faced with the difficulty of re-entering society (if only temporarily) with his children to attend the funeral. There, he encounters well-meaning relatives (Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn) who view his parenting choices with skepticism, and Leslie’s wealthy and influential father, Jack (Frank Langella), who is determined to take his grandchildren away from their father.
Although Captain Fantastic sides with Ben’s parenting techniques from an emotional perspective, Ross’s script shows the pros and cons of his approach as contrasted with the more conventional philosophy espoused by Jack. For most of the film, it remains an open question whether the children — bright, independent, articulate, and socially awkward — are better served by being separated from society or whether they would benefit from being integrated. The film’s resolution is too pat and pushes aside the idea that the back-to-nature style might not only be detrimental to the children’s social and emotional well-being but could be physically damaging as well.
Captain Fantastic’s most potent scenes focus on how the family copes with Leslie’s death. Although we see her only in flashbacks, her importance to everything is evident and the hole left by her departure is profound. This is most clearly shown by the reactions of the two youngest children (played perfectly by Crooks and Shotwell), who have trouble coping with the thought of never seeing their mother again. The need for closure forces Ben to re-enter society and, although this leads to a few quasi-humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios (including Bo’s first kiss), there are also some painful situations. Jack, although presented as an antagonist, is effectively humanized. He is motivated not by malice but by a genuine belief that Ben is dangerous and deranged.
The performances are strong across-the-board, with all of the child actors providing fully realized interpretations of their characters. Hahn and Zahn, better known for comedy, are effective in small (but important) roles. Langella, as always, captivates with a ferocious portrayal. Mortensen, so far distanced from his career-defining role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, displays tremendous range as the film’s foundation; his scenes with Langella are riveting. (He also provides some full frontal nudity.)
Captain Fantastic stands as a testimony to the difficulty of raising children in an unconventional way, especially when the fabric of the family is torn asunder by grief and the inevitable need for independence exhibited by the older offspring. Although the film contains enough comedy to prevent it from becoming maudlin, this is primarily a dramatic story and its most potent and memorable scenes are aspects of the central conflict — a refreshing change-of-pace in one of Hollywood’s most emotionally inert years in recent memory.
Lights Out **
The premise of Lights Out is something we all accept as children but lose sight of as we grow older: monsters only come out when it’s dark. In this movie’s realm, the rule applies concretely. As long as there’s a light source, the demon/ghost/supernatural presence is constrained. But once the sun has set and the lights are out, it has free rein. In order to make this work, Sandberg must employ an army of contrivances to explain why lights are always going out, flashlights are failing, and candle flames are flickering. He also occasionally cheats. The creature can reside in a lighted area as long as it’s in shadow. And, in true horror movie tradition, all the characters make inexplicably stupid decisions.
Although the film boasts a few solid jump-scare "boo!" moments, it proves unable to sustain suspense over its relatively short 81 minutes. The camerawork is unremarkable (consider how James Wan used viewpoint in The Conjuring 2 to amplify tension) and the characters are thinly drawn. Lights Out also spends an inordinate amount of time providing a backstory for the creature and explaining its nature and purpose. All this exposition violates the key horror movie precept of "less is more." Unexplained monsters are always more frightening than ones that arrive with a resume. (Sandberg’s muddled attempts to connect the monster’s existence with the psychosis of a human character is less-than-satisfying and never seems to make much sense.)
Lights Out starts as a conventional "child in danger" story. Elementary schooler Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who has recently lost his father (Billy Burke) in what we know to be a supernatural mauling, lives under the care of his deranged mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie is prone to erratic behavior, talking to herself, and engaging in congress with something unpleasant that hides in the shadows. Unable to sleep and fearing for his sanity, Martin approaches his grown-up sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), for a place to stay. Eventually, Rebecca, Martin, and Rebecca’s boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), venture into Sophie’s haunted house, which comes complete with unreliable lighting and a ghost with a bad attitude.
For those who like scary movies, there are few things more viscerally satisfying than ghost tales that deliver. Those films aren’t about a coherent narrative or an airtight story. Their goal, quite simply, is to freak viewers out. To do that, all they have to do is create sympathetic characters, put those characters in harm’s way, and (most importantly) generate a suffocatingly ominous atmosphere, pregnant with tension and punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Although Lights Out does an adequate job with the characters, it fails to elevate its tone and style above those of any generic PG-13 horror movie. It’s a shame to see a clever premise developed in such an underwhelming fashion but that’s too often been the fate of horror concepts since Hollywood decided to tailor a lion’s share of the genre for pre-teens and young teenagers.
For Vee (Emma Roberts), a shy high-school senior longing to escape her Staten Island home, a livelier, bolder self seems just the ticket. So when a friend introduces her to a real-time game app in which Players accept dares from Watchers to win cash, Vee is soon on board. It helps that her first task is to kiss a stranger, and that he’s played by Dave Franco.
The Watchers love them, offering dares of increasing recklessness and remuneration until the two realize they are trapped. The details of this are sketchy — apparently, people who can anonymously fill your bank account can also drain it — but the larger problem is a screenplay that amounts to little more than a string of flashy stunts before fizzling to a contrived close.
For all its hints at imminent catastrophe, Nerve feels surprisingly tame. Juliette Lewis appears briefly as Vee’s spectacularly clueless mother, and the endearing young actor Miles Heizer (so perfectly awkward in NBC’s Parenthood) is forced to play Vee’s best friend mostly from inside a car.
Internet personalities, like the Instagram comic Josh Ostrovsky, fail to fill in the blanks where real actors should be, but an unusually wide-ranging soundtrack — Wu-Tang Clan and Benny Mardones! — offers spot-that-tune distraction. Nerve might have nothing novel to say about the internet, but if it spikes downloads of Roy Orbison’s You Got It, who can complain?
This week’s other DVD releases
The Apostate **½ Finds humor in unusual images or situations, few resounding with lasting impact.
Zoom ** There is an interesting film buried in Zoom, and it’s one to seek out if you’re a fan of more daring visual choices in film. It’s just a shame that the script couldn’t have matched the direction and visuals in its intriguing approach to world building.
Skiptrace ** The film's bloated action-comedy machinery prevents any real chemistry from forming between Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville.
Mr. Church * A small, unflashy, borderline incompetent movie like this one is certainly another sign that Eddie Murphy does what he wants. Maybe this guarded performance in a lousy movie is a sign of him wanting to do something better.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba * The film manages to be exceedingly dull, perhaps because it's too enamored of its own design, concept and location to bother with a captivating story.
No stars Abysmal