Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 4

Capsule Reviews: Get Out; Dunkirk; Good Time

Get Out

Get Out

Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stansfield, Stephen Root.

One of the reasons I find the present so exciting when it comes to genre films is the growing recognition that there is no distinction between “genre” films and “quality” films (or at least there shouldn’t be). This is nothing against the year’s crop of “quality” films such as Three BillboardsCall Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, and Lady Bird, but I’m not seeing them dominate other critics’ rankings to the extent I’d expected. I think I’ve seen Baby DriverWonder Woman and even It on more best-of lists than The Square. And then there’s Get Out, which was not a film I’d expect any critic to name as the year’s best-of.

Not because Get Out isn’t a good film; by all metrics, it is, in fact, every bit deserving of the hype it’s received. Jordan Peele has managed to pull off a masterful juggling act, interpolating Carpenter-esque suspense sequences with the surreal artsiness of the Sunken Place. Daniel Kaluuya lives up to the promise I first saw in “Fifteen Million Merits,” his episode of Black Mirror, and he heads a brilliant cast that ranges from dependable character-actors like Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Stephen Root, to “where have you been hiding all these years?” revelations like LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, and Betty Gabriel. Get Out is scary when it needs to be scary, funny when it needs to be funny, and balances the two modes with a deftness I’ve not seen since The Cabin in the Woods.

And then, of course, there’s the social commentary. I doubt the conversation surrounding Get Out would be much improved by more white-guy-splaining, but I do want to say that this sort of commentary is the exact thing that horror, as a genre, is uniquely positioned to deliver. In fact, I believe that delivering uncomfortable truths with a dollop of entertainment value—especially, in the case of this film, to white audiences—is what horror entirely exists to do. Get Out inherits from a long tradition of horror-with-social-subtext that includes films such as Dawn of the Dead and They Live and The People Under the Stairs, films that critics and “serious” audiences overlooked because they were genre efforts. But our culture has changed since then, to the point where Get Out is recognized as one of the finest films of the year. And that’s all for the better.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

May 21, 1940. Eleven days into the Battle of France, and Nazi forces have the British Expeditionary Force, along with three French field armies and the remains of the Belgian and Dutch forces, trapped along the northern coast of France, near the port city of Dunkirk. The best course of action is to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk across the English Channel to Dover, a distance of about fifty nautical miles. That is, if they can make it past the German Luftwaffe (air force).

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, then, is less about heroism at wartime and more about simply not getting killed. The narrative follows the evacuation on three fronts: on the ground, a trio of British privates desperately try to make it off the beach; in the air, a pair of Spitfire pilots engage the Luftwaffe; at sea, a civilian sailor, his son, and his son’s friend sail from Weymouth in a civilian vessel. The Axis soldiers and pilots are almost never seen; the only markers of their presence are the bullets and bombs raining from the sky. Fighting can only effectively be done in the air. If you’re on land or in the water, your only option is to run or swim and pray to God the projectiles don’t follow you.

This is Nolan at his most straightforward and concise. While the three stories don’t all play out at the same pace, Nolan eschews the narrative trickery he’s become associated with. In terms of putting the audience in the middle of the action (such as it is), Dunkirk is perhaps the most effective war film since Saving Private Ryan. With so much going on, there’s very little room for character development. The civilian sailors—Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney—are the only characters with time to register as people. And even at a comparatively breezy 106 minutes—the shortest running time Nolan’s delivered since his début, Following—too many scenes stretch on for too long.

Still, there’s an important lesson here. On the last day of the evacuation, Winston Churchill delivered his celebrated “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, rallying the British people and preparing them for the long road ahead. The Allies did, of course, eventually triumph over the Axis, proof positive that Nazis can be defeated…something it may help us to keep in mind in the near future.

Good Time

Good Time

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Lennice Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

There are movies that have to pull off delicate balancing acts, and then there’s Good Time. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a small-time hood who takes a trip through the seedy underbelly of New York culture to come up with bail money for his developmentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed with his brother Josh), recently arrested for participating in a bank robbery Connie masterminded. Imagine a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Of Mice and Men, and you’re not far off.

Good Time shifts from exciting to disturbing to funny in turn, as Connie’s adventures draw in a motley gang of allies and antagonists, including Ray (Buddy Duress), a parolee who finds himself in trouble within hours of release, and Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), a rebellious and bored sixteen-year-old. The plot shifts into a rollicking new gear once the McGuffin—a 16-ounce bottle of Sprite, spiked with LSD—is established; a propulsive score by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) keeps the pace quick and steady.

Through it all, Pattinson keeps everything grounded. If you’ve managed to miss everything he’s done that doesn’t have the word Twilight in the title, prepare to be blown away—this is not the mumbly “hero” of the Cullen saga. Connie isn’t always a sympathetic or even likable protagonist, and he’s capable of some vicious scumbaggery. But his (admittedly unhealthly) love for his brother shines through in every inch of Pattinson’s electrifying performance and gives the film a heart you wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a New York crime drama.

Papillon

I Also Watched…

Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973). I’m on a Steve McQueen kick lately. Papillon is apparently a true story about a French safecracker who was framed for murder and sent to a brutal prison camp in French Guiana that he then spent the next decade attempting to escape from. It’s engaging for about the first hour and a half or so, but after that it becomes a bit of a pointless drag. The thing I find really interesting about it, though, is the fact that the screenplay was co-written by blacklist target Dalton Trumbo; while I don’t know for sure that Trumbo drew parallels between his own struggle and Papillon’s bloody-minded obsession (even after being retired from the prison camp and moved to a comparatively comfortable colony for exiles, he continues to plot escape, because he’s not really free), but I like to think that.

The Best of 2017

Because I got such a late start on my 2017 movies I’m deferring my Year in Movies post until the end of January. I still have a lot of 2017 movies to see (just to name a few: Atomic Blonde, Logan, Logan Lucky, Untamed, Nocturama, ColossalThor: RagnarokThe Post…). I don’t want to close out my list without seeing the two year’s two big non-genre critical hits, Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, even though neither film could really be described as “my type of thing.” And I want to revisit a few films from Fantastic Fest 2016 (Buster’s Mal HeartA Dark SongRaw) and even 2015 (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, once known as February) that finally saw release in 2017.

However, as of right now my top ten films of 2017 are:

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Get Out
  5. It Comes at Night
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It: Chapter One
Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Justice League

Justice League

United States. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds.

I like grim, dark cinema as much as the next guy. Hell, probably more. But when your antagonist is named Steppenwolf, your monsters are called Parademons, and your McGuffins are the Mother Boxes…maybe you want to make sure you’re not taking things too seriously. Especially if your design is so ugly you’ve somehow managed to turn Amber Heard into an H.R. Giger sculpture.

Still, that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. The big issue is that the arrival of Steppenwolf should be an awesome event, yet for all the film’s ponderousness, the stakes don’t feel any greater than a bunch of motion-captured CGI constructs punching each other in front of a green screen. And it goes on like this forever, until Superman finally gets his act together and joins the fray.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. The last-minute drafting of Joss Whedon provides the proceedings with a much-needed injection of levity. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman steals most of the action sequences, while Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash steal most of the dialog scenes. Most crucially, when Bruce Wayne states that Superman is “more human than I am,” one gets the sense that someone on the creative team has finally figured out what all these characters mean. Sadly, it’s all too little, too late.

But at least we’re inching toward the DC Comics crossover movie the characters deserve and the fans have been clamoring for.

Bitch

Bitch

United States. Directed by Marianna Palka. Starring Jason Ritter, Jamie King, Marianna Palka.

“Mothers are people too” shouldn’t really be a radical, subversive statement…not at all, especially not in 2017. But we have literal Nazis in the government and the President retweeting white nationalist groups, so we’re clearly living in Evan Dorkin’s Fuckworld (an alternate universe exactly like the one we used to live in, with the only difference being that everything’s totally fucked). So maybe it’s a good time to remind ourselves of things that are basically common sense.

Sadly, Bitch turns out to be less subversive than I’d hoped. I love the basic premise: Jill, a put-upon stay-at-home-mom to four adorable but unruly kids, whose philandering husband Bill refuses to let her take any other role in their relationship, finally snaps and takes on the personality of a wild dog. I had a great time watching the clueless Bill, who does not even know where his children go to school, flail (and fail) at the most basic tasks of child-raising.

Unfortunately, that’s just a series of jokes, not an actual narrative. When the story does develop, it coagulates around Bill instead of Jill; I understand why—the sudden absence of the glue that holds the household together is a great source of drama. This culminates in a redemption plot for Bill (which I felt he hadn’t earned) and something of a jarring happy ending. I, personally, would have found a comeuppance more satisfying.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver

United States. Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González.

The bad news is that Edgar Wright’s latest film is a classic example of style over substance; the good news is, when you have style like this, you don’t need substance.

Baby Driver is probably the best car movie I have ever seen not directed by George Miller (although I must confess I have never seen any of the Fast and Furious series), with Wright staging his chase scenes like parkour with autos, set to the best assortment of vintage and retro-sounding classics this side of Quentin Tarantino. There’s also a story—a young driving prodigy (Ansel Elgort) seeks to get out from under the thumb of a controlling crime boss and abscond with the waitress he loves—but it’s little more than an excuse for the stunt sequences and a series of amazing performances from some awesome actors, such as Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, and yes, Kevin Spacey.

That’s not saying that Baby Driver is perfect. For example, Lily James (who plays the love interest) has charm to spare, but it takes more than charm to cover up the fact that her character is little more than a plot device. But Baby Driver is so awesome that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Probably my favorite film of the year, so far.

The Square

The Square

Sweden. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary.

The titular Square is an art installation, a square set into the floor with a nearby plaque explaining: The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligationsThe Square‘s writer-director, Ruben Östlund (who’s actually installed Squares in real life), describes it as “a symbolic place where you’re reminded of our common responsibility and the social contract,” and he’s populated his film with personalities who could use such reminders.

Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a Swedish museum who’s just acquired the Square, is one such individual. A friend of mine once told me that it was possible for a very likable person to be “nice” without necessarily being “good,” and that distinction fits Christian. He’s not an unpleasant man, and he certainly seems to mean well, but he also easily falls prey to the sort of selfishness that its practitioners find very easily to rationalize; they don’t even realize they’re not doing the right thing.

Östlund uses Christian’s moral fractures and his journey through the world of bleeding-edge modern art to explore one of my favorite themes, the difference between who we believe ourselves to be and who we actually are. The Square has a tendency to meander through its picaresque structure; for example, none of the main characters figure heavily in the film’s most widely-discussed scene (a performance artist doing an uncomfortably accurate impression of a monkey at a fancy-dress party). Put bluntly, there’s too much seemingly aimless drifting during the film’s two-and-a-half hours. In compensation, The Square offers up several moments of sublime absurdity that make the overall experience worthwhile.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

United States. Directed by Macon Blair. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, Devon Graye, Jane Levy, David Yow.

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin represented a breakthrough not just for Saulnier, but also for his lead actor and longtime buddy, Macon Blair. I found Blair’s own directorial début, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, heavily reminiscent of Blue Ruin, albeit not in a bad way: they both take place in similar environments and feature similar characters. Blair’s film, while somewhat dark, doesn’t borrow Blue Ruin’s bleakness, opting instead for a gallows humor not entirely removed from the Coen brothers’ dark crime-dramedies.

World-weary nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) and lonely weapons enthusiast Tony (Elijah Wood) experience the world’s weirdest meet-cute when the former takes the latter to task for allowing his dog to shit on her lawn. But they end up forging a surprisingly strong relationship when she asks him to help her track down the thieves (led by Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) who burgled her house. To say they end up over their heads is an understatement.

Blair doesn’t always keep the tone on the right side of the humor-serious line, and Wood has trouble distinguishing between “endearingly awkward” and “creepily awkward.” But the milieu works, with the backwater setting serving as a character unto itself, a run-down slice of Americana that still possesses enough hope to get its inhabitants through the day.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

United States. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell.

If Three Billboards only consisted of Frances McDormand (as a mother frustrated with the lack of interest the police show in solving her daughter’s murder) squaring off against Woody Harrelson (as a popular sheriff whose force has been beset with allegations of racially-oriented brutality), it would be worth the ticket price.

But writer/director Martin McDonagh isn’t content with mere thespian fireworks. Three Billboards is an unflinching examination of rural Middle America, a community as familiar as the small Midwestern towns many of us hail from. Here, nobody likes change and the first rule is “don’t rock the boat.” McDonagh wears his themes a bit too obviously on his sleeve—Sam Rockwell’s character, a drunken, racist deputy and Harrelson’s Number Two, is named “Jason Dixon.” The subtext should be obvious.

But it’s ultimately all in a good cause, as the film forces the viewer to confront the possibility that the bad guy just might be as human as you are. And yes, McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all on fire, as are John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin (here playing a character not entirely removed from her signature role as Mrs. Mac on Always Sunny), and a dozen others.

The film cuts quick, and cuts deep, and it hurts more than we expect, because we recognize we’re looking at ourselves. Hands down, one of the top films of 2017.

The Girl with All the Gifts

I Also Watched…

The Girl with All the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy, 2016). It’s rare enough that a year gives us one good zombie movie, but 2016 gave us two great ones. While Train to Busan took a back-to-basics, balls-to-the-wall attitude to zombie mayhem, The Girl with All the Gifts is more thoughtful and less action-oriented. It takes the time to consider what might cause zombie outbreaks (although here they’re called “hungries” and they have more in common with 28 Days Later’s rage-zombies) and whether such unfortunates have a right to exist. Plus, it’s stacked with powerful performances, particularly Sennia Nenua as the titular Girl, whose biology may hold the key to defeating the “hungries,” and Glenn Close as a scientist willing to go to any length to find that key. Overall, a great film that wants to scare you and make you think in equal measure.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Part Three

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

United States. Directed by David Mackenzie, 2016. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. 102 minutes.

Roughly halfway through Hell or High Water, Alberto Parker—a Texas Ranger of mixed Comanche and Mexican heritage, played by Gil Birmingham—lays out the film’s thesis. Looking over the picked-over remains of a dying Texas town, he observes that the land once belonged to the Native American peoples. Then the whites came and stole it. Today, the descendants of those white ranchers and farmers find that land being stolen from them in return, by the banks who were supposed to help them buy and keep it.

One such theft drives the film’s plot. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has discovered oil on his late mother’s ranch, and he wants to give the land to his estranged sons in trust. Problem is, he can’t afford to pay off the reverse mortgage his mother took out on the property. With the help of his troubled brother Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, he launches an audacious plan to pay back the bank with money stolen from its own branches. The resulting robberies draw the attention of the Texas Rangers in the form of the aforementioned Alberto Parker and his senior partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot staring down the barrel of retirement.

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also writer of Sicario, but possibly best known as an actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy) present us with standard crime drama tropes, such as the wise and world-weary cop on his last case, and the dichotomy between two brothers (Toby is down-to-earth, Tanner impulsive and hot-headed). But they resist the urge to paint the film by numbers, instead positing the story as an American tragedy. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom—Sheridan derives a few moments of levity from Hamilton and Parker’s working relationship—but darkness hangs heavily over the procedure. Toby meant well, but once he set his plan in motion, he sealed his own fate…and the fates of others.

Mackenzie underlines this theme with his visuals, presenting the setting as a hellish, desolate wasteland, seemingly populated only by lost souls and those who seek to take advantage of them. (Hamilton and Parker, representing the law, serve to preserve order but don’t act as moral agents.) Expect plenty of shots of thirsty desert and winding highways, but delivered in a subdued style. Action is used sparingly; violence is quick and brutal. Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who perhaps know Americana better than most Americans, add to the atmosphere with a sparse score occasionally punctuated by songs by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch.

Ultimately, though, this is an actor’s showcase. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham all bring depth to archetypal characters running the risk of seeming two-dimensional. But Bridges brings genuine likability to his gruffness (and seemingly endless supply of racial humor), and Foster reveals the humanity behind Tanner’s nihilism and borderline psychosis. These two roles are somewhat larger-than-life—this is Texas, after all—but neither actor goes over-the-top. Pine and Birmingham put in less showy performances, all the better to contrast with their partners.

Hell or High Water is more than a crime drama or action-thriller; by contrasting its character archetypes with the harsh reality of unrestrained capitalism’s vicious economic circle, it’s nothing less than an elegy for the American Dream. One of the year’s best.

Hell or High Water poster

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.

A scene from MOJAVE

Mojave

United States. Directed by William Monahan, 2015. Starring Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Mark Wahlberg, Louise Bourgoin, Walton Goggins, Fran Kranz. 93 minutes. 2/10

What makes for good film writing? A solid narrative spine? Credible characterization? Memorable dialog? Alternatively, you can attempt what writer/director William Monahan does in Mojave, his latest directorial effort: make half-assed attempts at all three and pray to God that your cast–mostly reliable character-actors, plus Garrett Hedlund and Mark Wahlberg–can make up the deficit.

Hedlund stars as Thomas, a reckless burnout of a screenwriter who ditches his responsibilities in favor of a head-clearing camping trip in the desert. There he meets Jack (Oscar Isaac), a drifter with a philosophical bent and a habid of creeping Thomas right the fuck out. Thomas’s trip takes a tragic turn when he ends up accidentally killing a cop with Jack’s rifle, setting off a cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Mojave has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Character motivations are either insufficiently clued (it wasn’t until my third viewing that I noticed that Jack was a serial killer) or entirely absent, and the dialog doesn’t pick up the slack. Entire conversations go by where people string together sentences but never actually say anything coherent. (The phone conversation with Hedlund and his lawyer, played by Walton Goggins in his underwear, is a great example.) Monahan seems to expect us to figure out what’s going on by ourselves, which is great, except that he often doesn’t give us enough to go on.

Add to this the lackluster performances–Hedlund entirely failing to convey anything much, Wahlberg doing his standard beligerent Southie routine, Goggins apparently bored off his ass, and why bother to hire Fran Kranz if you’re not going to do anything with him?–and two-dimensional characterization (we’ve seen all of these characters before in a dozen other movies), and what you get is a sure-fire recipe for a dull slog of something that’s supposed to be a crime thriller. Suspense is only possible when you care about the characters, something that becomes damn near impossible.

Fresh off of two career-making performances in Ex Machina and The Force Awakens, Isaac turns out to be the film’s sole bright spot. Not that, in terms of character development, Jack is any more compelling than anyone else in this fiasco; he’s basically a thug who quotes Shakespeare, calls everybody “brother,” and isn’t as slick as he thinks he is. But Isaac is the only one who seems to have any awareness of what he’s doing, the only one putting in any effort to engage the audience.

It’s not enough to justify actually watching the damned thing, unless you have a driving urge to see Oscar Isaac in a Speedo. In which case, congratulations! You have found your movie. Everyone else, steer clear.

MOJAVE poster

A scene from LEGEND.

Legend

United Kingdom/France. Directed by Brian Helgeland, 2015. Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri. 131 minutes. 7/10

So once upon a time there were these twin brothers who were gangsters in London. Their names were Reginald and Ronald Kray. Reggie was suave and charming, while Ronnie was gay and liked to beat the crap out of things. They held this weird sort of position in London’s social strata in the ’60s. I’d tell you more, but that would defeat the point of reviewing Legend, Brian Helgeland’s biopic about the Krays starring Tom Hardy as both of them.

In Godfather terms, Helgeland sees Reggie as the Michael Corleone of the outfit (the leader who always tries to pass the outfit off as legit business even though everybody knows better), with Ronnie being a sort of combination Sonny and Fredo: uncontrollably violent, completely devoid of pretension, eccentric, sensitive, and a little damaged. Reg spends six months in prison, and it’s clear he’s incapable of holding down the fort, but he’s much smarter than anyone gives him credit for. The dual role of Reggie/Ronnie is the meaty sort of beast that any actor worth his salt would love to sink his teeth into, and Hardy has his knife and fork ready before he digs in. For me, these are the leading-man performances of the year.

Indeed, Helgeland conducts Legend as an actor’s showcase in general. Old-reliables Christopher Eccleston (as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the Krays’ nemesis at Scotland Yard) and David Thewlis (as Leslie Payne, the twins’ lawyer, tolerated by Reg and despised by Ron) are just the tip of the iceberg. This film is a veritable Who’s Who of “I know that guy/chick from somewhere” Commonwealth actors: Emily Browning, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Tara Fitzgerald, John Sessions. None of them can compete with Hardy when they scare a scene with him, but arguably their jobs as actors are to frame his performance, which they do very well. Browning, in particular, nails the “naïve gangster wife quickly worn down by the reality of the situation” trope.

It’s good that the roles are so well-cast and directed, and the Swinging London of the late ’60s so meticulously recreated, because–as I implied earlier–you’ve seen Legend before, just under different titles like Goodfellas or Casino. As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats: leader of the crime family promises his wife he’ll go straight; high-ranking loose cannon wants to take a more aggressive attitude towards the competition; everything gradually turns to shit. The biggest differences are the accents and Helgeland’s affinity for jarringly anachronistic scores. (Let’s remember, this is the guy who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale.)

Legend may not be a great crime drama but it is a good one, thanks to the design, the ensemble, and the heavenly gift of awesomeness that is Tom Hardy. It’s plenty enjoyable even if it does put style above substance.

LEGEND poster.

A scene from VICTORIA.

Victoria

Germany. Directed by Sebastian Schipper, 2015. Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff. 138 minutes. 4/10

I find myself asking the question: when is a movie gimmick not a gimmick? It’s a question I find myself contemplating when I think about Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria. You’ve probably heard of this one–it’s the movie shot entirely in a single take, almost two hours and twenty minutes long.

The film follows Laia Costa as the title character, a young Spanish woman recently transplanted to Berlin, where she doesn’t have any friends. She meets some German guys at a nightclub and really hits it off with them, particularly the smitten Lonne (Frederick Lau), and hangs out with them for a while. It soon turns out that Boxer (Franz Rogowski) is an ex-convict and owes a favor to someone who protected him in prison, which is how he ends up enlisting his friends, and by extension Victoria, in a scheme to rob a bank.

The answer to my question about film gimmicks is, of course, is that it’s not a gimmick when it’s the entire point of the film. Just like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would be much less impressive if he recast roles and used aging makeup instead of stretching the shoot across a decade-plus, a conventionally-made version of Victoria would be so banal it wouldn’t be much worth watching. It’d just be another movie about a bunch of overconfident, impulsive twenty-somethings who do something stupid and find themselves in way over their heads.

So doing a movie with a story like this as one long take seems like a fantastic idea, and indeed Victoria has received a lot of praise for doing what it does. If it works for you, great. It doesn’t work for me, because I found so much of it achingly dull, particularly the first hour or so of the film, in which Victoria and the boys get to know each other. I’m all for long, slow-moving films when things actually seem to happen or mean something or I can at least trust that the filmmakers aren’t wasting my time.

But in the lead-up to the heist, which doesn’t even earn a mention until forty-five to sixty minutes into the movie, the movie lost me. I assume Schipper intended this as character development, but there really isn’t all that much character to develop: Victoria and Boxer are the only characters who seem to have any, well, character, and even then there isn’t much to work with. For all the dialog (apparently improvised), nobody really seems to have anything to say.

When everything starts going south, I don’t really care because I haven’t built up an emotional connection to the characters except Victoria. Costa holds a lot of the film together with her wide-eyed charm, but it only goes so far and there’s so much to hold together. I’ve heard a lot of people call this movie a thriller, and I can’t imagine a less appropriate designation. Thrillers have twists and turns and…well…thrillsVictoria just shuffles around Berlin even when it feels like it’s running.

As an experiment it intrigues, but to my mind, it ultimately falls flat. Enough people have liked it that I hesitate to refuse to recommend it at all; it might very well be your thing. But you definitely need to know what you’re in for before you start watching.

My rating: 4 of 10.

 

VICTORIA poster.

A scene from SICARIO.

Sicario

United States. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2015. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya. 121 minutes. 9/10

I can’t think of any metric by which anyone can claim that the War on Drugs has been a success. The cartels, having expanded from South America into Central America and Mexico, are busy turning those countries into replicas of their homelands, corruptocracies ruled by whoever can afford to pay the powers that be to look the other way. Demand for the cartels’ product, driven by consumers north of the Mexico-United States border, doesn’t seem to have diminished. Nativist politicans trade on ugly ethnic stereotypes to gain popularity. American diplomacy works on the “son-of-a-bitch” system perfected during the Cold War; resentment towards our nation festers as we make alliances with what we hope is the lesser of two evils.

This is the backdrop of Denis Villenueve’s crime action-thriller Sicario. FBI Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a multi-agency taskforce led by military consultant (a fancy way of saying “CIA agent”) Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Latin American intelligence asset Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Their goal is to take down notorious drug lords Manuel Díaz and Fausto Alarcón.

Villenueve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan give their story a structure similar to Apocalypse Now, with Macer taking the role of the soldier who thinks she’s tough, but soon finds her perceived toughness inadquate for her survival. Graver and Gillick aren’t tough or hard men; they’re sociopaths and psychopaths, for whom the means justify the ends. In such an environment, idealism rots like the dismembered, defiled bodies she sees hanging from the viaducts of Ciudad Juárez.

The entire cast shines–even minor characters such as Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) as a CIA spook and Maximiliano Hernández (The Americans) as a cartel menial–but Blunt and del Toro command all the attention. Blunt perfectly embodies the balance of toughness and vulnerability that plagues too many actresses trying to pull off contrived “strong female characters,” while del Toro is one of the scariest dead-eyed psychos since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

The ensemble helps to keep the production grounded when Sheridan’s screenplay lapses too far into absurdist territory. The performances fit well with Villenueve’s brutal direction and stark yet beautiful cinematography courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provies a churning, queasy score that often induces feelings similar to nausea, all the better to maintain unease in the audience.

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama; it’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning of what will come if we continue to course we’re on. It’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO poster.

A scene from GREEN ROOM.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up

Note to those who have been following my Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage: there isn’t any new content in this post, this is just the “Best Of” and Ranking segments broken off from the day 8 post for ease of reading.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up”