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.

A scene from A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH...

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Sweden. Directed by Roy Andersson, 2014. Starring Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom. 101 minutes. 8/10

A man passes away in the cafeteria of a cruise ship; the counter jockey wonders what to do with the meal the dead man purchased but never had a chance to eat. A young girl prepares to recite a poem she learned, but her teacher only allows her to tell what the poem is about. A pair of salesmen confront their clients about their inability to pay, and are later taken to task by their own suppliers for the very same thing. What, exactly, is going on here?

Swedish director Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence bills itself up-front as “the last in a trilogy about being a human being.” (I’ve not seen the first two installments.) Andersson forgoes a conventional plot and narrative structure, instead presenting thirty-nine vignettes of varying length and mood. Some are simple (a man dies while straining to uncork a wine bottle), others are more complex (King Charles XII–of Sweden, one assumes–stops by a bar with his horsebound army while en route to a battle with a “sly Russian”), and others still seem so simple they could only be symbolic of something deeper (a man in a suit stands in a corporate boardroom, a gun in one hand, a phone in the other, telling the person on the other end “I’m glad to hear that you are fine”). Some are funny, some are sad, some are tragi-comic.

On the surface there’s very little obvious connecting tissue: while some characters recur (a flamenco-dancing couple, the aforementioned King Charles XII), the only ones who do so with any frequency are Sam (Nisse Vestblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), traveling salesmen who hawk novelty items such as plastic vampire fangs and “Uncle One-Tooth,” a rubber fright mask. They wander through the landscape somewhat aimlessly, a latter-day Vladimir and Estragon, sometimes at the center of the action, other times on the sidelines.

When one takes the individual segments in context, a unifying theme, if not exactly a pattern, emerges. Andersson adopts a distinctly theatrical style: notably, the camera never moves over the course of a vignette. While the stationary camera may read as boring when described, the visual compositions possess a stark beauty contrasting with the characters’ actions. Most of the ensemble wears a chalky white facepaint that makes them look almost like zombies (this is particularly pronounced in the opening segment). Intentionally Brechtian or not, this choice creates a remove between the audience and the characters: Andersson seems to want us to observe them from a distance, as they themselves appear to do.

His absurdist view of humankind takes on a distinctly negative tone, as illustrated by two shocking and difficult-to-watch segments late in the film. But through Sam and Jonathan, he expresses at least a little hope: while the latter recounts a thought (or perhaps a dream) in which an unspecified group of people (perhaps our species as a whole) refuses to submit for forgiveness. Given to fits of despondency, Jonathan’s sadness at the recounting of his story indicates that he sees the importance of repentance, even if he can’t quite bring himself to ask for it.

If you’ll forgive the pun, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a bit of an odd bird. It’s “art cinema” at its artiest, certainly not for everyone. But those in tune with the peculiar wavelength of its broadcasts will delight in it and treasure it, and find it deeply affecting, as I did.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH... poster

A scene from MARIANNE

Marianne

Sweden. Directed by Filip Tegstedt, 2011. Starring Thomas Hedengran, Tintin Anderzon, Peter Stormare. 104 minutes.

Let me tell you about something that has happened to me about a dozen and a half times over my life. I was laying down, sleeping. Suddenly, I woke up, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling, but entirely unable to move or speak. My body simply refused to obey the commands my brain sent it. Eventually, after some unclear amount of time, I would be able to force my will into my limbs or to my mouth and break the paralysis. It is very difficult for me to express exactly how terrifying these experiences are. The first time it happened is probably the single scariest moment of my entire life.

Eventually I discovered that the phenomenon was technically known as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, usually just shortened to “sleep paralysis,” and my episodes were pretty mild. I’ve never hallucinated during an episode, or at least I don’t think I did. Hallucination is widely associated with sleep paralysis: the sensation of pressure on the chest, the feel of claws or talons on (or under) the skin, the unshakable feeling that an evil presence shares the room. Folklore often attributes such experiences to visitations from demons or evil spirits, such as the German/Scandinavian mare. A mare is a cursed or damned female spirit that sits on your chest while you sleep, causing you to dream of scary things: this is where the English word “nightmare” comes from.

The mare legend is at the center of the low-key Swedish horror film Marianne. Its protagonist, a recently widowed math teacher named Krister, suffers from incidences of sleep paralysis–or maybe he’s attracted the attention of a mare. As the film goes on, we learn more about Krister and his complicated relationships…his late wife Eva…his teenage daughter Sandra and infant daughter Linnéa…his mistress Marianne. It seems that something wishes to do Krister and his family harm, and he needs to find out what…and why…before it’s too late.

The dominant aspect of Marianne, in terms of the story, is the family drama. Writer/director Filip Tegstedt thoroughly explores the complexities and ambiguities that come with modern dysfunctional family life. Krister’s not entirely sympathetic as a character: while he owns up to his failures as a husband and a father, he doesn’t seem to be particularly repentant of his choices until comparatively late in the story. These scenes will be very familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the effects of infidelity on a relationship or experienced them firsthand. Tegstedt admirably refuses to pull any punches and it’s what largely gives the film its power.

On the other hand, this means that a lot of the story is told in flashback and I wasn’t entirely sure whether a couple of events were meant to take place in the present or recent past. I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the action Krister takes that ultimately attracts the mare to him–it’s a third-act twist (actually revealed at what is almost the end of the movie) that doesn’t feel entirely in character with his personality.

I felt the supernatural-horror aspect of the story to be significantly weaker. I don’t know exactly why, but I simply didn’t find myself particularly interested in it. It moved a bit too slow and I didn’t really engage much with it. I did find it interesting that, if you pay close attention, you’ll find that everything that happens to Krister has a rational explanation and that the mare might be the psychological examination of his own guilt instead of a supernatural monster.

The characterization is excellent but it’s the sort of project that requires a great cast to make it work, and Marianne features many fine performances. Thomas Hedengran gives Krister just the right amount of distance and detachment to make the character work. He’s a guy with a traditionalist view of the parent-child dynamic, and he’s clearly uncomfortable with displays of emotion, but he’s hardly an unfeeling robot. Sandra Larsson imbues her namesake character with a fierceness that undercuts some of the “rebellious daughter” tropes (and the scene where she hides Krister’s coffee is priceless).

Dylan Johansson and Peter Stormare shine as two very different supporting characters: the former as Stiff, Sandra’s man-child boyfriend whose knowledge of Swedish folklore makes him Krister’s unlikely and uneasy ally; the latter as Sven, Krister’s thoroughly rational therapist. (Viewers from English-speaking countries, who only know Stormare for his over-the-top psychos and whack-jobs, may be pleasantly surprised at the subdued performance he gives here.)

Marianne does an excellent job of portraying the emotional wreckage of family turmoil, by way of Scandinavian folklore. Unfortunately I don’t feel the horror aspect of the story holds up quite as well, but the strong plotting and characterization and terrific performances make up for that.

Marianne poster