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
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.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: In the Fade / Mutafukaz / The Endless

My second “clump” of screenings included one World Cinema entry, In the Fade, and two After Dark offerings, Mutafukaz and The Endless.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t express how good it made me feel to walk up to the Advance Tickets counter at the theater and ask the festival volunteer to sell me a ticket to see Mutafukaz. Mutafukaz!

In the Fade

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Germany/France. Directed by Fatih Akin. 106 minutes.

Here in “Trump’s America,” we’re gradually coming to terms with the realization that the racist, neo-fascist element in our society has spread a lot wider than we wanted to believe. But white supremacist movements are certainly not confined to North America; German writer/director Fatih Akin’s latest effort, In the Fade (German title Aus dem Nichts, or “Out of Nowhere”), takes an unflinching look at the personal cost of racially-motivated domestic terrorism.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the film follows Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband Nuri and five-year-old son Rocco die in a nail-bomb attack executed by a neo-Nazi couple, as she navigates the waters of grief while seeking justice from the German legal system. Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for her performance. It’s not hard to see why. While the film delivers many fine performances (especially Denis Moschitto as Katja’s lawyer and Ulrich Tukur as the repentant father of one of the killers), Akin’s screenplay and direction focus squarely on Kruger. She takes the audience through the stages of grief and brings new meaning to phrases like “steely determination.”

In the Fade is a grim and tragic film from start to finish, and in its final moments (some light statistics on racist terrorism in mid-2000s Germany), acknowledges that the only way to get true justice for the Nuris and Roccos of the world is to prevent such acts of terrorism from occurring to begin with. Over here in America, we’re going to have to wrestle with that as well.

Mutafukas

Mutafukaz

France/Japan. Directed by Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume Renard. 90 minutes.

Based on the comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard—who also co-directed and wrote the screenplay—Mutafukaz mashes up anime, West Coast gangsta culture (as seen through a white Parisian’s eyes), Lovecraftian horror, the bande dessinée tradition, and I don’t know what else. Angelino (usually just “Lino”) and the flame-headed Vinz live in squalor in “Dark Meat City” (or maybe “Dead Meat City,” the film’s not entirely clear on that point), a thinly-veiled caricature of mid-’90s L.A. The two—along with their annoying associate Willy, a cowardly talking bat whom no one seems to like much—find themselves at the center of a bizarre alien invasion plot. Which, somehow, also involves a team of luchadores.

It’s overstuffed with ideas but it’s entertaining enough—usually. The action sequences and meta moments aren’t quite as impressive as Renard seems to believe they are. This English-language dub (which may have replaced a subtitled version at the last minute) suffers from bland dialog and awful voice performances. Most of the cast seems to have learned their accents from old Cheech and Chong skits; the main second-string villain sounds like a bad impersonation of a bad impersonation of Sylvester Stallone; even the nominally white characters say “cock-a-roaches.” And the film’s only significant female character—a parody of the stereotypical anime schoolgirl, complete with gratuitous upskirt shots—could have been removed from the plot entirely without much effect, never a good sign.

However, I doubt the target audience will see these as flaws. Mutafukaz could be the next classic animated midnight movie, its posters replacing Akira and Ghost in the Shell in dorm rooms across America.

The Endless

The Endless

United States. Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. 112 minutes.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the team behind Resolution and Spring, are back with another excursion into cosmic horror and its effects on those who come into contact with the infinite. The Endless stars Moorhead and Benson themselves as a pair of brothers named (wait for it…) Aaron and Justin, who return to the “UFO death cult” they grew up in and escaped a decade earlier. They find that the truth about the cult is much, much weirder than they’d thought.

I have been critical of Moorhead and Benson in the past—Resolution maddened me and Spring, while much better, suffered from some typical indie-cinema issues—but The Endless delivers the goods. The pair understand that the power of cosmic horror comes not from the monster, but from how the monster distorts the world around it. This can be visual—a “freak atmospheric effect” is blamed for doubling the appearance of the moon in the sky—but it’s often psychological as well: think of the rising paranoia in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Similarly, the brothers’ return to the cult forces them to confront some unpleasant truths about themselves and each other.

The pair use special effects sparingly and subtly, focusing chiefly on character and atmosphere. I was a bit dubious when I learned they play the lead roles, but they do well. The most memorable performance, however, comes from James Jordan as the perpetually angry Shitty Carl, who has perhaps the clearest grasp on what’s going on, and has suffered for it.

While it’s earned a good deal of festival-circuit buzz, it’s a bit early to tell whether The Endless will end up one of the “can’t-miss” horror films of 2017-18. It does share a reliance on atmosphere with It Comes at Night and (going back a couple years) The Witch, so hopefully it will reach those films’ audiences as well. At any rate, highly recommended.

Chicago International Film Festival: Part 1

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight

The final day brought us a thriller from Spain, a supernatural horror film from Laos, and a black comedy from Australia.

(This final entry is going to be kind of brief, as I came down with a severe head cold on Thursday and am still recovering from feeling weak, feeble, and having a solid lead ingot instead of a brain.)

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight”

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 sceme from 99 HOMES.

99 Homes

United States. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, 2014. Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown. 112 minutes. 8/10

In the prosperous ’90s, the Florida real estate market boomed. Then the economy took a downturn: unemployment shot up, the national housing market collapsed. Families defaulted on mortgages, banks foreclosed, law enforcement evicted. The market flooded with dozens, perhaps hundreds of houses, but nobody could afford to buy them. Which doesn’t mean that money can’t be made in the Florida real estate market. Especially if you’re clever…and corrupt. Greed always finds a way.

That’s the environment in which Ramin Bahrani’s angry, politically-charged thriller 99 Homes takes place. Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, an unemployed construction worker and single dad who loses the house he grew up in to foreclosure…and then gets a chance to buy it back by working for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the slick, predatory real estate agent representing the bank. Dennis soon finds his principles compromised as Carver increasingly relies on him to do his dirty work.

As with The Big Short, Adam McKay’s study of just what caused the housing market’s collapse, a distinctly uncomfortable vibe surrounds 99 Homes. Chances are, we all know someone affected by said collapse–maybe even ourselves. Dennis’s situation feels too familiar for comfort, and while we like to tell ourselves we would never betray our ethics in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, we know in our hearts that things aren’t quite that simple. Especially if we have mouths to feed.

Once we make it to the other side of the tracks, of course, it’s not like life suddenly becomes easier. The film’s publicity states that “Carver…slyly seduces [Dennis] into a lifestyle of wealth and glamour,” but these terms turn out to be, unsurprisingly, relative. Sure, Carver hobnobs with movers and shakers, cheats on his wife, and attends the occasional moderately wild party, most of what he does is work. If it takes hard work to get rich, it takes a lot more hard work to stay rich. And in a couple particularly vulnerable exchanges with Dennis, Carver explains why he needs to stay rich.

Carver and his motivation turn the film into something special, something more than a run-of-the-mill polemical thriller. I enjoyed it well enough in terms of story, even though its “deal-with-the-devil” style plot relies a bit too heavily on predictable narrative development and one or two all-too-convenient coincidences. Garfield does well, but I find it hard to shake the sense that he could do better. Laura Dern, as his mother, could do this sort of thing in her sleep. Shannon puts in the MVP performance here, interpreting Carver as a latter-day Gordon Gekko who knows he sold his soul. He could go over the top in so many scenes, but wisely chooses not to, underlining the character’s believability.

By humanizing the greed-driven Carver, Bahrani refuses to let us off the hook. Our culture turned Carver into who he is, 99 Homes seems to tell us, and it can do the same to us if we’re not careful.

99 HOMES poster.

A scene from ROOM.

Room

Canada/Ireland. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2015. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy. 118 minutes. 10/10

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in a garden shed with his mother (Brie Larson), and in his five years of life, neither he or his Ma has ever left it. He doesn’t know that there’s a world outside the shed door, that the things he sees on television are, in some part, real, or that kindly “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) who brings them food and supplies abducted Ma before he was even born. He doesn’t know that Old Nick is his father by rape. He doesn’t know that Ma told him a lot of lies because he was too young to understand the truth. All he knows is the tiny world inside the shed, which he calls Room.

When Old Nick loses his job and can’t keep up with his bills, Ma sees a chance for escape. Unfortunately, Old Nick isn’t her only obstacle: she must convince her son to disregard everything she taught him about the world. And their problems don’t end once they leave Room. How will Ma adjust to a world she spent seven years away from? How will Jack cope with so many things he has never known?

Trauma is a popular source of conflict in drama, particularly in genre exercises: it’s natural to want to see characters in unusual, dangerous situations, defying all odds to succeed. Many such narratives limit the aftermath of that trauma to the final segment of the plot arc, the denoument, but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a rich source of drama itself. Ma’s captivity is a traumatic event, but so is her escape, at least to Jack, and Room spends as much time examining the lives of Jack and his Ma inside Room as it does on their lives on the outside.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donaghue (adapting her novel) tell the story from Jack’s point of view, giving him a metaphorical second birth into a wider world. This perspective is ironically inverted from the viewers’: we see the outside world as ordinary and banal, and Room as the scary place where bizarre, messed-up stuff happens, but to Jack it’s the other way round. Room is comfort, Room is predictability, Room is safety. When Jack and Ma go to live with her parents, a throng of well-wishers greets them–not to mention the media–and those qualities are no longer present.

Room has been described as a “thriller” and while there are moments of danger and tension, at its core it’s a family drama, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement. It needs a strong cast, particularly when it comes to Jack, a role that requires a certain natural-ness from Tremblay–too much of a “performance” will kill the film with preciousness. He succeeds admirably here. Larson is also terrific as Ma, who embodies an unusual mixture of maturity and immaturity: emotionally stunted by her captivity, she nonetheless possesses keen instincts when it comes to her son.

I’ll call it now: at this point in the game, I expect to name Room my favorite film of 2015. It’s a sad and challenging but ultimately hopeful story about broken people struggling to help each other fix themselves, buoyed by a great script and fine performances.

ROOM 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.