Saturday, December 31, 2016

30 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2016


30. Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay)

29. Zabriskie Point (1970, Michelangelo Antonioni)
28. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988, Francis Ford Coppola)
27. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006, Michel Gondry)
26. Orlando (1992, Sally Potter)

25. Lifeforce (1985, Tobe Hooper)
24. August Winds (2014, Gabriel Mascaro)
23. The Rapture (1991, Michael Tolkin)
22. Nenette et Boni (1996, Claire Denis)
21. Victor/Victoria (1982, Blake Edwards)
20. Evening Primrose (1966, Paul Bogart)
19. The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino)
18. The Green Pastures (1936, William Keighley and Marc Connelly)
17. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1973, D.A. Pennebaker)
16. The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)
15. Swimming Pool (2003, Francois Ozon)
14. Outrage (1950, Ida Lupino)
13. Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)
12. Tickets (2005, Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach)
11. A Little Romance (1979, George Roy Hill)
10. Tropical Malady (2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
9. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003, Charles Burnett)
8. Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
7. Serial Mom (1994, John Waters)

6. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963, Stanley Kramer)

5. The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan)
4. 3 Godfathers (1949, John Ford)
3. Mikey and Nicky (1976, Elaine May)
2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)
1. Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

Friday, December 30, 2016

History of Violence: ASSASSIN'S CREED

The director, cinematographer, and stars of last year’s effectively muddy and bloody production of Macbeth have reunited for another movie about fate, ambition, and violence. Unfortunately, and confusingly, the movie is Assassin’s Creed, a murky, inscrutable video game adaptation that goes heavy on the action and portent but light on sense. How they ended up here, other than an eagerness to collect a paycheck, must have something to do with the material’s stupid clever conceit. A modern-day criminal is hooked up to a sci-fi contraption and sent to eavesdrop in the brain and senses of a violent ancestor living 500 years ago. (It’s a Quantum Leap with less responsibility.) There’s a nugget of a fascinating concept about historical inevitability and genetic determinism in this idea, but it is developed in a scattershot way, draining suspense and intrigue the more it tries to complicate matters. At first glance it may look and sound more important than the usual attempts to make action movies out of video games, but the longer it goes the worse it grows – tin-eared, nonsensical, consequence-free.

But you can’t say director Justin Kurzel isn’t trying. He has cinematographer Adam Arkapaw whip up a textured and dusty look for the past and a gleaming antiseptic blue-grey sheen for the future. Into these dark (dim, really) frames goes Michael Fassbender, bringing far more neck-bulging Macbeth emotion than the writing requires. He plays a man on death row who gets injected with the executioner’s chemicals only to awake in a covert institute in Spain where a mysterious Marion Cotillard (a little less Lady Macbeth-y) hopes to use his DNA to extract the history of a centuries-old assassin (also Fassbender) and his mission to hunt down the apple Eve bit in Eden. Yes, you read that correctly. This movie began pleasingly silly in the way plenty pompous pulp pictures do: with a wall of text. This one is describing an ancient battle over supernatural relics fought between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Creed. The following confounding opening sequences are preposterous and exciting, cutting ruthlessly between slashing violence in the past and glowing doohickeys in the near future, trying breathlessly to tie two timelines and Fassbenders together into one nutty narrative.

By the time the swirling screenplay (by one writer who has adapted Shakespeare and two who adapted Vernoica Roth, if that indicates what’s going on here) settles into its main groove, the full incomprehensibility comes to the fore. We watch as our modern man gets attached to a giant apparatus that allows him to fully experience the sensations of his ancestor’s battles. Yet he can’t change the past. He’s merely an observer. And the company bankrolling Cotillard – and which also employs other great thespians Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael K. Williams, all asked to speak in hushed monotone – simply wants him to see where the elaborate historical action sequences – galloping horses, jabbing swords, and medieval parkour – take the apple. Why they can’t take him directly to when the apple is dropped off somewhere is beyond me. And what will this apple do once found? Nothing less than give them control of Free Will, though what that looks like or accomplishes is left awfully fuzzy. But if you’re already accepting a technobabble process by which DNA can be decoded into the ultimate VR experience, what are one or two more disbeliefs to suspend?

We’re watching two timelines: one in which unknowable future people stare at monitors, and one in which preordained action plays out without suspense because A.) we know they get the apple, and B.) our protagonist’s only involvement is paying attention to it. As a result, my attention dipped dramatically once I got used to the silliness and saw the stasis of it all. Sure, it looks striking and Kurzel has a tremendous amount of acting talent playing along with the inherently goofy story done up in total straight-faced seriousness. It has the thunderous sound design and huge CGI budget of a big studio production, and the constant drumbeat of flashy spectacle and weightless violence required of its genre. But every second that goes by means less and less as the groaning sturm und drang adds up to hollow, pointless confusion. The pseudo-mystical medieval swashbuckler hidden under layers of contrived convolutions would be a lot more fun if it wasn’t tied to such a ponderous drag about Fate and Conspiracy and Revenge. By the end, with the action finally mattering as it (mild spoiler, if you care) erupts in the other timeline, as the Assassin bloodline has its revenge on the techno-Templar, I found myself wondering why they hadn’t done that an hour earlier and saved us all the trouble of sitting through the hectic nothing. No movie this stupid can afford to be so dull.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stranger in Strange Land: AMERICAN HONEY

American Honey is a long, aimless road trip of self-discovery. It begins with a lost, disadvantaged, impoverished young woman escaping a bad relationship by running away with a wild band of scrappy twentysomethings piling in an old van to travel the American mid- and southwest selling magazine subscriptions. It ends with her having a little bit more of an idea about what she wants to do with her life, but not so much more that there’s anything like a natural endpoint. The movie simply travels along as the group stops at different towns and cities, adding up to a portrait of a nation of juxtapositions and inequalities: rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old. British director Andrea Arnold has traversed similar territory before, albeit in a much more contained setting, in her small, powerful Fish Tank, about a teenage girl living in miserable London poverty. Here, though, Arnold expands her canvas, trying to take in a whole generation, a whole country with one massive, rambling journey. She’s in search of some overarching truth that remains out of reach.

It’s in the tradition of films that find acclaimed foreign directors making a movie about “America.” (Trace the history back further and you could draw a line to Alexis de Tocqueville.) On the one hand, there can be great observations made from an outsider’s perspective. On the other, there can be some clumsiness in what might be more a commentary on America as a symbolic place onto which filmmakers can project their own interests. Thinking of the great eccentric examples of cinematic exchange, like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, it’s clear the most fascinating cross-cultural USA pictures are those which are most obviously a director’s preoccupations and pet theme’s layered over a new landscape. In the case of American Honey an anthropological curiosity tips over into an indiscriminate eye, looking for beautiful squalor, indulging lengthy sequences of its characters milling about, and failing to filter its incidents into anything like a coherent statement. It’s a grab bag of worst-case scenario Americana: convenience stores, truck stops, cheap motels, Wal-Marts, shallow suburbs, dusty highways, dirty dumpsters, and anywhere motes and bugs flit in the air.

A protracted, lumpy journey, the scraggly band of young people drift from place to place, bouncing along to thumping hip hop and shooting the breeze as they travel empty roads through wide open spaces. The lead (newcomer Sasha Lane) is charmingly inscrutable, energetic and open to new experiences but containing an essential unknowable mystery. She draws in interest, but also holds her motivations at a beguiling remove. She’s always in the moment, but her eyes betray a mind that’s always in two places at once. Others in the troupe include a guy she has a crush on (Shia LaBeouf, looking unkempt and un-showered) and the icily alluring leader of the pack (Riley Keough). The rest are a jumble of interesting faces with wild, unpredictable behaviors and personalities that blur together. You’d think spending nearly three hours with characters would let you get to know them pretty well, but this movie is interested in poses and episodic encounters – hooking up, robbing, hitchhiking, dancing, scavenging – than exposition or exploration of what makes these people tick. When it’s time to get down to business, they go door-to-door hawking their wares, telling unconvincing sob stories and hardly looking like trustworthy salespeople. It’s never clear how anyone could be buying what they’re selling.

For a long stretch of American Honey, with its tire-spinning repetitive grind of incident and Arnold’s typically claustrophobic square-framed trashy/beautiful cinematography, I felt like I’d always been and always would be watching this movie. It feels endless, content to live, and wallow, with the pretty poverty of its hard-living characters. Feinting at honesty when it’s really aestheticized and empty, the film ogles at unwashed skin, desperate situations, crumbling lives as if its act of looking through pretty filmic lenses is equivalent to having something to say. When it’s compelling, losing itself in the makeshift tribal rituals of bouncing and chanting along to mantras and raps or in stealing away moments of fleeting joy in crushing pain and poverty, the actors bring excitement and convincing lived-in feeling to the proceedings. But when it’s at its clumsiest, it’s rootless and pointless, drifting along on borrowed observations and trite conclusions. This is an ode to a lost generation, to young people who are wandering doom- and debt-laden into a world where hope and possibility have been dried out in the wake of their elders. And yet it has no real sense of why that might be or how these characters feel about their plight. It’s as lost and unaware as they are, striking to look at but with little to say.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Don't You Worry 'bout a SING

Sing is the least you can do to make an inoffensive all-ages animated amusement. It’s not particularly inspired or entertaining, with none of the visual beauty of a Laika or Ghibli, the innovation of a Pixar, or the all-around crowd-pleasing nature of a Disney. Despite a host of celebrity voices and colorful shenanigans, it doesn’t even have a leg up over Trolls, the other recent jukebox karaoke musical comedy aimed at youngsters and the adults who don’t mind taking them to such things. No, Sing doesn’t have higher highs or lower lows, because it’s not trying to do as much. It’s set in a world of animals behaving like people in an expansive metropolis, but hasn’t a tenth of Zootopia’s imagination. It is filled with characters yearning to make something of themselves, but with nary the picture book psychology of an Inside Out. It finds a plucky koala (Matthew McConaughey) throwing a singing competition to save his crumbling theater – Muppets much? – and gathers a menagerie of contestants with individual little dramas and conflicts, but isn’t interested in setting up American Idol suspense. It just wants to live up to its title and sing. That’s it. And so it does.

Totally undemanding, the movie starts out like it’ll be a family friendly Altman picture, swooping around its city to find the characters who’ll be the finalists. There’s a harried hog mother (Reese Witherspoon), soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton), moody porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), sleazy rat (Seth MacFarlane), shy elephant (Tori Kelly), sparkling pig (Nick Kroll), and others who fall by the wayside as the big show approaches. That they all have little problems to overcome – stage fright, gambling debts, bad dads, and so on – is par for the course. That none of these issues derail the movie’s genial good spirit and even keel plotting contributes to its blasé sense of anodyne amiability. Some wild cards – a lazy rich sheep (John C. Reilly) whose grandmother (Jennifer Saunders) was once upon a time a theater (or, as she’d pronounce it, “thea-tah”) star – enter the proceedings just to keep churning incident between bobble-headed snippets of pop songs sung loudly and enthusiastically from the mouths of cartoon critters.

The songbook is at least somewhat admirably diverse. Animals sing hits by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Van Halen, Frank Sinatra, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, and many, many more. Remember those infomercials for multi-CD sets of “Greatest Hits,” which would reliably end with brief excerpts from songs included while a complete tracklist would scroll by in garish yellow font? That’s how many a child parked in front of the TV would get introduced to earworms of times gone by. (That and the oldies stations were formative instruments of pop knowledge.) So maybe that’s the function Sing will serve in this on-demand age, letting kids hear a broad swath of easy pop listening while their parents smile in recognition at a couple measures of, say, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” That we get a plot punctuating abbreviated musical numbers is too bad, as the whole thing grinds to a halt when we need to care that a mammal is cut from the competition due to his excessive flatulence or that another critter in need of money throws a car wash and uses his fur to buff and dry.

There’s really nothing else to it other than bland believe-in-yourself moralizing that’s been done better, and with more conviction, in a dozen other animated family films of the last quarter century. It has a whole colorful animal world that’s been imagined at the level of a particularly underdeveloped picture book, with not even a scrap of the visual ingenuity and clever visual gags of a Zootopia. There’s even a missed opportunity for an exploration of what these real-world singers look like in the parallel animal world. Think of all the puns left for the taking. Diana Sloth. The Beetles. Llama Summers. Weird Al Yak-ovic. Director Garth Jennings (of the decent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a decade ago) and the team at Illumination (of the Despicable Mes) are content to simply groove on the borrowed charms of fun songs to power their blandly amiable time-waster.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Space Journey Into Night: PASSENGERS

It’d be impressive how brainless Passengers is if it didn’t also come with an attendant sense of overwhelming boredom. Here’s a movie that does the heavy lifting to establish a concept with a modicum of compelling interest, then squanders it. Thirty years into a century-long spaceflight, two passengers wake from hibernation. Unable to return to suspended-animation – what with their pods malfunctioning and whatnot – they’re simply trapped to live out the rest of their lives on a cross-universe flight, doomed to die before even reaching the colony that was their destination. Great, right? But the movie seems to care not a stitch about the horror of the situation, nor does it particularly care that the central location is a bland cavernous 2001-themed shopping mall with a cruise ship aesthetic and stole its best ideas from WALL-E. Add to this an underlying creepiness on the doomed voyage that the filmmakers mistook for romanticism – Titanic this ain’t – and I started to get almost grateful that the movie was so devoid of interest. It lulled me to sleep with its stupidity and no amount of gleaming sci-fi gewgaws or flattering shots of attractive movie stars could hold my attention.

The movie stars in question are Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, here playing future people who were eager to sleep off a hundred years and wake up colonists on a new planet. What would make a person agree to such a momentous prospect? The movie’s eager to shrug it off to get to the smooching. Normally I wouldn’t be opposed to such a task, especially in a movie built around two actors who we know will end up together for no other reason than because they’re the only two around. (Well, there is an android bartender played by Michael Sheen, but the movie’s not that nutty.) Consider the circumstances that bring them together. Pratt’s pod malfunctions, so he’s left the only waking life on the ship. He wanders around like this for a year, getting beardy, bedraggled, and deeply lonely. (Think Forte’s wildest moments in Last Man on Earth filtered down to the lowest shiny studio denominator.) It’s then that Pratt decides to open up another pod, the prettiest lady in hibernation thus summoned to be his playmate. He hides this fact from her, of course, thereby enabling a castaway romance the movie wants us to root for.

If you can stomach such a rocky foundation for a relationship, you can enjoy these two pretty people swimming, playing basketball, going on picnics, drinking in a bar like The Shining’s complete with the aforementioned unreal barkeep, talking to robots, plundering the ships stores of food, and making gauzy backlit tastefully PG-13 love. We’re supposed to feel the isolation as harrowing and cozy in the same moment, a romantic getaway for two surrounded by the howling void of galactic expanses. In one of the movie’s worst moments, as the couple fights, Pratt (all charm before it curdles to smarm) mentions giving Lawrence (flat and unconvincing, except for her perfume-ad poses in a tight white bikini) some space. “Space is the last thing I need,” she groans, while we silently wait out the dead air left around this cornball laugh line. Still, the movie does acknowledge their untenable situation from time to time, especially as the ship’s malfunctions escalate, increasingly threatening to put a quick end to their good times. That is, if she doesn’t discover the truth first.

Here’s where I started idly wondering if Jon Spaiths' script was just told from the wrong perspective. Instead of spending a year with Pratt before he wakes Lawrence from her sci-fi slumber – thereby stealing her future, and thus, in effect, murdering her – what if we woke up with her? She’d be told their pods malfunctioned, deal with her suddenly rewritten future, grapple with knowledge she’ll die alone in space, and slowly get drawn into a romantic entanglement with the only warm body around. Then – what a twist! a sick, cruel, surprising twist! – she learns she’s been betrayed, and trapped with him forever. Sounds better to me, but that’s premised on sorting out not only the perspective, but the tone, approach, and the filmmaking’s smooth, polished, nothings. The movie’s simply too bright and empty, even at its bleakest and most complicated, to really dig into its implications. (It doesn’t even give its stars cool future fashions, instead leaving them in boring leisure wear.) Director Morten Tyldum (of the almost equally bland Imitation Game) gives the whole thing an unreal sheen, too dutifully proficient to cook up any real heat and too sedate to gin up any excitement. It’s so vacant a production, not even a zero-g swimming pool calamity can get something going.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Dark Side: ROGUE ONE

Rogue One takes what could’ve been trivial noodling around in Star Wars lore and turns it into a proficient sci-fi action movie building to intimations of grand space operatic tragedy. It’s the second film made after creator George Lucas sold his remarkable galaxy to Disney, who have thus far been studious, respectful, and cautious custodians. Instead of an idiosyncratic vision from one artist’s mind, it’s a committee polishing up effective fan service. (At least the emphasis is on “effective.”) For promising new narrative future, this latest film has nothing on last year’s The Force Awakens, with its immediately vibrant new personalities and their lingering unresolved promise: the simmering twisted villain Kylo Ren and fresh Force heroine Rey. But in staging Star Wars-ian action, Rogue One is the more complete experience, with a beginning, middle, and end, a style more efficiently beholden to what came before without strain, and a tone more willing to fit the enormity of the sacrifice in this conflict. It’s overly engineered to be a gleaming widget, fitting seamlessly into the larger franchise plan instead of springing from a singular revelation. But at least this is still a film that dreams a little bigger than most blockbuster product, playing in a hugely enjoyable and intricately imagined fantastical universe with some sense of the painful struggle to resisting brutal fascism.

This entry tells a big, confident tale of a dark corner of the galactic conflict we’d long known about but never seen: the process by which the Rebel Alliance discovered the existence of the super-weapon Death Star and stole plans that’ll end up given by Princess Leia to R2-D2 in the 1977 original’s opening moments. A self-contained – despite the endless references and offshoots into other areas of franchise canon – and admirably scruffy combat heist film – think The Guns of Navarone…In Space!! – it has a motley diverse crew of insurgents striking back against the forces of an evil empire. Better symbols than characters, the underwritten rebels make decent action figures. Through swooping, crashing, clamorous adventure sequences across all manner of terrain – deserts, villages, space stations, jungles, and tropical beaches – they fight. Reluctant rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) joins a spy (Diego Luna), a comic-relief combat robot (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed), and two monk-like warriors (legendary Chinese action stars Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang bringing fun choreography). Their mission: contact her father (Mads Mikkelsen), an unhappy Imperial scientist who knows how to take the Death Star down.

This leads to varied action beats, like an ambush in a far-flung marketplace, a mountainous recon mission in a downpour, and a dizzying dogfight above a gleaming citadel. Along the way we learn a little more about the Rebellion than the earlier films had time to explore, with different factions of the Alliance debating battle plans and how to deal with extremists (like an under-used Forest Whitaker) in their midst. This mirrors the Empire’s side, as a commander (Ben Mendelsohn) fights off the life-and-death office politics of battle-station life. The script, pieced together by four credited contributors (Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, Gary Whitta, and John Knoll) juggles the movie’s hard-charging tough-minded warfare with hit-and-miss cameos, fun one-liners, smart retcons, terse exposition, and shorthand emotion. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air – and the strain sometimes shows, especially in the final product’s clearly tinkered dropped connections and foreshortened beats – but there’s fun to be had in the tactile look and crisp pace. There’s even a welcome commitment to feeling the losses, culminating in a staggering shot of good characters embracing certain doom knowing they’ve done all they could to win some small hope for their cause.

Although this is a side story, a spin-off, it’s identifiably Star Wars in its concern with family dramas writ large in galactic conflict and a sense of spirituality amidst tactics, plus gearhead love of spaceships taking off and landing and fantasy anthropologist appreciation of interesting creatures and beasties. (We get all the old familiar X-Wings and TIE Fighters and fish-heads and tentacle-haired beings, as well as slick new designs and goofy new aliens, like a massive Force-sensitive slug used as a lie-detector test.) Plus it has a key insight to style the cast like they’re actors from the 70’s – shaggy hair, groovy mustaches – playing the characters. Though cinematographer Greig Fraser shot gorgeous location photography and ILM filled it up with top-of-the-line digital fakery, it has the scuffed retro-future look of the original trilogy, like a modern re-creation of a 70’s vision. The much-ballyhooed lived-in universe aesthetic of Lucas’s original trilogy still draws visual appeal because it’s so densely designed. It proves there’s still a sense you could find a fascinating new story around every corner in every frame of this series. It also proves once more director Gareth Edwards (of 2014’s great Godzilla) is a master popcorn image-maker (despite many eye-popping shots featured in trailers ending up on the cutting room floor).

The movie works best when it has soaring spectacle clued into the enormity of its scale – a shuttle dwarfed by a planet behind it, the orbiting Death Star creating a solar eclipse, a city destroyed by laser-blast sending enormous shockwaves ripping up surrounding terrain in waves, and massive space structures colliding in the way everyone has played with the toys has dreamed about. But even in the moments when it’s merely workmanlike – or overworked franchise caretaking – it has some of the appeal the old Expanded Universe paperbacks did, varying in quality but consistently a drip, drip, drip of more, more, more for fans. It has all the bells and whistles, the immediately identifiable sound effects, music cues, and visual hallmarks of the series, even if it now has an over-polished committee’s recreation of what was once a singular personal pulp remix. The best thrills – a sensational final battle like something out of N64’s Rogue Squadron video game – feature dazzling effects and action better staged than Abrams’. It may still be imitation Lucas – or maybe imitation Kershner at this point – but it’s sturdy and entertaining nonetheless.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Through how many tableaux of bad behavior have we suffered over the last several years? And I’m talking of only the party movie kind. The slow-mo drinking and dancing. The messy floors. The pounding dance music. The people making out or throwing up or swinging punches. The appliances hurled out windows. The drugs splayed out on tables, smoked up in clouds, or dusted over crowds. The bottles broken, syrup spilled, clothes flung, cars crashed, and animals wandering. We’ve seen this in basically every other R-rated comedy of the past decade or so. It no longer has much in the way of shock value, and is only a fun party by proxy if the mix of naughty to nice is exactly right. (Think more Sisters than Project X.) By now it’s a predictable and hyperbolic version of the lampshades on heads or pizzas on turntables of yesteryear. Now here’s Office Christmas Party, the latest excuse to stage the same wild party behavior.

Proficiently and competently directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck (of similarly sturdy slight comedies Blades of Glory and The Switch) the whole thing contrives a reason to get rowdy. Set almost exclusively on a couple floors in a Chicago skyscraper, where a tech company (an old-school kind, more Dell than Uber) has its annual Christmas party cancelled. The CEO (Jennifer Aniston) threatens cuts, but her brother (T.J. Miller), as head of this branch, goes behind her back to throw the biggest bash yet. It’s a last ditch effort to pitch an older businessman (Courtney B. Vance) on signing a new contract, the only thing that’ll keep layoffs out of the picture for the next quarter. This leaves decent middle managers (like Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn) scrambling to make sure the wild night saves everyone’s jobs. The stage is set for a commentary on good people trapped in a debased culture – between ruthless profiteering on the one hand, total anarchic largess on the other. But the movie mostly throws that overboard in hopes we’ll root for the corporation.

There are some funny ideas here: a huge company run like a family squabble, markets driven by a rapacious need for constant growth, employees listless and only motivated by fear of firings, society a mindless rabble willing to throw off bounds of decorum at the first opportunity. There’s something perceptive under the surface. Tip the whole thing five or ten degrees in perspective and tone and you’d have a vicious satire of modern America. Alas, it’s just another glossy spread of dumb sitcom excess and juvenile antics dressed up as cutting loose and living it up with no connection to any reality. Watch Miller’s rich dope spend money on a living nativity, huge Christmas trees, a DJ, endless booze, profane ice sculptures, and let the vibrantly devolving bacchanal begin. It’s like Wolf of Wall Street without the bite or wit. Instead we’re just supposed to find it amusing, as wish fulfillment or vicarious thrill. How sad if this is any fantasy earnestly harbored. Worse still the implications in letting quiet, dull, dutiful good-behaving office parties be the enemy. What’s wrong with a simple cheese plate and a non-alcoholic beverage between polite work acquaintances and assorted colleagues?

In some ways, it makes more sense as a disaster movie. Like The Towering Inferno it gathers a lot of characters in a tower and introduces them all with an emotional or professional loose end that’ll be tidily resolved in chaos to come. But that movie had the good decency not to ask us to be primarily invested in whether or not the company that built the structure would be able to make money off the madness. Office Christmas Party is smartly cast down to the smallest role with fun scene-stealers – Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Sam Richardson, Karan Soni, Jamie Chung, Abbey Lee, Andrew Leeds, Matt Walsh, and many more recognizable to anyone who has seen a comedy or two lately. They’re just given routine sitcom plots to enact through the party – a guy who tries to hire an escort to act like his fake girlfriend; a guy who doesn’t tell his boss he has a better job offer; a woman trying to avoid a co-worker after learning something embarrassing about him. They wring some pleasant entertainment, personalities and a brisk pace papering over the fundamental emptiness at its core: a bland celebration of a vulgar holiday spirit, with capitalism and commercialism for all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Mourning in America: JACKIE

Jackie puts a First Lady first, letting her story be the central narrative. When it comes to a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination, an event as thoroughly picked over as any in history, it does some good to approach it from an atypical angle. Here we get not a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of the 1963 trip to Dallas that ended with shots into a limousine ending the life of America’s president, but a tumultuous swarm of swirling memory, impression, and emotion from the woman sitting beside him. She’s trying to put her life back together, protect her late husband’s legacy, keep her children safe, and come to grips with her traumatic experience. Her personal tragedy is also the nation’s. Her private grief must be matched by a public performance thereof. The shock, the pain, the deep horrifying psychological wound torn open the instant her husband slumped forward, bloody and dead, into her lap is her only constant. Her fear of what it means for her and her family’s future – where will they live? what will she do? how will they move on? – is matched only by the eerie insecurity hanging heavily in the air during every conversation and every decision she must now have and make.

When the film begins, it has been a week since the assassination. A reporter (Billy Crudup) arrives at Jackie Kennedy’s home for an interview. She wants her feelings respectfully and accurately presented to the world, an intimate expression after the overwhelming pomp of the state funeral. This is the impetus for screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (whose day job is head producer of the Today show) to unload a stream-of-consciousness memory kaleidoscope built out of a recreated TV special and glimpses of happy times – dinners, dances, concerts in the White House – before settling into a more routine procedural recounting of the raw, ragged days of deliberations and depression immediately following JFK’s death. Taken together, it adds up to history unfolding like a dream, a nightmare, a daze. Is this really happening? The characters seem to hold this unspoken question behind their eyes. Assistants (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, Max Casella), Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and a priest (John Hurt) circle with comforting gestures and painful to-do lists. A new President (John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady (Beth Grant) wait in the wings. Everyone is in a suspended state of shock and grief, and yet the world must continue spinning.

While the screenplay is occasionally too obvious – characters uttering expository or nakedly thematic pronouncements at each other – the filmmaking scrapes away many usual ticks and tricks of a period piece wax museum movie. Instead, Pablo Larraín, a Chilean director whose sharply entertaining political docudrama No showed his ability to find humanity in historical excitement, has filmed Jackie in such a way as to bring out the immediacy. This is an emotionally experiential film, with a hushed sound design, a haunting minimalist under-the-skin Mica Levi score, and pale funereal film stock. The camera floats and swerves behind Jackie, her impeccable wardrobe and styling holding together a public persona that’s been made instantly fragile. In tense conversations planning the funeral – it shares with Stephen Frears’ The Queen a similar sense of outsized importance on the symbolism of properly performed civic grief – she’s only just holding in her storm of emotions. For her colleagues, for her children, for her country, she must always make the next best move.

This sense of competing loyalties pervades the film. Who can imagine being forced to live the worst week of your life with the nation hanging on your every move? “Nothing’s mine to keep,” Jackie admits, heartbreakingly, discussing the furnishings of the White House, but you can feel the fresh absence of her husband in the line. In fact, the film’s best move is allowing JFK to not be a character in the film. He’s glimpsed here and there, but it is his lack of presence that becomes his presence. He is gone, and that fact hangs heavily over the film. (I was all set to praise the film for refusing to show the assassination itself, instead relying on a close-up monologue explaining the event and an evocative shot racing behind the car as it speeds away from the fateful Plaza. And then it shows it, like a poison-pill reveal near the end. That troubles me, and I remain unsure as to what extent it’s supposed to be a jolt, and how much it is meant to fulfill a sick expectation of witnessing the head ripped open in a flash.) Jackie asks the driver of the hearse, “Do you remember James Garfield?” When he says he doesn’t, she sets herself to the task of making sure her husband doesn’t suffer that fate, to be snuffed out of the history books twice over.

Tasked with holding this whole endeavor together shot by shot is Natalie Portman, who takes on the role of Jackie with all the careful seriousness and empathetic precision you could ask. It’s a calculated performance, carefully poised, a soft-touch impersonation despite the weight of every choice making itself known in each frame. Portman affects a wispy moneyed East Coast rasp, sliding each line of dialogue out of a placid countenance with pained effort and grim hoarseness. She’s playing a woman of recognizable look and sound, now rattled, but barely wanting to show it. To do so she’s exerting tremendous effort. This is one of those rare performances where the exertion and the decision-making process of the actor in question are transparently evident, but in a way that aligns with – mirroring and bolstering – the character’s struggle to play the role she wants to project to the world. It’s an interesting collaboration between director, writer, and star in evoking an imagined torment of a historical figure’s bleakest days. They, and she, aren’t hiding behind grand ceremony and symbolism, but using it to find some small sense of understandable emotion on which to cling.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hooray for Hollywood: RULES DON'T APPLY

Rules Don’t Apply is an old-school Hollywood movie with throwback Hollywood pleasures. But it’s also unusual enough it's never quite the movie you think you’d get. It starts in the early 60s at the bottom of the business, with two fresh-faced young people ready to make a go of careers in showbiz. There’s a meek but determined chauffer for the Howard Hughes companies (Alden Ehrenreich) who hopes to one day actually meet the man and propose a real estate venture. There’s a comely chaste Christian beauty queen (Lily Collins) invited to L.A. to be under contract, put up in a fancy bungalow, and given a salary of $400 a month while awaiting a screen test. They’re each just one of many such people in the Hughes universe, drivers and ingénues kept waiting for a day he may need them, underlings getting by despite the rules and stipulations that come with their paychecks. Of course these two sweet young people start making eyes at each other, progress to light flirting, and eventually might even fall into something like unspoken love underneath their contract’s strict no-fraternization policy. The setup is there for a frothy farce, a gentle rom-com, but it keeps getting crashed into, stirred up, distracted and diverted by the mad man running the show.

That’s the movie’s appeal, a handsome period piece comedy steered by the choppy, unpredictable whims of its outsized supporting player. Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, is by this time of his life retreating into isolation and madness. He’s a figure of mystery, star-power held at first off screen, then hiding in dark rooms or barking orders over the phone. When he’s not around, his power and influence dominates nonetheless. It’s fitting, then, that Warren Beatty, one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men once upon a time, plays him. Now 79, the multi-hyphenate behind Reds and Dick Tracy hasn’t appeared on screen in 15 years, a long absence for someone of his stature, so his impeccably delayed arrival mirrors Hughes’ reclusiveness. When he finally does appear, stuttering, drifting off topic, lost in his own thoughts, giving in to his eccentricities, we can feel the sense of his fading glory by seeing Beatty play up how little cool he brings to the part. He still has charisma, but he funnels it into a figure who is losing his, and who maintains it through wealthy and mystery. He has a great Movie Star entrance, but soon commands the screen by being both more and less than you’d think.

Beatty, who also wrote and directed this passion project (his first behind-the-camera work in nearly 20 years), uses himself sparingly. He lets the picture sit squarely with the youngsters who are struggling to get ahead by using Hughes’ erratic largess and ignoring or indulging his inconsistent follow-through. This fizzy youthful possibility simmering as sublimated romantic interest powers the movie’s rushing sensation of lives out of control. Hughes is desperately trying to hang on to his business interests as investors cast doubts on his ability to manage his assets while an odd, stubborn recluse. He wants control – an idea that extends from his particular instructions about every aspect of his life, down to the behaviors of his underlings – even to the point of changing his mind simply because he can. (Or because he makes so many frivolous micromanaged decisions he can hardly keep track of them all.) It’s a tremendous part Beatty’s written for himself – simultaneously fumbling with befuddled humor and carrying a constant underlying gloom – which is all the more effective for occupying the unusual position of driving the plot while staying on the margins.

Clearly wrestled into submission, the just-over-two-hours final picture has four credited editors and a brisk pace, rocketing through scenes and developments with a quick chop-chop-chop attitude. A host of great actors (Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Annette Benning, Haley Bennett, Megan Hilty, Paul Schneider, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, and many more) waltzes through small roles, clearly enjoying chewing meaty material in fun scenes. None stay long, but all add immeasurably to the texture and personality of the worlds in which our leads swim. (The ensemble is so stuffed, the performers must’ve shown up at the mere call to be in Beatty movie. Or maybe they all had larger roles in earlier cuts.) The zippy speed feeds the fast pace of life lived according to an unpredictable boss, and the rushing energy of young people trying not to be in love. The pair at the film’s center do, after all, seem perfect for each other. They’re cute – Collins with young Hollywood’s most expressive eyebrows, while Ehrenreich is blessed with one of his generation’s most sympathetic half-squints – trading rat-a-tat dialogue with screwball aplomb.

As the mechanics of the plot send the young nearly-lovers together and then apart, into their own personal setbacks while chasing diverging goals and unsettled futures, there’s a tinge of melancholy that settles over Caleb Deschanel’s warm cinematography. Hughes, too, serves as a funhouse mirror reflecting and refracting (in addition to compounding) their problems. Here’s a man who turned his father’s company into a global success, and still feels empty inside, trying to fill futile days with pretty women to ogle, underlings to boss around, and technology to futz with. (There’s a pretty terrific reaction shot of a speaker, dryly funny as an emphasis of loneliness when one character’s over-the-phone revelation is met with icy silence.) Beatty knows how to get the tragicomic mixture in exactly the right proportions, and the film’s paradoxical frantic meandering settles into a lovely rhythm of dramatic and comedic incidents, big laughs that can get swiftly choked off in a poignant pause. It’s as spirited on the surface as it is sad and reflective underneath even the bubbliest moments. It’s a big glossy movie working in the spirit of a small scrappy one.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black and Blue: MOONLIGHT

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a movie about being Black and blue, about the sensitive emotional bruises of a melancholy young African American man growing up a misfit. He’s looking for connections – parental, friendly, romantic – and yet can hardly admit to himself how deeply his yearning goes, and in which directions it grows. It takes raw material that’d easily slip into standard issue social drama and fits it to a far more embodied and expressive form, rippling with tangible detail, staging dialogue scenes freighted with pregnant pauses and tender nuances under a softly crackling mood. It’s a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, a boy realizing he’s different as he’s trying to find his place. He’s a young boy, growing up impoverished in Miami, learning to fend for himself, drawn to a compassionate surrogate father figure: the neighborhood drug dealer who supplies his addict mother with her fix. He’s a teenager, shy and withdrawn, barely registering the slight trembles of flirtation with a brash peer’s similarly unspoken desires. He’s a young man, bulkier, tougher, more confident, but with a soft sweetness drawn out with the right words.

Told in three sections – each a resonant short film unto itself – Jenkins, adapting a work by Tarell Alvin McCraney, structures the film around relationships in the process of forming or deforming. In the first part, we meet the boy (Alex Hibbert) as he’s taken under the wing of the dealer (Mahershala Ali). He’s spotted alone, fleeing both the rough boys who tease him and the mother (Naomie Harris) in and out of her highs. The older man treats him to kindness, a gentle respect that cuts against the typical drug dealer stereotype. Consider a quietly stunning scene in which the boy, having internalized a bullying jeer, comprehending the intent without understanding the words, asks the fatherly influence, “What’s a fag?” There’s a long silence while the man chooses his words carefully and generously. Jenkins allows to hang in the empty space the potential for calamity (stoked, perhaps, by our culture’s preoccupation with miserable worst-case-scenario “realism” in this sort of fiction, an erroneous denial of possibilities for kindness, grace, and small favors). The release, and relief, comes as the boy gets exactly the right age-appropriate advice, an oasis of support in a turbulent childhood.

We next meet him as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), sullen and withdrawn, beholden to his mother’s whims and his social isolation. The rippling tensions he carries between his shoulder blades is bound to erupt—maybe in a tender moment of hesitant pleasure on the beach, or an explosive moment of violence in the cafeteria. They each have their momentary satisfactions for the boy. But neither get him all the way to where he wants to be. The movie’s final act—scenes, really—is a reconnection between the boy, now-grown man (Trevante Rhodes), and an old friend (André Holland). In Wong Kar-wai wooziness and smoky smoldering, the men hesitantly reminisce, tight-lipped and taciturn dialogue loaded with implication. For that’s what the movie’s best at, Jenkins mining the unspoken and the half-whispered for the expressively lit and intuitively cut connections that draw out the melodrama of the everyday. Here’s a tremendous work of empathy and sensitivity, moving and melodious as it lets its characters’ vulnerabilities draw them further into themselves, while holding out the possibility of fuller self-expression.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Spies Like Thus: ALLIED

It is fitting Allied, a glossy new film from Robert Zemeckis, opens on Thanksgiving weekend, because its appeal is not dissimilar from a Macy’s parade. The movie is a shiny empty spectacle in which two performers of balloon-sized star power are paraded down a straightforward, unsurprising route. Zemeckis is too skilled a technician to make it badly, but for all the sharp, clear staging and gleaming period detail, he hasn’t thought through a way to make the screenplay jump into anything resembling life. It’s beautifully inert, handsomely dull. He’s clearly out to make a grand old-fashioned entertainment, a World War II spy picture that – colorful widescreen use of the R-rating aside – could’ve been made in the forties. It starts in Casablanca – a real statement of purpose, that – with two Allied spies (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) meeting on sand-swept streets. They are to play husband and wife Vichy sympathizers, get invited to the German ambassador’s upcoming party, and then kill every Nazi in the place. That’s a great hook, and afterwards it’ll spin out in what should be gut-wrenching consequences, but instead dwindle to boredom.

The peculiar tension of Zemeckis’s artificial approach is highlighted in the opening shot, a slow move around Pitt parachuting into the desert as he slowly, gracefully, lands upright on two feet with a soft puff of sand. It looks as if he’s standing still with scenery composited in around him, like a promo shot for a Virtual Reality headset. But it’s also a terrifically entertaining dose of stardom as Pitt – perfectly coiffed and tailored – is met by a car in the middle of nowhere. He’s driven to town where he meets Cotillard, who is wearing a glossy dress stunningly draped over her figure. Zemickis is in full command of his dazzling technique, letting the two spies get drawn into a real romance flowering under their cover story. Asked how she can be such an effective spy, Cotillard responds that she keeps the emotions real. Indeed, the same goes from the opening hour of the film, which features elaborate camera fakery and intimate collisions of charisma, climaxing in two moments. First, they finally make love in the back of a car, the camera spinning around the vehicle while a howling digital sandstorm whirls outside. Second, they gun down Nazis at a blood-splattered party. Fun times.

After a decade spent making (underrated) animated films, Zemeckis is now three films into his return to live action. He’s clearly enjoying the full CG complement of tools at his disposal to finally create complex camera moves he’s been working towards his whole career. Think about the trickery on display in Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Contact and watch how much bigger, longer, and more complicated the artifice can be in Flight’s wild plane crash or The Walk’s vertigo-inducing skyscraper tightrope. He’s not doing anything so elaborate here, instead concocting with cinematographer Don Burgess’s scrubbed smooth images a sort of vintage throwback spy movie, with patiently filmed polished backlots and wardrobe, perfect and shiny, the better to complement his movie stars. There’s just nothing like putting a real person in an elaborately imagined feat of moviemaking. (Perhaps it’s worth pointing out Zemeckis’s three post-animation films contain nude scenes. I suppose that’s making use of the live in live action?) So when sharply dressed people watch the sun rise over the sand dunes, Nazis get blown apart, or London’s skies light up with enemy fire, there’s a charge to seeing the layers of phony visual interest designed for our amusement.

But for such a good-looking film, it grows tedious the instant it introduces its most gripping complication. Pitt and Cotillard return from Casablanca to England, where they promptly decide to get married. A year passes, during which they have a child, born during an air raid in one of the movie’s best hyperbolic set pieces. Then, one fateful Friday, Pitt is called into a secret meeting where his superiors (Jared Harris and Simon McBurney) tell him his wife is most likely a Nazi spy. They’ll know for sure by Monday morning. He’s to act like nothing’s out of the ordinary, but if she’s found guilty he’ll be the one pulling the trigger. If he doesn’t, he’ll face indictment for conspiracy. This should be gripping material, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in reverse, dazzling espionage funneled into a comfortable domestic life instead of the other way around. Every minute of this weekend should be loaded with portent. And yet writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has designed a screenplay that separates the couple for large portions of this second half, sending Pitt on increasingly inane attempts at investigating that are both useless and fruitless. For such a great spy, it takes him a dreadfully long time putting the clues together.

Zemeckis has the right cast and crew to pull off a stylish WWII thriller, but the screenplay tunnel visions into its least interesting aspects. It privileges a limp mystery over a rich vein of emotional marriage metaphor lingering untapped below the surface. In sidelining Cotillard, it shoves the romantic tension and the questions of betrayal far into the background. In isolating Pitt it leaves him adrift in a plot beyond his control despite all attempts to gin up conflict to wander into. (A late breaking jaunt behind enemy lines is especially dunderheaded, adding nothing to the plot while separating him from where the entirety of the film’s dramatic interest sits.) As the movie enters its long, slow, concluding sequences, it finally succeeds in choking off personality and promise while snoozing through dull revelations and last minute attempts at shocking turns of events. After such dazzling artifice and dopey movie pleasure up front, it’s depressing to watch it all fade to nothing by the end. It’s simply a great idea – and some polished, confident filmmaking – going to waste.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Heart of the Ocean: MOANA

Disney’s latest animated spectacular is Moana, a princess musical and a rollicking fantasy adventure. This is a refreshing change of pace, for it finds the legendary animation studio back in its comfort zone, willing to reappropriate the modes which made it famous for new purposes. It’s a familiar comfort and exciting transformation in the same way The Little Mermaid gave their princesses Broadway brio, Mulan brought action-movie heroism attacking gender norms, and Frozen challenged the primacy of fairy tale romantic love with an ode to sisterly connection. (Their Zootopia from earlier this year brought similarly absorbing excitement to their other staple – the talking animal picture.) Moana delivers everything you’d want from a Disney movie – a host of terrific songs, memorable characters, sympathetic motivations, beautiful images – with the willingness to tweak the formula. It has a stirring “I want” number, and not a hint of romance. It has cute comic relief animal sidekicks, and energetic high-stakes allegorical action sequences without a standard villain. Most moving in this concoction is its tight fit with its undertow theme about respecting tradition by bravely making your own path.

Set on a lushly imagined Pacific island, the film finds a tight-knit tribe where everyone has his or her place. It’s an idyllic society, close and loving, self-sufficient, tranquil, tropical. The chief (Temuera Morrison) proudly looks back over the generations, keeping his people safe by insisting they never travel past the reef. That’s why he’s so troubled by his precocious daughter (Auli’i Cravalho) as she’s drawn to the ocean. Her wise grandmother (Rachel House) – the village crazy lady, the old woman happily admits – mischievously encourages the young girl’s curiosity and connection, especially since a magical moment found the toddler mysteriously able to commune with the waves’ spirit, bending it to her will, cooperating with the current. Alas, such magic has no place in her father’s plans, which see her more as a practical, down-to-earth successor ready to deal with the daily business of running the tribe. But even all these years later, there’s the open ocean calling to her, some essential part of her inner being that must be explored.

She’s driven to do so by encroaching ecological disaster. Centuries earlier the demigod Maui misguidedly stole the heart of the sea’s living essence, letting loose a slowly seeping poison killing off islands’ natural resources. This environmental disaster is approaching Moana’s village, and the elders would prefer to ignore the warning signs – fish vanishing, crops rotting on the vine. Motivated by her grandmother’s urging, and the discovery of her people’s forgotten tradition of exploration on sturdy long-distance sailing ships, it’s up to this teenager to act. She needs to keep her world safe by taking a risk, shaking off recent tradition to tap into an even older way of life. She finds her way to the exiled Maui on a distant island, but he’s not exactly interested in helping her. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, he’s dripping in charming gruffness and ironic tough guy ego hiding core softness. As he joins the quest as a companion and foil for our hero, his jocular energy spun on a modern sensibility aligns him with The Genie and Mushu in the Disney Renaissance tradition of star-power-driven postmodern magic aide.

With a musical setup, Moana is off on an adventure, encountering a Harryhausen mix of creatures: a giant shiny crab who sings like Bowie, tiny wordless coconut-clad pirates on massive ships, and a towering lava monster. The action swoops around like a Kung Fu Panda, deftly weaving through clockwork clever choreography. But it’s not just manic visual noise. It’s always grounded in the emotional journey of its deeply sympathetic – and traditional wide-eyed, fresh-faced, Disney-looking – lead. There’s a good mix. She’s strong, confident, determined, stubborn, and charming, driven to help but prone to doubts. Her rascally trickster demigod helper is a fine snarky counterbalance, always wavering as to whether or not he’ll be more help than hindrance. (The dumb chicken clucking along at their feet is a nice silly grace note who never outstays her welcome.) There’s sparkling personality in the voice performances, a fine quipping banter cut with real sentiment. The earnest underpinnings are underlined with a Miyazaki-like respect for the majesty of the natural world, the movie’s supernatural sights and warm, unexpectedly quiet conclusions imbued with a genuine feeling of magic and nature, ecology and spells fluidly mingling the humane and divine.

This movie is what Disney does best: beautifully rendered crowd-pleasing all-ages entertainment. It moves quickly, dancing easily between light comedy, grand adventure, soaring music, and deeply-felt poignant turns. Songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda flow with his witty rhymes and emotional clarity, their melodies forming the backbone of Mark Mancina’s score. The CG animation is as striking as the medium allows (a rare feat, when so many competitors churn out plastic-looking garbage). Sunlight dapples through waves, sand has grit, water has heft, hair drips and flows, abundant green jungles move with leafy ripples. Best of all, the characters come to life with a lively glow in their skin, lit from within by real presence, so smooth and tactile you could almost reach out and caress it. (That it’s all that, but somehow still vibrantly cartoony is the best feature. It’s unreal in a most pleasing way.) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (Mermaid, Hercules) with Don Hall and Chris Williams (Big Hero 6), it plays every expected beat in big-hearted Disney musical tradition, and breathes with welcome, respectful cultural specificity and fresh voices. A moving story of respecting the past while finding your own future, Moana practices what it preaches, introducing a lovable young hero in the process.