Sunday, January 31, 2016

Village of Pandas: KUNG FU PANDA 3

A fine conclusion to its trilogy, Kung Fu Panda 3 is as energetic and visually dazzling as you’d hope and expect from one of DreamWorks Animation’s very best franchises. What’s so continually satisfying about this series is its tradition of making what are effectively animated kung fu movies. Sure, they feature anthropomorphic cartoon animals living in a cartoony simulacrum of ancient China. But these are films with interfamily conflict, wizards and warlords, masters and students, training montages, action balanced between clever slapstick and dangerous dance, and heaps of mystical spirituality where inner peace and self-knowledge are the most effective skills and power the most awesome moves. I like imagining that somewhere there’s a kid who gets into vintage Jackie Chan or Shaw Brothers films because they’re so over the moon about this fun string of movies about a panda who learns to be a kung fu master.

These movies are plenty fun on their own terms, too. 3 picks up with Po the panda (Jack Black) and his kung fu teammates (tiger Angelina Jolie, mantis Seth Rogen, viper Lucy Liu, crane David Cross, and monkey Jackie Chan) enjoying down time in the peaceful valley they’ve saved twice over. Having become The Dragon Warrior and coming to peace with his tragic past, what’s left for Po to do? Well, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po he needs to complete his training by finding inner strength. To do so, he must truly know who he is. Luckily enough, his long-lost biological father (Bryan Cranston) shows up in the village, eager to reconnect with the son he had to abandon all those years ago, and teach him the panda way. This gets Po excited, even though his adopted goose father (James Hong) fears his little panda cub will leave him forever. There’s a moving and special adoption story told with care through these silly figures.

But what would a kung fu movie be without external conflict? This one has a growling bull (J.K. Simmons), a villain defeated five centuries ago, escape from the spirit realm with an army of solid jade henchmen in tow. He’s on the rampage, out to capture the souls of all kung fu practitioners who stand in his way, and turn their lifeless bodies into more zombie soldiers to do his bidding. To learn how to defeat them, Po must travel to a secret panda village where maybe, just maybe, he can connect with ancient, long-forgotten panda magic. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger neatly – maybe too neatly – tie together his inner struggles with the needs of the action plot, leaving plenty of time to deliver heaping helpings of cute roly-poly panda antics. They’re adorable, and love to eat, hug, roll, dance, and sleep. What’s not to like? And then, when it’s time to get serious about defeating evil, they spring into action with the best of them.

Returning director Jennifer Yuh, who last time around broke the record for highest-grossing feature directed by a woman, works with co-director Alessandro Carloni (a longtime DreamWorks artist) to stage the film in bright, beautiful colors. It’s an extravagant explosion of fast-paced visual delights, swirling primary hues filling out lush exteriors and intricate architecture, snapping into high-contrast action when the adventure gets going. Where plot and character are concerned, this is a repetition, a riff on previous conflicts with character arcs consisting of reworked aspects of the first two films. But in motion, the movie moves and sings with contagious energy, each image colorful and intricately designed, bursting with zippy and clever choreography. Best are a mêlée that finds unexpectedly productive kung fu uses for pandas’ inherently cute lazy habits and bookending vibrant zero-g clashes in the spirit realm smashing swirls of glowing magic light through floating boulders.

The story boils down to the same be-yourself platitudes so many family films do, but at least it has the decency to be woo-woo mysto about it, and use it to hold up exciting, amusing, trippy, and striking imagery. The animators bring an elaborate fantasy look of the kind DreamWorks has been trying out these days (with this series, as well as their How to Train Your Dragons, Rise of the Guardians, and The Croods), even throwing split screens, hand-drawn interludes, and extreme color gradients into the mix of lush and buoyant imagery. As a combination reiteration and finale of the trilogy, it may not have the novelty of the first, or the weight of the second, but it is fun. If this is the last we see of Kung Fu Panda, it is a worthy conclusion and a perfect place to stop: with Po learning to love his two dads and be his best self, and with confetti, transcendence, warm and fuzzy reunions, and an angelic choir singing Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” in Chinese translation.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Watership Down: THE FINEST HOURS

Like a Norman Rockwell painting poured over The Perfect Storm, The Finest Hours is a sturdy, old-fashioned picture. Based on the true story of a 1952 Coast Guard rescue of a tanker split in two by horrendous winter weather, the film tells its tale in a rather conventional way. We meet a stubborn do-gooder guardsman (Chris Pine) and the sweet girl (Holliday Grainger) who’d like to marry him. Then the storm hits, the tanker is in trouble, and the man’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) sends him out on a small boat with a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) to do the impossible. Their boat is tossed about by the waves and winds, equipment malfunctions, and the sun sets. Meanwhile, the men on the tanker (over 30 of them, including Casey Affleck and John Ortiz) are struggling to stay afloat, with no way to make contact, and thus no way of knowing if help is even on the way. It’s a simple story, but the story is simply engaging.

A live action Disney movie, it looks and feels more or less like it would if the company made it in 1956, 66, 76, 86, 96, or 2006, modern tech aside. There’s a fine layer of timeless Hollywood gloss over it, and a proficient element of spectacle as special effects buffet the boats out in the storm and softly falling snow coats the coast in a sparkling snow globe lighthouse look. And in the midst of this is a dependable cast playing people who are largely identifiable types, but given just enough personality and interior lives for rooting interest beyond making it out alive, and to suggest a reality beyond the big studio lights on the sets and CG. The situation is inherently dramatic – true life-or-death stakes, with survival hinging on how well these people can do their jobs, and on the whims of nature. The screenplay (by The Fighter’s Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy) is smart not to undercut the proceedings. It crests perilous waves of cliché to find clear sailing to the heartstrings.

It borders on corny, but it never quite gets there, kept afloat by its forward momentum and reliably sturdy construction. Who’d have thought Craig Gillespie, the director of the Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-RealDoll movie Lars and the Real Girl and the fun Fright Night remake, would turn into a decent helmer for Disney based-on-a-true-story fare? With Finest Hours he improves on his dull sports movie Million Dollar Arm, this time telling an interesting and compelling narrative with good clarity for its process and perspective. We follow each boat’s progress through the storm, cutting between them, and some judicious glimpses of those fretting on the shore, hoping against hope that their guys will make it back alive. There’s a chaste romance at stake, and a couple dozen souls stranded in a rapidly failing craft. That’s plenty heart-tugging drama to get invested in, and a cast willing to play it earnestly.

The sequences on the listing half-tanker are the strongest, Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing crisply following a committed cast of character actors chewing on accents and sloshing around a convincingly dangerous waterlogged set, coming to terms with the long odds confronting them. The film is full of towering waves, howling winds, groaning bulkheads, straining chains, swinging beams, straining rudders, whirring propellers, and spasms of sparks and smoke. Gillespie focuses on these tactile details, in sharp, routine frames constructed to show off the heroic efforts taken by various crewmembers to save as many lives as they can. It’s a film that feels the movement of the bobbing waves, the strain on an engine as a boat takes on weight, and the taxing whir of overpowered pumps slowly letting water creep higher up the engine room. It’s an engaging film of sturdy craftsmanship, the sort of feel-good inspirational fact-based family film I’m glad Disney hasn’t entirely given up on making in the shadow of their mega-blockbuster fantasies.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mother & Child: JAMES WHITE and ROOM

In James White and Room, two of 2015’s sharpest, most intimate, and intelligently moving dramas, the stories of a mother and her son take center stage. These are films with rich emotional terrain in claustrophobic settings, relationships trapped in place, with characters hoping for a miraculous way out to better futures. In James White an aimless twenty-something is caring for his mother as she slowly dies of cancer in her New York City apartment. In Room, a kidnapped young woman lives imprisoned in a shed with the 5-year-old she had with her captor and rapist. The films follow two very different dramatic scenarios, traumatic events where the love between mother and child is the only lifeline. The sons are naïve, confused, easily frustrated. The mothers are strong, complicated, and sad. And there are no easy answers.

James White is the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond, who makes a great first impression with a film of uncommonly blistering emotional honesty. The title character (played by an intense and sorrowful Christopher Abbott) is a painfully relatable rootless man in his late twenties – jobless, single, stuck. He’s a guy theoretically with many options for creating a life for himself, but can’t figure out where best to start, or how to find his break. This could be the start for an Apatow-ian man-child redemption arc, complete with a potential new love interest (Mackenzie Leigh) and a funny friend (Scott Mescudi). But Mond, through a close, expressive camera and sharply perceptive script, excavates arrested adolescent clichés to find deep, overwhelming reservoirs of pain and truth underneath. Here’s a young man who is truly stuck, not only by immaturity, or the obligations of taking care of his ailing mother, but by a helpless feeling as he sees the comfortable future he’d always assumed he’d have slipping away. He can’t see a way forward, so he’s just waiting for life to start.

Cynthia Nixon, as his dying mother, delivers an astonishingly complex portrait of a sickly woman who sees the struggles of her son and wishes she could help, even as she leans on him to get through each day. She knows there’s only so much encouragement she can provide before he needs to find on his own the initiative and lucky breaks that’ll help him move forward. She doesn’t want him using her illness as just another excuse to stay put. Sure, she’s scared of dying, but she’s also worried about leaving her boy to figure out the world on his own. (She’s been separated from his father, who has died shortly before the film begins, an added mournful layer.) Slow-motion grief is displayed in agonizingly precise emotional specificity, as are the frustrations of being young and disconnected from those around you. It’s not every young person who has to watch a parent die. It’s one thing to head out into the so-called real world to start your own life. It’s another thing entirely to have no parents to go back to.

An early scene finds James in a club, alone, listening to his own music through headphones. He’s always separated, distant, suffocating in his sadness and stasis, even when talking to friends and flirts. Selfish, bitter, angry, anxious, and mean, James isn’t always a pleasant figure, but that’s what makes Mond’s film so satisfying an unflinching character study. It’s a film of compassion towards its characters, but never indulges their flaws, understanding them without excusing them. This makes moments of fleeting pure goodness and connection all the more transcendent. In the film’s most moving and devastating scene, James uses his tendency to live in his own interior world to extend an invitation to his mother, using a shared imagined cozy future to provide some comfort. They talk about a time, years from now, when she’ll be the warm grandmother and he’ll be the happy family man. They know it’ll never arrive, but can still take solace in this oasis of hope and connection in a world stretched thin with sadness.

While James White is about a mother slowly fading away, hoping her son finds some way out of his depression, Room concerns itself with a more literal captivity, where hope is for a more literal freedom. And yet it finds in its potential True Crime luridness – screenwriter Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel, was inspired by similar real life stories – a wisely observed empathy. Steadfastly humane, and gentle in its decidedly non-sensationalistic approach to the nastier moments, the film is attuned to the psychological effects of its scenario on all involved. The mother (Brie Larson) is both victim and protector. The boy (Jacob Tremblay) has never known any different. He thinks Room is the entire world, and everything else is imaginary outer space. When his mother finally decides to tell him the truth, at a level he can understand, it’s a shock. He doesn’t want to believe, but then, slowly, he begins to understand that they need to escape.

The first half of Room is claustrophobic, intensely small. The mother leads her boy through exercises, tries to teach him as best she can, and feeds him with supplies dropped off by the captor on his weekly trips to rape her. (The boy is hidden away in a wardrobe where he can’t see the attacks on his mother.) This is intense subject matter, softened but not diminished by its perspective, narrated by the kid in a precocious and innocent voice. There’s great narrative and emotional clarity, as the film presents its character’s thoughts with ease, Larson and Tremblay doing impressive work communicating interiority with a shift of appearance. The camera is close, always ready to catch faces in motion, in dramatic outbursts and microexpressions alike. And yet the movie never grows visually stale, always finding clear and casual ways to chart their predicament without imprisoning the viewer alongside them.

When it, at last, approaches a pivot point, the film grows richer still, allowing us to see how difficult it would be to go on living with such a massive trauma, such lingering confusion. There’s an entire second half to the story that continues well past where other, lesser, versions of this story would claim victory, then catharsis, then stop. Donoghue keeps going, committing to the concept so fully she wants to see it through, consider its implications from all sides. We go beyond the room. We see other characters. The world opens up, as overwhelming as it is a relief. And there we find the movie’s real power sits not in its skillful conjuring of unimaginable trauma, but in its wise and compassionate understanding of how thoroughly such a scenario would complicate one’s life.

There’s no easy resolution, and the messy emotions it invokes in the characters will take a great deal of time to heal. By allowing us access to the mother’s conflicting and confusing feelings – great love for her child, but great fear and resentment for the situation that led to his creation – that’ll make healing a long, difficult, and in some ways impossible challenge. This is a film that’s smartly concerned with the impact of its ideas. The strong script and tremendous performances make this director Lenny Abrahamson’s best film. He brings it to vivid life by focusing it all on the emotional core, modulating the production design, from expansive smallness of captivity, to exterior wide spaces pressing in, as he creates a convincing world of complicated psychological territory seen through the eyes of a child, and through the lens of connection between mother and son. Love can’t conquer all, but it sure can help.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Doomsday Schleppers: THE 5TH WAVE

The 5th Wave is the latest young adult apocalyptic dystopia of the week. It gets its name from the final stage of the most convoluted and absurd alien invasion plot this side of Ed Wood. Wave 1: shutting off the planet’s power. Wave 2: sending tsunamis crashing into every coast. Wave 3: spreading bird flu everywhere. Wave 4: flying drones and sending out snipers. It seems like any one of those waves could’ve been sufficient to take out the entire human race, but these unseen alien beings either haven’t planned well or are deliberately toying with us. Or maybe they just like echoing Biblical plagues. Who am I to say? The movie tears through these initial waves, any one of which could be an entire disaster movie, with such quickly paced table-setting glossiness that it forgets to find the impact. It’s in a rush to get to the 5th wave: convincing the surviving humans to lose hope and do themselves in.

Per subgenre dictates, we start with a normal teenager, this time a pretty blonde high school senior (Chloe Grace Moretz). Then, soon enough, generic sci-fi elements clear the way for a scenario in which adults are either powerless or domineering and only teenagers can save the day. If you think this sounds like any number of post-Hunger Games knockoffs, you’re right. This one starts with a smidge of interesting thought, transmogrifying senioritis’ valedictory lap finality into an end-of-the-world metaphor, and then quickly descends into popcorn nihilism and cotton candy platitudes. It’s unusually violent for this sort of tween thing – rampant gun brandishing, bloodless sprays of bullets, and roiling catastrophes, as well as gooey close-up impromptu surgeries. And, though its story goes down some moderately weird side roads on the way to predictable beats, it all too rarely comes to life.

Moretz, despite being very good in a variety of roles (from Carrie to Clouds of Sils Maria) and the star driving this vehicle, is shunted to the side for a good portion of the film. Separated from her father (Ron Livingston) and searching for her little brother (Zackary Arthur), she ends up recuperating in a farmhouse after a mysterious hunk (Alex Roe) rescues her. It’s instant romantic tension. Meanwhile, her brother is stuck in a military compound where Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello are training kids to combat the aliens who have begun latching themselves onto human hosts, Body Snatchers style. At this boot camp we find adorable moppets wielding military-grade firearms and enduring war movie montages. A few older kids are there, too, including It Follows’ Maika Monroe, stealing ever scene she’s in with rebellious charisma, Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson as a mopey hero, and Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori as a guy nicknamed Dumbo. Imagine Nicholas Sparks rewrote They Live as a Maze Runner prequel (no politics, more forced sentiment and jumbled mythology) and you’re on the right track. So, yeah, it’s a little weirder than I’d expected.

It’s almost admirably unexpected in the way director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), from a screenplay adapted from Rick Yancey’s book by Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes), Akiva Goldsman (Insurgent), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), ghoulishly churns through large scale (and only partially convincing) calamities to get to the smallest possible scenes where two young people stare at each other in the woods. It discards the waves of alien threats for close moments between teens stuck in the wilderness, or isolated in a child soldier factory. That could be an intriguing small look at a bigger picture, but is instead an uninvolving and weightless perspective. The immediate stakes are so simple – brother and sister need to be reunited – and the larger stakes – saving the planet – are written off as impossible. What a strange mix of brutal conditions and mushy execution, harsh bruising nastiness and gushing sentiment. Overly clean and bright photography throws its artificiality and small thinking into dull obviousness.

That’s what’s ultimately so unsatisfying about The 5th Wave. It strands a good cast in a movie that could’ve really popped with evocative metaphor and a harrowing concept, but fails to really reckon with the implications of its premise, glossing over moral dilemmas. Sure, it features our lead killing an innocent man (we see the same moment twice, even) and a twist that complicates easy morality, but these ideas remain half-buried in the slick formula. Heavy ideas, up to and including the end of the world and the deaths (or potential thereof) of everyone they love, are merely used for superficial weight holding down the edges of a premise so flimsy it threatens to blow away right before our very eyes. By the ending, which resolves the immediate conflicts through convenient luck, then coasts to a limp cliffhanger, I nearly forgot why I had bothered to care in the first place.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Under Siege:

Turning the 2012 attack on an American ambassador in Libya into a bombastic Michael Bay action movie is not exactly the most respectful way of honoring those who fought and those who died there. But it sure is a whole lot better than the opportunistic conspiracy theory peddling and witch-hunt investigating right-wing voices engaged in over the past few years. At least 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi admits it doesn’t know why the attack happened, and can’t quite figure out if there’s any one person, aside from the attackers, at fault in a haze of panic, bureaucracy, secrecy, error, and confusion that prolonged the tragedy. Aside from his usual muddled blend of broad symbolism, big explosions, and dubious politics, here Bay’s committed to the experience of the 13-hour siege, staging swirling chaos and horrific violence in scenes of tense commotion and concussive firepower. Here war is both hell, and disorienting as hell.

The film drops into Benghazi a few months out from the incident, introducing the status quo. A well-armed security team (including John Krasinski and James Badge Dale) keeps watch over a secret CIA base (led by David Costabile), a dynamic Bay plays as fitting with his usual world view: macho brawn makes right, and nebbishy intellectuals should agree or get out the way. Meanwhile, the state department, represented by Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher), has its own compound, guarded by just a few men. In sweaty, tense set-up, the screenplay by Chuck Hogan (The Strain) makes it clear that the American diplomats and spies want to make good relationships with the locals, while the soldiers view them with suspicion. “You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” one growls, trying to stay alert and alive by simplifying and reducing an entire population to one suspect group.

Soon enough, the movie skips ahead to the night in question. Faceless waves of local attackers appear, first at the embassy, then later at the CIA compound. Emerging from shadows and through fields of tall grass and ominous bombed out debris, they might as well be zombie hordes. We don’t know who they are or what they want. We just know it’s an us-or-them battle for survival. But it’s not only the enemy that remains vague. Bay’s film is loaded with unambiguous value judgments of the sort his films usually feature. Soldiers are always manly good, suits are always weak, women always need to be humbled, and foreigners are always bad, or at least unknowable and scary. What passes for character work are scenes of guys joshing during downtime. A long sequence of button-pushing sentimentality that occurs before the combat begins – every American soldier gets a tearful call home to beaming wives and children – is supposed to give the largely uncharacterized and sparsely differentiated ensemble of bearded gruff dudes extra oomph of emotional firepower once the bullets and bombs start flying.

The attack, which takes up most of the film’s 144-minute run time, is sensationally staged Bay-hem in full force. In some ways it is as sensationalistic as his Transformers movies, loving the thump of weapons shooting, the impact of a detonation, the deceptive fragility of a vehicle in the crossfire, the flesh-tearing power of ordnance. He enjoys staging the action, lingering on the hardware, staring with engaged curiosity at the devices, even repeating his memorable Pearl Harbor shot following a bomb as it falls out of the sky and into American servicemen below. But because this is a real tragedy, and a recent one, he finds some welcome mournful notes, ramping up the visceral gore and smoke to play up the fear and confusion. None of the soldiers know the extent of the attack, the reasons behind it, or where the next threat is coming from. They just hunker down and follow their training, knowing significant help is too far away, and what little they can do is constantly stymied by the rapidly changing facts on the ground.

It’s a deliberate geopolitical Rorschach test, messily lining up with what you already think about this event, and about American foreign policy in general. Other than brief shots of the White House and Pentagon, the government isn’t represented, and as far as the soldiers are concerned, they just want to get home, expressing both a sense of duty and a sense of uncertainty of purpose. And aside from token good Libyans, the film mostly treats the crowds as obstacles and threats. It’s a problematic stew of half-digested ideology, but there’s not a lot to chew on – it’s too garbled on a thematic level beyond ogling its heroes determination and toughness. No, this is basically a war film all about the action, finding compelling and striking ways of framing intense combat. Bay works with cinematographer Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow, Miami Vice) to create grimy digital beauty (sleek and dirt-speckled) out of firefights lighting up a dim back alley, eerie drone shots floating helplessly above the violence, a crowd of dangerous figures creeping towards a compound viewed through night vision goggles, mortar fire streaking skyward against the sunrise.

It’s as handsomely mounted and serious a production as Bay has ever attempted, like his Pearl Harbor stripped of most of its melodrama, or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down without the cold and rigorous precision. But of course it is, after all, still a Michael Bay movie, complete with his usual stylistic indulgences: glamorous slow-motion violence, canted low-angle shots of people getting out of cars, and conspicuous product placement. (Worst is McDonald’s, for its prominent placement in a scene where a soldier calls home and talks to his family while they’re in a drive-thru.) 13 Hours is impactful and technically accomplished, an intense amalgamation of weary jingoism and tense survivalist impulses. For every dazzling, heart-stopping round of fire, and every chest-whomping bass thump Foley effect, there’s a queasy mixture of genre pleasure, bloody red meat, and mournful uncertainty. It is blunt action filmmaking eager to conflate Hollywood craftsmanship and U.S. military might. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is allowing its confusing chaos of violence – and its causes and effects – to stand as a messy, imperfect, ambiguous, and exhausted response to endless, and senseless, bloodshed, telling you to make of it what you will.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Back on Patrol: RIDE ALONG 2

After a woefully underprepared security guard played by Kevin Hart helped his future brother-in-law cop (Ice Cube) take down a big bad guy during a routine job shadow in 2014’s surprise hit comedy Ride Along, he decided to become a police officer, too. Now it’s Ride Along 2, and the talkative, blustering little guy is a rookie cop who really wants his fiancé (Tika Sumpter) to convince her brother to let her needy man go to Miami on a case. She does. So the mismatched pair is together again, this time in a more professional capacity, hot on the trail of a hacker (Ken Jeong) and the drug dealer (Benjamin Bratt) for whom he works. Once again, bland cop mechanics and tepid buddy comedy banter is brought ever so slightly to life through the one-note disjunction between Hart and Cube’s personas. They each get to work a couple of character traits in opposition to the others’ while the plot strands them in a generic detective story that develops lazily.

Deeply uninspired and undercooked, this mediocre and unnecessary movie never makes a good case for itself. The arc of the main relationship – from loud disagreements to begrudging respect – is an exact duplicate of its predecessors, and the journey there is the same dull jumble of thinly developed action beats and repetitive rambling jokey patter. (They’re brothers-in-law, because of the impending wedding, and also they’re in law enforcement. That’s about the funniest it gets.) If the characters were more interesting or entertaining, I suppose I’d be more apt to excuse a passionless, mindless retread. But the screenplay (again by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) leans hard on the preexisting ideas of who Hart and Cube are, since the first movie didn’t exactly make them much else worth remembering. I still wish they had switched roles way back at the start of this series, making Cube the hyperverbal overconfident guy, and Hart the strong silent type. At least it’d be something different.

But, alas, here we are, with a workmanlike and flavorless film following Hart and Cube through the streets of Miami on an easily solved, but belabored, case. They’re no Bad Boys. We get a generic foot chase (the kind that thinks it’s funny to make the participants bounce off a trampoline and run through people’s houses – stuff like that). Then later a car chase tries to get laughs by intercutting Grand Theft Auto-style video game animation. Other would-be comic action beats include a run-in with an alligator, a car bomb, and shootouts in a nightclub and at the docks. It means well. The location work is functional – sunny and clear – while the action is plain and the comedy and mystery plot are mostly predictable. Returning director Tim Story has a movie that just refuses to think through anything that’s happening, resulting in a halfhearted jumble of cliché. Will the chief (Bruce McGill) threaten to suspend the leads? Will the villain have an inside man? Will women be treated as accessories? All of the above. Duh.

Admirably diverse, so at least it has that going for it, the movie is otherwise routine and uninspired. It’ll contrive a scene for a policewoman played by Olivia Munn to show up to an active crime scene while wearing a sports bra, then not even bother explaining the skimpy reasons why. It’ll include an underdeveloped subplot about a tyrannical wedding planner (Sherri Shepherd). Whatever it takes to shove in an extra stereotype-driven attempt at holding an audience’s attention. There’s so little here. And then there’s the characters’ cavalier approach to guns – shooting at perps, threatening suspects, using the weapons to playact toughness or cover insecurities, treating their job as an extension of a video game. A better comedy could lampoon this mindset (a timely satiric idea) instead of sitting back and snoozing its way through stale cop movie habits. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not in the mood for a movie with a comedy sequence involving a jumpy policeman shooting an unarmed person (he doesn’t die, but still…), especially in a totally frivolous and disposable mediocrity like this one.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Corrective Lens: THE LOOK OF SILENCE

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a work of profound moral urgency expressed through tenderly devastating empathy. With it, he’s continuing his project of shining cinematic light into a shadowy corner of relatively recent history. It’s a companion piece to his startling, striking, and wholly original The Act of Killing, a documentary about the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966. This extensive and wide-ranging massacre targeted communists, ethnic Chinese, and other leftists in the country. Its perpetrators remain in power to this day. Oppenheimer used his first film to restage some of these murders, asking the murderers to do it themselves. In their own words, and under their own direction, surreally elaborate reenactments and harrowingly cavalier interviews show how happy these men are to remain in power, and how, in their eyes, their crimes are validated. Haunting and upsetting, it’s a piercing and unusual work, viewing a tragedy not from the perspective of its victims, but from those who got away with it.

That initial effort was raw enough in its impact, and powerfully uncomfortable enough in its conceit, that some objections to its approach were understandable. The BBC’s Nick Fraser wrote in Film Quarterly calling The Act of Killing “a high-minded snuff movie.” Seeing a tragedy and its victims from the perspective of those who committed the atrocities was so extreme and uncommon a point of view that it’s easy to get lost in the surface jaw-dropping details and overlook the dark, cynical, stunned outrage the film was expressing. But when it comes to The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer builds on that film’s impact, creating an even richer and more devastating picture of this tragedy’s impact. He follows a middle-aged Indonesian, a man whose brother had been murdered during the killings, as he confronts some of the people responsible. It’s unblinking in its confrontational aspects, but soft-spoken, even in tone, all the better to persuasively expose wrongdoings long excused.

We see this man – unidentified for his own safety – watching footage from the earlier film, then heading out to ask simple questions: whys and hows. The big questions – the “how could you?” and “how dare you?” – remain unspoken, but hang heavily over the proceedings. Each tableau is striking, as the man enters the homes of these powerful men, who presided over tremendous injustice and violence, as part of his job making house calls with an eye exam, literally adjusting their vision. Faces contained within optometric equipment – obscuring some expression, but amplifying eyes, which are, after all, the windows to the soul – men who wear their dark pasts lightly, and with varying degrees of denial and dismissal, are cautiously queried. There’s a real charge of danger to these confrontations. These men still hold power, carry potential for violence. It’s not for no reason the main subject is anonymous here, while daring to ask them about their decades-old acts, deaths for which they feel no remorse.

Oppenheimer, and his largely unnamed crew (again, for their safety), created an impeccably made film. Clean, sharp high definition photography captures every nuance of its subjects. Tightly controlled sound design moves choruses of crickets and pregnant pauses like score, amplifying stillness, drawing out tension. It’s almost unbearably close, and completely enveloping. Here is a movie with an intensely compassionate stare, concerned with how decades-old mass murder resonates through the generations, and through the emotional and psychological well being of this society. This past is at once secret and in the open, a palpable traumatic memory and an injustice met with silence. This film dares to look, to bridge the gap between these seemingly irreconcilable ideas, to expose long diminished or forgotten truths.

We spend time with the man between interviews as he tends to his elderly parents, lovely old folks who are showing signs of fuzzy memories, viewing their pasts through a layer of confusion. And yet the pain of their other son’s death hangs heavy. Life has moved on, but the killings of the past linger in the psyche long after the blood has dried. An even more powerful and impactful film than The Act of Killing’s provocative opening statement, The Look of Silence stands with and apart from its companion film, forming an essential and crushing look at deep emotional pain and lasting destruction both public and private. It gains its power through a capability to take in the humanity of everyone involved – the killers, the victims, and those left to deal with the unhealed wounds physical, psychological, spiritual – and try to understand. I can think of few works of art as intensely compassionate and serenely angry, as willing to frankly consider the evil that some do, and the amazing capacity for resilience others can show in the face of it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


The Revenant is a simple pulp revenge story blown up to epic proportions. A gnarly tale of extreme survival and an ambivalent ode to masculine gruffness and stubborn righteousness, it takes as its setting wintry snow-swept tundra and forests of the American West in the early 19th century. There we find a group of fur trappers whose expedition is about to go wrong in just about every way it could. It’s a rugged Western and a bloody survival thriller, shot in gorgeous widescreen landscapes and patient lingering looks at fading sunsets, snaking fog, and curling smoke. There’s a great sense of place and space, striking and vividly photographed in graceful shots of impeccable detail. With it comes the feeling that this endlessly stretching wilderness trampled by invading white men and cycles of violence has led to a form of derangement. Even those who survive will be ever changed by the sheer effort it takes to survive on a good day, let alone when stranded in a cascading series of worst-case scenarios.

Star Leonardo DiCaprio exerts tremendous effort as the main figure tortured by the events of the film. It’s practically a secular passion play of frontier suffering. He plays an expert tracker and trapper haunted by memories of dead loved ones. After a bloody battle with Native Americans (shot in harrowing, expertly choreographed long takes), his colleagues are desperate to get home. Too bad, then, that DiCaprio is mauled by a bear (an overwhelming, mostly convincing, sequence) and left for dead. He's hastily placed in a shallow grave by a greedy and mean coworker (Tom Hardy) who’d just rather get back to the fort than sit around waiting for help. This all unfolds with patience and slowly accumulating dread, a series of inciting incidents gradually occurring. We meet a variety of men (Domhnall Gleeson, Maze Runner’s Will Poulter, newcomer Forrest Goodluck, Buzzard’s Joshua Burge) who are exhausted, crabby, sore, beaten down by the elements, resigned to dreary life in an isolating kill-or-be-killed ecosystem. But then there’s merely DiCaprio, alive only through some combination of vengeance and righteous spite, stumbling agonizingly slowly back towards civilization, and the man who did him wrong.

It’s one violent setback after the next as DiCaprio – torn to ribbons, rendered mainly mute, limping, groaning, spitting, bleeding – scratches his way through ice cold water, blinding snow, roaring winds, mysterious Natives, vicious traders, and other assorted conflicts and obstacles. It’s practically a catalogue of every way frontier life could kill you: weapons (rifles, arrows, knives, tomahawks, pistols), the elements (low temperatures, rapids, avalanches), disease, infection, dehydration, starvation, accidents, battles, and murder. The film sets up clearly a variety of reasons why Hardy is loathsome, though still reasonably human. And DiCaprio goes through a wringer of endless sequences of torturous pain – a faintly and grimly hilarious pile on of deadly and dangerous incidents – escalating in an exhausted what-now? effect. These visceral strands combine to create an elemental desire for DiCaprio, who should be dead several dozen times over, to get back to the fort and prove Hardy wrong.

But of course the overarching tension of the piece is not whether or not DiCaprio will live to confront Hardy again. Nor is it whether or not he’ll learn along the way that revenge is ultimately unsatisfying. (This is a revenge tale with movie stars, after all. We know where it’s headed.) It’s a tension between art house existential dread and gooey genre fare – never more than in a subplot about Natives looking for a kidnapped daughter (an inverted Searchers) treated as a plot engine and overly mystical essentialism. Alternately transcendent and brutal, the main suspense comes from wondering just how much punishment is going to be dealt to our hero. By the time we get a climactic nasty close-up of blood-soaked snow, we’ve already seen a mauling, a stabbing, a hanging, a rape, a few massacres, and a dead horse used for warmth, Tauntaun-style. It’s a lot to take, each new act of violence handled very seriously, with the thudding weight of a film out to be tactile and gross, emphasizing how difficult it all is.

Torn between artful self-importance and gripping narrative demands, it nonetheless forms a compelling whole. It’s directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who makes Very Important and very showy movies about human suffering like Babel and Birdman. His co-writer is Mark L. Smith, who wrote the brisk and nasty little horror movie Vacancy. It’s an interesting pairing. Together they’ve made a movie that’s gripping and long, a beautiful, miserable, suspenseful slog, well over two hours of one thing after another. It’s elegiac and solid, staggering natural formations held on screen as long shivering breaths between moments of pain, and then human figures slowly make their way through them. We might watch for several minutes as DiCaprio limps and winces his way up a hill, then crouches down behind a tree to see what new complications are in store. Nothing happens easy in this film. Iñárritu takes a simple story and makes it a showcase for his style and his skill, and the expert craft of his cast and crew, holding the ominous and steady tone.

The Revenant relies on committed performers and incredible cinematography to achieve its aims. DiCaprio is at his most primal here, often playing wordless scenes of anguish and exhaustion that are among his least phony on screen moments. But just as good is the supporting cast, especially an intense and unexpectedly darkly funny Hardy, a quietly panicking Poulter, and a hesitantly authoritative Gleeson. Together they form a nice cross-section of the different ways people can react to conflicts of lawless violence from nature and from man. The action is captured in dazzling photography by Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work on the likes of The Tree of Life, Children of Men, Burn After Reading, and many more equally visually rich films, has cemented him as one of modern cinema’s best image-makers. He uses austere long shots, drinking in natural beauty, and then hammers home turmoil in fluid takes. He gives the film its massive wide-open spaces, and its close-up intensity, clinging to actors, swiveling and swooping as they get swept up in chaotic moments. This is exquisitely inflated pulp.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


We first see Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) on the eve of his seventeenth birthday having a sleepover with Gabe (Joe Keery), a best friend. They’re two handsome young men talking about girls, though it’s clear Henry has unrequited and unspoken feelings for Gabe. “What would you do if she was here?” Henry asks, getting his buddy to describe a sexy fantasy, deriving far more pleasure from the boy speaking than the images he’s conjuring. After flushed with adolescent urges jerked around, Gabe, unaware of his friend’s crush, turns and recommends he try listening to more Christian rock. Then Henry prays before falling asleep. Immediately Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party sets itself up to sit squarely in liminal spaces, in the quiet compromises and contradictions in its characters lives. And yet it does so without judging or condescending. Here’s a wholly emphatic, beautifully contained drama about Christianity and sexuality that doesn’t fall into easy moralizing or obvious stereotypes. It’s too quiet and tender to hit any loud false notes.

Writer-director Stephen Cone views his characters through clear, compassionate eyes, creating tangles of identity that are believably drawn and subtly explored over the course of a suburban pool party. Henry and his parents, mother (Elizabeth Laidlaw) and pastor father (Pat Healy), have invited some people from their megachurch to join a few worldlier high school friends at his birthday party. His older sister (Nina Ganet), home from college for the big day, has a pal or two on the way as well. It’s an interesting mix of people, a variety of characters with various beliefs and personalities casually hanging out in the backyard, eating, swimming, dancing, and so on. Cone floats through various conversations, finding everyone has their own ideas about appropriateness (of bathing suits, music, wine, teaching evolution), but quietly strain to keep the good times rolling, the sense of community warm and supportive. The characters are treated with remarkable nuance, each with their own tensions between repression and expression, currents of unspoken desire and pain.

Cone maps out the relationships amongst the characters with low-key Altman-esque flair. There are youth group kids and secular teens, some awkwardly in between (Daniel Kyri), and adult congregants both older (Meg Thalken, Francis Guinan) and young (Kelly O’Sullivan, Travis A. Knight). There’s some talk about politics and religion, fleeting and glancing references to sex, but it bubbles naturally out of softly coded conversations. Whether a closeted gay kid quietly wrestling with a crush, a student at a Christian college struggling with feelings of spiritual lapse, a middle-aged woman torn about the state of society (“You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”), or a mother softly nursing a strained marriage, these are real people subtly feeling out those around them, looking for likeminded compatriots. They just want someone to understand them, to connect with them without judgment. Cone treats cultural tensions and pressures as simply normal, and the tincture of gentle melodrama simmering underneath is humane.

It’s a movie that avoids broad satire and easy targets, instead treating faith seriously and finding a sympathetic lens through which to view people with perfectly natural secrets held in: attractions, doubts, vices. Some of these are slowly teased out in scenes of intimate one-on-one confessions and revelations. Others remain buried, flickering in the faces of the talented cast, but remaining unsaid. The camera is as fluid as identity, floating through varying combinations and groupings of characters, allowing their subtle differences to bounce off each other and reveal new shadings and aspects to personalities. Hardly anyone – aside from one tortured young man who threatens to become an obvious metaphor – is exactly who you’d think they are. Cone allows the characters room to breathe and develop, for us to discover new complexities as the film goes along. The uniformly excellent ensemble generates the feeling of a real party, full of criss-crossing communication, half-buried grievances, and little shifts in behavior depending on who is around.

A generous film, each person allowed a revealing moment of some sort (suppressed impulses) or another (throwaway lines), it nonetheless revolves around Henry. Doman makes an impressive debut, playing a good kid whose religious upbringing leaves him not quite ready to speak his truth out loud, but cautiously signaling his desire to act on his desires. He’s cute and charming, engaged in a variety of interests (like podcasts, records, and Gregg Araki movies), and it’s easy to see why he’s so loved by his friends and family. But Cone’s screenplay resists easy dichotomies and culture clash conflict. It’s warm and kindhearted, allowing his Christ-centered family to be genuine and nurturing, and his sexual curiosities natural and sweet. Both aspects of Henry’s life have a valuable place in his growth. The film is lit with sparks of compassion for each character, meeting them where they are on their journeys. “You’re always becoming,” Henry’s mother says at one point, confiding in her daughter about the difficulties of adulthood. “You never actually arrive.”

With a lovely pulsing soundtrack and bright imagery, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party captures a dreamily full summer night – the kind that stretches out before you with possibility and incident – spiked with the seriousness of adolescence – in which every moment is lent outsized weight. It doesn’t build to artificial crisis or loud farce. It develops patiently into modest and moving loose ends, grasping at the happy endings of small steps and cautiously evolving relationships. Cone, whose films are frequently about performance growing out of and informing interior conflict (In Memoriam finds a man obsessed with a news item driven to research and reenact it; The Wise Kids is set around an Easter pageant, while Black Box is with a theater group), here finds an intergenerational gathering of people, all wrestling the person, the identity they try to present, softly calibrating their moral compasses between their beliefs and their desires. There’s no grand coming out parties to be found in this film, but a subtler, quieter, achingly sensitive intimacy of expression and connection. This is a special movie.