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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


It’s hard being a teen. Brining in hormones transforming a person from child to adult heightens emotional stakes. Every decision seems to weigh heavily on the future, relationships feel like they have life and death consequences, urges can lead to reckless decisions. Caterpillars are lucky no one can see them inside the cocoon. For us unlucky humans, we grow into new bodies, new thoughts, and new behaviors with gangly guesswork. Part of Nadine’s problem in The Edge of Seventeen is thinking she’s the only one hit hard by teenage changes. She compares herself to her handsome older brother – popular, sporty, fit, charming – and comes up short. She’s awkward, disheveled, with bouts of acne. And she has only one friend, the same one since second grade when they bonded over – metaphor alert! – a caterpillar they plan to raise together only to suffocate a few hours later. All these years later, and Nadine is sure she’ll be like that caterpillar: snuffed out in one way or another before she can flower into the confident young adult she doubts she’ll ever be.

Hailee Steinfeld stars, and it’s her best role since her debut in the Coen’s True Grit. She has a perfect face to play this exasperated young woman coming apart at the seams. She has a sympathetic openness cutting easily into sharp edges of pain and meanness. She’s able to send her dark eyes flitting between beleaguered and bitter, humble and harried, open fumbling flirtations, deep pain, and howling rage. She always struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, but now, in the years following her father’s death, she’s been lost in a fog of depression as well. Snark is her primary coping mechanism, throwing up a layer of derision, eye rolling, and mean quips to protect herself from further emotional damage. She affects an attitude of carelessness, because it’d hurt more if people knew she cared. But then her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother (Blake Jenner), and she finds herself adrift, no one to turn to. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is too busy, and too lost in her own problems, to connect. Even her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson) has only deeply sarcastic rebuttals to her flawed attempts to ask for advice.

As writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig unfolds the warm and prickly comic teen drama around Nadine, she captures an authentic adolescent attitude of perpetual crisis. We’re joining the lead’s life at a moment of snowballing emotional pain, which has its roots in sadness of the past, but escalates now at the brink of adulthood. She’s all-too-aware of her struggles, and in fear that no one cares. She thinks she’s the only person with problems this bad, even though her mom’s weak advice is to remember that everyone’s as empty as she is. (“They’re all just better at pretending.”) A low-key, dead-on portrayal of high school depression and angst, the movie proceeds in funny bantering exchanges between characters as Nadine huffs and sulks through her latest dramas. She’s witty, perceptive, intelligent, but the sort that leads a teen to pull back from peers, explaining away her self-imposed exile through self-loathing masking a feeling of superiority. (In one deeply sad moment, she confesses, “I just realized I have to spend the rest of my life with me.”) This feels far more real and raw than the usual teen movie constructions, and lets the comedy fall easily into cutting spikes of sadness.

There’s a feeling of honesty permeating the film’s decisions. Craig knows how to duck and weave in the teen comedy formula, when to fulfill expectations and when to subvert them. Jokes land hard, then emotions hit harder, because it marries the sharp comic timing of a Mean Girls or Easy A with the more nuanced emotional dexterity and direct dramatic appeal of, say, a James L. Brooks film. (He was a producer here.) It starts on the level of wardrobe, with Steinfeld wearing believably haphazard adorable rumpled teen wardrobe: baggy sweatshirts, cute clashing patterns, eccentric layering. She’s an understandable relatable teenage girl, recognizable in her look and convincing in the psychology driving her. She’s clearly suffering, and there’s no easy answer to any of her problems. Some will fade with age and maturity. Others will take a little more work. And Craig’s screenplay is wise about allowing her to come to realizations on her own terms, without expecting an easy solution to end the film on an artificial happily-ever-after.

This isn’t a smartest-teen-in-the-room movie. It’s sweet and sour, candid and heartbreaking, often very funny, but true to the way real teenagers talk. And it surrounds Nadine with a whole family unhappy in their own ways, complicating what might appear at first glance to be standard stock types with smart casting and clever writing. We first see the brittle mom, cool brother, torn friend, cute crush (both the Good Guy (Hayden Szeto) and Bad Boy (Alexander Calvert) varieties), and cranky teacher as the best possible version of what you’d expect from their apparent narrative function, tangential to our lead’s world. But soon they’re complicated with compassionate, empathetic nuance. It’s a lot like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret in that way, another movie about a girl who learns that she has an effect on others, too. They’re not just figures in her life. She’s in theirs. This new awareness is the dawning of maturity, and though it’s not easy to get there, it’s fulfilling to make even one more step in the right direction.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Monster Hunt:

A screenplay is quite a different creature than a novel, and it’s usually interesting to see an author attempt to bridge the gap. In the case of J.K. Rowling, the creative and commercial lure of her Harry Potter world has led her to trade books for scripts as she attempts to expand the fantasy in new directions. She goes back in time for a prequel (of sorts) in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which leaves behind a contemporary Hogwarts for a Roaring Twenties’ New York City. Instead of the castle in the countryside where a British boarding school narrative provided both structure and boundless whimsical visuals in which a hero’s journey could patiently develop, here she finds a bustling retro-urban America. It shares with her earlier stories a magical community hiding in plain sight, with many of the same delights: goblins and house elves and wizards and all the processes and politics thereof existing behind a magical barrier, mostly unbothered by the concerns of muggles. They’re about to find the boundaries transgressed, when well-meaning but bumbling zoologist wizard Newt Scamander arrives with a suitcase full of magical critters that get loose, threatening to wreak havoc and expose their community.

So it’s both a new world and an old one, with fresh sights and peoples and times to explore while maintaining some slight sense of comforting familiar continuity with the terrific film adaptations of Rowling’s Potters. It’s a difficult task, especially for a writer whose drive to endlessly add imaginative filigrees on her work is reflected in her books’ page counts and her years of additional hints and factoids since the series’ conclusion. I certainly don’t begrudge her desire to live in the world she created and tell us more about it. The problem is with time and space. A movie simply can’t expand and explain as much as she’s attempting here, especially when it leaves her two biggest writerly assets – overflowing incident and whimsical detail – foreshortened. The result is a story that’s at once incredibly simple and worldbuilding that’s bewilderingly complicated. Sure, it’s a spin-off. But it’s also starting over. Rowling is stuck in the in-between space. Beasts is too beholden to what came before to break out and be its own thing, but too different to drift off much affection for the Potter story.

Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, playing up a sheepish introversion as an unusually passive presence for this sort of big phantasmagoric production) arrives uncharacterized in a world we know little about. As the movie, directed by Potter alum David Yates, slowly pulls its character through a tour of magical New York we pick up bits and pieces about stateside wizard tics and troubles. Here the Ministry of Magic is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (or MACUSA) hidden Platform 9¾ style in the Woolworth Building. They’ve banned magical creatures and have a strict no-muggle-fraternizing policy, so they’re quite taken aback when Scamander not only loses his suitcase of creatures but has accidentally left it with a normal man (Dan Fogler). A low-level MACUSA agent (Katherine Waterson) tries to keep a lid on the situation, enlisting her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol) in assisting Scamander and his new muggle pal’s fetch quest for fantastic beasts of all shapes and sizes hiding out in a gleaming digital backlot period piece metropolis.

This is the simple part of the story, with Scamander anchoring a creature feature that finds its drive in a man determined to stop the beasts by saving them and understanding them instead of merely defeating and capturing them. There’s not much in the way of momentum or urgency to the task, as Rowling’s script has an unhurried amble. We spend long sequences simply looking at a CG menagerie, disappearing into his roomy suitcase zoo to look at googly-eyed monsters and ethereal mammals, or watching a bulbous glowing rhinoceros charging or an invisible monkey scampering. My favorite was a kleptomaniac platypus – he had the most personality of these fantasy animals – but a feathery dragon snake that shrinks or expands to fill available space is a runner up for its clever Miyazaki-like design. Still, it adds up to a whole lot of footage of actors looking with all the convincing awe they can muster at computer animation, punctuated by a lackadaisical, gently amusing bantering relationship between the underwritten leads. (To the extent they have personality it’s in whatever the performers are able to squeeze in between set pieces and exposition.)

Underneath this lighthearted, simple adventure with thin characters and slight sights simmers great, evocative tension and complicated conflicts. There’s brewing anti-witch conspiracy led by a wild-eyed zealot (Samantha Morton), whose adopted son (Ezra Miller) is torn between living up to her ideology or helping an authoritarian wizard detective (Colin Farrell). This rich, gripping side story is so fascinating I wished it were the center of the movie instead of a terrific subplot. It becomes the picture’s most fascinating addition to Rowling’s lore, growing into a possession tale arising out of twisted self-loathing, and with snaky tendrils into crooked politics as a slimy tycoon (Jon Voight) casts about for a scapegoat to fuel his electoral ambitions. That all this sits side-by-side with a sightseeing jaunt through capering creature hunts makes for a struggle with striking a tone. Even as the storylines converge, it feels like too much is held back or unspoken for fear of running out of material for proposed future sequels.

For this is a movie that’s intended to be the jumping off point for a new series, and as such falls into the trap of keeping its options open. There’s charm in the lovely, unusual grace notes – expressive slow motion, subtle (to the point of nearly undetectable) emotional tremors, soft humor, delicate slapstick. It’s not the typical blockbuster. It has personality, eccentricity in its construction while still beholden to the beats expected of studio spectacle, including the now inevitable huge CG cloud of muck throbbing in the sky for a finale. Yates, with many of the same crew members who so handsomely designed and decorated the Potters, dutifully conjures Rowling’s imagination, but in this case it can’t help but feel a little hesitant, a two-hour promise of more to come. If this flowers into a fresh new franchise, it’ll look in retrospect like a passable setup. For now, it’s merely a footnote, an afterthought to a far more satisfying story.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

First Contact: ARRIVAL

Like all the best science fiction, Arrival uses heady ideas to illuminate humanity. In the movie, large black pods descend upon the Earth, hovering ominously above twelve, seemingly random, spots on the globe. We don’t know what they want. Armies mobilize. News media chatters endlessly about our anxiety. And with a grim, secret determination, small bands of researchers try to figure out a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Their silence is scary. But science just might find a way. We follow one of those teams, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) recruited by a colonel (Forest Whitaker) to helicopter into the base around the UFO in the wilds of Montana. The object opens every 18 hours, a passageway into which they can climb and attempt to learn the aliens’ language. The mysterious beings hide behind a clear wall, spindly, spidery grey giants in milky off-white fog, uttering their inscrutable otherworldly tones. How we react to them, how we attempt to understand them, will determine the fate of the world. Is that kind of emotional intelligence, that drive to cooperate and understand, within the powers of the human race? After all, it’s so much easier to give into the fear of the unknown, to scapegoat, to shoot first and ask questions never.

Alien visitation narratives can take many forms: the campy, the exciting, the funny, the metaphorical, the ponderous. Director Denis Villeneuve, whose films like Prisoners and Sicario are pulp procedurals told with heavy deliberateness, treats Arrival with great seriousness. Austere, carefully composed images captured by cinematographer Bradford Young tell the story with patience, watching competent people doing their jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Maybe one of the most poignant effects of watching the military and scientists quickly get over their bewilderment and get down to the business of figuring out what to do next step-by-step is its fantasy of competency when faced with unprecedented events. Remember thinking our political and intellectual leaders could withstand such a test? But the movie isn’t safe fantasy. It interrogates the impulses with which mankind would greet such a moment. Some countries send researchers of their own into the UFOs nearest them, eager to share research with colleagues at other sites. Some countries lock down, militarize, and greet news of others’ discoveries with suspicion. One wrong move could bring unknowable consequences. Will one bad faith act wreck the planet for us all?

Villeneuve, working in the shadow of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, in which scientific process is diligently portrayed until leaping into pure poetry at the point of its most beautiful conjectures, imagines the events with cautiousness and precision. If this were to happen, this might be how it’d go down. There’s a tick-tock element of professionalism to the researcher’s routines. We see them pouring over data and fitfully sleeping before it’s time to go into the UFO again, hands shaking as they attempt new techniques of communication. The progress is slow. The stakes are high. Everyone moves as if in a daze, determined to get it right, too overwhelmed to register how mind-bending and world changing their position is. Villeneuve, so good at conjuring dread and awe, uses every ounce of his ability to give these events their full weight. We stare up at the massive edifice of the object, stare in wonder at its enormity, its unusual construction. It dwarfs the actors who move up into it. Clouds roll by. Below, the humans wait for its next move, if it will ever come. It’s a beautiful and terrifying unknown.

The impeccable craftsmanship of the film gives it its unshakeable mood, and its dizzying intensity. With a story like this one, equal parts mystery and reverence for what other filmmakers could’ve easily turned silly, tone is crucial. By maintaining tight control over the soft light and somber soundtrack, the eerie alien creaking and clunking and crisp man-made tools clicking and clacking, Villeneuve keeps the proceedings compelling in their stillness, their intellectual puzzling, and slowly accumulating power. The film begins with the story of Amy Adams’ linguist losing a loved one (earning weeping faster than any film since Up), associating the earthshaking discovery with death, grief and fear mingling as one melancholy unknown. This backstory is shuffled into the background as the film gets down to business, informing the emotional terrain subtextually. But as it bubbles back up, the film reveals its full intentions, melding a massive coldness with subtle warmth, tenderness invading the foreboding.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s reverent expansion of the short story by Ted Chiang – one of our greatest sci-fi authors – faithfully recreates the full, breathtaking, head-spinning melding of real emotion and speculative fact. How fulfilling it is to be confronted with big budget sci-fi spectacle that actually grows more complicated and confounding as it goes along. So often these things start with provocative questions then funnel into a routine battle or cliché confrontation. Here, it’s a what-if scenario played out with respect for its characters’ weary commitment to facts and faith in the power of process. They aren’t gilded with subplots about interpersonal conflict. Instead, they have a job to do, and the plot is studded with smart suppositions and clever obstacles: an uncooperative foreign military, a soldier quietly radicalized by right-wing conspiracy websites, the adverse effects of little sleep and lots of stress. It asks a familiar question – what is one fleeting human life in the fullness of time and space? – in a gripping intellectual thought experiment procedural, and finds in the end not a puzzle-solving solution, but beautifully poetic answers in a way only this genre could find.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thou Shalt Not Kill: HACKSAW RIDGE

Hacksaw Ridge is a war film about a man who refused to take up a weapon. It’s a true story of a World War II soldier who saw the world tearing itself apart and felt called to help put it back together. He volunteered as a medic, determined to save life while everyone around him was taking it. Alas, this doesn’t sit well with his commanding officers, who eventually force him into a court martial during his time at basic training. He refuses to even touch a weapon. They say he’s disobeying orders. He says he’s following his conscience. This is a fine setup for moral dramaturgy, and an intriguing challenge to Truffaut’s insistence that any anti-war film would, by presenting its subject matter, be inescapably exciting. That the director here is Mel Gibson adds another wrinkle. Here is a filmmaker who creates displays of hyperbolic violence, transforming stories of rebellion into gory sacrifice (Braveheart), stories of religious uplift into contemplations of flayed flesh (The Passion of the Christ), and whose clear masterpiece is an all-out, non-stop action splatter (Apocalypto) with violence and brutality as its subject rather than its conduit. His latest is his most self-conscious about cutting against the grain of his usual preoccupations while upholding his every interest.

It’s an old-fashioned movie, a widescreen, serious, straight-faced, unironic, conventional, period piece about strong, silent, and noble suffering. We see the young man (Andrew Garfield, playing humble aw-shucks simple sturdiness) in his small-town youth, smitten with a pretty nurse (Teresa Palmer). He shows up to donate blood just to get the opportunity to talk to her. Here we are right off the bat with an eye on plasma and its loss, willing or otherwise. There’s also the man’s tearful drunk brute father (Hugo Weaving), a struggling World War I vet with clear psychological scars from his deployment. He weeps near the graves of his fallen comrades, at one point dramatically smashing his booze bottle on a headstone, his blood artfully dripping across the top of the smooth white stone. Gibson’s not shy about drawing these connections with obvious and emphatic splashes. When an early childhood tableau of brothers fighting escalates to one tween swinging at the other with a brick, he draws the camera close to the impact, hears the sick thunk, but then follows the boy into the house where he stares at religious iconography on the wall. The birth of a pacifist is there, as well as an intermingling of guilt and duty, spirituality and conviction.  

By the time we get to boot camp, the movie becomes broad cliché, introducing a bullying commander (Vince Vaughn) slinging out nicknames to a stock group of platoon movie types: the southerner, the pretty boy, the Italian-American, and so forth. They don’t emerge as characters so much as people we can vaguely recognize once the soldiers end up on the battlefield. They don’t look kindly on their medic, who insists he won’t be using a gun, even in self-defense or in protection of his fellow soldiers. They beat him, but he won’t break. He’s jailed, but he won’t back down. He’s court martialed, and still insists he be allowed to help on his terms. He wants to heal, not hurt. Eventually he gets his wish, and Gibson doesn’t do much to milk the suspense of the court proceedings. Instead, he’s eager to follow the men to war, staging a lengthy and overwhelming battle sequence with buckets of gore chased with awe for its man of anti-violence behaving so heroically while still maintaining his ideological purity. The movie’s quaint sturdiness is unmistakably Gibson’s, with a religious fervor and belief in the power of bloody movies sitting side by side.

The movie’s grand finale, an extended and overwhelming work of blood-and-guts filmmaking, is a battle to take a ridge on an island in the Pacific. It earns the name Hacksaw through its waves of soldiers mowed down on both sides of the fight. And through it all, armed only with a spirit of decency and a desire to help, the medic sets about helping. Gibson surrounds him with meat-grinder battle scenes: dripping wounds, cacophonous ammunition, fog of war dirt and grime, loose limbs, arterial spray, demolished faces, gutted corpses, rot and rats, mud and muck, clouds of organs and tissue. And yet Gibson doesn’t simply focus on the horror, but pulls attention to the man refusing to participate. He ducks for cover, darts out with gauze and morphine, eager to get foxhole to foxhole to better save lives. There’s clear admiration here, and through the film’s earnest broad passion for the story, there’s something quietly moving within the surrounding bombast. Garfield wears a bewildered expression of simple duty, head down, hard at work.

In one pivotal moment, when danger is closest, he picks up a rifle. I tensed, wondering if Gibson would give in to his goriest blood lust. Instead, the man simply needed it to help drag a wounded soldier to safety. He sticks to his principles and the movie respects that. Although the movie is too often lumpy in construction or heavy-handed in its message, it represents a refreshing and ennobling concern for dissent in the face of wrongheaded assumptions, and the radical idea of peace in a time of war. The soldier who wishes only to heal and not to hurt is treated as aberrant, allowing him on the battlefield seen as punishment. And yet as he helps the people cut down by senseless bloodshed, he becomes their hero. He lived in dark times, and was called to be a light. We live in dark times. A movie like this, however imperfect, is a welcome reminder to be the light where you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Trolling Along: TROLLS

Trolls is DreamWorks animation’s attempt to turn the troll dolls into the Smurfs. It cobbles together a flimsy fantasy world for these old toys – nude genderless little goblins with big bright primary color puffs of hair – that finds them in a village in the woods. They’re happy all the time, but live with the memory of having escaped from a race of giants called the Bergens, essentially a city of Gargamels who look like a cross between The Boxtrolls’ villain and the Blue Meanies. (Here’s a confusion I had. Are the Bergens giants? Or are they our size and the Trolls are just doll-sized?) The entire story of this 90-minute feature involves a Bergen discovering the trolls and kidnapping most of them, leading the plucky Troll Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) to mount a rescue attempt. She recruits Branch (Justin Timberlake), the only sad Troll, to help her. It’s a real there-and-back-again, and would be over in 15 or 20 minutes flat were it not for the padding involving: simplistic emotional appeals, obvious lessons, an unlikely Bergen Cyrano/Cinderella-riffing romance, scattershot inanity, a variety of oddball road movie montages, and a whole host of jukebox covers. It’s colorful nothing.

The movie is a step back for DreamWorks, who have in the last several years pivoted away from a preponderance of snarky pop-culture saturated annoyances into some high-quality fantasy. From the relatively serious adventures – the How to Train Your Dragons – to slapstick silliness – Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Penguins of Madagascar – and those in between – the Kung Fu Pandas – the animation studio has been doing good work building worlds and experimenting in a variety of tones, styles, and moods. Here, though, we’re back with an overqualified and underutilized all-star cast (tiny voice roles for Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Gwen Stefani, John Cleese, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Funches, Kunal Nayyar, Quvenzhané Wallis…) who pop in as barely characterized background players in a grindingly obvious plot. Is there any doubt the sad troll will learn to be happy again by journeying with an irrepressible optimist and saving their joyful kind? The trip is dusted with wacky humor, random nonsense – glittery flatulence, slangy punchlines, awkward innuendoes – and hectic movement.

So there’s not much to it. This is the sort of short movie that feels very long. But it’s not entirely unpleasant. Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn (SpongeBob SquarePants) play around with the look of the picture in some appealing ways. The CG is used not to create the usual vaguely plastic look of so many big studio animations, but instead makes a look approximating yarn, felt, and scraps from a craft store reject pile. This gives it a faux-handcrafted texture as it spins out odd forest creatures: spindly spiders, giant mouths, floating eyes, ginormous snakes, and a talking cloud with arms, legs, and sneakers. Did I mention it’s all a bit of a trip? This is a kids’ movie so formulaically developed on a plot and thematic level that the only thing the filmmakers could think to keep the adults’ attention is randomness. It’s not inherently funny when these characters sing pop songs or say things like “Oh snap,” or when a Julia Child-looking Bergen chef appears to be performed in a Carol Burnett voice impersonation. But it’s enough to make the parents in the audience chuckle from the sheer unexpectedness. It is what it is.

Derivative and hackneyed in the extreme, it doesn’t try too hard to build a world or develop characters. It’s simply a bright-hued cartoony cast of toys now available at a store near you. This fits a movie more interested in look and design than in emotional underpinnings. When we finally learn why Branch is so sad all the time – his grandmother died because of singing – it sounds like a joke, complete with a cutaway flashback. But it plays out on the characters’ tearful reactions like we’re supposed to take this sentiment seriously. The movie’s both too randomized and too routine to settle on any one satisfying storytelling approach. It’s all about whatever erratic nonsense it can joke around with while cobbling together the expected kids’ movie beats. At least it’s enjoyable to look at some of the time, and for all its frazzled mania is never as grating as The Secret Life of Pets or actively hateful as Angry Birds. You could do a lot worse for kids’ entertainment this year, is what I’m saying. And maybe on this dark pre-election weekend, an insubstantial movie about dance parties and positive thinking melting away seemingly intractable disagreements is just the silly distraction we need.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Stranger Things: DOCTOR STRANGE

Behold Doctor Strange, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to grow significantly better in its action sequences. This massive franchise of interlocking superhero series tends to stuff appealing comic book conceits full of bantering character actors for fun setups that dim through endless pro forma digital destruction. The best keep the same light touch from zinging dialogue in the violence choreography, but they often err on the side of wearing out their welcome. Strange, though, finds itself dealing with cosmic transdimensional threats above the Avengers’ pay grade, so the movie is free to spiral out into wild visual invention. And somehow Marvel has allowed director Scott Derrickson – shifting tone from his usual horror beat – enough room to create some appealing, mind-boggling popcorn adventure images. Maybe the entire creative team was carried away by the intoxicating silliness of sorcerers, ancient magic, enchanted relics, pulpy gobbledygook jargon, and loopy fantasy. This isn’t a great film, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see Marvel’s ossifying superhero formula find some glimmers of new life.

The plot itself is standard origin story stuff, with quippy arrogance humbled by exposure to great power and great responsibility. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a hotshot brain surgeon who struts onto the operating theater like all his life is a show devoted to his brilliance. He plays his medical prowess as a Sherlockian neurologist, like Dr. House crossed with Tony Stark. So of course he’s distraught when a hyperbolic car crash – his sleek sports car pinwheeling off a cliff, down a ravine, through a shack, and into shallow water – leaves his hands smashed to bits. Recovery is slow, and will likely never allow him to wield a scalpel again, let alone with anything remotely approaching his former skill. Out of options, he journeys to Katmandu where he’s heard tell of a magical healer, a guru known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, otherworldly as ever, bald and beautiful, and maybe the best, coolest MCU performance yet). He’s initially put off by her ideas about astral projection, chakra alignment, and infinite alternate dimensions, but soon can’t deny the power she offers him. Open your mind, she says. He doesn’t even hesitate long enough to ask if she takes his insurance.

Moving through the typical training montages, Derrickson (from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jon Spaiths and C. Robert Cargill) finds hallucinogenic imagery. As Strange trains with The Ancient One and her talented acolytes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong) in the ways of the Sorcerer Supreme, he encounters glowing spells floating in the air, energy fields, swirling portals, glowing martial arts weaponry, mirrored dimensions fracturing the world in front of his very eyes, and abstract flourishes of phantasmagorical, mind-bending, reality-contorting travel. Marvel steers into the visual possibilities opened up by this concept, letting Derrickson and crew stage creative adventure. You can see in the effects’ department’s talented kaleidoscopic manipulation of matter – a city bending and warping in on itself, time moving backwards for some and forwards for others in the same frame, doorways to anywhere – Inception’s topsy-turvy hallway fight and Matrix bullet time plus Fantastic Voyage’s titanic molecules and 2001’s trippy wormhole. Here landscapes shift, tile patterns double and redouble, reality blurs and slurs, slips and slides. This isn’t dull shooting and punching interrupting fun characters’ hangouts. It’s, well, a visual Marvel much of the time.

And yet as much as it is fun to watch, it’s still in service of business as usual plot machinations. Strange’s training is about to come in handy, and the groundwork the early going lays for the imaginative imagery will pay off, when the villain (Mads Mikkelsen, with his eyes surrounded in a craggy dark glitter) appears, threatening the entire world with total destruction. He’s the type of bad guy who is splintering our dimension in exchange for immortality promised to him and his followers by an alternate universe ruled by a writhing purple goop monster. The conflict plays out like you’d expect, with fun side characters cycling in and out seeding future entries and forthcoming conflicts. (No less than Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt, and Michael Stuhlbarg appear in such foreshortened subplots I couldn’t help but wonder if they’re only there for the promise of sequels.) But the details of the narrative, and the regular Marvel blend of light humor and apocalyptic stakes, take a back seat. It’s their usual crowd-pleasing formula done up with a genuinely pleasing visual snap. Compare it to their flat, dishwater grey, CGI airport tarmac in Civil War and it’s even more like a whole new dimension of possibilities opening up in a dull world.

Like the Thor movies, Doctor Strange is swept up in its terrifically silly/serious concoction. Moments like a slapstick fight involving a sentient red cape or a head-spinning M.C. Escher chase through a scrambled sideways New York City are right up there with Asgardian rainbow bridges and pseudo-Shakespearean Norse god mythos as the closest the whole MCU behemoth gets to massive pop art spectacle, eye-popping splash-page fantasy filmmaking driven by an imaginative use of screen space instead of the overused and overfamiliar slam-bang drudgery. Strange is best when it lets its visuals overpower its plot, taking off into uncharted cosmic wilderness. No wonder it leaves behind its characters’ emotional journeys and down-to-earth formulaic interactions by the end, consigning their mortal problems to get sorted out later. It has a multicolored psychedelic lightshow to stage, stretching out across a 3D IMAX screen every which way and then some. Its spectacle may be no more or less empty than any other MCU smash-‘em-up, but at least it’s entertaining spectacle used strikingly, surprisingly, and enjoyably down to the last pixel.