Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Two for the Road: THE HUNT and BLOODSHOT

With movie theaters closed in the face of a global pandemic, we are about to have a radical transformation of moviegoing for the next few months (at least). Us frequent moviegoers will feel the brunt of it in our habits. Personally speaking, I haven’t gone more than a week without seeing something in a movie theater since George W. Bush was president. This will be quite an adjustment for us all, with only VOD titles and whatever the streaming services upload for our amusement passing for current cinema. Multiplex employees will hopefully continue to get paid by the big chains (deepest shame for those companies that don’t), and if you can buy a gift card or membership to a local independent or nonprofit theater now, that’d be a good investment in making sure they stay around. These are strange times, and they ask much of us. Movies are the least of our worries, but as an already weakened (through competing forms, corporate consolidation, eroding interest, and streaming malaise) aspect of our culture, it’s natural to wonder about their long term viability in the face of all this disruption.

I, for one, will find some small solace in the ability to finally catch up on the unwatched discs my collecting habit has piled up over the years. I’ve already dug into the stacks for some long runtimes I’ve been putting off. Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) — a finely textured cop drama that accrues more than it unfolds — and Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) and Nixon (1995) — divergent and yet complementary fevered midcentury epics, and reason enough to think the name Robert Richardson is one of those talents basically synonymous with cinema — have been recent highlights. Nonetheless, whenever movie theaters open up again, it’ll feel so good to see that big screen light up with a new movie. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. Tears of joy will follow, no doubt. Still, I saw a few movies last week before everything fell apart to social distancing and self-quarantine and working the day job from home. Given the state of world affairs, and the entertainment business, I’ll probably be among the small number who can actually claim to have seen these movies in their original release. Small bragging rights, to be sure.

One was the cursed release of The Hunt, a controversial Blumhouse horror effort that got its initial release scuttled by political forces last September. You see, the premise is that rich liberals have kidnapped a handful of conspiratorial red state folks to hunt them for sport. Some conservatives, the sort who love to play dumb and aggrieved to whip up gullible audience’s anger, claimed the movie was against them, irresponsible, and a totally inappropriate concept. This leaves aside, of course, the fact that the trailers and advertising clearly set up a film in which the hunters were the obvious villains and the heroes the plucky underdogs being hunted. If anything, the voices calling for its removal — up to the highest, dumbest levels of politics — would like this movie, if only because they’d misunderstand it the other way. Not that it’d be entirely their fault. No, director Craig Zobel (of the superior upsetting Compliance) and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (the showrunner and a writer on HBO’s brilliant, sociopolitically sharp Watchmen sequel) have made a movie so sloppily both-sides that it condemns ultimately only the discourse. It asks, aren’t we all angry these days? And never stops to interrogate why. Maybe the unactualized movie about the divide in this country being only superficially between right and left when it’s really between rich and poor that lingers unexamined behind this premise would’ve been better for being clearly stated. Instead we have heads blown off and limbs torn away — sometimes in jokey manners — for maximum splatter impact, and a fine lead performance from Betty Gilpin (Glow) as a Deep South wage slave who — surprise! — is an educated woman capable of taking on the big bad (Hilary Swank). There’s that sort of wishy-washy condescension all over the picture. Some of the action is passably done, but when your ostensible social commentary ends up only saying that people are too mean on Twitter — which, yes, but also, that’s a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself — then you need to go back for another rewrite. Instead of being actually provocative, it’s a shallow incitement, and as such, merely boring.

Better is Bloodshot, a dopey small-scale superhero movie of the kind you might’ve seen in the late 90s, maybe catching it between Spawn and Blade. It’s refreshingly throwback in its appeal in that way, proud of its few good visual tricks while mostly playing it safe as a modest mid-sized star vehicle for a man of rumbling stoic charisma. Based on a character from Valiant Comics (one of the competitors to the Big Two of Marvel and DC that arose in the peak comic book era three decades back), it follows a soldier (Vin Diesel) who is killed, then resurrected by a biotech startup. The head of the company (Guy Pearce), a doctor and inventor, is proud to move beyond artificial limbs into this new feat: tiny robotic nanites in the blood that gives his experimental patient nearly unlimited ability to regenerate tissue and bone in the event of injury. The poor muscle man awakes with memory of his death, and soon sets out to get revenge. It’s almost like this super solider idea is what the company had in mind all along (hmmm), as they do nothing to stop the newly alive solider from executing a plan that involves crashing head on into an armored car and walking straight into hundreds of rounds of gunfire from the private army protecting the bad guy (Toby Kebbel). That’s a fun sequence, shot under a red light and cloud of flour, with each digital squib on our hero a curlicue of instant robotic recovery, each blood cloud a swirl reentering and reconstituting him. Alas, as fun as it can be, the whole arc of the movie grows repetitive, as any reasonably alert viewer is miles ahead of the protagonist in figuring out the derivative plot twists, and the action sequences never quite figure out a way around the problem of a character that can’t be injured. Still, the filmmaking of the action is brisk and cut confusingly close, giving enough of a sense of energy and speed-ramped dazzle to approximate excitement. Director Dave Wilson is yet another alum of VFX house Blur, following Tim Miller (Deadpool) and Jeff Fowler (Sonic the Hedgehog) into a feature debut. (It’s the best of the three.) He crafts the central visual ideas well enough as the action becomes a swirl of nanite clouds and shrapnel amid powerful punches. And the character of Bloodshot himself benefits from the soulful stillness of Diesel. He’s unstoppable, but he’s not happy about it. There’s some unshakeable baseline appeal to his star persona in the terse, glum Riddick or Witch Hunter sci-fi mold. What we’re left with is a grindingly competent B-movie, totally forgettable and destined to be a passable time waster on cable or streaming. And yet, as the last theatrical experience I’ll have for a while, I’m fonder of it by the day.

Saturday, March 7, 2020


The Way Back is a character study in the structure of a sport’s movie. It's the kind of movie we say they don't make anymore, a terrific work of formula and feeling, and about recognizable people with real problems. In its attentive way, attuned to the addiction suffered by its main character, the film doubles up on underdogs. We find a man drawn to the beer bottle to drown out disappointments, purposefully narrowing his life to his hard work on a construction crew and his drunken nights passing out alone. Years before, he used to be a high school basketball star, and so when his old school calls him to take over as head coach of a team in the midst of a decades long losing streak — the old coach had a heart attack and has to withdraw midseason — he reluctantly agrees. It sets up an easy Hollywood arc, with a ragtag group of underperforming athletes and a middle-aged man gripped by regret and alcoholism have to help each other find a way forward, growing together and teaching each other. But though the film takes on that shape, through the hard-won victories on and off the court, it’s far more interested in the people involved. Though it hardly lacks for basketball action and locker room pep talks and heart to hearts with troubled youths, and builds up the typical compelling head of steam as rivals look down on them and the playoffs loom, the movie holds the coach in focus at the key moment, the scoreboard blurred in the background. In fact, though the ending is rousing and emotionally satisfying, as I sit here typing these words I can’t even remember if we hear the final score. Director Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to the genre, what with his great 2004 based-on-a-true-hockey-game Miracle and fine 2011 brother-versus-brother boxing movie Warrior. Here he and his team bring solid meat-and-potatoes studio craftsmanship to every polished moment of Brad Ingelsby’s sturdy screenplay. And he services the expected beats by underplaying them — scores revealed in a melancholy freeze frame of on-screen text, or a deft cut away from a reaction — while building up an involving emotional experience.

It helps that Ben Affleck, delivering one of his finest performances, is in the lead. He brings sad eyes to the role, unspoken depression burbling under his closeups. There’s a scene where he sits in his truck in the parking lot of a bar, and we can tell he’s debating whether or not to go in based solely on the expression on his face. It’s neither overplayed nor telegraphed; he’s simply being, letting the conflict play out naturally, subtly, a shift of weight, a tipping of emphasis, a silence, a pause. He feels real. So, too, is his physicality, carrying with it the full burden of his own star persona — here’s the champion who was, the box office draw and Oscar winner whose megawatt celebrity has been dimmed through the vagaries of gossip headlines and various personal problems playing out in public. We can see in his role the powerhouse this new coach once was, the sturdy confidence of his frame balancing on unsteady feet, tough and talented, but clearly struggling. When he steps back on the court, he regains some of his command. If only he can stay on the wagon long enough to take similar charge of his life. The cast around him is evocative, painted in broad strokes, enough to get the picture. There’s a kind assistant coach (Al Madrigal), a worried sister (Michaela Watkins), a tentative ex-wife (Janina Gavankar). As painful moments of backstory are revealed, it’s clear the man’s profound pain will not be taken away by drinking another shot at the bar nor by watching his players take a winning shot on the court. There are no simple answers here. No one — not him, not his players, not his family, not his community — is transformed overnight. But they can be set on the right path. It’s not for nothing that his day job finds him helping construct a new highway overpass. It’s slow going, piece by piece. But maybe, if all goes well, in the end, there’ll be a new way back.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Family Quest: ONWARD

Pixar spent the last decade mostly turning out sequels, some good (Incredibles 2) and many middling. Now the once great factory of fresh computer animated classics has given us its new standalone feature: Onward. Like the best of its recent original works — Coco, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur — it’s a film about growing up, a coming-of-age scramble nestled inside a melancholy metaphor that pushes on the emotional pressure points of its audience. Here’s a movie about an elf-boy in a world that imagines the fantasy pasts of cheap paperbacks and roleplaying games is now our modern day — the wilds of wizards and castles and enchanted forests now suburbs and gas stations and highways, the magic of staffs and spells now smartphones and minivans. (As you might expect, the widescreen visual look of the world has its little delights and storybook charm.) The boy is missing his long-dead father acutely on this, his sixteenth birthday. Luckily, his dad left a present to be opened on this day: a spell that’ll bring him back for just one day. It goes slightly wrong, leaving only a pair of legs in father-fashion khakis and loafers. (There are some good gags made out of this, and the more upsetting details are assiduously ignored.) Now the son must find a phoenix jewel (rebirth and all) with the help of his oafish Dungeons & Dragons-style fanboy older brother, a quest that takes them out into the magic on the edges of society, while testing their prickly fraternal bond. So it’s also the vintage Pixar special: the buddy comedy. It’s as sprightly a chase as it is a jab in the tear ducts, somehow giving the audience something that’s at once overfamiliar and unexpected, warmly funny, easily appealing, and comforting even in its rougher edges.

The film is full of typical Pixar touches, though more modest in its effect and depth. Writer-director Dan Scanlon (of the strangely forgotten Monsters University) brings to the picture genre play that is featherlight, a gentle needling of fantasy tropes while wholeheartedly embracing the fetch quest construction. But for however simple the plot, the emotions do run deep and true. It may have the shape of a machine-tooled moving response machine — all levers and buttons flipped and pushed to shape the necessary payoffs — but the warm vocal performances of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are loveably believable cartoonish brothers, and the ache of their need to connect with a father they barley knew is sometimes palpable. The ultimate conclusion is surprising and satisfying, though I wish the movie was better equipped to dig deeper and more cleverly into its premise. (What, exactly, is the relationship between the very real magic and the rest of society? No underground support group like the shark’s in Finding Nemo? And why doesn’t the boy’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) get to spend time with her husband’s legs?) Pixar of yore would’ve wrung every drop of wonder and delight out of its conceit, its premise, and its world. Imagine the airtight structure of Toy Story or the swooning accumulated details of WALL-E. Alas. Onward nonetheless points a way forward, reaffirming the studio’s commitment to new stories to tell in its typically detailed style and earnest emotive effort. The characters are just too sympathetic and the quest too pure to deny. A sequence where the lad prepares to step out over a bottomless pit is as good — suspenseful and charming — as any I’ve seen of late, and a fine metaphor for the company itself. I’d rather Pixar be taking that leap of faith than retreading past successes any day. Onward and upward.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man knows a monster movie is only as good as its metaphor. Thus it spins a gripping, upsetting, and satisfying chiller out of a great one. It starts with a woman (Elisabeth Moss) escaping an abusive relationship, her controlling boyfriend (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) so outraged at that prospect that, when he awakes to find her sneaking away in the middle of the night, he runs at the car and punches its window out. She just barely flees, and as she tries to recover a life for herself with the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer) and a friend (Aldis Hodge), she feels haunted by her poisonous relationship. The key to the film’s working so well is its grounding the psychology of these opening scenes. Selling the realism of the moment is a raw and open performance from Moss (drawing on her Mad Men poise and Handmaid's Tale despair) and tenterhooks prickling filmmaking from Whannell (veteran genre craftsman most recently of the gory good sci-fi actioner Upgrade). There's a deliberate pace, ice-cold cinematography often isolating her in the frame, amped-up sound design making every sudden noise a potential threat. It puts the audience in her headspace. This isn’t merely a pulp start; an entirely convincing realistic drama might be spun from these truthful, observant scenes of a woman readjusting after living under the thumb of a cruel, manipulative partner. The acting is rooted in precisely calibrated real-world horror. Her partner was already a monster before he’s even more of a monster. 

That the movie uses this sturdy, steady foundation for its central metaphor makes everything that follows all the more effective and suspenseful. A couple weeks after her escape, she hears that he’s killed himself. This should make her feel safer. At least, that’s what her support system tries to tell her. But she can’t shake the feeling that her abuser is around — a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck sense that someone is watching. When it escalates to objects in the background suddenly moving — a gleaming knife slipping off that counter; a disembodied puff of breath on a cold porch — and then props in the foreground behaving strangely — an open door, a yanked sheet — it’s clear there’s something going on. And it’s even clearer that every little ghost-story style poltergeist activity is calibrated to make her appear crazy, to sow doubt in her support system, to isolate her and maintain her invisible abuser’s manipulative control over her life. It’s a haunting metaphor, and the undetectable, unpredictable effects of its monster’s actions make for truly unsettling negative space, and the most jolting of jump scares. As the movie springs its surprises, explaining its conceit, revealing new layers of horror, and paying off elements you won’t even realize were setups in the first place, Whannell takes great pleasure in playing the audience, twisting the knife with sudden shocks while dangling the possibility for catharsis. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted feat of genre fare, brilliantly reconfiguring H.G. Wells’ original idea via the recently buzzworded classic film Gaslight into a freshly creepy bit of horror filmmaking. It’s hugely entertaining with its chilly tension impressively sustained, while at its center is the painful story of a woman whose inside-out understanding of her ex’s evil is dangerously disbelieved.