Friday, October 28, 2016

American Honey: Heading Door to Door, Looking for a New Life

Sasha Lane is a woman on the road in "American Honey"
A scraggly valentine to the majesty and misery of the pursuit of happiness, American Honey is a sprawling, glorious mess of a movie, one that both gladdens and maddens. The first stateside film from the British director Andrea Arnold, it is nothing less than a grand statement on the quixotic fragility of the American dream, even if it is also a quiet, poignant character study. This duality—ambition fused with intimacy—is tough to pull off, and on occasion here, the panoramic threatens to overwhelm the personal. But the pluck of American Honey cannot be denied, and neither can its heroine, a wellspring of defiance and heartbreak who is fittingly named Star.

Played in a searing debut performance by Sasha Lane, Star is an 18-year-old living in an Oklahoma backwater; when we first see her, she's rummaging through a dumpster, searching for food. She's down on her luck, no question, but there's a calming matter-of-factness to the image, and both Arnold and Lane ensure that Star doesn't come across as yet another wretched lass in need of salvation. Still, things could certainly be better, as we learn during a swift and economical prologue. Arnold has never been one for hand-holding—she plops you down with her protagonists and lets you uncover their mysteries for yourself—and American Honey is gratifyingly devoid of exposition. All it takes is a quick, mostly silent scene in Star's modest apartment—where her boyfriend is handsy and a Confederate flag adorns one wall—and it's clear that she wants to break free from the shackles of her routine. So it's hard to blame her when she lugs her young half-siblings to a bar, dumps them with their mother, and sprints off into the hot southern night.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Girl on the Train: Three Women's Lives, Going off the Rails

Emily Blunt is suspicious and suspected in "The Girl on the Train"
The key test for any whodunit is whether it would still be compelling if you already knew the answer. Sure, the closing reveal in Psycho is legendary, but that shower scene is terrifying regardless of the identity of that knife-wielding woman. (For a more recent example, the least interesting element of The Night Of was the (apparent) confirmation of the actual murderer; the show was far more powerful as a tragic character study and a virulent examination of our justice system.) The "who" in "whodunit" is secondary—what really matters is the how and, more importantly, the why. With one singular exception, The Girl on the Train fails this test. It is so preoccupied with drawing out its central mystery that it never invests that mystery with any real resonance. As a result, its ultimate resolution is unlikely to inspire anything beyond the simple recognition of, "Oh, that's who done it."

This is especially curious, given that the majority of this film's viewers will enter the theater already armed with the answer to its central question. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, The Girl on the Train is based on the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, a book that scratched the melodramatic itch of millions of fans of suspense literature, whether railway commuters or otherwise. Given that Taylor can't pull the rug out from under the feet of readers who have already fallen to the floor, you might think that he would attempt to create a different hook. Instead, he appears to have faithfully—at times ploddingly, at times bracingly—transmuted the novel to the screen, fashioning the film as a persistent guessing game. The Girl on the Train functions as a sort of murderous Whack-a-Mole: Everybody is a suspect, no one can be trusted, and as soon as you peg one character as the culprit, another more likely candidate pops up. Was it the wife? The shrink? The guy in the suit (who is literally credited as "Man in the Suit")? Who knows?

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Birth of a Nation: Black Men Fighting Back, Then and Now

Nate Parker in the complex, controversial "Birth of a Nation"
No movie exists entirely within its own bubble, but the clamor surrounding The Birth of a Nation is so loud, it's threatened to silence the actual film. When it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation was hailed not only as a good movie—it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award—but as a timely and potent corrective to the monochrome of the Academy Awards, which were squirming through the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite. But in August, reports surfaced that Nate Parker, the film's writer-director as well as its star, had been charged with rape in 1999 along with Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a story credit with Parker. In 2001, Parker was acquitted (Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal); then, in 2012, his accuser killed herself. This tragedy—combined with the fact that the film features a rape whose accuracy has been questioned—ignited a firestorm that has engulfed the picture, resulting in boycotts, short-circuited interviews, and a marketing campaign that could charitably be described as tentative. Both the breadth and the volume of the rhetoric surrounding The Birth of a Nation's release make it challenging to look past the movie's context to see its content.

Yet here we are. By which I mean, my job as a film critic is not to analyze The Birth of a Nation's Best Picture prospects, nor is it to reconcile Nate Parker the person with Nate Parker the artist. (It is certainly not to determine the validity of the sexual assault allegations against Parker or to assess the prospect of causation with the alleged victim's suicide, tasks for which I am wholly unqualified.) It is instead to evaluate this movie as, well, a movie. And on that score, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Birth of a Nation is how ordinary it is. What we have here is a prototypical biopic, alternately stimulating and stultifying. You've seen movies like this before, which means you are much more likely to remember this one for what it represents than for what it contains.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Deepwater Horizon: The Ship Is Sinking, and So Are Profit Margins

Mark Wahlberg in Peter Berg's "Deepwater Horizon"
At one point in Peter Berg's geopolitical action thriller The Kingdom, Jamie Foxx tells a Saudi official, "America's not perfect, but we are good at this." The "this" he's referring to is criminal investigation, but as Berg's career has gone on, his films have played as a variation on this central theme of American competence. He makes movies about strong-willed, muscular men and women who excel at problem-solving and crisis management. It's historical fiction with a nationalist tint; in recreating specific, disastrous events, Berg venerates the broader (and, in his view, distinctly red-white-and-blue) virtues of teamwork, loyalty, and perseverance. The guy who played Linda Fiorentino's hapless patsy in The Last Seduction has somehow fashioned himself into American cinema's chief patriot.

Well, maybe vice-chief. Berg's current leading man of choice is Mark Wahlberg, our great nation's consensus avatar of blue-collar heroism. In Lone Survivor, the fact-based story of a kill mission in Afghanistan gone awry, Berg put Wahlberg through an especially brutal ringer, chronicling how a brave solider used his strength and his smarts to avoid seemingly certain death. Now the director and his star have returned with Deepwater Horizon, a meticulous reenactment of the explosion (and resulting oil spill) that destroyed a rig off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. The names may have changed, but Berg's template remains the same: Deliberately establish the players and the setting, then scrupulously illustrate how everything gets blown to hell.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Morris from America: In a Strange Land, Father Still Knows Best

Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson in "Morris from America"
Early in the modest and winsome crowd-pleaser Morris from America, a father scolds his son for writing vulgar, misogynistic rap lyrics. When the son counters that his father curses constantly, the father explains, "I'm not mad because it's explicit, I'm mad because it's bullshit." That judgment applies to parts of Morris from America itself. A slender study of disenchanted youths, the film is sometimes false and artificial, even when it postures as authentic. Yet the incisive honesty with which the father delivers his verdict exemplifies what makes this small, heartfelt movie worth watching. As a portrait of a teenager straining to find himself in a cruel and uncaring world, it's fairly rote. But as a story of the fragile-yet-powerful bond between parent and child, it is wonderfully specific and true.

The son in question is Morris (Markees Christmas), and you can guess where he's from. The more interesting detail is where he lives; Morris resides in Heidelberg, the touristy German town where his widowed father coaches soccer. His status as an immigrant lends some spice to the film's otherwise mild recipe. By which I mean, despite its European location, Morris from America—which was written and directed by Chad Hartigan—fits snugly within one of the most durable genres of American independent cinema: the coming-of-age story. It tells the tale of a diffident outsider who struggles to connect with his peers and understand his elders, but who also, thanks to the careful nourishment of his confidence and the attentions of a pretty girl, gradually discovers how to accept and assert himself. As the movie progresses, you can be sure that Morris will fall in love, make some questionable decisions, get his heart broken, lie to his father, and ultimately learn some valuable life lessons.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: On a Spit of Land, Still Lost at Sea

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in "The Light Between Oceans"
Derek Cianfrance isn't subtle. His movies traffic in heavy sentiment and obvious themes, and they are systematically designed to induce trauma and heartache. If he were less talented, this would feel like manipulative hackwork, but thankfully, he's as skilled as he is blunt. In Blue Valentine, he performed a brutal autopsy of a marriage while it was still alive, in the process coaxing superlative performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. He followed that with The Place Beyond the Pines, a striking, generational crime saga of failed fathers and sons. His new film, The Light Between Oceans, maintains his twin fixations on matrimony and family, striving to wring sweat from your brow and tears from your eyes.

It does not quite succeed. The movie is too deliberate, too mannered, to incite the response it so plainly seeks to provoke. But there is still much to admire in The Light Between Oceans, beginning with its superlative craftsmanship. This is a gorgeous film, with magnificent cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, the talented lenser who gave us the unforgettable tracking shot in True Detective, as well as the ethereal beauty of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake. Here, capitalizing on Cianfrance's preference for shooting on location, he delivers frame after frame of stunning naturalism: gentle sunrises peeking over a hillside, waves crashing onto rocky shoals, ships slicing through the mist like wooden blades. These images are accompanied by the tinkling piano and whispering woodwinds that could only be orchestrated by the great Alexandre Desplat. It's all rather lovely.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Sully: He's Not a Hero. Just Ask the Government.

Tom Hanks is a haunted hero in Clint Eastwood's "Sully"
In the dreadful 2012 flop Trouble with the Curve, Clint Eastwood plays a grizzled baseball scout who has grown disgusted with the sport's increasing reliance on analytics and technology. "Anybody who uses computers doesn't know a damn thing about this game," he growls at one point. His irascible critique encapsulates the film's worldview, namely, that the classicist's wisdom of observational experience will always vanquish the modernist's reliance on statistical data. That broad thesis is now the animating force behind Sully, Eastwood's brisk, hackneyed, intermittently diverting reenactment of an American tragedy that wasn't. It's the kind of movie where the officious villains blindly trust computer simulations, only to be taken aback when they're informed that they've failed to account for that most vexing of variables: humanity.

The majority of the humanity in Sully derives from Tom Hanks, an actor who, luckily for Eastwood, could imbue a paperclip with an aura of moral and professional authority. Here he provides the necessary blunt-force gravitas as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot better known as, well, you know. The film opens with anonymous voices screaming Sully's name as an airplane glides above the streets of Queens before crashing into a skyscraper. It's a nightmarish image, which makes sense, given that it is born from Sully's nightmares. In actuality, as you will no doubt remember, things went quite differently: On January 15, 2009, after U.S. Airways Flight 1549 suffered power failure in both engines due to bird strikes, Sully successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 souls on board. The incident was swiftly dubbed "the Miracle on the Hudson", with Sully as its chief architect. Roll credits.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings: In a Land of Magic, a Storyteller on the Run

In "Kubo and the Two Strings", three strange heroes on a quest
The opening voiceover of Kubo and the Two Strings admonishes viewers not to blink. Closing our eyes, we are told, will result in the death of the film's hero. It's a bold gambit that could potentially induce groans from the audience, were it not accompanied by a ravishing image: a woman and her baby in a tiny canoe, surging forward against a giant wave, as rain lashes down and the moon shines ominously. It's an enthralling sight, one that renders the narrator's warning superfluous—who could possibly look away from such a scene? But that narration, beyond establishing the life-or-death stakes, speaks to the movie's larger purpose. Kubo and the Two Strings isn't just a story about an artist. It's about how artists tell stories.

The artist-in-chief of Kubo is Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika, a studio that occupies a unique space in the American cinematic landscape. Eschewing the digital wizardry of Pixar and DreamWorks, Laika instead makes movies via stop-motion animation, that laborious method of physically manipulating individual objects for illusive effect. (This playful scene illustrates just how mind-bogglingly arduous the technique is.) Its first three films—Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls—married this painstaking approach to an off-kilter weirdness, resulting in distinctly original pictures that were always interesting, if not quite astonishing. But Kubo and the Two Strings, which is Knight's directorial debut, is the studio's best movie yet, combining the doting meticulousness of its prior works with a sweeping, stirring narrative and richly drawn characters. The style may be new-fangled, but the storytelling is old-fashioned in the best ways.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Don't Breathe: He's Just a Blind Guy. How Scary Can He Be?

Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy are in over their head in the thriller "Don't Breathe"
At one point in Jurassic Park, Sam Neill attempts to evade a T-rex by hiding in plain sight. His theory—supported by years of paleontologic research—is that the dinosaur's visual acuity is based on movement, so it won't detect him if he stands stock still. It's a riveting scene (most scenes in Jurassic Park are), forgoing the kineticism of the typical chase ("must go faster") in favor of terrifying immobility. Don't Breathe, the taut and accomplished new chiller from Fede Alvarez, essentially extends this concept to feature-length. It's a horror movie that bottles the genre's rushing adrenaline and redirects it inward; here, rather than running away, the only way the characters can escape the monster is by being very, very quiet.

That monster—the film's tyrannosaur, if you will—is Stephen Lang, the grizzled television actor who briefly lit up the big screen in 2009, with colorful parts in Public Enemies, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and (most memorably) Avatar. In the latter, he played a bloodthirsty warmonger named Miles Quaritch; his heavy in Don't Breathe makes Quaritch seem positively pacifistic. Here, he portrays an unnamed, solitary Iraq war veteran who owns a modest two-story home, a surly rottweiler, and an even surlier disposition. As soon as you see him in the cold open dragging a bloody body down a deserted street—an ill-advised flash-forward that dilutes the movie's considerable tension—you can see the darkness in his soul.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water: Paying Off That Mortgage, No Matter the Cost

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in "Hell or High Water"
The dusty Texas landscape of Hell or High Water is dotted with brightly colored billboards, each promising salvation to those in need. The path of this purported deliverance is not spiritual but financial; neatly lettered signs like "Fast Cash" and "Debt Relief" court blue-collar laborers who are behind on their mortgages or their bills. The striking visual contrast—between the glossy print of the highway advertisements and the dilapidated cars and trucks that drive past them—hints that these assurances are illusory, a cruel commercial ploy to exploit the perpetual suffering of the working class. It's an accurate impression, as the movie is, in part, a damning indictment of corporate avarice, one that recalls the impotent rage of The Big Short, only with the gleaming skyscrapers of the Big Apple replaced with the vast and desolate ranches of the heartland. Hell or High Water is in many ways a classic heist picture, but the true thieves depicted here are the banks.

That may sound a tad polemical, and it's fair to criticize Hell or High Water for tarring and feathering an avatar of exaggerated evil that has already been burned in cinematic effigy. (Recent examples include 99 Homes and Money Monster, though the closest comparator here is Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik's seamy underworld yarn that embellished its pulpy narrative with persistent commentary on the government's post-Katrina nonfeasance.) But this smart, soulful movie is too nuanced—and too compassionate—to be reduced to its talking points. Its message may be broad, but its details are thrillingly specific.