Friday, January 13, 2017

Hidden Figures: Black Women Have the Bright Stuff

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in "Hidden Figures"
In the opening scene of Rushmore, a math teacher asks Jason Schwartzman whether he might be able to come to the blackboard and solve an impossibly complex equation. Schwartzman’s character does so effortlessly and receives the adoring congratulations of his classmates, at which point Wes Anderson reveals that the sequence is a dream. Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi’s sincere and sappy biopic of three black women who worked at NASA during the height of the Space Race, is essentially a feature-length version of this scene, minus the concluding fake-out. It fancies itself a hard-hitting historical drama, but it’s really a frothy, wish-fulfillment fantasy.

And what’s wrong with that? Hidden Figures may not trouble your mind or get under your skin, but it does provide a welcome, feel-good tonic for these troubled times. It insists, with disarming directness, that the evils of prejudice and entrenchment will always succumb to the virtues of hard work and human decency. Its period setting is one of extreme unease (as opposed to now?), but its tone is unabashedly wholesome and reassuring.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Fences: When the Walls Tumble Down, Resentments Bubble Up

Denzel Washington is a fearsome father in "Fences"
Denzel Washington is a rock. That’s true of both his body of work and his actual body. Physically, he’s built like a finely chiseled piece of granite, with broad shoulders, flinty eyes, and a handsome face that occasionally breaks into a broad, beaming smile. And commercially, few movie stars are so ruggedly reliable. (How many other actors could have carried The Equalizer to $100 million, much less inspired demand for a sequel?) Washington’s consistency is often mistaken for redundancy, given that he typically portrays heroic authority figures defined by their unwavering competence; even when he played against type in Training Day, he was supremely charismatic. But in some of his best roles (Courage Under Fire, Flight), he allows tendrils of doubt and weakness to creep through the façade of proficiency and strength. In Fences, Washington delivers a towering performance that represents the apex of this duality—never before has he seemed so indomitable and, at the same time, so broken.

Which is not to say that Fences is a great movie. In a sense, it is barely a movie at all. A faithful adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, Fences’ dogmatic fidelity to its source arguably renders it a better fit for the stage than the screen. The third feature directed by Washington, it consists of a series of dialogue-heavy scenes, the bulk of which could be neatly subdivided into a handful of acts. Action is limited, as is Marcelo Zarvos’ muted score. The majority of the chatter takes place in a single house’s kitchen and backyard, with a few additional locations mixed in for variety. The camera remains relatively passive; when it does move, it does so fluidly via the Steadicam, rather than the handheld style favored by many art-house filmmakers.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Passengers: Boy Meets Girl, Stranded Amid the Stars

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in "Passengers"
It is an unwritten rule that every movie set in space must feature a scene where a character suddenly begins to run out of oxygen. Passengers, the diverting, flawed, occasionally fantastic romantic thriller from Morten Tyldum, is no exception. But the scene in question, which is both exciting and exasperating, arms critics with an all-too-apt metaphor to describe the broader film. Here is a movie that begins with enormous promise, sustains that promise for well over an hour, and then slowly, steadily runs out of air. It gasps for breath, its limbs flail helplessly, and its brain, deprived of precious nutrients like logic and plausibility, shuts down.

But if I'm writing less of a review than an obituary, allow me to express the hope that Passengers—which has been unjustly savaged by critics—may rest in peace. Its ultimate demise should not invalidate the genuine delight and intrigue it provided while it was still alive. By which I mean, for its first two acts, Passengers is a whole lot of fun. Visually, it's sleek, sharp, and sexy, with a slick, antiseptic production design, fetching costumes, and a pleasing color palette. And narratively, it tells an engaging story fraught with genuine moral conflict. A high-concept sci-fi think-piece, it will undoubtedly draw unflattering comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's inspired less by Kubrick than Kieslowski, and if its answers to its philosophical quandaries are less than satisfactory, it at least has the courage to pose such dilemmas in the first place.

Friday, December 23, 2016

La La Land: Sing Me a Song of an Era Bygone

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle's magnificent "La La Land"
The movie musical didn't need to be resurrected, because it never died. It has become fashionable for misty-eyed critics to pine for the glory days—of Busby Berkeley and Bing Crosby, of Rogers & Astaire and Rodgers & Hammerstein—but the twenty-first century has featured more than its share of quality musicals, from Chicago to The Last Five Years to Moulin Rouge. Yet the continued vitality of the musical shouldn't diminish the staggering triumph that is La La Land, the astonishing tour de force of song, dance, and joy from Damien Chazelle. To declare that this sweeping, soaring film has salvaged the musical from obscurity would be both inaccurate and reductive; La La Land is far too vibrant and versatile to be trivialized as the savior of a particular genre. All the same, it may well serve a broader critical function—simply uttering its title can now operate as a reflexive retort whenever anyone dares to bemoan the quality of modern movies. The musical may not be dead, but La La Land reaffirms that cinema itself is very much alive.

Of course, anyone doubting the medium's endurance probably hasn't seen Chazelle's prior film, Whiplash. That brilliant drama chronicled the corrosive relationship between a virtuoso drummer and his ferocious conductor, a fascinating dynamic that revealed the dark underbelly of the pursuit of greatness. With La La Land, Chazelle has retained Whiplash's relentless energy, but he has swapped out its obsessive fury in favor of a grand romanticism. The director is undeniably enraptured with the musicals of yesteryear, in particular Jacques Demy's classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but his filmmaking is too vigorous and inspiring to be motivated purely by nostalgia. Instead, he has harnessed his considerable formal powers to tell a story of piercing emotional clarity, if one that also happens to pay heartfelt homage to Tinseltown's rich history. His abiding love of old movies has allowed him to make a spectacular new one.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Still Rebelling, Now with a Cost

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, and Alan Tudyk in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"
Of the infinite memes that sprang out of the original Star Wars trilogy, one of the most random derives from a moment of startling quiet in The Return of the Jedi, when a rebel leader is delivering an expository info-dump. As she's rambling about battle stations and deflector shields, she suddenly pauses, then drops her voice and solemnly murmurs, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." There are no Bothans in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but there is quite a bit of death, and not just involving hundreds of haphazardly slaughtered stormtroopers. This counts as a surprise. The Star Wars franchise isn't devoid of darkness, but it has generally prioritized fun and escapism; while Rogue One largely stays on brand, it isn't especially concerned with joy. Instead, the predominant theme of this interesting and frustrating film—which was directed by Gareth Edwards from a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy—is sacrifice. It's a genuine war movie, one about the soldiers who wade through the mud, risking their lives so that the rest of us may glimpse a better tomorrow.

If that sounds turgid, don't worry—this is still a Star Wars movie, with all of the excitement and mythology that such an undertaking entails. Yet Rogue One occupies a curious place within Disney's newest and most profitable cinematic universe. Whereas the official episodic saga resumed last year, after a decade-long layoff, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One is the first of the studio's "anthology" series, films that both take place within the canonical realm and simultaneously stand apart from it. (Continuing this pattern, 2018 will see the release of a Han Solo movie, starring Hail, Caesar's Alden Ehrenreich, while a rumored Boba Fett film is tentatively slated for 2020.) In theory, this concept will allow filmmakers to expand the Star Wars mythos into uncharted space, using the series' existing, minutely detailed template to tell bold and innovative stories. But because the franchise's fan base is so entrenched and protective of its collective property—and because directors must satisfy their corporate overlord's commercial imperative to please those fans—veering too far off course is a dicey proposition.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nocturnal Animals: Brutality Is Skin Deep

Amy Adams is a wreck in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals"
Title sequences can do more than just convey rudimentary information about a film's cast and crew—they can set the mood, introduce a plot, establish a theme. So what to make of the opening credits of Nocturnal Animals, which impassively present a parade of naked, obese women dancing in slow-motion as firecrackers explode around them? Is this garish display meant to be revolting? Titillating? Provocative? Profound? Forced to guess, one might argue that the director, Tom Ford, is attempting to draw a line between happiness and despair, remarking that beauty and brutality are often intertwined. (To do so, one would first need to ignore the accusations of body-shaming that have dogged Ford regarding the sequence.) But that isn't quite right, because the dirty joke of this dirty movie is that, much like its jarring opening credits, it means absolutely nothing.

Which is not to say that Nocturnal Animals is unsightly. Far from it. A famous fashion designer making his second foray into cinema (following the well-received, overwrought A Single Man), Ford fails to weave the gorgeous with the grotesque as meaningfully as he'd like, but he nevertheless supplies ample quantities of both. For the former, he casts Amy Adams (always a good start), dresses her in ravishing clothes, and plops her in the middle of an austere, pristinely manicured Malibu mansion. Adams plays Susan, a paragon of first-world materialism; she owns an art gallery, attends fancy parties, and is married to a handsome husband (Armie Hammer) who regularly jets off to New York to close deals and screw mistresses. Despite her wealth and creature comforts, Susan is plainly disenchanted with her life—she needs a jolt of excitement to jostle her out of her ennui.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Loving: Found Guilty for Finding Love

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as a real-life couple in "Loving"
Loving is a very pleasant American movie about a very unpleasant time in American history. It tells a story of adversity, perseverance, and ultimate triumph, and it proceeds in a rigorous straight line, with minimal eccentricity or embellishment. This is perhaps to be expected, given that Loving belongs to a specific subgenre: the earnest and well-meaning docudrama. But it is also something of a surprise, given that its writer and director is Jeff Nichols, whose previous films (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) were largely off-kilter and opaque. Nichols tends to focus on odd protagonists—a delusional laborer, a wandering gangster, an alien boy—but even more central to his filmmaking are his disdain for convention and his gift for unpredictability. Yet anyone with access to Wikipedia could comfortably predict how Loving will play out.

This does not make it bad. On the contrary, it can be satisfying to watch a familiar story unfold on screen, particularly when it is well-told and well-acted. And of course, the movie's theme—that stoic decency can defeat senseless bigotry—is a worthy one, equally relevant now as when the events of the film took place. Still, the challenge for Nichols is to make Loving stimulating as a piece of cinema as well as a lesson in history. Given his meat-and-potatoes approach to this material, it's a marvel that he even half-succeeds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Manchester by the Sea: After Death Strikes, Life Shuffles On

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, in Kenneth Lonergan's heartbreaking "Manchester by the Sea"
Manchester by the Sea opens with a scene of tranquil, quintessentially New England bliss. As a trawler glides through Massachusetts Bay, an uncle gently teases his six-year-old nephew, lightly dropping his "R's" while warning that child-chewing sharks prowl these waters. It's a vision of serene, understated happiness in a film that subsequently grows heavy with melancholy and loss. You might think that the sweetness of this introduction is but a feint, a setup that lulls viewers into dropping their guard so that they can be more easily knocked out. Yet while Manchester by the Sea is primarily a tragedy—few movies are so profoundly, terribly sad—it is not exactly a downer. Instead, it somehow manages to be life-affirming as well as shattering, to reveal glimpses of light and hope within its miasma of heartbreak and devastation. It derives its enormous power not just from its literal tragedy, but from its emotional honesty.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives alone in a wintry Boston suburb. In its prosaic early scenes, the film efficiently establishes Lee as competent, sullen, and a bit of an asshole. He snaps at clients, brawls at bars, and seems generally incapable of human connection. His solitary routine of changing lightbulbs and shoveling snow is interrupted when he receives word that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives in the titular hamlet an hour-and-a-half north of Boston, has just died of a heart attack. That's dreadful news—in a brief moment at the hospital, Affleck silently conveys the bond that Lee shared with his sibling, and the depths of his pain—but it isn't exactly surprising, given that Joe had been suffering from congestive heart failure for the past decade. The real shock comes when Lee meets with a lawyer to read Joe's will and discovers that he is now the guardian to Patrick (Lucas Hedges, very good), Joe's 16-year-old son.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Allied: Sex and Spies, with a Side of Suspicion

Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt are spies with secrets in "Allied"
Beautiful, enigmatic, tantalizingly seductive, brimming with feeling—am I describing Allied, or Marion Cotillard? Is there a difference? Robert Zemeckis' World War II thriller has much to recommend it—slick pacing, gorgeous costumes, a taut script by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight—but the unequivocal highlight is Cotillard's hypnotic performance. At once exquisitely graceful and nakedly emotional, the actress effortlessly commands your attention whenever she's on screen. The only problem with Allied is that she isn't on screen nearly enough.

A handsome period piece, Allied opens in blinding sunlight, as a lone solider parachutes into the deserted sands of French Morocco. This is Max (Brad Pitt, holding his own), a Canadian intelligence officer on a mysterious assignment. He slips on a wedding ring and makes his way to Casablanca, where he locates his wife, a socialite named Marianne (Cotillard), who in actuality is neither a socialite nor his wife. Instead, Marianne is a fighter for the French Resistance—she and Max, who have never met before, have been tasked to pose as a couple while carrying out a dangerous mission. Knight's script initially leaves the details of that mission murky, though we know the stakes are high and the odds are low; when Marianne asks Max to estimate their chances of survival, he tersely replies, "60-40. Against."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Moana: A Girl and a God on the High Seas

Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho are on an adventure in Disney's "Moana"
Midway through Moana, the iridescent and irresistible new animated adventure from Walt Disney Studios, an observer sizes up the title character: "If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess." The speaker is the demigod Maui, and along with his other impressive talents—shape-shifter, warrior, chest-thumper—you can add meta commentator. Disney is as much a cultural institution as a movie studio, and Maui's blunt assessment of Moana's effective nobility—she feebly objects that she's the daughter of a chief, not a king—reflects the company's evolving self-awareness. Now in its ninth decade, the Mouse House has churned out countless tales of feminine royalty, films that are, depending on whom you ask, either exciting and empowering or formulaic and stereotypic. Moana is, in one way or another, all of these things. Yes, it's yet another journey of self-discovery, featuring yet another plucky heroine of high birth, one who follows in the well-trodden footsteps of Aurora, Ariel, and Anna. And so what? There are far worse blueprints to hew to, much less to subtly reengineer and reinvigorate. Winking commentary aside, Moana doesn't reinvent the (spinning) wheel, but it does capably tweak and troubleshoot the Disney formula, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable movie that's by turns playful and poignant.

This incremental progress begins, of course, with the film's setting. Long criticized for its emphatic whiteness, Disney has endeavored in recent years to diversify its universe, and Moana continues that trend, taking place in Polynesia. Whether this represents legitimate growth or mere tokenism is not for me to say; in any event, I am less interested in the political dimensions of this movie than its cinematic ones. And as a piece of storytelling, the opening act of Moana is pleasant but unremarkable. Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is the restless daughter of a local chief, dutifully obeying her tribe's customs but constantly feeling a silent tug from the Pacific. You know the drill: She feels unfulfilled with her routine, and she chafes at her father's insistence that she never venture beyond their island's barrier reef. In other words, she's a lot like Ariel. Or Merida. Or Rapunzel. To paraphrase another famous Disney character who will be returning to theaters early next year: There must be more than this provincial fishing life!