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.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sausage Party: Imagine All the Foods, Losing Their Religion

Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, Edward Norton, and David Krumholtz as foods in "Sausage Party"
The community at the center of Sausage Party is a vibrant melting pot, a diverse cross-section of ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths. But this neighborhood is also unified in its theism—although it hosts a number of different sects, most of its residents believe in some higher power. Some sing hymns together, while others pass down oral histories of their divinities; virtually all of them contemplate the existence of life after death and hope one day to ascend to a spiritual plane. In essence, this bustling hub of worship exhibits the kind of cultural variety that you might find in any American metropolis, where people regularly attend churches, synagogues, or mosques. There's just one small difference that distinguishes the characters of this movie: They're all foods.

The premise of Sausage Party, which was co-written by longtime best buds Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, sounds like an idea that they cooked up while getting stoned on the set of This Is the End, their woozy apocalyptic hangout comedy. (Virtually the entire voice cast of Sausage Party appeared in that film, while Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, who both executive-produced it, also receive screenwriting credits here.) That movie used the Rapture as scaffolding for a thoughtful investigation of male friendship and insecurity, and Sausage Party features an even crazier concept that masks an even more provocative study of human behavior. Curiously, it's the latter that leaves a mark. A self-professed work of "adult animation", Sausage Party is frequently funny and persistently filthy, but its commitment to excess suffers from diminishing returns. It's the skewering of organized religion that really stings.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Nerve: Gotta Catch 'Em All, Your Life's on the Line

Kimiko Glenn, Emma Roberts, and Miles Heizer in "Nerve"
The teenagers in Nerve are slaves to their smartphones, blindly following their devices' directions even when they appear to be leading them toward certain death. This makes Nerve a very silly movie, though perhaps not as silly as it would have seemed a month ago. The recent Pok√©mon Go craze—in which people fixated on their Androids have stumbled into robberies, corpses, and murder—lends Nerve more than a whiff of topical relevance. What could have been a stupid and implausible dystopian thriller now becomes something resembling a cautionary tale, a didactic fable that concerned friends can relay to their Pikachu-obsessed peers. Unfortunately, while it's less implausible than it might have been, it's still pretty stupid.

Which doesn't mean that it can't be fun. Directed with style and snap by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Nerve is a big-screen experience that takes great heed to remind us how tethered we are to our pocket-sized monitors. Using a variety of flashy tracks—frequent POV shots, distorted camera angles, translucent screens, text running through images both horizontally and vertically—Schulman and Joost keep your eyes busy, soaking the frame in a neon-drenched aesthetic that recalls Spring Breakers. From the outset, Nerve doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and its narrative only deteriorates as it goes along, but it's consistently eye-catching.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jason Bourne: Angry Assassin Remembers, Again

Matt Damon returns in Paul Greengrass' "Jason Bourne"
Jason Bourne is a superhero. He may not have a costume or a secret identity or alien powers, but he's nevertheless invincible, terminating his enemies with extreme prejudice and casual efficiency. What made him interesting in the past was his struggle to reconcile his superhuman combat skills with his search for self—there's a reason that the first novel in Robert Ludlum's original trilogy was called The Bourne Identity. Doug Liman's 2002 adaptation of that novel was thrilling not just for its explosive action sequences but for the way it emphasized its protagonist's confusion and vulnerability, amplified by Matt Damon in a performance of tender brutality. But now, three movies later—four if you count The Bourne Legacy, in which Jeremy Renner stood in for Damon as a Bourne-like surrogate—Jason Bourne knows who he is. The mystery has vanished; all that's left is the brutality.

When we first meet Jason in this new movie that bears his name, he's lying low in Greece, numbly participating in underground bare-knuckled boxing matches. (In this, the film oddly resembles the opening of Creed.) Beyond establishing the obvious—that even at age 45, Matt Damon still looks awfully good with his shirt off—this curt opening sequence is designed to demonstrate Jason's isolation. Yet it tells us nothing we didn't already know. Jason starts this movie alone, and he ends it alone. There is no character progression, no soul-searching, no catharsis, no real meaning of any kind. Where Jason Bourne was once a superhero, he's now morphed into a different sort of genre staple: the looming figure who moves implacably toward his quarry, inexorable in his silent bloodlust. He's the killer in a horror movie.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Deep in Space, a Crew Bands Together

Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella, and Chris Pine in "Star Trek Beyond"
"Things have started to feel a little episodic," Jim Kirk confesses at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, the fleet and fun third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. He's musing about his role overseeing the increasingly routine voyages of the Starship Enterprise, but it doesn't require a doctorate in meta to connect his observations to the other vehicle he's piloting, namely the Star Trek franchise itself. Kirk's opening voiceover articulates the central challenge that every studio-sanctioned cinematic series faces: How do you continue serving your fans but prevent the proceedings from growing stale? Can you deliver something more without just providing more of the same?

Star Trek Beyond—directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, taking the reins from J.J. Abrams (who has since migrated to a different galaxy)—doesn't entirely solve this paradox, but it does thread the needle about as well as a big-budget three-quel can. Light and lively, with a refreshing focus on character and a blessed scarcity of mind-numbing spectacle, it's a satisfying continuation, one that cannily plays up the franchise's strengths (interpersonal dynamics, cheeky comedy) while minimizing its weaknesses (lack of stakes, weightless space battles). It may be just another episode in the adventures of the Enterprise crew, but it's a damn good episode.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ghostbusters: Slime, Ghouls, Women, and Other Scary Stuff

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters"
Can women be funny? Is Chris Hemsworth just a pretty face with an accent? Should fans of a beloved classic feel rightfully outraged when it's remade featuring members of a different sex? The answers to these questions are so obvious—for the record, they are "yes," "no," and "are-you-serious-just-shut-the-fuck-up"—that we hardly needed a reboot of Ghostbusters to answer them. But perhaps this loose, breezy new film, which arrives in the polarized age of the hot take and the down-vote, can still teach us something, something beyond the seemingly hard-to-grasp axiom of "don't judge a movie before you actually watch it". If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that action-comedies are advised to focus on the comedy rather than the action. When the heroes of this revamped Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig from a script he co-wrote with Katie Dippold) are stuck in the lab, trapped in the subway, or confined in any other location where they can joke, whine, titter, and bicker, this movie is a blast. When they're actually busting ghosts, it's a snooze.

Thankfully, the proton guns and laser rays stay hidden for most of the film's first half, allowing Feig to unhurriedly assemble his team of all-star comediennes. Naturally, this begins with Melissa McCarthy, Feig's regular lead who shot to fame (and an Oscar nomination) five years ago in Bridesmaids and last year delivered a career-best performance in the underrated Spy. (When the Golden Globes honor McCarthy 30 years from now, her clip reel had better feature this.) McCarthy plays Abby, an eccentric scientist who has devoted her life to researching the paranormal. She even long ago wrote a book on the topic, the recent publication of which consternates Erin (Kristen Wiig, in her comfort zone), the manuscript's co-author who is currently up for tenure at an exalted university. (How exalted? When Erin tenders a recommendation letter from a Princeton professor to her dean, he advises her that she obtain a reference from a school that's a bit more prestigious.) Once a true believer, Erin has spent years trying to distance herself from her collaborations with Abby, so she's none too pleased that they've resurfaced.