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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Swiss Army Man: A Story of Adventure, Friendship, and Farts

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in "Swiss Army Man"
"The big bucks are in dick and fart jokes," Ben Affleck's character memorably quipped in Chasing Amy. Something tells me that he wasn't thinking of Swiss Army Man, an aggressively absurd, surprisingly saccharine comedy from the writer-director team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels). This bizarre movie, with its gigantic premise and diminutive budget, does not possess a commercial bone in its proudly misshapen body. But for all its surface weirdness and gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man proves to be a fairly conventional story of isolation and redemption, with broad themes that would fit snugly inside a Disney film. It's standard self-help shtick, only with more farts and boners.

The source of both is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to do his utmost to distance himself from his signature screen persona), a waterlogged corpse whom we first see washing up on a remote beach. His arrival interrupts the attempted suicide of Hank (Paul Dano), a bearded loner who, believing himself to be marooned on this tiny spit of land, has given in to despair. Manny is hardly a good candidate to improve his circumstances, given that he is dead. But in death, he has acquired a peculiar superpower: He can pass gas on command, and his flatulence is so powerful that he can serve as a sort of catatonic motorboat. And so, Hank straddles Manny's lifeless body, pulls down his pants, and rides him off toward the mainland "like a jet ski". (If only Manny had appeared off the coast of Mexico instead of California, he would have made poor Blake Lively's life a whole lot easier.)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The BFG: Off to Giant Country, and Packing Light

Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance, in Steven Spielberg's "The BFG"
For a director who is renowned for purveying inspirational entertainment, Steven Spielberg's resume is surprisingly light on kid-friendly pictures. Sure, E.T. imprinted his inimitable brand of humanistic fantasy upon an entire generation, but beyond that, The Beard has largely eschewed family-oriented fare, preferring to smuggle his predilection for warmth and decency inside colder, darker films. (The only real exceptions are the ill-received Peter Pan sequel Hook and the underloved animated romp The Adventures of Tintin). Hell, he turned down Harry Potter. Still, Spielberg at his core is a crowd-pleaser, and in adapting Roald Dahl's beloved children's classic The BFG, he's clearly invested in delivering excitement and wonder to a new era of wide-eyed kids.

Judged against these lofty goals, The BFG is a failure, even if it is also, on different terms, a worthy accomplishment. This weird, amorphous movie is by no means going to become a staple on cable television, destined to be re-watched over and over; it will not be endlessly quoted in the schoolyard or relentlessly imitated at the multiplex. (In fact, it is already fizzling at the domestic box office.) But in failing to craft a cultural touchstone, Spielberg has done something arguably more impressive: He's made a children's movie that's interesting.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Shallows: The Bold Babe and the Sea

Blake Lively takes on a shark in "The Shallows"
Water, water is everywhere in The Shallows, and there isn't a drop to drink, though that's due less to its salt than its color. Not long into this lean, mean thriller from Jaume Collet-Serra, the tranquil blue of the sea's waves gets stained with blood, and a peaceful getaway transforms into a harrowing struggle of survival. It never becomes anything more than that, but that's part of its charm. The Shallows may lack the towering ambition of Gravity or the scrupulous minimalism of All Is Lost, but its gritty flair and appealing star nevertheless make it a worthy entrant in the "man vs. nature" canon. At the very least, it will have you thinking twice the next time you consider wading into the water.

Not that The Shallows' opening act is particularly frightening; in fact, if you ignore the scary tone-setting prologue, it's positively idyllic. Our protagonist is Nancy (a revelatory Blake Lively), a medical student journeying to a secluded Mexican beach that her mother once told her about. It's as advertised, with golden sand leading into a majestic gulf whose giant waves render this isolated inlet a surfer's paradise.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding Dory: Remember, Remember, the Fish Blue and Tender

In "Finding Dory", Marlin the clownfish and Dory the tang are back for another adventure
One of the many running jokes in 2003's Finding Nemo—that magnificent maritime adventure from Pixar Animation Studios—was that its main character, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), was a clownfish but was spectacularly unfunny. In fact, Marlin was a neurotic grump, far more prone to panic than humor. He's still grousing about anything and everything in Finding Dory, but one of his complaints stands out. "Crossing the entire ocean is something you should only do once," he grumbles. It's a gripe that might as well be chum to metaphor-hungry film critics—not that I have anyone in mind—looking to compare this sequel to Finding Nemo, which remains one of Pixar's greatest achievements. The computer-animation pioneer is renowned for many things—breathtaking visuals, witty dialogue, mature themes smuggled inside kid-friendly packages—but perhaps its defining trait is its commitment to originality. This is, after all, the studio that has told tales of culinarily gifted rats, silent robots, and anthropomorphized emotions. Which brings us back to Marlin's gloomy, profound question: Is it really worth crossing the ocean twice? That is, can a straightforward sequel really be worthy of joining the animation giant's formidable canon?

Yes and no. What, you were expecting a straight answer? Fine, I'll be blunt: Finding Dory is not as good as Finding Nemo. Yet even that seemingly straightforward assessment comes with a caveat, namely: so what? Comparing sequels to their originals is a reductive way of evaluating them on their own merits; that's especially true when said original is one of the best movies of the prior decade. Finding Dory may, er, swim in the shadow of its progenitor, but that shouldn't preclude us from weighing its standalone value as a movie.