Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wind River: Danger in a Strange Land

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner hunt a killer in "Wind River"
The chill runs bone-deep in Wind River, the astute and mournful second feature from Taylor Sheridan. After penning two electric screenplays that sweltered in the suffocating Southwest heat, the actor-turned-writer-turned-director has turned his gaze north and flipped his thermometer upside-down. Taking place on the titular Indian reservation in Wyoming (filming took place in Utah), Sheridan’s newest movie is cold and stark, the snow blanketing its landscapes and its characters like a paralytic force. The opening shot, of a teenage girl racing barefoot across a frozen plain in the dead of night, will make you shiver. Don’t expect to warm up anytime soon.

Not that Wind River is emotionally icy or remote. Quite the contrary; it’s a lively crime picture that’s also unusually elegiac, as interested in grief as it is in thrills. Sheridan’s protagonists may be ruthless—Benicio Del Toro’s vengeful assassin in Sicario can still trigger nightmares, while Ben Foster’s wolfish reprobate in Hell or High Water gunned down innocents without hesitation—but they are also motivated by anger and loss. Wind River’s hero, a Fish and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert, is a literal hunter, a killing machine with a rifle on his back and a hole in his heart.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Detroit: Black and White and Dead All Over

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit"
Detroit opens with a police raid on an African-American nightclub, an edgy incursion that concludes with dozens of black patrons being forcibly loaded into paddy wagons. The movie, which takes place in 1967, was released in theaters on July 28, 2017. That same day, the President of the United States said this:



So, yes: In an era where virtually every American movie feels unnervingly topical—from franchise films to alien adventures to romantic comediesDetroit resonates even more than most. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it rakes up considerable muck, tackling two intertwined issues—endemic racism and police brutality—with unapologetic frankness. This relevance almost automatically makes Detroit worth seeing; it’s rare for a film to firmly exist in both past and present at once. But if you can set aside its political significance (not that you should, of course), what emerges is a strange, decidedly uneven movie. Helmed by a filmmaker renowned for her precision, Detroit is oddly undisciplined, chaotic, even flabby. Yet it is also, at least during its extended central passage, a gripping, nightmarish tale of sweaty panic and helpless inevitability. It doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going, but it sure shakes you up in the process of getting there.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde: She's a Lady, and a Killer

Charlize Theron is cool as ice in "Atomic Blonde"
These boots are made for kicking in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s sexy, overstuffed actioner of new-age kineticism and carefully curated retro cool. Forged of tactile black leather and stretching what seems like acres up to their subject’s knee, the boots adorn the statuesque body of Charlize Theron, that South African goddess with a 14-year-old Oscar and a newfound thirst for blood. As a one-armed warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showcased a bristling physicality that meshed nicely with her more classical qualities. She has all of her limbs back in Atomic Blonde, and good thing too, since she does roughly as much talking with her fists—and those boots—as with her mouth.

If anything, there’s too much dialogue in Atomic Blonde, which tends to stall whenever its heroine isn’t in slick, liquid motion. Adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300—you get what you pay for) piles on the spy-speak and the Bournean intrigue, layering the busy plot with triple agents, double-crosses, and a single ungainly framing device. It isn’t incomprehensible, exactly, but Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick before departing its sequel to make this film, has little use for all this blather. He’s much more interested in cranking up the music—the post-punk-heavy soundtrack here feels like the offspring of a union between The Americans and Deutschland 83—and unleashing his leading lady as an unstoppable force of lithe, purposeful destruction.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dunkirk: War Is Breathtaking Hell

Soldiers swim to rescue in Christopher Nolan's staggering "Dunkirk"
There have been bloodier war movies—grisly productions committed to depicting the visceral horror as bullets tear through flesh. And there have been more provocative war movies, those that reenact armed conflict to make a political statement on its nobility or its lunacy. But there has never been, in my estimation, a war movie of such relentless, gripping intensity as Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s stunning World War II epic. The adjective “white-knuckle” has wilted into clichĂ©, but as someone who spent the majority of this film with his fists clenched in involuntary apprehension, allow me to offer a word of advice: Before seeing Dunkirk, clip your nails. Otherwise, you’re liable to tear them right off.

The sheer magnitude of Dunkirk feels unprecedented, but it’s in keeping with a director who has made a career of smuggling brainy, stimulating ideas inside packages of overpowering brawn. Size matters to Nolan, and not just in the way you might think. Yes, Dunkirk is a gigantic film, shot extensively on 65-millimeter IMAX cameras, which help convey the enormity of its scale. (For the record, I watched the film projected in non-IMAX 70mm, though I intend to make a trip to the IMAX for round two.) But even as he’s painting on a sprawling canvas—showing you the vastness of a beach, the infinite reach of an ocean—Nolan is simultaneously compressing the carnage, paradoxically resulting in an expansive claustrophobia. Consider an early scene on the title city’s famous coastline: Thousands of soldiers scattered along its sands freeze in unison, their ears picking up the faint whine of an approaching German bomber. The horizon seems endless, but there’s nowhere to go. As the plane zooms past overhead, all they can do is flatten their bodies and cross their fingers.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: No More Monkeying Around

Andy Serkis' Caesar is on a mission in "War for the Planet of the Apes"
Columns of soldiers goose-step in perfect rhythm, staring upward with reverence at their messianic leader. Behind them, enslaved prisoners, chained and starving, lug giant blocks of stone, piling them into a towering wall. A flag, emblazoned with religious symbolism, hangs firmly alongside an embankment, like gang colors marking territory. The loudspeakers blare an anthem, and the foot soldiers unleash a thunderous war cry.

You might think, from this bleak and jingoistic description, that I’m discussing a documentary on the Third Reich. But the anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and the flag is colored red, white, and blue. So when the leader orders his zealots to purge the world of an inferior race, he isn’t just marshaling his troops for battle. He’s putting America first.

Such is the chilling subtext of War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ tense, bracing new saga of conflict and community. As you can gather, the politics on display here are not exactly subtle, even if their allegorical impact may be more acute than intended. (Shooting took place well before the 2016 presidential election.) But while the film’s nationalist rhetoric and iconography may feel distressingly plausible, they are not the movie’s primary draw. No, what makes War for the Planet of the Apes so successful is that it’s a genuinely thrilling action movie, replete with exhilarating combat sequences and grand adventure. Had it been released ten years ago, it would still feel essential, getting both your blood pumping and—in more of a surprise—your tear ducts flowing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Big Sick: Funny Games, Then the Coma

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in "The Big Sick"
“There’s not just going to be a magic spark,” a mother tells her son early in The Big Sick. “You have to work at it.” Honestly, has this woman never seen a romantic comedy? One of our most durable and pleasurable genres, it is undergirded by the notion that cinematic serendipity—the meet cute, the screwball misunderstanding, the shop around the corner—is very real, and could happen to you. Well, what better way to illustrate this than by telling a true story? The script for The Big Sick, Michael Showalter’s sweet and sensitive new movie, was written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and it chronicles their first date, ensuing courtship, and subsequent complications. Emily is portrayed by the terrifically talented and perennially underrated actress Zoe Kazan, but Nanjiani plays himself, lending further authenticity to a production already steeped in personal and locational detail.

Yet while the pieces are in place for The Big Sick to establish itself as a contemporary rom-com classic, it doesn’t quite do that—not because it’s a bad movie, but because it isn’t really a romantic comedy at all. Sure, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and for its first half-hour, the film executes the rom-com playbook with competence and conviction. As it progresses, however, The Big Sick becomes harder to pigeonhole. It operates, at varying times and often simultaneously, as a ruminative character study, as an exploration of the American immigrant family, and—most startlingly and most effectively—as a weepie.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Local Schoolboy, Coming of Avenging Age

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"
Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are great movie characters, albeit for different reasons. Peter’s appeal is one of drama and narrative; ignore the whole vigilante crime-fighting thing, and he’s the perfect embodiment of nerdy boyhood angst, a decent kid juggling the all-too-familiar teenage problems of school, work, and girls. But Spider-Man’s allure is distinctly cinematic. His particular abilities—the way he springs from one edifice to the next, the way his sticky webs lend his movements physicality and coherence—are uniquely suited to visualized heroism. When Peter struggles to muster the courage to ask a crush to a dance, you can empathize with how he’s feeling. When Spider-Man strains to yank two halves of a splintering barge back together, you can understand and anticipate what he’s actually doing.

Perhaps this blend of thoughtful characterization and dynamic action explains why Spider-Man: Homecoming is Sony’s sixth title to feature Spidey in the last 15 years. Or maybe the studio just likes making money. In any event, Homecoming cannily capitalizes on its hero’s twofold potential, even if it falls short of genuine triumph on both fronts. The gold standard for Spider-Man movies—and for all superhero movies, for that matter (hell, maybe for all movies, period)—remains Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s transcendent fusion of bold adventure and plaintive desire. This ain’t that. But Homecoming, which was directed by relative newcomer Jon Watts from a script by a bevy of writers, is at least a quality effort, a spirited quasi-reboot that captures its hero’s quintessential pluck and delivers a few moments of exhilarating web-based suspense.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver: Start Your Engines, and Your Jukeboxes

Ansel Elgort is an unflappable wheelman in Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver"
As much music video as movie, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is part symphony, part sonic assault. The music plays wall-to-wall in this giddy, extravagant thriller about a gifted getaway driver who’s paralyzed unless he’s blasting funk and soul into his ears by way of white earbuds hooked up to a rotation of oh-so-retro iPods. Stricken with tinnitus, the oddly monikered Baby (Ansel Elgort) can only concentrate when he’s listening to classic jams, the better to drown out the incessant humming. This fusion of underworld pulp and musical obsessiveness is Baby Driver’s raison d’ĂȘtre; there have been countless films about bank robbers and quite a few about wheelmen, but this is surely the first where the driver snaps at his cohorts to wait before commencing a heist because he needs to restart a song to regain his rhythm.

Baby’s condition is in part a clever conceit, an excuse for Wright—the pop-culture connoisseur who once interrupted a life-or-death action sequence in Shaun of the Dead while his characters discussed which old vinyl records were worth saving—to cram the film’s soundtrack with his favorite tunes, ranging from The Beach Boys to Queen to Young MC. Yet it’s also possible to view Baby’s affliction as a surrogate for his director’s own peculiar anxiety. A supremely capable and distinctive filmmaker, Wright here piles one flourish on top of another so that Baby Driver eventually reaches vertiginous heights, threatening to topple under its own weight of cinematic cool. It’s a blast, but it can also feel like style for its own sake, Wright working so feverishly to keep you entertained that he seems terrified of that inevitable moment when the music stops.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cars 3: Vroom and Doom

A scene from "Cars 3", in which cars drive like cars.
Pixar’s best movies are so amazingly, miraculously good, their lesser efforts can become underappreciated by comparison. The common phrase “second-tier Pixar”—often applied to, say, the fairy-tale familiarity of Brave, the slobs-versus-snobs hijinks of Monsters University, or the poky adventure of The Good Dinosaur—necessarily implies a sense of relative failure, even if all of those films are variously rewarding. But the Cars movies are different. It remains vexing that the wizard studio—presumably motivated by merchandising rather than storytelling—has insisted on turning its least interesting property into a commodified, pandering franchise. (Of course, Pixar’s other trilogy is literally about products that are purchased for children, but the Toy Story pictures also happen to be great.) When the first Cars dropped in 2006, it immediately claimed the title of “worst Pixar movie ever made”, its airy pleasantness overshadowed by the string of ingenious hits that had preceded it. Five years later, Cars 2 took that title for its own; a stunningly stupid action-comedy centered on Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater (a character who makes Jar Jar Binks seem fascinating and three-dimensional), it wasn’t just a comparative disappointment—it was a legitimately bad movie.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about Cars 3 is that, following its release, the unofficial tally of “Bad Pixar Movies” remains stuck at one. That’s because this latest sequel—harmless and piddling, with just a whiff of thoughtfulness and originality—is too innocuous and well-meaning to be bad. But neither is it good enough to qualify as second-tier Pixar, a designation that confers with it an attempt at beauty, ambition, and imagination. Even the studio’s weaker films at least try to be memorable, but in its relentless congeniality, Cars 3 seems calculated to make as little impact as possible. No wonder its characters constantly drive around in circles.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Comes at Night: Something Toxic in the Air, and a Virus, Too

Christopher Abbott and Joel Edgerton in "It Comes at Night"
There are no zombies in It Comes at Night, unless you count the vacant, dead-eyed stares that regularly materialize on each of its characters’ stricken faces. An eerie shiver of a horror-thriller, it’s scary less for its shocks than its sober observations on human nature. When a body is burned in the film’s harrowing opening sequence, the corpse never reanimates, though it does emerge in a spooky, silent nightmare, darkened eyes shooting daggers of ill will. In this movie, the dead stay dead. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.

The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night takes for its premise that all-too-plausible scenario that has beckoned to many an aspiring artist: the apocalypse. Doomsday has long fascinated filmmakers, who relish the chance to turn a universal fear—it’s the end of the world!—into a personal vision; the last few years alone have given us works as varied as the demolition derby of Mad Max: Fury Road, the steampunk allegory of Snowpiercer, and the bro-sploitation comedy of This Is the End. It Comes at Night is quieter than those movies, but it is arguably more unsettling. For Shults, the collapse of civilization creates the opportunity to explore how people relate to and value one another, pitting civic values against Darwinian impulses. The picture he paints, much like the ghastly mural that adorns one of the walls of the house where the action occurs, is far from pretty.