Lady Bird (2017)

There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Lady Bird–Greta Gerwig’s first film as a writer/director–where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, still one of the best young actresses around) is having a conversation with one of the nuns at the Catholic high school from which she will soon graduate. Told that her writing reflects a deep love of Sacramento, the town she has spent her entire life in and which she longs to escape, she brushes the compliment off by saying she just pays attention; she is answered “aren’t they the same thing, love and attention?” The moment stands out in a film made up of shrewdly observed moments because it so clearly articulates the movie’s beating heart, and that of many a bildungsroman (bildungsfilm?) like it: to what do we choose to devote our energy and attention and how do we deal with the attention focused on us?

At the center of this film that question relates to the often difficult relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Played by Laurie Metcalf in an Oscar-worthy performance, Marion is a forceful personality–“scary and warm at the same time,” as Danny (Lucas Hedges), one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends, puts it. Their relationship turns on a dime from shared jokes to a barrage of criticisms and explosions that leave quiet and good-natured husband/father Larry (Tracy Letts) holding the bag between them. But it’s also about other kinds of love and attention. We also watch Lady Bird process two very different romances with the doting theater-geek Danny and the aloof boy-in-the-band Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). We watch her shifting relationship her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, all heart and someone to watch in the future). Most importantly we watch her learn to pay more attention to herself: her needs, her participation with those around her, her own transitioning identity.

The movie is, in this regard, certainly nothing novel. Different versions of this story are as old as stories themselves; they’ve been told many times in many mediums. What makes or breaks them is the feeling they’re able to generate, the love and attention they have for their characters and the place, moment, and culture that surrounds them. In case it wasn’t clear by this point, this film succeeds admirably in that regard. Even its less central characters, like popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) or Lady Bird’s apparently adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) avoid falling into caricature. The dialog is intelligent and clever without crossing the line into artificiality. The details of the design–the posters on Lady Bird’s wall (Sleater-Kinney, etc) or the pattern on the McPherson’s living room couch–quietly add to our understanding of this milieu, its contours, assumptions, and rules. There are moments that slightly break from total realism, of course. A football coach teaching a drama class is played for straight laughs; the opening scene is a dramatic punctuation mark that stretches plausibility a little (although it dovetails with the ending so beautifully, I’m a little loathe to call it out). But even these moments are still in the larger spirit of the people and the world to which they belong.

It’s here that I feel, as a reviewer, I have to confess a certain bias: I’m personally about the same age as the main characters here. The film is set roughly over the course of a year, between fall 2002 and 2003, a period during which I also moved across the country, started college, and began to become conscious of things like the economic recession that adds a pressure point to the McPherson family. It would be easy, then, for a movie like this to simply play into a wave of thirty-something nostalgia–something I was watching for going in–but that fortunately isn’t the case. In fact, that it is a period piece is largely irrelevant; Julie and Lady Bird lie in a car singing along to “Crash Into Me,” but the moment is about bonding over a personal tragedy, not the song itself. It could have been anything and would still read.

A more interesting take, then, is that I cannot at the moment think of a film that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship (or really about a teenage girl at all) that is less melodramatic than this one. The kids in this movie smoke pot and play pranks but are not particularly wild or out of control; sex and depression factor in, but nobody has cancer or sleeps around; romance exists but is hardly the central focus; the conflicts have tremendous personal weight for those involved but are at heart banal. Although perhaps not as technically adventurous as Linklater’s recent Boyhood, there is a similar warmth in tone and the change in perspective feels as fresh and interesting as anything in that film. There is a significance in the fact that this is a film by a woman about a young girl–especially such a record-breaking film in an industry currently being shredded for its underrepresentation of women’s voices–but it succeeds because it’s one of the best, most emotionally accurate films about growing up my generation has yet produced.

The Florida Project (2017)

Children tend to notice different things about the world than adults, so it’s not uncommon for a film to take on a child’s perspective to try and circumvent our usual way of thinking about a situation. One way to do this is to take advantage of childhood aptitude for subjective fantasy (eg: Beasts of the Southern WildPan’s Labyrinth), but what’s arguably harder is what writer/director Sean Baker and screenwriting partner Chris Bergotch–the same team behind 2015’s Tangerine–manage to do in The Florida Project: they use their perspective to present a documentary-like realism both humanly sympathetic and brutally unforgiving.

The anchor of this perspective is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who spends her summer days like most kids, playing with her friends and making mischief. Much of the film unfolds following Moonee’s episodic adventures in and around The Magic Castle, a run-down motel on the fringes of Orlando where she is living with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) as summer begins. Halley is still something of a kid herself, channeling insecurity about adult responsibilities into misplaced aggression that keeps her trapped in a cycle of unemployment and poverty. Mother and daughter bond over takeout and impulsive shopping trips in moments that are both sweet and frustrating because we, as an audience, know they come at an expense that Moonee is not yet fully conscious of.

Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle, is. His downtrodden paternalism has no more purchase in his own family, so he turns it on the motel and its tenants, prodding Halley as best he can and keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) while patiently indulging their innocence. What at first seems like a plotless slice-of-life begins to turn on a moment where the kids’ actions have real-world consequences for them and their parents that could portend the kind of people they might become. A domino effect quietly begins that slowly ups the pressure of Halley and Moonee’s situation and pushes the story toward a tragic but somewhat inevitable conclusion.

The look of the film emphasizes the contrast in perspectives–between Mooney and Halley, between Halley and Bobby. It’s awash in bright pastels and full of the sort of whimsical buildings one finds in amusement parks and the towns built around them. Even swampy, overgrown backstreets and unkempt motel rooms are full of color and light. The beauty of the images sharpens the ugliness in the story, much in the way Halley is sharpened by the vacation culture of Orlando. She’s surrounded and exploited by people better off than she is; Mooney still believes in the magic of the world but Halley has seen too much magic packaged and sold to not want to take her own advantages where she can find them. The overall tone belongs to Bobby, though, who understands the falseness of the city’s cheerful veneer but takes a quiet pride in his world, painting the motel’s exterior or fixing a broken washing machine. Like him, the camera looks for beauty in unexpected places–like the group of herons that wander into the parking lot–and, like him, it can ultimately only observe Halley and Moonee’s trajectory.

Both actresses are completely captivating newcomers. It’s reasonable to be wary going into a movie that’s going to rest so largely on a child’s shoulders, especially so young a child, but Prince is precocious without ever being cloying or obviously putting on–one hopes that the child-star machine doesn’t eat her up going forward. Vinaite–a clothing designer and Instagram personality–has never been in a film before, but brings Halley the unexpected interior complexity of a woman who knows when she’s going too far but can’t make herself stop. Dafoe, for his part, delivers an understated performance that stays out of the film’s way, and much of the supporting cast is composed of nonprofessional/first-time actors in their real-world settings (The Magic Castle is an actual hotel).

This approach borrows from classic Italian neo-realism, which is a good touchstone when thinking about this movie. Like, say, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, this is a story about a parent-child bond amidst oppressive circumstances, given a 21st century update both in content and style (think the influential neon stillness of Refn, but warmer and less constructed). And like neo-realism, its aim is less at the microcosm of its characters than at the influences of the larger world that created it, suggested by signs in the background of the neighborhood streets, by the behavior of the tourists the characters are forced to accommodate. After the abrupt cutoff of the final crescendo, these are the images that linger most, that most unsettle and resonate as one walks out of the theater and into a world built on versions of those same signs, those same consumers.

After the breakout reception at Cannes, it seems likely this film will show up on this year’s Oscar ballots. It’s the kind of movie that I would usually say is too idiosyncratic to take the stage, but it’s also one of the strongest contenders I’ve seen yet this year–a patient, subtle, moving film. See it.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Some doctors have a certain style of speaking; when difficult decisions have to be made–sometimes very quickly–calm, authoritative statements can help people make those decisions by seeming to remove uncertainty from the equation. The characters in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s films tend to speak in a consciously unnatural manner anyway but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer he uses medicine as a context, a milieu in which the uncertain and the inexplicable cannot actually be masked or ignored, where responsibility cannot be deferred and where justice and vengeance are primal forces beyond the scope of careful, direct speech and composed exteriors. The film continues Lanthimos’s streak of highly controlled, highly individual works; it demands a great deal of engagement and its rewards depend on one’s willingness to encounter it under the conditions of its own abstracted logic.

The scenario is that of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful heart surgeon who lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist in her own right, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven also has a relationship with an awkward teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan); they meet in diners, Martin visits him at the hospital where he works, he buys the boy expensive presents. The nature of their connection is mysterious at first, but something definitely isn’t quite right. Keoghan is something of a revelation particularly in this opening act, straddling an uncomfortable line between friendliness and menace as the film takes its time bringing Martin, and by extension Steven, into focus.

The conditions that come to drive the plot once Martin’s motives are made clear are left without concrete explanation, giving the film an air of divine inevitability drawn from Classical tragedy. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou are interested in the psychic dissonance of individual pride and illusory control. Steven and his colleagues can casually make life-or-death decisions for others because they can wash their hands of the aftermath–it’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Steven removing bloody gloves after a surgery. Martin, seemingly by his very presence, comes to reveal the hollowness of such confidence; Stephen can’t quite push him away, can’t quite rid himself of the niggling guilt Martin embodies, but neither can he face a crucial decision when he must bear the full weight of its consequence.

Nor does he bear this consequence alone. Kidman has proven reliable tackling difficult roles in highly psychological films (see also: Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, Stoker, even Margo at the Wedding) and brings that quiet intensity to bear as Anna’s passive mask contorts along with her husband’s and pushes up the degradation inherent in her existence. The children are a little bit more difficult to suss out, particularly Kim; her relationship with Martin once they are introduced is clearly important to the film, but it was difficult to pick apart–one of many reasons the film almost requires a second viewing. In a small but unexpected turn, Alicia Silverstone pops up as Martin’s mother whose unusual deference toward her son adds another complicated wrinkle to the puzzle.

In glancing over other reviews before seeing the film, I saw a few comparisons to the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke which seem to make sense. Both of those directors are canny at placing the audience in positions of uncomfortable sympathy or moral revulsion (which seems to be what’s happening here), both are fond of situations that are as cruel and absurd as this film’s climactic scene, and both have a deliberate and chilly style that allows no quarter and no shelter from what is being depicted, just as this film is certainly deliberate and chilly. Thimios Bakatakis’s camera is a patient observer in the bright and neatly ordered environments of the hospital and Steven’s home. A dissonant score quietly throbs throughout, but even intense moments are infused with space and silence.

As I mentioned, this is a film that somewhat requires a second viewing. There are threads in it that I feel I still want to follow; for example, there’s a low-key occupation with physical signs of puberty like menstruation and body hair which seem to indicate some kind of thematic function that, at the moment, still feels obscure. But the takeaway here is that that’s the kind of movie this is–one to be pondered and puzzled over, and which may never completely reveal itself. As an experience it’s deeply unsettling to watch, in part because of its frightening ambiguity, so I’m willing to call it successful as an artistic venture. But the slow, artificial, bloodless (metaphorically, although not literally) approach to Agamemnon’s mythological dilemma (the referential title cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia in works by Euripides and Hyginus) could legitimately be a turn-off to viewers looking for something more conventionally frightening.

 

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

If I’m being up front, I’m not a big fan of Marvel Studios. It’s the law of diminishing returns; Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth film to date in the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, in case you’ve been under a rock). James Bond took 25 years to get to this point, Marvel has done it in nine, and that’s ignoring the various television series and other extended tie-ins. At a certain point it can’t not start to feel recycled and endless (did I mention the third Avengers movie is called Infinity War?) and personally, that point had come and gone by the first Avengers movie, five years ago.

But sometimes within that cycle of big CGI explosions and stupid one-liners there are opportunities for filmmakers to put an individualistic spin on the material. This film is one of those opportunities realized and is stronger for it. Director Taika Waititi (heretofore best known for horror-spoof What We Do in the Shadows) leans in to the absurdity of the whole thing with a sharp comic sensibility. That instinct adds enough wit and weight to the bloat of the film’s inheritance to at least make it sort of enjoyable.

The story doesn’t really matter that much because you know it already, but alright, particulars. In this case, the big bad villain that shows up and threatens the world (Asgard, this time) is Hela (a gothed-up Cate Blanchett, clearly having a lot of fun), heretofore unmentioned, exiled sister of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who I guess isn’t dead. She kicks her brothers out of town and takes over, gleefully killing everyone that Heimdall (Idris Elba, actually getting to do something in this entry) can’t protect. Meanwhile said brothers somehow end up on trash planet, which is presided over by a dandyish Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, also clearly having a lot of fun). The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is also there for some reason, and has become a champion in the fighting pits where Thor gets dumped by scavenger/bounty hunter/something Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, easily the most earnest performance in the movie), who might just have a connection to Asgard herself and… well, you can pretty much figure out what happens from there.

Most of the Marvel movies have had a pretty light tone, but it’s clear from the opening sequence that this one is going to have a particular emphasis on comedy in a way that even Guardians of the Galaxy did not; a temporarily imprisoned Thor keeps interrupting a monologuing monster while he spins awkwardly from a dangling chain. The moment is conversational and generically self-aware and sets the tone for a lot of what’s to follow. An apex of this kind of reflexive humor comes as Thor returns to Asgard where Loki, in the disguise of Odin (Anthony Hopkins, getting a paycheck) watches a stage production (featuring a cameo by Sam Neill, by the way) of his own death that basically parodies the end of the previous Thor movie (2013’s Thor: The Dark World). Waititi and writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost clearly know how absurd the whole affair is and are having fun with it.

To their credit, they also seem to be trying to do something relevant with it as well. The tagline that gets repeated a couple of times toward the end of the film, “Asgard is a people, not a place” (which I don’t think really counts as a spoiler), and the events of the climax (which would) point toward a humanist perspective on the ongoing real-world refugee crisis. Hela’s frustration with Odin’s revisionist history of their home is loaded with post-colonial subtext (“Where do you think all this gold came from,” she pointedly asks her brother). The Grandmaster’s balking at the term “slaves” (he prefers “prisoners with jobs,” a euphemism delivered by actress Rachel House whose small part as his assistant Topaz is also a highlight) rings similarly with satirical force.

But the social commentary is blunted a bit by the… Marvelness of it. By that I mean the film is typically overlong (130 minutes) and loaded with enough weightless CGI to make (fellow New-Zealander) Peter Jackson blush. Despite a couple impressive tableau moments (the Valkyries’ ride against Hela, Thor’s leaping attack on the Bifrost bridge), it feels much like its predecessors in the hollowness of its massive spectacle, without any real sense of menace, danger, or consequence. As part of such a large series, it also suffers from being somewhat incomprehensible without at least a passing familiarity with a lot of the rest of the material–the admittedly funny sequence featuring Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) leaps to mind as an example.

I don’t hate fun or anything, but I am finding myself questioning the point of reviewing this film. Odds are anyone reading this (or any other review) knows whether or not they’re going to see it already, and pretty much exactly what to expect if they do. And even if all the critics in the world completely panned on one of these movies, it’s not like the next five or six haven’t already been made (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way–there are presently 6 more MCU films in various stages of production), so it’s hard to feel like any individual opinion really matters here.

But individual opinions are what I’ve got so here goes: this move really didn’t need to exist. But it does, and as far as the frenetic baubles of the MCU go, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones, up there in the top rung of the pack with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’re not sick of superhero nonsense at this point (which apparently many people are not), but are discerning about which ones to see (are there such people?) this one should go on that list. If you are sick of superhero nonsense, there’s nothing here that’s going to change your mind. Since I kinda fall in that category, the most appealing aspect of this film was seeing a promising independent filmmaker get such a big break. But I did laugh.

 

Villain (2017)

Villian is kind of an odd film. A product of “Mollywood,” the Malayalam-language subset of the Indian film industry–it borrows liberally from the cliches of western crime dramas, but seems less interested in delivering taut suspense than in exploring the emotional and philosophical positions of its central characters. The results are interesting but decidedly mixed. The film is long (153 minutes), slow, and in many ways predictable, but is also full of enough stylistic and narrative flourishes to keep it loping toward its meditative conclusion.

At the center of the story is star ADGP (a high-ranking police designation) Matthew Manjooran (Mohanlal, quite the star as I understand it), about to retire from the force after a family tragedy who, naturally, gets roped into a last case with deeply personal connections. Though he bounces ideas off other members of his elite task force, including trusted sidekick Iqbal (Chemban Vinod Jose) and rookie investigator Harshita (Raashi Khanna), the central concern of the film is the conflict between Matthew’s pain and his ideals. Mohanlal is able to carry off this conflict, anchoring the film’s quiet (and best) moments with excruciating restraint seemingly as effortlessly as he throws out some sweet moves during several–tonally-unexpected but nonetheless fun and dynamic–action sequences.

On the other side of the table is Dr. Shaktivel Palanisamy (Vishal). He’s obviously meant to be Matthew’s moral and intellectual inverse, but in very broad strokes that don’t completely land. Writer/director B Unnikrishnan only gives him a cursory, mostly-narrated backstory that doesn’t leave much psychological weight or sympathetic connection, so the link between his past trauma and his actions feels loose at best. Some of this is down to Vishal’s unsubtle performance–by contrast Hansika Motwani wrings more out of less as his girlfriend/partner Shreya–some of it is the script, but in the end it takes a lot of the impact out of the film’s central conflict.

This would be less of a problem if there were more narrative tension and, at first, it feels like that’s the direction things are going to go. The opening sequence of murders and its connection to the frantic, Burkah-clad woman Harshita encounters in a cafe sets up a tantalizing mystery. But they’re followed by a number of twists and subplots which don’t deepen that mystery so much as spin it out into a complex, corrupted web. To the story’s credit, everything does hang together and no detail is extraneous, but so much is crammed in that information ends up a little muddled without any space to misdirect attention or leave the audience much room to wonder.

Stylistically the film is kind of all over the place, but is more interesting for it. The musical asides–a staple of Indian cinema but potentially very jarring for those unused to such–range from the usual sun-dappled dancing in the mountains to a chaotic rock club to a hallucinatory dream. These exist on a similar register to the aforementioned fight scenes sprinkled throughout which feature a relentlessly circling camera, stuttering motion effects, and elaborate choreography. Even when it’s not totally jumping out of its skin, the film moves between a light investigative tone–eg: the interactions the team has with a pair of hapless drug dealers/thugs–and deeply serious character study. It’s in these latter moments that the film really succeeds–an extended/recurring bedside hospital sequence stands out particularly in memory–but the mishmash itself is oddly engaging. The identity and motivations of the killer are obvious and bluntly revealed, but one still never quite feels certain of what the film is going to do next.

It’s hard film to recommend because it’s not really completely successful on any of its fronts–it’s tepid as a thriller, confused as a character study, meandering and distracted as a crime drama, overly simple as a philosophical conversation. But it’s worth noting the ambition necessary to try to be all those things. And with the help of a strong central performance, there’s enough pathos and style to make it an interesting curiosity and certainly refreshingly different from the detached grit of its occidental generic counterparts.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Happy Death Day is the kind of unabashedly stupid title that makes me leery of a film–a half-joke you can just hear spoken with heavy emphasis on the middle word and an entreating laugh that thinks itself more clever than it is. Add to that a premise that attempts to put a spin on a more original film–in this case, “dude, what if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie!?”–and my expectations going in were further cranked down, almost to the level of disposable parody (see: Scary Movie, or rather, don’t). So I’m pleased to report that this film came as something of a pleasant surprise. Not everything about it works–it has its share of derivative, saccharine, or unfortunately hollow moments–and if it were even an ounce more cynical than it is, it’d fall flat on its face. Instead, though, there’s enough awkward charm to make it a pretty enjoyable movie for the PG-13 crowd.

The plot follows the somewhat distractingly-named Tree (Jessica Rothe), a self-absorbed sorority girl at a Louisiana university on her birthday, September 18th. The day begins waking up with a hangover in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a sheepish stranger, and ends on the wrong end of a knife wielded by a killer in a creepy baby-face mask. But rather than drifting off to the great beyond, the murdered Tree wakes up once again in Carter’s dorm room on September 18th. With no explanation available for what turns out to be a repeating reset button, Tree eventually realizes the only way to break the cycle is to avoid/unmask her killer, but doing so means taking a serious look at her life and the person she’s become.

The addition of a Scream-like whodunnit to the “terrible person has to redo things til they get it right” plot of Groundhog Day is actually pretty clever–the audience has as many chances as the heroine to examine the details of her day looking for clues. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon wring a lot of energy out of the conceit by offering up a bevy of interesting suspects–the stalker (Caleb Spillyards), the married boyfriend (Charles Aitken), the disgruntled rival (Rachel Matthews), and so on–but other than tossing out red-herrings willy-nilly, they never really commit to the inherent mystery. The ultimate reveal feels a little limp-wristed as a result; the thriller part of the film’s DNA would have been far more satisfying had it been set up a little more carefully.

But the other half of the film’s hybrid–basically a teen comedy–is where it shines. This is in no small part thanks to Rothe’s appeal as an actress; she’s able to sell Tree’s transition from unlikable stereotype to actual person better than the script often deserves and I’m interested to see her take on a more mature role. Watching her take out her intelligent frustration at her situation–and the resulting bemusement of those around her–becomes the reason to watch the film, and if there’s nothing particularly original about that process, there are enough moments that are genuinely fun to keep up interest until the obvious romantic ending. Because the film is balanced this way it is in terms of tone, the slasher aspect plays in service of the coming-of-age story, a literal way for Tree to face the consequences of her immaturity and to try on different identities and tactics for dealing with her world. The horror-as-metaphor isn’t as sophisticated as something like It Follows, but it’s also not leaning as hard into horror as that film does–it’s hard to imagine even younger audiences being really frightened by anything here because ultimately that’s not the point.

Instead, the most telling moment about what the filmmakers are doing comes as the camera pans away to the credits. As we leave them behind, Carter actually namedrops Groundhog Day and Tree says she’s never heard of it. The moment’s kind of wincingly self-aware for those of us saddled with the baggage of the film’s heritage, but it also points out we are not who the film is for or about. This is a film about young adulthood for a younger audience and it wears its influences like a teenager wearing a borrowed suit to a first job interview. If you’ve been around the block, you know the work can be done better, but if you’re looking for energy, levity, and enthusiasm it might well be worth it to hire the kid.

Suburbicon (2017)

I like George Clooney as an actor, but even more as a director; the previous films of his I’ve seen (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March) have all had a kind of mannered, interesting stye in the same neighborhood as Soderbergh or the Coen brothers. So I was excited at the prospect of him tackling an old script by the latter, written in 1986 between the landmarks Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, curious what kind of spin he might put on their surreal, dark wit. The results are… decidedly mixed. Suburbicon is full of interesting ideas that never quite fully develop or properly gel, engaging in performance and style but ultimately shallower than its obvious ambitions.

The story, set ambiguously in the 1950s, is primarily centered on Nicky (Noah Jupe), preteen resident of the ideal planned community of Suburbicon. Nicky is roused one night by his father, Gardener Lodge (Matt Damon), during a home invasion by two men (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler) that results in the death of the boy’s invalid mother Rose (Julianne Moore). Nicky knows something about that night is a bit hinky, especially after Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) moves in, and he’s not the only one; his uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) also suspect something’s up. Most of the town, however, is distracted by an increasingly violent protest of the Mayers (Leith M Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinoza), neighbors of the Lodge’s and the first black family in the neighborhood.

One gets the sense that this is a move that really wants to say something, but therein lies its primary weakness. It never really makes a concrete connection between the xenophobia and violence the Mayers are experiencing and the more home-grown variety of terror at the Lodges’, which makes the Mayer part of the story feel tacked on and underdeveloped. What’s left is a fairly predictable thriller that kind of feels like a “darkness hiding in perfect suburbia” story, which might have worked in 1986–David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from that year runs with the same idea–but by now has become cliche and insufficient. In short, it’s kind of hard to suss out the point, which makes the film feel hollow.

As an exercise in style it’s pretty fascinating, though. The tone is arch enough that it feels like it should be a comedy, but I’m not convinced it’s actually trying to be. It’s absurd, certainly, in that cartoonish way Coen films often are–Damon frantically pedaling away from a crime scene on an undersized Schwinn, Moore crying as she crushes lethal pills with a rolling pin, the pair of them caught in flagrante with a ping pong paddle–but absurd doesn’t necessarily mean funny. I couldn’t quite decide how to feel about it as I watched it, and honestly that’s what kept my interest as the plot hit all its marks. It’s an interesting use of Matt Damon, essentially a less-nuanced version of William H. Macy’s role in Fargo, but he pulls it off. Moore feels a bit on autopilot but her autopilot suits the film. Isaac’s serpentine investigator is, as usual, a highlight. But everyone seems committed to the stylized nature of the piece with the exception of Jute, Espinoza, Westbrook and, to the extent he can with no dialog that I can recall, Burke. Their performances seemed somehow (not ignorant but) more innocent of the falseness of the rest of it, the kind of touch that makes it hard for me to dismiss the movie completely.

I can see this film being the subject of a revisionist analysis sort of article in a few years (if I’m being honest, I’m already writing it in my head) but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a good movie. Whatever interpretations or insights might be lying underneath the surface, they’re not forefront enough to really matter in the moment of impact. So for those interested in experiencing the work of the talent involved, it ends up a lesser outing that’s rife with potential but doesn’t quite land. For someone just in it for a good flick, go into this one with tempered expectations and there’s a lot to like, but don’t expect anything of real significance even if it feels like it wants you to.

 

 

The Snowman (2017)

Based on the ingredients, I wanted to like this movie. Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel is an engaging potboiler, the seventh in a continuing series of novels starring troubled detective Harry Hole that have put their author at the top tier of Scandinavian crime fiction alongside Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both of whom have had their iconic works successfully adapted to the screen). Then there’s a cast full of people I like watching: Michael Fassbender seems a perfect choice for Harry, J.K. Simmons is almost always the best part of anything he’s in, Charlotte Gainsbourg has taken on a variety of interesting and challenging work, Val Kilmer continues to show up in unexpected places, even Chloë Sevigny gets to do a brief double role as twins. Behind the camera is the chilly Swedish style of Tomas Alfredson–known in this country for a pair of excellent films: Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–and a set of screenwriters whose collective credits include Drive, Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the TV series The Killing, all of which I enjoyed. This project, on paper, should work.

But instead it’s disastrously muddled and ultimately feels somewhat pointless. The film seems to be going for an icy detachment, but instead comes off cynically disinterested in things like plot, character, or suspense–somewhat important elements for what is purportedly a psychological thriller. In a nutshell, there’s a serial killer abducting and occasionally decapitating women in Oslo who leaves snowmen as his calling card (for reasons that are never really explored, by the way). Harry, along with newbie detective Katarine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), drunkenly stumbles into the case while trying to manage a relationship with Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenage son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourg).

This basic premise proceeds absent the commitment to clever misdirection that made the novel work; subplots involving a former detective (Kilmer) and a rich industrialist (Simmons) sort of putter out without really going anywhere or tying in to the central mystery with any resonance. Worse, very little is done to disguise the identity of the killer–the movie goes out of its way to emphasize there’s something off about a character that keeps showing up without adding much to the plot–which takes the wind out of any kind of tension or mystery. In theory, this could be fine–the story could delve into its characters’ psychology instead, becoming more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, but here too it stumbles. Harry comes off as Fassbender on autopilot, the embodiment of a trope (“trouble-making, alcoholic master detective” is as stock character as it gets) rather than a three-dimensional person with what’s actually a crucial backstory. Despite Ferguson’s best efforts Katarine, the most interesting character in the novel, is effectively robbed of her complexity completely and reduced to a password with daddy-issues and a (practically literal) plot device. And the stakes are never really established for the killer beyond a too-obvious prelude; a violent, self-loathing pathology reduced to “mommy didn’t love me enough,” if that (although at least nipples figure less prominently in the film than they did in the novel).

Script issues aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the film formally. Its style is pretty much exactly what you’d expect–lots of shots of the snowy Norwegian landscape, sleek and modern production design, an appropriately brooding soundtrack, and so on. But unlike a movie like, say, David Lynch’s Dune–which also does a terrible job of communicating the basic plot of its source material–there’s nothing stylistically audacious enough to make it stand out and distract from the narrative problems, wildly uneven pace, and stilted dialog. So instead of actually communicating something about human nature, we’re left with what feels like a five-years-too-late cash grab on the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a shame.

The reason I went to this movie at all is because I’m at heart a contrarian and, in case it wasn’t obvious, a fan of Nesbø’s writing, so I want to find something redeemable in this mess. But I’m having trouble because its missing what attracted me to the novel in the first place: a propulsive energy and sense of mystery. I went out and bought the book after my roommate returned it to the library, just because I needed to finish it; imagining seeing half the movie, I don’t really feel like I’d care if I finished it or not. So, I guess, if you want a better adaptation of a Nesbø novel, rent the underrated Headhunters instead. If you want a good Michael Fassbender movie, revisit his more challenging work with Steve McQueen. If you want an engrossing criminal thriller, pretty much anything David Fincher does will be more satisfying. Don’t waste your time.

 

The Foreigner (2017)

Walking into The Foreigner, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Most Jackie Chan movies I’ve seen–and thanks to my mother’s fondness for Chinese pop culture, there’ve been a few–rely on combining inventive stunt sequences with a cheerful, mostly innocent sort of comedy, a formula that’s carried over into his American work like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But The Foreigner is not a comedy. Instead, it’s been described as more of a revenge film, which has certain generic connotations. So perhaps the most I can say is that I expected to see Chan leaping and flipping his way through scores of bad guys, making his way closer to some devilish and powerful figure. For better or worse, the film is not quite that either.

Calling it a revenge film is at least somewhat accurate. Chan plays a naturalized British citizen, Quan Ngoc Mihn, whose teenage daughter and sole surviving family member Fan (Katie Leung) becomes collateral damage in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening moments. Trained by US Special Forces when he left China during the Vietnam War, a desperate Quan turns his skill set to finding those responsible. He sets his sights squarely on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish deputy minister in Belfast with ties to Sinn Féin and the IRA, a rogue cell of which has claimed responsibility for the attack. Hennessy, once a fiery activist, has become an aging and philandering politician put into an impossible position where his various conflicting loyalties are squeezed ever more tightly against one another by Quan’s intensifying pressure.

The film’s biggest problem is that it seems a little confused about its focus. Chan gets top billing as the protagonist but David Marconi’s script is clearly more interested in Hennessy and his conflicts. As such, Quan comes off a little stock and one-note, and is absent from the screen for long periods of time while the film probes–very broadly and without a great deal of new insight–into the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland and the effects of the peace process enacted in the late ’90s. The primary tension in the film comes from how much Hennessy actually knows about the bombing and how he reconciles his desire for peace with the ideals of his home and community. The change of title from Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman is telling in this regard–it’s more politically correct, sure, but it also becomes more ambiguous about whom it refers to: Hennessy is something of a foreigner to both the Irish nationalists who see him as a turncoat sucking up to the British for his own political gain and to his counterparts in London who’ll never forget the rebel he once was. This would be a fine basis for a political thriller if there weren’t an action movie about someone else trying to happen at the same time. But by trying to make room for both, neither is really developed as well as it should be.

This isn’t the fault of the actors, though. What depth Quan does have is almost entirely a product of Chan’s unusually reserved performance. The film is, of course, not without brazen stuntwork–the 63-year-old actor leaps off roofs, flings thugs around like rag dolls, and takes more than his share of lumps in the process–but its in the more staid moments where Quan’s weariness and emotional turbulence break through his icy exterior that both Chan and the film shine. Brosnan is also at what might be a career best, bubbling with tempered frustration over a situation where he can’t find any control; Olivier he’s not, but he’s more vulnerable and watchable than I’ve ever seen him.

For his part, director Martin Campbell–helmer of a couple of the better (but not the best) recent Bond films–turns in a fairly by-the-numbers style for a modern thriller, all chilly, washed-out greys with a serious, droning soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it feels like a missed opportunity–a less neutral style might’ve elevated the uneven screenplay.  As it stands, the detachment makes the film a little hard to read. There’s the suggestion of a thematic connection between Quan’s surprisingly restrained quest for justice (“bad guys”–to the extent that term applies–are incapacitated with often clever brutality but not actually killed) and the violence of the IRA, which might’ve tied the film more together, but it never really goes there narratively or cinematically.

So perhaps it’s best to approach The Foreigner with tempered expectations. It succeeds as a late-career experiment for Chan who’s increasingly expanding his dramatic range in recent years. It’s also an atypical entry in an oft overwrought genre, mostly eschewing straightforward action for a more cloak-and-dagger style approach. But it doesn’t really synthesize its various elements into complete coherence and ends up a little more forgettable than its ambitions. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

 

American Made (2017)

In a way, American Made feels like a Martin Scorsese impression. A number of his films, like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Wolf of Wall Street are based on true-life events that don’t really end well, but are propelled toward tragedy of varying scale by a kind of cavalier, masculine energy and aggressive style–the road to hell is fun and fast paced, with rapid-fire editing, whimsical narrative asides, and a great soundtrack. The filmmakers here are not Scorsese and this movie doesn’t quite stick the thematic landing, but the sweet-and-sour taste it leaves in your mouth is not without its appeal.

In a nutshell, this is the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise at his most shaggy-dog charming, his natural smarm serving the picture rather than working against it), a hotshot TWA pilot who becomes a central player in what would eventually become the Iran-Contra scandal. Recruited by the CIA to run spy missions to South and Central America, Barry catches the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), a partner in Pablo Escobar’s (Mauricio Mejía) drug cartel and soon is moving cocaine one way, guns another, and making more money than he and wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) can find suitcases to bury it in. Bullied into escalating terrible choices by the cartel on one end and the smiling Mr. “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson, predictably the film’s standout performance) on the other, Barry’s life is pulled apart as he allows himself to be exploited by forces of historical and international gravitas.

Whatever the real Barry Seal may have been (and lord knows, based on this), Cruise’s Barry isn’t exactly stupid but he is naive. As he narrates his life into a camcorder, squirreled away in a hotel room, he expresses little regret–“maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions” is as reflective as he gets. He isn’s forced to reflect; his bad behavior has been repeatedly excused because it serves larger agendas about which he doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Even in the face of his own destruction, he regards his despicable-but-significant accomplishments, either unable or unwilling to be cognizant, guilty, or angry about what they represent.

Instead, director Doug Liman (probably best known for his work on the original Bourne trilogy) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli try to pull a reaction to Barry’s circumstance out from the structure of the film itself.  It’s quiet, but rears its head between the jokes about raking money off the lawn and the zero-G sex scenes. Look at the bumper sticker about “pussies” with “cold feet” on the wall of “Schafer’s” cubicle as he repeatedly misreads the situation in Nicaragua, Panama, and Columbia. Look at the ironic use of real footage of Ronald Reagan (who “made his way up from that monkey movie to the White House, so he must know what he’s doin'”). Look at the last, patriotic words Barry speaks into the camera before being cut off by the tape going to sharp static. Reading these as cues that are trying to make a political statement gives direction to the movie’s flash and energy. It elevates what would otherwise be a passable but by now run-of-the-mill crime comedy/drama into a stab at more meaningful satire.

The film’s flaw, then, is that it doesn’t hit these notes quite hard enough, in part because this is not a movie interested in psychological depth. Despite Cruise’s best attempts, Barry comes off as a guy just sort of along for the adventure, without the nuance to be really sympathetic, to feel worth mythologizing. The stylistic excesses of the best films working in this mode feel like natural outgrowths of their larger-than-life characters, so without a better understanding of what makes Barry tick, it’s a little hard to justify the film being as fun as it is.

But it is fun–brightly colored and well paced, full of panache and pithy dialog. If the statement it’s trying to make about… what? American arrogance in foreign policy? Our culture of materialist exploitation? The extent to which macho thrill-seeking behavior informs real-world, large-scale decisions? The inevitability of basic human greed? If that statement gets lost a bit, it’s still has fun to fall back on which goes a long way toward making it watchable. And its a necessary counterbalance to an ending that feels cynical precisely because it registers as a little confused, letting whoever it is that are the real villains here (even if it’s Barry himself) off lighter than they should be allowed.

I left the theater feeling as though I should feel angry, which is why I can’t totally write this film off. There’s something here, some examination of real historical and cultural forces at play, some deeper fascination in this kind of easy, breezy amorality that’s not entirely without wit or direction. With a little bit more meat on its bones, it could’ve been one of the year’s best films. It doesn’t get there, and so doesn’t go anywhere we haven’t seen, but it hangs together enough to be worth watching.