Saturday, October 14, 2017

Wonder Woman



Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Running Time: 141 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of all the superheroes that have made it to the big screen, whether it be Marvel, DC or otherwise, it's the role of Wonder Woman that's been hardest to cast. That we've gone literally decades without a film dedicated to the character, as numerous incarnations of the project stalled in pre-production, speaks to this difficulty. There must be a vault somewhere of all the unproduced scripts and lists of potential actresses rumored to follow TV's Lynda Carter in the highly coveted role, one that doesn't come with the built-in benefits accompanying Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, or even James Bond and Indiana Jones. All those franchises will continue no matter who plays the character, as disastrous selections have demonstrated. They can be rebooted, remade, prequeled and sequeled to death because no one person is bigger than the character or property itself. Wonder Woman is different.

When Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman got the greenlight, it was all but guaranteed we'd never get another one if it didn't do well. Just look at how long it took to get this. And while there would be plenty of blame to go around, we all know who the public would point fingers at: Whoever plays her. It may be the only case where a really terrible film could be made, but as long as they got the casting right, everything else would be forgiven and it would rule the box office. The primary audience for these types of movies have always been young male fanboys with strong opinions on how the actress playing her should look, talk and act. And they're more than willing to tell you that no one will ever be good enough. While it's true every iconic pop culture character carries similar baggage to some extent, none have bared the burden quite like Wonder Woman.

Leave it up to DC to give the superhero with the roughest road to the big screen an introduction that does feel a little different, not to mention overdue. While it seems as if some actual thought and vision went into this, it does come back around again to the casting, as we knew it would. Somehow, they found an actress who personifies Wonder Woman in every possible way and then actually bothered to surround and support her with a worthwhile film that uses its content to reach an audience far beyond what was considered possible for the character. In other words, they nailed it. And while it's not without certain problems, it's nice to report for a change that there isn't a laundry list of them.

Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, as a member of a race of warrior women Zeus created to protect mankind. But this doesn't sit well with his son, the angry and jealous Ares, who vows to obliterate humanity, nearly succeeding before being run off by his father. Anticipating Ares' eventual return, Zeus leaves the Amazon women a secret weapon known as the "Godkiller," which could potentially defeat him. Despite Hippolyta forbidding it, a young Diana is secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), until her mother eventually relents.

Under the right guidance, Diana grows up to become a fierce warrior woman (Gal Gadot) whose life is interrupted when American pilot and Allied spy Steve Trevor's (Chris Pine) plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira and she rescues him. Hearing of the war and believing it to be the work of Ares, Diana leaves home and joins Trevor in his attempt to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who's chemist Isabel Maru (Elena Ayaya), aka "Dr. Poison," is engineering a deadly new form of mustard gas to end the war. Trevor recruits his own ragtag team of misfits to stop them, but it's Diana, armed with lasso, sword and shield, who proves to be their greatest asset, realizing the full extent of her powers to incite change in a world overcome with turmoil.

It's become commonplace to dread the first half-hour to forty minutes of a superhero film where an"origin story" is inflicted upon us. These extended (sometimes neverending) prologues are often ridiculously acted, give audiences information they already know or don't need, and frequently feature distractingly awful CGI. At times it feels like they're just there to pad the running time rather than to give viewers an actual connection to the story or its characters, with Marvel's Thor being the most glaring recent example of these offenses.

Monster director Patty Jenkins gets it right with an origin story that doesn't feel like a complete drag. It helps that aside from the character's recent, well-received Batman v. Superman appearance, she's relatively fresh and untainted from previous incarnations or big screen outings, making her the only remaining superhero that could possibly feel "new" to this generation. But that doesn't take away from everything Jenkins does really well in introducing this character, like keeping things simple. Or competently staging battle scenes that more closely resemble live-action, freeze frame murals or paintings than the overstylized, overedited effects we're used to getting in war porn like the 300 films.

The first sign that Allan Heinberg's script is truly working comes with the death a character early that we really shouldn't have any business caring about, but do, since their importance and connection to Diana was well established within the first twenty minutes, informing each lap of her journey going forward. When Steve Trevor crash lands and Diana makes the sacrifice to leave her people in pursuit of a greater good, we're there, fully invested in seeing her reaction to being thrown into an entirely new world.

It's a surprise just how much the script exploits both dramatic and comedic possibilities of this fish-out-of-water narrative, immeasurably aided by the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, with the latter conveying a likability and comedic delivery rarely displayed in his previous roles. And unlike most recent entries in the genre hampered by goofiness, the humor works for rather than against the more serious aspects of the narrative.

There's a feeling that the actors aren't just phoning it in for a big superhero payday or that this merely serves as an advertisement for a future series of films or spin-offs. While we know there undoubtedly will be and the term "Extended Universe" still very much exists and applies, other than a brief nod bookending the opening and closing, Jenkins focuses entirely on the task at hand. It's especially a relief to not be "treated" to a pointless post-credits scene for purely commercial purposes. For a change, all the energy does seem completely channeled into this project, with so much of it provided by the performer chosen for the allegedly uncastable title role.

Leaving any irrelevant concerns about her accent, physique or acting qualifications in the dust, Israeli actress Gal Gadot simply assumes the mantle of Wonder Woman from the moment she first appears. Not only does she look the part when judged against any previous incarnation of the character, but she's believable as a badass fighting machine, while also managing to convey the naivete and vulnerability accompanying Diana's confusion at mankind's propensity to destroy itself. Her curiosity and disappointment forms the core of a story that remains unusually focused much of the way through.

With superhero movies' reliance on stars at an all-time low, it may be possible for an actor to be afforded the opportunity to give what's considered a truly great performance in this type of role again. And while I'm still unsure Gadot does exactly that, she may accomplish one better by simply doing the character and our imaginations justice. It's as much an achievement in casting as acting, lending weight to those Christopher Reeve mentions, even as this has little in common his Superman films. Its whole look, feel and tone is actually more in line with something like The Rocketeer, a comparison that was more hastily ascribed to Marvel's recent Captain America entries.

If a hero's only as strong as their villain, there's some debate as to who's considered the main one here. Though there's a good reason for that, it's still a bit of a problem considering it's so clearly Elena Ayaya's "Dr. Poison," with her terrifying look and intriguing motivations, who leaves the most lasting impression as an adversary. It's saddest to admit that as strong as most of the picture is, it still doesn't completely break out of the box, remaining recognizable as exactly what it is: Yet another superhero movie. What it has going for it is unusually good direction and a masterstroke in casting. What has little to do with that is the fact that it was directed by woman. Having everything to do with it is that she was the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

Still overlong at nearly two and a half hours, it uses its time better than most, before delivering a third act that doesn't really distinguish itself from other entries in the genre, falling back on a climactic CGI-laden showdown, with a bit of a surprising twist. But at least most of what leads up to it works better than most expected given all the obstacles in bringing one of the most creatively challenging comic characters to the big screen. Whether this can continue, or more importantly, whether it should, is a different question entirely. But for now, it's worth basking in the victory of a successful Wonder Woman installment that's feels as if it's been a long time coming.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Colossal


 
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
  
**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some plot details**

If judged entirely by its trailers and commercials, it's easy to fall into the trap that there isn't anything all that different about Colossal, and once you set aside a fairly unusual narrative hook, there's only one direction for it to go. That at best it could result in a reasonably satisfying and entertaining diversion headlined by two likable enough actors most recognized for lighter, more mainstream fare. One of them is a major star so there's that. Marketed as a sci-fi romcom of sorts, the genre-bending film never stood much of a chance catching box office fire since those rarely tend to work and audiences know it. But now after seeing what this actually is, I get it. Nothing about this is even the slightest bit safe or diverting. And anyone who has viewed it can't say much without the benefit of spoilers.

Those, among many other factors, was cause enough for Colossal to flop hard. Not to mention the fact no one goes to the movies anymore unless it's to see superheroes, which this draws some sort of strange inspiration from. And as much as I'd prefer to avoid categorizing as that, there's no escaping its influence. The main difference here is that writer/director Nacho Vigalondo doesn't feel the need to advertise the fact he's sliding one in there and have the movie high-five itself in celebration of the script's subversiveness, like M. Night Shyamalan did at the end of the otherwise brilliant Split. He knows to let the audience read this as they may and trusts them to intelligently interpret his ideas how they see fit.

Scene-to-scene there's a genuine sense of danger and unpredictability surrounding the actions of the film's main characters, and what they'll do or say in reaction to an oddball situation we've never seen depicted on screen before. At least not exactly. And this scenario couldn't be more ridiculous. It's catnip for a silly romantic fantasy if Vigalondo wanted to go there. For a little bit, it looks like he will, until completely pulling the rug out, exploring issues related to alcoholism, the internet, bullying, and how childhood experiences shape who we eventually become.

Vigalondo never wavers, and when things get very bleak and surprisingly deep, the material still retains its darkly comic tone, while providing Anne Hathaway the opportunity to give her most emotionally naked and vulnerable performance since Rachel Getting Married. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation meets Godzilla and Unbreakable in what could not only be described as 2017's most original release thus far, but possibly its best and least problem-ridden. And that's no small feat considering all it attempts.

Gloria (Hathaway) is unemployed writer and functioning alcoholic who's been crashing at her boyfriend Tim's (Dan Stevens) New York City apartment until she finds work. Only she isn't really looking, spending her nights out partying with friends while spending most of the following day trying to sober up. Losing patience, Tim kicks her out, forcing Gloria to move back to her New Hampshire hometown, temporarily taking up residence in her parents' vacant house. But a reunion with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), leads her to take a job working at his late dad's bar, which he now owns.

As late nights at the bar with Oscar and his friends worsen Gloria's drinking problem, she wanders to a children's playground and passes out, eventually waking up the next morning to tragic news of a giant, Godzilla-like reptilian monster attack in Seoul, South Korea that's killed and injured many.  After noticing the monster's mannerisms and retracing her steps, it's clear that her presence at the playground at 8:30 a.m. causes this creature to emerge halfway across the globe, making movements that directly correspond to her own. Upon realizing she's unintentionally controlling an inexplicable terror, she enlists her new friends in a quest to take matters into her own hands, possibly preventing further casualties. But as her friendship with Oscar grows, so too does her desire to know the creature's purpose and its mysterious link to her own childhood.

Considering its set-up, you could definitely envision a cookie-cutter version of this that plays out like your typical romantic comedy, where the female protagonist returns home to straighten out her life and romantically reconnect with a childhood friend. Think Sweet Home Alabama, only with a giant monster thrown in. And as strange as it seems, there are few signs pointing in any other direction early on. The introduction of this monster element undoubtedly sets it apart, but it's understandably played for laughs at first, giving few hints at the depth and complexity to follow.

From the start, the movie has more on its mind than you'd think since Gloria's too much of a wreck to make for an entirely likable romantic lead, the humor is dark and cutting, and the character of Oscar is as equally messed up as her. And even when he's right, her current boyfriend, Tim, can't help but come off as a nagging, judgmental jerk. Then it happens. A crucial incident that takes the story down a completely unexpected, thrilling path from which there's thankfully no retreat. No one is who we think they are, the creature plot doesn't exist for the reasons we believe it does and the relationship between Gloria and Oscar is both more and less complicated than we thought.

There's this added element involving Gloria's past, shown in snippets of flashback that pay off in a major way. While watching, you never get that sickeningly frequent vibe that the project was conceived in a boardroom with a group of studio executives trying to determine "what sells." Vigalondo seems to be working in direct opposition to that, not for shock value, but because the narrative calls for it and its true to the tone and characters. Making few concessions in executing his twisted vision, all the creative choices cause reassessment of everything that came before, inducing in viewers the realization that what they were watching was more nuanced and substantial than initially suspected.

As if we needed a reminder of how good Hathaway is at playing flawed people going through real, relatable problems, this serves as one. The situation Gloria finds herself in may be extraordinary, but she makes sure the character isn't. This only makes the victory she eventually earns that much sweeter. But there's nothing simple about what Hathaway does, or how she gets inside the head of this damaged woman and manages to keep pace with the script's many shifts that call upon her to express various stages of depression, self-loathing and elation. That she manages all this while remaining consistently funny serves to only further highlight the full spectrum of her abilities. It's been a while since she's been this good, if only because the material hasn't let her take the risks she's afforded here.

While everyone's been trying to make Jason Sudeikis "happen" for a while now, after what's seemed like an endless string of forgettable comedies, he finally happens, shedding the goofiness to not only display an edge well-suited for leading man status opposite Hathaway, but a natural instinct for more dramatic material thought to be far outside his comfort zone. When talking about the unpredictability of the film, you may as well be referring to everything Sudeikis says and does, constantly keeping us on guard as to what Oscar's true motivations are. It's a difficult role, and he rises to the occasion, forcing those familiar with his comedic work to reassess what they assumed of him as an actor.    

It's hard to miss the irony in Hathaway starring as a character who's actions unwittingly draw the ire of legions of internet trolls across the world. On top of everything else, there's that meta aspect at play in a story that very much works as one giant, or colossal, metaphor itself, as all of Gloria's demons manifest itself as this creature. The ending is surprisingly moving, mainly because it's accompanied by an infrequently delivered message in movies: That sometimes you just have to tune out the noise, dig deep and do it yourself. No one will help you. You're on your own. For this character, the realization is a breakthrough that's been hard earned, culminating in a brutally honest final scene that's just simply perfect. You can almost literally hear the sound of the book closing on this chapter of her story, with the knowledge that she's now the architect of her own future, wherever she chooses to take it.         

Sunday, September 24, 2017

12 Feet Deep



Director: Matt Eskandari
Starring: Alexandra Park, Nora-Jane Noone, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Buried. Phone Booth. ATM. Frozen. Open Water. The Shallows. 127 Hours. All largely single location survival thrillers that test its actors and filmmakers, pushing their ingenuity and skill to limit in order sustain viewers' attention under the sparsest of circumstances. Their plots could each be summed up in only a couple of words, but with fewer tools at their disposal, they frequently stretch out that meager description to 90 minutes or longer, a number that in many cases is pushing it. Sometimes as trying for audiences as those directly involved in the project, it's one of the toughest sub-genres to successfully pull off and the aforementioned titles probably fall within the same realm of quality. Now joining them is Matt Eskandari's 12 Feet Deep (formerly titled The Deep End), which features a premise so hilariously bizarre that when I accidentally discovered its trailer, I actually thought it was a spoof of some sort. But not only is it deadly serious, it's at least partially based on true events. Its official logline reads exactly as this:

"Two sisters are unwittingly trapped under the fiberglass cover of an Olympic sized public pool and must brave the cold and each other to survive the harrowing night"

This is definitely a new one, and as ridiculous as the concept reads on paper, you'll still have to concede there's something oddly intriguing about the scenario, or rather the idea that someone's even attempting it. Can an entire movie take place within the confines of an enclosed swimming pool? With only two characters? And no sharks? Released wide into theaters this past June (directly against the Mandy Moore shark cage thriller, 47 Meters Down) that this has been inexplicably sold as a horror movie is just another reminder that anything with anyone trapped anywhere is marketed as "horror." And while it is terrifying and suspenseful, it's really more of a claustrophobic morality play or character study in which two women must survive each other and a sociopathic antagonist. While it easily draws comparisons to other self-contained thrillers of the sort, it does certain things better while working with a whole lot less. By believably writing itself out of corners it has little business escaping from, the extremely well-acted, tightly directed chamber piece is no joke at all, making surprisingly efficient and inspired use of our 85 minutes.

Rebellious, quick-tempered Jonna (Alexandra Park) is meeting up with her estranged sister, the newly engaged Bree (Nora-Jane Noone), at the Ketea Aquatic Center's indoor public swimming pool, both trying to put their childhood differences behind them for a late afternoon swim before the facility closes for the holiday weekend. But when Bree unexpectedly loses her engagement ring and the pool's cranky manager (Tobin Bell) rushes to close the fiberglass cover believing everyone's gone, the girls get trapped.

With a 1-foot gap separating the water and the lid, and only a small rectangular hole in the cover providing air, the sisters have to find a method of escape or eventually perish in a watery tomb. While it seems their only hope of rescue will come from janitor Clara (Diane Farr), the bitter ex-con instead uses their predicament as an opportunity for blackmail, physically and emotionally toying with the girls as the clock runs out. Working together, the sisters struggle to put their deep-seeded differences aside to formulate an alternate plan before it's too late.   

This bare-bones, single location scenario would appear to be the ideal set-up for some kind of horror thriller, maybe with a former swim coach with a hook for a hand locking two girls in a pool and torturing them. Just the mere presence of Tobin Bell in an early cameo as the facility manager only has us suspecting the new Saw film arrived early with a Jigsaw trap, which would at least provide enough action to fill up a good chunk of its story. But it's instead a clever misdirection proving the movie's smarter than that, relying instead on the intensity of human drama, emerging organically from the personalities immersed in this terrifying situation.

How Jonna and Bree get trapped is surprisingly believable considering how absurd the notion must seem to anyone who's ever swam in an indoor pool. On one hand, it's a silly accident they could happen to anyone and was cribbed from true events. But the circumstances also work on another level that sets up the animosity between these two very different siblings, stemming from a childhood tragedy that still consumes them. Already at each others throats, they become the perfect mark for ex-con Clara, who's built up a lifetime of resentment and has enough problems that there's good reason to fear her holding the cards.

Eskandari is adept at exploiting the limited set and claustrophobic atmosphere to its maximum potential, often changing up lighting and shot selection, but in a way that makes sense within the context of the narrative, allowing the viewer to escape the potential monotony of a single location. He comes up with just enough solutions, and while it would be impossible to keep the action in the pool without taking some creative liberties, he manages to keep the manipulations to a minimum. While there's a subplot involving diabetic Bree's insulin shot that's meant to lend further urgency to the proceedings, it's factually incorrect enough to be distracting. As far as effectively piling on complications in a race against time, you just accept it and move on. A superior roadblock is the character of Clara, whose presence is most obviously the added wrench in the equation.

Far from some sneering, one-dimensional villain, Diane Farr's antagonist has a conscience, history and twisted motivation to what she's doing, almost as if she literally can't help herself. And because of the limits imposed, the performances of the three actresses are only that much more crucial in creating that tension. As Jonna, Alexandra Park undergoes a rather believable transformation from angry, recovering addict to protective sister, forced to hunker down and overcome her considerable demons and petty jealousy to fight for their survival. Nora Jane-Noone gives the more reserved, cerebral Bree a tidy, organized facade as the "good sister," but as their situation wears down, so does she, physically spent from her medical condition and even more emotionally drained by the childhood trauma she's suppressed.

What's refreshing about the third act is how the story believably resolves itself. There's no eleventh hour deus ex machina or improbable coincidence that saves them from near-certain death. But the highest compliment that can be paid the screenplay is that you really do get the feeling Eskandari would kill everyone off if it served the story. Because the characters are clearly defined, so are their actions, creating a plausible chain of events that concludes in a way that feels both appropriate and logical. Like most single location thrillers, 12 Feet Deep creates a heightened reality where people find within themselves the will to survive. It may not be a profound statement in the genre, but by intelligently working its way around a head-scratching premise, it definitely stands out from the pack.       

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Circle



Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson,  Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Running Time:
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Within James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Egger's 2013 dystopian sci-fi novel, The Circle, resides an idea, and sometimes even a reality, so timely and captivating that the film literally forgets to anything with it. Starting strongly, it builds its promising premise one step at a time, methodically mapping out a clear direction the story should take and where everyone wants to see it go. It's one of those rare cases where predictability is desired because the concept is so rich it almost feels as if most of the work is done. Unfortunately for us, as viewers, it's an eye-opening reminder of just how false that assumption is. No concept on its own is ever good enough to carry an entire picture. So just as The Circle seems to get going, it ends. Or rather, it just closes. Complete stoppage. In fact, the film feels so abruptly unresolved, even when the credits started rolling, I was still unsure it concluded. With a certifiable treasure trove of unexplored material left, it may be the cruelest example yet of a movie not being what it's about, but how.

Armed with a talented cast, a superb writer/director, and screenplay co-penned by the author himself, it fails to do something that seems almost ridiculously simple: Raise the stakes. The film's very existence promises that, as we're teased throughout that it'll dive into those deep, dark, morally compromising waters occupied by the likes of 1984 or A Brave New World, its obvious inspirations. And the timing couldn't have possibly been better for it. But instead, we're left nodding our heads in agreement at all the timely, relevant ideas the movie contains, appreciating something that more closely resembles a documentary about what a great movie about those ideas would look and feel like. Two hours of set-up with minimal payoff. Strangely, it might be one of the best recent remake candidates, as it would be tempting to see what the same cast could do with a different script that lets them fully follow through on all the ideas presented, and frustratingly left on the table, relegated to our imaginations.

When struggling customer service rep Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is contacted by her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about a potential job opening at the enormous, Google-like, California-based tech company she works for called The Circle, it seems to be the perfect opportunity. With her father, Vinnie (Bill Paxton in his final role) suffering from multiple sclerosis as mom Bonnie (Glenn Headly) provides around-the-clock care, Mae's personal life is in a bit of turmoil, tempered somewhat by a recent reunion with ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane). After apparently acing what's best described as a bizarre interview, Mae gets a job in The Circle's "Customer Experience" department, where she learns the importance of maintaining a strong and very public social media presence within the company.

The mastermind behind this entire operation is CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who with right-hand man and co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), envisions a world of complete transparency with his introduction of a program called SeeChange, and wants rapidly rising employee Mae to be the face of it. But when co-worker and social networking pioneer Ty Lafitte (John Boyega) keys her in to the company's potentially nefarious motives, she must make a choice that puts her personal beliefs and the privacy rights of citizens directly at odds with an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new digital revolution.

As a reflection of the world in which we currently live and where it seems to be heading, the script hits it right on the head, successfully envisioning a fictional tech company nearly identical to and inspired by both Google and Apple. With a base of operations more closely resembling a laid-back university campus than the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) really gets the aesthetic  of what this environment would look and feel like, as well as the excitement of being a part of it. That this is happening right now and the film's strongest aspect is that with its emphasis on social media obsession and the elimination of privacy, not a whole lot of what occurs seems even the slightest bit exaggerated. If anything, it could stand to go more over-the-top, which is exactly where we think things are going.

In capturing the wide-eyed exuberance of a reserved girl overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Emma Watson's performance as Mae, while fine, seems to be a bigger achievement in casting than anything else since she (like most everyone else) is never pushed to do the heavy lifting you'd think would accompany a story this ripe with possibility. Of course, Eamon and The Circle have less than philanthropic intentions with the rollout of this new technology, which essentially monitors every individual 24/7 with hidden cameras, and it's to the screenplay's credit that it does at least address the pros and cons of this technology, as well as its moral implications. Unfortunately, it doesn't get around to showing any of them, at least in an impactful enough manner to kick the narrative into the next gear.

When Mae becomes this social media superstar, embracing her role within the company and supporting its mission, the film, and Watson's performance, are its strongest, reflecting Truman Show-like themes that explore the dangers and thrills of living an entirely public life, accompanied by some great on screen visuals. And as she becomes Eamon's pet project, that was absolutely the time to take things to the next sinister level, as you could easily rattle off about four of five steps the writers could have taken to make this company seem like a lethal threat. What they're planning certainly warrants it, posing a big enough threat to be endangering the lives of anyone questioning the organization's purpose, especially Mae, who's ascended into the inner Circle. Why not tamper with her father's medical equipment? Or do something with or to John Boyega's mysterious character, whose dropped just as quickly as he's introduced.

When something does finally occur that could be considered "dangerous," it's essentially an accident involving a character whose relationship to the protagonist was presented in such a muddled, ambiguous way from the moment he first appeared on screen, that it hardly connects. A sub-plot involving dissension between Mae and her friend Annie over the company's agenda isn't developed at all and seems to come out of nowhere.The biggest loss stemming from the script's faults is a failure to properly utilize Tom Hanks, here given the rarest of opportunities to sink his teeth into what could have been one of the actor's most complex roles had the material supported him.

It's almost painful to watch Hanks' scenes since his magnificent channeling of a scheming, Steve Jobs-like CEO, whose greed convinces him he knows what's best for the world, is basically undercut by an uneventful screenplay. Watching him on stage in his corporate presentations, you can only imagine the result had this gone to that dark place, allowing him to really cut loose and get inside the head of a potentially fascinating on screen villain. Instead, he's forced to provide nearly all of this himself, but it's a good bet most will still be thoroughly impressed with how much he does with it. And already well established by now as a surprisingly strong dramatic supporting presence, Patton Oswalt sits it out on the sidelines, mostly forced to stand around giving stern looks. This all leads to a final act let-down, as you could envision something similar to this ending actually working had the groundwork been properly laid leading into it. What we're left with feels more like an extended teaser for a more compelling project.

While assessing the movie you didn't see rather than what's on screen is rarely a good idea, what happens when most of its running time is comprised of reminders of that better, unseen film? It seems as if every scene unintentionally teases us with what we could have been, and despite this being one of my most anticipated releases of the year, it's hard to look at it as anything other than a disappointment, regardless of expectations. That indie-leaning Ponsoldt is such a great director probably accounts for nearly half those expectations, making it easy to assume that the biggest, most mainstream effort of his career was hampered by a studio that lacked the guts to explore the potentially polarizing, but compelling themes Eggers' put forth in his novel. For The Circle to be successful, it had to go dark, and use the platform it was given to intelligently exploit some very real and timely fears. By never fully addressing the ideas at its core, we're left with a final product that feels less like a paranoid thriller than a tame corporate training video.
       

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Split



Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details**


While watching M. Night Shyamalan's Split with a mixture of excitement, dread and trepidation, the one question that kept reverberating through my mind was, "When is he going to blow it?" It isn't an unfair concern given the director's reputation and track record over the past decade, which resulted in the creative implosion of a career that's proven to be anything but unbreakable. This is his hail mary, a last ditch attempt to prove that flops like Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are anomalies. So now, after showing some renewed signs of creative life with 2015's The Visit, Shyamalan gives us Split, and right from its tense opening, it's obvious he's come to play again.

With a thrilling set-up, a fresh cast of rising stars mixed with established newcomers, and an ingeniously constructed script to support them, Shyamalan makes his best film. Hands down. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise considering I never quite shared the love others had for The Sixth Sense, it's not.  He gets everything right, firing on all cylinders, all while giving audiences the gift of two, maybe even three, award-caliber performances, one of which is so subtly powerful it's gone almost completely unnoticed. 

This is such a strong effort and the comeback so welcome that I almost feel guilty mentioning that giant elephant in the room known as the final scene. While it's a stretch to say he drops the ball as feared, and it does nothing to diminish the power of the overall experience, the decision to close the film in this way makes absolutely no sense because it has so little to do with anything preceding it. Shyamalan does something I've rallied against for years but has become so prevalent recently that it's reached epidemic levels, engulfing someone who could barely get his movies made just a couple of years ago. But what a homecoming this is, and even if its last 30 seconds cause concern, we should just relish what we're given: A compelling, meticulously plotted psychological thriller that methodically lays its groundwork before paying off in a pulse-pounding sprint to the finish that won't soon be forgotten. No twists. No games. To call this a return to form for him would almost be an insulting understatement.

Three teenagers, the popular Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and introverted social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are being driven home from a party by Claire's dad when a mysterious bald-headed man attacks him in the parking lot and drives off with and abducting the girls. The man is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), but the person responsible for the crime is "Dennis," one of Kevin's 24 personalities manifesting itself from abuse he suffered in childhood. Diagnosed with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder), he's currently being treated under psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's pleased with his progress in balancing these personalities despite recent red flags that indicate he's struggling.

Locked captive in an undisclosed location, the girls are exposed to "Patricia," a female personality who's assisting the voyeuristic, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," and 9-year-old "Hedwig," who Casey sees as the easiest to manipulate into helping them escape. With a panicked Claire and Marcia frantically trying anything possible to get out, it's clear that Casey's the introspective thinker of the three, laying back and assessing the most practical way out of what looks to be the most dire of situations. As Dr. Fletcher's suspicions grow, the girls fight for their lives while Kevin's personalities battle for dominance, including a dormant one that's potentially the most dangerous of all.

Like an expertly constructed puzzle box, the details of Kevin's unusual condition reveals itself the more dangerous and unpredictable he becomes. By taking a conceit that if taken at face value should be ridiculous and treating it every step of the way with a certain respect and plausibility, Shyamalan makes us buy in. While Multiple Personality Disorder is very much a real thing, the amplified version of it that this script presents most definitely isn't, but the movie explains it in such confident, mind-blowing detail through both words and actions that we wouldn't dare doubt any of it. But that's not to say this at all plays as some kind of dry psychology lecture, as it cleverly foreshadows what's to come, making and abiding by its own rules the entire way.

Two different cat-and-mouse games transpire simultaneously, with Kevin (or rather "Dennis") attempting to outwit Dr. Fletcher while the captured girls try to predict the unpredictable and forecast their window of opportunity for escape. It all clicks largely due to McAvoy, who prior to this came across as a dependable enough actor who carries a film just fine, the true extent of his talents remaining somewhat untested. But he does here is miraculous tour de force, dropping on a dime to believably shift gears between all these distinctive personalities, some of whom are even posing as other personalities. That we not only get this, but can determine with relative ease exactly who he is at any given moment, is a true testament to the high-wire act he pulls off.

At times a performance within a performance within a performance, how MacAvoy completely changes his voice, movements, posture, tone and even physical appearance (often multiple times during a single scene) defies and breaks the boundaries we have in our heads while watching. It looks exhausting, but if this performance doesn't work, the entire premise crumbles, and the psychological backbone of the screenplay doesn't stick. Also helping hold that up is Betty Buckley, who as Dr. Fletcher helps dispel the myth that there are no vital roles left for actresses over 60 not named Helen Mirren.

Buckley, last known to many for putting her head through a window in the Happening's most embarrassing scene is completely redeemed with a part far worthier of her talents. Going face-to-face with her troubled patient in some of the most important, narrative defining scenes, she's magnificent, finding just the right balance between motherly compassion and tough, brutal honesty, juggling some of the more expository exchanges and sudden revelations like a pro. She, like McAvoy, must switch gears at a moment's notice when the full, dangerous extent of Kevin's condition begins to surprise even her.

Due to the nature of the role, comparisons between Buckley's character and Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films are practically inevitable, but I hesitate giving more credence to this being mistakenly categorized as some kind of horror slasher, which it surely isn't. There are points where Dr. Fletcher guides the narrative, but never to the extent that you'd think it's her story since Buckley provides such strong, low-key support opposite McAvoy's performance, invisibly steering each scene they share. Her work not only stands out as a real keeper, but feels absolutely crucial to the story's success.

Shyamalan has called Casey Cooke his favorite character he's ever written, so it's probably fitting that the actress cast as her, the still relatively unknown Anya Taylor-Joy, gives what ranks among the most powerful performances in any of his pictures. Anyone who saw her highly praised turn in 2015's supernatural period horror film The Witch or as college student Barack Obama's girlfriend in Netflix's Presidential origin story, Barry, already knew she had something really special and was worth watching. But as Casey, Taylor-Joy gets to dig fairly deep, playing a girl whose own volatile history equips her with the emotional tools necessary to not only cope with horrifying predicament she and the girls find themselves in, but connect with Kevin's personalities at a level no one can, aside from Dr. Fletcher.

From the opening sequence, time seems to stop as we're uncomfortably drawn into Casey's reaction, she uses only her giant eyes to convey all the terror, fear and unpredictability such an abduction would likely entail. This happens a lot throughout, as Taylor-Joy's most memorable scenes often have little to no dialogue at all and consist of her strategizing her next move in the presence of two girls who have far less interest in formulating a game plan.

While childhood flashbacks involving her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke)  are sporadically used to explain the character's past, and they do work, I'm willing to believe we'd probably know anyway just by Anya's facial expressions, demeanor and body language throughout. Any information coming our way rarely feels like a shock or twist (as it often does in Shyamalan films) but rather a confirmation of what she was silently and subtly telling us the entire time.

Unconventional in both presence and looks, Taylor-Joy definitely doesn't fit your typical movie star mold, but in the best possible way, so it would be a shame if after two incredibly successful genre performances she gets pigeonholed as some kind of reigning "scream queen" when she should be competing for dramatic opportunities far beyond that. Her performance stands as the best from an actress so far this year, regardless of how you choose to classify it. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are fine in their underdeveloped roles, which require them to panic in various states of undress, but it's their co-star that commands all the attention as they fade into the background.

Strangely, it's hard watching the last third of this thriller without comparing it to another surprise sleeper hit from earlier in the year, Jordan Peele's Get Out. While the content isn't at all similar and this certainly doesn't carry the same subversive social commentary, both pull off the extremely difficult transition from psychological drama to full-blown horror without missing a beat. And they do it by setting up the premise so well and believably that when the train starts careening off the tracks, it makes sense within the context of the world that's been created. Shyamalan goes very far, but reasonably, likely surprising many who went in expecting a final twist of the knife, because, you know, that's what he does.

What we do get is something that feels like an additional scene past the point where the movie should clearly conclude. In a broader sense, the ill-conceived final moment doesn't make that much of a difference in that it doesn't effect the actual narrative and plays more as an Easter egg or add-on. But if that's the case, then why do it?  It's a real stretch linking the now 17-year-old Unbreakable with Split, and even if Shyamalan did it masterfully within this single scene (which he doesn't), there's still no justification for its presence.

The closing scene just doesn't belong here, and neither does Bruce Willis, whose distracting cameo is more likely to induce head-scratching reactions questioning its purpose rather than build excitement for a potential "Shymalaniverse." Someone needed to tell him this isn't a Marvel movie, and I say that as someone who wholeheartedly agrees that the unfairly maligned Unbreakable probably did deserve a sequel years ago and stands as Shyamalan's most worthwhile accomplishment, at least until this. But it only gets harder justify that when he continues to make these kinds of decisions.

There's this devastating, incredibly acted scene in the police car when Casey's told she's being sent back to live with her uncle that I wish was the last thing we saw in this film. It's just perfect, and could easily be used in an Oscar clip reel sent to Academy members touting Anya Taylor-Joy's lead performance. That's a pipe dream, but only because Shyamalan made it one by not knowing what he had. If he did, there's no way he would have wet the bed with that ending instead of putting the closing emphasis on a character who was actually in the film.

Let's not kid ourselves into thinking an Unbreakable sequel is happening for any other reason than the fantastic work Shyamalan does here on Split, but it seems that in his mind he's just making superhero movies, not realizing that the main appeal of his films was how they never outright acknowledged that.  While he's obviously done something far more substantial with this, it's that lack of self-awareness that's made him his own worst enemy at times. And yet, that's somehow fitting for a filmmaker who's spent a career both thrilling and frustrating audiences in equal measure.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Neon Demon



Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcoate, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R 

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological horror thriller The Neon Demon introduces us to one of the least confident protagonists to recently carry a film. At least initially. So innocent and unsure of herself that every word she speaks is phrased as a question, there's this doe-eyed, stuck in headlights look that seems to define her. You start thinking that regardless of her looks, it may be impossible for this girl to find legitimate success as a model. After all, this is L.A. She'll be (literally?) eaten alive by the insecure, ambitious competition who can smell fear, and a serious threat, from miles away. It turns out, we don't even know the half of it.

An all-out assault on the senses brought to you by the filmmaker who previously polarized audiences with Drive and Only God Forgives is almost daring us to point out the superficiality of his latest effort. Don't take the bait. That's the entire point, even if that doesn't necessarily make it any more enjoyable to watch. Some of the content arriving in the picture's last third, and one scene specifically, is both disgusting and disturbing, making you wonder how this somehow managed to evade the MPAA's dreaded "NC-17."

The actual story, which is strangely Refn's most straightforward yet, serves as background noise to sights and sounds that aren't quite like anything recently brought to the screen. And yet, all of it works a bit better before all the subtext becomes text, and the heavy foreshadowing leads us into crazy land, the film might have seemed a little less ridiculous minus that eventual destination.  But it also may have been a hell of a lot less fun. There's no doubt that it looks and feels great, despite my lingering doubts as to whether it transcends those pleasures to become something more than a shocking horror genre exercise.

16-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from a small Georgia town with aspirations of becoming a model. After having her first photoshoot with a guy she meets named Dean (Karl Glusman), she soon scores an interview with modeling agency head Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who's so impressed with her potential that she refers her to a test shoot with renowned photographer Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). Despite forging a friendship with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse's rapid, meteoric ascent draws the ire of her modeling peers, the older, more experienced Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate).

In an industry when you're washed up before you hit twenty five, the girls notice this newbie is accomplishing in just a few short months what they couldn't during their entire careers, as Jamie seems to transfix everyone with a youthful, fresh-faced look and appeal they've gone under the knife many times to try to duplicate. The claws are out and they smell blood, doing all they can to undermine the competition and preserve their jobs. For the shy, introverted Jesse comes the test of whether she can withstand it, or more accurately, adapt to survive in a world where looks are the most valuable commodity.

Much is made of Jamie's youth, so the casting of Fanning makes a lot of sense as the main point is that she's entirely too young to be exposed to an industry that devours its young. She also has an entirely different look that serves her well in the role, making it somewhat plausible that all these top shelf agents and photographers would be falling all over themselves when she arrives. It gets to be a bit much at times with that, but at least we get it, whereas with another another actress lacking such an distinct look, we might not. Of course, the character's fifteen, which Hendricks's agency owner quickly adjusts up to nineteen since eighteen is "too on the nose."

The others girls take an immediate disliking to her that grows with each new opportunity, the most memorable of which comes in the form of a Goldfinger-style photoshoot featuring a genuinely unsettling turn from an intense, gaunt-looking Desmond Harrington from TV's Dexter. You're kept on edge watching the whole time, both fearing for Jamie's safety yet opening yourself up to the idea that this might simply be all for the sake of some kind of twisted performance art. Either way, it's creepy, and Cliff Martinez's sparse, haunting 80's electronic score only serves to makes it that much creepier.

For a while the film constantly walks up to that line and teases, like with Jamie's interactions with a sleazy motel manager named Hank, who Keanu Reeves plays with scenery-chomping gusto in a welcome excursion to the dark side. Between this, John Wick, and his lead role in 2015's underrated home invasion thriller, Knock Knock, it's getting to the point where he's entering Nicolas Cage territory, but in the best way, where we literally can't wait to see what's next. There's some more going on here too, like an unwelcome animal intruder and the increasing sense that these models are much more than merely jealous. As this happens, a change comes over Jamie as well, with all roads leading to what feels like an inevitable showdown.

Described in its conception as a combination of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's somewhat ironic that it's actually more successful when drawing from the former. The suspense and anticipation for what eventually occurs, and the accompanying drama driving it, is actually far more intriguing than the craziness that arrives in the final act. While it's clearly trying to make a point about how humankind's obsession with physical beauty is destroying us from the inside-out, Refn delivers it in such a silly, ham-fisted, over-the-top manner that it comes off as ridiculous rather than scary.

The last half-hour is kind of difficult to process, if we're even supposed to. As for Fanning, her performance is exactly what it needs to be, even if I remain uncertain what it's all in the service of since her character could be viewed as kind of a cipher. It's been a breakthrough year for her between this and even more resonant work in 20th Century Women, marking the evolution of a mature talent who's child acting days are now comfortably behind her.

For all the film's mind-blowing visuals and bombast, I found myself struggling to extract more than just a begrudging respect and admiration for its craft. You can only shock so much before the credits roll and you're left contemplating what it all means. cenes of necrophilia and cannibalism can leave a searing imprint, but without a connection to the characters, it only goes so far. In terms of delivering psychological thrills, it's tantalizing on more than a few levels before completely abandoning that idea in favor of pure sensationalism. The Neon Demon is meant to provoke a strong reaction and does, but the only thing you're left contemplating when it's over is whether it was the right one.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Elvis & Nixon



Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Ahna O' Reilly, Ashley Benson, Dylan Penn
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

On the morning of December 21, 1970, a meeting took place at the White House between two of the most important and controversial public figures of the 20th century. It created a moment immortalized in a legendary photograph that became the the National Archives' most requested image. Thankfully, Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon isn't exactly a movie about that, at least in the strictest sense. If it was, there's a chance we'd be exposed to a reality that's nowhere near as funny or subversively entertaining as what ends up on screen. And while we all probably could have lived without the disturbing knowledge that "The King" and the disgraced 37th President of the United States share an alarming amount in common, isn't it kind of strangely unsurprising? The casting would imply the film's a big joke, and while that's true to an extent, it's at least a really funny joke that also works as a deep dive into the complicated personalities of these two eccentric figures.

Clocking in at a breezy 86 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, focusing tightly on the immediate events leading up to this infamous meeting and the actual event itself, which definitely doesn't disappoint, thanks largely to the two immersive performances carrying it. This is one of those little footnotes in history that upon reflection signifies much more than it did at the time, with the film's strongest aspect being how well it conveys that. Everyone involved is so blissfully unaware of how simultaneously important and ridiculous this all this. It's hard watching without drawing parallels to current events, contemplating just how thin the line separating politics and celebrity has become. For better or worse, you could easily argue that this rarely discussed encounter helped pave the way, its implications still reverberating through the culture. 

It's 1970 and singer Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is enjoying somewhat of a career resurgence off the heels of his late '60's comeback special, his fame and public recognizability at an apex. But despite this enormous success, the problems currently facing America heavily weigh on him as he lounges in his palatial Graceland estate, joined at the hip by best friend and "Memphis Mafia" cohort Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and bodyguard Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville). Disturbed by the hippie movement and worried the drug culture is rapidly eating away at the minds of the era's youth, Elvis makes it his mission to get sworn in by President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as an undercover "agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

To accomplish his lofty goal, Presley will have to find a way to reach Nixon, and after showing up at the gates of the White House with a handwritten letter, his request eventually makes it into the hands of top administrative officials Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), Evan Peters and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, After initially brushing it off as a ridiculous joke, they soon recognize the obvious, very real opportunity the meeting presents for Nixon to overhaul his out-of-touch, old fashioned image, particularly with young southern voters. But getting the President on board is full of an entirely new set of challenges, culminating in an encounter for the ages as Elvis meets Nixon.

There's a reason the film is titled Elvis & Nixon and not Nixon & Elvis, as the script devotes a considerably larger amount of time to Presley. He's the one on the journey, he's the mind we're granted access to, and at times, it's a fairly strange place to be. Torn between his loyalty to and love for a profession that's afforded him so much and the discomfort of having strangers viewing him as "Elvis" 24/7, he sees a lot of himself in Nixon, who also came from humble beginnings and shares similar conservative values.

The casting of Michael Shannon, known for playing psychotic creeps and menacing weirdos, is unusual not only due to him lacking any physical resemblance to The King, but because the choice seems like it could be some kind of inside joke on audiences. If this were an all-out mindless comedy that might be true, but anyone truly familiar with Shannon knows just how much more he's capable of bringing to it. And he does.

Shannon really gets under Presley's skin during a period of his life where he really did come across as a disturbed eccentric, albeit a likable, well-meaning one. When Elvis is at first informed that the President has no desire to meet him, Presley's not insulted that Nixon doesn't want to meet the one and only "King of Rock n' Roll," but rather sad and disappointed as an American because he has some ideas to share and thinks and they'd be friends. The deflated look on Shannon's face is more akin to an overgrown child being told they won't be meeting Santa Claus than a spoiled celebrity not getting what he wants. It's a small but crucial example of one of many nuances the movie gets right.

Much of the comedy comes from those closest to the two men trying to control uncontrollable personalities since no one really has any idea what will happen when they meet. Nixon is portrayed as an insulated old man, so stubbornly grasping to traditional values it comes as little surprise he has no idea who Elvis Presley even is. That he may have in reality has no baring on the fact that this movie believably theorizing that he didn't is just perfect. It isn't even until his team have to use his daughter to get through to him that they're able to finally set the wheels in motion.

No stranger to playing the Commander-in-Chief on House of Cards, Kevin Spacey now gets to tackle a real one and his physical embodiment of Nixon's mannerisms, posture and way of speaking are frighteningly on point, even taking into account the great actors who have previously tackled the role. While he doesn't get the screen time Shannon does, he makes the absolute most of it, conveying the type of defiant personality that would eventually lead to his downfall. He definitely lived and worked in a bubble, and there's no getting around the distracting fact that Spacey's portrayal will draw inescapable comparisons to our current President.

Finding plenty of common ground in their mutual disdain of hippies, The Beatles, and communism, it was inevitable Elvis and Nixon would hit it off, their discussion as off-the-wall as you'd expect and then some. The rest of the characters are mere window dressing, as they should be, attempting and often failing to keep their bosses' worst tendencies in check. Like how Presley basically tries to sneak an arsenal of firearms into the Oval Office and the person most perplexed as to why that's not  permitted is Nixon himself.

While all the characters' quirks are on full display in the eventual encounter, this semi-biographical account still somehow avoids feeling like a parody because it has genuine affection for two otherwise good men who each had their personality flaws magnified by the pressures of the spotlight. Under different circumstances, maybe both would have been regarded a bit differently, and perhaps even deserve to be. Elvis & Nixon zeroes in on that to become a fun, engaging trip back in time that's as straightforward and direct as the meeting itself.