Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Kim Basinger, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's an early moment in Shane Black's buddy cop comedy, The Nice Guys, that immediately convinced  me I'd love it. It's when a bumbling private eye played by Ryan Gosling meticulously attempts to break into a nightclub. And just from our initial glimpses of the guy, we can tell this might be the first time he's ever arrived prepared for anything. He carefully wraps his fist and arm measures up the glass window before putting his fist through it. Within minutes, blood's shooting everywhere and the ambulance takes him away. It's the perfect introduction to this character and into the retro world of the movie, which is filled to the brim with subtle jokes that continually keep paying off as its delightfully absurd plot takes shape. Everything the movie does just feels effortless, cruising along for a two hour length that most other comedies would be struggling to fill.  It knows where it's going and all the detours it takes in getting there are actually welcome because they're hilarious and even at times unexpected.

Delivered in a style and tone more reminiscent great, unearthed 70's cop show that never quite made it to air, it's witty and sharp, mining its laughs from quirky characters traits and period nonsense instead of sight gags or toilet humor. And it may be time to start getting scared because if Gosling's capable of bringing this much to what on paper should have been your average mainstream American comedy, there's no telling what else he's capable of. Russell Crowe is superb as his straight man, and while no one could have predicted this pairing would yield such a result, it's Gosling who really surprises with comedic chops few guessed he had, even while generously taking into account his previous work in Crazy Stupid Love.

As if all this isn't enough, Black manages to accomplish the impossible in successfully incorporating a child into the narrative in a major role that feels completely essential. Far from being a third wheel of any sort, the actual performance and discovery of the actress giving it feels like a genuine eye-opener, as she goes much further than merely "holding her own" opposite experienced, powerhouse co-stars. Rarely did a scene pass in The Nice Guys when I wasn't either laughing or smiling, regardless of how little casual buzz it may have generated among moviegoers following its May release.

It's 1977 Los Angeles and frequently drunk private eye Holland March (Gosling) is hired by the aunt of recently deceased adult film star Misty Mountains to investigate the possibility she's still alive after supposedly spotting her following her death in a car crash. A highly skeptical March takes the job but gets a beat down from hired muscle Jackson Healey (Crowe), who warns him to stay away from his only lead in the case, a missing girl named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). But when Healey is targeted by a couple of thugs regarding Amelia, he teams up with March and his wise beyond her years 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) to locate Amelia before those guys do. The disappearance of Amelia and how it relates to the LA pornography world and even reaches the highest level of federal government is something this crime solving odd couple will have to crack, with Healey and Holly attempting to protect March from his worst enemy: His drunken incompetence as a detective and frequent deficiencies as a parental figure.

At times feeling more 1970's than the 70's itself, the setting and period in which this takes place ends up being a huge selling point in writer/director Shane Black's capable hands. As he proved over a decade ago with his cult hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even more recently with Iron Man 3, he knows how to write and direct comedy that's a cut or more above what we've come to typically expect from projects that could otherwise easily seem slight or unambitious without his touch. He's definitely not phoning it in here, rarely wasting an opportunity to poke fun of the absurdity of the porn industry setting and storyline, as well as the wacky characters inhabiting it. Everything from the production design to the costuming looks authentic to a degree you rarely find in comedies set in another decade.  And that's about half of what makes this all work. The plot may be played entirely for laughs, but it's played straight and taken deadly serious by these two characters, who could have just as easily slid into a sequel to Crowe's own L.A. Confidential.

The casting of Gosling and Crowe, two actors primarily associated with darker material, is a masterstroke in that we've never seem either apply their talents to something as comedic as this. It's a compliment to their talents how easily we could envision a dramatic inverse to this script with two rough and tumble bad-ass detectives trying to uncover a corruption ring in 1970's LA and it still working equally well. Crowe (who noticeably packed on the pounds for the role) actually plays it like this is that movie, even as ridiculous as everything around him gets. Most notably, Gosling's character. What's funny and to whom is such a subjective, acquired taste that it's all the more remarkable how frequently Gosling breaks those barriers with his performance as March, whether he's unintelligibly chatting up partygoers after having a few (or fifteen) too many or doing a spot-on Lou Costello impersonation sure to delight anyone who recognizes the tribute, and likely even those who don't.

Incorporating kids into adult comedies can be creatively troublesome as their characters tend to be annoyingly overwritten or cloying, quickly wearing out their welcome when placed in more sophisticated situations. Through little fault of their own, even the most skilled and mature of tween or teen actors can irritate if the material isn't there or the director has them precociously mug for the cameras since Hollywood's taught us that's what kids should do. Adopting a flawless American accent, Australian actress Angourie Rice doesn't only manage to not wear out her welcome as Holly March, she stands right alongside Gosling as the very best thing in the movie. It's a child star arrival and performance that's reminiscent of the talent Jodie Foster or Natalie Portman displayed right out of the gate when they first debuted. There's that much potential here.

As possibly the true parent in this father-daughter relationship, it's become Holly's job to keep her dad on the straight and narrow following the death of her mother. She seems up for everything, can read adults in an instant, but also has these scary moments in the midst of all the danger that jolt audiences into remembering just how young and impressionable she is. No kid, however street smart, could reasonably be asked to handle any of this and it's to Rice and the film's credit that this detail isn't forgotten. Nor is the fact that their relationship is so often built on the foundation that they have to take turns protecting each other. And Gosling provides these small moments where we realize that, for all of March's faults, he's both a better detective and parent than we initially suspected. Holly finds a worthy verbal sparring opponent in Healey and the friendship they form to keep her dad on track provides one of the more satisfying subplots.

Usually, when an R-rated action comedy enters its third act, the results are a mess as the narrative flies off the rails. This is one of those rare cases where everything only gets better as the plot becomes crazier, and the closing action sequence at the Los Angeles Auto Show squeezes the absolute most out of its setting and characters. Much of that can be attributed to an exciting cast of colorfully entertaining supporting villains played by Keith David, Beau Knapp and and an unrecognizably creepy Matt Bomer as hired assassin "John Boy." Kim Basinger also contributes as a chilly demeanored high-ranking government official whose interest in Amelia's disappearance is more personal given that she's her daughter.

Even with its unusual setting and offbeat sense of humor, it's still surprising The Nice Guys wasn't a bigger hit. While it's possible some of the really subtle, inside jokes flew over the heads of as many as it impressed upon its release, this is one of the few recent mainstream comedies that manages to not only tell a good story, but a few of them simultaneously. In a way, it would be kind of strangely disappointing if it was enormously successful, spawning a franchise of likely inferior sequels that would seem to violate the spirit with which this was made. This seems just fine where it is. A quirky, edgy cult comedy viewers will still slowly be discovering years from now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Captain Fantastic

Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Ann Dowd
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Captain Fantastic addresses so many issues that feel so "here" and "now" it's almost downright uncomfortable at times. And if nothing else, it's blunt. As direct and upfront as the controversial title character, Matt Ross' film seems to play by its own rules while asking the audience which rules they'd rather play by, if any at all.  It joins 10 Cloverfield Lane, as one of the few releases this year that could double as a veiled social commentary on the current political climate. But this is operating at an entirely different, more thought-provoking level. It first it comes off as kind of a call-to-arms, with a protagonist's complete rejection of a society protecting and coddling their "snowflake" children while isolating them from any kind of self-sufficiency. Then the narrative zigs and zags in different directions, asking deeper questions before arriving at a conclusion that should infuriate as many as it elates.

Supposedly, Steve Jobs despised the phrase, "That's just what people do," writing it off as a lazy explanation for decisions and behavior unaccompanied any questions, only helping to further promote a thoughtless, herd mentality. It's likely Viggo Mortensen's title character would wholeheartedly agree, with views and philosophies for raising his children that fall way out of line with contemporary society's. A couple of decades ago it may not have seemed as extreme, but in a more politically correct than ever 2016, it's downright shocking. And there are undeniably many instances where his unorthodox methods qualify as dangerous and abusive, regardless of the era. Then there are those other moments when some of his ideas, against our better judgment, really make a certain amount of sense and we've perhaps moved too far away from them. Regardless, it's clear most parents would kill to have the connection this man has with his kids. But when the real question of how far his rights extend as a single dad to determine what's best for his sons and daughters' well being, the waters become even murkier. There are no easy answers or pat resolutions here, but boy am I grateful there's a movie with enough guts to ask the questions.

Following his wife Leslie's hospitalization for mental illness, Ben Cash (Mortensen) is raising his six kids, Bo (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), alone in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Living off the land, he instills in his children survivalist skills while also home schooling them literature, philosophy, science, history, foreign languages and physical education. But when Leslie takes her own life and Ben and the kids want to attend her funeral, he has a decision to make. Blaming Ben for Leslie's death, his wealthy, estranged father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) warns him an appearance will result in his arrest and potential loss of parental custody. Never one to back down to the privileged, he takes the kids on a road trip in their bus, exposing them for the first time to the capitalist city life he and his late wife consciously removed their family from.  And it's only when they start dipping their feet into the waters that are the "real world," to carry out Leslie's dying wishes, are the full consequences of Ben's parenting style evident, as are it's positive and negative effects on these unusually bright kids.

It's rare to find a film where it's tough to determine exactly what could happen next before finding out that it could be anything. In Captain Fantastic, that's mostly attributable to the unpredictability of Ben and the many different shades Mortensen brings to this conflicted character. There really is a feeling that he's not only driving the van for this road trip, but the entire narrative since so much of it revolves around how he stubbornly shapes the lives of his children, both to their benefit and eventual detriment. He's strict and inflexible, yet at the same time manages to show them a surprising amount of respectful affection that's never anything less than completely authentic.

There's much to admire in how much he thinks these kids can handle if he's simply matter-of-fact, even straightforwardly explaining to his six-year-old exactly what "rape" is despite her being at an age where she doesn't need to hear it, or arguably shouldn't. When that invariably leads to her asking about "sexual intercourse," he responds similarly, with solid facts unaccompanied by any kind of judgment. Whether or not it's an appropriate topic of conversation, there's less doubt that this was the most effective way to do it. Ben just doesn't want to hear teen daughter Kielyr talk about her recent reading of Lolita in terms of what it's about. He wants to know what it's really ABOUT and how she interpreted it. And as usual, the word "interesting" is forbidden since, you know, it doesn't mean anything.

As played by Mortensen, Ben's such an easy, laid-back character to root for that you want to look past the holes in his philosophy that manifest when they make a stop at his sister (Kathryn Hahn) and brother-in-law's (Steve Zahn) house. How they've raised their two sons seems to represent the kind of protective coddling Ben and Leslie rallied against when they moved their family off the grid to escape a smothering, materialistic society. When Ben and the kids arrive, it's two extremes trying to co-exist at one dinner table and the result is not only emotionally combustible, but illuminating in how it reveals just how much of life his kids are missing out on, despite the number of books they've all read, wildlife they've hunted or weapons they've brandished.

Whatever real life experience has been gained by these kids, few of it has actually been applied, to the point where Ben, in all his best efforts to raise independent, free-thinking, self-sufficient offspring, could unintentionally be realizing his worst fears by sheltering them in a bubble. It's perhaps most apparent with the eldest, Bo, who has his first, awkward experience even talking to a girl (played by Erin Moriarty) on this road trip and greatly fears revealing his college ambitions to his dad. Younger teen Rellian hates his father's methods altogether and would far rather live like a normal kid and play video games than celebrate fictitious holidays like "Noam Chomsky Day."

Ben's father-in-law isn't depicted as a sneering, one-dimensional villain angling to take his grandchildren away to settle a grudge over his deceased daughter. He does want to take them, but perhaps for very valid reasons and the events that unfold as a result of it feel more painfully realistic than the over-the-top movie confrontation we'd expect. Ben's a good man who cares deeply for his kids while Jack's concerns about the safety and future of his grandchildren come from an equally sincere place. It also helps that Langella plays these scenes just right, expertly walking a fine line other equally subtle actors couldn't in only a few scenes. Then there's the issue of how much say Ben should really have in upholding his late wife's wishes considering her precarious mental state would almost have to call those into serious question. None of this feels easy and Matt Ross' screenplay doesn't insult us by implying otherwise.

Filled with plenty of lighthearted moments and laughs, it would still be inaccurate to categorize this as anything but a drama since the ground it covers is thematically much deeper than it appears on the surface. Viggo may be the anchor in a tricky, multi-faceted role that could have gone wrong in a number of ways, but the kids are good too. George MacKay, previously a strong presence in Stephen King's 11.22.63 miniseries from earlier this year, brings a loony, sincere naivete to Bo while Samantha Isler is also a standout as Kielyr, channelling a sort of Shailene Woodley in training. The much discussed ending is somewhat brave, keeping with the spirit and tone set from the start. Three quarters of the way through, you think you know exactly where it's going, and had it ended that way, we'd still have a perfectly fine film. But it would be one with a rather black and white message that wouldn't lend itself to the type of discussion the film's still generating and should continue to.

This all does feel more like a writing achievement than a directorial one, and while you could argue whether the execution lives up to the magnitude of its ideas, it lays claim to something few other 2016 films can: Cultural Relevancy. It feels significant in how it turns a mirror to our society, coming closer to pinpointing the sociopolitical rift that's developed in this country than most works this year. It's almost scary how its finger rests on the pulse, going so far as to anticipate a discussion that's only now starting to permeate our culture in a major way. It could be read as a warning on the dangers of extremism in either direction and a call for compromise. But however you describe Captain Fantastic, just don't call it "interesting."