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


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.              

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O' Reilly
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

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

When it was announced that Disney's purchase of the Star Wars franchise would include the development of a series of standalone spin-off films, I winced. Or more accurately, I feared it for a number of reasons, a few of which are validated, but mostly dismissed by Rogue One, a much better than expected effort given all the trepidation, hype and nearly insurmountable expectations surrounding it. Call it what you'd like, but it's still Star Wars, and its hardcore fans, freshly basking in the critical and commercial success of The Force Awakens, expect greatness each time out. In fact, if we know anything about them at all, it's that they demand it. And that's essentially my entire problem with Disney doing this. If these standalone films are THAT great, how will that not make the other "real" ones seem less special or not dilute the brand? And if these spin-offs disappoint, we don't even need to get into the negative effects that will have, on both Disney's bottom line and the recently rejuvenated public goodwill toward the franchise after George Lucas stepped away. But, I also get it. It's silly resuscitating this franchise if you're not going to milk as much from it as you possibly can.

When it was decided this would be a dreaded "prequel," a whole new potential set of problems presented itself since a burning desire the see this universe expanded is held by only the hardest of hardcore fans. If Lucas' prequels taught us anything, it's that the more we actually learned about the backstory of the galaxy, the more uninteresting it became. Rogue One doesn't bore us with talks of taxation and trade tariffs, but it also doesn't feature Luke Skywalker or Han Solo either. Disney knows where its bread is buttered so they have to be careful, its grip on their property understandably tightening with each new release. A lot is on the line, and any director looking to recreate the franchise in their own vision need not apply. The man hired for this job is Gareth Edwards, who works well within those tight confines to makes something that's not exactly Star Wars, but isn't too far off from it either.

While I wouldn't go as far as some as some as praising it as the franchise's best film since The Empire Strikes Back, it's still a very good one that's darker and grittier than expected. It's more like a cover of a Star Wars film, only just not as close of one as J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, which was a reproduction so authentic it could easily be considered the real thing. While that's not necessarily a debit, it's also kind of all over the place, baring the hallmarks of many cooks in the creative kitchen. Despite these obstacles, it does all come together as an oddly thrilling experience, especially in the final 45 minutes, when these movies tend to feel most bloated. What works really does and what doesn't sticks out, but besides being an entertaining adventure and a solid Star Wars chapter, it's worth examining as a possible template of what to expect from these spin-offs moving forward.

A flashback introduces us to young Jyn Erso, whose father, research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is being threatened by Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to take his family and leave the planet Lah'mu in order to complete work on the infamous Death Star. With her mother killed and father taken into Imperial custody, Jyn escapes with the help of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial labor camp by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who takes her back to the Alliance, where she's informed of a rescue mission to retrieve her father, still working for the Imperial Army.

After a holographic message communicated from defecting Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) reveals her father has valuable information about a weakness embedded within the Death Star, Jyn, Cassian, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) set out to find him.  When complications arise involving the true intentions of the mission, it becomes clear that the Empire is not only stronger than expected, but its Death Star capable of even more mass destruction than imagined. Somehow, they have to obtain the blueprints, but with Krennic getting his marching orders from Grand Moff Tarkin and the shadowy menace of Darth Vader looming, it could very well end up being a suicide mission for the Rebels.

Forgoing the traditional opening crawl that's started each the preceding seven films in the franchise, Rogue One establishes itself early on as slightly different. The decision to abandon this but retain the "A Long Time Ago..." title card is a curious one, as is the call to hold back a bit with the familiar music throughout, picking and choosing their spots for Michael Giacchino's sampling of John Williams' original themes. There's a lot of housekeeping that goes on in the opening hour since Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script must introduce a slew of new characters and fill in enough backstory so that we're not completely lost and can connect the dots to the characters and events within the universe we are familiar with from the previous films.

While this isn't as tightly put together as The Force Awakens, with a lot of narrative stuffed in and transitions between locations not always seamless, at least it's a true prequel in every sense of the word. What occurs directly relates and even bleeds into the events of Episode IV and if the Death Star has started to become a narrative crutch for the series, it's hard to blame them for going back to it given its recognizability and importance. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this actually looks like one in that its dirty and grungy enough to have believably taken place before the events with which we're most familiar. Picking up where Abrams left off, there's still a healthier balance of practical effects and green screen CGI, with only two very notable exceptions. And as much as the comparisons to the Empire Strikes Back  seem a bit overblown, it is fair to claim that this is the and most crisp looking installment since then, with Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser again delivering stellar work, especially when it comes to the visuals in the latter half.

Of everything, character development suffers most as the story races along toward the battle at Scarif, which will occupy much of the film's final thrilling act. Casting was key and if Felicity Jones doesn't initially jump out as a typical Star Wars protagonist, she changes minds in a hurry. Of all these new faces, she was the one audiences most needed a connection to with and she manages it in both the combat scenes and more dramatic moments involving her father.  It's definitely a stark contrast to Forest Whitaker, who really hams it up, drawing unintentional laughs in his role as a Rebel extremist. But that's an improvement over the complete lack of entertainment a bland Diego Luna provides as Cassian, who's clearly intended to be a "bad boy" pilot in the vain of Han Solo, or more recently, Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron. Whether it was how the character was written, performed, or possibly a combination of the two, he instead comes off as a poor man's version of both, completely lacking in charisma and personality. More memorable is Donnie Yen as the blind monk Chirrut and Alan Tudyk, who makes the pessimistic, matter-of-fact K-2SO droid an inspired alternative to the R2's and C3PO's of the galaxy.

Perhaps no contemporary character actor could be better served in the part of an Imperial Military Director than Ben Mendelsohn, who's carved out a nice supporting career playing exactly these types of creepy, slimey manipulators. It may be kind of a one-note role, but he sure hits it thunderously well. And he does it under fairly unusual circumstances, acting in many scenes opposite the CGI ghost of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Guy Henry). In a development George Lucas would undoubtedly endorse (and is probably jealous he didn't get a chance to incorporate himself), modern movie technology can digitally resurrect deceased actors and fully immerse them into scenes opposite current performers. While we can joke about how this dreaded day has finally arrived, it's actually executed fairly well in this case and is likely less distracting than if Lucas were still at the controls.

It helps that Cushing always had a robotic presence and ghastly countenance that made him terrifying on screen, making him in many ways the perfect subject for this kind of a cinematic experiment. Whether we need something like this is another debate entirely, but those involved should at least be commended for pulling it off well, despite reintroducing a reliance on technology that previously hampered Lucas' prequels. If they wisely pick their spots it won't be a problem, but their other attempt at it in the film with a far bigger name comes off, at best, as a needless distraction. While those involved couldn't have known at the time they'd be digitally resurrecting another deceased actor in Carrie Fisher, that still doesn't explain why it looks so awful. Thankfully, it's quick,  logical within the framework of the story, and we still have her for an upcoming Star Wars film that will hopefully serve as a proper swan song for the actress.

Even the most casual of fans will be able to pick up on certain Easter eggs sprinkled throughout and cameos from familiar minor and major characters, occasionally showing up in the background or foreground of various scenes. Most of them work well and don't feel shoehorned in, but what everyone really wants to talk about is the film's worst kept secret: The reappearance of Darth Vader. Still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones but with two new actors (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous) taking over for David Prowse in the suit. And while not quite as physically imposing, there's no mistaking that the character himself is as formidable as ever. He has only a couple of brief scenes, but one in particular that comes late, puts to rest any concerns that his appearances wouldn't be carefully chosen or played for maximum impact. Not only was it worth the wait, but it's not a hotshot, adding a pertinent layer to the narrative.

Whatever its issues, Rogue One offesr something that no other installment preceding it did, except possibly the far inferior Revenge of the Sith. An ending with tragic resonance. Not completely, but enough to make you wonder how much Disney must have debated going with it. To their credit, it would have been easy not to and everyone still probably would have eaten it up anyway since it's Star Wars. But they did, and it's that decision, and the entire execution of the final battle that makes the film linger longer than it otherwise would. Fans like to know what they've seen on screen means something, and for this franchise, where the stakes are suddenly even higher than usual, Rogue One delivers that, and even a bit more.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Kheshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Lion earns its Best Picture nomination in its opening half, trusting the audience to not only comprehend, but become completely enveloped in a story that's initially spoken entirely in Hindi, and without the benefit of subtitles. It turns out to be a wise bet. The opening 45 minutes are so expertly calibrated and performed, brimming with lump-in-your-throat moments of disbelief, perseverance and astonishment, it was almost inevitable that whatever followed would pale in comparison. That it doesn't, at least completely, is somewhat of a tiny miracle, with much of that credit going to Australian director Garth Davis, who in adapting Saroo Brierley's 2013 autobiographical novel, A Long Way Home, temporarily refutes the theory that Hollywood filmmakers pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to depicting foreign cultures.

It opens with a mistake that has ripple effect on more than a few lives, but the true revelation might come in how frequently something like this occurs, or how little we hear about it. Then after a certain point, Luke Davies Oscar-nominated screenplay does kind of hit a wall, which has led to harsh criticisms that the film stretches out a 30-second spot for Google Earth to a two-hour running length. But there's just too much else it has going for it to make those completely complaints valid since, despite a weaker middle portion, the performances, cinematography and underrated musical score make it too powerful an experience to dismiss.

It's 1986 and a five year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guduu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger sister in a tiny, poor village in Khandwa, India. One night, when Saroo joins his brother Guduu for a night of train-hopping for food, Guduu leaves his napping little sibling at a station and when Saroo awakens to find his brother hasn't returned, he boards a train headed to Calcutta. Now completely lost and wandering around a city where he doesn't speak or understand the Bengali language, Saroo must survive on the crowded streets and rely on the help of strangers, some with motives more nefarious than others. After landing in the custody of police and eventually an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley and goes to live with them in Tasmania.

We catch up with him twenty years later as a young man (now Dev Patel), studying for his degree in  hotel management and involved in a relationship with American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But despite Saroo having a fulfilled life and more than anyone from his background could have hoped for, there's an incompleteness that eats away at him, stemming from a desire to track down his biological family and make sense of that night's events over two decades ago. While his adopted mother struggles with family challenges of her own, Saroo wrestles with the guilt and hope of finding "home," embarking on a journey of self-discovery sure to have a lasting impact on those he holds closest.

The opening section actually shares some similarities with the last entirely Indian-flavored Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner), Slumdog Millionaire. And while we know, like that film, we'll eventually be given our happy ending, the scenes of kids on the street here have a far different tone, especially when watching a scared young Saroo aimlessly searching for his brother in a perilous situation surely qualifying as an immediate "Amber Alert" if it took place today in the states. Even in 1986, as commonplace as lost, homeless children in India may have been, it's still kind of frightening to see through western eyes.

What really sells this is the editing and the likably adorable child actor playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, whose combination of wide-eyed panic and innocence, along with some steely determination, carries the first half of the picture, eliminating the language barrier for both him and us. It seems like eternity he's on the streets, avoiding kidnappers and potential child molesters on his way to who knows where. It's disturbing how few people care about kids like him running around in the streets and really do nothing even when they think they are. That is until, by sheer luck, he meets someone who finally takes the necessary measures to offer actual help.

After watching this five-year-old struggle to survive after being separated from his sibling, it's of little surprise the second half of the film would have to work hard to match the Dickensian heights of its opening hour, both in tone and quality.  But it works well as a logical next chapter, thanks largely  to the strong performance of a nearly unrecognizable Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, whose suddenly jolted into finding his biological family, but fears the ramifications of what going forward with such a plan could do to his adoptive mother, already at the breaking point dealing with her other adopted Indian son, the emotionally disturbed Montash. The casting of both the child and adult versions of this role are spot-on, as actors Kheshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa are so eerily identical in both manner and appearance you'd really think the filmmakers pulled a Boyhood, checking in with the same person twenty years later.

The entire second half really belongs to Patel, who nearly everyone had written off as a one-movie wonder after Slumdog Millionaire peaked almost a decade ago. And for a while there, it really looked like they were right. He returns in a big way here, a better, more mature actor, fully capable of handling the complexity of emotions running through Saroo as he embarks on his (Google) search for his birth mother. Just the very conceit of this true story could have been problematic on screen, but Patel takes what could have been a dramatically inert arc and draws us into his journey, which is as much internal as external. It helps that the first half of the picture was so strong, that our recollection of the opening half hour drives nearly all interest in the rest, with him filling in the blanks.

Rooney Mara's role and performance has been criticized by some as a throwaway, and while her work as Saroo's girlfriend Lucy won't be the first discussion point coming out of the film, it shouldn't  anyway. It's entirely functional since we need to know the man that young boy has become and what his life evolved into in the twenty years since the train station, not to mention what he could potentially be risking or giving up by doing this. Her part is what it is, and the never uninteresting actress serves it well, despite the nagging feeling she could have been given more. The other half of the equation is Nicole Kidman, who as Sue gets opportunities in the latter half to convey a woman crumbling at the emotional distance that's been put between her and her family, which has more to do with the struggles of raising the far less adjusted adopted son than Saroo's secret urge to reconcile his past.               

Intelligently addressing universal issues involving memory and identity, Lion tells a worthwhile, important story that most will feel more fulfilled having experienced. As for whether it manipulates, all movies do. The real question is how well. Aside from an unnecessary ending coda that spends too much time reinforcing a point the preceding hour and a half made perfectly clear (an epidemic these days), this more than passes that test, and does it with two phenomenal performances in the same central role, one which could easily be remembered as the year's most satisfying acting comeback.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Root
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest, most frighteningly realistic part of Jordan Peele's Get Out comes early, uncomfortably zeroing in on certain stupid things that certain white people say to black people in conversations to "prove" they're not racist. With every little action and comment you squirm since their obliviousness knows no bounds, terminally unaware of how ridiculous and ignorant they sound. Some of them are probably your friends, co-workers, teachers, neighbors or family members. And on occasion, I'm willing to bet those offenders have even included you and I. It would probably be insulting to suggest that the first sixty minutes of this horror thriller places anyone in the shoes of a black man being judged by the friends and family of his white girlfriend, but it does sure give us an eye-opening idea of what he'd have to put up with. That so much of this is subtle, even subliminal, to someone not consciously looking, is possibly its most unsettling aspect.

While making no mistake about the fact that Get Out is first and foremost a damning social commentary on racial tensions in America, what's been somewhat lost in the conversation is how slyly and expertly the comedian Peele (making his directorial debut) plays that hand. That is until he doesn't have to anymore, and audiences' worst fears, heavily hinted at from the very first frame, eventually come to fruition. Even with plenty of clues where this is going, it's still kind of jaw-dropping just how far Peele's willing to take this, to the point that you wonder how a project this socially, racially and politically charged even got the go-ahead.  You could quibble about where the plot eventually ends up, but good luck finding fault in how it arrives there, building genuine terror and suspense the entire way through. "Originality" isn't a word thrown around too often these days and while there are a few familiar genre elements at play, that definitely applies here.

When black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) takes a trip with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time, she confides in him that she hasn't revealed to them his race and doubts it will be an issue. Described by Rose as open and accepting people, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist Missy (Catherine Keener) warmly welcome Chris into their home and, almost right off the bat, something seems off. Whether it be Dean's overly enthusiastic boasting of having wanted Obama elected to a third term, his defensive explanation of why all the hired help is black, or Missy's insistence on hypnotizing Chris, it appears any concerns of not fitting in might be the least of his problems.

It only gets stranger from there, with an uncomfortable encounter with Rose's drunk, unstable brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), offensive interrogations from party guests, and the black live-in housekeeper Georgina (a brilliantly creepy Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) behaving like zombies. Confiding his suspicions by phone to best friend and TSA agent, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris realizes he's walked into something very bad, and while he wants to stay to support Rose, common sense tells him he can't get out soon enough, as what starts as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? very quickly devolves into Guess Who's Coming to Hell?

It may not be completely apparent until the final credits just how carefully the story is set up, playing on real-life anxieties and prejudices to draw the viewer in, as for much of its running length, the people and situations Chris encounters at the Armitage house are not only steeped heavily in realism, but painfully uncomfortable to watch. It's a key component that all these interactions, as disturbingly strange as they are, aren't so outright hostile that even he initially chalks it up to paranoia or nerves. It's easy to imagine an alternate director's cut of all these scenes that heavily emphasize that since Peele's ability to let audience's see through the protagonist's eyes at the true extent of this ignorant behavior is one of his script's greatest strengths. It's at work through every interaction at that house, whether it be a houseguest trying to chat Chris up about Tiger Woods or Rose's brother's obsession with his athletic abilities, even challenging him to a fight in one of many cringe-worthy dinner table moments.

Through much of this, Chris is about as good and patient a sport as anyone could be under some pretty degrading circumstances, and little known English actor Daniel Kaluuya skillfully walks a really tight rope, trying to remain calm in the midst of deplorable treatment masking itself as mildly disingenuous hospitality. It slowly gets to him, attempting to put on a solid front for Rose, played by Allison Williams as essentially the ideal girlfriend, even as the relationship eventually carries with it this unspoken racist implication that he'd be an idiot to screw it up, almost as if he should consider himself "'lucky" to land someone like her. In other words, don't rock the boat because you're the one being judged. All these racial overtones and undertones just keep building, boiling to the surface when the narrative bomb is dropped and a full-blown, insane explanation is given for what we've been seeing.

By the time Peele shows his cards and it's clear what's happening (the details of which land somewhere between A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives and Soylent Green), a shift has to come, and how well he pulls off this transition is what will make or break the movie for many. Mostly, it's a seamless one due to the fact that we've been pulling so hard for this protagonist since he walked into an already awkward situation with the best of intentions, realizing it's now a fight for  survival. And once it is, you'll again be scratching your head at how this was even made to begin with, and yet somehow Peele pulls it off, juggling sci-fi, horror, comedy and socially conscious drama as deftly as possible considering the unexplored thematic terrain.

Given how many different things are attempted, this all remains fairly consistent right up until and including the final scene, which frightens in much the same way the rest of the film does, just in a more literal context. It cleverly reminds us, in even the most extreme situations, how justified the protagonist's fear is, and how stagnantly ingrained society's view of him is. By masquerading as a horror film, before fully evolving into one, it's able to explore and tackle timely issues that could otherwise play as as a preachy sermon under more traditional circumstances. Instead, we get something that pushes the envelope just far enough to leave a lasting imprint. How much of one will have to bare itself out in subsequent viewings, which is something Get Out proves more than worthy of.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Hamilton, Michele Selene Ang, Steven Silver, Ajiona Alexus, Tommy Dorfman, Brandon Larracuente, Steven Weber, Mark Pellegrino
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In a recent interview, actress Molly Ringwald stated that if they were going to remake The Breakfast Club today, it would just be two hours of texting in detention. While she brings up a reasonable point, I'd like to have more faith that the creative forces would never let it come to that. And now there's a reason to believe it won't. Actually, thirteen of them. Netflix's much buzzed about, controversial 13 Reasons Why (based upon Jay Asher's 2007 best-selling YA novel) shares little in common with that seminal 1985 film, and yet her seemingly throwaway comment stayed with me long after its conclusion. High school is so often about labels and hierarchy and that movie was really the first to openly acknowledge it, for better or worse.

Jock, princess, nerd, rebel. It's so simple and true that many forms of entertainment have been reflecting it back at us ever since, some dumbing the formula down while others have been admirably attempting to refine and improve upon it. At first, it appears that 13 Ways will present yet another exhaustive variation on this, as its literary roots and Selena Gomez producing credit don't exactly inspire confidence from the start. I could feel my eyes starting to roll at the prospect of such a series in 2017 wrestling with timely issues such as school bullying and teen suicide through a rose-colored "young adult" glasses.

In just the first few episodes I cringed at the implication that the doomed girl at this story's center could even have the wheels set in motion for her eventual suicide by winning "nicest ass" and having what most would consider a pretty commonplace, if admittedly hurtful, start to her sophomore year. And that was the last trace of skepticism I remember having for the remainder of the episodes, which comprise an absolute thrill ride full of twists, turns and storytelling mastery not seen in this genre since the first season of Veronica Mars, from which this undoubtedly finds some of its inspiration.

Character by character, the layers start to peel away to reveal a situation darker and more morally complex than originally perceived. And no, there isn't anyone staring at their phones since the electronic device of choice is a SONY Walkman, used by our put-upon protagonist to begrudgingly listen to the thirteen cassette tapes he's now in possession of, detailing the series of events that led to a terrible tragedy. Or, if you're counting, multiple ones.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker
The characters we meet on these tapes most definitely can't be summed up in a single sentence or a one word description. Trampling over tropes and bucking convention, most are relatively popular and various shades of awful, with some slightly more redeemable than others. And all are vividly and brilliantly brought to life by a cast you can now collectively refer to as Netflix's Class of '17. And when the time comes for creator and showrunner Brian Yorkey to seriously tackle important issues like rape and murder, he does it, diving in head first without cutting any creative corners in seeing this saga to its thrilling but logical conclusion.

Shy, introspective loner Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) comes home from school to find a mysterious box on his porch. In it are seven double-sided cassette tapes recorded by his best friend and unrequited crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who killed herself two weeks earlier. The tapes serve as sort of an audio diary detailing the reasons for her taking her own life, implicating each of the thirteen people at school who will receive the box as a reason for her eventual suicide. After listening to the tapes they must pass the box on to the next person or risk breaking the chain, causing a separate set of tapes to be released to the public.

Of the recipients, Clay was closest to Hannah and is most shaken by the revelations found on these cassettes, his mind set on punishing those she singled out on them. It also puts him in the crosshairs of his considerably more popular classmates, all of whom have devastating secrets they'd rather keep buried, despite an impending lawsuit from Hannah's grieving, financially struggling parents, Olivia and Andy (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) With no knowledge of the tapes that could potentially be the smoking gun in their case against California's Liberty High, the Bakers angrily demand answers from administrators such as Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) and school counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), both of whom are put in the awkward position of legally placating them while protecting the school's academic reputation and its students in the face of unimaginable circumstances. And that's the problem. It should have been very imaginable from the start.

"Tape 1, Side A"
Star student athletes Justin (Brandon Flynn), Bryce (Justin Prentice), Zach (Ross Butler) and Marcus (Steven Silver), along with wild child Jessica (Alisha Boe), quiet, intense new kid Alex (Miles Heizer), goody two shoes Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), perky cheerleader Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) and creepy school photographer Tyler (Devin Druid) and poet/journalist Jeff (Brandon Larracuente) all have something to lose if the tapes get out. And they've all made Clay public enemy number one, knowing his closeness to Hannah and thirst for justice make him most likely to come forward to the police or her despondent parents.

Plagued by the guilt that he could have done something more and under constant threat by his classmates, Clay reluctantly listens to the tapes at the urging of his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who may know a lot more than he's letting on. When he ejects that last tape Clay will have his answers, but it's what he chooses to do with it that could have a lasting impact on all their lives.

The series makes a strangely bold choice early on, not depicting Hannah as a "good girl" or immediately attempting to solicit audience sympathy for her. She also wouldn't seem to be anyone's top candidate for bullying, which is precisely the point. She eventually gets there on all fronts, but does so organically as small events and tiny moments start to add up, magnifying in size and scope with every episode. She's a good person, but not an instantly likable one because of the poor decisions she often makes, frequently stemming from her desire to just be liked and accepted. At times, this borders on desperation despite her best efforts to cooly play it off. It's only when she's hanging out with Clay or they're working together at the Crestmont movie theater that we're exposed to a different side.

As one character puts it, Hannah's "drama" and the writers' willingness to embrace that she's put some of this on herself, while still acknowledging she's done nothing to warrants or deserve what eventually happens, only deepens the narrative. You can almost literally catch yourself yelling through the screen for her to just stop. Who cares what people think?! And then you remember it's high school and that's flat-out impossible.

What Could Have Been: Hannah and Clay
Whether it's her family's financial struggles, the transfer of her best friend to another school, or her own insecurity weighing her down, she's most "herself" around Clay, or maybe, like him, that's just what we want to believe. Through flashbacks that run through the entirety of these 13 episodes, we start to see the growth of a friendship he wishes were more if only he had the fortitude to make it happen.

Essentially the prototypical teen, Clay is neither popular or unpopular and we get the impression that his possession of the tapes in the wake of Hannah's suicide is probably the most attention he's ever received. It's tough to depict a teen romance, or even tease the idea of one without sappiness, but this one is done just right. By refusing to put a halo on her or suit him up in armor and then denying them anything close to a happy ending, we can just sit back and appreciate how their time together is handled, lifting the simplest of "boy meets girl" stories into this doomed tragedy.

We're left with the impression that even if Hannah had lived, there's simply no way she'd end up with Clay, or even someone like him considering the head space she's at. The point of no return in the series comes when even she starts to acknowledge her issues, realizing she needs help. And it's when she reaches out to her classmates that they instead pounce like animals. Australian actress Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah starts with this wide-eyed optimism we can't imagine shifting gears until it slowly does, as she's put through the wringer in a series of events that allow us to eventually see that life and future slowly drain from her eyes with each traumatic encounter.

Gone, but far from forgotten
Langford's complimented perfectly by Dylan Minnette, projecting this stoicism and internal sadness that slowly builds into a simmering rage when he listens to the tapes and discovers just how many people could have done more to prevent this tragedy or share some degree of responsibility in it. The list becomes endless and his problems coping infiltrate every aspect of his life, leading to one of the series' most memorable visuals, as Clay hallucinates a blood drenched Hannah lying lifeless on the hardwood floor during a school basketball game.   

Whatever flaws Hannah may seem to have become minor in the broad scheme of things when we meet the subjects of those tapes and learn that her classmates, some of whom she'd call "friends" at one point, are ten times worse because they project their issues onto everyone else. Some do it consciously, others by accident, but all share culpability in how they treated her. While Clay claims that getting revenge on those who are on the tapes is all for Hannah, as his journey progresses a good enough case can be made that he's really doing this to absolve his own guilt over not telling her how he felt when she was alive. In fact, everyone's preoccupation with the drama surrounding the tapes often causes them to miss things that are right in front of their faces, this time hurting each other in many of the same ways that drove Hannah to end her own life.

It's around the fourth episode or so that the series starts settling in and finding its groove, as the format of dedicating each tape to a person who somehow qualifies as a reason for Hannah's tragic act starts ingeniously paying off. You start to realize that the first couple of inciting events set into motion a series of incidents that lead to much bigger, damaging ones that spiral out of control, a "butterfly effect" of sorts that's directly referenced by Hannah in her narration, but may as well also apply to the show as a whole. Only adding to the intrigue and mystery surrounding her death is the fact that nearly all these actors are unknowns, creating a freshness and unpredictability that may have otherwise been absent with a cast full of major stars bringing baggage and preconceived notions to their roles.

Alex (Miles Heizer) goes for a swim
Other than lead Dylan Minette (who played young Jack Sheperd on Lost) and Miles Hiezer (a former Parenthood supporting player who's unrecognizable here with a nose ring and bleached hair), it's a good bet you haven't seen any of these performers before, or if you have, wouldn't remember. We meet them as Hannah does for the first time, and as the universe of the show expands, it becomes as much about them as her.

While it would be impossible to get into all the intricate backstories and motivations behind these characters without spoiling the show's surprises, the two that most stand out aside from the co-protagonists are the reckless Jessica Davis played by unquestionable future star Alisha Boe and Hiezer's dark, moody Alex Standall. Where they start when Hannah initially meets and befriends them compared to where the material ends of taking them is kind of staggering, with both actors proving themselves more than up to the task.

While all the acting has been widely and justifiably praised, when you think of the heart and soul of the show and the possibilities of it continuing past the immediate aftermath of Hannah's death, it's Jessica and Alex who immediately come to mind as having already gone to the most challenging places, but still having story left. Of the supporting cast, Boe and Heizer's performances may just travel the furthest in helping anchor the series as something that far transcends the genre constraints it breaks free from.

Hannah with mom Olivia (Kate Walsh)
It's easy to initially be perplexed Hannah's parents' obsessive quest to point fingers at the school without the audio evidence Clay is privy to, but the more we learn of the tape's contents and how the faculty handled the info they did have, her behavior can be viewed in an entirely different different light. Kate Walsh does gut-wrenching work as Olivia, a devastated mother tired and dissheveled enough to have been to hell and back, but with an unwavering sense of justice for her deceased daughter who she just knows in her gut was wronged. As Hannah's dad, Andy, Brian d'Arcy James is more measured and logical but even he can't deny the mounting evidence and growing suspicions, as much frustrated that their inability to financially make ends meet as a family may have somehow contributed to her sadness and stress.

The adults on the series are occupying an entirely different plane of reality than the teens, frequently oblivious to what's going on in their kids' lives. It's especially true of Clay's parents, Lainie and Matt (played by Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton), frustrated by their son's uncharacteristic behavior that consists of coming home at odd times beaten, bloody or drunk, skipping school, getting suspended and having random visitors over. It's possible that for no one else at Lincoln High or any real or fictional high school this would raise as many red flags as it does for the straightlaced Clay, and they know this. They just haven't figured out the cause and how it relates to Hannah's suicide, or their relationship, which they know nothing of. Lainie's leading the charge while her more laid back husband smothers him with kindness, but her complicated link to the school and its faculty may soon make for an uncomfortable conflict of interest.

All this serves to further build anticipation for when Clay arrives at his own tape, while continuing to cast suspicions on Tony, the one person who seems to know everything about them, acting as an eyes and ears for the audience and a guardian angel to Clay. Played by Christian Navarro (who should remind some of a more likable Wilmer Valderamma), his scenes opposite Minnette are some of the best, with his character only growing in impact and importance as we head down the final stretch.  

Clay and Tony have a talk
Like a great puzzle box, all the pieces start coming together at the end, and when they do, there's a renewed appreciation for what came before and the creativity it must have taken to arrive there. And in that thirteenth episode there's an physically and emotionally brutal scene that's not only difficult to watch and more than warrants its pre-show title card warning, but proves the creators were serious and sincere in their intentions. Getting to know these characters and being taken on this journey can only lead to one place, but whatever knowledge we have going into the inevitable suicide still can't fully prepare us for it.

The direction, editing and acting from those involved in the suicide sequence truly make it a nauseating, disturbing moment that feels like it lasts for hours, as it should. That I could barely watch tells me they did their job. If this is "controversial," then we can only hope that all shows are capable of courting controversy in such a brutally honest way. It's one thing to show someone killing themselves on screen, it's quite another properly handle everything that comes along with it. We're left not thinking about Hannah Baker's suicide, but instead how achingly close she came to not going through with it if only this or that happened differently.

I don't know how we get another season without Langford or the central mystery element that drove these thirteen episodes, but we will, and its impossible to not remain curious as to how. While there are many lingering threads and questions, you can't help but again be reminded of the Veronica Mars comparisons and worry given how that series never recovered once their mystery wrapped. As a standalone project it's so impressive that you'd just hate to see something this special limp on for multiple seasons to become "just another show." The question will be whether enough was done here to expand the universe and give the numerous remaining characters enough to move forward and work off of. Then comes the bigger question: Now that we have gone through all 13 thirteen tapes, will we see or hear from Hannah again?

Hannah reaches her breaking point
That 13 Reasons was executive produced and even partially directed by Tom McCarthy, the primarily indie filmmaker behind 2015's Best Picture-winning Spotlight, comes only as a surprise in so far as our perceptions of the material's possibilities going in. He shatters them, leaving all the results right there on the screen. The editing, direction, casting, performances, music choices and every seemingly minor, but eventually crucial detail like the cars the characters drive contribute to a fully immersive experience, surpassing anything that previously carried the perceived stench of "YA." He and directors Jessica Wu, Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin, Helen Shaver and Kyle Patrick Alvarez invest this with a depth and adult sophistication that also stands as a snapshot of our times, regardless of the ages of the characters involved.

If recording and distributing audio cassette tapes seemed far off when Yorkey's novel was written a decade ago, that time has added another layer aside from its now cool, nostalgic, old school appeal. It builds this bridge between the past and the present, giving the story a comfort and universality that speaks to everyone, reminding us that for all the complaints about cyber technology and social media ruining lives, at the end of the day we still bare the ultimate responsibility for how we treat each other, in seemingly even the smallest moments.

Netflix somehow does it again, producing a season of TV every bit as worthy of entering the cultural lexicon as Stranger Things and House of Cards before it. But what's more noteworthy is the steeper climb this had due to the added pressure of being taken seriously in a genre that rarely is. It's avoided here by not making a teen show at all, but a compelling adult drama with universal themes that happens to revolve around younger characters. Of course, that's easier said than done. As for the controversy? All it reveals is that this hit a chord by not holding back and daring to ask the tough, ugly questions no one's interested in going near. Those who find that morally reprehensible or disturbing would probably be better off not watching 13 Reasons. But those who do should be warned that once they start, it'll be impossible to stop.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Patriots Day

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, James Colby, Jimmy O. Yang, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O' Shea, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Depending on your opinion of very recent real life tragedies being brought to the big screen, Peter Berg's Patriots Day will either be a heavily anticipated or nervously dreaded experience. That the end result is positive can mainly be attributed to the realism and tension he brings to the sensitive material, which recreates an attack and subsequent manhunt sure to have many on pins and needles despite everyone's full knowledge of the outcome.  There are about two or three sequences in the film that are not only eye-opening in terms of the little nuggets of information provided, but in their depiction of both the disappointment and eventual triumph of the human spirit all within the span of a couple of days.

The usually inconsistent, over-the-top Berg shows surprising restraint, with star Mark Wahlberg taking on a semi-fictional role that's not only right in his wheelhouse, but firmly rooted in his own hometown, reminding us the gravitas he brings when properly cast in a part to suit his strengths. The entire picture is essentially broken down into sections, with character sketches sprinkled throughout. The attack, the shootout, the hostage situation, the manhunt, and most controversially, the interrogation.

While the tragedy occurred only four years ago, it's startling to consider just how much has already been forgotten about that day and in the hours leading up to 2013's doomed Boston Marathon. It's an excellently made, respectful encapsulation destined to be unfairly picked apart and unpacked due to the director's politics. But in this case, skeptics are reading into something that just isn't there. As the unnecessary mini-documentary that closes the film shows, Berg's film definitely conveys a point of view, but it's far from political and one you'd hope everyone shares.

When something like this happens, the immediate reaction should be anger and outrage, with any compassion reserved for the victims and their families. In fact, it's so obvious that you'd have to heavily question the need for the non-fictional epilogue closing the film, restating with real life accounts what was already conveyed in the preceding two hours. Whether it was a preemptive defense against unfair critics ready to slam the right-skewing filmmaker for even taking the project, there's no need for anyone to feel guilty for making or watching this. It's worthwhile, both for history and opinion, thankfully done well enough to leave little room for heated debate over its merits.

It's April 15, 2013 and injured Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is returning to work the Boston Marathon after a recent suspension, looking to prove he's put his issues behind him, taking marching orders from Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). But when two bombs are detonated near the finish line of the race by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), chaos and bloodshed erupt with the surviving victims being taken to local hospitals. Couples such as spectators Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and husband Patrick Downes (Chistopher O'Shea) are separated and unaware for hours whether their spouse is even still alive. With FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) taking over the investigation and working in conjunction with Boston Police, they begin to close in on their suspects. But the brothers won't go quietly, inflicting more damage until eventually being brought down by the law enforcement and citizens of a tough city who band together under the worst circumstances imaginable.

Berg does an admirable job setting the table for what's to come, introducing characters who we know, or maybe even specifically remember, play roles in the tragedy. Some are given more screen time than others, but a clear emphasis is put on law enforcement and Wahlberg's Sgt. Saunders, a composite of various real-life officers on duty that day. Told directly in a chronologically coherent way, title cards count down to the start of the race and the direct aftermath in the following hours are laid out as a compelling police procedural. It's hard to think of a box that goes unchecked, or a moment where are memory isn't jogged as to certain details that made the headlines, but without the specificity we get here.

The information we're privy to is especially insightful when concerning the actions of the bombers both leading up to and directly following the attack. It's also kind of frightening, as the perpetrators take center stage in a manner that could easily turn off those already made uncomfortable by the very idea of this film existing. We see their preparations, sloppy game plan for escape and the surprisingly tough fight they put up against Boston's finest. And of this is viewed through a likely accurate prism that shows them hanging out and arguing like brothers separated in age usually would. Tamerlan's clearly the mastermind and aggressor, taking his younger brother along for the ride, poisoning his mind a little more, a detail supporting the narrative running through the news at the the time.

From the recreation of the crime scene to painstaking video recognition techniques, a step-by-step process is shown to explain how the authorities went from literally no information to putting an entire city on lockdown until eventually descending upon the single surviving terrorist hiding in a neighbor's yard. If there's any issues with the film, they'd stem from it being so caught up in in the intriguing nuts and bolts of the event and its aftermath that it can sometimes come across as too rote or mechanical. It's a strange complaint considering Berg's the director, but this still works better as an action thriller than a historical drama. While the revolving door of major and minor characters makes it harder to be invested in any of them for lengthy periods, Wahlberg, Bacon and a couple of others get to shine through in their roles, with the likes of Goodman, Michelle Monaghan and an effective J.K. Simmons (as nearby Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese) trying to leave an imprint in lesser ones, the former unfortunately saddled as a stereotypical worried wife to Wahlberg's hero.

Ironically, it's two sequences centering around forgotten supporting players ignored by the media that land the biggest emotional blow. The first involves the bravery of carjacking hostage Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who summons a strength from inside that few could likely access during such an ordeal. On the other end of the spectrum is the jaw-dropping interrogation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's loyally subservient, radicalized wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) at the hands of Khandi Alexander's nameless "The Interrogator." That's who she's actually listed as in the film's credits and after you view the controversial scene (the best acted of the entire picture), you'll know why any other name or description couldn't possibly do her justice.

Since Berg lays everything out so logically it becomes an even bigger question mark as to why he chose to tag on a mini-documentary at the end of a faithful adaptation of events that hardly needs it. Where a quick glimpse at the real people posing with their onscreen counterparts, or even a simple graphic or title card onscreen updating us on those involved would more than suffice, we instead get something you'd more likely find as DVD extra, assuming that medium were still thriving or relevant. While it's unfair to entirely dismiss it or his intentions, the answer as to why Berg would make such a creatively questionable choice proves he has no agenda other than to pay tribute to the survivors and law enforcement. And as far as agendas go, that's a pretty good one to have.