Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Passengers (2016)



Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Major Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

What you may not have heard about Passengers is how good a premise it has, exploring some morally deep and heady stuff for a mainstream sci-fi picture starring the two biggest movie stars working right now. For a while, it really has something, with a script that does what the best in this genre demands, painting its characters into a corner and pushing their buttons in such a way that all the filmmakers had to do was step back and let the actors and story organically take us where we needed to go. Halfway to three quarters through, it seems that's exactly where we're headed, until it's abruptly abandoned in favor of sending audiences home happy. Or more accurately, insulting our intelligence.

While still leagues better than it's gotten credit for, what everyone will probably agree on is that the wrong decision was made for silly commercial reasons in the final act. This happens a lot. That the film still works really well despite its conclusion is a testament to all involved since I refuse to believe the ending resulted from anything but wrongheaded studio interference. You may as well post those studio notes right up there on the screen since it's unlikely anyone will be considering much else in the final minutes. Labeled and marketed as a "sci-fi romance" Passengers handles both the former and latter part of that equation exceptionally well with two incredibly likable, skilled actors, but it's the ethical predicament presented at the get-go that will spark arguments and conversation. Had they stuck with that all the way through there's no telling what we could have gotten.

As it stands, this is still a consistently engaging endeavor, featuring performances, production design, music and writing more than a few notches above the standard. Then it just throws its hands in the air and surrenders, doing a disservice to both these actors and the audience. Even worse, the most obvious and effective ending is just sitting there on a platter ready for the taking. Hopefully, there were re-shoots and those scenes are laying around somewhere other than the recesses of our imaginations. Until that sees the light of day, I'll continue to deny the existence of the one we got, even if what precedes it provides unexpected thrills.

The starship Avalon is on a 120 year journey to a new colony called Homestead II, with 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members all comfortably resting in their hibernation pods, set to be awakened a month prior to arrival. But when mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years early due to a pod malfunction, he discovers that aside from an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), he's the only passenger awake on the ship, and faces years of isolation until his eventual death.

Depressed, suicidal and having exhausted the few potential options available to him, Jim discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and through her video profile immediately falls for the funny, beautiful journalist. He then makes the controversial decision to awaken her for companionship, thereby dooming her to the same fate as he, dying on this ship years before the rest of the passengers and crew arrive at Homestead II.  Once Aurora is revived, the two grow close, as Jim continues to conceal the truth that her "accidental" awakening had nothing to do with a pod malfunction, Unfortunately, the ship is faces other, bigger problems that could threaten the entire journey.

Right out the gate, the scenario is immediately compelling yet still somewhat of a slow burn as we watch Pratt's character come to the realization that something went very wrong and he'll be spending the rest of his days in solitude.  Him trying to figure out the technicalities associated with that and his slow surrender to that fact that there's no way out are reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Matt Damon's protagonist in The Martian. But while certain problem-solving scenes are similar, there's a key difference that actually works in this film's favor: It isn't intercut with a bunch of muckety mucks goofing it up at NASA. He can't contact home at all so while Mark Watney's life may have been in immediate danger in ways Jim's isn't here, this at least treats its premise of isolation and loneliness dead seriously. So when Jim opens that pod to awaken his sleeping crush it really means something, throwing gasoline on the fire of an ethical dilemma that's already kind of jaw-dropping in its implications.

Those familiar with Chris Pratt's TV career know how good he is and how much more personality and dimension he's capable of showing when not pigeonholed by the action hero mold he's been shoved into thus far on the big screen. In the opening hour and slightly beyond we get a big glimpse of that talent again because he's handed worthwhile material, even if I'll contend it was a mistake to have his character initially come out of the pod looking like he just stepped out of Gold's Gym.
There seems to this push-pull going on with Pratt lately, and through this entire film, where Hollywood is desperate to turn him into the next huge action star under their terms when his skill set doesn't necessarily line up with that, at least in the boneheaded way they want it to. He's better than that.

Often, Pratt's a quirkier and more fun presence than what he's given and if not more selective in his choices he could end up in a similar situation to Tom Cruise, currently on acting auto-pilot in action roles into his 50's. And while it's easy to argue that there are far worse places to be than in Cruise's shoes, this battle with Pratt hasn't really bled it's way onto the screen until now, with this, his best big screen performance so far. While it's almost entirely undermined in the film's final third, the humor, empathy and subtly he brings to this part is matched only by his co-star.

Lawrence and Pratt are simply great together. That's at least partially why the ending is so disappointing. Nothing has to be written to manufacturer or further drive home the connection between Aurora and Jim. They just have it and from the second he opens her pod the two actors have an immediate chemistry that's completely believable, stacking the deck even more until the big reveal comes. And when she does find out the truth and that hammer comes down, does it ever come down, with Lawrence giving a tour de force, driving home to gravity of this lie, which should carry huge repercussions. We witness a few of those, until the movie travels another, less interesting route.

I have no problem with the script veering in a more action-oriented direction, but when it starts leaning more on sub-par, video game looking visual effects than Guy Hendrix Dyas' amazing, Oscar-nominated production design, the film suffers. And the unsatisfying resolution pushes aside the central moral dilemma, until it pops up again at the end in an unwelcome manner meant to give us the warm and fuzzies.

It's almost become a long-running joke in romantic comedies and dramas that in the next to last act the girl finds out a lie the guy has been telling and pushes him away, only to run back into his arms at the end for no good reason other than to put smiles on faces. But this isn't one of those kinds of lies. It's huge and intriguing, with far-reaching ethical concerns about how men and women treat each other, all of which stand as a big compliment to screenwriter Jon Spaihts. Up until then this script is so smart that there's little indication it will lazily fall back on that well-worn cliche. But it does. Both characters can survive. She can even eventually forgive what he does. The ship can arrive safely at its destination years later.  If all this happened under reasonable terms without our strings being pulled or the central premise being undermined, it would be fine. 

While I'm slightly overselling the ending's problems to make a larger point, kudos should go to the talented, if previously nondescript director Morten Tyldum for executing a thankless finale as efficiently as possible. But there is an alternate idea that's floated around for the finish that would have easily taken this to the level it belongs. At the risk of instead reviewing a movie we didn't get, having Jim die to save the ship and passengers on board in the final act seems only logical, with the real kicker being that Aurora is left alone in the same isolated predicament he was. In a Twilight Zone-like twist, she can contemplate awakening a male passenger for companionship, continuing the cycle as the screen cuts to black. That would work brilliantly, standing as a cruel coda on the loneliness and selfishness of human beings put in extreme circumstances. Something like that is certainly more in line with the film's existential tone.

At least Passengers, even at its worst, gives us something meaningful to chew on, which is more than I expected given the brutal reviews and poor box office. That this was a decision or two away from greatness is what makes it so infuriating. Ultimately rescuing it is the pairing of Lawrence and Pratt, its ideas and how this world is so thoroughly realized on a desolate spaceship through the impeccable production design. It has a unique vision, and while some may be bothered by how it casually borrows elements from films like Kubrick's The Shining in the bar scenes, it never hurts to lift from the best, and there's little debate Sheen makes that character all his own.

Unlike last year's 10 Cloverfield Lane, at least it's final minutes don't hinge on a big reveal, the result of which makes or breaks the entire picture. In fact, none of what happens is much of a secret at all, given the studio's questionable call to have the film's advertising essentially spoil the ethical dilemma at its center. Whether it showed a lack of faith in the product or represented a desperate attempt to get potential moviegoers into seats, it may have been an unintentionally shrewd move. That scenario is what it has most going for it, inspiring enough thought and conversation to overcome a poorly realized ending that comes close to undoing the good that came before. That it still can't is reason enough reason to respect Passengers' intentions, while still wondering what could have been.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

20th Century Women



Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"I don't know if we ever figure our lives out and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."

If you had told me in advance that one of the very best films of the past year was titled 20th Century Women, I'd probably laugh. Because, let's face it, many things pop into your head upon hearing or reading a title like that. None of them are favorable, so I can only say I went into it primarily because of the favorable reviews, promising cast and an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination few know it even received. On paper, there are certainly worse choices out there, but that title. Is it a chick flick? Romantic comedy? A historical drama? A period piece?  After actually viewing, or rather experiencing it, and realizing it's none of those things at all, I've determined its admittedly artsy and somewhat pretentious title, while a nightmare for marketing purposes, is nearly as perfect as the film itself. Not to mention it's a real chore trying to come up with a better alternative.

It's difficult to fully articulate what 20th Century Women is "about" since it doesn't have what we're trained to recognize as a conventional movie plot or narrative. It's more of a memory of a specific time and place its characters will never have an opportunity to visit again. Yes, it's a coming-of-age film, on a surface level invoking comparisons to Almost Famous, American Beauty, The Wonder Years, and even a dash of The Ice Storm. And yet it's still kind of the opposite of those, as those comparisons fail to properly convey what Mike Mills creates, or rather maybe recreates here, in simultaneously depicting a watershed year in his adolescence while paying tribute to the life of his late mother without judgment or sentimentality. The title implies a focus on women, and there definitely is that, but what it's really about this young boy becoming a man in a world surrounded by women.

Despite its screenplay nomination, this isn't a "writer's movie" because it's doing too many other things exceptionally well to pigeonhole it. Flashbacks, voiceover narration, title cards, newsreel footage are so seamlessly infused into the narrative it's a small miracle we even know it's there, presenting them in ways both invisible and revolutionary. And then there's the music, which can't be discussed as merely a separate element of the film, but as the foundation on which it's built.
Name a character and chances are you'd likely be able associate them with a song since music isn't just on the soundtrack, but discussed, picked apart and analyzed at many points as a reflection of their lives. And none of this feels forced in any way, instead organically mirroring the generation gap at the story's core.

Santa Barbara, California. 1979. 15-year-old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in a boarding house that she runs. Her tenants include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-obsessed photographer from New York being treated for cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a carpenter and mechanic who once spent time on a hippie commune. A frequent visitor is Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17 year-old who climbs through his bedroom window to spend the night but won't have sex with him because she thinks it'll ruin their friendship.

Confused by Jamie's non-conformist behavior and finding it increasingly hard to connect with her teen son on any level, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie to help unofficially raise him. In doing that, she gets more than she bargained for, learning more about her son and even herself than was intended. And perhaps in the end, maybe learning nothing at all, as their complicated mother-son bond fades into the past and becomes a memory, stored alongside the time they spent with these wildly different personalities living under the same roof.

When the title card indicating the setting and year appears on screen and we see a kid coming up over the hills on a skateboard as composer Ryan Neill's ambient, Brian Eno-inspired 70's score kicks in, you just know to expect something special. And no, this isn't one of those indies full of quirky characters doing zany things. While they all have their idiosyncrasies, they're often steeped in a painful realism, its specificity carrying a universality that should ring true to anyone, regardless of age or era.

Having grown up during the Great Depression and even flown planes in her youth,  the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Dorothea rarely pulls any punches in her frank assessments of both her tenants and son, even if that brutal honesty rarely extends to her own shortcomings. She had Jamie when she was into her forties and is now faced with the unenviable task of raising a teen boy alone after her unseen husband walked out. That one of the first images we see is his car catching fire in a parking lot speaks volumes about that exit and its repercussions.

Due to her age, the distance in taste and values between Dorothea and Jamie is probably greater than it otherwise would be, so without a male figure in his life, it makes sense in her mind to lean on the two other women in the house to school him on how to treat women. Of course, it's also kind of a terrible idea for obvious reasons, least among the fact that Abbie and Julie don't have themselves completely worked out yet either.  Mills lets us know these characters by framing them within a specific context, their backstories occasionally dispensed via emotionally detached voiceovers from them or maybe even another character, or sometimes documentary-style footage depicting the era through which they've lived.

Books like Sisterhood is Powerful and historical events such as Jimmy Carter's famous "Crisis of Confidence" make their presence known, maybe without warning, but certainly not without purpose. Everything here has a purpose, and with all the tricks Mills has up his sleeve, his greatest one is using all these devices to create this sinking feeling of the passage of time. And as specific as all these people are to the place and period in which they reside, their stay there feels fleeting. It's sad and scary, the magnitude of how short not really felt until the film's final minutes, which emotionally hits like a oncoming train.

Played by Greta Gerwig in a brilliant performance very much unlike the optimistic, free-spirit she's played so naturally in various indies through the years, Abbie's a little deeper, darker and rough around the edges, but unquestionably has her heart in the right place. With her Bowie-like hair she serves as Talking Heads' fan Jamie's entrance into the punk music and their scenes together very much recall the even younger protagonist's discovery of his sister's record collection in Almost Famous, only without the warm, fuzzy feelings accompanying it and substituting The Raincoats for Simon and Garfunkel. But it's through her medical crisis that she and Jamie form their strongest bond, despite Dorothea's eventual objections of Abbie schooling him on the feminist movement, to which she can't relate to at all. Or if she can, came from a generation where putting a label on it would seem ridiculous.

Considering how laid back and flaky Dorothea seems at times, she's often stuck-up, judgy and unpredictably offended at certain things that mark her not as an inconsistently written character, but a richly developed one full contradictions that make her more real and relatable. Bening has to keep flipping that switch between empathy and shattering directness draped in comic sarcasm.  Few others could do it, and while I was never much on board with all the complaining about Bening's continued lack of an Oscar, that she missed out on even just a nomination for this, her most complex work, feels like the cruelest snub yet. Just watch the scene when Jamie accurately sums his mother up by reading a book excerpt and how Bening handles Dorothea's reaction. Cold and true to life, but not entirely unfair. And maybe right.

A less complicated character, but compelling just the same, is Elle Fanning's Julie, who has Jamie befuddled at why her recent promiscuity seems to exclude him, despite them sharing a bed every night. The daughter of a psychiatrist, she thinks she has it all figured out at 17 and isn't shy about providing a free diagnosis for everyone. Of course, this all masks the fact that she doesn't know much of anything and her outdated view of masculinity and advice to Jamie seems so outdated even by 70's standards that it's actually come back around again. Of everyone, she carried the most risk of coming off as one-dimensional given her age and purpose in the story for the protagonist, or so it seems. But created by Mills as a composite of various friends and ex-girlfriends from his youth, and delicately brought to life by Fanning (who owns 2016 with this and the Neon Demon) , she becomes more than just the memory or unrequited crush of a 15-year-old boy. Or more accurately, she's exactly that and all the pain that comes with it, which is why this all works so well.

Initially, it would seem we're meant to root for Jamie and somehow see Julie as a villain for withholding sex, but the movie's too smart for such simplistic shading. They're actually using each other to some extent, with him allowing this to go on with expectations of more, even as she uses him as a therapist's couch for all her problems knowing full well his feelings run deeper. But as one character bluntly tells Jamie, it's his job to put an end to it. She's not presented as a narrative construct who will "rescue" him from the doldrums of adolescence as would occur in a lesser script, but instead as a frustratingly real, unpredictable and not entirely likable girl he'll never end up with. 

It's easy to snicker at the casting of Billy Crudup as William given the nature of his iconic role in Almost Famous, only this character isn't there as a friend or role model to Jamie. It's made clear pretty early on that Dorothea discounts him as a male figure who could connect with her son, mainly because he seems like such a space cadet. But like most of the other characters he defies type or description, with Mills depicting him as kind of a male slut who women use and promptly throw away without getting to know him. It's neat gender reversal, but like everyone else, he's desperate for any kind of human connection, while also amounting to both more and less than he appears on the surface. Unsurprisingly, he's most in tune with older generational outcast Dorothea and the scene where they attempt to "understand" the music Jamie listens to is one of the film's finest.

The late 70's probably wouldn't top many fans or critics' lists as one of the greatest eras in music, but what Mills gets is that your favorite is whatever era you grew up in or associate with your strongest memories. And for what it's worth, he makes as good a case as any for this period with the song choices he makes, which are entirely reflective of not just the characters, but the tone and mood of the picture right up until the closing minutes when two songs are juxtaposed from entirely different eras you'd never expect to hear on the same soundtrack. And that right there is the movie, as different people with unique personalities and at various stages in life all randomly converge in this time and place. The saddest part is that they may never see each other again, as is often the case with the most important, influential people in our lives. They're here, make their impact and then, just as quickly, they're gone.

The semi-autobiographical events Mills recounts all took place the year I was born and it's kind of eye-opening since no one ever tends to know much about the events of their birth year. It's often just a set of numbers with little context since all the major milestones occur within the following decade and beyond. He assigns meaning to that number and to objects and possessions, alerting us to what a turning point in time this was for those who lived through it. From then on, things changed for them and couldn't possibly return to how they were. Sometimes the most important important questions to ask when a movie concludes is whether you'll miss the characters when they're gone and whether you care what happens to them after the credits roll. We do actually find out what their futures hold beyond that, even as we're still willing to give anything for an extra minute with all of them.