Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Allied Review (2016)

I admire that Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” doesn’t go the way you expect it to go. Instead of a fun and breezy period spy romance (starring sexy human beings Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) it’s more of a somber, straight-faced drama about a marriage in crisis. Nothing wrong with that. However, I still found myself disappointed by the direction the film takes because it ultimately diminishes the impact of its brightest star—Cotillard.

“Allied” starts off as that fun and breezy period spy romance. Ruggedly handsome American spy Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes into the desert outside Casablanca circa nineteen forty-two, wherein he meets up with French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). They pose as a wealthy married couple that gets to mingle with the Vichy French and Nazi high command at swanky parties and assassinate a German ambassador, while wearing fancy clothing.

Stylish but deadly.

This is the first onscreen collaboration between Pitt and Cotillard and they’re damn good together. They have effortless chemistry—he’s stern and quietly charming, while she’s bubbly and can command a room like no other. They’re so good together that you ignore the fact that they first make love in a sparkly CGI sandstorm or sometimes look like they’re in the middle of a Vogue fashion shoot; when I assassinate a Nazi Ambassador with my coworker/lover I hope I look half as glamorous as they do.

Overall, “Allied” is stylish and well made. Don Burgess’ cinematography is glossy like a magazine, the costumes are shiny and Gary Freeman’s production design is neat and clean even out in the middle of dusty Morocco. As silly as the film can be (at one point Marianne literally gives birth in the middle of The Blitz in London) Zemeckis shows restraint during the pivotal dramatic moments. These scenes have a calm and naturalistic feel to them, while the music is kept to the absolute minimum or not used at all, allowing for more tension and authenticity rather than melodrama. Even the sandstorm lovemaking scene isn’t as over the top as it could be.

After their mission is complete, Max and Marianne get married and have a baby—abandoning the dangerous but exciting life of espionage for mundane domesticity. Although they still manage to look more glamorous than you ever will. One day, Max is told by his former boss (played by Jared Harris) that Marianne may actually be a German spy. Oh Mon Dieu! If it’s true Max must be the one to assassinate her.

It all sounds very dramatic, and it is, but those expecting “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” during World War 2 will be disappointed. “Allied” morphs into a much gloomier, emotional drama about a husband trying to come to terms with the fact that his beloved may be the enemy. And this is my main problem with the film: through this transition, “Allied” becomes more about Max rather than both of them, like it was in Casablanca. He gets to look disheveled and act conflicted. He gets to launch his own mini investigation into the matter while Marianne is distanced from us—we only see of her what Max sees, meaning her onscreen time mostly consists of sitting in their house, taking care of their daughter, being a loving wife and waiting for him to come home. I realize that this is done to preserve her true identity and actions until the end but that narrative choice also diminishes her role/character in the process.

This may not have been such a big issue except that Cotillard gives such a fantastic performance and Pitt is somewhat…bland. It’s tolerable at first when he’s playing off of Cotillard in Casablanca but as the film becomes more about him the blandness becomes more noticeable. Pitt’s attempts to be understated and shy usually come off strained and unnatural; there are times where it looks like he’s trying really hard to act. On the other hand, Cotillard is magnetic-- delicately charming and down to earth, fiercely intelligent and tough. You can’t take your eyes off her. Cotillard still makes the most of her limited role later on (during her last scene, a massive lump will probably accumulate in your throat) but her presence is sadly minimized. She’s not as active a character as she was in Casablanca.  

“Allied” is never boring to watch. The Casablanca section strikes a perfect balance between silly and serious, the middle goes in an unexpected but welcomed dramatic direction (despite my problems) and the ending still packs an emotional punch. Yet, because it becomes more focused on Max rather than both him and Marianne, “Allied” never soars to greatness.


Nocturnal Animals Review (2016)

In “Nocturnal Animals” (Tom Ford’s elegant and disturbing meta-noir) I found myself liking the fictional “story-within-the-story” far more than the story around it.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner stuck in a loveless marriage. One day she receives an advance copy of a novel by her ex husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sheffield has dedicated the novel to Morrow, telling her in a note that she provided the inspiration he needed to write it. She sits down to read the book and we’re transported into the fictional narrative with her. The film jumps back and forth between the novel and the “real world.”

The novel tells a fairly standard male revenge story (set in the dusty, wide open plains of Texas) in which a sensitive, nonviolent man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is emasculated by a trio of sadistic rednecks, losing his wife and teenage daughter in the process and learns to embrace a dark and violent dimension of himself he didn’t know he had. Although, Ford’s handling of it is damned gripping, equal parts stomach churning and exhilarating.  

During one of the first scenes, as Tony and his family are driving on a deserted highway at night and the trio of rednecks follow them and play chicken with their car, you know what’s coming. A feeling of nausea creeps into your stomach, your palms sweat. Like any great thriller director, Ford drags the action out, keeping you in a constant state of anxiety. I usually take notes during screenings but while this internal narrative was going on I was petrified-- unable to take my eyes off the screen or force my hand to write on my notepad.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for any kind of revenge story and this one has all the right pieces, executed with a visceral precision: a deliberate pace, a conflicted, angry protagonist on the brink of exploding into a murderous rage and a truly despicable villain-- Aaron Taylor-Johnson is terrifying as the lead redneck. Oh and Michael Shannon as a “lets-do-things-off-the-book” police officer. Shannon is the MVP here (honestly, when is he not?), calmly menacing in that typical Michael Shannon way. His bulging, unblinking eyes on their own are enough to make the hair on your neck stand up.

Though, when the action focuses on Morrow outside of this “fictional” world, “Nocturnal Animals” is not so thrilling. Morrow can’t stop thinking about the novel in her day to day life and through flashbacks we learn about her and Sheffield’s romantic history and why they broke up. Through these flashbacks and the novel itself, a portrait of Sheffield gradually takes shape and it’s fun trying to figure out his mysterious motives: why did he dedicate this book to her? Unfortunately, this outer story is still tedious to sit through. While the inner narrative has a forward pulsing momentum, this one just flatly sits on the screen…literally so.

There are a lot of scenes of Morrow sitting around, staring pensively into the distance. She stares pensively into the distance while in the shower…or in the bathtub…or at work. She’s either thinking about the novel or thinking about her past. Turns out that constantly watching scenes of a person sitting around and thinking doesn’t make for compelling cinema, even if it is Amy Adams. Adams does what she can but her performance stays infuriatingly one note. It got to the point where whenever the film would cut from Tony’s story to Morrow’s I would breathe a sigh of frustration and eagerly wait for it to go back.

On its own, Tony’s novel would make for a solid, well-executed piece of pulp revenge cinema. The framing narrative involving Morrow and Sheffield provides the southern fried tale of vengeance with an intriguing meta/psychological layer but the sheer dullness of its execution ultimately makes “Nocturnal Animals” a mixed bag.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Rules Don't Apply Review (2016)

After roughly sixteen years of inactivity, iconic actor/director/writer/producer Warren Beatty returns with “Rules Don’t Apply.” Set against the nostalgic backdrop of nineteen fifties Hollywood, brought to life through Caleb Deschanel’s polished, glamorous cinematography and the use of grainy stock footage, the picture is an old school romantic comedy as well as a dark portrait of a brilliant, ambitious and ultimately tortured man (the billionaire Howard Hughes).

The picture begins as a romantic comedy between aspiring land developer Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, whose chiseled good looks reminds one of James Dean) and aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). Both work for Hughes (Beatty), Forbes drives the starlets around while Mabrey has a studio contract although she hasn’t shot a minute of film. Neither has met the billionaire, who has become highly reclusive. Through their daily interactions, a forbidden romantic fascination begins to develop between them as they eagerly anticipate their first meeting with Hughes. The film is light and jaunty, even a little corny. Characters say things like “Oh my stars,” songs like “Rockin’ Robin” and “Hooray For Hollywood” are used throughout.

The film keeps you engaged primarily through its quick, jazzy pace (the editing by Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones, Brian Scofield and Billy Weber is jarring in the way it cuts from a longer conversational scene to a sequence of five or ten second interactions) Beatty’s nutty screenplay and effortless chemistry between Ehrenreich and Collins. If the movie were just Forbes and Mabrey driving around, slyly flirting with each other I don’t think anyone would complain.

About a quarter of the way through, “Rules Don’t Apply” pivots from light and fluffy to a more serious film about Hughes and the deceiving illusion of celebrity. Some may take issue with this change but I think it brings depth to characters and taking the film in an unexpected and far more compelling direction.

Initially, Hughes is treated like this enigmatic figure; brilliant and ambitious but barely seen by anyone, including his closest advisors. For young folks like Mabrey and Forbes Hughes emits a mythic, even romantic aura based on his past exploits and accomplishments. They don’t know him but they sure want too. When Mabrey finally gets the chance, in a darkened hotel room at night, she puts on a prim and enthusiastic performance—trying to maintain her excitement and impress him, while he sits in the shadows like a mysterious phantom.

When he first comes out the shadows, he’s eccentric and rambling but also charismatic and adventurous; he often wears a leather jacket and fedora, similar to Indiana Jones. During his first meeting with Forbes he takes the lad to a private burger dinner at the docks at three in the morning. Hughes draws both Forbes and Mabrey into his exciting and unpredictable world (surprise plane trips to places like Las Vegas or Acapulco), Forbes even moves into his inner circle.

However, as the film goes on, that romantic/adventurous aura dissipates, revealing a deeply damaged man plagued by schizophrenia and paranoia. He becomes difficult to work with, obsessive over the minutest things and even more reclusive—hiding himself in rooms and going long stretches without seeing anyone. At first, Hughes antics are amusing in a Grandpa Simpson kind of way but after a while it becomes sad.

If you’re familiar with Hughes or have seen “The Aviator” this isn’t revelatory stuff but “Rules Don’t Apply” is as much about the damaging effects Hughes erratic behavior has on our fresh-faced lovers, as it is a biographical film about his later life. Imagine if you had the chance to work with someone you admired greatly in an intimate capacity and they turned out to be pathetic and mentally unstable; it would be soul crushing and you would never view them the same way again.

Once Hughes is fully out of the shadows, scattered brained and vulnerable, it’s not a pretty picture. The film doesn’t fully shake its comedic demeanor but the mood becomes noticeably tragic and bleak—no longer the upbeat rom-com. “Rules Don’t Apply” is about two ambitious, wide-eyed kids seduced by the enigmatic nature of a once brilliant man and left disillusioned.

Beatty is simply phenomenal; playful and scenery chewing, frustrating (oh so frustrating!) and emotionally touching. His final scene, inside another darkened hotel room, is heart wrenching. Beatty has a knack for playing scrappy antiheroes and loners (think “Bonnie and Clyde” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) and Hughes’ eccentric, tragic personality is naturally suited to his acting strengths. As cool as Hughes is as a mysterious figure Beatty makes him three-dimensional.

Were “Rules Don’t Apply” simply a rom-com between two young employees of Hughes, it would still be enjoyable but the pivot into more of a tragic film about Hughes pushes the picture to a greater, more resonate level.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival Review (2016)

In “Arrival,” a fascinating blend of meat and potatoes procedural and lyrical, high concept Sci fi, director Denis Villeneuve once again demonstrates his knack for crafting gradual onscreen tension and anticipation. He’s a filmmaker who gently grabs you by the collar of your shirt and firmly pulls you into his world, not letting go until the final credits roll. Then again, you don’t want to him to let go.

Villeneuve knows that sometimes the build up to an event can be more exciting than the event itself. Case in point: going to meet a mysterious alien race for the first time.

When Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, gets recruited by the government to communicate with a race of alien beings that have landed all around the earth Villeneuve drags the process out in the best possible way. We see the initial helicopter ride from Banks’ house to the military encampment in Montana. We see the prep work: Banks and her partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are briefed on their mission by Colonel Webber, (Forest Whitaker) they take the necessary shots and pills. They put on their Hazmat suits. They drive from the military encampment to the alien vessel, a massive oval shaped structure levitating a few feet off the ground. The team is raised up into the vessel via cherry picker. We observe the perplexed look on Banks and Donnelly’s face as they adjust zero gravity for the first time. And then…they meet the creatures.

“Arrival” isn’t too sluggish; it’s not like it takes an hour or a half hour to meet the aliens but Villeneuve clearly savors the journey getting to them as much as the encounter itself. If you were going to meet and converse with extraterrestrial beings how would you feel? You’d probably feel an overwhelming combination of nervousness, excitement, uncertainty and curiosity. A million questions would flash into your mind at light speed: Who are they? Are they friendly? Am I going to die? Are they little grey men like they were in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” Can they speak English?

Through its deliberate pacing (punctuated by long takes and slow pans/zooms), “Arrival” brilliantly captures the anticipation and suspense that would go with encountering an alien species for the first time. And this drawn out style persists through the rest of the picture, keeping you fully absorbed in the narrative.

Adams conveys that initial anticipation beautifully, giving a rich and strongly nuanced performance. Banks is intelligent and strong willed, yet not opposed to expressing emotion. When she gets raised up into the vessel she begins to breathe heavily—adjusting to her Hazmat suit and the new environment, as well as trying to shake off her nerves. In this moment (and in others) we see vulnerability in her. Adams is understated but authoritative, confident in herself and her ability to do the job well, while at the same time haunted by some past emotional baggage (that we see via fragmented flashbacks).

After the initial encounter “Arrival” settles into a patient, elegant rhythm, as Banks and Donnelly attempt to establish a communication system between the creatures to figure out (along with research teams from around the world) why they’re on earth. For the most part, the picture assumes a straightforward procedural structure, with the mystery gradually unfolding.

Accompanying this hunt for the truth is the film’s thought-provoking focus on the importance of communication, especially in a time of global crisis. If we don’t communicate, or rather, if our attempts at communication break down, it can lead to rash decision-making, which can then lead to chaos. Furthermore, the film is about how the fear of the unknown can also lead to careless decisions. Trying to figure out a way to communicate with aliens is a daunting, complex process that takes a long time. However, the government is impulsive and afraid (afraid of a hostile invasion), wanting results right away and when they don’t get what they want it causes them to seek out hasty and potentially damaging solutions like mobilizing armed forces. In other words, we’re often too impatient, we want solutions right away, and that impatience can easily lead to conflict, whether it’s global or intergalactic.

 In one of the best scenes, when the government is feeling the pressure to deliver results, Banks proceeds to break down the complexity of the question: “what is your purpose?” explaining that they have to start out with simpler sentences and teach the aliens the various aspects of grammar. Language is messy and complicated, as is translation and even the smallest mistake (a wrongly interpreted phrase or word) caused by pressure or fear can lead to a breakdown in communication and make way for more conflict.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer distill these heavy issues (and countless others) into a tense genre thriller structure that’s accessible without being heavy handed.

The ending is peculiar in the way that is provides an answer of sorts to the mystery (along with a major twist that feels deserved) but said answer doesn’t completely make sense right away. Even now, I’m still trying to put all the pieces together, which is a good thing. That being said, I think the final climactic action (involving a phone call) that leads to resolution on a global scale is a little sudden and clumsy in execution.

I have a few other minor issues but they don’t really matter; “Arrival” is a challenging, highly entertaining Sci fi drama/thriller executed with near flawless precision and craftsmanship. Villeneuve continues to prove he’s one of the best directors working today.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Moonlight Review (2016)

“Moonlight” is magnificent—beautiful, ambitious, and unexpected. Writer/director Barry Jenkins directs with so much precision and tenderness. James Laxton’s cinematography is fluid and graceful, giving the film a raw urgency and lyrical dreaminess. I sat in my seat transfixed, in awe. About halfway through I thought to myself: “I can’t wait to see this again.” I’m being hyperbolic, I know, but I can’t help it. “Moonlight” deserves all the hyperbole it can get. It’s the first movie of 2016 that I can strongly recommend to everybody.

The genius of “Moonlight” is that it’s both universal and very specific. Anyone in the audience can relate to what’s happening. The film is about identity and growing up, trying to find out who you are and your place in the world. It’s about the pressures of masculinity, the pressures of trying to fit in and be something your not. How your surrounding environment and social circumstances can push you down a path you didn’t expect to go in the first place.

 “Moonlight” distills all of those universal quandaries into a very particular experience—the life of an African American male in the inner city. Furthermore, Jenkins portrays this experience in a fresher light. The film is about the growth and development of a black sensitive gay male in the inner city, coming to terms with his sexuality and identity.

“Moonlight” challenges clichés and stereotypes (perpetuated by the Mass Media, politicians and other films) associated with inner city life and African Americans without totally ignoring them. Right off the bat it challenges our expectations. After conversing with one of his underlings, a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, affectionate, understatedly cool) stumbles upon a shy kid named Chiron (Alex R Hibbert) hiding in an abandoned apartment complex. Instead of ignoring the boy or greeting him with hostility, Juan approaches the boy gently and asks him if he wants to get lunch and before long he becomes a father figure to Chiron, giving him life advice and a refuge away from his drug addicted single mother Paula (Naomi Harris).

Jenkins is aware of the usual things we think of when talking about the inner city. Drug use, violence, broken homes etc. are in the film but they don’t dominate the narrative, or they’re addressed in new and intriguing ways. For example, the sad irony that Juan ends up being the caring parental figure that Paula isn’t when he’s the one who’s selling her drugs in the first place.

Instead of flooding the film with scenes of gang violence or intense drug use (contrary to what Donald Trump may think, the inner city isn’t solely defined by those characteristics) Jenkins focuses on quiet, thoughtful and unanticipated moments, such as Juan teaching Chiron how to swim (one of film’s most tender, beautiful scenes.) or telling Chiron that it’s OK to be gay. As such, “Moonlight” is unexpected at every turn.

The picture is divided into three parts, each one focusing on a different chapter in Chiron’s life. In the second chapter, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a skinny, awkward teenager, enduring all the pressures of adolescence, including his first sexual experience and a heartbreaking moment of humiliation. In the third chapter he’s a young adult drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes), scarred by past experiences and still trying to find himself, but able to find some temporary peace in the comfort of an old friend.

The transitions between chapters are abrupt; a lot of time and activity has passed. Though the narrative unfolds in a natural and relaxed way as though nothing has happened. Jenkins doesn’t spoon-feed or blandly recap information to the audience. We find out about major off screen events (the death of a major character, for example) through casual conversation or subtle implications. In this way, “Moonlight” is more concerned with the small, understated moments in-between the “big” moments, both avoiding melodrama and clichés.

The acting is fantastic overall but I want to give special attention to the three young actors who portray Chiron. It’s a seamless transition. In Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” the same actors portrayed the same characters over the course of twelve years, an impressive feat. However, the work here is slightly more impressive because three different people have to play the same character. Each performance manages to be distinctive (as you grow up you change) while also retaining similar qualities and mannerisms to create cohesion.

In the third chapter, when we see Chiron for the first time (bulked up and intimidating, very different from the skinny adolescent he once was) it’s almost jaw dropping. Though as the chapter goes on, through his interactions with an old friend/lover Kevin (Andre Holland), we see that beneath his tough exterior is the same awkward and confused kid he was in the previous chapters. When we grow up we often change drastically, yet there’s still a part of us that remains constant and recognizable no matter how old we get.

There’s much more I could discuss but I think this review is long enough. Simply put: “Moonlight” is the best film I’ve seen all year, familiar yet surprising, epic yet intimate, challenging yet accessible.

Hacksaw Ridge Review (2016)

Mel Gibson’s new war film “Hacksaw Ridge” is peculiar in the sense that it’s extremely violent and gory (sometimes relentlessly so) but its protagonist is curiously nonviolent. Based on a true story, the film revolves around American Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a World War 2 medic who refused to kill or even carry a gun but still managed to save over seventy wounded soldiers.

Otherwise, the picture is a fairly straightforward biopic/ tale of wartime heroics. There aren’t a lot of surprises plot wise. Outside of the violence, the filmmaking feels very old fashioned. Meanwhile, The battle sequences are brutal to say the least but also exhilarating and highly stylized. Gibson wants to emphasize the ugliness of war as well as the glory of it. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making war look exciting and glorious (most war films do, whether intentionally or not) but there are times when Gibson goes overboard, the violence coming off as cartoonish, which partly undermines the film’s sincerity.

“Hacksaw Ridge” works best as a character study of its conflicted hero. What’s most peculiar about Doss is that he wants to join the war effort but is morally opposed to killing/fighting (arguably the main ingredient of war) making the film’s stance on war/violence nuanced. On the one hand, war is such a twisted, ugly thing wherein killing (one of the worst things someone can do both legally and morally) is normalized. On the other hand, war is often associated with honor and courage-- putting your life on the line (and putting aside your normal feelings towards violence/ killing) for the greater good, for your country. Doss is committed to the war effort in pretty much everyway except putting aside his personal feelings towards violence. It’s a fascinating dilemma that distinguishes “Hacksaw Ridge” from other war films.

When Doss arrives at boot camp and refuses to even fire a rifle at a target his fight to remain in the army begins. The fellow soldiers and commanders immediately label him a coward. Here, Gibson wisely doesn’t make Doss into a self-righteous jerk.

Garfield is superb in the role, giving Doss a combination of noble stubbornness and modesty. Doss will go to jail before he sacrifices his beliefs but he isn’t arrogant or holier-than-thou. He never tries to impose his beliefs on others (To his credit, Gibson downplays the religious aspect of picture, at least for most of the picture) or openly denounces the violence committed by other soldiers. In fact he sees it as a necessary and unavoidable component. He believes in war and wants to do his part on the battlefield (saving lives) but cannot bring himself to personally commit murder. Overall, Doss is painted as a down to earth man whose beliefs seem to come from a genuine and humble place.

I do wish Gibson had taken more time to flesh some of the other soldiers in Doss’s unit, either in boot camp or out on the battlefield before the action happens. There really aren’t any memorable soldiers outside of Vince Vaughn as an insult-shouting Sergeant and that’s mainly because he’s playing against type. There isn’t much to the character. Camaraderie between soldiers is an important staple of the war picture that’s sorely missed here. It would have also made Doss’s heroics more impactful later on.

As for the battle scenes themselves…whoa boy. Doss may not believe in killing or violence but Gibson sure does. Soldiers on both sides are killed in droves—shot, sliced, stabbed, blown into pieces, burned alive. Intestines are littered all over the battlefield. At one point, an American solider uses the upper half of a human torso as a shield to gun down five or six enemies.  The sound design is almost ear shattering; I could feel my theater seat vibrate multiple times. They’re brutal and stylish; Gibson uses a lot of slow motion and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ orchestral score is energetic. The battle sequences arouse as much exhilaration in the viewer as it does discomfort.

Perhaps they arouse too much exhilaration. The violence becomes more stylized and extreme as the picture goes on to the point of ridiculousness. At one point, after what feels like a two minute montage of both US and Japanese soldiers getting killed in excess, I though to myself: “OK, cool it Mel.” The Japanese soldiers are mostly one-dimensional cartoon villains; there’s even an ultra stylized Seppuku scene that’s laughable in how over the top it is. I don’t have a problem with cartoonish violence but in the context of a sincere biopic/war film it dilutes things a bit. 

That being said, despite all the carnage and mayhem, Gibson never bends the facts and betrays Doss’s character. It would be easy to put him in a situation where he’s “forced” to pick up a weapon but that would have dishonored the character and cheapened the film further.

With all the personal stuff that’s plagued Gibson’s career over the past ten years or so, it’s easy to forget how great an actor he is and how great a director he is. Though he overdoes the violence a bit, Gibson still crafts a compelling portrait of an unusual war hero-- motivated by an obligation to serve his country and an unshakable resistance to violence.