MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
Big-budget summer Hollywood blockbusters — they’re all the same: conventional, formulaic, appealing to the lowest common denominator. So commercial, they’re like shopping centers: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen a mall. [Pause for groaning].
Thus, we look to indies for America’s vanguard. Groundbreaking material, challenging subject matter, edgy confrontations with the human experience. What if there were a film about… get this, a down-on-his-luck gambler? Stick with me. Not one, but two of them! A natural partnership. Now what if this were also a road trip movie? Through the American heartland! And on the soundtrack, blues music of course — but the pièce de résistance is that when they get to New Orleans, it’s a Dixieland jazz tune. Picture one of them: middle aged, divorced, has a young daughter. And he owes money… to a bookie! The other one is young and handsome, but can’t commit to a woman he loves. Together, can they form an unlikely friendship? Can they risk everything they have? Can they find happiness? Don’t worry — I won’t spoil it for you. This jaw-dropping original story is so fresh and avant-garde you’ll think it came from outer space.
All right, so to be fair it’s not merely a pile of well-worn clichés. There’s Ben Mendelsohn kicking ass as usual (and his performance in the last shot alone is worthy of plenty of praise), and a few nice character beats here and there. Even the poker scenes aren’t embarrassing, which is quite a feat these days. It’s the kind of movie the ’70s excelled at, but today it’s a watery Bud Light when a shot of Woodford Reserve was called for.
SICARIO (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
Screwed so tight there are dimples in the iron, Villeneuve’s pitch-black exercise in drug-war nihilism contains two jolts so alarming in just the first five minutes, you’ll wonder if your heart can take the next two hours. Those with pacemakers or a penchant for nightmares are advised to stay away.
Anyone else, however, must experience this on the big screen. The combination of Roger Deakins’s ace photography, Jóhan Jóhannsson’s dread-inducing score, and the great Joe Walker’s minimalist editing creates a merciless sense of horror and a gripping experience that — even if nothing else lingered — would make SICARIO enough to recommend on a purely visceral level. But Villeneuve and novice writer Taylor Sheridan infuse this bleak vision of military politics with some savvy critiques — though our hero is a woman and her partner a black man, those truly in power are white dudes (even gum-smacking, flip-flop-wearing d-bags like Josh Brolin’s character). And their hawkish, shakily-justified tactics of violent warfare infects every community from Arizona down to Mexico: one of the film’s best shots is a quiet, wide view of an American suburb where a woman walks her dog in the distance — pierced by the foregrounded darkness of a SWAT team creeping on one of the houses. Another masterful image is a drawn-out silhouette (a specialty of Deakins, ever since he shot this eye-popping image from SID & NANCY) of agents marching into the depths of a tunnel to Mexico, their dark, helmeted bodies contrasting with the dying orange of a setting sun.
Each scene drips with menace and foreboding, whether it’s a shot of the collecting of rainbow bracelets holding cash bundles together, or of a static drain that’s merely a cutaway during a scene of impending waterboard-torture (perpetrated by Benicio del Toro’s oily Alejandro — a performance so careful it conveys years of character in just the way he folds his jacket). The film’s color is sickly yellow-green — that is, when it’s not a terrific blend of black-and-green night vision mixed with black-and-white heat-sensors. At times you have no idea what’s going on, which both puts you in Blunt’s place, and helps Villeneuve comment that this war is not one with easy explanations. Among those previously mentioned dimples in the iron are a forced subplot attempting to humanize the Mexicans (which could have been worse, but still rings false), and a poor performance from Julio Cedillo in a one-scene role that nevertheless requires some expert reacting, at which Cedillo fails in his big close-up. But the scars from this experience do not easily wash away — like the branding of a hot iron, it stays burnt and black and infectious.
PHOENIX (2015, Christian Petzold)
The sweat dripping off the screen does not come from the actors, though they sure as shit are working hard — it’s from Petzold himself, putting a massive amount of effort into creating a restrained melodrama. Scene after scene reeks of smugness; the DVD commentary track could just be Petzold saying “I’m so proud of this moment” over and over. It’s the way he apes ’40s film noir by raking light over rocks in night-time Berlin (when Nelly searches for Johnny in the American sector), the strained symbolism about Jews losing their identity during the Holocaust and Germans living in denial, and especially the sure-to-be-talked-about ending scene which almost literally involves a mic-drop. “I bet this part is gonna knock them out,” Petzold nods, just off camera, then looking around for crew-members to high-five.
But the narrative doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny, and there are so many wasted strands — including the half-formed third-wheel character of Lene, whose jumbled emotions (jealousy? shame? grief? guilt? desire/love?) could have made for a decent study but don’t go anywhere (unless the gay subtext isn’t as buried as it looked like to me). And in his grandstanding eagerness to leave the audience on a high note (pun intended), Petzold dodges having to wrestle with Zehrfeld’s character and the fallout from his recent discovery. Without that, Zehrfeld is but another cog in the storytelling machine, a prop and a device, albeit one with amazing hair.
THE VISIT (2015, M. Night Shyamalan)
Good enough to be worth seeing but just bad enough to be disappointing, THE VISIT is somewhat of a return to form for Shyamalan, who with THE HAPPENING couldn’t find his voice anymore, and with THE LAST AIRBENDER and AFTER EARTH was merely a hired gun. By “return to form,” I mean the best aspects that made his three strongest films (THE SIXTH SENSE, THE VILLAGE, and LADY IN THE WATER) stand out: using horror or supernatural elements to say something profound about human connections. In THE SIXTH SENSE, it was about communication, and how the lack of it between mother and son (and husband and wife) manifested itself in ghostly ways. Here, the theme is broken families — and how forgiveness and communication, or the lack of it, once again, can eat away at us for years.
As he did with the frustrating UNBREAKABLE, Shyamalan takes a while to get things going, but the creepy shit does start to pile up, and the third act is bananas. Just in terms of being an effective scary movie, THE VISIT almost emerges victorious. But one of its biggest problems is with its gimmick. Once again, the found-footage conceit rears its ugly head, and it serves no useful function for being scary — it does have some thematic value in that Becca’s filmmaker tendencies resonate as a comment on Shyamalan’s own career (the running gag of extras who instantly start acting when the camera is on them made me laugh), but it does not help the horror. Another big problem is the characters — things the grandparents do, both prior to and after the twisty revelations, make very little sense. And Tyler is not cute; he struck me as obnoxious and if I have to see him rap ever again I will cry myself to sleep. (It’s close between Grandma and Tyler’s raps for the scariest aspect of the film).
But THE VISIT really does come down to a real grappling with its theme of forgiveness and family, and that somewhat touching subject matter leaves more of a lasting impression than anything M. Night has done in a decade. Another rewrite, some better casting for Tyler, and a loss of the found-footage gimmick would have kicked this thing into really really good territory.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH (2015, Craig Zobel)
I haven’t read the novel this is based on, but I do know the film adaptation has 50% more characters in it. What was once a two-hander is now a triangle, and it’s hard for me to know if it was for better or for worse. On one hand, the addition of a third person into this post-apocalyptic mix allows Zobel to explore themes of manipulation, mistrust, and the core of human nature — much like he did to tremendous effect in COMPLIANCE. But Pine doesn’t do so good a job here, and a lot of the worst pieces of dialogue (Zobel did not write this script, for once — it was Nissar Modi) come out of his mouth, so the change was potentially disastrous.
One element that can’t be faulted is Tim Orr’s gorgeous photography. One of today’s best DPs for day exteriors of lush forested nature (Orr is David Gordon Green’s go-to man), Orr doesn’t let a single shot go by without careful and beautiful lighting, color, and texture. Zobel backs him up with a sharp eye for composition as well as the right rhythm for editing — this is an easy watch and a brisk 95 minutes; the establishing shots and close-up inserts are just on screen long enough to make the point once, then we move on.
Robbie and Ejiofor are also up to the task: the former reveals shades to her character little by little, until we realize which reactions were genuine and which may have been confused; the latter exudes sympathy and likability, which makes John’s moral compass nearly impossible to stabilize. What we’re left with is a strong backbone for an extraordinary movie, provoking chewy questions about deception and selfishness, but hampered a bit by some clunky dialogue, an awkward and forced religion vs. science allegory, and a third wheel that may inspire more ambiguity than just the ethical kind.