Monthly Archives: December 2016

Silence — 7/10

SILENCE (2016, Martin Scorsese)

I can’t imagine ever sitting through this movie again, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s not really good. I’m generally allergic to overtly religious cinema, especially three-hour epics centered expressly on the idea of faith, but this is about as good as filmmaking gets when it wants to explore how humans question what drives them. It’s good because it doesn’t preach — an amazing feat given that all its characters are either missionary Jesuit priests hell-bent on spreading the word of God or angry Buddhist inquisitors hell-bent on removing Christianity from Japan — instead, it shows the violence mankind will do to each other in the name of religious intolerance.

There’s no question the heroes in this film are the Catholics, and the violent villains are the inquisitors — but that doesn’t mean Scorsese doesn’t sympathize with both the men who choose to understand other ways of believing (like Liam Neeson’s fallen Father Ferreira) or the Buddhists who want to protect their country from invaders threatening their worship of nature itself. Still, this film is about what so many non-religious films are also about: how we survive life on earth against towering obstacles. What choices do we have to make and what will we sacrifice?

Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues (he’s excellent in the role, despite a weird and unnecessary Portuguese accent) suffers the ultimate crisis of faith in face of God’s silence (the lack of divine intervention during the horrors Rodrigues witnesses and endures is what inspires the title), but he simply wills himself to survive and find a life he can answer for — something not uncommon for Scorsese heroes and antiheroes. The world is an ugly, violent, seemingly amoral place, and who knows if there’s any punishment now or later for it (is that really much different from the genius’s previous film, the masterpiece THE WOLF OF WALL STREET?) — and blind faith could either be what saves us or damns us. (The final shot is insanely powerful: without being too specific, I’ll just say it’s a poignant visual juxtaposition of both damnation and salvation).

Technically, this may not be Scorsese’s cleanest effort. Long-time hall of fame editor Thelma Schoonmaker lets a lot of continuity errors fly, backed by equally dubious dialogue editing and ADR. Some ILM effects, like the CG stake-burning, is outright goofy. But Rodrigo Prieto’s characteristically rapturous photography goes a long way, and it’s hard to fault any single camera placement throughout. Jay Cocks was also the co-writer on THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and just as in that film, his fealty to the source material’s prose (a book I haven’t read by Shûsaku Endô) forces him to rely heavily on voiceover, even when unnecessary. Adam Driver, like Garfield, affects an initially off-putting accent but couldn’t be more dedicated emotionally to every scene. This is a work with sweat all over it, for better and for worse, but it’s great to see a filmmaker this talented continuing to create such raging, energetic art deep into his 70s.

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Jackie — 5/10

JACKIE (2016, Pablo Larraín)

As if it weren’t clear from the frustratingly repetitive first 45 minutes, halfway through this dusty, decorative vase of a movie, Jackie Kennedy says “I lost track of what was real, and what was… performance.” The repeated theme Larraín hammers home again and again is that for politicians, especially iconic First Ladies like Jackie, real life becomes about managing image. When she’s just giving a tour through the White House in 1961 (in mock-archival footage that Larraín accurately mimics throughout the movie; you can see it on YouTube to compare how closely he nails it), this is all well and good. But when real life becomes your husband’s brains in your lap, and having to tell your two babies that their father is never coming home again, managing your image and presenting yourself to the public becomes an insufferable pain.

Larraín is right that you can’t separate being a public figure from its representation in the media, so the angle that Jackie is so busy fretting over her image that she lacks the opportunity for spontaneous humanity is a good one. But is it enough to power this entire film? The director showed with the similarly stiff and bloodless NO that he knows how to mimic old videography and place the viewer in a location and time, but that he lacks a sense of cinematic rhythm — his movies don’t move, they lie dormant behind glass boxes (or academy ratio black & white).

Portman’s performance is a love-it-or-hate-it exercise, and I loved it. Her decision to portray Jackie exactly as you see her in old video is a clever exploration of Larraín’s premise: this woman lived from moment to moment with people watching and recording her, so even in private she found it difficult to look and feel candid. And in the rare occasions when she does let a bit of herself come out, to the reporter visiting her shortly after the assassination (played with subtle excellence by Billy Crudup), she makes sure he knows that that’s off the record. It’s showy and studied, but it’s hard to think of an actress doing a better job of portraying the heart of what this movie is about.

Unfortunately Larraín and THE MAZE RUNNER/ALLEGIANT screenwriter Noah Oppenheim don’t fashion a narrative that sustains Portman’s efforts. It goes nowhere fast, and can’t come up with enough different ways to say that public representation matters, or to show the clash between Jackie’s desire to express herself through the funeral arrangements and the government’s need for security. One more fatal flaw in this element is Peter Sarsgaard’s curiously terrible performance as Bobby, a clumsy foil for Jackie’s careful curation of the First Family. Mica Levi’s tremendous score isn’t enough to rescue JACKIE from its fate, like the man whose skull explodes in Dallas, of being unable to finish what it started.

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Passengers — 5/10

PASSENGERS (2016, Morten Tyldum)

In the great NOTTING HILL, Hugh Grant’s character watches an Anna Scott joint in the theater, and it’s a goofy-looking sci-fi romance with Anna (Julia Roberts, of course) in a terrible wig. Curtis and Michell don’t exactly directly say that Anna makes dumb Hollywood product (although her happy ending does involve finally making a Henry James adaptation), but they do a good job of implying it with those shots of the fake movie. The third act of PASSENGERS feels like you’re Hugh Grant watching Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence re-enact some fake sci-fi movie that can’t possibly exist. It’s just too cheesy.

But it does exist, and it did get released. And in doing so, somehow it’s still way better than the SNL sketch it might sound like on paper. The positive qualities all come from some of the things Hollywood does best: terrific production design (what a cool fucking spaceship), expert photography (Rodrigo Prieto does no wrong), gorgeous costume design (the space clothes are both trendy and futuristic, without looking like ridiculous STAR TREK shit), and the most vital element: two huge mega movie stars. The star wattage of Pratt and Lawrence on screen could power a city grid, and for the first hour we ride that charm through a highly watchable popcorn blockbuster. It starts like ALL IS LOST or CAST AWAY (with Michael Sheen as an android Wilson) and turns into the first season of the lame Fox sitcom “The Last Man On Earth.” But a lot funnier.

Sadly, things get really creepy and icky, which is weird because they didn’t need to be. The moral conflicts that take over and drive the rest of the film are pointless, and the even-more-ridiculous action climax just feels desperate. Tack on the two or three endings, and you have something that feels workshopped to death, when the first draft was probably the cleanest, best, and least grossly retrograde. Jon Spaihts is the only credited writer, but it feels like this is the product of a studio that sucks at complex material, but excels at flashy, shiny things. So this might be the most Hollywood movie of the year, which says some things good about it, and a lot of things really bad.

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Rogue One — 7/10

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016, Gareth Edwards)

When Disney wrestled the Star Wars property out of the hands of George Lucas, fans of the franchise likely had mixed feelings (yay, new movies! boo, new creators) but I saw a good opportunity — give directors who had a sense of camera and character a chance to work in the confines of a big popcorn blockbuster and see what happens. JJ Abrams already proved he could do it, turning out THE FORCE AWAKENS (better than anything Lucas directed), and now Edwards has done him even one better — he’s made a crackerjack action/war movie, cloaked it in a fanboy uniform, and served it to unsuspecting masses. It turned out to be a unique curiosity that may not be good for the franchise, but it’s a fine piece of entertainment.

For those of us who cringe at the whiny, annoying waste of space that is C-3PO, ROGUE ONE gives us salvation: a far different droid named K-2SO, who is a sarcastic asshole, and that’s my kind of robot. The K-2SO character also doses the franchise with a much-needed sense of humor; not that the films have lacked it necessarily (Harrison Ford in particular was always amusing), but the style of it has been a little wet and childish. Now there’s something biting about the comedy, which mixes well with what becomes an ultimately dark, fatalistic tale.

After a confusing first 15 minutes that cross-cuts at an insane pace and introduces new characters every 90 seconds, ROGUE ONE eventually streamlines its narrative and sets up the mission that dominates the back half of the film. During the first half, it continues to build up (I won’t say develop, because they’re still kind of thin and one-dimensional) characters that are likable and well-acted. Even if it feels like a boardroom filled with white guys took a sensitivity class and stocked the film with a diverse cast out of punishment, that’s good for audiences — the likes of Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Felicity Jones, and Forest Whitaker are as good as the series has ever given us (save maybe for Ford, Guinness, and Boyega), and then there’s Donnie Yen being a badass. The battle climax takes place during the day, so we get brightly lit composite shots and action we can see — a terrific antidote to the black-drenched space battles that marred so many previous entries. And the political subtext (I do think it’s there, even though it clearly couldn’t have been intended to directly respond to the liberal outcry over the catastrophic election of a pompous, fascistic demagogue) weighs down the stakes to where they do mean something.

There are apparently a lot of callbacks and references to previous Star Wars movies in here that I missed (even though I’ve seen them a few times, they go in one eye and out the other; nearly impossible to remember), so perhaps I wasn’t as bothered by the desperation as much as a fan would be. I also don’t care about CG being used to make someone young (it’s usually creepy, but so is plenty of stuff). So if a fan wants to criticize ROGUE ONE as if it’s trampling on sacred ground, good for them — but for me this is ground that had too many potholes and needed some good pavement.

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Allied — 9/10

ALLIED (2016, Robert Zemeckis)

Not exactly sure why this is one of the biggest surprises of the year, explained only I suppose by a muted response from audiences and critics in the month it’s been out. But you’d think that with two of the biggest movie stars on earth doing a throwback WWII spy-thriller-romance for the guy behind ROMANCING THE STONE, CAST AWAY, and BACK TO THE FUTURE, I might have expected something that sings this magnificently. I didn’t.

On a formal note, this is some of the most assured and impressive work Zemeckis has ever done; certainly his best in over 15 years. Scene and shot construction like this sometimes feels like a lost art, but the way he economizes establishing shots, edits his dialogue scenes with the perfect timing and focus, and directs your gaze through mise-en-scene — it’s all classical and flawless. I’m sick of the cliché “a master class in directing,” but I wouldn’t blame anyone using it here: all the best things people say about Spielberg, Ford, and Hawks can apply to Zemeckis at his best, too, and I think the reason he’s left out is that his subject matter can let him down at times (like the reactionary corn of FORREST GUMP or the sappy AA commercial that FLIGHT becomes).

Thanks to Steven Knight’s superb original screenplay, Zemeckis has a lot to work with from a content standpoint: this is a story about trust and artifice, perfect for a filmmaker who likes to use sets and effects that revel in artifice, trusting the audience to go along with it. The costumes and production design, especially in the luxurious first act set in 1942 Casablanca (a nod to Michael Curtiz’s film from that year which this movie blows away, in the opinion of this humble reviewer), are fit for movie stars like this playing spies playing actors.

Cotillard is brilliant as usual — a chameleon who can take on any role (it’s hard to believe 2 DAYS 1 NIGHT, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and this are all the same actress), and she infuses Marianne with the kind of sly confidence, oozing sexuality, and trigger-happy emotion the character calls for, and what makes Max so head over heels. She even gets her voice right: when Marianne speaks English in Morocco, her accent mirrors Pitt’s Canadian one; when she’s in London, she affects a British accent for her English dialogue. And Pitt, who can be absolutely dire in dramas, comes up aces here — he’s the right kind of square-jaw: more charming than Bogey, as innocent as Jimmy Stewart, and a believable action hero when the bullets fly.

Knight’s script keeps you guessing, and Zemeckis’s storytelling is so gracious that you don’t get distracted by anything arrogant about the filmmaking; it’s all in the purpose of a story to sweep you up, just what old Hollywood used to do so well. I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to see an immersive piece of studio filmmaking that simply crackles. Zemeckis, you glorious bastard!

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Toni Erdmann — 7/10

TONI ERDMANN (2016, Maren Ade)

Considered in cinephile circles to be so great it might as well be 2016’s THE TREE OF LIFE, and maybe it is, but upon first viewing it strikes me as a clever, well-executed thesis on something with which I might totally disagree. What sticks with me is a heavy-handed speech late in the movie that lays Ade’s thesis bare, and it’s dropped in the middle of an epilogue that argues that we would all be better people if we could just unthaw our buttoned-down lives with wackiness, and stop working for the soulless corporations that downsize and outsource. I’m not against a good “down with capitalism!” message, but you’d probably have to find wigs and crooked fake teeth hilarious to swallow it easier.

All that said, a lot of this movie works like a charm. There are plenty of laughs big and small, culminating in the WTF house party that serves as the third-act climax. And just because I don’t think Winfried’s Toni disguise is that funny (I’m not even sure Ade does) that doesn’t mean his behavior doesn’t do just what the story needs — and that’s to soften Ines in believable ways. Hüller’s sensational performance sells that transformation, and spending three hours with this father and daughter gives us the time to buy into it.

Ade’s style (similar to EVERYONE ELSE; I haven’t seen THE FOREST FOR THE TREES) is a weird (and effective) counter-balance to the comedy: it’s almost Dardennes-ishly neorealist — no score, almost entirely handheld, everything colored and designed as naturalistic as possible. You usually see this style in a film like 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS, but this is a different kind of Romania entirely. Her script leans heavily upon the two leads, leaving the supporting cast (all of which give solid performances) to fill out skimpy roles; you wish there were a little more to the uptight American colleague, the hapless boyfriend, and the eager assistant. I do wonder if a second viewing might unpack more angles, but for now I’ll have to register a good-but-not-great assessment and move on. (Even though “The Greatest Love of All” has been stuck in my head for hours).

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Elle — 6/10

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

Verhoeven throws the kitchen sink in with everything else, stuffing his 130-minute film with 180 minutes’ worth of incident and theme, which does a great job of masking the fact that this is ultimately kind of shallow. There’s lots of jokes going around about the plot of COLLATERAL BEAUTY, the description of which almost defies belief, and while ELLE is way more interesting and smart than that movie sounds, the story is still a shitstorm: the daughter of an imprisoned, infamous mass murderer is attacked, raped, and threatened for weeks on end, while her son begs her for money to support his horrific pregnant fiancée, her co-workers sabotage the violent video game she produces, and she carries on affairs with two different married men (whose wives are both friends of hers) and insults her mother for getting engaged to a young, gold-digging stud.

Imagine that story crammed into the style of a French Hitchcockian chamber drama, and you’ve got BASIC INSTINCT meets LA CEREMONIE, which sounds great until you realize the 78-year-old Verhoeven might just be too long in the tooth to pull it off. He does give us a gut-busting laugh (the shot of Omar’s face behind Vincent after he sees Josie’s baby) and some shocking flashbacks to the opening attack, and it’s interesting how he always frames Huppert (playing at least a decade younger than her 65 years) from a little too high of an angle — she’s a diminutive character swallowed by the camera, despite how strong and take-charge Michèle is. But ultimately it’s hard to be engaged by anything intellectual here; the film is entertaining but it barely leaves a mark.

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Arrival — 5/10

ARRIVAL (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

This review will heavily spoil the plot. Hopefully most of you read reviews after seeing the film (they’re not called “previews”), but in case you don’t, I’d suggest skipping this until you’ve seen it, don’t plan to see it at all, or don’t think plot spoilers are movie spoilers.

ARRIVAL does one thing really cleverly — it uses fractured chronology to tell a story about a language and mindset that also involves fractured chronology. If it wants to get you to think about events not happening linearly, then why not show the events in a non-linear fashion? Normally this melding of form and content would be enough to really get me on board with a film, but unfortunately Villeneuve lets his worst instincts (the ones that hampered the dour PRISONERS and crippled the more-interesting ENEMY) take over.

For a tale about an advanced alien species coming to Earth, opening up the capacity for human cooperation and future-reading, and wanting humanity to return the favor, this settles on a really reductive character study — apparently aliens are really landing here to help Amy Adams’s Dr. Banks get over the death of a daughter she hasn’t had yet. “I know, we’re blowing your mind, but the most important thing is you remember to have a kid who’s going to die as a teenager. Cool? Cool.” But if that wasn’t enough, when Banks realizes that her new colleague Ian will be the father, she says “I forgot how nice it felt to be held by you” and he doesn’t react like “Um, what? We just met.” Or was his mind opened to the new language of non-linear events too? And worse than that, Jeremy Renner is way too weak an actor to be able to pull off the devastatingly lame line “You know what surprised me most? It wasn’t meeting them; it was meeting you.” Are you fucking serious, Denis?

The production design is simple but effective, HER’s Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is muted but nice, and SELMA DP Bradford Young’s camerawork delivers a cool color palate dedicated to communication (of mood, tone, and clarity), which is just what the story requires. Adams does good work too. But along with the aforementioned Renner (it isn’t all his fault; that dialogue is murder), the other supporting players fall flat too. What accent is Forest Whitaker doing? And why is he there? His character gets no arc and basically exists as Colonel Exposition. I like that the tense action climax is about making a phone call, not a big chase sequence or a shootout (though we know from SICARIO that Villeneuve can do that too), but the fact that this dorm room stoner plot from Philosophy 101 is in service of this grieving mother storyline just sinks the entire thing once you reflect on it. Screenwriting is in death process.

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