Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

wind river

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Now Playing — mother!

mother

I have my own theory about the genesis of mother!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky. My supposition is supported by no investigative evidence, and it surely isn’t accurate. But it helps me make sense of the sprawling madness that spills across the screen. In my fictionalized version of the creative process, Aronofsky wrote about half the script and surveyed what he had. He saw a gleefully devious horror thriller, following a writer and his wife in a rambling, remote house. Their solitude is disrupted when a stranger arrives, claiming he was mistakenly told there were accommodations for rent. More strangers arrive, motives are questioned, secrets emerge.

Aronofsky looks at all this material — unsettling but somewhat conventional, or at least with the tinge of the familiar — and ruminates. “What is this really about?” he asks. The answer comes to him. It is about the creative process, especially the agony of the artist — the creator — as he experiences the nourishing pleasures of mass adoration, perhaps at the expense of personal relationships. Those individuals he has deigned to let into the closer circles of his existence simply — selfishly, really — don’t understand the symbiotic relationship an artist has with those who truly, madly, deeply breathe in his work. And any artist, when you get right down to it, is basically like God. Because when operating with an inflated sense of self-importance, one may as well go all the way.

Armed with this enhanced perception of the themes he’s developed, Aronofsky starts in on the second half of the film. And he really commits to it.

Characteristically, Aronofsky revels in the most lunatic notions sputtered out by his toxic id, lobbing them onto the screen in flagrant defiance of good taste and — far more problematically — any sort of narrative logic. When presented with a certain amount of restraint across the film’s first half, Aronofsky’s vision earns comparisons to some admirable forefathers, such as Dario Argento and David Cronenberg (in particular, there’s an especially troublesome blood stain on a hardwood floor that could have come straight out one of the horror offerings of the latter). There’s still a disjointedness, mostly because the actors have varying levels of success injecting personality into their desperately empty characters: Michelle Pfeiffer is vividly alive, Javier Bardem is surprisingly adrift, Ed Harris is somewhere in between.

Then there’s the star of our feature. Whatever else can be said about her performance, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t timid. In a manner that undoubtedly strikes Aronofsky as uncompromising rather than untoward, the story treats Lawrence’s character as a leather speed bag. After every blow, Lawrence is required to immediately ricochet back to receive another. It looks exhausting, but — through no fault of Lawrence’s — that’s not the same as great acting. It’s a longtime flaw of Aronofsky’s, stretching all the way back to Requiem for a Dream, in which the grueling outcomes endured by the main characters had no impact that connected to them as fictional beings. Had each of the actors waved wearily, punched out, and shuffled out of the frame to be replaced by all new performers, the queasy sensation of watching the final moments play out would have been exactly the same. That’s a problem, and it’s arguably an abdication of the filmmaker’s responsibility.

But mother! anticipates these complaints — any complaints, really — and refutes them. If I don’t like what Aronofsky has crafted, then it is decidedly my own fault. Like the women who move interchangeably through the artist’s life, excavated for their love, I am foolishly blind to the gifts being bestowed upon eager crowds. I don’t properly grasp the brilliant biblical symbolism or the allegories to nature ravaged by callous humanity. Any problems couldn’t possibly be him, so they must be me. That argument so thoroughly built into mother! that the whole messy spectacle is a defense mechanism stretched to two lurid hours.

The film has been so divisive that Paramount executives have felt obligated to defend its very existence, or at least its perplexing inclusion in their 2017 slate, which otherwise includes the likes of Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight. While pointing out there are plenty of people ready to celebrate the film’s daring, the studio’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, Megan Colligan, offered an acknowledgement that there is strong contrary sentiment among viewers. “The hatred is real,” she said, in part. I don’t have much help to offer the Paramount marketing team, but in this I can back them up.

Playing Catch-Up — The Best Years of Our Lives; The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; Truth

best years

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). My overwhelming reaction to this drama of post-war turmoil in the lives of U.S. fighting men and their families is a dumbstruck marveling that it was released just one year after the end of World War II. While I tend to think of the Hollywood cinema of the time as assiduously adhering to the notion of noble soldiers and stolid supporters on the home front, William Wyler’s film is far more complicated and ambiguous in its assessment of the aftermath. The returning war heroes struggle to adapt, dealing with troubled memories, an inability to relate to loved ones, the self-medication of alcohol addiction, and employers who aren’t as welcoming as was once promised. It’s painful in its truth and astonishing in its thoroughness. Wyler adepts shifts between multiple storylines (Robert E. Sherwood is the credited screenwriter, adapting the 1945 novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor), offering empathy without pandering or exploitation. The film is resolutely daring in its beautifully melded directness and subtlety.

 

b side

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2017). This documentary focuses on precisely the sort of iconoclastic creator that director Errol Morris clearly adores. Elsa Dorfman is a longtime portrait photographer whose work was often undervalued. She opted for Polaroid cameras, though not typically the variety sold warmly to amateur shutterbugs. Instead, Dorfman’s expertise was with bulky behemoths that more resemble the revolutionary devices trundled out to Civil War battlefields once upon a time. Morris catches Dorfman as she’s drifting into retirement, in part because there’s simply going to be no more Polaroid film available for her to ply her trade. There’s an abundance of ideas for Morris to explore — capitalism’s callous indifference to art, the ruthless march of technological progress, the value of an outsider eye when people armed with smartphones are creating self portraits at an unprecedented rate, the beauty of imperfection when measured against control — but Morris gets at these topics only glancingly. At the same time, he wastes time with uninteresting digressions, such as an almost fetishistic attention to Dorfman’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. As if commenting on the missed opportunity of The B-Side, the screening I saw opened with Morris’s short documentary The Umbrella Man, which is inventive, witty, and revelatory.

 

truth

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015). Deep into Truth, writer-director James Vanderbilt delivers a scene that should carry a mighty resonance right now. CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) defends her reporting on a story involving George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. She rebels against the notion that her personal politics are to blame in doggedly pursuing the story, which turned out to be partially reliant on a document of questionable origin. In identifying the destructive pattern of viewers and readers dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their personal worldview, all the monologue is missing is the detestable term “fake news.” That the sequence — structured as a moment of bravura defense of the very tenets of journalism — carries no political or emotional weight, even as its grown more pertinent since the film’s release, speaks to the inert quality of Vanderbilt’s filmmaking. Truth dutifully tracks through the details of the pursuit of the controversial news story that essentially caused Dan Rather to step away from his anchor post after decades at CBS, showing some of the procedural rigor Vanderbilt brought to his screenplay for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. In this instance, the approach proves dutiful and boring, reducing the characters to empty figures clicking by. Even the mighty Blanchett is felled by the film’s mechanics, apparently compensating for the lack of depth to her character by overplaying the sputtering intensity that led to Mary’s blind spot assurance in shaping the news story for air.

Now Playing: Logan Lucky

logan

No matter how vociferously the retirement was emphasized and how many venomous arrows were projected in the general direction of the modern movie industry, there was little doubt Steven Soderbergh would eventually find his way back to the big screen as a director. Four years after his last feature, the odd pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects, Soderbergh has decided to give moviemaking another go with Logan Lucky, a movie with enough echoes of his greatest commercial successes that he was all but obligated to cheekily reference it in the dialogue. When a set of bedraggled Southerners pulls of a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s dubbed by newscasters “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.”

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, one-third of a set of siblings who call back to skills acquired in a slightly checkered past when fortune has turned against them. Jimmy recruits his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), his sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), and a small set of additional co-conspirators (included an incarcerated bomb expert, played with zest by Daniel Craig) into his major scheme, which included a stealth jailbreak, an electronic payment system sabotage (to maximize how much cash is moving through the targeted facility), and a procession of intricate toppling dominoes that lead to a windfall of ill-gotten gains. As is often the case with such narratives, about two-thirds of the elaborate details in the screenplay are cunningly inventive and the remaining chunk drastically strain credibility. (The screenplay is credited to Rebecca Blunt, which is a whole other mess.) Effective suspension of disbelief will vary.

Soderbergh clicks all the pieces into place with consummate craft, displaying an enduring touch for moments of offhand wit. He also can’t entirely disguise the nasty divots in the film’s tundra. There are stretches that simply don’t work, either because of clumsy acting (Hilary Swank continues her baffling trend of giving terrible performances in nearly everything except for the two films for which she justly won Oscars), superfluous plot material (the drama surrounding a children’s beauty pageant), or both (this is where I’ll type the name Seth MacFarlane and move on). It’s as if Soderbergh was hoping for the overstuffed verve found in a comic crime novel by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard (who he’s adapted beautifully in the past). There’s fiercely shrewd editing to those books, though, culling the material down to the essentials. Logan Lucky is entertaining, but essential it is not.

 

Now Playing: Atomic Blonde

atomic

Easily the most thrilling aspect of the new film Atomic Blonde is watching the fiery freedom of Charlize Theron. Long an actress of uncommon fearlessness, Theron thrives as Lorraine Broughton, an agent dispatched by Britain’s MI6 to Berlin as the creaking collapse of the Cold War is threatening to bring down the wall that divides the city. While Theron has it in her to do refinement, intricately messy character work, and high beam important fare, there is a different, devilish sharpness to her as she gets down to the business of delivering and taking punches. As she showed in Mad Max: Fury Road, she can be as commanding as any big male titan in the action genre.

In the role, Theron also employs the approach that has been her secret weapon from film one: treating the role with respect no matter what it is, which in turn brings authenticity to even the most ludicrous fare. (The projects dire enough to undercut this ability are rare, though they do exist.) Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay (based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) has only the barest interest in Lorraine as anything other than a figure of striding cool, a glamor girl with a split lip and a mean left hook. Without caving in to the brand of trembling vulnerability that would never be expected of a male action here, Theron shows little signals of the human being within the expert spy. She always proceeds with certainty, but also needs to figure things out, improvising solutions as she stays afloat with the swirling eddy of chaotic fisticuffs.

Atomic Blonde is officially the feature directorial debut of David Leitch (he’s acknowledged to have done uncredited work on John Wick), a stuntman and action choreographer with dozens of credits to his name. As might be expected, he excels at the brutal set pieces, structuring them with an eye towards strikingly honest physicality. When Theron flips an adversary over her back, sending him tumbling down a flight on stairs, it looks like work. Other filmmaking aspects are shakier. Leitch occasionally overdoes the image-building, flipping the camera and overlapping scenes to the point of near goofiness. And any time he’s working with an actor who’s less automatically capable than Theron, the performance shows some ugly seams (James McAvoy is especially stranded on an island of hamminess as a fellow agent). An extended continuous shot following one action sequence in and out of an apartment building demonstrates the near-greatness Leitch can pull off when operating in his area of expertise. An unfortunate amount of the remainder of the film illustrates the struggles when he’s outside of that realm.

Of course, Leitch’s infractions can be considered minor and wholly forgivable because he got it exactly right when confronted with the most important task of Atomic Blonde. Point the camera at Theron, and accept the grace that comes with letting her be in charge of every moment.

Now Playing — Dunkirk

dunkirk

Dunkirk is exactly the film Christopher Nolan needed to make at this point in his career. I’m not referring to whatever artistic compulsion the writer-director may have felt in his pulsing, creative soul. Instead, I mean this is the sort of film we as moviegoers — by which I of course mean this is the sort of film that that I as a moviegoer — needed to see. It demonstrates Nolan may yet be able to escape the self-set trap of films that are so confined by ever-tightening overt structural and thematic cleverness that they blink away into imploded nothingness.

Even I typed it, I realize the above primarily reveals how much more I’ve soured on Interstellar since my original review (and I didn’t exactly love it then), but I think a basic truth of Nolan is present there, too. Just as his reputation for elegantly transformative narratives have given the helmer access to robust budgets, its helped box him in. His last couple of features have been weighed down with ambition, as if he wasn’t allowed to simply make a movie. He needed to preside over a cinematic event. The resulting works felt corresponding smothered.

Dunkirk isn’t straightforward, either. In building a narrative around the evacuation of Allied forces from the French coast early in World War II, Nolan (who is also the sole credited screenwriter) opts for a trio of storylines operating on different timelines with subtle and slowly emerging overlaps. What could be simple trickery — a way to impose modern craftiness on a well-worn genre — is instead lovely and useful, providing a different way for the audience to make sense of the terrible gravity and tragedy of men at war. In engaging a different part of the intellect, Nolan shakes the viewer alert to the aching travails of the soldiers and flyboys onscreen, even as he largely eschews the emotional sparklers of painstakingly shared backstories. These men don’t merit empathy because of the loved ones back home or personal aspirations to open shops after the war. They are people in a terrible situation, and that is enough.

Even as Dunkirk is freed of fussiness, it is bursting with — and emboldened by — breathtaking craft. Nolan has reasonably courted comparisons to Steven Spielberg previously, but he moves yet closer to claiming that esteemed predecessor’s mantle of master of visual narrative. Especially in the earliest scenes, Nolan is striving for a minimalist aesthetic, at least in terms of telling his story as much as possible with images rather than characters snapping off exposition at each other. He succeeds marvelously, so much so that I sometimes found myself wishing he had pared it down even more, building the film with the economical dialogue of a silent feature. Filling that gap, Hans Zimmer turns in the most compelling score of his career, heightening the already considerable tension with the seething insistence of his music.

Although I praised the absence of convoluted background motivation for the characters, the fact that I’m deep into this review without including the name of a single actor is telling. While there are some nice performances (Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, the perpetually revelatory Mark Rylance), no one fully breaks through and takes command, forging the kind of portrayal that could make this a film for the ages. The pains of people are achingly realized, but no person is memorable. As much Nolan transcends the contained realm in which he previously resided, Dunkirk finds him flying only so far beyond his borders. In the end, it’s still all about the director.

Now Playing — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian

There may be no clearer demonstration of the artistic failure of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than my exhausted disdain for nearly every bit of it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was an easy mark for the movie, but I was definitely inclined to buy into its vivid lunacy. I’m one of the rare souls who will expound joyfully on the many pleasures to be found in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, meeting practically every dismissive complaint about outer space roller blades and volcanic Eddie Redmayne overacting with the eager retort “But that’s what’s great about it!”

I had the highest of hopes that I would get a repeat experience out of Besson, who found his own levels of beautifully unashamed absurdity with his prior film, Lucy. He even had the benefit of the hefty undergirding, since he was adapting the long-running French comics series Valérian and Laureline. He could reach back across fifty years of stories to find the chunks that work well for his big screen science fiction film adaptation. Surely, there could only be so many stumbles.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the result when a film is assembled in a confused, poorly thought out fashion around wildly imaginative concepts. The title character is Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) an intergalactic agent. His partner — important enough for equal billing in the comics, but not here — is Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The two engage in quasi-flirtatious banter as they bound across missions and sidebar adventures that barely make any sense, not because of the futuristic complications, but out of a misguided belief that playing coy about motivations will create suspense. Instead, it drains the narrative of a sense of purpose. The movie flits from one shiny digital bauble to another.

While it begins with a very shaky script — credited solely to Besson — it’s the landslide of other problems that do in the film. In particular, Besson has presided over the largest number of wooden performances in a major feature in recent memory. It’s probably not surprising that Herbie Hancock (whose jazz legend status hasn’t translated into more than a handful of true acting roles over the years) is leaden as a governmental official reciting orders over via hologram. It’s more problematic that presumably skilled actors are entirely. No one really excels, but poor Kris Wu is especially disastrous as a military right hand man laden with constant worried exposition. Even he’s enough of a novice to give him a pass. There’s no such free spin that can be afforded to the likes of DeHaan and Clive Owen. Acting is their day job, and they seem disinterested at best, cartoonish at worst.

I was genuinely eager for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be a goofy, spirited romp, and I was prepared to accept a lot of nonsense as payment for this experience. Instead, ineptitude reigns. There’s no pleasure to be found in that.