The Lobster

 

Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Deconstructing, rearranging, and inventing new rules of it's own, Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster is a surreal satire about how, as a society, we have placed absurd obstacles around dating, relationships, and marriage. There's also a cautionary tale about individualism, a story of forbidden love, and an often hilarious takedown of social mores thrown in here too. But most crucially, The Lobster is unlike anything you've ever seen, unless of course, you've managed to catch Dogtooth and Alps, Lanthimos's last two efforts, which were also unlike anything you've ever seen. That's just something that the Greek auteur is known for. No high concept is too high. No elevator pitch is too bizarre and unwieldy. No notion of verbal and physical communication is beyond poking and prodding at with a satirical knife. This time, he's effectively made another macabre riff on a societal mandate by funneling it through his precise formal technique and penchant for deadpan humor. The results are a film that, while just as strange and singular as his past work, may be the most accessible thing he's attempted yet. Perhaps that's just because the horrors of the dating game and the ritualistic nature of matrimony are so universally felt.

While Dogtooth saw a family creating it's own customs and language while cut off from the outside world, The Lobster centers most of the action inside a hotel for those seeking companionship in a near-future society where being single is outlawed. The film's central conceit is a doozy; those staying at the hotel have 45 days to find a mate or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing. As crazy as that hook sounds on paper, Lanthimos's visual aesthetic is so detached and his actor's performances so droll, that things never spin into outright farce or camp. Rather, the tone is very removed, with much of the humor coming from intentionally stilted line deliveries and visual gags which work almost like arch cinematic paintings.

Getting it's title from the main character, David (Colin Farrell), a lonely man staying at the hotel who chooses a lobster as his go-to animal, the film effectively mines melancholic laughs out of undermining the ways in which we desperately strip away our sense of individuality in order to woo a desirable mate. Especially in our age of digital profiles and match-making services, The Lobster is prescient in revealing how surface level impressions form the basis for coupling. Along with David, a soft-spoken gentleman whose wife recently left him, there's Ben Whishaw as a hopeless romantic with a limp who goes to absurd lengths to find a match, like purposefully giving himself nosebleeds in order to impress a girl also prone to a similar "defining characteristic." There' s also John C. Reilly's awkward lisping sad-sack, whose romantic chances are so slim that he tries shooting David with a dart gun in the forest at one point in order to procure a few more days at the hotel; a detail that's humorously weaved in to show the world of single "loners" living out in the woods donning ponchos and listening exclusively to electronic music through headphones.

The film's final stretch, where David escapes from the hotel and falls for a rabbit-eating unnamed woman (Rachel Weisz) in the forest, ultimately highlights the limitations of Lanthimos's style. Unlike Dogtooth, which found shocking ways to explore notions of parenting or Alps, which took the idea of grief and wrapped it in an atmosphere of dread and mordent humor, The Lobster turns into a rather modest forbidden love story, albeit one spiked with Lanthimos's peculiar sensibilities and dashes of morbid violence. Despite strong performances; especially from Farrell, effectively cast against type delivering the flat dialogue in a hilariously stilted manner, and Weisz, who gives her character layers of vulnerability as the object of David's affection, the picture's last act finds the rather brilliant central premise spinning it's wheels a bit. Once the forest-dwelling leader (Lea Seydoux, icy and mysterious) takes matters into her own hands to disrupt romantic sparks between the two, most of Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou's provocative ideas have already been utilized. Therefore, the movie's noble attempts at conjuring a sense of pathos and emotional gravitas, though underplayed, feel somewhat at odds with the predetermined style of filmmaking on display throughout.

Despite it's flaws, The Lobster is an achievement in taking what sounds like an unfilmable premise and giving it the unique Lanthimos branding. While it lacks the jaw-dropping audacity of Dogtooth or the visceral nihilism of Alps, it nonetheless displays a filmmaker fully in command of his aesthetic. So much so, in fact, that this may signal a worrying trend of gimmickry unless he tries his hand at some novel variations. Otherwise, he may find himself on the opposite end of the Wes Anderson or Michael Haneke spectrum; unable to pull away from the arch originality of his own ideas in order to tell a story that works on more than a few basic levels. Still, when such ideas work as well as they do cinematically despite their inherent weirdness, and most of The Lobster works exactly in the way its intended, it's tough to argue with the Lanthimos approach.

The Program

 

Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Jesse Plemmons, Dustin Hoffman

Director: Stephen Frears

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


In fashioning a biopic about former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, director Stephen Frears forgoes backstory, exposition, and context altogether in lieu of plunging us into the fractured headspace of his subject. In this case, it's a subject whose headspace is riddled with hubris and an unbending need to succeed at all costs. But is getting into the mind of Armstrong, much less understanding what motivates him, even remotely interesting, and furthermore, does the film even go there? The Program, adapted by screenwriter John Hodge from journalist David Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, is on level-footing when allowing actor Ben Foster the opportunity to embody Armstrong as a man with a single-minded obsession and gargantuan ego, but less sure of itself when delineating why he blood-doped his way into seven Tour de France victories and then persistently lied about it. The film isn't interested in providing insightful revelations concerning the now well-known narrative. Instead, it's focus lies in allowing us to spend time in the company of a legitimate sociopath. Whether that's successful storytelling or not is debatable, but Foster's chameleon-like performance isn't something that should be dismissed. He's that good.

Thematically, there are some interesting motifs to examine here, but Frears, whose work includes the neo-noir gem The Grifters and cult favorite High Fidelity, seems generally unconcerned with the particulars of the story. For one thing, the perspective is frequently shifting from scenes of Armstrong doping and cheating the system to that of journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) and a risk insurer played by Dustin Hoffman growing increasingly suspicious of his improbable winning streak. This splitting of the difference means that it's difficult to tell whose story this is and in typical biopic fashion, who the audience should be rooting for. The truth, though, is that the Lance Armstrong narrative is a story without a hero. Instead, it begins to take on the feeling of a Frankenstein horror movie; complete with mad Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) introducing Armstrong to erythropoietin (EPO), a banned kidney hormone that increases red cell levels. Since we are all well aware of Armstrong's nefarious lies, the material involving Walsh's righteous crusade to uncover the truth feels superfluous. More intriguing is the relationship Armstrong develops with fellow cyclist Floyd Landis (a solid Jesse Plemmons), a one-time teammate and Tour de France champion who eventually admitted to doping and helped propel tighter scrutiny onto the sport.

Honestly, whatever problems the film has--including a lack of genuine tension and emotional stakes--these issues are often overshadowed by Foster's unblinking commitment to making Armstrong as deplorable as possible while still managing to make him interesting. Apparently, the mercurial actor, best known for slipping into the skin of villainous characters (3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog) did some drug testing of his own in preparation for the role, and despite not physically looking much like the famous cyclist, he absolutely nails the essence of a monster who used his notoriety as well as his cancer scare in order to fool the world at large. Structurally, the lack of backstory; (there's no mention of Armstrong's childhood and thankfully, no flashbacks of him learning to ride a bicycle while fending off schoolyard bullies), allows Frears to concentrate on the simple rise and fall narrative. While this makes for a predictable formula, it also gives Foster the freedom to unleash a scarily raw performance without the typical context these types of films often wedge in to explain the behavior of their subjects.

Showing a self-destructive figure willingly fabricate, cheat, and lie over the course of an entire film without creating a sense of empathy is a tricky sell, and worse yet is the bleak picture painted here regarding the sport of competitive cycling, which knew this was happening and did nothing. But isn't this crucial to understanding the inherent hollowness of the idea of heroism and transparency in sports to begin with? If anything, Lance Armstrong perpetuated and reaffirmed our collective willingness as a country to look the other way as long as we get our American underdog story, which makes The Program far more terrifying than any horror film in recent memory.

MacBeth

 

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Patty Considine

Director: Justin Kurzel

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


Of all Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth seems to be the most innately filmable. Three cinematic adaptations certainly stand out; one by Orson Wells, the other from Polanski, and a third from Akira Kurosawa under the title Throne of Blood. Now we have director Justin Kurzel (whose 2011 serial killer drama The Snowtown Murders was a singular vision of bleak depravity) taking a crack at the Bard with a similarly self-serious plunge into darkness, blood, and carnage. Working from a script by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie, Kurzel sticks with the original language but then obscures it's meaning through thick accents, mumbled deliveries, and the sheer operatic thrust of his brother Jed Kurzel's score. Retaining the dialect from the original text but then shifting events around or reorganizing them to make the tension more palpable, makes this new Macbeth a wholly cinematic beast. It's also to Kurzel's credit that he finds a filmic language; (stylized slow-motion, glowing red fog, shooting real locations in Scotland and Italy with immaculately designed interiors, etc) that accentuates, rather than detracts, from Shakespeare's words.

If anything, this story still stands as one the most searing indictments of male-driven hubris ever committed to prose, and in Kurzel's version, we never really witness the titular character as anything other than tormented. During a wordless opening, which goes from an infant's funeral into a stylized battle sequence, there's a willingness to stretch things further into the void of amorality as Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) comes into view, smeared with face paint and staring off into the distance as if possessed by supernatural powers. As Macbeth's army engages the traitorous Macdonwald clan, Kurzel turns things into a kind of slow-mo ballet of blood and mass slaughter, which could draw unwelcome comparisons to the fetishization of macho violence found in Zack Snyder's 300, but it's actually closer in style to the arty montages found in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist and Melancholia. Since most treatments either reconfigure the story into a modern setting or go the stuffy traditional route, these opening moments are crucial in extrapolating the kind of middle ground Kurzel and company will be walking. It's a delicate balancing act between remaining faithful to the intentions of the text while engaging in atmospheric mood as a driving force, and despite a few flaws, the film pulls it off.

Also interesting here are the ways in which the screenwriters take dramatic liberties with structure in order to inform the moral culpability of the characters. For instance, heir to the throne Malcolm (Jack Renor) actually catches Macbeth in the act of murdering King Duncan (David Thewlis), and then takes flight in fear, while Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) witnesses the public burning of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her children. This last bit makes for a provocative lens into which both the fear and pain of Macbeth's inability to raise his own heir to the throne are dramatized, visualized during the opening moments with the stark image of a lifeless child. The idea that the Macbeth's gradually go insane due to grief over their deceased kin is an intriguing one, but it also clashes somewhat with Shakespeare's original rendering of unchecked ego, ambition, and the suggestion of power. Thank goodness, then, for thespians like Fassbender and Cotillard, who more than hold their own in these iconic roles. The former never even bothers portraying Macbeth as a man once "full of the milk of human kindness", instead choosing to reveal the insatiable blood lust and confusion from the outset; a deranged presence so intoxicated by hubris that he willingly speaks of murderous exploits aloud in front of everyone. Meanwhile, Cotillard makes even more of an impact as Lady Macbeth, delivering a performance both intimate and operatic, gritty and theatrical. Her guilt-ridden "Out, damned spot" soliloquy is interpreted here as an early morning sleepwalk, and Cotillard absolutely knocks it out of the park.

As envisioned by Kurzel and his scribes, Macbeth is a story of deluded male entitlement masquerading as a nightmarish war film. It's suitably visceral, ponderous, and given to near graphic novel levels of violence. Even though the play's speeches, written as verses, are delivered here as prose, they never feel stagey or calculated. In fact, Shakespeare's language is often muddled underneath the intensity of the film's sound design, and while that may unnerve purists, the fact of the matter is that the words don't really matter. Controversial, to be sure, but Kurzel's adaptation makes it obvious that making every inflection and soliloquy understandable is not necessarily integral to cinematic storytelling. In a way, the film is a symphony of nihilism and vengeance that goes outside the play in order to contextualize the two central character's fatal flaws, and there's nothing sacrilegious about that. As Lady Macbeth says, "what's done is done", and Macbeth goes out with much of the text trimmed, truncated, and moved around; to the sound of rousing tribal drums and encroaching red mist.

Youth

 

Cast: Michael Cane, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has always titled toward artificiality as aesthetic; tailoring his features as a series of beautifully realized vignettes in search of a proper narrative. His 2008 drama based on former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti Il Divo, for example, bucked biopic conventions by eschewing biological and historical context altogether in lieu of directorial virtuosity. Meanwhile,  This Must Be The Place was a bizarre road picture starring Sean Penn as an aging rock star in which the eccentric journey was more important than the destination, while the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty is best remembered for it's gorgeous cinematography than anything resembling plot or narrative. To put a finer point on things, Sorrentino is so clearly enamored with Fellini that the term "Fellini-esque" is almost a coy joke since he makes little attempt at obscuring the homage. When it comes to Youth, the Fellini worship completely drowns out what could have been a poignant tale of aging in the modern world by overemphasizing formal artificiality to the point where the film becomes nearly catatonic.

The focus here is on a retired composer named Fred Ballinger (Michael Cane) and his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a struggling director attempting to write a screenplay with a throng of young writers which will be, as he puts it, his lasting "testament." Holing themselves up in an immaculate hotel/spa in the Swiss Alps, which incidentally, brings to mind the titular setting of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, the two aging friends reminiscence about past lovers, childhood quarrels, and decades-old regrets. During stretches where Cane and Keitel spend time at fancy breakfasts or inside luxuriant hotel rooms, one can sense the generosity of two actors with a similarly layered degree of experience enjoying each other's company. Unfortunately, Sorrentino's screenplay never allows grace notes in between the overly literal, metaphorical dialogue. Having his characters constantly announce their inner feelings and expound upon the film's themes, which are already heavy-handed to begin with, is a fatal mistake which makes the visually stunning filmmaking feel even more empty and facile. Other characters filter in and out; Fred's daughter (Rachel Weisz, burdened with arch monologues), a woman struggling with the recent infidelity of her husband, a pretentious American actor (Paul Dano) preparing to shoot a film in Germany, and even an overweight Diego Maradona slothing about flanked by a crackerjack PR team. The languid conversations between Fred and Dano's entitled thespian, meanwhile, are supposed to signify an acknowledgement of how both men are products of pop culture mythology, but there's never a moment in which we believe they are connecting as human beings. Maybe that's the point.

Certainly, the Fellini-esque nature of Sorrentino's style doesn't favor nuance, depth, or subtlety; but when it works, particularly in the misunderstood This Must Be The Place, the effect can be both aesthetically pleasing as well as emotionally resonant. Youth, however, is simply one rapturously eye-catching visual tableau after another, with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi doing yeoman's work with sweeping camera moves and dazzling compositions. The inherent impressiveness of the film's look, though, only exacerbates Sorrentino's unwillingness (or inability) to give us a prism into which we can see the pain and loneliness beneath the eccentric facade. But again, the inertia of senility and male-driven fantasy (women are seen largely as either sexual objects or docile mothers and daughters) may also be the point. Perhaps there isn't really anything noble or endearing about these two leering old men, despite the likeability of Cane and Keitel as performers. Maybe they are, after all is said and done, simply moveable pieces of decrepit furniture to be moved around like props within Sorrentino's immaculately designed reality.

Even Fellini, for all his concessions to whimsy and magical realism, found the emotional core of his characters and exposed hard truths within a societal framework. The failure of Youth to be anything more than a flowery postcard for stubborn masculinity is never more apparent than in a scene near the end where Jane Fonda shows up as a former Hollywood diva to expose Mick's delusional dream of making his masterpiece. Caked in makeup and a blonde wig, Fonda chews scenery with blustery abandon for no apparent reason beyond providing one of those big trainwreck moments that the Academy enjoys rewarding. Like all of the women in Sorrentino's shaggy drama, she's simply there to reinforce or derail the man's vision of himself. And so goes the film.

Brooklyn

 

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott

Director: John Crowley

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Using words such as lovely, understated, and modest in describing director John Crowley's Brooklyn might sound like a back-handed compliment, but during a time where classical Hollywood filmmaking is reaching a nadir, one of the film's strengths is its decided old-fashioned quality. Truthfully, the vision of Irish immigrants migrating to New York in the 1950s presented here could easily be seen as sanitized and at odds with reality, but then again, Brooklyn isn't concerned with historical specificity. Instead, this is a picture about the fetishization of 50s cinema and a loving ode to the kind of sweeping melodramas which defined the Douglas Sirk era. Unlike something like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, however, Crowley's film doesn't have the detached knowingness of conjuring movie magic. That it lacks the filmmaking ingenuity of Haynes' film is disappointing only in the micro sense, since the lack of stylistic flourishes means we can fully absorb and appreciate the extraordinary central performance from Saoirse Ronan.

Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, an Irish shopgirl who moves away from her small village to live in New York during the mid-1950s, and whose desire to pursue her dreams in the big city aren't completely beholden to the whims of romantic desire, though there is some of that here. In fact, a superficial glance at the film could easily lead one to believe that this is essentially a Nicholas Sparks weepy wrapped in period-piece garb, especially in regards to the relationship Eilis develops with local Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen, channeling Stallone by way of Brando). Tony seems like a genuinely decent guy, even as his aspirations include plumbing and watching baseball, but Brooklyn isn't simply about trotting out a predictable love story. Eilis has her own interests--working at a high-end department store, living with a bunch of other women in a boarding house, harboring ambitions to become a bookkeeper--and the film is deeply interested in her journey. Of course, there are obstacles; Eilis's sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) is tasked with taking care of their ailing mother back in Ireland which causes some regret, and even though Tony seems to have the best intentions in the world, there are questions about his traditional Italian family accepting Eilis as anything more than an outsider. Things are further complicated when a return visit home leads to a meeting with low-key bachelor Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a total inverse of the gregarious Tony. Thus begins a kind of "which path will she choose" coming-of-age narrative which feels germane to tales of star-crossed lovers separated by geographical space (before the age of cell phones, no less) with another suitor waiting in tow.

Even though the love triangle element is part and parcel of the story, it's not of central importance because Brooklyn is mostly about being an observer to Eilis's subtly shifting emotions during a whirlwind life change. Though based on Irish novelist Colm Toibin's 2009 novel, the film gives us something a written narrative could never provide; closeups on the face of a supremely talented actor deftly navigating conflicting emotional responses. Though the dialogue is swift and wonderfully restrained (the script was adapted by Nick Hornby), it's Ronan's facial expressions--everything from timidity, fear, heartbreak, surprise, and joy are intimately portrayed mostly through the eyes--which gives Eilis a sense of a fully formed interior life so rarely seen in stories of this type. It's a phenomenal piece of acting in a film that could have easily got by on something less impressive, and in nearly every scene, our attention is completely held by Ronan's expressive gaze.

Eilis's ultimate choice whether to stay in Ireland or go back to Brooklyn gives the final reel a certain dramatic tension, but it's clear that the film isn't interested in false red herrings or melodramatic turns because it's really getting at the essential feeling of making home a place wherever you may be. Crowley's direction is unfussy but focused, with cinematographer Yves Bélanger giving everything a sunny pastel glow, which again, simply reminds us of the 50s-era dramas the picture is attempting to evoke. Taking place between the end of World War II and where culture would shift radically into the 1960s, Brooklyn represents a half-remembered vision of history filtered through the lens of nostalgia. But through it all, it's the maturation process of someone gradually coming to terms with what kind of life she wants to lead which remains at the forefront, made palpable through the sheer pulse of Ronan's acting. If anything, Ronan is the one thing not beholden to the power of nostalgia in conveying this particular narrative. Her power is both modern and timeless. Her performance, so touching and fully alive to the moment, is what makes the portrayal of this young women in a state of flux, so special.

Creed

 

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


In an age where the Fast and the Furious can have seven sequels and The Mission Impossible series can lay claim to existing for nearly 20 years, it isn't entirely surprising to understand why the Rocky franchise is still kicking. This is especially pertinent in a cinematic landscape where Hollywood studios are sticking mostly with reboots, retreads, or re-imaginings of existing properties. However, to remember that writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone's original film came out in 1976, beating out fellow Best Picture nominees Taxi Driver, All the Presidents Men,  and Network for the golden statute, is still shocking. Additionally, the fact that it spawned six sequels, including 2006's Rocky Balboa, attests to both the enduring nature of the character as well as the overwhelming power of nostalgia as a cultural force. Though most will claim the subsequent sequels have devalued the legacy of that first effort, the idea of nostalgia as the sum of all things is especially applicable in 2015, with a new Star Wars film on the way and the box office destruction wrought by Jurassic World,  the fourth entry in a series that began in 1993.

However, Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky franchise and the first to exist solely as a vehicle for someone other than the titular character, isn't simply a play on retro-fitted goodwill. Certainly, there's some nodding and wicking within the DNA of writer-director Ryan Coogler's loving acknowledgment of the series' legacy, both as a cinematic precedent for the slew of inspirational sports movies that would follow as well as the character himself, played again here by Stallone in what could be his best performance since the original Rocky or perhaps 1997's Copland. But It's immediately apparent that Coogler (whose only other feature was 2013's Fruitvale Station), is an unabashed fan and someone who understands what Rocky means to generations of moviegoers. However, unlike a lot of fan-fiction type treatments; (director Alan Taylor similarly expressed his adoration of the Terminator franchise and look how Terminator Genisys turned out), Coogler isn't simply making a demo reel of Rocky's greatest hits. Rather, this is a sensitively made, unusually patient film which gives us a new lead character in the form of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky's opponent Apollo Creed, who died in the early rounds of 1985's Rocky IV. It's this new perspective; an African American boxer without the standard rags-riches story going on a deeply personal journey involving identity and coming to terms with one's genetic heritage, that makes Creed more than simply a retread.

From the prologue set in 1998, we learn how Apollo Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) plucks young Adonis out of a juvenile detention center and takes him in, resulting in a college-educated young man with a cushy desk job. Of course, boxing is in Adonis's blood, with unsanctioned matches taking place in Mexico which inevitably leads him to pursue boxing full-time. Relocating to Philly and seeking out the legendary Rocky Balboa, who is living a quiet life as the owner of an Italian restaurant lovingly named after his deceased wife Adrian, Adonis is determined to create his own legacy apart from that of his father. Of course, Rocky initially wants nothing to do with training the upstart, but as inspirational sports movies go, he gradually warms up to the kid and (cue the stirring montages!) the two are off to the races. There's a natural chemistry between Jordan and Stallone, with a sense of the aging old-timer handing over the gloves to the hungry newbie. Their scenes together; particularly in the third act where Rocky receives some startling health news, is genuinely affecting. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson shows up as the love interest, an ambitious musician with gradual hearing loss, and the talented actress gives her scenes opposite Jordan a beguiling intelligence and a keen sense of a woman with her own interests outside of falling in love with a boxer.

For better or worse, Creed is a Rocky movie that hits all the expected beats-- training montages, rousing music cues (the standard theme is used sparingly to great effect), a climatic match against a villainous opponent, a trip to those famous museum steps--but Coogler isn't entirely beholden to nostalgia as a means to an end. Honestly, the film has to work on it's own terms to transcend mere pastiche, and for the most part, it succeeds. There are flaws; Adonis's main competition is a cartoon thug, Thompson's love interest, though more complex than what we usually get in these types of efforts, is still given short shrift during the third act, and the emotional beats with Rocky in a hospital bed are laid on a bit too thick. But such criticisms, of course, can also be seen as why audiences find these films so pleasurable. Coogler doesn't try to buck convention, but instead gives us a slightly different perspective on a tried-and-true formula. In Jordan, meanwhile, he's found the perfect actor to carry the franchise torch for the millennial crowd; handsome, witty, charismatic, and completely believable physically in the ring taking and throwing punches. Coogler, too, almost seems overqualified for what's essentially a mainstream crowd-pleaser, delivering one sequence in particular; a single take shot of an intense boxing match, that's simply brilliant filmmaking. Other visual touches, like Adonis running in slow-motion flanked by a team of rowdy bikers, is so cornball that it almost transcends sentimentality altogether to become pure cinema.

Creed doesn't deserve to be as good as it is, but perhaps what keeps it from greatness is the very thing fans of the franchise will love about it. It's a formula; a mold, something we all know by heart, and Coogler, despite some formal touches, plays it safe by sticking to a predictable narrative arc. Still, it's hard not to be moved by the sight of Balboa, hunched over and world-weary, poignantly looking at Adonis and claiming "Time takes everybody out. Time's undefeated." Indeed, Mr. Stallone. Indeed.

Spotlight

 

Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Certain films exist simply to tell an important story; interested mostly in dispensing information in an efficient manner while simultaneously juggling thematic concerns and character. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, concerning the 2001 sex abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Church and the undaunted journalists at The Boston Globe tasked with covering the unfolding bombshell, is one such film. In that sense, it patiently doles out information surrounding the scandal with the kind of precision which will inevitably draw comparisons to All the Presidents Men. Unlike Alan J. Pakula's classic political thriller, however, Spotlight lacks a sense of cinematic authorship. This is all to say that McCarthy's well-meaning picture, which has a talented ensemble cast running around frantically jotting down notes on legal pads, often plays like a slightly elevated Cable TV drama. Of course, many will contend that the film has no business giving us stylistic atmosphere since the true story is what matters, and that auteurist concerns would only take away from the simple power of the subject matter. This rebuttal, though understandable, is a misconception of the ways in which cinematic language--composition, framing, camera movement, lighting choices, editing--can greatly enhance a narrative no matter how important the details may be.

To be fair, Spotlight does get many things right, especially the way it communicates how tight-knit communities can create a mob mentality. The fact that dozens of priests got away with pedophilia as the diocese moved them around the city while those in high-ranking positions knew about it is disturbing beyond belief, and the film's screenplay, written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is particularly adept at capturing this dilemma. There are varying reactions amongst the Globe journalists (known as the "Spotlight" team) to each new shocking development, with everything kicking off as new executive editor Marty Baron (Live Schrieber, underplaying nicely), arrives to ostensibly revive the dwindling newspaper. A Jewish transplant from Florida who spearheads the investigation into the church's offenses, Baron is an outsider who has a razor-sharp vision of what's lying in plain sight. Then there's the head of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a Boston native who feels torn into directions; on the one hand, wishing to appease the community he grew up in, while on the other, staying true to his ethical duties as a journalist. Other members, such as Michael Rezendes (a twitchy Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), are more interested in simply uncovering the horrendous truth no matter what the consequences.

What makes Spotlight more interesting than the average underdog newsroom drama is that it pits workaholic journalism against a monolithic system wielding unbelievable power and influence. There's something undeniably engaging about watching the team gather information, knock on doors, pile over old file cabinets, and gradually realize there's an insidious darkness lurking within the Catholic Church as well as inside the hearts and minds of normal Bostonians who simply don't want to accept something this tragic. But in constructing a narrative that believes so strongly in the mundaneness of investigative journalism, McCarthy ends up turning the journalists into chess pieces to be moved around as the true story dictates. Despite a stacked cast, most of the characters comes across as little more than archetypes, or worse yet, amalgamations of their real-life counterparts. The actors labor hard to bring idiosyncratic touches to their performances, (or in the case of Ruffalo, going a bit too hard with Jake Gyllenhaal-esque mannerisms) but the script gives them very little to do beyond becoming mouthpieces for the film's informational overload.

One could argue that the muted restraint here is a selling point, especially since the story could have very easily gone into melodramatic territory, but McCarthy's impersonal direction means that Spotlight actually has the opposite problem. It's too safe, too streamlined, too enamored with it's own ordinariness to bother with formal visual techniques or establishing a sense of place. Perhaps the coda--a sprawl of post-script detailing other communities devastated by similar cases of molestation by Catholic priests--is really what McCarthy is after; a kind of sweeping look at institutionalized corruption which must be exposed. This is all well and good, but doesn't exactly translate into exciting cinema. Instead, what we have here is a compelling narrative with intelligent thematic issues at play which rarely rises above a hum, complimented by Howard Shore's repetitively somber piano-laden score. Even an aspirational treatment of a true-life story deserves more than simply running down a check-list of procedural rules and a few auxiliary shots of churches looming ominously in the background as children frolic on a playground. It deserves something more than just giving us the facts. It deserves, especially concerning material this incendiary, a cinematic pulse.

Room

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Jason Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridges

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


This review will contain spoilers. It will do so because Room, adapted from Emma Donoghue's critically lauded novel and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, has a plot that's essentially one big spoiler. That's not to say anything that occurs here is necessarily shocking; there are no Shyamalan-esque third act twists or anything, but going in knowing as little as possible about the particulars of the story is crucial to the overall experience. That said, Room is less about what some may see as a gimmicky premise and more to do with the bond between parents and children, exacerbated in this case by the extremity of the scenario. The story involves Ma (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jason Tremblay) trapped inside a shed adjacent to a house owned by Old Nick (Sean Bridges), a man who kidnapped the young woman when she was 17 and has kept the pair in confinement for years. The premise really isn't a gimmick, though, because this kind of thing happens with such alarming regularity that Room often feels closer to a true-life horror film than a mother/son drama. Still, though things never slide into the realm of exploitation, there's a streamlining of character psychology here that marks the picture as something of a missed opportunity.

The reason, perhaps, that the film refuses to go all the way in terms of psychological nuance, is because most of the proceedings are told from the perspective of Jack. Since Ms. Donoghue wrote the script based on her own book, one can sense director Abrahamson struggling to find his own voice while remaining faithful to the source material. Juxtaposing the world of a child--Jack anthropomorphizes his home simply as "Room" and sees it as a magical place--with that of the tragic reality of the situation where Ma is repeatedly raped by Old Nick while the kid sleeps in a closet, is a choice that ultimately backfires. The decision to shape the narrative around Jack does maintain a certain poetic innocence, but it also means that we must endure unbelievably cutesy voiceover narration which ultimately detracts from the visual information Abrahamson dispenses in artful montages. Whenever Jack speaks wistfully about his surroundings and limited, though joyful, knowledge of the world, we already understand these sentiments because the film has given us this experience visually. Beyond that, there are certain missteps in terms of character psychology when it comes to Ma's plan to escape from the confines of the room; leading to a sequence involving a rolled up rug that's logically baffling, though it does work on a certain visceral level.

Larson and Tremblay are believable as mother and son, and their scenes together during the first hour enclosed inside the cramped living quarters are the film's best. The uniqueness of their horrible situation, compounded by the fact that Ma is attempting to gradually reveal the full truth to her son, creates an interesting dynamic that Abrahamson effectively captures through intimate closeups and askew camera angles. Unfortunately, once the pair manage to escape (spoiler alert!), the film tightens it's focus on Jack's point of view and allows Ma, the picture's most interesting character, to drift away onto the periphery. Additionally, Abrahamson fatally overemphasizes the discombobulation of Jack's first glimpses of the outside world through slow motion and a rousing score from post-rock band This Will Destroy You. Such moments would have been far more effective without bombastic music or directorial flourishes, allowing the suspense of the situation to occur organically rather than through aesthetic manipulation.

Once mother and son are reintroduced to society, Room becomes a kind of Stockholm Situation family drama where Ma becomes moody and detached while Jack learns how to join the land of the living. The film's most profound idea is that the mother may in fact be selfish for not giving up her son for adoption, keeping him around in order to effectively save herself, but the film only hints at such distressing impulses. The fact that Larson delivers a raw, wounded, and vanity-free performance here is somewhat muted by the fact that the filmmakers choose to nearly abandon her perspective from the story. This is all intentional, of course. Room is really about the unshakable bond between mother and child in which the child lifts the jaded, broken adult out of the darkness by sheer force of expressive optimism. Larson imbues her character with both a fierce motherly instinct as well as a sense of depression that a large section of her life has been stolen away, and the scenes where she rages against her parents (a fine Joan Allen and underused William H. Macy) in the second half are searing in their directness. But the focus keeps shifting back to Jack, with his precocious platitudes overshadowing unspeakable trauma. Since Ma is left to suffer mostly offscreen, the serious damage psychologically and physically she's endured is prescribed in afterthought doses; such as a tonally awkward sequence where she's interviewed on live TV.

Mostly, Room sticks to the child's point of view and argues that Jack, despite his peculiar growing up narrative, is mostly unharmed by the experience. This is hammered home in a rather unfortunate coda where past ghosts are visited, reckoned with, and ultimately jettisoned in lieu of "moving forward." With a conceit this atypical and subject matter so grim, it's a miracle the film works at all and most of this is due to Larson. Whenever she's onscreen, the emotional complexity and psychological insight lacking from the script is internalized and made palpable through her pure acting talent. Ultimately, the film would have been richer and possibly more troubling, had it been about Ma.

Spectre

 

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci

Director: Sam Mendes

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Spectre is the 24th film in the James Bond series and the fourth starring Daniel Craig. It contains many of the franchise's most endearing components--large-scale action, quippy one-liners, beautiful globe-trotting locales, a vast maniacal conspiracy shrouded in darkness--as well as some of the weaker aspects; dumb character motivations, over-plotting, rampant misogyny, and about 20 minutes that could have easily been lopped off. Basically, it's a Bond picture through and through; an engaging romp through the history of the franchise as well as a sort of revisionist take on the iconic character's lineage. In that way, it's not any better or worse than some of the best entries, and there are plenty of lousy ones. It certainly lacks the gritty verisimilitude of Casino Royale and the emotional dimension of Skyfall, but it does throw out the dour self-seriousness which dragged down Craig's second entry, The Quantum of Solace. To place Spectre within context, Skyfall may have set the bar too high for those hoping returning director Sam Mendes would continue to fashion a post-Christopher Nolan universe for Bond where real-world digital innovation brushed up against the sight of a tux-wearing hero sipping a martini. Truthfully, though, Bond has no business taking place in reality, and even though Skyfall was a stylish stab at de-mythologizing the standard Bond ethos, it never really felt like a Bond movie. It was, to put a finer point on things, a Bond film for those who don't enjoy Bond films.

Spectre, on the other hand, seems to synthesize the dopier elements of the Roger Moore and Pierce Bronson entries with the contemporary milieu of the post-911 Craig series. There's a lot of nodding and winking going on here, with references to older Bond pictures criss-crossing with the sight of a man who always seems broken down, abused, and struggling to keep his tie on straight. The plot, of course, is absolutely ludicrous, though it does make a certain kind of sense in the constructed Bond universe. MI6 is being overtaken by MI5, spearheading by a cocky entrepreneur (a scowling Andrew Scott), who wants to push global digital surveillance instead of putting agents out in the field. Meanwhile, M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) try to keep tabs on the globe-trotting Bond, who is tracking a mysterious villain named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), and so on it goes. None of the plot particulars really matter, nor does the ultimate reveal regarding Oberhauser's connection to Bond and his overly complicated evil plan. What matters here is why we come to Bond movies in the first place; the action, the gadgets, the beautiful locations, the hard-edged zingers, the tuxedos and shaken martinis, gorgeous women wearing gorgeous clothes, the insistent misogyny--this is Bond. Now, whether such surface pleasures make a successfully entertaining cinematic experience is debatable, but let's not for a moment pretend that anyone really cares about Bond as a broken child who grew up to become a stoic killer with a haunted past.

Even if Skyfall hinted at deeper human dimensions and emotional weight (particularly in regards to his relationship with Eva Green's deceased love interest and Judi Dench's motherly M), Bond has always been a fantasy character. There's a slightly disconcerting male entitlement hook going on throughout this series spanning the decades. For here's a seemingly invincible man performing unbelievably heroic acts while looking unbelievably dapper doing it, and getting to bed a revolving door of attractive women without bothering about the consequences of such attachments. Problematic, to be sure, but still a major reason why the franchise has endured for so long. That Craig brings hints of wounded vulnerability and empathy to the role, forgoing the usual cheesy Bond signifiers, is certainly noteworthy, but not necessarily essential to embodying the archetype. In terms of misogyny, Mendes and his writers have tried to skirt the issue somewhat. Skyfall downplayed Bond's distasteful attitude toward women by giving him a strong relationship with Dench's M as well as a legitimate loss over Green's Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale. Here, there's a definite attempt to give Bond a fondness for Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), a woman who gets caught up in the action; hop-scotching with Bond from London to Rome to the Austrian Alps to Tangier and the Sahara. While there's still a sexual attraction going on (this is a Bond movie, after all), Seydoux brings a beguiling mixture of innocence and tenacity that somewhat offsets the fact that Bond is ultimately a creepy old man with commitment issues.

Let's face it: James Bond is a fading symbol in our overly sensitive, PC era. Calling out the franchise for it's treatment of women and encouraging male wish fulfillment fantasies is instructive, but only up to a point. What Spectre provides is pure escapism, which is not a reflection of our actual society, but rather, a withdrawal from it. Helicopter fist-fights, ridiculous costume changes, Dave Bautista as a hulking henchman crushing in eye sockets, a board room full of shadowy figures making nefarious plans, Waltz purring it up as a classic Bond villain--this is what the series can offer. Now, whether or not it does so in a thrilling enough fashion (especially coming on the heels of action fare like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation) is certainly a matter of contention, but there's no doubt that Mendes prides a certain level of craftsmanship to the proceedings. Many will point to the extended tracking shot during the opening sequence, but Mendes offers superficial delights throughout; faces cross-dissolving through mirrors, a throwback two-shot in the desert which invokes Hitchcock's North By Northwest, sunlight pouring in through cracks on a speeding train as Bond and Madeline engage in some lip-locking eroticism. Even if the plot remains a mishmash of other Bond films and the pacing gets baggy at times, Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keep things humming visually.

Spectre is a Bond movie. It breaks no new and offers few legitimate surprises, but there's still an undeniable comfort in that. The incorporation of a revisionist mentality in terms of weaving in elements from the history of the character feels a bit like fan-service, and there's no denying that the third act featuring a bomb, damsel in distress, and an unnecessarily complicated plan by Waltz's conniving villain to fuck with Bond's head, goes south. Meanwhile, Bond's final decision during the anticlimax hints at something possibly subversive, but then Mendes and the screenwriters feel the need to keep things open-ended enough to warrant the next installment. Then again, do we really need subversion in our decades-spanning franchise formula? Bond will most certainly be back, and with him, our insatiable need for car chases, beautiful women, oversized heavies, and the immortal lines "shaken, not stirred."

The Assassin

 

Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


By turns ravishing and befuddling, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien's take on the popular Chinese wuxia genre; known for tales of lower class warriors fighting for codes of honor and chivalry, is really a film about the ways in which the moving image can draw us into a haze of sensory awe. Even though there's a central narrative hook in The Assassin concerning a martial artist sent to kill a man with whom she was once engaged, Hou deliberately delays gratification for what we think this type of story requires. From the outset, we know that the killer in question, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), is the best in the business, but the real question hovering over the film is whether or not she will actually murder Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the cousin she was supposed to marry as a child. Despite Yinniang's nearly silent skills as an assassin, the opening sequence in which she spares one of her targets because he's cradling his young son, reveals that things can be more complicated on an emotional and psychological level.

Even referring to emotional psychology in this context is foolish, though, since The Assassin is one of the least emotional films one will likely see all year. Yinniang rarely, if ever, speaks, stalking hallways and jumping from rooftops with dexterous agility, and there are no attempts at investigating her interior life. Aside from muted facial expressions and a commanding physical presence, Yinniang is a cipher, and purposefully so. In terms of story, this is a tale in which the particulars of the skeletal narrative, not to mention the various character's relationships with one another, are beyond cryptic. Still, if one can get past the fact that Hou is working almost exclusively on the level of mood and atmosphere rather than through narrative constraints, then the sheer visual splendor on display should be enough. In fact, the look of the film is enough, and that it looks the way it does; filmed mostly in the Academy boxy ratio with intoxicating bursts of color backed by gorgeously imposing landscapes, is alone worthy of praise. In reality, Hou sticks very close to the wuxia formula here; a central protagonist raised to be a killer since childhood given a very straightforward task that challenges notions of honor and responsibility, but seems generally uninterested in giving audiences anything resembling traditional catharsis.

Another stable of wuxia, of course, are the martial arts fighting sequences, and there are some of those here too, but not exactly in the way one expects. Like everything else about The Assassin, the set-pieces aren't really set-pieces, but rather, quick bursts of violence lasting only a few minutes at a time. They are well choreographed; with wire-assisted leaping, clanging blades, and heightened sound design, but Hou often cuts away just as the action seems to be picking up. On one occasion, he actually shots an entire sword fight between Yinniang and some adversaries from across a lake so that the particulars of the battle are almost completely obscured. Additionally, though the film is set sometime in the ninth-century during the Tang dynasty, it feels like it exists out of time, as if we are witnessing a howling dream where the wind dances in between curtains and the rumbling fog crawls its way up mountains like a ghost. It's a cinematic experience that speaks to the most elemental of senses; with long moments of stillness becoming almost unnerving in their inertia. Scenes of lords and masters sitting around discussing strategy, meanwhile, are drained of any conceivable energy or pathos, almost as if the people are merely backdrops to the sound of the wind and martial drums pounding in a distant location.

This kind of directorial approach could very easily be labeled boring or flat, but there moments where the primeval expanse of the visuals are almost too painterly to be believed, as if Hou is supernaturally summoning the elements to obey his every command. If anything, this aesthetic allows the audience to either become increasingly agonized by the fact that nothing is apparently happening, or be moved that everything is happening all at once. It's that kind of film; puzzling, enigmatic, gorgeous, and unbelievably slow, proving that even archaic genres can be told from bold perspectives, and that compositions can become something more powerful than simply narrative beats in a well-trodden story. This is a picture that deserves to be marveled at, pondered over, and quite possibly, not fully understood.

Steve Jobs

 

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston

Director: Danny Boyle

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


The most successful biopics are the ones which dissect a compelling central figure, feature an atypical structure, and go against the tendency to fawn over their subjects. Two great examples of this are Todd Hayne's I'm Not There and Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner. The former was a fractured take on Bob Dylan with various actors personifying the enigmatic performer told in a non-linear style, while the latter was a sprawling and unsentimental take on British painter J.M.W. Turner. Both films were technically biopics, but in reality, they were attempting to get at something more primal about the essence of their subjects. Neither did particularly well with audiences, though critics were largely impressed, which leads one to believe that playing it safe within the confines of the genre is probably the most financially responsible for a major studio.

In the case of Steve Jobs, director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin's stab at the mythologized icon of the tech world, one must give credit to a major studio (in this case, Universal Pictures) for green-lighting something with such an unusual structure. In that sense, the film nails one of the three above criteria for successful biopics, and in some ways, almost gets there in terms of refusing to worship the central figure. But the real problem with the film is Sorkin's screenplay and Boyle's handling of that screenplay. It has all of the Sorkin staples; theatrical monologues, rapid-fire dialogue delivered during walk and talk sessions, and a penchant for cynicism suddenly breaking into overwrought sentimentality. In the case of The Social Network, which Sorkin also wrote, the rat-a-tat zingers were cannily visualized by director David Fincher as a sort of analog for the encroaching digital age. Here, Boyle (a visual stylist and unabashed optimist) can't quite come to terms with the stream of near-endless chatter and the prickly nature of Jobs as a lionized personality. In terms of filmmaking, Boyle tries to downplay his usual habit of amping things up through heightened sound and MTV-style editing, but there are times where he just can't help himself. What this means is that though the actors are tremendously committed to the fidelity of Sorkin's words, Boyle feels like he's restlessly fighting both his best and worst instincts.

Still, the majority of the blame for the failure of Steve Jobs as a cohesive vision falls squarely on the shoulders of Sorkin, whose signature voice pushes, claws, and bursts at the seams in every single scene. Centering around three separate product launches--The Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988, and the unveiling of the imac in 1998--the film certainly has the atypical structure down, which gives everything a repetitive, though extremely watchable, pulse. Meanwhile, a revolving cast of personalities--Jobs's personal assistant Johanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), developers Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) storm in and out of seemingly unlocked doors as a kind of Greek chorus, announcing their personal grievances and/or mission statements just before the launches. There's also an estranged ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who conveniently shows up from time to time to berate Jobs about neglecting his daughter (whom he claims isn't his) and asking for welfare payments. This through line--of an egomaniacal entertainer with a future vision for technology who also happened to be a shitty father--is a well-trodden narrative gimmick which Sorkin renders as a rather heavy-handed daddy issues motif.

In terms of Jobs himself, played here with a steely-eyed dexterity by Michael Fassbender, there's a sense of being trapped within the prism of the megalomaniacal prick in a black turtle neck who, when all is said and done, just wanted a little redemption. The issue isn't with the "unreality" of the biopic construct--factually accurate depictions of events is fundamentally boring anyhow--but rather, with the way the character arc is presented. Basically, Sorkin's thesis seems to be as follows: Jobs was an egotistical, difficult, single-minded asshole who produced and distributed a bunch of snazzy tech toys we all own and love and who would later redeem his failings as a father just in time for the triumphant launch of the imac. While this reading may sound reductive, Sorkin himself gives into reductiveness by making the complicated uncomplicated and the unknowable knowable. By having every character show up on cue during the three separate launches--Wozniack wants credit for the Mac II! Hertzfeldt seeks retribution for having been previously threatened! Joanna chides Jobs for being a ghostly Dad!--Sorkin creates a narrative trajectory which makes Jobs' coming to terms with his past sins an inevitability.

This mythologizing of Jobs; complete with a cringe-worthy last half involving his now 19-year-old estranged daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine), seems to contradict the film's initial feeling that Sorkin wouldn't be pulling any punches. Is it possible to both adore and resent someone? Sure, but Boyle and Sorkin tip their hands too far in the direction of adoration here for that take away to be acceptable. Incidently, it's in the film's gee-whiz, self-congratulatory final scenes where Boyle's hand is most keenly felt; with swelling music, gratuitous slow mo, and Jobs bathed in dazzling high-contrast lighting. Also no stranger to treacly uplift, Sorkin doesn't do his director any favors up serving up a series of painfully awkward conversations about stunted responsibility and fatherly misgivings. Instead of presenting the three sections as interdependent events in which the backstage minutiae of preparing and then launching a tech product becomes the focal point, Sorkin simply uses the structure as a means to replay slight variations on the same idea.

Without the absentee father hook, Steve Jobs could have been a fascinating behind-the-scenes farce about the delusions of power, but the film takes the maudlin route, with each gradual revelation (gasp, Jobs was adopted!) being used merely to make way for his eventual redemption. This idea; that Jobs was a flawed genius who didn't have the time or energy to invest in the life of his daughter, is pretty common knowledge since his death in 2011, but what the film never gets into his how or why so many people followed him. Fassbender's chameleon-like performance gets the creepy vocal inflections and commanding presence right, but he's never given a chance to showcase the kind of magnetism that would cause others to bow at his messianic feet. This makes the film's eventual slide into outright sentiment and hero worship that much more galling. Yes, he was a terrible human being, Sorkin seems to be saying, but he nonetheless deserves our adoration and respect, because, you know, people sure do love their ipods.

Beasts of No Nation

Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


Director Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's highly praised novel, is a film which seeks to be a grandiose descent into the chaos of war, but it plays more like a formal stunt in which Fukunaga draws attention away from the geopolitical and interpersonal elements of the story in order to show off his filmmaking chops. It's setting is an unnamed African country, it's war an ambiguous one, and even though there's precedent for this particular milieu, there's something utterly false about the self-congratulatory framing of historical atrocities here. The "Beasts" of the film's title, therefore, isn't simply a representation of the loss of innocence or the warping of a child's mind, but rather a long-held believe in the primitivism of certain types of people becoming desensitized by the horrors of war. Truthfully, the film lacks both the global context as well as the psychological complexity needed in order to make it anything more than a flashy bid for auteurist status.

Centering around a young boy named Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), whose seemingly idyllic childhood is shattered once rouge factions invade his village and kill off most of his family, Beasts of No Nation doesn't waste much of it's 137 minute running time before descending into utter depravity. Captured deep within the jungle by a ramshackle battalion under the wing of the hulking Commandant (Idris Elba), Agu quickly falls prey to the menacing charms of this deluded monster, and the film, full of shock and awe, takes on the age-old tale of an innocence lost wrapped in a hallucinatory arthouse veneer. Though superficially told from Agu's perspective (complete with poetic Malick-esque voiceover narration), Fukunaga doesn't really trust the audience, feeling the need to keep everything at a detached remove. We never really get that stomach-churning feeling of childhood being stolen through blood, smoke, and carnage because Agu (despite Attah's deftly naturalistic performance) remains a passive observer to the reprehensible effects of violence. Elba's maniacal overlord, meanwhile, is little more than a classic substitute father figure who both abuses and looks after his child warriors. Elba certainly brings a warped charisma and commanding physical presence to the role, but the character is a blank slate; a man blitzed by the metaphysical torment of never-ending bloodshed who will predictably lose both his power as well as his followers before all is said and done.

There's a long-standing tradition of war films which take a subjective, impressionistic approach to their subject matter. Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line, for example, is a meditative dirge which places omniscient voices inside the minds of nameless soldiers overwhelmed by man's inhumanity to man. Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, showcases the very act of war as a hallucinogenic state of mind; complete with heightened sound design and an atmospheric synth-driven score. Beasts of No Nation perhaps tries to approximate Coppola's vision in some senses, but fails to go beyond the stylistic and into the realm of the personal. Fukunaga's contrived steadicam shots, arty slow-mo, and wallowing in the "poetic beauty" of violence simply calls into question why this particular story is being told in the first place. Beyond showing that illogical wars occur all the time between factions which really aren't sure why they are fighting and illustrating the morally heinous act of training children for battle, the film has no instructive purpose. When Uga is forced to kill a defenseless man because he, as Elba's Commandant claims, "killed your family", Fukunaga's camera lingers on the image of the skull being split open in a kind of faux-horror movie angle, complete with specks of blood staining the camera's lens. Later, after Agu and his band of brothers take to the jungle for battle, Fukunaga changes the film's color palette so that it resembles a film school graduate's idea of the drug-like madness of war. Such affectations don't draw us into the psychological or emotional state of Agu or anyone else involved. They simply exist to showcase Fukunaga's keen sense of choreography, sound, and movement; playing as little more than a calling card for future projects rather than enriching this one.

Treating the senseless of fictional skirmishes taking place in an area of the globe where things like this actually happen as a series of meticulously crafted sensory vignettes could have worked had Fukunaga showcased some understanding of the people he was depicting. But there are no people here, really. These are simply bodies to be shuffled around in the thick of the jungle and then disposed of. Sure, war does that--it makes individuality irrelevant--but even our supposed protagonist Agu is used merely as a prop in order to aestheticize the fog of war. Simply peeling back the curtain and showing us horrendous acts of barbarism committed in Africa has no overriding meaning if context is shunted and psychological insight is discarded. It simply becomes; no matter how well photographed, an artificial designer advertisement for what war does to men, and in this case, boys.

Bridge of Spies

 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minute

by Jericho Cerrona 


There's something reassuringly quaint about Steven Spielberg's latest Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. Truthfully, even touting the film as a thriller in the traditional sense is a bit of a stretch, as this decidedly old-fashioned Hollywood picture never panders to the audience with cheap sensation or manufactured set-pieces. There are shadowy figures lurking in the rain and even a wordless opening foot chase, but the film is more interested in the melding of John Le Carré-esque intrigue with Frank Capra-influenced Americana. Aided by a screenplay from Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Cohen, Bridge of Spies simply presents an engaging story in an efficiently engaging manner, dispensing information mostly through dialogue, behavior, and atmosphere. Always the optimist, Spielberg can't help but showcase the fight for America's intrinsic values as a noble endeavor spearheaded mostly by a New York attorney played by America's favorite everyman Tom Hanks, but there's still modern resonance to the fact-based story here.

In keeping with it's reassuring quality, Bridge of Spies taps into a feeling we so rarely get in cinema anymore; that sense of an American narrative told from a distinctly American perspective from one of our last reigning populist American filmmakers. This makes the film, which tonally feels closer to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than Spielberg's own jaunty period caper Catch Me If You Can (also co-starring Hanks), something of a welcome surprise in an environment dominated by low attention spans and a binge-watching mentality when it comes to content. The film follows the plight of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a British-born Soviet spy who is arrested by American authorities (envisioned by Spielberg and regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in a brilliant opening sequence) and his interactions with James Donovan (Hanks), the lawyer who believes that even a spy deserves a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution. Of course, there's opposition from Donovan's inner circle; including a fellow attorney played by Alan Alda and his wife, portrayed by an underused Amy Ryan, but the clear antagonist here isn't the Soviets per se, but rather, American paranoia engendered by the looming threat of thermonuclear war. Spielberg captures the fear and panic gripping the country during those "Red Scare" years economically; such as a sequence at a school where children watch an instructional video and a brief scene between Donovan and his young son. These moments are inextricably woven into the overarching narrative of a man who firmly believes that Abel, whom he comes to admire over the course of their meetings in confinement together, is better off being spared from execution since he could be used diplomatically if an American was ever to be captured by the Soviets.

Though the film's first two acts focus mainly on Donovan's attempts at saving Abel's life through constitutional discourse and the legal system, things shift into more espionage territory in the final third after American pilot Gary Powers (a square-jawed Austin Stowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union and thrown into prison. Additionally, after an American student (Will Rogers) finds himself captured on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall, Donovan is sent over to negotiate a prisoner exchange which would also include Abel being released back into Soviet hands. Wisely, Spielberg sticks to the murky complications of negotiations between men in dark rooms, and much like he did in his dialogue-driven film Lincoln, favors intellectual grey areas over audience-pleasing bombast. Honestly, there were a few instances where Lincoln showcased Spielberg's tendency towards sentimentality (most notably through John Williams's over-insistent score), but here, he mostly resists emotional manipulation. Firstly, Williams is nowhere to be found, replaced by composer Thomas Newman, whose old-fashioned score is used sparingly. In fact, large stretches go by without music at all; reveling in the silent pauses during tense conversations and focusing mainly on the sparse, though dense, storytelling. Never one for subtlety, there certainly are a few times Spielberg falls prey to his worst instincts; such as a scene between lovers being separated at the Berlin Wall and a late information reveal involving Donovan's clueless family, but overall, one of the film's reigning virtues is it's surprising restraint.

Hanks is ideally cast as Donovan; able to portray a certain kind of all-American decency without lapsing into sentimental dopiness, and his everyman quality is further enhanced by the screenplay's sharp dialogue and dry humor. Perhaps because of the Coen Brothers's involvement, the writing here is unusually comedic for such serious subject matter, and Spielberg deftly handles the tonal shifts without things ever veering too far in one direction. The film isn't going for the typical "Oscar bait" mode of self-seriousness one might assume, nor is it relying too much on quirk or comedic banter, either. Instead, it successfully channels the historical era using atmosphere, dialogue, and tension without ever feeling like a stuffy history lesson in the process. Meanwhile, though Hanks remains the audience surrogate, the heart of the picture belongs to Rylance, a well-respected English actor who embodies Abel with a sly intelligence and deadpan wit. His scenes with Hanks inside the prison cell are highlights, and when Spielberg's steady camera slowly pushes in on Abel in that particularly Spielbergian manner we all recognize, we marvel at Rylance's uncanny way of making a scripted monologue feel so authentic.

Bridge of Spies is a film for adults (no, not that kind), and will probably appeal mostly to middlebrow audiences alive during the timeline of the events depicted. Still, as reductive as that viewpoint sounds, there's something novel about one of our most respected escapist filmmakers withholding his obvious desire to thrill audiences with special effects wizardry and sentimental heart-tugging by bringing us a handsomely-mounted film for adults. Spielberg could have easily given us car chases, rip-roaring spy action, and as proven by his underrated drama Munich, stomach-turning violence, but he resists such easy impulses. Ultimately, this is a film that both reflects the past as well as mirrors the present. Though the shadow of the Cold War is long in the rear view, the moral questions that time period raised are still at the heart of the American experience today. As such, Bridge of Spies is an important film without ever announcing it's importance; something crafted by a master which never feels superficially masterful. It is, despite some minor flaws, something of a miracle in a cinematic landscape littered with superheroes, comic book villains, and YA-approved franchises.

Sicario

 

Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

by Jericho Cerrona


If any notable think pieces come from director Denis Villeneuve's latest picture Sicario, it will be regarding the magical cinematic powers of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). His ability to render the impoverished landscapes of Jaurez, Mexico with a dangerous kind of poetry is alone reason to see the film on the big screen, and that's also not taking into account the visage of night-vision compositions inside a cartel tunnel and countless ariel shots captured with breathtaking specificity. This is the work of a consummate master, and his contribution goes a long way in capturing Villeneuve's faux-gritty expose on drug cartel violence. What people will not be talking about, however, is the complex nature of the war on drugs that's only hinted at here. The film, from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, takes the obvious "we are fucked" angle; submerging the audience in a grim state of hopelessness. Similarly, Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners showed us the self-evident perils of vigilante justice gone awry, but that film's heavy-handedness actually worked in its favor, complimented by owerhouse performances and Deakins' evocative lensing. Sicario,on the other hand, is a one-dimensional rendering of a complicated issue that just happens to have really talented actors doing their best with stereotypical characters.

The idea of making a simplistic genre film structured around visceral set-pieces isn't a bad idea, and there's certainly much to admire about Sicario. But Villeneuve also seems to think he's making something more important than that; a kind of "realistic" message movie about the futility of the Texas/Mexico border war zone buried under the guise of a generic action thriller. Though he's adept at conjuring a slow-building feeling of dread and eliciting strong work from Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro as government operatives, the real problem is the script, which gives us a pedestrian fish out of water story about idealistic field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Her inclusion into the macho world of cynicism and senseless violence is meant to provide an audience surrogate while also symbolizing America's blind optimism in the face of unspeakable horrors, but it mostly plays as lazy screenwriting. Contrived narrative conventions notwithstanding, there's also something mechanical about Villeneuve's approach here; everything is so rigidly controlled and precise that eventually, the self-seriousness starts draining the film's energy completely. Much like in his previous feature, the Jake Gyllenhaal mind-fuck Enemy, Villeneuve treats even the most mundane action as if it contains high-minded profundity. The problem is that all of this portentous hand-wringing simply reveals that Sicario has nothing to say beyond how bleak, brutal, and hopeless the drug war is. This is all well and good given the moral grey areas on both sides, but it doesn't necessarily make a thought-provoking filmgoing experience.

At first, there's something interesting about placing Blunt's capable FBI operative in the spotlight; beginning with an impressive drug raid on an Arizona suburban home where horrific discoveries are made. Having a female at the center of such a violate situation could have made for a gender-based commentary on how unchecked machismo breeds violence, but Villeneuve and Sheridan aren't interested in that. After joining the likes of Brolin's smarmy agent Matt Graver and Del Toro's enigmatic Alejandro, Blunt is purposefully sidelined to make way for yet another treatise on corrupt American male power. We've seen this type of thing so many times before--the wide-eyed optimist who wants to make a difference getting in over their heads, the duplicitous government officials lurking in the shadows, the evil Mexican drug lords hanging mutilated bodies from bridges--that the ultimate effect of the film isn't outrage, but rather, a shrugging acknowledgment of a flawed system. Though Blunt valiantly tries to imbue Kate with vulnerability, anger, and uncertainty, her character is simply a moveable piece in a grander scheme where her presence is all but arbitrary. The obvious point here is that the war on drugs is fucked beyond repair; a sentiment that Villeneuve treats with a hushed kind of self-importance, as if he's discovering something hidden from the masses. Brolin is a hoot as a man who uses sarcasm and macabre humor to deal with something out of his control, and Del Toro gives Alejandro a dead-eyed patience and haunted stillness, but here again, these are characters operating within a film which is only about surfaces.

Of course, when these surfaces are shot by Deakins, it's tough to truly complain. At it's best, Sicario often plays like a lesser version of a Michael Mann throwback, ala Heat, where the widescreen compositions give seemingly normal locations a ghostly presence. Meanwhile, Villeneuve's deft handling of suspense riding atop the electronic-tinged drone of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, gives the set-pieces a certain tactile quality. Still, as skilled as Villeneuve is as a filmmaker, he doesn't seem that interested in actual people with interior lives and motivations. He's trying very hard to convince you that all hope is lost, but his film's narrative machinations feel like an easy way out, and the characters (though well portrayed by a game cast) feel like constructs to make a larger thesis. This is the kind of glum, ominous filmmaking that's been a staple of Villeneuve's past work and when it clicks; like in the shocking family drama Incendes, the results can be exhilarating. Sicario, though, simply works up a menacing mood and then stays there, failing to develop this transparent thesis and losing it's emotional center in the process. Of course, the point here is that there is no emotional center; that Blunt's tenacious everywoman has no place in a land of wolves. But even wolves, no matter how ravenous, can use a little more meat on the bones before feeding time.

The Martian

 

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


"I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."
-Mark Watney

If the above quote from Matt Damon's wisecracking central protagonist tells us anything about Ridley Scott's The Martian, it's that if one wants to survive on a distant planet by growing potatoes, then steady bowel movements are essential. It also helps if you're a botanist with an aptitude for snarky webcam one-liners and a disdain for disco music. This is all to say that the film, written by Drew Godard from Andy Weir's bestselling 2011 novel, is going for a lighter tone than one might expect. There's none of the palm-sweating calamity of 2013's Gravity or the existential grandeur of last year's Interstellar here; or even, incidentally, the cerebral thoughtfulness of Duncan Jones' 2009 film Moon. Instead, what we have is pretty much the third act of Ron Howard's sentimental crowdpleaser Apollo 13 stretched out to over two hours. This is a movie about human resourcefulness, problem-solving, and the powers of science overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Surprisingly for a Ridley Scott joint, it's also a science fiction film which treats it's science with respect and never dovetails into hokey genre fantasy, though it does contain at least one sequence near the beginning which can charitably be described as "body horror" in the Scott tradition.

Essentially, The Martian is a team-building crisis movie charting the fate of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), whose stuck on Mars after a disastrous storm forces his team to flee the planet. Both his crew (which includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, among others) as well as Nasa employees back on earth, think poor Watney is dead until he's able to make contact through some old fashioned Macgyver-style ingenuity. What follows is a semi-comedic, and lightly dramatic, take on speculative science fiction (the film is set in some vague near future) in which a man uses his wits, intellect, and sarcasm to survive like a modern day Robison Crusoe on an uninhabitable planet. Meanwhile, a bevy of Hollywood stars and character actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean, etc) run around frantically trying to figure out a way to jimmy-rig science in order to bring Watney home. The problem with the film, despite it's amiable team-building bravado, is that there's very little genuine tension to a story that desperately calls out for stakes. As a character, Mark Watney is not only the smartest guy in the room, but also the snarkiest, which leads to multiple scenes of Damon boyishly cracking wise through a series of video-diary sessions. Though it's nice to have Damon's affable presence as the audience surrogate, it also means that there's no exploration of the physical and mental toll a circumstance like this would have on a person, much less any kind of emotional complexity. Certainly, there's something novel about a film which takes a more genial approach to subject matter that could have lead to existential hopelessness or bombastic speechifying, but the alternative is a dramatically inert viewing experience which hits all the expected beats.

The real purpose of The Martian, beyond a Nasa promotional tool, is to stress the unconquerable tenacity of the human spirit anchored by the glorious machinations of scientific facts. This is all well and good, but despite Scott's breathtakingly rendered vistas of Mars's surface landscapes, there's very little awe or wonder to be found here. Everything is structured around the mundane act of problem-solving, but the film (though overly long at 141 minutes), never really gives the audience a good sense of daily life on the planet. Through sped-up montages set to a series of pop songs, we see Watney coming up with solutions to his problems, and though sometimes he does fail, there's never a tactile sense that he's in any imminent danger. Meanwhile, Godard's script seems uninterested in giving us real human beings behaving in a believably human way; but rather, the idea of humans behaving the way they do in big-budget Hollywood films. Watney is a bonafide movie character, using quippy one-liners to deal with an unspeakably insane situation, and his cohorts back on earth, though generally well played by a game cast, never convince us that they're operating in a reality that the film believes actually exists.

What this means is that The Martian will give audiences exactly what they want in exactly the way they want it, which isn't necessarily a problem, but it does speak to the film's lack of conviction. For all the structural problems with something like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, it nonetheless had ambitions beyond pandering to the middlebrow crowd. With The Martian, Scott dutifully serves up a competently made picture which gestures toward observational behavior and genuine human interaction, but nevertheless fails to convince us of anything beyond American optimism. This kind of populist uplift, incidentally, never feels completely earned since Damon's disco-hating space pirate always seems to have that "In you're face, Neil Armstrong" look of smugness on his face, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Goodnight Mommy

 

Cast: Susanne Wuest, Lukas and Elias Schwarz

Directors: Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz's Goodnight Mommy is a film which purports to be about the damaging psychological effects of altering one's physical appearance, but the only damaging psychological effects are incurred by the audience, who must endure nearly two hours of moody arthouse noodling before a late third act "twist". The twist, bear in mind, really isn't thematically resonant or deeply symbolic, but rather, yet another trope we've seen before tucked into a story that doesn't need it. Like Michael Haneke's darkly perceptive Funny Games, there are elements of class critique at play here, but unlike that film, Goodnight Mommy lacks a clear satirical bent. Instead, the film comes across like a rigidly controlled, deftly filmed, and utterly humorless depiction of what happens when talented people attempt to "art up" the torture porn genre.

The slipshod narrative follows twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they interact with their mother (Susanne Wuest), who has returned home from the hospital following an accident covered in gauze and bandages. We gradually learn that the mother was a semi-famous television personality with narcissistic tendencies, and that the tragic accident, along with a recent divorce, has thrown her into a depressive tailspin. Much of the film's first act follows the boys; whose emotionless expressions and lack of dialogue further intensifies the strangeness of their situation. Things tighten slightly once they believe that this woman may not be their mother at all, but some kind of imposter. The bulk of the film's second half therefore details their meticulous aims at figuring out just who this woman is and what she wants. However, because Fialo and Franz compose all of their scenes in the aforementioned Haneke style of detached minimalism, there's very little genuine tension. Instead, the film grows increasingly dull as it lumbers toward it's inevitably disturbing climax.

Instead of latching onto themes of bad parenting, dopplegangers, and self-immolation as a means for exploring what makes us human, the filmmakers simply trot out lazy plotting and cheap horror shock tactics. Nothing that happens during the final third matters very much since Fialo and Franz have failed to connect us to any of the characters, and even the torture porn elements fail to surprise, since they are part of what's now a well-worn genre. Meanwhile, the beautifully austere cinematography and masterful framing only reinforces the film's glaring weaknesses; one of which is that we simply don't care for any of these people (especially the two kids), and that the predictable slide into sadistic brutality is simply a gimmick rather than a deeper exploration of the psychology of the characters. We are expected to gawk, leer, and turn away in cringing horror at what people are capable of, but we never truly understand how or why these particular people are capable of doing the things they do. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the film was scary or nominally creepy, but the filmmaking is much too removed to elicit that kind of response.

The real impetus for Goodnight Mommy seems to be misdirection ratcheting it's way up to the aforementioned twist, but there again, the buildup is marked by a drowsy sense of inaction. We are never caught in the grip of the uncertainty since the directorial aesthetic is so finely tuned to the point of contrivance. Lastly, the film could have benefited from a livelier, B-movie kind of macabre humor, since this essential boils down to The Bad Seed, meets "Plastic Surgery: A Cautionary Tale." Instead, what we get is Misery mixed with a dark children's lullaby directed by Michael Haneke understudies.

The Visit

 

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


It seems as predictable as a third act twist at this point to underline the meteoric rise and disastrous fall of M. Night Shyamalan's career, but it bears repeating when it comes to his latest low-budget horror-thriller The Visit. Once hailed as the next Spielberg/ Hitchcock after critically lauded box office hits The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs; Shyamalan's magical bubble began to crack after mixed reactions to The Village, followed by the career-suicide trifecta of Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. There was also the Will Smith nepotism vehicle After Earth, which came and went without many even realizing Shyamalan's involvement; but by that juncture, he was already six feet deep in Hollywood hell. Superficially, The Visit can be seen as a return to his roots after a few big-budget failures, but there's also been a shift in temperament. The Shyamalan of a decade ago would never dare make a found footage picture with a reduced budget and mostly unknown actors, but the careening fall from grace has actually mellowed his ego. Known as a pretentious filmmaker who trusts his instincts against better judgement, his latest venture sees him poking fun at the formula he in some senses pioneered following The Sixth Sense,  but it's questionable how far he intends the satirical bent to go.

For someone who attempted to make blowing wind scary in The Happening and mythical beings living underneath apartment swimming pools enthralling in Lady in the Water, it comes as little surprise that this time he's essentially making a horror-comedy about senility. The story follows two teenagers, Rebecca and Tyler Jamison (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively) as they travel to visit their grandparents whom they've never met. Rebecca is a budding documentary filmmaker, and therefore decides to make a movie about their experiences (hence the faux-doc/ found footage angle), while the single mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) stays behind while gallivanting around on a Caribbean cruise with a younger man. Meanwhile, the grandparents, Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie) have been estranged from Paula since she was a teenager after an argument concerning her former husband, giving the grandchildren's sojourn to the country home a sense of uncertainty.

The biggest hurdle to overcome right from the start is why Paula, who hasn't really spoken or seen her parents in well over a decade, would allow her children to go by themselves on this little adventure. No mother in her situation would do this, but of course, the audience must buy into such behavior in order to swallow where the story eventually goes. Once Nana and Pop Pop start exhibiting strange behavior; bizarre bouts of cackling laughter, dressing up for nonexistent costume parties, clawing at the walls in the dead of night, it's clear that all is not well on the Midwestern front and that, predictably, Shyamalan is up to something here. For a while, the film gets away with a tone straddling the line between satire and creeping unease. Rebecca's precious babbling about mis en scene, framing, and emotionally manipulating devices in the doc she's working on carries with it a winking acknowledgement of Shyamalan's own worst instincts, and often characters will break into heightened monologues that feel like intentional parodies of dialogue from the director's back catalog. What cannot be tolerated, no matter how self-aware of it's badness the filmmaker may be, is Tyler's incessant hip-hop rapping sessions, which are interspersed throughout and threaten to derail the film completely. Shyamalan seems to think that having poor Mr. Oxenbould break out into impromptu raps is comedy gold, and making pop-culture references to Tyler The Creator doesn't help further his case.

Another curious move from a directing standpoint is the collaboration between Shyamalan's rigid formalism and the kitchen-sink B-movie format of producer Jason Blum (of Paranormal Activity fame). There doesn't seem to be any reason, aside from budget restrictions, for The Visit to be structured from the found footage angle. Sure, it allows Shyamalan to get away with shrewd camera placement and cleaner cinematography than most movies of this kind due to the fact that Rebecca is hyper-aware of filmic technique, but the medium doesn't necessarily enhance the story he's telling. There are a few "gotcha" type jump scares and moments where the camera is strategically placed in a room so we get a full view of something creepy occurring (ala Paranormal Activity), but overall, the aesthetic feels arbitrary. From a narrative standpoint, there's also the problem of why these kids take so long to catch onto how strange Nana and Pop Pop are behaving; seemingly casting it off as "old people problems" before coming to the realization that danger lurks around the corner. Of course, this is in keeping with horror movie tropes, from which Shyamalan shamelessly cribs during the film's anticlimactic third act. There is, of course, a veritable twist, but it's not the kind of peel back the curtain revelation found in some of his earlier films, but something which nevertheless takes things into more sinister territory. Such a turn would have been fine if Shyamalan hadn't given off the impression that he was making a kind of comic meta-commentary on genre movies for the first two thirds, only to descend into cheap shock tactics for the finale. If you've ever wanted to see a character literally rub his face in senior citizen feces, here's your chance.

The Visit isn't a bonafide disaster on the level of The Happening; which, for the record, has a cult-ready vibe of unintentional hilarity. However, it's strengths (atmospheric sound design, cunning performances from Dunagan and McRobbie, a few moments of nominal tension and humor) are undone by Shyamalan's need to overemphasis the structure of his narrative around monologues and attempts at heartfelt character moments. Such devices, especially two cringe-inducing post finale scenes, attempt to bring the emotional pathology of the characters full circle, but instead further reinforce Shyamalan's inability to nail a consistent tone.

Black Mass

 

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple

Director: Scott Cooper

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Director Scott Cooper's (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) take on the life and times of James "Whitey" Bulger; one of the most notorious Boston mobsters in U.S. history, is a real howler; a hilarious mess of a movie which unconvincingly tries to persuade us that it's about something other than meaningless machismo. The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on a book by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O'Neil) plays like a dutiful High School book report on a mythical figure; lacking a narrative center and most importantly, the kind of emotional complexity that would have made the story compelling. There are certainly ingredients here for a subversive black comedy about the ineptitude of the FBI or a stylish stab at the clinical nature of brooding psychopaths, but Cooper and his writers instead go for a self-serious tone that for most of it's running time plays like a tepid genre exercise, before eventually descending into the realm of unintentional comedy.

The heart of the narrative involves the unholy alliance between Bulger (Johnny Depp) and FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who partner up in order to run the Italian mafia out of Boston. The two men grew up together and shared some kind of affinity for the neighborhood, but their connection remains tenuous, much like everything else in the film. Characters talk a lot about loyalty, brotherhood, and ties that bond, but the movie never convinces us of such things. The sense of place, so important in something like Scorsese's The Departed (with which Black Mass shares many similarities) is largely absent here. The film is simply a series of dour "incidents" where characters sit around and talk like foul-mouthed gangsters from better genre pictures, interspersed with moments of brutal violence.There's a pudgy Bulger associate (Jesse Plemons), a powerful state Senator (Benedict Cumberbatch), a contentious FBI boss (Kevin Bacon) and a jittery loose cannon (Peter Sarsgaard) among many others, but despite a game cast, they all feel like accessories to Depp's cartoonish villainy. Much maligned for his goofy roles in films like Alice in Wonderland and this year's Mortdecai, Depp seems to be trying again for the first time in ages, which presents a very different kind of problem. Though he's certainly taking a more low-key approach to a role that could have gone for Jack Nicholson-style theatrics, the physical affectations; (bald cap, sinister contacts, etc) simply reaffirm his inability to portray characters who aren't wearing ridiculous costumes. In a way, Depp plays Bulger like a ghoulish demon lurking in the background; ready to pounce upon his prey with vampire-like fangs. While this could have worked had the film been a dark comedy; here it backfires because it's clear we are meant to take his performance deadly serious.

Backroom negotiations are made. Cynical burst of violence erupt. Tough lowlifes throw around f-bombs. The idealistic FBI man climbs the ladder of success. The crime kingpin's myth grows as he slowly starts taking over the city. Everything is told through a clunky framing device involving arrested participants relating their impressions of the events. See where this is going? It's not only the dreary familiarity that dooms Black Mass, but the tone. Instead of punching things up with snappy editing and bravura filmmaking, ala Scorsese's Goodfellas, or making a methodical procedural in the mold of David Fincher's Zodiac, Cooper opts for formulaic plotting and a snail-like pace. Making a slow-burn crime thriller is perfectly fine in theory, but Black Mass is a film without momentum, dramatic stakes, or a single character worth investing in. Of course, Cooper is attempting to de-glamorize this lifestyle and reveal the crippling consequences of making a pact with the devil, but even here, his film falls flat. Edgerton gives a credible performance as the dim-witted Connelly, but his interactions with Bulger, which should bristle with uneasy tension, are conventional to a fault.

Black Mass desperately wants us to be swept up in the sprawl of evil men doing evil things while also wagging a judgmental finger at us. The thrill of seeing male posturing in the form of fraternity has long lost it's sting, and the throng of wasted female characters filtering in and out of the proceedings is yet another reminder of the rampant misogyny of this well-worn milieu. Poor Dakota Johnson as Bulger's former flame; valiantly acting her ass off opposite a dead-eyed Depp. Poor Julianna Nicholson as Edgerton's long-suffering wife, saying things like "that Whitney is no good for ya", while in one hilariously bad faux-horror scene, allowing Depp's boogeyman to stroke her face while checking for a fever. Poor Juno Temple for…well, just poor Juno Temple. Setting a film set in a proverbial "man's world" doesn't necessarily mean you have to cast a bunch of talented actresses and then give them absolutely nothing to do.

Ultimately, this is a film without persecutive, depth, or anything that would redeem it's boring familiarity and caricatured take on the banality of evil. It just exits because it's a true-life crime story without taking into consideration why this particular rise and fall needed to be told in the first place. It has all the hallmarks of the genre; tough guy talk, bullets in the back of the head, sniveling criminals, and the heinous anti-hero giving a kindly old woman a hug, but it lacks that old fashioned Scorsese-esque throb of Catholic guilt that would have given it a pulse. Instead, what we get is power-point cinema; with Cooper and company ticking off all the boxes of a well-known crime saga. At the very least, Depp has another Halloween costume to add to his ever-expanding collection.

Time Out Of Mind

 

Cast: Richard Gere, Jena Malone, Ben Vereen, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Oren Moverman

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


In Oren Moverman's wonderful new film Time Out Of Mind, Richard Gere plays a homeless man on the streets of New York City trying to reconnect with his daughter (Jena Malone), while battling sleep deprivation, hunger, and mental instability. Even though that synopsis sounds like a superficial tale of a lost soul overcoming socioeconomic obstacles while striving for redemption, the beauty of Moverman's film is that, much like it's central character, it reaches inward rather than outward. Crucially, there's no generic uplift here, ala The Pursuit of Happiness or the melodramatic narrative constraints of something like The Soloist.

Rather, the film seeks to explore the aimless feeling of being homeless as well as the foggy mindset of someone who can't quite come to terms with their predicament . The film's largest hurdle is whether or not Moverman's daringly formal directorial choices distract from the ultimate messages he's trying to convey or deepen them. In some senses, the film is one huge high-wire act in which Gere's bewildered drifter is seen through refracted mirrors, windows, and narrow corridors; lost in a blur of bustling movement which cares little whether he lives or dies. It's a gamble that largely pays off thanks in large part to Gere's vanity-free performance as a deeply wounded, insecure man whose literally lost time. In one key scene, he asks a fellow street person "Am I homeless?", a question both egotistical and heartbreaking.

A bold cinematic experiment in the best sense of the word, Time Out Of Mind challenges the way we view the problem of homelessness and the actual human beings tossed aside by a system which keeps moving forward without them. Though Moverman's artful stylistic direction; lots of wide-shots, zoom lenses, and extremely long takes where bodies circle around Gere in a chaotic swirl, could be distracting from emotionally connecting to the story, it moves us further into the realm of sensitivity that a more conventional film would layer on with broad strokes. Gere's George is a character we've seen in a lot of movies; the kind of guy who at one point was perhaps too handsome and successful for his own good and whose love of alcohol and other vices led him into a gradual downward spiral. Of course, there's a past tragedy and the long estranged daughter who wants nothing to do with him as well; both tropes Hollywood films about homeless characters have beaten into a pathetic whimper. But Moverman and Gere refuse to give into easy impulses here; portraying George as a flawed, fully dimensional person who is simultaneously sympathetic and alienating. Much of the film is simply made up of long-held shots of Gere slowly zoning out, trying to fall asleep, panhandling, and swinging whisker from a paper bag. The all-encompassing sound design, which favors naturalism over post-production dubbing, also adds to the atmosphere of lived-in grittiness; with the lack of a traditional score forcing the audience, much like George, to become observers trapped inside a city where moment by moment, day by day, hope is being swallowed whole.

Of course, all is not hopeless, and Time Out Of Mind, despite the bleak subject matter, isn't an art-house piece of miserablism. Moverman is a humanist, and this is a deeply compassionate film, seen most obviously in key interactions George has with certain individuals around him; most notably, Ben Vereen as a chattering fellow homeless man who claims to be a great jazz musician. We've also seen this character in movies countless times before; the "crazy" guy on the street prattling on about personal experiences via societal diatribes, but rarely has a film given such a character actual room to breathe and grow organically. George's few moments with his daughter are also pitched just right, with Malone bringing world-weariness and real conviction to a part that could have been rote. There is also a moment of possible hope near the end that feels both intrinsic to the arc of George's character as well as a natural progression of his situation. It also feels earned in a way that a Hollywood picture with a similar ending probably would not. This is not a cheap push for emotional manipulation, but rather, a distillation of one person's arduous journey towards something approaching normality.

Time Out Of Mind is an important film, but it's importance lies in a contemplative approach to something that could have played as a political statement or theoretical essay on the issue of homelessness. This unhurried, fragmented aesthetic may alienate those looking for the kind of dramatic tension that this type of film seems to call out for. Of course, George's story doesn't need dramatic tension because dramatic tension doesn't exist in the world of someone living on the streets. Pure survival is all there is, and Moverman captures that struggle beautifully and without histrionics. And yet, we keep returning to Gere's face; weathered with age and yet still graceful, as he finally gives into the act of eating out of a trash can. This moment, crystalized in a single take, is emblematic of Moverman's sincere attempt at capturing the existence of someone who has given up on himself, which also reflects a society at large that would rather throw away half a bagel then deal with the outstretched hand of a vagrant.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

 

Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Eli Gorstein

Directors: Shlomi Elkabetz, Ronit Elkabetz

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Stories about the slippery complications of the legal system and the way in which such a construct fails to provide justice has intrinsic cinematic value. Films such as The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, and A Civil Action have all used the courtroom as a means for dramatic tension and character empathy. There's always a central figure fighting against legal difficulties, a despicable lawyer creating trumped-up arguments, and a grumpy judge who has little patience for grandstanding monologues. Such films are easily digestible because they speak to the way in which we all feel, to varying degrees, misunderstood and abused by the system. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a very different kind of legal courtroom drama; one where the very idea of justice and common sense is so mired in Israeli tradition and rabbinic law that it verges on extreme farce. There are no music swells, inspirational speeches, or formulaic digressions here; just the sight of a woman drug through a divorce trial over a series of years whose often placid expression, drained of every conceivable emotion, is more powerful than the standard theatrics we get in so many Hollywood courtroom dramas.

Long-suffering doesn't even begin to explain the plight of the titular Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz, in a remarkable performance), who wants a divorce from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a man whose piety is extolled at great length, both by his lawyer as well as the main judge (Eli Gorstein). Under Israeli law, Viviane can only be divorced if her husband gives her a religious bill called a "gett", of which he is staunchly unwilling to grant. The tyrannical religious qualifiers and inherent sexism of the system is laid bare here, as Viviane is forced to plead her case before a group of rabbinic judges who more or less indulge her demands as a kind of legal nuisance. There are witnesses, testimonies, arguments and counterarguments, all of which highlight Viviane's character as above reproach, despite attempts at dragging her name through the mud. Taking place almost entirely inside the courtroom and consisting of locked down point-of-view shots, Gett quickly becomes an absurdist tragedy about the ways in which women are systematically victimized by patriarchy. More than simply a damning critique of Israeli law, the film is also an indictment of institutionalized sexism in general. It's also, rather astonishingly, a gripping humanist drama about individual freedom and courage. However, inspiration doesn't derive from impassioned speeches by Viviane's well-meaning lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy), but instead through the tenacious perseverance and unbridled rage of a woman who will not be silenced.

Gett is the third directing collaboration between Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi after To Take a Wife and Seven Days, and it's clear that this partnership is at once assured and wholly authentic. As an actor, Ms. Elkabetz navigates a confluence of shifting emotions; from desperation and anger to head-shaking disbelief, and there's nothing more heartbreaking than her weathered face in tight close-up. It's a towering performance; nuanced and subtle, but also brimming with bottled up rage and frustration. The film, too, is unusually gripping given how it eschews sentimentality and emotional manipulation in favor of methodical conversations and philosophical inquiries. It often feels like a stage play in which the audience is locked inside a room with these characters, agonizing along with Viviane as days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months, and months turn to years.

More than anything, the beauty is in the details. The moment where Viviane takes her hair out of a bun while wearing a red blouse inside the courtroom, for example, feels like a startling reclamation of womanhood. Seen from the Western perspective, such actions may seem arbitrary, but here, Viviane's refusal to become another number in the Israeli domestic law rulebook takes on the sensation of genuine revolt. Still, the overall effect of the experience for her is physical, emotional, and psychological deterioration. The audience, too, is caught in an infuriating scenario. How long can this charade continue? Will Elisha relinquish his ego-driven need to keep his wife? When will Viviane have a complete mental breakdown? That the film remains engaging despite the hair-pulling frustration of seeing a woman unable to attain something that seems so simple comes down to the sharp writing and a game cast. These are characters revealed through their rhetoric rather than their actions in the outside world; a key point which the filmmakers underline constantly as each character circles Viviane in either an attempt to undermine or support her. Which brings us ultimately back to Ms. Elkabetz's rigorously layered performance; her face caught for long stretches in close-up. There's nowhere she can hide as an actor. Every small gesture and behavioral tic is captured, and when she finally does get the chance to cut lose with an unhinged monologue, she lets rip like a woman at long last breaking free of the shackles that bind.