Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: "Blue Jasmine"

Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 98 minutes

Remove a few small items from the frame like cell phones, and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine could take place almost anywhere in the past 50 years. There are no mentions of social networking or tablet computers, and the music (as always) is made up of jazz standards. In essence, Allen's latest could easily be a product of his output from the mid-70s and early 80s. Nowadays, Allen's films that receive a positive critical consensus often feel like minor pleasures, and a far cry from the good old days of his prime. By contrast, Blue Jasmine, despite its share of small flaws, feels like the first Allen film in years that feels like it belongs in the company of Annie Hall and Manhattan

A pseudo-retelling of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," Blue Jasmine still feels very comfortably like its own story. Whereas Williams' play (and its film version) only included the briefest mentions of the past, Allen spends much of his trim film jumping between past and present. This juxtaposition, in which we witness the rise and fall of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), lends the film an angle that makes it more relevant for a 21st century audience. When she arrives in San Francisco to stay with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine has more than her fair share of baggage. Allen, wisely, uses his flashbacks to gradually unpack it over the course of the narrative. 

The jumping between past and present could have undercut the film's development, but Allen's script is smart enough to use the two time periods to build on each other. Mostly known (and sometimes criticized) for his focus on the upper classes, his look at Blanchett and Hawkins' characters proves surprisingly well-rounded. In the end, both the fallen-from-grace Jasmine and the rough-around-the-edges Ginger have their share of problems, yet their differences ultimately make them incompatible of really helping each other. Ginger, playing the Stella to Jasmine's Blanche, gives Jasmine a place to stay after she loses everything, but that's about all she can really offer. By the time Jasmine leaves behind her cheating husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, effectively used) and flees to the West Coast in ruins, the damage has already been done. 

Very much like Ms. DuBois, Jasmine has a bit of a problem when it comes to nervous breakdowns, certainly not helped by her newfound addiction to booze and pills. In a nice referential touch, the titular character is named for Blanche's favorite scent, which lends an appropriately effervescent connection between "Streetcar" and Allen's bitter comedy of manners and malaises. The most obvious similarity here, basic premise aside, comes down to the leading lady, and Allen's transition could not prove more spot on for the 21st century. Whereas Blanche was a product of the plantation world, Jasmine comes from good genetic stock and managed to land herself a rich husband to whisk her off up to the 1%. 

As such, when Jasmine finally descends upon San Francisco, she brings with her a haughtiness that clashes with the earthier working class. Though Ginger does her best to put up with Jasmine's self-centered neurotics, her newest boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, always an enjoyable presence) can't muster up the same amount of sympathy. Jasmine is far past counting on the kindness of strangers, and that's putting it mildly. In these clashes between the haves and have-nots, Allen's script achieves a more expansive vision, even as it functions as a freeform character study. Yet because his principal characters are sharply drawn, the relatively uneventful narrative still possesses a sense of free-flowing movement. 

At the film's core, of course, is Blanchett's Jasmine. The regal Australian actress seizes the role by the throat and never lets go. Having spent time performing on stage, and largely avoiding lead roles, it's electrifying to see her back in the spotlight, more alive than ever. It's a very big character, filled with nervous tics and mood swings galore, but Blanchett finds enough room in moments both big and small to avoid overacting. 

Sally Hawkins proves a nice counterpart as the film's second largest role, her earthy and casual turn an appropriate counterweight to Blanchett's alcohol-soaked theatrics. Despite the flashiness of Blanchett's powerful turn, Hawkins is never overshadowed to the point where her scenes are a distraction. As Allen charts the paths of both sisters, he remains remarkably balanced in exploring both women, who are two wildly different sides of the same coin. A host of supporting roles, filled out by Baldwin, Cannavale, Louis CK, and Andrew Dice Clay are also handled effectively as they prop up the rest of the story. 

Like Tennessee Williams' work, the performances and writing of Blue Jasmine take a few minutes to adjust to. The film may not have the full-blown melodrama that characterized Williams' work, but there are aspects of Blue Jasmine that feel more than a little heightened. As for Allen, where his script provides engaging material for the cast, his directing can be a little clunky. As effortless as the transitions from past to present seem in retrospect, there are times when transitions come off as rushed. Allen, who has been working steadily for years now, occasionally lets his need to churn out an annual film get the best of him. In the first 20 minutes or so, the performers already appear ready for take off, while Allen's direction feels in need of further refinement. However, once Blue Jasmine gets its hooks in, it becomes an immensely satisfying comedy, with just the right touches of darkness and Allen-esque neuroses. 

The prolific director is already gearing up to shoot a film for next summer, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Yet even though the director has already moved on to his next project, it's worth taking the time to really savor Blue Jasmine beyond Blanchett's stellar performance. This film, awkward opening moments aside, feels like a glimpse at the director in top form. More than just "this year's Woody Allen movie," Blue Jasmine is a funny, smartly-observed character study that is at once perfectly contemporary, yet still timeless in its themes and subject matter. 

Grade: B+

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: "The Wolverine"

Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 126 minutes

In an age when superheroes dominate the summer with all manner of spectacle, there is something shockingly intimate about James Mangold's The Wolverine. Where the last standalone Wolverine movie was a jumbled, incoherent  mess, this one latches onto a single story and dives in headfirst. The number of mutants and flashy superpowers is kept to a minimum, and there's hardly a cheesy costume in sight. It makes sense that the word X-Men was taken out of the title for this latest enterprise, which is barely a superhero or action movie at all. The Wolverine is not without its flaws, but its modest ambitions and aversion to city-leveling chaos do produce some pleasing character-driven moments along the way.

There is, actually, a city that gets destroyed in The Wolverine, but it's not part of any titanic battle between mutants. Rather, it's the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, where Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is being held as a POW at a Japanese military prison. As he hides from the nuclear blast, he ends up saving Japanese soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura). Years later, an aging Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) calls on Logan via his aid Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Yet when Yukio finally finds the Wolverine, he's a shadow of himself. Still grappling with the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has let himself go (as much as his enhanced musculature will let him, that is). He looks like an unkempt mountain man, and largely avoids society and mutant heroics at any cost. 

And it's with very little enthusiasm that Logan goes with Yukio to Japan. Once there, he gets cleaned up, and learns that the old Yashida may be able to cure him of his immortality, allowing him to finally grow old and die. Of course, sinister forces are at work, and soon Logan is sucked into familial and political drama involving Yashida's son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Rather than get straight to the slicing, shooting, and stabbing, this film is content to take its time as it builds a pulpy mystery of a plot.

It takes roughly half an hour before the first action sequence arrives in the film, and it's not the most satisfying from a visual standpoint. Some of the editing is choppy and obscures the choreography. Yet even as I was somewhat frustrated by how some of the action was stitched together, I realized that I still found myself engaged with the material, and caring about what was going on. The script, from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has enough economical character work that you have reason to care about what's happening. 

More than any superhero film in recent years, The Wolverine is more content to act as a character piece. Each action sequence actually propels the narrative forward, and the scale is never magnified for the sake of creating unnecessary spectacle. Yes, the climactic showdown does take a cartoony left turn, but with the first two acts so effectively assembled, the sins of the last chunk of the story are largely forgivable. 

What the film lacks is simply any sort of stylistic stamp to heighten its positive qualities further. Darren Aronofsky was once attached to direct, way back in 2011. As many good things as Mangold brings to the table as a director, one can't help but wonder about the film that might have been under Aronofsky's guidance. To his credit, however, Mangold does make the film feel quite grounded, especially in the early stretches. He also pulls off a hugely enjoyable fight scene set atop a speeding bullet train, which has a certain disregard for physics yet feels completely in line with this more toned down aesthetic. 

And, as mentioned before, the film also keeps one engaged because of its dedication to character work. Jackman could easily play this role on autopilot by now, but the actor seems reinvigorated here. There are new shades of grief and exhaustion brought out by the plot, meaning that there's more for him to do than scowl and project sarcastic indifference. In fact, this film may contain the actor's best work as the X-Men's most famous member. The supporting Japanese cast are also quite enjoyable. Fukushima's red-haired Yukio has a fun dynamic with Wolverine that suggests a more hesitant Batman and Robin pairing. Even with Wolverine's existential gloom and doom, his partnership with Yukio creates some levity, and ensures that the film is never drowning in self-seriousness. Tao Okamato also handles her role quite well, and she's served quite nicely by the script. She may be in need of some rescuing at the end, but she's also been written as a smart and compassionate character who can throw a few punches and stabs when needed. 

Even Svetlana Khodchenkova (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as slinky femme fatale Viper is a great deal of fun. The film may shortchange her by not giving an ounce of time to her motivation or background, but the actress' vamping is tempered so as not to distract. She's a sign of the lingering cartoonishness of the X-Men world, but compared to other characters in the franchise's cinematic universe, she feels quite tame. That's one of the most interesting things about The Wolverine: aside from Jackman, the women are the ones who really dominate the screen, which makes for a nice change of pace in a genre overrun with testosterone. 

With X-Men: Days of Future Past, set to hit theaters next summer, there's a little bit of tension sapped from The Wolverine, knowing that the famed mutant has to survive in some capacity. And as spectacle, The Wolverine has only one noteworthy sequence (and honestly, I wanted the bullet train bit to go on much longer). But through all of the ordinariness of the film there remains an immense appeal in Jackman's version of the character. Here, he comes off as a gruffer and less polished Bond figure, and that's quite a good thing. The Wolverine may not be the great standalone Wolverine film that it once could have been. Yet in a summer filled with exhausting visual excess, there is something ultimately winning about a movie that pushes superhero theatrics to the side in favor of moody character drama for as long as it can, before the demands of the summer blockbuster come crashing in. And even then, Mangold's film remains remarkably small and focused in ambition and execution. The film may not have enough to make itself essential viewing, but it's worth checking out if only because of how effortlessly it works against being just another superhero movie.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: "The Conjuring"

Director: James Wan
Runtime: 112 minutes

From the moment the title card scrolls up onto the screen, James Wan's The Conjuring gleefully announces itself as a cinematic throwback to the 70s (both in style and in setting). Despite an R-rating, the Saw and Insidious director's latest film has barely any blood (and no noticeable gore) to speak of. Instead, it's content to make you jump and clench your armrest simply by holding the camera on an empty room, or unpretentiously showing someone receive a ghostly yank on the leg. Aside from the surprisingly strong digital photography, there's little that's new or 'modern' about Wan's approach to the haunted house sub-genre, but that's hardly a bad thing. What The Conjuring lacks in new ground, it makes up for with good old fashioned scares, tension, solid character work, and committed performances from its central quartet. 

Wan, a native of Australia, got his big Hollywood break with the Saw franchise, which has led to the much maligned type of horror known as torture porn. Yet despite the proliferation of such films in the past decade, Wan himself has grown quite a bit as a filmmaker. There are no heinous traps or masked figures to be found in The Conjuring, only twisted spirits and the humans they love to terrorize. Those humans are Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who move into a paranormal-prone house along with their five daughters. At first it's the small stuff that lets them know that something is rotten in the state of Rhode Island. Objects move. Doors slam. And, every once and a while, an unseen force seems to literally pull people's legs in their sleep. As the incidents intensify, however, the Perrons become determined to fight back.

Their best hope is paranormal expert Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). First introduced in a unsettling and slightly goofy opening (which includes an extraordinarily creepy doll), the Warrens take their profession seriously, even though they often run into cases with mundane solutions (one couple's ghost turns out to be no more than some old pipes). Despite the flashes of humor (some of which may not be entirely intentional), Wan treats the Warrens and the Perrons sincerely. The gradual progression of paranormal encounters is expertly handled, giving Wan and his actors room to build the characters (the adults, anyway) into more than just blank slates to be harassed from beyond the grave. 

The women are especially strong here, with Farmiga's psychic and Taylor's unhinged housewife contrasting to striking effect. Taylor, who starred in the disastrous haunted house film The Haunting (2000 remake), is afforded the most range, and the actress takes hold of the role without making Carolyn come off as dumb or shrill. Taylor's role takes her from curious to terrified to full on possessed, and the arc feels natural given her naturalism and the script's patience.  

Farmiga, meanwhile, brings an understated mix of strength and vulnerability to Lorraine that serves the character and the film well once the final act arrives. Like Ed, Lorraine is a professional (as much as a paranormal investigator can be a professional). So when the Perrons call on the Warrens for expert help, they actually receive it. Even as events spiral out of control, the writing is smart enough to not just tell us that the Warrens know what they're doing. There are moments of doubt and moments where the house has the (invisible) upper hand, but Ed and Lorraine know how to maintain composure and fight back, rather than become another pair of annoying victims. The Warrens' own relationship drama may be rather thin, but the conviction of the performers in the scenes truly relevant to the plot ring true enough to further heighten the stakes. 

As far as technical aspects go, John Leonetti's cinematography, which evokes the 70s through its sepia-tinged color palette, is outstanding without drawing too much attention to itself. Combined with Wan's smart use of long takes, the camera work and lighting are a big part of what makes The Conjuring's scares work so well. Even when setting up for a jump scare, Wan allows the camera to linger longer than most of his contemporaries. He allows the tension to build, subside, build again, subside again, and then execute the big moment. Wan's camera doesn't want you to cover your eyes for the entire movie. It wants you to hold them open as long as you possibly can, so that the moment that you flinch or jump is even more intense.

Rather than throw a bunch of chaos at the screen, the formalism of the filmmaking gives even the simplest shots the sense that someone or something is lurking just out of sight. Julie Berghoff's art direction is also first rate, with everything from the Perron's basement to the Warren's room full of possessed artifacts brimming with the potential for a good scare. With so many horror films content to look either grimy or purposefully unpolished (such as found footage films), it's refreshing to see Wan and his collaborators put so much effort into the film's production design and atmosphere. 

Only Joseph Bishara's score stands out in any negative capacity. The film's most intense moments are those agonizing seconds as the camera pans across a room in near silence. When the screaming and running begins, however, Bishara lays it on thick with blaring horns that would be more at home in straight-faced. Still, it's not enough to break the spell that Wan and co. cast from the film's opening moments. Though the anticipation is often more satisfying than the actual scare, The Conjuring consistently manages to put one just slightly on edge, and always for a few seconds longer than expected. In an age where stores of ghosts and ghouls are captured on crummy camcorders and iPhones, The Conjuring's dedication to classic technique is actually a breath of fresh air. If anything, it's the frantic cell-phone horror films of the past few years that feel out of date, rather than Wan's film, which reaches more than 30 years into the past for its inspiration.

Grade: B/B-

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: "Only God Forgives"

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 90 minutes

If we're to believe the title of Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up to Drive, then the writer/director better get on his knees and start praying. Odds are, he won't find much forgiveness outside of the realm of the divine and supernatural. Re-teaming with newfound alter ego Ryan Gosling, Refn has fashioned a spiritual successor to his last film, with all of the traces of character development completely excised. The result is a numbing effort, one that explains and justifies the jeers that greeted the film upon its Cannes premiere in May.

Refn's work has always concerned violence, but even compared strictly to Drive, the gulf in quality between his last two films is mind-boggling. Drive took a paper thin story and actually made something of its long glances and limited dialogue. Gosling's nameless driver was pushed to commit brutal acts of violence, yet in doing so he discovered something about himself: that, try as might, brutality was his only means of expression. The most telling shot in that film comes after he saves Carey Mulligan's character by taking down an assassin in an elevator. As Mulligan steps out and looks at Gosling, he can only remain frozen over the fresh corpse. His face is stoic, yet tearful, and you know that the best he can do to express his care for Mulligan and her child is by succumbing to brute protective force.

In Only God Forgives, there isn't even a trace of a thematic thread to the characters or violence on display. The motivation for nearly every action is revenge and retaliation, and all of the neon-lit hallways and stone-faced stares in the world can't elevate the material beyond that. Consider Refn's newest film what Drive would have been had someone cut out the opening half hour, and left the film as nothing more than a blank and bloody slate. 

Even the basic story, about boxing manager/drug smuggler named Julian (Gosling) seeking revenge for his dead brother Billy (Tom Burke) gets lost in Refn's stylistic indulgences. Worse, the film barely gives enough breathing room to its MVP: Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy's bleached blonde dragon lady of a mother. The role is juicy and campy, yet outside of a bizarrely funny dinner scene, Crystal comes up short from the writing perspective. 

Though at least Scott Thomas, in a role unlike anything she's ever done, holds your attention with all of her icy glares and snarled lines. Gosling, who can work wonders with limited dialogue and internal projection, is little more than a hunky action figure to be used and (very heavily) abused. Crystal may force Julian to seek revenge on Julian's killer (a blade-wielding ex-cop played by Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm), but even when Julian accepts the mission, the narrative feels stillborn. Without a more informative opening to provide some reason to engage with the material, Only God Forgives is frustrating and boring, when it could have been gripping and hypnotic.

With the script so wafer thin, even Refn's technical collaborators can't provide any truly engaging moments. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who knows how to capture glowing shades of color and light (ex: Eyes Wide Shut), is left with little to work with other than drenching hallways and rooms in neon. On the other hand, Cliff Martinez's score, barring one fantastic track, goes over-the-top to create atmosphere. Utilizing a series of simple notes, Martinez's cranks out compositions that sound like rejects from The Shining. The soft electronic notes from Drive were a perfect compliment to the images. This time, however, the effect is jarring (and not intentionally, so it would seem), with blaring, ominous notes flooding the scene to no effect whatsoever. 

The biggest offender of the film, however, has to be the sense of pretension behind some of the imagery. A series of dream and fantasy sequences are scattered across the film, yet the cumulative effect is mostly shrug-inducing. If Refn was trying to go for some sort of unsettling Lynchian surrealism, he miscalculated quite badly. The same is much to true of the film as a whole. For all of Drive's arty flourishes and minimalistic dialogue, there was some semblance of a beating heart running underneath it all. By contrast, Only God Forgives, despite the slit throats and stab wounds, is little more than a bloodless bore.

Grade: D

Thursday, July 18, 2013

2013 Dream Emmy Ballot

Even with TV currently in a new Golden Age, the run-up to the Emmys never quite hits the level of mania that surrounds its big screen equivalent (the Oscars). Even with two months between the nominations (announced today), and the ceremony, there's no frantic rush of televised precursor awards. It's a shame, because as one would expect of a Golden Age of TV, there are quite a few great shows and performances out there. 

So, even though it (obviously) counts for nothing, below is what my Emmy ballot would look like for the 2012-2013 TV season. This was made before the nominations were announced this morning, so and none of my picks have been altered to compensate for what I feel were glaring omissions (*cough*Tatiana Maslany*cough*). It's called a dream ballot for a reason.

Best Drama Series
Breaking Bad
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men
Orphan Black
The Americans

Best Comedy Series
Bob's Burgers
Parks and Recreation

Best Miniseries/TV Movie
American Horror Story: Asylum
Behind the Candelabra
Black Mirror
Parade's End
Top of the Lake

Best Actor - Drama Series
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Hugh Dancy - Hannibal
Damian Lewis - Homeland
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Timothy Olyphant - Justified
Kevin Spacey - House of Cards

Best Actor - Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin - 30Rock
Jason Bateman - Arrested Development
H. Jon Benjamin - Archer
Louis CK - Louie
Joel McHale - Community
Adam Scott - Parks and Recreation

Best Actor - Miniseries/TV Movie
Benedict Cumberbatch - Parade's End
Matt Damon - Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas - Behind the Candelabra
Al Pacino - Phil Spector
Daniel Rigby - Black Mirror

Best Actress - Drama Series
Claire Danes - Homeland
Kate Mara - House of Cards
Tatiana Maslany - Orphan Black
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men
Keri Russell - The Americans
Robin Wright - House of Cards

Best Actress - Comedy Series
Laura Dern - Enlightened
Lena Dunham - Girls
Tina Fey - 30Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Veep
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation
Aisha Tyler - Archer

Best Actress - Miniseries/TV Movie
Hayley Atwell - Black Mirror
Rebecca Hall - Parade's End
Jessica Lange - American Horror Story: Asylum
Helen Mirren - Phil Spector
Elisabeth Moss - Top of the Lake
Sarah Paulson - American Horror Story: Asylum

Best Supporting Actor - Drama
Bobby Cannavale - Boardwalk Empire
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau - Game of Thrones
Charles Dance - Game of Thrones
Walton Goggins - Justified
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
Corey Stoll - House of Cards

Best Supporting Actor - Comedy
Donald Glover - Community
Alex Karpovsky - Girls
Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation
Damon Wayons Jr. - Happy Endings
Mike White - Enlightened
Luke Wilson - Enlightened

Best Supporting Actor - Miniseries/TV Movie
James Cromwell - American Horror Story: Asylum
Peter Mullan - Top of the Lake
Zachary Quinto - American Horror Story: Asylum

Best Supporting Actress - Drama
Joelle Carter - Justified
Natalie Dormer - Game of Thrones
Michelle Fairley - Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad
Lena Heady - Game of Thrones
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men

Best Supporting Actress - Comedy
Alison Brie - Community
Anna Chlumsky - Veep
Eliza Coupe - Happy Endings
Jane Krakowski - 30Rock
Jessica Walter - Arrested Development
Casey Wilson - Happy Endings

Best Supporting Actress - Miniseries/TV Movie
Adelaide Clemmens - Parade's End
Holly Hunter - Top of the Lake
Lily Rabe - American Horror Story: Asylum

Best Directing - Drama Series
"Chapter 11" - House of Cards
"Dead Freight" - Breaking Bad
"Endless Forms Most Beautiful" - Orphan Black
"Ghost" - Justified
"In Care Of" - Mad Men
"In Control" - The Americans

Best Directing - Comedy Series
"Agent of Change" - Enlightened
"Follow Me" - Enlightened
"Hostages" - Veep
"It's a Shame About Ray" - Girls
"Last Lunch" - 30Rock
"The Key" - Enlightened

Best Directing - Miniseries/TV Movie
Behind the Candelabra
"Be Right Back" - Black Mirror
"Episode 3" - Parade's End
"Episode 3" - Top of the Lake
"Episode 4" - Top of the Lake
"White Bear" - Black Mirror

Best Writing - Drama Series
"Chapter 5" - House of Cards
"Dead Freight" - Breaking Bad
"In Care Of" - Mad Men
"In Control" - The Americans
"Kissed By Fire" - Game of Thrones
"The Better Half" - Mad Men

Best Writing - Comedy Series
"Agent of Change" - Enlightened
"All I Ever Wanted" - Enlightened
"Honeymooners" - Archer
"Last Lunch" - 30Rock
"Signals" - Veep
"Topsy" - Bob's Burgers

Best Writing - Miniseries/TV Movie
Behind the Candelabra
"Be Right Back" - Black Mirror
"Episode 3" - Parade's End
"Episode 3" - Top of the Lake
"Episode 4" - Top of the Lake
"White Bear" - Black Mirror

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: "A Field in England"

Director: Ben Wheatley
Runtime: 90 minutes

For a film with only one real set (a small tent), Ben Wheatley's A Field in England is filled to the brim with influences (intentional or not). Among them: David Lynch, Sergio Leone, Harold Pinter, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, HBO's Carnivale, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stalker, and even Shakespeare. Take one look at that list, and it seems like a recipe for the most pretentious sort of train wreck. Instead, A Field in England (Wheatley's fourth film), is far and away the director's most accomplished work. Its visual minimalism becomes a perfect template for dark tale that cryptically withholds explanation in favor of grim and hypnotic sights and sounds.

Appropriately, the opening minutes are the least appealing set. Though Wheatley's actors are much more intelligible than in his grim thriller Kill List, the way he and co-writer Amy Jump thrust one into the situation can be frustrating. Within minutes, we meet the cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), fleeing a battle during the English Civil War, who then runs into a group of gruff oddballs: Julian Barratt's coarse mercenary, Richard Glover's bumbling squire, and Peter Ferdinando's domineering soldier. As the quartet flees the battlefield to seek an inn, ale, and women, the only period details to speak of are the costumes. Other than that, the actors are largely left wandering through England's lush wheat fields. 

Yet as the first act builds to a close, Wheatley and Jump's script, coupled with the sturdy work from the cast, begins to fall into place. The ornate dialogue produces some flickers of humor, as well as some clever turns of phrase that liven up scenes of men merely wandering through fields. And then Ferdinando's soldier really gets things going by sneaking some rather potent mushrooms into the raggedy clan's soup. Not much later, a man named O'Neill (Michael Smiley) takes over the meandering expedition, and Wheatley begins to drag us down his increasingly surreal rabbit hole. Like the men in the aforementioned Tarkovsky film, the journey's progression across ordinary landscapes soon develops a palpable sense of darkness.

O'Neill's arrival signals the point where those who haven't fallen in sync with the tone and atmosphere will become completely disconnected. As with the works of Lynch, there's often only so much weirdness one can handle before being woken from a film's spell. Much to my surprise, I found myself largely entranced by Wheatley's techniques, rather than frustrated. Even the puzzling interludes, which involve the main characters posing as if in a painting, feel perfectly in line with everything else, even as one struggles to make sense of it all. It's a puzzle, and a vague one a that. However, by keeping his narrative simple (it eventually becomes a treasure-hunt film), Wheatley is free to supercharge his stylistic choices. 

And, to Wheatley's credit, he never leaves his actors in the dust as he turns up the style to full blast. As limited as their backstories are, the characters' personalities come through effectively thanks to the film revolving entirely around their interactions (good, bad, and in-between). Shearsmith, initially somewhat grating, grows into his role. As Whitehead moves from coward to unlikely (and very twisted) hero, Shearsmith emerges as the film's MVP. With his long unkempt hair and dowdy features, he's a perfect fit for the role from his pathetic beginnings, and all the way through his character's unsettling transformation. Smiley, on the other hand, proves an invaluable asset as the film's antagonist. With his imposing demeanor, grizzled looks, and off-kilter face, he brings an understated presence to a role that could have too easily slipped into grandiose villainy. 

Like Smiley's character, A Field in England is all about what it can communicate from the thinnest bits of information. Working with cinematographer Laurie Rose and composer James Williams, Wheatley is able to drive his film home without ever over-doing the technical aspects. Even in the film's most bizarre sequence, brought on by one too many mushrooms and some mind-warping editing by Wheatley and Jump, it manages to stay on course. Similar films (this year's Upstream Color, to name one) often get ahead of themselves as they try to become more abstract and opaque. A Field in England is certainly both of those traits, but in such a way that never loses sight of its simple (yet oh-so-surreal) tale. 

As one figure emerges at the end of the film, confident about where's he's headed, it's hard not to think that this figure is a perfect avatar for Mr. Wheatley. Having gone through ups and downs, he has emerged as a more accomplished filmmaker, one whose uncanny ability to generate atmosphere has finally been paired with a script that benefitted, rather than suffered, from his ever-evolving voice. And to think that all it took was a handful of mushrooms...

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: "Fruitvale Station"

Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 85 minutes

At the Q&A session after a screening of Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler said that he felt more connected to characters whose lives unfolded over mere hours, versus characters whose lives take up decades on the big screen. This take on time and character is the driving force behind Coogler's writing and directing debut, which took the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. By keeping his 85-minute film's focus largely on a few hours of his protagonist's life, Coogler achieves an intimacy and power that would have likely been diluted had he tried to expand the scope. Fruitvale Station (originally titled Fruitvale) is more than just a remarkable debut. It's a beautiful film about life and second chances that feels like the work of a socially conscious veteran filmmaker.

Moments of Fruitvale Station may be embellished or even entirely made up, but the film opens with the blunt truth: cell-phone footage of 22 year-old Oscar Grant III (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan), being violently abused, and subsequently shot to death, by police at a train station. The footage is heavily pixelated, but its impact is undeniable. With this key moment out of the way, Coogler then rewinds, and jumps into Grant's life in the hours leading up to that fateful incident on New Year's Day. 

What Coogler accomplishes with his take on Grant's final hours is a deeply human treatment of his subject without turning him into a saint. Even with the inevitability of Grant's death established at the outset, Coogler and his talented cast create an atmosphere that, for all of its narrative ups and downs, is a celebration of life. Jordan, best known for his work on the acclaimed TV series The Wire and Friday Night Lights, delivers a star-making, naturalistic performance as Grant. A young man capable of extreme tenderness and spontaneous rage, Oscar clearly wants to turn his life around (a brief flashback informs us that he was once imprisoned). 

As he suffers both setbacks (his boss' refusal to rehire him at the local supermarket) and minor triumphs (his relationship with his daughter), Coogler avoids the one pitfall that could have sunk his film. Rather than hammer home Oscar's upcoming death at every turn, Fruitvale Station remains life-affirming even when Oscar fails. Take away the story's tragic end, and what remains is a simple (but not simplistic) and effective character portrait, told with smart efficiency. With straightforward camera-work and direction, the film is emotional, without ever becoming cloying. Coogler's script may not go to the absolute depths of Oscar's negative traits, but he still manages to give a sense of fully understanding his complex protagonist.

And even though the film is all about Oscar, Coogler never simplifies the people he interacts with. We may not have quite the same level of interaction with Oscar's girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), or his mother (Octavia Spencer), but they exist as more than mere sounding boards to show us another angle of Oscar's personality. It's a credit to both Coogler and Diaz that Sophina comes off as a compassionate and understandable character, rather than a stereotypical shrill girlfriend. Sophina rarely cuts Oscar slack, but it comes from a place of tough (at, at times, very frustrated) love, rather than lazy one-note bitchy antagonism.

Yet it's Spencer who nearly runs away with the film in her minimal screen time. In the aforementioned prison flashback, the actress is able to communicate a detailed and textured relationship with her son. The inherent mother-child love is there, but so is the conflict and dismay at some of his decisions. In a film that, out of necessity, is mostly focused on one character, Spencer's vital supporting turn is packed with tiny moments and nuances that elevate it miles above a stock mother character. Compassionate, yet never manipulative or histrionic, Spencer is as much the heart of the film as Oscar.

When it comes to the death of Oscar Grant, issues of race and racial profiling are necessary aspects of the conversation. For Coogler, however, the intent appears to be less about throwing up a middle finger to unjust profiling so much as it is to celebrate the lives of people who, for all of their faults, are trying their hardest to better themselves and make their way in life. Even when the film's recreation of the New Year's Day shooting arrives, Coogler smartly refuses to slip into heavy-handed political sermonizing. As overly aggressive as the train station police officers are, they are never turned into mindless thugs or mustache-twirling villains, even as they remain the guilty party. 

Fruitvale Station clearly has the power to lend some texture to discussions on modern day race and racism, yet the film is mature enough to function completely outside of that realm as well. Whether it's taken as nothing more than a tragic character study, or as a statement on the way snap-judgements and profiling dehumanize certain segments of the population, Coogler's film is a standout debut, one whose Sundance hype appears to have been fully justified. 

Grade: B+

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: "Pacific Rim"

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Runtime: 132 minutes

With so many summer tentpoles designed to launch franchises, there's something refreshing about a film willing to start at the end. Pacific Rim, the latest film from Mexican monster maestro Guillermo Del Toro, condenses an entire story's worth of exposition into a swift opening reel that could practically function as its own open-ended short film. With big visuals and a smattering of exposition from protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), Pacific Rim establishes the beginning of its world, and then gives itself room to comfortably exist in that world for the remainder of the story. It's a structural decision that pays off in spades, and ensures that this simple, crowd-pleasing effort provides maximum entertainment. 

Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham haven't necessarily created a truly original story. The set-up, which shares DNA with everything from Godzilla to the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, is more of a template for Del Toro to do what he does best: create phenomenal creatures to wreak havoc. Those creatures are known as kaiju, and they emerge, in good ole sci-fi fashion, from a trans-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean. One by one, they lay siege to cities, and humanity fights back by creating monsters of its own: giant robots, with two pilots (one for each brain hemisphere) called jaegers. In other words, it's the sort of narrative a 12 year old boy might come up with on an afternoon left at home alone with his action figures. 

That youthful enthusiasm is present from the start, even as it's channeled through the vision of a skilled visual craftsman. As Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi's score surges underneath, and we see two pilots lock into their massive machine, it's hard to feel anything but pure giddiness. For all of the grandiose destruction on display, Del Toro strikes a tone that is light, yet still sincere and fun.

Rather than bog the narrative down in the dire circumstances and existential worries of the characters, Del Toro and Beacham create just enough surface character development for one to engage. Raleigh is dealing with a previous trauma involving his former co-pilot, while new pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles to control her emotions and memories while merged in the robot's core. And then there's commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the man desperate to hold the jaeger program together, even as the world's governments withdraw their support. 

The story's sense of finality (humanity is in a last ditch attempt to close the oceanic portal) is present, but never to a degree that it sinks the story. The characters may be largely exhausted by the toll of the fight for survival, yet the film is anything but gloomy. Barring a few dips in its character-building sequences, Del Toro's pacing is engaging and fluid. The robots and kaiju are massive (and captured from angles to highlight their scale at every turn), and their clashes are appropriately epic. Yet, despite the stakes, this is not a case of a film's apocalyptic violence becoming overbearing and numbing. Even as most of the battles take place at night, in the water, and in the rain, there is a sense of clarity to the (stunningly-rendered) clashes. 

The fun of the whole experience is more than enough to compensate for the cliched characters. Some are nicely handled (Elba is always a formidable presence), while others are merely functional (Hunnam is a blandly appealing lead), but under Del Toro's guidance, even the cliches become largely enjoyable. Similar to Gore Verbinski's Rango, Pacific Rim sets out to take all of the typical cliches of monster movies and mecha cartoons and simply mash them together with a knowing, polished eye. 

So even though Del Toro and Beacham don't infuse the script with the same level of bizarro wit than lifted Rango above its own cliches, the pair still craft a story that builds nicely to a satisfying conclusion. Though hardly meant to sear any images into your imagination (aside from the monsters), Pacific Rim is an unqualified success of geeky boyish enthusiasm. Del Toro has been given a budget that dwarfs those of all of his previous film, and it's a joy to see his visual imagination blown up on such a massive scale. A more complicated narrative would have only prevented the film from being the sort of straightforward joyride that it winds up being. Rather than try and bring the emotional depth and striking storytelling of efforts like Pan's Labyrinth to the monster genre, Del Toro has opted to sit back and play with his digitized creations. Usually it isn't fun to watch someone else play with their toys (especially if it's a video game). Consider Pacific Rim a nutty exception to the rule.

Grade: B/B-