Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: "Force Majeure"

Director: Ruben Ostlund
Runtime: 118 minutes

If you're thinking of going on a ski trip with a significant other soon, then perhaps it's best to hold off on seeing Force Majeure until you get back (hopefully in one peace). After seeing Sweden's official submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, that trip to Boulder or Aspen isn't going to look like the best idea. Director Ruben Ostlund, in his fourth feature, has created an often beautiful-looking film, but the scenic backdrops of the Swiss Alps come with a price that's both acidly funny and brutally uncomfortable. We kicked off October with Gone Girl, a stylish mystery that was also a the perfect anti-date movie. Though quite different in set up, Force Majeure is a great way to end the month; it's the perfect Omega to Gone Girl's Alpha.

Ostlund's previous three films have all dealt with people facing tense situations, but in Force Majeure, he's able to poke and prod at that most sacred source of right-wing comfort: the nuclear family. The opening scene literally positions Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Kongsli), and their two children as a picture perfect family. On a five day ski trip in Switzerland, they're undergoing heavy coaching from a photographer as they pose against the towering mountainside and immaculate powder. Sure, it's a bit of an annoyance, but hey, at least we'll get some cute family pictures, right?

Unity is the initial defining trait of the well-to-do Swedish quartet. They ride the ski lift quenue together, all sleep in the same cozy bed, and even brush their teeth together on four identical electric toothbrushes. They were basically made to be in an Ikea catalogue. Sure, Tomas has a habit of working too hard (early on, Ebba teases him about checking his iPhone), but the first day on the slopes proves to be exactly what they need.

Unfortunately for the family (a surname is never given), the mountains have other things in store. In what has become the film's signature shot since its premiere at Cannes, everyone watches a controlled avalanche on a perfectly situated open-air restaurant. It looks as picture perfect as the opening photo session, until it gets a bit bigger and appears to be heading straight for the the spectators. Turns out, it's a false alarm, but too much has already been set in motion. While Ebba does her best to grab the kids, Tomas pulls a George Costanza, and takes off on his own, knocking over others along the way. Everyone is understandably shaken-up about the incident, but they get through the rest of the day perfectly fine. Until the kids finally go to bed, and Ebba voices her concern about Tomas' actions.

What Force Majeure lacks in character backgrounds or motivations, in makes up for with increasingly intense in-the-moment verbal sparring. The immediate aftermath presents a bit of a lull, as the family (mostly Ebba) processes the event, but then the first dinner scene arrives and squirm-inducing disagreements drop Tomas and Ebba off on a perilously slippery slope. As the couple tries to explain what happened (Tomas denies the accusation that he ran away), Ostlund carefully chips away at his lovely little Ikea family. Ebba gets the spotlight first, and watching her trust in Tomas crumble is when Force Majeure starts to deliver. Both actors are excellent, and his shift in perspective across the film's two hours gives the film a well-rounded, increasingly awkward, sense of characterization. At first, it seems like only Kongsli is going to really get to dig into her role, but the shift to Tomas (the accused) is handled seamlessly over the course of a double date dinner scene that oh-so-lightly tips its hat to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

With Tomas knocked down off of his pedestal as the presumed protector and provider, Ostlund's sly subversion of gender roles really starts to give Force Majeure its unique edge. Struggling spouses aren't anything new, but the hypothetical quality is a source of the film's bursts of caustic humor. The film's second half positions itself as the story of a man trying to reclaim his his title as head of the house, but Ostlund's endgame is more than just a war of the sexes. The most important scene of the film, involving one character's blatant emotional manipulation of others, is but a pyrrhic victory. Balance is restored, but only on the surface. Ostlund's conclusion is able to come full circle without taking an accidental, sexist step backwards.

Despite the cramped spaces and tense dialogue scenes, Ostlund's visuals are equally informative. The ski lift queue, first seen as just another passage, becomes a cramped, suffocating space when revisited. Everyone is sneaking looks at each other, trying to gauge what Tomas' move would be in the face of another potential disaster. The picturesque ski resort starts taking on a menacing quality, it's ultra modern log cabin aesthetic becoming less comforting with each passing scene. The resort may not be Switzerland's answer to the Overlook Hotel, but it doesn't exactly offer solace or warmth. The rumblings of nearby explosions - set to cause more controlled avalanches - create a perfect natural soundtrack for the film's emotional escalation.

For all of the film's tightly-wound conversations, Force Majeure is still a beautiful looking film. Stellar photography captures the sleek drabness of the hotel, as well as the overwhelming size and majesty of the mountains. A sequence with Tomas and his friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, also wonderful) enjoying a guy's day on the slopes demonstrates that Ostlund is as talented at framing shots as he is dissecting his characters under a microscope. Interior visuals have great fun playing with space, as in one very funny conversation between Mats and his girlfriend in a narrow elevator. The repeated musical cue, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, serves as a sinisterly funny marker of the passage of time. Editing is elegant and simple, and keeps the story moving along as smooth as a brand new Maserati (or rather, Volvo).

In a year with so many wonderful accomplishments, it's hard to believe that there's room left for something to grab hold on one's attention. Force Majeure may not have Boyhood's structural conceit or Birdman's simulated single shot, but it brings a completeness to the table that has eluded so many of 2014's very best films. Ostlund's ability with tone and pacing (not to mention his actors) is never less than outstanding. The subject matter may be wince-inducing, but the execution is so graceful that looking away is never an option. That is, unless you're still planning on taking that ski trip.

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Eden"

Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Runtime 131 minutes

Spanning three decades and featuring a fine cast of largely unknown performers, Mia Hansen-Love's fourth feature captures a musical movement in light brushstrokes rather than minute, pointillist details. The rise and semi-fall of one of French house music's eminent DJ's may seem like an overly niche story, but Eden's big canvas is more than a fictionalized music biopic. Like Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air, it's a tale of youth in revolt. This revolution, however, takes place in clubs and dance halls, and strives to work within a system to bring about something new, rather than tear down what's currently in place (make music, not molotov cocktails). 

Eden takes its title from a 1992 fanzine about electronic and garage music, but it also opens in a more literal eden as well. After a night out in a party on a boat, young Paul (Felix de Givry) wanders into the nearby forest, unable to get the music he's just heard out of his head. Waking up to grey skies, he joins up with his friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka), and asks the party's DJ about a particular entrancing track. The Eden where Paul's journey begins is a place where the young teen discovers the path he'd like to set himself on. Dance music may be tempting to Paul's eager young mind, but it's hardly a forbidden fruit. 

So often, the club scene is presented as a blaring, sweaty, grimy environment for coke and ecstasy dealers and their prey. But, since Eden is set at the outset of France's club movement, Hansen-Love has captured the party scenes in a less hyperbolic manner. The thudding, thumping beats of the music may blast out of the speakers and get your rib cage to tremble, but the movement of the bodies on screen is anything but extreme. The young coterie of clubbers are there to dance, talk, and simply get lost in the music. It's a communal experience as much as it is a sonic one. It's a naturalistic depiction, and Hansen-Love deserves immense credit for never deviating from this idea. 

If Eden does one thing flawlessly, it's immersing the viewer in its party scenes. With the aid of an expertly-curated soundtrack (featuring more than 40 songs), the film breezes through its two hour plus runtime. Characters are constantly on the move, whether its in a rush to set up for a gig, or simply sharing a walk or cab ride home in the dark. The sharp editing from Marion Monnier keeps scenes uncluttered, and never allows the story's momentum to flag, even with the title cards that signpost how far along the film is in its story. 

Like much of the music in the background, though, Eden becomes less distinct once it's over. You're left with the basic idea of certain moments, characters, and songs, without being able to point to many of them specifically. The pacing keeps the film in line with Paul's go-go-go mindset, and this certainly works on the surface. Yet as Paul starts to forget about the non-musical aspects of his life, Eden starts to forget to care about too much of the rest of the ensemble and their stories. 

For starters, there's an overwhelming number of names and faces introduced and then dropped, with only a few being worth the time. Part of what made Something in the Air work so well was its ability to balance its three or four main characters with a broader ensemble. Eden sets itself up in a similar manner, but then stretches its tapestry out too far. Paul's touchy relationship with his girlfriend Louise (Pauline Etienne) is one of the few threads that actually feels as though its taken to completion. On the other hand, Cyril's involvement comes to an end far too soon, and his eventual absence robs Eden of some dramatic tension. Cyril's gradual slide into depression turns him into an intriguing semi-antagonist, but his story is promptly jettisoned once Paul and his band go to New York. 
Meanwhile, characters who stick around far longer also prove to be far less interesting. Like Daft Punk, Paul's electro group Cheers is made of two DJs. Though Paul's partner in crime is present in countless scenes, his personality is just about non-existent. Indie star cameos from Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet do little to enhance the on screen character dynamics. 

Hansen-Love's script (co-written with her brother Sven, a former DJ) invites so many people into its non-stop party, but it's only a good host to a select few. By the time Eden gets to the obligatory struggle-with-drugs stage of the story, even Paul starts to feel a bit thin as the ostensible protagonist. His attraction to house/electronic/garage music is efficiently explained at the beginning, but his drive to pursue a career as a DJ is never delved into. The struggles of putting together shows, not to mention the financial toll of his career path, is barely touched upon. Whether it's the coke problem or the financial woes, the issues in Paul's life don't feel terrible pressing until they actually need to be dealt with. Hansen-Love's style is commendable and works a few small miracles, but the final scene is too distant and lacks a convincing perspective. Paul, and the rest of Eden's cast, simply aren't compelling enough to break through Eden's immense wall of sound. 

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: "Fury"

Director: David Ayer
Runtime: 134 minutes

"War is hell." It's not a new idea. It hasn't been for a very, very long time. Even so, it's not impossible to find something new (or at least fresh) to add to one of the most obvious statements in the English language. David Ayer's WW2 tank actioner, however, isn't up to the task of doing or saying anything remotely new or creative. Though there's plenty of impressive technical work on display, Fury's characters are such cardboard cutouts that there's next to nothing to connect to beyond surface investment in the protagonist's survival.

Our set up is as follows: Army desk clerk Norman (Logan Lerman) is assigned to fill the place of the titular tank, headed by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt, rocking the same unfortunate hairdo that Jake Gyllenhaal suffered through in Prisoners). Norman's first task is to clean the brains of his predecessor out of his seat, while the rest of the hardened crew look on, mostly with derision. The other tank-mates include Bible-quoting cannon expert Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), driver Gordo (Michael Pena), and shell-loader Grady (Jon Bernthal). They're all assholes in their own special ways.

Now, here's a fun game: who lives and who dies? If you're expecting surprises, don't. As American soldiers march through war torn German terrain, Fury marches through every plot development we've come to expect in war stories about the Greatest Generation. Playing spot-the-cliche is often as interesting as the scenes where guns and bombs aren't going off. 

Most of Fury is simply a prolonged set-up for its final firefight, wherein the tank's crew, stranded on a rural road, must face off against 300 Nazi foot soldiers. When it comes to carnage, Ayer and his behind the scenes team really do know what they're doing. The claustrophobia of the tank's interior adds an extra layer of tension as the situation grows more dire. Editing and sound work give all of the heavily armed chaos proper emphasis without bludgeoning the viewer, and the make up team ensures that war looks as grimy as possible. Steven Price's booming score is sporadically effective, though it's often too big for its own good. At least it gives the viewer something else to listen to other than the dialogue. Turns out, the only time when Fury comes alive is when scores of people are dying.

Yet it's difficult to find anything worthy of praise when it comes down to the men who we spend more than two bloody hours with. Norman's arc has been done to death, and neither Ayer nor Lerman have come up with anything intriguing about the film's supposed window into the physical and mental toll of war. Pitt, at least, gives the film a consistent performance to hold the stale drama together, but Wardaddy's standard tough yet honorable leader schtick is too restrictive to achieve great depth. 

The supporting players don't fare much better, though often for different reasons. Pena simply doesn't have enough to do, while LaBeouf is stuck fighting a battle against the editors and the script. Boyd's religious alignment overwhelms the rest of his character, and LaBeouf's dialogue wears thin early on. And even though the actor is impressively restrained a times, certain cutaways to his ruddy, tear-stroked face look like they belong in a silent movie. On a completely separate level is former The Walking Dead actor Bernthal, and not in a good way. There's nothing wrong with Grady being a repugnant jerk, but Bernthal throws himself a little too fully into the role. He's not a compelling thorn in anyone's side. Instead, he's just unbearable. Sure, Nazis are terrible, but for much of the ride it's Grady who I wished would get his head blown off. 

If Fury had merely been a pure adrenaline rush, it might have been more convincing. Unfortunately, Ayer is determined to say something meaningful, and it doesn't go all that well. There's a glimmer of hope when Wardaddy and Norman visit a bombed-out town and rest in a local woman's apartment. In addition to allowing the wonderful Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca to appear, the apartment scene is one of the few nonviolent segments of the film that comes close to tackling some complex notions about the relationship between invading armies and native citizens. But then Grady and the rest of the Fury crew show up, and it's all downhill from there. Grady's increasingly boorish behavior adds nothing to the scene's dynamic, and it only serves to make him even more repellent. 

Once Fury bulldozes through its entirely expected climax, connection with the story finally breaks. The admittedly impressive final shot shows how much horrific effort went into such a brief moment of a war that last nearly a decade, but it has a second, unintentional effect. As the film shows us the minute significance of the final battle in the grand scheme of the war, it also serves as a reminder of Fury's own insignificance as a war story. Hollywood has a whole ocean of WW2 dramas, and nothing about Fury is good enough to make it more than just another drop.

Grade: C+/C

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: "The Tale of Princess Kaguya"

Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 137 minutes

There's a reason why certain tales are timeless. No matter the variations and adaptations, core cultural truths stand at the center of these stories that are passed down, in some form of another, from generation to generation. Having seen director Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, adapted from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of Japan's most famous folktales. Whether you're lucky enough to see the film with its original Japanese voice cast, or in its English dub, one thing is clear: Takahata's film is a quiet gem in any language, despite the details that may or may not have been lost in translation.

Though produced by animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli, Takahata's film is much more sedate than the studio's most famous works (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). A humble bamboo farmer (James Caan) discovers a small, fairy-like child in the woods. He takes it to his wife (Mary Steenburgen), only for the living figurine to morph into a human infant. A human infant that matures at a truly alarming rate. As the little girl (eventually voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz) comes of age and whispers of her beauty spread, the farmer decides that his Princess (his choice of nickname) deserves a life of royalty. And it seems like the gods agree. Bamboo stalks in the forrest begin coughing up gold, silk, and robes far outside of the farmer's humble country lifestyle. Next on the agenda? Establishing Princess as part of the nouveau riche in the big city.

What seems like a set up for a standard morality tale about society's corrosive love of money eventually turns out to be more fantastical and more complex. However, it's the narrative's more straightforward passages that wind up making a greater impact. Kaguya's struggle to adapt to the expectations of high society are where Takahata's storytelling is at its best. The princess' interactions with the haughty Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu), her tutor on the matter of all things lady like, are perfectly observed moments charting Kaguya's struggle to fit into the world her parents have dragged her into. 

Princess Kaguya's heroine is, at her core, a girl who never has the chance to really define herself. Her father engages a group of local kids in a shouting match over what to name her during infancy (their choice: Little Bamboo, which doesn't give off the spoiled brat vibe). Then, it's up to Sagami to mold her into a proper lady, which includes fun activities like plucking out your eyebrows, dying your teeth black, and moving almost exclusively by shuffling your knees. The facade of nobility is beautiful, but it's also quite a burden to maintain.

Takahata's interpretation of the story, however, is far more dynamic than the restrictive society he depicts (albeit in its own quiet way). This begins with Takahata's visualization of the story. Like France's Ernest & Celestine, Princess Kaguya opts for an ink and water color aesthetic rather than immaculate details. Without going overboard, this approach lends an authentic touch to a story so deeply rooted in Japan's cultural heritage. 

All of Princess Kaguya's images are beautiful, but the emphasis on motion and detail varies to accommodate different locations and mindsets. One of the film's most thrilling moments comes when, in a moment of panic, Kaguya flees her sprawling new home during a coming out party for local nobility. Running frantically though the dark woods, the brushstroke lines start to twist and swirl, almost threatening to swallow Kaguya up whole. It's frantic, and even a bit jarring, but Takahata and his animators never go too far. In its most formal and daring compositions, Princess Kaguya is as much a work of art as one of the scrolls that the title character recklessly unfurls, much to Lady Sagami's horror. Longtime Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi does a beautiful job backing up the imagery with musical motifs that range from delicate piano solos to soaring orchestral swells.

And while I dearly wish I could have seen the film with its original Japanese cast, the American roster is no slouch. Moretz, known for sassy, wise-beyond-her-years characters, creates a believably innocent and carefree Kaguya. Caan and Steenburgen, though occasionally burdened with repetitive dialogue work well as the adoptive parents, and Liu and the rest of the actors tasked with playing Japan's nobles have fun puffing out their chests without becoming unbearable.

Only when the fantastical elements make their definite return to the story does Princess Kaguya start to lose a bit of its focus. The reintroduction of Kaguya's origins comes a bit suddenly on the heels of the main rags to riches story, and desperately needs more time. Instead, there's a bunch of exposition that Kaguya throws at her parents, with little time for any of it to really stick. Princess Kaguya captures its heroine's more realistic developments so seamlessly. The high fantasy elements that arrive during the finale almost feel unwanted. It's too much of a turn around to really care about, when the film has a much more compelling story of Kaguya reconnecting with her humble roots.

Rather than end its moving story in a way that effectively ties into Kaguya's growth, one is left a bit flummoxed by the amount of heavy mythology doled out only minutes before it becomes extremely important. The finale, touching as it is, loses something from such an abrupt transition. Takahata's film is beautiful to behold, but it ends by stumbling across in bewildering exhaustion, rather than in a triumphant sprint.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: "Dear White People"

Director: Justin Simien
Runtime: 100 minutes

"What's the big deal, we have a black president!" "Racism is over!"  "It was years ago! Move on!" "We live in a post racial society!" All of the above are statements that have been used to combat charges of modern day racism. We've all heard them. Hell, many of us have probably even used one at some point. Sometimes, they are used out of well intentioned ignorance. And other times, they're just a crappy cover for a desire to get away with saying something awful and pretend that racism in America was switched off like a light switch after the Civil Rights marches of the 60s. Dear White People, the feature debut of writer/director Justin Simien, is here to say otherwise. And even though his film - which started as a mock trailer for a film about modern race relations - has plenty of hallmarks of first time filmmaking, it's an uncommonly sharp and articulate take on an uncomfortable topic that many often wish to sweep under the rug. 

No doubt, the film's title got your attention. It should. Dear White People has something to say for everyone about identity, but above all it's a biting dissection of a perfect microcosm of socio-economic and racial privilege. Leading the charge of social change at Winchester College - the film's fictional Ivy League setting - is biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio show is the source of the film's title. In it, she intelligently and sarcastically confronts the type of racial micro-aggressions that generally fly under the radar when it comes to pointing out racism. Example: "Dear White People, the number of black friends required to not seem racist has been razed to two." On top of this, she's recently been elected president of the campus' predominantly black dorm, heads the black student union, and is secretly involved with a charming T.A. Who happens to be white.  

Simien could easily just make the entire film about Tessa calling out ignorant or insensitive behavior, but his goal with Dear White People goes beyond a simple wake up call to our collective complacent mindset. Among Winchester's other notable residents are the strapping Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) who's currently dating the white daughter of the school's president, Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) an aspiring Youtube star living in Sam's shadow, and painfully shy Lionel (Tyler James Williams), who defines himself more by his sexual orientation than by his race. Dear White People is very much an ensemble piece, and its messages benefit immensely from this approach. 

As Simien's screenplay picks apart the emotional and ethical ambiguities of his characters, he turns Dear White People into a relate and universal experience. The surface conflicts may be about tensions between blacks and whites, but the way Simien's characters discuss image, race, and identity politics transcends the specifics of the story. He also deserves credit for integrating a concise lesson on the difference between racism and prejudice.

The racism vs. prejudice message comes from Sam, and as delivered by Ms. Thompson, it epitomizes the pithiness of Simien's writing. Of his young cast, it's likely that only Williams (from the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris) will look familiar, but all of the student roles are handled with aplomb. It's one thing to write good characters, and another to find people capable of bringing them to life. Simien and his casting director have done a superb job in this department. 

Thompson, whose role is closest to the film's own perspective, is especially effective at tackling Simien's serrated wit along with the film's genuine emotional core. Williams does a fine job of charting Lionel's growth from passive bystander to socially conscious leader, and Bell captures Troy's conflicting traits while maintaining consistency. Teyonah Parris also deserves special mention for elegantly portraying Simien's most ambiguous character. Coco (short for Colandrea, which she feels white people won't respect) is caught between wanting to exist as a black woman, yet also gives in to the idea that she should cater to what white peers expect her to be. If forced to choose between being herself and a shot at's hard to figure out exactly what choice she would make, and whether or not she'd feel a significant amount of regret. 

Through all of this, Simien never goes overboard with his social commentary or his attempts at humor. For a first feature, Dear White People is remarkably restrained. It's neither a condescending lecture nor a strained attempt to throw out jokes in favor of character development. When Simien's jokes arrive, they are carefully considered and impeccably-timed. Oh, and they're funny. Very, very funny. And when the film wants to make you uncomfortable? Well, it sure as hell succeeds at that. If you think the film's climactic "ghetto" themed party is cringe-inducing, just wait until you see the real-life examples cited in the end credits. There's a point where an attempt at satire becomes the very thing that it wishes to mock or undermine. By the end of Dear White People, you'll likely have the difference memorably etched into your brain as you squirm in your seat.

However, it ought to be noted that Simien the writer and Simien the director aren't always on the exact same page. Though there are some stylistic homages to the 70s and the early films of Spike Lee, Simien's execution is a bit too muted for its own good. The writing and acting are often enough to compensate, but Dear White People veers toward sluggishness despite the emotional dynamism displayed by the talented cast. And, as good as the the actors are in their roles, Phillip Bartell's editing doesn't always do them justice. Subplots are pieced together in ways that bring characters together for important moments which feel out of the blue. Williams is supposed to write a profile on Sam's student leadership, but does so mostly from afar. And then, all of the sudden, he's in her dorm room having a heart to heart, even though it feels like they've spent the whole movie on separate continents. 

These grievances, however, should not deter one from seeking out Dear White People as it begins opening this month. Issues of race are uncomfortable to deal with (that's putting it mildly). It's even tougher to deal with them elegantly. In Dear White People, Simien has announced that he's more than capable of carrying the torch as we chart our course through the 21st century. With a voice like Simien's, hopefully our navigation will start to finally improve.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Runtime: 119 minutes

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always displayed gifts as a storyteller and as a director of actors. His key weakness, largely due to collaborations with writer Guillermo Arriaga, is that he wants to stretch his vision over far too much. His 2006 drama Babel, though beautifully photographed and acted, was a manipulative and contrived mess. The intersecting stories felt like attempts at making something capital I important rather than authentically compelling. Even after parting ways with Arriaga, Inarritu fell into the same trap with 2010's Biutiful. Once again, strong visuals and powerful acting held back by an exasperating amount of plots and subplots. 

Only four years later, however, Inarritu has finally shed his attempts at creating a sprawling game of narrative connect-the-dots. Working with three other credited writers, the director's latest, Birdman, finds him taking on a script actually worthy of his skills. Straightforward, lively, and devoid of narrative flab, Birdman is a bravura work of directing topped off with excellent performances (welcome back, Michael Keaton) and thrillingly ambitious photography.

With the globe-spanning finally laid by the wayside, Inarritu confines nearly all of Birdman in and around a prominent New York theater. It's there where, after a brief and cryptic opening, we meet aging star Riggan Thompson (Keaton), meditating in nothing but his underwear. Oh, and he's levitating about four feet off of the ground, or at least that's what his mind has him believe. 

Riggan, as realized here, smartly incorporates Keaton's actual status as an actor, without going overboard with the parallels and references. In the late 80s and early 90s, Riggan was the star of the mega-successful Birdman superhero franchise. That is, until he declined to star in a fourth film, and promptly sent his career into a tailspin. Now, he sits in his dreary looking dressing room watching Robert Downey Jr. rake in obscene amounts of money in the wake of Hollywood's current superhero obsession. 

The star dressing room for the Broadway stage is a dream for so many actors, including Riggan's costar Lesley (Naomi Watts). For the former lycra-clad superhero, however, it's much more; it's a chance to put it all out there for the world to see, and bring some credibility back to the faded glory of his name. From the moment that Riggan starts talking about his play - an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story - it's clear that his trip to the stage as writer, actor, and director is all that he has left in himself. 

Despite the talented ensemble that fleshes out Birdman's insular world, and the strong moments they all have, one thing is clear: this is Keaton's movie, and it's going to live or die by what he delivers. He succeeds. I've started that short and simple so as to prevent myself from exploding with hyperbole. Electrifying is an easy word to throw around, but Keaton surely earns it. His casting (combined with the part's writing) gives him something to tap into, but it's more than that. In the two hours we spend with Riggan, Keaton captures all of his guilt, frustration, desperation, and rage with the precision of a tightrope walker. 

The tightrope comparison applies not only to Keaton or his castmates, but Birdman as a complete entity. Filmed and edited to appear as if 95% of the movie occurs in an uninterrupted shot, Birdman's near-constant movement keeps the storytelling and performances consistently on edge. As it turns out, technical ambition works much better for Inarritu than narrative ambition.

But even though Inarritu has enlisted the great Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity), the camerawork is always kept in service of the story and, more importantly, the characters. With the camera turning and circling and prowling all over the place nonstop, the early sequences of Birdman are unusually buoyant. It captures the frazzled, hypersensitive state of Thompson's mind as he's met with everything from stage disaster's to a hilariously difficult new cast member (Edward Norton). Better yet, the impressive technique on display ends up actually being in service of the film's endgame, rather than a mere bit of cinephile fan service. 

Birdman is, for all the flourishes, a story about the art of saving artistic face while reasserting one's cultural relevance in the increasingly over saturated world of modern celebrity. Riggan does his best to care for his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but his best involves hiring her as an assistant. He gets to technically spend time with his daughter, but still get use out of her as he prepares to take the defibrillator to his reputation.

Everyone else is merely a means to an end, though that doesn't mean that Inarritu and his writers have left the other headliners without anything to work with. Norton is especially fun as a pompous stage veteran Mike, providing the perfect external antagonist to drive the film's first half. And he's not just a grotesque caricature of a jerk. His interactions with Riggan contain their own cruel grains of truth, even if they've been distorted by Mike's own pretension and ego. Watts, meanwhile, is nervy and vulnerable, and brings sincerity (or at least the illusion of sincerity) to Lesley, a woman on the verge of finally having her break as she's entering a stage in life where good parts start to vanish. And, as Riggan's former and current partners, Amy Ryan (ex-wife) and Andrea Riseborough (friend with benefits) each lend their own valuable contributions to Birdman's tale of ambition in the face of dashed hopes and dreams. Lindsay Duncan also leaves her mark as the formidable New York Times critic out for blood, and able to deflect each and every verbal blow Riggan throws her way.

All of the above performers have their time to shine, but none impresses quite like Emma Stone. Sam's status as a former addict is never belabored by the writing or directing, leaving Stone room to tap into her character's past while still be able to forge her own future. As good as everyone is here, Stone's interactions with Keaton are the ones I was left desperate for more of when the lights came up. Too often type cast as sassy, cutesy romantic leads, she slips into this damaged, no-bullshit psyche beautifully. Finally, with room to do something truly different, Stone takes charge, and comes closest to matching Keaton in commitment to every unpleasant little detail doled out by the script. Mike presents an artistic challenge, and the booming voice in Riggan's head is a psychological challenge, but only Sam is the real deal when it comes to affecting legitimate reflection in Riggan's life. Everything else, despite all the fuss about reviews and box office intake, is secondary, regardless of what Riggan tells himself.

There is a deep sadness at the core of Birdman, but Inarritu and his collaborators have kept the whole enterprise such a dynamic, spontaneous atmosphere that there's little room to get mired in existential woe. Lubezki's camera demands that, even in the most painful confession, Riggan - and therefore, the audience - keep moving forward. Accentuated by a soundtrack composed of rapturous classical pieces and Antonio Sanchez's drums-only score, and Birdman takes on the movements of a piece of experimental jazz. It's always going, always searching for whatever happens next, thrilling you with its next camera movement or powerful feat of acting, only to go somewhere totally different at a moment's notice. Under Inarritu's firm hand in the director's chair, that vivaciousness is under tight control, yet maintains the feeling of being executed off of the cuff. 

Many filmmakers, even great ones, struggle with the balance of style and substance. Inarritu, unlike many of his similarly-afflicted contemporaries, has both of them down. Yet on the matter of substance, he's only succeeded in investigating the emotional core of his stories and characters. The methods of investigation are where the problems show up. After Biutiful's false start at new beginnings, Birdman delivers the great film that Inarritu has had in him ever since he debuted Amores Perros nearly 15 years ago. Birdman's eventual, visceral impact is the direct result of this long-delayed artistic growth. Inarritu has spent his career swinging for the fences and tossing off foul balls. The difference, due to his newfound narrative focus, is that this time he's finally able to get the bat and the ball to connect at the sweet spot.

Grade: A

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: "Whiplash"

Director: Damien Chazelle
Runtime: 106 minutes

The title may be Whiplash, but thankfully the actual film is much more emotionally consistent. Director Damien Chazelle's second feature, adapted from his own short, features solid acting and exhaustingly passionate musical performances. Yet for all of the fury taken out on various instruments, Whiplash's emotional thrills hardly linger. Chazelle's direction is confident, never allowing intense scenes to boil over into laughable melodrama, but his protagonist is too simply defined to be much more than an audience surrogate. 

When it comes to specific performance skills, actors often undergo rigorous training to look the part on screen. Unfortunately, filmmakers (and even the actors) forget that in the grand scheme of things, learning skills is as superficial as a costume. It's rare for an actor to develop a skill for a film and find ways of transferring emotion into said skill on camera. So for all of the literal blood, sweat, and tears that Miles Teller puts into his role as determined music Andrew, it's difficult to locate significant character building across the film's 100 minutes. Teller drums and drums until his fingers bleed and his body is soaked with sweat. It's impressive stuff to watch, but rarely does it feel like more than just an intense musical performance.

That's not to say that Teller isn't pouring his heart into his musical performances. The pain and utter exhaustion on his face during marathon-length practice sessions is powerful stuff. However, what little else we get about Andrew outside of his drive to be "one of the greats" of Jazz is pretty slim. He wants it. He wants it even if it means enduring the semi-insane teaching style of Prof. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher never wants to give out compliments, as he's under the impression that they give performers an excuse to slack off or go soft. Even then, his classroom behavior sometimes boggles the mind.

Simmons, at least, is working with material that requires some emotional dexterity. For all of Fletcher's outbursts (verbal and physical), Simmons and Chazelle never turn him into someone entirely devoid of humanity or compassion. Fletcher demands perfection of his Jazz band even though it's impossible to really reach his standards, and Simmons keeps that hollow perfectionism under fierce control. 

Yet the further the film moves outside of the classroom and/or the stage, the less engrossing Whiplash becomes. A scene where Andrew listens to family friends praise their star athlete son is almost insultingly simple. Surprise, people are congratulating athletics and model UN as worthwhile accomplishments, but woe to those artsy types. Aren't they such heroic underdogs for pursuing things like music (I mean, really, who listens to music these days?). At least Chazelle caps off the bit with a nice stab of humor, but even so, the entire sequence is cliched and lacking in anything fresh or new.

Beyond the woe-to-the-artists stuff, Chazelle also has an unsatisfying way of navigating the issues that stem from his set-up. Andrew's determination is so all consuming that he's not a particularly interesting character for Teller to sink in to. He wants to be the best. He cuts things off with a potential romantic interest because he knows his dedication to practicing will drive them away. He goes through minor triumphs and staggering defeats. It doesn't exactly prompt a shrug, but it does make Andrew's struggle less involving than it ought to be. The story's conclusion gets the pulse up for an exasperating amount of time, but once those credits start rolling, there's not much to care about.

With its character-based deficiencies, all that's really left to prop up Whiplash are the scenes involving Prof. Fletcher's practice sessions and Andrew's own Herculean efforts to meet his tyrannical leader's expectations. Chazelle's directing during these scenes mark the film's high points, tapping into the furious effort that Andrew's drummer position requires. The sequences are as bursting with life as the music being played, and that surface level adrenaline rush can be thrilling to behold. All of that raucous energy holds your attention through every second, and yet it all fades too quickly without a fully developed protagonist to investigate and hopefully root for. The pulse quickens, yet the heart remains almost completely unmoved. 

Grade: B-/C+

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her"

Director: Ned Benson
Runtime: 189 minutes

Usually, when producers and filmmakers have different ideas on how to edit a film, the victorious side tends to be taken as gospel among the movie-going public. The losing version is either relegated to a special edition DVD, or is never seen again. However, for first time director Ned Benson, the journey has been more rewarding. After premiere his two-film drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - two back to back films that cover the events and perspectives of different characters - he was forced to created a combined version, subtitled "Them." Luckily, just over a month after Them arrived in theaters, Benson's original design, subtitled Him and Her, has been given a life of its own outside of the festival circuit. Even though Benson's admirable passion project isn't without faults in its original form, Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her is still a striking character piece that resonates in in unexpected ways as it traverses well-worn terrain.

One has to wonder if there wasn't some plot to start Him/Her's release on the same weekend that Showtime's promising new drama The Affair premieres. Benson's film and the cable channel's TV show operate on similar levels, despite some differences in tone and execution. Him/Her and The Affair (more true of the latter), utilize the Rashomon method of storytelling, with events being replayed multiple times from different perspectives, with key details changed or omitted. 

Yet when it comes to replaying scenes versus filling in the gaps of opposing points of view, the two take radically different approaches. Benson's film(s?) does its best to avoid dramatic redundancy, instead crafting two films that intersect at a select few moments, but otherwise tell very different stories. 

Him opens with a memory of the early, carefree days in the life of Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain). The young couple spend the delightful opening sequence in a near constant state of newfound romantic joy. They run down dark streets, make out in the park, and watch as lightning bugs put on an impromptu show before their eyes. And then the present day arrives, and those moments of ecstatic happiness are wiped away like steam from a mirror.

Long before definitively revealing the tragedy at the center of Him/Her, Benson - working on a meager budget - handles the shift from jumpy past to solemn present with what can only be called elegant bluntness. The change in mood is instantaneous, and even though we don't know the ins and outs of what's happened in the interim, Him/Her still gets the point across that Conor and Eleanor aren't quite who they used to be. In the first 10 minutes, we see Conor and Eleanor in drastically different emotional places, and McAvoy and Chastain's restrained work conveys the months, even years, of hardship in a manner that speaks volumes. 

Though stray lines of dialogue feel a bit baroque for the gritty style, Benson's writing is largely effective at capturing what makes his leads click, even if the answers are a little on the broad side. Conor is more determined to keep moving forward, pouring his energy into his flailing bar. Eleanor, on the other hand, can't shake her recent trauma, and comes to the conclusion that the only way out is to tear her self down and start from scratch. Both exemplify different parts of a fascinating spectrum of human behavior that occurs in the face of truly shattering heartbreak. To tap further into this, Benson utilizes silence in a way that is absolutely crushing. Scenes - mostly for the better - seem to take place in a vacuum, even though much of the film takes place in Manhattan.

Combine this with Christopher Blauvelt's murky visuals, and Him rather quickly develops an all-consuming gloom, despite the flashes of humor. Though consistently well-acted by McAvoy, Chastain, and the rest of the ensemble, Him ultimately emerges as the weaker of the two-part puzzle. There is no mystery to Conor's actions, and therefore almost no sense of discovery in anything that happens in his side of the narrative. Conor's interactions with his semi-estranged father (Ciaran Hinds) are repetitive, adding little of value to the psychological dimension of the film. We wait for Eleanor to make her brief appearance in Him solely because they bring us just a little closer to what most of Conor's story dances around. Despite running 11 minutes shorter than Her, Him often stagnates thanks to Benson's commitment to an unwavering, funereal sense of pace.

Once Him goes through its final fade to black and Her begins, Eleanor Rigby really starts to come to life. The weighty silence is still there, but it's countered by Eleanor's livelier encounters with her sister Katie (Jess Weixler) and her wealthy, withdrawn parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt). Real life friends Chastain and Weixler, despite their very different looks, are ideally cast as sisters. Watching them comfort each other or share a laugh over a stupid joke is the sort of thing that compels one to stick with Her. Then, of course, there's Chastain's performance, which is as complete and acutely observed as any of her other recent performances. After blasting out of the gate in 2011, the actress continues to impress, able to draw one in without manipulatively tugging at heartstrings.  

Put simply, Him is the question and Her is the answer. The former exists mostly to allow for the latter to fill in the blanks, and expand on what we thought we knew. Conor, like the audience, is left trying to piece things together and see through Eleanor's opaque new persona. By contrast, in Eleanor's scenes with her family or her new professor (Viola Davis), the films make actual, observable headway in terms of realizing the scars on its characters' collective psyches. Mr. McAvoy is excellent, but the ordering of the films ultimately leaves him with less to do. A climactic scene in Him belongs to Chastain's painful confession. When Her revisits the same scene, Eleanor's confession only hits harder, while Conor's reaction achieves no greater impact. 

This issue extends to the dual narratives as well. By the time Her finishes, Him is left fighting a losing battle for relevance in the grand scheme of the story. It makes for a solid set up and secondary story, but the balance ought to have been tipped much more heavily in Her's favor. Benson has insisted that the two parts should be able to exist separately or be played in any order, but to do so seems unwise. 

Whatever its faults, when Eleanor Rigby works, it tends to soar. The oppressive mood can be numbing, but when Benson zeroes in on a particular moment and unpacks his characters' emotions, the film becomes more than just a gritty-looking downer. It can be a difficult watch (though it's nowhere near as searing as something like Blue Valentine), but deep down there's a glimmer of realistic, measured optimism at the film's core. Like Rabbit Hole, Eleanor Rigby wants nothing to do with easy answers and notions of getting back to an idealized sense of "how things used to be." It's about confronting the past, so that we may move forward. The shadows of trauma always linger, but that doesn't mean that it's impossible to shrink them by letting in a little light. 

Grade: B/B+

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: "Gone Girl"

Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 149 minutes

When I first heard that director David Fincher was attached to direct Gone Girl, I have to admit that my reaction was an elitist wrinkling of the nose. Why, after already directing the US version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was the master behind The Social Network and Zodiac adapting another flavor-of-the-month page turner? Isn't it time he started setting his sights a little higher? But then I remembered that I had been none too keen about Fincher's decision to direct "that Facebook movie," and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I even gave Gillian Flynn's novel a chance, and despite some resistance on my part, I ended up going along for the twisted little ride that it was. And now that I've seen Mr. Fincher's adaptation - written by Ms. Flynn herself - I can once again rest easy. Gone Girl is not quite an instant classic or a masterpiece, but it's a damn good piece of filmmaking that represents a perfect pairing of material and artist. 

For those not familiar with or rusty on the plot, the basics are the sort of thing you could find in the average TV movie about spousal abuse. Nick and Amy Dunne (the brilliantly cast duo of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have been married for five years, yet both have fallen on financial hardships in the recession. Somewhat against her will, Amy lets Nick drag her back to his home town in Missouri to care for his sick mother and rebuild his life. Yet Amy is very much a Manhattan kind of gal, and the move to Missouri is the equivalent of being fired from Vogue and being forced to take a job at People Magazine. Regardless, there's an anniversary to celebrate, so it's time to get ready.

And then, as the title indicates, she's gone. Has she been killed? Kidnapped? What does Nick know, and where was he the morning of her disappearance? With the details that surface, the situation increasingly points toward one person: Nick. At one point, investigating office Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) sardonically remarks to lead investigator Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), "The simplest answer is often the correct one." Yet Boney counters with, "Actually, I've never found that to be true." This brief exchange is the perfect encapsulation of Gone Girl as a novel and film, where events and people are rarely quite what they seem to be, regardless of actual innocence or guilt.

What's most impressive about Flynn's screenplay is her sharp ability to condense her own work. Novels and screenplays are drastically different forms, yet Flynn has adapted to the new medium rather effortlessly. Unlike Mr. Fincher's Dragon Tattoo, which occasionally suffered from laborious slavishness to the source material, Gone Girl feels as complete as the novel, even with the handful of abbreviated or missing passages. Every scene is crucial, and every minute is earned, and the finale - far too good to spoil - leaves one demanding more. Emotional depravity, which seeps into the film's very soul, can grow tiring if stretched out for a long period of time (the film is nearly 2 and a half hours), but Flynn and Fincher have concocted a potent and addictive mix. 

Fincher has always been an immaculate visual storyteller, and his perfectionism serves the material well. Working with a band of recent collaborators behind the camera, he as given the story a polish that elevates the material and demands that it been brought out of the imaginations of readers, and definitively imagined on screen. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the lighting and color palette firmly in Fincher's wheelhouse of sleek greens, whites, and browns, lushly accentuating even the grimiest of locations with cinematic flair. Editor Kirk Baxter (working solo after doing Fincher's last two films with Angus Wall) keeps the story clipping along with sharp, unobtrusive cuts that add another layer of crisp precision to the plotting. And returning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have, against the odds, contributed another icy, ambient electronnic score to add momentum or dramatic heft when needed. Rather than strain to create memorable themes, Gone Girl's score provides a near-constant sonic backdrop that adds a creeping sense of urgent malice to this increasingly warped story of abuse and deceit.

And while Fincher has long been regarded as a extremely confident visual storyteller, his skill with actors has often been overlooked, even after the Oscar nominations for Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara. Fincher's directing remains the biggest star of Gone Girl - the man is hardly one to his actors own the screen entirely by themselves - but to dismiss Affleck and Pike's performances as merely following their leader does them (and the rest of the ensemble) a huge disservice.

Even without his experience under ridiculous amounts of media hassling, Affleck is a strong choice for Nick. The slightly glazed over look of his eyes and lack of tension in his jaw subtly and immediately gives life to a man in an insane predicament. His relationship with Amy may have soured a bit, but there's still the need to pretend for the cameras (and, to a lesser extent, the audience) that he adores his wife and wants nothing more than to see her again. Lending Mr. Affleck able support is Carrie Coon as his twin sister Margo, a character I often found unconvincing on the page, yet totally at ease with here. With her acerbic, no-bullshit attitude and her genuine fear about what Nick may or may not have done, Coon is an invaluable asset in the film's first act, which traces the early days of the investigation. Fellow supporting players Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) and Neil Patrick Harris play against type with effective results, while Fugit and Dickens are similarly effective as the key investigators. 

As in Dragon Tattoo, there's quite a bit of set up before the the full narrative truly gets going, but thanks to Flynn's self edits, the film's first act is efficient at setting the stage without dragging on and on with exposition for those who know what's in store. Because when it comes to revelations and playing with versions of reality, Gone Girl moves from its strong beginning to its deliciously nasty middle and end. 

This is largely due to how - I'll refrain from spoilers - Flynn's story is able to work in Amy's perspective, despite her absence and possible death. When we're seeing Amy on screen in flashback, or merely hearing her voice reading excerpts from her diary, she is easily the most compelling thing in all of Gone Girl. Pike, an accomplished actress in England who has yet to really break out Stateside, is totally arresting in the role. Though I periodically wished that Flynn would have lingered on certain moments longer (despite the length, I never found that the film was dragging) that would have given Amy room to leave an even more striking impression with the viewer. Even so, what Pike has pulled off here is still wonderfully diverse, weaving together different ideas who Amy is (was?), depending on whose version of the story is being told. Her casting was already a great idea, but she has done more than simply coast on her physical attributes. We can debate whether Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara made a better Lisbeth Salander, but it'll be hard for anyone else to fill Pike's shoes for Amy Dunne. 

In its own unconventional way, Gone Girl eventually emerges as a two-hander, despite the supporting characters in both Nick and Amy's lives. It's a story of marriage, after all, even if one spouse might be a murder victim. "People told us and told us and told us - marriage is hard work," goes an entry in Amy's diary, and the ways in which Gone Girl takes this notion to such darkly funny conclusions, are an critical part of why the film succeeds as well as it does. For all of the mystery and salacious details, Flynn and Fincher - without becoming glib - inject enough shots of humor into the proceedings to keep the film from descending into a state of perpetual gloom and tragedy.

There's been talk of Gone Girl as a devilish satire of modern media sensationalism, although I found the film to be a bit more straightforward. A sense of humor does not automatically classify a dark genre picture as a satire, just as a few funny lines now and then don't make Mad Men a comedy. There are subversive, even mocking, elements to Flynn's tale (the Nancy Grace figure played by Missi Pyle), but Gone Girl is still a mystery at its core. The darkest depths of relationships are also so present, and such wide-reaching satire seems like a tertiary goal at best. However, the "devilish" part is absolutely true. No matter what comes to light in Gone Girl, there's always one more little dig, one more little twist of the knife. We think there has to be a bottom that brings the pit of human filth to an end. Gone Girl, however, suggests that there is no such end, and in such a way that the very notion will leave a sick grin etched on your face, whether you like it or not.

Grade: B+/A-

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: "Men, Women & Children"

Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 119 minutes

Within minutes, Men Women & Children takes the honor for the year's worst and least necessary framing device. This story about relationships in the era of social media, texting, and webcams, opens in space. Yes, out space. Specifically, on the Voyager 1 space craft as it approaches Jupiter, presumably on its way to the Great Infinite Beyond to be reborn as a star child a la Keir Dullea in 2001 (as you do). There is nothing inherently wrong with the footage. In fact, it looks quite seamless and epic. But then Emma Thompson starts narrating (is she the Voyager 1? the universe? God??) and takes us from the magnificent expanses of the cosmos (don't worry, we'll get to go back there in a few months with Interstellar) down to Austin, Texas. Or at least, some pale imitation of Austin (if the film was shot there, it had this Texas native fooled). Regardless, this is where we'll find out what Reitman's latest has to say.

Because when you open with the stars and the largest planet of the solar system, it seems rather clear that you're positioning your film to really be about something. Men Women & Children does quite a bit of trying, but it the fruits of its labor are rotten. Worse, it gives off the impression that Reitman is secretly a bitter old man who thinks modern technology is nothing but bad news, despite opening with imagined footage of the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Above all, Children is a cautionary tale, though it ultimately provokes more eye-rolls than legitimate reflection about modern communication. 

As in Crash and Babel (there's the first red flag), the goal is contrive drama, sorry, weave a tapestry of multiple narratives that intersect in various ways. First, there's Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), a married couple who lost the spark in their marriage because they were having sex while 9/11 was happening (no, really). While they both have affairs, their 15 year-old son Chris (Travis Tope) has looked at so much next level porn that he can't get an erection from anything vanilla (including an actual girl). 

Somewhere else in town is Joan Clint (Judy Greer), a single mom who also spends a lot of time taking semi-racy pictures of her daughter for her modeling/acting website. Then, there's Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort, shot so poorly that he often looks like a toad), the former star quarterback (did you know that football is a big deal in Texas? DID YOU?) who left the team after his mom ran off to California to the shock of Tim and his stern father (Dean Norris). Come to think of it, Joan's ex-husband/baby daddy was also based in California. I think California might represent hell or modernity or something (unless you live in the San Fernando Valley, in which case you're quite literally in hell). 

Finally (not really, but enough already), there's Brady Beltmayer (Kaitlyn Dever, so excellent in last year's Short Term 12) and her mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner). I'm sorry, that's incorrect. What I meant to say was, "and her mother Patricia, a human embodiment of the NSA and Lifetime Movie White Mom paranoia." Patricia can access Brandy's phone remotely, deleting innocent texts from boys like Tim before Brandy even has a chance to see them. In her spare time, Patricia hosts informational meetings about the tribulations of the web (Guild Wars and World of Warcraft? As dangerous as pedophiles, clearly.), and probably knits scarves and tea cozies with sanitized images of Christ's crucifixion on them. Ms. Garner does her best with what she's given, God bless her, but the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against her.

Yet Patricia is also responsible for the best and worst things to come out of the script by Mr. Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson (adapting the novel by Chad Kultgen, who I'm sure must be a riot at PTA meetings). St. Patricia is truly a woman of many talents. The first of her miracles is to get Ms. Greer and Mr. Norris' characters into a budding relationship. A Judy Green/Dean Norris romance is not something that makes sense at all on paper, but as performed by these two highly underrated actors, it works. Their interactions constitute the only moments when Men Women & Children comes to life as an engaging study of modern socialization. Amid all the nauseatingly simplistic writing in the film, at least Children has shown me something that I never knew I wanted and now must absolutely have. Throw in Ms. Dever, and you can consider my hypothetical ticket bought.

Alas, while St. Patricia giveth, she also taketh away. Various and sundry connections occur, relationships are tested, and next thing you know Patricia's actions lead to a suicide attempt that's punctuated by some of the most howlingly pretentious details imaginable. How I longed for the good old days when Sandra Bullock could be cured of racism by falling down a flight of stairs. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Beyond the attempted suicide, there are a littany of other sins in which St. Patricia is unable to intercede. By far the biggest offender is the handling of DeWitt and Sandler's storyline. Reitman, who has previously explored adulterous characters with such snappy humanity, has completely missed the mark here. The half baked resolution of these scenes from a marriage tries to take both sides into account, but ends up shaking a finger at DeWitt and somehow leaving Sandler the "victim." So if double standards and misogyny are your cup of tea, they boy, is Men Women & Children the film for you (to the man who cheered at one particular moment: this is not a good thing). While the film's structure practically ensured that we wouldn't get a lengthy resolution to any strand of the narrative, DeWitt and Sandler's is the one that most desperately needs it. The deprivation of such a conclusion is both narratively weak and thematically reprehensible. 

In Mr. Reitman's first four films, he established himself as a darkly funny examiner of modern American/Canadian life. Despite characters who did ugly things (Thank You For Smoking, Young Adult), there remained something illuminating a vital in Reitman's nuances and narrative juxtapositions. In comedy (and tragicomedy) he blossomed as both a storyteller and a remarkable director of actors. Those first four films, then, are precisely why his two forays into straight-faced drama are so disheartening. Without an edge or a kick, Reitman's voice becomes mealy mouthed and aimless. Compare the beautiful work the director got from Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt in Young Adult to the performances in his past two films. The difference is frightening.

Of course, it's expected that artists will at some point venture outside of their comfort zone(s). Despite some growing pains, these ventures can often leave an artist reinvigorated. Unfortunately, Reitman's recent career choices call to mind an fellow director (and a fellow Canadian) who keeps trying the same old something new: David Cronenberg. Yet the gap between Reitman's genres is so much smaller than Cronenberg, which makes it so much for frustrating to seem him veer even further off course. Everyone blunders, even the greats. Hell, sometimes it's the towering icons who make the biggest mess when they screw up. That's part of artistic evolution. 

Yet that same evolution turns into regression if the same mistake is repeated too many times. There's still plenty of time for Reitman to put himself on a better path, or find some purely dramatic material that's actually worthy of him. But right now, he, like Men Women & Children, seems to have run out of fresh things to say. I really did envy the Voyager by the end of Men Women and Children. It gets to move further away from our world with each passing minute.

Grade: D-/F