Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: "About Elly"

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 119 minutes

Pitched somewhere between the ghostly mysteries of Gone Girl and Under the Sand, and the existential malaise of L'Avventura, About Elly is another stunner from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. And even though Elly isn't technically Farhadi's most recent film, it nonetheless represents a step forward after 2013's meandering The Past. Though less pummeling in its verbal intensity than A Separation, About Elly is a steadily absorbing drama that hauntingly captures the consequences of seemingly tiny deceptions.

When Farhadi finished making About Elly, he was still several years away from taking home an Oscar for 2011's A Separation. Yet despite the former film's strong reputation and success on the festival circuit, Farhadi's (by the rest of the world) 09 film, his third feature is only now landing stateside. So, if you've been keeping track of the film since the beginning, you've had quite the wait. Whether you consider the film a member of the class of 09 or the class of 15, it belongs among the best. 

Plot-wise, Elly most closely mimics the above-mentioned Antonioni classic: a group of middle class (more emphasis on the middle in Farhadi's film) friends enjoy a relaxing weekend until one member of their party vanishes. In this case, the missing person is the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidootsi), a teacher in the company of one her student's parents, as well as their friends. Though Elly is often quite shy, she mostly gets along with her fellow vacationers. That is, until she's left to watch several of the children on the beach, and disappears, resulting in one couple's child almost drowning. 

When About Elly begins, Farhadi floods the screen with names and faces and voices. Like Elly, we feel a bit lost, even amid such charming company. Gradually, the names and faces sort themselves out, leading to a lovely scene where the ensemble plays a clumsy game of charades. This scene, fully of joking and merriment, is totally sincere, yet also cleverly deceptive. It's at this point when Farhadi shares some warmth between characters and audience members. And's also the point where the noose is stealthily dropped around one's neck. 

After gently easing the viewer in the lives of his characters, Farhadi's big moment comes in and hits like a ton of bricks. The vanishing/near-drowning sequence is wrenching, white-knuckle material, directed with great energy without slipping into mawkishness. Though About Elly continues at a steady pace, Farhadi's writing tightens that damn noose nudge by nudge, and it's riveting to witness on both an intellectual and emotional level. 

Like A Separation, About Elly could have easily been produced as a play, yet the director knows how to open his material up enough so that it can benefit from cinematic techniques. Set almost entirely in a crumbling seaside villa, the film gets considerable mileage out of characters navigating their idyllic getaway/hellish psychological prison. The villa is hardly a visually pleasing locale, but Farhadi and cinematographer Hossein Jafarian turn it into an exquisitely dynamic space as the various and sundry secrets and lies spill forward. One of the most satisfying traits of Farhadi's work is that, at its best, it acts as both an honest representation of modern Iran and a compelling, self-contained narrative. These two sides are understandably linked together, yet About Elly's script is able to elegantly weave social commentary in narrative, and vice versa. 

And as much credit as the man in the director's chair deserves, it would be silly to downplay the achievements of the ensemble. Though Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), Elly's friend (...kinda), comes closest to main character status, About Elly is an ensemble piece at its core. The various couples (and the lone bachelor) gradually emerge as distinct personalities, and the actors all fit seamlessly into Farhadi's style. Farahani comes across as the most complex, given her connections to the missing woman of the hour, but everyone who appears on screen justifies their presence and involvement. Peyman Moadi, the phenomenal lead of A Separation, is just one of About Elly's many stellar performances that sharpens the impact of Farhadi's film to such a fine point. 

To watch a cast like this work with such harrowing, articulate material is a thing of rare beauty: each face is distinct, yet in each one we can see the entire film. Farhadi's film is most certainly about Elly, but also about each of every one of the lives affected by a deceptively simple vanishing act. Was it an act of selfish liberation or a heartbreaking tragedy? With its haunting final scenes, Farhadi suggests that, like the other elements of his film, the answer lies in the maddening void somewhere in between.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: "Good Kill"

Director: Andrew Niccol
Runtime: 102 minutes

In terms of subject matter, director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) could not have chosen a more timely arena for his latest film: drone warfare. Unmanned craft (especially the weaponized form) are political and ethical lightning rods, and not without reason. If you've heard of them, you likely have some strong opinions about how they should and shouldn't be used. If only Niccol's film was as stirring as the debate it wades into. Good Kill, though a marked improvement over Niccol's recent films, is affecting for brief moments, but mostly succumbs to either listlessness or misjudged melodrama (or both).

At the heart of Good Kill's moral queasiness is Maj. Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former pilot who now spends his days cramped inside a metal box on a Las Vegas airbase. Inside said metal box is the high-tech ground control for drones operating thousands of miles away. Without ever risking a crash (or even being detected), Egan and his teammates are able to take out targets as they please with brutal efficiency. 

Yet the drones' all-seeing eyes can cause more stress than one might think. Early on, Egan and his commander (Bruce Greenwood), watch helplessly as a woman in Pakistan's Waziristan region is raped by a neighbor (a neighbor who may or may not be an insurgent). Since the drones' only weapons are missiles, there's nothing that can be done to stop the horrific act, even though Egan and co. are the only outsiders bearing witness to the woman's suffering. Scenes like this get Good Kill off to a solid start, promising something of a variation on The Hurt Locker in regards to depicting the thornier aspects of military life. The life of drone pilots is one of much greater contrast than that of a foot soldier. At the end of his shift, Tommy drives a few miles to a wife (January Jones) and two kids. He gets to fight the allegedly good fight with no more than some simple clicks in an air-conditioned room.

Though the personal advantages of this sort of work are obvious, Tommy begins to doubt the integrity of his orders once the CIA enters the fray. With Langley suddenly calling the shots via conference call, there's a new layer of disassociation added to Tommy's supposedly necessary strikes. Instead of conferring with other people face to face before lighting up a target, he now takes orders from the cryptic bureaucratic droning of a voice coming out of a headset. The CIA spokesman's voice, combined with Niccol's eerily tight shots of the phoneset's red speaker light, call to mind a white collar HAL9000. Sure, the drone is an impersonal weapon, but more than any other soldier committing morally questionable acts, it really was just following orders. 

The CIA's orders, which push Egan and his team beyond their comfort zones on a regular basis, are the beginning of Egan's unravelling. But rather than build momentum, Niccol's script starts to flail. One early confrontation between Hawke and Jones plays out with a level of intensity that makes one wonder if the scene was actually supposed to come near the end of the film. Later developments don't fare much better. Once Tommy finally opens up to his wife, he spills his guts so rapidly that you'll wonder if you zoned out and accidentally missed some transitional scenes. 

Niccol's visual style doesn't do much to amplify his interior story. Camera work and editing are solid during the drone sessions, but everything else is scattershot. Due to filters and/or color correction, Good Kill often looks unpleasantly oversaturated. And when the frame isn't filled with synthetic coloring, it's draped in some oppressive shadows. Nighttime scenes in Tommy's bedroom look like they belong in a bad noir, with only ugly bursts of orange light breaking up the darkness. And Tommy's aforementioned confessions to his wife play out in a bizarre, stilted pastoral shot that has Hawke and Jones stand side-by-side like they're delivering lines for an experimental piece of theater. 

Beyond its subject matter, Good Kill is also a waste of some perfectly talented actors. Mr. Hawke's performance stumbles here and there, but that mostly comes down to Niccol's writing and direction. For the most part, Hawke does a good job with the wounded stoic routine, making Egan's journey coherent and convincing, even when the film lurches from one IMPORTANT development to the next. Although even Hawke is left powerless by the tastelessness of the final scene, which wants to give Good Kill's protagonist a heroic moment while completely ignoring the ramifications of his actions so many miles away. Meanwhile Jones, though seriously miscast opposite someone of Hawke's age (is it that hard to find someone age appropriate?), is actually quite good with her role as the put-upon wife trying to hold onto her marriage. Egan's military peers, top-lined by Greenwood and Zoe Kravitz, do nice work as well, especially the latter. One can only imagine what they all might have accomplished had they been in the hands of a script that dared to be more than thinly-sketched portrait of one of modern warfare's most polarizing advancements. 

Grade: C

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Director: George Miller
Runtime: 120 minutes

For a movie franchise that has lain dormant for 30 years, George Miller's Mad Max saga has never looked or sounded better. Both a sequel to and a reimagining of Miller's original trilogy, this long-in-the-works film is an exhilarating, exhausting, and loopy adventure that has what so many blockbusters lack: a personality. For better and for worse (mostly for better), Fury Road is undeniably an un-compromised work from a singular vision that has clearly stayed limber. 

That singular vision is amplified, not restricted, by the limitations of the story. Despite several well-chosen lulls across the film's two hours, Fury Road boils down to one big chase. With this straightforward template laid out, Miller is able to stuff each scene to the gills with visual and sonic flourishes. Frankly, a more complex plot would have only gotten in the way of Fury Road's blunt visceral impact. 

For even though this tale of Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on the run from a psychotic warlord touches on some important issues, it does so through the lens of an adventure. Imagine if Wagner had composed "The Ride of the Valkyries" while snorting cocaine, and you'll have a decent idea of what to expect from this cinematic circus maximus.

Like Max, the viewer is thrust into a post-apocalyptic nightmare with little time to fully understand the specifics. After Max's initial remarks (via voiceover), he is immediately captured by a group of thugs for the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a bloated mass of a man with a shock of white-blonde hair and eye make-up that would send the Devil packing. Joe's citadel contains many luxuries, but only for the chosen few. The huddled masses are at Joe's mercy, and their desperation comes through not just in their screams, but in the lifetime of trauma shown on their bodies. Fury Road takes the pop-punk dystopia elements of its predecessors and turns them up to 11. The scars and deformities are unlike anything you've ever seen, and that's just touching the surface of the warped imagination on display.

Since Miller's story and his characters' goals are so minimal, it comes down to these world-building details to make it all somewhat convincing. In that regard, Fury Road is a downright masterclass. Between 80 and 85% of the stunts that occur (and 100% of the vehicles used) are real, and it shows. There are cars stacked on top of oil tankers, and old-fashioned buggys covered in nasty metal spikes. There's a mega-truck that has a damn tractor mounted on the back. And, yes, there is a vehicle whose sole purpose is to blast screeching death metal, led by a demonic musician with an electric guitar that shoots fire. And yet, for all of the bombast on display, Miller refuses to become indulgent when showing off the madcap stunts of his ensemble. Fury Road is as subtle as a scream and has all the blunt force of a hurricane, but it's also an exercise in understanding when to give the audience a break. 

Had Miller kept up the pace of the first half hour for the remaining 90 minutes, Fury Road's simplicity would have quickly become its undoing. Instead, Miller weaves in a string of moments that either greatly reduce the action, or stop it all together. Yet in these spaces that allow the eyes and ears to recover, Miller never loses control of his story's momentum. There are no expository flashbacks or longwinded speeches that threaten to grind the narrative to a halt. There is great seriousness amid Fury Road's chaos, but Miller never pushes it to the point of dour pretension. 

The simplicity of the story is reflected in the simplicity of the characters, and that includes Hardy's Max. Max is, if anything, no more than a gateway character. His manic grunts and twitchy head movements (he spends a quarter of the film acting as a living IV bag, after all) show that he is a man pushed far over the edge. And yet Hardy never goes out of his way to steal the show. Max is the outlier of the story, and a surprisingly good fit to play second fiddle. 

The first chair, quite clearly, belongs to Theron's bald, bionic woman, and Fury Road is all the better because of this. Max's motivation can be reduced to mere survival, but Furiosa is out for something that cuts deeper: redemption. In the bright orange wastelands of a world gone horrifically insane, she seeks asylum not just for herself, but for the living cargo she carries with her: five slave brides married to Joe for the purpose of breeding and producing milk. 

Despite the muscle cars, explosions, and outlandishly macho cries for a glorious death, Mad Max might just be one of the most unabashedly feminist blockbusters in recent memory. Though Joe's slave brides spend most of the film in skimpy white bikinis, they prove to be more than damsels in distress. And, later on, Miller introduces an entire clan of warrior women of all ages, who prove up to the task of going toe-to-toe with Joe's horde of male soldiers. There are characters in Fury Road who exploit women, but Miller himself does all he can to empower them. Fury Road is about fighting against the odds, not post-apocalyptic love, and the dedication to life-or-death stakes leaves the film refreshingly asexual.   

With only a few notable instances of visual effects (the most obvious being an overwhelming sandstorm), Mad Max stays relatively grounded (yes, even with the flame-spewing guitar) compared to contemporary blockbuster fare. It's a chase movie that lives and dies by the success of its vehicular carnage, and not by how many fantastical digital creations it can force onto the screen. There is madness aplenty, but it is sweaty, tear-streaked, gnarly madness rooted in a self-contained story. This isn't a tale about cataclysmic events that changed the world, but rather a story of survival long after the dust has settled, and there's nothing to do but charge forward. As Furiosa herself puts it, "You wanna get through this? Do as I say. Now pick up what you can, and run."

Grade: B+

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: "Welcome to Me"

Director: Shira Piven
Runtime: 88 minutes

Despite a fun set-up, Shira Piven's Welcome to Me is so totally linked to its central performance that it has little room to accomplish much else. Thankfully, star Kristen Wiig, in the latest of a recent string of indie releases, owns this offbeat dramedy from top to bottom. Piven's trim character study is so intensely focused on Wiig's Alice Klieg that there's little breathing room for anyone else. In fact, there's so little to be found in Welcome to Me outside of Wiig's performance, that the film often feels like nothing more than a performance showcase. Wiig offers some stellar comedic and dramatic acting, but the script's character-based tunnel vision prevents the project as a whole from being more than a gently moving trifle. 

Like any normal person, Alice is stunned when she wins the local lottery of $86 million. Yet once we get a look at Alice's cramped apartment, it's clear that she's far from your average American struggling to get by (and hoping for a miracle). Not only is Alice bi-polar, she's also messing around with the meds prescribed by her doctor (Tim Robbins). An Oprah-worshipping shut-in, Alice decides that there's only one thing she really wants to use her new fortune for: a talk show built around herself. Understandably, she's met with incredulous looks when she proposes the idea to the staff of the local TV station (Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh). The lone exception is Rich (James Marsden), the money-hungry head of the station, who gladly accepts check after check from Alice while his guilt-ridden brother/TV host Gabe (Wes Bentley) watches. 

Outside of the character-based elements, Welcome to Me's second priority is clearly the way society portrays (and/or exploits) those with mental illnesses. Yet Eliot Laurence's tight (almost too tight) script never branches out further than the basic idea that such exploitation A) exists and B) isn't very nice. Especially given the recent treatment of celebrities with mental illness, these themes couldn't be more ripe for exploration. If the world of Network predicted the rise of sadomasochistic, morally uncomfortable TV content, then Welcome to Me simply drops us into that world long after the prophecy has come to pass.

Whether or not you find this to be a major issue will likely come down to how you respond to Alice and Wiig's performance. Even with the aforementioned themes present, Alice is Laurence and Piven's #1 priority by a gigantic margin. And, on that subject, the film more than gets the job done. Laurence has created a true original of a character, one who is never defined strictly by her diagnosis. And Wiig, who's been stretching her acting muscles recently, does some really wonderful work here that continues to prove her worth as convincing actress, regardless of genre. 

The most obvious challenge with a film like Welcome to Me comes down to tone, and Piven's capturing of Laurence's writing is part of what keeps one involved with this increasingly sad character study. Wiig, meanwhile, has to contain the film's variations in tone without coming across as forced, and she does so beautifully. Funny, heartbreaking, and weird, it's a performance that feels truly human, and not like a checklist of mental health symptoms. 

Other characters may not get anywhere near the depth afforded to Alice, but Piven's film is filled with small gems from the talented ensemble. Bentley and Marsden are perfectly matched as the polar opposite brothers, the former of whom eventually earns Alice's romantic attention. Bentley's character is the most similar to Alice, and where others watch confusion and embarrassment, he watches with great empathy. Cusack is good for a handful of exasperated reaction shots, as is Leigh (though the latter's role is basically pointless). 

The most meaningful supporting performance comes from Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend Gina. Of all of the relationships featured in Welcome to Me, this is the one that would have been worthy of a few extra scenes. Though Alice has her own problems, she can be obsessed with herself to the point where she drives others away. This dynamic comes through the clearest with Gina, though some of the finale's impact is undercut by Gina's marginalization throughout the story. With more focus on the Gina/Alice dynamic, which goes back to their childhoods, more of Welcome to Me could have truly lingered. Instead, it's only Alice who really stays with you. Not surprising, as it's probably what she would've wanted. 

Grade: B-

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Director: Joss Whedon
Runtime: 141 minutes

"This doesn't make any sense," remarks Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) during the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron. But whether or not it makes sense shouldn't matter. What matters is whether or not enough of this is engaging at all. When Joss Whedon assembled the Avengers for the first time in 2012, he reinvigorated Marvel's cinematic universe. Yet now, at the end of Phase II of Marvel's master plan, Whedon has let quite a bit of wind out of the sails. 

Solo adventures for Captain America (Chris Evans) have been the most recent standalone films before both Avengers films. Yet after Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel was looking a bit weary post-Iron Man. Going into Avengers 2, Whedon is picking up after last year's shockingly good Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which has understandably set expectations higher. And this time, earth's mightiest heroes merely sharing the screen just isn't enough. Rather than close out Phase II with a brilliant end, Age of Ultron comes across as an extended denouement. 

When Age of Ultron opens, we're witnessing the end of the insidious Hydra organization. Once the Avengers dismantle the group's last fortress in eastern Europe, they start looking forward to a world at something resembling peace. Eager to make this dream into a reality, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) expands his Ultron program, a team of cyber soldiers designed to act as a shield for the planet, as well as an agent of peace on the ground. Things go south, however, when Stark's technological meddling creates genuine AI, which takes on the form of an android (James Spader) who claims the Ultron name for himself. With the corrupted AI on the loose, the next step is inevitable: the rise of the machines. Well, it would be inevitable if there was even an ounce of tension present on screen.

A good villain is a terrible thing to waste, but that's exactly what Age of Ultron does. Spader does a wonderful job of voicing (and providing motion capture work) Ultron, but the hulking metallic fiend registers only as powerful, but never threatening. Ultron's strength grows, but the danger he poses is stagnant. At every turn, the Avengers stop Ultron to some degree. Ultron never leaves our heroes broken. He simply runs away to plot his next move. With Ultron's seemingly limitless technological capabilities, the world's machinery should be turning on the Avengers. Instead, it most plays the neutral card, and Iron Man and co. go on their merry way chasing the demon robot across the globe.

The featherlight plotting wouldn't feel like such a weakness had Whedon been able to better sort out his cast. By now, Stark's snark is played out, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have settled into solid supporting roles. Despite his bland, all-American boy scout attitude, Evans' Captain America has emerged as the most reliably engaging lead from the franchise. When paired with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, it becomes all too clear who really deserves to be at the head of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

And then there's Renner's Hawkeye, who has always felt like the sixth wheel of the ensemble. Whedon tries to change that by taking us behind the character's mysterious black-ops facade, but what comes to light only makes him blander. Compare this with the frustratingly-brief peeks at Black Widow's upbringing, and Age of Ultron's priorities only seem more out of whack. As for super-powered twins Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver (Olsen and Aaron-Taylor Johnson), the former is wasted in a potentially cool role, while the latter barely holds a candle to Evan Peters' perfectly-utilized take on the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

So even though the number of plates that Whedon has spinning is impressive, watching this act again is starting to grow old. Just when Marvel seemed ready to move forward, Age of Ultron falls back into old habits. Spending time with these characters still has its pleasures, but this super-sized super-hero flick is, sadly, as bland as many of the standalone films in the series that paved the way. It's a dandelion of a blockbuster; with just the tiniest breeze, it all scatters to the wind with little consequence or merit. 

Grade: C+