Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: "Allied"

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 124 minutes

All's murky in love and war, especially when you and your spouse have both spent time working the international espionage racket. So goes the world of Robert Zemeckis' Allied, which oscillates between Casablanca homage and grim antidote to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Despite a twisty set up, generally strong production values, and solid performances, Allied comes up short when it's time to wrap up its mission.

While much of what we see on screen has a welcome Old Hollywood gloss, Zemeckis' recent love of visual effects starts Allied off on a distractingly modern note. A rather embarrassing opening shot follows a hilariously fake parachute landing into a desert landscape that's only marginally more convincing. Emerging from the fakery is Max Vattan (Brad Pitt), who has arrived in French Morocco to meet up with a French resistance operative to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. The operative turns out to be Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard, in full Golden Age glamor mode), who helps Max pose as her (fake) husband prior to the assassination. For Marianne, the trick lies in keeping the fakery of their work grounded in some kernel of authenticity.

It's notion that Cotillard pulls off beautifully, making it all the more frustrating that the film around her often fails do follow suit. Allied's sets and costumes are richly designed, but there is often a certain sheen to the imagery which goes beyond romanticism and into fakery. An early scene set in a Casablanca plaza looks the part at first glance, but the longer you soak it in, the more it appears to take place in a vacuum. Tilt the camera the wrong direction by just an inch or two, and the framework of the soundstage would make an unwelcome appearance.

Thankfully, things improve once the action moves back to England. Max and Marianne's fake relationship blossoms into a genuine one, and they settle down and have a baby. Then, right on schedule, the other shoe drops: British intelligence informs Max that Marianne may be a deep cover Nazi spy, and that he'll need to set up a trap to prove her innocence or guilt. 

The answers that eventually come our way, courtesy of screenwriter Steven Knight, largely prove satisfying. Whatever quibbles one might have with the plot's internal logic, Allied boasts enough first rate design and star power to allow for comfortable suspension of disbelief in the moment. But while Knight's story is a fun guessing game, Zemeckis' direction often gets in the way. Allied's opening passages are punishingly slow, with the build up to the assassination taking up far too much time. The Casablanca scenes lay the necessary groundwork with clues and red herrings, but Zemeckis directs on autopilot through much of it. Spycraft lives or dies by the details, but in Allied, those details exist as exposition that need to be trudged through before getting on to the good stuff.

By the time Allied finally introduces the question of Marianne's innocence, you might be ready for the story to just end already. But wait, there's more! The superior second half, when finally given room to take off, is no faster than the opening, but it moves with more confidence and better sustains the intrigue. Act 1 is an overlong obligation, while Act 2 gets to the heart of the matter. Livening things up are short performances from a strong group of supporting performances filled out by the likes of Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan (kudos for including an LGBT character), Matthew Goode, and Simon McBurney.

Without enough genuine character development to support the film's star power, however, the bulk of Allied never consistently catches fire. The twists, thankfully, give the story more heft by providing questions worth considering (as opposed to derailing the plot, which they easily could have). Allied's eventual conclusion is convincingly solemn, in large part thanks to Cotillard's multifaceted performance. The story's lack of focus, coupled with Zemeckis' lack of verve, leaves you with the feeling that you've just witnessed a halfhearted take on what could have been a tense mix of romance and thrills. At least Cotillard provides the fizz in an otherwise flat concoction.

Grade: C

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: "Nocturnal Animals"

Director: Tom Ford
Runtime: 116 minutes

It's perhaps not the greatest sign that the scene that has stuck with me the longest from Nocturnal Animals is the one that absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot. A mesmerizing series of grotesques set to Abel Korzeniowski's lush score kicks things off in a way that would make David Lynch proud. What follows, sadly, has the basic blueprints for a mesmerizing Russian Nesting Doll of a story, yet struggles to get beneath the artifice to something worth savoring. Fashion designer Tom Ford, in his second feature, continues to showcase his hidden gifts as a director (following the achingly beautiful A Single Man 7 years ago). And he's assembled a cast of talented actors to make it all sound convincing. But what gets in the way of Ford's Nocturnal Animals is Ford himself...or at least, his screenplay.

Adapted from Austin Wright's novel "Tony and Susan," Nocturnal Animals is either three stories in one or one story fragmented into three volumes. In the first, we meet Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner trapped in an increasingly hollow marriage to a philandering Ken Doll of a husband (Armie Hammer). Susan is jolted from her sterile LA lifestyle when she receives a manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads through the draft (also titled "Nocturnal Animals"), she traces the connections between it and her relationship with Tony, which ended under less than pleasant circumstances. 

What transpires is, on paper, a compelling slice of modern noir punctuated with heavy doses of a grimy Texas-set revenge thriller. Working with many of the same technical collaborators from A Single Man, Ford has crafted another luxurious cinematic experience, ranging from the aforementioned music to the chameleonic photography (and of course, the clothes). It looks the part, sounds the part, and even adds a few new tricks to Ford's directorial skill set. The dramatization of Tony's novel (in which Susan imagines Tony in the lead role) kicks off with a terrifically staged car chase on an empty West Texas road, and builds to a chilling climax. 

But what's missing from Nocturnal Animals is the psychological acuity that gave such weight to A Single Man. There's a lot of external activity on screen, but precious little of it gets beyond the surface of the beautiful faces on screen. What transpires often enthralls in the moment, but dissipates soon after. You'll likely find yourself wanting to be investing in these people, but Nocturnal Animals too often refuses to even meet you halfway.

Credit then, belongs to the actors for filling out these roles as best they can. Adams, coming off Arrival, turns in another quiet, introspective performance. But while Arrival allowed the actress room to take her character on a journey, Nocturnal Animals too often relegates her to the same position as the audience: a watcher. She is pushed to the margins, and spends more time staring out of windows and taking off her (admittedly killer) reading glasses than she does contributing to the story. 

Gyllenhaal, though occasionally pushed to go over the top, is also effective in both of his grief stricken forms, while Michael Shannon nearly steals the show as a sickly sheriff in Tony's novel. Taylor-Johnson is suitably menacing, though eventually his backwoods terrorizer schtick becomes repetitive. Actors like Hammer, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Sheen do what they can with limited time, while Laura Linney makes the most of her 1 scene cameo as Susan's imperious mother.

Just about everything in Nocturnal Animals is at least watchable, and for large stretches it's perfectly engaging. But while the narrative's structural divisions are admirable, their proportions are all off. So much time is spent bringing Tony's novel to life that Susan's current existence and her past life with Tony feel like add-ons struggling to justify themselves. And yet, if you were to cut them out, Tony's novel on its own wouldn't be enough to justify a full film. Ford spends so much time figuring out how to cobble the story together that he seems to have neglected to make even the faintest point out of everything. For all of its beauty, it's the ugly imperfections that linger longest. Nocturnal Animals pretends to get its hands dirty, but upon closer inspection, there's never a speck of dust under its immaculately manicured fingernails. 

Grade: B-

Review: "Things to Come"

Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Runtime: 101 minutes

A deceptive mundanity permeates Things to Come, the latest feature from France's Mia Hansen-Love. The central character, philosophy teacher Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), undergoes a series of disruptions to her everyday life, yet Hansen-Love refuses to portray any of them as end-of-world scenarios. Though it takes place over considerably less time, Things to Come in some ways recalls Boyhood. It's not entirely a shock; like Richard Linklater, Hansen-Love is fixated on people's various relationships with time, ranging from major life events to the connective tissue that fills up everything else. Yet from the mundanity of Things to Come emerges a whisper of transcendence. The ordinary is not inflated to become something greater than it is. Instead, it's handled with a mix of sensitivity and level-headedness that leads to something warm and wise.

Like Elle, another striking vehicle for Huppert (an actress continually finding new ways to be excellent), Things to Come technically hinges on a life-altering incident. But then it pulls back and forces its protagonist to cope not by putting all of their energy towards it, but by tending to it while still moving along with all else that adult life entails. Elle, with its violent rape and hints of sadomasochism, takes the darker, naughtier route. Things to Come, meanwhile, moves gently, thought not without purpose. Nathalie's life, turned upside down by her husband's affair, proceeds without too many major detours. She still has lunch with her kids, teaches class, counsels former protege Fabien (Roman Kolinka), and deals with her increasingly senile mother (Edith Scob).

Plenty of films have been made involving middle-aged men and women reinventing themselves, but few do so with the wisdom and lack of sentimentality on display here. Following the sprawling dance music saga Eden, Hansen-Love has scaled back her narrative ambitions, and emerged as a more precise storyteller. For a film composed of scene after scene of what amounts to daily life (with a few diversions), it moves with remarkable assurance and focus. It's not exactly hypnotic, but it's gently compelling in its honesty in a way that makes you want to get lost in it all. You may not share Nathalie's age, socio-economic status, or family set up, but her experiences touch on the universal without coming across as a series of bland boxes to be ticked off.

Then again, it's hard to be too bland when you've centered your movie on Isabelle Huppert. The actress is at her softest and gentlest here (compared with her ice-queen work in films like Elle, The Piano Teacher, White Material, La Ceremonie, etc etc), but she remains as galvanizing a screen presence as ever. The ups and downs of Nathalie's life are charted with the precision of an X-Acto knife, yet there's never a moment of the performance that comes off as overly calculated. Huppert has made a career out of playing characters with whom one can empathize, but not always sympathize. In the case of Nathalie, she has both, and the scenes in which her face, a mask of severity and poise, cracks, are breathtakingly moving.

So, as Nathalie moves from one moment to the next, Hansen-Love (who also wrote the beautiful script) follows her with an easy-going refinement that's all too rare in slice-of-life dramas. Even in the film's darkest moments, Hansen-Love keeps it all thrillingly alive. People bicker, people chat, people discuss philosophy, take care of their ailing parents, and sometimes they chase after their obese house cats...such is life (incidentally, between this and Elle, 2016 has been a fantastic year for those who enjoy Isabelle Huppert sharing the screen with felines). Things to Come manages to have it both ways: it celebrates the chance for reinvention, while still placing it in the context of the vast ocean of experiences and routines that define our every day existence. You don't need to be a philosophy expert to find something worth cherishing.

Grade: A-

Review: "Evolution"

Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Runtime: 78 minutes

Brevity is the soul of wit. Turns out that it also lies at the heart of head-spinning psychological thrillers. At just 78 minutes, Evolution, the second film from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, accomplishes what similarly themed films struggle to over vastly longer durations. Favoring a steady drip of ambiguous clues over dense plotting and explanation, Hadzihalilovic's first film in over a decade is the cinematic equivalent of a near-perfectly delivered short story that lingers due to the questions left unanswered.

It's not long after we first meet young Nicolas (Max Brebant) that we stumble upon the first of several puzzling, gently unsettling sights. On a morning swim, Nicolas comes across the corpse of a boy his age, with a red starfish fixed around his stomach. Understandably alarmed, he rushes home to his village, a cluster of white buildings isolated along the coastline of black rocks and sand. He informs his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), eventually goes under the water to see for herself. When she resurfaces, she comes holding the red starfish, and tells Nicolas and the other boys in town that there never was a dead body. In the meantime, other families, composed of male children and female adults, mill about by the water. 

Hadzihalilovic, from the outset, displays an extraordinary sense of cinematic time, and proportions her film accordingly. Though Evolution would qualify as slow, its pacing is taut, never dawdling for too long before nudging its story into (and then deep down) the rabbit hole. The routines of the village dwellers, which include the adults feeding an inky black mush to the boys as part of a treatment, are shown enough for us to understand their place in the characters' lives, but not so much that the film leaves us thinking "oh come on, not this again." 

Evolution may be light on plot and character development, but it counters beautifully through its stoic performances, beautiful lighting, and masterful command of mood. Much of what takes place defies easy explanation, but the questions that Hadzihalilovic leaves unanswered come from a place of assured filmmaking. The director has the answers and knows all of the rules, and uses ambiguity to push the viewer, rather than as a cop out. And the actors, though often blank in expression, all commit to the material with chilling directness. Though young Nicolas is the film's lead, the most nuanced turn comes from Stella (The White Ribbon's Roxane Duran), a nurse (or someone dressed as a nurse) at the island's medical facility. Initially just another face overseeing the "cure" of the local boys, Stella's facade cracks in an unexpectedly tender way, throwing a wrench into our perception of what the hell is going on.

There's a razor thin line between compelling ambiguity and head-scratching emptiness, and Hadzihalilovic never falters. Her story has literal and symbolic implications, with issues of gender dynamics, societal manipulation, and bodily autonomy all intersecting over the course of Nicolas' journey (not unlike 2014's Under the Skin). It's a muted mix of abstract sci-fi thrills and low-key body horror with a less-is-more approach only amplifies its deeply unnerving psychological impact the longer it swims around in your head.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: "Elle"

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Runtime: 131 minutes

It's not every day you see a movie that opens with rape and then, mere minutes later, prods you to laugh uncomfortably. Assault and rape are tricky to tackle in a visual medium, given the thin line that separates honest discomfort and repugnant exploitation (look no further than high end cable dramas like Game of Thrones and Outlander). Leave it to Paul Verhoeven, then, to craft a psychological thriller/black comedy like Elle that occupies the elusive intersection of melodramatic noir thrills and pop-psychology. 

Which is not to say that this is the first time Verhoeven has waded into these waters. This is, after all, the same man who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls. It's been a decade since Verhoeven's last film (the Dutch drama Black Book), and above all else, he remains an effective provocateur. Yet in Elle, adapted from French novelist Philippe Djian's "....Oh," Verhoeven reveals that he's moved on from hollow shock value. His new film is a silky smooth, Hitchcockian exercise buoyed by a sharp script and a mesmerizing lead performance.

Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke provide a sufficiently intricate framework, but the real heavy lifting comes down to the actress who plays Michele, the story's protagonist. In the hands of French actress Isabelle Huppert, it all looks astonishingly effortless. That sort of acting prowess is necessary given the psychological hoops Michele jumps through over the course of the film's two hours. So many (too many) similar female characters have been confined to victimhood in the aftermath of a rape, and Michele is a wonderfully complex corrective. Rather than wilt, Michele does her best to go about her usual routine. So much so, that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the incident had phased her at all.

Verhoeven plays the long game with Elle, and though it can sometimes be a bit bewildering, the approach helps the film standout and surprise. The evolution of Michele's "relationship" with her masked assailant is given as much screen time as her affair with her friend's husband, her garish mother, and the various oddballs and jackasses at her video game company. The revelation of Michele's childhood trauma further throws a wrench into how everything fits together.

Elle has a lot of pieces in its puzzle, but Verhoeven and Birke keep the story flowing along smoothly. At times, certain scenes beg the question "ok, why are we here/where is this going?" Ultimately, the mundanity of some of the narrative works in the film's favor. In giving so much focus to the regular aspects of Michele's life, Elle is able to smoothly compartmentalize its story the way its protagonist does. The story presents dozens of opportunities for Birke's screenplay to take the mawkish, "oh why me?" route with Michele's journey, yet the writer sidesteps them all.

The biting sense of humor is an equally valuable component of Elle's success. Rather than cheapen the gravity of Michele's trauma, the stabs of comedy elevate the film into a richer, more nuanced exploration. The blend of tones reaches its apex in a fantastic dinner party scene, where humor and tragedy collide in subtly breathtaking ways. It's all a high wire act that would fall apart in the hands of a less daring performer. 

Yet even those who know Huppert's work might be taken aback by the way the actress' fearlessness manifests in this performance. In films like Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Huppert demonstrated her prowess through fiercely contained bursts of emotion. Elle, though no less complex, doesn't boast the shame type of obvious expressiveness. But just when it seems like the actress might be coasting, she throws out some little jab of black humor or murky despair that brings the whole balancing act into focus. 

The performance is so strong and so consistently intriguing that it would be easy to dismiss the behind the scenes contributions. First and foremost is Verhoeven's elegant direction, which toes the line between high end psychological drama and paperback thriller. The faded, fall-into-winter color palette works well by casting even the most innocent moments in a murky mood. Anne Dudley's melodramatic score is a standout as well, lending scenes the right touch of menace and mystery without becoming intrusive. Despite the heavy nods to cinematic styles of the past, Verhoeven's stamp on Elle ensures that it all manages to still come across as forward-thinking. Whatever your thoughts on the director's previous work, he at least deserves credit for finding new ways to tease and provoke.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: "Arrival"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 minutes

There is a moment in Arrival in which an observation about language caused me to freeze in my seat. If I was shocked, it was due not to some sensational revelation. For a "big moment," it is played with an almost disorienting amount of elegance and reserve. And yet this delicate, seemingly banal line about the nature of languages (or rather, one language in particular) left me in the same state of awe as the climactic passages of 2001, Solaris, or Stalker. It serves not as a copout, but as a mind-warping enrichment of everything that comes before and after.

Adapted from Ted Chiang's acclaimed short story "The Story of Your Life," Arrival's set up is hardly novel. Aliens land, and it's up to us to figure out what they want (and, in the worst case scenario, to fight back). So it's all the more astonishing that, Arrival has been allowed to exist in its present form. As written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival represents the most extreme opposite of bellicose blockbusters like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. Though the special effects are impressive, they pale in comparison to what is achieved through the enigmatic storytelling, and the haunting lead performance from Amy Adams.

Adams plays Louise Banks, an expert linguist called upon to help the US government following a global incident. 12 UFO's, which look like elongated obsidian eggs, have touched down across the globe, including one in America's backyard, Montana. At the forceful request of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), she is rushed out to US-bound spacecraft, and paired with theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the aliens' intentions. 

Global tensions, understandably, run high, and yet the plot's trajectory never fails to subvert expectations. The linguistics conversations are not an entryway to a standard thriller plot, but rather the launchpad for a richer tale of time, memory, and communication. Deciphering a language, much like editing a book, is not a process that lends itself to screen-drama. And yet, somehow, Heisserer's screenplay often does what so many others struggle to accomplish. The writing is devoted to explaining various connections and theories, but never allows them to grind the narrative to a halt. 

And even when the dialogue becomes purely expository, it is gracefully complimented by Villeneuve's overall grasp on the material. Since making the leap from Quebec, the Canadian helmer has become a first rate director of the sort of mid-budget, adult-targeted dramas that are so hard to come by in Hollywood. With each new project, Villeneuve moves to different genres and settings, yet maintains a devotion to keeping his stories grounded in the authentic. Arrival has far loftier intentions than Villeneuve's previous work, and it works because of, not in spite of, its fantastical elements.

With so much emphasis on ideas and plot trickery, one might understandably fear that the human element of something like Arrival would be an inconvenience. But what ultimately gives Arrival its tremendous impact comes down to its refusal to separate the emotional and cerebral components. The eventual intersection of the large and small scale conflicts, which could have so easily derailed the film, builds to an ingenious series of developments that drastically alter the stakes, but in the most unexpected ways.

Louise is at the center of all of Arrival's plot threads and themes, and Adams is nothing short of stunning in the role. Much like Emily Blunt's protagonist in Sicario, Louise is often quite withdrawn. She is a reactor, not an actor, but that doesn't make her a blank slate. For all of her guardedness, Adams is still tremendously expressive throughout. The movements of her face and eyes appear to hold several lifetimes worth of emotion. Louise is out of her depth, yet somehow has all of the answers. She has moments of understanding, yet can't figure out how she got from point A to point B to begin with. Despite playing the put-upon hero of sorts, Adams delivers the antithesis of a star performance; her work is defined by introspection and nuance.

Renner and Whitaker are reliable, though of the humans it all comes down to Adams. The Heptapods (our name for the aliens) are appropriately enigmatic, as if the monolith from 2001 sprouted legs and communicated through inky hieroglyphs. Tech credits are excellent across the board, with the score and editing standing out in particular. 

Yet even with the Heptapods and their spaceship, the images (photographed by the outstanding Bradford Young) that seem to linger most in Arrival are among the simplest. A shot of an empty house, two people embracing, Louise's eyes lighting up as she connects the latest series of dots. Or, in one case, the way the camera holds on Adam's exhausted, solemn expression as the spaceship sits in the background, obscured and out of focus. The utter stillness of the moment crystallizes everything that's beautiful about Arrival. Here is a science-fiction story defined not by promises of effects-driven chaos, but by a paradoxical mix of melancholy and hope in the face of the great infinite beyond. 

Grade: A

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: "Loving"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 123 minutes

Despite building towards a Supreme Court decision, it would be a mistake to label Loving as any sort of courtroom drama. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, and this year's Midnight Special) has taken a slice of history and made it less dramatic. There are no long, tearful speeches or impassioned arguments about right and wrong. But the film is called Loving, not Loving v. Virginia, and Nichols avoids the legal aspects for as long as possible. Nichols opens his film with Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) sitting together on a porch. In the moment of stillness, there are no worries of racial injustice or threats to their safety. It's just two people who love each other and want to lead ordinary lives. 

Extra emphasis should be placed on the word ordinary, as Nichols deftly avoids turning his leads into simple martyrs. Loving is a love story, but it's one where the central couple is already deeply in love at the start. If only those around them would just leave them be. Yet even with run ins with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas), Richard and Mildred's scenario is consistently handled with sensitivity and a bit of distance. In between legal troubles (the couple's county of residence forbid interracial marriages), they race cars, go to family gatherings, and work on the local farmland. Were it not for the pesky law, the Lovings would be in their own Eden.

Though the message seems simple (Lovings good, racist law bad), Nichols and his actors do a beautiful job of conveying the Lovings' struggle without becoming redundant. The performances from both Edgerton (a native of Australia) and Negga (of Irish/Ethiopian descent) are so quiet, yet they positively radiate with warmth and tenderness. Early on, Richard takes Mildred to an empty parcel of land. Mildred questions her husband with neutral curiosity as to why he's brought her to such a place. And then he tells her that this is where he plans to build them a house. Mildred hesitates, her eyes flicker, and she looks around again, as if she's suddenly been transported. The moment, like many others, is so simple, so gorgeously evocative of the love between husband and wife.

Whether experiencing a moment of triumph or a setback, Edgerton and Negga keep their performances 90% internalized, and to watch react with such modesty is a thing of beauty. Edgerton, keeps his head down through much of the film, which makes his few displays of distress that much more haunting. When he drunkenly whispers "I can protect you...I can protect you," it comes loaded with the weight of a lifetime of frustration. While Edgerton deflects, Negga does the opposite. She holds herself up as best as she can, never a damsel in need of man's rescue. To look into her silent moviestar eyes is find yourself bombarded with wave after wave of emotion. The body language of the actors is an integral part of their performances, rather than a show-offy crutch to fall back on ("wow, he put so much effort into slouching!").

Despite the loveliness of Richard and Mildred's scenes together, the time does come for the legal portion of the story to intervene, and Nichols integrates it all seamlessly. We are shown as little as possible, and no scene is devoted to dense legal strategizing. A few meetings with the lawyers are all Loving has time for, and next thing you know it's time for opening statements at the Supreme Court. All the while the Lovings move around, have kids, and do their best to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Tales of social justice and civil rights are often exercises of fiery passion. Loving opts for nothing more than humility over the course of its stately two hours, but that certainly didn't stop it from making my eyes well up at the simplest of gestures. The Lovings' ordinariness is a wonder all on its own.

Grade: B+/A-