November 17, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Super Friends Last All Summer Long

2017 / USA / Dir. by Zack Snyder / Opens in wide release on November 17, 2017

The conventional wisdom is that Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman (2016), the first two entries in the wannabe “DC Extended Universe”, were critical duds partly due to their unremittingly dour tone. The grim, brooding atmosphere that worked well in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2015 - 2012) is a poor fit for stories about the Last Son of Krypton, or so the thinking goes. In truth, tone is not actually one of MoS's or BvS’s more glaring flaws. Notwithstanding the pouting of comic book fans with inflexible notions of how Superman “should” act or a Superman story “should” feel, Snyder’s conception of the material at least offered some fresh, off-kilter interpretations of iconic characters and scenarios. (Michael Shannon’s General Zod remains the DCEU’s most engrossing villain, by an enormous margin.) The films also boasted plenty of inspired design and striking images, even if such sensory pleasures were often shrouded in desaturated digital murk.

No, the most significant issue with MoS and BvS (the latter more than the former) is their general unintelligibility. Snyder’s DCEU films are feverishly ambitious and remorseless, but they are also unforgivably sloppy; chock-a-block with hazy motivations, muddled chronology, and glaringly disjointed editing. Not even Batman in his World’s Greatest Detective aspect could flowchart the theatrical cut of BvS, although it wasn’t until David Ayer’s Suicide Squad last year that filmgoers truly got a taste for how incoherent and illogical a major studio blockbuster could be.

Sadly, Warner Bros. seems to have learned some cock-eyed lessons from their early stumbles, as the solution that has plainly been applied to Justice League—Synder’s third foray into this dubious franchise—is to make it more Avengers-y. Accordingly, Marvel Studios’ crossover event helmsman Joss Whedon was enticed to team up with Chris Terrio and take a whack at the screenplay for League. (Whedon also stepped in for Snyder when the latter had to depart at the tail end of the production for family reasons.) Whedon’s fingerprints are discernable in the new film’s slathering of quips, jibes, and other super-banter, particularly the nervous, deadpan witticisms tossed off by Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller). Admittedly, Whedon’s warm-hearted snark is welcome, and Miller delivers the film’s more delicious lines with marvelous comic timing. (An anxious reference to Pet Semetary is among the film’s best wisecracks.)

However, jokiness can only do so much to support a clumsily conveyed story, particularly when the humor feels like a drizzle of icing rather than an essential component of the film’s narrative and thematic recipe. (See Guardians of the Galaxy for an example of the latter done right.) Justice League revives the storytelling problems that bedeviled Snyder’s previous DCEU outings, leaving the viewer to grope their way through confused plotting, kludgy exposition, and half-baked characterization. Avengers at least had a bench of well-developed heroes fresh from their own solo films, illustrating the advantages of Marvel’s painstakingly pre-planned approach to the blockbuster franchise. League is obliged to introduce three new “meta-humans” and a super-villains, each with their own vaguely conveyed history and character arc. As a result, everything in the film feels rushed and undernourished. Entire scenes flicker by without much clarity regarding their place in the narrative, or their relationship to the preceding or following scene. Every filmgoer will be reduced to a dazed senior citizen, whispering queries to their grandkids: "Who is that? Where is this? What’s happening?”

Unlike Suicide Squad, however, Justice League isn’t an aggressively unpleasant slog. Indeed, Snyder’s latest film is often downright fun, especially when he seizes on his performers’ raw charisma, or when a live-wire moment of stark dramatic tension cuts through the muddled storytelling. The latest baddie to threaten Earth is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds via motion capture), a hulking, armored godling with a colossal battleaxe and an army of zombified insectoid “Parademons” at his command. Like most cinematic supervillains of late, he’s criminally bland, having no significant attributes beyond being big, strong, and mean. (However, Hinds does get to bellow one utterly delectable comic book line: “Praise to the mother of horrors!”) Ages ago, the dimension-hopping Steppenwolf was routed during his attempted conquest of Earth, and he’s itching for payback. Integral to his plan are three “Mother Boxes”—surely the silliest MacGuffin name in years—which, when brought together, will allow him to rapidly terraform the planet, incidentally wiping out all life in the process. (Wasn’t that General Zod’s exact scheme from Man of Steel? Whatever. It hardly matters.)

Standing in opposition to this apocalyptic yet somehow tedious menace are uncertain partners Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Alerted to Steppenwolf’s imminent invasion, the pair scramble to recruit others with extraordinary abilities: the lightning-fast Flash, who is still getting the hang of his powers and his hero status; self-exiled Atlantean prince Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who likes booze, solitude, and the small-bore heroism of rescusing fishermen; and Victor Stone a.k.a., Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased A student and star athlete resurrected via alien cybernetics by his own scientist father. Naturally, Bruce and Diana encounter some resistance when putting the team together—although not from Barry, who geeks out over the Batcave and is enthused to have some actual friends. Also naturally, the group eventually comes together to oppose Steppenwolf, learning lessons about cooperation and camraderie in the process. Yay!

The elephant in the room is Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal El, a.k.a. Superman (Henry Cavill), whose death appears to have plunged the world into a sustained outbreak of violence, bigotry, and fanaticism. (Unfortunately, Justice League barely has time to convey this intriguing plot point, yet alone to develop it into something thematically robust.) Bruce is still moping over his role in Kal-El’s demise, but there is added urgency now that a seemingly invincible interdimensional threat is bearing down on the planet. Once Bruce learns that the Mother Boxes have the power to restore life, he hatches a mad scientist's scheme to resurrect Superman, who will presumably be able to stand toe-to-toe with Steppenwolf without breaking a sweat. However, the other members of the nascent Justice League think that this is a Very Bad Idea.

Justice League’s most frustrating flaw is that it proves to be so… ordinary. A super-powered team-up of this magnitude should be spectacular, but Snyder’s efforts to rein in his penchant for outlandish sci-fi devastation results in an adventure that feels distressingly anonymous. The film’s most memorable action sequence occurs just ten minutes into the proceedings, when Diana foils an anarchic terror plot disguised as a bank robbery. Snyder fittingly cribs from Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins’ refinements to his own lavish, speed-ramping style for this scene, but elsewhere all the fisticuffs and explosions are kinetic yet entirely forgettable. (Even the Flash’s slo-mo heroics feel like weak tea compared to Quicksilver’s wittily imagined set pieces in the X-Men prequels.) Annoyingly, Aquaman isn’t given nearly enough to do. Terrio and Whedon’s screenplay regularly strands him far from the oceanic settings where his powers are best utilized. Consequently, Arthur is obliged to engage in a lot of bland jumping, punching, and trident-poking; there are no telepathically summoned great white sharks, unfortunately.

Gadot is once again the DCEU’s gleaming star in this outing, delivering the only performance that conveys authentic warmth and nobility, at least among the super-powered characters. Amy Adams, as usual, gives the thinly-written Lois Lane more heart than the part deserves. Affleck remains a fine fit for this late-model, weary Dark Knight Returns iteration of the Caped Crusader, although he seems almost sheepishly exasperated to be bossing around a band of living gods. Which may be the point: Batman makes the plans, but Wonder Woman wears the crown, at least in Kal El's absence. Gadot even allows viewers a peek at her Amazon’s more maternal side, as she offers elder stateswoman guidance to Bruce and a mentor's encouragement to Victor. Momoa is the odd man out: In the abstract, the mellow, lone wolf persona he brings to the Prince of Atlantis has potential. He's part surfer bro, part Han Solo scoundrel, and part Aragorn-style banished scion. Something about the laid-back jocularity of the character clashes with the rest of the film, however, in a way that Miller’s fretful wiseass Flash does not. Fisher’s character has the most long-term dramatic potential—a legally dead man whose Swiss army knife powers are evolving at supercomputer speeds—but the actor is given virtually nothing to do other than sulk about, mourning his existence like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s lots of room for nitpicking when it comes to Justice League’s story. Dwelling near Steppenwolf’s lair at a contaminated ex-Soviet site, a random human family serves as a clumsy stand-in for the billions of people the League wishes to protect, but there’s little about the nameless clan that invites the viewer’s interest or investment. The Atlanteans and their warrior-princess Mera (Amber Heard) appear and then vanish from the film so quickly, they don’t have time to leave much of an impression, let alone for the screenplay to adequately explain their role or Aquaman's history. There are nonsensical and aggravating plot points aplenty; the worst occurs when the League quite literally leaves the third Mother Box laying around for Steppenwolf to nick while their backs are turned. (You had one job, Cyborg.)

This sort of ham-fisted storytelling wouldn’t be so objectionable if Snyder’s new film had more personality. To make the feature more palatable to viewers who groused about the bleak bombast of the director’s earlier Superman films, Warner Bros. has ironically neutered Justice League, turning it into a disposable Avengers Lite. Gone is the grandiose "Tales to Astonish" spectacle embodied in Krypton’s wondrous design. Gone are the left-field gothic and giallo touches like blood gushing from the walls of the Wayne family mausoleum. Gone is anything so defiantly weird as Bruce’s Road Warrior vision of a barren Earth under the boot of a tyrannical Superman. Excised of any potentially alienating eccentricity, Justice League is merely a mildly entertaining and thoroughly unremarkable digital blip, its cinematic ungainliness offset only by its stars’ charms and its sporadic splashes of Saturday morning cartoon delight. (Stay for the mid-credits scene: It’s a winner.)

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 16, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Why Does Art Hate Me? I Never Did Anything to Art!

2017 / Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark / Dir. by Ruben Östlund / Opens in select theaters on October 27, 2017; locally on November 17, 2017

Viewers who have experienced the delectable agony of director Ruben Östlund’s international breakout Force Majeure (2014) doubtlessly have some expectations regarding the Swedish filmmaker’s new feature, The Square. Those expectations will largely be fulfilled: Like his previous film, the director’s latest work is a pitch-black satire presented completely straight, with a whiff of self-loathing detectable beneath its Scandinavian starch. Both Force Majeure and The Square are bone-dry cringe comedies about self-satisfied bourgeois men. In both films, the protagonist is swiftly and thoroughly dismantled by a volatile mixture of happenstance and their own wretched failings.

However, Östlund’s preceding film slyly employed a constrained setting—a nuclear family’s holiday at a luxury ski resort—that reflected the feature’s relatively narrow focus on patriarch Tomas’ crumpling cowardice and inadequacy. In contrast, the Palm d’Or-winning The Square veritably sprawls. Set in Stockholm, with much of its action centered on an esteemed contemporary art museum, the new film follows the travails of Christian (Claes Bang), the institution’s preening, middle-aged chief curator. His narcissistic dickishness receives a healthy share of The Square’s barbs, but the general absurdities of the art world are also subjected to profuse skewering. More broadly, the film takes aim at the grating self-regard of the politically Leftish well-to-do, and at the inanities of modern, globalized European society. The feature suffers somewhat due to this expansiveness, lacking the ruthless intensity that made Force Majeure such an enthralling experience. Nonetheless, The Square is still a superbly unpleasant delight—the comedy equivalent of a vinegar caramel or salted licorice.

With a 142-minute running time, concision is less important to the The Square than weaving a striking tapestry of ridiculous peoples, places, and situations. There is, as one might expect, quite a bit of comedy about the pretense, vapidity, and impenetrability of modern art. However, Östlund generally resists the temptation to engage in the sort of “My Kid Could Paint That” scoffing that inevitably attends popular reactions to works of abstract and conceptual art. The writer-director is more absorbed with his setting’s potential to amplify the wry comedy of the uncomfortable. Accordingly, much of the film consists of loosely connected vignettes about (or adjacent to) the museum’s day-to-day operations. Some of these incidents have plot repercussions, while others simply add thin, droll layers to the film’s dense portrait of high culture buffoonery.

In the latter category, for example, is a wordless, Tati-esque scene in which a janitorial worker attempts (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a floor buffer around an art installation consisting of neat piles of gravel. There’s no grand payoff for this, just a subsequent aside between curators about surreptitiously repairing the damage to the exhibit. The exchange reveals a bit of Christian’s craven, unscrupulous side; otherwise, it’s just funny for the sake of funny. In another relatively autonomous sequence, a moderated talk with an artist (Dominic West) is repeatedly interrupted by an audience member with Tourette syndrome. Crucially, Östlund doesn’t present the scene to mock the afflicted individual. Instead, he focuses on the embarrassed reactions of everyone else, whose progressive-minded tolerance for the disabled fidgets uncomfortably alongside the untenable distraction of yelped obscenities. (There’s also the matter of the unsubtle editorializing inherent in cutting off an artist’s vacuous ramblings with shouts of “Bullshit!”)

Much of The Square’s art-centric humor relies on these sort of ludicrous juxtapositions, and the most obvious criticism of the film is that savaging the modern art world is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, revealing the silliness of the cultural elite is practically satire on Easy Mode, and some part of Östlund clearly delights in walloping his socially conscious audience right in the stomach with an irony sledgehammer. One loses count of how many times the director slides in a pointed shot of a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk just outside the museum, contrasting the grubby reality outside the institution with the high-minded excess of events inside its galleries and offices. (The inequity is funny because it’s tragic. Or something.)

However, Östlund’s approach ultimately proves to be far more nimble and complex than initial appearances might suggest. His Stockholm is more Springfield than South Park: Equal-opportunity in its satirical ambitions but rarely snottily contemptuous. Significantly, many of the cutting-edge works of contemporary art showcased in the film are genuinely audacious and intriguing. Östlund takes pains to illustrate that their absurdity derives mostly from their ill-conceived implementation, and from the way that banal situations take on a surreal shading when they unfold in spaces where the abstract is rendered boldly tangible. Standard cringe comedy fodder like tense morning-after bickering, for example, becomes sublimely daft due to the sporadic, cacophonous thudding from some unseen installation piece. It’s not that the art is inherently preposterous; it’s that the art’s presence makes an awkward situation even more deliriously farcical.

Notwithstanding some swipes at a pair of soulless twenty-something advertising wunderkinds, the only target for which The Square has (mostly) unmitigated disdain is Christian. Middle-aged and nominally liberal, the curator is an egomaniac who uses pretension to mask his selfish gutlessness and anxious masculinity. (European black comedy has made a veritable cottage industry of taking down pricks like Christian.) A relentless womanizer who fusses over his chic wardrobe and his shock of floppy black hair, he’s the sort of insufferable phony who carefully rehearses the “unscripted” parts of his speeches.

The closest thing to a traditional plot in The Square involves the saga of Christian’s stolen smartphone and wallet, the retrieval of which escalates into a Coens-worthy fiasco riddled with unforeseen consequences. After tracking the pickpocketed phone’s location to a housing project, Christian and his IT assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) devise a drunken and colossally stupid plan to get it back, and things snowball from there. Initially, this plot is only glancingly connected to the museum vignettes, but Christian’s obsession with the phone debacle distracts him from his management duties at a key moment, leading to scandal for the institution and a subsequent political reckoning. Östlund gives both halves of the story—the museum set-pieces and Christian’s after-hours bungling—comparable weight, deftly using each one to comment on the other.

Every scene featuring Christian reveals a smidgen more of his noxious character, ensuring that when his comeuppance finally arrives, it feels richly deserved. Despite his pomposity, the man is, at bottom, a jellyfish: In one of the film’s most casually hilarious moments, he shifts his position from stalwart defender of artistic freedom to whiny finger-pointer in about five seconds, without a hint of self-awareness. The curator has more depth to his personality than did Force Majeure’s Tomas, but Christian is also the only character in The Square who is more than an unfocused collection of attributes.

The roles and relationships of the myriad assistant curators, museum directors, creative consultants, and wealthy benefactors who flit through the film are never clarified, which is arguably fitting. The Square primarily follows Christian’s viewpoint, and in his eyes the rest of the world is divisible into underlings to be bullied, superiors to be avoided, and sexual conquests to be claimed. Elizabeth Moss portrays Anne, an American arts journalist who interviews and then awkwardly hooks up with the curator, and while she is astute and sharp-tongued, the viewer never learns much about her. (Least of all why she keeps a bonobo chimpanzee in her apartment, one of Östlund’s rare instances of overreach in the pursuit of the weird.)

In Östlund’s conception, the bold aims of contemporary art don’t amount to much if a self-absorbed jackwagon with terrible judgment is serving as the cultural gatekeeper. Case in point: the titular Square, which is the lynchpin of the museum’s latest exhibition. A quadrangle of light set into the museum’s cobblestone plaza, the installation is intended as a sort of social consciousness exercise. Visitors are invited to stand within the square and ask passersby for help with anything they might need. Paradoxically, although “The Square” is the flagship of Christian’s recent efforts as curator, it’s the one work presented in the film that feels utterly toothless, a flimsy attempt to kick-start some vague movement of universal compassion. Proving that Östlund is not above self-mockery, the anodyne manifesto that accompanies the “The Square” is the same one that the director and producer Kalle Boman penned for an analogous real-world art installation in 2014.

The viewer never observes anyone using “The Square” installation for its intended purpose. However, a person asking for (or refusing) help is a relentlessly recurring motif in the film, one that extends beyond the proliferation of panhandlers in the story’s fore- and background. (Östlund, incidentally, is shrewdly evenhanded in his portrayal of the homeless, depicting them as alternately polite and obliging or tetchy and churlish, depending on the individual in question.) Christian suffers repeated reversals of fortune in which he is obliged to ask strangers for help, and the film derives some enjoyment from the spectacle of such a self-important twit being forced to beg on his knees (figuratively, at least). Elsewhere in the film, the appeals for aid are more disturbing: passive-aggressive efforts to unload disagreeable tasks; hysterical screams echoing through a crowded plaza; faint yet incessant sobs emanating from a darkened stairwell; and, in the film’s most notorious set piece, a terrified woman shrieking for help as she is assaulted by a performance artist.

In this latter scene, the artist, Oleg (Terry Notary), debuts an aggressively confrontational performance piece in which he runs amok among the museum's wealthy benefactors, mimicking a wild ape. (The scene was reportedly inspired by Russian artist Oleg Kulik, whose pieces often include performers imitating animals.) Notary is an apt choice, as his recent filmography includes simian roles such as Rocket in the Planet of the Apes features and the titular king-sized gorilla in Kong: Skull Island. The actor’s performance is both eerily exacting in its mimicry and 110% committed to the scene’s seat-squirming unpleasantness (and sexual ickiness).

Östlund essentially presents the performance as a slow-motion horror sequence, in which the hundred or so patrons in attendance at a benefit dinner are first amused at Oleg's antics; then uneasy; then distressed; then petrified. Christian attempts to cut the performance short, but the artist disregards him, pawing at people and chasing them around room while hooting maniacally. It soon becomes apparent that the situation will not end until Oleg relents (unlikely) or he is physically restrained. Östlund is dexterous here: The director manages to illustrate how daring and galvanic performance art can be, while also specifically excoriating Oleg for violating attendees’ consent and Christian for greenlighting such a disaster in the first place.

If there’s a modest humanity to be found underneath Östlund’s prim yet gleeful savaging of the art world and its denizens, it’s in the film’s acknowledgement that everyone is embroiled in a quietly miserable tug-of-war between their needs and wants on one side, and their vanity and shame on the other. Even Christian is afforded sympathy in select scenes, as when he frankly apologizes for overreacting to his young daughters’ quarreling, or when he is rather baselessly pilloried from both the political right and left during a press conference. By pulling back and revealing the witch’s brew of outrage, twaddle, and apathy that public figures are obliged to choke down with a smile, the film retroactively softens the jaw-dropping vanity of Christian’s earlier appeals to his minor celebrity. Östlund also provides historical context by observing the museum staff and benefactors as they drunkenly sneak into the adjacent Swedish royal residence. There, the even sharper wealth disparity of an earlier age is on display, underlining that the out-of-touch elite are hardly unique to the 21st century.

Much like Force Majeure, The Square starts to lose some of its already-modest narrative momentum in the film’s final stretch, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the myriad subplots have been left dangling by design. There is fallout from Christian’s mishandling of a promotional video for the exhibition, for example, but no visible repercussions from Oleg’s catastrophic and potentially actionable performance, which is never even mentioned after the fact. There’s a boldness to this deliberately unsatisfying approach, as when Christian’s tardy but earnest attempt to confess one of his misdeeds concludes with an ambiguous sputter. Although The Square presents a slightly cartoonish depiction of the art world, the film is authentic when it insists that events are not easily divisible into tidy dramatic arcs. However, in a feature where actual plot is already sharing screen time with standalone scenes of art world folly, Östlund’s determination to let Christian’s story simply trail off has the side effect of making the film’s final 15 minutes or so feel particularly listless.

Whether any given viewer will find The Square delicious or excruciating will largely depend on their attitude towards cringe comedy as a subgenre. Much like superhero features or slasher flicks, the humor of the deeply uncomfortable has its dedicated admirers, but there’s little point in trying to convince an avowed skeptic of its merits. One either gets it or one doesn’t, which is not a judgment about individuals’ sophistication (or lack thereof), but an acknowledgement that genre is a fuzzy category rather than a statement of cinematic merit. There are corkers and clunkers in every category, and much like the recent Thor: Ragnarok, Östlund’s film is the former: a terrific exemplar of its sort of thing, executed with great assurance and wit. However, if a viewer’s funny bone isn’t tickled by the prospect of self-important Swedes in tuxedos and evening gowns being tormented by a half-naked man behaving like a chimpanzee, The Square may not be for them.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 10, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Behold the Fire and the Wood; But Where Is the Lamb?

2017 / UK, Ireland, USA / Dir. by Yorgos Lathimos / Opens in limited release on October 20, 2017; locally on November 10, 2017

The characters in Yorgos Lathimos’ films don’t talk like normal people. In the case of the Bizarro clan in the director’s pitch-black absurdist masterpiece Doogtooth (2009), the family’s speech patterns reveal their insular enforced worldview—a Wonderland paradigm where “sea” means “chair” and housecats are ravenous monsters. The Lobster (2015) looks on as desperate singles in some alternate future go through the ridiculous rituals of romance, exhibiting the cold pragmatism and stilted unfamiliarity of visitors from another planet.

In Lathimos’ new feature, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the director’s penchant for unnervingly off-key dialog isn’t as thematically pertinent as it is in his other works. There’s not much subtext to the film’s verbal inelegance, beyond the routine observation that social interactions are detached and vacuous in the modern world. (In this, Killing bears some resemblance to David Cronenberg’s icier features, such as Crash and Cosmopolis.) However, the film’s distinctive Lathimos speech patterns—characterized by emotional blankness and perfunctory line deliveries—engender a forceful mood of skin-crawling unease. That atmosphere is an essential component of Killing, which represents the Greek filmmaker’s first plunge into full-fledged horror, albeit a fittingly arid and chilly stripe of arthouse horror.

Straightaway, the viewer is put on edge, as the camera follows along with surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) during their post-op trek down a long hospital hallway. The keening, modernist score—plainly intended to evoke Stanley Kubrick’s films—is quite sufficient to raise the viewer's hackles. However, something about the otherwise banal conversation between the two men is decidedly off. Steven inquires about Matthew's watch, under the pretense that he is looking to replace his own timepiece, but the surgeon’s words sound rehearsed, like the clipped, practiced statements of a man giving a deposition. Steven is being less than truthful with his colleague: The watch he eventually purchases is for Martin (Barry Keoghan), an adolescent boy with an initially ambiguous relationship to the surgeon.

This mild deception is not particularly salient to the plot, beyond necessitating an awkward lie when Martin later drops in on Steven at the hospital. The dishonesty is revealing, however, as it establishes that there is something vaguely embarrassing about Steven’s friendship with the boy. It’s a conclusion further reinforced by the illicit vibe of their meetings, which occur over lunch at greasy spoons and during idle walks along the waterfront. The surgeon’s manner with Martin is paternal, yet somehow self-consciously anxious, as if he were doing something questionable simply by being seen in public with the boy.

Moreover, Steven’s little white lies paint the surgeon as a man who is comfortable with self-serving deceit. Indeed, all of Steven’s interactions with his family—wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), adolescent daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and preteen son Bob (Sunny Suljic)—have a whiff of shallow performance. It’s as though their prosaic dinner table conversation about haircuts, bike safety, and choir practice were a flimsy distraction from the telltale heart thumping under the floorboards. If further evidence of Steven’s sinister eccentricity were needed, he and Anna engage in creepy sexual roleplay where she pretends to be an anesthetized patient—whom he then proceeds to rape.

Before long, it is revealed that Martin is the son of one of Steven’s former patients, a man who perished on the operating table following a car accident. During their conversations, Steven plays the part of the attentive adult, inquiring about Martin’s grades and the well-being of his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin is grateful, but also exceedingly peculiar; his flat affect and strange non-sequiturs suggesting someone who is repeating words he is overhearing on some high-frequency wavelength that only he can perceive. Eventually Steven makes the polite but ill-fated decision to invite Martin to the family’s lavish home for dinner, a meeting that ignites Kim's infatuation with the boy. The visit also triggers a disturbing escalation in Martin’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the family.

After Steven angrily rebuffs Martin’s clumsy attempt to finagle his mother and the surgeon into an adulterous relationship, Bob falls victim to a mysterious ailment, losing all mobility in his legs. The orthopedists, neurologists, and other specialists at Steven’s hospital are baffled, unable to pinpoint the reason for the boy’s paralysis, beyond the ominous catch-all, “psychosomatic illness”. Martin, however, provides the explanation, letting it spill out of him like a hastily-delivered book report. Steven’s family, the boy declares, will perish one by one: first losing their ability to walk; then unable to consume food; then bleeding from their eyes; then dying in agony. The only way to stop this horrifying sequences of events is for Steven to murder either his wife, daughter, or son, thereby sparing the other two. In Martin’s conception, this blood sacrifice may not right the wrong of his father’s death—which the boy blames on the surgeon—but “it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”

If The Killing of a Sacred Deer had been conceived as a thriller rather than a horror feature, the plot would have likely revolved around Steven’s frantic efforts to uncover how exactly the unlikely Martin had managed to enact his Machiavellian scheme. (Obscure poison? Bio-engineered virus? Psychokinetic powers?) Crucially, Lathimos presents this monstrous scenario as an inherently insoluble puzzle. It doesn’t matter how Martin is murdering the Murphy family; Steven will never be able to stop the boy’s revenge by anthing so simple as riddling out his methods. The Murphys’ physical deterioration is simply a fact. It is unfathomable in the context of a rational, scientific universe, but there is a terrifying, implacable logic to it, like a Romani curse or an Old Testament plague.

The horror of Killing is thus the horror of watching a clockwork trap slowly ratchet closed with oiled, clicking remorselessness. Escape demands a choice so unthinkable that Steven does everything in his power to avoid having to make it. He berates his fellow doctors for their ineptitude, insisting that there must be some physiological reason that his son—and later, his daughter—is unable to walk. He becomes physically abusive with Bob, violently and repeatedly dropping the boy’s limp body on the floor, convinced that the child must be malingering. Steven eventually goes so far as to enact a scheme of bloody counter-retribution on Martin, but the boy remains maddeningly calm and reasonable through it all, his heavy-lidded eyes swollen with reptilian unfeeling. There is only one way for Steven to preserve (most of) his family, and the surgeon’s mounting desperation suggests he knows as much, deep in his bones.

The form that Martin’s revenge assumes is explicitly designed to drive a wedge between the Murphys. The children, for their part, seem to apprehend that their illness is a punishment for their father’s purported sins, and they strangely accept their doom with a placid fatalism. (In Kim’s case, there is also a slathering of exceedingly twisted romantic adoration towards Martin.) Anna, however, is indignant, first with Martin for visiting his vengeance on the blameless, and then with Steven for bringing that vengeance down on them through his senseless mistakes. “You do realize, Steven, we’re in this situation because of you?” she asks sharply.

Steven knows this only too well, of course. The marvel of Farrell’s performance lies in how he suggests a murmur of Steven’s smothering guilt from the character’s first appearance, and then amplifies it gradually with every succeeding scene. With biting clarity, he conveys man who is utterly unable to admit to fault, less out of ego than a kind of preening, lawyerly self-preservation. In this respect, Farrell’s performance recalls that of Daniel Auteuil in Caché (2005), wherein the latter actor portrays a complacent, successful man who cannot bring himself to acknowledge a terrible misdeed he once committed.

Steven would rather lash out at any other available target—Martin, his children, other doctors—than concede that he might have invited his family’s doom in some way. At one point, he obliquely throws Matthew under the bus. “A surgeon never kills a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can,” Steven declares with defensive matter-of-factness. In a moment that the film presents with pitch-black drollness, Matthew later reverses the equation, asserting that it is the surgeon who is ultimately responsible for a patient’s death. Men… It’s always someone else’s fault.

The small cast delivers an array of first-rate performances, each one unsettling in a distinct way, although Kidman’s quietly furious portrayal of Anna strays the closest to authentic humanity. (Not through any fault of the rest of the actors, of course; the uncanny, narcotic tingle of Lathimos’ mannered approach to dialog has no room for scruffy realism.) The film’s clear standout is Keoghan, however, who creates a chilling sociopathic presence without straying into the cartoonish villainy that an older, more seasoned actor could get away with. Martin is the anti-Hannibal Lecter: awkward, inarticulate, incurious, unkempt, his mouth perpetually hanging open with bovine slackness. He’s cunning, but too stupid to realize that he might not be the smartest person in the room. (In one of the film’s funniest moments, he bites Steven’s arm and then his own to illustrate his eye-for-an-eye ethos. “It’s a metaphor,” he explains, earnestly and unnecessarily, "Do you understand?") Martin intimidates in part because his shrewd resolve looks so uncanny on a kid who otherwise seems like he should be playing Xbox, smoking weed, and failing trigonometry.

Killing exhibits all of the visual and aural impeccability that has emerged as a consistent attribute of Lathimos’ films. Together, he and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who has shot four of the director’s six features, strike a balance in the film’s look between clinical, Kubrickian medium-to-wide shots and suffocating close-ups. The former employ odd angles and discombobulating compositions to heighten the film's air of sheer wrongness. Meanwhile, the latter linger uncomfortably on searching human faces and on the grotesque textures of food and bodily fluids: a crumby clump of cinnamon donut; meat sauce clinging to spaghetti; and distressing quantities of blackish, congealing blood. The film’s soundtrack—from music editor Johnnie Burn and music supervisors Sarah Giles and Nick Payne—principally relies on extant baroque, classical, and modernist orchestral pieces rather than an original score. Selections from Bach, Schubert, György Ligeti, and Sofia Gubaidulina establish a mood that alternates smoothly between funerial grandeur, prickly disquiet, and hypnotic terror.

One can discern how the film’s screenplay, co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, might have dumbed down its scenario into the arthouse version of a later Saw feature, where vile penalties are meted out in the service of mush-headed moral “lessons”.  Vitally, Killing is only proximally concerned with the grueling Sophie’s choice that Steven faces. The film is more absorbed with the pitilessly foreseeable ways that people (especially vain, entitled men) react to errors, guilt, and punishment. Much like Lathimos’ Dogtooth, the feature possesses a primeval immediacy that allows it to function as straightforward tale of terror, necessitating no further thematic embellishment. However, the same starkness in the film’s scenario—combined with the director’s discerning eye for the nightmarish absurdities of love, family, and death—allows for a rich catalog of potential allegorical readings. Martin as God, Martin as the Devil, Martin as religion, Martin as Steven’s conscience, Martin as Steven’s id: Any metaphorical path one chooses, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a harrowing experience executed with darkling precision.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 9, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Curiouser and Curiouser

2017 / USA / Dir. by Todd Haynes / Opens October 20, 2017; locally on November 10, 2017

Wonderstruck is vivid case study in how things can go subtly awry when there is a mismatch between a film’s source material and its director. The feature was adapted from the 2011 illustrated novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, author of the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The two books are conspicuously similar in terms of genre, plot, and themes. Both are fantasy-tinged period pieces about children searching for connections to their parents, and more generally about the romantic fascination with anachronistic ideas, objects, and technologies. In the case of Hugo Cabret, the primary old-fashioned obsession in question is silent filmmaking, and specifically the pioneering work of Georges Méliès. Whatever its flaws as a film, Martin Scorsese’s lavish 3D adaptation Hugo faultlessly captures the enthralled spirit of Selznick’s 2008 novel, in part due to the director’s boundless, school-boyish enthusiasm for cinematic history.

The film version of Wonderstruck, meanwhile, is helmed by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol), a filmmaker of remarkable formal and storytelling prowess, but not necessarily the director who leaps to mind for a giddy, kid-friendly love letter to the bygone arts and sciences. Haynes’ films are penetrating, decidedly adult stories about intractable anxieties and longings. His 1995 masterpiece Safe is essentially a psychological horror film, in which a suburban housewife becomes consumed by her fear of a vague, chemically-induced ailment. It would be a challenge to envision a story more tonally and conceptually remote from Safe than Wonderstruck, the latter a swooning fairy tale steeped in a fondness for museums, bookstores, and silent cinema. This isn’t to say that a filmmaker should never stray outside their comfort zone. However, the perceptible dissonance between story and the director’s natural affinities is so distracting in Haynes’ latest film that it works against what is otherwise and handsome, heartening celebration of discovery.

Wonderstruck concerns a pair of restless tween seekers, separated by a span of 50 years. Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, lives in 1920s New Jersey with her father, while Ben (Oakes Fegley) resides with his aunt in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota at the tail end of the 1970s. Both children are bright, inquisitive, and preoccupied. She draws in her sketchbook and attends silent films; he collects scientific curiosities and gazes through his telescope. Both kids also have unresolved parental woes. Rose pines for her mother, glamorous movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whose clippings she compulsively scrapbooks. However, Lillian wants as little to do with her daughter as possible. Meanwhile, Ben’s mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), was recently killed in a car accident. The pain of this loss and the unsettled mystery of his paternity keep Ben up nights, as do nightmares of being chased by ravenous wolves.

In the 20s, Rose’s stern, distant father (James Urbaniak) has arranged for a private tutor to oversee her education, but the defiant girl is having none of it. She makes her escape and heads to New York City, with the goal visiting her mother, who is currently appearing on the Broadway stage. In the 70s, meanwhile, Ben is rendered permanently deaf by a freak lightning strike, just as he makes a discovery among his mother’s effects. The clues he uncovers point to a used bookstore in New York, prompting the hospitalized Ben to slip out and board a Manhattan-bound bus. Eventually, the two children’s stories intertwine, converging not only on the bookshop, but also on the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Queens Museum. Critically, Ben falls in with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a lonely child his age whose comprehensive knowledge of the AMNH and its secrets ultimately proves vital to unraveling the mystery of Ben’s family.

Haynes distinguishes the two storylines by presenting them in radically disparate styles. Rose’s sequences are shot on crisp black-and-white 35mm film, without dialog or traditional audio effects. In imitation of the silent films that the girl so adores—and plainly signifying the way that she mentally processes the world—the score provides the exclusive aural scaffolding for these scenes. This music not only creates an emotional backdrop for on-screen events, but also suggests sound effects and ambient noise—such as the automotive cacophony of a Manhattan intersection. Ben’s passages, meanwhile, are shot on 35mm color film, approximating the bright, grainy look of period NYC features such as The French Connection and Taxi Driver. Combined with a funk-heavy soundtrack, it’s a look that befits the ‘New York Shitty’ environs of Ben’s scenes. These are suffused with a smog-brown filthiness that contrasts with the silvery glory of Rose’s pre-crash Roaring 20’s world. (The Port Authority Bus Terminal, portrayed at its squalid nadir just prior to its North Wing opening, is prominently featured in Ben's tale as a signifier of the city’s decay.)

The film presents Rose and Ben’s parallel tales with a full awareness of and appreciation for their storybook implausibility—including the contrived, faintly fantastical way that Ben is abruptly bestowed with his co-protagonist’s disability. This isn’t to say that the affected storytelling goes down any easier; Wonderstruck is perpetually bedeviled with an unresolved discord between its grounded setting and twee narrative. However, Haynes and his collaborators are plainly cognizant of the enchanted sensibility that the material calls for, and have elected to eagerly embrace it. The real-world locales lend Wonderstruck some of the cuddly, endearing vibe of classic NYC-based kid lit such as Kay Thompson’s Eloise or Sandra Scoppettone’s Suzuki Bean. The plot weaves in real-world New York locales and history, from the former World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows to the notorious 1977 blackout. However, the story also has a bit of Grimm shading via its myriad fairy tale motifs, among them dead parents, lost children, and big bad wolves.

Whether populated by flappers or disco hustlers, Hayes’ New York is presented as a cosmopolitan wonderland. Unlike other films about kids lost in the Big Apple, Wonderstruck features no stops at the city’s most iconic landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Central Park. Rather, the AMNH is positioned as the cultural hub of the city, befitting a film whose young protagonists are enamored with the peculiar and the incredible. ‘Wonderstruck,’ the old book that initially draws Ben to New York, details the history of the Kunstkabinett, the cabinets of curiosities that served as the precursors to modern museums. Haynes’ film is fittingy besotted in a charming way with the notion of curation, the compulsion to sweat the geeky minutiae in the pursuit of awed delight. Wonderstruck commiserates warmly with everyone who had a childhood collection: stamps, coins, rocks, fossils, shells, flowers, butterflies, or anything else that skewed fusty and nerdy. It celebrates birdwatching, stargazing, and model-building. It lionizes the sort of square academic obsessions that consume precocious kids.

Formally, the film is downright lavish, as peerless in its evocation of 1920s and 70s America as Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Carol were in their sumptuous recreation of the 1950s. Production designer Mark Friedberg is the most conspicuous contributor in this respect, conjuring the prim vigor and shabby dissolution of the Coolidge and Carter eras, respectively, in a manner that is reliably striking without feeling fussed-over. In particular, Freidberg’s revivification of the AMNH of the early and late 20th centuries is a marvel to behold. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and composer Carter Burwell are also essential to Wonderstruck’s lush sense of time and place, providing each period with a sharply-defined visual and musical aesthetic. The contrast has a pragmatic function, marking the terrain as Affonso Gonçalves’ wonderfully agile editing flits between the ‘old past’ and ‘new past’. It’s no coincidence that Wonderstruck begins to feel noticeably sluggish once the divided structure collapses and the film lurches into a lengthy stretch of 1970s-based exposition. This breakdown in pacing is mitigated somewhat by the whimsical stop-motion animation used in this passage’s flashback inserts.

Undeniably, Wonderstruck looks and sounds like an eminently charismatic film, but there’s something strangely hollow and unsatisfying about the feature’s storytelling. Haynes’ engagement with the material feels unmistakably affected and shallow, as if the relative unsophistication of a quixotic, kid-friendly adventure were a flashy, ill-fitting suit that he regrets purchasing. The screenplay by Selznick, who adapts his own novel, fails to solve the story’s fundamental flaw; namely, that there is insufficient dramatic incident to fill a nearly two-hour feature. Wonderstruck accordingly suffers from some aimless stretches that Haynes packs with repetitive chases around the museum and ponderous conversations where the characters struggle with facts that are already well-established for the viewer. The plot is dependent on several enormous coincidences, but, given the film’s fairy tale patina, this is less vexing than the gestures that feel like strained bootstrapping. In one egregious example, Rose’s barely mentioned older brother swoops into the story to conveniently rescue her from the museum guards and a drifting plot.

Notwithstanding Wonderstruck’s unabashed affection for museums, libraries, and other sanctums of discovery, at the heart of the film’s story is a relatively banal quest to connect with vanished parents. If one eliminates all the clutter of the searches, chases, and escapes around New York, one is left with two straightforward tales of childhood angst: Rose’s longing to be near her mother, and Ben’s search for his father’s identity. Given how forcefully Wonderstruck touts the notion of museums as public storehouses of knowledge, the ultimate role of the plainly beloved AMNH is weirdly prosaic in both children’s’ stories. Rose and Ben run their hands over a massive meteorite and peer with curiosity at stuffed gazelles frozen in mid-leap, but the museum is only narrowly germane to the plot. Rose’s story loses a substantial amount of momentum once Lillian rebuffs her daughter’s appeals for attention, leaving the girl with little to do other than wander the city and eventually hide out in the museum. Ben, meanwhile, ultimately discovers that the AMNH is merely the link that brought his mother and father together. It’s a revelation that is only peripherally connected to the film’s broader themes of curating, cataloging, and preserving, and it conveys an exceedingly eccentric lesson: Visiting a museum can lead an orphan boy to his Real Family.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 3, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often have a ‘same-day’ limited theatrical opening and video-on-demand (VOD) launch. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for the Scary. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market like St. Louis, online streaming is an increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Super Dark Times

2017 / USA / Dir. by Kevin Phillips / Opening in select theaters on September 29, 2017; available on VOD on October 3, 2017

Not so much a straight thriller or horror feature as a haunting period drama about the evil that men do, Super Dark Times concerns two high school friends (Owen Cambell and Charlie Tahan) in 1995 upstate New York. Initially, director Kevin Phillips portrays the boys’ daily lives with a stimulating gestalt of social realism and moody impressionism, but after a horrifying accident drives a wedge between the friends, the film congeals into raw psychological horror. Mashing up Sam Raimi’s wintery noir A Simple Plan (1998) and Gus Van Sant’s post-Columbine piece Elephant (2003) and then refracting the result through Stephen King, the film functions as both a vicious small-town tragedy and as an unsettling plunge into the nastier depths of the male adolescent mind. Rating: B [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

78/52

2017 / USA / Dir. by Alexandre O Phillippe / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on October 13, 2017

Films about films are a dicey documentary subgenre, but dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles will appreciate the awestruck geekery of 78/52, director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 91-minute doc about one of the most celebrated and analyzed passages of all time: Psycho’s shower scene. Touching on everything from editing to sound design, a procession of directors, writers, technicians, actors, and historians scrutinize every detail of the 45-second centerpiece to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Enthusiastic and insightful, Philippe’s interviewees do a marvelous job of placing Marion Crane’s fateful shower into the wider context of both the director’s work and the state of cinema generally in 1960. Psycho is so deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness, it’s revelatory to watch as the enduring brilliance of its most famous sequence is meticulously unpacked. Rating: B+ [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Creep 2

2017 / USA / Dir. by Patrick Brice / Available on VOD on October 24, 2017.

Writer-director Patrick Brice’s darkly comic found-footage indie Creep (2014) has been one of the pleasant surprises of horror cinema in the 2010s, while also serving as a near-perfect vehicle for actor Mark Duplass’ facility for off-putting awkwardness and eccentricity. Brice’s sequel revives the original’s conceit, trapping a filmmaker in a remote cabin with Duplass’ ingratiating, self-conscious serial killer Aaron. This time, however, the person behind the camera is Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a wannabe documentarian who harbors a fascination with the bizarre hinterlands of human behavior. She disarms Aaron by rising to the occasion, matching his escalating strangeness and aggression with curiosity and compassion (at least to his face). While Creep 2 is rarely outright scary, it’s a deliciously depraved and surprisingly melancholy exploration of middle-aged weariness, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. Rating: B- [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Leatherface

2017 / USA / Dir. by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury / Opening in select theaters and available via VOD on October 20, 2017

If there is one thing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) did not need, it was a prequel about the early years of mute power tool aficionado Leatherface. It’s not surprising that co-directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury deliver a dull, sloppy feature without an ounce of the original film’s nihilistic power; that was probably a foregone conclusion. What’s unexpected is how thoroughly Leatherface manages to screw up its premise. The feature fails to answer the only potentially interesting question about Massacre’s backstory—How did the Sawyer clan first descend into cannibalism?—and inexplicably positions a sociopathic Bonnie and Clyde couple as its “real” villains. The smugness of the film’s third act fake out is just the rotten cherry on a pile of misconceived crap. Rating: D- [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Andrew Wyatt

November 2, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

And So He Strikes—Like Thunnn-der-baaalll!!!

2017 / USA / Dir. by Taika Waititi / Opens in wide release on November 3, 2017

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always had an irreverent side, going back to the feature that started the whole multi-media merchandising colossus, Iron Man (2008). As inhabited by Robert Downey Jr., war profiteer-turned-hero Tony Stark riddles friends and foes alike with volleys of disarming snark. However, Iron Man's solo features are about the pleasure of watching Downey direct his deadpan shtick at the rest of the world. The star, not the film itself, supplies the attitude. Other early MCU features played with fish out-of-water gags (Thor in 2011) and hangout tomfoolery (The Avengers in 2012), but Marvel Studios didn’t quite find a bona fide action-comedy groove until Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which turned the comic publisher’s more obscure ‘cosmic’ heroes into the Bad News Bears of a kooky space opera.

The Guardians formula—sharp comic acting, wacky characters, locker room antics, subverted expectations—has subsequently leached into other MCU films, generally to the benefit of the mega-franchise. To date, Ant-Man (2015) and this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming constituted the most noticeable instances of this ‘Guardians-ification’ phenomenon, but Thor: Ragnarok might be its most unambiguous exemplar yet. Certainly, the Thor entries are the solo films that were in deepest need of a dash of zaniness. While conceptually cartoonish, the God of Thunder’s two previous features harbored some of the self-seriousness of the high fantasy genre. Even after several films’ worth of humbling encounters, actor Chris Hemsworth’s take on Thor—who remains a bit of a hot-headed jock with a compulsion for dick-measuring—could still stand to be taken down a few pegs.

Enter New Zealand director Taika Waititi. His endearing but relatively small-bore dramedies Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) couldn’t be further afield from the CGI spectacle of the Marvel juggernaut. However, the Waititi joint that one can discern in Thor: Ragnarok—and likely the feature that got the part-Māori filmmaker the job—was his hit 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. The odd special effect notwithstanding, Shadows is a shaggy indie comedy at bottom, one that gleans much of its humor from turning undead fiends into needy, oblivious sad sacks. Granted, the third Thor feature is scripted by a trio of veteran superhero television and film writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. Their screenplay is rich in genre savviness and situational silliness, but Waititi’s stamp is discernable in the way the film wittily humanizes its hero, presenting a God of Thunder who is plagued with self-doubt about his abilities, privilege, and worldview. Ragnarok might not be the auteurist MCU film the world is (still) waiting for, but it hits a sweet spot between flashy adolescent fun and engaging characterization, at least where the principal heroes are concerned.

Much like the earlier Thor solo features, Ragnarok isn’t quite so deeply embedded as other Marvel films in the sprawling MCU mythos. The plot of Waititi’s feature builds primarily on the events of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, with a dash of Bruce Banner’s arc from Age of Ultron. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance, but it’s largely just to push the hero along to his next destination—and to provide a rare occasion for the God of Thunder to look like a hopeless schlemiel. Hardcore devotees of the MCU’s arcana will be pleased that Ragnarok fills in some stray blanks, such as why Thor sat out last year’s Civil War. It turns out that the mighty hero has been plagued by dreams of Asgard’s fiery fall, and he has accordingly been zipping around the Nine Realms, attempting to head off any looming evil forces before they gather too much strength. In the film’s opening, he stymies the apocalyptic ambitions of the volcanic Surtur (Clancy Brown), king of the fire giants. However, the more insidious threat lies closer to home.

Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still sitting on Asgard’s throne, using magic to pose as their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor finally sees through the God of Mischief’s illusion, only to learn that Odin has gone into seclusion on Earth to live out his few remaining days. Unfortunately, the Allfather’s imminent demise will free Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who also happens to be Odin’s firstborn child and Thor and Loki's sister. (The brothers’ shock at this news, which reads as “Why are we just now hearing about this?”, seems to anticipate the audience’s reaction.) Hela, who resembles a goth-tinged femme fatale from a Heavy Metal cover, pops by the moment Odin passes on to the golden, sparkly hereafter. She summarily tosses Thor and Loki into a wormhole and seizes Asgard, all without so much as breaking a sweat. For good measure, she shatters Thor’s magic warhammer Mjolnir into smoldering bits.

Thor lands on the cosmic scrapheap planet Sakaar, where he is quickly snatched up by a drunken scavenger (Tessa Thompson) and sold into slavery. Sakaar’s oddball dictator, Jeff Goldblum (Jeff Goldblum), has a taste for gladiator games, and is perpetually seeking fresh challengers to pit against his champion. Thor’s impossible path is thusly laid out before him: survive the games, escape the planet, return to Asgard, and somehow defeat an invincible death deity who commands an army of zombies and the Tyrannosaurus-sized wolf, Fenris. Meanwhile, the exiled, all-seeing Asgardian Heimdall (Idris Elba) is waging a one-man guerilla resistance against Hela and the warrior Skurge (Karl Urban), newly appointed as the guardian of the dimensional gateway Bifrost.

Ragnarok has roughly the same plot as the first Thor feature, only with much nastier odds stacked against the God of Thunder. A powerful, malevolent despot again threatens Asgard, only this time the banished Thor hasn’t merely been separated from Mjonir: His hammer has been irrevocably destroyed. Fortunately, the screenwriters are canny enough not to replicate the first film’s arc beat for beat. Thor already proved his worthiness to wield Mjolnir two features ago, and learned some needed lessons about power, responsibility, and humility along the way. Ragnarok gives him more straightforward, physically lethal challenges to overcome, as well as tests of leadership befitting the once and future king of Asgard. Namely, Thor is obliged to play the rabble-rousing persuader, winning Sakaar’s scum and villainy over to his admittedly hopeless cause. His reluctant recruits include: Thompson’s boozing ex-battle-maiden, who fills the Han Solo antihero role; Karg (Waititi via motion-capture), an azure rock monster with a winningly mild disposition; brother Loki, who has managed to insinuate himself into Jeff Goldblum's court; and the arena champion himself, who (to the surprise of no one who has seen Ragnarok’s trailer) turns out to be Thor's long-lost fellow Avenger, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Humor alone doesn’t sustain Ragnarok, but it’s the primary reason the film is such a rollicking good time. Over the past few years, Hemsworth has refined his take on the meathead Thunder God quite marvelously, allowing him to nimbly and credibly shift through Thor’s various modes: glowering warrior, strutting jock, and grinning goofball. The whole cast is in fine form, although Waititi’s Karg is a singular pleasure, as is Ruffalo when a shell-shocked Bruce Banner eventually re-emerges. Crucially, the film’s deadpan levity acts to minimize the monotony that attends the wearying digital mayhem of monsters, starships, and explosions. Indeed, it often lends the film the rhythm of its original comic book source material, in which strikingly rendered violence is punctuated by quips, gibes, and the odd Olympian boast. There are even some genuinely amusing meta-jokes, including a couple involving a ridiculous propaganda play staged at Loki’s behest. (The subtlest gag is nestled within the stunt casting of Matt Damon as the hammy Asgardian actor who portrays Loki. Dogma, anyone?)

The Thor films have always been indebted to the striking, fantastical Silver Age artwork of Marvel visionary Jack Kirby, but Ragnarok takes the cinematic Asgardian saga to a new level of cosmic nuttiness. Taking a cue from writer and artist Walt Simonson’s iconic run on the comic in the 1980s, production designers Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent emphasize the gaudier, weirder science fiction elements of the setting. The “Art Deco Tolkein” look that has already been established for Asgard itself is still in evidence, but elsewhere the film’s design reflects the disco kitsch of Flash Gordon (1980) and the surreal album artwork of 1970s prog rock bands like Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. Sakaar is an especially bizarre creation, equal parts Mumbai, Rome, Studio 54, and District 9. Mark Mothersbaugh’s propulsive synth score fits the film’s visual aesthetic perfectly, with its relentless bleeping and thumping delightfully suggesting a space shooter video game.

Most of the weaknesses one expects of an MCU entry are dutifully accounted for in Ragnarok. The chaotic, CGI-drenched action sequences are eye-popping in the moment, but leave virtually no lasting impression. The screenplay is dismally reliant on the same cluster of Daddy Issues that crop up in every other Marvel film. The storytelling has the familiar elements that are now firmly entrenched as part of the studio’s house formula: three or four major locations, nebulous MacGuffins, and a villain whose ambitions never rise above destruction for its own sake. There is an obligatory epic battle in the third act, although Ragnarok subverts this MCU standby a bit by concluding with a twist on the usual apocalyptic devastation.

While Ragnarok’s story is mostly superhero boilerplate, the screenplay does subject the characters to a bit more ruin and bloodshed than one might expect. Over the course of the film, the God of Thunder is not merely enslaved, pummeled, humiliated, and stripped of his legendary weapon—he's permanently disfigured by Hela’s enchanted blades. (He's also repeatedly and painfully electrocuted by his captors, which doesn't make a lot of sense for a thunder deity.) It’s bold but dramatically sensible to reduce a celestial champion like Thor to such a vulnerable state, forever robbing him of both his defining possession and his physical flawlessness. Early in the film, Hela’s brutality is conclusively demonstrated by the offhanded way she fatally dispatches Asgard’s ‘Warriors Three’: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Hogun is at least afforded an opportunity to stand and fight—perhaps as compensation for his marginal role in The Dark World—but the others barely get a line in before they perish. (Fortunately, Lady Sif is nowhere to be found, so she at least is spared a similarly cruel end.)

Ultimately, the most unexpected and intriguing element that crops up in Ragnarok is its theme of forgotten imperial horror, as embodied in the bloody saga of Asgardian conquest that Odin had sought to erase from history. (Perhaps coincidentally, Waititi is the first MCU director of indigenous descent.) Beneath Asgard's enchanted frescoes of valorous deeds is a nastier narrative in which the Allfather and Hela rampaged through the cosmos, dominating entire worlds. For all her wickedness, Hela seems more clear-eyed than the heroes when she gestures to the gilded vastness of Asgard’s throne room, scoffing “Where did you think all this gold came from?” Indeed, Ragnarok partly concerns Thor’s overdue need to reckon with the formative atrocity and plunder that made his father’s kingdom possible. Finally face-to-face with this suppressed and shameful history of violent subjugation, it’s perhaps understandable that the hot-blooded deity’s reaction is one of anarchic revulsion: Burn it all down.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 26, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

After All It Was a Great Big World

2017 / USA / Dir. by Sean Baker / Opens in limited release on October 6, 2017; locally on October 27, 2017

The lyrics to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 single “American Girl” contain references to the heartache and recklessness of young adulthood, but the song could easily describe the life of Moonee, the precocious 6-year-old heroine of The Florida Project. Petty might have been singing about lost love, but “something that’s so close is still so far out reach,” describes the living situation of Moonee (one-in-a-million newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) at the Magic Castle Motel. Situated on a shabby commercial strip just outside of Walt Disney World, the motel limps along on a mixture of impoverished long-term residents and hoodwinked tourists, the latter having mistaken the Castle for an official Mickey-approved establishment. The metaphor is a brassy one—a flophouse of broken dreams squatting in the literal shadow of Disney World—but The Florida Project works so well because director Sean Baker (Tangerine) leaves the Magic Castle’s pendulous symbolism well enough alone, focusing instead on an intricate, sensitive depiction of life on society’s margins.

The Castle is certainly a vivid backdrop for such portraiture. Recently painted in startling shades of wisteria and violet, the motel is a setting seemingly plucked from one of Carl Hiaasan’s farcical Florida crime novels and then wrung of its zaniness. Baker’s vision of the Sunshine State is more attuned than Hiaasan’s to the warmth and heartbreak beneath the kitsch, and more committed to the realistic portrayal of a vagabond-ish strain of American poverty. The Castle is home to a handful of colorful characters, such as topless sunbathing senior Gloria (Sandy Kane), but most of its residents appear to be rootless, riven families: single mothers, step-parents, grandparents, cousins, and various second-hand caregivers, all of them trailing restless children. Theirs is a world of hot plate meals, broken washing machines, and fevered, small-time hustles that will (hopefully) cover the week’s rent. It’s better than living on the streets, but still a perilously unstable existence, one exacerbated by the unavoidable sight of well-heeled tourists on their way to the Happiest Place on Earth.

Fortunately, the sassy, mischievous Moonee is largely untouched by the anxiety and bitterness that looms over the Magic Castle’s adult tenants. The story of The Florida Project is not told exclusively from the girl’s viewpoint, but her unabashed gleefulness is the film’s Pole Star, the glimmering landmark that Baker steadily maintains in sight. The Castle and the surrounding strip of tacky gift shops, fast food joints, and other run-down motels aren’t merely a temporary home to Moonee. They are also an endless source of adventure and delight. Other children might grumble at the prospect of peddling knock-off perfume to tourists, or fetching stolen take-out from the waffle shack for dinner. Not Moonee, who embraces such tasks with the same enthusiasm she exhibits when manically dancing to hip hop, pouting for ‘bikini selfies’ with her mom, or cheerfully bossing around her peers.

Admittedly, the girl’s endless shenanigans at times veer into troubling behavior, including spitting on cars, starting fires, and shutting off the motel’s electricity. To Moonee, however, it’s all just good summer fun. She might be an incorrigible trouble-maker, but she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her fidgety body. Indeed, the car-spitting victim eventually comes to enjoy the girl’s bubbly company, and Moonee swiftly claims the woman’s granddaughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as her new best friend. Not that Jancey has much say in the matter; Moonee is accustomed to getting her way by steamrolling everyone with her delirious energy.

Moonee also has a mouth on her, as they say, a trait she shares with her volatile mother. To the extent that The Florida Project has a plot beyond Moonee’s pleasantly aimless summer escapades in and around the motel, it is concerned with Halley’s endless, demoralizing efforts to scrape together rent money by any means necessary. Eventually, Halley’s desperation—and the enormous chip she carries on her shoulder—jeopardize her and Moonee’s already-flimsy situation, attracting the ruinous attention of the state child protection agency. Baker’s handling of this descent into familial calamity is consistently deft and believable, although he often flirts with a disagreeable strain of poor white trash miserablism. Halley is a fascinating character, but also wearying due to her mercurial behavior and her plasma-hot hostility to everyone around her. Fellow long-term Castle tenant Ashley (Mela Murder) seems to be Halley’s closest friend, but when Ashley warns her young son not to play with Moonee, an enraged Halley turns on a dime and brutally assaults the woman.

The contrast between Halley’s prickly paranoia and Moonee’s spirited openness is so sharp, Baker almost seems to be inviting uncertainty about whether they are truly mother and daughter in the biological sense. However, the film ultimately moots such suspicions through its depiction of the untrammeled joy that the pair experience in one another’s company. It’s only with Moonee that Halley’s razor-studded defenses drop, permitting a glimpse of the unconditional maternal love that swells in her heart. The little girl’s unassailably sunny demeanor seems to open the door for Halley’s six-year-old self, allowing her to savor the present moment without her usual cocktail of rage, regret, and resentment. Their mother-daughter tomfoolery isn’t exactly mature—after gleaning a few hundred bucks from a Disney ticket scam, they blow the sum on frivolous dollar store junk—but it’s preferable to the sophomoric misanthropy that Halley exhibits with everyone else.

The most conspicuous of Halley’s frenemies is the Magic Castle’s weary, weather-beaten manager Bobby (a sublime Willem Dafoe), who runs the motel with a scruffy blend of Old Testament sternness and New Testament kindness. He humorlessly enforces the Castle’s policies, harangues the neglectful residents for late rent, and struggles to keep up with maintenance problems ranging from a malfunctioning ice machine to a bedbug infestation. Bobby has a good heart, however, which invites a paternal lenience for rule-breakers and a tendency to go the extra mile for the guests. The motel is obliged to expel tenants every few weeks to prevent them from establishing permanent residency, but Bobby routinely helps Halley move her possessions to an empty room so that she can vacate the premises for 24 hours to reset the clock. When a suspicious old man unctuously chats up a group of the motel’s children, Bobby sizes him up as a pedophile and smoothly strong-arms the creep off the property. Moonee is consistently a thorn in the manager’s side, but beneath Bobby’s glower at the sight of melted ice cream on his lobby floor, one can discern his deep affection for the girl.

Moonee is the film’s spiritual center, but The Florida Project 's three protagonists each of bring a different tone to the story. Moonee’s adventures are infused with raw jubilance; Halley’s downward spiral is riddled with agony and loathing; and Bobby’s sad-sack labors blend melancholy with notes of human warmth. It’s no accident that these three characters embody three distinct phases of life. In some sense, The Florida Project is a multi-generational study in how people deal with failure and disappointment: the giddy obliviousness of childhood; the volcanic angst of young adulthood; and the more thoughtful regret and acceptance that arrive late in life. The modest miracle of the film is that these three separate registers never create any sort of tonal dissonance. Baker gracefully juggles the story’s disparate temperaments, even mingling them when narratively appropriately. When Halley takes Moonee for an illicit complimentary breakfast at a swanky hotel, for example, the anxiousness engendered by the pair’s crime is soothed by Halley’s palpable adoration as she watches her daughter delightedly wolf down waffles.

Mood notwithstanding, all this flitting between the three primary characters does result in an unfortunate narrative awkwardness that Baker is never quite able to resolve. If The Florida Project has one conspicuous flaw, it’s that the film’s generous attentiveness to Halley and Bobby’s subplots so often feel like a sheepish effort to offset the dearth of plot in Moonee’s tale. This is a silly concern, of course. Plenty of great films have explored the experience of childhood from a more languid, subjective stance where brisk pacing is less critical than the emotional contours of the story (The Red Balloon, The 400 Blows, The Spirit of the Beehive, George Washington). Moreover, there’s no reason that the absurd, Sisyphean upkeep of the Magic Castle (or the motel’s underbelly of festering scuzziness) couldn’t be conveyed through the lens of Moonee’s experience. Baker’s adept handling of the multiple tones aside, it seems like a needless structural complication to frame Halley and Bobby as de facto co-leads with a kindergartener.

Truthfully, Moonee’s sequences are sufficiently strong on their own that one is left wondering why the film doesn’t adhere exclusively to her point of view. Certainly, the formal and storytelling choices Baker makes suggest such an approach. Moonee’s scenes are generally shot close to the ground, often from a low angle, approximating the literal viewpoint of a six-year-old. Baker frequently exhibits a coyness with respect to sex and violence that suggests a child’s oblique, semi-ignorant viewpoint. It takes two or three prolonged, repeated shots of Moonee happily playing in the tub for it to become apparent that the girl is sequestered to a bubble bath whenever her mother is servicing a john. There’s a nagging sensation that Baker knew how to make a grown-up film from a kid’s viewpoint, but lost his nerve.

These are relatively small storytelling quibbles, however. They are definitively outshone by the film’s merits: the distilled joy that characterizes Moonee’s hijinks; the gaudy landscape of crumbling tourist eyesores; and the discerning portrayal of poverty that is just shy of homelessness. The Florida Project isn’t an overtly political film, but in the present age of class warfare and Trumpian callousness, there’s an understated radicalism in simply showing how people manage to get by when they don’t have a working car, bank account, or permanent address. Granted, the film isn’t timid about portraying Halley as a vicious, tramp-stamped train wreck, but Baker resists the urge to gratuitously tut-tut the character. Unlike last year’s I, Daniel Blake, which rather gallingly depicted prostitution as the Worst Thing Ever, The Florida Project doesn’t specifically excoriate Halley for turning to sex work to keep her child in food, clothes, and shelter. Rather, it indicts her for being an odious gorgon to everyone she encounters, even people who are sympatric to her tribulations.

In the end, what resonates most about The Florida Project are the details, such as the amusingly cumbersome and protracted process of moving a broken ice machine down a hallway and into an elevator. Or the enormous plaster wizard, star-spangled and gray-bearded, that grins down maniacally from the roof of a nearby gift shop. Or the delirious pleasure that Moonee and Jancey glean from a loaf of broad and jar of jelly passed out by a Christian food pantry. Indeed, the most durable and compelling aspect of The Florida Project is its portrayal of the way that children create their own happiness, constructing a fantasy kingdom from the banal features of their immediate surroundings, whatever that environment might be. For Moonee, the Magic Castle isn’t the last ditch stop on the road to foster care or outright homelessness. It’s a marvelous Adventureland, where she is at once a princess, knight, explorer, clown, and mastermind.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 20, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

A Frosty Reception

2017 / UK, Sweden, USA / Dir. by Tomas Alfredson / Opens in wide release on October 20, 2017.

It would be specious criticism of the highest order to appraise the plot of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman without having read it. Nesbø’s work is evidently both popular and critically well-regarded, at least among those with a taste for the sub-genre of Scandinavian noir fiction. The Snowman is the seventh in a series featuring the author’s most prominent creation, Harry Hole, a shrewd but alcoholic Oslo police detective who has few friends and Doesn’t Play by the Rules. The villain that Harry faces down in The Snowman is a serial killer who—wait for it—builds a snowman at each crime scene. It’s entirely possible that, on the page at least, the plot of the novel is not as silly as one would predict based on its Calvin & Hobbes gimmick.

That said, the film version of The Snowman is unequivocally silly, and an incoherent mess to boot. This makes for not only a taxing experience, but also a downright demoralizing one, given the roster of talent involved. On paper, the film looks like a guaranteed triple, if not a home run. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson previously helmed Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, strong contenders for the Best Vampire Film and Best Spy Procedural (respectively) of the 21st century. Cinematographer Dion Bebbe is a Michael Mann veteran who lensed Miami Vice and Collateral, and co-editing duties are shared by Claire Simpson (A Most Wanted Man) and legendary Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. With Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson in The Snowman’s lead roles, and a deep-bench cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, and Tinker Tailor alums Toby Jones and David Dencik, what could go wrong? Quite a lot, in fact.

Fassbender portrays troubled detective Harry Hole, which is pronounced ‘hoh-leh’ in Norwegian, although virtually every performer unfortunately mangles it as “hoal”. This is a tiny detail, but emblematic of The Snowman’s overall attitude of sloppy indifference. Harry is an unrepentant drunk—the sort of serious boozehound who might wake up huddled in a ball on a snow-covered playground—but also good police, as they say, and a bit of a legend around the Oslo academy. He’s still hung up on his art dealer ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Gainsbourg), who has a teenaged son, Oleg (Michael Yates), and is currently living with her smarmy doctor boyfriend, Matthias (Jonas Karlsson). Harry is still friendly with Rakel and fond of Oleg, but he’s also a neglectful addict, which in cinematic terms means he forgets obligations like the poor kid’s birthday party and father-son camping trip.

Coming off a bender and seemingly prompted by little more than bored curiosity, Harry tags along with newly minted Oslo PD detective Katrine Bratt (Ferguson) on a missing person case. A middle-aged single mother (Genevieve O'Reilly) has vanished from her bed during the night, while her young daughter sleeps in the next room. The victim took neither coat nor purse, and left the front door wide open to the unforgiving winter. Harry notices an odd detail: a crude snowman, built just outside the woman’s bedroom window. However, the allegedly great detective offers Katrine only a prosaic theory involving a jealous ex-husband. Katrine, meanwhile, insists that this most recent kidnapping is part of a wider pattern of abductions and grisly murders that have occurred at different locales throughout Norway. Katrine is correct, naturally, although she is concealing her own personal connection to this ‘snowman killer’.

There is significantly more to the plot than the standard serial killer hunt, including a baffling tangential connection to a high-end escort ring run by a cross-dressing gynecologist pimp, and to a reactionary multi-millionaire’s campaign to bring a prestigious international Winter Olympics-like event to Oslo. What’s more, the filmmakers awkwardly wedge in flashbacks featuring a different alcoholic detective (an alarmingly unwell-looking Kilmer) who nine years ago was searching for a different missing woman in the city of Bergen. The film is needlessly coy about the link between these past and present-day events, given how predictable that connection turns out to be. The rollout of cell-connected tablet computers for the Oslo PD also figures prominently in all this unnecessarily convoluted skullduggery, not so much as a subplot as an irritatingly obvious Chekov’s gun.

The truly gob smacking thing about The Snowman is how fundamentally incompetent it feels, considering the caliber of filmmakers who brought this lumbering beast to life. The screenplay was co-written by Peter Straughan (Frank, Wolf Hall), Hossein Amini (Drive), and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing, both the Danish and American versions). Their filmographies aren’t without duds, but based on that writing lineup, one could be forgiven for expecting better than an ill-conceived, unintentionally comical mashup of Raymond Chandler, Thomas Harris, and Stieg Larsson. 

Unfortunately, Alfredson seems to have little sense for just how ridiculous the material is, as he slathers almost every scene with a solemn, gloomy tone. (There’s no trace of the campy delight the director took in unleashing a cartoonish swarm of bloodthirsty cats into Let the Right One In’s atmosphere of doleful adolescent loneliness.) This monotony exacerbates the tedium of watching the film lazily pile on genre tropes: the alcoholic, loose cannon detective; the cavalcade of murdered and mutilated women; the cold cases that no one has ever connected; the killer with unresolved mommy issues.

What’s more, the film’s unrelentingly somber atmosphere clashes dreadfully with its goofier aspects. The most conspicuous example is the snowmen themselves. There’s nothing remotely frightening or even creepy about the sad little snowball-people the killer constructs. They rather resemble lumpy stick figures who have waddled out of some lost Don Hertzfeldt cartoon. The snowmen offer no clues, and no insight into the perpetrator’s history or psychology. At times, they almost seem to be an afterthought, as though the murderer hastily slapped one together merely because it is their obligatory calling card. In one incident, the killer somewhat hilariously half-asses the effort by simply drawing the outline of a snowman in the freshly fallen powder. On a couple of occasions, the snowmen are directly incorporated into the bloody scene-setting. In the first instance, a victim’s lopped-off head is balanced atop one of the frozen figures, and in the second the victim’s noggin is replaced with an enormous snowball studded with espresso beans for teeth. Why these ghoulish (and inadvertently funny) variations? What’s the significance of it all? The film never bothers to explain.

While Alfredson’s direction is the most disappointing aspect of The Snowman, the most stunning revelation is that Schoonmaker had a hand in the film’s editing. The fact that the woman who cut Goodfellas delivered such an unintelligible hash of a feature defies belief. Indeed, the editing is perhaps The Snowman’s most conspicuously broken formal component. The film is wall-to-wall with bewildering scene transitions that frequently leave the viewer completely lost with respect to where and when events are occurring. It’s possible—hell, even likely—that studio demands regarding the film’s running time meant that Simpson and Schoonmaker had to take a cleaver to Alfredson’s original cut. This doesn’t excuse the raggedness of the finished product, where characters vanish inexplicably from the story, crucial events seem to occur off-screen, and the telltale scars of excised subplots are everywhere. This is a film where all the connective tissue has been savagely scraped away.

Alfredson’s approach in Tinker Tailor is one where the facts of character and plot slowly solidify at a naturalistic pace. Given that the film's British spies don’t routinely introduce themselves or translate the intelligence jargon they rattle off, the viewer is obliged to slowly puzzle out what is going on based on careful observation. In some ways, The Snowman plays as the malevolent mirror image of this storytelling approach. The dialog is often of the dunderheaded sort that explains everything twice for the slower-witted viewers. (A favorite: “I’m infertile. I can’t have children.” Ah, that’s what ‘infertile’ means!)  On the other hand, whole swaths of the story are completely inscrutable or nonsensical, to such an extent that even a ponderous three-hour cut of the film would likely not have filled in all the plot holes.

Indeed, most of the film’s more inveterate problems originate with its screenplay, which, aside from featuring some profoundly stupid lines of dialog, is replete with wobbly logic and workaday sloppiness. The screenwriters seem not to have noticed than many of the connections between the story’s myriad subplots are entirely dependent on implausible, results-oriented events. (The existence of the entire Winter Games thread seems to rest on Katrine making and then relentlessly committing to a single rash assumption.) The most glaring oversight is the Zodiac-style letters the killer sends to Harry, which taunt him with claims that he's been given all the clues he needs to solve the murders. Which is… not the case at all. There is no revelatory evidence at any of the crime scenes, and Harry only “solves” the case by making an improbable mental leap based on a character’s off-the-cuff choice of words. The letters end up mattering not one whit.

Saddled with such a clunker of a screenplay, the actors honestly do the best that can be expected. (Lance Henriksen is perhaps the only living actor who can deliver a preposterous line like “The killer is completely insane” with gravitas, and, sadly, he’s not in The Snowman.) Echoing David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Alfredson allows the performers to speak in a grab-bag of distracting demi-Scandinavian accents. None of the actors is working at the peak of their powers, and Fassbender is mostly coasting on his grimace, but no one other than Kilmer delivers an outright unpleasant performance. Given that the actor is reportedly battling oral cancer, he gets a pass, but there’s something uncomfortably smug and exploitative about the way that the filmmakers go out of their way to showcase Kilmer’s puffy face and pained voice.

The film isn’t completely devoid of appealing points, at least aesthetically. Shooting on location in Norway, cinematographer Bebbe drapes the film primarily in the pale blues, smothering grays, and diamond-bright whites of the Scandinavian winter. It’s undeniably a facile artistic approach for a Nordic noir feature, but the result is still suitably eerie and oppressive, especially when contrasted against the odd lush interior location awash in warm golds and scarlets.

Periodically, one can discern the superior film that lies somewhere within The Snowman’s messy outlines, primarily in the little, appropriately repulsive details. Unlike the rest of the film, the killer’s weapon of choice—a mechanized wire loop that functions like some horrific DeWalt version of the razor filament from Audition—is suitably ghastly without being ridiculous. One elegantly creepy moment involves Simmons’ tuxedoed mogul simply taking a picture with his smartphone, a gesture that calls back to an earlier scene to deliver a freezing gut-punch of dread. Ultimately, the killer’s motivation is banal stuff, being the usual cocktail of sexual shame, self-righteous rage, and sub-Freudian nonsense. However, the film’s climactic scene also takes perverse delight in undercutting the villain’s alleged rationale (and self-importance) with an offhanded rhetorical swipe. The Snowman is otherwise such a dreadful shamble that one is left clutching for such isolated glints of vibrancy and intelligence.

Rating: D+

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October 19, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

100% Pure Adrenaline

2017 / USA / Dir. by Rory Kennedy / Opens in limited release on September 29, 2017; locally on October 20, 2017

The most significant benchmark for a solid biographical documentary is whether it stokes the viewer’s interest in the world inhabited by the film’s subject. By this standard, director Rory Kennedy’s vibrant and disarming feature, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, is a robust success. By the time the credits roll, the viewer will almost certainly be awash in dazed awe for the sport of big wave surfing, if they were not already. It helps that the filmmaker’s subject is a natural fit for this sort of cinematic portraiture. Frank, feisty, and beach-bum handsome, Laird Hamilton is one of the great living surfing innovators, but also the kind of restless American seeker who makes for a compelling lead character.

This isn’t to say that Kennedy (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Last Days in Vietnam) merely had to point the camera at Hamilton and stay out of his way. Like most biographical non-fiction films, Take Every Wave eschews cinematic risk-courting, preferring a fleet, unfussy mixture of archival material and talking-head interviews. However, Kennedy’s feature is a particularly peerless example of this straightforward form. She packs the film’s nearly 120-minute running time with amiable personalities and astonishing footage, but resists the inclination to turn her documentary into a mere timeline of triumphs and tragedies. Discerning the novelty of Hamilton’s personality and philosophy, Kennedy shapes the film to conjure the veteran surfer’s spiritual essence from the raw material of colorful anecdotes and gnarly athletic feats. Kennedy is the shrewd and agile author, but it’s Hamilton’s film.

It’s easy to see why the documentarian defers to her subject in this way. Historically, Hamilton is arguably most renowned as one of the inventors of tow-in surfing, in which the assistance of a personal watercraft allows the surfer to attain the speeds necessary to catch truly colossal waves once regarded as ‘unrideable’. This contribution was momentous within the surfing world, and its story is a major component of the film, but it’s not the reason Take Every Wave intrigues. In truth, what animates the film is Hamilton’s distinctive outlook, which is characterized by an athlete’s drive and machismo, yet undergirded by the searching spirit of an explorer-pilgrim. When bronzed, brawny Hamilton describes himself as an astronaut, it doesn’t seem like boasting, but rather an accurate encapsulation of his frontier-seeking mentality.

Growing up first on Oahu’s legendary North Shore, and later Kauaʻi, Hamilton spent his youth steeped in the Hawaiian surf culture of the 1960s and 70s. His path was always unconventional, however, even for a beach rat. Dropping out of high school, he pursued a sideline as a model to fund his wave-riding pursuits, ultimately rejecting the contest-based professional surfing scene that he found stifling and arbitrary. His reputation was built not on titles, but on inventiveness and fearlessness, most notably as a member of the ‘Strapped Crew’. Outside-the-box radicals and canny self-promoters, the surfers that comprised Strapped developed the tow-in technique partly to tackle ‘Jaws,’ the fearsome break at Peahi, Maui. (Cinephiles, meanwhile, might recognize Hamilton from his turn as splendidly-named villain Lance Burkhart in the cult-ish 1987 surf film North Shore.) Unlike some tour-focused pro surfers, Hamilton proved to be an unabashedly catholic water sportsman, embracing paddle boarding, windsurfing, and kitesurfing—and often discovering new surfing advances in such secondary pursuits.

Kennedy shapes Take Every Wave around a past-and-present dual timeline structure, intercutting between a chronological account of Hamilton’s life and the surfing veteran’s contemporary routine of physical training and technical experimentation. In the film, his current project is a peculiar but fascinating hydrofoil apparatus that allows for negligible friction and epic-length rides. (There’s more than a touch of the gleeful tinkerer hidden within Hamilton’s daredevil persona.)

While Kennedy’s time-hopping approach might be a prosaic way to assemble a biographical feature, the director employs it marvelously. She gradually adds emotional heft to the relatively languid, reality-show vibe of the 2010s by repeatedly flashing back to formative events and periods from earlier decades. The present-day material has an inevitable dash of mortality’s shadow, as Hamilton wrestles with a fifty-ish body battered by a lifetime of crushing surf, all the while mentally tallying how many more seasons he might have left to pursue his passions. In this, the film favorably echoes the recent Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, another documentary feature in which a virtuoso strives to pull off a ‘controlled decent’ into inescapable physical diminishment with as much fortitude and grace as possible.

Hamilton proves to be blunt, enthusiastic interview subject: all twinkling eyes, no-bullshit charm, and self-deprecating wisecracks. While he exudes some of the wearying egocentrism one associates with elite athletes and media stars, he never comes off as outright insufferable. Besides the subject and his wife, pro volleyball champ Gabrielle Reece, the filmmakers have done a laudable job of assembling engaging luminaries from the surfing world to narrate the film’s story. Hamilton’s fierce ambition, controversial innovations, and media celebrity inevitably created some bad blood with other surfers over the decades, but the film is cagey about events that would cast its subject in a too-unflattering light. It’s forgivable when a marital rough patch with Reese is touched on evasively. Less so when Hamilton’s split with the Strapped team—evidently regarded as a financial and spiritual betrayal by some parties—is papered over as an uncomfortable but essential stepping stone in the man’s career.

Still, it’s telling that even estranged buddies and press adversaries unfailingly have moments when they can't conceal their wonderment at Hamilton’s talent, courage, and death-flouting achievements. These include his mind-blowing 2000 conquest of Tahiti's perilously shallow Teahupoʻo, a meat-grinder of a wave routinely regarded as the ‘heaviest ever ridden’. That singular feat—also documented in Stacy Peralta’s 2004 feature Riding Giants—forever sealed the surfer’s renown as one of the all-time greats. By weaving together still photography, video footage, and interviewees who struggle to summon adjectives, Kennedy grandly conveys the awed sense that Hamilton’s fingertips skimmed the outer limits of human possibility.

Kennedy is blessed with an embarrassment of archival film and video, and not just the material that documents Hamilton’s surfing exploits and media appearances. There are abundant home movie clips from his tow-headed childhood and adolescence, as well as charming slice-of-life glimpses of Hawaiian beach life in the 1960s – 80s in all is shirtless, bohemian glory. (One blink-and-miss-it moment catches Hamilton and his cohorts filching plantation pineapples just to have something to eat.) The film’s storytelling is bolstered immeasurably by appropriately lithe editing from Azin Samari, a rousing and eclectic score by Nathan Larson, and—understated but sneakily vital—sinuous animated flourishes that evoke currents and swells.

While Take Every Wave never achieves (or even strives for) formal boldness, it’s a consistently stimulating and captivating implementation of a tried-and-true formula. Granted, there’s a nagging sense that Kennedy accepted Hamilton’s version of events a little too uncritically, allowing the veteran waterman to etch his own legend. However, the film grasps and conveys the surfer’s estimable athletic ethos—which privileges trailblazing rather than ‘winning’—with supple self-possession. This suggests a director who, far from ceding the story to her subject, adroitly found his wavelength and then amplified it fill her film.

Rating: B

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October 13, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

East Beats West

2017 / UK, China, USA / Dir. by Martin Campbell / Opens in wide release on October 13, 2017

The Foreigner is a broken film, but it is broken in such an oddly narrow way that it still manages be entertaining, and even mildly invigorating within the limits of its generic formulae. The film’s fundamental flaw is that it is, in fact, two films. These features have been wedged together and then obliged to intermittently and awkwardly interact. The Foreigner’s incongruent pieces hail from related but distinct subgenres: the high-tech counter-terrorism thriller and the grim, ultra-violent revenge actioner. Perhaps there is a way to resolve these two aspects into a single, seamless story, but The Foreigner rather decisively fails to achieve such a feat of unification.

Directed by action veteran Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale), the film was adapted by David Marconi from British author Stephen Leather’s 1992 page-turner The Chinaman. Straightaway, that name change signals the film’s carelessness. Bowdlerizing the novel’s racially offensive title in favor the neutral ‘Foreigner’ makes perfect sense commercially, but the alteration just ends up seeming incoherent. The titular character is Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan), whose background is left somewhat murky, but seems to be an ethnically Chinese ex-soldier-of-fortune from Vietnam. Formerly allied with the RVN and Americans during the Vietnam War—picking up some Navy SEAL training along the way from the latter—he immigrated to England after the Fall of Saigon, became a naturalized British citizen, and opened a Chinese restaurant. That was four decades ago, so Quan is actually not a foreigner in the context of this London- and Belfast-based thriller. What's more, the title adjustment evidently hasn't filtered down to the screenplay’s dialog, as the heedless white characters consistently refer to him as a ‘Chinaman.’

Quan’s wife and two of his daughters were slain by Thai pirates during the family's escape from Vietnam, and he is accordingly devoted to his remaining and youngest daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), now a university student. Unfortunately, poor Fan doesn’t even make it to the opening credits: She is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, set off in a bustling shopping district, while Quan is occupied parking their car. This shattering loss sends Quan off on a dead-eyed mission of vengeance. He searches ploddingly but relentlessly for the bombers, who, in a message to the press, refer to themselves as ‘The Authentic IRA’. Quan suspects that North Ireland Sinn Féin MP Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) knows something about the plot. With good reason: The silver-haired, bespectacled politician was once an IRA freedom fighter himself. Arrogant and tightly-wound, Hennessy behaves suspiciously, but in internal meetings with fellow reformed terrorists, he seems authentically livid, demanding that they uncover and stamp out the renegade faction.

This is where Marconi’s script and Campbell’s direction go awry, as The Foreigner struggles to tell two stories simultaneously. On the one hand, it’s an engaging, surprisingly labyrinthine ensemble piece about the British effort to track down the terrorists prior to the next bomb attack—as well as Hennessy’s furious, desperate attempts to root out the radical moles within the (officially) disarmed IRA. On the other hand, the film is a bloody revenge story about Quan’s personal crusade to kill the bombers, a plan that mainly entails methodically terrorizing Hennessey until the minister gives him the names of the perpetrators. Quan does this by exploding his own homemade bombs—precisely and non-lethally, the film assures the viewer—at Hennessey’s office and country house. And also by beating the ever-loving crap out of the politician’s small army bodyguards.

What The Foreigner represents, then, is a clumsy amalgam. It's a stark post-Troubles drama in the vein of Five Minutes of Heaven, presented in the slick vernacular of a 21st-century British television thriller. It's also a Jackie Chan variation on the ‘rampage of revenge’ feature wherein a fifty- or sixty-something slumbering lion is roused to become a lethal badass. (As always, Taken is the reference point for this subgenre, and Liam Neeson its patron saint.) These two modes co-exist gawkily in Campbell’s film, not so much tonally dissonant as narratively at odds with one another. The Foreigner plainly wants the viewer to root for Quan in several capacities: as the grieving parent to the victim of a violent terrorist act; as an ex-warrior who's suffered the loss of everything he loves; as the overlooked and underestimated older Asian man living in the West; and as a hard-working citizen who is fed up with the sluggish pace of British justice. However, the film spends far too little time with its ostensible hero, instead preferring to simmer in the byzantine politics and espionage of the IRA plot. The viewer is consequently left with two half-baked films rather than one complete feature.

The truly frustrating dimension to this ugly fusion is that both of The Foreigner’s stories are, if not great, at least decent enough to deserve more than half a movie. Even though Chan is the face of the film’s marketing campaign, Campbell oddly gives the actor the smaller serving of attention, at least in terms of story and screen time. (There is a middle passage in the film where Quan disappears for so long that some viewers may forget about him entirely.) At 63, Chan is still astonishingly fast and lithe, but he has unquestionably reached a point in his career where he can no longer pull off the elite level of nimble kung fu choreography and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts that were once his bread and butter. However,The Foreigner doesn’t demand bleeding-edge physical feats from him, nor is it a showcase for Chan the slapstick goofball. Quan is a broken shell of a man who has nothing left to lose, and to that end Chan portrays him as a defeated, slump-shouldered zombie, only snapping out of his daze in those moments when vengeance or survival demands that he become a viper.

While his fight scenes are paradoxically somewhat flavorless compared to the the film’s political and counter-terrorism segments, Chan brings an almost affectless menace to his character that is unsettling in part because it looks so uncanny on him. (The habitually grinning actor almost never smiles here.) For the role of Quan, he assumes an old man’s reserved demeanor and pained weariness, an explicit subversion of the actor’s established movie star image. This is The Hustler of Jackie Chan Movies, in that a normally voluble comic performer assumes a comparatively quiet, steady stance for a dramatic role.

Quan’s bleak tale of vengeance is atypical but sturdy enough, as Jackie Chan action features go. The problem is that it’s only about 40% of The Foreigner. The rest of the film consists of a Britain-spanning story of military and political intrigue, centered primarily on Hennessy as the ambitious career politician with uncertain loyalties. This portion of the film is likewise sturdy enough as thrillers go, and sufficiently unusual in its specifics to be a stimulating take on a familiar premise. The plot is sprawling and complex: It’s essentially a British intelligence procedural steeped to a surprising degree in the particulars of Northern Ireland’s history and politics. (The preservation of the Good Friday Agreement and the status of the IRA’s old weapons dumps are significant plot elements.) 

Granted, there’s nothing in The Foreigner’s IRA story hasn’t been done before: the mole inside the organization; the radical splinter group; the personal and political betrayals; the bomb plot that relies on a civilian dupe; even an appropriately vile Lady Macbeth character. It’s all presented with a touch more Hollywood garishness than something like Eye in the Sky, or any given John le Carré adaptation. The plot is convoluted, and the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence enough to take a restrained, more realistic approach. Accordingly, this is one of those films where the characters are always explaining their situations and motivations, and at length. Still, the dark, twisty story is reliably entertaining, with solid performances across the board, even in dismally archetypical roles. Hennessy is the focus of both the political turmoil and the film’s narrative attention, and the self-assured Brosnan plays him as a priggish, barking realist. However, his performance has enough slippery ambiguity and frank pathos that the viewer never quite knows what to make of Hennessy, at least until all the tumblers click into place in the final act.

The Foreigner never remotely resolves Quan’s and Hennessy’s stories in a way that makes sense, at least dramatically. The two men meet early in the film, Quan is given the brush-off, and thereafter the monomanical restauranteur-turned-Rambo dogs the minister’s steps, essentially threatening him with death unless he gives up his IRA buddies. For his part, Hennessy pursues his own internal investigation, excoriating his fellow ex-Provos and employing his Iraq veteran nephew as a manhunter and a go-between with MI5. The film keeps flitting between the myriad tentacles of the IRA plot, checking in with British counter-terrorism analysts, a disillusioned journalist, and the radical bombers themselves, before inevitably snapping back to Quan. It’s not apparent where Campbell wants the viewer’s attention and sympathies to be focused. The film’s climatic showdown—in which Quan and MI5 independently close in on the terrorists’ safehouse—is emblematic of The Foreigner’s dramatic dysfunction. Quan is the bruised and battered underdog (and Chan is the feature’s star), but the filmmakers expend so much effort on the counter-terrorism plot, it's actually sort of a letdown when Quan derails MI5’s plans with his one-man rampage. That’s an inexcusable blunder in a revenge story that should end with single-minded, cathartic release.

This conflict aside, The Foreigner is durable if unremarkable entertainment. For the fight scenes, Campbell relies on the same kind of classical, straightforward action that served him so well in Casino Royale, bestowing Daniel Craig’s inaugural Bond film with a dose of palate-cleansing brutishness. There are no instantly iconic shots or stunts in The Foreigner, but it’s nonetheless a showcase for solid, commendably coherent action of the messy, hard-boiled variety. It’s no John Wick, or even Atomic Blonde, but it gets the job done. However, the right-wing bent to the film’s political ethos, which at times borders on the viciously authoritarian, lends all the cinematic violence an ugly aftertaste. Unexpectedly, it’s not Quan’s Death Wish vigilantism that most disturbs, but Campbell’s matter-of-fact normalization of limitless surveillance, 24-style ‘ticking clock’ torture, and outright summary execution.

Rating: C+

 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt