November 9, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Curiouser and Curiouser

2017 / USA / 116 min. / Directed by Todd Haynes / Opened in select cities on Oct. 20, 2017; opens locally on Nov. 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 / 100 min. / Directed by Kevin Phillips / Opened in select cities on Sept. 29, 2017; premiered online on Oct. 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.]


2017 / USA / 91 min. / Directed by Alexandre O Phillippe / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 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 / 78 min. / Directed by Patrick Brice / Premiered online on Oct. 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.]


2017 / USA / 90 min. / Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 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 Roundups Andrew Wyatt

November 2, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

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

2017 / USA / 130 min. / Directed by Taika Waititi / Opens in wide release on Nov. 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 / 111 min. / Directed by Sean Baker / Opened in select cities on Oct. 6, 2017; opens locally on Oct. 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 / 119 min. / Directed by Tomas Alfredson / Opens in wide release on Oct. 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+


October 19, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

100% Pure Adrenaline

2017 / USA / 118 min. / Directed by Rory Kennedy / Opened in select cities on Sept. 29, 2017; opens locally on Oct. 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


October 13, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

East Beats West

2017 / UK, China, USA / 113 min. / Directed by Martin Campbell / Opens in wide release on Oct. 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

October 12, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

I Will Not Equivocate. I Will Not Excuse.

2017 / USA / 118 min. / Directed by Reginald Hudlin / Opens in wide release on Oct. 13, 2017

Thurgood Marshall is the sort of American legal and political titan who practically demands a biopic, but it was probably inevitable that said biopic would turn out to be such a dispiritingly middlebrow affair. The film that director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man) delivers has exactly the sort of prosaic narrative one expects of a hagiographic historical drama, complete with a steady flow of snappy lines intended to elicit cheers, jeers, and tongue-clucks. The film is handsome and admittedly rousing in spots, but also dismally familiar, and presented with an annoying slathering of winking hindsight.

The good news is that father and son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff resisted the urge to pen a sweeping, cradle-to-grave story of Marshall’s life, the preferred tack for countless substandard biopics. Instead, they take a page from Jackie and zero in on a specific historical moment, and a lesser-known one at that. In 1940, the 32-year-old Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) has recently founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and is crisscrossing the nation to assist in the defense of innocent African-Americans indicted primarily because of their race. In Greenwich, Connecticut, meanwhile, an incendiary sexual assault case is unfolding. Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is about to go on trial for the rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman. The case is exactly the sort of live-wire legal railroading that Marshall specializes in tackling. It’s also the sort that prompts NAACP donors to open their checkbooks, as Marshall’s superior Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith) pointedly reminds the lawyer.

The deck is stacked against Spell in every conceivable way. Marshall’s co-counsel and local connection is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a risk-averse white civil attorney with minimal criminal experience. What’s more, the stone-faced Judge Foster (James Cromwell) denies Marshall—who is not a member of the Connecticut bar—a courtesy waiver. This prevents him from even speaking in court and obliges the easily-flustered Friedman to act as lead counsel during the trial. The credibility gap is yawning: Strubing and her husband are the picture of WASP refinement, while Spell is a dishonorably discharged bigamist with a criminal record. The judge and prosecutor are family friends, the jury is entirely white, and Marshall and Friedman are facing down centuries of racist myths and sexual fears, vis-à-vis black men and white women.

What Marshall serves up is not a wide-ranging fictionalized biography but a relatively narrow courtroom drama, and an absorbing one at that. There aren't many genuine shocks uncovered during the trial; unsurprisingly, both Spell and Strubing are lying, albeit for very different reasons. However, only viewers with deep knowledge of the civil rights movement’s legal history are likely to know the outcome of the real-world case, and Hudlin maintains sufficient dramatic ambiguity that the verdict feels as though it could go either way. Only the high production values distinguish Marshall’s story from those of any number of television legal dramas—call it Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 1940—but it’s a polished and diverting example of the form, regardless.

The film’s villains are smug, cartoonishly vile racists, ensuring that the audience has a suitable target for its boos and hisses, although in the case of prosecutor Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), the historical reality is apparently not far from the mark. The film's writers can’t resist peppering the script with prophetic lines of dialog that capitalize on 21st-century viewers’ knowledge of Marshall’s trajectory, and that of the civil right movement generally. In this, Marshall unfailingly and distractingly feels like a 2017 film about 1940, and that anachronistic disconnect ultimately crushes any prospect of historical verisimilitude or organically emergent pathos.

Lamentably, the film’s most compelling courtroom sequences tend to pass by far too quickly. One conspicuous example is a jury selection scene, which neatly showcases Marshall’s keen ability to read people, as well as his understanding of the messy nuances of human motivation. Hudlin and the writers offer some hints as to the complexities of WWII-era African-American society—one agreeably prickly scene depicts Marshall verbally sparring over politics with luminaries like Langston Hughes—but such contextual shading is generally given short shrift. The screenplay also unfortunately portrays Marshall and Friedman as relying on some discomfiting victim-blaming defense strategies. The knowledge that Strubing is a racist liar only partly mitigates the rumble of misogyny built into the film’s courtroom fireworks. It's not the slut-shaming that distresses, but the fact that it goes completley unacknowledged.

The alleged colorism involved in Boseman’s casting has been tackled elsewhere, but whatever his physical aptness for the role of a young Thurgood Marshall, the actor’s presence is essential to keeping the film afloat. As in the James Brown biopic Get on Up, Boseman’s charisma is unfailingly the saving grace of Marshall’s more lifeless and stilted scenes. As Marshall, he delivers every line with a righteous electric pop that announces, “I’m smarter than you,” to enemies and allies alike, but always in a way that comes off as smoothly factual rather than snotty. This unfortunately registers as Boseman giving a performance, as opposed to inhabiting a role, but it’s still damn entertaining to watch. Gad is a close contender in the film’s MVP race, rather strikingly rising to the occasion, particularly when he plays off Boseman. The Book of Mormon star delivers what is easily his most appealing dramatic performance to date, ably depicting Friedman’s slow U-turn from faint-hearted whiner to relentless legal pugilist.

This points to Marshall’s fundamental narrative failure: As a story about Thurgood Marshall, the film is rather bafflingly inert. The future Supreme Court justice doesn’t have any character arc to speak of. He leaves the film much as he enters it, with the same focused hunger for racial justice, the same forward-thinking strut, and the same impatience for anyone who lags behind. All the character development in the film belongs to Friedman, and while the nebbishy attorney’s story makes for a gratifying arc—especially in the eyes of white liberal viewers—his name isn’t the title of the damn film. This gives the whole affair the exasperating whiff of a bait-and-switch, as though Hudlin and the screenwriters were fearful of giving their hero any dramatically relevant flaws. Accordingly, they’ve elevated Friedman to the level of de facto co-protagonist, and unintentionally rendered him as a more human and interesting figure than Marshall. It’s a vexing sort of storytelling timidity, and Marshall the man certainly deserves better.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 6, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Memories. You're Talking About Memories.

2017 / UK, USA, Canada / 164 min. / Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Opens in wide release on Oct. 6, 2017

Director Ridley Scott’s 1982 feature Blade Runner is the kind of epochal genre film whose stylistic influence is so enormous, it can be difficult to accurately assess the feature’s merits and flaws in isolation. Blade Runner changed science fiction forever, in a way that even Scott’s Alien didn’t quite manage in 1979. The latter film is a masterpiece, and H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature designs were instantly seared into the cultural consciousness, but Alien was essentially an old-fashioned monster movie in gritty New Hollywood clothing. Blade Runner was something else, something ferociously fresh. It's thoughtful, enigmatic, poetic, radical. It borrows from the conventions of film noir, but then disappears down a dystopian rabbit hole of suffocating megacities, unrestrained corporatism, and manufactured people. Like Metropolis or The Road Warrior, it only seems clichéd because it’s where those cinematic clichés were born. (Or ‘incepted,' to be precise.)

The historical heft of the original film undoubtedly weighed on the creative minds behind Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that unfolds 30 years later in the same grim, alternate future of bio-engineered replicants and off-world colonies. Those minds include French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) and writers Hampton Francher and Michael Green, the former a returning co-scripter from the original Blade Runner. Scott himself also returns, this time as an executive producer. The filmmakers seemed to appreciate that a sequel is almost always less revolutionary than its forebear, and to that end they have focused on creating a work that retains the original film’s other laudable qualities. Blade Runner 2049 is as pensive and mysterious as its namesake, and also visually and aurally dazzling in a way that counter-balances its necessarily diminished novelty. It is, to be frank, the best that cinephiles could have hoped for in a 35-years-later Blade Runner sequel.

Villeneuve and the distributors have practically pleaded with critics to keep most aspects of 2049’s plot under wraps. So be it. Suffice to say that the story concerns another ‘blade runner’ employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. He is known simply as K (Ryan Gosling), and like his fellows he is tasked with hunting down rogue replicants and ‘retiring’ them by force. By 2049, this diminishing group of fugitives mostly consists of later models created by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation, which after the events depicted in the first film rather unwisely developed replicants with indefinite lifespans.

In the process of retiring a particularly dangerous ‘skin-job’ who is living as a farmer (Dave Bautista), K makes a strange discovery. In fine noir tradition, pulling at this thread starts to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy of civic and corporate corruption. K eventually follows the trail back to Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner who in 2019 faced down four ruthless, desperate Tyrell units—and in the process, fell for a replicant himself. The only thing missing from K’s story is the femme fatale: He has a special lady already, in the form of consumer hologram and surrogate wife Joi (Ana de Armas), while frosty villainess Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is all killer instinct and no sultry slink. 

To say more of the plot would diminish the pleasure of experiencing the film firsthand, but it’s not truly concern for spoilers that compels that restraint. Truthfully, any reasonably canny science fiction fan will be able to guess almost every plot beat in Blade Runner 2049 before it unfolds. Time and again, the viewer knows exactly what is going to happen—what lies hidden in the ashes of an ancient furnace, whose face will emerge out of the shadows as echoing footfalls approach, what a spiteful villain will do to a cherished possesion. Yet Villeneuve draws these moments out into scenes ripe with quivering expectation. This is not truly a film of narrative twists, but of moods, vistas, and philosophical conundrums. The viewer is advised to simply settle in and let it wash over them.

The new film boasts some marvelously composed action sequences, most of them consistent with the hard-boiled tone of the original Blade Runner: scrabbling bare-knuckle brawls, grisly knife fights, cat-and-mouse shootouts. There are rare bursts of more spectacular science fiction violence, such as a barrage of missiles raining down from a sub-orbital drone, but these explosive moments end just as quickly as they begin. Viewers expecting a re-imagining of Blade Runner as a bombastic 2010s sci-fi action film will be disappointed. Villeneuve’s film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, and it fills that epic running time not with exhausting sound and fury, but with melancholic contemplation. It meditates on faces, landscapes, and emotions.

Blade Runner 2049 gapes at the noxious orange wasteland that is Las Vegas, where eerie, colossal statues deftly but vividly evoke Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” It inspects snowflakes as they melt on a battered hand, in a moment that recalls Steve McQueen’s film of righteous self-annihilation, Hunger. (Pointedly, a character at one point speaks to K about humankind’s facility for martyrdom.) Midway through the film, K’s digital ‘wife’ Joi hires a prostitute to physically gratify him while she holographically mimes the woman’s movements. It's a bittersweet attempt to capture something like domestic sexual intimacy. Another kind of film would have given this scene fleeting attention, or cut it altogether. Villeneuve luxuriates in it, and asks that the viewer does as well, soaking up all its tremulous passion and unbearable sadness while also ruminating on its disquieting thematic implications.

This is not a feature that rushes excitably from one spectacle to the next. It’s a film of wonders, to be sure, but it lingers on its wonders, obliging the viewer to absorb and react to each of them. It might be the most brazenly languid film ever made for north of $150 million, which is arguably a kind of radicalism all its own. Fancher and Green’s screenplay begins with the striking world conjured by Scott’s film, and then stretches its concepts and characters in new, speculative directions, posing questions that feel like credible but knotty extensions of those raised in the original. It’s stylish, engrossing, and thrilling, but it never feels like a film that’s tripping over itself to appeal to the widest possible audience, or even to prod at the nostalgia centers of the original Blade Runner’s devotees. Viewers can simply take or leave 2049, in all its doleful, ponderous, mesmerizing glory. In the present age of sprawling cinematic universes and misbegotten franchises, there’s something wonderful about such cerebral unconcern from a massive sequel to a beloved science fiction film. 

Villeneuve has only made one stone-cold masterpiece—the surreal, little-seen thriller Enemy—but all his English-language films exhibit a formal virtuosity that blends an auteur’s daring with the uncanny self-assurance of a natural big-budget filmmaker. Blade Runner 2049 is no exception, and paired with last year’s Arrival, the film makes a persuasive case for the director as the leading purveyor of Hollywood science fiction as a Cinema of Ideas. However, while Villeneuve’s stamp is discernable, the film is an exemplar of the marvelous results that emerge when everyone involved is working at the top of their game. The masterminds on the crew include: legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, his images flawless as usual (Christ, give the man an Oscar, already); production designer Dennis Gassner, carrying the now-retro-futurist vision of the original film forward three decades; and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, building splendidly on Vangelis’ iconic 1982 score.

Ford plays Deckard as a wily, cantankerous codger who has no regrets, but carries a mother lode of heartache. He does well enough, and even delivers couple of glorious line readings, but his presence in the film is primarily about establishing a living connection to the original Blade Runner. (Edward James Olmos in a cameo and a couple of other faces also contribute in this respect.) Cuban actress Armas is the film’s real discovery, in a challenging role that requires her to convey genuine affection and longing underneath the veneer of a pre-programmed girlfriend experience. However, there’s no point in mincing words: Blade Runner 2049 belongs to Gosling, who is as good as he’s ever been here. He portrays K as a man who is obliged to endure successive gut-punches of emotional agony, while also doing his best to keep moving forward with only a few telltale tears, trembles, and grimaces. In this, K doesn't always succeed; often, he seems nearly paralyzed by his doubts and suspicions, in the same way that most people would freeze in the face of lethal physical danger. Gosling’s damp, searching eyes—slightly asymmetric, one never following the other quite perfectly—are vital here, conveying the sense of someone who is roiling with questions, but hasn’t decided if he wants to know the answers or not.

Like its forerunner, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that is ordained to be dissected and disassembled, in the hope that its apparent ambiguities might be resolved. Just as Scott did, Villeneuve scatters signs and omens across his meticulously composed frames, like lucid signposts in a dreamscape. There are wisps of fairy tales and monster stories everyhwere: Frankenstein, Peter and the Wolf, and Pinocchio are all alluded too, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. However, it would be a mistake to regard the film as a puzzle box to be unlocked. The original Blade Runner’s most obsessive admirers have spent 35 years poring over its every detail, to no avail. The 1982 film defiantly resists any attempt to wrest cut-and-dried answers about the central noir mystery plot from its mad, grimy clutches. Blade Runner 2049 is much the same; it will mock code-breakers and case-crackers.

Outside of potent atmospherics and the nitty-gritty of world-building, the 1982 film’s primary interest was philosophical. Like Scott’s original, but unlike, say, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin—another masterful sci-fi film, but one that wrestles with more abstract, existential questions—Blade Runner 2049’s preoccupations are intimately entangled with humankind’s relationship to technology. Villeneuve and his collaborators apprehend how the future’s miracles heighten time-worn philosophical dilemmas, turning airy theorizing into uncanny vexation and horror. What does it mean to be human? In what sense are memories ‘real’? What is the distinction between natural and not-natural? The harsh irony of Blade Runner 2049 is that it is ultimately a far more elegant and affecting exploration of themes Scott himself has attempted to plumb in recent years with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve’s film is welcome proof that returning to and expanding on a cherished story can still produce invigorating cinema that lives up to the ambition and artistry of the original.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 6, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Survivor Types

2017 / USA / 112 min. / Directed by Hany Abu-Assad / Opens in wide release on Oct. 6, 2017

Whether entirely fictional or inspired by true events, tales of people enduring extraordinary circumstances and coming out alive are generally viewed as fertile soil for filmmaking. All on its own, however, the simple fact of survival isn’t inherently compelling, except perhaps as a morsel of strange-but-true trivia. A narrative filmmaker is normally obliged to offer something more substantial than a litany of harrowing and providential events, even if that something is only spectacle (e.g, Alfonso Cuarón’s breathless Gravity).

The fundamental defect of Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad’s romantic alpine survival tale The Mountain Between Us is that it doesn’t present much of anything, interest-wise, that couldn’t be gleaned from a 500-word Wikipedia summary of the feature’s plot. It’s as if the filmmakers hoped that bringing together a pair of beautiful, talented actors for a stark (and sexually tense) two-hander amidst the snow, crags, and mountain lions would magically create a compelling film. It doesn’t. While there’s nothing that’s outright awful about Mountain, it’s just sort of there, a handsome lump of frozen peril and middlebrow melodrama that doesn’t bother to justify its own existence.

Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Christian author Charles Martin, the film opens as its twin protagonists run afoul of cancellations and overbooked flights at an Idaho airport. Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is a conflict zone photojournalist who is hurrying home for her wedding. Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon with a 10-year-old patient awaiting a life-saving operation. Alex overhears that Ben is, like her, stranded for at least another day, and proposes that they split the cost of a private charter flight. Their pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) assures them that his little twin-engine aircraft will outrun the incoming blizzard, but it’s not weather that proves to be the real threat. Walter suffers a stroke while flying over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, and the plane subsequently crashes high in the snowbound peaks.

Miraculously, Ben is battered but not seriously wounded, and somehow Walter’s nameless dog comes through the ordeal unscathed. The unfortunate pilot is killed in the crash, however, and Alex suffers a gruesome leg injury that could have been fatal without Ben’s swift medical intervention. When she eventually regains consciousness, the doctor apprises her of their dire situation. They have all the fresh drinking water that they can melt, but only a few incidental snacks to subsist on, and a rather flimsy shelter in the form of the plane’s broken fuselage. Walter had been operating the aircraft under visual flight rules (VFR) and did not file a flight plan even for rescue purposes, diminishing the likelihood that any search effort will be able to locate them. Ben’s cell phone has no reception, the plane’s emergency beacon has been destroyed, and there is nothing but trackless, virgin mountain wilderness for miles in every direction.

Most of The Mountain Between Us is concerned with the story of how Alex and Ben survive on the mountaintop and eventually make the long, grueling journey back to civilization. Of all the hazards that the pair face, exposure proves to be the most insidiously lethal, and Alex eventually resolves that she would prefer to perish hobbling her way down the mountain than freezing to death while sitting in one spot. The film gives substantial attention to the raw, physical ordeals of deep snow, sheer cliffs, hungry predators, and so forth, but it would be inaccurate to describe Mountain as an action-thriller. Abu-Assad is plainly as interested in the character drama of Alex and Ben’s relationship as he is crafting any kind of harsh-minded disaster procedural. Predictably, their rapport with one another cycles through surges of reassurance, frustration, squabbling, and eventually—surprise, surprise—romantic attraction.

This slight preference for character over action set-pieces might have reaped considerably richer dividends in a film that was more invested in its protagonists, not to mention attentive to the nuances of their relationship. However, Mountain has such a slack, inch-deep interest in Ben and Alex, it’s hard to take its gestures of supposed poignancy and profundity seriously. Both characters possess big, anxious personalities, but it’s never clearly established why they repeatedly end up quarreling—or screwing, for that matter. Both Winslet and Elba visibly struggle with J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz’ flimsy, occasionally ridiculous screenplay, which too often relies on assertion and circular reasoning. Alex and Ben wind up falling for each other because Winslet and Elba are attractive movie stars playing the lead roles in a romantic story, rather than because anything in the screenplay justifies that emergent desire. The actors are left performing all the heavy lifting, and while they each manage to sketch a reasonably credible character out of meager materials (he more so than she), the tenor of their interactions unfailingly feels inorganic.

This is a shame, since the back third of Mountain’s running time makes it apparent that Abu-Assad and the writers have some intriguing thematic concerns that were unfortunately given short shrift. The film’s lengthy epilogue ruminates on disquieting questions about the role of trauma in human relationships, and specifically about whether the apparent potency of a disaster-forged bond is illusory. These extended, months-later passages are a bit narratively aimless, but they paradoxically end up emerging as the most intellectually and emotionally resonant segment of the film. Winslet and Elba are at their most striking in Mountain’s last 15 minutes, when their characters bounce off each other awkwardly, their brief, intense connection having uncannily atrophied with time and distance. This sort of closely-observed human drama is vastly more interesting than watching the actors sob, scream, and shiver on a mountain.

Through most of the actual wilderness ordeal, the film is mired in the feeble drama of vague logistical bickering, predictable revelations, and tiresome logic-vs-instinct dichotomies. The tendency to indulge these latter conflicts is especially aggravating. It’s brainlessly reductive, but the film doesn’t even have the courage to present it forthrightly, preferring to sparingly dribble in mush-headed lines about listening to the heart instead of the head. Elba in particular seems annoyed that he’s forced to mutter this kind of drippy Hallmark dialog. (At least Interstellar had the courtesy to retroactively give its sappy sentiments some plot-centered heft. Here there's no payoff.)

Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s diamond-clear NatGeo photography of the icy mountain vistas is suitably lovely, with the Rockies that straddle Alberta and British Columbia standing in for the less-imposing Uintas. However, it’s also glumly uninspired. Walker and Abu-Assad lean heavily on the natural beauty of the landscape, shot in a crisply straightforward manner, for virtually all of their feature’s visual interest. This is neatly emblematic of The Mountain Between Us’ broader deficiencies. There are no daring, invigorating, or memorable images in this film, just postcard-worthy pictures of pretty actors placed in pretty (albeit deadly) scenery.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt