Monday, April 25, 2016

Get in Formation: LEMONADE


Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a masterpiece. The hour-long film, which she directed along with six co-directors including Kahlil Joseph (m.A.A.d.) and Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go), had a surprise debut on HBO this past Saturday, an electrifying and overwhelming event revealing a collision of pop art and high art, music video and experimental cinema. It’s a deeply personal and political film, dense with flowing allusion and lively imagery, smooth dancing and tough subjects, magical realism and serious contemplation, intimate poetry and provocative juxtapositions. Rich and sparkling eclecticism, it draws inspiration appreciatively from a strong tradition of black women artists – Nina Simone, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and more – to create the feeling of its auteur – one of the most famous pop stars of this century – expressing an evolution, a culmination, and a synthesis. She is possible because of those who came before, building on all that got her here.

She began as pop perfection in group Destiny’s Child and in an excellent solo career. With this film she’s delivered her richest and most emotionally and politically engaged work. She continues playing with and sharpening her craft while opening up and revealing innermost thoughts, fears, and hopes. For a celebrity whose privacy is so closely guarded and whose image is so rigorously managed, it feels like nothing less than a revelation. Filmed in a variety of styles, stocks, and aspect ratios, cutting between them with evocative metaphor and a beautifully intuitive coherent structure, it is continual astonishment. Told in poetry, by Somali-British writer Warsan Shire, and song, going track by track through Beyoncé’s terrifically diverse new album of the same name, we follow a woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her.

First she looks dazed in a field while wearing a black hoodie, next giving us a melancholy look from on a stage, then in a bathtub. Then she’s despondent, jumping off a building (echoes of Beyond the Lights?), the concrete turning into an ocean in which she tries to starve herself. Then she gets angry – strutting out of an austere building ahead of a flood, smashing a baseball bat into windows and, later, driving a monster truck over parked cars, the reggae-beat lyrics wondering, “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” She descends into her anger, as the film gathers bewitching horror movie portent, empty parking garages and eerie black-and-white covens coming before fire and long dark red hallways. Each section of the film is marked by chapter headings, guiding us from “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” to this lowest point: “Emptiness.”

But she doesn’t stop there. She gets better, grows stronger, reconnecting with her past and with others like her who have struggled with problems of their own. She moves to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” “Hope,” and a transcendent “Redemption,” as forceful dance music, gloomy blues, and jangly country with moody, mysterious imagery transforms into tender melancholy ballads accompanied by more pastoral sights, lakes and fields, sun-dappled solidarity and romance. (This is where her husband, Jay Z, is revealed slowly, in soft light, cuddling. Is this amnesty or are they playing parts?) She finds the power to forgive within herself, as an act of radical self-confident empowerment, and within her cultural context and in her womanhood, finding strength in numbers, a comfort in knowing that it is not her fate to suffer alone or in silence.

We see women throughout, arranged separately in striking tableau – in nature or in empty urban spaces, cheering her on or standing silent – but then increasingly together, until Beyoncé leads them towards a better tomorrow, striding across water, breaking bread together. We often return to the image of black women in angelic white clothing standing at Southern plantations or on beaches at sunset. (Daughters of the Dust is a clear reference point here.) Early on we hear the voice of Malcolm X saying, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Later we’re shown mothers of recent victims of police brutality – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant – staring into the camera as they hold framed photographs of their sons. The personal is political, and Beyoncé is here presenting a personal, professional, and political metamorphosis, moving from profound anger at deep betrayal to a serene hope for the future.

Because Lemonade moves so poetically and intuitively through the stages of emotional healing and political engagement, its rapturous fusion enacts the very reckoning at its core. In the film, Beyoncé inhabits the persona of a woman who has been wronged, who is hurt, and who sees her pain on a historical continuum. There’s profound intersection between images playing off her stardom and off the history of black Americans, like when she stretches out on the Superdome’s field – location of her 2013 Superbowl Halftime Show, and the infamous “shelter of last resort” during Hurricane Katrina. The film turns on an acknowledgement of history and matriarchal lineage, summoning allusion for help upending racist and sexist ideology, allowing love to conquer all. She begins the film deeply wounded, but in exorcising her inner torment, weighing a legacy of ancestral pain, she can emerge whole, able to imagine a utopian vision. She surrounds herself with a community of black women, some celebrity (like Serena Williams, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya), others not. They stand strong together, support one another, and build a peaceable sisterhood.

Can we build a better future off a legacy of pain? When she intones, “Nothing real can be threatened,” having moved from righteous anger to transcendent forgiveness, launching into a soaring ballad of true love’s transformative absolution, turning the lemons of grief into striking lemonade, it feels like the truth. In the final moments she drops the artifice and cuts in home videos – of her wedding, her pregnancy, and candid dancing with daughter Blue Ivy. It’s a peek behind the curtain, and a stirring expression of selfhood, a perfect conclusion to this interior journey vibrantly and densely expressed. What a wondrous and exciting film, as deeply moving as it is deeply felt, alive with pop’s expressive possibilities and cinema’s irresistible power. It has a beat to dance to, a sensitive emotional narrative to feel, a potent poetic collage of sound and image to get lost in, and an overpowering catharsis as it all comes together.

Animal House: EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!


Everybody Wants Some!! traps you in the company of a Texas college baseball team on the weekend before classes start for the fall 1980 semester and demands you be charmed by their antics. Luckily, this isn’t some cheap campus comedy with rowdy frat boys bonding while raucously drinking and smugly humping their way through anonymous crowds of young ladies. Or, rather, it’s not only that. It’s written and directed by Richard Linklater, who has become a reliable chronicler of a very particular slice of America – adrift youngsters (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise), minimum wage workers (Fast Food Nation), underemployed daydream philosophizers (Slacker, Waking Life), aspiring artists (Me and Orson Welles), and oddball misfits (School of Rock, Bernie). Now he takes his shaggy low-key anthropological approach to a collegiate party atmosphere. It proves that if you put together a dumb bro-y college comedy with wit and intelligence it’s a lot more defensible than the usual lowbrow fare the subgenre encourages.

It begins with a freshman pitcher (Blake Jenner) showing up for move-in day at the team houses, ramshackle domiciles off campus donated to the athletic department to help alleviate overcrowding in the dorms. This leaves a baseball teams’ worth of guys bunking together, generating a locker-room competitive energy that never dissipates. He quickly discovers most interactions he has with his new friends will either be part of a game, an inside joke, or a hazing ritual. They’re always “on.” Linklater, never the most plot-based filmmaker around, is content to follow the fresh-faced young man through his weekend, acclimating to the surroundings while getting his bearings with a new group of boisterous guys who he’ll be rooming and playing ball with. We see parties, clubs, bars, and dorms where they’ll hunt for ladies to impress, and hopefully talk into following them back to the house where they’re willing to break coach’s rules against fraternizing upstairs behind closed doors.

Rather than engage with any serious drawbacks to such a lifestyle – in this film hazing is nothing you can’t shrug off, drinking isn’t a problem, and all the women are consenting – Linklater simply soaks the proceedings in a warm bath of nostalgia, through bright and clear simple images and wall-to-wall period music. Here’s an idealized throwback college lifestyle, where partying is consequence free and real life responsibilities only drift in from the sidelines with a distant looming that doesn’t feel too terribly relevant in the moment. That’s for later. College here is in a suspended animation before classes start, before any schedule and any work. It’s freedom to make your own fun as a crucible in which to discover who you really are. We follow the guys to a disco, a country bar, a punk show, a party for theater kids. They change their clothes to fit each occasion, and adapt their teasing patter to the context. Why not try on new aspects of identities? They’re still young.

Linklater brings his usual eye for environs -- it's a convincing 1980 college town atmosphere -- and social types, empathetically cataloguing a variety of guys in the group. There’s a confident competitor (Tyler Hoechlin), a chatterbox smart aleck (Glen Powell), a nice guy (J. Quinton Johnson), a clueless dope (Tanner Kalina), a dazed lunk (Temple Baker), an intense weirdo (Juston Street). In some ways they blur together, a sea of young, (mostly) white, athletic jocks. But there are clear differences among them as well, including the likes of a funny stoner philosophizer (Wyatt Russell) and a sweetly naïve country boy (Will Brittain). The movie’s about their homosocial bonding through loud, competitive, macho posturing (like when one guy picks up an ax like a bat and bets he can chop a pitched ball in two) and fleeting moments of surprising tenderness. They’re establishing pecking orders, creating hierarchies, and discovering who will lead and who will follow. Power shifts and friendships develop in loose hangout scenes with typical Linklater displays of relaxed, casual writing, sharp specificities and fine observation slipping by with how easily it flows.

An occasionally exhausting ramble floating from one vignette to another, Linklater is perhaps a bit too warmly indulgent in portraying their endless partying ways. But the longer the film spends seeing their single-minded pursuits of intoxication, objectification, and competition, it’s possible to see the limitations of such a lifestyle. The second half of the film invites in a welcome feminine presence as our lead strikes up a sweetly adorable budding relationship with a theater major (Zoey Deutch). It’s not like the hookups the others constantly pursue. In fact, he’s a little worried his new roommates’ embarrassing behaviors will ruin his chances with this nice young lady. If college is about finding out what kind of person one wants to be, here’s a movie following a young man’s initial encounters with a sampler of male behaviors. By the end, as he’s drawn out of their sweaty grasp and into flirtatious banter with a possible girlfriend, it’s obvious his learning process has only just begun. Classes are starting, and his whole life is ahead of him. Hopefully he’ll be awake for the frontiers he’s yet to discover.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Let It Go: THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR


The 2012 summer spectacle Snow White and the Huntsman took a fairy tale and turned it into a fantasy adventure with striking visuals, a muddy Dragonslayer look, welcome weight to matters of life and death, and a feminist snap in letting its heroine fight her own battles. If we absolutely must have fairy tales run through a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones tone, then that movie was the way to do it right. Alas, now it has also been done wrong in The Hunstman: Winter’s War, a combination prequel and sequel that doodles all around its predecessor with extra intrigue, loud noises, and hectic action, but never arrives at a reason to exist. It’s an afterthought looking for box office. Last time the title characters (Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth) teamed up to defeat the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). This time there’s new threats and old threats and new plot that suddenly wraps around the old as if the one we’re given now is the real story that’ll bring it all together. As if.

The story starts with the old cheap ah-but-the-dead-villain-had-a-sibling trick. It introduces us to another evil queen, the original’s sister (Emily Blunt), a nice enough young woman who goes full Ice Queen when her lover turns on her. She retreats way up north into the mountains where she makes herself an Elsa-style frozen fortress, then kidnaps local kids to make an army of child soldiers. One of the kids grows up to be Chris Hemsworth, in love with a fellow soldier (Jessica Chastain) despite attachment being forbidden by their icy master. This comes to a tragic end, of course, so this is an explanation as to why he was a loner and such a good fighter in the last movie. Skipping over the events of that story with a tidy “Seven Years Later,” we pick up the thread as the Ice Queen decides she wants her dead sister’s mirror. I suppose I’ve seen worse attempts to find new conflict where it was previously well resolved the last time, but they aren’t coming to mind.

The shiny gold mirror (of “mirror, mirror on the wall” fame) was left behind when the Evil Queen died. Being a tool of evil, it sits in the castle leaking malevolence – killing wildlife, browning grass, that sort of thing. We hear from a messenger (Sam Claflin in a cameo) that it has poisoned Snow White, leaving her incapacitated for the duration of the runtime. (This is screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin’s best effort at writing out Stewart, who doesn’t return. It stinks of a movie hobbled by contracts, schedules, and other disputes as it bends over backwards pretending that this is a story worth telling.) Snow sent the mirror to be destroyed, but it disappeared. So it is up to the heroic Huntsman and some warrior dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, digitally shrunk) to track it down and stop the Ice Queen from swooping in and destroying everything they accomplished.

The idea of dealing with power vacuums and loose weapons of mass destruction in a fantasy context is interesting, but the movie is too thin and empty to do anything with it. There’s nothing here new, surprising, or interesting. It’s a reworking of the first film’s plot – bad queen must be stopped by band of misfits, the leader of which has a tragic history with her – mixed with action beats – fighting goblins, swirling gobs of magic – we’ve seen in every other fantasy film for decades. Helmed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a visual effects artist making his directorial debut, the thing looks fine and has some fleeting moments of visual interest. I liked a gold-plated Theron, tricky ice walls, tendrils of tar, and a porcelain spy owl, but that’s not much to hang two hours on. This isn’t a particularly rich or novel fantasy world, and it is certainly not enriched by this new experience.

There’s a tremendous cast involved, but they have nothing to work with. Blunt and Theron sell a sniping sisterly chemistry, but of course they have the big goofy camp-adjacent parts decked out in resplendent shimmering gowns and arching eyebrows. The rest of the performers merely fit the tailored leatherwear and look competent swinging old weaponry as the predictable plotting accumulates around them. A passable diversion at best, and thudding boredom at worst, Winter’s War plays like a movie that had to be made before the public forgot about the earlier hit and consequently never figured out what story it wanted to tell or why anyone should care. The irony is that its bland action, routine story beats, and trite love-conquers-all theme is precisely what its predecessor could have been but for the spark of imagination that kept it distinctive. This is the sort of sequel that misses the point of its inspiration entirely.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Run All Night: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL


One of the most remarkable aspects of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is just how far it gets without needing to explain itself. In fact, by the time the end credits roll there hasn’t been extended meaningful exposition. Instead we’ve seen a sci-fi tinged on-the-run thriller about a boy and his father fleeing shadowy government forces and heavies from their church’s compound, a chase across the South that charges forward with simmering tension and intimate, methodical strategy. It’s a thriller with respect for the majesty of the unexplainable. With casual magic and mystery, it weaves into suspense tiny grace notes, finding large wonderment in small details, implying more than it says outright. The film saves big reveals for so long, and answers them in sideways intuitive ways. We’re left with more questions than answers in a most satisfying result. It’s tantalizing and evocative, grand filmmaking on a small scale, huge implications left dangling with an ethereal, almost spiritual mystique.

As the story begins we hear the muffled sounds of an Amber Alert on an old TV in a shabby motel room. A boy (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped. He’s in this room with his captors, a situation diffused of immediate danger to him as it’s slowly revealed he has been taken from a fundamentalist cult and its pastor (Sam Shepard) by his biological father (Michael Shannon) and a friend (Joel Edgerton) determined to take him to freedom. They travel under the cover of darkness, move quickly, and meet up with collaborators (including Kirsten Dunst) for daylight respites. They’re under a tight deadline involving coordinates and secret messages. They’re moving him to a better life, following mystery directives we slowly come to understand. Nichols maintains impeccable tension in this cloud of ambiguity by keeping close attention on the specificities, the small details in the process of fleeing across state lines.

The film works through a confident and relaxed focus on the hows, not the whys, allowing its later leaps to feel more intuitive and excusable. Steady shots take in precise steps taken to avoid detection, lingering on the clack of a gun being loaded, the stretch of swimming goggles perpetually protecting the boy’s eyes, the engine noises in various makes and models of vehicles, the snap of headlights disappearing on a dark Texan road in the middle of the night. The danger sits in the risks the boy’s father is willing to take to keep him from agents (like Adam Driver) and other governmental forces who seek to claim the boy for further study (echoes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. and Carpenter’s Starman), and the church’s flunkies (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) who are out to capture him for the purposes of exploiting his gifts. Science and religion both attach grand meanings to massive unknowns. Fear and tension is in the doubt about what’ll happen if his father fails. The stakes are clear.

Nichols, whose work including the powerful mental illness nightmare Take Shelter, laconic family tragedy Shotgun Stories, and boyhood crime-fable Mud shows a gift for patient, empathetic, and self-assuredly paced stories, approaches Midnight Special with his typical good judgment. It’s not a loud or flashy sci-fi adventure; we don’t get genre efforts this confidently circumspect, beautifully restrained everyday, certainly not bankrolled by a major studio. He trusts silence, stillness, while still ramping up the thrills when called for. He reveals what we need to know through action, tells us about character through behaviors. This is a beautifully photographed (by Nichols’ usual cinematographer Adam Stone) and contained movie – set in stolen cars, cheap motels, tiny command centers – gathering suspense and sweep off the back of small emotional exchanges and intimate interpersonal investments.

It helps that the cast does fine work across the board, performers who can sketch in pain and determination with a glance, or a few well-chosen lines. It approaches Cormac McCarthy territory in some of its terse dialogue in dusty landscapes, sharp and expressive for their brevity, people who can’t risk feeling too much lest the crushing weight of their actions’ enormity – embodied in the wide open spaces around them – stops them cold. Shannon looks at his boy with such tenderness and caring, while charging forward with single-minded drive to protect him at all costs. Edgerton’s blind loyalty is quiet competence. Dunst’s maternal energy manifests itself as submerged worry pushed into protective energy, while young Lieberher has a serene otherworldliness that makes incredibly clear the uneasy extrasensory gifts will lead this road-trip to an ending no one understands. They just know it must be done.

What, exactly, are the powers of this boy at the center of so much drama? They remain beautifully vague. He can hear radio and satellite signals, is affected by sunlight – hence another good reason for night travel beyond hiding from authorities – and occasionally his eyes glow with eerie blue light. We’re told that to look into this illuminated stare is to see glimpses of a better world. Could there be a more lovely, forceful, intuitive metaphor for the lengths a parent will go to protect a child? They see overwhelming hope in his eyes. It’s a movie about parents protecting a child from the world and helping manifest his gifts, even if they don’t understand them. It’s about support for the boy’s future, wherever it may take him. It’s about the pain and profound contentment of caring for a child – a key moment finds Shannon telling his boy, “I like worrying about you” – and the difficulty of letting that child make his own path. The film’s powerful conclusion brings this metaphor to stirring heights, conjuring Amblin awe and blending it with an unearthly melancholy.

The result is a movie that plays out as a plaintive old-fashioned country flavor in a hair-raising low-key sci-fi mode, an usual combination that’s nonetheless comforting in its throwback appeals. It is involving and compelling for what is not said and what is left to the imagination, giving the Big Moments that much more room to excite and entrance. Nichols’ interest in human-scale stories brings great sensitivity to Midnight Special’s thrills and astonishments. The film crackles with intrigue and personality without overly insisting on it. Here he injects genre elements into a patient thriller, widening the scope of its implications only in its final moments, executed with aplomb. He trusts an audience to groove on a delicate metaphor and move with trembling echoes of extrasensory wavelengths without needing it all spelled out. Another fine entry in our recent cycle of vintage sci-fi throwbacks, it, like Super 8 and Tomorrowland, looks backwards and forwards, a timeless reinvention of a sturdy genre storytelling mode.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Shop Around the Corner: BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT


It has been twelve years, but now the shaggy hangout vibe of the Barbershop comedies is back for a third time. It’s also the best one yet. Set in the same small independent black-owned barbershop on the south side of Chicago, Barbershop: The Next Cut gives up on being a movie and instead brings the charm as a big screen sitcom. This frees it up to be a comfortable location for staging sharply observed and warmly felt social commentary comedy, sparkling with smart sociological sentiment and compassionate character work. It’s written by veterans of TV comedy Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Tracy Oliver (Survivor’s Remorse), who recognize the film’s strength is in making the barbershop a place we want to relax in, enjoying our fly-on-the-wall status as the various barbers, customers, and neighborhood regulars wander through. It’s a big-hearted welcoming movie with serious topics on its mind, but a light touch making it all go down easy.

The shop’s owner (Ice Cube, the series' nice center) is continuing in his father’s footsteps, making the establishment a gathering place for its employees and clients to shoot the breeze while getting their hair done. It’s a great location for a comedy, allowing a variety of characters to interact, talk out their differences, engage in funny banter, squabble and argue, fret and worry about the issues of the day, and find a way to work together. The barbershop is a stage for debates and riffs, parallel stand-up sets in progress punctuated by teasing chitchat. It now shares space – and rent – with the neighborhood beauty shop, which lends the proceedings an element of battle-of-the-sexes, but not in any reductive way. The result is merely one more outlet for a joking collision between various points of view, where the film draws its energy as an appealing clash of charismatic personalities.

The men (like old irritable Cedric the Entertainer, grayed and wrinkled by talented artists, and younger guys like Common, Lamorne Morris, and Utkarsh Ambudkar) and the women (including Regina Hall, Eve, and Nicki Minaj) have an interesting dynamic, dredging up usually unspoken resentments and deconstructing modern gender dynamics from surprising angles. The film lets them have their disagreements, finding common ground where it can and respecting their differences where it can’t. It’s fair that way, a safe space that allows them to discuss beauty standards, race relations, gang activity, gun violence, police misconduct, respectability politics, small business struggles, and more. It’s an amiable peacekeeping movie, not afraid to get serious when it needs to. The film finds a Chicago in pain, wracked with problems – homicides, poverty, broken institutions – people seem at a loss to fix. And yet there’s hope, positing that even small gestures of goodness can make a difference.

You can think of it as Chi-raq’s little cousin, and not because that’s what director Malcolm D. Lee is to Spike. Funnily enough, though it is less cinematically ambitious or angrily satirical, Barbershop: The Next Cut is a more consistent film, and no less politically engaged. It doesn’t take big swings, but it connects every time. Malcolm D. Lee is skilled with juggling tones and tracking motivations across a wide ensemble. (His Best Man Holiday, for example, is one of the better comic melodramas of late.) Here he weaves a deft dance of stereotype and insight, following not so much a story as it is loose strands of subplots woven together – romances, relationships, parenting problems, jealousies, business moves, and gang violence. He allows the characters to express a range of opinions, doubts, and conflicts, examining them in a casual, low-key, often-amusing tone well balanced with seriousness.

Though the look is sitcom bright and simple, there is heavy drama here. One dramatic subplot finds Cube’s son (Michael Rainey Jr.) drawing close to a gang leader (Tyga) who wants a new recruit. But there is also the lightest of light touches. Cut to J.B. Smoove as a smooth talking one-stop-shop with the kind of patter only he can bring, Anthony Anderson as a loud food truck entrepreneur, or Deon Cole as a daffy customer who seems to never leave, and we’re in a much sillier range. Like Black-ish, currently finishing its terrific second season on ABC, The Next Cut comes from a clear perspective, with great specificity to its humor and wearing a social consciousness on its sleeve. This animates and bolsters its attempts to present honest conversation in a way that keeps the comedy flowing without short-changing its important topics. The movie's appeal is best represented in the wheezing bluster of Cedric the Entertainer, whose elderly barber loves to mix it up with the youngsters and never seems to have a customer. (That memorably changes in a priceless scene in the end credits.) He just loves hanging out in this barbershop, and it’s easy to see why.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Man Cub's Burden: THE JUNGLE BOOK


Disney’s latest attempt to transmogrify one of their animated classics into a live-action spectacle is The Jungle Book. This production takes their 1967 Rudyard Kipling adaptation, a simple, rambling, musical story, down to its bare necessities, building it back up into a pleasant jungle adventure. In the process it loses most of the cartoony energy and all but hints of two songs. But some of what it loses in vibrant animated silliness it gains in the weight and heft of the best imitation wilderness money can buy. It’s CGI made with an eye for live-action, computer animated with a real boy running through. The amiable feature tracks along leafy green oasis and rocky cliff, swampy waterhole and cavernous ruin, getting undemanding picture book tableau out of every development. It’s high-stakes and kid-friendly, a child’s eye view of the jungle as a place where, if you believe in yourself, you’ll survive just fine with the help of your animal friends.

In this jungle-as-playground we meet Mowgli, the kid who was found abandoned as a baby and raised by a pack of wolves. He’s played by newcomer Neel Sethi, an agreeable boy who seems to enjoy scampering about the scenery and speaking to the animals who growl and howl around him. (He also doesn’t mind wearing only red shorts, the traditional garb of the Jungle Boy, from Bomba on down. Nice of the animal parents to understand the need for pants.) He’s enjoying life as a wolf, playing with pups and looking up to his canine parents (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito). Alas, the menacing tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) knows the danger man poses and demands Mowgli be killed for the good of all jungle kind. This leads wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to decide the best option is taking the man cub to be safely reunited with his own kind. There’s not much to it, the characters filled in by typecasting and cultural memories, but the movie has a sturdy construction on which to build its digital sights.

What follows is a trip through beautifully fake scenery, with towering waterfalls and sun-dappled trees, swinging vines and staggering vistas. It’s as much like a jungle as a greenscreen stage in downtown L.A. can be these days. Top-notch effects work creates an often-convincing vision, fitting a movie that’s content to poke along through episodic little vignettes enjoying the company of a variety of animals. The creatures Mowgli encounters will be familiar to anyone who knows Disney’s original. Screenwriter Justin Marks makes sure to include the expected cast of characters, some voiceless (elephants, birds), others voiced capably by recognizable performers, like sneaky snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, slithery seduction), sweet lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray, warm and loveable), and the envious orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken, making eerie musical use of his usual unusual punctuation). Every majestic creature – a menagerie that would barely look out of place in a motion-capture Planet of the Apes – is animated with uncanny accuracy and remarkably authentic textures, real enough to pull off the illusion, but fake enough to not scare too many kids.

Director Jon Favreau is a good fit for this sort of film. Think of his work on Christmassy Elf, sci-fi board-game trip Zathura, and kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with two Iron Mans. He knows his way around bright, clean, clear popcorn imagery, bringing a fine workmanlike competence to the spectacle that works because he believes in the movie magic of his effects and has the cast and crew to pull it off. There is some real majesty to its best moments, and at its worst a sense of predetermined comfort. We know where we’re going, but the way there is reasonably entertaining. There are primal fable-like qualities to the images of an innocent boy standing next to these dangerous beasts and finding his way to be their equal. It’s not a story of man conquering the flora and fauna, but becoming a part of them, an age-old scamper-through-the-wilderness-to-find-yourself tale.

Favreau realizes the Kipling tale’s cinematic heritage as a red-blooded boy’s adventure story, eager to admire the beauty of its setting and creatures so cheerfully faked for our amusement. It may take direct inspiration from Disney’s own classic in story, character, and music cues, but it’s as indebted to the Kordas’ Technicolor 1942 version, or Stephen Sommers’ 1994 pulpier-ish iteration. It’s always about giving a man cub a fantastical place in the natural spectacle of nature, to play with danger and emerge safe and sound. Favreau concludes his Mowgli’s story with appealing lessons about standing up for what you believe in, using your talents to protect others, and being proud of becoming your best self. Though it is interesting to note where the boy ends up. This isn’t a story about emerging from the wilderness to become a man, but engineering a way to remain boyish forever. Seems a fitting message for a company that hopes we’ll keep paying to see new versions of old childhood staples.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Party Down: THE INVITATION


There are those of us who find a dinner party an uncomfortable prospect under the best conditions, but even someone predisposed to enjoying small talk and balancing a plate would find the gathering in The Invitation a stressful experience. A woman who disappeared from her friends’ lives for over two years (Tammy Blanchard) has suddenly returned to her home in the Hollywood hills, inviting them all out of the blue for a night of reconnection. The group of old pals includes her ex-husband (Logan Marshall-Green), who is understandably on edge at the idea as he drives in with his new significant other (Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s awkward from the jump. We slowly learn their separation happened under rather tragic circumstances, but it’s not the only source of eerie tension going on here. The film takes its time quietly grooving on its atmosphere of wariness and distrust barely covering up past pain and future crisis.

There is, of course, the nervous conversation of a group of people who haven’t seen each other in years. There’s also the mystery about what, exactly, the night’s events will involve. Their host is wearing a floor-length white gown as if she stepped out of a Hammer horror film’s Vampire Queen wardrobe, and speaking in the coded language of a cultist, while hand-waving the presence of her new friend, a Manson girl type (Lindsay Burdge) haunting the edges of their party. Something’s not right here. She has a new boyfriend (Michiel Huisman) who, with his lanky limbs and long hair, looks creepily similar to her ex. It turns out they’ve been in Mexico together, and are only too eager to show off their recently discovered New Age ideals, and let another stranger (John Carroll Lynch) turn a game into an impromptu therapy session. Curiouser and curiouser, the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (much quieter and more refined than their previous efforts, two Ride Alongs and R.I.P.D.) tracking growing discomfort as the night drags on.

What keeps the film’s slow boil unease simmering along for the bulk of its runtime is how convincingly it keeps pulling back its creepiest moments, never allowing any overt horror to happen to get the audience’s guard up. There’s all the above and more too clouding the mind of our protagonist, the ex-husband who is haunted by the end of his relationship and skeptical of the party’s true intentions. He’s the one jumping at shadows and giving the side-eye to strangers, paying close attention to any and every red herring lingering in the corners of his attention. There is clearly Something Very Wrong going on, and the film plays terrifically on the tension between its lead’s doubt and the rest of the cast (including Mike Doyle, Jordi Vilasuso, and Michelle Krusiec) talking him down at every turn. Besides, maybe he’s just rattled because he hit a coyote with his car on the drive up.

Capably directed by Karyn Kusama (whose last feature was 2009’s underappreciated darkly funny teen horror Jennifer’s Body), she gets a lot of mileage out of dim lighting and fluidly uneasy staging, humdrum, but slightly off, dinner party detail drawn out in sneaky reveals – shared experiences, true aims for the night, even the layout of the house are patiently exposed. The biggest shock of the first two-thirds of the runtime is probably that the dining room is on the second floor overlooking the seemingly claustrophobic living room in which we’ve spent most of our time. The actors’ casual chatter and underlying discomfort are so unforced and real that it’s easy to see why they’d dismiss concerns about any sinister undertones. It’s just an awkward dinner party, after all. But one can also see how maybe such dismissal is some tense foreshadowing, dramatic irony wielded with foreboding.

As Kusama pulls back the layers in the nesting doll of trauma that is the source of the lead’s split from his ex, she steadily allows us into the root of his suspicions until it’s too late to do anything. Then the real horror occurs, an inevitable and poison-edged cathartic escalation (our worst fears are true, a relief and a gut-punch in one) and a sudden dip into standard tropes. At least it builds on solid character work. It’s a surprise that doesn’t seem surprising, but in a mostly good way. It is a smart handling of conventional material, making the build up strong and mysterious, the better to crush with shocks naturally sliding into place, confirming our worst suspicions rather than playing like an arbitrary and predictable twist. (I was right this time! Oh, no…) This is a small and contained low-key house of horror where the scares come from how believably the night goes south. It all fits, right up to the final shots, which caught me completely off guard with their completely underplayed expansion of the night’s nasty implications. It makes normal dinner party discomfort seem infinitely more manageable.
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