Saturday, February 6, 2016


Did anyone really read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I guess I’d always assumed Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mashup of Jane Austen’s classic book with zombie schlock was a gag gift at best, built for a quick smirk at the title the first few times one saw it, but destined for remainder bins and yard sale stacks. Now it’s a movie, so I guess someone had to get around to cracking the spine. I was surprised to find that its Hollywood incarnation has been made by filmmakers who have taken its premise rather seriously. The title makes it sound like a joke, but in practice it is both a Regency zombie movie hobbled by an overreliance on Austen’s novel’s structure, and a passably earnest Austen adaptation constantly interrupted by lowest Comic-Con denominator brain-munching action. What an odd mix. Odder still is that writer-director Burr Steers almost gets away with it.

I suspect it’s far too much zombie for Austen fans and far too much Austen for zombie fans. It is possible, though, that you might be like me and sit closer to the middle of that particular Venn diagram, in which case you might find some small diversion here. After all, what with most Austen novels having been adapted several times over, and Pride and Prejudice in particular getting at least two essentially perfect cinematic expressions (last in 2005, from Joe Wright), and the modern zombie Romero-knockoff apocalypse now a walking dead subgenre, it’s worth indulging an experiment in trying something new. I’m all for period-piece monster movies and reimagined classic literature, and everyone involved in this particular idea seems reasonably committed to seeing it through. But this high-concept blending serves to slowly eat away at both halves of its genre mashup.

The story of the Bennet sisters and their mother’s desire to marry them off loses a good deal of sociological fascination when the war is not with France but with the undead, and the young ladies are not merely a reflection of 19th century English mores but are trained in the art of fighting zombies. (They're treated like classic lit pinups in the process.) We see Elizabeth (Lily James, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) and her sisters (including Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote and Insurgent’s Suki Waterhouse) cleaning guns and sharpening blades, tucking them in leather holsters under their skirts. They’re combat ready. But a story of zombie destruction loses a great deal of urgency when so much narrative space is given over to the relationship dynamics and developments Pride and Prejudice’s narrative of romantic negotiations requires.

All this straight-faced seriousness makes for an often monotonous film, balanced between loud bloody jumpy horror violence and tony emotional appeals. It’s a Pride and Prejudice from an alternate universe. As Elizabeth Bennet, James, who is constantly shot to show off cleavage just about heaving out of her dresses, nearly makes her emotional journey work in the midst of this nonsense. The movie’s cleverest moments come from literalizing Elizabeth’s verbal sparring by turning it into actual combat. There is a Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a clenched, standoffish rich bachelor whose heart is destined to melt for her. This time he’s an expert zombie hunter in a leather tailcoat. Other suitors include the usual: a sincere young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), a proud George Wickham (Jack Huston), and a comic relief Parson Collins (Matt Smith, pretty funny, too). And Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is also a zombie slayer, wearing an ominous eyepatch and sporting two swords.

The result is neither a successful Austen adaptation nor a satisfying zombie story, the inclusion of each a detraction from the other. But however poor the fit, it mostly held my interest as I watched Steers – whose past work with high concepts has gone both surprisingly right (17 Again) and horribly wrong (Charlie St. Cloud) – and crew keep the film’s central disjunction from tipping over into camp. The cast acts like they’re in a serious literary adaptation, and Remi Adefarasin (also cinematographer on handsome British historical dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age) shoots glossy period detail, old buildings, and beautiful green fields without a wink. But then, shambling hordes of undead drip into the frame and it’s back to the decapitations and shots to the head that the horror crowd wants to see.

The idea of putting a zombie movie in a historical setting is a clever one, and the Regency period, so rich with literary and cinematic antecedents is as good as any. It enlivens the old tropes somewhat to see them enacted by people in period costume and preoccupied with centuries old concerns. But this potential glimmer of inspiration is largely squandered as the movie slowly loses energy to its plodding plot. If you’re going to make such a mashup, why not cut loose from the source materials and let the imagination run wild? Instead, it sticks awfully close to zombie clichés and the structure of Austen’s original story. Still, Steers’ film may very well be the best one could do with such an inherently broken premise. It’s a swing and a miss, a dumb idea done blandly. I just wish they hadn’t dragged Pride and Prejudice into this, though it’s at least more respectful of it than Mark Twain, who wrote, “Everytime I read [it] I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Now there’s an idea for a literary zombie movie.

Friday, February 5, 2016

No Business Like Show Business: HAIL, CAESAR!

There’s a zen saying that suggests, “The most dangerous thing in the world is to think you understand something.” This could be a good description for the outlook of any Coen brothers’ film, works invested in ambiguities and absurdities of human lives as reflected in the worldviews and systems that control them. One man’s belief is another man’s mystery, and Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career out of stories of existential crises told through oddball humor and offbeat suspense. Their latest is Hail, Caesar!, a film full of people who think they understand, having figured out deep reverence for some larger ideological force or another: the Bible, Das Kapital, Hollywood’s studio system. But where does that certainty get them? It’s the early 1950s, and a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) is heading into a day that’ll be full of complications to test many a person’s certainties, a straight-faced screwball panic, or maybe philosophical wrestling on laughing gas. Either way it’s a pip, but with typical Coen precision and deliberateness.

Sustained goofing on classic Hollywood, a day-in-the-life on the backlot not too far removed from Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s, the Coens follow Brolin’s studio suit from set to set wrangling stars, quelling complaints, and staving off controversy. The fictional Capitol Pictures is hard at work on several movies: a bathing beauty musical, a wordy melodrama, a dancing sailors movie, a singing cowboy picture, and a Biblical epic. Bopping between the films in progress we’re presented with a great imitation of Hollywood iconography: a little Robert Taylor here, some Esther Williams there, with Gene Kelly, Roy Rodgers, and others thrown in for good measure. It’s like a bleary Turner Classic Movies binge if you kept passing out and dreaming ridiculous connective behind-the-scenes tissue between disparate films. The Coens have fun conjuring up winking nods to historical references points, and mimicking the style of 50’s filmmaking. (Lap dissolves, rear projection, matte paintings and more show up.) It’s in love with its pastiche, but has enough distance to maintain an aloof absurdism.

Between fun sketches of films within the film we’re treated to a stew of behind-the-scenes silliness, wacky shenanigans that find increasingly offbeat expression on their way to some head-scratching conclusions. (“Accept the mystery,” as a character from the Coen’s great, maybe greatest, work A Serious Man might say.) Hail, Caesar! is set in motion when work on said Biblical epic is thrown into jeopardy when its star (played with daffy blockheaded charm by George Clooney) is kidnapped by two devious extras intent on delivering him to a clandestine meeting of Hollywood subversives in Malibu. This is, of course, the day’s biggest problem for Brolin’s harried studio middleman, who’s fielding a job offer from an aircraft manufacture, but can’t quite shake the fun of all this show business. He tries to keep the story quiet, even as ransom notes show up and there’s a dozen other problems needing his attention. Who ever said his job was easy?

This is the Coen’s fizziest man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown story, like the better, more downbeat, though still plenty funny, Barton Fink or Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis played in a major key. Brolin scurries around dealing with an unmarried ingénue (Scarlett Johansson) whose pregnancy is a problem for her innocent image, a Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who is an awkward fit for a drawing room drama by a fancy director (Ralph Fiennes), and competitive twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) sniffing around the smell of scandal. A host of studio employees (played by the likes of Channing Tatum, Clancy Brown, Wayne Knight, and Frances McDormand, to name a few) scramble through the story, most getting a few amusing moments bouncing off Brolin’s clench-jawed determination. He’s grinding through the day, keeping total calamity at bay. Sure, a job overseeing airplane factories would be easier, but wouldn’t he miss the fun of racing around Los Angeles, dealing with all the kooks and their crisises?

In its meandering way, Hail, Caesar! takes the usual Coen delight in dialogue, peculiar turns of phrase, droll patter, looping repetition, dry sarcasm, airy eccentricities, and narrative dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. And all this, of course, serves only to reveal characters dancing over the deep abyss of uncertainty. Like a softer version of what their sharply cynical Burn After Reading did to the espionage game – turning paranoid thriller mechanics on their ear to amplify the absurdity and the impossibility of “making sense” – this film asks if cinema – with all its egos, pretentions, and petty gossip – is serious business. The answer is: not really. Show business is cut from some deeply silly cloth. But it’s no better than anyone else who claims to be doing important work – a priest, a rabbi, a pawn of the military-industrial complex, a studio stooge, a Communist. That round-up sounds like a cast list for a great joke, and that’s what the Coens try for here, staging scenes in which all the above, and more too, make themselves out to be figures of fun when they take themselves too seriously.

The film often feels slight, busy goofing around, doodling with silly details and funny performances, Roger Deakins’ brightly lit, primary color-popping cinematography letting wacky backstage antics and a variety of movie genres bleed off the backlot and into conversation with one another. But it picks up weight as it punctures windbags’ hot air and scoffs at those who are too sure they have the perfect understanding of anything – history, economics, politics, morality, you name it. Everyone’s spinning their own stories about how the world works, but their boats are easily rocked. Shouldn’t there always be room for doubt, like an actor delivering a passionate speech, but forgetting his closing line? The movies, this film seems to say, may be frivolous gossamer illusions, but isn’t anything we cling to in order to make sense of our lives? If we’re going to lose ourselves in soothing fictions, it may as well come from dazzling Technicolor fantasies lighting up the silver screen.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Village of Pandas: KUNG FU PANDA 3

A fine conclusion to its trilogy, Kung Fu Panda 3 is as energetic and visually dazzling as you’d hope and expect from one of DreamWorks Animation’s very best franchises. What’s so continually satisfying about this series is its tradition of making what are effectively animated kung fu movies. Sure, they feature anthropomorphic cartoon animals living in a cartoony simulacrum of ancient China. But these are films with interfamily conflict, wizards and warlords, masters and students, training montages, action balanced between clever slapstick and dangerous dance, and heaps of mystical spirituality where inner peace and self-knowledge are the most effective skills and power the most awesome moves. I like imagining that somewhere there’s a kid who gets into vintage Jackie Chan or Shaw Brothers films because they’re so over the moon about this fun string of movies about a panda who learns to be a kung fu master.

These movies are plenty fun on their own terms, too. 3 picks up with Po the panda (Jack Black) and his kung fu teammates (tiger Angelina Jolie, mantis Seth Rogen, viper Lucy Liu, crane David Cross, and monkey Jackie Chan) enjoying down time in the peaceful valley they’ve saved twice over. Having become The Dragon Warrior and coming to peace with his tragic past, what’s left for Po to do? Well, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po he needs to complete his training by finding inner strength. To do so, he must truly know who he is. Luckily enough, his long-lost biological father (Bryan Cranston) shows up in the village, eager to reconnect with the son he had to abandon all those years ago, and teach him the panda way. This gets Po excited, even though his adopted goose father (James Hong) fears his little panda cub will leave him forever. There’s a moving and special adoption story told with care through these silly figures.

But what would a kung fu movie be without external conflict? This one has a growling bull (J.K. Simmons), a villain defeated five centuries ago, escape from the spirit realm with an army of solid jade henchmen in tow. He’s on the rampage, out to capture the souls of all kung fu practitioners who stand in his way, and turn their lifeless bodies into more zombie soldiers to do his bidding. To learn how to defeat them, Po must travel to a secret panda village where maybe, just maybe, he can connect with ancient, long-forgotten panda magic. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger neatly – maybe too neatly – tie together his inner struggles with the needs of the action plot, leaving plenty of time to deliver heaping helpings of cute roly-poly panda antics. They’re adorable, and love to eat, hug, roll, dance, and sleep. What’s not to like? And then, when it’s time to get serious about defeating evil, they spring into action with the best of them.

Returning director Jennifer Yuh, who last time around broke the record for highest-grossing feature directed by a woman, works with co-director Alessandro Carloni (a longtime DreamWorks artist) to stage the film in bright, beautiful colors. It’s an extravagant explosion of fast-paced visual delights, swirling primary hues filling out lush exteriors and intricate architecture, snapping into high-contrast action when the adventure gets going. Where plot and character are concerned, this is a repetition, a riff on previous conflicts with character arcs consisting of reworked aspects of the first two films. But in motion, the movie moves and sings with contagious energy, each image colorful and intricately designed, bursting with zippy and clever choreography. Best are a mêlée that finds unexpectedly productive kung fu uses for pandas’ inherently cute lazy habits and bookending vibrant zero-g clashes in the spirit realm smashing swirls of glowing magic light through floating boulders.

The story boils down to the same be-yourself platitudes so many family films do, but at least it has the decency to be woo-woo mysto about it, and use it to hold up exciting, amusing, trippy, and striking imagery. The animators bring an elaborate fantasy look of the kind DreamWorks has been trying out these days (with this series, as well as their How to Train Your Dragons, Rise of the Guardians, and The Croods), even throwing split screens, hand-drawn interludes, and extreme color gradients into the mix of lush and buoyant imagery. As a combination reiteration and finale of the trilogy, it may not have the novelty of the first, or the weight of the second, but it is fun. If this is the last we see of Kung Fu Panda, it is a worthy conclusion and a perfect place to stop: with Po learning to love his two dads and be his best self, and with confetti, transcendence, warm and fuzzy reunions, and an angelic choir singing Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” in Chinese translation.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Watership Down: THE FINEST HOURS

Like a Norman Rockwell painting poured over The Perfect Storm, The Finest Hours is a sturdy, old-fashioned picture. Based on the true story of a 1952 Coast Guard rescue of a tanker split in two by horrendous winter weather, the film tells its tale in a rather conventional way. We meet a stubborn do-gooder guardsman (Chris Pine) and the sweet girl (Holliday Grainger) who’d like to marry him. Then the storm hits, the tanker is in trouble, and the man’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) sends him out on a small boat with a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) to do the impossible. Their boat is tossed about by the waves and winds, equipment malfunctions, and the sun sets. Meanwhile, the men on the tanker (over 30 of them, including Casey Affleck and John Ortiz) are struggling to stay afloat, with no way to make contact, and thus no way of knowing if help is even on the way. It’s a simple story, but the story is simply engaging.

A live action Disney movie, it looks and feels more or less like it would if the company made it in 1956, 66, 76, 86, 96, or 2006, modern tech aside. There’s a fine layer of timeless Hollywood gloss over it, and a proficient element of spectacle as special effects buffet the boats out in the storm and softly falling snow coats the coast in a sparkling snow globe lighthouse look. And in the midst of this is a dependable cast playing people who are largely identifiable types, but given just enough personality and interior lives for rooting interest beyond making it out alive, and to suggest a reality beyond the big studio lights on the sets and CG. The situation is inherently dramatic – true life-or-death stakes, with survival hinging on how well these people can do their jobs, and on the whims of nature. The screenplay (by The Fighter’s Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy) is smart not to undercut the proceedings. It crests perilous waves of cliché to find clear sailing to the heartstrings.

It borders on corny, but it never quite gets there, kept afloat by its forward momentum and reliably sturdy construction. Who’d have thought Craig Gillespie, the director of the Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-RealDoll movie Lars and the Real Girl and the fun Fright Night remake, would turn into a decent helmer for Disney based-on-a-true-story fare? With Finest Hours he improves on his dull sports movie Million Dollar Arm, this time telling an interesting and compelling narrative with good clarity for its process and perspective. We follow each boat’s progress through the storm, cutting between them, and some judicious glimpses of those fretting on the shore, hoping against hope that their guys will make it back alive. There’s a chaste romance at stake, and a couple dozen souls stranded in a rapidly failing craft. That’s plenty heart-tugging drama to get invested in, and a cast willing to play it earnestly.

The sequences on the listing half-tanker are the strongest, Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing crisply following a committed cast of character actors chewing on accents and sloshing around a convincingly dangerous waterlogged set, coming to terms with the long odds confronting them. The film is full of towering waves, howling winds, groaning bulkheads, straining chains, swinging beams, straining rudders, whirring propellers, and spasms of sparks and smoke. Gillespie focuses on these tactile details, in sharp, routine frames constructed to show off the heroic efforts taken by various crewmembers to save as many lives as they can. It’s a film that feels the movement of the bobbing waves, the strain on an engine as a boat takes on weight, and the taxing whir of overpowered pumps slowly letting water creep higher up the engine room. It’s an engaging film of sturdy craftsmanship, the sort of feel-good inspirational fact-based family film I’m glad Disney hasn’t entirely given up on making in the shadow of their mega-blockbuster fantasies.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mother & Child: JAMES WHITE and ROOM

In James White and Room, two of 2015’s sharpest, most intimate, and intelligently moving dramas, the stories of a mother and her son take center stage. These are films with rich emotional terrain in claustrophobic settings, relationships trapped in place, with characters hoping for a miraculous way out to better futures. In James White an aimless twenty-something is caring for his mother as she slowly dies of cancer in her New York City apartment. In Room, a kidnapped young woman lives imprisoned in a shed with the 5-year-old she had with her captor and rapist. The films follow two very different dramatic scenarios, traumatic events where the love between mother and child is the only lifeline. The sons are naïve, confused, easily frustrated. The mothers are strong, complicated, and sad. And there are no easy answers.

James White is the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond, who makes a great first impression with a film of uncommonly blistering emotional honesty. The title character (played by an intense and sorrowful Christopher Abbott) is a painfully relatable rootless man in his late twenties – jobless, single, stuck. He’s a guy theoretically with many options for creating a life for himself, but can’t figure out where best to start, or how to find his break. This could be the start for an Apatow-ian man-child redemption arc, complete with a potential new love interest (Mackenzie Leigh) and a funny friend (Scott Mescudi). But Mond, through a close, expressive camera and sharply perceptive script, excavates arrested adolescent clichés to find deep, overwhelming reservoirs of pain and truth underneath. Here’s a young man who is truly stuck, not only by immaturity, or the obligations of taking care of his ailing mother, but by a helpless feeling as he sees the comfortable future he’d always assumed he’d have slipping away. He can’t see a way forward, so he’s just waiting for life to start.

Cynthia Nixon, as his dying mother, delivers an astonishingly complex portrait of a sickly woman who sees the struggles of her son and wishes she could help, even as she leans on him to get through each day. She knows there’s only so much encouragement she can provide before he needs to find on his own the initiative and lucky breaks that’ll help him move forward. She doesn’t want him using her illness as just another excuse to stay put. Sure, she’s scared of dying, but she’s also worried about leaving her boy to figure out the world on his own. (She’s been separated from his father, who has died shortly before the film begins, an added mournful layer.) Slow-motion grief is displayed in agonizingly precise emotional specificity, as are the frustrations of being young and disconnected from those around you. It’s not every young person who has to watch a parent die. It’s one thing to head out into the so-called real world to start your own life. It’s another thing entirely to have no parents to go back to.

An early scene finds James in a club, alone, listening to his own music through headphones. He’s always separated, distant, suffocating in his sadness and stasis, even when talking to friends and flirts. Selfish, bitter, angry, anxious, and mean, James isn’t always a pleasant figure, but that’s what makes Mond’s film so satisfying an unflinching character study. It’s a film of compassion towards its characters, but never indulges their flaws, understanding them without excusing them. This makes moments of fleeting pure goodness and connection all the more transcendent. In the film’s most moving and devastating scene, James uses his tendency to live in his own interior world to extend an invitation to his mother, using a shared imagined cozy future to provide some comfort. They talk about a time, years from now, when she’ll be the warm grandmother and he’ll be the happy family man. They know it’ll never arrive, but can still take solace in this oasis of hope and connection in a world stretched thin with sadness.

While James White is about a mother slowly fading away, hoping her son finds some way out of his depression, Room concerns itself with a more literal captivity, where hope is for a more literal freedom. And yet it finds in its potential True Crime luridness – screenwriter Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel, was inspired by similar real life stories – a wisely observed empathy. Steadfastly humane, and gentle in its decidedly non-sensationalistic approach to the nastier moments, the film is attuned to the psychological effects of its scenario on all involved. The mother (Brie Larson) is both victim and protector. The boy (Jacob Tremblay) has never known any different. He thinks Room is the entire world, and everything else is imaginary outer space. When his mother finally decides to tell him the truth, at a level he can understand, it’s a shock. He doesn’t want to believe, but then, slowly, he begins to understand that they need to escape.

The first half of Room is claustrophobic, intensely small. The mother leads her boy through exercises, tries to teach him as best she can, and feeds him with supplies dropped off by the captor on his weekly trips to rape her. (The boy is hidden away in a wardrobe where he can’t see the attacks on his mother.) This is intense subject matter, softened but not diminished by its perspective, narrated by the kid in a precocious and innocent voice. There’s great narrative and emotional clarity, as the film presents its character’s thoughts with ease, Larson and Tremblay doing impressive work communicating interiority with a shift of appearance. The camera is close, always ready to catch faces in motion, in dramatic outbursts and microexpressions alike. And yet the movie never grows visually stale, always finding clear and casual ways to chart their predicament without imprisoning the viewer alongside them.

When it, at last, approaches a pivot point, the film grows richer still, allowing us to see how difficult it would be to go on living with such a massive trauma, such lingering confusion. There’s an entire second half to the story that continues well past where other, lesser, versions of this story would claim victory, then catharsis, then stop. Donoghue keeps going, committing to the concept so fully she wants to see it through, consider its implications from all sides. We go beyond the room. We see other characters. The world opens up, as overwhelming as it is a relief. And there we find the movie’s real power sits not in its skillful conjuring of unimaginable trauma, but in its wise and compassionate understanding of how thoroughly such a scenario would complicate one’s life.

There’s no easy resolution, and the messy emotions it invokes in the characters will take a great deal of time to heal. By allowing us access to the mother’s conflicting and confusing feelings – great love for her child, but great fear and resentment for the situation that led to his creation – that’ll make healing a long, difficult, and in some ways impossible challenge. This is a film that’s smartly concerned with the impact of its ideas. The strong script and tremendous performances make this director Lenny Abrahamson’s best film. He brings it to vivid life by focusing it all on the emotional core, modulating the production design, from expansive smallness of captivity, to exterior wide spaces pressing in, as he creates a convincing world of complicated psychological territory seen through the eyes of a child, and through the lens of connection between mother and son. Love can’t conquer all, but it sure can help.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Doomsday Schleppers: THE 5TH WAVE

The 5th Wave is the latest young adult apocalyptic dystopia of the week. It gets its name from the final stage of the most convoluted and absurd alien invasion plot this side of Ed Wood. Wave 1: shutting off the planet’s power. Wave 2: sending tsunamis crashing into every coast. Wave 3: spreading bird flu everywhere. Wave 4: flying drones and sending out snipers. It seems like any one of those waves could’ve been sufficient to take out the entire human race, but these unseen alien beings either haven’t planned well or are deliberately toying with us. Or maybe they just like echoing Biblical plagues. Who am I to say? The movie tears through these initial waves, any one of which could be an entire disaster movie, with such quickly paced table-setting glossiness that it forgets to find the impact. It’s in a rush to get to the 5th wave: convincing the surviving humans to lose hope and do themselves in.

Per subgenre dictates, we start with a normal teenager, this time a pretty blonde high school senior (Chloe Grace Moretz). Then, soon enough, generic sci-fi elements clear the way for a scenario in which adults are either powerless or domineering and only teenagers can save the day. If you think this sounds like any number of post-Hunger Games knockoffs, you’re right. This one starts with a smidge of interesting thought, transmogrifying senioritis’ valedictory lap finality into an end-of-the-world metaphor, and then quickly descends into popcorn nihilism and cotton candy platitudes. It’s unusually violent for this sort of tween thing – rampant gun brandishing, bloodless sprays of bullets, and roiling catastrophes, as well as gooey close-up impromptu surgeries. And, though its story goes down some moderately weird side roads on the way to predictable beats, it all too rarely comes to life.

Moretz, despite being very good in a variety of roles (from Carrie to Clouds of Sils Maria) and the star driving this vehicle, is shunted to the side for a good portion of the film. Separated from her father (Ron Livingston) and searching for her little brother (Zackary Arthur), she ends up recuperating in a farmhouse after a mysterious hunk (Alex Roe) rescues her. It’s instant romantic tension. Meanwhile, her brother is stuck in a military compound where Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello are training kids to combat the aliens who have begun latching themselves onto human hosts, Body Snatchers style. At this boot camp we find adorable moppets wielding military-grade firearms and enduring war movie montages. A few older kids are there, too, including It Follows’ Maika Monroe, stealing ever scene she’s in with rebellious charisma, Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson as a mopey hero, and Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori as a guy nicknamed Dumbo. Imagine Nicholas Sparks rewrote They Live as a Maze Runner prequel (no politics, more forced sentiment and jumbled mythology) and you’re on the right track. So, yeah, it’s a little weirder than I’d expected.

It’s almost admirably unexpected in the way director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), from a screenplay adapted from Rick Yancey’s book by Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes), Akiva Goldsman (Insurgent), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), ghoulishly churns through large scale (and only partially convincing) calamities to get to the smallest possible scenes where two young people stare at each other in the woods. It discards the waves of alien threats for close moments between teens stuck in the wilderness, or isolated in a child soldier factory. That could be an intriguing small look at a bigger picture, but is instead an uninvolving and weightless perspective. The immediate stakes are so simple – brother and sister need to be reunited – and the larger stakes – saving the planet – are written off as impossible. What a strange mix of brutal conditions and mushy execution, harsh bruising nastiness and gushing sentiment. Overly clean and bright photography throws its artificiality and small thinking into dull obviousness.

That’s what’s ultimately so unsatisfying about The 5th Wave. It strands a good cast in a movie that could’ve really popped with evocative metaphor and a harrowing concept, but fails to really reckon with the implications of its premise, glossing over moral dilemmas. Sure, it features our lead killing an innocent man (we see the same moment twice, even) and a twist that complicates easy morality, but these ideas remain half-buried in the slick formula. Heavy ideas, up to and including the end of the world and the deaths (or potential thereof) of everyone they love, are merely used for superficial weight holding down the edges of a premise so flimsy it threatens to blow away right before our very eyes. By the ending, which resolves the immediate conflicts through convenient luck, then coasts to a limp cliffhanger, I nearly forgot why I had bothered to care in the first place.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Under Siege:

Turning the 2012 attack on an American ambassador in Libya into a bombastic Michael Bay action movie is not exactly the most respectful way of honoring those who fought and those who died there. But it sure is a whole lot better than the opportunistic conspiracy theory peddling and witch-hunt investigating right-wing voices engaged in over the past few years. At least 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi admits it doesn’t know why the attack happened, and can’t quite figure out if there’s any one person, aside from the attackers, at fault in a haze of panic, bureaucracy, secrecy, error, and confusion that prolonged the tragedy. Aside from his usual muddled blend of broad symbolism, big explosions, and dubious politics, here Bay’s committed to the experience of the 13-hour siege, staging swirling chaos and horrific violence in scenes of tense commotion and concussive firepower. Here war is both hell, and disorienting as hell.

The film drops into Benghazi a few months out from the incident, introducing the status quo. A well-armed security team (including John Krasinski and James Badge Dale) keeps watch over a secret CIA base (led by David Costabile), a dynamic Bay plays as fitting with his usual world view: macho brawn makes right, and nebbishy intellectuals should agree or get out the way. Meanwhile, the state department, represented by Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher), has its own compound, guarded by just a few men. In sweaty, tense set-up, the screenplay by Chuck Hogan (The Strain) makes it clear that the American diplomats and spies want to make good relationships with the locals, while the soldiers view them with suspicion. “You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” one growls, trying to stay alert and alive by simplifying and reducing an entire population to one suspect group.

Soon enough, the movie skips ahead to the night in question. Faceless waves of local attackers appear, first at the embassy, then later at the CIA compound. Emerging from shadows and through fields of tall grass and ominous bombed out debris, they might as well be zombie hordes. We don’t know who they are or what they want. We just know it’s an us-or-them battle for survival. But it’s not only the enemy that remains vague. Bay’s film is loaded with unambiguous value judgments of the sort his films usually feature. Soldiers are always manly good, suits are always weak, women always need to be humbled, and foreigners are always bad, or at least unknowable and scary. What passes for character work are scenes of guys joshing during downtime. A long sequence of button-pushing sentimentality that occurs before the combat begins – every American soldier gets a tearful call home to beaming wives and children – is supposed to give the largely uncharacterized and sparsely differentiated ensemble of bearded gruff dudes extra oomph of emotional firepower once the bullets and bombs start flying.

The attack, which takes up most of the film’s 144-minute run time, is sensationally staged Bay-hem in full force. In some ways it is as sensationalistic as his Transformers movies, loving the thump of weapons shooting, the impact of a detonation, the deceptive fragility of a vehicle in the crossfire, the flesh-tearing power of ordnance. He enjoys staging the action, lingering on the hardware, staring with engaged curiosity at the devices, even repeating his memorable Pearl Harbor shot following a bomb as it falls out of the sky and into American servicemen below. But because this is a real tragedy, and a recent one, he finds some welcome mournful notes, ramping up the visceral gore and smoke to play up the fear and confusion. None of the soldiers know the extent of the attack, the reasons behind it, or where the next threat is coming from. They just hunker down and follow their training, knowing significant help is too far away, and what little they can do is constantly stymied by the rapidly changing facts on the ground.

It’s a deliberate geopolitical Rorschach test, messily lining up with what you already think about this event, and about American foreign policy in general. Other than brief shots of the White House and Pentagon, the government isn’t represented, and as far as the soldiers are concerned, they just want to get home, expressing both a sense of duty and a sense of uncertainty of purpose. And aside from token good Libyans, the film mostly treats the crowds as obstacles and threats. It’s a problematic stew of half-digested ideology, but there’s not a lot to chew on – it’s too garbled on a thematic level beyond ogling its heroes determination and toughness. No, this is basically a war film all about the action, finding compelling and striking ways of framing intense combat. Bay works with cinematographer Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow, Miami Vice) to create grimy digital beauty (sleek and dirt-speckled) out of firefights lighting up a dim back alley, eerie drone shots floating helplessly above the violence, a crowd of dangerous figures creeping towards a compound viewed through night vision goggles, mortar fire streaking skyward against the sunrise.

It’s as handsomely mounted and serious a production as Bay has ever attempted, like his Pearl Harbor stripped of most of its melodrama, or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down without the cold and rigorous precision. But of course it is, after all, still a Michael Bay movie, complete with his usual stylistic indulgences: glamorous slow-motion violence, canted low-angle shots of people getting out of cars, and conspicuous product placement. (Worst is McDonald’s, for its prominent placement in a scene where a soldier calls home and talks to his family while they’re in a drive-thru.) 13 Hours is impactful and technically accomplished, an intense amalgamation of weary jingoism and tense survivalist impulses. For every dazzling, heart-stopping round of fire, and every chest-whomping bass thump Foley effect, there’s a queasy mixture of genre pleasure, bloody red meat, and mournful uncertainty. It is blunt action filmmaking eager to conflate Hollywood craftsmanship and U.S. military might. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is allowing its confusing chaos of violence – and its causes and effects – to stand as a messy, imperfect, ambiguous, and exhausted response to endless, and senseless, bloodshed, telling you to make of it what you will.
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