Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Interiors: QUEEN OF EARTH


If you hear there’s a new tiny character drama about a woman who, mourning the death of her father and having left her boyfriend, rents a vacation home with her best friend, you’re probably already imagining a treacly little indie going through the same quirky life-affirming motions. Luckily Queen of Earth, the movie in question, does no such thing. It imagines an entire psychological world for its characters, and commits to following their complicated emotional drivers to intense and uncompromising places. We open on Elisabeth Moss’s face, makeup streaked after what must’ve been a tremendous cry. She’s breaking up with her partner, who remains off screen as we’re pinned mere inches from her face, taking in every jagged breath and spit of anger. “Don’t look at me,” she snaps. And yet we can’t look away.

This is an Alex Ross Perry movie, a designation we can now, after four films, start to identify as marking a project that’ll start with recognizable territory and take us somewhere unexpected. He’s a terrific writer-director who seems to have made it his mission to take on projects which are in broad strokes overfamiliar types, and then coloring them in with a whole interesting palate all his own. His 2011 sophomore effort The Color Wheel was on the surface a brother/sister road trip movie shot through with mumblecore plotting and fumbling banter, but it was photographed in gorgeously textured black and white and built to a tremendous scene that caught its characters in close sustained crescendo of messy feelings. Then there’s his previous feature, Listen Up Philip, which was a prickly man-child relationship comedy that allowed its characters unusual room to be themselves, following various members of the ensemble down wandering paths of lovely character moments rich and tender.

What sets Perry apart is the thought and intentionality behind his creative choices. He’s not simply showing off his chops – although he is – or making movies that’ll get him studio paychecks – though he will. He’s telling cinematic stories, taking the raw material of any indie drama and making of it self-consciously literary dialogue and overwhelming visual precision. So when the opening title card of Queen of Earth stomps in with fancy red cursive popping against the stark grey sadness of the opening image, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a confident filmmaker. We follow Moss into a lake house chamber drama where her friend (Inherent Vice's Katherine Waterson) finds herself moving cautiously, walking on eggshells, as her friend grieves over her intersectional heartbreaks. Perry uses slow dissolves, sharp cuts, and icy silences to simmer with suspense. With glacial horror pacing and a needling thriller score, it’s less Your Sister’s Sister, more an American Persona done up with hints of Repulsion.

With editor Robert Greene’s methodically precise cutting, the mood of the film is intoxicatingly deliberate and unblinkingly disorienting. It will cut back to the previous year, where we see a much happier Moss in the same rental house. Watterson is there as well, a little grumpy because her friend’s boyfriend (Kentucky Audley) is along for the vacation. Serving as an ironic counterpoint to the sad present, where the presence of what Moss perceives as an interloping neighbor (Patrick Fugit) seemingly reminds her of what she’s lost, these glimpses of happier times cut into long pushes in on intense emoting. It is uncut psychological pain artfully rendered, where even good memories are jabs in the side. Social interactions become a nightmare, others looming over. Precise blocking, smooth surfaces, and dramatic lighting highlight the air of tension even in mundane moments. Acutely misophonic sound design heightens chewing, swallowing, choking.

A tricky two-hander, the film captures the stultifying balancing act of trying to support someone in their time of emotional distress, a period of psychic suffering that’s difficult to be around, and yet hard to avoid for those who care about their loved one. As a portrait of depression, it’s the most soul-draining, nerve-jangling one since Von Trier’s Melancholia. But unlike that film, which was so drunk on melancholy it left me sick to my stomach – a compliment, by the way – Queen of Earth maintains an icier tone, a clinically sympathetic eye on Moss’s elusive, slippery performance. She’s called upon to play a double-edged emotional high-wire act. In flashbacks, she’s sunny. In the present, she’s on the bleeding edge of stability. Waterson, meanwhile, has an even slipperier role, filtering layers of grumpiness and wariness through an exterior that’s trying not to compound her friend’s problems. It’s rare to find a film so concerned with and attuned to friends’ interdependent emotional support systems. In doing so, there's warmth, even some laughs, underneath fraught feelings.

Shot on film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film’s cold touch and sharp blocking keep the characters pinned in together, caught in adjacent headspace even when not physically together. They can hear muffled sounds through walls. They can take phone calls in the yard, leaking one-sided conversations into the house, though they can maintain mystery with a brisk “Don’t ask.” One striking shot captures both floors of the house in the same frame, perched on the stairs in such a way that we can really feel the disjunction between the figure leaning against a kitchen counter downstairs and the one upstairs slowly dragging herself out of bed. Perry shows equal interest in the character’s mental states as he does the filmmaking techniques he so adeptly manipulates. This is a difficult and finely sustained work of psychological observation, diving into miserable depths of pity, ego, and insecurity with a shifty but unblinking thriller’s eye for dread.

Monday, August 24, 2015

6 Things to Hate About HITMAN: AGENT 47


It would be a stretch to say Hitman: Agent 47 is everything wrong with Hollywood filmmaking these days. But it does certainly check off more than its fair share of the boxes on the list. The soulless result is the sort of deeply and completely uninvolving movie that barely seems to exist beyond the corporate and commercial whims that spat it up. It seems only right to enumerate my complaints in list form, if only to grasp for listicle clicks as shamelessly as the filmmakers tried to cash in on a dormant dud idea.

1. It’s a mercenary remake of 2007’s based-on-a-video-game flop Hitman, made presumably so 20th Century Fox can say the rights haven’t lapsed. The little-loved original was a grim gory shoot-‘em-up about which I remember only distaste. This new version connects to the original in merely the most general ways despite adapting the same property. You’d think we’d have one good video game movie by now, but every one (with the exception of Need for Speed, the Tomb Raiders, and the Resident Evils, which aren’t great, but have their charms) plays like a garbage attempt to get money out of a familiar property’s name.

2. It’s an effort in franchise building despite murky mythology, scattered backstory, and nonsense lore. A tedious voice over during the opening credits spells out pro forma junk about supposedly cancelled secret government super-agent programs and evil corporate overlords, but the following film remains so vague about the specifics it’s like screenwriters Skip Woods (A Good Day to Die Hard) and Michael Finch (The November Man) knew we’d seen this sort of thing before and could roll with it. So what if it’s impossible to tell who wants what or why? We’re just supposed to accept that some people with guns need to shoot at other people with guns. Got it.

3. It has a faux-expensive-looking CGI sheen over painfully anonymous glass and steel blues and whites, the better to render, I suppose. We go from Berlin to Singapore and in the process find similar warehouses and foyers, long grey hallways and vast cavernous spaces in which to careen digital danger and phony explosions. There’s never any sense for why we’re going to any particular building, just that we’re going there to blow it up or repulsively splatter its occupants against the walls.

4. It features near constant deadening action. Rounds of ammunition are expended casually and endlessly, turning every opportunity for excitement into a gross and weirdly passive shooting gallery. We often see characters turning in slow motion from high angles, spinning and firing two weapons at once with all the precision of a button-masher on easy mode. This never feels dangerous. Even car stunts and a helicopter rototilling the side of a skyscraper feel antiseptic. Watch poor Zachary Quinto scowl his way through the role of an indestructible henchman, bouncing up for more glowering after every blow, for a personification of futility.

5. It casts a co-lead as a Strong Female (Hannah Ware) who is important to the plot’s machinations, and yet is only there to be a pawn or a prop for male characters who remove her agency whenever convenient for their plans. She’s a MacGuffin. The story concerns her efforts to locate her long-lost father (Ciarán Hinds) while being alternately pursued and assisted by two guys. For all the fighting she gets to do, she’s also constantly imperiled, and has a scene in a bikini that makes no sense either practically – where did she get it? – or plot wise – why go swimming when the bad guy is still in close pursuit?

6. It’s a movie that takes its protagonist, the eponymous Agent 47 (Rupert Friend, a long way from Starred Up), and makes him the literal embodiment of bland white male default blahs. He strides through the scenery without any apparent motivation or characterization, recognizable only by his simple constant style: a gleaming bald head with a barcode tattoo, a nondescript black suit, and a blood red tie. What’s he up to?  By the time it’s clear, it’s too late to care. All we know is that he’s good at shooting people while looking and moving like he’s in a perfume commercial.

There’s as much reason to see Hitman: Agent 47 as there was to make it. Less, actually, because although the studio clearly thought they could get people to pay good money to see it, there’s no such profit motive for you. I can’t say I blame anyone involved, from first-time director Aleksander Bach, who must’ve thought a relatively big studio picture would make a cushy debut, to the craftspeople who were presumably paid good money to design this contraption. And hopefully the actors had some good catered lunches. But there's no need for anyone to actually see this empty fun-free zone. Prospective audience members should stay home and eat a sandwich instead. At least that’d have some flavor and purpose.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ride Along: COP CAR


A sharp calling card, writer-director Jon Watts’s Cop Car is an indie genre piece that’s short, simple, and builds to surprisingly intense suspense. It’s a darkly logical thriller set on the dusty outskirts of a small town out west, where we find two boys wandering away from home and into a whole lot of trouble. Watts, with co-writer Christopher D. Ford, makes a fine amalgamation of John Dahl’s neo-noir thrillers (like Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, and Joy Ride) and loping Grimm fairy tale logic. Two kids head off the beaten path where they find something they shouldn’t, an emblem of grown-up power that’ll cause them more trouble than it’s worth. They don’t know any better. They’re just kids, giddy with make-believe and magical thinking, fascinated by things they only know about from TV. When they find a cop car abandoned in the woods, of course they’re ready to explore. When they see keys in the ignition, and can’t see a cop in sight, they transgress, punishment inevitably following.

So we have two little pigs – “We’ll just tell ‘em we’re cops!” one boy says, ready to take their pretend up a notch to impersonation, unaware of how unlikely it is any adult would ever think 10-year-olds are police – attracting the attention of one very bad wolf. Danger and punishment takes the wolfish form of a crooked cop desperate to get his car back. You see, he left his car to take care of some shady business in the woods. When he emerges to find the theft, he’s livid, panicked, snapping into action. He simply must get the vehicle back before his colleagues realize what he’s been up to. The gleaming guns he holsters certainly don’t make the boys’ fates look safe. The cop is played by Kevin Bacon, in a performance of finely dried ham, all lean determination and eccentric intensity, like an inarticulate Coen brothers’ specter sprung from a madhouse.

The kids are equally unreal, or rather movie real. The young actors (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) are an awkwardly perfect blend of childlike imagination and self-aware artifice, boys being boys being boys, as realistically frustrating as that sounds. They’re playfully vulgar, trading swear words back and forth in the opening scene like the language is a totem of adulthood to which they’re staking a claim. When they drive off in the cop car, they’re adding an element of palpable danger to their harmless run-away-from-home plans. It turns a stereotypical benign act of pre-teen rebellion into something very real, even before Bacon’s sweaty and grim visage enters the pursuit. I watched with a pit in my stomach as the kids explored the guns in the vehicle, or accidentally swerved across the centerline much to the concern of an approaching car. But the man chasing them seems just as deadly. This can’t end well.

By the time character actor Shea Whigham shows up as a desperate bloodied figure caught in the middle of the missing car conflict, the movie turns from a wandering boy’s adventure – like a filthier live action Disney – into a thin and taught thriller. It’s a chunk of beef jerky of a picture, dry and tough, unsatisfying compared to a richer meal, but containing a peculiar and not entirely unwelcome brisk salty snap. To belabor a metaphor that’s already straining, I’ll add that Watts and his cinematographers (Netflix’s Daredevil’s Matthew J. Lloyd and the “Turn Down for What” video’s Larkin Seiple) dress up humble aims in a slick package. A lovely visual sense of space culminates in a spectacularly photographed use of light in its final sequence, the lights of town appearing as a sudden beacon in the dark of night, as the final ramifications of climactic violence settles. This film is simple and straightforward, compelling and compact.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Stoned Identity: AMERICAN ULTRA


What if Jason Bourne was a small-town stoner? That’s the only question (and sole joke) screenwriter Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh bring to American Ultra, a secret-agent-who-doesn’t-know-it action comedy that sits squarely in the disjunction between those two elements. The protagonist is a stringy-haired convenience store clerk (Jesse Eisenberg) who spends his days smoking pot and loving his patient girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him, he’s been trained and brainwashed by a secret government program that is now preparing to shut down and must eliminate him to contain loose ends. When heavily armed baddies arrive at the store, he snaps into action, handily dispatching them with alarming speed and dexterity. But he’s still just a panic-attack-prone pothead in West Virginia, entirely unprepared to deal with these suddenly resurging hidden powers as the dangerous situation around him escalates. It’s only a little exciting, and largely unfunny.

The division between a befuddled stoner struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm in the face of ridiculous events and a coolly capable man of action is the source of the movie’s appeal and frustration. On the one hand, Eisenberg is such a compelling screen presence he easily takes the role and bends it towards his stammering, self-effacing, slightly overwhelmed, frazzled comfort zone. On the other, the spy material is handled by yanking between notably violent action and office scenes back at Langley between agents (Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman) playing like flat sitcoms with all the jokes clipped out. It’s jarring to sit in a scene where a hyperventilating Eisenberg pours his heart out to Stewart, bringing real emotional intensity, then hop to Grace flailing in search of punchlines that will never arrive.

Listless from beginning to end, the movie never really comes to life or forms a satisfying whole. Oh, sure, there are moderately clever action beats involving improvised weapons formed on the fly from everyday objects. There’s touching chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (reuniting after their lovely Adventureland coupling) who take their relationship through some unexpected twists. There are funny little moments given over to Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, and Lavell Crawford as eccentric shady characters, while Stuart Greer turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of what starts as a stereotypical gruff sheriff. But all that only becomes grist for an unrelenting mill of overly self-aware plot and violence, churning through characters and incidents with bloody single-mindedness. The town is increasingly besieged, twisty conspiracies are unraveled, and the movie becomes more of a slave to its clunky genre elements.

The closer we stick with our two lead character’s subjective experience, the better. That’s where the real tension – both suspense and comedy – arrives. Nourizadeh’s debut film, the partially enjoyable teen party found footage comedy Project X, featured a reasonably involving escalation. Landis’s previous script, the found footage superpowers horror movie Chronicle, enjoyed the nervous tension of ordinary people discovering frightening capabilities within themselves. Together they seem to posses the power to make a good version of the American Ultra concept, but the results are slack. Tension flatlines despite increasingly noisier setpieces. Characters don’t deepen beyond broad bland traits. A game cast is stranded in an ugly movie, poorly blocked, sloppily controlled, with smeary cheap-looking digital photography. There’s personality here, but so boringly developed and haphazardly deployed it very quickly lost my patience. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Spy Game: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a sparkling big-screen adaptation of the 1960s’ spy show, is a super dry espionage spectacle. Its director is at his best when he’s playing with wide-frame action (shown off wonderfully in his Robert Downey Jr-starring Sherlock Holmes adaptations), intricately convoluted plotting (in Holmes and his scrappy British gangster pictures), and long winding scenes of circular dialogue that simply enjoys the pleasures of hearing pretty people speak barbed banter. It all comes together to make an U.N.C.L.E. oozing charisma out of each impeccably designed, handsomely photographed shot. It’s slight and knows it, content simply to groove on a 60’s spy vibe, like Le Carré lite, or Diet Fleming. Other than some computer-assisted camera swopping and gliding, it’d be pretty much the same thing if it were the long-lost hippest spy movie of 1963. (Well, second best. It’s no From Russia With Love.)

Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have cooked up a capering jaunt through Cold War tensions, used for little more than their vintage analog throwback appeal. They find a swaggering American spy, an ex-thief turned master of misdirection named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), clashing with a Russian spy, a powerful Soviet bruiser named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). The two antagonistic national forces are forced to work together when British intelligence (personified by Jared Harris, then Hugh Grant) uncovers word that a horrible nuclear MacGuffin is in the hands of a dastardly aristocratic European couple (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani). The device will give whoever controls it power over the entire globe. That’s bad enough to get the Americans and Russians on the same page.

The following espionage and heist tomfoolery allows plenty of room for Cavill and Hammer to create a prickly competition. They never work together, exactly. It’s more like parallel missions reluctantly leaning on the other when things get diciest. Between them is a beautiful German woman (Alicia Vikander), a pawn smuggled out from behind the Berlin Wall in order to get the agents closer to her ex-Nazi uncle (Sylvester Groth), a key to finding the whatchamacallit and saving the world. She’s more charming than both men put together, and more than eager to stand up for herself and provide advice as to how the mission could be better executed. What starts as a standard damsel role wrests control over the proceedings before falling back into victimhood for the slam-bang action-based ending. Ritchie finds satisfyingly peculiar ways to show off the film’s adventure, often in the background, like my favorite moment, a boat chase that happens almost entirely off screen while a character takes a breather, dryly regarding the chaos from the vantage point of his impromptu picnic.

Bursting with star charisma, the lead trio of capable undercover agents flirtatiously needles each other about malfunctioning gadgets, critiques wardrobe choices, and withholds key information from one another. In true spy movie fashion, they all have their secret motives. But with so much buried intent in the characters’ behaviors, the film’s pleasures are nonetheless all surface. Joanna Johnston’s costumes are perfectly tailored. Daniel Pemberton's score is swinging sixties' frothiness. John Mathieson’s cinematography has an unnatural CGI flow, but a vintage crispness to its symmetries, eventually bursting forth with zippy split-screens instead of crosscutting when the action reaches its zenith. It’s all about showcasing handsome people in beautiful clothing, luxuriating in trading innuendoes and teasing insults, and enacting clockwork double-crosses with zigzagging spycraft. It’s fizzy and fine, an undemanding aesthetic delight.

West Coast Story: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON


It never fails to amaze me how all musicians’ biopics eventually turn into the same movie. Once they get past the specifics of where and when their particular stars burst into success, and the exciting early flashes of creativity and fame, it’s always contract disputes, fights over attribution and compensation, battles with drugs and/or disease, struggles with jealousies and egos, and finally a reckoning with past mistakes that somehow cements the subjects’ place in pop culture history. It’s one of the movies' most predictable formulas, a cross-promotional opportunity in the form of music business mythologizing. That a wide swath of industry legends, varied in time, place, genre, and character, can be reduced and inflated to weirdly similar tropes is more than a bit tiresome. And yet, the form holds steady and even occasionally jolts to life because 1.) when it works it works, and 2.) it’s so often true.

Take Straight Outta Compton for example, an up-tempo and glossy reenactment of the rise of gangsta rap on the West Coast in the late-80s and early-90s. It blasts to life with capable and exciting rising action, charting the success and decline of the groundbreaking hip-hop group N.W.A. with energy. The guys in the group came of age in Compton neighborhoods rife with poverty, feuding gangs, and constant police brutality. They turned the frustrations and pleasures of their daily lives into raunchy rhymes set to catchy beats, telling the truth of their experience in a way that spoke to others like them, and to a mainstream eager to eat up that authenticity. It’s a common trope for movies like this to say that the music in question was unlike anything heard before. But here we not only see how tremendously exciting N.W.A.’s music was, we get a sense of the times to which it was perfectly positioned to speak.

The screenplay (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, with story credits for S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) starts strong, digging into the group’s origin story. We first meet the ambitious young men, Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), in confrontations with cops who roll up threateningly. In our current climate of police brutality and racist practices, scenes of beatings, intimidations, and incarcerations are all the more electric. The movie opens on a raid, a militarized vehicle blasting open a drug house, the battering ram slamming into one of the occupants as Eazy-E, a low-level dealer, flees. Later, we see Cube, a sensitive poet, menaced by police, and Dre, an aspiring DJ, locked up for little more than throwing a single punch. Soon, they’re putting their creative energies together to cut a record, turbulent social energies feeding their expression.

These early scenes are the best, painting a vivid portrait of life in Compton as a group of charismatic young people hangs on the precipice of stardom. Soon, they’ve met a sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti) who promises riches. They record an album – 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, featuring hits like the galvanic “Fuck tha Police” – and head out on a whirlwind cross-country tour. Huge crowds flock to their concerts, while their music scares pearl-clutching pundits. It comes to a head in a terrific scene set in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena where a crowd of white cops backstage warns N.W.A. not to play a certain song. Bet you can guess which one. They perform it, of course, and the crowd erupts. So do the cops.

For a while, director F. Gary Gray puts a little extra energy in this based-on-a-true-story form. Maybe it helps that he would’ve been around for some of it, what with his directorial debut being an Ice Cube video in 1993. He’s best known for low comedy (Friday) and slick thrillers (The Negotiator), and here plays to his strengths. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the look is sparkling and smooth. He makes scenes of hotel room parties and backstage antics sing with rambling raunchy camaraderie, while clashes with authority figures have a tense edge. There are plenty of interesting moments, compellingly acted, as the guys struggle to reconcile their individual priorities with the group’s dynamics. Cube goes solo, setting off a volley of diss tracks. Dre meets Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who is presented in a largely villainous light as he lures him into a new business partnership.

But in moving from their initial high-flying fame to the daily grind of managing relationships with business, the movie loses energy and novelty. Gray and his collaborators embalm recent history for preservation and praise, but not much in the way of narrative or cultural context. After the group hits big then falls apart, the movie becomes less a story and more a selection of biographical details, a collection of scenes in which characters and songs practically step out and get their own annotated introduction. For instance: “Who’s this guy?” one character will say, pointing at a new face. “That’s Snoop,” comes the answer, as Keith Stanfield steps in to play him for a scene and a half, rapping a few recognizable bars. How often can we watch scenes weighted with hindsight, nudging and winking at us to recognize famous lyrics, names, interviews, and catchphrases (“Bye, Felicia” shows up in an awfully belabored sequence)?

The movie starts strong and loses energy the more it becomes a predictable recitation of familiar biopic beats. Instead of digging into the lives of these men as characters, a rough and energized truth is sanded down to fit a commodified varnished version, comfortable and corporate. (Over the end credits, we practically get an ad for Beats by Dre.) Here’s a movie that lives moment by moment in an energetic novel space – the first sprawling rap history period piece – and adds up to a whole lot of unfocused familiar motions, reducing complicated real people into shiny pop symbols.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Crimes and Misbehaviors: IRRATIONAL MAN


Once you open the door to a little lie, you live in a world full of reasons to lie. At least that’s a philosophical perspective a depressed professor tries to explain early in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest film. The academic doesn’t really believe it, and that’s not just because he disagrees professionally. He’s not sure he believes in anything at all, having a reached a point of real and deep psychological despair some point before arriving on campus to start his new teaching position during a sunny summer term. At the film’s core is this man’s search for meaning, a solution for his melancholy impotence, creative and otherwise. He finds it not in drinking or flirting with a pretty student, though they’re sickly good stopgaps, but by deciding suddenly and forcefully to commit a perfect crime. He thinks he's smart enough to get away with murder. Once he’s allowed himself to think about it, he’s in a world full of reasons to transgress.

This is hardly the first film from Woody Allen to consider existential crises, the cruelty of mankind, and the cold possibility of evil going unpunished. (See: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Match Point, and so on.) But in the breezy drama he makes of it this time sits one of its bitterest expressions. Those interested in biographical criticism will surely find it noteworthy to point out that Allen made this film after renewed scrutiny on his personal life and alleged crimes. Irrational Man makes its professor a source of scorn and gossip, who clings to his sense of self-righteous self-justification, and who ultimately must pay for his hubris. If this is to be read as an expression of Allen, it’s a self-loathing statement. But it’s not a poisoned or stunted film. No, he’s up to his usual lively artifice.

Like so much of his recent output, the film plays like a draft, another sketch of ideas and themes he’s obsessively working over, varying the tone and plot, but flowing from a consistent voice. Here he is once more with the American songbook score, white Windsor font credits, and characters cloaked in the brisk patter of stuffy East Coast midcentury pseudo-intellectuals that maybe only ever really existed in this precise manner in the world of Woody Allen movies. Indeed, here the characters are signifiers in an intellectual exercise, but what a fascinating, dryly nasty little work this is. There’s an extra sting to thinly imagined characters as an expert cast enlivens arch wordiness and cinematographer Darius Khondji (in his fourth collaboration with Allen) creates bright tableaus pinning them in. The result is like a frustrated English major turned half-hearted gag writer punched up a minor forgotten Hitchcock concept.

What lets the picture breathe is ultimately the cold jazzy syncopation of dueling narrators, puncturing the depressed professor’s murderous ideas with the naïve beaming lights of a student. What starts as a typical vaguely queasy older man/younger woman relationship is played for its inappropriateness, and is made to seem wrong as a factor in the plot. We meet the man (Joaquin Phoenix, draining potential ticks from the dialogue with a flattened affect) as he arrives on campus just about ready to kill himself. The woman (Emma Stone, as cheerful as ever) is in his class, and responds eagerly to his praise. When they first embrace, Khondji finds them in the reflection of a funhouse mirror. There’s no denying the warped relationship now, especially as the clearly troubled man soon begins secret murder planning and everyone around the woman – her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), parents (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips), and chemistry teacher (Parker Posey) – advises her to keep her distance.

A key image is the film’s most striking shot. (It may very well be among the best shots in Allen’s career.) Phoenix stands at the end of a pier, the setting sun silhouetting him, reflecting off the water in a way that ripples his form. He looks like a ghostly shadow lurking in the middle of a picturesque landscape. He’s a figure unknowable, and as Stone questions how much she really understands about him, he grows all the more unspeakably creepy. By allowing us access to both character’s thoughts, we’re allowed full knowledge neither have. Their conflict, present even when neither is aware, gains an interesting friction. They arrive at logical conclusions for their situations, the film snapping shut with a clanging moral, neatly deployed. Philosophy in action, or philosophy inaction, leads them to unsettled conclusions, the sort of world-weary worldview of an old man who once thought his intellectual posturing could beat back despair but isn’t so sure anymore. Here’s a film that says the only rational philosophy is one that sees those who damage others fall to dooms of their own making.
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