Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

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mother!(9/16/2017)

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.

It(9/9/2017)


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

Atomic Blonde(8/20/2017)

The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.

The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).

The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?

Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.

Wind River(8/12/2017)

Auteur Theory demands that the director be viewed as the main author of a movie, and that usually works, but sometimes a wrench gets thrown in the gears.  This mainly happens in situations where someone else on the crew is clearly calling most of the shots like in the two Star Wars sequels that George Lucas didn’t direct but still obviously had complete creative control over.  Complications also arise in cases where movies are written and directed by different people and writers have such a clear sense of vision within a body of work as to be auteurs unto themselves.  This often isn’t so clear as most Hollywood screenwriters who aren’t also directors tend to work somewhat infrequently; their scripts get sold, they circulate and get re-sold, they sit on the blacklist, they land in development hell, and it could be many years between different produced screenplays.  Sometimes though, screenplays will be produced in quick succession and it starts to be clear just how much influence the writer has over storytelling.  Take the case of Taylor Sheridan, who has had a writing credit on two successful films in a row: the 2015 Denis Villeneuve film Sicario and the 2016 David Mackenzie film Hell or High Water.  There were some pretty clear connections between these films, some for the better some not, despite having different directors.  To illuminate things even further Sheridan has opted to direct his latest screenplay himself, another crime thriller in a desolate area called Wind River.

The title Wind River refers to the Wind River Indian Reservation located in rural Wyoming and the film focuses in on a Fish and Wildlife Service agent named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) who has lived near this reservation most of his life and has earned a solid reputation with the Shoshone and Arapaho people who live there.  One day while tracking some wolves that attacked some livestock he runs across the body of a dead Native American woman named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) who appears to have frozen to death after running a long distance barefoot in the snow while trying to escape someone or something.  Upon realizing that she was sexually assaulted before her death the FBI is called and an agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is flown up from Las Vegas to assess the situation and see if a larger FBI team needs to follow.  It’s determined early on that because this woman’s cause of death was officially going to be exposure rather than homicide on paper the crime likely won’t fall under FBI jurisdiction, so they’re going to have to solve the case rather quickly before Banner is going to have to leave and the over-worked and underfunded tribal police are going to be stuck solving the crime themselves.

The similarities between Wind River and Hell or High Water are pretty clear, or at least you can see why they’d come from the same mind.  Both are crime stories set in impoverished “middle America” type rural places that are populated by hard men with lots of guns.  The earlier film was more of a heist type thing which looked at both the criminals and the people hunting them down while this take more the form of a airport novel kind of murder investigation.  The film’s interest in location is a little different this time around, partly because Taylor Sheridan seems to make himself a bit more at home in this location than David Mackenzie was when he made Hell or High Water.  That film was made by a British director who came to Texas with a foreigner’s eyes and gazed almost fetishisticly at a lot of the surroundings, which is a valid approach but one that is sometimes a distractions.  This film doesn’t do that as much, though I probably can’t easily explain where the difference lies, but it’s noticeable.  Another difference is that unlike Hell or High Water, which was populated almost entirely by Texans this film opts to add in an outsider character in Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent who can act as an audience surrogate and have local customs explained to.  Occasionally her fish-out-of-water shtick goes a little too far and she says things that seem a bit too ignorant for a trained FBI agent to be saying, but for the most part her role in the movie works.

While he may not be as experienced of a director as Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie, Taylor Sheridan does prove to be plenty skilled behind the camera and manages to film both the landscapes and the “action” scenes very well.  If the film does suffer it’s less from his work behind the camera and more from some of the same problems he’s always had as a screenwriter.  In this case this mostly emerges in the film’s third act.  I don’t want to spoil it too much but I will say that the eventual solution to the murder involves a degree of evil on the part of the parties responsible which is downright stupid and ineffective.  He almost gets away with this through the use of an interesting structural trick and some flashily effective violence, but the film’s coda never really addresses the full extent of the carnage in its finale and Sheridan also once again feels the need to write a revenge scenario into the end of his film which is a bit over the top and not really in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie.  Sheridan handled that a lot better in Hell or High Water, what he gives us here is closer to one of Sicario’s more questionable moments.

Despite its third act problems I think I do ultimately like Wind River the best out of this little trilogy of Taylor Sheridan works, though granted I’m not quite as big of a fan of the other two as some people are.  Part of that may simply be that Wyoming Indian Reservations strike me as being a fresher setting for a crime film than small town Texas and the cartel run U.S./Mexico border.  The film also seemed to benefit from the fact that it didn’t feel like it was trying so damn hard to be “gritty” and instead seems a bit more honest about the fact that it’s a slightly elevated potboiler.  Those films really really wanted to make sure you knew just how bad things were in their respective settings and it almost felt like you were being lectured to by a sophomore who only just realized they grew up in privilege.  This film isn’t exactly devoid of those moments, but its more resigned about them.  They feel more like they were added to pepper in an interesting backdrop than they were to make sure you knew what the world was like, man.  I’m not exactly sure if that’s simply a sign of his sensibilities as a writer evolving a bit or if it’s his touch as a director making these moments work a bit better, maybe a combination of both.  Either way I think this is a pretty solid thriller, the kind of thing that woks quite well as a middlebrow genre piece while also adding just a little something extra.