REVIEW: Leave No Trace

5 07 2018

There’s an overarching gentleness in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one that’s commendable alone for being practically unrecognizable in today’s culture. The titular phrase does not quite encapsulate the writer/director’s approach to the film, but if her style took on human form, it would not audibly rustle any leaves in the sylvan setting. Even compared to Kelly Reichardt, another restrained humanist director working heavily in the Pacific Northwest, Granik’s naturalism pierces our senses by treading ever so lightly on them.

I knew little about this project or its origins before viewing it – always a wonderful luxury – was surprised to learn in the closing credits that Granik, along with her fellow Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Winter’s Bone,” Anne Rosellini, adapted the film from a novel. While “Leave No Trace” peers deeply into the souls of the two central characters, the film contains scarcely any of the psychological underpinnings necessary to keep a story alive on the page.

Ben Foster’s Will, a homeless veteran living with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid in Oregon, clearly carries some baggage to inspire such a drastic break with social norms. Yet Granik refuses to turn his internal anguish into fuel for the narrative. Will is not a mystery for us to solve. He simply is.

Granik seems to view her role as not to film these characters, stand off to the side, and ask why they do what they do. “Leave No Trace” is unobtrusive almost to the point of fault, letting the world of the film breathe, unfurling and concealing itself in equal measure. She relishes in the unhurried moments and languorous journeys without resorting to Slow Cinema tactics of deliberate, self-conscious audience alienation.

Foster tempers his usual wild man tendencies to vibrate along Granik’s wavelength here, and the contrast with something like “Hell or High Water” proves striking. But the film belongs to relative newcomer McKenzie, who captures the pains of maturation with an added layer of confusion stemming from years of social isolation. Granik never sensationalizes Tom watching peers take an endless stream of selfies or listening to girls at a foster home deride her previous lifestyle in the woods as being homeless. She doesn’t have to because McKenzie can express that wild rush of contradictory emotions in her wide, wondrous eyes and such searingly authentic gestures as the quivering of a chin. B

Advertisements




REVIEW: Inferno

30 10 2016

Dan Brown’s historically-inspired adventure tales have never felt more like a “National Treasure” movie than in Ron Howard’s adaptation of his most recent Robert Langdon tale, “Inferno.” What might pass as labyrinthine on the page proves laborious on the screen as the story runs in two opposite directions at once to cover 600 pages in 2 hours.

On the one hand, Langdon (Tom Hanks) tries to piece together two days he seems to have forgotten – during which time he went from Cambridge, MA to Florence, took a priceless artifact from the Uffizi and suffered massive head trauma. He lacks the luxury to sit down and calmly place all the puzzle pieces together, however, as a consortium of Italian police, World Health Organization officials, and corporate interests track him down. Langdon unwittingly possesses information from Ben Foster’s Bertrand Zobrist, a recently deceased billionaire who took Thomas Malthus a little too seriously and gives morbid TED Talk-style lectures about the grave dangers of overpopulation.

If it sounds like “Inferno” has one too many plates for Howard to keep spinning, that’s because it does. Screenwriter David Koepp ensures that none are ever dropped, which is a pretty remarkable feat, though plenty come close to breaking with all the character reversals upon which Brown insists. (Seriously, he makes the “Now You See Me” series look like a model of restraint in this regard.) There are worse things to watch than Hanks’ Langdon on the run with Felicity Jones’ Dr. Sienna Brooks, a child prodigy and early Langdon fan. Yet there are plenty better things as well, especially given the page-turning quality that Brown’s books possess. “Contagion,” but as a glorified chase movie, feels like settling for less. B-2stars





REVIEW: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 11, 2016)

11 08 2016

Ain't Them Bodies SaintsWhen I first watched David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” my initial impression was that it amounted to one of the better spate of Malick-lite films spawned in the wake of “The Tree of Life.” Look for that and you’ll see all the hallmarks: floating camera, internal dialogue drifting through scenes, bucolic settings, deep contemplation.

But seeing that and only that misses all the film has to offer elsewhere. (To be fair, this probably was not a great movie to watch while jet-lagged after just arriving for a semester abroad in Europe.) “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is more than just an explosion of technical virtuosity from Lowery and director of photography Bradford Young, who has since gone on to lens such notable works as “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” It is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because its outer beauty helps expose the inner beauty of its epistolary love story.

At the core of the film is Rooney Mara’s steely Ruth Guthrie, a Texas woman caught between the man who stole her heart (Casey Affleck’s Bob Muldoon) and the officer who helped put Bob behind bars (Ben Foster’s Patrick Wheeler). Don’t call it a love triangle, though. Mara remains stone-faced as if she has erected the ultimate shield to mask her internal bewilderment over all that transpires. The choice ahead is one of great magnitude, and her strategy for coming to grips relies on downplaying her decision.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” does contain a storyline running parallel to its main plot involving Bob’s escape from prison and surreptitious journey back to reclaim Ruth. Affleck brings his usual grizzled intensity to the role, but make no mistake, the film is all Mara.





REVIEW: The Finest Hours

18 07 2016

There’s something odd about Disney’s “The Finest Hours.”

This ’50s-set high-seas rescue does everything it can to recreate that era in the filmmaking. Director Craig Gillespie operates at a more methodical, easygoing pace in land-bound scenes. Period detail is all there, even down to the sound of the time as composer Carter Burwell provides a similarly moody post-war ambiance that he endowed to last year’s “Carol.” Heck, they even filled the role of Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber with Chris Pine, the rare working actor today who can comfortably assume the style and mannerisms of a golden age Hollywood studio star.

And yet, “The Finest Hours” is the kind of disaster caper only possible to achieve at this level in the 21st century with computer graphics. The films of the 1950s – even the epics – were limited by the technology available at the time and bolstered by a grounded grandiosity. Seeing is believing here when technicians can show, in great detail, the destructive storm and waves that strand a vessel off the coast of Massachusetts. When the filmmakers try some of the more magical elements of a bygone period, such as suggesting a quasi-spiritual connection of Bernie’s sea navigation to his romantic interest’s journey on the open road, it falls completely flat.

“The Finest Hours” is a film caught between two styles of moviemaking and two schools of thinking. Gillespie and company can never quite figure out how to resolve this tension from the beginning, and as a result, the film sinks before it even has the chance to doggy-paddle.  C2stars





REVIEW: Warcraft

8 06 2016

A few years ago, I spent some weeks studying abroad in Argentina. I knew enough Spanish to converse and survive, though not nearly enough to where I could fully understand Spanish-language programming. On occasion, however, I would watch shows on television with my host mom that had no English subtitles.

Those shows made more sense than Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft.”

The film begins with an ominous prologue, foregrounding the conflict ahead by pointing to a period in time where humans and orcs became enemies. Then, speed ahead to the present day in “Warcraft,” and it feels like being dropped in part four of a series. Familiar scenes, discernible settings and recognizable powers abound, but none of them come with any kind of context or explanation.

In many ways, “Warcraft” is the antithesis of Jones’ last film, “Source Code” – a work of that disappearing breed of mid-range budgeted original sci-fi. That 2011 film derives from a high concept, and once again, he chooses to dole out precious little exposition to explain the world. Yet viewers could catch on because it was rooted in humanity and character. There was something intrinsic to pull us in.

“Warcraft” comes with no such hook, instead leaving in the cold those without an extensive knowledge of the MMORPG.  At least it kicked me off early, leaving me to watch a fast-moving carousel coming unhinged by the second. (Seriously, this makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” look like a paragon of narrative cohesion.) The film feels less like a movie and more like a YouTube playlist shuffling through deleted scenes of “Avatar,” “John Carter” and “The Hobbit.” While the effects – particularly motion-capture – look impressive, they mean jack squat with internal logic entirely absent.

All the money and technical wizardry on display is quite literally in service of nothing. Why spend $160 million on a spectacle of a fantasy film when production value is all that separates it from a direct-to-Redbox “Lord of the Rings” knockoff? The filmmaking team might as well have just pretended “Warcraft” took place in Middle Earth since they can never satisfactorily explain the tribes and the conflicts of this world.

Truly, the only people who can eke out a small victory from the film are the live-action performers such as Travis Fimmel, Ben Schnetzre, Dominic Cooper and Paula Patton. At least Universal’s marketing focused on the computer-generated creatures. They might be able to escape “Warcraft” relatively unscathed by what would otherwise by a substantial blemish on their careers. Everyone else, likely (and sadly) including Jones, is probably not so lucky. D-1star





REVIEW: The Program

7 05 2016

The ProgramThere are many stories surrounding cycling icon Lance Armstrong worthy of cinematic treatment. There’s the athlete himself, whose hubris and competitive nature led him to dupe, receive and betray. There’s the many authorities who turned a blind eye, including the media – save the one journalist, David Walsh, with the courage to take on Armstrong’s cabal. And of course, there’s America as a whole, who cheered on his triumphant narrative and marveled aghast when it was exposed as a sham.

Undoubtedly, the saga of Lance Armstrong’s historic rise and meteoric fall from grace has the proportions of Greek tragedy, should someone choose to apply such a framework. Yet none of these seem of interest to John Hodge, writer of”The Program.” His take on the events is one largely void of perspective, oscillating freely between Armstrong and Walsh without ever mooring the film in either one of their tales. The result is an experience that far underwhelms the proportions of the history it covers.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of Stephen Frears’ film is how easily it renders something so ordinary out of this extraordinary scandal. It appears that the main focus of the film is Armstrong (Ben Foster) and his insatiable need to win, a trait which powers him to the top of the sport while also sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. His teammates, as represented primarily through Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis, reaped the benefits of Armstrong’s victory thanks to the increased media attention his story gave the sport. This rising tide lifting their ships, however, came on the condition that they both stay out of the spotlight and remain complicit in the doping ring.

Armstrong might have made a better background character, to be honest. We know his face, his voice and his character from the aforementioned turn of the millennium media blitz. It’s pretty clear that Foster aims for a less imitative and more representational portrait of the man, akin to Michael Fassbender’s take on Steve Jobs. But as much as we thought we knew Jobs, his persona mostly amounts to tidbits from product launches. Lance Armstrong was everywhere for a solid decade, and Foster’s inability to overcome the hurdle of recognition hampers the rest of his performance.

“The Program” could have even been a wicked two-hander with Chris O’Dowd’s Walsh, working a “Frost/Nixon” style dynamic. A long-time skeptic who covered Armstrong even before his testicular cancer struck, Walsh might have developed into an interesting foil. But alas, Hodge mostly reduces him to a peripheral figure who is important only because of the role he plays in the events – not because the script treats him as such. He fares better than the average incredulous American media consumers, though, who get totally left out of “The Program.”

It’s ok, fellow common folk, we have the far better film about Lance Armstrong: Alex Gibney’s incisive documentary “The Armstrong Lie.” C2stars