REVIEW: It Comes at Night

11 06 2017

In his stunning debut feature, “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults wowed right out of the gate by showcasing an impressive mastery of emotional ranges in the service of depicting the turbulent mental state of the eponymous character. His follow-up, “It Comes at Night,” takes a more restrained approach. Shults sticks mostly to the tense dread of the taut thriller with the occasional hallucinatory jolt of horror.

It’s hard to deny the impressive grasp of film technique Shults wields. Yet it’s also easy to wish he had a greater narrative, world or characters in which to invest the techniques.

“It Comes at Night” operates from a more contemporary update of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous maxim: the apocalypse is other people. In an abandoned wooden shack, well-armed patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) defends his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a never identified force that seems to turn humans into zombies. All that separates them from the outside world is a single, padlocked blood red door. That’s not the point, nor does that seem to be the “it” to which the title refers.

More than anything, “it” seems to be the fear of others – specifically, the young couple Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) with a small child who stumble upon their house by chance. They seek food and shelter, which Paul reluctantly and provisionally agrees to provide. Suspicion under these circumstances is natural, of course, but the host family – Paul especially – treats their every move with skepticism.

Perhaps these attitudes would make more sense if the characters were better defined –  not necessarily with flashbacks, but at least with hints of the past traumas that formed them – or the world were more fully fleshed out. What, for example, would lead Paul to shoot a man by the side of the road at will without stopping to gather any information from him? Shults opts for omnipresent ambiguity, which leaves us no foothold but the film’s ideology.

That worldview is a brutally nihilistic one, a reduction of all conflict in life to us vs. them. It’s total warfare in “It Comes at Night,” where personal survival means the enemy must face annihilation. I am open to considering viewpoints different from my own, yet the degree to which Shults condones these choices – and, dare I even say, exonerates them in the chilling final shot – left me feeling quite uneasy. Shults’ vague sketches of everything within the film make his cynicism feel unearned. This might be the best Steve Bannon production he didn’t finance. C+





REVIEW: Loving

21 11 2016

I’m of the mindset that historical dramas and social issues pieces, often derided as self-important and grandiose, are getting better. Films like “Spotlight,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have dramatized America’s past with unflinching honesty and aesthetic rigor. Yet there is still a straw man of the prestige picture that looms in the critical imagination, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” seems to exist in stark contrast to this imagined bundle of clichés.

Nichols runs counter to so many impulses dominating filmmaking that historicizes the contemporary. Without belittling the importance of belaboring the significance of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose arrest led to a Supreme Court case overturning bans on interracial marriage, he moves the political steadfastly back into the realm of the personal. The simple elegance of “Loving” is evident in every scene of Joel Edgerton’s Richard returning to lay bricks and every disapproving gaze from their provincial Virginian neighbors. Society is slow to change, attitudes are tough to dislodge, but sometimes unsuspecting individuals like the Lovings can help turn the tide in our culture with their radical ordinariness.

Perhaps one of Nichols’ boldest casting choices was selecting Nick Kroll (yes, The Douche from “Parks & Recreation”) as Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who helps guide the Lovings’ case all the way to the highest court in the land. It’s more than stunt casting or going boldly against type like Seth Rogen did in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Kroll’s instinct to play his scenes with the Lovings as incredulity underscored with comedy helps tremendously to enhance the realism of the moment. Richard and Mildred were not dying to become star defendants in a landmark case. They find themselves, reluctantly, at the center of history after Mildred (Ruth Negga) writes what she assumes is a throwaway letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Their naïveté about the role they can come to play in American racial dynamics is almost ridiculous, both to Cohen and to a present-day audience.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Life

1 06 2016

LifeLife” gets its title from the now-shuttered magazine which featured iconic pictures of actor James Dean shot by photographer Dennis Stock. It’s clever wordplay, sure, but not necessarily indicative of the film’s actual content. The better moniker for Luke Davies’ screenplay might have been “Fame,” or “Success.”

Those are the two biggest burdens weighing on the two subjects of the film. Dane DeHaan’s James Dean prepares to go supernova with the impending release of “East of Eden” and his forthcoming casting in “Rebel Without A Cause.” He wants recognition and validation but gets spooked by the fame that will likely dovetail receiving such plaudits.

Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock, meanwhile, frequently attempts to remain calm amidst his nervousness and insecurities. He has talent but is unsure if the gatekeepers will accept and allow it to blossom into art, so he settles on James Dean as a subject – someone on the cusp of stardom but not yet fully blossomed. This drive has wide ranging echoes in Pattinson’s own career as he seeks to shed the skin of the “Twilight” series.

“Life” also feels like a meta commentary for its director, Anton Corbijn. About midway through the film, Dean comes to realize that photography says as much about the person behind the camera as it does the subject in front, even when supposedly capturing non-fictional moments. Corbijn, who was himself a photographer before entering the word of fictional feature filmmaking, seems to exert a strong biographical pull on the relationship between the two men.

It’s a shame that the film feels more about events and charted course than exploring thematic threads and character interiors. There was likely a version of “Life” as revealing and honest as “The End of the Tour,” another 2015 release about the push and pull between journalists and artists. But as it stands, the film feels like an interesting but unfulfilled biography of a telling period in Dean’s life. It sinks or swims based on DeHaan’s portrayal of the actor. While he does nail the mannerisms and general aura of Dean, the vocal cadences always serve as a reminder that this is a performative interpretation. B-2stars





REVIEW: Jane Got a Gun

6 05 2016

Jane Got A GunReally, truly and sincerely – I cannot think of a recent movie that I watched with more dispassion or disinterest than “Jane Got a Gun.”

The film, whose three-year journey to the audiences involved a revolving door of exiting talent along with the dramatic bankruptcy of its distributor, endured more than most. Yet in spite of (or, more likely, because of) this off-screen fracas, nothing remotely cinematic emerged. It feels like watching the motions of a western with no actual genre feeling. The wheels of time move, so the machinations of plot are there, but nothing really seems to happen. It’s mobile paralysis, if you will.

I generally tend to abide by Roger Ebert’s dogma when critiquing movies that suggests (as paraphrased by Wesley Morris) judging a movie against the best version of itself. All I can say is that the world is a worse place for not having the version of “Jane Got a Gun” directed by Lynne Ramsay, the wunderkind who summoned one of Tilda Swinton’s greatest performances in “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Far more intriguing than watching any scene in the film directed by Gavin O’Connor (director of insipid MMA drama “Warrior”) was imagining how Ramsay might have approached the same situation.

I wondered how she might have gotten a more multifacted portrayal of the titular protagonist out of Portman. (Fun fact: this would have been the first feature-length film for Natalie Portman under a female director. So, yeah, go look up #HireTheseWomen.) I pondered how her impressionistic style could have livened up what otherwise feels like direct-to-DVD western fare. Surely whatever kind of uncommercial art film Ramsay was concocting could have made more money than this hastily assembled version of “Jane Got a Gun.” C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Gift

23 11 2015

The GiftThere is nothing explicitly wrong, so to speak, with being a throwback to a type of movie that does not get made much anymore. Such is the case with “The Gift,” written and directed by Joel Edgerton, a film that harkens back to Adrian Lyne-style thrillers like “Fatal Attraction.” The setup is practically identical, even, with an outsider posing a threat to a young professional couple.

In “The Gift,” however, the menace is not the temptation of sexual gratification in the future but the looming specter of the past. Jason Bateman’s Simon finds himself and his wife, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn, pestered by his old high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton – in front of the camera as well). The annoyance goes far beyond the social awkwardness Gordo tends to exhibit, and it draws Robyn’s curiosity to answer the question why exactly her husband just wants this guy to go away.

Her quest for clarity provides some decent thrills as it also invites an escalation of creepy defensiveness from both men. Yet, in equal measure, “The Gift” also manages to feel so … expected. Why Edgerton brings out these somewhat dusty genre tropes remains a bit perplexing. This style of thriller is not yet so outmoded that other filmmakers should be paying loving homage, so that motive does not feel right. He’s neither in conversation with the conventions nor revising them.

Perhaps, for his feature debut, Edgerton just wanted to go with something that generally tends to work. Hard to blame him for choosing safety, though it’s a somewhat disappointing start as a director for a man who makes such riveting choices as an actor. B-2stars





REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars