Tuesday, April 17, 2018

You Were Never Really Here Review (2018)

Grade: B+

I wouldn’t want to mess with Joe, the protagonist of Lynn Ramsey’s feverish, psychological crime flick “You Were Never Really Here.” He’s got a large, bushy beard and long hair that he often keeps in a bun. His body is bulked up and covered in scars. A former war vet, Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix) now works as a tough guy for hire—mostly rescuing little girls from underground sex clubs. Wielding only a hammer, Joe dishes out pain with such mechanical finesse; he’s been around enough violence for it to just bounce off of him.

Yet, I also spent much of the film wishing I could give Joe a great big hug. Maybe it’s his soft, gentle voice or his propensity for spacing out or that he straight up breaks down in tears at a couple points. This guy needs help… and a friend. Phoenix has such a knack for playing menacing, unhinged characters that also give off a nonthreatening and vulnerable aura. For Joe, violence is both second nature and a burden.

Right away we see how tormented and haunted he is. Traumatic memories, from his childhood, his war days and past rescue missions, flash on the screen in disorienting and suffocating fashion. Joe continues to be violent in a futile attempt to suppress these painful visions. “You Were Never Really Here” is a claustrophobic, nightmarish film about an individual whose mind and body is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Based on a terse novella by Jonathan Ames, “You Were Never Really Here” follows Joe over the course of an intense few days. After a spending some quality time with his ailing mom (who has her own traumatic background), he’s hired by New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to rescue his teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a local sex club. Joe buys a new, shiny hammer from a hardware store and then drives to a nondescript town house at the dead of night. He breaks into the house with ease and makes his way through its mostly barren interior.

 In the film’s best-shot sequence, Joe takes out security guards and clients with swift precision before finally reaching Nina’s room. Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townend capture the action in long shot, via black and white surveillance cameras that line the ceilings. When Joe makes quick work of a random customer in a bedroom, a little girl (not Nina) wanders out into the hall.

The sequence has an austere, chilling sense of detachment. There’s nothing exciting or romanticized about the vile stuff that’s going on in this place or Joe’s actions. All of this icky stuff is brutally matter of fact. “You Were Never Really Here” is affectively gruesome and disturbing without being excessive. In fact in most cases, Ramsey emphasizes the build up and gory aftermath more than the actual violence.

Joe easily finds Nina and they escape the house of evil but things quickly dissolve into chaos. Joe is yanked into a conspiracy involving corrupt cops and politicians that leaves a trail of suffering and violence behind. At times, “You Were Never Really Here” resembles a combination of “Taken” and John Boorman’s splintered, elliptical Neo-noir “Point Blank” but much bleaker than both those films. The ominous flashbacks are brief enough that they don’t interrupt the picture’s flow, while Johnny Greenwood’s eerie score (an unsettling, off kilter mix of synthesizer, strings and percussion) accents the disarray.

Of course, Ramsey isn’t really interested in plot. She doesn’t dig too deep into the conspiracy or draw the girl rescue narrative out like “Taken” did. It resolves itself pretty quickly and she lets the audience put the remaining pieces together. No, Ramsey keeps the picture’s focus on Joe’s damaged psyche. How much more of this suffering can he take before he snaps? Is there any way for him to break out this destructive cycle?

Ramsey provides an answer to that question of sorts, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The main problem with Ames’ book is that it’s missing an entire final act, concluding on a frustratingly open-ended (i.e. unfinished) note. Ramsey fixes that, partly by giving the character of Nina far more agency and presence than Ames granted her. She’s strong-willed and resourceful. And the two wounded souls form a poignant, remedial bond. It’s harder to heal when you’re going at it alone.   The movie even suggests that Joe needs Nina more than she needs him.

The final outlook is refreshingly optimistic and empowering. Satisfying, while still somewhat open-ended.  Samsonov gives such a mature, understated performance that I wish Ramsey had given Nina a couple more scenes, either by herself or interacting with Joe, to further strengthen their relationship.

 Overall, “You Were Never Really Here” lacks the character and thematic depth of Ramsey’s last effort, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,”--another hallucinogenic, terrifying movie about coping with trauma and evil.  But it succeeds as an intense examination of the mental and physical toll nonstop violence can have on someone.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Unsane Review (2018)

Grade: B-

Prolific chameleon director Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, “Unsane” is a wild, ambitious and altogether delirious ride. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer manage to pack a lot into a tight pulpy genre movie mold while Soderbergh (acting as his own director of photography) captures the mayhem with only an IPhone--alternating between gritty “shot-on-the-fly” style coverage and more impressionistic, hypnotic horror movie shots. “Unsane” is at once a disturbing, absurdist indictment of institutional corruption and abuse and an unabashedly sleazy old school slasher movie. It doesn’t entirely work but there’s rarely an anxiety free moment.

“Unsane” is at its most unsettling within the first thirty minutes. Without disclosing too much plot, the action revolves around Sawyer Valentini, (Claire Foy, assured and fiercely determined) a young woman trying to move on from past trauma. She goes to a nearby mental hospital, only looking for someone to talk to. However, the hospital won’t let her leave and through a little coercion disguised as run-of-the-mill paper work, Sawyer is involuntarily committed.

This sequence of events left me in a state of unshakable anxiety. I felt trapped and powerless along with Sawyer. The film unfolds like an absurd, deadpan nightmare. There’s a bland feel to the proceedings overall. The actors who play the hospital employees give stilted, awkward performances. But this banality is precisely what makes the film so scary and twisted. The hospital is so mundane and the employees handle Sawyer’s questions and pleas for freedom with such a cold professionalism, as if keeping people here involuntarily is the norm.

Sawyer’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that she’s a woman. In many ways “Unsane” is a horror movie very directly about the violation of consent and the way reports of abuse are mishandled and belittled by institutions that are supposed to care. Sawyer is manipulated and eventually left powerless by the people who she went to for aid. Her inquires and protests are met with a chilling, hostile indifference. They don’t listen to her. They don’t want to listen. And at times Sawyer even starts to believe their diagnosis and vague responses to her questions, which is absolutely terrifying. In the context of the #MeToo movement, “Unsane” is unexpectedly timely.

Otherwise, “Unsane” unfolds like a mix of Samuel Fuller’s angry, “in-your-face” mental hospital exposé “Shock Corridor” and a grindhouse style horror movie. Someone from Sawyer’s past comes back to haunt her, taking things down a deeply unpleasant and nasty path. While the film’s commentary on institutional corruption (how capitalism infects and rots the field of medicine) is convincingly rendered the grindhouse stuff gets tedious after a while.

The mechanics of the plot start to break down. In fact the last fifteen minutes are chaotic and sometimes flat out incoherent. In the moment it’s still viscerally involving (like the rest of the movie) but afterwards you’ll find yourself trying to plug up a litany of plot holes. Additionally, in a rushed attempt to bring everything to a neatly satisfying conclusion, (in an old fashioned genre movie sort of way) the ending is underwhelming.  The rest of “Unsane” is strong enough to warrant an easy recommendation even if Soderbergh ultimately loses control of his ambitious project.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tomb Raider Review (2018)

Grade: C+

Roar Uthaug’s “Tomb Raider” (based on the popular videogame series) is a reboot; an origin story for archeologist/ treasure seeker/athlete/badass Lara Croft. That sounds like a good idea. After all, we like to learn how our superheroes came to be. Unfortunately, Uthaug’s film is remarkably simple and breezy--often generic but light on its feet and never flat out wretched. The action is occasionally gripping. For being just under two hours it goes by very quickly. Overall, Tomb Raider” plays like a thoroughly mediocre (with splashes of fun) one off action flick.

That sounds like a mild compliment rather than a criticism but “Tomb Raider” also has the burden of setting up a new film franchise/ character. In that context, it feels like a hectic, forgettable warm up rather than a substantial origin story.
“Tomb Raider” moves along at a snappy pace. The action begins in London with our heroine in the making Lara (Alicia Vikander) as a young and intelligent but misguided woman, working as a bike riding food deliverer and practicing Mixed Martial Arts on the side. She holds out hope that one day she will reconnect with her explorer/billionaire father, (played by Dominic West) who went missing searching for an ancient Japanese Queen’s tomb.

That day comes fast. Lara uncovers her father’s research and races across stormy Pacific waters to an uninhabited island to find him. There, an expedition, sponsored by a shadowy organization called Trinity and lead by a deranged archeologist named Mathias (Walton Goggins, effortlessly menacing) is taking place to recover the contents of the tomb.

And well, that’s pretty much it. “Tomb Raider” is thin on substance; Mathias is underdeveloped as a villain while the central mystery involving the Japanese Princess is vague and not all that compelling or elaborate. The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons doesn’t devote much time to archeological work or clue hunting outside of a few dull montages of Lara furiously digging through her father’s research. I get that she’s a novice but you’d think that the first mystery (the mystery that gives her her life’s calling) would be just a little more intricately wound and fleshed out.

The vagueness of the Japanese Queen mystery is partly intentional so that the movie can drop a twist on us during the climax, set in The Queen’s booby-trapped tomb. But this twist is rote and not worth the build up. Even worse, in its primary goal of setting up a new franchise, the picture ends with another uninspired twist and one of those cheap “our-hero-will-return” cliffhangers that made me roll my eyes.

Of course, the father-daughter relationship is more the focal point here than the Japanese Queen stuff and that dynamic is gently touching. (West and Vikander share a few strong moments onscreen). But like the rest of the film, their relationship is rushed and not all that deep. Too often it settles for skin deep, saccharine flashbacks featuring Lara as a girl.

Vikander is quite good, playing Lara with an engrossing combination of toughness and vulnerability. She’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful but expectedly inexperienced. During the action sequences, (one of which involves her floating down mighty rapids and hanging on to a rusty airplane wreck over a massive waterfall) she proves to be strong and feisty but also reckless and unrefined. She gets hurt and sometimes cries out into pain. Lara is not the seasoned badass yet.

The film’s combination of comedy and dark drama (Mathias relies on slave labor for his expedition) doesn’t always cohere tonally. In fact most of the attempts at humor feel forced; an extended scene featuring Nick Frost as a cheeky pawnshop owner is tedious from the get go. Meanwhile, all of the witty banter between Lara and supporting characters falls flat.

In the end, “Tomb Raider” does its job in setting up a new franchise (that may or many not continue) and does so in lightly pleasing but mostly mediocre fashion.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Annihilation Review (2018)

Grade: B+

Through the advent of science we’ve been able to rationalize a number of processes and events that have happened (and continue to happen) regarding the development of life but we still haven’t been able to answer the “big questions.” Why is there life? Is it all a matter of dumb luck or was there some intelligent force out in the universe that caused the dominos to fall? And if so, why did this intelligent force set all of this into motion?

Writer-director Alex Garland indirectly addresses this profound dilemma regarding the meaning of life and the limitations of science in his latest film “Annihilation”-- a tense, tightly constructed and unexpectedly bonkers Sci fi thriller involving trippy extraterrestrial forces and genetic mutation. It doesn’t always work; the reliance on flashbacks can interrupt the narrative flow. Additionally, the film ends on a cheap cliffhanger but for the most part Garland effectively balances big ideas and visceral thrills, making for an entertaining and elusive Sci fi picture.

Loosely based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film revolves around biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) who has been tasked with exploring and rationalizing the mysterious phenomenon known as The Shimmer, which seems to alter and refract every living organism it encounters. Numerous expeditions have attempted to figure out what exactly is going on but no one has returned, with the exception of Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who has a bad case of amnesia. Accompanying Lena is psychologist Dr. Ventress, (Jennifer Jason Leigh) paramedic Anya, (Gina Rodriguez) Physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Once they pass through The Shimmer’s liquid-y barrier things get progressively freaky. The laws of nature are seemingly shattered before our eyes.

“Annihilation” is endlessly engrossing. Garland moves the action along at a meticulous, near perfect pacing. We’re placed firmly in the shoes of our all female crew as they try to make sense of the seemingly unnatural and increasingly bizarre occurrences within The Shimmer.  The film is defined by eerie atmosphere and tension. It’s ambitious and meditative but also genuinely unsettling, providing a handful of disturbing body horror scenarios (at one point, a man’s intestines slither around in his torso like a snake) and hallucinogenic Sci fi images. All of this is heightened by a haunting, whirring soundscape that pulsates throughout every scene. Moment to moment, “Annihilation” is utterly hypnotic

Garland takes the time to develop his central characters, fleshing out their personal lives (fraught with tragedy and emotional damage) and giving them time on screen to interact with one another in between bouts of chaos. These aren’t one-dimensional women there simply to be bumped off by some malevolent force. Furthermore, Garland never betrays their intelligence. There’s a tendency for smart characters in Sci fi thrillers like this to inexplicably act like total idiots (I’m looking at you, “Prometheus”). “Annihilation” goes to some crazy places thematically and plot wise but the characters never make any frustratingly stupid mistakes.

Ultimately, the narrative reaches an ambiguous conclusion. The mechanics of The Shimmer itself are developed and partly explained but the movie never really accounts for why any of what’s happening is happening. This perplexing finale is a little unsatisfying but also fitting. Going back to what I discussed at the beginning of the review, perhaps there are certain phenomena’s that can’t be concretely explained using the traditional laws of nature and science. We probably wont discover the true meaning of life through scientific inquiry, just as Lena cannot definitively rationalize the enigmas within the bounds of The Shimmer. Garland leaves the audience with plenty to discuss and mull over.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Hostiles Review (2017)

Grade: C-

In their new Western “Hostiles,” Director Scott Cooper and co writer Donald E. Stewart effectively deromanticize the American West and depict it as a place of casual violence and conquest. During the opening scene, set on a calm prairie out in the frontier, an unsuspecting homestead is attacked by a band of quietly terrifying Commanches. Children, including an infant are massacred with little fuss. Somehow, the movie only gets bleaker from there. It’s overflowing with violence, death and suffering.

Through this extreme gloominess, “Hostiles” is primarily two things: an exploration of the numbing, tormenting effect violence and suffering can have on individuals over an extended period of time, as well as a somber, revisionist look at the shameful legacy of white conquest in the old west. While occasionally compelling, the film ultimately comes up short on both fronts. Cooper’s narrative approach is disappointingly narrow-minded.

Our protagonist is Joseph Blocker, (Christian Bale) a US army Captain who is broken down and full of hatred. Years of battle and death have made him spiteful towards Native Americans. But that spite also masks an aching feeling of guilt. This is perhaps the most pained, intense performance Bale has delivered in his entire career. There’s no light or charisma in his demeanor. The first time we see Blocker, in close up as he watches a trio of Apaches being rounded up, he’s stiff and emotionless, dead inside.

Blocker is ready for retirement and maybe a hot bath. But his work isn’t done yet. He’s ordered to escort an elderly Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (the great Wes Studi in another terrific, understated turn) and his family back to their land in Montana. Blocker reluctantly agrees and they set off, accompanied by a small cavalry unit. Along the way they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) an emotionally fraught woman who lost her family in the film’s opening attack, and face off against a diverse lot of antagonists (Indians, fur trappers, land owners etc.).

Throughout the course of the journey, Blocker will take a good hard look at his deep seeded hatred and guilt and perhaps even have a change of heart about his Native acquaintances. By the middle of the second act, “Hostiles” is dripping with white guilt, which is good. We have plenty to feel guilty about regarding our despicable treatment of Native Americans (and other minorities) in the old west and Cooper makes that very clear. In one scene, one of Blockers men essentially apologizes to Yellow Hawk for the treatment of his people. But this is also the main problem with “Hostiles:” despite its good intentions the picture ultimately prioritizes white guilt and white suffering at the expense of its Native characters.

This isn’t to say the film’s depiction of Native Americans is entirely offensive. In fact Studi portrays Yellow Hawk as stoic and enlightened. He’s generous even when his white counterparts don’t return the favor and constantly preaches unity when the group is in a tense survival situation. He’s a much better, more put together person than any of the white people. As a character, however, we don’t get to know Yellow Hawk on an intimate, human level (unlike Blocker or Quaid). How has he (and his family) been personally affected by violence and tragedy? Yellow Hawk is a resilient but two-dimensional figure rather then a well-rounded character. His own conflicts, past and personality are never fleshed out. There’s always a distance between him and us that makes him feel more like a symbol than a real person. Meanwhile, Yellow Hawk’s daughter and son in law are given only a few lines of dialogue and are paper-thin. In the end, the Indian characters are there primarily for Blocker’s redemption.

In “Hostiles,” white guilt and disillusionment are placed front and center while Native American tragedy and perspective is pushed to the side. Things get especially frustrating when the film directly attempts equate white struggle with Indian struggle. Somehow, Blocker losing friends during battle (with Indians, mind you) is on par with the systemic genocide and conquest of Native Americans.

With the exception of a few tensely edited action sequences, “Hostiles” suffers from a painfully sluggish stop and start narrative. I don’t mind slow burn storytelling as long as it pays off but the film builds to such an underwhelming and patronizing end point that the meticulousness isn’t earned. Overall, Cooper’s film is well intentioned but one sided. Native American perspective is minimized in favor of yet another tale of white redemption.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Call Me By Your Name Review (2017)

Grade: B+

“Call Me By Your Name” is a warm, romantic film that derives much of its romance from a gorgeous setting and a laid-back summer vibe. The action primarily takes place on a heavenly Villa tucked away somewhere in Northern Italy, near a quaint little village complete with old stone architecture. The property is dotted with fertile peach and apricot trees. An ornate, stone pool sits off to the side. A secluded river is within walking distance and an azure lake is only a quick drive away. Paradise.

It’s here that seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothy Chalamet) spends his summer with his archeologist father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), mother Annella (Amira Caeser) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, more leg than man in this movie) his father’s strapping summer research assistant. Elio spends his days writing music, drinking fresh apricot juice and having casual romantic flings. What a life. But it won’t last forever.

Directed by Luca Guadagino, “Call Me By Your Name” acutely captures the joyous highs and bittersweet lows of summer vacation. You can do anything you want. You can sleep in. You can sit by the pool and read your book all day. You can go skinny dipping at midnight.  You can even have an affair with an older American college student (more on that soon). Obligations to work and school are nil. Time itself seems to have stopped.  Of course, we know all this pleasure and freedom is short lived. Summer will end and reality will set in.  The same can be said for the film’s central relationship—it’s impassioned and felt but also transient. Like the summer in Italian Eden, it must also come to end.

The movie put me in such a relaxed state of mind that I was more than ready to be invested in the drama of the central romance. Elio begins a relationship with Oliver. Oliver is smoother and more assured of himself while Elio is a little awkward and still trying to figure out who he is.  They share a quiet and thoughtful bond. There are no lengthy courting sessions; they don’t have effortless romantic banter. Sometimes there are days where they barely interact with each other.

The relationship is based more on subtle glances and physical gestures. It’s a physical relationship without being overly sexual, although it does eventually reach that point. There’s a natural energy between them that gradually turns to lust. Guadagino takes his time in developing their attraction, which makes the moment they finally consummate the relationship immensely satisfying and even a little surprising.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the controversial aspect of “Call Me By Your Name:” Oliver is twenty-five and Elio is seventeen. It’s an uncomfortable, divisive issue that the movie doesn’t directly address. Some viewers (especially American) will be unable to look past the age difference and I can’t really fault them for that. But aside from the fact that the movie is set in nineteen eighty-three and in Italy (where the age of consent is fourteen) I wasn’t bothered by the relationship because of how well Guadagino handles it. Their relationship could have been more explicit and exploitive but instead it’s tender and respectful. Had Oliver been more of manipulator or an abuser, I would have a harder time with the film but he and Elio are so gentle and considerate in their one on one scenes. We can feel their affection. In theory, the relationship is problematic but when you see the way they look at each other that concern melts away.

Ultimately, I think I was charmed by “Call Me By Your Name” more for the romanticized setting and the breezy summer vibes it emits in every sundrenched frame than Elio and Oliver’s affair but their relationship is still passionate and meaningful, making the film’s inevitably bittersweet resolution devastating to watch.