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From the filmmakers of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

21 Jan

 

Underwater

11 Jan

 

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It turns out “1917” isn’t the only beat-the-clock film this weekend. “Underwater,” a 95-minute race against time, gets its start early and rarely lets down. No, it’s not as harrowing, sharp or intelligent as “1917,” and that’s not because it’s a sci-fi thriller that asks a lot of its viewers – it’s because it’s an ersatz hodgepodge of genre cornerstones that have come before, namely “The Abyss” (1989), the “Alien” films and so on. To say more might spoil some not-so-surprising twists.

We begin with ominous news clippings about mysterious tremors off the Pacific coast and plunge quickly down to a drilling platform 7 miles beneath the ocean surface. There Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer and one of 300 workers on the rig, brushes her teeth casually as the ring-shaped structure shifts and groans worryingly. More groans, a droplet of water and then all hell breaks loose. By the time we come up for air – and it’s a jittery, frenetic sequence, maybe the film’s best – most of the structure’s gone, as are most of those 300 employees. In a sealed-off section, Norah and five other survivors come to the unhappy realization that they’re trapped, with no serviceable means of returning to the surface, and the rest of the gigantic structure is collapsing slowly down on them.

The answer, as the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel) has it, is clunky robotic diving suits designed to withstand all that pressure and an iffy, near blind amble across the ocean floor to an older facility that may have resources to get home. Up to that point, and at the onset of that sojourn, the film’s pretty gripping (think “Deepwater Horizon” inverted) but then something weird and ghostly swims by and our budding character study becomes a creature-feature fear fest – and not a very compelling one.

Directed by William Eubank, who showed poise and promise with the mind-bending thriller “The Signal” (2014), the film’s composed competently enough, and production values are high. It’s just all weighed down by an inert storyline that doesn’t even feign putting a new spin on old tropes: As they prepare to make the trip, Norah tells the other surviving woman, Emily (Jessica Henwick), to take off her pants, as they won’t fit in the deepwater diving suit, though the goofball big boy of the group (T.J. Miller) fits into the unisex exoskeleton just fine. Later on, like in Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space thriller, there’s a panty-line payoff; it’s not egregious, but most definitely worthy of an eye roll. Through it all, the bespectacled Stewart (in an Annie Lennox bob) maintains a commanding hold of the screen, casting palatable emotions as needed. Without her, “Underwater” might have been a full-on collapse; even with, when the camera starts to settle on Norah and her mates and something crashes down or swims in from the dark, it reminds us that these humans are just chum. Best not to get too attached.

1917

10 Jan

‘1917’: They’ve only a short time to save lives, and we go with them through the hell of war

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When it comes to war movies, there’s plenty about World War II but far, far less when it comes to chronicling its bloody predecessor. What exists is pretty rich and powerful, including classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Gallipoli” (1981, and a classic!) and “Paths of Glory” (1957), which all captured the barbaric horror of trench warfare – inhumane hellholes of mass slaughter where heroics were measured by the last man standing. A couple of years ago, Peter Jackson fittingly embraced those lost heroes with the cinematic ode “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the “Lord of the Rings” director’s first documentary; and looking to add to that list, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and “Skyfall”) drops a taut, face-paced shot of adrenaline on us in “1917,” which might not be long on plot, but pins you to the edge effectively as the clock ticks and ordinance explodes overhead.

Much will be made about the long-shot cinematography by Roger Deakins (“Fargo” and an Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”). It’s absolutely brilliant, and any of those pooh-poohing it as a gimmick likely don’t understand the technical complexity involved. Deakins’ artistry gets put on display from frame one as we meet up with young lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) lazing wearily in a field. Brought bleary-eyed before their C.O., they’re ordered to deliver a message to another allied outpost several clicks away: The grim circumstance of the situation is that communications are down, and if they fail to make the drop before the next sunrise, some 1,600 British soldiers will march into a trap and be slaughtered. Blake’s brother, as we’re informed, is among the unaware – the sense of urgency’s not just paramount, its personal.

From that brief, officious interlude, we’re off, following the lads down into the trenches, through the bomb burst, across the wire and into German-controlled French countryside. Along the way, mangled corpses hang from barbed wire entanglements and bob in the mud pits and streams they must cross. Then there’s the close encounters with the enemy, including the pilot of a downed biplane, when a brief moment of humanity turns deadly. The whole harrowing ordeal unfurls in real time, with the two constantly flushed, harried and under fire. In its pressure-cooked pace, “1917” invokes the same fraught “what could possibly go wrong next?” anxiousness that “Uncut Gems” rattled us with just weeks ago.

What’s most impressive about Mendes’ salute to valor is the seamless synergy of choreography, action and sound (both ambient and Thomas Newman’s soul-shaking score). It’s an immersive effect that embeds you with the soldiers as if you were there, following as they charge through the trenches and duck enemy fire. That POV, while wholly visceral and unique, also makes “1917” feel a bit like a video game, in which depth of character becomes secondary to the next eye-popping visual. Chapman and MacKay are plenty fine, mind you; they’re just not given the theatrical real estate to expand. It’s all action, all the time. Pauses along the frenetic path do give us a chance to breathe when the pair check in with higher-ups (played by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong), but then it’s onto the next bullet-blazing gauntlet.

American Dharma

2 Jan

‘American Dharma’: Bannon in a bunker, explaining what makes him tick, tick, tick …

 

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The latest from local filmmaker and provocateur Errol Morris presents something of a rewind of the 2016 election, as well as a delve into the alt-right media machine – with a healthy side of cinema studies to boot. Morris’ somewhat controversial “American Dharma” provides plenty of space for former Trump campaign organizer/adviser and Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon to make his case for Trump and the hard right, most of it through cinematic references such as Gregory Peck’s iron-fisted general in “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), Robert Redford’s out-of-left-field pol in “The Candidate” (1972) and John Wayne in pretty much any John Ford western. Turns out Bannon’s a fan of Morris’ award-winning doc “The Fog of War” (2003), which featured businessman and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who like Bannon attended Harvard Business School and similarly treated war and politics as business problems and chess matches.

Early on, as Morris interviews the commanding agitator in an abandoned hanger – ostensibly emulating Peck’s command center in that Henry King classic – Bannon in his gushing appreciation of “Fog of War” gives Morris an insider pat on the back about filmmaking. It’s an eye-popping pause, but true enough: Bannon has 10 directorial credits on IMDB, with such right-wing propaganda docs as “Torchbearer” (2016) and “Battle for America” (2010), most having abysmally low ratings (in the 2 or 3 range, with one or two breaking the middling 5 mark). During the session, Bannon recounts his entry at Breitbart, the takedown of Anthony Weiner on Twitter and joining Trump with shrewd strategies to shift the tide in the 2016 presidential campaign. For instance: to counter the Billy Bush tape, he attempted to sit Bill Clinton’s four sexual assault accusers at the front of a presidential debate the former president was to be in attendance at. The mention of Russian trolls is scant, and Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own words (via a post-election interview clip) attributes her loss almost exactly to what Bannon does: the Comey investigation and emails to Weiner.

Throughout the film, which boasts a smart score and does a brilliant job of interweaving film and news clips with public opinion overlaid via the Twittersphere, Morris, who clearly has vastly different political leanings than Bannon, affords his subject a long leash – perhaps too long – but not one that can’t be tugged on by the factual record. It’s nearly comical and hard to fathom when Bannon balks incredulously at Morris’ announcement that he voted for Hillary because he feared Trump. Later, when Morris links Bannon’s departure from the White House to the deadly Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bannon does a soft shoe and reverts to his fearmongering prognostications of greater divisions to come (check out his latest venture, warroom.org.) 

If there’s one thing to drink in about Bannon, it’s his cocksure confidence and charisma (on display more here than when at Trump’s side). He’s a clear natural leader with patriotic zeal, but the question then becomes: of whose country, and with what agenda? Morris and subject go at that, and watching the film, it’s chilling to see the spell Bannon and the alt-right can cast. Educated progressives clearly discounted that too much in the past; Morris’ film serves as stark (if accidental) reminder of that, and a timely one.

In Fabric

2 Jan

‘In Fabric’: That’s a killer dress you’ve got on, but the film around it unravels as we watch

 

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“In Fabric,” the latest arthouse horror offering from British writer-director Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” 2014, and “Berberian Sound Studio,” 2012), hems hard and long on its eerie, immersive style, but remains elusive when it comes to the what and why. Centering on a bloodthirsty “artery red” dress with supernatural powers and the department store staff/cult that sends it out into the world, “In Fabric” has the vibe of “Suspiria” sans the foreboding grip – because there we have an inkling of what the cult is up to.

Like the recent “Waves,” “In Fabric” is told in two parts. In the first segment we meet Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a bank teller and lonely single mother in her 50s looking to get her groove back after a divorce. A trip to a high-end boutique department store (think Lord & Taylor or Saks with a perfume wisp of the occult) nets Sheila the “risqué” red dress that she’s steered to by the freaky S&M head sales associate (Fatma Mohamed). At night, strange things go on: the dress floats menacingly about the house; Sheila, ever wandering herself, peers thorough a crack in a door to watch her son (Jaygann Ayeh) perform cunnilingus on his girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie); and down at the department store, the coven gather round a redheaded mannequin and writhe in orgasmic ritual. 

There’s a lot of moody kink and a fantastic retro ’70s horror score by the techno group Cavern of Anti-Matter that helps bind the giallo homage together. Through paper clippings Sheila learns that the former wearer of the dress (the model in the catalog) died bizarrely (death by zebra, anyone?). Perhaps the scariest part of “In Fabric,” however, isn’t the killer dress but the higher-ups, white men who question their underlings’ intent and commitment constantly. In one scene, Sheila is called in by her superiors (comedians Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who are concerned with the sincerity of her handshake and the amount of time she spends in the bathroom. It’s a shakedown of sorts in which the knife-twisting is all done with the “fuck you” politeness  demanded by British etiquette. In the latter chapter, a nerdy washing-machine repairman named Reg who dons the dress (Leo Bill) is humiliated by his ogre of a boss and pretty much everyone else, including Sheila’s managers, who pick him apart when he applies for a loan.

Themes of ritualistic consumerism and crowd mentality are embroidered in, but so ostentatiously and without satirical substance that they feel like cheap window dressing, especially when measured against George Romero’s great “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), which proves a much more devious and effective take on constant consumption. Even as plot developments trend toward the silly, Strickland remains focused on his spellbinding effect – and not enough can be said about the vulnerable, no-nonsense approach of Jean-Baptiste (of Mike Leigh’s “Secret and Lies”). When she’s on screen, she keeps the outré tale from unraveling. “In Fabric” is a unique experience best taken in with logic left at the door.

Little Women

24 Dec

‘Little Women’: The Alcott classic updated, richer in themes of feminism and family

 

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The updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical classic may prompt many to question the need, as there’s been multiple versions (TV included) of “Little Women” across the decades. But in execution, Greta Gerwig’s reworking makes good sense on many levels. First off, there’s a subtle layering in of female gaze and modern take one the era’s chauvinism. Then there’s answering the questions: Can Gerwig really make films, or was her autobiographical debut, “Lady Bird” (2017), a one-off? (A resounding yes to the first, no to the second.) And finally, this is one of the better-cast takes on Alcott’s tale. The 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong also boasted an amazing cast, led by Winona Ryder; the George Cukor 1933 and Mervyn LeRoy 1949 versions starring Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson respectively as Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, hung it all on their leads. And might I add, this updating was shot here, with scenes in Alcott’s real Concord abode (Orchard House); the others were mostly local sites posing as Concord, shot on sound stages or north of the border, in Canada.

When we first catch up with Jo (Saoirse Ronan, so affecting as Gerwig’s alter ego in “Lady Bird”) she’s barely eking out a living in New York selling women-themed serials to a publisher (Tracy Letts, perfectly intimidating here, as he is in “Ford v Ferrari”) who demands endings that place the female character in a happy marriage and/or domestic servitude. We then wind back to her days in Concord where her father (Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”), a pastor and an idealist, and mother (Laura Dern, having a banner year with a warm turn here to pair with her edgy go in “Marriage Story”) have turned the house into something of an artists’ colony for their daughters’ bohemian pursuits; Jo, the writer, Amy (Florence Pugh, from “Midsommar” who crushes it here walking a fine line between vanity and vulnerability), the artist, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a pianist and the oldest, Meg (Emma Watson) fancying the stage. Pretty rad for the time, while across the way are the well-to-do Laurences (Chris Cooper as the staunch patriarch) whose son Theodore (a passable Timothée Chalamet, who feels a long way off from his Oscar nominated “Call Me By Your Name” turn), referred to as “Laurie,” creates something of a love triangle with Jo and Amy. When younger, he and Jo were close, and the prospect of a rekindling is ever present despite Amy lurking about when young Laurence comes by to visit.

If not for financial ills and affairs of the heart, let alone the tucking under of women – offset by Jo and the March ladies’ irrepressible spirit – “Little Women” might come off simply as first-world problems. Gerwig, who scripted as well, adds a nuanced, feminist spin that renders a new essence while embracing Alcott’s work and classic context. In her treatment, Gerwig also expands the autobiographical aspect of the material – namely about money and the unconventional pursuits of her parents and the family. Alcott’s father, Amos, was an abolitionist, radical education reformer, founder of the ill-fated Fruitlands colony in Harvard, Massachusetts, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. It was Louisa May and her tales that helped hold onto and pay for the grand Orchard House. Beyond the fine direction and performances, folks will revel in the periodization of local spots (the Crane Estate, the Colonial Theatre, Arnold Arboretum and even the Fruitlands Museum) and seeing parts of Boston and Lawrence stand in for 19th century New York.

Uncut Gems

24 Dec

‘Uncut Gems’: Scheming knows no bounds, but walls, and Kevin Garnett, are closing in

 

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Fraught with edge-of-your-seat tension, “Uncut Gems,” the latest from Boston University-educated brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, stars Adam Sandler as a shady New York City jeweler in deep with the mob for a gambling addiction that knows no limits. The brothers’ last film, “Good Time” (2017) rode a similar arc with a protagonist (Robert Pattinson) living on the criminal fringe, making unwise choices that only amped up a sideways situation. The poor decisions there felt earnest; here, as Sandler’s Howard Ratner teeters atop the tip of a needle 24/7 and so routinely choses the most cataclysmically loaded option at hand, the orchestration of edginess feels calculated and engineered for the sake of taking it up one more notch. That heavy foot takes something away, but still the film remains a scalding-hot sizzle from frame one to the surprising last shot.

Much will be made about the choice to cast Sandler in a dramatic lead – he’s known mostly for slack, sophomoric fare such as “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “The Waterboy” (1998) – but folks can all take a deep breath; the New Hampshire native is more than fine, and feels minted for the part of an overly intense New York Jew with big ambitions, self-destructive addictions and a penchant for bad life choices.

The fun part here for Boston peeps is that old friend Kevin Garnett pops up in the cast, playing himself (KG!). If you’re thinking it’s his latter Brooklyn Nets years, think again – he’s with the Green, as the year (we’re told during a colonoscopy) is 2012, and the Cs are playing the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semis (the LeBron-led Miami Heat would win the title that year) with KG winding his way through New York between road games with Philly. What’s KG got to do with a two-bit hustler? He’s buds with a streetwise operator named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield, so good in “Sorry to Bother You”) who stores his Rolex stash at Howard’s cramped showroom in New York’s jewelry district. Meanwhile Howard gets a covert shipment (in a fish belly) of Ethiopian opals, all glommed together in a two-fist mass. Garnett catches a glimmer of the stone, feels a mystical emanation and decides he wants to hold onto it for good luck during the next game. His collateral? The 2008 NBA championship ring he won with the Cs, which Howard pawns immediately, putting the whole enchilada on Garnett and the Celtics to take down Philly, playing home court.

Howard’s an impulsive sort. Did I mention he’s big into a loan shark (Eric Bogosian, excellent) who has close family ties with Howard (they do Passover together, which is awkward, to say the least)? Then there’s Howard’s discerning wife (Idina Menzel), hot and onto it all, and the kept woman he puts up in a posh pad (Julia Fox, who should ride a breakthrough wave after this) and the two sons he hardly ever sees as he bounces from one dicey situation to the next, buying just enough time to make the next poor choice, ever adding to a mounting shitstorm of lies and imminent retribution. Continue reading