A Good Man Makes A War

If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.

 

That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.

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Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.

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One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.

 

With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.

4/4

Apocalypse Kong

Have you ever heard someone try to excuse a bad movie by calling it a B-movie? Stuff like Snakes on a Plane, Drive Angry, and The Shallows are dollar-store blockbusters dropped into theaters hoping to scoot by on the cheesiness of their premise and/or the corniness of their execution. “Who cares if they’re poorly shot, motivated without interest, have bad acting, and terrible effects? It’s a B-movie!” What a terrible shaming of the wonders of B-movies. People like Roger Corman, Albert Pyun, David Prior, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus didn’t make B-movies as intentional trash, they put their heart and souls into movies with the tiniest of budgets because they loved movies and wanted to entertain audiences. Even something as legendary as Miami Connection was made with an ungodly love of film. Now, imagine if any of those guys were given $185 million and told to make King Kong relevant in 2017?

 

It would’ve been glorious! And to Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s credit, they came damn close with Kong: Skull Island. The eighth movie made about the eighth wonder of the world (how convenient!) centers around two government agents (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) in 1973 post-Vietnam War looking to explore the titular island, a mysterious land in the South Pacific that any ship or plane that’s flown near it has disappeared. The two round up  a helicopter squadron (Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a former British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to map out the island. Things go smoothly until the warm sunset of the island is interrupted by a 100 foot ape that swats down helicopters like flies. Now stuck on the island with little ammo and little options, including a sketchy longtime island dweller (John C. Reilly), the team must brave the unknown of the island.

 

Despite its massive budget and fully-stocked cast, Kong: Skull Island is without a doubt a B-movie, but a damn good one. The notion to have a King Kong movie set in the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War is ludicrous, but to repeatedly lift the imagery of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jurassic Park and mesh that with that backdrop is so ballsy it jumps from hilarious to borderline brilliant. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is the latest indie director Hollywood plucked from obscurity to handle their franchises for cool creds on Film Twitter (see Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World or Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story),  but Vogt-Roberts seems know exactly how to merge what studios want and what audiences love. He knows the main focus is pushing out this property and throwing action around him, so he and cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuper 8300) decide to put impressive effort into crafting the gorgeous Skull Island with sweeping wide shots of Vietnam and Hawaii and some rather impressive scenes involving bamboo forests and a skull-scattered crater. Not to mention the impressive creature designs of the monsters on the island, some of them blending into the environment for surprise appearances. When the big bad beasts do show up, its hard to get the smile off of one’s face. The merger of 70s post-Nam soldiers trying to shoot down Kong while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” plays in the background is like a dream scenario you have when you’re stoned listening to old metal records, it’s fantastic. There’s a real sense of adventure from film geeks in Skull Island akin the original Jurassic Park, you’re enthralled by every new monster and set piece the movie throws out.

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Skull Island is a beautiful film, if only Vogt-Roberts made some more time to take in his movie. The pacing is the biggest problem of Skull Island, with almost every second of the movie rushed out to get to the next scene. There’s almost never any room for the scenes to breathe and the creatures of the film just pop up without any sense of danger or build-up. You have John C. Reilly giving a very ominous depiction of the “skull crawlers” expecting them to slither throughout the film until their big reveal at the climax. But then DURING the Reilly exposition, the monsters just show up in a cut scene without any hype or tension to them. Kong’s entrance is impressive as it’s shown in the trailer, but there’s that nagging wish that they could’ve built up his presence just a little bit more, like Peter Jackson did in his King Kong back in 2005. Perhaps it was a studio decision to keep the movie under two hours thinking audiences don’t have the attention span longer than that (unless they have capes and superpowers apparently), but the visuals and the monsters (not to mention the title character) really warrant something longer. Hell, I’d sit through an “extended edition” of Skull Island to stick around this world longer.

 

Perhaps that extended time could be used to flesh out some of these characters. You might’ve noticed I haven’t used any of the film characters’ names when detailing the plot, but that’s because it’s not needed. All of the characters are mostly one-note, not going any deeper than basic stereotypes. Hiddleston’s the charming British one, Larson is the pretty girl in a flattering tank top, Goodman’s the mad scientist, Hawkins is the nerd, Jackson is the stiff military man, Reilly is….well he’s crazy John C. Reilly. But the funny thing is, all of it actually helps the movie. It works because of the actors playing them bring enough charisma and are invested in the world around them that they become likeable. Tom Hiddleston’s cold charm makes him a surprisingly strong leading action man, Brie Larson could spin gold out of lint and does so here, Tony Kebbell and Jason Mitchell are fun to watch as supporting players. Though it’s a real shame to see Samuel L. Jackson back in his “shut up and give me my paycheck” mode of acting despite being given the “avenge my fallen comrades” story arc that propels most of the movie.

All of the faults of Skull Island seemingly fall the wayside if you understand exactly what the movie is: pure schlock with a pure blockbuster budget. But whereas Hollywood has done this before, Skull Island has an enthusiasm and spirit to it that makes the entertaining factors of the movie come front and center. The benefits of being a B-movie is that it can get away with crazy ideas that can be fully developed, almost makes one wish Hollywood would let their blockbusters be a little crazier and less mandated.

3/4 stars

The Power of Peele

2017 is turning out to be weird year. We have a crooked real estate tycoon with our nuclear launch codes, Katy Perry going from lesbian teases to pseudo-woke club pop, and in the film world, we now have TWO M. Night Shyamalans. Now while the original M. Night used his movie in 2017 to make a two-hour pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, the new M. Night has used the horror/suspense genre as a platform to comment on the inherent and ever-present racism in modern America. But then again, uncomfortably and cleverly confronting racism is nothing new to the new M. Night, better known as Jordan Peele.

 

The Emmy-award winning co-creator/co-writer/co-star of Key and Peele takes his first big solo step into the movie business with Get Out, his directorial debut and first as the sole writer of a screenplay (following last year’s Keanu). It follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer going on a road trip with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. When they get to the secluded suburbs, Chris meets the too-friendly surgeon dad (Bradley Whitford), the too-inquisitive psychologist mom (Catherine Keener), the too-creepy sports brother (Caleb Landry Jones), and the far too-polite servants (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel). He then meets the family friends, all-white of course, who can’t stop reminding Chris that he’s black (the old former golfer tells him how much he loves a certain popular black golfer, the fashion designer lets him know that black is “cool” again, etc.). Even when Chris finds another party guest of his color (Lakeith Stanfield), his rather prissy clothing and demeanor is very off. But thanks to a tip from his friend from home (LilRel Howery), the truth is more horrifying than he ever imagined.

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The M. Night comparisons are valid because as both a writer and director, Peele has very similar approaches to playing out scenes. He wants you to feel uncomfortable right from frame one, but he’s great at pacing and building up suspense for when the rug gets pulled out from under Chris. He utilizes tight-shots of faces so the audience feels Chris’ the crippling shock and the fear in his eyes. He’s also very patient behind the camera, taking time to carefully build scenes and roll out the tensions like he’s knocking down a line of dominoes. He may have sadly succumbed to a jump scare or two (these days, who hasn’t?), but the violence he brings to the climax is pretty satisfying without overdoing it. Peele’s story and dialogue also remains sharp, clearly expressing modern racism as polite pandering and envy. Rose’s family and friends are envious of Chris’ body type, his intelligence, his eye for culture, if only they behaved like them they could all get along. Peele’s idea is more of a nightmarish version of cultural assimilation and it propels the first half of the film’s 103-minute run-time. Even when the movie shifts from the racial satire to a full-on survival horror movie, it still runs at a solid pace. Sadly, Peele suffers from a much-maligned Shyamalan trait of the underwhelming finale. There’s no god-awful all-in twist that sinks the whole boat, but Peele just seems to end on a whimper rather than a bang. Still, unlike Split, the journey was involving enough to excuse a slightly disappointing ending.

 

Peele also gets a cast willing and able to roll with his wild ride. Daniel Kaluuya makes for a fine lead actor, charming his way through the tension and fully fleshing out the character of Chris. He uses the emotionally-heavy background of Chris provided by Peele’s writing to make him feel lived-in. Bonus points for him holding his own with a rather sinister Catherine Keener and the eternally nerdy Bradley Whitford. Get Out thrives with its smaller parts, including the always-reliable Lakeith Stanfield, LilRel Howery as the comedic relief, and even Stephen Root pops in to spout some ominous dialogue that works for the atmosphere. Even Allison Williams, the ever-spunky narcissist of Girls, really leaves a lasting impression in her all white jumpsuit and a hunting rifle.

What makes Get Out so impressive is how the two kinds of movies (racially-charged satire and suspenseful horror) that Peele is going for really gel together. It’s not one movie awkwardly shoved into another, they both meet each other halfway. If he can hold onto (or better yet, expand) on his writing talent subject and experiment more the next time he’s behind the camera, he could really cement himself as eye-catching filmmaker. The lesson he could learn from M. Night Shyamalan is a valid one and something all filmmakers should take to heart: it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. If the story laid out is worth sticking with, it makes the ending all the more satisfying. Jordan Peele is on a new journey, and Get Out is him blazing a trail to success on his terms. Don’t be scared by Get Out’s title, stick with Peele.

3.5/4 stars

Shyamalan Gives Up

M. Night Shyamalan is a frustrating filmmaker. Part of it is because out of the 11 films he’s directed in 25 years, only two of them could be categorized as “good” and the rest have been bafflingly bad. But the other reason is that, truth be told, M. Night is actually an interesting director. His visual style builds atmosphere at a steady pace and creates mystery without the slightest hint of it being forced. He’s a unique filmmaker, but a godawful screenwriter. Not only does he keep writing the same stiff and overlong dialogue in all of his movies, but his stories only have two functions: ridiculous concepts that never works at all (Lady in the Water, The Visit, After Earth) or interesting ideas with poor execution (The Happening, The Village, Signs, The Last Airbender). It really is sad to see a director with obvious talent be muddled by a bad script, and it’s even worse when it’s the same guy. Since he’s moved away from big budget studio projects and into the arms of low-budget horror guru Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Production, one would think he would have a little less pressure on him and more elbow room to focus on a more well-crafted story…….Nope.

 

Split follows three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) kidnapped and held captive in an underground bunker. Their captor? Dennis (James McAvoy), an imposing neat freak claiming the girls are meant for something greater. There’s also Patricia (James McAvoy) a composed homely housewife, Hedwig (James McAvoy) a mischievous nine-year-old, and 20 other individuals inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy) with multiple personality disorder. The girls await the arrival of the 24th personality, an entity called “The Beast” that will use the girl as fodder for feasting unless they find some way to escape.

 

For those keeping track, Split falls into the latter category of “interesting idea with poor execution.” Shyamalan, again the sole writer of the script and story, does his magic of building a creepy and mysterious atmosphere throughout the movie, never trying to over explain the film’s antagonist and keeping his others as simple as possible. He knows the focus of the movie is the mystery and keeping the audience guessing. The problem is, the mystery itself is rather tedious and doesn’t go into anything deeper than mommy issues. Even when “The Beast” makes his appearance, it’s nothing more than McAvoy doing an angry ape impression with some CGI veins added on to make him look scary. Shyamalan doesn’t have the time to make him more compelling or interesting. Any interest in Kevin comes from the detail McAvoy puts into his performance, not the writing itself.

 

That said, Shyamalan’s directing is the best its been since The Village. Thanks to some help from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan’s directing emphasizes the gripping terror of not only being held prisoner, but being taken for a reason that is borderline madness. The way he shoots the underground bunker is also helpful, showing how claustrophobic and hopeless the area of the cold concrete floors and the faded gray and brown walls surrounding our heroines. Shyamalan sees the setting more like purgatory or waiting on Death Row. His typical use of actor close-ups are also effective here, adding to the unease of the situation and waiting for the tension to boil over. Shyamalan never goes for gratuitous violence for shock value, but he builds Kevin to be a ticking time bomb that, before the disappointing reveal of “The Beast,” keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

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It’s nice to see actors motivated in a Shyamalan movie. McAvoy is a revelation, jumping between the personalities set before him as he remains an intimidating enigma throughout the movie. Even as Hedwig, awkwardly dancing to dubstep music, is scary to watch as you wonder when this unstable maniac is going to snap. His three captives are all fine actors, especially Taylor-Joy (after a fantastic debut in last year’s The Witch) as the final girl in the show. There’s genuine fear in all of their eyes and they don’t over exaggerate the fact that they’re playing teenage girls.

 

The movie mostly coasts in its near-two hour runtime, nothing great but nothing really bad, just something mildly interesting. But then there’s the film’s end credit scene, because even M. Night Shyamalan movies need end credit scene nowadays. The film ends with customers in a diner watching a news reporter about Kevin (referred to as “The Horde”) being on the loose. One of the patrons mentions that she hasn’t heard anything this crazy in nearly 15 years, when some guy in a wheelchair was arrested for committing a serious of crimes. When she can’t remember the name of the guy, the camera pans across the diner countertop and a voice is heard answering the question.

 

“Mr. Glass”

 

Yup, that would be Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Shyamalan’s other great movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. And who is the one who answered this lone diner patron’s question? None other than David Dunn (Bruce Willis) the invincible protagonist of that very same movie, leading to a set-up to the long-desired sequel to Shyamalan’s twist on superhero movies. So, in summation, Split’s entire existence was meant as a pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, a two-hour equivalent to a Marvel post-credits scene that sets up the next movie.

 

To me, this was infuriating. To sit through two hours of buildup, suspense, and character development only so Shyamalan could pitch a sequel to one of his most beloved films. If this is the case and Kevin will be the supposed antagonist to the Unbreakable sequel, he could’ve been easily explained in this supposed sequel instead of wasting the audience’s time in an entire other movie. The more egregious thing about it is that because Kevin’s character isn’t entirely interesting when his origins are finally revealed, he could’ve been explained much better or more succinctly in the Unbreakable sequel instead of wasting time introducing these three girls where two of them won’t be seen again and the survivor not really doing anything to damage or have impact on Kevin.

It’s an insulting cop out for an underwhelming movie, meant to negate whatever flaws Split has and make the audience think the movie is memorable simply for the twist. Sure, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and even Shyamalan’s bad movies are memorable for their twists, but the former two movies are memorable for their characters, the directing, the story, and the journey it takes audiences. Even something like The Happening is hilariously misled enough throughout its runtime to be watchable.

 

Not only does Split itself have an underwhelming ending in general, but the end credits scene feels like a middle finger from Shyamalan telling us that he’d rather crawl back and soil the memory of one of his best movies than attempt to make another original movie. It’s cheap, desperate, and rather sad for a filmmaker that remains one of Hollywood’s few interesting filmmakers. Maybe if Shyamalan took the time to create a more satisfying conclusion or a more interesting lead character, the end of Split would be more tolerable. It’s a simple lesson that applies to film: it’s the journey, not the destination.

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Broken American Girl

 

I found it very fitting that a trailer for the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie played before Jackie, considering that Pablo Larraín’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy depicts the former first lady much like the character in Disney’s beloved fairytale. Oh, but I’m not talking about the whimsical, good hearted Belle who sees the good in even the ghastliest creatures. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy has much more in common with the Beast: someone cursed for his own ego, living in a cold and empty palace with a reminder of his woes kept in a case always in his presence. While Mrs. Kennedy was certainly not a furry monster with horns damned by an enchantress’ curse, her wealthy upbringing and glamourous interpretation of life as the First Lady certainly fueled the confidence in her smile. But after a quarter of her husband’s head was blown to bits inches away from her on November 22, 1963, the White House that was her castle became an icy, vacant tomb of what her life was and she couldn’t escape the sorrow of her loss, whether it be the vacant chair in the Oval Office or sitting right next to her husband’s casket mere hours after trying to collect bits of his brains off of a car. But don’t worry, she made sure everyone knew she and her family remained every bit as perfect as she (or the American people) wanted them to be. In a way, Jackie Kennedy believed in beauty in the most beastly time of her life.

This is the balancing act that plays out in Jackie, a grim yet gorgeous character study of an American icon that got the dream and nightmare in the best and worst way. Jackie’s framing device is a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, MA for Life magazine in 1963, mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. During the interview, Jackie is bitter and standoffish while constantly questioning Mr. White’s intentions and notes as she burns through cigarette after cigarette (though doesn’t want her smoking habits in print). While speaking her mind on everything from policies of the First Lady to the legacy of her husband’s presidency, the movie flashes back to various moments in her time at the White House. It shows the poise and grace of Mrs. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in early 1962 and the nights she danced to classical music with her charming husband. The main focus of the flashbacks kickoff on that fateful day in Dallas, with Jackie in her iconic pink dress holding her dead husband in her arms while her face and skirt have splashes of his blood on them. Even with her husband dead, she’s already planning a funeral with the same gravitas and pageantry as Abraham Lincoln’s. Surrounded by confidants including brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and a priest (John Hurt), Jackie tries to comprehend how she wants her husband to be remembered by the public and how to conduct herself after the love of her life is gone and if she ever loved her life at all.

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It would be easy to paint Jackie in the narrative of “grieving widow trying to be strong.” Larraín has that in his film, but it’s such a miniscule part of the story that it goes by nearly unrecognized. Instead, he sees more anger in Jackie than grief. She wants the public to see her shaken demeanor and somber face next to her husband’s coffin as punishment for the immense pressure and scrutiny they put on her and her family, practically blaming the people for JFK’s death (“They put him on ‘Wanted’ posters,” she says before rolling out JFK’s casket off of Air Force One). She’s also angry that after all of the effort to present herself as perfect as porcelain, all she gets in return is a dead husband and kicked out of her presidential palace. At the end of it all, she wonders who she did any of this for: her husband, herself, or the American people? It’s fascinating to see Jackie appear fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy one minute, micromanaging where he’ll be buried and how many horses will be carrying his coffin through Washington D.C., to drunkenly sulking around the White House in old dresses while a vinyl of Camelot plays in the background (because ain’t irony a kick?). It’s questionable as to how much of the scenes are fact or fiction, but Noah Oppenheim’s script is more about the ethics and morals of Jackie’s dilemma and letting the real events inform each decision. The movie as a whole is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine dimming the colors in the movie with a hint of gray. There’s also a good combination of sweeping wide shots of the barren White House or the JFK funeral procession and closeups of the characters under constant emotional stress, boosted by Mica Levi’s haunting string section in the film’s score. It’s Terrence Malick meets David Fincher, and it works surprisingly well.

But you know why you’re here: Natalie Portman…….HO-LY LORD. Portman is a force as the First Lady, capturing every possible side of Jackie’s personality at the time: the fiercely protective wife demanding the world honor her husband like he was King Midas, the broken-hearted lover grieving over the loss of her Prince Charming, the unsure rich girl on the verge of having the lavish lifestyle taken away from her. The most interesting segments of Portman’s performance is when she questions her own worth and her own direction. She speaks to the priest (in a great performance by Hurt) about wishing she could’ve married a baker or a store owner, questioning if all of the comfort of her life has been worth anything if it could go away so suddenly. Portman has the fragility of Jackie down, but turns that into a jaded form of rage as she tries to control something entirely unstable. Even through her tears, she controls each scene. And then the interview segments the journalist (Crudup, also exceptional) where she continuously snipes about what the American people deserve to hear about the assassination and how she coped with it all. Portman shows the layers of Jackie on full display and masters every single one. While it may not be as complex and disturbed as her Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her performance in Jackie marks another peak for her career and one of the best acting performances of the year. To complement that is a well-rounded cast of supporting performances from Skarsgaard, Hurt, and Crudup all giving ace performances. But this is Portman’s show and she owns it.

Jackie avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics by playing around with the order not only of the scenes, but of its title character. The movie lays out Jackie’s character like pieces of a jumbled puzzle, piecing bits together not exactly in the right order but regardless comes together at the end. When Jackie ends, I felt as if every possible question about Jackie Kennedy Onassis has been answered even if the movie is not a complete look at her life. But maybe that’s what one moment can do to one’s life, as corny as it sounds. After all, it shook an entire country, perhaps even an entire world. Imagine what it did to one person?
4 out of 4 stars

Pretty On The Outside

Tom Ford’s second feature film is a gorgeous soap opera/neo-noir revenge story that revels in the repulsive ways of man and woman.


Tom Ford seems to revel in making ugliness beautiful and beauty horrifying. The fashion designer, who moonlights as a writer/director, can use beautiful music and gorgeous cinematography to make grotesque women dancing nude seem compelling. On the flip side of that, his cold writing and barren set pieces can make the lives of the rich and beautiful seem like sad deformities of once-hopeful ambition. Both ways work to his advantage, especially when he makes a southern revenge drama within a broken romance drama as juicy as Nocturnal Animals.

The main story follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful art gallery owner in the lap of LA luxury feeling adrift in her life. Her fancy home is nearly empty, her husband (Armie Hammer) is nothing more than a good looking +1 at parties, and her work leaves her uninspired. One day, she receives the manuscript for a book called Nocturnal Animals, something her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) used to call her. Sure enough, the book is written by Edward and dedicated to Susan herself. She starts reading this fictional book about Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) driving through Texas in the dead of night. The family run into a gang of unruly locals, led by smooth talking Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who harasses the family to cruel extremes. This horrible story makes Susan harken back to her relationship with Edward and what went wrong, while the novel tells Tony’s desire to vengeance with the help of a local detective (Michael Shannon). 


It’s amazing how well Ford juggles the three stories he has in Nocturnal Animals. They all have acceptable amounts of screentime, though the third story of Susan and Edward’s relationship seems rather rushed and come off more like bullet points of moments rather than developments. Regardless, Susan in real time and the events of the book balance out, never connecting in the literal sense but definitely inspired by Susan’s dark reality. Ford uses Edward as a vessel for American hope and optimism, then crushes it with Susan’s equally American drive for success and how she’ll jettison anything that’s slowing her down, even if it’s her school girl crush. He mirrors that in the fictional book, testing how far Tony would go to see justice done and whether that makes him a man defending his family’s honor or just as animalistic as the men who made him into a coward. What makes every punch of the movie land hard is the triple threat of Ford, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and composer Abel Korzeniowski. Ford weaves neo-noir wonders with McGarvey’s excellent shots of the dusty Texas plains and the icy LA art scene while Korzeniowski uses haunting strings to bring tension and drama that borders on camp but is utterly entertaining. It’s as if Ford has made the best (and meanest) soap opera ever, and that’s not a bad thing at all. 
Not to mention the charm coming from the stellar cast. Adams (on a hot streak with this following fall’s Arrival) revels in Susan’s shallow vapidness and despair. Underneath the couture dresses and eye shadow, Adams sneaks in genuine hurt behind her eyes when she realizes the failure behind her success. Even when she’s covered in glamour, Adams takes a sledgehammer to every character she does and breaks it down beautifully (especially in the film’s final scene). Gyllenhaal (no stranger to multiple personalities on screen) is great to watch as Tony, trying to comprehend his cowardice when he didn’t save his family and justifying the dirty deeds he must do for retribution. Gyllenhaal’s not breaking a sweat here, but he remains compelling throughout as a story motivator. Shannon and especially Taylor-Johnson both give chilling turns in their supporting roles that egg on the evil in Tony’s story. Shannon as the grisly detective and Taylor-Johnson as the smirking psychopath both act as extreme reflections of Tony’s decisions that scare him to death, showing that Ford sees no righteous choice.

Matter of fact, Ford doesn’t seem to see any good people in Nocturnal Animals. He seems to always find a dirty monster behind the high class and the average soul, and the lengths he goes to prove that point in his film is fantastic. Nocturnal Animals thrives in its mission to mate beauty and ugliness and see which one the audience sees more of. What did I see? Both, and I wanted more of each.

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Art of Stop-Motion Storytelling

Let me say upfront that I adore stop-motion animation. I was raised on Aardman Studios and Robot Chicken, so I’ve always admired the dedication and patience of the makers of stop-motion animation. Sadly, because of the advancement of animation technology and how easy it is to do in comparison, stop-motion has become more and more of a rarity in film. But thank god Laika films (Coraline, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls) is prominent enough to not only keep making movies, but also keep getting better.

Kubo and the Two Strings follows its title character (Art Parkinson), a young boy living in ancient Japan with his mother, playing his magical Shamisen (a three-string guitar) that makes origami paper come to life and perform a story for crowds. It tells the story of Kubo’s father, Hanzo, a legendary samurai who fought great battles but Kubo has never known. It turns out that Kubo’s mother’s family, led by the Moon God Raiden (Ralph Fiennes) and his twin daughters (Rooney Mara), banished Kubo’s mother from the heavens after taking one of Kubo’s eyes as a baby. But the Sisters reach the human world to try to take Kubo’s other eye, so Kubo must look for three items that make up a magical piece of armor in order to fight Raiden. He won’t be alone thanks to the help of a fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former student of Hanzo’s now cursed to appear as a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). 

On a technical level alone, Kubo is Laika’s finest film to date. The detail and movement of the stop-motion is beautiful and astonishing. Everything from the action scenes to the origami coming to life to even the wind blowing water off the ocean waves is impressive. Since the film doesn’t take place in too many large cities and the need for set design didn’t need to be entirely detailed, the filmmakers took that as an opportunity to add more realism to the minimal world around Kubo. The film doesn’t use Japanese culture stereotypes, instead finds the core meanings of many modern traditions: dreams, family, imagination, and hope. On paper, it’s a fantasy adventure quest with family values (little hints of Indiana Jones thrown in). But the beauty of the animation (not to mention the gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli) makes it feels so much bigger, almost a bit spiritual.


But even if that’s lost on the audience, the fun is front and center thanks to the voice cast. Art Parkinson isn’t playing the wimpy lost orphan, giving Kubo some genuine charisma along with heartfelt emotion. When he takes on the giant worm monster of the Moon King, it’s easy to believe his fearlessness. Theron well-served as Kubo’s Jiminey Cricket, equally effective in giving out wisdom and droll humor. McConaughey is pitch-perfect as the comedic sidekick, somewhat of a pseudo-riff on the macho hero of fantasy stories. Think Captain Qwark of Ratchet & Clank if his intentions were noble and he had amnesia.

Kubo is certainly the most unique animated movie of the year (for kids at least, what with the release of Sausage Party). It’s not just for its great animation, but for a simple story with an inviting universe around it. Fun, free-spirited and open to all who see it despite its specific culture, Kubo is all about telling stories and legends like the right amount pizazz and heart. There’s no need to blink or worry about missing anything, just sit back and watch the wonder unravel.


Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

No Squad Goals

I feel bad for DC fans, I really do. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to know that all of their beloved superheroes and supervillains are owned by Warner Bros. studios, who’ve have promised to give them a cavalcade of cinematic blockbusters about their childhood icons yet clearly don’t care about them beyond their marketability. Earlier this year, they showed that they can take the infinite potential of putting their two biggest superheroes on the same screen together and destroy it in a way as shocking and horrifying as the Hindenburg crash. Now, a mere five months later, they’ve tried to take some of DC’s most menacing bad guys and throw them together for a one-off romp of dastardly fun…and they couldn’t even do that right.
Suicide Squad picks up right where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice left off (SPOILER ALERT: Superman is dead..maybe..kinda..who cares?) and the US government has immediately gone from mourning the Man of Steel to fearing for the next metahuman attack. Stone cold government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan: assemble a team of imprisoned psychos with special abilities to take on mission too tough for standard soldiers. Said team includes hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), mentally-unstable crime queen Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), sewer-dwelling monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), fire-wielding street gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez), violent goofball Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), vengeful assassin Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and the master of…um..ropes Slipknot (Adam Beach). Led by Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), they must infiltrate Midway City after one of Waller’s original recruits, the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), goes rogue. But there might be more trouble as Harley’s heartbreaker, The Joker (Jared Leto), is in town looking to reunite with his love.
Whereas Batman v Superman was terrible for having stakes as high as Mt. Everest and blowing it all in the grimmest of fashions, Suicide Squad is bad (not terrible, but bad) because it wastes its own endless possibilities. There are ten characters here ripe for development, and the movie does nearly nothing with them. Sure, Deadshot gets a little daughter for emotional ties, Harley’s got here relationship goals, and Flagg and Enchantress are in a romance (for some reason), but they feel more like motivators for the plot to keep going instead of outlining these characters. Everyone else is nothing but background filler that’s easily expendable. Want proof? Slipknot dies after being in the movie for two scenes…..TWO! The only one who gets the most out of it is Diablo, who gets a tragic backstory of his powers being a gift and curse which is why he’s so reluctant to use them, which doesn’t sound familiar at all (*cough*). On top of poor character and story integration, Suicide Squad also has the misfortune of being a modern WB/DC movie, shot in ugly colors and terrible lighting that make all of these eccentric baddies fade into the muck. It takes a lot of balls to take two of the most colorful villains in comic history and make them underwhelming stencils of their source material, but Suicide Squad pulls it off. There’s also the usual problems: terrible editing, poorly shot action scenes, and a pace so rushed that it’s clear the movie wants to get this all over with as fast as possible.


Now for those DC fanboys who say that this wasn’t made for the average moviegoer and for “fans only,” is this really the story you’re excited for the Suicide Squad to be in: A magical whatever shoots a laser in the sky to unleash something to enslave the world because reasons? Is it a fair trade off for these villains with long history and deep backstory in comics to be completely ignored for the equivalent of a Power Rangers episode? Granted, the comic geek in me is tickled pink to see Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang walk into a bar (not a joke) to talk shop, but is that worth two hours and $175 million of Warner Bros. waining movie budget? 
And that’s a shame, because everyone involved seems to be having a ball playing bad guy dress up. Smith is back in standard action hero form, Courtney is the most likable he’s ever been in his film career, Hernandez is peaceful moral center of the madness, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the tough guy comic relief. I’m sure it’ll delight focus groups and WB’s PR to know that the best performance in the movie are from the ladies. Davis is the baddest of the bunch and she owns every scene she struts into. Fukuhara is deserved of her own movie as she shows brief vulnerability while being the silent killer of the group. And Robbie..holy lord, is this woman a bonafide movie star. She’s the best part of the movie and may be worth the price of admission alone, sinking her lipstick-smeared teeth into the role and punctuating nearly every scene. There’s a genuine glee radiating from her performance, like she’s playing Marilyn Monroe on speed. Hollywood know owes Robbie an IOU for being the lone spark in this dead battery of an action movie. Oh and about Leto’s Joker, how does it feel to know that nearly a year and a half of media hype was all for a minuscule 10-15 minutes of screen time and an even smaller screen presence? Leto feels like an outline of who the Joker is, only the most easily accessible layer of he rabbit’s hole of madness that is the Clown Prince of Crime.


Everyone and everything in Suicide Squad is another victim of WB’s mad dash to play keep up with Marvel studios and the war of the superhero movies. The victim who got it the worst (besides the fans of course) is writer/director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury), who clearly had a vision for this and wanted to make this the twisted middle finger to bright shiny superhero movies it could’ve been. It’s clear his vision was cut and hacked to death because WB is starting to see how deep into their own grave they’ve dug themselves. Now that people are starting to catch on that superhero movies are starting to be more of the same, the genre needs to take a risk in order to survive. A space western with a giant tree and a talking raccoon? Yes. A foul mouthed douchebag in a red suit and a horrible facial complexion? Sure. A group of costumed weirdos saving the world? Been there, done that, whatever.
Final Verdict: 1.5 out of 4 stars

Going Beyond For Everybody

Despite their warring fanbases and differing approaches to science-fiction, Star Wars and Star Trek actually suffer from a similar problem: they’re incredibly overhyped. Both George Lucas’ intergalactic western and Gene Roddenberry’s space explorers TV show have become so ingrained onto pop culture that fans have glorified both properties as these deep epics of poetry and symbolism. It’s great to see such passion in these properties, but both franchises are mostly just fun space adventures with likeable characters. Like most memorable forms of television and movies, the characters are what people remember and cherish the most (the proof is in how many action figures both properties have sold). Taking those properties and trying to make them overly complex and self-serious has proven to be a bad step for both franchises. Star Wars has the prequels, and Star Trek has The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, Insurrection and Into Darkness. When both properties know what they are and focus on their characters while keeping the fun, they both thrive. Star Wars has its original trilogy and The Force Awakens while Star Trek has The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country and the 2009 reboot. And now, Trekkies and casual fans alike can add one more to that list.

Star Trek Beyond brings audiences back with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise about three years into their five-year voyage, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a little lost (IIIINNNN SPAAAAACE….sorry, had to do it). He has to clear his head fast when a lone alien is rescued by the Federation and asks for the Enterprise to travel to an unknown planet and save her people. Kirk and co. run into the monstrous Krall (Idris Elba) and his swarm of spaceships that strand the crew on the unknown planet. Dr. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are fighting hurt, Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) try to find out what Krall is after, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken captive with the rest of the crew, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets a mysterious inventor (Sofia Boutella) with a way to help. Though they crash land apart, the Enterprise crew must find each other to stop Krall’s evil plan.

Full disclosure: I love J.J. Abrams’ reboot films, but I’m not a Trekkie and Abrams made those movies almost exclusively for non-Trek fans, which explains my love for them and why they’re so successful. This may have actually been Paramount’s plan all along: Now that Star Trek has once again immersed itself into pop culture and established its brand amongst typical moviegoers, it can finally be what longtime fans have wanted all along and offer casual viewers more of the same. The trick? Have a longtime fan who just so happens to be a huge fan (Pegg) co-write the script and have a blockbuster action director (Justin Lin of Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6) keep the whole thing moving.

Chris-Pine-and-Justin-Lin-in-Star-Trek-Beyond

(Left to right) Chris Pine and director Justin Lin on set of “Star Trek Beyond”

Pegg’s script is simple and has more interest in character interaction than general plot. Beyond may be the simplest Star Trek movie to date, so small in scale and so uninterested in its stakes that Krall doesn’t feel all that threatening. Beyond feels more like an extended TV episode than a major motion-picture, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. While Abrams is great at setting up movies, he has trouble creating an entirely satisfying ending (perhaps Star Trek ‘09 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the exceptions). Lin knows exactly how to keep a steady pace and fun atmosphere throughout the movie while sliding in some solid (if not brief) character moments, like how Spock handles the death of his future self (R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy). Beyond is more about watching the crew of the Enterprise come together in a pinch than a grand plot to save the entire universe, sacrificing what could’ve been a great villain in exchange for continuously developing good characters, which works.  Lin knows exactly what Star Trek is through and through, building colorful sets and weaving cool space gadgets into the film. He also gets to have super fun with special effects and CGI, creating an impressive inner-space Federation base that should be seen to be believed. But it’s about seeing the crew interact with each other and how bonded they are with each other. 

 

Beyond thrives the same way all Star Trek movies thrive: with a great, connected cast. Pine and Quinto remain on-point as Kirk and Spock, but Quinto gets out just a bit farther ahead than Pine. Quinto gets the deeper moments for Spock while Pine remains in stern hero mode. Kirk is advertised as “lost in space” and unsure if wants to remain off planet anymore, but it all gets lost in the action and quickly resolves itself before the credits. Pine is still a fine lead, but that’s only because his bland confidence is spaced between the supporting acts like Quinto and the ever-lovable Urban. It makes sense that Scotty gets a lot more dialogue this time around since his actor wrote the script, but Pegg is no comedic slouch thanks to his frantic energy. Sadly, Beyond also commits an intergalactic offense by wasting Elba in the villain role. Not only does he feel restricted behind some (admittedly impressive) alien makeup, but he may be the most expendable villain since the faux-God in The Final Frontier despite a plot-twist reveal on his backstory. Again, the sacrifice is for the good of the main cast, but it feels like something that could’ve used a touch more development especially from such a great actor.

 

Beyond is the movie that meets Trekkies and casual fans halfway, with random science techno-babble and motorcycle stunts going hand-in-hand. It’s a tad ridiculous, but that comes with the territory and, like Lin’s Fast & Furious films, doesn’t mean to insult the audience’s intelligence. How can you hate a movie that takes place thousands of years into the future yet still manages to throw in Beastie Boys and Public Enemy as plot devices?

 

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars