Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 05, 2018

2017 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch investigate a murder on an Indian reservation.

Wind River:Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an experienced federal wildlife agent, discovers the body of a young Native American woman in the snow on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Lambert knew her; Natalie Hanson probably froze to death, but was apparently raped, beaten and was likely fleeing her assailants. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate, but without even a decent winter coat. As the film progresses, we learn much more about dark secrets on the reservation and nearby towns and work sites, and gradually discover the story of Lambert and why he's divorced from his Native American ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones).

What makes Banner interesting and admirable is that she's in way over her head but knows it, and is trying to do right by Hanson and her family, so she openly appeals for help from both Lambert and Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene), the tribal police chief. She occasionally makes cultural or social flubs, but owns up to them. Banner's inexperienced and slightly naïve, but also smart and dedicated; Olsen makes her likable. Meanwhile, along with The Hurt Locker (the first film reviewed here), this is Renner's best work to date. Lambert is skilled and reliable, but also carries deep wounds that resurface from investigating this case. Greene is solid, as usual. Be warned that Wind River has moments of disturbing violence, including sexual assault; I appreciated that none of it was glorified. My one problem with the film was watching it thinking that Renner's character could have been Native American instead of white. Him being white does play into at least one scene on the reservation, but doesn't seem to add much to the story overall, and white audiences already have Olsen as a surrogate. Likewise, in a scene with Lambert and Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham), Natalie's deeply grieving father, I wanted more focus on Martin. Your mileage may vary. My guess is that casting Renner helped get funding for the movie, and I don't want to knock him too much; he's genuinely good, and even moving in some scenes. This is a fine effort by writer-director Taylor Sheridan.

Lady Bird: Lady Bird is nothing groundbreaking, but it's always welcome to see a well-made character study. In this case, we follow young Christine McBride (Saoirse Ronan), a senior in high school who's decided to call herself "Lady Bird" and frequently clashes with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Ronan consistently gives fine performances, and all her scenes with Metcalf are superb; they can shift from bickering to bonding and back again on a dime. (A dress-shopping trip is particularly knowing about mother-daughter dynamics.) Lady Bird's father, Larry (actor and playwright Tracy Letts, in a nice turn) is often stuck playing peacekeeper. Beanie Feldstein is a standout as Julie Steffans, Lady Bird's best friend, similarly quirky and a bit of an outcast. However, their friendship becomes strained as Lady Bird becomes closer to popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush). Lady Bird's dating forays start out promising but often don't meet her expectations. This is an enjoyable, promising directorial debut by actress and writer Greta Gerwig, who's especially adept with the female characters but gives all the secondary characters interesting moments. As I've mentioned before, as much as I like Allison Janney, I'd have given Metcalf the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and it's always worthwhile to check out Saoirse Ronan in a good role. (After her performance in last year's Brooklyn, playing a slightly older character, I'm glad she got to play a teenager again while she still could.) The plot has some wrinkles, but this is a film built on performances and relationships; if you like the actors, check it out.

Blade Runner 2049: If you're going to make an unnecessary sequel, at least make a good film. The original film, 1982's iconic Blade Runner, was set in 2019, which hasn't aged well as a prediction, but the sequel-makers decided to stick with the time line. (Just say it's alternative reality and everything's fine.) As in the first film, the world has replicants, artificially created humans with enhanced physical abilities but who cannot reproduce, and it has blade runners, cops who apprehend or kill ("retire") replicants who get on the wrong side of the law. We start the film with K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner hunting replicants who's a replicant himself, which comes in handy thanks to the added strength and faster reflexes. K is working for the LAPD, specifically Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), who's kinder to K than his fellow cops (who taunt him), but also seems to enjoy the power she has over him. In the course of a mission, K discovers something extraordinary (slight spoilers) – the remains of a replicant woman (Rachael, played by Sean Young in the first movie) who apparently died giving birth. The idea of a replicant child forms an explosive revelation that could cause outright violence between humans and replicants, so Joshi orders K to investigate and destroy the evidence, including the child itself if he can find it. In Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation ("More Human Than Human") was the leading creator of replicants. In Blade Runner 2049, we meet Tyrell's successor, the extremely powerful Wallace Corporation, run by messianic, eccentric CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who sports enhanced eyes reminiscent of the owl in the first movie. Wallace also want to find the child, because he can't create replicants quickly enough and if they could procreate it would help with space colonization Wallace sets his right-hand woman on the case, the formidable replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Meanwhile, as K probes, he discovers more and more clues about his own past, which leads him to question his mission, which in turn could jeopardize his own safety and even existence.

The most interesting aspects of Blade Runner 2049 are the identity and intimacy issues, which make for a pretty existential storyline punctuated by action, all presented in a well-realized neo-noir aesthetic. (K, who also goes by "Joe" privately, is almost certainly named in homage to Kafka's protagonist in The Trial, Josef K.) K has been a dutiful cop but leads a lonely life, despised by many of his colleagues and other parts of human society. His main solace is his virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI whom he loves; he even buys her a mobile emanator, which allows her to leave his apartment, where the AI is housed. Joi becomes a fascinating character because she does seem to genuinely care about K, but was manufactured, and presents as a kind of male wish-fulfillment of devoted feminine companionship, albeit with intelligence and original insights. How much autonomy does she really have? And K was manufactured himself. How much of their relationship, or even their existence, is real? What is K's true past and his identity? Perhaps he can gain more knowledge from replicant memory artist Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), or the veteran, retired blade runner who knew Rachael, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

At 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels it at points; Deckard seems unnecessarily regulated to the background in a climatic scene; and the film leaves several significant plot questions (possibly intentional with the idea of another sequel or two). Still, it's one of the most interesting films of the year. Unless you hate sci-fi and know this isn't your thing, it's worth checking out. Gosling and the other actors are excellent. The aesthetic is impressive (and it's nice to see that cinematographer Roger Deakins was finally given an Oscar). After this film and Arrival (reviewed here), director Denis Villeneuve has shown a promising feel for good science fiction. As with many of the best noir detective stories, the investigation becomes both external and internal, giving the storyline quite a bit of depth and thought-provoking aspects.

Dunkirk: Writer-director Christopher Nolan shows his usual technical acumen and love of intricate structure in this historical drama set during World War II. It's 1940, and the "Battle of France" has been going poorly for the Allies; the British and French armies have been surrounded by the invading German army and retreat to Dunkirk on the northern French coast. The Allied forces are effectively stranded, without enough suitable transport ships to evacuate the beach; 300,000 men could be killed or captured, giving Germany a significant advantage. In desperation, Britain commandeers civilian vessels such as fishing boats to cross the English channel and rescue the military. Nolan tells the tale from three main perspectives, and different time scales: the perspective from land, covering about a week; the perspective from the a sea, covering about day; and perspective from the air, covering about an hour. The interweaving storylines work surprisingly well, and it's impressive that Nolan makes it look so easy. As usual, though, he's a bit cerebral and reserved. He gives viewers almost no context whatsoever for the depicted events, assuming they're familiar with not only World War II, but specifically the Battle of France and Dunkirk. (British viewers probably are, and French as well; most Americans would know D-Day much better instead.) Nolan also doesn't introduce characters well in the land portion – you're lucky to catch a name, and it might take a while to figure out that guy from that other guy. Mark Rylance is superb as usual and a standout as Mr. Dawson, who decides to pilot his boat across the channel himself before the British Navy can requisition it. He's the very picture of quietly plucky Brit, and Rylance removes the taint of stereotype by infusing his performance with his usual humanity and nuance. Traveling with Dawson is his young son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan), who joins them at the last minute, seeking adventure. Familiar Nolan players Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy give memorable turns – Hardy as Farrier, one of only a few fighter pilots available to help, and Murphy as a shell-shocked sailor. It's also nice to see Kenneth Branagh, who's great as the weary-but-practical Commander Bolton, fully aware of the stark odds they face. Nolan shot Dunkirk in 70 mm and the IMAX format; some scenes are projected in widescreen, but most have the added IMAX image space on top and bottom. As I've written elsewhere, I'd have given Dunkirk's Best Sound Mixing Oscar to Baby Driver, but it fully deserved its Best Sound Editing win; there's little dialogue in the film, and the score and sound effects contribute a great deal. I thought Dunkirk was overhyped, but I suspect it will improve on repeated viewings.

Molly's Game: Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut has two good lead performances and all the snappy patter you could hope for. Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, the film follow the smart and extremely competitive Molly (Jessica Chastain) as her Olympic skiing dreams are shattered and she gets involved in running a secret, high-stakes poker game for big shots and celebrities. Most of the story is told in flashback to her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), because Molly's being prosecuted for illegal activity, thanks to growing interest from organized crime in the poker game and related interest from the feds. This is one of Chastain's best performances; she enjoys playing a spitfire and has the chops for the verbal fireworks. Likewise, Elba's a reliable performer but isn't often given this much verbiage, and he seems to enjoy the ammunition he's been given. All the Chastain-Elba scenes are fantastic. Molly makes for an interesting character, facing sexism but also using it to her advantages (the film could be summed up as snappy patter, poker and cleavage). This is entertaining fare as long as you like Sorkin (asides about The Crucible included) and take it for what it is. This is a tale told from Molly's point of view, and she's the sympathetic heroine of it, even if she does dabble in drugs; I found myself wondering how accurate the film was. Some scenes strain credulity; Kevin Costner plays Molly's demanding psychologist father, Larry, and a late scene is a bravura piece of dialogue-writing, but implausible for consciously cramming in so many revelations in rapid succession. (It was so unlikely I found myself wondering if it was a Molly fantasy sequence.) Meanwhile, although Molly is attractive, rich and driven, we never see a hint of a personal relationship, not even the occasional fling, which seems odd. Some characters, including Elba and "Player X" (Michael Cera) are apparently composites, and many scenes feel devised for dramatic effect or to avoid legal liability. Still, fans of the Sorkin style or the actors will be entertained.

Phantom Thread: We're mainly tuning in to see Daniel Day-Lewis' final screen performance before he retires for a second time. The results aren't as good as his previous collaboration with writer-director P.T. Anderson, There Will Be Blood (the first film reviewed here), but fans of fine acting will want to see this one. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a talented, meticulous and demanding fashion designer. Everything in his life must be just so; he detests disruptions from his routine, and although he can be generous at times, he can also be vicious to those who fail to anticipate his desires (which are generally fixed, but not always). Reynolds' most loyal aide is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who runs the business side of things and plays fixer for Reynolds while he handles the creative side. One day, young waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) catches Reynolds' eye, and he adopts her as his latest muse, bringing her to live with him and Cyril and outfitting her in his latest gorgeous gowns. Stories about abusive geniuses feel a bit old-hat at this point, but luckily, Anderson and the rest of the team have plenty of twists up their sleeves. You might see a few of them coming, but probably not all. Day-Lewis is as splendid as ever, bringing his usual level of detail and nuance, and it's a shame he's stepping away from acting (we can only hope he'll reconsider again). Manville is a robust presence and fantastic; I was lucky enough to see her on stage recently, and went based on her performance in Phantom Thread. Most of the time, Cyril seems fiercely possessive of her brother Reynolds, reminiscent of Mrs. Danvers, the domineering housekeeper in Rebecca. At other points, she strongly and startlingly opposes Reynolds. Meanwhile, Vicky Krieps (from Luxembourg!) is a revelation. She has a sweetness and luminosity in the beginning that make Reynolds' attraction to her understandable, but the character also has a hard edge and striking vindictiveness. Alma's mixed feelings about the consequences of her actions are key to selling the later sections of the film. (This household has some messed-up dynamics.)

As with Anderson's other films, I found the sound design was a mixed bag. In a nice touch, he juices the sound effects of spoons in tea cups and slurping when Reynolds is getting (irrationally) annoyed with someone. On the other hand, I felt Anderson went over the top with some crashing, melodramatic music cues (Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood was once again the composer). I like other films from Day-Lewis or Anderson more, but this is worth a look (not the least for Manville and Krieps).

Get Out: Comedian Jordan Peele shows off his range by writing and directing this unconventional and ridiculously successful film, which was marketed as a horror film but also plays as a really dark comedy. It's time for Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented photographer, to finally meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). The parents are well-to-do and live in a big, isolated house in the upstate countryside. They're ostensibly liberal, and Peele has fun casting The West Wing's Bradley Whitford as dad Dean, a neurosurgeon, and typically likable Catherine Keener as mom Missy, a therapist. Their son, Rose's brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a bit odd and has a knack for saying inappropriate things. It turns out that this weekend is the annual party the Armitages throw for their rich friends. Much of the first section of the film is cringe comedy as white people trying to be racially sensitive say clueless things to Chris, who bears it all with good grace. The dynamics are made all the more awkward by the Armitages having two black servants, the muscular Walter (Marcus Henderson), and graceful Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom behave oddly with Chris – and then there's the key utterance of the film's title.

Some of Get Out's elements don't hold up to extended scrutiny (more in the spoilers below), but it manages to be genuinely unsettling, with plenty of creepy moments. There's also no denying its originality. Peele plays with genre and cultural expectations throughout, probably most directly with Chris' best friend, Rod (comedian Lil Rel Howery), who serves as a kind of black Greek chorus audience surrogate. Peele has mentioned that black audiences tend to find Get Out much funnier than white audiences, and it'd be fun to attend a mixed screening and see the reactions. Likewise, some of the scenes surely play differently on a second viewing. (Peele considered at least three endings, which are apparently shown or discussed on the disc.) Viewers who don't normally like horror might still want to consider this one; it's not particularly gory, and most of the discomfort is psychological, and thought-provoking. Personally, I didn't think Get Out deserved Best Picture, as some critics have argued, but I was happy to see its acclaim, its financial success and Peele's Best Original Screenplay win. (SPOILERS)

The Post: It's hard not to like The Post, a paean to the First Amendment that focuses on efforts in 1971 by The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon papers and internal debates about it. The Pentagon papers were a classified report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, showing that, among other things, the U.S. government had misled the American people about how the war was going and whether it was winnable; their positive public declarations were at sharp odds with their private assessments. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers, and the government sought to prevent the press from publishing any part of them.

As usual, director Steven Spielberg assembles a top-notch cast, led here by Meryl Streep as Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham and her hard-nosed editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Graham's father owned the paper and her husband, Phil, used to run it before his suicide. It's still a man's world, and the men surrounding Graham, even if they believe they have her best interests at heart, do not show her much respect. Graham is also faced with several dilemmas – publishing the papers over the threats of the Nixon administration could, as some her advisors warn her, ruin The Post. She's also friends with some of the people implicated by the papers, most of all former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood); Bradlee accuses Graham of being too cozy with McNamara (just as Bradlee was with the Kennedys).

Even for viewers who know this history, it's pretty engrossing. Streep is simply fantastic in a pivotal decision scene. (It elicited small cheers and applause in my screening.) Hanks is solid as usual, although I've heard (and find plausible) that his mannerisms are less Ben Bradlee and more Jason Robards' version of Ben Bradlee from All the President's Men. That earlier film remains better, but The Post makes for a nice companion piece. The supporting cast is stacked, with Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greewood, Alison Brie, and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others. Spielberg made this film quickly, and if it's slightly less polished than some of his other work, there's an energy to it – and relevance, unfortunately. It's also an impressive first feature screenplay from Liz Hannah. The Post has at least a few touches that are invented to provide some typical Spielberg hokey moments, but it's nice to see films like this, made for adults.

Baby Driver: Writer-director Edgar Wright has joked about filming crazy car chases with crappy cars – and he has, for comedic and entertaining effect – but this time out, Wright delivers a slick, glossy-ad, big-budget version of the car chase, with the chases central rather than peripheral. Title character Baby (Ansel Elgort) has hearing and focus issues and is obsessed with music, allowing Wright to direct many scenes like a music video, as Baby listens to his tunes and dances about, sporting his Han Solo homage vest. (As I wrote in my Oscars post, I'd have given Best Sound Mixing to Baby Driver over Dunkirk, which deserved its Best Sound Editing win.) Baby's a misfit, but he's also an almost supernaturally talented wheel man, serving as the getaway driver for a crew of hoodlums working for Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby owes Doc a debt and he's working it off, with the usual movie temptation of one more heist and then I'm out looming large. Baby has extra motivation after hitting it off with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). Among the crooks, the standouts are Leon "Bats" (Jamie Foxx) and Jason "Buddy" (Jon Hamm), both of whom manage to be genuinely menacing. (I suspect Hamm especially enjoyed the change of pace from playing his usual charmers.) Elgort and James have nice chemistry together, and soon we're rooting for the young couple. Meanwhile, Wright pulls out all the stops to deliver spectacular action sequences that will have you laughing with admiration or gripping your seat in tension. Be warned that the movie does get pretty violent at times if that's not your thing, but mostly it's a summer popcorn movie romp. Baby Driver is not the deepest film, but this is joyful filmmaking with superb craftsmanship, and it's an awful lot of fun.

The Big Sick: Judd Apatow produces and Michael Showalter directs this film based on the real-life story of its star and cowriter, standup comic Kumail Nanjiani. Kumail starts dating Emily (Zoe Kazan) and they hit it off well, but Kumail's traditional parents do not approve of him dating a woman who's neither Pakistani nor Muslim, and this puts a major strain on Kumail's relationships with both his family and Emily. Then a mysterious illness sends Emily into a coma, and Kumail is forced together with Emily's parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter); Beth really doesn't like him but Terry makes an effort. Although Apatow didn't direct The Big Sick, it shows the same mix of drama and comedy that's his hallmark, and the script, by Nanjiani and the real Emily (Gordon), is full of interesting and genuine moments. The performances are natural and believable, working well for the material. Don't expect either a typical comedy or disease-of-the-week movie; The Big Sick is at times funny but more often goes for moving, and generally succeeds. As I wrote in my Oscars post, I cheered when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, but would have been likewise thrilled if The Big Sick won. I enjoyed its originality and authenticity. Not everyone likes this type of movie, but a certain crowd will really appreciate it.

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