captain_fantastic_posterCaptain Fantastic (2016)

Starring- Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd

Director- Matt Ross

R- language and brief graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1kH4OMIOMc

When tragedy disrupts a family living off the grid in the wilderness, they find themselves forced into a long-overdue encounter with the civilization from which patriarch Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has so vigilantly shielded them.

Captain Fantastic is very good and also very weird in a manner that sometimes enriches and other times undercuts it, largely because it attempts to assume the appearance of normalcy much too soon and much too dramatically and occasionally struggles to navigate its comedic and dramatic elements. It’s a high-concept movie with low-concept execution — stronglow-concept execution, but it’s still a touch less challenging and unique than promised.

This family isn’t the typical group of survivalists — Ben Cash took his children off the grid because of his disdain for capitalist America; they’re admirers of Trotsky and Mao. By day, Ben teaches his children to hunt and conquer the natural world; by night, he forces them to read and deliver extensive reports about books on politics, sociology, history, and quantum mechanics. As a result, his six kids have professional athletes’ physiques and are literal geniuses — his eight-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights from memory and analyze recent Supreme Court decisions, and his oldest has secretly applied to every prestigious university in the country and been accepted at all of them.

I think the reason it comes across weird and tough to relate to is that the movie embraces the most cartoonish stereotypes of the radical fringes of both ends of the political spectrum and blends them into one group of characters. There’s so little middle ground in the Cash family’s worldview that it’s difficult to give them any sense of personal history outside this movie. The liberal elements of Ben’s personality manifest a little more distinctly than the conservative ones, which makes every scene of survivalist oddities feel like an out-of-character moment. Ben reads as fairly typical of radical leftist intellectuals, and I understand why that would drive him into the wilderness to inoculate his children against capitalist society; naturally, that means he’ll have to teach his children how to hunt, grow food, and survive the elements. How he decided that they needed to learn to fight with knives and should celebrate their first successful hunts by eating the animal’s raw heart on the spot is somewhat more difficult to understand. It’s like if the characters in Red Dawn belonged to a commune.

My difficulty accepting this on a character level may simply be the extreme nature of it all. After all, there are people out there who live this way. It’s that the movie feels like a series of attack-ad stereotypes magnified to the point of comedy and then played for drama. The characters celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, and they also go mountain-climbing during thunderstorms. Make no mistake, the movie absolutely intends for some of this to play as comedy, and it’s very effective when the line is clear; unfortunately, it isn’t always. It can be hard to tell what you’re supposed to laugh at and what you’re supposed to take seriously, and I find myself doing both at times where it didn’t seem to be in line with the film’s intent. Go the wilderness commune route, show us a family living off the land, but don’t exaggerate it to the point that it’s tough to empathize because the characters are being arbitrarily weird about everything.

But the truly strange thing, in the end, is that for all the trouble the movie goes to establishing these characters’ worldview, the story doesn’t appear to be all that interested in it in the long term. It’s impossible to outline the movie’s plot without talking about politics, and individual scenes don’t go long before characters start monologuing on one ideological point or another, but it terms of its emotional focus, Captain Fantastic is actually very apolitical. It isn’t subjecting any of its more interesting ideas to analysis. It takes its unusual premise and walks it through a somewhat typical story about grieving and parenthood, just centered on an especially strange group of characters. The politics and the family’s unusual circumstances are just window dressing. The movie is uninterested in its characters’ thoughts about the world. Its arc only attacks the social isolation Ben has forced upon his children and the fact that he makes them do really dangerous things, both of which are obvious and don’t exactly inspire a whole lot of reflection: “Do not give small children giant knives as a Noam Chomsky Day present, got it.” That isn’t much of an insight into the human condition.

But the movie’s got it where it counts. The story it chooses to tell is perhaps too ordinary in light of its extraordinary trappings, but it’s nevertheless very well-told. As both writer and director, Matt Ross knows how to get to you and keep you invested in his characters’ fates; nearly all of Captain Fantastic’s biggest emotional beats, even the ones compromised by plot holes or general unreality, hit hard. It’s able to establish and develop its characters’ personalities in subtle but consistent ways, defining them through small actions that become trends over time. Ross is capable of surprising with the roles his characters ultimately end up taking; he’s always peeling back layers and adding new dimensions that cast the things they say and do in a new light and keep them feeling fresh and complex.

What most impresses me is that he resists what surely must have been a powerful temptation, in a movie with this setup, to paint in terms of heroes and villains. The movie’s foremost achievement, in my mind, is that it forces you to ask whether Ben is a good or bad father and leaves you straining to arrive at a satisfying answer. There are at least two characters in this movie I should have hated because they both do things that press major buttons for me — Ben, because he’s isolated his children, making it extremely for them to figure out who they are and what they want out of life and nearly impossible for them to manage on their own if they end up deciding against his lifestyle; and his father-in-law, Frank Langella, for being unnecessarily totalitarian about his daughter and in complete denial of who she is. But everyone has a vice, and everyone has a virtue, most of it centered on Ben’s complexity.

I like that the movie allows him to be right about certain things — his approach to educating his children, for example, is pretty close to spot-on; there’s one scene, possibly my favorite albeit for entirely personal reasons, where he talks to one of his daughters about a book she just read and basically ends up teaching the exact literature class I want to be offered at every school in the world. His focus on physical fitness, while undoubtedly excessive, is also admirable. He loves his children, and many of his methods get results. But he’s also sequestered them in a forest and raised them so that they only have a theoretical understanding of the world around them, one that immediately collapses in the scant moments when they are forced to interact with it. And, as stated, teaching knife-fighting to children probably isn’t the greatest idea.

So there’s that conflict — you recognize the ways that Ben’s parenting style is both benefiting and hurting his children; by extension, you recognize why his extended family looks upon it with no small amount of concern, while also wishing that they would open their minds enough to see that he’s doing some good as well. It creates a family dynamic that is, by its very nature, complicated and a premise readymade for the kind of back-and-forth, cause-and-effect drama that’s so riveting in movies like this. Every character has a completely justified point of view and a completely unjustified one, and the movie’s able to pull you back and forth, putting you on one person’s side in one scene and another’s in the next. As a result, what could have been another twee indie movie takes on more weight and avoids the dry moments such films tend to walk through every now and then.

It might not have the intellectual meat I hoped for, and it tends to be a hodgepodge of occasionally dissonant concepts, but Captain Fantastic is nevertheless big-hearted and engaging. Of 2016’s stereotypical indie movies, it might be the best. And I mean that as higher praise than it sounds.

the_legend_of_tarzan_posterThe Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Starring- Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Casper Crump

Director- David Yates

PG-13- sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLmKio67pVQ

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) — better known as Tarzan — and Jane (Margot Robbie) return to the jungle where he was raised to investigate rumors that the king of Belgium, through his right-hand man Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), is enslaving the Congolese people in order to pay off his debts.

It says a lot about the weirdness of the online film circles I run in that The Legend of Tarzan is both better and worse than its reputation. I heard effusive praise from its small core of defenders and over-the-top derision from its detractors, and I don’t think it’s worthy of either. In the end, it strikes me largely as mediocre, albeit not in the worst possible way, where it doesn’t even appear to be trying. I think it has some good ideas and even manages to wring something worthwhile out of one or two of them; it just fumbles the execution often enough that the positive and negative elements even out in the long term.

Most of the problems are in the script, which is only one or two rewrites away from being pretty good. The cast is largely up to the challenge, and so, for the most part, is director David Yates, fresh off the Harry Potter series — his commitment to shooting everything in steely blue-gray remains a touch excessive, but when it works, it’s beautiful. The story just isn’t there yet.

Step 1: Delete the flashbacks. The movie plays as a sequel to the famous Tarzan story — he’s out of the jungle, married to Jane, and living as a lord in England when the film begins. That’s a good idea, much better than a full reboot. But the movie definitely hedges its bets a little here, featuring persistent flashbacks to Tarzan’s origins that don’t have all that significant an impact on the main storyline and aren’t particularly engaging on their own terms to begin with. It’s a story we already know, and the movie tells it in a detached, obligatory way that doesn’t add anything new to it. It paints in very broad strokes and plays somewhat impressionistic — softly lit shots of Tarzan and Jane in the jungle making eyes at each other, sequences of a young Tarzan leaping through the trees. There’s no unifying story behind it. It doesn’t bring new information to the A-plot; it doesn’t even lend visual weight to what we already know. The version of this movie without the flashbacks is not only better paced but loses none of the audience’s attachment to the characters.

The main storyline works a bit better — it’s more interesting, better-constructed, and I was surprised to find I mostly liked the characters despite the blandness of the trailers. They aren’t fascinating, fully-developed human beings with no readily available cinematic comparisons, but they’re still well-rounded and properly motivated. The cast does a decent job, for the most part: Margot Robbie and Djimon Hounsou are good but need more to do, Samuel L. Jackson is solid, and Alexander Skarsgard seems to have put serious effort into the lead role — what could have been (and seemed like it would be) a bland strongman protagonist becomes an actual character in his hands; he’s figured out the mannerisms and gait you might expect from a guy raised by apes in the jungle, and he approximates them without the strain that could easily distract from the character underneath all the quirks. Christoph Waltz is the only one I have especially mixed feelings about; it seems every character he plays is either fantastic or pure shtick with no middle ground. Only Quentin Tarantino seems interested in giving him parts that aren’t a variation on Hans Landa. There’s nothing necessarily bad about it; it’s just gotten very, very old. It’s potential wasted — and that’s the substance of my thoughts about most of what goes wrong here. The movie puts a lot of interesting things in place but fails to follow through on most of them.

The story isn’t paint-by-numbers blockbuster filmmaking; it takes actual risks and occasionally even tries to approximate a worldview. It inserts moral ambiguity into Tarzan’s relationship with a secondary villain, the kind most mainstream movies avoid like the plague, that would make it very easy to reverse the characters’ roles in another story. It criticizes colonialism and isn’t afraid to cast its net somewhat widely toward that end.

Ultimately, it just never does anything satisfying with these elements. That can manifest in the most basic of ways — for example, much of the movie’s arc is centered on a coming-together of disparate forces to fight against Rom’s forces and free the slaves, but the climax ends up being Tarzan and a few elements…with three or four entire armies showing up the second it’s over seemingly just to rub it in. “Here’s the massive, satisfying ending you could’ve had, audience!” Same goes for Jane, who feels like a product of a cultural moment that’s only just now beginning to end, when Hollywood was nervous about ending its male-centeredness but aware that it couldn’t obviously treat women as inferiors anymore and so retained damsel-in-distress plots while simply making said damsel “tough.” This version of Jane is a fiery, fun, assertive not-a-damsel (with the obligatory scene where she says as much out loud) who nevertheless spends ninety percent of the movie chained to the side of a boat listening to Christoph Waltz monologues.

But it manifests in the larger story sense as well, and that’s where the movie really starts to fall apart. The Legend of Tarzan is full of incident but can’t find the meaning behind it. Tarzan and Jane are dealing with the fallout of having lost her first pregnancy; Tarzan is dealing with morally questionable elements of his past; Jackson’s Civil War veteran, George Washington Williams (who, along with Rom, it turns out was a real person, though the movie doesn’t hew at all closely to their true stories), is trying to recompense for things he’s done as well (which ties into the aforementioned colonialism/imperialism bit); there’s verbalized stuff about Tarzan’s dual nature and meager beginnings — and none of it has a material impact on what’s actually happening in the story. The movie keeps throwing plot and character information into the mix but develops very little of it and resolves even less. You can see that confusion in the way the movie ends; it seems uncertain which note it should close on because it isn’t quite clear on what exactly its arc was, so it settles for a more generic ending that slowly evaporates in front of you instead of coming to a natural conclusion.

Parts of it are fun, parts of it are emotional, parts of it are interesting. Parts of it are enjoyable. Parts of it aren’t, straining to find their purpose and effect. I went back and forth as I watched it — enjoying myself, not enjoying myself, cycle back. I appreciate what it manages to do in light of what it is but wish it could’ve made it more than halfway. Ultimately, it just wasn’t ready yet, and now, unfortunately, that’s how it’s always going to be.

lights_out_2016_posterLights Out (2016)

Starring- Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho

Director- David F. Sandberg

PG-13- terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LiKKFZyhRU

When Rebecca’s (Teresa Palmer) little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) reports encounters with the same mysterious being that haunted her when she was a child and ultimately drove her from her mother’s home, she attempts to remove him in order to spare him the same fate — only to find that their unwanted guest won’t give up its hold on their family so easily.

I left Lights Out with middling-leaning-positive feelings about it, but then I started outlining this review and quickly realized that everything I liked about it fell under the category of “bad things it didn’t do” instead of “good things it did.” Is that where we are with horror movies now? So few good ones are made that I give passing grades to the mediocre ones simply because they aren’t terrible?

When I scour my mind for reasons to like it, I find only reasons why I didn’t dislike it. Instead of the cliche of the child having an imaginary friend that turns out to be a dangerous supernatural force, it’s the mother. Characters don’t continue to deny the existence of ghosts long after it has been objectively proven to them (although it’s weird that Rebecca managed to write off her childhood experiences as bad dreams even though quite a lot of them happened when she was awake and left behind physical evidence; either way, the movie gets beyond that point pretty early on). It avoids meaningless, annoying interpersonal drama — when characters tell friends/family members about what’s happening to them, their friends/family members believe them and try to help (sometimes to an almost ridiculous degree — Rebecca’s boyfriend, played by Alexander DiPersia, is the absolute most perfect horror movie boyfriend in history; it’s nice that he trusts and respects her and chooses to believe what she’s saying, but the way he immediately signs up for everything and never seems to have a moment of doubt despite having seen absolutely no evidence of what she’s telling him is just bizarre). Its thematic throughlines almost amount to an actual story.

That might be the one quality that gets me close to liking Lights Out. It’s actually about something and has an emotional center in its examination of the grieving process and its effect on a particular family; not only that, its arc is meaningfully connected to the horror elements rather than a side note included solely so the actors could do something other than sneak around. The supernatural elements here work on literal and allegorical levels, both standing in for and reflecting the characters’ inner lives; for them, overcoming the physical threat also means resolving their own issues. If it doesn’t save the movie, it’s because the script struggles to keep track of its metaphors and develop its themes in a way that amounts to much of anything. And then there’s the ending, which more or less works in the literal sense but sends a…discomfiting message when connected to the thematic arc that preceded it.

What sinks the movie is the extent to which it’s still a pretty representative sample of its genre. It might avoid some of the larger cliches, but the small ones remain pervasive. There’s an over-reliance on jump scares, which the movie is a bit lazy about to boot — the flickering light bit from the trailers gets repeated several times. The worst part is that the movie seems to be aware that you know where the jump is coming from and so turns every horror sequence into an interminable waiting game — it’s only a question of when. The movie’s caught between quiet tension and sudden jolts and never finds the balance — you end up seeing the monster so often that it becomes less scary, and you start predicting the jump scares almost perfectly. And that turns it into yet another horror movie where you mainly watch people sneak around in the dark over and over again. The plot stagnates midway through; it resolves the mystery of the ghost’s origins fairly early on and then has the characters sit on their hands with no idea how to combat it.

Overall, Lights Out is convincing enough that it almost got me to write a positive review with no significant praise beyond “you could do worse.” I guess that makes it a solid enough “bored on a rainy day” movie. But it’s in need of a little more imagination and a little more of its own voice. It’s capable of holding my attention, but scaring me? Not really.

dont_breathe_2016_filmDon’t Breathe (2016)

Starring- Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto

Director- Fede Alvarez

R- terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76yBTNDB6vU

A trio of young thieves, trying to raise the money to finally escape from their decrepit Detroit neighborhood, break into a blind man’s home, thinking he’ll be easy pickings. They think wrong. What begins as a simple break-in soon becomes a fight for survival.

Don’t Breathe strikes me as a one-time thrill ride whose critical and cultural esteem will fade once people watch it a few more times. It’s tense and viscerally effective. It also doesn’t really do anything new, or even anything all that interesting. There’s a much better movie hidden inside it, fighting to come out, but it’s never acknowledged.

Its successes are pretty simple — it’s short, it’s well-directed, and it works. There isn’t a lot more to it than that, but sometimes, that’s all you need. It imitates great movies well enough to temporarily convince you that it is one, even through a few of its more obvious problems. The cast is pretty strong, for the most part — Jane Levy has that exact right balance of fire and vulnerability as the prototypical female horror lead; Dylan Minnette may play his character’s softer side to excess (I stopped believing he would ever been involved in anything criminal) but makes something charismatic and almost likable out of it, successfully fulfilling his role as the Team Conscience; and we already knew that Stephen Lang has a ton of presence in antagonistic roles, and he manages to find the intelligent, confident parts that make his character a threat while also selling him as deeply disturbed and a danger to himself and others.

Fede Alvarez proves a capable director when he finds the right moments. Don’t Breathe is at its best when it’s actually taking full advantage of its premise; its best scene, by far, is in the house’s basement, when the blind man turns off the lights and leaves the protagonists to fumble around in the darkness. He brings them into his world, where he has the advantage.

One of the movie’s larger problems is that most of it isn’t half as imaginative. Other than the scant few scenes like that, the fact that the thieves’ would-be victim is blind is mostly pointless. The characters mostly have to refrain from making noise that would alert anyone to their presence, heightened senses or no, and their pursuer’s blindness is to their advantage more often than not — other 20-somethings vs. killer movies at least feature a villain who can’t be avoided by standing perfectly still and trying not to make a sound. If Stephen Lang’s character could see, this movie would be over in fifteen minutes.

Fortunately, Alvarez still does a solid job of milking the tension out of these moments. Even though it isn’t all that important in the larger scheme of things, he does successfully direct viewers’ attention to sound more than other directors and classically conditions you to be afraid of it. That’s no mean feat.

It’s just the type of thing that only works once, without a more imaginative concept or a stronger story attached to it. Don’t Breathe doesn’t always have the best narrative instincts; it’s okay at character establishment, though not so much development, and the script otherwise has little going for it. It’s just a thread that winds around the premise again and again and again and only rarely adds new levels. Its attempts at thematic development are heavy-handed, corny, and ultimately meaningless. It has what feels like a dozen endings. It also falls into the trap most literature and screenwriting textbooks, to my chagrin, tell you to fall into — you must open with a hook, and that hook must be dark and and probably violent in some way. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have an organic way to do that, so instead of getting right into the story, it cuts ahead near to the end and strongly implies the structure of the first three-fourths of the movie, which drains some tension out of the proceedings.

Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible to discuss my deepest problems with the movie without spoiling parts of it, so I’m going to do exactly that. Stop here if that bothers you (though, for what it’s worth, the spoilers I’ll be revealing are pretty strongly hinted at in the trailers, so it’s possible you already know).

The reveal that the blind man is a kidnapper/rapist with a dungeon in his basement really takes the wind out of the movie’s sails. My first problem, as you might expect, is that I find that sort of thing exploitative in a movie that doesn’t intend to do anything meaningful with it; it’s pure, superficial stakes-raising. I suppose it fits with the movie’s obvious trash aspirations, but that doesn’t mean I like it. At any rate, I don’t think it benefits the film on a story level either and, in fact, makes it much less interesting. The motivation behind it, at least the way it’s presented, is to exonerate the thieves of wrongdoing and justify anything they do to survive. It makes their victim the ultimate villain and thus spares the movie of having to wrestle with its morality. Basically, it tries to coast on making these characters likable, and that couldn’t possibly work. Sure, they’re poor kids, and they have families they’re trying to help, and they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, whatever — at the end of the day, they decided to go into a rundown neighborhood to break into a blind man’s house and steal the $300,000 settlement he got when a reckless driver killed his daughter. That’s messed up, and that’s something you can’t retroactively justify by showing that the blind guy is a bad dude who deserves it. The main characters didn’t know that. Whatever other virtues they have, nothing in them objected to that proposal enough to call it off. That says something very dark about who they are as people.

But it can work, and I liked the movie in its early moments when it was about unlikable thieves running afoul of a victim who goes overboard in home defense and makes it his personal mission to see that they’re all dead. I liked the idea of a horror movie where you could make the argument that the protagonists are the actual villains — the killer is obviously a psychopath from the beginning, seeing as how he feels that a break-in demands blood, but you can see how he’s justified in his own mind. That’s interesting; that’s compelling — a horror movie where the cops might know exactly what the killer did and let him off anyway. The twist ruins that, leaving viewers with unlikable characters who aren’t evaluating their choices in any way and a movie that expects us to root for them solely because the other guy is worse. That isn’t much to hold on to.

It brings Don’t Breathe back to being what it mostly is: Effective, thrilling, stale. It’s workable formula that ought to be a lot more. It’s not enough to have a great idea; you have to make that idea even greater. You have to give it life. That’s where Don’t Breathe stumbles.

ABS_1sht_MainAltNew_Art1.inddA Bigger Splash (2016)

Starring- Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

Director- Luca Guadagnino

R- graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRQioAYem3o

Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are enjoying a respite at a vacation home in Italy while Marianne recovers from surgery when her ex, producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) suddenly appear.

A Bigger Splash is essentially two movies in one, and I have mixed feelings about both of them — not just mixed but inconclusive, as I’m still weighing the value of a number of decisions the script makes. I’m mostly happy about it, though — whether or not I agree with them, it’s fun to really get to mull something over again, to meditate on a film’s bold, risky choices. And whatever problems there are, the cast more than powers through them.

First and foremost, there’s the stereotypical indie movie half of A Bigger Splash, which both wholeheartedly embraces the trappings of its genre and uses them to play its cards close to the chest, lending more impact to some of the greater surprises it has in store. It knows how long it can successfully match expectations before it must break them, and when it finally turns off the beaten path, it turns hard.

It’s a mixture of positives and negatives. Luca Guadagnino opts for guerilla-style handheld camerawork, for the most part, and there’s a randomness and chaos in the approach, but somehow, he maintains control of it. Something about it feels earthy, lived-in; its editing is more energetic than incomprehensible, as though the cameras are so excited by the natural and manmade wonders of rural Italian beach country that they simply can’t help themselves. And of course, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes make for a pair of towering leads; they could make miracles of a terrible script as long as they’re playing off one another (and even, quite often, when they’re not), and this one is far from terrible. No matter what it is, they can make you believe in it.

If anything, they’re so good that the rest of the movie suffers by comparison. These are huge performances desperate to break out of the film’s modest framework, overpowering everything matched against them. For most of its run-time, the story breaks into two subplots — Marianne and Harry on one side, and Paul and Penelope on the other — that only intersect here and there. And you can see the problem. I don’t want to downplay the work Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson do in this movie; they’re both very good, and A Bigger Splash will be far from a black mark on their resumes. But the movie pits them against Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, both arguable legends, and it’s a select few actors who could hold their own in a situation like that. The Paul/Penelope subplot is fine, but it was time I spent wanting to check back in on whatever Marianne and Harry were doing.

And admittedly, despite the cast’s best efforts, the story itself, for most of the movie, is too worn. “Wealthy Americans are tempted toward infidelity in an exotic location” is a weirdly common subset of talky dramedies — Woody Allen alone has made more than enough — and it takes a while for A Bigger Splash to throw anything new into the works. Unsurprisingly, Swinton and Fiennes are the ones who make it work; the attraction there is believable enough that it overpowers the numerous obvious senses in which they’re bad for each other. Schoenaerts and Johnson struggle. It may or may not be their fault; sometimes, I think certain actors either click or don’t. Screen presence isn’t a science. I don’t think the script does them any great favors either. Paul seems too reasonable and level-headed to even consider it; Penelope seems too…evil? There’s a plausibility barrier hanging over the entire film; Harry presents himself as charmingly loud and off-kilter, and Penelope plays the quiet, withdrawn college kid who won’t be any trouble, but from the beginning, the movie goes overboard in making their intentions appear sinister (especially since it goes the way of most indie movies and portrays everyone as a complex person not easily classifiable as good or bad). Everything they do feels planned, like they’re tag-teaming a mission to tear Paul down and win Marianne back for Harry. It’s apparent enough that it’s a wonder anyone ever falls for it. Like I said, Swinton and Fiennes are good enough to convince me — love can be irrational, and I buy that these characters are fully aware that they’ll only hurt one another and just don’t care. Meanwhile, Paul feels as though he’s savvy from the beginning, and there’s no identifiable arc that led me to believe he could possibly be tempted by someone like Penelope (especially since she’s so purposelessly cruel to him).

The second movie apparent within A Bigger Splash is the one I’m still unsure how to feel about. Discussing it in particular depth would require me to broach a few spoilers I think you’re better off not knowing beforehand, so I won’t, beyond saying that it takes an ordinary indie drama and takes it in a wholly new direction. It’s an interesting choice; I just haven’t decided whether I think it’s the right one. I’ll say this — emotionally, I think it works in more or less the way it intends. I’m somewhat more indecisive about its effect on the film as a whole — I’m not sure what it says, how it changes the larger context, how it affects the characters, how it ties into anything important. A Bigger Splash has no consistent emotional center that I was able to discern. It tests a few different ideas but never dives as deeply as it might. I’m not sure what it’s about, in other words, what I’m supposed to think about anything I saw.

Still, as an actor showcase, you could do a lot worse, and most of the scenes at least work on their own terms, despite some spotty character development and an overly obscured perspective. Come for Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes absolutely killing every scene they’re in; stay for the left-field decisions it makes, and because Italian beaches are very pretty.

mv5by2i3mwzmmdetmzyxny00mtjiltg4nmmtmgm2ndfjnzg5mde2l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjmyode4ndu-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Mercy (2016)

Starring- James Wolk, Caitlin FitzGerald, Tom Lipinski, Dan Ziskie, Michael Godere, Michael Vincent Donovan, Constance Barron

Director- Chris Sparling

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=si-1aD0BAjg

Siblings in a mixed family return home for a tense reunion as their mother is on her deathbed to discuss the future of the sizable inheritance left to her by her ex-husband. But as darkness falls, they find themselves under siege by a host of masked figures with mysterious intentions.

Netflix. Netflix. Come on. Seriously. No. Just no. I deduct every point I awarded you for Divines. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. What once promised to be the next frontier in movie distribution has at last become “TV movies, except on your computer.” Who is watching these? Most of them barely make a blip on the cultural radar. Netflix, you produced sequels to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that everyone’s barely aware even exist. I think there are rooms in this country big enough to house absolutely everyone who saw The Siege of Jadotville or, well, this. Why are you buying these? Is it some kind of compulsion? Do you need an intervention?

Mercy is an absolutely edgeless domestic thriller, more concerned with throwing you for a loop than actually involving you in what’s going on. Not that I’m a fan of such things, but it doesn’t even try for the schlocky, violent, B-movie thrills a movie like this would have in the 80s. It’s a complete nothing of the film with no interesting or memorable characters, no compelling ideas, and no personality of its own.

From the outset, it’s obviously going to be a movie with a big twist ending — you don’t hide the identity and motives of the attackers unless it’s meant to be a surprise. Early on, I outlined three possibilities: A) the pleasant surprise, in which the film would manage a twist I didn’t see coming and that worked on its own terms; B) the twist that struck me as most likely given the premise and the type of movie that it is, predictable but not necessarily a threat to the film’s overall quality; and C) the dumbest possible thing I could think of, mainly to amuse myself.

The experience of watching Mercy was mounting amazement as I gradually realized that it was totally setting up the third one. And not even that — that it actually found an even worse version of that twist that I had not even considered as a possibility. The direction the movie goes is neither as disorienting as Now You See Me or as stupid as Hide and Seek, but it’s definitely up there. Rather than changing your understanding of what came before, the movie’s big twist becomes something the audience needs to know beforehand to even begin to understand what’s happening. The character motivations are lost, and the themes are indecipherable and edgeless — the twist doesn’t make you want to watch the movie a second time; it requires that you do so in order to get a grip on what actually happened. Ideally, a twist ending should expand viewers’ understanding of the film, not invalidate their understanding to that point — otherwise, the previous hours will feel wasted.

(And not that it matters, but yes — the twist also doesn’t make sense in terms of how real people would behave in a situation like this.)

The editing doesn’t help. I watched this movie with four people, and there was regular disagreement as to what happened in certain scenes. The action scenes are too dark and fast-paced, and other scenes fail to memorably establish actions the audience needs to remember for later (i.e., there’s a difference between a character casually drinking a beer while talking to someone and a character leaving an item somewhere other characters will find it in the future, and the audience’s attention needs to be directed accordingly).

Might as well end it there. I get that this wasn’t a real review, but my interest in structuring it and finding a central point was pretty limited from the moment the credits rolled. I couldget into the finer details of writing, plotting, acting, and character development, or discuss the central theme of “murder is bad,” but…eh, I don’t want to. It isn’t like you’re paying for this service.

I deeply regret my promise to review all Netflix originals. Please let Barry be good.

SPOILERS FOR THE MORBIDLY CURIOUS: I know everything I said is likely to drive the people fascinated by twist endings to self-destructive decisions, so here are full ending spoilers to satisfy that compulsion: The family members are the bad guys, and the home invaders are the gray-area antiheroes. The doctor who talks to the family patriarch in the beginning and delivers medicine he begs them to administer to the ailing mother is their leader; the others are the mother’s church friends. That medicine is not, as the movie suggests, designed to humanely end her suffering; it’s actually a treatment that will save her life. The family knows this and is refusing to use it because they want her to die so all her money will pass to them. The attackers didn’t intend to kill anyone, only to break in at night and save the mother; the plan just went awry and ended in violence. Why they didn’t just go to the police and report that a family was knowingly withholding life-saving treatment from their mother because they wanted her to die remains a mystery. So basically, the movie is 90 minutes of cryptic conversations and buried motivations that seem like characters responding to a situation as stupidly as possible, and the fact that the ending lends context that technically explains all of that doesn’t make it any less the case. I don’t think any ending will ever be capable of justifying the rest of the movie being boring and confusing. The weird thing is that the movie never uses the escape hatch it sets up for itself — the girlfriend of one of the brothers, who is just now meeting this family for the first time. She could easily have been a perspective character whose motives we understand and trust, someone to guide us through the maze. It wouldn’t make the twist any less absurd but would at least make it play better emotionally. But her boyfriend tells her everything off-screen and she just accepts it, making her inclusion in the movie completely pointless.

I don’t like this movie very much.

hell_or_high_water_film_posterHell or High Water (2016)

Starring- Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham

Director- David Mackenzie

R- some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQoqsKoJVDw

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard take up robbing banks to save their childhood home from foreclosure. Their well planned and executed crime spree soon captures the attention of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aging Texas ranger who sees it as a good excuse to stave off retirement one more day.

Is it blasphemous that I think Hell or High Water is very, very good but not great? The latter seems to be the overwhelming consensus, but I’m just not there yet. And really, maybe the problem isn’t that the movie fails to reach greatness so much as steps into really big shoes it isn’t quite ready to fill.

Quite a lot of what’s in it is great. The acting, for instance — Ben Foster doing nothing particularly far removed from his wheelhouse but doing it very well; Chris Pine continuing to prove that we may have underestimated him; and Jeff Bridges dialing down Rooster Cogburn’s harder edges and dialing up his sense of humor (while keeping the mush-mouthed nigh-incomprehensibility of his dialect — it’s something I’m tempted to complain about, but as someone who lives in an area with a disproportionately large population of elderly rural men, I can confirm that a lot of them talk exactly like this and that Bridges imitates it so well as to make it seem like his own experience).

All the better that the three of them play very well rounded and believable characters with clearly understandable perspectives and motives, almost all of them established subtly, through action, rather than heavy-handed exposition. Of the brothers, Toby is the smart one who’s lived cleanly, for the most part, and doesn’t like what he’s doing now — he’s the good man doing a bad thing because he sees no other way out of his circumstances, the character whose soul is the most at stake as the story unfolds. Tanner’s the problem child, fresh out of prison, who clearly gets a rush out of everything and constantly threatens to send things spiraling out of control; his only redeeming characteristic is his sincere devotion to his brother. Opposite them is Hamilton, who is weary but not ready to go to sleep yet, someone who no longer takes pleasure in his work but is afraid of what the alternative would mean. He’s a little lighter of spirit than Bridges’ previous boozy cowboys and has a little more self-control as well but is still very much a wayward spirit looking out upon the world and not finding much to like.

The movie is able to devote plentiful time to getting to know each of them — outside of the main trio, the only other important character is Hamilton’s partner, played by Gil Birmingham, who is a distinct character in his own right but even then functions mainly as a sounding board for Bridges. It’s a bit of a slow mover, and the two subplots don’t connect until the end, but the movie uses that time wisely, sketching everything and everyone in vibrant, lifelike detail. Some of these characters are better people than others, but the movie never allows any of them to completely vacate our sympathies, even at the height of their moral failings. It’s clear-eyed about these things, of course; there’s no attempt at moral equivalence between what they’re doing. It just treats all of them like human beings and forces you to empathize. The rangers and the brothers represent two halves of a story in which you have equal investment, and the inevitable moment where they meet becomes a matter of dread rather than excitement — there’s no anticipating the bloodshed here. Director David Mackenzie is fully aware of that and uses every trick at his disposal to wring every last drop of tension out of the premise — there’s a shot during the climax that may rate as the year’s most gleefully insufferable.

Never let it be said that the movie’s a dark, unsettling slog, however. Being that the “modern-day Western” has thus far tended to be a grim genre and that the premise and promotional materials didn’t exactly suggest high-flying fun at the movies, it surprised me how entertaining this movie was in parts. Make no mistake — it’s a drama, and a largely realistic one, and there’s a bit more darkness than light on display, but it has a dry, playful sense of humor that made me laugh far more often than I expected to watching a movie called Hell or High Water. Interestingly enough, that humor contributes to the film’s realism more than it detracts (if it detracts at all) — the comedy often comes from its refusal to indulge the tropes we’ve come to expect from the “cops and robbers” framework; it isn’t afraid to take the piss out of these characters when the opportunity presents itself.

So, why don’t I love it? I wish I could bring it down to something more concrete than this, but honestly, I think it’s because I’ve seen similar movies do more or less the same thing but better. Hell or High Water’s closest cinematic cousin is No Country for Old Men, and that definitely isn’t the movie to approach if you don’t want to live in anything’s shadow. They’re not exactly the same, obviously; Hell or High Water isn’t half as dark or violent, and it lacks the mythic quality of that film’s storytelling, which featured Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as the ultimate good and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh as the unfeeling avatar of evil. Hell or High Water opts for something a touch more grounded. But the similarities are stark. They’re both modern-day Westerns; they’re both spare, similar in style, and focus on a small class without many meaningful supporting players; they’re both about criminals and the lawmen in pursuit of them; and they both approach that premise as a movie with multiple main storylines that only briefly intersect. Most importantly, they’re thematically very similar — old men looking at the world, thinking about what they’ve lost and the way things are going and wondering what the future holds not only for them but the generations who will take the reins in their wake. And I think No Country for Old Men does it much better — the themes are more deeply felt and integral to the story being told. Hell or High Water, for me, had a fundamental disconnect between the themes and the story; its message feels tangential, expressed through dialogue that has only the faintest relationship with the problems the characters are facing more immediately. It’s all there, and you can see what the film is trying to say and how, but it just never connected with me emotionally. I was moved by the story itself and the scene-to-scene emotions it draws upon, but the larger purpose was always hovering just beyond my reach. I could see what it was; it just didn’t register.

Still, if I haven’t made it clear, Hell or High Water is very, very good, and a lot of people smarter than me think it’s outright great; either way, it warrants a strong recommendation. Great performances, great characters, and strong — if, in my opinion, imperfect — storytelling make for one of the year’s most memorable films.