Focus (2015)

Starring- Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst

Directors- Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

R- language, some sexual content and brief violence

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

Misdirection and persuasion are the keys to a good con — well, I assume anyway. At any rate, they’re certainly the keys to a good con movie, and the difficulty Focus has accomplishing either one is the reason it never really takes off.

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) prides himself on being one of the world’s best con artists. One night, a pair of amateurs makes the mistake of trying to pull one over on him; “professional curiosity” compels him to see it through to the end. In so doing, he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman anxious to learn his trade. He sees potential and agrees to take her under his wing, only to accidentally fall in love with her. Circumstances eventually force the two apart, and that seems like the end of it. Then, three years later, Nicky and Jess meet again — she romantically involved with a wealthy racecar owner (Rodrigo Santoro) and he the guy trying to scam him out of millions. Trouble ensues.

I use the words “misdirection” and “persuasion” because it’s actually fairly easy to break Focus down along those lines. Good movies of any genre are trying to persuade you — to accept their rules, to follow their characters, to believe that what they’re showing you is “real.” And con movies in particular — most of them, anyway — are trying to misdirect you, to keep secrets, to surprise you with plot twists and dramatic reveals. I don’t think either one goes too well for Focus.

The Misdirection

The main problem with Focus is that the characters seem to be working harder to con the audience than to con each other. They do so many things solely for the viewers’ benefit that it borders on fourth-wall-breaking.

It really is difficult to write this sort of thing — to ground an emotionally involving story in characters with clear and defined motivations that we understand while keeping the audience enough in the dark that the twists and reveals land with the right punch. Not many filmmakers can be said to have done so flawlessly. As such, I’m willing to forgive a movie like Focus coming out the other side with a few plot holes or confusing scenes. Sometimes, it’s not so much about airtight logic as it is convincing us of what’s happening in the moment — anchoring us to something emotionally or intellectually intriguing enough that we’re not thinking about the man behind the curtain.

But with Focus, every scene seems almost intentionally designed to completely unravel the scene before it. Characters with secret relationships interact on-screen as though they’ve never met, even when they’re alone. Characters who know things the audience doesn’t keep them hidden until the big reveal, even though that information ought to impact their behavior. The most confusing incident is a long-term scam that’s shown on-screen but later revealed to have…never happened? Or they did it, but they did it for no real reason, since it only ever became an off-the-cuff lie to which the target was never witness anyway? It’s not really clear.

Focus obfuscates its plot so much that it’s difficult to tell if some scenes are even literally happening in-universe — and not in a way that strikes me as deliberately ambiguous. It’s constantly changing its rules and pulling the rug out from under you, and that makes it really difficult to get an emotional sense of it. It just keeps lying to you until frustration compels you to quit trying to care.

But it might not matter anyway, because…

The Persuasion

This part is pretty simple — it’s all about the story, the characters, and the tone, and my thoughts along those lines aren’t much more complicated than that they simply aren’t very good.

Part of that is related to the constant misdirection — to balance all the characters’ deceptions and the associated plot twists, it eventually has to begin obscuring motives and personalities. Good storytelling is usually a product of empathy — you get people involved in what’s going on because they feel what the characters are feeling and follow them on this journey. When we don’t know what’s going on in our protagonists’ heads, how they’re feeling about something, or even what they’re doing at any given moment, we’re held at arm’s length, outside the story being told, unable to generate any kind of emotional reaction, even if it’s something as simple as just having fun.

Most of Focus’s problems are character-related, but there are some flaws in the story as well. It’s not a long movie, but it feels bloated. It seems like two short films strapped together — the prologue goes on for more than a third of the run-time and has very little to do with the main plot as described above. You could easily shave 10 or 15 minutes off the opening segment by removing an utterly pointless con that doesn’t advance a single character or plot point — it’s pure filler, even if it is mildly enjoyable on the level of in-the-moment execution.

Beyond that, Focus is pretty insubstantial — no particularly deep or interesting themes to explore (at least, none that haven’t been done a thousand times, and better), no real emotional flow behind anything, no intriguing characters, no great performances (no particularly bad ones either, but still). And it’s just a little too glib, layering its story in just enough sarcasm and comic detachment that the characters seem totally apathetic and become even harder to care for. Mostly, it’s competent. Serviceable. It’s decently directed — slick, sexy, and cool, and a lot of the cons are fun to watch when the movie gives you a sense of what’s going on beforehand. Some — though not all — of the humor works well enough. But for the most part, it’s your standard Will Smith vehicle — a movie coasting on charm and style while struggling to cover up its lack of substance. It’s not particularly worth your focus.

-Matt T.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

Starring- Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler

Director- Olivier Assayas

R- language and brief graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L-9rcEhGm4

After mentally drafting a few versions of this review that ultimately went nowhere, I’ve decided that I’m just plain conflicted about Clouds of Sils Maria and may never develop cohesive thoughts on its quality as a film. It is capable of transcendent beauty. It is also regularly boring. It’s a wonderful exercise in film as visual poetry, gently and deliberately paced, each scene fading gracefully into the next. It is also two hours long and feels twice that. It tackles a number of intriguing ideas with complexity and intelligence. But its approach to them is so scattershot that otherwise concrete scenes become so abstract as to be totally impenetrable.

The story focuses on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an actress still dealing with the sudden death of the playwright who started her career when an influential director approaches her with an offer to restage her first production. Back then, she played an ambitious young woman who used and discarded an older one, eventually driving her to suicide. The director wants Maria back in this new version — this time, however, as the older woman, opposite up-and-coming teen celebrity and wild child Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz).

I’m not going to lie — “aging actress works on play that is a metaphor for her own life” is definitely a little obvious as thematic through-lines go. And Clouds of Sils Maria can be a touch on-the-nose at times, so much so that you wonder how it is none of the characters manage to realize that they’re preparing a play that mirrors their life circumstances almost exactly. Then again, any more obfuscation and the movie might be utterly impossible to understand. At any rate, I’m not sure I can begrudge this film of a little obviousness considering how detailed it is in its approach and how much of the spectrum it covers. Its emotional journey is built fully into every moment of it, and there’s reflectivity in seemingly every subplot: in Maria’s tense relationship with an older actor she despises (Hanns Zischler); in her relationship with her beleaguered personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart); in her relationship with the troubled young actress taking on the role that started her career (which truly is the film’s metaphor screamed from the heavens). Through these characters, these subplots, and the play that symbolizes them, the film covers a lot of ground, much of it of great personal interest to me — the distinction between high and low art and culture; the question of whether there ever truly was a creative, cultural, or moral golden age; older generations’ anxiety about younger generations; younger generations’ occasional antipathy toward the seemingly outdated older generations; the ease with which we identify the flaws in others; the difficulty we have in seeing those same flaws in ourselves. It’s a film about life, growth, maturity, both as individuals and as societies. It also digs into the creative process in a way that I found quite intriguing, particularly in its examination of the boundary between actor and character. There’s such trust, such give-and-take, involved in the process, especially when you’re performing live and uninterrupted on a stage in front of an audience. It’s not enough to establish a character, rehearse until it’s become muscle memory, then bring it to the theatre. Your co-stars will be bringing their own interpretations of the story to the table, too, and their performance and delivery will affect the context of your own. Acting truly is reacting — you have to inhabit the character well enough to understand not only how they’ll behave in a vacuum but how they’ll respond, in the moment, to what your co-stars are doing with their own characters. It’s a game with constantly moving goalposts. This is one of those things that I think I always understood on some intuitive level, but Clouds of Sils Maria finally brought it to the point of conscious thought. It gave me considerably more respect for the people who are able to perform and to do it well.

The problem is that little of it really amounts to anything in the film’s grand scheme. Actually, that’s not quite accurate — I have a decent enough sense of where it ends up on most of these questions. The problem is that it feels emotionally disconnected. It’s a movie where characters talk philosophy and culture at length and then grow and change off-screen. And it can really belabor some of those points — I’m a Richard Linklater fan, so clearly I have a not-inconsiderable threshold for movies where people talk to each other, but at a certain point, Clouds of Sils Maria crossed it. So much of it feels redundant — Maria’s reaction to the death of her first playwright is something that could probably be done in fifteen minutes but takes thirty. And the character development occurs mainly as a result of prolonged conversations with no clear turning point where their personalities are concerned — they happen at the appropriate times in the script but with thin justification.

I have the same conflict with the pacing of the film. It’s very slow-moving, and I actually love that moment-to-moment. I love the perfectly composed cinematography, the gentle edits, the soft color scheme, the quiet fades from one scene to the next. I love the relaxed quality of the dialogue. Individually, most of the scenes in Clouds of Sils Maria are quite beautiful. Taken in tandem, it grows tiresome. I’m all for allowing a moment to breathe, but I also admire efficiently — conveying what you need to convey and moving on. Sometimes, that requires a prolonged touch that allows a significant emotion or idea to sink in; sometimes, that’s a quick in and out. With Clouds of Sils Maria, it’s always the former. Always. And it often leaves it feeling like a bit of a chore.

There is one level on which Clouds of Sils Maria leaves me with no internal conflict — the acting. It’s universally pretty great, and if there’s justice in this universe, it’ll be making some noise come Oscar time, particularly for Kristen Stewart. Yes, I’m serious — she’s gathered some defenders over the last two years, but mainly for films that I didn’t see or that didn’t impress me personally. But she’s sold me with this one. Juliette Binoche, of course, is predictably fantastic in a role that asks a lot from her emotionally and that requires her to convey it all without unearned intensity or histrionics. And Chloe Moretz is good, too, albeit strangely underutilized (her time in the film probably only amounts to fifteen minutes or so, all told). But it’s Stewart who becomes the movie’s heart and soul — the identifiable, normal person caught in the middle of the madness. It’s less a transformation for her and more her finding the context in which her screen persona works best, and then tweaking it for maximum effect. All that is to say that her character here remains dry, reserved, and kind of mumbly, like most of her roles, but there’s nuance and a beating heart behind it — Valentine isn’t a miserable, moping cynic but someone whose dryness is more her sense of humor, the image that she projects. In spite of the sarcasm and sullenness, she’s someone you can imagine having hobbies, going out with friends, having fun. Stewart isn’t just good; she’s absolutely perfect in the part. And for what it’s worth, it’s probably no accident that a movie that, in part, examines the inner life of celebrity in a fame-obsessed paparazzi culture cast a Twilight alumnus in a prominent role.

For its best scenes and strongest features, I’d still say that Clouds of Sils Maria is worth seeing. It’s just a film that works best in moments and one I’m pretty sure I’ll only be able to watch once.

-Matt T.

Slow West (2015)

Starring- Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius

Director- John Maclean

R- violence and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFfsTsdJfF8

Slow West works in the way the best modern westerns do — as a simultaneous deconstruction of the old familiar tropes and the cultural morass surrounding them and as a near-total embrace of the genre and its conventions — and it can be proud to count itself if not among their number then at least closely adjacent.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the teenage son of Scottish aristocrats, undertakes a solo journey to the American west in pursuit of the poor girl he loves. He’s woefully underequipped for the hazards of the Old West, so when a mysterious gunslinger, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), offers to take him the rest of the way — for a fee, of course — he gladly agrees. Jay has no idea that a significant bounty has been posted for his girl and her father, or that Silas’s old gang is among those planning to collect.

It’s a bit of a True Grit story, though it has more in common with the remake than the original. As Silas, Michael Fassbender takes on what is essentially the Rooster Cogburn role — the weathered veteran of the Old West, a cold, callous, and violent man who takes a kid under his wing and warms up a bit as a result. Jay, of course, is far from being either incarnation of the shrewd, tough-as-nails Mattie Ross — he’s bright-eyed, street dumb, and a fish out of water in this environment. He serves much the same purpose, though. Like True Grit, it’s this duo that ends up commanding most of the film — the kid and the guy he hired, traveling westward through the wilderness.

Slow West is unmistakably a western; its embrace of the genre is wholehearted. You can see the influence of countless western classics on its tone and style. It’s set in vast outdoor landscapes, bright and colorful during the daytime and cast in deep orange by evening and night. It has the same spirit of danger and discovery, albeit pitched toward somewhat different ends. But the backdrop of the film is one that doesn’t overly idealize the era in which it is set, and that’s the one sense in which it’s very different from many of its forebears. Slow West is a tough, nasty, even mean-spirited film — but not arbitrarily so. There’s a method to its madness.

It’s easy enough to tackle the cultural vision of the post-Civil War era as some golden age where things were simpler and cleaner and life was better and everyone was decent and went to church on Sunday. Slow West isn’t the first movie to do that; it won’t be the last. It doesn’t turn a blind eye to the problems of that era in our history — the sheer difficulty of life on the frontier, the isolated nature of the world, the conflict between settlers and Native Americans and the injustices associated with that, the violence, the brutality — but it has its mind is more focused on other things. Silas seems to exist as a response to the culture that idealizes this part of our history, but it’s what Jay represents that truly makes the film interesting — he seems to symbolize the culture that looks back on the west and considers itself superior solely on virtue of having been born in a more advanced, progressive civilization.

The point the film seems to be making is that Jay’s naïve romanticization of everything he encounters is, long-term, potentially just as dangerous as Silas’s overt violence and simple-minded view of morality. His view of himself as a knight in shining armor off to rescue the damsel in distress and maybe stand up for a few downtrodden minorities along the way is motivated by kindness, but he doesn’t understand how it comes off as condescending. Part of this is that he was born into privilege and is accustomed to getting everything he wants and not being told he’s wrong. It soon becomes clear that his love for this girl is unrequited — in flashbacks, she seems to enjoy his company but to have no interest in him romantically, something he can’t wrap his head around even after she throws her hands up in the air and just tells him. But the problem is also that Jay just isn’t positioned to get it — he’s wandering into a part of the world he’s never experienced and inserting himself into complex problems he knows nothing about. And that’s universal — there will always be that temptation to do seemingly moral things for self-serving reasons or to co-opt the voices of the people we’re helping because we think we know better than they do what’s going on. We trust ourselves too much and others not enough. Sometimes, we start to think we’re the only intelligent people who ever lived. It’s important that the film doesn’t for a second paint Jay as anything other than a good kid who means well. It makes it easier to see yourself in him — and in his flaws as well.

In exploring those themes, I think Slow West positions itself as a very direct counterpart to another of 2015’s offerings — Ex Machina. It’s hard to imagine more diametric opposites cinematically than the science fiction film and the western, but both movies are striking very similar thematic notes. And while, at the end of the day, I think Ex Machina is the stronger film overall, Slow West resolves that question in a way that feels better earned.

On the technical level, Slow West is solid. Michael Fassbender does typically good work, and I’m continuing to enjoy watching Kodi Smit-McPhee’s evolution as an actor — maturity is coming to him very naturally, which is perhaps not surprising considering that he’s always seemingly been art cinema’s go-to child actor. The film overall is a strong directorial debut for John Maclean.

The flaws are generally minimal. The closest thing the movie has to a crippling problem is that its influences are just a bit too close to the surface. It’s a grab bag of old westerns, a few newer westerns, a touch of directors like John Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, even a little Martin Scorsese, and a whole heck of a lot of the Coen Brothers. Slow West is a good movie; it just never really develops its own voice.

-Matt T.

Ant-Man (2015)

Starring- Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, T.I., Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan

Director- Peyton Reed

PG-13- sci-fi action violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWdKf3MneyI

I’m worried that I’m going to spend the next year or so in the position of Chief Ant-Man Apologist even though I didn’t quite love it. It seems that the critical reaction — and, to a lesser extent, the audience reaction as well — has been…not negative, exactly, but a pretty universal 6/10, “Eh, it’s all right.” It’s been met with acclaim mainly because no one thinks it’s outright terrible, in essence. And I just plain think the movie’s been overlooked even though, despite its flaws, it’s actually really good.

Look, I’m not under any illusions here. ­Ant-Man isn’t even in the ballpark of Marvel’s absolute best movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers all leave it in the dust, and I’d add two or three more to the list on top of those. However, I think you could at least make a pretty strong argument that Ant-Man is Marvel’s best origin film.*

During the Cold War, scientist Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) research into atomic particles unlocked the secret to shrinking technology. Inventing a suit that could reduce its wearer to the size of an insect — while retaining human-sized strength and mobility — Pym served his country as the Ant-Man. However, not long after the end of the Cold War era, he became aware of the dangers inherent in the technology, so he withdrew from his company and from SHIELD, locking the suit away and leading a quiet, peaceful life.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), CEO of Cross Technologies and a former protégé of Pym’s, is close to developing the same technology — something with which Pym doesn’t trust his politically ambitious one-time student at all. So, he develops a plan to bring the Ant-Man out of retirement for a mission to destroy Cross’s research before it falls into the wrong hands. The only problem is that he’s no longer healthy enough to wear the suit himself. Thus, he and his daughter and co-conspirator Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) recruit Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a petty thief fresh out of prison, to become the new Ant-Man.

Honestly, I think Ant-Man’s cultural esteem would be considerably higher if it had been released alongside Marvel’s other Phase One films. Right now, people find it tiresome because we’ve seen the superhero origin story done a dozen times by now, and even when it’s done well, it generally hits most of the same beats. I understand that, and I get why it’s an obstacle for some people. As for myself, I can be sensitive to formula under certain circumstances, but I forgive it if A) the formula is done well and B) there are enough fresh, exciting, imaginative concepts, characters, and scenes sprinkled between the old familiar bits. And I think Ant-Man delivers heavily on both, and it’s why I honestly think it might be the best and certainly the most sure-footed superhero origin movie Marvel has delivered to date.

The secret to its success is this — in Ant-Man, the formula is justified. It doesn’t feel as though it bends over backward to hit all the arbitrarily required notes. Rather, its story and characters are built so that the formula emerges as a largely natural outgrowth of the various setups associated with them.

I know I’ve said this in the past, but the source of my aggravation with superhero origin movies has been less the formula and more the fumbled execution. They usually start off strongly enough — they give us a relatable character with an identifiable personality, either give him superpowers or put him in an extraordinary situation, then examine the impact of those things on his character until he becomes a hero. Story over! Except for the additional hour tacked on after that, wherein the hero must have a climactic battle with a villain who may or may not have any interesting or emotionally compelling relationship with the protagonist, the story, or the themes. I like Iron Man a lot, but I like it for the scenes where Tony, Pepper, and Rhodey are bantering — the superheroing is so disconnected from them in the character sense that it almost seems like a different movie. I’ve come, over time, to like Captain America: The First Avenger, but it starts venting air very shortly after Steve Rogers gets his powers. The Amazing Spider-Man is a perfectly charming teen relationship drama until The Lizard starts crashing into it.

Ant-Man is the first superhero movie — if not in general, then at least in the Marvel canon — that gets more interesting and more fun after its main character becomes a hero. That’s because, in Ant-Man, the hero plot and the villain plot drive and respond to one another rather than hanging out separately until the movie abruptly mashes them together. Cross starts working on his Yellowjacket technology; Pym sees that and reaches out to Scott to stop him; Scott agrees and begins training to use the Ant-Man suit while he, Pym, and Hope work out the details of their planned heist; once that’s done, we enter into a climax that arrives at the appropriate time and is fully motivated on all sides. It’s formulaic, but it doesn’t feel formulaic — everything comes directly from decisions characters make and the way other characters react to those decisions. Cause. Effect. Consequence. On a structural level, Ant-Man is actually pretty decent storytelling — it wouldn’t surprise me if that was Edgar Wright’s contribution.

And formula aside, Ant-Man brings plenty of new, exciting touches to the proceedings. Mostly, that’s the fact that it’s a heist movie wearing a superhero movie’s skin. It’s nice to see a smaller-scale, lower-stakes entry in the Marvel canon; it’s nice to see a superhero whose powers require his brains far more often than his brawn. The action here is more in the vein of a Mission: Impossible movie than your average Marvel film — it’s Ant-Man navigating laser grids, finding imaginative ways to break into things, and trying to beat timers and various defense mechanisms. And the movie establishes those very well — the action sequences are weird but very fun, not quite like anything else I’ve seen on film before. They weave the humor in extremely well, able to rocket from intense action to silliness on a dime (personified by that scene in the trailer with the toy train — the climax has nearly a dozen such moments). The structure of the action also has the pleasant side effect of making Ant-Man one of the most guilt-free blockbusters in a long time. Its characters are sneaks, not killers, and their mission mainly requires them to outsmart, not outfight, their foes. The movie has a small body count to begin with, and that’s almost exclusively at the hands of the villain. In a cinematic climate where callousness toward human life is no longer the exception, a movie like Ant-Man, where the heroes take care to drag all the unconscious guards outside before blowing up the building, is an absolute breath of fresh air.

And as is the norm for Marvel, Ant-Man gets those heroes exactly right. Scott Lang ends up being a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pantheon of heroes. I’ve been desperate to see these movies add a more ground-level hero — Iron Man is a genius billionaire playboy who pals around with politicians and celebrities, Thor is a demigod, Hulk is a brilliant scientist who deliberately avoids socialization, Captain America used to be an Average Joe but spent the rest of his life in the military and secret agencies. These movies needed a hero like Scott — an ordinary guy with an ordinary family and ordinary problems, the sort of person who reads the news and worries about what the Avengers are up to. Paul Rudd’s always been a likable screen presence, and he brings the exact right amount of that to the role. Scott hangs out with a band of other petty crooks, and they end up being show-stealers, particularly Michael Pena as his best friend Luis, an excitable, perpetually winded guy who can’t exchange even the most basic information without telling an extremely embellished and overly convoluted version of the story about how he got it. Michael Douglas brings his trademark cynicism and loathing to Hank Pym, making him a mentor in the same vein as Rocky’s Mickey, someone with a lot of wisdom to impart but enough edge to make you suspect he might not be the greatest person when the cards are down. And Evangeline Lilly is good enough to make you wish the movie let her be the Wasp right now instead of just hinting at it for later (seriously, Marvel, it would’ve been incredibly easy; all you had to do was rewrite the heist for two instead of one).

I think people are mostly down on Ant-Man because it’s really only one-third a great movie, and I don’t disagree with that — but I might differ on the reason behind it. Everyone else cites the formula as its main problem, but I obviously don’t think that’s it — the formula’s there, but it’s done way, way better than in most other movies like it. I think Ant-Man’s main problem is a reversal of what went right and wrong in its predecessors — whereas Marvel’s other origin stories were good at the drama and bad at the actual superhero, Ant-Man is good at the superhero and bad at the drama. Whereas the others were good at the first two acts and lousy at the third, ­Ant-Man is good at the third act and bad at the first two. When Scott dons the suit and becomes Ant-Man, the movie is about as fun as it gets. The scenes leading up to that…aren’t bad, exactly, but they’re stale and lifeless. Part of that is the movie budgeting its thrills for the finale, and that’s a smart move. But part of that is also the drama just plain not working. It’s a shame, because the structure is there, not only in that this movie actually has a story with causes and effects and plot motivations, but also in that there’s clear, deliberate thematic groundwork being laid. The movie is mainly concerned with fathers and their children. Scott’s entire motivation is that he’s a small-time thief, but his little daughter thinks he’s Superman, and he desperately wants to earn that. Pym and Hope’s relationship is a strained one — she resents him first for walking out on her emotionally after her mother died, and second for giving Scott the mission instead of her. Even Cross gets in on this — it’s clear that, when Pym was his mentor, he considered him a father figure and felt betrayed when Pym ended their relationship. It’s enough to put some emotional weight behind the climax, but standing on its own, it’s awkward and kind of boring. The characters are well-established but, for the most part, have no interesting spark on-screen. The main reason for this is that those character arcs I just outlined are established, developed, and resolved almost exclusively in dialogue. The movie is very on-the-nose about this; I know why Hope and Cross both resent Pym because they basically take the time out to tell this to Scott directly. That’s bad enough on its own, but the fact that this emotional development concludes in largely the same way only worsens it. It’s all very telegraphed and forced, and it leaves the first two acts feeling underwhelming at best.

Believe me, the climax more than makes up for it. The last hour of Ant-Man is some of the best fun I’ve had at the movies this year. And that’s probably why I find myself with such positive feelings toward it — if you’re only going to nail one-third of the movie, make sure it’s the part that’ll be fresh on my mind walking out of the theater. Not that the other two-thirds are bad — they’re just hovering somewhere near “mediocre.” Ant-Man is still a heck of a lot of fun, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it getting a critical reappraisal in a few years.

-Matt T.

*Unless you count Guardians of the Galaxy. I don’t, because it’s not really an origin story — the origin of the team, yes, but all of the heroes are already established at the start of the film — and because, honestly, it’s barely even a superhero movie.

What_We_Do_in_the_Shadows_poster

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

Starring- Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko

Directors- Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

R- bloody violent content, some sexual material and language

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAZEWtyhpes

It didn’t blow my mind, but What We Do in the Shadows is still a smart, darkly funny, and thoroughly unique comic take on the inner lives of some of our oldest mythological monsters.

In the lead-up to the Unholy Masquerade, an annual gathering of the world’s scariest ghouls, a human documentary crew is given unlimited access to the inner sanctum of a group of vampires sharing a flat in a New Zealand suburb. There’s Viago (Taika Waititi), a Victorian dandy and the self-appointed responsible adult of the group, who fusses over the chore chart and wishes his flatmates would stop getting their victims’ blood all over the sofa. There’s Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), once a nightmarish legend in the same vein as Dracula and Vlad the Impaler and now a washed-up has-been straining for his former glory, not that he’s figured that out yet. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the youngest of the group at a paltry 183 years old, is lazy and untidy and generally an awful roommate. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), by far the oldest of the group at over 8,000 years old, a Nosferatu-like figure who mostly festers in the basement and can only infrequently be coaxed outside with gifts of live animals.

It’s taken a few centuries, but they’ve settled into a comfortable enough routine of stalking night clubs for victims, trolling the local werewolf pack, and helping each other avoid deadly sunlight. That routine is shattered when one of them accidentally turns a victim — an obnoxious meathead named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) — into a vampire, adding an extra, unwanted roommate to the group.

It’s not a comedy for people who prefer to have a storyline to pull them through the laughs. What We Do in the Shadows only has the barest outline of a plot; mostly, it’s just 90 minutes of vampires goofing off. The premise behind this — the everyday, average lives of a bunch of vampires — is a bit thin as the foundation for a feature-length movie (I often found myself thinking it would work better as a short film), but it’s so consistently clever that I find myself giving it a pass anyway.

It would be all too easy for a movie like this to get dull and obvious — to forsake character and go for broke on a couple of bigger bits and to frame the premise as something more like “self-serious people in silly situations.” And while there are some jokes at the expense of the vampires’ general pomp and circumstances, the film as a whole is pitched as a nicely detailed spoof on the entire vampire mythos. It doesn’t really leave any stone unturned — it plays with the vampires’ power sets, with their weaknesses, with some of the mythology surrounding them (human familiars, for instance), and it finds humor in all of that. And while each of the characters is ridiculous in his own way, the film is funny mainly because of how weirdly grounded it is. It takes the oldest cultural vampire archetypes, transplants them to the modern world, and tries to figure out how the rules and limits of vampirism would play out on a day-to-day basis, and what’s funny about it is that all the film’s ideas are silly but eminently reasonable. You never see Dracula trying to scrub blood out of his carpet, but a vampire in the real world would have to do that at some point, right? Vampires can’t see themselves in a mirror, so the characters essentially have to dress each other when they’re going out on the town. They can’t enter a place unless they’re invited, so they have to contrive roundabout ways of persuading bouncers to politely ask them to come inside. Not only is it funny, it has the dual effect of allowing the film to stay grounded in character — what these guys are doing is hilarious, but you always understand why it makes sense to them. The movie doesn’t have to undercut their personalities or motivations in order to get laughs; the laughs emerge very organically from those things. Every character inhabits a certain reality — heightened from our own, yes, but still identifiable and consistent.

Stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed, actually use the documentary format very well, better than a lot of mockumentaries, even. The direction enhances the comedy, for one thing. Vampires have seemingly always hissed while on the prowl; in most horror movies, the sound and the suddenness of it combine to make it the stuff of nightmares. Here, the distance and the lack of visual embellishment make it kind of funny. The characters aren’t doing it any differently than in horror movies, but presenting it in unchoreographed medium shots entirely changes the light in which you see it. There’s a lot of stuff like that in this movie, stuff that would be scary anywhere else but ends up hilarious here solely because of presentation.

Clement and Waititi also keep in mind that the documentary crew and equipment are an actual, in-universe presence, and they use that to mine additional comedy from the premise. This isn’t a mockumentary like The Office or Parks and Recreation (both funny shows, by the way, I’m not trying to criticize them here) where the camera crew is theoretically interacting with the characters but is so unacknowledged that it might as well not be there at all. The characters in What We Do in the Shadows exhibit a hyper-awareness of the camera at all times; they’re playing to it, trying to ensure they come off in a certain way. Viago clearly wants to be seen as sophisticated, classy, and witty; every time he speaks, it sounds like he’s rehearsed it first. Vladislav is trying to be scary, dangerous, and imposing, to absolutely no success whatsoever. Deacon is playing up his totally nonexistent sex appeal. Nick seems confused by the crew’s presence and isn’t sure how to behave; he awkwardly ambles around every time he’s pulled aside for an interview. Only Petyr doesn’t change when the camera’s around, but it’s never clear exactly how self-aware he is to begin with. This is a rare documentary-style movie that absolutely could not have been as successful filmed any other way — the visual style sets the tone for the movie and is calculated into every mechanism of the characters and humor. It’s almost kind of genius.

Other than that, it’s mostly a light, easily digestible comedy without a whole lot else going on. I respect the strange sense of melancholy it achieves, especially since the targets of that are characters who bloodily murder a couple innocent people before the credits roll, but there still isn’t much substance in the overall effect of it. It’s just 90 minutes of basic amusement, but I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with that.

Now, leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

-Matt T.

* So, WordPress apparently changed its formatting this week, and YouTube videos now automatically embed on the page from a posted URL. I’m willing to let that slide for the moment, but let me know if you find that visually offensive, and I’ll just stop posting the trailers.

It Follows (2015)

Starring- Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary

Director- David Robert Mitchell

R- disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaRx7iR9kXg

Great horror is never really about the monster, is it? The movies that stick around, those always get you on a level deeper than something with sharp teeth trying to eat you. Is Jaws great because we’re all scared of sharks, or is it great because Steven Spielberg’s direction taps so readily into our fear of the unknown, our need to belong in our environment, our need to control and understand it? Is Alien great because it’s a fun sci-fi movie or because it goes right for the jugulars of people’s sexual anxieties (without even having any actual sex in it)? We all want a little existential terror to go alongside our more visceral scares. It Follows understands that, and that’s why it’s already managed to accumulate such a following. The monster — whatever it is — is scary enough on its own, as is anything that can murder you with a touch. What’s truly terrifying is what it represents. Its existence is supernatural, but its effect is all too mundane.

Jay Height (Maika Monroe) has it pretty good, all things considered. She has a close circle of loyal friends, a positive relationship with her immediate family, and seems to have a promising future ahead of her. She’s even met a nice guy, Hugh (Jake Weary), and their first few dates have gone pretty well. So, one night, they make love in the backseat of his car.

Jay wakes up tied to a chair, with Hugh telling her a terrible story. Something has been following him. Now, he’s passed it along to her. It will pursue her constantly, forever, and the only thing she can do is pass it along to someone else. No one can see it but her. If it touches her, it will kill her, and then go back to Hugh and onward to whomever gave it life.

The experience traumatizes Jay, but she doesn’t quite believe the story at first — until she sees it following her.

There is some serious horror craftsmanship on display in It Follows. Even compared to other horror films, it walks the line between scary and stupid very closely. There’s the imagery surrounding the monster itself, which can get pretty out there; there’s the fact that the monster is a slow, shambling thing that isn’t too hard to get away from if you see it coming; there’s the hazy, timeless world the film inhabits. Even the premise is kind of silly — it’s the old horror trope where the kids who have sex die first writ large. That the movie never falls over that line is a testament to its confidence.

From a technical standpoint, the film is nearly superb. Most horror movies tend to be shot tightly, close to the action, to give everything a sense of claustrophobia and immediacy; It Follows does the exact opposite. It’s distant and a bit stagey; the camera movement is slow and deliberate. It emphasizes the motion within the frame more than moving things around so it can drop jump scares in your lap. Once or twice, this tactic doesn’t quite pay off; a couple of moments come off a bit silly, like somebody saw their weird neighbor running from nothing and came outside to film it. But when it works, it’s brilliant. There’s one scare in this movie that is executed so uniquely that I still get excited every time I think about it. I will not spoil it; it absolutely must be experienced fresh. In vague terms, there’s a shot where nothing out of the ordinary appears to be happening, followed by a shot of much the same thing but with something occurring in the background that clarifies the first shot, followed by the audience figuring out exactly what’s about to go down and losing it. The movie is also admirably low on jump scares — it has a few, just enough that the threat of one is always hanging over you, but not so many that you start to predict them. The film really plays on your emotions that way — there are a lot of jump setups that don’t end up delivering anything. It’s basically lulling you into a false sense of security for the one that does. And, generally, it uses the monster well. I started to get worried when it was introduced and I realized it was a slow, unsubtle creature, fairly easy to escape from. The film knows that, though, and finds its scares in the paranoia of watching your back all the time and in the sheer persistence of the monster — it is always following you. It knows exactly where you are, and no matter where you go, it’ll catch up eventually. It can appear in the form of the people you love. And there’s no way to tell the difference between it and some random person who just happens to be walking behind you. The movie is one long mind game, and it’s a good one.

Those are necessary components of It Follows working as well as it does, but they’re not the reason it gets under your skin so well. It finds its fear in its ideas — in the little things the monster stands for, in what it means to us. What I like about the film is that the monster is specific enough that it doesn’t feel lazy as a concept but broad enough that viewers can project their own experiences onto it. I think the film is easiest to read as a metaphor for rape and abuse survivors — the creepy subtext underneath the way Hugh breaks the news and the invasiveness of the monster in general both seem to point toward that interpretation. The monster itself is the personification of anxiety and internalized fears. It’s always pursuing you, and you can find temporary peace if you run fast enough. But eventually, it catches up, and the whole thing begins anew. It never really goes away; you just learn how to survive it and try to pick up the pieces. No one but the people experiencing it can really see or understand it; their friends and families mean well and want desperately to help them, but what can they do other than stand confused at the margins, watching these horrible things happen, feeling utterly helpless. I don’t know that the movie quite earns, on an emotional level, its eventual conclusion on this subject, but I nevertheless appreciate what it’s trying to do. It’s a rare horror movie with a purely thematic ending, one that attends to the message it’s sending on top of the feeling it’s trying to convey.

With all this intelligence on display, it’s impossible for me not to wish that there were more interesting characters at the center of it. Jay is fine and generally believable as a teenage girl, but there isn’t much more to her than that. She’s an everywoman, an audience stand-in, fine as such but not really relatable on any level other than our mutual understanding that you should run when a demonic murder beast is chasing you. The supporting cast is much worse. Plenty of teenagers are mumbly and depressing, but not all of them. Jay’s friends are interchangeable and have no real personality or relationship to our protagonist. They just kind of hang out and occasionally scream alongside Jay a little. None of the actors find any nuance at the edges of that. They’re all serviceable, and not a whole lot more. And I think the film needs these characters to be better than they are in order to successfully make its point. The ending has a lot riding on it emotionally, and without that substance to back it up, it doesn’t really register.

It Follows doesn’t have many flaws, but the ones it does have are significant enough to put it in the category of “wish I liked it more than I did.” But I still liked it a lot. It’s a fascinating exercise in thematically dense horror, a film that’s intelligent without sacrificing its ridiculous, tonally hazardous genre undercurrents. It’s fun and scary with a little meat to chew on. Despite what goes wrong, it’s easily one of the strongest horror movies of the last few years.

-Matt T.

Ex Machina (2015)

Starring- Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno

Director- Alex Garland

R- graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence

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

I’m starting to think that smaller, low-budget sci-fi might be where it’s at right now. We haven’t had any great, truly mainstream science fiction films in quite a while — though that is, of course, dependent upon your definition of “great” and “mainstream” — but between movies like Her, Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, and now Ex Machina, it’s hard to feel too underserved.

Computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is thrilled when he wins a contest to spend a week with his company’s founder and CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), at a remote research facility in Alaska. His excitement only increases when he discovers the reason for the contest — Nathan needs someone intelligent and capable to test his latest invention, an artificially intelligent android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is to engage in a series of interviews with Ava to determine whether she truly has consciousness or is merely simulating it. Ava proves surprising in a number of ways — including her seeming distaste for Nathan and affinity for Caleb. And soon, what began as a fun experiment turns into an intense, claustrophobic nightmare.

I believe I’ve said something to this effect in the past: It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I’m a fan of minimalist cinema, but done right, there’s little I enjoy nearly as much. Ex Machina hits that sweet spot. At just a touch over 90 minutes, it’s not an especially long or unwieldy thing. The cast is restricted almost exclusively to its three main players, with only one other character amounting to anything that even approaches significant screen time. The film takes place almost entirely inside Nathan’s research facility.

Ex Machina has to do a lot with a little, and it’s resoundingly successful. Given limited time, limited place, and limited resources, it sketches out three unique characters, each of whom become total individuals, nuanced and rich. That’s anchored in three extremely strong performances. As Ava, Alicia Vikander straddles that fine line between real, recognizable humanity and strange, machinelike attitudes, actions, and mannerisms — she leaves you guessing at the degree and effect of Ava’s consciousness, which leaves the film perfectly positioned to manipulate your feelings toward her and its own thematic concerns. It’s also worth mentioning that she gets great support from the film’s effects team. I’m not entirely sure what went into rendering Ava as something so transparently part human and part machine, skin stretched over glass and metal and wire, some visible and some not; it’s the sort of effect you don’t notice if it’s done right and that sinks the movie if it isn’t. It’s done right.

Ava’s not really the protagonist, though — something the film uses to its advantage in ways I won’t spoil (though I do think a very good movie could be made from the perspective of a character like her). That’s reserved for Caleb and, to a lesser extent, Nathan, and both of them are fantastic characters as well. The film takes opposite approaches with them — it lets you know Caleb about as well as you possibly could but never quite lets you get a handle on exactly what makes Nathan tick. Caleb has to play the role of the decent everyman, but he’s not boring — he is smart, he is capable, and the film is constantly testing both his decency and his normalcy. In that sense, he is the perfect audience stand-in — something the film also uses to great effect thematically. You do get a decent sense of who Nathan is, but the movie is constantly keeping him just out of reach — enough to feed the paranoia that sustains the film later on and to keep you guessing about exactly what Caleb is there to do. Nathan is half-stereotype, half-original — he’s a nerdy, socially awkward type, overly blunt and unable to read other people, but he’s also a drunken party animal who won’t let someone be near him too long without talking about his workout regimen. He’s “cool” but also extremely difficult to be around. It’s worth mentioning, again, that Oscar Isaac is just absurd in this part, and I really don’t understand why he isn’t one of the most famous people in the world yet. He’s really good.

The actors get great help from a smart, well-written script, one that’s grounded in story and character but also feels extremely purposeful from scene to scene in the way it explores its philosophy and thematic questions. There are very few wasted moments here; everything feeds immediately into the larger whole and helps you develop your comprehension of what you’re seeing. There’s also some stellar direction on display, especially given that Alex Garland’s career to this point has been as a screenwriter and novelist. He makes the transition so fluidly — building his film as equal parts script and visual storytelling — that I’m downright jealous. If I made a movie, it’d be long, talky, and composed mainly of over-the-shoulder medium shots. What’s up with people who are good at two things? Unfair.

What’s interesting about the film beyond the technical level is where it goes with its premise. The concept itself isn’t inherently unique; if anything, movies about artificial intelligences constitute a subgenre of science fiction at this point. We’ve seen movies before that have taken an android or something like it and used it to explore what it means to be human. And that’s certainly on Ex Machina’s mind as well — it’s partially a philosophical treatise on what makes us who we are and partially a really gripping procedural about the scientific method and how smart people go about solving difficult problems. But as the film goes on, its thematic interests gradually begin to shift into something else entirely. It’s a rare film that acknowledges something creepy about a male scientist building an attractive female robot; Ex Machina is the first movie I’ve seen to basically make that the entire point. It starts as an examination of consciousness and builds into an examination of gender/sexual politics, and frequently a very interesting one.

It leads to an ending tailor-made to provoke strong reactions in either direction. I’m taking the following position — I don’t like the way the film ends, but not quite for the reason anyone who’s seen it might expect. I understand the point it’s making, but I think something gets lost in translation from idea to story. In part, I think the film needs some sort of prologue — as Caleb gets tied into the questions of gender, I started wanting to have a sense of how he acts around women more generally; Ava is such a specific case that I’m not sure too much can be read into his behavior toward her. That leads into my other problem with the ending — I think it makes its metaphor overly literal. The inherent problem in casting Ava as a metaphor for women in western society is that, for a significant portion of the film, her humanity and consciousness are both in question — she’s an android, a machine, something that may or may not actually think and feel. That informs the way the characters interact with her and makes it difficult for certain elements of the ending to feel emotionally justified. On some level, they’re understandable in a character sense, but I think the film wanted my feeling toward them to be something other than what it was. I should clarify further — my issue here is not that I wanted the ending to be unambiguous but that I wanted it to be even more ambiguous than it was, something that more intimately explores Caleb’s actual culpability in what’s really going on at Nathan’s research facility. That felt, to me, to be inadequately answered, and it cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of the film, as did certain other decisions that I can’t properly discuss without spoiling them. I will admit that it seems some of this is a matter of interpretation; I was reading a review that said the ending retroactively improved everything else about the film, and it became clear to me that certain scenes simply played very differently for this critic than they did for me. He saw a character’s actions or reactions in a certain context in a different light than I did. There’s no objective way to resolve those differences — they essentially amount to whether or not an actor looked happy or sad enough to convey a certain point. For me, they felt incongruent. And I say again — I get what the movie is trying to say and even think that message could be very powerful in this current cultural moment; I just think it doesn’t quite come across in execution. The ending, for me, casts a bit of a shade on the great movie that led up to it.

Still — a great movie did indeed lead up to it. And even though I didn’t quite like the ending, it was still fun to mull over — and there’s no reason to think someone might interpret it very differently than I did and emerge feeling much better about it. Either way, the first 90 minutes of this movie are great — intelligent, gripping, quietly intense, psychological, well acted, character-driven. I can’t reasonably ask for a lot more than that.

-Matt T.