Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe



Don't Breathe is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to break into Daredevil's house and rob him blind. Er, blinder. Well, maybe Daredevil wouldn't go on a murderous rampage against home invaders, but his crazy old blind ninja teacher Stick would. I digress. In the tidy, effective Don't Breathe, Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovatto dream of a sun-kissed life in California far away from crappy, rundown Detroit. Thus, they break into homes and steal shit. They're like millennial Robin Hoods -- robbing from the rich to give to themselves, since they're poor. Zovatto gets a line from his fence about an easy mark: a blind old ex-soldier (Stephen Lang) living alone in an abandoned neighborhood. His daughter was killed by a rich girl (rich people! Damn rich people!) and he was paid off a million dollars to not press charges. The old Blind Man keeps the money somewhere in his dilapidated old house, they think. With that kernel of info to go on, Minnette, Levy, and Zovatto go breaking and entering.

For cat burglars, Levy, Minnette and Zovatto are awfully loud. The old man is blind, not deaf; in fact it stands to reason his hearing would be even better than a sighted person's. And yet, the three hoods make little effort to not cause a ruckus smashing windows and stomping around the creepy house, even before Zovatto thinks he gassed the sleeping Blind Man. However, they didn't reckon the old dude to be like a blind Terminator. Lang is a relentless, remorseless killing machine who knows his ramshackle abode far better than the kids do, and he has a dog that's an equally relentless, remorseless killing machine. Trapped in the house and desperate to escape, Levy and Minnette still manage to score a cool million bucks in cash from the Blind Man's safe, yet they ignore a couple of prime opportunities to just blow past the Blind Man and make a break for it. They use their cell phones liberally early on, but then somehow forget they even have cell phones with flashlights when the Blind Man turns off the lights and chases them. 

Instead Levy and Minnette plunge themselves into the house's enormous, labyrinthine basement, sub-basement, and crawl spaces where they learn the Blind Man harbors a terrifying secret. One so twisted and heinous that Don't Breathe does a wild turnabout and literally tells the audience it's okay after all that these kids are robbing this old Blind Guy, because he's a total sicko. Minnette is the brains of the operation and Levy turns out to have the heart and resourcefulness of a true survivor, but neither is a match for the Blind Man's WWE fighting style. (It is kind of satisfying to see the Blind Man pop Minnette in the kisser over and over. Poom! Poom! Poom!) We also learn that even though he's blind, the old man can slice the nether region of a woman's pants open with a pair of scissors with lickety split ease and precision; most dudes with sight have trouble unhooking a girl's bra. Don't Breathe manages to succeed in asking the audience to root for terrible people to survive against an even more terrible person, but its greatest achievement is ruining Thanksgiving for years to come. Millions of people who watch Don't Breathe will likely be unable to see a turkey baster and not be grossed out ever again.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mr. Holmes



I chose exile for my punishment, but what was it for? 
I must have done something terribly wrong.
And I've no evidence of what it was. 
Only pain, guilt... Useless, worthless feelings!

There can be no greater torment for the greatest deductive mind of all time than the diminishing of his faculties. Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes,  based on the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind," brings us Sherlock Holmes in the twilight of his years. Magnificently portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, this Sherlock Holmes never perished at Reichenbach Falls in a battle against Professor Moriarty. Aged 93 in 1947, McKellen's Mr. Holmes lives in self-chosen "exile" in a remote Sussex farmhouse, having long since outlived all of his contemporaries, including his brother Mycroft and his loyal friend Dr. John Watson. Mr. Holmes battles dementia; he keeps bees on his property hoping the royal jelly might cure his affliction and when the film begins, he has just returned from Japan with hopes the jelly from the prickly ash plant he acquired might improve his failing memory. Worst of all, Mr. Holmes cannot remember the details of his last case, involving a man who came to him about his ailing wife, and what Holmes' involvement was in her death.

Mr. Holmes finds little comfort from his housekeeper, played by Laura Linney, who resents his burgeoning friendship with her bright, inquisitive son Roger, played by Milo Parker. Roger admires Holmes, and helpfully prods his memory with a barrage of questions. Some of the finest moments of Mr. Holmes involve Roger sitting under Holmes' learning tree, absorbing his still-formidable brilliance, be it in deducing who and where a person has been or how to care for bees and to fear their enemies, wasps. Mr. Holmes also flashes back to Holmes' sojourn in Japan, meeting another supposed fan of his, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who wants answers to the disappearance of his father in England decades earlier. McKellen powerfully invokes this ancient Sherlock's pathos; his chagrin at the image of the fabled fictionalized hero Dr. Watson based on him, his succumbing to the physical realities of age, and a lifetime of deeply held loneliness and regret. Even stripped of his accoutrements, his famous sidekick, and his deerstalker cap, McKellen's Mr. Holmes remains proud, defiant, brilliant, and is perhaps the most human Sherlock of all.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hell or High Water



Hell or High Water is a terrific modern day tome of crime, family, and friendship set in the dusty, dilapidated towns of West Texas. Chris Pine, a desperate, determined father trying to do right by his resentful ex-wife and their teenage sons, recruits his ex-con older brother Ben Foster into a series of local bank robberies. Pine is awkward at robbery at first, and too careful; they only hit particular branches of Midland Bank, and only early in the mornings before the banks get crowded. Foster is a volatile hellion, even robbing a branch solo while Pine eats a steak dinner in a diner next door. Gradually and expertly, Hell or High Water reveals the motivations behind their crime spree: their late mother's ranch is about to be foreclosed on by Midland Bank. Pine's plan is to steal enough from Midland to pay the bank back with their own stolen money, and then leave the ranch in a trust to his sons. ("The most Texas plan ever," declares Pine's accountant.) Even though these battlin' brothers don't see eye to eye, Hell or High Water weaves a powerful undercurrent of love and loyalty within their family.

Meanwhile, US Marshals Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are hot on Pine and Foster's trail, chasing them across the highways of West Texas. Days away from retirement, old man Bridges, crusty, determined, and prone to busting Birmingham's balls with an endless array of racist quips, manages to intuit Pine and Foster's methodology and motivations. The lawmen hunt the outlaws in classic movie Western-style, while Hell or High Water provocatively comments on the poverty and every day socio-economic hardships the people of West Texas face. For those of us weaned on the football-loving optimism of Friday Night Lights, Hell or High Water's bleaker, unblinking depiction of West Texas is harsh, indeed. This is a place where conceal and carry is a proud fact of life; indeed, when one of Foster and Pine's robberies go awry, several local townspeople who are packing open fire and give chase, illustrating the folly of the theory that "the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Hell or High Water is so effective at making us emphasize with Pine and Foster that they never feel like the bad guys, even when they are, and even when Bridges does his damnedest to bring the long arm of the law down on them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad



Suicide Squad is like the Cold Stone Creamery of comic book movies. A dozen ingredients mushed together frozen on a slab. Maybe eating the entire thing isn't the best thing for you, but you like the fillings and it tastes really good for a while, so you keep eating until the end. Then what? I dunno. My tummy feels weird. Written and directed with balls-slapped-to-the-wall gusto by David Ayers, who is clearly indulging his youthful love of comic books, Suicide Squad is the dirty, scarred side of the DC Cinematic Universe coin. Shining a light on some of the most dangerous (and frankly, some of the most obscure) super villains in the DC Comics pantheon, Suicide Squad's primary mission is to elicit sympathy for the devils (with on the nose musical choices), which Ayers accomplishes for some of the Squad. Bawdier, rowdier, and more perverse than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad is pure, distilled comic book villain chaos on the screen. Alternately erratic, ambitious, scattershot, harebrained, baffling, and proudly in-your-face to a fault, Suicide Squad is also fitfully fun and occasionally even admirable.

"What if Superman ripped the roof off the White House and kidnapped the President? Who could have stopped him?" is the treatise behind the formation of Task Force X, the brainchild of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a devious, ruthless patriot. (Superman is, of course, currently deceased as a result of Batman v Superman, but Waller fears the next Superman may not be as noble, though they sure didn't like him much when he was alive.) Waller's idea: recruit the myriad metahuman super villains already incarcerated in a Louisiana black site prison called Belle Reve and force these very bad people to do some good. Or die trying, via explosive nanites injected into their necks. Waller's plan has little logical merit (though some of the Belle Reve inmates are super powered metahumans, how would they realistically fare against someone as powerful as the Man of Steel?) but through blackmail, fear-mongering and intimidation, Waller gets the green light from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for her Suicide Squad.

The unwilling recruits to the Suicide Squad are the worst of the worst and the craziest of the crazy: Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin and the world's deadliest marksman who was personally apprehended by the Batman (Ben Affleck, making several welcome appearances in and out of the Batsuit); Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's sexpot girlfriend and a gleeful maniac who's also in Belle Reve courtesy of Batman; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), literally a crocodile man who was captured by -- you guessed it -- Batman; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie nutjob who somehow is serving three consecutive life sentences for stealing some diamonds and getting caught by Batman the Flash (Ezra Miller); and Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a flame throwing gang banger who accidentally roasted his family and is trying to reform. There's also Slipknot (Adam Beach), "a guy who can climb anything." He gets dispatched almost immediately as a way for the movie to demonstrate how the nanite bombs would kill the Suicide Squaders if they rebel. Slipknot, we hardly knew ye (and didn't really want to). 

Keeping tabs on the Suicide Squad in the field is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), "the best special forces soldier in America" who gives lousy rah rah motivational speeches. Keeping tabs on Rick Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked Japanese lady who wields and talks to a magical samurai sword that traps the souls of its victims and houses the soul of her late husband. Are we done? No. Because speaking of magic, there's also June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist whose body is possessed by an ancient and powerful witch called the Enchantress. Scott Eastwood is there too, as one of Flag's soldiers, and for some reason his name is GQ. Meanwhile, occasionally inserting his madness into the movie's overall madness is the Joker (Jared Leto), an unwelcome distraction who's hellbent on rescuing Harley so she can be reunited with her 'puddin' Mistah J. Following the daunting, legendary cinematic footsteps of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, Leto preens as a pimped out, bling-wearing, tattooed, repulsive and grotesque Joker that it's probably safe to say will go down as no one's favorite incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime. 

In a movie chock full of bad people, the Big Bad turns out to be the Enchantress, who decides she wants to destroy the world. She and her demonic, CGI brother take control of Midway City, turning ordinary citizens into minions who look like human blackberries, and creates a machine that shoots electricity into the sky for three days. (This went on for three days yet Batman, Wonder Woman or the Flash didn't make a move to intervene? Wonder Woman would have been the best bet to go up against the Enchantress.) Finally, the Suicide Squad is dispatched to Midway City. To take out the Enchantress? No. To rescue a MacGuffin, which turns out to be Amanda Waller herself. Meanwhile, Waller is in possession of her own MacGuffin, the heart of the Enchantress, which she needs to assert her full power. The Suicide Squad do a lot of standing around, walking around, and fighting blackberry minions, in that order, but when Waller is shot down and captured by the Enchantress, the Suicide Squad decides to get drunk in a bar together, commiserating about the unfairness of their lives and bonding in the movie's best scene. Ultimately, the Suicide Squad decide to save the world and defeat the Enchantress. How do they take down an all-powerful sorceress? With guns and bombs, natch. 

The main issue plaguing Suicide Squad is tone, best exemplified by Delevingne's performance as the Enchantress. When first introduced, under the thrall of Waller, poor tortured June Moone is a sympathetic victim of demonic possession. When we first see Moone transformed into the Enchantress, she's dangerously compelling, rather unlike any character we've seen in a comic book movie before. But by the time the Suicide Squad faces the Enchantress, Delevingne loses sight of the top as she careens headlong over it, becoming a posturing and gyrating cartoon. It's as if director Ayers was demonically possessed by Joel Schumacher. Throughout Suicide Squad, the multitude of characters aching for screen time compete in a muddy tug of war with the demands of the plot. The movie must stop every so often to re-calibrate, with the characters constantly reminding each other or the movie reminding the audience what's happening, what's already happened, and why. 

However, for all of the Suicide Squad's meanderings that occasionally leads to arbitrary, awkwardly-staged violence, Ayers does pull off a neat trick: Suicide Squad is actually about a series of love stories. The Joker's deplorable romance with Harley Quinn is front and center, delving into the origin of how they met at Arkham Asylum -- she was his psychiatrist who fell in love with him -- and how he abused her until she went insane. Rick Flag is also a man in love with June Moone. Rescuing her from the Enchantress turns out to be his primary mission. Best of all is Deadshot's back story; the most infamous assassin in the world has an 11 year old daughter who is the apple of his eye. All Deadshot wants is his daughter's safety and approval. The unbridled inanity and absurdity of Suicide Squad is ultimately redeemed by terrific performances from Smith, anchoring the picture with his movie star charisma, Robbie, magnetically suggesting layers of pathos beneath Harley Quinn's brazen sexuality, Davis, able to seem more dangerous and frightening than the monsters and killers she coerces, and Hernandez, a cauldron of guilt seeking redemption. There's a beating heart within Suicide Squad, and it's not all black.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Jason Bourne



Jason Bourne is back. He doesn't want to be, but after 9 years off the grid, Jason Bourne is dragged kicking and screaming scowling and killing into this decade, with the secrets of his past dangling in front of him like a carrot on a stick. Jason Bourne reunites Matt Damon, harder and more grizzled than ever before, with his maestro director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the terrific The Bourne Supremacy and the even more terrific The Bourne Ultimatum, the best action films of the aughts. Jason Bourne is not quite as terrific. Jason Bourne, Damon, and Greengrass all feel like they've lost a step. This newest installment feels inevitably redundant. While packed with slam-bang action, it all falls just short of the propulsive, giddy inventiveness of the previous films. Tony Gilroy, who penned the previous Bourne trilogy, then wrote and directed the odious Damon-less spinoff The Bourne Legacy, is off the grid here. The screenplay by Greengrass and Chris Rouse feels like Bourne fan fiction, answering questions about Bourne's past no one was asking, not even Bourne, while placing Jason Bourne awkwardly in our current political and cultural conundrums of WikiLeaks/Edward Snowden-like whistle blowers, Internet privacy, and data mining via a Facebook-like app called Deep Dream. 

Even though Joan Allen and everyone at the CIA whom he knew a decade ago is either dead or gone, the new faces in the agency like CIA Director Tommy Lee Jones and his protege Alicia Vikander prove equally adept at manipulating events and murder to discredit or attempt to eliminate Bourne. Jones gradually reveals himself to be the most over the top super villain in the Bourne saga. Has there ever been a CIA Director who overtly planned to have the world famous head of a global tech company -- and his own subordinate Vikander -- murdered on stage in a televised tech conference in Las Vegas? Imagine if the head of the CIA planned to have Mark Zuckerberg murdered on televison at the Consumer Electronics Show. To her credit, Vikander clearly understands how evil and insane Jones is and works with Bourne to eliminate him. The idea of Bourne and Vikander teaming up in future Bourne movies is so appealing, our hearts sink when she reveals herself to be as duplicitous as anyone else at the CIA.

Thing is, Jason Bourne just wanted to be left alone. He was perfectly happy content existing in Greece, eking out a meager living knocking people out in underground fight clubs and having constant nightmares consisting of clips from the previous Bourne movies. Meanwhile, the lone friend person he knows from the previous trilogy, ex-CIA computer whiz Julia Stiles, hacks the CIA's database and pulls all the hidden files of the CIA's various secret black ops programs, including Treadstone, which created Jason Bourne. Turns out Bourne's father Richard Webb was more than merely an analyst and had a more direct role in Treadstone. Richard was then murdered to ensure his son David would "volunteer" so he could be transformed into Jason Bourne, the CIA's greatest, most uncontrollable killer. When Bourne learns all of this, his reaction is basically: "Well fuck. That sucks." There is nothing more to be done with this revelation and information except kill the Asset who murdered his father, Vincent Cassel, in an absurdly destructive car chase, demolishing casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

All of this navel-gazing into Bourne's past ultimately lessens Bourne himself. The magic of Jason Bourne lays in him being a tabula rasa, with the audience able to project themselves into Bourne's base simplicity and underlying sense of goodness while vicariously thrilling to him being the greatest fighter, stunt driver, and killer alive. Heaping piles of tragic backstory onto Bourne's shoulders feels unnecessary and redundant. The poor guy's life is ruined enough. Bourne, alone in the wind, never moving on after losing his only friend and lover Franka Potente, is unfortunately better off this way. Jason Bourne also doesn't shy away from the effect that time has passed for Bourne. It's jarring how many photos and video, digitally manipulated or previous Bourne movie footage, Jason Bourne utilizes showing young, babyfaced Matt Damon from over a decade ago. By the end, we and Bourne realize he's caught in a perpetual hamster wheel, that the world isn't big enough for him to hide in before being dragged back into the agency's clandestine murder and madness. Bourne's only solace is  his magical ability to just walk away undetected from any crime scene. Until the next movie. Until whatever semblance of peace Jason Bourne finds for himself falls apart, like it always does.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cafe Society



In the delightful and frothy Cafe Society, Jesse Eisenberg moves to golden age 1930's Hollywood from New York City figuring if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere, before realizing it's the opposite, according to the song lyrics. Narrated with bemused tones by writer-director Woody Allen, who cast Eisenberg as the latest in a long line of young actors to play a surrogate of himself, Cafe Society sees Eisenberg come under the tutelage of his uncle Steve Carell, the most powerful and revered agent in Hollywood. Avoiding him at first, Carell gradually shows Eisenberg the ropes, introducing him to glamorous movie stars and Tinseltown's movers and shakers. Eisenberg finds himself most impressed with Carell's secretary Kristen Stewart. In no time at all, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, and woos her with his peculiar neurotically manic ways, which she finds charming. Alas, she has a boyfriend and a secret. Before long, the twisty plot reveals, to no real shock, her secret boyfriend is Carell himself. The real surprise is how calmly both Eisenberg and Carell take this revelation, with no animosity between them. They simply ask Stewart to choose between them. Does she marry her wealthy, powerful, infatuated older beau or the young nebbish who clearly adores her? Stewart chooses with practicality.

Dejected, Eisenberg returns to New York and to the Jewish family he left behind. He goes to work for his older brother Corey Stoll, a notorious gangster, who owns a famous nightclub, and becomes a respected member of New York's elite cafe society. Eisenberg even marries Blake Lively, a model who, in a wild coincidence, is named "Veronica," just like Stewart's character. Everything is grand until of all the gin joints in all the city, Carell and Stewart, now happily married, walk into Eisenberg's. Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together as romantic leads before; their characters in Cafe Society could be the grand parents of the characters they play in Adventureland. Despite the zany twists in the plot, Cafe Society hums along with remarkably low stakes, even when Stoll is arrested and sent to death row for racketeering and murder one. Most amusingly is how Allen seemed to forego writing an ending; Cafe Society just abruptly stops on New Year's Eve, as if Allen simply decided to put down his pencil, counted his pages, decided he'd written enough and this was as good a time to call it quits as any. Absent his young muse Scarlett Johansson, Allen fumbles along with Stewart as the female lead and seems to have little interest in Lively's token character. Still, Cafe Society provides witty characters and a delightful diversion, as well as a winning lead performance by Eisenberg -- the best Woody Allen impression crossed with Lex Luthor you'll find in Hollywood.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke



Batman: The Killing Joke unflinchingly and uncomfortably tells two sordid tales. At once DC Animation's controversial, R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's seminal graphic novel about The Joker crossing the line to "prove a point" that all it takes is "one bad day" for his madness to be inflicted upon anyone, The Killing Joke also surprisingly veers from the source material and delves into the tragic final days of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Batgirl emerges as the true hero of The Killing Joke, by virtue of being the character who suffers the most by far, but she manages to rise above the terrible circumstances heaped upon her (by comic book creators and animators). Poor Batgirl. She can at least take small solace that, by DC Comics' standards of how they abuse their female characters, she didn't find herself stuffed in a refrigerator by The Joker.

The first act of The Killing Joke is an original tale, narrated by Barbara, about her exciting nights swinging across Gotham's rooftops at the side of the Batman. They are, by Batman's definition, "partners but not equals," which makes her bristle. He is her mentor, her teacher (she describes him as her "yoga instructor" to her gay best friend in her civilian life), her crimefighting supervisor and... more. The Killing Joke pushes the envelope when Batgirl submits to her sexual attraction to Batman and they have sex on a rooftop under the watchful eyes of one of Gotham City's many gargoyles. This type of adult topic, and its myriad emotional complications, is an awkward fit for an animated superhero movie, and The Killing Joke ends up rather laughable for the attempt. As she deals with her hots for Batman, and his distancing himself from her because of it, she in turn is the unwilling object of the affections of an upstart crime boss named "Paris Franz." (Seriously.) Paris' own henchmen don't get what he sees in "Batman's bitch," but this is an obsession that nearly claims the lives of Batgirl and Batman. Batgirl finally beating Paris nearly to death but stopping herself just short of "crossing into the abyss" is a Phyrric victory. It only gets worse for Batgirl from there.

In both the graphic novel and the movie, The Joker pays a visit to Barbara Gordon's apartment ands shoots her without warning in the gut. She is paralyzed from the waist down. But The Joker isn't done; he disrobes Barbara and photographs her nude, bleeding, injured body. (The graphic novel implies The Joker also rapes her. The movie thankfully does not; rather it substitutes a scene of Batman interrogating prostitutes, who reveal The Joker's proclivities when he comes around as a paying customer. Yeesh.)  The Joker does all of this to torture Barbara's father, Commissioner James Gordon, into madness. He kidnaps the older Gordon, strips him nude, clamps BDSM gear onto him, and forces him to endure both a parade of his violated daughter's nude photographs and a grotesque song and dance number by The Joker in an abandoned carnival. As Barbara is hospitalized but survives, Batman spends the bulk of The Killing Joke playing catch up; his status as the World's Greatest Detective is suspect. The Joker literally sends an invitation to Batman to the abandoned carnival for their fateful encounter.

The Killing Joke also serves as a de facto origin for The Joker, though The Joker himself admits sometimes he "remembers things differently." But according to The Killing Joke, the man who would become The Joker was once a failed stand up comedian who resorted to a one-time night of crime as "The Red Hood" to earn enough money to move his pregnant wife and unborn child out of their grungy Gotham flophouse. When an accident claims their lives, he's forced to be the Red Hood anyway. As he led his criminal cohorts through a chemical factory (for some reason, the gangsters wanted to rob a playing card factory next door), the Batman's interference caused him to fall into a vat of chemicals, transforming him into The Joker. This origin from the graphic novel would form the basis of how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier became The Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.

The riveting words of Alan Moore paired with the evocative artwork by Brian Bolland made this story scintillating on the page. Moore and Bolland managed to generate a degree of sympathy for The Joker but as an animated movie, the stark emotions and tragedy play rote and feel limp. The celebrated talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, returning to voice Batman and The Joker, give a gung ho effort. Tara Strong as Batgirl heroically manages to provoke the necessary pathos and emotional heft. The Killing Joke takes pains to note in a denouement that Barbara Gordon does overcome her handicap, becoming both a hero and a symbol as the superhero information network Oracle. While The Killing Joke is no laughing matter, it does end with a joke, and the way Hamill delivers the punchline, his zinger surprisingly generates a genuine laugh from the audience. But sympathy for The Joker? Or for this movie? That's a laugh.