Friday, October 28, 2016

"Jane Got A Gun"... Finally!

Sometimes movies are doomed from the start.  Sometimes movies end up better than they have any right to be.  Sometimes they fall somewhere in the middle.  As such, we have Jane Got A Gun.

Those who follow movie production news like lonely housewives follow soap operas may have heard how director Lynne Ramsay quit on Day One of principal photography back in 2013 and left the entire production in limbo.  The movie had already been in pre-production for a couple of years, simmering so long that Bradley Cooper and Jude Law had each left the cast, and Ewan McGregor had left and then come back, but to a different role.  Natalie Portman’s never-ending desire to work with a female director having been frustrated yet again, her unhappiness didn’t help matters much, either. Somehow, director Gavin O’Connor (before he even started developing The Accountant) was convinced to step in and try to save this mess.  The finished product finally saw the light of day this past summer, almost three years after photography wrapped, and while I sure don’t think the movie will be mentioned come Oscar night, it actually ain’t half-bad.

Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) have scratched out a decent life in the middle of New Mexico territory, or as decent a life as can be had there in 1871.  Bill returns home one day severely wounded with several bullets in his back, after having had a run-in with an old family nemesis, the Bishop Boys, led by the notorious John Bishop (McGregor).  Bill claims that the gang is going to come, come fast, and come well-armed with the intent of destroying the family once and for all. Jane tends to her husband's wounds, but he's in no condition to mount a defense.  As a last-ditch resort for help, Jane approaches her ex-fiance' Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to come to her and Bill's aid.  He reluctantly agrees, finding himself in the middle of a deadly showdown, vowing to protect the woman who once left him for another man.

Like many of the great Westerns before it, story complexity isn't at the forefront of Jane Got a Gun.  The movie is built around a simple premise of "bad guys want good guys dead," and while it's hardly groundbreaking, the movie works well with that as a backdrop to a more intimate story of how lives become, and remain, entwined.  It moves along at a typical Western-like pace, allowing us to form our moral judgments on these characters, but then we’ll drift to flashbacks that show us we were wrong to presuppose. The moments are probably the best of the film.

What little marketing there was for the movie featured Portman with the titular Gun, striking tough-girl poses and casting her in the light of the modern feminist action hero, but this was all very deceiving.  The film finds its footing less in its action and cruder story details that see it evolve to the inevitable showdown, and more in how the characters come together and how they carry the baggage that their past and present relationships bring to the table.  Gavin O’Connor keeps the movie from becoming overly-melo-dramatic, however, finding enough narrative strength to carry the limited action as a compliment to the story, not the other way around.

It feels like Jane Got A Gun is trying to be a tragic love story wrapped inside a push-button Western. By “push-button,” I mean it hits all the standard notes in its fairly-predictable story-telling, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a poor film. Portman’s performance doesn’t help matters much (she can’t completely rid herself of that “I’m-better-than-you” Harvard accent, no matter how hard she tries), and I wonder if the movie would’ve been stronger if Ewan McGregor’s bad guy had been explored a little deeper. Perhaps if O'Connor had been given the luxury of scrapping all the preproduction work and starting this story all over from scratch, he may have worked the script over in such a way that it delved into the characters even more. The movie that resulted from the messy situation he was presented doesn’t attempt to reinvent the Western, but it tells a lightly engaging tale of loss and love that will appeal to fans comfortable with the genre’s conventions.  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Stranger Things" is Winona Ryder and lots of other scary stuff!

Praise Netflix!  The streaming video giant has given those of us poor, middle-aged souls who never quite grew up enough to leave the movies (and games… and comics…) of our youth an incredible gift.  The eight-episode series Stranger Things is... well, it’s E.T.!  It’s The Goonies!  It’s Stephen King’s IT!  It’s Stand By Me!  It’s Big Trouble in Little China! You name “it” from geek/nerd culture from 1980 through about 1987, and it’s in here somewhere! Oh, and just so the ‘90s don’t feel left out, there’s that hint of X-Files vibe lurking off in the background to boot! Hell, even the poster released to some outlets as a promotional tool is a direct homage to all of those fantastic Drew Struzan one-sheets we all loved in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Okay, okay! What’s it about?  The story seems right out of the Steven Spielberg playbook, as 10- or 11-ish year-old Will Byers disappears one night from the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana, which sends his single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder, in the show's most obvious nod to the ‘80s), his brother, and his friends and their families into a tailspin as they try to find him.

Eventually they realize something paranormal is going on—especially when the lights in his house seem to start blinking and Mike's sister Nancy's best friend goes missing. There's also a strange girl with a shaved head named Eleven who turns up, for reasons nobody can understand, and Mike and his friends Dustin and Lucas (named, I think quite obviously, for George, the Creator himself) hide her in the basement while they try to figure out how to rescue their friend. There's also the local sheriff (David Harbour), who lives a hermit's life after the loss of his own daughter, and stumbles into the story and knows he has to get involved. 

One of the central tenets of Stranger Things is the existence of a plane of existence the boys call “The Upside Down,” a parallel dimension that exists alongside our own, but swaps out decay and death for every bit of life and flourishing on our own plane.  Those of us who lived pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons can quickly tell you (even if you didn’t ask) that this, along with one of the show's major monsters, is drawn directly from that game’s lore.  The show's children—its central characters (who, to the one, are fantastic)—are avid D&D players and, in fact, that's how we meet them: playing a many-hours-long campaign in the basement, and unable to defeat a menacing in-game monster with their powers and rolls of the die.  

Before the eight-hour narrative reaches a conclu-sion, we’ve had mystery, horror, John Hughes-type angst and government Men-in-Black types thrown at us (with Matthew Modine as the main Baddie! - how much more '80s can you get!?!?), and by Jove, it all works! Created by Matt and Russ Duffer, this series perfectly pulls all of its unique stories together into one show. Because this world is so well-constructed, none of these elements stand out as not belonging with the others. That’s a tremendous achievement when you think about how disparate these genres are.  The Duffers and their writing staff incredibly give us numerous moments where one spoken word, or one sound effect, or one reaction shot communicates volumes about a character’s motivation or backstory to us.

Along with the synth underscore composed by experimental band SURVIVE, the series is peppered with hits from the 1980s, making judicious, thematic use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” which has never had a more chilling effect. You’ll also revel in the evocative use of music from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Toto, The Bangles, Joy Division and Foreigner.

Stranger Things is probably the highest-profile role Ryder has managed to land in many years, and it calls back to a time when she was mainstream cinema’s “It-Girl.” She’s highly effective as Will’s working-class mom, with the script calling on her to play a woman whose world and grasp on conventional reality has broken down — fuelled by grief and a unshaken belief that her son remains alive.

Ryder’s not the only one bringing in a world-class performance on the show — David Harbour is excellent as the town cop trying to unravel the conspiracy.  Even the kids are quite good in a Goonies-esque way as they launch their own investigation, and I can’t begin to describe the beyond-her-years performance of young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.

As the series is only eight episodes, Stranger Things is the perfect binge over a weekend.  If you haven’t yet caught it, make it the primary project for your next I-Will-Stay-On-The-Couch-This-Entire-Weekend weekend. Don’t just watch it for the nostalgia or the genuine creeps, watch it because it’s compelling storytelling.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Accountant" sure adds up for me

While The Accountant may be a movie of the sort of formula we’ve seen done before (I first think of George Clooney’s The American or Clive Owen’s The International, but there are others), it’s sure nice when one of these “international web of intrigue” flicks that we think will be so predictable turns out to be so enjoyable.  Sure, The Accountant’s plot is all but paper-thin and the major points of the third act are visible coming down the road from a mile away, but darn it, it’s just done so well that I enjoyed the crap out of this one.

This time around, Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff (one of many aliases the character utilizes), a seemingly anti-social bean counter with a knack for bluntness.  In truth, he has a high-functioning form of autism with a “Beautiful-Mind”-like talent for numbers, apparently living a quiet life as an accountant, operating out of a non-descript strip mall office and helping struggling locals with their taxes.  On the side, however, he also investigates the money problems of dangerous clients and powerful corporations and “settling accounts” by any means necessary.  Having this sort of clientele is not without its risks, however, and thankfully Wolff was raised by his Army SpecOps father to hone and channel his disability, and is now an expert marksman and ass-kicker, should any such complications arise.  In an attempt to find some more legitimate business, his unseen secretary/handler/confidante (I know, it’s getting goofy-sounding, but just roll with it for now) steers him towards a freelance job investigating the books of a robotics company headed by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), where a low-level employee (Anna Kendrick) has discovered some accounting discrepancies.  

While there are three sets of characters to follow through the movie, and all of the supporting actors are terrific (maybe with the exception of Lithgow and Kendrick, but admittedly, neither had much screen time to work with), it’s obvious that this is Affleck’s movie, and he carried it with ease upon his now Rock-like shoulders.  Embracing the tics and maddening intensity of a true autistic, Affleck demonstrates once again how he has honed his acting skills into a much more restrained, nuanced performance than I believe he could have delivered a decade ago.  This is an actor who no longer accepts being a weak link in any of his films, and has worked his way to deserving leading-man status.

Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Pride and Glory) brings to life a script that has been floating around Hollywood for several years (and even landed on the 2011 “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays), using flashbacks and changes in character perspective to deftly juggle the film’s numerous narrative threads. Admittedly, the movie occasionally drifts into territory that borders on farcical, but it always manages to rein itself in at just the right moment before straining the limits of credulity to the breaking point.  He succeeds at striking a balance between action and solemnity that will feel instantly familiar to fans of his well-received MMA drama Warrior.

The tone O’Connor sets is probably what I enjoyed about most about the movie.  With so many Bourne-esque thrillers of the last twenty years remaining so dour and serious throughout their runtime, The Accountant has just a handful of winks or dry-humor moments to break the tension for just a second without coming across as silly.  The result is a thriller that’s been tossed into a blender with a gleefully silly action flick and has come out far more compelling than either of those ideas would have been on their own, and also comes as a welcome reminder that even though the box office these days tends to be overrun with sequels, remakes, reboots and “re-imaginings,” it might be possible that Hollywood hasn’t quite run out of great ideas just yet.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Girl on the Train" derails shortly after departure...

The famed film critic Gene Siskel once said that “a good movie is never too long,” meaning if a film tells an enjoyable story, it will never FEEL long and will take as much time as is needed to tell that story in an entertaining manner.  I don’t recall ever hearing of him saying the opposite, that a bad movie can be too short, but if there was ever a case for a movie needing to be longer, The Girl on the Train is it.

At 112 minutes, The Girl on the Train could have easily stood to be stretched out for another fifteen minutes or so in order to give us some sense of perspective on these characters.  We’re presented a story of three women, all of whom must have reasons for the way they are and the things they do, and we’re given very capable and interesting actresses to inhabit those roles, yet an hour and fifty minutes later, I’m still wanting to know WHY these characters are the ways they are.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a woman whose husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has left her for placid, icy Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).  We quickly see that Rachel has a drinking problem, the reason for which is glossed over as being due to fertility problems, I guess.  Apparently unemployed, she drinks vodka out of a water bottle all day and rides the Metro-North train to New York City and back, past her old house, and spots Megan, the woman who lives next door (Haley Bennett), and becomes obsessed with her supposedly perfect life.  One night, Rachel drunkenly stumbles off the train and blacks out.  When she wakes up, she’s covered in blood, has no idea what happened, and finds out Megan has disappeared.  The rest of the movie is a piecing together of what happened that night.

As Rachel, Blunt is the one assigned the task of carrying the movie, and if she’s really too beautiful to ever be taken seriously as a hopeless drunk, she at least commits to portraying an ugly type of alcoholism, stumbling around with a flushed face, chapped lips and smudged makeup, and waking up at one point in a sticky, ambiguous mess of blood and embarrassment.  By contrast, Bennett’s Megan is a pitiful stereotype of a Femme-Fatale-With-Secret-Pain. “I tend to smile when I’m nervous… sometimes I laugh,” she tells her male therapist, who of course is captivated by all the lip-biting and skirt-hiking going on.  The third focal character is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), after having “stolen” Tom from Rachel, is now fully invested in being a two-dimensional platitude of a stay-at-home mother, fatigued by hours of farmer’s market shopping and sweet potato pureeing for her oh-so-adorable baby.

The movie’s time-jumping structure is interesting, and gave me a sense that there could’ve been a way to reveal things about these people’s motivations to make us more invested in them, but director Tate Taylor (having previously made The Help and Get on Up) is too busy awkwardly lumbering from plot point to plot point to give them any time to breathe. The result is the worst of both worlds: characters kept at a distance, hurtling through a story we don’t buy, with an ending you can see coming by the end of the second act.  We never learn enough about any of them to understand why they are the way they are, and as such, we’re forced to accept them as almost-caricatures - the Misunderstood Drunk, the Lost Millennial, the Self-Absorbed First-Time Mother, etc., etc.

Without any deeper understanding of why these people are the ways they are, then exploring what they do comes across as just soap opera, or a made-for-Lifetime Thursday night movie.  That was disappointing, as the potential for a very absorbing look into the three central characters is apparent on screen.  Alas, all Tate Taylor gives us is something that may have aspired to be more like Gone Girl or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but ended up being something akin to a slightly-more serious episode of "Absolutely Fabulous."