Friday, September 22, 2017

brad's status

Brad (Ben Stiller) is distressed about his status. He feels inadequate compared to his college buddies who have gone off to have ridiculously luxurious lives of private planes, escapades, and dwelling spreads in Architectural Digest. In the midst of his crisis--or perhaps at the very root of this crisis--Brad's son Troy (Austin Abrams) is about to go to college, and the two are off to travel from Sacramento across the coast to tour the top choice, Harvard. Brad is either hazily unaware or willfully unaware of his son's plans and dreams. Mike White's carefully directed picture follows the two--with run-ins with coeds and an old friend of Brad, now a famed political commentator (Michael Sheen)--utilizing Stiller's dryly aching voice-overs to great effect. Like Brad's cloistered, heady character, the picture doesn't stretch too far but offers up some amusing ruminations through his slightly exaggerated inner thoughts. The acting and witty casting choices all around are strong and some scenes shine in their depictions of awkward human interaction (especially a dinner scene between Sheen and Stiller). The brittle violin score (by Mark Mothersbaugh) adds to the muted absurdity and sadness within Brad's neuroses as does an inspired use of Dvořák's "Humoresque." If one takes Brad's litany of complaints as droll rather than irritating, the movie has a sly emotional impact. It's not a transformative picture, but welcome as a closely attached character study, even if the central character is melancholy company. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

wind river

Last summer, Taylor Sheridan struck gold with his script surprising sleeper Hell or High Water which went all the way to Best Picture and Screenplay Oscar nominations. This year he returns, this time behind the camera, with the quietly potent crime drama Wind River. Like Hell or High Water, the film has also steadily been amassing money as a stealth alternative to junky blockbusters (August was the worst box office for the month in a decade) in a market dry of films with adult appeal.

Plot-wise, the movie is a fairly straightforward crime drama set on a snowy reservation in Wyoming. Cory, an animal hunter (Jeremy Renner) mourning the recent loss of his daughter and the separation from his wife, becomes embroiled in a murder mystery after discovering a body in a snow-swept field. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to the scene, out of her element with the landscape both physically and culturally. Throughout the story of Banner's shaky investigation with assistance from the skilled, knowledgeable Cory and the Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), the film reveals social issues within and significant injustices against the Native community. Like Hell or High Water and other American revisionist Westerns, the story is fronted with whites who, in different degrees, impede upon Native soil, both ignorantly and recklessly.

Sheridan's direction is sturdy and masculine in the vein of Clint Eastwood, and sometimes he makes inspired choices, as in his riff on one of the tricks played in Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. The tense action scenes pop as do the sweeping shots of the picaresque landscape (photographed by Ben Richardson, who also lensed Beasts of the Southern Wild). Renner continues to be effective at playing a fierce, stalwart hero that's also emotionally vulnerable. A still underrated actress who does everything she can to imbue her character with detail, I sometimes sensed that Olsen was miscast, perhaps a touch too young, but that seemed a deliberate choice in making her a fish-out-of-water figure. Because the film is so intimately made, the ultimate villain of the piece, who emerges as cartoonishly squealy, took me out of the picture a bit. But the film rounds back with a stirring and affecting closer. Gil Birmingham in particular gives a piercing and haunting turn in his brief screen-time. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, September 14, 2017


The title mother! rhymes with "smother," which is a word that recalls the nature of many of Darren Aronofsky's films. His movies sometimes mix a "high art" sensibility with bludgeons of icky imagery. You feel for his miserable protagonists and the actors playing them because their suffering is bright, blunt, physical, breathy, and tear-stained. But there's also a strange sense of remove, as the incidents and the body horror (sanguine seeping wounds abound) in those character's lives, first pitched in a calming sense of reality, seem so outlandish. Very seldom does an Aronofsky movie have a settled place to land (think the ill-fated drop-to-mattress in Black Swan) or much humor. However, in the opening of mother!, there's the immediate cheekiness to the ridiculousness of the title (and the Shakespearean quill font presentation). The setting is peaceful, earthy and attractive with tinges of unease (throbbing walls, a delicate crystal glowing with bits of ember).

Jennifer Lawrence plays a reserved woman living with a poet (Javier Bardem) and obsessively renovating their remote mansion. The film, utilizing killer camerawork by Matthew Libatique, stays mostly in the constricts of Lawrence's point-of-view, with her long brown-gray hair and flowy white t-shirts, painters jeans, and nighties, moving throughout the rambling house. A couple (a pleasingly hammy Ed Harris and a perfectly calculating Michelle Pfeiffer) show up, disrupting the tranquil pale blue and taupe-walled household with discourteous behavior, neon underwear and smokers' hacking (this is a picture that refuses to breathe freely). Bardem eagerly takes them in while Lawrence expresses her displeasure to us through her vivid facial expressions (she's astoundingly good at this--doing so little to express so much with her countenance). It's this subplot where we see Aronofsky doing some of his best directing ever, with humor and unnerving tension. It's like a comedy of manners mixed with Polanski horror.

Then slowly, and in an increasingly garish way, the movie swings into screamy, gruesome farce with blatant shock scenes. Even though the filmmaker has been praised for this half of the picture, for his audacity, rabid energy and disdain for Cinemascore-squared mainstream audiences (you could physically sense the hatred in the theater for this movie after my showing ended), it also seems like an easy way (Aronofsky supposedly penned the script in five days) out of what seemed to be shaping up as a strong, sharp mystery. This is a filmmaker's film though, completely meta, in the vein of the rocket launchpad built on sand in 8 1/2where the film scrapes away at itself until its destroyed (here, up in tacky CGI flames). There's also seemingly symbolic glimpses of the deification of artists, with worshiping crowds, badgering press and paparazzi, feeding off of the flesh of its targets. That poetry is the source of so much celebrity worship is also a good joke. The movie concludes sort of unsatisfactorily contextually and visually with a shimmer of Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings. But both Libatique and Lawrence should be particularly commended for carrying us through this nightmare with skillful work and raw charisma. ***

-Jeffery Berg