Green Room chronicles fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights as they tour the Pacific Northwest from one grungy club to another, siphoning gas and scrounging cheap food along the way. Out of desperation for cash, they reluctantly take a gig at a neo-Nazi bar but when their bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) is accidentally witness to a brutal murder, a group of panicked bouncers forces him and his bandmates (Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) into the green room along with the recently deceased body. A tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues when the band members lock themselves in the room and the bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) attempts to negotiate with them on the other side of the locked door.
This is the third feature from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and as a follow-up to his unexpected and brilliant revenge tale Blue Ruin, this feels a bit more unfocused and capricious by comparison. We’re surrounded by seemingly smart characters who may have interesting bits of dialogue or inspired moments during the setup but when the plot kicks into gear, they turn into the kind of dumb decision-makers that have plagued lesser horror movies in the past. The stand-off in the titular location obviously has the highest potential for sustained tension but once things progress from there, Saulnier becomes much more interested than blood over brains.
These characters aren’t defined by their own words as much as they are by their actions and the visceral moments of chaos that erupt perhaps speak louder than any bits of expository dialogue ever could. The violence of Green Room is amply gory and often sadistic but also messy and sometimes awkward in a way that tends to make it both believable and unpredictable at the same time. There’s almost a casual and unassuming nature to the brutality and some of the killings are downright uncinematic in the way that they dismiss traditional horror death beats of setup and payoff, which should delight fans looking for something different in the genre.
The casting choice of Patrick Stewart as the leader of the skinheads is unquestionably an inspired one and while his performance is certainly convincing, the script doesn’t give him the kind of authoritative dialogue that could have established him as an intelligent, menacing threat. When the character is first introduced, I was hoping his presence would inspire a wordier kind of standoff negotiation between himself and the band that would allow him to assert his intellect into the situation. Instead, he barks orders at his goons and speaks in the kind of shorthand that almost seems deliberate in its ability to shake off an attentive audience.
In addition to Stewart, the rest of the cast does a fine job of keeping their characters grounded in a situation that is constantly spiraling out of their control. The film’s guiding performance by the late young talent Anton Yelchin is sobering in retrospect and a dispiriting reminder of how many of his future films we’ll sadly never get to see. With its punk rock ethos and aberrant violence, Green Room has all the marks of a B-movie classic but it too often gets in its own way with artistic touches that mix up the message.
Richard Linklater, the undisputed king of the hangout movie, follows up his 12-year project Boyhood with this so-called “spiritual successor” to his 1993 breakout Dazed and Confused which pioneered a genre and introduced the world to a sea of fresh new faces. Like that film, Everybody Wants Some!! places its focus on feeling and mood over a concrete sense of story and narrative but its setting and characters are more limited compared to the sprawling high school landscape of Dazed. As that’s the case, it’s not as universal or open-minded as its big brother but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with this new band of hooligans.
We’re introduced to college freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) prior to his first week of classes as he moves into the house where he will staying with other members of the school’s baseball team. There he meets his new roommates, including seniors McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Finn (Glen Powell), who run the athlete residence in a way that closely emulates the shenanigans of other on-campus fraternities. The film follows the players as they engage in various forms of juvenile behavior and pause from time to time to wax philosophical on the fortuitous nature of their situation.
Though this group of affable jocks doesn’t provide the kind of distinct and varied character base present in Dazed, it does allow Linklater to hone in on more prominent themes surrounding masculinity and male ego. A recurring motif throughout the film is the seriousness with which the character treat the inane activities in which they all participate. This juxtaposition is mainly played for laughs (save for a tense ping pong match between Jake and McDaniels) but as one of the fellow teammates points out, this compulsion towards competition is what makes their baseball team so highly regarded on a national level.
This kind of push-pull male bonding is representative of the film’s main through-line about how college is a landscape for one to establish themselves both as individuals and as a part of a larger group. As we are first introduced to the guys, they seem almost intentionally homogeneous by design but as the story progresses, they distinguish themselves through small moments that show flashes of their unique personalities. There’s not a strong urgency towards traditional character development because the cast is meant more to act as a crystallized version of an ideal college experience rather than a realistic depiction of people who struggle and succeed through life’s challenges.
In fact, Linklater makes it clear that Jake and his crew need not worry about much at all as their youth and status on campus provide them with a cushy collective existence. The film’s carefree spirit that mirrors this attitude can lead to some meandering storytelling and stagnant pacing but it’s ultimately crucial to the type of laid-back vibe that it captures so well. It may be a drag for those looking for something more tightly structured but if you’re, as the tagline states, “here for a good time, not for a long time”, then Everybody Wants Some!! delivers.
Sharp and timely, the international military thriller Eye in the Sky is a thoughtful and tactful examination of the ethical grey areas that plague the potential efficiency of modern drone warfare. It focuses narrowly on one event –one decision, really– that could have been an ancillary plot point in another war movie but instead is given the attention that it deserves to explore the decision-making behind it. This is exceptionally patient and clear-headed storytelling from director Gavin Hood, who has graduated from the humdrum Hollywood fare of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to create a purpose-driven work that’s actually worthy of his talent.
The story centers around a capture mission of high-level terrorists in Kenya that is headed up by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in London and by Lieutenant Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in a nearby briefing room with England’s top cabinet members. The global operation is also aided in real time by the aerial surveillance of drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Nevada and image analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from Hawaii. When the situation proves to be more volatile than previously expected and a new potential causality enters the picture, the decision to potentially utilize a drone missile is debated both by those participating in the mission and by other seemingly unaffiliated parties as well.
Hood does an incredible job of taking these individual scenes of people communicating and working together from around the world and building it into one cohesive story that builds logically upon the small actions of each character. From watching the film, you would probably never guess that the four lead actors never actually met one another face to face during production but it speaks to the kind of narrative fluidity that’s on display as the tension builds. Even as more and more bureaucratic figures are brought into the picture, we never lose focus on what’s at stake and why this scenario proves to be so difficult to resolve.
With some exceptions, the script by Guy Hibbert is deft in dealing with these complex moral and political issues at hand without making the characters come across as shallow billboards for the beliefs that they represent. The concepts of collateral damage and greater good are routinely invoked but both sides of the arguments are presented fairly without the film giving us easy solutions to side with. One such moment occurs when Powell presses one of her subordinates to manipulate the calculations of a hypothetical attack; the moral conflict between the characters in that moment is palpable and representative of the challenging decisions that are made every day by military personnel.
Not only is the film thought-provoking but it’s also breathlessly paced and entertaining even at the surface level as a nail-biting thrill ride with plenty of small incidents that build towards larger consequences. Because the covert mission is in such a fragile state, even minor events like a veil covering the face of one of the targets or a cell phone running out of battery can affect all of the players involved in unexpected ways. Eye in the Sky is a breathtaking look at military intelligence in action and the technical evolution behind the battles yet to come.
Jeff Nichols’ masterful Midnight Run achieves a perfect equilibrium of head and heart by combining uncommonly confident and intelligent storytelling with emotionally transcendent performances that linger long after the film is over. It’s a classic science-fiction parable that effortlessly incorporates universal themes of parental comittment and our endless curiosity towards the spectacular in a way that feels both wholly original and spiritually satisfying. Similar to the brilliant beams of light that spontaneously shoot out from the eyes of one of the main characters, this movie locked my gaze from its transfixing opening scene and held it there unwavering throughout its run time.
Nichols favorite Michael Shannon stars as Roy Tomlin, whose 8-year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) exhibits supernatural abilities that inspire a religious cult dedicated to understanding the source and limits of his power. In doing so, they also draw the acute interest of the FBI and NSA, as the Alton-inspired “sermons” spoken by their leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) contain high-level government classified information. After recovering Alton from the cult’s compound with the help of his loyal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy reunites with his estranged ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as the four plot to stay one step ahead of the authorities and discover Alton’s true calling.
These events often play out with a level of ambiguity and narrative restraint that may frustrate those expecting a more streamlined and commercial movie that falls more in line with the traditional Hollywood mold. Nichols could have easily included loads of expository dialogue or even intrusive voiceover narration for the sake of clarity but I have such respect for the understated approach that he takes instead. He’s so careful in what he chooses for his characters to reveal –and more importantly, not reveal– in their dialogue to provide enough substance to move the story forward but also enough subtext to allow for deeper inference.
It’s a brilliant script, full of poignant character moments and thrilling sequences of spectacle and grandeur, but it doesn’t work without the conviction of this all-star lineup of a cast. Shannon has proven himself as a fine actor in role after role (he’s starred in all four of Jeff Nichols’ features so far) but his work here as a father struggling to come to terms with his son’s miraculous condition may just be his best yet. Edgerton and Dunst are also excellent at feeding off the hopes and the anxieties of Shannon’s character, adding their own notes of emotional complexity to underscore their motivations.
Collaborating again with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols again demonstrates his gift for the kind of brilliant visual storytelling that draws apt comparisons to masters like Cameron and Spielberg. His use of shadow and light is not only remarkable in terms of its composition but he also uses the two to serve as a visual motif for a world engulfed in darkness that slowly gives way to more luminosity as the narrative moves forward. He’s a rare talent in an industry that’s desperate for one now more than ever and there’s no doubt that he’s created something truly special this time around.
Christian Bale teams back up with The New World director Terrence Malick for Knight of Cups, a meditative and meandering work that ultimately squanders the abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera. Malick has never been one to put forth a concise premise or to craft crisp, linear storytelling but the structure here is detrimentally loose and unnecessarily arduous, especially given the enticing subject material. I’m all for a well-told existential crisis movie but when context and setup are intentionally kept to a bare minimum, it goes a long way to stymie any sort of initial enthusiasm.
We follow forlorn Hollywood executive Rick (Bale) through various stages in his adult life, the majority of which involve his most crucial female relationships and almost all of which take place throughout the Los Angeles area. Like the film’s title, each of its eight chapters takes its name from a tarot card that ostensibly describes a corresponding character or concept in Rick’s life. The most notable of the tableaux include The Hermit, in which playboy Tonio (Antonio Banderas) serves as Rick’s spiritual guide through a swanky celebrity gathering, and Judgement, which documents the fallout of his failed marriage from ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
These stories are intermittently interesting on their own but there’s very little connective tissue between them that allows for momentum to build up to something meaningful. They could practically be told out of order and I don’t imagine it would have a great effect on the final product, which doesn’t bode well for any sort of poignancy that’s supposed to come from the narrative. The agile camerawork of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is always seeking out transfixing shots of beauty and wonder and it’s no coincidence that his unique sense of vision is often the most engrossing aspect of the film.
Anything to distract from the odiously overwrought sentiments recited by the multitude of talented actors in the style of hushed voiceover for which Malick has come to overuse in his more recent work. With its moody settings and pretentious tagline narration, the overall effect is not unlike watching 120 one-minute fragrance ads in a row with all of the closing pitches removed. The problem is that this movie doesn’t even know what it’s selling in the first place. If I’m supposed to feel bad for Rick as he bounces around the most affluent parts of LA and mopes about his luxurious circumstances, I’m not buying.
Bale’s largely vapid and charmless performance doesn’t explain why his character would garner the attention of these gorgeous women who can’t wait to throw themselves at him but more importantly, it also doesn’t root the narrative with much emotional honesty. His apathy bleeds into the disposition of the surrounding characters to the degree that everyone is just a little too cool and removed to be remotely relatable. Malick is an undeniably great filmmaker and he’ll find his way again, so I choose to consider Knight of Cups a spiritual hiccup rather than a career-halting dead end.
Even the efforts of the eminently talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt aren’t enough to lift this leaden biopic, which strains hard to be about Edward Snowden The Human as opposed to Edward Snowden The Headline. In his effort to humanize the now infamous NSA whistleblower, director Oliver Stone spends far too much of Snowden‘s 140 minute runtime cataloging personal details of its subject’s life in a manner that’s shoddy and predictable from the first scene. Stone’s never been known to be a particularly eloquent dramatist to begin with and his commercially friendly approach to this potentially provocative subject matter adds very little to the international conversation on mass surveillance and privacy in the digital age.
The film, which is told largely in a series of drawn out flashbacks, centers around Snowden’s pivotal meeting in Hong Kong as he discloses the classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). As Snowden begins to open up to filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in their hotel room, we learn about his early training days in the army, his various positions within the intelligence community and the romantic relationship with his photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). After the data is eventually leaked to the press, we follow Snowden as he finds temporary asylum in Russia amid staggering criminal charges brought on by the US government.
Perhaps I’m a cold hearted person but the fact is that I just don’t care about Snowden’s personal dilemmas and hangups nearly as much as I care about his role as a catalyst for the important public debate that he brought about with his actions. I’m not interested in pointless subplots like one involving Timothy Olyphant as a shady CIA operative and I’m even less interested in the 10 total minutes of screen time that Nicolas Cage has as a squirrelly NSA mentor. As an obsessive filmmaker, Stone is wont to get wrapped up in these kinds of trivial details that obscure the message he’s trying to convey.
He clearly wants Snowden’s relationship with Mills to be the heart of the story but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley don’t have the kind of chemistry that makes their love believable or worth rooting for. Both have done terrific work in other projects but their interactions here feel so forced and rarely does it seem like they’re emotionally on the same page with one another at any given moment. In particular, their hollow conversations about politics come across as the characters acting as a mouthpiece for the respective political parties they represent rather than resembling any kind of realistic talk that couples might actually have with one another.
The only scenes that have any sort of dramatic thrust are those with Snowden, Poitras and the two journalists in the Hong Kong hotel and it’s a shame that there isn’t a movie that focuses solely on these four individuals as they race against news deadlines and a relentless press force that seeks to expose them. Except there is; it’s called Citizenfour and it won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars last year (it’s even streaming online for free here). If you’re truly interested in this material, you’re much better off watching the vastly superior documentary and leaving Snowden out in the cold.
In January 2009, captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles were faced with an unprecedented situation. During their takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese spontaneously flew through both of the aircraft’s engines and rendered them powerless to continue through the flight. Forced to react quickly on behalf of his terrified passengers, Sully surmised that the best option was to land their crippled airplane on top of the nearby Hudson River, a decision that saved the lives of all 155 people on-board US Airways Flight 1549 and captured the attention of news outlets around the world.
Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of this heroic event and the impact it has on those involved is the focus of his new film Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Captain Sully and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Skiles. While the media adequately covered the result of the landing itself, it didn’t spend as much time focusing on the NTSB’s investigation to the crash, which alleged that Sully could have flown back to runways at one of two alternate airports in both New York in New Jersey despite his limited circumstances. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn, who you may recognize as Skyler from Breaking Bad, play the investigators tasked by the NTSB to suss out the situation.
It’s no surprise that the landing itself makes for the most exciting material in the story but Eastwood is smart about the way that he depicts fractions of the event from different perspectives before giving us an unbroken and definitive account towards the middle of the movie. When it did arrive, my heart was pounding as the plane taxied to the runway and began to take off. The amount of tension that’s built during the scene, from the quiet stillness of the engines right after the bird strike to the concurrent cries of “heads down, stay down!” from the flight attendants right before the crash, only subsides the moment after the plane hits the water.
With its white-knuckle crash sequence and subsequent probing from government officials looking to find flaws in the pilot’s performance, Sully has parallels to the recent Robert Zemeckis film Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s pilot character is initially hailed as a hero. While that film has different goals as a character study and redemption story, I can’t help but feel that Eastwood could have dug deeper into his protagonist the way Zemeckis did so well in his feature. Other than the fact that Sully is a hero who used a lifetime of training and preparation to divert a catastrophe, he doesn’t have much else to say about the central figure of his story.
Perhaps some of that also falls on Hanks, who portrays Sully as the calm and collected professional that he came across as in his numerous appearances in the press but jettisons some of his natural charm in the process. Eckhart fares a bit better in his role as Skiles, sporting a brilliantly authentic pilot’s mustache and a cunning wit that provides some much needed bits of humor to some of the film’s more drab stretches. Sully is an honorable and workman-like effort from Eastwood that reminds us that pure heroism is still powerful enough to inspire in increasingly cynical times.
On the tail end of a massively disappointing summer comes this excellent modern Western that richly explores the themes of poverty and family legacy in a way that balances art and entertainment in an immensely satisfying way. Hell or High Water also features some of the best screenwriting that I’ve seen this year, with dialogue that’s clever and loaded with plenty of dry humor but also doesn’t come across as manufactured or unnatural. Throw in a few deeply memorable performances and confident, poetic storytelling from Scottish director David Mackenzie and you have one of the film year’s biggest, most unexpected surprises.
The story takes place in a desolate region of west Texas hit hard by the economic crash, where highway billboards make empty promises of “fast cash now” and freedom from debt but the feeling of hopelessness is settled deeply in the eyes of its residents. Looking to escape their circumstances are the Howard brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), who begin committing small-time bank robberies in order to help avoid foreclosure on the ranch home of their recently deceased mother. Along with this, Toby also plans to use the funds to repay child support to his ex-wife and hopefully reconnect with his estranged sons.
After knocking off two banks in a morning, the Howard boys soon draw heat from the nearly-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his stoic and patient partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The two playfully exchange barbs about Hamilton’s curmudgeonly tendencies or Alberto’s ethnicity at a rate that’s almost hard to keep up with but it demonstrates the kind of oddly caring relationship that the lawmen have with one another. Their investigation eventually lead them to the Howards’ final robbery, in which the two brothers get in over their heads and their amateurish execution threatens to get the better of them.
Taylor Sheridan has penned an outstanding script that’s loaded both with poignant dramatic moments and witty bits of levity for comedic effect that can even pop up unexpectedly in seemingly serious interactions. Even Tanner isn’t above a “that’s what she said” crack when Toby comments on the size of a branch bank as the duo drive up to it. But when it’s time to get down to business, Sheridan knows just how to dial these characters in and remind us that these are down and out criminals who aren’t above violence and intimidation to achieve their goals.
Foster and Bridges do terrific work in roles that rely somewhat on mannerisms and reactions from performances that the actors have given in the past but it’s Pine that shines brightest here. He modulates the kind of charisma that he brings to a role like Kirk in the Star Trek films and focuses that energy inwards to play a calm and collected foil to the Foster’s loose cannon. Their unbreakable brotherly bond is just one aspect of Hell or High Water that makes it undeniably great entertainment and worthy of any Oscar consideration (especially Best Original Screenplay) it may receive next February.
This home invasion horror-thriller from the Evil Dead remake director Fede Alvarez begins with a fine setup, has some fantastically tense moments in the second act but it pushes its simple and believable premise to ludicrous extremes by its conclusion. While Don’t Breathe isn’t as downright scary as it’s been made out to be by its trailers, it uses the small details in the frame to ratchet up the suspense and make good on those setups with some well-earned payoffs. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of variation within this confined setting and the limited number of characters that leads to some repetitive storytelling that eventually wears out its welcome.
The plot brings together three desperate delinquents Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they break into houses and steal valuables throughout run-down areas of Detroit. After a particularly unlucrative heist, Money gets a tip on a house whose owner (Stephen Lang) supposedly has $300,000 in cash stored away but when they arrive at the man’s home, they discover that he’s completely blind and lives only with his dog. Seeing this as an easy opportunity, the trio follow through with their plan but soon found out that their victim isn’t nearly as helpless as they previously assumed.
As one might expect, these moments during the initial break-in when the tables slowly begin to turn make up the best and most memorable sections of the film. The sound design and the bass-heavy score are both impeccable as the three thieves snoop around to get the lay of the land and narrowly avoid creaky floorboards and broken pieces of glass. When their presence is detected by the blind man and he seems to gain the upper hand on his intruders, every cell phone vibration and, as the title suggests, every breath is treated with tremendous caution and trepidation.
A problem develops as the story progresses where empathy and morality are spread too thin even among its four (five, if you count the dog) characters and it becomes harder to find someone to root for, even in their dire circumstances. Rocky has a rocky home life, to say the least, and plots to use the newly-acquired cash to move to California with her younger sister but even her motivations become more muddled as greed takes over as her defining character trait. On the other side of things, the blind man earns sympathy from his debilitating condition but without giving too much away, there are story elements introduced that highlight some loathsome behavior on his part as well.
Maybe some more thorough character development early on could have helped avoid these issues but Alvarez makes it clear that he doesn’t want to waste any time getting into the movie’s primary location. With an 88 minute runtime, most of which takes place in real time, the focus is intentionally kept tight on the cat-and-mouse predicament without allowing for the kind of nuance that could have made this a more complete thriller. If you’re looking for lean and mean nail-biter, this one does deliver with some well-conceived setpieces but don’t expect Don’t Breathe to leave you breathless.
Portland-based animation studio Laika conjures another stop-motion marvel with Kubo and the Two Strings, which evokes the mysticism of ancient Japanese forklore as a backdrop for a timeless tale about the unbreakable bonds between family and the value of courage under increasingly trying circumstances. As its main character is a storyteller himself, the film also serves as a commentary on the importance behind the stories, both big and small, that we pass along to one another. From the self-referential opening line (“if you must blink, do it now”) to its poignant closing shot, this is a strikingly original piece of filmmaking whose story will no doubt be passed on again in the future.
Our young protagonist Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends his days entertaining townspeople with origami figures that spring to life with every pluck of his magical shamisen and recreate scenes of valor and victory from the village’s collective history. At night, he returns home to his ailing mother to avoid the evil spirits that lurk about but while caught in the forest one evening, he is confronted by the apparition of his mother’s twin sisters and is subsequently driven out of his town. With the help of new friends Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and Monkey (Charlize Theron), he sets out to find the father he never knew while also avoiding his treacherous grandfather known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
Put simply, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best looking stop-motion film that I’ve ever seen. Behind each frame rests the realization that every single detail on screen –every movement, every facial expression– was crafted by hand. Even a shot of wind blowing through a wheat field is enhanced by the knowledge that someone had to carefully move each strand of wheat to create a realistic effect. Sure, this is technically the case with every stop-motion feature but the scale here is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s one thing to animate two people talking in a room but it’s quite another to animate hundreds of flying leafs to come together to form a massive sailboat.
The fluidity of this process is the biggest selling point, as this movie firmly progresses past the stilted look that has plagued previous entries in the genre, but the pure artistry behind each of these creations is dazzling in its own right. From the tiny, multi-colored origami birds that fill the sky to the 18-foot skeleton puppet that allegedly took the production team 6 months to build, the gorgeous design work is filled to the brim with endless creativity and detail. Embedded in these images are artifacts from Japanese culture that give the settings both a sense of realistic depth and mythical transcendence.
On a more personal note, this is the first movie that I’ve seen in 3D since 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and I was as underwhelmed with the overall effect this time around as I was 6 year ago. While Kubo isn’t egregious in its use of the format, very little is gained from it either and a layer of vibrancy is unquestionably removed with the dark tint of those tacky and inexplicably unchanged 3D glasses. Whether you see the 3D version or what I would imagine is the brighter and crisper 2D iteration, I can recommend this as a vital stop-motion masterwork, no strings attached.