Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Eye in the Sky"

 4 / 5 

The extraordinary lead actors of the war thriller Eye in the Sky — Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman and Barkhad Abdi — never share a scene in the entire movie, yet the tension between them is palpable even though almost all they do is stare at video screens.

It's an unlikely setup for a suspense-thriller, but, let's face it, drones make for an unlikely war, and Eye in the Sky offers up a central conflict so simple and intense that no matter how you feel about the ethical quandary the movie explores, it's impossible not to be drawn in.

As a British military intelligence commander, Mirren kicks things off when she gets the word that three of the most sought-after extremist terrorists in Africa are going to be in a single house in Nairobi.  It's a prime opportunity to capture all of them, in particular a British national who has become radicalized.

Government officials, under the watch of a droll lieutenant general (Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen appearance), gather in a plush Whitehall office to watch the video feed from a drone orbiting the Kenyan shanty from 20,000 feet.  Their goal is to ensure that the British woman that has joined al-Shabaab is captured and returned for trial.

Thousands of miles away on an Air Force Base in Las Vegas, a young lieutenant (Aaron Paul) pilots the drone, commanding its movements along with a co-pilot, both safe in the confines of a small room that couldn't be more far removed from the high-stakes drama playing out in Kenya, where two local operatives are using tiny flying cameras to get in close.

One of them (Barkhad Abdi) manages to get inside only to discover that the woman and her jihadist cohorts are making plans for a massive suicide bombing — leading to Mirren's call for a drone strike that will take them all out.  Her certainty is undermined by the hemming and hawing of the government officials, none of whom are willing or able to give the authorization.  Their endless, bureaucratic waffling and buck-passing takes so long that the situation gets more complex when a little girl (Aisha Takow) who lives next door to the house sets up a makeshift stand to sell bread — putting her at risk to become collateral damage if the missile is launched.

Fire the missile, destroy the terrorists and prevent a large-scale attack — or protect the innocent girl? It seems an easy decision, and Mirren can't understand why there's so much indecisiveness about it, but pilot Paul refuses to pull the trigger unless he has a better sense of the chances the girl will be hurt, while cabinet ministers reason that al-Shabaab will be the only group to blame for an attack, while the world will heap scorn upon a government that let an innocent 9-year-old die.

As the debate rages, the preparations for a Westgate Mall-style attack continue, and the clock runs short.

In that sense, Eye in the Sky is an effective update of the Cold War thriller Fail Safe, which played with the tensions of a nuclear strike from the claustrophobic settings of war rooms, bunkers and cockpits.  The stakes are lower than the end of the entire world, but director Gavin Hood keeps the drama taut and tight, especially as Abdi, the only agent on the ground, tries to figure out a way to help the unknowing girl without rousing the suspicions of the militant extremists who patrol the town.

While they never share scenes and rarely even communicate with each other, Mirren, Paul and Rickman are all integral to the drama, and manage to keep it not just cohesive but inarguably effective.  Eye in the Sky is a war movie, but most importantly it's top-notch thriller.  It's got a terrific screenplay and an impressive sense of visual style -- mixing the aerial footage with enough street-level action to keep it from feeling like yet another "found footage"-style film -- but the real hero of the movie has to be its editor, Megan Gill, who effortlessly weaves together scenes of talking heads that could be less compelling without such strong editorial panache.

With the gruff, no-nonsense Mirren countered by an exasperated Rickman and an anxious Paul, the actors add immeasurably to the drama, with strong supporting work by a surprisingly strong cast of performers who convey the uncertainty of fighting a war from thousands of miles away.

It may offer a new perspective on war, but Eye in the Sky sticks to the tried and true method of telling a story: with impressive force and relentless confidence.

Viewed March 26, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Natural"

Halfway through The Natural, baseball player Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) sits down with his childhood sweetheart, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close).  They have not seen each other in 16 years, since the day Roy left their hometown, bound for Chicago, then disappeared.

What viewers know but Iris doesn't is that way back then, when Roy should have been focused only on two things -- his game and Iris -- he strayed.  He was seduced by Hannah Bird (Barbara Hershey), a black-clad, intensely sexual woman who shot him in the stomach, then killed herself.  The mental injury to Roy harmed him as much as the physical one.  He retreated from life, but never could get his mind off the game.

He has caught up with baseball again, after stints in minor-league teams that might have been humiliating if Roy hadn't been clear about what he wanted to achieve.  He wants only the glory, doesn't care at all about the fortune; he wants to have people look at him when they walk down the street and say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was."

But Roy never achieved that, and if you (like me) were a little too young the last time you watched the movie to really make it all out, seeing The Natural in adulthood is a sort of existential revelation, because it's a complex and regret-tinged story about, as Roy puts it later, the "mistakes I guess we never stop paying for."

His near-fatal one-night dalliance not only nearly ruined his career, but kept him away from Iris.  Now, she lives in Chicago and goes to see him when Roy's New York Knights play the Cubs.  After the game, they meet up in an empty little Chicago diner to try to explain themselves, which of course can never be done.  Iris is everything Hannah was not -- bathed in a warm light, she has never fallen out of love with Roy, never stopped believing in him.

The Natural liberally and unabashedly mixes fantasy into its story, combining baseball with Homeric and Arthurian legend to create something rare: A sports-based allegory that works well as a baseball film but even better as a reverie on the harsh realities of aging, of regret, of lost opportunity.

If one of the other great fantasy-baseball movies of the 1980s, Field of Dreams, is about the importance of faith in a higher power, The Natural is about the importance of self-confidence, self-esteem, of faith in oneself.

That may make it sound maudlin and overly sentimental, but it never is, not with the assured direction of Barry Levinson and a screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry that wonderfully captures the thematic spirit of scenes and situations but refrains from punctuating them with more obvious emotion, which would have overpowered the fable-like qualities of the story.

Just consider that scene in the malt shop.  Iris imagines that in the 16 years since he left their home, he has never thought of her.  She gives the sensation that she has never stopped thinking of him every day -- but it's not a sloppy, romantic kind of sadness, rather a resignation she has come to wear with a certain pride, because she knew him when and believed in him then.  His success is something she shares in, not resents.

"I thought I saw you once in the train station," he tells her.

"Really?"  She smiles back, happy to hear of the effort.  "I used to look for you in crowds, thinking someday, maybe you'd be there.  Somewhere I stopped."

Roy tells her that his life didn't turn out the way he expected -- revealing the depth and roiling intensity that the characters Redford plays frequently hide so well.  Redford is a golden-haired hero, it is impossible to imagine anything wrong in his life, but as an actor, he finds some astonishing ways to play the hurt and sadness.

It may be true, as contemporary critics pointed out, that The Natural took a dark, cynical novel by Bernard Malamud and turned it into a sleek, happy-ended big-studio film.  But, you know, it's not entirely happy.  Roy's faced with despicable betrayals of those who want to see him fail, the same people in whom he put trust.  And he continues to be dogged by a years-ago mistake that he thought he had put behind him, and which, after all this time, might still kill him.

Roy plays his final game knowing it is his final game, unwilling to sell himself out, grimacing as the reopened wound seeps through his jersey.  He is playing this last game to the chagrin of the villainous ball club owners, not necessarily to prove them wrong but because he has dared to tell Iris everything that happened -- he has owned up to his life, and the truth is a powerful tonic.

And right there comes the beauty of The Natural. It's a film about baseball, sure, but it's a story that is decidedly adult: Its emotional power comes from its wisdom in knowing the power of regret, the way it can take down entire lives but -- carefully tended -- can feed and nurture them.  "The truth will set you free," the saying goes, and although The Natural doesn't see it quite as simply as that, it does get the audience to rally round a hero whose success is staked not on financial fortune, but on personal achievement, on trying to be "the best there ever was" (a line Roy repeats twice in a wonderful "mirroring" moment in the movie).

He is seeking a sense of hope he thought he lost, a life he let go of.  To get those things back, he will need to confront and accept his past.  Like all great heroes faced with the sudden awareness of the one thing they must do, Roy realizes that the truth, no matter how painful, is not a weakness, it is the very source of his power.  The past is not shameful.

Before watching The Natural for the first time in a couple of decades, I had remembered it as predominantly a movie about baseball.  Of course it is.  But like Field of Dreams, it's also not.  It goes so far beyond a simple sports story and presents a conflicted hero, one who is both far beyond mere mortals in appearance and ability, yet is as flawed, scared and pliable as anyone.

The Natural is a moving, patient, thoughtful movie, one that ends in a spectacular raining down of fireworks that can't fail to get the heart stirring -- the same heart that's already been affected, in far different ways, throughout this fine movie, which seems even better now, somehow more relevant, than it did when it was released 32 years ago.  Or maybe I'm just 32 years older.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Miracles from Heaven"

 2.5 / 5 

Consider what we know: Miracles from Heaven is "from the producers who brought you Heaven is for Real." The child who told a very similar story, and whose family profited handsomely for the tale, later recanted the allegation.  This new movie goes to great lengths to explain what a terrible financial burden is carried by the family at its core.

Putting all of these things together, I leave it to you to determine whether a) the movie was made with only one audience in mind; b) anyone is stretching the truth; or c) the financial windfall of selling your book to a company who will turn it into a movie -- one with fairly big Hollywood stars, no less -- is inherently anything other than remarkably fortuitous.

It's difficult not to be cynical about Miracles from Heaven because it's so specifically, intentionally made for and, at times, pandering to its Christian audience, intentionally and almost gleefully shutting out those who don't share the faith.

Even its discussion about the nature of faith, and the importance of having it, proceed from the assumption that losing it is a temporary affliction, one that can be remedied by a simple recognition in the beauty and wonder of life as presented each Sunday in church.

Interestingly, there are moments when it looks as if Miracles from Heaven might actually dare to head in a different direction, might acknowledge that singing Christian pop songs and dressing up to listen to the pastor every Sunday could fail to solve all of life's problems, that maybe, just maybe, life is a random jumble that is not fair, makes no sense, and leaves some people holding the short end of the stick.

Christy Beam, a real Texan mother played here by Jennifer Garner, is the woman whose faith is tested, not once but twice -- first, when her middle child, Anna (Kylie Rogers) begins suffering from a mysterious digestive ailment.  After multiple mis-diagnoses, Christy and her country-singer-good-looking husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) finally get the news that Anna has a rare, potentially deadly ailment whose name I would never, ever be able to remember.

Anna's timing simply could not be worse, as Christy and Kevin have mortgaged their beautiful ranch home to the hilt so he can open his own veterinary practice, and they have no money left.  This, it's important to point out, is the kind of movie where it's never, ever once suggested that Christy find a job, because she has a job at home, caring for the girls and the dogs, and that's what her job should be.

Their churchgoing friends, who, we learn at a sun-dappled barbecue, are all white and straight, surprisingly don't come through with donations and plates of food.  Christian charity, or the lack of it, is never discussed in this movie.

Christy and Kevin don't know how they're going to make ends meet as the bills for Anna's medical care continue to mount.  He tells her to have faith, they'll make it somehow.  She says, rather practically, that his advice isn't all that helpful.

They spend tens of thousands of dollars so Christy and Anna fly from Texas to Boston for bi-weekly treatments from a world-renowned specialist who is booked for nine months solid.  There, incongruously, they meet a big, boisterous waitress played by Queen Latifah who becomes their BFF after two minutes. They have a fun, wacky interlude with a fun, wacky adventure, then the doctor calls, because Christy's plucky and tenacious spirit has insisted that her daughter should be seen.

In one of the movie's only surprises, Anna doesn't get better.  The medicines don't work.  Everyone' just about given up all hope, and then, as the movie proudly reveals in every single trailer and TV commercial, Anna falls from a tree, and somehow, she's miraculously cured, just in time of the movie to wrap up with a lovely (no, really, that's not at all sarcastic, it is lovely) homily in which Christy talks about how miracles surround us every day.

Her wrap-up speech bears a lot of resemblance to Hugh Grant's opening monologue in Love, Actually, where he talks about love, actually, being all around if you look, and Christy says miracles are everywhere, if you just see them for what they are.

She has no explanations for what made her little girl seem to come back from the dead, though the little girl does -- she met God, and God told her she wasn't ready to go to Heaven yet, so he sent her home and made sure she was healed.  Smartly, Christy at least openly wonders why it was that her beautiful little child from a wealthy suburb was spared when other, less fortunate people suffer.  It's a fair question.

And it's the kind of question that Miracles from Heaven has its characters come right out and ask without giving any answers, assuming, I guess, that the asking in and of itself will placate critics.  Some the questions it asks -- like what to do when religious faith falters, when, as Christy says, "I can't even pray anymore" -- are noble ones, but the movie has no real interest in asking them, or even engaging in a serious dialogue.

Miracles from Heaven assumes that all problems will be solved with the help of a very specific, very Christian God.  It does not ask whether the outcome would be the same in another religion, or whether someone who had no religious convictions might experience the same results.

When I wrote about Heaven is for Real, I mentioned the great, terrifying movie The Exorcist, and it is a movie that went through my mind again while watching Miracles from Heaven.  It isn't God who makes his presence known in The Exorcist, it's the devil, and he does so in a household that does not practice religion.  Evil comes into the lives of a young girl and her mother and offers them a test of spiritual faith that is harrowing and difficult.  It is through the testing of a lack of faith that the power of religion is upheld.

Miracles from Heaven offers no moment that is particularly harrowing, and never once questions the underlying faith of the family at its center, even when Christy says words fraught with doubt; they are not actually doubter's words, but words of one who thinks maybe doubting should be an option.

Still, when things get really, really bad, when things could not possibly be worse, Christy falls to her knees and begins reciting the Lord's Prayer as the music swells -- and it all plays out in dramatic slow-motion, because restraint is not a trait much known to the makers of films like these, and because Christy's acquiescence to prayer is the emotional climax of the movie: She has come around, she has seen the light (OK, it's technically her daughter who sees the light, but, you get it.)

All in all, though, here's the thing: Heaven is for Real was a horrible movie, a film that had no purpose for being, a movie that made its central question look trivial and not-serious.

Miracles from Heaven contains just enough lip-service to the issue of doubt that it is frequently interesting, sometimes even more than that.  There are over-the-top moments of eye-rolling silliness, to be sure.  There are moments when the extreme earnestness of Miracles from Heaven borders on being a religious Airplane!  But it's not playing things for laughs.  Those stereotypes, those caricatures, those age-old scenes inside a hospital ("I'm not leaving until you tell me what's wrong with her!") are the real deal, and it's a huge credit to Garner that most of these come off so well.

She and Kylie Rogers have real chemistry as mother and daughter facing the challenge together.  And that final monologue -- which effective recasts some of the movie's odder moments -- is affecting.

Relatively compact at about an hour and 50 minutes, it could have played out as a 50-minute TV docudrama and kept largely the same elements -- including the golden-hued outdoor cinematography and the core message of faith -- but cut back on some of the extraneous exposition.

Miracles from Heaven isn't a bad film, and for anyone who really wants to understand the mindset of much of the country -- the same mindset that leads us to many of our current political choices, particularly on the Republican side -- it might be worth seeing.  It could help explain the Trump-iness of modern Christianity as a whole: Why, when one little boy admits he made it all up in order to sell books and make a lot of money, he's not decried as a liar, and the system not only doesn't fall apart, it gets stronger.

The promise, the message, the faith is stronger than the evidence at hand.  That's impressive faith, really.  It is.  Even when someone admits it's all made up, faith pushes through.  No one has said or even implied that Miracles from Heaven is made up.  And based on the reaction of those in the audience the night I saw it, even if the whole thing were exposed as a sham, it wouldn't matter.  The message is still the same, and it's the message alone that people want to hear.

Viewed March 21, 2016 -- Valley Plaza 15


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Favorite Films: "Broadcast News"

There we were in 1987, when the Cold War was still freezing, when Iran-Contra had us debating, when we were still trying to get over being stunned by the Challenger and Chernobyl, when drivers in L.A. were shooting each other, when the market and an entire way of life was about to collapse, and when all of that made it a glorious time to be a journalist because so much was happening and journalism was the way people found out about all of it.

By that time, I had already made my decision to become a journalist, and had taken some big steps to getting there.  Earnest movies like Absence of Malice or All the President's Men proved that journalism was an honorable, noble profession that served the public good.  Before the Internet came along and changed everything, journalism was aspirational.

But what was it like to be a journalist?  What did it feel like?  Newspaper movies were like police procedurals, focused on a crime or an event and showing us the intensity of getting to the heart of the story.  Even a school field-trip visit to a newspaper newsroom showed you that it wasn't all like that.  So, what was it like, and what did journalists do and talk about when they weren't uncovering the cover-up?

I needed to know.  Then, out of nowhere, came Broadcast News, which from its first shot isn't about the news itself, or the way it's made, but about the people who make it.  Written by James L. Brooks, Broadcast News is on one level the maturation and expansion of the themes he explored in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it goes much deeper than that.  It is not a film version of a sitcom, nor is it a sitcom theme writ large.

It opens with a trio of flashbacks that tells us everything we need to know about its three central characters with a spectacular sort of storytelling economy: We see them as kids, for just a minute or two each, but we know their personalities, their neuroses and their ambitions are already set.

As Brooks's script cross-fades into its core story, it takes only a few effortless minutes to set up the three conflicts that will drive the film: News producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is fed up with the trivialization of modern broadcast news, but the rest of her industry mocks her -- everyone except for Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), the reporter from her Washington D.C. bureau who not-so-secretly loves her, not just because she's smart and pretty but because she has integrity, passion and heart, because she cares about making news better.

After a disastrous keynote speech that is meant to inspire her audience but instead causes them to leave the room, Tom Grunick (William Hurt) also refuses to make fun of Jane.  She thinks she might have a chance at seducing the tall, blond local news anchor, but he has something else in mind: He wants her professional advice on becoming better and smarter, because they're going to be working together -- though he's never been an actual reporter, he's been assigned to the D.C. bureau.

This rapid-fire setup of the story manages not just to communicate plot but to give us insight into what stirs and moves and scares and inspires these people, all within their first few scenes.

What's most interesting about Broadcast News is how it is all about character, the entire film is propelled by less by what Jane, Tom and Aaron do but by how they behave and react -- and not just them, but the impressive supporting characters who surround them and inhabit the film and make it feel alive.  There is a traditional three-act story here, but it's so loosely defined that the central conflict almost sneaks up on you; if you're not paying attention, you might even miss it.

And in between, there are newsroom discussions about things like whether cameras should be allowed in death-row executions.  The network boss comes in and fire longtime employees, people who are good at their craft, because they've got to cut costs so they can keep paying the anchorman and making more money.  Jane slowly realizes she is in love with Tom, even though on their first meeting she has warned him -- not dissuaded him or spurned him, but actually warned him, "You personify something I truly think is dangerous."

But it turns out Tom is good at his job.  That he's smart and handsome is almost inconsequential to Jane -- he's good, and she admires him for it. Her admiration turns into infatuation, and while that's happening, something else takes place that is, at the time, seems to underscore why she loves him.  Tom interviews a rape victim on camera.  During the interview, he cries.

Using the tear isn't the way Jane would have gone, she admits, but it's effective and it's real, and near the end of the movie, after Jane tells Aaron that she loves Tom, and she watches Aaron's heart break right there in front of her, she learns the truth: Aaron asks her to think about that tear, because Tom only had one camera at the interview.  To cry on screen, Tom would have had to fake it.  He would have had to stage the news.  He would have had to violate every professional and ethical standard that Jane stands for.

Broadcast News is a movie that allows people to make their decisions using their heads, which makes it harder to watch what happens to their hearts.

Unlike a standard romance, Jane feels betrayed not because Tom cheats on her romantically -- but because he has cheated in his job.  His action leaves everyone perplexed.  Tom understands he has crossed the line, but offers a legitimate defense: "It's hard not to cross it -- they keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"

But Aaron, the emotional anchor of the movie, is the most incensed of all.  In a movie that is one great scene after another, the best comes between Aaron and Jane after she reveals that, despite every professional standard and personal instinct, she loves him.  But Aaron can't let her.

The scene plays as a scathing commentary of the changing media landscape.  In the midst of the lighthearted, smart romantic comedy, it explodes like an unexpected rocket delivering an angry, bold indictment of the changes -- in media, in culture, in our personal standards -- that we understand now were only just beginning.  For all of its tender, loving observations of its characters, Broadcast News has some things to say that aren't at all nice.  Here's Brooks's script:
Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil. What do you think the devil's going to look like if he's around?  No one's going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red pointy tail.  No.  I'm semi-serious here. He will be attractive.  He'll be nice and helpful.  He'll get a job where he influences a great, God-fearing nation.  He'll never do an evil thing, he'll never deliberately hurt a living thing. he'll just bit by little bit lower our standards where they're important, just a tiny little bit.  Just coax along, flash over substance.  Just a tiny little bit.
Keep in mind, 1987 was deep into Reagan's second term, so maybe it wasn't all about Tom Grunick. The movie follows up Aaron's outburst by showing how the newsroom gets decimated to keep the suits happy.  Broadcast News turns sad and melancholy, it recognizes the ways in which the lives those clever children at the beginning of the film imagined were bound to disappoint -- and concludes with an open-ended scene that accepts that they may never be quite as good separately as they were together.

But for me, Broadcast News promised something even more: That there were people in the world who couldn't stop asking questions about right and wrong, people for whom professional standards and personal integrity meant more than reward and expediency.

So, I watched Broadcast News six or eight times in the winter of 1987, and then I got a photographer to take headshot and I submitted it to local news stations and for about two weeks imagined that maybe I could be part of that life.

No, I didn't hear back from them.  But I did hear from newspapers, and I did become a journalist, albeit a journeyman who never really became an expert.  Yet, during my few years in professional journalism, I did indeed meet people who couldn't stop asking questions about right and wrong, people with the highest possible professional standards, with enormous personal integrity.  We received very little reward and thought as little as possible about expediency.  They were some of the best people I've ever known, and I got to be part of their world.  I'm always grateful for those few years.

No, we weren't as clever as Aaron or as beautiful as Tom or as chipper as Jane, but in many ways, Broadcast News got much of life as a newspaper journalist exactly right, back in a time when journalists cared most about getting it right, and trying to define exactly what that meant.  It was a great time to be a journalist, and an even greater time to want to be a journalist, something I'm reminded of every time I watch the warm and wonderful Broadcast News.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane"

 3 / 5 

Hitchcock called it a "MacGuffin," that thing that is so essential and yet inconsequential to the plot that everything hangs on it, even though it could be nothing at all, like the microfilm in North By Northwest that contains -- who knows, and who cares?  Without it, there would be no movie.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, everything is the MacGuffin, a concept that works ingeniously well to generate suspense and intrigue all the way until the final few moments.  How tempting it would have been to tell us what was on that microfilm, whether there was a real Maltese Falcon.  It's a temptation that 10 Cloverfield Lane just can't resist.

Think for a moment about what a different movie Pulp Fiction would have been if it had continued and shown us the contents of the briefcases and played out the consequences of opening it up.  Questions would be answered, but to what end?

Questions are indeed answered in 10 Cloverfield Lane, as if producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk learned too hard the lessons of angry fans of Lost -- forgetting that, fandom be damned, the lack of answers is what kept the thing going so long and made it so satisfying; it only failed when it tried to start providing solutions to its endless puzzles.

In fact, the essence of Lost is felt throughout 10 Cloverfield Lane, which begins with a similar setup: a crash (this time in a car), a central character who wakes up in a mysterious setting, and an underground hatch.  And just like Lost's hatch, this one has a purpose that's equally outlandish.

The central character is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has just had a fight with her fiancĂ© and left town when her car skids off the road.  When she awakens, it seems she's being held hostage in a well-stocked underground bunker, but the giant of a man who runs the place assures her otherwise.  He's Howard, played by John Goodman, and he claims that there's been "an invasion."  Russians, maybe.  Or Martians.  He's not sure.  Like Reverend Scott in The Poseidon Adventure, he's only sure of one thing: Everyone who was "up there" is dead.

There's a third inhabitant of the bunker, a neighbor named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), and though Michelle is rightfully dubious, Emmett claims he saw how it all started, that's why he's there.  But why does Michelle hear cars rumbling above them, and how can she be sure this isn't some elaborate kidnaping ruse?  She can't.  Nor can the audience.

And this is the slow-burn beauty of 10 Cloverfield Lane for at least three-quarters of its carefully controlled story, which is skillfully directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg from a script by Damien Chazelle, Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken -- who no doubt spent many hours studying what worked and didn't in the Abrams-produced Lost.

It's a delight to watch how 10 Cloverfield Lane revels in taking viewers right up to the point of certainty -- then pulling back and seeding doubt, before doing it all over again.  It plays the really clever Hitchcockian game of getting us to wonder if we haven't misjudged who is the hero and who is the villain, and pulls a shocker of a plot twist just when the jolt is most needed.

Goodman's Howard is crazy, all right, a fact Goodman plays to the hilt, letting Winstead rise to the challenge of playing a character who's both crafty, capable and heroic, yet unsure and fearful, both of her captor and of the possibility he might be telling the truth.  He's a more frightening and satisfying presence than the movie's ultimate revelations.

Because 10 Cloverfield Lane finally needs to address the question of its titular roadway, it needs to let go of the cat-and-mouse thriller with an odd tinge of mystery and become literal.  If the net effect isn't a disappointment, exactly, the movie's final 10 minutes are tonally at odds with all that has come before.  The movie sacrifices its sublime sense of mystery on a micro-scale for the sake of something that feels a bit too familiar and too grand.

The ending will probably divide audiences, and perhaps rightfully so.  Those expecting the movie to fulfill its inherent promise of providing a link to the Cloverfield of the title will probably leave satisfied, but those who want to see the central drama played through to the very end might feel a little deflated as the plot heads into some familiar territory that undoes just a bit of the delicious anxiety that the three-player drama in the bunker produced.

It turns out that things that go bump in the night are scarier when you can't see them.

Viewed March 11, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, March 6, 2016

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

 3 / 5 

If Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't an entirely satisfying or quite fully successful movie, it gets extra consideration for being everything you would suspect it isn't: a considered drama tinged with humor, an honest attempt to get inside the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan, a war that is wearily criticized during the movie as having "chronic same-shit-different-day-itis."

What does that mean to the people who are on the ground fighting, or the journalists covering the conflict?  They're still there, doing their jobs, and everyone is tired of it, including them.

One of them is broadcast reporter Kim Barker, who is played by Tina Fey in a performance that starts out right in her sardonic, smirking comfort zone and slowly pushes her -- and us -- out of it to the point that the biggest surprise of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the realization that Fey is a good actress, that she creates a character with depth and nuance, someone whose convictions and fate prove interesting to watch.

Fey's achievement is all the more impressive because Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wavers too much for its own good, never quite settling on whether it wants to be a character-driven comedy, a satire on the state of the news business, a political commentary about the insanity of this particular war, or a sweet wartime romance about professionals doing their jobs in harsh environments.

Two previous movies, in particular, send echoes of familiarity through Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: the criminally underrated and massively entertaining Under Fire, about journalists in a war zone facing ethical and romantic dilemmas; and James L. Brooks's 1987 Broadcast News, in which the private and personal lives of journalists collided.

They're more than echoes, really.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot owes them both a huge debt, particularly in the ways it observes journalists growing restless, crossing ethical lines in order to speed things along and make their lives more interesting.  From the perspective of both soldiers and journalists, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is most interesting for the way it shows the dull sameness of life in what Barker refers to as the "Kabubble," the heightened reality of Kabul, which could be as intriguing as setting as, say, Casablanca if only everyone -- Afghans, warriors, civilians -- weren't so weary of a war no one wanted, or, for that matter, wants.

Grafting Fey's sly cultural commentaries on to the complex story proves difficult, so after the first few fish-out-of-water moments, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wisely gives up on the effort.  There are frequent references to the way average-looking people become more attractive in the thick of war, a commentary that's funny the first time and grows weirdly uncomfortable the more frequently it's presented.  It comes in to play as Barker tries to shoo away the unwanted advances of her towering bodyguard and becomes involved with an impish photographer (Martin Freeman), much to the surprise of one of the only other women in her group, a statuesque blonde (Margot Robbie) who's already been in Kabul too long.

As played by Fey, Barker recalls the assertive-yet-quirky producer Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News -- and there are moments when another Brooks character, Mary Richards, comes to mind, particularly as Fey tries to deal with the overtly sexual come-ons of a high-level Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) and to prove her capability to a Marine general (Billy Bob Thornton).

This is a lot for any film to juggle, and it's more than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot can take on.  Though Freeman and Robbie are strong support, the movie suffers by trying to be Fey's show, leaning toward the comedic when it should embrace the drama, and showcasing Fey's impressive acting chops just when it needs to be focusing on other characters.

Despite being impressively mature in a film landscape that does not generally favor either complexity or intelligence, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never quite finds its focus or voice, and though its grown-up view of the world is a welcome change of pace, it's likely to leave most audiences mumbling a less polite version of its title acronym.

Viewed March 5, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks