Thursday, January 18, 2018

'12 Strong': action beats insight

Chris Hemsworth leads a Special Forces unit into the wilds of Afghanistan.

The best war movies generally take a position that gets us beyond strategy, tactics and reflexive expressions of heroism. Considering that, 12 Strong, the story of a Special Force unit that was the first to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11, falls far short of the best in its breed. Though based on a true story, the movie would have been right at home during any summer action-movie onslaught.

Chris Hemsworth, as Capt. Mitch Nelson, leads a group that includes Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena). Trevante Rhodes, recently of Moonlight, also checks in as a sergeant, but proves no more distinctive than any of the other actors in this generically presented group.

When the picture opens, the newly retired Nelson wants to return to action; he can't sit idly by after his country undergoes an attack, which -- at the time -- seemed inconceivable. Sketchy scenes of the soldiers on the home-front are followed by scenes in which the GIs, newly arrived in Afghanistan, try to bond with locals and meet with CIA agents who already were engaged in combat.

As it turns out, Nelson's unit was assisted by forces from the Northern Alliance, in this case, led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban), a warlord who hated the Taliban but could be wary of Americans, as well.

The American soldiers were highly motivated but hadn't been trained for the kind of combat that Dostum knew well. Absent any other way to negotiate Afghanistan's rugged terrain, soldiers were asked to fight on horseback.

Still best known for playing Thor, Hemsworth gives the expected take-charge performance, but the movie doesn't get much from Shannon, who almost always leaves a mark.

The soldiers who fought in some of the world’s worst conditions unquestionably were brave. To make matters even more difficult, they were outnumbered 40 to one. When they wrested control of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, they made military history.

But that doesn’t mean that their story — based on a book by Doug Stanton — transcends its bounty of action to give us new insights into the war in Afghanistan. Instead, 12 Strong celebrates the usual band-of-bros bravado as director Nicolai Fuglsig garnishes combat sequences with a generous helping of explosions.

For some that will be enough, but the movie fails to lay the groundwork for understanding why, some 17 years later, the war in Afghanistan still rages or what, in the long run, might constitute success in this besieged and battered country.

Denver critics pick the best of 2017

The 90th Academy Awards nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 23. I suppose it's inevitable that this year's Oscars -- the broadcast at least -- will be dominated by #MeToo and #Timesup, continuing a trend of year-end ceremonies that have been dominated by issues about sexual assault and harassment. But before we learn who has been honored and who has been snubbed by Oscar, there's a bit of additional business to conclude; i.e., the announcement of the Denver Film Critics Association picks for the best of 2017. Most lists speak for themselves, so I'm going to offer this one without comment. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own choices.
Best Picture: Lady Bird
Best Director: Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project"
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Best Sci-Fi/Horror: Get Out
Best Animated Film: Coco
Best Comedy: The Big Sick
Best Original Screenplay: Get Out
Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name
Best Special Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes
Best Original Song: Remember Me, from Coco
Best Score: Dunkirk
Best Documentary: Faces Places
Best Foreign Language Film: Thelma

One big unhappy family

Michael Haneke's Happy End lacks the director's usual edge.

In movies such as Amour, The White Ribbon, Funny Games, Cache and The Piano Teacher, Austrian director Michael Haneke has established himself as one of the cinematic voices most committed to observing the brutal nature of nearly all human interaction. Haneke's movies can have so much edge, one often feels cut by them.

In Happy End, Haneke files down the edge a bit, but still clings to his less-than-optimistic views about society and its despicable perils.

This time, Haneke focuses on the Laurents, a wealthy French family living in the port city of Calais. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the family's patriarch, has fallen into physical and mental decline. His daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) has taken charge of the family’s construction company and is about to announce her engagement to a British businessman (Toby Jones) who's helping arrange a company-saving loan.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) drinks too much, imbibing hostility along with his wine. Anne’s philandering brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), works as a surgeon; Thomas’ daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (Fantine Harduin), has just moved in with her father. Eve's Mom became incapacitated from a drug overdose, a situation that creates discomfort because we know from early images that Eve has an interest in poisons.

Not surprisingly, the characters live behind curtains of self-absorption with Haneke introducing computer conversations and cell phone photography in an attempt to add one more element of alienation, as well to give the story some contemporary spin.

Unafraid to present his images in lengthy takes that defy contemporary pacing, Haneke again immerses us in a world in which the so-called civilized folks are vicious and the rest of society (notably a group of immigrants seen at the end) are innocent pawns. Same goes for poor Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) the family servant who lives in a house next to the large mansion where all of the Laurents reside.

Unlike some of Haneke’s work, Happy End can’t entirely escape dullness, even as its defiant characters work their cruel ways. Happy End is like a snake bite without enough venom as if the snake has become so desensitized by a cruel society that it wants nothing more than to be put out of its own misery.

President Obama's last year in office

Despite the implications of its title, The Final Year is not another addition to the apparently endless supply of apocalyptic Hollywood movies. It is, instead, a documentary about the final year in office of President Barak Obama's foreign policy team, notably John Kerry (Secretary of State), Samantha Powers (UN Ambassador) and Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor). Obama appears from time-to-time, but director Greg Baker mostly concentrates on a trio of conscientious wonks who, during the course of the film, visit 21 countries. Although The Final Year takes an unapologetically positive view of those who populate it, the movie also reflects disagreements within the Obama administration about how to proceed in Syria, and it shows Rhodes dealing with flak about a derogatory comment he made about the White House press corps. Everyone in The Final Year is working under tremendous time pressure, knowing that the Obama presidency was drawing to a close -- and in a way none of them anticipated. The Final Year probably doesn't qualify as a great documentary, but its three principal characters, particularly Powers, are quite impressive. If you're among those who disdain the Trump presidency, this film may make you weep. I doubt whether anyone who doesn't fall into that category will be among those buying tickets.

A bland helping of down-home romance

Country rock superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) spends most of Forever My Girl trying to reunite with the woman (Jessica Rothe) he left at the altar to pursue a life of debauched celebrity. Page returns to his hometown of St. Augustine, Louisiana, eight years after stranding Josie in the church presided over by his father (John Benjamin Hickey). Liam gains some motivation in his quest to recover his small-town roots when he learns that shortly after he split, Rothe's Josie gave birth to their daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). Writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf slogs along a formula path in a bland movie punctuated by ... er ... nothing worth talking about. Let's just say that Forever My Girl is to the world of country rock or even country music what karaoke is to accomplished performance. The movie is so drained of character, Louisiana even seems to have lost its humidity.

The road to catastrophe in Russia

Few issues are subject to as much debate as the impact that movies have on us. Are they simply entertainment? Do they influence the way we behave? Can they change values or inspire changes in behavior? The Road Movie isn’t likely to prompt deep conversations, but it's likely to leave little doubt about its impact. I’m betting that if see it, you’ll never want to venture onto a Russian highway. An assemblage of found footage, all of it taken from dash-cams, The Road Movie only can be watched with wide-eyed disbelief. You’ll see head-on collisions. You’ll see trucks tipping over. You’ll hear angry motorists cursing one another. You'll see a woman use a cigarette lighter to check on whether her gas tank has been filled. No, she's probably not a candidate for MENSA membership. You’ll wonder exactly why you’re subjecting yourself to a series of punishing images, some of them catastrophic. Did I mention the robbery or the guy who was carrying a sledgehammer? Maybe director Dimitri Kalashnikov latched onto a gimmick and pushed it as far as he could or maybe he hoped to provide a glimpse into dark corners of the Russian soul. If it's the latter, Kalashnikov has taken a route that by no means qualifies as scenic.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Critics' Choice Awards winners

The Shape of Water dominated the 23rd annual Critics' Choice Awards, taking home honors in four categories. The Critics' Choice Awards represent voting by The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a member. Are the Critics' Choice Awards a bellwether for Oscar? They have been. This year? Who knows. The Golden Globe for best picture went to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Maybe Oscar will surprise us and chart a course of its own. Lady Bird anyone?

So here's the list of those who received awards at Thursday night's ceremony.

Note: Unlike the Oscars, the Critics' Choice Awards include genre categories such as best comedy and best sci-fi/horror, a method that allows for a broader representation of the year's movies than a typical Oscar list.

BEST PICTURE – The Shape of Water
BEST ACTOR – Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
BEST ACTRESS – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Allison Janney, I, Tonya
BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS – Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST DIRECTOR – Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin, The Shape of Water
BEST EDITING (TIE) – Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos, Baby Driver and Lee Smith, Dunkirk
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – War for the Planet of the Apes
BEST COMEDY – The Big Sick
BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY – James Franco, The Disaster Artist
BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY – Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
BEST SONG – Remember Me from Coco
BEST SCORE – Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water

He wants to control ... well ... everything

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps play a challenging duet in director Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, a movie about a tyrannical fashion designer.

In what he says is his last screen performance, Daniel Day-Lewis reunites with director Paul Thomas Anderson (Let There Be Blood) to play a fastidious clothing designer who plies his trade in London of the 1950s. Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock (I leave it to you to deconstruct the surname) dresses women in ways that tend to stamp them with an identity: his. He designs, measures and sews until every woman who wears one of his gowns becomes a perfect representation of one of his sought-after visions.

It’s impossible (and perhaps inadvisable) to watch Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread without considering Woodcock as the embodiment of a certain kind of meticulous artist. His creations can have flourish and sweep, but they are also marked by an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive to touch the border of tyrannical.

For Woodcock, the dress eclipses the importance of the woman who wears it. He considers himself a visionary, but he works in the world of fashion where whim and shifting tastes can undo a reputation.

A bachelor when we meet him, Woodcock allows his sister (Lesley Manville) to keep his business on track. She’s a guardian and facilitator, the woman who takes care of all the details that Woodcock prefers to ignore. She knows that Woodcock requires space to create. A finely tuned instrument, he can be thrown off by the sound of toast that’s too noisily buttered or a vegetable that's not cooked to his exacting specifications.

Looking gaunt and composed with gray hair swept back to emphasize a steep brow, Day-Lewis takes the full measure of this unusual man, an artist for whom the external world poses constant threats to his powers of concentration.

In Phantom Thread, Anderson creates an intricately designed illusion: A small movie, Phantom Thread suggests big themes, even as it offers helpings of mischievous humor.

Initially, Anderson devotes the movie to establishing Woodcock’s world, a domain over which he exerts absolute control — until the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a country restaurant where Woodcock happens to dine. Woodcock invites Alma to become one of his models.

Alma replaces Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), a model who became a little too demanding for Woodcock’s taste.
When Woodcock brings Alma to his home, he tells her that her imperfections — she cites her small breasts — are not problems, at all. She's the landscape on which the great Woodcock will create his next masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, Alma soon begins to test Woodcock’s patience. She may not be quite as manageable as Woodcock initially hoped. Krieps gives Alma an assertive edge, and it becomes clear that this relationship will take over the movie: Woodcock and Alma are locked in a kind of dance in which he tries to exert his control and she resists.

By this time, Alma is living in Woodcock’s home, working full-time as his model and muse. But she refuses to disappear when he’d prefer not to see her.

Now, as is the case with most movies, it falls to Anderson to make something out of all that he has set in motion — with restraint, wit, and the precision of an elegant camera. Even in a character study, the characters eventually must do something. Anderson must take the finely spun cloth of the movie and weave it into something whole and finished.

How you respond to Phantom Thread may depend on what you make of the twist that Anderson brings to the movie.
I’m prepared to listen to those who disagree, but, for me, as Phantom Thread began adding a twist to the atmosphere Anderson creates, the movie's spell was broken for me. Little more can be said without introducing spoilers, so I’ll simply say that Anderson eventually defines what either can be viewed as a perfect match or a relationship of intricately blended perversities.

The performances are all first rate. By now, we all have come to appreciate Day-Lewis’ ability to inhabit characters in ways that are thorough and commanding without being showy. Watch Day-Lewis create Woodcock's smile, easy yet tentative, almost as if the designer's face is engaged in a game only he understands. Like everyone else who values his work, I hope that Day-Lewis reconsiders his proposed retirement.

Krieps gives the movie’s most surprising -- and in a way -- most dominant performance. Alma's disregard for the high pretenses of art border on a form of bullying. She brings an insistent presence to Woodcock's carefully managed home.

Phantom Thread stands as an absorbing work that proves mildly unfulfilling, a beautifully designed garment that ultimately hangs in a rather small closet. Put another way, what builds novel-like expectations at the outset winds up feeling like a short story by the end.

But that doesn't mean I wouldn't encourage you to see it -- for Day-Lewis, for Krieps and Manville, and for Anderson's insistence on making movies suited only to his own singular taste.

The woes of a beleaguered commuter

Liam Neeson wields his considerable gravitas in another collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, who has directed Neeson in movies such as Run All Night, Non-Stop, and Unknown. Throw in the Taken movies — not part of the Collet-Serra/Neeson collection — and you have an entire genre based on Neeson’s ability to summon mega-helpings of determination. In the new and decidedly preposterous The Commuter, Neeson portrays a downtrodden suburbanite who makes the daily commute from his home in the New York burbs to Grand Central Station. Oh, and Neeson's Michael MacCauley also happens to be a former member of the NYPD who gave up police work to become an insurance agent. In what amounts to a super-contrivance, the screenplay loads the deck against Neeson's Michael. He and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) lost most of their savings in the market debacle of 2008. Michael needs money to send his son to college but meets with another obstacle when he’s fired from the job he’s held for a decade. On the commute home, a dejected Michael encounters a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) who makes him an offer: $100,000 if he’ll find a person who’s not supposed to be on the train and relieve that person of a bag that contains something that someone desperately wants. Even in his frazzled state, it's difficult to believe Michael would agree, but he does and things get more complicated. The story becomes increasingly ridiculous as the movie, moving like the northbound on which its set, keeps running over its own credibility. Collet-Serra eventually stages some action and Neeson must employ some brawn as the movie builds toward a runaway train finale. Patrick Wilson signs on as Neeson’s former partner on the police force and Jonathan Banks plays one of Michael’s long-suffering fellow commuters, but Neeson holds center stage in a movie that whips up some decent action as Collet-Serra plies his skills in a confined location. But even Neeson’s seriousness can’t make sense out of a non-character in a movie that's derailed by a screenplay that feels generic and implausible.