Friday, July 20, 2018

Leave No Trace

Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is as principled as the movement that shares the film's title -- a worldwide community committed to minimal impact while enjoying the wilderness. In the first 15 minutes of this film, a father, Will, and daughter, Tom, (Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, both splendid) are shown in their "home," a camp in a woodsy public park in Portland, Oregon, where they forage off the grid, undetected and undisturbed. Dad, a war veteran who appears plagued by PTSD, runs his daughter through drills that are to help the girl elude those wanti wanting to disturb the peace. He's decent and loving; she is unspoiled and obedient. They are hurting no one. Of course, the peace is disrupted; father and daughter are discovered, detained and relocated to a tree farm where the owner (Jeff Kober) lets them live in exchange for Dad's labor. It's not long before the two are off again; Dad's anxieties will not let him be. Granik's film is loaded with dread but blessedly free of belligerence. Yes, the distress in it is heartbreaking but it's so elegantly written and finely tuned that the viewer's anguish is triggered not by rage but by a simple line spoken by a young girl, bone tired of running and hoping that finally her father's demons might be quieted: "I like it here."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sorry To Bother You

Boots Riley's commitment to worker liberation has suffused the music he's written with his uber-Marxist rap collective The Coup and with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Riley's first feature film as writer and director, the fascinatingly bizarre Sorry To Bother You, is beatifically political, anti-capitalistic and pro-labor at a time when the world seems to be colluding against the Average Joe and Joanna. Riley's protagonist, a chronically underemployed black man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfied of Get Out and Atlanta), is hired by an Oakland telemarketing company that sells nothing in particular. His ability to close a deal using his "white voice" gets him promoted upstairs where Cash's kind of moxie would be useful to the murky corporation, which practices a unique form of mind-control and labor enslavement. Cash's girlfriend Detroit (the tireless Tessa Thompson) and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) are talking about revolution and urging Cash to infiltrate the ranks of the oppressor and bring down The Man (represented here by a oddly cross-dressing Armie Hammer) from the inside. Of course, little goes as planned and the big reveal three-quarters through the picture might send some folks bolting out the door but that would be regrettable because the messages within this American nightmare are layered and profound. This radical and phenomenal film raises the bar substantially for black cinema.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp

 Nothing speaks more to the easy likeability and sad inconsequentiality of Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp as the Partridge Family's 1970s earworm theme "Come On Get Happy," which is featured in this, the latest installment of the eternal Marvel Comic Universe film series. Paul Rudd is again the eponymous Ant-Man and comely Evangeline Lilly the equally eponymous but more badass Wasp, both of whom can change their size with the help of "magic" space suits designed by Wasp's dad. Since the first film (2015), Rudd's Scott Lang has been under house arrest for reasons that, frankly, I have little memory of, when he's kidnapped by Lilly's Hope and her father, former Avenger and S.H.I.EL.D. genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to help retrieve Pym's wife / Hope's mother, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, from the quantum realm, which means getting really, really small. To do so, they have been building, with the help of giant ant minions, a shrinking machine -- which looks quite a lot like a huge printing press -- using parts purchased from a lowlife tech dealer (played with gratuitous Southern smarminess by Walter Goggins). Because all of this hoodoo science is easy-peasy, the only things standing between the terrific trio and their rescue mission are the FBI, Laurence Fishburne's rival scientist genius and a mysterious costumed figure who can walk through walls (snarling British beauty Hannah John-Kamen). Ant-Man is decidedly third-string on the MCU bench but, for my money, Michael Pena's turn as Lang's motor-mouthed sidekick Luis is MVP and he owns all of the best parts of this picture.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud

Something at the core of Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud draws viewers in but also keeps the picture from really taking off. The film, which stars Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as a father and daughter in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn during the summer before she leaves for UCLA, carries a message about the universality and restorative powers of music, how it unifies and rejuvenates, but the picture doesn't offer enough connective tissue to give the story any weight. Offerman's Frank barely runs a record shop, which exists, sadly, more as a narrative device than another character, which would have been sooo much better. Frank has virtually no interactions with customers, in fact, no one darkens the door of store through 90 percent of the film. Most of Frank's contact is with his pretty and brainy daughter, Sam; his friend, local barkeep and weed head Dave (Ted Danson) and his landlady / friend(?) Leslie (the ever-engaging Toni Collette). But their interactions are a bit plodding and reveal little about any of them. The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, is the treatment of the creative process, as Frank, who had a brief and undistinguished music career when he was young, and Sam write a song together that becomes an indie darling on Spotify (which along with Apple probably bankrolled this picture). This reawakens Frank's dormant longing to be heard and, perhaps, to bring back to life Sam's mother, who was the victim of a motorway accident while riding a bicycle years before. It is in all of these potentially resonant elements that the movie ultimately disappoints. Though it features three nifty emoesque ballads, the picture doesn't allow the characters to explore their pain, loneliness or disappointments or why they are doing any of the things they are doing. Too often Haley resorts to trite aphorisms that are folded into songs and so become anthemic. Offerman and Clemons are both fine in their roles but there is no warmth between them and, truly regrettably, Sam's relationship with a lovely but one-dimensional artist (Sasha Lane) feels tacked on and insubstantial.


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