David Mackenzie crafts his neo-Western Hell or High Water (A) with such methodical pace that he disguises how urgent a work it is for modern times. Yes, on the surface it’s a heist thriller about sworn “Comanches,” or enemies: a pair of bank robbers versus a duo of rangers facing off on stark Texas terrain. But a deeper viewing of the film finds a dramatic, elegiac tale about brothers surviving a cycle of poverty and abuse, about lawmen making a last stand to protect a land and a way of life and about a community coping in the shadow of institutional greed. There’s a sense everyone is playing their assigned role in a Western, down to the cowboys and Indians, but the pop psychology behind the characters is very much grounded in America after the devastation of recession, payday loans and foreclosures. Everyone is wounded in this unconventional oater that eschews constant shoot-em-up in lieu of rich character development. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are superb as the sibling protagonists, with Pine delivering the best work of his career to date as a man conflicted between duty to family and revenge against the bank that wrecked havoc on his homestead. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, playing a character of Native American and Hispanic descent, are also wonderful as the rangers. Bridges can add his colorful role to a series of late-career triumphs. It’s telling that the bank is ostensibly the real enemy in the film, but it is populated by low-level bureaucrats who seem unaware or indifferent to their effect on Main Street USA. Giles Nuttgens’ lived-in outdoor cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ plaintive score bring additional gravitas to the proceedings. There’s action too, but this movie is best in the quiet reflective moments that speak volumes about pockets of the country left behind in the march toward progress.
Painfully predictable and uninspired, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster (D) begins with George Clooney on a toilet and essentially spirals downward from there. When Jack O’Connell’s gunman character holds the silver fox TV personality hostage on-air, it’s up to mild-mannered protagonist Julia Roberts in the production booth to help save the day. Tedium ensues. The theme that the stock market is corrupt is labored at best; and the acting from the central trio is quite disappointing. Foster fails at sustaining tension, seemingly rather oblivious to how obvious it all is. The film doesn’t take time to understand its characters or to have viewers delight in knowing them. Not one shot, not one set-up, not one line of dialogue, was interesting in the least. Despite the promise of an adult drama about the societal underpinnings of an investment community devoid of a moral compass, the film is pretty much what cashing a paycheck looks like. Instead of slaying the beast of Wall Street, the collaborators have created a banquet of bull that is difficult to bear. This formula has been executed many times much better.
Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (A-) is a spectacular meditation on the costs of wars waged with drone spies and unmanned planes that can drop missiles with perfect precision and why the human element is still so powerful in waging a fair battle. There is a lot of waiting game and bureaucratic bickering that weighs down some of the film’s most cinematic possibilities, but the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart as an international coalition determines how to capture or destroy suicide bombers in Kenya without significant collateral damage will prompt some fascinating discussion. Helen Mirren is magnificent as a war room commander, and Aaron Paul is solid as the U.S. soldier with his hand on the trigger. While underused in much of the film as a British commander and negotiator, the late Alan Rickman gets some brilliant parting words. Barkhad Abdi is also effective a heroic accomplice on the ground, deeply humanizing the depths of the danger to friends and neighbors when terrorism strikes cities. The sheer voyeurism of the drone plots makes for some suspenseful sequences, but it’s the human cat and mouse game at the movie’s center that makes the narrative gripping. It’s an intellectual thriller that condenses one of the great debates of our time into a satisfying story.
It’s not completely clear what the ultimate Cloverfield continuity encompasses, but producer J.J. Abrams’ answer to an anthology series a la Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories or Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story started with a 2008 found footage Godzilla thriller and in 2016 features a completely different set of characters and a storyline which may or may not occupy that same cinematic universe. Dan Trachtenberg’s eerie and suspenseful 10 Cloverfield Lane (B+) centers on a compelling performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead held captive in a doomsday bunker by John Goodman in a sublimely creepy role with comic relief from John Gallagher, Jr., who is either a fellow captive or conspirator. Themes of gamesmanship are explored as the three characters play each other and confound audience expectations. There may or may not be a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or full-out war breaking out beyond the survivalist lair. Trachtenberg succeeds in crafting a tense and taut succession of action set pieces within a confined space and with old-fashioned tools and techniques and a propulsive throwback score. He earns his scares and wins hearts with spot-on performances. The acting, especially by Winstead, is uniformly outstanding; and the thrills compound in the final act. You don’t need to know a thing going in, and don’t expect to know it all coming out; but this film is a rollicking good time. The rest is classified.
Please stop this franchise. A foreign soil-set follow-up to White House attack thriller Olympus Has Fallen, Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen (D+) is largely a load of bollocks. Najafi stages an elaborate British state funeral sabotaged by terrorist assassins followed by a breakneck series of escapes in which a Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) endeavors to protect the U.S. President (Aaron Eckhart) from meeting a deadly fate. Let’s just say the Moldavia massacre on Dynasty inspired more suspense. The love child of Shrek and the red Angry Bird, Butler is cringeworthy as the goofball hero. Except for his apparent strength and sharpshooter skills, the miscast muscleman is not believable for a moment as having a lick of wit or wisdom. He and a wooden Eckhart phone in some of the most banal dialogue that four screenwriters can conjure, throwing in variances on the f-bomb as a creative way to taunt their adversaries. Old formulas apparently die hard. Aside from one inventively filmed helicopter chase, most of the action is routine. The villain even seems a bit bored by it all. Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett are wasted in very small supporting roles, although girlfriend’s brows are on point. Kiefer and Claire could teach these filmmakers a thing or two about geopolitical adventures and the emotion necessary to make us care.
A meditative and engaging slow-burn thriller about U.S. operatives infiltrating the drug culture on our Southern border, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (B) unravels its mysteries in small bursts but doesn’t quite achieve the expected heft of its high-minded messages. For a while it is so focused on visuals of topographies such as highways and desert passageways that it could have been directed by Google Earth. Enter FBI agent Emily Blunt who transforms from spy to soldier when she seeks to understand the machinations behind the horror of kidnappings related to drug kingpins. Blunt does an admirable job in a rather inert central role, but the meandering screenplay marginalizes the protagonist a bit before the final act. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin play the men who call our heroine to action, and they too are effective in their underwritten roles. Del Toro gets to shine in a climactic encounter and embodies the Byzantine traits of warriors in a convoluted and unwinnable drug war. The most engaging sequence of the film showcases a shootout in broad daylight in heavy traffic in which multiple killings don’t even make the nightly news. Viewers may get the feeling that even a highly trained squad with history of infiltrating drug lords is only scratching the surface. The film does very little for the Juarez tourism board. Overall the movie is taut, tense and transportive. It just barely misses the mark of becoming the definitive film on its subject.
Writer/director/actor Joel Edgerton pulls off the surprise of the summer with a psychological suspense film that gets at the heart of relationships, memories and truth. The Gift (B+) centers on a relationship between Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as a couple relocating to the hills of Los Angeles, hoping to rekindle a spark dimmed by tragedies. Both actors are superb. A reunion with Edgerton’s creepy character propels a series of unexpected events and fuels a taut thriller. The Australian auteur creates sparks with his debut film, which folks should see before spoilers get out.
Films such as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Altman’s The Player and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are some of the most definitive movies in the “gritty inside Hollywood” canon; and really, the always interesting David Cronenberg’s latest work, Maps to the Stars (B-), doesn’t even belong in the same discussion with them. But as a bleak portrait of just how soulless and bizarre Tinseltown can be, it’s really quite a fascinating freakshow recommended only for those perversely fascinated with the underbelly of glamour and glitz. Julianne Moore plays washed-up actress “Havana Segrand,” whose character name alone gives you all the clues you need to know that the film will occasionally be over-the-top ridiculous. Moore plays against type and blurs every line between public life and intimacy as we see her in astonishing rawness playing a callow climber. She’s a touch point between several characters in a dysfunctional family including Mia Wasikowska as a whack-job returning to town after a mysterious absence, her child-actor turned rehab-teen brother played deliciously by Evan Bird and their dad (a miscast) John Cusack who is somewhere between psycho and therapist as a self-help guru. It’s a cautionary tale without answers and a puzzle box of an ensemble drama without an easy resolution. Shades of a less well thought out Magnolia hang over the multi-story proceedings like the story it could have been, with a pinch of Cronenberg’s own 1996 sex-in-car-wrecks drama Crash thrown into the stew, sending anyone without the patience for this type of thing running for the Hollywood hills, the exit door or the eject button. Still, despite its messiness, its baffling final act and its complete lack of mainstream appeal, it was an intriguing pulp curiosity and kept me fascinated throughout. Cronenberg invites his audiences to be the ultimate voyeurs, a notion repeated in his best work (History of Violence, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Eastern Promises, Videodrome – someone please give this guy an award already!) and even in his experiments (oddities such as Naked Lunch and eXistenZ). His Brundlefly mash-up with a Hollywood tell-all lends the film its sly signature. The movie is crude, tonally jumbled and often half-baked in comparison to his modern masterpieces, but it still plumbs magnificent depths. There’s no GPS system that will take you to where you’re gonna go here, but I liked the journey just fine.
Luc Besson’s Lucy (C-) has momentum and drive and a super-cool premise; it just doesn’t really know where to start or end. The film theorizes that if people could harness one hundred percent of the potential that lies in the human brain, they would be omniscient, omnipresent and a little nuts. As the titular character, Scarlett Johansson has to singlehandedly carry a lot of the film’s far-fetched notions on her slim shoulders as she’s made an unwitting drug mule for a substance that allows the mind to be used to full capacity. Her backstory is uninvolving, and her quest is never really properly revealed. She’s seemingly on a race against time to beat Besson’s incessant title cards that keep showing the percentage of her brain that are now in full effect. Stock mobster characters and a ponderous Morgan Freeman as a university scientist studying this very phenomenon seem to be the most obligatory of elements in the film. Some of the action and effects are pretty nifty; some are even mildly mind-blowing. But with the brain all revved up with no place to go, it’s a pretty spectacular letdown to find the film isn’t half as smart as it thinks it is. 60%?
Director David Fincher’s brilliant career has been marked by incredible displays of calculating gamesmanship, manifested in modern-day classics such as Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, The Social Network and, well, The Game, so it’s not altogether inconceivable that he’d adapt a twisty thriller based on a popular novel about the chess match of modern marriage in Gone Girl (C+) but alas it’s not altogether successful. Told in alternating accounts from co-stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, the film feels a bit like a soapy ’90s holdover from the files of Disclosure or Indecent Proposal, heaping more guilty pleasure than gravitas into the cinematic canon. The first hour is pretty solid, with Affleck’s post-modern emasculated husband good for a few laughs and ultimately some raised eyebrows. Tables inevitably turn, and much of the fun is trying to get into the characters’ heads to unravel the mystery of the murky marriage. Many intentions are left unexplained, and tonal shifts are par for the course in a world that can’t resolve if it is Stepford or Anywhere USA. It all seemed a little sloppier than Fincher’s usually exacting enterprises. Some bright supporting performances by Carrie Coon as Affleck’s relatable twin sister and Kim Dickens as a sympathetic cop enliven the proceedings. Tyler Perry as actor gets some nice bits about what to reveal for the scrutiny of the media camera, and there are some clever riffs on what it means to be trapped in defined roles in a relationship. Affleck’s character jokes at one point that he feels like he’s on an episode of Law & Order, but I suppose the joke is on us that we’re paying for the privilege. The mid-point plot shift is pretty cool, but the film’s balance goes off the rails for the final few acts. Ultimately the characters’ fatal flaws were just too obvious to illuminate many universal themes and the story sometimes too ludicrous to consistently entertain.
An absorbing dramatic thriller about the lengths people will go to in the wake of child abduction, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (A) is this year’s master class of acting. Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman go to extremes as central protagonists obsessed with solving a twisted mystery. It’s a labyrinth of moral ambiguity and cinematic delights.
In Mark Forster’s World War Z (C-), a ham-fisted and improbable zombie adventure, Brad Pitt turns in a vacant-eyed performance to match the sleepwalking screenplay. There are three nice action sequences, one of which will probably not screen on an airplane any time soon.