Mighty Neighborly

The Woman in the Window

by George Wolf

The Woman in the Window is a testament to the power of “all in.”

Like if you’re spying on your neighbors, get a zoom lens, take pictures! And if you’re modernizing Hitchcock, embrace that shit from the opening minutes and don’t f-ing look back.

For director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, that’s the play as they adapt A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel. And it’s a smart one.

Psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, fantastic) has a shrink of her own these days (Letts), and plenty of prescriptions. Suffering from crippling agoraphobia, Anna will not leave her spacious Manhattan townhouse. She’s got her cat Punch and her downstairs tenant David (Wyatt Russell), but outside of occasional conversations with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie), Anna spends most of her time watching her neighbors and old movies.

Then the Russells move in across the street.

Jane (Julianne Moore) comes over for an enjoyable visit, has some wine and admits that Alistair (Gary Oldman) can be angry and controlling. A later conversation with the teenaged Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger) seconds that.

So when Anna sees Jane stabbed in her apartment, she’s sure Alistair is to blame. But with detectives (Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles) looking on, a different Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears, swearing that she’s never even met Anna before tonight.

For the entire first hour, Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour, Hanna), Letts (Pulitzer winner for writing August: Osage County) and this splendid ensemble put the hammer down on a delicious mystery ride. Putting stairwells, doors, railings and more in forced perspective, Wright intensifies our relation to Ann’s small world while Letts’s crackling script draws us into the mystery and Danny Elfman’s staccato score hammers it home.

Is any of Anna’s story even real, or is it her meds and fragile psyche talking? This question allows the direct homages to classics like Rear Window and Vertigo to be filtered through a movie-loving unreliable narrator, becoming a wonderfully organic device that feeds this intoxicating noir pot-boiler.

As events escalate and Anna’s plight becomes more overtly terrifying, the novel’s pulpy seams begin to show, and the film stumbles a bit in transition. But Adams is strong enough to keep us rooted firmly in Anna’s camp, long enough for the darker side of Hitchcock to wrestle control.

Taking a story like this from page to screen successfully requires a strong, confident vision and a committed, talented cast. The Woman in the Window is overflowing with riches on both counts, landing as immensely satisfying fun.

A Connecting Principle

Synchronic

by Hope Madden

Has it really been three years since filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took us on the UFO death cult head trip that was The Endless?

It’s hard to tell with these guys. They really like to play with time.

Another riff on the same theme, Synchronic is a sci-fi fantasy about parallel dimensions and time travel—plus bath salts.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are best friends and NOLA paramedics, each facing his own existential crisis. Dennis can’t seem to move past the fear that he’s settled: for his wife, his job, his life. Meanwhile, Steve—whose existence of work, drink and women long ago ceased to have meaning—gets a medical diagnosis that has him rethinking everything.

So far so ordinary, but if you’ve seen anything these filmmakers have done (and you should see everything), you know something seriously weird is coming.

The film’s conceit is a fascinating one, and every grisly crime scene offers a curious clue that may eventually help Steve solve a mystery that gives him purpose and redirects his bestie. Benson, who writes and co-directs, offers plenty of opportunity for mind-bending action and wild set pieces.

He and co-director/cinematographer Moorhead cut back and forth through time to keep you guessing as to the mystery developing, but what’s left underdeveloped are the characters.

Two of the filmmakers’ previous three efforts focused on a pair of men linked through time and experience to the other—best friends in Resolution, brothers in The Endless. This kind of relationship has proven a beautiful anchor for their trippy plots, but Synchronic doesn’t invest enough time or attention to Steve and Dennis’s characters.

Both Mackie and Dornan are solid enough, but their chemistry is weak. The time-worn friendship is more discussed than exposed. Worse, Synchronic is the first of the filmmakers’ movies to lack a robust sense of humor. And it is missed.

The result is a sometimes dour though mainly melancholy effort that feels far less original than it really is. Synchronic is clever, to be sure, and at times quite touching. But for filmmakers who’ve until now positively dripped with inspiration, it feels like a step backward.

Attention Getter

Seberg

by George Wolf

Another film on the blonde 60s starlet who died far too young, and under mysterious circumstances? Yes, a starlet, but not Monroe.

She may not have been the icon Marilyn was, but Jean Seberg’s celebrity life and tragic death had its own “Candle in the Wind” comparisons, all embodied with beguiling grace by Kristen Stewart even when Seberg falls back on superficiality.

Seberg’s breakout in 1960’s Breathless made her a darling of the French New Wave, but Jean was an Iowa native. As the winds of change in her homeland began raging, Seberg took an interest in the counter-culture that was strong enough to make her a target of the FBI.

Director Benedict Andrews anchors the film in Seberg’s involvement with the civil rights movement, and her relationship with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Two FBI agents (Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell) report Seberg’s status as a “sympathizer,” and the increasing surveillance throws her life into turmoil.

Andrews, a veteran stage director, seems most at ease recreating Seberg’s glamorous life, enveloping the film in an effective old Hollywood gloss and Stewart in consistently loving framing. She responds with what may be her finest performance to date.

We meet Seberg when she is already a star, and Stewart conveys a mix of restlessness, conviction, selfishness and naivete that is never less than compelling. In just over an hour and a half, Stewart takes Seberg from confident fame to paranoid breakdown, and the arc always feels true.

O’Connell leads the strong supporting cast (also including Stephen Root, Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beets) with a nuanced performance as the young agent with a nagging conscience. But while the script from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (The Aftermath, Race) wants to draw comparisons with more recent government overreach, Andrews has trouble meshing the FBI thriller with the introspective biography.

Too much of the spying agenda (“This comes from above!”) seems paint by numbers, but it never sinks the film thanks to Stewart’s command of character. Much like her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart has followed her blockbuster fame with a string of challenging projects and impressive performances.

In case you’ve missed any, Seberg is a good place to start catching up.

No Weapon, No Weakness

The Hate U Give

by George Wolf

The Hate U Give becomes one of the year’s better films not because it elevates an oft-maligned genre (though that fresh air blast certainly doesn’t hurt), but instead for how it wraps troubling, vital societal issues around an absorbing family drama.

Adapted from the best selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, the film slaps you with reality right from the opening, when a commanding father (Russell Hornsby) is giving his young children “the talk” – not about sex, but about how to survive when they are pulled over by the police. You may see this as either familiar or eyebrow-raising, and that is precisely the point.

Like so many YA dramas, THUG is anchored by a special young girl. Here, she’s Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), but Starr’s specialness isn’t a device that panders, it’s one that is intelligently used to illustrate two very different Americas.

She lives in a Georgia “hood” with her family, but attends a private Catholic school in the ‘burbs, and not, as her mother (Regina Hall) says, “because she needs to learn how to pray.”

On the ride home after a weekend party in her neighborhood, Starr becomes the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Detroit‘s Algee Smith). She’s reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons (all logical), and as the pressure builds from different sides, reactions to the killing bring the contrasts between Starr’s two worlds into clear, illuminating focus.

Director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away just weeks ago) craft a thoughtful balance as the narrative progresses, cutting deeper via an impressive restraint that holds until the final few minutes hit a more tidy, didactic vein.

But when this film works, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully. Through Starr’s eyes (and yes, narration) we navigate heady terrain: white privilege, systemic oppression, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, victim blaming, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and liberal guilt. And Stenberg, leading a strong ensemble which also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae and Common, rises to the material after some cookie-cutter YA fare (The Darkest Minds, Everything, Everything) with her best performance to date, moving Starr believably through grief, confusion, anger, defiance and hard decisions.

It’s character development that respects both the character and the audience. And in trusting that YA audience with some bitter pills, The Hate U Give becomes a required dose for the rest of us.





Just Comply

Detroit

by George Wolf

Detroit burns with a flame of ugliness, rage and shame that simmers well before it burrows deep into you. It is brutal, uncomfortable, even nauseating. And it is necessary.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning duo behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, bring craft and commitment to the story of Detroit’s infamous Algiers Motel Incident.

In July of 1967, during days of rioting from civil unrest, a riot task force raided an annex of the Algiers amid reports of sniper fire coming from the building. After hours of beatings and interrogation, three young African American men were dead.

Bigelow and Boal wrap this tragedy in their meticulous brand of storytelling, and it bursts with an overdue urgency. Layering timelines, characters, and bits of archival footage, the filmmakers achieve the stellar verite effect that has become their calling card. We become part of these events through an authenticity that brings terror to you, takes the breath from you and quickens your pulse. In conveying atrocities now decades old, the film builds its lasting power from how it makes us confront our present while depicting our past.

John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) carries the film’s soul with thoughtful nuance as Melvin Dismukes, the black security guard at the scene for assistance. In one of the film’s most quietly powerful scenes, the gravity of his situation begins to hit Dismukes, and he quietly trembles. It’s one of the many instances the film deepens its feeling by letting events speak for themselves.

Ironically, it is precisely the subtle and organic nature of Detroit’s truths that call attention to the few moments of heavy-handed overreach, more from surprise than their effect on the overall narrative.

With a chilling, award-worthy turn, Will Poulter (The Revenant) makes the sadistic Officer Krauss all the more terrifying for how casually his violence erupts. There is excellence throughout Bigelow’s ensemble cast, and from Anthony Mackie’s embodiment of African American veterans denied the very rights they fought for to Algee Smith (The New Edition Story) as an aspiring R&B singer whose life is forever altered, sharply defined characters are revealed regardless of screen time.

Concerns about the voyeuristic nature of running this brutality through a white filmmaker’s lens are legitimate, but Bigelow also delivers a level of sensitivity that is palpable and frankly surprising for a tale so inherently savage. The strive to get this right is felt in nearly every frame, down to the end title card explaining the need for dramatic license.

Intimate in scope but universal in reach, Detroit shows a shameful part of the American experience, one rooted in white power and black fear, that continues to be perpetuated.

It is not a pleasant film, but it is necessary.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 





The Weed of Christmas Present

The Night Before

by Hope Madden

It was fun spending the apocalypse with Seth Rogen and his friends, so why not Christmas?

The Night Before gives you that chance. Isaac (Rogen) and BFF Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent Christmas Eve with Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) every year since his parents died. They have the same routine, hit the same spots, seek the same elusive party. But the tradition’s getting a little pathetic as the trio heads into their mid-thirties, so this is their last holiday hurrah.

It’s a lame set-up about embracing adulthood without abandoning your true friends, but there’s magical Christmas weed and a slew of hilarious cameos, so maybe things will work out OK?

JGL is reliably likeable, Rogen is – well, you know what you get with him. Mackie is no comic genius and his performance feels a bit too broad. But the secret here is in the supporting players.

Jillian Bell is characteristically hilarious, as is Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, but the way Michael Shannon walks away with scenes is tantamount to larceny. He doesn’t do a lot of comedy (unless you count that sorority girl’s letter online), but his deadpan performance is easily the highlight of the film.

It’s hard to tell whether the film is too silly or not silly enough. It has its laughs, raunchy though they are, but the adventure feels simultaneously slapped together and formulaic.

Director Jonathan Levine (50/50) and his team of writers (including Evan Goldberg, natch) dip a toe in schmaltz rather than investing at all in actual character development, preferring to string together episodes of goofball fun.

The zany misadventures aren’t enough to carry the film, and lacking depth of character creates a “holiday spirit” climax that is tough to care about.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Captain Fantastic

 

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier

by George Wolf

 

Robert Redford’s appearance as S.H.I.E.L.D director Alexander Pierce not only brings a boost of legendary star power to Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, but also provides a direct link to thrillers of old that the film recalls.

The new Captain adventure has its feet firmly planted in the world of spies and political intrigue. Think Redford classics such as Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men with a healthy dose of Avenging, and you’re getting warm.

Much of what made Captain America:  The First Avenger work was the way it fully embraced the bygone era and dogged earnestness of Captain Steve Rogers. This time out, First Avenger screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return to successfully bring their hero into the present while casting a knowing eye toward the future. The tandem also wrote Thor:  The Dark World, and they clearly have impressive instincts for how to foster superpowers.

Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, effortlessly charming) is adjusting to his new time period, partly by embracing the internet and keeping a notebook of things he missed that deserve attention (like the birth of Apple and classic Marvin Gaye).  After an exciting rescue of high seas hostages, murderous events lead Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, effortlessly sexy) and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, effortlessly badass) to realize someone is dirty in the land of S.H.I.E.L.D, and they have a secret weapon of their own.

He’s the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) an assassin with a familiar backstory and an ambitious target list:  Cap and his crew, including new superfriend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).

The Winter Soldier is witty and clever (be sure to read that gravestone) but it may also be the most cerebral of the Marvel movies. It respects the past while confronting the complexities of modern life and wondering what they mean for our future.

For some of the youngest audience members, that may mean some stretches of restlessness. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo do provide impressive and well-paced action sequences, but it’s what comes between the fisticuffs that gives The Winter Soldier a weighty, dare I say realistic relevance.

And, per the Marvel way, stay in your seat for some extra shawarma midway through the credits, and another serving at the very end.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





Beefcake! Beefcake!

 

by George Wolf

In fairness to director Michael Bay (did I just write that out loud?) turning a real life murder case into a comedy is not unheard of. Just last year, Ricard Linklater pulled it off with the delightful Bernie.

It can be done, but judging by Pain & Gain, Bay doesn’t know how.

The film is based on the exploits of two Miami bodybuilders currently sitting on Death Row. In the mid-1990s they  kidnapped and tortured wealthy businessman Marc Schiller until he signed away nearly all his fortune. They attempted to kill him as well, but even though he survived, Schiller struggled to get police to buy his story.

Thinking they got away once, the “Sun Gym Gang” eventually tried the scheme again, and two people died grisly deaths.

In the right hands, this story could become a dark, satirical comedy that uses the wretched excess of South Beach as a platform to skewer the misplaced values of a consumer culture run amok. The possibilities are there, but Bay doesn’t do nuance.

Instead, the gang is sympathetically portrayed as a group of bumbling clowns just taking a kookier path to the American dream. Ringleader Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) attends get rich seminars and calls himself a “doer” while roping the steroid-crazed Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) into his plans. For extra muscle, they recruit the gigantic Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a rehabbing, Jesus-loving ex-con character reportedly written as a composite of other real life gang members.

Wahlberg and Mackie are fine, Johnson’s growth as an actor continues to impress, and there is solid supporting work from Tony Shalhoub. All are hamstrung, though, by how their respective characters are conceived. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the Narnia series) hit a target that’s just a few “nyuk nyuks” away from the Stooges, which is a few miles away from where they should have been aiming.

Ironically, with all the slo-mo, voiceovers and onscreen text, you get the feeling Bay actually thinks he crafted a Natural Born Killers for a new generation.

He didn’t.

Still, he’s trying, in his own misguided way, to say something here. That, along with the capable performances, is all Pain & Gain needs to stand as Bay’s best film to date.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvMsuONpTLo