May 31, 2016

The genre-defying film "A Bigger Splash" works an evocative spell on the viewer.

“The heart takes what it wants, like dynamite,” sings Sandra McCracken in her song “Desire Like Dynamite.” That song has been filtering through my mind as I contemplate the film A Bigger Splash, which is fundamentally a film about desire. The title is misleading, though. ‘A Bigger Splash’ conjures up images of a feel-good summer comedy, even though it’s not really comedic. And Wikipedia describes the film as an erotic thriller, which isn’t altogether correct either.

Truthfully, A Bigger Splash isn’t interested in genres but in people, and as such it flouts conventions as it honestly excavates the hearts of its characters — Marianne, Paul, Harry, and Penelope — who have been pushed together (for reasons explained later) on a small Sicilian island. And while [mild spoiler] the film does end with an act of violence and a death, to call it a thriller would be inaccurate. And even though the film is certainly erotic, it doesn’t wear its eroticism on its sleeve. Director Luca Guadagnino fixates on the balancing act of being human, of toggling between goodness and badness, love and hate, friendship and enmity, of being spurred by our own little tragedies and triumphs and insecurities.

Here’s the plot: An English rock star named Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, along with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne isn’t aloud to speak for several months because her vocal chords have been damaged. But the couple’s idyllic summer alone together is threatened by the unexpected arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s ex, a volatile music producer, who brings along his mopey, bored 22-year-old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Marianne and Harry have maintained a friendship, although it’s obvious from the beginning that Harry is not over her. Quickly we suspect that Harry and Penelope are interlopers with ulterior motives.

Director Luca Guadagnino lets the tension build without revealing too much too soon. He’s also concerned with another priority: feasting our eyes on Pantelleria’s natural beauty. This island is a sun-scorched paradise: it’s dusty and hot but bursting with life, life embroiled in a constant struggle for survival against the heat. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the sights, but there is purpose behind this beautiful yet hard setting. We know when humans have been placed in picturesque little corners of paradise, they are going to wreck it for themselves, and half the fun is in watching them bring about their own destruction. (If that’s your idea of a good time; I can think of worse ways to spend the evening.)

Tilda Swinton has admitted in interviews that the gimmick of not being able to talk appealed to her as an actress. In the hands of a lesser performer, such a contrivance might have been limiting. But Swinton has striking features: she’s always interesting to look at. A Bigger Splash concentrates our focus on her expressions and her body movements. She occasionally does speak, when she’s provoked, or in flashbacks, but the performance is full and commanding without words. As Penelope, Dakota Johnson, whom viewers will remember as the ingenue in 50 Shades of Grey, embodies a certain blasé sexiness: her most effective power is that she’s always bored. Matthias Schoenaerts, playing Paul, delivers the most sympathetic performance. We learn that Paul tried to kill himself — by crashing his car — and according to Harry, “it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever done.” Paul is haunted, vaguely, and we’re never quite sure if he will exorcise his demons. Harry has demons too, but he likes to invite his demons in and party with them, which isn’t really Paul’s style. Marianne finds herself torn between these two men: one of them kind and compassionate and nurturing, the other one wild and unpredictable.

The film takes unexpected turns, partly because these four are such mysteries to us. For a long time, it’s not clear if Harry and Penelope are really father and daughter. Penelope has only just met her dad recently; but their relationship feels downright Oedipal at times. (Harry even admits he finds her attractive.) And even as Penelope half-enjoys the attention of her newfound father, she’s obviously unhappy about being pawned off on him, because he’s erratic and drinks too much and riles people up. It’s also clear that both Harry and Penelope want to infiltrate, even destroy, Marianne and Paul’s peaceful relationship.

Guadagnino’s great skills as a filmmaker are his immersive powers and his restraint. We see Marianne and Paul sleeping on the beach, covered in mud; we’re right in the backseat of their jeep as they tear across the seemingly endless winding roads toward the airport. These scenes give the film texture, they attach us to the world of the movie. And the tensions between the characters unfold gradually, as if bewitched by the island and rendered sluggish. There’s a great little scene in which Penelope is pealing and devouring a fruit (I couldn’t tell you what kind of fruit) as though she's defiling it: everything she does, even this, is sensual and fraught with temptation. It’s as though Harry has only brought her with him to tempt Paul so that he can get Marianne back. Later, when Paul leads Marianne to the beach by way of a dusty trail through the brambles, we sense that it’s Penelope who’s leading him, a Siren in his own midst.

Guadagnino gets a lot of poetry out of Pantelleria, but it’s muted poetry, faded in the blistering sun. Yet under the surface A Bigger Splash is a movie as dramatic as something out of Tennessee Williams, without the hyperbole. This movie works an evocative spell on us, like a purple, dreamy myth. But I could do without that title.

May 25, 2016

Jodie Foster's "Money Monster" is a compact and compelling thriller about corporate greed and class rage.

Money Monster, Jodie Foster’s fourth film as director (following 2011’s The Beaver), is a compact, delectable, indignant thriller that takes place within the span of about ten hours, but has all the power of a three-volume Charles Dickens novel. Dickens understood how the class system, succored by greed, devalues our humanity, and in its own way Money Monster bristles with indignation at the ways human beings stomp all over each other for the sake of greed. Perhaps Money Monster is ultimately a shallow dream about social change, because I don’t think any of us expects a Hollywood movie to summon some new classless society. But the film dramatizes all the rage that is bubbling up in real people right now, and in that sense, Money Monster is urgent and compelling. It’s also funny and touching and sad, and populated with a dozen or more characters, all of whom have, by the end, seized our attention either by their loathsomeness or their lovableness (or both, as in the case of George Clooney’s character).

George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the obnoxious host of a weekly show called “Money Monster”, on which he gives viewers hyped-up, often reckless advice—steeped in the false security of statistics and the force of his own personality—about how to invest their money. It’s really a sideshow: Gates, who often enters each episode garnished with some ridiculous accessory—like a golden top hat— enters the stage dancing to some ridiculous hip hop song, accompanied by two young women dancing on either side of him. Gates is essentially Ebenezer Scrooge for the digital age: he loves money and himself, although he hates being alone (because really, he hates himself). “I haven’t eaten alone since the 90s,” Gates says after a dinner engagement cancels on him. (He’s shocked that anyone would cancel on him.) He has a friendly but complicated relationship with the show’s producer, a seasoned broadcasting show-runner named Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), but even she has gotten sick of his annoying personality. She’s about to leave the show for a competitor, only she hasn’t told him so yet.

It’s initially a shock to see Clooney playing such an ugly human being, but that’s the point, of course. We know from the get-go that this is a film about one man’s transformation. This may be the movie’s biggest misstep, because making the story all about Lee Gates’s change of heart feels meaningless in 2016. But it’s also a classic way to grab the hearts of an audience, and Money Monster never loses sight of this second goal: to be a crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment, which it is.

The drama, of which readers are probably aware by now, involves an angry young man named Kyle (played by Jack O’Connell) who’s lost his life savings because of a bad investment deal he made based on Gates’s recommendations. It turns out, Gates was plugging the stock of a massive corporation called Ibis, which suddenly “misplaced” 800 million dollars. We see the show’s technicians cue up a previous episode, where Lee urged: “It’s safer than a savings account.” Not so safe, as it turns out, for Lee, who finds himself strapped to a bomb, and Kyle threatening to blow the whole building to smithereens unless he gets some answers.

Money Monster is an exciting thriller, one that doesn’t let go of our attention once it’s grabbed hold. Much of this film’s appeal is, surely, linked to its two stars: But Clooney’s character is utterly unlikable for at least the first half of the movie. It’s only when we see how insignificant he really is to other people—except as a ratings bump—that we start to feel for him. Julia Roberts, who knows how to be mouthy and in-control, offers up a pleasing performance, and her character Patty is ultimately the one we most sympathize with, at least at the beginning. Patty decides to stay in the control room despite the impending bomb, and she desperately feeds Lee with information through his earpiece, hoping something will quell Kyle’s anger.

The film succeeds more on the level of a satisfying thriller, perhaps less as a provocative critique of American values. It’s hard to really buy what they’re selling when you know that Jodie Foster, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts are all millionaires. However, it’s hard not to be affected by Jack O’Connell’s performance as Kyle: He’s a working man who has had too many bad things happen to him, and now he’s lost control of his rage. How many suffer in silence in the real world, until they’re consumed by the years and decades of calcified anger? (O’Connell represents smart casting: he’s relatively unknown, which helps him embody the working man persona of his character.)

Kyle is a man who’s lost everything he values. When Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend confronts him (she’s summoned by police to try and talk some sense into him via Skype), she completely belittles him (and her piercing, embittered insults are broadcast to millions). Conversely, Lee is a man who has nothing of real value. That sort of makes these two a perfect match: The bond that forms between them—which is surely deeper than mere Stockholm Syndrome—is one of the most interesting elements of the movie. It’s not long before Gates himself joins in Kyle’s quest, which leads them to the CEO of Ibis, played by Dominic West.

The confrontation, incidentally, is pretty fantastic. West plays the CEO villain with icy pompousness. He’s exactly the kind of rich, privileged, arrogant prick that we can project all of our own class rage onto. (And maybe this is a weakness, because maybe it lets Lee Gates off the hook too much.)

Director Jodie Foster may be striving for some kind of Frank Capra-esque indictment of our monetary system, but she doesn’t let prestige hamper the power of her story. Nor does she squander opportunities for levity. The film is sprinkled with funny, tension-relieving moments, and it’s to her credit that Money Monster, which sat on the vine for a while in production deals, is as riveting and emotionally powerful as it is. It’s not perfect, but Money Monster is a corporate concoction with brains and heart, anchored by the force of three of our best stars.

With Caitriona Balfe, Christopher Denham, Giancarlo Esposito, Condola Rashad, Lenny Venito, and Emily Meade. Written by Alan Di Fiore & Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden.

May 22, 2016

Shane Black’s new film ‘Nice Guys’ Doesn’t Finish Last: Just Somewhere in the Forgettable Middle

In The Nice Guys, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play private eyes who are forced to join together in their pursuit of a missing porn star named Amelia, whose mom (Kim Basinger) works for the Department of Justice. The film is set in Los Angeles in 1977, which proves to be a fascinating milieu. Writer-director Shane Black immerses us in some of the social crises of the day: gas shortages, the alarming rate of air pollution in L.A., the post-sexual revolution rise of access to pornography (and the way this access affects various groups of people). But The Nice Guys fundamentally doesn’t work. Like so many other neo-noirs of late, it forsakes the thrill of a crackling good mystery for the allure of irony. The result is a disappointing movie full of interesting details and performances.

Shane Black clearly has an affection for the mystery/film noir genre. After making his reputation as a screenwriter for the Lethal Weapon movies, Black wrote and directed the indie favorite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), itself an ironic ode to the trashy delights we experience in consuming pulpy mystery thrillers. That film starred Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer, playing an actor and a detective, respectively, who get embroiled in a crime in modern-day Los Angeles. If your experience was anything like mine, that movie worked on you, once. Watching it a second and third time, I felt that all its charm had somehow been drained out, and all that was left was a chatty, too-clever-for-its-own good plot that was so ironic, so hip, that it wasn’t willing to let us truly enjoy the actual mystery.

The Nice Guys feels like the fourth or fifth viewing of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It's tolerable, at times funny, often meandering and jumbled. Once we figure out the mystery, which is confusing and aimless for half of the movie, the film’s quirky, self-conscious sensibility becomes increasingly tired. It’s as though Shane Black deliberately muddled the story for as long as possible because he knew there wasn’t much to it. But there is one encouraging note about Black’s directing: He has a sharp eye for genuinely comic situations.

Perhaps the funniest scene involves Russell Crowe’s character, Jackson Healy, confronting Ryan Gosling’s character, Holland March, in a public restroom. March must maneuver all of the following while sitting on the toilet: a handgun, the door of the bathroom stall, the magazine he’s using to cover his privates, and the cigarette in his mouth, which he tries to hold on to while speaking to Healy. It’s a terrific set-up, and Gosling plays it perfectly. He’s utterly sincere, and that works for his character.

Has Ryan Gosling ever gotten to do this much physical comedy in a movie before? His performance is the one pleasant surprise of the movie. Gosling is such a stoic actor, like a modern-day James Dean without the allure or the facial ticks, that his performances often get lost amid other more interesting and compelling actors. Here, Gosling uses his habitual brooding for comic effect, perhaps because Shane Black casts him as a relentless, bumbling screw-up, a single father whose thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) often aids him in his investigations, much like the character Penny in that old cartoon series Inspector Gadget. (Rice, incidentally, gives a fine performance: her character is the epitome of the 1970s latchkey kid, raising herself, and practically raising her dad: she even drives when he’s had too much to drink.)

While it’s delightful to watch Gosling play a fool and a failure, it’s disheartening to see a puffy Russell Crowe, dressed in baggy clothes, playing a sad version of his character, Bud White, in L.A. Confidential. Bud White was fit and competent and driven by a sense of duty. Jackson Healy feels utterly useless. He’s like a sad puppy. And Crowe seems utterly lost in this movie. He only comes through when he’s attacked by bad guys and gets to do some fighting. There are some movie stars who can do sad really well; but Russell Crowe has been branded the hero, and that is where his talent lies.

Fallen knights like Holland March and Jackson Healy, who are really just the latest iterations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, are all too familiar in this genre. Filmmakers cannot seem to get enough of the idea of the loser private eye sinking amidst all the rot and decay of Los Angeles. These themes do seem appropriate in L.A., but it’s hard for Shane Black to improve on Chinatown or The Long Goodbye. Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential, understood how to explore that decay with tongue in cheek (with the help of the sickly brilliant mind of writer James Ellroy). All of these movies suggest that politics, not Hollywood, is the real source of corruption. It’s a compelling argument, and a canny defense of the arts (because they so often need defending against people who treat them as suspect), but even that defense gets mucked up in The Nice Guys, because we’ve stopped caring by then. (Although there’s a great joke at the end about a porn film that’s been made to raise consciousness about the government’s dubious relationship with the auto industry.)

There’s also a really unsettling thread in The Nice Guys: the movie keeps putting young teenagers in weird sexual situations. At the beginning, a young boy sneaks into his parents’ room in the middle of the night and pries a dirty magazine from under the bed. While he’s pouring over the pages in the kitchen, a car crashes into his house. (In one of the best shots in the movie, we see the headlights through a window, and suddenly the car loses control and tumbles down the canyon.) When the boy investigates, he finds that the driver is Misty Mountains, one of the centerfolds in the very magazine he was reading! And not only is Misty Mountains right there in the flesh, but her flesh is prominently displayed as she breathes her last in front of this very confused boy. (It’s an amusing jab at puritanical self-guilt: Did his actions induce this dramatic form of punishment?) Later, Holland’s own daughter winds up at a party of porn stars, and she wanders around asking questions about the missing girl in her dad’s case, somehow blasé about all the things going on around her.

Black is obviously making a point here about how ineffective these men are at their jobs that they wind up relying on the observations of children. He both mocks and affirms the old cliche that children are growing up too fast, seeing too much. “These are the kids my daughter has to grow up with,” Holland moans after encountering a disturbingly frank 13-year-old boy. After all, Los Angeles, which has always been branded as a city of sin, is home not just to celebrities and pornographers, but regular families with kids, just like any other place. It’s the convergence of these worlds—the glamorous, the seedy, and the ordinary—that Shane Black seems most interested in.

With Matt Bomer (who gives a memorable performance as a hitman named Jon Boy), Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Yaya DaCosta, Ty Simpkins, and Murielle Telio.