by Philip Price
For what is mostly the first entry in a brand new series “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is also very much a re-boot to the ‘Harry Potter’ universe that Warner Bros. has surprisingly let remain stagnant for a solid five years. As someone who grew up with the books, who matured as they matured, and grasped the implications of the ideas and themes more as the series went on and explored more complex ideas and themes itself I admit to not being too thrilled by the fact Warner Bros. planned on extending the world of Harry Potter to New York City and the 1920s with a film about the guy who...wrote one of Harry and his friends textbooks? Despite the fact J.K. Rowling herself would be penning the screenplay there was still a fair amount of trepidation that whatever this Eddie Redmayne-fronted extension of the magical world might ultimately be it would inevitably be little more than a cash grab. A boardroom mandated blockbuster that would repeat as many of the same beats from the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise as it could while doubling the amount of merchandise and thus the revenue. And so, here we are-the full swing of the Holiday season in November is in full force and amidst the crowded multiplexes sporting high-profile releases and awards season hopefuls we again find the comfort and ease of knowing that while not exactly Harry, we are once again able to escape to the magical world Rowling has conjured up and that, no matter the protagonist, is something of an unavoidable happiness members of a certain generation can't pass up. For the truth is, after allowing my hesitations to subside and instead becoming excited by the fact Rowling and director David Yates (who made the final four ‘Harry Potter’ films) reunited for a new chapter in the development of the wizarding world and that this chapter of the bigger picture would ultimately add more depth and scope to this world we already believed we knew turns out to be a solidly entertaining thrill ride. Though ‘Fantastic Beasts’ certainly has its issues and two too many endings it casts a charming enough spell to leave audiences wanting more from the adventures of Mr. Newt Scamander and his inevitable battle with Gellert Grindelwald.
What was always going to be the most interesting facet of exploring this new era in the ongoing battle between those in the wizarding world who wish to keep themselves a secret from the non-magic folk and those who wish to be suppressed no longer was how Rowling would tackle writing her first screenplay. Fundamentally it is a very different writing style and the approach when sitting down to craft a novel as opposed to something intended for the screen are two very distinct (forgive the pun) beasts. In this sense, I like to imagine early drafts of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ were filled to the brim with descriptors that eventually bled into the set and costume designs as one of the best things this film has going for it is the presence and exploration that is allowed of this world outside the walls of Hogwarts. It is easy to predict much of the complaints about ‘Fantastic Beasts’ will be due to the fact there isn't as much a real sense of place as there was in the previous series or that the 1920s New York City that Scamander inhabits is less a character in the film, but more simply a backdrop and to an extent the city itself surely could have been better utilized, but I have to think much of this comes from there being no centralized institution for our characters to default to should they get too far out of their depth. As much as the film is intriguing for allowing audiences a first glimpse of what the wizarding world looked like 90-something years ago it is almost more so for allowing the ensemble cast of characters we meet to allow us to get to know the culture of witches and wizards at this time. Granted, none of these characters strike nearly as commanding a presence or enter the scene with as much anticipation as the likes of Harry, Ron, or Hermione did 15 years ago, but they had millions upon millions of ideas for who they might be sprung from the millions and millions of readers that had consumed Rowling's series up to that point. Scamander has a single book Rowling wrote for charity in 2001 that not nearly as many people read and was more prominent for the fact it was Potter's copy of Scamander's textbook rather than for the fact Scamander wrote it. The point being, these new and vaguely familiar characters were never going to measure up to our idea of who we'd seen in the previous series and I don't mind giving these guys a few more movies to make more of an impression as I've already begun to warm-up to most of them. Some of them even being the reason the film ends up as fun as it does.
In America, non-magic folk aren't referred to as Muggles, but are instead called No-Maj's and in the beginning of the film, after a short introduction to a clearly villainous character whom we never see from the front, we are introduced to the British Scamander (Redmayne) making his way through customs after arriving in America. He carries with him a briefcase clearly possessing magical qualities, but it isn't long before he bumps into the unsuspecting Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj who has come to the bank looking for a loan to open his own bakery. After a string of unlucky events Kowalski and Scamander end up on the same side of the law as former Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who's looking to redeem herself with the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) by bringing Scamander in for not only bringing questionable creatures into the country, but for not wiping the memory of Kowalski after allowing him to be privy to the possibilities of their magic. This would all be well and good enough, especially considering that once Goldstein is denounced by her commanding officers in President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and head auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), that Goldstein, Scamander, and Kowalski team-up to help Scamander retrieve the remaining beasts that have escaped from his suitcase and are running wild in New York City with the added help of Goldstein's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Queenie, who is skilled in the art of Legilimency or reading people's minds, takes a liking to Fogler's Kowalski and so we'd seemingly have everything we need for a strong and entertaining narrative as the boxes of the main objective, the love angle, the railing against the established order, and a variety of archetypal characters are all at play, but one of the biggest issues with ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is that it simply tries to do (or set-up) too much at once. On top of all that has already been described Rowling also inserts plot strands concerning a group who label themselves the Second Salemers or what are otherwise No-Maj's looking to expose the wizarding world. Led by a rather despicable Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who abuses her adoptive children, namely Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), their inclusion helps incite much of the tension within the MACUSA, but their presence goes one step further as Credence and Graves have aligned for nefarious reasons that are shrouded in mystery for much of the running time. Rowling balances all she has going on in an admirable fashion, but by giving herself so much ground to cover right out of the gate she inadvertently short-changes her four leads and their development despite the fact it's clear by the end of the picture that the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ series won't be as much about Newt Scamander as it will be about Grindelwald and his inevitable confrontation with Albus Dumbledore.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a perfectly capable blockbuster that possesses enough of the ‘Harry Potter’ flair and a big enough hook in exploring other parts of this magical world during different times in the past to be nothing if not entertaining. There is easily more to be found here than just surface-level pleasures though, and much of that has to do more with the endearing human characters than that of the titular beasts. Don't get me wrong, Rowling has come up with some fun stuff as we glimpsed many creatures in short snippets throughout the ‘Harry Potter’ series, but while these fantastical beasts get their name in the title not much time is given to them in terms of how they factor into the larger story at play. Rather, these beasts are more plot devices to help our heroes get out of tight spots or adversely create opportunities for larger set pieces and comic relief as one sequence includes a glowing rhinoceros who is eager to mate feels especially tacked on. What comes to be the more enjoyable parts of the film are watching the chemistry and camaraderie develop between both Scamander and Kowalski as well as the love story that begins as something of a joke, but develops into something genuine between Kowalski and Queenie. As Scamander, Redmayne ends up doing a lot with a character that could have seemingly been so introverted so as to render him as little more than nothing. Rather, Redmayne's quirky awkwardness undoubtedly relates to the large number of book worms that will be present in the audience with his overall objective of writing a book to be something not taken lightly-we have a protagonist whose goal is not fame, glory, redemption, or anything so grand, but rather he simply hopes to pen a textbook. Granted, with future installments that objective may grow larger and more in line with what we traditionally expect from protagonists in large blockbuster franchises, but for now we'll count this as a win. Highlighting the inherent gawkiness of Scamander and coming to the rescue in terms of smoothing it over is Fogler in his portrayal of Kowalski. Never one to go small, Fogler takes clear joy in being the only No-Maj in the ensemble and therefore being our surrogate into this new era and area of the wizarding world. We experience the wonder as Kowalski does and Fogler does engaging work so as to put his comedic skills to good use while at the same time showing he can play real emotion by giving Sudol's Queenie an anchor to latch onto. With all of this going on, Waterston's Tina is somewhat left in the dust as her role to play within the dynamic of the plot is overshadowed by the likes of the underused Farrell as Graves and the stand-out performance from Miller. Ultimately, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ will be most memorable for the fact it brought audiences into a whole new light of Rowling's magical universe that we could have only dreamt of before and that this is now a reality only makes the pleasure of experiencing it on the big screen that much more enjoyable.
by Philip Price
Not actively terrible, but nowhere near the introspective character study it seemed destined to be “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk” is an amalgamation of interesting ideas and endearing ambition that went wrong somewhere in the process of its creation. Helmed by auteur Ang Lee the director has, for one reason or another, decided to make his latest endeavor the first film to ever be shot in 120 frames per second and in 4K 3D which is well over the standard 24 fps most movies are shot in. Add to this the fact Lee easily surpasses the last, failed effort of the higher frame rate variety in Peter Jackson's “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and it's a curious decision given the truth of the matter is most audiences who choose to experience ‘Billy Lynn’ will do so in traditional theater presentations given the set-up for such an advanced display requires much more than most theaters are willing to budget for at the moment. And so, while it is admirable for Lee to want to push the boundaries of cinema and, at the very least, experiment so that later generations may build upon such experiments-watching “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk” in a traditional format because there are no resources to take advantage of how it is meant to be seen across the majority of the country only makes these choices made for the sake of the format that much more glaring. Lee is a master filmmaker and one of the most diverse auteurs in the game at the moment and for that it's impossible not to respect his effort. Over the course of just his last three features the director has taken us from Woodstock in the summer of 1969 to being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to us now joining him and the surviving members of Bravo Squad at the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys football game. This track record combined with the inherently deep and somewhat controversial subject matter made me more than eager to see what conclusions and ideas Lee came to with his film, but rather than any ideas, conclusions, or even narrative cohesion Lee seems to have paid more attention to how best his story could enhance his new format rather than the other way around.
Based on the widely-acclaimed, bestselling novel by Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk” the film is told from the perspective of the titular 19-year-old private (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who, along with his fellow soldiers, become heroes after a harrowing Iraq battle where Billy stepped up and saved a commanding officer from being captured by members of Saddam Hussein's army. It is late in 2004 when this instance occurs and shortly thereafter Bravo Squad is brought home, if not only temporarily, for a victory tour where the contrasts between the realities of war and America's perception of war become glaringly obvious to these what are essentially children that have signed up to kill for their country. Jumping back and forth from the joys and frivolities of the victory tour to that of the events that brought them to this point the narrative's drive is clearly intended to be that of the psychoanalysis of Lynn as it becomes clear he legitimately suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The structure of the narrative essentially confirms this, but what more it wants to say about this feels lost on the fact it's evident Lee is working within new technology while still constructing and shooting the movie the same way he would have were he shooting in regular ole' 24 fps. It's not that ‘Billy Lynn’ doesn't have anything to say-even if it doesn't have a particularly new light to shine on anything its saying-there are plenty of weighty topics that could be picked from. Whether it be the aforementioned difference in perceptions, the dissimulation of what these soldiers experience as opposed to how the military and media use such heroics to comfort civilians, or how our nation has become fueled by propaganda for the simple sake of making ourselves feel better, or at least comforted, by what is actually going on half-way across the world when in reality we have no real sense of it. “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk” is an exercise in taking us through the mind of what the movie believes is an innocent bystander who has been cultivated to hunt and kill for intents and purposes he is never actually made aware of or simply lied to about, but while such analysis could provide fascinating insight the film itself is more a collection of good ideas that aren't executed in an effective fashion.
Maybe the biggest and most interesting idea ‘Billy Lynn’ wants to address is that of the war and the valiant efforts of our soldiers, and they are valiant whether or not the overall objective may ultimately be crooked, no longer belong to them the moment they step back on U.S. soil, but rather that their stories come to embody the American people-as if we're all in this together when in reality these soldiers couldn't feel more separated from those they are protecting. Finding peace and purpose in NFL Sunday and/or pop groups who produce trivial and rather silly songs that will pay them mountains more than these soldiers able to even secure when pitching their story to movie studios ‘Billy Lynn’ is a movie about frustrations. In short, it is this hypocrisy of America embracing the heroics of these individuals, but not the damaged individuals themselves. The fact of what the military is turning these kids into doesn't necessarily match up with the picturesque ideal of an American super hero soldier and so they are either discarded to the outskirts of society where they acquire a low-paying civilian job; working in between visits to their local VA hospital trying to convince themselves it's not as bad as it seems. Either this or they go back to the only thing that now feels real, the only place they now feel needed, accomplished, and unique-the battlefield. It's a penetrating shot to the American people that is summed up expertly in a scene where Garrett Hedlund's Staff Sargent Dime addresses Tim Blake Nelson as a Texas oil tycoon that has made untold amounts of money from the natural resources of the country these soldiers are trying to protect and who goes so far as to try and "get on their level" by proposing that he is working hard to find more oil so our soldiers don't have to be deployed much longer. Hedlund, who delivers a stand-out performance in a movie otherwise pre-occupied with the new filmmaking techniques that call too much attention to themselves, fires back at Nelson's appropriately named Wayne and in an intelligent, and precise manner telling the guy to keep his personal agenda for supporting the troops out of their ears as he's transparent in his intentions and obviously has no genuine interest on our overseas conflict due to the fact he makes it all about himself. This line of thinking is one that could certainly spurn a number of interesting conversations as many of those who seem to yell "Support Our Troops" the loudest do so out of their own self-interests, but such conversations will be difficult to formulate as the movie itself has a hard time piecing together its own point of view.
This issue of being unable to properly develop themes also comes into play when the movie tries to develop its many characters. None of whom, outside of the members of Bravo Squad, feel like real human beings, but rather like pawns placed strategically in Billy's life to fill the quota for the standard, underprivileged kid who sees the military as the only way out of their dead-end situation. Billy's father (Bruce McKinnon), who is only glimpsed maybe twice in the film, is suffering from some severe and/or debilitating illness that clearly weighs heavily on Billy's mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) both physically and financially whereas Billy's sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), has also received major medical attention over the course of the last few years after being the victim of a car wreck that severely damaged large portions of her body, including her face. The point being these people are barely hanging on to whatever it is that keeps them going and the film paints this picture so as to allow Billy to question, "What else is there?" when trying to decide between succumbing to the PTSD he is experiencing or going back for another round of duty and risking death in the name of a country he doesn't even recognize anymore. We are told that Kathryn is why Billy signed up for the military in the first place, that a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) Billy meets during the press rounds of the victory tour is only interested in the idea of him, and that Steve Martin's Jerry Jones-type is only interested in giving Bravo Squad such VIP treatment for the sake of boosting the morale of the hundreds of thousands of Americans in his arena and making himself look forgivable, but none of these strands ever prove to be anything more than plot points that feel unfinished or tired techniques so obvious in their purpose that it's hard not to roll an eye at what Jean-Christophe Castelli's screenplay is obviously attempting to do. It is only when Vin Diesel's Staff Sargent Shroom is on screen offering words of wisdom to the young and influential Billy that there seems a sense of authenticity to the whole affair. This is largely due to the fact Diesel represents the only entity not hoping to gain something from being associated with Private Lynn, but more thanks to this new medium Lee is working in it is also the only relationship in the film that doesn't feel as staged or acted or fake or glossy as the 120 fps reveals Billy Lynn to be.
by Philip Price
Much goes unspoken in “Loving,” but that shouldn't be a surprise given it comes from director Jeff Nichols who has given us such restrained and meditative pieces as “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” not to mention his slight venture into genre territory earlier this year with “Midnight Special.” Still, “Loving” is something of a different beast. As with most of Nichols films the multi-hyphenate again deals in its main male character working through a particularly life-altering time in his life. Whether it be a man working through understanding an illness, heartbreak, or a parent’s love for their child Nichols is clearly attracted to these leading male characters that carry burdens of one type or another-none of which can actually be drawn as distinctly as I've just done. In “Loving,” this Nichols quality is born in the form of Richard Loving as played by Joel Edgerton who is a simple man who loves a woman just as simply, but is told he can't due to the race laws that plagued the time in which he was born. What separates “Loving” from Nichols filmography thus far is the fact Nichols has yet to adapt a true story or any other source material for that matter for one of his films. They have all been original concepts and ideas that have allowed the writer/director his own ways/styles of telling his own stories, but with “Loving” he has crafted a film very much in the vein of his previous works while still seemingly allowing the genuine spirit of those who actually lived this story to come through. Nichols accomplishes this by not making up much of his own dialogue for the real-life people to say. Rather, Nichols allows much of what needs to be said to be said through the performances of Edgerton and his co-lead Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving. In doing so, “Loving” ends up not as an overly schmaltzy or sentimental love story or even a melodramatic courtroom drama, but instead a subtle study of how simple true love can be despite how complicated our world can make it.
“Loving” takes place in Caroline County, Virginia, beginning in 1958 with the two words that would typically send an unmarried man running-"I'm pregnant." Of course, Richard Loving isn't your typical Southerner, but instead a man who finds great opportunity in this new road life is pathing before him. Richard is a man who grew up not thinking of himself as superior to the black people around him, but more he felt closer to them than anyone else. We're told his father was employed by a black man, we assume he grew up picking cotton right alongside those still relegated to the fields, and even upon first meeting Richard and Mildred much of their connection comes from the fact Richard regularly tunes up cars with Mildred's brothers and then races them to win extra cash. Richard is a part of the family from the moment we meet the two individuals that will become the titular Lovings and Mildred is clearly smitten and secure in the arms of her man. After learning this revelatory news from Mildred, Richard makes an honest woman out of her as he not only proposes and buys an acre of land on which he promises to build a house for them, but he also drives his bride-to-be and her father up to Washington DC so that they can be legally married. Upon hearing of this thought to be unholy matrimony the Caroline County police are none too pleased and take swift action to secure that the Lovings know they and their marriage are not welcome and will not be tolerated in the state of Virginia. As played by Negga, Mildred is very much her own woman as it is she who takes the steps toward involving lawyers such as Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) who ultimately bring Richard and Mildred's case before the U.S. Supreme Court where it was unanimously decided on June 12, 1967 that Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act of 1924," which forbade marriage between people of different races, was unconstitutional. Inspiring stuff, no doubt.
While “Loving” is certainly a moving portrait of both a startlingly tragic and uplifting love story it is not without shortcomings. Chief among these is that we don't always know or get a great sense of just how in love the titular couple is. There is a great sense, despite his stoic manner, that Richard loves his wife unconditionally, but Nichols gives hints that Mildred contemplates whether or not her love for Richard was greater than all the sacrifices she had to make in order to be with him. It's an understandable internal conflict and Nichols draws on such emotion expertly by never acknowledging these possibilities, but more by briefly highlighting the double edged sword of Mildred's life with Richard and what she imagines it could have been without him. This isn't necessarily an issue or problem within the painting of a genuine romantic relationship, but within the confines of a film focused on this particular bond overcoming our nation's constitution more focus on the strength of their relationship rather than those aspects putting stress on it might have made the overall effect that much greater. These are qualms at best though, and one could argue such facets are necessary to make the characters more authentic, but what drives home the purity of this story most is the unique angle of Richard and Mildred being unable to pull themselves away from Virginia despite the way it chose to treat them. After the initial charges are brought against them the question clearly becomes: why stay where you're unwanted? It's the pulling away of themselves from their extended family and lifestyle they've grown comfortable and accustomed to that adds more strain than anything. Come the final shot of the film these hardships don't just feel natural, but necessary as the full circle of the framing is truly beautiful.
Nichols highlights Richard's work ethic and commitment to his family by repeatedly returning to shots of wet concrete being mixed and set in place for the curing process. This at first feels like a visual aesthetic choice solely for the purpose of better establishing the culture and environment of the day in which “Loving” takes place, but as it is repeated several times throughout it becomes clear Nichols has more on his mind than developing atmosphere, but tone as well. The curing process of concrete is critical in establishing the strength, stability and resistance of the unit as a whole and it's clear we're meant to derive an analogy of sorts from this repeated image. Of course, as much couldn't be deduced from such a broad image without the reinforcement of performances that give us such cues. Both Edgerton and Negga are flat out fantastic; from the way Edgerton lumbers around-distinctly changing the way he carries himself-to the type of relationship he establishes with his mother (Sharon Blackwood) to the mangled smile he sports without shame Edgerton creates the whole human being of “Loving” and allows him to inhabit his body-Edgerton's already dodgy facial features lending him a credibility of how many blows life has and will deal him. With Negga, the arc is subtle, but just as effective. In Mildred we come to realize just how much we see these people grow. It's especially prevalent in the way Negga's Mildred gains a stronger sense of self and purpose as her role in the liberation of her marriage becomes more and more integral to the ultimate outcome. Pair these two stand-out leads with a slew of Nichols regulars such as Michael Shannon, Bill Camp, David Jensen, and a few unexpected turns from the likes of Martin Csokas (a nasty Sheriff with a few choice lines that really sting), the aforementioned Kroll, and Terri Abney as Mildred's sister Garnet and there is more than enough support for the otherwise tender structure Nichols has crafted.
by Philip Price
“Arrival” is one of those movies where you understand you're waiting for the resolve to see if it justifies the journey we've taken to arrive there. This doesn't mean the 100 minutes prior aren't fascinating and worthwhile, but it's clear we're ultimately waiting to see what bigger picture these pieces are painting. This can of course be something of a double-edged sword given how the approach effects the re-watchability of a picture, but by the time we come around to the conclusion of “Arrival” it only seems repeat viewings will do nothing but make it more moving if not add shades and complexities to small nuances we may not have noticed upon initial viewing. In other words, “Arrival” is a masterfully told narrative that deals in themes of interpretation and perspective through conveyors such as language and the guise of an alien invasion movie. What's interesting though is, despite the marketing, “Arrival” is hardly about an alien invasion, but more a film about communication and figuring out one another before jumping to conclusions based on cultural precedent or expectation. “Arrival” is about that fear of what we don't know and how such a phrase manifests when a genuine situation arises that it can be applied to. In the barrage of CGI summer blockbusters that depict alien invasions more as mass extinctions it's become easy to feel nonchalant about the ramifications of proof of life beyond our earth and solar system legitimately existing and furthermore, showing up in our backyard. In “Arrival,” director Denis Villeneuve conjures not only a palpable fear and panic that would sweep across nations in light of such events, but more he and specifically Amy Adams in an absolutely stellar performance highlight the sheer incomprehensibility of the situation. Giving insight to the smaller moments, recognizing the first time Jeremy Renner's Ian Donnelly touches the material this alien craft is constructed from as a major moment rather than choosing to ignore its significance speaks volumes. In this way, moments that are actually bigger play as that much more profound. Villeneuve is a master of restraint and the slow burn as he has shown in previous features such as “Enemy” and “Sicario,” but “Arrival” may be his most accomplished work to date as not only is it visually enrapturing, but the larger ideas the film has on its mind are applied to its precise visual sense giving the experience an all-around aura of awe.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang called "Story of Your Life," Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay that follows Adams' linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, as she is recruited by the U.S. military with Forest Whitaker serving as the face of the armed forces. Banks is recruited due to the fact twelve identical crafts have appeared at different points across the planet and, as a linguist at the top of her field, she is the obvious choice to help set up communication with the extra-terrestrials. There is never any dispute these are alien crafts and Villeneuve's film only falls into one category of "alien invasion" movie cliché when his main character, like many of us would, stays glued to news programming that reports on the developing status of these unknown objects and their purpose. It is when Banks is approached in her office at the small college where she teaches and then later picked up in the middle of the night from her secluded, but comfortable home by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) that we begin to feel closer to these events. Closer not just in terms of physically, obviously Banks is brought to the home base that has been set-up just outside the ship that is hovering over part of Montana, but closer in the way that Banks is integral to these events now-that her presence there truly factors into how this scenario will play out as opposed to how it could play out. This feels a large part of the films intent due to the performance of Adams who exudes a sense of optimism and ease within an atmosphere of menace. Whether this certain tone of mood is due to a mix of expectation and intent is almost unclear despite the fact Villeneuve and especially composer Jóhann Jóhannsson are very much wanting to move viewers in the direction of ominous. Meeting Renner's Donnelly, a theoretical physicist, on the helicopter ride to the craft there is an amalgam of competition and respect between the two, but it is when the duo really begins to put their heads together that the film consistently delivers on the promise of its early intrigue. Make no mistakes, “Arrival” is a film that paces itself in a deliberately slow fashion, but it never feels tedious. Rather, the development of communications between our protagonists and the visiting species develops naturally with much of it only serving as a methodical sequence of events to be sprinkled with moments of legitimate weight that compliment and reinforce the building themes.
“Arrival” is also one of those movies one has to discuss without really discussing. In light of such being the case, it seems best to say that as much as Arrival puts on to be about the appearance of aliens from outer space it is actually about the one thing we, as a human race, can't get more of: time. What does this universal truth have to do with aliens? While on the surface it is something of a solution to the central questions of, "Why are they here and what do they want?" it is additionally the theme to which we take away more than a batch of unanswered questions despite knowing the facts of our reality. We are unable to create more time to exist within, we are unable to prolong moments we would ideally live in forever, and we have to come to accept that unlike the movies, life offers no clear beginnings or endings, but rather individual days that will end up defining the rest of our lives. In the case of both Dr. Banks and Donnelly, the day these aliens arrive would become one such day though not for the reasons we might expect. “Arrival” ultimately deals with time in a layered and complex way that cannot and should not be described here for the sake of preserving the films mysteries and third act revelations, but beyond this to the fact it deals with time in such a fashion that it cannot be summed up by a few sentences within a synopsis. No, “Arrival” isn't actually about what the aliens are after on earth or what they look like, but instead what they can do for us and how shining a new light on subjects we already thought absolute can change our outlook on the life we're leading and our perception of the time that life is meant to fill. Despite discussing such heady themes-what is it exactly the movie has to say about these ideas-if anything at all? It's a fair question-plenty of intellectuals and intellectual pieces of art can fall guilty to discussing certain beliefs and concepts without actually adding anything new to the conversation, but I'd find it hard to argue “Arrival” doesn't at least attempt to add something to this theory that the language one speaks can determine how you think or, in other words, the real-life idea that language can affect a person’s perception and cognitive worldview. “Arrival” takes this one step further by saying that not only can language effect perception, but give you a certain amount of control over it.
What makes “Arrival” even more beautiful is the fact it doesn't pretend to have answers to its own resolutions. Sure, there are spectacular feats accomplished and more or less explained, but when it comes down to the "how" of certain things happening it leaves such conundrums up to the audience to speculate on. Taking into consideration such possibilities as this race of alien "heptapods", as they are referred to by Donnelly and other scientists in the film, not having the same way of explaining or viewing something like time the way we do on earth and how (spoiler), by teaching our protagonist as much through her ability to break down the language barriers, they might open up a door to new potential and possibilities for our race is profound in a way that cannot necessarily be explained-kind of like God or time itself. Of course, the revelation of what is actually being learned and is occurring throughout the film might then serve as too much of a head trip for some while not being as unforeseeably astonishing as others might hope, but it hit this viewer in the gut just as I imagine Villeneuve, Heisserer, and Chiang would hope it might. In short, my entire body got chills at a certain moment of realization.
It is difficult to even discuss outside factors when the story is as wholly consuming and involving as what “Arrival” offers, but the experience as a whole is certainly a fusion of multiple components that stand to push its narrative to the forefront. Being able to find Adams' Banks as endearingly simple as can be outside of her obvious superiority in her field of study is key to the audience keeping up with our main character’s plight and remaining invested despite certain sections potentially being considered dull or purposefully slow. Adams is truly spectacular though, capturing the full effect of what she is experiencing largely through her eyes. There is more to her performance, of course, but the wonder she is able to convey simply through these organs that show us the world is undeniable and it effortlessly extends to the audience. Renner, though not having nearly as much to do, is more than suitable in the supporting role that requires a composed and compassionate presence to be developed and trusted over what is a relatively short period of time. Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma are also notable in their supporting roles and any discussion around Arrival shouldn't be complete without at least mentioning cinematographer Bradford Young as it offers some truly breathtaking photography. And still, this idea of time and how it can either confine or set us free permeates throughout every frame of Villeneuve's film as this idea of placing emphasis on details over occasions is exemplified in showing a soldier who is on the front lines of this alien encounter dealing with the dynamic of his wife not liking the fact he is there. It is these smaller moments that are the ones that shouldn't necessarily stand out, but for some reason stay with us in a very personal way. They'll always be there, they are inescapable, burned into our brain for one biological reason or another and “Arrival” encourages us to embrace them for better or worse because no matter how they're perceived they're all we have.
by Philip Price
It has been a decade since Mel Gibson directed his last film. Almost as much time as there was between “Braveheart” and “Passion of the Christ,” but in this latest interval Gibson has unfortunately become more discussed for things besides his filmmaking talents. With “Hacksaw Ridge,” the story of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss who refused to kill people as a Conscientious Objector, Gibson is very much back in the playing field he seems comfortable with. That said, Gibson seems to have also taken the time away to pull in other influences for his art as many of the early scenes here in which the director develops and builds the character of Doss with actor Andrew Garfield feel as if they were constructed to be a love letter to Hollywood's golden years. This, of course, deeply contrasts the usually stark and brutal tone that Gibson's films take on, but don't fret as those qualities are sure to come still in “Hacksaw Ridge.” More, Gibson understands that by painting these early, more serene portraits of where his pacifist of a protagonist comes from he by default makes the bloody and downright horrific war sequences that inevitably take place that much more affecting and that much more powerful. Though somewhat working at odds with one another given how realistically and viscerally Gibson paints his scenes of war with a story that more or less condemns such actions these two elements of what we're seeing and what train of thought we're being encouraged to consider come to work in each other's favors. For as quickly as we see how easily a life can be snuffed out and how faithful Doss has to be to trust that he can "run into the hell fire of battle without a weapon to protect his self," and still survive the point is made that the violence of war is senseless and that, after such an experience, most soldiers would likely agree with such a sentiment. Gibson isn't just making a war film to show off how skilled an action director he is or to revel in the gluttony of violence, but more he is using this profusion of blood and gore to align us more with the mentality that Doss brings to the battlefield and why, despite popular opinion, that might not be such a bad thing. The greatest accomplishment of “Hacksaw Ridge” though, is that it accomplishes relaying such ideas without preaching them, but instead more by standing with its lead character who stands by his principles even in the great circumstances of a world war.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, Garfield's Doss is a man raised in the strict belief he cannot touch a weapon and who observes Saturday as the Sabbath. This doesn't seem to generally interfere much with his day to day life as Doss is a man of simple pleasures in the early years of the ‘40s, but it is after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the enlistment of his brother, Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic), that Doss feels compelled to join his fellow Americans in attempting to defeat the enemy. His father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), is a drunk and a former WWI soldier who saw all his friends from youth die on the battlefield. He is sternly against seeing the same happen to his sons, but with Hal enlisting without asking for permission and Desmond swearing he will serve as a medic rather than on the front lines the elder Doss can't help but believe the war will not fit into his youngest son’s ideas, but more the military will chew him up, use him for what they need at the moment, and spit him back out-dead or permanently damaged. Though the relationship is that of a strained one between Desmond and his father, the tears of his mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), hurt more. Making such a decision even more difficult is the fact Doss has recently met and fallen for a young nurse in the small town in Virginia in which he's from. Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) is a woman out of Doss' league and he knows it, but there is a charming rapport between the two from the beginning that only increases in affection as Doss pursues a date and then a first kiss with her. The film doesn't care to address in detail how Dorothy feels about Doss' actions once he decides to enlist with the caveat of not being willing to carry a gun, but more it assumes that Dorothy trusts the man she is falling in love with if for nothing else the reasons that he is exemplifying. The chemistry between Palmer and Garfield is quickly solidified as the two create a genuine and deep-seeded trust in one another that can be sensed given the situations they face together, but as soon as this relationship is established and ready to go to the next level, Gibson and his screenwriters, Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, whisk Doss off to war creating another in a line of many stakes that will lend Doss' wartime experiences that much more weight.
It can seem that “Hacksaw Ridge” somewhat rushes through the establishment of these stakes though for as swiftly as it presents the self-conflict and the family dynamics it just as swiftly places Doss in the midst of boot camp where he has been assigned to a rifle battalion despite his request to serve as a conscientious objector. It is here though, that Gibson begins to dig more into the ideas and philosophies of his story without overtly listing them off for the audience. More so, Gibson presents alternative perspectives and ideas through that of the surrounding men in Doss' battalion whether it be those who immediately see him as a threat, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), as a coward, fellow recruit Smitty (Luke Bracey), or simply a waste of time and space, Captain Glover (Sam Worhtington). The screenwriters fill Doss' company with single identifiers that will give our central character lives to attach himself to once they do take the battle field and it is the setting up of those who vouch for Doss, who disregard him, and those that beat him in order to hopefully remove any apparent weakness from their ranks that make the eventual actions of Doss that much more stirring. The bringing together of each of these individual story strands all serve as reinforcement to the blitz of action that begins just over an hour into the film. From that point on through its remaining time Hacksaw Ridge serves as something of a non-stop bloodbath only taking a short intermission in which we acknowledge the acts of Doss before delivering soul-crushing news that lends the aforementioned comment around the senselessness of the violence of war that much more significance. In essence, Gibson has created a violent, cruel, and downright vicious portrait of war that is firmly against the idea of war. In no way does it ever feel the film is glorifying the violence it depicts and never does it paint the soldiers going into battle as heroes, but more as men who come to the end of their rope, fighting for survival, realizing the mentality the military has imbued upon them versus the reality of their situations and understanding it's difficult to find solace in that idea of honor. Never does the large portion of “Hacksaw Ridge” that is action-packed feel like fun or exciting action, but rather Gibson has intentionally staged these sequences to be as in-your-face as possible not only to reinforce how much danger Doss himself is in, but to hammer home the horrific mess such fights produce. A woman screamed in terror no less than three times in my screening. I can't imagine as much was an isolated incident.
Of course, these thoughts and themes wouldn't come through without the anchor of Doss being there to guide the conversation. Just as important to the formula as Gibson's direction and vision is that of Garfield's performance as he embodies this man who admits and understands he is different from the average soldier, who is something of a nerd in both his lean physical appearance and tendency to favor innocence over intelligence, but who defies all such preconceptions due to the seemingly small feat of abiding by a set of rules and remaining true to those values he swore to himself he would uphold. The point being that in the sense of staying steadfast to one's true self-Doss was undoubtedly the bravest man on the battlefield. To bring this through onscreen Garfield enlists his natural charm and deceitful scrawniness. And for those concerned about his accent it isn't nearly as glaring or distracting as it seemed to be in the trailers for the film, but more it sinks in as just another endearing quality that crafts this humble facade in front of a backdrop of untold complications. It is telling that Garfield as Doss remains largely the same man throughout the picture-no matter his company. Doss is the same man whether he be in the company of Dorothy or his fellow soldiers. Garfield ensures this to be true in each scene as it is vital the audience believes in the character’s principals and that he lives by them consistently. This isn't a man who cherry picks what rules of his faith he wants to follow, but rather someone who is all in. This is demonstrated through Doss' commitment in other aspects of his life whether that be in marriage or in serving his country. These elements come together to create one of the more stirring sequences on film this year when, as glimpsed in the trailer, Doss prays to God to please help him get, "one more." It is a scene that in lesser hands might have come off as corny or even hokey, but given Garfield's unrelenting commitment to Doss' unrelenting commitment and Gibson's ability to make the audience believe we're seeing one thing while slyly teaching us another “Hacksaw Ridge” is truly rousing. An achievement that not only documents a true event by re-creating a story, but by genuinely attempting to show us what happened.
by Philip Price
It's difficult to not feel indifferent about a movie like “Trolls.” In the end, it's fine. Is it somewhat offensive in terms of originality and cheap covers of gloriously good pop songs? It could certainly be taken that way, but when taking into consideration the target audience for this latest DreamWorks animated adventure it's hard to get too frustrated with the rote story “Trolls” dolls out or the advantage it takes in remixing recognizable songs into auto-tuned Kidz Bop versions you could have certainly lived without. Of course, “Trolls” doesn't mean to offend, but rather it simply means to entertain a wide age range of kiddos while at the same time giving over tried and true lessons that deal in being true to one's self to find true happiness. No, “Trolls” isn't either a good film or a particularly bad one, but more it is simply one that exists to colorfully distract for an hour and a half only to mostly be forgotten the next day. No harm, no foul. “Trolls” is ultimately something of a mix between DreamWorks own “Shrek” series as far as character types go while more or less the same story “The Smurfs” told us as far as being small creatures who live in peace and harmony while having to battle a much larger being who threatens to eat them among other evil things. There wouldn't be anything necessarily wrong with restructuring these archetypes and plotlines were “Trolls” interested in doing anything fresh or interesting (and when I say interesting I, obviously, mean weirder) with as much as they've given themselves to work with, but by simply slapping a variety of pop covers throughout rather than going full-on musical and ultimately being more harmless than memorable this movie isn't exactly the kind of product a studio wants to put out if they want to retain any type of credibility. Though it is difficult to say anything downright terrible about “Trolls” the bottom line is this was a product made to move merchandise and that it actually turned out as competent and sometimes even as fun as it is shouldn't be forgotten. Sure, one could point out the desperate lengths movie studios are now going to in order to cash in on brands given the troll dolls were first popular in the ‘60s (with a resurgence in the ’90s) or one could point to “The LEGO Movie” as a film based on toys/superfluous junk that actually turned out rather inspired and great, but somewhere in the middle of those truths and thoughts we find “Trolls”; just happy to have been given enough room to dance and sing and hug.
With Shrek long past his prime, the “Madagascar” gang more or less in retirement with the Penguins not so successfully backing them up, and neither Po the Ninja Warrior or Hiccup and Toothless producing sequels that exactly lit the world on fire it was time for DreamWorks to officially try something new and it seems they put all of their eggs in the “Trolls” basket. I can't say whether or not this was the right move for the studio given they've obviously advertised the mess out of this thing and expect (and are seeing) solid returns, but whereas the first couple of “Shrek” films and both the “Kung Fu Panda” and “How to Train Your Dragon” movies were considered generally good to great films that could compete with the likes of Pixar “Trolls” is decidedly a step backward in terms of just how lofty DreamWorks ambition might be for their future endeavors. It could be a smart move to try and no longer compete with the likes of Pixar and instead carve out their own niche as the studio who focuses more on the younger children in the audience; turning out big-budget features they can experience on the big screen without parents having to concern themselves with whether or not their child is ready for serious themes about life, love, and loss. There's nothing wrong with going a different route, of course, and again “Trolls” wouldn't feel as easy to dismiss if different automatically equaled good, but unfortunately it doesn't. Rather, “Trolls” plays like a pilot episode for a series of movies DreamWorks only hopes they will be able to rely on for the next few years to maybe a decade. It's difficult to buy into the idea this movie could spawn such an empire given the characters aren't overly endearing despite there being a sprawling cast for them to pull from should the need to expand such a universe arise, but here we are. Worse still than the fact “Trolls” feels somewhat temporary, or as if it is simply testing out the waters to see if audiences will welcome it to the deep end, is that one can easily see the potential within “Trolls” for it to be that much better and that much more unique of an experience. Meaning it's easy to see clear opportunities within the film as it plays where certain things could have easily been done to enhance the experience. Things that would have aligned with expectations the movie was giving us, but that it doesn't trust itself enough to follow up on or invest in. Instead of daring to take such routes we instead get a road trip movie that leads to a type of redemption that can be glimpsed a mile away.
And so, we are introduced to the Bergen's, a race of ogre-like beings that live on what looks like a scorched version of earth or hell, some Bergen-plagued planet in a different galaxy far, far away for all I know, where there is a monarchy of some sort and the young prince, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is about to experience what his father (John Cleese) and the rest of their kind believe is the only way to find true happiness-eating a troll. They, for one reason or another that is never explained, only do this one day a year on what they call "Trollstice". Why they only desire to be happy a single day out of whatever their calendar year might consist of is curious, but it seems to be for reasons so that Chef (Christine Baranski) can collect enough of the long, multi-colored dolls so that every Bergen in the village has a troll to eat. I thought you said this was for younger children? Why all the talk of cannibalism so early on? Is it still cannibalism? Are trolls and Bergen's the same species? Does the Bergen planet have Ancestry.com? On the day little Gristle is set to eat his first troll there is an escape plan hatched as the King of the Trolls, King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), leads his people (or trolls) out and away from the Bergen village, but not before risking his life to put others before him as well as to save his daughter, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). Fast-forward 20 years and the trolls have somehow managed to stay quiet enough despite their tendencies to break into song to stay hidden from the Bergens with Poppy becoming a central hub for the scrap booking, singing, dancing, and hugging that seems to keep the community of trolls going day in and day out. Naturally, given their 20 years of freedom from the Bergen's, the trolls want to celebrate and do so by not only singing, and dancing, and hugging, but by putting on a fireworks show that, unsurprisingly, attracts the attention of Chef who has yet to live down that mistake that happened once upon a time. Chef then swiftly acts to kidnap a group of trolls forcing Poppy to resort to asking Branch (Justin Timberlake), a troll who has sworn off all the dancing, singing, and general cheerfulness for a life of seclusion and safety should the Bergen's ever return, for help rescuing her gang of friends and join her in fighting to maintain their way of life.
What exactly is appealing about “Trolls” then? Well, for starters the voice cast makes this a lot more bearable as they are clearly aware of the type of movie they have signed up to be a part of and are having a blast just going back and forth with one another. Also, once the movie more or less digs into the standard plot of which more mature audience-members will recognize the beats for long before they actually occur “Trolls” adds an unexpected layer in the presence of Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) who is a Bergen that agrees to help Poppy and Branch rescue their friends from Gristle, but not before enlisting the trolls to help her impress the prince who she's harbored affections for some time. Bridget is a sensitive and kind presence in a world that otherwise feels it's been hopped up on sugar for far too long. Deschanel brings a poignancy to her role and to the film that isn't found anywhere else as it is her arc that allows the otherwise rote themes to feel somewhat genuine and affecting. She is selfless in her willingness to help the trolls and go against all she has been taught throughout her life despite holding out feelings for the one Bergen who desires to eat a troll more than anything. As Gristle, Mintz-Plasse does some solid work creating an actual character through his vocal performance. Those not so lucky to have time to develop an actual character or more of a personality are the appealing likes of James Corden, Gwen Stefani, Kunal Nayyar, and unfortunately even Russell Brand who all form part of Poppy's posse and are given little else to do other than poop cupcakes, burp glitter and serve as plot devices. And then there is the dynamic of Timberlake and Kendrick who, obviously have nice enough singing voices to carry the load of what Trolls is wanting to accomplish and convey, while at the same time being likable enough to not let those who already didn't expect much from the film be let down even more. Timberlake has always been an actor that one can see through to a degree. You can see him trying to perform when acting whereas on stage as a performer he's clearly more in his element. That slight insecurity is still heard in his vocal performance, but Kendrick is as quirky and pleasant as ever and her opposites attract dynamic with Timberlake's Branch is sweet enough to bring both performances home in good standing. Will you remember much about “Trolls” the day after you see it? No, but you'll probably still be humming a few solid tunes so again, it's hard to complain over spilled cupcakes (or glitter).
by Philip Price
In a world where even Tom Hanks has a franchise it's something of a shame America's favorite actor isn't in a better one than this. That said, the now trilogy based around symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) and based on the wildly popular series of novels from author Dan Brown are movies of pure junk food status and aspire to be nothing more than appeasing puzzles audiences unravel along with Langdon and whomever his next adventure decides to pair him with. Though the novels are said to very much be of the same variety as far as quality is concerned (I haven't personally read any of them) it is easy to see why there are such pleasures to be taken from the high caloric intake these movies serve up despite the lack of any real weight or nutritional value. Mystery adventures such as “Inferno” and its predecessors should be taken at face value and little more. There is an obvious factor to an actor of Hanks’ caliber taking on such a role if he were going to choose an ongoing series of films to be a part of in that Langdon is always the smartest guy in the room and Brown's novels along with the film adaptations spout facts upon historical facts in order to present the facade of intelligence and inventiveness, but while there is certainly an amount of creative ingenuity that comes along with writing any piece of fiction much less one that concerns ancient architecture, Renaissance artists, and their personal lives-each containing clues that further both the main mystery and the arc of its protagonist-there is also something inherently ridiculous to the quest Langdon and his peers are asked to go on. Making huge leaps to vague conclusions time and time again and encountering more secret passageways in old museums than there are plot twists, Inferno falls perfectly in line with the two previous films in the series if not more with 2009's “Angels & Demons,” which saw director Ron Howard and his team taking things a lot less seriously than they did with the still daunting and tepidly paced “The Da Vinci Code” from 2006. Still, as its seven years on from the last sequel “Inferno” can't help but to feel a little less inspired and a little more under baked as it's obvious the only reason Hanks and Howard returned to this world and this character was for secure box office returns and likely the chance to make something they're a little more invested in. Whatever the case may be, Inferno is serviceable if not rather forgettable in its brisk pacing and handsome presentation. In other words, Inferno is little more than empty calories, but oftentimes enjoyable calories nonetheless.
In “Inferno,” we are witness to a Professor Langdon waking up in a hospital in Florence, Italy with no recollection of how he came to be there or any memory of the last 48 hours. He is attended to by a young doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who informs him he was brought in by a cab driver with wounds that would suggest a bullet grazed his skull and came awfully close to killing him. Without warning a police officer, on her way up to see Langdon, begins shooting the nurse outside his door forcing both Langdon and Brooks to escape the hospital and subsequently begin piecing together how Langdon ended up in the hospital and why there are people trying to kill him. Brooks brands herself to be a fan of Langdon's as she saw him speak when she was younger, studied the Renaissance, and furthermore, the work of the late middle ages poet Dante with which the antagonist of this adventure, a billionaire geneticist named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), seems to have had an acute interest in as he has left clues for Langdon in the form of alterations made to Sandro Botticelli's painting of Dante's Inferno. That first part of Dante's epic poem, The Divine Comedy, that guides the author on a journey through the many stages of hell now serves as the plot device for this hunt through treasures if you will as Zobrist has positioned an engineered disease, one worthy of plague status, to halt the growth of humanity somewhere in the world. Zobrist believes the issue of over-population to be one that is firmly out of control and who plans on doing something about it. Though this is the essence of the quest Langdon and Brooks are on it would be all too easy to allow these characters to serve as the core of everything that happens in the film and so in adapting Brown's no doubt intimidatingly complex novel screenwriter David Koepp has layered in countless other secondary players to make us look in one direction or the other when it would have benefited both the story and the audiences level of investment to remain focused on the growing camaraderie between Langdon and Brooks especially given the arc their relationship takes. With the likes of a World Health Organization agent in Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy) on their tail along with his superior, Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), with whom Professor Langdon has a past, and not to mention the head of a shadowy consulting group (Irrfan Khan) in the picture there are simply too many players on the board for the narrative to remain as lean and effective as it should.
While the lighter tone and swifter pacing of Inferno is certainly appreciated and even admired in most instances the clear dissonance between “The Da Vinci Code” and this latest installment is clear in terms of both its ambition and its craftsmanship. From the opening credits it's clear this series no longer considers itself to be as regal as it once positioned itself to be. While I wasn't necessarily a fan of the first film I always appreciate a movie that tends to at least try and put forth an effort to build its own lore and the title sequence is always a large indicator of just how worthy a film considers itself of serious consideration. In “The Da Vinci Code” there was great care taken to relay the mystery and the grandeur of that mystery in the reveal of the title, but with Inferno the title of the film is passed along the screen in the same text as the crew credits and hardly given a larger musical cue to indicate what it represents. This isn't just true of small, what some might call insignificant details within the movie, but it's also apparent in the story Brown's novel is telling with its more serialized tone. The severity of the plot may be as serious as ever given we are talking about an extinction-level event here even if, like most antagonists plans in movies with world destroying plots, that plan is overly complicated and ridiculous, but more to the point is the fact the implications of the quest Langdon is on are nowhere near as great as in “The Da Vinci Code.” It's a tough line to walk considering what Brown unwrapped with his debut Langdon book was that of an alternative religious history and how the meaning of such a different history might affect the beliefs of Christians that make up a large portion of the world's population as it's not every day such revelations or ideas are brought to the table. On the flip side-if such earth-shattering discoveries were continuously brought to the table they would register even more outlandish than the current plots Brown offers up. With that being the case the mystery to crack in Inferno simply feels more rote due to the fact it simply states an idea and an extreme resolution that must be stopped rather than suggesting something that could change people's perspective on things and create interesting conversations. That may sound ridiculous given the plot of “Inferno” deals in wiping out 95 percent of the world's population as well as the fact the main idea this plan springs from is as interesting as it is when presented with the facts of how quickly the population has risen on our planet. And yet, no matter how much truth there is to such data it's hard to believe anyone having conversations around Inferno at all, much less about the truths it might have exposed.
As far as surface-level entertainment goes though, one could do much worse than “Inferno.” For as many pitfalls as this thing falls into as far as familiar beats of action adventure stories are concerned and as generic as it can sometimes feel with Hans Zimmer clearly borrowing from a few of his past scores to provide the musical backdrop here there are facets to Howard's film that are easy to like and easier to be entertained by as long as one doesn't allow too much logic to seep into the experience. The first and most obvious example of such aspects is that this film begins by placing its hero, Professor Langdon, in a state of uncertainty given the head trauma that has left him with no memory and an affinity for being more direct than he might usually be. This alteration in the attitude of Langdon for the first half of the film adds a fun, new dimension to the character while also giving the dynamic between Langdon and his obligatory female cohort a fresher energy than expected. Speaking of the obligatory female cohort, at 33 years of age Jones is just shy of being three decades younger than her co-star and while it was slightly concerning upon first hearing Jones was cast to star opposite Hanks in this latest installment fortunately this casting choice comes with justification in the form of one of the plots few solid twists. Like the players involved in the game the game itself has a few too many deceptions as well whereas were two or three to be removed or conveyed in more subtle ways the film would seemingly have been lent a great deal more credibility. As things go though, Jones does a fine job of playing the admittedly tasty arc she has been given as upon initially meeting the character the questions of what makes her so interesting were plenty. Jones is a talented presence who has an uncanny ability to make you empathize with her no matter the character she is playing and she demonstrates that here in some of the smaller character moments that didn't even have to necessarily be present in a big studio movie such as this. And while Hanks is clearly still having fun playing the lead and as Jones lends the picture something resembling depth in its otherwise shallow sea the esteemed supporting players are more or less playing up the campiness of the content, especially Khan and Foster. And so, as Inferno is simply another in a line of Langdon adventures that amounts to little more than elaborate schemes designed to get a bad guy what they want and to test Langdon to see if he can stop them in time it seems one can't complain too much when such a formula is composed as adequately as it is here. It's all moving parts and very little heart.
by Philip Price
From the outset where Marvel Studios shows off its brand new logo that features clips of its heroes in action from previous films rather than clips of art from their older comic books it is clear just how much of a brand this studio and their particular type of super hero films have become. What is more telling though, is just how aware Marvel is of this fact and how boldly they state their accomplishments in this re-branding of their title card. This slight boasting by the company sets up good and bad expectations for the film that proceeds it as “Doctor Strange” very much operates within the familiar world Marvel has built while at the same time reminding us of just how high Marvel can fly leaving this rule of a movie to be something of a letdown. Of course, that is the one glaring barrier all Marvel movies now have to overcome in how do they not just play as large scale TV episodes, but more singular stories that feel worthy of the big screen treatment. It's not necessarily that Dr. Stephen Strange isn't worthy of such treatment, but more in the pantheon of all Marvel has done before and all it plans to do in the future this initial outing with the soon-to-be Sorcerer Supreme feels as brisk and as superfluous to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “The Incredible Hulk” now ranks. Not that Doctor Strange doesn't introduce a whole new dimension of possibilities to the MCU, but were this film to not work out the way Marvel expects it to for some reason they could essentially ignore its existence and move on with the physical dangers the film tells us The Avengers protect our world from. That won't happen, of course, but that's the type of indifferent feeling director Scott Derrickson's (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Sinister”) take on a Marvel property unfortunately conjures up. Making this worse is the fact that “Doctor Strange” features some of the more daring and downright trippy visuals that have been seen in a Marvel movie as well as some of the weirder sequences in the studios filmography that, while visually enchanting, make it even more apparent just how standard the narrative is. Why Marvel and Kevin Feige were willing to go out on something of a risky limb with their visuals as well as just how far Strange can push his powers, but not with the story that brings the titular Doctor into the world of magic and mysticism is a little perplexing. But at the end of the day it's clear this is a board room picture designed to change up Marvel's winning formula just enough so as to appear to be something new and different, but what in reality will rely on the same tricks that have guaranteed consistent hits for eight years now.
“Doctor Strange” begins fun enough as we are introduced to the inherently menacing Mads Mikkelsen and his villain Kaecilius who has a way with swords and a mission he and his cronies are intent on carrying out. Derrickson, along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, then immediately demonstrate the visual prowess of their film by introducing Tilda Swinton's The Ancient One by having her square off against Kaecilius in a battle sequence that is visually arresting and legitimately demanding of one's attention. It's a solid start and one that immediately sets up how it will differ from what type of super powers we've seen in the MCU thus far, but just as swiftly as it does so much it just as easily slips into the now tired Marvel trope of pairing a fun, bouncy, popular tune with what is supposed to be a fairly serious and/or dramatic piece of work. I will always love Earth, Wind, & Fire as well as "Shining Star," but the use of "Shining Star" feels just as tired at this point as the trick of using such a track to make our titular protagonist feel quirky and likable. This is especially odd given the film then goes on to establish the good doctor as something of an arrogant asshat who prefers fame and congratulations for his medical achievements over the satisfaction of knowing he's saved a life. This is all to say that as intriguing a character as Dr. Stephen Strange is and as appealing as Benedict Cumberbatch is able to make him, it is hard to shake the feeling that what we're watching isn't just an alternate version of the first “Iron Man” film. Take a wealthy, egotistical white guy with an admittedly spectacular goatee, throw his gluttonous routine for a loop, and exile him to a secluded region of the world where he has an eye-opening experience that reveals his own faults and shortcomings as well as a new awareness of the greater evils that threaten the world and one more or less has the outline for Marvel Studios debut film and their latest effort. It's not that “Doctor Strange” falls apart because of this, but more the sad truth that the day is finally dawning when Marvel is going to really have to begin to alter their templates otherwise the enthusiasm of their legions will begin to inevitably dwindle.
What saves “Doctor Strange” from being wholly forgettable though is its advantage of being able to explore territory not yet covered by the previous films in the MCU. Other than the aforementioned opening action sequence the first half hour or so of the film is absent of any such territory as Derrickson's direction and screenplay (admirably) keeps its focus on developing the core character of Dr. Stephen Strange and who this man is at present so that we feel a full-on transformation by the time the credits roll. That's all well and good and it only gets better from that point on as Strange travels to Kathmandu to receive his training and in the process learn about all these cool and interesting facets of a world that holds things like astral projections, mirror dimensions and ancient relics that choose their owners to be possible and real. What detracts from adding such fresh and interesting facets to this cinematic universe is when the story doesn't do anything to match the freshness or uniqueness of those aspects. Sure, these abilities are used by characters to travel and fight in ways that are visually compelling, but when done in service of a narrative where the objective ultimately carries little to no weight because the half-baked antagonist could be anybody with scary bags under their eyes there is no lasting impression to be left or larger ideas to consider.
That said, “Doctor Strange” is pretty goofy in spots and the movie totally accepts this fact-never attempting to ask for dramatic consideration. If anything, the film goes in the opposite direction of such soil, hence the underdeveloped love interest in Rachel McAdams, and is almost a broad comedy outside the large action set pieces. Even in the action sequences though, the film can feel really silly, but while that is somewhat expected given the premise of the material what works against Derrickson's film the most -- outside of its uninspired storytelling -- is the fact that once Strange begins to master his abilities there are so many other subplots and characters brought into the fold. Despite Strange supposedly taking years to master his craft and absorb the amounts of information we are told he learns it can't help but feel like more than a few days. In essence, “Doctor Strange” is so hell-bent on getting through the character's origin story and including so many things so as to set itself up for future installments that the more interesting aspects of this character and how he came to be end up feeling rushed. This movie features performances from esteemed talent such as Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor and yet we hardly sense any kind of real dynamic between Cumberbatch's Strange and Ejiofor's Mordo. Swinton, on the other hand, is pretty fantastic with her measured eccentricity.
As is more and more common these days the current product is so concerned with the future product that it forgets to take in and enjoy the now. This becomes even more apparent in the final half of the film as it breezes through action sequence after rescue after action sequence after rescue only once taking a moment and therefore a scene to contemplate what a “Doctor Strange” movie's themes might actually be. One could argue that Derrickson makes the case for time and it being the only true enemy given the films focus on watches and clocks that is reinforced by Strange's uncommon ability to manipulate time, or that there is less a good versus evil battle going on here and more a war of perspective in the vein of who's being told the truth, who's being deceived and how what version of a truth we choose to believe determines where we fall in such perspectives. But in the end Mikkelsen is little more than a pawn for a literal face in the clouds. I can appreciate that “Doctor Strange” doesn't succumb to the archetype of mass destruction in its finale and that it really goes for something weird as a means to defeat it’s all face yet still faceless big bad (whose name is actually Dormammu), but it simply isn't consistently strange enough to break down any barriers Marvel has already put up.
by Philip Price
“American Honey” would have you believe that everything that happens in America happens at magic hour. That golden period in the day just before sunset during which the daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. From depicting everything from its core group of ragtag door to door magazine salesman doing their best to scam the neighborhoods of middle America to seeing Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Star (Sasha Lane) consummate their distressed relationship, the film finds comfort in the waves of color exerted by the evening sky. “American Honey,” directed by Scottish-born filmmaker Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”), would have you believe that the underbelly of America is one of harsh lines between the white trash and the wealthier classes that populate the southern regions of the country though to disparage the cracks in American culture to little more than two distinct categories is one of the films unfortunate misconceptions that is apparent from the get-go. Were it not for the clear intention of “American Honey” to be this sprawling epic at nearly three hours this lack of delineation would be more forgiving, but that it truly gives itself time to develop its characters and the landscape in which they exist one would like to have been delivered a more complex portrait that better mirrors the melting pot one can easily see this country to be by simply driving through any county in as random a state as Arkansas. Residing in a state most likely tend to forget about in the grand scheme of our nation, Arkansas keenly displays the actuality of just how gentle those lines between classes can be. Still, this nagging flaw that is present throughout Arnold's thesis on what is both so discouraging about the United States and what makes it so simultaneously charming can't tear down the entire effort from being valiant as “American Honey” is ultimately a sweet ode to our misfit of a nation. The film goes on too long and doesn't have enough of a narrative drive or intriguing enough character arcs to invest our own selves in, but somehow it remains engrossing-uplifting even with its inability to acutely examine class relations rendered somewhat unnecessary by the films ability to display the inherent hopefulness in each of us despite all the ugliness we tend to see surrounding us.
That lack of delineation as we'll refer to it may be a point of denial on my part as I always considered myself and my family to be a part of the middle class, but it wasn't difficult to see that just down the road and in the other kids I went to school with that there was a very fine line between having just enough and not having enough to ever feel comfortable. Being nurtured through that type of environment only blurred these lines even further and while I can complain about “American Honey” not taking as accurate an approach as it seems a film with this ambition might need to I can also acknowledge that Arnold's intent is clearly to shine a light more on the impoverished and poverty-stricken areas of the country that many would like to pretend don't exist and overlook. It's easy to dismiss sections of towns and cities that are poorer than other areas and simply accept that to live or exist in that area is a choice and that if an individual wants to free themselves of such an existence then they will conjure up the work ethic to do so. As with everything, this is true in certain cases while not being as much in others. In Arnold's film we are introduced to a group of late teens and twenty-somethings who have all clearly come from rough situations and are afforded little opportunity because of those roots leaving the majority of them few other options than to become a prime example of what those crotchety old white men are talking about when they describe the laziness and entitlement of millennials. Thus, the point of the film becoming that of humanizing these people most tend to disregard. The film is intent on demonstrating several different types of depictions around such individuals with each of the actors portraying the band of youths here feeling as natural as one could ask for -- almost as if many of them were picked off the streets based solely on their look and the charisma they carried. Being a part of such a sprawling cast means relying on transferring a lot of information with only a look or a walk or how one carries them self and the supporting players here are each given distinct aura's due largely to an authenticity in their origins being similar to those of the characters they're playing. We are given our most vivid portrait of this side of the fence through Lane's Star as she is little more than an 18 year old trapped in the situation of a 30 year old when we first meet her.
Shacked up with an older man who already has two kids from a previous relationship and living in a scrap yard of generations past with overgrown lawns that are only broken up by faded little tikes toys, Star's current boyfriend works a paycheck to paycheck job that pays for his children and live-in girlfriend to eat Spam every night while he seems to find fulfillment in little more than drinking beer and blasting Sam Hunt. Even the song choice of something like Hunt's "Take Your Time," feels appropriate in that it's a cut from the current death march country music is on whereas it seems that is the only option left for Star, her boyfriend, and his unfortunate children who will inevitably end up in the same boat as them when they get older. Running into the magnetic and seemingly spontaneous Jake one day at the grocery store both Star and LaBeouf's Jake sense an immediate attraction and connection to one another. Jake is part of this caravan of kids who travel from city to city under the thumb of boss Krystal (Riley Keough) who designates certain neighborhoods and areas of cities in which to disperse her crew to go door to door trying to sell magazines and make enough money to cover gas and lodging while allowing her band of bohemians to take a percentage of their cut-the likes of which is more than most of them have ever possessed before. Jake doesn't hesitate in inviting Star along despite the fact he is firmly planted under Krystal's authoritative order when on the road. Star sees this chance to escape her current situation as her only hope of surpassing the low bar the circumstances she was born into set for her. And so, we're off and it's easy to make snap judgments about these kids and some are made deservedly so as getting a dog high is flat-out ignorant and cruel, but with many of these individuals the point is to take their current form as a pure result of the state of affairs into which they were born and how those have informed this current state they are at when we come to meet them. As we go along with them Arnold utilizes the backdrop of the sun-kissed suburbia's and never-ending freeways and fields to insert random shots of the moon, sky and other insignificant observations that further emphasize the atmosphere of this piece of work that is just as much about the ambiance as it is the characters that populate it.
Shot nearly entirely in a handheld fashion with natural and available light in the aspect ratio of 4:3 this choice almost immediately calls into question why such a decision was made when such a large point of the film is to put on display the wide-open spaces of Middle America. In a strange way, this severely square aspect ratio immediately inspires a somewhat nostalgic feel for the simpler days of tube TV's and the pre-internet age where people connected simply through other people. This choice, paired with Arnold's choice of soundtrack are some of the bolder ideas that are immediately striking in the most appealing of ways. Pairing her naturalistic visual approach and the similarly genuine quality of the performances with music ranging from the likes of E-40 to Lady Antebellum and their track from which the film takes its name, we feel we get a wide range of states of mind that these characters and especially Star go through. Other than providing that further dimension of understanding the music simply adds an edge and attitude to the picture that wouldn't necessarily be lacking without such bold choices, but would certainly not be as effective were the selections not as brazen. Of course, that we come to understand and empathize with Star in the way we do is mostly due to Lane who makes her acting debut in “American Honey.” With an obvious endearing quality apparent the moment Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera lays its lens on her, Lane is more than arresting in what she brings to the largely improvised scenes that end up giving us only a sketch of an outline of the truth of who Star is. We know she is 18 and that her mother died from meth use when she was 15, but outside of that Star is a canvas on which Lane can seemingly paint anything she wants. We come to see this lost girl realize that her simple ambitions can't even be met by doing what seems to be her ticket out of her rote routine. It's an achingly painful realization to experience with her. Star is a misguided soul who only yearns to have a patch of earth to call her own and raise her kids on, but she can't help but to find herself in increasingly complicated situations whether that be due to her empathy, her infatuations, or her need for those pieces of paper that make the world go ’round. As for LaBeouf, he reminds us once again why he is one of the more skilled actors working today as his Jake is a figurative lone wolf who only knows how to interact with people by scanning them upon meeting them and figuring out what type of person they want in their life and immediately becoming that person, but who is lost without someone to guide him. In this case he desires that guide to be Star, but he seems hesitant to let slip his security with Krystal. The arc of their relationship reinforcing that such a lifestyle can only remain exciting for so long before the con is up and the buyers will see through their shtick. These kids were never selling magazines, but themselves in the hope they might find something better, more purposeful in life. In the understanding there is only a small window of time where consumers believe such a shift is possible, these kids realize they only have so long before they're stuck with what they feel destined for.
At two hours and 43 minutes, “American Honey” takes its audience through a number of sequences and events that could have certainly been boiled down into a 100-minute feature. While the running time can seem self-indulgent in spots, the final shot is made all the more rewarding by the investment that time spent with these characters creates. There is a sequence near the end in which this traveling troupe settles into a desolate farmhouse on the outskirts of a town where the inhabitants are either so rich they'll pity the kids or so poor they'll relate to them that serves to symbolize the ideal dream Star wishes her reality would deliver. That she and Jake find one another in the open fields behind the house and make love as the evening sun bounces off their skin only serves to solidify the type of existence she could hope to have as opposed to the one she currently has to deal in where her mental state is put to the test day in and day out not only by those she meets in her magazine pitches, but by those closest to her. “American Honey” is a movie intended to be this great lyrical poem to the current youth of America that has an epic feeling to it considering the ground it covers and to large degrees the film is exactly that. The performances included are somewhat revelatory as far as peeling back and exposing the more shameful aspects of our country while the whirling and organic visuals are as lush and beautiful as one could hope given the title of the film. But despite all of this, the film ultimately doesn't hit as heavy an emotional impact as it seems to want or need in order to be as poignant as it so badly yearns to be. There is a scene about an hour and a half into the film that features Will Patton as a wealthy cowboy who, along with some of his buddies, are getting ready to cook a few steaks and have a good time and come across a stranded Star who they pick up as she tries to sell them magazine subscriptions. The sequence stands out because there is no pretense to the interests of all parties involved and the cowboys are willing to throw down some serious money if Star can commit to finishing off a bottle of Mezcal, a distilled alcohol made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico, topping it off by eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle. But, like the film itself the cowboys are too focused on Star eating the worm because it's the more outlandish action to take when the emphasis for eliciting something astonishing should be on her finishing the drink as it's the Mezcal that will do something to you, not eating the worm.
by Philip Price
There is a point in the newest comedy from director Greg Mottola where it seems this broad comedy might rise above the grind it seems so destined to follow, but it only ends up being a brief moment of wackiness that Mottola and crew don’t care to dedicate themselves to carrying out. Rather, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” continues its stride toward the mediocre with very little to serve as surprising or inspired despite being made by the guy who put together “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” Yes, Mottola, the man who directed the likes of one of the great high school comedies of the last 15 years as well as tapping into the struggles of that weird time post-college where you’re not sure where to go from that point has made a movie for the first time in five years that in fact couldn’t feel more uninspired. My hope, when I saw that Mottola was directing, was that the trailers and TV spots for the film might intentionally be setting our expectation bar low so that when we finally saw the finished product we might be taken with how much better it actually is than we expected. And while this does somewhat happen given the trailers and TV spots indeed made this look terrible in the vein of a run of the mill comedy that says let's put your average person in the midst of a ridiculous situation and see how funny they act in response to it kind of way. Still, with the talent Mottola and the studio garnered for this project my hope was that the film might bring something deeper or more acute to the scenario of superspies in suburbia, but there is no such sly observations or social commentary to be found in “Keeping Up With the Joneses”. Unfortunately, all we have here is a wacky situational comedy that too often relies on lead Zach Galifianakis’ one-liners too lift it from the doldrums of the generic jokes and obvious pratfalls Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is built on. LeSieur (“You, Me & Dupree”) seems the type of comedy writer who comes up with an interesting or funny enough scenario and then applies it to a familiar structure making the final product more predictable than laugh-inducing. That said, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about as good (and bad) as one would expect given the terrible trailers. It’s familiar and overly safe, but the fun performances from each of the four leads lend it a spring in its step that otherwise would have left this thing dead on arrival.
“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is set in an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac where Jeff Gaffney (Galifianakis) and his wife Karen (Isla Fisher) find absolute happiness. The summer season is upon them and they have shipped their two young sons off to camp for a few weeks leaving them alone in their paradise which they inevitably have no idea what do with. They are a married couple completely wrapped up in the material existence of their neighborhood that finds the greatest of joys in their get-togethers such as “Junetoberfest” or in the security that many of them work for the same major tech corporation around the corner. It is this corporation that serves to be the crux of the screenplay though, for as soon as Jeff and Karen are getting ready to figure out how exactly to spend all of their free time they are delivered new neighbors in the form of Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot). Tim and Natalie seem too perfect to be true -- too well put together and composed while participating in far too many extracurricular activities outside of their seemingly spectacular jobs that place Tim as a travel writer and Natalie as a social media consultant/activist for Sri Lankan orphans. While Jeff, who is a Human Resources guy at ABJ, prides himself on being able to connect and read people he doesn’t agree with Karen’s assessment that the Joneses are too good to be true, too perfect to be real and too calculated to be genuine if not up to something nefarious. And thus, much of the movie hinges on Karen trying to prove her theory correct while Jeff is more inspired by the prospect of making a new friend in Tim. These quests of sorts become their adventures for the summer that take the place of whatever activities they might have taken up with their children, but in something of a surprising fashion (one of the few the script allows) Jeff and Karen indeed figure out the truth of Tim and Natalie's existence and purpose in their peaceful suburb about halfway through the film. This opening up of the discovery of the truth sooner rather than later allows for the second half of the film to feel a bit more energetic and put forth a momentum that at least passes the time in a more pleasing fashion rather than the plodding along of the necessary, but overly expositional first half. Allowing the bumbling Jeff and the half-skilled, half-straight up crazy Karen to join forces with the experts turns out to be the films secret weapon as it doesn't choose to push Jeff and Karen to the side in favor of more action and less comedy with the reveal of Tim and Natalie actually being spies. It's as if the cast and Mottola knew the closer they came to finishing the film that it wasn't going to be very good (not that they necessarily shot it in order) and so they invested more in making the finale a little more singular and not so common despite the final product still being as average as ever.
A lot of what makes “Keeping Up With the Joneses” work as well as it does (or can) is the casting-in type of each of its principle actors. In other words, these are all people we've seen the likes of Galifianakis, Hamm and Gadot play before. Fisher is the odd woman out here and one doesn't necessarily think of her as a necessarily frumpy or off-putting woman desperate for attention, but quite the opposite actually as her breakout role in “Wedding Crashers” will forever position her as the first choice to portray a perfect balance of crazy and sexy. But in “Keeping Up With the Joneses” LeSieur’s script mainly calls for the red-headed beauty to play the crazy up and little else. Though Karen is right in this instance she is undoubtedly on some serious crazy pills as Fisher plays her more as inherently jealous rather than crazily curious. And it's not that Fisher can't play the suburbanite mom who has everything under control with her work-from-home interior design job, but the point seems to be that Karen isn't exactly satisfied in this role despite the facade she presents to the rest of her cul-de-sac and more importantly, to Jeff, who seemingly couldn't be happier. This is where one might expect for the film to begin to pull back the layers on domestic anxiety and reveal the scary truth that only so much happiness can be found in something as simple as your neighborhood. Instead of exposing this aspect of Americana which, given the set-up, one would think to be the intent of the film, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” embraces this idea and goes on to more or less agree with it. Sure, it recommends such a quiet and peaceful existence be balanced with a few excursions or getaways to keep the spice alive not only in life, but in marriage, but it seems the intent of the film from the get-go is to kind of rail against and make fun of people who take out such happiness in the simplicity of beautifully landscaped corner lots, but LeSieur doesn't have the gall to flat-out make fun of suburban America. Instead, he ends up describing them as endearing and bringing the two couples at the core of his film full circle in that Jeff and Karen learn a few things from Tim and Natalie and vice versa. The metaphor that Tim and Natalie exist to serve is that of the necessary chaos in life, or more specifically, to kind of amplify the ridiculousness the overly domesticated place on the ultimate insignificance of "trendy needs" and other demands, but “Keeping Up With the Joneses” isn't a perceptive enough comedy to really translate this metaphor successfully. Instead, it becomes an action comedy where neither of those categories shine bright enough for the film to rise above its standard execution.
And yet, despite the mediocre taste this film leaves in your mouth there is something admirable about what it feels the quartet of actors are conveying here. Though Fisher's character is short-changed on paper it is easy to take away from the performance on screen what the actress has given the outline of the needy housewife who is so desperate for any type of excitement that she'll invent illusions of her neighbors being government spies. Fisher not only gives Karen the credibility past the fact we know she's right based on the trailers, but more the credence of a sane person by virtue of the chemistry she and Galifianakis share on screen. Though Galifianakis is usually cast to play the part of the weirdo or oddball misfit he in all actuality can physically appear as the guy next door without hardly trying. Even more since his weight loss the comic appears especially at home in a pair of khaki's and plaid shirt lending to his overall facade of a harmless guy who is genuinely forthright and friendly. More than anywhere in the script, this is where that endearing quality in the unexceptional comes from and makes it more worth admiring than the fearfulness this aspect of the writing possesses. On the other side of things, Hamm is completely in the zone as this ruggedly handsome secret agent who is supposed to be a relaxed, but adventurous observer of the world. Hamm is so casually cool in his approach to Tim that he can walk through the middle of an explosion or barrage of bullets and calmly address others in the room asking if they are okay. It is small moments, small character insights added by the actors that make the predictable arc and plot that plays by the rules more fun than it has any right to be. It is that these actors have been cast in favor of the type they typically play that Gadot largely gets away with not having to stretch her persona too far. In her major roles in the “Fast & Furious” films and as Wonder Woman Gadot has had to play a heroine of a restrained caliber. In spite of the level of adversaries she faces her characters always remain calm, cool, and collected. This is very much how Gadot plays the unfailingly beautiful and successful Natalie without much bandwidth for anything else. That isn't to say there isn't a level of charisma in her performance as Mottola likely couldn't have hoped for anyone to play this particular role any better, but Gadot simply adds nothing more than what is necessary to the part. Cobbling together this “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” concept via “Neighbors,” the talented and charming cast save this high-concept comedy whose delivery can't match its ideas from being a complete waste of time into little more than a fun, 100-minute distraction.