The DI (Dull Inertia) of “The BFG”

BFG

The BFG (Steven Spielberg, 2016)

Director Steven Spielberg has long been a purveyor of magical fantasies for the silver screen, a joyful fabulist who also ventures into darker, more adult, dramas, as well. From E.T.  to Schindler’s List, his work truly runs the gamut of cinematic genres. Most recently, last October, he gave us Bridge of Spies, a finely crafted throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (though set in the 1960s), in which he used the little-known (in the States) British thespian Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall) to great effect. Now, just 8 months later, both Spielberg and Rylance are back, partnered once more, in an adaptation of author Roald Dahl’s 1982 The BFG.

Full confession: though I generally love Dahl’s work – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach are my favorites – I do not like this particular source text at all. It tells the story of one orphaned English girl, Sophie, who one night sees a giant through the orphanage window. He then kidnaps her so she won’t tell the world what she’s seen. She soon discovers that, unlike his gigantic brethren, her abductor does not eat humans. He’s the “runt” (as the other giants call him) and prefers to spend his energies catching dreams and delivering them back to other sleepers. He’s nothing but a B(ig) F(riendly) G(iant), in other words. Before long, however, the other denizens of giant country catch a whiff of Sophie, and it may just be a matter of time before they find her. At the same time, they loudly announce their intentions to continue returning to England, night after night, since they have there discovered a treasure trove of delicious children, much like Sophie, for the taking. Sophie insists on stopping them, and convinces the BFG to help her.

So what’s not to like? Why, the BFG, of course. Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon, but Dahl managed to create one of the most annoying literary creatures of all time, who cannot speak in anything but mangled syntax. That gets old, and quickly. And then there’s the worldview, in which Dahl manages to make clear, intentionally or not, that the most valuable children are the English. The whole affair feels very old-school colonial, which is especially odd given the year of publication.

But what about the movie? Well, I am happy to report that much of what bothered me in the book, ideologically, is gone. Mark Rylance is quite fine as the BFG (at least what we can see of his performance via motion-capture technology), although he is still given far too much gobbledygook dialogue to say by screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.). Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, as Sophie – all real, all the time, as far as I can tell – is both spunky and adorable. The computer-generated universe feels well-designed and is lovely to see. The real attraction for me, however – and the movie truly comes alive when he’s on-screen – is Jemaine Clement (People Places Things) as the Fleshlumpeater. He’s the big bad nasty of a human-chomping giant who serves as the story’s main antagonist. We need more of him.

Because what is not so good about the film is how unforgivably dull it is. So much of the story is dreadfully inert and sluggish, as if Spielberg, that master of the action sequence, forgot how to structure a narrative. I appreciate his desire to dwell on the mystical bond that develops between Sophie and the BFG, but the slow pace is generally not supported by particularly meaningful exchanges. I think it’s quite possible that fans of the book will respond positively to the sight of a beloved character brought to life, but others may just be bored. I certainly was.

7 Nails for One Hammer: Films at AFI DOCS (Part 1) + “Misconception” and Criterion’s Blu-Ray of “Clouds of Sils Maria”

7 Hammers for One Nail

Over the past two weeks,  Hammer to Nail published five reviews I wrote about films at the recent AFI DOCS festival, plus a review of Misconception, which was released in select theaters on June 24, and a review of the recent Criterion Collection release of Clouds of Sils Maria on Blu-ray. Here are links to those seven pieces:

Enjoy!

“The Neon Demon” is Beautiful, Bloody and Utterly Vacuous

Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

O beauty! O torpor! O glory! O pain! Has the world ever seen such an example of positive qualities co-existing with their opposite? Is pulchritude but an illusion that decays upon inspection? More importantly, can an aesthetic designed to replicate the sins of the milieu it portrays be any more than a superficial treatment of that milieu?

Pardon the hyperbole, but in The Neon Demon, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) seems to beg for such overweening attention. An over-designed objet d’art par excellence, the film is graceful and lovely in every frame, even as the blood flows freely, but ultimately as empty as its thinly drawn characters. If it has a takeaway message (and, unfortunately, it does), it is that beauty – currency of the realm – is only skin deep, yet we are prepared to consume ourselves (and others) to attain it. Women, in particular – those poor, helpless creatures – turn killers when you threaten their status in the beauty chain. Call it Refn’s new aesthetic of misogynistic empowerment, if you will.

The problem here – beyond the fact that this is hardly a fresh topic – is that the film is as listless as the models at its center. Gorgeous? Yes. Meaningful? No. Elle Fanning (Maleficent), a young actress of substance who is the best part of this experience, plays Jesse, a waif of a 16-year-old who comes to Los Angeles with big dreams. Think David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., only without the   quirky intelligence. A fresh face, she soon finds herself both desired and hated, often by the same people. It all points to something awful, and those markers lead us exactly where we think they will.

Despite the utter vacuity on display, there are some fine performances. Jena Malone (The Rusted), as the makeup artist who takes young Jesse under her wing, manages to make the combination of passion and lethargy feel compelling. Keanu Reeves (John Wick), in an uncharacteristically villainous role as the owner of the squalid motel where Jesse lives, is deeply repellant as a man without virtue, and very watchable. But other than these few standouts, The Neon Demon is nothing more than an exercise in production design, where everything is as it seems. Style is substance, in other words, and what you see is what you get, and nothing more.

In Powerful “Dheepan,” the Past Is Always with Us

Dheepan

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015)

Dheepan is a man out of place and out of time, adrift in a world not his own. Like a gunfighter in a classic Hollywood Western – Shane comes to mind, most obviously – he does his best to fit in to his new and alien surroundings, but there’s always the looming threat of his past catching up to him. Will he succumb to the weight of history, or rise above it?

This is the central dramatic question of the new film from French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), whose films often combine violent gangster-genre elements with serious meditations on identity and otherness. His heroes frequently live on the margins of society, yet fight to find a way towards the center. In Dheepan, his protagonist is not just other, but alien, a Sri Lankan refugee in Paris escaping the civil war back home.

Dheepan, it turns out, is not even his real name. As the film begins, we see our hero in a group of men – Tamil Tigers – burning corpses; whether of their comrades or victims, we do not know. Immediately afterwards, we watch as he changes to civilian clothes and throws his uniform on the bonfire. We find him next in a refugee camp, where he joins forces with a woman he doesn’t know, who has just recruited an orphan girl from within the camp, to form a fake family, adopting names on the passports of dead fellow Sri Lankans. Families make for less threatening immigrants than single people. From now on, he will be Dheepan. Their destination? France.

Once arrived, Dheepan and his new “wife” – Yalini – and “daughter”- Illayaal – find themselves in a housing project outside Paris, where Dheepan, barely able to speak the language, is the new superintendent. They strive for normalcy, but it’s more than hard, especially since Yalini has family in England, where she’d rather go. Further complicating matters is the fact that the local drug gangs rule the roost. If the new immigrants – this is a community of immigrants, mostly from North Africa – can just keep their heads down, perhaps they’ll get by. Or not.

Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who plays Dheepan, doesn’t so much play the part as live it. Much like the man he portrays, he was drafted into the Tamil Tigers as a young man and did his fair share of killing before escaping and coming to France. This is only his second film. A natural, he avoids excessive externalization, allowing his brooding eyes to reveal the depths of his feeling. His co-stars Kalieaswari Srinivasan – who plays Yalini – and Claudine Vinasithamby – who plays Illayaal – are both first-time actors, yet equally as present. They form a brilliant trio, at first three separate individuals each in it for their own survival, but eventually – maybe – a real family.

Dheepan won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it certainly packs a powerful punch. It’s not without its flaws, however. As with most other Audiard films, it’s the plot that gets in the way, rather than the metaphysics; a little too much contrivance towards the end mars the perfection of the middle section. The violence of the film may also be too much for some, mistaking arthouse pedigree for purely intellectual adventures; Audiard, however, always goes for the literal jugular. Still, whatever its ultimate shortcomings, Dheepan offers a visceral ride in which real-world problems join with cinematic conventions to form a powerful tale of survival.

“Central Intelligence” Is Smart About Its Dumb Comedy

Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2016)

Dwayne Johnson – the former pro wrestler once known as “The Rock” – has, since his film debut, demonstrated a compelling screen presence, which should come as no surprise, given that the world of wrestling is as much about performance as musculature. Not only does he always hold our attention, but he is also blessed with a fine sense of comic timing. In fact, he’s often better in comedic roles (Pain & Gain) than in his more serious fare (San Andreas), as the seeming disconnect between his hulking form and perfect delivery of bon mots makes the laughs that follow doubly special. In Central Intelligence, paired with Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer) – whose manic energy makes him the perfect foil for Johnson’s gentle-giant routine – Johnson shines once more. Hart’s a funny man, as well, but it’s the chemistry of the two, together, that makes the film work as well as it does. Otherwise, it’s just another improbably silly buddy flick.

Johnson plays Bob Stone and Hart plays Calvin Joyner. They’re both in their late thirties now, but the film begins with a flashback to the final weeks of high school, when Bob was an overweight nerd mercilessly picked on by bullies, and Calvin was the big man on campus (though not one of the bullies). In that opening, we watch as Bob – a CGI creation with an obese body and Johnson’s face – is humiliated in front of the entire school. As everyone, including teachers, laughs at Bob’s predicament, Calvin is the only who shows him any kindness.

Flash forward to the present, where we meet Calvin who, on the verge of his 20th high-school reunion, feels like his life has never lived up to its full potential. Voted “most likely to succeed,” he is now an accountant, married to his high-school sweetheart, and deeply dissatisfied. When Bob friends him on Facebook, out of the blue, he agrees to meet him in a bar, not expecting the muscled behemoth that Bob has become. And so the fun begins, since Bob is much more than just a workout freak, but some kind of super-agent. The bullied has become the protector, and Calvin, once the alpha, now finds himself following the former beta’s lead as gunfire and explosions erupt around them.

Does the world need more dumb comedies? Why not? This one’s not particularly memorable, scriptwise, but there are genuine laughs to be had, and that’s no small feat. Other folks drop by for a quick visit – Amy Ryan (Bridge of Spies), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Jason Bateman (This Is Where I Leave You) and Melissa McCarthy (Spy), among them – but this is all about Johnson and Hart, and how much fun they are having together, and how much fun we have watching them. True, it’s a comedy with its share of cartoonish violence (hence the PG-13 rating), but it’s still a welcome reprieve from the tragedies of our day. I won’t remember it next week, but I’m not unhappy to have seen it.

Swimming Pays Off: “Finding Dory” Is a Worthy Sequel, If Not As Perfect As Its Predecessor

Finding Dory

Finding Dory (Angus MacLane/Andrew Stanton, 2016)

Last year, Pixar gave us two new films, both original scripts: Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. The first was a sublime example of what that company does best, which is to combine drama, comedy, nostalgia and genuine sentiment into a heady mix of powerful emotion where we laugh and cry in equal measure. The second was an unholy mess, which just goes to show that not all coming-of-age stories are created equal, even if they both come from the same family. This year, Pixar comes to us with Finding Dory, the (long-awaited?) sequel to its 2003 hit Finding Nemo. It’s lovely and sweet, with the same primary cast of characters we grew to love last time, with laughter and tears for all. Still, unlike in Pixar’s best work – which includes, in addition to Inside Out and Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 and Up – here the sentimental parts of the story feel, upon occasion, forced, as if certain boxes need to be checked to guarantee this or that reaction. If, then, it is not as bracingly fresh as Inside Out, it is still far better than a film like The Good Dinosaur.

Last time, if you remember, the plot revolved around a frantic chase across the ocean to rescue a young clown fish named Nemo from an uncertain fate. This time, one of those rescuers, a blue tang fish named Dory, moves from the wings to center stage. We begin with a flashback to her childhood, when she already suffered from short-term memory loss (her signature issue, source of comedy and tragedy, both). We see her with her parents, who struggle to find ways to help her survive when she so constantly forgets just about everything. And then, the inevitable happens, and she loses not only her way, but her parents, and herself, and in a quick montage we watch as she swims from sea to shining sea, aging into the Dory we know from last time, with the voice of Ellen DeGeneres. And then she runs smack into Marlin (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year), Nemo’s father, looking for Nemo, and we are back to the start of the previous film.

Flash forward a year, and Nemo, Marlin and Dory all live peaceably on a reef together. Life is good, until a combination of events evoke certain memories in Dory’s jumbled cerebral cortex, and suddenly she remembers her parents, and insists on trying to find them. Inevitably, Marlin and Nemo (voiced, this time, by newcomer Hayden Rolence) insist on coming along, and before too long the misadventures begin. It’s a journey wherein Dory must reach deep inside to find the best part of herself and motivate others to do the same; in other words, a Pixar film. Beautifully animated (the technology just keeps on getting better), the film features wonderful vocal cameos from the likes of Sigourney Weaver (Avatar) – my favorite, by far – as well as Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), Ty Burrell (also Modern Family), Idris Elba (The Jungle Book), Diane Keaton (And So It Goes) and Eugene Levy (Schitt’s Creek), among others. If the big emotional moments feel a little too obvious to make me love the film, I still like it a lot, and the laughs are more than genuine. Whether you agree with me or not – like it more or like it less – it’s a charming movie that’s perfect for all ages.

In “The Conjuring 2,” the Power of Christ Doesn’t Quite Compel Us

Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 (James Wan, 2016)

Three years ago, Australian director James Wan (Saw) served up The Conjuring, a somewhat tasty – if also deeply silly – morsel of haunted horrordom, starring Patrick Wilson (Fargo, Season 2), Vera Farmiga (At Middleton) and Lili Taylor (The Cold Lands). On a reported budget of only $20 million, it went on to make over $300 million at the global box office. A year later, we got a prequel, of sorts, about the possessed doll at the center of that first film. Now, we have a proper sequel (money begets a franchise, including a sequel to the prequel, due out in 2017), starring Wilson and Farmiga, again, as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life ghost hunters whose case files serve as the basis for all of these movies. If you believe in the supernatural, then the “based-on-a-true-story” source matters, I guess. If, like me, you believe in no such thing, then all you’re looking for is a thrill-ride. The first film mostly delivered what was expected, though it was far from perfect; this time, it’s mostly the imperfections we notice, though there are some (unintentional?) laughs, as well.

Speaking of source texts, The Conjuring 2 begins with The Amityville Horror – or rather, with the actual house, in Amityville, NY, where the original events that inspired book and movie ostensibly took place. It is 1976, and Ed and Lorraine have been called to investigate that house’s haunting. While there, Lorraine sees, in a self-induced hypnotic trance, a demonic figure who will chase her and her husband for the rest of the movie. For even though the bulk of the story in The Conjuring 2 takes place in England, Wan and his screenwriters are here trying to set up more than just a single new case. The Warrens’ livelihood and very lives are at stake, and so we require this needlessly long prologue before the action can begin. Which is too bad, for though much of the film is risible, with obvious jump scares far too easy to predict, it would all be much more palatable at a shorter length. At 2 hours and 14 minutes, however, the movie long overstays its welcome.

Soon after Amityville, we begin to cut back and forth between the Warrens’ hardships at home – plagued by accusations of charlatanry and visions of evil spirits, both – and the beginnings of a new haunting across the Atlantic, in what looks like a working-class suburb of London. There, the Hodgson family (of five) – led by overwhelmed single mum Peggy (Frances O’Connor, Mr. Selfridge) – must contend not only with a nasty poltergeist, but with the demonic possession of child #2, Janet (an excellent Madison Wolfe, Home Sweet Hell). All looks bleak, until the local clergy becomes involved, and they reach out to the Warrens. Help is on its way.

Director Wan more than knows his way around cameras and atmospheric lighting, and has a fine way with his actors. Wilson and Farmiga are always watchable, and O’Connor more than holds her own. What makes the film far less than its imperfect predecessor is the obviousness of the frights, and the over-the-top obsessive use of Christian iconography. True, most films about possession involve crucifixes and exorcisms – including, but not limited to, William Friedkin’s brilliant 1973 The Exorcist – yet in The Conjuring 2 these religious symbols feel needlessly excessive (a room full of upside down crosses presented as a horrible sight, as an example) and exclusionary. Are there really no other ways to fight off evil than through Christ? In 2016? How you feel about that, as well as how you feel about techniques derived from better movies, will determine how you feel about this movie.

Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking Podcast on the Films of Spring and Summer 2016

Rodricks June 3

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the films out in theaters in May and June of this year, with clips from the following six movies:

Here is the link to the show.

Enjoy!

Also, I never did do a blog post for our May 6 show, on which we celebrated George Clooney’s birthday. Here is that link.