Category Archives: 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise was never as successful as its box office results would imply. The first film was a passable start but the second was mostly a retread with a blundering plot. Both film’s suffered from director J. J. Abrams’s (Lost) biggest flaws: overreliance on nostalgia and initially appealing but ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. After Star Trek Into Darkness recycled the plot of its predecessor, it had seemed that the writers were out of ideas, but the series returned this year with Star Trek Beyond. The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission to an uncharted nebula only to soon be destroyed a swarm of spacecraft controlled by an alien named Krall (Idris Elba; Prometheus) forcing them to abandon ship to the nearby planet. Split up, the crew has to find each other and stop Krall before he finds an ancient device on board that would allow him to use his swarm to attack bases and planets.

The films are increasingly feeling like extended $150 million dollar television episodes. That has both benefits and downsides. It frees the movies to be relatively independent of each other but has also leads to a significant amount of repetition. The sources of conflict are the same: Kirk doesn’t think he lives up to his father, Spock doesn’t know how to manage his duty to his people, and Uhura and Spock’s relationship is still “complicated” even though they break up at the start of the film. The plot is overly familiar and the relationships don’t show growth from the previous entries. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that the producers, and possibly the fans, value familiarity above all else.

Pegg's dialogue is barely intelligible.
Pegg’s dialogue is barely intelligible.

The script tries to bring an even lighter tone to the series. Co-written by Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the screenplay incorporates jokes throughout the film. However, these attempts at humor are almost always the same jokes made in the previous films (Spock doesn’t understand emotions, etc.). Repeating the same punchlines means few of the setups actually produce any laughs. They aren’t helped by the acting either. Chris Pine as Kirk (Hell or High Water) continues his typical stiff performance, vainly attempting to show charisma and Bones (Karl Urban; Dredd) delivers all his lines as if starring in an early 1930s talkie, overacted with shtick to spare. Even the minor roles do not hold up with several actors using irritating speech choices. Anton Yelchin’s (Green Room) Russian accent as Chekov appears to have been based off a comedian’s standup routine and Pegg as Scotty sounds like he is auditioning for the part of Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. The weak script combined with worse acting thwart the desired humor.

With a different director at the helm, the film’s action has a new look. Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) has handled large scale action many times before and his experience shows off. Set pieces are more clearly composed and more playful than ever before. In particular, the film’s climax relies on a plot device that will annoy some, but for the rest leads to an uproarious and gleeful display of demolition. Even though the majority of the effects appear to be computer generated, Lin is able to keep them exciting with his quick pacing. Thanks to Lin’s efforts, Star Trek Beyond’s spirited action scenes outweigh the poor writing and wooden performances, producing an adequate  entry in this middling franchise.

3/5 stars.

The Hollars (2016)

If film festivals can be epitomized, then The Hollars is Sundance in a nutshell. John Krasinski (The Office) directs and stars as John Hollar, a New York City office worker making a graphic novel in his spare time. He lives with his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick; Pitch Perfect) until he finds out his mother Sally (Margo Martindale; Million Dollar Baby) has a brain tumor and needs surgery, requiring him to go back home for the first time in years. He returns to find that many things have changed and that his mother’s health isn’t the only problem his family faces.

Despite a talented cast, the performances are unrefined. Each actor is committed to their part and goes through the required motions, but the acting lacks precision. The cast needed more takes or a more demanding director to push them beyond their initial efforts. Particularly bad is the otherwise talented Sharlto Copley (District 9) as the divorced older brother who now lives with his parents. His acting is overly eccentric and his accent is distracting. Many foreign actors are able to imitate an American accent without notice, but Copley’s South African intonations are jarring when compared to his supposed family. The exception to this is the female cast. Martindale is captivating as the stern but caring matriarch. Her tough love is often hilarious and its clear why she is at the center of the family. Kendrick shines as well in her limited role. She manages to gently push John to move forward with his life without falling into the trap of becoming the whiny girlfriend character. Martindale’s and Kendrick’s acting is welcome, but it only puts their co-star’s shortcomings in further relief.

Martindale's sharp wit is incredibly endearing.
Martindale’s sharp wit is incredibly endearing.

The film checks off a list of tropes from festival darlings of the past 15 years. Almost every story beat or production choice can be guessed beforehand. The main character is stuck in a rut living in a big city, they feel like a stranger in their own hometown, and every character has been dusted in a healthy helping of quirk. Even the soundtrack follows the Sundance manual by only featuring tracks by indie folk singers. Movies like Garden State have already employed many of these features and Krasinski doesn’t attempt to grow beyond them.

There is an old saying that “you can’t go home again”, meaning that your memories of a place or time are static and will never match up to your new experiences if you try to revisit them. John’s trip home shows him how much his family’s situation has changed. The people he is close to have moved on with their lives, often to worse outcomes, while he was living in a vacuum, delaying change and avoiding risk. He hasn’t taken the next steps with his graphic novel or advanced his relationship with his longtime girlfriend because of his fear of failure. In many ways, this concept applies to the filmmakers themselves. Instead of attempting something original, they returned to a formula they knew. By strictly treading on common ground, The Hollars is an agreeable but forgettable comedic drama, barely distinguishable from its peers.

2/5 stars.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Finally rounding out the year’s lineup of video game adaptations is Assassin’s Creed. The popular video game franchise launched in 2007 and sparked eight mainline sequels and several more spinoffs selling over 90 million copies across the games. Unlike many adaptations, the premise, while far-fetched, provides an intriguing setup for a blend of sci-fi and historical action. After he is executed by lethal injection, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender; Shame) wakes up in a strange research facility with Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard; Midnight in Paris), a scientist leading the Animus project. The Animus, a giant mechanical arm that connects to the spinal cord of the user, taps into data stored in DNA to relive the memories of ancestors. Sophia and her father want to use Callum to find the Apple of Eden, a mysterious object that can control humanity, through his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who is the last person they know to have had it.

The film spends far too much time on exposition. This is a common mistake in storytelling in interactive entertainment but ironically it was never an issue in the early Assassin’s Creed games. The games would have the player in the historical setting for at least 80% or more of the time, but the screenplay calls for the majority of the film to be in the present so they can explain the adversarial history of the Assassins and the Templars. The games threw you into the action and let the player, along with the main character, discover the greater story as they played, but the screenwriters here instead opted to stuff in as much setup as possible for the sequels that were clearly in mind at the film’s conception. The movie opens with an explanatory text crawl that is groan-worthy and further exposition is always just around the corner. Unfortunately, all this additional explanation only weakens the story. Each further detail creates plot holes rather than filling them. If the writers had been willing to leave more unanswered, the backstory would have been intriguing rather than perplexing or, in many cases, silly.

The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.
The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.

Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) is able to fluidly adapt the series’s action. Known for incorporating an acrobatic style based on using counter attacks, the fighting could have easily felt distant without the interactive element. This happened in 2010 with Ubisoft’s other major film production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the signature parkour didn’t translate to the big screen. Combat is clearly sped up, but the increased speed isn’t overly disorienting. Kurzel also makes the unexpected decision to transition back and forth between Aguilar fighting in the past and Callum fighting through the same experiences in the present. Doing so adds an extra dimension to the action (literally) as we see how Callum is affected by his time in the Animus.

This is the second time this year we’ve had a talented indie director take on a large video game movie and the result is again a moderate success. Kurzel was able to maintain some of the harsh realism found in his previous work as he moved to this larger project. The historical scenes don’t try to emulate the lighthearted tone of Marvel films or the self-seriousness of the DC extended universe. The world feels dirty and unforgiving. He also has the benefit of an incredibly talented and, more importantly, committed cast. Even minor roles have their moments with actors like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) stopping by to add gravitas to the screenplay. Kurzel isn’t able to escape the forced exposition typical of the genre, but the unique premise combined with his gritty staging of action scenes make the film stand out in the crowded blockbuster space.

3/5 stars.

La La Land (2016)

The musical genre has been in decline for decades. There have been a few exceptions like Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, but the majority of music-heavy films have shifted towards movies like Pitch Perfect that feature music, but not as a means of narrative progression. Following up his successful Whiplash, Damien Chazelle seeks to curb this trend with La La Land, a modern day musical. Based partly on his time as a struggling artist, the film stars Emma Stone (The Help) as Mia, a part-time barista trying to become an actress, and Ryan Gosling (Drive) as Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The two have their own meet cute on a crowded LA highway and quickly enter a relationship. The film follows them as they pursue their passions with, or without, each other’s support.

Where Chazelle succeeds is balancing the tone of the regular and musical parts of the film. The musical numbers, while larger than life, seem slightly more grounded than a classic musical. Stone and Gosling are not professional dancers and their well-practiced but noticeably imperfect steps add a touch of realism. To contrast this, the non-musical scenes are heightened to a state of near-fantasy. The film blends retro stylings in the form of outfits and props with the modern setting and uses saturated cinematography (purple is a common color of the night sky here) to accentuate a dreamlike quality. Combining this with the long takes used in the songs, the film is able to move back and forth between its show tunes and dialog smoothly without creating a jarring disconnect. Both the music and the characters seem like they can exist in the same world.

The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.
The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.

There are many more technical marvels. The dance numbers can be epic in scale with dozens of performers each and the kinetic camera movements add a frenetic energy. Lighting will change at a moment’s notice, pushing a character from one of many to the sole focus of the viewer. Instead of just dancing in the streets, Chazelle adds welcome variety by shooting his characters ascending into the sky or in silhouette. His command of the screen and ingenuity during these sections is laudable and the inventive visuals are often mesmerizing.

The obvious influences here are the works of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Chazelle is going for the same memorable routines that burst out of any emotional peak. The ending sequence in particular is reminiscent of the finale of An American in Paris. Of course, expecting Stone and Gosling to rival the grace and charisma of Astaire and Kelly is unreasonable, but the unfortunate reality is that none of the numbers in La La Land have the staying power of its predecessors. Despite the panache on display, the biggest tunes are forgotten as quickly as they arrived. The only standout song is an aching ballad sung by Stone during an audition. The rest of the tracks are loud, but without feeling. The best comparison of the musical scenes isn’t their counterparts in a Vincente Minelli movie, but rather the explosions in a modern action flick. They are flashy, look expensive, and take a tremendous amount of coordination to pull off, but like in a Michael Bay film, they lack impact. La La Land is a well-intentioned throwback that showcases expertly staged but emotionally hollow musical numbers, bound to quickly fade from memory.

3/5 stars.

Your Name (2016)

What if you woke up in someone else’s body? And what if, like a dream, you later woke up back in your own? Anime director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) tells the story of Taki, a boy in Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a girl in small-town Japan, who suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies seemingly at random. Shinkai’s reputation as the next Hayao Miyazaki is becoming increasingly accurate as Your Name was a mega-hit in Japan and became the second highest grossing domestic production ever. As usual his film features gorgeous renderings of both city and country life with plenty of endearing humor. Taki and Mitsuha have never met so the awkwardness of their sudden displacement brings a plethora of situational comedy. The leads act out of character to the confusion of their family and friends and even more culturally specific jokes, like the misuse of gender-specific pronouns, still carry to an English-speaking crowd making the film much more approachable to a wider audience than most anime.

Your Name is able to take on its subject matter from a unique perspective. Body-swap narratives have been done many times over in movies like Freaky Friday, but Shinkai doesn’t focus on his characters learning empathy. He is more interested in the bond that forms between Taki and Mitsuha. Because their swaps are temporary and unpredictable, they leave notes to each other describing the day’s events and begin to take risks that make small improvements to each other’s lives. Mitsuha flirts with Taki’s boss on his behalf and Taki connects Mitsuha to other students at school. In the course of these small gestures, a romance begins to form. Taki and Mitsuha want to meet each other but aren’t in the same part of Japan and are unable to reach each other. Their longing becomes the emotional core of the film.

Taki and Mitsuha try (unsuccessfully) to create ground rules for how to live their lives.
Taki and Mitsuha try (unsuccessfully) to create ground rules for how to live their lives.

The trouble is that their romance stretches belief. While their attempts to better each other’s lives are genuinely altruistic, the leap to romantic is difficult to make. Particularly in the case of Taki who is already pursuing a relationship with someone else, the love doesn’t make sense. What makes them desire more than an understanding of the supernatural events that are happening to them? Their interactions don’t paint them as particularly lovelorn individuals, just regular teenagers. Maybe because of the director’s previous work we are expected to naturally assume a romance will develop, but the film itself doesn’t provide enough evidence to support it.

Shinkai uses Taki and Mitsuha’s relationship to revisit his favorite themes. Like in 5 Centimeters Per Second, he explores the idea of connecting with a first love. He draws heavy influence from authors like Haruki Murakami and continues the motif of estranged characters walking past each other only to realize they are somehow connected. In Shinkai’s world, love is ethereal. Feelings, however old, never truly die and the connections formed between two people don’t require face-to-face interaction. It is their love that transcends their physical forms, not their role reversal. It’s a shame that this original take on a body-swap story hinges on an undeveloped romance. Without a plausible relationship supporting it, Your Name is unable to fully reach its lofty goals.

3/5 stars.

The Accountant (2016)

With a strange premise and what has to be the least interesting title in recent memory, The Accountant starts out walking uphill. It features Ben Affleck (Argo) as Christian Wolff, an autistic man who works as a CPA for dangerous organizations, often killing as needed. He is hired to sort through the records of a biotech company after a bright, young staff member (Anna Kendrick; Pitch Perfect) finds something that doesn’t add up. What follows is the aftermath of the conspiracy he discovers that puts him and Kendrick’s character on the run from an unknown party looking to end their interference.

The film deserves significant praise for its portrayal of autism. Most films do not feature characters with disabilities that are able to live independently. Even Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award winning role in Rain Man portrays the character as a tragic figure, brilliant but ultimately useless. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) is able to successfully balance the effects of the disease. He doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of children with autism and the stress it puts on their families. In flashbacks of his childhood, Wolff’s parents are at a loss when trying to raise him as he doesn’t interact with other children and frequently has uncontrolled outbursts to the point that his mother leaves the family. Yet, the film shows how he is able to manage his difficulties. Through discipline and both medical and behavioral treatment, Wolff is able to become a successful adult, choosing a profession that utilizes his extreme attention to detail. His autism is still clearly present, but he is cognizant of his triggers and mitigates them. Affleck conveys his character’s situation with commendable nuance.

Both Kendrick and Affleck are convincing as accountants.
Both Kendrick and Affleck are convincing in their professions.

The tonal mix may be jarring, even excessive to some. The Accountant wants to be both a procedural thriller as well as an action movie. Like its lead, the film splits its time between the close examination of financial records and hitmen assassinating loose ends. To his credit, Affleck is believable in both situations, but the premise alone strains the film’s credibility. There is a backstory to support Wolff’s dual life, but it’s difficult to merge the disparate connotations of accountants and assassins. Fortunately, O’Connor is equally adept in staging someone poring over t-accounts and infiltrating a heavily guarded home. The action scenes are surprisingly tense. Affleck’s fighting style reveals the methodical, emotionless nature of his character and Kendrick’s resistance shows her resourcefulness even in the face of danger. They may seem far-fetched but the set pieces are always entertaining.

With Affleck as the lead, it’s hard to avoid the obvious comparison. Wolff could be viewed as the autistic Batman, doing taxes by day and fighting criminals by night. Yet there is a practicality to Wolff’s lifestyle that sets him apart. He isn’t trying to be a hero or be a villain. He is only taking advantage of his particular combination of skillsets. He has an innocence that makes him more sympathetic. His actions aren’t right or wrong, just necessary for him to complete his assigned task. The unique character backstory and effective action make The Accountant a refreshing spin on the typical hitman narrative.

4/5 stars.

Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (2016)

After detailing the production of the hit album Bad, Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) delves into Michael Jackson’s youth as he moved from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 to his solo work. Lee is clearly a fan and was a close friend of Jackson’s. He and his team have collected previously unseen concert and recording footage and interviewed several music industry professionals and celebrities to explore this section of Jackson’s life.

Michael Jackson’s music and performances are timeless. Whether as a beaming child or a suave young adult, Jackson always displays a vivacious charisma. His lanky body is a vessel for the rhythm of the music and he steals the show any time he is on screen dancing. Lee takes care to expose the intense practice that went into making his performances seem so effortless. As an interviewee states, black performers are often credited as having innate gifts rather than talent from hard work. Lee is clearly interested in dispelling any similar thoughts. Even at a young age, Jackson is shown to have a fierce desire to excel, spending time with established songwriters to learn their craft and practicing dance moves without end. His commitment and grit allowed him to improve from a child prodigy to one of the greatest performers of all time.

Jackson's music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.
Jackson’s music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.

The energy of the concert footage overshadows the interviews. While these sections are necessary to provide insight into the background behind the productions, they pale in comparison to the actual music. This is further exacerbated by Lee’s choice of interviewees. There are key players like the head of Motown Records and other important collaborators who knew Jackson and were a part of his creative process, but many seem unnecessary. Is Kobe Bryant, a basketball player, really needed? This applies to almost all the commentators that are contemporary. Jackson’s influence is obvious to anyone, especially to the audience who would watch a documentary about him, so having modern singers like The Weeknd praise his impact on music is redundant at best and irritating at worst. It seems as if Lee pulled in his celebrity network to offer their perspectives, but they only pad the runtime without adding depth to the conversation.

With so much other media available, the question of necessity has to be raised. Did we need another Michael Jackson documentary? Is it telling us anything new? The answer to both questions is not really. The film is of two minds. It is trying to exhibit unseen footage of Jackson’s concerts for hardcore fans as well as understand the man himself. Lee’s goal may have been to understand how Jackson progressed his career during this time period, but he loses sight of this in favor of heaping praise on his subject. Even the interviewees that would have the deepest knowledge of how the music was made focus on complimenting Jackson above all else. Their constant kudos is deserved but not value-added. The film proves that the best Michael Jackson film might just be selected recordings of his shows. Because of its divided scope, Lee’s documentary dampens the electrifying performances with earned, but superfluous adulation.

3/5 stars.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

“A lot of people have it worse than us” says a wealthy art patron. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams; Man of Steel), lives an extravagant but vacuous life as an art gallery owner. She lives in a mansion and has an attractive husband but is struggling with personal and marital issues. Her husband is likely unfaithful and she is so preoccupied that she is unable to sleep. Unexpectedly, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal; Nightcrawler) who she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. They married young, but soon divorced after Edward’s failed writing career was unable to provide the pragmatic stability Susan desired. Surprisingly, the delivery is a manuscript of Edward’s debut novel, dedicated to her and titled after his nickname for her. The book has some apparent parallels to their relationship and is about a man named Tony Hastings, also played by Gyllenhaal, who is confronted by potentially dangerous men while on a road trip with his wife and teenage daughter. The film interweaves the story of the novel with Susan’s present life.

Jake Gyllenhaal continues his streak of transformative performances. In flashbacks to their early relationship, he appears gentle and romantic with full cheeks and a warm smile. In the novel however, he becomes deranged with sunken eyes and a gaunt appearance close to his character in Nightcrawler. In each role he fully inhabits the character while maintaining the belief that they are really the same person, exemplifying how deeply his relationship with Susan has changed him.

Director Tom Ford made a name for himself as the lead designer for Gucci and his high-end taste is clear in the outfits and sets. Everything down a shirt’s threading or a the positioning of a lock of hair is chosen for its aesthetic value. Susan’s entire life looks like it has been ripped out of a fashion magazine. Initially, this has a distancing effect because the characters look too perfect or at least too fashion obsessed. There is one scene in particular over the opening credits that is incredibly indulgent and unnecessary “avant-garde art” that starts the film off on the wrong foot. Fortunately, the majority of the film shows the events of Edward’s novel which is set in the much more down-to-earth, but still exquisitely designed, rural Texas. This setting provides a much need contrast to Susan’s almost sterile high art milieu.

Susan leads a pristine but empty life.
Susan leads a pristine but empty life.

The framed narrative balances the two stories. Susan’s perspective is that of upper-class existentialism. She is wealthy and successful, but is unsure of the decisions she has made in the past and the direction her life is headed in. Her struggles can be difficult to relate to and seem small compared to what most regular people face everyday. On the other hand, Tony’s story is immediate. The moment the rednecks force them to pull over, the fear sets in. Echoing films like Deliverance, the unknown threat of what these lower-class men could do makes their every move precarious. Tony is faced with an impending danger that pulls Susan out of her bubble. She begins to see the deeper emotional fears and damages that her ex-husband faced after their relationship dissolved.

Ford has said in interviews that his films are truer reflections of himself than his work as a fashion designer. If that is the case, then his interests lie in the grieving process. Just as Colin Firth’s character in A Single Man was coping with the loss of his significant other, Edward uses his novel as catharsis to get over his relationship with Susan. It is his own way of cleaning and dressing the wounds left by her departure. To Ford, the dissolution of a romance is as painful as the death of a loved one. Nocturnal Animals is his examination of how both sides of a partnership endure that loss.

4/5 stars.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is a tale of terse men trying to cope with emotion. Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), a Boston native, plays Lee Chandler, a man whose older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler; The Wolf of Wall Street) suddenly passes away from a heart condition, leaving him as the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges; Moonrise Kingdom). Lee is close to his nephew, but because of a past tragedy of his own feels unable to move to back to Manchester.

Despite its somber premise, there is a surprising amount of humor. Lee, Joe, and Patrick are full of foul-mouthed wisecracks about even morbid topics. The Boston accent is also used buoy the writing with words like “shahks” (sharks) providing chuckles on their own. The humor serves as relief from the tragedy the characters face. It pops up most when they get into arguments about funeral arrangements and Patrick’s living situation. Rather than rely solely on loud conflicts or tearful breakdowns, director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) uses jokes to point out which topics are the most sensitive. They don’t know how to deal with the emotions overtly, so they use quips to address the issues indirectly. The humor provides endearing levity in the midst of their grief.

The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.
The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.

Lonergan directs his actors to understated performances. Stoicism is the main trait of the characters here, especially the men. Lee in particular never appears remotely eloquent. He isn’t comfortable with expressing himself so he chooses not to. Instead he spouts a few reluctant words at a time. Affleck continues the labored drawl he has used in films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Even as his ex-wife tearfully opens up to him about their difficult past, he isn’t able to respond. He doesn’t hold eye contact and quickly leaves the scene. He epitomizes the core of the film: how men unaccustomed to emotion cope when overwhelmed by it.

The sense of family is palpable. The film is intercut with scenes from Patrick’s childhood with his dad and Lee and memories of Lee’s happy marriage to show how strong their bonds are. Even as things fall apart in the present, the love between them, while unspoken, is clear. This makes their predicament more complicated. In his will, Joe arranged, without Lee’s knowledge, for Lee to become his son’s guardian and move in to take care of him. Lee loves Patrick and wants to be there for him, but cannot cope with the remnants of his past that he is reminded of in Manchester. To make matters worse, Patrick isn’t open to moving in with Lee because his friends and school are already set in place. Together they struggle to find the best solution for both of them. Even as their desires are in direct conflict, their love for each other always shows through the arguments.

Manchester by the Sea slowly cements itself as a film about the small details of shared tragedy. Eschewing common melodramatic tropes, Lonergan provides a brief glimpse into the lives of regular people attempting, and often failing, to cope. The cold New England setting provides the perfect tonal backdrop to the film. The landscape is cold, plain, and unglamorous and the director portrays the characters in the same way. These are matter-of-fact people dealing with ineffable misfortune and the film embeds itself within the minutiae of their sorrow.

4/5 stars.

Elle (2016)

Some things work in theory, but not in practice. Elle is that type of movie. Isabelle Huppert (Amour) plays Michèle LeBlanc, a woman who is raped by a masked stranger at her home. Michèle lives by herself, runs her own video game developer, and supports her less-than-capable son and mother. She is emblematic of a strong, independent woman. So strong, that after the rape, she doesn’t change anything. She doesn’t call the police and goes about her life like normal. It isn’t until a few days later that she reveals to close friends what happened. Due to a childhood trauma, she doesn’t trust the police and decides to buy pepper spray, change the locks of her house, and identify her assailant herself, believing him to be someone she knows.

Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop) restrains himself from being being too explicit with the actual rape scene but cannot stop himself from being pulled into more twisted ideas. After Michèle discovers the culprit, her relationship with him enters unexpected territory. There is the implication that whether it was unwanted is not as clear as we initially believed. Anytime a filmmaker decides to explore consent, he or she opens up a can of worms. The topic is both intricate and delicate. Films like Straw Dogs have used situations of possibly changing consent successfully before, but their intentions were different. Verhoeven is trying to present an ideal of a strong woman, but this wrinkle in her character undermines her fortitude. It conflicts with her previously established traits and makes later story elements feel abrupt and unearned.

Michèle is fully in control of her life.
Michèle is fully in control of her life and refuses to relinquish that.

That being said, there are few actresses more capable of playing this part than Isabelle Huppert. Having worked with tough directors like Michael Haneke that deal with difficult subject matter, she is perfectly equipped to tackle the challenging role. Huppert, now 63, is absolutely convincing in her determination. She is the type of woman who runs her business, runs her family, and is not about to let anyone get in the way of that. Her performance is the only aspect making the character believable. It is also exciting to see the type of work she does. Rarely, if ever, has an older woman been portrayed leading an industry dominated by young men. She is confronted by employees who don’t believe she is qualified to be in her line of work, but quickly shuts them down with her knowledge and conviction. The issue, that is no way to be blamed on Huppert, is the character’s response to her assault.

There is a kind of faux-feminism on display here. Verhoeven presents Michèle’s handling of her attack as an ideal to be strived towards. Of course, a person capable of immediately moving on after such a violent experience would be an incredibly resilient individual, but the absence of any sort of emotional fallout here is troublesome. By ignoring these after effects, Verhoeven implicitly denies the long-lasting trauma rape survivors face. He asserts that it is possible, or even best, to simply move on and get back at the attacker. This isn’t necessarily surprising given that he is the same man who directed films like Showgirls and Basic Instinct, but it is still unacceptable. In fact his presentation can be viewed as the stereotypical, and emotionally safe, male response. Don’t feel things! Just get revenge!

It could, incorrectly, be argued that Verhoeven is aiming for more genre fare. Elle might be interpreted as a modern, arthouse take on films like I Spit on Your Grave, but it’s clear that the director has a much loftier impression of his own work. He is attempting to create a role model of how to deal with this type of attack, but isn’t willing to fully explore its aftermath. Verhoeven chooses to neglect the complex emotional damage of sexual assault in favor of a simplistic and often perverted revenge story.

2/5 stars.