The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that this follow-up to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman is a prequel that shows us where The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) came from and how the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) got her magic mirror and all the powers it afforded her. That is to say, those things are a part of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, but only for about the first 20 minutes, during which we pack in a quite a lot of pre-history. First we find out that Ravenna had a sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), whose magic powers only revealed themselves after a terrible tragedy in her life that turned her from a good person into a vengeful queen of an ice-covered realm.
If this is sounding a bit too Frozen-ish for your tastes, join the club. Freya and her army kidnap children from her lands and train them to be an unstoppable band of fighters. Among these troops are the would-be Huntsman and his best friend Sara (Jessica Chastain). Even though falling in love is forbidden among this army, they do just that and Freya punishes them severely, making him believe Sara is dead, while she believes he ran away from danger like a coward, betraying their promise to each other to never leave each other’s side. Somewhere right around here in make-believe history, the Snow White story happens, resulting in Ravenna getting killed. The strangest part of Winter’s War is that Snow White is very much alive and talked about but never seen (since Kristen Stewart opted out of this tale).
Also not returning to the fray was the original director Rupert Sanders. Instead the film is helmed by the original film’s visual effects supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who certainly has made a lovely looking film, likely to make up for an unnecessarily convoluted plot and shallowly drawn characters. But boy those costumes sure are pretty. I’m not saying any director could have substantially improved Winter’s War, but these conspicuous absences don’t exactly go unnoticed either. In truth, most of this movie is a proper sequel, with Ravenna finding a way to come back from the dead (with the help of the mirror) and even more dwarves returning to the fray, but I think only one from the other film, Nick Frost’s Nion, who has now been paired (quite effectively, I should add) with new dwarf Gryff (Rob Brydon).
It wouldn’t be right to single out any one performance in Winter’s War as better or worse than the rest. Everyone is on equal footing with one another as far as sheer blandness is concerned. Blunt and Theron spend most of the film simply whispering menacingly to one another in British accents. Chastain and Hemsworth get into a little heated slap and tickle before falling back in love with one another. Even the male dwarves get female counterparts to spar with. There are sword fights, special effects (most involving giant ice structures and a black, oily goop coming from Ravenna’s fingertips that get very stabby. There’s horse riding, traps, double crosses, punching, kicking, and did I mention the pretty costumes? I may have…
There’s nothing of any real substance to grab onto and carry us into this by-the-numbers story. Now before you say, “But it’s a silly sequel. Why should it have substance?” This may be true, but you have to have something to hold your interest and justify the film’s existence beyond a cash grab led by the guy that plays Thor. The more upsetting prospect for The Huntsman: Winter’s War is that you have a film with three female leads, and while, thank god, they aren’t fighting over a man, they aren’t really doing anything except fighting with each other. I don’t like talking about box office, but if this film doesn’t do well, I really hope people place the blame on poor writing and decidedly average direction, and not at the fact that this was a film with a larger-than-average female cast. That being said, the movie is a bore, with very little fun or anything else to recommend it.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
It seems genuinely odd to be writing about a Tom Hanks film in limited release, but such is A Hologram for the King, a bizarre and mildly life-affirming tale of struggling American businessman Alan Clay (Hanks) circa 2010, attempting to close a big deal in Saudi Arabia that will make the newly divorced dad enough money to pay for his daughter’s college. Just before leaving for the city of Jeddah, he had to pull his daughter out of school, and it’s clearly something he’s having a difficult time dealing with. His daughter is actually fine taking a year off, and doesn’t resent her father in the slightest, but that makes little difference to Alan.
In A Hologram for the King, Clay is an IT expert, attempting to give a presentation to the Saudi King about his company’s state-of-the-art holographic teleconferencing system. He has a support team with him in a tent with no wifi signal and spotty air conditioning, and they all enter into a seemingly random waiting game for the King to visit, a process that may take days, weeks or even months, which wouldn’t be nearly as bad if their location wasn’t in the middle of nowhere in the desert, the site of a future city that is already under construction, but is a long way from being finished.
Because Alan is having trouble adjusting to a new sleep schedule, Alan tends to oversleep and miss the shuttle that takes his team the hour to this city in progress, so he hires a driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), who also acts as translator and great tour guide, and the two become fast friends. The surreal nature of the changing face of Saudi Arabia makes A Hologram for the King an interesting and fairly painless watch. Some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world are being constructed, but there are still public executions once a week and women remain subjugated to a degree.
Based on a novel by Dave Eggers and adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas, Run Lola Run, Perfume), the film offers Hanks the chance to play one of his most Capraesque characters in years. He’s a man on a mission, not only for his company but for his life and family’s well being. He’s also a man falling in love, in this case, with a female Muslim doctor Zahra Hakem (Sarita Shoudhury), who is helping him deal with a growth on his back. She opens his eyes to an entirely different side of Saudi culture that brings to light some of the hypocrisy and rule bending that goes on away from prying eyes. The film actually works better as a romance than it does a piece of light social commentary, and I found myself rooting more for this couple to find a way to be together than for Alan to get his contract.
A Hologram for the King allows Hanks to be charming, easy to like, and to use some of his classic, fast-talking ways to be persuasive and talk his way into or out of anything. Like most films do, they play to the strengths of their lead actor to such a degree that you almost can’t imagine anyone else playing the role. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie, but at least the filmmakers are smart enough to know what they’ve been handed. I don’t use the word often, but Hologram is almost the embodiment of a pleasant experience at the movies. It doesn’t challenge your way of thinking too much, unless you have issues with Muslim characters being good people, in which case you are challenged in more ways than one. If you’re caught up and perhaps tired of your tentpole releases this weekend, this might make for a nice palate cleanser.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has literally made a followup to his acclaimed previous film, Blue Ruin, that is so punk rock that it’s actually set in the world of punk rock. Opting not to follow in the footsteps of many of his contemporaries and go from micro-budget films to some of the biggest franchises in existence, Saulnier went with yet another low-fi indie thriller—granted, with a bit more star power—Green Room.
Set primarily in a punk club in an isolated section of the Pacific Northwest, where white supremacists and other nefarious types can operate more or less without interference from the law, Green Room finds an unsuspecting fringe punk band called The Ain’t Rights on a lousy tour that has cost them more than it has made them. A fine collection of young actors make up the band, including bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole), and vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner), who all open the film hungover from the night before and exceedingly unhappy with the guy who has booked their tour. Saulnier gives us time to hang with the band before the actual plot kicks in, and that’s key to us caring about each of their fates at things get nastier. He provides a necessary glimpse at these burned-out faces, tired and weary and clearly unprepared for what they are about to encounter.
By the time they get to the club, which actually appears to have a full house of kids primed for their music, the band seems pumped to play the show until they spot a handful of skinheads in the crowd, prompting them to launch into the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” which does not go over well, but it’s an inspired moment nonetheless. Upon returning to the green room, they stumble into the aftermath of something fairly horrible, something that kicks off a series of utterly unpredictable and hyper-violent events that leaves no one untouched by the shocking amount of blood and meaty flesh wounds that follow.
With Blue Ruin and Green Room, Saulnier has expertly constructed two of the most substantial action/suspense films in years, throwing these people (Macon Blair in the former film, the band members in the latter) who are clearly not killers into situations where they must become just that in order to continue living. The villains of Green Room are the supremacists who work and run the club, led by the deceptively low-key Darcy (Patrick Stewart, owning your ass in this role), who is not only attempting to end this epic showdown but also trying to plan a way to stage a crime scene that throws the blame for these deaths off his people and onto the band. But the band members have other plans that don’t involve laying down and dying.
Once the war is on, the band members hole up in the green room and fend off assault after assault, with mixed results. The rhythm of the movie is perfect—one group makes a plan of attack, attempts to carry it, something goes wrong, and the body count increases, all the while Darcy adjusts and reworks his master plan of explaining away all this death to the authorities. Two of my favorite characters are ones that switch sides when they find out what instigated the crime that set off this battle royale in the first place. Imogen Poots plays the absolutely feral Amber, who becomes indispensable to the band members. Mark Webber is also on hand as white-power heavy Daniel, whose significance and story arc is a bit more difficult to explain, so I won’t even try, but he’s damn good in this. And Saulnier favorite Blair is back (almost unrecognizably so) as club employee Gabe, one of the film’s few level-headed players.
Green Room reminds me of quite a few films, but as he did with Blue Ruin, Saulnier does a bit of deconstruction with a formula that John Carpenter frequented in his early works, particularly Assault on Precinct 13. The filmmakers can’t resist going just a bit too far with the graphic violence, pushing the movie just over the line into exploitation, ensuring that the audience will go from tense to slightly queasy without much of a push. And that’s not a complaint. Saulnier knows exactly what he’s doing and is fully aware that if and when he does move into Hollywood productions, he may not get the chance to get this graphic for a time. Green Room is a grubby, messy, gritty little piece of perfection from one of the most skillful young directors working right now. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
To read my exclusive interview with Green Room writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
Writer-director John Carney has made several films over the years, but for some reason, it’s his three works about the process of creating music that have touched and stuck with people the longest, beginning with his groundbreaking film Once, which blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and was all the better for it. Three years ago, Carney struck a different kind of gold with the infectious and charming Begin Again, with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Hailee Steinfeld.
But there is something about Carney’s latest film, Sing Street, that cuts right into the heart and soul. Set in Dublin, during the 1980s, the film is about a 14-year-old boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who attempts to escape his strained family life by starting a band (called Sing Street, named after the actual street where their school is, Synge Street), with the hope of becoming good enough to move to London. He does this for the love of a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), but his journey through the various styles of ’80s music (thanks to a touching music education from an older brother played by Jack Reynor) is what sets this film apart. The boys in the band—all school mates—listen to Duran Duran, so they write a Duran-ish-sounding song; they listen to The Cure or Depeche Mode or even Hall & Oates, and they end up using elements of those artists in their original music.
As much as Sing Street excels as a trip down a very musical memory lane, the film doesn’t come across as nostalgic, especially when it comes to the time and place. The film opens with a scene involving Conor’s warring parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) letting the boy know that he has to go to a Christian Brothers school because they can’t afford his tuition any longer. The backdrop of the school’s brutality and questionable head priest makes the music more of an escape than simply a tool for future success or a way to win a girl’s heart.
Sing Street is also about the process: writing songs, conceiving and shooting videos, rehearsal, and constant music education to expand the band’s horizon. I’ve always been a firm believer that the creative process can be entertaining to witness on film, and Carney proves that as he has before. The band’s first song, “The Riddle of the Model,” is clunky and overly synthy, but there’s a spark of something really good in there. By the time you make it to their final number, “Drive It Like You Stole It,” they are as catchy as anything on the radio at the time, maybe more so.
There’s one sequence near the end of Sing Street that is a fantasy sequence/musical number that is meant to be Conor’s vision for the video for “Drive It,” but the elements and characters in the video make it clear that his ambitions with his music go far beyond being famous or well liked. It’s easy to forget how young he is, and he still holds out some hope that making it in a band will somehow fix all that is wrong in his life. He’ll get the girl, his parents will settle their differences, and those at the school who torture him will become his allies. Of course, this is a fiction, a daydream, but it adds a depth to Conor and the movie that makes it both uplifting and melancholy—something Carney seems to specialize in as well.
Leaving this film felt, to me, like Carney reached into my teenaged brain and hurled it up onto the screen. Sing Street is a joyous journey, a great love story, and a slap in the face at the establishment. But it’s also PG-13, so if you have musically inclined kids, you should absolutely take them to see this. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
I hope you all get a chance to see Too Late, the debut film from writer-director Dennis Hauk, not necessarily because it’s a great movie—although it is quite good and, even more, it’s quite memorable—but because if you do see it, then you’ll be in one of the few remaining theaters that still projects 35mm film. Hauk shot his movie in five, 22-minute takes (with credits, it’s 107 minutes long), which is the running time of a full magazine of Technicscope 35mm film. And while this may sound like a gimmick, the technique lends an immediacy to the five sequences that editing would likely have ruined or altered and made more ordinary, and Too Late is far from ordinary.
Meant to embrace the tropes of a ’70s private detective stories set around Hollywood, the film chapters are sequenced out of order to hide a few key reveals for just the right moments. But the overall plot involves a private dick named Sampson (John Hawkes) who gets a phone call from a stripper named Dorothy (Crystal Reed), whom he met years earlier and they formed a connection that involved a non-romantic, but still quite serious love. During his search for Dorothy, Sampson effectively runs through a series of encounters that force him to take a hard look at the often seedy and damaged world he’s called home for longer than is healthy.
Sampson’s search leads him to a gangster’s mansion occupied by the likes of Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey, as well as the deeply intoxicated and mostly naked wife of Forster’s character. Perhaps the biggest discovery for me was how strong an actor Dichen Lachman (familiar to many who like Joss Whedon-created TV series) is as Sampson’s ex-girlfriend Jill, a former stripper who now runs a drive-in movie theater. They have a lengthy exchange in the final act that is so good as both a way to wrap up the story we’ve seen so far and a great stroll down memory lane for these two old acquaintances.
We actually get to witness the way Sampson and Dorothy first met in one of the middle segments of Too Late, and it opens up his motivation for wanting to find her so desperately. But as the title implies, we know early on that his search will be in vain. Hawkes is fantastic here, playing an absolute mess of a man, who still has the wherewithal to pull it together enough to dive into his investigation, even though Dorothy was only in his life for one night. He brings a shady type of justice to the scenario and a clarity to this mysterious story that is vital to making Too Late work so well. With supporting performances from the likes of Natalie Zea, Joanna Cassidy, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Hauck’s first feature is both an impressive technical achievement and a moving and gripping narrative. I’m already curious what he’s got next up his sleeve. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
ELVIS & NIXON
According to title cards that bookend the very silly and surprisingly revealing Elvis & Nixon, the most requested photo in the National Archives is one of Elvis Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon. They also inform us that Nixon didn’t start recording the meetings in his office until shortly after this historic and mysterious exchange. I feel safe in assuming that the primary mission of writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes), as well as director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship), is to underscore and make us laugh at the absurdity of these two figures meeting in the Oval Office in December 1970. But there’s also a quite telling story here about the nature, power and influence of celebrity.
In truth, Elvis & Nixon isn’t really about the meeting at all. In a film that clocks in at just under 90 minutes, the two central figures don’t even meet until about an hour into the film. What this work is really about is the swirling wheelings and dealings of people in both men’s lives who somehow managed to make this sit down happen at all. Elvis (Michael Shannon) sought out an old friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who had left Presley’s organization to work in Hollywood and was on the brink of getting engaged to his girlfriend. But somehow he gets pulled back in to his friend’s mission to meet with Nixon (Kevin Spacey) for the express purpose of receiving some sort of law enforcement badge to help the president crack down on un-American activities in the hippie and rock community. If this self-appointed mission sounds obtuse, then you’re starting to get a sense of Elvis’s vague idea of how exactly he was going to help on the front lines of fighting crime, and it becomes clear after a short time that all he really wants is a federal badge of some type to add to his collection of regional sheriff badges from across the nation.
Schilling and Presley actually make it to the White House gate with a letter for Nixon requesting the meet, and the two take up residence in a Washington, D.C., hotel to await a response. The letter makes its way to Nixon’s calendar keepers, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks, in one of his funniest performances) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who somehow get to present the idea to Nixon, who immediately rejects it until they enlist the help of one of Nixon’s daughters, who turns out to be a big Elvis fan and wants an autograph. Eventually, the meet is set during Nixon’s usually designated nap time.
Of course, the running gag of Elvis & Nixon is twofold. In terms of the film’s story, it’s clear that Presley is beloved in a way that Nixon simply never was or could be. Everywhere that he shows up, women swoon and throw themselves at him in a way that barely phases him, while men simply take in the spectacle of his pseudo-superhero jumpsuits and custom-made sunglasses. Even high-ranking members of the FBI (represented here by the great Tracy Letts) bend over backwards to accommodate Elvis’s ridiculous requests. But the other gag is purely visual. Michael Shannon looks absolutely nothing like Elvis Presley; he looks like Michael Shannon in a Halloween costume, and that’s partly the point. If enough people in the film look at Shannon in awe, barely able to get the words out without stammering, then we start to believe the illusion.
But it’s the brief but wonderful meeting of these two delusional minds that sends the film into the stratosphere. The history, the gravitas, the importance of being in the Oval Office—they mean nothing to Elvis. He’s there on a mission that even he hasn’t thought out completely, but he’s not leaving without a badge and a crime-fighting assignment from the highest levels of government. Nixon is both amused and charmed by Presley, and before long, he starts to see (or imagines he sees) the similarities in their histories—coming up from nothing to become known around the world. The president also has a mission: get a photo with Elvis and get that autograph for his daughter.
Shannon and Spacey move around each other as only two trained theater actors do; it’s a dance, it’s about power, it’s about testing protocol and how far one can bend the expected social graces of this scenario. Even if all the behind-the-curtain material is total fiction, it remains endlessly fascinating to watch these two titans of acting simply do their thing, strut and stumble and inhabit these characters. Elvis & Nixon is also a cautionary tale about both men, the last bit of glimmering hope before it all went to hell. The Watergate break-in was a year and a half later; and Elvis was already existing in a fantasy world that eventually led him to gluttony, loneliness and drugs. This story is set in a time when such frivolity was still possible for both men. There’s a mist of melancholy that hovers over this whole film, and that only makes it more poignant while also being quite goofy. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
THE MEASURE OF A MAN (La Loi du Marché)
With an immediacy and desperation that reminded me of Two Days, One Night, the latest from director Stéphane Brizé, (A Few Hours of Spring; Mademoiselle Chambon), The Measure of a Man, stars the superior Vincent Lindon (who won a Best Acting prize at Cannes last year) as Thierry Taugourdeau, a recently out-of-work middle-aged man looking for employment, eventually finding a dehumanizing job as a security guard at a big box store where he must continuously monitor for both shoplifters and employees trying to get a little something extra out of the store.
With a wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and mentally challenged son (Matthieu Schaller) at home, Thierry is forced to bear witness to some truly hopeless behavior. Most of those who are stealing from the store are doing so because they are in a position so similar to what Thierry was going through before he was hired that he feels terrible about each sad interrogation. The film moves from one demoralizing scene to another, from Thierry seeking employment, worried that his unemployment benefits are nearly expired, to going to interviews and interview training that make him feel foolish, to being forced to sell his beloved vacation RV near the beach and having to haggle over the price with someone trying to take advantage of his desperate status.
The Measure of a Man is about the slow chipping away of dignity and self-respect as we get older and more fearful that our means of making a living are behind us. Lindon’s quiet, understated performance does a tremendous job letting us see just how angry and fearful someone in that position can be. By the end of the film, we know Thierry is going to do something to save his soul and as an act of protest, but we’re not quite sure what and the final act of the film is underlined with tension and anxiety. The film moves from scene to scene with no clear measure of how much time has passed between them, which rarely matters. And by creating this series of vignettes, director Brizé pieces together a period in a man’s life during which he hits his lowest point and struggles to rise out of it. It’s a work that generates a great deal of power and emotion from simplicity, and it features one of the more harrowing performances you’ll likely see this year. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.