The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The pieces are all there, but they never really snap into place in “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.”

The feature-film version of the long-running animated TV series “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu” only superficially resembles its source material, and it pales in comparison to its cinematic predecessors. Maybe such diminishing returns were inevitable. It would be impossible to recreate the groundbreaking, lightning-in-a-bottle innovation of 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” We saw that earlier this year with the release of “The Lego Batman Movie,” which was consistently zippy and amusing but, inevitably, not quite as novel.

Now we have “The LEGO Ninjago Movie,” about a group of teenagers who are secretly ninjas, each with a special elemental power. Their challenge is to take on the evil Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), who also happens to be the father of the team’s Green Ninja, Lloyd (Dave Franco). But while the film is credited to three directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan) and a small army of writers, it results in only a few clever ideas that are chuckle-worthy, at best.

Its strongest bit is the introduction of a live-action cat within this animated setting—dubbed Meowthra in an homage to classic, Japanese movie monsters—who terrorizes Ninjago City when she’s accidentally summoned with a red laser pointer. But the enjoyment of the absurd sight of a cat knocking over Lego buildings lasts about as long as your average viral video—and then you’re stuck realizing how little there is to the script.

Part of the problem is that “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” is primarily about Lloyd struggling with his daddy issues and Garmadon trying to figure out whether and how to be a father to Lloyd, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy’s infancy. And aside from Lloyd, the other ninjas are essentially interchangeable, which is a huge departure from the television show. (I have a son who’s almost eight. We watch a lot of “Ninjago” in this house. Ask me anything.) The supporting players’ names and nature-related abilities are all the same—water, lightning, fire, etc.—but they have no discerning personalities beyond that. They are background noise. They are filler.

What’s so bizarre about that is that the longtime voice performers from the TV series—who’ve been playing these characters for seven seasons now—have all been replaced with better-known actors and comedians, who then get surprisingly little to do. Nothing against them—they’re all great and they’re solid voice talent, people you’re happy to see whether they appear in TV or film—but they’re not given enough material to justify overhauling the entire cast. The shift seems like a cynical ploy to make the movie more marketable.

For the record, they are Kumail Nanjiani (Jay), Fred Armisen (Cole), Michael Pena (Kai), Abbi Jacobson (Nya) and Zach Woods (Zane). Jackie Chan plays their wise leader, Master Wu, and Olivia Munn has a small supporting role as Lloyd’s mom, Koko.

“LEGO Ninjago” also suffers from its live-action bookend narrative structure, featuring Chan as a store owner who tells the legend of Ninjago to a wide-eyed kid. All that does is explain the presence of the cat and it gets the film’s pacing off to a sluggish start from which it never fully recovers.

What it could have used more of was world-building, literally and figuratively. What makes this place different from every other? What makes it better than the world of “The Lego Movie,” where everything was awesome? That movie efficiently and effectively laid out its parameters and characters. This one drops you in—so if you don’t know the show, you’ll have no connection to this setting. Having said that, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll be struck by how little the movie has in common with it.

Despite the grander scale (and bigger budget), the movie doesn’t use the Legos for the thing that makes them fun: the building aspect of them, the possibility of creativity, the way they allow you to push boundaries and come up with structures and characters that maybe don’t make any sense, but they’re cool-looking. “LEGO Ninjago” is essentially an ordinary animated film, with visuals rendered in Lego form.

And sometimes the visuals are so garbled, this may as well be a “Transformers” movie, especially as the ninjas climb inside their various mecha to fly/climb/fight/etc. against Garmadon to keep him from destroying Ninjago City. Along those lines, the sound mix often made it hard to hear the quips, one-liners and banter, especially during the big action sequences, of which there are many. Then again, the jokes and the energy as a whole lack the infectious nature of previous Lego movies.

Since we’re making all the inevitable comparisons, it’s hard to shake the sensation that Theroux is essentially doing Will Arnett doing Batman in the previous two Lego movies. He brings an amusing buffoonery to this alleged super-villain—a clueless bravado, a total lack of self-awareness—but we’ve heard this shtick before. Even the husky swagger of Theroux’s delivery recalls Arnett’s performances, and it serves as yet another reminder of how superior the predecessors were.

And as my son pointed out after a screening of the film (between bursts of singing the TV show’s insanely catchy theme song) the ninjas don’t even do spinjitzu, their stylized martial-arts technique using their signature elemental powers. Not really—not until the end. But maybe we’ll see more of that in the sequel, which is certainly on the horizon, whether it’s merited or not.


Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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The franchise-style espionage thriller has long been ripe for a sendup, or a pastiche, or an update, or whatever the hell people think it’s ripe for. The comic book “Kingsman” provided the basis for 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” a blockbuster sized action picture with, ostensibly, a cheeky attitude not unlike that of “Kick-Ass” (also directed by Matthew Vaughn). For many, that movie filled the sendup/pastiche/update bill quite nicely. Instead of an official intelligence industry, the secret agent outfit Kingsman, operating out of a high-end tailor’s shop, is a privatized law-enforcement security service with a lot of high-tech weaponry and convoluted cutting-edge tech protocol.

The movie itself, a sort of bildungsroman in which raw recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is given a class-conscious catapult to lethal gentlemanhood by older agent Harry (Colin Firth), was sufficiently slick and energetic that you might not notice at first what a callous, nihilistic, smirky, sexist, retrograde pile of expensive garbage it was. It even managed to make its last-call anal sex joke seem mildly charming … if you didn’t think about it too much.

The true tell in the first film was the character of Gazelle, a henchperson of the main villain, a woman whose prosthetic legs are sharp knife edges. With these she can amputate limbs, and even cut a man entirely in half. These mutilations were depicted in a sterile, near analgesic fashion; the audience is meant to titter at the loss of life and limb delivered so efficiently, with no pain, no mess. Similar dismemberments and body halvings are delivered in the sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” It’s violence for cowardly voyeurs who want to make the people who annoy them just shut up in a way that’s silent, sterile, and thoroughly humiliating to the victim.

But the movie was successful, so now there’s the sequel, cooked up in the script department by director Vaughn and Jane Goldman. If you think having a woman co-writing the screenplay will help in the egregious gross sexism department you are mistaken; one of this movie’s “gags” involves putting a tracker on a villain’s girlfriend by means of a form of sexual assault the current president of the United States once bragged about. Eggsy performs this act reluctantly, we are meant to understand, in part because he is now in a committed relationship with the Swedish Princess who gifted him with anal sex in the first movie.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which finds the British tailors decimated and forced to join forces with a whiskey manufacturing U.S. spy network called “Statesman” and featuring such personages as Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry, is even longer than the first movie, clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes or so. As action-packed as the movie is, it feels like it’s six hours. That’s in part because the pacing is so spavined; the movie lurches twitchily from set piece to set piece and spends inordinate amounts of time on shots of its sharp-dressed characters slow-motioning into the widescreen frames showing off accessories that will be sold to you by various companies in various Kingsman tie-ins all over the Internet. (A scene wherein Firth is packing up his things finds the actor taking special care to make sure the wooden Art of Shaving soap dish is turned to the camera lens. In recent weeks, I’ve received no less than a dozen e-mails from Art of Shaving, all tied in to “Kingsman.”) 

It also feels long because every bit or joke is dragged out long past its funniness or shock value. The plot here, just as reactionary in its way as that of the first one, centers around a drug cartel, the Golden Circle, run out of a jungle presided over by Julianne Moore’s Poppy. (I hope the producers of this movie paid Moore an inordinate amount of money, because all she gives them in return for her fee is a passable Megan Mullally impersonation, which is still less than they deserve.) Poppy’s very rich and powerful but also isolated and lonely, so she’s kidnapped Elton John and is forcing him to perform solely for her. Elton John is played by himself. This is funny at first, then sour, then gets beaten worse than a dead horse as Sir Elton is made a plot point and a climactic action sequence is played out over one of his more raucous numbers. “Enough,” one thinks, but “enough” does not exist in the philosophy of this movie.

Well, I suppose it does in one respect. In “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” villain Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson, inveigled various world leaders into going along with his twisted save-the-earth doomsday scheme; he then implanted a device in their necks that, unbeknownst to them, could blow up their heads if triggered. One of the world leaders was meant to be taken for then-President Barack Obama. And at the movie’s ending, all the head-exploding devices were made to go off, and the audience was invited to guffaw at the spectacle of Barack Obama’s head blowing up. This movie’s plot hinges on tainted drugs that will kill, potentially, all the world’s substance abusers. The scheme, initiated by Moore’s character, is reported by Fox News, none of whose correspondents are shown to have the sign of the taint. Because no one who works for Fox News does drugs, as we know. This movie also features a United States President, but not a real one, as the last film did; this movie’s president is white, and played by Bruce Greenwood. It’s probably just a coincidence that this movie is produced by Fox. It probably means nothing that this movie, made by people who invited you to laugh at the violent death of the United States’ first black president, won’t touch Donald Trump with a ten-foot pole. They can’t be racist, right? They cast Halle Berry in this movie and Samuel L. Jackson in the last. They approve of black actors at least.

Speaking of actors, this is a movie that makes you wonder about them as a class. Can Colin Firth, Channing Tatum, Mark Strong, Jeff Bridges, Poppy Delevingne, Julianne Moore, Michael Gambon, and so many others in the cast be themselves as soul-dead and life-hating as this movie? If not (and it’s probably, or at least hopefully, not) who do we blame? Their agents? The whole bloody system that’s out of order?


Thirst Street

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Nathan Silver’s romantic drama “Thirst Street” follows a flight attendant’s spiraling amour fou towards a Parisian bartender, but while that’s an appropriate description of the film’s premise, it doesn’t quite capture what makes it interesting. It’s a portrait of obsession that doesn’t caricaturize nor ridicule, an empathetic account of desire and its inherent limitations, as well as an opaque psychological study that falls in line with life’s myriad mysteries. “No great happiness comes without great pain,” intones the narrator (Anjelica Huston), wryly but with warmth. It’s the film’s modus operandi, but Silver, and his co-writer C. Mason Wells, never shirk the platitude’s nasty, dangerous implications, especially with relation to the characters’ competing passions, and yet they somehow accomplish this with affection.

After the death of her lover, the grief-stricken Gina (Lindsay Burdge) hooks up with the charismatic bartender Jerome (Damien Bonnard) on a layover in Paris. Though Jerome clearly adopts a politely detached view towards Gina, she independently decides that she needs to be in Jerome’s life. Jerome’s early attempts to let Gina down easily predictably fail, and soon she quits her job, moves into an apartment around the corner from Jerome’s (without his knowledge, of course), and begins working at his club. It’s obvious from the beginning that Gina’s fascination will eventually curdle into mania, but Silver and Wells’ gentle-yet-firm approach to Gina’s predicament, along with the reactions of those in her orbit, separate “Thirst Street” from the historical sexism of the “woman stalks man” subgenre. Formally and narratively, the film never takes delusion or its targets lightly, and always conveys the understanding that such psychological states derive from the darkest, most vulnerable places.

While that sense of compassion lies in “Thirst Street’s” script and direction, it’s best evoked in Burdge’s and Bonnard’s performances. Burdge imbues Gina with sympathy and kindness, capturing the personality of a fundamentally nice person who doesn’t understand boundaries or other people’s feelings; her character’s inability to read a room will ultimately be her downfall, but Burdge renders that end inevitably tragic. Meanwhile, Bonnard wonderfully plays her foil, someone who tries to navigate his admirer’s mood, keeping his distance but also being as amiable as possible. Their crackling sexual chemistry and awkward personal interactions make for a compelling on-screen romance, and the way that it devolves when Jerome’s ex-girlfriend Clemence (Esther Garrel) comes into the picture charges almost every scene.

It’s somewhat of a critical cliché to describe a cinematographer as a co-director, but Sean Price Williams’ hazy, luminous photography in “Thirst Street” so strongly defines its aesthetic that it all but elevates him to co-author status. The sensuous, vibrant colors and the intimate framing provide a classically “romantic” sheen that stands in sharp contrast to the more insidious on-screen events. Moreover, it augments Gina’s internal desire to have a grand romance, one worthy of old musicals, but still grounds her actions in an uncomfortable reality. Along those lines, Paul Grimstad’s nervy score also establishes the film’s tricky tone, neatly capturing the lustful urgency that underscores the film without overwhelming its action.

If “Thirst Street” has any major flaw, it’s that the predictability of the film’s narrative pales in comparison to its stirring aesthetics. At a brisk 80 minutes, “Thirst Street” never overstays its welcome, but by the last 15 or so, the film makes most of the requisite genre moves and it falls into a semi-monotonous state. The film’s surprises lie mostly in its characterizations and visual strategy, which carry it far, and yet it doesn’t sustain its initial energy by its end. You can argue that that’s precisely the point, that the fixed nature of Gina’s journey engenders the film’s spiky dread and overt tragedy, but when we finally get there, it falls a little too flat to be completely ignored.

But there’s something special about Silver’s film that often resides in its margins. Its self-contained world feels inhabited yet enigmatic, especially the once glamorous, now seedy cabaret club where Jerome works, run by the sleazily forthright Franz (Jacques Nolot). There’s the potent thread of over-symbolizing one’s life, reading too much into strangers’ clairvoyance and random signals from the universe (Gina sees a sign that reads “A Louer” outside of an apartment; though it means “For Rent,” “Louer” also invites the misreading of “Lover”). The lost-in-translation comedy, while trite or tired in the wrong hands, excels here mostly because Gina never once feels self-conscious about flubbing her way through conversations. But “Thirst Street” succeeds on the basis of Silver and Wells’ treatment of desperation, the frayed assuredness that surfaces when one realizes that there’s nothing left to lose. It’s a hard thing for a film to convey without over-psychologizing its subjects, but “Thirst Street” fittingly captures this in snapshots and glimpses. The result is a slow-motion car crash that you intimately experience from both in and outside the car. There’s just enough distance to allow for wisdom but not enough so as not to feel the impact.



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Edoardo de Angelis’ “Indivisible” takes a decidedly serious approach to the story of conjoined twins, initially ruminating on the lack of freedom one might have existing next to someone else for their entire lives. Instead of the freak show angle taken by the Farrelly brothers comedy “Stuck on You,” perhaps the biggest name yet in conjoined twin cinema, “Indivisible” ponders, to a limited extent, what would happen to such siblings in a world that values celebrity, religion and sex to selfish ends. 

Angela Fontana and Marianna Fontana play twins Viola and Daisy, respectively, who are conjoined at the hip. They do everything together, of course, their personalities blending into one in the process. The film finds them around the age of 18, on the fringe of becoming legal adults. Not too long into “Indivisible,” they are presented with information by a doctor that they could be separated and survive, and perhaps should have been at birth. It causes tension between the two, as Daisy wants the surgery to be her own person whereas Viola does not. But together they decide to run away from the many people, especially the men, who have tried to commodify their phenomenon. 

For starters, their egotistical father Peppe (Massimiliano Rossi) and defeated mother Titti (Antonia Truppo) have made them into singers who are carted around their working-class community. In a bizarre sequence in the beginning, they are shown working a first communion, crooning a song written by Peppe called “Indivisible,” both a bland ode to love and testament to the type of sentencing their family business has placed on them. In a nice touch that shows how much the same they are, and how cheap of a songwriter he is, they never harmonize, flatly singing the same notes. 

There are other local men with more malicious intentions: a local priest (Gianfranco Gallo) wants to turn them into walking angels of some sort, ready to build a church in their name with parishioners set to worship. Meanwhile, a wealthy man named Marco Ferrari (Gaetano Bruno) promises the twins he could make them big international stars, while having a fetish for their handicap, his eye on Daisy in particular. Initially, these men are interesting as showing different ways that the twins are being objectified by different institutions. But the script fails to make them more than just symbols of greed and inhumanity, rendering them one-dimensional irregardless of the complicated worlds they can represent. When Daisy and Viola try to break free, their following encounters with these forces have the same stage-by-stage villainy of different bosses in a video game. 

While the script has a problem sharing why it was excited to place conjoined twins in such a predicament, the Fontana sisters boast a special emotional eloquence. They are able to sell the profound love and anguish they must experience together, keeping many scenes afloat by acting off of each other face to face and with vivid, juxtaposing emotions. The movie doesn’t give them enough personality together or as individual brains, and instead makes them human beings by the main conflict of who believes in the operation and who does not. But the Fontana sisters are able to create tension within their situation, as two souls that hardly know what it’s like to be think for themselves. Their scenes alone as they try desperately convince the other of what to do, while looking right at each other, are always great. 

De Angelis’ filmmaking leans into the straight-face tone with its numerous composed takes that run long and often around a crowded interior, suggesting a determination to show instead of articulate. Further, there are even images of giant Jesus statues and general excess, which recall a touch of how Fellini addressed such indulgences in “La Dolce Vita,” contextualizing the light fantasy of a grounded situation as his films so easily did. In the case of “Indivisible,” however, using some of those vibes feels to be more of just a reference, not a blessing. 

But this capable filmmaking and self-assured tone aren’t very standout ideas for a movie that struggles to be as unique as its pitch. At its best, “Indivisible” provides nonpareil dramatic sensations, which especially carries some mileage for any viewer who thinks that all of storytelling is a rotating list of similar feelings. You’ve never quite felt what it’s like to hope that conjoined twins can tread water in an open sea, among a few intense examples, but “Indivisible” has that, emboldened especially by its lead performances. It’s the followthrough that provides very little that’s new to think about, as delivered by De Angelis with heavy hands. 


First They Killed My Father

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Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” is far and away her best work as a director: a rare film about a national tragedy told through the eyes and mind of a child, and as fine a war movie as has ever been made. Adapted by Jolie and co-writer Loung Ung from Ung’s memoir about her family’s experiences after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, it stands apart from most work in this vein not just because of what it does so well, but because of what it refuses to do.

There are emotionally powerful moments, particularly near the end when you start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s little in the way of canned Hollywood uplift. But every image and feeling are anchored to the point-of-view of Ung, played by the remarkable young actress Sareum Srey Moch. She was five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and seven when she made it out, her young mind stained by memories of hunger, brutality and sudden death. She learned skills that no child should know, like how to plant land mines, fire an AK-47, and drive a spear into a Vietnamese soldier’s chest.

The movie kicks off with a prologue alluding to how American carpet bombing of Cambodia during the closing years of the war helped create a power vacuum that vicious people rushed to fill. This is related through documentary and news clips of bombers incinerating forests, U.S. troops understandably expressing little interest in or animosity toward Cambodia, then-President Richard Nixon insisting that there is no American war there, and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger callously promising a “final solution” in the region. The blend of languages in this section reinforces the idea that this era was a tragedy of international significance, regardless of whether people who were alive at the time paid attention.

Luong’s story begins in relative peace, with the heroine and her bourgeois family, headed by a military police officer father (Phoeung Kompheak), in the capital, wondering what changes the end of the U.S. war will bring. The Khmer Rouge, a splinter of the Vietnam People’s Army of North Vietnam led by future dictator Pol Pot, rolls into the city, crushing the remnants of the country’s weak official government and initiating a purge that would claim millions of lives. Loung’s father sees the writing on the wall and leads his wife (Sveng Socheata) and children from the city. 

From that point on, “First They Killed My Father” becomes a survival story about a suddenly powerless family doing whatever it takes to get through the day. Their efforts are shadowed by the knowledge that not all of them will make it out alive, and that even outwardly unremarkable interactions could lead to the family being separated, imprisoned, brutalized or murdered. The early scenes of Luong’s mother, father and siblings divesting themselves of most possessions (including some beloved dresses and toys) are all the more vivid for being underplayed. This dry-eyed reportage continues throughout the film, ratcheting up toward operatic or tragic heights only when Loung is at her most distraught.

It’s impossible to properly appreciate the impact of this story without acknowledging the filmmaking’s role in summoning it. More so than almost any recent American feature made at this budget level, “First They Killed My Father” creates a distinct visual vocabulary that seems to emerge organically from the story, then pursues it consistently, never breaking away without reason. With the exception of a few aerial or crane shots that provide a sense of geographical context, and some high-angled overhead shots that evoke the eye of an indifferent God, most of the film is captured with a handheld camera that communicates anxiety or dread but never tries to generate phony action-movie “excitement.” Shot after shot after shot amounts to a simple record of actions: she walked over there; this person spoke to that person. They’re all captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle in smartly composed but unfussy images, some in third person (with the heroine in the frame), others in first (the camera representing what Loung sees). The editing, by Xavier Box and Patricia Rommel, reconciles these perspectives in such a supple way that we seem to be outside and inside the story all at once, thinking about it even as we’re feeling its impact.

Every now and then, Jolie gives us a flashback or fantasy, often focusing on the heroine’s memories of a time when the family were comfortable, healthy and carefree. The color in these shots is oversaturated, aglow with yearning. When the film snaps back into present tense and rejoins Loung and her family in an agrarian work camp/”re-education” facility where the earth, sky and trees seem to have been bled of color, the loss of pigmentation stands in for the loss of hope.

In time, the reason for this meticulous style becomes clear: this is a tale recollected in tranquility from some point in the future, so of course it would switch on a dime between immediacy and detachment. When you remember trauma, you see a dark picture but also the philosophical frame you’ve built around it. Everything seems to be happening a long time ago but also right now. 

The script mostly avoids the particulars of Cambodian-Vietnamese animosity, presenting re-education sessions filled with anti-Vietnamese invective as examples of wartime conditioning and mind control. The Khmer Rouge’s constant praising of the utopian ideals of Communism is undermined by what the heroine sees: the vegetables and rice being taken from the camp workers and sent to the front lines to feed combat soldiers; the meager spoonfuls of broth that the farm slaves stir in their bowls at night; the crude pleasure that low-level flunkies take in humiliating underlings, their sadism empowered by allegiance to the state; the plump beetles that the father roasts over a fire, then serves to his starving family like chestnuts. The script is less interested in what it all meant, geopolitically speaking, than how it felt to live through it: the sense of dislocation and uncertainty, the deprivation and fear, the artillery shells tearing through treelines at night and jolting sleepers awake; the mines blasting bodies into the air and setting them down without legs.

The ace in Jolie’s deck here is the knowledge that a girl as young as Loung can’t comprehend the larger meaning of what’s happening to her, and is therefore unlikely to expend precious emotional energy connecting cause-and-effect dots or lamenting what was lost. It’s an almost entirely experiential movie. Whatever occurs automatically becomes the new normal for the heroine, and she does her best to adapt to it, even when she’s stricken by grief, panic or rage. Whether Luong is hearing her mother warn her and her sisters that they can’t take party dresses on the road, watching a camp worker beat a hungry child for stealing vegetables, or inspiring a group of kids to kill, skin, roast and eat a snake, the film maintains a culturally neutral attitude. It’s never, “Oh, how horrible” or “Isn’t that strange and different?” but simply “Here’s what happened next.”

This is not a “triumph of the human spirit” movie with syrupy strings and inspirational speeches. Marco Beltrami’s score never appears unless it has something to add to the images. The majority of scenes play out with natural sound: marching boots, helicopters, gunshots, bombs, birds, insects, cheering crowds, whispered conversations, shrill propaganda speeches, river water flowing downstream. There are no awkwardly inserted scenes with U.N. observers, doctors or journalists, devised to justify casting American or English actors in a film that doesn’t require their presence.

It’s a film that recreates a bleak time and place with a journalistic eye for detail, catching fleeting, at times surreal instances of humanity amid horror—particularly when it catches kids acting like kids, playing in river water, stretching a hand up towards a military helicopter soaring overhead, becoming fixated on the soft clang-clang of a teakettle bouncing against a knee during a walk. There are many moments where somebody who has no practical reason to smile at Loung smiles at her. She smiles back because that’s what kids do, even when they know the adult standing over them could kill their sister, mother or father for no reason at all.

The movie channels the hardest parts of some of the toughest great films ever made: the scenes in “Los Olvidados” and “Pixote” of slum kids playing in ruins; the gallows humor of World War II films built around kids, especially “Hope and Glory” and “Empire of the Sun“; the documentary-immediate sections of “Platoon” that showed the tedium and indignity of war: mud, rain, leeches, insomnia.

Jolie and her collaborators move through Loung’s story so economically—never lingering on a scene or image longer than is necessary to make a point—that the fear and pain inherent in the material is always counterbalanced by the intellectual excitement of seeing a world re-created in detail, from the ground up. Jolie is certain to be criticized for being a rich white American directing a film about Cambodian genocide, and not without cause, but it’s also obvious that she’s done everything possible, short of not directing the movie, to remove herself from center stage, put the spotlight on her heroine, and keep it there. The cast is comprised of Cambodian actors whose names mean nothing internationally, and they don’t speak English with a vaguely “Asian” accent, but subtitled Khmer. The opening and closing credits are presented simultaneously in Khmer and English; Khmer always comes first.

That this movie even exists is a small miracle. That it seems to have been made without compromise and largely without ego makes it even more rare. 


Strong Island

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In “Strong Island,” Yance Ford, the director, speaks directly to the camera about his brother’s murder 20 years ago, and about the resultant shattering of his family. The camera is close to Ford’s intense face, very close, almost blotting out the pitch-black background. The effect of this attention-getting choice (distinguishing it from the more straightforward presentation of the other interview subjects) is to immerse the viewer in the claustrophobia of grief, helpless anger and “unfinished business,” experienced by the filmmaker. “Strong Island” is both personal memoir and factual investigation into the sketchy circumstances under which his brother was murdered, seemingly in cold blood, by a white car mechanic. Formal in its style, “Strong Island” has an urgency underlying every scene. The story is not as cut and dry as it seems. It may be the case that a little bit of distance might have helped the film, might have moved the focus just a little further back to get a more complete picture. There are questions that circle around themselves, endlessly, providing no broader outlook. However, by the same token, it is that very lack of objectivity that makes “Strong Island” the experience that it is. It is a very tough film to shake. 

Told in a non-linear fashion, “Strong Island” is a portrait of upward mobility revealing a trap hidden underneath. Ford’s parents moved to New York City as newlyweds, escaping the Jim Crow South. Ford’s mother (a captivating interview subject) was a teacher who created a school up near Riker’s Island to help ex-con women complete their education. Mr. Ford had dreams of being an engineer (Ford painstakingly lays out his father’s draughtsman’s equipment as Exhibit A) but in the meantime got a job as a subway conductor on the J Line. Once they started a family, they moved to the Long Island suburb Central Islip, populated by African-American civil servant homeowners. Ford’s laying out of the setup and history of that residential area, the zoning laws that made it possible, the well-meaning intent, the economic pitfalls, is masterful. His mother hated it in Central Islip. As far as she was concerned, it was back to the segregation she thought she had escaped. “Everyone was black!” she exclaims in an interview. When you left your neighborhood you went into white territory where the rules were different. 

This is a documentary years in the making, and Ford’s work as a producer on the TV series POV shows in his careful choice of framing and backgrounds. Intermittently, there are sequences where Ford’s fingers place a family photo on a white background, straightening it, centering it. There’s intimacy in the gesture, it’s personal. This is not a collage of photos created by a computer. You sit with him as he shows you what he wants you to see. It’s extremely effective.

Documentaries are often big on the information-dump, showing very little interest in how the story is told. In “Strong Island” the how is almost as important as the what. The centerpiece interviews with Ford’s mother are a case in point. She is placed in medium shot in the center of the frame, colorful kitchen counters behind her. There’s something raw and un-touched about these interviews, about Ford’s approach. There are awkward moments where the screen suddenly fades to black before coming up again on the same interview, a solution to the challenges of editing a long monologue. But even the awkwardness pours into the overall mood. This is a devastated family circle, a family who has struggled to understand what happened, why a Grand Jury decided not to indict those many years ago, what exactly went down in that sketchy auto shop? 

Ford utilizes a couple of feints in storytelling, moments where a “sting” goes down on the audience, where you suddenly realize that the story you thought were listening to is not actually the whole story, that Ford held some details back. How you react to these “stings” is up to you. For me, the more I thought about it, the more I loved it. There were moments when suddenly the documentary was flooded with a kind of upsetting ambiguity. At one moment, after speaking with the investigator who handled the case back then, Ford breaks down in violent tears. There is some manipulation involved in the presentation of these “stings” but storytellers always manipulate reality. That’s part of telling a story. Storytellers prioritize where they want their audience to focus. They tell us where to look. They lead us through the darkness. They withhold information if necessary. 

Ford does not open up his gaze in order to loop his brother’s story into the national issue of African-Americans not getting a fair shot in the justice system (although it is implied everywhere). He keeps the focus narrow. He shows us a photo of his young and happy parents. He shows us another photo of his brother in football uniform. He shows us photos of birthday parties, Sweet Sixteen parties, kids happy and free in the “haven” of Central Islip that turned out not to be a haven. He throws tantalizing bread crumbs in our path. There is unexplored territory, referenced but not developed. Ford mentions his sexuality and gender identity a couple of times, but more as background texture than a focal point. 

At one point, Ford’s mother, remembering her initial response to the news of her son’s death, says, “How are we gonna make it without him?” It’s heartrending. There is no full recovery. In many ways, the family did not “make it without him.” In a very poignant way, “Strong Island”—painful, probing, intimate—reiterates Mrs. Ford’s question so strongly that it hangs in the air as the credits roll.



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Wetlands” is a film that wants to work in two ways: as a drama about a man desperately attempting to reestablish ties to his justifiably estranged teenage daughter, and as a gritty modern-day film noir filled with drugs, murder, gangsters, infidelity and even a genuine femme fatale thrown in for good measure. If first-time filmmaker Emanuele Della Valle had focused on one of these approaches, he might have come up with a reasonably compelling final product. But by shoving the two together and then tossing a couple of highly unnecessary subplots into the mix, he instead comes up with a terribly uneven narrative that doesn’t especially work as drama or noir and which manages to waste a pretty good cast in the bargain.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stars as Babs Johnson (short for Babel, mind you), a one-time top cop in Philadelphia until he got himself caught up in a web of drug addiction and corruption that eventually led to an act so heinous that we are only informed of it via a gradually expanding flashback—in black-and-white, no less—running throughout the film proper. A year or so later, a newly sober Babs turns up in Atlantic City to work as a detective for the local police force in the hopes of reconnecting with ex-wife Savannah (Heather Graham) and their teenaged daughter Amy (Celeste O’Connor). This will prove to be a little more difficult to pull off than he thinks. Amy quite rightfully resents the fact that her father bailed on her for so long and now thinks he can get back into her good graces with such tokens as an ice cream cone or a fishing trip. As for Savannah, she is still bitter at her ex and is now romantically involved with a younger woman who is known only as Surfer Girl (Reyna de Courcy), who dreams of one day leaving the Garden State behind to head off to California to open her own surf shop.

While trying to mend fences in his personal life, Babs spends his professional hours trying to bring an end to the area’s thriving drug trade that is being run by local gangsters Jimmy Coconuts (Louis Mustillo) and Lollipop (Barry Markowitz). This also proves to be a little trickier than it seems because not only do the gangsters appear to be paying off the top cops in town, they also have Babs’ motormouth partner (Christopher McDonald) under their thumbs due to extensive gambling debts. To complicate matters even further, Babs discovers that Surfer Girl is also tied up in the local drug trade and has been courting danger by repeatedly shortchanging Jimmy and Lollipop in their dealings, a move that could end up putting Savannah and Amy in danger as well. Things quickly go sideways and when a dead body eventually turns up, all signs point to Babs as the killer. Oh yeah, while all of this is going on, a late-season hurricane is threatening to hit the area with unexpected and potentially metaphorical force.

“Wetlands” would clearly love to come across as a contemporary version of the classic film noirs that actors like the great Robert Mitchum used to crank out with offhand ease back in the day (though I seriously doubt that Mitchum would have ever consented to playing a character named Babs Johnson). Instead, the crime aspect of the story does not add up to much—those scenes feel oddly truncated (when the key murder finally occurs, the film has only about 15 minutes or so to wrap it up) and what we do see offers nothing in the way of surprise. (Even that traumatic flashback, once finally revealed in full, will not raise too many eyebrows.) The more personal stuff doesn’t work either because we never get any sense of the struggles Babs must be going through in trying to keep it together and show his ex-wife and daughter that he is once again worthy of their trust. Instead of fleshing out either of these areas, the screenplay instead wastes time on such dramatically pointless elements as Babs’ clandestine relationship with his partner’s wife (Jennifer Ehle), a newscaster who constantly pops diet pills in the hopes that she will not be replaced by someone younger, prettier and thinner. Then there is that hurricane, which is hyped to be a key element of the story but then peters out without making much of an impact. After this effort and Brian De Palma’s otherwise great 1998 film “Snake Eyes,” perhaps filmmakers should just agree that thrillers about murder and corruption in Atlantic City and hurricane subplots just do not mix.

“Wetlands” has a number of good actors but none of them are served especially well by the script. Akinnuoye-Agbaje provides an undeniably strong presence that is almost too much for the thin character he is playing while McDonald certainly makes an impression with a cheerfully odd performance that is arguably the best thing on display here. Heather Graham, on the other hand, is given virtually nothing to do but since it is nice to have Graham on the big screen in a major role for the first time in a while, I am willing to overlook that. On the other end of the scale, de Courcy, playing the character who is supposed to tie everything together, is one of the less distinctive femme fatales to come along in a while. The worst performance, however, is delivered by Ehle, who is not convincing for a single second as a newscaster, a lover or even as a plausible human being. To be fair, her character is so badly conceived—she seems to have been jammed into the narrative only to get Babs out of a tight spot with an admission of their affair—that Ehle should probably be commended simply for keeping a straight face throughout.

Other than the novelty of being the only example of a gritty crime drama featuring a key male character named Babs, there is absolutely nothing interesting or memorable to be found in “Wetlands.” The whole thing feels like the busted pilot to a mediocre television show and it is too blah to even get especially upset with, except in regard to the squandering of its actors. 


American Assassin

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“American Assassin” is an action film, a spy thriller, a meditation on revenge, and a story about mentors and pupils, but mostly it’s a movie that loves to maim and kill people and is very good at it. Dylan O'Brien stars as Mitch Rapp, an American who loses his parents in a car wreck as a child, then fails to save his fiancee from a terrorist attack and vows to find and execute the head of the cell that ordered it. Mitch gets pulled into the CIA, where he’s trained as an assassin by Cold War veteran and former Navy S.E.A.L. Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Then one of Hurley’s former trainees, an arms dealer known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), enters the picture, and things get murky.

I don’t just mean the plot, I mean the movie’s reason for being. “American Assassin” keeps telling you that revenge poisons the soul and is generally a bad idea while serving up awesome scenes of Mitch and colleagues killing terrorists and other bad guys with guns, knives, their hands and feet, cars and trucks, and household tools used in ways that their manufacturers never envisioned. It doesn’t take long to figure out where the film’s heart lies, and it would’ve been more honest if it had embraced that impulse from the start.

Though slight and wiry, O’Brien makes an effective strong-silent action hero. He’s one of those morose outsiders who has no respect for authority but does his job so well that his superiors (including Sanaa Lathan, mostly wasted as CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy) keep indulging his hunches and forgiving his excesses. The tone and style are cool and assured for the first-half hour, but the movie loses its way after that. A tight, often wordless opening section lets Mitch communicate his homicidal tunnel-vision through training montages, encrypted online exchanges with terrorist recruiters, and closeups of his grief-stricken eyes.

But then the movie turns him into a stubbly, butt-kicking ingenue, defined mainly by smart-ass quips and astonishing physicality (kudos to Cuesta for keeping the camera far back enough to show that O’Brien is doing a lot of his own stunts). Although there are hints of chemistry between Mitch and a Turkish agent (Shiva Negar’s Annika) allied with Stan’s unit, the movie’s not built for that sort of thing. Mates in action films often exist to die and be avenged, and grief is more often asserted than explored. That’s the case here, too.

Mitch is a lethal bystander to his own story throughout the second hour. Vengeance comes up a lot during this section, with multiple characters enacting their own version of Mitch’s struggle, but none are well-defined enough to support an ensemble approach; you may simultaneously feel you’re getting too much of every major character but also not enough, and that the philosophical inquiry into the idea of revenge has been layered onto the screenplay to make it feel like a thoughtful statement instead of a bloody lark. Besides Mitch and Ghost, we keep meeting supporting characters who hold murderous grudges against other people, against politicians in their own government, sometimes against entire nations and ethnic groups. A band of disgruntled Iranian officials and military officers want to build a nuclear weapon with material supplied by Ghost to get revenge against the faction that drove them from power. These folks also want revenge against United States and Israel to repay old indignities (Ghost tells an Iranian high-muckety-muck that once they conclude their deal, “you can kill as many Jews as you want”).

“American Assassin” sometimes seems to want us to think it’s an earthbound film. At some points, thriller buffs might be reminded of John Frankenheimer’s bracingly nasty R-rated thrillers—in particular “Black Sunday,” which revolved around the Mossad and the PLO, and costarred Bruce Dern as a disillusioned veteran who, like Ghost, wants to punish America for disfiguring his body and spirit. There are also traces of “Day of the Jackal” and “Munich” and an obscure 1980s film called “The Amateur,” about a CIA researcher (John Savage) who convinces the agency to train him to kill so he can avenge his wife’s murder by terrorists. The script name-checks real life geopolitical rivals, terrorist groups, and political events. Besides Iran and Israel, there are references to the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Obama administration’s Iran deal.

But by the end, the film makes it clear that it’s disgruntled mavericks who are creating the immediate problems. This is the “one bad apple” approach to storytelling that’s meant to provide rhetorical cover for movie studios, should anyone try to protest the film or stop it from being exported to their country.

The screenplay is credited to four people: Stephen Schiff, currently a writer on FX’s “The Americans”; Michael Finch of “The Interrogation,” “The November Man” and “Hitman: Agent 47“; and Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, a team whose credits include “The Siege” (about a terrorist attack that leads to New York being quarantined) and “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.” The director is Michael Cuesta, perhaps best known for his work on Showtime’s “Homeland,” a series that mixes geopolitical specificity and melodrama, and treats much of the Middle East as a brown menace even as it insists things are more complicated than that. The movie summons the ghosts of the Bourne saga when Ghost compares himself and Mitch to monsters that were created by the military-industrial complex to snuff out designated enemies but turned on their creators instead. But it never pulls off the magic act that made the first three Bourne films (which seem increasingly miraculous in retrospect) feel contradiction-free.

The cast does the best it can with material that too often mistakes exposition for psychology. Only Michael Keaton, who’s been acting for four decades and livens up even the worst films, manages to build an emotionally cohesive, memorable character. Is there another current star who’s better at getting the audience on his side from frame one and keeping it there no matter what? He’s a skinny leatherneck here, a business class dad’s fantasy of middle-aged machismo, and his Jimmy Cagney defiance earns the film’s only thunderous cheer (you’ll know the moment when you see it). Throughout, Keaton keeps making lines that should’ve been dead on arrival pulse with life by inserting surprising pauses into his responses to questions and glancing furtively at people and objects, so that you keep wondering if Stan knows a secret. Maybe he does know a secret: that “American Assassin” is not what it pretends to be, and both he and the audience will have a more satisfying experience if he pretends he’s in the movie that should’ve been.

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