It’s that time of year. Hollywood is attempting to bounce back from its dismal summer with a deluge of fall releases targeting all demographics. Additionally, the Oscar floodgates have officially been opened, with a weekly slew of mature, artistic awards contenders battling for critical attention and a potential commercial breakout. Compounded by my currently unpredictable work schedule, there are simply too many noteworthy movies on both sides of the spectrum for me to review in full.
As was the case last fall, my solution is mini-reviews. These are smaller takes that allow me to share my dumb opinions on recent releases that you may be curious about, without having to spend three or four hours discussing each movie individually. I don’t have to write as much, you don’t have to read as much. It’s a win-win. Below you can catch a few quick takes on what’s new, and whether there are any good choices at the multiplex or the local arthouse.
The Edge of Seventeen
About as unadorned as coming-of-age flicks get, The Edge of Seventeen is not interested in reinventing the teen movie wheel, instead setting out to craft a generalized portrait of adolescent life that many will find painfully and joyously familiar. It is narratively, stylistically and thematically bland, but largely makes up for its lack of ambition through an earnest desire to connect with a new generation of teenagers who haven’t yet had a Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused or Juno to call their own. As one might imagine from a 2016 update of that classic style, social media plays a significant role in the story but the focus remains firmly on the hyperbolic emotions that teenagers have always grappled with. This is a smart choice, as it keeps the story relatable to those who didn’t grow up on the internet and will keep it relatable when (if?) Facebook goes out of style.
Six years after her breakout in True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld has (surprisingly) not become a huge star, but Seventeen serves as a reminder that she is one of the better actresses on the rise as Nadine, an overly dramatic and not-terribly-popular girl facing deteriorating relationships with her best friend, brother and mother. Her sincere, energetic performance allows the tone to teeter precariously between goofy, awkward humor and searing emotional honesty without collapsing. Nadine’s every facial expression and line delivery is a desperate cry for attention, the underlying desire of any ordinary, suburban teen. Her flawed worldview and theatrical personality is hilarious and sad all at once, but writer/directer Kelly Fremon Craig treats her with care and understanding, never condescending to a millennial audience frequently scoffed at by those in the ‘real world’.
With astute dialogue and charming interplay Nadine and characters such as blunt, sarcastic teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, in one of his more disarming roles), Craig does a great job of conveying that specific way in which young people struggle to figure out which problems are actually worth emotionally investing in, and which are simple trivialities that only seem world-ending at the time. That said, these same themes have been explored with far more verve and originality in 2011’s Submarine. Compared to that film, Edge of Seventeen can’t help but feel somewhat uninspired, but there is no doubt that, thanks to its infectious lead character and funny script, the film will change more than a few teen lives over the years, and the value of that is both undeniable and immeasurable.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
For all the steps forward Dreamworks has made over the years with sophisticated, heartfelt animated features like How To Train Your Dragon or even this year’s underrated Kung Fu Panda 3, you can always rely on the studio to take a few steps back with insipid, delirious mayhem such as Trolls. It’s the woefully simplistic tale of a race of tiny, colorful, eternally joyous trolls (who fell right out of a toy catalogue and will fall right back into one, just in time for the holidays) who are hunted by Bergens, grumpy creatures who believe the only key to happiness is to eat the little guys. Relentlessly peppy troll princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) sets out with the Branch (Justin Timberlake), the only unhappy troll in the village, to rescue their kidnapped friends from the Bergen kingdom.
In case you couldn’t tell from the two vocally-gifted lead performers, Trolls is a musical consisting of bouncy covers of popular songs stretching back decades, presumably so everybody from great-grandma to little Billy can recognize at least one of them (gotta hit all those quadrants, don’t ya know). It’s easy to be cynical about the films cash-grabby appearance, but in all fairness the music is actually enjoyable, the vocal performances are well-done, and the movie looks gorgeous overall. Character designs are clean and appealing, the arts-and-crafts-like textures of the world are exquisitely vibrant and detailed, and a tilt-shift effect conveys a believable sense that the trolls are tiny little guys in a big world. Aesthetically, the movie assaults the eyes and ears in all the best ways.
Underneath that slick coat of 2016 paint, the movie runs on 2006 animated storytelling principles. Given how basic and forgettable the plot is, it’s a surprise it manages to be so incoherent. Events eventually occur at such a manic pace that it becomes as if the screenwriters and even the characters themselves are struggling to keep up. This is especially frustrating since the movie hints at a self-deprecating message about the futility of finding happiness in consumer goods (such as a movie based on a toy from the 80s), reflected in the Bergen’s desire to literally consume the trolls. This angle could have lent the film the same uncommonly self-aware edge that made The Lego Movie so irresistible, but Trolls jettisons that attitude in favor of the same old ‘be happy’ and ‘be oneself’ shtick. It’s safe, innocuous fluff that serves as a clear reminder that for Dreamworks, financial imperatives still often outweigh their obvious creative potential.
Score: 2 out of 5
Mel Gibson returns to the director’s chair after a decade in timeout with a World War II drama that is as genuinely repentant as it is unapologetically, violently Mel. With steady hands and a simple message of conviction, he sets out to tell the story of Desmond Doss, who joins the U.S. army but vows never to touch a weapon. The first part of the film, which covers the various interpersonal relationships that influence his decision to enlist, is superbly crafted in an old-fashioned sense. The script lays everything out as plain and simple as it can, but all sorts of complexities are inferred from what the actors do with the material. Andrew Garfield has rarely been better as Doss, with a gentle Southern accent that is exactly as hokey as it needs to be. He’s complemented by fine work from Teresa Palmer as his girlfriend/fiance, Hugo Weaving as his father and Vince Vaughn as his antagonistic Sergeant (he’s no R. Lee Ermey, but he’ll do).
Though Doss faces plenty of adversity in his private life and throughout his grueling training, he lends a magnetic warmth to the first half of the picture that’s sorely missed once the action moves to the eponymous Japanese ridge. Suddenly, the focus is shifted off of the smallness of Doss’ inspiring resolve and onto the grand theatrics of war. For what it’s worth, these brutal and unflinching sequences are impeccably mounted, faithfully conveying the horror an chaos of war. The battlefield is shrouded in a fog that cuts it off from the rest of the world, as if in a wholly different dimension. War is literally hell in Hacksaw Ridge, and Gibson feels the need neither to sugarcoat the experience. The result is a visceral, disorienting blitz on the senses, which may prove too unforgiving for some.
Unfortunately, this change in focus deprives the film of its appreciable compassion and intimacy just when it’s needed most. The warmth that Doss brought to the real-life battlefield has no place within Gibson’s cold, unwavering representation of combat, as Garfield’s determination is constantly sidelined to make way for endless depictions of blood and guts. It’s a true shame that Gibson lets his well-established fascination with bodily desecration get in the way of such a gentle character with such a moving story. Despite this considerable misstep, it’s worth noting that there are moments in Hacksaw Ridge that ache with a palpable sense of regret and contrition that can only come from a man who not only knows right from wrong, he knows what it’s like to be on both sides.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Those such as myself who felt that Jeff Nichols’ last film Midnight Special lacked the emotional subtlety that has elevated the director’s previous projects can take Loving as a swift and powerful apology. The real life account of an interracial Virginia couple whose union is persecuted by the state’s racist legislature is something that most other filmmakers would come at with copious schmaltz and smugness. Nichols goes for the exact opposite approach, with a quiet, deliberate and defiantly unsentimental portrait of two people who just want to live their lives together. By downplaying the story’s grand importance in order to concentrate on the small details of a challenged romance, Nichols brilliantly highlights why it is important in the first place.
One of Nichols’ main hallmarks is his extraordinary attention to detail and devotion to a distinctly Southern texture, and Loving is reliably accomplished in this manner. The filmmaker’s keen eye directors’ eye gives the film an immensely believable sense of place and time (this is his first period piece, and he makes the most of it), but it’s lead actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga that serve as the film’s most understated elements. As with fellow slow-burn drama Certain Women, their performances don’t scream out for awards, but are laudable for their sparse naturalism. They are folks of few words, but the chemistry between them is immense and inexplicable. Their silent understanding of each other is the epitome of what marriage represents, making the tragedy of their situation all the more tangible.
This commitment to subtlety comes at a price. The pacing can be frustratingly sluggish in certain stretches, creating a lingering sense of lethargy. At its slowest, the film still manages to draw just enough cinematic energy from David Wingo’s incredible score and some stunning cinematography courtesy of Adam Stone. But at a certain point, it becomes apparent that the movie could have been more poignant without sacrificing its quietness, but Nichols seems afraid to risk it. For many, Loving will test their patience, but the emotional acuity present within the film’s every frame, not to mention its painful relevance, should prove to be immensely rewarding and touching regardless.
Score: 4 out of 5