Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: Gimme Danger

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Considering that "Gimme Danger" was directed by Jim Jarmusch and is a chronicle of The Stooges, you'd think it would be significantly more eccentric than it is. The film is a solid rock bio documentary, but it plays strictly by the rules of such films, which is something that you can't say for most of Jarmusch's work or Iggy Pop in general.

Focusing primarily on the band's formation, the creation of its three incredible and iconic albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reunion in the early Aughts, "Gimme Danger" completely skips over Iggy Pop's solo career and what, for that matter, he and his fellow band members were doing for approximately 30 years in between.

Blending archival footage with all manner of clips - including everything from Three Stooges movies to animated recreations of stories told by Iggy - the film lays out the band's story in the typical fashion you'd expect in a rock doc such as this one.

There are, however, some interesting tidbits, including Pop's discussion of how black musicians from the 1960s influenced his work and some anecdotes involving everyone from Nico and Lou Reed to David Bowie, MC5 and the Four Tops.

Perhaps, the film's best moments belong to those in which we get to watch The Stooges live on stage. For those unfamiliar with the band's stage presence, it mostly involves its members standing still playing their instruments while Iggy Pop gyrates wildly around the stage, crawls across the floor or belly flops head first into the audience, regardless of whether they are ready to catch him. Pop describes his stage antics as how baboons act when they are "ready to fight."

Jarmusch rarely ventures into documentaries, but when he does they are typically movies about musicians. His "Year of the Horse," which chronicled Neil Young on the road, was not one of the director's better films and "Gimme Danger" is certainly more effective, albeit less experimental. If you're a fan of The Stooges, you'll certainly want to see it and, if not, you might find yourself a convert.

But the biggest surprise you might find therein - especially if you are familiar with both the director and the band - is how by-the-book it comes across, in terms of format. That being said, it's certainly worth a look for rock 'n' roll aficionados and Jarmusch devotees.

Review: Inferno

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
The third time is not exactly the charm for the Ron Howard adaptations of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon novels, but if there's one thing that keeps our interest throughout the narratively twisty thrillers it is the presence of Tom Hanks, who always adds the necessary gravitas to any proceedings.

Howard's "The Da Vinci Code" was a victim of its own hype. The 2006 film was based on a blockbuster novel and it was evident that the film would not live up to its expectations. That being said, it was a decent enough big budget thriller, although the second entry into the series - "Angels and Demons" - fell flat.

This third installment - "Inferno" - is the most preposterous of the three pictures and primarily focuses on delivering forgettable genre thrills. On the whole, it's not a bad film - I'd say it falls between the two previous entries in terms of quality - but a wholly forgettable one.

As the film opens, Hanks's Langdon awakens in a hospital with a head wound and a loss of memory. He soon finds himself fleeing from World Health Organization officials, agents of various sorts, a woman on a bike with a silencer and a variety of other shadowy figures. Langdon is accompanied by a young doctor (Felicity Jones), who flees with him from the hospital after the aforementioned biker woman fires a few rounds at the duo.

The film's plot involves a billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who, at the film's beginning, leaps to his death from a tower in Italy after being pursued by an agent played by Omar Sy. We learn that Zobrist's cause du jour was thinning out the world's population to prevent a cataclysmic event down the road, so he, prior to his death, created the titular virus that will wipe out half of the planet's population.

Since this is a Dan Brown adaptation, Zobrist left clues to how the virus will be spread within Dante's Inferno, although I can't reveal to whom these clues were left without giving away some plot twists. Naturally, this type of mystery is in Langdon's wheelhouse, so it's up to him to travel around Italy and Turkey to discover how to stop the virus from being unleashed.

One of the picture's problems is that seemingly minor characters come to play larger roles throughout the film and we learn, at various points, whether they are good folks on Langdon's side or villains in disguise. The problem is that they all exist to move the film's labyrinthine plot forward and, therefore, do not register as human beings. So, the film's big reveals mostly result in shrugs rather than gasps.

It's always a pleasure to watch Tom Hanks, who elevates any material, although his primary function here is to spout explanatory dialogue. Some of the supporting players are fairly effective, especially Irrfan Khan as a leader in a shadowy group that is linked to Zobrist, and Jones, whose plucky performance makes her more than just a sidekick to Hanks's Langdon. But "Inferno" is mostly concerned with cheap thrills and plot twists and the result is a series that was only moderately intriguing from the start on its way to running out of gas.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: In a Valley of Violence

Image courtesy of Focus World.
Ti West has taken a break from making low budget horror movies - if you haven't seen his "House of the Devil," by all means, do - with a low budget western that is an obvious homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but also the lesser known bloodbaths by Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Corbucci. However, the film from which "In a Valley of Violence" seemingly most borrows is the cult hit "John Wick," in which Keanu Reeves avenges the death of his dog by taking out a slew of criminals and underworld figures.

As the picture opens, Ethan Hawke (who has become a surprisingly able western hero) rides through a small desert town in the 1800s carrying with him several secrets about his past and a beloved dog named Abbie. He quickly runs afoul of the local marshal's son (James Ransone) and his pals, which then leads to a confrontation in the desert night after Hawke has left town. A tragedy occurs and Hawke is left for dead. He then drags his way back into town to make war with Ransone and his buddies as well as the marshal (John Travolta), who appears to want to avoid a showdown.

From the twangy score to the anti-hero character that Hawke portrays, it's obvious that "In a Valley of Violence" aims to be a throwback to the bloody and cheaply made spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. But while the film is occasionally fun, it hews a little too closely to formula and cliches of the genre.

Hawke gives a solid performance as the roaming loner who has abandoned his family and, possibly, the Civil War in which he was a soldier and just wants to cross the Mexican border. The rest of the performances are more scattershot, which may be a fault of the filmmakers rather than the cast. Often, characters' speech sounds more modern than it should and several characters shout most of their dialogue, which often veers from being humorous to grating.

West is a solid horror movie director. His "House of the Devil" is among the creepier and moodier offerings of the past decade and his other work displays his capability of making small budgets go a long way at getting solid scares. "In a Valley of Violence" is an attempt at trying a different genre and it often works, mostly because of Hawke and that a certain amount of cliche tends to be forgiven in the western genre. But while it does a decent job of capturing some of the elements of the spaghetti western, it doesn't quite rise to the level of the best that sub-genre had to offer.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Moonlight

Image courtesy of A24.
It's probably safe to skip past referring to Barry Jenkins as a director to watch and call him a major filmmaker with the release of his "Moonlight," which is the most impressive leap for a director from his debut to sophomore film that I've seen since Paul Thomas Anderson went from "Hard Eight" to "Boogie Nights."

Jenkins's first picture, "Medicine for Melancholy," was a charming, low budget indie that was set in San Francisco and appeared to have been influenced by Richard Linklater's "Before" movies, but his second film displays the hand of an assured director, from the terrific performances he draws from his entire cast to the gorgeous visuals, inspired use of music and ability to weave complex themes and ideas into a completely satisfying whole.

You'll likely see comparisons to a number of films - including everything from "Brokeback Mountain" and "Boyhood" to "Boyz n the Hood" or any other gritty drama featuring a coming of age story set amid an urban backdrop - and yet "Moonlight" defies being classified. It features a character who is - for all purposes - gay, but sexuality is only one of many concepts explored here. And while the entire cast is black, race is only one of many themes, rather than the picture's driving force.

We're never quite sure when the action is taking place - at times, it could be the 1980s, 1990s or even today - but there are three very distinct times during which the film's action takes place. Divided into three chapters - Little, Chiron and Black - the picture follows the story of Chiron, a shy, poor black kid growing up with a drug addicted mother in a rough neighborhood in Miami.

We first meet Chiron - who, at this point, is referred to as Little and played by Alex R. Hibbert - running from a group of kids who mean to do him harm. He hides out in an abandoned apartment, where he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali, of "House of Cards"), a Cuban-born drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron and, in the process, smashes every cliche we'd expect for a character who is obviously morally compromised. Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), also takes a shine to Chiron and gives him the motherly attention sorely lacking at home, where his actual mom (Naomie Harris) spends much of her time strung out.

In the second chapter, a quiet and mostly friendless teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is struggling through high school, where bullies make him a prime target. However, he has at least one friend in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a lothario whom we met in the first chapter wrestling playfully with Chiron, seemingly much to the latter's pleasure. The two boys share an intimate moment on a beach that clearly acts as a pivotal life moment for Chiron, but it's later tainted after a group of boys - including Kevin - pick on him.

In the final chapter, Chiron is beefed up, wears a grill in his mouth and has become a drug dealer in Atlanta, driving around a car with a crown once owned by Juan on his car's dashboard. He receives a phone call from his mother, who wants him to come home so that she can offer him a peace treaty, but also gets one from Kevin, who has, in the decade since they've last seen each other, done a prison stint, but also fathered a child and, now, works as a cook at a restaurant. The two men meet up at Kevin's diner, which leads to the film's much talked about finale, which includes a poignant conversation and what could possibly be viewed as a breakthrough for Chiron.

"Who is you?" is a question that is repeated twice during the course of the film, first by Chiron's mother to Juan after he drops him off at home for the first time and then later directed to adult Chiron by Kevin. So, as I'd mentioned, while the fact that Chiron is gay, black, shy and bullied, none of these attributes exactly drive the film's narrative, but rather enhance its theme of identity and how signature moments during the course of our lives result in defining our characters.

In terms of story, "Moonlight" follows a time honored formula - although it's far from formulaic - but there's a lot to unpack thematically. Considering that Jenkins had previously only made one other feature eight years ago, it's surprising how much depth and richness there is to be found here. The performances - from all three actors portraying Chiron and Kevin to Harris, Monae and Ali - are all tremendous, the visuals luminous (the picture's title is fitting, considering how the use of moonlight often bathes the actors) and the writing superb. And the film's music - which includes everything from Boris Gardiner and Barbara Lewis to mid-1990s Goodie Mob - is used expertly to comment on the action.

This is easily one of the year's best films, the rare breakout film that lives up to the hype. And what makes it so powerful is how it takes so many complex themes - from sexuality and race to masculinity and a Bildungsroman plot - and deftly weaves together all the various threads. While watching the film, there's no question that you're in the hands of a filmmaker with significant talent and confidence. "Moonlight" positively glows.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Best Movies For Halloween

The Brood. Image courtesy of New World Pictures.
As is the tradition, I've put together a list of some of the best horror movies to watch this Halloween for AAA.

The categories in the piece include horror classics, vampire movies, zombie films, slasher pictures, movies dealing with the occult or Satanic stories, psychological thrillers, serial killer movies and creature features.

The list has its share of the obvious ("Rosemary's Baby" and "The Shining," for instance), but also some lesser known titles ("Dust Devil" and "Cure").

Take a look and let me know if there are any horror movies that you believe should have been on my list (I'll beat you to the punch in pointing out that "An American Werewolf in London" isn't there. I always get called on that one).

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: The Accountant

Image courtesy of Warner Bros
Although, at times, "The Accountant" is preposterously entertaining, the picture's central character is too enigmatic to truly care about, his motives are questionable at best and the film's finale features several twists that tip the scale toward the realm of the absurd.

The film, which was directed by Gavin O'Connor ("Warrior"), is not a bad one by any means. It is, at times, moody and compelling and features some pretty solid supporting work, especially J.K. Simmons as an agent who is on the titular character's trail. There are also a few action sequences late in the picture that are well handled and even a few jokes that hit their targets.

But the central problem with "The Accountant" is its lead character, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), an autistic man whose completely unrealistic upbringing (shown in flashback) taught him to be a math wizard, deadly assassin and secret agent of sorts, although one acting only in his own self interest. One of the problems is that the flashbacks jump all over the place and I'm not completely sure they ever quite add up.

There's a stint in a witness protection program where he's taught the tricks of the accounting-for-criminals trade by Jeffrey Tambor, a scene in which his mother flees his military father when he's young, a visit to a center for autism where a teacher appears enthusiastic to work with Christian and, in one of the movie's most ridiculous sequences, a session in which Christian and his brother train with a martial arts expert somewhere in Asia, while their father observes.

Wolff, we are told, works for some of the most evil people in the world (cartels, the mob, terrorists) and, as an accountant, helps uncook their books. He begins to get a conscience after taking a job looking through the filings of a robotics company led by John Lithgow. One of that company's employees (Anna Kendrick) finds herself in danger after she and Christian spot a discrepancy and they flee together. From there, the rest of the picture is mostly well-staged shootouts and silly plot reveals.

Late in the picture, we are supposed to believe that Wolff's operation - which includes a mysterious woman's voice on various phone calls with the accountant - is used for benevolent purposes, but it's difficult to square that with the fact that he enables so many sinister people. It's one of the many conflicting elements in the character that made me draw the conclusion that the film's writers didn't completely think it through thoroughly.

So, while "The Accountant" is a visually slick and occasionally exciting thriller, it is also one with some gaping holes in the script department and a pair of plot twists in the finale that might have you shaking your head. For a Hollywood action thriller, you could certainly do worse, but if you hold out you could also likely do better.

Review: Certain Women

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Kelly Reichardt's films typically emphasize atmosphere, character and insight over story and, often, silence as a method of creating tension and drama more so than dialogue. Her latest, "Certain Women," typifies this approach as it tells the story of three different women who live against the isolated backdrop of the mountains in Montana, where the most noise you'll likely hear is a train occasionally passing through.

The three stories are not necessarily connected, although there are a few plot points that spill over from one to another, and there's not exactly a unifying theme. But this does not particularly matter as all three stories are compelling in their own way.

In the first story, the great Laura Dern plays a lawyer whom we learn as the film opens is having an affair and is representing a client (Jared Harris) who was injured by a workplace accident and is seeking compensation. Dern's character is frustrated that the man doesn't appear to understand that since he took payment up front from his place of work, he has severely limited his options going forward. However, one night, he takes a hostage at his former workplace and Dern is called in by the police to act as a negotiator.

In the second story, Michelle Williams and her husband - who happens to be the man with whom Dern was having the affair in the first story - are planning to build a home in a mostly deserted section of land. They spot some unused building material on the land of an elderly man who lives nearby and the pair convince him to sell them the material. But he later appears to regret the decision. Meanwhile, Williams and her teenage daughter appear to be at odds with one another.

And in the third story, a good natured farmhand (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a night class on "school law," which regards student rights, and finds herself fascinated with the class's teacher (Kristen Stewart), whom she joins every night after class at a local diner. The two strike up a friendship, but one wonders what exactly it is Gladstone hopes to achieve in it.

In some ways, I've likely made these stories sound more dramatic than they actually are. Reichardt's films - especially "Wendy and Lucy," "Meek's Cutoff" and "Old Joy" - are slowly paced (not a criticism) dramas in which characters deal with recognizable life issues, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. She uses silence to fill in the gaps between what characters say and what they clearly want to say. This is definitely a ploy used in the third story of "Certain Women," in which we can't quite determine whether Gladstone's character is attracted to Stewart or merely sees a kindred spirit.

Of the three, I found Dern's the most compelling outright, whereas the Gladstone-Stewart story is the most heartrending. The middle story with Williams is good enough, but it might be a bit too slight, even for Reichardt's standards, although the performances are compelling.

In essence, "Certain Women" is a trio of well made short films strung together as a feature. And while a unifying theme between the three is a subject for debate, the picture does a good job of portraying the solitary lifestyle of the Montana women who are the protagonists. It's also a good starting point for those unfamiliar with Reichardt's work and a great showcase for its three leading ladies.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Birth of a Nation

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" is a bold directorial debut for the filmmaker and while, as a few critics have pointed out, it displays a few of the uneven choices one might expect from a first time director, the picture is powerful, not only in its depiction of the horrors of slavery but also as a reminder of the turbulent race relations that our nation currently faces.

The film takes its name from D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 film of the same name, but that's about all they have in common. Griffith's film is considered a significant cinematic work, due to its groundbreaking camera procedures and storytelling devices, and anyone with an interest in film should seek it out. It is also, as you may have heard, extremely unsettling due to the blatantly racist depictions of black people and the KKK's portrayal as heroic.

So, Parker has reclaimed that film's title, so to speak, by using it to tell the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831 during which he and his band of fellow slaves killed between 55 and 60 white slave owners before he was later captured.

The film opens with young Nat being pronounced by a shaman as a "prophet" and, indeed, Turner was said to have visions that may have been a result of mental illness. Regardless, he was a deeply religious man who, after suffering at hands of the whites, led an Old Testament-style revenge against slave owners.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, Nat appears to be a favorite of his master (Armie Hammer) and even convinces him to buy a young woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), with whom Turner later falls in love and marries. In fact, it is a particularly horrific act against his wife - as well as another scene in which a woman (Gabrielle Union) on the plantation where Nat lives is forced to have sex with a white man - that convinces Turner, at least in this film, to lead a rebellion.

Parker plays Turner as a religious man of deeply held convictions, but he's also a combination of a Moses (a leader who easily convinces other men to follow his plan) and a William Wallace (another prophet who was given to bloodshed when it was called for). It's a strong performance and especially so considering that Parker, a novice filmmaker, is essentially directing himself for much for the picture.

For me, the great film about slavery remains Steve McQueen's flawless "12 Years a Slave" and Parker's movie isn't without a few flaws (some of the early scenes of Nat as a boy aren't as effective and a scene in which a head is cut off veers closely toward grand Guignol), but those are easily compensated for by the film's stunning imagery (slaves hanging from trees swaying to the sound of Billie Holiday's haunting "Strange Fruit") and potent social commentary (a statement that people are "killed for no reason at all but being black" resonates just as much today).

"The Birth of a Nation" is a very good movie, an important one and a hint of a possibly great career behind the camera for Nate Parker. The picture is cathartic, especially in a year when white supremacy has reared its ugly head in the U.S., but also a reminder that there's a long way to go. It's a powerful film and one I'd highly recommend.

Review: Voyage of Time

Image courtesy of IMAX.
Terrence Malick's "Voyage of Time" is a companion piece, of sorts, to his 2011 masterpiece "The Tree of Life," although this latest picture only runs about 40 minutes long, is being distributed by IMAX and contains no actual story, that is, other than an abbreviated take on the formation of the universe and mankind.

The film contains the type of whispery dialogue - this time, courtesy of "Tree of Life" star Brad Pitt - that one has come to expect from Malick's films and there's also the floating camera effect that settles its gaze on everything from blowing grass and a child wandering in a field to dinosaurs and other creatures lurking about in Earth's early days.

As the film opens, Malick addresses a letter to a child in which he states that all of the film's viewers are part of the story of the universe, Earth, mankind and all its creatures since it is a story that is constantly moving forward and evolving.

To put it mildly, the film is visually gorgeous. Shots of everything from the cosmos to odd looking fish and seals plunging through the ocean are awe inspiring. Perhaps due to its brief length and the lack of a story around which to frame it - such as the one in "The Tree of Life" in which the origins of the universe is intertwined with the tale of two brothers and their parents growing up in Texas - "Voyage of Time" doesn't quite have the effect of that previous picture. Also, it's so epic in scope - whereas "Tree" was intimate - that the greatest impression it leaves is how visually dazzling it is.

In essence, it's an IMAX movie - and a particularly stunning one, at least in terms of its visuals, which are a combination of photography and realistic visual effects. Much like Malick's recent films - "To the Wonder" and "Knight of Cups" - this documentary is not among his greatest works - which include "Tree," "Days of Heaven," "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line" - but merely a minor project, although one he has reportedly worked on for years.

So, while "Voyage" may not be the majestic cosmic vision that we've come to expect from Malick's work, it's still pretty incredible to see an IMAX film with such a personalized vision, especially one so idiosyncratic and unique as that of this director. And while Malick's style doesn't typically lend itself to children's viewing, this would be a wonderful experience to introduce a child to both art cinema and a work that ponders philosophical ideas as well as science. It's a unique viewing experience to say the least.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," an adaptation of Ransom Riggs' novel of the same name, is a bizarre fantasy of the type we'd expect to see from the director of such oddities as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice," but while the picture has a few dazzling special effects sequences and an abundance of peculiarities, it's a jumbled affair with a mostly uninspiring lead character and a plot that defies comprehension.

As the film opens, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, doing his best with a bland role) discovers that his grandfather (Terence Stamp) is in some sort of peril, rushes to his house in Florida and discovers him dead, the old man's eyes having been plucked out.

For years, Jake's grandfather had told him fantastic stories of a group of odd children - a sort of more terrifying and pint sized X-Men, if you will - who live on an island where they are watched over by the titular matron (played with a bit of camp by Eva Green). But Jake's father (Chris O'Dowd) and mother think their son is having emotional and mental problems and, therefore, send him to a shrink (Allison Janney), who believes a trip to Wales - where Jake's grandpa claimed to have stayed with Miss Peregrine and company - could bring closure for Jake in dealing with the old man's death.

Once there, Jake discovers the group of peculiars - which include a young girl who floats, a boy who projects his dreams, another who can bring inanimate objects to life, a strong little girl, an invisible kid, one who can cause anything to grow, a fire starter (literally), a young girl with a gigantic mouth on her neck and two creepy twins who always wear hoods over their faces - and they bring him into their circle.

It's shortly after Jake's initiation into Miss Peregrine's home that the narrative begins to go haywire. For starters, Peregrine tells Jake that there is a rival group of peculiars - evil ones, that is - led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) who eat the eyeballs of fellow peculiars to gain power and are leading an army of shadowy creatures that only Jake - this being his peculiar ability - can see. Barron and these creatures - which appear to be stop motion animated giants with tentacles coming out of their eyes and mouth - are believed to be on the march to find Miss Peregrine and her children.

There's also a subplot involving the manner in which Miss Peregrine - who can bend time - enables the children to never age by recreating a loop of the same day (Sept. 3, 1943) over and over again. Also, Jake's grandfather is able to place calls on a daily basis to Peregrine from the past and there's even a burgeoning romance between Jake and Emma (Ella Purnell), the floating girl.

If this all sounds confusing, believe me, it is. There's some fun to be had with Burton introducing this odd assortment of characters, who are meant to be both likable and occasionally frightening. And, late in the film, the special effects extravaganza you know is coming actually turns out to be pretty well done as Jake and his new friends battle the tall, eyeball-eating creatures with the assistance of an army of skeletons (don't ask).

But, on the whole, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a hodgepodge of various genres (horror movies, science fiction, fantasy, coming of age) that never quite gel. The picture is a little too scary - and gruesome, for that matter - for young kids and a bit too silly for older kids or adults. It appears to aim for the crowd that bought into "The Hunger Games" or similar young adult franchises, but its lead character isn't as well drawn as a Katniss Everdeen and the world it creates - as well as the story it spins - are more confounding than awe inspiring.

At his best, Burton is a master of spinning unusual yarns (and also a very good director of serious material - take "Ed Wood" or "Big Fish," for example), but his latest is more in line with his "Alice in Wonderland" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" remakes, which had great special effects but were missing the ingredients that should have made them magical.

Review: American Honey

Image courtesy of A24.
Vivacious and free spirited, Andrea Arnold's "American Honey" is a picture that always keeps moving, although you never quite know where it will take you next. With an emphasis less on plot and more on mood and capturing a specific milieu, this is one of the most energetic and best films I've seen this year.

As the film opens, we meet Star (newcomer Sasha Stone) dumpster diving with her young siblings in a small Oklahoma town in order to find dinner for the evening. But before heading home, where she'll have to contend with her sleazeball father and his groping, Star spots a large group of youths hop out of a van, make their way into a box store and - after she follows them to observe - dance in the aisles to Rihanna's "We Found Love."

Star speaks to the leader of the group, a smooth talker named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who attempts to convince her to tag along with the ensemble of teenagers, who flit about the midwest and go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions. Due to the amount of fun the group appears to be having, plus the opportunity to get away from her depressing home life, Star is tempted.

The following day, she drops off her younger siblings with her mother, who appears to be just slightly more responsible than her father, and flees town with Jake and company, who are a rag tag group of tattooed young men and women who like to party, sing along to trap music and spend a decent amount of time barely clothed. Their fearless leader is the hard nosed Krystal (Riley Keough), who appears suspicious of Star and the apparent attraction she holds for Jake, Krystal's top seller.

Much like "Kids," Arnold's film takes a naturalistic approach with acting that feels less like performances than merely hanging out with a group of youths. On the other hand, while Star and her newfound friends occasionally throw caution to the wind and engage in all manner of wild behavior, this film isn't as hopeless as Larry Clark's controversial 1990s film. While this film's characters - especially Star - may need a change of scenery and some new perspective on life, they are not exactly lost.

The film may be light on story, but it still feels as if a fair amount takes place during its two-hour-and-45-minutes running time. Jake teaches Star, an occasionally stubborn pupil, the ropes of selling magazine subscriptions by reading her customers and finding out what they want. Each of the other members of the group have their own distinct personalities - there's a guy who likes to spend a significant portion of his time nude, a shy girl who is obsessed with Darth Vader, a skater, a young man who plays guitar and a tough talking girl who dresses like a boy.

And there are several particularly effective scenes in the picture that could be their own short films, including a fairly suspenseful one in which Star agrees to a paid date with a man who works in the oil fields and another in which she visits the home of two young children whose mother is passed out due to drug use on the couch in front of the TV. But rather than push the film's narrative forward, these sequences are powerful because they set the scene for the type of hard knock lives that Star and her friends lead.

Although the picture's naturalistic aura gives the proceedings an almost a free form vibe, "American Honey" ends with a lovely sequence that could best be described as symbolic and includes a rebirth, of sorts. Star and her friends may not know where they'll end up, but she finds a certain freedom in the fact that she'll - as the song goes - keep on moving, don't stop.

Arnold - whose previous films include a unique reimagining of "Wuthering Heights" and "Fish Tank," another movie centering on troubled youths - has created here a stunning portrait of young people who - as one character puts it - have never been asked what their dreams are and, while they may not know the answer, are pretty sure that it involves moving forward.