Saturday, July 23, 2016

To Infinity and STAR TREK BEYOND


Star Trek Beyond is a fine entry in a venerable franchise that’s celebrating its fiftieth year. The movie is colorful and clever, with effective adventure sequences, cool visual concepts, and the core intelligence mixed with compassionate character moments that have allowed this whole endeavor to endure, from its original 1966 TV show through five more series and 13 movies with more on the way. Through its ups and downs, the late Gene Roddenberry’s creation remains sci-fi’s shining beacon of utopian spirit. What a pleasure in these dark times, when the world feels irreparably torn by forces of division, hatred, fear, and anti-intellectualism, to settle in for a journey to a possible future where the values of science, progress, and unity have built a better society. The values are comforting, but no less an adventure when the noble crew of the starship Enterprise find themselves drawn into a conflict in uncharted space. It’s a series that dares to dream of a better tomorrow, not one without conflict, but one in which the better angels of our nature can succeed through cooperation between heart and logic.

Beyond continues the recent string of Treks set in an alternate timeline of the first series, with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 entry sending time travel ripples imagining new rebooted, recast stories for familiar characters while avoiding tampering with or otherwise erasing classic lore. This time around director Justin Lin, fresh from making four Fast & Furious movies (including a few of that series’ best), takes a step back from his predecessor’s Into Darkness, a fast, exciting movie that was nonetheless more militarized, destructive, and paranoid than the franchise’s comfort zone. Lin’s film is more in line with the show’s original goals – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before – in a movie that’s slightly smaller in scale, like a pleasing two-part episode with action blown out to blockbuster proportions between small character work and a journey through an alien landscape. Lin gets the spirit of the enterprise, and the simple appeal of sending a likable crew into a difficult situation and watching them think their way out.

It begins with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feeling that life in year three of their five-year exploration mission is growing “episodic.” (That’s a cute meta wink.) He’s starting to doubt his desire to captain. Likewise, his crewmates, like stoic half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) and irascible doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), wear the weariness of space heavily on their shoulders. The ship docks at a Federation station in deep space – a wondrously imagined thing that’s an idealized spacious metropolis complicatedly constructed on the inside arcs of a gigantic sphere, the tops of skyscrapers nearly meeting in the middle – for some rest and relaxation. But they must cut their vacation short when a distress call comes in from beyond an uncharted nebula. Duty calls, and so off they go, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and the rest, straight into an ambush. A mysterious creature calling himself Krall (Idris Elba under layers of grayish-blue makeup) attacks them with swarms of bug-like ships, which results in the crash of the starship and the capture of most of the crew.

The screenplay by Pegg and Doug Jung is a little undercooked, but still a cleverly paired down and contained conflict of a familiar Trek kind. The crew must learn about this strange villain’s behavior – why has he captured them? what does he want? where is his army headed next? – and explore the planet to figure out how best to escape and warn Starfleet that this unknown being is bent on its destruction. There are lengthy sequences of dazzling spectacle, Lin bringing considerable visual energy with shiny future surfaces, baroque CG fleets of vessels, and complicated layers of lights and screens. With his usual cinematographer Stephen F. Windon he finds freedom in the floating vacuum of space to turn the camera topsy-turvy, then locks down in the craggy terrain of the unknown planet. But it all depends in the downtimes on the chemistry between the loyal friends aboard the Enterprise, separated in the crash and trying to reunite with each other, trade the information they’ve gleaned, and escape the villain’s evil clutches.

Through three films together, this cast has gelled naturally. Pine’s brash Kirk, Quinto’s logical Spock, and Urban’s crackling McCoy are a perfect Trek trinity, not merely resting on nostalgia for the old cast’s interpretations, but with distinct familiarity of their own. Cho’s Sulu and Saldana’s Uhura are allowed shadings and complications on the margins that make them fresh, while Yelchin (despite his appearance tinged with melancholy brought on by his untimely death) is fun comic relief as the lively and irrepressible Chekov. He gets a moment where he taps his foot to a catchy tune while he confidently pilots the Enterprise just ahead of a wave of fiery doom, a fun needle-drop melded with a fleeting grace note. Lin’s confidence as an action filmmaker is easy to spot, but it’s his light touches with actors that really animates the thrills. Here it’s a pleasure to see this ensemble reunite, and new additions – like a young tough alien scavenger woman also marooned on this planet (Sofia Boutella) – quickly fit right in with the team. Even Elba is allowed just enough brief moments to take a seemingly one-dimensional MacGuffin hunter under a pile of makeup and project his charisma and compelling fascination through it.

Lin knows it’s the eye on humanity that makes for good Star Trek and here he delivers the goods. Beyond might be smaller and thinner than you’d expect after the more slam-bang large-scale entries that came before, but there’s a bright throwback appeal and energy to the whole piece similar to spotting an old rerun while flipping channels. The characters and their world are so engaging that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, intrigued to see how they were going to outsmart their attackers and keep the galaxy safe. In the end the dazzling action climax – zipping in and around an outer space locale in supremely clever use of its lovingly imagined structure – isn’t only about shooting and punching, but more importantly thinking through the best course of action and executing it to perfection by luck and by pluck. There are no grand character arcs or overly heavy thematic preoccupations. It’s simply good old-fashioned space adventure that’s light on its feet, loves its characters, and can tap into the uniquely Star Trek sense of exploring the galaxy with a group of likeminded individuals committed to caring.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Part of Darkness: LIGHTS OUT


Lights Out has a pretty scary image and takes it about as far as it can go. Then it keeps going, stretching itself thin before collapsing into end credits. The idea is this: a mean, grabby, violent ghost is lurking in the dark, and disappears in the light. The opening sequence is effective, as two characters at the end of a long workday are locking up a mannequin warehouse (red flag number one, for all the shadowy figures lurking in the frame). When the lights go out, a haunting silhouette appears in the doorway, backlit by other rooms’ ambient glow. They flip the switch. Nothing’s there. Flip it again. There’s the ghost again, getting closer. Spooky stuff. Unfortunately, that’s really the only trick up the movie’s sleeve, although screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5) tries, but only sometimes succeeds, to keep the deployment of the image fresh throughout. The problem is inherent in making a 3-minute short into a feature-length affair, running out of novelty far sooner than an 80-minute horror movie should.

But at least director David F. Sandberg, adapting his own short, is trying, investing the thin story with something like psychological interest. One should never attend a horror movie expecting a sensitive treatment of mental illness. But here it makes for an interesting thread right up until the genre dictates send it straight into troubling conclusions. That makes it more disappointing in the end, but, hey, it was worth a try. It turns out the ghost who appears when the lights go out – one with a prerequisite tortured-youngster-in-a-tragic-asylum backstory – is psychically linked to a mother (Maria Bello) gone off her meds. The supernatural creature is a manifestation of her breakdown. We learn it happened before, after her first husband disappeared when her now-grown daughter (Teresa Palmer) was 10 years old. She managed to get it under control then. But now, after the death of her second husband (Billy Burke), it’s back, conjoined with her depression and other nameless psychological issues going untreated welcoming this specter into the home she shares with her young son (Gabriel Bateman).

What’s fascinating underneath the pro forma ghost story elements is the understanding of the ways one person’s psychosis can become a shared state of madness for the whole family. They’re bound together inside the delusion, if not in sharing the particulars then at least in understanding the language of its parameters. When the boy turns up at his step-sister’s apartment, exhausted from sleepless nights hiding as the thing goes bump in the dark, she knows all too well what’s wrong. It doesn’t take long until she and her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) argue with the mother about what’s best for the boy, and ultimately decide to help rid their family of this terrible curse with or without her help. The mother’s pills have gone untaken, and the ghost is getting territorial, trying its best to scare off or, failing that, kill anyone who would stop this woman’s mental illness, and thus stop allowing the spirit’s malevolence to exist.

That’s a neat-enough way to pad out the runtime. As it goes along the ghost appears and disappears under the dim glow of all of the lights (all of the lights): cop lights, flash lights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights, candlelight, black light, neon light. All of the lights. You get the picture. There’s scraping and growling and lunging, often circling in the surround speakers to give an immersive sense of creepiness until the being appears with a jolt, its outline darkening the edges of a pale beam, then shrinking in a strong blast of bright. It’s clever, especially when the ghost starts picking objects or people up and then, upon disappearing, drops them instantaneously. But the filmmakers don’t play with the concept enough, eventually devolving into the sort of dumb horror movie behavior (don’t open that! don’t split up! don’t turn your back on that! don’t leave him alone! don’t go in the basement!) that contributes to diminishing the scares’ potency.

Still, it’s enjoyably surfacy and small enough to nearly work, carried along by well-lit (naturally) frames and a cast committing to the emotional intensity of children watching their mother’s vulnerable state deteriorate. Both are enhanced in spookiness by all those opportunities for characters to look scared while holding light sources under their faces like they’re telling ghost stories around the campfire. But by the end, the movie itself doesn’t seem to know how to conclude, arriving at a truly dispiriting answer to its characters’ problems. It gives up. The method by which the threat is resolved implies that mental illness of a certain severity is essentially incurable, and that the sane members of the family would be better off without her. That’s reductive and insulting, probably not on purpose, but through an inability to figure out any other way to write themselves to a satisfying stopping point. In just about every possible aspect, Lights Out starts intriguing and then runs out of bright ideas well before its end.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Boo Who? GHOSTBUSTERS


Like the 1984 supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, the 2016 remake is a plodding effects-heavy silly spectacle strung along a rickety thin plot. The jokes aren’t particularly funny. The ghosts aren’t particularly scary. And the story isn’t compelling. The whole enterprise rests entirely on the charms of its comedian cast. In both cases, this allows for a certain eccentric personality that keeps it from being a total waste. The original had its sarcastic Bill Murray, technical Harold Ramis, eager Dan Aykroyd, and helpful Ernie Hudson banding together to start a small business as ghost catchers. Now there’s a reluctant Kristen Wiig, earnest Melissa McCarthy, loopy Kate McKinnon, and capable Leslie Jones putting together a ghost busting team. They want to prove their research isn’t bunk, and that they can do some good removing New York City’s pesky hauntings. Because the cast is likable and game, throwing themselves into the swirling effects work with some sense of commitment and chemistry, it’s not too bad.

The run up to the movie’s release was marred by sight-unseen sexist anger from guys who objected to women in the ghostbusting business, followed by an opposing contingent who felt the best way to combat that nonsensical rage was to claim seeing the movie to be a sort of feminist duty. (Hopefully all right-thinking people know women can be ghostbusters; and you don’t need to buy this particular movie ticket to prove you believe in gender equality, despite its undeniably productive symbolic value.) In retrospect, the movie itself is hardly worth the foofaraw. Watching it I was neither entertained nor annoyed. I was, in fact, the closest to no thoughts at all as possible. Technically a movie, a great deal of obvious cost and effort went into making it a shiny, amiable, blockbuster bauble. It’s not a good movie, but it’s certainly no worse than the original, sparks of inspiration duly served up in a bland container. There are good intentions and good will on the part of director Paul Feig, co-writing with his The Heat screenwriter Kate Dippold, beholden to the idea of what a Ghostbusters should be. It hits the same beats, invites in many of the same spirits, and plays it safe. There’s an overwhelming feeling of been there, done that, despite the refreshed surface details.

Tasked with reviving a long-dormant property important to Sony’s bottom line, Feig, who has steadily been accruing a good run of big screen comedy, is beholden to the dictates of big, bland studio product. He doesn’t have the freedom to be as loose and observationally character driven as his Bridesmaids or as sharply pointed a gender studies genre critique as his Spy. So it feels emptier than we know he was, at least in theory, capable of making it, like it’s a fresh take sloppily shoved into stale packaging. But at least he is allowed to give his cast enough room to make it their own. Wiig and McCarthy nicely underplay sweet old friends who reconnect over their love of the supernatural. McKinnon is a continual delight as a loose-limbed weirdo fawning over the ghostly happenings and her oddball tech. (Whether she’s dancing to DeBarge or licking her weapons, every cutaway to her is worth a smile.) And Jones makes the most out of an NYC history buff, good for pointing out a subway spirit is of one the earliest criminals to be electrocuted in the city. (“It took so much electricity they said, forget it, just shoot him.”) They wring some small laughs out of the dead air.

To the extent this Ghostbusters is a pleasure to watch it’s thanks to these four women, plus Chris Hemsworth as their incredibly dim hunky secretary so dumb he plugs his eyes when he hears a loud noise. (That’s the movie’s one smart commentary on gender roles in these kinds of movies, giving women the center stage while the token man is there to be stupid and objectified.) Otherwise the movie’s a slog through repetitive and flatly deployed hauntings at which the women show up, take care of business, and then leave deflated when the mayor’s office routinely decries them as fakes. Then there’s an endless CG climax with swirling ectoplasm and a snarling underwritten villain. It’s business as usual. Every scene is too short – no good build to the comic rhythms or scares’ staging, with the hammering editing stepping on most punchlines – and yet the whole movie is too long. There’s a push-pull between the new and old (several cameos from original cast members stop the action cold), the comedy and horror, the grinding predictable plot and the thwarted desire to turn into a loose hangout with funny people. It never resolves these tensions, leaving the movie off-balance and never wholly satisfying. The women are great. The movie is not. A more radical reimagining was in order.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Wedding Smashers: MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES


Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is one of those movies with a title that tells you just about all you need to know about its plot. Mike and Dave need dates to their sister’s wedding. It’s their father’s ultimatum. You see, these rowdy brothers have made it a habit of bringing their hard-partying frat-boy lifestyle to family gatherings, which have resulted in property damage, personal injury, and great embarrassment. Somehow this is pinned on their drive to impress the ladies, so mandatory dates it is. The act of finding two women to take an all-expenses-paid trip to a destination wedding at a Hawaiian resort has a cracked reality show vibe as Mike and Dave throw an ad up on Craigslist and watch the applications roll in as it goes viral. Played by the buff Zac Efron and the doughier Adam Devine, the guys are totally self-centered and incredibly privileged. The movie’s smartest move is to find them perfect foils in a pair of sloppy, silly con women (Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza) who decide to play classy and bilk themselves a vacation.

The result is a reasonably diverting gender flip on the Wedding Crashers idea, with Kendrick and Plaza running away with the entire film out from under its ostensible stars. So what if the movie’s named after and rooting for Mike and Dave? This should be Alice and Tatiana’s story. They’re freshly fired waitresses who rouse themselves from a snack food and daytime television enabled stupor to wash up, put on nice dresses, and pretend to be the sort of girls the guys would love to show off to their wealthy family. They force a Meet Cute and, bada-bing bada-boom, they’re off to Hawaii. It’s not exactly a sophisticated con they’re running. One claims to be a schoolteacher (“I’m always noticing spellings…” she coos) who loves her students despite, “how dumb they are,” while the other says she manages a hedge fund, describing her daily office life as a matter of checking on the hedging. The appeal of the movie rests entirely on their rowdy free-spiritedness, and in the performances of Kendrick and Plaza. Refreshingly casual and candid, they drip with sarcasm and filthy improvisational patter.

For a stretch in the middle – as the family (including sister Sugar Lyn Beard and father Stephen Root) are convinced they like these fun-loving frauds while the boys’ emotional stability is slowly undermined – there’s enjoyment to be had in the rowdy vulgarity. Kendrick and Plaza are funny as their characters are unable to hold onto their “good girl” facades because it’s too much fun just being themselves, doing ATV tricks, slamming back shots, ordering room service, and slipping extra bills in a masseuse's pocket to make sure the bride-to-be has an extra special session. But too often the script by Neighbors’ Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien falls back on the usual tricks of the subgenre: drug trips, surprise nudity, long punchline roulettes in which the cast stands around tossing out improvised insults. And as its plot gears start grinding to a treacly conclusion it asks us to care about the interminably dopey guys as well. Efron earns some sympathy, showing a capacity for mellowing and meeting his responsibilities halfway. But Devine can’t come down from the self-centered stubbornness, which drives him to entitled fits. The movie’s supposed to end with people learning lessons, but it’s more about forgetting than forgiving.

This isn’t an entirely successful movie. The setup is great, but deserves more of a farcical verve to stir things up. The side characters (a good cast of cable-TV character actors, including Veep’s Sam Richardson, Breaking Bad’s Lavell Crawford, and Silicon Valley’s Alice Wetterlund and Kumail Nanjiani) stay rather one-note. The mishaps never really cascade or escalate in the best door-slamming misunderstandings tradition, because consequences are dropped to get to the next sequence. A face run over in a freak accident has bruising for a jokey reveal, then quickly fades. An encounter in a steam room between a game Plaza and a seductive cousin-of-the-bride is used for shock value, but has no satisfying payoff. The movie excuses its characters’ behaviors when convenient, or holds it over their heads’ when needed. It’s all at the whims of the predictable plot beats instead of snowballing organically, and thus can’t quite make the turns from R-rated frankness to sweet sentimentality it tries. The balance of sweetness and sourness is off. But even though the thing doesn’t cohere as well as it should, director Jake Szymanski keeps the pace moving, the tone relaxed, and the jokes just above the insult-to-intelligence line. Plus, he knows how to step back and allow Kendrick and Plaza to run circles around Efron and Devine. As a lazy summer distraction, that might be good enough.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Bad Dog: THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS


The animators at Illumination Entertainment have taken a break from their anarchic Minions to show us The Secret Life of Pets. It’s a far more conventional and predictable kids’ movie, operating from the shameless question, “What if Toy Story, but with pets?” It wouldn’t surprise me if writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch had a plaque over their desks saying, “What would Pixar do?” Their movie is about an overconfident little guy who feels threatened when his owner brings home a new buddy. Feelings of jealousy lead him to try to get rid of this intruder and return to being the leading recipient of his owner’s affections. Unfortunately, his attempts to do so leave him lost far from home, with only his new nemesis for company. A group of pals left behind try to figure out how to save these two, while a group of misfits the mismatched pair encounter on their journey home start out menacing before revealing themselves as cuddly help. Along the way there’s a dollop of sentimental backstory and by the end there’s a big scrambling chase after a truck. Sounds familiar?

There was barely a moment of this movie where I wasn’t reminded of Toy Story, except for the climax, which has a little more in common with the end of Finding Dory. Chalk that up to bad timing more than copying, I suppose. The problem with playing the Pixar formula – especially when the originators themselves are reaching the limits of its potential – is that Illumination is no Pixar. They’re trying to be something they aren’t. They have nothing of their inspiration’s deep thought-through approach to imagined worlds and none of the cleverness of premise. Pets is a pretty easy and lazy display of the simplest possible imagination. There’s a secret society of pets under their owner’s noses, a reasonable enough picture-book assumption. What does that entail? Well, in this New York City apartment building it means the animals roam the halls and end up partying and hanging out together all day before the people return at night. They play it safe, content with their lot in life. There’s no great community built up, just a bunch of animals sitting around.

The lead dog is Max (Louis C.K.). He’s jealous of a big new dog (Eric Stonestreet) his owner (Ellie Kemper) brings home. Their neighbors include a fluffy white dog (Jenny Slate), a surly cat (Lake Bell), two more dogs (Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan), and a falcon (Albert Brooks). I’d tell you more about who these characters are, but they’re not much. Relying entirely on what little personality the famous voices can filter through, they’re bouncy bright cartoony critters with little in the way of interior lives and only the simplest one-note motivations. It’d be fine if there weren’t so little else to pay attention to. The movie’s best creation is a sewer gang of discarded animals who call themselves The Flushed Pets and plot to hurt humans. A rough bunny voiced by Kevin Hart leads them. Unfortunately the rigidly deterministic message of the movie softens them – after a lengthy bus crash sequence in which surely several people die – saying all counterculture revolutionaries secretly want to learn their proper place in the world and be happy with that. It’s nothing if not a settling-for-the-status-quo downer.

At least co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney keep the look colorful and cuddly, and the voice work does sell a funny line here and there. It’s best in an early sequence setting up the daily routine of pets. This gives the chance for animators to get funny gags out of their characters identifiable animals behaviors next to anthropomorphized emotions. Max whines about his owner leaving only to snap into a tail-wagging leap when he hears the click of a door. That’s nice. Later, though, the movie grinds through predictable paces, scurrying here and there, engaging in predictable pratfalls, cartoon violence and vertigo, and growing thinner all the while. It’s best when unexpected, like a hallucinogenic hunger dream in which hot dogs sing “We Go Together.” Moments like that are rare. It feels mechanical and routine. Ho-hum, just another technically competent computer animated comedy with celebrity voices on an adventure learning to appreciate what they have and whatnot. It’s programmed to hit the right beats, but not for intelligence or heart. At least it’s watchable and not downright hateful like The Angry Birds Movie. It’s just mindless. Why have such low expectations for what’s going in kid’s minds?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Body Talk: SWISS ARMY MAN


Swiss Army Man pulls off a magic trick of tone and effect. It’s a movie about Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man who is literally at the end of his rope on a deserted island when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Distracted from the task at hand, he goes over to investigate and discovers the corpse is extremely flatulent, leaking excess gas in gusts of whoopee cushion sound effects. Hank is at first indifferent, but then realizes the force of the blasts just might come in handy. And so the movie opens with a man riding a farting corpse like a jet ski across the open water. Quickly, though, he’s is knocked off his unusual vehicle and wakes up on yet another beach, the corpse still there intermittently sputtering away. (It’s here that you might be reminded of the old joke about the monkey, the cow, and the cork.) Here’s a movie that’s immediately absurd, juvenile, and undeniably morbid, and yet somehow manages to become one of the sweetest, most life-affirming films in recent memory. That is definitely a magic trick.

I suppose hanging out with a dead body is a good way to make you appreciate life. As the film progresses, and the trumpeting from the corpse’s rear dies down, the lonely, starving, lost Hank strikes up a sort of friendship with the dead man. He names him Manny and drags him through the forest, talking to the stiff about the trouble he’s in. Magical realism – the sort that allows a dead body to become a mode of transport – is even more apparent as the body starts to talk back, first with lips flapping through rigor mortis rictus, then with better ease. He can’t magically walk or move his arms. He just gets chatty. (This leaves open some possible doubt as to Hank’s mental state.) Manny doesn’t remember even basic facts about being alive, so Hank tells him about bodily functions, food, hobbies, family, feelings of isolation and inadequacy, and what love is like. Hank may be going insane, delirious from lack of human contact and starvation, but at least he can hold on to what’s valuable about life by explaining it one who lost it.

Hank carries Manny along, puppeteering the arms and legs at times to make it seem more like having a real living buddy. He eventually discovers the gas inside the corpse can power all kinds of unlikely makeshift anatomical tools. A drinking fountain sprays from Manny’s mouth. His arm springs with karate chop action. He can belch a grappling hook. (I won’t even tell you what body part becomes a compass.) All that and more too is very convenient. To see it is totally bizarre and more than a little gross. It skirts body horror to see a body manipulated in such unnatural and fantastical ways, but is presented with such matter-of-factness that it’s more like body comedy. One the one hand, it’s clearly not meant to be taken seriously, the men’s behavior and babbling banter an amusing outgrowth of an extreme coping mechanism. On the other, the filmmakers never mock the concept, treating it with respect for the emotional core. There’s a touching moment where Hank builds a fake bus out of branches and litter to reenact the act of seeing a pretty young woman on board and being too afraid to say something to her. As Manny’s heart swells in awe remembering flutters of attraction, it’s oddly moving.

What saves the movie from being another cutesy indie tied to eccentric quirk is the intelligence with which it is put together. Dano and Radcliffe deliver impressive performances, selling the weirdness by putting authentic feeling behind it. Dano plays frazzled and desperate, and the more we learn about Hank’s backstory it’s clear how sad a figure he really is. His loneliness and despair predate his getting lost in the wilderness. They’re outgrowths of self-pity and selfishness. (That crush he has on the girl on the bus is more than a little creepy in this context, and the movie knows it.) You might even say he’s dead inside, a fine mirror for the physically dead guy he strikes up oddball friendship with. Radcliffe (assisted by uncanny makeup and a macabre dummy stand-in seamlessly incorporated) does tremendous physical performing, allowing his limbs to hang limp as he mutters through his lines. It’s impossible to forget he’s dead, but the amount of life he’s able to breathe into this construct is remarkable. We don’t learn anything about Manny – who he is, how he got there – but the feeling generated by his post-mortem innocence is adorable and sympathetic, albeit laced with understandable melancholy.  

This is the feature debut of writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, previously best known for the memorably strange music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” which had a similar interest in grotesque and funny exaggerated body movements. With Swiss Army Man they take in a most unusual conceit and treat it with straight-faced wonder, like a deadpan riff on swooning inspirational triumph-of-the-human-spirit fare. And yet they totally believe it as well, letting cinematographer Larkin Seiple photograph the absurdities and the tender connection between the men with a loose, sunny, textured naturalness while musicians Andy Hull and Robert McDowell score it with a chanting choir of folksy acoustic rock uplift. There’s no reason this should work. On paper it sounds preposterous. But in practice everyone involved commits so fully and intensely to every scene and every development. It can’t help but work. It’s a provocation in content, but a gentle and casual sweetness in form. It doesn’t rest on easy gross out gags or shock value, is willing to get invested in its characters’ peculiar circumstances, and complicates its surface assumptions. The result is a genuinely unpredictable and wholly original movie, a true one-of-a-kind.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Bedtime Stories: THE BFG


It’s hard not to see something of director Steven Spielberg in the humble craftsman at the center of his lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. He’s a big friendly giant who hears all the hopes and fears of mankind, harvests magic from a land of imagination, and mixes them together lovingly into dreams and nightmares. He keeps them bottled up, stored in his workshop for safekeeping. Then, in the middle of the night, he gingerly steps out of giant country and into our world, toting his spells to send our slumbering minds drifting into tailor-made dreamlands. He, like Spielberg, knows how to cast the right spells for the just the right effects, speaking directly to our hearts and minds with a purity of intention and skill. He’s a master at what he does, and when his art starts to glow before our eyes, we know we’re in good hands. Here is a movie of such prodigious filmmaking skill deployed so gently and so casually that the trick is how easy it looks. Spielberg’s enchanting approach to family filmmaking is to allow the story to unfold at its own pace and tone, inviting empathy and letting magic appear without overly insisting on itself.

As the movie begins the towering BFG (a digital creation soulfully embodied with a sweet melancholy in Mark Rylance’s performance) encounters Sophie, a little girl (Ruby Barnhill). A precocious child, she spends her nights unhappily roaming the halls of her orphanage. She has insomnia, she’ll solemnly report, explaining her habits as well as her unfamiliarity with dreaming. Obviously it’s quite a scary thing to see a lumbering giant outside your bedroom window in the dark stillness of three o’clock in the morning. Scarier still is the moment when a hand the size of Sophie’s entire body slides in past the curtains and picks her up, spiriting the poor girl away to a hidden realm where she cowers behind enormous everyday objects. There’s a moment of unease at the initial kidnapping, but the girl quickly sees there’s nothing threatening about this gigantic man. He’s harmless, shrugging as he explains he had no choice but to take her with him. Can’t risk being reported and hunted by “human beans,” the linguistically tangled chap says.

This is a potentially worrisome situation, but Spielberg is quick to comfort the audience by revealing the BFG to be the runt of giant land. A scrawny, lanky sweetheart with twitchy big ears and a goofy grin, he’s much shorter than the others of his kind. He is picked on by the other giants (voiced by Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and others) for being a vegetarian instead of a cold-hearted cannibal gobbling up human beans three meals a day. Their diet is only implied, but certainly puts our Friendly Giant in a position of sympathy. He just wants to work his magic in peace, but the bullies push him around, hector him about “vegi-terribles,” and start sniffing around when they smell the scent of a girl-sized snack. Sophie sees in him a loneliness she recognizes, and quickly comes to trust him. The thrust of the plot sees her protected by him, and brought into the secret dream factory he’s made his life’s work. They become buddies, trusting one another to do what’s best. There’s charming storybook logic here – surely it’s no coincidence Sophie is reading with a flashlight under the covers when he appears – as two kindred spirits bond over a desire to enjoy a life of peace, kindness, and friendship.

It’s a pleasure to exist in this movie’s world, unhurried and relaxed, allowing long dialogue scenes between the very tall man and the small girl to stretch out, the awe of the fantastical interaction seeming simply normal while seesawing in pleasing tongue-twister tangles of eccentric giant jargon and childlike innocence. Giant Country is a fantasy drawn in convincing and warm detail of delightful picture book simplicity and appeal. Spielberg is always adept at integrating effects and live action with a brilliant eye. Here he allows the digital space to create a light floating camera, and a sense of space for real emotional rapport. It’s not easy to generate a relationship between characters who only share the frame through trickery, but here he draws it out perfectly. The world itself – a humble hovel, a cave of dreams, a field of grumpy giants, swirling clouds, a glowing tree in an upside-down reflecting pool – is striking and comforting, representing the most primary colors cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has ever had in a single shot. It sparkles with pop-up book confidence.

Spielberg, and the wonderful screenplay by Melissa Mathison (the late, great writer of E.T., The Black Stallion, and Kundun), respects children’s capacity for comprehension, their ability to put together visual puzzle pieces of plot and follow a story’s imagination. The movie unfolds with a dreamlike trust in its fantasy’s power to carry away all who are receptive to it. There’s conflict, yes, as the mean giants need to be stopped before they become a deadly danger to Sophie. But the real core of conflict is found in two lonely people who make a connection, a fragile, unsustainable friendship that might as well be imaginary, but has the potential to leave them both more confident and self-sufficient individuals. It’s moving, but not condescending. The avuncular BFG (Rylance’s non-threatening eyes twinkling behind the effects) and the adorable Sophie (Barnhill the sweetest orphan this side of Annie) need only figure out the right dream – assembled in a Kinetoscope blender casting flickering shadows on the dream factory wall like Plato’s cave – to explain the situation to someone who can help. What a perfect metaphor for storytelling, and a gentle child’s-eye-view to conflict resolution.

Eventually the film reaches a poignant resolution through quietly magisterial whimsy that flips the fish-out-of-water scenario, bringing the BFG to new people and places. (It’s great fun watching surprising characters interact with his enormity, including struggling to make him feel at home in the human world, culminating in, no joke, one of the best instances of flatulence in cinema history.) But there’s no cruelty here, or in the eventual solutions to everyone’s problems. The movie’s gentility is a much-needed tonic for a cruel and cynical world. Spielberg’s masterful use of the moviemaking tools at his disposal is at once classical restraint and clear-eyed use of the cutting-edge. The result is a film of genuine absorbing, heartwarming magic. Refreshingly tender and thoughtful – like a giant gingerly moving a child’s tiny glasses to safety – the movie is soothingly composed and playfully imaginative. It’s welcome respite from all those family entertainments, good and bad alike, operating with manic panic of allowing downtime. The BFG has patience, the visual poise to play out in long takes and to treat its digital creations as wonders instead of routine spectacle. Best of all, it has the confidence to let small, delicate feelings animate a production so big and strong.
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