Monday, November 24, 2014

A Brief History of Hawking: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING


Stephen Hawking, the great theoretical physicist, has contributed mightily to our understanding of the universe. Through his academic work on black holes, the Big Bang Theory and the history of time, and his bestselling books on the subjects, his name has become shorthand for scientific progress and the power of the human mind. Surely, he belongs on the public imagination’s shortlist of notable scientists with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. That he’s done all this from the confines of a wheelchair, a form of ALS having left him able to write and speak only with the assistance of a custom computer that digitizes his thoughts one click at a time, is nothing short of extraordinary. His theories are important, his life impressive.

But when it comes to making a movie out of his life, director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have made his story into the same fawning biopic we’d see about any Great Man. It shows his early promise in brisk, energetic moments, falls into his tragic setbacks, then watches in sentimental pride his eventual standing-ovation worthy triumphs. All the while, his supportive wife is by his side, even though understandable difficulties cause their marriage to drift apart. The Theory of Everything is any and every biopic, sturdy and uncomplicated, even in its subjects’ darkest moments. It’s not interested in pushing too hard. It’s all about playing it safe and glossy, comfortable.

The film’s a straightforward retelling of Hawking’s life and work, complete with recreations of several key anecdotes that’ll be recognizable to anyone familiar with A Brief History of Time, either his book or Errol Morris’ documentary based on it. Our story begins in the 1960s, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a smart student hard at work on his PhD at Cambridge. He was on the rowing team, rode his bike across campus, and generally had a good time while impressing everyone with his intimidating intellect. What startled his peers most was how easily his work came to him. At an off-campus party he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who will become the most important person in his life. They’re a fine pair, he, a man of science and math, and she, a woman of art and religion.

Marsh and McCarten draw out these opposites as Redmayne and Jones fill in the charm that brought the couple together. The film makes the most out of this central relationship, making it far more about the Hawkings’ relationship than about his work. We’re left knowing only that he’s brilliant and popular, but with a more in-depth understanding of the compassion he was shown that enabled him to continue his work. He’s diagnosed with ALS before he’s finished with his Doctorate, before he and Jane get married. It’s a slow decline, losing feeling and muscle in all his limbs bit by bit. First he’s limping, then leaning on canes. Eventually, he can only move his lips and eyes, barely making a sound but for the computer that arrives in his life when his thoughts threaten to remain trapped in his mind.

It is through the vibrant young man’s slow arrival as the Hawking we’ve long known that Redmayne’s acting shines. If a biopic is going to get just one variable exactly right, it might as well be the lead performance. Here, the charming redhead you might remember from Les Miserables delivers an uncanny inhabitation, somewhere beyond imitation, of an intelligent man wrestling with the pain and fear of losing physical abilities. By the time he sits in the wheelchair, crumpled and limp, he does more with his curled upper lip and bright eyes than some actors manage with their whole bodies. He’s everything the movie should be, precise in his charting of the disease’s progression, moving in the resilience of Hawking’s intellect in the face of a diagnosis that even a decade earlier would’ve left him forever locked in.

Marsh, whose other biopic (of sorts) Man on Wire played around with form as much as Theory of Everything plays it safe, populates the film with some of the finest character actors in England, from David Thewlis and Emily Watson to Charlie Cox and Simon McBurney. There’s period flavor in every corner with convincing production design. Bruno Delhomme’s cinematography is handsome and gauzy. The problem is that it’s all in service of a film so rote, going through the biopic motions instead of digging into what makes Hawking’s life so compelling. There’s little care taken to flesh out his theories or personality beyond surface level anecdotal evidence. And then it expects us to cry on command with one of its treacly music cues or misty-eyed crane shots. Instead of matching the level of technical command and unsentimental pathos of Redmayne’s performance, it’s loaded up with the dullest gloss. It’s well made, but conventional and, acting aside, feels awfully hollow.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Vampire's Kiss: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a great title. It sadly conjures feelings of isolation, vulnerability, and danger. But in this film, the girl is the danger. You shouldn't be worried for her. You should be scared of her. She’s a vampire, stalking her prey down dark alleys and dim sidewalks, disappearing into the night leaving bloodless corpses behind. That’s hardly new material for the vampire genre to explore. Since the first glimpse of these creatures, stories have gone to the areas between victim and victimizer, between the vulnerable and violent, for inspiration, seduction, and fright. Now we’re at what seems to be the tail end of the most recent vampire fiction fad with Twilight faded, True Blood ended, and no new vamp catching public imagination in a big way. That’s what makes writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature so welcome. Like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from earlier this year, it finds new angles from which to view these old monsters.

Amirpour sets the action in a fictional Iranian town called Bad City, a small, crumbling place with corners of crime, the better to house victims whose disappearances won’t be too unusual. The setting makes the stuff of typical vampire movies into something both new and old. The vampire (Sheila Vand) slinks through the frame wearing a chador, flowing black fabric that’s at once distinctly culturally specific, and from the right angles looks a lot like a cape. Her garb blends into the black of night, leaving only her pale face’s hollow glow under sporadic street lamps. In one scene she hops on a skateboard and glides down the road, rock music bumping on the soundtrack. It’s eerie and captivating, a melding of classic vampire iconography and modern Iran in one cool art film vibe.

It’s a film of studied cool, a simmering mood coaxed along by its sincere affectations and collection of influences. It’s effective. Shot in handsome, wide black and white framing by cinematographer Lyle Vincent, Amirpour builds a feeling of timelessness. Though it has specificities of both genre and setting, it seems to exist in its own hazy, nightmarish dream space where people move slowly, deliberately, take long silent pauses as they stare off into the middle distance. These moments aren’t quite as evocative as the Jarmusch languor they so clearly suggest, but there’s something elementally appealing and unnerving about the crisp high contrast blacks and grays and the blocking that has the vampire appear suddenly, quietly, deadly, like Nosferatu’s hip multicultural sister. There’s a coolness, and a coldness, but as the film moves slowly through what becomes a rather typical vampire story, it stirs up welcome tension and chill.

As so many vampire stories do, this one involves the creature meeting a human who just might be a potential love interest. He (Arash Marandi) is cool too, driving a Thunderbird, and looking like an Iranian James Dean. He has problems – a sick father (Marshall Manesh), debt to a tattooed drug-dealing pimp (Dominic Rains) – but finds those concerns fading to the background as he’s drawn to this mysterious woman. They meet outside a costume party. He’s dressed as Dracula. That’s good for a dark, dry laugh. Their relationship is a slow and subtly developed as the rest of the film, imbued with more danger than romanticism. Their first night together, she contemplates his neck for an unsettlingly long period of time. The shot holds, she stares, and the tension builds without resolving. Later, the film slips into its end credits on a similar note. She’s captivating, but she’s a danger.

We don’t forget the threat she poses. There are attack scenes throughout, providing doses of trashy horror fun. She seduces her first victim (well, the first we see), slowly pulling his index finger into her mouth, and then biting down. He screams. Blood spurts. He pulls away. She slowly slides the severed digit back out of her mouth, and then gingerly teases his shocked face with it. That’s a great bit of horror imagery, the kind that’s surprising, scary, funny, sinister, and sensual all at once. Other doses of violence aren’t as lurid, but they’re creepy nonetheless in a movie drunk on mood and cool more than anything else. Amirpour is clearly having fun cooking up and sustaining a mood of unrelenting melancholy danger spiked with tremors of seductive connection. It doesn’t add up to much, but the sensation of watching it unfold is tantalizing. It’s a promising debut, a rough-around-the-edges gathering of influences with enough mash-up originality and striking imagery to make a memorable mark.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Games Over: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY-PART 1


With each installment, The Hunger Games series gets more complicated and more interesting. The latest, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, based on the first half of the last novel in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) regrouping after a rebel cell sprung her from her second Hunger Games, a position she found herself in after inadvertently inspiring a revolution with her first win. In this film, she’s confused and distraught. Her friend and ally, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is captured, a hostage of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the ostentatious Captiol. She’s hunkered in an underground bunker in the wilds of District 13, helping the rebels plan how best to use her popularity to galvanize the whole Panem country and foment open warfare against the tyrants who’ve oppressed them for so long.

Returning director Francis Lawrence, this time with a screenplay adapted by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, turns this dilemma into the stuff of potent political allegory. The series has grown increasingly ideologically fascinating, starting as a surface-level jab at class conflict and reality TV competitions and evolving into what is now a radicalized story of class warfare waged through propaganda battles, lopsided bombing campaigns, and surprise attacks. It’s a grab bag of geopolitical reference points, but the central image of downtrodden working class folks rising up against wealthy tyrants is a stirring one. This feature, which picks up right where the last left off and builds towards yet another cliffhanger, extends the conflicts’ emotional damage while gearing up for the grand finale to hit theaters this time next year. It plays upon our sympathies built up in previous installments and our understanding that there’s more to come.

The film devotes most of its runtime to Katniss struggling with what the movement needs her to be and the conflicted feelings roiling inside her. She never asked to be a leader. In the first film, she was a symbol for the Capitol. The second film found her a symbol for Panem. In both cases, she had no say in the matter. Now, the leaders of the burgeoning rebellion expect her, the Mockingjay symbol incarnate, to appear in their stirring propaganda campaign, smuggled over the airways into the tinderboxes that are the increasingly violently oppressed districts ready to explode. It’s a movie about how heroes are not just born to lead, but built and shaped for their movement’s needs. We’re introduced to a team of commando cameramen (lead by Natalie Dormer) intent on following Katniss into guerilla warfare, capturing great galvanizing images to broadcast. These dispatches look an awful lot like an ad campaign for a Hunger Games movie, so you know they’re effective.

As the rebellion gets ready to make their next step, Katniss talks with familiar returning characters. She sees a friend (Liam Hemsworth), a mentor (Woody Harrelson), her image consultant (Elizabeth Banks), her sister (Willow Shields), and fellow Games’ victors (Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright). They’re a collection of great character actors involved in scheming, debating, giving orders, and delivering speeches. Most poignant is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles as a canny political operative strategizing the rebellion’s next move. The rebel leader (Julianne Moore, sporting long grey hair) is a new addition, another forceful but sympathetic voice echoing in Katniss’ head.

This could all be static, marking time until the real action can ramp up for the presumably fiery climax of Mockingjay – Part 2. Indeed, it grows cramped and a little repetitive at times. (Tell me why Katniss needs to take a nearly identical tour of ruined District 12 twice?) And the emotional journeys the characters take are mostly minor adjustments that leave them better ready to launch into the next film. But with such great actors involved, especially Lawrence, Moore, and Hoffman, the political calculations of a growing rebellion feel meaningful. Most effectively, the filmmakers have an even greater sense of the world’s details. The spaces feel lived in and thought through. There’s a sense of weight and import to characters’ discussions, real meaning to the sporadic splashes of violence. It’s best when opening up the contained bunker dramas, showing us other parts of Panem carrying out strikes against the forces of Capitol-ism. In one moving scene, a folk song becomes a rallying cry in one of the more unblinking representations of uprising I’ve seen in recent years. There’s real impact to their decisions.

Perhaps we’ll eventually be better off thinking of Francis Lawrence’s three Hunger Games films as one three-part story instead of discreet units. For now, though, it’s fun to simply be back in an engaging world with smart ideas and some stirring action bouncing around a well-constructed blockbuster. I was pulled into the film’s space and enjoyed occupying it for a couple of hours, even if by the end I would’ve much rather watched another couple hours right then and there instead of having to wait a whole year to see it reach an actual conclusion. What’s most exciting about the story told here is the way the filmmakers – and Collins, in her books – are not afraid to change the dynamics, alter the scenario, and do things differently. Here, the games are over, the characters are on the run, with no hope of safety until they see things through to the end. And that’s where they leave us, eager to see where that end will be.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Love & Fame: BEYOND THE LIGHTS


More than anything, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is a great romance. It’s not like we get a new one of those everyday. It’s about two people who make a meaningful connection, seeing the real souls behind images being constructed for them in the beginning stages of public personas, one a pop star, the other a politician. In the process of following their connection, the film weaves together showbiz drama and political ambitions to make a fine point about negotiations between public and private selves, and potential solace in finding a person who seems to love you for who you are, not just what you represent. It’s a sharply drawn, deeply felt story, as smart as it is sexy, as complicated as it is compassionate. It helps that it’s not a romantic fantasy, or rather, not only fantasy.

They meet at a moment of high drama. She’s Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an R&B diva on the rise. She hasn’t even released her first album yet, but she’s come a long way from getting second place in local talent competitions of her childhood, like the one that opens the film. Collaborations on hit songs – we see the video for one, a writhing, hyper-sexualized thing – with dim bulb rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker) have just won her a Billboard Music Award. Everything’s looking up, but after the afterparty, when the handsome young cop (Nate Parker) bursts into her hotel room, she’s about to jump off the balcony. He saves her life, and her grateful stage mom manager (Minnie Driver in an intense performance) convinces him to tell everyone she merely slipped. The world knowing about the suicide attempt could really derail her rising star.

A more sensationalistic writer-director might take these early scenes as a launching pad for increasing stakes and twists. Instead, the film settles into a comfortable exploration of these characters. The actors provide nicely layered performances, able to play multifaceted people with ease. Noni is grateful for her hero cop’s help, and he’s drawn to her glimmer of personality hiding under half-dressed magazine-cover poses and hip-shaking choreography. They start a flirtation that becomes a tentative relationship, hounded at every turn by the gossip press and the dictates of their parents. Her mother wants to make sure her album drops flawlessly, and doesn’t want her new beau reminding the public about her incident. His father, the chief of police (Danny Glover), is helping his son prepare a run for city council, taking meetings with donors, consultants, party leaders. He has big dreams for his son, at one point telling him Noni isn’t “first lady material.”

This perspective makes the couple into rounded, complex people instead of cogs in a machine running on cheap dramatics. There isn’t a sense of inevitability because it’s grounded where the average Nicolas Sparks adaptation prefers sun-dappled fantasy. We understand where the characters are coming from, the goals they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It makes their connection all the more potent, to know what makes them tick apart from the spark between them. Too many movie romances rush this part, defining the central couple largely by how they interact with each other. This is a melodrama that earns its every tug on the heartstrings. The film is balanced, allowing us to see the surface allure that draws each in. He sees the glamour and fame of her lifestyle. She sees him as the square-jawed hero. But we also see how fragile a manufactured star she is, as well as the workaday cop duties and pragmatic political calculations he must consider.

With fine, realistic detail, we come to understand how the world works in their bubbles, what dictates the controls over their lives, and what difficulties may arise reconciling the two. These are characters whose ambitions are boxing them in, who let in some fresh air by finding a romantic spirit in an unexpected place, even at the risk of derailing their perfect plans for public life. There’s not a scene out of place as the film develops their lives and personalities separately and together. Parker’s dazed but encouraging presence is a nice match to the stifled insecurities Mbatha-Raw brings to the fore as we see glossy awards shows, photoshoots, and meetings with record labels contrasted with police calls and meet-and-greets. They’re both clad in uniforms. Hers are clinging dresses draped in chains, plunging necklines, and her straight purple hair. His are more literal, a police uniform, sharp suits. When they’re together, they’re more casual, relaxed, themselves. The wardrobes draw off-handed focus to their bodies, a sensuality that amplifies the comfort they increasingly feel towards each other.

The evolution of their relationship is so closely observed, wonderfully performed by the talented cast, and precisely developed by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. It’s not a film that declares itself loudly, but is so confident in its characters and perspective that it grabbed me in the opening frames and never let go. It’s the rare romance movie in which I actually was completely involved in the couple’s plight, desperate for them to find a way to be together. Their individual plotlines are finely detailed, with great scenes apart from one another, the better to make their scenes together sizzle with easy chemistry and swooning charm. It’s a great romance because it’s a good story with interesting characters. It would work as drama even without the romance, about the intimacy, not only between lovers, but collaborators, business partners, and parents and children as well. It has scenes that unfold with such simplicity and restraint, I found myself taken aback by how moved I was.

Prince-Bythewood is a major, often vastly underappreciated, voice in American cinema. With heartfelt romances like Love & Basketball and Disappearing Acts, and an appealing literary adaptation, The Secret Life of Bees, she’s proven herself a subtle and mature filmmaker. Her camera doesn’t call attention to itself. Her filmmaking craft is the stuff of sturdy, expert studio construction. But that invisible skill, no less effective than a more showboating style, allows her every frame to exude a well-considered eye for emotional terrains. With Beyond the Lights, she continues to be one of the last great Hollywood melodramatists. She’s unafraid to earnestly and tenderly tell stories of relationships without apology. This is her best film, a full, stick-to-the-ribs, heartwarming drama, rich with feeling.

Here we have a beautifully told story of human connection struggling to catch fire in a world that craves only shallow fakery and transactional relationships. It’s genuinely affecting, with larger themes, most potently about the way women are treated in the entertainment business, growing naturally out of who the characters are, why they make certain choices, and what they need from each other. This isn’t an uncomplicated love-conquers-all scenario with perfect soul mates healing each other. No, this is a mature and complicatedly nuanced story that earns its every moment of drama. Because it gives us something to care about beyond the relationship, it heightens the potency of the romance. It could’ve easily been maudlin in its relationship, scolding in its look at the entertainment business. But it’s not. The script has a sympathetic and subtle understanding of love, fame, depression, and self-actualization. It’s simply clear-eyed, genuine, and moving.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dumb Again: DUMB AND DUMBER TO


Now that the twenty-year-old comedy Dumb and Dumber has a sequel, it’s perhaps better to think of the pair as harkening back to the comedy teams of Hollywood’s first half-century, and not just because writer-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly made a (pretty good) Three Stooges movie in the interim. Like the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Martin and Lewis, and the rest made films that often had plots held together by tape and wishful thinking, really just an excuse for likeable and familiar character types to do their thing. The problem with Dumb and Dumber To from where I sit is simply that I never liked the dummies. Some of the antics Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) get into – casual misunderstandings, juvenile pranks, ridiculous tunnel vision – are funny, but on the whole they’re a couple of creepy guys who spend the entire first film essentially trying to stalk a woman across the country. I’ve never found it all that entertaining.

The new film goes down easier, maybe because the guys are in their late 50s and what was creepy and off-putting for younger dummies looks almost endearing when it’s a couple of older guys. (Almost. Sometimes.Carrey puts on the bowl cut and chipped tooth while Daniels makes his hair a tousled mess as they step right back into the rumpled outfits of Harry and Lloyd. They’re just as dumb as ever, but this time the woman they’re stumbling across the country to find is Harry’s long-lost grown daughter (Rachel Melvin). It’s not quite as creepy a prospect, since the man’s in desperate need of a kidney replacement and thinks she’d be a match. He just learned about her existence that day, but, hey, he needs to make up for lost time. There’s an unfortunate subplot about Lloyd having the hots for the twenty-something’s picture, but at least it’s not the central engine of plot here.

So To is a little less gross in that respect, though there’s still a whiff of sexism here and there. But in the realm of the gross out gag, the Farrely brothers make a bid to retain their throne. Their eagerness to offend with the lowest of lowbrow is what makes them so cheerfully funny at their best, so deathly disgusting at worst. There’s nothing here as funny as There’s Something About Mary’s hair gel or Hall Pass’s fart joke, which is among the greatest in cinema history, though I must confess my memory about such things isn’t the best. What Dumber To is is staggeringly dirty, taking the PG-13 so much farther then I ever thought possible. That’s a dubious honor. The Farrelys take the rating system, stretch it, bend it, break it, toss it out the window, and pee on it. Sometimes it’s over the line in a way I begrudgingly respected, but not reliably.

This is a movie that makes use of several types of bodily fluids, adolescent entendres, and anatomical hijinks. At one point there’s a dream sequence in which Lloyd imagines defeating a ninja by using a bullwhip to rip off his opponent’s testicles, which he then holds up with a gloating grin. You could hear the disbelief in the audience. But then, I was the one cackling when a guy gets run over by a train, and when a blind man finds something horribly gory has happened to his exotic birds. So you win some, you lose some, I suppose. A few times, I laughed so hard I questioned my sanity. The rest of the time I questioned the filmmakers. It’s hit and miss.

The movie contains a helpful metaphor for what’s so essentially wrong with it. There’s a scene in which Harry and Lloyd stumble upon the furry dog-shaped vehicle that they gave away in the first film. They’re happy to see it, and it’s nice to see a familiar sight, even if it’s not as good as they remembered. They take off down the road, and the whole thing falls apart instantly. Just like the movie itself, which takes a familiar sight and proceeds to fall apart the instant the rubber hits the road. It doesn’t hang together as a movie. It barely hangs together as a collection of gags and jokes. But what is pleasant and often funny is the Farrely’s commitment and enjoyment in constructing their goofy anything-goes moments, reveling in the dumbness. We could use more of that prime brightly lit, good-natured Farrely slapstick vulgarity in comedies today. That, not the dummies, is what I responded to seeing on the big screen again. Well, that and Kathleen Turner, who has a small role, and is a welcome sight.

A real mixed bag, Dumb and Dumber To at least held my interest. Even when I felt my frustration rising at its more derisible moments, I was only fleetingly grumpy about it. I could sit through some weak patches to get to the better tomfoolery. It’s a buyer-beware sort of movie, not good enough to recommend, but hard to avoid giving the wink and the nod to the people who just might find the bad worth braving to see this brand of humor. It’s certainly not for everyone. Take the couple sitting behind me whose date went south fast as the movie played. I reproduce the best of their argument below for your benefit, since it’s a shame this won’t be available as a bonus audio track come time for the home video release.

She: “This is awful!”
He: “Shhhh!”
She:  “Don’t hush me. This is friggin’ filthy!”

She stormed out and he, as far as I could tell, sat through the rest of the movie.

Beat! Beat! Drums! WHIPLASH


Whiplash is set in the academic music world, following a 19-year-old who has a goal of being a famous jazz drummer. He’s studying at a prestigious New York City music school where he’s friendless and depressed, spending most of his free time holed up in a practice room, drumming his heart out. In order to move towards his ultimate idea of success – work in a jazz band that’ll win him the accolades and respect he desires – he must first go through a bullying tyrant of a teacher, a noted conductor responsible for the college’s premiere jazz ensemble. And so, though the film is set in the world of jazz, the film is not about jazz. It’s about an emotionally abusive relationship, as the student eager to please is drawn into a world of overwhelming anxiety by an overbearing, impossible to please teacher.

As Mr. Fletcher, the teacher in question, beloved character actor J.K. Simmons, most recently known to audiences as the loving father in Juno and the scene-stealing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s Spider-Mans, is a domineering, hectoring, frightening schoolroom authority figure. He’s scary. It’s also the kind of supporting performance that bends the rest of the film into its orbit. He has forceful, explosive anger and intensely steady confidence, intimidating in its immovable presence. He stalks the room in tight black shirts that accentuate his powerful arms and gleaming bald head. He demands nothing short of perfection, as a prestigious music expert would, but goes about it by running cruel practice sessions. He puts students on the spot, brusquely dismissing their worth. He can be warm one minute, cutting and bruising the next. He’s quick with a homophobic slur, a belittling comment, ready to use personal information about a student as a knife to stick in and twist, all in the name of making better musicians.

Simmons’ Fletcher towers over every scene. Characters respect and fear him in equal measure. When he turns his stare towards the camera, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous myself. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, in only his second feature, shows great sense of blocking by keeping the man tall and looming in the frame. Our lead, the driven student (Miles Teller), sits behind a drum kit, low in the frame, separated from the others. On the first day of practice, he cries. Later, he exerts so much intense effort his hands split open, blood pooling on the sticks and drums, sweat falling on the cymbals as he plays through the pain, his teacher demanding more and more. Late in the film, Fletcher is asked if it’s possible to go too far. His answer is simple. “No.”

Chazelle effectively narrows the film’s focus to this core student/mentor relationship, charting the perfect storm that arises between Teller’s desire to the be the best at all cost, and Simmons’ readiness to push students as far as he can at all cost. That’s a lot of costs. Teller, in a less showy but no less nuanced role that gains most of its power from the determination in his eyes and in the silent strain growing there, throws himself into his drumming. He’s feeling pressure from all sides, like a cartoonishly dismissive extended family who think his music’s nice, but his cousins’ football is impressive. He shuts out good elements of his life – a wonderfully supportive and loving father (Paul Resier) and a cute potential love interest (Melissa Benoist) – to focus on pounding out paradiddle after paradiddle until he’s perfect.

The film becomes a series of anxiety attacks as a student who feels he can’t catch a break gets pushed to the breaking point by a teacher unwilling to waver from his intensity. The young man, earnest and serious about his musical ambitions, comparing himself to Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, arrives at a point where he knows his teacher is an unfair, manipulative, and psychologically assaultive bully, almost impossible to please. Even if he did, the approval won’t last long. And yet he wants to please the authority figure still. He’s told it’s the path to success, and is determined to get there. These performances sell the relationship’s tricky nature, as the actors find the humanity and the danger in their methods and madness.

Chazelle places this core emotionally abusive power dynamic over a formula setup, transposing a music school drama onto a sports movie structure as the ensemble prepares to perform for higher and higher stakes competitions. Practices and performances alike are filmed in whip pans and cut together with percussive editing, driving the skill and suspense of the drumming to greater heights. But what starts as formula ends up with psychologically weighted drum solos somewhere unexpected and gripping. Whiplash is so committed to following its characters’ drives that it arrives at a perfectly logical but wholly surprising conclusion. We watch two driven and uncompromising men pushing themselves for control over the situation, over a relationship that’s unhealthy and yet potentially might bring about beautiful music.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Boy and His Robot: BIG HERO 6


Turns out there’s some creative life left in the superhero movie. It just took Disney Animation to step away from the endless synergy, in-jokes, crossovers, and five-year plans to find it. Their team of computer animation artists took Big Hero 6, a Marvel comic so obscure their corporate cousins didn’t want to hold onto it for their massive Cinematic Universe, and focused on telling a contained story and doing it well. The result has everything you’d expect from a superhero movie: a tragic inciting incident, tight suits, high-tech gadgets, a supervillain with a connection to the heroes, and a finale involving a massive energy beam and billions of dollars in property damage. So it’s nothing new. But by keeping it simple and energetic, Disney has made the brightest and most colorful superhero movie in quite some time. It reminded me why I ever liked these kinds of stories in the first place.

Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) create a vivid near-future mashup metropolis called San Fransokyo, filled with a variety of architectures and influences from its portmanteau component inspirations. Fans, like me, of imaginary cities should get a kick out of it, even more so in 3D. But that’s the set dressing whizzing by in the backgrounds. The filmmakers take their time building the characters, confident enough to be bustling with worldbuilding spectacle firmly in the background, as sci-fi concepts drive the plot without taking over.

We meet Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius who graduated high school early and isn’t feeling up to college. Instead, he makes money gambling in illegal back alley robot fights. But his older brother (Daniel Henney) insists on introducing him to the high tech robotics lab on campus, tempting him with promise of resources and collaborators to help him achieve his fullest potential. It’s a strong brotherly bond we observe, which makes its quick severing all the more impactful. There’s a fire at a science fair and it claims the older boy’s life, leaving the younger depressed and lonely.

Hiro’s only companion is the prototype healthcare robot his brother built and left behind. The robot, named Baymax, is the film’s best creation. He’s built to be huggable. A large, inflated, soft plastic body makes him look something like a robo-Totoro. There’s a rubbery squeak to his every movement. He speaks (charmingly voiced by Scott Adsit) in loveably logical constructions and programmed intelligence that slowly accrues personality. When his battery is low, he sounds drunk. He’s a fantastic presence, bursting to life diagnosing Hiro. Observing the boy’s depression, the bot’s programming determines that cheering him up will be his mission, even if it means helping to track down the arsonist behind the fire. Hiro doesn’t waste any time building Baymax slick armor and programming him some kung fu knowledge.

As the boy and his robot build a relationship that helps bring the boy purpose in life, the film doesn’t have time to spend moping and brooding, launching quickly into the fun. It helps to have a bright palate filled with vibrant young characters. The older brother’s robotics classmates join Hiro and Baymax’s quest for justice, and are eager to form a makeshift superhero team to help do so. It’s a typical origin story, with mourning geniuses who have access to incredible high-tech gadgetry vowing to set things right. But the film gets a great deal of humor and excitement out of the characters’ repartee and diversity. There’s a goofy geek (T.J. Miller), a sunny egghead (Genesis Rodriguez), a serious gearhead (Jamie Chung), and a muscled nerd (Damon Wayons Jr.). Together with the cute robot and precocious teen, who help them turn their lab experiments into suits and weapons, they form a group that’s fun to be around, and the sense of camaraderie and individuality doesn’t disappear when the action starts.

That’s what ultimately sets Big Hero 6 apart from the competition. Even charming superhero teams like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy get swallowed up by the spectacle. But these characters, by virtue of their animation, don’t disappear into CGI costumes and stunt doubles. Their movements and personalities are constant whether running from swarms of nanobots or sitting around a table. Their talents and gadgets are well developed for clever payoffs in clear, confident comic book framing turned fluid motion. Animation needs thought behind every motion, every gesture, every frame. They don’t waste time animating endless punching matches and collateral damage to be chopped to ribbons in an editing bay. Apparently the way to improve the culture-dominating live-action cartoons is to bring them closer to their roots.

Here rambunctious action is well timed and staged, used sparingly. There’s cleverness and coherence to the construction of these sequences, so the action doesn’t grow exhausting. It’s informed by character and, even better, manages to be exciting and energetic without imperiling thousands of innocent lives. It’s actually a buoyant superhero action movie about the value of life, and the futility of violence. You’d think movies ostensibly about characters who save people would figure that out a little more often. The more time we spend watching the interplay between the boy, his robot, and their new friends, enjoying the humor and feeling the sadness of their loss, the more impact the handful of action sequences have.

I cared about the relationships, as formulaic as they are. The voice work is appealing. The character designs are the usual rubbery realism of Disney CG animation. And their world is so colorful and full of energy. It’s a good reminder that formula storytelling gets to be that way because once upon a time the structures worked. In Big Hero 6, it works. On a plot level, there’s not a single surprise to be had, but I was swept up in its momentum and imagination. Running a trim 108 minutes, it’s the first superhero movie in a decade to leave me wanting more in a good way. What a difference having loveable characters, pleasing design, economical storytelling, coherent themes, and action that doesn’t outstay its welcome makes.

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