Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Actor on the Verge: BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)


At the corner of anxious depression and artistic frustration is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), an emotionally and physically claustrophobic backstage comedy of sorts. It stars Michael Keaton as an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He plays Riggan Thomson, an actor whose stardom peaked two decades ago with his role as Birdman in a series of superhero movies and now sees his mental state rapidly deteriorating as his passion project comeback – writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Carver story – nears opening night. If the first part of the conceit sounds a lot like Keaton, who two decades ago left the Batman series and is now in what’s being touted as a “comeback role,” lets hope his psyche’s in a better state.

The film floats through lengthy Steadicam takes from master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki edited to look (nearly) like one long fluid shot. Hardly novel, Hitchcock made one film look like one shot all the way back in 1948 with Rope. But it’s a trick so few attempt that it retains an impressive power. It’s transfixing, sliding through rehearsals and previews with smart elisions of time as the camera roams in and around this New York theater on the week leading up to the opening night. As characters zip in and out of scenes with expertly timed dialogue and blocking, I sometimes sat back from the proceedings, simply enjoying the logistical satisfaction of so many moving parts coming together. It’s a little better than a gimmick, effectively trapping the audience in the film’s headspace with no down time. The pressure is high. The walls are closing in.

Keaton, one of our finest actors when it comes to exploring the wilds between id and ego, does a terrific job holding down the increasingly mad center of the film. His character is a pitiable narcissist who has bitten off more than he can chew. He’s doing this to be relevant, to be loved, and to make art, definitely in that order. He’s frazzled, overwhelmed by the multitasking asked of a multi-hyphenate, his only solace talking to the voice hallucinating inside his head egging him on for better or usually worse. Surrounding him is a fine collection of showbiz types. There’s the exasperated producer (Zack Galifianakis), the leading ladies (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), the preening Method actor (Edward Norton), the ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a critic (Lindsay Duncan), and stagehands (including Merrit Wever). Best is Emma Stone as Keaton’s ex-addict daughter working as his assistant, a non-showbiz voice in rooms of people rapidly disappearing up their own egos.

The parts are performed with great precision, words spat out in rapid-fire monologues and tense dialogues that harmonize with the all-drum-solo score from Antonio Sanchez. Together they’re an endless clanging keeping the entire experience off balance and driving forward. The cast is free of the usual shot/reverse shot coverage, allowing them greater control over the rhythms and pauses, the psychological space as well as the physical. They create a world of people symbiotically clinging to each other as both a career move and an artistic expression, acting out their interpersonal dramas in the wings and dressing rooms before sublimating those energies into performances on stage. Their banter is as crisp and funny as it is painful, and the laughs start to choke off the more desperately the sweat appears. Narcissism and insecurity make a potent mix, one the film is unrelenting in conjuring.

At first it appears tonally different and a stylistic outlier in Iñárritu’s oeuvre. It’s lighter, more fluid, and about a feeling of emotional constipation and professional frustration that, though deeply felt and important to the characters, pales in severity to the violence and misery on display in his Very Serious Dramas Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. I appreciated those film’s miserabilist impulses, but he hit a wall with the dire Biutiful, luxuriating in signifiers of importance without much more to say with them. So on the one hand, Birdman’s relative lightness on its feet is a much-needed artistic rejuvenation. On the other, it’s as deeply pessimistic as anything he’s made. It loathes, thinking artists are egomaniacs, Hollywood is hollow, critics are lazy, and audiences are stupid at worst, gullible at best. The core of rage in Keaton’s performance, playing a character who feels most upset that after all this effort he may not receive affection for it, plays off this omnidirectional frustration that assumes the worst out of everyone.

Birdman’s bravura cinematography is also a reflection of this cramped, thematically repetitive expression, as pressure mounts and the play stumbles on its way to opening night, the drums clanging, the camera ceaselessly swirling, the cast executing their tightly choreographed blocking. It plays on the surface pleasures of the backstage drama, threading it with humor sometimes so dark it borders on gallows. By the end, it’s miserable. Still, it’s hard to look away from such a high wire act on the last nerve’s edge tension between comedy and tragedy. You get the sense Riggan’s entire existence depends on this play going well. And given his, and the film’s, tendency to assume the worst, the outcome looks bleak, indeed.

Man of Action: JOHN WICK


The set up is standard revenge action stuff. A dangerous guy has put aside his history of violence, but then a bad thing is done to something he loves. Violence ensues. In the case of John Wick, the dangerous guy is John Wick (duh), a retired contract killer. His 1969 Ford Mustang is stolen and, to make matters worse, his dog is killed by the stupid son of a mob boss. This makes John Wick very mad. Not since 2005’s martial arts picture The Protector sent Tony Jaa looking for his stolen elephant has so much violence followed a wrong done to a beloved pet. In Wick’s defense, the dog is a great movie dog, perfectly behaved out of the box and cute as all get out. I wanted to wipe off the fake blood and take it home myself. But Wick’s especially ticked off because the dog was the final present from his recently deceased wife. And since he can’t very well get revenge on the disease that took her, the punks that clubbed his dog will be the next best thing.

The entire film is devoted to Wick’s attempts to get to the mob boss son, killing his way through set pieces in which the bad guys line up to stop him and end up shooting galleries. Sometimes one of the anonymous muscled guys holds his own for a moment and we get some tight, bruising hand-to-hand gun fu combat. There’s really not much to the plot beyond these nicely done spurts of violence involving guns, knives, cars, and the occasional random object deployed for clever effect. There’s no frills, no fat, just lean, efficient, bloody action filmmaking that takes time to linger on the pain and confusion of the violence. Wick stops to get patched up after one particularly close scrape, asking the doctor doing the stitching how active he can be with such an injury. The doc casually hands him some pills and warns him that he’ll tear if he overdoes it. But, hoo boy, is he about to overdo it. He’s only halfway through the runtime!

It’s a pretty dumb action movie, but awfully smart about its dumbness. It starts with a solid center, casting the always-reliable, often unfairly underrated, action movie centerpiece Keanu Reeves as Wick. It’s not entirely coincidence he’s ended up in so many memorable actioners over the last twenty plus years, from Point Break and Speed to The Matrix and Constantine. He specializes in characters who keep their cool, are stoic, sardonic, professional, and seemingly unflappable, making it all the more impactful when he’s flapped, as he often is at some point. Here stuntman Chad Stahelski, making his directorial debut, is guiding the project. He works Reeves’ spacey distance for dramatic effect, making us feel the hyper-confident man beneath his mournful, detached, and determined present state. It could easily be a role filled by Liam Neeson (if he wasn’t making A Walk Among the Tombstones at the time) or Denzel Washington (ditto The Equalizer), but Reeves make it something uniquely his own. He has an eerie calm and smooth remove bubbling over with pain as he grits his teeth and goes back to work.

As Reeves races through the film’s action paces – a gunfight in a nightclub here, an attack on his glass-filled home (the better to shatter during a fight) there – he encounters an ensemble of familiar faces in bit parts. They’re the kind of small flavoring performers who turn up a few times throughout and only need to show their faces to suggest richer inner lives and backstories than the movie has time or need for. There’s the mob boss (Michael Nyqvist) and his son (Alfie Allen), their lawyer (Dean Winters), their hitmen (Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki), and other assorted helps and hindrances (Ian McShane, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo). They add distinctive spices to their scenes, which are propelled along by Reeves and his sense of mission, which Stahelski smartly foregrounds every step of the way.

I liked the film’s straight-faced goofy B-movie conception of New York-based contract killers as a chummy clubhouse society with codes of conduct, secret doorways, and where everybody knows each other’s name. They even use the same shady industrial waste company to quietly clean up the bodies. That’s a dryly funny detail. So is the hotel that seems to cater exclusively to their kind. They all know what's coming. Before the action kicks in, Nyqvist asks Leguizamo whom his son has wronged. At the sound of the words “John Wick,” his face falls as he quietly prepares for the shoot-‘em-up he can see forming before his very eyes. Stahelski and crew deliver on that promise, Derek Kolstad’s uncomplicatedly effectual screenplay providing a variety of contexts for proof of John Wick’s deadly competence. It’s a modest, effective, action flick that hits the right buttons. Its style is simple digital photography, slick but unadorned, catching every well-choreographed kick and shot. Its every action hits with impact. It knows what it wants to do and does what it does well.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gone Girl: WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD


There was something wrong with Kat’s mother. She cried at strange times. She behaved awkwardly around guests. And one day, when Kat came home from school, her mother was napping in her daughter’s bedroom, all dressed up in gown, heels, and pearls. But Kat was busy finding love with the neighbor boy and hanging out with her friends. They didn’t have time to dwell on such peculiarities. Then, just as Kat was coming into her own, exploring more mature facets of herself as she prepared for graduation and adulthood, her mother disappeared. Now she and her father go about their routines dazed, the case growing cold as life moves on.

The mother’s absence informs the rest of White Bird in a Blizzard. Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, it’s the latest film from writer-director Gregg Araki, whose work narrows in on emotional displacement in a variety of contexts. His work as an early-90’s indie provocateur has, over the course of his career, been distilled into pure moody energy with his prankish spirit tamed but present. He’s been able to mellow his mischievous impulses into mannered, languid considerations of people who are unmoored, searching for answers about who they are and where they’re going. In the last decade, he’s given us a thoughtful, empathetic child abuse survivor drama (Mysterious Skin), a hilariously spacey pothead comedy (Smiley Face), and a raucous paranormal pre-apocalyptic college sex farce (Kaboom). Talk about range.

In White Bird in a Blizzard, the least of his recent features but interesting all the same, Shailene Woodley stars as a girl who is jolted by her mother (Eva Green) simply vanishing without a trace. She finds her boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez) pulling away, her dad (Christopher Meloni) putting on a brave face, her best friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato) ready to talk, a psychiatrist (Angela Bassett) lending a compassionate ear, and a detective (Thomas Jane) investigating the disappearance and creepily flirting with her, too. Woodley moves through her relationships with an open body language that betrays her confidence-covered insecurities quick to appear when she’s pained. It’s another of her fine-tuned emotional teen roles (after The Descendents, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars), and here, in perhaps her most vulnerable performance, she finds a similar core of strength and determination to make the best of a bad situation.

As Kat moves on with her life, Araki threads flashbacks of her mother’s eccentricities into the aftermath of the sudden void. She was loving, sometimes distant, excitable, but prone to melancholy. Green’s performance is wild-eyed scene-chewing, dominating even in its absence. But the absence becomes normalized, just another thing to deal with in a busy teen life, like the haunting dreams of Kat’s mother emerging from a snow storm that repeat with ominous regularity. Araki gives the film, past and present alike, a hazy mood in a locked down camera and cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen's near-Sirkian color palate. It’s a period piece – 1988, to be exact – but, though it gets details right, it feels closer to sickly 50’s melodrama, the kind where the rot’s showing through the surface shine. Something is not right here, a dangling unsolved mystery. The initial shock has worn off, but the pain remains.

The film has tender character work in a somnambulant plot. Kat moves forward, the ensemble (fine performances all) relating to her in a variety of mostly normal ways as she finishes high school, chooses a college, and moves away. All the while, the mystery remains, a nagging thought in the back of her mind, and ours. Where did her mother go? There comes a point when Araki’s direction signals the answer so far in advance of the characters learning it that the final scenes feel agonizingly empty, a wait for an underwhelming reveal to make itself fully known.

Until then, though, it’s a minor key work of small gestures and controlled style, nothing overwhelming, but quiet, insinuating, and full of stunned pain, stunted rebellion. Being on the cusp of adulthood is confusing enough under normal circumstances. Here, that confusion is magnified by the missing person mystery, making coming of age an all the more uneasy process.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tech-ed Off: MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN


It’s easy to see Jason Reitman’s ambition for Men, Women & Children to be a big statement about How We Live Now. The film is a Very Serious ensemble drama about a cross-section of characters living intertwined melodramas a la Crash or Babel. In this case they’re a bunch of high schoolers and their parents in suburban Texas – though really a vague Modern Anytown, USA – who live disconnected from their feelings and each other. We see lives of quiet desperation mediated by screens showing digital spaces that alternately soothe and exacerbate their problems. Fair enough, but despite fitfully operating as effective drama, it’s clearly a movie built thesis statement backwards into character and incident, frozen by its own sense of importance. Worse, there’s not much to its thesis, which is as muddled as it is trite, developing its emptiness with a heavy hand.

I suppose muddled moralizing speaks, even accidentally, to our societal ambivalence towards technology. It’d be an interesting idea around which to build a drama, but Reitman, adapting with Erin Cressida Wilson a novel by Chad Kultgen, creates a series of events that reflect bland reprimand, concerned handwringing, or vacuous same-as-it-ever-was resignation, sometimes all at once. Caught halfway between scolding and shrugging, it has a view of the Internet that feels so outdated and incomplete I almost expected to hear a modem dial up on the soundtrack. Plot threads involve infidelities, romances, repression, self-harm, painful yearning, and a variety of questionable decisions. Each is filtered through and aided by the Internet. That’s what gives it a patina of timeliness around which it spins rather empty, cliché stories saved only fitfully by strong acting across the board.

The best plotline, perhaps because it draws best on the small character work Reitman did well in better movies like Juno and Young Adult, involves two high school kids dealing with emotional issues. She (Kaitlyn Dever, of Short Term 12 and ABC’s Last Man Standing) is a loner, bookish, sweet, and under the surveillance of a technophobe mother (Jennifer Garner). He (Ansel Elgort, of The Fault in Our Stars) is a football player who quit the team when his mom left the family, leaving his dad (Dean Norris) inattentive to his son’s depression. The kids forge a connection that feels genuine, and twists around the tech in a reasonably convincing way. Other stories aren’t as successful. A bored married couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler) each secretly turn to the web to find affairs, a plotline that’s a weird blend of shame and forgiveness and, unfortunately, does not turn into a “Piña Colada Song” situation. Their son (Travis Tope) is addicted to porn. His real-life crush is a fame-hungry cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) whose mother (Judy Greer) lets her start a modeling website. Meanwhile, a fellow cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) suffers from body image problems brought about by bullying and egged on by online friends.

With a sprawling Message Movie format, there is unevenness built into the structure. Individual stories or scenes work well, but the big picture is a muddle of good intentions, flawed observations, and bad decisions. It’s all tied together with arch narration (by Emma Thompson, speaking in a voice not too far from her Stranger Than Fiction storyteller) that prattles on against the backdrop of space, speaking about Carl Sagan as NASA hardware floats by. Then she’ll dip down with an edit into quotidian explanations about character thoughts and actions, drolly telling us details we can plainly see before us. Reitman’s repetitive screenplay includes heavy-handed, awkwardly inserted, digressions reflecting on 9/11 and “my, how much the world has changed.” Yes. And? It’s a dash of self-serious muttering.

The film’s worst tendencies are reflected in Garner’s character, who has a keystroke logger on her daughter’s devices and hosts fearmongering info sessions for fellow parents. She starts as a humorless paranoid scold who means well. Over the course of her storyline, she goes from spying on everything her daughter does to stopping cold turkey. In the world of this movie, it’s all or nothing, ignoring both the very real benefits of parental oversight and the virtues of trust and flexibility. It’s too uncomfortable lingering in grey areas, too eager to wrap up conflicts. So much so that for all its overt exploring of the screen-saturated culture’s impact on individuals – I liked a recurring image of crowds, everyone looking at screens, their apps hovering translucently above them like a cloud of distraction – the worst events any characters go through happen entirely (or almost entirely) offline.

The movie seems to want a Big Statement, but isn’t sure what to say. In some way’s it’s progressive, acknowledging that sometimes lonely, socially isolated people can find solace online that can improve their real world well being. And it’s certainly true that one can get lost in the muck of the web’s worst tendencies. Our world is complex. But every story in this movie that resolves wraps up neatly with a pat Internet-good-for-this, Internet-bad-for-that judgment. Other storylines drop off without resolution, maybe for the best, since I don’t think the filmmakers, though they bring the subjects up, had meaningful discussion of body image, sexual fantasies, or sex work in them. What’s here is an attempt to pass off well-intentioned fumbling in the shallow end as an important deep dive.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Love and Death: THE BOOK OF LIFE


Inspired by Mexican legend, The Book of Life is a computer-animated film that gives itself the freedom to make its own distinct visual style. Where other CG family films are content with plasticine cartoony versions or finely detailed approximations of our world, this energetic creation unfolds as a constant and consistent visual marvel all its own. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and his team of artists invent a world of the imagination, a 19th century Mexican village populated by archetypes and passions sitting atop a fantasy realm. The character designs look like carved wooden puppets, hinges for joints, clothes and facial features painted on. It’s a unique look, a blend of 2D and 3D that places computerized bounce and expressiveness over ancient techniques. This tension in the style helps animate a story explicitly about history, about remembering, about myth and fate.

The screenplay by Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale is a set of nested episodic stories. We start with a museum guide (Christina Applegate) leading a tour group of silly kids through a display of Mexican history, preparing to tell them an old story about a special Day of the Dead, the November holiday for remembering those who have passed on. And so back we go into a mythic, exaggerated past Mexico where, in a small village, two little boys are in love with the same girl. One of them might just marry her. The rulers of the underworld, a calavera-faced doll with a candle-topped sombrero for a queen (Kate del Castillo), the other a snaky, bearded, winged sorcerer king (Ron Perlman), make a bet on which boy will get that chance. The film then plays out on two planes of existence, a mortal realm where the trio grows into young adults turning friendship into potential romance, and a supernatural realm populated with spirits, ghosts, and magical beings.

Warm voice performances flesh out the central romantic triangle, with a conflicted bullfighter who’d rather be a singer (Diego Luna) and a town hero with a magic medal (Channing Tatum) vying for the attention of the kindhearted mayor’s daughter (Zoe Saldana). In a refreshing change of pace, the jealousies aren’t too fraught and the girl makes clear she’s not even sure if she needs a man in her life, and certainly not one who’d hold her back. Eventually, fate steps in and traps a character in the afterlife, forcing a scramble through phantasmagoric imagery alluring, morbid, and madcap to resolve plot threads in a way that can bring living and dead together to make things right. Imagery includes skeletons, deities, flames, buffets, floating walkways, waterfalls, flickering candles, a rolling labyrinth, and a sentient book, to name a few.

Told in typical family animation style, the movie has fast paced romance and daring do, zippy throwaway gags, musical numbers, and lessons about believing in yourself and loving your kith and kin. But under Gutierrez’s direction, the film is more eccentric than the usual CG family friendly fare. The musical numbers are a collection of sweet new ditties and preexisting tracks from a bizarrely diverse group including Biz Markie, Radiohead, Elvis, and Mumford & Sons. But it’s really the copious cultural specificity that sells it, from those songs played in a fun mariachi influenced style, to the thick accents, luchadores, bullfighting, and authentic Mexican touches in every corner of the design. It’s worth seeing just to marvel at the sights, appreciate the attention to detail, and to hear an endless parade of wonderful Spanish and Latin American voices (Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, and more).

But it’s not just a delight to see and hear. The story has genuine weight and wonder, ultimately moving in its portrayal of familial and cultural history and the restorative power they can bring. The love story is broadly appealing and sturdily constructed, and the trapped-in-the-underworld plotline has mythic resonance while being a great excuse for beautifully imagined fantasy. I was invested in these little CG wooden puppet people’s lives and wanted to see them work their way to a happy ending as brightly colored, briskly paced, and vividly fantasized as their trials and tribulations.

Best of all is the tenderness with which the subject of death is treated. It treads lightly and compassionately in creating a fantasy about life and death that respects old traditions and meets its target audience on their level. It’s an exuberant and gentle macabre tone that’s entertaining and weirdly comforting. Death is natural, it says, but the lessons and love left behind by the dead can provide you the strength and courage to keep on living. Their stories can help you write your own. That The Book of Life can do that and be fast, funny, and stylishly involving as well makes it feel all the more welcome.

Friday, October 17, 2014

They Were Expendable: FURY


Set in and around an American tank in Nazi Germany during the final weeks of World War II, David Ayer’s Fury makes effective use of its small scope and limited perspective. It’s a war picture that’s down in the muck with a handful of soldiers. It hunkers down with them as they grimly follow orders from one place to the next, the tank’s treads trundling along, danger around every corner and across every field. There’s no rah-rah patriotism or righteous killing here, no “good war” pabulum. It says war is brutal, bloody, dirty, hell. And then it goes and proves it. This is hardly a new sentiment, but this movie goes about making you feel it all over again.

Ayer’s previous films, from his screenplay for cop thriller Training Day to his minor directorial efforts like End of Watch and Sabotage, feature ensembles of tough professionals, but the men of Fury are his best, most fully realized group. They’re men beaten down by war. They’re depressed, mournful, battle-hardened, and shell-shocked. Their gruff, scarred, paternal leader (Brad Pitt) bites off his words, reminiscing about starting out killing Germans in Africa, then France. Now they’re moving towards Berlin, taking one town at a time. A typical demographic cross-section WWII squad, there’s a devout Christian (Shia LaBeouf), a Latino (Michael Peña), and an itchy trigger finger (Jon Bernthal). But they transcend their types by not making a big deal about them. They blend as a team, brotherly, on-edge, and ready to kill.

It’s fine ensemble work, presenting a group of men who know one another from spending time in close quarters building relationships forged in battle. They’re trapped in a tank, taking and returning enemy fire for brief moments, but mostly sitting, anxious, ready for anything for long stretches of time. Camaraderie is as tangible as their pain. The film opens on a quiet battlefield littered with carnage. The tank is broken. One of their gunners is dead. Slowly the tank roars to life, moving across the smoking ruins of so many men and machines. The battle was won, but their friend was lost. Back at camp, they’re assigned a new team member, a fresh-faced recent recruit pulled out of the typing pool (Logan Lerman). They don’t quite know what to do with him. He’s inexperienced, and has clear distaste for violence.

The new kid is instantly sympathetic, and not just because the frightened, bookish, idealistic young solider is always the character I’m most certain I would be in these types of movies. He’s hesitant to shoot at suspected threats. He is intimidated by the tough guys around him. Yes, they’re worn out, violent, grey, and grimy, but they also have a mumbly, closed-off rapport that seems difficult for a newcomer to penetrate. They have their routines, their procedures, their shorthand. Lerman’s character arc is familiar, but compelling. The movie follows his discovery of war and his new brothers in arms as their tank moves to another skirmish, then into a small German town for some urban warfare, then on to another mission. All the while, they seem so worn out, exhausted by the war’s violent ending. They don’t know the war’s final conclusion is around the corner, but the sense of finality is pervasive.

Free of most typical heroics associated with World War II features, Ayer creates a movie rooted firmly in the tangible dirtiness of it all. It’s gory, bullets ripping flesh and explosions sending torn fragments of body and cloth through the air. The men are constantly covered in mud and grime, dried blood and sweat. They have cuts and scrapes, haunted looks in their eyes, and weights on their shoulders. The immediacy of the detail and sense of place is accentuated by Roman Vasyanov’s striking, often hauntingly gorgeous cinematography that alternates tight close-ups inside the tank with wide shots of foggy forests and fields. And the guys look like they’ve been cooped up for years, smelly, claustrophobic, and tense. One brief moment allows the group a dinner table, around which we see reflected in their behaviors who among them retains kindness, and who is lost in the brutality of war.

It’s undoubtedly a cynical movie, in which death comes unpredictably, where people lay down their lives and become just another corpse to be piled up, dumped off, or left to rot. Of course our team navigates the conflict in typical war film ways, but the sense of loss is palpable throughout. Even as the battle sequences are shot and edited in steady, propulsive action filmmaking, they’re as mournful and scary as they are exciting. The climax, especially, is gripping and thrilling, but is also the ultimate expression of the film’s obvious war-is-hell thesis. It’s a last stand at night, the only light from a raging fire, as smoke mingles with gunfire and blood splatter. It’s hellish, and the closest Ayer comes to the brutal poetry of a nihilistic Hemingway or grindhouse gravitas. Sorrow and fear are welcome notes in this masculine genre, creating a film that’s both hard-edged and ambivalent, painful either way.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Family Law: THE JUDGE


The Judge is the sort of glossy adult-driven Hollywood melodrama we tell ourselves they don’t make any more. Perhaps this perceived shortage led the filmmakers to stuff several dependable formulas into one picture. It’s a father/son reunion story, a courthouse drama, a big town lawyer reconnecting with his small town roots parable, and a workaholic learning to slow down and appreciate the people in his life fable. That’s a lot going on, then add in a handful of medical problems, tragic backstories, mental illness, an old ex-girlfriend, and a tornado warning. It’s overstuffed with reasons to be sentimental, manipulative, and formulaic, turning up reveals and developments at a predictable pace. This is exactly the kind of movie easy to dismiss as too calculatingly sincere and sloppily emotional. And it is. But it’s also the kind of handsome, sturdily square drama that can get in your guts and pull on the heartstrings anyway.

Robert Downey Jr. plays a snarky Chicago lawyer called back to his small Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. There, he clashes anew with his estranged father (Robert Duvall), the picturesque community’s respected judge. He’s boarding the flight home when his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) call with terrible news. Their dad has been arrested after blood on his car matched a corpse found on the side of the road, the victim of a hit and run. The old man’s weak of body, but obstinate of spirit. And now he’s charged with manslaughter, a charge increased when the victim is discovered to be a murderer he regretted giving a lenient sentence to years earlier. So it’s up to the hotshot lawyer son to defend his small-town judge father, a tall order given the importance of the case and the history he has with his town and family.

The cast sells it. Downey can do the character arc from cocky pro to humbled man in his sleep. He gives it his usual rascally charm, weaving in some appealing notes of wistful regret as he spars with his old man, catches up with his brothers, and considers rekindling his relationship with his high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, glowing with warm charm), who happens to have a daughter (Leighton Meester) as old as they’ve been apart, give or take nine months. Holding down the other half of the drama is Duvall who, at the age of 83, remains an actor incapable of a dishonest moment. He imbues his character with a righteous stubbornness, mourning his wife while bottling up love and pride for his son over resentments that have festered in his two decade absence, and holding back fear for his reputation. The father-son relationship works well, as the plot machinery creaks through its paces.

It’s the craftsmanship that elevates the material. It could’ve been a dopey TV movie without such a strong cast (including a fine supporting turn by Billy Bob Thornton as a sharp-tongued prosecutor who makes a perfect dry foil for Downey’s persona) and a wonderfully expensive look, bathed in light by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It’s a movie with perfect Main Street Americana, and where every drive down a country road looks like a car commercial. But there’s real manufactured heart in this glossy professionalism.  Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque generate a series of scenarios that allow talented actors to breathe some life into cliché. And this is easily director David Dobkin’s best movie, after years of dreck like Fred Claus and the execrable The Change-Up. He directs with slick button-pushing competence. It’s transparent in how it’s going about getting its effects, but, hey, it worked on me.

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