Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flower Power: COLUMBIANA


Columbiana is an action movie that starts with a child sitting at the kitchen table as the goons of a slimy drug lord gun down her mom and dad. She then escapes and grows up to become a skilled killer out for revenge. It doesn’t sound too notable, does it? It sounds like countless other vengeance-fueled thrillers that have slunk across multiplex screens over the years. Indeed it is derivative and fairly predictable. But what makes Columbiana an interesting film, and sometimes a fairly enjoyable one, is the gritty sensuality at its core provided by its star Zoe Saldana.

After stealing scenes in genre movies both good (Avatar) and bad (The Losers), Saldana has finally been given a leading role. This time she’s not helping the action sequences. Here she is the action sequences. Playing the grown up version of the little girl we first meet fleeing her parents killers, Saldana keeps the pain of this trauma close under her skin while slinking through her days plotting out violence against those who have caused her family so much harm.

When we first see Saldana, she gets in a car crash with a police officer and stumbles out onto the pavement. Arrested, she’s thrown in the drunk tank to sober up. This can’t be the same little girl we just saw moments earlier mourning while arriving at the house of her uncle (Cliff Curtis), looking at him with a quiet fury and declaring that she wants to be a killer. In fact this is the same person. She’s only faking the drunken party-girl act. The instant she’s left alone she stylishly wriggles out of her cell to gun down the man the next cell block over, a man with Columbian drug connections. She marks him with the sign of an orchid, a Cataleya, her name. She’s sending a message to the drug lord’s empire, and especially his head killer (Jordi Mollà), the murderer of her parents. She’s coming for them.

The screenplay is by Luc Besson, the French genre specialist behind the likes of Le Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, and Robert Mark Kamen, his longtime collaborator. It’s filled with the dusty old tropes of the genre, like the clueless lover (Michael Vartan) who wants to know more and the only F.B.I. agent (Lennie James) who can piece together what is really going on, all the while becoming sympathetic to the killer’s cause. But what the film lacks in originality of plotting and dialogue, it mostly makes up for in the sheer low pleasures of the way it sets up its action sequences. The aforementioned jailhouse murder is a stylishly complex sequence of meticulous plans, shimmying through ducts, and a tight-fitting bodysuit. Later, a Ponzi-scheming fat-cat casually mentions the danger of his pet sharks and, wouldn’t you know it, Cataleya makes sure he gets to experience that danger up close before the movie’s over.

All the slick action would be for naught if it weren’t for Saldana. She successfully inhabits the physicality needed for the action and she can more than pull off the emotion, like in a scene in which she allows a single tear to run down her cheek as she explains the reasons driving her towards these violent tasks. But most of all, French director Olivier Megaton (not his real name, but the fact that he chose a perfect name to scream French action director shows where his ambitions are) allows his camera to regard Saldana with a reverence to her beauty, her textures, and her physique. There’s a little adolescent objectification going on here, to be sure, but the way Megaton allows the camera to be so in awe of her incredible feats of destruction goes a long way towards letting the film feel more respectful than mere ogling. (Megaton’s Transporter 3 treated Jason Statham in much the same way). Saldana brings freshness to Columbiana that it would not otherwise have. This is a slick, stylish, Euro-flavored actioner that feels as fresh as its lead and as stale as its script, but that more or less works out to an enjoyably dumb time at the movies.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Brother's Keepers: OUR IDIOT BROTHER


Despite a title that sounds like a mean-spirited insult, Our Idiot Brother turns out to be one of the sweetest, kindest, warmest, and generous comedies of the year. It’s an R-rated movie that’s so big hearted it barely registers as raunchy, that loves its characters and wants to see them end up happy. It’s surprisingly fleet, nimbly shifting registers between straight-faced silliness and heartfelt emotion. By the time the film ended I was sad to see it go. Perhaps this summer’s mostly misfiring comedies wore me down, but this is exactly the kind of nice, refreshing, genuine entertainment I didn’t know I was yearning to see.

The film stars Paul Rudd as a man who has to be one of the nicest people on the planet. He has long hair, a casually messy wardrobe, and an easy smile. He treats everyone he meets in a similar way, speaking to them in a soft easygoing voice. He just loves life, aimless and simple as his is, but he keeps inadvertently making things difficult for those around him. He means well, but his complete refusal to go along with little white lies, his scrupulous honesty and his instinctual mellow kindness, unravels situations that are held together by nothing more than all the small untruths people tell themselves and each other. He’s lucky that his unconditional love for his family is (mostly) returned. Even when they are utterly exasperated, there’s real familiar warmth.

He bumbles through the lives of his sisters after he’s released from jail. Oh, he’s not a criminal of any terrible import. In the opening scene, he sells pot to a uniformed police officer just because the man seemed to be having a tough day. Upon his release, it’s this fact that causes his parole officer (Sterling Brown) to assume that he’s “retarded.” “I get that a lot,” Rudd says.

Since his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) dumped him and won’t even let him take Willie Nelson, their dog (major bummer), the newly free Rudd crashes at the house of his mom (Shirley Knight), but soon makes his way to each of his sisters’ New York houses in turn. There’s the high-strung sister (Emily Mortimer) with two kids and an inattentive husband (Steve Coogan), the ambitious professional journalist sister (Elizabeth Banks) with a casual relationship with her neighbor (Adam Scott), and the free-spirit lesbian sister (Zooey Deschanel) in a committed relationship with a lawyer (Rashida Jones). While there are differences between the siblings, and a fair number of conflicts, this is not simply a dysfunctional family. This may be a film that showed at Sundance, but it doesn’t betray the aggressive quirk for quirk’s sake, the ugly look-at-these-wacky-losers aftertaste that infects the worst of what is lumped into loosely defined “indie comedy” prejudices.

Director Jesse Peretz and writers Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall have crafted a rather loose and unhurried film that amiably ambles from enjoyable scene to enjoyable scene, funny in ways that provoke smiles more often than belly laughs. It’s remarkably unremarkable. The very lack of showiness – there’s no irritating insistence in its comedy – is its greatest virtue. This gives room for the characters to completely take over, dominating the central interest. The ensemble is uniformly excellent and their characters compelling. The relationships and conflicts between these characters are written in an ever so slightly over-the-top way that manages to stay relatable, if not entirely believable.

In this talented cast, Rudd stands out above them all. He’s such an appealing character. He may wear Crocs, lack ambitions, and be way too trusting, but he’s so very nice and, doggone it all, wouldn’t it be fun to hang out with him? It may be tiresome, it may be trying, but just like his sisters, I found that this is one social idiot just too lovable to dismiss. Likewise, the film is, in its own quiet way, utterly charming, sneakily effective and even a little bit moving.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Vengeance is His: CONAN THE BARBARIAN


If the ancient-times set story of a boy who sees his clan slaughtered and subsequently grows into a vengeful warrior sounds familiar, that’s probably because Robert E. Howard’s 1930s stories about Conan the Barbarian were previously adapted to the big screen in a 1982 movie directed and co-written by John Milius and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his earliest roles. That film’s bloody awful, dumb, gory, and blockheaded, with mostly wooden acting and a militantly campy masculinity. This new Conan the Barbarian is a far more reasonable experience, though it’s still not very good.

This time around the titular barbarian is Jason Momoa, who may not be as grotesquely muscular as Schwarzenegger, but he’s smoother and rougher and certainly has a far better glower. He convincingly inhabits the body of a furious, monosyllabic swordsman. Before we get to Momoa, though, we first meet the character as a baby in his mother’s womb with an inside-looking-out shot of a battlefield C-section. His father (Ron Perlman) saves him from inside the dying mother and raises him over his head with a mighty “Arrgh!” Here, there be Conan.

Jumping forward, pre-teen Conan proves to be a precociously violent lad who begins training to fight to become a great warrior. He’s a natural. Soon enough, the village is slaughtered by an evil man with devious plans (Stephen Lang) who conveniently forgets to make sure he has killed every last villager. This leaves little Conan all alone, climbing out of the rubble and plucking a sword from a dead villager. When he raises the sword above his head with a bellowing “Nooooooooo!” it’s clear to see that he’ll grow into his vengeful glower.

As you can tell, this is not a movie of great subtlety, but one of unselfconsciously big gestures. It’s the kind of movie where the impact of hitting the ground causes the eyes in a severed head to pop open. (That’s a nice touch). As full-grown Conan slays his way through ambiguously ancient landscapes he clashes with Lang’s underlings on his quest for revenge. He spends time freeing slaves, fighting people made out of enchanted sand, slicing up giant watery tendrils, slashing at an evil sorceress (Rose McGowan), and reluctantly rescuing a pretty lady monk (Rachel Nichols). What does Conan think of all this sound and fury? “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” I think that’s his longest line of dialogue.

I can forgive the movie for its goriness. I can forgive its silliness. I can forgive its dumbness. But what can’t be forgiven is its dullness. For the first ten, maybe even twenty, minutes of Conan, I was reasonably entertained. Under Marcus Nispel’s bland, personality-free direction, the plot slips along with a marginal level of competently enjoyable inconsequentiality. By the movie’s midpoint, however, I found my mind wandering. I could not have been less involved in the various nonsense words attempting to orient me within the fantasy’s geography. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the mythology. Eventually, I just didn’t much care what happened. As the action grew choppier and weightless, as the blood splatters grew rote, the crunching sound effects and monotone mood ground down any interest I had. When I finally checked the time and found that there was still forty minutes to go, I was more than ready to leave. There’s only so much forgettable barbarism I could take.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Spy Again: SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD


The following may be a controversial claim. Spy Kids is Robert Rodriguez’s best movie. The 2001 feature follows a brother and sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), who discover that their parents (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) are spies after they disappear on a mission. It’s up to the kids to save them. Aside from the great plot hook, Rodriguez’s film is filled with imagination of a quick, candy-colored variety. The action is well paced, the special effects have a kind of cartoonish believability, the jokes are actually funny to an audience of both kids and adults, the supervillain played by Alan Cumming is a perfect balance of silly and menacing, the emotions feel real, and the not-quite-heavy-handed moral is peppy wish-fulfillment and empowerment to kids while still respectful of adults. Here’s a family film that genuinely encourages kids to precociousness and curiosity without making the parents the buffoonish butts of every joke. This is all tied together with Rodriguez’s one-man-band behind-the-scenes energy and love of genre that power his best films. In its eagerness to please and its off-kilter sense of surprise, Spy Kids is essentially a kid-friendly Grindhouse movie.

Alas, we don’t have too little of this good thing. Box office success, coupled with Rodriguez’s obvious love for the material, guaranteed sequels. The second (Island of Lost Dreams) retained a minimum of charm and good-will to justify its own existence, but by the super-gimmicky third feature (Spy Kids 3D: Game Over) the whole thing felt flat and dead, done in by its own cartoonish exuberance and childish excesses. After that came a long period of dormancy, but after eight years here we are again in another summer franchise revival.

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World introduces us to a nine-months-pregnant spy (Jessica Alba) chasing down Time Keeper, a supervillain (Jeremy Piven) intending to manipulate time itself somehow. (It’s never all that clear). She catches him just in time to promptly retire and then race to the hospital and give birth. Her husband (Joel McHale) and step-kids (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) have no idea of her secret identity as a freshly retired spy. Of course, inevitably events conspire to reveal the secret and call the siblings into duty as freshly minted spy kids. It turns out that their dog is actually a robot dog with the voice of Ricky Gervais who proceeds to help them flee the bad guys and escape to the good guys’ headquarters.

To loosely tie the franchise together, original spy kid Carmen is back, this time as a full-grown spy who yearns to restart the spy kids division. She’s given the task of meeting and briefing the new arrivals on the truth about their stepmother. She also hands them a massive info dump and gifts them their very own gadgets. And rest assured that Juni pops up as well before all is said and done. It’s nice to see the original kid spies all grown up, especially since they’re really the only reminder that this premise was once used to tell a good story.

Each successive Spy Kids movie has lowered the bar by stripping out a few more reasons why anyone over the age of twelve would want to watch. By the fourth installment, it’s strictly for-kids-only. There are poop jokes, practical jokes, slapstick, puns, candy, and gadgets. It’s fast, loud, and colorful, but it has a kind of over-caffeinated amateurish spastic energy that grates. At the movie’s start, I had low expectations, but the aggressively pandering button pushing wore out its welcome fairly quickly. I’m sure some kids will like this one just fine, but there’s no reason anyone else should be put through the experience. I love Spy Kids, but as far as I’m concerned, there is really only one film about them, two if I’m feeling generous.

Note: The experience (already in headache-inducing 3D) is billed as being enhanced through “4D Aromascope” and therefore comes with scratch-and-sniff cards handed out with the tickets that are to be smelled according to the corresponding numbers that flash on the screen throughout the film. Aside from the feeling of awkwardness brought on by fumbling around in the dark, trying in vain to catch a whiff of bacon or a diaper on a piece of cardboard, it adds nothing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Twenty Days in the Life: ONE DAY


You pick your friends, or so the saying goes, but that’s not entirely true, is it? Circumstance, coincidence and closeness play a role in friendship as well so that it’s quite possible you can look back upon a time in your life and discover that you were drawn into a friendship that you didn’t value until that person was already gone. Such is the story of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), two acquaintances who become sort-of-friends only to circle around each other, flitting in and out of the other’s life, for the better part of twenty years, flirting, toying, yearning all the while to become more than friends.

We first encounter the two of them thrown together on the night of their graduation from Edinburgh University in 1988. They’re in a group of drunken revelers who stumble through town, but slowly, two by two, the graduates peel off from the main group. Emma and Dexter end up spending time together and then parting ways. Through the rest of One Day, we will check in on these two characters every July 15th for two decades. Sometimes they are together. Other times, the day passes without them even thinking of one another. This is ostensibly a romance, presented with a shameless gimmick, but it’s presented in such a low-key, casually unimportant way that the artifice of it all is hidden beneath the dullness.

By giving us only one day per year, the little snippets of passing time accumulate slowly into a big picture, but there’s also a lot of exposition that must be shoved into what little time we have to spend with these people each year. Emma struggles in her twenties, but then finds some professional success. Dexter finds near-immediate professional success, but he’s just as lost as Emma in his twenties, the sense of floundering aimlessly only growing as he finds early success slipping away. There are two full human lives on display for us to watch but we get only glimpses, leaving the impression that the better story is often unfolding on the days we are not privy to.

I found myself wondering if the film would be better, more powerful and emotional, if we got to see more of these characters. Hathaway and Sturgess do fine, intimately textured work, but there’s a sense of the whole production struggling under the weight (or rather, lack thereof) of so much thinness. I got a sense that the actors know more about who these characters are then the film allows them to express. Even supporting characters like Dexter’s mother, played by the reliable Patricia Clarkson, seem to fade away, taking potential for deepening the film’s texture with them. Adapted by David Nicholls from his own bestselling novel, unread by me, this is a prime example of a concept that I’d imagine could work better with the nuance and detail capable in text. Filmed, there’s far too much telling instead of showing.

As it plods forward, the plot of One Day seems to stretch thinner and thinner. Director Lone Scherfig, of the well-acted and Oscar-nominated An Education from a couple of years ago, coaches some decent acting but has a rather perfunctory visual style here and a flatness of pace that works to dull the emotions. The years stamp onto the screen with each passing day, allowing me all too much time to contemplate just how much longer I’d be sitting in the theater, struggling to get on the film’s wavelength. Late in the film, when one character suddenly dies, I found myself profoundly unmoved. But then, in the final stretch, the plot folds over upon itself and gains some shallow depth that is faintly effective and affecting. By then, though, it was too little too late.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quick Look: JANE EYRE


Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation of Jane Eyre starts with the titular character fleeing across dark, windswept moors in a Gothic storm, signifying this version’s stylistic interests to be that of smoldering, roiling darkness. Aside from setting the striking mood of the opening scene, it’s a decision that marks the narrative disjunction of this film. This is not the opening of Charlotte Brontë’s great 1847 novel. The script by Moira Buffini starts quite a ways into the story to give us this unexpected shot of gloom before circling back to the beginning. There’s a tension between the film’s mannered choices, its dull dustiness, and its rawness, tenderness of mood. The adaptation’s time shifting is occasionally inelegant, confounding even, but what drags the production along is the emphasis on the pained emotions moldering underneath. Mia Wasikowska stars as Jane Eyre, beaten as a child, sent away by a cruel aunt, ground down as a schoolgirl by strict schoolmasters, and eventually finding employment, arriving at the imposing, dark Gothic property of Mr. Rochester. As played by Michael Fassbender, Rochester is a mysterious man, charming, clearly drawn to his young employee, but also clearly possessing some half-hidden capacity for ugly surprise. The two actors do a fine job with the material and Fukunaga surrounds them with a capable cast filled with respectable performances from the likes of Jamie Bell and Judi Dench. There’s a tense emotionality hidden down each and every dark corridor, in the dim, candle-lit nighttime rooms where cozy creepiness lurks about every conversation. A stiff, reverential take on this classic literary material may have been too predictable, but covering the approach over with rearranged chronology and atmospherics does little to hide how standard this is, a great novel turned into an adequate film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sing Sing: GLEE: THE 3D CONCERT MOVIE


I don’t write about TV shows here, but if I were to start doing so Glee would not be my first choice. I’d rather write about Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, or Louie, or Parks & Recreation, or Community, or The Good Wife, or, or, or. But, that’s neither here nor there. None of those great shows have a recently released 3D concert movie to their name. Which is just as well since Glee, a show about a bunch of misfit choir kids in an Ohio high school, has a concept ripe for cinema. The widescreen and big sound could have potentially given the show the fullest expression of its inconsistent and deeply flawed musical soul.

The show itself started promisingly enough, but by the maddening second season it became clear that showrunners Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk were not making the show I was ready to like. (To be fair, Falchuk, more than any of the other creators, seems to be interested in emotional coherence and narrative momentum). I want Glee to be a heartfelt high school musical with characters using their songs to express deeply held feelings, for production numbers to bubble up just because regular old talking just can’t handle the emotions on screen. Actually, the show is sometimes just that, and that’s when it’s good. Ironically enough, the best episode the series has yet produced, season one’s “Dream On,” was that. It was directed by Joss Whedon, a TV auteur in his own right, creating what is perhaps the clearest and strangest example of an outsider coming in and showing a better understanding of what a show should and could be.

Most of the time, the show is miscalculated comedy and thinly written characters that change their circumstances and emotions whenever and however it best suits the whim of the week. It’s exhausting and dull with terrible teasing flashes of brilliance. It’s often one of the best shows and one of the worst shows on the air right now, usually in the same episode, sometimes at the same time. It has attracted legions of vocal and committed fans though, and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie is sure to make them happy. For a hopeful but discouraged Glee skeptic like me, it’s hard to get too excited about it.

The film is technically proficient, loud, glittery, high-energy, and short. It features the cast singing and dancing (though the editing doesn’t do the choreography any favors) and every-so-often talking backstage in character. Once in a great while, the proceedings pause to showcase real-life stories from fans who have found inspiration in Glee, even though said inspiration is mostly tangential and incidental. There’s lots of screaming and swooning going on – this is a very youthful audience – but, as if to prove that this is no Hannah Montana concert movie, we get strategic cutaways to middle-aged fans flipping equally out over seeing their favorite characters singing memorable songs from past episodes.

What makes the show itself so good in patches, the very good, even great, acting from Chris Colfer and Mike O’Malley and the terrific charisma from the likes of Darren Criss and Lea Michele, is missing here by the movie’s very nature. It’s just a string of performances and a bunch of self-congratulatory multi-media aggrandizement. I don’t doubt that people going to see Glee: The 3D Concert Movie will get exactly what they want to see. The movie is exactly what it set out to be, for better or worse. But couldn’t director Kevin Tancharoen, last seen trying to remake Fame, have tried to do something more with this opportunity? Maybe the constraints of being disposable between-season product, fuel for the money machine that is Glee, prevented him from doing so.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clock's Ticking: 30 MINUTES OR LESS


Despite the fact that every character in 30 Minutes or Less is either an idiot or is just acting like one, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of an Idiot Plot. No, that would require characters smart enough to pick up on the fact that the whole complicated mess of a heist is basically ready and available for any one of these participants to figure out, no extra explanation required. These are characters that are constantly loudly, and energetically explaining themselves and their motivations, continually talking away their leverage and backing into dangerous situations almost by accident. It would be funnier if the whole pace and tone of the film weren’t ever so slightly off.

The movie reunites Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer with that excellent comedy’s star Jesse Eisenberg, who here plays a pizza delivery guy who drives into a whole mess of trouble one fateful night. He delivers a pizza to two scheming slackers (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who knock him unconscious and wire a bomb vest to his chest. When he wakes up, he’s told that he has ten hours to rob a bank or the bomb will explode. If he tells anyone about his predicament, the bomb will explode. If he fails to get them a large sum of money, the bomb will explode. These two guys seem pretty stupid though, so it seems all-too-likely that this bomb is going to explode no matter what.

The reason for this convoluted scheme is even dumber and loopier than you might expect. McBride can’t wait to inherit the fortune of his lottery-winner multi-millionaire ex-military father (Fred Ward), so he sets out to hire a professional assassin (a terrifically funny Michael Peña) in order to speed up the process. Unfortunately, hitmen are expensive, so McBride and his dumber pal Swardson hatch a plan to make some sucker rob a bank for them so that they can pay the killer to kill the father. That this all makes total sense to them tells you how dumb these schemers are.

So, there you have it. Instead of merely committing murder, the two think it will be much safer to take some intermediary steps that will consist of nothing less than kidnapping, extortion, conspiracy, and all manner of frightening crimes. You see, they’re idiots. But the pizza guy seems clever enough, that is until he runs, bomb in tow, into a local school where his best friend (Aziz Ansari) works to explain the situation and get some help. After some unhelpful ideas for removing the explosive garment (“Why don’t we cut off your arms?”), the two guys decide that they may as well rob the bank. Maybe these guys aren’t much smarter.

There’s an excellent ticking-time-bomb element to the movie that the script by Michael Dilberti fails to kick into motion. It’s all very economically handled with some moderately entertaining chase elements and unrepentantly mean silliness, but, despite the weight of the bomb literally sitting on the protagonist’s chest, the propulsion just isn’t there. The plot takes plenty of sidetracks and diversions while filling up with banter that just didn’t register as too terribly funny with me. It’s only 83 minutes, but it feels longer.

The movie rockets forward at one constant, grating pace that requires the actors to constantly raise the pitch of their voices in incredulity with the speedy tempo of the dialogue. They all sound like they’re in a hurry, like they’re running on nothing but nervous energy or misplaced self-confidence, but the movie seems to be taking its own sweet time to get where it’s going. The cadence of the comedy is off, with lines landing just before or just after the sweet spot, with the tone sometimes skewing deeply dark, other times crudely light. Only Peña makes a mark and that’s because he wriggles out of the constraints of the tightly written looseness and delivers a weirdly successful mumbly lisping with a peculiarly airy quality that separates his speaking from the thudding rat-a-tat of the rest’s.

Fleischer has a great deal of confidence in the director’s chair. He brings the slick energy that, were the movie itself better, would keep things zipping along nicely. Instead the movie drags itself through its quick set-ups and pay-offs, mechanically arriving at the storytelling beats while dragging its cast along. In the end, it seems to end with a shrug, over before it really got a chance to make an impact. It’s slightly less than good and a little better than mediocre, just enough to feel all the more a disappointment.

Friday, August 12, 2011

More Finals: FINAL DESTINATION 5


The biggest problem with the last couple Final Destination movies is that the audience starts the film way ahead of the characters. Since rare is the survivor in one of these cinematic death traps, we know all the rules and are forced to wait around for the new batch of characters to catch up to where we are. Each film starts with gathering a group of characters and then killing them all off in an over-the-top calamity. Then it circles back to reveal that the accident has yet to occur. What we’ve seen is merely a premonition that was just experienced by our main character. Said main character then saves some of the group seconds before the disaster occurs, but rather than saving their lives he’s brought them into a new kind of prolonged torture. Since they were all marked to die, Death itself, the ever-present invisible menace, is out to hunt down all of these escapees one by one.

I have a tremendous affection for this series. The first three are especially efficient and are probably the very best examples of the premise that could possibly be made, imbued with a gutsy B-movie sensibility paired with a devilish delight in methodically setting up the variables that, when triggered in just the wrong, or right, order will lead to a freak accident. They’re slasher movies without the villain. When you get right down to it, it’s far more unsettling for me to contemplate death by weird, complicated, unforeseeable circumstances than it is to simply ponder meeting a masked machete-man in the woods. The former is simply much more likely than the latter. These films succeed through their total commitment to the innovation and imagination (not to mention the incineration, impalement, and other sudden bloody frights) inherent in the concept.

By the time we arrived at the fourth feature in the series it was all starting to seem a little tired but here we are yet again, this time with Final Destination 5. It dials back some of the flippancy that began to settle in last time, occasionally summoning up the dread and propulsion that made the first three so much creepy fun. The recipient of the premonition this time is Nicholas D’Agasto, who wears the responsibility well. As for a group of his co-workers headed to a retreat that are saved by his early warning of a bridge collapse, they’re less memorable than they should be. The boss (David Koechner), the I.T. guy (P.J. Byrne), the intern (Emma Bell) and various office workers (Miles Fisher, Ellen Wroe, Jacqueline MacInnes Wood, and Arlen Escarpeta) are just plain less interesting than other ensembles and that makes the time spent waiting for the characters to learn why they survived, only to start mysteriously dying, a bit on the tedious side. (I do like how, as in all these movies, several character names are winks to horror icons of the past, this time including Friedkin, Hooper, and Castle).

As the characters line up to meet their grisly ends, the film, directed by Steven Quale from a script by Eric Heisserer, makes good use of its 3D technology, finding great ways to accent depth and heights but then still getting a kick out of thrusting bloody entrails and goop right at you. The way the plot unfolds feels a bit more belabored than usual. “You know how many things had to go wrong for this to happen?” a detective asks after a laser-eye surgery patient suffers through several steps of equipment malfunctions. It’s unsettling to a certain extent, and certainly gross, but lacks a real visceral impact like even an earlier sequence in this very movie that finds cringing suspense from the threat of unnatural bodily harm from gymnastics gone wrong. (I knew there was a good reason I find it difficult to watch uneven bars routines).

Learning about the franchise’s rules comes courtesy of the series’ one major semi-recurring supporting actor, Tony Todd as an eerie coroner. Asked how he knows so much, he responds “I’ve seen it all before.” That one line perfectly explains my problem with this movie.  I didn’t exactly have a bad time. It has a handful of good moments and ends on a terrific nod to the franchise’s past on top of a well-executed climax, but I just couldn’t summon up much reason to care. The ensemble isn’t distinctive enough, nor do they react to knowledge of the events quickly or interestingly enough. The film goes through the events you’d expect, hits all the beats the other films have conditioned us to foresee. But what the filmmakers serve up is only the bare minimum. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I left the theater wishing it could have been just a bit more inventive. The fresh premise is growing stale.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Help Me Help You: THE HELP


Written and directed by Tate Taylor from the bestselling novel by Katheryn Stockett, The Help is a glossy middlebrow Hollywood civil-rights drama. It’s set in the early 60’s in Jackson, Mississippi and concerns itself with the plight of African American women working as maids cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing for well-to-do white women. The film is all well and good, filled with fine intentions. On its surface, however, several storytelling decisions water down the point of view to make institutionalized racism easier for mainstream audiences to handle.

First, the story is kicked off from the perspective of a white woman (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring journalist who gets it in her head to help write down and take the help’s stories to the larger public. Second, there’s the case of the film’s villain, for Hollywood can’t just make racism itself the subject of scorn and therefore requires a character to stand in as its personification. Here it’s a women’s club leader (Bryce Dallas Howard) who drafts a bill to require private citizens in the town to have a separate bathroom in their homes for their black employees. She’s not a real character to speak of, just pure racist evil made all the worse for her not knowing the extent of her own flaws. “You know, there’s some real racists in this town!” she obliviously exclaims at one point.

But here I go, sounding like I disliked The Help when really I was drawn into it past these problems. Emma Stone’s story ends up sharing its space with two maids who are wonderfully drawn characters, stirringly acted. The great Viola Davis anchors this movie with her weary spirit, even narrating occasional sections of the film in her lovely alto voice. She’s the first Jackson maid to agree to help with the book project. After having worked since the age of 14 raising other people’s babies, cooking other people’s meals, cleaning other people’s valuables, and gaining from it all far too little in the way of money and respect, she’s more than ready to tell her life’s stories. She convinces her best friend, played with great humor and poignant warmth by Octavia Spencer, to speak up as well. Together, the three women prepare to reveal the insidious injustices of this system of employment.

All the while, the society of Jackson is explored through a talented ensemble cast. Allison Janney plays Stone’s fussy, cancer-patient mother who really does mean well, while Sissy Spacek plays the aged mother of the villain as a cranky old lady with moments of clarity. Amongst the younger members of the cast, Jessica Chastain plays a woman who is just a little too much of an individual and is thus cruelly outcast from the local society of debutants and bridge games. In these characters, there is the insistence that gentle Southern cruelty cuts even those who just barely fall out of the line of acceptability. This is no equivalence to the pain of institutionalized racism, but rather an illustration of how tightly controlled this society is.

Because Taylor focuses on the deeply felt performances from these women, the film held my attention. Its visually undistinguished and loosely paced, but it’s a relentless crowd-pleaser, pushing all the expected, but often welcomed, buttons. But there’s a sense in the slickness of the whole production that the proceedings are being held ever-so-slightly back from the full grim reality of the situations presented. There’s a little rosy historical handholding in its sunny disposition punctuated by cruel behavior from the nastier characters. It’s as if the filmmakers were insisting that yes, things were bad then, but that was the past.

What breaks through this veneer of ossified history is the immediacy of the performances, from Davis and Spencer especially. I truly cared about what happened to them and the movie treats them with total respect as characters and as people. By the end, the movie wisely skips artificial uplift and arrives at something just a little more honest than I expected, giving these characters a small victory tainted by a sense that little has actually changed. Racism isn’t going to disappear over night.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Change We Can't Believe In: THE CHANGE-UP


David “Wedding Crashers” Dobkin’s The Change-Up is a rancid pit filled with the putrid remains of offensive, outdated mindsets and regressive stereotypes. It’s a lame body switch comedy that is relentlessly cruel and crude and uses its time on screen to do little more than insult every character and denigrate every lifestyle choice they represent. The worst insult of the film is quite possibly leveled at the audience that is assumed to be ready to eat this up. What ugly, unfunny rot.

The idea of two people switching bodies and then being forced to comically live out the other’s life is a fun hook. It’s all too rarely produced a good film, but you can’t win them all. In any case, it’s usually a chance for two actors to have fun with the other’s style of line readings and typical body language. In 2003’s Freaky Friday remake, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan put in genuinely great performances post-switch, believably becoming the other. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta pull off a similar feat in John Woo’s underrated 1997 action flick Face/Off. Despite the patchy track record – for every solid effort there’s a Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son to set teeth to cringing – the subgenre seems perpetually ripe for a new positive example.

But I haven’t actually talked about The Change-Up much yet, have I? If you’ll excuse the above digression, I’ll get around to telling you that this truly abysmal movie stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as the victims of a switcheroo. Bateman is an ambitious lawyer on the brink of being named a partner in his firm. He has a lovely wife and three young kids. Of course the film makes him miserable. He just can’t appreciate what he has because he’s too focused on the fact that his wife (poor Leslie Mann) wants to actually talk to him and his babies cry a lot. As for Reynolds, he’s a pothead, a failed actor, and a particularly egregious overgrown man-child who is also somehow a ladies’ man. He’s miserable too. As written, both men are so extremely off-putting that no amount of inherent charm from the actors can overcome it.

One night the two guys, who happen to be friends despite the fact that they don’t have anything in common, admit that they wish they had the other’s life. Yeah, right. Here’s a movie with a low opinion of all mankind, that says being married crushes a man’s freedom, ‘cause ladies, you know how they are. Then it turns around and says, left to their own devices, men would live like horrible slobs mindlessly pursuing their basest desires, ‘cause men, you know how they are. It’s such a pessimistic and creatively bankrupt way to approach human relationships. Of course the two guys will wreak havoc in the other’s lives before getting in touch with another part of themselves and switching back as marginally better people. But there’s no sense that either has anything to learn from the life of the other. The whole world of the film has a kind of mean-spirited retrograde opinion of gender roles, interpersonal dynamics, race, class, men, women, and children. It’s downright nasty.

Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the same guys who recently brought you The Hangover Part II, this film can join it at the very bottom of this year’s, or any year’s, barrel of comedies. It’s a film that treats its cast, down to the lowliest extra, as nothing more than vulgar fleshy puppets to be trotted out on display for an audience to laugh at. There’s nothing to identify with in this feature, no spark of life or wit or imagination. It’s the kind of comedy that whips out the four-letter words with a dull repetitiveness, and yanks on its gross-out gags with a tiresome insistence that they’re shocking when they’re nothing more than desperate. The movie opens with a baby projectile defecating into Jason Bateman’s mouth and only goes downhill from there.

Unidentified Friendly Object: PAUL

Greg Mottola’s Paul may not have the emotional resonance of his two previous efforts (the excellent coming-of-age films Adventureland and Superbad), but it’s still decent entertainment. It’s a warm geeky embrace of a movie, a sci-fi action comedy, jam-packed with winking references. If you’re like me, the kind of person who can appreciate a collage of homage derived from nearly every notable piece of 70’s and 80’s sci-fi (from E.T., Star Wars, and Back to the Future to Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Repo Man), you’re in for a treat. But even if every single reference flies over your head, I can’t imagine having the fun entirely pass you buy. Here’s a comedy that really knows how to utilize its talented cast as it builds a satisfying collection of set-ups and pay-offs. It’s an efficient sugary treat.



Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the screenplay, star as two British nerds on an American road trip that starts at Comic-Con and winds its way through famous southwestern UFO hotspots like Area 51. While on a lonely stretch of road, they happen upon a car accident that introduces them to Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an escaped alien in desperate need of a ride. It turns out that this little green dude is on the run from the feds (a straight-laced Jason Bateman and two goofball underlings Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) and he wants the nerds to help him flee to a remote patch of wilderness where he will meet his fellow aliens for a ride back to his home planet. Along the way, the trio picks up, under strange duress, a fundamentalist Christian woman (Kristen Wiig) who has a hard time believing in science, specifically that aliens are possible. What do you expect? Her T-shirt reads “Evolve This!” which accompanies a drawing of Jesus shooting Darwin in the face.

This is all so much broad shtick, that’s for sure. The characters are silly caricatures and the plot is just a mash of influences grafted onto a road movie. It’s a little disappointing see so much talent go towards something that, however much fun it provides moment to moment, comes up feeling awfully minor. But Mottola’s coming off of two great films and so are Frost and Pegg who together wrote and starred in director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, terrific, sneakily moving, satires of zombie and cop films respectively. There’s a sense that, however minor, a lot of earnest energy went into Paul. Perhaps there’s a feeling that this is simply talented people expending great amounts of effort on goofing off. It embodies a geeky love of the minor details of sci-fi lore. The cast gamely throws itself into the ridiculousness and Mottola, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, has a nice eye for slick widescreen southwestern spaces in which to arrange his silly, splashy, sometimes explosive, gags.

Its sense of slightness and its sense of humor ultimately balance each other out and Paul evens out at a reasonably enjoyable level of fun. Despite a few too many gay panic jokes, it’s theme of acceptance and open-mindedness is ultimately welcome. The comedy is a self-reflexive and self-aggrandizing look at fandom that posits that neat sci-fi spectacles can draw people together. That may not be exactly true, sci-fi fanboys can be awfully vicious, but if the world at large were as giddily geeky as these characters, people just might have a few more reasons to get along, bonding over the cool little moments found in cult classics.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Go Ape: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


The main character of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a combination reboot / remake / prequel of the kind increasingly common to moribund franchises these days, is a startlingly well-drawn, patiently developed and deeply sympathetic creation. He’s an incredibly talented youngster who grows exponentially in intelligence and capacity as he ages. One unfortunate day, he attacks a neighbor while defending a member of his surrogate family and is locked away in a prison-like environment. There, he discovers his own kind and begins to plot an escape. His name is Caesar and he is a chimpanzee.

All of his character development is done with a handful of sign language symbols sparsely translated, but otherwise through entirely wordless passages in which body language and small shifts of expression – it’s all in the eyes – tell more than you need to know about his emotional state. Even more impressive than just the mere fact that an expensive studio production would willingly turn over so much time to quiet and nuance is that Caesar is a computer-generated character, quite possibly the most convincing one yet. He’s performed via motion capture by Andy Serkis, the same digitally-assisted chameleon who breathed life into the pixels of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Not only is Caesar convincing, but he captured my emotions as well. I had a rooting interest in this character and was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what he would learn, what he would decide to do next.

When Caesar arrives amongst other primates, very convincing effects work all, in an animal control prison lorded over by an inattentive Brian Cox and a sneering Tom Felton, encounters with chimps, orangutans, and gorillas are similarly convincing, thrilling, and suspenseful. The hierarchies of this little prison society are made startlingly clear in what seem like lengthy sequences in which the only sounds are growls, snorts, and various ape vocalizations. By the time the simian inmates form a makeshift army – after some convoluted sci-fi business about enhanced intelligence – their strategy meetings are similarly thrillingly clear despite the lack of speaking. It’s all in the eyes, which in these cases are most definitely windows to souls.

If this movie were mostly just apes, this review would be on-track to be a nearly unqualified rave. As it is, the film has lots of human stuff dragging down the level of quality. Perhaps that’s because, unlike for the apes, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are required to write speaking role for the humans. There is so much intelligence, thought, and humanity in the wordless ape roles, that it’s a shame that the movie lacks human intelligence. Oh, they all play their parts just fine but the dialogue is really clunky and the plot requires some humans to make Very Bad Decisions for the sake of moving things along. The lead human is scientist James Franco who is close to a breakthrough in his work for a cure to Alzheimer’s. We see that he likes to take his work home with him when we learn that his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from said disease. When Franco’s work testing his cure on chimps is shut down by his Big Pharma boss (David Oyelowo), he saves a baby chimp from being put down and brings him home too. That would be Caesar. It’s a good thing that Franco woos a pretty veterinarian (Freida Pinto) who can keep a secret.

The slick production just blasts forward, rocketing upwards at a terrific pace, escalating all the while. Director Rupert Wyatt, in his first big studio effort, has a great hand at keeping the effects perfectly utilized. He neither leans on them, nor tries to hide them. He knows he has a good thing going and makes great use of the skilled work of thousands of animators and dozens of mo-cap performers. The spectacle is truly spectacular, made all the more so by the simple fact that I cared about what was happening on the screen. Not since 1968’s Planet of the Apes found astronaut Charlton Heston falling through time and space and landing on a future Earth ruled by the apes, has a Planet of the Apes film been so fully satisfying.

Rise flips the frightening central scenario. Instead of a man being oppressed by apes, this film shows apes being oppressed by men. It’s a terrifying what if scenario both ways. What if apes got tired of being treated as second-class species? Though Rise sees unwilling to maintain the same commentary on the cauldron of societal ills that informed the sensibilities of the original films, there is still a potent sense of wrong in the treatment of these animals, and a potent terror in their eventual strike back. It’s all the more terrifying for seeming justified. Caesar is a charismatic character who grows into a charismatic leader. The great success of the film is not only the way it so brilliantly builds this character, but also in the way it has an audience rooting for the defeat of mankind, rooting for the rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film doesn’t quite get there, concluding by merely leaving tantalizing threads for future sequels. It’s funny that the franchise, which started with Heston’s angst at the destruction of humanity, has come full circle to the point where an audience cheers it on. It’s excitingly transgressive. When a character in this new film shouts “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” The film’s thrilling, hugely entertaining and disturbing answer is “No.” 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Love is a Battlefield: CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.


Crazy, Stupid, Love is a romantic comedy that tries to do something new but in the process finds only stale ways to do the same old things. It’s a film with a deeply talented ensemble that walks through intertwining rom-com plotlines, but at the core the whole thing is flat and unconvincing. It has one foot in low-key observational humor and another in broad sentimental jokiness with no idea how to reconcile the two. As a result, the film lurches from moment to moment and, though individual scenes and performances can be quite good, the whole thing is nothing more than a disappointment.

The film stars Steve Carell and Julianne Moore as a married couple of twenty-five years. We are quickly made aware of their deteriorating relationship in an opening scene that makes economical use of editing and framing. We see a bustling restaurant from the point of view of several pairs of feet in fancy shoes, one after the other paired off playing footsie. Then, we cut to two pairs of feet that are stationary and separated with shoes of decidedly lower quality and flashiness. These feet belong to Carell and Moore as they sit with their dessert menus trying to decide what they want. “Why don’t we say what we want at the same time?” Carell suggests. So they do. He says “crème brûlée.” She says “a divorce.”

From there on out we follow Carell as he tries to get back into the dating game with the help of a ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling) he runs into at a local bar. Meanwhile, his soon-to-be-ex wife makes tentative steps towards an office romance with her company’s accountant (Kevin Bacon). Sprinkled throughout the main thrust of the plot, their thirteen-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) wrestles with his crush on the teenage girl (Analeigh Tipton) who babysits his little sister (Joey King) while the ladies’ man may have finally found the one perfect girl (Emma Stone) who will make him decide to settle down.

Writer Dan Fogelman, who has also written Tangled and Cars (how’s that for variety?), weaves the various plot threads together as clumsily as he handles the tone. The characters are sometimes well drawn and other times seem to be barely more than a one-note joke. Take Marisa Tomei, who shows up in a handful of scenes in barely more than a cameo, for an example that’s indicative of the strange approach the film takes. Her character, a woman who is picked up at the bar by Carell, is made the butt of relentless sexist jokes. She’s ridiculed for being aggressive in her pursuit of a relationship, then ridiculed for later expressing surprise that Carell doesn’t call her back. When she reappears in a crowd of people during the climax, all she can do is sit on the sidelines and shoot daggers with her gaze as she flips him the bird. What a waffling, cruel way to treat a character, not only by the film but also by the characters within it.

Similar problems exist with the Gosling character. Now, Gosling is super charming and his rakish role works just fine, but by the time the film makes an attempt at deepening the character, it feels forced. It’s fun to see his wandering ways tamed by Emma Stone, who flips the power balance in the relationship, but it doesn’t feel like it should move as fast as it does. Far more honest and patient is the way Bobo’s puppy love is handled, at least until it becomes precocious mawkish speechifying in the final twenty minutes before returning to subtlety in the end, giving him the final shot of the film. In fact, his is the most compelling of the plot lines. Maybe this should have been his coming-of-age story instead of an I-still-love-my-ex divorcee’s fantasy. Carell and Moore do all the heavy lifting with characterization that the screenplay doesn't quite give them. They communicate more in body language than they do through speaking.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed last year’s I Love You, Phillip Morris, a terrific raunchy based-on-a-true-story farce, do their best impression of a mid-80’s James L. Brooks or perhaps a mid-90’s Cameron Crowe, but the script just isn’t up to their level of craftsmanship. There are scenes here that shine. I especially loved a late backyard confrontation that features every character’s secret revealed in a believably funny and tense way. Perhaps what the film lacks most is an intensity and immediacy that comes forth in that moment and in others like that opening scene, or some of the material between Bobo and Tipton, or the first real date between Gosling and Stone. There’s great stuff here, but not, unfortunately, a great movie.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Where the Buffalo and Aliens Roam: COWBOYS & ALIENS


I don’t like Cowboys & Aliens, which is especially disappointing since I more or less loved, or I was at least ready to like, the individual pieces. It starts as a dusty Western with a mysterious stranger (Daniel Craig) riding into a small frontier town. This is well before the aliens show up. Now, you wouldn’t normally expect a Western to feature a scene in which UFOs swoop down from the sky and shoot up a town with laser beams and rope up some townsfolk for study and probing, but this is no normal Western. As that great title would have you know, this is going to be a genre mash-up. The concept makes sense to me. Why are alien invasion movies always set in either the present or the future? Aliens could just as well pop in on the 1800’s. After all, H.G. Welles wrote his War of the Worlds in 1898. The setting’s a nice change of pace.

That mysterious stranger I was talking about wakes up in the middle of the prairie in the opening scene to find a strange metallic device attached to his wrist and a bloody gash in his side. He’s confused about all this, mostly because he has no memory of how he got there and who he is. When he wanders into the nearby small town he’s confronted by a crusty sheriff (Keith Carradine) who matches the stranger’s face with the one plastered on a wanted poster hanging in the little jail. The town, ruled over by a vicious cattle baron (Harrison Ford), wants to quickly send the man to Santa Fe to face trial. But before they get a chance to do that, the aliens swoop down.

After the close encounter results in several missing persons, the town rounds up a posse to chase down the “demons” responsible. Since the stranger’s metallic device seems to respond to the demons in bursts of compatible weapon fire, he’s freed and invited along. Along with the cattle baron and the stranger ride the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown), bar owner (Sam Rockwell), the sheriff’s grandson (Noah Ringer), and a woman who knows more than she at first reveals (Olivia Wilde). There’s also a very sweet dog that trots along beside them the whole way through.

It’s a fairly standard Western concept playing out here. The town is wronged in some way, then a small group rides out to make things right. But, of course, instead of Native Americans, robbers, or black-hat gunmen causing trouble for the townsfolk, it’s aliens. Their design is awfully derivative, all bug-eyed and slimy, but the effects are convincing and the action is more or less what you’d expect. The cowboys ride up guns blazing and the aliens fight back with their superior firepower. Because the aliens seem to be advanced enough to travel through space but dumb enough not to think too terribly hard about strategy, this all boils down to a matter of brains (the cowboys) versus high-tech brawn (the aliens).

Even as I write all that, knowing full well the failure of execution, I find that set-up tantalizing. It’s a real shame the film feels so lifeless when it should be filled with a zip and energy. The cast is, for the most part, remarkably grizzled, tough and likable and director Jon Favreau, who’s made great popcorn fun in the past with two Iron Mans, Elf, and the underseen Zathura, has some fun introducing his one unexpected element into what is otherwise a fairly standard Western and even creates some occasionally striking images of clean, classic style. What’s surprising is how dull and rote the material feels. This is cowboys and aliens, for crying out loud! This is the stuff of a boy’s playtime, the wild combining of complete disparate genre elements into one energetic what-if scenario.

Why, oh why, then must Cowboys & Aliens feel so unenergetic? I think it must come down to the script level. Credited to six writers, some of them quite good, it has the unimaginative feel of a great, weird, original concept that has had all of its kooky edges and wacky sides sanded down by committee. What’s left is the kind of movie in which I could occasionally predict the lines right before they came out of characters’ mouths. Such rote, paint-by-numbers genre play is what confines the great film living within this one to dying a slow, painful death. The cast, the director, and the technicians try valiantly to pump excitement onto the screen but the script lets them all down.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #4


 Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (d. Rodman Flender)
In an age of pervasive access to celebrities everywhere from the so-called mainstream media to paparazzi and Twitter, the kind of access that Rodman Flender offers the audience of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is nothing short of astonishing. The film follows the comic and talk show host through the summer between his removal from NBC’s Tonight Show and his new gig hosting a late-night show on TBS. During that time he felt wronged, he felt furious, but rather than stewing in his own misery he fed his energy into a rapid 30-city tour of stand-up and freewheeling absurdity interrupted by toe-tapping musical numbers. Flender’s cameras follow Conan with remarkable access, capturing a hugely talented man and consummate entertainer who simply can’t stop cracking jokes, can’t stop moving, can’t stop interacting with everyone he sees, can’t stop being hard on himself. The energy of the film matches his. Flender keeps a close watch of his subject, making this behind-the-scenes slice of showbiz documentary turn into something of a tense and exhilarating entertainment. The tour is a precarious and ultimately successful comedic dance in which Conan risks pressing up against the limits of his stamina and talent. The film is a hilarious, musical experience that moves well past the pat platitudes of public persona and presents a celebrity as a richly complicated person.

The Guard (d. John Michael McDonagh)
            Brendan Gleeson is a small-town Irish law enforcement officer who seems to have a good heart under his rough exterior. He goofs around, runs his mouth off to his big-city superiors, and visits prostitutes and takes some drugs from time to time. But he also loves literature and music and often visits his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan). He finds his mostly comfortable, uncomplicated life, upended when an F.B.I. agent (Don Cheadle) tracks three dangerous international drug dealers (Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Mark Strong) to this corner of the world. Perhaps these criminals have something to do with a recent baffling murder and a strange disappearance that has Gleeson stumped? He reluctantly works with this interloping American to sort through the tangle of mystery. It sounds like a standard buddy-cop movie and indeed there’s fun patter between Gleeson and Cheadle, but it’s also a nicely drawn character piece placed comfortably within a pitch-black comic thriller. The script is rich in character detail and the performers rise to the challenge, putting the details together to form deeply felt characterization. The film, with it’s quick shifts between splashes of violence and impolite jocularity, feels like it should be too clever for it’s own good, like a late-90’s Tarantino rip-off, but writer-director John Michael McDonagh, brother of In Bruges’s writer-director Martin McDonagh, has an agreeable confidence with his feature debut. He stylishly pulls together a great deal of familiar elements and combines them into a film that’s engaging, surprising, funny, exciting, and even a bit moving. It just plain works.

L’amour Fou (d. Pierre Thoretton)
After the passing of legendary French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, his longtime partner Pierre Bergé arranged an auction of their massive collection of art. L'amour fou follows the preparations for this event while Bergé reflects on their life together. Pierre Thoretton’s film casts a slow, subtle spell in passages that throw lovely, evocative slideshows backed with music or sound effects on the screen or entrancing sleepy sequences in which the camera merely wanders through the rooms of YSL’s homes. There's a sense of restraint to the film that holds the whole picture back. It has no interest in exploring Laurent's art or methods on anything other than a superficial level and, though his soft voice is quite lovely, Bergé only reveals a certain amount of their personal lives, leaving maddening and mysterious gaps from the exclusions. L'amour fou has beauty and patience but little desire to use these qualities to truly explore it's central subject of the way art accrues value and the value of artists. It's lovely, artful, and inert.

Rabies (d. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado)
When the policemen in the world of Rabies, the first Israeli horror movie, eventually find the crime scenes, they will have a hard time tracing the reasons behind the carnage left behind by the end of the film. But as it unravels, it utilizes the tight nightmarish logic of screwball comedy to create a nightmare of deadly dangerous scenarios that collide and escalate in surprising and inevitable ways. At first, things look to be shaping up to be a fairly standard slasher picture. There are two missing persons, a brother and a sister, lost in the middle of nowhere in an exceedingly dangerous forest in which lurks a cold-blooded psychopath. A standard horror cast starts to assemble around them: a kind park ranger, a group of goofy teens, and two bumbling cops. What happens to these people in the woods becomes a bloody mess with predictable swiftness but what surprised me was the way first-time directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado pivot away from genre cliché and find that there's some surprise left in playing around with familiar horror conventions. This is a film that succeeds on its own wry nihilistic terms in which every character can be infected with the deep, dark potential for violence that lurks within everyone and every situation.

Troll Hunter (d. André Øvredal)
            Three Norwegian film students – an interviewer (Glenn Erland Tosterud), a cameraman (Tomas Alf Larsen), and a sound technician (Johanna Morck) – head off into the wilderness to track a half-glimpsed man accused of poaching bears. When they catch up to him they’re surprised not to find a rogue criminal hunter but merely a bored government functionary who is tired of his long-held position as Troll Hunter. It turns out that Norway has a population of trolls that are hidden from the populace by nothing more than a few bureaucrats. It’s a secret that has yet to be revealed simply because no one seems to care about asking the right questions. This found-footage monster movie is a straight-faced delight, calmly, sneakily hilarious, that doesn’t have scares so much as surprises. There are plenty of scenes of hunting that feel like padding and the structure – the group repeatedly hunts down a new troll species and must find a way to escape danger – feels at first glance too predictable. But just when I thought I had a handle on what the film is up to, it wriggles away and ups the ante. As the titular hunter, Otto Jespersen delivers a masterfully understated comedic performance. As for the giant trolls themselves, they’re cleverly straddled between cartoonish and menacing with exaggerated schnozzes and befuddled countenances paired with creepy booming sniffs and impressive pounding footsteps. That writer-director André Øvredal positions the world of the film between matter-of-fact mockumentary satire and cleverly detailed monster lore parts invented and parts folk-tale references (one troll is found under a bridge, naturally) is what makes this a particularly inspired and comic thriller.
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