Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Quick Look: CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS


One of Werner Herzog’s two documentaries this year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, creates a space for wonder. How often are we allowed that in this day and age? This is a film that stretches out as a hushed visual reverie allowing for quiet reflection upon the deepest questions of the nature of mankind and the nature of art. The lovable eccentric German auteur received rare permission from the French government to enter the Chauvet caves in the south of France to film the oldest discovered cave paintings. Because of the fragile ecosystem within this ancient geographic formation, the cave is sealed off year round, only open for brief periods of time for a select group of researchers to spend fleeting moments gathering data. Herzog meets them and lets them speak to us in his typical style of allowing digressions and tangents to unravel with a charming patience. How else would we learn that one researcher was once a circus performer? Who else would find an archeologist who likes to dress up in caveman-style pelts and plays a handmade bone flute, the better to interact with the ancients? Who but Herzog would find it necessary to give us a scene with a man who uses his sense of smell to search for caves? The delightful oddities of these people add interest to the main attraction, which are most definitely the cave paintings themselves. Gorgeously preserved and shot in stunning 3D, which allows their contours and textures to extend towards and curve away from the audience with exciting depth, these paintings are shared to a wide audience in a stirring and enchanting style. These paintings have been preserved and explored in a way only filmmaking would allow. Herzog’s typically lovely narration, droll and inquisitive in his soft German accent, and a swirling choral score that seems to be bubbling up from the very souls of the ancient artists, help create the film’s successful atmosphere, an absorbing, endlessly fascinating window to the past.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lost Girl: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE


Where are we? When are we? As Martha Marcy May Marlene opens we see men and women working in fields and a farmhouse, chopping wood, harvesting, laundering, cooking. At the end of the day, the men eat slowly, quietly, huddled around a dark table in a dark kitchen. They slowly file out and the women take their place, finally their turn to eat the meal. The sun sets. Members of this group go to sleep on mattresses packed on the floor of unfurnished rooms.

In the haze of daybreak, one of the young women (Elizabeth Olsen) slips away from the farmhouse, across the fields and comes upon a thick slice of asphalt breaking up the natural world and helping to narrow down the period of time in which she lives. She crosses the road and disappears into the forest beyond. We follow her as she seems to escape, eventually ending up in a modern small town where she uses the pay phone outside of the diner to call her sister. “Martha?” her sister says. “Where are you?”

We learn that Martha’s family hasn’t heard from her in two years, knowing only vaguely that she was “upstate” with a “boyfriend.” Her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), pick her up and drive her back to their vacation house. They quickly decide to take her in, to help he get on her feet. They seem remarkably uncurious as to where Martha has been or what happened to her. Something is so very wrong here that, though this couple’s attempts at kindness is sympathetic, their situational blind spots contribute to the film’s dread. How can they so easily ignore the warning signs that this young woman is so troubled?

After all, what could explain her behavior? She seems, in subtle ways, unaccustomed to what we would call a relatively normal life. The house in which she now lives is an expansive wood-and-glass lakeside domicile surrounded by woods. It’s modern yet secluded, different from where she was, but with resonances of reminders. She will cast her gaze nervously about her surroundings, as if anticipating sudden danger, or else remembering the possibility. The married couple can’t quite see how disturbed Martha is. There are unspoken histories between these characters, familial tensions that are teased out with some subtlety by the capable cast.

The full extent of Martha’s previous two years is slowly parceled out by the film, which slips between the two time periods with chilling silkiness in the editing. We continually return to that farmhouse with the eerie timeless quality of the dress and codes of conduct. We come to learn that the group of people living there are all enthralled by a cult leader (John Hawkes, seemingly effortlessly disquieting) who slowly draws his victims in with his soft-spoken philosophizing and simply plucked guitar compositions, creating a sense of community. Then, we come to understand how he uses psychological domination and torture as well as ritualized patterns of behavior, a strict work ethic, an unflinching schedule, and punishing initiations including shocking violence and rape, to control and retain his followers. As what we know more about Martha’s time amongst these people, the darker and more disturbing the implications grow.

As the trauma of her time in the cult regularly intrudes upon the film’s present tense, the collision draws the atmosphere into the same haze of paranoia and aftershocks of anxiety that Martha is feeling. This is remarkably assured debut work for the writer-director Sean Durkin who keeps the focus on fuzzy compositions and ominously open spaces in the blocking and backgrounds of shots. (In some ways it reminded me a bit of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, but that’s a fairly obscure connection for the benefit of what is likely to be only a small portion of those reading this). The visual style of the picture matches Martha’s fuzzy mental state, clear and warm at times, but all-too-soon giving way to confusion and cold, unflinching traumatic memories. It’s a slow mystery – what is the full extent of the awfulness of what happened to her, and will she get the help she needs? – that is in some ways a slow-motion horror movie. One sequence late in the film is a like a quieter, simpler, though no less startling, version of something right out of a slasher flick.

The film tells the story of Martha’s steps towards a new, better life, tying it relentlessly to the slow and steady reveal of what she must overcome. It took great courage for her to escape her situation, but is it possible for Martha to outrun her past? We are given reason for hope, but as the end credits crash in, it’s still very much a tense, pressing, frustratingly unanswerable open question. In that moment, the film reveals itself to be a bit too teasing in its restraint to be fully believed (I’m tempted to call it Haneke lite). But it’s overall an undeniably effective piece of filmmaking and a strong debut.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Inspirational Celebrational Muppetational: THE MUPPETS


Now this is the Muppets! Jim Henson’s cast of lovable, furry misfits, oddballs, and weirdoes from The Muppet Show and several delightful feature films, haven’t been seen on the big screen for twelve years, languishing all this time in a couple TV specials and a handful of YouTube videos. They haven’t been gone, not exactly, but they haven’t been a cultural presence the way they once were. Since Henson’s untimely death in 1990, the characters have seemed every-so-slightly lost. This new feature, called simply The Muppets, reintroduces them in the biggest, funniest, loveliest, way possible. This is a hugely satisfying film that scrambles all definitions of kids’ films and grown-ups’ films, a giddy nostalgic reunion with old friends, and an unmitigated success.

The Muppets have found a great new voice, one that sounds as close to their old voice as possible without Henson, in co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. You might remember their Apatow production Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which the main character wants to produce an all-puppet Dracula musical. That film’s grand finale was that production, complete with sweet song-and-felt numbers. Of course, that film was most definitely R, but their love of G-rated Muppetry was obvious in that sequence. The Muppets have an earnest and earned innocence, a broad delight in vaudevillian antics, puns, slapstick, heartfelt musical numbers and staying true to yourself while sticking by your closest friends. Segel and Stoller get that perfectly in a splashy, witty musical with great numbers written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, who knows a thing or two about funny songs. Together they create a film that starts by acknowledging that the world has seemingly left the Muppets behind, but, even if unexpressed, the world is desperately in need of their return.

At the film’s start we’re introduced to Gary (Segel), a human, and his brother Walter, a Muppet in Smalltown, USA. They’re big fans of The Muppet Show and plan a trip with Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to Los Angeles, the main attracting being the Muppet Studios. They set off to L.A. on a bus by way of a musical number. When they arrive at their destination, they’re disappointed to discover the place run down, an unenthused tour guide informing them that the Muppets haven’t been seen in years. Poking around the rundown buildings on his own, Walter overhears the property’s owner, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), explaining to Statler and Waldorf (the old heckling duo) his plans for bulldozing the place to drill for oil. The Muppets would need ten million dollars to buy back the old theater.

Horrified, Walter sets out determined to save the Muppet Theater. Luckily, he eventually runs into Kermit the Frog and convinces him to try and raise the money by getting the old gang back together and putting on a show. Why not? After all, it was Mickey Rooney himself who helped see Gary, Mary, and Walter off at the Smalltown bus stop. So, Kermit his new pals set off to gather up all the Muppets they can find, all of whom have long since gone their separate ways. Some are struggling, singing in a Muppet tribute band at a shady hotel lounge, for instance. Others are doing reasonably well for themselves, like working at Vogue’s Paris bureau. Regardless of circumstance, though, most are more than happy to jump back into their old variety show ways. It’s an utter delight to see the Muppets reunite one by one: Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Rowlf, and Miss Piggy. And what would a Muppet movie be without Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker? Sam Eagle? The Swedish Chef? Dr. Teeth? They’re all here and more besides, including some ingenious celebrity cameos I wouldn’t dare spoil.

What makes the movie so very entertaining is the nonstop hilarity that comes from a sweet, good-natured desire to do nothing more bring joy and laughter to the world. The script is filled with funny meta flourishes that comment on the Muppets’ faded cultural status and extended absence as well as the film’s very nature as a film. In an opening sequence, a terrific Broadway-style musical number, there is a pause in the music and the dancing townsfolk are seen lounging around, waiting for their cue to start up again. Later, plot points are resolved through literal movie magic. How to drive to Europe? Let’s go by map! How to pick up all the rest of the Muppets in a timely manner? Use a montage! Director James Bobin, veteran of TV comedy, brings an effortless cinematic quality to such playful filmmaking, allowing these gorgeously simple piece of felt to find their footing once again without ever once letting it feel dated or quaint. He wrangles the production well. The familiar felt faces (performed and voiced by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, and Matt Vogel) mix well with the game human cast, who are entirely unselfconscious in the face of such broad and varied, smiling wit and whimsy. The film’s hip, clever, and witty without feeling edgy or contemporary. It has the timeless feel you’d want.

What makes the movie somewhat moving is the way it uses new Muppet Walter to illuminate that which has always made the Muppets so singularly special. They’re all misfits in some way. They’re too loud, too corny, and too musical. They try their hardest and seem unfazed when they fail. They’re not afraid to get mad at each other, but they’re even less afraid of forgiving each other. They’re friends and colleagues who have come together in spite of their weirdness, united by their desire to bring happiness into the world and to celebrate the weirdness, the boundless hope and enthusiasm that makes them so wonderful. Walter doesn’t fit in. But with the Muppets, he can find acceptance. The Muppets have always communicated this message. It gets better. All you have to do is be yourself and there’s a chance that you’ll find just the right group of misfits who love the same things you do, who support you every step of the way, and who will pick up a friendship right where it left off, even if it’s been years. The humor and the wisdom of the Muppets come from their unwavering consistency of personality. They are who they are.

I hadn’t seen these guys on the big screen since 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. So, I was somewhat surprised to find that, as I waited all day to see an evening show of The Muppets, I felt a rare anticipation of the kind I associate only with childhood Christmas Eves. The film was a present worth waiting for. It’s the funniest movie of the year, the best movie musical in many a year, and a film so purely, warmly enjoyable that I had a smile on my face from the first scene to the last credit. It’s a joyous return for these characters, a generous, contagious, blast of effervescent exuberance and fun that recaptures the old magic. The film’s working title was The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made. I’d imagine a humble deference to the characters’ legacy caused the change, but now having seen it, that original title would have barely been hyperbole. This is as good as these iconic characters have ever been and certainly their best feature film since 1979’s The Muppet Movie. It’s truly a rekindled rainbow connection. Welcome back, Muppets!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fools Rush In: LIKE CRAZY


Like Crazy is not quite the worst movie of the year, but it has a good chance of being one of the least interesting. It’s a romance that attempts to bring a more realistic edge to its story, showing the difficulties in the central relationship that cause the couple to strain and to stray, all the while cooing at each other and declaring their soul mate status. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play the college kids who fall head over heels over the course of a montage. It, the movie, has barely started and they’re already eating ice cream cones and driving around the go-kart track together. Is there anything less interesting than watching, devoid of context, two people snuggle and whisper and say that they’re in love? These two say it, but I don’t believe it. I believe they like spending time together and they’re attracted to each other. But love? I’m not buying it.

They’re a couple with no obvious chemistry and have almost nothing of interest to say. When I read that the many scenes in the film were largely improvised I wasn’t surprised. That means the blame for the unimpressive dialogue, mumbled and repetitive, should fall on the cast for being bad improvisers as well as the writer-director Drake Doremus and his co-writer Ben York Jones for creating such unconvincing scenarios. There’s such a vague, wobbly feeling to it all as these two characters are living lives that are hastily sketched.

It’s a feeling brought about by the annoying, carefully careless hand-held camerawork as well as the facts of the story. Yelchin wants to make furniture. Jones is on a student visa and has to return to England soon. That’s the extent of what we know when they start staring longingly at one another and saying that they’re in love. I guess we’ll just have to take their word for it. They think they’re in love simply because they whispered to each other, swapped life stories, had a little bit of fun, and can’t stand to be apart. Not that they’d had any real experience apart before they reached that conclusion.

The real conflict of the picture comes out of their bad decisions. She doesn’t want to part with her college sweetheart so she decides to stay for a few months past her visa’s expiration. She either naively believes that True Love will erase the very real rules of immigration or she’s really stupid. By overstaying her visa, all because she literally tells her boyfriend that she “doesn’t want to be sad,” she is unable to reenter the country after she goes back to her homeland for a week’s stay for her friend’s wedding.

This leads to a tearful scene when she’s denied reentry to the United States and is told she’s being put on the next plane back. It’s played as tragic, but this could hardly be less so. If she had left when her visa expired, there would be no problem if she wanted to come back as a tourist. Instead, she just made things harder on herself. Those couple of months – yes, two whole months! – of separation she skipped are replaced with endless red tape and a much longer separation. This isn’t a story about runaway bureaucracy catching up innocent lovers in inscrutable, unfortunate rules. This is a story about a couple that know the rules, break them anyways, and then are surprised they can’t be together.

But, of course, they can be together. Yelchin could move to England. He just seems like he doesn’t want to. Besides, he’s started his furniture business and his secretary is the very pretty Jennifer Lawrence (she deserves much better than this). So, he’s not going. He’ll visit a few times, but he won’t make the move. Jones’s lawyer goes to work on her visa and she goes to work at a magazine. Their lives move on. They should just acknowledge a good time, a learning experience, and get on with better things. But the movie, for some strange reason, keeps trying to push them together. This is a futile film romance with all subplot and detail stripped away. It’s not really interested in their careers or affairs. It’s not even interested in their families, even though Jones’s sweet, loving parents (Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston) are the only interesting, well-acted characters in the entire movie. No, the whole the film is focused on why these two characters need to be together despite, or more likely because of, their total stupidity.

Jones turns in what has to be the whiniest performance of the year, Yelchin, one of the least energetic. It is so very hard to care about them. I didn’t buy it as a romance. I didn’t even buy it as a movie romance. The whole thing’s cruising towards an unhappy ending and, when it gets there, it rings just as false as the opening mush. It’s a movie that improbably pushes its leads together at every turn, only to end up saying sometimes love can go wrong. Of course it can, but the film’s structure of coincidences and celebration of soul mate status sure did a good job of convincing these characters otherwise. I nearly strained my eyes with all the rolling they were doing. It’s the kind of movie that, after a while, I merely sat through, seething with impatience, desperately awaiting the end credits.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vampire and Wife: BREAKING DAWN - PART 1


There’s a good chance that you already know whether or not you’ll enjoy the new Twilight movie, the latest in this series of movies about Bella (Kristen Stewart), the human who falls in love with Edward (Robert Pattinson) the vampire, but kind of likes Jacob (Taylor Lautner) the werewolf too. Mostly unfamiliar with the books by Stephanie Meyer, I found the first film pleasantly mediocre, the second, New Moon, a bit better, and the third, Eclipse, considerably worse. My disinterest towards the story is at an all time high. This central trio started off with some small amount of genuine sizzle – never better than in the second movie – but has settled into somnambulant performances. The plot had run out of steam somewhere between the second and third films. Still, it’s the big movie of the weekend and I figured I might as well review it, so I dutifully shuffled off to see number four, Breaking Dawn Part 1.

This time around, it all starts with a wedding that somehow expects us to believe that an 18-year-old high school student should be allowed to marry a 100-year-old vampire. Fine. I’ve fallen for some pretty odd plots in my day, too. But this opening ceremony is drawn out beyond all reason. I didn’t time it, but I think I sat there for a couple of days waiting for the movie to move on to something else.  At least the wedding allows (Academy Award nominee) Anna Kendrick and Billy Burke to walk in and bring some genuine human warmth and life to the proceedings. (I think they retain their likability because they’re playing the closest thing to real people in neglected supporting roles). While lots of characters we’ve never met smile and wave, Bella and Edward drive off to start their honeymoon.

Once there, off the coast of Brazil in a mansion on a remote island owned by Edward’s adopted vampire father figure, naturally, the happy couple finally does something that they haven’t done in any of the previous films. Yes, that’s right, they sit down and play chess. What did you think they’d do? They also swim and smile and, oh yeah, they also consummate their love. This is the inciting incident for the second and pretty much final plot point of the film. You see, Bella gets pregnant even though her new husband told her it would be totally fine and, besides, he knew he couldn’t even get someone pregnant. That’s the one big lesson this stretch of the story has to teach the discomfortingly young audience I was sitting amongst. Always use protection, especially since vampirism is apparently not a good form of contraception.

More so than any of the other Twilight films, Breaking Dawn Part 1 provoked my disgust at its central premise, one of terrible gender politics and a twisted approach to sexuality. Poor Bella has absolutely no life beyond loving Edward, except when she thinks she might like someone else. This film postulates that her ultimate function is as wife and mother, even if it kills her. There’s simply no other option for a female character this weak and flat, and that’s simply unacceptable. But, by this point, I just need to acknowledge it and move on. This is also a movie series that includes a tribe of youths who turn into giant dogs that stand around and think at each other. There’s only so much you can read into it all before you start to feel a little silly.

The director this time around is Bill Condon, who got his start in horror, moved on to glossy prestige pictures like Dreamgirls and has kind of merged the two here, though it’s really a worst-of-both-worlds situation. It’s slick and sick, but without the impact each aspect could offer. He does bring the film some good stylistic touches amidst complete and utter straight-faced serious ridiculousness. This is a two-hour film in which nothing of interest happens for long stretches of time, a film with its only fleeting moments of significance arising from when Condon tries his hardest to push against the constraints of the material and expectations to punch up the style. This is a far more colorful Twilight film than we’ve received before. It’s brighter and at times sunnier (though I never did see a vampire sparkle). At the very least, it looks like he woke up the cast.

Condon serves up some stylish dream sequences and a nightmarish birthing that stays barely this side of the PG-13. For all the supernatural monsters stomping around the series, this is the first to get this close to the horror genre. After the opening, Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation takes a long, dull slide into body horror as the demonic vampire fetus tries to suck the life out of Bella. She sips some blood, at the urging of her vampire doctor, to keep the little monster happy and Condon lovingly regards the dark red liquid as it gets slurped up a straw. “It tastes…good,” she says. Creepy. This all leads to the film’s best, most effective moments: sudden, intense, spine cracking labor pains followed by a bloody, jagged, Caesarean performed by teeth. Most of the gore is kept off-screen but the ragged editing, blurry focus, and squishy sound effects leave little to the imagination.

There are a few good moments, but they’re built on such shaky foundation. Condon’s not a bad filmmaker, but he’s also not prepared to completely subvert the material of a series that has so many fans. It would be unreasonable to expect him to be. The plot slides into crazy territory by the end. We’re talking who-in-their-right-mind-thought-this-up? crazy. At worst, it’s not even laughably bad. It’s just plain bad. It’s not sick in a horror way, but more in a total nonsense way. Of course, this is only Part 1. I can’t for the life of me guess where this is all going in next year’s fifth and final movie of the series. It’ll either be pure, unfiltered freaky craziness or utter boredom. Actually, judging by the previous films, it’ll be the dull mid-point between the two.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dance of the Penguins: HAPPY FEET TWO


The singing penguins of 2006’s computer animated Happy Feet, having been taught to embrace dancing by that film’s outcast turned hero Mumble (Elijah Wood), are back singing and dancing in Happy Feet Two. The first film’s popularity – not to mention it’s Oscar for Best Animated Film over the far superior Cars and Monster House – has been mostly inexplicable to me. Baby penguins are cute and the film’s brightly colored with some nice music, but it’s also slow and turgid with a pat “be yourself” message awkwardly shoved into an episodic plot that ends in a belabored deus ex machina. It has a few good sequences, but it’s an awfully uneven experience. Needless to say, I was hardly eager to return to that film’s world.

It’s a small surprise, then, that I found the sequel to be a more enjoyable experience. This time, it’s Mumble’s son, Eric (Ava Acres), who feels like an outcast. The film opens with all the penguins singing and dancing and spinning around in celebration of life on their little patch of Antarctica while little Eric just watches. Encouraged to dance, he finally, timidly taps his feet until he gets them tangled up. He falls down and wets himself while the crowd tries not to laugh too hard. Embarrassed, Eric and a couple of his friends head off to another penguin’s territory, where some of the population sounds like Robin Williams.

Mumble goes off to find them, which means that he and the kids aren’t at home when a big chuck of iceberg breaks off of the continent and rides a tidal wave right into the side of the penguins' home. All of the penguins are trapped, surrounded on all sides by towering walls of ice, the iceberg blocking their only path away from their home and to the sea. They will surely, inevitably die of starvation unless help arrives. This is upsetting material for a kid’s film, made all the more so when little Eric, with his dad and pals, make their way back to the now-trapped tribe and look down, beaks quivering. “Mama?” Eric whimpers. They’re so close and yet so far, stuck with the possibility of sitting helpless while everyone they know starves.

Unlike the first film, which so often struck me as aimless in plot and obvious in theme, Two benefits from such an urgent and defined crisis. The plot, after a detour involving a heart-tugging encounter with an elephant seal (Richard Carter) and his cubs, follows the birds’ attempts to feed and hopefully free their flock, attempts that involve the other penguins’ tribe and a puffin masquerading as a flying penguin (voiced with typical ace goofy-accent work from Hank Azaria). This bird is given a terrific flashback that’s animated with great skill, eventually seamlessly integrating him into live-action footage of human researchers.

Returning from the first film, director George Miller has created a new film of quite lovely animation that makes good use of the 3D technology, creating an effortless depth and some playful moments that send water, bubbles, flippers or fish towards the audience. Underwater scenery pops in especially striking ways, such as in the jokey running subplot involving two little krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) who decide to run away from the swarm. They’re introduced as just two in a rolling sea of krill that fills the entire screen and seems to extend infinitely forwards and backwards on the screen and past the heads of the audience. Scenes of schools of fish and of penguins hunting, or being hunted, beneath the waves take similar striking advantage of the CG fluidity and 3D depth.

The script from Miller and three others is tighter, faster, funnier, and more suspenseful than the first go around with these penguins, though it’s still kind of uneven. From time to time I felt only distracted, not entertained, though the film feels even brighter, more musical and more colorful than its predecessor. The variety of the music is jarring at times. How did the penguins learn all these songs? But the numbers are often unexpected, entertaining, and occasionally have real emotional impact. I especially loved a moment in which the film stands still and regards a little penguin belting out some Puccini. This is a film with visuals and sound that get definite benefit from the big screen experience.

The sequel’s altogether a smoother production than the original. It goes down easier despite the weighty concerns that drive the plot. Despite some broad humor, it's a subtler film. The themes never feel overly obvious. And it was the right choice to keep the main character a little penguin the whole time, unlike his father who started small and grew up over the course of his film. I can hardly tell the adult penguins apart in close up, let alone in their gigantic production numbers, but the little ones make up for anonymity with adorability. The children are all fluffy and precocious and so very cute. They’re closing in on Owl Jolson territory as far as rooting interest goes. *

The thematic concerns of the film hit the global warming angle hard, and it makes more of an impact this time. From the tiny krill to the lumbering elephant seals and the towering humans, all are affected by the changing climate. It’s telling that the humans, who appear in the final moments of Happy Feet to save the day and preserve a happy ending, make only fleeting appearances in Happy Feet Two. People could be the heroes, but they just aren’t able to help. These animals are left to deal with the changing landscapes all on their own. They might dance their way to survival this time, but the long-term prospects for their home is gloomy.

*Owl Jolson is the star of the great 1936 Warner Brothers’ animated short I Love to Singa, included in this week’s hilarious, indispensible Blu-ray release Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 1, which puts to shame the CGI Sylvester and Tweety short that screens before Happy Feet Two.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

End of Their World: BELLFLOWER


Aside from those rare brilliant directorial debuts, first features these days tend to fit into one of two modes: the mumbling relationship film or the scrappy horror flick. Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is both low-budget options in one, an aimless, mumbling romance with a thick layer of dread and dirt slathered over the lens. When Bellflower opens, with random flashes of ambiguous trauma run in reverse, followed by a souped-up black car with the word “Medusa” scrawled across the side in rough white paint rumbling towards the camera in slow-motion, it seems to be announcing its position as a film of style and confidence.

What follows, though, is a slow sapping of my interest and sympathies. The film concerns two friends (Glodell and Tyler Dawson) who moved to California from Wisconsin just because it seemed like something cool to do. Now they spend their time barely making ends meet, using what little they have on preparing for the inevitable apocalypse. The growling car of the opening is one of their contraptions that they hopefully feel will help them rule the forthcoming post-apocalyptic wasteland. They hope to one day build some flamethrowers to add to their arsenal.

But these guys aren’t just preparing for a Mad-Max-style society; they also like the ladies. So, the film turns out to be devoted most primarily to a couple of women (Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes) who unfortunately get involved in the guys' lives. There’s a Meet Cute at a dive bar over a plate of grasshoppers that leads to a slow courtship between Glodell and Wiseman that leads to nothing but hurt. The characters are on a course to inevitable calamity, with their eyes on the end of the world but blind to the trajectories that take them towards their own end. It’s a film about personal Armageddon in which good and evil is muddied until only a brown ugly stew is left behind.

There are perfectly fine concepts here, but the film is assaultive and meandering. It’s wild-eyed and navel-gazing, crisp and grungy, preposterous and monotonous. I could never shake the feeling that the characters were written, that the situations were created. I never once fell for the fiction that feels performed rather than lived, invented rather than felt. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but the film is more than merely fictional. It feels false. The emotions are affectations. The characters are pawns. The events of the plot are arbitrary, seemingly occurring for no good reason other than that’s what Glodell wanted to happen. Maybe he thought different moments would look cool, upset the audience, or fill up the run time? I’m glad he wasn’t content to make a safe movie but, like the purposely ugly look, with grit smeared across Joel Hodge’s otherwise pristine digital photography, it feels unhinged just for the sake of it.

It’s clear that Evan Glodell has the energy and skill of a driven and talented director. That energy and skill has just happened to coalesce into a movie that didn’t work for me. I’m reminded of a line that Roger Ebert wrote about Quentin Tarantino at the time of his debut with Reservoir Dogs. Allow me to reuse and adapt Ebert’s phrasing here. Now that we know Evan Glodell can make a movie like Bellflower, it’s time for him to move on and make a better one.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Almighty Tarsem: IMMORTALS


Tarsem Singh burst onto the feature filmmaking scene with the 2000 serial-killer phantasmagoria The Cell, which followed Jennifer Lopez on an investigation into the mind of a serial killer. It is a wild and striking film, if a whiff derivative on a plot level. Eight years later, his self-financed masterpiece The Fall, a dizzying film with a mannered yet improvisatory and sumptuous fantasy told by an injured stunt man to a young girl who is in the same hospital. It’s a singular work of imagination, overwhelmingly heartfelt and impressive to behold. These two films marked Tarsem as a filmmaker to watch.

His latest, Immortals, is a bombastic film that uses Greek myth as inspiration, thundering forth with the brute force of legend and myth. It doesn’t feature characters; it features types. It doesn’t feature mere swordplay and togas; it creates deliriously gorgeous tableaus of crushingly beautiful visions that manage to skirt the edge of camp and arrive at somewhere closer to a particularly busy and gory perfume commercial. It’s a film that is consistently visually alive, yet can’t escape the inert forces of its genre that threaten to drag it into monotony.

The plot involves evil King Hyperion (an impenetrably mumbling Mickey Rourke) who wishes to find a legendary bow that was long ago lost during the conflict in the heavens that resulted in the Gods locking the Titans away in a gold cage in the dark rocky depths of Mount Tartarus. Hyperion’s army rages across the land, slaughtering and pillaging its way towards his ultimate goal of freeing the Titans and unleashing chaos on the land he could then easily conquer with this magical weapon. He kidnaps a group of oracles, among them the one true psychic (Freida Pinto) who will be able to find the bow, and continues towards the small cliff-side village where Theseus (Henry Cavill) lives.

This village is evacuating, but the peasants are left behind. Theseus objects but is left behind anyways. So, he is there when Hyperion shows up to kill as many as he can. Theseus fights back but is unable to prevent his mother’s death. Distraught, Theseus is captured and ends up in the same group of prisoners as the oracles. Under the cover of darkness, a thief (Stephen Dorff) helps Theseus and the psychic escape and head off to find the bow before Hyperion can, in hopes of using it against him and saving the world.

Tarsem employs a mix of CGI and practical sets to create a kind of magical middle ground between the glistening flesh and blood, the rippling muscles and smooth skin of the human actors and the arresting, colorful landscapes. At key moments, movements slow, sometimes accompanied with a warping or fading of the sound, so that we can more appreciate the gravity of the situations or the fluidity of the movements. Sumptuous in color, but dull in mood, these humans have little to say, but much gravity in their voices with which to say it.

Above it all, lounging in their marble castle in the clouds, are the Gods. They’ve told themselves that they wouldn’t interfere with the humans for some reason or other. Though a smirking old man (John Hurt), Theseus’s mentor, is revealed to be a divine proxy, and therefore seems to ignore the Gods’ own laws. But anyways, Zeus (Luke Evans), Aries (Daniel Sharman), Athena (Isabel Lucas), and Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), who are smoother and cleaner than their human subjects, brood about and occasionally zip down on shiny gold beams of light to offer help to our heroes.

This all sounds like a lot of fun, and it often is, especially in Tarsem’s most brilliant moments of mind-bogglingly beautiful spectacle or mind-bogglingly brutal gore. It’s a film that plays best when we’re only required to sit there in awe of the strength of the images, through its intensity of action and its warm, ornate, computer-embellished sets. Though the look of the film is tremendous across the board, my favorite aspect has to be the way the characters look.

The costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka are luscious and memorable. Tight togas and elaborate headgear fit nicely on the Gods while the good mortal men are all leather and armor and the good mortal women all flowing robes with low necklines, when not in red bedazzled burqas. The villains wear ferocious animalistic masks and helmets. My favorite of all the costumes is a close call between the tall, shining spikes on Aries’s hat and the dark Venus fly trap helmet that appears to be this close to chomping down on Rourke’s face as he glowers menacingly towards anyone who gets in his line of vision.

Where the film falls flat is when it feels the need to get some storytelling out of the way in order to move us from spectacular image to spectacular image. (Still, it’s far better than other recent loosely Greek-myth-based nonsense like the Clash of the Titans remake and 300, since at least it has some honest spectacle to give us.) The script by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides is awfully belabored at its start, slack and shapeless as it sets up conflict and introduces characters. Theseus has to suffer through an introductory why-don’t-you-find-a-nice-girl? scene of maternal worry that I feel I’ve seen in too many movies of this type. By the time the villain is made appropriately hiss-worthy and the heroes have assembled, the pace picks up and the clunky talky bits don’t clog up the way with quite the same frequency, though it still has trouble sustaining tension in any of the subplots.

This is a movie about poses and shouts, glamour and gore. It’s about the bludgeoning power of myth. There’s no time for subtlety or emotional engagement. If it had pushed itself into further abstraction, relying solely on the power of its striking imagery, it could have really been great. This is a terrific, expressionistic silent film nearly ruined by the need to succumb to contemporary narrative convention, setting up storytelling expectations it has no desire whatsoever to fulfill. It should be a primal story of epic stakes, but it underwhelms, especially when compared to the style. It still may be worth seeing, but without Tarsem’s visual sense, this movie wouldn’t be worth considering.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Private Fears, Public Places: J. EDGAR


J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, from the dawn of Prohibition to the early years of the Nixon administration. J. Edgar, the patient new film from Clint Eastwood, with drained color that makes the events appear as if shot through a haze of memory, opens with Hoover as an old man, dictating his autobiography to an underling. Moving further into the past, the film looks at the early days of Hoover’s career, slipping back into the film’s present of his later days for juxtapositions and clarity. It’s a film that is covertly about the failures of memory and persona, quietly setting up reasons why the way Hoover tells it may not be the way it was. It’s a film about the young man’s career, about how early single-mindedness led to early and lasting success that pivots around the old man, quietly leaving behind a controversial legacy.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover across the long sweep of the decades. It’s a mannered performance, and not always a convincing one, but it plays to Eastwood’s restrained style. It’s clear that Hoover is a tortured, sad man, warped by the expectations of his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and society, driven to hide his own inner feelings, which only serves to trouble him more. His deepest fears and urges are deeply buried, yet he seems to carry them as a weight around his neck. Unable to find security in his own thoughts, he sought to control the behavior and appearance of those around him, telling FBI agents to buy new suits, shave, and exercise. From his position of power, he felt driven to attempt to impose his own tight constrictions of moral and philosophical obligations on society as a whole. He valued loyalty. He valued trust. Yet he rarely reciprocated such qualities.

When the film sways away from Hoover’s career, it finds much of interest in the two main personal relationships in his life. Early in the film, we see him come into contact with a member of the Bureau’s secretarial pool, one Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). After going on three dates, he proposes to her after hours in the Library of Congress. She turns him down, but accepts a secondary offer to become his personal secretary. There is a mutual respect between them, a friendship and a trust. But theirs is not a physical relationship, nor is it one of apparent desire of any kind. When Hoover proposes marriage, it is with the brisk formal tone of a business proposal. He may not love her, but he likes her enough to have something like it. He thinks she’s of “good character.” Getting married would be the right thing to do. Instead, he hired a loyal, lifelong, employee.

The other major relationship in his life, according to the film, is one Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). They were practically inseparable. Hoover made him his second in command. Clyde stood by his side in countless meetings. He helped him buy suits and ties. They dined together. They went out on the town together. They vacationed together. The cared very much for each other, but the film makes it clear that it was never quite love, at least not in an easily externalized way. And yet, this part of the film feels to me like a particularly tragic love story. There is love between them, yet some combination of societal and maternal expectation prevented its fullest expression. The emotions Hoover felt for Clyde were so buried and repressed that it contributed to that weight that he carried with him, crushed his personality down so that it could only harden, and make him more determined to appear to the public as the man he wanted to be.

This is a complex film that covers many events, juggling back and forth in time. At times this approach feels a bit sloppy and confusing, choking off momentum. But what is occasionally lost in clarity is made up for in the understated yet omnipresent sadness, and the sharp pangs of echoes and reverberations caused by the juxtapositions. The film includes Hoover drastically increasing the power of the Bureau, beginning with what he feels is the Bolshevik revolution arriving on American shores, than continuing his ascent by leading programs to fight gangsters and investigate the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. His methods were not always strictly scrupulous. In his later years, we see him increasingly concerned with his secret files, his wiretaps, and his blackmailing material that he began gathering those many years ago.

We see a great deal of the man, yet the film naturally leaves a great deal out. There is still the central mystery of who he is. The screenplay is by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for 2008’s Milk, a bio-pic about the first openly gay politician elected in America. J. Edgar is not an open film, nor is it even, despite one of the central implications, a film about a gay man. It’s a film that is closed off and secretive. We can only speculate as to who the man was. He left behind only clues. His contemporaries left behind only rumors.

Eastwood brings to the film his soft, quiet approach to drama, his low-key pacing, and the ways in which actors are given the space to breathe. (That is, when they aren’t locked in layers of old-age makeup). Certainly, the film can rarely be considered flawless. You could call it rather formless at times and the necessary elision of the middle of Hoover’s career nonetheless leaves behind some questions.  But there’s just enough to appreciate here. J. Edgar is an interesting film about an interesting man. It manages to make him a tragic figure, to render his inner life with a fair amount of sympathy without once ever condoning the real poisonous paranoia he brought to his office. It's a quiet drama of inner turmoil and the political made personal.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

HARRY POTTER In Review

Note: This piece contains a very small number of spoilers. Most are in the third paragraph, including the ultimate fate of a major character. Consider yourself warned.

One of the most remarkable and consistent feats of adaptation film has ever seen, J.K. Rowling’s magical Harry Potter novels have, under the decade-long watch of producer David Heyman, the pen of David Yates, the production design of Stuart Craig, and a rotating collection of talented directors, created a film franchise that is truly top-notch. Though there are definite qualitative differences between the individual installments, cumulatively the Harry Potter series is one of the finest exercises in long-form blockbuster storytelling ever. The whole sweep of the series is impressive in its ability to remain so compelling and entertaining with such a high unity and stability of vision, intelligence, and artistry. It’s a cheeky, creepy boarding school drama that contains an epic battle of good versus evil. But the greatest aspect of it all is how the series grew so poignantly into a metaphor for growing up. Aging with its characters, as well as its fans, the series found some of its most moving moments organically through the passage of time.

Now that it has reached a fitting and satisfying conclusion – the final film hits Blu-ray and DVD this Friday – there is a feeling that a rarity has come to an end. I’m going to take this opportunity to look back at the series by excerpting my reviews of all eight films, appending an entirely subjective, subject to shift, and wholly arbitrary ranking designating my order of preference (1 – 8, with 1 being my favorite, though past the first few on my list, the ranking becomes painfully difficult and nearly impossible).

But first, just a few words about Alan Rickman, who has been so good in these films that he could have won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar six or seven times. Severus Snape begins as a snaky, slimy character that becomes a seemingly untrustworthy character of great menace but, ultimately, great nobility. He’s a tragic figure. He’s the teacher the students are afraid of who nonetheless grows sympathetic the more we learn of him. Rickman brings the character to life with a droll, dry delivery that allows him to slither out his lines in creepy sibilance, filled with pregnant pauses and deliberate shifts of his eyes. He finds ways to fit new commas, syllables, and ellipses in every line. Yet he’s also capable of becoming animated and urgent with a hushed, tightly controlled energy. He’s a delight every second he appears, even when that delight is mixed with loathing. No other death in the finale moved me as much as Snape’s. What a great character. What a great performance.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Director Chris Columbus directs with a crisp storybook style that’s rather unremarkable but has the benefit of showing off the resplendent production design…This is the first time the camera has shown us the accoutrements of this world, a vivid and imaginative world that has rightfully taken its place among the greatest fantasy settings in cinema history…This film has a childlike sense of wonder at its world, and also a more kid-friendly tone. As such, the story is slighter than the others to date; the pacing is a little awkward. What works in the book doesn’t always work on the screen. The filmmakers would gain confidence in later movies to bend and condense more than they did here…But still, I was enchanted with the imagination of the proceedings, the red-blooded adventure, the charm of the visuals (even the few effects that now – already – feel dated), and even the nostalgia that is already settling around the film, cloaking it with a protective layer of memory. There’s real magic here…” 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“Despite [the] expanding plot, the adaptation…makes slightly better sense of what to cut and what to keep when pruning the plot from book to film. The film plunges into the plot proper and moves much quicker than the first film. The puzzle-solving climax of the first has been replaced with a more satisfying action beat. These were the books’ climaxes too, but this one translates better to film. Unfortunately, the movie then takes too long a time to finally end, stalling through a slightly unnecessary dialogue scene and then dribbling into a puddle of sentimentality that doesn’t quite fit by excessively applauding a character (charming though he may be) that has been pushed to the sidelines for most of the plot.

But…the film is still an entertaining experience, faster, funnier, and creepier than the first, if ultimately a smidge less satisfying. Even though it repeats some mistakes and makes new ones, there is an admirable sense of growth and change shifting within the filmmaking, rare within franchises of this magnitude, fixing what was barely broken to begin with. This is an attitude that will serve the franchise well.” 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
“This is a deliriously detailed and tactile picture, packed with background information and scrupulous attention to every corner of the screen with grace notes of whimsy, like a tree shaking snow off of its branches, an aunt appearing in the background sky, and the camera floating (symbolically) twice through the gears of a clock. [Alfonso] Cuarón allows the camera a fluid grace to glide through the world, which is just as magical but has a greater realism in feeling and tone. This movie gets under my skin. The fantastical realism extends to the feelings of awakening adolescence within the young characters. Cuarón understands the yearning, the mystery, of aging and depicts the vivid mental states by understanding that magic does not make these kids any less like kids. One of the best scenes, and one of the simplest, involves a group of boys eating candy and joking with each other in a way any group of 13-year-olds might. The best effect of the film is the sound-effect accompanying a very satisfying punch thrown in the face of a bully.

Cuarón makes the fantasy a wild extrapolation on the characters' uneasy, awkward steps towards adulthood, finding the intrinsic link between basic human experiences and the phantasmagorical tales we tell…” 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
“This time under the direction of British director Mike Newell, the film is, like the others, perfect in craftsmanship but is the first in possession of a well-crafted feeling of momentum. It’s all climax, sustained for two-and-a-half hours, without ever feeling its length, constantly besting itself creating faster, scarier, and more exciting moments throughout enough set pieces to sustain a half-dozen lesser films…the movie tears from one moment to the next, always building, and never stalling… It moves so fast, while still retaining both clarity and breathing room, I could have watched for much longer. It’s also the most expansive, the most dynamic, and the most dangerously menacing of the first four films.” 3 Read more

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
“…the best new cast member in this installment is the new teacher who springs from Rowling’s writing to life: Dolores Umbridge, every horrible teacher you’ve ever had rolled into the worst teacher imaginable, a torturously warped Dahl-like figure of pleasant authoritarian cruelty. Imelda Staunton plays her to such heights of perfection that I still wish she’d gotten an Oscar nomination. (She’s also the inspiration for composer Nicholas Hooper, filling in for the still absent Williams, to create his best piece of music for the film, one that fits Williams established mood and orchestration perfectly). Watch the way she struts across Hogwarts, using spells to pull the student body closer towards her view of proper, which has long been hopelessly warped through years of bureaucratic training to be endlessly shortsighted. Watch the way the smile stays tremulously frozen on her face when confronted with the truth that doesn’t square up with what she is certain is true. And watch the way she pleasantly stirs her tea while torturing a student. And watch her smug satisfaction as she hangs increasingly Animal-Farm-style rules on a wall of the Great Hall.” 

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
“This is a film in no hurry, drunk on its own mood and tone. At first glance, that may seem like a backhanded compliment, and for a lesser movie it would be, but after so many hours of Potter films, I care about this world, these characters, and I feel a genuine swelling of happiness and familiarity in getting to spend more time here. It helps that the mood and tone are first-rate and evocative. We’re truly in horror territory at times, with long gliding shots down gloomy hallways, creepily distended tension, and even a few great jump moments. At other times, we’re in a great boarding-school melodrama, with easy comedy, moody students, shifting allegiances, and a sinister and strange faculty. This is a magical series indeed, with so much feeling and warmth consistently present amidst its shifting tones. The film feels of one piece, sending warm laughter and cold shivers in equal measure, sometimes shifting in seconds. (Look at the scene involving the love potion cure for an example). Near the film’s end, we are given one of the most elegantly moving scenes in the entire series, a scene that fills the screen with a soft light that, however briefly, chases away the encroaching clouds of darkness.” 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
“The filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been telling us that the decision to split the film into two parts was made with purely creative reasons, the better to faithfully reproduce J.K. Rowling’s text, but having seen Part 1 I can only think that the reason had to have been Warner Brothers’ desire to double their profits. This is a decision that has only hobbled the creativity… Like the first several hundred pages of the book, Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins to set up a finale. Just as those pages alone would not make a satisfying book, this is not a satisfying film. After the full story is complete, the film could look retroactively rosier, but as of right now the experience of seeing the film is more than a little tedious. This film can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, stand alone, but I wish it did a little more to stand out as something better than a mere mechanical set-up for the forthcoming resolution.” 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
“…the film moved me. It draws on the entire history of the franchise, using snippets of footage and music from past films in elegant flashback fashion that gain an added power through their mere reappearances. These are memories not just of a decade’s worth of incident in the lives of the characters, but a decade’s worth of memories for the audience as well. I grew older right alongside these kids. Now we’re all young adults. The filmmakers lucked into three wonderful children who happened to grow into wonderful actors. The whole sweep of the franchise has been about aging, about learning, about growing and changing. In a lovely epilogue we see that, though the immediate story of Harry Potter may have ended, the story of Hogwarts, the story of this magical world will continue, delighting the next generation just as it did their parents.” 

The story’s telling may be finished, but it will never truly end, not while there are children of all ages looking for movie magic in their lives. 

Up with People: LIFE IN A DAY


Last year, the crew behind Life in a Day asked people all around the world to shoot footage of their lives on July 24, 2010 and submit it through YouTube for the chance to see it appear in the film. They call it a crowd-sourced documentary. The result doesn’t prove that the idea of a crowd-sourced film is doomed to failure, but it certainly proves that the way these filmmakers went about it created one.

The footage was assembled and edited by a production team under the direction of Kevin Macdonald (of fiction films like State of Play). The results, however, are directionless pap. It has been assembled into an attempt at a grand message about how everyone the world over is the same despite differences. It’s a movie that homogenizes diversity instead of celebrating it, a jumble of moments big and small padded out with pandering shots of babies, animals, and landscapes. Macdonald doesn’t seem interested in making you think or even in making much of a point.

It all starts with the sun rising, with people getting out of bed and starting their day from China to France to America and everywhere in between. We’re launched immediately into the fiction of the film, a thoroughly crass attempt to order people’s submitted footage in such a way as to conjure a false structure on which to build the film. It turns it all into a feature length greeting card commercial. Worse, it’s also like watching someone else click through YouTube with a broken concept of what is interesting and who refuses to let you click away. If you like a dog getting a newspaper or a mom saying her teen's room is messy, well this is the movie for you: moments you mightn’t buy in a bad sitcom served up under a veneer of vérité.

The footage features plenty of lovely people who would make perfectly sweet little documentary shorts or This American Life segments (a dad teaches his son to shave, a mom recuperating from some kind of major surgery tells her son “It’s okay to be afraid,” a gay man comes out to his grandmother, an Afghan shows us Kabul) were someone with more of a vision to focus on drawing out their stories. Here it’s a catch as catch can, which means plenty of screen time for clear narcissists. Too often I asked myself why in the world someone thought what they were filming would be worth the whole world seeing. It might be worth seeing on YouTube, maybe, but not as part of a feature film.

At best, Life in a Day is a tedious collection of moments, the best of which would have been better off as viral videos. It’s incredibly difficult to sit through. It’s trite and tripe. My disinterest slowly turned into dismay. Some may not like me coming down so hard on a relatively harmless documentary that only wants to be a sweet little time capsule. But what good are uncritical, contextless snippets of footage wrapped in a fake populism? It’s falsely upbeat, to the point where even poverty and war just get glazed over with the same syrupy gloss.

This is a movie ostensibly about how we, that is to say, mankind, live, but it’s lazily organized along a dawn-to-dusk timeline that homogenizes time zones and further loosely organized into little montage categories like “Breakfast” and “Brushing Teeth.” They stop short of actually labeling it thusly, but you get the picture. It’s a constructed idea rather than an observation. If I wanted to sift through tedious videos in hopes I’d stumble onto a gem, I’d just go to YouTube directly. But no, this is curated from the footage submitted, and in the compiling, in the attempt to shove it all into some vague, thoughtless, life-affirming message, that’s where it all went so horribly wrong.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Have-Nots v. Have: TOWER HEIST

The great irony of Tower Heist is that it’s an expensive Hollywood production made by and starring wealthy people that nonetheless manages to tap into some of the 99% rage that’s sweeping the country. The plot concerns a Bernie-Madoff-style Ponzi scheme that sends sleazy finance titan Arthur Shaw (a slimy performance from Alan Alda) into house arrest pending trial. The employees at The Tower, the – what else? – towering New York apartment building he lives in had their entire pensions invested with the man. They’re understandably furious and disappointed when they learn that not only is their money gone, but also that the man will be locked up on the top floor for the near future. It seems that they’ll never get their money back, until a plan begins to form. What follows is involving and enjoyable escapism, competently executed fluff.

Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the manager of the building, a man who is great at his job, who cares deeply about the building, it’s inhabitants, and it’s employees. It was his idea to ask about investing the pensions with their richest resident. When the FBI agent (the always welcome Téa Leoni) in charge of investigating and detaining Arthur Shaw tells the manager that it’s unlikely that the staff will get their money back soon, if at all, he storms up to the penthouse with the concierge, his brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), and the newly hired elevator operator (Michael Peña). Much to their surprise, Kovacs takes a golf club and destroys some of Shaw’s personal property. The Tower’s owner (Judd Hirsch) promptly fires them.

The three of them are now in the perfect position to execute a plan that, if it succeeds, will steal back enough money to give to the staff that has had their savings ground under by this financial skullduggery. They’ll rob Shaw, a daring, high stakes heist, and find the missing millions that the FBI has been unable to find. To pull off the heist, the three guys get in contact with an ex-banker (Matthew Broderick) who was too meek and honest for the business, apparently, and who was recently evicted from The Tower. He’s good with numbers, but they’ll still need help with the actual robbing part. Luckily, Kovacs went to daycare with a man from his neighborhood who was just the other day arrested for his thievery. They bail him out and get him to help, bringing into the picture Eddie Murphy, who talks a mile-a-minute in his slickest, funniest performance in over a decade.

Now that the team has fallen into place, it’s only a matter of pulling off the heist. It’s complex to a certain degree, although nothing compared to the works of Danny Ocean and crew, filled with double crossings and unexpected complications. The film sets up the stakes and then sends the cast through it capably. The other staff members – Gabourey Sidibe (a maid with a slippery Jamaican accent), Marcia Jean Kurtz (a no-nonsense secretary), and Stephen Henderson (a twinkly-eyed doorman) – fill out the rest of the supporting cast nicely, which is already peppered with talented people giving funny performances. The heist has to work with and around the staff to pull it off and it’s nice to see a big Hollywood production make decent use of its ensemble.

Director Brett Ratner has a reputation as a shallow studio hack that’s not entirely unearned. His films do generally feature a baseline competency, though. I’m not prepared to make some kind of grand auteurist defense on his behalf, but I will say that when paired up with good actors and a decent script, he has at times shown that he knows how to stay out of the way. He is not a filmmaker of distinctive personality, but that’s okay here as it is in, say, his Rush Hour. This is nothing more than a super slick, pleasing and broad, feather-light entertainment. It gets the job done. The writing can’t be called especially nimble, but the script by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson is light enough on its feet to generate enough excitement and enjoyment. There’s some fun stunt work and great use of the building’s height to create some stomach-dropping moments, all the while the score by Christophe Beck, which must be a partial homage to David Shire’s for the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, keeps things bouncing along nicely. Dante Spinotti shoots the film in warm, shining autumn colors that enhance the New York City in late November setting with some terrific location shooting during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That’s probably the best, if awfully imperfect, analogy for why the film worked for me. It’s a soothing, professional spectacle of a comic thriller that parades big stars and photogenic locations through an exciting plot that is both familiar and new. There’s little attempt to flesh out the emotional or personal lives of the characters, although there’s a charming low-key romance the starts to develop between Stiller and Leoni before it’s dropped entirely once the plot really gets going. It’s a big, shallow entertainment that nonetheless taps into some very real class outrage and gives the whole thing a bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have. Tower Heist is light recessionary escapism that’s just satisfying enough to be a lot of fun. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On High: A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS


Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have found the sweet spot for Harold & Kumar silliness and it only took a hit of Christmas to do so. (But, not even a week past Halloween, don’t you think it’s a little early for Yuletide in the multiplex?) The first film to feature the stoner pals was 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, an ambling, crude film in which they were too high to find their way to hamburgers at White Castle without running into all kinds of problems. Was it funny? Some thought so. I found it had its charms, but, even at 88 minutes, it was a tad on the tiring side. Then came 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which took away most of its predecessors defiantly ambitionless smallness and replaced it with self-important Bush-era satire that, while agreeable, sucked out much of what made the first film so low-key.

Now here we are with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, a title that seems to scream out that the screenwriters have gone further astray when in fact they’ve dialed back. As this picture begins, Harold and Kumar haven’t spoken for years. They’re living very different lives. Kumar (Kal Penn) lives in his old small apartment, constantly smoking weed with his new nerdy roommate (Amir Blumenfeld) and stewing, lamenting the loss of his relationship with his old girlfriend. Harold (John Cho), on the other hand, is a married banker trying desperately to make sure Christmas will be perfect for his wife (Paula Garcés) and her family. Not only will his very scary father-in-law (Danny Trejo!) be spending the holidays with them, but he’s also bringing the whole extended family along as well as the Christmas tree that he has personally grown for 12 years to be the perfect holiday adornment. Needless to say, Harold is finding full-fledged adulthood stressful.

As luck would have it, a giant joint addressed to Harold is delivered to the old apartment on Christmas Eve, so Kumar does the right thing and brings it over. Harold’s father-in-law has loaded up the whole family and driven them into town for midnight mass, leaving the tree in his son-in-law’s care, so he’s there alone to greet his old friend. As they haltingly reacquaint themselves, Kumar lights up the joint. Harold, who has long given up the habit, scolds him and tosses it out the window. A gust of wind flips it back into the house and burns down the tree. Now, the two guys have to head out and find a tree of the same size and perfection in order to save Harold’s reputation with his father-in-law.

It’s a plot that turns out to be perfectly pitched for these guys, with higher stakes than merely getting to White Castle, but not so overheated to include Guantanamo Bay. It also proves that these characters have a charming knack for finding trouble, even when they’re sober, at least some of the time. Their race to find a tree gathers reluctant support from Kumar’s roommate and one of Harold’s co-workers (Thomas Lennon) and his baby. Their difficult, but not impossible, task is interrupted by strange obstacles punctuated by bouts of bad taste. The search soon involves a car crash, the Russian Mafia, drugs, guns, random violence, a giant Claymation snowman, surprise encounters with old friends, beer pong, intimidating tree salesmen, Neil Patrick Harris, an elaborate song-and-dance number, a waffle-making robot, a painful recreation of A Christmas Story’s tongue-on-a-cold-pole scene recreated with an even more sensitive body part, and Santa Claus himself, complete with his flying reindeer. It’s gleefully goofy, with first-time director Todd Strauss-Schulson further enlivening the sometimes disgusting and, truth be told, often funny script by chucking things at the camera in 3D just to make sure we’ve gotten the full extent of the jokey concept.

This is a film that will go anywhere for a joke. But, unlike the first two, which felt blunter and coarser, this installment balances its crudeness with sweetness. This is a thoroughly, irreverently secular, spectacularly hard-R, Christmas movie that nonetheless, in its shocking, subversive way, reaffirms the basic meaning of the holiday. Beneath the non-stop crude references and raunchy dialogue, this is essentially a story about friendship and family and uses its holiday setting to help the characters learn to appreciate each other, reconcile their differences, and become better people in the process. In that way, it’s also a casually sweet riff on evolving male friendship. That may be the biggest surprise of all, that this loose, aimless, goofy movie with enough vulgarity to ensure it’s self-selecting audience will be a small one, is at its core just a particularly filthy spin on pure sentimentality. Harold and Kumar have (sort of) grown up! Like its predecessors, this third H&K adventure feels less than the sum of its riffs, but it hangs together better as a movie, complete with actual narrative momentum and the series’ highest rate of inspired scenes to insulting ones. Besides, can any movie that puts Danny Trejo in a Christmas sweater be all bad?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lights On, Nobody Home: TRESPASS


Trespass is what is known as a bad movie, plain and simple. It’s phony to its core. The movie comes from director Joel Schumacher who has made some good movies and some bad ones over the course of his career. This is definitely a bad one. It’s a home invasion thriller that’s only the slightest mood shift away from being a flat-out comedy. It’s a film of stupid criminals and lousy hostages that keeps inventing new reasons to keep the characters in the same place well past any kind of logic, internal or otherwise.

The movie starts when the rich man (Nicolas Cage) comes home to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and daughter (Liana Liberato). We know he’s rich because we hear the sound of Cage rapidly negotiating the price of a diamond accompanying the opening aerial shot that tracks his convertible down a long winding road leading to their beachfront steel-and-glass mansion that’s tucked away in the forest. Once there, he continues to negotiate while he tries to help his wife make sure their willful teenage daughter doesn’t get to the local bad girl’s house for a party.

The girl huffs upstairs and the husband and wife prepare for their evening, which is soon interrupted by a home invasion. A group of thieves barges in and waves around their guns while barking for security codes. It turns out they know about the diamonds and would really like them. There’s the conflict. It’s a good thing that the daughter snuck out of the house and sped away in a friends car just a scene or two earlier.  

What follows is filled with yelling, whining, cajoling, pleading, and frustrated barking from all of the characters all of the time. It’s monotonous. As the head of the gang, Ben Mendelsohn stalks about while his gang members wander around looking mean, constantly waving around guns that make clickety-clack noises at the slightest touch. These crooks are so obvious that you can size them up in a second, like the henchman played by Cam Gigandet who will pretty clearly end up being the criminal with second thoughts since he gets so shifty eyed in his every reaction shot. Collectively the gang seems to be pretty dumb. They keep changing their demands and producing different threatening objects. It’s like they want to hang around this house for some time.

Have they even thought this plan through? Sure, they have electrical tape around their fingertips, but their masks are so porous I was identifying the actors underneath them almost immediately. And all Cage has to do is start poking holes in their scheme and the characters get to sit around and threaten each other all night. At one point the daughter sneaks back into the house and walks straight into the danger. Why? If she were smart enough to call for help the movie would be over.

Karl Gajdusek’s script does everything it can to keep the movie rolling forward beyond all plausibility. The homeowners are able to take their captors off task with such skill that I found myself hoping for some ultimate ludicrous twist that never materializes despite the ever-growing pile of ludicrous twists and diversions. This is the kind of movie in which the intelligence of any given character at any given time is dependent solely on what the plot requires at that point. These aren’t characters. These are barely caricatures. It’s all one big phony construct. This is barely a film. It’s a feature-length stalling tactic that keeps the characters, and the audience, locked up in this house well past any reason they should be.
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