Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Quick Look: THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER

David Robert Mitchell must love George Lucas's early-60s-set small-town-California teenage hangout American Graffiti as much as I do, for his stunningly assured debut is a modern southeastern-Michigan version of that film. It may not be quite as good and certainly doesn’t have quite the same haze of nostalgia over it, but it’s so honest and true in such a tender, casually poetic way. I really liked this movie. The teenaged characters – all young, inexperienced actors, uniformly convincing – are so wonderfully drawn and relatable, their lived-in environments so pitch-perfect in design. This is a low-key film in which characters stand on a precipice between adolescence and adulthood, ready to move forward, but not too sure about it. The myth of the American sleepover is that anyone gets much sleeping done. The myth of the American teenager is that it’s some concrete zone between adulthood and childhood. It’s a sliding scale, a turbulent, confusing, internal struggle that destabilizes even as it forges one’s personality anew. The twenty-four lazy summer hours we follow these characters have few big revelations or shocking plot twists, though there are some moments that come close. What we get instead is much sweeter and more authentic. Characters fumblingly relate to one another, making new connections, as old ones are breaking apart. As these characters spend time together in various configurations, they struggle to communicate with each other, hesitating before revealing too much, before stepping wrong in a conversation. It's as funny as it is truthful and moving. They’re filled with conflicting emotions and deep yearning for connection in ways that are specifically adolescent and transcendently universal. This film appears to know so much and communicates in such lovely ways of subtle beauty that Mitchell can count himself nearly in the same debut darling league as other three-name American auteurs David Gordon Green and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Call of Duty: ACT OF VALOR


Act of Valor, a debut feature from stunt coordinators Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh written by 300’s Kurt Johnstad, is nothing more than a reductive, derivative action movie. But the central gimmick of the film confuses this basic fact. This is a movie about Navy SEALs deployed to rescue a captured CIA agent with information about an impending terrorist attack on U.S. soil that has not a single unpredictable moment, but it stars actual SEALs as the soldiers in question. (As such, they can’t be credited for their work, a rule for which they may be thankful for more than one reason). For some audiences, this will be a factor of authenticity, a point in the movie’s favor. But this is a blindly approving piece of red meat rubberstamped with the approval of the military-industrial complex. In actuality, the gimmick renders an offensively dumb B-movie nothing more than a feature length recruitment ad.

Now, soldiers have certainly played themselves in films before, but these soldiers are no Audie Murphy. Just as Tropic Thunder told us no amount of boot camp could make actors in a war film real soldiers, merely putting real soldiers in a war film doesn’t make them actors. And it’s certainly no help that the script is made up mostly of lines that are clunkers, except for the few that are real howlers. They speak in clichés and have obligatory home lives. They may be played by real people but the characters never feel real themselves. There’s a certain mindlessness to the movie in its complete failure to even properly exploit its own gimmick.

When I say that Act of Valor is mindless, I don’t mean that it has nothing to say (believe me, I’ll get to that), but that there appears to be little intention behind what we’re being shown. Some of the action is seen as if it’s straight out of a first-person shooter, making me feel like I’m watching someone else play Call of Duty. Some of the action is filmed in an overworked shaky cam style. Some of the action is shown from a steady, removed distance. It’s all edited in a barely comprehensible, and certainly less than enjoyable, fashion that bludgeons forward, deadening almost all sense of narrative tension. It’s as perfunctory as a cut scene without the benefits of throwing you a controller. Much has been made in the press about how the film’s acting SEALs helped choreograph the action and, indeed, some of it appears to be quite well done, but the movie gives only brief moments in which to admire it.

Action directors, especially directors of big, dumb spectacles of action movies, are often accused of fetishized militarism, none more frequently in recent years than Michael Bay. His camera practically salivates over shots of machinery of war. But like his films or not, he’s an actual filmmaker, with an eye for visuals and a very real, if infrequently deployed, sense of the momentum of spectacle.  McCoy and Waugh, on the other hand, have yet to prove themselves in this department. They’re not filmmakers; they’re propagandists, and not even particularly skillful ones. The whole film seems deeply committed to its ideology but less committed to things like cinematography, the whole thing shot in painfully bleary digital photography like in a pivotal interrogation scene that is distractingly backlit and washed-out.

As for the plot itself, well, it’s mostly about stopping terrorists. But these aren’t just any terrorists. They’re written in ways that feed into all of the worst conspiracy-minded xenophobia of recent years, as they happen to be foreign, Muslim, suicide-bombing jihadists trying to sneak into the United States through Mexico. There’s a casual ugliness to the villains – all portrayed by actors and therefore more believable in this terrible material, especially the guy who looks like an anorexic Paul Giamatti – that is positively primeval. We first see them setting off an ice-cream-truck bomb at a school in the Philippines, so of course we know they’re bad. (And America is the unilaterally and uniformly brave heroes, of course).  But the terrorists are even less real characters than the SEALs, so we have two cardboard armies clashing with each other for reasons that are ideologically confused because neither side elucidates their mentalities. It’s a standoff between macho Americana and the despicable “other.”

It’s a movie about mission briefings followed by tactical maneuvers, culminating in shootouts. At the end of it all, the movie tries to pull out of its jingoistic nosedive with a 21-gun-salute for a fallen warrior. (I felt bad that one of the SEALs had to fake die in pretend combat for this tripe; here’s wishing the real soldier a long life). The credits start with a list of the names of real SEALs killed in action since 9/11. Those few seconds are more moving, more authentic, than anything that comes before. Our Navy SEALs are often heroes; I support the troops and it is my sincere wish that they could stay out of harm’s way. But war has real consequences. It’s not fun. It’s not a video game. And it’s certainly not a dumb movie that pretends to understand the life of a soldier but instead offers up pat platitudes and faux respect wrapped up in flag-waving, us-versus-them action setpieces. It’s a movie that wants to get its kicks out of combat and expects you to enjoy it too. And then it wants to make you feel bad about it for a second before you leave the multiplex swollen with patriotism and head out to enlist.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Quick Look: THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY


In a world of rapid-fire CGI quips from Hollywood, it’s refreshing to disappear into the world of a hand-drawn Studio Ghibli film from Japan. It’s a calm, patient oasis in the middle of a hectic modern world. Their newest film to be brought by Disney to our shores is The Secret World of Arrietty, a version of Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers adapted by Ghibli’s rightly beloved co-creator Hayao Miyazaki. The story follows a family of toy-sized people who live under the floorboards and in the walls of an old house in the countryside, sneaking into rooms at night to borrow only what they need: a cube of sugar, a tissue, a pin. As the movie begins, a sickly young boy shows up to live with his aunt and get some rest in advance of a risky surgery that is necessary to save his life. He thinks he spots these fabled little people; the thought delights him. The little family, daughter Arrietty, her steady father and excitable mother, think they’ve been spotted too; the thought terrifies them. It’s a movie about survival, but only in the quietest, most melancholic sense. It’s a movie about learning to be kind to your neighbors, to take chances in learning to understand one another. It’s sweet and simple, but with a lovely attention to emotional – and, in true Ghibli fashion, visual – detail. Animator and first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi creates a world of new perspectives, following the borrowers’ point of view, which shows our world from a much lower angle, then switching to the boy’s view, making the common world uncommon. Ultimately, the film doesn’t have the majesty of Miyazaki’s own masterworks, but its still moving in a modest way. Like all of the great Studio Ghilbi films, it traces an invisible line between reality and fantasy, between nature and magic, with nimble beauty and heartfelt skill.

Monday, February 20, 2012

All's Fair: THIS MEANS WAR

In This Means War two government agents end up dating the same girl and decide to keep it up and let her pick the best man. It’s romance as competition, but it’s so much more than that. These guys throw the weight of the surveillance state behind their contest, each creating small taskforces to bug the poor woman’s house, car, and cell phone, hide miniature cameras here, there, and everywhere, to reroute unmanned drones, to hack into utilities’ networks, and to pull hardworking intelligence officers away from a case involving a nasty arms dealer attempting to cross illegally into the country to carry out revenge killings. None of this is as hilarious as anyone involved in the making of this movie thought it would be.

Reportedly festering in the bowels of the studio system since 1997, it’s finally been expunged onto theater screens in a version with a screenplay credited to Timothy Dowling and 20th Century Fox’s favorite script doctor Simon Kinberg. The whole thing feels stale and creepy without even a smidgen of charm. Of course, it doesn’t help that McG directs with monotonous thunks in the place of plot beats. There’s just no rhythm here, no essential spark of life. It’s also a strangely ugly movie; the lighting makes everyone look either sickly or as if they’re wearing pounds of makeup. All the while, the whole failed comedy gets pulled under by the flopping thriller inside it, compounding the problems.

On their own, the cast members are incredibly charming, or at least capable of it. The guys are played by Chris Pine (the new Captain Kirk) and Tom Hardy (the talented Brit who seems to be spending all of his time on film sets lately). They’re fighting over none other than Reese Witherspoon, no slouch in the charm department herself. But the charm just isn’t there. Setting aside the creepiness factor just for a moment (we’ll return to it, I promise), the plot is just so weirdly juvenile. Everyone involved in this love triangle are adults, and yet the movie makes them flail about like children in awkward social contortions. Don’t even get me started on poor Angela Bassett who is asked nothing more than to appear in a handful of scenes and scowl at everyone. This could be transposed into a high school comedy without sacrificing much. Teenagers would have less access to extralegal surveillance techniques, but that’s an aspect I’d be willing to lose.

Back to the creepiness, this is a deeply unsettling movie, all the more unsettling for being so glossy and watchable. These men are spying on the woman and the bulk of the movie has them listening in on her conversations with her best friend (Chelsea Handler). Then they set about tailoring their behavior on dates to fix flaws that she’s mentioned in these private conversations. One’s too slick, she says. He doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. Surprise, surprise, their next date, he takes her to an animal shelter to help him pick out a dog. The other’s too safe, she says. He doesn’t seem to be much of a risk-taker. Surprise, surprise, their next date is to play paintball. Of course, his secret agent skills come out and he runs roughshod over the mere combat amateurs, most of them children who leave the field limping. But, it all ends in the guy getting a paintball to the crotch so, ha ha, humor!

Poor Witherspoon is an unknowing pawn in their game which, despite all protestations from characters and filmmaking alike, has so very little to do with romance. This is a movie that’s so unbelievably smug that it mistakes smarm for charm. The movie’s sole sex scene is staged in such a way that we see none of the lovemaking and only the CIA operatives hunkered in a security bunker watching the couple. Who is supposed to find that scene appealing in the slightest? It’s not romantic, and it’s certainly not funny. It’s gross and demeaning to all involved.

I wasn’t delighted by this movie; I grew sad, and then just numb. It’s an implicit endorsement of the security state. At one moment a technician asks Pine if the spying they’re about to do “is legal.” Pine shrugs and says “Patriot Act.” Is that supposed to be funny? Later on, the fact that she’s under surveillance allows the guys to find her and save her in the action climax. So, see, it all works out, right? The movie is just stupid and thoughtless enough that I could completely believe that an endorsement of such reprehensible behavior is entirely accidental. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Flame Out: GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE


I have to hand it to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It’s bad in an often nutso way that’s a frantic, scrambled, mush instead of the steady mediocrity that was the original 2007 adaptation of this Marvel comic book character. But just because it feels uncompromised and sometimes defiantly uncommercial doesn’t, in the long run, make the film any less bad. Maybe we should just call it quits on this whole turning Ghost Rider into a movie thing. It’s clearly not working out for anyone.

Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze, the stunt motorcycle driver who made a deal with the Devil and is now forever cursed to roam the world occasionally turning into a burning skeleton and sucking up evil souls. This time around he’s joined by Idris Elba, who pops up now and then to speak in a French accent and pretend he’s in a movie that’s actually making him look cool. He puts the plot in motion by telling Blaze to go rescue a boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido) from the Devil’s Earthbound proxy (Ciarán Hinds) and his minion (Johnny Whitworth).

The Devil’s been making lots of deals, I guess, since the poor woman made some kind of arrangement with him hoping he’d never come to collect. Apparently his evilness causes his mortal form to wear out and he’s hoping to use the boy as a fresh incarnation for his Earthly evil. So that’s what Ghost Rider is up against and it all should be rather straightforward. What could be more exciting – or exploitative – than saving a child from the clutches of demonic possession? Instead, the whole thing feels half-hearted. Where’s the sense of urgency? It’s a movie that invokes good versus evil, God versus Devil, end-of-the-world stakes and then is content to putter around Eastern Europe staging some small-scale moments of dubious effects work.

The story by David S. Goyer has been cobbled together into a screenplay with Scott M. Gimple and Seth Hoffman. It’s a thin, shaky, thing, but at least it was a good choice to hand it over to directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They’ve gained something of a cult following by making energetic trash that makes action cinema into the avant garde. Their films like Crank and Gamer push up against the boundaries of conventional style, shaking and careening along action sequences filmed with a great deal of grit and mess and edited into spastic, borderline-nonsensical inventiveness. There’s an improvisatorial madness to their method that leads them to push up against the boundaries of good taste as well. (That’s the main reason why their Crank 2 often rubs me the wrong way).

But you’d think Ghost Rider is a would-be franchise that could benefit from a little extra madness, especially with Cage in the lead role. He’s an actor who has been making lots of bad choices of roles for a least a decade now. You can say what you want about his acting, but there’s no denying that he’s a man who commits to his performances. As Johnny Blaze he exudes a struggle against his literal inner demon that writes a smoldering pain across the features of his face. But when he turns into a flaming skeleton everything that makes Cage so erratically appealing, his warped wit and unconventional line readings that put Jeff Goldblum to shame, disappear, only to be replaced by a stiff CGI void.

Neveldine and Taylor don’t bring enough craziness with which to surround Cage. They do some of their unpredictable stylistic thing but their fractured, high-speed, frenzy wreaks havoc with their 3D compositions. Some of it is quite striking. They bring one or two nice visual ideas to the proceedings. One scene uses a split-screen that gains eye-scrambling effect with the added third dimension. An early shot of Elba shooting a gun while falling off the side of a cliff is some kind of slo-mo action poetry. But the bulk of the picture is a hazy, shaky, cheap-looking nightmare of a visual scheme. It’s monotonously dark and muddied; together with the movie’s surprisingly violent content, that makes this one of the grimmest, hardest PG-13s I’ve ever seen. Maybe it skated past the ratings board because it all seems too inconsequential and incomprehensible.

It should just be a simple chase picture. It is a simple chase picture. But characters never seem to put much effort into actually chasing each other. Good guys, bad guys, and all guys in between know just where to show up and let special effects happen all around them. There’s no momentum here. Characters pause to explain backstory that was apparently too expensive to film so instead it’s filled in with drawings that augment the exposition. These characters explain complicated rules about powers and set up ticking clocks of plot mechanics, but there’s no real sense of how the powers actually work or when these ticking clocks are actually going to hit some kind of deadline. All that’s left is a dull movie. I kept waiting for it to spark to life, but from start to finish it can’t catch fire like it should. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventure Time: JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND

There was no good reason to get excited about Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. It’s a late arriving sequel to the little-loved 2008 family movie Journey to the Center of the Earth, a loose adaptation of the Jules Verne classic. It was a cheesy, erratic, CGI monstrosity that took full, sloppy, insufferable advantage of the then-novelty of a 3D resurgence. Of that movie I can only recall a mugging Brendan Fraser and a moment in which Seth Meyers smirks as he thrusts a tape measure out of the screen. Having seen this new movie, I must admit that my reticence was unfounded. Journey 2 is a fun time at the movies, a gee-whiz spectacle made with great energy and an authentic, pleasing sense of adventure.

Ditching just about everything that made up its predecessor up to and including the writers, the director, and most of the cast, Journey 2 makes it nice and easy to recommend ignoring its sequel status and jumping right in. It doesn’t take much time at all for the script by Brian and Mark Gunn to get the plot off and running. A teenage boy who considers himself an explorer (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his stepfather (Dwayne Johnson) to help him try to find The Mysterious Island. You know, the one that Jules Verne wrote about.

This island has to be real since the boy has picked up a coded message transmitted from the middle of nowhere that has to be, just has to be, from his missing grandfather (Michael Caine). Proving the existence of this island was the old man’s life’s work. I like how the kid figures out where the secret message originates by casting aside his iPad and paging through dusty volumes of fantasy literature and comparing the map inside The Mysterious Island with the ones inside Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. You see, these maps all have clues as to finding the actual Mysterious Island, because, why not?

Sensing an opportunity to bond with his stepson, the trip is planned. Stepfather and stepson hitch a ride on a rickety helicopter with the owner (Luis Guzman) and his plucky teenaged daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). They all get sucked into a swirling storm cloud that deposits them onto the unknown shores of Mysterious Island. There they find grandpa of course, as well as gigantic bugs, gargantuan lizards, and miniature elephants. It’s a veritable phantasmagoric jungle menagerie of identifiable beasts in unexpected sizes. The movie is little more than these broadly sketched and immensely likable characters hiking through the jungle and encountering these strange sights. “You should have expected mysterious things,” the stepson tells his stepfather. “It’s in the title.”

This group is made up of easily identifiable types played with earnest, affable verve. The boy adventurer, the strong-but-kind muscle man, the white-haired veteran explorer, the pretty girl, and the comic relief are imbued with characteristics that bounce off each other in ways that are the right mix of predictable and comfortable. With someone as charismatic and charming as Dwayne Johnson, the other actors are left scrambling to win audiences’ affection. The effort pays off. I found I liked spending time with them as they spend their screen time marveling at strange sights and running away from them when things get dangerous, all the while trying to find a way off this island without getting stomped on, eaten up, or submerged under water.

The movie is a particularly enjoyable version of this particular kind of movie, the kind of movie that gets a kick out of giants beasts lumbering about and flying around in classic Ray Harryhausen style, albeit in a just-convincing-enough modern CGI fashion instead of that special effects master’s use of stop-motion animation. (In fact, Harryhausen did the effects for a 1961 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, a film I absolutely need to see). Director Brad Peyton (who made his directorial debut in 2010 with Cats & Dogs 2, which is best forgotten) handles the large-scale effects and the swift script with a nice, unhurried style. It’s just plain sturdy adventure filmmaking. It’s bright, colorful, and energetic with big monsters, beautiful scenery, and an exuberant and agreeable use of 3D effects. (Objects noticeably pop out and extend backwards without being too distracting).  It’s a B-movie matinee right out of the 1950s when it would have been called something like a boy’s adventure story and played to theaters of happy children on a Saturday afternoon.

The fact of the matter is, that I saw this movie in a theater filled with happy children just last Saturday afternoon. They howled and giggled and exclaimed right on cue. Reader, I could totally see where they were coming from. The fact of the matter is, the movie just plain works. This is not an especially ambitious movie, but it’s a satisfying one for what it is. It’s good-natured and sweet, with a relaxed sense of humor that’s only sometimes too easy or corny. It’s silly and it knows it. The movie comes with a nice family-friendly moral without becoming moralizing, with zippy action sequences that are exciting without becoming frightening. What can I say? It put a big goofy grin on my face.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Don't You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me: THE VOW

In most Hollywood romances, the ending is obvious: the two biggest stars in the film are going to fall in love. That’s the very nature of the genre. What makes The Vow a somewhat interesting genre exercise is how it starts with the stars in love and takes it all away from them. At the beginning of the film, we meet the central couple already married. They’re just driving away from a movie theater (Chicago’s Music Box Theater, no less) on a frosty night when they’re rear-ended by a truck that just can’t stop fast enough in the freshly fallen snow. This is when we get the Meet Cute, in flashback, followed by a getting-to-know-you montage that starts with their first date, follows them through many more, and then ends in their marriage.

Back in the present, the wife wakes up from her coma without her memories of the last five years. She looks uncomprehendingly at her anxious husband. She thinks he’s her doctor. She looks down at her ring finger and is shocked. Who is this man? The structure of these opening scenes flips the script. We already know the two of them are in love, are married. The central question is whether or not she’ll remember those feelings. The husband’s determined to re-woo his wife, but she just wants to figure out what to do in this life she doesn’t remember creating for herself.

Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams play the husband and wife and they relate to each other pre- and post-accident in convincing ways. They’re a believable couple, intimate and comfortable. Later, he can’t help but take her memory loss a little personally. McAdams plays it subtly differently after the accident, posture a little straighter, voice a little looser. She feels like a woman who has fallen back in time while everyone else moved forward. She sees the pain on her husband’s face but she can’t recognize him as her husband.

What she does see, what’s comfortable to her, is her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), her neighborhood, her old friends, her old life, even her old boyfriend (Scott Speedman). We learn that she was in law school and decided she wanted to change course. She had a falling out with her parents and moved into the city where she studied to become an artist. She hasn’t seen her parents in years. Her husband never met them. Now, they’re all she knows. She woke up a law student again, surprised not only by her marriage but by her career as well.

Director Michael Sucsy presents all of this with a kind of glossy Hallmark-card heartbreak that works pretty well. There’s a surprisingly effective core of convincing emotion here. McAdams delivers strong work and I must admit that Tatum’s limited range is starting to charm me from time to time. In fact, if the film had honed in on its lead performances and really felt them instead of just presenting them, it would really have been something. As it is, I wish someone could have gotten his or her hands on the script by Abby Kohn (of Valentine’s Day) and Jason Katims (of Friday Night Lights) and just tightened it up, sharpened the focus, and cleaned away all the clutter.

The supporting cast members aren’t allowed to pop out in any notable way and there are easily a half-dozen characters standing around. Neill and Lange do good work with thin roles as the stuffy, rich parents who swoop in and try to use the amnesia to help mend their relationship with their not-exactly-starving-artist daughter. (She forgot whatever it was that came between them, so why not? Right?) But the central husband and wife each have a gaggle of friends and colleagues that float around as convenient scene partners to bounce emotions and plot points off of without ever coming into clear focus as actual characters. There’s little sense of how these people actually relate with each other, let alone with the plot and emotions of the film. Consequentially, the film grows aimless and overlong, wobbling through a concept that once seemed so promising. By the end, I felt my patience running thin.

At one point, Lange’s character tells her daughter that she chooses to forgive, happy for all the things done right instead of focusing on the things done wrong. That’s how I’d like to approach this film. I appreciate all involved for sneaking something slightly raw (I said slightly) and more complicated (again, slightly) than you’d expect from a slick Hollywood romance. But as I sat there, I kept imagining a movie that really gave in to the kind of intricate emotional territory the concept suggests, a slick psychological drama of a romance that really dug into the couple’s relationship instead of presenting it in moments of greeting-card uplift. I think the actors are ready to go there, but the material doesn’t let them. But that they even get part of the way there is something of some small interest.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Burning Down the House: SAFE HOUSE

Safe House is a generic studio thriller on a preordained course to exactly where you think it’s going. That it managed to hold my attention for as long as it did is some small miracle. It’s a trust-no-one spy movie shot in quick cut chaos style with the kind of grainy, high-contrast look that’s become the stylistic shorthand for post-9/11 thrillers. There are few surprises to be found within but director Daniel Espinosa is smart to lean on his overqualified cast of character actors to carry out the clichéd plotting in David Guggenheim’s script and to allow Denzel Washington to use his considerable charisma to anchor it all. It’s a wholly forgettable experience, but at least it managed to hold my attention for most of the way through until it just fizzles out about two-thirds of the way in.

The film starts with rookie CIA officer Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) house-sitting a secure location in South Africa. It has seen nothing of interest, indeed not a single person, in the twelve months he’s been stationed there. When rouge agent Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought in for questioning, the excitement comes in greater quantities than the rookie could have ever expected. A small group of heavily armed, villainous men shoot their way in and almost catch Frost. But Frost talks the rookie into fleeing. The captive seems awfully calm about all this, even when Weston asks him to get into the trunk of the car. The younger man is under the impression that he is taking a dangerous captive to his superiors. The rouge master spy sure seems to be getting his way, though.

On the run from these unknown attackers and trying to coordinate with the CIA, Weston and Frost have an antagonistic partnership in which only one man really seems in control, even when he’s unarmed and handcuffed. Washington exudes a twinkling confidence and a gravity of intention that makes the early parts of the film a mostly competent diversion. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it proves that, done well enough, the old tropes can be used to fine effect now and then. Reynolds mostly stands by and lets Washington dominate each and every scene, but he manages to hold his own. After unmitigated disasters of starring roles in the likes of Green Lantern and The Change-Up, it’s nice to see Reynolds sink back into an ensemble for a film that’s just barely north of mediocre.

The movie’s about men pointing guns, cars going fast, and intense phone calls in shadowy Langley conference rooms. Back at CIA headquarters we have the prickly Brendan Gleeson, the soulful Vera Farmiga, and the grizzled Sam Shepard talking strategy and ordering underlings around while they contemplate how to put an end to this situation. It goes without saying that they aren’t all on the same page and, in a page right out of the Bourne playbook, there’s a sense that they might not all be playing for the same team or with the same rules. If you’d guess that there’s going to be some ulterior motives to be revealed towards the climax, I’d say you must have seen a lot of the same thrillers that I have.

My early tolerance for the brisk, efficient action, including a decent car chase, turned into dismay over the lifeless confrontations that follow. By final few fight scenes I could rarely make heads or tails of the action. Instead of grooving with a visceral abstract chaos, the filmmakers just threw up blurriness and hoped the Foley artists did their job well enough. Weston, clutching a gun, edges around a corner. So does Frost. So do some bad guys. Where are they in relationship to each other? Who is about to encounter whom? Who knows?

As the double-crosses fall into place and the movie zigs and zags its way to where I figured it was headed all along, my interest fell off. When the true villain is revealed, I practically shrugged. When crucial, damaging information about the intelligence community may or may not be leaked, I found myself without a rooting interest one way or the other. As the plot tries to thicken, it just gets thinner and thinner. I found myself without a reason to care. I found myself wondering why the setting of the climax is given so many intermittently loud buzzing flies, which made me think of Emily Dickinson. I looked up the poem when I got home. “I heard a fly buzz when I died / The stillness round my form / Was like the stillness in the air / Between the heaves of storm...” When you’re sitting in a dark theater watching a dumb thriller of low ambition and find yourself thinking more about recalling a poem than the action on screen, you know the movie has lost you completely.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

More Than a Woman: THE WOMAN IN BLACK

There’s a big, scary haunted house in the middle of The Woman in Black, a charmingly old-fashioned horror film. It’s a towering Gothic building with endless candlelit rooms stuffed with seemingly endless bric-a-bracs and musty furniture. The grounds, including its very own cemetery, are overgrown with twisting weeds and long grass. Of course, this is a place the local villagers will not go. It’s quite a ways out of town and when the tide comes in it becomes a small island. It’s dark, creepy, and isolated.

It’s the dawn of the 20th century when the old widow who lives in the house dies with no living relatives. A young, freshly widowered lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe, nicely filling the requirements of his first post-Potter role) is sent away from his toddler son and their big city home to sort out this countryside estate. When he shows up, the greeting is hardly what you’d call hospitable. The village is filled with the kind of small-town horror-movie people who seem nice enough but speak slowly, as if they’re afraid they’ll spill their town’s dark secrets if they didn’t watch their words close enough.

They have reason to look so glum. There be ghosts here. It all has to do with that big creepy mansion on the far outskirts of town, the kind of half-regal, half-decrepit old building at which Very Bad Things have happened. These Bad Things must have something to do with the worrisomely high mortality rate in town. The villagers calmly and forcefully tell Radcliffe not to go to that house, to just turn around and go back home. Even the kindly older gentleman (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife (Janet McTeer) who ask him over for supper can’t help but let their apprehension show through their kindness. But it’s the young man’s job to close the account, so head out into the isolated manor he must.

The satisfying, mostly wordless, centerpiece of the film finds Radcliffe sorting through papers, old letters, and scratched photographs at the house, intermittently interrupted by ominous creaks and mysterious footsteps. Other times a woman in black, the ghost of the title, appears. He sees her through a window, standing in the cemetery. He goes out to investigate and she’s gone. He turns back and sees her standing at an upstairs window. He goes back inside, climbs the winding stairs and finds the room empty. It’s creepy, for sure, but director James Watkins has such a sure hand in staging Jane Goldman’s screenplay (based on a novel by Susan Hill) that he taps into a mournful mood that slowly builds startling moments and an unsettling sense of wrongness into a kind of heavy atmosphere that settles under the skin.

When Hinds offers to return for Radcliffe after the tide recedes later that evening, and the younger man says that he prefers “to work through the night,” it gave me a sinking feeling. It’s a ghastly ghost story trope that worked on me here. It’s not always so enjoyable to wonder why a character won’t just leave the haunted house. Here the emphasis on the decaying architecture of the big old house, the accumulating terror from the likes of cracked porcelain dolls and various eerie wind-up figures, is effective. Much praise is due production designer Kave Quinn, art decorator Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Niamh Coulter, without whom this candlelit building would seem considerably less haunted.

The film comes from a fairly recently reconstituted Hammer Films, the British studio that made a name for itself churning out horror films of just this sort – by and large patient, suspenseful, and with a whiff of the literary about them – during its greatest prominence from the 1950s through the 1970s. The Woman in Black fits quite well in this tradition. It’s so effectively old-fashioned, in fact, I thought I had it all figured out. It’s a terrific piece of craftsmanship. It was creeping me out, but I had an understanding of its approach and its technique that I thought was keeping me from being truly scared by the film. At one point, when the ghost suddenly appears in a classic jump scare, I heard a loud gasp from somewhere near me in the audience. It took me a second to realize that the gasp had come from me.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Great Powers, No Responsibility: CHRONICLE


Josh Trank’s debut feature Chronicle is a nice spin on the typical superhero origin story. It’s such a nice spin that, until late in the film when it makes blatant nods towards that direction, it could be any old found-footage horror movie with vaguely supernatural things happening to a small cast of teens. It starts with Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a loner high-school senior, getting his hands on a video camera with which to document his life, which is certainly not going well. His father (Michael Kelly) is a drunk, abusive man. His mother (Bo Peterson) is dying. When he goes to school, things aren’t much better. He’s ignored, or worse, bullied. When his popular, extroverted cousin (Alex Russell) invites him to a cool party, he reluctantly takes the chance to get out of the house.

At the party, he, his cousin, and another popular senior (Michael B. Jordan) head out into the woods to explore a mysterious hole in the ground. We follow the shakily filmed teens down into the hole where they find a massive glowing blue crystalline wall (government secret? alien artifact?) that makes their noses bleed and the camera go all screwy. The screen goes black. When it comes back to life, Andrew has a new camera. We see the three guys playing catch. But it’s not quite that simple. Soon it’s apparent that the ball they’re throwing is veering off at weird angles or even stopping mid-flight, hovering in the air. They’re controlling the ball with their minds. Then one of them notices a small trickle of blood leaking out one nostril.

The teens explore their newfound telekinetic powers in a casual, goofy way that feels more or less the way actual teenage guys would handle the situation. Do you really think they’d head right out to fight crime? That’s a superhero trope that’s nicely cast aside here as they wander around town playing pranks, roughhousing, taunting bullies and trying to get girls. It’s all so simple, but the found-footage style (albeit deployed in a way that grows increasingly strained) gives a shaky verisimilitude to the kinds of powers we’ve seen many times before. When one of the guys discovers that they can levitate themselves – flying, actually – the way they try it out made me actually concerned they’d fall. When was the last time I was afraid some superpowered character would drop out of the sky? Maybe never.

There’s a winning lack of confidence to these characters, a halting sense of bewildered and astonished improvisation with their new abilities. Especially with Andrew, a sullen kid who gets powers and a new group of friends in the very same instant, the film gets good use out of its central metaphor of superpowers being an unstable aspect of adolescent id within an overwhelming sense of change. The screenplay by Max Landis (son of John) can be (but isn’t always) especially acute in the way it deals with the shifting emotions of its three leads.

Where the film starts to fall apart, when the small sense of disappointment sets in, is when it becomes just another superhero movie. It’s still found footage, but the commitment to believable shots (such a crucial, enjoyable aspect in Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies) starts to slip away. And, though the characters are still just regular teens with special abilities and nary a mask, cape, or latex suit in sight, the climax of the story hinges on yet another sequence in which guys beat up on each other with their superpowers. I was engaged and intrigued by the film for so long, enjoying ways that it tweaked teen movie moments like a party or a school talent show with an injection of supernatural powers, that when it sinks into cliché it’s all the more frustrating. That said, the climactic battle plays out with more weight and impact than you usually find. The stakes feel real and though the blows between the combatants feel CGI weightless, the collateral damage has a believable immediacy to it. But I couldn’t help but wonder who could have possibly found all of this footage (expanding from the simple camera to a host of amateur photographers, security cameras and police car dashboards) and then edited it together. It’s not exactly motivated.

But those questions barely bothered me in the moment. The film’s a skillful slide from a genre goof into truly dark territory as Trank’s direction of Landis’s script makes genuine emotional and metaphorical sense out of powers that could otherwise have been glossy B-movie accoutrements. It resists coping out of its genre tweaking by going all the way with suits, superhero names, and catch phrases. It stays likably grounded. Although I had the sense that in the near future, just past the end credits, one of these characters is going to be donning a superheroic persona, it doesn’t feel like just another would-be franchise starter. The actions the young guys take feel convincing and the outcome is always a little in doubt. In the end it’s surprisingly unsurprising, but it’s nicely done in a way that feels new and exciting even when it's not.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wild vs. Man: THE GREY


The Grey is an icily tense survival story about a plane full of Alaskan oil riggers that crash-lands in the middle of a wintry forest populated by some ferociously territorial wolves. It’s a grim story stripped down to its essential elements, with characters drawn in brisk, macho shorthand. At the center of it all is a man who we first see the night before takeoff shuffling around the camp. We learn that his job is to shoot wolves if they come near the other workers. But that’s not what he’s using his gun for this night. He places the barrel in his mouth and closes his eyes. He can’t go through with it. When the plane goes down, he’s the one with the gruff no-nonsense, clear-headed thinking. The small group that has survived the crash unknowingly put their lives in the hands of a suicidal man.

But who wouldn’t want to follow this man, so tall and gravely serious? He’s Liam Neeson, enjoying his career resurgence on the heels of successful action outings like the 2009 film Taken in which he punched his way through Paris to find his kidnapped daughter. His steely gaze and easy gravity are wholly convincing. Yet in The Grey, around a campfire one night, Neeson admonishes a fellow survivor (Frank Grillo) for his grating bravado, asking instead for a dropping of pretense and an embrace of some honest fear. “I’m scared,” Neeson says. That’s not exactly the Neeson we’re used to, the confident man of action. Here he doesn’t let his doubt show – he always seems to know exactly what they should attempt next – but his fear comes through with a cold, honest blast of survivalist pessimism.

Like Neeson subtly subverting his persona of recent years in this performance, writer-director Joe Carnahan sets out to subvert expectations with this film. His two most recent films were colorful and self-conscious efforts: Smokin’ Aces, a grungy, gory mock-Tarantino actioner, and The A-Team, a colorful 80’s action throwback. Those were films that were to a large extent knowingly goofy. The Grey is anything but. It’s knowingly serious with life-and-death stakes played grimly and downbeat. (It’s like Carnahan’s best film, 2002’s Narc in that way). It’s a destabilizing film that uses genre conventions only to slowly erode them out from underneath the characters.

The steady rock of a man at the center of the film is afraid, and so too are those around him. There is no comfort to be found here. The other men are at varying levels of acceptance of their situation. One (Dallas Roberts) wants to say some words for the deceased. Another (Joe Anderson) just wants to get another chance to find a nice girl. Yet another (Dermot Mulroney) slowly realizes he may not be made of the same survivalist stock as the others. And yet they all soon come face to face with their limitations. The forces of nature are coming to take them out far faster than hypothetical rescuers could come to take them to safety.

It all takes place in a convincingly dangerous setting, the starkly beautiful winter fields and forests covered in a pristine snow that is soon to be sullied by burns and blood. The soundtrack is filled with the sounds of whipping wind and howling plumes of stinging snow mixing with the puffing clouds of ice-cold breath, overlapping with shouted dialogue. The theater was nice and warm, but I felt a chill. Nature dominates the feel of the film, thwarting the characters at every turn. And there are, of course, those wolves. Neeson hypothesizes that the plane crashed into the middle of the wolves’ territory. The night air is filled with the sounds of howling wolves, their snarls drawing closer until the faint glow of their eyes reflected in the campfire proves to be too late a warning.

This is an aggressively downbeat film that moves forward with a deadly efficient sparseness. At times it fleetingly seemed to me to be nothing less than the filmmaking equivalent of Hemingway’s prose, so clean and uncomplicated, so interested in the ways man is defined, at least in part, by his relationship to the wilderness. This unexpectedly artful film is a shock of icy pop nihilism with a bunch of tough guys (defined in the film’s opening as marginalized members of society) reduced to sitting around contemplating death. No matter what they do, they just can’t seem to improve their situation. These men take plenty of actions in the film, planning and scheming and desperately trying to find new ways to escape wolf territory and find civilization, but the central feeling of a dangerous lack of progress, the creeping sense of the overwhelming inevitability of death, is potent.
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