Monday, May 28, 2012

Quick Look: HELL AND BACK AGAIN

Hell and Back Again tells the story of Sergeant Nathan Harris, a veteran who led his group of Marines in Afghanistan, but is now finding returning home a difficult prospect. He’s dealing with wounds both psychological and physical. Healing is hard. Director Danfung Dennis cuts between Harris’s home life and his past tour of duty in startlingly intuitive ways. This is an electrifying war movie that explores the impact of combat both on the front lines and in the soldier’s minds. That it’s a documentary makes it all the more engrossing; it’s real life skillfully shot and edited like a thriller. These artful decisions make for good filmmaking, great storytelling, but shakier veracity. When footage of Harris at home is overlaid with sounds of Afghanistan, the filmmaking leads one to believe that that’s what the man is thinking about. How can we, or the filmmakers, possibly know what’s going on inside this man’s mind? These attempts to dramatize interiority that would be simply at home as part of a narrative take on a more problematic nature when nestled inside a documentary. But what power the final film has. Like Werner Herzog, Dennis is after, not the absolute literal truth, but a truthful mood, capturing the essence, the feeling, and the emotion of a returning wounded soldier. This is a strong, troubling film that’s powerfully mournful, deeply empathetic and upsetting in a slick, insinuating way.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Travel Nightmare: CHERNOBYL DIARIES

Chernobyl Diaries is one of those horror movies where the entire plot hinges on one very convincing idiot who can get the whole group to go along with his ideas. In this case the idiot is Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), an American living in Kiev who has the bright idea to take his brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), who is backpacking around Europe with Natalie (Olivia Dudley), his girlfriend, and Amanda (Devin Kelley), her friend, on an extreme getaway. (The characters have these names, but it’s much easier to keep track of them as Brother 1 and Brother 2, blonde and brunette.) They show up at a hole-in-the-wall where they meet their fellow travelers (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and board a sketchy van driven by Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a hulking tour guide. Destination: Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, the worst in history.

The others weren’t too sure about this trip, but Paul (Brother 1, the aforementioned convincing idiot) talked them into it. All that remains at Chernobyl is a radioactive ghost town. What danger could there be? For a while, the trip goes just fine for these tourists. The guide reassures them that they won’t be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation since they’ll only be staying an hour or two. There are guards at a checkpoint that won’t let them in. That’s kind of weird. Even weirder, the guide drives the group in through the back way, down a rundown, woodsy path. Still, though, nothing too dangerous, they suppose. They walk around the ghost town. They see some modern day ruins. They take some pictures. They joke around. They look off into the distance and marvel at the huge nuclear reactor that now sits unused. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.

First time director Bradley Parker does some nice work with silence and the mundane, a trick he no doubt picked up from producer and co-writer Oren Peli, whose incredibly low-budget massive hit Paranormal Activity helped to ignite a new craze of found-footage films. (Funnily enough, the other writers are Carey and Shane Van Dyke, who wrote the direct-to-DVD Paranormal Entity, no relation to Peli’s hit series.) This one starts off with found footage in a smeary, consumer-grade digital montage of London and Paris, but luckily drops that conceit just before the title card, trading it in for wobbling hand-held camerawork of a more traditional kind.

For the longest time, the twenty-somethings just fumble through their tour, getting freaked out a little from time to time, but nothing they can’t handle. Most of the suspense comes from the way the blonde’s shirt has only half of the buttons fastened properly. But then cell phone reception is bad, eventually nonexistent, and batteries die and nightfall is approaching. Things get ominous real quick, but it’s hard to feel too bad about a bunch of barely developed, empty-headed, gullible characters who walk knowingly past obvious warning signs. (Travel tip: if you go to a dangerous place in a foreign country with a stranger, tell someone else where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Or, you know, don’t go.)

Somehow, the van’s wiring has been cut and so they’re stranded. Should they stay in the van and wait for sunrise? Things go bump in the night and slowly the group decides to split up and then someone inevitably disappears. The next day, splitting up once more, they go looking for the missing member of their tour group. Bad move. I’ll give you one guess as to who talks the group into most of the decisions they make. You can probably also guess that characters get injured or go missing with predictable results. Some are found dead, others alive, but either way there’s a lot of the movie spent wandering around an abandoned town shouting “Uri!” or “Natalie!” or “Chris!” over and over again. Of course they’re not alone here. Someone or something is clearly menacing them and it’s not just the loud dogs that are good for a “Boo!” or two. It turns out the place is haunted (or is that inhabited?) by people who like to stand in the background or sometimes jump out of shadows and grab at you for no real reason. They must know they’re not real characters or real specters or zombies or even much of a tangible threat. They’re just set dressing.

Obviously this is not the most respectful way to treat an all-too-real disaster, but the filmmakers don’t even have the guts to use their exploitative premise to exploit much of anything. The first half or so of the movie makes some effective use of the setting, the way the slowly crumbling buildings of the town are flash-frozen in time, eerily still and quiet. When a character hears something rattling around down the hall, it’s spooky. There shouldn’t be anyone there. When someone goes to investigate and the camera stays with those left behind, that’s genuinely creepy. As more of the characters disappear and I found myself not really caring one way or the other, the movie stopped being even slightly scary.

By the time we see more and more of the creeps limping out of the shadows, what little tension that has accrued slips away. And let’s not even talk about the ending, which is unbelievably, eye-rollingly predictable, but which I won’t reveal here because, who knows, maybe you’ll still see it at some point. I guess the way the movie ends is no more generic than the rest of it, though. This isn’t a movie out to subvert cliché, or to do the same old thing in an inventive way. It’s a movie that’s just interested in checking all the boxes, getting the obvious done and getting out. The movie’s not good enough to recommend or bad enough to hate. It just is.

Blast in the Past: MEN IN BLACK 3

Men in Black 3, like Men in Black and Men in Black II before it, grabs ahold of some ingenious science fiction concepts and proceeds to goof around with them for an hour-and-a-half. The main difference now is that it’s been ten years since we’ve last been inside the mysterious government agency to follow stoic Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and motormouth Agent J (Will Smith) as they try to keep track of alien immigrants to our planet and make sure that they aren’t causing any kind of intergalactic ruckus. That’s twice as long as the time between the first film and its sequel. Has twice as much changed? Not really. They’re still out there, just one partnership in the Men in Black, out to clean up extraterrestrial messes and preserve the secrets of the universe from the unwashed masses.

This franchise is essentially a procedural, a feature film version of one of those cop shows that seem to run for season after season, the kind you might forget about for a while and then one day turn on your TV and find that the likable characters are still up to the same old same old. A Men in Black movie starts with a big bad alien villain, this time a creepy assassin played by a black-eyed, monstrously toothy Jemaine Clement with wild, scruffy hair, who gets to Earth intent on wreaking some havoc. Cut to K and J as they finish mopping up their latest case, inevitably having to scramble some pedestrians’ short-term memories in order to implant their cover story. Soon enough, the villain’s trail of destruction winds its way to Men in Black headquarters where heavy exposition is dumped on the agents, and the audience, by the head of the organization. (This time it’s Emma Thompson filling in quite nicely for Rip Torn.)

If the rule of making a satisfying sequel is to do the same thing, but different, then Men in Black 3 is the best of the bunch, or at least the best since the first. It takes the charming premise of the first film, which rests entirely on the wondrously kooky alien designs by Rick Baker (bulging brains, fish faces, wiggling antennas, prehensile tongues, and slinking tentacles all accounted for) and the off-kilter buddy cop chemistry between Smith and Jones, and scrambles it around a little bit. Men in Black II was too interested in rehashing instead of reinventing, spending a good chunk of its runtime resetting the plotting instead of expanding. There’s not much expanding going on here either, but the plot doubles back on itself in enjoyable ways and smartly puts its focus largely on the relationship between Smith and Jones. The story is all about time travel, a risky idea to introduce into any film, let alone a sequel, but here it helps shake things up.

The villainous alien starts the movie escaping from a lunar prison vowing revenge on K, the agent who put him away forty years earlier. Once he gets back to Earth, he finagles his way back in time and kills K, which sets off the course of events in the future that brings J into the past. It’s 1969, to be exact, which gives the bulk of the film the slightest feeling of being a very-special alien spin-off episode of Mad Men. (Was Jon Hamm or John Slattery not available to cameo?) There’s a groovy retro-futurism going on here, which gives Bo Welch’s production design room to give us the same but different. (I especially liked how the portable mind-scramblers worked back in the day.) The villain is roaring around on a motorcycle like he roared in from Easy Rider, while the film enjoys the opportunity to show off some notable 60’s elements, like papering the background with news reports of the impending moon launch and finding reason for the agents to visit Andy Warhol (Bill Hader).

Speaking of the same, but different, K is played in 1969, not by Jones through some computer-trickery, but by Josh Brolin, who does an impression so dead-on accurate it’s a wonder that no one’s thought of doing something like this before. He gets Jones’s unflappable squint, easy drawl, and the sly bemusement teasing about the corners of his eyes. But, since he’s playing a younger version of K, he has a bit more looseness and fun in his investigative technique (not much, but it’s noticeable). He’s a dapper man in black who’s so dedicated to his job that when a man comes frantically crashing into his life claiming to come from the future, he’s not too fazed by it. K and J go zipping around New York City and the movie is just like old times, except technically, for K at least, this is the first time.

I don’t quite know who to credit with all of these smart ideas. With straight-faced silliness, director Barry Sonnenfeld’s clearly the auteur of the series (that and Rick Baker’s alien designs are most consistent between the three pictures), but this particular script has a notoriously messy past, what with filming starting before its completion. The final product is credited to Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and Michael Soccio, and there’s surely plenty of uncredited input from countless others as well. It’s just that kind of movie. That the messiness of its creation hardly shows in the film itself, aside from some clunky scenes here and there, is a nice surprise. And whoever wrote into the film the major supporting character of a fifth-dimensional being who lives in all possible futures at the same time (a terrific sci-fi idea) deserves much praise. You know who you are, I guess. Even better, the great Michael Stuhlbarg plays him with a spaced-out, out-of-this-world speech pattern. He’s the film’s best creation.

Like its predecessors, Men in Black 3 is a movie with goofy gross-out creature moments, like the villain’s slimy, spike-shooting hand, and grinningly juvenile gags, including implicating several celebrities as secret aliens. It’s all so brightly lit and colorful. This has always been a series closer in spirit to Ghostbusters than X-Files. They’re big-budget, effects-driven larks. This one in particular is just so pleased with itself and relaxed. Despite world-ending stakes it’s all so laidback. You’d think there’d be more momentum, but each picture in the series has gotten increasingly slack. Still, that’s all part of the charm. I have affection for these movies, and I suspect that most who do will leave the theater satisfied. It brings the series something like full circle and the concluding moments contain a surprising note of sweetness and earned emotional payoff between K and J that retroactively gives their relationship an added dimension that’s actually rather moving. It’s always a nice surprise to find a late-arriving sequel that manages to justify its own existence.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reflections: CERTIFIED COPY

Abbas Kiarostami, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker who has made his first film in Europe with Certified Copy, has made a film so deceptively straightforward that by the time you realize you’ve been led into an intellectual hall of mirrors, it’s easy to take it in stride. Two characters drive through the Italian countryside. We think we know them. We meet them. We’re drawn into their lives as they while away the gorgeous afternoon hours together. We spend time with them. But, wait a minute. Who are they? What clues from how they interact can add up into a larger assumption? What’s ultimately puzzling about the movie is what’s so thrilling about it. It artfully deconstructs the very nature of fictional filmmaking. What is it that makes actors performing a scenario, if convincing enough, relatable on a human level? On occasion, it’s even easier to relate, to sympathize, to feel for what is ultimately nothing more than a facsimile, an approximation, a copy of human existence. Certified Copy has the simple formal audacity to ask this question through the story of two people who are implicitly giving themselves the exact same queries. Or are they? Ah, that’s the trick.

It all starts at a reading a professor (William Shimell) gives on his new book. His academic work is an inquiry into the value of reproductions, copies of artwork. If the copy can provoke the same emotional or intellectual response as the authentic original, is the reproduction not itself some kind of art? A woman (Juliette Binoche) and a young boy (Adrian Moore) move towards the front of the room. We cut away from the scholar behind his lectern and watch as they try to settle in. She takes a seat in the front row. The boy is restless, trying to get her attention. What does the man, droning on unseen, do in reaction to this potential distraction unfolding right in front of him? Kiarostami doesn’t cut back. He withholds information about the relationships between actions in the room. The woman and the boy silently communicate while the words that the man is speaking fill the soundtrack. Two mundane moments joined in one fictional scene, and yet the context of the opening scene of a movie by a major filmmaker elevates it to a level of curiosity and inquiry. It’s a copy of real life that achieves a power different from than the original.

Later that day the woman and the man meet and go for a drive. They’re just meeting. At least I thought they were, at first. After all, the film has just begun. The audience has just met the characters. There is no exposition that would lead us to believe they know each other. But as their afternoon goes on, their intellectual conversation grows personal. A waitress mistakes them for husband and wife. But is it a mistake? The woman goes along with it. Conversations circle around, in three languages, effortlessly no less, devouring themselves, covering the same ground or moving on. Discrepancies appear, or do they? The man and the woman test and provoke one another, question, ramble, and flirt. Dialogue becomes monologue and back again. They could very well be a couple, married or lovers, or perhaps they had a relationship that has gone cold, or ended. They could be trying out personas to spice things up or rekindle lost feelings. They could just as easily be strangers playacting a relationship, feeling the waters, testing the limits of the value of a copy, living his thesis.

I have seen the film several times and just when I think I’m close to pinning down an interpretation the film slips away. And yet rather than leave me frustrated, it leaves me invigorated. I want to dive back into the film and spend time with these characters once more, to find the explanation that works best for me this time, an explanation that will undoubtedly be as satisfying and as filled with nagging threads of doubt as each time before. (The strangest interpretation I’ve read proposed time travel to explain away the narrative and thematic wrinkles. I don’t buy it. And yet I can’t deny that I won’t bring myself to discard it entirely either.)

There’s a moment when the man and the woman stop off at a church and we see a bride preparing herself to appear for the cameras and spectators as if she feels the emotion of the moment. But what does she really feel? What is the emotion of the moment for her? Because we see her prepare, we’re let in on the secret. Surely there must be such an answer for this man and woman, too. Is showing an emotion the same as revealing it? Does it even matter when it provokes the same response to an observer, to a camera, to an audience? In the case of this couple, they’re playing to an audience of one, each other. This is a film of reflections, windows and mirrors prominently placed in the frame, endlessly doubling the details or allowing for deep introspection.

That the central relationship of the film remains an utter enigma throughout does not rob the film of emotional power. On the contrary, it opens up rich avenues of exploration. To call it a simple puzzle or a gimmick would be simply unfair. This is a film that could easily be viewed as simply waves of confident befuddlement, just as easily as some could reject it outright as too simple or obtuse. But Binoche and Shimell imbue their characters with such rich humanity and complicated, powerful interior lives and Kiarostami films them with such patience and care that I find it impossible to resist. It’s a film of intellectual and emotional envelopment, a pleasure of the highest order. Who are these people, these cinematic copies of the real thing, and why does filmmaking have the power to make me care so deeply so quickly, even knowing that I’ll never truly know them? They remain fixed there on the screen; they won’t change, only my reactions to them will. With a wondrously delicate dance of the emotional and intellectual, Kiarostami makes art out of artifice even as he asks if that’s even possible. In different moments of the film, the man and the woman each spend time staring into a mirror, but the camera stands in its place so that they are essentially looking into the audience to see what is reflected there.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sunk: BATTLESHIP

I don’t know if the nonstop digital chaos and noise wore me down or what, but parts of Battleship aren’t that bad. The main plot point of this movie-based-on-a-board-game is that during joint military exercises between the United States and Japan off the coast of Hawaii, an alien ship of some kind comes in for a splash landing and opens fire. So the movie’s basically American and Japanese sailors protecting Pearl Harbor from alien invasion. Why, that’s almost enough to bring a tear to the eye. Well, in a better movie it would be, one interested in exploring context and building characters or metaphors or providing any sort of narrative momentum or rooting interest other than “Blow up them aliens real good!” It’s a thin blockbuster that takes forever getting started and then has little but unoriginal drivel to get to once it does.

The payoff of all this is actually somewhat competent as far as these kind of big, impersonal blow-‘em-up blockbusters go. It’s the setup that’s totally bonkers and tonally messy, which dilutes the climactic excitement, reducing it to merely better than what’s come before. Screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber start us off with some pretty weird scenes that collide into each other in awkward ways. First, we meet twenty-something screw-up Alex (Taylor Kitsch) sitting in a bar, getting a lecture from his Naval-officer brother (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s a grow-up and get-responsible kind of lecture that awkwardly segues into a happy-birthday cupcake. Then a blonde bombshell (Brooklyn Decker) walks in and Alex goes over to hit on her. She wants a burrito but the bartender won’t give her one this late at night. Alex tries to get one for her and ends up breaking into a closed convenience store to do so, getting tased for his troubles.

Cut to some unspecified time later. Alex is now in the Navy, too. He’s talking about marrying blondie, but she wants him to ask her dad, Admiral Liam Neeson, for her hand first. Also there’s a pre-war games soccer game between America and Japan’s sailors that he loses and a subsequent fight that he gets into. He’s in real danger of getting bounced out of the military after these military exercises are over with, but is also third in command or something. I don’t get it either. This whole jumble of exposition and character building is so confused and tone-deaf, as if the writers had a vague sense of how movies worked and figured they better set up the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys before getting into the action, but had little idea of how to actually go about doing that.

But then, the aliens arrive. These unseen baddies set up a force field around the islands, cutting off a few battleships from all outside help. Poor Liam Neeson can only appear in one or two scenes where he looks determined, worried, and utterly powerless to intervene. Meanwhile, blondie is stuck on the side of a Hawaiian mountain where she is occasionally called upon to interact with a veteran (real veteran Gregory D. Gadson) who has two prosthetic legs and together the two of them look over at some aliens off in the distance and look worried. It’s up to good old Alex to rise to the occasion and figure out how to stop the alien invasion. And I haven’t even mentioned the quivering scientist (Hamish Linklater), also stranded on that mountain, whose satellite array brought the aliens to Hawaii in the first place. There’s also the scowling Petty Officer played by pop star Rihanna and the comic relief (I guess?) provided by Jesse Plemons. They get to scowl and crack wise and shoot big guns.

But anyways, all these characters are trapped in this impenetrable energy bubble. I was all ready to hate the movie based on how terminally uninvolving and unbelievably sloppy I found the schlocky first hour (or more) of this 131-minute movie. Even the opening alien salvo is just nonsense, shredding city streets and toppling buildings in a familiar and dull way. A main character dies almost immediately when a battleship goes down and I hardly cared. But then a funny thing happened. The movie picks up some steam and charges forward into occasionally diverting silliness. It doesn’t get good, exactly, but it moves up from awful to just plain watchable mediocrity. By the end I wasn’t enjoying myself, exactly, but the highly improbable use of a floating museum in the climax made me smile a little.

And it’s kind of clever how the gameplay of Battleship is integrated into the movie. The battleships can’t detect the alien vessels on their radar, but luckily the alien ships can’t seem to spot them either. Luckily a Japanese officer (Tadanobu Asano) comes aboard to help the Americans detect the vessels. He does something related to water displacement and buoy sensors, but the end result is a grid that looks suspiciously like the board game. “E-11!” “Fire!” “Anything?” “It’s a miss!” The following sequence is rather suspenseful, if more than a little goofy. But it’s not any sillier than the way the alien’s missiles are cylinders with little pegs in the bottom so that they stick in the battleships before blowing up. Again, like the game. This is what’s modestly involving about the movie. I never cared about the characters. The humans are mostly indistinguishable except for the main characters that we’re told to like and root for just because they are the main characters. The aliens are just a squishy, flavorless, derivative horde. What do they even want? Who knows? Open fire!

The problem that plagues the movie all the way through is the lack of personality. That’s why the flashes of board-game-referencing winks are the most enjoyable moments; they’re the only relatable, recognizable moments. The acting’s simply functional for such dysfunctional roles. Neeson’s wasted. Kitsch is a blank. (John Carter had a much better role for him.) Rihanna could actually be a good (or even great) action star in a better movie; she has plenty of tough charm here. Linklater’s scientist gets one sort of good line when he comes crashing out of the jungle: “They killed my grad students!” Decker was hired for her cleavage. Not helping the actors much at all are the action and effects which, from the aliens’ designs right down to the nonstop weightless carnage, are just so much shiny digital confusion.

Director Peter Berg, not the most consistent of filmmakers (on the one hand, Friday Night Lights, on the other, Hancock), has shot it all in a style that can only be called watered-down Michael Bay. It’s all of the militarism and convoluted plotting with none of the idiosyncratic personality and ability to create striking imagery. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Bay has a distinctive style and when he’s given a big, loud set-piece to execute he knows, for better or worse, how to play it up big.  Here Berg’s only cobbling together a pale imitation, serving up so little payoff that there’s little sense waiting through the setup. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Coming to America: THE DICTATOR


In The Dictator, co-writer and star Sacha Baron Cohen gives himself a massive satirical target. How easy is it to make fun of the excesses and egregious views of a megalomaniacal tyrant? His dictator character is General Aladeen, the oppressive ruler of the fictional country of Wadiya. He’s presented as a wealthy, fatuous, violent, misogynistic racist. But, you know, the funny kind. The funniest thing about the movie is how it manages to slip around the target and just about miss it completely simply through the nature of the way the movie is structured. For this conceit to work, Cohen needs to have us either rooting for the downfall of Aladeen or hoping he learns the error of his ways. That’s not exactly what Cohen, collaborating for the third time with director Larry Charles, has in mind here. They want to use the fictional horrible dictator to critique our own society. And they get there, eventually, for one pretty good scene, but they sacrifice the potential for a more successful comedy in the process.

The plot of the movie concerns the dictator’s trip to America to address the United Nations. Once there, right-hand-man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) hires a racist private security guard (John C. Reilly, whose small role is presented almost in full in the trailer) to take the dictator out. Once out of the way, he can be replaced with a stupid lookalike (also Cohen) who will sign an agreement to democratize Wadiya and hand over its oilfields to multinational oil corporations. That’s a funny premise, but instead of running with that, following the innocent doppelganger (a la Chaplin’s great, gutsy 1940 send-up The Great Dictator) and the shadowy backroom deals Kingsley makes with American companies – he essentially sells the country away from one uncaring overlord to another – the film thinks it’s far funnier to follow General Aladeen. He escapes assassination, but ends up beardless and thus (apparently) unrecognizable on the streets of New York.

Cohen gives the character a lot of corrosive satiric energy, but he’s used in a series of broad jokes and sequences that crisscross the line between merely tasteless and out-and-out offensive with staggering frequency. Aladeen is constantly making awful comments about women and minorities, casually referencing rape (not funny at all) and terrorism (sometimes funny), and generally behaving entitled and rude to everyone he meets. This can be a good source of humor. Indeed it is in a very funny scene on a helicopter tour in which he’s talking in the Wadiyan language about his new 2012 model Porsche 911 and scares a couple of tourists. But the entire thrust of the plot is to see him back in power. It’s built into the very core of it all; that’s his entire goal in the film. He schemes with an expatriate Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) to interrupt Ben Kingsley’s scheme and return his homeland to its proper oppression under his rule.

Aladeen doesn’t learn any lessons along the way, unless you count the love, or something like it, he grows to feel for the earnest fair-trade grocer played by a strangely muted Anna Faris in an unconvincing and distracting subplot. He remains an unrepentantly nasty guy, up to his old tricks of intimidation and casual cruelty, which would be fine if the film weren’t intent on softening him (like with that pesky would-be romance) and losing focus with bizarre digressions of the kind you’d think a savage 83-minute satire wouldn’t need. One surreal gag starts with a grocery-shopper giving birth in the store when the owner asks Aladeen to help. He tries to text his Wadiyan co-conspirator during the birthing and ends up with his cell phone up inside the poor woman. This is just mind-bogglingly unfunny and way off topic. It’s this and moments like this that causes the movie to go minutes on end without a single laugh in sight. And when a movie is so short, these laughless stretches really add up quickly.

It’s just that Aladeen is hard to care about, unlike the endearing qualities that balance out the tone in his previous starring roles. In Cohen’s early film efforts in gonzo comedies Borat and Bruno (also directed by Larry Charles) he fearlessly inhabited deliberately irritating characters from his Ali G HBO series, one a brusque, exaggeratedly prejudiced reporter from Kazakhstan and the other a clueless, vain, gay, Austrian, would-be celebrity fashionista. In each case, he set out across America, causing immediate culture-clash friction by sending out these outlandish characters to interact with real people. Those films contain healthy doses of potent cultural satire, and have plenty of moments that just feel miscalculated, but on some fundamental level, seeing people react so oddly or so blatantly discriminatory towards these characters puts us on their side. The Dictator is almost entirely miscalculation. I just couldn’t care about Aladeen getting his throne back, even at a grating satiric level, and if the film’s plotting is to work, it hinges to some extent on just such investment on the audience’s part. (What about that poor lookalike? He’s pretty funny, but glimpsed in only two or three scenes.)

Where the film’s satire really lands is in a climactic speech in which General Aladeen extols the virtues of a dictatorship. He says that under that form of government all wealth can be concentrated in the top 1%, you can give your buddies tax breaks, the media can appear free but really be controlled by a few powerful men and their families, you can fill your jails with predominantly one race and no one even cares, and etcetera. It’s a powerful left-hook of a political statement, very strong, very funny, and very cynical. But it’s a sharpness that comes too little too late in a movie that has spent a considerable portion of its run time messing around with gross-out gags and purposefully offensive material that just doesn’t add up. It keeps all its most interesting material on the sidelines where it’s least useful to making this an enjoyable experience. It’s a blown opportunity, a satire that aims for such a big target it’s not just disappointing, it’s downright depressing that Cohen largely missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Barnabas A.D. 1972: DARK SHADOWS

Running for over 1,000 episodes in the late 60s and early 70s, Dark Shadows was a supernatural soap opera about a vampire and his mortal descendents living in a big spooky house on the coast of Maine. The slapdash but committed show has a devoted cult following, the members running the gamut from scary earnest to entirely ironic. It’s easy to imagine that director Tim Burton falls somewhere in the middle. His films have always had a sly approach to the supernatural and a baroque gothic style that suits itself nicely to deathly serious, but deeply cracked, tales of smirking dark fantasy.

Now Burton (surely one of the few working auteurs who is a recognizable brand to the general public) and author Seth Grahame-Smith (his novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has been turned into a big studio release for later this summer) have adapted the show into a feature film. I have no idea how accurately the show’s tone and content have been adapted – I simply haven’t had the time nor the inclination to give it much of a go – but what is clear is that Burton has created a sumptuously imagined film that builds its own crooked world out of a variety of influences. It plays like a Hammer horror film, specifically one of Christopher Lee’s Dracula pictures – he, Lee, not Dracula, has a cameo here – filtered through an American gothic (with additional shades of Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”), all told in a groovy half-camp Burton style.

The story starts in the 1700s when the family Collins leaves Liverpool and sails for Maine. There, the family establishes the seaside town of Collinsport on the back of a productive fishing business. A big beautiful mansion is built and all seems well. But young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, of course) spurns the attentions of a servant girl (Eva Green) who turns out to be a witch. And so she puts the Collins family under her devious curses. She conjures a situation that kills Barnabas’s parents and later, her broken heart still smoldering, puts Barnabas’s fiancé (Bella Heathcote, big-eyed and pale) into a trance and forces her to walk off the edge of a cliff. To top it all off, the angry witch turns Barnabas into a vampire, which adds layers of whitish-grey makeup to his face and hands. (When he feeds, bright red dribbles of blood dot either side of his lower lip in a clear reference to Christopher Lee’s vampiric look.) She turns the town against him, and watches as the angry mob locks him in a coffin and buries him deep.

The plot picks up in an exquisitely detailed and beautifully heightened 1972, filled up with period fashions and super-cool vintage music cues to set the mood. (And Lee’s Dracula A.D. 1972 is playing at Collinsport’s downtown theater, a nice touch.) The Collins remain a cursed family. Their fishery is shuttered and the remaining family members are cooped up in the cavernous mansion: the matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), her surly teen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), her brother (Jonny Lee Miller) and his troubled son (Gulliver McGrath). Also on hand are the alcoholic groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), the new nanny (Bella Heathcote again, some nice visual foreshadowing), and the youngest Collins’s boozy, tragically vain child psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). This is a wonderfully droll cast giving terrific performances that underplay the oddities and eccentricities of the family’s life, which only enhances the hilarious gags and heightened tones. A couple of early dining room scenes have some of the same pacing and likable snap of similar moments in Burton’s Beetlejuice. Also like that film, this one soon becomes a movie in which an odd outsider shakes up the routine of an eccentric family in surprising, supernatural ways.

When construction workers dig up Barnabas’s coffin, they awaken a deadly fish-out-of-water movie as this long-lost relative stumbles back into town and, despite befuddlement on his part and confusion on theirs, wants to help his skeptical kin regain control of the town’s fishing empire. It’s a quest made all the more urgent when the porcelain-skinned C.E.O. of the rival fish company turns out to be none other than the same immortal witch who cursed him two centuries prior. Theirs is a twisted love affair, less love-hate, more she loves-and-hates, he mostly just hates. She’s an exuberantly frisky kind of evil; he’s just puzzled by his surroundings and only wants what’s best for his family and would very much like her out of the way. It’s a juicy hook, for sure, but with all of these other characters interacting with Barnabas as well, and each with their own little subplots of varying importance, the movie’s biggest flaw is its overstuffed qualities.

The movie is overflowing with plot and character in ways that obfuscate a strong central interest, making the whole thing lumpy and often without momentum. What are we supposed to think about Barnabas, a good man and a cursed man who is at once a source of humor and a scary monster? He’s the butt of culture clash jokes, but he also kills (no spoilers) some characters who are quite likable and hardly wholly villainous. The film’s never quite sure what to do with him and if Depp knows, and I suspect he might, he isn’t given the chance to let us in. That leaves this main thread curiously unresolved. But the other characters wander in and out of the film as well, moving in and out of focus. Some go missing for long stretches of time, even ones that are so very prominent to emotional beats of the overarching narrative. Still, I shrugged off such nagging thoughts rather easily, filing them away as an unsuccessful attempt at feature-length homage to soap opera plotting.

Besides, this is a movie with characters that are just plain fun to be around and with a style to luxuriate in. Burton, with the great French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, films it all with a colorful style, genre piece as groovy period piece. Here’s a movie rich in atmospherics both comic and mildly frightening, dripping with a great sense of visual play. I particularly liked a scene in which a person gets their blood sucked while they’re in the middle of getting a blood transfusion. Burton leaves the I.V. bag in the foreground as it slowly then suddenly crumples in on itself like a used juice box.

Some have found Burton’s use of computer-driven effects in recent years to be excessive and, oddly enough, a limit on his imagination. Fair enough, if we’re talking about his Alice in Wonderland, which, aside from a few nice touches, felt more like a generic movie he was hired to coat in a Burton gloss. To me, Sweeney Todd and, to a lesser extent, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feel just as wonderful as, though certainly different from, his earlier, more tactile, effects work. With Dark Shadows he shows admirable restraint, so that by the time the effects hit the fan, it’s a natural outgrowth of the satisfying strangeness that’s come before, spectacle that’s been very well earned. It’s a film that wears its darkness lightly and falls into a satisfyingly funky groove.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Superhero Supergroup: THE AVENGERS

The Avengers is not the greatest superhero film ever made, but it sure is a great time at the movies. It’s a high-impact spectacle full of loud, funny, and satisfying sequences that send characters slamming into each other into full-tilt superheroics in broad, bright, colorful collisions. We’ve met the characters in question before, which is just as well since that’s also where their characterizations reside. This isn’t a movie that’s about telling a story with much in the way of emotional character arcs or weighty personal journeys. It’s a movie that gathers up the main characters from recent Marvel Comics adaptations, the one’s they’ve had the exclusive rights to, that is, and teams them up to save the planet. Original, it’s not. (And not just in film. Comics have been orchestrating crossovers like this almost as long as comics have existed.) But the skill, energy, and good will of it all makes it fun all the same.

Marvel has been building to The Avengers for five years now, kicking off superhero franchises one by one with the express purpose of bringing them together for this one big blockbuster. And so, when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the brotherly villain of Thor, comes shooting out of the vastness of space through a glowing portal into the middle of a top secret military installation and, promising war, makes off with a brainwashed archer (Jeremy Renner) and a volatile blue energy cube, the otherworldly MacGuffin from Captain America, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the connective cameo from all of the earlier films, assembles his team of avengers. The film takes its time – a bit too much, perhaps – reintroducing the superheroes one by one, and it’s a credit to the consistency of quality in this many-pronged experiment in comic book adaptation that it’s nice to see them all again.

Fury himself calls in super-strong Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and dispatches right-hand man, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), to round up the rest of the recruits. He has master assassin Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) pick up the cursed Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Ed Norton, who took over for Eric Bana – maybe stretching into the Hulk causes slow shifts in appearance). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) flies in with his high-tech suit of armor; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) thunders down from the land of Asgard swinging his mighty hammer. The gang’s all here, though not without some complications on their way to assembling as a group. With such variety in powers and personality, interpersonal conflicts are bound to arise even as Loki’s threat of intergalactic war draws closer to reality.

This is a movie juggling multiple characters (even Stellan Skarsgard and Gwyneth Paltrow return, briefly) while fitting them into one coherent film narrative. Even the tones these heroes bring from their separate films could have easily competed instead of blending. The sarcasm of Iron Man, the pseudo-Shakespearean goof of Thor, the earnestness of Captain America, and the brooding pulp emotion of Hulk gave their films a personality of their own. Removed from their solo efforts the supergroup as a whole has less emotional resonance, as this film is unable to fully explore their outsized, but recognizably human, personalities through the metaphors supplied by their powers. In that sense, the movie is thin. It’s a lot of fun, but the characters arrive fully formed from other movies and end this one with little in the way of growth or development. But, still, this is a movie that throws together great characters and watches them interact asking, “isn’t that cool?” And, yeah, it’s cool.

With so many characters it could have been nothing more than a clash of tones while characters jockeyed for the spotlight. Luckily writer-director Joss Whedon has given these characters a movie in which there is no need to compete for attention. It plays out like the work of a fan who deeply loves these Avengers, each and every one of them, and has spent time thinking about the ways in which the powers and personalities could clash and connect. It’s an affectionate film. Whedon has always had a warm wit which shines clearly through genre material and that’s certainly the case here. This is a movie just crammed full of one-liners that actually land. He seems most comfortable writing for Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but the other characters certainly have funny moments of their own as well.

But it’s more than funny quips and clearly defined characters. It’s all about timing. There’s just enough room for the one-liners and amusing visual gags to breathe, but just enough concision to make them unexpected. That’s where Whedon’s pet theme – teamwork – comes into play. (His work, mostly and most notably in TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, consistently revolves around a group of people who must learn to work together.) This movie is filled with long sequences of the characters talking to one another, strategizing, arguing, joking, threatening, comparing internal struggles, and finding common ground. The actors are up to the task; dialogue pings around the room with precision. (It’s almost enough to make one think that if Howard Hawks had made a superhero movie, it might have looked a little like this.) Later, in the action scenes, the way characters spring into motion utilizes the best each has to offer in terrific synchronization. This is a film that plays to the strengths of everyone involved.

Like his fellow TV-to-film auteur J.J. Abrams, Whedon is a writer and director who has a way of injecting a serialized slam-bang cliffhanger style into a film. The Avengers starts with what is essentially a cold open, slams into a title card, and then moves from set-piece to set-piece finding some surprises along its fairly standard action movie path. It is an efficient spectacle delivery device. It’s a bright, loud, crashing crowd-pleaser, a blockbuster superhero movie with an impressive sense of narrative escalation. Each action sequence feels bigger and more complicated with higher stakes than the one before. By the time the film hurtles into a lengthy, chaotic, but coherent, climax (that has a few similarities to a similarly sprawling big-city brawl in Transformers: Dark of the Moon), it’s hard not to get swept up in it all. It is a movie designed to show off cool effects while likable, familiar characters clash and jest, explosions seasoned with genuinely funny one-liners, and some neat visuals, and, with a light touch and fondness for the material, Whedon more than gets the job done.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mean Streets: BULLY

Lee Hirsch’s Bully is a documentary of moving human-interest stories about bullied kids, frustrated parents, and unhelpful administrators. This is a movie about bullying, showing it as a crippling nastiness that is slammed up against a certain number of kids in each and every school setting. The people interviewed here are nice kids who’ve been picked on to a staggering degree and parents, many who have lost a bullied child to suicide. This is strong, heartbreaking stuff.

These interviews are juxtaposed with footage of bullies in action. Some of the events are clearly captured with hidden cameras, but what’s truly shocking is the casual cruelty some kids show in front of cameras that they could, in all likelihood, be well aware of. Kids are poked, prodded, and sat upon, called all manner of vile names, stabbed with pencils, and generally smacked about. Why are the victims of bullying picked on? Differences in class, race, and sexuality are obvious factors, but this isn’t a film interested in looking into the sources of this pernicious maltreatment of some children by other children, so much as it is out to gather examples of it.

In one scene, a vice principal pulls aside two kids for fighting and ends up comically scolding the wrong kid. We don’t see the fight. We aren’t privy to the reasons behind the argument. But from the words coming out of the kids’ mouths, it’s clear that the bully in the situation is the one thrusting out his hand at the principal’s request to shake and make up. Doesn’t it seem as if the kid who instigates is so often the one who is quickest to put on a humbled face for an adult? He’s the one who gets to leave while the victim is asked “Why do you let him get you mad?”

The exhortation to stand up to bullies, the better to intimidate them into leaving you alone, is the standard plotline offered up in so many sitcoms and the like. Never mind that this is advice that results in the bullied becoming a bully (or sitting forlorn with raw meat on a burgeoning black eye), this ancient conventional wisdom seems to be advice some adults unwisely insist on providing to this day. More than unhelpful, it’s downright dangerous, as shown in the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who brought her mother’s gun to the bus. She wanted to scare the bullies into leaving her alone. The gun did not go off. No one got hurt. Now she’s the one in juvenile detention facing over twenty counts of assault. (We can argue about the extent of her legal troubles, but she certainly isn’t as wholly innocent here as the movie seems to propose, especially when it comes to perpetuating the vicious cycle of bullying.)

It feels awful to be bullied. It’s terrible that teachers and administrators sometimes can’t see or won’t see problems, even in some cases exacerbate problems. But who are the bullies? Here, they’re a pure force of destruction, both mental and physical. What’s wrong with these kids? What makes a bully? This movie isn’t interested in the question and therefore is unable to come to any meaningful conclusion, supplying instead feel-good inspiration calling for everyone to just love one another, offer support, and get along. This is a glossy awareness-building advocacy doc closer to Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for Superman) than Michael Moore, but with less concrete data than either of them. A problem like this would be better served from a practical standpoint with more rigor in its research.

That’s not the point Hirsch has in mind, though. It’s a movie that goes for a gut impact and on that level it works. What’s lost in the pop culture hubbub surrounding the movie (it’s unwarranted R-rating that was the source of much Harvey Weinstein-fueled outrage before the film was trimmed by an F-word or two to scoot in under the PG-13) is the fact that, for all the success in showing the fact and impact of bullying, this is not a movie that offers any new or important suggestions or solutions for solving the problem. Nor, despite the title, does it explore the mindset of the bully. The more accurate title would be Bullied.

Still, it is a movie of remarkable sympathy and sober outrage. It’s best moment is the opening credits, a time-lapse bus ride set to a school choir’s performance of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag.” It’s a lovely one-shot piece of subtle filmmaking that makes a deeply moving and economical point about the essentially unknowable and misunderstood nature of teenage behavior beneath the façade of normality. It makes the movie’s point so beautifully and so early, that the rest of the run time is gathering often-powerful evidence for a foregone conclusion.
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