Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bad Toy Story: TED

The Ted in Ted is a teddy bear. His owner Johnny, a friendless eight-year-old boy, makes a Christmas wish upon a shooting star and, just like that, the bear comes alive. He’s a walking, talking, little fuzzball who becomes fast friends with little Johnny. Being a sentient teddy bear is sufficiently unusual that Ted becomes a news sensation and then a minor celebrity. All the while, his best friend Johnny is by his side. A G-rated version of this story would stop there, but this movie goes all the way to R. Now, over two decades later, Ted’s fame has fizzled out and he and Johnny (Mark Wahlberg) hold down minimum wage jobs, smoke weed, and watch cheesy movies (especially the 80’s Flash Gordon) all day every day. Johnny’s girlfriend of four years (Mila Kunis) thinks that it’s time the bear moves out, but Johnny’s not so sure he could live without him. And with that, we’ve arrived at what is hopefully the apex of man-child comedy. The living teddy bear is perhaps the ultimate self-reflexive metaphor for a character who really needs to get his act together and grow up already.

The movie is written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of a handful of grating animated sitcoms, the most successful of which is Family Guy, a show that builds its humor out of non sequiturs, bad taste, and repetitiveness. (Two writers for that show, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, are credited with an assist on the movie’s screenplay). With Ted, MacFarlane has a great concept, lots of jokes, but not much of a movie. I suppose it would help if you found the humor funny. There are exactly three categories the jokes can be sorted into: 1. The teddy bear does or says something, usually crude, that is incongruous with his innocent exterior; 2. The teddy bear does something one wouldn’t expect a teddy bear to do, like wear a suit, drive a car, or do drugs; 3. The teddy bear, or one of his human costars, makes a pop culture reference or reacts to a cameo. The first two kinds of jokes are funny for a while, but soon lose their novelty. The third kind is mildly amusing the first few times, especially the cameos, and then starts to seem like a crutch.

But the main problem with Ted isn’t that it’s bad, exactly. It’s not just that the jokes are arranged in a pattern that’s easy to figure out – something happens or something is said; bear swears, says pop culture reference, or probably both – and are easily categorized. It’s not even that I happened to find the jokes unfunny. The main problem is that the movie is so hopelessly under-plotted and lazily made. The central conflict of the movie, that the man-child needs to grow up, is something that has been done before and better in countless other comedies, and is set up almost immediately here. The way it develops is painfully familiar, without dramatic interest of any kind as it hits each and every story beat you’d expect with little cleverness or invention. From then on out all the movie has to offer is aimless flailing about until it arrives, seemingly by accident, at a climax that resolves the A-plot by roping in a subplot (involving poor Giovanni Ribisi as Ted’s stalker fan) that was awkwardly introduced and promptly forgotten so that its sudden return is actually a bit of a surprise. And then, to top it all off, MacFarlane throws in awkward sentiment of the kind he starts the film rejecting, as if he could think of no more creative way to finish things off.

At first, I though I might end up complimenting MacFarlane on his actual filmmaking in his live-action debut. I thought he might turn out to be a competent comedy director if he could write (or find) a better screenplay. But that was before he – and, to be fair, his editor – makes a total jumbled mess out of a simple conversation between three people in one cubicle. Each character is held in separate medium shots, which are assembled in such a confusing manner, cutting on each line of dialogue, that I lost all geographical bearings in what is an awfully small space. (Why not use one shot instead of three? Who knows?)  Still, MacFarlane has smartly cast the film, not just Kunis and Wahlberg, who are admirably playing the material like they don’t know it’s supposed to be funny, but small parts for Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, and other amusing people. Also Patrick Stewart narrates for some reason.

The funniest thing about the movie is that Ted himself is a creative idea convincingly brought to life. MacFarlane voices him in a funny, likable way so that even his most outrageous comments and behavior seem palatable. The animation of the bear is cute, too. There’s no denying that the comedic and creative high-point of the film is a smashing brawl between Wahlberg and this teddy bear as they punch and kick at each other, leaving a trail of destruction all around a small hotel room. That’s a pretty good scene. But Ted is certainly not in a good movie. There’s not enough creativity to match the central conceit. Instead, MacFarlane seems to think throwing enough stereotypes (crudely sketched moments with at least one to offend each race, creed, gender, and orientation in the audience) at the screen, or giving the cute bear enough incongruous R-rated material to perform, will compensate for not having much of a story to tell or any good idea of how to film it. It seems desperate for laughs, or worse, convinced that it’s lazy approach will get them anyways.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Flash, Dance: MAGIC MIKE

With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh continues to explore the ways in which society’s institutions can both enable and thwart ambition by turning people into products. Here he (from a screenplay by Reid Carolin) tells a story of an ambitious thirty-year-old man, Mike (Channing Tatum), working three jobs, none of them the one he most desires. He wants to make custom furniture, a way to take his passions and creativity and spend his time getting paid for something he loves to do. Instead, he’s working mostly low-paying jobs, getting paid all in cash. He can save up enough for a down payment on a loan for his dream business, but can’t get one with his bad credit. The economy has had him stuck in place for six years now in a vicious cycle of saving to no avail. Still he works. He has a mobile detailing business when he’s not haggling for better pay at his construction job. It’s there that he meets an aimless, mostly unemployed twenty-year-old guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is on his first and last day on the job. Mike feels sorry for Adam and invites him to come help out at his third job, where he works only weekend nights, where he makes most of his money: a strip club.

There, under the watch of drawling manger Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), Mike and his co-workers, guys with names like Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), perform goofy choreographed routines with silly props. Their performances look like nothing more than racy dance numbers until they slip off just enough clothes to scandalize and titillate the screaming audience of sorority girls and bachelorette parties. For their audience this is not about nudity or dirtiness so much as it’s about the naughtiness of escaping the norms of everyday life. Either way, it looks like easy money to Adam who is currently crashing with his older sister (Cody Horn), and so the movie turns into one of those melodramas wherein the older veteran, frustrated with his life but making it look so easy, takes the naive new guy into the fold of a business rife with temptations. Soderbergh takes it all in with his usual patient, clinically observant cinematography, which steers the film away from easy predictability.

Like Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, this is a film about people living under a cloud of economic uncertainty, trying to get by with the money they can get selling themselves. It’s essentially an R-rated backstage drama that starts as goofy fun of a sort and then grows progressively darker as the full implications of the business sets in. It doesn’t go exactly where you’d expect, tracking not simply the younger man’s descent from naivety into jadedness, but the veteran’s growing disillusionment as well. Here’s a guy who feels like he’s been doing everything right, getting a job or three, working hard, saving up, and still he can’t get ahead, can’t find a good foothold. There’s talk of moving the club to Miami, where, we’re told, the real money is. But would that really change the situations of these men in a significant way? More money for the same objectification may not be the healthiest thing, especially as several are already suffering from mostly well-hidden substance abuse issues. The first performance of the movie, one dancer ends up passed out backstage. Later, a groupie with a pet pig is eager to pass out ecstasy. “I’m not my lifestyle,” Mike protests to Adam’s sister, who is both charmed and repulsed by his flirtatiousness.

What’s best about Magic Mike is the generous way Soderbergh has of drawing terrific performances from the entirety of an ensemble. He finds exactly the right ways to use his performers to best accentuate their skills, to draw out aspects of their personas in interesting ways. The tension between Tatum’s charm and blockheaded athleticism is used to flesh out a portrait of a man who allows himself to be objectified despite larger goals, much like his own early film roles hid his deeper talent. McConaughey’s near self-parody “alright, alright, alright” becomes a sort of incantation of sleaze, his mostly shirtless wardrobe a form of wiry narcissism. The other actors, convincing all, even stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias as the club’s DJ, float in and out of the story, creating a vivid portrait of this world filled with details both funny (one dancer throws out his back and shuffles off the stage after a heavyset woman leaps onto the stage and into his arms) and sad (another dancer brings his wife to a party and urges the new guy to feel her up).

The film is, in contrast to its high-energy burlesque on-stage and its funnier moments, so low-key about its off-stage melodrama that by the end it feels uncommitted and, when the film ends with its thematic cards still up in the air, the lack of resolution is at once bracing and frustrating. Still, the film is so well acted and crisply directed that the characters’ (and, by extension, the film’s) uncomfortable tension between enjoyment and depression becomes notable. As the credits roll, some characters have made tentative steps towards self-improvement. Others are left, maybe to thrive, perhaps to wallow, in their disreputable career choices. Why shouldn’t the end be so unresolved? It fits right in with the sense of economic despair that hovers around in this story of easy money and uneasy decisions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bad Timing: SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

The astronauts sent to destroy the asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth have failed. Mankind is out of options. The end of the world is scheduled to occur in exactly three weeks. This isn’t the setup for the latest sci-fi spectacle or Melancholia-style rumination on psychological conditions. This is the opening scene of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a darkly comedic, yet surprisingly sweet and warmhearted, little movie. We hear the bad news on a middle-aged couple’s car radio. They’ve pulled off to the side of the road to process the news and as the station goes back to playing oldies, the wife opens the door and runs, leaving her husband now while she still can.

The next day, this man (Steve Carell), lonely and full of regrets, finds it’s easiest to get dressed and head to work. One of the wonderfully realized insights in screenwriter and first-time director Lorene Scafaria’s film is the way the world somehow keeps going with some degree of devotion to normal schedules. The news keeps running on the TV. The cleaning lady still shows up to dust and vacuum. In a half-empty conference room, the man finds the company’s C.E.O. sitting behind a stack of manila folders addressing all those who still feel the need to come into office every weekday. “Feel free to wear your casual Friday clothes any day,” the boss states, making some concessions towards the unusual situation the world is facing. As for all the vacant positions created by those too depressed (or suicidal, or dead) to come into work? In this case, that’s just a personnel problem. “Who wants to be C.F.O?” the boss matter-of-factly inquires.

Scafaria’s film is like the smaller, more intimate side of all those effects-heavy disaster movies. When the world is crumbling (or threatening to crumble) around the characters of 2012 or Deep Impact – mostly scientists, politicians, and the like – what are all the billions of other people doing in reaction to news of their impending doom? In this case, the man meets one of his neighbors for the first time, a kind, if somewhat flighty, woman in her late twenties (Keira Knightley). Together they flee a riot that flares up around their apartment building and make a pact to help the other accomplish their end-of-the-world goals. He wants to find his high school sweetheart, who’s not necessarily the one who got away. “They all got away,” he says. “She was the first.” His neighbor wants to find a plane (airlines have shuttered in the wake of the crisis) that will take her to be with her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews one last time.

They set off on their melancholic serio-comic road trip across a pre-apocalyptic landscape that is an amusing and terrifying picture of a society in a sense of halting chaos and hesitant disarray. Some streets seem perfectly normal. Others have burst open with looting and externalized societal anxieties of various kinds. Carell and Knightley move through this ending world meeting all manner of strange, funny, sad characters reacting in very different ways to the approaching cataclysmic event. There’s a party filled with middle-aged professionals cutting loose with promiscuity, drunkenness, and hard drugs. (“Bucket list!” one partier screams as he rushes to accept an offer of heroin.) There’s a roadside diner that’s still open and mostly pleasant but for the staff’s weirdly affectionate behavior. There’s a trucker with his own twisted way of controlling his upcoming death. There’s a band of survivalists packing a bomb shelter, determined to live. There’s a mass baptism on a picturesque beach. 

After a strong opening, the film grows mushy in the middle as it becomes essentially a series of end-times sketches, but Scafaria gives each episodic beat such a patient consideration and uses them as an opportunity to trot out a recognizable actor or three. These one-scene roles are much fun and cast with the types of performers that can make me smile just by showing up. That’s such a big part of my enjoyment of the movie that I’d hate to list those names. (Even though you could click over to IMDb and figure it out right now, don’t spoil your fun.) All along the way, the film picks up an increasing sadness in the face of the inevitable until it reaches a satisfying conclusion that settled on me like heavy fog. 

No matter what connections these characters make, no matter if their inevitably short-term goals are met, they and everyone else on the planet will die in less than a month. That asteroid is coming and there’s no stopping it. This finality hangs over the film, which nonetheless manages to be amusing and eventually moving in the way it proposes that it’s never too late to make a friend. Carell and Knightley play their roles with such unsettled dissatisfaction and yet such easy warmth and lovability that it’s not a big stretch to imagine that their company alone could, if only for a moment or two, take your mind off of the darkness on the horizon. This is about as dark as comedies can get (with some on-screen deaths and filled with the constant the looming threat of extinction), but because it’s about people who are committed to doing something in the face of the end, there’s some small degree of melancholic hope. If the world were to end tomorrow, would you plant a tree today? These characters would.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

War Between the States (And Vampires): ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

In theory, a big summer spectacle that posits fantastical secret information about a famous American president is a great idea. As a nation, we have no shortage of myths and fictions about our leaders, stories we tell to validate our own worldviews, to view our current political climate on a smooth, uncomplicated continuum with the past. In practice, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can’t quite live up to its title. Just the idea of our sixteenth president, tall, bearded, and with a stovepipe hat perched on his head, is enough to make me smile, but this isn’t a comedy in any way shape or form.  This is a deathly self-serious production, a lumpy fictional biopic that devotes most of its runtime to young Mr. Lincoln’s increasing hidden knowledge about vampires and their insidious plots within our nation’s nineteenth-century borders, taking time out of its sloppy chronicling of Lincoln’s real-world rise to the presidency for setpieces of vampire-hunting action. It could have used a dash of wit to help it go down easier.

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s script (based on his novel, unread by me), Lincoln’s mother dies after an encounter with a vampire. Years later, looking for revenge, Abraham (Benjamin Walker) tries to shoot his mother’s killer in the head and is surprised to find the man pop back up baring fangs. The future president is saved and confronted by Henry (Dominic Cooper), a confident vampire hunter who agrees to help the young man learn the ways of destroying these creatures that roam the land, hiding in plain sight. So Lincoln, studying to become a lawyer, marrying Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and debating Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) on his way up in a promising political career, happens to moonlight as a stone-cold killer of the undead. This is a future president played as action hero, as superhero. He spins an ax and hacks off the heads of vampires, usually after acrobatic scenes of kicking, spinning, and punching that slow down into stylish slow-mo to better appreciate just how much of a smackdown Lincoln’s giving these monsters.

Director Timur Bekmambetov first made a splash in Russia with his grimy, gory modern-day vampire action movies Night Watch and Day Watch, so it’s no real surprise that his focus in Vampire Hunter is mostly on the bloody spectacle. He thinks it’s fun to have vampires clashing with Abe Lincoln and his allies – like a shopkeeper (Jimmi Simpson) and an escaped slave (Anthony Mackie) who are loyal hangers-on – in one-on-one combat and in elaborately staged action sequences of a most modern kind. And it is, for a while. Lincoln’s first hunts are well staged and his enemies are well-designed, slobbering, blue-grey things. This is an action movie first and foremost, and so it wobbles around when it reaches for slightly more ambitious elements that come into play as the march of real-world time drags Lincoln and the film’s plot into the American Civil War.

Lincoln hangs up his vampire-slaying ax and focuses on being a president, but the leader of American vampires (Rufus Sewell), who happens to be a big-time slave-owner as well, ruling over his kind from a swampy plantation, strikes a deal with Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) to allow his unstoppable supernatural soldiers to join the Confederate army. And so, Lincoln is brought back into the business of killing vampires, using his knowledge to help provide the Union with a strategy to beat back these scary creatures. Of course, none of this has anything useful or insightful (or even slightly interesting) to say about Lincoln, or war, or slavery. Essentially, all of the above are just the plot points on which to hang marginally effective CGI action and destruction, as the whole vampire-as-metaphor-for-slavery thing never really comes into clear focus and the surprisingly clever use for Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and her involvement in all of this straight-faced goofiness is just a nice barely-there subplot.

I went into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter expecting nothing more than a historical figure hunting vampires, and I suppose I got that, didn’t I? Lincoln definitely hacks away at some supernatural beings during the course of his lifetime as told by this particular fiction. But it’s all contained in such a well-made bore of a movie – a stiff, intermittently stylish dullness – that it’s hard to get too excited about much of anything that happens between the opening scene and the closing credits. The actors are all convincing and the special effects are about as good as you could expect, but the movie is starved for wow moments of any kind. It’s both too much and not enough.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mother and Child: BRAVE

Unlike previous Pixar films that started from a relatively small premise (the secret world of toys, an old man who wants to fly his house to South America, a rat who wants to become a chef, robots in love) and expanded to greater thematic and emotional import (dealing with change, dealing with disappointment, dealing with art, dealing with the fate of humanity), Brave starts with big sweeping vistas and finds in them a wee little fable about deeply relatable issues. Set against wide landscapes of forest and lake and a towering castle, the film finds not epic fantasy, but a small family drama. It’s an inversion of the Pixar formula and as such occasionally comes across as thinner and less ambitious than their usual output. (That’s the downside of putting out nearly a dozen masterpieces in less than twenty years.) It may be a quieter and less immediately gripping film than audiences might be expecting, but it works convincingly and entertainingly on its own terms.

The family at the center of Brave leads a vaguely Scottish kingdom made up of four clans. There’s a good-natured, bulky, muscular king (Billy Connolly) and his conscientious, compassionate queen (Emma Thompson). Their youngest kids, little, scampering redheaded triplet boys, are darling troublemakers, but their chief concern is their oldest child, a daughter named Merida (Kelly Macdonald). The other three clans are on their way to present their first-born sons in a competition for Merida’s hand, but the princess has no desire to be forced into anything as dull as marriage. She’s an adventurous, independent spirit who suffers through her mother’s lessons in poise and respectability in order to saddle up her trusty horse and gallop away from the castle on her days off to let her long, curly red hair flow in the wind as she enjoys archery, rock-climbing, and wilderness exploration. She’s talented and spirited, but not the proper lady that her mother hopes for her to become.

The plot of the movie involves the way Merida’s desires for her future conflict with her mother’s. This draws in all sorts of traditional fairy tale elements, from wispy forest spirits that just might lead you to your destiny, a daffy witch (Julie Walters) and her bubbling cauldron of spells destined to go wrong, ancient curses, powerful legends, and potential turmoil in the kingdom egged on by the outsized egos of the three proud men (Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) who would rather the princess marry one of their sons as generations of princesses have before them. But all of this is only background for the main focus on a mother-daughter relationship and the way deeply felt disagreements could escalate past exasperation and hurt feelings into situations where real harm can be done. Words are said and actions are taken that are quickly regretted and leave both mother and daughter in tears. Their problems feel irresolvable, but the moving through line of emotional truth here is the way the movie is built around this mother and daughter learning to understand and love each other more fully, differing points of view and all.

This tight focus turns the film into what is essentially a two-character show. All of the others – from the adorable, dialogue-free, triplets, to the raucous clan leaders and their sons, to the forest witch and her talking bird – are there mostly to move things along and provide background interest. Functionally, this strong de-emphasis on the ensemble heightens a fable-like simplicity of tone and emotion. There’s no real villain here, only the ticking-clock of a curse that falls on mother and daughter in the aftermath of a particularly wounding argument. They have to learn to work together, empower each other to take advantage of their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses in order to pull through, mending the powerfully expressed rift in their relationship as they go. What a wonderful female-centric plot that gives full weight to their emotions and decisions and pushes most else to the side. The central metaphor here is potent and the resolution is drawn-out to a deeply moving emotional punch.

But I can’t quite figure out why, with such an effective centerpiece, the movie as a whole feels somewhat slight. A factor could be the humor, which occasionally rings too broad for the more serious plot, especially when said humor involves men losing their kilts. Other times, though, the humor, especially warm, subtle physical moments and sweet dialogue, is nicely amusing. Perhaps the biggest problem is simply that it has to fight against the perception of Pixar perfection. The fact of the matter is that, even though it can’t live up to the highest highs Pixar has had, it’s still a remarkably solid piece of work that moves with great energy and great feeling with a nicely nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships. There are moments where characters just look at each other, times where scenes are held just a beat longer than expected. In them we find lovely little moments that help sell the emotion behind it all.

If it weren’t a Pixar movie, especially a Pixar movie following up the studio’s first perceived creative misstep, the sometimes-fun, but awfully minor Cars 2, it could be easier to see Brave for what it is: a better-than-average family movie that’s a touch simplistic and with a few misguided jokes, but with emotionality so strong, main characters so compelling, and a core conflict so well-observed. It’s also an animated film with a gorgeously rendered environment beautifully animated in inviting and wondrous ways. Here the lush green fields and forest, the deep blue sea, and the warm castle of flickering flame on cobblestone are a wonderfully comfortable setting imbued with just enough magic and possibility to pull off the more fantastical elements of the story. (It’s one of the best-looking films of the year, though if you see it in weirdly dark and muddy 3D you might not know it.) And in the center of it all there’s Merida and her family, the real focus of the film and the film’s strongest element by far. They’re well cast with actors who have lovely musical accents and are charmingly animated so that they feel so lovable, so warm and funny and real, that they ground the whole thing with a very strong rooting interest.

But this is a Pixar movie and it is not a total masterpiece. And that’s too bad, but it’s hardly a deal breaker and no good reason to feel disappointed. The behind the scenes shuffling, which has resulted in a movie with director’s credits for Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman and a co-director's credit for Steve Purcell (all first-time Pixar directors, though Chapman’s the only one who has directed previously with Dreamworks Animation’s first feature, The Prince of Egypt), may explain some of the diffuse vision and the reliance on more convention than the brightly inventive studio is usually up to. But whoever is responsible for the moments between Merida and her mother deserves much praise, for those moments of great feeling and nuance, more than anything else, are what set this movie comfortably above its immediate competition from other American animation studios. After all, this is a film that tells a fresh legend, no small feat. And, like all good legends, this one rings with truth.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Goodbye, Children: MOONRISE KINGDOM

During the summer of 1965, on a small island of the coast of Maine, a 12-year-old boy (Jared Gilman) slips away from summer camp to meet up with his secret pen pal, a 12-year-old girl (Kara Hayward) who lives with her family on the other side of the island. The boy and the girl, friendless and lonely, figure themselves romantic adventurers, meant to head off on their own and care for each other in the wilds of this island. He has learned much about surviving in the woods from his camp days. He proudly wears a coonskin cap and plans out their hike with itemized checklists and carefully studied maps stuffed in his bag amongst his compass and air rifle. She has learned much about adventure from library books about brave girls going off on their own to become magical heroines. She packed as many as she could fit in her suitcase, along with her favorite record, a portable battery-powered record player, a pair of left-handed scissors, and her pet cat.

These items reveal that their excursion originates from a particular childhood understanding of running away, but the new feelings stirring inside them, of curiosity, attachment, caring and, yes, perhaps even love, feel so strong and immediate. In self-confident, yet halting ways these kids begin to see their adventure writ larger and more passionately on their hearts. The boy is an orphan and the girl is emotionally troubled and from an eccentric family. To them, this is not just an attempt to flee lives they find inadequate and have a fun time together. They’re fleeing into their fantasies and the merging of their imaginations becomes not just a woodsy adventure or a lovely camping experience, but a grand romance with two budding lovers on the run. The boy’s peppy scout leader (Edward Norton, with a gee-whiz wholesome exterior) has marshaled his remaining campers and joined forces with the island’s sole police officer (Bruce Willis, bespectacled and business-like) to track down the runaways. The girl’s family – three small brothers, a worried mother (Frances McDormand, tightly-wound) and a slow-boiling depressive father (Bill Murray, looking through sad, tired eyes) – join in on the search as well, which is rather patient, considering the circumstances.

This is Moonrise Kingdom, the new film from the distinctive and consistent Wes Anderson who takes this opportunity to populate one of his terrifically realized dollhouse worlds to make a film with a simple, sweet, and emotionally open surface, and a beautiful, moving emotional complexity underneath. Unlike his earlier films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, which are in large part about people trying desperately in various neurotic ways to prevent the collapse of familial relationships, this is a film that locates its concerns directly on the border between generations, finding a little community trying to work together, a ragtag collection of flawed adults and precocious children out to find two of their own. (The group picks up small, funny roles for Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, and Harvey Keitel as it goes along.) It’s a situation in which adults might realize how childish they behave, in which children try on identities they imagine belong to more mature perspectives. Finding the humor inherent within, Anderson (who wrote the script with Roman Coppola) balances scenes of arch dialogue matter-of-factly stated and cartoonish delight elaborately staged – like a treehouse perched at the very top of a tall tree in a scout camp run with a regimented, militaristic structure – with scenes of striking emotional honesty and clarity.

This is a film full of delicate scenes, tenderly acted by Gilman and Hayward, the young leads. This is their first film and Anderson has helped them create such confidently, wonderfully drawn characters, located so precariously on the edge of childhood, but not quite ready to tip over into full-blown adolescence. Each of these kids has moments where they look straight-ahead into the camera in tight close-up and reveal such deep feelings, which only adds to their soft kindness and moments of adorable precociousness. Their relationship – love, or something like it – develops with an emotional truth that is often (unfairly) not associated with Anderson’s exacting mastery over the formal elements of filmmaking. Torn between the worlds of childhood imagination and problems of adulthood, these two troubled kids run away to the woods where the privacy of shared solitude allows them to become who they think they are, deep down inside. Here is a film world of real innocence and real potential danger. This is a film with a profound respect for childhood and the perspectives and feelings of the young. Music swells and the camera moves for big moments of emotionality; to the young, any event sufficiently impactful is worthy of a personal epic. After all, the young couple first met the year before at a local church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s ark opera, an appropriately ornate dramatic backdrop to spark puppy love. Their escape feels ripped out of the movies and informed by the adventures in the books they cart with them and the sophistication they think find in totems of adulthood (like French pop music or a pipe).

This is not a fussy film despite Anderson’s typically mannered approach and meticulous art design, which here makes the New England island setting appear to have leapt right out of a charming, slightly yellowed, mid-century storybook, a delicate world of children’s imagination nestled just-so in the midst of rugged natural terrain. The dollhouse qualities of the sets, props, and costumes are placed in a context of forest and bodies of water. The camera glides, finds stillness, and even shakes from time to time as Anderson puts delicate fantasy – heightened, but not fantastical – and relaxed farce right up against quiet scenes of intergenerational emotional connection. This is a sweet, sad comedy about comically confident children and comically flawed grown ups. Selflessly acted, but no less richly evocative, the adults in the cast allow deadpan ease to mask roiling turmoil, to blend so effortlessly with their young costars, who let turmoil settle in like they’re discovering it for the first time. The ensemble moves through the simple plot like a finely tuned orchestra, each striking different notes at different times, blending to become a whole moving experience.

Moonrise Kingdom is a deeply romantic film about change, about moving into adolescence, about the doubts, uncertainty, depression, and confusion that can follow into adulthood where such feelings can settle, creating miscommunications and dissatisfactions. It’s such an evocative portrayal of this collision of moods and sensations in a film that’s at once so contained, taking place over the course of only a few days on a small island, and yet filled with so many whimsical flourishes of Anderson’s imagination that it feels like a rich world, wonderfully, carefully designed. It’s a film full of liminal moments shot through with a potent melancholy of childhood’s end and the growing knowledge that adults have within them a deep sadness and uncertainty. Passions and interests seize the soul with intensity and then pass like an especially violent storm. And from the devastation comes new and unexpectedly fruitful growth.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bad Boys: THAT'S MY BOY


That’s My Boy, a new R-rated Adam Sandler vehicle, is an awful movie. But, when I sat there and watched it, I laughed. Sometimes I cringed, sure, and other times I gaped with something approaching admiration at the gleeful way the bar is consistently lowered, but I left the theater feeling something like satisfied. I can’t recommend this movie. I’m not even sure I want to defend it in any way. But I laughed and it is my duty to report that reaction. After all, as Roger Ebert once said, “If I laugh, I have to tell you it’s funny. I went to see Jackass, a shameful movie. I laughed all the way through it. I mean, I have to tell you that.”

I found That’s My Boy to be a movie so exuberantly vulgar, so excessively coarse and gross-out goofy that I could almost imagine the Farrelly brothers finding it a bit over the top. (It probably has more on-screen uses for bodily fluids than any comedy since their own There’s Something About Mary.) It’s all predicated on an off-putting inciting incident and then goes on to include a couple of twists that are just about as bad. And all through it, Sandler is doing one of his patented (and usually grating) braying-accent arrested-adolescent shticks. I usually don’t like Adam Sandler movies, but after such career nadirs as Grown Ups and Jack and Jill, truly awful movies following nearly two decades of awful movies, even a mild improvement feels pretty good. What can I say? This time around I found it funny, although not at first.

The whole thing starts in the mid-80’s when a teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) has an affair with a student (Justin Weaver) – a teenager named Donny who grows up to be Adam Sandler. It’s not every day a comedy starts off with some casually presented statutory rape, but there you have it. I wasn’t laughing yet, that’s for sure. It’s uncomfortable to say the least, especially when the teacher is shipped off to prison pregnant and the eventual baby is left in the custody of the kid and his deadbeat dad. Luckily we cut ahead over twenty-five years later so we don’t have deal with the whole immediate implications of this scenario, skipping through an opening credits montage that spoofs the culture’s gendered double standard about this sort of scandal. Donny gains immediate fame through the talk show circuit – Arsenio and Letterman – as well as selling the rights to his life story for a TV movie, but soon enough his fame has dried up and he’s no better off than his fellow has-been pal Vanilla Ice (as an exaggerated buffoonish version of himself).

When the movie proper picks up, Donny, a drunken mess of perpetual boorishness, has just learned that he owes $40,000 to the IRS since he hasn’t paid taxes since 1994. He’ll go to prison unless he pays off the debt by Tuesday. Stewing at his usual table at his favorite (but dilapidated) strip club, he notices the wedding section of the New York Times where who should he see but his estranged son (Andy Samberg). He’s now a rising hedge fund manager marrying a pretty young woman (Leighton Meester) from a wealthy family. In fact, the whole wedding party – the bride’s parents (Blake Clark and Meagen Fay), grandmother (Peggy Stewart) and soldier brother (Milo Ventimiglia), the groom’s boss (Tony Orlando), and some straight-laced co-workers (Will Forte, Rachel Dratch) – is staying in a mansion on the coast of Massachusetts for the ceremony this very weekend. Donny, in a desperate attempt to raise the necessary funds, convinces a tabloid TV show to meet him at the prison and stage a reunion between teacher, student, and son and sets off to trick his son into this plan, but soon finds he’s having a pretty good time just being reunited.

So Donny bumbles his way into the wedding party and throws everybody for a loop. It’s like The Hangover crash-landed into the middle of Meet the Parents. Director Sean Anders (writer of the so-so Hot Tub Time Machine) and writer David Caspe (who works for the sit-com Happy Endings) haven’t exactly made a comedy of errors. This is a comedy of sexual dysfunction, of non-stop profanity and raunchiness, of panicked social anxiety and endlessly protracted embarrassment. But rather than mere juvenile tittering and strange squeamishness of usual Sandler fare, this is an enthusiastically rude embrace of base instincts and bad behavior. The straight-arrow son running from his irresponsible father is drawn back into his web of debauchery and is shocked to find how much fun it can be, especially when so many of the wedding guests seem so charmed by his coarseness and party-animal antics. And, sure, father and son have a lot of learning to do from each other, learning to live a full life and yada yada (it’s basically an inverted Big Daddy without the moral), but the level of manic depravity on display here is truly staggering. And I laughed a lot.

This is no typical Sandler movie, which are usually somewhere between a PG and a PG-13, lightly vulgar, cheap, sentimental efforts with plenty of saccharine uplift and a safer-than-not gross-out sensibility. This movie puts the hard-R in hard-R comedy, leaning against boundaries cheerfully and with such unashamed commitment. And the cast is so game, tearing into this material with surprisingly appealing energy and timing. This is a shameful movie that starts so tasteless it can only go up, but it still finds plenty of ways to shock, through some appalling (and funny) revelations and sheer volume of vulgarity. But surprise of surprises, Sandler and Samberg have nice chemistry and the supporting cast is so willing to go along with the surprisingly amusing material which grows more complicated and picks up speed as the narrative hurtles towards the ceremony. (And, of course, we have to see teacher and student meet again, and she’s now played by an Academy Award winning actress about whom I wouldn’t have guessed we’d now be able to say is making a habit of this sort of thing.)

Where does that leave us? It’s a movie in which sometimes-funny people have a good time in material a smidge rougher than you’d expect, finding jaw-dropping lines to cross and combining what would be all the raunchiest bits of marginally cleaner movies into one long parade of impropriety. And it’s handled with such slickness and even good-natured nastiness at times. Other times there are jokes that don’t go over so well and are just plain nastiness. The movie’s based on a premise so cringingly awful that I wish the filmmakers could have found a premise that was somewhat easier to take but that still got us to the same destination. So we’re right back where we started. I completely understand where people who will hate this movie will be coming from. It’s awful. But I did laugh.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Old Time Rock and Roll: ROCK OF AGES

Rock of Ages is nothing but fake all the way deep down to its core. It’s without even the slightest nod towards genuine human emotion or dramatic interest with a plot stitched together from naked cliché and generational pandering, a whirlwind jukebox tour through 80’s rock set in a blender and ground up with that decade’s fashion and fads with a wink and snarl. That’s almost a compliment. It’s been put together by Adam Shankman, a choreographer-turned-director who, five years ago, made the delight of the summer with the film adaptation of Broadway’s Hairspray. But that movie had great music, memorable characters, and an enjoyable story. Rock of Ages, adapted from Chris D’Arienzo’s play by Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, has attitude and wall-to-wall music, but nothing else. Even the attitude is fake, conflicted about whether or not the production is taking a satiric point of view.

Set in what feels like an exaggerated theme-park approximation of 1987, the plot concerns a rundown Los Angeles rock bar run by an aging rock fan (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man (Russell Brand) who are besieged by the seemingly uptight mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his ultra-conservative wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who want to shut them down for reasons of back taxes and morality, respectively. But that all takes a back seat to the two-pronged central narrative, half of which is devoted to a dopey love story between aspiring singers (Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough) working at the bar. The other half is dominated by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a rock star teetering on the verge of becoming a has-been when he rolls in to give the club a much-needed boost of revenue by performing his final concert before going solo. It’s a dark, admirably weird performance that has Cruise writhing in leather and grinding against groupies. Whenever he enters a room, women faint and the soundtrack swells with guitars in electric palpitations. But the role is barely a caricature, let alone a parody, of an out-of-control rock star. And it’s certainly not a real character for Cruise to play.

Sure, Jaxx is a drunk, spaced-out eccentric with a pet monkey and various addictions, but there’s a point where it all starts to feel like an affectation. This could be a commentary on how show business can, has, and does exploit performers, transforming the talented into out-of-touch egos, churning them out for audiences’ adoration and idolatry, and then casting them aside for the next great thing. You might think that’s where this all is headed with the sweet kids (Boneta and Hough are definitely cute) primed to follow in Jaxx’s cautionary tale footsteps, but the plots take so many swerves from earnest to snarky and back again that it’s hard to know when and if the movie is ever getting around to developing a point of view. That’s the overarching problem with Rock of Ages. It’s both a dull celebration of empty show-biz provocation and commercialism and rejection thereof, all mixed in with these celebrities covering 80’s hits from Poison, Bon Jovi, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Slade, Foreigner, and more.

Lest it threatens to become nothing more than an energetic game of Rock Band with an all-star cast, the film swells to include an ensemble with which to propel the whole thing forward with incident upon incident, contrivance layered upon cliché and pushed along by miscommunications of the most unforgiveable kind, including one of those scenes where two characters talk around the very thing that would solve their problem leaving it unspoken as they go their separate ways. Paul Giamatti plays a slimy producer on the prowl for new talent while he milks every last dollar out of the talent he has. Malin Akerman plays perhaps the worst reporter in rock history (that’s saying something), showing up before the big show to interview Jaxx and then sticking around for some other scenes in the rest of the movie. And Mary J. Blige turns up to sing a number or two (and prove she has the best pipes of the ensemble) as the largely anonymous manager of a strip club. The most satisfying characters are ones we see only briefly in funny little cameos, like horror director Eli Roth as a silver-jumpsuit clad music-video director and Will Forte as a reporter covering Jaxx’s concert and Zeta-Jones’s protest, playing it as essentially his old SNL character Greg Stink.

It all adds up to a mess of simple plot and thin characters barely held together by its chain-reaction of musical numbers edited in a hacked-up fashion that is still somewhat more coherent than what Shankman and his co-conspirators do with the plain old dialogue scenes. It’s often hard to get visual bearings in this production. The group numbers are garbage, but the duets (between Boneta and Hough, Cruise and Akerman, and especially the one entirely unexpected one between Baldwin and Brand) are mostly fun. The cast is certainly energetic and the music is loud and carries with it a certain amount of 80’s charm, but the movie as a whole is an irredeemably junky work of confused kitsch that goes on, and on, and on, and on. By the time the “Don’t Stop Believing” finale gets to that song’s line about how “The movie never ends,” that sure sounded like a threat to me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Three-Ring Boredom: MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED

What is there to say about Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? At this point you already know if you like this sort of thing. It’s the latest in Dreamworks Animation’s series about animals that, in the original film, went from a zoo in New York City to the wilds of Madagascar, then into deepest Africa in the sequel. Now, the group of wacky creatures (blandly voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith) is on the move again. Has there been a series of kids’ movies with a more aggressively uncharismatic ensemble of characters? I’ve never once cared about the lion, zebra, giraffe, and hippo that bumble around so dully in the protagonist roles. I couldn’t even tell you the first thing about their personalities. The lion’s vain, I guess? The giraffe’s kind of nervous quite a bit? That sounds about right. The point is, my affection for the series is awfully low. I walk in to the theater, the movie happens, and then I walk out. I don’t love them or hate them. They just are and they’re not for me. I can’t care about such generic cartoon critters.

No, all the fun characters – what few there are, that is – can be found around the margins. I like the reasonably silly penguins (funny enough to get their own spin-off cartoon series that ditches the dead weight of those lame leads) and an agreeably wacky vocal performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as a deluded lemur king. It’s with these characters that the movies threaten to break off into something altogether more enjoyable. In this movie the whole group is trying to get back to America, but have somehow ended up in Europe. They’re forced to join the circus to hide from a competently villainous new character, a seemingly indestructible French animal-control meanie, Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand in a thick, thick accent). It’s a good thing that the story clutters up with partially amusing distractions like DuBois, as well as a train full of circus critters like a gruff tiger (Bryan Cranston), a silly sea lion (Martin Short), and a nice leopard (Jessica Chastain). They’re not all that fleshed out, either, but at least the ensemble swells to take your mind off of the real leads.

The story here (cobbled together by series regular Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach, of all people) is awfully dull and predictable, adhering to an undisguised and uncomplicated three-act structure that plods along like most low-functioning family films. It’s essentially a creaky tumble of colorful animation and wacky voices mixed in with grating pop culture references and obvious music cues. What helps it not be completely terrible is the way directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon seem to push against the plot and just make things tumble over in free-form silliness from time to time. The actual jokes fall flatter than flat, but some sequences have meager visual whimsy. All of the best scenes, and there are some good ones, could be nice, wacky shorts in a Looney Tunes style. I liked when the lemur falls in love with a bear and together they ride the bear’s tricycle through Vatican City in a romantic montage set to “Con Te Partirò.” And it’s worth a chuckle when DuBois escapes from a grimy Italian prison by hiding inside a mattress. That’s not to mention the big opening sequence in which the animals are chased around Monte Carlo in a brisk and funny slapstick chase. And there are a couple of big circus setpieces that are pleasing neon 3D swirls. But, like usual, all of these highlights are mostly secondary to the unremarkable stories of the main characters.

I suppose people like these movies or else they wouldn’t be so profitable. I’m just not one of those people. This is a series that has always felt tired to me, right from the beginning. I went to this third installment not expecting much and got a little more than I expected anyways. There are fleeting moments of smile-worthy goofiness and plenty of objects thrust out through the fourth wall to take advantage of the 3D. I guess I liked this the best out of the Madagascars, even though that’s not saying much. I still don’t care much for these characters and the movie doesn’t even try to get the unconverted there. I couldn’t care less if they made it back to New York, but as long as the movie crashed through common sense and indulged it’s silliest side-characters’ antics, I could be distracted just enough not to care that I didn’t care. The instant the credits rolled, the movie began to leave my mind. There’s nothing wrong with these Madagascar movies that better jokes, better stories, and more memorable main characters couldn’t fix. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Alien Origins: PROMETHEUS

Prequels are tricky things. Give the audience exactly what they think they want and they might be superficially satisfied at first, but your film is ultimately a trifle that explains away the original film’s mystery. Throw the audience a curveball and they’ll be frustrated and discontent. The trick is finding the right balance, which is precisely what director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaiths have set out to do with Prometheus, a film set some years before the events of Scott’s 1979 film Alien, that classic of science fiction horror. What Scott and his writers do here is not describe the backstory of Alien, showing what created the distress signal that led a space freighter and its crew to certain doom from extraterrestrial infestation, but to layer on extra mysteries. This is an engrossing production that operates from a similar stylistic point of view – stately and patient pacing and carefully detailed design – but, aside from a shared fictional universe and a plot that loosely sets the stage for the franchise that follows its events, Prometheus is very much a work that creates an identity of its own.

Part of what made Alien so great was the way it was about characters who had a job to do and set out doing it. They just happened to be interrupted in a spectacularly frightening and entertaining way. Similarly, Prometheus follows a crew of professionals aboard a spaceship (also called Prometheus). They’re off to sort out the mysteries of the universe. It’s a routine exploration, or so the crew assumes. In the group of seventeen are scientists, doctors, pilots, and security. We come to know some of them as the spacecraft arrives at its destination and the hibernation chambers open up. There’s an all-business, sharp-tongued company leader (Charlize Theron), a grizzled captain (Idris Elba), and an ensemble of mostly likable researchers and technicians (character actors Sean Haris, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong, and Kate Dickie). Watching over them as they slept, ensuring nothing went wrong with the ship, was the android, David (Michael Fassbender), who moves with stiff precision and speaks in a way that’s not quite flat. During the trip, he was taught information pertinent to the expedition. Now, he’s eager to help. He’s programmed that way.

Leading this team, at least on the scientific front, is a couple of archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), partners scientifically and romantically. They’re the ones with the theories that have convinced trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund this exploration into deep space based on a theory that involves a lot of research a big leap of faith. All around the world they have found hieroglyphics from many cultures depicting giants pointing towards a planetary grouping in the sky. These researchers have somehow extrapolated a map through the universe that they’re sure will lead them to the origins of the human race. They think they’ll find the “engineers” of humanity, but that’s just one possible outcome. When the crew is informed of their true mission, they’re skeptical, but get down to business. The movie proceeds as a terrific rush of jargon, a jumble of pseudo-scientific, quasi-spiritual, pop-philosophical inquiries as the explorers land on the planet and find a structure that is most definitely not naturally occurring. It’s filled with cavernous, craggy halls and echoing chambers filled with massive carvings, oozing containers, dusty control panels and, most frightening of all, large alien corpses.

The film follows the exploration as it slowly, inevitably, falls to pieces through human error, hidden agendas, clashing personalities, and, of course, the mysterious things lurking in the shadows. It doesn’t all make sense by the end; push a little against the plotting and it starts to unravel around loose ends. But the characters are so convincingly acted and with personalities so clearly drawn that I didn’t interrogate their decisions in the moment. I was eager to see what they would discover and how they would react to shifting conditions and information and grew worried for them as new dangers arose. While the film was rolling, it caught me up in a spell of masterful filmmaking. I found it gripping, creepy, and mostly fascinating. This is an intense movie with a slow, inescapable crescendo of suspense played meticulously, soberly and earnestly.

That’s the approach that Ridley Scott has brought to so much of his work as director and a big reason why the quality of his output is so spotty. For every Alien or Black Hawk Down there’s a G.I. Jane or A Good Year. With Prometheus, though, he’s back working in the genre for which he’s most beloved and which he hasn’t been seen since 1982’s Blade Runner. Sci-fi is a genre suited for his detailed approach of complex visuals and serious-minded skimming across the surface of deep topics. (This film’s thematically complicated, or maybe just muddled.) It’s a film about the origins of the universe, but is really only interested in that topic insofar as it provides the opportunity to show off incredible imagination, riffing off the iconography of Alien to find its own great images.

This is an attractively photographed film, a powerful feat of visuals. It’s without a doubt one of the best looking blockbusters in recent memory. It feels out-of-time in style and approach in the best possible way, a cold melancholic 70’s sci-fi mood (a bit of Silent Running, perhaps, or, further back, 2001: A Space Odyssey) in a story told with modern tools. The cinematography from Dariusz Wolski is lush and gorgeous, with impressive 3D depth and a steady sense of space and scale, drinking in the wholly convincing effects work from a small army of artists and Arthur Max’s intricately detailed production design. These images are allowed time to resonate, to be absorbed into the larger texture of the piece in a satisfying way. (See it on the biggest screen you can find!) It’s so dissimilar in approach to the shaky-cam chaos cinema technique so popular over the past several years, even among Scott’s own films, that to see such restraint, such lovingly displayed visual skill, is some kind of marvel.

That’s why, as much as I retroactively doubt my response to the film as I sit here poking through some of its flimsy plotting and unexplained character motivations, especially in the last twenty minutes or so when the aftermath of a virtuoso sequence of body horror goes curiously unacknowledged for a while, I can’t shake the feeling that the movie had a powerful contemplative undertow. The robot man, so scarily, perfectly inhabited by Fassbender, is a created being fully aware of that status, observing humans who are embarking on what is perhaps a futile and, in this case, self-destructive, search for their own creators. There’s a powerful exploration of creation myths stirring half-formed under the gripping style and enthralling pace of Prometheus.

The wordless opening sequence, striking, beautiful, horrifying, could be taken as metaphor or dream or literal truth. The camera soars over a seemingly untouched wilderness until it finds a pale pure-white human-like being standing over a waterfall. This humanoid slowly begins to tear apart at the molecular level and topples over into the water, drifting away as a black mist dissolving into the water. Only then do we jump ahead into the film proper. So, real or imagined within the world of the film, what’s going on here? Is this a creation story? It seems to fit the expedition’s thesis. This immediately arresting curtain raiser announces the film as one that’s out to slip around audience expectations. By the end, though, it’s sure to please those out looking for xenomorphic clues, while still becoming something all its own. It’s a non-prequel prequel that uses a franchise’s groundwork without using it as a crutch, and sets off to explore its own massive ambitions. It doesn’t quite realize them to the extent that perhaps it should. (I might change my mind upon a second viewing, which will happen very soon.) But there’s no use denying how stunning, absorbing, and effective a piece of filmmaking it is. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Ol' Boy: BERNIE

Like Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a based-on-a-true-story film that takes its stranger-than-fiction facts and plays them as dark, character-driven comedy. Also like Soderbergh, Linklater is a director who debuted in the late-80’s in independent film and has spent his career dabbling in different genres. What makes his work so strong and distinctive across genres is not his virtuoso stylistic touches, but his strong, steady focus on characters and a keen eye for the ways in which people relate to one another. From early successes like Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused, to more experimental works like Waking Life, to big studio hits like School of Rock, he’s a director with a sharp sense of interpersonal dynamics and an ability to fit his shaggy observational tone into highly entertaining packages.

Bernie reteams Linklater with his School of Rock star Jack Black. That film is a career highlight for the both of them, a Hollywood comedy in which they embrace a formula – goofball grows up by unwittingly learning from time spent with little kids – into which they can inject a welcome authenticity and emotion behind the laughs. Though Bernie has plenty of laughs, the two of them are up to something much trickier, a dance of tones that is often very funny, but much more complicated and darker. Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in the small Texas town of Carthage. He has a natural ease in his chosen profession. He’s a master at preparing the bodies, guiding bereaving families through funeral options (or just helping older couples planning ahead, pick out just the right casket), and even steps in to read scriptures or sing a song when necessary. He does this for the local Methodist church as well, singing his heart out to all the great old hymns to much adulation from the congregation.

What earns Bernie the respect and love of the townspeople is his incredible generosity. He’s a giver, not a taker, quick to lend a hand or to drop by unannounced with tokens of appreciation or care packages. He’s especially good with the weeping widows of the town, bringing them baked goods or baskets of fancy soaps, dropping by to make sure they’re doing fine in their trying time. He’s a real people person who seems perfectly comfortable in his own skin. Some wonder about the man who seems uninterested in “normal” things. He’s a source of much speculation, but it’s all so innocuous to the townsfolk. Why, he’s Bernie! Everybody loves Bernie! And it’s easy to see why. Black could easily have played the man as a bundle of comic tics, but he really digs deep and makes Bernie a fully believable eccentric. It’s a fantastic performance. Black seems to walk differently, carries his weight in a ramrod-straight posture, and puts on an accent that can only be described as a lisping Texan drawl, but he comes across as a man so genuinely nice and even-keel that you’re surprised when little flashes of annoyance and despair crack through.

Bernie’s so sweet and caring, and it all seems so honestly and truly genuine, that it invites much affection reciprocated back at him. Still, beloved as he is, it’s very much a surprise when the meanest lady in town (Shirley MacLaine), lonely and bitter and, to the locals, a legendarily ornery creature, lets him dote on her after her husband’s passing. She’s filthy rich and quickly lets Bernie into her life as something of a surrogate son and servant to help her spend her money and pass the time in her remaining years. They take vacations together, attend local plays and concerts, and marinate in high culture. Soon, though, she has him waiting on her every whim, doing her laundry, giving her rides, sorting her pills, and even clipping her toenails. But Bernie’s such a nice guy he won’t tell her no, even when she gets increasingly jealous of time he spends away from her. Why, he can’t even focus on his lead role in the local civic theater’s upcoming production of The Music Man. But they seem to enjoy each other’s company. “No one’s been this nice to me in fifty years,” the old woman says in a poignant moment that reveals some of the deep pain behind her outward nastiness.

I dare not spoil where their increasingly co-dependent relationship spirals down to. Needless to say, the community is increasingly curious about just what brings and holds together the nicest man and the meanest woman they know. Linklater tells the story as a flurry of gossip through which the real story peeks through by filming townspeople, both actors (like a surprisingly subtle and funny Matthew McConaughey as a lawyer who breaks through the town’s innocuous curiosity with his aggressive skepticism) and actual Carthage, Texas locals, talking to the camera in documentary-style talking-head interviews about their town in general and Bernie in particular. He’s a showy character, but he doesn’t seem to be faking it. The townspeople have a lot of theories, and lots of convictions, about who Bernie is and what he did or did not do to that mean woman, but no one can say for sure what went on in Bernie’s mind. In that way, it becomes a film about storytelling and about the interpretation of facts that allows it to transcend a mere docudrama and become something stranger, funnier and, funnily enough, sadder. In this film, fiction (of the film and of the real-life townspeople’s speculations) and nonfiction (both the true story and the real people interspersed with the actors) sit side-by-side, inescapably intertwined.

It’s such a great small-town portrait, a film about a town that picks-a-little talks-a-little like Meredith Wilson’s small-town Iowa, always chattering about this and that and who’s doing what. It’s a place where assumptions become pretty hard to shake. The people have such a fierce protection of those who are genuinely liked and a sharp condemnation of those who aren’t, that it’s easy to see how interpretations of things as simple as fact get all twisted about. This is a film about American eccentrics that allows for the beauty of local color and the joys of colloquial aphorisms and thick regional accents. There’s relaxed, nonjudgmental appreciation of the eccentric in all of its characters, both real and those who are real but played by actors.

It’s a film that’s laughing with its characters and ready to turn quickly into effective pathos when the emotions run raw. Like in the writings Sherwood Anderson or Garrison Keillor, there’s a great sense of place and the way communities interact to embrace or reject the collection of wonderful characters that inhabit and odd incidents that occur within its boundaries. This is a film about the stories that townsfolk tell about themselves and about their town, but most importantly it’s about Bernie. He’s such a fascinating character; it’s easy to wonder to what extent he’s in denial about the relationship he has found himself in. Black plays his complexities expertly. The writing in this film from Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth is so sharply funny and darkly moving that it can’t be written off as mere condescension or poking fun at real people and real events. It’s a complexly clever and moving film about the way we draw assumptions about people and how hard those assumptions can be to shake. Why, at the end of the film, one local woman insists, “Jesus himself couldn’t change [her] mind about Bernie.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Room and Board: THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of elderly British citizens find their way to what is advertised as an affordable luxury retirement apartment complex in Jaipur, India. When they get there, they find the place is a bit run down and not much at all as they expected. But, putting on their stiff upper lips and summoning up a spirit of adventure, they decide to make the best of it. What follows is a mild culture clash film that threatens to be gently condescending, but thankfully never quite gets there. Instead, it develops into a lovely little comic drama with a beautiful travelogue backdrop. It may seem like a loose, episodic thing, but that’s only because it is. It all snaps together quite nicely in the end, though, and as we spend time with the various characters, following the ways in which they acclimate, or not, to their new surroundings, the considerable talents of the venerable actors involved creates a good deal of dramatic interest.

The seniors staying at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful are a disparate bunch. There’s an old married couple (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), freshly retired and eager to put their meager pension to something more than an apartment with guardrails and a medical alert box in the corner. There’s a freshly widowed woman (Judi Dench) who wants the chance to open her mind to new experiences after many years in a marriage wherein much was kept from her. There’s a man (Ronald Pickup) who is looking for new women to try wooing and a woman (Celia Imrie) who thinks she can snag one more wealthy husband before her time’s up. (They don’t much care for each other, which is a welcome surprise.) There’s a retired judge (Tom Wilkinson) who grew up in India and is eager to find his long-lost first love. And, finally, there’s a crotchety, casually xenophobic, old woman (Maggie Smith) who is only on this journey for a cheap hip replacement.

These wonderful actors imbue their characters with such warmth and likability that it’s easy to get drawn into their individual plotlines. These people begin and end relationships, have squabbles amongst one another, complain about accommodations, make new friends, enjoy or reject the local cuisine, and come to appreciate (or not appreciate) their surroundings. They find work, find hope, and find companionship. They try new things. It’s all very sweet and charming with flashes of real emotional beauty and low-key humor. These are actors who can command such attention in dramatic roles, who could play Shakespeare with the best of them because they are amongst the best of them, and they play this mix of small-scale drama and gentle humor with incredible sincerity and emotional engagement. They’re such naturally watchable and likable screen presences that these quickly become characters that are easy to spend two hours with.

My favorite storyline, however, belongs to the irrepressibly optimistic manger of the hotel, played with continual charm by Dev Patel. He’s unflappable – when confronted about the fact that his hotel is not exactly as advertised he smiles and says that his brochures merely advertise the future – but he has tremendous unrest bubbling up underneath. His mother (Lillete Dubey) comes by, turning up her nose at his attempts to fix the crumbling failed business his father left behind. She says she’s simply here to visit her favorite son. When he expresses doubt she admits, “Okay, my second favorite son.” She’s here looking to close the hotel and take her son back to live with her while she finds a more suitable match for marriage than the gorgeous call-center employee (Tena Desae) he’s been seeing. Patel inhabits his character’s half-thwarted romantic and business longings within a personality that’s so relentlessly rosy. He’s stuck halfway between the life he has and the life he wants, but he’s confident he’ll get there.

Director John Madden, working from a screenplay by Ol Parker that is based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, keeps things moving along quite nicely. We end up spending just enough time with each character, or combination of characters, before moving on to the next one and the next one before we’re back again. He trusts his actors are up to their tasks and hangs back. He’s never been a pushy or showy director, his films’ levels of quality rising and falling with the level of the scripts and casts he’s worked with. Here, he has a good script and a great cast to which he brings solid, glossy production value. It’s simply an attractive location shoot of a film that makes good use of the sights and sounds around its plot. I suspect that this story of these nice older people finding new experiences in a new location reinvigorating and relaxing, especially a story that’s so well-photographed and that so gently puts across its message of multicultural open-mindedness, could drive tourism to India for many years to come. It’s just a shame that, upon booking a trip, you couldn’t specifically request a charming British thespian as a travelling companion.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fish Food: PIRANHA 3DD

I looked up what I wrote about Piranha, Alexandre Aja’s 2010 3D remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 creature feature, and found that I called it “gratuitous in every possible way.” It served up attractive spring-breakers in and out of swimsuits while tension built to the bloody end, which chummed the water with enough gore to fill a half-dozen horror flicks with lower body counts. I wrote, “I liked just enough of it to wish it were better.” It didn’t win me over like it did its small collection of defenders, but I could see that it was self-aware of its own genre status and enjoyed wallowing in it. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone’s enjoyment of this particular film’s trashy interests. I know I did from time to time, even if I ultimately left the theater feeling, on balance, more negative than positive towards it all.

Now we have Piranha 3DD.  Its predecessor’s central question was “What if we made a bad movie, but were so aware of what we were doing, and so energetic about our exploitative elements, that we ended up with a good movie?” This lifeless sequel that stinks of desperation at every turn seems to proceed from the question “What if we made a bad movie?” Now, I don’t mind partaking in some deliberately trashy filmmaking. I’ve already admitted to enjoying some of Piranha’s low charms and found David R. Ellis’s immortal Snakes on a Plane to be some level of fun. Here are films that know what simple-minded premises they have, are reasonably well made from a technical standpoint, and have just enough winking bemusement that some can be convinced to give them a pass. (I feel no shame admitting to a weakness for Snakes on a Plane. Of course I haven’t seen it in years. It might not hold up to a repeat viewing.)

Anyways, Piranha 3DD has been handed off to director John Gulager, winner of one of the seasons of the Project Greenlight reality show. He ended up making the low-budget horror movie Feast, one of the most noxious and slapdash films of its ilk in recent memory, and then followed it up with not one, but two direct-to-DVD sequels, the viewing of which I have not made a priority. This new movie, written by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Joel Soisson, relocates the titular piranhas from the inland lake spring break of the first movie to a waterpark run by a slimeball (David Koechner) with a sleazy idea for how to boost profits. See, he hired “water-certified strippers” to lifeguard a walled-off section of the park he calls an “adults only” pool. His stepdaughter (Danielle Panabaker), home from college where she’s studying to be a marine biologist, isn’t happy about this. She’s all the more worried when she and some friends are nearly eaten by, what else, a piranha in the nearby lake.

The plot, such as it is, is a dull drag to the park’s opening day, where the splashing park patrons will get set upon by a pack of piranhas that find their way through a drain pipe out of the lake and into the pools. But because the pool isn’t as packed with partying jerks as the first movie’s lake and the debauchery is mostly low-key and cordoned off, the kick of seeing anonymous extras taken down isn’t satisfying in the slightest. The bloodbath of the first film may have been too much for me to take, but it’s certainly far more enjoyable than seeing families, kids, and elderly people splashing about in terror in the shallow end of a pool. Besides, why don’t they just get out of the pool? And why don’t the waterpark’s employees think to drain the pool sooner? And when they decide to, why is it so difficult?

There’s very little of narrative interest here. The characters are incredibly thin, even by bad creature feature standards. There’s a little romance for the stepdaughter, a wimpy guy (Matt Bush) who can’t swim (think that’ll be important later?) and a crooked deputy (Chris Zylka). There’s also a dumb blonde (Katrina Bowden) who, early on, gets a baby piranha stuck in a very uncomfortable place without even really noticing it. Later, when it emerges and bites off her boyfriend’s privates, she runs bloody and shocked down the hall, finds her friends and informs them of this elaborate body horror in a tone of voice that one might use when asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Basically, these characters are here to state the obvious, go completely unprepared for the climactic buffet, and pad the runtime to feature length.

It’s advertised as an 83-minute movie but, by my count, the credits rolled a little bit past the 70-minute mark, which means that the endless bloopers and outtakes under the end credits take up about 15% of the movie. And keep in mind that this is a movie that finds time for Gary Busey to accidentally blow up a flatulent cow, for David Hasselhoff to lamely cameo as himself, and to shoehorn in supporting characters from the first movie, like Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames and Paul Scheer, the latter seemingly there only to collect stories for How Did This Get Made?, his podcast celebrating bad movies. This is one of those movies where seemingly nothing could go right, not even a little bit, not even by accident.

Beyond the mindless plotting, essentially nonexistent characters, and padding, the biggest problem here has to be Gulager himself. I don’t want to be too mean here, but he’s a remarkably untalented director. With his clumsy blocking, awkward pacing, and half-hazard effects, his anti-style manages to dismantle even the slightest hints of tension or energy that creeps up into the performances and the script. His direction of the setpieces, such as they are, manages to turn them into lifeless lumps of movement devoid of flow or excitement of any kind. It’s like he set out to deliberately make a bad movie, which he may very well have. But it takes a lot of work to make even a bad movie. It might take even more work to make a good bad movie. And this one feels so dashed off and lazily made that it can’t even flop over the painfully low bar it sets for itself.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Fairy Tale, Fractured: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

Only the latest iteration of the fairy-tale-into-big-budget-spectacle trend that’s sweeping Hollywood, Snow White and the Huntsman hacks out an identity all its own. Unlike Mirror Mirror, a candy-colored family-friendly confection that Tarsem whipped up for release earlier this year, Huntsman is a darker, grimmer thing, drawing less inspiration from the safe, colorful comedy of children’s fantasy and more from the kind of dour, sweeping fantasy spectacle of the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones. The script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini takes apart the old story of the evil queen and her fairest-of-them-all stepdaughter until all that’s left and recognizable is aspects of the tale’s iconography: the mirror, the poison apple, the dwarves. What the film does with them is sometimes surprising and ultimately satisfying. This is a handsome and effective spectacle.

The film starts with Ravenna (Charlize Theron), an evil witch, tricking a king into marrying her. On their honeymoon, she straddles him and plunges a dagger into his chest. She flips back on the bed, basking in her triumph as her army storms past unsuspecting guards to take over the castle. Her stepdaughter, Snow White, is promptly locked away, so as not to interfere with her rule. Years later, now grown, Snow (Kristen Stewart) gets a chance to escape and flees into the dark forest. The queen, her good looks and terrible magic ever reliant on sucking the youthful souls out of beautiful young women, has learned that the only way she can make her dark powers permanent is to eat Snow White’s heart. So she sends her right-hand man, who happens to be her creepy brother (Sam Spruell), and a strapping, alcoholic huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to chase down the escaped girl.

When they find her, the huntsman takes sympathy on Snow White and, instead of helping the queen’s brother, decides to help her. Together they fight off the queen’s henchmen and flee through the woods, where they will meet all manner of creatures, both frightening and enchanting, on their way towards safety. But it’s not safety Snow wants. She wants her kingdom. On their journey, they meet many potential allies amongst the people living in fear of the evil queen, including a band of dwarves (great British actors Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones shrunk down through movie magic) and a young man (Sam Claflin) who knew Snow in the years before her father’s death and who is now a talented archer. But even as they make their way through the wilderness, Ravenna glides through the castle, plotting her ultimate victory and flexing her supernatural muscles, transforming into a flock of inky ravens and commanding a phantom army made up of black shards.

This all sounds like the Snow White tale has been turned into just another epic-quest fantasy film with swooping shots of a band of allies trudging through picturesque landscapes. In some ways that’s exactly what it is, but what saves the film from becoming just an imitation is the intensity and earnestness with which commercial director Rupert Sanders, making an impressive feature film debut, stages the action. Like one of those grungy fantasies of the 1980s (I was thinking of Matthew Robbins’s Dragonslayer, but it at times put me in mind of Ron Howard’s Willow as well), Sanders makes his fantasy world muddy and convincingly worn-down. There’s a certain kind of realism to the striking visuals here that’s hugely rewarding. Dark magic has done a number on this ruined landscape and as our characters make their way through it, there’s a feeling of real melancholy. The effects – many are clearly elaborate, but convincing, CGI – are given space to breathe and consequentially often, especially in a mid-film respite in a mossy woodland oasis crawling with cute critters and a casual dusting of magical beings that reminded me of similar moments in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, have some real awe behind them. The pace of the picture stretches out, allowing time for Greig Fraser’s beautiful cinematography (he’s also done gorgeous work for Jane Campion and Matt Reeves) to truly soak in the sights and for the subtle work of the ensemble to provide real human emotion to the stakes of it all.

Less subtle is Theron’s villainous turn as the evil queen Ravenna. She’s icy and coldly sensual, submerging herself in a tub of milk in an effort to maintain her smooth skin between injections of young souls. She’s rotten to the core, given to howling out awful demands. But she, too, is fleshed out to the point where she’s also a bit of a tragic figure. Similarly, Stewart’s Snow White is no mere placid figure of beauty. She’s rough around the edges, with a steely determination in her eyes and a real fighting spirit within her. None of this is overwrought or heavily underlined, though, even as the plot’s ending is more or less predetermined. But the complicating of the female roles and the patriarchal assumptions of the original tale happens matter-of-factly. This is just the way the story unfolds this time. (I appreciated how it all ends, too. Without giving anything away, it ends without any kind of wedding-bells romantic conclusion, instead ending on a note of weary relief.) I would never have guessed that such a serious, dark, unsmiling yet heartfelt interpretation of Snow White would have been so gripping and involving. It’s quite lovely in the way it’s underplayed.

This is a big, thunderous fantasy epic that’s filled with excitement, incident and action, embellished with expensive effects, and yet it feels so downbeat, so patiently paced and unafraid of stillness and silence. It’s genuinely creepy, tense, and moving. And yet it’s never insistent or pressing; the cast is treating this material with utter seriousness and, though that can certainly backfire, here it helps that the material is so earnest and sensitively tuned. (It could be a bit more complicated, perhaps, but let’s not press our luck.) There’s a real respect to matters of life and death here. When a character is in danger or dies, there’s a real mournfulness in the way that’s presented. That is something all too rare in this age of easy computerized carnage and quick-cut climaxes wherein digital cannon fodder and background collateral damage is just a backdrop for superheroics. Rupert Sanders handles this big movie with such a striking eye for visuals and such surprising facility with tone and emotion that I suspect he has a big career ahead of him. The idea to take a well-worn tale and retell it with modern tools from a modern sensibility seems rather uninspired, but Sanders has made a film of real, satisfying imagination.
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