Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trouble the Water: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

Beasts of the Southern Wild represents one of those times when a movie swirls onto the screen in a haze of wonder, guided by a first-time writer/director, filled with unfamiliar faces, and active with an uncommon mood. Benh Zeitlin’s film is tough and beautiful, set in an unspecified future America in which the roar of climate change is crashing down upon the land in a storm of near-apocalyptic intent. Southernmost Louisiana has been walled off and evacuated, but here, in a small impoverished village the residents have nicknamed “the Bathtub,” a determined band of locals hunker down and prepare to survive the impending rush of rising water. Told in an approach that’s halfway between fable and magical realism, with slick, shaking artfulness, the film settles into the point of view of a little girl called Hushpuppy. In doing so, the film becomes even less a typical futuristic genre piece and even more a terrific work of empathy and innocence in the face of tough odds.

As played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy is an indomitable force of nature, with a quick, childlike whimsy, precious accidental humor, and a quiet forcefulness behind her soulful eyes. It’s a tremendous performance of lively emotionality and intensity that holds the movie together, no small feat for a six year old. The little girl lives in “the Bathtub” with her father (Dwight Henry), a loving, but quick-tempered man suffering from an unexplained ailment. Together, along with the surface-quirky, thinly developed local color, they live in a tangle of nature and makeshift machinery. Their house is two trailers perched high above the ground, the better to survive the coming storm. Their boat is built out of the rusty, buoyant back of a pickup truck. Their yard is swarming with critters, some pets and some food.

With insert shots of crumbling glaciers and melting ice caps and with a herd of maybe-real, maybe-not (definitely metaphorical either way) beasts, enormous horned blendings of buffalo and hog, that are thundering across the swampy landscape, Beasts of the Southern Wild is haunted by a sense of dreamlike doom that hangs heavy over its picturesque invention and the poor resilience in the face of clear dangers that is at once too cutely adored and, by nature of the film’s point of view, tragically off-screen. The residents and even the narrative’s very conceit are little more than background interest to the single point-of-view that drives the entire experience. The little girl who stands so strong in the center of it all is living in a difficult situation, to say the least. No wonder to her the world appears to be broken, nature itself falling out of balance. No wonder beasts may be coming. Is it all literally real? It’s real enough to Hushpuppy.

She navigates this world with the attentiveness of childhood experience as the camera follows her low to the ground, as she narrates in rough, fanciful ribbons of words that recall Days of Heaven in the mix of toughness and tenderness, innocence and observation. The intensity of feeling that comes from the film is due in large part to Wallis’s performance. There’s an incredible sense of fragile strength, of weary energy, of novelty, bravery, and innocent ignorance washing over every woozy frame here. Early on in the film, Hushpuppy grows so mad at her father that she snaps at him with the kind of half-funny, precociously painful formulation that only a young child can find: she promises to eat birthday cake on his grave. Later, when it’s clear that her father is not long for this world, he bends down and tells her that every daddy must die. “Not my daddy,” she says, meeting his eyes with an unblinking, yet shaken fortitude that has to be seen to be believed. The tragedy of Beasts of the Southern Wild is the way the little girl tells us that when kids centuries from now go to school they’ll learn about Hushpuppy and her daddy, while the events of the film portray the resilient, scrappy band of survivalists marginalized by society, by nature, and by their own decisions. The world of the movie will in all likelihood never learn of, let alone remember, Hushpuppy, but I certainly will.

Although Zeitlin, a promising talent, marshals a notable amount of energy and ambition in his conjuring of this grainy, moving mashup (Miyazaki by way of Malick; Alfonso Cuaron by way of David Gordon Green, Mark Twain by way of Toni Morrison and Maurice Sendak), the film grows thin and muddled. Barely squeaking past the ninety minute mark and nonetheless packed with narrative concerns that slowly come into focus only to blur away, the film also feels wrongheaded in its blinkered celebration of tendencies in some characters that will ultimately, despite the swell of musical uplift that soars into the end credits, not serve these characters well in this situation. However, the thinness and obfuscation can be explained away – maybe not wholly convincingly, but good enough for me – by pinning it to Hushpuppy’s point of view. We’re with her every step of the way and, though the filmmaking, impressive as it is, isn’t quite enough to keep the undercooked story engaging on its own, it’s little Quvenzhané Wallis that keeps the interest high. Even if, in the end, I felt a tad underwhelmed by the experience as a whole, Hushpuppy is one of the most memorable, immediately endearing characters I’ve seen in quite some time and I’m glad for the chance to meet her. She’s the best reason to see the film and, though I’m definitely interested in what Zeitlin will do next, Hushpuppy is the main reason I’m eager to see this film again.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dance Dance Revolution: STEP UP REVOLUTION

Like the Final Destination and the Fast and the Furious movies, the Step Ups have a concept that’s simple and adaptable enough that it’s become a dependable series that can move to an entirely new location with new characters and still retain audience affection. The first Step Up took place in a dance academy; Step Up 2 the Streets took dance battles outside. Those movies had small, somewhat forgettable, charms and, despite some athletic choreography and good intentions, it wasn’t until Step Up 3D that the series truly became something special. Director Jon Chu made great use of 3D in staging energetic dance numbers that served a cornball dance competition plot so engagingly good-natured that it was hard to resist.

Now here we are with Step Up Revolution, which isn’t up there with the best of the series, but is amiable enough, I suppose. It moves the action to Miami where we start in medias res with a gang of ambitious, young, talented dancers who express themselves through splashy flash mobs and call themselves, unsurprisingly, The Mob. The group is made up of characters new to the series, aside from Twitch, who turned up in the last one, but you get the idea. They want to win a YouTube contest – first one to a certain number of views wins a hundred grand! – but along the way they decide to make their dances more activist in nature. The kids’ vibrant, low-income neighborhood is being targeted for “beautification” by a big-time developer (Peter Gallagher, always welcome). They think their surprise public performances will be enough to change his mind, or at least change the city’s agreement.

As if the let’s-put-on-a-show and big-bad-real-estate-mogul plotlines weren’t enough, the suit’s daughter (Kathryn McCormick), a student at the local dance academy, has fallen in love with a waiter (Ryan Guzman), who happens to work at her father’s Miami hotel. He also happens to be co-founder of The Mob. It’s nice when all the tropes can dovetail so nicely, isn’t it? The leads settle into the by now standard Step Up romance of the hunk and the babe from different worlds who love dance almost as much as they love each other. Part of the reason why Step Up 3D works so well is the way it added a parallel, and far more believable, romance between two appealingly dorky, but no less talented, dancers. Revolution’s predictable script by Amanda Brody keeps things moving along efficiently by having characters flat out state what they’re feeling at any given moment, which is just as well, since the romantic leads are best at delivering exposition and dramatic revelations with the same slightly unconvincing blankness that passes for emoting in this movie.

But even though it could be (should be, maybe), this movie is not really about the story and the filmmakers know it. It’s about the dancing, which is lively and most definitely the product of very talented dancers who clearly worked long and hard to achieve such physicality and fluidity. It’s a shame that first-time feature director Scott Speer, handed such nice choreography capably shot by director of photography Crash (yeah, just “Crash”) so often seems content to chop it up, dashing from one angle to the next without sufficient space to fully appreciate the rhythmic athleticism on display. Even the best uses of 3D, like a great moment that looks head on as dancers bungee jump off of shipping containers, is marred somewhat by Speer’s need to cut away from time to time when one long dizzying shot would do. That the dancing ends up functionally enjoyable is a factor of the performers’ skills, not the director’s.

Still, for all of Revolution’s exhausted clichés and awkward editing, it’s not an altogether unenjoyable movie. It passes the time well enough. The movie’s slickly corny without getting too earnest, sexy without getting sexual, and up-tempo, even when things get, like, heavy, man. The social and class-conscious story has some nice resonances (even though the last few moments of the movie are essentially the thematic equivalent of “eh, whatever”) and the music picks up a nice salsa flavor from the fresh Miami setting. The acting’s not the best, but the performers are good looking and are great dancers. And for all the tired dance movie plotting, the climactic moments, improbable as they are, sort of had me going. It’s nice when one of the best characters from Step Up 3D steps in for a welcome cameo, but when The Mob comes together and pulls off a big statement dance that, well, I guess it’s a spoiler. But if you can’t see what’s coming next then you just haven’t seen enough dance movies. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Suburban Space Invaders: THE WATCH

Turning out to be nothing more than a belabored, R-rated commercial for Costco (actual dialogue: “They really do have everything we need!), The Watch is a halfhearted action comedy content to do nothing surprising. The story, such as it is, kicks off when the local Costco manager (Ben Stiller) shows up to work one morning to find that the store has overnight turned into a crime scene. The local cop (Will Forte) informs him that the night watchman has been mysteriously murdered. Shaken up, Stiller puts out a call for his sleepy suburb to form a neighborhood watch and is a little disappointed that the only people who respond are a needy middle aged motormouth (Vince Vaughn) who just wants a break from intruding upon his teenager’s social life, an awkward wannabe vigilante (Jonah Hill), and a bumbling British man (Richard Ayoade) who wants to join a group to fit in with the locals.

Eventually it turns out that the murderer is an alien who is simply one of many who are already in the town, poised to phone home and start the invasion proper. So, it’s up to the four flawed guys to stop the space creatures before they can move forward with their plan. Not that the film gathers any momentum from this threat. No, the movie just meanders through typical moments of male gross-out humor bonding, stumbles into a lame Invasion of the Body Snatchers lite and then lazily gets up the effort to squeak out a typical shoot-‘em-up climax.  Altogether it feels like the result of letting a bad Apatow knockoff write and direct a Hollywood remake of Attack the Block. It’s lazily paced, painfully predictable and unimaginative in all aspects, like two faded copies of copies placed one over the other.

It didn’t have to be this way. The talent involved here is promising. The cast is made up of funny, skilled performers and I haven’t even mentioned Rosemarie DeWitt, relegated to a thanklessly underwritten role as Stiller’s wife, or Doug Jones, the incredible performer behind so many great screen creatures (not the least of which is Pan’s Labyrinth’s terrifying Pale Man) who suits up to play the aliens. But the story, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (of the great raunchy teen comedy Superbad) and rewritten by Jared Stern (of the not-so-great Mr. Popper’s Penguins), is beat-by-beat dull and rote. It feels slapped together in a way that makes everyone involved appear to be shrugging towards paychecks. Everyone on screen has been vibrant and energetic, funny and sympathetic in other roles. Here, though, they’re all playing characters that are thinly sketched and vaguely off-putting while just going through the paces in a movie that can’t quite get its act together. It is witless and lame every step of the way.

The anemic script is certainly the key problem here, but it doesn’t help matters that its tone is so unformed. When it opens on Stiller narrating us through a typical day in the life of his character, the film appears to be sharpening its satirical claws on the gleaming store shelves and perfect suburban subdivisions, looking with scorn upon the hollow homogenized lifestyles of the characters. But, as more characters come into focus and the gears of the plot slowly get up to speed, it’s clear that this movie’s going nowhere fast. Strange detours into the kinky life of a creepy neighbor (Billy Crudup) and a half-formed subplot about a leering teenager (Nicholas Braun) after Vaughn’s daughter sap away momentum and cloud the tone. Are we supposed to actually validate the overzealous behavior of the central characters in so thoroughly, incompetently, poking around where they don’t belong? They’re hard to root for and when the plot resolves, it does so almost by accident.

The biggest disappointment here is the direction from Akiva Schaffer, not because it’s especially bad – it’s slick and competent – but because it’s so devoid of energy and creativity.  After directing so many terrific, hilarious Digital Shorts for Saturday Night Live and the smart-stupid new cult comedy classic Hot Rod, it’s unfortunate to see him deliver something so uninspired. There’s just about nothing here worth talking about or reacting to. I saw the movie amongst a boisterous crowd of people who, as the movie started, fell silent. As the movie played, we stayed silent. Then, a little over 90 minutes later, we all filed out. I went in hoping for a few laughs and left feeling dispirited. It’s not just bad; it’s nothing but missed opportunities all around.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Knightfall: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

After Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight concluded with Batman (Christian Bale) fleeing into the night, taking the fall for a series of crimes so that Gotham City may still have hope, or something like that, it makes a certain amount of sense that The Dark Knight Rises would position the caped crusader as a public figure who has slunk away from the spotlight and is poised to earn back the city’s trust. There’s no such trust problem for this big-screen iteration of the famed comic book hero. If anything, Nolan has earned, rightfully or not, an astounding surplus of fan trust, a rabid kind of fervor that had a great many convinced of the movie’s perfection sight unseen. It’s to Nolan’s credit that the film doesn’t coast on franchise loyalty and therefore manages to avoid the major problems that typically befall the third entry in these sorts of series. It’s a movie of high-quality craftsmanship from all involved, nicely shot and terrifically staged. It's a startlingly big movie, containing sweeping establishing shots and grand gestures of spectacle (the better to maximize the added value of your IMAX tickets), a rapidly expanding ensemble of characters, and the most apocalyptic villainous plot yet. The film can’t live up to its own best moments, but it’s still a solid entertainment that builds to a tremendous finale.

In the murky rising action of this spectacle, a cult of angry anarchists led by a fearsome mask-wearing savage called Bane (Tom Hardy) are gathering strength and numbers, planning nothing less than a terrifying full-scale takeover of Gotham city, propping up faux-populist sentiments to mask their violent lawlessness, to use the leverage of a scared, powerless populace to get what’s best for a few reckless ideologues, all under the threat of mutually assured destruction. And where is the Batman while all this is going on right underneath the unsuspecting city? He’s slowly but surely getting coaxed back into his cowl, after living a Howard Hughes existence as his true self, Bruce Wayne, holed up in his mansion with only Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) to keep him company. And what’s the inciting incident that causes the Batman to climb out of his cave? Why, it’s nothing less than a daring robbery from cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). It might not take lifelong Batman fandom to figure out that she’s Catwoman, even though she goes without that moniker here.

That’s about as much plot as I’ll get into here, seeing as this happens to be a film that people seem particularly averse to having spoiled. It’s just as well, for the movie is indeed a large twisting narrative filled with lots of little surprises coiled around scenes of spectacular effects and effective tension. Let me just suggest that a great deal of the film’s pleasure comes from the new members of the cast. Of course Bale and Caine are solid as always, as are Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s resident technical expert and Gary Oldman as good old Commissioner Gordon. Of the new additions, Hardy’s Bane is fearsome, even though the design of the mask means his performance is mostly communicated through forceful eye acting and a muffled voice over in a stylized accent. Just turning towards the camera is enough for his intensity to crumple the surroundings in anxiety.

But best of the new here is Hathaway, who plays Catwoman as a sort of slinky Robin Hood by way of Han Solo, a mercenary thief and black market operative who is both a help and a hindrance. Runner up is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing an especially determined and skilled cop. Hathway’s take on her iconic character is that of a satisfyingly sleek, glamorous anti-hero. (I was ready to follow her Catwoman into a different movie where she could stretch out in a starring role). Gordon-Levitt’s part calls for steely professionalism and sympathetic humanity, both of which he provides quite nicely. And I quite liked the little twist given to his character in the final moments that caused me to strike a brewing quip about his role from my mental rough draft. The two of them add immeasurably to this world, bringing real vitality to what, let’s face it, would otherwise become insufferably dower.

At its best, this is a film of terrific blockbuster entertainment with charming asides and great flourishes of action, but for long stretches of this 164-minute movie, Nolan is grabbing hold of more ambition than he can wrangle as he gets bogged down in slow scenes of uncertain stakes and confused tension. In Bane’s evil plot grows a scattershot Rorschach test of tangled political messages that coast off of current unease and generate tension in odd ways that are at once potent and dispiriting. It’s hard to make out whether the film is a relentless fascist machine or just rotting cynicism underneath which lies nothing but nihilism. Either way, this is an extremely bleak film, through which the fun (the kind of sugary, lighthearted, propulsive excitement of The Avengers) pokes through like a small circle of light glimpsed from the bottom of a deep dark pit. Such a pit – a hardly-believable quasi-Middle-Eastern prison that works more as metaphor than literal location – makes a pivotal appearance in the lengthy middle section of the film that finds Gotham closer to ruin than ever before. Although Tom Hardy’s Bane certainly doesn’t make for as memorable a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker – the script and character design simply don't allow it – his scheme, once it explodes into action, ups the all-consuming anxiety of Dark Knight until the only thing rising in this film is the sense of despair.

Perhaps it’s precisely because of the ways in which Nolan, no longer content to just use the series as a way to mix around with the iconography of Batman, scrambles ideology so thoroughly that the movie is so difficult to parse, so deeply unsettling. Here when a revolutionary rhetoric is twisted with evil intentions until chaos and anarchy in turn provokes a scrappy cop counter-coup, the resonances, as dissonant and confused as they are, become Triumph of the Will versus Battleship Potemkin, propaganda without a cause. Maybe Nolan knew that there was simply no way of satisfying the typical requirements of sequel escalation and superhero bloat and decided to steer his massive blockbuster right into the skid.

The film is, for quite a while, nothing less than a series of exceptionally well-executed extraneous noise and action. A prisoner’s mid-air escape from a plane, a couple of Catwoman heists, and the inevitable triumphant return from retirement for Batman are all early, satisfying, summer movie moments, but upon reflection they’re actually tangential to the plot. It’s not until a brutal mid-movie one-on-one fight scene, shockingly bone crunching and hard to watch, that I felt honest dread wash over me. But soon, the massiveness of the plotting sidelines one major character or another (in a hospital bed, in prison, or both at once) for what feels like ages. The film grows as fuzzy and slow as it is dark. But from there, Nolan nonetheless manages to pull out a startling and effective escalation of tension that becomes a series of exciting climactic action sequences. The film grows horrifyingly high stakes, blowing out destruction more vividly shot and more destabilizing in its implications than I could possibly have expected.

It’s difficult to think of The Dark Knight Rises in terms of the superhero genre. It hits all the right story beats, but it’s so oppressively grim, with only the faintest glimmers of fun, and far less Batman, at least before the massive and intense climax, than many will be expecting. What it represents is a filmmaker given total control to make whatever crazy ambitious blockbuster spectacle he felt like making and an assertion that he was the one who brought this big-screen Batman into this world and only he can bring this particular version to a close. (That said, there’s plenty of room left for a sequel.) He makes a Batman movie that brings the Batman legend, the tortured nature of the hero, the intense, incomprehensible insanity of the villains, and all those corruptible, flawed characters in between, to a depressingly, almost totally hopeless endpoint, into a climactic conflagration that’s unlikely to be easily matched. I’m not sure I’d want anyone to try.

The sparkle of hope that rises from Gotham’s rubble in the film’s final minutes is barely enough to wipe out the preceding barrage of paranoia and despair. The movie is too confused about its underlying themes, its plot too eager to make leaps of logic despite its otherwise dense build-up, to make use of its potent moods beyond that pure sensation of it all. It’s an impressive film, technically accomplished and overwhelming in many ways. But it’s so unrelentingly without thematic coherence that, for all the sensational spectacle, in the end it feels somewhat underwhelming. And that’s difficult to reconcile. Here is a film that at once thinks big and thinks small, mechanically creating grim spectacle for entirely surface reasons. Its best moments land with such confident grandiosity that, despite some shaky elements and disappointing moments, it’s still a film with an undeniable impact. At least this trilogy of Batman films doesn’t fade away in disgrace. It goes out with a big and mostly satisfying finale.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Moment of Silence


We who love going to the movies do so in part because in the sanctuary of the cinema anything can happen on the screen. It is truly horrifying to be reminded that anything can happen off of it as well. In the wake of the tragic shooting at a crowded multiplex in an Aurora, Colorado mall last night that left 12 dead and 50 more physically wounded, it’s hard to think about posting any movie reviews at the moment. The event is too destabilizing, too upsetting, and too raw. It doesn’t just hit us where we live; it hits us where we go to escape. What on-screen analysis could possibly feel appropriate now, as the tragedy’s impact still settles upon us? As blame trickles in, inevitable noises from the usual suspects pointing towards violent movies or inadequate protections and right on schedule, before all the facts, it would do good to remember that the blame here lies only in the mind of a disturbed man and in whatever circumstances allowed him to have access to guns. Would that we as a society took better, stronger steps to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

Life will move on, slowly but surely, as it always does after all sorts of tragedies. My heart goes out to all those who were caught up in the events of last night, and all those who know them. We think of movie theaters as places that are safe enough to get lost in the events on the screen. Though this never was completely true, outside distractions and criminality of various kinds has always been a possibility, this fiction will remain. Maybe not today, but soon we’ll be going to the movies again. Definitely not today, but soon I’ll be reviewing movies again. But for now, what words can be said that could make things better, make this feeling go away? What possible value could there be in having a take, a spin, or an angle on these events? For now let us, those who love going to the movies, hug a loved one, send thoughts and prayers Colorado way, and work and yearn for the day when all people who need psychological help can find it, when all people, whether they be in the inner city or the suburbs, in school, in church, or in a theater, can be free from the threat of gun violence.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unevolved: ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT

Scrat is a bushy-tailed prehistoric squirrel who desperately desires an acorn that’s forever out of his reach. He’s a wordless, frustrated figure of bumbling slapstick with a Looney Tunes style of elegance to the purity and consistency of his motivations and adventures. Like Wile E. Coyote, Scrat’s his own worst enemy. It’s his insatiable desire for the unattainable that drives his worst impulses past self-preservation, his every inconvenience made all the more frustrating since, unlike the Road Runner, an acorn can’t even knowingly outwit him. But as much as I love Scrat, he’s simply not a good enough excuse for Blue Sky, the animation studio owned by 20th Century Fox, to keep churning out the Ice Age movies which contain within them his antics, presenting them as half-connected scenes that run parallel to the main story.

Once again we’re back with Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), Manny the mammoth (Ray Ramano), and Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), who first became an unlikely herd all the way back in 2002 in the good-enough film that started this whole thing. This time around, as ever, the trio finds that the world is experiencing a rapidly changing climate. Ice Age was about the coming Ice Age. Its sequel, 2006’s The Meltdown, was about a big thaw. In 2009, the third sequel left all real geologic history in its dust with Dawn of the Dinosaurs. At least in this new one, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Sid lets us know how ridiculous that was, saying, “It didn’t make any sense, but it sure was exciting!” And it was, I guess, at first, although by the time the dinosaurs were gnashing their teeth and chasing the characters to and fro I had already gotten tired of it all. I was tired of the series sometime after my second or third viewing of Ice Age, or maybe it was during my first and only time through the waterlogged Ice Age 2. The series sure has a way of making massive climate change seem like no big deal. Then again, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as the oil companies have been doing just that for years.

So maybe I’m not the ideal audience for Continental Drift, but then again, maybe it will mean all the more when I say that it’s adequate. It, like Dinosaurs before it, comes the closest to capturing the very low charms of the first picture. I sat there while the sound and color danced around the screen and though I wasn’t exactly involved in the antics, I didn’t hate it either. Though I thought for sure the movie was ending at it was only the halfway point, I still ended up getting a modest jolt of entertainment during the actual hectic climax. So there’s that. The animators, under the direction of Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, are certainly talented and they have this particular cartoon universe down pat. I like the color and personality of it all, with exaggerated movements and nonplussed anachronisms. (And need I reiterate just how much I enjoy our fleeting moments with the strong, wordless frustration of Scrat?) I just wish that someone involved (maybe Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, the credited writers?) could have thought up something more than halfway diverting to happen with it all.

In this installment, the continents are rapidly shifting and Manny is separated from his wife (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Keke Palmer). Adrift on a chunk of ice with Diego, Sid, and Sid’s cranky, senile granny (Wanda Sykes), the group is accosted by furry pirates – a monkey captain (Peter Dinklage) and a crew containing a saber-toothed tiger (Jennifer Lopez), a rabbit (Aziz Ansari), a seal (Nick Frost), and a kangaroo (Rebel Wilson) – who are a big danger despite and because of their knowledge of the way back home. Speaking of back home, Manny’s wife and daughter are leading to safer ground a group that includes a hedgehog (Jake Gad) who has a crush on the younger mammoth (how’s that work?) and a group of cool teen mammoths (where are their parents?) with the voices of Drake and Nicki Minaj.

This is all pretty standard family film plotting with little to these new characters’ personalities beyond sight gags and standard-issue villainy and little added to the old characters beyond the new situations. There are typical father-daughter disagreement-healing, self-esteem-crisis-solving, stereotype-refuting, family-togetherness-affirming plot threads running every which way through the movie in ways that hit every point on the moral checklist in uncomplicated family film fashion. There’s no imagination here, no chance to let the story build or develop in any interesting way whatsoever. It just clunks from plot point to plot point, hitting all of its rote emotional beats while that nutty squirrel blasts through every once in a while to keep things entertaining, even if only for a minute or two at a time. Otherwise, it all feels so lifeless, written and performed (with the exception of Sykes and Dinklage who are new to the series and so aren’t bored with it all yet) as if an enormous machine had spit out what it guessed humans like best about these kind of movies.

Playing right now at a theater near you, there are good to great movie choices for nearly every demographic. But say you’ve already seen all of those, or maybe your power went out and you need a cool place to sit for a couple of hours. You could certainly do worse than Ice Age: Continental Drift, an adequate movie that gets exactly where you think it’s going without anything too especially surprising or enjoyable (other than Scrat) along the way, but there’s nothing to out-and-out dislike either. It’s blandly harmless. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll get quoted in an ad with that.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Built in a Day: TO ROME WITH LOVE

To Rome with Love, Woody Allen’s forty-third film, is far too slight to hate outright. It’s a light, whimsical concoction made up of various plotlines following various sets of characters through Rome with no real sense of connection or cohesion. The film’s structure is of mild interest, the postcard-ready cinematography from Darius Khondji is gorgeous, the actors are fine and Allen’s writing is occasionally funny, but the whole enterprise feels so undercooked. Unlike the best of his European films – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and, my favorite of the bunch, Midnight in Paris – there’s no clear reason why the characters, stories or themes within should find themselves set in this particular city. Instead, we’re cycling through a fairly typical series of Allen plots with the lowest amount of charm and dramatic interest necessary to provoke a modicum of my affection in response.

The various plotlines that make up the film are arranged in a dawn-to-dusk structure that opens on the beautiful sunny streets of Rome and ends underneath a sky of twinkling stars, which makes the various timelines of the stories themselves – one takes place over the course of an afternoon, others during few weeks, one over several months – a mildly diverting jumble to keep straight. These plots, the simplest, most gently surrealistic and overtly comic conceits to come from Allen in quite some time, could hardly support a full feature on their own, so it’s good to see that the prolific writer-director has shuffled a handful of half-baked concepts into one film so that we could get them all over with in one underwhelming lump so he and we can move on to better things.

One story in the film follows a pair of native Italians, country newlyweds who arrive in the big city. The wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) gets lost and the husband (Alessandro Tiberi) finds himself mistaken by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) for her newest client and they’re in the process of arguing when the husband’s family shows up and create a drawn-out case of mistaken identity. The wife ends up stumbling into her own convoluted storyline with mistaken identity and mixed-up romantic signals and so the couple finds their fresh marriage tested in somnambulant screwball scenarios. I couldn’t find this story convincing or effective, although there’s a nice payoff when the husband ends up at a business meeting accompanied by the prostitute and all the business men start sweating bullets upon recognizing the new guy’s companion.

And that’s not even the broadest story in the film. That would be the scenario that finds Roberto Benigni as an average Italian family man who suddenly, inexplicably, becomes famous. He’s hounded everywhere he goes by photographers and reporters, gets invited to fabulous parties and on talk shows, and has beautiful women throwing themselves at them. It’s Allen’s attempt at lampooning those famous for being famous, but the mystery of it all here generates a lack of specificity that stretches too thin for effective satire. A much better comment on celebrity (in a roundabout way) is a storyline starring Allen himself as a retired classical music executive who travels to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter (Alison Pill) and her fiancé (Flavio Parenti), as well as their future in-laws. Allen’s delighted to find that the fiancé’s mortician father (Fabio Armiliato) has a great voice for opera, but will only sing in the shower.

All this is mere garnish, however, for the main course of the piece, a somewhat structurally complicated story about a middle-aged architect (Alec Baldwin) who wanders away from his wife’s sightseeing in order to visit the neighborhood in Rome where he spent some post-collegiate years. Once wandering down this memory lane, he meets a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who recognizes him and invites him to visit his apartment he shares with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and where they are anticipating the arrival of one of her friends from college (Ellen Page). Baldwin lingers around the edges of the scenes that follow, interacting with the characters in ways that make him seem removed from the actual physical, temporal reality of the goings-on. It soon becomes clear (although the film never spells it out) that the young man he met is in fact his younger self. He is literally wandering around, reliving his past. This is the only thread in the film that would almost be enough, with some expansion, to fill up a satisfying feature on its own.

What Woody Allen has here is a collection of scenes and sketches with little reason to be thrown together in this way in this city. But what he does have is a nice sense of commitment to the various conceits of varying realism and broadness, complete and unwavering. And once again Allen proves that he knows good ways to make use of actors, feeding off of their screen personas in ways that make them at once utterly believable in character and completely of a piece within the Allen oeuvre. Of the cast, I’d most like to see Pill, Gerwig, Page, and Eisenberg in a future Allen film. They’re pretty terrific here, finding good ways to perform Allen’s dialogue and scenarios while breathing life into what is ultimately fairly uninvolving lightweight material. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Danger to Themselves and Others: SAVAGES

In case we needed proof that director Oliver Stone has entered a relaxed late period of his filmmaking career, here comes Savages, a leisurely thriller that’s glancingly topical, set amidst recessionary drug-war politics and Mexican cartel violence, and at once complicated and reductive. He’s not stretching to make a pointed political statement or pumping up the style of what is already a fairly lurid, violent plot. Instead, he’s luxuriating in the nastiness and complexities of the script he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (from Winslow’s novel). He’s taking his time, letting characters simmer until the time is right to spring them into action, allowing the plot to throw unlikely allies together, reveal its secrets, spin its wheels, come to moments of fiery action and then back down, coast along with a mostly talented ensemble cast until falling into a satisfying shoot-‘em-up climax that throws in a last minute surprise as it rewrites itself as it goes along.

The movie, a pulpy series of noirish events unraveling under the hot Laguna Beach sun, concerns two peaceful pot-growing entrepreneurs (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) and the girl (Blake Lively) who loves them both. The steamy opening moments slowly introduce us to this tricky romantic triangle. The arrangement of relationships is open and the three of them are friendly, so it all works out. As the plot kicks into motion, the guys, on the advice of their crooked D.E.A. pal (John Travolta), are considering a substantial offer of money from a lawyer (Demián Bichir) representing a ruthless Mexican cartel that wants to hire them as a north-of-the-border supplier. When the guys make plans to skip town and turn them down, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek) orders her head henchman (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap the girl.

What follows is a movie of shifting alliances and jockeying for power on both sides of the border. Everyone involved wants to get out of this nasty entanglement with the best enriching scenario for themselves, but given the violent, ruthless stakes of it all, most of them will be lucky to escape with their lives. In the telling, Stone is much less interested in the specifics of the action – although he stages a thrilling mid-film sequence of literal highway robbery – than in the slow burn of mood and style. This is a thriller that doesn’t feel in a rush to get anywhere in particular. Instead, it serves up long sequences that sit with characters as they try to fight their way through the suffocating moral thicket into which they’ve tumbled headfirst in the pursuit of self-preservation and profit. It’s a movie playing with all sorts of tropes of gangster movies, and neo-noir Westerns, but it’s really all about bloody business negotiations.

The ensemble cast is up to the task with incredible faces on which to watch the negotiations, and all the other scheming and plotting, play out. Kitsch and Johnson are buddies in over their heads with squinty, low-rent Butch and Sundance charm (a duo namedropped in the film itself). Hayek has a calm face of deep anger, sadness and cold calculation, Del Toro, a brutality behind his literal mustache twirling, Travolta, a close-cropped greed that reveals itself in scenes with both sides of this mess. Lively’s character, when she's not reading overwritten narration, is a vexing dilemma, needy and terrified, willful and weak, and hard to read. She’s in a position of very little power in this scenario, but she’s desperate to find a way out nonetheless and works very hard to hide this desperation as she gets close to the one who holds her captive. It’s a tangle of emotional and business connections.

Though Stone spikes the narrative with shots that slowly fade to black and white or flash into various lenses and filters, this isn’t a chaotic stylistic experiment. This is a thriller of straightforward moodiness, a slow-building tension that watches its characters as they twist under pressure, desperate to find simple solutions to their complicated problems. What we have here is the work of a confident director who somehow makes the film feel like a work of mature exploitation. Because it’s a film of characters glowering and calculating, working their way through logic bordering on labyrinthine into triangulations that will hopefully give them the best advantage when on the other side of this bloody mess, moments of incredible violence (one man's whipped so hard his eyeball pops out of its socket) and icky tortures both physical and psychological (especially uncomfortable and unnecessary is a video that Del Toro shows Lively late in the film) feel both shocking and inevitable.

Stone’s always, especially in his more clearly political films, been interested in authority, who has it, who benefits from it, who is hurt by it, whether it be soldiers (Platoon, Born on the Forth of July), presidents (Nixon, W.), politicians (JFK), bankers (Wall Street), conquerors (Alexander), and media forces both institutions (Any Given Sunday) and the infamous (Natural Born Killers). In Savages, the only real authority in the drug trade comes from what can be bought with threats and violence. This is an unstable situation. What makes this a compelling representation of this concept is the way Stone keeps a sharp eye on the characters as they slowly make their moves towards gaining or retaining the upper hand.

Here, after a big violent shootout, one character begs the others to pull to the side of the road and vomits out of the getaway car. This is a vicious movie filled with scared characters desperately trying to find their way back into some kind of comfort zone, an amount of weary realism in aggressive, stylized pulp. Stone may eschew nuance for intensity, but he provides the texture to keep things interesting. It’s telling that, although Stone isn’t out to make any sort of overtly political statement and no character could be considered a moralistic center, at different points in the movie the Americans and the Mexicans each call the other “savages” behind the others’ backs. And then they each get the chance to live down to that description.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Teenage Dream: KATY PERRY: PART OF ME

Katy Perry, the pop star bombshell, has now reached the point in her celebrity ascension to ubiquity that a big screen concert documentary is hardly an unpredictable step. Paramount Pictures has gone all out, hiring the same production companies responsible for their hit Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a nice-enough piece of commercial fluff from last year, to churn out a relatively low-cost summer tentpole to capitalize on Perry’s very recent success. She’s had insanely catchy number-one-single after insanely catchy number-one-single off of her last album, Teenage Dream. She’s had a high-profile marriage to comedian Russell Brand, followed by an equally high-profile divorce. She’s been on countless talk shows and magazine covers, had flashy performances on award shows where she had lots of nominations and took home some awards. To top it all off, she’s had a lucrative, well-attended worldwide tour. All that and more is contained within the runtime of Katy Perry: Part of Me, which may not be one of the best films of the summer, but is certainly one of the best events.

The documentary marks the feature directorial debut of veteran reality show producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz. They’ve worked together on competition shows like Top Chef and Project Runway and are quite canny in their decision to port over their reality show style of storytelling to the backstage-concert documentary format in order to drive interest. There’s an approach that competition-based reality shows have of quickly sketching in biographies in ways that draw in audience interest and play upon audience sympathies. That happens here to great, calculating effect. Luckily, Perry has an interesting story that Cutforth and Lipsitz can emphasize without stretching too much for good material. Her parents, evangelical ministers, raised their children in a sheltered environment. Perry’s early singing came in church and, later, on a gospel record. Once grown, Perry moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big and, after years of struggle, she did.

The film follows her world tour chronologically while cutting between the 3D spectacle of her on-stage production numbers and 2D home-video footage, photographs, and talking heads, mostly her staff and family (I especially liked the brief moments we spend with her darling grandmother), that weave in Perry’s past. The directors cut between performances of her best known songs in ways that may not resemble the concerts’ set lists, but provide emotional resonance to whatever is going on off-stage or from her personal history, going from, say, talk of her earlier failed attempts to be molded by various record executives into a performance of her song “Who Am I Living For?”  Obvious, but effective. The most powerful of these moments comes with a shockingly honest backstage moment during which her marriage is falling apart and she lies weeping on a cot before begging her makeup and hair people to get started for the show. Smart camera placement shows us her shaky efforts to compose herself as she crouches on a lift that will take her onstage to start her performance. She makes it, and the directors fade into a tearful performance of “The One That Got Away.”

With bits of backstage and background business woven so skillfully into the performances themselves, this concert film is a cut above the competition. It tells a good story. But the main attraction is probably going to be the songs themselves, the movie’s biggest success and weakness and what makes the movie an impressive event. The technical aspects of her tour translate to film quite well. Perry has lots of on-stage charisma that translates into on-screen charm. Her concert is a fun production, filled to bursting with goofy primary-colored costumes, talented background dancers, a dusting of pyrotechnics, confetti and foam, and, especially important to the 3D effect, layers of screens behind her and layers of screaming fans in front of her. (The best uses of the third dimension are laser beams that zip off the stage right towards your face.) The sound mixing of the movie gives her songs a boost with the thudding bass and enveloping surround sound definitely helping to give her live performances a you-are-there feel. The stagey spectacle does its theatrical job to full effect.

As for her songs, you already know if you like them or not. (And if you don’t, you probably won’t be seeing this movie anyways). Some of them, I could have done without. Her song “Peacock” is especially awful with overtly covertly dirty lyrics that can barely be called double entendres. (They’re more like half entendres at best.) But I think a great many of her songs – like “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls,” “Firework,” “Part of Me,” “Hot N Cold” – are something like great pure pop confections. Those sequences in the film turned the theater into a party at my screening; the delight in the room was infectious. When Perry points to the audience and yells “Sing!” as she slides into a chorus, the on-screen spectators sang right out and so did the teenagers and their parents sitting all around me.

Cutforth and Lipsitz’s approach to assembling the film pays off. I was surprised how, between expertly produced numbers, the film managed to feel compelling and candid (often enough, at least) despite its gleaming corporate promotional packaging. This is a documentary with a clear agenda to deglamorize and humanize a pop star, making her on some level understandable and relatable, only to build her façade back up, leaving her star power shining all the more powerfully by the end. I think it more or less gets there. There are lots of better movies to see this summer, but I doubt there will be many more that feel like such a theatrical experience. For the full effect, see it on as big a screen as possible in a theater with a booming sound system. It’s fun, definitely cheaper than buying a concert ticket and probably more comfortable than attending.

Note: One nice backstage moment involves a funny Lady Gaga cameo. Now there’s a pop star made for 3D. 

With Great Power: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

At last, a big budget superhero movie that doesn’t seem to be holding anything back for the sequel. Unlike the planning and groundwork that consumed so much of even the best of Marvel’s pre-Avengers films – those films were all leading up to the admittedly spectacular climax that was all two-hours-plus of this summer’s biggest hit – The Amazing Spider-man tells a good story all the way through. There are peaks and valleys with escalating, relatable stakes every step closer to a spectacular, surprisingly moving action finale. It’s a film that takes it’s time to build characters, lives with them, thinks through the impact of the plot’s events on them, and creates a wholly convincing fantasy world in which superpowers can come along and be the biggest blessing or the most horrible curse. This is one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen in a long time.

That’s funny, since the biggest problem I, and I’d guess many will, have with this newest big screen Spider-man is the timing. Oh, not the pacing of the plot, but the timing of its release. It’s only been ten years since Sam Raimi helped kick off the superhero blockbuster craze with a buoyant, charming, action film, only eight years since his Spider-man 2, quite possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made, and only five years since his Spider-man 3 was a modest disappointment to fans like me. That series, with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the teen nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider to become the titular hero, is still so fresh in my mind that the biggest problem I had with this new version was clearing the old out of my mind. It didn’t take too long before I had and soon enough I was swinging right along with this fresh take. It may not contain anything as iconic as the rain-soaked upside-down kiss, but it has plenty of emotional heft to call its own.

Director Marc Webb made his debut three years ago with (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory. He may not be the most obvious choice to helm such a colossal effects-oriented undertaking, but he handles that showy, explosive material quite well. The impact of his first film can be felt in the nicely observed early stretches of this film where we’re introduced to our new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as he shuffles and mumbles his way through his average life with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). It’s been said many times before, but bears repeating, that Spider-man is the best of all superheroes precisely because of his everyman qualities. He has problems with family, with school, with girls. For him, being bitten by that spider (the exact details of the new version need not be recounted here) is both an exhilarating puzzle of an athletic workout, puzzling over new skills and powers, and a deeply dangerous worry.  Swinging from building to building may be fun, but once you start to take on greater responsibility, danger to himself and the ones he loves become all too real.

The plot of the film (the screenplay is from James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent, who worked on Raimi’s Spideys and Steve Kloves, who adapted the Harry Potters) involves Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), a man without an arm who is desperately trying to find a way to regenerate tissue in humans by crossing with a patient’s genes the DNA of animals like lizards, who can grow back lopped off limbs whenever they please. Peter’s late father used to work for Connors, so he’s drawn into the scientific plot fairly early, and is soon after committed to help fix things after they, of course, go wrong, as they must in a superhero movie. One thing leads to another and the good Dr. becomes a slimy villain. At least his schemes doesn’t grow too outlandish and, though his own physical attributes gain something like superpowers, he can’t exactly be called a supervillain, He’s a mad scientist who becomes a force of nature. Complicating the issue is that his intern is one Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a pretty girl from Peter’s school who picks up on his Spidey confidence and asks him out. Their relationship develops tenderly, in beautifully played scenes that dance between comedy, romance, and awkwardness. Peter woos her, even confides in her, to a point, despite the tension of her police chief father (Denis Leary), who is currently on the hunt for both Connors and the masked vigilante known as Spider-man.

As you can tell, the movie tells a fairly routine superhero origin story, but it tells it with such a depth of feeling and passion. The effects are convincing, yes. But the real attraction here is the warmth and emotion behind the suit and mask, the real sense of physicality and danger in the chases and confrontations. The cinematography from John Schwartzman is nimble and acrobatic, swinging through New York’s concrete caverns and slipping with clean, clear movements through fast-moving, mostly comprehensible action sequences. The actors are uniformly terrific, from the parental compassion in Sheen and Field, to the beautiful brainy Emma Stone and her pragmatic, funny tough-guy dad in Leary. And Garfield, for his part, carries the movie, selling the transformation from socially paralyzed underdog to superpowered, sometimes overconfident, underdog as well as his soft romanticism, sharp smarts, and heavy guilt.

I never expected to like The Amazing Spider-man to the extent I did, loving as I do two-thirds of what Raimi did with this classic comics’ character over the past decade. (As much as I liked it, Amazing has nothing on Raimi's first two Spider-man films.) And yet this happens all the time in comics where one writer or illustrator ends his or her run on a series and a new artist (or group of artists) comes on board to make the character new again. That’s what happens here, thrillingly, refreshingly so. Marc Webb has made a terrifically compelling superhero movie with genuinely tense action set pieces, many with vertiginous heights and scary drops, and a welcome focus on characters that helps ground it all in very high stakes. What a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. At the risk of sounding too corny, this Spider-man is amazing, indeed.
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