Friday, August 31, 2012

Irregular Exorcise: THE POSSESSION


What’s stuck in the public imagination from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, still one of the great horror films, is all the paranormal effects work: the spinning head, the growling voice, the twisted limbs, the levitating bedroom furniture. So it’s no surprise really that a great many exorcist movies that have followed in the decades since have focused on delivering a clattering cacophony of horror at the expense of the whole experience, even though that's not exactly entirely what made that film so effective. Director Ole Bornedal’s creepy possessed-little-girl movie aptly named The Possession has a screenplay from Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (they of Knowing) that has learned all the right lessons from The Exorcist by placing its emphasis on the all-too-human characters who are just living a normal life before strange events start to work their way into the fabric of everyday life.

At the film’s start we meet an ordinary family. The father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a college basketball coach, arrives to pick up his two daughters for his night with them. The older daughter (Madison Davenport) is a drama queen in her early teens. The younger daughter (Natasha Calis) is an energetic vegetarian animal-lover. He and their mother (Kyra Sedgwick) have been divorced three months now and he’s finally moving into a new house. This has understandably put some strain into these young girls’ lives. Their mother has been dating a dentist. Their father is fielding calls from an out-of-state university that wants to encourage him to coach a bigger team at a more prestigious school. Times are tough, but life moves on. These characters are convincingly drawn and well acted, parents and kids alike. If it weren’t destined to become a horror film, this could easily have become a nice, tender little family drama.

But horror it is. The younger daughter picks up a strange wooden box at a yard sale and convinces her father to let her buy it. Now, this box has been seen in the opening scene causing a frail old woman’s violently implausible collapse that saw her flung across the room, so we know nothing good will come of this. Sure enough, the daughter starts misbehaving. First, she’s merely mumbling to herself, but as time goes on, she starts to cultivate a cold, hollow stare and an eerily slippery memory. At the breakfast table one day she stabs at her father with a fork. Later, she’ll be found sitting on her bed, cradling the box, covered in moths. In both cases, she claims to have no memory of the incident. Young Calis gives one of those perfectly creepy child performances that the horror genre provides from time to time, able to shift effortlessly from scary monster to adorable little girl in the span of half a second.

As the creepiness escalates in standard horror movie ways – mysterious movements, dark shapes, flickering lights, and some skin-crawling body horror effects – the divorced parents are pushed further apart. The mother doesn’t want to believe that her sweet little girl is being taken over by some force emanating from the box, even if that’s not exactly what anyone is articulating. The father, on the other hand, takes this box to local experts who inform him about the folklore surrounding the box. Don’t open it, he’s told. It’s too late for that. Again, creepy stuff, but what makes this all work so well is the focus on character. If it were forced to rely simply on the well-crafted spookiness, the movie would fall a little flat. The complications and shading that come from good actors giving good performances help make the film far more frightening than it otherwise would be.

In a way, it’s a film about the anxieties of parenthood. Morgan’s character seems like a good dad, funny, patient, and tough when he needs to be. The fear that The Possession taps into is that of psychic-spiritual damage to a child, not through any wrongdoing on the part of the parents, but from forces beyond parental control. This young girl is just south of adolescence, on the cusp of uncontrollable changes. During this time her parents won’t always be able to figure out what’s wrong with her, what influences she’s exposed herself to. That’s natural, but the paranormal circumstances reveal this anxiety prematurely to both the adults and the child herself. Look at the scene where the little girl looks in the mirror and sees something in the back of her throat, a great horror jolt and a key piece of thematic detail. That’s what’s scary here beyond the impressive effects and creepy atmospherics that increasingly take over the film until it concludes in a standard, but nonetheless effective, sequence that finds a likable Hasidic rabbi (one played by the musician Matisyahu, no less) performing an impromptu ceremony in a last-ditch effort to set things right. The box closes the girl off, drives her parents away, and takes control of her. Her family is helpless, confused, frightened and because the movie has taken its time to create characters worth caring about, it’s all the scarier. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: LAWLESS


John Hillcoat’s Lawless has all the right ingredients to become a great movie, but lacks the focus to truly capitalize on these assets. His earlier films, muddy, blood-soaked outback western The Proposition and bombed-out, hardscrabble, post-apocalyptic The Road, were films so downbeat, atmospheric and tangibly grim that by the time the end credits rolled I felt like I had dirt crunching under my fingernails. Lawless, a promising based-on-a-true-story drama about three small-town, deep-South, bootlegging brothers in the age of Prohibition, is well cast, well photographed and contemplatively paced. By the end, though, it’s only conjured up a level of surface grime and narrative muddiness. It’s a nice try, but all this craftsmanship has gone into a finished product that’s mostly inert.

The moonshine-cooking brothers at the center of the film are a tough, monosyllabic World War I veteran (Tom Hardy), a brutish, bearded alcoholic (Jason Clarke), and a squirrely, dopey hothead (Shia LaBeouf). They run their operation with the full cooperation of the local sheriff, but one day, in swoops a preening big-city representative of the law (Guy Pearce, sans eyebrows). It’s a setup not unlike a Western, with charismatic guys strutting around, hands on their hips, fingers brushing just above heavy holsters. There are pretty women – a recent arrival who works the bar (Jessica Chastain) and the preacher’s shy daughter (Mia Wasikowska) – a local cripple boy who helps out the criminals (Dane DeHaan), and a stately, blunt crooked official (Gary Oldman). Then, here comes the stranger who threatens the small town’s lawless, but weirdly stable, state.

The script by Nick Cave (a musician who also wrote the fiddle-and-banjo folk-music score) is full of vague, evocative mumbling and perplexing character relationships that are at once sharply simple and complex, given to halting development. The plot moves forward in long, languorous periods of stillness and sporadic rise-to-modest-riches montage interrupted only by gory splashes of violence. The film is effectively one of introductions and set-ups that sometimes wind their long, slow way to some sort of resolution. It’s sporadically effective, in short bursts of righteous anger, in which bloodied louts reappear in startling moments of retribution, and scenes in which flawed antiheroes and worse villains clash in a warped cops-and-criminals routine. At best, it’s a film that’s like a backwoods Boardwalk Empire.

But for all the picturesque dusty roads, lush forest landscapes, period detail, and vividly inarticulate performances, the film remains static and unfocused. It’s hard to watch a film introduce such formidable talents as Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman in separate striking scenes – the former in an impeccably sound-designed church service, and the latter in a tommy-gun assault down the middle of Main Street – and then thoroughly squander their characters. They fade into the background. Wasikowska lives out an undernourished romantic subplot while Oldman just flat out disappears after two scenes or so. But that’s just indicative of the film’s unfocused approach to storytelling that doggedly refuses to allow clarity into the characterizations. Take Chastain, for instance, who simply floats through the margins and, despite experience some horrific (off-screen) abuse, exists only so that Tom Hardy can have someone other than his brothers to grunt at.

To some extent, I was willing to follow the aimless nature of the film simply because Hillcoat is such a strong director. There is considerable craftsmanship here, striking images, impressive sequences, stunning shots. What’s lacking, ultimately, is a reason to care. By the time the film dead ends in a climactic confrontation, I found myself realizing that I still knew very little about these characters, even as I bristled at the uncomfortable, ill-fitting ugliness that warps the whole thing into a pat clash between good and evil, with the scrappy small town criminals fighting back against a slimy federal influence. It’s a strange note to end on, but no stranger than the wistful epilogue that follows. This is a film that’s well made on every technical level, but deeply confused about what it’s about. It’s a film about rough, violent entrepreneurs and slick, violent lawmen and yet remains uncommitted as to what it wants to say about that, if anything at all.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Chase: PREMIUM RUSH


As a screenwriter, David Koepp is among the most successful Hollywood has. He’s had a hand in writing an Indiana Jones, two Jurassic Parks, a Spider-man, a Men in Black, a Mission: Impossible, and several original screenplays for some of the most distinctive directors of the past twenty years including Brian De Palma, Robert Zemeckis, and David Fincher. That’s an impressive resume of popcorn filmmaking, but where he’s somewhat-secretly come into his own is as a writer-director. He’s become a genre journeyman filmmaker par excellence. With a clean, consistently professional style and a confident ease with actors, he’s created films like the creepy Stephen King adaptation Secret Window and the charming, gently moving, comic paranormal romance Ghost Town. His newest film is Premium Rush, co-written with his occasional writing partner John Kamps. It’s a light, sunny, zippy chase movie that starts in motion and never lets up, pedaling full speed ahead all the time.

Set in the world of bike messengers in New York City, the film opens with a speed demon named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) riding as fast as he can down city streets, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoid collisions. In voice over, he extols the virtues of his dangerous customized bike: no breaks, one gear, the pedals always in motion. That’s an apt description of the film as well, for right off the bat his boss (Aasif Mandvi) sends him to pick up an envelope that must be delivered in 90 minutes’ time. Premium Rush. Intercepting this envelope is of supreme importance to a sweaty, nervous, desperate detective (Michael Shannon) who fixes Wilee with a wild-eyed stare and asks if he could take it off his hands. Perplexed by this odd request, a request that’s against company policy anyways, Wilee takes off. The detective takes off after him. The chase is on.

Filmed in smooth, sliding shots crisply edited together, the film is lightening fast, quick and uncomplicated, with a structure that’s a thing of beauty. After some time running forwards, it spins its gears backwards to speedily fill in the story of the envelope –the young woman (Jamie Chung) who needed it sent and why this bad guy needs to get his hands on it – interlocking with the scenes just witnessed with breathless ease before smashing forwards again. Koepp keeps things fast and funny, folding in a rival bike messenger (Sean Kennedy), Wilee’s somewhat exasperated girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), and a tenacious bike cop (Christopher Place) as the envelope crisscrosses Manhattan in a messenger bag, the deadline drawing nearer.

This is a film of great stunt work and charisma from all involved. Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps the heart of the movie pumping, pedaling constantly through many of his scenes, eager to keep the creep away from the apparently precious contents of the envelope. It’s a great, expressive physical performance that’s convincing in its athletic detail. He’s playing a young guy with an intense job of fast reflexes and reckless skill who gets pulled into action movie shenanigans just because he’s good at what he does. He’s immediately likable and, as the full extent of the plot comes into focus, it’s easy to hope that he gets everything set right and that he remains unharmed. Part of the reason is Gordon-Levitt’s inherent charm, but some of this is the Michael Shannon factor. He’s one of our greatest actors (see Take Shelter if you haven’t yet) and here he’s a fine slimeball in the best hiss-worthy tradition. Instead of playing his crooked cop as a scene-chomping villain or a misunderstood guy in over his head, he’s just a mean brute sloppily covering up his mistakes. That’s even scarier.

The danger in the movie is palpable, with bikes weaving this way and that, swerving around obstacles, in and around cars both moving, barreling through intersections and switching lanes, and parked, with doors unpredictably opening and closing. The end credits have an iPhone-shot behind-the-scenes look at a real on-set bike accident, Gordon-Levitt grinning as he shows off his bloody arm like Jackie Chan once did in credits of his films. Indeed, the choreography of the bikes has something of the grinning skill and speed of a well-executed fight scene, filmed and edited for clarity and speed. It’s especially thrilling to see an action movie so committed to a great gimmick. Refreshingly, there’s only one gunshot in the entire 91-minute running time. The pace is breathless, the thrills relentless. The film turns New York into a citywide obstacle course with all the nervous, propulsive energy that comes with bikes careening about and coming within a hair of crashing at every turn.

It’s a movie of simple human geography – Koepp cuts to a grid of the city streets from time to time – and feats of endurance as convincingly portrayed by stunt drivers and effects artists in a seamless illusion. As a summer packed with the typical bloated blockbusters –several quite good – is winding down, it’s nice to have a late-August break, an after-dinner mint to stave off cinematic indigestion. This is a film that’s mercifully simple and skillful, original yet comfortable, straightforward and speedy. It takes what could be standard genre stuff and livens it up with creativity and adrenaline. It’s a chase picture so go-go-go even the final shot before the cut to the credits is in motion and contains a fun visual trick. Motion picture indeed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Grumpier Old Men: THE EXPENDABLES 2


Instead of complaining that they just don’t make movies like they used to, Sylvester Stallone has gone ahead and made some like he used to. First came The Expendables, a surprise summer hit a couple years back that brought Stallone and a group of 80’s action stars back onto the big screen right next to a few relatively younger action icons for good measure. That was better than I thought it’d be, often earnestly straightforward, but it turns out that movie was just a feature-length warm up to get these old guys back in fighting shape. Now here’s The Expendables 2, every bit the aggressive, isolationist, simplistic, bloody, blockheaded action movie that its predecessor was, a determined movie that muscles its way through energetic action sequence after energetic action sequence. This time around, it lacks the surprise factor, but it’s tighter, funnier, and more self-aware. The explosions are bigger, the combat is louder, the choreography is more inventive, and the fun manages to outweigh the dumb.

In the fictional world of The Expendables, third-world countries are either saved or enslaved by aging mercenaries. This time a MacGuffin went down with a plane in the backwoods of Russia so Bruce Willis sends Stallone and his crew of Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Liam Hemsworth (the youngest of the bunch by twenty years), to retrieve it. Willis even convinces them to take along a woman (Nan Yu), the only character preventing the movie from becoming an all-male action revue. (She spends a lot of her screen time trying not to roll her eyes at these goofballs around her). The group better hurry and find that device so the evil villain Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) doesn’t find it first. So the script by Richard Wenk and Stallone himself is simplicity itself, a point-and-shoot search-and-find kind of movie that’s been done many times over.

What makes this version work is the way it goes all out with action that just goes on and on, finding greasy, bloody, brute-force slapstick in fun choreography and returns to the well of the quipping action one-liner so often it’s endearing. When the movie opens, the bad guys have captured a Chinese billionaire and the gang, grinning ear to ear, rolls over the horizon to the rescue in armored jeeps with messages like “Knock Knock” and “Bad Attitude” painted on the side. That detail made me smile, imagining these guys picking out stencils and laughing to themselves as they decorated their war machines. But anyways, not five minutes go by before Jet Li (in what is basically a cameo) runs out of ammo and beats down his attackers with a frying pan. This is a movie that’s just grabbing at anything near by and throwing it into the mix, but it manages to pull up short of spoofing itself. Somehow the whole thing never quite grows as crazy as it threatens to.

Simon West takes over for Stallone as director on this film, leaving the star more time to focus on enunciation. This sequel, unlike the rough-around-the-edges original, is a slick, professional film with shiny spectacle covered over in surface grit. West’s good with big, empty, R-rated blockbusters. He is, after all, the director of Con Air. He knows how to juggle multiple distinctive talents, giving them each fun little moments to do what they do best. That’s helpful since it’s hard to keep track of who the characters are. They’re guys with names like Lee, Gunner, Church, Troll, and Trench, but that hardly matters. They’re just generic tough guys gruffly bonding over combat exercises. What’s memorable about the characters are the personas behind them. By the end of the picture, Arnold Schwarzenegger has put in an appearance, Chuck Norris has walked through just long enough to tell a lame Chuck Norris joke, and dozens upon dozens of faceless Bad Guys are dead. There’s so much self-referential winking – “I’ll be back!” Willis yells, to which Schwarzenegger responds “Yippee-ki-yay.” – and machine gun rat-a-tat-tatting that it at times grows monotonous.

Still, I must say I enjoyed it. The action is well done, even suspenseful at times. When, for instance, one of Statham’s fistfights drifts closer and closer to a whirring helicopter blade, I was kind of worried for him. But the best part of it all is that there’s a sense that everyone involved was completely happy to be working on this big, dumb action movie. The picture is covered in oldies on the soundtrack, when it’s not filled with gunfire or explosions or mumbling, creating a party atmosphere. They’re having fun with this material, thin as it is, and that shines through. The best example is Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is hamming it up, having a great time as the villain, strutting around in a black trenchcoat, speaking heavily-accented, vaguely threatening nonsense, and glowering threateningly behind a pair of sunglasses that he delicately folds up and places on a table before his final fight scene in the movie. If you had told me even yesterday that this would be one of the most likable performances of the year, I might have doubted you. Oh, sure, there are lots of better performances this year, but few so plainly, appealingly, enjoyable. I knew I should theoretically want to see his character defeated, but more than a small part of me wanted to see him live to fight another day. 

All the while, the movie rockets forward with an unstoppable shoot-‘em-up energy. It’s the kind of movie where someone can kick a knife into a man’s chest and it’s not only goofy and intense in the same moment, it’s actually important to the story. (Well, sort of.) The whole thing’s so simple and eager to be an audience-pleaser that it mostly is. When it’s not bogged down in some of the dullest exposition you’re likely to hear, the movie is fast, explosive, and good enough. When it’s in motion, there’s fun to be had. The movie starts well and ends well with energetic set pieces and by the time it's finishing starting, it's time to start finishing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

He Sees Dead People: PARANORMAN


The creative people at Laika, the stop-motion animation company that first brought us Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, are back with a first-rate family-friendly horror movie called ParaNorman. It’s the story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see ghosts and though it’s scary, it’s not too scary. The film may have more in common stylistically with Poltergeist and Halloween than Scooby Doo, but its heart is all R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps books and Gil Kenan’s underappreciated Monster House, yet another horror movie for kids. ParaNorman is the safe, fun kind of creepy scary that wraps up the danger and suspense in heaping helpings of humor, slapstick, and life lessons.  I’ll bet brave and precocious kids will happily, if maybe a bit uneasily, gobble it up, mostly because I know I would’ve done so when I was 11-years-old, as I did now.

Written and co-directed by debut filmmaker Chris Butler (his co-director is animation veteran Sam Fell, who previously helmed Aardman’s Flushed Away and Universal’s Tale of Despereaux) the film opens with Norman having a good chat with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who just happens to be dead. In fact, most of his social interaction happens with these floating ghosts who inhabit this small, sleepy Massachusetts town. Of course, no one believes him. The poor kid is surrounded by people who just don’t understand: his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), his older cheerleader sister (Anna Kendrick), and the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). He’s a loner who only has a semi-clueless chubby kid (Tucker Albrizzi) to talk to, even though they’ve only just met.

The town’s getting ready to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the town’s claim to fame: the Puritans’ hanging of a girl they declared a witch who, before she died, is said to have cursed the judge and jury to walk the earth as zombies. But, that hasn’t happened in all this time, so the town has grabbed onto the historical anecdote and made it their main reason for existence. On the eve of this anniversary, as the school kids prepare to put on a reenactment – complete with their children’s choir rendition of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” – the town’s resident crazy guy (John Goodman) runs up to Norman and urges him to use his powers of communicating with the dead to stop the witch’s ghost (Jodelle Ferland) from returning to exact revenge by activating her curse.

Wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what happens and now it’s up to Norman to avoid the zombies shuffling through town, find a way to break the witch’s curse and stop it all from tearing the town apart. It might be too late. The zombies – shambling corpses with green skin hanging loosely off of fragile bones – are already causing quite a bit of chaos. Unfortunately, when the night grew dark and stormy and the curse came whirling into action, Norman was stuck with his sister, the bully, the chubby kid, and that kid’s older brother (Casey Affleck). They aren’t exactly much help. At one point Norman grumbles that if he’d known what breaking the curse entailed, he’d have “gotten stuck with a different group of people who hate me.”

What keeps the potential intensity of it all manageable is the way Butler, Fell and their crew of technicians keep the nice handcrafted feeling – the textures of the sets and figures are so intricate, vivid and tactile – animating the macabre dollhouse aesthetic while heading off into two pleasantly surprising parallel avenues of attack. Firstly, the film is proudly funny, with all manner of coy references, chipper dialogue, and sight gags jumping right along, puncturing scenes before they get overwhelmingly scary and sliding instead into pleasantly creepy, gorgeously animated, territory. The zombies themselves, initially only great jump-scares and slow-moving threats, are used for both their menace and their inherent goofy physical properties, losing limbs that continue to crawl around and staring agape at the strange modern world around them. They’re as confused as they are dangerous. After all, they’re from 1712.

Secondly, the film finds some unexpected depth in its story of a kid bullied because he’s different, eventually drawing some nice parallels with the town’s violent history. I’d never have guessed that ParaNorman would become, even casually and in an unemphatic, and all the more powerful for it, way, a film about how a town’s history informs its present, about how bullying is a sad fact of human nature, about how retrograde fears and mob mentalities never really go away, they just return in newer, modern iterations. By the end, the striking visuals and creepy fun plot add up to some good lessons and sweet, moving emotional resolution.

From the movie’s opening scratchy, faux-retro studio logos that fade into a cheesy zombie movie that is revealed to be what Norman and his ghost grandma are watching on TV, I knew I was in for something special. This is a movie made with great care and attention to detail, bursting in every frame with imagination and creativity. It’s clear that the filmmakers love this genre and love their characters. And that’s contagious. This is a terrific entertainment that hurtles forward with atmosphere and energy, a fun ride to a satisfying destination.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Do Unto Others: COMPLIANCE


You may recall hearing about this story in the news at the time. In 2004 a prank caller rang up a fast food restaurant and, claiming to be a cop, had the manager bring an employee, a young woman, into the office and hold her there. The caller led the manager through all kinds of degrading actions, including a strip search of this innocent employee, before the deception crumbled. That’s true. Those are the basic facts. Writer-director Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a tough, harrowing film that expertly recounts these events in terrifyingly convincing ordinary detail. The film starts with big white letters filling the screen informing the audience of the story’s veracity. Even so, it’s hard to believe, not because the events within are so implausible, but because you don’t want to believe.

This is undoubtedly one of the most harrowing films of the year, a constant uncomfortable escalation of tension and dread that plays like a tightening vise. What makes it so intense is how Zobel easily draws us into the realism of the situation. The production design feels so specifically worn-down and ordinary. The greasy yellow uniforms of the employees, the weathered signage littering the kitchen and halls, and the slimy tiles of the backroom ooze with the feeling of commonplace, everyday accoutrements of a minimum-wage customer service job. As the work day begins, the manager (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged woman who struggles to connect with her younger employees, is stressed out by nothing more than looming corporate anger because of an unknown shift worker’s mishandling of the freezer. It’s an ordinary day in an ordinary place.

At the height of the evening rush the phone call comes. The voice on the other end (Pat Healy) introduces himself as Officer Daniels and says that he has a woman in his office complaining that an employee at the restaurant stole money from her purse. The suspect is blonde, he says. “Becky?” replies the manager. “That’s right,” the voice says. It’s a scene of rapidly accumulating unease. The manager’s clearly making a mistake, falling right into his trap that plays out across the screen in much the same way Dorothy is bamboozled by the phony wizard in the sepia tone Kansas of The Wizard of Oz. But the consequences here are far more dangerous.

It’s easy to see how easily the manager falls for it. She’s harried, busy, preoccupied. Once she misses the initial warning signs, once she’s unknowingly taking part in the caller’s deception, it’s harder to back out even as the situation escalates. Becky (Dreama Walker) is brought into the manager’s office and the search begins. First, her purse and phone are taken away and scrutinized at the caller’s request. Then, she turns out her pockets. Then she disrobes. At each escalation, there are hesitations and negotiations between the women and the supposed policeman on the other end of the line. What makes the film so edge-of-the-seat suspenseful is not necessarily that the ending is in doubt – although “how bad will it get?” is certainly an urgent pins-and-needles question – but because the behavior every step of the way is at once believable and inscrutable.

This is a film that has no time for a wide shot. After the film’s opening establishing shots, Zobel and cinematographer Adam Stone hold the camera close. The central horror unfolds in tight medium shots and close-ups, trapping the audience in a position to study the emotions on the actors’ faces. Dowd and Walker have moments where their heads fill the frame and we see doubt, pain, and pleading confusion twitch in their muscles. Zobel observes each and every squirm in ways that faintly recall nothing less than the powerful close-ups of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. This approach to the material wouldn’t work if the performances weren’t so great and precise. Dowd’s painful, and painfully understandable, initial lapse of judgment is bad enough, but the continual creepy descent into powerlessness that Walker goes through, a wringer of humiliations and degradations, is almost physically difficult to watch.

Together, these two actresses navigate these scenes with sharp emotional reflexes. Dowd’s performance grows creepy at times as we watch the growing extent to which she’ll ignore doubt about the situation to penetrate the buzz of regular restaurant duties in her busy mind. But what’s truly terrifying and sorrowful is how completely she allows herself to believe the voice on the phone, even feeling a sense of pride when he congratulates her on all her help. Walker’s performance is just as stunning, a fearlessly emotionally naked performance. Her bright-eyed employee feels so immediately real in her first scenes that by the time she’s held captive by her own boss, it’s no wonder it becomes unbearable to watch. All the while, there’s the buzz of Healy’s voice over the phone. It’s a slippery performance, a work of convincing matter-of-fact sadism, that is spiky and deeply upsetting. Zobel forces the audience to sit uncomfortably with these characters held hostage, played with a sick puppeteer’s skill by nothing more than a thoroughly normal-sounding voice on the other end of the phone. It’s this immediacy that makes the film so powerful an exploration. This is a film that regards the behavior of its characters with precision, refusing to explicitly explain and rarely looking away.

It is an instant legend that many in the audience for the Sundance premiere of Compliance walked out and that a question and answer session afterwards was contentious. I saw the film just a couple of weeks ago in a festival setting and the screening shed nearly a fourth of the audience by the time it was over. This is a film that gets up under the skin with deeply upsetting subject matter, but I don’t think that’s what upsets some so. The visceral discomfort comes not from exploitation of the true story or of the actresses involved, but from the film’s deeply felt empathy with the characters and the situation. That’s not to say Zobel lets any character escape the full implications of their actions, but that he allows the characters to be who they are without cheap demonization. It’s all too easy to sit in a comfortable seat in the dark and scoff at the screen. What’s far more difficult is to watch a terrible situation enacted on the screen and come to think about it seriously in an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding.

Why did the caller do what he did? We may never know and the film provides no answers. Similarly, there are no easy answers to the behavior of the manager and those she ropes in to help her carry out the caller’s orders, just as it’s not easy to watch an energetic young woman slowly lose power over herself and her situation. But what Zobel provides is a chance to view sensational material from a sober, clinical viewpoint. It’s not easy, but it’s a strong effort, a simple provocation and a work of powerful filmmaking.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Magical Thinking: THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN

It’s not always promising when a movie starts with the central characters sitting down and saying that their story might be hard to believe. That’s what happens in the opening scene of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, when the Greens, a just-south-of-middle-aged couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), sit down across a conference table from an incredibly patient adoption official (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and begin to tell their tale. We go back about a year to find them reacting understandably sorrowfully to the news that they will be unable to conceive a child. That night, they channel this type of mourning into an activity. They write down dream attributes for their child, place the list in a box, and bury it in the garden behind their picturesque small-town-Americana home. That night, between a magical thunderclap and the rain falling upwards, something emerges from their garden. Not only that, it gets in their house. Needless to say, they’re a little confused when confronted with a muddy little boy (CJ Adams) who calls himself Timothy and has a handful of healthy, green leaves growing out of his ankles.

Back in the framing device, the adoption official doesn’t quite believe them, but since there’s still most of the running time to go, she allows them to continue telling their story. Happy to have the chance, the Greens tell all about their time with this son, a precocious 10-year-old boy who just appeared. Writer-director Peter Hedges specializes in films about families and, though this one’s not as good as his Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life, it’s ultimately a very quiet, very low-key little movie about how a child can change a family dynamic, sometimes for the better. The Greens casually accept Timothy into their lives, introducing him to their family as a “sudden, miraculous” son. The family members, for their part, react to the child in much the same way that they’ve responded to his parents. Garner’s high-strung perfectionist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is skeptical, but their loving, elderly Aunt and Uncle (Lois Smith and M. Emmet Walsh) take to him write away. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s distant dad (David Morse) is standoffish and hard to connect with. In these ways, the film is a little allegory about how dealing with children can be a way for people to relive or reject the ways they’ve been treated in the past.

Hedges’s film has all the simple force of a thin storybook of magical thinking. It works on its own off-handedly bizarre terms, but the extent to which it works on you will completely depend on how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. I found myself holding the film at arm’s length for a good long while. It’s so intent on pushing emotional buttons. Here’s where the boy goes to visit a sweet old man in the hospital. Here’s where the boy interacts with the stuffy businesswoman (Dianne Wiest), the interesting, slightly older girl (Odeya Rush), the frustrated soccer coach (Common), or the local pencil factory foreman (Ron Livingston). Each scene has a clear thematic or plot point. Each moment of uplift or mysterious, mystical mumbo jumbo is scored to an insistent piano-heavy score that over-underlines the intended emotion. And that kid, he goes around behaving vaguely childlike and slightly alien, bright and quick-witted on the one hand and a total blank slate on the other, while his parents try their hardest to be parents to him. Even though they make mistakes, they really aren’t mistakes because it’ll still be okay in the end. It’s a twinkly-eyed wishful-thinking version of parenting.

By the end, I was surprised that I was more or less okay with all of that. It’s not exactly The Boy with Green Hair or anything, but it’s still pretty hokey. Still, the movie is so straight-faced and earnest about its mildly perplexing fantasy conceit, so insistent in its magical-child-provokes-the-best-out-of-people plotlines even when they dead-end or remain half-formed. By the movie’s final moments, which I won’t spoil here, I was sort of happy with it and glad I saw it. It’s not a total waste of time. This is a harmless, gimmicky movie that has a pretty terrific cast of character actors lending weight to what is a sweet, if difficult to warm up to, mild fantasy. I get that it’s a tough sell. I’m not exactly sold on the whole thing myself and if you’re one to scoff at the very idea of earnestness I’d advise you to stay far away. Is it corny? Are you kidding? It’s off the cob. But for families looking for a fairly gentle matinee with some well-intended lessons about accepting people, standing by your family, telling the truth, and other such things, it might be just the late-summer movie of choice.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bourne to Run: THE BOURNE LEGACY

The biggest question I had going into The Bourne Legacy was “What happens to a series when it’s no longer about what it’s about?” Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity and the sequels – Supremacy and Ultimatum – from Paul Greengrass star Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac spy who, in order to solve the mystery his identity, has to stay one step ahead of shadowy United States operatives bent on taking him out to prevent that very discovery. It’s a series of dizzyingly complicated character-driven spy thrillers that together form a rare hugely satisfying trilogy. They’re three films that snap together with excellent resonance and airtight plotting all the way through. They are my favorite action movies of the past decade. It was so complete a trilogy of films that Damon didn’t want to come back for a fourth. Greengrass didn’t either. He quipped that it should be called “Bourne Redundancy.” But there was money to be made from the lucrative franchise so here we are.

No longer about Jason Bourne’s search for identity, Legacy nonetheless maintains consistency with the prior trilogy by not only retaining supporting actors like Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and David Strathairn in small roles, but also bringing in one of the series’ scripter Tony Gilroy (on the heels of his two great directorial outings Michael Clayton and Duplicity) to write and direct. Without Damon’s Bourne, this film focuses on a new character, Aaron Cross, a secret agent in a similar secret program. He’s played by Jeremy Renner. (After Mission: Impossible 4 and The Avengers, this marks the third time he's been brought in to boost a franchise's ranks). The plot of this film starts parallel to the action of The Bourne Ultimatum. While Jason Bourne is doing what he does there, Cross is off in the Alaskan wilderness on a training exercise. When the masterminds of this whole national-security conspiracy panic, they decide to eliminate this particular program, swooping in to kill their field assets before the whole experiment is revealed to the public.

Of course, Cross avoids death and sets off to find answers. Back in the program’s headquarters, while the familiar suits are on Bourne-related business, new characters played by Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy and Corey Stoll fret in dark, tense control rooms, staring at monitors and flipping through classified documents. They’re trying to stay one step ahead of the agents they’re trying to dispose of. Cross sidesteps them and finds himself aiding and aided by a government scientist (Rachel Weisz) who is also targeted in this bloody cover-up. Soon they’re racing together on an intercontinental escape from the people they once worked for. This is familiar Bourne material with a clever, skillful protagonist moving through fake passports and running from all kinds of armed security, while the real villains sit drumming their fingers impatiently in tense conference rooms and in front of glowing screens.

Although in the grand scheme of all that’s come before, this is merely a feature-length footnote in an epilogue, time will tell if this is a spin-off, a reboot, a one-off, or a cause for Jason Bourne to come out of hiding in a future sequel and bring it all full circle. I don’t know what to hope for, myself, since Ultimatum finished off his story so spectacularly. It’d be difficult to top. But anyways, we’re talking Bourne Legacy here. It’s a tense film filled with lengthy scenes of grim exposition and quick bursts of well-staged action. Gilroy ditches Greengrass’s shaky-cam style for something moderately more stately with effective tension-gathering cinematography from the great Robert Elswit. At the very least, together they manage to create a car chase sequence that’s a more than adequate addition to this franchise’s hallmark area of excellence. They also keep the chilly spy-versus-spy feeling of it all nice and cool.

Renner gives a fine performance as a troubled betrayed operative and Weisz is more than ready to work as his rattled counterpart. They’re fine action movie actors, but it’s hard for the story to not feel a little thin. They’re cogs more than characters. Because the earlier films had a MacGuffin that tied intimately into the character’s inner dilemma – Bourne was searching for his history, his true identity, after all – it’s a little disappointing to find that Gilroy has put in its place a more literal object to retrieve. Aaron Cross and his scientist ally are on the lookout for a little pill that his phase of the top-secret project was forcing agents to take. Without it, Cross will be debilitated or something. It doesn’t really matter what the pill will do; all that matters is that it’s important enough to keep the plot moving. Which also happens to be the movie’s main reason for existence. It keeps the Bourne franchise going. And if that has to happen, it sure could be a lot worse than just a fun, if inconsequential, action thriller, even though the franchise has set a much higher bar for itself.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Couple's Retreat: HOPE SPRINGS

It’s always nice to see a Hollywood film about adults with adult problems handled in reasonably mature ways. That provides a break from all the movies about kids, teens, and adults who act like kids and teens. But I think Hope Springs goes beyond the pat demographic longing that informs so many comments from people desiring a more grown up look at characters. It brings a slow, mellow mood that for the most part simply looks on as an aging couple struggles to keep the spark of marriage alive. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a wife and husband who sleep in separate rooms, go about mostly separate routines, never really say what’s on their minds, and never physically connect for anything longer than a peck on the cheek. Even a hug seems to be too much to ask.

Change comes when Streep forces Jones to go with her to a couples’ retreat in Maine for intensive therapy with a renowned marriage counselor. Steve Carell plays him. A great deal of the film is devoted to these three actors sitting in a therapist’s office. In mostly medium shots, Carell calmly asks questions and then we cut across the coffee table to Streep and Jones answering them. After each session, husband and wife walk around the small tourist town and struggle to enact the intimacy challenges that the therapist has just given them. This is a gentle, mildly comic drama that plays out. We watch as two people who have not so much grown apart as grown uncommunicative and then formed some deep ruts of routine try mightily to find their way out, a way to rekindle the romantic sensations of the early years of their marriage, times that are nearly thirty years in the past.

Though the film didn't ultimately win me over, I admire the seriousness with which director David Frankel (of The Devil Wears Prada) and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (of several TV shows, most recently Game of Thrones) approach this material. There’s little strain for humor or uplift. It’s a film on an even keel that trusts good actors to bring the charm and conflict that will let the gentle humor bubble up rather naturally. Though the humor is there at times, it doesn’t arrive from the simple fact that older people might want intimacy or from a point of view that mocks the couple’s dysfunctions. It’s essentially a quiet and compassionate little movie. Streep and Jones give gentle performances that go a little against type, but because they’re such total professionals who take the whole thing as seriously as the director and writer, it basically works.

She is a woman who has been closed off for so long that her daring to take the journey to get help feels like a radical act. She’s willing to do what it takes to make their marriage work. At first Jones seems to be playing his typical craggy curmudgeon role. He complains about everything all the way there and for a good while after they arrive. But soon it becomes clear that he’s just as hurt as she is. In a career of tough guy wisecracking, here’s a role that calls for real vulnerability. That he pulls it off so well is further proof, if for some reason you need some, that he’s just as much a national treasure as his co-star.

But for all there is to admire about Hope Springs, it sadly felt hollow to me. For all of the therapy sessions and emotional revelations, we don’t really get to learn much about the characters. An intriguing scene of the couple telling their romantic history to the therapist quickly becomes a montage that’s basically the film in a nutshell. It’s interested in using its concept for quick engagement rather than the kind of deeper, character-based work that the actors appear more than capable of exploring. This is not a season of the underrated psychiatrist show In Treatment condensed into 100 minutes. No, this is a movie that’s content to appear serious, show off solid performances, but never really dig in and turn into something really special.

In what is probably the most disappointing narrative choice, the therapist character never becomes a character at all. Forget that Carell, a charming screen presence himself, fills the role. He has nothing to do. If the film ever gives him a line of dialogue that is not related to asking the couple questions or ever reveals anything about him other than his profession, I must have missed it. There’s no good reason why he’s in the movie at all. Streep and Jones might as well be talking to a robot or reading marriage advice out of a how-to book. But who can blame Carell for wanting to act in the same room as these legends? They’re certainly the only good reason to see the movie. And even that’s not quite enough of a reason for me to recommend it in any way other than half-heartedly.

Politics as Usual: THE CAMPAIGN

Though Warner Brothers is marketing The Campaign as a big dumb R-rated summer comedy, that’s a little deceptive. What they have here is a big smart R-rated summer comedy. It’s a film that goes after our current crazy campaign climate with a desire to make it seem even more ridiculous than it is. That’s no small task, but with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, two men completely unafraid to look utterly buffoonish and deranged, this is a movie that starts heightened and claws its way up over the top, emerging very filthy and very funny in the process. This isn’t just some safe potshots at the way we in the United States watch our campaigns roll out, unravel and descend into mudslinging and trivial nastiness. Rather than growing apolitical, this film is deeply cynical and mad as hell about it.

The film starts with impeccably coiffed North Carolinian Democratic congressional candidate, Cam Brady (Ferrell), making a misguided phone call to what he assumed was his mistress’s voicemail. It’s a mistake that reveals his extramarital activities to the general public and delivers a wounding blow to his poll numbers. Seeing the distress from a now-troubled campaign, the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide to call up one of their billionaire buddies (Brian Cox) to see if his weirdo son would like to run against Brady on the Republican ticket. They agree to put up the campaign funds and keep the Super PACs flowing if the generally doltish, but well meaning, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) gets in the race. He’s a man who speaks in a hilarious airy southern drawl, but hey, he has the appearance of malleability.

Writers Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell, and Adam McKay are smart to make the film less about ideologies and more about greed. The billionaires funding the increasingly nasty campaign aren’t doing so out of deep devotion to any specific cause. They’re only throwing their weight around to get the best business deals from their political pawns. As for Brady and Huggins, they don’t seem to have much conviction beyond a general appreciation for the Constitution and Jesus. (One of the funniest scenes finds one of them failing spectacularly to recite the Lord’s Prayer extemporaneously.) The race grows personal, but not out of any general animosity. They went to school together; they may even agree on a great many of the issues. They’re running for the recognition and the power. The more they lash out at each other, the more scared they are. The campaign is hardly about the people. It’s all about access to the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms and the lengths people will go to stay there. Oh, and it’s funny, too. At best, the movie provokes the kind of cathartic laughter that fills the lungs and pulls at the sides of the face with an almost painful intensity.

Jay Roach lets the campaign play out in an escalating drumbeat countdown to Election Day. He’s the director behind the broad comedy of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but his most recent film was HBO’s Game Change, about John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and his unpredictable running mate Sarah Palin. The Campaign plays like the blatantly comedic flip side to that true joke. Exaggerating our current political climate, by turns vitriolic and blatantly nonsensical, has to be a hugely difficult prospect. What helps is the way this film lets us understand why the characters act so crazed. Brady’s slickness is nothing more than professional insincerity. Huggins’s unpreparedness is nothing more than a desire to please his father and the moneymen. They’re both terrified that they won’t get what they want. Even though both men, even behind closed doors, say that they want to do what’s best for their fellow citizens, it’s hard to see the help they claim to provide.

It’s all too easy to imagine a campaign actually drawing tenuous links between terrorism and facial hair or patriotism and choice of pet dog. The professional minds behind the campaigns (Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott) aggressively push the candidates into blandly contradictory stances on whatever they feel will get their candidate the most votes. The Brady and Huggins families, wives and kids, are victims of relentless badgering from the public and from within the campaign itself. The election gets so ugly and personal that one debate is reduced to one man demanding an explanation for a story the other wrote in grade school. Much of this material hits sore nerves of our current political mood, like a feature-length Daily Show thought experiment. So committed to their roles, Farrell and Galifianakis bring a wild-eyed determination and loopy believability to their ridiculous characters. No one, not the candidates, not supporters, not even voters, ends up looking good in this satire.

Some of the comedic moments in the film are just crude or blatantly absurd and exaggerated. A surprising seduction, a punch to a very innocent face, a hunting “accident”, and a car crashing into an unexpected obstacle are all good examples of moments that jump confidently over the top. Not all of these land, but they’re a good break from the material that hits too close to home. The candidates prank each other in cruel or weird ways, badger each other on baseless grounds, slap at each other, embarrass each other, and strike back in ways that turn the political uncomfortably personal. Though occasionally too on-the-nose, The Campaign grinds forward, growing uglier behind plastic smiles and bright, cheerful cinematography. Only the ending, which splits the difference between cynical and hopeful, offers a safe, satisfying out to the relentlessness of selfish, childish politics. In real life, we can only hope for such hope.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Waiting for Kuato: TOTAL RECALL

Len Wiseman’s new Total Recall, like Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, has a twisty, memory-bending plot. It’s about Douglas Quaid, an everyman – this time around, it’s Colin Farrell, a more convincing everyman than Arnold Schwarzenegger – who grows tired of the drudgery of everyday future life. To shake things up, he heads to Total Recall, a shady company that specializes in implanting fake memories for people who wish for a brief escape from a dull life. Unfortunately, that’s where it all goes wrong. The procedure either awakens secret agent skills and memories within Quaid, sends him stumbling into a full psychotic breakdown, or delivers exactly the thrill ride he paid for. That’s the fun mystery underpinning all of the running and shooting to follow.

Verhoeven, one of the smartest, stylish blockbuster filmmakers of the last few decades, made his Total Recall between his Robocop and Starship Troopers, two consistently underrated sci-fi action-heavy satires. Recall has no such potency for me. It has several instantly iconic moments – the triple-breasted woman, the malfunctioning mechanical disguise, the creepy Kuato – and a propulsive puzzle of a plot, but overall it feels hollow and hokey to me. There’s definite room for improvement here but Wiseman, along with writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, have only mixed things up in surface ways. Now, instead of a dichotomy between Earth and Mars, the societal split in the futuristic world is between the only remaining livable land, the topside, an affluent Great Britain, and “the colony,” a rainy, dystopic Australia.

Connected by what is basically a massive elevator that shoots up through the planet core, the northern government, led by a shady, but underutilized Bryan Cranston, wants to quash a revolution led by colonial ringleader Bill Nighy, putting in what’s basically a cameo. Farrell’s Quaid gets his memory scrambled and suddenly his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is trying to kill him. She’s a secret agent too, working for the opposite side. What follows is an identity-crisis chase movie that finds soldiers human and robot alike running one step behind Quaid as he races through both cities trying to piece together who he is and what he has to do to save himself and the world. He gets some help running through high-tech security devices, flying-car chases, topsy-turvy elevator shafts, and massive gun battles (the niftiest is in zero-gravity) when Jessica Biel swoops in out of his fractured former memories and lends him a helping hand.

If that sounds a little like the Total Recall you remember, you’d be correct. I didn’t find the remake significantly better or worse, although it’s certainly a little worse without the strong personality behind the camera. This version is slick and competently put together. The special effects are top-of-the-line and the acting gets the job done. That I was relatively uninvolved in all of the above is not a factor of my memory of the original. If anything, the vague déjà vu memories of the first Recall reverberate thematically within the confines of a memory-puzzle story. No, what surprised me was how the movie draws heavy, obvious inspiration from a variety of sci-fi action films, derivative in unexpected and depressing ways:

1. The two cities in the film are so familiar I was thinking of them as Coruscant from the Star Wars movies and future Los Angeles from Blade Runner.

2. The palate’s all grim green and the screen is cluttered with sleek futurist bric-a-brac. It’s strange to think that after a decade The Matrix and Minority Report, inventive and ambitious science fiction films, are still the go-to inspirations for unambitious sci-fi.

3. The have-nots riding a giant elevator down from a gleaming metropolis had me thinking of, well, Metropolis, yet another inspiration that’s far better than this particular movie.

The point is: thinking about lots of much better films didn’t help involve me in this one. Wiseman has style, but not enough to compensate for a mishmash of borrowed substance. The film sands down the charms of the plot and keeps only the trappings that are supposed to be cool, but are simply derivative concepts. The actors, most of them generally charismatic, are dreadfully non-present here and the expected action, aside from a well-staged chase or two, failed to engage me. I sat around waiting to catch a glimpse of meaning, a reason for the movie to exist, and left with nothing.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Where the Wimpy Kids Are: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: DOG DAYS

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is the third movie based on Jeff Kinney’s popular – and pretty good – series of comedic books for school kids. These movies (a loose trilogy now, I suppose) are basically a bright, family friendly, big-screen sitcom. A good deal of the fun this time around is indeed a type of sitcom pleasure, watching all the old characters show up again, spending more time with them in a comfortable, relaxed setting that allows them to grow while still retaining their familiar personalities. Protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), an obliviously selfish but mostly-well-meaning seventh-grader, clashes with parents and teachers, hangs out with friends, schemes to get out of work and into fun, and pines for the cute girl in his class. Same as it ever was.

But predictability is, in this case, not so bad. The tropes of the Wimpy Kids are familiar, but in a contented way. Greg is a sharp comedic distillation of early adolescent moods and each movie finds new scenarios in which to embarrass him. They’re relaxed films that alternate their gags between observation and gross-out humor, sometimes merging the two. Each time around, the episodic comedy setpieces gather around a roomy narrative throughline. In the first film, the focus is on Greg starting middle school, and in the second, his relationship with his older brother (Devon Bostick). This movie moves the action from the school year to summer vacation where the plot mostly circles around his attempts to get near class cutie Holly Hills (Peyton List) and avoid getting in trouble with his dad (Steve Zahn) who is on a mission to spend time with him.

Antics include sneaking into a country club, a trip to an amusement park, and a prank-filled camping weekend, among other typical summer vacation plot developments. Unlike the earlier films, the pacing feels a little off and the big laughs don’t roll around as frequently. So, it’s probably the worst of the three, but not by much. There are still plenty of chuckles and a likable mood. And what the series gets consistently, exactly right is capturing the feeling of early-adolescent angst. There’s a sense that Greg both desires close relationships with family, with friends, with girls, and yet has an acute anxiety about physical proximity.

Many of the jokes in Dog Days play off of this tension, this push and pull, whether he’s grossed out by the touchy-feely, sharing-is-caring family of his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), squeamish about walking through a community pool’s locker room, or overconfident that his Wii tennis skills will translate to the real thing. Other moments, when the film reaches for genuine sentiment, work just as well. The film’s last scene between Greg and his father is quiet, but so very satisfying and even just a little moving, as is the resolution of the plot between Greg and Holly.

Returning director David Bowers has an unassumingly nice way of staging these moments across the wide screen in a classical comedy way of simple, but precise blocking. This has the effect of helping moments like father and son trying to get a cut of meat away from a dog gain a kind of easy low-key slapstick charm. (The gross out scene that follows this moment is one of the funniest bits in the film.) Bowers also has a good way with actors, getting character actors like Zahn as the father and Rachael Harris as the mother to give charming performances as flawed but devoted parents. Bowers also trusts his young cast to carry much of the humor and gets some nice comedic work out of them. It’s a generous movie, giving funny moments to all involved.

Nonetheless, I’m a little disappointed with this installment. It all feels just a little past its sell-by date, often unable to find the right level of energy and novelty to animate many of its more tired summer vacation plot points. But I still really like the approach of these films and got a fair amount of laughs out of this one anyways. I just plain enjoyed spending time with these characters on new misadventures while I still can. The kids in the cast have probably just about aged out of the series. This time around heights are rising and voices are dropping, so I’d guess it ends here, especially with end credits that place pictures, one from each movie, next to each characters’ names. I wish the series could have ended on a stronger note, but it’s still been a nice run.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Traverse City Film Festival 2012: Dispatch #3

The scariest thing about the horror anthology V/H/S is the cinematography. It's blurry and fuzzy, shot mostly on tape or approximations thereof. This does make a certain amount of sense, as the whole thing is a formal exercise all around. The film starts with a group of hoodlums breaking into a house and finding a dead body surrounded by VHS tapes. They proceed to watch some and this is why five indie directors give us five short horror flicks. Like all anthology films, it's a hit and miss proposition with two or three good ideas spread throughout the two-hour whole.

The first, from David Bruckner, about a group of awful frat boys who have a gory ending to their night on the town, is actively repulsive and nearly unwatchable both because of the unpleasant characters and camerawork dedicated to a woozy spy cam conceit that’s nonetheless a sort of funny satire of the male gaze. The second, from Ti West, is a road trip that grows inevitably creepy. It contains his characteristic slow build, something that will be familiar to those who've seen his The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers. This short has one truly chilling moment where it becomes apparent that the person filming a particular scene is not who it appeared to be, but otherwise comes up awfully empty by the end.

The third, from Glenn McQuaid, is a twist on the dumb teens in the woods genre that starts appearing to be smart before it peters out into what you'd expect. The fourth, from Joe Swanberg, a director I can’t say I like, won me over, representing his best work ever, short and to the point, making an asset of his characteristic simple blocking and fumbling unscripted dialogue. It's a ghost story – more or less – told entirely through a Skype session. It doesn't make sense in the context of the anthology (why's it on a tape?), but it is just clever enough to squeak by. The fifth and final short, from a collective called Radio Silence, has a group of teens head out for a Halloween party and, when they arrive, find a real haunted house, a concept that provides a couple laughs and a few good jolts.

What the films have in common, other than genre, some underlying misogyny (or at least squeamish distrust of women), and a general scarcity of scares and quickly, thinly developed characters, is admirable dedication to sometimes-flawed concepts. Aside from a few shivers here and there, I was bored. Even the best shorts in V/H/S are basically all surface gimmicks with little else to hold onto. Besides, factoring in surprising overlap between the shorts, there's only so many instances of incomprehensible camera shaking, dismemberments, and P.O.V. shots of people going up and down staircases that one can handle in a single sitting.

Traverse City Film Festival 2012: Dispatch #2

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Journey was in need of a new lead singer when the members happened to click over to YouTube videos of Arnel Pineda, a forty-year-old Filipino man, performing perfect replicas of their songs. Ramona S. Diaz’s Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey is a glossy, up-tempo showbiz documentary that follows the band’s most recent tour from the focal point of their newest member. Arnel’s journey (pun sort of intended) is a transcontinental Horatio Alger tale that took him from impoverished childhood to homeless adolescence to a struggling (professionally and musically) young adulthood. Then, out of the blue, came an offer from his favorite band to fly to the U.S. to audition for the lead role in a proposed new tour. Needless to say, the band accepts him with open arms, faithfully helping him integrate into the group. For his part, he’s happy to help them perform any way they want it (since that’s, after all, the way the fans need it).

Though Arnel is a charming subject and Journey’s music is definitely listenable, the film is overlong. Concert tour docs need not make us feel the tedium and repetition of a band on the road quite so literally. But at least the story told is a good one and the musicians and technicians we follow are charismatic, largely likable, presences. The film’s approach is standard, showing the band arriving at venue after venue, followed by a performance or two and then on to the next stop. In amongst the set-ups and songs are quickly told backstories of both Journey and Arnel, juxtaposing their timelines quite nicely. The story the film tells is interesting and the music is booming and sometimes that’s enough. Diaz carries the whole thing along with a solid, professional shine that helps the documentary’s best qualities filter up through the repetition and clutter.

Journey to Planet X
Journey to Planet X follows a pair of intrepid D.I.Y. filmmakers, scientists and sci-fi fans who make mini epics on their weekends. They've converted a storage space into a blue screen room, bought a nice new camera, had a buddy draw up some storyboards, and put a casting call on Craigslist. They're ready to go. The documentary from Myles Kane and Josh Koury (of We Are Wizards, a Harry Potter fandom doc) is a wonderfully heartfelt tribute to the creative impulse in this pair's filmmaking passions and an earnest appreciation of the cheap-o results which are about as unpolished as you'd expect but, like The Room and Birdemic, shows heart and confidence in the face of severe creative limitations.  Much like Michel Gondry's underrated Be Kind, Rewind, this is a film that celebrates the art form by pointing a lens at its most modest outsiders and, with determined amateurs and a sense of community, scrambling all traditional expectations of "good" and "bad" in cinematic expression.

The Revisionaries
The Revisionaries is a documentary about a volatile subject that's so fair and evenhanded that it's ultimately all the more thought provoking. Observing the Texas school board’s deliberations over new curriculum standards, Scott Thurman’s cameras catch Christian fundamentalists using semantic dances and head-on attacks to get "godless secularism" out of their schoolbooks, while befuddled experts look on, arguing logic that falls on deaf ears. Focusing on public figures on both sides of the debate, the film allows the people to talk, explaining themselves, their beliefs, and their ideologies. It’s a film about thought processes, working towards some kind of comprehension as to why the parties involved in this conflict appear to be talking past each other. In the end, it’s a little bit easier to understand why, as one person interviewed in the film states, ignorance and arrogance are a dangerous mix.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Traverse City Film Festival 2012: Dispatch #1

What may have been lost, if it was ever really known, in the stories of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret’s lengthy, contentious postproduction, subsequent botched limited release, further subsequent rise as a critical pet cause, and eventual extended cut DVD, is that the movie plays. In a big theater with a sold out crowd, a rare occurrence for this film that a screening today at the Traverse City Film Festival offered, the movie is a symphony of crowd reactions: gasps, laughs, groans, and heavy silences. Sometimes, all of these reactions mixed together with slippery agility, as in the harrowing, horrifying accident that sets the tone of the film early on with its mix of precise acting, remarkable realism, and sly gallows humor. On a day that the festival offered many interesting films and a packed Q&A with Susan Sarandon, this was the must-see event.

The story of a teenager (Anna Paquin) who witnesses a fatal bus accident and then spends the next weeks and months grappling with the emotional fallout of the tragedy while life somehow trudges on around her remains powerful and messy. The ensemble is rich and delicately balanced with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), teachers (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick), boys (John Gallagher Jr. and Kieran Kulkin), and an unlikely new friend (Jeannie Berlin), among others, playing their parts in her life story. Each character feels fully realized, even when in a plotline that feels edited down to evocative wisps or in a relationship – as in the sharply observed mother-daughter conflict - that slowly takes center stage. What’s most powerful about the film, what makes it such an emotional workout, is the way it manages to bottle a kind of whiplash self-important precociousness of adolescence where grappling with deep and powerful philosophical and emotional topics still unknowingly creates an incredibly self-centered point of view. This is a film about a girl who slowly begins to realize that others are not merely supporting characters in the opera of her life.

This is my second time through Margaret and I found it to be even better than I remembered. It’s an expertly written, breathtakingly acted, experience, a sort of interior epic that reconciles its lack of cohesion and conventional narrative within an emotional framework that makes intuitive sense. Sitting near the front of the theater with the towering screen revealing all the more strikingly the film’s visual powers – a scene in which a taxi cab is suddenly, subtly surrounded by buses felt nearly overwhelming – the film took on a precision that I somehow missed in my initial viewing. Though I really liked the film at the time, I have an even better appreciation now. How often can you sit and feel a big crowd wrestling with a film so emotionally and thematically dense and articulate, so deeply felt and so smartly filmed? The brilliance of Lonergan’s film is the way it invites us into the life of a character and is unafraid to explore, to allow plot points to exist and breathe like life events, to grow and develop, to wither or fade at their own paces.  It’s truly some kind of masterpiece.

Also screened:
            Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side by Side is a decent primer on the history of digital filmmaking and its conflict with traditional celluloid. All arguments get their (sometimes surface-level) day in court here as the film follows our host and guide Keanu Reeves as he talks to prominent directors (Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Danny Boyle, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron) and cinematographers (Michael Ballhaus, Anthony Dod Mantle, Wally Pfister, Vittorio Storaro, David Tattersall, Vilmos Zsigmond). The film’s a who’s who of modern cinema, filled with interesting, charismatic artists, which makes it all the more disappointing that it gets so carried away with its history lesson that it forgets to actually interrogate these artists’ theories, claims, and opinions. Instead of editing in a way that puts traditionalists, pioneers, and those in the middle in some kind of conversation, the documentary is content to be an overlong, occasionally repetitive, clip to show an Introduction to Film Studies class. That’s fine for what it is, I suppose, but it certainly doesn’t have the kind of depth I would have appreciated.
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