Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two's a Crowd: THE HOST


I’m of two minds about Andrew Niccol’s The Host, which is just as well, since so is the protagonist. She’s a girl living in an unspecified future after alien body snatchers have invaded. These aliens are parasitic souls who’ve attached themselves to human hosts, making their presence known through the eerie blue glow they add to the eyes. The earth belongs to them. Few humans survive. At the movie’s start, the girl is captured by these beings and turned into one of them. Rather than conforming to the pod people ways like everyone else, she fights back the best she can. All she can do is scream from within her own thoughts, a captive in her own body, a body that is controlled by someone else entirely. That’s a creepy concept. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers template focuses on those left to grapple with neighbors who suddenly become something they’re not. Here the unusual ones, the rarities, are the humans, our entry point into the story a human who is resisting her own private alien invasion. The movie that comes out of this is very serious about its silliness, by turns likable and laughable.

The early scenes of the movie require a tricky bit of acting from Saoirse Ronan, who plays Melanie, the girl forced to share her brain with an interstellar stranger. The other possessed humans want to find the remaining pristine human holdouts and colonize them as well. A lead Seeker (Diane Kruger) urges Wanderer, the alien taking Melaine over, to access the girl’s thoughts and memories and reveal the location of hidden humans. Melanie strains to not reveal what she knows about her brother (Chandler Canterbury), her boyfriend (Max Irons) and the humans they were travelling to meet. It’s a struggle between two characters that has to play out in one actor. There’s a funny little moment early on where Ronan begins writing but then, with a sudden, quick flick of her wrist, throws the pencil across the room. Sudden jolts of humanity cause the alien, still getting used to her new body, to respond to fleeting thoughts of resistance bubbling up from her host. Niccol uses copious voice over to put us in this warring mind so that Ronan ends up giving what amounts to a vocal performance that demarcates two similarly willful characters.

It’s a compellingly oddball scenario. Soon, the alien finds sympathy for the poor girl she’s forced to share headspace with and helps the two-in-one of them flee into the desert. There, led by Wanderer’s legs and Melanie’s memories, they find a group of humans huddled in the caves, farming what they can and stealing the rest from a warehouse that the alien beings have for some reason branded simply “Store.” This particular group of human rebels, one that now includes Melaine’s brother and her boyfriend, happen to be led by Melaine’s uncle, a bearded, appropriately avuncular William Hurt. He’s a gentle, resourceful survivalist who knows his way around post-apocalyptic engineering and says things like “I always liked science fiction stories. Never thought I’d be in one.” He holds out hope that his niece is still somewhere behind the glowing blue eyes that cause the other humans to want her dead on the spot, thinking that she’ll reveal their location. The rebels are used to fleeing the possessed, and indeed we eventually see a few brief but impactful car chases and shootouts as Seekers draw closer to their hideout while searching for Wanderer.  

As this is adapted from a novel by Stephenie Meyer, the woman who brought us the sparkly paranormal love triangle of Twilight, the caves are also an incubator for strange love geometry. Love triangle doesn’t quite cut it here. The boyfriend is hesitant to embrace this new being that looks and sounds just like his love while one of the other survivors (Jake Abel) finds himself drawn to the new girl’s personality, which just happens to be in the old girl’s body. Much talk of which girl has which feelings pervade the second half of the film. There’s also much more interesting discussion about how trustworthy this newcomer is and how much of the old girl still lives insider her. As Wanderer gains more sympathy and understanding of the human’s plight, there are some ethical quandaries about who really has control over this girl. The audience has access to inner struggles between the two characters; the other people see only the change. Do they treat her as the old girl they knew or the new girl they’ve come to know? The romance of it all is admirably downplayed at times, but there’s still too much hemming and hawing over who is being kissed and by whom. Still, there’s something so determinedly weird about seeing a conventional make out scene play out with a voice over objection from the other person trapped inside. “No! Stop that!” the girl mentally yells at the alien in control of her. I found it easy to scoff, but not so easy to dismiss.

Niccol has written and directed movies like the very good Gattaca, about a futurist struggle against genetic determinism, and the very mediocre In Time, an on-the-nose income inequality allegory that swaps time for money. With The Host, he’s clearly interested in exploring the deeper questions, engaging with the material in a way that draws a messy statement about personal autonomy and resisting conformity and all manner of half-formed intriguing ideas. It fills the film with lots of ponderous discussions that always sound like they’re building to something much more profound than they really are. So much of the movie refuses to make sense, either immediately – why are all humans with alien souls inside them dressing in white? – or after the fact. Some scenes play out with a flat, unintentionally funny, affect and, as the plot drifts through its paces, I found myself understanding character motivations less and less. It grows fuzzier as it nears its conclusions. But there’s something I found difficult to ignore in the mood of it all, in the stillness and slickness of Roberto Schaefer’s lovely, sleek cinematography and the lush score by Antonio Pinto. There’s a dreamily still strangeness to it all, an echo of 70’s B-movie sci-fi in its simple effects, limited sets, and off-kilter normality. I found it compelling enough in its confident awkwardness to somehow hold its schlock and seriousness in my head at the same time. I can’t exactly say I totally liked it, but I sure didn’t dislike it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Accessories Sold Separately: G.I. JOE: RETALIATION


In the latest based-on-a-line-of-toys action film, elite teams of American commandos known as the G.I. Joes are locked in combat with the worldwide terrorist organization known as Cobra. When one of Cobra’s master impersonators takes the President’s place, he implicates the Joes in an assassination and orders a strike that leaves all but three of them dead. The survivors, somehow able to immediately determine the cause of this betrayal despite being stranded in the desert, vow revenge. This kicks off G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, by having just enough really cool special effects shots to fill a two-and-a-half minute trailer, giving the rest of the runtime to endless exposition, repetitive action sequences, bad jokes, and haphazard characterization. It’s a movie that’s probably on the whole a bit less fun than watching a six-year-old play with action figures, although how much less fun exactly would depend on the six-year-old. All the movie’s best ideas seem to have come out of just such a scenario anyways, moments like protecting oneself from throwing stars by machine gunning them down or jumping off a motorcycle which then splits apart into several missiles and continues straight ahead to a target.

Retaliation’s surviving Joes out to carry out said retaliation are Dwayne Johnson, called upon to be his usual muscular but loveable self, D.J. Cotrona, a bland goodie two-shoes, and Adrianne Palicki, as the token G.I. Jane who at one point gets to wear a tight red dress for mostly no good reason. (The star of the first movie, the suddenly-everywhere Channing Tatum, puts in a glorified cameo, but is otherwise smart enough or lucky enough to sit this one out.) There’s also Byung-hun Lee as bad ninja Storm Shadow and Ray Park as good ninja Snake Eyes, who have an almost entirely peripheral side plot involving all kinds of ninja acrobatics that includes (1) an underground prison break, (2) a cliff-side, mountaintop sword battle, and (3) bit parts inhabited by Walton Goggins as a morally ambiguous warden and RZA as a grizzled ninja mentor. That’s where the fun, such as it is, is happening here, but once these characters join up with the central narrative, the glimmer of fun slips away from them too.

The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick does what it can to salvage the colossal and bland confusion of the first film, but doesn’t improve upon a core concept that seems to be little more than living action figures acting out ridiculous scenarios for the benefit of little more than emptier-than-usual spectacle. Director Jon M. Chu, so good at staging fluid, visually energetic and sustained dance sequences in Step Up 3D, finds little in the way of coherent action, choosing instead to shoot it all in the quick flashes of bloodless bloodshed we’ve come to expect from our PG-13 shoot-‘em-ups. That it’s all a bit more disquieting than usual comes from the narrative that jumbles more than in coheres in the telling. Since the villain is impersonating the president, it makes the countless dead the Joes leave on their way to him uncomfortable. Sure, he’s clearly evil (and Jonathan Pryce is having a good time playing that up) and many of his staff positions are filled by Cobra agents, but it’s hard to tell if some of those around him are just good old army boys and Secret Service agents gunned down for no better reason than failing to spot the fake POTUS in their midst.

That it also happens to be one of those movies that ends on the kind of happy note that boils down to something like “who cares if a major world capital was just wiped off the face of the planet, the Rock got a medal?” is just indicative of the slapdash laziness of the plotting. When a movie can threaten the entire world with nuclear holocaust in its final climactic moments and completely fail to raise my heart rate, something’s gone horribly wrong. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a slickly put together piece of Hollywood craftsmanship. It’s easy enough to stare at, but it’s empty to the core. The character who is most indicative of the movie’s approach is a retired Joe the crew picks up on their way to the final confrontation. He’s played by Bruce Willis in a performance so relaxed and weightless that if you told me he did the whole thing lying down somewhere and was green-screened into all his scenes, I’d probably believe you. He contributes little to the plot, besides providing the things that go boom for the finale, revealing in a montage that his house is essentially an armory with weapons of every kind hidden in every nook and cranny. It’s supposed to be funny and rousing, I suppose, but is nothing more than a sad prelude to yet more numbing exposition and endless gunfire, not a lick of wit or strategy in sight. I guess the only thing that can stop a bad Cobra with a gun is a good Joe with a gun.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Modern Stone Age Family: THE CROODS


The Croods is a basic plot told with zip, color, generous slapstick, and absolutely dazzling visuals that represent the height of modern 3D CG cartooning. Following an isolated family of cavepeople, the movie finds as its center, as so many family films do, a character who yearns for more than the simple existence she knows. In this case, the family’s father (Nicolas Cage) preaches fear, keeping the group huddled in a cave when they aren’t on a mad dash hunting and gathering for the day. The daughter (Emma Stone) is the one who wants more while her mother (Catherine Keener), brother (Clark Duke), baby sister (Randy Thom), and grandmother (Cloris Leachman) are comfortable in their routine. One night, the daughter sneaks out to go exploring. She meets a young man (Ryan Reynolds) who has strange new talents – like making fire – and appears way more homo sapien than the latter day Neanderthals she’s stuck with. He’s running one step ahead of the collapsing landscape caused by the shifting tectonic plates, but the dad refuses to listen to the interloper. Soon enough, though, the cave collapses and they need to find a new home, too.

The exceedingly simple plot finds the family (plus the new guy) walking through lush digital jungles, vast detailed plains, and swooping vistas, trying to get to a safe new place to call home to the tune of a suitably larger-than-life Alan Silvestri score. Their world is populated by creatures that have more in common with the animals of James Cameron’s Pandora than our own prehistory, but that only enhances the pleasures of the design. These aren’t modern-day behaviors placed upon a cavepeople template a la The Flinstones. Nor are they entirely without cartoonish charms. This is a nicely imagined fantasy prehistoric landscape of wild sights and goofy critters and the people we follow are likably designed as well, unconventionally shaped, squat and scrunched, perched halfway between the photorealism of wax tableaus you’d see in a natural history museum and the rounded cartoonish flesh-colored globs of the designs more typical of a Dreamworks Animation picture. They interact with their environment in fast-paced setpieces of danger and comedy, usually both at once. They tumble over waterfalls, gasp through deserts, traverse grand canyons, and make wild leaps across chasms. Along the way, they encounter ravenous piranha-birds, tenacious, stalkerish giant saber-toothed cats, goofy little crocodile dogs, packs of punching monkeys, and at least one clingy primate they call “Belt.”

It’s all so colorful and appealing, with the characters featuring fine voice acting (Cage and Stone are particularly good, able to modulate their distinctive voices in actorly ways) and appealingly broad characteristics. It’s nothing out of the ordinary – the grandma’s crotchety and snappy, the brother’s a rounded goofball – but the family has a fine dynamic that feels genuinely loving and antagonistic only in the stuck-on-a-road-trip way that develops in even the best of families during cross-country travel. That there will be valuable lessons learned about being yourself, trusting others and trying new things is, of course, inevitable. But, as written and directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, it features some of the same warmth and charm in an earnest family-centered narrative that Sanders used in his great films Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. He’s one of the great unsung animation directors working these days and, though The Croods can’t quite match those earlier efforts in overall quality, he puts in a respectable effort in making this an enjoyable entertainment. The key is the speed, humor and beauty of it all. It may be thin and expected in many ways, but it’s gorgeous to behold – visual consultant Roger Deakins surely had something to do with the tactile sense of light playing across the vivid designs – sprinkled with good-natured laughs, and never lets up on the narrative gas pedal. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Team America: OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN


There’s a lot of literal flag-waving going on in Olympus Has Fallen, an oppressively rah-rah, militaristic, xenophobic slab of red meat filmmaking. Its basic structure is that of a mid-90’s Die Hard rip-off with the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart) and a few other high-ranking officials (including the Vice President) trapped in a bunker below the White House when it’s taken over by North Korean terrorists hell-bent on forcing American troops out of South Korea. Seems like they could have come up with a less complicated plan to get that point across, but a villain’s showmanship is everything in a movie like this, I suppose. The John McClane of it all is a former Secret Service agent played by Gerard Butler. He’s working a desk job down the street when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is attacked and overrun. Never one to flee from danger, he finagles his way into the burning building and starts picking off the bad guys one by one while trying to rescue the hostages.

Strategy is not all that applicable to anyone’s actions here. It’s like a slasher movie with the slasher as the good guy and it grows tedious awfully quick. Butler lurks around shooting down enemies, getting into bruising fistfights and torturing captives for information about their overarching plans and the identity of their leader (Rick Yune, who, after facing off with Brosnan’s Bond in 2002’s Die Another Day, seems to have suffered a diminution in the complexity of his plotting). As in McClane’s case, there’s convenient radio communication that allows taunts to flow both ways. There’s also a command center of mostly unhelpful suits down the street where Angela Bassett and Robert Forster wring their hands and hope that the nuclear launch codes are not divulged. Morgan Freeman’s there, too. As Speaker of the House, he’s the acting president and gets the biggest (unintentional) laugh of the movie when he gives a speech reassuring the public that the government remains 100 percent operational. Is that like the old joke where the guy asks the doctor if he’ll be able to play piano after the operation and is happy to hear an affirmative, since he’s never played piano before?

With films like Training Day, King Arthur, and Shooter, Antoine Fuqua has proven that he knows his way around suspense or action setpieces. Here, directing from a script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, he manages a couple, but they both come very early in the runtime are a mixed bag anyways. The first, a quick bit of business involving a limo accident, is a tight and surprising opening. The second, an extended bit of disaster moviemaking, is a jarring and upsetting sequence of collateral damage. It involves the terrorists flying a large military plane right down the National Mall, firing heavy machine guns, casually picking off pedestrians before crash-landing near the White House and serving as a signal to the enemy combatants hidden in the crowd to start the siege. (The plane also takes out a big chunk of the Washington Monument on the way down; I’ll leave you to parse the nationalist Freudian significance of that image.) While this is undeniably effective, it’s also excessive: a bombastic misappropriation of 9/11 imagery to form a jingoistic call to arms with overwrought patriotic bloodlust not too far behind.

Fuqua certainly shoots the whole sorry thing with total commitment to an increasingly ugly premise. But as it drones from one smoldering, darkly lit corridor to the next with the occasional bloody death or two, I lost any interest I may once have had. It’s not often you can say that a movie about terrorists holding the president hostage in order to detonate nuclear weapons within American borders feels like it has nothing at stake, but that’s the case here. As the bad guys’ numbers drop with regularity and Butler barely sustains a scratch and is always correct in his decisions, any sense of danger in the plot is gone. It’s all so over-the-top that it falls entirely apart into generic noise typical of the genre: terse, unfunny quips, fake news clips with carefully non-specific logos, and loud booms now and then to make sure the audience hasn’t fallen completely asleep.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Extracurricular Applications: ADMISSION


Admission is an agreeable diversion. It’s a mellow college comedy set not amongst the students, but among the employees. Specifically, as the title may have revealed for you, it’s set in the admissions department. Our protagonist is Portia, who has been reading Princeton’s college applications and their attendant essays for sixteen years now. Played by Tina Fey, reason enough to like her immediately, she’s a hard-worker firmly settled into her comfortable and predictable life. She’s in a long-term relationship with a tenured English professor (Michael Sheen, in another one of his uncannily convincing embodiments of insufferable academics), a man who clearly takes her for granted. He’s dismissive and only vaguely affectionate towards her. It’s one of those movie relationships that’s obviously doomed from the get go. The story that follows involves Portia’s slow realization that the life she’s living is not the one that will make her happy.

Enter Paul Rudd, playing the principal of an experimental high school who invites her to visit their campus and give her usual spiel about applying for Princeton. He’s taken a special interest in a gifted student with a rocky transcript (Nat Wolff) and wants to make sure she notices and gives this underdog a chance. It goes against all the rules, but in the movie’s totally soft and unemphatic way, it forms a minor critique of the college admissions process as one that is, in some cases, designed to weed out the more unconventionally promising candidates. But that’s on the film’s thematic back burner, since what it’s really interested in is showing us that the admissions Portia most needs to make are to herself. It’s a low-key movie of self-discovery, personal growth, and slow evolution of relationship statuses. Admirably serious about its setting in academia, an unconventional setting and approach for Hollywood films of any kind, it’s a film that’s nonetheless so low-key that I was almost afraid that movie itself was going to fall asleep right before my very eyes.

That it doesn’t is a testament to the charms of the cast which, Fey and Rudd aside, features lovely small-scale character work from national treasures like Lily Tomlin (as Fey’s proudly liberal mother) and Wallace Shawn (as the head of the admissions department). Director Paul Weitz (working in a mode much closer to his About a Boy than his American Pie or, God forbid, Little Fockers) and screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) keep things moving along cleanly and clearly with a gentle tug of narrative to push the emotions along in easy and relaxed ways. It’s sometimes funny, but in an off-hand way rather than through any conventional zingers. It’s sometimes romantic, but in such a wispy way that it almost registers after-the-fact. It’s sometimes pointed in explicit summoning of sociopolitical concerns and cultural studies, but only in the softest possible ways. I found myself smiling and soothed, if not exactly captivated and entertained.

A tidy embrace of open-endedness and a polite salute to mildly bad decisions snowballing into big life changes for the better, Admission ends up in a sweet, tender place as an appealingly minor work. Never once does the movie insist upon its own worth. Nor does it reach for anything more than its deliberate slightness. It’s merely a pleasant time with pleasant characters played pleasantly. It’s the kind of entertainment I’d imagine would play just as well, if not better, when viewed on cable TV while curled up on the couch some lazy wintry weekend when a combination of coziness and the common cold demand a just-complicated-enough piece of comfort. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Girls Gone Wild: SPRING BREAKERS


Spring Breakers is a film that has its cake and eats it too. It’s a turbulent high/low collision, an art house exploitation film and moody mainstream wallow. It springs from the head of Harmony Korine, a once-precocious filmmaker who has made a career out of creating films that serve as thumbs in the eyes of both propriety and audiences in detestable artfully artless small-scale grime like Gummo and Trash Humpers. (The outlier is the sweetly, emptily bizarre Mister Lonely.) What’s left to do once you’ve so thoroughly cultivated a niche aura of punk unpredictability? His new film is a stab towards something like mainstream disreputability with a topsy-turvy R-rated update of the squeaky clean 1950s teen beach movies that’s been driven off the surf and into a neon beach out of a Michael Mann film, a feature-length montage overlaid with Malickian voice over and a non-stop dubstep and hip-hop soundtrack (Skrillex wrote the music with composer Cliff Martinez). It’s a film that sends its characters straight into a horrifying bacchanalia and keeps pushing until it finds the even more horrifying criminality simmering permanently underneath. It’s ugly, volatile, occasionally offensive, largely troubling, and always mesmerizing. What a trip.

It all starts at an unspecified any-college, where whomping bass seeps out of carousing frat house gatherings and bored youths stare vacantly at their history professor, the darkened classroom a sea of glowing laptop screens. We first meet Faith (Selena Gomez) at a campus church group. Afterwards, one of the other young congregants (Glee’s Heather Morris) asks Faith if, for Spring Break, she still plans on going to Flordia with a group of rowdier girls. “I’ve known them since Kindergarten,” Faith says, summoning a kind of protective innocence. (Her friend’s advice? Pray.) Everything will be fine, Faith thinks. It’s all going to be fun. But, with her religiousness and her name being clear thematic markers, what she’s really in for is a trip to a metaphoric Hell above and beyond the collegiate partying she’s witnessed. She’s also not aware that, with money tight, her travelling companions (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) have just raised the money necessary for their travel by robbing a diner armed with squirt guns and a sledgehammer.

That this information, when revealed, isn’t an immediate red flag to Faith is a little disconcerting, but away the young women go, itching for adventure, St. Petersburg bound. Once there, they find themselves in the middle of the prolonged beachside riot of drugs, alcohol, and young bodies in slippery swimsuits that is Spring Break in certain areas of the nation’s warmer climes. Korine films it all so closely and lovingly that I felt the need for a new word, one that would go above and beyond “ogle.” The way his camera lunges towards and lingers on extras, but especially at his constantly skimpily attired stars, is about as subtle as a cartoon “ahoogah!” Numerous scenes of youthful people engaging in varied, energetic, and dangerous activities immediately follow. Now, I don’t think I’m being a premature fuddy-duddy to say that this kind of partying seems to have nothing to do with fun. It’s an endurance test of ingesting the most mind-altering, mood-scrambling substances, damaging property, staying out in the sun all day and risking severe bodily harm all night. Inevitably, I suppose, the girls end up in jail when a party they’ve stumbled into gets broken up. Standing in the courtroom for sentencing – pay a fine or spend two days in the slammer – wearing only their Day-Glo bikinis, the judge takes one look at them and asks “spring breakers?” knowing full well the answer. He must see a lot of them this time of year.

The girls are unexpectedly bailed out. Alien, a creepy low-level, drug-dealing, wannabe rapper who gazes out at them from over dark sunglasses with a smile so wide they can admire his grill, pays their fines in full. Played by James Franco in spectacularly ratty cornrows, this self-styled gangster brags about wanting to “do bad,” not wanting to “do good,” shows off his guns and knives, lets them try his weed, and makes sure to put in a plug for his music which he proudly says can be heard on YouTube. He oozes a sense of danger and razor’s-edge impulsiveness that informs the rest of the film as the college girls (all at first, but as some return home, their number grows smaller and tougher) get slowly pulled into the local underground scene of drug dealers, thieves, and club owners that feeds parasitically off the marginally more reputable waves of spring breakers that annually flood the city. Let’s just say that the guns at play are squirt guns no more. That in this final narrative descent, Franco’s rival, played by Gucci Mane, is the only black character to have any lines and is here only to create a clear villain (or something close to it) is ugly, an example of the film’s occasionally offensive jumble.

But, troubling though it is, Korine’s film is both ugly and sublime, sometimes at once, as in a string of shakedowns shot in slow motion and accompanied by only the sound of Britney Spears’s ballad “Everytime.” (Earlier, the girls goofily sang “…Baby One More Time” to each other, though the Britney songs that you’d think would be most apt to the proceedings – “Oops! I Did It Again” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Women” – go unheard.) It’s hard to parse if the film is reveling in the teasing debauchery or drawing a stark lesson in its inevitable descent into greater and greater criminality. Is it a film of instant-gratification nihilism or stylish hedonism? Is it aghast or roused by the behavior on display? Is it corrosive or celebratory? I choose all of the above. It’s at once objectified youth culture hothouse and giddy satirical denouncement. Is Korine creating a millennial Gatsby party or participating in the emptiness of it all? (A key may be the fate of Faith.) It’s often hard to tell with a movie so close to an embodiment of the subject at hand if we’re experiencing a work of understanding or scorn or both at once. My verdict was prone to shifting mid-scene. Either way, it’s artful trash that’s far from Korine’s usual overthought sloppiness; it comes by its loose sliminess, its casual beauty, and its most offensive qualities quite honestly. In fact, one might call it a trash-terpiece.

Go West, Young Writer: ON THE ROAD


I, like many bookish English major types I suppose, have some lingering Beat desires to road trip across America and see what inspiration and experience I can stumble upon. To drive across the vast expanse of roadways crisscrossing the United States, open to possibility, ready to gather raw material for projects made up of the written word, has a powerful romantic pull. For me, this doesn’t even have anything to do with Jack Kerouac or his novel On the Road, which has its minor pleasures, but is no sacred text to me. No, this desire within me is inherited from nothing more than the reverberations of the Beat generation’s go-west-young-writer influence, a sense of literary manifest destiny and direction.

So I have both a rooting interest and a disinterest in the film adaptation of On the Road. I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind the plot, while conflicted over the source material’s place in the literary canon. Over half a century after the novel’s release, it is director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera who have brought the book to the screen, finding some compelling episodic energy here and there in this period piece as young writer Sal (Sam Riley) makes his way through American landscapes. The majority of this particular picture, however, is a slog of a road trip. This is a drudgery in which the sights out the windows and the character actors at each stop are meant to carry the day. This is an adaptation that misses the point. For me, what pleasures that can be found in Kerouac’s novel are all in the prose. It’s not what happens, but how it’s recounted through the flavor and cadence of the writing. Of course that’s tricky to capture cinematically, but once removed, all that’s left of On the Road is an opportunity to really highlight how empty a narrative it is.

How strange, then, or perhaps how lucky, to find nice performances scattered throughout the morass of it all. They are occasional crackles of charm in an otherwise overwhelmingly bland trudge. The road takes Sal to Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi, among others doing fine work in underserved roles. Sal is sometimes joined by Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Those two actors in particular are delivering something approaching career highlight work in a movie that plays as if destined to be largely forgotten. Hedlund and Stewart are two performers who, when thrust into big budget material (like Tron and Twilight, respectively) are consistently (unfairly, I would say) derided as one note, stiff and unconvincing. Here, they’re loose – naked and emotional, open and vulnerable, confident and hesitant – in ways that prove their detractors wrong. They’re actors and good ones at that, able to convincingly play blank blockbuster types just as thoroughly as more nuanced character work. They’re rather enjoyable at times, just as the rest of the exceedingly talented cast is putting in agreeable hard work.

But this shouldn’t feel like work. Salles’s picture is trying so hard for freewheeling filmmaking that it’s a strain. The stream-of-obviousness plot stumbles when it should glide, muddles when it should clarify. It wears out its welcome then drifts, feeling repetitive and tiresome until it finally ends. Worst of all, there are dumbly obvious scenes of Sal bent over a typewriter, hammering away at the prose some of us will recognize from the novel. It’s a typically movie portrayal of a writer, scrunched and self-important, as if our Kerouac proxy already knows that he’s writing a book of some historical note. He types as if he’s placing himself on syllabi before our very eyes. But here is a film that is so relaxed and aimless that it fails to work up the energy to make an argument for its own existence, let alone its source materials. It’s just too low-key to do itself justice. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Slight of Bland: THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE


What a difference ten years makes. In 2003, Jim Carrey starred in the comedy Bruce Almighty as an average guy given the chance to borrow God-like powers, but the real scene-stealer, indeed the only person whose contribution I can remember to this day, was Steve Carell in a supporting role. Now here we are in 2013 with the comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It stars Carell in the title role while the more memorable moments appear courtesy of Carrey in a supporting role. It’s amazing what can happen to a showbiz career in only a decade, an observation worth noting in connection with Wonderstone since it happens to be a point on which the plot hinges. Carell plays a cheesy, theatrical, old school magician who, with his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), has headlined at a Las Vegas hotel performing the same magic act for ten years. They were wildly popular and wealthy, but the act’s gone stale and ticket sales are plummeting. Their hotelier boss (James Gandolfini) says he’ll fire them and hire a flashy new magician (Jim Carrey), a decision that spurs Wonderstone to put together a new show that’ll wow the crowds all over again.

What follows is a movie that’s big, broad and bland. It’s predictable in every beat right up to the rather mean-spirited finale that’s nonetheless played as triumphant victory. Carell’s Wonderstone is nothing more than a pompous and out-of-touch cheeseball, a sort of softer, off-brand Zoolander. In the movie he follows the predictable arc that starts from top of the world before getting knocked down to low lows until he finds it within himself, through the help of the characters around him, to know better how to find his way back to the top. What little that’s interesting here relates to the tension between the older style of magic making, typified by a mail order magic kit hawked by a slick showman (Alan Arkin) that holds a special place in the lives of Carell and Buscemi, and the newer more aggressive and ugly magic as practiced by the flashy, gross magician played by Carrey. Where our protagonists are average guys all dressed up with pompadours and in velvet making a dancing entrance to Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra," he’s wiry, with long stringy hair, black clothing and pounding heavy metal. He’s obnoxious, at one point cutting open his cheek to pull out a bloody, folded up playing card. “Is this your card?” he asks. It is. (His final trick is super gross, too. I shall not spoil it, except to say it’s horrifying, cringe-worthy, and a little funny.)

The tension between types of magic, though, is ground under by the homogenized mediocrity of it all in a film eager to use that central conflict as set dressing rather than utilizing it as the intriguing idea that it is. Director Don Scardino (a sitcom staple) finds little of visual interest, preferring instead to keep the in medium shots and let the lines land. It’s too bad the lines in the script by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (they of Horrible Bosses) are largely inoffensive clunkers that go down easily and without impact. It’s a comedy that fails on both on a plot level and on a scene-by-scene basis, gathering up few laughs and even less of a reason to care. Why, then, did I not out-and-out hate this movie? It’s the cast and the cast alone. Carell and Buscemi have a funny sort of buddy chemistry that occasionally wrings some laughter out of the neglected premise. A few of Gandolfini’s line readings are just unexpected enough to bring a sort of backwards gravitas to some very silly moments. And Carrey, flailing about with little to do, nonetheless makes a big impact by bringing total commitment to a nutty part that a lesser comic actor would’ve no doubt undersold.  

I haven’t even mentioned Olivia Wilde yet and that’s a shame. She’s playing a nothing character, a token female presence that is only around to provide an anemic romantic subplot. You could take Wilde out of Wonderstone entirely and the movie would lose exactly nothing in terms of coherence and impact. That’s unfortunate, but the movie is a big nothing all around. It has so many promising elements mixed in with a game cast and yet proceeds to make use of none of them. It’s blandly uninvolving and perplexingly dull, aside from the once or twice I snickered or half-smiled at the best efforts of everyone involved. The whole thing was leaving my head even as I walked out of the theater. I barely remember it as I type these words a day after I saw it, so I doubt I’ll remember anything about it in ten years.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hold the Phone: THE CALL


I could never be a 911 operator. I don’t have the emotional stamina for the job. On the other end of the switchboard is an unpredictable deluge of human misery, waves of terrified and traumatized callers reporting their lives’ greatest horrors, sometimes inconsequential, sometimes matters of life and death. I have nothing but admiration for those who work calmly and professionally through these calls, sending help to the right locations, expediting responses to emergencies. The modest thriller The Call gets a lot of mileage out of this work environment. Its protagonist, a tough, professional operator played by Halle Berry, answers a call from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has been attacked and now finds herself trapped in a trunk. Berry can’t get a lock on the location and so together with the girl they work out a way to find clues to the location of the car and the identity of her kidnapper.

The bulk of the film is devoted to this titular call. It’s like the inverse of the unfortunately forgotten 2004 David R. Ellis thriller Cellular, the first movie to really milk the then-newer technology of the cell phone to get nonstop genre chills and spills out of it. That movie had Chris Evans getting a call from a hostage who managed to hotwire a broken telephone to dial a random number. Much fun is made out of moments like a mad scramble for a phone charger, what with having to keep the connection while Evans dashes about trying to get clues and get help for the mystery caller. This time around, the hostage is on the move. In trembling close-ups, we cut between Berry and Breslin, talking through the nerve-wracking scenario. The operator, with little information, tries to gather up what she can and send help to the appropriate spot. One fun trick involves kicking out a taillight and sticking a hand through the hole, hoping that another driver will notice and call in to 911. The sight of a pale arm awkwardly waving through a hole in a dark red trunk is vivid genre imagery.

In terse crosscutting, we follow Berry’s cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) as he provides the plot with the necessary role of a protagonist on the move. With information fed to him by Berry, he leads the charge in sending police to and fro, picking up on the trail of breadcrumbs left by the various clues. Director Brad Anderson shoots things with a no-nonsense simplicity that keeps the plot moving along tensely and efficiently. I usually find him to be a director whose films kick up fine mood, but tend to seem awfully undercooked on the level of character and narrative. In films like Session 9 and Vanishing on 7th Street, I find myself wishing that he could push his neo-Twilight Zone narrative tendencies further into abstraction, leaving the pesky clumsiness of his storytelling behind.  In The Call, as in his best film, the icy train-set twister Transsiberian, he has a nice, simple premise to work with, matching mood with action in a way that’s largely satisfying for much of the runtime.

It's too bad that the script by Richard D’Ovidio (his first produced screenplay since the remake of Thirteen Ghosts over a decade ago) has a howler of a climax, a sustained sequence of one character acting outside the law, setting off on a secretive investigation that’s filled with all kinds of reasons to exclaim “Don’t go in there!” “Watch out behind you!” and “What do you think you’re doing?” It’s a particularly icky form of exploitation revenge and a sour note on which to end an otherwise trim and crisp thriller.  It doesn’t help that the more we learn about the kidnapper, the more he seems to be nothing more than a generic creep of the kind you could see on any TV procedural any night of the week. Come to think of it, though The Call is ultimately only a slightly-better-than-mediocre B-movie, it’d have made a fine pilot. (Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Anderson has done his best work on TV, especially in his handling of 12 episodes of the paranormal investigation procedural Fringe.) Wouldn’t you want to watch a detective series about Halle Berry taking 911 calls and sending Morris Chestnut to investigate? I know I would. There’s even an ideologically interesting hero shot of Berry towards the end of the film, a low angle image that captures an American flag billowing in the background. The filmmakers have ahold of something intriguing with this premise and they come close to pulling it off.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Behind the Curtain: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL


It can’t be easy to set out to make a film dancing around in the iconography of one of the greatest films of all time. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a film that may not be great and powerful, but is certainly good and entertaining, uses memorable aspects The Wizard of Oz both big and small in inventive and surprising ways without embarrassing itself or seeming a diminishment of a beloved cultural masterpiece. That is some kind of wonderment. The film itself, which is set decades before the 1939 classic and follows a Kansas con man magician into Oz, is an earnest work of sturdy craftsmanship and showmanship, sparkling with a zippy sense of fun. Though it seems to wobble here and there, threatening to fall flat on its face, it rallies for a rousing ending. Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script constantly walks up to convention only to back away in delightful flourishes.

James Franco plays the magician who will become the Wizard of Oz. He’s not quite believable, which is in some ways the point. (Just don’t imagine what Raimi’s regular character actor Bruce Campbell, who appears late in the film in a cameo, could have done with the role.) He’s a huckster with sparkling charisma hidden behind a desperate layer of slimy smarm. The prologue, set in a classically square aspect ratio and filmed in jaw-droppingly gorgeous black and white, finds his magic act at a county fair dying painfully when a sweet girl in a wheelchair begs him to make her walk again. The crowd turns on him (“He’s not a real magician!”) and on Oz’s face is written both the pain of a performer facing a hostile crowd and a man torn up by the fact that there’s nothing he can do to help someone in need. He feels like an unhelpful man without a purpose, unable to scam more than a few coins from people he considers country bumpkins.

His personality problems don’t go away, but take on larger phantasmagorical stakes when circumstances conspire to send him over the rainbow. When he’s sucked into a tornado, he’s terrified that he’s about to die, a natural reaction I’d say. When he lands in Oz, the screen expanding, filling with color and obvious digital fakery, he’s befuddled and amused, but tries to hide behind an opaque confidence that slips a bit when the real magic starts sparking around him. It’s an interesting role that calls for a leading man to fall into the background, confused and adrift in a sea of colorful spectacle, while, thrillingly, the women around him hold all the real power in this land and, whatever emotions romantic or otherwise they feel towards him, view him as a pawn in their game of thrones. He meets three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams). At least one is a good witch. One’s a bad witch who, by film’s end, becomes awfully wicked. The third will probably have a house dropped on her head at some point in her future.

The man who would be Wizard is told he’s fulfilling a prophecy by showing up in Oz. To claim the Emerald City’s throne – and all the riches the position supplies – all he must do is kill a wicked witch. Seems easy enough, so off he shuffles down the yellow brick road where, along the way, an ingratiating flying monkey (Zach Braff) and a broken China Doll (Joey King) join the quest. Raimi draws upon his directorial skill sets from both his horror background (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell) and his big budget spectacles (Spider-man, Spider-man 2), staging sequences like a tantalizingly creepy/funny walk through a gloomy forest with ominous crows, snapping plants with glowing eyes, and a hooded figure gliding out of the fog of a graveyard, modulating tension and relief in supremely entertaining ways, cut together in a variety of pop art frames with smartly varied pace. Later, he’ll stage a dazzling witch-on-witch battle that follows a supreme visual and narrative pleasure in the reveal of the surprising way the fraudulent Wizard claims him throne. It’s all of a piece with Raimi’s skill with mixing humor and thrills, creating playful spectacle that’s always aware of its own fiction without lessening the impact of its storytelling.

And what storytelling! It’s lumpy in spots and the character arcs are obvious, but the film is wrapped up in an old-fashioned, hyper-earnest sense of theatrical flourish. By the time the curtain (quite literally) falls, there’s a sense of a master showman shouting “ta-da!” To the tunes of one of Danny Elfman’s best scores in recent memory, the screen is filled with colorful CGI landscapes and charming creature work that’s gloriously fake, approaching the Technicolor perfection of The Wizard of Oz’s painted backdrops. But that’s not to say the effects are wholly unconvincing. On the contrary, they’re often quite spectacular when they need to be. Franco’s travelling companions are effects that work incredibly well. The monkey, for instance, sells some nonverbal punchlines through nothing more than the shifting expressions on his face. The look of the film is appealing through and through. The Land of Oz itself is a glittering jewel of manufactured whimsy and the witches’ elegant wardrobes look like they were cut from the same cloth as MGM’s 1930’s costume department. To top it all off, the 3D is as dazzling as any I’ve seen. (Put it on the short list with Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi as essential live action 3D.) Oz is a funny, surprising magic music box of sturdy childlike wonder.

Note: Although I like this film a bit less than the unfairly maligned and forgotten John Carter, it’s interesting to note that two years in a row Disney has released in March an expensive live action film inspired by turn-of-the-20th-century genre fiction about a man in the early 1900s who is whisked away to a different world where he’s just the variable needed to tip the balance in a struggle between competing factions.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hill of Beans: JACK THE GIANT SLAYER


When it comes to recontextualizing an old tale as a modern would-be blockbuster, Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer is way better than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but doesn’t even come close to the entertainment value of Snow White and the Huntsman. I suppose that’s the very definition of middling. I may not have liked it much, but it’s certainly not worth disliking, not when it’s so colorful and good natured, a kind of square, clear-eyed spectacle, a red-blooded adventure that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in the 50s with Harryhausen animation instead of blandly intricate CGI fakery. In this new telling, the story of Jack, the farm boy who trades his horse for magic beans which then grow into a beanstalk that leads to a land of giants, is the basic seed of story which sprouts into a typical hero’s journey complete with damsel so hopelessly distressed and a terribly modern extended action climax that drones on and on through noisy digital destruction.

But before it gets there, it starts simply, with a nicely crosscut sequence of a little boy in a farmhouse and a little girl in a castle, each being read a legend of giants and the king who forged a crown out of a melted giant’s heart to order them back to their realm high in the sky. The boy grows up to be Jack (Nicholas Hoult). The girl grows up to be the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson). She, through a series of events I shan’t relay here, ends up stuck at the top of the beanstalk when it smashes up through Jack’s small house. The king (Ian McShane) orders his best knight (Ewan McGregor) up the stalk with a team of men with the mission to save the princess at all costs. Among the group are the girl’s clearly villainous betrothed (Stanley Tucci, who doesn’t twirl his mustache, but might as well) and Jack, who has taken a liking to the girl and wants to impress her by joining the rescue party. He also feels a little responsible. After all, he’s the one who lost track of the bean that started the whole mess.

At the top of the beanstalk there be giants, of course. The giants’ world is a playground for standard adventure beats, with the men scurrying to and fro through setpieces that play with scale in all the ways you’d expect. There’s a smattering of silly visual moments – I especially liked one involving pigs in a giant’s oven – and a handful of fine action beats. The problem that Singer and his screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney don’t quite get around to solving – until the charming, unexpected epilogue, that is – is how to overcome the feeling that we’ve been here before. If not literally here, then we’ve at least been in the neighborhood. The characters never rise to the level of even fully inhabited, memorable one-dimensional types. The plot never shakes off the feeling that it’s all just a thin fable that’s been blown all out of proportion and along with it, the tone’s gone all misshapen too. It’s at once oversized and modest, an odd combination for something so ostentatiously expensive, dripping with state-of-the-art effects that are what they are. The stalk vines its way into the sky with a convincing slither, the giants stomp with motion captured weightless weightiness, and the humans more or less convincingly occupy the same spaces as all of the above.

As the movie marches forward, with the humans and giants scrambling about in the forest in the sky and back on the ground the kingdom’s citizenry assemble a sort of Ace in the Hole carnival atmosphere around the stalk’s base, the tone grows into what, if I’m feeling charitable, I’d call relaxed, or, if I’m not, I’d call half baked. Still, it allows some of the performers to really pop. I enjoyed McGregor’s smirking swashbuckling and his delight playing his character’s personality as somewhere between a flip Obi-Wan Kenobi and an excessively dashing Errol Flynn. His answer “Not just yet,” to the question “Are we dead?” is one of the movie’s most memorable moments, as is his laughter in a later scene as he watches a giant get repeatedly stung by bees. In a movie with bounteous visual trickery, he’s the best effect. Everything else, from the bland leading roles to the broadly sketched supporting roles and all the borrowed fantasy frippery in between, is so much sleepiness that’s so close to being fun that it’s all the more disappointing for falling short.
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