Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dumbbells: PAIN & GAIN


Michael Bay is Hollywood’s preeminent vulgarian. With movies like Armageddon and Transformers, he specializes in slick imagery that turns a gleaming gaze on people and technology with the same slobbering glee, an objectification that turns everything into button-pushing jolts of spectacle, collateral damage, and queasy humor that leans on distasteful stereotypes more often than not. This sometimes leads to enjoyable movies, sometimes not, but it certainly makes him the right person to direct Pain & Gain, a based-on-a-true-story caper about some lunkheads with big small dreams who basically imagine themselves the heroes of their own Michael Bay movie. His proudly juvenile adrenaline machines in which an outsized id runs free through a glamorously ugly caricature world fits with a story so grotesque and unbelievable it simply must be true (or at least exaggerated from the truth).

The action takes place in Miami during 1994 and 1995. There at the time Bay was filming his feature debut, the cop buddy action comedy Bad Boys. So, alas, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), the main character of this movie, instead cites Rocky, Scarface and The Godfather as his cinematic motivation. He, conveniently forgetting the ultimate fate of the protagonists of those films, thinks of them as good examples of guys who made something of themselves, something to aspire to as he prepares to chase his American dream: lots of money, lots of things, and lots of pretty women. He has what he thinks is a great get-rich-quick plan, a sure-fire all-American, get-what’s-coming-to-him windfall. When questioned about his scheme he says, “I’ve watched a lot of movies. I know what I’m doing.”

And what is Daniel's plot? He has happened to gain a new client, rich jerk Victor (Tony Shalhoub), who walked into Sun Gym looking for a personal trainer. He’s the kind of guy who says, “You know who invented salads? Poor people.” He’s not a nice guy. Daniel's idea is to recruit two of his co-workers, the steroidal Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and the born-again Paul (Dwayne Johnson), to help kidnap Victor, make him sign over all his assets blindfolded, and then return him to his routine unable to do anything about it. That sounds easy enough, if rather implausible and with countless details that need to be worked out. But Daniel doesn’t seem to notice those and his partners in crime don’t ask many questions. They all think they’re about to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. Here’s a group of guys smart enough to cook up a scheme, but too dumb to get away unscathed.

The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely gives us overlapping narration from all three men and their victim, giving us four perspectives on the events as they unfold. The dissonance between the confidence they constantly speak to us and each other, the pumped-up sheen of Bay’s filmmaking, and the string of dumb decisions they proceed to make provides a recipe for a savage pitch black comedy. When things start to go wrong, as you know they must, it turns into a kind of humid, sun-baked Fargo. (There’s a nasty bit of business with a pile of dismembered limbs that rivals that film’s wood chipper scene.) Bay shoots it all with a smug satisfaction, snickering at these meatheads for buying so whole-heartedly into the American dream of having it all and getting away with it that they can’t see it’s a lie with which all truly successful people learn to compromise. Early on, Wahlberg attends a lecture from a transparently phony motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) and leaves feeling nothing but starry-eyed confidence. Yes, he thinks, even he can make his dreams of obscene wealth come true. That he should go about it in a brutal, haphazard, illegal way is a source of the humor, but in the insistence that perhaps he’s a fool to try anything at all, the film is cynical, nihilistic social satire to its core.

There are no heroes here. The criminals are misguided lugs impossible to root for. Their victim is a smarmy slimeball who’s impossible to wish victory upon. Bay puts the audience in the sometimes uncomfortable position of simply watching the gears of plot turn on these awful people. The late edition of a private eye played by Ed Harris as a weary pragmatist and the only person of professional competence in the whole movie and as such seems to be subtextually shaking his head at the sad weirdness of it all, like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, does much to help cut through the ugliness. But what sometimes beautiful ugliness! Bay’s muscular showiness is put to good use here, laying out tawdry, glittery lifestyles of the almost rich and gaudily infamous-in-their-own-minds, lives that play out sadly in gyms, strip clubs, and on Floridian beaches.

There’s huge entertainment to be had in the rapid-fire montage that keeps the pace speedy throughout the entire two-hour-plus runtime and the collision of light performances with the heavy dark violence and vulgarity. Instead of risking the audience lose track of his satirical point, Bay makes it quite clear that he’s in on the joke. As brutish satire, it makes its jabs early and finds only ways to repeat them thereafter. Luckily the performers (I haven’t even mentioned fun supporting roles filled by Rob Corddry, Bar Paly and Rebel Wilson) are agile and funny and the story itself is strange and unpredictable enough to keep things interesting. It’s a credit to the great cast, twisty plot, and Bay’s aggressively watchable, just-shy-of garishly colorful style that I didn’t grow tired. I didn’t love it or loathe it, but I think I had fun.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Wonder, Wander: TO THE WONDER


To the Wonder is the kind of film that’s so evocative and thought provoking that to say it is about nothing says more about you than about the film. It’s the latest from Terrence Malick, the master poet of cinema. He wields the camera and the editing bay like Whitman or Frost used their pens, sketching beautiful imagery and natural detail to evoke in an instant the deepest of reflections. Unlike his last film, the confident spiritual coming-of-age panorama The Tree of Life, this new film is confident in its hesitance. Here is a film that pushes his style even further, more abstraction and more ellipsis, dialogue slipping further away from the images, narration sparser and rarely less than a kind of pure yearning for an elusive something. Where Tree of Life, through an intensely personal montage of childhood experience, managed to examine existence itself from the dawn of time to an abstract timelessness of a conclusion, To the Wonder is an earthy, specific, and wounded picture about characters shyly, strongly trying and failing to connect with each other and with a sense of a bigger picture. What is Truth? What is Love? What is Wonder?

The Wonder of the title refers to a literal place, the island Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) spend happy hours in the beginning of their romance. We see them nuzzling each other, caressing shoulders, holding hands, relaxed, leaning into each other’s arms. But Wonder can be both awe, a miraculous feeling of surprise and revelation, and pondering, to be filled with curiosity and questioning. These two characters will spend the course of the film wondering towards wonder as the film follows them in and out of love. Neil, in love with this Parisian woman, wishes to move back to the United States with her and so Marina, along with her daughter, follows him there, happy at first, but eventually consumed with a nagging emptiness as their relationship strains.

But we begin in a state of love. The two communicate their love, their infatuation, through touching, through subtle exposures. They chase after each other playfully, entering into a kind of dance with Emmanuel Lubezki’s expressive cinematography that captures landscapes both natural and manmade with a wandering poetic eye, lingering on tall stalks of grass in windswept fields, shallow water on shifting mud as the tide rolls in, tidy lines of colorful packages on aisle after aisle of supermarket shelves, cool fluorescent reflections on a row of laundromat washers. These two people are merely another aspect of these landscapes, their every movement, their very proximity to each other becoming richly evocative of their emotional states.

As they fall out of love, that distance is no longer a dance of playfulness, but rather a hazy mood of stillness and resonant, hesitant serenity. Dissatisfaction sets in with the distance. Proximity often brings argument, muffled dissonance beneath the quietly swirling score. We hear their voices, hers more than his, whispering to us in urgent narration, questioning their place in the world, entering in conversations with their innermost desires and fears, pleading to a God they may or may not find comfort in. Even what Malick captures of their routines gathers metaphoric weight. He tests soil and water near construction sights for underlying problems, trying to keep forward movement from inadvertently destroying those around it. She is often found drifting, twirling, sitting in sparsely furnished rooms (impeccably designed by Jack Fisk) and empty streets, aimless and yearning. There’s a sense that they need more than each other to be happy, but the matter of what that more entails is something with which they wrestle and wonder, together sometimes, but largely alone.

An intriguing comparison to their plight – held in tension between needs both philosophical and physical – is found in an even more sparsely plotted and overtly meditative subplot about a priest (Javier Bardem) who presides over the congregation the characters attend. We follow him as he moves, every step and action controlled, as he moves isolated through a Bressonian collection of visits to the homes and neighborhoods of his most impoverished congregants. We hear his voice on the soundtrack as well, whispering to God for answers even as he’s reaching out to those in pain, which causes him pain. Is this love? It’s a spiritual love and earthly devotion that becomes a burden on the man who takes it as his solemn duty.

To call To the Wonder plotless is only to note how Malick has moved from positioning his poetry of cinema in more conventional containers – his Badlands and Days of Heaven period pieces with genre elements held in place by a mood that was already distinctly his, The Thin Red Line and The New World historical epics, The Tree of Life bildungsromans of both one boy and the world itself – to a film that is ruminative and expressive, finding outward expression of interior feelings its overwhelming feature and intent. I found myself thinking of poet Archibald MacLeish’s line “A poem should not mean / But be.” In its abstraction in pursuit of stronger emotion, To the Wonder does not mean, but is. Detail comes strong and precise – a new flame (Rachel McAdams) during a separation, a child suddenly entering the picture – sitting in focus, then fading, perhaps unexplained, but still felt, into the current of life, in a questioning quest to the purity of awe.


Passed Down: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES


If you go to see The Place Beyond the Pines, you’ll pay to see one movie and get two more at no extra charge. That’s not because the film’s overstuffed, but because of the film’s structure. It’s built out of three stories that are separate and yet flow into each other, not so much evolving as filling up with evocative resonances and echoes. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance must like this sort of thing. His last film, the great, harrowing relationship drama Blue Valentine, cut back and forth, balancing the beginning and end of a relationship, tentative young romance smashing inevitably into aged tensions. With his new film, Cianfrance has created something of an intimate epic. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours, it feels long, spanning two generations, confidently shifting the protagonist not once, not twice, but three times, leaving the structure feeling like three short stories placed back to back.

As the film starts, we’re introduced to a drifter, a handsome stunt motorcyclist played by Ryan Gosling. He travels with a carnival, breaking hearts and making a little bit of money in each town. That routine changes when an old flame (Eva Mendes) introduces him to his son. Now desperate to be a part of his child’s life, he attempts to settle down and soon resorts to making money in a less-than-legal way. That’s how we meet an ambitious young cop who becomes the film’s new focus. He’s played by Bradley Cooper as a proud, privileged man desperate to make something out of his life. He’s a man whose rich father (Harris Yulin) and worried wife (Rose Byrne) can barely understand why he’s chosen such a risky profession. I’ll save the film’s last story unspoiled except to say that it riffs on the choices these two men make and the impact they have on the next generation.

Cianfrance briskly establishes vivid detail out of casually precise production design and meticulous performances. A fairly early scene of adrenaline, suspense and daredevilry ends with Gosling vomiting on the rough wood floor in the back of an empty cube truck. I could almost feel the sweat, sawdust and stink in my nostrils. When the cut away from this scene starts up a Springsteen song on the soundtrack, it was only underlining what, by that point, was more than clear. We’re seeing a blue-collar story song of a film, a meandering tribute to the working class. Gosling and Cooper are playing characters who use what they do to define who they are and their attempts to either live up to and break away from those definitions lead them down different, yet in many ways similarly perilous, roads.

It’s thematically overreaching and narratively overdetermined and inefficient, but there’s an absorbing pleasure to the way the film plays out. It doesn’t come together as smoothly or completely as its structure suggests, but there are nonetheless satisfying echoes across three discreet plot arcs, like when an early long shot of Gosling riding a motorcycle down a wooded two-lane road is mirrored in a late long shot of a teenager riding a bike down the very same road. It’s effective. Cianfrance (with co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) has made a film of immersive plotting with the harder-than-it-looks pleasure of narrative curiosity. I cared as I wondered what would happen next for the characters and was eager for the unfolding events to tell me more. There’s a confidence to the film’s ambition and indulgence that I was willing to accept. The destination may be slightly less than the journey promises, but the sheer narrative pleasure kept me more than enough engaged.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pretty/Boring: OBLIVION


There’s a certain baseline amount of pleasure that can be found in watching a film from a director with the imagination to design striking shots and the knowledge of how to move the camera in interesting ways. Director Joseph Kosinski is just such a director. He doesn’t just think in shots; he thinks in sequences. There’s an architectural sleekness to the way he devises cinematic imagery. This is especially true of his debut film, 2010’s Tron: Legacy, a film that in some hands might’ve played as hopelessly retro fan service, but was instead enlivened by a sense of popcorn poetry in the pounding Daft Punk score and the crisp electric neon cool of each and every frame. It’s perhaps the most underappreciated directorial debut in recent memory, simply for the way he smuggled artistry into a big budget behemoth of a film. I wish I could say the same for his follow up effort, Oblivion. It’s also a sci-fi film with lots of surface cool, but, unlike the Tron sequel, that’s where it stops. This is a film that can’t quite coast on surface charms alone. There’s just not enough there there.

It starts promisingly enough with a tantalizing set up. Many decades into the future, many years after an alien race blew up the moon and invaded Earth before getting nuked by humans in return, two humans (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) patrol the decimated planet. They’re waiting for their mission’s expiration date, at which point they can leave the irradiated wasteland behind and join the human colony that’s been forming on a moon elsewhere in the solar system. The two workers sit in a glass apartment in the sky, the woman overseeing day-to-day operations, the man flying a transparent bubble on wings out into the field to repair heavily armed drones. Their commander (Melissa Leo) checks in with them each morning, beaming her image onto their computer screens from her station in a massive triangular satellite high above them, orbiting outside the atmosphere. This is all slick stuff imbued with great mystery, but it soon becomes clear that the more that is found out, the less there’s reason to care.

Kosinski’s too good to make a movie that looks bad. Appropriately, Oblivion has gleaming technology and effects situated effortlessly in gorgeous shots of craggy windswept landscapes dotted with buried landmarks of humans past. But pretty sights can’t cover up a plot that starts moderately intriguing and then quickly grows inert before twisting itself around to routine genre muddling. It’s a film of portentous signifiers without anything signified, empty symbols chasing narrative cliché. You’d think in this day and age a movie about humans repairing largely autonomous drones without a clear memory of why they’re doing it could get more resonance that this film manages.

The script by Kosinski with Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt is a thin, familiar sci-fi narrative in which Things Are Not As They Seem. Cruise, for this is nothing if not a Tom Cruise picture, is the one who slowly solves the mystery. He dreams of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) and is wary of scavengers that catch and pick apart the drones. Eventually, he’ll meet a few of them, leading to Morgan Freeman having a great entrance, intoning poetry from the shadows before lighting a match that illuminates his face. But instead of deepening the mystery, it is simply prolonged. Each new character and each new bit of information in this would-be mindbender reveals how little is actually on the film’s mind. At one point Riseborough, responding to Cruise’s increasingly questioning demeanor, says, “We’re not supposed to remember, remember?”

Ah, but Cruise wants to remember. Like WALL-E, he’s collecting scraps of junk and little treasures, fascinated by the life humans left behind. It’s this hoarding curiosity that leads him to gather scraps of clues and divine their true purpose. Similarly, an audience with any knowledge of sci-fi films, both junk and treasures, of years past will be able to figure out the film’s every move. Maybe you’ve seen WALL-E, Silent Running or Planet of the Apes and maybe even its first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Maybe you’ve watched the massive classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the recent indie Moon. Drawing bits and pieces from these films and many more, Kosinski and his collaborators make a beautiful emptiness that combines old themes in new ways that ring hollow, leaving so little to grab onto that it grows boring well before the credits roll, each new development registering with me with a thud and a shrug instead of the intended jolt and surprise. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Earned Run: 42


We haven’t had a solid, clear, feel-good biopic in quite some time, so 42 will do nicely. It tells the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a star baseball player in the late 1940s Negro Leagues who is given the chance to join the Brooklyn Dodgers by that team’s stubborn general manager (Harrison Ford). In the grand tradition of illustrated easy reader biographies – you know, the kind with a title like Jackie Robinson: Young Sports Trailblazer – this is a film of big broad strokes of biographical material spiced up with vivid, simple lessons about how terrible racism is and how average people with courage to do good things can sometimes make all the difference in the world. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, no stranger to sports movie formula given his anachronistic jousting movie A Knight’s Tale, brings a sense of sturdiness to the proceedings. It’s a brightly lit crowd-pleaser and a fine piece of Hollywood hero worship.

I’ll leave it to baseball historians to tell you how accurate the movie is, but as a movie, 42 works well to limit itself to Robinson’s ascent to the Dodgers and his first season playing for them. The incidents it chronicles are roughly those featured in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. Although that film starred Robinson as himself, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this new film is more truthful about the extent of the problems Robinson faced as the first African American to play in what was at the time an all-white league. There’s dissension from the public, sure, as well as from rival teams. In the film’s most effective sequence, an opposing team’s coach (Alan Tudyk) sends a relentless barrage of ugly slurs and stereotypes towards the batter’s box during every at bat. The film is also wise to avoid hiding the dissent that came from within the Dodgers organization, making it clear that Robinson’s mere presence in a previously all-white society was sometimes enough to unsettle otherwise reasonable people.

Despite the admirable details, Helgeland pulls his punches a bit. The ugliness of history is ugly here, but maybe not ugly enough. The thematic import of some scenes is underlined too forcefully, like in a cute but clunky scene of a little boy in the crowd explaining the game and, in the process, Robinson’s talent, to his mother. Still, it’s a better movie when it’s a baseball movie that’s incidentally a history lesson than when it’s the other way around. It’s my own personal prejudice that baseball is the most cinematic of sports, with naturally occurring long stretches of slow suspense and an interesting geometric playing field good for wide angles and interesting depth in framing. (That opinion may also have something to do with baseball being the only sport I find interesting to watch for any length of time.) Helgeland stages the games vividly and enjoyably, grabbing at scraps of tension related to both the game and the dynamics between the players, while never losing sight of Robinson’s presence.

As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman takes advantage of his first starring role, dripping charm and inviting sympathy with every glance. He plays the role as a simple ballplayer, aware of the pressure he’s under, but unaware of his legacy. If only all biopic performances were worn so lightly. There’s a dusting of romance care of Mrs. Robinson (Nicole Beharie, very fine) and the sweet sparkle between she and Boseman balances out the historical import that could’ve easily weighed the film down. The film has plenty of good performances from welcome character actors in sharply written historical caricatures. As the boundary-busting general manager Branch Rickey, Ford is a crusty charmer in what has to be his liveliest acting in quite a few years. Team management (Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight), teammates (Lucas Black, Ryan Merriman, Hamish Linklater), and a radio announcer (John C. McGinley) are also given brief little moments in which to shine. It’s the well-rounded ensemble that helps fill out the background and keep the film from becoming only hagiography.

But what a wonderful sight to see such hero worship! Robinson’s a true black hero, a subject too infrequently taken up by filmmakers, at least on a massive, mainstream, studio level. (It’d make for an interesting double feature with Django Unchained in that regard.) When was the last time Hollywood deigned to roll out a major release focusing on a strong, complicated figure of African American history? I think you’d have to look back just over ten years, to 2001’s Ali, or twenty years, to 1992’s Malcolm X, to find such a picture. 42 may not have the artistry of those films, but is such a sturdy success that I’d love to see many more like it.  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

You're Getting Sleepy: TRANCE


Trance is an unusually twisty heist movie. I think that’s supposed to be the entertaining part. But in practice, the plot twists end up collecting so quickly and consistently, undoing the impact of the ones that came before, that the storytelling left me only thoroughly unengaged by the images flickering in front of me. It’s the kind of movie that starts complicated and only twists from there. In fact, by film’s end what has happened has shifted so substantially from what, at the beginning, appeared to be happening, that I’m hesitant to tell you much at all about the plot’s specifics. It’s the kind of movie that grows sillier the more it divulges. In this case, Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s script seems to be a textbook example of how to overwork a flimsy premise.

But you didn’t come all this way just for me to tell you nothing, so all I’ll say is this. The film starts with a seemingly mild-mannered, everyman auctioneer (James McAvoy) at a London art gallery. During bidding on a nice-looking Goya, the auction is broken up by intimidating intruders. McAvoy finds himself confronted by thieves intent on making a much more forceful bid than anyone was expecting. In the ensuing drama, a nicely directed bit of action, the painting goes missing. That’s a suitably compelling – and simple – start to a would-be hypnotic thriller, but wait, there’s quickly more (and more, and more).

The thieves, a motley crew led by great French character actor Vincent Cassel, make away with a bag they think contains the painting, but, upon opening it, discover they only got the frame. Shame, then, that McAvoy was hit in the head during the heist and can’t remember where he stashed the Goya for safekeeping. Enter a hypnotherapist played by Rosario Dawson. She promises that she can unlock the secrets that amnesia has conveniently locked away, although at first McAvoy doesn’t tell her that A.) he’s there under duress and B.) can’t remember where he’s hidden a stolen painting. From there, the film cannot be said to contain a plotline so much as a plot pretzel with nearly every sequence undercutting the facts – and more importantly, the emotion – previously established.

It’s directed by Danny Boyle, a hyperkinetic stylist who specializes in jump and smash cuts, off-kilter angles, and shifts in the colors and textures of the image. Here he’s a bit more restrained than his usual jumpy, borderline manic style as seen in the likes of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours. He also managed to achieve a living version of that energy when he choreographed the stunning opening ceremony at last summer’s Olympics in London, but with Trance his style feels sleepier, or maybe exhausted. It’s not that it’s sedate, exactly, just that the energy is a bit too relaxed for the level of acrobatic strain the plotting is putting the characters through. It’s as if the movie itself has fallen into a trance. For all Boyle’s skill at on-edge unease, he’s rarely done a straightforward thriller. But here it is, a film in which genre is the only straightforward thing about it. The thing about situating characters, and the audience, on-edge, is that there must be some awareness of an edge. There’s no mooring here when anything and everything is potentially thrown into doubt by the next twist.

I don’t mean to say the movie is confusing, at least not on the level of what happens, but it is confused. That is to say, it’s always clear what is happening at any given moment, even when we go inside minds under hypnosis for casually surreal dream states that reveal themselves with great meaningless import. What is increasingly muddled is why anyone should care. I felt bad for the actors, who are uniformly good, but trapped giving performances that are totally committed to nothing but the confusion of it all. (Dawson, especially, makes herself vulnerable in unfortunately unnecessary ways.) By the end, though it’s repeatedly explained, changed, and explained again, I wasn’t entirely certain what any of the characters wanted and what they would do if they got it. The last scene of the film features a character debating whether or not he will make a choice to literally erase from his memory the events of the entire film. Boyle cuts to the credits before the character makes the choice and, indicative of my level of interest and understanding, I neither knew nor cared what was decided.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dead Again: EVIL DEAD


You’d think evil spirits would get tired of doing the same things over and over for all eternity, but I guess that’s not the case. Where would horror franchises be if that were true? Here’s Evil Dead, a quasi-remake and implied sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult favorite horror film The Evil Dead (filmed on a shoestring budget in the late 70s, released in 1981) and his own quasi-remake/sequel Evil Dead II. The new picture, like those previous ones, takes place at a creaky cabin deep in a Michigan woods. Once again, a group of young people end up there for one reason or another and end up reading from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, a creepy book with text helpful for activating a demonic spirit which then sets out possessing and/or dismembering the characters one by one in a frenzy of horror violence.

This new film doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but director Fede Alvarez brings the expected in fine fashion. It plays like the work of a superfan of the original turned giddy with the knowledge that he’s been let loose to make his own version. In a sharply drawn screenplay by Alvarez and Diablo Cody (in what represents her most restrained barbs), the young adults gather for an intervention. On a break from her studies at Michigan State, a sweet addict (Jane Levy) dumps her drugs down the well and swears to her brother (Shiloh Fernandez) and friends (Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, and Elizabeth Blackmore) that this time she’s quitting for real. Cold turkey. What follows can then be seen as a bloody metaphor for the violence of withdrawal symptoms.

With great visual nods to its predecessors, the film proceeds along its path of narrative escalation. It creeps forward, finding ever gooey, grosser, more violent scenarios with which to shred your nerves. Rare is the horror film of any kind that finds enough inventive terror to fill even a sequence or two. Rarer still is the horror film that climbs higher with every scene, a unity of grueling disturbances that squirms ever tighter. It’s predictable in its rhythms, but uncompromising in its commitment to playing those rhythms as intensely as possible. It’s a film full of creaking floorboards, mirrored medicine cabinets, chances to scream “Don’t go in there!” and seemingly defeated enemies suddenly snapping back into action. But in each case, there’s a satisfying go for broke attitude. If a new Evil Dead had to be made, it may as well be something this satisfying. Even sans Raimi’s deranged slapstick energy, it might as well look this slick and bloody.

Polished cinematography and confident performances stand in the place of the appealing amateurish edges in Raimi’s original film. This new effort is overflowing with practical effects that grow gooier as we near the climax. The characters sustain cringe-worthy injuries and tend to the wounds in ways that made the audience I saw it with squirm in unison. One gnarly scene that puts an electric carving knife to use in an impromptu emergency self-surgery is a particular over-the-top work of prosthetics that one may need to watch through half-closed eyes. Ditto a needle that punctures skin, comes perilously close to an eyeball, and then, inevitably, must be pulled back out. I won’t even being to hint to you what happens to one girl’s tongue. That you will have to brave for yourself.

The film is gory, gross, and unrelentingly suspenseful, scary, even. But it doesn’t get under the skin in the way the best horror movies do. There’s a sense that it’s all happening because that’s what happens in movies like this. That it’s well made and an impressive feat of effects work is undeniable. What ultimately elevates the experience from a shined-up homage is Jane Levy. Stretching acting muscles slightly different from the ones she uses on her ABC sitcom Suburgatory, she gives the kind of horror hero performance that should get more acclaim than it will. It’s a slippery piece of work, slipping in and out of demonic possession, alternating creepily between growling, giggling antagonist and terrified young victim, begging for it all to be over. Without giving it away, the transformation that she goes through in the film’s final sequence is hugely satisfying and indicative of the ways Alvarez has found to work within a standard formula, reference the films from which he draws inspiration, and still find memorable moments all his own.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Multiplex: JURASSIC PARK


Returning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, back in theaters for its 20th anniversary, is a hugely enjoyable experience. The by-now classic story of a theme park of cloned dinosaurs descending into chaos one stormy weekend is not simply the fun dinosaur picture I had thought it was as a younger person renting the VHS. Seeing it dwarfing my senses on the big screen reveals it to be an uncommonly skillful work of blockbuster engineering. Its building blocks are stock schlock spectacle with a pulpy Michael Crichton novel streamlined by the author and David Koepp into a screenplay of B-picture archetypes: the noble scientists, the kindly mad billionaire, the smarmy lawyer, the slimy saboteur, and the cute kids. What Spielberg and his collaborators understand is that just because a scenario lends itself to certain tropes doesn’t mean it can’t transcend them through masterful craftsmanship.

This time through, I was struck most of all by the film’s structure. At the time of its release, some complained that it got to the point too quickly, unlike the long tease of Spielberg’s Jaws. Why, the scientists gape at a living, breathing CGI brachiosaurus first thing upon arrival at Jurassic Park, after all. Those critics were so dazzled by the effects that they felt they were a distraction. Now, though, when CGI spectacles can and do cram digital doodads into every cranny of the frame and modern pacing would have a full-blown dinosaur setpiece in the first reel, it’s easier to see how the time in the Park is so carefully built up. For a long period of time, we follow Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern), and Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) as the white-haired rich man (Richard Attenborough) introduces them to the way the theme park operates and the audience gets to hear all about each of the dinosaur species and their behaviors. Spielberg dips into pleasant popcorn philosophy – chaos theory, “life will find a way” – and introduces cute, instantly sympathetic kids (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) while casually situating lived-in performances into a just-convincing-enough sci-fi scenario.

Part of what gives pleasant weight to these quickly sketched and off-handedly fully-formed characters is the sense that the performers are finding ways to put unexpected twists on the sometimes clunky lines. They may be archetypes, but they feel pleasingly low-key and real, or at least real enough. Goldblum’s always been a master at putting an offbeat cadence to his dialogue, looping words around as if they’re arriving in his head so quickly that they back up while he decides if he’ll second guesses each clause as he speaks them. Dern is always quite good as well. At the time, she was coming off a string of eclectic performances in the likes of Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and here provides a center of glowing capability. She, like Sam Neill (also doing great work), provides the film with a great center point. They’re sympathetic and knowledgeable professionals and it helps ground the film in a feeling of determined professionalism. I especially like the subtle arc their relationship has. It’s romance underplayed marvelously. Between that and the fairly restrained Grant-learns-to-like-kids sub-subplot, those who fault Spielberg for hitting emotional beats too hard should find some pause.

When the dinosaurs attack, the scientists and park technicians for the most part maintain a sense of scientific curiosity and harried practicality. They leave the freaking out to the audience. And what a freak out it is. When the power goes out and the storm rolls in, the movie about a theme park gone mad turns into the ultimate amusement park ride, delivering jolts of perfectly orchestrated creature feature horror at irregular intervals. By now, we’re well aware of what the park’s limitations are and what the dinosaurs are capable of. Spielberg has been operating with the knowledge that the best roller coasters aren’t all high-speed dips and loop-de-loops. You need plenty of time to build there through a meticulous climb. It can make the drop all the more fully, memorably terrifying to be aware of the danger well beforehand. Say the words “raptors in the kitchen” to anyone who has seen Jurassic Park and the whole tense sequence comes rushing back.

To the tune of John Williams’s tremendous score, Spielberg, with cinematographer Dean Cundey and editor Michael Kahn, brings a wit to the staging and a satisfied snap of no-nonsense visual competence to the setpieces. The utilitarian pop art beauty of the imagery captures visible beams of Spielbergian high-powered flashlights and casually emphasizes gadgets and weaponry, making vivid figures of action out of convincingly real-world workaday academics and scientists. The film becomes a relentless thrill machine that builds terror as much through anticipation as on screen happenings. In a film of spectacular (and largely still convincing) dinosaur effects (a blending of practical and then-new computer graphics), one of the most memorable images is the simplest, the sight of vibrations rippling in a cup of water, an ominous impact tremor of foreboding, foretelling the arrival of a T. Rex on its way. Because we’ve come to know and care about the characters and are well aware of the potential carnage the prehistoric creatures can bring, Spielberg can make the sight of a character staring past the camera at something unseen by us so nerve-wracking. And then, out pops the dinosaur, teeth chomping, roar rattling the theater’s speakers. It’s worth the build up to be so startled.

Spielberg’s a master filmmaker not because he can get these responses, but because he can modulate so quickly without losing a grip on the audience’s emotions. Take, for instance, the sustained terror of the first T. Rex attack. Its massive head has burst through the sunroof of the first jeep, pinning two screaming children underneath its gnashing teeth. We cut to the second jeep for a split second as Goldblum wipes fog off the windshield so he can see what’s going on. It’s such a slight release that it registers as both a funny throwaway gag and a minor escalation of tension by denying information about the real danger for that moment. Jurassic Park is perhaps the best creature feature of the last two decades, much like Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones films are the best adventure serials of the last three. He, to paraphrase Hitchcock, another master audience manipulator, gets pleasure out of playing the audience like a piano. It works just as well today as it did when it was first released. Just ask my sister, who saw it for the first time ever when I took her with me to the multiplex yesterday. She was quite literally on the edge of her seat.

Note: The rerelease is unfortunately in largely superfluous 3D. It subtly pops the depth in a few moments and sometimes a blurry object in the foreground will appear marginally closer that it should. I, for one, was happy that it was unobtrusive enough that I quickly forgot it was 3D at all and simply enjoyed seeing the movie again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation


After a lengthy and candid battle with cancer, Roger Ebert, the most famous and most popular of film critics, died today at the age of 70. The news hit me harder than I had expected. There will be plenty of places to read smart takes on how Mr. Ebert changed the face of film criticism, sharp reportings of his life story, moving assessments of his writing legacy, and tender personal reminiscences from those who knew him best or met him only fleetingly. I mean to simply say here what he means to me.

Of course, he beat us all to the punch and said it best. His book Life Itself, published in 2011, is a perfect autobiography. His final blog post, published earlier this week, is a perfect farewell. His last lines: “…thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.”

For many years, I came to every great movie through him. In middle school, I was already a kid who was deeply interested in movies of all the usual kinds – Disney, Star Wars, superheroes and sci-fi. But one day, stumbling around the Internet, scouring for film news, I found my way to Roger Ebert’s reviews and they quickly became a regular stop. I read his book The Great Movies, devoured it in a weekend, actually. His evocative prose and sparkling empathy struck me even then. I became a regular reader. He led me to other great critics, countless great films, and eventually to the confidence to express my own opinions about film, even if to no one but myself. Even when I disagreed with his take on a particular picture, I found myself grateful for having read him.

In his inimitable writing, Roger Ebert taught me that to love the movies is to love everything: art and literature, religion and philosophy, politics, history, music, human nature, the art of a good joke, the warmth of a comfortable anecdote or a trusted quote, and the joy of wearing your insight and expertise lightly. He taught a generous love of film, one big enough to find the art of schlock and the schlock of art. Cinema is a window to the world and all it contains.

He was an inviting presence on the page, but I loved seeing him on TV as well, in Siskel & Ebert and all the iterations thereafter, hugely entertaining and relatable. He was at once larger-than-life and down-to-earth. Best of all was having the memory of his speaking so that each piece he wrote read in my mind with his voice. Even when he lost the ability to physically speak in 2006, his prolific writings still spoke.

Ebert’s writing was so personal that to open his books or to click on his site felt like you pulled up an easy chair and listened closely to the words of a warm friend who loved to talk and was happy to share his thoughts, grateful for an interested audience. He taught by example that film was both serious and silly in reviews and essays that could turn tonally on a comma, indulge paragraph-long – or even review-length – digressions. He could reveal deep insights in clear, concise, nonjudgmental ways and make it look easy. He could cut a movie with one quick quip and reveal affection for a disreputable genre outing with a raised eyebrow of a parenthetical. He was also a playful experimenter in his writing. His Great Movies essay about Spielberg’s E.T. takes the form of a letter written to his grandkids. In reviewing the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy, he imagined a debate about the film’s merits or lack thereof going on between an angel and a devil on his shoulders. In no way only gimmicky, these and many pieces like them are occasionally imitated, but never bested.

I’ve quoted him more in my day-to-day life than probably anyone, a fitting tribute to a man who knew just when only Dickens or Twain or Dickenson or Fitzgerald could truly evoke the meaning he desired to make out of a film. He was fond of saying that a film is not about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it. The same is true for his reviews, virtuosic pans that linger long after the movie in question has been forgotten, moving anecdotes that draw deep, unforgettable personal connections. He is a man who, for most Americans, defined a profession. Without ever upstaging the medium he loved, he turned film criticism into long-form memoir writing. After years of reading him, I felt like I knew him. He’s the reason I wanted to express my thoughts about film in writing in the first place. When news arrived today of his passing, I felt like I had lost a friend. He’s the most important person in my life that I never met. All of us who love films and want to write and respond to them are in his debt.

To adapt another of his famous sayings, no good life is long enough.







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