Friday, May 31, 2013

Just the Two of Them: AFTER EARTH


In After Earth, a distant father (Will Smith) takes a trip with his estranged son (Jaden Smith) at the urging of his wife (Sophie Okonedo). It’ll be good for them, she thinks. Too bad their transport crashes, leaving them stranded in the wilderness. Too badly hurt to assist in finding help, the father sends his son on the journey, traversing deadly terrain while using technology to remain in contact. This is no ordinary story of a camping trip gone wrong, although that simple emotional core is certainly what the film’s about. These characters are humans a thousand years removed from our time, long after our planet has been abandoned and left for dead. Their spaceship has crash-landed on the quarantined Earth, the most dangerous place in the galaxy, a planet that has evolved to reject its long gone human inhabitants. It’s a thin drama of man versus nature loaded up with appealing sci-fi trappings.

Help for the stranded can only arrive by one of the Smiths activating a beacon flung from the wreckage and subsequently now located miles away. It’s a two-person film for the most part, with father and son Smith bonding while trapped apart by necessity, stuck together on a digital tether. The elder Smith plays not just an expert, but the best member of a futuristic army corps knows as Rangers. He knows all about the tricks of survival, including avoiding nasty, blind alien beasts that can only track humans by smelling their fear. As if this metaphor weren’t subtle enough, one of these beasts is tracking the younger Smith as he makes his way up hillsides, down steep cliffs, avoiding angry monkeys, climbing wildcats, and pterodactyl-sized birds of prey. You see, he must literally learn to control his fear if father and son are to survive. He’s hunted by the metaphor of maturity he must physically overpower to grow up and save the day.

The story of a father teaching his son the skills that make him the best at what he does takes on a subtext worth noting when it’s a film starring one of the world’s best movie stars and his relatively inexperienced actor son. (That Will Smith receives a story credit here only further underlines this reading.) Will Smith is a charismatic performer, but here drops his charm into static, stoic, minimalist reserve. It’s a measure of his talent that he’s sometimes compelling and often affecting despite holding so much back. Jaden, on the other hand, has much less of a natural screen presence and when he drops down into the same spare acting style to match his father’s acting choices he simply drops emotionally out of the film entirely. He disappears into the spectacle as nothing more than a lethargic action figure going through the motions in what should be a grand boy’s adventure, tromping through flora and fauna, barely staying alive at every turn, but is in reality thinner and simpler than even that would be.

What keeps the film interesting despite its rather thin plotting and a performance that’s featured in nearly every shot so completely underwhelming is the direction by M. Night Shyamalan. Even when, in recent films like his The Last Airbender, his storytelling arguably creeps towards self-serious silliness (though I’d argue that less vociferously than his detractors), he has an incredible eye. Here, he creates an uncommon stillness and patience in this Hollywood spectacle’s visual style.Working with Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography, this is a film that drinks in natural beauty of its sweeping landscapes. Even when the action, such as it is, begins, there is maintained a refreshing sense of steadiness. In the very best scenes here, as in his very best films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), Shyamalan builds suspense in simple sequences through nothing more than blocking and crisply edited moments of quiet dread. It’s in his style that the film manages to become something more than its spare, schmaltzy plotting might suggest.

Much of the film plays out in dialogue-free sequences of long shots following the Smiths’ progress. The first scene post-crash finds the younger Smith scrambling through the wreckage in a long take that finds the camera placed behind an emergency flap that’s rhythmically covering the corridor. As we watch the young man assess the situation, the frame is completely covered by the moving spaceship part at regular intervals. It’s the kind of choice that a less visually interesting spectacle would not think to make. As the film progresses through somewhat convincing creature effects and episodic encounters with nature dangers both recognizable and pure sci-fi, the camera remains steady, quiet and interesting. There’s uncommon beauty in some of the film’s passages, especially as consequences are at their most dire and a light dusting of something approaching Herzogian jungle madness descends upon the characters. Still, Shyamalan’s decisions make the film interesting without making it good. It’s the kind of stuff that could potentially elevate good to great, and here brings disposable to notable.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Small Stuff: EPIC


The creators of the computer animated fantasy Epic created an intriguing fantasy world and failed to have anything interesting happen in it. The film imagines a society of bug-sized people living in the forest locked in a battle between the forces of growth and the armies of decay. Growth is represented by plant people, basically human shaped beings with toadstool heads or leafy limbs, who are protected by the brave Leafmen soldiers and bow to their beautiful forest queen (voiced by Beyoncé, pop royalty). Decay is represented by snarling hordes of grey-skinned creepers led into battle by their leader (Christoph Waltz). This potentially interesting world is the staging ground for simple fantasy storytelling at its most basic and predictable. It has a plot in which one-dimensional characters fight over a magical gee-gaw for some time and then it all ends in a big battle. Reluctant heroes find their destiny, outsiders become insiders, and good defeats evil. It’s all very tired.

I would imagine this is what a hypothetical American remake of a Miyazaki film would look like. It has a young girl for a protagonist (Amanda Seyfried), a normal human who is suddenly shrunk down to Leafman size and gets involved in the magical conflict. It has ecological themes that are occasionally prone to acknowledging that growth and decay need to be held in balance. It has a casual beauty to its imagined tiny world in which plants can be controlled with a wave of the forest queen’s hand. And yet, what seems so promising about all of the above is ground into a homogenized bore. A potentially lovely protagonist is turned into nothing more than honorary buddy to a stoic warrior (Colin Farrell) and token love interest to the warrior’s protégé (Josh Hutcherson). The environmental message is reducible to a good versus evil bumper sticker instead of recognition of nature’s natural order. And the animation, though technically proficient, is blandly obvious and overfamiliar.

Rather than take advantage of the potential in the world it creates, a world borrowed from a book by William Joyce, who has his name all over the credits (he’s co-writer, producer, and production designer), it simply coasts on formula. Indeed, the bulk of the imagination seems to have fallen to the casting, which finds surprisingly weird choices of voices to fill the supporting roles. Distinctive sounding comedians Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd show up as comic relief slugs. (I found them more of a distraction, but maybe little kids will like them.) Rapper Pitbull plays a thug of a frog, an amphibian who for some reason sports a suit coat. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler plays a shaman caterpillar named Nim Galuu (I just had to give you the name) who is so much a showman I thought for sure he was a charlatan. Not so, though. He’s just more weirdly comic support for the otherwise humorlessly serious rehashing of basic fantasy plot points.

In yet another missed opportunity, what with Beyoncé and Tyler and, okay, Pitbull in the cast, the film doesn’t even give us a good song to hum on the way out of the theater. In the end, there’s simply nothing to remember the movie by at all. Directed by Chris Wedge and produced by Blue Sky, the man and the company behind the largely forgettable and yet wildly successful Ice Age movies, I suppose I’m glad they’re trying something different. This isn’t just another lazily formulaic, pop-culture referencing, manic kids’ flick. Instead, it’s a lazily formulaic, mildly serious, boring kids’ flick. I certainly didn’t hate it. The colors are soothing, the motion smooth, and the comfortingly familiar structure has a lulling quality to it. All it lacks is a reason to care.

Souped-up: FURIOUS 6


The Fast & Furious movies are some kind of modern Hollywood wonder: a scrappy franchise built improbably out of humble B-movie origins into one of the most popular and most reliably entertaining series currently running. From its origin in 2001 as a modest B-movie that was an appealing reworking of Point Break that swapped SoCal surfing for street racing, through two largely free-standing follow-ups that drifted away from the central premise, the series has shown a resilient capacity for trial and error and confident course correction. Producer Neal H. Moritz, who has been around since the beginning, and director Justin Lin, who has made four of these in a row now, have been unafraid to try new things – new locales, new characters, new hooks – while keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. The series finally hit upon the exact right combination with 2011’s Fast Five, a satisfying fast car spectacle of a heist picture that pulled in all the best aspects of the previous four films to casually create the kind of multi-picture mythology Marvel worked so hard to build leading up to The Avengers. It’s all the more appealing for feeling serendipitous, the product of continual underdog status.

The franchise’s growth continues in Furious 6, which is once again bigger and better than anything that’s come before. The series has been honed once again. This time the exposition is tighter, the emotional arcs are crisper, and the action set pieces are more outrageous and insanely gripping. The plot’s as ludicrous as ever, but it makes perfect sense on its own terms. The single-minded agent played by Dwayne Johnson, sweat and muscle personified, hunts a crew of drivers led by a mysterious new villain (Luke Evans) and a mysteriously returning face (Michelle Rodriguez), striking military targets throughout Europe. He decides the only people who can help him capture these bad guys are the very drivers who stole a massive safe out from under his watch in Rio and who he’s sworn to bring to justice. He seeks out their leader (Vin Diesel) and offers to wipe the criminal records clean if he’ll get the gang back together to help Interpol stop these villains. It takes a team of drivers to stop a team of drivers, or so the logic of these movies goes.

Diesel agrees, and so the whole family of series regulars – Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Gal Gadot – comes flying in from all corners of the world to participate in this globetrotting film in which the good guys chase the bad guys through sensational sequences of vehicular mayhem. New to the group is Johnson’s second-in-command, played by Haywire’s Gina Carano, proving in only her second major role that she’s the best action star on the planet. She’s just as hyper-competent and self-assured as the cast, which otherwise joins the chase already crackling with charming chemistry carried over from last time. The group has grown to be terrifically appealing and refreshingly causally diverse. And they’re easy to root for. It’s funny how a series in which all of the leads are so very good at their jobs (and progressively richer for it) can maintain their underdog status. But that’s a key to the films’ success. There’s always a sense that they’re one wrong step away from prison and one wrong turn of the wheel away from death. Keeping Johnson close this time is a good way to keep the threat of the law alive, while Evans provides the most purely threatening villain the series has had yet.

As screenwriter Chris Morgan studiously finds the series loose plot threads that I hadn’t realized existed, pulling the whole initially haphazard enterprise into something of a beautifully retconned coherence, director Lin offers up scenes like an early chase through London streets in which the bad guys have souped-up racecars built with angled armored plates that allow them to hit a police car head on and send it spinning through the air while they zoom away unscathed. It’s an encouraging sign that six movies in there are still new fun, exciting ways to send cars smashing. Later, a spectacular sequence will grow to include helicopters, motorcycles, and one tough tank. And if you thought Fast Five’s extended sequence of two cars dragging a two-ton safe through city streets was something, wait until you see what happens with a cargo plane here! Just when I thought the film was stalling out, it finds another gear. I shouldn’t have doubted.

I haven’t always liked this franchise. It first appeared when I wrongly thought its car chase simplicity was beneath my burgeoning cinephilia, but Fast Five was so entertaining it prompted me to revisit them all in the run up to Furious 6. Doing so, my opinion of them improved (somewhat) and served to reinforce how successfully the filmmakers responsible have gotten the potential out of even the lowest points of the franchise – for me the dull, table-clearing and setting fourth effort – and pulled it all together into a coherent whole. The series has only ever promised dumb fun with fast cars and some minor cops-and-robbers intrigue. Now that it has figured out how to deliver all that as well as gripping heist plotting, satisfying fan-service, unexpectedly emotional arcs, bruising hand-to-hand combat, and gleefully, absurdly, joyfully over-the-top action, I figure this series is downright unstoppable. Furious 6 is not only the best one yet, it’s sequence for sequence up there with the most enjoyable action movies in recent memory.

Note: Be sure to stick around for the rewarding scene in the middle of the end credits that features a killer surprise cameo and a tease of more Fast & Furious to come.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Intervention: THE HANGOVER PART III

The Hangover Part III is a better movie than The Hangover Part II only because I find time spent in complete and total indifference preferable to stewing in boiling rage. The mean-spiritedness from the 2009 surprise hit comedy The Hangover was successfully, for me at least, swept up in the momentum of its mystery of three guys trying to piece together their drug-and-alcohol decimated memories of the previous night. But by the time the retread of a sequel arrived, the meanness went rancid. That film, in doubling down on the perceived selling points of its predecessor, ended up a putrid pile of hateful jokes that shoot past miscalculated and add up to nothing more than a sad waste of effort for all involved. With Part III, the benefit seems to be that no one involved bothered to write any jokes or try very hard to sell the material. So it has that going for it.

This film brings back the so-called Wolf Pack from the previous two films: stuffy dentist Stu (Ed Helms), aging bro Phil (Bradley Cooper), regular guy Doug (Justin Bartha), and weirdo Alan (Zach Galifianakis). This is a rare film in a series in which most of the lead actors appear to be as tired of it as I am. Maybe I’m just projecting. As it begins, the characters apparently finally learned their lessons from having pretty much the same exact thing happen to them twice. But of course, what kind of sequel would it be if they didn’t get into any trouble? Almost immediately, Alan accidentally decapitates his new pet giraffe, a kind of did-they-just-do-that opening sequence that follows an even earlier sequence of a slow-motion Bangkok prison riot.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, the crazy criminal Chow (Ken Jeong), the exasperatingly annoying returning character, has escaped prison and that’s why a growling John Goodman kidnaps the guys en route to a rehab facility. (After all they’ve done, that dead giraffe was rock bottom, apparently.) Snatched up mid-intervention, they’re told to capture Chow and bring him to Goodman or Doug gets a bullet in the head. Hey, at least it’s something new. The weirdly serious turn is, animal cruelty aside, a far tamer effort than either of the two previous movies, with a plot that assumes you’re entering the theater feeling affection or something like it towards these main characters. I could barely care about them long enough to get me through the first film and the second one made me loathe them, so I suppose I was going in with a disadvantage. I just didn’t care what would happen to them, but I could have gotten over that if the film was funny.

I hesitate to knock this film for being largely laughless since most of its 100 minute runtime plays out like a sluggish thriller entirely uninterested in nothing more than a bit of comic relief here and there. Free (purposefully or not) from the toxic cloud of bad jokes that filled up the rerun that was its immediate predecessor, director Todd Phillips and co-writer Craig Mazin have inadvertently freed themselves from the comedy designation almost entirely. It’s allegedly a comedy. That’s what the studio has marketed it as. It’s the genre of the films it follows. It’s the category provided by the fine folks at the Internet Movie Database. Some of its lines come out as somewhat comic simply by the nature of Helms, Cooper, and Galifianakis and their reputations as funny guys, even though its best joke, such as it is, comes straight out of Zoolander. (I liked it far better there.) But there’s very little here that’s inherently funny.

Maybe this is a feature length demo reel for Todd Phillips hoping to be hired for an action film next time. After all, there’s a lot of technically adept filmmaking here. There’s a mildly enjoyable heist of a mansion in the hills outside Tijuana that involves creative use of dog collars to maneuver past a security system. There’s a briefly gripping tie-the-sheets-together-to-shimmy-down-the-side-of-a-building scene. The movie’s never better than when one or more of its main characters are right on the edge of potential death, but probably not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. This may be the only comedy that disappoints by leaving too many characters alive at the end. Without laughs or meaningful stakes, this makes for an awfully tired, pointless exercise.

Note: I can’t honestly say what anyone who happens to enjoy the series will make of this odd entry, but something tells me the scene in the middle of the end credits is probably where the die hard fans would’ve preferred the movie to start.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Top Warp Speed: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

Undoubtedly the most breathless of all Star Trek pictures, Star Trek Into Darkness is a nonstop barrage of spectacle, movement, and noise. It’s manipulative, relentless and a fun time at the movies. It gets the job done. With 2009’s Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams got a great deal of entertainment value out of dropping a wormhole into Trek continuity, scattering the familiar pieces every which way and providing a shock of delight as the pieces snapped back into place. It’s about as clever as a combination sequel, prequel, reboot, and remake of a nearly 50-year-old franchise could be. While Into Darkness can’t have the same pleasurable jolts of fresh perspective, what it lacks in discovery it makes up for in chemistry. The cast crackles through energetic banter and terse exposition as they’re forever running up and down the gleaming corridors of the starship Enterprise, desperate to solve the latest crisis in which they’ve found themselves.

With a plot that’s in some ways an extended riff on a classic bit of Trek – to even say whether it’s a movie or a TV episode would probably be enough for Trekkers to spring the film’s secrets sight unseen – the screenplay by longtime Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof is packed with dramatic incidents and fan-friendly winking. It’s an expertly calibrated event picture that hurtles from one bit of action or humor into the next without any room to slow down. We start urgently in the middle of a high-energy action sequence with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) fleeing an angry alien tribe while Spock (Zachary Quinto) proceeds logically into a volcano to shut it down and save this foreign world. As the sequence plays out, all of the returning cast – Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, Simon Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov – get their little moments to shine. It’s like stumbling into the last few exciting minutes at the end of an episode and then sticking around for the next couple in the marathon. There’s recognizability and comfortability the cast has in the roles and with each other that provides an instant anchor and funny rapport amidst the chaos around them.

Chaos quickly comes in the form of a terrorist attack on Earth that blows up a Starfleet base in London. The man responsible is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of their own who clearly has his secret motives for turning against them. The scheming scenes leading up to and including these surprise attacks have a scary edge. As the film progresses and Cumberbatch gets to put his sonorous voice into full intimidating villainy, the relationships his character develops take a few interesting twists and turns. Meanwhile, back at Starfleet, the good admiral (Bruce Greenwood) and crusty admiral (Peter Weller) agree to let Kirk take the Enterprise after the attacker in a rare show of force from this research and peacekeeping group that finds a new science officer (Alice Eve) escorting top secret missiles on board. They’re not out boldly going where no man has gone before. They’re on a manhunt.

This streamlined feature slams through its sequences of energetic intensity with sensational special effects and top-notch sound design expected from a Hollywood blockbuster in this budget range. Abrams, not particularly invested in the more cerebral, allegorical aspects of Trek lore, sees fit to deliver a slam-bang spectacle with phaser battles, whooshing warp drives, and brusque threats around every corner. This leaves plenty of time for the film’s politics to be a little muddled, if benign, with the exception of a weirdly misjudged bit of disaster overkill in the final stretch. It’s one thing for a movie like this to destroy a chunk of a metropolis, sending skyscrapers crumbling to the ground. It’s another thing entirely to do so almost off-handedly, skip the aftermath, and then put a strange title card in the end credits proclaiming tribute to post-9/11 workers. (Seriously, what’s going on there?) It’s a film that summons up War on Terror paranoia (potential drone strikes, brief pointed debates about killing terrorists without trial) and twisty conspiracy theories, but uses it only as set dressing for a plot that’s all present tense forward movement. Gone is the Cold War-era utopian optimism of Roddenberry’s original concept. This time it’s all about fear, dread, and explosions.

But it’s amazing how far momentum alone can take you. Abrams has made a film that’s a crackling roller coaster that’s all dips, dives, drops, and top-speed loops with an excellent, blaring score from the ever-reliable Michael Giacchino. The intensity never slows, even when the movie self-consciously incorporates a debate with itself about what kind of mission this Trek is following. “This is clearly a military operation,” Scotty disappointedly tells Kirk. “Is that what we are now? I thought we were explorers.” The fact of the matter is that Trek on TV had room to be as eggheaded as it wanted (at best, thrilling so), whereas the movies have always largely been about elaborate revenge schemes and potentially world-ending super-calamities. This just happens to be a particularly single-minded action adventure that’s constantly chasing the next thrill. And that works.

It works not just because Abrams and crew are skilled technicians, but because of the people on screen as well, with characters filled wonderfully by the talented cast working from borrowed cultural awareness without much original characterization in this particular script. (There’s an assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the audience will know who these characters are and what they mean to each other, so that all emotional development can be left to shorthand.) These characters have lived long and prospered in the cultural imagination for a good reason. The core of the film is the crew, the group of professionals thrown together by duty, bound together by the friendships that developed. Even at their prickliest, when Kirk and Spock speak sharply to each other, engaging in their expected debate between reason and emotion, there’s a core of respect and love that’s a comfort and a constant, even when everything is constantly blowing up around them.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fault Line: AFTERSHOCK


Aftershock is a charmless low-budget horror movie in disaster flick clothes. It starts out looking like it has the potential to become an enjoyable earthquake picture. Maybe the camera will shake and rubble will fly in from off-screen. Maybe some massive piece of set design will crumble on cue and squash a particularly loathsome character and the audience can get a little guilty giggle out of it. But that’s not to be. The characters to which we’re introduced are all at best irritating and at worst loathsome and all the fake slabs of concrete in the world would not be enough to serve up all of the comeuppances needed to satisfy me. But still, the way the characters are turned into nothing more than victims of the movie’s mean-spirited ain’t-humanity-the-real-disaster? mugging is cruel.

The worldview is somewhat recognizable from director Eli Roth’s splatter-filled Hostel films, which get their kicks out of torturing dumb Americans in foreign locales, a concept with at least a hint of satiric intent. Roth co-wrote Aftershock with Chilean collaborators Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, a duo who produced a string of comedies in their native country. As directed by López, the opening moments of this film are pure failed comedy, a loose sub-Apatowian shambles that follows an American tourist (Roth again) and his two Chilean pals (Nicolás Martínez and Ariel Levy) ambling around the country looking for girls at parties. Individually almost tolerable, as a group they’re repugnant, lecherous, vulgar dopes. They meet up with a few nice ladies (Lorenza Izzo, Andrea Osvárt, and Natasha Yarovenko), tourists who match them for shallowness and for some plot-driven reasons manage to tolerate them. And so the group has swollen in number, but not in depth.

These opening moments stretch awkwardly and improbably to fill nearly half of the film’s runtime. Each second spent with these characters ticked by in emptiness on the film’s part and anger on mine. These thinly written constructs were no more believable than Roth’s acting. I was more than ready for the earthquake to start, let alone the aftershocks. The unconvincing disaster serves up slightly less than the requisite number of collapsed bits of set, shaking shots, and bloody practical effects. If I had trouble caring about the characters as they vacationed together, I certainly didn’t grow fonder of them as they suffered through a gauntlet of contrivances that turns them into little more than props.

The earthquake wasn’t that bad and certainly not the worst of what’s to come. Now, injured and stranded, they have to deal with the roving bands of looters, gang members, prisoners, and other malcontents who feel free to roam the rubble looking to get into trouble. That near-feral locals menace the tourists is a bit troubling, but it’s a theme unintended, no doubt. I’d be less inclined to care if the film were more skillfully made with characters of any kind that were more than crude stand-ins for actual characters in a plot that was more than a lame excuse to limp through some pitiful spectacle and cynically ugly human interactions. Real horror here is not found in the earthquake or the societal aftershocks. No, the only horror is how 90 minutes stretched into an eternity right before my very eyes. By the time it reaches its stupid punchline of a final shot (sadly the only shot close to memorable in the whole production), I was more than ready to bolt away from the screen and let the film start leaving my mind.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Borne Back Into the Past: THE GREAT GATSBY


It’s easy to see why over the years some have seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby a fine idea for a film. The book contains memorable characters and quotable lines contained in a plot of some intrigue and mystery, romance and regret. It’s not hard to see how it can all be pushed into tasteful melodrama of the kind the movies are so good at. (They’re even better at tasteless melodrama, but that’s not my point yet.) What previous adaptations of Gatsby have failed to grasp, however, is that this great novel needs not a cinematic transcription, but a jolt of cinema itself to play on screen. Last seen in theaters in 1974 directed by Jack Clayton from a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, the story felt stale, stiff and humorless, despite the best efforts of an all-star cast headlined by Robert Redford. This time around, the director and co-adapter is Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and Australia, one a musical and two so broad, vibrant, and melodic they might as well be. He makes films in a style that’s a kaleidoscope of the gaudy, the campy, the kitsch, proudly waving the flag of melodrama while shouting from the rooftops his themes and ambitions. He brings the spark of cinema the story needs to really take off on screen.

Glittering and glowing with colorful period detail and wailing a mix of jazzy standards and anachronistic tunes from the likes of Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey (not to mention a great Charleston-style cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”), Luhrmann’s film is bursting at the seams with invention of the kind that illuminates Fitzgerald’s text without subsuming it. Now, I’m of the opinion that adaptations have no particular obligation to faithfully reproduce every aspect of their source materials. But this Gatsby is both faithful to the events, characters, themes, and symbols of Fitzgerald’s, while the telling – structure (mostly) aside – is all Luhrmann’s. It has the wild exuberance of a Gatsby party with all the distance to see how hollow it ultimately is. Using generous amounts of Fitzgerald’s original text verbatim in voice over, dialogue, and on-screen titles, the film maintains a sense of wit and social commentary amidst the colorful party atmosphere and melodrama that bursts forth.

The film, like the novel, uses the character of Nick Carraway as narrator and observer. It’s the height of the Roaring Twenties. He’s moved to New York City for a job on Wall Street and finds himself living in fictional West Egg, procuring a cottage next door to the mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. No one knows much of anything about the man; they only know he throws great parties, wild, packed, affluent parties in which the rich and wannabe rich, the influential and the climbers all rub elbows, drink bootleg alcohol, and dance the night away. Luhrmann, in a more restrained version of the carousing Moulin Rouge! hyperactivity, films these elaborate soirées with exuberance, using his mishmash of music choices and Catherine Martin’s impeccable production design to highlight the glamour and excitement of such an event. Gatsby parties seem fun, but they seem just as meaningless. No one knows precisely why they’re there any more than they know a thing about Gatsby beyond wild rumors. The host, for his part, seems spectacularly uninterested in the spectacle of his own making.

The summer setting is the perfect time for these lengthy nights separated by endless languorous days spent whiling away the hours. Carraway (Tobey Maguire) tells us all about the vacuous, energetic people he meets away from Gatsby’s, including his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her brutish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), his mistress (Isla Fisher) and her husband (Jason Clarke). Carraway starts a flirtation with a famous golfer (Elizabeth Debicki). Sometimes he goes to work. He’s a busy guy, but he’s not really drawn into this world until he meets Gatsby. Luhrmann films the title character’s entrance in a grand, theatrical way that does not disappoint. Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns in slow motion, raising a cocktail glass in toasting, smirk on his face, fireworks slowly erupting in the sky behind him while the soundtrack and his eyes are lost sparkling in a dreamy blue rhapsody.

I’ll preserve the mystery of Gatsby, his relationships, and his ambitions for those who haven’t read the book. But I will say that as the film goes along, Luhrmann brings a satisfying bitter romance, full of as much sadness as swooning, that slowly builds to a sequence in a hothouse of a hotel room where a crisply edited small party becomes uncomfortably personal until emotions boil over. It’s a lovely luridness of love and death, affairs and scandal, loss and loneliness. The performances are sharply drawn, from Maguire’s Carraway’s starry-eyed wonder giving way to hindsight skepticism to Mulligan’s Daisy’s flat affect and foolish affectations cracking under the pressure of the possibility of remaking her life. And then there’s Gatsby. DiCaprio brings exactly the right combination of irresistible charm and unknowability. He’s slick and smooth, but what’s he up to? He’s sympathetic, but how much do we really know about him? It’s a slippery performance that never feels unmoored as the audience learns more about who he really is.

What’s best about the film is its consistency of vision, a vibrancy that never forsakes the source material while confidently striding forward as its own postmodern construction. Luhrmann freely mixes and matches artistic inspirations, bringing his swooping 3D camera through digital recreations of Jazz Age architecture, energy, and glamorous coarseness. He’s such a big believer in the power of movie magic to evoke strong emotions through gorgeous fakery that he’d never mention the unutterable fact that it’s not always true. He’s too busy making the story burst to life with every trick he knows. For this, Gatsby feels truly cinematic in ways it never has on screen before. It’s lively, funny, and rewarding without suffocating under its seriousness. Through irresistible, shameless visual frippery and vividly colorful melodramatics Douglas Sirk might have been proud of, Luhrmann finds and takes as his own Fitzgerald’s core laser-sharp, gin-dry social commentary. Consider this exchange between Carraway and Gatsby, concerning complicated decorative plans for a small get-together: “Is it too much?” Gatsby asks. Carraway replies, “I think it’s what you want.” Is this Gatsby too much? It's what I wanted.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Color Wield: UPSTREAM COLOR


Reader, it will do neither of us any good if I pretend here that I have anything approaching a definitive understanding of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. It’s a deliberate, persistent befuddlement, the work of a puzzlemaster carefully, solemnly revealing each and every piece without once letting us glimpse the overall design. Characters speak as if in a trance, if they speak at all. Images, full of carefully obscured import slowly pile up into a collection of textures of sound and image, color and emotion. It’s as intriguing as it is irritating. Carruth’s first film, the similarly complicated and elusive Primer, made for a mere $7,000 and meeting some acclaim upon release in 2004 before becoming something of a modern cult classic, is a sci-fi time travel film of pretzeling timelines told with simple staging and cold strings of jargon that exert a push and pull of mystery and confusion. I find it invigorating. With Upstream Color, however, I felt no pull, only push.

None of that is to say this film is particularly punishing or unspeakably incomprehensible. The narrative makes some sort of intuitive sense, even as the edits, each and every cut, appear to line up more with mood and music than narrative coherence. The first movement of the plot – for that’s what it feels like, less of a conventional narrative arc, but rather swirling movements of story and emotion – starts when a young, professional woman (Amy Seimetz) is cornered in a dark alley. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) pumps wriggling worms down her throat, creatures that must have some effect since she’s left a shell of herself, intently following her attacker’s confounding, hypnotic orders to solve puzzles, write Walden on paper chains, and sip ice water. This quietly terrifying section summons up great mystery and great expectations.

The next movement, which occurs after further complications I have skipped over in the effort to avoid springing all of the film’s puzzling developments, finds Seimetz, in a performance of powerfully rattled normalcy, some time after the attack. She seems to have no recollection of what has happened to her. On the train she meets a man (Carruth himself) and feels drawn to him. He’s drawn to her as well. They strike up a hesitant courtship, drawn into each other’s worlds with a romantic connection tinged with conspiratorial sparks unacknowledged. Did the hypnotic man with the worms attack him too? Their scenes together are intercut with the routine of a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who, as a hobby, takes a large microphone out into the woods and records interesting sounds to later speed up, slow down, and play on large speakers he places face down in a field for some inscrutable reason.

There are images and sensations in Upstream Color that I’ll not soon forget. I’ll remember the woman lying on a bed, her limbs wriggling like the worms that are, well, worming around inside her. I’ll remember the man and the woman telling stories of their childhoods in a montage that slowly blends their stories into one intimate, mildly hostile jumble. I’ll remember a burlap bag of piglets floating away. I’ll remember the man with the microphone solemnly looking out over the pigsty, watching the animals interact with each other. I’ll remember the couple huddled fully clothed in a dry bathtub, terrified that something – or maybe, worse yet, nothing – is out to get them.

But while all that memorable and intriguing material is all well and good, by the time the film arrives at its climactic scene of rapturous reunion (of a sort) I found myself unsatisfied. This incredibly simple plot in event and feeling is told with maximum obfuscation and artful complexity, but that’s largely for the sake of hiding its thinness for as long as possible. If the film merely continued on as a kind of dream, a trance of hypnotic imagery continually sliding past complete cohesion in perpetuity, it’d be better off. Alas, as a film it must eventually end and in drawing to a close, its conclusion reveals the whole enterprise to be nothing more than a mood, the wavelength upon which I could never quite get. Carruth is an exceptionally promising director. I’m glad he’s out there experimenting with structure, even if, to my mind, it doesn’t pay off nearly as well here as it did in Primer. I can only hope we don’t have to wait nearly a decade for his next film.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Heavy Metal: IRON MAN 3


Marvel has these Iron Man movies down to a formula that works for them. Going into one, we know we’ll meet Tony Stark, he’ll quip while introductions to this installment’s rouges’ gallery are made, and then things will get real serious for a time until everyone hops into metal suits, robots and weaponry activates, and the big showdown lasts until the pyrotechnics run out and the credits roll. After the overwhelming success of The Avengers, which put Stark in with a bunch of other Marvel heroes and let them rumble around for a while, there was some question if this old formula would still hold. To this I say, why not? Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, the sarcastic rich jerk jokester who can manage to hold that down long enough to save the day. He was instantly iconic when he first put on the armor back in 2008 and by now the role is inseparable from his inhabitation of it. He’s more than engaging enough to hold an entire movie, even one as perfunctory and mechanical as this one is.

The first Iron Man was an introduction, the second a total delight of a screwball actioner. In both cases, the charm came from the way director Jon Favreau pitched it all at the pace of a comedy, keeping the focus squarely on the performers and their interactions without letting the explosions weigh things down too heavily or distract from the personal stakes of it all. With Iron Man 3, Favreau handed the reigns to Shane Black, the screenwriter behind such muscular, sarcastic action efforts as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and who made his directorial debut in 2005 with the Downey-starring meta-genre goof Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Black knows his way around a quip but, unlike Favreau, doesn’t keep things frothy. He brings the pain. The threat here isn’t as strictly personal, unlike the first two installments, which had baddies (Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell) out for Tony Stark more or less individually. Here, a theatrical international terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is broadcasting threatening messages and setting off explosions in public places. He’s not after Iron Man; he’s after us, or so it seems.

It’s Tony Stark who makes it personal, arrogantly giving the address of his Malibu beach house to news cameras, daring the villain to come to him. Bad move. He does. This sets off a chain of events that leaves Stark out of his suit fending for himself, giving Downey plenty of screen time before he's put back into his inexpressive digital cocoon. The plot soon involves two scientists from Stark’s past, one (Guy Pearce) who runs and one (Rebecca Hall) who works for a mysterious organization that’s clearly up to no good. There’s also a flammable, repairable thug (James Badge Dale) and a cute little boy (Ty Simpkins) who factor into the proceedings when convenient, as well as returning characters like Stark’s long-suffering girlfriend and business associate Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the helpful, professional Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). All of these actors are clearly having a fun time, which helps to keep a movie with wall-to-wall special effects, danger and anxiety from becoming oppressively dour. Kingsley, especially, is having such a ball with his purposely over-the-top villainy that I found myself chuckling at his grave threats even as I vaguely registered the escalating stakes to which the film required me to respond.

Black’s script features a few nice twists, fun banter, a rapid pace, and some finely tuned comic lines of dialogue that sail in unexpectedly now and then and provide a welcome relief to the string of bloodless violence and collateral damage that makes up the villains’ plots. It’s all in good fun, evoking real-world menace and politics only to quash it under the metallic CGI boot of a billionaire engineer who is there to fix things as he can. It makes for an awkward fit, sliding between joking and deadly serious, cruel and almost sweet. The action set pieces are perfunctory at times, but end up mostly satisfying, like in a well-photographed air disaster and in one standoff that ends with a surprising bit of honesty on the part of a henchman. The finale may drone on for far too long and the explosions grow exhausting after a time, but that’s all part of the deal. There’s something to be said for a movie that sticks to its formula and serves up exactly what’s promised with some amount of skill. It’s rather inconsequential fun, the work of talented people simply giving us the usual skillful empty thrills.

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