Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ups and Downs: THE CANYONS


For those of us who’ve long been rooting for Lindsay Lohan to deliver a comeback performance, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons is an encouraging sign. It’s not quite the right vehicle for her comeback – the film’s too cold and unforgiving to really catch on for a career like that – but she’s so good, such a compelling mix of vulnerability and defiance, soft and hard, that it’s undeniable that she still has the goods. Years of tabloid trouble has moved her away from the teen queen image of her early great roles (Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, Mean Girls), but with age (relatively speaking) comes new ways of using beauty. She’s not damaged goods; she’s still an interesting screen presence, some of the old innocence kicking around within her now more experienced features, drawing you in here with her deceptively complicated performance. In the latest issue of Film Comment, Schrader, a great screenwriter (Taxi Driver) and director (Affliction) who has also worked as a film critic, compared her to Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think that’s too far off. Lohan, like Monroe, has that innate ability to seem as if she simply exists on screen, open and bare, as if her role is some form of performance as biography. But the craft behind it is sharper than that, and second nature too.

The film concerns itself with several characters sliming around on the periphery of Hollywood. Lohan plays an ambiguously well off young woman living with her low-level producer boyfriend. Actually, to call him a producer seems a stretch. He's living off a generous trust fund and willing to put up half the money for a low-budget horror movie. It's clear pretty quickly that he's a controlling monster, so as the film concerns itself with Lohan's affair with the boyfriend (Nolan Funk) of his assistant (Amanda Brooks), it's not hard to hope she can get away. Even though her boyfriend doesn't mind inviting strangers in for a close look at their relationship, he never wants to feel as if he's not in control. That’s why, say, he can secretly fool around with his yoga instructor (Tenille Houston), but gets scary possessive when he suspects Lohan’s straying too. Late in the film he tells his psychologist (director Gus Van Sant in a pleasant cameo performance) that he hates feeling like an actor in his own life. As the cliché goes, what he really wants to do is direct. This is the impulse that leads him straight into being a real sociopath-next-door type.

He's played by James Deen, a porn star who got profiles in places like GQ and Slate for having a fanbase of young women. In his mainstream debut, he proves he's no James Dean and certainly no Sasha Grey, who made the same acting transition with a great performance in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience. Now there’s a film that circles around the kind of vacant young professionals with unrealized ambitions and unspoken desires in a way that feels rich and earnestly chilly. Here coldness arrives unnaturally, and the problem starts with Deen. There's an early scene in which he's called upon to do nothing more than welcome a visitor to his home and offer him a drink. It's hard to watch him struggle to figure out how he should hold his body, grab some glasses, and deliver the lines at the same time, and do it all naturally, too. It's a moment to make one realize how many little things most "bad" performances get right. It might’ve helped him, of course, if the script by Bret Easton Ellis (a satirist, I guess, whose satire often gets lost in his plots’ slime) was sharper about incorporating the thrillery aspects into a rather tedious and surface-level curiosity about interpersonal smart phone surveillance and life mediated by glowing screens.

And yet, the film is so often interesting on the surface that it almost (I said “almost”) doesn’t matter that aspects of awkward artificiality don’t quite satisfy. The film is clunky with long dull passages and characters that never quite come into focus in a rather unforgiving plot that grows thinner the more it reveals. But the cold, sleek digital cinematography from John DeFazio kicks up an icy thriller atmosphere as the couple behaves badly. Sharing some similarities with Schrader's 1980 film American Gigolo, another (and mostly better) film of stylish surfaces and conspicuous consumption that parses the distinctions between power dynamics in relationships while a thriller subplot cooks along underneath, The Canyons is as modern as that film is a time capsule. (I wonder how this will look to audiences in 30 years?) It's all about flat affects, effortless lies, and a sense of digital openness that somehow paradoxically hides as much as it reveals. "No one has a private life anymore," Deen says early on. The plot is basically a feature length refutation of his claim. It's when private details are sussed out that the real trouble begins. Left secretive, these characters could get away with murder.

Schrader's direction smartly defuses the script by Bret Easton Ellis. It's a film that in topic and casting (tabloid darling and porn star play a couple that clashes over sexual exploits!) could be exploitative and smutty, but the biggest prurient moment is filmed in mostly close-ups in a dark room with spinning disco lighting. He’s a smart filmmaker; the film’s smallness and awkwardness almost seems to be the point. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to a movie that’s particularly watchable outside of the pleasures of the cinematography and the reminder that Lohan can be, given the chance, a great screen presence. Is The Canyons a deep film about shallow people, or a shallow film about deep ideas? Either way it's more fun to chew over afterwards than it is to watch it in the first place.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Day in the Life: FRUITVALE STATION


Fruitvale Station is named for the train station in Oakland, California where an unarmed 22-year-old African American man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by a transit policeman on January 1, 2009. This could easily have been a film of martyrdom, a single-minded story of how a wholly good person was gunned down by societal forces that to this day allow certain members of our society to view certain groups as somehow inherently suspicious, even dangerous, for arbitrary reasons. But 27-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler in his most promising feature film debut has instead smartly made this a story about life in all its complexity and promise. The inherent and real societal problems illuminated by this tragic story shine all the more clearly by both not forcing the details of Oscar’s life to fit simplistic politically convenient stereotypes and reducing the violent act itself to a small part of the overall narrative. This is not a film that looks for tears only by showing the details of a wrongful death, but by showing the details of the life that was cut short.

After chunky, shaky cell phone footage, a partially abstracted scene of impending doom that sets an ominous mood, the film moves backwards to its real focus, starting the morning of December 31, 2008. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) starts his day with his girlfriend (Melanie Diaz) and their extremely cute four-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal). It’s a day of transitions. A new year is nearly here, the world poised to change in superficial ways, while staying all too the same in all the ways that matter. We follow Oscar around town as he makes preparations for the evening’s celebrations, which will culminate in catching the train into San Francisco for New Year’s fireworks, but start with a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). He meets friends, runs errands, and tries to talk the manager at the grocery store into rehiring him. He gets gas, cradles a stray dog, and offers advice to a friendly lady at the deli counter. It’s an ordinary day, albeit one positioned perfectly for contemplation of the future.

This slice-of-life film simply presents a moment of time. The action on screen could be the day-to-day life of a great many people. What makes it important and notable is not the way this day will end. It’s important for no reason other than the core humanity on display. Oscar is not a perfect person. (Who is?) Jordan allows his performance a staggering amount of unshowy range, shifting between pride and love, stubbornness and compassion. In his interactions with friends and family, we see a young man with an identity still in flux. He’s dependable, ambitious, compassionate, and searching. He contains multitudes. He’s pulling his life back together after a brief stay in prison, but he’s not simply an ex-convict. He’s a loving boyfriend, father, son, and brother. But he’s not simply a one-note family man. He’s an adaptable striver, able to fit into many situations with a sense of ease. He’s not just an everyman. He’s this man.

This is a performance and a film that draws upon cinema’s capacity for empathy, for giving us deep insight into a life that’s not our own. It’s a film filled with countless little details of performances that resonate through nothing more than their ordinariness. It’s a film of moments, warm and natural: a birthday party, a car ride, a soft romantic interlude, a fatherly reassurance, a tense exchange. These and more feel merely normal with an unforced ease. Brief moments of foreshadowing might push too hard, but Coogler’s script is admirably loose in moments that feel spontaneous. His camera, often reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ in its sense of precise connection to the performances and found poetry of location shooting, follows his actors closely, tenderly, observing without judgment, without generalization, and without insistence. There’s only humanity here. That’s what takes center stage in this narrative, despite the knowledge that a tragic turn of events draws nearer.

Because we’ve come to know these characters, the final moments play out not with overwhelming horror, but a sense of stunned disbelief. It’s here that it is easiest to see Coogler’s remarkable restraint and emotional precision. The film is tender and compassionate to all involved. Look at Spencer’s face in the hospital as she’s confronted with the sad news, stunned and raw. The shot feels long and devastating. Earlier at the station, look at the face of the officer (Chad Michael Murray) as he realizes what just happened, an expression of ambiguous shock. The shot is quick, yet important to the film’s observant style. Most haunting is a shot of Diaz and Neal during a long pregnant pause in the final scene, the occasion to cut to credits before we hear a character’s reply.

This is a film that wisely stops unresolved. How can there possibly be a satisfying resolution here? There are no easy answers and it is to Coogler’s credit that he doesn’t let the film reach for closure it can’t find or conclusions it can’t draw. But how did we get here, from such a promising young man’s daily life to its sudden, shocking end? Coogler’s calm filmmaking takes the film to a place more lingeringly emotional and more productively complex than overt anger or hagiography would have. Injustice is obvious. How we’re to feel about this is wisely complicated by the film instead of simplified and pre-digested. It’s a powerful drama, forceful and accomplished, with plenty to consider well after the credits have rolled. This story of a death is filled with so much heartbreaking life. The final moments are a tragedy not just for what happened, but also for what was taken away.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sky Highs: I'M SO EXCITED!


Call it Almodóvar’s Airplane! The giddy shot of fizzy lifting drink that is I’m So Excited! takes place almost exclusively on a maybe-doomed airliner. The landing gear is damaged and the jet is stuck in the air endlessly circling, hoping a runway will open up somewhere in Spain so they can attempt a crash landing before running out of fuel. Even the best-case scenario has a high degree of danger. After a decade of mostly great films that to some extent foregrounded the heaviness of their subject matters (Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces) that culminated in 2011’s masterfully upsetting psychological horror film The Skin I Live In, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is light as a feather. I’m so excited, indeed. Sure, he’s still working through many of his pet thematic preoccupations. The film features matters of sexual identity, infidelity, romantic entanglements, parent/child relationships, death sentences, and melodramatic coincidences. But here they’re mixed up in a cocktail of breezy farcical delight. It’s filled with vivacious bawdy energy, ticklingly ribald and utterly unashamed. 

The clueless business class passengers and their progressively more unprofessional flight attendants are the focus of the film’s bright silliness. (The economy class has fallen asleep after the crew decided it’d be better to surreptitiously slip sleeping pills into their drinks than actually tell them the truth about the mechanical difficulties.) In business class, a casual and increasingly open-minded atmosphere leads to candid spilling of secrets, melodramas, and lusty overtures. What else can they do? The in-flight entertainment is broken as well. The increasingly inebriated passengers include a telenovela actor (Guillermo Toldeo), an ex-model turned madam (Cecilia Roth), a banker (José Luis Torrijo), a psychic (Lola Dueña), a mysterious mustachioed Mexican (José María Yazpik), and a pair of newlyweds (Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Laya Marti). They all have secrets to spill and dramas to enact as they slowly learn the truth about their situation. The combination of close quarters, possible disaster, and free flowing alcohol certainly isn’t helping them stay calm.

For their part, the trio of flight attendants (Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo, and Carlos Areces) tries to keep this bunch of characters distracted and entertained. They keep the drinks (and stronger stuff) flowing and offer to lip sync a song or two. Some Pointer Sisters, perhaps? When they finally decide to bust a move to the titular pop hit, it’s one of the most exuberant scenes of the year. Mostly, though, they can’t help but be dragged into the gossipy, boozy atmosphere on board. When the madam claims to have provided services to the 600 most influential men in Spain, including the king, an attendant drolly quips that she’s “been royally screwed.” They’re a great comedic trio, sassing and snapping and hashing out private issues in public through fabulous banter and exquisitely passive aggressive behavior. One’s having an affair with the married pilot (Antonio de la Torre), one’s chugging down every drink he can sneak and eying the co-pilot (Hugo Silva), and the third is praying for their safety, while wondering if that groom is as straight as he seems. Everyone’s loosening up and leaving inhibitions behind, leaving plenty of room for light, campy comedy and winking melodramatic complications around every turn as the clashing personalities trapped together have no other option but to bounce off of each other.

Almodóvar’s one of the few filmmakers who can go big, colorful, and over-the-top without even seeming to notice. He’s not even breaking a sweat here, whipping up an overheated concoction that’s a total delight from beginning to end. The film’s wall to wall hilarity with classically snowballing screwball scenarios and candid vulgarity of the most endearing kind. It’s often dirty, either coyly or explicitly, but it’s so sweet it doesn’t rankle. (Even its structure is a great dirty joke; just think about the final images.) No matter how outlandish, there’s not a sour note in the whole film. The cast is a perfectly calibrated mix of chemistries, rattling off the ricochet dialogue and boiling over with emotion and desperation, fear and desire, as the plane continues its endless circling.

It’s the kind of film you can tell the filmmaker had a blast making, so comfortable, spirited, and nonjudgmental. He simply threw a great party of a film, working through his typical weighty themes in the lightest possible comedic way with the help of a great game cast (and a few great cameos, too). It’s an intoxicatingly entertaining experience, rich, airy, and hugely satisfying. The film’s a feel-good machine. The original Spanish title is Los amantes pasajeros, which in some ways speaks more literally to the plot, but in English the title pulls double duty as the feeling with which the film left me. I’m so excited!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Checked Off: THE TO DO LIST


I appreciate the effort to tell a casually randy teen comedy from the perspective of a young woman, make the film explicitly about labels and expectations that go along with being a woman, and end with the girl taking control of her body and coming out on top. I would’ve appreciated all that a whole lot more if Maggie Carey’s The To Do List managed to be funny while it was at it. Instead of another Bridesmaids, Easy A, or The Heat, the kind of funny female-driven comedy that leads for a round of patronizing women-can-be-funny-too surprise from certain predictable corners of the media landscape, this underachieving movie has a killer (and sadly underrepresented) hook in its point of view without the goods to back it up. It’s not an occasion to say, “women can star in a comedy, too,” but rather “women can star in a bad comedy, too.”

The movie’s essentially a loose collection of thin bits about a high school valedictorian (Aubrey Plaza) looking to spend her summer before college shaking her good girl image. Being a bookish, studious, conscientious young lady, she makes a checklist of acts to do in just a few months. Her attempts, cringingly awkward and gross, fall between gossip sessions with friends and shifts at the community pool. The success of the film hinges upon how funny a viewer finds these episodic sketches, which are light and forgettable, trending towards gross-out gags that are either too much or not enough. (One in particular, a riff on a similar gag in Caddyshack, is disastrously gross.) At most, I felt a desire to laugh without ever actually laughing. Nothing goes wrong enough to complain, but nothing goes right enough to entertain. It's a movie of good intentions and weak execution. It’s set in 1993, for example, but that idea never goes further than lots of great 90’s hits on the soundtrack and the wardrobe department dressing everyone in the most unflattering fashions of the era.

Similarly, the cast is underutilized. Plaza has a sardonic low-key approach that's an awkward fit with the anxiety and naivety in her character as written. She's a real talent - good on Parks & Rec and with great voice work in Monsters University and the English dub of From Up On Poppy Hill - but this movie doesn't play to her strengths. She's better than the material. That goes for the supporting cast around her as well. They’re all appealing performers – Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as the best friends, Rachel Bilson, as the vapid older sister, Connie Britton as the open-minded mom, Clark Gregg as the uptight dad, Bill Hader as the slacker pool manager – but even they don’t have more than a small moment or two to shine. As the guys the lead crushes on or who have crushes on her, Scott Porter and Johnny Simmons are appealing and underwritten, which is partly a good joke on how these roles are typically portrayed when a young man's in the lead and those roles are filled by young women. One’s a hot but dull blonde; the other’s a cute brunette who's taken for granted, but all around better for her. Sound familiar?

While watching the film, I intellectualized the novelty (importance, even) of the point of view and some of it was technically funny, but I just wasn’t entertained. Even the best moment would be the weakest in a better comedy. It's not bad, just, despite its raunch and purposeful button-pushing, weirdly sloppy and mild. A tepid milestone, it’s a film that says girls deserve crummy teen sex comedies too. True, but that doesn’t mean the results are any worthier than crummy teen sex comedies from a guy’s point of view.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sharper: THE WOLVERINE


In a summer that’s found every science fiction superhero spectacle level city blocks without batting an eye, it’s refreshing to find that in The Wolverine, violence has an impact. The film is lean, focused, contained, and personal; violence and destruction happens to and is perpetrated by flesh-and-blood characters we know. But then again, that’s what the cinematic X-Men series has largely aspired to. The first image in Bryan Singer’s inaugural entry back in summer 2000 was of worn shoes squishing through the mud of a concentration camp. Wolverine, the sixth in the series, opens on a Japanese prisoner of war camp located on the shores of what we come to understand is Nagasaki, soon to be leveled by a mushroom cloud. This isn’t your average cartoonishly violent comic book film. Here violence has a substance and presence that feels not always historical and real – these are, after all, still films about superpowered humans hurtling towards each other in scenes of vivid and exciting action – but has a kind of moral weight.

That’s not to say that this is a film that’s grim or self-serious, a la Zack Snyder’s underwhelming Man of Steel from just a month ago. As directed by James Mangold from a script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, the film is a blast of expertly staged action, colorful set design, and pulpy characterizations. The plot twists and slides effortlessly, the rare tentpole production that doesn’t feel as if it falls immediately into autopilot. There’s a flavor and a pace that feels thoughtfully and patiently put together, not to slow down the action or burden the plot with heavy-handed themes, but to allow it maximum impact. This feeling of flavor and style is refreshing in a summer during which the trend has been towards gray design, lumbering franchise care, and bounteous uncaring collateral damage

After two prequels, the X-Men series returns to its chronological present in this film, picking up after the events of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which cleared the cast of some big name characters. This leaves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, still one of the best and most appealing pairings of star and character I’ve ever seen) wandering depressed and alone in the wilderness until he’s drawn into a self-contained world of intrigue. This pared down plotting puts the focus squarely on the seemingly immortal mutant with adamantium claws. We’ve learned in the World War II-set opening scene that he saved a Japanese soldier from the atomic blast. Decades later, that man, now a dying tech company tycoon (Hal Yamanouchi), invites Wolverine back to Japan to say goodbye and receive his thanks. The tightly focused plot finds the lone mutant drawn into a world of corporate intrigue involving the old man’s embattled company, the yakuza, and a group of ninjas. The man’s son (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter (Tao Okamoto), as well as a mutant adopted granddaughter (Rila Fukushima), have their own roles in the plots that are already in motion when we arrive.

There’s a terrific Japanese flavor to the film, at once traditional and with smoothly incorporated sci-fi embellishments. In wardrobe and architecture, color and cuisine, this is a great evocation of place and space. Even the score by Marco Beltrami takes on lovely Asian instrumentation. It’s a refreshing change of pace. The sensational action sequences, nicely shot by cinematographer Ross Emery, benefit from this as well. An early stunner involves a yakuza attack at a traditional funeral, the placid garden of bonsai trees and calm waters around small rocks becomes a broad-daylight scene of martial arts, archery, and metallic claws. This leads almost immediately into a great use of a bullet train. Later, a small snowy village crawling with ninjas forms a nice black and white contrast. Elsewhere there’s great use of sliding doors, interlocking wall panels and swooping roofs to put architecture to use creating tension and visual interest alike, staging clear, crisp, and vivid action sequences of color and consequence in which the special effects and designs are convincing and creative without overwhelming their narrative purpose.

Through all the creatively staged violence, there are real stakes and squirming moments of physical peril. There’s a focus on character that heightens the stakes, rather than falling back on typically overblown world-ending cataclysms of the genre (a fate the series as a whole has tended to avoid). It’s easier to care when a movie puts specific characters in consistent peril. Jackman’s performance as Wolverine is as good as always, but here, given material leaps and bounds above his previous solo outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he’s given a chance to play the character as worn and tortured, haunted by his recent past. Here he’s scruffy and muscled, but soulful and wounded as well, intensely sympathetic in his vulnerable toughness. It’s the comic book action movie as character piece, which gives room for the terrific Japanese cast to play real human beings as well. None are here just to pose and fight while special effects happen around them. It’s a full-blooded film with emotional stakes and complicated feelings.

Even though the film’s biggest assets are its leanness, focus on one character’s journey, and comic book injection of dependable Japanese action genres (ninja combat, yakuza noir, samurai honor), it nonetheless falls into the X-Men series easily and compellingly. It doesn’t linger on mutant metaphors, but has some nice resonances around the edges. It doesn’t contain the X-Men, but their presence is felt in Wolverine’s psychological condition. What we have here is an adventure serial with real heft, that’s able to hop eras, countries and characters, and maintain a sense of continuity while finding ways to stay fresh and exciting. How many big budget superhero franchises arrive at their sixth entry and still feel fresh? The Wolverine is sharp, solid, exciting, and unexpectedly elegant in design, the most satisfying picture of its kind this year. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Forsaken: ONLY GOD FORGIVES


Only God Forgives is the kind of movie you get when a talented group of people goes off in completely the wrong direction following hypothetically interesting aesthetic impulses down a dead end street to emptiness. It’s not that this is merely a bad film. It’s such a colossally and profoundly bankrupt and phony production that I couldn’t even sit back and appreciate the self-serious kitsch of it all. This is film that lingers equally on graphic bloody violence and straight-faced karaoke ballads in a repulsively exoticised Bangkok landscape that is made to look something like a velvet painting under a red blacklight. That director Nicolas Winding Refn is a great composer of images, but quite terrible at making them add up to anything meaningful, is the only thing keeping the film merely disappointing instead of outright maddening, although it’s without a doubt the longest 90 minutes I’ve sat through in a long time.

The film muddles along through a story about an American drifting through Thailand's criminal underworld. As played by Ryan Gosling, who appeared in Refn’s previous film, the far more successful arty thriller Drive, the man is an inscrutable enigma. The role calls only for Gosling to move imperceptibly between two expressions: blank stares and hollow stares. Early in the film’s runtime, his brother (Tom Burke) kills an underage prostitute. The girl’s father, in turn, kills Gosling’s brother. It’s a mess. A policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows this retribution to happen, but punishes the dead girl’s father by ritualistically slicing off his hand. News of the ordeal reaches Gosling and he’s understandably upset. So it becomes a revenge drama, except only in the most turgid, circuitous sense. Through it all, few words are spoken, and even fewer actions are taken. It’s as if Refn heard the mainstream audience complaints about the slow, meditative passages of Drive and figured his mistake was including all those exciting parts around them.

Refn’s a talented designer of striking images, here with assistance from cinematographer Larry Smith, but he exerts little effort in letting them add up. It’s a film in which every person and event is so devoid of emotion, it’s practically comatose. Here, whole characters are nothing more than signifiers, monstrous constructs that fly in fully ensconced as symbols first, people later, if ever. I’m thinking mostly of the great Kristin Scott Thomas who shows up as Gosling’s mother, a great stormy performance in a film of artfully calm chaos. She’s a tormentor and a destructive presence in her son’s life, quick with a vulgar insult and, as a criminal herself, the inescapable mood of the movie has her on an inevitable journey to a nasty end. When it arrives, it’s nastier than you’d guess. Nastier still is the sense of embarrassment that grows watching such a game performance receive absolutely no support from the rest of the cast, let alone the film around them.

But to say Only God Forgives is a film of narrative is a disservice. This is a film of mood, a heavy machismo that slides along carrying slickly packaged violence and dread. Accompanied by a throbbing score by Cliff Martinez, the camera slowly pushes in on ornate panels and decorative designs, the color red washing over the frame in oppressive consistency. Hands, blades, and blood are repeated visual motifs. If only the design were more than design. This is a film enamored with concepts of Freudian anxiety, honor, and criminality, but refuses to bring them into a coherent or engaging film on any level. It’s a failure as narrative only because it never intends to rise to that level. Its true failure is as cinema, mistaking sadism for entertainment and posturing for profundity. It’s telling that Refn includes repeated shots of empty interiors throughout the film, a no-doubt unintentional symbol of the film’s true, repetitively vacant nature.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

New Old Haunts: THE CONJURING


I was dubious when I saw too-promotable-to-be-true reports that The Conjuring was rated R for being too scary for PG-13, but actually seeing the film has me thinking otherwise. With barely a drop of blood, the movie had me more frightened than any horror film of the last year or two. It is an expertly calibrated haunted house experience complete with all the strange noises, fleeting movements, and odd apparitions you’d expect. But even though it draws upon all the expected tropes of the haunted house movie, it scares early and often. It’s a tingling, absorbing horror film full of dread and wittily staged and framed scares. What makes it so compelling and convincing is not just that it’s an impeccably timed series of jumps and jolts, but that it’s a fully inhabited film with superbly real production design, excellent natural performances, and a relaxed and patient approach to building up to its best moments of panic and fright. Director James Wan has been making horror films for nearly a decade now, from the nasty, torturous Saw to the sleek freak out of Insidious. With this new production, he’s made his best film yet.

It’s a film with a clear appreciation for its genre’s history (the 1970’s setting allows for appealing echoes of that decades horror landmarks) and a dedication to fulfilling tropes in surprising and unrelentingly creepy ways. As it must, it starts with a nice normal family moving into a big old house in the country. The mother (Lili Taylor) and father (Ron Livingston) wearily unpack boxes while their five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver) run around exploring. It’s not too long before the family starts to feel something is not quite right with their new surroundings. Their dog dies. One girl starts sleepwalking. Each morning, the family wakes to find every clock in the house has stopped at exactly 3:07 am. Footsteps, whispers, and claps are heard in empty areas of the house. Some events can be explained away, but as they pile up, coincidence gives way to a sense of oppressive invisible spookiness.

This is all familiar haunted house stuff, but Wan manages to create a sense of novelty. Sure, we, the horror audience, have seen this type of thing before. But this is the first time it’s happening to this family. Because the acting is so unaffected and comfortable, because the family dynamics feel so real, the growing unease is all the more shivery. The surprise of creaking floorboards and drafty door swings escalates to the insinuating presence of something not quite right and it feels fresh once more. A stroke of genius in the film’s construction is to introduce and intercut the story of a pair of paranormal investigators for whom this is not fresh. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple that specializes in investigating reported hauntings. While happenings at the house in the country grow increasingly distressing, we occasionally cut to the Warrens giving lectures, conducting interviews, and inspecting properties. They’re professionals. By the time they show up at the house at the center of the film and express concern, we know that means trouble. It amplifies the dread.

The script by Chad and Carey Hayes builds and escalates with a nicely varied assortment of dangers and scares. (I especially appreciated the creepy and clever solution to the eternal haunted house question “Why don’t they just leave?”) This is a horror film that’s in confident command of its mood, able to sustain the absorbing hushed creepiness even as the events on screen are teasingly normal. Scenes of familial warmth and professional confidence may scare the darkness away, but the dread lingers. The production design is impressive, a homey lived-in 1970s of complete and convincing period detail that emphasizes the “Based on a true story” trappings. Publicity would undoubtedly emphasize “true story,” but the key word is always “based.” Also sold this way was the 1979 film The Amityville Horror, the quintessential film of this subgenre, despite its vaguely dull pulpy junkiness. Its “true story” also involved an investigation by the real-world Warrens.  There’s a connection here that’s nicely felt, a continuity with horror past not just with the Warrens and the period setting, but in The Conjuring’s smooth steady long takes, the period design, and the oblique nods to hauntings past. Classically, handsomely designed, the film’s a throwback without feeling old-fashioned.

Its most welcome throwback aspect is in the way it is a bit more of a character piece than you might expect. It has time for small moments – a shy smile the oldest daughter shares with a young research assistant of the Warrens, a scene in which the family bonds with the investigators over a breakfast of pancakes. Small details turn scary, too, like a friendly hide-and-seek game involving claps and blindfolds that becomes predictably, but oh-so-effectively, chilling when a ghost gets involved. Wan may have set out to make something like the ultimate haunted house movie, filled with possessions, poltergeists, curses, and exorcisms, but like all good horror movies, The Conjuring scares not through genre prowess alone, but through skillful filmmaking on every level. It’s a film that builds up a big creaky house, populates it with people to care about, and grooves on a frightening atmosphere of anticipation punctuated by scares that work allusively, metaphorically, and viscerally. Its scares may make you jump, but it never feels cheap or exploitative. It is unrelentingly entertaining and terrifically effective.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dead on Arrival: R.I.P.D.


R.I.P.D. is a fantasy cop movie with a few good ideas played badly. The acronym stands for the Rest In Peace Department, the movie’s best idea. If your movie is going to have one best idea, might as well make it the central concept. (In this case, that concept is undoubtedly reproduced from the comic books by which the movie’s inspired.) The idea here is that cops killed in the line of duty are sucked up to a heavenly way station where they’re offered a chance to serve a tour of duty back on Earth. The job of the R.I.P.D. is to hunt down dead souls who’ve somehow slipped through the cracks and have remained shuffling around on this mortal coil. Once found, the souls are brought up into the clouds to receive their rightful judgment. Within that premise, there should be plenty of room to stage interesting paranormal spins on cop movie tropes, but the whole enterprise quickly takes on the feeling of a bargain basement Men in Black knockoff.

A recently deceased cop (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself paired with a grizzled Wild West lawman (Jeff Bridges) who has been on the R.I.P.D. for quite some time. They’re sent out on their rounds by their no-nonsense chief (Mary-Louise Parker) who looks like just the kind of official who’d demand an officer’s badge and gun and take them off a case the instant things start to deviate from protocol. Reynolds is playing his usual sheepishly competent handsome guy, while Bridges seems to be enjoying playing his Rooster Cogburn again while letting a little bit of a Tommy Lee Jones impression sneak around the sides. These two wild card cops clash with each other, but of course we all know that their time on the streets together will loosen their distinctive personalities and let friendship in. Would we have it any other way?

But anyway, the problem isn’t in the easy genre staples, but in the execution. The actors are trying their best to put over some severely clunky material. The script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the guys behind the Clash of the Titans remake and the big screen Aeon Flux, not an encouraging track record, is a broad blend of silly banter and zippy action. But it all plays out stiffly, the plot moving through predictable motions leadenly while the actors try valiantly to keep afloat characterizations that are so one-note, the only movement comes when they seem to go out of tune to conform to the script’s schematic emotional arcs. Director Richard Schwentke brings to it all a digitally swooshing camera that, for all its showy movement, fails to bring the dead material to life. Like his last film, the similarly antic and dull old guy actioner Red, there’s lifelessness behind the would-be comic-book-style-approximating compositions.

Adding to the weightlessness of it all is the wobbly special effects, which appear distractingly rubbery and artificial. Once an action scene starts, with a dead soul popping out of its mortal casing in grotesque and unpleasant ways, the characters get all bouncy and unreal, impossible to believe and difficult to care about as destruction makes little impact on their forms. I found myself wondering if there was any real world stunt work done on this production at all. As the action gets bigger and bigger and the undead souls appear to be gathering an artifact that will allow them to reverse the flow on the heavenly funnel cloud that sucks all dead into the afterlife, it all gets ever increasingly unmoored. Not even Kevin Bacon as a crooked police officer can salvage the CG spasms that explode in generic special effects mayhem of the blandest kind. The cop movie turns into a stop-the-MacGuffin movie. At least it’s the source of the movie’s one good self-knowing laugh. When Parker explains the object in question’s world-ending properties, Bridges scrunches up his face and asks, “Who’d ever want to make that?”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Snail's Pace: TURBO


Turbo, the latest family film from Dreamworks Animation, is stale and forgettable, but brightly colored and moves along at a brisk pace. I wish those colors and that speed told a fresher story or at least were put to use for something even halfway memorable. I better write this fast before the whole thing zooms out of my mind faster than a speeding snail. That might not sound all that fast, but Turbo clocks a snail’s pace at over 200 miles per hour. How’s that possible? The NASCAR fan snail at the film’s center (Ryan Reynolds) falls onto the highway and gets knocked into a tank of nitrus in a hotrod’s engine. A neat little sequence zooms all the way into the little guy’s atoms and shows them turning neon and zipping around faster and faster. Now he’s a super snail. Too bad he couldn’t be in a super movie.

In family film tradition, the speedy snail who names himself Turbo is alienated from his herd-mentality group of normal snails. They don’t understand his ambitions and therefore ostracize him, casting the fast-paced freak out of their snail habitat in a suburban garden. The poor fellow ends up with his still-slow brother (Paul Giamatti) at a failing strip mall in the middle of Van Nuys. There they are captured by Tito, a genial, bumbling snail racer (Michael Peña). I realize all that sounds a little strained and silly, but wait until you hear that the snail racer co-owns a Mexican restaurant with his brother (Luis Guzmán), so there’s double brotherly strife here. Turbo and Tito have big dreams that their brothers just don’t understand. Will the story bring all of these brothers closer together? Will dreams be realized, no matter how often they’re in doubt? What do you think?

The plot of the film involves Tito discovering Turbo’s speed and deciding to enter him in the Indianapolis 500. How, you might ask, does one enter a snail in a car race? Pay the entrance fee, of course. Tito raises the money from the strip mall’s other entrepreneurs (Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, and Michelle Rodriguez). They all seem to think that the exposure will reinvigorate their little corner of the local economy. Makes sense, I guess. If you’re going to be sponsoring a snail in a big car race, why wouldn’t you put the name of your business on the shell? Someone in Van Nuys might see that sign on that snail and think to go to your strip mall next time they want a taco. You never know, I guess.

There’s plenty of silly business along the plot’s sidelines involving the plain old slowpoke snails Tito brings along for some reason. They are a diverse collection of sluggish primary colors with the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, and Ben Schwartz. They’re the kind of cartoon characters that always seem to be smirking at you. I’m not sure exactly what these characters want, what their emotional journeys are, or even who they are, really. They don’t even get the typical one-trait sidekick development. By the movie’s end, they’re Turbo’s pit crew. Makes sense, I guess. There’s also a narcissistic French racing star (Bill Hader) who might not be so happy about racing a snail. Makes sense, I guess. You put in all that work to get to the top and some stupid snail is going to just zip by you like that? This is a movie built out of so many improbable plot elements that one simply has to stop questioning and go with it. The answer to any “Why?” would be “Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.”

But it’s a jumble of elements you’ve seen before, too safely crafted to either satisfy or fail, utterly predictable every step of the way. This movie about a snail racing racecars around a racetrack can’t even manage to be a little odd or unexpected. Director David Soren, who co-wrote the script with Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel, pulled stock character arcs, booming pop songs, and silly sight gags together and assembled them in an appealing package that danced in front of my eyes without every once engaging me on any level. It was simply there. I’d call Turbo the most forgettable animated film of the summer, but I’m sure I’ve already forgotten the most forgettable animated film of the summer.

The one truly notable aspect of Turbo is not necessarily the visually pleasant animation. We’re at the point where smoothly rendered computer-generated visual detail can be so blandly proficient that it’s only worth calling out for being truly terrible or particularly stunning. It’s fine here, that’s all, although I was charmed time and again by the neon blue streak of light Turbo trailed behind him at top speed. No, the only aspect worth noting is the film’s casual diversity. It’s appealing and admirable to have a cast of characters (the humans, at least) who are different in age, gender, body type and background without making a big deal about it. I mean, I’d prefer if they were in a movie that actually created characters out of them that were more than cogs in the all-too familiar plot mechanics, but it’s a start.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Monster Smash: PACIFIC RIM


Hollywood may be in the business of talking Earth’s destruction to death, but at least once in a while we get a lumbering blockbuster done with a light touch and clear affection for the genres it inhabits. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim grabs gleefully two classic standbys of Japanese science fiction, the giant monster attack and the man in huge robot suit, and hurtles them together at top speed. The result is an exuberant creature feature that’s thought through the implications of its premise in satisfyingly complete ways that serve as a nice backdrop for larger than life one-on-one boxing matches between hulking mechanical defenders and slimy, resourceful beasties.

Del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, among other great fantasies, has always been interested in creating cinematic worlds to wander around in, feats of imagination that feel fully realized. He’s done it again, this time in a film that’s as fast and forward moving as anything he’s ever done. It’s a crackling thin B-movie blown up on an A-budget, alive with the power to be as big as the filmmaker’s imaginations. It’s exactly the movie it wants to be, simply and sincerely and nothing more.

It starts with a rift in the Pacific Rim that allows monsters from another dimension to slip through one at a time. Called Kaiju, these massive creatures, a sort of combination of dinosaur and shark, wage devastating attacks on coastal cities. All seems lost until humanity bands together to create gigantic robots to fight back. As tall as skyscrapers and sturdy as tanks, these enormous fighting machines are too powerful for just one pilot. To move, to fight, and to win, it takes two people moving in perfect synchronization. They call it a “neural bridge” through which they “cerebral drift,” just some of many priceless bits of technobabble here.

The robots are successful. The problem seems to be contained. And here’s the first sign that we’re not in the hands of a filmmaker who will be content to serve up the concept and stop there: that all happens before the title card. We skip ahead several years and the monsters are still arriving, but now with greater and greater frequency. Mankind needs a last ditch effort to shut these Kaiju down once and for all or the apocalypse will surely come thundering down. The film follows a band of international military and scientific personal (refreshingly global-minded) as they scramble to save mankind from certain doom.

The characters are vibrant B-movie types: tough guys, nerdy researchers, control room button-pushers, ambitious young professionals, nervous civilians, and flamboyant criminals. And yet del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham haven’t been content to stop there. They’ve created flesh-and-blood archetypes that don’t just pose and snap jargon at each other. They have interior lives that are quickly drawn in big gestures and through action, but are no less impactful because of it. The film is in some ways narratively skimpy, but in all ways imagination rich, with characters there to provide just enough emotion to power the enthusiastic exploration of the simple, infectiously entertaining premise.

The cast is important to pulling this off. The leader of the team is Idris Elba, all gravitas and stillness, exerting complete unquestioned authority over the mission. He recruits a talented pilot (Charlie Hunnam) who retired years earlier after, as we see in the pre-title sequence, suffering a devastating loss of his co-pilot in a Kaiju attack. Elba needs the pilot’s expertise to attempt the endgame, pairing him with a hugely talented, but untested, pilot (Rinko Kikuchi), who has traumatic attack-related memories of her own. The relationships between these three form the solid core from which we can care somewhat about the people in the mechanical contraptions punching monsters in the jaw.

But that’s not to say the rest of the characters contribute nothing to the larger picture. A father-and-son team of pilots (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) provides additional emotional investment and there are fun turns for, among others, Charlie Day as a monster-obsessed scientist and Ron Perlman as a flashy king of Hong Kong’s black market for Kaiju organs. Once the monsters appeared, many people found new jobs to do and more money to make. These roles are examples of how del Toro so purposefully thinks through the way the world has changed in the years since the monsters first appeared.

It’s the little things, like the neighborhood built into a huge Kaiju skeleton in Hong Kong, that remind you how fully and convincingly drawn this future society is, scuffed, worn and torn as if people actually live and die in it. But that’s just the del Toro way, to create fully imagined worlds by lovingly synthesizing a variety of influences through his recognizably soulful and loving genre vision. Pacific Rim is the stuff of anime and Godzilla, Transformers and Harryhausen. (There’s also a computer voiced by Portal’s Ellen McLain, a nice sonic touch.) I suppose such smoothly incorporated variety is only natural for film that’s a product of a Mexican directing a Hollywood riff on Japanese sci-fi.

Here the pieces work together in perfect harmony. It’s a film of absorbing special effects and terrific design. It’s so lived in and the characters have such ease within it that the film practically plays like a promising original effort and its bigger better sequel at the same time. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography is a palate of inky primary colors from which emerge the gorgeous cold blues and warm reds of robotics and readouts, and scaly green and brown creatures from the deep. The sound design is rich with clicks, whirs, growls, and punches. Each step of the beasts both unnatural and manmade makes the theater quake with thunderous bass. The fights are occasionally confusing, but always spectacularly framed for maximum impact of scale, our attackers and defenders towering over us. It’s altogether a spellbinding sensation.

We see all kinds of digital destruction every weekend lately, but here’s a kind that’s grounded and thought through. It brings back some of the simple power of wonder, to stare up at unreal sights that dwarf us and makes us feel something of the nourishing power of the fantastic once again. The film is one of massive scale handled with a light touch, overpowering without overwhelming. It’s not a great movie, but it’s great creature feature fun, a rare ebullient expression of serious spectacle.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Agree to Continue: TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPY


Talk about good timing. In a summer during which the news has been filled with stories of the NSA’s capabilities to spy on Americans and the man who leaked the information is forced to flee the country for doing so, the exact nature of who can know what about us is fresh in the public consciousness. Fortuitously, here's a new documentary about who can access digital information called Terms and Conditions May Apply. Director Cullen Hoback, whose last doc looked at live-action role players, has pulled together a clear-eyed primer on what information companies allow themselves to collect and store indefinitely, an ability we grant each and every time we click "Agree" to use an app or even simply hit return in a search bar. I'd say this brisk, informative documentary is not for paranoid people. But after watching it, they wouldn't be paranoid any more. They'd know they're onto something.

It's a documentary that features not one new or startling fact. Rather, it gets its ability to startle out of a collection of bits and pieces of news and information that have dribbled out over the past dozen years or so that take on sharper meaning when viewed in totality. Run back to back, it's easy to be freshly troubled by how little "Privacy Policies" protect users, and how much those tiny-print documents with the check box at the bottom are used to grant companies enormous leeway in using data collected in the course of browsing, uploading, chatting, emailing, and tweeting. The film finds personal anecdotes about people with innocuous digital moments twisted: a writer for the murder-solving procedural Cold Case whose job-related search terms sure look suspicious, a seventh grader’s Facebook message of concern for the president that was misread by the Secret Service, and a tourist whose tweet using the word "destroy" in the party sense finds him in trouble with immigration.

Human interest stories aside, the strength of the film sits squarely in the accumulation of cold hard facts. Interviews with journalists, lawyers, tech writers, analysts, and experts of one kind or another, as well as news footage and the requisite cheeky appropriations of movie and TV clips, outline the insidious creep of surveillance in modern society. The more technology evolves to connect, collaborate, and communicate with speeds ever faster and devices ever smaller, the more the potential for uses and abuses. The argument is tracked back politically and economically to the Patriot Act. We’re shown footage of George W. Bush proudly announcing new laws to allow law enforcement easy and total access to any kind of communications "used by terrorists." Unspoken in his statement is the not-insignificant fact that people who aren't terrorists tend to use email and cell phones too. The film goes on to chart the continued refinement of these practices which most certainly did not end when the public discovered them or when the presidential administrations changed.

Hoback, in a trim 79-minute runtime, isn't content to lay the blame entirely on the Patriot Act, looking at the surveillance industry and societal shifts as well as base political motives. The film is no screed - it pulls footage from both Fox News and MSNBC - in the way the evidence is displayed. It merely collects information and sorts through what it finds pertinent, drawing a path from the dawn of the Internet until now that seems to be heading in a quietly ominous direction for personal privacy. Rather than a heated argument, the damning evidence against governmental and corporate espionage, spying all Internet users are to some extent complicit in on some level, adds up only to a simple request to those institutions that track our every digital move: Can you please stop?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

More (and Less) of the Same: DESPICABLE ME 2

Did you like the 2010 animated slapstick comedy Despicable Me? Well, have I got news for you. Here’s Despicable Me 2, featuring more of everything you liked about Despicable Me except 1.) the sense of surprise, 2.) narrative momentum, and 3.) a non-monetary reason to exist. Oh, sure, Steve Carell’s Gru, the failed supervillain who decided being a dad is even better than being bad, is still a funny voice performance married to distinctive hunched design. His adopted daughters are as precocious and cute as ever. His army of yellow, nugget-shaped, gibberish-babbling Minions represents an often-hysterical expression of pure cartoony id in the best Looney Tunes tradition. But what’s missing most of all in this sequel is a sense of purpose. It’s cute, but the scope of this film feels so small, cramped even. It’s pitched at the level of a not-especially hardworking Saturday-morning cartoon series, smaller stakes, simpler emotions, and a safe, comforting plot that never strays too far from the status quo. As a handful of episodes in this hypothetical TV show, it’d be an amiable time-waster, but as a feature film, this doesn’t quite cut it. Though still amiable, on the big screen its time-waster status looms large.

Since tradition dictates sequels need plots, this one gets one. Gru, having retired from supervillainy at the end of the first film, is asked by the Anti-Villain League to put his skills to use spotting a supervillain in hiding. He turns them down at first. He has a comfortable life throwing his daughter’s birthday party and putting his Minions to work making a line of jams and jellies. But, plot intervenes, and one Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan, in a pinched, nasally voice) pairs Gru with Agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) to go undercover in a snazzy geodesic-dome-shaped mall and find the person responsible for pilfering an entire Arctic research station in a giant flying electromagnet. (In true cartoon fashion, the ship is in the shape of, what else, a giant horseshoe magnet. I liked that.) So this time around Gru is a good guy who helps the good guys. Gone is the sweet-and-sour core that gave the first film its altogether unexpected, but most welcome, bite. Now it’s just a typical busy kiddie flick that’s broad and appealing without ever much breaking out of the box it has built for itself.

And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. To sit and watch Despicable Me 2 is not an unpleasant experience. There are bright colors and funny noises and sometimes the 3D bops something towards your face. There’s bouncy cartoon-violence slapstick and plenty of silly moments throughout. Several subplots bounce around within the main throughline: a mysterious something is kidnapping Minions; Gru’s oldest daughter (Miranda Cosgrove) has a crush on a cute boy (Moises Arias) she met at the mall; Gru’s youngest (Elsie Fisher) is struggling with her lines for the Mother’s Day pageant (sadly the middle child (Dana Gaier) is left without a plot of her own); the flighty Lucy just might be a source of Gru love if he ever realizes it. On a simple plot level, a lot is happening here, and it converges into a climax that ties up all the plotlines in a pretty bow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all mildly entertaining, sometimes kicking up past mild and into very. At one point, the Minions recreate a mid-90’s pop ballad and the scene had me in stitches, though I bet the little kids in the audience might’ve wondered why it was that funny.

Movies like this make me wish we still had a viable market for animated short films. Why force Gru, his girls, and his Minions to fill a feature length runtime with every outing? They’re hugely appealing and animated with bright, round, colorful visuals. Imagine a world in which Universal opts to create dozens of six or seven minute shorts with these characters. Wouldn’t a few minutes of inspired Minion madness be just the thing to show before, say, Furious 6? (Maybe Fox could jump on the bandwagon and put Scrat the prehistoric squirrel before X-Men or something.) Alas, that’s not what we’re considering here. Despicable Me 2 is a safe and competent kids’ movie that’s happy with its smallness and tameness (not to mention sameness). It’s a quintessential “good enough” sequel, satisfied to simply say, you liked this last time so here’s some more. It’s coasting on audience goodwill.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Off the Rails: THE LONE RANGER


In a summer when so many Hollywood entertainments, even the halfway decent ones, seem to be on autopilot, it's a relief to find that The Lone Ranger boldly and confidently flies off the rails the first chance it gets. Here's an improbable movie: a darkly cartoonish 149 minute Western that's not only an attempt at bringing to today's audiences the adventures of the old white-hat radio-serial hero and his Native American sidekick, it is also a Fourth of July release in which capitalism and the U.S. Army are major villainous forces, and a live-action Disney movie with a subplot about a prostitute who has a wooden leg that's also a gun. At long last, 2013 has served up a summer tentpole where, no matter what you end up thinking about its quality, you won't hear a description and think "Oh, yeah, another one of those."

This is the work of Gore Verbinski, the talented director who brought us indelible entertainments like the shivery J-horror remake The Ring, the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean and its boisterously overstuffed sequels, and the madcap animated postmodern Western Rango. He has a knack for creating clear, creative imagery that rises out of unrestrained imagination without irretrievably swamping the narrative momentum of his films. The haunted videotape in The Ring contains perhaps the most memorably frightening collection of horror images of the last decade or so. The Pirates films are some of the best large-scale action fantasy efforts in recent memory. And Rango, why that's nothing short of a masterpiece, essentially putting part of the plot of Chinatown into a Western populated by animals and pulling out all the stops on a wild roller-coaster of set pieces, casual surrealism, and tricky thematic loop-de-loops.

His Lone Ranger is a bit of all of the above, bloated, messy, and prone to whiplash between tones in an instant. It's a film of woozy pseudo-mystic native spiritualism, a few red-blooded Rube Goldberg action sequences, and a heaping helping of reflexive genre criticism. There's almost too much going on at all times, but even when it contorts into awkward shapes and narrative confusion, there's bounteous visual satisfaction to be found. After a start in 1933 where an elderly Native American haltingly starts telling the story we're about to see to a young boy visiting a carnival, we're thrown right into the action. It's 1869 and a new prosecutor (Armie Hammer) is on a train to Texas. Also aboard is captured fugitive Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who is promptly rescued by his gang who shoot up the train and cause it to crash past the station and slam into the sand. So you see, the film is already quite literally off the rails and the plot soon threatens to follow, with only Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous widescreen celluloid cinematography and the eccentric period-piece bric-a-brac production design to hold it together.

A posse rides out to recapture the criminals, but the gang ambushes them, killing them all. But the prosecutor survives and, in a nod to Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Western Dead Man, a helpful native finds him in the desert. Here the help is Tonto (Johnny Depp, in a performance full of weird tics again, but not entirely successfully), a strange man who wears apparently permanent war paint, a dead bird on his head, and seems to be speaking nonsense half the time. He’s looking to bring Cavendish to justice as well. They team up, Tonto advising the prosecutor to wear a mask, using his assumed death as a disguise to help in their search. With that, The Lone Ranger and Tonto begin their journey. It may seem easy enough, but with a plot this complicated, it takes some time to really get going.  As the hunt begins, so to does an all-out war between settlers and the Comanche after it appears a land treaty has been broken in the wake of the Transcontinental Railroad. As if that’s not enough, the film also contains a frontier woman (Ruth Wilson) and her son (Bryant Price) – the Ranger’s nephew – who get caught up in this conflict, as well as a U.S. military man (Barry Pepper), a tenacious railroad official (Tom Wilkinson), and the aforementioned peg-legged prostitute (Helena Bonham Carter). And did I mention that there’s silver in them there hills?

The strains of politics, greed, business, and revenge all twist about in a film that’s complicated, needlessly so, perhaps, and certainly overlong. It’s shockingly cruel and ugly, even literally, the characters are all sweaty and dirty, covered in dust, muck, and dried blood. It’s a "family film" featuring cannibalism, mass killings, a rough-and-tumble tone, and bone-deep cynicism about the future and oft-scoffed "progress." The script by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio is intent on undercutting easy heroism with gags and silliness amidst the historical sadism. It’s a Western with an understanding of the tragedy, the national sin, befalling the Native Americans. This is subversive stuff, occasionally clumsily handled, poking through a film that often feels close to sliding out of control and sometimes does.

It gains a sort of moral force from a wounded spirit that's also played as a joke. Tonto is a madman and an outcast. Years ago, we learn, his tribe was killed. He roams the desert seeking revenge. He babbles and pulls faces, using underestimation as his greatest defense. To treat Tonto as a joke and a tragedy is queasy-making, but the attempt is noble. It's better than playing it straight as simple condescension, even if the execution is questionable. It's a tricky, not entirely successful, portrayal, helped by Depp playing the elderly storyteller who frames the story as a story. Are we to take it all at face value? Not especially. The elderly Depp is housed in a carnival. The events of the film are not without nuance, but are largely broad and even vaguely satiric. Here's a film that's saying perhaps time has passed for these kinds of stories, but gee, aren't they fun anyways?

It's nearly a slog for a while, falling into an odd pattern of jokes, massacres, slapstick, and showdowns. In one scene, the cavalry chases down a tribe, and then we cut back to attempted humor from a horse licking the Lone Ranger's face. Hammer's square-jawed classical performance is sunny and without a hint of winking, the better for the odd details to accrue around him. Long scenes of halting banter between Hammer and Depp sometimes fall flatter than they should, but once plot and other actors enter the scene more forcefully they snap back into a sense of purpose. But even while drifting, it’s at least worth looking at, a film determined to echo John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Buster Keaton on its way to finding new images of its own.

Once all the pieces  fall into place, the film hurtles through a climactic series of events most satisfying, especially a massive sequence involving two trains and plenty of expertly and elaborately choreographed and clearly edited bits of action set to the “William Tell Overture.” To get there, though, is a mad, uneven jumble, but I can almost say it's worth it. The film is befuddling and beguiling, exhausting and exciting. I left worn out, but more than ever convinced that Verbinski's one of the best directors cooking up blockbusters in Hollywood today. In lesser hands this would've been even more of a mess than it already is. Here’s a work of visual invention and real subversion, albeit so bustlingly uneven that it made my head spin.


Update 7/6/13
My affection for the film lingered even as the critical reaction grew increasingly negative. I went back to the theater and saw it again, not because I wanted to see what others hated, but to see again the parts of the film I - and a band of defenders - admired. (I was especially craving another look at that dazzling climactic action sequence.) Upon a second viewing, my opinion of the film has only grown. I still think it's a film dangerously close to sliding out of control. But I'm more convinced that Verbinski's a filmmaker in complete control. There's a difference between a film that's tonally slippery and tonally sloppy. The Lone Ranger is the former. A common comparison kicking around cinephile circles, at least amongst those of us who like this picture, is Spielberg's to-this-day underrated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Both films feature a structure – early and late action with comedy, shocking violence and gross out gags in between – and tonal mix – dark, strange, funny, exciting, silly – that could easily catch a viewer unaware and knock them clear out of enjoyment. But repeat viewings, when more fully aware of the big picture and the filmmaker's strategies, reveal a hurtling fine-tuned roller coaster of an adventure film. Those moments where the whole thing seemed to take a curve too fast and you thought the clattering contraption would go flying off in a deadly crash? That was no mistake. It was built to thrill. The Lone Ranger is a terrific film, boldly conceived and executed to subvert expectations. Instead of viewing the film as a failed version of what it's not, trying to fit the film into boxes - modern summer blockbuster, live-action Disney movie - into which it refuses to fit easily, it's far better to view and enjoy the film as it is.

Note: A second viewing also sharpened the plot for me. Scenes that I found a little confused at first are improved with the full knowledge of what's to come, a clarity that extends to some of Tonto's seemingly nonsense dialogue, which, when viewed within the full context, reveals that he's generally a step ahead of the Lone Ranger, and the audience as well.
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