Monday, September 30, 2013

Coming to New Conclusions: DON JON


The title character in Don Jon is a big fan of his routine. An image conscious guy in his late twenties, he goes to the gym, to his bartending job, to the clubs, to church, to confession, to Sunday dinners with his family. He projects confidence and swagger that’s too good to be true. In fact, it is. He never really connects with another person, chasing women with his friends every night, but finding more enjoyment in seeing pictures of women online. They, after all, never ask anything of him. His approach to relationships is so simplistic and one-sided you know from frame one the movie is going to be about finding Jon a new, healthier way of approaching the world. That Jon is so confident in his delusions and superficial understandings of the way the world works makes him not pitiable, but somehow worth cheering for. I wanted him to improve and find true happiness. He’s just that charming.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jon is a fun character to spend 90 minutes with as he slowly makes his way towards a better view of the world (and the women) around him. Gordon-Levitt also writes and directs, making Don Jon a one-man show of sorts. But instead of the movie becoming a tired case of a talented actor taking on too much in an attempt to create a vanity project, he has instead made a fairly generous movie that’s willing to throw attention to welcome supporting parts. He gave himself a fun part to play, but also provided his game cast of talented and sometimes underutilized performers nice little turns of their own. As his parents, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly commit to charmingly broad stereotypes of New Jersey Irish Americans, cooking up pasta and wondering when he’ll find a nice girl and settle down. His younger sister is played by Brie Larson in a largely silent performance that’s nonetheless full of personality. The scenes of the family together are full of charm.

Elsewhere, the plot’s main turns hinge on Jon’s relationships with women. The first is a supremely attractive good girl he meets while clubbing. She’s easily a 10, he tells his buddies as he sets out to play “the long game” to get her, sending her a Facebook message and inviting her to coffee. You know, starting slow. She’s played by Scarlett Johansson as a woman who is used to getting what she wants. And what she wants now is Jon, on her own terms and at her own pace. Even though she’s gorgeous and he’s over the moon to be dating her, he finds he can’t stay away from all those pretty girls whose images are only a click away. Rapid-fire montage of Pavlovian computer noises – the Apple startup tone becoming a call to action of sorts – takes us inside Jon’s addictive need for what’s on the other end of that googling.

Part character study, part romantic comedy, both slide sideways into an addiction/recovery dramedy that threatens to turn purely judgmental before pulling back into something a tad more reasonable. His addiction to pornography intersects with and eventually derails his perfect compartmentalized routines, forcing him to take a good look at his understanding of women and images thereof. It’s ultimately a kinder more compassionate film than you might initially think. The problem is not that he likes images of naked women; it’s that he’s lost all perspective about what those images mean. It’s not about perfecting a disciplined routine, but knowing when it’s healthiest to break from it. It’s not about objectification so much as it is about moving past initial appearances. It’s not that he’s a bad person. He simply needs to learn how to interact with actual women. To paraphrase actual dialogue, he needs to truly lose himself in another person and let that person get lost in him.

At a night class he meets a woman who helps him understand all of the above. She’s played by Julianne Moore in a decent performance that’s dedicated to enlivening a character who is purely a plot point personified. That’s too bad, and too convenient, but every character, from Don Jon on down exists here to be nothing more than vivid sketch characters of broad impact and light tone. It handles some strong material with a light hand, drawing swift cultural observation (note Jon’s perspective on rom-coms) with a wink and a grin. Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing exhibits so much of the charm, confidence, and swagger of his character that the movie’s a largely enjoyable experience. It’s a charismatic debut feature, one that shows he’s certainly a promising talent on both sides of the camera. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Talk it Out: ENOUGH SAID


If simply stated, the story of Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said could sound like a movie that would lend itself to flailing misunderstandings in service of an Idiot Plot. In it, a middle-aged woman finds herself with a new friend and a new boyfriend and then proceeds to get herself in a situation in which she can’t tell one that she knows the other and vice versa. Now she must juggle the two new relationships without letting the one spoil the other. It’s a quandary that could easily be played with broad implausibility, but instead becomes both understandable and funny through the precision of the writing and performances. Holofcener’s script is smartly written, perceptive in the way it teases out characters’ worries and preoccupations without going too big or too small. It’s a film that’s just right.

As a writer-director, Holofcener has an easy, comfortably verbal way of exploring emotional terrains that feel relatively normal. Potential for high drama remains subdued and situations seemingly primed for broad comedy never quite ignites with silliness. Most of her characters here and in films like her debut Walking and Talking (1996) and her wonderful Please Give (2010) would rather not experience feelings that’d knock them too far beyond even keel. They just want to be happy, feel good about their positions in life, and have good relationships with friends and family. These films present this struggle to either stay there or get there in ways that feel natural. In Enough Said, Holofcener positions her main character, a divorced middle-aged masseuse played winningly by the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in the middle of changes to her life. Taking a night off from dealing with an emotionally distant 18-year-old daughter (Tracey Fairaway) who is going away to college soon, she goes to a party where she meets both a nice guy (the late James Gandolfini) who will become her boyfriend and a new client (Catherine Keener) who will become her friend. She’s happy, at first.

The film develops into a light, modest movie about adults having adult problems that arrive more or less believably and are resolved in patient and relatively mature ways. That’s a treat. Holofcener pushes situations forward with bright, sunny cinematography and dialogue that crackles with unhurried natural wit that never feels overwritten. The film is breezy and delicate in the ways it allows the actors to let situations develop and punchlines land harder for not seeming to be punchlines in the first place. There’s fine observation in the comedy that’s airy without seeming superfluous. Louis-Dreyfuss has such ease on camera playing a woman who is relatively confident, but finds her relationships taking on complications she didn’t expect. Her scenes with Gandolfini are the highlight of the picture. His performance is terrific, tender and warm with understated heft. They have an extraordinarily unforced chemistry that’s prickly and flirtatious without seeming overtly giddy or extreme. They’re simply two divorced middle-aged professionals slowly growing fond of each other date after date. It feels so very grown up, and all the more romantic for not trying to be romantic.

Not quite a romantic comedy, the focus is instead on Louis-Dreyfuss as she navigates her many relationships. As her new friend, Keener projects a kindness and a neediness beneath her earthy poet persona that makes it easy to see why she wouldn’t be a friend one would feel eager to lose. It’s important for the balance of the plot that we not care more about a romance with Gandolfini than a friendship with Keener, and it’s to the actors’ and Holofcener’s credit that these characters each feel important in their own ways. Elsewhere, Louis-Dreyfuss has great scenes with old friends (a bristly married couple played by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone) and her daughter’s best friend (Tavi Gevinson). That relationship is especially fascinating, as this teen pulls closer to her friend’s mom even as the daughter pulls away. As an ensemble, the cast feels cohesive, never distracting from the major performance at the center, but adding nicely sketched minor notes of richness. It is with this richness that Holofcener creates a smart comedy that is light, satisfying and so intelligently performed and skillfully written that it doesn’t feel as light as it is.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Leftovers: CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2


A major asset of 2009’s zippy pleasure Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was its sense of surprise. It was an unexpected treat in the form of a zany hilarious contraption of imagination and heart. The bouncily, colorfully animated story of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and his food-generating invention (the FLDSMDFR) that goes very right, then very wrong, is a mile-a-minute joke machine running on slapstick, puns, and running gags of every kind imaginable. The premise was wacky – weather that rains food onto a goofy small town – and the breakneck pacing and deep down heartfelt characterization only helped elevate it into a glorious cartoony experience. Now, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is not and maybe never could’ve been the total surprise delight of the original. But there’s almost enough diverting silliness here all the same. It is in many ways more conventional and subdued. To say it has half the laughs sounds like an insult until you remember the overwhelming number and variety of jokes that were packed into its predecessor.

Starting exactly eight minutes after the end of Cloudy, the sequel finds Flint and all the citizens of Swallow Falls awestruck by a famous inventor and C.E.O of multinational tech corporation Live Corp. helicoptering into their wrecked food-covered town. Chester V (Will Forte), as limber as he is rich, pays to relocate the townspeople while his crews of researchers clean up the island. Eagerly accepting the offer, the characters move on with their new lives. Six months later, though, clean up hasn’t made much progress because the FLDSMDFR somehow survived the first film and has generated an entire island ecosystem of mutant food. Meanwhile, Flint is having trouble getting promoted out of his entry level position at Chester’s company, so he jumps at his boss’s offer to travel back to island and find the rogue invention and shut down the jungle of “Foodimals” before they can reach the mainland and wreak chewy havoc.

Off Flint goes, with his dad (James Caan), meteorologist girlfriend (Anna Faris), and pet monkey (Neil Patrick Harris), as well as a cameraman (Benjamin Bratt), a chicken-loving bully-turned-friend (Andy Samberg), and the town’s policeman (Terry Crews). A sort of pun-heavy riff on Jurassic Park, the plot of Cloudy 2 finds our intrepid protagonists trudging through a jungle of fruits and veggies, running into all manner of monstrous (and cute) food creatures: smiling berries, grumpy pickles, elephantine melons, a gargantuan “taco-dile,” and hamburger spiders with French fry legs and poppy seed eyes. I especially liked a brief glimpse of a snake with a slice of pie for a head and a Twizzlers tail. Unlike its predecessor's joyfully overcooked disaster movie spoof, this is more of a light kiddie adventure with a dusting of smile-worthy winks to keep things lightly comedic. The characters are appealing and the visual design is delicious. It’s the screenplay cooked up by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, and Erica Rivinoja (with story credits for Chris Miller and Phil Lord) that could’ve used more time in the oven.

Though even at its most obvious, there are elements that tickled me. The creatures are imaginatively designed and good for fun puns. I enjoyed the not-so-subtle dichotomy of organic goodness versus processed factory food evil that simmers underneath the proceedings. Live Corp is in the tradition of deceptively benign movie corporations that hide evil intentions in cavernous rooms populated by anonymous white lab coats busying themselves with unknown scientific tinkerings. I mean, Chester V’s assistant (Kristen Schaal) is an orangutan with a human brain implanted inside her own. He’s clearly up to no good, even without the most heavy-handed mustache-twirling foreshadowing in the opening scene. (Given the way the rest of the movie plays out, I wonder if that moment was put in specifically to defuse what would’ve otherwise been a little plot twist.)

But compared to the densely hilarious framing and sturdy script of its predecessor, Cloudy 2 feels thinner than it should. (Compared to, say, Turbo or Planes, however, it doesn’t look so bad.) The plotting plays out more or less exactly as you’d expect, with largely easy lessons that don’t really threaten to become anything too emotionally impactful. Pair that with the sparser joke population and the whole thing bakes into a flavorful concoction that could use a bigger does of sugar to get truly tasty. Still, there’s enough imagination in the creatures and silliness in the execution to make the time pass amiably enough. It is, after all, not every day you see a movie with a subplot in which a man teaches a bunch of pickles how to fish. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not Just Money: INEQUALITY FOR ALL


With the economy still struggling, it’s a shame that many are so fundamentally misinformed, content to coast on bumper sticker slogans and free floating generalized dissatisfaction, especially when many of those people happen to be stagnating in Congress or bloviating on 24-hour cable news. And so it is most welcome to find that Inequality for All, moderately snarky title aside, is about as warm, clear-eyed and accessible an economics documentary you could hope for. Its zippy, comprehensive approach outlines the economic history of the United States in brisk, smartly told ways, showing the factors that led to periods of growth and decline, elbowing past empty political rhetoric to get at the kinds of sensible, fact-based, empathic solutions that just might save us yet.

Our host is Robert Reich, professor, economist, author, and Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. He may be 4’11’’, but his presence in this film looms large. He’s the kind of guy who is impressively intelligent, a perception made all the more impressive for how lightly and humbly he wears his considerable smarts and how easily he makes complicated issues digestible for the masses. That’s not to say he dumbs down the material. Rather, he allows, with a relatable relaxed tone and an unexpectedly humorous tickle in his talking points, an audience to reach and grasp concepts that turn out to be not so intimidating at all. This is a film of facts and figures, charts and graphs, and heaping helpings of economic history, but it never once feels confounding. It also helps that it never feels misrepresented. Reich isn’t out to demonize individual political actors. He simply and patiently outlines the facts, lamenting political stubbornness and cynicism while promoting understanding and empathy as cornerstones of economic policy.

Through appealingly designed graphics – like a souped-up PowerPoint presentation – and cutaways to talking head interviews and human interest anecdotes, director Jacob Kornbluth surrounds Reich with the kind of shiny issue picture gloss that helps illuminate key points. Slick to a fault, and sometimes boring cinematically, this is never less than a fantastic edutainment package. It lays out the undeniable fact that in the last thirty years the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the gap between the two has grown staggeringly cavernous. Because this trend matches up so perfectly with Reich’s career as a prominent thinker on such matters, a framework of his biographical information provides a nice background layer, fleshing out what otherwise would have only been an incredibly charming host. Reich becomes not just a guy with the knowledge to impart, but a thoroughly humanized expert who makes for pleasant company.

Built around his “Wealth and Poverty” course at U.C. Berkeley, the film is a lecture in the best sense of the word. It’s conversational, welcoming, and professorial in a relatable, even entertaining, way. This could all have been so heavy handed, sad and pessimistic. But because Reich is both so knowledgeable and seems so upbeat in the face of a dreary economic present, the film takes on his charge of hopeful energy and erudite insight. Our country’s path towards a more equitable financial future is ready and waiting, he says. We simply need the political will and societal urging to get us moving in that direction. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Captive Audience: PRISONERS

The tension in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners slowly descends like a ton of bricks arriving methodically in the pit of your stomach. It’s nominally a thriller, but the thrill is more of a sick dread that creeps and lingers. Shots are still, the soundtrack is hushed, and the pace unhurried. When the central question the mystery turns upon is the whereabouts of two missing little girls, a sense of patience is the worst, ominous development. This film – eventually stretching out over two hours and thirty minutes of screen time – is not in a hurry. It makes you sit and wonder as the parents fret and mourn and the police go down the checklist, calling out searches, knocking on doors, chasing down the few leads they can scrounge up.

At the start, all is normal. We meet two families, friends and neighbors who are sharing a Thanksgiving meal. While the parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) chat after dinner, their respective teens (Dylan Minnette and Zoe Soul) watch TV, and the two little girls (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) play outside. Later, when they can’t be found, one of the teens notices that a camper parked outside a nearby house has vanished as well. It’s the only clue they have. A detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in to start the investigation. Each day that passes, the chances of finding the girls at all, let alone alive, diminishes. The stakes couldn’t be any clearer, or more severe. The events are told clearly, with compact images that tell a story of crisply and quickly escalating tension.

What follows is a work of strong acting and filmmaking, ready to dig around in the darkness of its subject matter without a hint of prurient interest. It’s humorless, dour, and unrelentingly gray. Unlike the typical abduction-revenge template, the film does not devolve into mindless vigilantism and easy answers. In fact, it struggles with those questions, playing around in a darker, marginally more realistic register. Bello, Howard, and Davis are convincing in the details of feeling helpless and mournful, hoping against hope that the little girls will be found safe and alive. But they fall to the sideline somewhat as Jackman’s frustrated rage, clenched jaw and steely eyes, and Gyllenhaal’s anxious professionalism, complete with a blinking nervous tic, take center stage. This is no head-smashing revenge fantasy a la Taken no matter how many times Jackman shouts, “Where’s my daughter?” It’s icy and slow, full of frustrating dead ends.

The guy in the camper (Paul Dano) is caught and detained for questioning, but is let go when no evidence is found connecting him to the disappearance. Frustrated, Jackman howls at the police and roughs up the man, who looks and behaves odd enough that it’s hard for him to seem innocent, even if he is. The script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) becomes an intricate web of clues and plot turns at times as cumbersome as it is satisfying in a grim, intensely felt procedural. The plot has all the pulpy makings of a revenge thriller, a missing-person mystery, but in the seriousness of intent and high quality shine of every aspect of the production, it avoids the easy pleasures of the genre, thwarting catharsis by sticking close to wounded performances of frustrated characters kept for long stretches without a clue. Prisoners becomes a title that takes on metaphoric weight for every character, every one a prisoner of duty, pride, mourning, circumstance.

Sequences of great dread find dim light pouring through dark doorways, flashlights illuminating crime scenes. There’s specificity and a spare hard-bitten beauty to the imagery that’s tactile. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots crisp, chilly images that crackle with late autumn shivers. I could almost feel the dampness of an early December drizzle, smell the decaying leaves crusted over with a tentative layer of frost, sense the chill as a misting rain shifts into snow flurries. There’s a scene late in the film involving a car speeding through traffic during a late night rainstorm that sends stoplights, headlights, cop lights, and raindrops glowing and smearing in frames that are as tense and gorgeous as any I’ve seen on film this year. It’s a clear case of expert craftsmanship elevating a screenplay that in lesser hands could’ve fallen into flabbiness and silliness.

The story takes on more weight than it can handle. Coincidences pile up and by the end it’s nearly too much. It resolves all-too neatly, falling into Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters by the end. But it’s so well made in every other respect, it’s better than it is. It’s a movie that starts great and ends merely solid. The intensity and consistency of Villeneuve’s approach, the tough performances, and steady framing keep the story engaging and absorbing. I simply needed to see how the mystery resolved, even if by the end it was a matter of encroaching impatience mixing with genuine curiosity on my part. This is an overwhelmingly tense, deliberately paced thriller that’s ultimately a bit more familiar than the foreboding opening and morally muddy middle suggests. It’s not as good as it looks, but it’s more than good enough, judging by the gasps rolling through the theater at key twists, to hold an audience captive the entire time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Music of the Heart: SING ME THE SONGS THAT SAY I LOVE YOU: A CONCERT FOR KATE MCGARRIGLE


Folk singer Kate McGarrigle died in 2010 at the age of 63, leaving behind a terrific body of work and a talented family of musicians. In 2011, in a New York City concert hall, a concert was performed in her honor. Singing her songs were her son and daughter, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, as well as her sister, Anna McGarrigle. Other guests included Emmylous Harris, Norah Jones, and, among many more, Jimmy Fallon, singing their hearts out in memory of the one who wrote the songs. The event was captured on film and put together by director Lian Lunson. The resulting concert documentary, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle, isn't much of a movie, but it sure is a great concert. It's not often that I find myself wanting to turn off a movie's picture and just listen to the soundtrack instead.

The music, so tenderly written, so expressively performed, is transporting and enjoyable. It's all of a rather similar tone and cadence, a folksy wit and carefully strummed instrumentation calling out with clarity that the songs are from the same career, sprung from the same mind. I suppose the disclaimer here is that if it's not the kind of music you go for, it'll get repetitive fast. I happen to love this style of music, so I was willing to go with it. Several old favorites are trotted out. Her kids sing "First Born," with its charming lyrics about a first-born son: "That first born son is always the one / The first to be called and the last to come." Jimmy Fallon sings "Swimming Song" - "This summer I went swimming / This summer I nearly drowned" - which fits his persona well. Rufus, one of many singing "Prosperina," one of the last songs she ever wrote, has tears rolling down his face as they circle the haunting refrain "Come home to mama."

The songs are lovely and the mood is appropriately mournful. It seems like a good concert and a moving tribute to a mother, musician, and friend taken away by cancer. But as cinema it's uneven and clumsily packaged. The stage is shot simply for coverage in footage that switches between color and black and white arbitrarily. Context is largely absent, with sparsely commented upon home movies of Kate's younger years spliced into the concert footage. Lunson is in the same instance doing too much and not enough to material that's inherently powerful and entertaining. Either give us the events plain and simple unadorned or give us the full biographical context. Stuck hesitantly between, the movie feels overlong and unsure of its purpose.

That said, the star of the show is Kate McGarrigle's music, strong and powerful, and the friends and family breathing new life into her words and melodies. There's not much need to see the movie, but it's sure worth hearing. Available now on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, XBox, Playstation, Google Play, Youtube, and SundanceNow, it'd be worth renting a stream just to listen. I'd recommend the soundtrack album over that, but on the chance you want to see the concert, the movie's your only option. Besides, with just the sound you'd miss the emotion on the faces of the singers, smiling through tears, keeping their mother's, sister's, friend's music alive. There's a devastating anecdote snuck in at the last minute in which Rufus and Martha tell of their mother's final moments alive, surrounded by family, playing an old recording of her children as children singing a Christmas carol she had taught them. She died as she lived, with love and song.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things Still Going Bump in the Night: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2


A group of paranormal investigators have broken into the long abandoned home of a deceased serial killer. One of them slowly approaches a dusty chest latched shut in a creaky corner, arms outstretched to open the mysterious storage unit. That’s when a lady in the audience shouted, “That’s probably not a good idea!” That made me laugh, mostly because of her qualifying the statement with a “probably.” It’s most definitely a bad idea to do anything in the long abandoned home of a deceased serial killer, especially if you’re in a horror movie, most especially if you’re in a horror movie as dutifully predictable as Insidious: Chapter 2. It’s the kind of movie that, when a flutter of white fabric flits through a doorway deep in the background and Barbara Hershey nervously calls out “Renai?” you can be completely and totally sure that that’s not Renai at the end of the hall.

James Wan directs from collaborator Leigh Whannell’s screenplay, using the jumbled, thoroughly extraneous sequel to their original film as nothing more than an excuse to show us some of the inventory in his bag of horror filmmaking tricks. To be sure, Wan did that with their creepy Insidious in 2011 as well as his even scarier The Conjuring this summer. In Insidious: Chapter 2, however, we have nothing more than a rehashing and recapitulation of the previous film in ways that are theoretically interesting, but are in practice rather hollow. All the tricks in the world couldn’t have saved this movie that’s only interested in picking up where the story left off, finding ways to repeat what came before, echoing or outright restaging from different perspectives all the best scares from the first film on its way to a similar conclusion.  

As the pre-credit jump scare at the end of Insidious implied, after rescuing one of their sons (Ty Simpkins) from the clutches of an evil ghost in a shadowy spirit world, Renai (Rose Byrne) suspects her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) returned with a possessive evil clinging to him. Chapter 2 picks up shortly thereafter, as Josh tries to convince his wife that moving into his childhood home with his mother (Hershey) will help them move on. She’s not buying it, especially as ghosts appear frequently in ways she recognizes from the first time. It feels like what the second half of a far-too-overlong version of the original film would’ve entailed. If the first was in some ways a riff on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, this is most definitely a Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Sequels mean never having to say it’ll never happen again. Here, it all happens again.

There are mysterious noises, startling apparitions, slamming doors, bleats of punctuating orchestration, portentous dreams, a return of the bumbling tech-head ghost hunters (Whannell and Angus Sampson), and loud, sudden ghostly activity. It’s all so very familiar, sometimes reusing footage of the first film in moderately clever ways. But it proceeds with a sadly draining sense of repetition. In the first film, scary things happen to frightened people. This time, frightened people happen to scary things, a small but important shift. Since the hauntings have followed the characters from the first time, they have more agency and information. Rather than using that to catch on more quickly to what’s happening and use the knowledge of the first film in sharp ways, the plot requires the main characters to blindly stumble into similar troubles while side characters set off on an investigation into a spooky boarded-up hospital and an eerie abandoned house. I suppose I don’t mind that on principle, but did they have to go in at night armed only with low-wattage flashlights and a set of woo woo spirit-communication dice? It’s like they knew that’d be the creepiest way to go about it.

After getting his first big break with the inventive, but icky for icky’s sake, 2004 feature Saw, Wan has slowly but surely become a confident horror director. He plays on fears by foregrounding what’s inside and outside of the frame, moving the camera in sometimes-masterful ways to reveal scares and withhold jolts until the tension of not getting a shock is almost unbearable. But here he’s putting his talents to use with awfully thin material, cheaply repetitive and recycled, not just from its own predecessor, but from a whole host of horror tropes. The whole thing is shivery, but never truly scary, with jump scares that can’t even make it to the level of a jolt. In its entirety, it is less frightening than any given five minute stretch of The Conjuring. It’s the kind of stale regurgitation that gives horror sequels a bad name.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Divorcing the Mob: THE FAMILY


Luc Besson’s The Family is an odd mix of tones, a dark comedy played lightly with violence laughed off right up until we’re supposed to take it seriously. The premise is a fish-out-of-water goof about a Brooklyn family with a mobster patriarch (Robert De Niro), his mob wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage daughter (Dianna Agron) and son (John D’Leo) put in witness protection under the watch of an FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) who begrudgingly relocates them every time good old dad reverts back to mob rage and blows his cover. Their latest stop is in a small town in Normandy, France. It’s clear right away that the family doesn’t fit in. Their first day involves lying (dad’s), arson (mom’s), and run-ins with bullying classmates (the teens’). How to fit in? The FBI’s official suggestion is to throw a barbeque and invite the neighbors. But of course the real danger is the team of hitmen on their trail, sent to kill the four of them by a mob boss who sits in jail because of their testimony. One hitman guns down a family in the opening scene, emerging gun-first out of a cloud of smoke. We know these guys mean business.

And yet this threat sits on the outskirts of the story as the movie concerns itself mainly with the family’s earnest attempts to stay out of trouble. De Niro can’t shake the need to get things done by threatening those who refuse to execute his demands in a timely and respectful matter. His wife scolds him, thinking he’s killed the plumber, but he assures her that he merely broke some bones and took him to the hospital straightaway. See? Better already. He spends his days at a typewriter, writing a memoir of his mob life that Jones gravely informs him should never be published. It’s not about an audience for this patriarch. It’s therapeutic. Meanwhile, his wife and kids try their hardest to live normal lives in unfamiliar surroundings. His wife goes to church, his daughter gets a crush on a student teacher, and his son schemes his way into his school’s black market. It’s a film about a wacky big city American crime family clashing with a slow-paced European country town and all the stereotypes you’d think that implies.

We’ve all been down this road before, including some of the cast. De Niro, so good in so many crime pictures from Heat, Goodfellas and The Godfather Part II to tongue-in-cheek spins on his gangster persona like Analyze This, here plays out a character that coasts on this recognition. He’s the wise guy who may be retired, but he still powers through every situation with intimidation and four-letter words. Pfeiffer, no stranger to being Married to the Mob, has great composed frustration bubbling beneath the surface, a complicated indignity towards her current situation she sublimates into motherly instincts. She even makes food for the agents watching the house. When she finally agrees (after assurances of confidentiality) to let the local priest hear her confession, she seems to surprise even herself by that decision. Jones can do the wrinkled stoic exasperation required of him in his sleep, which he might be here for all I could tell. The younger actors, as mob teens playing out scheming and beatings in otherwise typical teen scenarios, acquit themselves nicely.

The characters are purely cardboard, but at least the cardboard is painted with vibrant colors. The leads are appealing and, though the supporting cast doesn’t pop as much as I would’ve liked, there are still plenty of funny little asides coloring in the details. The FBI minders debate the respective merits of French and Italian cuisine. Two mobster hitmen solemnly debate killing a dog they find at a crime scene. “Boss said no witnesses,” one reasons. The priest asks Pfeiffer to leave church property saying, “Your confession has haunted me all week.” The best moment is a bit of metatextual silliness that finds De Niro sitting in a French theater watching a Scorsese movie in which De Niro is one of the co-stars. It’s not only a sequence of nested winks, but a plot point that (in conjunction with a montage of strained coincidences) kicks off the climax. In the end, it’s a movie about how the family that kills together stays together, or how you can take the man out of the mob, but not the mob out of the man. Or something like that.

For a long stretch, the film has too many plates spinning, if only because it often forgets a subplot and lets it drop away, but the likability of the ensemble and eccentricity of the off-beat plotting keeps the proceedings amiable enough. It’s all cheeky, violent, and with largely slipshod comical stakes until the climax when the action kicks up in earnest. French director and co-writer Luc Besson has always been a director better with creating concepts than fleshing them out. His visual energy carried sometimes-flimsy material early on in his career (like The Professional or especially The Fifth Element). It makes a certain amount of sense that he’s spent the last decade or so working mainly as a producer and co-writer on an astonishing number of projects. He’s serving as a sort of cultural ambassador and mentor for French action filmmakers (Louis Leterrier, Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton, Chris Nahon) attempting to import themselves to Hollywood. In The Family, France and Hollywood are explicitly bumping into each other and that’s fun, but isn’t explored to its full potential. Besson gives the film a sense of off-kilter energy, but the plotting ultimately feels familiar and a tad too slight, no matter the nice-enough work of the cast and occasional splashes of darkly funny dialogue and visual playfulness. I can’t quite recommend it, but have some appreciation for what it does well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lush Life: THE SPECTACULAR NOW


The Spectacular Now is filled with fine performances that make big impacts. It’s not just the leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as two teens in love or something close to it, who generate an emotional interest. I found even greater emotion in the faces of the character actors playing the adults around them. As a small business owner with fatherly feelings towards his teenage employee, Bob Odenkirk has only a scene or two, but generates an amazingly resonant and memorable presence. Similarly, when Kyle Chandler shows up late in the picture as a deadbeat dad, the sense of strained affection and inescapable personal failings is palpable. There’s a seriousness to the brief scenes with these men that extend to the film’s approach to capturing performances.

Director James Ponsoldt shoots the film with a sense of specificity and atmospherics, using a widescreen frame to grab intimate close-ups and spacious two-shots that register small shifts of emotions across a vast stretch of screen space. When the high school seniors played by Teller and Woodley go on their first date – he, an overconfident life-of-the-party guy; she, an introverted bookish type – the impression of the emotional terrain is vivid and subtly expressed. There are shifting feelings, of testing out the other, of hesitantly pressing forward and retreating, unable to reveal too much without feeling self-conscious about it, but plunging forward anyway. It’s all too real.

And yet, no matter how finely acted and well-crafted a film it is, Spectacular Now is ultimately nothing more than a dreary addiction drama embellished with uncommonly truthful performances, but ending up in the same place, walking over the same well-trod after-school-special plot beats we’ve seen before. Teller’s seemingly carefree kid is a not-so-secret alcoholic, wielding his spiked SuperGulp as a perpetual source of his next sip. Particular attention is paid to the way he’ll grab a red Solo cup at a kegger, pushes beers on his girlfriend, and traces his way back through the mixed signals from his most recent ex (Brie Larson) who is more simpatico with his drinking habits. His romantic prom-night gift to Woodley is an engraved flask. How sweet. It’s like Flight without the sensational plane crash sequence. Instead, we’re watching a slow-motion crash, as a promising young guy can’t even see his promise.

The opening scene shows us a blank page of a college application essay. The hackneyed opening narration promises to fill us in on what he writes, but he quickly discards the endeavor in favor of partying. The frustration of watching this character is as raw as it is affected. Ponsoldt’s been here before, in his previous (and better) film Smashed, the story of an elementary school teacher trying to hide the dangerous drunken lifestyle of her off hours. There as here it’s all too easy for a film to grow repetitive as it glumly traces a character’s long, painful downward spiral. Smashed had a sense of focus that helped keep it on track. It also had a fantastic lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who also turns up in Spectacular Now as yet another of its few-scene wonders, playing Teller’s sober older sister. This film keeps alcoholism an ominous subplot, with romance foremost on its mind for a while. That the boy and girl Meet Cute when he wakes up hungover with no idea as to his location is certainly an unpromising start and a key to the film’s real concerns.

Like a Cameron Crowe movie without the killer soundtrack or a John Hughes movie without the cheerfully archetypical yet somehow convincing teenagers, Spectacular Now wears its heart on its sleeve. Unlike those directors’ films, it’s only so convincing, without ever quite finding its own approach. The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who brought a clever (some might say too clever, but I digress) approach to young love with (500) Days of Summer, here adapt a novel by Tim Tharp, finding ways to tone down the emotion of love without misplacing heart. It’s certainly an earnest film, shaggy and spirited in a low-key, hangout kind of way. That the film flirts with dullness, occasionally growing drab and slow, is its price to pay. Some of the best scenes are the ones that simply unspool, painfully mundane dialogue exchanged between a boy and a girl eager to impress the other and quickly finding a comfort that allows their energy levels to merge.

They push each other in ways both good and bad. That all feels true. For some time the film gives equal weight to their plights, their single mothers (his Jennifer Jason Leigh, hers Whitney Goin), their dreams, ambitions, and attraction to one another. The interior lives of both boy and girl are balanced nicely. But because he’s the alcoholic, and the film in the end is far more interested in his struggle with that, she’s slowly diminished in importance until she becomes just a plot device. I’d say she’s literally thrown under the bus, but that’s not exactly true. (It’s a truck.) We so rarely get films genuinely interested in the interior lives of girls, let alone a girl like this. To go to so much trouble creating such believable characters in an even-handed way and end up downplaying one of them for the sake of formulaic Lessons Learned, for a character who is far more familiar, is frustrating. This is a film with considerable sensitivity and a fine cast, but which puts it to use on a plot that takes its time getting to much the same places any other less talent-rich after-school-special would go.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Old is New Again: BLANCANIEVES


Unlike 2011’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is more than a pleasant pastiche or an amiable gimmick. It’s nothing less than elemental cinema, an exhumation of silent film that rings deep and true. Berger knows that a film without the spoken word and without color is not necessarily a film that lacks, but has the potential to gain. With clarity of vision and crispness of beautiful black and white photography, the film has a purity of purpose that’s enveloping and sumptuous. It’s a gothic fable with marvelously archetypical characters and a thin, but splendidly detailed and vividly visualized plot. Here is a film that creates its own universe so persuasively and completely with images so rich and welcome that I felt at times as if the movie were being projected directly into my brain. It’s well worth seeing quite not because it is perfect, but simply because there’ll surely be nothing else like it anytime soon.

It starts with a grand flourish of melodrama as a bull gores a famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho) while his pregnant wife sits in the stands. They’re both rushed to the hospital where she dies in childbirth and he, despondent, ends up in the arms of his nurse (Maribel Verdu). The nurse turns out to be a cruel stepmother who, some years later, makes his little girl (Sofía Oria) sleep in the basement on a pile of coal. Life in a mansion, a house of swooping architecture casting German Expressionist shadows, is both a wonderment and a menace to the girl, who gets into innocent trouble that’s met with Grimm cruelty from a stepmother who refuses to even acknowledge her humanity. The plot grows, spanning years, complicating to include tragic accidents, malicious murderous intent, conspicuous celebrity-aspirant consumption, and a wandering band of seven circus dwarves who are ready and eager to help a young woman become a famous matador.

It’s gradually apparent this is a reworking of Snow White, decked out in early-20th century Spain’s trappings. Rather than subverting or commenting on the tropes it evokes, like other recent Snow White adaptations, Blancanieves creates a narrative that’s as deep, dark, and resonant as the Grimm fable that inspires it. There’s an intense focus on our Snow White, Carmen, the little girl who must avoid the wrath of her stepmother as she slowly learns for herself the truth about her father and grows into a talent for bullfighting that becomes her consuming passion. The camera sticks close to her, the editing quick to fill us in on her emotions. She’s so sweet and sympathetic, it’d be hard not to get involved in her plight. One terrific scene concerns a mischievous pet chicken that becomes a pawn in the struggle of wills between child and stepmother and meets a torturous end.

Berger gives the plotting an easy sweep that takes us from the child’s young years into her young adulthood, finding ways to allow the central tragedies and failures of the adults to reverberate through Carmen’s life. Moments of broad comedy and high stakes coexist comfortably in the grand, richly embellished style of the whole. Even though it ends up somewhere unexpected, leaving me a little uneasy  – a sharp turn into tragedy ends the film on a low-key note of moving and beguiling macabre – it’s all of a piece. Still, I’d have preferred the film had ended before the events of its final five, or even ten, minutes. Those minutes leave the film in a sour, haunting place that sits uneasily in my memory. But the film is so very good for so long, a quibble with the conclusion only goes so far.

Though I’ve praised Berger’s filmmaking, a word or two must also be said for the performers who bring these impeccably storyboarded sequences to life. The acting from all concerned is broad and nuanced. Verdu, as the flamboyantly villainous stepmother, is darkly kinky in her movements, whereas the daughter (first Oria, then Macarena García) is sweet and open, with a smooth honesty of expression. As the wounded father, Cacho creates a still sense of a man who may be partially healed, but never feels whole. These are performances that are evocative of the best of silent acting, without ever feeling in that same league. They’re precise and resonant, nebulously modern in a precisely calibrated old-fashioned package. In exquisitely storyboarded sequences of great emotion, these actors are the soul.

Berger confidently draws upon old storytelling traditions, whether they are from a century - silent films - or many centuries - fairy tales - ago to create something that’s at once classical and modern. The lush, ceaseless score by Alfonso de Vilallonga in inspired equally by the sounds of studio Hollywood orchestrations and the energetic claps and resonantly plucked guitar of flamenco. In imagery and tone there are wisps of bold F.W. Murnau shadows and light and Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language girl’s-eye-view fantasies, a sense of stirring cinematic synthesis that creates a vision all its own. As astonishing as it is welcome, Berger has given us one of the most welcome, confidently playful throwbacks in recent memory. Instead of coasting on the nostalgia of easy homage, he has used the old to give us something new.

Friday, September 6, 2013

RIDDICK, Again


I appreciate that Vin Diesel likes playing Richard B. Riddick (yes, that’s his full name) and writer-director David Twohy likes making movies about this character. I also appreciate that, between 2000’s lean genre exercise Pitch Black and 2004’s cracked space opera sequel Chronicles of Riddick, the world of Riddick remains largely unexplored. If there are two things that are too often missing from sci-fi filmmaking these days it’s enthusiasm and originality. These movies are certainly all set there. I should like these movies. Diesel has charisma and Twohy, whose last feature was 2009's twisty murderers-on-the-run thriller A Perfect Getaway, knows his way around pulp. I totally get what should be fun about these movies, but I just don’t see it represented in what makes it on the screen. I can never shake the feeling that the universe remains unexplored in favor of thin little action beats that are endlessly repeated with a minimum amount of charm.

And yet I return to the Riddick universe dutifully, following Diesel and Twohy there in the hopes that this time they’ve cracked the code. The latest in the series, simply titled Riddick, continues the story of the tough, lonely Furyan. Twohy once again calls upon Diesel’s growling bass and ripped physique to play the not-quite-human being the Riddick fan wiki somewhat helpfully informs is “not necessarily superhuman” but who is nonetheless “stronger, faster, tougher, more resistant to pain, more agile.” He can see in the dark, which I guess falls under “posses acute senses.” He has “immense stamina, and [can] recover quicker and with more finality that most of the other human races.” I guess that explains why Riddick can survive a beating that would kill most anyone else. As the movie opens, he’s been tricked by a colleague for some reason and left for dead in the harsh wilderness of a deserted planet. In voice over he grimly informs us that he’s having a “bad day.”

For the duration of the film’s opening sequences, I was totally on board. There’s a tightness and a gristle to the spare survivalist sci-fi on display. Riddick fights off a pack of wolf-like creatures with lanky legs and zebra stripes, eventually winning a puppy over to his side to become his helpful pet. Other beasties, like a skull-shaped stinger snapping on the end of a slithering tail twisting on the rear of a stubby, slimy reptilian body, are definitely not potential friends. Riddick sets a broken bone in his leg and screws some armor into his shin as a makeshift cast. He makes shelter, goes hunting, and fashions some more appropriate wilderness clothing, that is when he’s not walking at night without it, silhouetted by the maroon moon. I half expected him to howl at it. There’s a largely wordless sense of despair and methodical no-nonsense survival about the film. If the film had stayed a sort of one-man sci-fi version of The Grey, it might’ve had a chance at being one of the best movies of the year.

Alas, in rides an ensemble of mercenaries to bring things down to a more easily digestible level. Riddick stumbles across and triggers an emergency beacon that beams his face across the galaxy, hoping to hijack a ride off the planet. One group, a rugged crew of nasty bounty hunters led by Jordi Mollà, arrives hoping to leave with Riddick’s head in a box and collect a reward that’s doubled if he’s brought back dead. The other group, a bunch of professionals including Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff and led by Matt Nable, is out to discover the truth about whatever happened in Pitch Black. That I couldn’t remember either generated perhaps more suspense around that plot point than the filmmakers intended. Riddick toys with the group, enflaming their fears and exacerbating tensions between the two crews in the hopes of sneaking away with one of the ships. It’s basically a cat and mouse plot with a bunch of tough mice and one very cool cat.

Once again the intriguing universe of sci-fi potential is grounded and squandered in rote thrills done generically and stale interactions between typical character types. The most anonymous people die quickly, the slimiest ones get their long-delayed comeuppances, and those who are nicest survive while Riddick himself lives to fight another day, of course. (Maybe.) The longer the movie goes, the more predictable and dull it becomes. Glimmers of suspense arrive. There’s a fun scene involving the bounty hunters debating whether or not Riddick has tampered with their own trap and thus worry that it might literally blow up in their faces. But then the moment passes to be drowned out by dialogue scripted with a tin ear, including an especially egregious bit of objectification late in the game that removed the last shred of my patience. Soon the whole thing devolves into endless sequences of shooting at creatures and hunting for spaceship parts. I suppose Riddick is only a small genre picture that doesn’t get up to much, but it’s far better the less it tries. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Purposely the Worst: SHARKNADO


To call Sharknado, arriving on Blu-ray and DVD today with the distinct feeling of having already missed its expiration date, the worst movie of the year is to give the filmmakers what they want. It's a movie cynically and tiresomely calibrated for maximum mediocrity, more a long chain of GIFs punctuated by agonizing boredom than anything even remotely adequate as cinema of any kind. In the list of things wrong with Sharknado - an uncommonly long list including such taken-for-granted technical details as color timing and sound mixing - none is more important to understanding its soul-sucking shoddiness than the mere fact that it doesn't even seem like a movie. This Syfy channel production – from the so-called mockbuster studio The Asylum – caught a wave of Twitter frenzy and rode a so-bad-it's-good storm to becoming a fad buzzword of the summer. I bet more people have riffed on the title, a clip, or the poster than ever actually sat through the whole thing. Sadly, that constitutes success in this case. Syfy has been up to this ultra-low-budget giggling for several years now – Sharktopus (2010), Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009) – but only this terrible thing truly took off in the most viral mainstream way.

So when I say that Sharknado is the worst movie of the year, know that I do not mean that as some sort of backwards praise. I do not mean to say that it did exactly what it wanted to do as if that were worth some begrudging admiration. This is not simply filmmaking at its most purposefully inept, but rather a blight on culture, a cynically intentional chunk of indigestible stupidity. To see once-somewhat-popular celebrities (Beverly Hills, 90210’s Ian Ziering, American Pie’s Tara Reid, character actor John Heard) shuffle through a storm of mid-90’s screensaver-quality chomping sharks flying through the air provides not a bit of entertainment or energy. It's simply sadness and boredom as disconnected bits of halfheartedly photographed nonsense, usually a shark falling from the sky and biting someone in a storm of CG blood, trade screen time with dialogue of the worst kind.

It's all so overdetermined and over-under-produced. If you have to try this hard to make a dumb, goofy, inept movie, you're doing it wrong. The thing is, making a movie is a challenging endeavor, let alone making a movie that's good or great. Why set out to make a terrible Sharknado on purpose? The premise is so inherently silly, what with its pack of sharks improbably alive and hungry swirling around in a tornado of astonishing longevity, that even a mediocre Sharknado would've been some kind of dumb fun. Look at Snakes on a Plane, which turned a jokey premise and a pre-release ironic online embrace into a reasonably diverting bit of creature feature fun simply because director David R. Ellis was making a movie first, a meme second. Here, director Anthony C. Ferrante and writer Thunder Levin had the potential meme in mind and proceeded to subtract from there.

Just look at the tagline: "Enough said!" I don't know what's worse, that the filmmakers believed their own hype or that a certain section of the population was ready to go along with it. When you look at the most notable so-bad-it's-good movies of recent years, you have such films as The Room and Birdemic. What makes those movies worth appreciating on some level is the degree of heart and purpose the filmmakers behind them clearly display. They come by their incompetence earnestly, honestly, accidentally. With something like Sharknado, the attempt to prefabricate a so-bad-it's-good aura around a project stinks of rank desperation. It's hard to get any movie made. Why settle for living down to the low expectations of your audience? Watching a tornado of sharks rain toothy danger on a town is not inherently dull or inherently unworkable, but what we have here is interminable and self-congratulatory in its excessive, purposeful incompetence. It leaves an awful aftertaste. Give me a movie that tries but fails over a movie that tries to fail any day.
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