Friday, December 27, 2013

Smell of Success: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


His first day working on Wall Street, young stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts an offer to go to lunch with his boss (Matthew McConaughey). Over a martini meal, the older, richer man imparts his basic rule of business: move your clients’ money to your pocket. Not long after that, the firm goes bust in the stock market dip of 1987. Out of work, Belfort doesn’t doubt that core ethos of finance his boss told him. Instead he gets right back in the game, building his own firm bundling penny stocks with blue chips and getting wealthy clients to buy. There are huge commissions off these risky bets. Belfort explains this to us in the narration that runs through The Wolf of Wall Street, but often stops and sneers that it’s all too complicated for us to understand. He has utter contempt for anyone with a paystub south of his. For him, complaining about his yearly salary consists of annoyance that it was just shy of a million a week. To celebrate an earnings milestone, his firm orders a marching band and strippers to march around the offices. As the bacchanal erupts, a secretary is held down and her head is shaved. She’s paid $10,000 for it, told to use the money to buy breast implants. Though Belfort announces before hand that she’s in on the joke, the camera hangs back and watches her clutching the stack of bills, her face awash with turbulent mixed emotions.

Martin Scorsese’s film is a raucous look at Belfort’s rise and the atmosphere of carousing frat boy cruelty that followed his addiction to greed and the enabling economy that allowed him to funnel ever more money after his other addictions: booze, cocaine, sex, pills, power. What Belfort and his crew did to accrue their massive fortunes was legal, at least for a while, and they felt entitled to it, pumping up stock prices artificially before selling them for a huge profit. They worked hard at all this quasi-legal money moving and partied harder. Belfort tells us “money makes you a better person” and really believes it. To him, wealth is proof he’s doing something good. The film sets up some opposition to his suffocating solipsism: his father (Rob Reiner), a blustering guy who tries to pull him back, at least when he’s not too tickled by the unrestrained behavior; and an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who is sure something is up with the brash new firm and steadfastly investigates. But the humanity etched on these paternal faces doesn’t sink into our narrator. Only Scorsese, with juxtapositions and cutaways, like to a quickly glimpsed crime scene photo of an employee’s future suicide, can cut through Belfort’s cheery smugness. His mindset, the aspirational affluenza of the gospel of prosperity, of monetary might making right, is not just his. It is a poisonous boil on the American psyche and Scorsese is working on a satirical lance.

It hardly feels like taking your medicine. This is probably the most entertaining way of making a movie about insufferably smug, endlessly hungry fattening cats, as a wild, boisterous comedy in which the joke is on them. Stretching out over two hours and fifty-nine minutes, this epic tragicomedy follows Belfort, his business partner (Jonah Hill, with frightening grin of gleaming white oversized chompers), and his hometown buddies (P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee), recruits into the ground floor of his new brokerage firm. As the business quickly grows, they find more ways to funnel money out of their clients’ pockets and into theirs, treating everyone else as property. Belfort trades in one wife (Cristin Milioti) for another (Margot Robbie) and though he tells us he feels bad about it, it’s only for a moment. He and his colleagues abuse and bully their employees, sneak money into tax shelters and down ratholes, pop pills, slam back beers, and call in prostitutes. The screenplay by Terence Winter who, between work as a writer on The Sopranos and the showrunner of Boardwalk Empire, knows a thing or two about criminal entrepreneurism, constructs a screenplay that hurtles forward with digressions and debaucheries and still manages to make sense of how the firm got off the ground in the first place and how it worked its way towards insane profits and a legal implosion. It's all about business as an outlet for unchecked id and how that takes morality and responsibility completely off the table.

The film is loose and freewheeling, growing bigger and overwhelming in its implications. It’s about an entire system that allows such an operation to thrive, a system with a massive disincentive for the greedy and selfish to behave responsibly. They squirrel away large amounts of money in whatever way they want in order to fuel whatever drunken high they’re chasing this week. There is no stopping people who have no guilt, no shame. Even when Belfort has a setback, his confidence carries him through. Once you are filthy rich, you can unapologetically monetize even your most shameful wrongdoings. A key sequence finds Belfort fuming about a magazine hatchet job that labeled him “the Wolf of Wall Street,” writing in no uncertain terms about his firm’s grey-area ethics and frat house atmosphere. He’s angry right up until he arrives at work and finds the lobby stuffed with résumé waving young jobseekers, phones ringing off the hook with prospective clients. His buddies start calling him “Wolfie” affectionately as they generate an ever more powerful cult of personality around their fearless immoral leader.

Full of irredeemable, unapologetic, and unstoppable characters, Scorsese’s masterful command of cinema keeps the whole thing slamming forward with energetic momentum. In his typical style, the film is painted with big bold strokes, a mix of rattling soundtrack cues, varied film stocks, speeds, and aspect ratios, finding rich nuances within. His collaborators bring welcome touches, from Thelma Schoonmaker’s swaggering edits – sloppy without feeling careless – to Rodrigo Prieto’s sleek, sunlit cinematography. This is a film that is taking place in the bright light of day, barely legal acts crossing over the line easily and with little negative consequence in the immediate future. The first time crack is smoked in the film takes place in shadow, Hill and DiCaprio huddled in the dark corner of the frame. But once the high hits they leap away, the camera tracking them into the harsh midday sun outside. They can get away with anything, anytime. The film is vulgar, dripping with sex and drugs and yet little pleasure. It’s a monotonous mechanical need for them and the film circles endlessly overconsumption of one kind or another that sends them spiraling down until the next high.

The Wolf of Wall Street is loose and rattling in its structure. Some scenes as assembled seem to stretch too long and others clip along too quickly, but there’s such an elemental cinematic pleasure seeing Scorsese operating on such a huge scale, developing his theme strongly and confidently and then noodling around, finding dozens upon dozens of variations over the runtime. He watches DiCaprio’s unhinged performance as it wriggles around in all manner of debauched positions, squirming out from under scrutiny to do bad all over again. He clashes with his second wife as Robbie’s strong performance reveals welcome unexpected depths. The trophy wife is not as shiny and shallow as she first appears, forming a key element of the time-release poison pill bitterly dissolving under each scene in the final stretch. Their final scenes together are utterly devastating, one of the few times the film brings his steamroller of desire to a dead stop. The sweep of the film threatens to feel unformed at times, and yet it all comes together in such a clear statement of purpose.

Belfort’s ego is too big to fail. The movie (the events, not the point of view) is based on his autobiography. The final shot finds a group of people eagerly awaiting his insight, desperate to learn his tricks, wanting to become his kind of success. Whatever catharsis I found when some level of legal comeuppance is at long last dealt out in the final minutes of the third hour, is squashed under his unapologetic opportunism, his ability to turn any misfortune into shameless profit. And then there’s the sense that, though this wolf may no longer stalk on Wall Street, the rest of his pack is still out there, as insufferably untouchable as ever. It can’t be a coincidence that a scene of jaw-dropping dehumanizing negotiation – the guys agree that, when it comes to the entertainers hired for an office party, “If we don’t recognize them as people, just the act, then we’re not liable” – devolves into the guys goofily reciting the famous “one of us” chant from Tod Browning’s Freaks. They’re joking about the people they’ve hired, literally scoffing at the plight of the little guy. But it’s clear that Wall Street can be more freakish than any sideshow horror. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dream On: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an ode to manufactured uplift and insta-insight. Loosely extrapolated from James Thurber’s short story of the same name by screenwriter Steve Conrad of The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, this is another of his stories about an everyman who finds his employment or lack thereof not providing enough fulfillments. It’s something of a parable about getting the courage to live your dreams, travelling the world to find you had what you needed inside you all along. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the film follows him as Walter, the man of the title. He’s dedicated to helping his elderly mother (Shirley MacLaine) and to his job keeping track of the original negatives of every photo for Life magazine. Unfortunately, a mixture of personality and circumstance has found his dream of travelling the world and having experiences beyond the cubicle long forgotten. He’s like George Bailey without all those wonderful life moments an angel could show him. Walter Mitty wants more, retreating into his mind for daydreams of grandeur, of saying the right thing or saving the day. Alas, they aren’t to be. Yet.

For the swooping sentimental arc of Conrad’s screenplay to fully take off, events conspire to push Walter out of his comfort zone. The magazine is in the process of shutting down, led by a jerk manager (Adam Scott) who sneers at the employees with contempt as he pushes them out the door, managing their livelihood’s transition to a web-only all-digital format that needs only a skeleton crew to manage. Their best field photographer (Sean Penn) sends a roll of film, designating a particular shot as the perfect one to grace the final print cover. When Walter looks through the photos, the one he needs is missing. Getting up the courage to ask the co-worker he has a crush on (Kristen Wiig) to help him track down the photographer's next dangerous photo shoot, Walter decides to throw himself into solving this particular mystery of the missing cover photo. Why? He just does. It’s a prefab situation ripe with symbolic import that pushes him out the door, following clues to their globetrotting destinations.

Stiller’s direction – fussily composed with impressive formal control – has faint echoes of Wes Anderson and, fainter still, Jacques Tati, as he builds a world of modern architecture and office spaces that are totally ordered and closing in. Walter’s daydreams, on the other hand, are glossy Hollywood dreams in which he becomes a quipping comedy star ready with a comeback, a rugged lover clambering down a mountain to the woman he wants to woo, or a superhero smashing down the city streets after his nemesis. More than once he’s told he has great imagination. Maybe so, but he could also just watch a lot of movies. By the time he’s out in the real world, the picture takes on a shiny widescreen postcard look, soaring over mountain ranges and ocean waves, finding Walter as a small piece of big world, small in big frames and vast vistas.

It’s all so gently sentimental as the self-help mysticism of living his dreams of adventuring helps him to become his best self. And yet it all feels so artificial and contrived, a perfect closed system of a film studded with obvious turns of the gears and pulls of the strings. I could see every payoff clearly with each setup, no matter how lovingly photographed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. It’s a gorgeously composed film that’s suffocating in its surface beauty. Each step of his journey feels preordained and carefully composed in a way that doesn’t match the gathering of courage necessary to take such a journey. Here, obstacles –sharks, volcanoes, warlords, drunken helicopter pilots – aren’t so much something to overcome as Hollywood spectacle to experience.

Perhaps there isn’t enough differentiation between his daydreams and his real world, after all. Sure, he’s not really leaping out of a skyscraper with newfound super-strength, as he imagines at one point. But I’m not sure how the Walter we meet becomes a guy who can climb enormous mountains all on his own. Maybe the filmmakers sympathized so greatly they couldn’t help but want to push Walter along and see his character arc through. I can hardly blame them. Stiller brings a sympathetic nuance to the man’s personality, a kind of hunched tentativeness that’s easy enough to relate with. The perfection of his self-improvement narrative is almost how he’d dream it. But the film dare not suggest such a possibility. Where the film goes wrong is erring on the side of too much earnestness, a fuzzy and warm belief in the power of sentimental uplift to do good to the soul. It’s a comfortable erring, but one that feels a little empty all the same.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

All for One: LONE SURVIVOR


The true story Lone Survivor tells is inherently mournful, but the film is too slickly pumped up and narrowly focused to communicate much of it. The story follows a SEAL Team on a mission to kill a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan that went wrong, trapping the men in a firefight that ended with all but one dead. This sad story of sacrifice is presented simply as an extended action sequence that envelops at least half of the runtime. Focused on one moment of pain and death, the film traps its characters, boxed in by the inevitability of their story. We don’t get to see them as living people so much as we sit around waiting to see how they die. It’s a film happy to play with broad types, sparsely characterized, quickly sketching in their specifics in cheap and easy ways. One’s a rookie. Another’s getting married. We should care about them as people – the better to make the lengthy bit of action filmmaking impactful – but instead we’re to care about them as the same standard crew war movies have had since they’ve been an identifiable subgenre. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to the audience.

Writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Battleship) easily creates a sense of what it might be like to be in the middle of a gun battle in Afghanistan if Hollywood filmmakers staged them. It is loud, repetitive, chaotic, and a chance to show off squibs and pyrotechnics as the SEALs are slowly picked off one by one by a largely faceless enemy force. Before we get there, though, we sit with these men through their briefing and then as they set up a stakeout of a mountain village, spying their Taliban target below. Because the actors are likable – Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster – it’s easy enough to sit through their macho militarism. Because Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler have a fine sense of thriller-y procedural nervous energy, the scenes in the command bunkers with Eric Bana – as their commanding officer – and Alexander Ludwig – as an overeager rookie – play out with some surface sleekness. It’s all so very professionally done.

In these early moments the film is full of gleaming glamour shots of hardware and camaraderie right out of a recruitment ad. The SEALs are buddies who jog around the base and haze each other (gently, of course) and listen intently as they’re told their target is a “bad guy” in an info dump briefing that has more in common with a video game cut scene than anything more convincing. We don’t know who these characters are, but they sure look the part. They seem to know what they’re doing. The movie doesn’t have time to slow down otherwise. By the time they’re sitting in the mountains, staring down at their target, it’s been a pretty successfully rosy picture of war that’s about to be shot down. But it’s not like the movie has much of a point of view. It’s bad luck that gets them into their doomed mission and good luck (and a kind deed returning unexpected dividends) that gets one out.

Two kids and an old man herding their goats back to their home accidentally infiltrate the stakeout. Here the film finds an interesting moral dilemma briefly entertained. Let them go and risk being found by the Taliban in the village? Or kill them and be sure of completing the mission without exposure? They do the right thing after brief debate, which leads the Taliban fighters right up the hill to find them. (It’s unclear if their decision directly led to this, but that’s certainly the implication.) What follows is the hour of tense bloody conflict up and down the mountainside, crouching behind branches and rocks as the dead pile up on both sides of the conflict.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Francois Truffaut about the impossibility of making an anti-war film because of the action’s inherent exciting qualities. That’s certainly a problem for Lone Survivor, with its endlessly exchanged rounds of gunfire, overeager effects work – look at that exploding helicopter and its lovingly CGI carnage – and gunsight crosshairs killshots right out of a first person shooter. Or rather, it’d be a problem if it seemed to be a film interested in being anti-war or anything at all.  (Or if it didn’t grow less exciting the more attempts are made to thrill.) It’s a film that’s not thinking about any sort of big picture. It doesn’t see any further than the barrels of its guns. It tries to sell heroism, but seems perversely uninterested in the characters it’s selling as representative of some larger ideal of patriotic machismo or something. The final moments, which shows photos of the actual SEALs killed in this mission, is more moving and respectful than the two hours that came before. It’s a serious subject tackled in a self-defeating manner, utterly lacking the weight it deserves.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Dino Bores: WALKING WITH DINOSAURS


The instantly, blessedly forgettable Walking with Dinosaurs is an 87 minute film based loosely on the concept of the 1999 BBC documentary series that featured CGI dinosaurs in nature photography of our present-day world standing in for their prehistoric one. It was a nature documentary that tried to imagine the past, and was popular enough to spawn an “Arena Spectacular” full of animatronic creatures that toured the world. The new film has more in common with Disney’s Dinosaur, a 2000 feature that did the same trick – real footage with animated dinosaurs – but added a narrative, avoided narration, and let the dinosaurs talk to each other. Neither one of those projects were in any way perfect, but this new Walking with Dinosaurs is the worst of both smashed together in one nearly unbearable experience. It features nonstop babbling of grating docu-style narration, annoying modern colloquialisms, heaps of lame attempts at humor, and a story that features nothing worth thinking about or getting invested in.

After a brief live action frame story about a paleontologist (Karl Urban) taking his niece and nephew with him looking for fossils, a time traveling bird (John Leguizamo) guides us through the story of a baby Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (Justin Long) who bumbles around the wilderness with his herd. One day, they all migrate south. After much literal plodding and a few moments of predator and prey jostling, Patchi gets separated from the herd, along with his bully older brother (Skyler Stone) and a girl Pachyrhinosaurus (Tiya Sircar) who is along to be in a love triangle that’s more like being traded between them as if property. After much more plodding around, their not so incredible journey leads them back. Then, just when I thought that was the end of the story, it cruelly continues for another twenty minutes or so. It’s not just that the plotting is simple and painfully predictable. It’s done without an ounce of imagination in sight, a clash of intentions, perhaps.

It’s obvious the movie is trying to serve two competing ideas of what it should be. It tries to be both something like an educational opportunity and a generic children’s movie and fails on both counts. It’s two kinds of terrible mixed together such that I could never get comfortable with what kind of mediocrity I was watching. Whenever we meet a new creature, the frame freezes, the name of the dinosaur pops up on the screen, and a child’s voice reads it to us, along with some accompanying facts. As if the story didn’t feel endless already. Then there’s the dinosaurs, who are something approaching photoreal in their animation. They stomp around, grunting and growling at each other through unexpressive snouts and beady little eyes. No big attempt is made to make these creatures into anything like actors in the movie. They just root around being big, blank animals. When they talk, their mouths don’t move. We hear the voices booming on the soundtrack but they’re just standing around blinking at each other.

Most of the dinosaurs remain silent, but for our three leads and the bird. I suppose that’s a blessing, but it makes for a confusingly silent soundscape. Combine that with the inscrutability of the scaly mugs, and it feels like someone dubbed in the voices at the last minute. Not that it would play any better without them, but it would’ve lessened my desire to be given a mute button. The storytelling proceeds in a terrible clash of insufferable narrators. Leguizamo’s bird is always distracting with off-hand self-aware comments like, upon looking at a nice forest, “Don’t get too attached. It’s going to be an oil field.” Long’s dino is a whiny simpleton with an obvious character arc, but he chimes in from time to time as well, talking back to Leguizamo’s narration.

Many moments revolve around the dumb little dino getting pooped on or talking about poop. Other moments involve him falling over or something and when he first meets the girl of his species of his dreams, Barry White enters the soundtrack. All that’s the comedy, I guess. Still other times, dinosaurs are stalked by bigger, scarier dinosaurs, sometimes escaping, many times not. The predators tear into their limp prey viciously. The movie features both poop jokes and teeth gnashing at greater than required levels. At one point, the awful humor and bloody circle of life collide, when Leguizamo says one kind of dinosaur has no natural predators right before it’s eaten before our eyes. “I think I jinxed him,” he says.

The co-directors are Barry Cook, who also co-directed Mulan, and Neil Nightingale, who has produced nature documentaries for the BBC and PBS. The screenplay, such as it is, was written by John Collee, who wrote Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Happy Feet. I don’t know what went wrong here, but they all clearly should know better. Walking with Dinosaurs is interminably irritating, trying desperately to be all things to all people – educators, small children, and dinosaur fans alike. And in the end, it’s much closer to nothing for nobody. The biggest joke of all is when we return to the frame story to find Urban’s aloof tween nephew has been so inspired by the story we just heard that he has a newfound love of paleontology. He stares off into the middle distance, smiling with wonder. Sheesh, if this dumb story is all it took, wait’ll he hears a good story.

Games People Play: AMERICAN HUSTLE


There are no sincere moments in David O. Russell’s American Hustle. It goes beyond the narrative, which follows an F.B.I. operation in the late 1970s that involved blackmail, bribery, corruption, and con men. And that’s just the guys doing the investigating. The film’s characters are constantly pulling one over on each other, trying to make any given situation slippery enough to wiggle away with the upper hand. The problem is the film takes after its characters and in doing so refuses to take them seriously. It’s a true(ish) story filled with great heist movie-style brinksmanship and game playing, but I didn’t believe any of it for one second. That’s not to say I called foul on the facts, but that I never bought into the stakes or emotions of the story. The whole thing is exhaustingly inauthentic, full of pushy camera moves, fussily casual period piece production design, and self-satisfied banter. It expends lots of effort, but ends up with only awfully thin insight. Turns out people, given the right circumstances, might con other people to get what they want. You don’t say.

The film is a nesting doll of deceit, cons within cons within cons. Christian Bale plays a con man sleazily juggling many cons at once. He supplements his laundromat business by selling forged paintings on the side, as well as accepting payment from sleazeballs in return for trying to set them up with loans that will, of course, never materialize. His partner in crime is his mistress (Amy Adams), so there’s another con, this one the relationship he’s hiding from his boozy young housewife (Jennifer Lawrence). Bale and Adams are busted for fraud by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who says they’ll walk free if they help him bust some of their fellow fraudsters. It takes a con to run a con to find a con or two.

With no choice, that’s what they do, helping to create an elaborate entrapment scheme that soon involves a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a fake sheik (Michael Peña), and increasing amounts of FBI money sitting in bank accounts and renting private jets and hotel suites. With each new expenditure request, Cooper’s boss (Louis C.K., a welcome sight) grows increasingly exasperated, denying them until his boss (Alessandro Nivola), another guy smelling good career moves, overrules him. Cooper keeps urging the project’s expansion, using each new mark to get to another mark. It’s a tangled web of competing interests that’s bound to ensnare some of the people laying the traps as well as their targets.

In the middle of it all, the cast’s central quartet delivers big booming performances that fit the film’s swaggering shallowness. Bale, with a protruding gut and complicated combover, exudes frustrated confidence mixed with desperation, while Adams, shifting her accent around, comes across as a fiercely determined faker and striver. Cooper’s a hard-charging naïve, smart enough to cook up a plan, but overeager to see it through. He’s too earnest for his own good. When one mark says something incriminating, Cooper smiles a little too broadly and exclaims, “That’s great!” Lawrence, meanwhile, thinks she’s scheming, but she’s just good old flighty passive aggressive. Her performance is a whirlwind. The film’s phoniness is hardly their fault. They’re giving the best possible performances this material could get. They’re so good I kept wishing I could like the movie more, if only to reward their likable hard work. They throw themselves into unflattering clothing, funny hairdos, and silly accents, chewing through the script with energy and humor.

But that’s not enough to make it anything more than sporadically entertaining. It’s breezy enough – well over two hours and rarely dragging – but scene after scene, I found myself feeling emptier. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer’s script follows the hodgepodge of cons in a slapdash manner, sometimes revealing too much or too little and scrambling up who we should care about at any given time. It’s shifting allegiances, but always tilting towards mockery – a style that scoffs at strong feelings, a howl of emotion seen as a plot point and a joke and little more. When it all shakes out in the end, it doesn’t feel like resolution for characters as much as it is checking off boxes with little sense of what it all means for the individuals in question beyond the surface level of winners and losers. No matter how fine the performances are, there’s nothing to latch onto.

Why am I to care about the results of any of these cons when the film is only interested in playing them out to play them out? It only cares about pulling out rugs and staring at scheming. When it comes to the whys and who cares, it could care less. The actors give it their all, and to the extent the film is watchable and compelling, it’s that they manage to break through the film’s suffocating artifice with some actual emotion. The rest of the time, Russell’s swooping, energetic camera and non-stop period rock, pop, and disco soundtrack – often the only aspects of the film Russell seems interested in, and a passable, if muddled, copy of every other big swinging 70s-set crime film's style – pounds out and counteracts every genuine emotion with insistent inauthenticity.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Loud Noises: ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES


There’s a lot of random silliness all over Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a long-awaited follow up to the original cult hit. That’s in keeping with 2004’s Anchorman, a film that accommodates a somewhat sharp puncturing of sexual harassment, a scene in which an angry biker punts a dog off of a bridge, and a psychedelic animated sequence that stands in for a sex scene. This time around, writer-director Adam McKay and co-writer/star Will Ferrell step back easily into the anything goes world of Ron Burgundy, the mustachioed, egotistical, 1970’s chauvinist who strides through the films with extreme confidence, like he’s trying out poses for his own taxidermied afterlife. The first time, McKay and Ferrell created a gleefully giggly movie, broad, thin, and full of unashamed shtick, wall-to-wall quotable non sequiturs. They double down here, indulging in arbitrary asides, consequence-free slapstick, splashes of mild surrealism, and loud noises. (I don’t know what they’re yelling about!) The result is a jumbled grab bag of nonsense, creaking dead air, and patches of inspired insanity.

The first film found Burgundy and his newsroom buddies – Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner – howling in anguished sleaziness over their station manager (Fred Willard) bringing on a woman (Christina Applegate) co-anchor. It was a period piece goof about sexism in the workplace. This time, McKay has his eye on skewering the 24-hour news channels, so he traces the idea back to the late-70’s/early-80’s source, the time between the suicide smash cut to black and the darkly funny little typeface reading simply “80s” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Burgundy, having fallen on hard times, is approached by a producer putting together programming for a new network. The once-proud newsman decides to get the team back together and do what he was put on Earth to do: read the news. The early moments of the movie contain a certain amount of affection and interest for those of us who simply like seeing Ferrell, back in character after all these years, drive around picking up Rudd, Carell, and Koechner. It’s been nine years, but these guys do still good impressions of themselves.

Eventually, a plot emerges. Or rather, several plots emerge, some more important than others, none going much of anywhere, all tossed overboard at a moment’s notice if something more immediately funny (theoretically) comes along. Burgundy feels competition with a handsome hotshot anchor (James Marsden), who swoops in with the primetime slot locked down. Burgundy is also intimidated by his new boss – a black woman (Meagan Good), facts that rarely goes unmentioned, even when the guys are on their best behavior, which isn’t often. He’s unsure how to relate to his seven year old son (Judah Nelson), asking the mother “Are you sure he’s not a mentally challenged midget?” Still elsewhere, the channel’s owner (Josh Lawson) wants to meddle in news coverage for synergistic reasons and a harried producer (Dylan Baker, performing as if he told Ed Helms he’d fill in and no one would know the difference) tries to keep Burgundy and crew from failing too spectacularly, as they try to introduce vapid gossip, bullying patriotism, and endless on-screen graphics to TV news. Sound familiar?

It all plays like a brainstorming session ever so slowly galumphing its way towards something like a story. There’s lots of fine satirical intent going on here, sometimes sharp and pointed. After all, how better to say the very idea of 24-hour news channels is inherently flawed than to say these dummies invented it for self-serving career reasons. When Burgundy decides to cover a car chase live, or spend some time repeatedly, simply saying, “America is great,” McKay cuts to people all over the country staring slack jawed in awe. “Hey, guys!” one man says. “The news got awesome!” This is definitely the work of a director with a funny rage funneled into sociopolitical points. It’s almost expected. He’s the guy who made big banks a villain in his 2010 cop comedy The Other Guys and then ran graphs about the financial crisis under the end credits. That’s funny and sharp. But Anchorman 2 drifts indulgently, though, watching characters stand around acting out self-consciously funny moments. It’s as if the movie is throwing out lines and hoping some stick as catchphrases on novelty merchandise.

I think the problem is the thrust of the film trying to make us care about Ron Burgundy as a character. He was a sketch character, a buffoon whose rise and fall and rise in Anchorman was played broadly for laughs. During the course of Anchorman 2, Burgundy cycles through a half-dozen highs and lows, competing interests, and vacillating levels of self-awareness. Instead of being the butt of the joke – the first film’s thrust was puncturing his backwards ways, having us root for Applegate – he’s front and center. It’s distracting and borderline unlikable to root for a character who stumbles around obliviously, at one point casually spitting out racist remarks at a sweet family dinner, and then telling his black boss he’s blameless since it’s her fault for inviting him in the first place. The movie wants him to succeed on his own terms, even if the movie keeps forgetting about some of his motivations for long periods of time, rarely able to hold two ideas in its head at any given point.

At worst, it’s not funny. At best, the movie bubbles up into a kind of frenzied nonsense. But the bulk of its truly nutzoid moments happen in the last twenty minutes or so. Anchorman’s 94 minute runtime has here ballooned to 119 minutes, which for a while in the middle feels like three or four hours. Subplots muscle each other out for screen time. Carell’s dumb weather guy meets and falls in love with an equally dumb secretary (Kristen Wiig) for what seems like forever, but is in actuality only a handful of scenes. Throughout there are funny little one-or-two-scene performances from unexpected faces that I won’t mention here. They’re good for an unexpected smile the first time around. But then, things get pleasantly insane, erupting in events so unexpected and cheerfully nonsensical that I couldn’t help but devolve into laughter.

I won’t try to describe the final stretch of the film here. But I will say it pivots into a long period that seems to be parodying a very different kind of movie altogether and then culminates in a cavalcade of cameos I found pleasantly surprising in its hilarious escalation up, up, and away from what little reality the movie ever had. So a long, uneven comedy sends me out with a smile anyway, after a seemingly endless stretch during which the big, dumb, likable caricatures are put to use on a few distinct satirical points in between indistinct nonsense. I can’t say I want to wave off the laughter entirely, and yet I can’t recommend the picture wholeheartedly. Sometimes you just have to describe your reactions and hope it gives the wink and nod to those who are predisposed to liking this and warns off those who aren’t.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Into the Fire: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG


Peter Jackson returns yet again to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three films devoted to the comparatively slim novel that precedes The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Some find that reason enough to dislike the film, but why get hung up on what it isn’t and miss the chance to luxuriate in what it is? To dismiss the expansion of Tolkien’s smaller story is to miss the rich detail Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro find. This is filmmaking as worldbuilding, a creation of a space that’s fun to visit with new characters and sights around every corner. When we wander into the home of a giant man who is also sometimes a bear, there is a sense of discovery and history. It feels somehow right that such a person would exist in this world, and as he sadly admits to being the last of his species, there’s a real sense of loss. We could follow him out into his own film and probably find something interesting. We won’t, but the sense of a fully realized world is impressive and goes a long way to selling the movie’s colorful adventure plotting.

When last we saw our Hobbit friend Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), he was with the once and future dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves on a journey to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their home and their gold from Smaug, a powerful dragon. They’re continuing their quest here, getting into one scrape after another, each only a danger for as long as the plot requires (and sometimes longer) until the next danger pops up. Here there be giant spiders, packs of angry orcs, aloof wood-elves, and, of course, one large fire-breathing dragon. He stretches across the entire screen that only captures his full wingspan in wide shots. (The beast is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, words rumbling out with booming augmented bass.) Expert spectacle, the film is filled with elaborate action sequences overflowing with visual gags. In one early scene, an elf shoots two orcs with one arrow. Later, a barrel pops up out of roaring rapids and rolls over baddies on the shore, Rube Goldberg serendipity aiding our heroes.

Also helping (and sometimes threatening) our heroes are two elves – one, Orlando Bloom, a familiar face from The Lord of the Rings, the other, Evangeline Lilly, added to give the film a gentle wispy subplot about a dwarf who has a crush on her and maybe, just maybe, vice versa. Together they happen to form a reason to have a few more action sequences. One, a tight, claustrophobic nighttime fight in a tiny house, is a nice break from the sweeping New Zealand vistas and cavernous caves. Speaking of subplots, there’s much to do about a dilapidated lake town where the dwarves find help from a human (Luke Evans) who, it’s quickly apparent, has made a habit of defying the orders of the town’s grumpy, selfish ruler (Stephen Fry). Between the elves and the lake town, the quickly sketched politics and history of this fantasy world is a pleasure. Each new location we step into feels fully formed before we got there, and has the surety that it will continue long after we leave.

There’s always something. Compared to The Lord of the Rings end-of-Middle-Earth stakes, this Hobbit, much like the last Hobbit, is lighter fare, bouncier and zippier. But the mythic resonance of these displaced dwarves and archetypical character types – the strong one, the silly one, and smitten one, the brave one – give the whole picture a fine kick. Freeman’s Bilbo is especially sympathetic, in over his head, but trying so very hard to stay brave and get braver. Our heroes are so very likable, we want to see them succeed. And the sights Jackson shows us are so wonderful and varied, it’s clear Middle Earth is a place worth fighting for. At one point Bilbo sits atop a tree, hundreds of butterflies taking wing around him as he looks across a sun-dappled skyline, a shimmering lake in the distance and, further on, a misty mountain. I’d go there and back again any day.

Rarely diverting its attention from the one-thing-after-another journey of the dwarves, Jackson occasionally drifts away with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). I’m not sure what sidetrack he’s wandering down, but that he at one point appears to be fighting a big black cloud tells you everything you need to know about just how seriously to take this. That is to say, enough to feel it, but not so much you can't smile at sillier touches, sometimes both at once. It’s a grand sweeping adventure built out of mythic components, a sense of its own history, and ripe B-movie fantasy. I had to smile when the king of the wood elves (Lee Pace) shows up wearing a crown made out of branches. It just makes sense. Best approached by responding to the surface pulpy fantasy and letting the big emotion underneath grow and bubble, The Desolation of Smaug is all about creating a world, giving space to get lost in it, and allowing plenty of time to do so.

This is epic, light-hearted fantasy as bustling adventure. Jackson’s a sharp enough visual filmmaker to give us movie pleasures of the highest order. A big highlight is that dragon Scrooge McDuck-ing it up in a pile of gold, slowly revealed in his enormity through coy editing. But even simple visual moments, like a shot that finds a worried little girl in the foreground, unaware of the orcs prowling the rooftops behind her, silhouetted in the background, is a great punch of imagery, simple and true. This may be a film that paints in broad strokes, but the surface details are colored in beautifully. It actually delivers the blockbuster exhilaration, the immense pleasures of expansive spectacle, so many films promise, but so few deliver. Jackson, like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron, knows how to build gigantic special effects and cohesive worlds into something that carries real weight and lots of fun.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spoonfuls of Sugar: SAVING MR. BANKS


It’s no secret that Walt Disney Pictures has been creatively floundering as of late. The past decade saw their animation studio take a confused tumble after the heights of their 90’s renaissance while their live action filmmaking got only the rare hit (Pirates of the Caribbean) between failures both instantly forgettable (G-Force, College Road Trip, Prince of Persia) and unfairly maligned (the fun John Carter and misunderstood Lone Ranger). Despite their considerable charms, Tangled and Frozen alone do not a new golden age make. No wonder they want to cast their corporate eye backwards with Saving Mr. Banks, remembering a high point of creative and commercial success through rosy glasses and the glossiest of Hollywood polish. The movie considers the early 1960s, in particular the preliminary stages of the making of 1964’s Mary Poppins, not-so-coincidentally out now in a sparkling new transfer on Blu-ray. Banks twinkles through script notes, songwriting, and storyboard meetings, largely focusing on Walt Disney’s attempts to convince P.L. Travers, the author of the Poppins books, to sign over the rights.

Travers was notoriously reluctant to turn her beloved writing over to the hands of Hollywood in general and Disney in particular. The movie casts the generally likable Emma Thompson in the role. Her performance creates a woman walking through life in brisk and brittle judgment, but with the inevitable softening always just under the surface of her snapping. In the film’s opening, she has to be talked into flying to Los Angeles to take a meeting with Disney. We hear that her royalties are drying up and so could use the boost of income. That the sign of her financial troubles is her having recently fired her assistant is not necessarily the most sympathetic of hardships is no matter. The movie isn’t about her financial pressures giving her reason to sign the contract. It’s about how a controlling creative type meets another controlling creative type and learns to compromise for the good of creating a classic film.

For this is a movie aware at all times that Mary Poppins will become an all-time classic. When Mr. Disney (Tom Hanks, so well-liked on his own, all he has to do is show up in costume to communicate some of Disney’s showbiz charm) has Travers sit in on development meetings with co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), it’s clear that every decision the studio makes that we can recognize from Poppins is meant to be the correct decision. When Travers snaps at the songwriting Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) over a small made-up word in one of the opening lyrics, they awkwardly glance at their pages of music, the camera dutifully focusing in on the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as punchline. Saving Mr. Banks plays upon our knowledge for one of the studio’s crowning achievements – one of the company’s very best films and their best live action effort by a country mile.

Poppins is a movie of such pure delight that it can’t help but rub off on this one a little bit. Filled up with Poppins’ songs and winking references to specific lines and images, Banks and its charming cast carries a residual charge. So what if director John Lee Hancock (of The Rookie, The Alamo, and The Blind Side) shoots the film with very little cinematic inspiration of his own, dutifully shooting the script glossily and anonymously. All the better for Poppins movie magic to shine through. The script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith very nearly makes Travers into a simple killjoy. Sure, she taps her toes to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” but she threatens to cancel the whole project after learning the dancing penguins will be cartoons and not trained penguins. There’s sympathy to be found in her position – after all, Disney is playing a game of semantics telling her the movie will not be animated, and then eventually admitting “not animated” doesn’t necessarily mean “no animation.” 

Travers was so against the frivolity and sugar of Disney, especially when it came to adapting her books, that one imagines having her life turned into a Disney movie could be a posthumous indignity. If she fought so hard to preserve the most important details of her books, imagine what she’d have to say about this movie. It’s a case of history written by the winners, a true story about a woman who feared the company would take a good story, sand off the hard edges, and make it into simpleton schmaltz.  And yet Saving Mr. Banks, for all its borrowed charms in the occasionally repetitive showbiz scenes, works. The screenplay weaves in flashbacks of biographical detail, finding Travers as a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) in the Australian outback with her depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and alcoholic banker father (Colin Farrell). These scenes have the emotional charge the fizzy Hollywood storyline doesn’t, and when the film finds sequences in which the flashback past and filmmaking present collide, it’s surprisingly moving. Though a rough correlation between her story and her life is too mushy to work as literary analysis, it makes for fine sentimental cinema.

The film is ultimately about a peculiar paradox that can befall creative types. Travers and Disney are both so committed to their own visions for the project, they do not see the value in anything that varies from what’s already in their heads. They’re stuck talking past each other, unable to use their considerable creativities to compromise. This is an interesting conflict on which to hang a story, especially considering that there’s no reconciliation here. It’s a strange tone for a film to settle upon, on the one hand polishing its corporate reputation while still finding some degree of sympathy for the woman who felt so compromised by Disney. Travers simply softens enough to sign away and Poppins is made more or less as Disney decided. That in real life, she refused to sign over the sequel rights after seeing the film is perhaps indicative this new film concludes slightly sweeter than it should. In the end, I reacted to Saving Mr. Banks in much the same way it portrays Travers at the premiere of Poppins. What it does, it does well. What she finds disagreeable leaves her arms crossed with a face of stone. What she finds it gets absolutely right moves her.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mama's Boy: PHILOMENA

When we first meet Philomena Lee, it’s easy to tell she’s not herself today. Her eyes are misty, distant, lost in thought. Her adult daughter, heading out to work, stops to tell her mother goodbye when the old woman tells her some surprising news. “He’d be 50 today,” she says, holding up a faded black and white photograph of a toddler. Her daughter is confused, a response that quickly turns to surprise when her mother tells her that fifty years earlier she had a child out of wedlock who was taken away from her by the nuns at the abbey in which she was living. The mystery of who this child is powers Stephen Frears’ Philomena, which becomes a sweet and delicate story about an elderly woman who decides to track down her long lost son and the kind and patient journalist who helps her.

Judi Dench stars in the title role. It’s a wonderful performance in which she convincingly inhabits the meek and polite personality of Philomena. The son taken from her has weighed on her thoughts for so long. At the time, she believed what the nuns told her, that carrying the child, suffering the pains of childbirth, and ultimately letting the baby go is God’s way of punishing her for giving in to sinful lust. And yet there’s been a nagging doubt growing in the back of her mind. How can she, through no fault of her own, be denied access to a life she brought into this world? She now can hardly believe the abstract concept of her missing child is now quite possibly becoming a reality. Her main question is simply, “has he thought of me?”

Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope from the true story as told by Martin Sixsmith, plays the journalist who helps her. He’s here for some wry commentary and sweet banter with the woman. His drive to write an article starts simply as a career move, a way to bounce back from some minor scandal that bounced him out of a high profile position. But he quickly comes to care for Philomena, and she for him. There’s affection there, a sort of maternal warmth between them that becomes, through their journey of investigation, a stand-in for the son she hopes to find. Dench, a quiet marvel, her face creased with every emotion implied while she puts on a brave face, stands in contrast to Coogan, who towers over her and yet finds such compassion underneath his dry wit.

It’s a study in empathy. By the time all is revealed, Coogan has become so invested in the story he’s been researching, he’s far more outwardly emotional than Philomena herself. Dench and Coogan make for a most charming odd-couple as the film follows a sturdy road movie path. It’s simple and nice, tracing comfortable paths to a conclusion that hits with some force. In the end, it is not shocking revelations or cruelty, but simple acts of kindness and forgiveness that are truly moving. Here, Dench and Coogan sell a climax that tidily answers questions raised in ways unexpectedly satisfying and complete. It is done perhaps too tidily, condensing hard real life into something that plays easily on screen. But so what? It plays.

Frears, a quiet, steady presence behind the camera, allows the film to simply exist with a minimum of fuss or insistence, recording fine performances from a skilled cast. Like many of his films – The Queen, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons – he lets his excellent actors do the heavy lifting, bringing out the script's emotions as they sit pinned in by nice, solid framing. Where it could have gone broad and treacly, it instead finds fragile grace notes of performance that lend it the grace and dignity it deserves. It’s so nice and warm, capturing two mismatched characters on a journey of kindness in performances that are quietly funny and poignant.

Friday, December 6, 2013

No Direction Home: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS


It feels like it has always existed, just waiting to be brought into being. Inside Llewyn Davis casts a spell of tone and mood like the best folk songs. It’s plaintive melancholy, a sustained sense of a soul laid bare before our eyes, introspective and yearning. Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of films – from Blood Simple and Fargo to Raising Arizona and A Serious Man – that suggest as much as they show, creating convincing worlds much like our own, richly populated with eccentric individuals and a sly determinism. Their characters want better lives and are frustrated when they come up short. It makes notes of triumph all the sweeter, but Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York City, is rubbing up against the end of his rope. Triumph, for him, seems perpetually out of reach. In this film we watch him circle around the city, begging a night’s sleep on a variety of friends’ couches. His music career is going nowhere fast, but his big break is right there, ever so slightly out of his reach.

We know Llewyn Davis is talented, but we also are quickly aware of his difficulties. The opening of the film is a sequence set in a small club, Llewyn softly plucking his guitar as his voice, soft and strong, wafts out over the audience. It’s hushed. They’re rapt. We see a glimmer of satisfaction on his face. After the performance, he heads out to the back alley where he’s promptly confronted by an angry man who punches him in the face a couple times, walking away as Llewyn sits on the ground, hurting. In this opening, we have the film in miniature. It’s a film focused on Llewyn’s quietly ecstatic musical satisfaction, and the pain he’s constantly receiving. He’s a man for whom music and pain are attracted to him and created by him. They’re as self-inflicted as they are God-given. It might not sound like it, but there’s warmth to the Coens’ approach here. Perceptive without judging, the film is a wise and compassionate look inside this man’s emotional states and drives.

He’s capable of great cruelty – a scene in which he heckles an older woman had me wincing – and yet he’s so precisely nuanced a frustrated artistic type that it’s easy to feel for him as he tries to navigate a path to the future that grows murkier the harder to tries to get there. I empathized with him to an almost painful extent; it filled my heart even as it faintly ached. He stubbornly works to get ahead. It’s a frustratingly circular path he’s on – performing in clubs, lucking into some studio work for which he short-sightedly signs away the rights to royalties, and talking to his manager (Jerry Grayson) who looks at him with sad eyes while avoiding the inevitable “no” answer to the question of how much he’s earned from a record well into the process of flopping. Llewyn is struggling and getting seemingly nowhere. And yet he’ll go on. It’s scary to go on, but it’s even scarier not to. In the haunting lyrics of the folk song he sings that bookends the film, “Wouldn’t mind the hanging / But the laying in the grave so long.”

Stubbornness: it’s the very thing keeping him going and a key part of what’s holding him back. He wants to succeed on his own terms, scrambling to come back after being thrown by unforeseen circumstances that have occurred before the film has even begun. Two losses define him: one a girl he loved who has moved to Akron nearly two years prior, the other his music partner who sometime in the recent past forcibly made their duo a solo act. We never meet these people, but we feel their absence acutely. Oscar Isaac, playing Llewyn, ably communicates the resonant emotional wounds that have rattled him, and the combination of talent and arrogance that drives him to continue pursuing folk music success. It’s an interior performance that lets the inner gears turn, expressed outward through wry speech and moving music. Isaac, doing his own singing and guitar playing, represents the Coen’s typical ability to cast the exact right person in each and every role.

This is a fascinating character study, bolstered by a universally strong ensemble. It finds its characters distinct and fully formed, situated wholly and completely in casually perfect costume and production design. Each person who arrives on the scene – there for a moment or two never to return, unless, of course, they do – contributes immeasurably to the richness and depth of the world the Coens create. We meet a musical couple (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) who are alternately antagonistic and accommodating, as well as Llewyn’s patience-strained sister (Jeanine Serralles). As Llewyn navigates narrow halls to friends’ apartments pinned and pinched in corridors that terminate in tiny corners or heading out into the world that opens up with snowy sidewalks and slippery highways, smoky stages and creaky roadside cafes, he meets all manner of strangers. There’s an eerily polite solider moonlighting as a singer (Stark Sands), a sickly old grump (John Goodman) and his driver (Garrett Hedlund), a kind older couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a struggling solo act doing backup singing on novelty records (Adam Driver), and an intimidating record executive (F. Murray Abraham).

In typical Coen fashion, the dialogue is so dry it crackles. Consider the following exchange in which Llewyn is told by his manager’s secretary (Sylvia Kauders) that the old man is out of the office attending yet another funeral. Why? “He likes people.” Llewyn replies, “Fewer and fewer.” The film moves from memorable moment to memorable moment, a fascinating period piece odyssey with not a single line or gesture out of place. It manages to view, with Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite cinematography, the past through almost-hazy mists of time without glorifying or condescending to the context or circumstances. Its imagery is at once soft and sharp, as if emerging from a timeless place with startling immediacy, powerfully direct, as piercing and singular as anything the Coen brothers have brought us. Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful character study and a wondrous and precise evocation of time, place, and music. As the film’s final sequence unspools, I gasped at its detail as my heart swelled, at once broken and full. The spell the movie casts in the moment lingers, stuck circling in my mind like a great old melody that’s always been there, deep and true, ready to stay.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Project DCOM #10: JOHNNY TSUNAMI


Johnny Tsunami is a winning sports movie. In Disney Channel Original Movie terms, it's like the filmmakers dug around in the Brink! formula and improved it in every way. Though there's lots of carefully shot stuntmen surfing, skiing, and snowboarding, the most interesting and pleasantly surprising aspect of the movie is its entirely unspoken racial subtext. It's quietly revolutionary in the way so many major characters are people of color and the central conflict is between WASPy private school insiders trying to keep their mountaintop clubhouse free of the public school kids they call "urchins." On the surface level, the plot's a clash between snobby fake cliques of rich kids and laid-back authentic groups of normal kids. But both utterly present and largely unmentioned is the way the plot involves an injection of diversity into a very white town.

The only reason either aspect of the plot works at all is that this amiable kid-sized drama focuses in on the seriousness with which a 13-year-old approaches his world. When we meet Johnny Kapahala (Brandon Baker), a native Hawaiian, he's a talented surfer following in his beloved grandfather's footsteps. The older man, Johnny Tsunami (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), is legendary with a long board and couldn't be prouder to watch his grandson excelling in the sport they love. But young Johnny's father (Yuji Okumoto) has taken a new job that will force their family to move, leaving their grandfather and surfing behind. The boy doesn't understand right away. His father says they're moving "back east." "Kuwai?" the boy says. Hardly.

Transplanted to Skyline Academy in Vermont, Johnny feels totally out of place. On his first day he tries to fit in by going skiing with WASPy bullies, led by a typical teen movie popular kid villain, Brett (Zachary Bostrom), who invite him for the express purpose of humiliating him. It turns out surfing skills don't translate to the ski slopes all that well. In fact, Johnny's in a real state of culture shock in every possible way. His laid-back islander surfer attitude clashes with the uptight private school rulebook at every turn. Even the schoolmate who is nicest to him, the headmaster's daughter (none other than Zenon herself, Kirsten Storms), bristles at his uncomfortable fit. She feels sorry for him, but seems to think he should compromise to fit in.

Luckily Johnny discovers snowboarding, a totally "urchin" activity in this town. He becomes fast friends with Sam (Lee Thompson Young), a public school kid with a regularly transferred military father (Cylk Cozart). Their similar outsider statuses prompted by paternal job placement provides a fast bond between the two as Sam heads out to the slopes to teach Johnny the ropes. It turns out snowboarding and surfing do have a lot in common. The scenes between Johnny and Sam are the movie's most charming. Baker and Young have fine buddy chemistry and they seem to genuinely care for each other. It's a nicely unforced sense of friendship that feels convincing.

A highlight of Johnny Tsunami is how convincing its emotional journey feels. The screenplay by Ann Knapp and Douglas Sloan has sports movie mechanics whir around in predictable fashion and the slopes' stupid unquestioned skiing privilege is shaken up satisfyingly as Johnny helps the public school kids question their place in the local hierarchy. That's well and good, but the movie's smart about the connections between groups of likeminded individuals and the way diversity can help break down barriers when you really stop to get to know a new person. And it's all pitched so consistently at an unhurried and utterly appropriate modest level, with emotions and conflict bubbling out of the typical churn of early adolescent anxieties heightened by a cross-country move.

Veteran stuntman-turned-director Steve Boyum gets performances of unforced charisma out of the young actors. Baker holds his own in the movie's center and there's plenty of room in the ensemble for notable turns. Storms is quite good in a very un-Zenon role, while Young (who sadly died earlier this year at the age of 29) gives a supporting performance overflowing with natural charm. As for the adult characters, they're hardly discounted or written off as mere plot points. There's some care taken to make them feel real as well, a nice balance to the movie's focus on the younger players. (Especially strong is the grandfatherly presence of Tagawa's title character.) The movie pays much sharper attention to its characters and their feelings than I was anticipating, creating a movie that's so generic in its broad strokes, but so appealing in details both emotional and subtextual that I found Johnny Tsunami to be a most welcome surprise.

Up next: Genius

Note: Project DCOM will be going on hiatus over the holidays. It will return in 2014.
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