Friday, January 31, 2014

Dumb Love: LABOR DAY


A romance is at the center of Labor Day. The plot hinges on it. The characters are motivated by it. The emotional resolution for all involved depends upon it. And I didn’t buy it, not even for a second. 

The movie is about a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) who only leaves the house once a month, taking her 12-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) with her to load up on four weeks of groceries and supplies. That’s what they’re doing at the start of the movie, heading out on their monthly shopping trip on the Thursday before Labor Day, 1987. There they are confronted by a man (Josh Brolin) with a small circle of blood on the side of his white shirt. He calmly and quietly intimidates them into giving him a ride. He stalks with them out to the car, gets in the back seat, and tells her to drive. Where to? “Your house,” he says. Once there, he agrees to not hurt them in exchange for allowing him to hide out. You see, he’s a prisoner who escaped mere hours before. He would much rather wait out the manhunt and skip off through the woods and onto a train than have to return and serve out the rest of his 18-year stay behind bars.

Where’s the romance in this, you ask? Why, it develops between Winslet and Brolin. She, trembling and morose, and he, quiet charisma, are drawn into each other’s emotional orbits as a hurt and depressed woman finds her neediness and loneliness complimented and matched by a criminal with neediness and loneliness that’s something like hers. Eventually, artful flashbacks tucked into the corners of scenes in our present day narrative reveal that these characters have gone through some infant-related traumas and significant others who have long since left one way or another. They’re both damaged, but together they feel like life might be okay now that someone understands them. But that’s all sitting under the narrative like sap about to be tapped until it drains out in great globs of sentimentality. At first the situation is simply menacing – a bloody escaped prisoner quickly and calmly muscles his way into the home of a child and defenseless parent! But the movie watches him make chili, teach them his recipe for peach pie, and set about fixing loose steps and changing the furnace filter. What a guy.

The only people who can truly understand a relationship are the ones living it. This one’s all about longing and deprivation, two people who have been alone for so long, trapped (in prison, in her thoughts), but ready to let desire to connect set off sparks. It’s an adult attraction that goes over the son’s head, but not the film’s. It’s a physical, sticky film, the muggy late-August small-town setting closing in. The characters are sweaty all the time, clothes sticking, hair slick and matted. Everyone seems uncomfortable and overheated. No wonder it’s such a perfect setting for passions to come to a boil, and then boil over. I’m all for good, honest melodrama, and Labor Day is nothing but earnest. But it never finds a convincing way of moving the pieces of the puzzle into a believable place. I just never bought that Winslet’s character, so hesitant and cautious, would let that caution slip for a character like Brolin’s, a clear and immediate threat. I understand getting caught in the dangerous situation, but not the way he so quickly erodes her suspicion.

The story is told from the son’s point of view. Nostalgia-soaked narration provided by Tobey Maguire as the now-grown son strings events along, filling in some psychological shading without cracking open the central attraction. He’s suspicious for sure, tentatively accepting some father-figure bonding (praise, a nickname, baseball tips), while worrying about his mother’s well-being. To a certain extent, the point of view excuses some of the romance’s inherent unknowability, but not its unbelievability. It’s a shame the film’s core falls flat while there is this wonderful characterization of the boy on the cusp of a big change. Griffith is far and away more believable than the adults anchoring the drama.

The young actor has a boyish face cut with faint adolescent angles, softly innocent with a faint awareness of adult matters creeping underneath. The film is best when focused on his mental state, on this liminal space between childhood playfulness and teenage roiling. There’s an early throwaway detail in front of a magazine rack as he has a moment of hesitant embarrassed curiosity, reaching for a glamour magazine with an alluring cover model before pulling away towards a rack of comic books when he sees someone nearby. Another scene in which he has an abstractly sensual dream – a rapid-fire montage of winking cover models, a half-remembered bra strap’s outline as seen through a classmate’s t-shirt, and an imagined embrace – is potent. The experience of being a 7th-grade boy is so nicely observed, I found myself wishing the film would become less relentlessly focused on its increasingly strained plot.

But it does have a plot, adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard by Jason Reitman. He’s swerving hard away from the genre on which he’s made his name, largely convincing character-study comedies of various flavors: satiric (Thank You For Smoking), workplace/romantic (Up in the Air), dark (Young Adult), and teen-centric (Juno). It’s too early to tell if this is a minor experiment or a change in direction for his career, but it’s nice to see a promising director willing to try something new, even if it doesn’t work. Labor Day, though attractively shot with lovely cinematography by Eric Steelberg and having a great sense of place and a well-cast ensemble, never comes together. Quivering with import on details of its drama, characters are moved around under the assumption that we’re with them, while I cringed, hoping someone would eventually make the right decision. Turns out, the movie and I were rooting for different outcomes.

Labor Day has thriller mechanics ticking under the sentimentality. It should and sometimes does play as a rooting interest in the boy or one of the townspeople (neighbors Brooke Smith and J.K. Simmons, police officer James Van Der Beek) finding the right moment to let the world know the fugitive is here, swooping in and saving Winslet from falling for him. This consensual kidnapping is in severe need of deflation before the sentimental music twinkles and the sun-dappled cinematography sells us on a romance that’s The Desperate Hours by way of Nicholas Sparks. But, no, love it is, maybe even True Love. And it never feels right to me, especially as the son shifts his eyes, and the score scrapes out suspense whenever Brolin gets close to caught. I wanted him to go back to jail, and the movie just plain won’t work if that’s the case. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Family Matters: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY


In adapting his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County to screenplay form, Tracy Letts, who has also adapted his Bug and Killer Joe into movies, trimmed the runtime by an hour but kept a great deal of its rich selection of meaty dialogues and monologues. The resulting film gathers a hugely talented ensemble and sets them before this all-you-can-act buffet and lets them chew. It’s theatrical, obviously finely written and overacted to the rafters. The story kicks off with the disappearance of the old patriarch of a large Oklahoman family. We glimpse him, played by Sam Shephard, in a brief introductory scene during which he reads us some T.S. Eliot in voice over. But now he’s gone, and his pill-popping cancer-patient wife (Meryl Streep) calls her grown daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis) home to wait and worry. Showing off its stagebound roots by trapping the ensemble in a stuffy house – you can almost feel the dusty stillness of the oppressive late-summer air – the film is eager to show us these great actors delivering great dialogue.

The screen is crowded with characters and none escape emotionally unscathed. Streep’s matriarch has cancer of the mouth and early on shouts that the pain has her feeling like he tongue is on fire. Hoo boy, is it ever. She spits unfiltered invective at everyone and everything, screwing up her face as if sucking on a lemon before the acid bubbles out of her, eating away at her family members. She feels neglected. She feels unappreciated. She feels abandoned. She’s shockingly mean and caustic under the mistaken belief that she’s simply telling the truth. You can feel sorry for her while completely understanding why two of her three daughters would want to move so far away. Roberts, who flies in with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin), is anxious and depressed. Lewis, the flightiest daughter, arrives with a stranger (Dermot Mulroney) she introduces, to her family’s surprise, as her fiancé. Nicholson, the most reserved and quietly dutiful of the daughters, has been helping her mother’s caretaker (Misty Upham), to what many characters assume is the detriment of her personal life. Streep’s sister (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), and nephew (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrive as well, casserole in tow.

The centerpiece of the film is a lengthy disastrous dinner scene in which everyone gets to masticate over their lines with great delight as they start slow and build to a great roaring cacophony of spitting, wailing, teasing, lamenting, hollering, accusing, reminiscing, and snapping. In this scene, and many that approach its intensity of character and feeling, the acting is energetic, enthusiastic, and convincing in a beautifully theatrical way. It wouldn’t work if the ensemble was not so nicely balanced, some (Streep, Roberts, Martindale, Lewis) going so big, teeth tearing at every bit of scenery that crosses their paths, that others (Cooper, Nicholson, Breslin) can lean back and go low-key and small. There’s a sense of generosity, the actors pitching their performances at just the right levels to blend wonderfully without a sense that anyone is trying to out act their castmates. It’s gloriously hammy in the best sense of theatricality and the film is wise to step back and let them roar.

That’s precisely what the film is best at giving us: a talented ensemble chewing its way through delicious writing. It’s not much in the way of visually interesting, but that’s hardly an attempt on my part to pin the movie’s faults on staginess. On the contrary, I found the film’s theatrical roots to be better the more clearly and simply shown. This is only the second film from director John Wells, a longtime TV writer, director, and showrunner most famous for NBC’s E.R. and currently of Showtime’s Shameless. He shoots the film only functionally, with little personality. He stays out of the way of the crackling chaos in the familial war of words as old resentments erupt, spilling over into freshly growing fissure vents.

Even after slightly over two hours, there’s not much clarity in the geography of our surroundings or the house’s architecture. And the few attempts to open up past the proscenium – just a couple of car trips, really – seem too desperate an attempt to make it play at some imagined ideal of cinematic interpretation. Wells’s inexpressive direction dutifully captures the performances and allows for appreciation of Letts’s writing, but more imagination in the visual staging, and maybe even a better sense of claustrophobia by heightening the theatrical roots, would’ve brought the whole endeavor up to the same level as the material and the performances. He traffic-cops the cast capably, coaxing a fine-tuned sense of energy and a great underlying tension in the straining relationships. But in the end, I found myself appreciating the performances and the writing more than being moved by the whole.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cop Out: RIDE ALONG


Ride Along is a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy with the theoretically funny twist of one of the bickering cops not being a cop. It’s not exactly a new twist on the formula. We’ve seen that dynamic before, played for laughs in films of all kinds, including Die Hard with a Vengeance. In Ride Along, a wimpy security guard (Kevin Hart) agrees to go on patrol with a tough, no-nonsense, breaking-all-the-rules-because-he-knows-best cop (Ice Cube) because he’s dating the man’s sister (Tika Sumpter) and wants to be seen as worthy. The script, which has been cobbled together by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (they of R.I.P.D.) with Greg Coolidge and Jason Mantzoukas, runs through the typical buddy comedy clichés, starting with a scene like something from 2010’s The Other Guys and coasting into an investigation that’s reminiscent of last summer’s The Heat. Every step of the way, the movie coasts on the energy of putting two actors playing opposites bouncing off of each other, getting under each other’s skin, and eventually learning to like each other and work well as a team because, come on, it’s what this kind of movie is.

Cube scowls and Hart shrieks as they work their way through a series of comic sequences. It’s everything their screen presences would have you expect. Think for a second about what the movie might’ve been if they switched parts, with the bulky, glowering Cube as the shivering civilian and the diminutive Hart the blustering seen-it-all confident cop. I’m not saying it’d be a better movie – it’d almost certainly be dismissed as miscast – but at least it’d throw a curveball into its stiffly forced wackiness. It limps around on generic plotting while the actors are only as funny as the off-the-shelf parts of the screenplay allow them to be. Hart stammers and hyperventilates and flings himself into physical bits while Cube growls and gets down to business as he tries to get actual work done. As they encounter typical police work – illegally parked vehicles, drunk and disorderly conduct – Cube keeps Hart distracted and humiliated at every turn.

This thin material certainly isn’t helped by how unhelpful Tim Story’s direction is. It’s just not funny – flat, inexpressive and doing absolutely nothing to help punch up the performer’s timing or augment tepidly humorous scenarios with little bits of visual teasing. For a guy who has spent his career shooting comedies (Barbershop and Think Like a Man), action comedies (Taxi), and light action (two almost-instantly forgotten Fantastic Four movies), he has very little action or comedy in his sense of framing. His is a visual sense that’s clean, professional, and wholly impersonal. It’s sturdy I suppose, but when put to use on a script so thuddingly obvious and jokes that are more miss than hit, it’s not enough. A joke in which Hart mistakenly identifies a woman biker as a man could be a funny joke on him, but the way it’s cut together makes it seem all too ugly a joke on her.

Speaking of ugly, Ride Along seems to find gun violence a whole lot funnier than I do. It’s so light and middling a comedy that skirting around its bleaker comedic impulses makes it seem a little on the icky side. Take these two punchlines. One comes after Hart has, in the process of threatening a suspect with a gun, shot a man in the shoulder. He says, “I thought the safety was on!” I’m sorry if an innocent man accidentally shot (even in what is clearly meant to be played off as nonlethal) doesn’t start me laughing. Then there’s a scene in a gun range when Hart shoots a high-powered shotgun and the kick launches him violently backwards into a wall. “Those should be banned!” he wails, the joke seemingly that he’s not tough enough to handle it, what with his knowledge of firearms limited to violent video games. It seems to me the real joke is that, what with our nation’s dysfunctional relationship to firepower, use of such weapons probably should be constrained, and yet that’ll never happen.

For the most part, though, Ride Along is on cruise control, too light and forgettably formulaic to get riled up over one way or the other. It’s not just the tough cop, outmatched wannabe cop, and the sweet, patient, sure to be third-act-threatened girlfriend. There are standard cop movie characters everywhere, like a gruff lieutenant (Bruce McGill), who doesn’t have the turn-over-your-gun-and-badge scene, but might as well have, and two wisecracking partners (John Leguizamo and Bryan Callen) who push along the investigation while Cube’s preoccupied with his prospective brother-in-law’s failings. There’s not a single unpredictable moment in its entirety, up to and including a terrific cameo appearance in the final stretch that’s been spoiled 80 minutes earlier by listing the actor in question in the opening credits. I suppose it would’ve been too much to ask for this autopilot work of formula picture to have even one welcome surprise.

Spy Spy Again: JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT


With justified worries over an encroaching surveillance state that has overreaching capabilities to snoop on anyone with technology of any kind, now is a fairly awkward time to mount a slick Hollywood thriller about heroes in the United States intelligence community. In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a critical third act sequence finds characters frantically searching through data, cross-referencing telephone calls, and pulling up vast amounts of info on suspects with just a few key strokes. That they’re doing all this with a ticking time bomb of an imminent terrorist plot on American soil is the exact same fantasy that the intelligence agencies use when trying desperately to justify their sweeping ability to keep tabs on everyone at all times. And yet, as a piece of Hollywood filmmaking, that fantasy goes down well enough in this case, especially with a script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp that’s aware of its pulpy fiction and seems somewhat aware of the real moral ambiguities. The thrust of the film is a freshly rebooted origin story for Jack Ryan, the C.I.A. analyst and reluctant field operative from Tom Clancy’s military industrial airport novels, and so the final shot which, unconsciously or not, echoes the final shot of The Godfather, makes welcoming him into The Company seem rather ominous indeed.

This time around, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a bright graduate student who joins the Marines after September 11, 2001 and, after getting wounded in Afghanistan, is approached by a C.I.A. operative (Kevin Costner) with promise of a desk job sorting through financial records and analyzing the money flowing to and from terrorist organizations. Ten years later, Ryan finds some important information that sends him to Moscow where he’s quickly drawn into field work involving geopolitical intrigue and, yes, revelation of a terrorist plot about to blow up somewhere in the United States. Pine brings inquisitive puppy dog energy (imagine that) to his performance, playing at what another character labels as “Boy Scout on a field trip” behavior. He’s ready to serve his country, but caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected swerve out from behind his desk. Costner, with gravitas for days, is a sturdy guide, paternal and wise. He’s an actor who started out playing the young overeager hotshots that Pine gets cast as now, but has aged into a welcome sense of ease. He’s remarkably still, confident, and lends every line a sense of considered weight.

I liked the chemistry between these two, but Costner’s character is so intriguing that it’s a shame Pine’s Jack Ryan is a nonentity. He has a token love interest in Keira Knightley, who plays what is a typical girlfriend role in these kinds of movies, worrying he’s cheating on her with another woman when he’s only hiding his top-secret government employee status. Later, she’ll be in danger in order to fuel the plot. Again, how typical, even if the script gives their relationship a more mature glow than I expected. Even the villain, a tattooed Russian banker and sleeper cell coordinator, comes across as rather routine despite being played with chewy fun by Kenneth Branagh. (His character is described through his vices: vodka, vanity, and women. Say it with a Russian accent and the alliteration works better.) But who is Jack Ryan? With no defining characteristics beyond being a smart and patriotic white male government operative, and certainly with nothing more than vaguely identifiable personality traits, it’s often hard to see why the character is cause for such regular rebooting.

Each version seems to lose some of the energy and charisma, the character growing blander and less defined with each new script and performer. There was a young Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, a tense and tightly-wound character-driven thriller, then Harrison Ford took over a few years later, playing things older and slower in the sleepier Patriot Games and Clear and Pleasant Danger, before Ben Affleck gave it a go in 2002’s solid Sum of All Fears. Sturdy films all, they, Hunt aside, nonetheless carry about them a whiff of the generic. Who is this Jack Ryan? I certainly didn’t care by this point. If the would-be franchise hasn’t stuck yet, one would almost say it’s time to give up trying. And yet, it churns out such agreeably generic thrillers that I’d almost hate to see them go.

Shadow Recruit is so crisp and compact, likably human scale in its thriller sequences of people running, chasing, and sneaking. Branagh, who is also the director, doesn’t draw much on his Shakespearean chops, or even his work directing the half pseudo-Shakespearean Thor, but keeps the tension high enough. It’s all reasonably diverting and modestly plotted, a reminder of a time when a big studio movie didn’t need a fully CGI climax. With its small-scale stunt work and one big splashy effect saved for maximum impact, I’d call it a throwback if it weren’t so consumed with post-9/11 anxieties. I found it involving enough, though the only character I ever truly bought was Costner’s. It’s a fine example of brisk, anonymous, functional thriller craftsmanship, although it feels more like a promising restart than a fully satisfying thing on its own, like a pilot for a mildly intriguing TV show. Figuring out how to better make Jack Ryan a fully formed, or at least interesting or engaging, character would’ve been nice. So would a point of view on all the agency’s grey-area capabilities. But I have a feeling we’ll see this character again. Maybe by that time the rights’ holders will have it figured out.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2013







1. Inside Llewyn Davis

2. Before Midnight
3. 12 Years a Slave
4. At Berkeley
5. To the Wonder
6. Frozen
7. Gravity
8. Captain Phillips
9. The World’s End
10. Frances Ha

Honorable Mentions:
About Time, Blancanieves, Blue is the Warmest Color, Fruitvale Station, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I’m So Excited, Like Someone in Love, No, Pacific Rim, The Wind Rises, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

The “How’s That American Dream Working for You?” Theme of the Year Honorable Mentions:
The Bling Ring, The Butler, The Counselor, The Great Gatsby, The Lone Ranger, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street

more 2013 bests

Other 2013 Bests


Best Cinematography
Bojan Bazelli The Lone Ranger
Bruno Delbonnel Inside Llewyn Davis
Hoyte Van Hoytema Her
Emmanuel Lubezki To the Wonder
            Harris Savides and Christian Blauvelt The Bling Ring
           
Best Sound
            The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
            The Lone Ranger
            Pacific Rim
            Star Trek Into Darkness
            12 Years a Slave
           
Best Special Effects
            Gravity
            The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
            The Lone Ranger
            Pacific Rim
Thor: The Dark World

Best Costumes
            Blancanieves
            The Great Gatsby
            The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
            The Lone Ranger
            Pacific Rim

Best Makeup
            Evil Dead
            The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
            The Lone Ranger
            Oz the Great and Powerful
            12 Years a Slave

Best Set/Art Direction
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Pacific Rim
            To the Wonder
Thor: The Dark World

Best Editing
            At Berkeley
            Before Midnight
            Inside Llewyn Davis
            The Wolf of Wall Street
            The World’s End

Best Score
            Frozen Christophe Beck
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Howard Shore
            The Lone Ranger Hans Zimmer
            Man of Steel Hans Zimmer
            Oz the Great and Powerful Danny Elfman
                       
Best Song
            “I See Fire” Ed Sheeran The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
“Let it Go” Idina Menzel Frozen
            “L.O.V.E.D.A.R.C.Y” Emmy the Great Austenland
            “Please Mr. Kennedy” Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver Inside Llewyn Davis
            “Young and Beautiful” Lana Del Rey The Great Gatsby
           
Best Adapted Screenplay
            Jennifer Lee Frozen
            Pedro Peirano No
            Billy Ray Captain Phillips
            John Ridley 12 Years a Slave
            Terence Winter The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Original Screenplay
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig Frances Ha
            Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Inside Llewyn Davis
Abbas Kiarostami Like Someone in Love
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy Before Midnight
            Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg The World’s End

Best Animated Film
            The Croods
            From Up on Poppy Hill
            Frozen
            Monsters University
            The Wind Rises

Best Documentary
            The Act of Killing
At Berkeley
            Gideon’s Army
            Inequality for All
            Stories We Tell
                       
Best Foreign Film
            Blue is the Warmest Color
            I’m So Excited!
            Like Someone In Love
            No
            The Wind Rises
           
Best Supporting Actress
            Lupita Nyong’o 12 Years a Slave
Margot Robbie The Wolf of Wall Street
Maribel Verdu Blancanieves
            Emma Watson The Bling Ring
            Oprah Winfrey The Butler           

Best Supporting Actor
            Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern Nebraska
James Franco Spring Breakers
            James Gandolfini Enough Said           
            Jonah Hill The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress
            Cate Blanchett Blue Jasmine
            Sandra Bullock Gravity
Julie Delpy Before Midnight
Adèle Exarchopoulos Blue is the Warmest Color
Greta Gerwig Frances Ha
           
Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks Captain Phillips
            Ethan Hawke Before Midnight
Oscar Isaac Inside Llewyn Davis
Forest Whitaker The Butler

Best Director
            Joel and Ethan Coen Inside Llewyn Davis
            Richard Linklater Before Midnight
            Terrence Malick To the Wonder
            Steve McQueen 12 Years a Slave
            Frederick Wiseman At Berkeley

On the Road: NEBRASKA


In Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, an old man (Bruce Dern) in the early stages of aged confusion gets a piece of junk mail that says he has the chance to win $1 million. He thinks he’s won and needs to get from his Montana home to Lincoln, Nebraska (the mail’s return address) to claim his money. He’s all ready to walk there, seeing as he’s not well enough to drive and still hasn’t fixed up the busted pickup that’s been sitting in his garage for a decade. His younger of two grown sons (Will Forte) agrees to drive him, his older son (Bob Odenkirk) and wife (June Squibb) slowly shaking their heads at all this silliness. Forte calmly hears his mother’s objections as she asks why he won’t take her to see her sister instead of indulging his father’s figment of the imagination.

The dignity of the old man’s nonsense quest comes in simply allowing him a sense of purpose and good fortune, the removal of which would be awfully difficult anyway. Payne’s typical sweet-and-sour comic drama chops, on display in the likes of About Schmidt and The Descendents, serve Bob Nelson’s dryly observant road trip screenplay well as the man and his son stop off to see relatives along the way in domestic scenes so true I found myself thinking, I’ve been in those rooms! Conversation is terse, halting, transactional, loosely organized, understated, half-loving and half-prickly. My favorite exchange comes when Forte’s elderly aunt (Mary Louise Wilson) says his uncle’s foot’s been bothering him again. There’s a long pause before the man (Rance Howard) simply says, “Naw. Just hurts.”

It’s all so sharply moving and funny that by the time it concludes with a fuzzy and generous sense of tough Midwestern sentimentality, it’s very nearly earned. The resolution comes not so much from plot or a change in circumstance, but from a simple act of dignity allowed an old man who appreciates it with as much stoic befuddlement as he can be. Dern’s performance is real and creaky a picture of low-level confusion and unshakable delusion. Forte’s a fine low-key foil, exasperated by his father’s unshakable misunderstanding, but so full of loving affection that he’d rather protect his father from those circling to get a piece of the nonexistent prize and shelter him from those who’d make fun of the truth. That just might be a losing battle.

The ensemble – from Odenkirk and Squibb to the myriad small town relatives and acquaintances, including Stacy Keach with perfectly pitched arrogance – is so fully real and convincing there’s hardly a false note among them. Their dialogue is funny in the way your relatives (mileage with this comparison may vary) are funny, with unexpected detours, sudden surprise revelations presented matter-of-factly, conversational roundabouts, and wondrous colloquialisms. The false notes ring softly in the script as it falls into predictable road trip patterns and there’s scarcely a surprise on a story level. That kept it a tad on the narratively uninvolving side for me. The milieu is presented with such clarity and truth, the plot mechanics feel at times like nothing less than an unwelcome intrusion. But the characters feel so real that when the movie was at its best, I hardly cared. Nebraska is as prickly and unhurried as its characters, filmed in bracing black and white that casts it all in a fading glory. The past, endlessly picked and poked by being in old places with old relatives, may be gone, but there’s still dignity in allowing the old man to believe he’s rich. With a son like that, who is to say he isn’t?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 Catch Up: SHORT TERM 12 and YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET


Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 has an earnest verisimilitude that’s nearly undercut by plotting neatly organized with hidden-in-plain-sight exposition, dramatic payoffs, and impeccable structure, each moment building expertly on the last with character arcs dovetailing oh-so-neatly. Set in a group home for at-risk kids, the film follows the routine of Grace (Brie Larson, in a remarkable performance of considerable poise and easy charm), a young woman who is helping these troubled teens out of an honest desire to help, and as a way to work through memories of her own troubled upbringing. The place itself is achingly convincing with a charming collection of struggling teens suffering from a variety of circumstances and emotional afflictions. The employees, mostly nice twentysomethings portrayed appealingly by John Gallagher, Jr., Rami Malek, and Stephanie Beatriz, are tough but compassionate, eager to be friendly with their wards, but quick to get serious and severe if necessary.

The main trouble kid is a new inmate, an abused teen girl (Kaitlyn Dever, a strong performance in a film of great young actors) who becomes Grace’s special case. She feels like she understands her more than anyone because - wouldn’t you know it? – she has been in her shoes. Cretton’s screenplay is so deft and polished that I wished it would step back and breathe, letting the great setting and hugely talented ensemble relax and settle into the film without being pulled along by plotting with obvious signposts and predictable symbolism. It easily generates such a strong, emotional impact through the cast and setting that I only wish that power arrived with as much unforced ease in the plotting. I realize it may seem a minor complaint that the film is too transparently well written for its own good, but it’s a frustration of mine in this case nonetheless.

In You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a French playwright’s assistant calls the man’s closest actor friends – real French stars like Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Lambert Wilson, and Michel Piccoli playing themselves – to inform them that their old pal has died. They’re called to one of the man’s mansions, gathered in a darkened screening room, and shown footage from a rehearsal in an empty warehouse of a humble new production of his Eurydice. Those gathered have performed this play before at one time or another, and as the evening stretches out, memory and screen merge. They act out their old parts, doubling dialogue, inserting themselves into the conversation, moving into an imagined dreamscape of remembered or present-tense performance with dramatically lit sets and deliberately phony CGI backdrops, twisting back into their seats, smiling warmly at one another. The formality of the words and loose playfulness of the imagery creates a fun tension, as does the richly appointed home stretching across the wide screen and the smaller frame-within-the-frame play-within-the-play-within-the-movie’s humbler, scrappy production. It’s mischievously esoteric.

Cinema has the ability to reflect our lives back at us, provoking warm memories, deeply held feelings and truths. These artists are called back into their Eurydice characters, and into the memory of their dead friend by nothing more than the dramatic circumstances of sitting together in the dark, watching a flickering image projected before them. Humans may be mortal, but if we’re lucky we live on forever in the emotions sitting ripe for the feeling within art. That this spellbindingly experimental and intimately heartfelt film is a product of an old master, 91-year-old Alain Resnais, who brings together his mesmerizing hypnotic symbolic abstraction (a la 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad), sharply observed acting, and giddy, playfully dreamy imagery (like his 2009 film Wild Grass), is once more a welcome sign that great artists can retain their sense of vitality. Here is a man, like the playwright in his film, who will live on in his art, forever calling forth an audience to see if anyone still cares.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: HER


Her is a film on parallel tracks. It’s a gentle and quietly chilling sci-fi film; it’s a fuzzy and empathetic romance. It’s interested in abstract philosophical ruminations on the implications of ever increasing entanglement with ever-smarter technology; it’s a sopping sentimental look into mankind’s yearning for a life of truly meaningful connection and beauty. That these tracks come together with something approaching coherence and cohesion, meeting sometimes convincingly in a sweet and whimsical middle ground between these concerns, is due to writer-director Spike Jonze’s ability to find and present the beating heart and core universal insights that sit inside what appear on the surface to be unwieldy and peculiar concepts. He makes prickly unpredictable, but deeply sympathetic and singularly strange stories – about a portal into the mind of a real actor playing himself, Being John Malkovich; about a case of writer’s block that rewrites before our eyes the very movie we’re watching, Adaptation; about a boy who imagines a storybook world in which his emotions are literal monsters to be ruled over, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – so full of personal and evocative feeling.

With his newest film, he uses science fiction in what has become an increasingly rare use of the genre in its big screen outings. I mean, I love sci-fi about monsters, robots, superheroes, and space opera plenty, but that’s not all the genre is capable of, even if that’s increasingly the only kind that makes it into wide release. With Her, Jonze takes a real concept concerning How We Live Now – the nature of human intimacy in lives increasingly tangled up in smart phones and wearable tech – and layers on some metaphoric complications by imagining a world that’s much like our own, with current trends extrapolated outward. He takes a question one could ask about present day interactions – is cybersex any less an intimate act for being mediated by technology? – and adds a futurist complication. What if the person on the other end isn’t even human? This is no Catfishing parable. In Her, a man depressed in the wake of his divorce upgrades his network – a synced cloud between his computers, phone, and gaming device – to a new operating system and immediately falls in love. He’s not just happy with his purchase. He falls in love with the smart, funny, inquisitive, lively computer voice representing the cutting edge learning and evolving artificial intelligence of his OS.

The man is played by Joaquin Phoenix, often sitting alone in the frame as he talks to the voice of his computer, his eyes lighting up with unexpected energy. He has flesh and blood people to interact with, his neighbor (Amy Adams), his boss (Chris Pratt), and even his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), but still he’s lonely. Speaking to his new digital companion, he’s cautious at first, but the technology soon seems to win him over. It’s just so alive, speaking with the breathy, excited voice of Scarlett Johansson. You might wonder why a computer function would need to breathe at all, but it’s clear that the software is built to grow and learn and speak in a way that’s comfortingly human. No stiff Siri stiltedness here. There are long passages of the film in which the two of them talk, Phoenix and Johansson bantering or exposing their innermost thoughts, which could be lifted out of any film romance barely altered, and it’s startlingly easy to forget for a split second the nature of what is happening. That’s the chilly but humane point bubbling under their interactions. It’s sweet and scary, but tips so hard to the sweet side for so long, it’s all the scarier.

It’s a haunting form of intimacy. He throws himself into the relationship. It is a technological escape from depression and through the process he rediscovers his ability to feel. It’s productive in that way, and he’s increasingly happy with his situation, even shyly admitting to his neighbor that he’s “seeing someone” and “just having lots of fun.” But it was hard for me to shake the awareness that his love is a voice programmed to have all the signifiers of human interaction without anything signified. This is no long-distance relationship with a human. It’s all just bits of code zipping around, learning, evolving, behaving human. (The tantalizing question of how human must a program be before we say it has developed humanity remains hinted at, largely unexplored.) Jonze’s wonderfully humane tone, whimsical and twee without ever becoming too silly, seems to bury this central fact for quite some time, swooning with a twinkly (too twinkly) Arcade Fire score at the romance just as much as Phoenix does. How real is this output really? He rather geekily says research shows OS/human romances are rare, but maybe he’s in one because the input data of his life suggests to the computer that that is exactly what he needs.

Jonze paints the complications simply, subdued under the rosy romantic picture he paints, a soft and warm comfortable environment underneath which sits its colder questioning. It’s an oddity, at once hopeful and pessimistic, saying that even when we become too reliant on technology, it may in the end grow past us to the extent that it’ll know when to leave us. The cinematography suggests this funny futurist optimism, Hoyte Van Hoytema creating imagery that has a pale glow off of the soft pastel colors of shirts – the high-waisted pants are all earth tones that are even softer – and glistening city lights of a world cautiously and convincingly just a few leaps beyond our own. We live in a world of sleek, smooth, curved devices, much like the ones in this film. Everything from the iPhone to the Wii seems soft and appealing with light colors, dulcet tones, soothing beeps, intuitive functionality (some of the time). You can walk into any restaurant and are likely to find a couple sitting across a table from each other, staring deeply into their screens. Her takes infatuation with technology and design to the next level, reveals that, even with some strange and awkward new complications, it can be deeply satisfying and even beneficial for this character. And that’s exactly why it’s so creepy, too.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Paranormal Selfie: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES


I like the Paranormal Activity franchise’s crafty mix of repetition and experimentation in their found-footage haunted house stories that are all connected in one way or another. That audiences have so far rewarded the creative team with highly profitable box office grosses have allowed the filmmakers to have a little qualitative resurgence with every other sequel. Paranormal Activity 2 was a prematurely tired retread of the first film, but with a bigger cast and more camera angles. Then 3 came along with the best scares the series has yet seen, including a fantastic use of a video camera fastened to the top of a rotating fan. These movies are never better than when teasing scares by teaching an audience how to watch them, scrutinizing still or locked patterns of shots for the slightest tremble of variation. That the fourth film was a dull repetition of earlier scares without the satisfying crescendo while bobbling its few new ideas was a disappointment. But, hey, they’re trying.

Now here’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which takes a step sideways from the events we’ve been moving backwards and forwards through in the previous four films, circling the original haunting of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). This time we’ve moved away from suburbia and into a poor, predominantly Latino neighborhood. The setting is drawn in a way that’s full of convincing, mildly stereotypical, local color with plenty of Catholic symbols, gangbangers, and untranslated Spanish. It’s a nice break from what we’ve seen so far from the series. Instead of worried suburbanites wondering about things that go bump in the night, we’ve got an 18-year-old kid (Andrew Jacobs) and his friends (Jorge Diaz and Gabrielle Walsh) messing around with a video camera, having fun, partying, playing games and goofing around. Then a secretive woman in their thin-walled apartment complex gets murdered and, poking around the crime scene, they discover her connection to, what else, Paranormal Activities.

Soon one of the kids starts finding strange events everywhere he goes and decides to capture them with his camera. He has a mysterious bite on his arm. The dog runs from him. He can do the Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal” lean like a pro. He pulls a loose eyelash at the corner of his eye and a long, thin trail of wiry slime comes sliding out. A Simon electronic memory game seems to be trying to communicate with them. The symptoms ride a fine line between funny and creepy, but all point to all the obvious signs of having suddenly become a character in a horror movie. Thankfully, he keeps the camera pointed at his plight. Unlike the four previous hauntings, this Paranormal Activity is a straight-up possession movie, with an underlying need to solve the mystery and exorcise the evil spirits. At one point the teenage girl from the family in Paranormal Activity 2 (Molly Ephraim, nowadays pretty funny on ABC’s Last Man Standing) shows up to explain the grave stakes and make cross-sequel franchise connections, moving the overarching mystery forward ever so slightly.

The Marked Ones wouldn’t work as a stand-alone horror film, but as an entry in a franchise it’s a nice attempt to branch out. Writer-director Christopher Landon has had a hand in the screenplays for all of the sequels and here on his own finds some minor fun in the makeshift mythos. The camera work – shaky and mobile all the way through – tugs at the why-are-they-still-filming-this? question more forcefully, robbing the film of the locked-down creeping dread through total stillness that’s always been my favorite aspect of these films. It doesn’t follow the pattern of escalating thumps, choosing instead to inject creepiness more overtly, like in a dark hidden basement draped in layers of plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling, a couple visually bendy effects, and in quick pans that find mildly creepy surprises. It’s lively enough and the kids at the center have likable joking chemistry that slowly curdles into fright. In the conclusion, the film turns a tight bit of narrative surprise mixed with closure that the series perhaps didn’t need, but feels right. In finding new types of characters and new locales to spin these stories with, it proves there are still some signs of life in this franchise yet.
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