Friday, February 28, 2014

Can't Stop, Won't Stop: NON-STOP


In 2005 and 2006, we had a small post-9/11 glut of thrillers set on airplanes, all largely excellent in one way (United 93) or another (Red Eye, Flightplan), or another (Snakes on a Plane). It’s a subgenre I’m happy to return to yet again in Non-Stop, especially when it’s done well, and even better, when we’re seated next to Liam Neeson. He has such likable, intimidating intelligence on screen. Using his height, his gravely accent, and his piercing eyes to communicate a soulful determination and confident capacity for handling any situation in which he finds himself, he anchors and makes compelling even the junkiest of thrillers, like Taken 2. For very good thrillers, like The Grey, he helps make them into terrific suspenseful evocations of existential anguish. Non-Stop’s entertainment value falls somewhere between those previous pictures. It’s a relentless entertainment that constantly tightens the situation around Neeson, constraining options and narrowing his ability to maneuver until the panic reaches a crowd-pleasing intensity.

In this slow boil thriller of slickly increasing and enjoyable suspense, he plays an air marshal aboard a late night transatlantic flight from New York to London. Not long after takeoff, he receives a series of texts from a blocked number. Each new message flashes on the screen, the silence of the midnight flight turning ominous as the texts reveal an ultimatum. A passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a specified account. It’s a hostage situation, but only the marshal knows, at least at first. Who is the hostage taker? It’s someone on the plane, but he or she is doing an awfully good job staying hidden. (Could this be the first organic and well-executed use of texting for the purposes of cinematic anxiety?) Director Jaume Collet-Serra, of the skillfully upsetting horror film Orphan and the Neeson-starring actioner Unknown, uses the darkened nighttime interior of the plane to heighten the drama and keep the stakes intensely enclosed.

A cleverly contained mystery, the film is smartly not a whodunit, but a who-is-doing-it. Any one of the people hunched over their tablets and smart phones could be doing the threatening. It’s a high-flying locked room mystery, Agatha Christie by way of Speed. The screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle respects the audience’s intelligence as it follows Neeson looking around the plane, hunting for anything suspicious. The appealing ensemble is loaded with familiar faces playing passengers (Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally), flight attendants (Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o), and airline officials (Anson Mount). All of them can ably appear suspicious and innocent in the same instant. Neeson is desperately searching amongst and around them for a clue when events suddenly conspire for a corpse to turn up exactly on schedule. The threats are no mere prank. They are deadly serious.

As events on the plane grow increasingly desperate, curiosity escalates in the passengers and crew. Information and rumors spill out in dribs and drabs of context-free worry, eventually making their way to the ground where authorities, like Shea Whigham in a good voice performance as a security official calling the plane’s phone, and news media assume Neeson is the one doing the hostage-taking . That only makes solving the case harder for the poor guy. It’s a credit to the inexorable forward momentum of the film and the welcome shades of complexity to this Hitchcockian wrong-man panic that I found myself desperately wanting Neeson to be right, but half-prepared for a twist that would put him in the wrong. It sure looks like he’s being framed, but in this situation everyone is a suspect. The plane keeps cutting through the night sky, too far to turn back to America, still too far away from Europe to make a landing. But as the threat of violence looms, casualties slowly pile up, and Neeson’s behavior grows increasingly desperate, it’s agonizingly clear they’re eventually heading to the ground one way or another.

Non-Stop stays at a consistent height of peril, compelling and involving throughout. Neeson grounds it all with a weary humanity as an alcoholic ex-cop with sad family problems, a token amount of backstory that would seem cheap if a lesser actor was in his position. He reluctantly finds himself the center of this madness, and the one with the best chance of bringing it to a safe conclusion. Collet-Serra makes great use of Neeson’s height and broad shoulders in contrast to the tight aisles and low ceilings of the setting, finding ways to use every bit of the plane in clever ways, even sending the vehicle into sudden turbulence to punctuate dramatic moments. The raw material is nothing inherently special, but in its execution it rises to the level of superior craftsmanship. It is a solid, exciting, and satisfying thriller.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Do You Like Movies About Gladiators? POMPEII


Hardly the first bit of fiction to spin a yarn about the final days of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city infamously swallowed up by its nearby volcano’s eruption, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is a sturdy evocation of old B-movie energy and pleasures. Its ties to cinema past – a little prestige Roman epic here, a little trashy sword-and-sandals actioner there – are earnest and sometimes exciting. This is a film with actors walking around lavishly fake sets in flowing togas and militaristic leather, speaking in vaguely English accents to denote their existence in the past. It features a love-at-first-sight slave boy/rich girl romance, Ancient Roman Empire intrigue, plots for revenge, threats of slave revolt, gladiatorial combat, and a subplot involving the funding for a new construction project. There’s something for everyone. Because Anderson never condescends to the material, throwing himself into making fine use of widescreen spaces and crackling effects work, it’s an empty diversion that comes by its schlock honestly and unpretentiously.

In the past fifteen years or so, Anderson has become one of our most reliably vivid visual storytellers, whether it be in a horror film (Event Horizon), an actioner (Death Race), a swashbuckler (The Three Musketeers), a sci-fi splatterfest (Alien vs. Predator), or all of the above (the Resident Evils). Now, those aren’t all great films or even good films, though I have a soft spot for some of them. But what they have is commitment to style and design that turns out terrific genre imagery and occasional fluid sequences of impressive action. They’re hardly what you’d call prestige pictures. They're the kind of mid-range studio fare that’s easily ignored or written off indiscriminately as nothing but garbage. But there’s a difference between lazy trash and artful trash and Anderson almost unfailingly brings the spirit of artful visual play to any project. In Pompeii, he designs a gloriously fake ancient city, a mix of shiny CGI equivalents of matte paintings and studio sets not too far removed from the kind Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper used for their Last Days of Pompeii in 1935. Within this overtly movie-ish setting, he lets his framing and staging pop with enjoyable momentum, pleasing symmetries, and striking shots.

One striking shot occurs right at the beginning, when a young Celtic boy wakes up after being knocked out cold while Romans slaughtered his entire village. He finds the corpses of his father and other rebels dangling by their feet from a lone tree in the center of a vast field. The boy grows up to be an enslaved gladiator (played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) who is taken to Pompeii to compete in their tournament. He’s the slave who’ll catch the eye of the rich girl (Emily Browning). She’s the daughter of Pompeii’s leaders (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), and spends her time fleeing the unwanted advances of a Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). That senator happens to be the man who led the massacre of the slave boy’s village (small world) and happens to now be in Pompeii to pay an imperially threatening visit to the town which is simmering with potentially rebellious undercurrents.

These plots are all stock elements put together by screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson with dutiful coincidences. After all, how better to make us care about the town that’s about to get buried in lava than populate it with characters engaged in colorful cardboard historical melodramas? I haven’t even mentioned the champion slave (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who will get his freedom if he kills the boy in combat. There’s a lot of conflict in this little town. Something bloody was going to go down here even without the volcano blowing its top.

The characters and plots are engaging in a rote way, but what really makes them click is the casting. Harington walks into the picture abs-first, swaggering down a dungeon corridor and into the arena in a fine entrance. He’s a chiseled hero and good match for his foe, who Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays as a tough guy you just know will come to team up with the man he’s forced to fight and attempt to get back at their enslavers. It’s a long time coming, but fairly satisfying when it does. Then there’s the romantic co-lead, Browning, who doesn’t speak so much as breathes every line from between perpetually parted lips. Harris, all gravitas, and Moss, all tough caring, lend a fine sense of parental authority to the proceedings, while Sutherland is all patrician slime. They do good work with thin material, much like their director, who makes them look great and, working with cinematographer Glen MacPherson in their fourth collaboration, brings his considerable visual interest.

It’s the rare movie that’s never fully convincing, sometimes almost laughable, and yet grows more urgent and involving every step of the way. It ends on a high downer note as the gladiator movie turns into a rumbling disaster movie. Rolling walls of acrid smoke, oozing lava, collapsing pillars, crumbling ground, and crashing waves fly off the screen (the 3D is flinchingly good in this department) as extras stumble around, smacked by debris, spilling down cracking staircases, and flailing about in flames. Pompeii is falling apart like there’s no tomorrow, but there’s still plenty of time for the stock subplots to finish off in predictable but largely satisfying ways in sword fights, chariot chases, thundering comeuppances, sacrificial acts, and a kiss. There’s not much to Pompeii in the end – or much to Pompeii in the end, come to think of it – overall nothing more than shiny schlock. But because Anderson stages the material earnestly, confidently, with a nice cast and visual appeal, it’s endearing schlock all the same. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Up in the Air: THE WIND RISES


Master animator Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greats. His films are built from such beautiful enchantment, a deep reverence for childlike wonder and natural beauty imbued with an unerring eye for the fantastic and magical. In The Wind Rises, which he claims will be his final film, he’s working in what is for him atypical territory. It’s a biopic, a portrait of early-20th century Japanese aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi, a man dreaming of building wondrous airplanes, who finds his desires cultivated and ultimately turned towards destructive ends by the Japanese government. This is weighty material to be sure, but Miyazaki does not abandon his touch for magic. Here we are not dealing with fantasy as it grows inevitably out of reality, like in Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, his best. Instead, the film concerns itself with dreams as they’re slowly brought down to earth. The only magic here is cinematic, a uniquely Miyazaki view onto a very real world.

It’s a cliché to say a picture is worth a thousand words. But such well-worn sentiment is true for such an artist as Miyazaki, who packs his hand-drawn frames with gorgeous detail, his screenplays filled up with pregnant pauses and aching silences that shouts volumes upon volumes as they ripple across delicately waving grass, clouds drifting slowly through the sky, waves slowly washing to shore. He manages to communicate worlds of depth and weight without stooping to anything so common as photorealism. Where the animators at Pixar and the like push CGI towards perfection and anime studios go for pop art exaggeration, Miyazaki calmly and confidently builds entire universes in beautiful brush strokes that are perfectly situated. They’re heartfelt and natural, smoothly articulating all we need know about a setting. In The Wind Rises there’s a view of a woman holding an umbrella, standing in the middle of a field on a sunny day. The sky is so very blue, the soft breeze gently tugging at the plants and at her dress. It’s such painterly perfection – like a Monet slowly sliding to life – it took my breath away.

In this film, we’re seeing Japan between the world wars. There’s closely observed history here. The convincing reality of the imagery, like that shot of the woman in the field, is simply astonishing. But there are also vivid daydreams of planes flying with great beauty, dreams that we see shift into daymares of rotting destruction, squirming bombs, and fire. It’s an echo of disaster to come as we follow Jiro intrepidly leaving his home for bigger and better things. He’s off to get his education, then to work as one of many designing planes at a government plant. His innovative designs would become the fighter planes plunged into Allied hardware and soldiers, kamikazes turning engineering brilliance into manned bombs. And so a man’s greatest creation can be perverted into a country’s insidious weapon. This is not something literally presented in The Wind Rises, but in the elegiac plumes of smoke that haunt his visions of the future, and in the painful flashes of warfare’s billowing destruction we see near the film’s conclusion.

The reality of his compromised creativity is made real. It’s all the more forceful for the way Miyazaki refuses to linger upon it. It’s a film about the beauty and elegance of a perfect machine smoothly gliding on the wind with satisfying swooshes, created for only that purpose. Jiro and his close engineer friends have separated their creations from their ultimate intended warfare purpose. So, too, does the film, as Miyazaki is able to appreciate the accomplishments unblemished. Until, that is, inevitable tragedy slips in around the edges. Poverty, disease, and eventually the war arrive. Miyazaki is equally interested, in any case, in the dramatic facts of this man’s life. We see family dynamics, romance, colleagues, bosses, and mentors. Soft and moving relationship melodrama sits right next to terrific procedural design and manufacturing maneuverings. To romance a woman and to bring forth radical new designs are rather comparable tasks in the bravery required, or so the juxtapositions tell us. We see dramatic incidents of a variety of kinds, from negotiations with German engineers to a painful medical diagnosis.

An early harrowing moment finds the young man caught up in an earthquake, the ground drawn to appear roiling under the force of the shaking ground. Buildings lift in waves. A train derails spectacularly. Fires ripple outward through the decimated city. It’s at once a vividly constructed historical event, an important character beat, and a mournful foreshadowing of destruction to come. The earthquake is bound up in the character’s journey to start his life on the path he’s chosen and inextricably linked with his meeting a girl who grows important to him. Like his planes, a source of great beauty and satisfaction, and also great damage and terror, good follows bad, soaring success and crashing tragedy sit side by side.

That’s what makes the film so bittersweet. It’s a deeply felt tale of a driven creative type, his passions and loves of many kinds. And yet it’s also a story about a man for whom the greatest successes are at once noteworthy and lamentable. His greatness is swept up in the march of time that leaves human lives scrambling to do good, pressing forward against the winds of change. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises doesn’t soar as high as his greatest films. And yet, in its blend of earthy pragmatism and flights of hopeful aspiration, each and every frame considered thoughtfully and fully felt, it’s as textured and tremendous a picture as he’s ever painted. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Thing Called Love: ABOUT LAST NIGHT


As far as romantic dramas go, About Last Night isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. In this case, that turn of phrase is even more accurate than usual. It’s a loose adaptation of the 1986 romantic drama About Last Night…, which was itself a loose adaptation of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. So this material is hardly new or fresh. But in this particular version the screenplay is solid and the cast is appealing and it seems almost new and fresh all the same. It starts with a pair of separate but cleverly crosscut conversations. A goofball man (Kevin Hart) and a goofball woman (Regina Hall) explain to their patient best friends (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant) how they first met each other. We soon discover that each pair is arriving at the same double date. Hart and Hall quickly get drunk and excuse themselves to go hook up, leaving their saner, more sensible friends behind to strike up a tentative romance. What follows traces a familiar narrative arc, but does so with enough pleasing details to remind that the typical romance narrative is familiar because once in a while it can still work.

Leslye Headland’s screenplay smartly uses the basic four characters, two couple structure to build funny juxtapositions into their concurrent romances. Ealy and Bryant, both steady and strong with deep eyes and deeply felt emotions, slowly settle into a cozy cohabitation. They’re both overcoming bad breakups in their distant pasts and discovering the pleasures of a fresh relationship. Meanwhile, over in the subplot, Hart and Hall, both wildly spontaneous and energetically exaggerated in every gesture, start strong and quickly flame out in a spectacularly sloppy break up that almost, but not quite, completely replaces their romantic passion with passionate vitriol. That Hart and Hall are the ones who think they have the best romantic advice for their friends is funny enough. That Ealy and Bryant indulge and even accept that advice is even funnier. It doesn’t grow into farce, but instead settles into a nice, smooth groove.  

What makes the film amiable and appealing is the screenplay’s allowance for gentle rhythms and some fine shading. Everyone here is more likable, sweeter and more realistic than I expected to find. These aren’t mere archetypical characters of the genre. Or rather, they aren’t only archetypical characters of the genre. Sure, these characters exist to a certain extent as broad cogs in the formula that will conspire to bring characters into a loving relationship, plant seeds of doubt and argument, and then break them up only to offer a glimmer of hope in the end. But Headland writes them dialogue that feels plausibly real, flirtatious and sharp in ways pleasing to the ear. They’re frank, sensual, and open without feeling dirty or exploitative. They’re real adults, not overgrown children or arrested adolescents. There’s a welcome sense of reality about them. These are characters who have lives and conversations, have feelings that impact the plot because of who they are, not just because of what the plot requires. 

The screenplay doesn’t pick sides and plays fair by everyone. When a couple grows apart and we have the token look at lives diverging, moving on alone, there’s not a sense that any one of them is any more wronged. It’s remarkably evenhanded and decent, refusing to devolve into reductive gender essentialism. It allows even goofballs to reveal complicated inner lives and different perspectives. (In doing so it allows Kevin Hart to give his best performance, in that it allows him moments that don’t need to be screamed or shrieked.) There’s a good scene in which one man admits to the other he’s jealous of him and then immediately tries to play it off as a joke. Another scene finds the women arguing about living arrangements, one snapping that she can’t put her life on hold just because her friend won’t have someone to complain about boyfriends with. I liked how willing the movie was to let the characters be themselves instead of always rushing off to the next plot point.

I had forgotten how enjoyable it could be watching attractive people fall in and out of love when the ensemble is given a solid foundation to work with. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to be reminded how effective formula can be when done well. Director Steve Pink moves things along swiftly, lingering long enough to appreciate his performers and the screenplay, but moving quickly enough so the stiffness of the formula doesn’t set in too badly. It’s a nice, amiable way to pass the time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Endless Love: WINTER'S TALE


Winter’s Tale is a movie that’s big, open, and earnestly sentimental in a way that films rarely are. It’s also so very bad that it’s enough to make you wish movies were big, open, and earnestly sentimental a little less. Based on a novel by Mark Helprin, it is written, directed, and produced as a passion project by screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who in his career has had a hand in glossy studio schlock of one kind (A Beautiful Mind) or another (Batman & Robin). Here he brings all the tools of industry to a film that’s nothing more than self-satisfied hogwash, supremely dopey in its story about a scrappy New York thief (Colin Farrell) who falls in love with a beautifully sickly girl (Jessica Brown Findlay) and has an enemy in a demon (Russell Crowe) who petitions Lucifer (Will Smith) to let him squash the couple. Or something like that. As the drippy voice over that starts and ends this mess says, the story postulates that the universe bends over backwards to help each and every person fulfill their Destiny, find True Love, perform Miracles, and other types of capital-letter cornball metaphysical hooey.

Yes, you read that right. It says every person gets to experience this, but, the film stipulates, only the very luckiest among us get the chance to glimpse our lives’ patterns in their fullest and most twinkling expression. In this case, Farrell loves Findlay so intensely that after she dies the bounds of mortality are slipped free, but only for him. He wanders New York City for 100 years with no memory of his past , waiting for his True Purpose to be reawakened, and to perform his one great miracle and be turned into a star and placed in the heavens forever next to his beloved. We don’t get to see more than a time-lapse montage of the skyline changing to signify the passing of years. One minute it’s 1915 or thereabouts, then here we are in 2014 and a memory-less Farrell spends his days drawing with chalk in public spaces and bumps into Jennifer Connelly and, later, Eva Marie Saint. It’s all for a Reason. It’s all trembling with Importance. It’s all so very satisfied in its coincidences and insistence that everything happens for a reason. I don’t know. I think I’d rather life be cold, empty, and meaningless than have it mean any of this.

Oh, and did I mention that there’s a magical horse that appears and helps Farrell out of a jam now and again, sprouts ethereal wings whenever convenient, and might be an earthly manifestation of the Pegasus constellation? It’s the kind of movie so convolutedly confusing in its inanities that to describe it makes one seem to be devolving into a raging lunatic. On the one hand it’s dealing with complicated and almost entirely unexplained fantasy rules of treaties between angels and demons and Crowe has to ask Will Smith’s goofily creepy Devil to bend the rules and stop a miracle in progress or something. On the other hand, the whole thing is motivated by a kind of pseudo-spiritual romantic martyrdom so feverish and swooning that it’d probably make Nicholas Sparks cringe. It starts with Farrell entering the life of the girl who grows more beautiful as she nears her death from consumption as her worried father (William Hurt) frets. It ends with a child dying of cancer as Connelly worries close by. Consumption and cancer makes for quite a heavy pairing to be treated so twinklingly in a film that shoots for magical realism and arrives somewhere much closer to magical thinking.

Confused in the details and dunderheaded in the grand sweep, Winter’s Tale is a misfire on all levels. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel somehow manages to make every shot look like it’s taking place inside a knockoff Thomas Kinkade painting, too-perfect snow and glowing hearths underneath a lens flaring night sky. The screenplay is stuffed with syrupy hippie dippie dialogue that’s at once overwritten and overtly simple. No prop – be it a bed, a flower, a plaque, a drawing – goes without immediate transformation into broad Symbolic Importance. It all works to anesthetize a cast of usually compelling performers. It might’ve been easier to take if even one relationship was something more than irredeemably unbelievable. It’s not easy to make William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Jennifer Connelly, Will Smith, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, and Colin Farrell all complete nothings, communicating not a single moment of emotion or interest amongst them. With an ensemble like that, you could and should be well on your way to a terrific movie. Instead, in its endless slog through soggy sentimentality, self-important stupidity, and blatantly thematically schematic design, it grows interminable. It can’t even scrape up some unfortunate campiness. It’s just awful through and through. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

New Model, Old Parts: ROBOCOP


The remake of RoboCop is a solid science fiction entertainment. It’s packed with sleek, modern special effects, moves swiftly through pertinent and provocative questions of technology and its military-industrial applications, and is filled up with welcome performances from dependable character actors. It’s the best RoboCop film since the first, working through its themes of the nature of free will in tech-human hybrids and devious corporate influence in matters of public interest. It has a sturdy competence that’s thrilling and nicely controlled. And yet the differences between the 2014 model and the sui generis 1987 original – a masterpiece, in my estimation – tell us at least as much about the difference between then and now in the entertainment industry as it does our tech corporations. Now, in a Hollywood landscape where a man who dresses as a bat to fight crime is only ever glowering or brooding, and where our newest Superman movie has no time for bumbling Clark Kent, the idea of a robot cop has to be taken very seriously indeed.

Paul Verhoeven’s ’87 RoboCop wasn’t afraid of embracing the inherent silliness of the concept that finds a wounded cop turned into a crime-fighting machine, while recognizing that making the concept fun and funny need not take away its power or its savage satiric sarcasm. It all takes place in a future Detroit so crime-ridden and cash-strapped it allows a corporation to test new robot officers, the better to privatize the police force with. It’s a serious subject still achingly relevant today – poverty, crime, corporate influence pushing for increased profit by taking over public sector institutions that should be working only for the greater good – but is attacked with such bloody vicious humor, expressing its Reagan-era futurist capitalism ad absurdum through hugely entertaining action and sly playfulness. There’s no scene in 2014’s RoboCop to match the hilariously cold logic that finds a board member shot dead by a prototype during a test that goes all too well.

Instead, Brazilian director José Padilha makes a RoboCop that treats itself only seriously, not allowing the concept’s potentially bitingly funny political and technological arguments free reign to run the tone. It’s more somber, neater, and composed. It deals with big ideas right up front, and throughout, mostly contained in a ranting TV show hosted by a swaggering pundit played with excited anger by Samuel L. Jackson. He tells us how the United States has used ever-evolving drones to police foreign conflicts in which we’ve embroiled ourselves. Some might call it bullying overreach, but he calls it patriotic duty, keeping our soldiers safe by letting robots fight our wars. Why can’t we use these robots to patrol American streets? He blames robo-phobic attitudes. This is satire Colbert Report style, Jackson angrily inhabiting the opposite of the film’s sometimes hard-to-parse political leanings as he badgers the American public and politicians to let OmniCorp privatize police work and keep the streets safe through superior surveillance and strategic outbursts of techno-violence.

The head of OmniCorp (Michael Keaton) decides to up his profits and slip around an anti-domestic drone law by asking his top doctor (Gary Oldman) to help him put a man inside a humanoid law-enforcement machine. The law says no robots, but there’s a cyborg-shaped loophole ripe for the exploiting. They’re in luck Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) recently ran afoul of a local crime syndicate and fell victim to a car bomb. He’s lying injured, in need of immediate drastic treatment if he’ll ever be able to return to work, let alone live. Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) signs off on the procedure, so the doctors – as well as a corporate suit (Jennifer Ehle), a marketing guy (Jay Baruchel), and a weapons’ expert (Jackie Earle Haley) – swoop in and fit the mortally wounded police officer with the best tech billions can buy. He’s part publicity stunt, part supersoldier, all under the control of OmniCorp with his belief in his free will a hardwired fantasy. Where the original slammed Murphy into the suit right away and expected the audience to go along, this new version takes its time trying to make us buy it. We get training sequences and scenes of scheming committees. We get a scene in which we see the poor RoboCop without his suit, a pathetic and gross sight as he’s represented as essentially a jar of pulsing pink goop with a face.

By the time RoboCop goes into action, we’ve sat with the character, watched his agonizingly human face, seen the reactions of the kindhearted doctor and the coldhearted C.E.O., as well as the tearful responses of his wife and child (John Paul Ruttan), and the wariness of his old partner (Michael K. Williams) as his refurbished friend whirs back into the office. The screenplay by Joshua Zetumer soon quickens into a fast-paced actioner with wall-to-wall gun violence and frantic machinations of corporate, media, and political interests. The action is crisp, competent, and smoothly presented. But because we’ve lingered on the pain of the procedure and ruthlessness of the suit and tie villains, it’s no simple kick. The original found great power in characters and plot painted in bold archetypes and sharp satire. Padilha, who directed cop thrillers like Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within in his home country, makes his RoboCop a glum and serious affair, trying for some shading while rattling with periodic outbursts of numbing rat-a-tat gunfire.

It largely works. I’ll take a derivative genre picture tangling seriously (even if, in this case, sometimes clumsily or unemphatically) with big ideas over a slickly competent film without a thought in its head any day. It’s entertaining, teasing out fun concepts and appealing sci-fi imagery, even though they’re borrowed from a better film. Some of its new ideas - an early scene of a man with new robo-hands learning to play the guitar, say - are fast, fascinating, and add a fine touch of humanity to this otherwise bloodless trigger-happy PG-13 approach. And the concept is smartly updated in some ways, incorporating modern-day drone anxieties and surveillance state concerns. (Plus, this time around RoboCop is assembled in China.) The ensemble is well cast, filled with performances that find fun in thin roles, and the leads lend some weight to a token emphasis on familial reunion and tech ethics. Even if in the end it’s not quite as effective or jolting, and certainly not as darkly hilarious, the filmmakers wisely don’t even try to copy Verhoeven’s tone or style. They find a distinctly 2014 approach that’s enjoyable enough, though not possessed with as idiosyncratic a personality or power as lasting. Let me put it this way: it’s effective, but it’s not the kind of movie that will inspire people to erect a statue twenty years from now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sink, Sank, Sunk: ALL IS LOST


Halfway through All is Lost, I felt seasick. I remained queasy into the end credits and felt myself wobbling on the way out of the theater, like I was adjusting to walking on land again. In the film, the camera bobs as the weight of the boat, the film’s only set, slowly rocks while the sound of sloshing waves is omnipresent. The film is a convincing and spare look at a man lost at sea, his sailboat taking on water as he drifts through the Indian Ocean. Who is he? Why is he here? What has he to lose, beyond his life? Writer-director J.C. Chandor doesn't say. We don't even learn the man's name. He’s listed in the credits as Our Man. But because Robert Redford plays Our Man, wise wrinkles crinkling with the concern painting his 77-year-old face, he's someone who carries with him a sense of history nonetheless. We care about him instantly, because we carry with us a collective cinematic memory of him. He’s been acting on screen for 54 years. All he needs to do is stand in the frame and we’d feel we know him, even if we learn nothing more about him.

We find Our Man waking below deck to the sound of water sloshing up against his bed. The following scenes show a man of great resourcefulness doing everything right, setting about repairing the boat methodically and thoroughly while drifting at sea. We learn about him through action, the screenplay an example of all show, no tell. The only words we hear are his muttered curses. Presented in careful detail, it has an air of authenticity about it, like a worst-case-scenario handbook come to life. Call it Introduction to Crisis Boat Repair. He patches the hole, dries his stuff, and attempts to fix his soaked radio. If I were in his position, I would be panicking. In his supreme competence, he does far more than I would've thought to do, but then again I wouldn't think to go sailing alone in the Indian Ocean, either. I mean, I got seasick just watching this movie.

Chandor crafts a story of faux-Hemingway sparseness and blunt import. Redford's visage is what we watch, straining for clues. Who knows that he is out here? Who will miss him when he’s gone? Our Man is lost, weather a constant antagonist, working to undo the progress he’s making. Baking sun, wild waves, and downpours of rain make for relentless enemies. In the dubious tradition of characters named for easy surface access to the themes of their story, he’s clearly a signifier of masculinity and maleness, ruggedly moving forward in the face of impossible odds. He’s adrift in this world, battered by commercial impulses of our globalized economy (it’s a stray shipping container full of sneakers that punctures the side of his boat), and left with all lost. Hope rises and falls like the waves and weather that cause hope to dwindle with every passing hour. Still he tries to find new ways to scrape by.

That’s all well and good, but Chandor’s film is one that cut me loose pretty quickly, frustrating me with the obviousness of its symbolism and its stinginess with character. It’s Redford’s performance that holds it together, in conjunction with the impeccable sound design that swirls around him. What feels so bracing at first – a quiet walkthrough step by step as new obstacles are confronted with the ever-resourceful skills of Our Man – grows grating and repetitive. We get a glimpse of his wrecked boat in the opening shot before flashing backwards a specific period of days. The rest of the film is spent slowly getting to and then past the spot where we came in. After a while, I found myself counting sunrises and sunsets, sinking into my chair as I realized just how far we had to go.

There’s just too little for me to hold onto. If you find the anonymous man’s plight engaging, I can only say I wish I had seen the movie the way you do. From where I sat, Alex Ebert’s nice score grows maddening. Blurry artful shots from underwater, complete with CGI schools of sea creatures wiggling past, feel like nothing more than treading water, a wasted attempt to add visual interest to a film otherwise so visually dull that I was yearning for any personality behind the camera. It’s unfair to compare All is Lost to Life of Pi, since it’s not attempting the same transcendence and abstraction of that man-lost-at-sea picture. But it would’ve been nice to have a little visual interest beyond professional shininess, caught somewhere between heightened Hollywood jolts and slow cinema contemplation. Chandor’s film is as spare and functional as Our Man, highly capable, but still sinking fast.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fanged Up: VAMPIRE ACADEMY


Vampire Academy doesn’t seem finished. It feels like the filmmakers gave up on it, like on some fundamental level the story just wasn’t working and instead of taking the time to fix it, they filmed it anyway. The movie is flavorless, unimaginative, and often uncommunicative as it gets tangled up in its own jargon. The story starts with two runaway vampires who are quickly caught and returned to their Vampire Academy where the headmistress is awful disappointed or something. Then it becomes a teen high school movie that’s neither horror nor comedy. It involves sub-Harry Potter schoolyard conspiracies and pseudo-Twilight divisions and hierarchies of vampiric magic and wars between a variety of clans the names of which I could never keep straight despite the movie never missing an opportunity to talk about it. The movie is all tell, no show, and all the worse for it, especially since all that telling left me mostly hopelessly confused. By the time the movie finishes clearing its throat, it manages to bump up against some modest entertainment value for about five minutes. That hardly seems worth it.

We’re introduced to the movie’s taxonomy of vampires with an expositional voiceover reinforced by key terms turning up on screen in bold lettering. There are Dhampir, half-human vampires, Moroi, royal vampires, and Strigoi, who can only be evil, as represented by their paler-than-usual vampire skin and bloodshot eyes. Don’t quiz me on their differences. I only got that far by checking Wikipedia. Our leads, the runaways the story opens upon, are best friends who snuck away from the school for what seems to be a Very Important Reason that remains vague. One is a Dhampir girl (Zoey Deutch) who has some psychic connection to her friend (Lucy Fry), a Moroi who may be in line to be the next Vampire Queen. She can read her friend’s thoughts; it is cool in theory, but in practice involves her essentially watching scenes she’s not in and commenting on them for us to hear.

The head of the school (Olga Kurylenko) begrudgingly lets the girls back into the school on the condition that the Dhampir trains to protect royal pal. From there, class is in session, taking us straight into plot contortions involving a nerdy third wheel (Sarah Hyland), ex-boyfriends (Edward Holdcroft and Ashley Charles), guys with crushes (Dominic Sherwood and Cameron Monaghan), a vindictive catty girl (Sami Gayle), a missing teacher (Claire Foy), a glowering Russian combat trainer (Danila Kozlovsky), and an ill vampire gentleman (Gabriel Byrne). One or more of them may be behind the ominous messages written in blood that turn up to menace our leads. That’s a lot of characters to juggle, too many I’d say, since almost none of them get satisfying introductions or resolutions. They’re just there.

Maybe fans of the young adult book series upon which this is based could make sense of all these characters, with their variety of backstories and motivations. I couldn’t, despite the movie spending so much of its runtime trying to fill me in on the pertinent details. If there was ever a scene not devoted to explicitly explaining its place in the plot, I must’ve missed it. And yet, there’s not a bit of narrative momentum on which to hang all this talk. What curses, powers, magic, histories, grudges, potions, talismans, spells, creatures, bloodlines, and insults are supposed to matter most when they’re all given the same flatlining importance?

Screenwriter Daniel Waters (of Heathers) and his brother, director Mark Waters (of Mean Girls), know a thing or two about staging high school comedies, but here it’s as if they were working from an outline and forgot to flesh out the characters’ personalities and their film’s tone along the way to a finished product. Some attempts at memorable quips – “they looked at me like I was a porcupine in a hot tub” – fall flat since I couldn’t get my bearings in the setting or understand who any of these characters are. Who runs this school? What is at stake? Why should we care? I certainly couldn’t tell you. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t either. It doesn’t help that it’s all shot in a dull haze and edited together with no feeling for spatial coherence.

It’s all a bland blur, endlessly telling us what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the pertinent fantasy gibberish is, and yet still communicating almost nothing about its world or why we should be invested in it. The movie is an uninvolving mishmash of tones, wobbling from snark to snarling danger to snoozy exposition with little sense of impact or understanding of cause and effect. Worldbuilding isn’t easy, all the more because it should look easy, but if after two hours of painfully obvious hard work I couldn’t begin to tell you even the simplest facts about your fantasy world and the plotlines running through it, something has gone disastrously wrong.

I spent the film scowling, wondering if I was simply zoning out during the most important information or if every scene was really skipping away into the next with little concern for pacing or personality. I’m sure it was the latter. It’s telling that only the climactic action – when the characters finally shut up about their powers and dangers and put them to use – comes close to working on any level. More telling is this line of dialogue one girl says to the other after events have gotten largely incomprehensible: “I can’t remember who loves us and who hates us.” If they don't know, what hope did I have?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Playtime: THE LEGO MOVIE


You’d think by now I’d have more trust in writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Instead, I’ve gone into each and every one of their films suspicious of the entire project and left feeling pleasantly surprised, won over by their manic energy and thoughtful thematic playfulness. Who would’ve guessed their Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a feature-length expansion of a slight, whimsical picture book, would be one of the funniest movies of any kind in recent years? Or that their reboot of musty old TV series 21 Jump Street would be a jocular undercover-cop comedy perceptive about shifting teen mores and feature one of the best cameos I’ve ever seen?  Now they’ve tackled The Lego Movie. That’s right. It’s a movie based on the tiny bricks with instructions on how to build them into vehicles and buildings that come with square, stiff yellow people to put inside. I don’t see the story in it, although Lego has tried some original fantasy brands and media-tie-in parodies for TV on occasion to move product. Thankfully Lord and Miller found a way to make more than an advertisement. Under their direction, The Lego Movie is a freewheeling and clever family film.

Making terrific use out of the mix-and-match ability of Lego, the filmmakers have thrown out the instruction book. Actually, that’s the crux of the film, a conflict between the two basic ways one can use the product. Computer animation that looks like the expensive Hollywood version of what you’d get making stop-motion Lego movies on your bedroom floor (a quick YouTube search reveals this a popular subgenre of amateur filmmaking) builds a world built entirely out of these multicolor bricks. It’s a generic metropolis filled with generic Lego people: construction workers, police, cat ladies, surfers, coffee shop patrons. They all follow the rules, the same homogenous lifestyle that uses each and every brick in exactly the way the manufacture intended. Disruption comes when an average Lego man (Chris Pratt) finds a legendary brick and falls in with a motley group of assorted outcast Lego people, Master Builders who insist that the bricks can be used to make anything you could dream up. Ostentatiously evil President Business (Will Ferrell) wants to keep the masses oppressed and in line, but our hero teams up with the Master Builders in a last-ditch effort to save their Lego-world by opening it up to be played with however they want.

The film moves at a breakneck pace through colorful madness that spoofs the usual three-act structure of big sci-fi fantasy spectacle. There’s our naive Chosen One who finds the piece and is told by a wise old bearded Master Builder (Morgan Freeman) that he’s the fulfillment of prophecy and the savior Lego-world needs. That this is obviously phony makes for a fun, adaptable running joke. Their allies include a funny mix of characters from various Lego product lines – a punk woman (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), a pirate (Nick Offerman), a unicorn kitten (Alison Brie), and an astronaut (Charlie Day). Their goals are typical stuff – find this crucial object and use it to shut down a superweapon – but it’s treated with a wink and a sly sense of humor. At one point, a character explains backstory most movies of this kind would take very seriously indeed, but here it literally devolves into “blah, blah, blah.” All we need to know is that our heroes are being pursued by President Business’s henchman Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and his robots in elaborate, endlessly clever action sequences that hop through a variety of Lego worlds like a wild west set, a pseudo-medieval land, and a hodgepodge oasis of secret imagination.

The Lego nature of everything from the clouds in the sky to the water in the oceans, down to even the explosions and dust plumes, is put to good use. Good guys frantically rebuild the necessary equipment on the fly, while the baddies march forward mercilessly rule-bound. Cameos from all sorts of Lego types litter this high energy romp through relentless action and invention, from Shakespeare and Shaq to Wonder Woman and C-3PO, all cracking a joke or two before falling back into the big picture. It’s all such an exuberant sense of childlike play, the characters and setting deconstructing themselves and building new fanciful wonders before our eyes with delightful speed and complexity in the rapid-fire action slapstick. Imagine those charming moments in Toy Story when we watch Andy act out scenarios with his toys stretched to fill 90 minutes and you’ll get a sense of the tone here. This exceptionally, endlessly cute and quick film isn’t afraid to go very silly and step out of its narrative. The villain hoards mystical objects, like a massive used Band-Aid he calls the Shroud of Bahnd-Aieed. In the climax, his giant evil machine sounds exactly like a little kid making a growling engine noise.

For the longest time, I was simply charmed by what was an awesomely high-functioning technical exercise. But in its final moments, Lord and Miller take the film a step towards brilliance, pulling back the focus and revealing new information that moves away from thin genre play and towards something deeper, but no less hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you, but it says something almost profound about the way the act of creativity can bring people together. There’s also something in there about free will and a higher power. One character we meet late in the game is literally named The Man Upstairs. But it’s all folded into a sugary blast of entertainment. It’s amazing how a movie so light on the surface opens up bigger questions effortlessly. Just as amazing is that this multi-million dollar corporate advertisement doubles as an anti-corporate call to individuality in the face of crushing conformity, that this blockbuster movie doubles as a commentary on how blockbuster plots are built out of material as generic and interchangeable as Lego blocks. Lord and Miller are masters of having it both ways and getting away with it too.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

THAT AWKWARD MOMENT When Your Movie Is Terrible


Most romantic comedies have a moment where boy loses girl after a Big Mistake or a Regrettable Miscommunication and spends a montage or two mooning over what could’ve been before resolving to make things right and win her back. Usually, this serves to get an audience good and ready for a teary, smiling reunion and a happy ending. You know something has gone very wrong when you find yourself thinking instead that she’d be better off without him. That Awkward Moment goes wrong exactly like that. The thing is, characters in any movie should be likable or interesting, sometimes both, but never neither. Here it’s neither. The spaces where characters should be, characters to care about, get involved in, or find reflecting some kind of truth, are instead a vacant spot that’s at best bland and generic, at worst actively irritating.

At the end of the movie, all I really know about Zac Efron’s character is that he’s a twentysomething New Yorker who designs book covers and resists serious relationships until – surprise, surprise – he finds himself in one. The movie thinks this guy is great and deserves to end up with the sweet, bookish Imogen Poots for no other reason than because he’s the one the movie has set her up with. They’re meant to live out this rom com arc together since that’s what the movie thinks we are here to see, not because of who they are or what they represent to each other.

It’s the kind of movie where no one really talks to each other. They just speak thudding one-liners and the kind of overwritten buddy wisecracking that makes it seem like everyone is trying too hard to live their lives like it’s a sitcom. Efron and his fellow twentysomething buddies, a single carouser (Miles Teller) and a guy going through a divorce (Michael B. Jordan), sit around joking with each other in phallocentric R-rated ways, living in impossibly nice New York City apartments while working impossibly nice jobs, and heading out to pick up chicks in all-too-possible entitled and gross ways. What a life, eh? Since Jordan’s divorce is a fresh wound, the trio decides to stay single and support each other in their quest for hookups and Meet Cutes, wingmen to the last. They think they’ll have no problem living the bro lifestyle, but soon, in what is supposed to amount to surprise in this obvious screenplay, they all find romantic attachments they try to hide from their buddies so as not to create hurt feelings of un-bro-like conduct. Whatever.

Writer-director Tom Gormican has a flat and bland style that runs these cardboard types through the typical motions, thawing their dumb young hearts with sickly sweet love. If they ever had a thought in their heads or a clever comment amongst them, it’s kept off screen. The movie takes four appealing young actors and proves beyond a doubt that they can’t yet bring additional life to nothing characters. When Efron and Poots first meet, he bolts because he mistakes her for “a hooker,” the word choice he and his pals repeat ad nauseam because they think it’s a hilarious misunderstanding and because, ha ha, they think ladies are gross when they might have motives that aren’t pure desire for these guys. Despite starting off on a bad note, the two realize they both like Gramercy Park and playfully insulting each other, a pastime they combine and expand to others when they trick a realtor into letting them tour a home so that they can steal a key to the park. How romantic? I doubt it, but maybe I’ve been under the wrong impressions all these years.

They say movies sell unrealistic expectations of love, true enough in some cases, but That Awkward Moment is only operating under unrealistic expectations of what will delight and amuse an audience. I went into a screening in the middle of the afternoon and quickly felt sleep tugging at the corners of my attention. It was so dull and uninvolving, I spent some time thinking about how I’d start this review. And then, as I slid lower and lower in my seat, I started wondering if I’d be more comfortable if I balled up my scarf and used it as a pillow. I decided against doing that. The theater was a tad cold and I appreciated my scarf on my neck where it belonged, doing the job it was designed for. I didn’t hate the movie so much as I hated that it was still happening in front of me, and that time grew so slow. When I at long last left as the credits ran theoretically funny bloopers, I felt I hadn’t seen the sun in days, weeks even. Rarely does a movie that’s so thoroughly nothing seem to waste so much time.

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