Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Double Dare: CHEAP THRILLS


Cheap Thrills is an efficient but hollow bleak comic thriller built out of what passes for social commentary these days. That is to say it has topicality and point of view that isn’t subtext so much as text and blasts its intent with all the finesse of blunt force trauma and without having much to say. The plot concerns two old buddies unexpectedly catching up after running into each other at a bar. One (Pat Healy) is a failed writer who just lost his low-paying mechanic job and is due to be evicted at the end of the week. The other (Ethan Embry) never finished high school and is now a dirt-poor debt collector for the local criminal element. They haven’t seen each other since high school, followed different paths, and yet find their financial problems mean they still have a lot in common. The middle class sure is eroding, the movie says, pointing out the grim reality so many of us are facing.

It gets worse.  A rich man (David Koechner) and his much-younger wife (Sara Paxton) call the men over, offering to buy them a round of drinks. The guys appreciatively accept. Then the man leers at them, points out a clearly troubled woman sitting across the bar, and offers $50 to the guy who can get her to slap him. Hey, money is money. They accept the challenge and get the bills. The rich man leans closer, waves his cash around, and offers them a chance to play out their own private “reality game show.” They just have to play along, do his dares, and collect $250,000 at the end of the night. These guys are in such a painful squeeze, cash-strapped, teetering on the precipice of crushing poverty. They barely have time to process their doubts before they’re on their way to the wealthy couple’s mansion in the hills, ready to take part in the evening’s challenge and reap the rewards. It almost goes without saying that the dares start relatively simple – punch a guy, take a swig of liquor – and escalate in depravity until they are pooping on a stranger’s carpets and worse.

At every step of the way the poor men wriggle and squirm, torn up about each new perverse twist while the rich couple looks on, practically licking their lips as they pull out stacks of greenbacks. They know how little the money means to them, how life changing it could be to their victims. All four characters are complicit in continuing the game. The rich people set the rules. The others just have to play by them to have any hope of getting by. The pain on Pat Healy’s face is unmistakable, as is the money-lust dripping off of Embry’s. The characters are pawns in the plot’s schematic thematic construction, but the actors manage to make even the most strained plot developments halfway believable. Koechner rubs his hands, snorts his coke, and grins manically while Paxton gazes on when she’s not fussing with her phone. She can barely be bothered to plug into the human misery being enacted for her entertainment.

That’s part of what makes the movie so effective. It asks us to sit back and watch the corrosive brand of free market jockeying played out before us, watching rich people squeezing every last drop of torment out of people who desperately need the money offered, doing so for no other reason than because they can. Money is a powerful motivating force here as it is in reality. The movie is certainly an ugly glimpse of our recessionary ids, a story of rich getting richer as they make others suffer, make all the rest of us work harder and harder for less and less. By the time the two poor guys at the center of the movie’s cheap thrills are manipulated to turn on each other, undercutting to get the most out of this bad situation, negotiating down then amount of money it’d take for one of them to, say, chop off a pinkie, it’s clear the one-crazy-night lark is going to bottom out somewhere truly depraved. And, sure enough, it’ll get there.

Director E.L. Katz shoots the film as a claustrophobic chamber piece, a small cast rattling about in a limited number of rooms. The images are dark and dim, the actors looming large in the frame, circling each other in blocking that reinforces the tightening maze of disgust and eager greed the night becomes. But the screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga never complicates the scenario, letting it fall down its obvious and unpleasant trajectory without much difficulty. It’s one thing to point out the economic microcosm represented in the central conceit – bad rich guys exploit the rest of us who will do anything to get a piece of the pie – but the movie doesn’t do anything constructive with that. It sits harshly, cynically, corrosively on the surface, eating through characterization and plot alike, leaving a thin, sour aftertaste. The movie has all of the jolts and splatters meant to provoke nervous laughter and surprised gasping guffaws out of an audience ready to be amazed the filmmakers went there. But it’s all weakly provoking with nothing more to say beyond the obvious.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Once, Twice, Three Times a Cheater: THE OTHER WOMAN


The Other Woman is a light and amiable wish-fulfillment revenge comedy with all the tonal mismanagement that pile-up of descriptors suggests. Getting off to a good start, the film introduces us to a high-powered New York City lawyer (Cameron Diaz) head-over-heels for her new rich, handsome boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He’s her first serious relationship in many years. Too bad, then, that he’s married. When she finds out she’s understandably hurt, but not as much as his wife (Leslie Mann) is. He doesn’t know they know, and certainly doesn’t know they then spied on him and uncovered a second unsuspecting mistress (Kate Upton). From there the three women team up to get revenge on this no-good sleazeball. At first they play pranks, like putting a laxative in his water or estrogen in his power shake. But they don’t just want him humiliated. They want him to hurt. So they target his most vulnerable part: his wallet.

Totally uninterested in making this a dark or biting comedy, the screenplay by Melissa Stack finds fizzy complications that are treated as a lark. This leads to some gross-out gags like a defecating dog or a man in a fancy restaurant having an urgent bowel movement (what is it with this movie and poop?) that are certainly gross and might even make you gag, but I didn’t find them too funny. Okay, that second one was a little funny, but seems out of place, because elsewhere the emotions of the women are triangulated for comedy and light drama. Their common goal includes shifting desires and expectations for each of them at different points. They’ve certainly become friends under unusual circumstances, so it makes sense they wouldn’t always be on the same page. The wife, especially, has her doubts. Sure, he was cheating, but she wonders if that’s reason enough to throw away their marriage?

That’s an interesting question, or at least could be. But Stack’s script isn’t interested in exploring that. It’s too busy alternating between bubbly and goofy. Director Nick Cassavetes (of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper) shoots the film glossily. Everything is brightly lit and gleaming. The surroundings are as rich and white as the characters – big glass-covered offices, spacious high-rise apartments, and gorgeous beach houses. But I suppose that’s part of the wish-fulfillment of it all. Not only do we get to watch three beautiful women plot against an awful chauvinist, but we also get to see fancy clothes and nice architecture while they do it. Everyone’s so well off they can drop everything and go to the Hamptons or the Bahamas on a stakeout. Must be nice. I mean, aside from the whole finding out you’re all being cheated on thing.

What keeps this sloppy script and sparkling studio airiness watchable and even at times enjoyable is the strength of the cast. The three women at the center of the plot hold it down with their likable chemistry and funny personalities. They’re all clearly in their acting comfort zones, relaxed and capable of wringing laughs out of the sometimes lame material. One of them actually sells the old looking-through-the-wrong-end-of-binoculars sight gag. That’s no small feat. Leslie Mann is appealing as a tightly wound housewife who increasingly spirals into a manic panic over her husband’s infidelities before finding the clarifying purpose of plotting revenge. Cameron Diaz is fizzy and sarcastic, able to whip up a plan of action and have fun doing it. And Kate Upton is awfully good at selling ditziness, even if her character remains only a happy, curvaceous blank-slate. Seriously, what does she even do? Where does she go when she’s not on screen? We’ll never know.

They aren’t exactly the second coming of 9 to 5, the three-women-take-down-dumb-guy revenge comedy The Other Woman occasionally resembles, but that’s not entirely their fault. Get these three characters in a scene together, trading lines with one another, and it’s all pleasantly enjoyable. Mann’s flighty worry bounces nicely off of Diaz’s wry cynicism and Upton’s airheaded charm proves a fine glue to hold the trio together. But the movie has less to say about female empowerment than you’d hope, keeping the ladies firmly in their stereotypes. The tone wobbles all the way to the end, mixing broad slapstick and blunt innuendo right up to the climax in which the comeuppance we’ve been waiting for is a bit too eagerly vindictive. The movie doesn’t seem to think very highly of any of its characters, even the side characters like a small role for Nicki Minaj that dilutes the snap of her rap persona. That's a factor in the mishandled mood and empty point of view - are we supposed to root for them or view it all at a satiric remove? - that make for a hard movie to embrace. I didn’t mind it too much, laughing at times and smiling a few more, but it’s so slight and forgettable it’ll probably play even better in the middle of a weekend afternoon on TBS.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sexy Beast: UNDER THE SKIN

Movies so often tell us what we need to know about plot and character by literally telling us that it’s a shock to see a movie like Under the Skin, which verbalizes almost nothing, and certainly nothing of note. Instead, it speaks through the power of its images , vividly, coherently, and masterfully. Of course we know that the movies are a visual medium – they started silent, after all. But these days it’s rarely so fully a visual medium. With meticulous design and absorbing formal precision, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer, adapting a novel by Michel Faber, has built an icy, austere science fiction film that operates on a level of art house horror. It methodically creates an overwhelming visual and auditory experience, as specific about literal detail as it is abstractions. It is a cold mood piece that descends like a shiver and strips away at its conceit until its mysteries lay bare and trembling on the screen with a quiet, insistent dread.

It starts with a woman. We don’t know who she is, but we see her in a vacant white space getting dressed in the clothes of a dead woman, an outfit she strips off the corpse piece by piece as we watch. There are lights softly glowing in the cloudy sky above as she begins her mysterious tasks. She moves confidently, purposefully, silkily seductive, using her beauty as a lure. She’s driving around Scotland in an anonymous white van, the kind that one feels instinctively is up to no good. She watches like a predator circling prey, looking for vulnerable men walking alone late at night, with no one expecting them, with nowhere in particular they need to be. She makes her move, leading them on until they are consumed by inky black nothingness, unconsummated desires driving them right into their deaths, or maybe worse.

The woman is played by Scarlett Johansson, using her obvious bombshell qualities to create a portrait of eerie otherworldly beauty. Deliberate in her movements, she nonetheless communicates a sense that she’s not quite used to operating in her skin. She’s blank. At times she squints, tilts her head, or stares intently, as if her every moment is a novelty, but also that she doesn’t want to allow that to become apparent. Her most confident moments come in the abstract nightmarish voids into which she entraps her prey, their bodies responding with hypnotic arousal, pointing forward into total darkness, swallowed up by a viscous floor. Elsewhere, most of the film takes place in something like the real world. But in its unrelentingly defamiliarized perspective our world is a place made alien. Its emphasis on the woman’s point of view makes clear that we’re seeing through her eyes. The first image of the film is a slow tracking shot that pulls back through darkness and light until it reveals shapes (a rod and a cone?) in slow movement until at last we’re staring at an extreme close up of her eyeball, a trembling membrane.

The woman moves among the human masses on the streets, or in a mall, or at a nightclub. She’s isolated, in the world, but not of it. Sounds of people congeal into a gargled mess, thick Scottish brogues making words difficult to parse en masse as the sound design of chattering groups makes dialogue often deliberately muddy, warbling with distortion. With a clinical eye, Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin create images pinned down with specificity so intense – mist on a river, fog on a field, wind in the trees, mud in a forest – that it too becomes abstraction, dehumanizing and quizzical in its concentration. In its destabilizing point of view, our world looking so familiar and yet so indescribably different, the film recalls Craig Raine’s 1979 poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” with its alienating descriptions of common objects, like a car called “a room with a lock inside – a key is turned to free the world.”

When the woman meets a man with severe facial deformities, showing a mix of curiosity and compassion as she leads him just as surely towards doom as any of her other victims, it’s clear mankind is a system of variations, vast in permutations, and similar in our base impulses. It's also a turning point for the woman. A key moment comes later, when she looks at herself in a mirror. She moves before it as if she has never paid close attention to the construction of the human body before, twisting muscles, feeling soft angles as curves become musculature become bone. To her, the sight is a novelty, a disguise, a revelation. The film has been so committed to reshaping our point of view that as she stands bare, studying her self-image, it’s at once an attractive and destabilizing view. What makes these shapes so alluring, so human? It all seems so arbitrary. As they say, it is what’s inside that counts. In the conclusion, her inner nature is at long last unveiled in a harrowing scene of allegoric force, violence and fear contrasted with the astonishing pictorial beauty of its presentation. Man can be rough, unsparing, and ugly. The victimizer becomes the victim. Our world is reflected back at us.

Glazer’s past films, Sexy Beast and Birth, are character studies about order threatening to become chaos through peculiar circumstances – a surprise deadly gangster guest and a possible reincarnation, respectively. In Under the Skin, chaos is making sense of the world around us – gender roles, environments, relationships – from a defiantly Other perspective. The film throbs with an accumulative power. Shots have vivid design, a kind of pop boldness Glazer shares with other directors – Fincher, Bay, Tarsem – who cut their teeth on music videos and commercials. But Glazer isn’t interested in finding stylized coolness or hollow “awesome” here. His images have more in common with 70’s sci-fi/horror of Roeg and Tarkovsky. Shots are chilling, held for beauty and horror alike, both crawling with the sublime. A husk of skin floats suspended in mid-air. An abandoned baby cries on a beach at dusk. A man on a motorcycle, introduced with a stream of neon lights zooming reflected in his helmet, follows the events, helping to clear the path for the woman’s tasks and clean up after her. Throughout, the score by Mica Levi is a low hum and buzz that can take on an entrancing quality, like the spectral choir of The Shining if it were channeling an extraterrestrial transmission.

Like a scene in which the woman takes a tentative, curious bite of chocolate cake then suddenly chokes it back up and out in confusion, the movie carefully invites audience interest, curiosity, and even sympathy at times, for its central character. Taking in sensory detail of this otherworldly woman’s perspective and actions, the film asks you to puzzle through her goals and desires in beautiful and horrifying tableaus. Then it’s all choked up, gone wrong, sent burning aloft into the end credits. It’s stunning to look at, but one bite into the substance and it’s a shock to the system, like all good disturbing cerebral horror should be. The film is a continually alluring form of unsettling that draws you in until you’re over your head, then turned loose with your thoughts scrambled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Flesh is Weak: TRANSCENDENCE


In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays a brilliant computer scientist who, given only weeks to live, agrees to try to upload his consciousness into his artificial intelligence experiment, thus creating the world’s first truly self-aware computer. The primary side effect – immortality – is just a nice bonus. The movie uses that hook as a reason to grapple with fascinating thematic questions of the kind Ray Kurzweil might enjoy. If a person’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and cognitive abilities can be copied into a bank of hard drives, is that person still alive? The scientist’s wife (Rebecca Hall) would like to think so. An accomplished tech theorist in her own right, she was the one who came up with the designs to upload him in the first place. Their colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman) are a little more skeptical.

When the man is gone, all that’s left are the lines of code bleeping across monitors, digitally reconstructing the voice of the dead man. Give me more power, it pleads. Connect me to the Internet. Does that sound like something a person wants? What does it mean to be whatever that thing is? How integrated with tech can you be and still be yourself? If HAL 9000 had all the memories of and sounded like the love of your life, would you believe him? The film is best when it’s asking these questions, but it’s woefully unprepared to engage with them in any meaningful way. It’s primed for pulpy eggheaded pleasures and turns up only shrugs.

What is at times fun about Transcendence is watching the slow creation of an accidental supervillain. If you ever wondered how one of those cavernous lairs full of whirring computers and mindless worker bees gets started, look no further. Hall, full of mostly good intentions and racing to beat an anti-tech terrorist organization led by a bleach-blonde Kate Mara, connects the digital Depp to the Internet. Off he zooms – a goofily nifty visual zips through a literal web of information and screenshots – building in power and intelligence until he has his wife constructing a giant data center in the middle of the desert, the better to house his massive potential for good. Of course, if you’ve seen any movie about a supercomputer from Demon Seed to Smart House, you know he has a massive potential for evil and destruction as well. You can probably guess where it goes from there.

The movie is at once smarter than that sounds and dumber than it looks. It’s the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer behind such beautiful-looking filmic efforts as Inception, Moneyball, and The Dark Knight. He and Jess Hall, his director of photography, create handsome compositions that use stillness and simplicity to great effect. Clean, empty corridors seem so ominous. Shots of wide open spaces seem gorgeously, creepily vast. The spaces in which the technophobia parable plays out echo with dread and possibility. There’s a throwback appeal to the imagery, reminiscent of early Spielberg in its insistent energy, yet locked-down patience that represents a willingness to let the situation unfold crisply and inevitably. It’s a visual confidence that carries the picture far.

What’s less satisfying by far is the way the film drops the thematic juggling act by letting the characters remain fuzzy, defined only by the dictates of the plot. That’s not necessarily a problem, but when the climactic resolution hinges on our investment in the characters it’d be nice to know them a little better. We don’t, and the plot isn’t cold or tight enough to work without them. There are terrific actors in every role – like Cillian Murphy, who does what he can with a one-note FBI agent – but no one ever rings true. Hall is the stand out, doing solid work playing a woman who is mourning her husband by obeying his simulacrum. It’s like an amped-up gender-swapped thriller version of Spike Jonze’s Her, steering forcefully into the creep factor. But her character is made to bend so fully to the will of the plotting that she hardly registers as a person let alone a genre archetype. The idea she inhabits is provocative, but her character is a shambles, able to shift from totally devoted to skeptical and back again in the span of a scene.

Jack Paglen’s screenplay feels like a Michael Crichton novel, full of jargon that sounds half-plausible to an amateur ear and futurist paranoia convinced tech evolutions will inevitably end disastrously for humanity. Pfister directs it capably, finding the thrills where it counts and finding some nice shots – like a sun-dappled window in which hangs a circuit chip in the center of a dreamcatcher – to cut into the flow of mood and contemplation. It’s a sci-fi thriller that’s moseying around, overtly turning over ideas with great care and wonder without getting much below the surface of it all. Transcendence transcends nothing. Without humor or personality to speak of, it feels inert and underdeveloped, content to throw out provocative questions and let them dissipate before resolving, let alone following, those lines of inquiry.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fight, Fight, Fight: THE RAID 2


Writer, director, and editor Gareth Evans’ action film The Raid: Redemption was 100 minutes long and spent about 98 of those minutes in constant motion. It followed a brave Indonesian cop (Iko Uwais) fighting his way up and down a towering building controlled by a drug lord, busting heads and snapping limbs as he bloodily brought them to justice or something like it. Evans has clear exuberance for martial arts combat and the various configurations of combatants and circumstances had flashes of wit – I liked best when Uwais hides in the walls of an apartment as a baddie looking for him stabs into them with a machete. But the movie was way too much of a good thing; the nonstop violence and commotion grew monotonous. It’s an overdose.

Now we have The Raid 2, which runs a full 150 minutes. Wisely, Evans builds some downtime, spreading the action around in a film that’s larger in scope, but as claustrophobic in its inevitable bloody conclusions. I can better appreciate moments of gripping action filmmaking when I have time to catch my breath, let the bludgeoning blows stop ringing in my ears, and allow the gore to fade from my vision before it all starts up again. Unfortunately, Evans fills the spaces in between the action with a plot that’s conventional when it’s not convoluted. Once again, we follow the insanely talented fighting cop. Iko Uwais keeps an expression of deadpan disbelief and scowling determination while facing his fate. Here he agrees to go undercover in Indonesia’s biggest crime family and bring down corrupt cops on their payroll. It involves a lot of fighting. By the midpoint I had lost track of who was fighting and why.

The plot is made up of standard mobster power plays and double crossings, the better to baffle me as I lost track of everyone’s goals and why, say, a girl with two hammers (Julie Estelle) is fighting a group of knife-wielding men on a subway car. The scheming seems to chiefly concern a frustrated man (Arifin Putra) working for his father (Tio Pakusodweo), head of a mob empire. The son befriends Uwais and takes him along on trips to shake down local criminals for bribes. His real goal is taking over his dad’s job, so he negotiates help with shady elements like a guy (Alex Abbad) we can tell is bad because he’s never without his sunglasses, leather gloves, and flashy cane. The movie loses its whole undercover-cop thread, letting Uwais drift out of the spotlight for a while as we watch a confusing number of characters plot to start some kind of war between competing crime families.

Characters who lumber through the plot are thinly developed, recognizable not by their actions or allegiances, but by their murder weapons of choice. In addition to the aforementioned Hammer Girl, there’s a guy with a bat, a guy with hooked blades, and a homeless guy with a machete. He has a fight scene in which he uses the big knife only once; the rest of the time he grips it in one hand, beating down the oncoming combatants with the other. That’s the kind of thing Evans is serving up here, action memorably staged. I don’t know why the homeless guy was fighting, who he was fighting, or why this wasn’t just a deleted scene to enjoy on the Blu-ray. But I do remember how sparingly he used that machete.

Evans builds an entire movie out of such striking choices. He has a good eye for compositions and with cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono builds some great sequences out of memorable images. A prison riot takes place on a muddy field, guys slipping and sliding, colliding in the puddles of slimy dirt. An incredible car chase finds the camera slipping in and out of cars, sometimes in deceptively complicated unbroken takes. One shot starts on a fistfight in the backseat of an SUV, dips out the window, and moves backwards into the front seat of the car behind. (I fleetingly wondered what Evans could do with a Fast & Furious movie.) The climax finds our hero fighting wave after wave of attackers, each progressively tougher than the last, as he storms through a building on his way to the Big Bosses he needs to take out and finish his mission.

These Raid movies are like video games, and I don’t necessarily mean that pejoratively. The first was a compact side-scroller, all jumping, ducking, and punching, minimal context required. The sequel wants to be taken more seriously and so expands the point of view, getting loaded down with laborious cut-scenes in the process. So each Raid is frustrating and exasperating in its own way. Evans is not an untalented director, but I’d like to seem him put his inventive action to use in a good script. He increased variety and staged some memorable moments, but The Raid 2 is still a film of unrelenting repetitive brutality, sadistic in pursuit of kills that’ll make audiences audibly wince in unison. A particularly nasty moment finds a bat smashed so hard into a man’s head it gets stuck in the skull. But once you’ve seen one anonymous bad guy’s skull cracked open, you’ve seen them all. Without fail, the action scenes are lengthy, loud, bloody, and visceral, separated only by stretches of confusion and convention. Too thin and monotonous to sustain itself, it’s exciting at times, but adds up to a dull headache.

Friday, April 11, 2014

For the Birds: RIO 2


Three years out from Blue Sky Animation’s Rio, the only thing I can remember is the vague sense of surprised enjoyment I had with the film’s pleasantly colorful, vibrantly musical nature. The story wasn’t much. It followed the world’s last male blue macaw (Jesse Eisenberg) as he was taken from wintry Minnesota to mid-Carnival Rio de Janeiro to meet the world’s last female blue macaw (Anne Hathaway). Fish-out-of-water – or is that bird-out-of-something? – antics ensued. It was cute and amiable, but what elevated it to minor noteworthiness is the charm and novelty in its Brazilian setting and mood, communicated with a sense of authenticity. Director and co-writer Carlos Saldanha was born in Rio, so the delight in its locale felt genuine. The movie was a big hit, so here’s the inevitable Rio 2 in which Saldanha takes those birds on a logical plot progression. The first movie was about the last two blue macaws. What the sequel presupposes is, what if they aren’t the last?

The goofy birder scientists from the first film (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro) are off on an expedition in the middle of the Amazon when they think they’ve spotted a hidden nest of blue macaws. This excites Anne Hathaway’s bird, so Jesse Eisenberg’s bird (Jesse Eisenbird, if you will) agrees to pack up their three little kids (Rachel Crow is the only voice that stands out) and fly off to meet up with others of their species. Of course, these city birds aren’t used to jungle living, so much time is spent on the expected culture clash. Some food chain related violence leads to some bits of dark humor that’s cute sometimes. I liked the singing capybara that gets swallowed by a predator and then keeps on singing. Later, some capybaras are rapidly eaten down to the bone by piranhas for no other reason than a quick sight gag. I laughed then, too.

Once our protagonists meet the wild flock’s gruff patriarch (Andy Garcia), his dotty sister (Rita Moreno), and a strong, handsome alpha-male (Bruno Mars), the story really gets going. Hathaway takes flight with this flock, fitting in right away. They’re her long-lost family! Eisenbird grumbles, pouts, and stubbornly wants to head back to the city. He bristles when the wild birds mock him, saying he’s just a “pet.” Which he is, but never mind that I guess. Built out of plot points and conflicts that are instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood animated film in the last thirty years, Rio 2 is entirely devoid of surprise. Every subplot resolves precisely like you’d guess, lending the time spent getting there a sense of thinness slowly stretched to fill space. It even trots out the old accidentally-shoot-the-winning-goal-into-the-other-team’s-net trick. Originality is not high on the agenda here.

The narrative splinters, unfocused, with little momentum. Characters from the first movie are dutifully roped into this one. Two little musical birds with the voices of will.i.am and Jamie Foxx tag along to the Amazon to look for fresh talent for their animals-only Carnival talent show. At least it gives them something to do, which is more than can be said for comic relief toucan George Lopez, who joins the trip and is basically forgotten. Also lurking around is the mad cockatoo voiced by Jemaine Clement. This time he has two sidekicks: a poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, who gets a chance to sing, of course) and a silent anteater. They’re superfluous villains, as the movie builds a far more tangible threat in the form of illegal loggers threatening to imperil the blue macaws’ habitat. Essentially a group version of George C. Scott’s poacher from The Rescuers Down Under, these guys menace our kindly scientists with chainsaws and machetes and eventually plan to dynamite the macaws’ gorgeous jungle oasis. So what’s the big deal about a maniacal cockatoo in the face of all that?

At least Rio 2 still finds reasons to sing and dance, where the movie’s color and sound really get to stretch their wings. I lost interest in the plot and found the characters – Eisenbird, especially – grating in their repetitive predictability. But when those birds take flight in Busby Berkeley formations to a syncopated Brazilian/hip-hop beat, it provides fleeting satisfaction. Its best is the short opening number by Janelle Monae, worth hearing on its own. The version on the soundtrack album is better, anyway. Plus, that way you don’t have to sit through the rest of the movie. As a whole it is big, empty, and generally pleasant. I just wish it could’ve told a story worth telling or figured out how to make the characters interesting on any level. Maybe kids will like this, but it certainly lacks the depth and invention better family films can provide. At least it’s better than any of Blue Sky’s Ice Age sequels.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Not-So-Perfect Getaway: IN THE BLOOD


I’m rooting for Gina Carano. As an action star, she has plenty of promise. She’s a former mixed martial arts fighter who carries that physicality with great calm and capable choreography into a screen presence that’s compelling and intriguing. Her weird blend of unruffled expression and tight body language gives her a real ease that draws me in, even in the center of the terrible cheapo actioner that is In the Blood, her latest film. After her first lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s sleek Haywire and a choice supporting turn as The Rock’s right-hand woman in Fast & Furious 6, she deserves better than the woefully generic, bungled B-movie she’s headlining here. It’s the kind of movie that should have a simple hook, but takes its nugget of pulpy interest and muddles it up with belabored backstory and dropped subplots that add up to nothing much, stuck somewhere frustrating between trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Director John Stockwell has made that his trademark as of late, with slight B-movies like Cat Run and Dark Tide that are too lazy to be effective and too clumsily plotted to fully activate what small simple pleasures they could generate. It’s no wonder that his best film of this kind (leaving out his actual best film, the nicely observed 2001 teen drama Crazy/Beautiful) is his simplest. That’d be 2005’s diving-for-treasure thriller Into the Blue which used a nicely photographed beach-side setting as an excuse to stage sequences of moderate suspense when it’s not ogling stars Jessica Alba and the late Paul Walker, hired to look good in swimwear and filling their roles splendidly. Still, it’s nothing more than a barely passable matinee diversion on a lethargic day.

In the Blood also takes place by the beach, looking at times like a nice paid vacation for all involved. But the movie spends little time in bikinis and almost as little time taking in the scenery. Just as well, since the movie is shot on some of the cheapest, ugliest digital video I’ve ever seen professionally projected in a movie theater. Sometimes, Stockwell cuts to pixilated cell phone video (shot on what appears to be circa 2003 technology), smeary surveillance feeds, and chunky GoPro footage, the better to make us grateful for what subpar cinematography we get, I suppose. The story follows Carano as a newlywed honeymooning on a small Caribbean island with husband Cam Gigandet. He goes missing in the aftermath of a suspicious zipline accident. She sets out to find him and get to the bottom of the apparent conspiracy to keep her from the truth about why he was taken.

As if that’s not enough, we also get flashbacks to Carano’s character as a teenager. She’s toughened up and taught to fight by her father (Stephen Lang) who tells her “scars are tattoos with better stories.” She has killed multiple people in self-defense on separate occasions. We hear she met her husband at Narcotics Anonymous. So she’s had a hard life. Why all this overly tragic backstory is loaded on top of this relatively simple story is beyond me. If a movie’s going to traffic in stereotypical character types as thoroughly as this one, why bother explaining? Maybe screenwriters James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin thought we would want to know why Carano is such a good fighter. Thanks, but no thanks. No Gene Kelly movie ever felt the need to take the time to painstakingly let us know how his characters became great dancers.

Into the Blood is lazily plotted, with little energy to the mystery. Methinks a problem might be the movie’s assumption that we’ll miss Cam Gigandet. He’s so painfully unconvincing in the opening scenes I was all too happy writing him off as an unseen MacGuffin character for most of the movie. (The reveal of the details of his fate is a big let down, too.) As Carano goes looking for him, scene after scene is shaggily, sloppily assembled. The action is sporadic, in murkily shaking shots, and torturous without impact. When not brawling, scenes are brightly overlit. You can see the actors sweating and squirming in front of the camera, trying and failing to make the tortured twists and clunky dialogue work.

The ensemble includes Ismael Cruz Cordova, Amaury Nolasco, and the always-welcome Danny Trejo as locals who spend their time helping and hindering the search. They’re fine, I suppose, but utterly indistinct. Most everyone is just there to move things along and not pull focus from the star. She’s great, but so underserved by the material that she fails to live down to it. If the story was sharper or the ensemble more vividly sketched, maybe she’d have something to work off of. The best part ends up being the wonderful Luis Guzmán as a laid-back local cop who has exactly zero interest in the situation in which Carano’s found herself. I liked that about him. I could relate.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just the Start: NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I


It’s difficult not to be aware that writer-director Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is half of a movie. Even if you didn’t hear that the Danish provocateur’s latest film ran nearly four hours at its festival debuts and has been cut into two parts for American release, or didn’t understand the title, you’d realize there’s more to the story when the film fades to black, plot and theme left tantalizingly unresolved. Next to the end credits runs a rapid-fire montage of context-free imagery next to the words “from Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.” And so it is hard to come up with a definitive statement one way or the other about the film in its totality, since such a declaration depends partly on where it goes from here. What can be said is that Vol. I is an often dazzling film, intense and thoughtful even as it sets out to shock and amuse with blisteringly matter-of-fact frankness.

As the title suggests, the film is about a sex addict. We first meet her (Charlotte Gainsbourg) passed out in an alley. A kind older gentleman (Stellan Skarsgård) stops to help. She refuses an ambulance, but agrees to accompany him back to his apartment where he makes her a pot of tea. There’s no sexual tension between them, but there is a mutual human curiosity. She launches into her life story, rattling off anecdote after anecdote. She becomes our complicated, and maybe unreliable, narrator, telling him and us about her family, her friends, and, most of all, her sexual encounters. These she takes special pleasure in lingering over sordid details, making sure to emphasize the role each one plays in forming her shame and self-loathing. The man, to his credit, does not judge her. Her engages her, talks her through her feelings, tries to shift the subject by drawing comparisons to fly fishing, math, and art, Bach, Poe, and Fibonacci. Where this conversation is leading neither seems to know, but the steady hand of directorial vision seems guiding them to some kind of conclusion.

Von Trier’s recent films have directed sharply interior emotional landscapes outward into the world at large. Antichrist, his dark and troubling 2009 film, suggested that profound grief could radiate into the environment, deteriorating and rotting surroundings until chaos reigns. His Melancholia, one of the best films of 2011, was even more overwhelming, finding deep depression so destabilizing and overpowering that nothing less than the end of the world becomes sublime release. But in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the woman’s interior desires, a mingling of hunger and disgust, are expressed in the world only insofar as she needs other people to fulfill her needs. In long flashbacks, anecdotes sad and funny, energetic and elegiac illuminate her progression from curious teen to a young woman juggling dozens of encounters a week, leaving a trail of bewildered and exhausted, and sometimes happy, men in her wake.

At the center of the stories, quietly commanding the screen, is young French/English actress Stacy Martin in her acting debut. She has a fresh face and eager features, hesitant innocence and starving desires swirling underneath her smooth skin and big eyes. It’s a marvelous performance, tricky and demanding physically and emotionally. She’s just as convincing sweetly asking her father (Christian Slater) to tell her one more time her childhood stories as she is propositioning a man on a train (Simon Böer). Composed, she plays slow-burn infatuation with the boss at her first job (Shia LaBeouf) with appealing earnest yearning. She also plays quiet mortification in the film’s biggest and best comedy sequence when her apartment is invaded by her current lover’s wife (Uma Thurman, in a remarkable scene-stealing performance) who confronts them, three towheaded youngsters in tow.

After each of these varied and compelling anecdotal flashbacks, we cut back to the narrator sipping her tea in the present. She seems to be testing her audience, looking at the patient, kind, inquisitive man from over her mug as if to say, “have I shocked you yet? Are you disgusted with me?” So too does Von Trier seem to be goading his audience, right from the assaultive heavy metal that blasts apart aching silence in the opening scene. Throughout the film, by turns explicit and oblique, he varies the presentation. There are shifting aspect ratios and color, sometimes flat, over-lit digital video glow, other times stretching across the wide screen with vivid colors and marvelous grungy grain. One anecdote, a harrowing hospital stay for a supporting character, is filmed in textured black and white, the better to make blood and excrement the same harrowing darkness on pristine white sheets. Von Trier uses archival footage, gynecological diagrams, and wry charts and graphs, placing them over moments both innocuous and filthy. He creates a world that is flexible, and a vivid and playfully dirty dichotomy between education of the mind – books, statistics, research – and education of the body – biology in practice.

At the end, the film finds a fine stopping point, but not a conclusion. It’s tantalizing and thought-provoking – I haven’t really stopped turning it over in my head since I saw it – but naturally feels incomplete. Vol. I sets up a fascinating character study that I’m eager to see resolved. I could’ve sat through the next two hours of it right then and there. Both volumes are available on video on demand as I write this, but I’ll wait and catch the second half on the big screen as well. A film as cinematically vital as this one deserves to be seen that way if possible.

Friday, April 4, 2014

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Up: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


What keeps the movies in Marvel’s Avengers multi-franchise franchise somewhat fresh is the way each film exists in a different setting and plays variations on different genres. They’re all shot in a bright house style, the tone always serious enough to generate suspense, but light enough to accommodate bantering between chummy characters. In other words, going into one of these movies you know exactly what you’re going to get, but not necessarily the way you’ll get it. Captain America: The First Avenger was a B-movie World War II picture with snarling Nazis, martyred scientists, and brave soldiers, with a square-jawed superpowered all-American hero in the center. Now its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, finds the star spangled man dropped into a paranoid conspiracy actioner, danger from unexpected sources at every turn.

In this new film, the Captain is still the same old patriotic freedom fighter he always was. Captain America may not be the role Chris Evans was born to play, but, between his capacity for unsentimental earnestness and obvious classically handsome features, it’s certainly the superhero role he was born to play. After being frozen in a block of ice for 70 years, thawed out, welcomed into SHIELD (the fictional Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), and sent out to fight off an alien invasion with the help of Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk, he’s finding himself borderline disillusioned. He asks Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) why the intelligence community is ramping up pervasive worldwide surveillance, building a massive apparatus to predict trouble and arrange preemptive strikes. Fury wearily tells him the world has grown dangerous, and they must be prepared for anything. Cold comfort, that.

The film smartly pivots from stars-and-stripes propaganda to clammy paranoia. In the first action scene Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) free hostages on a freighter in a fanfare of military might. But it’s not long before a high-ranking SHIELD official is gunned down by an assassin, men in suits force good spies on dubious missions, and Fury whispers to the Captain a stern warning:  “no one can be trusted.” It’s a surprisingly sharp – and totally on-the-nose – commentary on contemporary concerns over NSA surveillance and intelligence agency overreach. Though, shadowy governmental conspiracies aren’t exactly only current. Robert Redford, with a history of appearing in paranoid thrillers from Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men to Sneakers and Spy Game, appears as a suit, exuding gravitas in a fun echo of the genre’s past.

What follows is a tangle of twists and turns punctuated with exciting, lengthy action sequences all around Washington D.C. as loyal SHIELD agents reveal dark intent and showy conspiracies are yanked into the light. The blows land harder for the film’s mercilessness when it comes to mortally wounding characters and institutions you’d think the Marvel Cinematic Universe would want to keep around. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely moves quickly and coherently, dragging in familiar franchise faces (Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, and Jenny Agutter) while smoothly integrating new characters into the action. I particularly enjoyed Anthony Mackie as a former soldier who finds new reason to fight when Captain America calls upon him and quickly establishes an easy, warm friendship between them. It’s nice the movie takes time between the explosions and chaos to make new friends and keep the old, interested in some small way in relationships and how they play out through slam-bang rat-a-tat movement.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, sitcom veterans who, Community paintball episodes aside, make a big action debut here, filming the action in a clean and comprehensible style. The early boat-set sequence includes plenty of shots that refreshingly reveal the entire action head-to-toe, sometimes for seconds at a time. In later car chases, gun battles, fisticuffs, and aerial commotions, they cut rather deftly between perspectives and don’t let chaotic close-up inserts confuse too badly. The majority of the action – a one-against-ten fistfight in an elevator, a man in a winged jetpack outsmarting heat-seeking missiles – is cleverly staged. It’s all so engaging and enjoyable that it’s a bit of a let down to admit it’s also all a tad exhausting in the end. It’s exciting and it wore me out. After over two hours with often pervasive rounds of gunfire – minions just shoot and shoot and shoot, the body count looming large – it grows wearying. By the time the movie is well into its big blowout finale, twists and surprises largely in its rearview, I was ready for the punching and shooting to reach their inevitable end. It’s fun, but I had my fill.

Still, reliable and dependable, this Marvel universe of interlocking franchises has dropped another quality product off of the assembly line. At worst, these films can feel slight and predictable, pinned in by the corporate dictates of the overarching narrative. Much as I’ve enjoyed all of these movies to some extent or another, I’m interested, but not overly invested in the big picture. In individual films, moments of straight-faced near-campiness (anything Asgardian in the Thor movies), side pleasures (the first Captain America’s unexpected and delightful musical number), and funny supporting performances (Tom Hiddleston, Sam Rockwell, Kat Dennings, Tommy Lee Jones), stick with me the most. So it is to the filmmakers’ credit that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier they shake things up, providing all the expected thrills and smiles along with a welcome modicum of complexity to the characters' primary-colors comic book world as it crumbles around them in entertaining explosiveness.
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