Saturday, June 28, 2014

Robo-Schlock: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION


Non-stop noise of the auditory and visual kind, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth in Michael Bay’s growing franchise of movies about extraterrestrial robots that turn into vehicles and back again in order to fight each other, destroying major human cities in the process. This time involves two new factions of bad Transformers and a complicated mythology that’s both important and completely incomprehensible. It makes me yearn for the comparatively small 2007 original, which at least paused for some quieter moments and crafted stock human characters you could almost care about. Extinction is nearly three hours long and makes not a lick of sense, preferring instead to hurtle sensations at the screen in an overpowering display of digital pyrotechnics that grows monotonous and assaultive. At least it's not as bad as Revenge of the Fallen.

The good alien robots, Autobots, who fight the bad alien robots, Decepticons, last time left the Chicago Loop thoroughly crumbled in a terrific hour-long battle sequence – the franchise’s best – that redeemed that film’s lousy opening 90 minutes. Naturally, the humans weren’t too happy about all that death and destruction. They’ve begun a campaign to destroy all the robots. A grumpy CIA man (Kelsey Grammer) glowers in dark rooms and sends his black ops team (led by Titus Welliver) to hunt the robots down. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is a small-town Texas inventor who happens upon a busted semi, takes it back to his shop, and discovers that it’s really the Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). When the Feds storm his house in scary black SWAT vans looking for the robo-leader, Wahlberg, his 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz), and her racecar-driving boyfriend (Jack Reynor) go on the run with the Autobots.

The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy Transformers world, but they sure hang around anyway. They are mere connective tissue, putting a human face and scale on what is really a conflict between Transformers. In Ehren Kruger’s dumb script, the latest Decepticon iteration is still out there, along with a new kind of Transformer that flies in on the most massive robot spaceship yet, carrying a MacGuffin cargo, hunting the Autobots for some reason, and threatening the end of the world. Their leader turns into a gun with legs, so you know they’re dangerous. There’s also a bunch of ancient Transformers who turn into dinosaurs. They show up late in the picture, just to escalate the size of the destruction all the more. It should be fun, but it’s endless and exhausting.

I’ll confess to not remembering what brought these robots to Earth in the first place or understanding why, after people don’t want them around, they don’t just leave. “I swore never to take another human life,” Optimus intones at one point, apparently forgetting about the thousands of deaths in the previous 3½ films up to then. I don’t get it. Here they fight across a small town in Texas, then to Chicago (again), before the whole calamity ends up in Hong Kong for the climactic conflagration, leaving a trail of rubble and corpses behind them. The Autobots have a Randian insistence that they’re good because they say so, and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy. It’s off-putting. The convoluted plot involving various factions of robot-kind and competing human interests makes very little sense, but the action keeps rolling on and on, never pausing to catch its breath. Dialogue comes in staccato shouts buried in the sound mix so as to register only as exclamatory grunts and screams.

Rarely is the end-credit disclaimer “Any resemblance to actual people is coincidental” so apt. At least national treasure Stanley Tucci shows up as an energetic wild card. He alone holds his own as an interesting and enjoyable flesh-and-blood presence amongst the computerized jumble. Wahlberg is earnest, but swallowed by the spectacle around him. The camera slobbers all over Peltz’s long tan legs and short shorts, cutting away periodically to flustered reactions from various people, trying to wring sex appeal and pearl-clutching Puritanical humor out of the same character. She’s in the movie to be ogled and protected, either way treated as property. At one point, she’s caught in a bad robot ship and the two men in her life have this exchange. Wahlberg: “You’re helping save my daughter.” Reynor: “No, you’re helping save my girlfriend.” Forgive me if I didn’t care which man wins the right to own her.

I could mostly track the human motivations. But the robots? I was lost. I couldn’t tell them apart, had no idea what their end goals were, and couldn’t figure out why an alien space robot would look vaguely like a samurai and sound like Ken Watanabe, or appear to be inspired by Walter Sobchak with the voice of John Goodman to match. Not only dehumanizing in its endless nonsensical destruction and post-human in its outlook, the movie was, to me, beyond comprehension. That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained. It has its moments of crazed fantastic imagery of spinning doodads and magic hour car chases. Its two truly thrilling moment of danger involves our human leads walking above the former Sears’ Tower on thin cables and, later, dangling on the side of a towering apartment complex in Hong Kong. Falling. Now there’s a threat I get.

In typical Michael Bay fashion, the movie is a long, excessive display of a boyish arrested adolescent id, all machinery, explosions, machismo, flashes of skin, and libertarianism. He’s a bullying filmmaker, pushing intensity upon the audience at headache-making speed, always ready to throw hate on nerdy characters for a throwaway gag. Bay works without a filter. He’s always putting his whole messy, hypocritical, weird, cutting-edge/retrograde, complicated self up on screen, for good and bad. But he has an undeniable eye. He’s capable of making fun entertainments with his anything-goes, over-the-top, amped-up, explosive, glossy style. His gigantism is impressive. In another time, he would’ve made underrated Poverty Row B-movies, Grindhouse cult classics, beloved midnight movies. But he arrived at a time when Hollywood was looking for just his kind of gigantic indulgence for their biggest pictures, spilling noise and spectacle in indiscriminate clamor and cacophony.

I’ve liked as many of his movies as I haven’t, but when his action works it is because the goals make sense, the characters are vividly drawn, and the imagery snaps together with pleasingly chaotic momentum. Bay’s always making thunderous pop art nonsense, but increasing freedom with his spectacle has led to films that are out of control. Last year’s dark caper Pain & Gain, an overblown, almost-subliminal, autocritique, is a clear outlier. At this point, his hyperactive deadly asteroid disaster picture Armageddon, all the way back in 1998, seems almost an example of narrative economy. And about that one critic Bilge Ebiri wrote, “Its awesome gratuitousness borders on the experimental.” Extinction is big and dumb, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Loud, crass, violent, obnoxious, and a complete narrative and thematic mess, it’s cut together with supreme sloppiness and grindingly empty in all respects.

I’ve seen the trailer for Extinction quiet a chatty crowd instantly with its compelling imagery and intensity of motion. But string together shots of clattering junkheap machines slamming into each other while humans flee and fight below for three hours with only a flimsy plot and nothing characters behind it and it grows hard to take. There are real thrills here, fascinating shots and terrific effects work, but he’s a director who never knows when enough is enough. It’s what makes him so compelling and repelling, even in the same film. This one can be exciting and ugly, but is mostly grindingly dull. It’s unmodulated ear-splitting confusion. For a movie with nothing to say, it sure spends a long time loudly saying it.

I get the feeling the ultimate Bay film would do without plot altogether. It’d be Victoria’s Secret models on an American flag runway at an auto show, a bad standup comic ranting about women and immigrants, and fleets of helicopters fighting a sentient factory in the middle of a Linkin Park concert. Then, fireworks.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On The Road: THE ROVER


The post-apocalyptic Western plays upon the inversion of its setting. Where a traditional Western is always on some level responding to progress, the inevitable movement from a Wild West to our present day, the post-apocalypse goes backwards. There’s the same iconography: rugged untamed landscapes, solitary masculine figures, and periodic outbursts of gunfire. But instead of representing a flowering that leads for good or ill to modernity, it is sickly, decayed, frayed, beaten up and downbeat. The post-apocalyptic setting is hardly fresh, but this particular iteration can draw upon its genre roots to compelling effects.

It’s certainly the most, and almost only, interesting aspect of Australian writer-director David Michôd’s new film, The Rover. It takes place against just such a crumbled West backdrop, even if it’s not the American west in this case. Opening text tells us that we’re in “Australia. Ten Years After The Collapse.” We never learn what is meant by this “collapse,” a refreshing change of pace. But we certainly feel its effects. The outback has risen up, nature swallowing the sparse towns with plant growth and choking supply routes along crumbling shantytowns that clearly used to be quaint villages, roadside stores, and suburban sprawl. Here there is desperation without even a glimmer of hope.

Guy Pearce stars as a man who really wants his car back. It’s stolen in the open sequence that watches as a thief (Scott McNairy) and his accomplices (Tawanda Manyimo and David Field) crash their truck and continue their escape with in the stolen car. Pearce, a stoic, grizzled man wearing faded, unflattering shorts and a determined grimace, sets out to reclaim his property, giving chase across an unforgiving wilderness sparsely populated with criminals and those simply doing what they have to in order to eke out another day. Along the way, he finds the car thief’s brother (Robert Pattinson), shot in the gut and left for dead. Turns out, the young man isn’t too happy about that turn of events and is happy to help Pearce track his brother down.

It’s a simple plot, spare and episodic. The two men are moving inevitably towards the car and to a showdown of some kind. That conclusion seems likely to be bloody, what with the carnage that seems to follow wherever Pearce and Pattinson’s dusty road trip takes them. Creepy characters along the road include a grandmotherly madame (Gillian Jones) with a shack full of teenage boys, a gun runner (Jamie Fallon), a doctor (Susan Prior), and some military men (Nash Edgerton, Anthony Hayes) whose presence hints at something of a governmental force that exists so far away and so theoretically that only their big guns give them any power whatsoever. The people are malnourished, dehydrated, and suspicious. Even the encounters that manage to end nonviolently are fraught with tension and danger.

The fabric of society is as frayed and on edge as these men are. Pearce and Pattinson hold the screen with a grim smolder. Their performances are gruff, fly-bitten. (Was there a fly-wrangler on set?) Pearce moves deliberately, keeps his eyes deathly quiet, and isn’t answering any questions. Why is his car so important? His determination tells us it’s all he has. Pattinson speaks more, but with a gargled mumble that’s hard to parse. He’s earnest, naïve, and maybe has some mental problems of one kind or another. They’re an awkward match, held together only by their final destinations.

The film takes its two central performances, clenched and uncommunicative guys who fumble around for words when they speak at all, and radiates their inner pain outwards. Their grief and guilt pulse in the very landscape around them, vast and foreboding in Natasha Braier’s razor-sharp cinematography, Peter Sciberra’s austere editing, and the sparse, precise sound design. It’s all so very intriguing, but never gets beyond that initial level. It remains an interestingly visualized and imagined world, convincing and complete. But what happens inside it just doesn’t add up to much. In the final shots we finally learn why Pearce is so driven to reclaim his car, and it’s at once a mild punch in the gut and cause to say, “that’s it?” Throughout it is excellently evocative, but uninvolving. The more that happens, the more that’s revealed, the less I cared. Its setting is expertly drawn, but what happens in it disappoints. Individual details are impressive, but add up to nothing.

Friday, June 20, 2014

So Close, And Yet So Far: JERSEY BOYS


For the last twenty years or so, from Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby and J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts have been clearly the works of an old man. I don’t mean that negatively. His movies have had a clean, classical design to their studied shots. They have deliberate rhythms, a confident relaxed quality to the patient way they unfold, a spare simplicity to the way scenes linger, playing quietly and earnestly. His color palate has grown increasingly pale, production design draped in stillness and shadow, with lighting often funeral parlor dim. With his latest film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the high-energy Broadway jukebox musical based on the 1960s rise of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, he brings down the tempo to match his style. On stage the show is fast and flashy. Here it’s downbeat, full of sad reality, contract disputes, and flawed individuals who, despite obvious talents, make it big through luck and timing more than anything. It’s a perspective, earned weary cynicism, only an 84-year-old who has spent 60 years in showbiz could have.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice adapt their own work on the musical into a screenplay that turns the interplay between narrative and song into a straight-ahead musical biopic. It clumsily but cleverly relies upon an audience’s prior understanding of its subgenre’s mechanics and prior knowledge that The Four Seasons were a big deal. It contains shorthand weddings and funerals, wives and mistresses, agents and temptations, sudden success and long-building breakups. It has a scene where the four guys stand around needing a new name for their band when, with a zap, a neon bowling alley sign flickers to life. “The Four Seasons,” it says. It’s a sign, get it? Later, they’re stuck for ideas when their producer happens to say, “big girls don’t cry.” Boom. In a cut, they’re singing their hit song of that name. It’s so earnestly turns on clichés it’s almost a self-aware wink. (Speaking of winks, Eastwood puts himself in the period context, as a TV playing an episode of Rawhide is turned off as his youthful head fills its screen.)

This mild self-awareness is in keeping with the one theatrical quality that makes it to the screen. The four band members narrate the story. A standard scene will move along normally when one of the guys steps out of the scene, turns to the camera, and tells us how they see it. This approach solves a big problem biopics can have where the characters go around acting like they’ve already read the history books on the matter. These characters actually do know what happens. They step aside and confide in us, youthful stand-ins for elderly memories. First we meet Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who tells us about his youthful criminal conduct outside of Newark. When not in jail, he has a band – with a mob benefactor (Christopher Walken) – that plays small local gigs and asks his buddy Frankie (John Lloyd Young) to step in as lead singer. One thing leads to another. They invite a songwriter (Eirch Bergen) to help them cut demos of original material. He picks up the narration for a while as the group struggles for a spell before finally catching a lucky break.

It’s smooth sailing for a while, until Tommy’s shady mob connections catch up to them, at which point their bass player (Michael Lomenda) takes over the story. The movie doubles back two years to reveal the sailing wasn’t as smooth as the earlier narrators spun it. Eastwood and his screenwriters aren’t rigorously committed to the point-of-view structure, allowing for dramatic developments in any character’s life to occur whenever they want regardless of whether or not the current narrator would’ve known. Still, it’s a sometimes-effective structure that, at best, manages to inhabit clichés and bust through them in the same moment. What’s curious is the way this production’s flatlined energy manages to create a sense of weary reminiscences. The story of the band’s success doesn’t once contain a spark of excitement or sense of discovery. It’s slow and resigned. It’s not a movie that exists in present tense. It takes its cue from the narrators and views the events as if shot through the mists of time, squinting to remember details.

The original Broadway cast plays the band, a completely ridiculous idea when they’re playing 16, but much better when in their 30s and 40s. They sing and dance to all the old hits – “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” and more – but off stage are low-key. They relax too far into the material, unlike Walken, who realizes Eastwood’s approach will require more energy on the performer’s part to enliven the proceedings. Their individual traits remain broadly sketched, partly a function of the writing. Isn’t it funny how biopics can make real individuals into stock stereotypes? At times, this one gets closer to musician bio-parody Walk Hard than anything else in the subgenre. But the cultural specificity of their hometown Italian Catholic New Jersey milieu, a place where the Pope and Frank Sinatra had equal regard, has a broad sense of place that helps ground their sleepy characterizations. When, by the end, the guys show up in dodgy old-age makeup, warmly happy to sing again, there’s a sense that the movie we watched was their way of burying the past, making sense of their own story in Hollywood terms.

I found it largely kitsch and cliché, but half-moving in its own peculiar way. I was quite taken with these final scenes, where a swivel of the camera and a smooth edit takes us from the elderly makeup to youthful vigor. Frankie, at long last, speaks directly to the camera, his thoughts the only mystery throughout. It’s syrupy and poignant. The music swells. Cut to black. Then there’s a bright backlot musical sequence, a fantasy reunion/curtain call of sorts, that’s the best scene in the picture. It is lovely artifice, suggesting the ultimate showbiz honor is to have messy lives subsumed totally and thus be immortalized by movie fakery.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

High-Flying Adventure: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2


Like all good fantasy sequels, Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes the world its predecessor built and expands upon it. The first film introduced us to the tiny island of Berk where a village of Vikings lived to fight off dragons preying on their flocks of sheep. It followed Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the shrimpy son of the leader (Gerard Butler), as he learned dragons aren’t so bad once you get to know them. By the end, he’d trained a fierce and adorable one he named Toothless as a pet and saved his village from destruction in the process. Now, as the sequel starts, the village lives in peace with the dragons, having realized they’re lovable, loyal, useful animals. There’s no conflict there, so the movie pushes forward, opening five years later on Hiccup and Toothless flying out over the ocean exploring new islands and finding new species. When they land on what is to them uncharted territory, he takes out his hand-drawn map and adds a new page, as fitting a symbol for the start of a new chapter as any.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois, who served as co-writer and co-director with Chris Sanders on the first film, takes the light boy’s adventure and enriches it by foregrounding the boy’s evolution into a man and bringing the cast of background characters more clearly into focus. While struggling with his status as heir, Hiccup, now taller, more toned, and with a touch of stubble on his chin, is drawn into conflict. First, he runs into dragon trappers, led by a hunky, ambiguously bad guy voiced by Game of Throne’s Kit Harington. They’re mercilessly poaching the majestic beasts. But that’s merely prelude to bigger trouble care of a distant warlord (a growling Djimon Hounsou) who threatens hostilities with his army of captive dragons. With a name like Drago Bludvist, pronounced “blood-fist,” he’s born to be bad. Riding out to help quell this new conflict are Hiccup’s father, as well as a likable ragtag band of villagers (America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig) who last time were background color, but this time come into focus as their own distinct characters with subplots and emotional throughlines. 

The first time around, the dragon training was a highlight, a boy-and-his-dog dynamic between a scrawny teen and a jet black, bat-winged, puppy-dog-eyed salamander. Never better than when in flight, the 3D animation dipped and spun with immediacy and vertiginous beauty. It was a thrill. This time, the thrill comes not just from that relationship and the dragon flying, which is as nicely and excitingly rendered as before, but also in the conflicts complicating this fantasy world. The threatened destruction is at a higher magnitude, the characters have more at stake, and the scale towers over them with subwoofer-rattling rumblings. New dragons include a skyscraper-sized alpha beastie that breathes icy breath leaving jagged icicles in its wake. The damage to dragons is also more personal. The introduction of a mysterious figure in the wild, a protector of dragons (Cate Blanchett) who unlocks further secrets of the species, finds time to highlight sliced wings and missing limbs, the result of near-misses with hunters. There’s an ecological weight to this film, a sorrow and responsibility.

The dragon protector has an important connection to Hiccup and much to teach him. The way the plot unfolds finds surprisingly rich emotions to tap into as their relationship is fully explained. The scene where this woman meets Hiccup’s father is astonishing in its tenderness and maturity. It could’ve gone in many big ways – tearful, scary, or regretful – but instead goes for a hushed whisper and a sweet folk song. The film is all about surprising with those kinds of scenes. An early moment between Hiccup and his love interest has a loose conversational quality as they flirtatiously tease each other. A late turn that deepens and darkens the relationship between boy and dragon is unsettling and a real shock, making the resolution all the more stirring. There’s seriousness to the storytelling here that respects both the fun of its colorful fantasy and the emotional lives of its characters.

It’s a movie about responsibility, aging, death, abandonment, and environmental destruction. You know, for kids! It’s bright, vibrant, has a soaring score and rousing action. But there’s a melancholy beneath that’s unexpected in its gravity. I appreciated how respectful of its audience the film is, unwilling to talk down to children and not feeling the need to stretch for adult attention. It’s simply a good story told well. And that’s more than enough to captivate. The animation is gorgeous, digital-painterly tableaus of fantasy landscapes and fluid character movement. The images within stir the imagination. A swarm of dragons flutters about like a flock of birds. Rising slowly and silently out of the clouds, a lone rider wearing a horned mask and carrying a rattling staff, sits atop a massive creature. A boy flies his dragon into the wild, and returns something closer to a man. It’s a terrific, exciting, involving adventure told with great feeling and a good eye.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Do It All Again: 22 JUMP STREET


Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street reboot knew you’d be skeptical. The 2012 comedy based on the late-80’s TV series has an early scene in which the police captain (Nick Offerman) tells his new undercover cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) that the department is out of ideas and is recycling old ones in the hope no one really cares. Once again, two young cops will go undercover in a high school. From there, Lord and Miller surprised with a movie that’s funnier and smarter than you’d expect. It didn’t care too much for its detective plot, which is transparently simple and resolved too bloodily for laughs. But it was a fun movie with some funny lines, a perfect pair of cameos, smart observation about how quickly high school changes as you leave it behind, and a charming buddy-cop pairing in Hill and Tatum. That’s the kind of short/tall, chubby/fit, motormouth/lunkhead pairing that sounds like it might work on paper, and then wildly exceeds expectations on screen. Together they were better than either would’ve been alone. It was a pleasant surprise.

And now here’s 22 Jump Street, a sequel fully aware that sequels are usually inevitably worse than the first, especially when it comes to comedies. It has Offerman state the problem right off the bat. He wants his undercover cops to team up and infiltrate a new school, a college this time, and root out the source of a deadly new designer drug. He wants them to just do what they did last time. And so the movie sets out to skewer blockbuster sequels’ competing tendencies to A.) go bigger, louder, longer, and more spectacular, and B.) repeat everything that worked the first time around. The plot literalizes this dilemma by having Hill and Tatum’s direct superior (Ice Cube) show off their flashier, more expensive – “for no reason” – resources while telling them to do what they did before. Like Gremlins 2 and Ocean's Twelve, this is a movie that makes its sequel struggle part of the narrative in amusing ways.

Nerdy Hill and jock Tatum are again posing as brothers, now pretending to be college freshmen. Hill gets drawn into the art students’ circle while Tatum pledges at a fraternity and wants to join the football team. Though they became best friends and good partners last time, here they’re drawn apart, only to rediscover and reaffirm what a great team they make together. In between are parties, petty jealousies, a drug trip, slapstick, dirty jokes, homosocial bonding, a couple great cameos, and a token amount of police work. The screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman lays out the pitfalls of sequels repeating the same character beats and riffing on similar scenarios right up front and then does them anyway, winking at its self-referential tendencies. Do it just like last time, our heroes are told. That’s what keeps people happy.

Hill and Tatum’s performances are sharp and consistently on-point. You have to be smart to play dumb so well and without losing audience sympathy. Improbably, in a film so silly and frivolous, I cared about their friendship and wanted them to catch the bad guys. They have great underdog chemistry, approaching the material from opposite directions and meeting expertly in the middle. They really do love each other and cherish their time together, holding back tears whenever they hash out the state of their friendship. It’s sweet. Hill and Tatum’s relationship feels more intense and charming even as the movie gets looser, goofier, and stranger as it steers into the skid, getting around sequel traps by playing them up. They’re terrific anchors for the silliness in which they find themselves. Because the central duo has such considerable charm, Lord and Miller are free to experiment around them.

The directors have clear movie love, an inside-out understanding of how blockbusters work and what makes their tropes so ridiculous(ly charming). Their hugely enjoyable, hard-working films - the Jump Streets, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie - are so packed with imaginative jokes and concepts that you can almost hear them snickering behind the camera, “Can you believe we get to make a movie!?” What makes 22 Jump Street so funny is the filmmaking breaking the fourth wall without quite letting its characters get through. The movie starts with a rapid-fire “Previously On” montage that somehow manages to reference Annie Hall, then hurtles through its self-aware sequel plotting, ending up in end credits that imagine the franchise’s future in a series of jokes so fast and dense I need to see the movie again just to catch them all.

Lord and Miller, with a more accomplished visual style that gets close to the visual density of their superior animated efforts, shoot the action in a Hot Fuzz-style parody of the Michael Bay style (minus most of his uglier tendencies). With explicit nods to Bad Boys specifically, this movie has low-angle hero shots, emphatic circling cameras, and saturated magic-hour lighting. Then they throw in a dash of split-screen foolishness, like Looney Tunes directed by DePalma, that doubles down on the doubling effect of sequels, a motif carried through by two sets of twins in the supporting cast. (“Twins again?” Tatum groans late in the picture.)

Meanwhile, the college plots are shot and played as typical collegiate comedy, with everything from soft-focus campus romance and vulgar hazing. There are funny scenes with an earnest art major (Amber Stevens), her sarcastic insult-comic of a roommate (scene-stealer Jillian Bell), and a doofy frat boy football player (Wyatt Russell). The movie is constantly drawing attention to its own implausibilities, but the various genre elements in the plot are played somewhat straight, allowing plenty of room for the inherent humor of a goofy pair of undercover cops trying desperately to blend in and solve a crime while working through their own problems.

All of that is complicated and made funnier by the mystery plot always lingering in the back of our leads’ minds. It’s more smoothly threaded through the comedy than last time. There’s a literal red herring symbol. A car chase is sped up as the vehicles zip around the “Benjamin Hill Department of Film Studies.”  It’s somehow thrilling and silly, thrillingly silly. Everything is both serious and a joke. It’s a messy mockery of the same formulaic arcs just barely holding it all together, like a Marx Brothers movie where the very structure of the plot itself is the chaos accelerant.

The film manages to be wild, raucous, self-critical, and often very funny. It has a handful of scenes that had me laughing the hard, short-of-breath, aching-sides laughter that can’t be denied. 22 can’t have the surprise of its first outing, but the filmmakers more than make up for it by energetically and excitingly goofing around the very struggle of doing a sequel. It’s bigger, louder, longer, with meta tricks that start clever, get too clever, and then circle back around again. In the process, the filmmakers made a sequel that captures a different sense of surprise. It’s sloppily satisfying.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Instant Replay: EDGE OF TOMORROW


Edge of Tomorrow is an action movie with an irresistible sci-fi hook. It’s the near future and humans are fighting a war against aggressive alien invaders. The creatures are fast, brutal, and seemingly unstoppable. Europe has fallen, occupied by the spindly, insidious beasties. The forces of Earth are mobilizing for a last-ditch effort to beat back the extraterrestrial beings before it’s too late. This is all laid out for us in one of those rapid-fire news footage montages that feature real anchors delivering this fictional news with grave sincerity. One of the army’s top public relations men (Tom Cruise) is asked to chronicle the impending attack. When he’s told it’s not a request, but an order, he tires to run. He’s branded a coward and a deserter. His punishment: a spot on the front lines. It’s there that he experiences first hand the carnage of the conflict. He’s killed in action and is surprised to wake up the day before. He’s caught in a time loop.

The rest of the movie features Cruise’s fearful, inexperienced soldier gaining strength and smarts by reliving the battle over and over and over. He repeats the day, getting a better grasp on the situational tactics and big picture with each replay. He’s like a gamer getting better and better each time through a level. The invasion is a chaotic sci-fi version of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Humans wear mechanized battle suits as they land on the beach, firing off into the distance at an unseen enemy as they trudge forward. The aliens burrow under the sand, then burst forward grasping, blasting, chomping. They are biomechanical, multi-tentacle beasts that look truly otherworldly, incomprehensibly strange and self-evidently dangerous. It seems mankind’s only chance is the trial-and-error suddenly available to this one man. Again and again he dies only to be born again, ready to fight the same fight once more, but this time with a slightly better idea of what he’s in for.

Cruise is a perfect actor for this kind of role. He not only has the sympathetic hard-charging action hero role down to a science, he makes it look new each time. As a movie star who has lived through action movie carnage that’d kill a real person dozens of times over throughout his career, it’s a shock to see him die, let alone in a context that’s quickly edited for an almost comic effect at times. At one point, there’s a training montage of sorts in which he’s killed with every edit. He’s shot, stabbed, exploded, run over, squashed, chopped, and otherwise destroyed, but still he bounces up again, waking on the day before. Here his professionalism and determination grow steely through a sense of discovery that’s fun and tense. A lesser actor might let the whole project grow repetitive or wearing, but Cruise charges forward, all energy and willpower.

He meets one person who believes him, a tough soldier (Emily Blunt) who once got caught in a time loop herself a few battles back. She immediately recognizes the symptoms in him and agrees to help him. Too bad he has to reintroduce himself every day after his every death. He gets her up to speed and they set out to plan their attack like two kids who’ve lost each time through a multiplayer level and are sure this is the time they have enough information to win. They look at their blueprints and diagrams like it’s a strategy guide.

The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, from the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, constantly resets. Each repetition brings with it a new understanding of what needs to be done, or at least a reframing of what approaches won’t work. It’s cleverly plotted, if thinly developed. There’s not a lot to it, but what’s there is competently told. It’s all forward momentum, with the reason for the time loop tied inextricably to the way to win the war. It’s tightly wound and briskly told, no time spent on treacly backstory for our main duo, defining side-characters (played by good character actors like Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton) beyond their mere presences, or providing humanizing families back home. It’s lean and straight to the point.

Director Doug Liman, who, with the likes of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is no stranger to staging fun action scenes, gets to riff on one setpiece in a variety of ways. He moves through the hectic, gray, and muddy alien D-Day sequence multiple times from an assortment of angles. Cinematographer Dion Beebe finds fluid and exciting images that are cut together by editor James Herbert in a propulsive pace. It’s not a great action scene – it’s indistinct and often incomprehensible in its fog of war – but the variations develop smartly. I didn't feel it in my gut, but my head enjoyed the ride.

We get a little farther with some repetitions, and as the movie progresses we jump into the action at later and later points. We know Cruise and Blunt can fight their way so far. They’ve done it hundreds of times. No need to repeat every beat of the action when we can skip to right where they left off. The action is digitally enhanced rattling and battling with characters able to leap and shoot, running and gunning. Aliens flip and scuttle about, popping up and spinning around in a dance of death with the humans who slowly learn to anticipate their moves.

The movie makes smart use of its time travel mechanics. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Cruise takes advantage of his ability to predict behaviors simply because he’s quite literally been there, done that. There’s some wit in his knowledge of a multitude of possible events for any given scenario. At one point late in the movie, Blunt says, “What now?” Cruise responds, “I don’t know. We’ve never made it this far before.” Like most time travel movies, push a little and it doesn’t quite add up. But Edge of Tomorrow moves so unrelentingly quickly, features a pair of solid star performances, and features a plot-heavy script a tad smarter than you’d think. It’s a fine popcorn entertainment.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Love, Cancer Style: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS


They’re young. They’re in love. They have cancer. She meets him in a support group for kids with terminal illnesses. She needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He has an artificial leg. They’re in remission, but for God only knows how long. She’s only alive because of an experimental treatment. No one knows if and when it’ll stop working. He’s only alive because he gave up part of his leg. They hit it off right away. Their chemistry is immediate, obvious, and overwhelming. They feel comfortable together. Maybe it’s because for them love means never having to say you have cancer.

That’s the basic premise of The Fault in Our Stars, a teen romance wrapped tightly around a disease-of-the-week weepy. What makes it work is the strength of the performances, which are clear-eyed and emphatic, and the writing, which is sappy and sentimental, but never loses a sense of humor and perspective. This isn’t a blinkered story of doomed true love. It’s a story about two sick kids who make a connection in what just might be their final days. Rather than letting this possibility weigh the film down, it’s simply accepted as a reality. They’ve been living with their diagnoses for years now. They’re used to it.

The girl, Hazel, is our entry point into the story. Played by Shailene Woodley, she’s a bookish, contemplative girl who appreciates the time she’s given, while wondering why she can’t have the freedom to be a little more of a normal teen. She certainly doesn’t want to go to the support group in the bottom of a church basement, where the sweet man with testicular cancer (Mike Birbiglia) makes everyone listen to his acoustic guitar playing. She goes anyway, and meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort). They can’t keep their eyes off of each other. Afterwards, they hang out. Soon, they text back and forth. It’s a typical modern teen flirtation sliding easily into romance. If it weren’t for the cancer, it’d almost not be worth telling. The disease gives their flirtation underlying, unspoken, urgency.

Woodley and Elgort’s performances are appealing and comfortable. Woodley makes even the corniest narration sound like nothing more than what a reasonably intelligent teenager might be thinking. She has an open face and wet eyes that communicate a sadness and wonder, convincing as a person who has been sick since she was a child, and is tentatively forging a new relationship despite her worry about hurting one more person with her death. Elgort’s hugely charming, playing the type of cocky that can only be compensating for fear. And yet he seems totally at ease. He has to be the dreamiest, most Tiger Beat-ready cancer patient I’ve ever seen, confident and glowing with a love of life. They look good together, banter well, and are easy to root for.

The supporting cast is filled with terrific actors as parents and fellow support group members. Laura Dern is especially good in a role of maternal warmth and care as a woman for whom caring for a terminal child has become second nature. She has a devastating flashback scene, weeping while trying to comfort her hospitalized daughter, that’s so good it’s repeated twice. Nat Wolff, who between this and Palo Alto is cornering the market on troubled-best-friend teen roles, plays a kid with cancer of the eyes, nervously awaiting surgery that’ll leave him blind. That he’s good comedic relief should tell you something about the movie’s approach. It’s not morose or death-obsessed. It’s about people living their lives one day at a time complete with tiny triumphs, interesting anecdotes, sad setbacks, and funny jokes.

There’s nothing visually interesting about the movie. It’s simply lit and full of medium and close-up two shots, what we’d more easily call TV-like before TV went and got a smidge more cinematic at its upper edge. Director Josh Boone gets fine performances out of his cast and keeps the style merely functional, stepping out of the material’s way. It’s based on a popular novel by John Green, who wrote a well-oiled melodrama machine. I mean that in a good way. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (of (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) retain its most appealing elements, faithfully flavoring a low-key and sympathetic story about families living with a sick child with fantasy romance elements. The main characters have an idealized perfect teen love that’s all the more intense for the cold reality of cancer potentially growing within them.

The movie has a brisk pace, humanizing detail, and a good-humored snap to the dialogue. It hits metaphors a little too hard – a scene drawing a parallel to Anne Frank is misjudged – but, in its simple scenes of characters interacting, it is often deeply felt. It’s gooey, sappy at times, intent on wringing a tear or two out of the audience. But it’s warm, appealing, and never loses sight of the characters, balancing their youthful vitality and the deadly stakes of their conditions. Most importantly, they’re rarely reduced to their types. They’re presented as people who laugh, dream, plan, hope, think, and love. They try not to let their disease define them. That the movie doesn’t either is to its credit. And that’s what makes this glossy, bright, manipulative Hollywood drama an engaging entertainment that can hit authentic, tearful notes.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Teen Spirits: PALO ALTO


On a plot level, there’s little that happens in Palo Alto that looks like my teenage years. And yet, in its evocation of adolescent confusion and uncertainty, it feels achingly true. There’s something about being a teenager that’s incredibly isolating. While you’re living through it, you might think your particular combination of problems are completely your own, that no one could possibly relate. Awkwardness, loneliness, and introspection are closed systems. But then somewhere along the way, as you find getting older leads to perspective, if you let it, a switch is flipped. Suddenly you can see the teenage experience for what it is. Surface details of teen lives differ wildly, but the feelings underneath are universal. The best movies about teens understand this.

The teens in Palo Alto don’t have the perspective about themselves and about the world that would bring their problems into focus. They care too little and too much in the same instant. In the liminal middle of their teenage years, choppy emotional waters rage underneath protective layers of disaffected monotone. It’s written and directed by Gia Coppola, a third-generation director, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. She confidently captures an adolescent state of mind with the specificity and sympathy of someone far enough removed to have perspective, but not too far removed to still feel its immediacy. She’s 27 and has a photographer’s eye. The world of the suburban high-schoolers she explores is lived in, captured in details casual and right. It’s not art-directed stylist-driven product-placement “teenage.” It is languorously shot by Autumn Durald, hazily lived in, scuffed-up, stretched, with details that don’t fall off on the sides of the frames.

The film follows four teens through a short period of time in their lives as they drift with anxiety, apathy, and uncertainty. April (Emma Roberts) is shy and sensitive, sweet but often ignored. She finds herself drawn towards and intimidated by male attention, but usually too busy with schoolwork and babysitting to act on it. Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, in his debut role) is nice, artistic, and curious, but troubled. He hangs with bad influences and finds himself in trouble with the law. Fred (Nat Wolff) is twitchy and unpredictable. He seems to be play acting “bad kid,” with a quick temper, teasing danger, and affected odd behaviors that make it hard to tell whether he’s only fooling or genuinely disturbed. Emily (Zoe Levin) flirts and fools around with lots of boys. But though she’s willing, her interior life is more conflicted. At one point she hollowly grumbles, “I’ve never been in love.”

They float in similar social circles, their paths crossing from time to time. But even together they seem so lonely, all in the process of figuring out who they are, what they like, and who they will become. They never quite figure it out in the time we spend with them. The film ends before any resolution of that kind. But that’d be too simple anyway. It’s not a film with a big statement about Kids These Days or the State of the American Teenager. It’s not moralizing or message-based. It’s a movie of small gestures and modest shifts within the prickly fog of adolescence. Coppola summons the ambiguity of high school days. These characters are stretching away from the children they so recently were, reaching towards the adults they’ll become. This stretched state is dangerous business.

They’re brooding and troubled, trying on personas, nervous and self-conscious, shyly testing one another. They provoke and are provoked, experimenting with alcohol, drugs, sex, art, music, relationships. The film doesn’t let them off easy while showing a great deal of compassion for them. They’re often photographed alone or in pairs, chatting in cars, sitting in bedrooms, loitering in parking lots and driveways. Most revealing is when they are alone. One kid writes a song on a guitar. Another puts on a dress and tests out flirty poses. They’re free to try the boundaries of their identity most fully when alone. Get them together and the experiments dissect, altering in response to the others.

Adults, and role models in general, are rare. They drop in for platitudes before carrying on with their own preoccupations. There are benign parents, teachers, and judges upholding the line between children and adults. Then there are adults creepily muddling that line. For example, there’s a soccer coach (James Franco, who also wrote the short stories on which the film is based) who stares sleepily, seductively across the line. He’s only a decade or so older than his students, but the developmental importance of those years is painfully obvious. The glimpses of adult life we see on the margins of the teens’ stories are ghosts of future possibilities.

Coppola is content with making Palo Alto a hazy mood piece, getting a contact high off of the characters and their interior struggles acted outwards. She gets relaxed controlled performances out of her young cast. They act like real kids, and the movie watches what they do, how they act, and how it affects them. It hangs back observing, capturing moments in time that are critically important and yet, if they survive, doomed to fade in importance with astonishing speed as they have the rest of their lives ahead of them. When the movie ends, the characters are unresolved, open-ended. They have long ways to go. Some of them are more fully down bad paths with no easy way out. Others have started to hesitantly, incrementally move forward in better directions. This film has the compassion to respect their lived experience and evoke it with care. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Easy Dying; Hard Comedy: A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST


Seth MacFarlane must think you’re stupid. For A Million Ways to Die in the West, his second feature film, the creator of the nauseating cartoon Family Guy and the so-so R-rated teddy-bear comedy Ted has written and directed a Western comedy that assumes you have only a passing familiarity at best with the genre and with the history of the American frontier. The screenplay, a loose collection of often ugly comedy conceits strung along a fairly standard Western plot, is written from a detached angle to the material, filled with characters who stand back and explain the context of the jokes. This is how a town in Arizona got ice shipped from Boston. Here’s the level of medical care a frontier town could expect. Did you know people don’t smile in old pictures? Did you know there were a lot of deadly dangers in the Wild West? There’s a condescension here that assumes you won’t get the jokes, such as they are. It’s a movie made for people who snicker at old movies for no other reason than because they’re from another time.

Stuck in approach somewhere between Lawrence Kasdan’s grinning revival Silverado and Mel Brooks’ anything-goes satire Blazing Saddles, MacFarlane’s film is at once a smirking know-it-all comedy and a somewhat earnest attempt to do a Western. The plot is simple. It’s 1882 in Old Stump, Arizona. A poor sheep farmer (MacFarlane, giving himself the lead) is left by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) and soon starts courting the beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron) who happens to ride into town. Unbeknownst to him, she’s the wife of the region’s most terrifying gunfighter (Liam Neeson). That’s the skeleton of a fine Western plot, and it’s carried along by expansive widescreen photography from Michael Barrett and a classically trumpeting score by Joel McNeely sounding a lot like what Max Steiner or Dimitri Tiomkin would’ve done in the genre’s heyday. But every time a character speaks, it’s with a clattering, colloquial modern speaking tone that’s ironic, smarmy, and simply not funny.

Patient zero for this flat, desperately unfunny performative patter is MacFarlane, who delivers his own writing with the enervating energy of an overeager standup. He’s impressed with himself, convinced his subpar quips and lazy observations are hilarious. He’s not charming. He’s smug. His character is disconnected, standing aside from even his castmates. He’s given long scenes in which he stands apart, mugging for the camera as he makes fun of 1800’s fashion, medicine, politics, transportation, and technology from a vaguely know-something modern perspective, nothing a high school freshman who half paid attention to history class couldn’t snark. It’s impossible to take him seriously as a person in this story, which is too bad considering the nearly two-hour movie has him in every scene. I simply couldn’t get invested in a whiny, inconsistent character who is barely invested in the plot himself. He keeps giving the whole production the side-eye, as if he knows more than he does and feels so very self-satisfied about it.

Meanwhile, there are real actors around him who at times make his (and Family Guy co-conspirators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild’s) repetitive and insulting writing seem almost palatable. Theron’s a welcome presence, transforming a decorative plot device into something like a character. Neeson for the most part retains his dignity, assuming that’s a stunt butt that gets a daisy stuck in it, as he seemingly gallops in from a serious Western. Elsewhere, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are trapped in a gross-out subplot that plays like bad knockoff Farrelly brothers, with a prostitute and her fiancé “waiting for marriage,” but they almost make it work. The only person who gets the peculiar tone of the picture exactly right is Neil Patrick Harris, playing a mustachioed jerk wringing every bit of possible enjoyment out of his every appearance. He has to play a scene where he suffers a fit of diarrhea in the middle of the street, catching his runny excrement in his floppy cowboy hat. And he almost makes it work.

MacFarlane is a stunted, juvenile gag writer who expects to get laughs out of edgy material, but fails to shape jokes with thought or artistry. It’s a flat, stiff production that can barely set up a decent sight gag. Characters are placed in front of the camera, barely move, and talk at each other in bad sitcom asides. Periodically they blurt out references to horrible subject matter – racism, misogyny, domestic violence, murder, rape, child abuse – and MacFarlane assumes the shock will get a laugh. The movie is casually dismissive and/or actively hateful to women, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Jews, and Muslims. Sometimes the racism is cut with the smug white guy in the center of it all pulling ain’t-I-a-stinker? faces. A “Runaway Slave” carnival shooting game has targets that are big-lipped, wide-eyed blackface images chowing down on a slice of watermelon. Two Chinese men wear rice-paddy hats and sport Fu Manchus. A character jokes he’s going to recite his “Islamic death chant” and proceeds to ululate gibberish.

You can’t have your aggressive stereotyping and hate speech and wave it off, too. So what if (only sometimes) MacFarlane turns to another character and says, “Um, isn’t that racist?” It is. But then what, exactly, are we supposed to be laughing at? The movie comes across as stubbornly created from the perspective of a narrow-minded, privileged, rich white male tittering at anything beyond his immediate frame of reference. Words have meaning. Images have power. MacFarlane knows what buttons to push, but fails to truly grapple with, subvert, or defuse their impact. As director, he can barely stage a High Noon shootout, saloon brawl, surreal drug trip, or musical number with any clarity or consistency. No wonder he can’t even begin to figure out how to frame or otherwise handle hot-button issues.

He wants laughs, and I truly believe you can craft a good joke out of any topic, but he goes about it in exactly the wrong way. This is comedy filmmaking at its most cheap, lazy, and unthinking. Are we supposed to laugh because he went there, or does he actually think he’s being clever? The writing is either offensive or groan-worthy. The gross-out anatomical gags are just gross. Cameos (Christopher Lloyd? Ewan McGregor? Ryan Reynolds?) are merely random nothings. The violence is flatly presented and full of miscalculated gore. A face bloodily squished by a brick of ice isn’t exactly a fun pratfall. At best, the movie is either unfunny or incompetent, a pleasant and vacant experience. But when it’s bad, it’s odious.
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