Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cave People: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW


A good horror movie could be made out of the catacombs beneath Paris, but As Above, So Below is not that movie. It descends into the real underground cemetery where, since 1810 or so, there really are orderly piles of human remains from the 6 million bodies placed there when the burial grounds closer to the surface got too crowded. I can say from first hand experience that it is creepy down there, dark, quiet, and filled with stacks of skulls and femurs of long-dead Parisians. The emergency exit sign is merely a green arrow pointing backwards from whence you came. There’s plenty of real eeriness to be found, so the movie’s intention to add a dusting of supernatural disorientation seems foolproof. But, boy, was I wrong. Director John Erick Dowdle, from a screenplay co-written with his brother Drew, has found a great location and in it stages almost nothing worth caring about.

The threadbare plot involves nothing characters and skimpy scares. It’s a found footage contraption that follows a young urban archeologist (Perdita Weeks) who wants to finish her late father’s search for Nicolas Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the exact same MacGuffin put to good use in the first Harry Potter. Suspecting it is located hundreds of feet below Flamel’s grave, she gets a cameraman (Edwin Hodge), an ex-colleague (Ben Feldman), and a trio of twentysomething French kids (François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar) who love to explore the tunnels and caves just beyond the catacombs open to the public. We go below the city with the group, wobbling our way down narrow passageways, past tour guides, past thrill seekers, past cultists, until they’re well and truly lost. Along the way, they see weird visions and hear things that shouldn’t be. A phone rings. A baby cries. A piano sits half buried in a wall. Creepy.

It’s unfortunate that the whole scavenger hunt is visually unpleasant, with some of the queasiest shaky cam I’ve ever seen. At least that makes it marginally more believable than usual that the characters themselves are grabbing the shots on the fly. It’s entirely incomprehensible the further it goes. I have no clue what happened most of the time. They go in circles, fall down holes, splash through shallow water, find mildly unsettling befuddlement, and repeat it all over again. What do they find? How do the survivors escape? It’s hard to say. The scarier things get for the characters, the wilder the camerawork. The most effective scene is the most still, a claustrophobic moment with a pile of bones filling half the screen and a wall dominating the other, while a character stuck between them hyperventilates.

At some points, though, what’s appearing on the screen is practically experimental, building what is ostensibly a dumb narrative film out of blurry moving colors, flashing lights, half-glimpsed human figures, sudden jolts, shouts, and sound design that sounds like a cave in at the Foley studio. It is often said that the art of restraint makes for the best horror, when audiences can fill in gaps and summon up the dread of what might be around the next dark corner. And it is true that not seeing something scary or catching only a glimpse can be powerfully unsettling. But here when a character screams, “Did you see that?!”, the only possible answer is, “No.” I was never scared, only slightly nauseated by all the wobbling camerawork.

It’s a totally empty genre exercise that has absolutely nothing going on thematically or in its characterizations. There’s only the faintest glimmer of local color to the Parisian locales and supporting cast. Why bother going to Paris if you’re going to bury it under the ugliest, cheapest filming style? And most of the time, you can’t even tell they’re supposed to be in the catacombs. They’re panicking their way through anonymous dark rooms. Worst of all, it’s just not scary. The blank characters continually descend through a maze of bones and limestone as the movie whips itself into a nonsensical visual mess that fails to connect with the genuine claustrophobic creepiness that actually exists in its chosen location. Unlike Dowdle's minor elevator-set horror fun in Devil, his previous film, As Above, So Below totally squanders its close-quarters potential.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Crime Time: LIFE OF CRIME


A neat little thriller dressed up in 70’s clothing, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime is a humble charmer coasting on genre pleasures. After a summer of big digital things crashing into other big digital things and muscled men standing around slugging it out while feeling bad about it, how nice to settle into a small scale heist that twists with a sense of humor. Here the women are strong, the men are stupid clever, and the dupes are below average. Even when blindfolded and kidnapped, bored Detroit housewife Jennifer Aniston is still in more control of the situation than you’d think, while the men who caught her spin their wheels, befuddled by how sideways a simple extortion has gone.

The nifty plotting is lifted wholesale from the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, keeping his ear for breezily laconic pulp dialogue and fine sense of darkly comic thriller plotting. The kidnappers are Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes). If those characters sound familiar, it’s because they were also key criminal elements in Tarantino’s 1997 Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro played them. That film is a great crime picture full of tremendous performances and Tarantino’s finest filmmaking to date. Of course Life of Crime isn’t nearly as good as Jackie Brown. That it manages to be its own agreeable thing with faint pleasing echoes of that earlier film instead of a flat out impersonating prequel is a nice surprise. Schechter doesn’t push too hard, keeping the proceedings sharp and quick.

It’s fun to watch Aniston struggle to outsmart the men holding her captive as they try to get money out of her rich husband (Tim Robbins), especially once it becomes clear he won’t pay up. He’s out of town with his mistress (Isla Fisher). Getting a threatening call from a stranger promising to make it so he never sees his wife again is sort of a blessing. That throws everyone in a loop. Aniston tries to keep herself alive. Fisher lounges around in a bikini, trying to keep her man from paying up. Bey and Hawke try to keep Aniston cooped up with a slobby neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Junior) while they rethink their plans. It’s one quickly paced complication after another as the gears turn and a wry bumbling crime drama tips towards dark farce without tipping all the way over.

Period detail is abundant and charming, quite intentionally drawing a connection between this and small crime pictures of the era. The source material was first published in 1978, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a Walter Matthau circa Charley Varrick or Karen Black circa The Outfit appearing in a contemporaneous adaptation, were such a thing to have happened. This is undeniably a modern film harkening back to an older way of doing these kinds of pictures, but the feeling is a pleasant approximation. The direction is a throwback to a crisp and clear style. The cinematography by Eric Alan Edwards is simple and grainy. The crime plotting is character driven and cleverly executed, a nice balance. It knows a Leonard story isn’t about what happens, but how it happens and who has what to say about it.

The ensemble is perfectly calibrated for a well-balanced blend of danger and dopey grins. (I haven’t even mentioned a hilarious subplot featuring Will Forte as Aniston’s panicked lover who has to decide whether to report her missing and reveal their affair or ignore it and hope nothing too bad happens to her.) The performers play well together, crackling their competing goals against each other as plots diverge, and stumbling blocks send everyone angling for their best possible outcome. Crosses, double-crosses, and strange bedfellows are the name of the game. It’s an enjoyable Leonard adaptation, one of the few that get his tricky tone and twisty stories right, and, in its humble way, probably the best since the brief 90’s heyday of its kind.

Locked In: STARRED UP


Starred Up is a tough sentimental father-son reunion story set entirely in a prison. It’s an unusual fit, the caged brutality grabbing peculiar tenderness while leeching menace into its softer spots. In terms of other contemporary prison-set entertainment, it’s not nearly as softhearted and diverse as Orange is the New Black or as hardnosed and pained as A Prophet. It carefully occupies a tricky middle ground, balancing between a desire to hang back and observe a prison’s inner workings and a plot-driven need to push emotional buttons with currents of conflicts. It’s a surprisingly effective mix.

The film opens on a teenage inmate (Jack O’Connell) transferred from a UK juvenile facility into a bigger, more dangerous adult prison. He’s been moved – “starred up” is the term for this transfer – because of his violent temper. Sure enough, the first thing we see him do, after a strip search and walk to his new cell, is carefully turn a toothbrush into a shiv and hide it in a light fixture. It’s not long at all before he’s knocking fellow prisoners unconscious and picking fights with guards, who storm into his cell in full riot gear. He still manages to get the better of them, beating them with the legs of a table he’s flipped over, pinning one against a wall with a makeshift weapon. This encounter ends with the boy needing to be talked out of biting a guard, paused mid-chomp.

We soon learn the boy’s now in the same prison as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). His old man is a shifty character, well connected with the prison’s underground politics. The boy’s violent unpredictability is making him a target from administrators and vicious criminal elements alike. A mixture of fatherly frustration, machismo, jealousy, and fear animates the older man’s relationship with his son. There are years of resentment and damage between them, but as they try to reconcile in such an extreme context, there’s real poignancy to their fumbling. The boy is pushed into an anger management group run by a kind psychotherapist (Rupert Friend). It might help. His father wants him to succeed. But it’s hard to tell if the man has his son’s best interests at heart. There’s no trust there, from either side.

Director David Mackenzie creates an enclosed sense of verisimilitude, free of many jokes and tropes more openly exploitative prison films fall back on. Instead, there’s an unflinching tension as the inherent ugly reality of the location becomes the backdrop for a pulpy, nakedly emotional story of a broken pair of men, bound by blood, hesitantly, tentatively, forging an understanding. Shooting in a real decommissioned prison from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser, who once worked as a prison therapist, the film takes on a close feeling of loud noises and clanging ambient echoes as the dangers of a location built on systematic struggles of violence and power become palpable.

But it’s the powerful and convincing performances that truly bring the world to life. The ensemble of rough men speaks in thick accents with sometimes-impenetrable slang vocabularies. (The press notes include a “Prison Speak” glossary.) They’re lively and convincing, uncomfortably intimidating presences surrounding our leads. O’Connell and Mendelsohn bring a forceful history to their roles. I bought them as a long distant father and son pairing, uneasy about their new positions, forced into close quarters by their legal circumstances and into competition by competing places in the prison hierarchy. O’Connell, in a compellingly charismatic wounded smolder, brings a livewire violent possibility to his scenes, which makes his humbled silences and quiet revelations all the more surprising. Mendelsohn delivers another of his dangerously squirrely weirdoes, but there’s a pained compassion here as well.

Because the characters are as convincing as their world, it’s easier to go along with its moments of same-old-same-old prison process and father-son tension. I believed in the reality, this place, and these people, which helps sell the truth of their emotions as the realism gives way to elements both pulpy and sentimental as the story resolves. I’m not generally one to go for prison movies, though A Prophet seemed like something of a masterpiece at the time, and is due a revisit by me. But Starred Up has a good hook and uses it to tell a solid relationship drama in an unusual setting, letting some fresh emotions into what could’ve been only a suffocating cell of cliché.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pride and Prejudices: BELLE


Bracingly sharp, Amma Asante’s Belle is a lovely character study and handsome period piece that navigates its complexities with invigorating intelligence and dexterous empathy. Set in 18th century England and based on a true story, it tells of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed-race child of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). She was raised in his absence by his aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), on a gorgeous estate. Freed from a life of slavery by virtue of her father’s station in life, she’s still trapped by the color of her skin.

As she grows older, Dido questions the social order, asking why she’s too high class to dine with the maids, and yet too low to dine with guests. Her inheritance gives her independent wealth, a luxury many women, including her close cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), do not have. Dido does not need to marry for rank or income. She’s lucky, and yet stuck. Women are property no matter the color, not all slaves, but the well-to-do are stuck in a gilded cage of societal rules and expectations.

The film is stimulating as it gracefully turns circles around issues of race, gender, and class. It illuminates a time and place, deftly laying out the reasons for Dido’s circumstances, a rigid social structure that keeps women and people of color oppressed. Her uncle is the highest judge in the land, hearing the case of a slave ship that dumped its human cargo overboard and is now suing their insurers who refuse to compensate for the damages. Through this legal argument, brought into their house by his prospective pupil (Sam Reid), Dido is drawn into larger social awareness of the struggles of people who share her color.

She’s also growing keenly aware of the struggles of her sex, as she and her cousin are of age to be courted. Her cousin draws the attentions of a miserable racist wretch (Tom Felton) with a pushy, gossiping mother (Miranda Richardson), scrabbling to improve their family’s rank through marriage. Her other son (James Norton) is drawn to Dido, who knows not what to do with circumstances she was hardly expecting. Together, the girls have the blessing of belonging to a respected family, but Dido's difficulties are unique and hers alone.

It is in many ways a traditional period piece, with beautiful gowns, ornate sets, a lush orchestral score, and fastidious design, a dash of Austen romance here, a bit of Dickensian social commentary there. But Amma Asante’s writing and direction is uncommonly assured, well written, wonderfully photographed, and briskly paced. It lays out an argument for basic rights for women and people of color by having its historical characters grappling with these questions literally and explicitly throughout the course of the plot. They stand as symbols of the argument – gossiping racists, sniveling misogynists, noble activists, brooding legal scholars – and yet never appear to be merely constructs of a debate come to life.

The writing is in a clever, elevated Merchant-Ivory style, wittier and lively, full of fantastically droll asides, tremendous personality in all the supporting parts (including a small, choice turn for Penelope Wilton) and rich with evocative subtext. And the plot and theme go hand in hand, stirring and resonant social consciousness informed by character every step of the way. And what remarkable characters! All are colorfully brought to life with fine, full performances memorable in personality and conflict. Dido, especially, is imbued with great humanity by Mbatha-Raw, whose performance is wisely situated between privilege and disadvantage, open curiosity and wounded cynicism, hopeful romance and pragmatic resignation.

The movie so vividly and convincingly sketches in a portrait of her world, blessed with wealth and advantage tempered by the prejudice of a power structure that restricts women’s choices and confined the mother she never knew to a life of slavery. The filmmaking is tenderly attuned to the nuances of its lead performance. There’s a remarkable scene in which Dido’s suitor tells her that she’s so lucky he’s willing to overlook the curse of color her mother passed down to her. Her eyes well up with the faintest pained mistiness, and yet her proper smile never quivers or falters.

Assante unfailingly illuminates such breathtaking moments of emotional and psychological nuance. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, which summoned up detailed historical horror with unflinching punishment and cruelty, the better to make us wince and feel it, Belle goes about its effect in a tremendously inviting and empathetic way, making us feel the pointed sting of rejection, the quick gasp of love, the heartache of internalized oppression. In a scene late in the picture where Dido dares sneak out to see a man who may love her for who she is – all of who she is – there’s a trembling insert shot, no more than a split second, of her neck, a nervous tensing. Earlier, we saw them meet in a garden, a late night happenstance that also found another insert shot, a hand on a hip, a sharp intake of breath.

We see this sharp observation and warm compassion in scenes of dialogue between many combinations of characters in this ensemble as people slowly figure out how best to reconcile their notions of right and wrong with the rules of the society at the time, how best to do the right thing. The movie sits closely, attentively with its characters, making them flesh and blood human beings treated with understanding and compassion. In doing so, it casts light not just on history, but on modern tensions and fears, core dehumanizing inequalities that go by different names, but linger, no matter how circumstances may have changed in the meantime. I found the film completely engaging, expressively smart, and deeply moving.

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Be Or Not: IF I STAY


It’s cliché to say that every problem seems like a life-or-death scenario when you’re young. But the truth is, with burgeoning plans for colleges, careers, and relationships, being a teenager is filled with decisions that can have a lasting impact. Teens feel that pressure. It’s the first time people have a good deal of autonomy over the course their lives will take. No wonder it’s a point in life that leads to such angst, and great movies chronicling it. If I Stay is not a great movie about being a teenager, but it captures some of the subjective experience of having the weight of your future on your hesitant steps into something like adulthood.

It’s a teen weepie that features a high school girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) dealing with her first real boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). She’s a brilliant cellist and wants to go to Julliard. He wants to stay with his skinny-jeans-wearing garage band in Portland and hope to get signed to a record label. Will they break up or try a long distance relationship? It’s a small problem shot in typical glossy teen melodrama style. I’ll admit it’s not very interesting from the outside, but the movie does a good job of communicating the subjective enormity of the question.

What elevates this standard teen romance is a very real injection of life and death. She’s in a car crash. It’s bad. She’s rushed to the hospital, along with her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and little brother (Jakob Davies). She’s in a coma. Prognosis is iffy. We see the previous 18 months of her life, the romance, the college worries, fun times with parents, dates, concerts, practices, school, hanging out with friends, and more. Intercut with those moments are shots of her hooked up to tubes in the ICU, heart monitors beeping while tearful bedside visitors – grandparents (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose), friends (Liana Liberato and Lauren Lee Smith) – wait and worry. All the while, and here’s the movie’s biggest and corniest symbolic flourish, the girl’s spirit walks around the hospital, watching her family, remembering her past, and trying to decide whether she’ll stay or go, whether she’ll wake up or die.

Despite bouncing between her normal teen past and comatose present, all this is presented in a fairly conventional and linear fashion, little time for artsy expressiveness. Imagine what a Terrence Malick or Apichatpong Weerasethakul would do with this material, and then forget it. This is a movie more interested in tenderly evocative prose rather than cinematic poetry. Documentarian R.J. Cutler makes his fiction film debut here and brings to it a good eye, fine pace, and delicate touch. He pulls emotional triggers without seeming to be excessively manipulative about it. Major weepy potential is softly played, sad without belaboring the point. The slick widescreen photography by John de Borman is beautifully blocked in a way that doesn’t call attention to its casual beauty, while the editing finds minor trembles of emotional stream of consciousness in standard plotting that gains power through its juxtapositions.

On its own, the girl’s life would be a minor, but likeable, pokey drama. It’s pleasant to spend time with her great parents. They’re cool, former punk rockers. They’re understanding, judiciously permissive and always ready with smart advice well spoken. There are also some minor pleasures to be found in a teen romance that plucks at some of the right heartstrings. Adapting Gayle Forman’s novel, screenwriter Shauna Cross, who also wrote the wonderful roller derby comedy Whip It, has a good feel for detail. It’s genuine in its approach to quiet fumbling, biting of the lower lip, sudden moves. Worries about separating over a long distance possibility are shortsighted and nicely observed. A first love scene is neatly edited with a series of dissolves, set to an acoustic cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” as the girl compares caressing the boy’s body to playing the cello. It’s sweet.

Juxtaposing average teen movie worries with a ghostly bedside vigil brings a mournful weight to it. Sure, these are ordinary teen concerns, not overly original or especially interesting on their own. But through the risk that these last few months might end up being her last, there’s an underlying urgency. When I read in the news about a car accident that leaves an entire family broken apart, dead or dying, it makes me feel sick. The normal details of their lives are suddenly imbued with a melancholy. If someone survives such a crisis, how can one go on living with so much suddenly gone? That If I Stay captures even a glimmer of that response is to its credit. I didn’t need Moretz wandering hospital halls to provide it.

But this is an affecting, heartfelt little drama that slowly overcomes its shaggier artificial impulses to find a strong emotional core, admirably underplaying big moments when it could go histrionic. The climax turns on two small scenes. The first finds Stacy Keach delivering a teary monologue in what is one of the most vulnerable performances of his career. The second is a flashback campfire sing-along jam session to Smashing Pumpkins in which all the characters spend what will be their final happiest moments together. Both are played quietly, all the more effective for it. Commercial concessions, like an overreliance on voiceover that tramples over potentially powerful silences, only smooth over rough edges. It’s a good movie, with fine performances and solid resonances. But imagining longer silences, more artful editing, I could see a great film in there somewhere.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

City Scrapes: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an exercise in style, but director Robert Rodriguez exhausted that bag of tricks the first time. Back in 2005 the man behind Spy Kids and Machete adapted Frank Miller’s black and white Sin City comics, taking stylized panels of smarmy, hyperviolent cartoonish noir and translating them into CGI images. It’s a striking effect. Actors are buried under Dick Tracy-style makeup then green-screened into pulpy tableaus, staging violence and sex between cops and robbers, thugs and strippers, gamblers and punks. Blood spurts white, but clots red. Eye colors and fire are the only other hues in this grimy, high-contrast nightmare city. It is always night. The streets are always wet. And there’s no such thing as an innocent person.

I grew tired of the affected intensity well before the first film ended, but here we are again. Sin City is a dully artificial place totally removed from anything resembling genuine feeling or fun. It’s grim, gory, exaggerated genre grime. Coming from a claustrophobically phony, clammily adolescent mindset, the movies think bullets are awesome, vigilantes’ perverse overkill is justified, and women are only as good as their aim or their bust. It might be fun to take a peek into such a shamelessly exploitative world, but wallowing in it feels uncomfortable pretty quickly. Worst of all, Rodriguez, working from a screenplay by Miller, doesn’t seem to care too much about the intent of his images beyond the striking surfaces. If it were coming from a genuinely ugly place, it’d be offensive, but more authentic. Instead, it’s just boring, reaching for shock value and finding nothing.

Like the first film, A Dame to Kill For features an episodic series of vignettes about bad people who want to hurt worse people. Gravely voiced narrators talk and talk, overexplaining the events in prose so purple it’s like a parody of hard boiled dialogue written by someone who never actually heard it. Some of the stories, like those involving a stripper (Jessica Alba) and her guardian angel cop (Bruce Willis), a bruiser with a warped moral code (Mickey Rourke), and a band of militant prostitutes (led by Rosario Dawson), carry over from the first film. Others are new, but feel of a piece with the monotonous tone. We meet a cocky cardshark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who runs afoul of a corrupt senator (Powers Boothe). And in the best story we meet a dopey lug (Josh Brolin) who is roped into the schemes of an alluring femme fatale (Eva Green).

She’s easily the most captivating aspect of the film. Luckily, her story is the lengthy centerpiece, the only plot that runs uninterrupted. Her green eyes match her character’s greed. Her often-naked body is a lure leading men to their deaths for her benefit. Her shamelessness about her selfish predatory nature makes her the most honest person in Sin City, even if it means she’s reliably never telling the truth. Patchy and episodic, the movie flares to life around Green’s fine performance that manages to chew its way out of the artifice around her. Everyone else in the sprawling cast, which also features Dennis Haysbert, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Christopher Lloyd, Lady Gaga, and more, fails to make an impact in the monotonous dirge that is life in the Sin City.

The movie expires well before its end credits, with plotlines arriving at their obvious conclusions in obvious ways. There’s no wit or surprise to any of it. Rodriguez is always making films for his own amusement, playing around with filmmaking tools and B-movie concepts just because he can. When he forgets to let us in on the fun, his movies are passion projects for an audience of one. With these Sin City adaptations, he’s stretched a small interesting visual idea much farther than it could possibly go. We’ve been here before and there’s nothing new to see. This remains a strikingly visualized, but thinly imagined place.

It takes noirs' ugly underbelly, scrapes it down to its most exaggerated nastiness, and then shoots its images full of the whitest white and blackest black. A fine idea, but Rodriguez’s visual imagination has hit a wall, leaving the stereotypical surface ticks of noir – hard lighting, inky shadows, smoldering smokiness – without the room to find meaning behind them. Sin City can only exist as fake genre play, and yet for all the work to make it shine, it’s undercooked and stiflingly stylish, suffocating under its own brutish frames. Film can capture great fictional cities, from Gotham and Metropolis to Dark City and Coruscant, allowing us to live in a metropolis of the imagination. But I’ve spent two whole movies in Sin City now and it still hasn’t come to life.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stale Act: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT


Woody Allen works so quickly that it’s hardly surprising he tends to alternate his more interesting efforts with movies that clearly could’ve used some extra revisions before filming. You don’t make a film a year for over forty years without making a statistically notable batch of stinkers. (There’s your obligatory reference to Allen’s large body of work.) When he’s good, he’s good, but when he’s bad, the movies sit there slowly dying before your eyes. To make a metaphor out of his favorite music style, he’s a jazz virtuoso who has noodled around the same notes for so long, he’d rather hit bum notes than stop. His latest feature, Magic in the Moonlight, is as somnambulant a picture as he’s ever made, a snooze from frame one. It’s easily one of his weakest efforts.

It tells a dusty story of a world-famous magician (Colin Firth) asked by his best friend (Simon McBurney) to help investigate a pretty young psychic (Emma Stone) and her stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden). He fears they are scamming a rich widow (Jacki Weaver) and her grown son (Hamish Linklater) who have fallen for a phony baloney medium act hook, line, and sinker. It’s a fine screwball setup, but it’s played without a pulse, without wit, and completely devoid of inner life. It looks pleasant, filled up with sun-dappled cinematography by Darius Khondji in widescreen compositions showing off sumptuous locations in the south of France. Set in the Jazz Age that was deftly exploited in Midnight in Paris, there’s no magical realism here, just characters in period garb trading the stalest of bon mots.

There’s a dash of Pygmalion in reverse to the proceedings, as a stuffy British gentleman is determined to unmask the young lady’s attempts to pass herself off as something she’s not. In inverting the classic concept, comedy is lost to condescension. It’s not about a man helping a woman, but instead tearing her down and lording his superior position and power over her. (It’s hard to escape thinking of various Allen scandals with such flatly played underlying ugliness.) That there’s a romance involved – not to mention one with such an age difference – makes it all the more difficult to get on board. Firth is a perfect pompous fussbudget and Stone’s wide eyes and flapper’s physique make a fine foil. I especially liked the way she twitched her eyes wider when receiving her “mental vibrations.” But the plot turns so slowly, situations developing without much in the way of conflict or character. There’s nothing to latch onto.

The worst of it is, I can easily imagine a charming period comedy that could be made with this ensemble and crew. It looks wonderful, the ensemble has a talent for crisp comic scenarios, and Allen can be a funny writer. But none of that appears on screen. It’s so thinly developed, with supporting roles fading away and the leads dutifully making their characters’ arcs hit their marks. Allen’s investigation of a skeptic and a scam artist matching wits is tired. The characters can only be as witty as the script allows, so they come across as gullible drips. And every time a character finds something close to genuine emotion, it’s played off with a scoff. If the movie wasn’t going to take itself too seriously, that’s one thing. But to be light and airy without providing a single pleasing development, tickling thematic construct, or interesting turn of phrase is to be nothing at all.

Spies World: A MOST WANTED MAN


Based on the book by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is another of his spy stories that turn on complicated clockwork plotting but play out as deliberately paced character studies. It’s what makes his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a landmark for the genre. In Tomas Alfredson’s masterful 2011 adaptation of that novel, a Cold War-era British spy played by Gary Oldman quietly, methodically maneuvers a mole into the light of day. It’s a tricky, deeply felt work that sits entirely on the shoulders of its characters, watching for the slightest adjustments of body language to reveal undercurrents of emotion and truth.

A Most Wanted Man does something similar with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles as Günther, a tired German spy stationed in Hamburg who goes about his daily life with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s very good at his job and confident in his conclusions. There’s a quiet moment in which he consults with a United States operative (Robin Wright) at a café. He matter-of-factly takes a flask out of his pocket, pours some liquor into his coffee, and takes a sip, all the while laying out his plan to use an illegal immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) to determine how a professor (Homayoun Ershadi) is sending money from his charity to terrorist groups. It’s risky, but it just might work. He’s so confident, he doesn’t need to hide his functional alcoholism from his colleague.

Director Anton Corbijn, whose last film was the gripping Le Samourai­-esque art house George Clooney assassin movie The American, sets the gears of the plot turning with considered patience. We meet several characters working with skill and precision, playing their parts in parallel plans that converge with the icy grip of Andrew Bovell’s screenplay. There’s a banker (Willem Dafoe), a human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), and several spies (Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Mehdi Dehbi, Martin Wuttke). It’s all one big high-stakes chess game, people moving pawns into position, hoping to make it to the end with their careers, if not their lives, intact. But with this great cast and excellently controlled direction, the result is merely serviceable.

The espionage thriller moves slowly and confidently through its knotty plotting. Characters trudge about as pieces gradually drop into place. I could appreciate its terse, subtle character work from the ensemble and grimly chilly imagery from cinematographer Benoît Delhomme. But the movie remained firmly on screen. It never grabbed me or pulled me in. I was entirely unmoved and disinterested. There’s geopolitical specificity and lived-in performances, and yet it somehow feels fuzzy. We see actions and reaction, but little to impact the world beyond these characters.

It has to do with the point of view. While Le Carré’s methods of plotting are great for distant Cold War analog spying, making the cat-and-mouse genre pleasures a current War on Terror digital prospect grows disquieting. The film raises important questions without paying much attention. It shows us a broken world of imperfect systems and flawed people given horrible power and great responsibility. And yet it never grapples with this observation beyond the grist for character work.

We sit with the characters on their level, the better to see that these people have remarkable and frightening power. It’s upsetting, but played off as mere plot mechanics. A lawyer is grabbed off the street, thrown into the back of an unmarked van, and held captive. An innocent man never learns his apartment is bugged with hidden cameras. Hoffman’s character says he runs a secret department dedicated to going outside the law to keep Europe safe from terrorists. But his team has the suspects’ best interests at heart. A rival department just wants to spirit them away forever to some undisclosed top-secret interrogation detainment. In the end, we’re supposed to feel disappointment that things didn’t work out the way our leads wanted. It suggests that our civil liberties may be trampled at the slightest whim of an agent, but at least the good spies feel bad while they do it. Cold comfort.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Future Past: THE GIVER


The recent spate of films adapted from young adult dystopian fiction created the economic conditions necessary for a movie based on Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 book The Giver. That book, with its special teen receiving wisdom about the oppression underpinning the pristine homogonous future world in which he lives, laid the groundwork for future YA tentpoles like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But as is often the case, tracing the fad back to the source reveals a starker, stranger, and more ambivalent and ambiguous work than its imitators. And so, superficial similarities to those recent YA films aside, this film has more in common with small scale 70’s sci-fi or an extended Twilight Zone episode with its earnestly metaphorical nature and careful tone.

In this future, the entire known world is only a town full of modular buildings and imagineered flora. The people, dressed in the same drab pajama-like clothes, never leave because they have no reason to. They have no concept of geography or history or memory. They don’t perceive emotion and can’t see color. Their daily injections keep them anesthetized and compliant. Ignorance really is bliss. Even the leader (a frosty Meryl Streep) blindly follows their institutional memories of How Things Are Done. The rules allow one person access to memories of life before, understandings of human nature – love, hate, peace, war – and creation – art, music, philosophy – for which the general public simply has no need. Living alone on the edge of town in a small book-lined house, he (Jeff Bridges, looking like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders) is only called upon when the leader needs advice.

It’s a clearly metaphorical place, a cautionary tale about smoothing over humanity’s rough patches in the pursuit of a blind form of conflict-free sameness. It’s not Orwellian as much as it is right out of Huxley, who feared in his novel Brave New World that the future would find knowledge devalued and the populace passive through nothing more than a regular dose of happy ignorance. No one would question the system because no one would think to. You don’t need thought police once the people have forgotten how to have thoughts. Putting The Giver’s world on screen, director Phillip Noyce, finding a balance between his character-driven dramas like The Quiet American and rip-roaring actioners like Salt, shoots in black and white, representing the cognitive state of the people. It’s a grey world, seductively crisp and eerily blank.

When 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is handpicked to be the new Receiver of Memory, he begins to get access to the history of human thought and experience. It’s dangerous. The former Receiver (Taylor Swift) mysteriously disappeared rather than keep receiving enlightenment. Bridges warns the boy about the dangers, and then grabs his forearms and beams psychic transmissions into his protégé’s brain. Rushes of knowledge are represented by colorful blasts of high-def nature photography, pixilated home video snippets, and grainy archival footage. As his understanding grows, Jonas sees color slowly seep into the frame. He stares at his best friend (Odeya Rush). Her hair is a soft red in an otherwise black and white frame (a la Pleasantville). Soon pale green grass and soft blue sky appear in the film’s imagery. Then, eventually, the film is in full color. It’s a nice visual representation of one of the book’s most interior concepts.

Jonas goes off his meds and discovers stirrings of romantic interest that set him apart even further. His parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) look at him confused and worried. He’s moved beyond their unknowingly small perceptions of life. It’s a clever metaphor not only for oppression, but for growing up, moving out, and becoming your own person distinct and yet still a part of your family unit. Eventually, Jonas must decide what to do with all this newfound knowledge, and that’s where the movie begins to dumb itself down to get into the category the marketplace needs it to fit.

Screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide ramp up some of the movie’s more contemporary YA adjacent ideas, creating a pro forma romantic triangle that’s admirably restrained given the characters’ flat affects, but distracting nonetheless. Then the climax gussies the small, allegorical plot up with a few chase scenes and a nonsense race-against-the-clock climactic save-the-future goal that runs counter to the material’s tantalizingly philosophical ambiguities. I could feel the movie straining against its commercial impulses as it tries to find a happy ending in what is a muted and ambiguous vision. It ends up feeling cheaper and more familiar than the intriguing opening suggests. But it retains enough of a glimmer of its source material’s introspective personality and distinctive mood to wish it was willing to be less derivative, instead of chasing the past success of the book’s successors. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Exhaustible: THE EXPENDABLES 3


A reunion of box office has-beens, the first two Expendables movies worked on some dumb level through nothing more than the novelty of seeing Sylvester Stallone and fellow veteran action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme stomping through scenarios reminiscent of their greatest hits. But by the time we arrive at The Expendables 3, the novelty has worn off. There should be something poignant about the idea of an aging team of mercenaries confronting their mortality and finding new ways to push old bodies through a young-man’s sport. Instead, it’s a mechanical and joyless contraption that grinds out what they think we want to see them doing. So here’s Stallone, squinting through displays of physicality no 68-year-old could ever pull off. To his credit, he sometimes does pull it off. But by the time he’s outrunning a collapsing building and leaping towards a waiting helicopter, it’s clear this is mere wish fulfillment.

The story in this outing is stupidly simple. After a failed mission, Stallone retires his team of old buddies (Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews). He contacts a black market talent scout (Kelsey Grammer) to find a younger team to help set things right for his C.I.A. contact (Harrison Ford). The mission fails again. This time, the villain (Mel Gibson) captures the muscled twentysomethings (Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell). Now it’s up to the old team to save the new team. Built around three action sequences – a train rescue that segues into a firefight with Somali pirates, an infiltration of a skyscraper, and a siege of an abandoned warehouse or something – the script, by Stallone and Olympus Has Fallen writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, continually maneuvers the cast into place, half-heartedly giving them lame wisecracks and rote motivations until the shooting can start again.

It’s overburdened with too many characters. I didn’t even mention Antonio Banderas as an endearingly talkative out-of-work mercenary desperate to get back in the fight and a brief appearance of Jet Li, who gets a surprisingly tender moment with Schwarzenegger, or as tender a moment as a meat-grinder macho movie can supply. With all these people standing around, the action scenes don’t have time for complicated choreography or suspenseful crosscutting. You can almost see contract negotiations and scheduling difficulties on screen with sequences seemingly slapped together with whatever shots were most convenient to everyone’s calendars. I doubt the whole Expendables team ever shared a single frame together. A character is left dangling in an elevator shaft for nearly the entire final melee. Every time we cut back to him straining for the next ledge, I thought, “Oh, yeah. He’s here, too.”

The hectic but flatlining action is mind-numbingly violent, but bloodless since it’s PG-13 this time. Thousands, maybe millions, of rounds of ammunition are expended in the course of this movie, leaving hundreds of unidentified, usually ethnic-coded, figures blown apart. It’s tiresome, repetitive, a little offensive, and cartoonish in its lack of weight or resonance. “How hard is it to kill 10 men?” Gibson yells at his flunkies after an entire third-world army fails to even injure an Expendable. It just goes on and on, gunfire, helicopters, and punches shot in a flat, unremarkable chaotic style. There’s no variety here. They couldn’t even throw in a car chase or a plane crash to mix things up a bit?

I like some of the personalities involved. The new recruits don’t make much of an impression, aside from Ronda Rousey, the first female Expendable. She’s also the only woman to appear in more than one shot in this testosterone overdose. It’s the caramelized veterans who are of some interest, bringing to their roles their histories as screen presences and public figures. When Ford says to Stallone, “good to finally meet you,” there’s a microscopic twinge of action movies past as Indiana Jones shakes Rambo’s hand. It’s the little things, like Snipes (Stallone’s Demolition Man foe) having his character joke he’s been in prison for “tax evasion.” Ha. Ha. Worse is Gibson’s winking at his checkered recent history, snapping that the heroes would be scared if they saw him angry. That’s a tad too close for comfort. At least the script gives him one good goofy villainous threat: “I’ll cut your meat shirt open and show you your heart!” That’s the kind of line B-movies are made of!

Alas, this movie’s too flavorless for those pleasures to save. It’s a largely anonymous work coasting off the personalities on screen while director Patrick Hughes does what he can with the material he’s been given. Not much can be done. This series has exhausted what little inspiration it once had, having never quite lived up to its fullest potential. There’s something almost sweet about a movie full of AARP action figures passing the torch to Jason Statham and now on to even younger potential action stars. But it’s buried under the grinding routine of so much mindless carnage and nothing story. I just didn’t care. It thinks it’s funny, exciting, and maybe even a little melancholy, what with it’s closing Neil Young sing-a-long and all. But it’s mostly sad and tired.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life. Time. BOYHOOD


The magic of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is that he breathes new life into the coming-of-age story, a form that can easily feel overfamiliar, by supplying an epic sweep through nothing more and nothing less than a life lived before our very eyes. It’s not an isolated moment in a boy’s life that forever changes the character’s path and personhood. It’s a boy’s life, earnestly and compassionately allowed the time and space to grow on screen. A linear progression of naturalistic scenes follows the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 6 to 18. He’s inquisitive, artsy, loveable. He’s growing, learning, evolving, in a constant state of discovering more about the world and about himself.

Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the final product has the visual effect and emotional connection of watching in one go all of the Harry Potters – explicitly referenced here, read as bedtime stories and featured in a scene at a midnight release party – or Apted’s Up series or Truffaut’s Doinel films – implicit inspirations. Over the course of nearly three hours, the film sees Mason age, his face, posture, hair, and physicality a guide to the passage of time in this loosely played but rigorously plotted experience. The story of its filming would be a gimmick if it wasn’t so effective. It’s quiet and thoughtful, moving in its breadth of observation. This isn’t a film concerned only with this boy, or boyhood, but about being alive, about now.

For the first stretch of the film, we watch Mason, his single mother (Patricia Arquette), and his slightly older sister (Lorelei Linklater), observing their working-class suburban Texas life, school, work, play. On rare visits, their dad (Ethan Hawke) takes them places – bowling alleys, fast food joints, baseball games. He talks to them, inadvertently revealing strains of conflict in the estranged parental relationships as he advertantly speaks candidly with fatherly advice and about his politics and philosophical worldview. Though side characters come and go, these four remain constant, a portrait of a modern family living and loving through good times and difficulties. Mason’s boyhood is just one part of their story.

Mason is an observer of his family’s dramas, best represented by early scenes in which the little boy stares at a dead bird in the yard, giggles at the lingerie section of a catalog, watches cartoons, listens to the muffled sounds of his mother’s voice in the other room, and spies his parents arguing in the driveway. He’s soaking up the story unfolding around him, a narrative he was born into. The boy is buffeted by the dramas of the adults in his life until he’s old enough to generate some drama of his own. By his teen years, he’s become a more active participant, clashing with his mother’s new romances, finding puppy love, navigating drugs, alcohol, sex, part-time jobs, and artistic impulses. Friends come and go. Years pass; schools change; conflicts bubble up and retreat. Life is lived.

It’s absorbing, built from 12 years worth of filming on and off and yet able to maintain a consistent mood and tone. Linklater and his team – cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, editor Sandra Adair, production designers Rodney Becker and Gay Studebaker, costume designer Kari Perkins – create a consistent, believable space. The homes feel lived in. The clothes fit like the actors wore them from home. It’s a convincingly real place and time, filled with apt signifiers of the time. Linklater surrounds his characters with current events and pop culture, everything from the obvious hit songs on the soundtrack (Coldplay, Britney Spears, Sheryl Crow, Gnarls Barkely, Soulja Boy, and more) to the evolving technology – from flip phones to iPhones, from Oregon Trail to Wii – to the Iraq War, the recession, and the election of Barack Obama. These time-capsule moments flavor the background and the atmosphere while the focus remains tightly on the experience of moving through time with this family.

Generously portioned, Linklater removes the typical catalysts for coming-of-age change, no wild misery or traumatic death or disease. Instead he supplies a variety of situations that acknowledge the way people and problems drift through life, characters and conflicts important for a time and then gone, perhaps returning later, perhaps not. The film unfolds patiently and pleasantly at its own unhurried pace. Typical home movie and family melodrama landmarks both big – weddings, divorces, births, moves, graduations – and smaller – birthdays, holidays – play out off screen, time moving forwards through suggestion and implication. What we do see are slice-of-life situations that play out with a powerful empathy deeply felt and tenderly portrayed. That’s not to say the movie is devoid of conflict or dramatic turns. It has break-ups, alcoholism, big decisions, and emotional discoveries. But it’s situated between movie-ish construction and realist document in a thrillingly relaxed way.

Linklater uses long takes and smooth cuts, trusting us to fill in the story between the passing years with context clues. He’s a great screenwriter with a fine ear for dialogue and a director with a fine guiding hand with performers of all kinds, veteran actors, children, and non-professionals alike. Here conversations play out shaggily, laughter and melancholy mingle as scenes becoming story, small details build to a big picture. There’s an ease to the performances and scenarios that feels just right, key moments crystallized as memories, fleeting remembrances. It’s not Tree of Life stream-of-consciousness, but instead a present-tense waking life, potent and evocative in its gentle immediacy, living in the moment each moment. The small revelation: “It’s always now.”

In movies as diverse (and yet so clearly from the same artist) as Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking LifeSchool of Rock, and Bernie, Linklater’s intelligent and empathetic approach to moments and lived experiences creates films with modest, appealing surfaces and deep wells of emotion and truth. His visual clarity and sympathetic understanding of nuances in his characters behaviors and environs is so confident and unselfconscious it’s easy to take for granted. But its effect is overwhelming, and his style cannot be dismissed. In Boyhood, Linklater covers a lot of ground, but the project hangs together, incident and character alike, because it converts the small and intimate everyday moments into an epic that uses time as its landscapes, and ordinary life as its grandest adventure.

It’s a movie about how slow the process of growing up and maturing can be, how the cumulative effects don’t guarantee you’ll figure everything out. It emphasizes the importance of timing to both setbacks and serendipitous moments of beauty, clarity, and transcendence. It’s about change. We watch it quite literally, written across the actors ages, and as scenes add up to a portrait of a family as well as a childhood, dynamics changing, relationships evolving. But it’s also in the way people change, places change, situations change. People move. People reconsider decisions. People grow apart. Throughout his boyhood, Mason is confronted with people who represent different paths, different ideas, different outcomes. By the end, Boyhood movingly looks upon all this change and possibility and says it’s okay. It’s natural. It’s a part of life. You'll grow, change, move on.

Smartly constructed, the movie starts from its irresistible gimmick and gets deeper, more complicated and moving until it feels full to the bursting with heart and compassion. There’s the weight of a real life in this film, in its making, its structure, its story. It’s a movie of deep truths about the way we live, balanced and beautiful in its humane approach that finds compassion for everyone on screen, recognizing their individuality, their struggle, and their personhood. The actors, from the kids on up to Arquette and Hawke’s astonishingly nuanced work, give extraordinarily consistent performances so fully inhabited and pitched so warmly and effectively on a lively naturalistic level that they appear simply, movingly, as ordinary people in ordinary lives. There’s a genuine emotional intelligence at work here.

It’s present in every scene. I saw it in the mischievous punch a brother sends a sister in the backseat. I saw it in the smile of a little girl passing a note to a little boy in class. I saw it in the fear of kids left behind with an alcoholic. I saw it in the eyes of an elderly couple proudly gifting a Bible and a rifle to a step-grandson who fakes enthusiasm, a delicate empathetic moment, tender, beautifully sad, full of love. (The next scene the boy is taught to shoot and likes it, a warm complication.) I saw it in the tears of a mother sending a child off to college. Life moved too fast. “I thought there’d be more,” she says. A lesser filmmaker might have viewed these scenes and more like them as moments for jokes or judgments, but Linklater balances perspective through mirrored moments, reflections of characters in others, simple gestures with complicated meaning, actions that resonate and return.

For a film so long and rich, it’s deftly shaped, arriving with great power at simple truths. Linklater found in Ellar Coltrane a boy whose open face and intelligent eyes communicate great curiosity and thoughtfulness in a performance that adeptly grows with the young actor. Its no wonder Mason becomes interested in photography. The movie he’s in exhibits a fine eye for casual visual resonance. The opening shot is of the sky, bright blue with perfect clouds rolling by. A six-year-old boy is on the grass, looking up as far as he can see. In the last shot he’s 18, and the vast expanse he’s looking over is the future. Coming of age isn’t an event; it’s a process, a work in progress. We’ve lived this far with his family. Now is now. It’s always now.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

They're So Dancy, You Already Know: STEP UP ALL IN


I hadn’t realized how essential the Step Up movies’ simple plotting was until now. Step Up All In, the fifth in the series of loosely connected stories about exceptionally skilled dancers trying to find a way to do what they love, gets rid of even a simple plot, preferring instead a jumble of thin motivations and bad dialogue to get us from dance sequence to dance sequence. Its predecessors had sturdy structures, following competitions, protests, self-actualization, and/or romances to create throughlines on which to hang dancing. Here, screenwriter John Swetnam simply gathers up some characters from Step Up 2 the Streets, Step Up 3D, and Step Up Revolution, leaning heavily on the charm that comes with seeing familiar faces. I was happy to see them, especially since their unspoken histories bring the only actual characterization to All In.

The excuses for dancing involves the leader of the dance crew from Revolution (Ryan Guzman) left behind after his pals go back to Miami, leaving him in L.A. chasing an increasingly distant dream of making his passion his career. I liked how quickly the movie undoes the previous happy ending. "We won $50,000!" "Yeah, split 12 ways." He sees an ad for a Las Vegas dance contest and asks his friend and series regular Moose (Adam G. Sevani) to help him put together a new team. The winning crew gets a three-year residency at a fancy hotel’s theater. Victory could bring, at long last, a stable paycheck for staging the elaborately choreographed numbers that are these movies’ bread and butter. It’s the Fast Five franchise all-star team-up approach, although the Step Ups won’t go full Fast & Furious without wooing the Tatums back for another spin. Like that car-racing series, Step Up has won much affection for knowing the simple pleasures it must deliver. There must be an attractive, talented ensemble of dancers stuck in a situation that can only be danced its way out of.

The Vegas competition is a half-clever reality show parody (the screen fills with Twitter handles, producers do a smidge of meddling, and the game’s not as straightforward as it appears) hosted by a flamboyant pop star named Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko). She dresses like a knockoff Lady Gaga and acts like a wilier Effie Trinket. The part is small, but Miko’s performance is big. She’s full of crazy energy, hilarious chewing away at the scenery as she plays ringmaster to the contest. Meanwhile, the real focus is on dancers pursuing love and self-validation between practice sessions and dance battles, but none of their speaking performances stand out.

They’re just there to fill in the connective tissue the script needs to get us to another production number. And what production numbers! They have fun props and interesting sets: a stage, a boxing ring, a laboratory, and some kind of futurist gladiator pit. So what if you spend the time characters stand around talking exposition working through lame strained melodramatics and obvious plot turns wishing they’d just shut up and dance? When they finally do, it’s glorious. The plot fades into the background and the movie is simply amazing. Their rivalries and romances are only interesting when communicated through body language and dance moves alone.

Like the other 3D efforts in the series (especially my beloved Step Up 3D, which is a perfect movie, the best possible version of what it wants to be) All In films the high-energy moves in shots that capture the dancers’ bodies head to toe, the better to admire their wide expressive range of movement within the space. They’re athletic, blasting through thrilling, effervescent hip-hop choreography set to booming club beats. Staged with wit and flare, the precision with which the actor-dancers (like Briana Evigan, Twitch, Mari Koda, Alyson Stoner, and twins Facundo and Martín Lombard) pop off the screen in low angle shots, takes full advantage of the crystal-clear depth of vision the shooting technology provides.

The director this time around is Trish Sie, a music video veteran making her feature debut. Most famous for the OK Go video “Here It Goes Again,” which featured the band dancing on a chain of treadmills in a one-take shot, Sie gets dutifully through the pained and strained story then brings creativity and energy to the only scenes that really matter. There’s no imaginative equivalent to the treadmill concept in the choreography, but there is a sweet dance to “Every Little Step” set on a carnival tilt-a-whirl after hours. Nice of the security guard to turn on the music instead of turning them in, a sign that even the extras want the characters to dance as often as possible. At best, the way those bodies move is jaw-dropping.

In the fantastic finale staged in a circular set with an ecstatic audience in the far background and dancers up, down, and all around the set, the energy in the performances is contagious. That’s where the characters are at their most appealing and impressive. None of the actors may be as effortlessly charming a screen presence as Fred and Ginger or Gene, but the material’s certainly not doing them any favors this time around, either. It’s a nothing plot filled with just enough dance and style to keep the good times rolling. Even with a lesser entry in the series, I still had to resist dancing my way out of the theater.
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