Monday, November 30, 2015

Kray Kray: LEGEND


It’s never a good idea to call time of death on an entire subgenre based on the evidence of one movie, but Legend sure makes it look like the gangster movie is on its last legs. The last gasp of a concept out of ideas, it takes the late-90’s Guy Ritchie-led British crime capers, themselves Tarantino-inspired take offs of Scorsese’s virtuosic R-rated updates of 30’s era Warner Bros gangster pictures, and pushes further into airless artifice. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who sometimes makes good movies, like the anachronistic jousting comedy A Knight’s Tale and Jackie Robinson biopic 42, takes as his inspiration the real story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twin brothers who ran organized crime in the East End of London during the 1960s. Out of real conflict, violence, and crime, Helgeland spins a hyperbolic, stylized tale of colorful blood and scheming so tediously clunky and playing like lukewarm leftovers of gangster movies past, it might as well be completely disconnected from reality.

That’s the point, I suppose. It’s not named “legend” for no reason. It’s exaggerated with a self-satisfied swagger, beholden only to an outsized larger-than-life perspective. It opens on a blatantly false CGI skyline, before hopping straight into narration from a character we’ll eventually realize is speaking cheekily, and incongruously, from beyond the grave. She (Emily Browning) is the wife of a Kray, telling us the story of their rise – consolidating power through their violent tempers and a confluence of strategy and luck – and their fall – taken down by a combination of hubris and the law. Fitting a true story neatly into generic formula is a good way to strip specificities and eccentricities from the moments and individuals at play. We get tracking shots into nightclubs straight out of Goodfellas, macho posturing like Cagney lite, and random acts of violence tonally carbon copied out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. All the while, the colors drip like a faded Technicolor musical, actors pose and chew, and the two-hour-plus runtime stretches forward with leisurely laziness.

Tom Hardy plays both Krays in a double role, showy for its variety of doubled positions and encounters it demands. The effects work is passable, but not nearly as convincing in look or performance as Armie Hammer in The Social Network, or even Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (nearly 20 years ago!). Hardy doesn’t do much to differentiate between the men, other than Helgeland making sure one is wearing glasses and a bit more unhinged, while the other doesn’t need glasses and broods. One of them is gay, which the movie takes as an amusing side-detail instead of characterization, just one more affectation to saddle Hardy with, instead of a window into an actual person’s life. There’s never a sense that the movie has any perspective on the men, other than reciting biographical facts and reenacting moments from their criminal careers in conspicuously artificial and mildly winking style. At one point a Kray gets very upset an opponent brought a lead pipe to a fight, ruining his fantasy of getting in a shootout. “Like a Western!” he whines.

It’s annoying how much Legend knows it’s a movie. Most discouraging is how repugnantly cavalier all this falseness becomes. It takes a lot of pleasure in displaying violence, whether someone’s getting a beating, is stabbed to death, or tortured for information. Even the inevitable hand-to-hand rumble between the Krays – a clumsy feat of blocking and visual trickery – is treated as a lark, instead of a breaking point in a relationship. Collateral damage is breezed over with token cringes from onlookers. Stylish splashes of debris and blood are aesthetic displays more than narrative elements. Phony period detail and glossy slick visuals are one thing; it’s another entirely to use real pain and death as grist for goofy genre play so feather light and dull. Helgeland stocks the movie with interesting actors (Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany, Taron Egerton) and flashy incident, but that none of it brings any spark of life or imagination to a routine and gratingly misjudged gangster picture makes it all the more disappointingly empty.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Transitions: THE DANISH GIRL


Loosely telling the true story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl takes great care. It’s a movie made by straight cisgender men, and so unavoidably viewed from the outside in, but is nonetheless a good-faith effort to portray a time – the 1920s and 30s – that lacked the language for and sensitivity to describe and accept Lili. She was born in a man’s body, married to a woman who loved her, and was lucky to find a few, close people who could find their way to an understanding of her entire self. Some doctors told her she was insane, spoke of curing her “aberrant” thoughts. But Lili knows she’s a woman, and slowly finds satisfying expressions of that truth. The film is a message movie, with the fragile weepy qualities of a work of art out to engage its audience’s morals. And yet it’s also an intimate, at times lovely, movie of relationships, a mostly responsible and sensitive approach befitting our modern views on the subject.

“I feel as though I’m performing myself,” Lili (Eddie Redmayne) says, lamenting heading out in public as the person Copenhagen society knows as Einar Wegener, a landscape painter of some note, and a man. The art world fawns over Einar, while wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also a painter, struggles to get her portraits taken seriously by dealers and critics. It’s an interesting tangle of gender norms and performance. For Lili, going out to parties as Einar is putting up a falsehood, conforming to the world’s expectations of how a man should be. For Gerda, being a woman causes her serious ambitions to go overlooked. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is attuned to the role gender plays in this world, ceding a man certain inherent seriousness while leaving a women with equal talent frequently dismissed. “Men are not used to being looked at,” Gerda says, while a frumpy middle-aged man getting his portrait painted squirms before her canvas. The one who holds the brush holds the power of public perception, even if the public doesn’t realize it.

Lili and Gerda are both artful freethinkers, open-minded enough to play with gender fluidity at home. When Gerda is desperate for a model for a new painting, she asks her husband to wear stockings and a dress to pose for her. Redmayne, bringing shy posture and fluttering facial expressions, does his best to communicate his character’s discomfort with the way people see her, and what she sees when she looks in the mirror. But posing for Gerda is a glimpse of freedom, and the married couple has a loving, tender relationship deep in compassion and understanding. Gerda enjoys participating in bringing Lili’s full expression, coaxing her husband to join her at the next local event, helping with makeup, high heels, and wig. Gerda thinks it’s a fun game to play with her husband. Lili knows it’s more serious; it’s her reality. The movie follows this couple in a love story between married people, as they grow to learn more about each other, and find new ways of living together by living more truthfully.

Lili finds being herself thrilling and freeing, but also frightening. In public, she is happily herself, and yet self-conscious feeling others watch her, especially feeling the male gaze fall on her, where even a seemingly nice man can turn insistent and predatory. Coxon’s screenplay works with the duality of what Lili knows she is, and the way others force their gaze upon her. As Gerda’s works gain popularity, hundreds of people are looking at paintings of Lili, demanding to meet the model, to learn more about this alluring subject. And yet the film’s lens never quite laps up Redmayne the way it does Vikander, allowing her to appear with the soft sensuality of a graceful classical nude, while he’s trapped behind a layer of fragile glass, a specimen seen in mirrors, or through layers of window panes. It puts a focus on the pain of being told the way you were born is wrong, while the heroism is in other’s acceptance. Redmayne remains a pretty and unknowable object. It’s why Tangerine and Transparent, which have trans characters as full, complicated individuals in stories about more than their identities, are more relevant, exciting, and progressive.

But there’s genuine loving charge between the leads in The Danish Girl, and that carries the movie. Vikander and Redmayne are extraordinary actors, she utterly natural and at ease in every moment, he a talented inhabitor of ticks and traits. They work well together, enlivening what could be stiffly refined period piece waterworks with a real sense of humanity. Director Tom Hooper, with the likes of John Adams and The King’s Speech, is familiar with this sort of well-intentioned, softly inspirational historical drama. He brings to it his trademark visual approach: a muddy overcast look of theatrical realism and blocking that pushes performers to the edges of the frames, leaving plenty of negative space for patterned walls and period detail. It’s less insistent here than elsewhere in his filmography (and certainly less than in his previous film, the trompingly moving musical Les Misérables), perhaps because he was feeling the pressure of getting every detail handled appropriately and sensitively. He keeps a close focus on his leads, as well as a sharply cast ensemble (including Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sebastian Koch), delicately attuned to their encounters with a concept they’re trying to wrap their heads around.

But because The Danish Girl is a safe movie with a 2015 understanding of Lili, it never gives itself over entirely to the mess and the thrill of the story’s historical moment, to be on the cutting edge of a new understanding. It’s stately when it should be passionate, more engaged with Lili’s inner life. Hooper focuses on surfaces – paints on canvases, a hand caressing a wardrobe of fur coats, a leg stretching in silk stockings, a scarf fluttering in the wind, a mirror through which a tastefully full-frontal Lili practices a new self-image – instead of finding ways to evoke an interior wrestling with identity issues. It results in a finely textured film, of beautiful images and admirable restraint, but little engagement with Lili beyond a glossy coming-out arc, the pioneering medical narrative, and the patient warmth of those who loved her. It’s an attractively mounted historical romance with a fascinating hook, heartfelt and movingly acted, but always on the outside looking in. It’s a good movie, with a better, more complicated, one buried under its surfaces.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Eye of the Fighter: CREED


Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) hopes to prove he’s not making a mistake following in his father’s footsteps. Similarly, Creed hopes to prove it’s not a mistake to make another Rocky movie. Adonis’s old man was legendary boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who years ago fought Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and became his friend. Creed, Sr. died in the ring before his son, the result of an affair, was born. Now the young man, who bounced around the foster care system before being taken in by his dead father’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), is out to become a great boxer on his own. So both the movie and its lead character could be held back by impossible expectations and audience skepticism: the sixth sequel to an Oscar-winning introduction to an iconic character, and the son of a champion looking to excel in the very arena that made his father famous. You could be excused for thinking they’d both be coasting on past glories and fans’ lingering affections for earlier triumphs. But writer-director Ryan Coogler had other ideas, playing off resonances of the past and building on sturdy genre tropes to make a solid, exciting movie worthy of its predecessor’s legacies.

It’s a glossy boxing picture, the kind where even the grit and grain in Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is pretty. It hauls out every cliché: training montages, downbeat hardships, a hotshot rival, crusty old coaches, and sad diagnoses for not one but two supporting characters. And yet, it works. Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station, a clear-eyed and intimate last-day-in-the-life of a victim of police violence (also starring Jordan), was one of the most notable debut films in recent memory, brings Creed a grounding in emotional realities. Adonis, hoping to get an anonymous start in the sport, moves to Philadelphia to train, slowly coaxing Rocky himself to be his trainer. He doesn’t want to use his father’s name, but he’s eager to befriend someone who really knew the man. Scenes between Jordan and Stallone are exceptionally tender, mixed with a macho joking and jostling. They quickly come to care for one another, each giving their new friend reasons to push themselves to be better. Their dynamic is hardly surprising, but likable nonetheless.

It’s smart to position Rocky as the coach, allowing the franchise’s past to recede into the background as old memories informing the present realities. It’s tied to events of his previous films – we get direct references, through dialogue, props, photos on the wall, and footage of old matches, to every single one of them – but it’s no longer his story, although he gets several terrifically moving scenes. He’s not to around the recapture his former glory. He's here to help train a new guy. Though it’s at times almost impossibly pinned in by demands of fan service and genre formula, Coogler, with co-writer Aaron Covington, spins out of those traps by giving the movie over to Creed, whose ambition and appeal lead him into the usual early bouts and steadily improving training all leading up to a high-profile offer to participate in a match with a current reigning champion (actual pro boxer Tony Bellew). Well-worn tropes are invigorated with exceptionally well-directed scenes, stirring long takes that dance through the ring holding tight on the athletes, or quick, crisp wham-bang punchy editing hammering home the hits, and observant close-ups for soft dialogue in fine dramatic beats between the main events.

Echoes of Rocky are here in the structure, right down to the lovely halting romance with a sweet Philly woman (Tessa Thompson), but Coogler deftly, confidently flips its racial politics in a satisfying, unspoken representation-centered way, as Jordan takes the center and makes the film his own. He commands the screen with his charisma, his striking physicality and believable punches mixing with a vulnerability, a neediness, a desire to prove himself motivating every action, from a sweet first date to a brutal final fight. Well-acted across the board, the ensemble is fine-tuned to the mumbling rhythm of people who aren’t eloquent speakers, but are effective communicators nonetheless, people who know how to express themselves through their body language, through small gestures. Coogler makes great use of their presences, a combination of megawatt youthful star power – Jordan and Thompson are charming and intensely sympathetic – and wistful legacy – Stallone, every bit the past-his-prime legend for whom people still have affection, and Rashad, easy enough to believe as a beloved maternal presence whose famous husband did her wrong.

Coogler’s evident love for the genre and the series helps. He knows how to work it, jabbing at the audience with emotional manipulation, amping up the visceral responses with whomping violence in the ring, and using both subtle and obvious Rocky iconography to goose the nostalgic elements without taking away from the story’s own stand-alone potential. Perhaps the best example of this is the stirring use of Bill Conti’s famous “Gonna Fly Now” melody, teased throughout Ludwig Goransson’s score, then triumphantly unveiled in full at a key climactic moment. It matches the crescendo of the picture, a slow, confident build through expected beats to arrive at an end that’s unexpectedly involving. Somehow both familiar and fresh, this is a fantastically crowd-pleasing movie, mostly what you’d think you’ll get from a boxing picture, especially in its tense final rounds, but elevated by the exceptional craft: smartly structured, movingly acted, confidently directed. That it works so well is no mistake. It’s what you get when talented people know what they’re doing with the legacy they’ve been charged with extending.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Dino and His Boy: THE GOOD DINOSAUR


In the same year they gave us Inside Out, one of their most clever and emotionally complicated films, Pixar has turned around and given us The Good Dinosaur, their simplest and most visually lush, telling a spare story that doesn’t skimp on the gorgeous design or generous feeling. What a way to show off their range! Twenty years after inventing the very idea of a computer animated film with Toy Story, the company remains on the cutting edge. The artists have been pushing water, fur, faces, cloth, and landscapes into impressively textured and convincing places, but by now we’re well aware they’re doing more than admirable demo reels. They tell stories, high-tech razzle-dazzle built on sturdy construction. Technical brilliance is always in the pipeline. But those lines of code, those digital breakthroughs, are made to live and breathe and, in doing so, move audiences of all ages. They’ve done it again. Pixar’s latest is about a little dinosaur named Arlo in a heartfelt narrative told through dazzling visuals.

Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the smallest and weakest of his siblings, who are stronger, faster, and tougher. In this cozy green apatosaurus family, his proud father (Jeffrey Wright) and mother (Frances McDormand) are encouraging, letting his brother (Marcus Scribner) and sister (Maleah Nipay-Padilla) do important chores around the farm. Poor Arlo’s too scared to even feed the chickens properly, but his parents smile gently, telling him he’ll grow into his confidence and capabilities. It’s an idyllic country life, surrounded by dramatic natural beauty: pine forests, rolling prairies, distant mountains, and a roaring river. Now, you might be asking yourself why this dinosaur family is farming. The answer is simple. The asteroid that wiped out their species never hit, allowing dinos to remain the dominant species. They’ve learned agriculture, while humans are nowhere to be seen. Well, almost nowhere. Some varmint is eating their corn, a pre-verbal feral wild child, growling and spitting, barking at them when cornered. What a pest.

It’s a fine high-concept colored in quickly and wordlessly, no fuss. We’re thrown into this pastoral world, and because Pixar’s animators are as good as anyone at characterizing their fanciful designs with warm eyes, and detailed gestures, it feels instantly real. Arlo moves his bright round head on his long stalk of a neck with a shy bobble, ashamed he’s not as helpful as the others. They’ve already made their marks, allowed to add their footprints to a silo Poppa made. Arlo’s too fearful, timid, doubtful, yet to accomplish a chore great enough to feel important. The movie’s invested in this little guy’s feelings of inadequacy, while keeping an eye on nature around him, crops growing, critters scurrying, and even a family member’s sudden death. (A bit of Bambi there.) This is treated with gravity, solemnly taken in as a sad fact of life. We see a humble grave with a wooden marker sitting off to the side of the dinos’ property, like something out of a Western. Life on the frontier is hard.

In his grief, Arlo gets careless and falls into the river, quickly swept far from his family. So there’s the story in a nutshell: lost dinosaur must find his way home. Along the way he befriends the wild child, also lost, who acts like an eager puppy, fetching, tracking, and protecting his big buddy. It’s a boy-and-his-dog, except the boy is an apatosaurus and the dog is a boy. You can guess how this Incredible Journey will develop. Also not surprising is how Pixar’s technicians are able to imbue this wordless friendship with great interior feeling, allowing the creatures to bond, play, express sympathy, and grow close. When the muddy little boy crawls next to the dinosaur, looks up at him with big wet eyes, and slowly embraces him, there’s a genuine emotional charge. Here are two vulnerable creatures – the kid is the only human in a world of massive animals, the dino has trembling legs and weak ankles – clinging to one another for comfort and safety.

Not pushy or insistent, director Peter Sohn (a longtime Pixar employee making his feature debut) and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (also a writer on Inside Out) allow a patient, episodic pace. The two characters – another of the studio’s reluctant buddy team-ups – encounter other dinosaurs: a nutty triceratops (Sohn), a sneaky pterodactyl (Steve Zahn), a t-rex (Sam Elliott), and more. Just as unpredictable as strangers are cliffs, storms, mudslides, and raging rapids. Through each new obstacle we find the pair growing closer, and the good little dinosaur adding ever more bravery to emotional toolkit. Keeping with the Western theme, the film is filled with beautiful silences and vast pretty terrain – buttes and valleys, fields and canyons. When the film looks out over a forest of gently swaying pines, the dense blue sky (arranged with software for “volumetric clouds”), or a buffalo stampede backlit by a vibrant red sunset, you’d almost think you were looking at the real thing. Add in a soft fiddle-heavy score by Jeff and Mychael Danna, and it’s all of a relaxed southwestern piece.

How many animated kids’ movies can be compared to John Ford or Budd Boetticher films’ straightforward pace, clear conflict, and wide framing? There’s also a little Old Yeller here in easy morals and the coming-of-age-through-pet-ownership and proving-yourself-a-worthy-frontiersman aspects. (Thankfully not so much rabies, though.) By taking a calm and classical approach where others would go manic and jokey, Pixar’s filmmakers once again prove their unique talents. The movie has real danger and heft. When Arlo is hit in the head with a rock, it looks like it hurts. We see his bruises purple up over the course of his journey home. But the characters also have a faintly rubbery cartoony quality that keeps it from feeling dour and frightening. It’s a cozy, energetic movie, dryly funny – a t-rex says, “If you’re pulling my leg, I’ll eat yours” – and with slapstick peril located right next to real danger. The friendship in the center is appealing and the yearning for home is strong. It’s touching and sweet, with tough uncomplicated lessons and colorful kid-friendly charm. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Welcome to New York: BROOKLYN


“Heartbreak,” as Taylor Swift tells us, “is the national anthem.” This sentiment is the backdrop of Brooklyn, an achingly sensitive little movie, small in scope, but deep in emotional risk. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, a young Irish woman in the 1950s who finds opportunities dead-ending in a part-time job at a small-town shop. She tearfully and nervously bids her mother and sister farewell, setting sail for New York City, where a kind priest has arranged for her to have a safe place to stay and a nice entry-level job in Brooklyn. What a big step for anyone to make, let alone a young person with no connections or comforts, with only a small suitcase and the clothes on her back. The movie, movingly bookended by boat journeys, finds great power and exquisitely observed emotions in this brave and difficult move. Restrained and heartfelt, the story proceeds simply and delicately.

We see Eilis make tentative connections, to the opinionated landlady (Julie Walters) and chatty lodgers at the all-female boarding house for Irish immigrants at which she lives, to the intimidating but decent boss (Jessica Paré) at a department store at which she finds work, to the avuncular priest (Jim Broadbent) who checks in on her and helps find new opportunities for education and advancement. There’s a lovely sense of community slowly developing around our main character, as she navigates a foreign world she’s slowly ever more determined to make her home. In the early passages, she is shy and withdrawn, ill with homesickness, tearing up over letters from home, or when hearing a Celtic singer at a Thanksgiving supper for Irish-American homeless men. The tug of her safe and comfortable past is strong, but will she let it interfere with gaining a foothold in a new, scary future?

Her most significant new relationship is with a charming young Italian-American man (Emory Cohen) who draws her in with his flirtatious teasing, sweet empathy, and loveable lopsided grin, all tangled up in his chewy accent, broad and bold. They start going out, chastely dating, attending church dances, family dinners, and the movies, like Singin’ in the Rain, which excites him enough to perch on a lamppost in the park while he walks her home. The boss notices a change in her demeanor and, upon learning it’s because of a fella, asks, “Does he talk about baseball or his mother?” “No.” “Then keep him.” The blushing excitement of young love merges with the excitement of making a life for herself that’s entirely her own, and tempered by the fading but still present pull of Ireland, where her family is increasingly only distant but powerful memories. She’s still deciding who she wants to be, and how best to define herself.

Soft, but deeply felt, the movie keeps a tight focus on Eilis, considering Ronan’s face, possessed with a placid maturity revealing flickers of feelings turbulent underneath a surface of great propriety. Eilis is a quiet character, who feels intensely, but still takes her time making up her mind. Ronan allows this to be her source of strength, a studied and reserved exterior projecting kindness and thoughtfulness. It’s a film that prizes such quiet contemplation, studying Ronan’s eyes for subtle sparkles, and allowing the ensemble to exude universal warmth. Tenderly developing relationships are watched growing, shifting, and evolving, in a plot animated by humorous charm and realistic sentimentality, arriving at big moments of grief and elation with a softly insistent tugging on heartstrings. It’s a grade-A weepie, not only because of any particular moment of sorrow or grace, though it has those well-done, but from the spectrum of small moments, colored in with emotional specificity.

John Crowley directs with great easy rhythms in poised pacing and bright, warm colors. Tasteful period detail is neither fussed over nor show-offy; it’s simply a fact of life, a time and place the oldest in the audience can still remember, conjured up with the edges sanded down. It’s not exactly a reflection of 50’s politics or unease. It’s far too personal and intimate for that, attuned directly and pleasingly with its lead’s innermost feelings. Crowley is a filmmaker with a penchant for sensitive character studies, especially his 2007 feature Boy A, which followed a young ex-con adjusting into his new freedom. There’s a different sort of dramatic change at play in Brooklyn, but it’s no less carefully considered. Nick Hornby, adapting a novel by Colm Tóibín, has a great ear for internal conflict teased out through conversation and calm, capably and movingly brought to life by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about a big transatlantic move, rich with heartbreak and isolation slowly thawed through warm friendships, then complicated by the temptation to give up and move home.

Hornby first became known for novels about men in relationships vividly externalized (High Fidelity, About a Boy), but has become a fine writer of screenplays about women finding themselves through internalized decisions (An Education, Wild). He and Crowley may have authored the film, their respective bests, but it belongs to Ronan, who dominates every frame with a gentle inescapable magnetism. She’s able to communicate the subtlest of feelings through subtle changes of expression, and yet somehow the effect is anything but obscure. She’s found happiness, and yet feels divided loyalties. No matter her American successes, there’s the strong call of Ireland, where her mother would love to see her, and the locals would be happy to set her up with a nice boy from the village. She has the understandable confidence it takes to move across the world, and the fear of failure. Brooklyn gets big effects out of small gestures, a comforting classical melodrama shorn of nostalgia, except, perhaps, for how much easier it was then to live in New York on a clerk’s salary. The result is a terrifically involving empathetic and emotional excursion. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Three Wise Guys: THE NIGHT BEFORE


An R-rated Christmas comedy, The Night Before is a festive After Hours party through New York City with a trio of buddies on their last carousing Christmas Eve. They started the holiday party tradition as teenagers when Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was unexpectedly orphaned and alone. His best friends wanted to give him some Yuletide cheer and help him mourn. But now, years later, they’re moving on without him. Isaac (Seth Rogen) is married with a kid on the way, and Chris (Anthony Mackie) is a big football star. Ethan’s still adrift, without steady employment and freshly broken up from his most recent, and most perfect, girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan). He has commitment issues to everything but his Christmas traditions, and is clinging to this one last great time.

He wants it to be a perfect night of drinking, karaoke, Chinese food, and fellowship. He even scored tickets to a legendary secret party, the best in town. Naturally, his clinging to an ideal night is part of what makes it all go wrong in a cavalcade of hilarious antics involving drugs, slapstick, misunderstandings, and the fumbling loose patter of modern comic dialogue. What follows is a terrific comedy, quick and charming even when it’s just dawdling around with its leads. The throughline is the amiable chummy spirit, a hangout vibe that lets each guy’s personality breathe and bounce off the others in amusing fashion, as the night gets progressively odder. They have great sociable chemistry, convincingly close, like longtime friends who know how to twist the knife of an observation, but care enough to look out for each other’s mistakes.

They’re growing apart and recognize that, but are willing to try to keep their relationships strong. As a result, they’re often great company as they try their best to have a good time. It’s funny enough and fast enough to make me forgive it for being yet another crude comedy about man-children who need to be indulged before finding a family and settling down makes them finally grow up. Director Jonathan Levine (50/50), who co-wrote with Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), keeps the focus on the three guys and their problems. Because it’s rooted in real and understandable pain, and the movie’s narrative arc and comic engines are built on the unproductiveness of their partying lifestyle, it avoids certain bro-centric traps. The women's roles are underwritten, but there are none of the cheap shots found in other movies of this ilk. This is a basically kind movie, plenty of dirty banter but basically nothing in the way of cruelty.

It helps that they’re real characters, not punchline machines. One is struggling with adulthood, while his slightly more mature friends are worried about fame and babies and what their lives mean. A convincing grounding in real insecurities drives the emotions behind the silliness, a charming tension between the high emotional pressure of the holidays and the desire to cut loose and forget their troubles. Mackie’s jock is desperate to stay cool in the eyes of his fans, teammates, and sponsors. Rogen’s wife (Jillian Bell) gives him a box of drugs – a free pass to get high one last time before their baby arrives, a scary milestone he’s a total mess over. And Gordon-Levitt flashes his boyish charm, but you can see the fear of his economic and emotional instability bubbling underneath.

So they each have their problems to work out as around each corner they encounter drunken Santas, an excited limo driver, an oddball drug dealer, a homeless Grinch, surprise sexts, and other assorted comic scenarios (each involving a recognizable actor, each more unexpected than the last). It’s episodic, and therefore a little hit and miss, but I found the ratio to be fairly high as situations escalate to big laughs on a consistent basis. A highpoint is Rogen, sweaty, panicked, progressively higher, and almost-but-not-quite freaking out throughout in one of his very best performances, whether talking to a nativity scene, admiring another man’s equipment, or vomiting during a midnight mass. Levine balances the picture, though, letting each lead, and most of the supporting cast, have great little moments of surprise, humor, and warmth. Mackie gives chase to a groupie who stole his pot. Gordon-Levitt gets relationship advice from a drunk pop star. At one point, the guys stop to play Nintendo 64, for old time’s sake. They just want to have fun while they can.

A winning movie that had me smiling from beginning (with rhyming storybook narration) to end (with declarations of love), it’s filled with as much holiday spirit as raunch. Unlike a Hangover picture’s smutty cynicism, The Night Before breathes with genuine humane feeling behind its sweet and filthy jokes. It is, after all, a Christmas movie, filled with cozy messages of love, hope, self-improvement, togetherness, and the power of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Likable people learn valuable life lessons after an eruption of wackiness, deciding to stop clinging to a tradition’s specifics. Instead, they grow to appreciate embracing evolving relationships while maintaining the spirit of traditions. It’s a simple message that you could fit inside a Hallmark card, but good luck finding one that comes with glitter and tinsel, but also joints, booze, Run-DMC, bad sweaters, a car crash, and a fight or three. It’s a crackling one-crazy-night Christmas comedy more than earning its right to bust guts and warm cockles on a yearly rotation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Grey Zone: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 2


Hardly the victory march some will expect, I suspect The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 will surprise audiences unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins’ books with its glum, mournful approach. It’s a typical sci-fi dystopian setup involving an opulent fascistic regime controlling a population through violence and the common people rising up in rebellion. But what makes this concluding feature so potent and satisfying is the way it eschews easy moral binaries and the temptation to turn in a rousing finale of action and comeuppances. No, Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up where the previous feature left off, with the rebellious Districts of Panem preparing to invade the Capitol and depose evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and finds in the toil and terror of revolution only destruction and pain. It sits with our heroes and asks if their entire struggle was worth it. A quietly radical conclusion has us root for unrest and upheaval, and then explore the difficulties of putting a society back together, especially for those who blew it all up.

This is a series that’s gotten slightly better each time out, not because the overall quality has improved dramatically, but because it has complicated its character’s ideas and emotions. Now that we have all four films we can see the complete picture, a dim, cynical allegory with a glimmer of hope in the end. Our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, fusing determination and uncertainty in one of her best performances), started as a pawn of the Capitol in their Hunger Games, a propaganda tool, gladiatorial combat to keep the masses intimidated and entertained. But, with her games partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she managed to escape certain death in the arena, and in the process sparked a growing rebellion that soon conscripted her to be their symbol. How rare to see a hero who is confused about her role, who recognizes and bristles at her lack of control, and yet continues to struggle to do what’s right.

As Mockingjay – Part 2 begins, rebel leaders (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman) allow Katniss to head to the front lines of the assault on the Capitol as part of a propaganda squad. With her old friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a kind-but-tough commander (Mahershala Ali), and team of soldiers (including Sam Claflin and Natalie Dormer), their job is to follow behind the fighting, inspiring the troops, and scaring the Capitol citizens, with video reports. Unfortunately, Snow has ordered the Gamesmakers to spread traps throughout the city, turning a bombed-out urban setting – all grey pockmarked rubble and dirt – into an even more twisted Hunger Games. This is how the action proceeds, the team picking through a minefield of deadly contraptions while working their way to Snow, the man they want to assassinate to end the war, bringing a new, and hopefully better, government to Panem.

Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong smartly keep the focus on our characters, allowing most of the epic battle to take place off screen through suggestion. The violence we see isn’t the massive depersonalized clashes of CG armies. It’s up close, panicked, sweating, sudden. Horror movie mechanics are used to spring traps – like automatic weapons, oil slicks, and mindless sewer mutants – with jump scares jolting firefights and foot chases into action. Between flashes of chaos, director Francis Lawrence (who has capably, artfully helmed three of the four Hunger Games) uses stillness and quiet, as characters catch their breath, debate strategy, and let the traumatic events stop ringing in their ears, if only for a little while. There’s dread everywhere, not only in the probing close-ups, which capture every bit of fear and doubt, but in the sense that all this fighting may be futile.

This has always been a series that’s both action-oriented and deeply disturbed by violence. From the shaky-cam elisions of the first Games and the brutal executions of Catching Fire to the bruising civilian uprisings in the first Mockingjay (the series' high point), it’s a franchise the looks at bloodshed with great sadness, keenly aware of cycles of trauma, fear mongering, propaganda, and war. It treats even the enemy as people, this last film finding fleeing Capitol citizens and viewing them with compassion. What started as a satire of reality TV and conspicuous consumption has become a war zone, with refugees fleeing both rebel bombings and oppressive government retaliations. (Real world echoes are impactful and messy.) The violence of the Hunger Games becomes the violence of revolution. It’s a movie too engaged with its tragic elements to create action scenarios full of mindless villains to slaughter. Every kill is felt. The cast convincingly inhabits characters who are exhausted by the chaos, and throw themselves into it anyway.

Where will it stop? And if it does, how will Katniss ever feel normal again? Her nightmares are getting worse. Her sense of purpose is the only thing keeping her moving forward. But it’s hard to tell who has her best interests at heart – one old ally has been brainwashed; others may just as soon allow her to be martyred for their cause. Worse still is the question of whether what’s best for Katniss and what’s best for Panem are or can be one and the same. It doesn’t stop with defeating Snow. Revolution is hard enough. Filling the power vacuum that follows it will be harder. Here’s a movie actually interested in contemplating these tough questions, and in a slick, pop blockbuster package that’ll draw big crowds to see this four-part story wrapped up. It takes gut-wrenching twists, and allows time to slowly contemplate howls of sorrow and confusion. That it doesn’t find easy answers, and leaves an unsettled feeling lingering in a dénouement of tenuous hope, is to its credit.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rap Battle Royale: TOKYO TRIBE


In an alternate universe Tokyo that looks like a 1980’s cult film’s vision of 2015 – all neon, leather, and garbage – neighborhoods are controlled by a motley collection of creative gangs. Some are relatively benign – unruly party animals. Others are straight up nasty – running brothels, kidnapping slaves, and indulging in some cannibalism. This is the world of Tokyo Tribe, first a manga by Santa Inoue, now the latest manic genre explosion from Japanese provocateur Sion Sono. His eccentric previous films include Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a gory amateur-filmmakers-caught-in-a-real-Yakuza-war action comedy, and Love Exposure, a four-hour coming-of-age epic featuring Catholicism, cults, and upskirt photography. There’s no one else quite like Sono in cinema today, or ever for that matter. His latest is glowing kitsch, a gang warfare hip-hop musical that makes most pre-fab midnight movie cult items look sane and stately. Lesser films try too hard to be strange. For Sono it comes naturally, energetically, and extravagantly.

Like an alien studied our pop culture for decades and regurgitated it back in a two-hour kaleidoscope, Tokyo Tribe is exhausting and entertaining in equal measure, a collection of influences adding up to one nutty vision. It’s anime and MTV, Blade Runner and Speed Racer, Takashi Miike and Robert Rodriguez, The Warriors and the Step Ups in a blender missing its lid, spraying vibrant nonsense in every direction, dripping demented glee. On rain-soaked trashy streets is Show (Shôta Sometani), a hoodie-wearing MC/narrator who raps out some mad exposition, telling us about gangs – stoners, go-go dancers, gangsta rappers, and so on – who control various districts. The worst of the worst is a brute (Riki Takeuchi), who rules from a gold-plated mansion where he gnaws on severed fingers he stores in a cigar box. He has a son (Ryôhei Suzuki) who struts around showing off his toned body in thongs or shirtless under fur coats, and is about to stir up some inter-gang conflict. After an hour or so of setup, it’s war, with one gang angling to rule them all, or crush Tokyo on the way down.

A wild and occasionally incomprehensible trip, the movie has brain-melting qualities. It’s an imaginative world unto itself full of fog and fireworks, earthquakes, human furniture, a beatboxing maid, a little old lady DJ, a creepy van with skull-studded chandeliers mounted on its side mirrors, disco-ball samurai armor, a pistol-shaped cell-phone, katanas, bejeweled machine guns, holograms, a kung fu kid, a glowing tank, confetti, bottle rockets, and penis envy. And that’s just scratching the surface. Sono makes dense frames, sometimes cutting like crazy between oddball imagery, other times floating through elaborate sets and choreography in deceptively fluid long takes as likely to capture a dance battle as a real battle. It’s the sort of movie where a boy can pick a lock by breakdancing. His white-clad virginal sister (Nana Seino) has been kidnapped by nasty slimeballs and held captive in a brothel. Later she’s rescued by a nice guy (Young Dais), the leader of a horned-up, but peace-loving, gang headquartered out of a Denny’s knockoff called Penny’s. Yeah. It’s that sort of movie.

Sono lingers over naked bodies and violence in equally prurient ways, eager to watch a gang member trace a map on a captive policewoman’s taut bare midriff, admiring bikinis and blood-soaked swords with the same gaze. He lets each tribe rap at the camera, introducing themselves through bravado while posing in their grubby districts like they’re in post-apocalyptic music videos. Our big bad spits rhymes at us while slicing off a man’s ear, blood spurting out like the final percussive mic drop. And that’s just the first ten minutes. Riotous swings between cornball comedy, martial arts action, and exploitation ogling are held in check by the non-stop thumping hip-hop beat, every line spat with a rapping patter. It’s a chaotic movie, set over the course of one eventful night racing through the Tokyo Tribes. But it takes a lot of formal control to make something so exuberantly nonsensical.

Admittedly, all the above sounds like a mess – uneven, scary, and weird, impossible to take seriously and probably offensive. That’s not an unfair characterization. Its narrative is slack, and the novelty threatens to wear off. And yet there’s an animating spirit of knockabout joy, reveling in messed up images and unpredictable schlock. Sono conducts a movie that’s all setup, then all finale, moving only in grand swooping motions. It’s a musical. It’s a kung fu movie. It’s an acrobatic battle royale and a surreal rap battle rolled up in a story of swirling exaggerated silly stupidity. And yet everyone involved is committed. They mean it. They feel it. The performers are great aesthetic presences, tough and pretty every one. The fights have balletic slicing and flipping. The rapping has a pulsing splatter to match the gore. It’s chaos, and in the end it’s ear-splitting noise and eye-searing color burning a hole in the screen. What’s this wild gang violence amount to? “Sheer nonsense!” one character shouts late in the film, adding, “That’s what war is!” Tokyo Tribe: the first anti-war hip-hop kung fu musical. It’s too much, and that’s the point.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Holiday Schmaltz: LOVE THE COOPERS


The opening scene of Love the Coopers finds the Cooper family matriarch signing the last of her Christmas cards. “Love, The Coopers,” she writes with a flourish. The title of the movie, however, lacks the comma, making it less a warm present to us all, and more a demand to love the family we’ll be spending the next two hours with. This directive would go over easier if we were given sharply drawn characters who come into focus quickly. But we don’t. It’s a sprawling holiday dramedy dripping with sap and spreading its large ensemble amongst several connected plotlines, some far more interesting than others. It’s a sloppy Christmassy mess, but because a cast of likable charmers plays the characters, the movie has its moments anyway.

Opening on the morning of Christmas Eve, the screenplay by Steven Rogers (Stepmom) finds a large extended family all over Pittsburgh in a rush to get last minute holiday shopping and planning out of the way before the night’s big family dinner. It’s a belabored, scattered setup, hoping to gain some interest out of mystery, keeping the family connections murky until they crystallize as the people congregate around the cookbook-photo-spread Christmas supper. Overly expository narration (by Steve Martin, oddly drained of humor, and oozing storybook affect) tells us a lot, but illuminates little as we find a variety of small human dramas played broad. There’s a layer of schmaltz slathered all over an awkward mix of bad sitcom pacing and drooling manipulation.

There’s a divorced dad (Ed Helms) trying to hide his job loss from his ex-wife (Alex Borstein). Their painfully uncomfortable teen son (Timothée Chalamet) wants his first kiss, their youngest son (Maxwell Simkins) wants a bike, and their toddler daughter (Blake Baumgartner) has learned a curse word. There’s a kind old man (Alan Arkin) with a platonic crush on a sweet waitress (Amanda Seyfried). There’s a couple in their sixties (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) happy to host a family holiday for one last time, since they plan to use it to announce their impending divorce. There’s a lonely middle-aged woman (Marisa Tomei) who’s caught shoplifting (by cop Anthony Mackie) and so might be late for dinner. Finally, there’s a cynical liberal playwright (Olivia Wilde) who Meets Cute with a conservative soldier (Jake Lacy) in an airport bar. Between these stories are stock-footage-ready shots of snowy streets, Santas, and more carolers around every corner than I’ve ever seen in real life.

That’s quite a lot of plot to juggle, especially when it’s not all that deftly edited, and written with thin tin-eared stereotypes. (I didn’t even mention the elderly aunt (June Squibb) whose dementia is used exclusively for laughs.) It develops convolutedly, layered with flashing flashbacks to many characters’ pasts. You might think that’d bring extra heft to the emotional stakes, but it often confuses the issue, mistaking whats for whys when it comes to fleshing out the characters. Director Jessie Nelson (with her first directing credit since 2001’s I Am Sam) cross-cuts unevenly, allowing one character’s cross-town car trip to take as long as another’s grocery shopping, caroling, sledding, and cooking combined. This all could’ve benefited from a smoother approach to ensemble storytelling, more Altman-esque, or at least on the level of a Love Actually or The Best Man Holiday.

The movie spends its time lurching from storyline to storyline, haphazardly developed, largely unconvincing, tonally confused, both too calculated and weirdly adrift. And yet, as frazzled as this setup is, some of it works, and the predictable payoffs are rather sweet in their own ways. The talented cast is too good, especially when Nelson allows them real sensitive moments of connection, to let a sloppy script drag them down. When Keaton and Goodman argue, and when they wistfully reminisce about the good times and the bad they’ve shared over forty years of marriage, there’s real emotional weight. And in the airport scenes between Wilde and Lacy there develops a low-key romantic comedy that’s rather lovely in its chemistry and prickly warmth.

There’s almost enough gooey goodness in the moments that work to override the bad, like the final moments, which reveal the narrator is not omniscient, as has seemed to be the case, but instead a character we meet who has no possible way of knowing everything he’s been telling us. So it’s not a particularly good movie overall. It’s clumsy, obvious, full of clunky failed comedy and overtly telegraphed messages. (Could you guess it’ll be about valuing family togetherness and appreciating what you have right in front of you?) But it also has enough earnest sentiment to make it moderately effective on any big softies in the audience. I have to admit, from time to time, I was one of them. There’s no compelling reason to recommend Love the Coopers except the fleeting moments of button-pushing emotion, which might be enough if you’re willing to let yourself give in and be an easy target for that sort of thing. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

That's ENTERTAINMENT


The joke of Entertainment is that it’s rarely entertaining. That’s on purpose. It’s a movie following two entertainers – a middle-aged stand-up (Gregg Turkington) and a teen clown (Tye Sheridan) – as they travel a sad-sack route of decrepit bars, prison cafeterias, and anonymous hotels, gigs in the middle of American southwest nowhere for people who’d just as soon hear a jukebox or some light ambient Muzak. The grind is getting to them: a repetitive cycle of unappreciative audiences and lonely days, punctuated only by the downbeat, awkward surrealism of late nights and small towns, Americana dried up and ready to blow away. Director and co-writer Rick Alverson, whose previous film, 2012’s The Comedy, had a similarly alienating conceit – what if a smugly quipping comedy antihero was in the real world and therefore just a jerk? – has loaded Entertainment with endless pauses and cringingly desperate flop sweat. The extent to which you’ll enjoy it is determined by how much you can take, and how much you decide it matters in the end.

Disheveled, sporting a stringy wet combover, wearing an ill-fitting outdated suit, clutching free drinks in both hands while perching the microphone too close to his mouth, the better to sniff and gargle phlegm into it during the long silent stretches between jokes, Turkington’s comedian is a hopeless figure. He speaks with the sort of affected bluster and unstudied obliviousness a better stand-up might affect to make fun of hack comics. (He also sounds more than a little like Yukon Cornelius.) His every joke starts with a wheezy, drawn-out “Why did…” trailing off into dirty, gross, or just plain odd punchlines about celebrities who’ve long passed their peak name recognition. You get the feeling he’s been performing this material in rooms just like these for a long time. It’s anti-comedy, awfully funny in its awkwardly unfunny desperation, although certainly not the humor expected by the befuddled audiences he greets every night.

This isn’t far removed from Turkington’s usual act, a long and successful run as an aggressively offbeat stand-up he calls Neil Hamburger. I suppose the version we see in Entertainment is a worst-case scenario, the life he could’ve had if he didn’t find audiences to connect with this strange persona. Co-writing with Alverson and Tim Heidecker, Turkington has created a vision of a sad, isolated man out of time. A bad Borscht Belt comedian gone to seed in a present that has little use for him and his traveling act-mate, a mugging miming young man who nonetheless sometimes manages to coax engagement out of stone-faced crowds. A partnership, but not a friendship, the comedian and the clown are in every moment isolated and alone, even when around others. A depressed cloud hangs over the movie, twisting into wistful melancholy (the older man makes phone calls to his estranged daughter) or bitter nastiness (lashing out in cruel and misogynistic language at a heckler). It’s intriguing and off-putting, compelling and uncomfortable.

Equally fascinating and dull, the movie trudges along with its characters in frames of dull colors and casual absurdities. Turkington exudes exhaustion and generalized loathing. Sheridan (who, having worked for a handful of interesting auteurs, on an ABC sitcom, and in an upcoming X-Men, is quietly amassing one of the most impressive resumes of any young actor working today) has a more youthful energy, but the same hazy miserable fog. Along the way are strange characters (including John C. Reilly as a well-meaning oaf who says he “consults about business”) and glum detours. Every stop interrogates what it means to find entertainment, arguing that enjoyment is where you find it. It opens with a tour of an airplane graveyard, and later finds a brief respite in a tiny hotel conference room hosting a color seminar. We meet bartenders, clerks, tour guides, and mysterious strangers, each with their own troubles. The life of a low-rent entertainer is coldly and slowly considered, drawing pessimistic conclusions about the ability to overcome one’s own problems when you’re barely scraping by trying and largely failing to help others forget theirs.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

It's a Great Surprise, Charlie Brown: THE PEANUTS MOVIE


I had a worst-case scenario in my mind as I sat in the theater waiting for a computer animated Peanuts from the people who made the increasingly inane Ice Age movies. The last thing we need is a loud, grating, awkwardly modernized version of the late Charles M. Schulz’s modest and profound long-running comic strip. Instead, I was greeted with a most pleasant surprise. The Peanuts Movie has reverence for what made the original vision so potent and lasting. It’s quiet and thoughtful, with real little kid voices speaking haltingly precocious dialogue. Close your eyes and you can hear rhythms much like those that brought the comic to life in the beloved TV specials and features of the 60s, like the unimpeachable Charlie Brown Christmas. In reviving this memorable group of characters, the pack of precocious kids and one imaginative dog surely the best figures to ever step out of the funny pages, the filmmakers have provided the same gentle cartoon mischief, silly flights of whimsy, jazzy Vince Guaraldi-inspired score, and sharply sweet evocation of childhood in all its excitements and disappointments.

The CG approach does take some getting used to, but director Steve Martino wisely keeps the 3D designs essentially identical to the originals, and shot only flat from head-on or in profile, matching the 2D renderings of yore. When good old Charlie Brown’s bald head and tuft of hair first appears on the screen, you can see some extra texture and shading in his details. And yet he’s also at once and completely the Charlie Brown you remember. The same goes for the rest of the recognizable kids – opinionated Suzy, blanket-toting wise-beyond-his-years Linus, forceful Sally, slacker Peppermint Patty, bookish Marcie, and more – who move, speak, and behave in all the ways you’d expect. They say familiar lines, not because they’re predictable catchphrases, but because they’re essential parts of who they are. Sounds (tinkling piano), motions (dance moves), references (The Great Pumpkin) and conflicts (unrequited crushes, footballs snatched away before they can be kicked) are instantly recognizable. What’s old is new again.

The center of attention is Charlie Brown, who can never catch a break. He’s hyper-aware of how others perceive him, carries with him the sadness and insecurities of failure, and the kind heart and humble persistence to keep trying to do the right thing anyway. The counterpoint is his rambunctious beagle, Snoopy (his yelps and howls voiced once again by Bill Melendez), whose rich interior life leads him on flights of fancy oblivious to the reality about him. The movie is gently structured around Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl and his attempt to find something at which he can be a winner. Big events include a Snow Day, a book report, and a school dance. A few moments find modern pop music encroaching, but it’s otherwise timeless. There’s admiration for Beethoven and Tolstoy, spoken of in worshipful tones. There’s appealing patience, and refreshing throwback appeal. The movie is low-key, loose, and episodic, comfortable in every way.

This is all utterly charming, so purely moral and kind, without getting pushy about it. Other kids’ movies feel the need to get loud, to load up on innuendo for the parents and manic movements for the youngest. Luckily, there was no push to make Peanuts something it’s not. Credit source material too beautifully unique, and held in such high regard, to mess with, and a screenplay co-written by Bryan and Craig Schulz, Charles’ son and grandson, who have an interest in keeping the family legacy intact. The result is a movie that tips its hat to the old – in flashbacks and other stylized flashes rendered in lovely hand-drawn 2D fashion – and moves forward creating a warm, colorful, and precious evocation of a cartoon world that evokes childhood memories. It’s both of childhood and about childhood, which lends it such soft power amidst wonderfully funny patter and rubbery cartoon silliness.

It’s a deep and true comfort to be back in the primary-color world of the Peanuts characters, a midcentury Anytown, U.S.A. with ice skating in the park, square red dog houses, trees entangled with lost kites, and kids left free to wander and play at their leisure when school’s dismissed for the day. The adults, of course, are unseen on the margins of such a childhood, heard only through the wah-wahs of Trombone Shorty. I could’ve lived in this movie for much longer than its 90 minutes. Sure, the animators take advantage of some modern tricks to visualize Snoopy’s imagination with zippy action that errs on the side of too much swooping and flowing. But he still types on a typewriter, dreams of World War I, and teases the little yellow bird, Woodstock. And the kids still play and dream, fight and make up, have mock versions of adult foibles (complete with Psychiatric Help for a nickel) that are no less real for being felt by small beings, the weight of possibility and expectation hanging over carefree unstructured juvenile time.

What’s so continually wonderful about the movie is finding these pleasures surviving modern gloss, a big production in touch with its heartening smallness. No less than Umberto Eco, writing about the comic strip, praised its “continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.” Peanuts, he wrote, “charms both sophisticated adults and children with equal intensity, as if each reader found there something for himself, and it is always the same thing, to be enjoyed in two different keys.” And to think a 3D CGI Hollywood remake could capture these qualities with such graceful melancholy. When poor, awkward, intensely sympathetic Charlie Brown is at last allowed a small victory, the bloom of self-confidence is more triumphant than any number of save-the-world epics. Here is a family film so sophisticated in its simplicity, so direct and immediate in its laughs and its sentiment, it could charm any age without leaving any open mind insulted.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Live and Let Bond: SPECTRE


For all their reliably repeated elements – tailored suits, tricky gadgets, glamorous women, outlandish villains, M, Q, and Moneypenny – the oft-rebooted James Bond movies are one of our culture’s most reliable barometers. (Or should I say they are reliable cultural dipsticks, a more fittingly utilitarian and phallic metaphor?) The series is awfully good, for better and worse, at reading the zeitgeist’s mood and reflecting our current storytelling obsessions back at us. That’s evident in Spectre, the fourth to feature Daniel Craig as 007. His decidedly post-9/11 entries have viewed geopolitical dangers with dread and a greater interest in personal demons, threats in the business of wounding a more human Bond more closely. This latest one pushes further into the postmodern blockbuster’s main interests: being grim and dark, obsessed with backstory, and paranoid about surveillance but ambivalent about its necessity. And yet director Sam Mendes, returning from the last, terrific entry, continues to find a way to make a film both derivatively modern and classically Bond. It’s a tough balance, but he mostly pulls it off.

From the opening shot – a long, unbroken one dancing through a crowded festival, into a hotel, up an elevator, out a window, over a ledge, and across some roofs – it’s clear Mendes knows great cinematography can be as good as any dazzling special effect. With Hoyte Van Hoytema behind the camera (he who is responsible for the austere beauty of films like Interstellar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Let the Right One In), Mendes crafts a movie with not a single misjudged image. (Call it cinema du “One Perfect Shot.”) The movie globetrots with Bond as he follows a series of clues on the trail of a mysterious villainous organization. Each stop is appealingly photographed, exquisite in its rendering of bright snow, crackling desert expanses, warm Italian villas, and chilly grey London streets. Handsome, expertly constructed frames find silhouettes and reflections, smooth glass and flickering flames. The movie is as well put together and aesthetically pleasing as a luxury car, a perfectly fitted tux, or a supermodel in high-fashion attire.

The look is all well and good, but what’s happening in this artful design? Well, it’s more or less a typical Bond film, but with its recent tonal habit of sustained seriousness. The super-spy is suave and flirtatious. His boss (Ralph Fiennes), assistant (Naomie Harris), and gadget supplier (Ben Whishaw) are alternately impressed and exasperated by his antics. A slimy villain (Christoph Waltz) hides in the shadows, pulling strings on an elaborate megalomaniacal plan. The antagonist’s brutish henchman (Dave Bautista) is lurking around every other corner. And two beautiful women (Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci) are tough, hold valuable information, and want nothing to do with Bond until he proves just too irresistible to not make out with for a bit. The plot develops in a controlled, subdued manner, the better to hide the grinding formula, I suppose. When the action arrives, it’s tough and smashing, flipping helicopters, flinging cars, smashing planes, and exploding buildings. The best is a close quarters hand-to-hand fight aboard a train, echoes of From Russia with Love.

It’s built around a need to draw connections, not just to traditional Bond elements, but most obviously to Craig’s previous outings. The screenplay (credited to John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth) brings back a character from Quantum of Solace (Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White), references the events of Skyfall (Judi Dench briefly appears in a message from beyond the spoiler), and alludes to Casino Royale’s villains. This is supposed to make its conspiracy-minded plot more impactful because we can recognize threads from the last few Bond films. I like it in theory, but in practice it’s muddy and forced, full of loose ends and plot holes. Besides, it puts too much faith in Bond as a character instead of a construct. It’s one thing to groove on the franchise’s persona. It’s another thing entirely to care about James Bond the man, especially when there’s not a lot of evidence pointing to characterization worth caring about.

Craig’s Bond is best at projecting unflappable competence and wounded backstory while never dropping the strong mostly silent type act. The movie’s at its best when it sends him hurtling into wordless action – it’s unfailingly sharply staged and thrillingly paced – or poses him in attractive tableaus against striking scenery and painterly light and shadow. There’s not much depth here, which makes it hard to care when the movie pretends there is. The characters, though inhabited by great actors, are ultimately nothing more than sparsely developed types. And the political interests are strictly unserious despite the gravity with which it frets over the double-oh’s future in the face of a digital dragnet, amounting to nothing more than an argument for ditching cold computerized snooping in favor of artisanal spying. And yet, for all two-plus hours, it basically works. The look is impressive, and it slides along seductively enough on expert craftsmanship. As a delivery device for slick surfaces and fun setpieces, Mendes and crew give you your money’s worth.

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