Friday, March 25, 2016

Whoever Wins, We Lose:
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE


Having seen 2013’s Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot which was a serviceable origin story retelling until it exploded in monotonous tone-deaf city-smashing, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as punishing as its title is unwieldy. It’s another of Snyder’s dunderheaded epics of missing the point, a gleaming picture of dour comic book tableaus pre-digested with little regard for meaning, stripped of whatever power they once had, and weighed down by the burden of a visually overdetermined and thematically indigestible form. Overstuffed with empty calories, every so often the lumpy mass chokes up ideas so thoughtless and virulently stupid I couldn’t help but wonder if it was subliminally disgorged from the ugliest corners of our national id. After all, this is a movie about a noble extraterrestrial savior and a tortured crimefighter and the best it can think to do is contrive reasons for them to scowl as they go about representing the mindset of anyone whose first response to reasonable disagreement is to punch it in the face.

The story finds Superman (Henry Cavill) a divisive figure. He smashed up Metropolis pretty good in the last movie, ostensibly in the process of saving it, but with the unintended consequence of inflicting a 9/11-scale disaster on every other block. That understandably made a few people mad. Some, like a Senator (Holly Hunter, underutilized) whose logical concern is treated as mildly treacherous, want to constrain his power. Others, like Batman (Ben Affleck, growling with brooding trauma), whose alter-ego’s Wayne Enterprises had a skyscraper caught in the fracas, plot to bring him punishment for his otherworldly strength and its potential bad consequences. Still others, like villain Lex Luthor (played as a squirrely sociopathic tech bro by Jesse Eisenberg), want to contrive a reason to something something Kryptonite. It’s all of a piece with an intent to image a worst-case scenario superhero world, in which they’re lawless self-righteous power-mad vigilantes viewed with suspicion, fear, and worship, and who nonetheless must muster the energy to save the planet.

That’s not necessarily a bad idea. A real Superman would indeed be a scary thing, a man who could not be controlled by any earthly authority if he so chose. We’re lucky he mostly wants to do the right thing. But in Snyder’s vision, this becomes a troublingly muddled mess. It presents a Superman weirdly uncharacterized, and mostly motivated by his desire to save his mother, Ma Kent (Diane Lane), and his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). He’s not much of an altruist, aside from a few token saves, and certainly lives up to the suspicion he’s under. He acts with impunity, and on a whim. As for Batman, here he’s a violent bruiser, killing waves of faceless criminals by gun, by car, by plane, and by hand in bone-crunching rounds of savagery, then branding his logo onto the survivors. Ouch. This is bleak, grim nihilism, a film in which superpowers are real, but the idea of heroes is foreign. At one point Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) snaps: “The American conscience died...”

Snyder, with a script by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity), is channeling the trend begun in 80’s and 90’s comics that mistook a dim, darkly lit, and violent vision for an interesting, realistic, and meaningful one. Here’s a movie convinced its unremitting cruelty and cheap cynicism adds up to ideas of any import. It’s just deadening and uncomfortable, with pessimism and nastiness so garbled it comes out sounding downright fascist. It makes its heroes monsters to be feared, and then forces us to look up to them anyway. Its world is better off without them – every outlandish conflict is a direct result of their actions – but we’re to root for their demagogic unilateralism, to let them run rampant because only they have the super-strength to strong-arm their way to a victory. And if a certain number of mere mortals have to be obliterated in the name of their idea of justice, so be it.

The film traffics in images of terror. One scene finds a suicide bomber detonating in slow motion, the flames billowing out. The movie is bookended by buildings collapsing and filling the streets of a major east coast city with smoke and debris while citizens flee. An early inciting incident is a chaotic ambush in an African outpost used for political power plays in Congress. Snyder injects these unmistakable real-world associations into the film to goose its power, and to lend borrowed gravity to the story of two superheroes deciding to fight each other to prove…something. It’s borderline irresponsible, especially as he uses these spectacles of terror to excuse their actions, to argue for the justification of these men serving as their own judges, juries, and executioners. And every character who expresses reasonable objections is met with death, usually at the hands of this threat, as if to say they got what was coming to them for daring to want limits on these God-like super-people.

So it’s not much fun for most of the 151-minute runtime. It’s a slog, not just for its heavy (and heavy-handed) mood, but also for its straining and monotonous graveness. It grinds good performers under its demands, sapping Cavill and Affleck of charisma, turning Adams and Lane into damsels in distress, and leaving everyone else, including Jeremy Irons as faithful butler Alfred, trying to coax life into turgid exposition. When not going through its over-extended plodding plot, it’s mostly a cavalcade of seeds for future sequels and spin-offs, bringing in Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for a mostly blank glorified cameo, the worst of which finds her in front of a computer essentially watching three teasers for upcoming projects. Or maybe it’s the upskirt flash that’s the nadir of the movie’s insistence on turning every woman into a pawn to be trapped – one maternal figure is gagged and bound in sadistic Polaroid’s – or, failing that, sexualized. It’s dismaying, just another reason I found the whole desensitized thing exhausting and tiresome, from its opening repeat of the Wayne deaths to an ersatz King Kong restaging followed by a hero getting nuked in the face.

This is a technically proficient blockbuster insisting on loudly thundering down the wrong road at every turn, ponderously bringing flights of fancy to overblown heights and down to reductive muck. With the whole history of these iconic larger-than-life characters to play with, there’s nothing more imaginative here than having one of them trying to hit the other over the head with, say, a porcelain sink. Still, it’s best when mind-numbing, in long sequences of concussive fantasy fight night or bonkers nightmare sequences, for at least that’s a break from its maddening point of view. Built from mythic and resonant components made curdled and rotten, its characters are meant to save us, but are indifferent to the suffering in their wake. Neither red-blooded adventure nor sharp auto-critique, it’s content to be ugly and cacophonous, the sights and sounds of this approach to the genre wrung-out and dying before our eyes.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

I Know You Are, But What Am I? PEE-WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY


Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman surely belongs on the short list of iconic comedy creations, right up there with Buster Keaton and Chaplin’s Tramp, the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges, W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello. You know exactly what you’re getting the instant any one of those people step on screen, which exact brand of anarchy, slapstick, and wordplay they have at their command. So it is with Pee-wee, whose close-fitting gray suit, dopey bowtie, slicked-back hair, honking laugh, and flailing limbs indicate a creepy innocence and ageless out-of-time contentment. He lives a Rube Goldberg machine life, one elaborate contraption and lucky happenstance at a time. His closest fictional relative would have to be SpongeBob, a similarly cartoonish childlike optimist eager to help his pals and have a good time while able to shake off bizarre setbacks with minimal fuss. We haven’t seen Pee-wee in quite some time. With the exception of a recent Broadway stint he’s been gone since 1988. The novelty of his reappearance goes a long way in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. It’s nice to see him.

At the movie’s start Pee-wee, appearing eerily unchanged, is in a rut. He moves through an idealized town, which looks like a Pleasantville frozen in the 50s, greeting the same stereotypical townspeople in the same ways every day. He’s can’t even bring himself to dream about leaving town. I’m not sure why the movie forgets about Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the 1985 Tim Burton film of the same name, but maybe it’s so we’re not reminded about that much better effort as this new one proceeds to lift the episodic road trip structure from it. So Pee-wee’s caught in a safe, comfortable, repetitive structure that’s broken when a cool guy (Joe Manganiello, playing a version of himself) rides into town on a motorcycle and quickly becomes his new best friend. Alas, Joe has to be going, but not before inviting Pee-wee to meet him in New York City for his upcoming birthday party. Hooray! It’s a road trip for Pee-wee, who abruptly quits his job in a diner (a la SpongeBob) and ambles east in his quirkiest, most whimsical way.

The journey goes all kinds of wrong, the screenplay by Reubens and Paul Rust leaving Pee-wee stranded repeatedly as he bounces from one eccentric stop to the next. He has run-ins with all manner of goofy characters, alternately vaguely menacing and gently off, including a gang of robber gals dressed like they’ve come from one of Russ Meyer’s tamer picture, a woodsman, Amish villagers, and a farmer desperate to marry off one of his nine overeager grown daughters. Some of these interludes are funnier than others, an uneven collection of sketches Pee-wee wanders into for a time before moving on, hoping he can make it to the birthday party on time. Overseeing the proceedings is John Lee, making his feature debut. He’s been a director on all sorts of TV comedy, from Wonder Showzen to Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, so he knows his way around building scenarios to best show off a comedian’s personality, skills, interests, and sense of timing. You can’t look at Pee-wee’s Big Holiday without admitting you’re seeing pure unadulterated ideas from Herman’s head.

Brightly lit and flatly staged, the whole thing is deeply frivolous, more enjoyable the more it sticks closely to a breezy effortless silliness. But it’s also clear Pee-wee works better when he has a collaborator instead of an enabler. Its format of loosely connected vignettes never quite builds or escalates like Burton’s film does; Lee is simply letting the gently surreal moments happen. Where Big Adventure knocks about with a vibrant imagination, Big Holiday simply ambles along from one mildly off-kilter peculiar scenario to the next. Still, it’s enough of a pleasant diversion to simply be back in the company of this oddball that by the time the deflation of the pokey and uneven qualities start to sink in it’s already well on its way to a conclusion. Sometimes very funny, it may not add up to much of a movie, but as a patchy excuse to see Reubens in action as his most notable character again, it’s not so bad.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Diversion: THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT


Blandly proficient brand extension, The Divergent Series: Allegiant was presumably made because they’d already made two of them and there was one more book in the YA series by Veronica Roth. The predecessors didn’t flop, so why not? It even splits that final book in two, pushing the back half to another film to be released next year sometime. Hey, Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games did it. Since The Divergent Series was already an amalgamated knockoff of every other teen-centric genre franchise, why not copy them right down to the money-grabbing two-part finale? The trouble is it’s not nearly as imaginative or interesting as its inspirations. A calculating lack of passion bleeds into every frame of the film, in which a talented cast and crew are here mostly because they’ve already signed the contracts, enacting a remarkably uneventful story somehow swollen to 121 empty minutes.

As the movie starts, the previous movies’ routine teen dystopia, a crumbling far-future Chicago, once made up of a populace divided into temperament- and talent-based factions, has collapsed. The very special person at the center of the collapse is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who fought off mean Kate Winslet’s efforts to take over the city. Now, though, a new leader (Naomi Watts) is determined to reshape the populace under her control, installing puppet courts and whipping her followers into a frenzy with wild prejudice and violent impulses. “You’ve incited a mob. I hope you can control it,” says her son, who also happens to be Tris’s lover (Theo James). Together the tough lovebirds – along with returning cast members Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Zoë Kravitz, and Maggie Q – decide to flee the deteriorating society and jump over the gigantic wall into the wild unknown, leaving poor Octavia Spencer behind to deal with the trouble they started.

Considering that each of these movies so far has ended by intimating that we were going over that wall, it’s about time. Once they get there they find a muddy red desert where in our world is Lake Michigan. They wander around just long enough to give Elgort the chance to stare dumbly at a bubbly puddle and utter the following line: “This hole looks radioactive, or it was some time in the last 200 years.” I wrote that down immediately, relishing its pulpy sci-fi nonsense. Anyway, the teens end up getting taken to a gleaming grey-and-white futurist building which a man in a suit (Jeff Daniels) tells them was once O’Hare International Airport. Why that should be a detail worth telling to these future kids is beyond me. They don’t know what that is. In this future world it’s the home of a militarized band of scientists who confess that Chicago and its factions are really their experiment to see if they can undo humanity’s downfall: customized genes. It’s not exactly the most thrillingly examined idea.

It all turns out to be a nefarious set-up by which genetically perfect people want to keep the damaged dopes locked away in city-sized labs. Obviously Tris won’t have any of this and, after well over an hour spent wandering around this dully-developed new location, finally decides to do something about it. Screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage glumly hit all the expected bits of a film like this in a creakingly mercenary, sparsely developed plot. The arc of each of these Divergents is identical. An evil adult has bland middle-management style and a plan to wipe out her or his inferiors, while Tris slowly learns that she’s not only special and the only one who can save the world, but she’s even more perfect than she’d last been told. This all happens while pretty people stomp around anonymous sets – warehouses, mostly – and interact with flavorless effects, trading clunking dialogue and staring at each other with what I can only assume is a mixture of boredom and brooding.

Director Robert Schwentke returns from the last time, still happy to merely keep things brightly lit and occasionally move the camera in surprising ways. He finds a few interesting images, throwing in some unexpected split focus diopter shots early on, filming a decontamination room in inky silhouettes, and visualizing the effects of a memory-wiping mist by making a man’s recollections float next to him while slowly burning away. But mostly he just dutifully watches what has to be one of the most bored casts I’ve ever seen sleepwalk through endless exposition and fuzzy motivation. During a scene in which the teens catch a ride to future-O’Hare in glowing bubbles, Teller gapes at a CGI spire and gasps the least convincing “gadzooks” you’ll ever hear. (Really.) Later a pro forma dogfight of sorts is accompanied by lackluster shouts and screams from the leads, sounding like completely nonplussed theme park patrons trying to whip up their enthusiasm for an underwhelming roller coaster’s dips and swerves. There’s so little going on here, just charismatic performers resigning themselves to the lifeless nonsense around them.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

In the Cards: KNIGHT OF CUPS


I always leave a Terrence Malick film with my mind still cloudy with its cadence, and my eyes seeing the world more closely. He’s always been a poetic filmmaker, prone to gliding away from obvious plot progression through visual metaphor and a roaming curiosity for finding the beauty, the sublime, in any given moment. Lately, though, he’s been drifting further away from narrative. Where once his artful and spiritual approach was tied to the likes of a World War II film (The Thin Red Line) or a tale of colonial America (The New World), he now digs into his character’s minds with increasingly elliptical and empathetic discursiveness. He builds repeating patterns of images and rhyming, rhythmic, trance-like editing. Through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and now his latest, Knight of Cups, he’s been drawn to similar images: beatific but sad women, stern fathers, people running barefoot on wet sand, hands gliding along surfaces smooth (stone, sheets, running water, skin) and textured (hair, grass, leaves). Does he repeat himself? Very well, then he repeats himself.

In Knight of Cups story and character are gathered only in flashes, flowing forth not in scenes but in impressions, moods, juxtapositions. Malick’s recurring images are the only entry point, and as a result it continues his trend toward gradually more obscurant and opaque films, increasingly alienating for anyone who can’t quite get on his wavelength or forgo skepticism about the sincerity of his intentions. But there’s real meditative, contemplative power for those of us who can. This new film stars Christian Bale as a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter wandering through a womanizing, glamorous life in Los Angeles. But this is no hectic star-struck satire. Malick takes his style and approach to urban environs for the first time, but finds the intimate and the natural growing through. Every woman the man interacts with gets taken to the beach and cavorts in the puddles and waves. Gardens and boulevards express themselves through concrete and surround glassy mansions. One cameo-stuffed sequence finds a party in a palatial mansion, but Malick’s eye is often drawn to the mountains beyond.

This is an ethereal and spiritual story of a man who feels hollow, who tries to fill the void with women (a terrific lineup: Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer), with family (a deadbeat brother, Wes Bentley; an imposing father, Brian Dennehy; a warm mother, Cherry Jones), with nature, with religion (a priest played by Armin Mueller-Stahl). But he can’t quite make the pieces fit. He’s a pilgrim without progress (the first voice we hear is Ben Kingsley reading from John Bunyan’s 1678 text), going through the motions. Not even an earthquake or a robbery can shake him from his haze of disaffected yearning. He wants to be made whole, and yet can’t figure out how to fill the missing parts of his soul. There’s a solemn sadness to the film’s hovering beauty, Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous camera breathing and moving on a plane of enlightenment the character can’t. It floats, slowly tracking or pushing, distracted by beauty all around. It follows a stream of consciousness, of memory, poetic associations, intuitive connections, casual and tactile expressions of faith and philosophy.

Bale walks along empty beaches and vacant backlots, stands stranded in the desert, sees homeless and hurting people on sidewalks and in clinics, hobnobs with Hollywood elites, rolls about with lithe naked women, sinks into pools. He’s drifting through experiences, part of them without being a part. Tarot cards, agents, parents, lovers, all have advice to impart about what gives life meaning. Each person - a talented cast posing and maneuvering, each bringing a different flavor and tone into the mix - has an effect on him. And yet there are no direct dialogue exchanges of any import as scenes slide and collide, linger on silences and flow with wall-to-wall impassioned murmuring voice over and classical music cut with bits of score and rock. The film is a fog, rootless, directionless, adding up to great meaning that the character can’t access. Strangely, this walls off the audience at times. I felt its yearning for completion, was often moved by it, and still had moments when I stared at the screen in befuddlement as images collected while only occasionally connecting.

Perhaps the key to unlocking this entrancing, beguiling, beautiful mystery of a film comes when Bale imagines (or is it actually happening?) a rooftop confrontation with his stubborn but frail father. The old man laments that he thought as he aged everything about life would begin to make sense, but instead he’s sad to find nothing but a confusing tangle of messy memories. The film finds moments of intense emotional drama and thoroughly somnambulant despair, holding them both at the same remove, behind artful glass and sacred aloofness. Moments of pain and moments of grace are swallowed up by the character’s depression and the film’s interest in turning his distress into beautiful suffering. It all adds up to a heavy spell I’ve found hard to shake, even as my mind struggled in the moment and afterwards to puzzle through its throughlines. This isn’t one of Malick’s best efforts, lacking his usual intuitiveness in its progression, but that’s mostly due to how closed off it feels. I get the sense this is intensely personal, a movie dragged kicking and screaming out of his innermost being and now sits there vulnerable and foreboding, full of raw spiritual power.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Room with a Clue: 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE


John Carpenter initially thought his classic horror film Halloween could become a series of otherwise unconnected horror stories set around the eponymous holiday. Alas, Michael Myers proved too popular, and the one time that long-running property tried out the stand-alone idea (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) didn’t work out well enough to try again. But if you’ve been hoping someone else would take that great idea for a unique spin on franchise filmmaking and try it out, you’re in luck. J.J. Abrams and his production company Bad Robot have sprung a surprise on us. With the title of Matt Reeves’ great 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield in its name, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a stand-alone thriller only similar in that it’s built around a small-scale high-concept executed with simple and engaging plotting. If the Cloverfield brand will continue and become synonymous with cheap, resourceful, and entertaining sci-fi tinged tension, then, based on the evidence at hand, count me in.

The setup is this. A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) crashes her car in the middle of nowhere and wakes up chained to a makeshift hospital bed in what appears to be an empty anonymous basement (and with no reception, naturally). Soon an imposing older man (John Goodman) walks in. He’s her captor and self-appointed caretaker, intimidating and odd even before he informs her that he’s also her savior. You see, they’re in his doomsday bunker. He claims to have snatched her from the wreckage of her accident and allowed her to stay with him, locked away from a world that has fallen into radioactive or biological warfare, or maybe both. She’s not so sure he’s right, and even when the bunker’s other occupant, a nice young man (John Gallagher Jr.), corroborates the story, she’s still not so sure what’s going on. The good thing is the audience doesn’t know either. What follows is a measured mind game as the woman attempts to discover the truthfulness of her situation. Best-case scenario: a madman prepper has kidnapped her. Worst-case scenario: it really is the end of the world.

With a hook so intriguing, and a three-person cast of uniform excellence, the movie would be foolish to let all that go to waste. In its tiny setting, impeccably set-designed with rows of nonperishable food items, incongruously homey placemats and knickknacks, and bookcases overflowing with Tom Clancy novels (a low-key funny touch), the three characters maneuver around each other, pressing advantages, keeping secrets, and jockeying for power. Can we trust anyone? What are their motives? And what’s really outside? The answers are slyly and slowly teased out by screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, relative newcomers, with Damien Chazelle, an Oscar nominee for Whiplash, although this is closer in tone to his script for the pianist-held-hostage-mid-concert thriller Grand Piano. Director Dan Trachtenberg makes a slick, competent debut – a fan film based on the video game Portal was the most prominent item on his résumé before this – by letting his craft play subtly while trusting the writing, the mystery, and the cast to carry the picture.

A reasonably clever claustrophobic thriller – it’s practically an inadvertent B-movie echo of Room – 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its time, bit by bit building the setups for a string of payoffs. It earns this patience by sticking so closely to a sympathetic performance by Winstead. We don’t know much about the character and don’t learn much more, but she brings such an innately appealing presence, warm and capable, smart and scared, that it’d be difficult not to care about her suffering. Add to that a sweetly odd Gallagher Jr. and a simmering, unpredictable Goodman (a convincing, human-scale monster) you’re looking at a trio of fine actors who build a fine, prickly atmosphere on which Trachtenberg can hang the film’s deliberate escalation of unease and suspense. It’s a sturdy guessing game making for an entertaining 95 minutes or so, deflating only in its disappointing conclusion, which goes about 10 minutes further, explaining away ambiguities with overly literal and predictable action, effects, and unsatisfying late breaking twists. Even so, for a modest feature of chills and thrills, it’s a passably good time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Behind the Screens: TRICKED


Tricked, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s new film (relatively speaking, since it first debuted in the Netherlands in 2012, played Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, and has only just recently trickled out in limited release and on VOD here in the States), is a better thought experiment than a feature. It’s a film in two parts. First we’re presented with a 34-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. As far as I know, this is the first movie to start with its own making-of documentary short. Then comes the main attraction, around 50 minutes of bouncy dark farce cut from fine-sliced sleaze. I get that it would be on the short side for a feature, and therefore is padded out to a more manageable 85 minutes so the audience feels like it’s getting its money’s worth. But starting the show with a lengthy peek behind the curtain gets things going on the wrong foot, as if making excuses for itself. The movie opens by begging. Go easy on us. Look what we had to work with.

Indeed the making of Tricked is of some note, and worth having for contextualizing purposes. Verhoeven, who had some hits in his homeland before arriving in Hollywood in the mid-80s for one of the most iconic and productive decades any filmmaker has ever had (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers), hadn’t made a feature since 2006’s Black Book, his highly anticipated return to Europe. This latest attempt opens with him explaining his theory that “the unknown forces you to be creative.” He’d taken time off. He wanted to know he could still get behind the camera and test his creative impulses. And it never hurts to try new things. So he came up with an unusual idea: a user-generated film. Working with screenwriter Kim van Kooten, he had 4 polished pages of script to post online, inviting anyone to write the next few pages. He repeated this process, selecting and editing pages for the next minutes from a huge stack of submissions, then posting for more input over and over until he had enough for the film that follows the introductory doc.

You’d think stopping and starting, crowdsourcing every few pages, would result in a halting, disorderly film. It threatens to go that way, as the project’s unwieldy amount of submissions frustrates him. The second four-minute chunk alone gets 700. This could easily end up taking the narrative Verhoeven and Van Kooten started in aimless and nonsensical directions. But he devises a way to regain a modicum of control, and the actors enjoy the thrill of collaborative unpredictability. While it is certainly nice to see a great filmmaker struggle with constraints he’s placed on himself, it’s not all that interesting to see before the feature at hand. Once the film proper begins, I found myself idly looking for the seams in the story, and, as I discovered instead a rather fluid and neatly handled riff on typical Verhoeven obsessions, I shifted my attention to auteurism. Does it become a Verhoeven film through his directorial hand, or did the crowd’s ideas for a Verhoeven project average out to the real thing?

Either way, the final product, once we finally get there, is a slight and thin little thing, albeit with a certain small charm, especially for fans of its auteur. A game cast (Peter Blok, Robert de Hoog, Sallie Harmsen, Gaite Jansen, Ricky Koole, Carolien Spoor, and others with just as wonderfully Dutch names) acts out a scenario rife with sexual gamesmanship, affairs, blackmail, deception, economic intrigue, technology, corporate malfeasance, and fraud. In other words it’s a Verhoeven picture, in love with its sleazy melodrama used to scrape out bourgeois pretensions and mores. It starts at a businessman’s 50th birthday party and ends up with hotel room trysts, boardroom trickery, and wronged women getting in prefect positions to have the last laugh. There’s not much beneath the surface, but Verhoeven fans can groove on its echoes of his usual tones and modes, remembering how they played out in his better, fuller films.

It’s all in good fun, and Verhoeven doesn’t lose a step in deploying the developments with verve. Shot in bright, clean photography and casual framing, it doesn’t leave much room for his energetic virtuosity. This is a small, contained, and unassuming picture, twisted up with just enough plot trickery to last its short runtime. That’s not to say it’s without appealing moments. The cast is amusing and committed, and there are a few sudden surprise developments. It’s the sort of movie that follows a Polaroid nude on an unexpected trajectory, then later turns on a bloody tampon in a toilet, and, later still, a sudden stabbing, key clues unveiled with sudden matter-of-fact camera restraint, shocking for nonchalant presentation. But despite such mild engaging interest, the picture mostly plays out like a featherlight doodle, a master filmmaker simply stretching his creative muscles. He’s still got it. Maybe next time he can do more.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Animal Control: ZOOTOPIA


The most stirring, imaginative, tightly plotted, and politically engaged cop movie in years is also Disney’s newest animated film. Zootopia is among their best work: a spirited and emotional cartoon driven by charm and style, with lovely design and impressive technology put to use for an entirely satisfying story doing double duty as a winning allegory. It’s a most pleasant surprise, single-handedly recovering two tired genres: the anthropomorphic animal comedy and the police thriller. For the former it takes the snark and laziness out of a tired CG family film formula, and for the latter it retrieves the humanity from a collection of clichés. It’s everything family entertainment should be, a widely appealing all-ages crowd-pleaser, inventive and delightful, but unafraid to confront important issues and impart virtuous lessons without becoming condescending or cloying. This is a wonderful movie.

It takes place in a world exactly like ours transmogrified into a society of anthropomorphized animals living in a post-predator/prey utopia. Or so they think. Carnivores and herbivores live side-by-side in relative peace, going about their days like we do, wearing clothes, going to work, staring at smart phones, browsing shops, driving cars, eating out, listening to pop music, and so on. (I assume they’re all vegan.) We meet Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, chipper and loveably bubbly) a brave, energetic, and optimistic young bunny who moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a police officer, despite prejudice against her meek and agrarian species. She’d be the first rabbit officer in Zootopia’s history. She’s excited to dream big and try hard no matter what, kissing her sweet farmer folks (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) goodbye and heading to a bustling metropolis like something out of a Richard Scarry tableau. Once there, she’s disappointed to be stuck patrolling parking meters while the bigger, scarier animals – elephants, bears, rhinos – get to do the important work. It’s a world full of bias and discrimination, and it’s allowed to hurt, and frustrate.

She gets a lucky break when her literally and figuratively bullheaded boss (Idris Elba), eager to get rid of what he sees as an annoying diversity hire, gives her 48 hours to solve a missing mammal case that’s baffled his veteran officers for weeks. Her only lead: a sly con man fox (Jason Bateman, brash sarcasm barely covering core decency) who may be able to help her navigate the city’s shadier corners. The movie becomes a terrific detective story as the reluctant mismatched partners, with a delightfully prickly rapport, attempt to unravel the mystery plaguing Zootopia. Along the way they pick up clues and informants and encounter a wide range of characters across all social groups, like a zen naturist yak (Tommy Chong), a weaselly criminal (Alan Tudyk), a rodent gangster (Maurice LaMarche), a meek sheep (Jenny Slate), and the commanding lion mayor (J.K. Simmons). The engaging mystery is full of genuine danger, suspense, and surprises. No cartoon violence here; when, say, a panther leaps in rage at our protagonists, slipping on the edge of a cliff, it’s as exciting and involving as any live action thriller.

Part of its thrill comes from the totally convincing sense of fantastical place. Zootopia is a fully developed city, so much so that watching the film hurtle through its neighborhoods feels like visiting a completely thought-through world. Disney’s animators bring it to brilliantly realized life, having figured out a way to make a metropolis convincingly populated by both giraffes and hamsters, hippos and mice. There are tiny neighborhoods for rats and massive structures for elephants, ice-cold mountains for polar bears and sweltering valleys for camels. Structures have tiny doors for teeny critters and massive entrances for lumbering beasts. It’s a vibrant, colorful, warm place dense with creative energy and detailed design, with puns and winks referencing our world without going overboard. There’s a sense you could turn a corner away from the scene at hand and stumble into another fully functioning aspect of animal society elsewhere. And the characters involved are expertly animated expressive creatures covered in dazzling textures (the fuzziest luxurious fur!) and imbued with nuanced vocal performances, humane even, with inner lives and their own points of view.

It’s not a movie that dawdles through its worldbuilding, though. It uses this bounty of imagination to bolster a genre narrative that’s zippy and appealing. It’s cute, bright, and exciting, an involving story happening to characters whose feelings are rich and vividly drawn. We follow the bunny and the fox (squint a little and it’s Thumper and Robin Hood) through chases and close calls, dramatic twists, and sweetly developing friendship. They’re adorable and relatable, quick witted and great company. And the script is nicely structured with payoffs to every setup. The movie finds great fun and emotion even as it pushes further into its implications. Lots of Disney’s best behind the scenes talent, responsible for many of their best recent efforts – directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), co-writing with Phil Johnston (also Ralph), Jennifer Lee (Frozen), and Jared Bush – find nuance in approaching the characters from compassionate angles, allowing our initial assumptions about them to be overturned in smart, natural ways.

It’s a fine allegory for identity politics, teased out in surprisingly nuanced, thoughtful scenes in which characters deal with bullying and confusion that stings. Each in the duo is given a childhood memory – an origin for confronting prejudice that’s seared with pain on their developing minds, and becomes a fulcrum deciding their future. The solution to their conflict sits with their ability to slowly recognize this and strive for a productive balance between naivety and cynicism. Of course, you can’t make species and race a 1:1 comparison. The first is classification, the second is a construct, and these evolved animals have long-buried predator/prey instincts we don’t within the human race. But as a safe funhouse mirror through which to view the impact of discrimination, it’s potent. And yet none of this design or messaging gets in the way of a whip-smart and endlessly entertaining romp. It’s light on its feet, but weighty where it matters. The movie forcefully and comfortably celebrates leaving space to allow every creature to surprise you, and has a steadfast faith in your species not determining your character.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Foreign Correspondent: WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT


If you believe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot it’s a miracle we’ve had any coherent reporting out of the war in Afghanistan. It’s a movie singularly focused on a group of correspondents living in a chaotic Kabul from 2003 to 2006. They drink, flirt, party, hook up, jockey for airtime and sources, and then occasionally ride out into danger with American troops. What work they accomplish seems to happen in quick bursts, often almost accidentally, between bouts of fear, discomfort, violence, and gallows humor. It’s a mess. The movie follows suit as a lumpy, misshapen thing, a real quagmire that blunders in with good intentions then bides its time getting more complicated until, suddenly, it withdraws. It is more concerned with a perspective of fish-out-of-water befuddlement than contextualizing its sights and events. It hopes you already know a little about the conflict, and are interested in seeing it from an off-center angle.

Taking the real story of reporter Kim Barker as its inspiration, the movie stars Tina Fey as a woman stuck writing up boring stories in a dull office who jumps at the chance to head off to Afghanistan and get her boots on the ground. She thinks it’ll be a fun change of pace, but the longer she stays the more she finds herself addicted to the frenzied and unpredictable lifestyle. She finds it’s much better than her life back home, with a sad desk job and a boring boyfriend (Josh Charles). She’s the fish out of water who discovers she’s wanted to run this sort of terrain all her life and didn’t even know it. There’s an Oprah-ready quality to the cliché self-actualization here, but this story of a middle-aged woman who gets her groove back by succumbing to her inner adrenaline junkie is no Eat Pray Love. It’s sharper, and edgier, just as likely to draw blood as to shout raunchy sarcasm, or stare contemplatively and uncomprehendingly at some aspect of Afghan life, which remains closed off to characters who are theoretically there to make sense of it for the rest of us.

Screenwriter Robert Carlock (a longtime Fey collaborator, from SNL to 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) conceives the piece with a seesawing tone, wobbling between serious-minded comedy and irreverent drama. It’s never more than mildly amusing, and the dread never quite lands either. But they try. There are scenes of tragic drone strikes played for straight-faced horror, a daring night raid undercut by a Harry Nilsson needle drop, and sudden outbursts of ordnance interrupting all sorts of activities. Fey heads out with troops led by a gruff, dryly funny general (Billy Bob Thornton), snarks with a coarse Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman), and makes warm tentative friendship with her interpreter (Christopher Abbott) and cameraman (Nicholas Braun). This is certainly a masculine environment, into which comes an easy rapport with a radiant blonde correspondent (Margot Robbie) who takes her under her wing. Together they make a fine statement about women in the war zone workplace: underestimated, undervalued, and constantly fending off unwelcome advances.

Less a narrative, more a collection of scenes that slowly arrive at a thematically tidy endpoint, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (in a mode closer to their dark true crime comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris than their slick and smooth heist picture Focus) keep up the chaos. It’s a good way of keeping us disoriented, and then, minutes from the end, a shock to realize its become normalized in a cut back to a tranquil homeland. (That’s a pale echo of a far superior similar moment in The Hurt Locker.) They don’t go for long takes or coherent spatial geography. In fact, there’s little interest here in sketching out the geography or geopolitical facts at all. Put that with the loose structure and you get a movie that’s interested in reporters and war, but fuzzy with the specifics. And it’s this fuzziness, matched with the wobbly tone and wheel-spinning story, that ultimately sinks the film despite Fey having what is perhaps her most fitting non-TV role to date.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot treats its setting with casual disregard for understanding, coding its production design as Other, often scary. Every foreign element is shot to be as exotic, miserable, or mystifying as possible. It can’t decide whether Fey’s headscarf is a source of amusement, cultural appropriation, or social commentary. (Worse still is a sequence in which she goes undercover in full local garb, shown in billowing supermodel slow-mo while westerners smirk.) It casts several white actors to play major Afghani roles, and uses cross-cultural misunderstandings as cutesy punchlines, like when an elderly, maybe senile, villager sees an African American soldier and says, “the Russians are black now!” Maybe you could pull this off as metatextual commentary about the confusion Fey feels, but when you’re making a movie about a journalist, an aura of informal insensitivity in portraying this country is disappointing. It’s a movie that’s too fascinating in its setup to be this thin, hesitant, and unfocused in implementation.
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