Sunday, May 29, 2016

Squeak and Gibber: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS


Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to 2010’s live-action Alice in Wonderland, tasks director James Bobin (of Flight of the Conchords and the two most recent Muppets movies) with turning out imitation Tim Burton. It’s quite a task considering its predecessor was already Burton himself doing imitation Burton. (It’s easily his worst film, a few appealing grace notes in an ornately garish and dispassionate self-parody.) That Looking Glass manages to be a good movie in spots is a nice surprise. For maybe fifteen minutes total I thought Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton were on to something, finding Alice (Mia Wasikowska, never an unwelcome sight) a ships’ captain in 1875, eager to go exploring. The only problem is these real-world scenes are bookends for a whole lot of consequence-free nonsense in Wonderland taking up the bulk of the movie. Not only does every bit of the story get undone by the end, but it even rolls back some of the last one, too.

Following the template of its predecessor, this new movie follows Alice through token scenes of struggles with her real problems – this time patriarchal business snobs, revealed in a quiet funny cut to wrinkled, bearded white grumps, who can’t even begin to imagine a woman explorer – then spirits her away to Wonderland for a fantastical topsy-turvy fantasy story. There are some clever bits here and there, like a Humpty Dumpty egg rolling off a gigantic chessboard, a doorway opening onto a great height, and, nestled in a chained up grandfather clock, an enormous castle containing time’s master clock. The weirdly unpopulated realm is, however, awfully low on characters who become more than set dressing. It’s also low on conflict. The best the contractually obligated returning creatures – like Tweedledee and Tweedledumb (Matt Lucas’s face floating on enormous CGI heads), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) – can come up with is concern about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, creepy mannered gibbering passing as creativity) who has been acting strange lately. How can they tell?

It turns out the Hatter is upset by memories of his family, who were killed by the Jabberwocky controlled by the vengeful Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter). Alice is encouraged to go back in time and save the Hatter’s family. To do so, she meets Time (Sacha Baron Cohen chewing over a deliriously silly accent), a clockwork stickler for the rules of time and space. She outwits him quickly, hopping in a spinning gewgaw that allows her to sail the timeline back into the past. This initial flying spasm of effects leads to the movie’s cleverest moment as Time zips after her shouting, “You can’t win a race against time! I’m inevitable!” Later we learn he waits for no man. Also the Cheshire Cat at one point sprawls out on his shoulders and declares that he’s “on time.” You take your small delights where you can get them in a movie that has a lot of movement and noise, but short supply of actual wit or compelling curiosity. Bobin tries his best to provide vibrant colorful images, but the more they pile up the less they add up.

The stifling artificiality of the gaudy colorful sets and costumes has none of the imagination to power actual whimsy, and the plot itself is motored by the flimsiest of motivations. Who cares if Alice can take the Mad out of the Hatter? Not me. It’s not an enjoyable story to be lost in when its very mechanics operate against investment. Its best moments occur when Alice steps back into reality, her adventures in Wonderland having no bearing on the real world and never carrying enough emotional weight to represent metaphoric developments. The movie drains the beautifully logical illogic of its Lewis Carroll source through the blandness of conventional fantasy tropes, and looks all the worse for it. And the whole thing, burdened with an achingly predictable MacGuffin-based plot, is not nearly as delightful as it should be to excuse so much swirling around hither and yon across flat backdrops and Toontown sets dusted with hallucinogenic cartoon filigree. It’s just pointless, plodding gobbledygook. Nothing sticks in the brain. Nothing is worth digesting. Imagine being slowly buried alive in a bottomless vat of cotton candy.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Nope: THE DO-OVER


Has a movie star ever done less on screen than Sandler in any of his recent lackadaisical performances where he’s little more than a black hole of energy and appeal? Maybe, even after years of scraping near the bottom of the barrel with the dire likes of Grown Ups 2 and Blended, it was combined impact of the relative box office disappointment of his hard-R, but twisted funny, That’s My Boy in 2012 and the bad luck to stretch dramatic chops in two total flops, 2014’s Men Women & Children and 2015’s The Cobbler, that pushed him to do less than the bare minimum. Since then he’s slept through an action comedy (Pixels) and a western parody (The Ridiculous 6), each worse than the last. And each time around he fades under the spotlight, committing less and less to silly voices or high-concept goofiness. He lets the supporting players and desperate flop-sweat gross out gags do the heavy lifting while he appears to look forward to the next time the director calls cut so he can get on with his life.

I dutifully fired up Netflix to sample The Do-Over, the streaming service’s second film from a four-picture deal with Sandler. (Creatively it’s their worst original programming move, but since they keep the numbers secret there’s no telling if it pays off financially.) I quickly found that any attempt to write about it would be putting more thought and effort into it than anyone involved did. The story concerns two unlucky dopes (Sandler, sleepwalking, and David Spade, playing against type as a timid dummy instead of a sarcastic dummy) who fake their deaths to escape their miserable lives only to discover the plan goes awry when they end up in a conspiracy involving cancer drugs. If you think it sounds a bit more complicated than the typical Sandler material, you’d be mistaken. It’s a collection of dumb complications, sloppily plotted, lazily performed, and shot with all the flat visual interest of a stock photo with the watermark still attached. What would be worse: if Sandler has stopped trying, or if this is really the best he can do?

Why does it exist? Is it for the product placement, logos for cell phones and beers and others in a parade of brands prominently displayed? Is it to get attractive women, extras and featured performers (like Paula Patton) alike, in tight dresses, low-cut shirts, and bikinis? Is it to get Netflix to bankroll a trip? Long scenes take place on a tropical island, or in swimming pools, so it’s also another of his paid vacations with a little bit of a film shoot on the side. He’s brought along a host of his usual pals in front of the camera (Spade, Nick Swardson) and behind the scenes (director Steven Brill, veteran of Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds, lackluster comedies that seem better in retrospect compared to this).  It’s such a flaccid, baggy, boring movie, working in cameos for all sorts of people I just felt sorry for, like Kathryn Hahn, Sean Astin, Michael Chiklis, and Matt Walsh. I felt worst for the great character actor Luis Guzmán, who has an embarrassing scene involving sweaty testicles, one of many desperate R-rated jokes fruitlessly attempting to yank some life into this dud.

And then if you happen to take the story seriously for even one second, the whole thing is even worse than the lack of laughs and narrative or visual interest. It’s wrapped in toxic masculinity’s misogynistic expression, blaming the characters’ misfortunes entirely on women who exclusively wish to torment, tease, trick, and otherwise torture the men in their lives. It ends with Spade repeatedly punching a woman in the stomach while shouting, “I’m sick of women lying to me!” The whole thing’s nothing you couldn’t get if you asked a dozen of the worst commenters on a shady website to write a screenplay about how much they feel wronged by women. If out of perverse curiosity you end up watching this movie you have my condolences. To review Sandler films is too often an exercise in finding rock bottom move ever lower.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Days of Alternate Past: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE


X-Men: Apocalypse lives up to its name, putting the entire globe in jeopardy, but also proving high stakes spectacles work if you tap into the dread of them. There’s a sequence here where an all-powerful ancient superbeing launches every nuke in the world and it’s shot with such solemn gravity, taking in the faces of regular humans looking up in awe at their imminent possible demise, that it has weight and terror many films of this ilk either skip right past or take for granted. When Bryan Singer’s X-Men was released in 2000 it was considered acceptable stakes for a sci-fi action movie to merely menace a small gathering of dignitaries in New York. But recently, with movies like Batman v. Superman and the Transformers and Avengers regularly tearing up entire cities, there’s been something of a superhero stakes race, threatening ever more danger and destruction for less and less of an effect. When everything’s the end of the world, nothing is.

Now, returning for his fourth time directing this series, Singer knows every other superhero movie somehow takes outsized cataclysms and boils down to the same punching and shooting. Apocalypse understands we really want to see psychic energy swords, teleportation, shape shifting, bolts of lightening, and two telekinetic beings fighting each other on a mental battlefield. It ends with a symphony of superpowers, creatively sent into battle against others in clever combinations. And this CGI slugfest is earned by taking time to introduce its menagerie of mutants, adroitly and organically integrating a dozen or more characters, giving them each great splash page show-off moments as well as an emotional grounding for interwoven arcs. Singer crafts compelling images interested in the visceral horror and whimsical delight of having these powers, never losing sight of either’s impact on the characters in the face of glowing effects-heavy sequences.

This is all part of Singer’s approach to the X-Men, now in its ninth iteration, counting spinoffs. He set a template for the movie world of mutants trying to find acceptance and family. Saving the world is simply an outgrowth of their interpersonal dramas, calamities brought about by their angst. As this movie begins – on a reset timeline after the time-travel loop-de-loop of Days of Future Past – Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for mutants, including new students like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers, who will become Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).  Teachers include Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havoc (Lucas Till). Meanwhile, chameleon Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is running an underground rescue operation for abused or captured mutants like young teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is in hiding, living a quiet small-town life in Poland. They just want to live comfortably and secretly with their powers, and Singer, with a screenplay by Simon Kinberg, finds time to seriously consider their attempts at understanding their powers.

Alas, peace is not to be, as the aforementioned superbeing who wants to destroy the world awakens with much fanfare. He is Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac under a pile of blue makeup), the world’s first mutant, an ancient Egyptian worshiped as a God for all his wild powers, then buried comatose under a pyramid for thousands of years. When he wakes up to be the villain of this 1983-set alt-history, he wants to destroy the world, but only because he’s lashing out from jealousy and a God complex. While a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) investigating his return warns Professor X about the looming danger, Apocalypse wanders around gathering up rogue mutants for his army, using his power to tempt them to the dark side by amplifying their gifts. He finds: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), an orphan who can control the weather; Angel (Ben Hardy), a cage-fighter with an impressive wingspan; and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), a psychic with energy blades. As he picks them up, he gives them makeovers and snazzy costumes he conjures out of thin air, a neat, convenient trick.

Apocalypse – a fairly one-note villain, but at least he’s new – gains in power, eventually convincing Magneto to join his crusade to remake the world by bringing it to an end, the better to start over with proper mutant worship again. Magneto is torn between a desire to avenge his tragic past – which adds another heart-wrenching trauma early on here – and a need to prove his power and the potential for mutant dominance. He excavates his pain in a sequence at Auschwitz that’s borderline tasteless before gaining eerie pop power as the conflicted villainous man pulls the entire concentration camp apart in a cloud of debris as exorcism. Fassbender does admirable work bringing real sorrow and grief to his portrayal of Magneto, and makes it fit seamlessly into a big Hollywood sci-fi action confection in which a team of superhero teens led by a bald man in a wheelchair must stop an ancient blue God from ending humanity. Singer maintains an engaged and gripping thriller pace slowly drawing many strands together to the inevitable climactic conflagration.

It sounds complicated, bringing so many characters together and sending them into conflict with each other in a tone that’s both gravely serious and goofy fluff. But Singer pulls off this balancing act while confidently shrugging off baggage of prior films and wearing expectations of so much muchness lightly, engaging in straight-faced comic book appeal without pandering to nerds or apologizing to everyone else. He cares about using the characters in interesting and creative ways, whether it’s sending Quicksilver (Evan Peters) through an exploding building, in a fine repeat and escalation of the last film’s show-stopping slow-mo sequence, or setting Cyclops loose at a target, reveling in the surprise force of his uncontrollable laser-vision. Apocalypse puts aside Civil Rights subtext for a gripping globetrotting adventure on its way to an electric light show spectacle shot for wonderment and dopey-cool impact. But because Singer and his team treat the whole project earnestly – cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shooting brightly and steadily, capturing performances and effects alike in images that takes in the whole movement and expression of the actions – it has a convincing result.

In a time when superhero movies are churned out as mere content, Singer still makes movies. Apocalypse isn’t short on incident or timeline triangulation. But rather than hitting preordained marks and providing coverage with enough space for teasing future features, he shapes a narrative, building characters to care about with problems to invest in, sending them through varied crescendos and climaxes in setpieces rewarding viewers’ interest with real consequences and fine setups and payoffs contained within the borders of its runtime. (There are echoes and cameos to flatter franchise knowledge, but they aren’t integral to their effect, and add to a genuine comic sense of unashamed retconning.) He deploys polished and poised frames that stand back and handsomely photograph superpowers while understanding that having them and using them takes an emotional toll. It’s fun and involving, all of an exciting, entertaining piece. This isn’t like Captain America: Civil War where characters pop up, show off a power, and then disappear with a tease for their own offshoot. It’s one of the best X-Men movies yet, a full and satisfying ensemble spectacle unto itself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Music of the Heart: SING STREET


Writer-director John Carney is apparently on a mission to make earnest sentimental movies about the power of music bringing people together and helping nice people discover their passions. His latest is Sing Street, a return to his native Ireland after a jaunt to Hollywood for the slick and phony music business-set Begin Again. The perfect middle ground between that and his raw and tender debut film, the great busker romance Once, his new effort is a conventional and conventionally appealing music picture. It’s about a scrappy group of lower-class kids with big dreams, misfits and outcasts who, in making music together, find common cause and cause for hope. It’s set in the late 80s, so the kids find inspiration in the likes of Duran Duran, a-ha, and The Clash, heavy on the driving electric synths and keyboards, splashy snares, spacious soaring vocals, and energetic bass. (It’s not the Beatles, one father grumbles, funny because we’re farther from the 80s than they were the 60s.) The movie makes familiar plot moves, but gets exactly right the sense of youthful discovery, where music isn’t just a key part of identity, but new and alive with possibility.

Our lead is Cosmo, a meek 15-year-old boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in an engaging screen debut) whose parents (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and Orphan Black’s Maria Doyle Kennedy) announce a budget crunch. This takes him out of a nice Jesuit school and into a cruel one operating on a harsher brand of Catholicism. He’s immediately unhappy, a target for the bullies amongst peers and priests alike. Good thing he gets an immediate crush on a cool dropout girl (Lucy Boynton) and thinks up an icebreaker on the spot: “Want to be in a music video?” She says yes, so he runs back to the one pal he’s managed to befriend (Ben Carolan) and tells him, “We need to start a band.” Under the tutelage of his stoner older brother (Jack Reynor) and his record collection, he starts to think up a sound. With this fresh sense of mission he’s able to meet new friends, including a sheepish musician (Mark McKenna) who becomes his songwriting partner, a keyboardist (Percy Chamburuka), a bassist (Conor Hamilton), and a drummer (Karl Rice). Just like that, they’re a band.

There’s some wistful irony to a period piece in which the a character asserts his New Wave pop punk band will be about the future, not the nostalgia acts of other schools’ cover bands. Some of the film’s appeal sits squarely in nostalgia, looking lovingly on fashion, hair, and sounds of 80’s Ireland. It follows the naïve and earnest group cobbling together an evolving look – pastel suits, hair dye, Halloween costumes, and glam-rock makeup – then lugging equipment around to practice and perform for their own enjoyment. They have a cassette recorder around to play back their outfits’ songs, a heavy camcorder for taping their dancing and mugging for creative super-low-budget music videos. There is terrific creative energy in seeing the music come together, first shyly and fumblingly, then with what can only be described as total teenage confidence. The original songs, by Carney and a variety of collaborators (including Once’s Glen Hansard), are all quite good, some of which could be honest-to-goodness hits on the radio today.

Every number – catchy hummable toe-tappers all – conveniently flows directly out of the lead’s feelings throughout the narrative. This gives movie and music a shared spine that keeps focus narrowly on Cosmo’s concerns. It’s never as much an ensemble delight as its band-centric story approaches from time to time – the other kids are fun to hang around, but they’re not developed much beyond their surface features – but the charming boy-grows-up character piece has its sweetness. There’s an easy, straightforward romanticism on display in an adorably chaste presentation of its puppy love crush, and in the giddy rush creativity brings to its characters’ steps. (It shares with We Are the Best! and That Thing You Do! the cheery spirit of youthful musicianship. No exclamation needed.) Carney shapes the film to state its themes and emotions plainly, with the direct clarity of an easy YA novel.

It gets its effect through such unfussy and direct emotional appeals, feinting in direction of more serious ideas before caving in with syrupy pop resolutions – look at the bully’s fate, for example – albeit with room for sadness and disappointment to linger. One of its best sequences is a rehearsal that expands into Cosmo’s fantasy, an elaborate dance number that becomes a dream of happy endings that’ll never happen. No matter how much the music may lift his spirits and make him friends, some problems – familial, financial, and so on – won’t change. It keeps some perspective. Music’s ability to unite has its limits, but using the artistic impulses which draw these kids together, as a means of defining their identities by trying on new ones, is a bighearted approach to likable cliché. It works because it’s presented so sincerely and simply, aware of its characters and their worlds’ specificity, without pushing the story to miserabilism one the one side or false hope on the other. It stakes out comfortable and endearing feel-good middle ground.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Foul: THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE

Remember Angry Birds? It was that game you might've played on your phone for a couple months six years ago? Well, now there’s a CGI animated movie from Sony to answer the not-so-pressing questions of who are those birds and why are they so angry? If you recall the game involved flinging bird projectiles from a giant slingshot to smash into pigs who stole their eggs, I think you can piece the answers together. The filmmakers behind such a crass commercial project as The Angry Birds Movie haven’t done much to elaborate on the game’s basic premise. They’re content to just graft on plot points we’ve seen in lots of other cartoons. There’s an outcast who needs to double down on being himself to save the day and win his community’s acceptance. A hero appears to die in the final explosion, but grief is interrupted by the reveal that – surprise! – he survived. Endless colloquial patter and second-hand cultural references from celebrity voices load up the dialogue. And then it all ends in a dance party. But, you know, name recognition counts for a lot, I suppose.

The movie is about Red (Jason Sudeikis), a mean, grumpy, misanthropic jerk of a bird, a walking bad mood who grumbles about everything and makes fun of everyone. He has no patience either, and is quick to take offense. He’s an Internet comment, or maybe a Twitter egg. He’s one angry bird on a peaceful island of stubby flightless feathery lumps you’ll recognize from the game. They don’t like him, so the feeling’s mutual. They want to send him to anger management courses, but of course that doesn’t work because Red needs to be able to channel his negative emotions into teaching the birds to fight back after they’ve been tricked by a bunch of pigs (led by Bill Hader) into welcoming porcine strangers into their homes and end up having their eggs stolen. The meek flock, full of distinctive comedians’ voices there to distract the parents (Danny McBride, Josh Gad, Maya Rudolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate McKinnon, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, and others), needs to become Angry Birds of a feather.

Writer Jon Vitti, who apparently brings none of his smarter comedy experience working on Saturday Night Live, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office, and more to his family friendly scripts (like this, and The Squeakquel), spends an awful lot of time getting to this point, most of the runtime in fact. Why a movie based on a game everyone knows would feel the need to lay so much track for its preposterously simple concept is beyond me. Is there any viewer who won’t know what’s about to happen? Eventually, the birds fling themselves into Pig Land and destroy everything in sight with the help of an uncouth, lazy bald eagle. So it’s just your average everyday colorfully dumb kids’ movie about righteous anger as an asset, territorial xenophobia as the only alternative to gullibility, and the need for a red-faced strongman to lead our heroes in excusable genocide. You know, the old someone-does-wrong-to-you-so-burn-your-enemies-to-the-ground family film moral. Yikes.

Only coming alive in spurts in the climax, when the movie manages to make a direct translation of gameplay into something like action and movement, the whole thing is otherwise agonizingly static and manic, birds standing around trading bad quips and engaging in tame, unimaginative animated antics. It’s also the dirtiest kids’ movie in ages, with wiggling cartoon butts, jokes about poop and pee, and all sorts of barely veiled entendres like a disgruntled bird chirping, “pluck my life,” a bird with a large brood asked if she’s ever heard of “using bird control,” and a pig’s bookcase with “Fifty Shades of Green” open. All that and more too isn’t funny, and rarely works on a child’s level. And what would a 7-year-old make of a Shining reference? Or a pig named Jon Hamm? These are moments for literally no one.

It’s just dire garbage, empty-headed and utterly worthless. There’s not a single spark of imagination to be found in the soulless, vacant frames, putting who knows how many man-hours of talented animation work to waste. Not a story so much as feature length product integration – not just to move apps, but also a Blake Shelton single (played twice), and whatever toys you can find in your local shops and Happy Meals – it can’t even be bothered to think up memorable characters, noteworthy slapstick, or even one good catchphrase. (Have we fallen so far that a movie as dumb and pointless as this can’t even choke up one annoying line for kids to repeat on the way out of the theater?) I found the movie agonizingly slow and tediously uninspired, somehow not only less fun and entertaining, but also significantly less smart than the simplistic game. Mind-numbingly predictable and carelessly cruel, the whole thing is so thoughtless and witless the world feels like a worse place for having it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Block Party: NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING


Like so many comedy sequels, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is little more than a belabored reason to repeat the first movie’s basic structure and gags, with a lower joke success rate and a sparser humor density. At least in this case the “little more” is interesting. So it’s not nothing, but still quite a bit less enjoyable than the broad, bawdy, and surprisingly thoughtful sight-gag heavy original. It found a frat house (led by Zac Efron) moving in next door to a married couple (Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen) and their baby. This was, of course, an acrimonious situation, generational discomfort agitated into a prank war as the parents sad to see their youth slipping away desperately attempted to get the frat bros evicted. By the end they’d reach some understanding, the bros and the adults going to their separate ways supposedly wiser for the experience. Not so, it turns out, as a sorority moves into the now-empty frat and the cycle starts all over again.

Getting a sorority involved is the movie’s cleverest idea. It allows for an exploration of gendered double standards, explicitly asking if the wild behavior and mean-spirited pranks the girls get up to over the course of the story would be considered quite so extreme if it were done by guys. It’s also a sharp elbow in the side of campus culture, bringing up the totally true rule that sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties. This is why a group of misfit freshmen girls (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, and Beanie Feldstein, funny, if somehow underused in their own movie) decide to start up their own off-campus sorority, throwing a bunch of parties with cover charges to pay for rent. It’s empowering after a fashion, a sloppy animal house for the young ladies. Girls can have a dumb raunchy college comedy, too, you know. But, alas, that’s where the movie’s inspiration ends.

That freshness is tied to a retread of its returning characters’ emotional arcs. Why not find something new for Rogen and Byrne to do instead of simply worry about the effect of the out-of-control college kids next door again? Wouldn’t it be funny if they tried a different approach? The stakes are ratcheted up from the last time. Now they’ve bought a new house, are close to closing a deal selling their current one, and are afraid the girls will sink the escrow, leaving them with no choice but to go bankrupt. That’s ominous. But their response is to engage in the exact sort of behavior that got them in over their heads last time. Once more they’re torn about their out-of-touch status and fretting about being good parents while roping in old friends (like Ike Barinholtz) to terrorize the sorority and kicking off another prank war. You’d think they’d know better by now. The new idea they try is a contortion to get Efron back in the mix, this time working with them to help combat the youngsters. This is also the point where you realize age is coming for us all, and recent teen star Efron is closer in age to Rogen than to Moretz. Time marches on and whatnot.

The screenplay cobbled together by director Nicholas Stoller, Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg, with co-writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien takes narrative shortcuts to get to jokes and setpieces. Then, once there, it’s not really worth the time. There’s a lengthy sequence set at a tailgate that’s just misjudged and tedious. The parties aren’t as fun or chaotic as the first film’s; nor are the relationships between the sorority sisters sketched out as clearly as the frat bros’. That’s not to say there aren’t funny developments – a handful of Minions-inspired cutaway jokes are almost reason enough to have made the movie – but the lengths to which it goes to generate less of an effect than before is a little dispiriting. So much falls flat and so little seems to be telling a focused story or expressing coherent behavior that it’s just sitting there on screen.

Yet as far as disappointing and unnecessary sequels go, this one’s not actively harmful, just a bit of a drag. The performers have a lot of energy – more than the plot, jokes, and filmmaking know what to do with – and the whole thing has a nice low-key progressive bent. It’s not straining to be open-minded. It just is. There’s a sharp, if occasionally muddled, understanding of what it means to be a woman on a college campus and the sexist lenses with which society at large views them. (Blame the few cheaper moments – like weeping en masse to a sad movie – on the total lack of women in the writer’s room, I suppose.) And there’s something to its casual, natural acceptance. An early scene finds a gay couple’s engagement joyously celebrated by their former frat bros who jump up and down chanting “U.S.A.” That’s a patriotic image in my book. Would that all these good intentions turn the lackluster film around them into something worth the watch.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the Case: THE NICE GUYS


The Nice Guys is a good old-fashioned 70’s-style detective movie: loose, swaggering, hilarious, exciting, shaggy, and involving. A big crowd-pleaser of a period piece, it creates a convincing vintage stage on which to play out its antics, which happen to add up to one of the most compelling mystery plots in recent memory. Sharply directed and wittily written, think of it as the faster, dumber (in a good way), energetic pop flip side to Paul Thomas Anderson’s hazy Inherent Vice. It is impeccably mounted and high on 1977 Los Angeles detail. Pants are tight, morals are loose, wardrobes are bright, the oldies are current hits, cigarette smoke and polluted smog fills the air, and a low-level simmer of cynicism is everyone’s emotional baseline. It’s the perfect seedy environment for two low-level mismatched unlikely partners to stumble into a big conspiracy and try to sort it all out, and line their pockets, before the bad guys get worse.

The reluctant duo in a buddy action comedy is filmmaker Shane Black’s preferred dynamic, running through works he wrote (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and directed (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3). But it has never been better expressed than here. One is a private eye hired to track down a missing girl. The other is an unlicensed freelance tough hired by said girl to stop those searching for her. Events go south and get shady, so the two decide to work together to unravel the whole nasty tangle in which they’ve found themselves. Someone (or several someones) else is after the girl, and she has her own suspicious reasons to remain missing. In typical pulpy mystery fashion, the men wander through a story full of clues and qualms provided by an array of eccentric and unseemly types played by an exquisitely memorable ensemble, while the center holds around the electric grumbling chemistry between our incompatible, but secretly super compatible, leads. It’s great fun.

Russell Crowe plays the tough guy. It is one of his finest performances, a lumbering physical presence with light and lithe comedic timing. He carries a Wallace Beery weight and gravitas, growling and tough, a heavy heavy, but soulful and wounded. He’s lonely and a loner, and a little sad about how alive brawling and tussling with bad men makes him feel. Even worse, he starts to feel a kinship with his unexpected partner. He’s Ryan Gosling as more a con man than a P.I., taking sweet little old ladies’ money for easy jobs. (One widow wants to know where her husband, “missing since the funeral,” is; Gosling glances at the urn on her mantle and solemnly promises to cash her check and find him.) He’s a squeaky, lean, scared, in-over-his-head scrambler, getting by with luck and happenstance. But he’s still sharp enough to piece together clues with the help of his precocious potty-mouthed 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) who loves spending time with him, driving him around when he’s too buzzed to do it himself, which is often. He, too, is loath to admit that he’s found a new pal.

Together Crowe and Gosling, playing to and against type (a neat, compelling trick of star power), make a fine pairing – the straight-faced serious guy, and the flailing comic. They’re bickering and bumbling through a rough-and-tumble plot full of gumshoe incident and interestingly loopy interrogations often spilling over into pratfalls and slapstick stuntwork as malcontents, scumbags, and suspects cause trouble. There are gunfights and car chases, and plenty of instances of people falling out windows or rolling down hills. A vast scheme unravels in knots as a large cast (including Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Keith David, Jack Kilmer, Lois Smith, Matt Bomer, and Yaya DaCosta among the recognizable faces) stringing along the various episodes from one clue to the next. Then, with shrewd timing, the story reaches surprising and satisfying roundabouts that spin the investigation off in fresh directions. To even suggest the shape it ultimately takes would be unfair to the film’s brilliantly structured sense of discovery. It eventually involves pornographers, eco-activists, experimental filmmakers, hitmen, Detroit auto execs, and the justice department, arriving at immensely satisfying smash-bang conclusions as every moving part clicks into pleasing place.

A deeply satisfying work of genre fiction, The Nice Guys is an engaging and confident trash beauty, with handsome nostalgia surfaces in slick frames provided by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot polishing a cavalcade of violence, nudity, swearing, and seamy underworld spelunking. All that is mixed in a screenplay flowing with wordy personality and hilarious physical beats, and story unfolding so cleverly that as its bighearted love for its characters’ connection sneaks in sideways it sweetens the suspense with genuine feeling. We want them to crack the case, but also become better people by learning to work with a new friend. It’s delightful even as it is brutal, a hard-charging lark. So fast and funny, driven by charismatic performances and compelling mystery, this somehow manages the trick of making the old new again. It’s at once sturdy throwback appeal and a fresh spin on material that could be tired, but isn’t here. Black’s preoccupations with bantering buddy dynamics expressed through action and intrigue are given their purest, most complete expression. This is a groovy, most completely enjoyable action comedy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Lethal Weapons: KILL ZONE 2


Like any good martial arts film Kill Zone 2 has lots of characters who will inevitably have to fight for what they want. There’s a prison guard (Tony Jaa) whose sick daughter has a rare blood type, making her urgent transfusion a distant hope. There’s a gangster organ trafficker (Louis Koo) who desperately needs a heart transplant, but his blood type is even more rare, with only one possible donor: his own brother (Jun Kung). There’s an undercover cop junkie (Jing Wu) who gets in over his head when his cover is blown and he gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s that cop’s commanding officer (Simon Yam), his uncle, desperate to find him because he gave him the assignment. Luckily, these men are skilled practitioners of martial arts, a talent that’ll come in handy when all this frothing melodrama is whipped to a frenzy and the only way out is a series of dazzling melees. The film has some interesting subtext about bodies and the ways they can fail you, but mostly it’s a vehicle for impressive action sequences, delivered with such speed, clarity, and precision they’re simply astounding.

But this isn’t some mindless smash and crash actioner. Screenwriters Wong Ying and Jill Leung create a tightly plotted mess of subplots, spending most of the film’s first hour setting the ground work for the variety of characters’ separate drives and dilemmas. Some neat non-linear narrative tricks spice up what could’ve been routine exposition, turning the movie’s lengthy setup into a puzzle box of criss-crossing plot threads coming together with satisfying snaps. Lest you think it’ll be confusing, rest assured the complications are juggled with aplomb, director Cheang Pou-soi using wide angles and sharp cuts to create an enveloping forward motion that reveals important details in rapid-fire methodical style. It’s a rush of tangled motivations, elaborate backstory, wrenching inciting incidents, and tense dramatic ironies priming the pump for an outpouring of terrifically timed violence.

The various players’ storylines (all the above and more, too, including a sweet gaggle of cops and one wicked warden) are of course connected; the fun is seeing who knows about these connections and who doesn’t, those in the know able to exploit these secret bonds. Eventually it all comes to a head, and the combatants spring into action in a cascading chain of action sequences that are as inventive as they are inevitable. The performers and the stunt team have incredible athleticism, fighting through complicated choreography with mind-boggling intensity, dexterity, and grace. These are convincing, bruising fights with crunchy blows and weighty thumps. When a head goes through a glass table it seems hardly possible for the combatant to spring back up and shake it off, but it’s stunning to see it happen. Ditto a man taking a running leap through a windshield, or a jump in the air to kick several men on the way down.

Sure, the movie contains the likes of a gripping shootout in a cruise terminal and a high-impact prison bus battering ram. That’s entertainment. But the best fun is the elaborate clever motion in sequences creatively staged and fluidly photographed in layered and complex locales. There’s a combination chase, escape, brawl, and beating in, around, and through a prison riot that goes up and down stairs, over balconies, through barred doors, and out windows that’s one of the most spectacular action scenes in recent memory. And that’s only the film’s midpoint. It helps that the chaos is shot clearly, and made to matter, hurting ever more as it crescendos. The reasons for and results of the battles affect characters deeply every step of the way. Injury and death hurts. There aren’t easy decisions, for heroes and villains alike, for characters with compelling, competing and complimenting, motivations spelled out in broad strokes but told through subtle doubts and determination playing across expressive faces.

The cast is full of terrific performers, interiority brilliantly physicalized. But I must single out Tony Jaa for extra praise. Action connoisseurs know Jaa, a Thai martial artist who had his first starring role in 2003’s Ong-Bak, is one of the finest action stars currently working, an inspired and impressive screen fighter. He’s great in those moments, but this also is by far his best role to date. He’s intensely sympathetic as a guy trying to do the right thing, then get home from work to pray by his daughter’s hospital bedside. He, with co-lead Jing Wu, also excellent, sells the movie’s lulls, making the deliriously entertaining action all the sweeter. A churning mix of sentimentality and brutality, convoluted coincidences and bloody detail, Kill Zone 2 occasionally presses too hard on easy emotional buttons and a cloying voice over epilogue brings the film down from its sensational climax with deflating dénouement. (A key moment that proposes emoji as a means of erasing language barriers, however, is cloying on paper, but is simply great in execution.) But with fighting so exciting and so brilliant, these are but minor quibbles. It’s action filmmaking bliss.

Note: don’t let the title fool you – it is a sequel to 2005’s lesser SPL: Kill Zone in name only and released in different markets under titles like SPL 2 and SPL II: A Time for Consequences. Whatever it’s called, you need no prior knowledge for a good time.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Cash Out: MONEY MONSTER


Money Monster goes to dramatic lengths to find what it’ll take to make a cable news show do some actual reporting. It starts when a smooth-talking business news host (George Clooney) – think an even more buffoonish Jim Cramer – starts his daily stock tip program. He usually offers up some buzzword advice and hyperbolic recommendations to buy and sell. But not today. An angry young man (Jack O’Connell) sneaks on set with a gun and demands the man behind the anchor’s desk strap on a homemade explosive vest. He wants time on the air to demand answers. He’s furious about Wall Street greed, the rigged system of a casino economy legalizing fraud – he’s definitely a Bernie bro – and despondent over a glitch in a certain stock’s price that wiped out his life’s savings.

The once-cocky host sweats with a gun to his head. The director (Julia Roberts) is trapped in the control room capably keeping crew running like usual. Lights, cameras, mics, and the rest must continue moving without a hitch, the better to keep the dangerous intruder calm while police (led by Giancarlo Esposito) gather outside, debating how to get in without setting off the bomb. With little setup, the screenplay quickly launches into this tense scenario. Writers Jim Kouf (Rush Hour), Alen DiFiore (The Bridge), and Jamie Linden (Dear John) build a convincing cable news environment, a hectic and frivolous place that falls silent when real danger enters the frame. As the man with the gun shouts and threatens violence, the crew scrambles to find him his answers.

An engaging effort of slick competence, Money Monster is the sort of meat-and-potatoes topical movie star thriller that used to be a staple of Hollywood filmmaking. Now, outside Oscar season, it’s mostly found on tiny VOD budgets or on TV, so it’s nice to see this old fashioned form of glossy, well intentioned, reasonably involving drama play out on the big summer screen. Here we have the likes of Clooney and Roberts playing perfectly to type in a plot that’s tautly structured and built on sturdy genre foundations while engaging with some interesting ideas floating around the news these days. It’s about Wall Street corruption and the news media industrial complex, and somehow makes it into the stuff of entertainment without going too obvious or too hypocritical. This is a diverting movie that works out genuine and legitimate class frustrations in the guise of a ticking bomb plot.

Roberts deploys producers and reporters to discover the secrets behind the man’s grievances, while on camera two very different men – poor and out of options, controlling what little he can through intimidation; rich and out of touch trying to talk his way out of the worst situation of his life – come to a cautious understanding. They’re stuck in one place, while in the world beyond the studio people are watching the events unfold with rapt attention. Some are amused, others angered. Still others are getting a little nervous, like a slimy C.E.O. (Dominic West) whose dastardly company IBIS (a fitting name for a bad corporation, like BS, IBS, and ISIS rolled into one acronym) was, through mysterious and sketchy business practices, responsible for the market fluctuation that left the hostage-taker with nothing.

There are clearly delineated good guys and bad guys here, but there are some welcome moments where expectations are upended in small ways. A scene where negotiators bring in the hostage-taker’s tearful girlfriend goes in a surprising direction, and the movie’s not unwilling to see the situation from a variety of angles. Someone seemingly in the wrong can come over to the other side, and vice versa. Directed with a steady hand by Jodie Foster, the events unfold with clarity, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera finding snappy simple frames as the studio simmers with tension and many outside – techs, journalists, cops, PR people, hackers, bankers, and so on – scramble to figure out how to bring the danger to an end. The plot is involving on a surface level, while the simmering ideas underneath are just broad enough to be crowd pleasing and just specific enough to avoid feeling too condescending.

In the end it succeeds on the strength of its lead trio of performers, who bring a capable sense of weight and believability to their characters actions and decisions. Clooney could play a perfect wealthy dope in his sleep, here bringing unctuous charm covering repressed decency as a market mouthpiece who slowly grows a conscience at gunpoint. Roberts is security and stability under pressure as an expert manager trying to maintain some semblance of order and safety, speaking carefully and soothingly through her boss’s earpiece, helping him see the bigger picture. And O’Connell is a fine vessel of frustrated millennial economic angst, jumpy and tense, wound up with hopeless rage, smart but treading water in a dead end minimum wage job just to make ends meet. This story, with sensationalistic elements and vigorous political points, is too conventional and interested in small humane shadings to be a trashier satire or a sharper indictment. Instead it relaxes into thriller mechanics, looking at its characters with compassion and condemnation while finding its way to a logical conclusion.

Friday, May 6, 2016

War of Superhero Agression: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR


Once more we return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where an ever expanding roster of superhero Avengers quip and spar and save the world across interlocking franchises and overlapping continuity. Captain America: Civil War is only the latest in this series to expend energy maneuvering the multicolored combatants around while teasing more stories to come. It’s nothing but sequels to a variety of its predecessors – in addition to the third Captain America it operates as Avengers 3 and Iron Man 4 – and setups for its own future entries, plus previews of coming attractions as a variety of new characters and conflicts crowd the screen. All MCU properties do this to some extent, but this one does it the most joylessly, playing out as a grinding plot conveyance system full of sound, motion, and incident, but little in the way of story. Much of grave import is muttered with flashes of dull wit and routine twists between blandly assembled and weirdly small-scale action sequences. And in the end, we’re basically right back where we started.

We pick up shortly after the events of last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film criticized in some corners for its overstuffed qualities. I found it entertaining, carried over with a light tough by Joss Whedon. He, like Jon Favreau, who had the bright idea to play Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with the pace and charm of fizzy comedy, knew how to juggle the demands of these massive spectacles with something approaching relaxed ease. That’s largely gone here, as Civil War powers forward weighed down with something serious in mind. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the new Avengers (Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and Paul Bettany’s Vision), who, in an opening action beat, stop a villain, but accidentally blow up some civilians in the process. This is the last straw for many people around the world, so 117 nations sign accords demanding these super-beings be given governmental oversight. I mean, if you saw lawless beings smashing apart buildings to get at supervillains, you might be concerned, too.

When various characters from previous films gather to sit around a table and talk this out, the magic computer man Vision makes a good point. Since the Avengers have been public, calamitous world-threatening events have increased exponentially. Maybe they’re drawing this negative attention. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees, and demands the others sign up to work under government supervision. Cap’s not so sure, and demands he be allowed to stay a free agent. This is the conflict, such as it is, amplified by Cap’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the brainwashed supersoldier, who is framed for an explosion that kills several foreign leaders. Cap wants to go outside the law and save Buck to prevent him from taking responsibility for a crime he didn’t commit. Sure, he’s been assassinating and bombing plenty of people for decades, but he didn’t do this one. I get his loyalty to his scrambled friend, but this is some hard logic to follow. It creates one big misunderstanding the Captain and the Iron Man can’t seem to deescalate.

The first forty minutes or so are brisk enough, filled with colorful and loud conflict, as well as some mildly intriguing questions. What’s a superhero’s obligation to society? What happens when doing good means different things to different people? When is intervention more dangerous than helpful? There’s a certain amount of superhero melodrama as various players line up on different sides of the issue, straining relationships and casting doubt on tenuous friendships. But the whole operation grows monotonous as characters exchange increasingly hollow barbs, taking the whole thing Very Seriously even as we know the eventual fighting won’t be too consequential. There are too many sequels and spin-offs that need them. By the time we’ve been introduced to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – pausing for extended sample scenes for their forthcoming features – it’s easy to know the Civil War will be more like a scrimmage, everyone simply stretching their powers before their next solo outings.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, sitcom vets who helmed the last Cap, keep things brightly lit and blandly staged, pulling up tight on good actors, some more invested than others, trying to put real feeling in phony dialogue and then bouncing into action that’s a jumble of frenzied editing and blurry effects. Curiously small – only a few brawls and a chase or two – for running well over two hours, it’s a movie with elaborate hand-to-hand choreography (John Wick’s directors worked second unit) photographed with shaking, swooping cameras cut together to often deemphasize the impact. Sure we have War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and the rest lining up to show off their moves, throwing balls of light and color at each other in ways that fleetingly resemble cool comic panels – Spidey crawling over a giant’s mask; Vision shooting light from the jewel in his forehead; Ant Man shrinking and enlarging. But there’s nothing here to get invested in. It’s just not the sort of movie that’ll allow its major figures to hurt one another, not when their hurt feelings animate only this slapstick-adjacent goof-around scuffle on the way to tearful revelations. It’s tediously busy.

With nods – more like thin posturing – to serious disagreement tossed aside in favor of colorful action and bad quips, the screenplay by series regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely cops out by making it all about personal grudges. Instead of actually engaging with intriguing inciting ideas about power and authority, it becomes digital shadowboxing drawn out between endless empty rounds of the kind of double-talking political Rorschach test corporate spectacles are best at. The Marvel machinery can’t afford dislike of these characters, and unconvincingly lets the ones in the wrong off the hook. After a poorly developed plotter (Daniel Bruhl), I’d call Captain America the closest thing this movie has to an antagonist, pushing along the conflict by refusing to accept responsibility for his actions, but this sure isn’t the movie willing to take a stance like that. He embodies the movie’s fight against consequences and for the status quo, demanding we care about morality of hero work and then distracting us with so much movement marking time we’re to forget they ever brought it up, let alone fail to resolve it in any way. It’s all left dangling, just a big prelude for the next one, and the next, and the next.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Punk'd: GREEN ROOM


Green Room is little more than an exercise in unrelenting tension. It locks its sympathetic protagonists in a small space, trapping them with danger all around. The situation doesn’t look good, and only gets worse as it springs a steadily more inevitable series of violent incidents upon them. There’s a grim competence to its interest in the process of their plight. This is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier playing to his strengths. His last movie, the small-budget success Blue Ruin, was a clammy revenge thriller that was at its best when methodically locked in on its squirming characters as they fumbled toward hard-fought empty catharsis. Here Saulnier brings only that sense of mounting dread, put to use for a movie more interested in conventional genre thrills, in building a contraption by which to torture its characters for our benefit. You could almost read it as a restrained sideways slasher picture, more muted and dry than that subgenre’s usual fare, but just as single-minded in its kills.

At its center is an obscure, struggling young punk band, members played by familiar faces Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat with young character actors Joe Cole and Callum Turner. Likable enough, they seem like cuddly rockers, the sort drawn to hard rock as a way of posturing over their vulnerabilities. In it for the love of music, they’ve barely enough in their coffers for a tank of gas. The group is so desperate for a gig they decide to head out to a backwoods skinhead bar where, through the cousin of an acquaintance, they’ve been promised $350 for a quick afternoon set. “Just don’t talk politics,” their helpful contact (David W. Thompson) advises. It goes off without a hitch until they happen to witness a murder, and then get locked in the green room – with the dead body, a hulking gun-toting guard (Eric Edelstein), and a frightened punk fan (Imogen Poots) – while the neo-Nazis gather on the other side of the door, wanting to get these interlopers out of the picture. Will they get framed? Tortured? Murdered? Whatever happens, it won’t be good, that’s for sure.

Saulnier gives the film a precision and clarity, capably mapping out the tight quarters and allowing us to understand the characters’ reactions. We process the threat as they do, while cutting between their claustrophobic fear and the looming threats assembling outside. The story is so quickly sketched there’s little room to understand the players as people or figure out their motivations beyond survival. What little background information there is gets doled out in convenient downtime lulls. The leads are so inherently appealing, however, that Saulnier merely has to ensnare them in his meticulous frames and crisp cuts to get the sympathy going. It helps that he has some real powerhouses for villains, making his Blue Ruin star Macon Blair into a soft-spoken henchman and no less than Patrick Stewart the main antagonist. He carries with him the aura of authority, lending much needed weight that's not exactly on the page to a mild-mannered Nazi who calmly assess the need to coax the band out to be killed, or, failing that, storm the green room and cut them up there.

So it’s a siege movie, like Assault on Precinct 13 or Die Hard, but played at a quieter and smaller scale. The sides are obvious, the goals are clear, and the obstacles are agonizingly stubborn. Saulnier provides good specificity to the locale, a dim and ugly lived-in bar with dangerous hate group fanatics growling and prowling. But the movie isn’t about a clash of ideology. That they’re neo-Nazis is only to provide shorthand for their villainy. (And for Shawkat to snark backstage that if Yelchin doesn’t do what she says, she’ll “tell them you’re Jewish.”) It’s not about ideas. It’s not even about music, punk rock only used for energy, background noise, and set dressing. It’s about strategy, watching as characters play out a literal and deadly locked-room game, making use of their wits to maneuver the few tools available to them and finagle a way to survive.

Crescendos of taut tension escalate to outbursts of truly disgusting displays of violence, detailed in the seeping wounds, spurting blood, dangling flesh, and gaping gashes. This is a slick, skuzzy, and carefully composed little thriller, Sean Porter’s cinematography so handsome and Julia Bloch’s editing so meticulous that Saulnier builds to Green Room’s most shocking moments with horrifying deadpan. It’s been a while since I heard an entire audience wince as one in response to an unexpected gory moment. The film may not add up to much beyond a visceral kick of surprise and terror while likable people get menaced, maimed, and murdered – and the tremble of relief as some find safety, even if it’s only temporary – but the experience is admirably tense. This is the sort of smartly constructed and capably executed thriller that may not have a lot on its mind, but at least it’s gripping on its own terms.
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