Thursday, June 30, 2016

Fanning the Flames: THE NEON DEMON


We’ve heard of Hollywood chewing people up and spitting them out, but Nicolas Winding Refn thinks he’s found a new spin on the old metaphor in The Neon Demon. Hardly the first story of showbiz’s capacity to lure new talent with false promise, Refn follows a pretty 16-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) freshly arrived in Los Angeles ready to make her way in the modeling business. A coldly calculating agent (Christina Hendricks laying down a fine layer of ice in her one scene) tells her to lie about her age (19, because “people believe what they’re told”) and books her a shoot with an intense famous photographer (Desmond Harrington). That’s just the start of a skeevy journey up the ladder as she draws jealous attention from all the older models (like Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), lamenting their advanced age (mostly mid-20s, but some are pushing, horror of horrors, thirty) and staring at her with daggers in their eyes. If looks could kill, they’d tear her apart limb by limb and steal back the work that’s always flowing to the younger, the newer, and the more exploitable.

Per usual, Refn’s shallow approach is one of moody synths and long, brooding silences punctuated by staccato bursts of dialogue traded like hot barbs in flat tones. Sometimes this works for him, like the dreamy artsy cars-and-gore Drive, transcending its trappings to become a slick, woozy, romantic and muscular homage to Michael Mann and Walter Hill. Other times this fails him, like the gross and gaudy Only God Forgives, a pointless exercise in masculine posturing and blacklight set design. Neon Demon is the midpoint between those earlier efforts, bringing a swirling generalized menace to the long passages of driving electronic music and pulsing strobe lights, fussily composed frames – Natasha Braier’s coldly sensuous cinematography splayed out with high gloss, like fashion spreads – capturing the entrapment of beautiful women in uncomfortable positions. It effectively communicates the danger inherent for a young person lost in the lower rungs of the entertainment business, trading her looks for a chance at stability.

Refn isn’t a particularly original or deep thinker on the topics at hand. Any insight the film has stops with simple statements like a model coolly reporting “Anything worth having hurts a little” or a casually dismissive designer’s snap, “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” So what we’re left with is a simplistic and repetitive exploration of tired old themes. Refn, with co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, keep the plot agonizingly flat. When not befriended by a nice guy (Karl Glusman) or a seemingly helpful makeup artist (Jena Malone), Fanning poses and reacts in sequences that find her surrounded by predators, sized up as meat and flesh, objectified, commodified, and exploited. There are the agents, photographers, competitors, men. Even a big cat somehow appears in her cheap motel room one night in a sequence of surreal dread that almost seems like it must’ve been a dream until someone casually mentions it several scenes later. But none of these moments or characters have any life to them. They remain slickly photographed, but empty and uncharacterized. Who are these people? What do they want? Where do they come from? What are their inner lives? It’s hard to say.

The movie’s derivative images (from Lynch, Argento, Kubrick, and a host of directors from the avant-garde and music video worlds) turn on conventional themes of greed, envy, and the lengths people will go to become famous and stay young and beautiful. But it acts like that’s enough. It’s totally fascinated with itself, an L.A. commentary made up entirely of clichés, and a style made up entirely of posturing, grooving on its own pulsating aura of unease and meticulous design. It’s also a dispatch from nowhere, hermetically sealed with no relation, real or metaphorical, to reality. Refn envisions its showbiz world as empty and depopulated. There are hardly any extras, and the only way we know Fanning is moving up in the fashion world is that a character tells us. The whole industry seems to be made up of our cast, and doesn’t extend past the bounds of any given frame. The only spark of life is Keanu Reeves, doing great, intriguing work in a couple scenes as a sleazy motel owner. He’s given a Movie Star entrance, and digs into his character-actor role as if he’s walking out of another, better version of this movie.

The Neon Demon visualizes its tired observations from a stylish remove, passing itself off as profound when it’s just played out. The endeavor is merely an exercise in animating its sparse ideas through a slow molasses drip of art house trances goosed with a dried-out straight-faced camp quality and a few effective horror movie excesses. A scene of a murder heard through the walls – or is it another nightmare half-realized? – has surreal chill. And the movie builds to making a spectacle of itself in its final scenes for a long-delayed payoff with ostentatiously preposterous, half-motivated, and grotesquely self-amused violence and gross-out appeal. A corpse post-autopsy is given a sort of spit shine, a nice girl’s fate is as the red mist in a softcore shower of blood on two others, and a climactic eyeball gag is at once horrible and hilariously audacious. By that point the movie has spilled over into the heights of its ridiculousness, surprising and gratuitous, one of those movies that wants to finger-wag society’s desire for flesh and blood while also relishing the opportunity to stage some and lick it all up. I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s like a small, nasty, pseudo-smart splatter picture stretched out to the point of self-serious tedium.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Shark Night: THE SHALLOWS


The Shallows is a survival story of the highest order. Intense and expressive, it deserves mention in the same category as The Grey, Life of Pi, The Revenant, 127 Hours, or certain Jack London stories. It’s a woman versus nature thriller stripped of all but the most necessary components, wasting no time in setting up her terrifying predicament while supplying the exact right amount of character development to help us understand her skill set and her mental state. It’s lean, visceral, and convincing, introducing us to a young woman (Blake Lively) taking a break from med school to go surfing at a remote Mexican beach. Soon tragedy strikes, leaving her stranded 200 yards from shore, clinging to a rock for dear life. A large shark has attacked, leaving one of her legs ripped and punctured, bleeding and infected. The animal’s ominous fin continues to circle between her and the beach as night falls and no one is around to help. It’s a crisis shot through with a palpable sense of weary helplessness. How could she possibly get out of this?

Running a trim 87 minutes, this is a spare, minimalist, and artful mainstream thriller of uncommon focus and intensity. Every second is there for a reason, from early sunny nature photography and surfing stunts that paint a portrait of an idealized getaway, to the sudden cloud of dark red blood in the water as the shark attacks, to the methodical approach Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay takes to playing fair with the setup and payoff. There’s nothing here to strain credulity overmuch; it simply takes in a smart, capable person’s one-step-at-a-time drive to problem solve and stay alive. It becomes a struggle of wits and persistence. As the woman tries to stop her bleeding and take stock of her surroundings and the shark lurks, often unseen, it’s a tossup as to which being will outlast the other. The film plays out in mostly wordless passages of tense close-ups and medium shots, piecing together its protagonist’s mental process in intuitive edits helped along by occasional moments where she’s muttering or talking to herself. When the camera cuts back wide and long, emphasizing her isolation, it’s abundantly clear how alone she is, and how necessary her self-reliance becomes.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, one of our finest B-movie practitioners, excels at these expertly contained genre exercises, from wax museum slasher House of Wax to airplane-set thriller Non-Stop. With The Shallows he meticulously creates a relatively small natural space defined by obvious and memorable landmarks clearly and consistently positioned. She’s stuck on a rock, high tide and low tide bringing certain death near and far on a predictable – but hardly comforting – ebb and flow. Collet-Serra’s frequent cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano frames the action to always triangulate the geography. There’s the beach, the open ocean, a rock, a buoy, a whale carcass. Every image carries the facts and weight of her situation and location, and how little she has to work with. We know how far she must swim to reach safety, and can see the slowly dawning trial-and-error strategy she deploys to think her way to safety. It helps the movie has so effortlessly and off-handedly introduced her skills. She’s an expert surfer, and therefore knows her way around the water. She’s a world-traveler, and thus able to adapt to foreign situations. She’s a med student, and so naturally can rip a makeshift tourniquet off a sleeve and assess the damage of a bruising and potentially gangrenous leg.

As soon as there’s blood in the water it’s a film of tension, released only in quiet foreboding and contemplation of existential panic. In widescreen framing simmering with a John Carpenter approach to eerie classical discomfort and convincing, restrained effects work, Collet-Serra allows shadows and waves to hide and reveal sources of danger. These, and shots straight out of Jaws staring up at bodies and boards in motion from deep below the water, form a patient escalation as her situation becomes more and more desperate. In one particularly upsetting moment of violence – as a potential source of rescue is devoured – the camera holds on Lively’s face, her reaction the clue to the gore that’s later merely glimpsed. The film is so precise, building thrills bit by bit, emphasizing key details through effective focus pulls, simple shot/reverse shot, and in confident shifts of perspective. Use of a GoPro, for example, transcends potential found-footage wooziness or gimmickry to be an integral puzzle piece, and careful insert shots reveal the tools at her disposal with perfect casual deliberateness.

Because the film so easily brings the audience to an understanding of who and where this woman is, it has believably airtight plotting that allows her to arrive at decisions in understandable ways. This isn’t a thriller that’s ahead or behind its lead; she behaves exactly how you’d think a reasonably smart and prepared individual would when faced with such incredible and harrowing circumstances. Inhabiting these trying moments, Lively does career-best work in a performance of pain and despair, finally arriving at grim resolve. She’s not sure she’ll live. But she’ll fight as long as she can, the best that she can. Lively spends the film in a swimsuit, shivering on a rock, wincing in pain, screaming in agony, talking to herself and a seagull, shouting at distant figures, timing tides and the shark with her waterproof watch, and having one horrifying setback after the next. She holds the movie’s every frame with captivating everywoman appeal, pushing forward despite the odds with raw survival instinct.

Collet-Serra begins the film introducing elegantly simple and essential backstory by superimposing her phone’s screen in the corner over her arrival – perhaps the first movie to quietly, seamlessly integrate exposition via texts and Instagram. Through a quick FaceTime call we glimpse her father and younger sister, and surmise from her insistence on finding the same obscure and mostly pristine beach her mother did many years ago that she’s mourning a death. She’s contemplating dropping out of med school. She’s isolated from everyone she knows, at a loss as to what her life will become, dealing with grief. And so getting attacked by the shark and stuck in the shallows becomes a moving metaphor for depression. She’s close to safety, but for the toothy unstoppable natural force making saving herself a difficult prospect. It seems impossible, and yet she fights on, determined to reunite with her loved ones and return to solid ground. The simplicity of the film’s construction makes the subtext far more moving than a showier approach could manage, and maintains a gripping, exciting, and nerve-wracking focus on her plight.

Friday, June 24, 2016

World's End (Again): INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE


Independence Day: Resurgence is a big, dumb, simplistic summer spectacle. And on that level – and that level alone – it’s mostly satisfying. Like its predecessor, the biggest hit of 1996, it is modernized 50’s pulp flying saucers sci-fi done up in storms of cutting-edge effects and an unfailingly direct corny affect. They’re the sort of movies that bring gigantic UFOs to hover menacingly over the Earth before spewing forth malevolent destruction. They don’t come in peace, so humans must fight back. There’s no great metaphor at work, innovative speculative alien designs on display, nuanced character development, or provocative subtext. It’s just straight to the point: loud, outsized ray gun shoot-‘em-ups as revenge for large-scale landmark destruction. It is what it is, and I suspect anyone going to see this would know what they’re in for, especially with Roland Emmerich (he of the original, as well as The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and White House Down) at the helm.

With a twenty-year gap between the original and this sequel, Resurgence takes the opportunity to imagine an alternate universe. It removes some of the modern day what-if?-scenario frisson from the build-up, but serves to turbo-charge the action with faster ships and zippier weapons. The movie opens surmising that the aftermath of its precursor caused an era of international harmony. There was no time to fight each other while people were too busy mopping up remaining aliens, studying massive crashed spacecraft, building a planetary defense force, and appropriating extraterrestrial tech into our own. That’s why travel is faster, weapons are more powerful, and Skype signals are so strong. (An earthling video chats with a man on the moon with no lag. No wonder there’s world peace.) Alas, as humanity regrouped, so did the aliens. Guess what? They’re back, and this time they’re meaner, bigger, and more prepared. Surprise, surprise.

Emmerich stages the proceedings as a reiteration of the original’s plot in a larger, newer package. Alien beasties swarm out to attack. Cities are leveled. Humanity appears on the brink of destruction until – eureka! – we have a plan to strike back. That’s familiar. What’s new this time around is the size of the spectacle. Now filled up with CG filigree where the first was one of the last big hurrahs for model work, there’s room to blow up more of the Earth, leading to one of the great hilarious B-movie exchanges in the picture when the alien craft is landing. “It’s touching down over the Atlantic!” “Which part?” “All of it.” Yes, just like that all cities bordering the Atlantic are smashed and flooded. It’s such an overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly large swath of destruction, no time for teasing down one famous place at a time, it’s hard to feel. At least it shows the intergalactic attackers have improved on their plan and just smashed us all to pieces right away.

Of course the fate of the world rests in the hands of small group of stereotypes. It’s one of those disaster movies packed to the gills with no character arcs, just threadbare subplots and a cast that’s half comic relief and half stock types. All surviving cast members return (minus Will Smith), notably Bill Pullman as the former president and Jeff Goldblum as a prominent scientist. It’s nice to see them headlining a major motion picture again, especially one that leans into the nuttiness of its premise. There’s a moment where an alien-fighting expert African warlord (Deobia Oparei) wants to board an emergency trip to the moon. Goldblum calmly looks at him and says, in a dry eccentric line reading only he can conjure, “This is off limits to…uh…ah, ah…warlords.” (He’ll later be happy the intimidating guy packs his machetes and hitches a ride despite the objection.) Elsewhere there’s a president (Sela Ward), a general (William Fichtner), a psychologist (Charlotte Gainsbourg – what a cast!), and a passel of attractive twenty-something fighter pilots (Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Angelababy) representing a new generation with somehow less personality than the old.

There’s something familiar and hollow, but routinely diverting, about all this space invaders hullabaloo. Watching cities get decimated, people trapped in bunkers planning their responses, fighter jets scrambling, and laser guns zapping is just a regurgitation of a regurgitation. But at least the movie is shamelessly itself, simple and a little loopy. There’s a tonal mismatch between the devastation and the general lightness. London and D.C. are exploded. Families are torn apart. Untold millions die off screen. And also a man (Brent Spiner) wakes up from a two-decade coma and runs around Area 51 with goofball zeal, a frustrated human flips off a monster while urinating on an alien flight deck, and two lovebirds discuss their real estate options. (They’re going to buy their dream house, “if it’s still there.”) It’s a movie that includes a huge desert melee against massive tentacled critters lurking out of Green Slime, squishy cannon fodder, and a giant queen Kaiju rampaging while the humans finagle a magic cure-all MacGuffin orb into helping them save the planet. Then it gives a school bus full of kids (and Judd Hirsch) ringside seats for the finale

Somehow this added up to light dopey fun in my mind, a passable sound-and-light show. It’s apocalyptic and harmless, high stakes and totally inconsequential. And Emmerich is enough of an old pro to know it. He and his co-writers (like his old collaborator Dean Devlin) are specialists in crafting gleaming half-serious silliness. They throw in a handful of self-aware lines winking at the goofiness of the whole endeavor, including having two different characters say, “That’s definitely bigger than last time.” And they have the right components to build their frivolous popcorn craft. When the battles begin, the swirling effects have a fun adventure spirit, and throughout Markus Förderer’s cinematography feels properly industrial-strength clear, making the film’s abundance of murky and confined sets appropriately glassy steel and dim mood. The plot’s convolutions pass by with the excitement of a 12-year-old recounting the events in a bargain bin sci-fi paperback. The thing is just as formulaic as you’d suspect, and a crassly commercial attempt to cash-in on a 90’s nostalgia property. It's not entirely successful, and yet it does what Jurassic World and Fuller House couldn’t (an admittedly low bar). It finds just enough reason to exist and pulls off a return with some skill. I didn’t even mind the final shot where characters practically turn to the camera and say with a grin, “How about we make this a trilogy? Whaddya say?”

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fishy Story: FINDING DORY


A lot can change in 13 years, as evidenced by Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003’s smash hit computer animated Finding Nemo. Back then Pixar was a pioneering new studio, telling clever stories with cutting-edge technology and quietly astonishing heart. Now, though, their plot structures and thematic interests, once the source of boundless inspiration, can calcify into formula. It’s a bit overfamiliar to see returning writer-director Andrew Stanton and immensely talented teams of technicians breathe life into sea creatures and fall into an easy pattern of conflict and resolution wrapped up in funny incident, zippy action, and dramatic stings. Rinse and repeat. This isn’t just sequel-itis. It’s a studio staying in its comfort zone, ironic for a movie about how you need to get out and explore in order to more fully enjoy the comforts of home. So it may not hit the high water mark for the studio’s ingenuity. But Pixar has a higher baseline competence than just about anyone, bringing a vibrant and charming world to life in a simple plot bolstered by smart vocal performances, gorgeous images, and bouncy adventure.

Their best decision in making a sequel to Nemo is pivoting away from that film’s protagonist while still echoing its interest in memories and family reconciliation. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (young Hayden Rolence taking over for the now-too-old Alexander Gould) are still significant factors in the story, but the main focus is almost entirely on Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, continuing her best performance). Last time, the forgetful blue tang was the comic relief. Although her short-term memory problems had a tragic underpinning – she lost her family long ago, or at least she thinks she did – the previous movie had her making hilarious and heartwarming comments from the sidelines. Now Stanton, with co-director Angus MacLane and co-writer Victoria Strouse, decides to take her plight more seriously, to dig into her flawed memory as an engine for conflict, a loose plot thread that needs to be tied back for satisfying resolution.

And so Dory, excited by a fleeting flash of remembrance, sets off with her friends, travelling across the ocean looking for her long-lost parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy). There’s merciless heart-tugging appeal in seeing a cognitively impaired little fish desperately searching for her family, hoping she’ll get there before she forgets about them again. Unlike its predecessor’s eventful journey, Dory gets it over with quickly, arriving in no time at a massive aquarium park on California’s coast. Dory’s parents are in there, or at least she thinks she remembers them there. The plot is far and away Pixar’s simplest. Where their other films found good reasons to burst forth in climactic madcap chases, this is all chase. Dory gets almost immediately separated from Marlin and Nemo, leaving her scatterbrained self to scurry tank to tank, through pipes, and over obstacles to reconnect with her new friends and her old family. It’s curiously small, but sufficiently busy.

Along the way the characters encounter another of Pixar’s trademark eclectic ensembles of cartoony creations. There’s a grumpy seven-tentacled octopus (Ed O’Neill) planning an escape, a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) too nervous about his tender head to echolocate, a whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) with bad eyesight, a couple of barking territorial sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West), and a ruffled, squawking, speechless loon. It’s fun to encounter the variety of wildlife, hearing the energetic, committed, and perfectly cast voice work, and seeing their differing responses to having strange fish swim into their space. As you might suspect, the animals have to learn to embrace their differences and work together to accomplish their goals. That’s no surprise. But it’s nice to see the pieces fall into place as the loveable creatures banter and become buddies.

There’s no villain here, just a race against a slipping memory, and narrow escapes from the simple facts of life in a giant aquatic zoo. That’s sweetly low-key; no mean dentist with a cruel office fish bowl from which to rescue a lost fish boy means no fight against a bag guy. There are merely good fish who want to see each other succeed, which makes for a core kindness that allows the zipping around to feel safe. There is also a matter-of-fact, relaxed message about diversity and acceptance for the differently abled. The core goal for Dory to be reunited with her parents is the story of a fish who learns valuable skills to cope with her capabilities, to make an asset out of the things she does remember rather than dwelling on all she doesn’t. The menagerie of marine life floating through the story only amplifies this message. Everyone has their limitations, but by learning to help one another, and allowing one’s skills to complement other’s deficiencies, can build better lives alone and together.

It may not be anything approaching Pixar’s best, most complex, and emotional efforts, but Dory takes advantage of the studio’s great skill with locations and character. It builds a complete and convincing aquarium through which to run its formulaic plot, and populates it with typically lovely character work. Each little zone of the massive complex finds new lovable beings and designs, either benign or dangerous as they contribute to pushing the episodic scramble along. The whole thing then comes to vivid life with gorgeous interplays of textures and light, layers of depth sparkling in the schmutz suspended in ocean currents and Plexiglas cages. The result is a pleasing visual experience, and a fun diversion. What it lacks in novelty, it makes up for in entertainment tied to a strong, simple, easily digestible appeal. I’d rather see the people at Pixar push themselves. Last year, with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, was a fantastic one-two punch of finding new visual ideas to explore within their cozy template, so it’s natural to find Dory a comedown. At least Pixar in its comfort zone is still an enjoyable time at the movies.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Between The Rock and a Hart Place:
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE


It’s one of the oldest action comedy tricks in the book. Pair a tall, muscle-bound action star with a shorter, smaller comedy star. After all, what’s a clearer signal of comedy than putting two people who represent obvious contrasts in the same frame? Once the visual gag is established, the filmmakers only have to let their stars’ combined strengths power the genres’ demands while their likability carries the rest. In the case of Central Intelligence, the leads are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – bringing amped up physicality and easy charm to action and adventure all over the place, from big splashy studio fare like the Fast & Furious movies and Hercules to scrappier low-budget eccentricities like Faster or, better yet, Southland Tales – and Kevin Hart – one of the most popular stand-ups working today, and a motor-mouth comedy lead in a constant churn of mostly forgettable fare like Think Like a Man and The Wedding Ringer, with a few pleasant surprises like About Last Night. Who knew that putting them together would bring out the best in both?

Johnson and Hart each started their film careers as scene-stealers, filling bit parts with their own unique brands of charisma, and are consequently best when their bigger roles don’t sand down their individuality. The inspiration of Central Intelligence comes in allowing them each to play to and against type in enjoyable silliness given just enough weight to justify a few explosions. Johnson plays a big, bulky man who is effortlessly intimidating and capable, but with a sly sweetness bubbling through. We learn through an opening flashback (slathered in half-convincing CG de-aging and enlarging) he was a fat kid picked on in high school who now, twenty years later, is a ripped secret agent still carrying pain of that long ago bullying. Hart plays a former classmate, an admired hotshot football player who was the only one not laughing at Johnson’s teenaged humiliation. Now he’s the one feeling dumped on, overlooked at work in what is a boring accounting firm anyway. He wishes his life had more excitement. He’s about to regret that.

Johnson, delightfully dorky with a fanny pack and a wide-eyed eagerness to make a good impression, arrives in town for the class reunion and looks up the one person who was remotely nice to him at the time. Hart, sad and low-energy, agrees to meet him for drinks, and is delighted to have a blast: reminiscing, doing shots, beating up bullies, and riding a motorcycle. Hart has a new friend, but it turns out Johnson’s with the C.I.A., on the run for one reason or another, chased by his colleagues and villains alike, and he needs an accountant he cant trust. This brings out the personalities we’d expect from these men: Johnson turning into the strong man of action and Hart jumping into excited nervous patter. The cleverness comes in intermingling these new modes of behavior with the old. Johnson is an action hero and a shy kid wanting to impress the cool guy, while Hart is a fish out of water relying on some of his old ingratiating high school charm to talk his way out of this jam with no hard feelings.

The plot is the usual bunch of hooey hauled out for an action comedy. There’s a USB drive full of shady bank numbers, a mysterious no-good bad guy mastermind with a code name (The Black Badger), government agents hot on the trail, a handful of menacing black market professionals, and a red ticking clock counting down to the climax. It’s an excuse to invite in actors of the sort it’s always a pleasure to see, with small but enjoyable roles for Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Kumail Nanjiani, and a few choice Big Names who are smartly revealed for big impacts. There’s nothing too terribly surprising about any developments herein (especially if you’re familiar with Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Star Power). The story is strictly pro forma, a sturdy staging area for its lead duo’s combustible combined charisma. They’re terrific fun bouncing off each other, alternately antagonizing and cooperating as they get deeper into a scenario that involves charming banter, slapstick fight sequences, and grave consequences narrowly avoided.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers) is wise to keep the focus tightly on the hugely entertaining interactions between his stars. They make a good team, pushing each other, Johnson proving once more his facility with humor, here the best he’s ever been on the charm offensive, and Hart showing surprising dexterity with the physical requirements of an action effort, especially one that needs him to squirm and shout protests as he flails into accidental assists. One particularly funny scene has him apologizing to two C.I.A. agents by saying he’s as surprised as they were to find you could accidentally pistol whip someone. It helps that screenwriters Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) leave plenty of room for amusing personality while still keeping the thriller mechanics moving along tight enough to have little use for the drifting improv sag that infects so many studio comedies these days. (There’s hardly any mean-spiritedness either, a nice change of pace.) It’s brisk, efficient, and has a real contagious charge between its mismatched leads, making for a breezy enjoyable good time.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Swirl of WARCRAFT


I’m glad Warcraft exists, imperfect as it is, because Hollywood needs to take its mega-budgets into comparatively weird places from time to time. The result in this case is a big galumphing fantasy epic creating an impressively imagined world in which one could easily get lost. In fact, the filmmakers themselves appear to have lost themselves in it to such an extent that they’ve barely figured out a way to invite the rest of us in. This is the sort of fantasy storytelling that’s vividly artificial – taking style cues from Star Wars prequels’ and Hobbit movies’ sleek digital swooping – overflowing with jargon and unusual names, and with a dense and interconnected backstory that’s, at best, merely hinted. I found myself grateful that the film leans on some standard conventions of the genre, like color-coded good and evil and preoccupations with clans, lineages, and honor, because they were a great way to get my bearings. It’s both too much and not enough, a world whose details remain murky no matter the amount of exposition thrown about, but remains nice to look at in the same way a striking illustration on a genre paperback cover can be.

Based on a popular video game, Warcraft is a respectable effort at translating a clearly unwieldy mythos into something even remotely approaching a coherent two-hour feature film. It takes place in a peaceful kingdom of humans suddenly besieged by a new threat: orcs, shown here as hulking motion-capture performances of toothy muscle-bound giants. Mankind’s neighboring dwarves and elves and whatnots aren’t coming to the rescue, so it’s up to them to fight back the invading hordes. That’s typical fantasy material, but where it gets complicated for the better is in its attention to the lives of the orcs. Not just the mindless monsters you’d find in The Lord of the Rings and its imitators, many have nobility and high ideals, so much so that one principled chieftain (Toby Kebbell) starts to suspect the dark wizard (Clancy Brown) leading them into battle might not have their best interests at heart. This good orc is made a funhouse reflection of a warrior man (Travis Fimmel) who is tasked by the King and Queen (Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga) to help stop this looming warfare before it gets worse.

That seems easy enough to comprehend, but try to keep up as each new scene adds a half-explained wrinkle. There’s a youthful magic man (Ben Schnetzer, looking for all the world like a LARPer lost on set) who quit his mystical training, but still sneaks around trying to solve the mystery of the orcs’ otherworldly power. There’s a small, tough lady orc (Paula Patton covered in green and sporting fetching tusks) who was a slave of the dark orc, but upon her capture by humans decides to help them with inside info. There’s a wizard (Ben Foster) who lives at the top of a gigantic tower and supposedly protects the land with his spells, although he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the rampaging armies while he spends his time making a golem. I haven’t even mentioned the smooth-faced young soldier (Burkely Duffield) who desperately wants his warrior father’s approval, or the orc baby revived by the spirit of a deer, the pool of good blue magic, the pernicious influence of the bad green spell called The Fell, the giant eagles and wolves, the wall of lightening, the inky black-and-purple cube Glenn Close is hiding inside, and the towering portal to another realm powered by the souls of countless captives.

It is confusion – a mishmash of accents, intentions, ideas, motivations, tones, and haltingly introduced plot threads – but not for lack of trying. Writer-director Duncan Jones’s previous films, Moon and Source Code, were models of sci-fi clarity in the face of twisty high concepts, so I can only image the difficulty he and co-writer Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea) had wrangling the source material into shape here. The movie is broad and complicated, expensive and chintzy, deeply serious and exuberantly goofy, convincing and fake, exciting and risible. But it comes by its oddball jumble honestly. Besides, you don’t have to consult footnotes or a glossary to get the gist. Jones is effective at communicating the general thrust of the narrative impulses and gestures, even in scenes that might as well be performed in untranslated gibberish. (Maybe they already are.) The emotional stakes are clear enough from scene to scene, even if they’re buried under layers of gobbledygook, and are prone to shift without warning if that’s where the plot needs to go. Maybe devotees of the game would have better luck making heads or tails of it.

Figures travel hither and yon over the fantasy terrain, speaking in negotiations of grave importance and urgently communicating a flood of exposition. More focused on worldbuilding than building characters, the movie ends up telling convolutions in broad strokes, while the narrative plays out as only a slice of story, beginning with problems already in progress and ending without satisfying conclusions. But what I appreciated about Jones’s approach is the consideration he brings to the conflict’s two sides, even at the expense of denying the action sequences requisite bloodlust. This isn’t a standard good versus evil story. There are amongst orcs and humans alike those who ultimately have to fight against the worst of their own to accomplish peace. It’s a movie about our protagonists desperately trying to avoid war, and we watch as chaos erupts in action sequences wherein characters view the act of picking up their weapons as failure. They do what they must for the good of their people, even if their efforts are doomed to collapse for the movie’s waves of obligatory CG combat. There’s admirable effort in all this unfulfilling chaos.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Haunted Again: THE CONJURING 2


Does director James Wan believe in ghosts? Or does he simply believe in the power of horror cinema to suggest the possibility so earnestly and intently that it might as well be the same thing? Either way, The Conjuring 2 is the work of a believer. It’s a ghost story focused on the people involved, characters who need to believe in order to make sense of their lives. The haunted need proof they’re not hallucinating frauds, an explanation, no matter how otherworldly, for their traumatic experiences. Those who arrive to assist them in this terrifying time carry the baggage of prior encounters and the burden of their unique skills. They simply can’t ignore cries for help only they can answer. Like its predecessor, this horror sequel finds the humanity in the mechanical workings of the haunted house genre, summoning real scares where others turn up only stale fright. This movie contains sequences of such masterful manipulation, drawn-out scenes of goosebumps-laden patience and shiver-inducing jolts, that it’s hard to ignore its power.

Once again the film splits its focus between a family in supernatural crisis and its heroes, Lorraine and Ed Warren, a pair of paranormal investigators who claim to have been witnesses to all sorts of ghostly goings-on. As with last time, the inspiration comes from the real Warrens’ case files, which gives reason enough for a “based on a true story” title card, and groovy 70’s fashions, an added bonus for the retro throwback appeal of these films, in stylistic and thematic continuity with some of the biggest horror of the time. Like The Exorcist or The Omen (or The Amityville Horror, also based on a case the real Warrens’ were involved with, and explicitly referenced in this film’s chilling prologue), The Conjuring movies are handsomely polished works that hire great dramatic actors and allow them to chew on horror tropes, lending unusual emotional weight and seriousness to the downtime between jump scares.

The Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are professionals doing their job. The spiritual haunts them. Their marriage is built on their trust in one another, and their shared faith in what they’ve been through. Their comfortable, lived-in, low-key romance unfolds in the margins of scenes, lending the unsettled mood background tenderness. In The Conjuring 2, they’re feeling the pressure of increased visibility. They’ve been experts called in to explain, exorcise or experiment with the validity of all sorts of hauntings, an urgent need in the world as this series understands it, albeit one greeted with healthy doses of skepticism from the scientific community. They’re worn out, ready to take a break, when they hear about a poor, frightened family living in what appears to be a haunted house in North London. The screenplay – by Wan with David Leslie Johnson (Orphan) and Carey and Chad Hayes (of the original) – has been cutting back and forth, filling us in on the details of an 11-year-old girl (Madison Wolfe) who is sleepwalking, seemingly communicating with things that go bump in the night. Her mother (Frances O’Connor) doesn’t know where to turn, especially once objects start flying about.

The film is at its best in these early sequences of the family, a single mother and her four terrified children, increasingly tormented, discovering the extent of their ghostly domicile. They’re not as individuated as the family in the last one, but Wan has a toolbox full of effective horror movie tricks and proceeds to pull them out one by one, building tension out of sturdy, familiar components. He uses sudden noises, menacing voices, surprise movements, disorienting shifts in perspective, eerie apparitions, and long, trembling looks into dark corners. The children’s bedroom has posters on the wall, the better for pale faces to trick your eyes in the dead of night. There are windup cars and other vintage toys that move on their own accord, a TV mysteriously turning on or off. One of the film’s best effects involve the main girl’s sleepwalking, the camera in one seamlessly faked take slowly pushing in on her face as she sleeps in bed and a low rumbling sound fills the ambient noise, then pulling back revealing her on the floor of a different room.

Drifting and sliding, sometimes through floors and walls, Don Burgess’s pale, wide cinematography deploys sinister SteadiCam, glides and floats above and behind its characters, trapping them in the ethereal creepiness. By the time – Christmastime, in fact, a warm contrast to the film’s shivers – the Warrens meet up with a British counterpart (Simon McBurney) to investigate and document, they bring some stability, but the atmosphere remains unsettled. The spirit realm and the human world do battle. A particularly scary unbroken shot involves Ed Warren speaking to the malevolent spirit with his back turned. He sits in the foreground in complete clear focus, while behind him there’s a terrifyingly blurry figure held out of focus as it creaks and croaks out its ghostly answers. Wan holds tight on Wilson’s face, a calm professional steadily confronting the shifting target that is the intruder from the afterlife. It’s a perfect example of humanity in the face of the unknown.

Following the same formula that made its predecessor such a satisfying genre exercise, The Conjuring 2 slowly sets up a family’s distress and then follows the Warrens as they try desperately to fix the situation before someone can get seriously injured. This makes it the rare horror series that doesn’t make its villain the star – the stock in trade for Universal and Hammer monsters, Godzilla and assorted kaiju creatures, and every slasher. The Warrens make this into something of a paranormal procedural. The fun is in the repetition of images and ideas, and the slight variations. (This one’s British setting allows for fun touches, like a newspaper headline that reads, and hear this with the proper accent in your mind’s ear, “Terror for family in spook riddle!”) By the end, everyone has gotten up close and personal with ghostly suffering, in sequences that jolt and jump in all the right spots. It doesn’t reinvent the haunted house genre, or even its precursor’s techniques, but instead relies on the sturdiness of its construction. It adds up to a little less than the first, with a finale that's more routine than its setup, but there's a contagious and enveloping scary mood throughout nonetheless.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Singles Mixer: THE LOBSTER


For an intensely sad and cynical movie, The Lobster’s one good idea is awfully whimsical. It imagines a dystopian parallel world much like our own, but which takes a dementedly strong pro-marriage stance. All single people must find a mate; if they do not, they’ll be turned into the animal of their choosing. When we meet sad-sack Colin Farrell – he’s put on some weight to make his hangdog mood look extra saggy – he’s just been dumped by his unseen wife, left to trudge to a singles’ resort with his brother, who had similar misfortune and is now a dog. It’s an irresistible concept, and one sure to provoke good conversation and perhaps some honest self-reflection. I think I’d be a house cat; they’ve all the pampered benefits of dogs with none of the expectations of excitation. (And I like napping in patches of sunshine.) Sadly, the movie’s not as playful as its animating concept might lead one to believe.

When Farrell is asked what animal he’d want to be if, after his allotted time to be unattached, he can’t find a suitable match, he has his answer ready: a lobster. The hotel’s chipper manager (Olivia Colman) finds that refreshing. Most people pick more popular animals. The fields around the hotel feature the occasional rabbit, horse, camel, flamingo, and so on. I found myself wondering who they might’ve been in an earlier life. That’s later, though. First we must trudge through a stay in this sad hotel, where Farrell meets friends like a dopey lisper (John C. Reilly) who would like to be a parrot, and a fussy limper (Ben Whishaw) who’d rather not think about that question thank you very much. There are also potential mates, like a shockingly youthful nose-bleeder (Jessica Barden), an anxious biscuit-chomping lady (Ashley Jensen), and a woman we learn has no feelings whatsoever (Angeliki Papoulia).

The film’s central premise is worked out with misanthropic deadpan. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose breakthrough feature was 2009’s memorable Dogtooth, an equally imprisoned and methodical exploration of a locked-in system of perverse human behavior, creates the hotel as the stifling inverse of a mischievous Wes Anderson mood. It has a suffocating rigidity to Thimios Bakatakis’s static cinematography, trapping its characters with either too much or not enough head space, squirming with resigned discomfort like butterflies pinned behind glass while barely alive, wriggling but clearly doomed. The patrons spend their days forced to watch silently as staff acts out skits about the dangers of being alone, and then they get death-marched into painfully stilted dances and awkward chitchat around sad little meals. Once daily they’re driven out to the wilderness on a hunt, told to use tranquilizer darts to shoot and collect loners who’ve escaped the hotel pre-transformation and now live illegally in the woods. Each person caught buys the hunter an extra day before the coupling deadline.

This is distancing movie, slow and repetitive as it watches the sad desperate routines of its characters. A closed loop of behavior operating under cruel impenetrable logic, the rigorous framing drains the characters of agency. They’re trapped in a cruel world, explored by a cold story. It’s tedious and increasingly pointless, wallowing in misery, dispassionately nasty and mean. A dog is kicked to death. A woman is blinded. A man is forced to stick his hand in a hot toaster. For a movie purporting to have cutting or otherwise incisive ideas about relationships – the torture of loneliness, and the desperation it can breed for finding One True Love – it’s too hollow, forced, passionless. The actors speak uniformly in a flat affect, mumbling as they talk past each other, glumly focused on their fate. There’s no energy to their goals. They simply shrug and trudge, hunched over and preemptively drained. Maybe they would be better off as animals. Is that such a tragedy?

Lanthimos uses dreary colors to enhance the oppressive mood. Stings of classical music mix with self-amused straight-faced absurdism. One couple is dutifully celebrated in the hotel’s conference room, sent off to see if the marriage will stick with the encouragement that if they have problems they’ll be given children. “That usually helps,” the manager quips. We continue on, counting down the days until Farrell will be made into a lobster. The movie never progresses beyond the basics of its setup, with few complications, escalations, or contradictions to keep things moving along. Instead it just grinds on and on, a deadening effect rendering what starts as wry and shocking merely numbing. Eventually one character flees the hotel and meets a variety of characters hiding out in the woods – a group led by Léa Seydoux that includes Rachel Weisz, who has also been narrating the whole thing in a largely emotionless monotone. Alas, freedom of sorts is shot in the same stultifying icy precision as the hotel, and slumps on for ages in a tiresome slog.

This is the sort of infuriating movie that slowly and steadily drains all interest and inquisitiveness from a killer concept. At first I was leaning in, eager to see an imaginative vision. By the time it lost me, I found myself itching to leave, as one excruciating scene after the next failed to build or move or provoke. It strands charismatic performers in a flat, uninteresting style, punctuating long stretches of dead air with splashes of cruelty and depression. It creates an interesting allegory and proceeds to take care it almost never intersects with recognizable human emotions. It offers only empty futility, distended bleak glibness hoping its heaviness and pessimism get mistaken for profundity. What a waste. At one point a character asks if she could watch Stand By Me, and I wanted to go with her. Later, in the film’s final moments, a man prepares to stab himself in the eyes with a steak knife. By that time I could almost relate.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The False in Their Stars: ME BEFORE YOU


Me Before You is a polished Hollywood tearjerker, a romantic drama ready to load up the sentimentality necessary to manipulate every last drop from its audience’s eyes. What it doesn’t have is the touch of grit needed to sell its pain. This British romantic drama is smooth and warm, the sort of sturdy, composed, and cautious studio effort that’s a tad too reserved to get the job done, but awfully pleasant as it goes. The movie, adapted by Jojo Moyes from her novel of the same name, is about Lou (Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke), a young woman who desperately needs a job to take care of her poor family. Her dad’s out of work and her older sister is a single mother trying to go back to school. They’re in bad financial shape. So it’s a good thing a job placement service gets her connected with a local rich couple (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance) looking for a caretaker for their son, Will (Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin), who was an active young gent before he was paralyzed in an accident two years prior.

Calling it a romantic drama tips its hand. It is a movie where the characters can’t see what the audience can plainly tell. It’s obvious where the whole thing’s headed. The result is just waiting around for the people involved to catch up and realize what genre they’re playing in: the doomed romance with a medical bent, like Love Story and The Fault in Our Stars before it. At first Will, depressed and unhappily resigned to his quadriplegic status, is prickly and unhappy about his latest caretaker. His home health aide (Stephen Peacocke) is to take care of the bathing and changing. It’s Lou’s job to simply keep him company and make sure he gets regular activity and medication. She’s plucky enough and charming enough that eventually, despite his best efforts, he doesn’t mind having her around. The brewing affection between the two of them is inevitable, but still touching. A great deal of the appeal rests with Emilia Clarke, who plays sweet and adorable, crinkling her face, wearing primary colors and floral patterns, putting on a chipper smile day after day. She’s clearly the ray of sunshine his gloomy outlook needs.

From cautious, tentative friendship to full on flirtation, the relationship becomes meaningful for both. Interestingly, it never quite becomes as romantic as you might suspect, as Will keeps Lou at a slight distance even when they’re at their closest. He feels inadequate, still mourning his mobility, feeling trapped because he can’t move anything below his neck. This has the unfortunate side effect of allowing the movie to treat a person with disabilities as if he’s a diminished person. Some characters ask if he’ll be getting back to work, but he’ll hear none of it. He’s simply too frustrated. No matter how happy being around Lou makes him, it won’t make up for his traumatic injuries. It allows his disability and his depression to become one, and incurable, as if it’s inherently a fate worse than death, while turning him into only an object by which her story of self-empowerment is enabled. Even in its loveliest moments – a spin on the dance floor, she in his lap while the camera is locked on the side of the wheelchair – it doesn’t stop bumping up against what it falsely perceives as limits to his ability to have a “normal” life.

The movie is also hopelessly dreamy about their connection. It asks an audience to appreciate how much better he is when she’s around, and how angry he is about not being who he used to be, while completely eliding some facts of his condition. It’s all too stiff upper lip, with suffering spoken of, but not seen. Coy cuts take us away from the messier elements of his daily life, and the set design keeps him behind closed doors for the real moments of pain and inconvenience. This isn’t a movie about a woman growing to love a man with a disability; it’s about a woman who loves a man despite his disability, as she’s conveniently allowed to skip all the most intense parts of helping him. We’re told he’s in pain, but he never shows the camera. We’re told he’s in a state of despair no emotional connection can cure, and yet there are only hints of such deep depression in his frowning into the middle distance. And then, in climactic moments involving a medical procedure, the scene fades out before the lump in my throat could properly form.

So it’s undercooked around the edges, and warm and gooey in the center. But it’s also slickly produced and attractively photographed to be sunny and bright, covered in soft coffeehouse soundtrack selections and wistful montage. Director Thea Sharrock (who has worked in theater and on the BBC’s Call the Midwife) makes it a rosy experience that can be effective in its falseness. I found myself on occasion sufficiently convinced by the syrupy button pushing, especially in the first half, before its nagging misjudgments start to pile up. Clarke and Claflin have fine chemistry together, and scenes are allowed to sit between the two of them as they draw closer, share space, and play out their maudlin dialogues. I wished it could be more fully fleshed out, and more deeply felt. It’s hesitant to find the real dark corners of its premise, the sharp jabs of pain sanded away until what’s left is a gentle sinking into its watery-eyed finale. But in the surface-minded approach it still manages to whip up enough sympathy for its leads to nearly sell the whole experience.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Secret of the Snooze:
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES:
OUT OF THE SHADOWS


If you buy a ticket for a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows you get what you paid for. It follows the stereotypical sequel strategy of “same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.” Like its predecessor, the 2014 reboot of the 90’s big-screen live-action adaptations of the animated TV interpretations of the comic books – it’s a nesting doll of cultural recycling – it follows the continuing adventures of a quartet of teenage turtles who are mutant ninjas. Or are they teenage mutants who are turtle ninjas? Or would it be more accurate to call them mutant turtles who are teenage ninjas? However you arrange the adjectives, they’re a mostly indistinguishable group. You can tell them apart by their headbands’ colors, and the small particulars, like the nerd’s goggles and the brawn’s gruffness, and the dweeb’s annoying wisecracks. Anyway, there’s yet another threat to New York City and the turtles have to jump into action and save the day. Cowabunga and whatnot.

Out of the Shadows is a glossy live-action cartoon, with hulking steroidal turtles, buff beasts with hard shells and harder abs, bouncing through energetic adventure sequences. The plot, again by screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, is pitched at the lower end of the Saturday morning cartoon level, with thin motivations and broad conflict broken up into episodic chunks and strung along by clunky exposition and juvenile humor. But the action is often enjoyable as big, dumb, colorful excitement involving: a tricked-out garbage truck in attack mode; a mad scientist; evil ninjas; two felons mutated into vaguely humanoid large jungle animals by purple ooze; a tank; a waterfall; a hockey stick; three glowing MacGuffins; a portal in the sky spitting out a gigantic war machine piece by piece; and an interdimensional slimy tentacle-waggling brain stuffed inside a robot.

Director Dave Green – of the amiably passable kid-friendly found-footage E.T. knockoff Earth to Echo – knows his way around slick, silly movement, shooting it all in an energetic and propulsive style. It’s bouncy and convincing enough, even when a giant rhino man is chasing a dude who has slapped together makeshift rollerblades. Matching the first movie’s standout setpiece of a semi sliding down a mountain, this one features a sequence in which the turtles jump out of one plane onto another, fight inside that plane’s cargo hold, then crash it into a rainforest river that takes them down rapids while fleeing a tank. It’s a neat feat of totally nutty adventure. That’s fun. The rest of the movie can be a bit of a slog, trudging through flat human story beats, with returning reporter April (Megan Fox, used mostly for sex appeal in a movie ostensibly aimed at 9-year-olds) as a turtle ally. Meanwhile, her cameraman (Will Arnett) is taking public credit for the turtle’s heroism from the last time.

We’re introduced to new people who only exist to push along the plot. There’s Stephen Amell as a police officer determined to find the now-fugitive Shredder (Brian Tee) after seeing him escape on his watch. There’s Tyler Perry as the aforementioned mad scientist, amusingly playing him like a slightly goofier Neil deGrasse Tyson. There’s Laura Linney as a no-nonsense detective, totally straight-faced while talking to CGI teenage mutant ninja turtles like they’re real people. None of these people are characters; they're barely even story. Eventually the gooey brain (with the voice of Brad Garrett) is threatening to emerge and, I don’t know, smash up New York a bit. The whole thing is conventional summer blockbuster stuff, with the bad guys snatching up MacGuffins and the good guys trying to stop a disaster movie from breaking out.

Sure, the PG-13 cartoon roughhousing is sometimes diverting enough, but without a reason to care it’s hard to get invested beyond the surface spectacle. I suppose it comes down to me not liking the turtles, and not even being able to tell them apart most of the time even though they introduce themselves at least three times over the course of this movie. They’re not as poorly characterized as the humans, but they’re still hard to know beyond the token “likes pizza” and “good at ninja things” details. They don’t even have much conflict, idly wondering if people would ever accept them out of the sewers before re-embracing their secrecy. They learn to work together and share their feelings. It’s rote kids’ movie moralizing, just another unsuccessful way to make it seem like this silly distraction amounts to something worthwhile beyond its all too fleeting goofy flashes of excitement.

Friday, June 3, 2016

As Long As You Love Me:
POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING


A light and frivolous comedy with a pitch-perfect recreation of modern celebrity culture, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping need only present a tiny exaggeration of the lifestyle of a coddled music industry star to count as satire. In the guise of a concert tour documentary done in a self-mythologizing slick puff piece style, a la Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or Katy Perry: Piece of Me, complete with talking head acclaim from colleagues and clouds of social media reaction flying out of the screen, this movie is too cozy and celebratory to be a devastating satire. It knows its lead is dumb and shallow, and wants him to succeed anyway. But it’s smart, and totally dead-on, in its evocation of our buzzing echo chamber, with so many outlets and avenues chattering, demanding access to celebrities’ lives every hour of every day. To be a music icon these days is to be living your life as performance art, always on, oversharing taking the place of actual insight.

The movie invents the dim but apparently talented Connor4Real, an egotistical practitioner of the smooth falsetto pop/R&B with rap breaks the likes of Bieber and Justin Timberlake put out. Connor (Andy Samberg) rose to fame with his two childhood best friends (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) in the group Style Boyz, which was part Beastie Boys, part Backstreet Boys. Eventually he went solo, while the others became a D.J. and a farmer, an unpleasant split that nonetheless resulted in a hit album. (He called it Thriller, Also.) Now, as the movie begins, he’s about to go on tour for his second album, and it is terrible, full of songs like a belated and self-aggrandizing marriage equality anthem that constantly reminds the listener Connor isn’t gay, a booming braggart’s club beat about how humble he is, and a filthy number of elaborate metaphor comparing lovemaking to the death of Bin Laden. The movie concerns Connor’s slowly dawning sense of his waning cultural relevancy and his desperate moves to grab it back.

We’re told the songs he’s promoting are terrible, but really they’re insanely catchy, put together by The Lonely Island, the stars, directors, and co-writers of this movie and the comedy rap group responsible for the terrific Digital Shorts from their time on SNL. Of course the guys behind such memorable music video parodies as “Lazy Sunday” and “I’m On a Boat” would be smart enough to write songs so beautifully stupid. The music in the movie is consistent with those earlier parodies, with elaborately produced videos and stage performances that are smartly constructed silliness, crude lyrics with melodies cleverly matching existing popular genres. Still, we get the idea these are songs no one wants, especially after a disastrous corporate cross-promotion gets them beamed into every refrigerator in the country. That’s a funny swipe at U2’s last album’s sudden appearance, and a good jab at synergistic corporate-sponsored album releases of all kinds. As Connor says, “there’s no such thing as selling out anymore!”

Connor’s tour tanks as ticket sales are low. To make matters worse, the album isn’t exactly flying off shelves. He’s just not the celebrity he used to be. The movie follows his increasingly desperate attempts to get attention for himself, trying to maintain his lavish bubble and protect his thin skin until he can hear the roar of uncritical success once more. (Maybe if that doesn’t work he could run for president?) It becomes a slap-happy lampooning of the modern media landscape, a predictable movie about how predictable a pop news rise-fall-rise narrative can be. He goes on The Tonight Show and gets suckered into a nostalgia act. He tries to get E! to cover his impending engagement live on the air. (His girlfriend (Imogen Poots): “Aw, you invited the press!”) He Snapchats and tweets and vlogs, clearly emotionally troubled but egged on by all the chatter swirling around him, a cycle of scandals and photo-ops, manufactured mostly, but sometimes accidentally real, like a quick change that leaves him naked on stage for ten seconds. “A third of the way to Mars!” Connor shouts, in one his most Zoolander-like moments.

There’s nothing particularly serious about Popstar, which uses its laser-focused precision for playful surfaces on which to goof around, but it moves too quickly to be anything less than a good time. It’s chockablock with cameos, SNL vets making the most of tiny roles – Tim Meadows, Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and the like making memorable impressions – and music world legends – Ringo Starr, Questlove, Usher, and many, many, many more – playing brilliantly to or against their public personas. It just zips right along, through enabling entourages, crazy fans, wasteful lifestyle choices, pranks, paparazzi, chattering gossip programs, colliding camera crews, and concerts. My favorite moments, sparingly but cuttingly used, are a perfect parody of TMZ’s show, with Will Arnett an uncanny Harvey Levin type draped over a cubicle and cackling with his reporters. The movie is breathlessly ridiculous, never lingering too long on any one aspect of pop stardom, tightly packaged and efficiently silly. Is it a modern-day Spinal Tap? No. But it’s the closest thing to it.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Clash on a Hot Italian Roof: A BIGGER SPLASH


A Bigger Splash is a sensual melodrama with sun-baked Italian noir intentions that don’t fully reveal themselves until late in the film. Until then it spends a good long time watching its characters behave, collecting them in a contained space and tracking their interactions, subtle shifts in demeanor, taking and giving offense, drawn to and repulsed by each other. There’s an androgynous rock goddess (Tilda Swinton) recovering from vocal chord surgery staying at an isolated villa on a small Italian island with her handsome documentarian boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts). They’re comfortable and quiet, enjoying reading and sunning, mostly nude. So it’s a rude awakening to change their routine – and cover up a bit – when they have unexpected guests in the form of the rocker’s ex, a preening music producer (Ralph Fiennes) and his 22-year-old daughter (Dakota Johnson), who he only recently learned existed. They come to overshadow their vacation, quite literally blotting out the sun with their arrival as their descending plane casts its silhouette on a sunny beach.

Director Luca Guadagnino, whose 2009 feature I Am Love was an even more sumptuous melodrama starring Swinton, sets about creating a lush European character piece under which can simmer an undercurrent of eroticism and danger. The four people cooped up in an island getaway have intertwining pasts – it was Fiennes who first introduced Schoenaerts to Swinton, a couple who have now been together for many years, weathering storms that weigh with slowly revealed heaviness upon their relationship – and yet often try to act like they don’t. On one level it’s a movie about languorous rock and rollers at rest, stretching out poolside, cooking wonderful meals, reading interesting literature, spinning great records. They engage in passionate behavior, dancing, swimming, and eating amongst skin, sun, lapping waves, and fragrant fauna. What’s better than a late night karaoke session at a local street festival or an impromptu dance party? And yet what are these people really up to? It’s not always clear. There’s a lot of tension here, sexual – they’re four beautiful people in close quarters, after all – and otherwise.

It’s a movie about looking, we at them and they at each other. David Kajganich’s screenplay, based on a 1969 Alain Delon film called La Piscine, offers plenty of excuses to bring characters together, trapping them in encounters tracing shifts and jabs in relationships, often communicated nonverbally in a glance held in a shot/reverse shot, or a showy camera swivel, or a reflection off a pair of glasses. Guadagnino deploys splendid Yorick Le Saux camerawork in ways that show off its fluid dexterity, pushing in and swinging around, or cut into in quick flashes of distemper. It’s a movie that rests on its characters making eyes at one another – lovers expressing empathy or disgust, a preening braggart making it all about him, or a quiet girl sitting alone at a remove, testing the waters without making the content of her thoughts clear. It tracks silent transmissions of charged implications, tracing fault lines to an inevitable crack-up. The danger of something bad happening is always present, though its exact cause or source is kept tingling just out of reach. Deft flashbacks help reveal tangled emotions long past, which help contextualize the confusion of the present.

Four terrific performances animate what could easily be a frustratingly vague haze. Because the actors are comfortably rooted in their characters’ skins – the better to pull off an easy, breezy, equal-opportunity nudity from all involved at one point or another – it’s worth investing in their circumstances and puzzling out their motivations. Fiennes takes center stage as a man who can’t stop talking, pick pick picking at characters’ insecurities in ways that are equally unaware and yet too targeted to be totally dismissed as accident. This is in contrast to Swinton, whose recovering rocker is under medical orders to remain silent, her only dialogue spoken sparingly in a pained whisper. Schoenaerts has a solid masculine sensitivity about him, clearly in love, a doting caretaker totally annoyed by their unexpected guests, and yet retains corners of mystery about his emotional place. Lastly, Johnson is what? She’s totally unknowable up to the end, at once powerless and holding all the cards, an open book and a continually unfolding mystery. Is she a schemer or merely aloof, a seductress or a guileless id? As we learn just what these characters mean and mean to each other, the conflict at a low-boil is clearly ready to boil over.

When it reaches its deliriously unsettled conclusion, the tantalizing surface composure works to make it very cold, rejecting conventional satisfying conclusions or answers. What could be over-the-top is instead underplayed with dark comedy and cold laughs. (Listen to what a police chief barks over the phone about the morgue freezer and tell me it’s not going for deliberate gallows humor.) It is a bit deflating to turn such a hothouse of melodrama into a bitterly ironic noir in its final moments. But Guadagnino plays by the rules he set up, brining the characters in inevitable conflict and springing surprising developments with a certain merciless logic. Sure, it would be nice to cavort in the sun with gorgeous half-undressed people, but the fun has to end sometime, and in this case the real world encroaches through petty jealousies and sharp pangs of regret. What’s the worth of a passionate Dionysian lifestyle if it’s so fragile people who know just the right exploitable cracks in the façade can bring it to the brink of ruin?
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