Saturday, October 29, 2011

Less Than Purrfect: PUSS IN BOOTS

Puss in Boots, an anthropomorphized cat with snazzy footwear, first clawed his way to smirking CGI fame with the second Shrek, showing up as a terrific foil and an adorable sight gag with a soft, yet rolling, voice provided in a near purr by Antonio Banderas. The character is a swashbuckling feline, with a twist of Zorro mixed with the roaming Banderas gunman from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Needless to say, he was strikingly perfect in the fractured fairy tale universe in which he appeared.

Now that the Shreks have stayed well past their welcome, it’s only natural that one of the most enjoyable supporting characters has struck off on his own (albeit with a small army of credited screenwriters and Shrek the Third director Chris Miller) to forge a potential new franchise for Dreamworks Animation with what is, I suppose, a prequel to those movies. It’s mostly a failure, an entirely inconsequential film that had a minimum of my interest while it ran, but lost it as soon as the credits rolled. It’s a nice try, anyways.

In Puss in Boots the titular rogue swordsman is out to find some magic beans when he runs into a cat burglar, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), and a talking egg, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). They, too, want the beans, but Humpty and Puss have some backstory to get out of the way. In an extended flashback we learn not only why these two seem to hate each other, we also get a look at the origins of Puss in Boots, a look that answers all kinds of none-too-pressing questions. Why is he an outlaw? Why does he wear those boots? You’ll find out.

With all of this out of the way, the plot can get down to business. The two cats and the egg team up to take the magic beans and grow a beanstalk to the giant’s castle where they will find the golden-egg-laying goose that will make them rich, rich, rich, I tell you! The beans are currently in the possession of a surly, thuggish Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), who just haven’t been the same since Jack fell down and broke his crown.

Lacking the emotional depth and visual energy of the Kung Fu Panda movies, Puss in Boots tries desperately to wring a few additional notes out of a one- or two-note character by sending him through a sagging plot loaded up with predictable kids movie antics and a few did-I-just-hear-that? innuendos to ostensibly delight the parents who will probably just be hoping their kids don’t ask them to explain later. It’s not entirely without its charms, but those charms are few and far between. Puss’s cat behavior is cute at times as he laps up some milk or is distracted by a beam of light and the voice performance from Banderas is simply delightful. I just wish this cat had something a little more memorable to do.

It’s all rather handsomely animated, even if the frames seem to be a bit sparse and uninteresting, especially compared to dense gag-riddled scenery of the Shreks. But what really seems to be missing most of all is a sense of urgency or necessity. It’s all perfectly harmless and easy enough to watch, but I find it hard to believe it’ll stick in the memory for very long. Even on the way back to my car, I found some of the details slipping away. It’s just barely passable and, especially in the case of whole families who’ll show up and be forced to pay 3D surcharges, that’s just not quite good enough.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ain't No Time? Baby, Bye, Bye, Bye: IN TIME

With In Time, writer-director Andrew Niccol, who once wrote The Truman Show as well as created the near-future gene-swap thriller Gattaca and the holographic actress comedy Simone, creates a world in which time is literally money. Science has made it possible to live forever, but obviously this would create an unsustainable population growth if everyone were allowed access to the miracle technology. To get around this, there is some kind of vaguely worldwide crypto-fascistic capitalist system (I can only assume, since the movie doesn’t help out much when it comes to comprehension) by which many are allowed to die so others can live forever young.

In this world, people live with free time until their twenty-fifth birthday, after which they stop aging, but a glowing green countdown clock on their forearm jolts to life. They have one free year. Any time after that must be earned. In this futuristic nightmare, time has become currency, traded, stolen, bought, and earned. Niccol has precisely one good use for a world like this, to create a striking metaphor for income inequality. After this has been acknowledged often, redundantly, and gravely, he and his characters have no idea what to do with this revelation. The film digs so quickly and carelessly into the concept that loose bits of narrative avalanche back down into the plot holes, blocking believability from escaping.

The story centers on Will (Justin Timberlake, who really should think about singing again), a factory worker in the ghetto living day to day with just enough minutes to his name to get him to next payday. He rescues a rich man (Matt Bomer) from a bar fight with a thug (Alex Pettyfer) who wanted to steal his century of life. The rich guy is over a hundred years old and wants to end it all. While Will sleeps, the wealthy man gives him his century and dies, or “times out” in the parlance of this picture. This is suspicious to the government, who sends a timekeeper (the always awesome Cillian Murphy) to investigate. He decides it’s a murder after having only seen surveillance footage of Will fleeing the scene, circumstantial evidence at best.

Will doesn’t know this, though. He thinks he can move his mom (Olivia Wilde) into a nice new home. What he doesn’t know is that his mom is about to time out when she can’t afford to pay for bus fare and consequently dies on her lonely walk, unable to find someone to spare a minute. Enraged, Will sets off across the time zones (I couldn’t say what these are, but they appear to be neighborhoods separated by toll booths to keep people of differing life expectancies from mingling) to stick it to the richest in their society. There, he almost immediately runs into a wealthy, nefarious banker (Mad Men’s supremely conniving Vincent Kartheiser) and his beautiful daughter (Amanda Seyfried).

That’s where the law catches up to Will. He beats up some cops and takes the banker’s daughter with him as he races away. (You see, she’s kidnapped, or maybe she loves him, or maybe both.) So, the movie settles into its true nature as a chase movie. Timberlake and Seyfried flee to the ghetto where they agree to become some kind of hot futuristic leather-clad time thieves, pulling off daring Robin Hood heists (we only see two fairly uncomplicated ones) to give time to those who need it most while trying to stay one step ahead of the timekeepers, and her father. There’s lots of movement in this movie but no momentum. It’s a curiously inert film for one that has people on the run bearing literal countdown clocks that illuminate every scene. I was constantly trying to remember how much time our characters are carrying with them (it seems the lower they get on time, the faster they can run to try and get more), even as I was waiting around for anything to take my mind away from trying to figure out how this world works.

One minor character laments her husband dying with “9 years on his clock.” In this world, is there no way one can leave inheritance in case you die before your time? We see countless banks with vaults full of time. Why would you bank your time? If you run out before you can get back to the bank, there’d be no way to revive you since, as we clearly see, dead people can’t receive any new time payments. After a while, I stopped contemplating questions like these and instead focused on how nice it is that the concept offers relatively young actors a chance to play roles they otherwise couldn’t have for decades. Murphy (35) is playing a grizzled veteran cop with over fifty years on the job. Kartheiser (32) is playing an elderly robber baron. Wilde (27) is playing a mother celebrating her 50th birthday as the film opens. Now, the film doesn’t do much with the discrepancies between the ages of the actors and the characters beyond the initial cheap visual gag, but at least it’s proof the concept could have worked if it either 1.) made more sense and/or 2.) were more exciting.

In Time is a difficult film to write about because it’s a difficult film to care about. It’s a straight-up-the-middle, two star mediocrity and more or less a bore. It’s a movie in which no aspect in particular goes terribly wrong. It’s more a matter of no aspect in particular going especially right. Not even the great cinematographer Roger Deakins could help things along. It’s a high concept picture (a concept that, in theory, I absolutely loved) that never gets nearly as good, or as entertaining, as it should be.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Aliens in the Hood: ATTACK THE BLOCK

This year’s movie monsters have been sadly lacking. J. J. Abrams’s Super 8 is a good monster movie but, ironically enough, its most disappointing element is the monster. The humans are the entire source of interest. By the time the monster shows up in all his slimy, bug-eyed glory, it’s underwhelming. The titular beasts in Cowboys and Aliens were similarly afflicted with a ho-hum derivativeness that totally sunk what little there is to commend about that movie. These things are all arms and slime with inky black eyes and watery slithers, nothing more than the basic component elements of H.R. Giger’s Alien designs mixed and matched into something familiar-but-different.

So imagine my amazement that the slick and scrappy British creature feature Attack the Block shows off monsters that I’ve never seen before. In the dark, these are barely visible aliens, every inch covered with pitch-black fur. Only their eerie glowing maws reveal their presence in swift, chomping movements. I was delighted and surprised by these creepy creatures, which have a sense of weight and reality that is all too missing from those modern CG beasts. Even more impressive is the fact that the film that houses them is not only one of the most flat-out entertaining pictures of the year, but also the perfect kind of resourceful genre flick that has a point of view and something to say.

The events of the film take place in and around a towering building of low-income housing that dominates a city block in south London. The protagonists are a multi-ethnic group of young, aimless, posturing, unsupervised teens. They’re a tight-knit group of friends, joking, laughing, and bragging amongst themselves. A tall, older-looking-than-his-years boy clearly runs the group (John Boyega), but his buddies (which include Franz Drameh, Alex Esmail, Simon Howard, and Leeon Jones) aren’t underlings; they’re close friends. Their relationships are sharply drawn and convincing. They’re as warm and unconsciously self-conscious as any group of teen boys. We can see that they’re good kids – they genuinely care about their friends and their neighborhood – but the film doesn’t let them off easy. Their relationship to the audience is complicated. As the film opens, we are introduced to them menacing a white twenty-something woman (Jodie Whittaker), trying to steal her purse. While they bother the poor lady, a small falling object crushes a car parked nearby.

Investigating this crash landing, the kids are attacked by a gross, startling little alien. In a fit of fright, and posturing, they bludgeon the creature to death. Thus, the film starts off like a sick joke version of E.T. Instead of a white suburban kid befriending a nice little extra-terrestrial, here a group of inner-city kids kill a mean old alien and parade the body back to their block. They take it to their local weed dealer (Nick Frost) who decides to let them keep it in his weed room until the kids can contact the proper scientific authorities. After all, they just discovered a new life form, at least that’s what one of the buyers in the room (Luke Treadaway), a stoned nature doc fan, informs them.

This is all well and good, rapid-fire world building, but when things start to get hairy, the film explodes in a rush of excitement that builds increasingly tense and giddy as we race towards the climax. It turns out that the alien was just the first to land, so when the furry, pitch-black, essentially invisible, glowing-toothed aliens start stalking around the block, trying desperately to get into the towering building, looking like they’re sniffing around for revenge, the kids are the only ones prepared to recognize the threat. There’s a bit of Joe Dante (he of Gremlins) in the exuberance with which the film approaches the danger. The kids grab what they can find – anything blunt and wieldable – while they mount their bikes and get ready to protect their block from a localized alien invasion. The action that follows makes incredible use of their apartment building, with the characters and creatures scampering up, down, and all around the inner-city architecture in exciting, comprehensible ways with crisp editing from Jonathan Amos while cinematographer Thomas Townend gets a gritty beauty out of the thick nighttime atmosphere.

The film finds great vibrancy in the mostly inexperienced young actors, who bring a youthful vitality and braggadocio to their roles. They’re posturing at first, playing at the idea of toughness, but as events unfold they drop the charade and slowly turn into heroic toughs despite being scared out of their minds. One suggests they text for help. The reply: “This is too much madness to fit into one text!” The characters come from a rough part of town, but that doesn’t make them bad, unlikable, or disposable. The film asserts their humanity and strength under pressure, allows them to goof around and fight back with equal agency. They aren’t the white upper crust with the stiff upper lip of Merchant Ivory films and the Royal Family, but that doesn’t make them any less British. When they run into their victim from the film’s opening and discover that she lives in the same building they do, they’re apologetic. “We wouldn’t have robbed you if we’d known.”

This is a film energized by a deep sense of social justice and cross-cultural understanding without feeling burdened by weighty themes. It’s fleet, fast, and funny with an irrepressible wit and heart that shows through even the squishier moments of creature-related mayhem. Here, violence has consequences. Early on, the police turn up in response to the disturbance and make things worse by assuming that these kids are on a violent rampage and locking down the block. No one gets in; no one gets out. The kids have to deal with this dangerous situation without any outside help. It’s a move that amps up the plot’s tension considerably – nowhere to run, nowhere to find reinforcements – but also serves the larger satiric point beautifully. The larger society has turned a blind eye, misinterpreting the problems and enforcing solutions that only make matters worse. Those in power have effectively abandoned these kids.

Writer-director Joe Cornish, a veteran of British TV, makes his feature debut with Attack the Block, which is, in the end, not only one of the best movies of the year but one of the best debuts in several years. It’s a deceptively complex movie that mixes serious intent with a great pop tone, deeply aware of both youth culture and sociological concerns. Frightfully exciting set pieces make increasingly inventive use of a limited number of locations. The film builds characters that feel real. They’re funny and engaging and never sink to spouting monster movie clichés. They’re as distinct and memorable as the monsters they have to fight and the place in which they live. If you never thought a movie about “big alien gorilla-wolf [expletives]” could be not only one of the most entertaining movies of the year, but one of the most moving and thoughtful as well (and all in only 88 minutes!) I have just one word for you: Believe.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fun for All or All for Fun? THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers has been adapted for the movies many times. After all, the familiar story is a rich source of swordplay and intrigue. Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, with the help of young would-be musketeer d’Artagnan, try to protect the French monarchy from the dastardly coup being planned by the evil Cardinal Richelieu. It’s a great story, though it’s rarely made into good movies. I think it’s safe to say, though, that the story has never before been told in the way director Paul W.S. Anderson and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies have in this newest adaptation. They’ve turned it into a poor-man’s Pirates of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling 3D superhero movie with a thick layer of steampunk nonsense and genre tomfoolery ladled on top. (It’s greatest accomplishment is sure to be the exceptionally confused book reports that kids in the audience may be writing in the future.) Did I mention I kind of enjoyed it?

This is a film that starts off with a note of such high ridiculousness that it’s pleasing to find that it never climbs down. It all starts in Venice, where the Three Musketeers are introduced with splashy comic-book style freeze frames that spell out their names in thick ink, as if the screen has briefly turned to parchment. Athos (Matthew Macfadyen) bubbles up from underwater and attacks some guards with a multi-pronged crossbow. A cloaked Aramis (Luke Evans) dives off a bridge to smash into a gondola. A chained Porthos (Ray Stevenson) rips the shackles off the wall and beats back his captors. Meeting up, it’s clear that they are in the middle of heist. They, along with the sultry Milady (Milla Jovovich), are stealing secret plans to a warship hidden deep within Da Vinci’s vault that is accessible through a retractable staircase, the base of which is covered in Resident Evil by way of Indiana Jones booby traps. It’s this kind of wild invention and freewheeling genre stealing that will characterize the movie to come. We haven’t even really started yet. This is mere prologue.

The heist goes wrong care of an unexpected double cross, so the Musketeers are wallowing in their less than heroic status, nearly destitute on the streets of Paris, when sweet-faced, smooth-faced d’Artagnan (nicely earnest Logan Lerman) rides into town hoping to become a Musketeer like his father once was. Through some tortured scenes of sometimes-painful dialogue, the three become four as they begin to realize the extent to which France needs their help. The movie is top-heavy with thudding scenes of scheming and needling that move the characters with some degree of narrative bobbling into position for the forthcoming action sequences. Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz, always welcome) and Milady plan to break apart the French monarchy by creating distrust between the adolescent king (Freddie Fox) and his equally young bride (Juno Temple). Waltz, looking for all the world like a teacher disappointed in his students, regards the childish royalty with barely concealed disgust. He’s not much happier with the British envoy he’s planning to use as an unknowing patsy for his plan to work. That would be the Duke of Buckingham, played hammily and wonderfully against type by Orlando Bloom.

So the stage is set for some exciting action, and it arrives more or less on schedule. Anderson, shooting in 3D, creates some great crazy visuals that play with depth and space. As the film slips farther and farther away from Dumas, it arrives at an uneven, but terrific, sense of boyish adventure with an anything goes genre freedom. A woman in full period costume rappels down the side of Versailles and then wriggles in slow motion through a corridor filled with invisible trip-wires. Sailing ships with dirigible-like enhancements float across the sky. Flamethrowers and rapid-fire cannons shoot flames and bombs. And still, amidst this pile-up of unexpected imagery that plays like a head-on collision between Terry Gilliam and Hayao Miyazaki, we get simple, fun swordplay and gunfire that thrills as well. Like that other disreputable scholckmeister Michael Bay, 3D has sharpened and clarified Paul W.S. Anderson’s style. It was hard to glimpse in ridiculously terrible movies like Mortal Kombat and Alien vs. Predator, but with Three Musketeers there is a likable self-conscious feeling of playfulness. When Richelieu is confronted with an accusation, he responds, “Am I supposed to laugh maniacally and divulge my plans?” When a flying ship comes crashing down onto a steeple, the architectural flourish appears to slice up out of the screen. Moments like these feel irreverent, gimmicky and completely natural.

Does the whole movie work on this level? No. So much of the film is straining to reach a sense of light fun that remains just out of reach. Dialogue is clunky and strange. Scenes seem to pass with little consequence before suddenly becoming only stifling importance. By the end, it’s clear that the plot is burdened by its own possible future. Characters and events are left dangling just enough for a sequel, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving all the best villains on the sidelines during the climax, while the heroes do battle with some lesser evils. And it’s all so very strange, a movie at once completely derivative and utterly idiosyncratic. It’s both an exasperating and an enjoyable big budget oddity. It’s a movie that will play best to an open-minded audience prepared with patience, indulgence, and low expectations.

Friday, October 21, 2011


The reason why Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity was so scary was the way the conceit – a man and a woman are concerned with strange things that go bump in the night, buy a camera and set it up to film while they sleep – played with the way we watch movies, specifically horror movies. With a long, locked-down shot as the crux of the film, it’s a horror movie that can’t rely on the standard technique of moving the camera to reveal a sudden blast of the unexpected or to give us supernatural point-of-view shots. Here, the deceptively simple low-tech effects of the scares more often than not happen creepily in front of a still camera while the characters are sleeping. A door swings. A sheet rustles. A light turns on, then off. My eyes scanned the frame, looking for, but kind of hoping not to find, clues to confirm the feeling of creeping dread. It’s all about the sound design, about what’s inside the frame and outside of it. The film builds to its scariest point and then drops immediately away into the end credits. Only the screams remained lodged in my brain, rattling around while I tried to sleep.

The sequel, from director Tod Williams, mistook more cameras (from a security system) and more editing for better scares. It followed the family of the woman’s sister as they experience some paranormal activity of their own in a story that turns out to be mostly prequel with a climax that lines up on the timeline with the first film’s. It was thinner and lighter, without the same lingering fright. The formula had already grown a bit too predictable. That’s the trick with any franchise. The filmmakers have to know that we think we know what we’re going to be shown, then tease us with the expected in order to startle with what new surprises they have in store. In Paranormal Activity 3, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, with writer Christopher Landon, continue backing up the franchise’s story, this time to 1988, and there they have found just the right balance between predictability and novelty. They’ve made a scary movie, a quite possibly my favorite of the three.

Katie, from the first movie, and her sister Kristi, from the second, are little girls in 1988. Their stepfather Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is a wedding videographer, so he has plenty of access to bulky VHS camcorders and tapes. It’s through these tapes that the story unfolds. (Luckily, the look of the film is slightly clearer than that format.) Like the others, the film starts with a happy family. The mother (Lauren Bittner) and the girls (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown) alternately mug for the camera, are annoyed by its presence, and sometimes forget it’s even there, in the style of home videos everywhere. But once Dennis starts hearing strange noises, he decides to set up some cameras to monitor the house.

Directors Joost and Schulman co-directed the documentary Catfish from last year, a creepy/sad first-person account of a flirtatious situation escalating in an unexpected, though not entirely unsurprising direction. Here, they bring the same sense of a well-intentioned videographer slowly but surely getting in over his head. The cameras reveal startling sights. Dennis shows them to a coworker (Dustin Ingram). They debate what to do. Little Kristi is caught on tape getting up in the middle of the night to talk with her large, invisible imaginary friend, Toby. When confronted about it, she seems frightened. If she tells Toby’s secrets, she says, she “won’t be safe.”

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the cameras record more and more strange sights, strange enough to convince Dennis to set up a few more cameras, which in turn record more strange sights. But what’s surprising, or at least gratifying, is the way Joost and Schulman play visually with the film’s form. We get three vantage points: first, a camera on a tripod in the master bedroom looking over the sleeping couple, reminiscent of the first film, and is reflected in their closet mirror; second, a camera in the girls’ room looking over their beds and toys but with the closet and the bathroom permanently, agonizingly out of the frame; third, a camera attached to an oscillating fan that slowly turns to give us alternating views into the kitchen and living room. We cut between these three predictable, repetitive shots, punctuated only by moments when someone moves the cameras for some reason.

This is all we need to see the story, all we need to constantly scan to find the scare. At night, in the girls’ room, we hear a closet door creak. In the master bedroom, we hear a thump in the hall. Downstairs, the camera slowly pans back and forth, so that a sudden appearance in one room inexorably is pulled out of sight leaving a tension in its place. Did I just see what I thought I saw? Like the first film but cleverly expanded and multiplied, the scares come from what we can and can’t see. It’s the scariness of hearing a strange noise in the middle of the night without the instant release of being able to leap up and investigate.

We are literally frozen with fear. This makes it all the more startling when suddenly, over as quickly as it began, something happens. A Lite-Brite turns itself on (the scariest Lite-Brite of all time). A door slams shut. A sheet moves across a room. A light falls. A piece of furniture flips over. Paranormal Activity 3 expertly teases the audience, withholding information, causing whispered speculations, until swiftly and forcefully, the fright becomes real and present within the frame. It’s fun to hear waves of fear ripple through the audience as different people see things in the still, quiet shots that startle them, and then abruptly we are all united in one big jolt. Just like the first film, it’s a movie made by people who know how to find a good visual gimmick and put it to work pulling an audience into a hushed and nervous sense of anxiety and fear.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gotta Dance: FOOTLOOSE

Were we ever really supposed to believe that in 1984, even in the small Southern town setting of Herbert Ross’s Footloose, a law could be passed banning dancing? I don’t think so, which is just as well, since the idea grows even more unbelievable in 2011 as we see a modern version of the same story. No, this law is metaphor, pure and simple, for generation gaps, for the way parents try to hold on to their teens even as they pull away. That’s why this story worked in 1984 and why it still works now.  The first time around it was an agreeable, casually iconic piece of 80’s kitsch. This time, the material has been transmuted into a terrific piece of crowd-pleasing pop art.

The biggest reason for the improvement between the two versions is the director Craig Brewer. With his two breakout, decidedly R-rated, features Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, he explored Southern life through the overlapping prisms of morality and music. Those films, gritty, dripping with an atmosphere of humidity, sex, and danger, portrayed the South in a fundamentally honest, if occasionally heightened way, treating the small town folks and their culture with clarity and honesty entirely devoid of condescension. These are films that get under the skin, that are so sharply written and performed that the reality of the stories are never in doubt.

He brings this skill to bear on the fundamentally silly bubblegum material of Footloose with the same lack of condescension and the same eye for detail. He doesn’t just remake Footloose; he makes Craig Brewer’s Footloose. This is a terrifically textured film, right from the opening scene in which a bunch of kids bop around to the same Kenny Loggins’s song that opens the original. Here, in what is clearly a secret, edgy, teen party of some kind, the kids’ feet are tapping and stomping on a sticky makeshift floor that wobbles a bit with each bounce, rattling the crumpled and half-empty red plastic cups that littler the ground. I could smell the drying drinks and feel the heat of the tightly packed dancers. But the fun they’re having won’t last long.

Speeding away from the party, laughing and singing, a group of teens cross the center line and slam into an oncoming truck. It’s a moment that plays out in quick visceral specificity of crunching metal and flares of fire. This was always the inciting incident for the town’s ban on dancing, but here, shown so specifically, it feels rawer and more convincing. A voice over that leads into a cut to a town meeting features the town preacher (played wonderfully by Dennis Quaid), whose son was among the dead, delivering a tearful speech advocating for the law. As he speaks in front of the townspeople, it’s as if he’s speaking directly to his wife (Andie MacDowell), promising to keep kids safe. It is a surprisingly moving and effective moment. The plot dictates that he is the authority figure that will be in opposition to the protagonist, but he’s also just a man who thinks that he’s doing what’s right.

This plot is familiar, but at every turn it feels pleasantly fresh, suddenly strangely relevant in ways it never has been. Brewer sets the film specifically in the now, referencing the financial difficulties of living in this recession, situating itself as being about the ways each new generation inevitably takes control of its own identity. This is not just a story of repression or reactionary ideologies and Brewer takes care to keep blame away from the small town itself. This is a story of young people learning when to accept and when to challenge the ways of the establishment. That may be communicated with a bit of a silly metaphor, but that doesn’t take away from the underlying truths expressed.

The remainder of the film unfolds as anyone who has seen the original (or the Broadway musical it inspired) will remember, with a few good changes (bus racing instead of tractor chicken) and musical callbacks. Big city boy Ren MacCormack (dancer Kenny Wormald, quite good in what is essentially his acting debut) shows up in town to live with his Uncle (Ray McKinnon) and his family. He finds small town life difficult to adjust to and is further stymied by his reputation as a hoodlum, a reputation seemingly earned just because he’s new, likes to play his music loud, and show off his dance moves and sarcastic attitude. This draws him close to the wild, rebelling preacher’s daughter (Julianne Hough), with whom he starts a tentative flirtation despite her thuggish boyfriend (Patrick John Flueger). But the sense of small town restrictions constricts Ren’s sense of agency. When his new pals (Miles Teller and Ser’Darius Blain) tell him dancing’s illegal, why that’s just the last straw. Something has to change. These kids need to dance!

The approach to the dancing in the film is fun. The illegal dancing in the film is furtive, and choppy, shot in ways that feels urgent, covered with sweat, even sexual. The big city escape, which ends up employing infectious line dancing (that’s the first time I’ve used those words in that order), plays out in lovely long shots that allow us to see the whole bodies of the dancers as they execute their movements. Later, a scene involving a group of little girls teaching some dance moves is awfully cute and a fun callback to the original. Finally, the dancing that ends the film is shot with a triumphal sense of natural energy. The world of the small town in the film feels so still and clamped down, that the sequences of music and dance burst out of the texture with a quick, volatile sense of release.

As with the dancing, Brewer’s textures keep this film lively and engaging, instead of settling down into rote remake mode. Along with stellar cinematography by Amy Vincent, this is a film that feels lit up with an inner glow and situated with great care in an environment that feels real and convincing. This is a sweaty, oily, film where the textures of every piece of the cars, the fields, and the characters’ skin are vividly apparent. When the teens cut loose, I could feel the energy, the heat, the effort, the exhaustion, and their fun.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Everybody Hurts: MARGARET

Margaret’s two-and-a-half hour run time is a jumble of themes and scenes, adding up to a deeply affecting, bogglingly complex picture of human emotion and moral quandaries. It’s a film that feels sifted, chopped, and cajoled into being. It's a powerful, sweeping yet intimate collection of moments that build towards a powerful, unexpected climax: a thorough evocation of its difficult characters living lives in a recognizable world. It’s rich and thought provoking.

The film is a quintessential sophomore effort, bigger in ambition, weightier in scope, risking a mess. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, after the 2000 release of his terrific, small-scale debut You Can Count on Me, filmed this in the fall of 2005. Since then, the film has been wrangled around in post-production under a cloud of unhelpful lawsuits and countersuits between the studio and financiers, conflict between the director and the editors, and even the deaths of two of the producers. Getting the film finished at all with so much strife puts Lonergan on a short list with Terry Gilliam of directors who work with a potent mix of genius, patience, and bad luck. The final product proves the struggle was worth it. 

Margaret is about Lisa, a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who is startlingly, frustratingly real. Her moods swing wildly. She can be pleasant and flirty or a snapping vindictive twerp. She’s just a kid, one capable of great precociousness and blind to the overwhelming extent of her own naïveté. Living in relative privilege with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and her little brother (Cyrus Hernstadt) in New York City, she has little practical reason to involve herself in anything but the constructed conflict that arises out of the typical teen problems. 

She fights with her family. She’s attracted to two of her peers (John Gallagher Jr. and Kieran Culkin) and can’t quite sort out her feelings. One of her teachers (Matt Damon) has caught her cheating on her geometry tests. Another, her English teacher (Matthew Broderick), strikes her as dorky, yet his readings of poetic language are sometimes moving in a way she can’t find words to express. These are all common enough adolescent problems, sources of angst that fade with maturity and age. She’s still in the midst of sorting out competing impulses and emotions. Then, one day while wandering the streets of the city in search of a cowboy hat to buy, she catches the eye of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) as he pulls away from the curb. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. She tries to run after the bus, hoping to get the chance to ask him where he bought his hat. In this brief moment of distraction, the bus hits a pedestrian (Allison Janney).

Lisa feels responsible for the accident and lies to the police to protect the driver. But then, the memory of the incident eats away at her. She’s deeply affected, rattled, disturbed and distressed. And yet the world moves on. Her mother finds a new boyfriend (Jean Reno). Her teachers keep teaching. Her friends (Olivia Thirlby and Sarah Steele) keep chattering. The boys are still interested in her. The world keeps spinning. And yet how can it keep spinning when she has been in the middle of such a traumatic incident, an out-of-the-blue moment of violence for which her sense of culpability is eating her alive, is churning her emotions, won’t let her rest easy? So she lashes out. (Several scenes in the film draw out a post-9/11 parallel with some potency.) She snaps at her mother. She cancels a trip to visit her father. She takes steps to contact the family of the woman hit by the bus and finds a strange sense of comfort in connecting with a woman (Jeannie Berlin) who was a friend of the victim. Lisa selfishly convinces her to sue, to keep the pain of the moment alive in the courts and hanging over the driver’s head. 

Though the plot is driven to a certain extent by the actions and emotions of Paquin, the film doesn’t rely for its impact on her alone. The supporting characters are so fully, tenderly realized with nuanced performances that weave into the frazzled fabric that they feel to be as startlingly, frustratingly real as the teenage girl they all come into contact with. Gallagher’s lovesick teen, Damon’s caring teacher, Ruffalo’s casually troubled bus driver, Culkin’s lothario, Janney’s dying woman and Berlin’s mourning friend all are so beautifully acted and wonderfully played that they add up to an ensemble of depth and interest. Each character feels fully realized, whether in a plot-line that feels edited down to evocative wisps or in a relationship – as in the sharply observed mother-daughter conflict — that slowly takes center stage. 

What’s most powerful about the film, what makes it such an emotional workout, is the way it manages to bottle a whiplash self-important precociousness of adolescence where grappling with deep and powerful philosophical and emotional topics still unknowingly creates an incredibly self-centered point of view. This is a film about a girl who slowly begins to realize that others are not merely supporting characters in the opera of her life.

Out of the cast, J. Smith-Cameron stands out. As the mother, she exudes thwarted warmth, a caring compassion that is ineffective and unreceived by the adolescent angst to which it is directed. She makes her living embodying emotions of characters, yet she finds herself frustrated by the difficulties of “playing” the mother. In a terrific scene, she argues with her daughter, devolving into a great mimic of her behavior. She plays the part, but she has no reference for her own identity. She'll be there for her daughter whenever her daughter rediscovers the need for maternal comfort. This is an example of the film’s beneficial looseness and choppiness. A character of great depth and thematic importance seems to float in and out of focus, ultimately useful, but not always clear. 

In total, the film is an expertly written, breathtakingly acted, experience, an interior epic that reconciles its lack of cohesion and conventional narrative within an emotional framework that makes intuitive sense. Sitting near the front of the theater with the towering screen revealing all the more strikingly the film’s visual powers – a scene from a low angle seeing a taxi cab suddenly, subtly surrounded by a canyon of buses felt nearly overwhelming, echoing the girl’s towering confusion. How often can you sit and feel a crowd wrestling with a film so emotionally and thematically dense and articulate, so deeply felt and so smartly filmed? The brilliance of Lonergan’s film is the way it invites us into the life of a character and is unafraid to explore, to allow plot points to exist and breathe like life events, to grow and develop, to wither or fade at their own paces. It’s truly some masterpiece.

Lonergan features a prominent allusion to a quote from George Bernard Shaw, tossed off and referenced casually, illuminating themes with which the film is playing. The full quote, from the 1903 play Man and Superman, is one character’s condemnation of another’s “regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, [which] occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.” This is a film about just that. Growing up is hard to do. Learning how to interact with others is complicated. Margaret is a sprawling evocation of this hard, complicated mess. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Et tu, Clooney? THE IDES OF MARCH

George Clooney’s fourth film as director is The Ides of March, a modern political drama with the look, tone and score of a thriller. It features tense conversations between men in suits, always attempting to position themselves with their words, scheming, shifting, and weighing the consequences of each word and every thought. It tells us that good people and bad people alike get sucked into the gamesmanship that is running for public office until the difference between the two is next to nonexistent. There are only politicians.

Centered on a high level campaigner (Ryan Gosling), the film shows us the behind-the-scenes machinations of a run in a presidential primary. This man is an idealist and a pragmatist. He believes in his cause and he believes in his candidate (George Clooney), a sitting governor. He reports to the candidate’s campaign manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a weary and shrewd man who values loyalty above all else. Loyalty to ideology or even to coworkers is not the kind of loyalty he holds in such high esteem. No, he considers loyalty to the campaign the end all be all of political life.

His counterpart (Paul Giamatti) in the campaign of the main competition is similarly gruff and slimy, ready to throw anyone under any bus. He makes decisions that ruin lives and we’re supposed to dislike him. But what about our guys? They wouldn’t be so cold, would they? Greedy negotiations with a Senator who has dropped out of the race (Jeffrey Wright) and a brewing scandal involving a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) try the moral mettle of the protagonist and throw harsh light onto the dirty deeds that go on in dark backroom deals. True to its namesake, The Ides of March contains plenty of backstabbing. It’s a drama of disillusionment.

The film has a kind of frostbitten cynicism. It’s covered in impressive craggy displays of wounded chilliness, but scrape them away and what’s underneath is stale. It’s all too easy to point at politics and politicians and issue easy scorn. “They’re all nice guys,” says a reporter, a small role played by Marisa Tomei, “but they’ll always disappoint you.” This is an awfully easy thesis to prove, and the film sets out to prove it well. The oldness and obviousness of this sentiment doesn’t make the film less relevant, just less inherently compelling, especially when there is an almost uncanny-valley level of disregard for real-world political references. This is a film that has just enough in common with our current situations (and a few select pundit cameos) that everything it doesn’t address, even off-handedly, creates a distancing effect. We don’t even get to meet the competition, or even anyone from the other party. In our world, campaigns are a noisy buzz machine surrounded by gossip and megaphones. Here, things are strangely isolated for narrative and thematic simplicity.

It’s a good thing, then, that the performances make up for the void left by such thematic posing. Gosling is a bit of a blank here, a functionary who fills the role of increasingly disenchanted political operative. But the characters that surround him are terrifically complicated, lived-in performances from a collection of some of our greatest character actors. Clooney has the right combination of movie-star looks and gravitas of presence to look like a presidential candidate. He also has the depth in his eyes to play a man who can carry deep secrets without ever once letting on the extent of them. As the operatives and politicians that move along the plot, Hoffman, Giamatti, and Wright are pitch-perfect jargon machines that open up to reveal cold personal politics that are chilling in their icy logic of naked careerism.

Each character gets a moment when they can plunk down in the middle of a scene and deliver the kind of monologue that causes my ears to prick up, the better to hear every word. These are fine moments superbly performed, moments that betray the film’s origins as Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Adapted by Willimon, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, The Ides of March fits in comfortably with Clooney’s other directorial efforts. Like the paranoid showbiz thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the black and white docudrama Good Night and Good Luck, and the mothballed screwball comedy Leatherheads, this latest film has a stylistic and thematic connection with the past. Like the cynical political films of the 70’s – Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Robert Altman’s Nashville Ides marches to its own glum drum. What it lacks is the same sense of vibrancy, of discovery, of a looseness and reality to its disgruntled surprises. It ticks along with wonderful performances and tense moments, but it never really gathers the pessimistic reality it aims to accrue. When the film ended, though I had been entertained and distracted, I was still waiting to be told something that would surprise me. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Outsiders: TERRI

You’d think a small independent comedy about a quirky outcast high school boy would have nothing new to say and would, at best, be a reasonably watchable riff on the expected character arcs that have been with us since at least the height of Sundance’s popularity. But then along comes Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, which confounds and amuses precisely because it squirms around every trap its concept would seem to have set.

Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a sullen heavyset teenager who lives in a small house in the middle of the woods with his uncle (Creed Bratton). You can tell from the home’s eccentric décor that his uncle was once a man with a rich and diverse intellectual life filled with many worthwhile hobbies and pursuits. Now, though, he’s sinking into dementia, alternating good days and bad days. Terri has his bad days too. He feels ignored at school, a small presence in a large frame.

Suddenly Terri makes a change, deciding to wear pajamas when he goes to school, on the days he decides to go to school, that is. This concerns the principal (John C. Reilly) who calls him into his office to inquire about Terri’s mental state. The two of them strike up an uneasy relationship – friendship isn’t quite the right word – as the principal decides that they should meet at least once a week. This development doesn’t turn into an awkward buddy comedy. Instead Jacobs and co-writer Patrick Dewitt allow these characters to remain resolutely separate, fumbling in their own ways towards a connection with a kindred spirit. There’s no chance for easy, cheap sentimentality or standard high-school-mentor uplift. Someone in a position of authority is not automatically imbued with the keys to emotional success. Reilly plays a man completely uncomfortable with himself, but all-too comfortable with yelling at a problem student to “Sit down! In a chair!”

During his time waiting outside the office, Terri meets other students, outcasts of one sort of another. One kid (Bridger Zadina), a small, skinny late-bloomer sits perpetually hunched, the better to pull out strands of his own hair. Later, he’ll show up unannounced at Terri’s house, so eager to grasp on to tenuous potential for friendship. Another, a pretty blonde (Olivia Crocicchia), was caught with her lab partner (Justin Prentice) in a vaguely consensual, wholly inappropriate for school, anatomy experiment in the middle of home ec. Terri defends her to the principal, trying to save her from suspension. There’s the underlying feeling of an unrequited crush to Terri’s actions, but at first he’s almost too embarrassed to admit it to himself.

I sat watching these characters shuffle towards some sense of connection, some sense of actualization, and realized that I had no idea where the next scene would take them. There’s a simmering feeling of realism to the drama and the comedy, an electric feeling of watching lives unfolding. The production design is remarkably drab, specificity of the highest sort. A cluttered house, a run-down high school, these are places that feel lived in, appropriately worn. The characters themselves, and the actions they take, don't feel driven by easily understandable movie emotions or the needs of the script. There’s an almost painful sense that these characters are real. I could identify with their feelings on an almost wounding level. Here are people who are all, in their own unique ways, desperately lonely. I could hardly stand to see them hurt.

So precisely acted and convincingly written, the film moves forward with the compelling, stimulating sensation of unpredictability. Some sequences had me breathlessly anticipating the next line, the next gesture. Individual moments are so deeply felt, so generously heartfelt, that I couldn’t help but be amazed. It also feels so painfully accurate, especially at its most acutely awkward, when the characters are most suffering from raw adolescent alienation that it can be incredibly difficult to watch. I suppose it’s inevitable in some ways for a film that feels so real to end with a sense of incompletion.  Could real life ever be wrapped up as neatly and completely as an impeccably structured film? Of course not, and that this movie tries to reach some kind of satisfyingly conclusion is ultimately it’s biggest misstep in a final shot that’s too simple and small to be definitive. It has the feel and form of a conclusion but lacks the content of one. I hardly cared. It is, after all, just one shot, and the way there is so excruciatingly complicated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em: REAL STEEL

Real Steel takes place in a time in the near future, a mere fourteen years from now, when boxing will become a sport of the past. Because of an ever increasing audience demand for carnage and destruction – the boxing equivalent of going to NASCAR for the crashes – and because of leaps and bounds in the field of robotics, boxing will be a sport for souped-up humanoid robots, controlled by their owners to beat each other until sparks and oil splatter all over the ropes. This is miles from Robot Wars a TV show from about a decade ago that sent what were essentially Roombas with rotary saws crashing into each other. The boxing of Real Steel is boxing as we know it today with the same rules and the same rings, but the athletes have gone the way of the factory worker. Instead of testing the limits of the human body, robot boxing tests the limits of cold, hard steel. It’s a wonder the crowds at these events aren’t wearing earplugs.

The film follows a down-on-his-luck, debt-burdened robot manager (Hugh Jackman) who just can’t catch a break. In the opening scene, he pulls up to a small town fair where he’s hoping to make a little money by pitting his fighter against a bull and wagering a sizable sum with the event’s promoters. Minutes later, his robot’s impaled by a horn and scattered across the arena. The promoters expect him to pay up so he skips town. As he’s escaping, he receives word that his old girlfriend has died, which leaves the eleven-year-old son (Dakota Goyo) he’s never met in need of a guardian. Pulling up to the courthouse, he convinces his ex’s sister (Hope Davis) to give him a few months with his son, just for the summer.

This seems like two disparate plotlines, but they’re drawn together when the boy shows a talent for helping his dad, and his dad’s robo-gym landlord (Evangeline Lilly), work to get their robots in fighting shape. (It’s explained away with an off-handed reference to video games, ‘cause kids like those, right?) So the working-poor underdog, a former human pugilist who has found his talent displaced and unexploited, struggling to make ends meet and turn his life around, is encouraged by his son to try one last time to make a go of robot boxing. It’s not too subtle, but I liked how the robots become metaphors through which the father and son work out their individual problems and eventually bond. But the old fighting robot has been rendered unusable by a bull’s goring, so first they need to find a ‘bot. Then, they need to get him to fight with the best of them.

It’s a testament to the power of clichés done right that the film works so well. The two appealing performances from the leads ground the proceedings in a nice, heightened Hollywood approximation of human emotion. Jackman, with plenty of big star-power charisma, and Goyo, with engaging boyish energy, play off each other well. The remarkable blend of practical and digital effects works well for the robots. The believable blending between the worlds of man and machine creates a reasonably credible, if more than a little silly, sci-fi world for what is essentially a standard boxing movie.

The movie’s screenplay comes from John Gatins who has two baseball movies, one basketball movie, and a horseracing movie to his credit. He knows just the path to set the movie on and piles up the conflict in the usual ways. The underestimated little robot the father-son duo finds, fixes, and trains works his way up the ranks. They start in gritty underground matches played against scary punks with no rules in roadside bars, dark clubs and back-alley warehouses, before they fight their way into higher stakes and bigger money. In solid sports movie fashion, the stakes grow as we charge forward to the Big Fight with a popular, scary champion with boo-worthy corporate backers. Each new match makes the widescreen spectacle all the more eye-catching with massive crowds, large stadiums, and plenty of neon lighting and pounding bass. It may be a bit predictable (when it comes to figuring out where this goes, do you need a roadmap?) but it’s also enjoyable. I found the matches just as, if not more, thrilling and involving as any of the fights in last year’s Oscar-winning boxing movie The Fighter.

The sci-fi specifics may be a little fuzzy, the characters archetypes, and the plot a compilation of sports film’s greatest moments, but Real Steel is a big pleasing popcorn movie. It’s loud and kind of dumb, but it’s also appealing, exciting, and more or less satisfying. Director Shawn Levy, he of the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes and two Night at the Museum movies, has stepped out of his (bad) family-comedy comfort zone to make a comfortable big budget picture. With its warm father-son dynamic and surprisingly convincing robot effects deployed for a sturdy formula adequately told, the film has a pleasant feel. The look is glossy and confident. The pace is brisk but deliberate yet exciting. It’s a fun entertainment machine, an enjoyable couple of hours that tells a story through robots beating the living steel out of each other for characters I cared about. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You'd Better Shop Around: WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER?

What’s Your Number? is a safe, coarse, and standard romantic comedy trying mightily, and mostly succeeding, to reign in, sand down, and otherwise hide the impressive talent of its lead actress, Anna Faris. Otherwise, the film would float off into infinitely stranger and more delightful directions. With her big eyes, plucky physicality, and total commitment to potentially embarrassing concepts, she’s like a bodacious blonde second coming of Lucille Ball. There’s little wonder why her best role is as the lead in 2008’s The House Bunny, in which she gets to play a fired Playboy bunny who finds work as a sorority mother. It allows her to match the weirdness of a concept and then double down on a hugely appealing bobble-headed bizarreness.

Since the R-rated comedy has been abundant and largely terrible this year, I guess it’s some kind of refreshing that What’s Your Number? is only predictable and mushy instead of actively ugly or distressing. But Farris isn’t allowed to elevate the proceedings. The movie doesn’t insult your patience, only your intelligence and your expectations. It’s all so standard, but at least it’s kind of briskly laborious in its set up. Faris plays a woman we first meet getting brushed off by her latest beau. He was her nineteenth lover. Later that day, on a lonely subway ride after getting fired, she reads a magazine article that claims women who have been with twenty or more men will not get married. Since she’s going to her younger sister’s engagement party that night, marriage is on her mind. She heads out to a bar with her sister (Ari Graynor) and her gal pals to celebrate and after a night of tipsy talk about her nineteen exes, she goes home with number twenty.

The next morning, Farris kicks him out and realizes then and there that the magazine had to be right, so her future husband is one of the previous twenty. She runs into the man (Chris Evans) who lives across the hall and is instantly repulsed, although she agrees to help him hide out from his latest ex, still lingering in his apartment, in exchange for his help tracking down her many exes. It’s a strained circumstance that forces them together and it’s all too obvious how this story is going to end. They don’t seem to like each other very much, but whom are they fooling? They’re attractive, likable performers who are the two above-the-title leads of the film. How are they not going to end up together? It’s hardly a spoiler when the movie is practically spoiling itself.

On the predictable road to the big dramatic race to a conclusion in which they finally realize that they are just perfect for each other, we are presented a troupe of mostly recognizable faces as the exes. We briefly meet Chris Pratt, Mike Vogel, Martin Freeman, Andy Samberg, Thomas Lennon, and Anthony Mackie. They each get a little potentially funny moment or two but it usually passes by without the burden of laughter. Mackie gets one line that made me snicker a little and Pratt has a few as well, but the structure of the film discourages any real connection with the characters who are simply personified obstacles for the plot that keeps the two most likable people apart, denying their true feelings in true rom com fashion.

The relationships and circumstances of the various exes are ill defined, the central flaw in the picture. It doesn’t help that the direction of Mark Mylod is merely functional and the script by Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden feels a product of copious compromise. And though she’s thoroughly restrained by it all, Faris kept me interested. There’s a sense that at any moment she might break away from the clutches of mediocrity and surprise. She plays with accents in a fun scene. She slams into physical comedy with exuberance. She throws herself into the role. But the role, and the film, has far too little for her to work with. The film’s a pleasant but dull, predictable missed opportunity, nothing more, and nothing less.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Catching Up on 2011: Twists and Turns Edition

In Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, Thomas Dekker stars as a college student who harbors a crush on his dumb surfer roommate (Chris Zylka).  He - Dekker, not the roommate - is a troubled guy, trying to figure out who he is and find his place in the world. Chowing down in the cafeteria, he confides in his best friend (Haley Bennett). They chat about the usual college topics: relationships and classes. Their rapport has a lived-in chemistry. They have fun being with each other and, consequently, they’re fun to watch. Around this little R-rated collegiate comedy spins an increasingly paranoid frenzy of plot that includes missing persons, a jealous lesbian witch (Roxane Mesquida), people in animal masks, a flirty party girl (Juno Temple), a doomsday cult, a pot-fueled prophet (James Duval), and the End of the World. It’s a fevered concoction, like a messy, madly uneven collaboration between David Lynch, Richard Kelly, and Diablo Cody. It’s also distinctly Araki, harkening back to the mix of tactile sensual imagery and commitment to heightened cartoonish grotesquery that he was deploying early in his career in wild, scattershot efforts like 1995’s The Doom Generation. He’s dialed back the intensity in the interim and, though it shares the DNA, Kaboom benefits from Araki’s more mature, experienced eye. The film’s no less of a mess, but it feels significantly more considered in its choices, a kind of careful craziness, a kind of tidy disorder to be found. It’s a sexy, vibrant jumble of weirdness and hilarity that is uneven but entertaining right up until its rushed climax that sucks the fun out of it all. To a certain extent, this feels like a deeply strange, very funny, sometimes creepy, often brilliant TV show with one or two seasons shoved into 80 minutes. With a complicated narrative structure of interwoven and overlapping hallucinations, amorous fantasies, drug trips, and bad dreams that culminates (spoiler!) in a literal apocalyptic explosion, the film keeps Dekker at the center, grounding it all. On a plot level it may be crazy and unsatisfying, but the metaphor rings true. To searching college kids floating around in hormonal ennui, the stakes of self-discovery can seem downright cataclysmic in proportions. 

A sturdy ensemble anchors The Lincoln Lawyer, a fairly standard legal thriller, the kind with twists that are only surprising to someone who has never experienced a legal thriller of any kind, not even an episode of Law & Order or a thick, forgettable airport novel. The script from John Romano, from a novel by Michael Connelly, gives Matthew McConaughey a rare suitable role that finds a way to channel his default sleaziness into an actual character. He’s an L.A. defense attorney working out of his car when he’s hired by a rich guy (Ryan Phillippe) who needs to beat an assault charge. The problem is that McConaughey begins to have good reason to think that his client really did brutally beat a prostitute and feels sick about defending him. He thinks his way through the criminal justice system, trying to alternately outwit and work with prosecutors (Marisa Tomei and Josh Lucas), cops (John Leguizamo and Bryan Cranston), an investigator (William H. Macy), and an inmate (Michael Peña). It’s all a slick bore. Now, this might sound like nitpicking, but the thing that most bugged me about this mediocre entertainment were the wobbly little zooms that director Brad Furman would drop into scenes for no apparent reason. A standard dialogue scene would be humming right along and then, zoom, we zip a little closer to the person talking. Sometimes, the zoom would take us back a few inches, just to mix things up. While I’ll admit that it’s definitely a minor stylistic tick and certainly not one that pervades every scene, it’s also indicative of a larger failing of Furman’s. This is a film that feels as if it’s breathlessly trying to become a better movie, but just can’t make it. Every little tick in the style just struck me as an empty gesture, a failed attempt to make the uninteresting interesting.

Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue, handsome and clean-cut in a way that invites easy empathy) is a young man who leaves the family business, a mortuary run by his father (Rutger Hauer), to attend seminary school. Flash forward to just before he is scheduled to become a priest. He’s lost his faith. He’s not sure he believes in God anymore, even (or is that especially?) when he witnesses a freak accident and kneels over a dying woman, reluctantly giving her the last rites. The head of his program (Toby Jones) asks him to reconsider his decision to abandon the church and gets him to agree to a trip to Rome where he will enroll in a class for exorcism training from the esteemed Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). Once there, he finds he still has his doubts. Aren’t the possessed simply mentally ill? He’s taken under the wing of a grave master exorcist (crinkled, latter-day Anthony Hopkins) and finds much to test his doubt. This is Mikael Håfström’s The Rite, which screenwriter Michael Petroni claims, in line with a dubious horror tradition, to be suggested by a true story. It coasts a bit too far on its easy pop-psychological pseudo-religious conflict, but has such a tremendously oppressive sense of somber, suffocating Catholic dread that I couldn’t help but be jangled about. The actors are fantastic all, matching the film’s earnestness and solemnity. It’s an essentially standard paranormal creeper, in many ways just shiny trash, but the deathly unsmiling tone of the film, matched with the high production value, especially the sleek cinematography from Ben Davis who photographs Vatican City in gorgeous, ominous ways, creates a tone of overwhelming skin-crawling danger. I fell into the film’s mood, matching its earnest approach with an unexpectedly earnest response. There’s a creeping sense of an invisible, evil spiritual threat that set my teeth grinding and my feet bouncing. It worked on me. Handsomely mounted and scarily serious, the film’s an effective freak-out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Laughter and Medicine: 50/50

There’s no getting around the fact that 50/50 is a cancer movie, but that’s such misleading terminology to saddle the film with. This is no standard, overly weepy disease-of-the-week tearjerker. Instead screenwriter Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine approach the subject in a sneakier, more palatable way, sidling up to the material in a tender, lightly comic mood that remains palpably perceptive to the main character’s emotions. It’s funny and likable – and, yes, eventually earning tearfulness – precisely because it feels so honest and open. This isn’t a movie of magical thinking or cold, hard reality. This is a movie that creates a character that is an individual, recognizable and distinct, and then has the truthfulness to portray his reaction to the disease convincingly and with nuance.

It takes its approach from Adam, the main character played with wonderfully underplayed charm and quiet restraint by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He goes in to the doctor with a minor complaint and, an MRI later, is told that he has a tumor on his spine. It’s cancer. As the doctor continues to talk the soundtrack fuzzes out his words while the focus pulls away until all we can clearly see is Adam’s ear in the foreground. Cancer. What a frightening word. There’s never a good time to hear that diagnosis, but he’s only 27. He has his whole life in front of him, or at least he did that morning. Now, everything is scarily uncertain.

He tries to remain calm, and for a while it seems that he is. His best friend (Seth Rogen, playing the Seth Rogen part) tells him that young people beat cancer all the time. His 50/50 odds are actually great. Besides, cancer could help him pick up chicks, an especially important fact since his relationship with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) has been a little cold recently.

This all seems to be dubious advice, but at least having such a reliable goofy friend around keeps his spirits high. His mother (the terrific Anjelica Huston), upon hearing the news, worries about him and calls him often, but at least he can talk her out of wanting to move in with him. (Besides, she’s already dealing with her husband’s (Serge Houde), Adam’s father’s, Alzheimer’s.) With all of these people in his life, varying reactions to the cancer surrounds Adam. He’s the calm at the center of the storm.

Enter his therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). She’s only 24 and not technically an experienced doctor. (Actually, she’s still working on her doctorate.) He seems suspicious of her youth and gets her to confide that, yes, she’s new at this. He’s her third patient. He tells her he feels calm, even “good.” He’s not sure that he even needs therapy, but there’s something in the sparkling atmosphere of caring that his visits engender that keeps him coming back. It’s obvious that they like each other, but their relationship has to remain strictly professional.

For a while, 50/50 plays out like a fairly standard R-rated buddy comedy (the raunch is a bit too much at times) with a light dusting of romantic comedy. But every so often, the cancer is inevitably brought to the forefront. Adam goes in for chemotherapy and visits with two chatty older gentlemen (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). Their spirits are high – they’re high off some special macaroons too – but sitting there in the hospital brings in a level of cold reality that the rest of the outside world seems to march on without. Throughout the film, Adam’s sense of calm gives way to difficult realizations and increasingly turbulent emotions. He’s struggling.

By the time the film reaches a point where the cancer can no longer be denied, when there is one final push into weepier territory, the tears are earned. I won’t spoil whether or not he survives, but to see a young man close to death is moving and upsetting, all the more so for having spent so much time in his life. Reiser’s script is semi-autobiographical and benefits greatly from the feeling of verisimilitude that brings. Gordon-Levitt brings this script to life with such vitality and likability. He’s one of the very best actors, if not the best actor, in his age range and here is given a slam-dunk Oscar bait role. He doesn’t treat it as such, though. There’s such a lived-in charm and an intimate immediacy to his performance that it helps make the encroaching pressure of the disease feel all the more wounding.

Near the end of the film, as Adam gets wheeled into an operation, we see his mother and father, his best friend, and his therapist sitting in the waiting room, nervously trying to hold it together while waiting for news. It’s the kind of scene that we’ve seen played out in just about every film with disease at the center, but here it feels more immediate than usual. It’s not a cheat for cheap emotion. We know these characters. We know how they’ve dealt with the cancer just as much as we’ve come to know Adam. Laughter instead of tears has been a light distraction from the harsh truth of the situation. But now the laughs have faded away, and we’re all waiting to hear if he’ll be okay.