Friday, August 30, 2013

Distracted Driver: GETAWAY

The short, high-velocity car chase picture Getaway has as its premise one of those villainous plots that make little sense in the moment and even less afterwards. A mysterious voice (Jon Voight) calls a former professional racecar driver (Ethan Hawke) who has just discovered that his wife (Rebecca Budig) has been kidnapped from their home in Sofia, Bulgaria. The voice tells the driver to steal a car – a Shelby Super Snake that has been outfitted with armor and a dozen surveillance cameras – and take off careening through the streets. He must drive as directed or he’ll never see his wife again. Throughout the movie, much is made about puzzling through the bad guy’s motives and outsmarting his evil plans, but it never really makes sense. By the end, one wonders why anyone – no matter how improbably deranged – would go to such lengths for anything, let alone be able to (mostly) pull it off.

The movie is built out of such silliness, but it’s nothing that couldn’t have been entertaining if the movie wasn’t so consistently undermining its sole reason for being. The car chase sequences make up just about every single second of the runtime, with the exception of brief flashes of flashbacks (and by brief, I mean no more than a minute total) and the occasional quickly spoken bout of strategizing and negotiation. I appreciated the directness and simplicity of the movie in this regard. There’s no wasted time and absolutely no reaching beyond its means for plot, theme, or character that would hit the breaks. But the chase is built out of choppy chaos from which we only grab glances of presumably impressive stunt driving and real crunchy crashes. Why go to all the trouble of driving real cars down real streets, really crashing them into each other, if the footage will be shot and cut indiscriminately?

Director Courtney Soloman (the man who most notably brought us the disastrous 2000 fantasy adaptation Dungeons & Dragons) keeps the in-the-car action suitably claustrophobic, with tight close-ups of Hawke sweating it out behind the wheel while the voice drones out his instructions – avoid the cops! run over that Christmas tree! blow up that power plant! – over the car’s hands-free phone system. The script by Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker even adds a nicely ridiculous, but wholly necessary, addition when the car’s owner, a computer-nut, gearhead teenager (Selena Gomez) tries to steal back her car and gets trapped in the whole crazy situation with the driver. The voice seems to have directed her there to help Hawke. I’d explain more, but I’m not sure the script quite understands why, so what chance do I have of getting it? Maybe they realized Hawke needed someone to talk through the problem with. Or maybe the addition of a cute girl really helps out the marketing department. The characters’ terse chemistry under pressure is actually rather enjoyable in a way that matches the movie’s abundant absurdity. They underplay it nicely, leaving overplayed entirely to the plot.

It’s everything outside the car that’s the problem. In a movie that only exists as an excuse to get cars zooming fast, careening around and through obstacles, narrowly missing pedestrians, and smashing and crashing into each other, the visual style has very little need for speed. It’s all about the smash, not the hurtling. The characters wince and shout in close-up, tires squeal and motors roar on the soundtrack, and the camera spastically bounces around catching motions and consequences haphazardly. There’s no flow, no momentum, and certainly no coherence. It’s a jumble of cheaper low-res images, some beamed in from the cameras on the lead car, hurtling through the stunts at a high-impact speed mixed in with shinier, more polished digital imagery capturing the characters. It’s all bleary and blurry, making it difficult to appreciate the hardworking stunt drivers. A lot of work went into designing these chases, but little care was shown in deciding how the audience would see them.

Only one staggering shot – a climactic extended long take from the POV of the Super Snake’s bumper that weaves in and out of moving traffic in hot pursuit of a villain’s vehicle for over 90 uninterrupted seconds – shows off what the movie could’ve truly been capable of delivering. The shot’s so good, I laughed a few times out of sheer disbelief and grew disappointed when we finally, inevitably cut away. If only that much suspense, danger, coherence and imagination had found its way into the rest of the picture. I didn’t much mind watching the movie. It’s thin and single-minded, but the leads are appealing, the plot ludicrously stupid in a largely inoffensive way. It knows what it is, but without the good sense to be a better than middling version of what it is. It’s the kind of dumb actioner with a glimmer of a good idea that’ll play a lot better if and when you catch it on TNT or somewhere like that on a lazy weekend afternoon. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Woman Past the Verge of Nervous Breakdown: BLUE JASMINE

As painful and precise a character study as Woody Allen has ever made, Blue Jasmine is built around an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine, a New York City socialite whose banker husband’s financial malfeasance resulted in a rare prison sentence for him. The legal proceedings wiped out their collective wealth and now she’s stuck living with her working class sister (Sally Hawkins) in a tiny apartment in San Francisco. Allen deftly cuts between flashbacks that swim with ostentatious wealth – palatial vacation homes, richly decorated ballrooms, apartments with wide spaces filled with elegant bric-a-brac – and her daily struggle to survive post-scandal. We hear that some time before the film’s present day she was found alone in the street babbling to herself. Coming out of a flashback, the camera sometimes finds her in the corner of the frame, muttering and mumbling about the events we’ve just seen. As the film slowly fills in the full picture of the downfall of her riches and her husband, it’s clear that this damaged woman so tenuously restarting her life is a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s deep in the midst of it, with only fleeting slivers of hope of making it to the other side.

What we have here is a duet between a master filmmaker and a virtuoso performer. Blanchett is remarkably fragile, broken in deeply neurotic ways that run well past the typical Allen type. Here she’s a woman in the middle of a self-deception. Although she’s broke, has barely a cent to her name, she’s stuck in a wealthy state of mind that keeps her realities from sneaking into her consciousness too deeply. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) was a man who kept her in the dark about his business practices, but she was complicit in that lack of information. She enjoyed the rewards too much. In a potent metaphor for recent economic turmoil, he’s caught in the wrongdoings while she’s the one left to scramble with nothing, not even able to fully process what she’s lost. (Of course, that the legal system actually punished this bad banker is a cinematic fantasy.) In one of the opening scenes, she’s complaining to her sister about the conditions of the first class flight that took her to San Francisco. “I thought you said you were broke,” her sister says. “I am!” Jasmine howls, not seeing the contradictions that sit so plainly on the surface of her narrative.

Allen sees them, though, and the film is unsparing as it watches Jasmine struggle. It’s a film that’s scathing and sympathetic, a contradiction that’s reconciled by the push and pull of the film’s elegantly composed, beautifully filmic cinemascope cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe and the raw emotion storming under and cracking through Jasmine’s barely composed exterior. The film is so cleanly cut, crisply crosscut between past and present. It’s gorgeously blocked, stretching across the frame with care. It’s sharply drawn, surrounding the simple story of a woman trying to find some way to put her life back together with a vividly sketched ensemble of strivers that counterbalance the emptiness of her aspirations and vacuousness of the lifestyle she lost.

Her sister’s surrounded by romantic entanglements old and new, an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), a current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and a maybe-new boyfriend (Louis C.K.). They’re all working class guys who draw the scorn of Jasmine. Their personalities clang against the personalities of the wealthy guys she had grown used to. “You settle for the men you think you deserve,” she snaps to her sister. She, on the other hand, sets her sights on a guy (Peter Sarsgaard) who has eyes on climbing a ladder of social influence. Of course she can’t tell him who she really is. Is it better to be honest with a problematic guy you get to know, or dishonest with a guy who remains unproblematic the less you care to know and care to let him know? The answer seems clear.

But Jasmine could care less if she’s doing the right thing, so long as she thinks she is. She has a need to be correct at all times, or at least a need to be seen as correct. She views every slight, no matter how minor, as a personal affront. Any potential career starter she views as beneath her. She wants the results only and wants them now. Told she has to get a job, she sniffs that the only options for a middle-aged college dropout are “menial.” But she doesn’t see herself and her reality in the terms she entertains just long enough to dismiss. She’s an all-American temporarily disadvantaged millionaire waiting for her ship of money to come in. She simply doesn’t know what to do with herself until then. The film doesn’t know what to do with her either, content to show her to us without much else to balance out the cruelty and emotional damage (to herself and others) following her wherever she goes. Allen is content to serve up this character portrait, vivid and wounded, and leave it at that. It’s as invigorating as it is frustrating, a pained fascination with an uncomfortably complicated character worth turning over in one’s mind long after she’s off the screen and the credits have rolled.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones had all the raw material for a decent fantasy spectacle, but somehow managed to fumble putting it all together. Based on the first of many books in a series by Cassandra Clare, the story follows a young woman who learns that she has secret powers and is drawn into a world of Shadowhunters, an elite race of beings who are sworn to protect the world from demons. It’s a full mythology full of theoretically interesting paranormal lore, but the film gives off the distinctly flat feeling of presenting only the tip of the iceberg. Much like Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters from earlier this month, Mortal Instruments seems like the work of a studio desperate to start up a Harry Potter­-style franchise without feeling the need to put forth the effort needed to properly set up the world. It plays like a movie that may require a read of the book to decode, or at least to see what all the excitement is about.

The plot that’s built to rocket an audience into this fantasy world takes off right away, launching into fantasyland before even orienting us in the “normal” character’s “reality.” A teenage girl (Lily Collins) finds that her mother (Lena Headey) has been kidnapped by mysterious forces. A young man (Jamie Campbell Bower) that only she can see steps in to welcome her into the world of the Shadowhunters, introducing her to the Institute, New York City’s branch of the worldwide organization of demon hunters, armed with magical weapons, dressed in leather, and tattooed with powerful spell-casting runes. The group decides to help her track down her missing mother, who, it turns out, was actually a Shadowhunter who years ago fled the group, hiding a supernatural artifact (a “mortal instrument”) from the villainous Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who had been in hiding, but is now back and causing trouble. Collins is a great every-girl at the center of all this, cute and capable, totally in over her head but willing to sit patiently while the much-needed Jared Harris (late of Mad Men and Fringe) steps in as the requisite Older English Exposition Machine to explain all of the above and provide a dose of appealingly-accented gravity.

This is one of those fantasy movies in which a seemingly average person experiences wildly fantastical events with a surprising sense of calm. It’s bad enough the girl’s mother was kidnapped, but learning that she’s now been drawn into a centuries-old conflict between Shadowhunters and demons, complete with various neutral factions of vampires, werewolves, and warlocks, among other legendary beasts, seems to be something that should at the very least surprise. All things considered, she takes it in here with a remarkable degree of calm, especially when she learns her downstairs neighbor (CCH Pounder) is really a witch and her mother’s boyfriend (Aidan Turner) is a wolfman. She’s willing to go with it. Her best friend (Robert Sheehan) gets drawn into all this as well and seems to be more or less agreeable to what’s going down around him, matter-of-factly asking a veteran Shadowhunter (Jemima West) how to kill a zombie. (Turns out they don’t exist in this fantasy world. That’s a nice joke.) The sense of urgency drains away along with the characters’ sense of surprise.

It’s all so blandly presented. Director Harald Zwart doesn’t try anything too cinematic, simply capturing the production design in a flat, unadorned and inexpressive way. He fills the screen with appropriately gross CGI beasties and assorted worldbuiling paraphernalia, but it’s basically the CliffNotes version of the YA series. There’s a lot of backstory left on the table, inelegantly excised or clumsily shoved in. I appreciated a funny little moment in which we discover Johann Sebastian Bach was a Shadowhunter, but that’s a rare moment mythology is allowed to take a breath before zipping along to the next plot point. (It also doesn’t matter much in the long run, aside from providing a rare bit of poking fun at its own premise.) The screenplay by Jessica Postigo grows muddled and slow, even as it rushes along. It avoids overheating romance subplots and keeps its expansive backstory strangely small. The movie ends up feeling cautious and generic, unsure how to bring forth its source material’s best assets.

There’s no good sense of the size or scope of this fantasy world. How many Shadowhunters are there? We hear references, but it’s unclear how the organization operates. Why does the fate of the world seem to come down to a small group of teenagers hiding out in New York City? The movie is filled with the kinds of questions that I’m sure fans of the books could answer for hours, but that’s the kind of stuff that could have and should have ended up on screen. I’m not asking for a movie that sits around explaining its world for hours at a time. But wouldn’t it be nice if the world unfolded with the narrative instead of clumping along, introduced only when necessary to get us to the next scene with as little context as absolutely needed? The main thrust of the narrative frays until the movie becomes less of a story and more a collection of events recreated from the source material in more or less the appropriate order. It’s not always clear what the connective tissue is from one scene to the next, because the world feels half-realized.

In the end, it all comes down to a typical climactic conflict of good versus evil, but because the world has been so sketchily built and the ensemble so vaguely characterized it’s hard to tell what exactly is at stake. What are we to make of a warlock (Godfrey Gao) who sails into the story, speaks a few lines that conveniently push things along, and then disappears from the film without a trace? (“Oh, by the way, you’re being invaded,” he basically says, before never appearing again.) Or what about a pack of werewolves that speak ominous references to “breaking the accords” and then proceed to scamper around helping our heroes despite having no introduction and who disappear before the dénouement? The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones seems like it knows what it is talking about, but maybe next time (if there is a next time) it should figure out how to tell it in an entertaining way.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

All's Well That Ends Well: THE WORLD'S END

With each film, from Shaun of the Dead to Hot Fuzz to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the increasingly brilliant director Edgar Wright has pushed his zippy, energetic pop art precision further. His overt genre exercises gain their momentum and their hilarity from the way he points his camera, frames the action, and edits away, often getting big laughs with nothing more than a perfectly timed cut or a sight gag of staging. His newest film is The World’s End and it may be his best film yet, as unexpectedly moving as it is an endlessly entertaining blast of fun.

It’s immediately obvious that we’re watching a Wright film. The unchecked personality in the breakneck pace, visual flourishes, and crisply energetic montage reveal that right away. But unlike his zombie and buddy cop satires and his graphic novel adaptation, this is a film that sets out to play it straight – for a while, at least. The World’s End is an often hilarious dramedy about aging, growing into maturity, and the arrested development of hanging onto the memory of old times to the detriment of making new ones, centering on a group of teenage friends who drifted apart and are brought back together in the midst of middle age in an attempt to recapture some youthful fun.

The man who brings them together again used to be the king of their group, the guy with the fun ideas, the outsized personality that everyone followed around. When they were 18, he led them on an attempted pub-crawl through their small hometown – 12 pubs in all. Needless to say, they didn’t finish, but sure had fun anyway. Now it’s over twenty years later, and he’s starting to realize that what he thought at the time was the best night of his life actually ended up being the best night of his life. Why’d he have to peak so early? Now he’s consumed by the need to relive the night and finish the crawl, a pint at every pub, right down to the twelfth and final stop that alluded them all those years ago: The World’s End.

In the briskly expositional and very funny opening sequences of the film, this down-on-his-luck guy (Simon Pegg) whirls his way back into the lives of his buddies, now businessmen (Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine), realtors (Martin Freeman), and lawyers (Nick Frost). They don’t quite know what to make of their friend, still driving his old clunker, listening to his high school-era mix tapes, and eager to return to their hometown. “It’s so boring there,” one of them says. His response is quick on his tongue: “Yeah, because we’re not there!” Once there they find that the sleepy little town is exactly the same except very different. The film is built around the simple observation that returning to your hometown after some time away is an odd experience.

It’s not just the samey corporatized restaurant scene – “Stop Starbucksing us!” one character shouts – that seems odd. Sure, the old conspiracy theorist (David Bradley) is nursing his drink at his favorite pub and their old English teacher (Pierce Brosnan) is still hanging around. But the place seems smaller and less welcoming. Why, it’s as if no one even remembers this group of guys. They felt like they ran the place then, but not so anymore. Time moved on and moves on. Beginning their pub-crawl, the guys fall back into old patterns of patter at times, bristling at others. They’re stuck somewhere between reminiscing and forging new bonds after being apart for so long. Do they revert to the boys they were or get to know each other as the men they now are? The terrific ensemble maintains terrific chemistry, sparkling through each scene with a genuine sense of a mix of youthful camaraderie and middle-aged resignation. Pegg’s excellent performance – so squirrely and wounded – pulls them in a boyish direction. Most of the others aren’t so definitive, warm but professional, straining to put up with the man they used to call “friend.” The marvelously witty script (co-written by Wright and Pegg) bounces their personalities off the scenarios and each other in pleasing and telling patter.

These guys, as well as a welcome Rosamund Pike as an old friend who meets up with them, form a richly sympathetic and massively likable core around which just about anything could happen. Funny thing is, that’s precisely what happens. The World’s End so buoyantly and confidently skips off the tracks of its apparent genre and lands in another without missing a beat. I can’t wait to see it again, not just to get caught up in how hugely entertaining the whole thing is, but to marvel at how smoothly and seemingly effortlessly it makes its transitions. The setup is golden, and could easily have sustained a feature on its own, although it’d have been a significantly less overtly dazzling one. Where it goes from there is as wholly satisfying as it is unexpected. To that end, avoid the advertising for the film, which I was sad to discover gives up the whole premise. Not since The Truman Show has an ad campaign so thoroughly defanged a movie’s central potent surprises. If you go in knowing only that it’s a very funny character-based Edgar Wright film, you might get the mouth-agape goofy-grin reaction that I had. Better yet, you might be like the guy a few rows back from me who shouted “What!?” during one pivotal development.

What Wright and company have in store involves taking the film’s powerful subtext and exploding it outwards as stirring, exciting, wonderfully silly metaphor, as if John Carpenter directed The Big Chill as rewritten by Douglas Adams. But that’s not exactly true, is it? This is pure Wright all the way. It’s a film that descends into the kind of action-packed genre silliness so hugely entertaining and expertly choreographed that you wish more big crowd-pleasing films were so dedicated to genuine surprises, a sense of discovery, and twists that are at once unexpected and wild while still making sense in the context of richly developed characters. That sounds like an Edgar Wright film to me.

In a summer where so many movies seemed to drift towards an inevitable autopilot conclusion, it’s a relief to find a film that grows only more unpredictable and satisfying as it goes along. There’s a real sense of the joy of the movies in every frame. It’s a freewheeling film of banter and slapstick – equally giddy and skillful in execution – that never loses track of its generous and genuine heart. It’s an inventive, tricky movie, the biggest trick of which is how straightforward it all is when you think about it. The World’s End ends with an entirely unanticipated series of moments thrilling, gentle, and a little goofy, too. There’s a sense that, although these characters are no longer juvenile, it’s hardly the end of the world. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

House Hunters: YOU'RE NEXT

You’re Next is an “…and then all but one dies” horror movie. In this case a couple celebrates their 35th wedding anniversary by inviting their grown children and their significant others to spend the weekend…and then all but one dies. The deaths involve stabbings mainly, although a few other forms of bodily harm are deployed. The killers are the creeps in animal masks – pure white rubber things – who are otherwise completely dressed in black and lurking around outside this dark evening. They interrupt the festivities during dinner, conveniently interrupting a burgeoning tiff between two of the brothers, by shooting arrows from a crossbow into the dining room. What an anniversary present, huh? The movie proceeds in much the way you’d expect, with dark corridors and ominous noises and threatening shapes that move into the back of the frame out of focus before mysteriously disappearing before causing harm. The better to scare us later, I guess.

The hows and whys of the whole ordeal come to light by the film’s end, however unconvincingly and forced. By then I had pretty much stopped caring, but almost appreciated the movie’s dedication to placing payoffs before setup to a certain extent, except in the case of agonizingly obvious setups that take forever to pay off. When it comes to grading horror movies, a certain amount of arbitrary physical response factors into the final judgment. You’re Next is trying so hard to scare, with a trembling score that kicks up every time we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats and portentous framing that lingers compulsively on sharp objects and doors ajar. It’s so repetitively insistent on its scariness and suspense that I found myself worn out from a lack of response on my part. I sat there with the hair on the back of my neck firmly flat, the flesh of my arms resolutely unmarked by goosebumps, my heart rate steady, my spine without even the slightest tingle.

There’s something to be said for the ritualistic appeal of horror movies, even if they don’t make for an entertaining experience in and of themselves. Here we have the cold open kills, followed by a smash cut to setup as the characters gather in a big house in the country. It starts out as something of a bland family dramedy if it weren’t for the score going about its ominous business in the background and the camera prone to slinking off to find the odd bits of foreshadowing placed in corners of its attention. There’s the freshly retired father (Rob Moran) and anxious mother (Re-Animator’s Barbara Crampton, a living reminder of better horror films past). There’s an English professor son (A.J. Bowen) and his ex-student-turned-girlfriend (Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson). There’s a daughter (Upstream Color’s Amy Seimetz), her boyfriend (talented horror director Ti West), two more sons (Joe Swanberg, Nicholas Tucci) and their respective girlfriends (Sarah Myers and Wendy Glenn). Things are gently tense, like a bad family reunion you wouldn’t want to go to, especially since they aren’t your family and you don’t know anyone there or why they’re so prickly with each other.

By the time the arrows start flying and the blood starts flowing, the movie lurches into action. Having unconvincingly set up the family dynamics, we now watch as each and every character is terrified, threatened, assaulted, and eventually killed in ways that are awfully generic as far as horror kills go. The one marginally clever kill, right near the end, is gross and unexpected. When one character asks where’s so-and-so, another responds by flatly describing the implement of death. The response? “Oh? Okay.” There’s a comical flatness to the proceedings, with little sense of escalation. One character – Vinson’s – jumps into action so quickly, ordering people around, strategizing the best way to fight back and stay alive, that the movie’s almost over before we get a tossed off explanation for her eerily helpful survivalist skills. Another character spends longer than you’d think wandering around with an arrow stuck in his back. The way the characters react is largely laughable, sometimes on purpose, but just as often to suit the convenience of the strained plotting.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, the movie had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, building up some good word of mouth on the festival circuit before being bought and shelved by Lionsgate. The company has finally seen fit to release it now in a dubiously complimentary late-August release date. In the meantime Wingard and Barrett collaborated on short horror contributions to the punishing omnibus films V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. The years of wait are a mixed blessing for You’re Next, building anticipation that could easily leave an audience wondering what all the fuss was about. I found myself wondering, what with these fresh voices and a cast culled from their friends and colleagues from the festival circuit, why this was the best the filmmakers could come up with. It’s a thin, rote horror movie that goes about getting its attempts at scares in the same old way with the same old bloody tired tools. By the time the movie drags itself through its lame twists and the full extent of the attackers’ plot is known, I wasn’t surprised or entertained. I was simply wondering why the characters went to all that trouble. Surely there was an easier way.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Til Death: AMOUR

Michael Haneke is often considered a cruel filmmaker, quick to inflict judgment and trauma upon his characters and, his detractors would say, pain upon his audience. I happen to respond to his brand of icy dramaturgy more often than not, especially in recent years with such cold masterpieces as Caché and The White Ribbon, incisive and powerful investigations of violence and the lingering effects of injustices big and small. Although Amour, his latest film, an Oscar and Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner, is unlikely to change opinions of those who find his work cruel, its sustained deep dive into a painful and uncomfortable human truth is powerful and shattering and as human a picture as he’s ever made. Its subject is unavoidably personal. You’re unlikely to be the victim of a home invasion (a la his twice-made Funny Games), or be the recipient of mysterious videotapes (like in Caché). But it is an inescapable fact of life that some day you will die.

Unflinchingly dedicated to death and decay, Amour is set almost exclusively in the apartment of a comfortable elderly Parisian couple. One day, she (Emmanuelle Riva) falls ill. The scene is devastatingly manipulated, as he (Jean-Louis Trintignant) leaves the breakfast table in high spirits and shuffles back to find his wife staring blankly into space. She’s suffered a stroke. The film then follows her slow descent toward death as her mobility, mind, and faculties dwindle and the light in her eyes, fierce and powerful even as her ability to speak leaves her, painfully dims. He tries to take care of her as best he can, barely able to listen as she pleads with him to simply let her slip away. Impossible, he promises, doubling down on his caretaking, a painful prospect for a man who is himself suffering from the weaknesses and easily exhausted stamina of advanced age.

The film is claustrophobic and the plot’s outcome excruciatingly obvious, never in doubt, the first scene a silent look into the near future as an emergency crew enters the apartment. But Haneke doesn’t let the film lose sight of the couple’s life. Paging through a photo album to reflect on younger, happier times may seem cliché, but so it is. Here, it takes on a clear-eyed, truthful power. It doesn’t become a rosy look back to flashbacks or revelations of final lessons or wisdoms. We remain locked into the inevitable forward march of time. The two of them are retired music teachers. Classical music drifts through the film as a gentle reminder of time gone by, of passions once pursued to great satisfaction. The grand piano sits unused, dominating a corner of one room, the man sitting next to the stereo staring as he listens to a CD while his wife sits immobile on the other side of the wall. Visitors, a daughter (Isabelle Hupert), an old pupil (Alexandre Tharaud), stop by, concerned but busy. The elderly couple’s teachings, their parenting, is already making an impact in the world, ready to move on as they sit cooped up, readying for the end. Dying is mostly a private business, and a final act of love between this devoted couple.

In the center of this film of exacting precision, long shots and steady edits in a confined space, with silence punctuated by unbearable howls of pain and strained grunts as speech is taken from them, is a pair of performances so perfectly calibrated and in such perfect synchronization that to call them extraordinary doesn’t satisfy. Riva and Trintignant, both in their 80s, have each been acting in the movies since their youths. They bring an irrepressible intelligence and forceful sense of history to their roles. (Those faces in the photo album? Young Riva and Trintignant, themselves.) The film may be small, quiet, and spare, but the frightening weight of the picture sits solely in their silence and methodical actions, in their fragile, mournful faces. Haneke captures them with an exacting precision. How often does a film treat death this seriously? Here we seem to be watching death itself, painfully, unflinchingly, slowly, inevitably. So convincing are the performances that, though I was aware of the artifice on some level, when Riva turned up at the Academy Awards this past February, I still felt some small amount of relief.

Haneke’s cruelty here extends only to the painful honesty of the film’s artifice. It speaks uncomfortable and deeply affecting truths. We want our elders to stay because we love them, when true love might really mean letting them go. Amour is about how difficult it is to tell when a loved one has crossed that line, when asking them to stay becomes selfish, when showing love to them means letting them slip away from suffering, and from us. Amour, cold and painful, is full of deep truth. It’s a film of discomfort, of a tough chill that settles in the pit of the stomach and lingers. This is no mere end-of-life three-hankie weeper. Only some overt symbolism and one calculating dream sequence threaten to take the film in that direction. No, this is largely true pain and true love, simple, powerful, austere.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Backstairs at the White House: THE BUTLER

In The Butler, director Lee Daniels recreates the Civil Rights movement in the guise of stirringly personal melodrama. A key scene revolves around the dinner table of a middle class black family in Washington D.C some time in 1968. The Freedom Rider son snipes at his parents when they express admiration for Sidney Poitier. He’s breaking down barriers, they say. He’s doing so by “acting white,” their son snaps. How thrilling it is to see this conversation play out not only on the big screen, but in a big, star-studded Hollywood film that’s for once seriously interested in the 50s, 60s, and 70s from the perspective of African American lives without feeling the need to hedge bets and shoehorn in a white perspective or reduce the black experience of the period into talking points and homogenous unity. That the film is messy and ungainly in many respects is only an outgrowth of its seriousness of intent, the depth of its inquisitive mournfulness, and the commitment it has to wrangling differing viewpoints into a sweeping, decades-spanning story of one man’s humble job as one of many butlers in the White House.

That man is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Born to sharecroppers in the Deep South in the 1920s, he witnessed the death of his father at the hands of a snarling white farmer. Once grown, he leaves to find work, eventually ending up in a prestigious Washington, D.C. hotel. From there he’s eventually invited to interview for a position on the staff of the White House during the Eisenhower administration. He’s hired as a butler, a position he will keep for over thirty years and seven presidents. Whitaker, appearing meek and small in his broad frame, moves deliberately. He plays a man who takes great pride in his job and finds great success in it, moving between the backstage world of the house, chatting with his black colleagues (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) in back rooms before putting on unrevealing public faces to walk out into the Oval Office and state dinners alike, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. If it weren’t for the politics half-overheard, the news on the TVs and radio, and the changing fashions, one gets a sense that Cecil could very well stay in this job and let the 20th century pass him by.

Yet that’s a choice he cannot make for himself. He’s a part of the times whether he wants to be or not. Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) is introduced in a scene that finds her commiserating with great sadness about the death of Emmett Till. The turbulence of the Civil Rights movement is inescapable. Soon, his oldest son (David Oyelowo, in a great performance that takes his character from a teenager to a middle-aged man) becomes a civil rights fighter, allowing the film some stirring cross-cutting between the butler’s daily tasks and the most notable moments of the civil rights struggle, none more powerful than the banquet juxtaposed against a lunch counter sit-in. His son becomes a more socio-politically honest Forrest Gump, a first-hand eyewitness to history at every turn, but full of agency and conviction that leads him there. He’s a driver of events, not a mere spectator, to sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and Black Panthers, even at one point sitting in a Birmingham jail cell down the row from where Martin Luther King Jr. would be writing his famous letter.

It’s the tensions in this father-son relationship that drive a good chunk of the film, a reflection of divides within America and within the African American community. The son has an approach to current events that often clashes with the accommodating, personal views of the various administrations that his father often has. As the volatile 60s curdle into the 70s, Cecil simply can’t ignore the situations unfolding around him. The political is undoubtedly and inescapably personal. As he moves with a tray of refreshments into the background in rooms of power, where white men make decisions about race while the black man walks silently through the scene, it’s an image that’s oft repeated and makes quiet points about the nature of power and access to true understanding about racial issues. When a white politician ruminates about what should be done about “Negro problems,” no one even seems to notice the black butler silently slipping out of the room. There’s rich subtext here about the variety of ways racial barriers are both erected and chipped away.

The march of presidents and the march of cameos playing them is at once broad and matter-of-fact. It’s a feast of over-cooked accent work, wigs and sculpted putty noses and jowls. Through Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman) – Ford and Carter are left for file footage to portray – Cecil works in close proximity to men of power and historical interest. But they’re never more than broad sound bites and brief impressions in Danny Strong’s screenplay. They may be important people, but they are the least convincing aspect of the film. Similarly, the Big Events of the era pass by with the flatly unimaginative, albeit dramatically effective, progression of a history report. The Butler is best in scenes of loose and unhurried interactions between characters of middle- and working-class: the butlers, neighbors (like Terrence Howard), and students (like Yaya Dacosta). This becomes a film not about a man and the presidents he served, but about a man and his family, buffeted by the course of history while entangled in their own interpersonal dramas.

Lee Daniels, a hammy director if there ever was one, makes bold and oftentimes inexplicable choices. After two terribly nutso productions (Shadowboxer and The Paperboy) and an overdetermined miserabilist drama (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire), he’s found the most purpose and focus he’s yet been able to muster while still retaining his always interesting personality. He’s the kind of director who’d rather fail trying something unexpected than play it safe. That’s why, even when it may be hard to enjoy one of his films, it’s rarely easy to dismiss it entirely. He starts The Butler with a shot of two lynched black men dangling from a tree, an American flag waving in the background, while a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. fades up on the side of the image. It’s stark and startling, butting up against our first look at Forest Whitaker dressed for duty and sitting in a White House corridor before flashing back to his childhood. Right away, Daniels tells us his intent to show us the life of a man against the backdrop of larger historical and symbolic concerns. And yet the movie works both erratically and well for keeping the larger concerns confined to the background, flavoring without taking over, only erupting when they most directly intersect with the lives of the butler and his family. It’s like Eyes on the Prize plays out as a backdrop for one family’s quintessentially 60s and 70s problems.

This causes for some strained and wandering filmmaking that at worst keeps context a mere dusting, but at best finds rich resonances, especially in the two lead performances. Whitaker’s steady, wise, slowly evolving portrayal of a quietly strong man is a great anchor. It’s a deceptively static performance that gathers unexpected riches the longer the film rolls. Winfrey, for her part, is a dynamic presence on screen. Decades of her status as talk show royalty have clouded the public’s memory of her real and genuine qualities as an actress. She has boundless charisma and incredible emotional force. Here she’s playing a woman who loves her husband deeply and truly, but doesn’t stop gathering tensions and jealousies, great disappointments and great pride. She loves her family and her life and yet still wishes for more. As her character gathers struggles of her own, Winfrey plays a symphony of melodrama, compelling all the way. One of my favorite scenes in the film finds her dancing alone to Soul Train in a scene that starts endearingly silly and eventually finds its way to sudden funk-scored tragedy. In another she drunkenly drawls superficial questions about Jackie Kennedy (in her state she pronounces it “Jackée”), digging for gossip from her placid husband’s steadfast commitment to confidentiality. What works best about the film is how Whitaker and Winfrey’s performances contain unspoken conflicts and resolutions that sneak past the film’s sometimes-overdetermined messaging and heavy-handed narration. 

The film goes this way and that as emotions and ages make leaps and bounds. The film is overstuffed, overflowing with dramatic points of interest and subplots that surge, take over, and fade away to maybe return again. It’s the kind of film that is directed in five or six directions at once, square and impressionistic, corny and evocative, comedic and deadly serious. Daniels stages Big National Events loudly and emphatically while personal and political scenes play tenderly and with ellipsis. I particularly enjoyed a very small, slowly simmering subplot between Winfrey and Howard that fleetingly feels like a cousin to Wong Kar Wai by way of Douglas Sirk. Daniels is a director who works not only with melodrama, but also with an awareness of a variety of types of melodrama. It’s a film of resonant surface detail and deeply moving implications. It doesn’t all fit together, but that’s part of what makes it compelling. This isn’t a film that makes oversized claims of historical import about the individuals, but rather illuminates the importance of the individual in society’s evolution.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Computer Stress: JOBS

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers and the man partially responsible for ushering in the age of the personal computer and introducing the iPod and iPad to the world, was a fascinating and multifaceted man. Those looking to turn his life into a film would have many interesting entry points. Just look at the page count of Walter Isaacson’s great 2011 biography of the man. A film could follow the exploits of the garage-based startup and the decades of business strategy that caused Apple to rise, fall, and rise again. A film could concern itself with the technical revolution itself, spinning a story of improvements and inspirations as well as clashes with competitors. A film could explore the personal struggles and infamously prickly personality of Jobs, digging into what made him tick while striving to illuminate his creative process. And yet in Jobs business strategy is flatly presented, tech specs are vague at best, inspiration is only mystified, and his personal life is perfunctory. The first Steve Jobs biopic to hit theaters is in some ways the worst of all possible Steve Jobs biopics.

There’s a certain amount of irony in a film about a man obsessed with getting small details exactly right getting small details largely wrong. I’m not talking about the details in facts of his life and the history of Apple Computers (which are in both cases certainly bent to form a more movieish telling), but on a fundamental storytelling level. Instead of exhibiting curiosity in the characters in the story as people, director Joshua Michael Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley present them as objects in a diorama, made up and dressed up to look as close to the real people as possible, but with little effort put into creating convincing interior lives. It’s all surface to watch Ashton Kutcher play Jobs as an intelligent, mercurial presence. He may change his gait and speaking patterns convincingly, but he’s only the Jobs we know from his press events and public persona. To see Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak (Apple’s co-creator) is to see a convincing impersonation. The two men have fine chemistry – they’re often fun to watch – and are quite good, but bring in their performances emotional truths the movie itself seems uninterested in locating.

It is the worst kind of biopic: bland. Give me a hit piece, an energetic condensed version, or a high-spirited hagiography over cautious and flavorless any day. At least that film would have a point of view. Jobs plays as a series of reenactments, purely expositional and transactional. Events seem inevitable and preordained as characters – even ones played by welcome character actors like Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, and Lesley Ann Warren – speak to each other as if writing themselves into the history books. As Jobs moves from the garage to the boardroom – the main narrative thrust being what got him there, what lost him the position, and what got him back there – the film is singularly uninterested in figuring out anything beyond the broad facts of his life. Oblique references to his parents, both biological and adopted, are dropped, as well as vague nods towards his relationships and children. But at least the business throughline gives some kind of reason to downplay his personal life. That the ball is dropped there as well, with so much screen time saying so little, is strange. The ins and outs of Apple Computers remain fuzzy, as if the filmmakers were afraid too much technical detail would lose the audience.

No movie can sum up a man’s life, but it’s a waste of time for a biopic to not even try to sum up part of it. Jobs is content to simply say, “Here is Steve Jobs and some things that happened in his life.” It knows he’s important and assumes we think so, too. But no work has gone into making this a dramatically or cinematically interesting representation. Jobs coasts on the context the audience brings along, unwilling to provide any insight or interest of its own. I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, a reenactment of the reveal of the iPod. In Jobs’s trademarks black shirt and blue jeans, Kutcher looks and sounds the part, sometimes uncannily so, as he paces back and forth, delivering the actual words of the event. When he reveals the device, the camera practically trembles as it moves in for a close-up of the logo, the onlookers applauding and the orchestra swelling. It’s a moment of ecstatic fervor whipped up to say nothing more than that the iPod is cool. The technique in this scene is repeated with the unveiling of the Apple II and the Macintosh. Aren’t they cool? Yes, they are. But couldn’t, and shouldn’t, the film say more than that?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick Back: KICK-ASS 2

I get – or is that hope? –Kick-Ass 2, the thematically ugly follow-up to a film that was none-too-pretty to start with, is intended to skewer power-trip fantasies of the superhero kind. An oft-repeated bit of phrasing in the narration and dialogue wonders what would happen if a person in the real world decided to suit up and dish out vigilante justice. Almost as often, a character will growl, “this isn’t a comic book!” But this cornerstone of the premise was thrown out well before the first film ended with Kick-Ass, a dweeby high school student, riding a jet-pack to fire rounds from a bazooka into a penthouse apartment where a mobster was beating up Hit Girl, a little girl trained by her ex-cop father to take the law into her own hands. So, you see, Kick-Ass, for all its professed interest in more grounded superheroics finds itself squarely in shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up territory with outlandish characters with wild backstories doing exaggerated battle with each other. Its one bit of (almost) novelty is the nonstop vulgar language and copious gory effects of combat. But, even more so the second time around, that has the effect of making the whole thing revel in the very implications it ostensibly brings up in order to critique the very genre of which it’s ultimately a total embrace. It’s purposelessly toxic.

This movie finds Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) students by day and superheroes by night. It makes a certain amount of sense that the aftermath of the first film finds the mobster’s son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) looking to avenge his father’s death by cooking up a new persona as a self-declared “world’s first supervillain.” It makes less sense that the events of the first film have inspired a bunch of copycat heroes who roam the streets looking to do good. They end up forming a team with Kick-Ass and call themselves “Justice Forever.” I like the detail that one of their outings as do-gooders is volunteering at a soup kitchen. The group is lead by an ex-mob enforcer turned born-again Christian (Jim Carrey) and includes a motley collection of teenagers (Clark Duke, Robert Emms), young professionals (Donald Faison, Lindy Booth), and a middle-aged couple (Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan). Eventually, the supervillain gathers up an army of his own and the whole thing starts to look suspiciously like ugly gang warfare in silly costumes.

But it’s been ugly well before then. What’s worse? That the film is offensive or that it feels like it has to try so hard to get there? This is a film that’s mean-spirited and tonally off, expecting us to laugh and cringe and cry at violence presented at more or less the same speed and style all the way through. It’s full of quick and dirty stereotypes and unfeeling exaggeration of conventional superhero tropes. The filmmakers seem to have missed the point that’s not only implicit in their material, but is actually swirling around unformed on screen as well. (To their credit, the source comic book by Mark Millar missed the point, too.) Real life superheroes are just vigilantes in costumes. Just because they think they’re the good guys, doesn’t make their actions any less scary as individuals and destabilizing as a group. When Justice Forever breaks up a poker game below what we’re told is a brothel of captive illegal immigrants and cuts through a bunch of people, we’re only told they are “bad.” It’s presented in the film as a lark, but isn’t it terrifying? Wouldn’t an anonymous tip to the police be better for everyone involved? Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass was far from flawless, but at least it seemed aware of the scary and dangerous edge to the premise.

Violence and vigilantism are not the only ugly aspects of Kick-Ass 2. That it has characters explicitly call out racism and homophobia doesn’t make the film any less so for such attitudes running rampant throughout. Especially distasteful is the villain’s gang filled exclusively with lazy racial stereotypes. Twice he’s told he’s being racist and he waves off criticism. But then the movie goes ahead and has, say, a tough Russian henchwoman dressed up like Ivan Drago, as if the villain’s racist hiring practices would be embraced by his hires. Besides, every other “bad” person besides Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a broad stereotype, from the Asians in the aforementioned brothel poker game to the Latino thugs Kick-Ass fights near the beginning of the film to the black MMA fighter that jumps at the chance to work for the bad guy. Maybe one or two of these would be fine, but collectively it paints a picture of “non-white” or “foreign” equaling “bad.” Those few self-conscious lines do nothing but point out that someone involved thought the movie should say something to cushion the blow.

Misogyny doesn’t even get called out in this way. The movie is too busy doing a good job hating every non-Hit Girl woman on screen young and old alike. If they’re not actively hateful, they’re mocked and dismissed or turned into an objectified pawn in the plot. Even Hit Girl’s tragic backstory is plowed under for cheap thrills and lazy motivation. Instead of thinking through the aftermath a childhood like hers would lead to, she’s dumped into a Mean Girls scenario between martial arts battles. I felt disappointed for Lyndsy Fonseca, who, after playing a central role the first time around, here is written off in a jealous overreacting misunderstanding never to be seen again. But I felt only pity for young Claudia Lee in her first film role. She plays a vicious queen bee of a high school girl. Aside from her one-note slimy sniping and insinuating bullying of Hit Girl, she’s dressed in ultra-tight clothing, gives a risqué dance at cheerleader tryouts, then plays a scene in which she’s embarrassed in the cafeteria when she projectile vomits and has explosive diarrhea at the same time. We’re supposed to be happy watching this comeuppance, but I just felt sad for everyone involved.

The actors aren’t to blame for any of this. They do their best with bad writing. A waste of a good character can’t stop Moretz from seeming like the star on the rise that she is. She’s a captivating screen presence and sells some risible moments I wouldn’t have thought sellable. She’d be more than capable of selling a female superhero movie, a sadly nonexistent variant of the genre as far as Hollywood is concerned. Carrey’s fiercely entertaining, but in an awfully small role. Mintz-Plasse goes for it, as misguided as his character is. Taylor-Johnson plays the hero well; maybe we could get him in a better franchise, stat. The supporting cast is filled with fine work in roles either underwritten or set dressing, and certainly nothing as unexpected and weirdly weighty as Nicolas Cage in the first movie. Technically, he does appear here in a photograph on a wall, proving that he may be the only actor who can get a big laugh out of me in a film he didn’t act in. (I was the only one in the theater to laugh, though, so take it with a grain of salt. It was a reversal of the crowd’s reactions the rest of the film.)

The ultimate failing of Kick-Ass 2 is the complete fumbling of tone that comes with writer-director Jeff Wadlow’s approach, especially when it comes to violence. The first film had Matthew Vaughn, who, though far from perfect on this matter, seemed to understand how to shape it for the screen in ways that sometimes seemed aware of impact and timing. Wadlow simply splatters the screen, fundamentally misunderstanding the power of the images he plays with, unable to make violence matter or jokes land. He underestimates how uncomfortable the film as a whole begins to feel. It’s a film that’s callous and for all its talk of justice and surface-level grappling with talk of responsibility and questioning the net societal gain of superheroes, jocularly fascist and carelessly corrosive.

The movie is punishing and upsetting, all the more so for treating its content so lightly. When one “bad” character kills a string of policemen in creatively gory ways while two side characters crack jokes about her killing prowess, that’s not entertaining. It’s deeply uncomfortable. When a threat of rape is used as a tool of intimidation, even in a scene that tries to make the villain the butt of the joke, that’s not simply an illustration of evil; it’s awful and tonally mismanaged. No amount of straining for cheaply offensive surface detail, juvenile jokes and cussing can paper over the movie’s wholly bankrupt thematic and moral center.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Austenland is a film of affection for its inspirations, which happen to be the works of Jane Austen in general, but even more specifically the romantic comedy. It’s been ages since we’ve had a good one, so it makes a certain amount of sense that this film works as one by foregrounding its fictional status and thinking about locating your ideal romance squarely in the safe confines of literature. Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the film takes place at the titular Austenland, a resort that promises the ultimate Jane Austen experience. The owner (Jane Seymour) welcomes guests to spend time on the grounds of a richly appointed Regency Era home set on a large sweep of generous county acreage. The period wardrobe appears to be provided. It’s all so perfectly too-much and just-so, a tackiness that comes from an overabundance of frippery. Maybe it’s the small taxidermy farm animals scattered about that puts it over the top. To maintain the fictional illusion, the guests must abstain from all modern convenience (except for indoor plumbing, which is thankfully provided).

Our entry into this world is Jane Hayes, winningly played by Keri Russell. She’s an ordinary woman with a fine job and a string of bad breakups. Her apartment is covered in Austen merchandise, up to and including a banner over her bed that reads “Mrs. Darcy.” Unattached and with vacation time to spare, she jets off to England to visit Austenland and get lost in the literature she loves. Jane discovers that visitors to the resort come in different varieties. The other women attending this particular week are an uninhibited wealthy woman (Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to know little of Austen’s work, and a younger lady (Georgia King), so deep into character her real self barely surfaces at all. Deliberate caricatured, the guests are instantly recognizable as superfans. They may not have Jane’s merchandise, but they’re commitment to leaving modern day real world concerns behind is total. It’s not so strange. After all, it was none other than E. M. Forster who once wrote, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.”

That Austen is a novelist who attracts a devoted following is not news. It’s a phenomenon that predates Colin Firth’s Darcy’s dip in the water by more than a century. She speaks so directly to the hearts and minds of her biggest fans, conjuring her characters with such matter-of-fact precision. She writes crisply and sparklingly with easy wit and pithy observation, sometimes both at once, “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and all that. To fans Austen is not just a Great Author. She is, in her capability to inspire in some of her readers the kind of zealous personal attachments we’d more often associate with, say, superhero superfans, a great author as friend. It’s no wonder that her biggest fans, on a first-name basis with good old Jane, seem to be able to disappear into her world again and again.

That’s what Austenland concerns itself with, as the three ladies take tea, ride horses, sketch, sew, sing, gossip, and dine. At the end of the week there will be a ball. All along, they interact with actors playing typically Austen types of men: a prickly Darcy (JJ Feild), a colonel (James Callis), a captain (Ricky Whittle), and an inebriated patriarch (Rupert Vansittart). For all the artifice, Jane finds herself drawn to the resort’s handyman (Bret McKenzie). The cast is universally charming. Russell is a fine, appealing, immensely likable center. We want what’s best for her. The others, from scene-stealer Coolidge to marvelously prickly Feild, create sparkling chemistry and fill in great supporting detail.

Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos with her husband Jared, directs Austenland with a light, confident touch. Her tableaus don’t grow stiff and awkward like in those earlier efforts, but rather pop with delightful detail. This is a film that’s sprightly. She stages the film’s unexpected complexities with ease. The world of the film is at once ridiculous and relatable, broad shtick with heart. She pushes the exaggerated characters and locale without losing the real emotions and warmth in it. The affection for the characters and for Austen is infectious, the details that make up the resort’s activities funny in unexpected ways. When the group trudges out to the fields for an old-fashioned quail hunt, it’s with matter-of-fact precision that the employees launch stuffed birds into the sky.

All along we dance through meta-layers of storytelling. Guests are acting and actors are acting, but all are aware of the artifice. And yet, the artifice itself can provoke very real emotions that can carry over into reality. That the film is interested in its premise and characters enough to actually consider all sides of the scenario is welcome and hilarious. Some guests find themselves romantically drawn to the actors, but are they drawn to the character or the real person underneath? In a nice touch, we eventually cut behind the curtain to see the actors themselves gossiping about the guests. Is it possible the artifice can be broken from their side as well? It’s a film thoroughly and literally scrambling concepts of reality and fiction in much the same way Austen superfans (or any superfans, for that matter) do when lost in a fictional world.

Austenland designs stories for its guests’ amusement in much the same way Austenland designs all of them for ours. This is a film that’s a breezy, warm comedy that’s light on its feet. It’s at once a loving spoof of Austen tropes and a loving embrace of her marvelous plotting and emotional stakes. But I’ve been making it sound weightier and trickier than it is. The film is a clear and bouncy comedy, filled with loud pop music and tickling asides. The mix of comic conventions eventually puts us near where Austen and rom-coms alike tend to, but the whole-hearted embrace of its every aspect is a total delight from beginning to end. It’s a film that can wink the whole time through and still in the end make one swoon, too.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Right from the start, David Gordon Green was labeled the Next Great American Auteur. In 2000, his debut feature George Washington, a lyrical and tenderly detailed portrait of a poor young African American boy, marked him as a master in the making. His subsequent films – sensitive romance All the Real Girls (’03), stormy Southern Gothic Undertow (’04), emotional small-town drama Snow Angels (’08) – initially seemed to confirm his status as a director of Serious Intent set on saying Important Things with capital-C Cinema. By now, though, it’s clear that there’s no other director as intent on resisting critical and commercial labels. It took a jaunt through stoner clowning (Pineapple Express), TV (HBO’s Eastbound and Down), unimaginably awful fantasy goofing (Your Highness), and a Hollywood comedy (The Sitter) to redefine his career downwards, in some cases unfairly, but fairly in most. He’s off the pedestal to which he was so prematurely elevated.

Green’s latest feature is Prince Avalanche. It’s undoubtedly his smallest and least important project. Purposely monotonous and adrift, the film features a tiny cast and plotting so loose it may as well be plotless. Paul Rudd stars as a sad sack road crew supervisor, out painting lines and hammering posts along a rural stretch of road. His only companion and employee is his girlfriend’s brother played by Emile Hirsch. The younger kid only got the job because the boss loves his sister and wants to be nice to her. The relationship between the two men is not an easy one, a prickly, reluctantly chummy arrangement that’s just as likely to devolve into total silence as anything else. That’s the main focus of the movie, as the guys slowly let the summer pass them by, working for the weekend. Hirsch heads into town to party while Rudd stays back. He sees himself a wilderness man, fishing, cooking, and writing letters to his girl. By Monday, it’s back to painting stripes on the highway together.

Stuck partway between the unforced lyrical observation of Green’s earlier work and his broader, coarser Hollywood comedy of late, it’s unsuccessful precisely because it’s the worst of both. The film is unfocused and painfully small in scope. The cinematography from Tim Orr, who has done great, evocative work for Green and others for years now, captures the setting with an eye for interesting visual detail. But it quickly grows stagnant. The swirling ambient noise of the soundtrack by the band Explosions in the Sky works overtime overselling importance, while the camera returns again and again to repetitive shots of light dappling leaves and the sun coming up over the crest of the horizon, shots through which Rudd trudges and Hirsch schleps. It’s all so precisely shot and thinly sketched that it feels like the work of a cast and crew seized with a great idea, but who skipped to “how” before really puzzling through a good, clear answer for “why?”

Though Rudd and Hirsch share enjoyable chemistry at times, their characters are frustratingly limited in emotional range. They’re stumbling along, doubting their masculinity, alternating between dumbly meditative and sweetly insecure, hesitantly bonding with one another if they can ever get past their surface nastiness towards each other. But no amount of homosocial bonding can make these characters feel anything but incomplete. Rudd’s letters and Hirsch’s urgently recounted stories of hook ups and relationship strategies don’t flesh out their backgrounds so much as they play like an attempt to do so. It just feels phony. By the time the movie arrives at its only plot point of any consequence, it feels entirely unexpected and unconvincing because it takes place almost entirely off screen and is entirely unmotivated. This is a strangely passive film. It’s the kind of movie that feels like a couple of actors stuck in an acting exercise. To see the movie is to watch talented people play around in the forest for a while.