Friday, March 28, 2014

Rainy Day: NOAH

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is abstract and literal, bombastic and tender, reverent and perverse, overwrought and undercooked, vindictive and compassionate, spiritual and silly. That may make it tonally and thematically more authentically Old Testament, but it also makes for a rather uneven movie. Aronofsky’s vision is one part Biblical epic, two parts digitally enhanced fantasy, both informed by an occasionally fevered approach to a quasi-environmentalist message. All of the above is then filtered through the Hollywood expectation machine, where you can’t be given over $100 million dollars and not throw in a third-act fight, an easily recognizable antagonist, and CGI rock giants. It’s nothing if not serious in the execution, faithful to the Biblical story about a righteous man told by God to build a massive ark to save animals (two of every kind) from an imminent worldwide flood meant to wipe out sinful hordes of humanity. The result is a film too glum to be of much camp value and far too ridiculous to take it all that seriously, but lingers with an odd power all the same.

At the center of it all is Russell Crowe, wearing the burden of Noah heavily on his shoulders. He trudges with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll) to get advice from his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The old man gravely helps him to interpret his vision of the world underwater, corpses floating by, animals swimming up towards the sunlit ark above. It’s a nightmarish image that gives Noah the strength to move forward and do what must be done. As the plot moves forward, the film addresses some of the tale’s most preposterous elements with answers that seem at once gloriously symbolic and thunderously inane. How did Noah and his family get the wood to build the ark? It was a magic forest they grew from a seed grandfather gave them that ancestors saved from the Garden of Eden. How did the animals show up, two by two no less? They followed a magic stream that bubbles up from that same seed. How did the family deal with the animals once on the ark? They put them into deep, peaceful comas with a magic potion. Later they wake them back up with the antidote.

These elements are treated so seriously, with much weight and overworked awe that it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take it. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel wrestle with this simple story by turning the symbolic literal and back again. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he’s quick to sketch vivid, epic imagery and slow to synthesize coherence. It’s a clear labor of love, but that’s what also makes it a bit of a mess. This pre-flood world is a sparse, fallen fantasy world, a sort of Lord of the Rings-esque place of magic and monsters, sin and scares. It’s all so serious despite those rock giants (voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis) who are fallen angels cursed to walk the Earth who decide to help Noah build his ark, magic stones – strike them and they become fire – and Hopkins made up to look like a white-haired cave-dwelling wizard.

The mythic fantasy Aronofsky constructs appears meant to be partly a vaguely historic reality and an obvious abstraction for us to think through the notion of the relationship between man, the environment, and the divine and the obligations they have to each other. The intent is serious. No kid-friendly animal antics here. (Would you expect it from the director of The Wrestler and Black Swan?) But in striving for both reality and fantasy, it’s often neither, a colossal bore that no amount of dramatic imagery and intense emoting from the cast can cure. It’s no help that the film has some real transcendence within it, rubbing up against cheap drama that feels out of place.

A magical sequence has Crowe intone the story of Genesis while Aronofsky cuts to a Malickian Tree of Life time-lapse creation of the universe, the Big Bang sending the cosmos rapidly spinning down to Earth, evolution, Eden, exile, and, finally, the flood. Elsewhere, much is made out of Noah’s middle son’s preoccupation with finding a wife. His older brother already has a woman (Emma Watson, quite good) and he thinks he better get one while he still can. This subplot takes up a fair amount of energy, although the film doesn’t seem too preoccupied with how humanity will grow post-flood. Still elsewhere, conflict comes in the form of a villainous Ray Winstone who wants to kill Noah and his family for being so holier-than-thou, then leads armies to attack the ark once the rains come.

What is all this conventional interpersonal melodrama doing in a movie about spiritual crisis and the end of the world? That’s where the film is best, growing poignant and provocative. Aronofsky, echoing his 2006 ambitious philosophical sci-fi film The Fountain, is best at locating the real test of faith and emotional strain in his characters. The first night the family spends in the ark, the howling screams of those left to drown are carried in on the buffeting winds. The weight of morality weighs heavily upon them. Who are they to choose who lives and who dies? Perhaps they, too, should perish, the better to let nature take its course unblemished by human hands.

The entire flooding sequence, as the wood creaks, the door slams shut and the water crashes down, is effective and stressful. Aronofsky cuts to a wide shot of their boat in the distance, a craggy rock closer to the camera covered in a mass of people, clinging for their lives before slipping, washed off the face of the world. It’s a harrowing image articulating the great paradox at the center of the Noah story, as scary and searching as a pious Renaissance painting. But the great paradox of this Noah is how deeply strange and yet how weirdly conventional it manages to be. It’s not particularly good, often straight-faced silly in its loosely Biblical fantasy. (When the snakes slither up to the ark, Noah’s wife gives him a look that says, “Snakes are coming, too?”) But it’s so ambitious and thought provoking it is hard to dismiss entirely.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Story Told in a Twilight: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper perched between the World Wars. Writer-director Wes Anderson (inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig) creates an abstracted Old World caught as it is disappearing, a colorful fantasy Europe that’s poisoned by drab fascist forces and left forever changed. In true Anderson fashion, he’s designed his fictional European country (Zubrowka, he names it) as a candy-colored dollhouse of meticulous design. At the center is The Grand Budapest Hotel of the title. It’s a wondrous creation, a massive structure nestled in the Alps where it looks for all the world like a hotel Rankin and Bass characters might’ve passed on their way to the North Pole. Its exterior is a pale pink, floors stacked like a cheerfully, elaborately frosted wedding cake. Inside, a lushly carpeted and handsomely furnished labyrinth of luxuries wraps around itself in a square that forces guests and employees alike to walk in crisp geometric patterns. At this Hotel, a caper is hatched, a war encroaches, then years later a writer is inspired. Still later, that writer’s work lives on, calling us back into its melancholic past.

Layers upon layers, the film is a memory inside a book inside a movie. As it begins, a young woman opens a book and begins to read. The author (Tom Wilkinson) appears to us in his office, ready to recount the time he first heard the story his book relays. We see The Author as a Young Man (Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest in the late 1960s, now a cavernous, sparsely populated space not too far removed from The Shining territory, albeit without the supernatural elements. The author meets a lonely old man (F. Murray Abraham) who invites the author to hear the story of how he became the owner of the hotel. Intrigued, the author agrees. And so back once more into the past we go, to the 1930s, when the Grand Budapest was at its peak. For each time period, Anderson designates a different aspect ratio, boxy Academy Ratio 30s stretch into anamorphic late-60s, before growing shallow and simple in 16x9 present day. It’s as mischievous as it is exact, moving through time with clear visual orientation.

The film spends the bulk of its time in the 1930s. We meet Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a supercilious dandy who manages the Grand Budapest Hotel with a suave charm and a composed pompous sincerity. His new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) tells of the man’s peccadilloes, namely wooing the little old ladies that visit the hotel. These early passages operate with a dizzying fizz, whiffs of the Lubitsch touch generating much sophisticated posturing and door-slamming farce. Anderson here, working with deep focus lenses and finely calibrated tragicomic performances, has the giddy architectural design of Lubitsch’s silents and the bubbly urbane wit of his talkies. The boy and his boss move through a world of color as vivid as in any Powell/Pressburger film, helping the Grand Budapest’s guests in any way they can. Fiennes and Revolori’s performances are nicely synchronized, the former a fatuous perfectionist, the latter a wide-eyed innocent whose deadpan acceptance in the face of disbelief and disaster balances it out.

Through briskly delivered dialogue and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, the metronome is set perfectly for a caper that’s about to erupt, escalating in suspense and incident at an engaging tempo. As the plot gets underway, one of Gustave’s very rich elderly lovers (Tilda Swinton, beneath a generous application of makeup) has died. At the reading of the will, all her most distant acquaintances arrive, shocked to hear that the hotel manager has been left her most valuable painting. While her lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) assures her son (Adrian Brody) that this late-arriving addendum must be authenticated, Gustave and his lobby boy abscond with the painting and take off for the Grand Budapest. Soon, the woman’s son’s thug (Willem Dafoe), a missing butler (Mathieu Amalric), a fascist Inspector (Edward Norton), a scowling prisoner (Harvey Keitel), a sweet baker (Saoirse Ronan), the leader of a team of concierges (Bill Murray), and more get pulled into a scampering plot involving locating, hiding, or aiding and abetting the movement of this most desirable painting.

All the while, the threat of violence looms large. Soldiers brutishly ask travelers for papers. Guards are stabbed to death. A pet meets a gory end. Fingers are misplaced. The film is crisply playful in unspooling its brisk and wry heist plot, loving in its evocation of period-appropriate cinematic touchstones, from the aforementioned Lubitsch and Powell/Pressburger to a mountain cable car right out of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. It’s affectionately constructed, miniatures adding whimsy that somehow doesn’t distract from the real menace in the action.  Nonchalant gore, periodic splashes of vibrant red and matters of life and death in an otherwise charmingly pastel, idealized Old World Europe maintains reality as an inescapable intrusion. No matter the perfectly constructed melancholy nostalgia, the violence of greed and war are an inevitable erosion of this ideal.

The fizzy sophistication of loose permissiveness as signified by Gustave’s unflappable reign of pleasure in the Grand Budapest grows frazzled and tossed as he’s thrown, by his plotting and by the march of time, into danger and exile, on the run from dark intimations of violence and despair. Though, like a typical Wes Anderson protagonist, he projects confidence, even when circumstances are at their most dire. He thinks he’ll get by because that’s all he’s ever planned on. He carries himself with great sense of purpose, even when stumbling into situations deteriorating rapidly, falling into doom, or at least humiliation. The entire oddball ensemble has characters similarly driven towards their goals, a perfect set of traits for people in a story of careful caper construction. When the cogs fall into place and the wheels make their final turn, interlocking every variable, it’s most satisfying, indeed.

For Anderson, film is an artifice, but his style is never an affectation. His pictorial beauty (again with his usual cinematographer Robert Yeoman), visual wit, symmetric blocking, high angle shots, laconic profundities, dead-pan peculiarities, 90-degree whip pans, finicky fonts, cutaway gags, witty repartee, and editorial precision (this time with editor Barney Pilling) add up to an intensely personal and deeply felt playfulness. He comes by his style honestly, carefully, a magic blend of planning and happenstance. It’s all too easy to imagine making a mockery of such meticulousness, but all Anderson parodies miss the depth roiling within the rich and lovingly assembled surfaces. Here is a film that’s on one level a lark, with its bouncy caper, funny lines, and familiar faces. Crescendos of tension and suspense build into action sequences of tremendous delight and dips of apprehension. But underneath sits the darkness.

Here he creates a world of colorful eccentricity soon to be snuffed out, or at least irreparably damaged, by the marching armies at the border. After it all, the Grand Budapest remains, but the world it represents can only be accessed through stories. Layers upon layers of storytelling, of artifice, are not arbitrary comic filigrees or distancing effects. Here the tragedies of the past linger with overwhelming melancholy as we back out of our main story, to the old man who at one point stops his tale to wipe back tears, to the young woman who cherishes the book in which it was immortalized, to the audience as the lights come up and the credits roll. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a totally enveloping aesthetic pleasure, funny and exciting, sharp and sad, so very moving, so completely transporting.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Generic Dystopia Blahs: DIVERGENT

So many young adult novels have gotten so lugubrious and solemn about subject matter that’s inherently exciting pulp. They’ve forgotten that fast and fun are not adjectives that preclude serious themes. Stories of teenage vampires and teenage gladiatorial combat and teenage dystopias have become these long, slow, formless blobs of deadening trembling import, eliding any B-movie energy they could potentially kick up. It’s like they feel the need to reassure their teen readership that they’re important by placing protagonists their age in the center of every single thing of importance in any given YA world. The weight of these decisions crushes the fun. The Hunger Games adaptations have just barely managed to escape this fate by working an interesting and enjoyable vein of satire and having actual characters for adults to play. You get why moments matter in those movies.

But Divergent has no such luck. It’s empty and bland, a movie built from the ground up to flatter its protagonist. You see, the world it imagines, a post-apocalyptic Chicago that’s been dried up and cordoned off, is split into five discreet career-based factions: scientists called Erudite, lawyers called Candor, farmers called Amity, soldiers called Dauntless, and philanthropists called Abnegation. The divisions between the groups are intensely policed. Once a teen picks their faction in a choosing ceremony, there’s no going back. Flunking out of the track chosen means a faction-less life of abject poverty and homelessness. Our protagonist’s only problem is that she’s too smart, too talented, and too all-around great to fit in only one faction. She’d be perfect in any and all of the factions. She can do everything. And that’s why she’s a threat. She’s just too good for this world.

She’s Tris, played by Shailene Woodley, who is good enough at suggesting interiority to make something of a character out of nothing at all. Her primary attribute is her boldness, which leads her to drift away from her parents’ selfless charity-based Abnegation towards the law enforcement Dauntless. It’s there that she realizes the problems of being labeled Divergent, what the world of this story calls those who fit more than one category. I guess if they have a name for it, then Tris isn’t the first. How this society operates, I’m not quite sure. They claim to have existed in these five separate but equal factions for 100 years. Yet the overarching plot is about the villainous head of Erudite (Kate Winslet) deciding to overthrow and wipe out one of the other factions. Why hasn’t this happened sooner? The whole system seems unstable to me, partially because it seems calculated to avoid any explicit political messaging while providing a scenario in which the protagonist is the most special of all special people and can see their world’s grand design. Good for her, I guess.

The story follows Tris as she slowly becomes a great Dauntless and ends up involved with every major machination of the plot. The fate of future Chicago is in her hands. She meets a handsome Dauntless guy (Theo James) and has a crush on him. The architecture of his face probably has something to do with that, especially the way the camera lingers on his intense stares. Lucky for her, he eventually reciprocates those feelings. Along the way we get endless training montages and some uncomfortable militaristic hazing between barking about showing no fear from an ensemble of young heroes (Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort), villains (Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer), and at least one wisenheimer who is not quite either (Miles Teller). Joining Winslet as the token adults in the cast are Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Ray Stevenson in a collection of helpful or harmful influences on Tris and her friends. They stand around in their awkward costumes and pretend this all makes sense, lending it a modicum of weight by reminding us of the better roles they’ve had.

Director Neil Burger’s approach is generic, impersonal, but sometimes serviceable. One nice scene involves a zip line off the top of a skyscraper and through the abandoned skyline of the city. I liked that. But most of the movie, adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the book by Veronica Roth, involves pretty faces held in close-up. For over two hours they murmur towards each other, worried about who is going to be Dauntless, what the Erudites are up to and who is spreading rumors about Abnegation. They find it far more important than I did. All the intent declarations involving their faction titles only had me wondering why this society would choose such unwieldy adjectives for their groups’ names.

The film feels so claustrophobic and small, spending most of its time in rooms and caves and warehouses. When we finally pull back for wide shots, the sense of CGI space it tries to create feels fake and tiny, utterly inconsequential and entirely arbitrary. Chicago is a husk of its former self, but the “L” is still running and apparently automated? Okay. Maybe it works on the page (somehow I doubt it). But on screen, the whole thing just looks dumb.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

His Own Worst ENEMY

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled college professor. We don’t know the source of his anxiety, but he enters Enemy distracted and a little jumpy, his hair slightly mussed, his posture defensive and slouched. He’s on edge, ignoring calls from his mother and behaving inattentive in his encounters with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). Life doesn’t get any easier for him when he spots an extra in the background of a movie he happens to watch one night. He rewinds and pauses. The extra looks exactly like him. Rattled, he googles his way to the extra’s headshot. Why, he’s identical. Adam calls the actor. They have the same voice. Adam stalks the man until finally he sees him. The actor’s name is Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s kind of freaked out about their doppelganger status, too. His wife (Sarah Gadon) suspected him of having an affair, but this is a whole lot weirder.

It’s never clear why the two men are so disturbed. They behave immediately as if they’re in a thriller, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, nervously circling each other. At one point they decide to meet up in a hotel and for a brief moment I wondered if the movie would be about the perils and attractions of dating your doppelganger. No such luck. Apparently Adam and Anthony have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in The 6th Day or, even better, Tatiana Maslany’s great work on the TV series Orphan Black. The point is, there are plenty of reasons to suspect nefarious somethings are afoot when you’re confronted with your exact duplicate, down to the same scars. There’s some unidentifiable connection there that’s so painfully obvious on a visual level. It remains unanswered, a mystery to them and to us as they slowly freak out while spying on each other. Each even covets the other’s significant other. Both women are similarly proportioned blondes, so I guess the men’s tastes are duplicated as well.

It’s all so very creepy for sure, and the film takes on a nervous, fuzzy vibe that moves lugubriously through waking nightmare territory as reality bends around these men and their mental states. We’re talking full on nervous breakdown, the kind where you hallucinate a naked woman with the head of a spider walking on your ceiling. There’s some undiluted nightmare fuel here. The final sequence, with a sudden shift in the boundaries of all we think we know about the world of the film represented by one very wrong thing is an especially great shock. The film has jolts of imagery that in their suddenness and eerie calm recall the terrifying person stepping out from behind the dumpster in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a far superior film involving doubles and disintegrating reality. Enemy doesn’t go far enough. It kicks up so much unease that’s it’s hard to ignore, but remains so straight-faced and dull that I found myself cherishing it’s surreal interjections all the more for their infrequency.

Director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve (loosely adapting a José Saramago novel with the help of screenwriter Javier Gullón) worked with Gyllenhaal in last year’s Prisoners, a solid dread-soaked missing-child mystery. Enemy has some of the same sustained intensity of tone, but often seems to miss how funny it plays. The Gyllenhaals glower at each other, alternately intrigued and terrified, jealous and repulsed by each other. It’s never clear why they feel the way they feel, their more intense outbursts cause for suppressed snickers, at least from where I was sitting. Only a cameo by Isabella Rossellini, as one of their mothers, seems to have a sense of humor, and even then it’s only funny in the way she appears to puncture the film’s self-serious pulpiness. He explains the doppelganger predicament and she calmly waves off his concerns with a stop-being-so-silly shrug. Maybe this overburdened germ of a good idea would’ve played a bit better with a stronger pair of performances from the lead. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but here gives a one-and-a-half note performance stretched across two characters, like a blanket that’s just short enough to leave a limb hanging out no matter which way you contort yourself.

The experience of watching Enemy is not unlike stumbling across a yellowed used paperback with a great cover and a fun hook in the blurb on the back, then actually reading it and discovering a slow slog of motifs and incidents, wrapped up in sensational luridness that’s too little and too rare. Repeated spider imagery runs throughout, from the spider-face woman to a dream of a monstrous arachnid floating over the city and the opening context-free scene of men watching a stripper methodically crush a tarantula under her high-heels. This underlines the ickiness of it all, but doesn’t seem to come to much beyond conflating spiders with women in a way so half-formed it’s neither potent nor offensive. As I left the theater, I overheard an elderly couple solemnly discussing their bafflement. “Seems to me,” the man told his wife, “if you figure out those spiders, you’ve figured the whole thing.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Together Again, Again: MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Muppets Most Wanted finds Jim Henson’s loveable felt-and-fur goofballs up to their usual good-natured meta trickiness and bountiful warm-hearted silliness. Writer-director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and songwriter Bret McKenzie, who revived the franchise in 2011 with the surprisingly nostalgic and emotional – but no less gut-bustingly funny – The Muppets, are upfront about what their new picture is. It’s a sequel with the Muppets fresh off the success of their last movie setting off on a European tour where they cross paths with a jewel heist in progress. If that sounds partly like a riff on 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, the original Muppet sequel, it is and the movie owns up to it, winking right from the start. The opening musical number is “We’re Doing a Sequel,” a song full of funny barbs at the business of Hollywood and a clear tip of the hat to Caper’s curtain raiser “Hey, a Movie!” It’s a movie that loves movies, but loves the Muppets even more. And that’s irresistible.

In their opening number, which starts right after the closing number in the last movie, the gang sings about being a “viable franchise” and preparing what’s technically their “seventh sequel,” warning that means it’s “not quite as good.” The Muppets are perpetual optimistic underdogs, lovable misfits who scramble around with manic showbiz energy, eager to tell you that the show must go on. Their personalities are so agreeably constant, chaos and order held in perfect, immutable manic amusement. It’s fun to see them, as performed here by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, and Peter Linz, bounce off of each other in the old ways. Fearless leader Kermit the Frog, exasperated, is always wrangling Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, and all the others, competing egos and eccentricities that constantly threaten to derail their variety shows.

As usual, story exists mainly to provide a rigid genre form for the Muppets to push against, moving through charmingly near-slapdash sequences of jokes and songs. Most Wanted’s plot involves the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, a Kermit-lookalike frog named Constantine. He plots to swap places with the showbiz icon and use the cover of the Muppet tour to burgle museums at every stop. Most of the movie finds the fake Kermit faking his way through interactions with the characters we know and love, while the real Kermit plots to escape a goofy Siberian gulag. Tina Fey plays the warden, snarling, but softhearted underneath. Fellow prisoners include Ray Liotta and Jemaine Clement with thick Russian accents and Danny Trejo playing himself. (His description of his “triple threat” attributes is priceless.) At least the guards and the prisoners can agree on something, when they sing a song about how their prison is the best state-funded hotel in all of Russia. Kermit just wants out of there.

The Muppets gang moves along unaware of the switch for a while, though some grow suspicious about the changes in their old pal Kermit. He talks with a gargling vaguely foreign accent now, but their new tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, playing up his shiftiness) assures them their friend just has a cold. They continue with their plan to stage Muppet Shows in a collection of European cities, every place an occasion for good culturally specific jokes. In Berlin, the theater marquee reads “Die Muppets.” Seeing this, Statler and Waldorf wryly wonder if the reviews are in already or if that’s the suggestion box. Meanwhile, a French INTERPOL agent (Ty Burrell, with a chewy Clouseau accent) and Sam the Eagle bumblingly investigate the robberies that seem to be following the Muppets around.

The impostor storyline allows the franchise a level on which to comment upon its own evolution. Once more Bobin, Stoller, and McKenzie prove their love for the Muppets. Their version of these characters is not an exact recreation. How could it be? The Muppets haven’t been exactly the same since Jim Henson died, and later when Frank Oz stepped away. No matter how good, Bobin and his crew are impersonators. But Most Wanted, like The Muppets before it, is filled with such affection for the characters and the smart silliness of Henson’s original vision, we’re better off with these films than none at all, or, worse yet, soulless profit-driven corporate property perpetuation. It’s a movie that knows what made the Muppets most lovable and sets out recreating it as best it can, with love and care. The filmmakers are true to the Muppet spirit without suffocating their own comic sensibilities in an effort to recreate the work of the irreplaceable original Muppet artists. The film’s story is resolved because Muppets are true to themselves and to each other. I’m glad to see their new stewards are as well.

Muppets Most Wanted is very good entertainment, loaded up with smart references and broad craziness. It’s a satisfyingly warm and inviting brand of inspired high/low comedy, a barrage of puns, vaudeville sketches, dry asides, sloppy slapstick, and cornball dad humor, with wall-to-wall witty musical numbers, lovable homage, and tickling satire. There’s also a fleet of random and inspired cameos, a good half of which kids today won’t get and most are sure to baffle kids of the future. In other words, it’s a Muppet movie. I had a smile on my face the whole way through. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

True Detective: VERONICA MARS

Veronica Mars was a high school detective, helping her private investigator father with his caseload and taking on all kinds of unofficial work from peers and acquaintances who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Inspired by the unsolved murder of her best friend and her father’s line of work, she threw herself into her hobby, getting into sleuthing scrapes and uncovering the seedy underbelly of her economically stratified hometown full of privileged conspiratorial snobs and rough criminal elements alike. Such was the weekly life of this teenager, a breakout role for Kristen Bell, during the 2004 to 2007 three-season run of Veronica Mars, before the TV series was cancelled after having been tinkered with and compromised by a network eager to make it a bigger hit than it ever would be. Ever since, fans have wanted more of her story, or at least a proper finale, and so has Rob Thomas, the show’s creator and showrunner. Years of studio negotiations and a much-hyped Kickstarter campaign later and here we are with a Veronica Mars movie, a big screen continuation of her adventures.

I didn’t watch the series when it aired, but having gorged on it to catch up in time to see the film, I bet anyone who has long loved this show will be most pleased. It picks up a decade after Veronica’s high school graduation. She’s long since moved from her home in Neptune, California. Still dating her Season 3 boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), she has graduated law school and is poised to take a job at a New York City law firm. So far she’s been able to resist the call of Neptune and all the entanglements and pain it represents to her. She won’t even be attending her upcoming high school reunion. But, as was often the case in the series, there has been a high-profile murder in her hometown. Troubled rich kid, and Veronica’s old on-again-off-again boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is the only suspect. She feels compelled to help, dusting off her old detective skills after having so thoroughly left them behind. Her investigation leads her straight into the reunion, falling back in with old friends (Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Francis Capra) and old antagonists (Ryan Hansen, Krysten Ritter). Soon, the simple murder investigation doesn’t seem so simple.

It’s an entire season of Veronica Mars packed into one 107-minute movie. The screenplay by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero (a writer on the series) has all of the intrigue and relationship melodrama of the show’s overarching big mysteries without the sometimes hit-and-miss nature of the case-of-the-weeks dictated by the demands of the standard 22-episode broadcast order. I found the show often stretched the season-long mysteries too thin, especially by each season’s midpoint, so the necessary compression of the theatrical format solves my biggest problem with the show. It allows for a story that’s tightly structured, full of complications and unexpected twists, and the dark humor and eclectic cultural references fans of the show would expect. It also plays fair with the characters as they’ve been established, providing fans an opportunity to live out the reunion with Veronica, to stay with her father (a warm Enrico Colantoni) once more, and to see all the old Neptune High classmates yet again. It’s nice to see how easily the characters fall back into their old rhythms.

There’s a sense of welcome familiarity here. Even the murder and conspiracies seem like old times. It feels exactly like Veronica Mars, which also makes the whole thing, as directed by Thomas, feel at times like a comfortable TV movie. But, hey, it’s an especially engaging one. It’s an amiable reunion that pulls back the ensemble for another big mystery. The sense of fun is infectious as the movie piles high with callbacks, needling in-jokes, and cameos that add up to an enjoyable story that can stand on its own. Where the movie works best, maybe even for those who know little to nothing about the characters and their pasts, is the tight focus on Veronica with a clear emotional through line. Bell is hugely charming being as much of a clever smart aleck and whip smart investigator as she ever was. But now there’s real reluctance to how comfortable it is falling into old patterns. There is a palpable sense that her teen sleuthing days were a coping mechanism and the continual moral shambles of her hometown is a kind of inescapable tragedy that’s gotten under her skin. 

It makes for a fine detective movie, a digital age grown-up Nancy-Drew-by-way-of-The-O.C. neo-noir, as this ex-P.I. returns to a life she thought she left firmly in the past to find a town that’s only further crumbling under corruption and opportunistic classism. She’s about to fully escape, but finds she craves the rush of cracking a case. She needs to scratch the itch and right some wrongs. Her sense of loyalty to her father, her old friends, and her old life only enables this drive, and makes for an interesting addiction portrait. Maybe it’s also a commentary on the expectations of standard TV plotting. We need everything to be what it was, always ready to perpetuate the old conflicts anew. We need yet another case to be solved. We need the characters ready to play their parts. We need our hero able to step in and do what she does best over and over again.

One of the best things about the series was the way it had consequences linger, the results of a case big or small lasting in the form of grudges, expectations, compromises, criminal records, and plain old emotional traumas. No one emerged clean. The messy business of detective work and soapy mid-aught’s teen drama left marks. The movie is smart to continue along those lines, with stains of the past seeping into seemingly unrelated present day situations, driving old resentments and new crimes. It makes for fun thematic play and a great central hook for a reunion story. The characters are likable company and the mystery is resolved in a way that is most satisfying. But in the end, no one’s addiction will be cured. You just know Veronica will need to be out there solving mysteries. And I know there will be an audience anxious to see her do so.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Need for Speed is never better than when it spends time hurtling along in and around cars going top speeds down city streets, country roads, highways, and byways, racing and chasing in reckless and exciting ways. Luckily, those sequences feel like they take up just about the entire movie. It’s a fairly preposterous plot full of posturing archetypes, the kind who can’t handle much of an emotive burden and are never as funny as the movie thinks they are. They’re there only to help create enough of a story to string along scene after scene of cars zooming, providing just enough downtime and modulations of noise to prevent the whole movie from becoming a monotonous squeal of tires. When those cars peal out down the road, with burning rubber and roaring engines, it’s a visceral kick. With a movie like Need for Speed, based on a series of racing video games and advertised as a nonstop chase, what more do you need to see? It’s important not to cheat yourself out of simple movie pleasures such as these.

Director and co-editor Scott Waugh worked for many years as a stunt coordinator and stuntman on all manner of big exciting action sequences in films for the likes of John McTiernan, Michael Bay, and Doug Liman. He knows his way around a car chase, shooting them at top speeds with crisp, smeary digital photography that catches a motion blur off the gleaming paint as the sound design works with a bass kick of gears shifting and tires sliding. The star of the movie is a modified Ford Mustang. Waugh is always sure to let the camera linger on car logos, giving each new vehicle entrances that are usually reserved for starlets and special guest stars. The Mustang is tricked out to go fast; its top speed is somewhere just north of 230 miles per hour. A financially struggling mechanic (Aaron Paul) does the job for a snobby and insecure professional racecar driver (Dominic Cooper). They may be the humans that make the cars move, but their interpersonal struggles are sublimated at every turn into the action of the vehicles through the aggression of their driving.

And Paul certainly has reasons to be angry with Cooper, who cheats him out of millions of dollars, causes a drag racing accident that kills a close friend, and then flees the scene leaving him to take the blame. After a couple years in prison on manslaughter charges, Paul is ready for some macho car culture vengeance. He wants to reclaim his good name and expose Cooper as the smug villain he is. Paul is so good at playing the good-hearted criminal in over his head and paying for it through palpable emotional pain. He did it for five seasons on Breaking Bad, after all. Need for Speed calls on him to play a similar emotional range, but lighter, pulpier. He’s surrounded by a gang of smiling gearheads (Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Ramon Rodriguez) eager to help him, and a pretty car-loving girl (Imogen Poots) willing to ride shotgun. The plan is to zoom from New York to California in 45 hours, getting the attention of a webcasting drag race tycoon (Michael Keaton) along the way so he’ll give them an invitation to his infamous race and meet the enemy behind the wheel once more.

Does that make a whole lot of sense? I’m not so sure. But the screenplay by George and John Gatins uses it as an excuse to send the Mustang flying down the highway at over 100 miles an hour most of the way. Every few states, there’s a new obstacle. They appear with all the regularity of video game villains. In Detroit, there are cops who pursue them. In Nebraska, a state trooper spots them. In Utah, there are greedy bounty hunters. In California, there are other racers, still more cops, and, of course, Dominic Cooper, who would be twirling his mustache if only he had one. Most of the action takes place in broad daylight, the better to appreciate the impressive stunt work on display. The camera sits on the side of the road, hangs off of cars, flings forward into crashes, and stands back to take in spinning debris. It’s clearly and energetically cut together, ready to show off its best assets.

Waugh has grown as a filmmaker since his debut film, the military actioner Act of Valor, showed a glimmer of promise buried under a self-serious plot, stiff tone, and muddy action. Need for Speed takes itself the right amount of serious, which is to say not enough to be a drag. Waugh lets the scenes between the action get carried along by fine actors in thin parts before plunging back into the well-choreographed excitement of cars going very fast. He knows exactly what kind of movie it is, a throwback to films like H.B. Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds and Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit, B-movies directed by stuntmen who reveled in sending real cars careening down real roadways. It’s a movie where the hero gets right up in the face of the villain (so close, watching with the sound down might make you think they’re about to make out) and threatens to prove who is the better man by winning the big race. It’s a movie that is bookended by a symbol (first abstract, later literal) of a lighthouse standing erect at the beachside finish line, to really hammer home the masculinity at stake. It’s a movie where inarticulate characters feel big emotions, anger, love, joy, and express them all by driving as fast as they can.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Blood and Sand: 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE

In many ways, 300: Rise of an Empire is just more of 300. Set before, during, and after the ancient Battle of Thermopylae as slowed-down, amped-up, and all around exaggerated in the first film, this sequel has the same rhythms in cluttered battle sequences, obviously fake CGI backdrops, and unwavering focus on masculine bodies in motion. It has the same attention to chiseled abs, bulging loincloths, big swinging swords, and geysers of digital blood. The Greeks are still presented as wholly good, dudes fighting for nothing more than freedom itself. Their Persian foes are still the darker-hued, effeminate others who want nothing more than to kill because they hate freedom. Setting up such divisions as essentialist markers of good and evil obliterates nuance and grows awfully queasy.

Last time we watched Persians slaughter 300 Greeks, Spartans making a doomed stand for their country. So dedicated to their dunderheaded ideal of authentic masculinity as combat alone, the film was a loud and monotonous gargle of stylized bloodlust. Noam Murro (whose only other film is the 2008 Sundance movie Smart People, for whatever that’s worth) may have taken over the director’s chair from Zack Snyder for the sequel, but Snyder remained co-writer and producer on the project. There’s a consistency of vision here. It’s easy to imagine cutting both 300 films together into one long four-hour slog. Both are almost perversely head over heels in love with martyrdom to the point where the insistent glorifying of war is hard to take.

But where Rise of an Empire manages to best its predecessor, slipping past some of the inherent ugliness, is in its marginally better modulation. The violence is spread out enough to create some emotional dynamics. It’s not all blustery machismo and stop-start slow-mo. We have time to see the new characters, some of which actually stand out from the sea of bare chests and scruff. A blandly noble Grecian naval officer (Sullivan Stapleton) gathers men and boats to meet a Persian fleet heading their way. Eva Green of Casino Royale and The Dreamers plays his Persian counterpart. She’s given a bloody awful backstory and dressed in stylishly flowing battle gear. She storms through every scene she’s in, slicing and dicing her enemies while chewing up the scenery and scene partners with equal vigor. I knew intellectually that she was the villain of the picture, hell-bent on burning Greece to the ground and impaling our freedom-loving heroes to the masts of their ships. But there’s such a delight in watching her storm about, ready to behead anyone who annoys her, quick to snap and growl her threats and strategic decisions with equal venom. I wanted to be on her side.

If the film was leaner and more focused on the clash between the wild-eyed Green and the beige Stapleton it would’ve been quite a kick of bloody artificiality. You’d think it’d be harder to mess up something as simple as bland good guys plus interesting bad guys equal big battle scenes, especially when the screenplay isn’t leaning so heavily on its root xenophobic political undercurrents and embracing its homoerotic visual interests. Instead, we have to sit through endless convolutions. We see the backstory of Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), as if we were all yearning to see how he was a shrimpy, stubbled heir who mourned his father by taking a dip in a magic hermit cave pond and emerged a waxed and bejeweled giant. We also have to listen to Lena Headey grieving husband Gerard Butler by giving a pep talk to her troops in voice over exposition that seems to last about half the movie before finally disappearing, only to return near the end.

But if its greatest sin is boredom, that’s still a great deal better than its predecessor. It’s still an amped up expression of pure violent id, but it’s not as ugly. Because there are characters who are more than reductive warmongering symbols, it’s easier to get invested in their plights. The gender dynamic is far more palatable, even gripping at times in its breathy intensity. Green and Stapleton have a scene of tense negotiations in the middle of the picture that has a curious sensual charge, a spark of physical attraction between them that then filters into their armies’ clashes over the rest of the movie. It’s a love-hate magnetism that’s a welcome undercurrent to the sometimes-exciting over-the-top action surrounding it. And because both armies are balanced in this way, all the shouted prejudices don’t seem so icky. Murro shoots it all in imitation-Snyder style, all gleaming filters and gauzy grain, but instead of simply copying 300’s brownish sludge he invites a bit more color to the palate, using the film's trading the desert location for ocean to his advantage. If we must have a sequel to 300, at least it’s easier on the eyes and not quite so hard on the intellect.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Dog and His Boy: MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN

Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is far and away the smartest dog in the world. I’m not just talking smart like Snoopy, or even smart like Stan the talking, blogging dog of Dog with a Blog. Mr. Peabody is a genius. He’s an inventor, a scholar, a scientist, and the founder and C.E.O. of Peabody Industries. For his contributions to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. That’s some dog. But perhaps his most notable achievement is his win in the historic court case for his right to adopt a human child. The judge decided that someone as accomplished as Mr. Peabody could surely be trusted with such a task and so the bespectacled beagle is awarded custody of Sherman (Max Charles), a red-haired, big-eyed infant orphan eager to learn and grow. They make a good pair and have for many years. Seeing as Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens with the boy as a seven-year-old, this intelligent canine has clearly discovered the secret to expanding dog lives. I wouldn’t put it past him.

These cartoon characters have been around since the late 1950s when they debuted on TV with Ted Key's Peabody’s Improbable History, part of Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle. Their new feature length reboot comes courtesy of DreamWorks Animation, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) outfitting them with a bright primary color world full of soft and shiny CGI of appealing rubberiness. Now, as then, their story hinges on Mr. Peabody’s most amazing invention, one he keeps secret out of necessity. It’s a time machine. He uses it to teach Sherman about history by letting him observe it in action. They call it the WABAC Machine (say it out loud if you don’t get it). Since the rules of time travel movies dictate that time must be put in disarray, the better to send our protagonists lost in time desperate to fix mistakes, you know the first time you see the spinning red vehicle bleeping its way through wormholes that something will go wrong soon.

But you might not expect to see a film that takes the father/son relationship seriously, especially taking into consideration the canine factor. Sherman gets into a fight with a snooty girl at school (Ariel Winter) and, in a moment of frustration, bites her. In storms a towering social worker (Allison Janney), glaring at Mr. Peabody and sniffing that such behavior is to be expected letting a dog raise a child. It’s a fine stand-in for knee-jerk condemnation of unconventional family structures. Even better is the film’s insistence that getting to know people melts away prejudices. Why, that super-smart dog is not so different from us after all! Peabody invites the bitten girl and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for a dinner party in the hopes of smoothing the conflict and preventing the social worker from deciding to take Sherman away. 

But, even before the first course, the kids end up sneaking into the WABAC and rocketing into the past. Told you that time machine would cause some trouble. What follows is a mashup of famous times and faces as the kids bounce into Ancient Egypt, running into King Tut (Zach Callison) before dashing away, desperate for Peabody’s help. So it’s two kids and a dog racing through time, interrupting an Egyptian wedding ceremony, Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) in the middle of painting Mona Lisa (Lake Bell), and Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) and his army huddled in a giant wooden horse. The movie moves at a fast, but never frantic, pace as it finds pleasantly elastic history. A mix of brisk caricature and actual interest in facts, the script by Craig Wright (with additional dialogue by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) finds amusing little details and gigglingly over-the-top accents at each stop. There’s an Egyptian who is way too excited about the mummification process. Mona Lisa is too tired from sitting around all day to smile. And I especially liked the portrayal of Odysseus as not exactly the sharpest guy around. I mean, it’ll take him long enough to get home, right?

In its brisk, colorful cartooniness, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is often funny. It leans heavily on gags and puns – when a mummy loses an arm, the dog quips, “That’s disarming” – with a welcome emphasis on clever silliness. And yet there is rubbery rigor in the time travel mechanics, enough to tickle my inner timeline nerdiness without leaping beyond the understanding of its target audience. It’s entertaining, but never taxing. Part of what makes it so comfortable are the warm and appealing voice performances, especially Burrell’s Peabody, quaint and inviting with a pinched ivory tower voice sparkling with a love of learning and of wordplay. He was never adopted as a puppy because he was too sarcastic. Aw. It’s fun to fly through history with him as a guide.

As with so many modern animated family films, through all the bouncy movement, sly references, and quick slapstick, everything hinges on the emotional state of the family. It is as if adults who go to these with children need reassurance that they’re doing okay. In this film, the father/son relationship is movingly developed, from an early montage of backstory set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” to the key climactic moment that’s nothing more than a show of familial solidarity, the dénouement an exchange of fatherly “I love you.” It may be just a silly time travel comedy about a dog and his boy, but a father’s love for his son (and son for father) outlasting all the tribulations of all time is a lovely thought.