Sunday, September 28, 2014

Outside the Box: THE BOXTROLLS

The Boxtrolls is a marvelous stop-motion family film with all the twisted macabre charms of a Roald Dahl book or an Edward Gorey drawing. It conjures a wondrously imagined storybook Edwardian village of crooked cobblestone streets and leaning buildings clustered up one side of a skinny seaside hill and down the other. Deep below the town’s sewers live squat grey-green trolls clad in cardboard boxes. They’re harmless, kind-hearted beings who only come out at night, scavenging for bits and bobs they cobble together into steampunk creations that form their cavernous lair. But the humans fear them, leading to a storyline about the boxtrolls’ persecution. So, yes, this is a movie about learning to accept yourself and understand others. That’s like any number of family films. But this one has dastardly shifty villains, adults who cruelly marginalize children, and a society that willfully and mindlessly oppresses. You know, for kids!

Like the best kids’ films, it’s smart and involving on a level that can be appreciated by any audience. This one is tremendously imagined, creepy and cute in equal measure. The sophisticated, funny, and deeply felt script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, from a book by Alan Snow, moves briskly, cleverly deploying its moralizing in a parade of grotesqueries. The villain is an ugly, greedy man with spindly legs and a pendulous belly. His name is Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), and he leads the town’s crusade to eradicate the boxtrolls. He spreads propaganda accusing the trolls of eating children and leads his team of exterminators (Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan) out every night to capture the creatures. It’s all in hopes of being promoted into the town’s elite White Hat club.

It is not all twisted. Our hero is a boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright), apparently orphaned before the film starts, and raised by the boxtrolls as one of their own. He alone understands their adorable guttural babble, but he’s picked up human English as well. He thinks he’s a troll, but soon learns he’s a bridge between the town’s worlds. The boxtrolls fear the humans, who are controlled by leaders obsessed with hats and cheeses. They’re more than happy to delegate troll suppression to a creepy striver like Snatcher, the better to give them more time to devote to cheese. The mayor (Jared Harris) barely acknowledges his daughter (Elle Fanning), allowing her to sneak off and explore the world of the trolls. Both locales, above and below, are filled up with charming details and throwaway gags. You get the sense man and boxtroll would get along fine if only they could get over fears and prejudices.

A charmingly cracked story, the film features bouncy slapstick, clattering gadgetry, and a compassionately lumpy design. Painstakingly detailed in the way only stop-motion animation can be, the characters move like gangly puppets and interact with the world in a tangible way. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi oversee enveloping 3D environments that enliven terrifically staged dollhouse sets. It feels both real and not in the same instant, in the way all stories do when you’re young. There’s childlike wonder in these frames. Movements carry a weight and presence, even as the events zip off confidently down whimsical alleys.

It's beautifully ugly, eccentric in every detail. This is a movie that features a man monstrously allergic to cheese who gobbles it down anyway, his face and limbs swelling with flabby pustules as it breaks out in bulging hives. (He’s cured by being covered in a writhing mass of leeches.) Henchmen have discussions about whether they’re “the good guys.” A little girl has a sense of morbid curiosity her father finds distasteful. The town is enamored of a secretive French warbler coming to town, one Madame Frou Frou. And then there are the trolls, who tinker, dance, and waddle around, then fold back into their boxes every night, stacking themselves gently into one big family cube. They mean well, and we want to see them coexist peacefully.

This is the third film from Laika, an Oregon-based stop-motion production company. The Boxtrolls fits in nicely with Coraline and ParaNorman in style and tone, forming a lovely set of richly imagined and fantastically clever movies to delight and thrill children of all ages. I think we can safely say they’ve become as dependable and singular an animation studio as Ghibli or Pixar. We know what to expect from them visually and emotionally – something skillfully dark and sweet. These are films with personality and feeling. When so much of Hollywood’s animated product is programmatic and conventional CGI homogeny, there’s definitely room for creative people willing to make earnest stories with sharp statements and distinctive imagery. How wonderful to have Laika. We can trust their heart and intelligence and retain the capacity to be surprised and charmed by their generously overflowing delights.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Equalize This: THE EQUALIZER

It seems like every time you turn around there’s another older actor playing a reluctant man of violence in a movie that starts with a bunch of bad guys and ends with the bad guys dead. The latest iteration is The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington. It’s a good reminder that he kicked off the most recent reemergence of this whole subgenre with Man on Fire a decade ago. Sorry, Liam Neeson, but that’s the real Taken catalyst. Washington, like Neeson, is a good center of calm and authority on which to build one of these thriller machines. In this case, though, there’s not much else to back him up.

We first meet Washington working as the manager of a Home Depot knockoff. He’s a likeable guy who loves to help everyone he meets. He’s an encouraging life coach for a portly employee (Johnny Skourtis) trying to lose weight. He’s nice to a teen prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) who frequents his favorite diner, telling her she can be anything she wants to be. But because Denzel Washington plays this normal guy, and because we see his quiet life, spare apartment, and simple routines, it’s obvious there’s more to him than anyone knows. Sure enough, he has a secret dark past that’ll serve him well in the coming conflict. What follows is empty formula, but at least Washington’s the right man for the job. Without him, it would be nothing. I mean, it’s still nothing, but at least a fine actor picked up a good paycheck.

Denzel wants to get Moretz her freedom after her pimp beats her to the point of hospitalization. He decides to get bloody revenge on her behalf. Yes, this is sadly yet another thriller for which women exist only as objects to motivate men in one way or another. Pulling out his fast reflexes and powers of observation, Denzel kills the slimy Russians who own her. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but, oops, they were low-level crime syndicate guys and now a major enforcer (Marton Csokas) is coming to town to kill him. There’s a whole bunch of bad guys, from street thugs to crooked cops, and Denzel’s out to kill them all. He’s not happy about it, which means he doesn’t get much opportunity to break out his infectious grin. He stabs, shoots, hangs, explodes, power-drills, and otherwise bloodies everyone who gets in the way of throwing this criminal organization a going-out-of-business bash.

Richard Wenk’s script, loosely based on the 1980’s TV series, is anything but subtle. What you see is what you get. What it promises – not much – it delivers – barely. Chucking even simple allusion out the window, the movie prefers instead to bring a hardcover copy of The Old Man and the Sea or Don Quixote on screen and have characters talk about it in terms just vague enough it could relate either to the books or to their situations. Get it? Get it? Uh, yeah. That’s hard to miss.

The movie’s full of stock characters and derivative situations ever so slightly elevated by Hollywood slickness. Director Antoine Fuqua stages the violence capably, functionally, with some style and exaggerated pulp satisfaction. He loves the violence. Why else pan back to the drill bit to see dripping blood after heavily implying its use? But he loves Denzel more. The last time they worked together was 2001’s Training Day, a lively cop thriller that won Washington his Oscar. This so isn’t that. We get slow motion hero shots, lingering close-ups, and, of course, the old walk away from an explosion you caused without looking back or flinching even a little bit. This is a movie that thinks Denzel is awesome. Good thing he is. It’s everything that’s not him that falls flat. The plot has complications, but it’s not complicated. It’s painfully obvious what will happen between splashes of carnage and takes forever getting there. Fuqua shoots exposition and dialogue in flavorless fashion, marking time until the killing starts back up.

It is essentially an inverted slasher film type of macho rescuer fantasy. The unstoppable, unflappable killer is our hero. The victims are all unambiguously evil. Our world is full of scary, seemingly unsolvable problems and dangers. Movies like The Equalizer provide a dangerous fantasy version of our insecure reality in which a skilled man shows up shooting until everything is solved. This approach is a common, blunt force, actioner technique, but in a story so hollow and rote it’s hard to take. The villains are underwritten. The hero is every sad, silent tough guy we’ve ever seen. The result is a flashy, vacuous product that simplifies complex issues to something solvable through brute strength and righteous anger. But did it have to be all that and boring too?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blubber Horror: TUSK

When Kevin Smith sets out to make a movie about a man who gets captured by an old eccentric with plans to turn him into a walrus, you can almost hear the glee he had in creating a concept so unusual. If you stick around through the end credits, you can actually hear it in an excerpt from the podcast on which he first thought up the idea. Now Tusk is a feature film playing at a theater near you and so very badly wants to be a new cult classic that every single strange detail feels included to fit that mold instead of bubbling up honestly out of a cracked vision pursued to illogical ends. It’s too calculating to be a passionate work of the macabre.

Smith’s an interesting case. He’s been making films for two decades now, largely on his own terms. He began, with Clerks and Chasing Amy, as a scrappy, raunchy indie director with some potential. With his dark Catholic fantasy comedy Dogma and sweetly dirty rom-coms like Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri, he seemed poised to grow as a filmmaker and activate that potential. Instead, he’s never grown. He’s always moving sideways, into dumb empty comedies, like Cop Out, or uncompromising overstuffed horror riffs, like Red State.

With Tusk, he’s striving for a midnight movie brand of queasy horror comedy. The results are filled with as much dead air and relentlessly unfunny banter as he’s ever created. It is a weird little movie that appears to have no reason to exist beyond proving Smith still has enough indie clout to get a small, strange, stupid thing on a lot of screens. Its attempts at humor do not add appreciably to the odd bit of body horror at the center. Instead, it seems to be apologizing for itself as it goes along. It shows something peculiar and grotesque, and then laughs it off. Only kidding, Smith says. Would that it be funnier, or creepier.

It stars Justin Long as an incredibly unlikable, caustic, sleazy, jerk podcaster who travels to Canada to interview a viral video star. When he arrives, his subject is, shall we say, suddenly permanently unavailable. Searching for a good replacement subject, he finds his way to a big creepy house in the middle of nowhere where an eccentric elderly man (Michael Parks) promises to tell his life story in exchange for company. The man’s a loon, and soon the podcaster is being fitted for a suit of walrus skin, ready to be sewn into his own epidermis. Meanwhile, Long’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and co-host (Haley Joel Osmet) go looking for their missing friend, teaming up with a Québécois investigator (Johnny Depp, going uncredited under a layer of sloppy makeup and sloppier accent work).

I just don’t know about this. Smith has roped in talented people. Long’s so good at being so terrible that the walrus at first seems to be fitting karmic retribution, though I’m not sure he’s supposed to be as bad as he comes across. Parks commits to his character’s creepy eccentricities, howling and murmuring and gleefully preparing for the debut of his long-awaited walrus-man friend. “Oh, Mr. Tusk,” he moans, sizing up his rubbery creation. He’s apparently arriving from another, better, version of this film.

Everyone else flails around in endless scenes devoid of suspense or laughs. It’s just dead on arrival. Rodriguez commits so fiercely to an underwritten role that I felt a little uncomfortable watching all that emoting go to waste. Osmet’s a long way from his earlier, better, child performances in The Sixth Sense and A.I., but you can catch glimmers of the good actor still in there. Depp is simply embarrassing, delivering quite possibly the worst performance of his career. The truth is that even with two (two!) Oscar nominees in the cast, no amount of acting could save this movie from itself.

The best that can be said about Tusk is that it exists. The entirety of its imagination has been expended on the premise, and on naming the man-who-might-be-a-walrus Wallace. But it’s also a failure of execution. It often looks bad, overlit and poorly staged. It’s tonally sloppy. Its pacing is lumpy, scenes stretching on and on. Its writing is tediously self-satisfied. I sat there watching a film fall apart around my very eyes. I was mildly diverted by the unpredictability of it all, but it’s hardly a fruitful strangeness. Tusk is so desperate to laugh at its own oddities, it doesn’t seem weird at all. It’s an attempt to make good trash that flirts with good before deciding to consign itself to the dumpster. 

Monday, September 22, 2014


A family gathers in the shadow of their patriarch’s death, four grown children living under one upstate New York roof for one week at the behest of their mourning mother. “You can cry. You can laugh. There’s no right way to grieve,” the mom (played by Jane Fonda, carrying more dignity than the plot allows) says early in This is Where I Leave You, a movie that wants you to do a little laughing and a little crying. It’s a fairly contained and awfully schmaltzy comedy-tinged drama, completely predictable in the beats that it hits. Uptight jerks learn to loosen up. Irresponsible cads mature a bit. Generational gaps are bridged, but slightly. The grown kids have a prickly, but deep down loving, reunion that involves old grievances, new secrets, and a reason to rethink their lives’ trajectories. The film’s heart is in the right place.

The ensemble is filled with welcome faces, each an interesting presence in their own right. There’s Jason Bateman as the middle son, a man who loses his job and his wife on the same afternoon and arrives for the funeral convinced he won’t share his bad news. Of course that doesn’t happen. It’s a secret-spilling free-for-all. His sister (Tina Fey) is in a marriage in the process of chilling, so much so that her husband only lingers around two or three scenes, a total non-issue the rest of the time. She has an adorable kid or two, so that’s nice, except for the scene involving potty training gone wrong. That’s gross. Also back to sit shiva is their older brother (Corey Stoll). His wife (Kathryn Hahn) wants to get pregnant, a goal that drives her a little crazy in a condescending way. There’s also a younger brother (Adam Driver) and his cougar girlfriend (Connie Britton). Talk about a full house.

The ensemble is strong, if unevenly deployed in thin subplots. Bateman and Fey have good rapport, with similar clenched braininess that feels warmly familial. Stoll gets lost in the shuffle, but is a steady, mildly neurotic, rock, and Driver seems incapable of an uninteresting line reading. Mother Fonda gets lost in the sea of subplots for most of the film, drifting through as only a punchline for her oversharing and her boob job. She deserves better. They all do, really. Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay (based on his own novel) gives each family member their own little undercooked plots, complete with their own, largely separate, set of supporting characters (Rose Byrne, Ben Schwartz, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard). None of them are all that interesting on their own, but collectively, it adds up to a passable amalgam of middle-aged concerns and family tensions.

Director Shawn Levy is an effective manipulator, able to execute material efficiently and professionally. I liked his robo-boxing movie Real Steel, and found small charms in his Cheaper by the Dozen remake, one-crazy-night comedy Date Night, and unfairly maligned flop The Internship. Those aren’t great movies, but at least they hit some good notes. With This is Where I Leave You, though, despite all the soft lighting, on-the-nose pop song choices, and sunny greeting-card encouragements, the movie never quiet achieves emotional lift it seeks.

I couldn’t help but wonder what a Robert Altman type would’ve done with this material, and not just because the family’s last name is Altman. With such a large, talented ensemble in a small location, a balanced approach with overlapping dialogue and thematic concerns might’ve worked better. Though certainly non-Altman family reunion films like August: Osage County and Dan in Real Life manage to hit similar notes with greater aplomb that Levy and Tropper’s work here. It’s bland and comfortable, but never really comes alive in any way. Still, for a superficial, sentimental, predictable little middle-of-the-road thing, it could be worse. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014


The Maze Runner is only the latest science fiction story in which the world is in the process of ending and only teens can save us. No wonder teens like these stories so much. These narratives say that the most special and talented people are adolescents who must valiantly defend society from all those mean adults who manipulate and oppress them. Hey, sometimes that works. Take a look at the Hunger Games series, which has deepened its initial teen fantasy into something socio-politically potent. But with Maze Runner, we’re not even close to The Hunger Games quality. We’re talking sub-Divergent nonsense of the flimsiest kind, all monotonous noise and blur that’s never exciting and always chintzy to its core.

It starts with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a forest glade populated exclusively with other teenage boys. He remembers only his name. The others have the same memory problem. They don’t know why they are there. They’ve been in this clearing for three years, with a new boy arriving each month. But together they’ve built an ad hoc society with log cabins, division of labor, and a functioning system of government, though compared to Caesar’s tribe in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes they don’t seem so sophisticated. These boys are surrounded by towering metal walls that open into a vast maze every morning and slam shut every night. Runners are sent into the maze to find the way out. Each day, they return without making progress. Or, if they don’t make it back to camp by sundown, they don’t return at all. There be monsters in that there maze.

I’ll believe a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo, but this situation never feels believable because the relationships between the boys feel so false. There’s typical gruff posturing and friendly banter as camaraderie and rivalries make themselves known. Thomas meets a host of characters who either help or hinder his integration into the group. But these dynamics are not particularly interesting, the characters relating to each other in bland ways, trading exposition and worried looks. They’re thin types who don’t evolve. And it’s all too low-key, predictable, antiseptic, and asexual to be a convincing group of isolated teen boys. It’s not Lord of the Flies. It’s all nice guys except for the one who’s kind of a jerk. Oh, and, in a surprise twist, a girl shows up, and there’s not even a hint of romantic interest from anyone. They’re so well behaved.

Talented actors play these youths, though for the most part you’d only know it if you’ve seen them elsewhere. O’Brien, from The Internship and MTV’s Teen Wolf, is a decent enough leading man, with a fresh face and good action-movie running skills. The ensemble features a few unknowns like Ki Hong Lee and Blake Cooper as well as The Butler’s Ami Ameen, Game of Thrones’ Thomas Brodie-Sangster, We’re the Millers’ Will Poulter, Southcliffe’s Kaya Scodelario, and Black Nativity’s Jacob Latimore, among others. Maybe twenty years from now the movie will only be remembered for containing a bunch of big stars before they were big. But they simply don’t have any interesting material to work with. They’re blanks in an insubstantial situation.

It doesn’t help that they’re made up to look less like rugged young survivalists, and more photoshoot-ready beautiful people artfully smudged. It’s all part of first-time feature director Wes Ball’s glossy approach that shoots the screenplay (by three credited writers from a book by James Dashner) dutifully and unimaginatively with a pounding Hans Zimmer sound-alike score. We scramble around the maze and around the base camp without ever getting a sense of where we are or what’s at stake beyond needing to escape. It sounds important, but flails around uninterestingly. By the time the action ramps up and the climax dutifully explodes with competent, but personality-free, effects work, it seems awfully simple. If that’s all it takes to get out of the maze, what were these boys doing all this time? It’s a symptom of the movie’s low ambitions and high waste of time. It mistakes rule-setting for world-building, obfuscation for mystery, and threatening future installments for creating interest.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Scott Frank knows what he’s doing. He specializes in crime stories, heists and mysteries, serious-minded and skillfully puzzled out. With his scripts for the likes of Minority Report and Out of Sight and his 2007 directorial debut The Lookout, he crafts stories of dangerous, or at least resourceful, people trapped in unfortunate situations. A Walk Among the Tombstones, his latest film as writer and director, is hard and hardboiled, the stuff of typewriter clacks, bottles of brown liquor, and gristle. It’s a detective story about a man with deep psychological wounds who works quietly in the shadows. He doesn’t like what he does, but needs to do it as a way of working through his past mistakes.

Frank’s filmmaking craftsmanship is impeccable. There’s a classical restraint to the steady, crisply blocked stillness of the shots. It has throwback appeal in the patient setup and slow reveal of one clue after another. Based on a 1992 novel by crime fiction legend Lawrence Block, the film finds pleasures in the investigation, watching Detective Matthew Scudder think things through. Once a cop, he was in a bad incident resulting in the death of a little girl. Since then, he’s been haunted by that moment, eking out a living as an unlicensed private investigator. As the movie begins, he’s asked to find a kidnapper who snatched a drug trafficker’s wife, got ransom money, then killed her anyway.

Scudder, Block’s most famous creation, having appeared in 18 books since 1976, is here played by Liam Neeson, no stranger to the role of a calm, grieving, professional man of violence. He’s right for this kind of part because he’s so confident. We believe in his skill. We can see intelligence and thought in his eyes, the moral gravity of the situation resting on his broad shoulders. As he’s aged, Neeson has grown not restrained, but minimalist. He can suggest so much with a layer of gravel in his voice, a small shift of eyebrows, a tilt of the head. He’s still, solid, softly deploying his deep intonations until they calcify with deadly seriousness as he addresses bad men. He towers over others in a scene, and yet exudes a beguiling mixture of intimidating warmth, fierce intelligence and refreshing compassion equally sparingly deployed.

He’s reason enough to see the film. We watch as the gears turn in his head. He meets with the trafficker (Dan Stevens) and his brother (Boyd Holbrook), talks with witnesses, does research in the library (the film’s set in 1999), and casually scopes out crime scenes. Eventually, he’s paired with a sweet homeless teenager (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who loves Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe as much as this film does. The kid likes the idea of being a private eye. The relationship he slowly develops with a reluctant Neeson isn’t cloying or sentimental, but positioned as a nice dim light in an otherwise grim experience.

Violence is brutal, sudden, and graphic in impact and implication, if not always shown. On occasion, Frank cuts to the depraved kidnapper (a pair of them, actually, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) in flashbacks to prior murders and in present tense stalking of new targets. It’s unpleasant and unsettling, a grey mood of unrelenting menace. The ensemble is exclusively male, women left to be only objectified, wounded, imperiled, and chopped up into little pieces. We feel the weight of this danger, and as the stakes are raised it gets unrelentingly tense. Frank is certainly serious about the way he approaches this violence. It’s not a lark. It hurts. But the speaking parts are so fully ensconced in a masculine world, it’s more than a little disquieting to realize every female presence is only meat for the plot’s grinding.

But Neeson is so good, and the procedural mystery aspects so skillfully deployed, it manages to work despite this nagging imbalance. It’s compelling, the kind of tough, darkly effective detective movie we don’t often get these days. The film serves up all the usual red herrings and revelations you’d hope for. Frank’s script is terse and smartly plotted, playing fair by the various developments and actions. All the while, Neeson anchors the proceedings with his intense and welcome seriousness, as well as his dry humor and desire to keep his demons at bay. His humble struggle against the evil that men do is the lurid hook, but the throughline of his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, threaded throughout, including a monologue intercut with the climax, makes it matter. He gives a complicated, soulful genre performance as much a throwback to detective stories of yore as the plotting. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Is there a talented young actress who has been in more well-intentioned misfires than Emily Browning? From Zack Snyder’s muddled metaphorical Sucker Punch to Julia Leigh’s misguided objectification parable Sleeping Beauty to Brad Silberling’s good, but franchise-nonstarter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Browning has an admirable adventurousness in selecting projects. It’s too bad that the final products can’t live up to the artistic impulses behind them. But even in bad movies, she’s good. She’s too compelling a screen presence to go unnoticed, with her small frame, wide eyes, and an ability to slip easily between controlled intensity and cool passivity, often drawing attention even as a film might crumble around her.

God Help the Girl has her latest lead role in a misfire, though it’s not as spectacularly failed as some of her other films. It has its charms. This is a sweet and simple little indie rock musical written, directed, and scored by Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian. It casts Browning as a Scottish girl hospitalized for mental problems, including an eating disorder revealed in a startling shot as she stands on a scale, her sides tight against her ribcage. She escapes from the institution into the welcoming arms of a maybe-love-interest, a benignly friendly shaggy-haired guitar-playing young guy (Olly Alexander). Together, they meet another musical young person, a sweet girl with a nice voice (Hannah Murray). The aimless trio decides to form a band.

There’s not much to the story beyond the shuffling coming-of-age, self-discovery, puppy-love, let’s-put-on-a-show tropes it so delicately and simply deploys. To Murdoch’s credit, his directorial debut showcases (with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens) a fine eye for sun-dappled imagery and an even finer light touch when it comes to plotting. He’s not hitting the emotional beats too terribly hard, trusting in his music and his performers to get the idea across. It’s structured around simply staged musical sequences in which the actors turn towards the camera and pose in twee music video blocking as they sing fragile, melancholy melodies that lilt pleasurably. The songs have twinkling sing-song patter stuffed with wordy syncopation and spacey hippies-by-way-of-Hallmark metaphors.

These plaintive moments of emotion and connection through musicality, with characters twirling their way through soft, colorful sets, are gently strung together with wisps of narrative. Little happens by way of plot, Murdoch preferring to hang out with the characters as they fumble towards quiet revelations and sweet connections. That’s fine in theory, but in practice the characters are so undercooked that the flavor of those endless moments turns out fairly bland. Scenes of conversation and montage exist only to get us to the next musical number.

In song, it is best, but the longer we poke around in the limp drama and mumbly dialogue, the more the movie’s modest charms slip away. If you’re as starved for new musicals as I am, these sweet, forgettable tunes might be worth it. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment as the movie failed to cohere into something greater than the sum of its notes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Surprise: NO GOOD DEED

No Good Deed is a movie about a woman trapped in her own home with a stranger she slowly realizes is a terrorizing psychopath. More accurately, it’s a movie about two great actors stuck in a lousy thriller. Taraji P. Henson plays the woman. Idris Elba plays the psychopath. These are talented, charismatic actors, who have done great work in the past and surely will again. But the movie is thin, obvious, empty, and gives them characters with one-note dynamics and little of interest to do. They’re producers on this picture, so you can’t feel too sorry for them, but if this is the best material they could find, they deserve better.

It’s a rote, unsurprising and straightforward woman in danger movie that hauls out all the old tropes we’ve seen many times before. Even the Surprise Twist, which is really more of a mildly intriguing development or a new piece of evidence, isn’t too surprising. Henson, a well-off former prosecutor, is home with her two small children on a dark and stormy night while her lawyer husband (Henry Simmons) is away. Elba’s a working class murderer who escapes from prison after being turned down for parole, stops to kill his ex-girlfriend (Kate del Castillo), and then crashes his stolen car. He walks to Henson’s house, where she lets him use her phone and her first aid kit. That’s her good deed. It does not go unpunished.

At first he’s nice, sipping tea, making small talk with a flirtatious neighbor (Leslie Bibb), and complimenting the kids on their cuteness. But soon enough he’s maneuvered the situation into something far more dangerous. He’s cut the phone lines. (No cell phones?) He’s hidden the knives. (No blunt objects?) He glowers and stalks while Henson pleads and plans. Aimee Lagos’s script plays out more or less how you’d think, with Henson scheming to protect her kids and alert the authorities, while Elba cuts off escape routes and heightens the tension until the climactic violent act brings it all to an end.

All the while it’s uninvolving and obvious, alternating between uncomfortably brutally menacing and totally dull. An intrusive score hammers crescendos of clattering strings and brassy bass with every moderately startling burst of anger or violence. Director Sam Miller, who worked with Elba on their BBC show Luther, can’t even trust the audience to remember something from a few minutes earlier, layering benign dialogue with flashbulb flashbacks into scenes plenty off-kilter to begin with. We remember Elba strangled, and then bludgeoned, his ex. That’s what makes his intrusion in the nice woman’s home so scary. We don’t need to be reminded.

On the surface of this setup is fairly obvious potential. The movie could easily have said something heightened and interesting about gender, or class, or race, or domestic violence, but it can’t even muster up the energy for low genre pleasures, let alone anything loftier. The movie has two overqualified leads, a sturdy premise, and proceeds to do nothing. Thinking back over the plotting, I not only picked out the plot holes, but I found myself marveling at how little happens, and how little I cared about what did manage to appear. This is not good. It appeals to the same impulse of interest a junk paperback in a grocery store spinner engenders, along with the same hollow disappointment when it fails to provide even fleeting empty-calorie distraction.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Digital Killed the Video Star: THE CONGRESS

Ari Folman’s The Congress is a rare movie that starts with a nugget of inspiration and then imagines faster, imagines farther, until we’ve arrived at something we’ve never seen before. By the end, it’s far lovelier, messier, and more haunting than I had expected. It’s a mixture of sharp live-action and fluid animation, a hallucinatory philosophical science fiction dark comedy of sharp emotional pangs and chilly unease, a swirl of influences very loosely adapted from a novel by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem. It confidently becomes something singularly mesmerizing.

The film begins as a bone-dry showbiz satire, set in a near-future Hollywood where computer technology has advanced to such a degree that studio executives are contemplating a post-human business model. No more need for celebrities and all their attendant foibles. Instead, movie stars will be richly rewarded for a one-time full-body, full-emotion scan that will be uploaded for all eternity into the companies’ databases. Their forever young virtual doppelgangers can act in whatever projects the studio desires while the real people go off to be forgotten, never to act again.

This is the offer presented to Robin Wright in the film’s opening stretch. She was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and lately has been turning up in a stream of fascinating roles. Here she plays Robin Wright, an actress who was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, but has found the stream of good roles dried up. It’s an alternate universe version of herself, an out-of-work actress living in a former airplane hanger with her teenage kids (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Sami Gayle). They talk, fly kites, eat meals, and care for her son’s medical problems as diagnosed by a kindly doctor (Paul Giamatti)

Folman’s approach to these early scenes is patient and considered, letting conversations play out in long takes precisely framed. The family dynamics are tenderly felt, while scenes of showbiz are calculating power plays. Her well-intentioned agent (Harvey Keitel) stops by and begs her to take a meeting with the head of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston). After some negotiation (she won’t allow her digital incarnation be used for sci-fi, porn, or Holocaust dramas), she’s uploaded. It’s a masterful sequence of sci-fi light and shadow, flickering raw emotions captured forever in a geodesic flashbulb dome while Keitel’s warm voice delivers a heartfelt monologue about the way showbiz sells people for the public’s consumption.

We skip ahead 20 years. What follows is an earnest expression of identity and technology, of who we are and how our relationship to evolving societal machinery may change us. To renew her contract, Wright goes to a fancy resort hotel in what’s called the “Animated Zone.” People can ingest chemicals that create shared delusions, Entertainment Industrial Complex-approved pharmaceutical fantasies. The film becomes a piece of surrealist animation, full of shape-shifting landscapes where size, speed, and distance are a matter of mind over matter. The inhabitants walking around can make themselves into whatever appearance they desire.

The film explodes with color and design as if it is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika dreamworlds by way of a hypothetical post-modern Hieronymus Bosch and Ralph Bakshi co-directed Silly Symphony. There’s nothing consistent except inconsistencies, an entertainment bacchanal of fluid distractions in a state of flux. On giant screens we catch glimpses of Wright’s digital double’s films – beamed directly into the brains of these revelers. She’s a superhero in one. In another she’s aping a famous Dr. Strangelove shot. But no one recognizes the real deal walking amongst them. Everyone is carousing in this animated fantasy playland, but no one’s really connecting. They’re alone together.

Folman’s work in imagining this future of virtual reality hallucinatory living is at once liberating and debilitating. He imagines a future where people can manipulate their appearances however they wish, free at last from constructs of race, gender, orientations, or disabilities, and able to simply live as a group without prejudices or fear. No matter how you’re born, you can huff a chemical and be whatever you wish. And yet few seem to be aware of the others with which they interact. Everyone’s an avatar. Wright meets a seemingly helpful man (Jon Hamm), and they strike up a relationship of some kind as the animation world is turned upside down by talk of revolution. (Some shout, “We’re going to be real again!”) But she never sees his real, un-animated face. We don't either.

In the future of The Congress, everyone is allowed to live in their own subjective reality, cultivating their persona and constructing their own bubbles of infotainment. Sounds familiar. It’s our present-day struggles with technology reflected and refracted, stretched to absurdity and made frighteningly obvious. Furthermore, it’s a movie that starts with sharp jabs at Hollywood’s commodification of persons before drifting off into the future, implicating us all in its haze of existential amorphousness. Culture in this film is poisonous, turning real performers into ultimate studio-system puppets, malleable, compliant, consumable – sometimes literally so. One sniff and you’re Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, or Leone-era Clint Eastwood. You can drink celebrity, taste persona, and feel total possession over stars and their iconography while living your dreams and never waking up.

This film is a feat of imagination that dares to be a weird, expressionistic, emotional view of the future. It moves with the logic of a dream and the undertow of a nightmare, full of sights so striking and unexpected that they colonized my imagination and left me dazed. Wright falls into this future deeper and deeper, losing herself to better find herself, to reclaim her identity, and find her way back to her family, or what’s left of it, as best she can. There’s a deep longing for connection, for purpose, for sense. It’s woozy, disorienting, and effective. “How do I know when I’m dreaming?” Wright asks. It’s a good question, and one not easily answered.

Folman, whose previous feature, the semi-autobiographical Waltz with Bashir, was a similarly deeply felt animation experiment, here paints gorgeously strange images of shifting bodies with wiggling limbs, planes flapping their wings, fields turning into waves, vials of chemical bliss and disorienting subjectivity. Rare cuts back to live action send the head spinning. The film’s imagery swam in my mind so strongly and vividly that I left feeling like I was waking up from a peculiar, personal, and powerful vision.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


David Wain, the writer-director behind Role Models and Wanderlust, could’ve made a great romantic comedy. Instead, with They Came Together, he decided to kick a good genre while it’s down. He’s lucky it’s pretty funny, or at least funny enough. The movie, which he wrote with frequent collaborator Michael Showalter, hunts down and obliterates every rom-com convention it can find, turning unspoken genre mechanics into literal lines of dialogue. Cliché perched on the precipice of preposterous is tipped over, embracing the ridiculous in a breezy parodic style. We may not have had a great rom-com in many years, but this mercilessly satiric one is intent on purposely resuscitating each and every musty old convention, turning them inside out, and finding the inherent absurdities within.

In theory, it’s a funny idea. And so it is, at least some of the time. For all the conceptual cleverness, it plays too often like a movie that’s mad you might like You’ve Got Mail. At least the parody film is a genre as moribund as the rom-com, so it comes across as good-natured ribbing from a similarly impoverished cultural place. Does They Came Together single-handedly revive two imperiled genres? Not quite. But it’s a great start that Wain’s film is the kind of sneakily appealing cerebral/stupid comedy that had me smiling even when I was not quite sure if it was working. It’s appealing, with loopily silly concepts and charm for days.

It helps that the leads are Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, two of the most delightful people in TV and movies today. With winning smiles and easygoing casual rapport, it’s always pleasant to spend time watching them interact. They could pull off a real rom-com, even a terrible one, on charm alone. So here, as they play a cutesy entrepreneur and a sneakily softhearted corporate drone, they break past the deliberately bland anonymity of their clichéd characters. Even though the movie is a relentless send-up of twee Hollywood True Love falsehoods, stretching those conventions to absurdity and beyond, I still found myself wanting to see them get together in the end. Go figure.

As they go through all the predictable Meet Cute bickering, falling-in-love montages, dramatic misunderstandings, tearful breakups, and last-minute chases to reconciliation, they speak the subtext in flatly stupid dialogue. But they deliver it as if it’s sparkling repartee. When Rudd plays a hilariously phony basketball game with his diverse group of friends, the advice they offer him makes clear they’re stand-ins for thematic points. One buddy says, “Marriage is great! That’s the point I represent.” Poehler’s presented as the typical klutz, prone to falling down flights of stairs, and a flighty romantic, eagerly flying into a montage of trying on clothes that lasts so long Rudd leaves the scene. Later, a makeout session is so exaggeratedly passionate they walk around the room, lips locked, knocking over everything in their path.

Square clichés are played so very straight, even as they’re knocked askew. The couple bonds over the blandest of generalizations. They’re shocked by the fact they both enjoy “fiction books” and have grandmas. As if those are rare loves in the average person’s life. Friends and family (in a huge ensemble that includes Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, and more) only exist as reflections of the leads’ needs and fears. So far, so typical, but it’s imbued with an off-kilter energy that builds up the artificiality of the genre’s worst tendencies.

That’s why weirdness, slowly taking over entire sequences, creeps in around the edges: a framing device in which a dinner party is essentially held hostage by the couple relaying their self-centered story to a pair of friends; a bit of horseplay that ends in a man falling out a window; a moment in which a pompous boss poops his Halloween costume and desperately tries to hide the evidence; a scene that finds Poehler and Rudd angrily storming away from each other in the same direction, following each other for blocks. Wain takes simple, obvious scenes and stretches them so far past the breaking point it’d be hard not to admire the effort. Look at the endless loop of a conversation Rudd has with a bartender as it starts simple, grows stupid, and then continues, repeating itself until it's one of the funniest scenes of the year.

They Came Together invites likable strangeness under its umbrella of tropes, and then plays it relatively safe. On the one hand, there’s a great eagerness to how knowing the movie is, gently elbowing the audience in the ribs, saying, “see what we did there?” On the other hand, who isn’t aware of the standard rom-com structure and pitfalls, especially of the 20-year-old Ryan/Hanks variety from which this script takes its most obvious cues? That’s beside the point. This isn’t an expose of cliché. It starts off mocking the subgenre, but the bite fades into affection. That’s just fine. The leads are too likable and the formula so sturdily deployed, even as it’s undercut, to be a critique of the rom-com. It’s to 90’s romances what Wain’s cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer was to 80’s summer camp movies. That is to say, Wain is awfully good at creating sly and goofy spoof revivals of types of movies no one is making anymore.