Friday, January 30, 2015


Project Almanac has more potential than it realizes but isn’t as clever as it thinks. I guess that makes it as much a stunted adolescent as its protagonists. Here’s a time travel movie that could explore the dependably interesting temporal implications of its sci-fi hook, but instead just proves teens definitely shouldn’t mess with the past unsupervised. At least these kids know about other time travel movies, so it helps them sort out the pitfalls, even if it doesn’t stop them from figuratively stomping on those butterflies and watching the ripple effects of selfish actions alter the future with cascading unintended consequences. This movie spends what feels like forever on building the time machine after a boy (Jonny Weston) finds his dead scientist dad’s old theoretical schematics hidden away in the basement. Then, the script by Andrew Stark and Jason Pagan borrows our memories of better time travel stories’ rules to fuel boring teenage wish fulfillment.

The boy, his science buddies (Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista), his sister (Virginia Gardner), and his crush (Sofia Black-D’Elia) end up wowed by early experiments and decide to jump back in time to get whatever they want. They set about charming hotties, buying a Maserati, going to Lollapalooza, winning the lottery, dumping soda on a bully, and passing chemistry class. They’re thinking small and petty, but they think they’re being careful, namedropping Looper, The Terminator, Timecop, and Groundhog Day to explain how best to avoid messing up the timeline. Too late. Of course it all goes wrong and they learn a hard lesson about the headaches inherent in temporal transportation. Worse still, they’ve gone out of their way to winkingly mention movies that make smarter use of it. How am I supposed to watch this clunker when it’s gotten me thinking about better movies?

This is all standard stuff unsuccessfully jazzed up with a found footage gimmick. It’s one of those paradoxical half-hearted entries in the subgenre, with sharp digital widescreen images supposedly shot by nonprofessionals on consumer products. Sure. The visuals are slick, but nauseatingly jostled in an attempt to look handheld. Director Dean Israelite, making his feature debut, mistakes “found footage” for “sloppy work.” It makes casual references to explaining away the omnipresence of camcorders in the plot, but doesn’t do anything clever with the conceit. Look at the way Paranormal Activitys and Cloverfield make an asset out of off-the-shelf features. Now look here at how swinging a shot around just makes everything look blurry. Add endless scenes of running or partying and there’s a lot of smeary chaos to sit through.

If there were much worth paying attention to in the jittery shots, they’d be easier to excuse. But the characters are bland types. There’s a handsome, nonthreatening gaggle of nerd bros doing all the work, and two girls hanging around to operate cameras, look pretty, and happily listen to endless mansplaining. These sadly familiar stock characters are stuck in a plot that assumes you already know the basics of time travel but doesn’t feel the need to do anything with them. The movie refrains from complicating its simple careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale with anything approaching imagination.

It’s threadbare, keeping big events like vehicle crashes and school basketball championships off screen and letting memories of other movies fill in connective tissue between timeline shifts. As jumps to the past changes present variables, the picture shrugs off details beyond those necessary to the immediate plot mechanics. The filmmaking muddles cause and effect, setup and payoff, the most important parts of any time travel movie. It makes for a frustrating experience. The implications of its last five minutes – part Frequency, part Primer, part Edge of Tomorrow – might’ve made it a film of some cult interest but for what you have to sit through to get there. It’s too little too late.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


An enthusiastic embrace of exploitation cinema, Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is commentary on and celebration of trash cinema. It’s a gory action movie, slapstick comedy, teen melodrama, revenge actioner, and backstage satire. A wild and trashy mashup, it involves an amateur film club, Yakuza warfare, astonishingly bloody homicides, and a toothpaste commercial with one of the catchiest jingles you’ll ever hear. The plot is simple, clever, and told in a dizzyingly complicated manner, with wacky characterizations, jarring tonal shifts, a rambling prologue, and layers of amplifications. Sono, a Japanese poet-turned-filmmaker, makes films that are usually this extreme, and inherently messy. When they go wrong, there’s nothing worse. But in those instances where everything goes right, they’re big, sloppy, passionate exhilaration, the kind of joyously vulgar trash the movies do best.

To tell it simply: a mob boss (Jun Kunimura) wants to make an action movie that’ll make his daughter (Fumi Nikaido) a star. He forces his henchmen to become an impromptu crew. He strong-arms a local group of unsuccessful slacker indie filmmakers (a rubbery Hiroki Hasegawa as the ringleader) to direct the production. He even decides to write in a big brawl and use his actual gangland enemies (led by a sweaty Shinichi Tsutsumi) as the extras. Why not have a real battle and call it cinema? The filmmakers are in over their heads, but too in love with the expensive equipment and creative resources (swooning over real 35mm film!) to care about the dangers. It’s all fun moviemaking games, even when things get real nasty as a bloodbath battle erupts. They don’t mind. At long last, they’re making a movie!

The scenario is as funny as it is bloody. There’s a lot of comical meta film industry winking – the mobster producers are clear stand-ins for studio meddling, for example – and the characters are endlessly eccentric. There’s an infectious put-on-a-show energy not entirely unlike Mickey Rooney musicals, with the young filmmakers eager to help gangsters make sense of the moviemaking process. Eventually, there’s an endless, and endlessly inventive, action sequence in which the variety of plotlines resolve with bleeding determination and non-stop jokey excitement. It’s like Sono saw Kill Bill Vol. 1’s finale and decided to outdo it. The film and the film-within-the-film are pileups of ripe melodrama, lurid gore, goofy brutality, and projectile vomit. At one point the amateur director stands in awe of their project. “This is the movie miracle of a lifetime!” he shouts.

So it is. And so, in its way, is Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the rare prefab cult item that deserves to find its cult, because it is so gonzo expressive, ripped out of its creator’s passionate heart. There’s nothing quite like a Sono film firing on all cylinders, a rattling chaos of inspiration and insanity. Here he deploys visual gags, whip pans, snap zooms, and smash cuts to supply invigorating energy to his loopily cartoonish plot that picks up buckets of blood and cutesy affections around every corner. It’s the kind of movie where a decapitated body’s hand makes a peace sign with its dying spasms, a vindictive girl fills her mouth with broken glass and makes an ex kiss her, and warring Yakuza love the idea of being in a movie so much they pause their fighting out of respect for the director’s “Cut!” This is midnight-movie madness, convoluted, excessive, and energetically, infectiously fun. It’s a love letter to cinema at its most psychotically, unpredictably entertaining.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


The animated family fantasy Strange Magic is short on strange, and on magic. A lumpy mix of disparate inspirations haphazardly assembled, the story is one of feuding kingdoms, the good fairy people living in the fields, and the bad bog creatures living in a swamp. Just once wouldn’t it be nice if the twinkly fairies were up to no good and the ugly slimy swamp people were our heroes? (I guess that’s Shrek, but you get my point.) There’s some eventual scrambling of the simple good and evil categories, with don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moralizing, but it gets off to a routine start and stays there. It hastily sketches in a half-baked world in which the Good and the Bad fight over a love potion, and fills it with the most predictable plot points you could think up.

The screenplay by director Gary Rydstrom (a Pixar alum responsible for the charming alien-abduction short Lifted) and co-writers Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum, from an idea by George Lucas, follows the standard animated family film formula. There are princesses, unrequited love, and fancy parties. There are kind but misguided parental figures, silly sidekicks, and magical quests involving True Love. There’s anachronistic slangy dialogue and modern music. In fact, it’s a jukebox musical that’s nonstop familiar songs (from Elvis and ELO to Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson) assembled in an incongruous mix as if someone listened to an oldies station and wrote down the first six songs that played, then scanned the dial to a more current station to grab three more. To top it all off, there’s a busy battle climax, including the now-standard giant crash that appears to kill a main character until the supposedly dead reappears as the crowd’s mourning turns to astonished relief.

That’s familiar stuff, but at least it looks good. The movie was animated by Industrial Light and Magic, whose last all-CGI feature brought the wonderful Rango’s motley wildlife to the screen. The characters here are operating on a similar ugliness to cuteness ratio, their scales and fur impressively rendered. The main plot – involving an evil Bog King (Alan Cumming) who has outlawed love potions, and the innocent fairies (Evan Rachel Wood and Meredith Anne Bull) who get caught in his wrath when one of their citizens (Elijah Kelley) steals a vial – is snoozeville. But the design fills in whimsical details along the edges, like gossiping toadstools, insecure froggy goblins, and an impish rodent thing who just wants to sprinkle the whole forest with the love potion.

Animation buffs might enjoy buying the Blu-ray off a bargain rack to study the lovely details, but even then the film would be better enjoyed playing in the background with the sound down. It’s so bare bones in its telling, with dialogue that may as well be “insert something about XYZ here,” tonal switches that feel like placeholders for more fluid shifts, and songs penciled in like temp tracks a music supervisor should have improved later. Its formula is broad chalk outlines to be fleshed in later, except no one did. Its storytelling is so loose and rough, it feels like we should be watching storyboards and invited to shout our suggestions for improvements.

I’d start with changing the depressingly heteronormative approach, which takes Wood’s cool, self-sufficient warrior princess who is completely happy swearing off romance and, by the end, says she just needs to meet the right man. How awesome would a fairy princess deciding she’s happier on her own be? And how sad, in a movie that features a fairy prince making out with a fly, that there isn’t enough imagination to think that’s a possibility.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fatal Attraction: THE BOY NEXT DOOR

A short, silly psycho stalker movie, The Boy Next Door offers serviceable low-rent pleasures. These sorts of films tap into anxieties about sex and secrecy, worrying that one wrong private decision can have horrible public consequences. Here a high school teacher (Jennifer Lopez) finds her eye wandering to the neighbor’s housesitter, his 19-year-old dropout nephew (Ryan Guzman). He’s a fit young handy man, introducing himself by offering to make her garage door go up again. Later, after flirting corny come-ons and discovering they share a favorite book (The Iliad, of all things), he seduces her. It’s a one-night-stand she immediately regrets. She may be estranged from her cheating husband (John Corbett), but she hasn’t given up on her marriage. She’d hate for a fling to ruin chances of fixing her life, a very real possibility as the boy next door refuses to take “never again” for an answer. What follows is a faithfully formulaic escalation that moves too fast to let a little silliness slow it down.

We go to the movies for all sorts of reasons. This isn’t a movie to satisfy most of them. Its dialogue is preposterous. Its twists can be seen coming. Its characters are paper thin, with motivations prone to switch for whatever the plot needs next. It’s silly and more than its fair share of stupid. It does little that wasn’t done before, and better, in 1996’s Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon teen thriller Fear. I could sit here and pick it apart for hours. And yet! And yet I didn’t mind it so much. It’s ridiculous and dumb, but so what? It has J.Lo looking fabulous, wielding considerable sex appeal in a part that transforms what could be a simpering woman-in-danger role into something sturdy through her presence. It has director Rob Cohen staging sensual scenes of desire, decent jump scares, effective growing paranoia and eventual violence. It’s not a good movie, but it sure is fun enough in the moment.

J.Lo makes a convincing cougar next door, staring out the window at the boy, his muscles rippling, sweat dripping, billowing curtains barely blocking her view. Later, she’s at her wit’s end trying to act like nothing’s wrong, especially as the boy lingers, menacingly hanging around her family, making instantly close friends with her son (Ian Nelson), inviting himself over for dinner, and dripping hardly-hidden innuendoes into conversation. “I love your mom’s…cookies,” is just one of many lines that straddle a line between threatening and goofy. Once it becomes clear she’s not interested, he gets even worse. He registers to finish his degree and hacks into the school email to get in her class. He turns her son against her. He threatens to blackmail her. He cuts the breaks on her husband’s car. He threatens a potentially sympathetic vice principal (Kristin Chenoweth). There’s something not right about him. Guzman gives a creepily dead-eyed performance that reads as generic model hunk in the opening act, but then turns instantly into stone-cold insanity.

By the time she sees his stalker-wall-of-photos and hears his smarmy self-righteous entitlement, it’s clear he’s not unlike a particular brand of Internet troll, raining sexist abuse upon her and yet hypocritically claiming he’s the victim in all this. More than once he howls at her something along the lines of, “How can you do this to me?” As if her turning him down is the real injustice. Given that, it’s easy to root for J.Lo to teach him a lesson, reclaim her life and, you know, kick him in the boing-loings at the very least. There’s enough believable chemistry between the leads in the first several minutes, and menace in the stalking and threatening that takes up the rest of the runtime, that the simple story works. It’s exactly what the movie needs to operate and not a bit more. Though, what with J.Lo’s Fly Girl start and Guzman’s two appearances in fun Step Up films, I kind of wished they had a big dance number. It wouldn't have made a goofy little movie loaded up with Freudian undercurrents, Oedipal references, and an actual cat scare any more ridiculous.

That missed opportunity aside, Cohen shoots Barbara Curry’s clunky script with energy. He and she are committed to the unapologetic trashiness, bringing the film a bit beyond what could’ve been routine Lifetime-style hot button insinuations by providing carefully framed, suggestively lit steamy sex and just-brutal-enough violence. Sometimes, there’s even a nice solid bit of blocking, like a scene in which the boy confronts J.Lo in the kitchen. Father and son are in the next room, out of focus in the background left of frame, while the boy backs her into a counter at the far right, forcing himself between her and what she hopes to maintain. That’s just good filmmaking, expressing in images what the script rather simply spells out. Take sturdy construction like that, add some star power, some goofy chills (of the sexy and scary varieties), and some good laughs (with and at the movie), you end up with half-decent cheesy sleaze.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


I appreciate Peter Strickland’s horror-adjacent mood pieces without quite loving them for the same reason I’ll always prefer a live butterfly to one pinned behind glass. His films are lushly appointed, handsomely crafted, and stuck airlessly behind a distancing layer, framed, mounted, and gathering dust. Sure, the patterns are intricate, lovely to regard and interesting to contemplate. But what I’d give to see it stretch out and flap its wings once in a while! Strickland’s a master of sustained atmosphere, as his latest, The Duke of Burgundy, percolates with unspoken tensions as characters explore the emotional terrains in which they find themselves. It’s fascinating as an exercise in style, and an acting workout, but interests me more theoretically than in actuality.

The film takes place almost entirely in the country home of a woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who studies butterflies and moths for a living. The walls of her office are covered in their framed forms, stuck there making a perfect metaphor for anyone trying to write about a film that looks great but just never clicked for them. As the film starts, she scolds her maid (Chiara D’Anna) for arriving late, then for slacking off on the job, then punishes her by forcing her to perform a series of intimate exchanges. They aren’t merely maid and taskmaster. They’re lovers engaging in a kinky roleplay, living out their scripted scenarios day after day. Over the course of the film, Strickland repeats their routine, allowing the replications to accrue small shifts, opening up differences between them and their desires.

Spaces between the performances are close and subtle, trading on the intimacies of a relationship deeply felt in the specificities to reveal the slight differences between their expectations that threaten to push them apart. This is a film about a relationship between people with particular needs, but the particularities contain wider truths. In their roleplay is a literalized expression of negotiations and trade offs in romantic entanglements of any kind. Relationships are about discovering how best to be the person your partner needs without sacrificing your needs in the process. It’s about the balance between control and release needed to make their relationship, or any, work. Here we see a woman who gets revved up by, say, being bound in a trunk at the foot of her partner’s bed, then whispers in the middle of the night that she needs to be let out. There are few characters – and no men – in this movie, a decision that nicely restricts the emotional range to a tight focus on one compelling pair and their decisions.

Those midnight whispers floating out of the darkness with ghostly sibilance are part of what gives Strickand’s controlled mood and style its horror-adjacent qualities. The lifecycle of the relationship on display is sharply defined and methodically studied, much like the creatures they study are categorized by their behaviors and fixed biological impulses, signals and responses. But it drifts into dreamy creepiness at times, especially in hazy overlapping dissolves, and in a knockout nightmare that comes near the end and culminates with a series of shots looking like a giallo guest-directed by Stan Brakhage. Throughout the film there’s something so precise, so clinical about the precision of the staging, the pronounced sound design that makes shifting fabric, pouring water, or a purring cat loud and strong in the mix. Combined with Nicholas D. Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography’s rich colors and artful framing, it’s like a straight Bergman drama borrowed the atmosphere of a 1970’s Jean Rollin softcore horror picture.

This sounds like a premise that could easily be campy or smutty (or both). But here it’s refreshing to find what are such tricky areas handled seriously and sincerely. This is a film of strong acting and exquisite craftsmanship in pursuit of teasing genre nods and fully articulated subtleties. I saw that, and appreciated it, without ever quite getting on its wavelength. Like Strickland’s last film, the Foley-artist walking-nightmare movie Berberian Sound Studio (which puts these qualities into a marginally pulpier context), The Duke of Burgundy is surface beauty disturbed by rough undercurrents. Strickland is a writer-director making films of strong aesthetic choices, intoxicating style evoking interesting ideas. They’re too good to ignore, but they’ve yet to win me over. He’s great at making and sustaining a tightly controlled mood, but after a while luxuriating in the suffocating style, my interest starts to drift. They’re striking, but static.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hack to the Futures: BLACKHAT

Blackhat is a very good thriller from a master of the form. Michael Mann’s been crafting sleek, propulsive films for decades now, and this high-tech whodunit is among his most accomplished. Like his 1995 cops-and-robbers Heat or 2006 procedural reimagining Miami Vice (possibly his best), he here takes a crime drama setup that could easily be routine – a bad hacker is causing havoc, so he must be found and stopped – and goes about filling it with artful, elliptical moodiness glowing with glamorous framing and grim dangers. It’s another of his terse and exciting men-at-work movies, flowing with jargon and tech as people at the height of their chosen professions pit their skills against formidable opponents. There’s energy in his intelligence, and the romanticism he finds in human connections, and the frayed nerves of people forced to choose between their relationships and their missions.

But the added digital element, in which real world consequences can zip anonymously (or nearly so) through a web of interconnected devices, adds a tangible, dangerous, element to the relationships charted. It begins with a mysterious hacker who overloads a Chinese nuclear power plant with a strategically deployed malware and a few swift keystrokes. Mann plays out this sequence with procedures forcefully visualized, starting on a monitor, then zooming into a microscopic view of shimmering data zipping through microchips and fiberoptic cable, before pulling up at another keyboard on the other side of the world. The digital journey viewed so closely looks like the usual beauty of a nighttime Mann skyline viewed through a trip through a wormhole. It’s routine and scary, devastating effects from the tiniest mysterious machinations.

The dangerous hacker becomes a serial cyber-attacker when he manipulates commodities prices in Chicago. Authorities are afraid those attacks are only the beginning. Needing to sort through the noise to find digital breadcrumbs that lead to their suspect, a brilliant Chinese security expert (Leehom Wang) agrees to a joint taskforce with FBI agents (Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and Holt McCallany), so long as his old MIT roommate (Chris Hemsworth) can be let out of prison to help. He’s a fit, genius hacker, the kind who’d read Foucault in between pushups, and the one who wrote the source code for the software this unknown cyber-assailant hijacked for nefarious purposes. The Americans reluctantly agree to the terms. Old friends are reunited, tenuous alliances are made with reluctant colleagues, and a romance burgeons between the convict and his friend’s sister (Wei Tang), also a computer whiz helping the investigation. In typical Michael Mann style, these dramas of human connection are sublimated in the propulsive plot, tense melodrama expressed through action.

This is every bit a Mann film, and all the pleasures that implies. He makes a lean script by Morgan Davis Foehl into beautiful pulp. It’s shot in gorgeously textured cinematography, stormy skies and grainy blackness, pale city lights and bleach white sun. (To see what director of photography Stuart Dryburgh does with digital cameras here is to make bleary digital productions look all the worse.) The chase picture plotting hunts down a mystery through a globetrotting search for clues mixed with a paranoid high-tech hackathon, the rapid pace told through artful images and granular specificity. Whole sweeping emotions are told in a tossed off frame, a man free from prison taking an extra beat to stare across an open tarmac, a dying woman looking up, her last sight a skyscraper casting pale light upon the night sky. Meanwhile, details pile up around them, keys clacking, phones tracking, gunshots carrying oomph and variety.

Here is a movie that respects its audience's intelligence, rarely slowing down for info dumps. It’s juggling a complicated storyline and a fine ensemble while working through intersecting multi-step conspiracies. Instead of telling us what’s happening, it simply lets the goings on go on. We join stories midstream, watching characters behave and react, piecing together plans and histories as they unfold gesture by gesture. It’s a film on the move with twists and sudden violence, but also the patience to envelop the proceedings with a mood, lamenting missed interpersonal connections, celebrating small moments of intimacy, alternately exhilarated and worried when confronted with the scope of virtual damage in the real world. It’s a thriller that’s entertaining, yes, but also hits hard with intoxicating style and tension, action and emotion as intertwined as the real world and the digital.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Grin and Bear It: PADDINGTON

Based on Michael Bond’s popular picture book of the same name, Paddington is a movie about a bear cub who speaks English, wears a red hat and blue coat, and likes marmalade. You’d think that’s not a lot to hang a feature film upon. But in a pleasant surprise, the result is easily the best live action talking animal family comedy since Babe: Pig in the City, though that might say more about the usual level of quality in this particular subgenre than anything else. In the movie, Paddington and his bear family are CGI creations that at first look creepily real, more Country Bears than Alvin and the Chipmunks. But once I got used to looking at him and his interactions with a real human world, the more adorable he became. He’s an inquisitive little guy, pluckily charging forward hoping for the best. That’s a good description of the movie, too. It’s a pleasant, affable, likable little thing, funny, fuzzy, warm and goodhearted.

Paddington (Ben Whishaw) grew up in darkest Peru, where he was taught about London by his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and uncle (Michael Gambon). They had become Anglophiles after an explorer (Tim Downie) visited years earlier. After an earthquake destroys their jungle home, Paddington is sent off to London in search of a better life. His aunt lovingly places around his neck a note asking the recipient to take care of this little bear. It’s a softly downplayed immigrant story, with the bear washing up on London shores in need of help making sense of a new place, but with plenty of qualities – a killer marmalade recipe, for one – that’ll enrich the lives of those he meets. There’s some quiet metaphor work going on, especially with the cranky neighbor who worries about bears moving into his neighborhood.

Paddington’s found by a sweet family who take him to stay in their house that appears to be on the same street as the Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s definitely a Poppins set up, with a free-spirited mother (Sally Hawkins), stuffy all-business father (Hugh Bonneville), and a daughter and son (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) who are having troubles of their own. Then in comes Paddington, an openhearted, open-minded little fellow who quite by accident brings the family closer together. It’s a film that has lots of dependable bits of family film plot mechanics, from the boring dad who’s softened up by the events herein, to the kids who find a friend in a magical guest, to a protagonist who’s thrust into a new world and, despite some difficulties, learns to love it.

But it’s all so sweetly done, and writer-director Paul King brings a kind sense of humor and lovely visual style, from intricate whimsical production design, to Wes-Anderson-esque dollhouse constructions, to clever cutting and crisp wordplay. The funniest joke is also the simplest: no one finds the talking bear strange at all, and treat him like they would a human child. There are amusing sequences in which he slowly destroys his surroundings while attempting a simple task, wrecking a bathroom or covering himself head to toe in tape. My favorite was a chase scene in which the bear floats by a schoolroom studying Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. “Exit pursued by a— ” “Paddington!” The amusing slapstick and cute misunderstandings are bolstered by an undemanding plot and a troop of fine British actors (the leads, as well as Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles) who kids growing up on this movie will later recognize if they ever catch up on old BBC programming or the films of Mike Leigh.

I’m not sure if a film so sugary English, with nicely small character moments and a charming shaggy tone, needs a villain, but Nicole Kidman plays an ice cold taxidermist about as well as she could. She’s a Cruella de Vil type with a Hitchcockian blonde bob, strutting about wanting to add a talking bear to her collection. Her scenes are few, and of a slightly different tone than the sentimental slapstick culture clash comedy elsewhere, but such pro forma kids’ film villainy is the impetus to finally bring all the characters together in support of the bear they’ve come to love. And by then, I’d also found much to love in Paddington, and was glad to see the film resolve so neatly.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Natural Born Killer: AMERICAN SNIPER

A complicated, unsettling movie, American Sniper is torn between rah-rah hagiography and sober anti-war lamentation. Director Clint Eastwood takes the story of Chris Kyle, the late Iraq war veteran the military credits as the deadliest American sniper in history, and makes a movie that’s simultaneously proud of those accomplishments and sorrowful when confronted with the mental and physical toll warfare takes on soldiers and civilians alike. It’s a film that sees the same black and white, good and evil dichotomies as its protagonist, showing enemy combatants terrorizing the war zone, giving the sequences there an omnipresent danger (and stereotypes). Then it follows him home to Texas between deployments, where the remembered sounds of war echo in the silences of daily life. Eastwood wants his audience rooting for the home team, and then wondering if the carnage is worth it.

This is a charitable interpretation of Kyle’s memoir, which was riddled with exaggerations and inventions. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have pared back red meat pandering into something murkier. That’s ambiguous enough to make for some queasy responses, especially from those prone to take Kyle’s story as unambiguous heroism and American-might-makes-right flag-waving. But surely only the most sociopathic patriotism could lead someone to watch the opening scene, in which Kyle stares down the barrel of a sniper rifle and makes the decision to shoot a child, in purely heroic terms. Sure, the boy clutched a grenade mere blocks from an oncoming convoy of American troops. But who could watch the boy flung back with the force of the shot, blood splattering out behind him as his mother cries, and feel any amount of pleasure?

Eastwood spent the first part of his career playing the macho American, gun-slinging cowboys, soldiers, and rogue cops who’d do whatever necessary to get their version of justice done. The last few decades, he’s been directing films that dismantled the myth and saw its poison. This film straddles the line uncomfortably. It says some people need these myths to survive, without knowing what to make of that idea. We see Kyle sign up to be a Marine to help his country, with every intention of killing terrorists. He ends up serving four tours in Iraq, where Kyle’s fellow soldiers often call him a hero, especially as his reputation grows. But he’s quick to downplay his accomplishments. When he’s met with questions about the conflict, doubts expressed by his wife, a buddy, or a psychiatrist, he’s equally quick to shrug them off. What does he truly, deep down, think about himself? It’s hard to say, and Eastwood’s not quick to provide his answer.

The answer may be in Bradley Cooper’s performance, one of his best, which brings shadings to a role that could’ve easily been one-note. He plays Kyle as a man stubbornly convinced of his duty, single-minded in his unquestioning pride and instinctual humbleness. This is partly symptomatic of a simply unreflective personality, but Cooper lets us see it as coping mechanism as well. A clear-cut sense of right is the only thing keeping him going after all he’s seen. Down bombed out Iraqi streets, he’s terrorized innocent civilians, invited collateral damage, driven into ambushes, and seen friends die. He’s most in control when hidden on rooftops, looking through his rifle’s scope, hand on the trigger, armed with his sense of purpose. The only way he can maintain his sense of duty, his righteousness, is to shut out dissenting voices. Cooper brings a lumbering physicality to the role, sturdy but carrying clear uncomfortable feelings when others try to tell him who he is. He has a look in the eyes betraying a storm of emotions that never comes to the surface.

The film follows Kyle’s war exploits, presenting them in an amped up, stripped down Hollywood style. Eastwood’s visual stillness and simplicity (from frequent cinematographer Tom Stern) provides crisp, coherent energy to the combat, but at worst fills the frames with swarms of enemies that threaten to look like Call of Duty at times. It’s at once intense and depersonalized. It’s a simple worldview on display. American soldiers are good, individualized, imperiled. Anyone else is there to be suspicious, dangerous, or dead. Sick thrills in the combat sequences let pulpy actioner clichés creep in around the edges, like the enemy sniper who’s a sneering, unknowable villain who leaps to his next perch with parkour moves.

It’s part of the film’s inability to land on any specific ideological perspective. This is a serious and sobering movie (grim gore, funerals, PTSD, tearful phone calls and portent) that also has a scene where a SEAL makes an impossible shot complete with slow-mo bullet arcing through the air (ridiculous) and a last minute dash through an increasingly chaotic sandstorm (thrilling). The film’s able to both satisfy patriotic bloodlust with vaguely true-to-life, but exaggerated, action-thriller filmmaking, and give those of us grossed out by such displays enough grey area cover to feel okay about being unsettled. It’s strategically politically ignorant, and in some moments the head-spinning cognitive dissonance is perhaps more effective and destabilizing than either approach would’ve been alone. It’s evenhanded in its sympathy for every American viewpoint even as it reduces foreign bodies to set dressing and cannon fodder. The film shuts out implications as a way of narrowing the focus, keeping its gaze on its lead.

In the film’s most politically complicated scene, Kyle and his wife (Sienna Miller) attend the funeral of a fallen soldier whose mother reads a letter explaining the deceased’s belief that the war was wrong. Driving home, Kyle blames the man’s death on that perspective. He calls it weakness, though it sure looked like hard-earned skepticism to me, especially considering the man died of enemy fire no pro-war stance would shield. Kyle clings to a black and white world because he needs it to be that way, because he needs to feel 100% justified to survive. Eastwood’s film is an ambiguous inhabitation of that worldview, putting it on display and letting the audience take it for an inkblot test. I saw it as messy, but ultimately more sorrowful than celebratory. Eastwood features real disabled vets in the final scenes, then rolls footage of Kyle's funeral over the credits. Here was a man good at war. Look what war does.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior is another in the recent run of low-budget films about aimless young women living in New York City who have complicated relationships with parents, awkward romantic fumblings with various hookups and dates, and naturalistic banter with friends. This latest version is the debut feature of writer-director-star Desiree Akhavan, who imbues the now-familiar rhythms of this sort of story with specificity that helps set it apart from the crowd. As an introduction to a fresh new talent, it’s a strong calling card, visually confident and with a clear voice.

Akhavan plays a bisexual Iranian-American, neither demographic well-represented in films of any kind. Her film plays fair with both identities, allowing their unique challenges and excitements to bring something new to familiar territory. There are scenes in Park Slope gay bars and New Jersey Iranians’ parties alike. Throughout the film, we see her moping after her ex-girlfriend, with flashbacks to happier times, while she drags herself into a bad new job, a crummy new apartment, and some questionable new partners. Meanwhile, she still hasn’t come out to her strict Persian parents, who ask if she’s met the right guy yet and congratulate her older brother on his impending nuptials. In the face of all this, Arkavan loads her character with eye-rolling sarcasm and a flat affect hiding vulnerability and emotional growing pains. The arc of the film is a small journey that takes her from sad and lost, to a little less sad and a little less lost.

We’ve seen the scenes involved in this process many times over, in those other films I mentioned in the first paragraph, and in indie films for the better part of a decade. But Akhavan is a fascinating screen presence elevating the routine more often than not. She’s a tall, striking figure with a low voice (hipster Bacall?), dryly amused, just as likely to appear comfortable and glamorous, as she is self-deprecating and disheveled. Here she’s playing a person who has yet to fully come into her own, much to the consternation of people around her who have it all figured out, or at least act like it. There’s frankness to her confusion that can be a bit monotonous, but in her struggle to find the most appropriate way to reconcile seemingly competing aspects of identity, at least it’s honest.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, she’d be pigeonholed as the funny best friend in Hollywood romantic comedies, too smart and interesting to take center stage from the lead ingénue, quick enough to steal a few scenes anyway. But in a film of her own making she can be the focus, and it’s worth the look. She’s a character with a combination of traits unlike any you’ll likely see, a mix of sexual and cultural contexts that’s interesting to watch navigated. Even if some of the plotting is overfamiliar, the person involved isn’t. This is a promising debut.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Change is Gonna Come: SELMA

Whatever their individual merits, or lack thereof, Hollywood reflections on the Civil Rights Movement from the likes of Driving Miss Daisy or The Help tend to conclude by putting on a happy face. They’re viewing the tribulations of the time through a historical distancing complex that takes great pride finding history in the past. How terrible racism and its effects, they say. And yet situating a story as vital as a fight for human rights through the view of sympathetic white help, told firmly from a supposedly more enlightened present, provides only uplift. One whose knowledge of history comes only from Hollywood could be excused for thinking the story of Civil Rights is the mission-accomplished post-racism lie sold by the willfully ignorant.

The power of a film like Ava DuVernay’s Selma comes in its restoring to history its devastating immediacy, while refusing to obscure the direct line from then to now. It takes as its subject the 1965 marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. That was a mere 50 years ago, when brave peaceful protesters were beaten by eager police in riot gear, in front of news cameras for the entire world to see. In this film, each blow feels fresh, the bruises still painful. It keeps the focus of a heroic, historic moment rooted in the humane details, presenting key figures as complicated human beings confronting the worst of humanity with hard-fought grace and determination. It’s a film that plays on your historical knowledge – you can’t watch an opening scene of little girls in their Sunday best walking through a church without a sick feeling of dread suspecting their fate – without taking it for granted or softening historical horror with the benefits of hindsight.

Every choice made by the filmmakers is rooted in immediacy and intimacy. They take our usual view of history – of Great Men, Important Speeches, and Big Moments – and restore a sense of the masses to a movement. The Civil Rights Movement was, after all, made up of people, hundreds and thousands of individuals whose collective voice was heard. The marches at Selma may have been organized and inspired by, among others, Martin Luther King Jr, but he needed the passion and commitment of the people who made up the crowds. DuVernay’s film’s most powerful moments are in its crowd scenes, when King (played brilliantly and convincingly by David Oyelowo) is simply one of many marching towards crowds of cops and hecklers, determined to draw attention to their cause.

Placing the crowds and King on similar levels of focus, the film draws a lively and humane reenactment. We come to recognize faces (Oprah Winfrey, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Tessa Thompson, Stephan James, and more). We can pick them out in the crowds. We know a little of their stories. We see their eagerness, their idealism, their pragmatic planning. Then we see them shoved, hit, shot at, and bludgeoned. Their faces are bloodied as they limp to safety, ready to head out and march again the next day. At its best, Selma is history written with lightening, sharply revealing and an electric burn. It burns for the ferocity of the facts, and the sad recognition in them of so many concerns that linger still. When an unarmed black man is gunned down by white cops who will never be punished, it’s hard not to read echoes of current events in the pain and sorrow on the screen.

Writer-director DuVernay’s previous films were small-scale intimate dramas, tenderly studying the emotional currents between her characters. You can see that skill in Selma’s portrait of King’s relationship with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and closest advisors (Wendell Pierce chief among them). Not just the easily appropriated, endlessly quotable symbol to which he can so often be reduced, we see King at a recognizably human level. He heads to the streets, ready to face death threats and worse as he delivers sermons with fire and conviction, no matter his private troubles and doubts. But we also see in the small, quiet moments of his life as husband, father, and friend, soft intimate spaces over which hangs the import and danger of his righteous calling.

The film is more diffuse than a biopic, and the time with the supporting cast doesn’t allow for any one standout amongst them. King still dominates the proceedings, drawing focus even when not on screen. He’s a figure of inspiration and conflict amongst everyone, but it’s always clear he’s only human. It’s a picture of a person, and of a movement, that manages to be honest without tearing anyone down. Following backroom negotiations, strategy sessions, and heartfelt speeches between moments of extreme racial tension and sympathetically drawn character moments, Selma is best when it’s witnessing the crisis points of the conflict, and when sitting back with the activists in casual moments of camaraderie, eating, praying, or singing while planning the next move. In those cases, DuVernay makes a film most clearly interested in the human experience first, not just the Big Important moments.

The film falls into some conventional docudrama patterns, like unnecessary time-stamped text and a few clumsy integrations of full names and position statements, orienting the audience at the (brief) expense of immediacy. So, too, the scenes in the White House with LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) or the State Capital where George Wallace (Tim Roth) growls and spits slurs, sequences which sit at a remove from the street-level interest. But when the story and the filmmaking sits powerfully close to the planning and the protests, it is too vitally alive to be held back entirely by such predictable based-on-a-true-story message movie moments.

Bradford Young’s cinematography finds glowing skin tones in cozy interiors that crackle with dimly-lit beauty reminiscent of Gordon Willis. But then we head outside with the protestors, where under the bright light of the sun, angry, violent racism must inevitably meet non-violence. The emotions of real people who somehow muster the courage to put themselves in harms way for what they believe are beautifully realized in a present tense, shorn from the usual feel-good conclusions. This is a hard-hitting view of these events, sympathetic and inspiring, but also pragmatic and clear-eyed about how hard-fought the battle, how real the accomplishments, and yet how ongoing the conflict.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baked Sleep: INHERENT VICE

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice is a gumshoe tale with pothead logic. Beginning, as all private eye stories do, with a beautiful girl (Katherine Waterson) showing up unexpectedly in a P.I.’s office with a strange tale of dastardly deeds in need of uncovering, Doc, our detective protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix), lights a joint and gets to work. What follows is a druggy wading through 1970 Los Angeles, a stoned stumble through a hazy maze of clues and complications. Around every corner is a funny-named character (like Shasta Fey Hepworth, or Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen) played by a recognizable face in frames dense with vintage detail. Soon a simple situation about a potential financial scheme becomes more about real estate shenanigans (a la Chinatown), a few missing persons cases, a shady transnational syndicate, and maybe more.

Doc’s investigation proceeds as a procession of dialogues as he hunts down the truth. He’s a shaggy hippy ambling into clean-cut offices, hotels, homes, restaurants, and police headquarters, then back to his beach-side hovel to ponder the things he’s heard. It’s the culture clash of 1970, between the square-jawed Americana establishment and the relaxed, politically engaged counter culture, rattling down a dimly understood paranoid logic. Phoenix gives his character a great listening look, holding a mostly invested and intrigued P.I. poker face. He’s always leaning forward – listening closely – or settling back – luring secrets with a confidant’s confidence. And yet he’s also walking about with a perpetually furrowed brow, confusion wafting over every encounter as his pot smolders nearby. He’s like a more purposeful Jeff Lebowski crossed with a high Philip Marlowe.

He may be a bit confused from time to time, sometimes seeming totally adrift in a sea of details and strange asides. But he’s on the case, moving forward, scribbling notes and puzzling over new discoveries as everyone he meets shovels exposition of varying relevance at him. He talks to his aunt (Jeannie Berlin), his assistant (Maya Rudolph), his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a cop (Josh Brolin), an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), a masseuse (Hong Chau), a potential widow (Jena Malone), a musician (Owen Wilson), a deputy district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), a dentist (Martin Short), a real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), and more. Most appear for only a scene or two. Some contribute valuable new information to move the mysteries along. Others simply add to the flavoring, an offbeat, mellow, and bumbling vibe. They’re whole eccentric beings conjured up to be wonderfully oddball cogs in a fuzzy mystery machine slowly growing clearer.

The film has copious period pleasures – cars and fashions informing characters’ stations, music drifting in over radios and record players, a grainy, vivid, sunny orange and yellow color palate shot in gorgeous time-appropriate cinematography by Robert Elswit. Anderson’s too good a filmmaker to let a scene go to waste, every shot informed by a groovy sense of place and space, as clear as anything in his Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood. There’s always some bit of visual cleverness emphasizing how lost Doc, and we, are in the mysteries at hand. Angles will cut off characters’ heads, hiding their identities from us. Voices will float in from out of frame. Missing time – when our detective is bumped unconscious by an unseen bludgeoner, say, a common trope – is never satisfactorily filled in. We even have a narrator (Joanna Newsom) whose sweetly voiced information is always pleasant but only occasionally helpful.

This is all low-key, low-stakes, loose genre doodling, but what’s often quite transporting about the whole experience is how successfully Anderson puts the audience in the protagonist’s stoned headspace. It’s full of the usual puzzles of detective fiction of its ilk. But the more I struggled to put the pieces together, the more the plot seemed to slip away. Then, suddenly, it falls into place, resolved in some ways, but with loose threads dangling still. It’s a puzzle where the pieces don’t quite fit, even though all the characters seem satisfied enough to move on with their lives, case closed. It’s a detective movie that hits all its marks, but takes enough cues from its stoned lead to leave a drifting fog of lingering confusion in its wake. At one point Doc asks Shasta, “Inherent vice? What’s that mean?” To which she replies, “I dunno.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Once, Twice, Three Times a Taking: TAKEN 3

Taken 3 is the least in its series, which in turn has been among the least of star Liam Neeson’s recent spate of action roles. Unlike his good to great films of late (The Grey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Non-Stop), these movies are only about how many people Neeson’s Bryan Mills, an ex-special ops guy with a particular set of skills, has to kill to get a member of his family back from the bad guys. The first had a single-mindedness that worked for it more than not, especially if you can ignore its uglier vigilante tendencies. The second wasn’t even that good, but at least had its moments of committed goofiness, like grenade-based echolocation. This third time around, it’s just lazy, requiring bigger jolts to get less effect. Now he has to kill a whole bunch of people just to feel better about losing a loved one, this taking being of a more permanent kind.

After much throat-clearing exposition, Mills discovers the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen, turning up for a cameo that’s half corpse). He just got back to his apartment after buying fresh bagels and finds her dead in his bed, bloody knife left dripping nearby. The cops aren’t far behind. Naturally, they think he did it, so he goes on the run to clear his name, protect his now-college aged daughter (Maggie Grace), and find the people responsible. As the detective on the case and on the chase, Forest Whitaker, who hilariously eats the fresh bagels out of the active crime scene, interviews the ex-wife’s husband (Dougray Scott) who asks if this has to do with those two times Mills got caught up in nasty business overseas. Whitaker’s reaction to the question is so underplayed to be nonexistent. It’s like he hears about suspects’ serial vigilante killing sprees everyday. Maybe he’s seen the earlier movies too.

Neeson spends the entirety of the movie on the run in a sleepy riff on The Fugitive. The reasons for this are protracted and stupid, easily the stupidest plot co-writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have yet concocted. It’s not just absurd. I could handle that. It’s wholly unnecessary. Neeson flees the authorities, pursuing his own sense of justice despite A.) a solid alibi, and B.) almost immediately discovering video evidence that, if turned over to Whitaker, would point cops directly to the real baddies. I mean, I know Neeson’s the best of the best, but wouldn’t he rather clear his name and let the police arrest the clearly guilty bad guys? I guess he prefers the collateral damage implied in a reckless chase down a freeway, an explosion on a college campus, and a shootout in a skyscraper. It makes it hard to disagree when, late in the game, Scott turns to Grace and says, “Your dad’s a homicidal maniac!”

This superfluous running, jumping, shooting, punching, and chasing (all PG-13 bloodless, naturally) would be better off if we could at least enjoy it. But there’s a sense of mercenary profit-based laziness involved, as if everyone did the least they could to get the paycheck by pumping out another entry in the brand. Barely comprehensible action scenes are a perfect compliment to the dumb connective tissue between them. This is director Olivier Megaton’s sloppiest deployment of chaos cinema, quick edits and haphazardly framed shaky cam hiding most effects and many causes in the dimly imagined action. Worst, it obscures how Neeson gets out of most of his close calls. At one point he backs his car down an elevator shaft, plummets several stories, and groans. Then the car explodes, elaborately and with many angles. After an edit, we find he’s on the phone in a different location. How’d he do that? I get the feeling no one knows and, worse, no one cares. I know I don’t.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


The Imitation Game runs through its biopic paces, reducing a Great Man’s life into a series of easily digestible Big Moments. That the true story it tells is of Alan Turing, a gay man whose life’s work had gone underreported because of prejudice, and because his crucial scientific breakthroughs partially responsible for defeating Hitler remained classified, lends it a degree of importance. Although, given the subject’s wide reporting since files were declassified, it’s not exactly breaking new research ground here. Besides, it’s a movie, one intended to interpret a good story into a satisfying entertainment at that. It’s a World War II picture about people crunching numbers on the home front that’s quietly amazed the war was won, at least in the intelligence arena, by a gay man, a woman, and a roomful of math whizzes.

Graham Moore’s screenplay moves along three parallel tracks. It follows young Turing (Alex Lawther), bullied at boarding school and dealing with the first glimmers of his genius and romantic stirrings. It follows a detective (Rory Kinnear) in the 1950s puzzling out Turing’s secrets. The track is destined to end in tragedy when Turing is outed and charged with indecency in accordance to UK law at the time. These fill in the biopic obligations, giving us childhood context and his sad end, but the most exciting track is the WWII stuff. There director Morten Tyldum makes a brisk historical thriller in which Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code with a team of mathematicians, cryptographers, and spies (Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong). He recruits some fellow number crunchers, chief among them a brilliant young woman (Keira Knightley) kept out of the official inner circle by sexism.

It’s the kind of sanctimonious based-on-a-true-story film that’s pretty proud of itself for its historical importance, so much so the characters sound like they’ve already read the history books about their lives. It’s full of people simplifying and speechifying for our benefit, extolling the virtues of the Turing Machine while sneering at those who think it’s a waste of money as if it should’ve been obvious in the moment the future importance of the project. Elsewhere, characters say things like, “You can’t say you’re gay, Turing. That’s illegal.” Surely there’s a more subtle or elegant way of getting that information out there. It’s an overdose of explanation.

Turing narrates the entire picture, explaining the context of various incidents in his life, a way of getting inside the head of a character portrayed here as so full of egghead eccentricities he might as well have wandered in off the set of The Big Bang Theory. But a late scene reveals the voice over is a monologue he’s giving to a detective. Why he’d tell his life story there is beyond me. Maybe he’s filibustering. Cumberbatch delivers a clamped down performance so full of ticks and tricks that it’s scarcely believable as a real person. He’s a collection of biographical details never convincingly brought to life, perfect for a movie more interested in Big Moments and important monologues than building characters or crafting a gripping yarn.

But when the movie relaxes its need to explain the importance of its moment in history while following the build-a-biopic kit step by step, there’s some fine acting and some nervous tick-tock energy in its construction. Small moments of human interaction and wartime strategizing are often engaging. The actors are accomplished and, lead performance aside, have warm and lively likable energy. Knightley is the standout here, as a woman with a brilliant mind held back by a patriarchal system out to devalue her. When she shows up to apply for the job, she’s nearly turned away by a man who assumes she’s a lost secretary. Her sunny charm and intelligence give her scenes a heartbeat, much like Goode, Strong, and Dance (a good name for a Broadway law firm, by the way) breath sly grumpiness into stuffy writing.

Turing’s story is interesting, but the movie made out of it is inert, insisting on its own importance with a glossy, technically proficient surface that refuses to engage with the genuinely fascinating ideas inherent underneath. There are some pleasing elements, with a good cast working hard, craftspeople making fine period detail, and a typically excellent Alexandre Desplat score. It’s of minor interest for Anglophiles and WWII buffs, I suppose, but for starting with a tale so dramatic the end result is surprisingly empty.