Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Fault Near Our Stars: SAN ANDREAS

Shamelessly formulaic, San Andreas is a familiar disaster movie. It wants us to gawk as California is hit by the Biggest Earthquake Ever Recorded, but only care if one man can save his wife and daughter. Two major cities are flattened and drowned, but at least we can hope our movie’s stars are okay. The final scene includes a wide shot taking in a big sweep of the film’s devastation, then a close up of TV news with a chyron reading: “Thousands Saved.” Isn’t that the disaster movie way? It’s not the presumably millions of unknown victims who have been crushed by the upheaval we should care about. It’s the ones who’ve made it through. “We’ll rebuild,” one man says, before we see a tattered American flag billowing in the breeze off a crumpled landmark.

But we’re not supposed to be thinking about any broader consequences in the moment. It’s a non-stop button-pushing effects reel, disaster imagery conjured by talented animators, cascading catastrophes made to slam around our main characters with frightening intensity, and ripple across metropolises’ skylines with eerie fluidity. Debris clouds the sky as pedestrians run, fires erupt, asphalt ruptures, skyscrapers sway, and the ground roils like a wave. It’s all very impressively visualized, scary at first, then numbing as it goes on. After helming a surprisingly charming kids’ B-movie adventure (Journey 2 The Mysterious Island), director Brad Peyton seems ready to grab the disaster movie mantle in the tradition of Irwin Allen and Roland Emmerich. He shares with them a sort of industrial strength spectacle, even if he can’t quite match their sense of fun. Mayhem taken to the max, it is eye-boggling noise, good for a simple distraction.

The movie is stocked with the usual types of its genre, like an anxious scientist (Paul Giamatti) and his colleague (Will Yun Lee) who warn that this is “the big one,” and a TV reporter (Archie Panjabi) who provides access to broadcasting equipment to spread the warning. They’re minor figures in the plot. Unlike ensemble spectacles with cross-sections of reactions to a cataclysmic event, this movie narrows in on one family as they try to survive and reunite once the earth starts quaking. Our lead (Dwayne Johnson) pilots rescue helicopters. His twenty-something daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is away at college, while his wife (Carla Gugino) has served divorce papers and is moving in with her new man (Ioan Gruffudd). Then the San Andreas Fault cracks open, unleashing a swarm of earthquakes, blowing apart tepid little dramas and allowing a natural disaster to serve as matchmaker, couples’ therapist, and a test of character.

Johnson is mid-air when the quake hits, so he immediately points his helicopter towards the danger and heads off to save his family. Gugino is on the top of a teetering high-rise, while Daddario is helping two British tourists, relatively helpless brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson). The small cast keeps the immediate emotional stakes small, but also a tad callous. Should a rescue pilot really be absconding with government property to save his own family first? Still, it’s insanely comfortable to want Johnson to succeed. He’s a likeable, rock solid presence in the middle of chaos. With a strong determination and relaxed take-charge expression, it’s easy to believe him when he looks out across a flattened San Francisco and says of his missing daughter, “she’ll be alright.” If you can block out the scope of the tragedy around this family, it’s easy to enjoy it as the roller coaster it was intended to be.

Carlton Cuse’s screenplay is essentially a Mad Libs construction built out of story elements that wouldn’t have been out of place back when Charlton Heston confronted Earthquake in Sensurround. There are some howlingly terrible lines and preposterous coincidences. But it’s all wrapped in effectively over-the-top, hectic and tense, fine empty spectacle. Every rescue is last minute. Helicopters swing between collapsing skyscrapers, characters run up and down crumbling stairwells in unbroken takes, and boats push over the top of cresting tsunamis dodging flailing freighters. Rian Johnson’s cinematographer Steve Yedlin shoots beautiful broad daylight, the better to see absurdly detailed flotsam and jetsam spraying out from crumbling, colliding, and collapsing bits of everything. Every character is shot for picturesque peril, sent through the wringer as anonymous victims perish all around them. Of course it’s a relief when characters tearfully reunite after surviving an onslaught of terrifying events. But the movie’s only alive when they’re in peril.

Because the cast is so likable it’s almost excusable they’re hardly characters. In fact, the movie’s at it’s worst when it pauses mid-quake for light quips or tearful moments of interpersonal drama. No, this is a motion picture, emphasis on motion. The only emotion is survival. Performers are scrubbed clean and only lightly damaged, the better to use as bodies in motion, not to ogle (even Daddario’s brief bikini scene is tasteful), but to careen through carnage. San Andreas says being smart enough about what to do in an emergency will save you, while showing characters escaping certain death through CGI luck. It provides preparedness URLs in the end credits, after we’ve sat through two hours of millions wiped out while confident characters guide a few dozen to safety. At one point our hero saves a crowd of people by yelling, “Get near something steady!” while a skyscraper vomits glass and a stadium heaves slightly off its foundation. What’s steady? In a crisis, I’d follow The Rock. It works out well enough this time.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Hello Goodbye: ALOHA

Aloha is another Cameron Crowe picture about a successful man who finds his professional life in jeopardy while his inner life is restored by romance. Furthermore, it’s another of his romantic comedies spiked with office drama, like Jerry Maguire was falling in love while negotiating sports agent business and Matt Damon fell for Scarlett Johansson while she helped him with his zoo in We Bought a Zoo. There’s also Orlando Bloom’s disgraced suit meeting Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, and you could throw the reality-scrambling Vanilla Sky into the mix, with publisher Tom Cruise crushing on Penelope Cruz, if you view its twisty ending optimistically. In Aloha, a depressed defense contractor (Bradley Cooper) survives an explosive encounter in Kabul and is reassigned to Hawaii, where he’s to negotiate a new roadway through Native Hawaiian territory. His military liaison is a bright charming young woman (Emma Stone). If you already think he’ll fall in love and grow a conscience, you’ve been paying attention.

Because Crowe is a warm writer sincere in his sentimentality, he can usually make his formulaic tendencies work. (Of course, he’s even better when drifting away from formula. It’s why Say Anything… is still his best film.) What’s most peculiar about Aloha is how everything around this central romance plot is much more fascinating and effective than what is inside it. Cooper and Stone have fine chemistry playing two people who have to fall in love because they’re the stars of the movie and the script keeps pushing them together. It’s largely unconvincing, following a period of initial irritation, then intense love, then a tearful misunderstanding, and so on. What’s far more interesting is watching Cooper’s interactions with other characters in a breezy, low-key, undemanding story of a man slowly regrowing his conscience.

This growth takes root as Cooper works with his boss (Bill Murray), a tycoon trying to launch a satellite with the armed forces’ help. One gets the impression Cooper has been unscrupulous in the past. Half-articulated military industrial commentary abounds in a guardedly biting way, as the rich man’s real aims are hidden from the brass (Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin). Meanwhile, both public and private interests are all too willing to manipulate Native Hawaiians to go along with their schemes, trading them land and assistance to wave construction through sacred spaces. This thread is far more interesting than whether or not the girl will fall for the guy, especially when their relationship is so thinly sketched and taken for granted. The story is dusted with a few intimations of magical realism that never amounts to anything, and is resolved far too neatly and softly to retain its teeth, but is a more intriguing element in every way.

Better still is a subplot involving an ex-fiancé of Cooper’s, played by Rachel McAdams with glowing happiness tinged with a hint of regret. It's been a dozen years since their break up. She has two kids (Danielle Rose Russell and Jaeden Lieberher) with a military man (John Krasinski). She loves her family. And yet the appearance of her old love gets her thinking. This storyline features the best writing and acting in the film, Crowe at his best drawing relationships that play out with real compassion and unexpected developments. It’s a reflection of where the main character’s life went wrong, a cozy family unit he’s invited to spend time with, but left just on the outside of embracing. There’s too much history there, and too much pressure to get his job done. If the corruption he encounters is the seed of his moral reawakening, seeing the love he left is the fertilizer for this new growth. 

There are plenty of worthwhile pieces to Aloha, but Crowe doesn’t put them together. They play like separate elements instead of a cohesive whole, connected by character and only faint echoes of each other. It’s telling that the conclusion finds several final moments, tying up individual threads – an arrest, several reconciliations, a tearful reveal – without a feeling of overall finality. This is a film of gentle rhythms and light tropical breezes. French cinematographer Eric Gautier captures lovely island landscapes and floats between the performers with ease. Crowe writes a handful of terrific lines and finds some nice cuts from his record collection for the soundtrack. It’s certainly well intentioned. But why does it feel so slight and disconnected? The writing lacks a certain sparkle, and lingers in disjunction between disparate elements. There are strange asides – a grisly toe injury, a ghostly vision – distractingly out of place, appearing once, then never mentioned again. Hardly a disaster, it’s perhaps best to approach Aloha as a sweet, earnest jumble, likable parts in search of a whole.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Strength and Weakness: FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

Far From the Madding Crowd is a handsome literary adaptation. The surface sheen is impeccable, with gorgeous colors – cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen provides the greenest greens and reddest reds this side of Technicolor – and convincing 19th century detail. Who would’ve thought something so sumptuous could come from Thomas Vinterberg, the Dogme 95 co-founder who has previously given us upsetting dramas of abuse shot in digital smears (The Celebration) or austere pale shudders (The Hunt)? This is a richly textured Great Illustrated Classics sort of film, David Nicholls’ script collapsing the plot details and character motivations from Thomas Hardy’s classic serialized novel, smoothing out the structure to make it fit into a two-hour package. Vinterberg moves through the adaptation, hitting the highlights of the narrative’s emotional beats while wisely keeping the focus on the scenery and cast. He’s content to condense and visualize a story better told in novel form. A bit more interpretive intent could’ve elevated the effort, but what’s here is respectably effective.

What could’ve been a glossy gist of Hardy’s plot is given some depth by the tremendously talented cast. They provide a pivot point from which the audience can turn the thin surface on its side and glimpse the complexity within. (In other words, it won’t lead students too far astray if they misguidedly attempt a book report based on this film alone.) Each performance suggests emotional currents and historical context the condensed motivations don’t enliven in and of themselves. At the center of the proceedings is Carey Mulligan, a performer seemingly built for period pieces. She’s at her best (An Education, Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby, and so on) when she can play a woman struggling against the constraints of what a society expects her to be. Here, as Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman in the mid-1800s with only an education to her name who suddenly inherits a farm, she plays a great deal of determination. She’s taking charge, running the farm, willing to ruffle feathers of grumpy men.

But she’s also dealing with a variety of potential suitors, and must decide whether a reliable farmer fallen on bad times (Matthias Schoenaerts), a well-off older fellow (Michael Sheen), or a passionate soldier (Tom Sturridge), is worthy of her time and affections. They represent three very different kinds of men, the strong silent type, the lonely graying bachelor, and the fiery slimeball. Each actor plays the type to strong effect, finding nicely individualized chemistry with Mulligan. One seems a natural pairing, and so becomes a lovely throughline of smoldering unrequited love, a fine underplayed romance and a good way to renew your crushes on the participants. The other two men present a variety of complications. The plot moves along in a structure close to the novel’s original serialized nature, delaying the inevitable for the sake of melodrama. There’s not quite enough psychological underpinning in the script to sell the developments – especially a marriage decision with only a nice swordplay-as-foreplay scene to explain – but the actors make it work anyway.

Vinterberg and crew do a fine job creating the sense of place necessary for their story. It’s a time when women were allowed some agency, and yet still beholden to a society placing propriety and prosperity above personhood. She’s forced to consider economics as much as emotions when contemplating a relationship. Marriages are mergers. Betting on the wrong man can sink her solvency. A dashing man with a good pitch can turn into a lousy husband who would literally bet the farm, leaving them in financial and marital ruin. This recognition simmers in Mulligan’s eyes as she tries to do what’s best for the farm and its employees without shortchanging her own happiness. She and the supporting cast inhabit their characters' dilemmas with appealing conviction. Because the central interpersonal currents run strong, and the production values are high, the CliffsNotes to which they’re deployed doesn't seem so bad.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

They're Here. Again. POLTERGEIST

A marvelous horror movie, 1982’s Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg Poltergeist is a terrific entertainment, and one of my favorites of its kind. It’s a sustained piece of slowly mounting haunted house tension, with warm family dynamics and small creepy details eventually erupting in a spectacular crescendo of special effects-driven freak outs. A quintessential portrait of early-80’s suburbia wrapped up in skillful metaphor about expanding without regard for unintended consequences (or evil sprits) unchecked sprawl might kick up, it’s one of those films that has a time capsule quality, but has enough evergreen genre elements to make it timeless. When it came time to remake Poltergeist, building an entirely new film on the bones of the old was out of the question. Most of Gil Kenan’s remake is a bland updating, content to riff on the original’s most famous moments, finding new and slightly worse ways of doing everything.

The result is a contemporary Poltergeist of high competence, but little interest. It only works because its inspiration is still a good movie, and following it closely is a good way to make an effective little horror picture. This one plays like a passable tween-friendly summer diversion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can almost imagine heading home for s’mores and giggles around the campfire afterwards. Kenan’s film is brighter and lighter, with 3D and CGI taking the place of practical effects, and rounder edges on the frights. It runs nearly 30 minutes shorter, adds an awfully conventional arc for a young boy from coward to hero, and by and large keeps threats and moments of wit in a lower key. It’s both a little more and a lot less than what you’d expect. Unfortunately a bunch of clown dolls isn’t significantly creepier than one. Grown-ups sneaking a sip of liquor isn’t as interesting as sharing a joint. Nor is ditching a realtor as funny as pushing a TV for a concluding punchline.

But there’s entertainment value here, and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (of Rabbit Hole) does some smart updating. Now the neighborhood isn’t new. It’s hollowed out with foreclosures. The family moves into the house because of layoffs constraining their finances. There’s a recessionary sadness hanging over the opening. How were they to know their house was built on a cemetery? Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt play the parents, in a likable pair of performances. Their kids, sullen teen (Saxon Sharbino), nervous boy (Kyle Catlett), and little girl (Kennedi Clements), are the first to discover the haunting in their house, like electric disruptions and strangely menacing trees and clown dolls. Then the threat becomes very real when the youngest daughter is snatched by malevolent spirits and held hostage in their ghostly realm.

Who they gonna call? A paranormal researcher (Jane Adams) and a TV host (Jared Harris), of course. It all builds to flashes of nightmare hallucinations, a portal to the spiritual plane opening up in a closet (and looking a lot like Insidious on the other side), and a suburban home barfing up its supernatural secrets. It’s predictable button pushing, with fluid camerawork tracing digital intrusions through an eerily normal house pulsing with malevolent creepiness. Never particularly scary, it at least isn’t a desecration. It’s just barely enjoyable enough, I suppose. Kenan manages a brisk trot through some shivery concepts, efficiently deploying fine effects while finding a good deal of charm in the actors. The kids are sufficiently freaked out, and the adults get some dry one-liners to cut the tension. It’s not a bad time at the movies, with some moderate chills over before you know it.

As a fine example of what it is, I suppose you can shake off the déjà vu and find comfort in familiar rhythms. But why settle for a competent, but lesser, vision unless you absolutely have to? It’s hard not to wish the exact same cast and crew had been put to use on a wholly original movie. Not only has this been done better before, but Kenan’s even done a better family-friendly 80’s horror throwback before, his 2006 animated debut feature Monster House, a fast, funny, creepy good time. (Rent it and the original Poltergeist and have yourself a good double feature.) Here’s hoping this big budget remake allows the filmmakers opportunity to do more interesting original work in the future.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Retro-Future City: TOMORROWLAND

Tomorrowland tells a science fiction story we don’t usually hear these days. It’s a story of hope, saying the future doesn’t have to be as bleak as we fear. After a couple decades worth of cultural output drumming the dystopian beat, not to mention the generally terrifying disasters worldwide, how wonderful it is to find a movie taking on the mission of encouragement. Director Brad Bird, who also co-wrote with Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, looks towards an imagined world in which science and progress really can change the world for the better, if only we allow it to be shared. The filmmakers give us a shiny city on a hill, chrome and glowing with Art Deco spires and Space Age retro-futurism. Jet packs and flying cars, robots, teleportation and Jules Verne-inspired rockets fill the frame, as a great big beautiful tomorrow comes to life, beckoning us to shake off cynicism and join in the fun.

This is a vision of the future straight out of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where, coincidentally enough, our story begins. A young boy (Thomas Robinson), visiting the fair with an optimistic invention in tow, follows a mysterious girl (Raffey Cassidy) through a secret doorway contraption to Tomorrowland, the futuristic city full of scientific wonder. Skipping forward to our time, we meet an irrepressibly sunny teenager (Britt Robertson) who remains excited by a potential for good in the world despite the her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) losing his job. After a great many (too many, perhaps) complications, she discovers a vintage pin. When touched, it shows her and only her a glimpse of Tomorrowland off in the distance, untouchable and irresistible. So begins the mystery powering the plot engine, as she tries to figure out what this city is and how to get there, a quest that leads her eventually a middle-aged man (George Clooney), who once was the boy who went there, and is now cagily reluctant to return.

The film trusts the very fact of mystery to pull us along, keeping characterization thin and the obfuscation thick. Late in the game, the truth about the city is revealed and the full extent of the stakes is known. The way there is a series of thick tangles of exposition punctuated with whiz-bang special effects sequences as the teen learns of secret societies, killer robots, laser guns, quantum particles, and ultimately the answers she and we desire about Tomorrowland. Bird and crew take great pleasure in concocting complicated backstory and appealing design, then hiding it, parceling it out in frustrating and tantalizing doses between cliffhangers and info dumps. There’s a cheery sincerity to this clunking structure, recalling early sci-fi stories in which an ordinary person discovers extraordinary secrets in episodic dreamlike fashion with great wonderment. It plays like an updated serial, with bigger effects, but the same potentially hokey spirit.

Although the cluttered exposition bogs things down, Bird comes to life when staging his exciting flights of sci-fi with an animator’s flair for visual timing. Would you expect any less from the director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol? Tomorrowland isn’t as fluid an experience. Though the actors mostly sell the sloppy connective tissue, it could've used more showing, less telling, and telling, and telling. But then a toy store is suddenly the stage for a martial arts battle, or a farmhouse bursts forth with high-tech booby traps. And I won’t even begin to spoil what happens to a famous European landmark, but it’s like something out of an eye-catching old pulp magazine cover. It’s a film full of images of wide-eyed speculative goofiness, and completely committed to meeting them on that level. The film’s design is charming, and photographed in cheerfully luminous ways. Who cares if the characters are vaguely defined and the world’s a jumble? Look at this thing go!

Bird approaches the concept with evident delight in conjuring, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, these bright images and gleaming theme park (it is named for a section in Disney parks, after all) spectacle. But there’s also a sincerity of purpose and earnestness of tone as it moralizes about the power in the stories we tell ourselves about our future. It asks us not to accept dystopia as our only option, but to realize it’s never too late to change the world for the better. It may be given a cornball hard sell here, with a big speech at the end laying it on thick. But, boy, is it an honest sentiment, too. What we learn about Tomorrowland eventually sets a selfish figure intent on keeping progress to himself against those who’d rather open the possibilities to anyone willing to pitch in. Our heroes discover that even a perfect, gleaming city can’t survive without those willing to work at make things better for everyone.

It’s ultimately another film with world-ending stakes, but Robertson and Clooney, two utterly charming performers who work well together and steer the film lightly, embody a more humanist ideal. What good is a secret world for special smarties if you can’t invite people in? Why accept a bad outcome for humanity when you can work to change it? The message  and the worldbuilding – gets muddled in the telling, but Tomorrowland asks us to reach for the best of humanity instead of tolerating the worst. If our imagination dies, so do we. Accepting dystopia is easy and cynical. Making utopia requires talent, cooperation, creative thinking, and hope. We’re in this together, so we might as well imagine ourselves a nice, fun, shiny future where anything is possible. In its own imperfect, heartfelt way, Tomorrowland wants us leaving the theater thinking a little brighter.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Searchers: SLOW WEST

Slow West is a smart synthesis of the mournful revisionist Western and the lightly appealing oater. In other words, it has a somber recognition of the Wild West’s brutish, senseless violence and pernicious prejudices, and yet retains the lean, bright pleasures of a simpler entertainment. This mixture has been attempted a few times recently – the Coens’ brilliant True Grit and Verbinski’s underrated The Lone Ranger, for two fresh examples. But we’re not exactly swimming in high quality (or any) Westerns these days, and writer-director John Maclean, a musician making his feature filmmaking debut, gives us a satisfying one. He stakes out a nice leisurely pace, trotting slowly westward towards an inevitable shootout, meeting a batch of eccentric characters and dryly evocative detail along the way.

We meet a pale youth (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling alone through Colorado territory in the late 19th century, searching for his love (Caren Pistorius), a young woman who left their home country to start a new life in America. The young man runs into a wandering stranger (Michael Fassbender), a far more capable cowboy who luckily agrees to ride along and help him to his destination. They fall into a comfortable relationship, suspicious but with easy rapport. The boy explains, “My girl and her father fled from Scotland.” “Take a hint, kid,” is the older man’s terse reply. It’s a nice crisp quip, but dark undertones creep into their dynamic as we soon learn what the boy doesn’t. The girl and her father are wanted dead or alive, and the helpful stranger is a bounty hunter being led to his prey.

A sure-footed and confident film, narrative and character are pared down to bare essentials. We learn a little about these two men, but not much. We’re simply along for the ride, a short, melancholy little Western with clear blue skies and blindingly bright sun, moving towards certain tragic ending for someone. Indeed, when the violence comes it’s swift and scary, sorrowful with only the faintest glimmer of hope. (There’s even literal salt poured in the wound.) But the journey there is one of constant danger. There are robbers, rival bounty hunters, con men, and Natives. Death hangs heavy over the proceedings, if only for its constant presence in the minds of anyone heading their way. What’s west? “Dreams and toil,” one man says. Kids are orphaned. A campsite floods. A skeleton lies crushed underneath a fallen tree. A German writer (Andrew Robertt) laments Native Americans’ deaths. “One day…this will be a long time ago,” he says.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee develop a close relationship, seemingly forged out of nothing more than a need for human connection, two lonely travelers taking some comfort in knowing that at least they’re not as bad as others they meet along their slow journey. There’s a sniveling bounty hunter on their trail (played with reliably great villainy by Ben Mendelsohn), eager to pull up next to the campfire and share some absinthe and a cigar, but just as likely to hang back on the edge of the horizon. He’s sizing them up, ready to pounce once the target is in sight. The foreseeable conflict between our two leads once they reach their destination stretches out as distant suspense – disjunction between the men emphasized by split diopter effects – in favor of the toils and dangers both man and nature present along the way.

Maclean, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s steady camera, finds gorgeous natural sights – New Zealand standing in quite nicely for the American west – as our characters’ paths converge on the climactic endpoint. It’s a contemplative little picture, and yet happy to provide genre pleasures, galloping horses, gun-loading procedures, wanted signs, the welcome sight of a lone building in the center of a vast stretch of natural beauty, and the sudden terror as shots ring out. It’s all as comforting as it is foreboding, as striking as it is familiar. Maclean’s terse script contains lines like woodcarvings out of thick pulp, and draws conclusions ripe and bloody, predictable and sad. We may not get a lot of Westerns these days, but it’s always nice to see another good one.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

We Don't Need Another Hero: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

There are moments in Mad Max: Fury Road where I sat gaping at the screen in exhilaration and awe, convinced this film is the car chase masterpiece to which all of cinema has built. That's heat-of-the-moment hyperbole, but it sure is indicative of how enveloping and sustained this exhilarating action film is. I thought back to the jaw-dropping truck chase climax in writer-director George Miller’s first Mad Max sequel, 1982’s The Road Warrior, and how blown away I was as a hurtling pyrotechnic stunt display neared its twentieth minute. Fury Road pushes past its fortieth minute, then its ninetieth, racing towards two hours with no signs of taking its foot off the pedal. People careen between tanker trucks, zoom souped-up jalopies and armored muscle cars protruding jagged metal and long, pendulous spears as guns fire, knives jab, bombs explode into the desert, and vehicles crash and flip. Every rest is simply a suspenseful pause before the chased spy their pursuers roaring over the horizon.

Miller returns to the sand-swept post-apocalyptic outback he left behind in 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, summoning up every ounce of his prodigious imagination, filmmaking prowess, attention to fantastical detail, and moral heft to create the most soulful and exciting action film in ages. The Mad Max films’ worldbuilding works wonders by staying small and specific, with stakes tactile and personal. We follow the taciturn rover Max into unique and fascinating corners of the ruined world each time out. Here we discover yet another place where water and gas are currency, and where human life has been organized in convincingly cruel and cracked ways. Max (Tom Hardy, flawlessly taking over for Mel Gibson), suffering PTSD from his earlier exploits, finds himself captured by War Boys and held prisoner in their automotive death cult in a cavernous oasis they call The Citadel.

A persuasive and disturbing dystopian society fully thought-through, The Citadel is ruled by an evil warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who breathes with a tooth-studded oxygen mask and has his putrid body sealed in plastic armor. He controls the water, and therefore his subjects, men covered in tumors and scars willing to die for a drink and promise of an automotive Valhalla afterlife. The women are treated as property, good for breeding with the Immortan and providing milk. These enslaved young women (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) sneak off with a rare free female, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in her tanker. The women flee across the desert, Joe’s vehicular army close behind. One driver (Nicholas Hoult) straps Max to the front of his car, muzzled and dripping blood as he’s reluctantly pulled into this conflict.

Miller, writing with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, has concocted a story perfect for a feature-length chase, lean and expressive. It’s a tour de force of perpetual motion, briskly characterizing its participants through actions while organizing witty, complicated fast-paced visual spectacle. Always on the move, but never exhausting, the film varies its speed in natural, and suspenseful, ways. Filming real cars barreling across a real desert, Miller finds terrific weight in every movement, a sense that violence matters. This makes the most visceral of crashes and smashes, and every moment with people crawling around and between vehicles, feel impactful and dangerous. Cinematographer John Seale’s wonderfully textured images capture the brilliant stunt work (comparison to Buster Keaton’s The General seems apt), sweeping across vast spaces and squeezing into tight corners. Editor Jason Ballantine elegantly whips up suspense and finds poetry in motion amidst the growling engines, grisly gore, saturated colors, and CGI enhancements. As new combatants join the chase, the momentum keeps things hurtling along with nerve-wracking, teeth-rattling, white-knuckle thrills.

The visual and moral clarity of Fury Road is impressive. We know at every moment what dangers confront our characters, drawn in broad strokes and colored in with Miller’s creative specificity. Wild leather outfits, bright streaks of makeup and motor oil, and steam-punk prosthetics are the ensemble’s costumes. Within them are fiercely primal performances. Theron’s the best, tearing through the scenery as an avenging warrior, bold, bald, smart, wielding a burning glare and artificial limb with deadly serious intent. The villains are grotesque men, sickly dripping disease and rot in impressively gross makeup effects. Their fleeing victims are angelic innocents wrapped in flowing white cloths (though never mere damsels in distress). And then there’s Max, in his cool jacket and affect, perhaps the last noble man left on Earth. He’s principled and troubled, is reluctant to fight, always wanting to save his own skin, and yet unable to ignore the danger faced by those around him. The moral stakes of all this turmoil is agonizingly clear.

It’s this strong, simple core that makes the action of Mad Max: Fury Road so particularly intense. Not only does Miller stage spectacular crashes and explosions, communicating an invigorating sense of pain and drive, but he quickly makes it matter. I was drawn into the fascinating world he created, cared deeply about the characters in peril and what becomes tenderly moving about their relationships. The movie charges forward, asking an audience to lean in and catch up. How exciting to enter a fully drawn world with an immediately gripping scenario of emotional and thematic weight, and find absorbing chaos. This is popcorn filmmaking at the highest level, a master filmmaker proving relentless noise and fury can be artfully shaped, and carry a genuine, meaningful wallop. Miller considers his characters' choices as carefully as he choreographs their cars, in both cases as exhilarating for what they do as how they arrive there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sing It On Again: PITCH PERFECT 2

Pitch Perfect 2 has a winning sense of pleasant reunion. The sequel to the surprise hit a capella college comedy from a few years ago carries with it a delight to be back. Surely no one expected that sloppy but likable little comedy to do well enough to support a follow up, but here we are. It returns to the world of the Barton Bellas, an all-female a capella group made up of unlikely misfits last seen winning the national title. Picking up three years later, Becca (Anna Kendrick), Chloe (Brittany Snow), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), and the rest (Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Alexis Knapp, Chrissie Fit) are on the verge of graduating, but find their final year off to a bad start with an embarrassing performance in which one of their members accidentally moons the Obamas. This gets them kicked out of the world of a capella, setting up another underdog scenario to be overcome by winning the World Championship to get reinstated. Once again, the young women must learn to work together and create a great routine, all the while dealing with their individual eccentricities.

Luckily, screenwriter Kay Cannon isn’t content to repeat the structure of the first movie. In fact, she seems to realize generic let’s-put-on-a-show and campus comedy plotlines were holding the otherwise amiable predecessor back. She knows for an encore the audience just wants to hang out with likable performers doing their shtick in between good music. The result is a movie that’s looser, longer, sillier, with more music and funnier lines. It’s the rare comedy sequel that’s actually an across-the-board improvement instead of a safe repeat of a known formula. The need to win the big championship is a climactic goal, but everything leading up to it is simply excuses for pleasant banter, funny supporting roles, silly gags, cameos, and fun musical numbers, featuring everything from Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus to Sir Mix-a-Lot and Kris Kross.

Making her directorial debut, Elizabeth Banks (who also, with John Michael Higgins, returns as a color commentator) moves the proceedings with a good pace and fine eye for smooth pop filmmaking. It’s episodic, with plenty of digressions including romances (Skylar Astin and Adam DeVine make appearances) and professional concerns (Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a record producer). But it never drags as the bright, bouncy, colorful, and consistently amusing movie zips along on slick competence providing good-natured, high-spirited, undemanding entertainment. We see a series of misadventures, from clashes with the terrifyingly perfect German group Das Sound Machine to a new freshman recruit (Hailee Steinfeld) struggling to fit in, and an underground a capella battle held in a rich fan’s basement (featuring everyone from Reggie Watts to John Hodgman to a few Green Bay Packers).

It could be scattered, but there’s a nice emotional throughline involving female friendships and the group’s importance to its members that gets a heartwarming payoff in their final performance. Along the way, Banks and her cast find funny bits of business in every scene. Whether we’re with Snoop Dogg recording a Christmas album or camping in the woods on a team-building exercise, it’s enjoyable enough to be worth the detour. It’s only a matter of time before Wilson crashes in with a loopy one-liner, Kendrick gets a flustered retort, or one of the supporting players pipes in with a goofy barb. The movie plays to everyone’s strength in that way, before drawing all the voices together in beautiful harmony for ensemble numbers that really sing. They work well together, and as a result it’s fun to be around them no matter where the plot takes them. With a favorable hit-to-miss joke ratio, this is a big crowd-pleasing comedy that’s essentially nice and easy to like.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Road Runners: HOT PURSUIT

Hot Pursuit is a formulaic buddy comedy. In its amiable sense of humor and flat, bright, big-screen sitcom aesthetic, it could’ve been made exactly like this at any point in the last thirty years. But at least director Anne Fletcher gets the buddy part of the comedy exactly right. Her best quality behind the camera has always been getting good chemistry out of a pair of performers, be it a romantic (Step Up, The Proposal) or familial (The Guilt Trip) relationship. Here she pairs Reese Witherspoon (movie star) as a short blonde Southern cop and Sofía Vergara (TV star) as a tall brunette Columbian witness on a race across Texas pursued by bad guys. They’re a duo with clear, obvious differences, both as performers and as characters, and Fletcher enjoys seeing them spark as they’re run through some mild action comedy paces.

The setup is so familiar it’s dispensed rather briskly. Witherspoon’s cop is an uptight by-the-book workaholic assigned to help escort Vergara, the flamboyant wife of a drug cartel whistleblower, to the courthouse. Before that can happen, cartel assassins and crooked cops attack, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Off-screen miscommunications leave them considered fugitives, heightening the desperation and keeping the two wildly different people stuck together until they can clear their names and stop the people who want to kill them. Along the way, they learn to begrudgingly work together to get out of a series of hijinks, of course.

This is a thin and predictable story, complete with plot points – like the eventual fates of several baddies - trimmed away as if screenwriters David Feeney and John Quaintance knew we’d seen this kind of thing before and would understand what usually happens in movies like this. It’s a loose, episodically structured movie that constantly avoids momentum, big comic setpieces, or high suspense, banking on likable leads to carry the day. So there’s not much to it, and little you haven’t seen before in some way or another. At least there’s a moment of accidental commentary on recent events, when Vergara mentions fear of bad cops and Witherspoon reassures her, saying, “I’m not like the other cops. You can trust me!”

And there’s where the movie succeeds, not in accidental topicality, and certainly not in novelty, but because Witherspoon and Vergara are a charming pair. Their relationship is just convincing enough to sustain a trim 87-minutes, credit bloopers included. Of course it’s broadly sketched, with characters reduced to only what makes them obviously different. They steer into their personas, exaggerating their accents with sparkles in their eyes. Camera angles emphasize their height differences, Vergara towering over Witherspoon in most scenes, the former wearing dresses accentuating her curves, the latter decked out in boyish apparel more often than not. They have good rapport, and appear to having a good time bouncing off the other.

The jokes could be funnier. The plot could be tighter. But the performers flying through every scene hold it together. The appeal rests solely on how much entertainment can be wrung out of a scene where the pair tries to change clothes in the middle of a gas station shop, distract a redneck (Jim Gaffigan) into not shooting them for trespassing, commandeer a bus of elderly tourists, wear a dead deer as an impromptu disguise, or accidentally kidnap a felon on house arrest (Robert Kazinsky) and force him to help. Even something as simple as a running joke about every news report increasing Vergara’s age and lowering Witherspoon’s height brings about reliably funny exasperation. The movie’s loose, agreeable, and so, so slight, the sort of empty confection that will play even better on TBS some lazy Sunday. Vergara and Witherspoon could be the center of a great comedy. Maybe they will be someday. For now, they're just in this one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Walking (Almost) Dead: MAGGIE

Disease has long been one of the many metaphors at the zombie movie’s disposal. They come freighted with plague imagery, and with concepts of sickness, infection, and contagion as core elements of plot progression. There’s often a scene in a zombie movie in which a healthy character is bitten, giving the other characters and the audience some queasy suspense as we wonder whether someone will kill their infected friend before full zombification takes effect. That’s the core sick pit of dread in Maggie, a new zombie feature that’s the directorial debut of graphic designer Henry Hobson. Working from a screenplay by John Scott 3, Hobson makes a disease-of-the-week picture out of horror materials, treating a zombie plague as a Black Death sweeping the country. The healthy hole up in their houses, praying the curse doesn’t visit their doors, forcing them to watch their loved ones turn zombie before their eyes.

The focus is on a farmer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his wife (Joely Richardson) whose teenaged daughter (Abigail Breslin) is in the hospital. She’s been diagnosed as infected with the zombie bug and given two weeks before her skin starts to decay and her cannibalistic appetite kicks in. What follows is not what one would expect from hearing Schwarzenegger is starring in a film about zombies. There’s no muscle-bound fight for a cure here. Instead, the girl is released home, where her family must watch her slowly succumb to her fate, and take her to be put down once she’s a monster. They know there will soon come a day when their daughter would mindlessly eat them. But until that day, they will enjoy the time they have left with her.

There’s an inevitability to this film’s progression, a slow, somber affair. It’s a gloomy movie, glum with distended dread as it stretches one familiar zombie moment to just under 90 minutes. The film is shot in dreary light, Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography always catching the sun in the process of rising or falling, with little direct illumination, especially in dusty farmhouse interiors. A deathly pall hangs over the proceedings, the atmosphere heavy with unspoken sadness, as if the family were starting to mourn even while trying to cling to their daughter’s presence. It’s a deathbed vigil with the added suspense of knowing the disease won’t just take their loved one. It’ll make her dangerous for everyone around.

Throughout are other zombie encounters haunting and startling, like one involving a little girl with hollow eyes and a filthy white dress slowly emerging from the forest, deeply unsettling and unspeakably sad. But the center of attention remains the family unit. Schwarzenegger, pushing 70, has aged into less of an action hero, but more of an actor. Always a formidable screen presence, he’s now able to rest his weathered face in a frown of pathos, here playing a character beaten down by an apocalyptic scenario that’s left crops burning and cars crumpled, and now threatens to take his daughter, too. Breslin plays her with a flat teenage affect made fragile by a death sentence, trying desperately to stay human, but also not getting her hopes up. Receiving a zombie diagnosis can’t be easy, but it’s a lot harder in Maggie’s world, where the transformation is in agonizing slow motion.

I wish this movie had more complications. It’s all so drearily straightforward, a clear line from point A to point B without any interesting detours along the way. Its commitment to one stifling mood, presented without variation in increasingly agonizingly long minutes, is a bit overdone. But Hobson’s command of tone and confidence in allowing his actors to carry potentially laughable material with total sincerity is admirable. He takes one of the key thrills of both zombie movies and Schwarzenegger actioners – the kills – and turns it into the most dreadfully sorrowful outcome.


It’s frustrating to sit down for a documentary about an artist and find a product only interested in repeating the conventional wisdom. We’ve had a run of these about bands and musicians lately. No matter the level of access, authorized or unauthorized status, or the good intentions of the filmmakers, it’s total boredom to find a film ostensibly about a musician’s life content to repeat the highlights like some Behind the Music episode masquerading as cinema. I don’t want to see one more stuffy procession of talking heads and overfamiliar archival footage reinforcing the brand’s public persona, all the while assuring fans “this music meant something, man,” without digging into what actually made the work under consideration special.

Luckily, documentarian Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck isn't that. It decides to strip out grand pronouncements and even some basic context to get a two-hour psychological portrait of the man in question. If you show up to the movie without even a vague understanding of Cobain’s career and public image – fronting seminal rock band Nirvana, hitting it big with the 1991 album Nevermind, marrying fellow grunge icon Courtney Love, and dying at age 27 – you could be a little lost in the movie’s largely present-tense collage of sound and image. Morgen had access to home movies, concert footage, interviews, cassette tapes of Cobain’s early sound experiments, press clippings, and notebooks full of doodles and lyrics. Out of this material he paints a picture of the inside of Cobain’s head, energetic and troubled.

In doing so, he keeps the focus on the man behind the icon. Candid interviews step outside the interiority with Cobain’s mother, father, stepmother, friends, exes, and Love, who reveal intimate details of an energetic, curious, artistic troublemaker. Casual footage of a kid growing up in the 70s mix with recounted childhood memories of hyperactive disorders that gave way to moody teen years. In a moving flourish, Morgen provides animated recreations of Cobain’s disaffected, depressed, frustrated rebellious teen years, narrated beyond the grave by an archival interview and scored with a plaintive instrumental strings-heavy “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By the time Nirvana emerges fully formed, the kid, now in his twenties, has managed to channel his punk rage into punk rock, grungy guitars smashing into the mix of score and oldies on the soundtrack, hammering home the revelation the band was to culture at the time.

There’s little to no room for analysis of the band’s sound, explanation of contracts and practice sessions, studio time, music video sets, or Billboard charts. Those images fly by in a swirl, background noise to the story of a young man whose sudden success gets him better drugs, and bigger insecurities. Montage of Heck rattles impressionistically along a sadly familiar rise-and-fall pattern that brings a talented individual great success and greater access to his fatal flaws. All the while, we can hear how effectively he channeled inner pain into catchy rock. Played loud, the movie is melancholy exuberance, the speakers booming with now-classic high-energy songs – like “Come as You Are” and “All Apologies” – while we see an increasingly gaunt Cobain slump away into addiction. The footage is at times uncomfortably intimate, unsparing in disquieting candor. We see rollicking concerts, but also a man slipping into heroin while his baby burbles nearby.

Morgen’s greatest accomplishment is recognizing comprehensive, extensively reported biography is the realm of books. To make nonfiction film about public figures is not to dryly bombard with only facts, but to generate an experience that captures something of their essence. In Montage of Heck, the raw material of Cobain’s creative output is mashed up into a dizzying – tiresome, at times – two hour firehose of sound and image. (Morgen’s skilled at evoking immediacy through old footage, like in other great docs, the visceral Chicago 10 and hypnotic June 17th, 1994.) The film is fast, freewheeling, prone to flights of visual fancy, a sustained exposure to an approximation of one man’s mind. One can see what made him an artist, see what hurt him, and see his tortured propensity for damaging behavior. It is not the ultimate, definitive word on his life. But it is an involving, immediate, evocative exercise in mental archeology, digging up some empathetic, heartbreaking, and troubling conclusions about what it must’ve been like to be Kurt Cobain.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Avengers: Age of Ultron is noisy, colorful, brightly lit, mostly enjoyable comic book nonsense. It is, in other words, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that mega-franchise of interlocking superhero series currently dominating a section of big budget filmmaking. This is only the second outing to bring together the now familiar team of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to battle a foe no single hero could take on alone. But because producer Kevin Fiege and MCU screenwriters have allowed a great deal of cross-pollination in the interim, it feels like the Avengers have never left. In fact, the latest picture begins with the team in the middle of a mission, hitting the ground running.

Shorn of the need to endlessly introduce itself, this sequel launches right into its action, letting the group snatch a MacGuffin from the claws of evil HYDRA before the opening title card even appears. We know these characters, how they relate to one another, what their individual problems are, and how their personalities clash. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the plot carry them away. And, oh, does writer-director Joss Whedon supply the plot. There is a constant churn of incident and spectacle, new introductions, returning side characters, exposition, cameos, and foreshadowing. The Avengers banter, then cross in and out of the main action with their own throughlines, though some naturally get a little buried in the mix. (Sorry, Thor.) It’s dense with nerdy detail, yet aerodynamically simple in plot, ceaselessly hurtling forward.

Their big concern this time around is an evil robot named Ultron (voiced with funny pomposity by James Spader). He was created by Iron Man to protect the world and prevent further damage from cosmic nastiness like we saw in the first Avengers. But let this be a lesson: don’t expose your experimental artificial intelligence to an Asgardian mind-control staff. That’s what turns the robot evil, charging up his mind so much he thinks the only way to save the world is to rid it of those pesky people messing it up. I mean, he has a point, but that solution wasn’t exactly what Iron Man had in mind. At least it’s not another interchangeable grump looking for a glowing crystal or giant laser, which describes every villain in the last half-dozen of these things. Whedon mixes up the formula by finding the heroes the cause of and solution to their outsized problems, struggling to save the world from themselves. The action involves saving civilians from the path of destruction instead of merely letting collateral damage interminably rain down, a welcome change.

To stop Ultron, and his army of other robots he’s making in a commandeered factory, the Avengers trot across the globe, finding large-scale action set-pieces at every turn, each one better then the last. The filmmakers provide token downtime for feelings and expressions thereof – rivalries, romances, and the like – but wastes little time picking up velocity again. There’s a raid on a HYDRA base, a rampage through an African metropolis, a multi-vehicle chase through downtown Seoul, and a fictional Eastern European city imperiled in a clever high-flying climax. Whedon fills the screen with elaborate, CGI-heavy chaos. Laser beams zigzag across the frame as debris falls, sparks fly, robots swarm, vehicles soar, background objects go boom, and superheroes flex their powers. It’s recognizable characters doing their familiar Whedon quipping shtick while boisterously effective – if occasionally incomprehensible – excitement erupts around them. The funniest line comes late in the climax when the least superpowered among them takes stock of his contribution, says, “This doesn’t make sense,” then heads out to do his part anyway.

There’s lots of smash-bang popcorn entertainment to be had here, the screen bursting with dazzling movement, the sound mix booming to match. It’s hard to keep up. There’s also not room for the eccentric character work that’s usually my lifeline in these sorts of things. We meet new characters (a speedy Aaron Taylor-Johnson and witchy Elizabeth Olsen, and Linda Cardellini in a sadly under-powered stock role of supportive wife). We glimpse familiar faces from other MCU productions (Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders). But no one gets much of a chance to make an impact. There's not a lot of acting beyond personality and posturing. We’re too busy bustling to the next conflict, the next explosion, the next dropped thread or portentous reference as promissory note for More Excitement in Future Installments.

The Avengers franchise has fully disappeared into itself. It is the beginning and ending of its entire worldview, able only to refer back to itself or look ahead for future story. It’s a hermetically sealed alternate universe in which no glimmer of the outside world – politics, culture, emotion – is allowed. It’s a frictionless experience, big excitement without a need to think about it beyond the literal visual stimulation and basic story beats. Whedon brings a smidgen of personality, the actors project charm, and the gears of industrial strength effects work their light and magic. The ultimate Hollywood blockbuster as empty calories, Age of Ultron is an exciting experience of sugar and fat, but completely devoid of anything more sustaining.