Friday, August 28, 2015

The World's End, Again: Z FOR ZACHARIAH

Here we are again after the end of the world. Some unknown calamity has befallen the earth an unknown time before our story begins. There are few survivors. The world they left behind is contaminated, perhaps irreparably. All that remains is a haunted landscape of abandoned places. We’ve been here before, the post-apocalyptic narrative being one of our most common lately. Maybe we’re preparing ourselves for the worst. Maybe we think we’re already living in the early stages of our own apocalypse and need doomsday prepping. Or maybe we’re captives of a pessimism that’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See Tomorrowland for the corrective there, I suppose.) Director Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah takes this familiar premise into tiny intimate spaces, finding the subgenre simply a convenient excuse to strip away society and all but a few characters, the better to focus on the slightest and narrowest of interpersonal conflicts.

Zobel’s films are about marginalized characters. Think of his low-level con men in Great World of Sound and fast food workers in Compliance. But you don’t get much more marginal than Margot Robbie in Zachariah who, as the movie begins, may as well be the last person on earth, for all she knows. We see her head into town in a HAZMAT suit, scavenge some essentials, then trudge back to her isolated farmhouse where, miraculously, the radiation levels remain at hospitable levels. This has been her life for who knows how long. She credits her survival on her faith in God, praying and playing the organ in a chapel built on her property. We learn she had a family who left to find other survivors and never returned. It’s just her, a dog, a rifle, and God. Zobel treats her daily existence with a deliberate pace and a bright digital glaze.

Soon enough, another person enters her solitary life. He (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in almost every way her exact opposite. She’s a young white southern Christian farm girl. He’s a middle-aged black northern big city scientist. He left his relative safety on a quest of curiosity, to find the state of the world since the crisis that decimated it. His trip through contaminated spaces has left him half-dead. They’re surprised to see each other, and form a tentative alliance. She lets him stay on her property, nurses him back to health, and accepts his help with survivalist tasks. Together they forage, farm, and plan ways to improve their lives. They maybe even fall in love a little bit, but it’s also clear they’re not sure how much the affection they feel is more a factor of the slow ebbing of overwhelming loneliness.

This is all well and good, an intimate if schematic character study nestled in picturesque uninhabited lush green natural spaces. Taking inspiration from Robert C. O’Brien’s cult classic sci-fi novel of the same name, the story plays out by running softly along the natural fault lines in the characters’ relationships, letting interactions of tabula rasa impressions drift backwards. Into this dynamic arrives a third character, a man (Chris Pine) who stumbles onto the farm desperate for water and shelter. He, too, has gone looking for survivors. He, too, is accepted into their isolated commune. But now that there are three, petty jealousies encroach. What was a restrained two-hander becomes a spare and wan love triangle, so softly and delicately played it may as well be a slight chill on the breeze. It makes for a much less interesting second half, as overfamiliar as it is uninvolving.

Zobel’s commitment to a slow and steady pace keeps the plot’s thematic interests slowly boiling, despite the obvious directions it’s headed. It’s admirably restrained, feeling no need to adhere to what an audience might expect from post-apocalyptic stories. The problem is just that it’s ultimately all so slight and inert. A finely acted drama, it lacks narrative tension or character insight deeper than first glance assumptions, playing out like a didactic Twilight Zone knockoff with the broad strokes in which characterization is painted never becoming a satisfying larger picture. It’s the sort of film that’s just barely compelling enough in the moment, setting up its variables with reasonable control, but concludes with the distinct feeling of neglecting to add up. Where it ends is hardly worth the trouble getting there. We’ve not only been here before, but it’s been far more satisfying, too.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jokes Without Laughs: SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY

She’s Funny That Way is funny in that way where you can see where all the jokes are supposed to be, but can’t quite figure out where to laugh. It’s an old-school screwball attempt, lousy with references to Lubitsch, Astaire and Rodgers, and Charles Boyer, without ever living up to its great inspirations. It turns itself in knots introducing a web of interconnected New York neurotics. We meet an aspiring actress working as a call girl (Imogen Poots) who is cast by her former john playwright (Owen Wilson) in a production he’s mounting starring his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her ex-flame (Rhys Ifans) with the boyfriend (Will Forte) of the call girl’s psychiatrist (Jennifer Aniston). So far so good, a near perfect farcical setup that proceeds to fizzle out for the remaining 90 minutes.

Its director and co-writer is Peter Bogdanovich, a critic and historian who has made several great movies. His debut decade or so of work includes a disturbing mass shooting horror picture (Targets), a charming caper (Paper Moon), a tender small town drama (The Last Picture Show), a documentary (Directed by John Ford), a screwball comedy (What’s Up, Doc?), and a farce (They All Laughed). Not a bad track record, but he’s spent the last thirty-plus years infrequently making films that simply don’t live up to his early promise. Presently he’s slightly more interesting as a public figure, where he can occasionally be found blogging, lecturing, acting, or playing himself in one of the otherwise terrific The Good Wife’s worst scenes. His latest film is his first theatrical feature since 2001. I suppose he thought this would make for a fun little movie.

And it does at times live up to its potential. With co-writer Louise Stratten he’s concocted vaguely pleasant and moderately charming scenarios in which misunderstandings, deliberate misdirection, and relationships falling together or apart are enacted through juggled phone calls and slamming hotel room doors. There’s even a bubbling subplot involving detectives that recalls the best loopy moments of his They All Laughed. And what a cast assembled to pull it off! You don’t get the aforementioned grouping of usually reliable charmers assembled without generating a few smiles, at the very least. They’re terrific at what they do, holding the screen, digging out avenues for amusement while zipping towards emotional truths of their characters’ conflicts. It’s just a shame that the writing and filmmaking surrounding them is so lifeless, casual, and musty.

No scene is entirely successful. They are strings of mismanaged performances fumbling through fuzzy characterizations in a stumbling pile-up of frazzled lines. No one is miscast, exactly, but they can’t quite manage to make their thin types really pop in a way to be successful broad farce, or deep enough for real drama. This makes the film ultimately too shrill and too airless. Bogdanovich has the right idea, and a lot of the right notes, to make his nostalgia for Lubitsch movies into pleasant throwback comedy, but the rhythm and tempo is all off. Poots plays charming accent whack-a-mole, Wilson seems to have floated in from his Woody Allen collaboration, and the rest wrestle admirably and amiably with grating miscommunications. When farce goes bad, it goes very bad, indeed. At a certain point, I stopped struggling to have a good time and simple sat back and waited it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


If you hear there’s a new tiny character drama about a woman who, mourning the death of her father and having left her boyfriend, rents a vacation home with her best friend, you’re probably already imagining a treacly little indie going through the same quirky life-affirming motions. Luckily Queen of Earth, the movie in question, does no such thing. It imagines an entire psychological world for its characters, and commits to following their complicated emotional drivers to intense and uncompromising places. We open on Elisabeth Moss’s face, makeup streaked after what must’ve been a tremendous cry. She’s breaking up with her partner, who remains off screen as we’re pinned mere inches from her face, taking in every jagged breath and spit of anger. “Don’t look at me,” she snaps. And yet we can’t look away.

This is an Alex Ross Perry movie, a designation we can now, after four films, start to identify as marking a project that’ll start with recognizable territory and take us somewhere unexpected. He’s a terrific writer-director who seems to have made it his mission to take on projects which are in broad strokes overfamiliar types, and then coloring them in with a whole interesting palate all his own. His 2011 sophomore effort The Color Wheel was on the surface a brother/sister road trip movie shot through with mumblecore plotting and fumbling banter, but it was photographed in gorgeously textured black and white and built to a tremendous scene that caught its characters in close sustained crescendo of messy feelings. Then there’s his previous feature, Listen Up Philip, which was a prickly man-child relationship comedy that allowed its characters unusual room to be themselves, following various members of the ensemble down wandering paths of lovely character moments rich and tender.

What sets Perry apart is the thought and intentionality behind his creative choices. He’s not simply showing off his chops – although he is – or making movies that’ll get him studio paychecks – though he will. He’s telling cinematic stories, taking the raw material of any indie drama and making of it self-consciously literary dialogue and overwhelming visual precision. So when the opening title card of Queen of Earth stomps in with fancy red cursive popping against the stark grey sadness of the opening image, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a confident filmmaker. We follow Moss into a lake house chamber drama where her friend (Inherent Vice's Katherine Waterson) finds herself moving cautiously, walking on eggshells, as her friend grieves over her intersectional heartbreaks. Perry uses slow dissolves, sharp cuts, and icy silences to simmer with suspense. With glacial horror pacing and a needling thriller score, it’s less Your Sister’s Sister, more an American Persona done up with hints of Repulsion.

With editor Robert Greene’s methodically precise cutting, the mood of the film is intoxicatingly deliberate and unblinkingly disorienting. It will cut back to the previous year, where we see a much happier Moss in the same rental house. Watterson is there as well, a little grumpy because her friend’s boyfriend (Kentucky Audley) is along for the vacation. Serving as an ironic counterpoint to the sad present, where the presence of what Moss perceives as an interloping neighbor (Patrick Fugit) seemingly reminds her of what she’s lost, these glimpses of happier times cut into long pushes in on intense emoting. It is uncut psychological pain artfully rendered, where even good memories are jabs in the side. Social interactions become a nightmare, others looming over. Precise blocking, smooth surfaces, and dramatic lighting highlight the air of tension even in mundane moments. Acutely misophonic sound design heightens chewing, swallowing, choking.

A tricky two-hander, the film captures the stultifying balancing act of trying to support someone in their time of emotional distress, a period of psychic suffering that’s difficult to be around, and yet hard to avoid for those who care about their loved one. As a portrait of depression, it’s the most soul-draining, nerve-jangling one since Von Trier’s Melancholia. But unlike that film, which was so drunk on melancholy it left me sick to my stomach – a compliment, by the way – Queen of Earth maintains an icier tone, a clinically sympathetic eye on Moss’s elusive, slippery performance. She’s called upon to play a double-edged emotional high-wire act. In flashbacks, she’s sunny. In the present, she’s on the bleeding edge of stability. Waterson, meanwhile, has an even slipperier role, filtering layers of grumpiness and wariness through an exterior that’s trying not to compound her friend’s problems. It’s rare to find a film so concerned with and attuned to friends’ interdependent emotional support systems. In doing so, there's warmth, even some laughs, underneath fraught feelings.

Shot on film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film’s cold touch and sharp blocking keep the characters pinned in together, caught in adjacent headspace even when not physically together. They can hear muffled sounds through walls. They can take phone calls in the yard, leaking one-sided conversations into the house, though they can maintain mystery with a brisk “Don’t ask.” One striking shot captures both floors of the house in the same frame, perched on the stairs in such a way that we can really feel the disjunction between the figure leaning against a kitchen counter downstairs and the one upstairs slowly dragging herself out of bed. Perry shows equal interest in the character’s mental states as he does the filmmaking techniques he so adeptly manipulates. This is a difficult and finely sustained work of psychological observation, diving into miserable depths of pity, ego, and insecurity with a shifty but unblinking thriller’s eye for dread.

Monday, August 24, 2015

6 Things to Hate About HITMAN: AGENT 47

It would be a stretch to say Hitman: Agent 47 is everything wrong with Hollywood filmmaking these days. But it does certainly check off more than its fair share of the boxes on the list. The soulless result is the sort of deeply and completely uninvolving movie that barely seems to exist beyond the corporate and commercial whims that spat it up. It seems only right to enumerate my complaints in list form, if only to grasp for listicle clicks as shamelessly as the filmmakers tried to cash in on a dormant dud idea.

1. It’s a mercenary remake of 2007’s based-on-a-video-game flop Hitman, made presumably so 20th Century Fox can say the rights haven’t lapsed. The little-loved original was a grim gory shoot-‘em-up about which I remember only distaste. This new version connects to the original in merely the most general ways despite adapting the same property. You’d think we’d have one good video game movie by now, but every one (with the exception of Need for Speed, the Tomb Raiders, and the Resident Evils, which aren’t great, but have their charms) plays like a garbage attempt to get money out of a familiar property’s name.

2. It’s an effort in franchise building despite murky mythology, scattered backstory, and nonsense lore. A tedious voice over during the opening credits spells out pro forma junk about supposedly cancelled secret government super-agent programs and evil corporate overlords, but the following film remains so vague about the specifics it’s like screenwriters Skip Woods (A Good Day to Die Hard) and Michael Finch (The November Man) knew we’d seen this sort of thing before and could roll with it. So what if it’s impossible to tell who wants what or why? We’re just supposed to accept that some people with guns need to shoot at other people with guns. Got it.

3. It has a faux-expensive-looking CGI sheen over painfully anonymous glass and steel blues and whites, the better to render, I suppose. We go from Berlin to Singapore and in the process find similar warehouses and foyers, long grey hallways and vast cavernous spaces in which to careen digital danger and phony explosions. There’s never any sense for why we’re going to any particular building, just that we’re going there to blow it up or repulsively splatter its occupants against the walls.

4. It features near constant deadening action. Rounds of ammunition are expended casually and endlessly, turning every opportunity for excitement into a gross and weirdly passive shooting gallery. We often see characters turning in slow motion from high angles, spinning and firing two weapons at once with all the precision of a button-masher on easy mode. This never feels dangerous. Even car stunts and a helicopter rototilling the side of a skyscraper feel antiseptic. Watch poor Zachary Quinto scowl his way through the role of an indestructible henchman, bouncing up for more glowering after every blow, for a personification of futility.

5. It casts a co-lead as a Strong Female (Hannah Ware) who is important to the plot’s machinations, and yet is only there to be a pawn or a prop for male characters who remove her agency whenever convenient for their plans. She’s a MacGuffin. The story concerns her efforts to locate her long-lost father (Ciarán Hinds) while being alternately pursued and assisted by two guys. For all the fighting she gets to do, she’s also constantly imperiled, and has a scene in a bikini that makes no sense either practically – where did she get it? – or plot wise – why go swimming when the bad guy is still in close pursuit?

6. It’s a movie that takes its protagonist, the eponymous Agent 47 (Rupert Friend, a long way from Starred Up), and makes him the literal embodiment of bland white male default blahs. He strides through the scenery without any apparent motivation or characterization, recognizable only by his simple constant style: a gleaming bald head with a barcode tattoo, a nondescript black suit, and a blood red tie. What’s he up to?  By the time it’s clear, it’s too late to care. All we know is that he’s good at shooting people while looking and moving like he’s in a perfume commercial.

There’s as much reason to see Hitman: Agent 47 as there was to make it. Less, actually, because although the studio clearly thought they could get people to pay good money to see it, there’s no such profit motive for you. I can’t say I blame anyone involved, from first-time director Aleksander Bach, who must’ve thought a relatively big studio picture would make a cushy debut, to the craftspeople who were presumably paid good money to design this contraption. And hopefully the actors had some good catered lunches. But there's no need for anyone to actually see this empty fun-free zone. Prospective audience members should stay home and eat a sandwich instead. At least that’d have some flavor and purpose.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ride Along: COP CAR

A sharp calling card, writer-director Jon Watts’s Cop Car is an indie genre piece that’s short, simple, and builds to surprisingly intense suspense. It’s a darkly logical thriller set on the dusty outskirts of a small town out west, where we find two boys wandering away from home and into a whole lot of trouble. Watts, with co-writer Christopher D. Ford, makes a fine amalgamation of John Dahl’s neo-noir thrillers (like Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, and Joy Ride) and loping Grimm fairy tale logic. Two kids head off the beaten path where they find something they shouldn’t, an emblem of grown-up power that’ll cause them more trouble than it’s worth. They don’t know any better. They’re just kids, giddy with make-believe and magical thinking, fascinated by things they only know about from TV. When they find a cop car abandoned in the woods, of course they’re ready to explore. When they see keys in the ignition, and can’t see a cop in sight, they transgress, punishment inevitably following.

So we have two little pigs – “We’ll just tell ‘em we’re cops!” one boy says, ready to take their pretend up a notch to impersonation, unaware of how unlikely it is any adult would ever think 10-year-olds are police – attracting the attention of one very bad wolf. Danger and punishment takes the wolfish form of a crooked cop desperate to get his car back. You see, he left his car to take care of some shady business in the woods. When he emerges to find the theft, he’s livid, panicked, snapping into action. He simply must get the vehicle back before his colleagues realize what he’s been up to. The gleaming guns he holsters certainly don’t make the boys’ fates look safe. The cop is played by Kevin Bacon, in a performance of finely dried ham, all lean determination and eccentric intensity, like an inarticulate Coen brothers’ specter sprung from a madhouse.

The kids are equally unreal, or rather movie real. The young actors (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) are an awkwardly perfect blend of childlike imagination and self-aware artifice, boys being boys being boys, as realistically frustrating as that sounds. They’re playfully vulgar, trading swear words back and forth in the opening scene like the language is a totem of adulthood to which they’re staking a claim. When they drive off in the cop car, they’re adding an element of palpable danger to their harmless run-away-from-home plans. It turns a stereotypical benign act of pre-teen rebellion into something very real, even before Bacon’s sweaty and grim visage enters the pursuit. I watched with a pit in my stomach as the kids explored the guns in the vehicle, or accidentally swerved across the centerline much to the concern of an approaching car. But the man chasing them seems just as deadly. This can’t end well.

By the time character actor Shea Whigham shows up as a desperate bloodied figure caught in the middle of the missing car conflict, the movie turns from a wandering boy’s adventure – like a filthier live action Disney – into a thin and taught thriller. It’s a chunk of beef jerky of a picture, dry and tough, unsatisfying compared to a richer meal, but containing a peculiar and not entirely unwelcome brisk salty snap. To belabor a metaphor that’s already straining, I’ll add that Watts and his cinematographers (Netflix’s Daredevil’s Matthew J. Lloyd and the “Turn Down for What” video’s Larkin Seiple) dress up humble aims in a slick package. A lovely visual sense of space culminates in a spectacularly photographed use of light in its final sequence, the lights of town appearing as a sudden beacon in the dark of night, as the final ramifications of climactic violence settles. This film is simple and straightforward, compelling and compact.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Stoned Identity: AMERICAN ULTRA

What if Jason Bourne was a small-town stoner? That’s the only question (and sole joke) screenwriter Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh bring to American Ultra, a secret-agent-who-doesn’t-know-it action comedy that sits squarely in the disjunction between those two elements. The protagonist is a stringy-haired convenience store clerk (Jesse Eisenberg) who spends his days smoking pot and loving his patient girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him, he’s been trained and brainwashed by a secret government program that is now preparing to shut down and must eliminate him to contain loose ends. When heavily armed baddies arrive at the store, he snaps into action, handily dispatching them with alarming speed and dexterity. But he’s still just a panic-attack-prone pothead in West Virginia, entirely unprepared to deal with these suddenly resurging hidden powers as the dangerous situation around him escalates. It’s only a little exciting, and largely unfunny.

The division between a befuddled stoner struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm in the face of ridiculous events and a coolly capable man of action is the source of the movie’s appeal and frustration. On the one hand, Eisenberg is such a compelling screen presence he easily takes the role and bends it towards his stammering, self-effacing, slightly overwhelmed, frazzled comfort zone. On the other, the spy material is handled by yanking between notably violent action and office scenes back at Langley between agents (Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman) playing like flat sitcoms with all the jokes clipped out. It’s jarring to sit in a scene where a hyperventilating Eisenberg pours his heart out to Stewart, bringing real emotional intensity, then hop to Grace flailing in search of punchlines that will never arrive.

Listless from beginning to end, the movie never really comes to life or forms a satisfying whole. Oh, sure, there are moderately clever action beats involving improvised weapons formed on the fly from everyday objects. There’s touching chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (reuniting after their lovely Adventureland coupling) who take their relationship through some unexpected twists. There are funny little moments given over to Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, and Lavell Crawford as eccentric shady characters, while Stuart Greer turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of what starts as a stereotypical gruff sheriff. But all that only becomes grist for an unrelenting mill of overly self-aware plot and violence, churning through characters and incidents with bloody single-mindedness. The town is increasingly besieged, twisty conspiracies are unraveled, and the movie becomes more of a slave to its clunky genre elements.

The closer we stick with our two lead character’s subjective experience, the better. That’s where the real tension – both suspense and comedy – arrives. Nourizadeh’s debut film, the partially enjoyable teen party found footage comedy Project X, featured a reasonably involving escalation. Landis’s previous script, the found footage superpowers horror movie Chronicle, enjoyed the nervous tension of ordinary people discovering frightening capabilities within themselves. Together they seem to posses the power to make a good version of the American Ultra concept, but the results are slack. Tension flatlines despite increasingly noisier setpieces. Characters don’t deepen beyond broad bland traits. A game cast is stranded in an ugly movie, poorly blocked, sloppily controlled, with smeary cheap-looking digital photography. There’s personality here, but so boringly developed and haphazardly deployed it very quickly lost my patience. 

Friday, August 14, 2015


Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a sparkling big-screen adaptation of the 1960s’ spy show, is a super dry espionage spectacle. Its director is at his best when he’s playing with wide-frame action (shown off wonderfully in his Robert Downey Jr-starring Sherlock Holmes adaptations), intricately convoluted plotting (in Holmes and his scrappy British gangster pictures), and long winding scenes of circular dialogue that simply enjoys the pleasures of hearing pretty people speak barbed banter. It all comes together to make an U.N.C.L.E. oozing charisma out of each impeccably designed, handsomely photographed shot. It’s slight and knows it, content simply to groove on a 60’s spy vibe, like Le Carré lite, or Diet Fleming. Other than some computer-assisted camera swopping and gliding, it’d be pretty much the same thing if it were the long-lost hippest spy movie of 1963. (Well, second best. It’s no From Russia With Love.)

Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have cooked up a capering jaunt through Cold War tensions, used for little more than their vintage analog throwback appeal. They find a swaggering American spy, an ex-thief turned master of misdirection named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), clashing with a Russian spy, a powerful Soviet bruiser named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). The two antagonistic national forces are forced to work together when British intelligence (personified by Jared Harris, then Hugh Grant) uncovers word that a horrible nuclear MacGuffin is in the hands of a dastardly aristocratic European couple (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani). The device will give whoever controls it power over the entire globe. That’s bad enough to get the Americans and Russians on the same page.

The following espionage and heist tomfoolery allows plenty of room for Cavill and Hammer to create a prickly competition. They never work together, exactly. It’s more like parallel missions reluctantly leaning on the other when things get diciest. Between them is a beautiful German woman (Alicia Vikander), a pawn smuggled out from behind the Berlin Wall in order to get the agents closer to her ex-Nazi uncle (Sylvester Groth), a key to finding the whatchamacallit and saving the world. She’s more charming than both men put together, and more than eager to stand up for herself and provide advice as to how the mission could be better executed. What starts as a standard damsel role wrests control over the proceedings before falling back into victimhood for the slam-bang action-based ending. Ritchie finds satisfyingly peculiar ways to show off the film’s adventure, often in the background, like my favorite moment, a boat chase that happens almost entirely off screen while a character takes a breather, dryly regarding the chaos from the vantage point of his impromptu picnic.

Bursting with star charisma, the lead trio of capable undercover agents flirtatiously needles each other about malfunctioning gadgets, critiques wardrobe choices, and withholds key information from one another. In true spy movie fashion, they all have their secret motives. But with so much buried intent in the characters’ behaviors, the film’s pleasures are nonetheless all surface. Joanna Johnston’s costumes are perfectly tailored. Daniel Pemberton's score is swinging sixties' frothiness. John Mathieson’s cinematography has an unnatural CGI flow, but a vintage crispness to its symmetries, eventually bursting forth with zippy split-screens instead of crosscutting when the action reaches its zenith. It’s all about showcasing handsome people in beautiful clothing, luxuriating in trading innuendoes and teasing insults, and enacting clockwork double-crosses with zigzagging spycraft. It’s fizzy and fine, an undemanding aesthetic delight.


It never fails to amaze me how all musicians’ biopics eventually turn into the same movie. Once they get past the specifics of where and when their particular stars burst into success, and the exciting early flashes of creativity and fame, it’s always contract disputes, fights over attribution and compensation, battles with drugs and/or disease, struggles with jealousies and egos, and finally a reckoning with past mistakes that somehow cements the subjects’ place in pop culture history. It’s one of the movies' most predictable formulas, a cross-promotional opportunity in the form of music business mythologizing. That a wide swath of industry legends, varied in time, place, genre, and character, can be reduced and inflated to weirdly similar tropes is more than a bit tiresome. And yet, the form holds steady and even occasionally jolts to life because 1.) when it works it works, and 2.) it’s so often true.

Take Straight Outta Compton for example, an up-tempo and glossy reenactment of the rise of gangsta rap on the West Coast in the late-80s and early-90s. It blasts to life with capable and exciting rising action, charting the success and decline of the groundbreaking hip-hop group N.W.A. with energy. The guys in the group came of age in Compton neighborhoods rife with poverty, feuding gangs, and constant police brutality. They turned the frustrations and pleasures of their daily lives into raunchy rhymes set to catchy beats, telling the truth of their experience in a way that spoke to others like them, and to a mainstream eager to eat up that authenticity. It’s a common trope for movies like this to say that the music in question was unlike anything heard before. But here we not only see how tremendously exciting N.W.A.’s music was, we get a sense of the times to which it was perfectly positioned to speak.

The screenplay (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, with story credits for S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) starts strong, digging into the group’s origin story. We first meet the ambitious young men, Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), in confrontations with cops who roll up threateningly. In our current climate of police brutality and racist practices, scenes of beatings, intimidations, and incarcerations are all the more electric. The movie opens on a raid, a militarized vehicle blasting open a drug house, the battering ram slamming into one of the occupants as Eazy-E, a low-level dealer, flees. Later, we see Cube, a sensitive poet, menaced by police, and Dre, an aspiring DJ, locked up for little more than throwing a single punch. Soon, they’re putting their creative energies together to cut a record, turbulent social energies feeding their expression.

These early scenes are the best, painting a vivid portrait of life in Compton as a group of charismatic young people hangs on the precipice of stardom. Soon, they’ve met a sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti) who promises riches. They record an album – 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, featuring hits like the galvanic “Fuck tha Police” – and head out on a whirlwind cross-country tour. Huge crowds flock to their concerts, while their music scares pearl-clutching pundits. It comes to a head in a terrific scene set in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena where a crowd of white cops backstage warns N.W.A. not to play a certain song. Bet you can guess which one. They perform it, of course, and the crowd erupts. So do the cops.

For a while, director F. Gary Gray puts a little extra energy in this based-on-a-true-story form. Maybe it helps that he would’ve been around for some of it, what with his directorial debut being an Ice Cube video in 1993. He’s best known for low comedy (Friday) and slick thrillers (The Negotiator), and here plays to his strengths. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the look is sparkling and smooth. He makes scenes of hotel room parties and backstage antics sing with rambling raunchy camaraderie, while clashes with authority figures have a tense edge. There are plenty of interesting moments, compellingly acted, as the guys struggle to reconcile their individual priorities with the group’s dynamics. Cube goes solo, setting off a volley of diss tracks. Dre meets Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who is presented in a largely villainous light as he lures him into a new business partnership.

But in moving from their initial high-flying fame to the daily grind of managing relationships with business, the movie loses energy and novelty. Gray and his collaborators embalm recent history for preservation and praise, but not much in the way of narrative or cultural context. After the group hits big then falls apart, the movie becomes less a story and more a selection of biographical details, a collection of scenes in which characters and songs practically step out and get their own annotated introduction. For instance: “Who’s this guy?” one character will say, pointing at a new face. “That’s Snoop,” comes the answer, as Keith Stanfield steps in to play him for a scene and a half, rapping a few recognizable bars. How often can we watch scenes weighted with hindsight, nudging and winking at us to recognize famous lyrics, names, interviews, and catchphrases (“Bye, Felicia” shows up in an awfully belabored sequence)?

The movie starts strong and loses energy the more it becomes a predictable recitation of familiar biopic beats. Instead of digging into the lives of these men as characters, a rough and energized truth is sanded down to fit a commodified varnished version, comfortable and corporate. (Over the end credits, we practically get an ad for Beats by Dre.) Here’s a movie that lives moment by moment in an energetic novel space – the first sprawling rap history period piece – and adds up to a whole lot of unfocused familiar motions, reducing complicated real people into shiny pop symbols.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Crimes and Misbehaviors: IRRATIONAL MAN

Once you open the door to a little lie, you live in a world full of reasons to lie. At least that’s a philosophical perspective a depressed professor tries to explain early in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest film. The academic doesn’t really believe it, and that’s not just because he disagrees professionally. He’s not sure he believes in anything at all, having a reached a point of real and deep psychological despair some point before arriving on campus to start his new teaching position during a sunny summer term. At the film’s core is this man’s search for meaning, a solution for his melancholy impotence, creative and otherwise. He finds it not in drinking or flirting with a pretty student, though they’re sickly good stopgaps, but by deciding suddenly and forcefully to commit a perfect crime. He thinks he's smart enough to get away with murder. Once he’s allowed himself to think about it, he’s in a world full of reasons to transgress.

This is hardly the first film from Woody Allen to consider existential crises, the cruelty of mankind, and the cold possibility of evil going unpunished. (See: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Match Point, and so on.) But in the breezy drama he makes of it this time sits one of its bitterest expressions. Those interested in biographical criticism will surely find it noteworthy to point out that Allen made this film after renewed scrutiny on his personal life and alleged crimes. Irrational Man makes its professor a source of scorn and gossip, who clings to his sense of self-righteous self-justification, and who ultimately must pay for his hubris. If this is to be read as an expression of Allen, it’s a self-loathing statement. But it’s not a poisoned or stunted film. No, he’s up to his usual lively artifice.

Like so much of his recent output, the film plays like a draft, another sketch of ideas and themes he’s obsessively working over, varying the tone and plot, but flowing from a consistent voice. Here he is once more with the American songbook score, white Windsor font credits, and characters cloaked in the brisk patter of stuffy East Coast midcentury pseudo-intellectuals that maybe only ever really existed in this precise manner in the world of Woody Allen movies. Indeed, here the characters are signifiers in an intellectual exercise, but what a fascinating, dryly nasty little work this is. There’s an extra sting to thinly imagined characters as an expert cast enlivens arch wordiness and cinematographer Darius Khondji (in his fourth collaboration with Allen) creates bright tableaus pinning them in. The result is like a frustrated English major turned half-hearted gag writer punched up a minor forgotten Hitchcock concept.

What lets the picture breathe is ultimately the cold jazzy syncopation of dueling narrators, puncturing the depressed professor’s murderous ideas with the naïve beaming lights of a student. What starts as a typical vaguely queasy older man/younger woman relationship is played for its inappropriateness, and is made to seem wrong as a factor in the plot. We meet the man (Joaquin Phoenix, draining potential ticks from the dialogue with a flattened affect) as he arrives on campus just about ready to kill himself. The woman (Emma Stone, as cheerful as ever) is in his class, and responds eagerly to his praise. When they first embrace, Khondji finds them in the reflection of a funhouse mirror. There’s no denying the warped relationship now, especially as the clearly troubled man soon begins secret murder planning and everyone around the woman – her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), parents (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips), and chemistry teacher (Parker Posey) – advises her to keep her distance.

A key image is the film’s most striking shot. (It may very well be among the best shots in Allen’s career.) Phoenix stands at the end of a pier, the setting sun silhouetting him, reflecting off the water in a way that ripples his form. He looks like a ghostly shadow lurking in the middle of a picturesque landscape. He’s a figure unknowable, and as Stone questions how much she really understands about him, he grows all the more unspeakably creepy. By allowing us access to both character’s thoughts, we’re allowed full knowledge neither have. Their conflict, present even when neither is aware, gains an interesting friction. They arrive at logical conclusions for their situations, the film snapping shut with a clanging moral, neatly deployed. Philosophy in action, or philosophy inaction, leads them to unsettled conclusions, the sort of world-weary worldview of an old man who once thought his intellectual posturing could beat back despair but isn’t so sure anymore. Here’s a film that says the only rational philosophy is one that sees those who damage others fall to dooms of their own making.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Ricki and the Flash is a humane family drama, warm and sympathetic, and without easy answers or cheap dramatics. It’s low-stakes and character-centric, attuned to relationships shifting slowly, in which an emotionally constipated family’s mostly buried grievances burble up and quiet back down again. When the credits roll, there’s no simple sense of closure. I don’t think this family has fully reconciled their disagreements, but I do believe they’re a little closer to happy than they were at the movie’s start. It’s comfortable mainstream entertainment smart about the way big life changes happen not through momentous milestones, but through small decisions that recalibrate mood and intention. Some of the characters are vaguely defined, and the ending is rushed, but there’s a solid center.

The film’s mostly focused on Ricki (Meryl Streep), a intermittently rude, barely solvent rocker who long ago was poised to be a Big Deal. Now she’s working in a grocery store by day, playing in a bar band, The Flash, by night. Decades earlier she left her husband (Kevin Kline) and children behind in the Midwest to pursue her rock and roll dreams in California. Ever since she’s been on the periphery of their lives, watching from afar as they’ve moved on while dreams of stardom passed her by. We see her getting some enjoyment out of playing with the band, filling a bar with the sounds of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the opening scene. But next, with a sarcastic look to her bandmate/hookup (Rick Springfield), she reluctantly launches into “Bad Romance,” tweaking her set in an obviously ill fitting attempt to stay relevant. An opportunity to regain her relevance as far as her family is concerned comes in the form of a bad-news phone call.

Her ex tells her their daughter (Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer) is getting divorced, the husband having cheated. This left the young woman understandably distraught, so in flies Ricki to bring a mother’s touch to loosening depression. This causes all sorts of long-settled feelings of resentment, abandonment, and inadequacy to get unsettled once more. Ricki’s a source of well-intentioned messiness, an uneasy fit with a straight-laced family that has thrived without her. Though fighting, her daughter and ex find themselves reluctantly drawn into her charisma, while her other children (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) and their stepmom (Audra McDonald) find themselves drawn into testy discussions. The family’s dynamics are sketched in with patient blocking and lengthy shots that breathe with the sweetly barbed dialogue.

Director Jonathan Demme is attuned to the hurt feelings behind their conflicts. But he’s most acutely aware of the issues of class at play. Ricki, a leather-wearing, heavily made-up bar singer, is on the precipice of declaring bankruptcy. She could barely afford the plane ticket. Meanwhile her bourgeois polos-and-khakis ex-husband’s incredibly successful job has gotten him a mansion so deluxe establishing shots could’ve been filmed at a golf resort. This contextualizes feelings, but Demme doesn’t denigrate any character or their position. No one is in the right, or in the wrong. He brings a collaborative spirit, allowing the actors a relaxed rhythm. It doesn’t have the snap of his early comedies (like 1986’s Something Wild) or the ensemble depth of his most recent family drama (2008’s Rachel Getting Married), but it has a comfortable feeling despite a screenplay that treats everyone as background to Ricki’s narrative.

Supporting characters are thinly developed, but filled with such pleasant, instantly appealing, performances. So good with what little they’re given, I wished Kline, Gummer, McDonald, and Springfield had more. They’re solid presences holding down predictable arcs, the better to draw attention to the character work Streep’s doing, I suppose. Screenwriter Diablo Cody shows fine detail in filling out Ricki’s life and the effect her decisions had on those around her, but also the ways in which she’s held to a double standard based on her gender. Cody’s writing typically shows a sharp observation of women’s lives. In Juno, Jennifer’s Body, and Young Adult we see specificity in varieties of female experience beyond typical Hollywood fare. That’s what’s best about Ricki and the Flash, in the end a small, sentimental, and even slight comic drama that isn’t nearly as interesting as an ideal confluence of its three main talents. (Demme, Cody, and Streep have all been better.) But it has a warm affection, inclusive and quiet, that puts it in a cozy place multiplex fare all too rarely finds. When Ricki steps on stage, able to express through her covers what she can't as herself, it hits all the right notes.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Give or Take: THE GIFT

Behind The Gift’s unassuming title is a tightly plotted thriller cannily hiding its darkest secrets until it’s too late to look away. It starts with cold trepidation and ends with upsetting nasty emotional wreckage. It lacks the complexity of superior thrillers, but maintains an admirable shiftiness throughout. Australian actor Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this, his first feature, and shows off fine dexterity in his filmmaking, sharp control over a devious slow build for an entirely non-supernatural horror film built on creepy uncertainties and scary implications inherent in human interactions. It traps three characters in a scenario of social awkwardness that grows icy and uncomfortable until there’s no way out that’ll spare all involved.

Edgerton, perhaps tired of the bland leading-ish man Hollywood has tried to force him to play (in forgotten roles in Warrior, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, or Exodus Gods and Kings, or even in good movies like The Great Gatsby or Zero Dark Thirty), here writes himself a choice supporting role as a real weirdo who makes life difficult for a married couple. They’ve just moved into a new town, the husband (Jason Bateman) taking a new job and the wife (Rebecca Hall) running her design business from their new home. It’s a shiny midcentury place with large glass windows forming an exterior wall, the better to be stalked in. When they run into one of the husband’s old high school classmates (Edgerton), he’s an overly ingratiating nice guy, welcoming them to the neighborhood and buying them housewarming gifts. There’s something off about him, the way he shows up unannounced and invites himself into their lives. He’s always around.

Soon details of the man’s story aren’t adding up and, freaked out, the couple breaks off contact. But then their dog goes missing, fish die, and mysterious messages appear. And of course those big glass windows aren’t helping calm fears of someone lurking on the margins of their lives, peeking in with who knows what thoughts running in his odd head. Edgerton makes smart decisions about when to cut into the perspective of which character, allowing us to watch Hall tremble into paranoia as their friendly stalker suddenly seems not so friendly, then Bateman as he blusteringly waves off his wife’s concerns. They’re frayed in ways revealing of their basest instincts, good and bad. We’re also eventually allowed a glimpse of the weirdo’s point of view, contextualizing his actions and directing attention to the sins so-called normal people get away with by using their averageness as cover.

Because the film approaches lurid subject matter with an eye toward the unsettling quotidian details of a person you’d rather not be around, Edgerton finds frightening ideas in simple things that can cause a person to freak out. There’s nothing quite so frightening as waking in the middle of the night to see a light on at the other end of the house, one you’d swear you’d switched off. Worse still, perhaps, is realizing someone’s been in your house, even though nothing appears to have been taken or destroyed. Edgerton’s camera finds typical suspense details like a glow at the end of a dark hall, a faucet running which wasn’t before, or a sudden appearance of an animal inside the frame, with a patient simmer. He lets the scares appear with a sense of effective rhythm, having slow cuts and precise focus pulls reveal dread.

Can you ever truly know anyone? That’s the age-old question The Gift confronts by shifting perspective subtly, revealing information to us only as certain characters discover it. As the plot heads away from what seemed in the opening scenes a predictable path, an evolving understanding of where the characters are coming from makes any chance for easy morality feel slippery. Who deserves comeuppance in this scenario? Who has done the most wrong? And do the ultimate victims deserve their fate? The questions remain tantalizingly unresolved. Ending on a note of slimy ambiguity, the movie questions the ultimate aims of any social interaction, especially in a world where so many may feel a little deception is reasonable to get what they want. It gets there through a disturbing twist, hinging on psychological damage (plus, most upsetting, the implication of even more depravity that may or may not have occurred, a nasty addition). Edgerton commits to seeing his chilling premise taken much further than you’d think it’d go.


The third time attempting to make Marvel’s long-running comic Fantastic Four a movie franchise is not the charm. It almost works, starting as a straightforward attempt to situate fantastical developments within something like a real world. But by the end, it becomes merely a halfhearted and mediocre version of every CGI comic book slugfest we’ve ever seen. For most of its runtime, it’s a relatively low-key sci-fi drama about ambitious scientists whose work leads them straight into a body horror scenario. Its broad strokes are every superhero origin story. We meet some characters, watch them fall into a tragic moment that births their strange powers, and then let the effects of those powers lead them to do good. At least it starts from a place of awe about scientific discovery and nods towards serious contemplation about what it’d be like to suddenly wake up a freak. The follow through is what’s missing.

Opening moments play like slick speculative thriller, like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rewritten by Michael Crichton. We meet a science prodigy, Reed Richards (played all grown up by Miles Teller). He’s out to make a teleportation device, recruiting a classmate, Ben Grimm (eventually Jamie Bell), to be an assistant, since the boy has access to a junkyard. Years pass. A government scientist (Reg E. Cathey) recruits Richards to assist on a top-secret teleportation project. The budding genius joins new peers Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) in making his hypothesis a reality. This is what leads to the multidimensional gobbledygook and eventual mutation, turning Richards into a stretchy-limbed man, the Storms into an Invisible Woman and Human Torch, and Grimm ends up a lumbering, naked (although neutered) rock pile Thing. Doom disappears into green goo, but with a name like that, you’d know what he becomes even if there weren’t fifty years of comics pointing the way.

Setup is handled briskly with cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s nice industrial blue-and-gray palate and a pace set to ominous dread. The percolating score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass helps keep things on the edge of unsettling. Director and co-writer Josh Trank’s debut feature was Chronicle, the found-footage horror riff on superpower development. There he tapped into a feeling of teen angst and bullied vengeance, bending a metaphor around familiar tropes in some surprising ways. You can see in Fantastic Four a movement in that direction simply by how dourly and seriously he treats the concept despite how dutifully it hits origin story beats. He finds naturalism amongst the cast as the actors play real emotions instead of comic book posturing. Cathey has a gravely paternal countenance. Teller gives Richards a shy overconfidence, while Mara and Jordan share a relaxed sibling dynamic. Kebbell and Bell have intriguing inferiority and jealousies that dovetail. There’s enough there to wish there was more.

A better movie would flesh out these relationships, and turn their powers into more successful monster-movie metaphors. The central contraption sends off The Fly vibes. Yet by the time their powers are bestowed, the film’s decline has irreparably begun. There are initial creepy moments, as Teller sits with his limbs stretched unnaturally across a wide room, Jordan burns, Mara shimmers in and out of sight, and a boulder blinks with Bell’s eyes. But the movie is already poised to become something ordinary, turning characters’ sci-fi trauma into grist for the blockbuster mill. It’s obvious every moment of the narrative is dragging towards beats that must be hit. It’s not a matter of character or design, but rather corporate planning. The suits simply must have a recognizable superhero team before the end of the second act, no time to stop and linger in the material’s potential for character or ambiguity.

This Fantastic Four succumbs to achingly dull cliché so suddenly and incongruously, turning off the path of slow-burn characterization into stereotype in the blink of an eye. Character dynamics are no longer explored. Relationships are never satisfyingly resolved. Conflicts introduced between them are never teased out, instead foreshortened or forgotten. Themes of determination in the face of opposition and sacrifice in the name of science are thinned out and ultimately taken to dead ends. Everything initially intriguing about the movie is thrown out for the sake of yet another expensive movie ending with a bright blue beam of light zapping into the sky threatening to end the world. It goes from an admirable – and refreshingly different! – small-scale human-level superpower story to a big bland apocalypse. It’s almost as if it almost wasn’t a usual superhero movie and someone slapped together a new ending on the fly. Maybe that’s what actually happened.

I’m sure the inevitable behind-the-scenes tell-alls will be worth reading. Even if rumors of creative differences and a troubled production hadn’t leaked out over the course of its making, it’d be easy to tell the final product feels worked over, compromised. It starts as a slightly atypical look at overfamiliar material and ends abruptly as an underwhelming repetition of typical tropes. Without inside knowledge it’s hard to stand back and point out what to pin on Trank, and what to spot as contributions of co-writers Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, not to mention any number of producers and creative consultants. No matter how it got there, what’s on the screen – obvious reshoots and all – lost my interest steadily as it became clear every avenue for drama, tension, and creativity was closed off to better streamline potential complexity into one quick, limp marketable action sequence. I don’t know if some hypothetical version of this movie would be better, but if it was doomed to fail, at least it could’ve failed interestingly.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Aardman helps keep the stop motion animation tradition alive with a distinct blend of expertly choreographed cartoon slapstick and dry British silliness unlike anything else in the family film marketplace. Their latest, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is a beautifully realized work of gentle tactile whimsy, like a big and delicate playset in which the most adorable toys act out appealing little comic dramas. The story concerns a little sheep named Shaun, first introduced in a Wallace and Gromit short before spinning off into his own cartoon series, hence the “movie” appended to the title here. Over the course of the movie, Shaun learns simple elementary kids’ movie lessons: teamwork, resourcefulness, courage, kindness, and appreciating loyal friends and family. It’s thin sweetness, but because the animators at Aardman are such geniuses at sight gags, layering the frame with funny details and staging briskly clever follies, it’s a constant joy.

The story is a simple “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” narrative, crossed with a reverse “Parable of the Lost Sheep.” Down on a farm in an English countryside, an agrarian paradise has become routine for the inhabitants. The farmer sticks to his schedule, and so do the animals, day after day feedings and washings and shearings happening so regularly you could set your clock to it. Shaun just wants a day off, so he convinces his flock to trick their kindly keeper into counting them, thus getting him to fall fast asleep. (Right away you get the level of humor at work here, which is partly a classic picture book technique working over common phrases and concepts in a wry way that anyone can enjoy.) Unluckily, an elaborate chain of unintended accidents leaves the farmer stranded in The Big City, a knock on the head making him an amnesiac. Not only can’t he get back to take care of his flock, he doesn’t even remember he should. It’s up to Shaun and his pals to head to the city and get their farmer back.

This simple idea is used to stage a silly city symphony, a light and amiable collection of inspirations (Tati’s Playtime, Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City, and the metropolis itself has to be named after Satyajit Ray’s The Big City) synthesized into a soft and colorful children’s entertainment. It’s an entirely non-verbal film, the animals and humans alike speaking in grunts, mutters, murmurs, muddy interjections, wordless shouts, and lots of baaing, of course. Following the flock as they meander down city streets (sometimes stacked on top of each other wearing long coats, the better to blend in), they find themselves in bus stations, fancy restaurants, junkyards, and other places with plenty of comic potential. We also meet dogs, ducks, and cats. They’re all trying to stay one step ahead of a cruel animal control employee. Meanwhile, the farmer bumbles around tying to regain his sense of purpose. And, back on the farm, the pigs have taken over the farmhouse (shades of Animal House).

Visual gags carry the day, writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak and their team of animators finding unexpected flourishes. They take obvious jokes (like an animal shelter full of critters inhabiting jailhouse stereotypes) a step farther, into delightfully weird images (recurring shots of a mean dog who silently stares with unblinking bloodshot eyes) that are then taken even one step farther, building a funny cutaway to a great payoff. You might expect three sheep to stack inside a coat to look vaguely human, but would you think they’d collide with two men inside a horse costume? That’s the sort of thing that’s so charmingly unexpected, and yet somehow perfectly understandable, it’s hard to resist.

Most unexpected, perhaps, is how sweetly touching it becomes without feeling sappy. Even though I was consistently entertained and found much to appreciate about its handcrafted qualities, I was nonetheless surprised how invested I became in the flock’s desire to be reunited with their farmer friend. It’s partly the fault of an original faux-Beach Boys song “Feels Like Summer” threaded throughout the film, in the opening where the baby sheep first meet their shepherd, then later a song they can sing together while lost, before finally playing triumphantly again once we reach the inevitable, but well-earned, happy conclusion. But it’s also in how immediately loveable Aardman can make these cartoon animals, in cute expressions and enjoyable antics. Their stop-motion style is instantly recognizable, and irreplaceable. We're lucky to have them.