Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Man on Wire: THE WALK

The Walk opens on a question: Why? It tells the true story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who, in 1974, decided to string his high-wire between the towers of the newly built World Trade Center in New York City. The question is a natural response, and a reasonable place to start. Why risk death on a dangerous and illegal act of daredevil theatrics over 100 stories above the ground? To Petit, who fancies himself an artist, a death-defying poet of motion, it is do or do not. There is no why. It’s quickly apparent that neither the man nor the film can adequately articulate a response that’ll explain. They both leave it to the sheer beauty and wonder conjured up by the act itself to feel out an answer. He’s a dreamer who simply wants to surprise the world with something amazing, a fleeting moment of transcendence, because he believes he can. Why? No. Why not?

Think of the film as one sparkling feat of ingenious three-dimensional spectacle paying homage to another. Director Robert Zemeckis has made a career out of pushing special effects out on the high-wire of believability. He’s made time traveling characters doubling back on themselves (the Back to the Futures), cartoons interacting with real actors (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), grotesque slapstick maiming (Death Becomes Her), manipulated historical footage (Forrest Gump, Contact), scarily vivid plane crashes (Cast Away, Flight), and uncannily fluid motion capture worlds (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol). Taking full advantage of what movies can do, he’s a master technician interested in telling classically developed narratives in popcorn cinema at the edge of what’s possible. So of course he’s committed to bringing to life the story of a man who saw the impossible and stepped out on the wire anyway.

Starting with a sharp close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grinning face – it arcs out of the 3D frame with topographical specificity like Herzog’s cave paintings – The Walk’s first shot pulls back until we see he’s perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Behind him glowing computer sunshine gleams off a perfect shiny CGI New York City skyline. It’s vintage in look and theatrical in presentation, utterly and perfectly unreal. Playing Petit gives Gordon-Levitt a chance to be larger than life, leaning into ebullient ringleader’s bravado. He plays a man who’s always putting on a show. How else could he convince not only himself, but a small group of accomplices as well, to plot a stunt that never stops looking insane to outside eyes? With an acrobat’s posture and a showman’s energy, he breaks the fourth wall, jauntily narrating his story like he’s telling a tall tale. Well, it’s certainly tall, and would definitely be hard to believe if it weren’t already proficiently chronicled in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire.

We watch as fluid, sparkling CGI and Dariusz Wolski’s gliding camera animate broad nostalgically filtered scenes of Petit’s early life. As a boy, a family of tightrope walkers performing in a circus near his small town fascinated him. He strung up some rope between two trees in his backyard and slowly learned to keep his balance. (It’s a fine allegory for any kid who knew early passion for an art.) Once grown, he trained with an expert (Ben Kingsley) before heading to Paris where he scraped by with money made from impromptu sidewalk shows. Eventually, he’s crossing small ponds, then the two peaks of the Notre Dame cathedral. But it’s seeing New York’s twin towers in a magazine that really ignites his imagination.

For most of its runtime after the introduction to Petit’s origins, the film – scripted by Zemeckis with Christopher Browne – is a thin, light, and functional heist movie, where all the reconnaissance, team-building, and scheming has a benign, maybe even noble, goal. The only thing they’re out to steal is a moment of bystanders’ attention, a moment to look up in awe at what one determined daredevil is capable of. He recruits his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) to travel to New York with him. Two friends (Clément Sibony and César Domboy) join them, willing to help sneak the wire between the tops of the towers. Along the way they find some Americans (Steve Valentine, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Benedict Samuel) who are willing to get involved in this daring scheme. There’s a simple pleasure in process during the planning stages as a brisk montage flows from Petit’s imagination out into the tricky real world of elevators, foreman, and security guards.

Often treading close to surface-level corniness – music booms and the camera swirls with sentimental reverence, while the ensemble trades likable banter – the movie is completely intertwined with Petit’s exuberant self-confidence. It builds in anticipation. How could a recreation of this impossible act possibly make the build-up pay off? There’s double-edged suspense, wondering if Petit will fall, and if the movie will. Then he steps off the edge of a tower onto a wire strung across the 200-foot gap 1,350 feet in the air. That’s a long way down. It’s terrifying and beautiful, intense feelings mixed in one transcendent breathless sequence. Zemeckis floats across the expanse with Gordon-Levitt in some of the most brilliantly realized heights I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. It’s worth the wait. Both the film and the stunt that inspired it are examples of people putting faith in the power of their skill and planning to pull off impressive amazement.

When Gordon-Levitt first stands at the very corner of the roof, wind blowing his hair as he wavers, holding his precarious balance, the effect is shockingly peaceful in its intensity. The movie climaxes with this dizzying, lovely sequence, as overwhelmingly tense and lovely as it should be to sell the majesty of the moment. It’s moving to see the characters nervous and astonished as Petit slowly maneuvers across the open air with no safety precaution to catch him. That’s also what provokes a tangibly physiological response. I’ve never been as lightheaded with vertigo while sitting in a theater—palms sweating, teeth clenching, stomach fluttering. Not since Scorsese’s Hugo has a big studio production used 3D so well. Here it captures not only the scale of the stunt, and the danger below, but the strangely serene unreality of a truly remarkable moment. The effects are a perfectly realized essence, not photorealist, but beyond, convincing and strikingly vivid in depth and scope.

And yet it’s not only a thrill of technical accomplishment. It’s stirring to see a dream realized. It’s a simple story told with complex visuals conjuring convincing and transporting awe, inviting an audience to contemplate what a small group of dedicated human beings are capable of, great creation, but also great danger. 9/11 resonances are deftly sidestepped, but are difficult to avoid entirely. Though they remain unspoken, it’s hard not to feel the tower’s extratextual modern absence elevating the final moments as Petit leaves us with his wistful pride in his old memories, and the skyline slowly fades to black. Zemeckis has skillfully returned us to a time when the towers were riskily made magic, Petit daring us to watch and gasp.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Monster Cash (Grab): HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 is the sort of movie that’ll satisfy some in the audience some of the time, but will satisfy no one all the time. It’s one of those cheerlessly and mercenarily divided family films where the jokes for parents and the jokes for their kids are completely separate. We get a joke about a butt, then a throwaway gag referencing childproofing. We get a joke about new parents needing alone time, then a joke about a zombie falling off a cliff. It’s broad in both cases, reaching for easy jokes and lazily winding its way down a set of obvious stereotypes. In its cartoony way it at least proves it’s willing to pander to everyone equally. But when I see Genndy Tartakovsky’s name in the credits, and think back to the great cartoons he’s been involved with – Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars – it’s hard not to wish this monster mash was more. This movie somehow doesn’t allow him the room to show off his visual pop, expressive action imagery, and effective all-ages plotting. It is dull, repetitive, and infantilizing.

It’s all too slack and aimless, the talented computer animators at Sony Animation finding nothing new to say in a world already fairly exhausted of potential last time. It picks up where the first Hotel Transylvania ended, with the cute vampire girl (Selena Gomez) having fallen in love with a dopey human boy (Andy Samberg) while her protective father (Adam Sandler) grew to be okay with it. Except he’s still harboring anti-human sentiments that doesn’t go away during the opening wedding, or through a few time jumps that bring him a grandson (Asher Blinkoff). See, the little kid with his big doe eyes and curly red hair is just too human for his grandpa’s (vam-pa’s) liking. Why, if the kid doesn’t sprout his fangs by his fifth birthday, he might be totally human. The vampa would be sad not to have his vampire genes passed on, but worse the kid might have to go live in the human world instead of a soft slapstick monster hotel. What’s a grandpa to do?

The screenplay by Sandler and Robert Smigel uses the monster/human tension to stage a too-cutesy metaphor for prejudice of all kinds. The boy’s parents will be okay letting their son be whoever he was born to be, but grandpa’s slow on the uptake. He conspires to sneak the kid out on a road trip with Frankenstein (Kevin James), The Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), The Invisible Man (David Spade), The Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), and a gelatinous green blob. They go through the countryside showing the boy how much fun it is to be a monster, but because they’re all buffoons they actually show how irresponsible and soft they’ve become. A stop at a vampire camp is a weird crotchety skewering of overprotective parenting. Are we supposed to be on the monsters’ side when they scoff at sweet campfire songs and roll their eyes at a condemned tower the campers aren’t allowed to play on? Seems fine to me. Later, after the monsters collapse said tower and set the camp on fire, the counselor accuses them of child endangerment. Uh. Yeah.

All of this is in service of an obvious message to respect others’ differences and accept people’s identities no matter what. They were born this way. It’s a nice moral, and I guess there’s enough zipping around and potty humor to hold kids’ attention. But it’s both too adult and too childish, unable to find a good middle ground between limp slapstick shenanigans, loose sight gags, loud pop music, mild riffs on monster iconography, and what the MPAA might call “thematic material.” By the time Mel Brooks shows up as great vampa Vlad, wheezing in his recognizable exaggerated old man voice (which has only grown more authentic as the years pass) it’s clearly a movie haphazardly aiming at too many demographics to work. It’s just an uninspired attempt to milk more cash out of a hit. How else to explain the prominently displayed Sony brand cell phones the characters use? It’s not every day you see an animated movie with product placement.

Human Resource: THE INTERN

A cozy comedy of human connection with just enough drama to give its sweet conclusion some weight, The Intern is a mostly charming fantasy of intergenerational cooperation. The story follows a lonely retired boomer businessman (Robert De Niro) who is looking for a way to stay busy after the death of his wife. He finds a flyer for a local tech startup looking for senior citizen interns, a gimmicky outreach idea. They want people with experience (and, no doubt, pensions making lack of salary less of an issue) to help the growing online clothing retailer make ends meet. Of course the old guy gets the position, where he finds himself working closely with the company’s busy founder (Anne Hathaway). You might guess that the rest of the film shows that a 70-year-old and a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings can learn from each other, become friends, and all end up slightly happier for it. You’d be right.

Pleasant and comfortable, the movie is soft, fuzzy, and warm—the cinematic equivalent of a fancy comfy sweater fresh from an expensive dryer. It happily goes for surprisingly few cheap shots about the generation gap. De Niro wears a suit every day while his younger colleagues go fairly casual. But there’s no stumbling bumbling how-do-you-work-this-thing shtick. Hathaway is an ambitious techie small business owner juggling devices (and a marriage) while looking to grow her brand. But there’s no kids-these-days digital curmudgeon muttering. It’s not a story about a classy old guy helping a frazzled young lady build a better business. Nor is it a story about an out-of-touch grandpa doddering his way to hip style. Instead, the film in its quiet way asserts that all people are basically the same, friendships are important, and goofy grown children (De Niro’s desk is surrounded by young dopey dudes) and dapper old folks alike can bond over shared values. It’s sweet.

Undeniably sentimental, it’s nonetheless refreshing to see a big studio comedy deal in such small stakes. Hathaway and De Niro have warm sympathetic chemistry basically free of mansplaining, and never once tips over into icky romance. In fact, it’s a light movie about relationships that doesn’t feel an obligation to hit any romantic beats, slipping a few glimpses into subplots simply for extra flavoring. The bulk of the story follows the leads through the ups and downs of daily office life, going to meetings, talking to suppliers, debating strategy, or retrieving a errant nasty email (a stretch). The growing company has its problems, though not so many they can’t have a good masseuse (Rene Russo) on staff as an age-appropriate flirtation for De Niro. The movie is not really interested in the nuts and bolts of business anyway, using its setting as reason for little comic beats (mostly amusing, but occasionally too broad) on the way to its intended and effective gooey center.

Slowly but surely the leads open up to one another. It’s a rare story: an older man and younger woman who become completely platonic friends, admire one another, and provide much-needed support. De Niro meets his boss’s family (stay-at-home dad Anders Holm and adorable little daughter JoJo Kushner) and soon becomes a helpful assistant on that front as well. At work, he encourages an ensemble of young colleagues (Christina Scherer, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Adam DeVine) to have more confidence. It’s a movie with a high-gloss sheen and a brightly photographed sunny disposition. Even when the plot gears turn up some potential melodrama in the final third, things remain bouncy and optimistic. Sure, these people have obstacles to deal with. But they’re so agreeable and capable it’s never much in doubt. You’d be excused for thinking every office of young’uns could use a magic grandpa figure.

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, The Parent Trap), an expert in exactly this sort of comfort food cinema, it has her typical beautifully appointed upper-middle-class interiors. Sets – vast open offices, handsome brownstones, and fine hotel rooms – are decorated like a two-page spread in an interior decorator’s portfolio. Characters’ clothes could just as easily be ready for upscale catalogue photo shoots. Every prop – Apple products, Stella Artois, a vintage briefcase – is photographed like it’ll be the basis of a new lifestyle newsletter. It’s all part of the fluffy good feelings, an aspirational setting for an aspirational story that finds a working mom and a retired man finding comfortable friendship, gets young guys a classy role model, and arrives at a cheerfully optimistic conclusion that’s so low-key and deeply sweet I didn’t mind I found myself wondering if this company (or any of the relationships involved) will last. It’s uncomplicated, but so committed to its twinkly feel-good conclusions that it makes sure it has leads so likable you need them to be happy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Something to Talk About: THE PRIMARY INSTINCT

Stephen Tobolowsky, a recognizable character actor with over 200 credits to his name, looks into the camera and explains the hierarchy of Hollywood casting. If your character gets a first name and a last name, you’re a big deal. Supporting performances are for people who get a profession and one name, a first name for comedies (like, Professor Bob), last name for dramas (say, Doctor Jenkins). Then there are the people with just a profession, or worse, just a profession and a number (Janitor 3, for example). They, Tobolowsky tells us, are mostly just there to eat craft services. But there’s no shame in his view. Everyone has a role. Later, he’ll describe getting cast just a few years back as “Buttcrack Plumber,” shaking his head in grinning disbelief. He’s just happy he gets to earn a living telling stories in any way he can.

The man whose most memorable role is probably dweeby annoyance Ned in the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, but who has been just about everything a hey-that-guy! could be over the course of his many decades in showbiz, knows what he’s talking about. He has a remarkable ability to look back on his life with clarity and humor, telling good-natured anecdotes with warm avuncular charm. Having done that for several years in a podcast (The Tobolowsky Files) and a book (The Dangerous Animals Club), he now brings it to a feature film. The Primary Instinct is a filmed live event for his podcast, a one-man show shot and edited like a cable stand-up special. Directed by podcaster and debut filmmaker David Chen, this simple documentary sits back and lets Tobolowsky take center stage.

The filmmaking is restrained, never distracting from the man of the hour. Present in nearly every frame of the film, playing himself is his biggest role to date. He effortlessly holds attention. Charmingly self-effacing, he shapes each tale with the skill of a born entertainer. He humbly walks a spare stage, spinning yarns about his childhood, his parents, his wife, his kids, and his craft, flowing effortlessly from one point to the next. He wraps the monologue’s various episodes around one central question: Why do we tell stories? He confesses up front to a lack of an answer. Over the course of the next hour or so he conversationally tells the audiences stories from his life that are often amusing and sometimes touching,

Among the many moments he shares, we hear about his first pang of boyish love, a surprise encounter with a famous football team, the birth of his son, difficulties with ailing parents, and a refreshingly angst-free reminiscence about a time he found himself contemplating a vial of cocaine in his bathroom on the night his mother first came to California for a visit.  He remembers one of his mother’s favorite phrases, recalling how she’d always tell him, “self-preservation is the primary instinct.” By the sweet conclusion in which he movingly draws a common thread between the varied experiences he’s recounted, it’s clear he thinks storytelling is just as vital and universal a need. He’s found his answer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bad Fellas: BLACK MASS

Black Mass is a true crime gangster picture that doesn’t have a perspective or opinion on the events it recounts. It is content to grimly reenact backroom power plays and violent hits without caring too much about what it meant to the people involved, let alone using the proceedings as windows into their psyches. Set in Boston during the reign of crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, a man who muscled out the Italian mob to become the city’s main source of organized crime, the screenplay makes clear the ties of neighborhood loyalty. This allowed Bulger to enter a mutually beneficial relationship with an FBI agent who once was a schoolyard chum, feeding information about his rivals while receiving a blind eye to his own criminal enterprises. This, along with a senator for a brother, allowed him to remain untouched for decades.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up) start in 1975 and work their way to 1995, following Bulger from humble nastiness to king of crime before it all unravels for him. Perhaps assuming the target audience has seen some gangster stories play out before, the film is not particularly interested in the how or what of its characters’ schemes, and is never clear about the nature of his income. Instead, it features tight close-ups and slow zooms highlighting small shifts in negotiations and power plays. The recurring moments are either intimately creepy – Bulger staring down another person with intimidating intensity until they give him what he wants – or violent, with killings telegraphed beyond the point of surprise arriving with nonetheless brutal force. What are we to make of these murders? Only that they’re senseless, I suppose.

A large ensemble of reliable talents slurring through a variety of phony Boston accents keep things watchable and reasonably interesting on a moment by moment basis. Joel Edgerton is a slimy FBI agent too close to Bulger, protecting him from his law enforcement colleagues (Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll) and their suspicions they’re not getting appropriately valuable intel for all the damage caused. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown are Whitey’s flunkies, who do a lot of the beating and killing, and drop in and out of the narrative. Benedict Cumberbatch is Bulger’s brother, affectionate but precious about keeping his office out of crime. And in this masculine environment of jockeying for power and speaking in deep whispers, a trio of female roles (for Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, and Juno Temple) exists to provide people who think this whole thing is dangerous but have no way of stopping it.

The proceedings are the sort of surface seriousness that coasts on the appearance of heavy subject matter without actually engaging with the thematic content that could exist under the surface. Cooper’s too interested in directing the logistics of the large ensemble, making sure everyone’s posing in the correct period detail and mushing their Rs into appropriate vaguely Bostonian sounds. The potentially fascinating story of corruption and crime is told through solid craft, Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography finely textured, David Rosenbaum’s editing steadily accumulating mild dread at the story’s most dramatic moments of threat. But there’s never a sense of what all the blood and backstabbing really means for the people involved beyond the simple facts of the case, and no foothold for either a formless “that’s life” truthiness or rigorous moralizing. It goes straight up the middle, ending up nowhere.

The mystery at the center remains the man himself, a presence and an instigator throughout the narrative who somehow remains stubbornly out of focus. How did he first rise to power? What made him the top Irish mobster? What did he think about what he did? We don’t know from this film. Here he seems to emerge fully formed from the shadows. Played by Johnny Depp at his least communicative and yet somehow as, if not more, affected than his Mortdecai or Mad Hatter, his countenance is entombed in artifice. Dead ice blue eyes pop against sickly pale skin, his face remolded out of makeup effects into something that’s always off-putting and unnatural. His Bulger is spooky, moving stiffly, holding his posture rigid, always frowning. He lurks in dark corners, most creepy when he stands hidden in an empty church nook, or when he interrupts a woman reading The Exorcist to calmly, threateningly run his hand along her face and neck.

Presenting the facts in a style synthesized and hollowed out from an amalgamation of every gangster picture that came before is one thing. But to plunk a performance like Depp’s in the middle of it – so artificial, so designed, so immediately signaling evil – is strange. It’s an interesting approach, more Karloff than DeNiro, more Michael Myers than Brando. He doesn’t seem like a real person. He looks like he should’ve been featured in Famous Monsters of Filmland fifty years ago. It makes impossible the notion we should take this seriously as a look into the face of real evil that men do. Besides, the movie’s too unfocused to even activate the Nosferatu qualities of Depp’s work. It’s a case of a project with a script, a director, and a lead performance working at cross purposes. It’s too shallow to be a weighty exploration of crime and punishment, too restrained to be pulpy fun, and too unwilling to follow an eccentric lead into a more overtly nightmarish direction. It’s competent enough to work scene by scene, but adds up to a missed opportunity all around.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


The kids stuck in a maze in last year’s young adult franchise starter The Maze Runner are out of the labyrinth and in a post-apocalyptic confusion in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. There’s not a single maze to be found, but there’s still plenty of running as a group of boys and one girl find themselves in a mysterious compound where a commander (Aidan Gillen) tells them to be patient and he’ll take them to a better place. Turns out he’s lying, because of course he is. So off the kids run into a desert wasteland stretched between ruined cities. The world has ended, and they have no idea what to do, so why not keep running from the guys with guns who want to recapture them and feed their blood into blue vats pumping out potential vaccines for a zombie virus. (That doesn’t seem too bad, considering.) It really is that simple, but I don’t know why the whole thing has to be knotted up like no one has a clue, or why it takes our heroes so long to figure out their next move.

The least interesting of this cycle of teen adventure series – behind The Hunger Games, and Twilight, and even the thin derivative Divergent – the Maze Runners are without personality. It’s a dystopian sci-fi zombie conspiracy mystery with a screenplay (again by T.S. Nowlin) that works exactly like a jumble of tropes and half-formed carbon copies of better ideas used more effectively elsewhere. The characters are undifferentiated. There’s the lead (Dylan O’Brien), his buddies (Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and a girl (Kaya Scodelario), running through the desert called The Scorch, trying to survive. But between this movie and the last, we’ve spent nearly four hours with this group and I still couldn’t begin to tell you what their goals, hopes, dreams, and proclivities are.

They’re just the runway-ready grubby survivors, lost in scorching heat and stuck in a nightmare of zombie imagery. We know they’re the heroes because they’re young and this is YA. The bad guys are of course the grown-ups with the evil organization (the World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department – or Wicked, for real). It’s never entirely clear why the bad are so bad and the good are worth caring about, but never mind. Grown-ups just don’t understand. The escaped teens have nowhere to turn, and no interior lives to draw upon. Now, I could understand their spotty backstories, since their memories were wiped. But where’s the personality? They are thoroughly bland and lifeless despite the young actors’ best efforts to imbue their line readings with meaning, strain, and stress. When they run, they throw their whole bodies into it, swinging their arms side to side and twisting their torsos. It’s like they’re trying to run right off the screen and out of the theater. I knew the feeling.

As I sat through the movie’s opening stretches, I found myself wondering if the whole thing could be improved by the presence of some welcome older character actors who could at least elevate the dull, empty proceedings with their gravitas and charm. Soon enough, it started regularly introducing tiny nothing parts for the likes of Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor, and Barry Pepper. But even they can’t save scenes that require them to do nothing more than gravely intone exposition or wait for effects work to explode around them. Lifeless dreck, there’s not one moment lively or interesting in and of itself. The closest it gets are a sequence set in an abandoned zombie-infested shopping mall and, later, a woman (Rose Salazar) stuck on a rapidly cracking pane of glass over a deadly vertiginous height. In other words, even at its best it’s weakly lifted from better movies (Dawn of the Dead and The Lost World, respectively) without any creative twist or winking homage.

It’s just borrowed ingenuity heaped on a derivative structure. On a technical level it’s competently made, with convincing effects, sturdy photography, and some brisk action cutting. A moment involving a safe house rigged to self-destruct has a clever beat or two, and a moment of climactic betrayal-induced dread works well enough. But crushing boredom takes up most of its 131 long minutes as I quickly lost interest. I suspect director Wes Ball, helming the sequel to his directorial debut, could do good decent work given a better screenplay. Maybe a corporate superhero universe will call. But here a talented cast and crew have far too little to work with. It’s slick, professional, and completely uninteresting.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Into Thin Air: EVEREST

It’d be easy to call Everest a man versus nature story, but that’s downplaying the extent to which nature dominates. It’s never a fair fight. Telling the true story of a 1996 storm that left a group of mountain climbers stranded at the world’s tallest peak, making the return climb treacherous and nearly impossible, the film creates an enveloping sense of natural danger. When the winds kick up and gusts of snow pummel the characters as they stumble along narrow paths, clinging to guide ropes near cavernous drops, there’s a convincing sense of disorientation and danger. One wrong step, one wrong decision, and it could mean certain death. In the film’s most haunting image, a struggling member of the group steps wrong, wobbles, and simply disappears, falling off the edge of the frame while a man in the foreground holds on for dear life. He glances back, notices with horror the empty hooks swinging in the storm, and then continues trudging foreword towards his ultimate fate. As one character ominously warns early on, “the mountain always has the last word.”

Shot with solid meat-and-potatoes sturdiness and completely convincing effects and stunts, director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband) indulges in a few sweeping spectacular vistas, but otherwise keeps the epic backdrop in the background. He chooses instead to focus on the people making their way through the landscape, as they joke, bond, argue, succeed, struggle, and die. William Nicholson (Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), no strangers to stories of remarkable survival, have written a screenplay interested in process and procedure, spending a great deal of time assembling the team and taking them through the steps of an ordinary climb up Everest, a fraught and fascinating prospect in and of itself. It’s clear how slow, difficult, and challenging it is to climb any mountain, let alone Everest. There are medical concerns, perilous heights, unexpected delays, deadly cold, and dwindling oxygen. And that’s before the storm even starts.

The main characters are a crew from New Zealand running an expedition up the mountain, a guide (Jason Clarke), a base camp supervisor (Emily Watson), and a doctor (Elizabeth Debicki). Their clients include a mailman (John Hawkes), a wealthy Texan (Josh Brolin), a journalist (Michael Kelly), and an experienced climber (Naoko Mori). Also on the mountain are rival groups, including one led by a brash American (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to reach the summit, and one (led by Sam Worthington) going up the shorter mountain next to it and can only watch in horror as the storm clouds roll in over their colleagues. It’s not always easy to tell all these people apart, especially once they have oxygen masks over their faces and ice-covered hoods pulled low over their goggles. We see only figures struggling up the mountain, and then feeling the panic kick in once they desperately need to get back down.

When a mask is pulled off, revealing the character actor beneath, it’s easier to tell who is where. But maybe the point is to mimic some of the disorientation of thin air and exhausted lungs. The performances are solid physical presences, filling their corners of the frame with a sturdiness and confidence that’s all the more difficult to see fade away. Some are unpersuasively overconfident. Others are understandably worried. There are token characterizations to flesh out the ensemble. We hear reasons for the trip – to be brave, to be accomplished, to be awed – and overhear sentimental calls back home to nervous wives (Keira Knightley cuddling a fake pregnant belly, Robin Wright corralling teens). But these biographical details are sparse, adding only reliable extra gloom as the camera contemplates the thunderous darkness encroaching.

Kormákur shoots the proceedings with a relatively restrained eye. He doesn’t amp up the action, provide CGI dazzle, or find room for unrealistic cinematic heroics. As small mistakes and nature’s fury combine, death comes quickly for some, slowly for others, and narrowly misses still more. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s wide lenses capture an immense sense of beauty and danger, while the sound effects crunch and howl. It never comes to life as a personal journey, the characters remaining too vague to really develop, but as a view of process – of a feat of mountaineering giving way to a struggle to make it back alive – it’s gripping. As it narrows to consider the tiny interpersonal moments that seal each one’s fate, there are moving moments of triumph and pain, flashes in a storm that wipes away all certainty. It’s a big Hollywood epic with a small eye, with stories of survival not through any grand action, but through endurance and chance. It has the trappings of a disaster movie, but none of the thrill. It starts with cautious excitement, turns scary, then left me feeling only sad.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bike to the Future: TURBO KID

I want to go a little easy on Turbo Kid for being a crowd-funded, handcrafted labor of love. It’s hard work to get any movie made, so hats off. I hope it finds the audience it’s looking for. But I enjoyed almost none of it. It’s just not for me, as it is undeniably part of a trend for which I’ve lost all patience. It’s a pre-fab cult item, a hodgepodge of influences made deliberately awkward and over-the-top in hopes of playing on nostalgia for cheap cult items of the past. This one is a faux-80’s kids’ movie crossed with the most outlandish gore, like a Mad Max knockoff was in a head-on collision with BMX Bandits then crashed through a factory pumping fake blood and body parts. The intent is to play up cheesy affectations (like narration opening the movie telling us it’s set in the nuclear winter wasteland of the far future…1997), cheap design (a supporting character wears what is essentially a laundry basket turned over on his head), and silly sound effects, promising a juvenile entertainment cackling at preposterously bloody violence, galumphing thin plot, and self-conscious camp.

Written and directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell as an expansion of their prior short film, the feature runs an exhausted 95 minutes, spinning its wheels in an underpopulated and under-imagined world, wall-to-wall synth score underlining every empty plot point. We follow The Kid (Degrassi’s Munro Chambers), a cute teen with a mop of shaggy hair and permanent look of innocent befuddlement, even when hacking apart a baddie, arterial spray coating his bangs. He’s decked out in bright red armor as he rides his bike through whatever abandoned lots and empty warehouses the production could make look suitably post-apocalyptic. It’s in this environment, shot in flat digital brightness and fleshed out with a sparse sound effects library, he encounters a Bad Guy named Zeus (Michael Ironside sporting an ugly eye patch), and Apple, a friendly chipper robot who looks like a teenage girl (Laurence Leboeuf). They get involved in the usual barren wasteland scuffles over resources and revenge.

It’s one of those movies that try to make their cheapness and derivativeness an asset by deliberately muddying the line between bad and “bad,” slathering everything in a suffocating layer of irony and imprisoning every last frame in air quotes. Even the opening production company logo brags, “#1 in Laserdisc!” There are no characters to care about or plot to get involved in when the entire aim is for a midnight movie audience to embrace its winking references to genuine cult classics (a little RoboCop here, a little Road Warrior there), snicker at stilted dialogue (“Try avoiding people, especially those who look evil…”) and groove on its nasty weirdness and retro future. It’s a movie where a villain has his hand cut off and stands in front of the camera as red syrup spurts across the lens, looking as confused as we are that this little detail is taking up so much screen time. By the time eyes have been gouged, saw-blades have been thrown, and one head is hacked into three dangling pieces, it’s all just numbing, no matter how many tube televisions feature into “future” technology.

I understand the appeal of being in on the joke. But why go see a Turbo Kid (or a Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, or a Hobo with a Shotgun, or a WolfCop, or…) where the whole point is to jokingly replicate low budget filmmaking of yore, when you could just see the genuine article? Here’s a movie that achieves its narrow goals completely, but at no point was an actual full-fledged movie part of the goal. At least Roger Corman pictures, even the bad ones, were trying to genuinely exploit a concept, and maybe even make a good movie in the process. When you start with the idea of making a bad movie, of course that’s what you’ll end up with. Why even bother? I’d rather see filmmakers take their junk food cinema influences and make something new out of them (see Tarantino, Edgar Wright, the best of Robert Rodriguez). You simply can’t substitute a wink for cleverness, or a reference for creativity.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Old Folks Home: THE VISIT

M. Night Shyamalan has proven himself a masterful visual storyteller several times over. From his breakthrough The Sixth Sense, which sold its famous big twist in a wordless reveal, to Signs and The Village, which kept their monsters almost entirely out of the frame, he’s shown a facility with long takes and precise composition, playing with background and foreground information and use of focus. Such patience, which he’s put to great effect even in big digital spectacles like After Earth, is rare in mainstream filmmaking these days. His latest film, The Visit, is a found footage horror movie, at first glance a form antithetical to his visual precision. But he uses it for all it’s worth, making its shaking and self-aware status assets instead of impediments. The carefully casual cinematography is used to highlight the importance of what’s seen and what’s not seen, how people perform for a camera and for each other, and how scary it can be to not have access to full information about a situation or a person.

The movie we’re watching is a documentary a 15-year-old girl (Olivia DeJonge) is making about her estranged grandparents. She and her 13-year-old brother (Ed Oxenbould) are meeting them for the first time, their mother (Kathryn Hahn) having had an angry severing of ties before their births. A precocious film buff thinking she’s on the verge of creating a moving story of family reunion, she conscripts her brother to be an assistant cameraman. So that’s how cinematographer Maryse Alberti convincingly explains two angles on the happenings as they head off to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farmhouse to spend a week. She lectures her brother on the importance of mise-en-scène, on allowing the frame to suggest more beyond what it literally sees, on making sure they only film that which they’re directly involved with. (Consequently, the movie’s the best-looking, well-considered example of its type.) He’s happy to help, but also admits, “Who gives a crap about cinematic standards?”

Setting the groundwork for understanding why these kids end up with many fussy shots, and continue to film even when their vacation starts getting creepy, Shyamalan uses the camcorder footage to stage scenes of great visual mystery and uncanny normalcy to directly comment upon our position as viewers. We see what we see because of characters’ decisions. This puts us close to their thoughts, where a zoom or a pan can clue us into the mind of the person behind the scenes. Before the camera, we see people playing roles, pulling faces, trying to be what others expect of them. Behind it, we see curiosities in revealing visual choices. Like the best found footage – The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended – the closeness it affords, and the commonness of its look, comments directly upon the character’s preoccupations. Here we see a girl who thought she could shape her life’s narrative, but realizes her grandparents aren’t following the script she’d had in her head.

When the kids first arrive, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) go out of their way to be grandparently stereotypes. They’re excited to meet the youngsters and are eager to fill a role they’ve never before gotten to play, giving tours, playing games, and providing lots of baked goods. Together the four characters have funny and awkward attempts to connect, forcing a family dynamic while gingerly ignoring as best they can the fact they’re total strangers. The charade can’t last long, and the first sad twist is a reveal of encroaching senility. While the kids wander around, hang out, ask questions, and get footage (the movie is perceptive about kids’ aimless free time to be filled with hobbies and wondering) they notice something off about the old folks. It’s not just the strict 9:30 bedtime. The elderly couple is suffering from forgetfulness, confusion, mood swings, sleepwalking, incontinence, violent anger, and maybe dementia or schizophrenia, too.

They’re just old, the kids think. That’s what their mom tells them when they worriedly Skype with her. They should just be careful and make the best of it. It’s only a few more days. Besides, it’ll make for a better documentary. Sliding into mercilessly nasty suspense, the movie accrues creepy details (a locked shed, a child-sized oven, a muddy well) and brilliant misdirection before springing surprise jolts in a finale full of jumpy scares, gross out shocks, perfectly timed violence, and the worst game of Yahtzee ever recorded. Every step of the way, it’s about what’s known and what’s unknown, what we can see for sure and we fear we can’t. While satisfying genre demands, Shyamalan makes good use of his conceit, cleverly pointing out its own mechanics (“This can be the dénouement,” the girl whispers excitedly near the climax) while sitting in unsettling intimate territory. It plays on common fears that older people in your life will inevitably slip away from you and become something you don’t recognize.

The Visit is a movie about the nature of performance, the person you try to be when others are watching. It’s smart about finding the performative aspects of childhood, and family life in general in another of Shyamalan's stories of broken families looking to be made whole. The form is an added wrinkle. The theoretical audience the camera represents is a factor in the leads’ behavior. We see the kids setting up shots, playing for the camera, looking at footage, editing, putting in music, and discussing their creative decisions. The girl hopes it’s not too schmaltzy. The boy wants to rap over the end credits. As the creepiness of their week builds, their posturing falls away. Eventually the camera is left to only capture clear slashes of fright, as characters become not who they want to be seen as, or who they hope to find, but who they really are. Amusing, scary, admirably strange, and expertly button-pushing, this is Shyamalan at his most crowd-pleasing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Everybody Here Wanted Something More:

“Welcome to the Great White Way!” Brooke declares from the middle of the glowing staircase in Times Square, arms outstretched in a glamorous convivial gesture. She wants to make a good impression, since she’s meeting her soon-to-be stepsister for the first time. It’s just too bad that she shouted her greeting too early, and so gingerly makes her way down the steps while awkwardly holding her pose, flashes of panic on her face as she tries not to trip. This early scene in Mistress America, Noah Baumbach’s new comedy, is a snapshot of the relationship at its core, one woman looking up to, and yet aware of the flaws of, another. The difference between the spectacular moments in their minds and the sad realities bringing them down, between grand intentions and wobbly reality, is mined for hilarity, but also for great empathy.

These are two women trying to forge their identities in the crucible of New York City, bound together by nothing more than the impending marriage of one’s father to the other’s mother. What they make of this new connection is as funny as it is revealing. The bouncy score (by Luna’s Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham) motors a comedy of complicated characters, a nicely drawn charmer gaining sharp insight and quick laughs by creating characters specifically drawn and deeply felt. Brooke, a sunny 30-year-old, has been living in the city for several years. The younger is Tracy, a fresh-faced 18, just moved in from the suburbs to attend college. Tracy is pulled immediately into Brooke’s magnetic orbit, instantly enamored with a new big sister who personifies everything she thought life as a young adult in New York should be: interesting, funny, ambitious, connected, with sharp fashion sense and the charm to be the life of every party.

Lola Kirke plays Tracy with a look of shy awe, feeling lucky to have found such a perfect mentor to guide her into a glamorous and productive adulthood. Taken under the wing of this new friend, she’s led out to bars, clubs, concerts, and hipster hangouts, even allowed to crash on the couch in a homey studio apartment hidden illegally in a commercially zoned building. Creative juices flowing, she begins to write a short story inspired by Brooke, lovely precocious freshman prose that becomes warm narration throughout. There we discover the sharp observations Tracy has, the kind Brooke would never stop to consider about herself. And what a character Brooke is! Played by Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote with her Frances Ha partner Baumbach, she's a bubbly extrovert charging through every scenario convinced she’s the master of the universe.

She shows up at all the best places, possesses a tremendous clarity about her goals (she wants to start a restaurant where people can also shop, and get their haircut, and more), and is eager to invite a younger friend into her life as a prop (to show off, and to use as support). Is it a real friendship the women create? Who’s to say? Brooke’s one of those people who seems to know everyone and be close friends with most of them. Still, the genius in Gerwig’s performance of boundless energy and daffy quotability (“I don’t know if you’re a zen master or a sociopath,” she tells a deadpan friend) is her ability to casually pick holes in Brooke’s façade. She’s desperate to be considered a success, fills every silence with hollow patter, and mercilessly observes everyone’s flaws but her own. Her constant movement and talk serves as a way to throw doubt and insecurities away from herself and on to others.

What Baumbach and Gerwig create is a portrait of a woman who is a dazzling frazzled idea machine, creative but without good follow-through. She’s totally lovable, but spiked with off-putting self-involvement. At one point, she encounters an old high school classmate who confesses memories of her as a hurtful bully. Brooke nonchalantly confesses she can’t feel sorry since she doesn’t remember. It’s ice cold, and seemingly doesn’t impact the rest of her chipper conversation to which she immediately returns. We follow Brooke and Tracy through a collection of beautifully executed comic scenarios populated with broad types who quickly become fully fleshed people whose loves and lives and dreams really matter. The scene with the old classmate has such an impact because of the instant humanity it observes. We see how difficult it is to have your self-image interrupted by a view from outside your head, and how much easier it would be to not let such perspective cloud your good time.

An endlessly witty confection worth savoring on a line-by-line basis, the film forges a real and tangible connection to its characters while sharply observing modern social dynamics. We meet some self-serious college kids (Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones) and bunch of wealthy Connecticut suburbanites (including Michael Chernus and Heather Lind, who Brooke considers her “nemesis”) as the movie builds to a lengthy farcical climax. It teases out its casual ideas about gender politics and income inequality as punchlines roll in rapid waves. But what’s most satisfying is the patient and casually moving moments that follow, bringing its unsettled threads together as characters finally must reckon with the impact of their actions and relationships.

It’s probably Baumbach’s most sweetly affectionate film, certainly less openly acidic than something like The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg, though just as cynical in its softer way. The movie allows its characters to be figures of fun and yet nonjudgmentally free to be who they are. It gets what it’s like to enjoy someone’s presence, without really buying into the persona they’re selling, just as surely as it knows the hustle it takes to make a life for yourself outside the homogenous norm. The movie respects its characters' flaws while allowing them room for potential and growth, and it is all the sunnier for it. Call it the Gerwig effect. She brings out the best in Baumbach. With casually beautiful framing and perfectly timed editing (from Sam Levy and Jennifer Lame, respectively, who were also key Frances Ha collaborators), Baumbach makes Mistress America a light and energetic comedy of dialogue and manners that manages to draw real and modern emotional truths in the process.

Friday, September 4, 2015


The Transporter movies, a B-level series of action pictures produced and co-written by busy French genre impresario Luc Besson, have simple goals. They just want to provide exuberantly ridiculous car chases and clever hand-to-hand combat, a man in a fine tailored suit handsomely in the middle of it all. They’re mostly enjoyable on that level, but are otherwise best known for coronating Jason Statham an action star, casting him in the role of a black-market driver, a tightly controlled, expressively competent, vaguely bemused, adeptly violent man with a code. He spent three movies saving kids, stopping polluters, freeing captives, and rescuing refugees, more often than not by engaging in high-speed precision driving and by punching people in creative ways. My favorite involves his use of a hose to take out half a dozen baddies in Transporter 2, the franchise’s high-water mark, so to speak.

So when The Transporter Refueled decided to recast (a TV spin-off already had, but nevermind) the filmmakers had a difficult task. On the one hand, the character has little backstory, few attachments, a stock personality, and almost no continuity. But on the other hand, The Transporter has been affixed almost irretrievably with Statham’s screen persona, to the point where the actor turned up this summer in Furious 7 and Spy playing what were two very different variations on his most famous role, with an audience expected to be instantly in on the joke. Here we have a relatively new face, Ed Skrein, most famous for a handful of Game of Thrones episodes, stepping into the shiny black Audi gleaming in fawning product placement sheen, ready to make the part his own. He doesn’t, really, but the movie zooms ahead anyway.

Refueled is a strange sideways reboot, expecting us to already know who The Transporter is: an excellent driver following a strict set of rules for his behavior and protection. But we’re not expected to care about any particular past story beats or backstory. Everything old is new, and vice versa. Skrein’s first scene involves beating back prospective carjackers, a feat he accomplishes drolly and quickly. Then he’s off to pick up his next fare. He fits the part like he fits the suit. He’s slim, fit, pretty, and capable of throwing a convincing punch. He lacks Statham’s charisma, or his knack for wryly spitting bad dialogue, and using casually athletic improvisation melded to a stubborn persistence. But screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Besson have written a slightly softer Transporter. He ices his bloodied knuckles, gives in to romantic overtures, and loves his dad. He can still use a jet ski to throw himself out of the water and into a moving car, though.

The plot is this. The Transporter’s father (Ray Stevenson) is kidnapped. The only way to save him is to cooperate with a mysterious group of women (led by Loan Chabanol) who wear identical platinum blonde wigs and tight black dresses, the better to confuse security cameras when they pull off daring capers. It turns out they’re prostitutes determined to rob their evil pimp (Radivoje Bukvic) before ridding themselves of him for good. What follows is a diverting revenge-fueled heist. It provides an excuse for a variety of competently executed action sequences, director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) allowing his stunt crews and fight choreographers just enough space to show off. There’s a car chase down tight streets, several bouts of close-quarters fisticuffs, a silly smash through an airport, and a standoff on a yacht which conveniently has a room full of antique weapons.

It gets the job done. This programmatic production is a reasonably well-made minor distraction. It’s slickly photographed, jumpily edited, propulsively exciting, and violent in a mostly bloodless way. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, bits and pieces of action movies past recombined in sleek packaging. The father/son dynamic is straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, pops calling him junior a lot. The action moves like any car chase picture with pauses for Jackie Chan-inspired footwork. And the women’s fairly clever plan rolls out in an attention-holding way despite operating like any and every movie heist. It would be more than vaguely empowering if they weren’t also trophies, like Fury Road dragged down a mad Maxim road. Still, the end result is fast enough and silly enough to hold together and work its B-minus magic. I’ve seen better; I’ve seen worse. It’s stupid, senseless, and unnecessary. But that’s not entirely the same thing as bad.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Old Men and the Trees: A WALK IN THE WOODS

If you thought the only thing holding Wild’s hiking-as-journey-of-self-discovery metaphor back was a total lack of broad sitcom shenanigans, have I got a movie for you. Ken Kwapis, veteran director of TV (The Office) and ensemble comedy (He’s Just Not That Into You) has adapted A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, into treacly sentiment and exhausted lightness. It starts with a tired old writer (Robert Redford) deciding he’d like to go for a long hike. His wife (Emma Thompson) pleads with him to not go alone, and so, after exhausting all options, he ends up reunited with an old friend (Nick Nolte) who wants to come along. The rest of the movie involves the guys meandering their way from Georgia up to New England, seeing beautiful sights and getting involved in the mildest of comedy antics along their episodic way.

Bryson’s an often amusing humorist on the page, but none of his personality survives a transplant into the blandest feel-good big screen tripe. It’s supposed to be life affirming watching the guys bond and overcome obstacles. In practice, the screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman is strained silliness mixed with even more strained seriousness. It makes for a pushy blend that doesn’t even try too hard to be manipulative. The characters have little of interest to say, and appear to have no investment in their own actions. We have a few limp scenes in which Redford looks bored at an interview and a funeral and we’re supposed to interpret that as a sign he wants to do something fun and exciting before he gets even older. Later, Nolte comes stumbling into the picture, red-faced and wheezing, obviously out of shape and unprepared for a long hike. We’re supposed to be ready to admire his tenacity and persistence. The easy setup gives way to thin development. You know pretty much where it’s headed at every step.

Kwapis and crew trust that a somnambulant outdoorsy Redford and a blustering stumbling Nolte will hold the audience’s interest. The whole thing coasts on goodwill generated by memories of better performances in more interesting projects. The leads are responsible for some magnetic and riveting screen presences over the last half-century plus. And when their eyes are sparkling and their voices roll out like smooth water over rough rocks, it’s easy to remember why they became big deals. They work well here together, but the material they’re given is dire. Slack and inert, the sad slop has them fall down, eat pancakes, flirt, lose clothing, splash in water and mud, and scamper up and down leafy hills. Then they’ll pause, staring slack jawed at some gorgeous vista before moving on, platitudes piled up on lovely landscapes before another bout of vaguely humorous scenarios. It’s never all that funny, but at least its rarely punishingly mean.

At it’s best, we see the two old men moving silently through fields and trees in insipid wide shots that could easily be repurposed in ads for life insurance, retirement accounts, or erectile dysfunction. But soon they are back mixing it up with a parade of cameos, rolling their eyes at a camping expert (Nick Offerman), young people (fit bros, squeaky boy scouts, and the like), a flirty hotel proprietor (Mary Steenburgen), and an annoying know-it-all woman (Kristen Schaal). The musty perspective in which these guys feel self-righteously validated in scoffing at all women and children is strange, but convincingly old-white-guy. As they bond by getting snowed on, angering hicks, and confronting a bear (seeing Nolte standing up trapped in his tent hollering at a wild animal is a real standout moment) the Hallmark glitter is chokingly dusted as the music swells and the trees sway in the breeze. And then it’s over.