Saturday, February 27, 2016

False Idols: GODS OF EGYPT

A big, lumbering, gaudy, gold-plated fantasy set in Ancient Egypt, Gods of Egypt is a modest collection of oddball flourishes buried under an explosion of convention and generic effects. It’s idiosyncratic in all the small details, but overblown and undercooked in the broad sweep of its tedious and predictable quest narrative. Behind this eccentric production is Alex Proyas, a director of blockbusters who brings such total commitment to his ideas that you have to admire the force of his personality shining through, no matter what you think of the end results. He’s given us the death-haunted pop Goth The Crow, the sci-fi noir Dark City, the popcorn tech ethicist actioner I, Robot, and the genuinely apocalyptic disaster conspiracy picture Knowing. Those are nothing if not big swings. But they can’t all connect big, hence his latest. Gods of Egypt is his worst, but only because it clearly got away from everyone involved, a mess of ideas and impulses at which a studio kept throwing money when a comprehensive rewrite would’ve been a better idea.

The film finds Egypt ruled by its Gods, towering gold-blooded giants who demand the praise and obedience of their small, humble mortal subjects. Lazy Horus (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is about to ascend to the throne when his Uncle Set (300’s Gerard Butler) takes the crown for himself. To add injury to insult, Set plucks out Horus’ diamond eyes and locks them in a vault. This casts the land into a villainous darkness that should be familiar to anyone who has seen this sort of thing before. The plot proper kicks off when a spirited human thief (Brenton Thwaites, playing the thin, pretty, bland hero) makes a deal with Horus. If he gets the God his eyes, then the God must find a way to save the poor boy’s grievously wounded One True Love (Courtney Eaton in gowns cut for maximum cleavage) from the clutches of the underworld. That’s all pro forma fantasy nonsense. The real glorious goofiness is in the details.

This is a movie in which a bald Geoffrey Rush pulls the sun across the flat Earth’s sky in a boat floating above the atmosphere, stopping periodically to do battle with a ginormous space worm. It features magic immortals who can turn into grotesque cartoony animals or extrude armored plates from their skin like Egyptian Transformers. It has Chadwick Boseman as an egotistical know-it-all God who clones himself a hundred times over, and Elodie Yung as a Goddess who can find anyone with magic sand, provided her magic bracelet keeps her literal demons at bay. There are waterfalls from outer space, Rubik cube pyramid puzzles, a crumbling sentient Sphinx, a flying chariot pulled by giant scarabs, and a days-long line of deceased souls ready to blissfully commune with a pulsing energy they call the afterlife. This is all pleasantly straight-faced odd, a mix between high fantasy and low cornball camp. Proyas takes the mythology just seriously enough, and stages some fun sequences, like two massive fire-breathing snakes attacking our heroes, or thundering fisticuffs atop a 2,000-cubit high obelisk.

But the screenplay by Dracula Untold’s Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless makes a miscalculation in becoming one of those fantasy stories that spends more time filling us in on its rules, caveats, backstory, prophecies, curses, and other assorted gobs of tedious exposition than in actually running through its main story. As a result the brightly lit movie feels endless and consequence free, since the magic is arbitrary and prone to change (with laborious explanation) if the next scene calls for it. There’s no weight. Add to this a feeling of a salvage job, with mismatched scenes, awkward jumps in logic, and plot holes papered over with afterthought narration and incessant tin-eared exposition, and the whole thing starts giving off a whiff of sloppiness. I mean, this is an Egyptology fantasy with a cast of Brits, Americans, Danes, Aussies, anyone but an actual Egyptian. (Butler’s brogue has to be the least fitting Cairo speaking voice since Edward G. Robinson’s in The Ten Commandments.) This is a clearly a movie that’s the product of an interesting directorial imagination hobbled by more than a few unfortunate decisions. 

Friday, February 26, 2016


Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is as lyrical and moving as Wuxia epics (Chinese tales of ancient martial arts and magic) get, and was a rare crossover hit back in 2000. With masterful enchanting wirework martial arts choreographed with balletic intensity, combatants’ limbs moved so deftly and precisely they lifted off the ground, lighter than air. In moving flashbacks and smartly structured narrative, the storytelling took on sweeping scope and lush romanticism. What a lovely movie. But, alas, it set the bar too high for a sequel to clear, especially one arriving sixteen years later done on the cheap with almost none of the cast and crew returning. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a cash-grab on the part of the producers and studios who owned the rights to a title with some name recognition. But maybe it’s a tad unfair to compare it too closely to its predecessor. Is it a good Wuxia film on its own terms? Not especially. It’s so unmemorable, I found it slipping out of my mind on a scene-by-scene basis.

Director Yuen Woo-Ping, action choreographer for the original, and a decent action filmmaker in his own right (he helmed Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and the fun Iron Monkey), and screenwriter John Fusco (Hidalgo – remember that?) proceed to make a film full of decisions that strip its world of magic and majesty. It’s in English. It’s shot flatly by generally reliable Newton Thomas Sigel (Bryan Singer's usual cinematographer) in sets and on locations flooded with bright light. It’s loaded up with conspicuously computer generated establishing shots. Scenes play out in textureless medium shots and rote shot/reverse shot, erupting in action framed in expressionless utilitarian coverage. Where’s the lyricism of the original, or the energetic excitement of a typical Yuen Woo-Ping production? Every indication points to a movie done quickly and cheaply, governed largely by business decisions and other bland-making forces. The result is a generic Wuxia knockoff that’s somehow roped in some genuine talent. It’s as weightless as its fighters’ feet.

The plot focuses once again on the legendary sword Green Destiny, which is clearly destined to be an eternally coveted MacGuffin. The great Michelle Yeoh – always a welcome sight, compelling and dignified, even in this dull claptrap – is the only returning cast member, playing Yu Shu Lien, a humble master swordswoman who is dragged into conflict over the weapon. A snarling bad guy (Jason Scott Lee) wants it. He sends a bunch of warriors (including Glee’s Harry Shum Jr.) after it. Others – like a woman named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and a man named Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) – want to protect it. There’s the story. Fusco’s script spins its wheels on overlong and underdeveloped characterization and backstory, somehow stretching the whole thing out to a mere 89 minutes before collapsing into the end credits. (It somehow feels twice as long.) He provides tedious connective tissue between bouts of combat in a handful of locales, none as striking or memorable as the rooftops or treetops of the original.

While it’s nobody’s best work, it has its moments. A few sequences – like a Donnie Yen-centric brawl or a quiet fight in a room full of vases where the characters are carefully trying not to break anything – feature enough fancy footwork and clever choreography to rise to the level of mildly diverting. But these are surrounded by so little of interest, with a plodding plot achingly predictable filled in with formulaic motivations and sparsely decorated and populated sets. There’s an overwhelming sense that the bare minimum is on display. And that’s too bad, because this is a film built off an all-time classic, and filled with a talented cast of people woefully underrepresented in Hollywood productions. There’s not a white face in sight, and many fighters here are cool women slicing and floating through combat. It’s disappointing they’re stuck in a movie so flat and empty, lacking even a hint of the pulse or poetry it deserves.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Fright Awakening: THE VVITCH

An uncommonly absorbing horror film, The Witch is a far more spiritually and psychologically fraught experience than the average mainstream fright fare. In the process, it makes witchcraft absolutely terrifying again, in all the ways Bewitched, Harry Potter, and Halloween decorations have softened it over the decades. It does so by committing to austere period piece seriousness, setting its tale in a convincing, authentically recreated, and well-researched 1600’s colonial New England, where witches and other malevolent evil spirits were a more regular source of real worry. Remember the Salem Witch Trials. The film does an impressive job of rooting its narrative in the context of a deeply religious people whose beliefs give accusations of witchcraft a real terror and weight. Like all the best horror films, it makes its monsters into effective metaphor, stand-ins for the fear and tension in the wilderness of colonial life for people who’ve left their homeland to find uncertainty and difficulty of survival in a new land. It’s about a feeling of life falling apart, beyond control, and how hard it is to protect your family from those dangers.

Writer/director Robert Eggers (a production designer making a most impressive feature debut) creates a film firmly embedded in a historical reality and deeply understanding of its characters struggles, emotionally, materially, and spiritually. It concerns itself with the life of a small family cast out from their village to live on their own in a clearing in the woods. A stoic father (Ralph Ineson) is sure they’ll survive by farming, with plenty of crops to eat and trade. But as a permanent fog of overcast grayness lingers over their land, and the corn slowly rots on the cobs, a sense of gloom and trepidation descends. It’s a mood that only worsens when their infant son disappears during a game of peek-a-boo with his teenage sister (Anya Taylor-Joy). He’s there one moment, gone without a trace the next. There’s something very wrong here. Their mother (Kate Dickie) is devastated; the girl who was watching the baby is haunted by guilt, and her family’s suspicions. The other children, a well-intentioned tween boy (Harvey Scrimshaw) and whimsical young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), try to go on the best they can.

It’s in the surrounding woods, dark and foreboding, where we see glimpses of the witch, a cackling crone doing unspeakable unclear dark magic in an early, deeply upsetting montage. Mostly, though, we’re with the family as they try their best to mourn the lost baby and eke out a meager existence on their tiny farm. Eggers’ sense of tone is impressively controlled, casting a spell of heavy dread. There’s a subtle droning, rhythmically clacking score erupting in swirling evil soprano vocalizations at the film’s creepiest moments. But for long stretches what we see is simply farm work, chores, children playing, fervent praying. Like the village in Haneke’s similarly stark White Ribbon, this is a normal life, a daily struggle for survival, where the strain of quotidian danger puts pressure on people’s relationships, allowing their own worst fears to manifest. Children behave strangely. People mysteriously disappear and reappear. Sickness descends. “I’ve become like Job’s wife,” the mother sobs, interrupting her urgent, incessant praying. The lonely isolated family unit is surrounded by fear of the unknown.

The supernatural threat lingering in the wilderness is only the most literal expression of the existential panic settling over them all. The trancelike filmmaking – patient, well considered, edited like a softly breathing dream state – emphasizes the spiritual angst. Pale light suffuses Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, which might as well be black and white in its most evocative moments of flickering flame-lit inky unknowable darkness. It’s an ice-cold surface; underneath roils unspoken doubts and desires, certainties and questioning. The father worries they’ll run out of food and won’t last the winter. The mother is concerned for the safety of her children and wants to return to England. The teenage girl frets about her parent’s disapproval and siblings’ judgment. The pre-teen boy is feeling biological urges unable to find healthy expression, manifesting as partially submerged innocent incestuous inquisitiveness, staring at his older sister’s body with curiosity. The younger kids love antagonizing their devilish goat Black Phillip and singing songs with folkloric darkness brimming through. It’s they who first wonder if there’s a witch in their midst.

The filmmaking creates an impressive and immersive sense of place and time, populated with perfectly calibrated performances, from the adults down to the child actors. (Even the goat has great expressive personality.) I was so lost in their work I felt I was seeing a real family of the time before my eyes. Eggers’ screenplay is rich with archaic sentence structures and older English diction, sounding like some lost historical document or dusty literary source. Indeed the end credits mention his copious research on colonial folklore and incident, which sometimes made it word-for-word into a script far more fluid and vital than such provenance would suggest. There’s a real feel for the character’s beliefs, of their religious fervor as both great solace and great torment. They predate Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but its there in the urgency with which they confess their sins in whispered prayers, feeding their feeling of supernatural judgment, a curse that’s befallen them in desperate need of lifting. They believe deeply, and that belief, the bone-deep penitential 17th century Christian certitude, gives the film its ethereal charge. They’re afraid for their lives, but even more so they’re afraid for their eternal souls.

The Witch is scary, with long sequences of eerie behavior and a few well-placed sudden shocks of gore, but worse is the real spiritual torment it puts these characters through. It taps into the fear of good and evil manifested in their lives, where the fear of omnipresent evil may be enough to make one give in and join it. Horror films all too rarely make that conflict feel so vivid and real, especially as it taps into a related real-world fear of failing those closest to you, giving into the darkness that surrounds you, and bad decisions leaving your loved ones vulnerable. It’s bleak and despairing, an enveloping, slow-burning, cage-rattling freak-out. It lingers with powerfully unsettling intensity, closer in spirit to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining than the usual modern multiplex horror fare as it builds to its harrowing tragic ending. This is the best, most intensely unsettling and heartrending horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Bridge of Spies
3. The Look of Silence
4. Mistress America
5. Inside Out
6. Tangerine
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
8. Magic Mike XXL
9. Joy
10. Blackhat

Special Prize: World of Tomorrow
The Next Ten:
Brooklyn, Carol, Crimson Peak, Ex Machina, James White, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Timbuktu, The Walk

Honorable Mentions:
45 Years, Approaching the Elephant, Creed, Girlhood, The Good Dinosaur, In Jackson Heights, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Li’l Quinquin, Mississippi Grind, Mustang, The Night Before, Paddington, The Peanuts Movie, Phoenix, Queen of Earth, The Revenant, Room, Slow West, Spotlight, Spy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Unfriended, The Visit, What We Do in the Shadows, When Marnie Was There, Wild Tales

Other 2015 Bests

Other 2015 Bests

Best Cinematography – Digital
            Maryse Alberti Creed
            Peter Andrews Magic Mike XXL
Sean Baker and Radium Cheung Tangerine
Stuart Dryburgh Blackhat
John Seale Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Cinematography – Film
            Mark Lee Ping Bin The Assassin
Robert Elswit Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
            Hoyte van Hoytema Spectre
Janusz Kaminski Bridge of Spies
            Ed Lachman Carol
Best Sound
            Bridge of Spies
            Ex Machina
            Mad Max: Fury Road
            Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Special Effects
            Ex Machina
            Mad Max: Fury Road
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens
            The Walk

Best Stunts
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Costumes
            Far From the Madding Crowd
            Mad Max: Fury Road
            The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Makeup
Crimson Peak
            Ex Machina
            Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Set/Art Direction
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Editing
            Bridge of Spies
            The Look of Silence
            Mad Max: Fury Road
            Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Best Score
            Creed Ludwig Goransson
Crimson Peak Fernando Velázquez
            Inside Out Michael Giacchino
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens John Williams
            Tomorrowland Michael Giacchino
Best Song
            “Cause I Knew” Li’l Quinquin
“Cold One” Ricki and the Flash
            “Feels Like Summer” Shaun the Sheep Movie
“Love Me Like You Do” Fifty Shades of Grey
            “Pray 4 My City” Chi-Raq
“Youngblood” Jem and the Holograms

Best Adapted Screenplay
            Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen Bridge of Spies
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington Creed
Phyllis Nagy Carol
            Christopher McQuarrie Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, & Nico Lathouris Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Original Screenplay
            Olivier Assayas Clouds of Sils Maria
Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch Tangerine
            Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig Mistress America
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, & Josh Cooley Inside Out
Alex Garland Ex Machina

Best Documentary
            Approaching the Elephant
The Armor of Light
In Jackson Heights
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
The Look of Silence

Best Animated Film
            The Good Dinosaur
            Inside Out
            The Peanuts Movie
            Shaun the Sheep Movie
            When Marnie Was There

Best Foreign Film
            Li’l Quinquin
             A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
            Wild Tales
Best Supporting Actor
Ed Harris Run All Night
Oscar Isaac Ex Machina
            Richard Jenkins Bone Tomahawk
Mark Rylance Bridge of Spies           
            Sylvester Stallone Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis Blackhat
Cynthia Nixon James White
Kristen Stewart Clouds of Sils Maria
Mya Taylor Tangerine
Alicia Vikander Ex Machina

Best Actor
Christopher Abbott James White
Tom Hanks Bridge of Spies
Michael B. Jordan Creed
Ian McKellen Mr. Holmes
            Taika Waititi What We Do in the Shadows

Best Actress
            Juliette Binoche Clouds of Sils Maria
            Nina Hoss Phoenix
            Kitana Kiki Rodriguez Tangerine
            Charlize Theron Mad Max: Fury Road
            Kristen Wiig Welcome to Me

Best Director
            Sean Baker Tangerine
            Noah Baumbach Mistress America
George Miller Mad Max: Fury Road
            Joshua Oppenheimer The Look of Silence
Steven Spielberg Bridge of Spies

Saturday, February 13, 2016


Michael Moore has spent his career as an op-ed documentarian cataloging America’s problems. Outsourcing, gun violence, inequality, political corruption, and more have been justifiable sources of anger and confusion. Some of his films are great. His Flint-set 1989 debut, Roger & Me, is his best and most personal, quick-witted and sharply edited. His 2004 anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 was a fiery cathartic polemic then, and has aged into a fine time capsule of mid-aughts outrage. But elsewhere his work tends to suffer from slippery details, overextended arguments that grow fuzzy in the center, and a prankish sense of humor that often dilutes otherwise serious points. And yet I always admire his intentions, even if I quibble with his approach. His latest, Where to Invade Next, attacks the same national problems with a change of focus: a movie entirely about solutions for our country’s ills. It’s supposed to be more optimistic, and it sometimes is, but it also left me frustrated.

The title might lead you to assume it’s a documentary about the military-industrial complex, a rich topic and one suited for his style. Nope. Its premise has Moore – in his usual Tiger’s baseball cap and man-of-the-people gait – going around the world looking for ideas, places where other countries have solved troubles plaguing the U.S. He smirks about being a one-man invading force looting foreign lands of their good solutions. He makes jokes about it to some of his interview subjects, and ends each segment leaving an American flag behind. It’s not nearly as funny as he thinks it is. But the trip around the world takes him to some interesting stops, where generally happy people sit around loving life and getting shocked when they hear that Americans have it worse than them in some ways. Take the nice Italian couple who are flabbergasted that U.S. workers aren’t legally granted vacation days. Bless their hearts.

Moore goes to a French elementary school where a professional chef works with a dietician to make fresh gourmet meals for the students. He talks to Slovenian students who go to school debt free, Italian factory workers who enjoy their two-hour lunches, and Portuguese law enforcement officials who explain they decriminalized illegal substances, increased funding for addiction treatment, and saw drug-related problems drop. Everywhere Moore goes he finds people are living lives free of some particular trauma we Americans must confront. He finds strong health care, strict corporate regulations, compassionate prisons, free women’s health clinics, and comprehensive and open-minded sex-ed programs. He shows us schools without standardized tests, legal systems with no death penalty, companies with policies for increasing gender parity and decreasing income inequality. All along his argument is that if we tried out some of these ideas in America, we, too, could live longer, happier, healthier, more productive lives.

He finds wonderful places, locations in the world that look like terrific spots to move if this whole election year goes bad. But there’s the problem. I never once felt the fervor of possibility he tries to express. He says we could make America a great progressive place, moving past seemingly immovable obstacles as easily as a hammer and chisel can knock down a wall. But would America ever really go for any of these solutions? His footage from the homeland – common sights of police brutality, economic injustice, and other woes – is far more discouraging than the better examples overseas are encouraging. Sure, we have the power to make a positive change. Yet when we’re staring down the barrel of a broken two-party system, half of which has left all logic and reason behind and is hell bent on obstructing government of any kind in any way, shape, or form (let alone movement on important issues), it’s hard to have hope.

But that’s my problem, not the film’s. What does rankle is his reductive jokey premise, deployed to breeze past specifics on his way to the next idyllic locale. For all I learned about these fascinating success stories and the attitudes that brought them about, I was left wanting more. When did these social programs go into place? Who fought for them? How are they maintained? Are there any downsides or dissent? I certainly don’t know after two hours with this movie, maybe because specificity in these areas would dampen the positive thinking Moore is trying out. He’s a good enough filmmaker to keep it moving right along, hopping from one vignette to the next, each of which could’ve been an entire film in and of itself. Its tour of appealing surfaces is encouraging in showing that not every country has given up on supporting the common good. It’s the ultimate expression of patriotism: to love America so much that one wishes it were better.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dead and Loathing It: DEADPOOL

At last there’s a movie for anyone who really wants a cheap R-rated X-Men entry. Deadpool, a comparatively low-budget and almost entirely disconnected spin-off of Fox’s superhero mutant team-up franchise, follows a sampler of the exploits of a smart aleck mercenary (Ryan Reynolds) who is cured of cancer and given regenerative powers like Wolverine’s. Ah, but the mad scientists who do it (led by the new Transporter Ed Skrein and Haywire’s Gina Carano) have vague and nefarious ulterior motives. This leaves the guy left for dead a scarred and burned mutant with a bad attitude. He’s out for revenge, putting on a tight red suit and mask and calling himself Deadpool, determined to kill everyone who wronged him. That doesn’t sound very heroic, and indeed he resists the label the entire way through a movie of nonstop profanity and violence interrupted only by its protagonist’s wall-to-wall interior monologue. He turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience in a motormouthed outpouring of cynical snark, as if winkingly calling out its own shortcomings and relentlessly lampshading the usual superhero formula will inoculate it against criticism.

It’s faithful to the original comics creation, presenting an arrogant self-aware fourth-wall breaker engaging in huge amounts of potty-mouthed violence. He talks to us, dictates some edits, calls for needle drops, and even moves the camera at one point. Mostly he just comments on the events in progress with juvenile wisecracking, or spits out cultural references and self-deprecating comments. He tells us the budget was cheap, Reynolds is a bad actor, and nods towards the franchise’s knottiness. (He throws out an action figure from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and upon hearing a reference to Professor X he asks, “McAvoy or Stewart?”) The movie goes out of its way to smarmily flatter the audience for catching the references.

But for all the screenplay (by Zombieland’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) literally protests that this isn’t the usual superhero movie – taking potshots at the competition while admiring its own casual vigilante gore, filthy language, and mind-in-the-gutter exploitation – this is a movie undeniably built on the bones of a thoroughly exhausted and totally predictable origin story structure. It opens with a nasty fit of bloody action – crunching cars, flying decapitations, and viscera splattering on road signs – before flashing back to happier times that slowly catch us up. It fills in details of his pre-power days, introduces his comic relief buddy (T.J. Miller) and his lost love (Homeland’s Morena Baccarin), and the wrongs done to him. Then it’s back to the action, as X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), stepping in as if from a better, brighter movie, reluctantly join superpowered fights hammering toward a conclusion.

The edgier elements may be turned up to 11, but the more it loudly and repetitively claims to be something new and innovative, the less it seems true. The movie is terminally impressed with itself, convinced putting blood, boobs, and bad words in a standard superhero revenge actioner inherently makes it better. The script, and the chatterbox commentary from Deadpool, has the wit of a particularly unimaginative adolescent boy, preoccupied with bodily functions, focused on sexual and violent fantasies, and punctuated with four-letter words and bullying insults. Puerile and putrid, it finds sex acts, gory kills, and vulgarity equally giggle-worthy.

As a result, Deadpool is irritating, repetitive, and deadening. It’s a smug, smutty, and self-satisfied movie as ugly as it is off-putting. It drains all natural charisma from its performers, sending them through bland effects sequences dirtied up with extra splashes of strained irreverence and material trying so hard to offend it’s just sad. Give director Tim Miller (an effects’ artist making his feature debut) some (very small) credit for wanting to stretch the superhero movie a bit, but maybe we should stop complaining about the genre’s homogeneity if this is what passes for trying something different. The characters are thinly sketched. The look is flat, flavorless, and grey. The tone is a swamp of pointless nihilism laughing at itself. The plot is too thin for narrative propulsion, and too hobbled by its smirking protagonist for emotional investment. Everything’s a bad joke, and nothing is worth taking seriously, although the movie has enough bravado and posturing that it’s clear it convinced itself it’s a hip puncturing of the genre instead of a mean-spirited affirmation of its nastiest impulses.

And then there’s its repellent, often disgusting, love of violence. The movie revels in it, not the choreography or the spectacle but the visual fact of innards spurting from wounds, projectiles ripping flesh, and blades impaling organs. There’s an extended slapstick gag about Deadpool breaking his hands and legs and wobbling around in pain before he heals himself. It’s loud, overextended, pointless, and uncomfortable, but par for the course in a movie that treats a gunshot to the head as a punchline – not once, not twice, but every time. It’s no funnier than the tired improv insults and cheap shots that pass for humor in the rest of the movie. This all adds up to an interminable experience, none of the best parts of superhero movies and all of the worst, plus a whole bunch of added irritants.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Feels Like Taking Crazy Pills: ZOOLANDER 2

You have to be a smart filmmaker to make something so gloriously dumb. Fifteen years after directing, co-writing, and starring in Zoolander, a featherlight and endearingly silly cult comedy about a dim male model caught up in an assassination plot, Ben Stiller has revived his character for a sequel that’s bigger, louder, and dumber. It’s uneven and unnecessary, and takes some time to really get going. But it’s also an admirable sustained effort of Hollywood money and craftsmanship put towards utter nonsense. Absurd and unusual, Stiller strains the limits of the studio comedy for completely unsubstantial goofing around with a ridiculously good-looking and totally preposterous premise. Is it a good movie? That’s hard to say. It barely hangs together at times, overstuffed with story and unconcerned with anything but a wobbly weirdness. But who says it has to be any more than that?

The movie finds Zoolander retired, living, as he puts it, “as a hermit crab” in the remote wintry wilderness of northernmost New Jersey. We’re told in a blitz of fake news footage that shortly after the first movie his wife was killed and his son was taken away by child services. That’s awfully heavy backstory to ladle on such a frivolous film, especially paired with a strange sideways 9/11 reference. But then Billy Zane (playing himself) treks out to convince Zoolander to start modeling again and win back his son from the orphanage. This kicks off an overflowing movie that’s in addition concerned with Zoolander’s equally dim old rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), who has also been retired for over a decade, nursing anxiety over a facial scar and a complicated polyamorous romance with a dozen people, including surprising celebrities and a handful of random people (my favorite: a chimney sweep who lingers in the background of shots). He agrees to join Zoolander on the quest to be relevant in the modeling world once again.

Together they encounter a whole mess of plot. There are professional frustrations with a hotshot hipster designer (Kyle Mooney, hilariously affecting dopey mispronunciations and fumbling confidence), a conniving Italian fashion mogul (Kristen Wiig, wearing Lady Gaga gowns and adding three extra syllables to every word), a suspicious orphanage manager (Justin Theroux, with a powdered George Washington wig slapped on top of dreadlocks), and the looming threat of old villain Mugatu (Will Ferrell, deliriously and wildly campy). There’s also an Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz) investigating the mysterious murders of several pop stars (including Justin Bieber, in a cameo that’s 90% stunt double which serves as the film’s violent cold open) and a search for the Fountain of Youth. There’s a lot going on. The movie feeds exaggerated excesses of the fashion industry into a glossy spy movie’s extremes, inane ornate designs mixed with thundering score, concussive transitions, and a hurtling tangle of conspiracies.

A key early mistake is assuming we care about Zoolander and Hansel as characters, but by the time the plot’s spinning on its crazy way, the movie itself has forgotten that it ever even feinted towards taking any emotional underpinning at anything close to face value. Even as the subplot involving the long-lost son becomes the best part, Stiller knows this is all totally unserious, an elaborate goof. He, with co-writers Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg, create a reason to stuff the film chockablock with innuendos, misunderstandings, malapropisms, sight gags, cameos, baroquely offbeat production design, wackadoodle characterizations, and more than a few baffling decisions (like making Fred Armisen play a freakish, mostly CGI 11-year-old for one scene). Cinematographer Dan Mindel (of The Force Awakens and other fantastical action films) gives it all a shiny thriller gloss and bright comedy sheen, playing up every absurd detail with a grainy poker face.

Stiller simply lets the unexpected striking nonsense flow. There’s a scene late in the picture where a boy is locked in a clown-themed dungeon with a giant plastic pig face on the wall drizzling lard out of its snout. Elsewhere a car flips over a dozen more times than you’d expect. A former swimsuit model explains she became a secret agent because her large breasts prevented her from graduating to runway work. A ghost serenely explains that she doesn’t care about anything anymore, because she’s dead. A long-secret connection between male models and rock stars is revealed by a music legend who patiently says they’re only separated by two genes (talent and intelligence). Not every joke lands. (An extended bit with Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender fluid model is cringe-worthy.) But with a movie this densely dizzy with oddball ideas loosely held together by a flimsy plot, it’s a pleasure just to be along for the ride. I had a big dumb grin while waiting to see what insubstantial surprise silliness was around the next corner.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Did anyone really read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I guess I’d always assumed Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mashup of Jane Austen’s classic book with zombie schlock was a gag gift at best, built for a quick smirk at the title the first few times one saw it, but destined for remainder bins and yard sale stacks. Now it’s a movie, so I guess someone had to get around to cracking the spine. I was surprised to find that its Hollywood incarnation has been made by filmmakers who have taken its premise rather seriously. The title makes it sound like a joke, but in practice it is both a Regency zombie movie hobbled by an overreliance on Austen’s novel’s structure, and a passably earnest Austen adaptation constantly interrupted by lowest Comic-Con denominator brain-munching action. What an odd mix. Odder still is that writer-director Burr Steers almost gets away with it.

I suspect it’s far too much zombie for Austen fans and far too much Austen for zombie fans. It is possible, though, that you might be like me and sit closer to the middle of that particular Venn diagram, in which case you might find some small diversion here. After all, what with most Austen novels having been adapted several times over, and Pride and Prejudice in particular getting at least two essentially perfect cinematic expressions (last in 2005, from Joe Wright), and the modern zombie Romero-knockoff apocalypse now a walking dead subgenre, it’s worth indulging an experiment in trying something new. I’m all for period-piece monster movies and reimagined classic literature, and everyone involved in this particular idea seems reasonably committed to seeing it through. But this high-concept blending serves to slowly eat away at both halves of its genre mashup.

The story of the Bennet sisters and their mother’s desire to marry them off loses a good deal of sociological fascination when the war is not with France but with the undead, and the young ladies are not merely a reflection of 19th century English mores but are trained in the art of fighting zombies. (They're treated like classic lit pinups in the process.) We see Elizabeth (Lily James, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) and her sisters (including Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote and Insurgent’s Suki Waterhouse) cleaning guns and sharpening blades, tucking them in leather holsters under their skirts. They’re combat ready. But a story of zombie destruction loses a great deal of urgency when so much narrative space is given over to the relationship dynamics and developments Pride and Prejudice’s narrative of romantic negotiations requires.

All this straight-faced seriousness makes for an often monotonous film, balanced between loud bloody jumpy horror violence and tony emotional appeals. It’s a Pride and Prejudice from an alternate universe. As Elizabeth Bennet, James, who is constantly shot to show off cleavage just about heaving out of her dresses, nearly makes her emotional journey work in the midst of this nonsense. The movie’s cleverest moments come from literalizing Elizabeth’s verbal sparring by turning it into actual combat. There is a Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a clenched, standoffish rich bachelor whose heart is destined to melt for her. This time he’s an expert zombie hunter in a leather tailcoat. Other suitors include the usual: a sincere young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), a proud George Wickham (Jack Huston), and a comic relief Parson Collins (Matt Smith, pretty funny, too). And Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is also a zombie slayer, wearing an ominous eyepatch and sporting two swords.

The result is neither a successful Austen adaptation nor a satisfying zombie story, the inclusion of each a detraction from the other. But however poor the fit, it mostly held my interest as I watched Steers – whose past work with high concepts has gone both surprisingly right (17 Again) and horribly wrong (Charlie St. Cloud) – and crew keep the film’s central disjunction from tipping over into camp. The cast acts like they’re in a serious literary adaptation, and Remi Adefarasin (also cinematographer on handsome British historical dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age) shoots glossy period detail, old buildings, and beautiful green fields without a wink. But then, shambling hordes of undead drip into the frame and it’s back to the decapitations and shots to the head that the horror crowd wants to see.

The idea of putting a zombie movie in a historical setting is a clever one, and the Regency period, so rich with literary and cinematic antecedents is as good as any. It enlivens the old tropes somewhat to see them enacted by people in period costume and preoccupied with centuries old concerns. But this potential glimmer of inspiration is largely squandered as the movie slowly loses energy to its plodding plot. If you’re going to make such a mashup, why not cut loose from the source materials and let the imagination run wild? Instead, it sticks awfully close to zombie clichés and the structure of Austen’s original story. Still, Steers’ film may very well be the best one could do with such an inherently broken premise. It’s a swing and a miss, a dumb idea done blandly. I just wish they hadn’t dragged Pride and Prejudice into this, though it’s at least more respectful of it than Mark Twain, who wrote, “Everytime I read [it] I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Now there’s an idea for a literary zombie movie.

Friday, February 5, 2016

No Business Like Show Business: HAIL, CAESAR!

There’s a zen saying that suggests, “The most dangerous thing in the world is to think you understand something.” This could be a good description for the outlook of any Coen brothers’ film, works invested in ambiguities and absurdities of human lives as reflected in the worldviews and systems that control them. One man’s belief is another man’s mystery, and Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career out of stories of existential crises told through oddball humor and offbeat suspense. Their latest is Hail, Caesar!, a film full of people who think they understand, having figured out deep reverence for some larger ideological force or another: the Bible, Das Kapital, Hollywood’s studio system. But where does that certainty get them? It’s the early 1950s, and a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) is heading into a day that’ll be full of complications to test many a person’s certainties, a straight-faced screwball panic, or maybe philosophical wrestling on laughing gas. Either way it’s a pip, but with typical Coen precision and deliberateness.

Sustained goofing on classic Hollywood, a day-in-the-life on the backlot not too far removed from Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s, the Coens follow Brolin’s studio suit from set to set wrangling stars, quelling complaints, and staving off controversy. The fictional Capitol Pictures is hard at work on several movies: a bathing beauty musical, a wordy melodrama, a dancing sailors movie, a singing cowboy picture, and a Biblical epic. Bopping between the films in progress we’re presented with a great imitation of Hollywood iconography: a little Robert Taylor here, some Esther Williams there, with Gene Kelly, Roy Rodgers, and others thrown in for good measure. It’s like a bleary Turner Classic Movies binge if you kept passing out and dreaming ridiculous connective behind-the-scenes tissue between disparate films. The Coens have fun conjuring up winking nods to historical references points, and mimicking the style of 50’s filmmaking. (Lap dissolves, rear projection, matte paintings and more show up.) It’s in love with its pastiche, but has enough distance to maintain an aloof absurdism.

Between fun sketches of films within the film we’re treated to a stew of behind-the-scenes silliness, wacky shenanigans that find increasingly offbeat expression on their way to some head-scratching conclusions. (“Accept the mystery,” as a character from the Coen’s great, maybe greatest, work A Serious Man might say.) Hail, Caesar! is set in motion when work on said Biblical epic is thrown into jeopardy when its star (played with daffy blockheaded charm by George Clooney) is kidnapped by two devious extras intent on delivering him to a clandestine meeting of Hollywood subversives in Malibu. This is, of course, the day’s biggest problem for Brolin’s harried studio middleman, who’s fielding a job offer from an aircraft manufacture, but can’t quite shake the fun of all this show business. He tries to keep the story quiet, even as ransom notes show up and there’s a dozen other problems needing his attention. Who ever said his job was easy?

This is the Coen’s fizziest man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown story, like the better, more downbeat, though still plenty funny, Barton Fink or Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis played in a major key. Brolin scurries around dealing with an unmarried ingénue (Scarlett Johansson) whose pregnancy is a problem for her innocent image, a Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who is an awkward fit for a drawing room drama by a fancy director (Ralph Fiennes), and competitive twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) sniffing around the smell of scandal. A host of studio employees (played by the likes of Channing Tatum, Clancy Brown, Wayne Knight, and Frances McDormand, to name a few) scramble through the story, most getting a few amusing moments bouncing off Brolin’s clench-jawed determination. He’s grinding through the day, keeping total calamity at bay. Sure, a job overseeing airplane factories would be easier, but wouldn’t he miss the fun of racing around Los Angeles, dealing with all the kooks and their crisises?

In its meandering way, Hail, Caesar! takes the usual Coen delight in dialogue, peculiar turns of phrase, droll patter, looping repetition, dry sarcasm, airy eccentricities, and narrative dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. And all this, of course, serves only to reveal characters dancing over the deep abyss of uncertainty. Like a softer version of what their sharply cynical Burn After Reading did to the espionage game – turning paranoid thriller mechanics on their ear to amplify the absurdity and the impossibility of “making sense” – this film asks if cinema – with all its egos, pretentions, and petty gossip – is serious business. The answer is: not really. Show business is cut from some deeply silly cloth. But it’s no better than anyone else who claims to be doing important work – a priest, a rabbi, a pawn of the military-industrial complex, a studio stooge, a Communist. That round-up sounds like a cast list for a great joke, and that’s what the Coens try for here, staging scenes in which all the above, and more too, make themselves out to be figures of fun when they take themselves too seriously.

The film often feels slight, busy goofing around, doodling with silly details and funny performances, Roger Deakins’ brightly lit, primary color-popping cinematography letting wacky backstage antics and a variety of movie genres bleed off the backlot and into conversation with one another. But it picks up weight as it punctures windbags’ hot air and scoffs at those who are too sure they have the perfect understanding of anything – history, economics, politics, morality, you name it. Everyone’s spinning their own stories about how the world works, but their boats are easily rocked. Shouldn’t there always be room for doubt, like an actor delivering a passionate speech, but forgetting his closing line? The movies, this film seems to say, may be frivolous gossamer illusions, but isn’t anything we cling to in order to make sense of our lives? If we’re going to lose ourselves in soothing fictions, it may as well come from dazzling Technicolor fantasies lighting up the silver screen.