Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Follows

If you have been reading my reviews for some time then you’ve probably noticed that I almost entirely ignore horror films. There might have been some childhood experience that I’ve long buried that accounts for my taste, but if so I’m not remembering it any time soon. But since I’m possessed of an above average memory - I can still remember the opening shot of Star Wars from seeing it in the theater - the idea that I’m repressing some scare of my youth seems unlikely. As an audience member I’ve never enjoyed being scared, and as someone who thinks critically and writes about film I have never known how to think about a genre the pleasures of which depend on the execution of certain tropes.

So where does all that history leave us with It Follows? Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has scored the first surprise hit of 2015 with his low budget story of a sexually transmitted haunting. Mitchell begins with a stand-alone sequence in which a Detroit teen (Bailey Spry) is pursued by an unseen menace. Cut to Jay (Maika Monroe), whose life of community college, swimming, and hanging out with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends is brightened by the prospect of a date with Hugh (Jake Weary). After a strange trip to the movies - Hugh says he sees a woman that Jay can’t see - the stakes are established when Hugh and Jay have backseat sex in the shadow of a blasted out Detroit building. (The empty houses and abandoned industrial spaces of Detroit complement the action as opposed to distracting from it.) Hugh tells Jay he has passed a curse to her: She will begin to see an apparition, which can take the form of anyone, following her. She can only free herself by having sex with someone else, but if she is caught by the spirit then she will die. It’s important to note that It Follows isn’t a parable about the dangers of teen sexuality, and Jay’s encounter with Hugh isn’t her first experience. We learn later that she has a prior history with Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the neighbor who offers himself in order to free Jay of what’s pursuing her.

It would be unfair to reveal too much about what comes next, except that Mitchell has orchestrated a series of well-done set pieces that reward close attention. It Follows is a film where danger can come from anywhere in the frame, and what Mitchell doesn’t provide in “gotcha” scares (the kind I don’t like) he more than makes up for by maintaining a complicated mood. There’s a melancholy to Jay and her friends, a sense of being trapped by circumstance, and if Jay’s haunting “represents” anything then I think it’s to do with the fact that a decade from now they could very well still be drinking on front porches together. It’s significant that the climactic appearance of Jay’s haunting is in a form she recognizes, but Mitchell wisely doesn’t overexplain the meaning. It Follows is also refreshingly character-driven. It feels like Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) has always been reading Dostoevsky aloud and that the most innocent member of the group has always been Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the one male. We’re only as far ahead of Jay and her friends as the amount of time it takes for Jay to see her next follower, and it’s almost possible to feel Mitchell figuring out the film as things break down. My previous reservations about the horror genre haven’t changed, but I enjoyed It Follows both for the exuberance of its originality and for the way it wasn’t everything I expected.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel



The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a curious problem. This sequel to the popular 2012 film - which grossed $136 million worldwide on a budget of $10 million - has no reason to exist except to create a franchise where Hollywood didn’t know there was an audience. The thought of studios rushing to make films for underserved moviegoers leads to a sort of utopian vision of female, gay, elderly, African-American, Hispanic, and other themed projects filling the multiplex, until we come crashing back to earth with the thought that a significant number of these films would be just as bad as the ones we have now. I would like to be able to report that the pleasure of the company of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and the rest of the returning cast is enough to make this Marigold go down smoothly, but this unexpected sequel is undone by the same lack of purpose that pervades so many better-known second tries.

When we find Marigold Hotel entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel) and manager Mrs. Donnelly (Smith), they are in California seeking funding to expand the Marigold name. Sonny has his eye on a second location, but his attention his also consumed with his impending marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai). A word about Dev Patel, who is much the most irritating thing about this film: I’ve seen Macy’s Thanksgiving balloons give subtler performances than Patel gives here, but since the plot is driven to a large degree by Sonny’s screw-ups I can’t really blame Patel for committing to the role. One of the many storylines in play involves a character played by Richard Gere (who seems a little surprised to be here) as a man who may be concealing his identity as a hotel inspector. Gere’s character is smitten by Sonny’s mother (underused Lillete Dubey), but instead of spending time with them we’re stuck watching Judi Dench and Bill Nighy finding excuses not to be together. If you thought Dench’s widow and Nighy’s freshly ditched husband got together at the end of the first Marigold, then remember: if they had then this film would be 30 minutes shorter. Thank goodness for good old British diffidence, and for the fact that both Dench and Nighy are masters at wringing the maximum effect out of the most economical acting choices. There are other subplots involving characters played by Celia Imrie (who gets the “White Person being kind to Indian” scene), Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle that are mostly filler, since Ol Parker’s script is more concerned with whether or not Sonny’s jealousy of a business rival (Shazad Latif) will derail his wedding.

To the extent that anything saves these proceedings, they are saved by the indomitable spirit of Maggie Smith as Mrs. Donnelly. We don’t know how much time Mrs. Donnelly has left but Smith does, and she fills every moment (in a film that doesn’t really have time for her abilities) with a humanity that eschews cheap comedy or easy sentiment. Mrs. Donnelly carries the message of Marigold, that life is full of surprises and every moment must be savored. I didn’t really understand how Sonny earns what happens at the end of Marigold (though it is a stunning blow against colonialism), but I perfectly understood the film’s last shot: Mrs. Donnelly in medium close-up, full of both resignation and excitement.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Still Alice



Let’s get this out of the way: I’m very pleased that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her role in Still Alice. While there is some truth to the idea that Moore won this year as a sort of career honor - Still Alice is Moore’s Crazy Heart - it is also hard to argue that she isn’t as spiky and engaged here as she is in more celebrated films like Boogie Nights or Short Cuts. Moore plays Alice Howland, a Columbia lingustics professor whose unexplained memory lapses lead to neurological tests and a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice and her doctor husband John (Alec Baldwin) enjoy busy professional and personal lives and at first Alice is determined to keep up her schedule. What’s right about Still Alice, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, is the way it charts Alice’s slow retreat from herself and her family in quiet moments rather than melodramatic disaster. Alice doesn’t forget to turn the stove off when making tea or how to use a knife in the kitchen, but she does veer from lucidity to confusion with horrifying quickness. The choice to play the humanity of Alice’s situation work so well of course because Moore can handle it with great specificity; note the way she plots how the awareness drains from Alice’s eyes through the film. 

As a whole I found Still Alice a bit too tidy. The emotional dynamics of the Howland family are more alluded to than dramatized, and in a post-Affordable Care Act world it’s difficult to see the need for films in which someone battles a serious illness and no one worries about money. Only the scenes between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) have a real spark. Lydia is an actress determined to live her own life and Stewart is well cast as the blackish sheep of an ambitious family. John’s slowly unfolding selfishness and the coldness of pregnant oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), both determined to move on with life, each deserve a fuller hearing. Yet of course life doesn’t always offer such opportunities, and Glatzer and Westmoreland understand that. The moving last scene of About Alice involves a simple  moment of connection, one that speaks volumes about what has been lost and how much yet remains.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Run All Night


If you don’t like one Liam Neeson movie then wait a few months and there will be another. Run All Night is an above average entry in the genre of Liam Neeson Doing Things, one that allows our hero enough vulnerability to have made the script attractive while also offering Neeson some strong actors to work against. Neeson is Jimmy Conlon, a second-tier Irish mobster with too many kills on his resume. Jimmy is now a hanger-on in the world of Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), a boss whose feelings for the old days are so strong that he excuses Jimmy making a drunken mess of being Santa at his Christmas party. Shawn, whom Harris plays with a strong sense of coiled menace, is content to spend his days being the neighborhood loan shark and he isn’t interested in the drug deal his son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) brings to his table. The movie proper begins when Danny and his botched deal cross paths with Jimmy’s son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), and Jimmy must act to save a son he barely knows.

New York is just as much a character in Run All Night as Jimmy, Shawn, or Michael. Jaume Collet-Serra (working with Neeson for the third time) swoops his camera over rooftops and around corners to follow events in multiple locations and also to show just how small these characters’ world really is. It’s no accident that the cops Jimmy sees taking cash from Danny are the same ones who pick Michael up on suspicion of murder, and Jimmy’s assault on the police car holding his son is the movie’s action high point. A sequence with father and son fleeing a hit man (Common) through a housing project is well-staged but a little too much, since Common’s character - who has no problem killing cops - feels more like the solution to a writing problem than an actual person. It’s the actors floating all over this movie that are the pleasure of Run All Night. The scenes between Neeson and Harris are played with a deep commitment, there’s never a sense of two old pros showing off. Joel Kinnaman’s spikiness is a good match for Neeson, and there are also Vincent D’Onofrio as an honest cop and Nick Nolte as a relative too eager to mention the bad old days. Liam Neeson plays Jimmy as a man keenly aware of his mistakes who finds some peace with his last act. If Run All Night announces the end of Liam Neeson as action star then so be it. This unpretentious effort serves as fine showcase for Neeson’s full range of talents.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Harmontown


Why is Dan Harmon interesting? The fact that I'd even need to ask this question is probably proof that the documentary Harmontown isn't for me, but the film's curious combination of soul-baring and self-promotion does hold some power to fascinate. Harmon sits comfortably at the corner of network television and what I think is called "nerd culture", best known as the creator and on-again/off-again showrunner of Community. We find him here at a turning point, just fired after the third season of Community and using his new podcast "Harmontown" as an outlet for his frustrations. Harmon takes his podcast on the road just as deadlines loom for pilot scripts with CBS and Fox that offer the chance at a professional rebirth.

Harmontown is sauced with testimonials from Harmon's friends and colleagues, including Community cast members and Sarah Silverman. Silverman attests to Harmon's talents but recounts how she fired a not yet well-known Harmon from her own show. The story is the template for how we're supposed to view Harmon to this point: as an uncommonly funny writer who through a combination of Hollywood's bad taste and his own temperament can only gain the shakiest of footholds. Harmon views the tour as a chance to clear the air and commune with his fans, with the live podcasts (a lumbering affair involving Harmon's monologues and a rolling Dungeons & Dragons game) working to restore Harmon's sense of himself.

I have not watched Community since its earliest episodes and all I can remember is the unfortunate use of the word "lesbian" as a punch line. The arc of Harmon's career - which also includes the legendary unaired TV pilot Heat Vision & Jack - is of no interest to me. As an artist Harmon is a sort of shaggy Riggan Thompson, a niche figure working to stay relevant who is enabled by everyone around him. I much prefer his rebranding as a sort of Garrison Keillor of nerds, even when Harmon drinks too much and seems indifferent to his patient girlfriend. There is a genuine kindness underneath the insecurity; Harmon brings an audience member on tour as Dungeonmaster and is all too happy to interact with fans after (and sometimes during) his shows. If Harmon's popularity is a mystery to me it's because I've never seen myself in a television show the way that his fans do, but by the end of Harmontown there's no question where the real Community can be found.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The DUFF



The DUFF aims high from its opening voice-over. Bianca (Mae Whitman) invokes hallowed words from The Breakfast Club ("...a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess....") in acknowledgement of the classic high school class system, but in fact this tart comedy doesn't want to subvert the old pecking order so much as blow it up. At first glance Bianca looks like someone who'd be in detention with Ally Sheedy, but in fact she's best friends with the popular Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos). Whitman's Bianca is a flannel-shirt wearing horror film buff nursing a crush on a guy (Nick Eversman) but resigned to living vicariously through her friends until she runs out the clock on senior year. Plans change when Bianca's football star neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) tells her she's a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for Jess and Casey, and Bianca's efforts to make herself more datable bring her social media shame. Wesley isn't being mean - he doesn't really think Bianca is fat or ugly - just honest. Bianca, like everyone else, should know her place. The fine line walked by writer Josh A. Cagan (adapting a novel by Kody Keplinger) has to do with the fact that Bianca doesn't want to turn herself into someone acceptable to the school's Queen Bee (Bella Thorne) but rather just to understand herself a bit better. There's a montage of Bianca trying on clothes, but it's played for slapstick comedy and the moment when Bianca shows Wesley how "girls like to be kissed" is turned into a joke. If everyone is happy with who they are then labels lose their power.

Mae Whitman is 26 years old and has been a working actress for over 20 years. (Her first IMDB credit came in this 1994 film.) If The DUFF is her last high school role then so be it, but she was exactly he right person for the role. Whitman's natural humor and vulnerability give all sort of shadings to a part that's required to carry the film, because with the exception of Allison Janney as Bianca's mom all the other characters exist to serve a plot point. I'm not sure that we'll all be quoting The DUFF in 30 years, but the film is a winning and honorable crack at a story of teenage self-empowerment.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Homesman



Homesman is a stark and unforgiving piece of work, it's a film that proposes that insanity is a likely result of the loneliness and privation of frontier life. In this sense The Homesman almost feels like The Last Western, a film that comes at the end of a century of myth making. It's a work bold in its darkness and in the way it considers what a life in the West can do to those who choose to light out for the territory.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank in a seriously underappreciated performance) is on her own in 1850's Nebraska. Cuddy is financially secure and seems quite capable of managing her property and animals. Then, in an early scene, Cuddy all but begs a neighbor (Evan Jones) to marry her. Her proposal is rejected and we realize the degree to which Cuddy hasn't transcended her surroundings. Indeed, she is barely hanging on. The Homesman (directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones from a novel by Glendon Swarthout) isn't interested in mythologizing Cuddy, but rather in dramatizing the mere act of her survival.

 The bulk of The Homesman follows a journey Cuddy makes in order to bring three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) from the Plains back to their families in the East. The women have all become mentally ill and their husbands can no longer cope with them. We don't really get to know the women as characters, instead their illnesses are dramatized in a series of short, nightmarish scenes. Cuddy enlists George Briggs (Jones), a man she saves from hanging, as a partner for the journey with the promise of three hundred dollars once the group reaches their destination. Briggs is an intelligent man but a wayward spirit, coping with the frontier by never settling in one place too long.

The real enemy in The Homesman is the country itself. Cuddy and Briggs have brief contact with Indians but meet almost no other people along the way. Jones never lets things get sentimental, and the abrupt cuts that recur throughout (Briggs singing at a campfire into Indians looking down from a rise) are as jarring as the way the open country can change one's fortune.

I don't agree with every choice The Homesman makes. The film shies away from being a genuinely feminist work and indeed the fate of the three women (involving a walk-on by Meryl Streep as a minister's wife) doesn't matter enough. Still the last act follows through on the film's vision, and the last shot suggests that once one has returned from the West the only real choice one has is to go back. The Homesman is an important late Western, and a fine testament to the talents of Jones and Swank. Also with Hailee Steinfeld as a woman who could (sort of) be Cuddy's daughter.