Monday, June 29, 2015

Dope



People who throw around the phrase “geek culture” probably aren’t thinking about the three high schoolers at the center of the new film Dope. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) lives with his mother (Kimberly Elise) in a rough part of L.A. known as “The Bottoms”. Malcolm wants to go to Harvard, and when he isn’t turning in application essays about ‘90s hip-hop he’s playing in an art-punk band and trying to avoid losing his shoes to a bully (Keith Stanfield). It’s all Malcolm and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) can do some days to make it home without running afoul of gangs or drug dealers.

What sounds like the setup for a drama of overcoming one’s circumstances is fact the ingredient list for a comic but pointed tale of self-discovery. Malcolm crosses the radar of a drug dealer (A$ap Rocky) whose girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) also wants to go to college. When Malcolm winds up with a backpack of drugs and in the sights of rival dealers he must unload the product to protect his friends and his future. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa  doesn’t lose sight of the stakes for Malcolm while filling the film with exuberant cross-talk about everything from classic hip-hop (the soundtrack is a winner) to President Obama’s drone policies to why white people can’t use the n-word. Famuyiwa’s script plays with our expectations nicely, there’s a jarring act of violence in the first few minutes while we’re still getting used to the narration by producer Forest Whitaker. Later Malcolm points a gun at someone and it’s played as an act of genuine desperation as opposed to a scene of Malcolm discovering his inner killer. Famuyiwa throws twitter feeds, Bitcoin, hacking, memes, hoodies, and a probably too soon Aaron Swartz reference into the mix and comes up with something fresh, a film where everyone (including the main character) is a quarter turn from what we’re used to.

Dope ends with a declamatory speech to the camera by Malcolm, it’s supposed to be a last-minute rewrite of his Harvard application essay. The speech is the kind of sequence that Spike Lee would have filled out with a mournful Terence Blanchard score and some snazzy editing, but Famuyiwa is working with fewer resources and so we just get Malcolm. A teacher calls Malcolm “arrogant” early in the film, and this summing up is arrogant enough to critique the tropes (drug dealers vs. innocents, celebrations turned into shootouts, single motherhood) of the film we’re watching. Dope bends ‘90s “gangsta” (I use the term with caution) films through filters of irony and sadness, all the while asking us to think about how we watch. Dope is too good for summer.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson was the creative engine and guiding spirit of The Beach Boys, and he's also arguably more deserving of a biographical film than any other American rock musician this side of Dylan or Presley. Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, does an honest day's work in telling Wilson's story by telling two stories: Wilson in the 1960's (played by Paul Dano) taking his music and his bandmates in ever more baroque directions as mental illness sets in, and Wilson in the 1980's (John Cusack) when under the control of the psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 1960's scenes begin with a splash of California sun, as The Beach Boys (who weren't surfers) promote their early hits and Brian experiences a breakdown that causes him to stop touring. When Brian retreats into the studio - he's creating the Pet Sounds album to keep pace with The Beatles - Love & Mercy encounters the challenge common to all biographical films about artists. How does one dramatize creativity? The film (scripted by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner) comes up with an answer that works.

There's a cliche about relative amounts of inspiration and perspiration that Love & Mercy uses to its advantage. For every shot of Brian with arms outstretched and waiting to hear the call of his muse there are five shots of him working with studio musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head. The film doesn't shy away from the start-and-stop-and-try again process of recording, and in my favorite shot Pohlad travels through the studio while Wilson works with two musicians to show the tedium that his perfectionism could create. (The script also clearly states that the other Beach Boys had nothing to offer musically except their voices.) That tedium proves too much for singer Mike Love (Jake Abel), who wants the band to return to its earlier poppy style after Pet Sounds sales go flat. Love's commercialism is presented as an irritant to Wilson, but the emotional and physical abuse Wilson suffered at the hands of his father (Bill Camp) did real damage. Camp plays Murry Wilson as a self-absorbed monster who never let go of his resentment of Brian, and the script makes their relationship a major issue in Brian's slow breakdown. Paul Dano's performance as Brian is a tricky job of navigation, since Wilson was as in conflict with his own mind as he was with those around. The doughy, sensitive man Dano plays here is a long way from the firebrand preacher whose milkshake got drunk in There Will be Blood. Dano is completely convincing as both a genius and man losing touch with himself.

The 1980's scenes of Love & Mercy are a touching but more conventional arc of recovery and redemption given life by the performances of John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks. The overmedicated 1980's Wilson is a long way from the highly verbal, darkly funny men we're used to seeing Cusack play, but he's more than up to the task of portraying how out of touch Wilson must have seemed to those around him. In the film's telling Wilson is saved by falling in love with Melinda (Banks), a woman he meets (and would later marry) while car shopping. Melinda is a conventional role given shading thanks to Banks's personality, it's she who helps Wilson free himself from the predatory Landy. We perceive Melinda only in terms of how she feels about and reacts to Wilson, but she and Cusack have an easy rhythm together and Cusack beautifully underplays his surprise at both loving and being loved. The scenes with Landy, who is written and played by Giamatti with no subtlety, might have worked better if we saw how their relationship started - the men met during Wilson's dark 1970's - but then that would have been a different film. I could have done without a dream sequence near the end that too neatly restates what has come before, but that's quibbling. Love & Mercy honors its subject by telling Brian Wilson's story with as much light and darkness as the music he made.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

Pixar’s Inside Out is a welcome and unusual offering, a film concerned with the small and specific in a way that I’m not sure has ever been represented in animation.  The film is also a response to the critiques of Pixar for inadequate female representation, as well as a firm assertion of the depth and validity of children’s emotional lives. It sounds strange to heap all these superlatives on a film in which Amy Poehler voices a blue-haired sprite named Joy, but Inside Out benefits greatly from the performances of Poehler and her well-cast costars as the different emotions of an 11-year old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Joy’s chief rival for control of Riley’s “headquarters” is Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office), but Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) all have their moments. Riley’s happy life in Minnesota is uprooted when her family moves to San Francisco for her father’s work. Just as Joy finds herself ill-equipped to deal with all the changes, Sadness develops a inexplicable urge to color all of Riley’s memories.

The heart of Inside Out is the effort of Joy and Sadness to help Riley after an accident separates them from Headquarters. Their companion is Bing Bong (Richard Kind), an imaginary friend of Riley’s who hasn’t been needed for a few years. The corners of Riley’s mind are detailed with great specificity and visual imagination. Memories are characterized as marbles, each colored with the appropriate emotions, and areas such as Dreams (a movie studio) and Abstract Thought (the characters deconstruct into abstract shapes) each have their own individual character. This is all rich territory, and the stakes have never felt higher in a Pixar film than when Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over and (with the best of intentions) try to fix Riley’s troubled life. While in theory Pixar could return to this story later in Riley’s teenage years - creating a sort of animated Richard Linklater universe - it doesn’t need to. Inside Out is both insanely ambitious and very precious, just like the young lady at its center.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jurassic World


What were the makers of Jurassic World trying to do? The new film is obviously an attempt to restart a franchise we haven't heard from since 2001, but it is also a sequel. The mayhem and death of the original trilogy are very much on the minds of Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the new park's manager, and her well-intentioned billionaire boss Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Masrani sees the new park as a statement of man's humility before nature, but as Claire can't help reminding him the park's operating costs are on a distressing upward curve. If Jurassic World has an idea behind it it's that a combination of arrogance and financial concerns can cause people to behave stupidly. That's a premise that owes more to Michael Crichton than to Steven Spielberg, and it's one that here produces an unusually sour and dull film.

A film in which Chris Pratt plays an ex-Marine who trains dinosaurs should by rights be much funnier than Jurassic World. Pratt plays Owen, who when he's not whispering to velociraptors is busy arguing with a contractor (Vincent D'Onofrio, having fun) who wants to weaponize them. Owen is a kind of new-age eco warrior, sensitive to the fact that he's working with animals whose needs transcend the numbers on the park's balance sheet. When things are at their worst later in the film there comes a moment when D'Onofrio's character wants to use the raptors to hunt a rogue dinosaur. Owen resists even though lives are at stake, and the character's stubbornness is as odd and humorless as the rest of Pratt's performance. I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to make Pratt's character so boring but I'll blame director Colin Trevorrow, who made this winning film but here seems to be punching above his weight. Pratt seems so ill at ease here that the idea of him as Indiana Jones seems ludicrous, but that's a topic for another day. Owen runs and shoots capably enough, but he lacks charm in the same way the rest of the film lacks a sense of wonder. Trevorrow, working from a script he co-wrote, puts forth the idea that the park has become overcrowded and somewhat vulgar. The two kids (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) we follow through the park have a hard time seeing any dinosaurs because there's usually someone standing in their way. This is a funny idea, but nothing interesting happens to develop it. Instead we get an exhaustive amount of detail about the park operations, though Jake Johnson (as a hipster into Jurassic Park nostalgia) and Lauren Lapkus liven up their scenes as a chatty pair of control center operatives.

 The crisis at the heart of Jurassic World is the escape of an "Indominus Rex", a sort of artisan mega-dinosaur crafted from blending DNA in the park's lab. We're lectured at regarding the folly of humans playing God and also subject to a good deal of dino-on-dino violence that carries no weight. Indeed, the human lives on the line don't matter much either. The death scene of a CGI brontosaurus is one of the few moments the movie slows down, but I wish the rest of Jurassic World hadn't been in such a hurry to go nowhere.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Aloha



Watching Cameron Crowe’s Aloha is disorienting and vaguely depressing, as if a favorite relative suddenly started telling offensive jokes at a family reunion. Actually there’s nothing overtly offensive about Aloha, and I wonder if those complaining about the lack of native Hawaiian representation in the film are aware that there is a subplot explicitly addressing the relationship between native Hawaiians and the U.S. military. (I don’t remember a similar story arc in The Descendants.) But Aloha is over-caffeinated and schizophrenic, a hybrid of romantic comedy, thriller (?) and drama of Man Getting S--t together. If, like me, you saw Say Anything at an age when it made a difference then it’s dismaying to watch the degree to which Crowe has apparently lost control of both pace and tone.

Brian Gilchrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor with a checkered past - there are many references and a useless flashback to “Kabul” - who arrives in Hawaii with a chance to reclaim his career. Brian must win the approval of a native Hawaiian leader for a new military project, and his companion is a young pilot named Allison Ng (Emma Stone) who isn’t shy about informing Brian and the audience that she is one-quarter Hawaiian. This insistence on Stone’s identity is the most clunky element of Crowe’s script, but once the attraction between Brian and Allison is acknowledged Stone’s performance snaps from Muppet-level broadness into reality and we remember why we like her. There are also Bill Murray (“Let’s cast Bill Murray as a billionaire who wants to weaponize space!”) and Alec Baldwin, whose role as a loudmouth general comes much too easily. The amount of time spent on a comic dance scene involving Murray’s and Stone’s characters gives me great hope for the Aloha director’s cut blu-ray, in which the film Crowe wanted to make will no doubt be revealed.

Then comes Rachel McAdams, who plays an ex-lover of Brian’s who is living on base in Hawaii with two children and a husband (John Krasinski) whose dislike of spoken English is elevated to the level of a fetish. McAdams is so believably human, harried, and confused about her future that I badly wanted her character to have her own film. Indeed, the scenes between McAdams and Cooper demonstrate that Crowe is capable of making a very good film about second chances if only someone would give him a budget. Instead we are treated to Crowe’s version of a James Bond climax - how ironic that the trailer for Spectre ran before Aloha - in which Cooper’s character attempts to save the world by throwing a rock-and-roll bomb at a satellite. If there is a lesson to be learned from Aloha then it’s a lesson for Crowe, who should scale his next script to the level of an HBO movie and then rely on the fact that top-tier stars still want to work with him. Aloha is a pleasant misfire, odder than even the famously unsuccessful Elizabethtown, but it is also a film that demonstrates Cameron Crowe hasn’t lost his talent for putting the human heart on screen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd



There is an exhilaration to the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd that’s best expressed in the eyes of the film’s star Carey Mulligan. Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, who as we find her is working on the farm of her aunt in the bracing English countryside. Bathsheba is aware of her modest circumstances, but the physical labor of the farm and the freedom of riding a horse over the hills has given her a joy and an awareness of her own agency. My favorite moments in Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, came in these early scenes. Carey Mulligan uses her natural expressiveness to great effect, as in the smile she gives as she walks away from her first meeting with neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). Oak will be the first man to propose marriage to Bathsheba, but a reversal of fortune will soon change the way each thinks of the other.

As good as Carey Mulligan is as Bathsheba, the film around her can’t quite pull off being more than a pretty period piece. (The gorgeous cinematography is by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who never over lights the numerous nighttime scenes.) The plot turns come heavy and swift, and the film at times feels rushed to a slightly ridiculous degree. When Bathsheba becomes attracted to the soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) her attraction comes almost as a surprise. Can the heady woman we’ve seen become a successful farmer - after an inheritance gives her property - really be won over by Troy’s swordplay?

It is worth mentioning that the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd directed by John Schlesinger is almost an hour longer than the new adaptation, and Bathsheba’s seduction by Troy is one of a few places where I wanted Vinterberg to have let things breathe. The famous 1967 scene where Terence Stamp’s Troy dazzles Julie Christie’s Bathsheba with his swordsmanship is here shot with too many close ups and a lack of the tactile quality that’s one of the new film’s strengths. Vinterberg makes us believe working on a farm entails backbreaking labor, and he gets the feeling of night in the country or a coming storm just right. The sword scene is a busy moment in a too fast film, but at least there’s Carey Mulligan to set things right. Her stillness after receiving Bathsheba’s first kiss is a counterintuitive acting choice, but it only points out just how much of the character’s life is still unsettled.

If the men of Far from the Madding Crowd were more compelling then the film might have transcended the melodrama that the plot evokes. Schoenaerts is physically right for the role and appropriately stolid, but there’s not enough wit or anger in the character and the performance is finally too flat. Sturridge never seems like more than a brat, and there’s also Michael Sheen as a suitor who offers Bathsheba financial security. Sheen is good - his manic desire for Bathsheba is rather touching - but he is onscreen the least of the three men. For too much of the film it feels like Bathsheba is being thrown together with suitors instead of making choices, and that quality finally betrays Mulligan’s excellent performance. Still, Mulligan’s work is strong enough to reclaim Bathsheba as a pre-feminist heroine and to remind us that this choosy actress is one of our biggest screen talents.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road


We do not, strictly speaking, need another Mad Max movie, but we have one and what a pleasure it is. Fury Road is a superb piece of work, both for the kinetic energy of its action sequences and for the way it serves as a corrective to years of dull, male-centered action blockbusters. Director George Miller’s vision of a post-civilized world seems to have deepened in the thirty years since the last film in the series. Where Mel Gibson’s Max lived in a world where oil was the most valuable commodity, here Max (Tom Hardy) hangs on as a haunted man in a blasted out world where (as the portentous opening voice over tells us) the only object is to survive.. The world of Fury Road is ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a grotesque sort of human Jabba the Hutt who doles natural resources out to an increasingly desperate population. After Max is captured by Joe’s men the film proper begins with the introduction of Furiosa (Charlize Theron, giving the definitive female action badass perfomance). Furiosa’s job is to bring gasoline back from an outpost, but she decides to prick Joe in his one vulnerable spot by kidnapping the five young women who serve as Joe’s chance to conceive a male heir.

Furiosa wants to take the young women to “The Green Place”, where they will be out of Joe’s reach and have a chance to safely continue humanity. The bulk of Fury Road involves the women fleeing Joe’s army across barren landscape with Max along as an ally after escaping his duty as a “blood bag” to Joe’s man Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Max and Furiosa don’t say much to each other, but why should they have to? We never know how Max’s feels about Furiosa’s agenda but what unites them is the simple objective of survival. Someone looking for a flaw in Fury Road might say that Max isn’t a character as much as a symbol of an outmoded value system. Hardy might be a little too private school for the role, but he’s physically right and there’s so much else going on that it doesn’t matter. The vehicles that most of the film takes place in spin, and clang, and crash like real objects in space, and we’re always clear on where all the key players are in the frame. In the years since the last Mad Max film George Miller directed films like Babe and Happy Feet, but he seems to have lost none of his feel for action.

As much as the cinematic elements of Fury Road deserve celebration, the film is first and most surprisingly a story about What We Do to Women. The five young women under Furiosa’s protection are played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Their names are worth listing because it’s important to know whose story Miller is telling. The film evokes a time when women were more than just baby machines, most notably with the introduction of a wonderful group of older women who join Max and Furiosa. (Melissa Jaffer is a standout as a sharpshooter) Anchoring it all is Charlize Theron, who has never been more of a physical presence than she is here and who has rarely been asked to keep such depth of emotion under the surface. Theron is without question the star of Fury Road and the last shot of the film suggests that her work isn’t finished. In its feminism and its stripping away of affectation, Fury Road is an action film for this moment to a shocking degree. In Charlize Theron, George Miller has found the right actor to make sure that the moment lives on.