Monday, December 15, 2014

Knight of Cups trailer



Here is the long awaited trailer for Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups. Malick's latest stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman, and it will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival before being released some time in 2015.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Top Five


Top Five is a poison-pen letter to Hollywood, a cranky film that finds its writer/director/star Chris Rock working out his feelings about the limits of celebrity. Rock plays Andre Allen, a successful actor and comedian most famous for playing a bear police officer named “Hammy”. We meet Andre on the day he opens a prestige project about a Haitian slave revolution. There’s a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) trying to find out why Andre isn’t funny anymore and a fiance (Gabrielle Union) who views her wedding to Andre in terms of the ratings it will get for her reality show. Yet what sounds like a rich setup for Rock’s comic imagination is in fact the premise for a story of a man coming back to himself. If only the results weren’t so dreary.

 In the single day that Top Five unfolds Andre is man under siege. Promotional obligations, fans who shout “Hammy” on the street, and a lack of buzz about his new film combine to Andre unreceptive to having a reporter on his tail. Rock’s scenes with Rosario Dawson are the film’s loosest, and I could have done with more of them instead of an interminable flashback involving Cedric the Entertainer as a lackey who gets Andre in trouble with women on the road. (There’s a late revelation about Dawson’s character that strains credibility.) We’re told that alcohol abuse has brought Andre’s career to a crossroads, but that doesn’t track with what we learn about the arc of his career. A sequence involving a visit to childhood friends and family is more promising, but lively characters played by Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan show up for a moment and then disappear. The “Top Five” of the title refers to characters being asked to name their favorite rappers, but since this isn’t a film about music the artists mentioned are just symbols of the authenticity Andre is looking for. The most interesting relationship in the film is the one that’s least explored, the one between Andre and his fiance Erica. Andre credits Erica with helping him get sober, but the Erica we see is more an idea than a person despite Gabrielle Union’s best efforts.

 I would have cared about Top Five more if I’d believed for a moment that even a rejuvenated Andre could function outside the bubble of celebrity. Andre is a man who can get Jerry Seinfeld to come to his strip club bachelor party and even if he goes back to his roots and starts working comedy clubs again he will still be the focus of enormous adulation and attention. The film that Top Five actually reminds me of the most is Birdman. Rock doesn’t have Innaritu’s directorial flourish or surrealist vision, but both films are to a large degree stories of depressed men who artistic desires are enabled by almost everyone they meet. The script puts Andre in an actual cage at one point, and through a bizarre encounter with another celebrity Rock suggests that some who are put in that cage may never get out. I don’t fault Chris Rock’s ambition, but Top Five is an unhappy muddle of a film.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything



The Theory of Everything
is that most unusual of films, the kind that actually gets better as you’re watching it. Directed by James Marsh,  the film is the story of the marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking (an impressively committed Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The two meet in 1963 at Cambridge, where Stephen is a talented but directionless doctoral candidate and Jane is pursuing a Ph.D. in poetry. If you’re hoping to learn something about Hawking’s scientific work then  The Theory of Everything will probably disappoint you. There is talk of time and black holes, but the first section of the film feels rushed as Stephen meets Jane, makes his first breakthrough, and is diagnosed with the motor neuron disease that will define his life from the neck down. Once he receives his diagnosis both Stephen and his father (Simon McBurney) gently warn Jane from becoming too attached, but she is undaunted and becomes both a devoted caregiver and the mother of Stephen’s three children.

It was at about this point that I began to worry about The Theory of Everything. Stephen seemed to have been reduced to his disability, and I feared I was about to watch a film in which a Great Man skipped from strength to strength professionally while his illness failed to derail his home life only on account of an unendingly supportive wife. Then Anthony McCarten’s script (based on Jane Hawking’s memoir) changes course. Stephen is playing with his children in the living room while Jane does her own academic work in the kitchen. She can’t concentrate because of the noise, and Felicity Jones plays the moment with such a complicated brew of emotions that I actually leaned closer to the screen. The Theory of Everything tells Jane’s story too, and despite a impressively soulful performance from Eddie Redmayne it must be said that Felicity Jones is the reason to see it. This is the story of a modern marriage, and the spikiness and sensuality of Jones’s performance saves a movie that had threatened to become too polite. The story is also given heat by the arrival of a supportive neighbor named Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who introduces some erotic complication into the Hawkings’ marriage.

If only Marsh and McCarten had treated Stephen Hawking as more than a symbol of the indomitable human spirit. Throughout the film the fact that Hawking is doing something is more remarkable than what he actually does. Marsh even cuts away from a physically deteriorating Hawking explaining a key advance in his work to hear a friend (Harry Lloyd) explaining the same thing to colleagues in a pub. Late in the film - after A Brief History of Time makes Hawking a celebrity - there’s a public appearance at which Hawking is reduced to a dispenser of aphorisms about human possibility. While The Theory of Everything contains moments of real honesty and connection it also can’t quite grapple with a man the size of Stephen Hawking, and it’s there that the film can’t quite live up to its title.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman


There is nothing in the previous films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu to prepare you for the scene early in Birdman in which a man named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) uses telekinetic powers to make a paint can fall on someone’s head. Riggan is an actor, once the star of the “Birdman” superhero franchise, who in an effort to regain his reputation is on Broadway directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman follows the last few days before the production opens and Riggan and his collaborators face an assortment of reckonings. If Birdman (full title: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to be taken at face value then Innaritu means it as a critique of art-as-product, both in Hollywood and the most commercial American theatre. Innaritu has chosen big targets and brought technical virtuosity and an unimpeachable cast to bear, but finally I’m not sure that the arguments Birdman is making are either interesting or all that accurate.

 Much of Birdman takes place in a Broadway theatre, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) uses the set as his stage to give a performance that may win him a second Oscar. The bulk of the film appears to be one single take; Lubezki’s camera swoops around corners and inside dressing rooms with a breathlessness that is I think meant to invoke the onrushing opening night of Riggan’s play and the careening psychological health of its star. Riggan has extended himself both professionally and personally, risking his own money on the play and hiring his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Michael Keaton is more than game for what Innaritu asks of him, and he throws himself into the more surreal scenes with the perfect amount of dry wit. Yet I’m not sure Riggan - who hears a running interior monologue from his Birdman character - is quite the holy fool that Innaritu wants him to be. Riggan is meant to be reclaiming his soul as an artist, but he has been handed the keys (really, he has a key) to the summit of American professional theatre and given what appears to be unchecked creative control of a production that in the glimpses we get combines kitchen-sink drama with surrealism and the most awkward moments of actors walking downstage to deliver a Big Speech. There are no producers hounding Riggan to make cuts or cast changes, only Zach Galifianakis as a beleaguered flunky. Innaritu’s placement of Hollywood and “The Theatre” as opposite poles of artistic achievement doesn’t hold up when we see Riggan’s ego being fed at the theatre just as much as it would have been on a blockbuster film set, and that’s why when surrealism begins to take over there is a sense that the film is out of control. Indeed, what does the “Birdman” character represent? By Innaritu’s own logic he should be a symbol of Hollywood as a destroyer of art, right there with Iron Man and the Transformers who are seen in a fantasy sequence as fighting on the stage of Riggan’s play. Instead it’s when Riggan embraces Birdman that the film suggests he brushes against genius.

 It is too bad that the message of Birdman is so muddled because the cast delivers to a degree worthy of the filmmaking skill on hand. Edward Norton plays a vain stage actor who joins the production late and who is gradually revealed to be as bad at life as he is good at acting. Norton’s character is dating another member of the cast (a wonderful and raw Naomi Watts) and might make a better study of the sacrifices one must make for art than Riggan does. Norton is drawing on his own public image in the same way Keaton is, but I left the theater thinking about the women of Birdman. I’ve never seen Naomi Watts this earthy, and she is matched by Andrea Riseborough as her co-star and Riggan’s lover. Amy Ryan is touching as Riggan’s ex, but the movie belongs to Emma Stone as Sam. Stone is not asked to be charming for maybe the first time in her career and she runs with it, playing a messed-up young woman with untapped soul. (There is also Lindsay Duncan as a critic, but she gets saddled with a speech about how soul-killing Hollywood is.) If Birdman weren’t peddling such misconceived ideas then it could have been a glorious one-off about showbiz, the equivalent of finding a beloved book with illustrations you’ve never seen. Instead it ends up being a well-made curiosity best remembered for bringing Michael Keaton back where he belongs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar



Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an ambitious and at times unwieldy piece of work, a ragged but moving affair that puts a beating heart onscreen where Nolan’s previous films have often felt cold and overly determined. Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan have a great deal on their minds here, from the environment and single parenting to the ways that humans are connected across time. Though at 2 hours and 49 minutes Interstellar can feel baggy in spots, the unity of Nolan’s vision ultimately marks it as a step forward for a director who can still do anything he wants for a while longer yet.

Sometime in the near future human society has all but fallen apart. The first image we seen in Interstellar is of a woman played by Ellen Burstyn who is part of a group older people talking about the present of the film we’re watching. Blights have put the food supply in peril and geopolitical conflicts have turned the world back towards an agrarian society. The American government is strong enough to determine which children will go to college and which (most) will become farmers, but this America seems to have no plan to help families fleeing a second Dust Bowl. There is an early scene, the film’s strangest,  in which a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) attends a conference at his daughter’s school and we learn that the idea of a fake moon landing as a stunt to bankrupt the Soviets is now a part of our history. This early world-building contains some shaky exposition, and I didn’t understand why when Cooper stumbles upon NASA headquarters it appears to consist of eight people hiding out in a bunker. Cooper is asked to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole in an effort to find a new habitable world, and he agrees over the tearful objections of his young daugher Murph. (MacKenzie Foy).

Interstellar is exquisitely shot (by Hoyte Van Hoytema) and designed. Though the emotional tenor of the film bears no resemblance to that of 2001 the shots of spaceships framed against huge planets and docking sequences owe something to Kubrick. Nolan’s best and most refreshing joke is the creation of helpful robots that look like walking monoliths, the most prominent a dryly funny unit called TARS voiced by Bill Irwin. Cooper and his team (including Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) have three planets to visit and these scenes are among the film’s strongest, especially on a water planet on which the astronauts suffer their first casualty and realize the difficulty of their mission. It’s on the water planet that the idea of “time slippage” comes into play. You’ll have to have a good ear to catch the details, but for every hour that Cooper spends on the planet Murph (who grows up to be a scientist played by Jessica Chastain) will age seven years back on Earth. Nolan keeps cutting back to a deteriorating Earth to find Murph working for the professor (Michael Caine) who organized the initial mission. The motives of Caine’s character are rushed through in order to motivate the film’s climax, which involves an encounter with a survivor of a previous mission.

Your tolerance for the ending of Interstellar - which actually feels like it ends a few times -  will depend on how you feel about Nolan’s belief in the limits of human possibility and in our collective ability to pull ourselves together as a species. Of all the themes in play it might be said that the greatest of these is love, as a speech by Hathaway’s character earlier in the film is referred to when Cooper is confronted with his chance to save the world. Our sense of the film working to resolve itself is at its strongest here, but though things could get sentimental they’re redeemed by the wit of McConaughey (who plays Cooper like a Right Stuff character alive at the wrong time) and some splendid visual effects. Interstellar is the kind of film one leaves with questions about plot holes and logic, but it also feels like a sort of personal notebook of concerns over how to be a good father, a good citizen, a good man. If Christopher Nolan can keep working at a pitch that combines the grand and the intimate like this, then he has something truly epic in his future.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kill the Messenger


The new drama Kill the Messenger is a jolt, it’s a welcome example of the movies reminding us of something we should have known all along. Director Michael Cuesta has filmed the story of the late journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) with a large dose of paranoia and an urgency about the need for a vigorous and independent American press. Kill the Messenger takes place in the 1990‘s, a time when media outlets (even that phrase) weren’t as conglomerated or as interested in playing to an ideological base as they are today, and one of the most surprising things about the film is just how long ago that time feels. Webb was an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News when the girlfriend (Paz Vega) of a drug dealer on trial shows him documents proving a key player in the California drug scene was a government informant. Pursuit of the story leads to the publication of Webb’s “Dark Alliance” stories, which reported that in the 1980’s  the C.I.A was aware of drug trafficking into the United States and that the profits were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. (U.S. funding of the Contras had been outlawed under the Boland Amendment.) The script by Peter Landesman (based in part on Webb’s book Dark Alliance) is equally detailed about the steps Webb took in reporting the story (trips to Central America, confrontations with government agents) and about the slowly unfolding nightmare of its aftermath.

Gary Webb isn’t portrayed here as a man motivated by a desire for attention. Landesman writes him and Renner plays him as a man who when he wasn’t working was focused on his wife (strong Rosemarie DeWitt) and children. Jeremy Renner is very good here, he doesn’t make Webb a white knight but rather a flawed man tasked with extraordinary work. Indeed the energy and specificity of the film is served by a very deep cast. Andy Garcia and Michael Kenneth Williams turn up as drug dealers, and there are also Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and a superb cameo from Ray Liotta. After publishing his story Webb was unprepared for just how thin the support from his own paper (represented by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) would be, not to mention the attacks from larger rivals. Kill the Messenger speaks to how invested the mainstream media was and is in not offending the power structure, and it’s at its most shocking in scenes where editors at  The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times are shown working to push back against Webb’s reporting. A key moment is actually one of the film’s briefest scenes; it’s a too-chummy conversation between a C.I.A. public affairs officer and a Post editor (Richard Schiff). It’s almost a throwaway moment in a busy film, but it’s “Inside the Beltway” illustrated if anything ever was.  As the government’s interest in him mounts Webb is eventually forced off the investigative beat even as confirmation of his reporting arrives too late. The saddest truth of Kill the Messenger arrives just before the closing credits. Gary Webb, who never worked on a daily newspaper again after resigning from the Mercury News, committed suicide in 2004.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ferrara on Pasolini


This interview with Abel Ferrara is mostly about his new Pasolini, but anyone working as an independent filmmaker in 2014 might also do well to learn from Ferrara's pragmatic can-do spirit.
Q: There’s an incredible parade of logos at the beginning of the movie. It seems like you got a little bit of money from a lot of places.

A: Well, that’s film financing in 2014, you gotta get money from—from the government, actually. Not corporate, but government—something that doesn’t exist in the United States. For me to go to my government and think that I’m gonna get money to make a film is absolutely the most avant-garde, outrageous concept. I wouldn’t dream of it in a million years. Call up Obama and say we’re making a movie? But in Europe they do, they support the arts. The city itself, the country, the campagna, the county, the state, the whatever. And we did it with three countries. France was a big supporter of the film, Belgium, and Italy is his home. I know, it looks a little funky at the beginning, but hey, whatever it is. Sometimes you get one guy to put up all the money, you got one name, sometimes you got 10 different people put up one-tenth of the money, you got ten names. But, hey, we got a movie, I ain’t bitchin’.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Skeleton Twins


The Skeleton Twins is a closely observed family drama for adults that feels like it must have fallen through a time warp from the 1990's, a time when such things could still be found at movie theaters with some regularity. The film, directed by Craig Johnson, probably wouldn't have been made at all without the post-Bridesmaids influence of its star Kristen Wiig. Wiig plays Maggie, an unhappy wife in upstate New York whose is contemplating suicide just at the moment she learns her estranged brother (Bill Hader) has tried to take his own life in Los Angeles. Maggie brings Milo, a gay actor without an agent, back home to New York and the guest bedroom of the house she shares with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie and Lance are still living in the town where Maggie and Milo grew up, and as the siblings return to old patterns The Skeleton Twins winds up being a well-done story of reconnection and acceptance.

Kristen Wiig's performance as Maggie is a continuation of Wiig's exploration of unhappiness. Even in Bridesmaids Wiig's character behaved out of a half-understood disappointment, and in other other film roles (including this) Wiig seems drawn to women whose lives are incomplete or unsuccessful. In The Skeleton Twins Wiig turns mannerisms that could be comic into expressions of her own frustration at her inability to understand herself. Why does Maggie not share Lance's desire for children, to the point that she covertly takes birth control? Why does she sleep with her scuba diving teacher (Boyd Holbrook)? There's an explanation in the script, which Craig Johnson wrote with Mark Heyman, but pleasure of the film is watching Wiig's carefully worked out journey to Maggie's bottom and the beginning of her climb back. Bill Hader is good in a less complicated part, the reasons for Milo's depression are much clearer and there's a plot about an older ex-lover (Ty Burrell) that goes in circles. There's some humor in Hader's awkwardness in their small town's gay bar and a lip-sync sequence that might have been made just to fill out the film's trailer, but the rawness of the final, secret-spilling argument is the place The Skeleton Twins is trying to get to and it does so very well. The Skeleton Twins offers a simple recipe for how a small-budget drama can get attention: address adult concerns through the lives of well-written, unfamiliar characters, and hope that someone from Bridesmaids likes the script. I'll settle for more movies that get even part of that list right.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Gone Girl


How do we talk about Gone Girl? The new David Fincher film arrives with bestseller pedigree and it fulfills our need to find cultural relevance in our big-ticket movies. The novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is popular enough that online outrage erupted when rumors emerged that Fincher might change the book’s ending for the film. Though the story has the framework of a mystery it’s Flynn’s portrait of a marriage in recession-fueled crisis that’s the real engine of the story, and it’s what allows an audience to feel they’re watching something more substantial than a well-shot potboiler. That’s the parlor trick that Gone Girl almost pulls off; the film is a grabber (two and a half hours go quickly) that for a while makes you think it should be taken seriously.

The particulars are well known: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne fall in love and marry in New York but are forced to return to Nick’s Missouri hometown after losing their jobs to the recession. Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary, with signs of a struggle left behind at the Dunne home. The initial wave of sympathy for Nick doesn’t last long. When the cops and media get involved Nick’s private foibles are exposed to the world and he becomes this week’s cable news object of derision. Neither Fincher nor Flynn can do much with the too familiar media subplot; there’s a Nancy Grace-like host (Missi Pyle) who fuels the outrage on her show and Sela Ward (who fares better but isn’t onscreen enough) as the interviewer who snags Nick’s I-didn’t-do-it TV appearance. The police procedural scenes are livened up thanks to an excellent Kim Dickens as the lead detective. Dickens gives her Detective Boney a wit and native intelligence that energize scenes that could otherwise have been formulaic. Two other supporting performances stand out: Carrie Coon is bracing as Nick’s twin sister, who gets to speak most of what the audience will think about her brother. Tyler Perry has a ball as Nick’s high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt. Perry seems to understand exactly what kind of film he’s in, and  every time Tanner comes onscreen there’s a welcome burst of urgency.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay toggles between the aftermath of Amy’s disappearance and the couple’s early days in New York. Nick, whom Affleck plays with some repressed anger and just the right swagger, is immediately taken with Amy after a chance meeting at a party . If Gone Girl is a hit then Rosamund Pike will be a star; Pike is asked to play an astonishing range of emotions. Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Baines) have cannibalized her life for a series of children’s books, and Amy is looking to be swept away by someone who doesn’t already know her history. She falls for Nick’s confidence but (as we hear in the diary that is used as narration) becomes afraid of his disappointment and anger after the couple’s fortunes take a turn. There is a central idea at work in Gone Girl that the film keeps working, which is that changes wrought by time and circumstance can be irreparable fault lines in a marriage. That isn’t an uninteresting subject, but Fincher gets stuck having to service Flynn’s plot and after a while hearing the theme stated again becomes too absurd to bear. If we’re meant to find the final revelation (involving a well-used Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex of Amy’s) and the film’s last act darkly humorous then that’s fine, but Gone Girl has chosen sides in the marriage and we’re left with a half-baked ending. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn are in their way as shaky a couple as Nick and Amy. By committing to Flynn’s baroque plotting Fincher has undone any chance of Gone Girl cutting as deep as he would like it to. Enjoy your popcorn.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones


Liam Neeson almost certainly didn’t have to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he did and it’s to Neeson’s credit that he could tell the difference between this lean and mean detective story and the recent spate of movies in which all he’s asked to do is be tough. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on a Lawrence Block novel, one of a long-running series about a P.I. named Matthew Scudder. Neeson is very well cast as Scudder, besides the obvious physical menace he always looks like he either wants a drink or just had one and he seems perfectly at home on the streets of New York. Writer/director Scott Frank puts us in a New York we don’t usually see at the movies, an outer borough, late-’90s streetscape (it’s 1999 and Y2K is in the air) that’s as blasted out and deserted as a European war zone. This setting is home to a cast of characters living on the city’s margins. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, is an unlicensed P.I. and his client Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Kenny wants Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and murdered his wife so that he can take his revenge, and soon enough Scudder discovers a pattern of killings involving the family members of others in the drug life. No fuss is made about the identities of the killers or about making them funny; they’re two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who appear to enjoy the terror in their victims’ eyes more than the money they collect. After another kidnapping Scudder lures the two into a confrontation and the last act of the movie is a piece of superbly sustained tension.

Describing the plot reduces A Walk Among the Tombstones to a set of genre conventions. The drama lies in watching Neeson uncover new levels in Scudder, not just at the climax but in his relationship with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is a homeless teen and would-be detective, and it’s the kind of role that could have been a cliché but is turned into something real by not overdoing it. There is also a terrific supporting performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as the man who gives Scudder his first real lead. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a very satisfying film that’s also a fine vehicle for its star, and I would be up for seeing Neeson return to this role.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Polley + Gerwig



This conversation between Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig is taken from the Criterion disc of Frances Ha. Polley has a future as a chat show host.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You



This Is Where I Leave You, directed by Shawn Levy from a novel by Jonathan Tropper, is the story of what happens when four grown children return home for their father's funeral. We never meet Mort Altman (except briefly in flashback), and we don't really find out that much about him over the course of almost two hours. It seems Mort was a bad businessman who didn't kiss his kids, preferring instead a sort of gentle head-butt, but it doesn't matter because Mort's widow Hillary (Jane Fonda) supported the family as therapist and author. So if Mort's death is just the opening move then what exactly do we have here?

Jason Bateman is ideal for the role of Judd, the successful middle son whom we meet on the day he discovers his wife (Abigail Spencer) and boss (Dax Shepard) in bed together. Judd is in a funk when he returns home for Mort's funeral, not ready to tell anyone except his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) about his impending divorce. The other two Altman children are Paul (Corey Stoll), who's taking over the family business and trying to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant, and family screw-up Phillip (Adam Driver). We don't get too many specifics about Phillip's life, but he arrives late for Mort's funeral in a Porsche and has brought an older woman (Connie Britton) home with him. At Mort's request Hillary and the kids are to sit shiva together at home, with guidance from a rabbi (Ben Schwartz) who's in the movie just so the Altmans can call him by a childhood nickname. I enjoyed Bateman's usual dry understatement and the way Tina Fey makes Wendy warm and rueful instead of bitter towards her mostly absent husband. Adam Driver and Kathryn Hahn have their moments too, but by this point the movie can't resist piling on contrivances. Fey actually gets the worst of it; she's stuck with a howler of a subplot about an old love (Timothy Olyphant) who lives across the street and has suffered a brain injury. Olyphant is terrible - he's miscast, undirected, and probably too good looking for the role - but it's hard to blame him since he's playing a character who's only purpose is to shine light on someone else. Jason Bateman at least gets to play a few scenes with Rose Byrne as a local woman who never left, but there is no time for Byrne to show the anarchic comic spirit she brought to Neighbors. It all ends with another revelation, broadly played and predictably progressive in spirit.

This Is Where I Leave You strives for seriousness and asserts the right of well-off adults to be sad and confused about their lives. I haven't read the novel, but if the movie had had the courage of its convictions (and maybe had fewer characters) it might have been something. Levy and Tropper can't settle on a tone though, and what we've got is a rushed and busy affair with well-acted dramatic scenes butting up against broad comic ones. Put This Is Where I Leave You down as a missed opportunity for one of the fall's best ensemble casts.

Snowpiercer



Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is, for its anger and sheer inventiveness, an essential film of 2014. Better known to date perhaps for the controversy over how and in what form it would be released, Snowpiercer is a film that had to be made by someone outside the Hollywood system because anyone with a foothold at the studios would have been afraid to touch it. It is a film we need very much.

The tail section of the Snowpiercer - a train that carries the remains of humanity around the world after an environmental disaster - is a place of Dickensian squalor, with passengers crammed into bunks and forced to survive on "protein blocks" served at the discretion of Wilford (Ed Harris). The engine that powers the always-running train is Wilford's creation, and he guards it at the head of a train that on which the class structure is rigidly enforced. The spiritual leader of the tail is Gilliam (John Hurt), but the drive for revolution comes from Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). One thing that Snowpiercer gets right is the way it raises the question that so many revolutions don't answer: "What's next?" Curtis is motivated by anger at the treatment his people receive, and the way that children from the tail are forcibly removed to the front without explanation. The anger only grows as the revolutionaries discover the absurd luxuries of the front cars, which include a fish farm for sushi and a dance club that looks like it was hauled in from a Matrix sequel. Yet it's not clear that Curtis knows what he'd replace the current system with, and when he reaches the front he's tempted by Wilford's offer to oversee what's really a rolling experiment in social engineering. I don't know to what degree Bong Joon-ho was inspired by current American political rhetoric (the script is based on a graphic novel), but the crux of the movie is Curtis's attempt to fight against what's really the stretching of some conservative talking points to a ridiculous extreme. In Wilford's world the poor will always be with us, and to maintain balance on the train they must stay in their place. The alternative of course is the messiness of a free, open society. That's what Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) wants; he's the security specialist working with the revolutionaries who thinks that life outside the train may be possible.

Curtis makes his choice, as we all must, and the last shot of Snowpiercer is as simple and hopeful as anything I can remember. I don't want to suggest that ideas are all that is at work here. The close-quarter battle scenes are quick and bloody, the various train cars we see are impeccably designed, and the large cast is unexpected and excellent. Chris Evans gets to show a good deal more range than in his Captain America< roles, while Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer (as a single mother) make fine revolutionaries. I loved Alison Pill as a teacher indoctrinating children in the power of 'the engine" and best of all is Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the bureaucrat charged with overseeing the tail, and she's unrecognizable in false teeth and oversized glasses. The phrase "world-building" has become a cliche, but it's done to near-perfection here in a film that asks important questions and offers no easy answers.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Drop


The Drop is adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story "Animal Rescue", and ads for the film don't miss a chance to put it right next to other recent offerings based on Lehane's work. (If you saw Mystic River and Shutter Island without knowing their origins then would you ever believe Lehane wrote both novels?) Director Michael R. Roskam puts us in a part of Brooklyn where the characters are pretty unlikely to run into the cast of Girls. The Drop (the title refers to a bar chosen as the collection point for money from other Mob bars) has atmosphere and fine performances, including the final film work of James Gandolfini, to recommend it. Yet in opening out the short story I think Lehane and Roskam have lost sight of what stories here are worth telling, and a strong effort ends up being a little less than the sum of its parts. Gandolfini plays a man called "Cousin Marv", who used to own the bar that bears his name but now serves as figurehead since the Chechen Mob took over the place. Marv's most trusted employee is bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy in a carefully coiled performance), who when he isn't working seems content to kick around his dead parents' house and walk the pit bull he finds injured in a neighbor's trash can. That trash can belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress with a taste for difficult men who slowly takes a liking to Bob.

Lehane loads his script with twists and revelations, but the best thing about The Drop is its depiction of a closed criminal ecosystem. There's a cop (John Ortiz) in the film who knows what's going but can't prove it because nobody is talking. The neighborhood connections between Marv, Bob, and their associates go back years, and the thought of involving the NYPD in any of the various crimes that take place in The Drop is as laughable as Bob serving Chechen underboss (Michael Aronov) a PBR. But what is this film about? Marv is filled with self-loathing at the way he gave in to the Chechens, but because the script is so busy Marv's growing desperation can only move in fits and starts. I don't know what kind of health Gandolfini was in while shooting The Drop, but his performance is excellent. Marv is uncomfortable in his own skin, itching for action and movement but held back by both age and circumstance. Whatever physical baggage Gandolfini brought to the role is seamlessly put into what's onscreen. The role of Marv is a supporting one though, because we are really supposed to be interested in the slow revelation of the fact that Bob is quite a bit more substantial than he first appears. It is hard to believe Tom Hardy played both Bob Saginowksi and Bane, and his withholding performance eventually pays off in a climax that raises the question of why Bob's name isn't on the front of the bar. It's a kick to watch Hardy work us like an old pro, but the ending doesn't really take the movie anywhere and the Bob's relationship with Nadia exists only to make other things happen. (Rapace is vivid but wasted to a large degree.) The Drop is a good try, an overcrowded movie that circles back into a too familiar place.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Chef


Work is the true subject of Jon Favreau’s Chef, a winning comedy of American mid-life reinvention. Favreau, who wrote and directed, plays a chef named Carl Casper whose Los Angeles restaurant is bracing for a visit from an online food critic (Oliver Platt). Carl has a special menu planned, but the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants him to stick to tried and true favorite dishes. After a negative review Carl can’t take it anymore, a blow-up in the restaurant makes him a viral video star, and he finds himself without either a job or any prospects. The heart of the movie is the divorced Carl’s brusque relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), in which Carl confuses activity with attention. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more emasculating moment on film than the one where Carl’s ex (Sofia Vergara) asks him to accompany her on a trip to Miami so that he can be a “nanny” to his own son.

Jon Favreau can probably get almost any movie made that he wants to at this point, so while it’s tempting to cast Carl’s story (successful professional strikes out on new course in search of self-satisfaction) onto Favreau’s life I don’t think Chef is an allegory for Favreau not wanting to direct comic-book movies anymore. Carl lucks into a food truck, teams up with a pal (John Leguizamo), and winds up driving the truck back to Los Angeles with Percy along for the ride. Percy becomes a line cook and learns about the level of craftsmanship and effort his father expects, and the movie becomes a sort of love letter to fulfilling work. Jon Favreau doesn’t just want to make personal films, he wants to make good films well.  Favreau’s scenes with Emjay Anthony have just the right level of awkwardness and desire for connection; Chef feels awfully right when it comes to depicting a divorced dad/child relationship. (Percy becomes the social media director for his Dad’s food truck; Chef gets Twitter right too.) The unusually starry supporting cast is as good as you expect: in addition to  Hoffman and Leguizamo there’s  Scarlett Johansson as a maitre d’, Bobby Cannavale as Carl’s lieutenant, and a funny cameo from Robert Downey, Jr. as a man once married to Carl’s ex. There may not be much that happens in Chef that one won’t expect, but the warmth and affection on display (helped by a salsa-heavy soundtrack) are welcome from Jon Favreau and signal a new chapter in his career. Chef doesn’t deserve to get lost as summer slips into fall; it’s an observant film full of both humanity and pleasure.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Giver


The Giver is based on Lois Lowry's 1993 novel of a reorganized society in which conflict has been stamped out through the elimination of memory and emotion. The book was a forerunner of the current vogue for dystopian young-adult literature and the film, well directed by Philip Noyce, succeeds where other films in the genre fall short simply by being about something. It's all very well to take an anti-totalitarian stance, but The Giver is specifically concerned with the transformative effects of knowledge in a way that feels both long overdue and very fresh. After an unspecified disaster all citizens are required to take daily injections that regulate their emotions and memories. Only the Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges, whose character is known as "The Giver") is allowed to know the past and what it might mean for the future. Our way into the story is through Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who when he turns eighteen is selected to be the next Receiver and be given access to all human memory and emotion. What happens when The Giver and Jonas get together may be expected - Jonas immediately recognizes what's wrong with his society - but the way that Philip Noyce executes it is not. Noyce films the early scenes in black and white and only gradually introduces color as The Giver awakens Jonas's senses. The look of the film is austere by design, the cinematography, design, and costumes (Jeff Bridges is costumed like a 19th century President) create an almost old-fashioned feeling; it's as if we were watching an older idea of what the future might look like. The memories that Jonas receives are as simple as snow and as dire as a battlefield, but Noyce shoots them in exhilarating color to mirror Jonas's sensory disruption.

Before watching The Giver I saw a trailer for a film called The Maze Runner which appears to follow the standard YA template of putting pretty people in dire situations. There are pretty people on hand here - Thwaites, Odeya Rush as Jonas's friend Fiona, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift - but The Giver is unusually elegant in its restraint. The action adventure plot takes over quite late in the film, when Jonas must rescue an infant who may be the next Receiver, but Noyce prefers to focus on the sensation of a kiss or the color of an apple. I'm not even sure that The Giver needed the presence of Meryl Streep in a beefed-up role as "Chief Elder". Streep gets to play coiled menace but is cut off from the main action until the end, when she stats her case that free will means humans will "choose wrong". Bridges gets a slightly on-the-nose monologue in response, and he plays it beautifully. The Giver is an unusual case, a film I enjoyed as much for what wasn't there as what was. While it's box-office performance likely won't merit a sequel, this well-made and quietly politcal film deserves more attention that it has received.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

When The Game Stands Tall



When The Game Stands Tall is the story of the De La Salle High School football Spartans, a California squad whose record 151-game winning streak came to an end in 2004. The previews don’t mention that De La Salle is a private religious school, able to attract players from a wider area than its rivals. The movie, directed by Thomas Carter (the screenplay is drawn from a book by Neil Hayes), is filled with game sequences and inspirational speeches but is almost obtusely concerned with adversity and the overcoming of it by the team. To the extent that When The Game Stands Tall works, it does so because Jim Caviezel commits to playing a boring character. Caviezel plays Head Coach Bob Ladouceur, who in the movie’s conception is a man who views himself as a teacher who just happens to be a football coach. Ladouceur is committed to the development of his players as men and to the ideals that the movie espouses: team, humility, hard work. Caviezel attacks the role with the appropriate doggedness, but the movie forgoes any sense that Ladouceur enjoys his success or that he’s even a brilliant football mind. (The real Ladouceur retired in 2013 having won over 93 percent of his games.) Michael Chiklis is much more convincing as an assistant coach, and as Ladouceur’s wife Laura Dern gets to play all kinds of conflicting emotions as she watches her husband reject lucrative college coaching offers. Once the streak ends early in the movie there is little that happens that one won’t expect. A hot-dog receiver (Jessie Usher) becomes a team player, a star running back (Alexander Ludwig) struggles with an overbearing father (Clancy Brown), and the coach’s son (Matthew Daddario) is asked to come through at a key moment. There is even a big game at the end, though refreshingly the movie doesn’t hinge on the outcome. When The Game Stands Tall contains an admirable message but too little of the exhilaration of sports.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Music: Tori Amos - "God/Running Up That Hill"



Check this out for more Tori Amos cover versions from her last tour.....

The Underneath



The Underneath, directed by Steven Soderbergh and released in 1995, is a modern film noir in which style trumps a lack of substance. Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is returning home to Texas for the marriage of his mother (Anjanette Comer) to a kindly armored car driver named Ed (Paul Dooley). We don't know where Michael has been, but a series of flashbacks reveal the reason he left. Michael was a compulsive gambler whose habit cost him his life in Texas and relationship with Rachel (Alison Elliott), an actress who was willing to put up with a surprising amount of the ups and downs caused by Michael's betting. With his habit apparently under control, Michael is back home and in need of a job much to the displeasure of his cop kid brother (Adam Trese). The action of the film involves Michael's attempt to reconnect with Rachel while avoiding the wrath of her husband Tommy (william Fichtner), a club owner who doesn't need much persuasion to help plan the bank robbery that is the centerpiece of The Underneath.

Steven Soderbergh co-wrote the screenplay for The Underneath (with Daniel Fuchs) under a pseudonym, and almost from the very first blue-tinted shot the movie feels like the work of a someone who views conventional narrative as a starting point. There are three distinct timelines: the day of the bank robbery, Michael's return home and eventual employment by Ed's armored car company, and flashbacks to Michael's gambling days. The structure gives some energy to the material, which otherwise would have seemed pulpish and ordinary. There's no effort expended to make a probably miscast Peter Gallagher's Michael likeable or especially interesting; the character is defined by his needs, whatever they are. After the robbery there's a long in scene in which Michael receives a succesion of visitors in hospital, and we experience them in the same way Michael does as he floats in an out of consciousness. Why is the owner (Joe Don Baker) of the armored car business so happy? Will Michael's suspicious brother turn him in? Finally a stranger comes into the room at Michael's request "just to talk", and both a now-lucid Michael and the audience start to really question their perceptions. The scene is a simple but marvelous exercise in controlled tension.

The Underneath is a minor work in Soderbergh's career, but one that bears the promise of the good things that were yet to come. Rewatching the film two decades after its release is a fun exercise for anyone looking for examples what a great director can do for genre material.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Calvary



John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a fascinating missed opportunity. Irish Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened with death by a parishioner while he is hearing confession in the opening scene, and the rest of the movie is the story of the week he is given to put his affairs in order before the threat is to be carried out. James is one of two priests in a small community filled with an assortment of souls badly in need of guidance, and McDonagh’s script doesn’t forego any opportunity to give his characters a grievance with either James or with the Church he represents. It’s this overly determined quality that is both the most original element and the biggest problem with Calvary. McDonagh’s script seems to say there isn’t a place for religion in the modern world, no place for the simple healing vision of God’s love that James offers his flock. It’s a fascinating subject, but one that isn’t well served by the script’s offering up a broadly sketched collection of characters who come to feel like the suspects in an Agatha Christie story. When the true purpose of Calvary is revealed the film becomes something lesser, a blunt instrument designed to make the most obvious possible point.

What is a priest for? That’s the question James seems to be asking himself as the week goes on, even if the film as a whole has other things on its mind. James was a late convert to the priesthood, he has a troubled adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) and only became a priest after his wife died. Brendan Gleeson plays James with a palpable weariness, an understanding that his kind may be passing out of the world. It’s an understated performance but one full of deep reserves of both compassion and sometimes self-directed confusion. James doesn’t seem able to do much for those he meets along the way, whether it’s the cynical doctor (Aiden Gillen) or the woman (Orla O’Rourke) who wears sunglasses to mass to hide her bruises. Indeed the movie almost doesn’t have time for all its characters. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of the male hustler (Owen Sharpe) who talks as if he were in a James Cagney movie. The most practical service James performs is the acquisition of a gun for use by an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh), but the gun of course ends up figuring in the movie another way. All of these characters, even a murderer (Domhnall Gleason) James visits in prison, are firmly on their own path and listen to the priest out of courtesy as opposed to need. It’s that sense of James’ growing irrelevance that saps Calvary of drama as the week runs out and ultimately makes it less than the sum of its parts.

Calvary wouldn’t feel authentic to its time if the subject of sexual abuse by priests was ignored, and the bind good priests like James are in is well-put in a heartbreaking scene in which a father misunderstands the brief conversation James has with his young daughter. It’s just at the moment when James meets his would-be killer on the beach that it comes clear sexual abuse and culpability are the major subjects of Calvary. A character we’ve barely met is revealed to be both anguished and very articulate, and John Michael McDonagh’s vision of what the Church can be now turns out to be an extremely dark one. In its quest to be relevant Calvary overplays its hand and ends up being a sensationalistic miss.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy


Guardians of the Galaxy is of course both the latest in the interlocking "Marvel Universe" series of films and the first to go outside the pantheon of heroes featured in The Avengers. The film, directed by James Gunn, is also a marked departure in tone from previous Marvel efforts. I don't think I've ever seen superhero films with as much psychological depth as the Captain America saga, and the other Avengers films have reached for a similar depth with mixed results. Yet Gunn has made a comedy with action, a film meant to feel like a cult movie from the 1980's that one stumbles on by accident and then loves in the same way that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) treasures a cassette tape of 1970's pop music from his mother. For those who have been following the Marvel films the effect is as if Beverly Hills Cop had been inserted into the Star Wars franchise. The change in tone is jarring and one is left wondering just what the point of it all was supposed to be.

After a prologue in which young Peter Quill is kidnapped from Earth on the day his mother dies, we jump forward and find the adult Peter a sort of low-rent Han Solo type. Peter's pursuit of an orb that contains (unknown to him) an "Infinty Stone" puts him in the way of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically modified raccoon called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a walking tree known as Groot (Vin Diesel), and a tough named Drax (Dave Bautista in the film's funniest performance). This crew is charged with securing the stone from Ronan (Lee Pace), a madman with megalomaniacal ambitions, and ultimately from future Avengers foe Thanos. the outcome is all too predictable, Quill will crack wise while coming into his own as a man while Gamora will kick ass and do little else. (Saldana doesn't offer much new here. Are roles like this all her career is going to be?) The rest of the cast will fill in around the edges as it all leads up to a climactic battle with Ronan. There is energy and wit here. but they're in service of a story that feels very disconnected from the one Marvel has been telling. I appreciate that only Marvel could make this film. but Guardians should have been allowed to find its own way rather than be shoved into the studio's bigger plans.


Magic in the Moonlight


Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight is an example of what the right actors can do to elevate a script that needed a polish. In 1928, Stanley (Colin Firth) enjoys a successful career as an illusionist under the name Wei Ling Soo. Stanley performs in an appropriately ridiculous costume, though his identity is somewhat of an open secret. (This movie isn't exactly The Prestige when it comes to plot twists.) After a performance as Wei Ling Soo, Stanley shows no hesitation about berating an assistant as he changes clothes in full view of everyone including his fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Burkan asks Stanley to come to France in order to help unmask a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone), whom he suspects of trying to swindle some wealthy Americans with her fake psychic abilities. Stanley is possessed of the cold realism about a life beyond our own that runs through Allen's work back to Crimes and Misdemeanors and probably farther. He agrees to help expose Sophie, and the game is on.

Magic in the Moonlight isn't ashamed of its late period qualities; there are familiar Allen tropes aplenty (Stanley's worldview, a fascination with magicians, period jazz) recycled in a new setting that at least offers some antique cars and pretty views of the South of France. There's a ball that Darius Khondji photographs like a painting and costumes that cold have been borrowed from a museum, but it's the performances of the two leads that finally makes the movie a pleasure. Colin Firth's natural fussiness is perfect for Stanley. Firth seems to know just how far to take his performance before the character begins to fall in love with Sophie and things go the other way. There is a moment when Stanley considers prayer as his beloved aunt (Eileen Atkins) lies in hospital. Just as we think we're about to witness a conversion, Stanley's true nature reasserts itself. It's a small piece of screen acting that's as fine as anything I've seen Firth do, and it helps ground a high-flown movie in something real. Emma Stone might be a little too modern to play a 1920's girl, and she's clearly smarter than the script means the character to be, but that's the point. Sophie is the future, here to drag Stanley into the next phase of his life, and Stone plays her with an effortless charm. I wish both Firth and Stone had been given better material to work with. 10 or 15 years ago Woody Allen would have made Magic in the Moonlight tighter and funnier, too much of the dialogue is redundant and the scene where Stanley realizes he's in love with Sophie is interminable. Yet the two leads play off each other well and overcome Allen's limitations. Magic in the Moonlight may be a case of Allen repeating himself, but there are enough warm and familiar notes here to make the effort worthwhile.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Boyhood


The circumstances under which Richard Linklater's moving and formally ambitious Boyhood was made are well-known by now, but it's worth repeating them just to point out what an unusual American film Linklater has made. Boyhood was shot for several weeks each year during the years 2002 to 2013. We watch the man character, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), grow from a child of 6 to a young man of 18 alongside his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). The fact that Richard Linklater was able to complete Boyhood and have it released by a studio is itself worthy of celebration, but the creation shouldn't overshadow discussion of the work itself. I can't recall seeing an American film quite like this one ever before. The only films I can recall that consider childhood  (and the way children are buffeted by forces outside their control) in quite the same way come from around the world: Edward Yang's Yi Yi, or works by Truffaut or Bergman. Richard Linklater has never been shy of work - Boyhood is his 17th feature by my count - but if there was any prior doubt that he should be considered as a major American director that doubt has now been put to rest. Boyhood marks Richard Linklater as America's greatest European filmmaker.

The first act of Boyhood takes young Mason from a paycheck-to-paycheck existence with his mother and sister into his mother's marriage to a professor (Marco Perella) she meets upon going back to school. The professor, with two kids of his own, turns out to be an alcoholic nightmare and Mason's mother flees with her children in a scene remarkable for its ordinary ugliness. The question of what will happen to the professor's own children is raised but never answered, and it's one of many times that Linklater avoids easy resolutions or melodrama in a way that feels effortless and natural. Each time it feels like we might be being set up for a plot twist down the road (Mason is given a shotgun by his grandfather, he's warned not to text and drive by his dad.), Linklater passes on the cheap drama and instead chooses the human moment. This approach extends to the darkest scenes, such as Mason coming upon his mother on the ground after the professor has struck her. Indeed the last scene of the film, shortly after Mason arrives at college, is the articulation of the film's vision. Life isn't a series of narrative twists but rather an accumulation of moments and details, and to accept that is the first step in forging a path of one's own. 

There is another bad marriage, a few more moves, and eventually a new career for Mason's mother, who is played by Patricia Arquette with a harried dignity. As Mason grows up he drifts towards art and photography, and while his relationship with his Mom feels believably awkward his bond with his Dad strengthens as the years go by. Ethan Hawke is skilled at conveying the sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances, and his transformation from well-meaning goof to remarried family man may very quietly be his best film performance. Ellar Coltrane proves more than capable of the decade-plus task of carrying Boyhood. Coltrane has a few other credits but obviously grew into himself on this film, and he's very good at conveying the sense of a person discovering himself. In an alternate universe a different Linklater might have made Boyhood with a conventional shooting schedule and used different actors to play Mason at different ages. But a "child actor" as Mason would have destroyed the film's illusion of a life unfolding as we watch it, its sense of open-heartedness towards everything from family to a church service to a Harry Potter release party. In this universe however, we are the recipients of a film that is both a peak in its maker's career and full of a love so sorely lacking in most American cinema. 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Lucy


I doubt I'll see a stranger movie this year than Luc Besson's Lucy, a hybrid of action film and EPCOT Center exhibit in which Scarlett Johansson is cast as the avatar of human possibility. Johansson plays Lucy, an American student in Taipei whose bad choice in boyfriends leads to her crossing the path of a drug lord named Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Jang implants packets of a synthetic drug called CPH4 inside Lucy and some other unlucky mules, but when Lucy is assaulted by a low-level thug the package breaks and the drug gets into her bloodstream. CPH4 gradually unlocks the 90% percent of Lucy's brain that she, like other humans, "doesn't use". The rest of the movie follows Lucy towards 100% brain power and what we're told will be the next stage of human evolution.

One of the many hilarious things about Lucy is its self-seriousness; there's a long set-up involving a professor (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on what a human with increased brain power would be able to do - a good deal of telekinesis - and the drawn-out ending is offered as a lesson to us ordinary humans that the path to enlightenment lies through learning. We never really see Lucy learn anything though, except for what's needed to move the plot ahead. Johansson does her best and is probably ideal casting for this role, she plays it with just the right mix of kick-ass energy and humor. Besson's script doesn't do her any favors though; Johansson is saddled with some ponderous speeches ("Sounds are music I can understand.") and an ending that turns her into a special effect. I can't in good conscience recommend Lucy as "good" by any objective standard, but I do love the way the movie gets off on its own weirdness and how Scarlett Johansson throws in and plays along.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man


It turns out that we need A Most Wanted Man very much. I haven't read the John LeCarre novel on which Anton Corbijn's new film is based, but I'm guessing we have Corbijn to thank for bringing LeCarre's critique of post-9/11 intelligence practices to a wider audience. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a marvelous sad-sack performance) is an intelligence officer of the old school, one who values human resources above all else and views ideology as a nuisance at best. Gunther and team work a network of sources in Hamburg to fight Islamic terrorism, and Gunther has come to believe a prominent liberal Muslim named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) may be channeling money to Al Qaeda. Gunther wants to turn Abdullah against bigger targets, but first he must unravel the case of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and an inheritance that can be used as bait. Gunther's rival Mohr (Rainer Bock) and the CIA officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) favor a more blunt approach to anti-terrorism, it's implied that Issa and Abdullah will simply be captured and taken out of play, and at heart A Most Wanted Man (adapted by Andrew Bovell) is a dialogue between two ways of answering the question of what to do about radical Islam.

The Hamburg of A Most Wanted Man is a stew of religious and ethnic differences, and the sterile rooms in which Gunther defends his tactics feel very far removed from the streets where he meets informants and surveils a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) connected to Issa's money. Corbijn is superb at cutting between conversations, surveillance vans, and agents watching from different angles, and while the film is heavily detailed it's also neither slow (save for a brief pass at intimacy between Issa and McAdams' lawyer) nor confusing. At the center of it all is Hoffman, and of course it's impossible to watch A Most Wanted Man without thinking about Hoffman's death. The fact that Gunther isn't a healthy man - far too many drinks, smokes, and too much bad food - is difficult to separate from what we know about the end of Hoffman's life, but there is much in the performance to call attention to on the merits. Late in the film Gunther must win approval from a government minister for his plan to catch and turn Abdullah, and Gunther mentions "making the world a safer place" (a phrase Wright's CIA officer had used earlier) as a motivation. Corbijn holds the camera on Gunther for a moment after the line, and Hoffman gives a tiny, brilliant take that reveals the character is disgusted and amused in equal measure at what's required to do his job. It's a small moment but also a great piece of screen acting, and it's the way I want to remember this actor. A Most Wanted Man creates a fully realized post-9/11 world in all it's complexity, and that is the reason I used the word "need" in the first sentence of this review. Put another way, this isn't a film about how spies behave but rather one about how humans behave.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Maps To The Stars trailer



Here's the trailer for David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars, which just won Julianne Moore a Best Actress prize at Cannes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive


Only Lovers Left Alive is what happens when Jim Jarmusch, the best living example of what it means to be "independent" in American cinema, comes to the vampire genre. If you are familiar with Jarmusch's career then you won't be surprised to learn that here he is as disinterested in structure and narrative expectations as he has ever been, instead there is a broader set of concerns that feel like a summing up of something the director has been trying to say for some time. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about culture and why it matters, and why in a way the world needs snobs in order to keep on moving.

 A vampire movie needs some rules, and I'd be curious to know whether Jarmusch viewed the world-building aspects of writing this script as a chore or a challenge. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives as a recluse in what looks like a nearly empty Detroit, where he sleeps by day and composes experimental drone music by night. Neither Adam nor the other older vampires we meet pursue humans; they view bites on the neck as a sign of bad manners. Adam gets his blood from a friendly doctor (Jeffrey Wright) and consumes it in something that you or I might use to drink sherry. It's not clear why Adam's wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) is in Tangiers, other than the great blood supplied by Christopher Marlowe (yes that Marlowe, played by John Hurt), but she soon joins Adam in Detroit and thinks his new music is his best work yet. Adam's music is essentially artisanal, a "zombie" (human) associate (Anton Yelchin) sells unlabeled 180-gram vinyl to hipsters in clubs in the same way that people in Brooklyn might buy cheese or bread. Adam abhors conventional fame but wants to get his music heard, and it's that conflict that Jarmusch is interested in. The wall of fame in Adam's house contains pictures of Thelonious Monk, William Burroughs, Neil Young, and others who are legends for their work as opposed to their personality. We're told that Adam gave Schubert an adagio and that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, and since the vampires aren't going anywhere they'd like to see their work hang around too. Jim Jarmusch is dry and self-deprecating in interviews and those Criterion Q&A things, and I certainly don't think he's claiming a spot for himself in the cultural pantheon but rather asserting the importance of having a canon. Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow (not boring) film about creatures who live forever, and the music and art they need to keep on going.

 What "plot" there is comes with the arrival of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a vampire from L.A. (Adam: "Zombie Central") who isn't averse to mingling with or biting humans on her way. Ava's behavior pushes Adam and Eve towards an ending I'm still thinking about, one that pushes them back into the world in order to survive and which suggests that Adam may not have time to compose music for awhile. Art isn't made in a vacuum, and what Adam doesn't get is that the personal or societal obstacles faced by the artists on his wall helped shape the work they did. Jim Jarmusch has privileged his independence over a certain level of fame, and I doubt he regrets the choice except maybe for the fact he can't make films as fast he'd like to. Jarmusch may not wind up on the same tier of cinematic regard as his own heroes, but he has done what Adam tells Marlowe is the key: Get the work out there.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Neighbors



 Neighbors has a real idea at its center, that being a grownup with a house and a family is as scary in its own way as the transition from college to adulthood. Director Nicholas Stoller executes this idea just well enough to keep the movie from being a disposable pleasure, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you know that the jokes are the reason why we’re here. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new parents settling into their first house when a fraternity moves in next door. Delta Psi president Teddy (Zac Efron) first promises to be considerate of his new neighbors and their child, but soon the music and the parties have Mac and Kelly plotting how to get the brothers kicked out. The script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien is clever enough to make life at the frat house attractive to Mac and Kelly, even as they decide how ask Teddy the keep the noise down they’re worried about how to look cool. (Notice how often Mac says “dope”.) The frat parties prove irresistible; Rogen shows some physical comedy skills in a dance-off scene and Byrne (baby monitor clutched to one ear) plays Kelly as a woman craving a moment’s release from motherhood. Rose Byrne is the real star of Neighbors, the broad comic roles she has played in Bridesmaids and Get Him to the Greek aren’t anything on the very specific character she creates here. Byrne is more than a match for Rogen, who plays a version of his usual character and as usual sounds like he’s making up his lines. (That quality may be his greatest gift.) I’ve never thought much about Zac Efron as an actor, as opposed to a personality, but here there’s a fascinating blankness to Teddy that’s either a result or an unintended consequence of Efron’s ability. Teddy is just beginning to realize that he doesn’t get it, never more so than in a scene where he watches his best friend (Dave Franco) at a job fair. Our last sight of Teddy doesn’t allow for much of a future for the character, though it does argue for why Efron will have a career for a while longer.

Neighbors ends with a showdown at the Delta Psi year-end rager - the comic violence escalates throughout the movie - and with Mac and Kelly embracing the next chapter of their lives. As thick as the jokes fly, with a better than usual hit/miss ratio, the fact that not all the characters get off easily is the movie’s greatest asset. While immaturity has never been a bad bet as the subject of big studio comedies, Neighbors finds some bite and plenty of laughs in the struggles of growing up.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Touchy Feely


There's a spark missing from Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely, a sense of what animated a film in which appealing characters fall through each other lives for reasons that the director never seems to fully engage with. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, who worked with Shelton in this) is a Seattle massage therapist on the brink of moving in with boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Just as Abby begins to lose her desire to touch her patients and her boyfriend, her brother Paul's (the excellent Josh Pais) quiet dental practice takes off when Paul somehow acquires the ability to "cure" his patients' TMJ with a touch. The siblings' are headed in opposite directions as Paul's daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) nurses a crush on Jesse and debates whether to tell her Dad she wants to leave for college. I kept waiting for Abby and Paul's story to mean something, but Shelton can only give a nod to deeper spiritual thoughts in a brief performance by Allison Janney as a Reiki teacher. I'd watch DeWitt and Page in just about anything, but Shelton doesn't seem to know what to with Abby and resorts to writing her an (impressively shot) ecstasy trip. Ellen Page plays Jenny's conflict and unhappiness very well; if only the role had give her a chance to show some wit or more ambition. (Jenny wants to cook, but we barely see she can.) Josh Pais steals Touchy Feely as Paul, in a superb depiction of what happens when chance brings a middle-aged rut to an end. Pais and the other actors deserve better from the script. Lynn Shelton seems to have no trouble attracting talent - her next film stars Keira Knightley and Chloe Moretz - but next time out she needs to build a stronger framework for her talent.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Spacey



Kevin Spacey opens up about "left turns" and coming back to the theater.
When I moved to London, there was a tremendous amount of "Oh, this movie actor is coming to do theater." There was a lot of criticism that followed that. A movie actor was going to tell them how to do theater. They could create headlines using my name that they couldn’t with any other artistic director. I remember saying to my staff…people were saying I should fight back and tell them what I was doing. And, I said, "Look. A) I’m not going to take the bait. B) Eventually, they’ll realize that I’m still showing up to work everyday. That’s my job. They’ll get over me. They’ll start judging us as a theatre company and it will no longer be about me." It’s a little bit like that. My job is to show up every day and be a company member. Now, I do believe that there is a leadership role. I was taught that by Jack Lemmon. You’re playing a leading role, it’s also a leadership role. You can be a part of leading an environment, creating a space. Maybe it will take people a couple days to get over that but it’s the same thing an audience experiences to. I was just reading this wonderful interview with Bryan Cranston about his playing LBJ on Broadway and young people are coming to the theatre for the first time because of "Breaking Bad." And his attitude is "I don’t care why they come. Our job is to get them in the seat." If for ten minutes is all they’re thinking is "Breaking Bad," if you’ve done your work, and, by every indication he fucking has, they start to accept him as Lyndon Baines Johnson. They start to accept this play. They go into this world. They believe it.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sunday Music: Rhett Miller - "Longer Than You've Been Alive"



A solo rendition of a track off the Old 97's well-reviewed new album.

Jodorowsky's Dune


The 1970’s saw the end of the old studio system and the emergence of a class of directors whose work of the period is today remembered as a “Golden Age”. The years when Scorsese, Altman, Cassavetes, etc. were doing their most celebrated work should have been a fertile time for Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose attempt to film Frank Herbert’s novel Dune is the subject of an engaging new documentary. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a footnote to 1970’s movie mania and a story of how the some of the most beloved science fiction films of recent decades might never have been made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is in his 80s but still lively and voluble, and he isn’t shy about making claims for what his adaptation of Dune could have been. (“A prophet”) In 1975 Jodorowsky was enjoying the midnight movie success of his El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and in French producer Michel Seydoux he found a creative ally who seemed able to make the director’s vision of Dune a reality. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of preproduction on a film that was never made. Director Frank Pavich draws from a lavish illustrated book that Jodorowsky produced as a calling card to studios. Storyboards by Moebius along with paintings by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss laid out a detailed plan for Dune, and Jodorowsky brought a young effects artist named Dan O’Bannon onto the team after being unimpressed by the celebrated Douglas Trumbull of 2001 fame. Pink Floyd agreed to contribute music. Casting the central roles seems almost to have come too easily, with several actors turning up exactly when Jodorowsky needed to talk to them. I don’t know exactly how long Pavich worked on this film, but could we not have heard from Mick Jagger on his agreement (as Jodorowsky tells it) to appear in Dune? A 12-year old Brontis Jodorowsky was to have taken on the central role of Paul Atreides, but Jagger is the only other member of a lead cast that would have included David Carradine, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali.

Despite the preparation and the involvement of a big-name cast, no studio wanted to make Jodorowsky’s Dune. O’Bannon, Giger, and Foss all went on to important roles in making Alien, which they might not have been able to do if Dune had gone forward. (If no Alien probably no Blade Runner, etc.) Pavich doesn’t directly accuse anyone of plagiarism, but the storyboards in Jodorowsky’s Dune resemble shots in Star Wars and a host of other films. It’s impossible to know whether 1970’s audiences would have responded to a dark, spiritual science fiction film (based on a book Jodorowsky hadn’t read), but the fact Dune wasn’t made opened up the next 35 years of sci-fi movie history. I respect Jodorowsky for being honest enough to admit, despite his admiration for David Lynch, that he was happy to see the Dune that Lynch eventually filmed flop at the box office. Alejandro Jodorowsky went on to channel his Dune ideas into successful comics and recently directed his first film in over 20 years, but the film he didn’t make might be his greatest contribution to the cinema we have today.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Punk Singer



Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer opens with a vintage clip of its subject, Kathleen Hanna, at a 1990's spoken word event. Anderson never returns to the clip or explains exactly what Hanna is talking about, but the charisma and self-possession Hanna displays signal the changes to come that she would help bring about. Hanna emerged from what sounds like an unhappy lower middle-class childhood to go to college in Washington State and become the singer of the band Bikini Kill. That band's feminist punk ignited the "riot grrrl" scene and (the film argues) helped create a space for women in music that they're still enjoying today. The clips of Bikini Kill that Anderson deploys throughout The Punk Singer are a remarkable display of Hanna's force, she is equally comfortable inviting women to fill in front of the stage as she is dealing with hecklers or having the word "slut" scrawled on her stomach. An array of Hanna's band mates and her better known peers (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett) provide context, but the most fascinating voice in the film is of course Hanna herself.

As an interview subject Kathleen Hanna is honest and probing about her own life and the pressures that come with leading a movement. Bikini Kill grew apart as they became better known (I wanted more about Hanna getting punched by Courtney Love at Lollapalooza), and after a promising beginning with new band Le Tigre Hanna's career slowed down. Hanna is happily married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, who emerges as a funny and supportive presence, but the early 2000's brought trouble. The last act of The Punk Singer details Hanna's struggles with late stage Lyme disease, the delayed diagnosis of which cost her much anxiety and years of performing. Anderson ends The Punk Singer with a tribute concert and a performance by Hanna's new band The Julie Ruin, and Hanna seems as defiant and engaged now as she did in those clips from the 1990's. The exuberant The Punk Singer reclaims Kathleen Hanna as a vital musical force and a teller of important truths.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier



Captain America: The Winter Soldier does feature a character called “The Winter Soldier”, a assassin of mysterious origins whose strength and speed are a match for the Captain’s own. The Winter Soldier is really more of a presence than a character through most of the film, so why does he merit a place in the title? The real Winter Solider of course is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) himself, and the first Captain America film set entirely in the present does a good job of putting our hero out in the cold. In the opening sequence Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are tasked with rescuing a hijacked ship, and Rogers is angry to find Natasha more concerned with saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence than rescuing hostages. Rogers didn’t sign on to serve someone else’s agenda, and in the early scenes of The Winter Soldier he’s thinking about leaving the superhero life.

The first Captain America film considered the difference between being a symbol and hero, and here the issue is protection vs. control. To put it another way, what is S.H.I.E.L.D. for? Rogers’s boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his boss Alexander Pierce (a well-used Robert Redford) are pushing a project that involves giant airships monitoring the world, but the amount of power S.H.I.E.L.D. is amassing feels very dangerous to a hero who battled fascism firsthand. Steve and Natasha discover fault lines within S.H.I.E.L.D., some of which call back to the Captain’s work in the last film, and they’re faced with the question of whether the organization should even be saved. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (whose action sequences are well-staged, intimate, and frightening) couldn’t have known when they signed on that a film about surveillance and government power would feel so relevant in 2014, but the immediacy of the concerns is of great help to Marvel’s attempt to build a new superhero mythology. Steve Rogers’s doubts about his place at S.H.I.E.L.D. are much more interesting than Tony Stark’s sobriety or Thor’s maturity, and whatever happens with Evans’s “retirement” going forward Captain America is positioned as the conscience of The Avengers. To someone without a knowledge of the comic canon The Winter Soldier feels like a transitional work in the series, a film designed to get the characters out from under the machinery of “super” heroism. The next time Captain America and the Avengers get together it looks like they will have only themselves to rely on, and that’s a ticket I’ll be buying.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Half artist. Half businessman."



Roger Corman talks to Jonathan Demme, and looks back on a career built on equal parts love of movies and an eye for the bottom line.
DEMME: I'd like to start off with the following: You used to say that in order to succeed, a director had to be 40 percent artist and 60 percent businessperson. Does that still hold true for you, and if so, how did you come up with that formula?

CORMAN: The formula was made up. I would actually modify it now, although the business side seems to have taken over motion pictures. I would probably make it 50-50. Half artist, half businessman.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Music: Nirvana w/ Lorde - "All Apologies"



It's not a spot on the original of course, but I like Lorde's take on Nirvana at the Rock Hall of Fame ceremonies and I think Kurt Cobain would have enjoyed having a woman sing his song. (Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, and St. Vincent are on stage as well and also performed Nirvana songs that night.) For further description, go here. Sorry about the shakiness of the clip, but it was the best I could find.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"I take on a lot more now."



Jim Jarmusch's new film is finally here, and the director has no thought of slowing down.
The film is part of a productive swoop for Mr. Jarmusch. It’s the first in which his five-year-old band, Sqürl, provides much of the soundtrack, in collaboration with the composer and lutist Jozef van Wissem; alongside musicians like Zola Jesus and Yasmine Hamdan, they have played shows in Berlin, Paris and New York to promote the accompanying album, from ATP Recordings. Coming projects include a quasi-documentary about the Stooges (“a little poetic essay,” Mr. Jarmusch said); an opera about Nikola Tesla, in collaboration with his friend the composer Phil Kline and the international director Robert Wilson; and another feature, about a bus driver and poet in Paterson, N.J., that Mr. Jarmusch wrote in the years he waited for “Only Lovers” to come together.

“I take on a lot more now,” he said, partly out of age, experience and desire, and partly out of professional gumption.

Sunday Music: Little Feat (w/ Bonnie Raitt & Emmylou Harris) - "Dixie Chicken"



No great story behind this one, I just stumbled on it during some YouTube browsing. I do wish Raitt and Harris could be heard a little better.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Music: Nickel Creek - "21st of May"



This 2012 performance - officially Chris Thile and Sean Watkins guesting at a Sara Watkins show - was among the events that led to the reformation of Nickel Creek. Their new album A Dotted Line is out this week.
Sara Watkins is grinning, her fiddle tucked under an arm. “Sean and Chris and I grew up playing in a band called Nickel Creek together,” she says, indicating the guitarist Sean Watkins and the mandolinist Chris Thile, on either side of her. A small but hearty crowd — packed into the kids’ tent at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival and startled to find itself in the right place at the right time — lets out a whooping cheer.

What comes next in this genial ambush of a reunion, which can be viewed on YouTube, is telling. Mr. Thile and the Watkins siblings tuck into “The Fox,” a bluegrass standard that the band last played at its farewell show in 2007. And in no time, the fluent ease among the three musicians seems to take on a life of its own. “Thanks, everybody!” Ms. Watkins calls out afterward. “We’re Nickel Creek!” Maybe it’s partly force of habit, but over the course of a brisk five minutes, she’s made the shift from past to present tense.