Sunday, August 31, 2014
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 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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.