Sunday, March 26, 2017
Dax Shepard played Crosby Braverman, the lovable screw-up brother, on the NBC series Parenthood for six seasons. The role of Crosby gave Shepard a chance to show a broader range than his screen credits (including When in Rome and Let's Go to Prison) had allowed. Shepard was very winning on the show and it seemed to signal a turning point in his career. It's sad news then that with CHiPs, which he also wrote and directed, Dax Shepard has now appeared in two of the worst films I've ever seen. (The other one is this.) CHiPs is based on the late 1970's television series about California Highway Patrol officers; it isn't a show crying out for revival and Shepard may have actually made those who remember it like it less. Rookie officer Jon Baker (Shepard) and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (played by Michael Pena and actually an FBI agent) are thrown together to investigate a series of armored car robberies that may point to a cabal of dirty Highway Patrol officers. Vincent D'Onofrio bellows and lumbers as the lieutenant who Baker and Ponch pursue through a series of surprisingly violent action scenes, but the plot is really just an excuse for the film to achieve an unusual trifecta. CHiPs is not only misogynistic and homophobic, it also hates the straight white men at its center. If you can imagine a world in which adult men are terrified of getting too close to each other in a locker room then you're living in the CHiPs universe. Shepard not only acknowledges gay panic he seems to regard it as a source of the film's comic energy. The women of CHiPs, most notably Kristen Bell as Baker's scheming wife, are uniformly sex-obsessed and there is even a scene in which the "not hot enough" Patrol officers are openly mocked. Baker and Ponch don't get off any better. Baker is an former pro bike rider who's addicted to pain pills and Ponch is a sex addict, and these choices are all the more inexplicable because they aren't paid off or resolved in any way. CHiPs is resolutely unfunny and should be ticketed for not being over soon enough.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) has had it. She is thoroughly tired of the small indignities of everyday life, from being stuck behind a pickup truck that has working smokestacks to being cut in front of at the grocery store to her job as a nurse's assistant who has to hear the (sometimes inappropriate) last words of dying seniors. Simply put, as Ruth tells her friend Angie (Lee Eddy), "Everyone is an asshole." It is this existential frustration that drives I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, the 2017 Sundance Jury prize winner by first time writer/director Macon Blair. Ruth reaches her limit when her home is broken into, and it's what she does next that drives the action of a film best read as a very black comedy about an America most of us don't even brush against. The police are indifferent - a detective (Gary Anthony Williams) on Ruth's case is more concerned with his impending divorce - so Ruth enlists her eccentric neighbor Tony (a very funny Elijah Wood) on a campaign to get her stuff back.
On the surface I Don't Feel at Home looks like some low-budget, neo-Tarantino '90s thriller. There are violent men like Marshall (David Yow) and violent acts on Ruth's path to recovering her laptop, silver service, and medications, but the genre trappings exist just to resolve the story. Melanie Lynskey is superb at playing a very specific kind of unhappiness (see here and here), and Macon Blair knows just how to use that skill to his film's advantage. I Don't Feel at Home is about what happens when Ruth's depressive worldview runs up against something even worse. There is a moment of exhilaration when Ruth tracks down her computer, which has already changed hands once, but it's a fleeting one and doesn't help Ruth's feeling of violation. Later Ruth finds her silver, suffers an injury, and accidentally hurts an old man, and it's that chaos that animates what Blair is doing. The sense that even the smallest effort to get a piece of one's own could lead to suffering is a theme that's only going to get more relevant, and even though Blair shot I Don't Feel at Home months before the 2016 election it's not out of line to call this the first film set in Trump's America.
Blair's script missteps when he tries to create some emotional dynamics among the criminal gang (there are two younger robbers played by Devon Graye and Jane Levy), but he hints at a way out for Ruth when she tries out a ecumenical church that Tony recommends. Don't get the wrong idea, I Don't Feel at Home doesn't have a spiritual message. Religion might provide Ruth with some momentary relief but the grace note of her visiting the church is scored with a vintage Echo & the Bunnymen song. By the end of the film Ruth has begun to find her way back, but the last words Blair chooses to let us hear are those of two men arguing about burgers. The best thing about I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, besides Lynskey's performance, is this tension. There are moments of peace, but there is always a fight somewhere.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Kong: Skull Island takes place mostly in the 1970's, but the new film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a very modern notion of our relationship to cinema's favorite gorilla. There is no capturing Kong and bringing him back to New York in this new Kong. This time we're the monsters, invaders of Kong's home island who will survive only if he allows it. It's 1973, the last days of the Vietnam War. A scientist named Randa (John Goodman) wants federal backing for an exploratory trip to the "uncharted" island that we already know (because of a prologue set in World War II) is home to Kong, who is rendered impressively by the visual effects team. Randa and his team are accompanied by a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson), and the whole group is flown in by soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard is the type of soldier who is disappointed when a war ends, and Jackson plays him with an advanced-level degree of jaw clenching.
As soon as we're told of the plan to drop "seismic charges" on the island it's obvious there's more going on here than pure science. Most of Packard's soldiers - who were only days away from going home - are killed and the leads must find their way to a rendezvous point where they can be rescued. The most entertaining thing about Kong besides the creatures is John C. Reilly as the man who clarifies Kong's role on the island. Reilly brings a broad good humor that's lacking in the rest of the characters, who are busy arguing and searching for weapons. Tom Hiddleston seems bored, but that's because he doesn't have a character to play. Hiddleston functions only as a sort of avatar around which the rest of the characters orient themselves, just as Brie Larson's spiky photographer is nominally an audience surrogate who is asked to do little more than run and jump.
Kong should be the most appealing character in any Kong film, and he certainly is here. The filmmakers succeed in giving him personality and in winning our empathy. The fights between Kong and other creatures have the needed degree of awesomeness, but it's too bad the characters around Kong aren't worth climbing a building for.
Sunday, March 05, 2017
From the opening scene of Logan it is clear we're in unfamiliar territory. Logan (Hugh Jackman) wakes up in the back of a limousine to find a group of men trying to steal his hubcaps. The situation escalates and The Wolverine's claws come out, but if you haven't caught an X-Men film in a little while then you may be surprised by how old and worn Logan looks. The very existence of Logan the film, the latest entry in a multibillion dollar franchise, is the biggest surprise though. Director James Mangold (who also made the previous Wolverine) has made a scaled down superhero film about the seasons of life and the responsibilities that we bear to each other even when mutant powers enter the equation. Logan is something genuinely fresh in the cinema of comic-derived film, a self-contained kind of post-superhero epic that explicitly nods to older forms. The particulars are sketched in quickly: It's 2029 in a world that has largely forgotten about mutants, who we're told are no longer being born. Logan is hiding out in Mexico and caring for the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and driving the limo to make money. The X-Men only survive as characters in comic books, and it's the comics that bring a special young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, good as a child who has never seen the world) into Logan's path.
What plot there is in Logan involves the attempt to take Laura to a (possibly mythical) hideout for young mutants while fleeing from the private army of a company that wants to weaponize mutant children. But Mangold and his co-writers didn't overload the script with monologuing villains - Richard E. Grant actually underplays the evil scientist - or ethical debates. It is hard to think of another comic-derived film that is so concerned with the psychic toll that killing plays on its heroes. Logan is a violent film, and Mangold films Logan and Laura fighting their pursuers in a brutal, close-up style that's just stylized enough to not be unpleasant. Yet there isn't any triumphalism in the violence, and as Logan goes on we realize that for Logan the identity of The Wolverine is like a costume that he can't take off. This notion is made explicit in scene where the characters watch a bit of Shane, a moment that pays off in surprising ways during the final battle. Most of Logan takes place in open Southwestern and Midwestern landscapes, so when the choices of Logan and Xavier (whose powers emerge in frightening seizures) affect those around them the consequences are immediate and specific. It would be unfair to spoil the way that the film brings Logan to a reckoning, but the choice is both a visual treat and dramatically effective. We're watching a film about a man who wants to leave the battlefield but who can't find a path anywhere else.
Hugh Jackman has always been a winning presence, but he has never been quite as committed and soulful as he is here. The emotional range the role of Logan requires is brought into full relief by the script, and Jackman more than delivers. He's not just a terrific superhero - this is first-order acting. Patrick Stewart, playing a dying king, is very much in his element as well. The only thing I don't like about Logan is the possibility that in a few years there will be a new film that renders Logan non-canonical, but until then let's appreciate what we've been given.
Jordan Peele's Get Out involves racism, interracial relationships, betrayal, and shocking behavior masked by privilege, but none of that would matter if it weren't so honest. Peele uses horror tropes because the plot demands it, but this scary enough (and sometimes very funny) first feature is really concerned with the discomfort that Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) feels about meeting the wealthy parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) at their lakeside home. Peele is interested in all of the awkwardness that Chris feels as Rose's father (Bradley Whitford) tries to ingratiate himself and her mother (Catherine Keener) offers to hypnotize him so he'll quit smoking. Then there's the party scene where rich white people ask Chris about his sexual prowess and if he's good at golf. The only non-white guest at that party is a man (Lakeith Stanfield) who seems familiar but doesn't act like himself, and it's at this point that Chris and his friend (Lil Rel Howery, providing fine comic relief) begin to put the horrible pieces together. A film this smart and closely observed heralds a successful writing/directing career for Peele, who here has a strong point to make: We're nowhere near as far along as we should be.