Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chosen Dumb: THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT


The Divergent Series: Insurgent is the clumsily titled second entry in one of the more recent attempts to spin a series out of a YA dystopia. Its predecessor introduced us to a crumbling future Chicago, the populace divided into a small set of job-based factions – lawyers, farmers, police, and do-gooders – that seems unworkable practically, theoretically, politically, economically, logically, and grammatically. No matter. These YA worlds aren’t so much real fantasy spaces as extended metaphor. Take Hunger Games, with its impactful allegory stew churning with war, propaganda, and inequality, or Twilight, a monster mash dating game cautionary tale. Divergent, on the other hand, is mainly an overheated high school analogy. No wonder the adult authority figures are universally played like patiently exasperated vice principals.

The hero is a teenager who threatens the status quo by being too awesome for any one clique to claim. Last time, our protagonist Tris (Shailene Woodley) stopped Kate Winslet’s evil plan to take over the city, but as a result had to flee to the wilderness, a hidden hippie commune run by Octavia Spencer. This time, Tris and her Factionless buddies want to get enough resources to fight back. But they don’t know Winslet has found a gold box she thinks will clinch her control over the other factions, if only she could open it. Tris, by virtue of being the single most important very special perfect super talent in all the factions, this time with the bar graph to prove it (“100% Divergent!”), is probably the key to opening it. So there’s some conflict for you. There’s not much there, just a reason to run into some chases and gunfights in between conversations with overqualified cast members.

Maybe we should think of this YA series most of all as a sort of Hollywood finishing school. It puts promising younger performers in scenes opposite great veterans who, in turn, get to be on set for only a day or two each. Woodley, along with stoic Theo James, subservient Ansel Elgort, and charm overdrive Miles Teller, hold their own against effortless screen commanding by Winslet and Spencer, Mekhi Phifer, Naomi Watts, Daniel Dae Kim, and Janet McTeer. The screenplay, cobbled together from Veronica Roth’s book by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, wisely backs off the flimsy worldbuilding and just lets these talented people do the best they can at selling the nonsense. They lean into the adolescent motivations. It is a story about how it’s totally stressful to be too awesome. They believe it, and that’s half the battle.

Helping out is director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, R.I.P.D.), who moves the camera and provides proficient crosscutting to gin up routine action suspense in the moments when our heroes are forced to flee armed baddies. Later, he does decent work with the swoopy blinking lights and assorted vaguely familiar sci-fi trappings in the interiors. There are special effects moments involving psychological tests – virtual nightmares the must be conquered to unlock the MacGuffin – creating worlds of dissolving buildings, shattering glass, a rotating floating flaming house, and a man who evaporates into silvery fragments. Those are neat, and are tied to Woodley’s performance in some mostly effective ways. A close connection to a female protagonist is what sets Insurgent’s blandness above crushing masculine banalities of other YA competitors like The Maze Runner.

It’s overall an improvement over Divergent, a far more confident and open film, and far more watchable, too. Not only lifeless formula, it often manages to feel like a real movie hobbled by some deeply inconsequential source material. It’s watchable dreck that starts nowhere and spins its wheels, a narrative with nothing to do. Scene by scene it might work, but moments don’t connect or grow or build. The society it assembles only works as a perfect environment for narrativized teen angst, and is as tedious and impenetrable for an outsider as the real thing. If the crux of adolescent problems is the cognitive dissonance between feeling like the most important person in your world and the nagging knowledge you’re not, then this series finds the least interesting solutions.

Monday, March 16, 2015

After Hours: RUN ALL NIGHT


Like all the best Liam Neeson action/thrillers of late, Run All Night taps into a deep well of depression and sadness. It’s brisk and exciting, but suffused with reluctance, concerned with matters of broken homes and beaten psyches. Neeson brings a certain amount of dignity to these man-of-action roles, a great actor refusing to coast in material others might view as merely paychecks. He can see the tragedy here. It’s a big part of what makes The Grey, Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and the best bits of Taken such crackling entertainments. They’re elevated by solid direction smartly focused on Neeson’s weary gravitas, a man fighting through existential sorrow to do what he feels must be done.

In Run All Night, he plays an alcoholic ex-hit man trying to wrestle with the demons of his past. He’s estranged from his grown son (Joel Kinnaman), who knows the truth about him and has run towards respectability, working two jobs to make ends meet for his young family. When complications arise and the shooting starts, we find ourselves in an exciting actioner about bad dads and shattered sons trying their best to heal understandably troubled relationships. It’s gruff tough-guy poetry, family melodrama through car chases and shootouts, a gripping violent thriller lamenting the difficulties in breaking cycles of violence.

Neeson’s boss (Ed Harris) has a son (Boyd Holbrook) the same age as his. This young man is the opposite of Kinnaman, trying to be even half the gangster his father was. This leads him to killing a rival drug dealer, a crime Kinnaman happens to witness. Talk about your bad coincidences. So Neeson must scramble to save his son as the full weight of his old criminal friends’ organization swings down to silence the witness. This time, it’s personal. Neeson and Kinnaman race around a New York City night, illuminated by scattered thunderstorms to enhance the drama, trying to stay alive. Around seemingly every corner they find crooked cops, trained killers, and old friends who are suddenly, reluctantly, new enemies (an ensemble full of small roles for Bruce McGill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common, Genesis Rodriguez, and Nick Nolte).

What’s so satisfying about this set-up is the way screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Jaume Collet-Serra make the pulp melodrama as crackling as the action. Terrifically tense scenes of suspense and violence turn into moments of interpersonal conflicts, atonement, and reconciliation as great actors sit and work out characters’ problems. Collet-Serra, who has been grinding out clever and blindsiding impactful genre fare for a while now, quietly becoming one of our most reliable B-movie auteurs with the likes of Orphan and Neeson’s aforementioned Non-Stop, makes space in a film of hard-charging grit for quiet emotional beats. These moments in which characters engage in off-the-cuff soul bearing one-on-one exchanges play just as effectively as the hand-to-hand combat, vehicular mayhem, and discharging firearms.

Collet-Serra’s camera swoops through New York streets, connecting scenes with a CGI Google Street View aesthetic, but Anton Corbijn collaborator Martin Ruhe’s cinematography settles into dancing grain crisply cut together by editor Dirk Westervelt. The filmmakers know how to make a weighty action contraption look great and really move. It starts slow, but once it takes off it builds an irresistible momentum grounded in slick crime drama stoicism, the kind that has as much fun conjuring the dread of violence as the act itself. Whether we're running through an evacuating apartment building tracking multiple deadly cat-and-mouse games, or sitting behind a curtain hoping a bad guy won't think to look there, the film builds its tension out of what might happen, even as it gets satisfaction setting off the fireworks when happenings do erupt.

There’s a moral gravity here, of a deadly sort, that emphasizes the terror as well as the thrill. The filmmakers are wise to key into Neeson’s form, the weariness and grief conjured up by a slump of his shoulders, or in a soft gravely sigh. He’s playing a man clearly skilled in the art of effective violence, and yet can now only summon up the power to put those skills to use to protect those he loves. It’s a dependable formula, and in the hands of such skilled practitioners of the craft, it’s a fine example of its type.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Ella Good Tale: CINDERELLA


You know the Cinderella story. Everyone does. Across centuries and cultures, it has existed in hundreds of versions, perhaps none more famous than Disney’s 1950 animated musical. That iteration, of the magic words “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and the helpful talking mice, is lodged in the public imagination as something of the definitive squeaky-clean, paper-thin telling of the orphaned girl mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, prepped for a ball by her fairy godmother, and eventually married happily ever after to a prince. It’s familiar. But now Disney’s made a lush live-action adaptation of the story. They’ve resisted the temptations to either exactly duplicate their iconic earlier work or load it up with postmodern winks. In the process, they’ve created a movie of strong and simple sincerity, earnest in its conviction that Cinderella has been a tale good enough to stand on its own for so long, there’s no need to mess with it now.

We meet Ella (Lily James), whose memories of her long-dead mother (Hayley Atwell) and recently dead father (Ben Chaplin) are all she has to sustain her in her present circumstances. Her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) keeps her as a servant, hardly worth regarding on anything like an equal level with two blathering stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Ella isn’t even allowed to go to the ball where the handsome prince (Richard Madden) will pick his bride. With some help from the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she’s sure to make it there anyway. The set-up is classically familiar, and elegantly efficient. In this telling, the story is content to be a lovely experience of comfortable rhythms.

The result is a movie that’s never a surprise, but always gloriously old-fashioned. Cinderella is in style and form a throwback, serious about the human emotions flickering in a thin archetypal tale, but light on its feet when it comes to incorporating shimmering, glittering widescreen wonders. The occasional CGI assist aside, it could be the best live action fairy tale of 1962. It’s a softly sturdy CinemaScope spectacle, beautifully appointed and handsomely photographed, Dante Ferretti’s lush pseudo-historical storybook production design flowing in warm colors and fine fabrics. Director Kenneth Branagh marries the pop sensibilities of his Thor with the grandeur of his Shakespeare adaptations, finding a comfortable space of serious lightness. He treats each expected development with sentimentality and gravitas, lightly confident in the story’s ability to operate effectively.

And indeed it does. The frame is filled with gorgeous gowns, lovely waltzing, and a smooth tone of pomp and pageantry. I’ve never much cared for the love story, but the film sells it as a fantastical escape from a horrible circumstance, a dramatic reward of riches for one who so patiently and kindly deserves happiness. I found myself transported into the uncomplicated fantasy of it all, dodgy (mercifully speechless) CG animals and all. In the midst of the usual plot beats and the terrific design, the screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) provides some degree of shading to the characters’ standard types. The film fleshes in some additional motivations. The prince finally seems not just a handsome man in tight pants, but an actual character too, and a nice, humble, emotional one at that. But the film achieves its most humane nuance simply by bringing in reliably excellent character actors like Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgård, and Nonso Anozie to elevate small but crucial roles.

Best is Blanchett who plays the stepmother in a wonderfully regal Joan Crawford-esque performance halfway between Mildred Pierce and Lady Macbeth. The script provides sympathy for her evil, an understanding of how her heart has hardened that makes her less a pure villain and more a pitiable person lashing out in pain and jealousy. That Ella is able to meet this nastiness with sadness, but ultimately grace and compassion is part of her eventual happily-ever-after. It’s because she’s not a shameless schemer or a callous revenge-seeker that we can appreciate this gentle fantasy. I most liked this sumptuous version for pivoting the theme away from True Love wish fulfillment and towards an emphasis on the importance of kindness and forgiveness. That’s nice. Here there are no songs and no subversion, just a straightforward, irony free, gauzy retelling of this fairy tale at its most family friendly and least overtly sexist. It’s inessential, but sweet.

Note: Disney has paired Cinderella with Frozen Fever, a new short film sequel to their mega-popular – and pretty good – Ice Queen musical you’re still humming. It’s a harmless handful of minutes, with a so-so new song and an inconsequential fresh magical wrinkle. It’s mostly useless. Regardless of their recently announced intention for a feature-length Frozen sequel, this short is dull enough to make me wonder if, creatively at least, the company should just let it…oh, you know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monster House: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS


If you think there’s nothing new a vampire movie or a mockumentary could do, you might be right. The last 10 to 15 years of pop culture – from Christopher Guest and The Office to True Blood and Twilight – have certainly wrung just about all the novelty from those subgenres. But What We Do in the Shadows combines the two and finds the result an amiable and enjoyable 90 minutes. Written and directed by stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, two of the creative forces behind such cult comedy classics as Flight of the Conchords, create a deadpan doc inquiry into the lives of modern vampires in New Zealand. For a horror comedy, it’s neither laugh-out-loud funny nor edge-of-the-seat scary. It simply slides between mild smiles and mild chills with an even-keeled sense of comfortably dry silliness.

It imagines an almost entirely off-screen documentary crew getting the chance to hang out with vampire roommates for a few months, leading up to Wellington’s foremost supernatural ball, the highlight of the monsters’ social calendar. We spend most of our time with the vamps at home in a crumbling old building with blackout curtains, coffins in the bedrooms, and the occasional blood splatter on the walls. Viago (Waititi) is only a couple hundred years old, a fastidious rule follower, responsible for managing the domicile’s upkeep and calling for house meetings. Older is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was a Nazi vampire and fled Europe in the war’s aftermath. There’s also pompous Vladislav (Clement), who once was a more medieval presence – his violent temper earned him the nickname “Vladislav the Poker” – but now he mopes around. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is their oldest roomie, a Nosferatu recluse who lives in the basement.

Clement and Waititi take the familiar details of vampire lore and think through comical modern day implications. It finds vampires not as mysterious old predators or monstrous heartthrobs, but as vaguely pathetic, average dudes. They sleep all day, argue over chores, reminisce about old times, and prowl the streets at night looking for mortal women to prey upon. They’re not so different from any group of guys bumbling around the world. The exception is, when they invite someone over for a drink, they’re the only ones sipping. There’s a droll wit to the matter-of-fact violence – one vampire accidentally bites into an artery, forcing him to drink from a victim like a water fountain.

If that sounds funny to you, then you’re the target audience for this clever blend of horror violence and improvisatory mockumentary amiability. It finds its humor in making vampire tropes, like asking to be let in, allergies to sun and wooden stakes, turning into bats, hypnotizing victims, and hating werewolves, quotidian. After all, these guys have been doing this for centuries. It’s not new to them. When a heated argument over who has to do the dishes results in two vamps floating mid-air hissing at each other, there’s an amusing sense of here-we-go-again from everyone involved. Later, we meet a young convert (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), mild-mannered human helpers (Jackie van Beek and Stuart Rutherford), and an agreeable werewolf alpha-dog (Rhys Darby). Everyone greets monster madness with unsurprised shrugs.

It’s a terrifically underplayed high concept, all the better for never seeming to push too hard to achieve its charm. The cast has excellent, expert timing across the board, making details of their characters alternately sad, silly, and scary. Hilarious performances mix convincingly with terrific stunt work, ghoulish makeup, and seamless(ish) special effects. There’s not too much to sink your teeth into, but it’s bloody enjoyable while it lasts. It’d make a good double feature with either of the other fine recent indie vampire efforts, Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Short Circuit: CHAPPIE


Chappie is another of writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi allegory actioners. He’s great at setting the conditions for asking thought provoking questions, but even better at only skimming the surface on the way to making things blow up. With District 9’s alien apartheid and Elysium’s space station of inequality, he creates reflections of complex real-world problems, but makes of them plots saying the bulk of the solutions are as easy as pushing a button. A few keystrokes and a bunch of fighting solve everything. To his credit, these endings kick up ambiguity in tenuous resolutions, but the way there muddies the allegories for the sake of forcing firefights and gory splatter. His latest starts with fascinating questions about computer morality and mortality, and ends with the carnage and plot holes you’d sadly expect.

Following the usual Blomkamp blueprint, Chappie creates a world of incredible production detail and fuzzily rendered connective tissue. It looks great, slick cinematography and dusty design. But as for the hows and whys, it asks you to just go with it. The film takes place in a near-future Johannesburg gripped by a massive crime problem that forces the police to supplement their ranks with hundreds of robot cops. Hardly RoboCops, they’re human-shaped mindless drones, bulletproof, obedient, and unflappable. That all makes a certain amount of sci-fi sense, in that if you squint you can almost see how that world operates.

Brisk sales make the robots’ corporate master (Sigourney Weaver) happy. But their designer (Dev Patel) has the soul of an artist. He’s made an artificial intelligence program his boss won’t let him try. He thinks he’ll make robots that can think and feel, appreciate art, write poems. She doesn’t understand why he’d think a weapon’s company would want such a thing. And so the scientist sneaks a busted robot out of the factory to install the software in secret. In the process, a gang (South African rap duo Die Antwoord and Jose Pablo Cantillo) abducts the man and his droid. They want robotic help with a heist so they can pay off debt owed to an even worse gang. At gunpoint, Patel agrees to reboot the bot and teach him to assist in a robbery.

But once the robot awakens with freshly coded intelligence, and brilliantly convincing CGI work, he’s an immediate personified presence. The group calls him Chappie. The childlike machine grows, always curious, learning quickly, eager to please, emotions churning. He’s also a more nuanced character than anyone else on screen. With a chirpy voice and gangly movements from Sharlto Copley, the film views Chappie with a sympathetic eye, watching as he’s torn between the criminals he views as parents and the good man he calls his creator. They may be flesh and blood, but they’re signifiers. He’s the one fleshed in. Early scenes of Chappie bonding with the people around him are funny and sweet, with a light spike of humor and creepiness to his artificial movements.

As a metaphor for parenting, the story’s an obvious parable about influences on a growing brain. Thornier are the more philosophical crises that come with being alive. What is consciousness? What is a soul? What does it mean to know you are mortal? Like all the best sci-fi, intriguing questions such as these animate Chappie, for a while at least. It spends some time as a serious and sincere exploration of self-awareness and the limits of human expression. Is Chappie a being or a thing? I hooked into the emotion of this story, caring against all odds for this naïve robot learning about the world and becoming self-actualized. Will he decide to be a kind robot or a remorseless criminal? It’s a coming-of-age story with the peculiar tension of wondering if the main character is truly alive or if he’s just coded to think he is.

Alas, this entertainment’s ambiguity is briskly, at times bizarrely, settled as an earnest wonderment becomes a grimly effective, ridiculously violent, actioner in an extended bloody conclusion. It involves gang warfare and the culmination of a fairly silly subplot involving an intense rival robo-lawman designer played by Hugh Jackman of all people. (He’s an ex-solider determined to bring his heavily weaponized behemoth mech to market at any cost, strutting around in khaki shorts and a polo, waving his gun and ego around.) Countless rounds of ammunition are spilled and people are torn apart in graphic detail. It’s dutifully exciting, but serves to close off the story’s thematic exploration, especially when it solves the nature of consciousness in a hilarious overly literal way. In the end, it’s ridiculous and pat, with nutso preposterous post-human results. But because I had locked into the emotional journey of the movie’s peculiar protagonist, I was able to ride it out, puzzling over its final unsatisfying implications while clinging to the sincerity behind its cold mechanical surface.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wrestling with Danger: FOXCATCHER


Foxcatcher is as chilly and stately as a true crime sports movie can be. Director Bennett Miller’s Capote and Moneyball similarly took true stories and scraped away the majesty of urban legend until the cold hard facts remained, animated by performances that let us see where the real peoples’ personalities left spaces for exaggeration. Here, he returns to the well of composed, minimalist character portraits, drawing up only empty insight in his overdetermined, lugubriously paced dirge. I was reminded of James Agee calling the work of studio journeyman William Dieterle “a high-polished mélange of heavy “touches” and “intelligent” performances.” Foxcatcher is a film calibrated away from all the points on which the critical community often dings based-on-true-story prestige pictures. It’s stripped of all sentimentality, more affectless than subtle, patient to the point of rigorous slowness. It’s convinced of its intelligence, heavy, and devoid of life.

Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman take the story of the United States Olympic Wrestling Team in the 1980s and smartly structure it into a narrative built out of scenes in which men jostle for control of situations. We meet a pair of wrestling brothers, both medalists, an older brother (Mark Ruffalo) set in his ways, and a younger brother (Channing Tatum) beginning to strain under his shadow. Tatum gets an offer from eccentric billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to train on his estate. The rich man sees an opportunity to bankroll the country’s Olympic wrestling dreams as a way to achieve a sense of fulfillment in his life of empty, lonely wealth.

An awkward man desperate for human connection, Du Pont is played by Carell, behind an obvious prosthetic schnoz, as a creepier and more dangerous version of Michael Scott, his best scenes coming from a similar space of needy self-delusion. There’s sympathy in the dumb looks that usually charming Tatum provides, while Ruffalo gives the older brother gentle smarts that can’t outthink the financial power Du Pont uses to wrest control. Codependent relationships abound as training for the Olympics becomes a battleground on which these three men fight for a feeling of importance and camaraderie. Despite testy differences, the brothers love each other. It’s never clear if their creepy benefactor could even communicate with another human being without paying for their time and interest. But all of them here are less real people, more icy placeholders for ideas of masculinity and capital.

Miller frames several scenes against the backdrop of an American flag, and has characters give long speeches about patriotism and respect, pushing down on intended thematic concerns with a heavy hand. There are maybe five minutes of provocative insight and roughly an hour’s worth of compelling narrative throughout Foxcatcher’s endless 130 minutes. It strikes one quiet sour note over and over, devoid of flavor and animating spirit. Smart actors flounder in scenes swollen with dead air, a kind of studied portent that’s neither revealing nor instructive. It’s just empty. This is a movie that gives slow cinema a bad name. Time crawls to a standstill, scenes tiresomely grinding through repetitive macho crisises, dim figures burbling serious-minded nothings.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two for the Money: FOCUS


Focus is a shiny package that offers fleeting, but reliable, pleasures of moviegoing. It has attractive people in beautiful locations wearing gorgeous clothes engaging in wittily plotted preposterous schemes. It stars two glamorous, charming movie stars, an old pro near the height of his powers (Will Smith) and a young up-and-comer more than ready to take the spotlight (Margot Robbie). They meet cute as she, an aspiring scam artist, fails to swindle him, a veteran con man, in a hotel bar. He agrees to help hone her powers of observation, to shift her mark’s focus with one gesture while picking a pocket with the other. Besides, he needs a pretty and clever girl to help pull off his latest schemes. They have a flirtatious early scene lifting items off each other mid conversation, trading rings and wallets, testing skill. It’s easy to believe they’re both so charming they could pull off such delicate, intimate slight of hand with ease.

That also happens to be how writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (of the sly I Love You Phillip Morris and sappy Crazy Stupid Love) get away with making a featherlight and empty picture like this feel fun and diverting in the moment. The movie's so charming it’s easy to lose focus on how ephemeral its effects are. You don’t even feel 100 minutes slipping away. It's familiar, but cool. Of course the con man appears to fall for the con woman as their complicated schemes go well, or not. There are double crossings and ulterior motives, shady side characters and elaborately convoluted clockwork timing. It’s a movie of globetrotting, big bags of money, wine, watches, cars, and likable career criminals. Bursting with handsome, sleek cinematography that’s practically glittering, nighttime glows with warm light, daytime burns bright and colorful. It’s a cool look.

And the filmmakers know what they’re doing with this surface cool. The film keeps a tight focus on Smith and Robbie as they court and con their way through trust-no-one schemes that are simpler than you’d think, but complicated to unravel the surprises. We start in New Orleans, where Smith is running an elaborate set of cons around a big football game. After some satisfying hijinks and romance, the movie switches gears, jumping to Buenos Aires for another con, longer and more elaborate with an even tighter focus on our leads. They’re charismatic in that con artist way of never entirely knowing just how deep their feelings for each other go. Are they using each other? Or is it really love? It’s not a particularly deep or interesting characterization, but either way there’s undeniable sparkle in their repartee and satisfaction in seeing them react to twists in the plot.

Ficarra and Requa have fun with a variety of shell game set pieces, from street-level scams to high-stakes betting and finally high-risk corporate espionage. Along the way we meet a bumbling master thief (Adrian Martinez), a brusk security man (Gerald McRaney), a high-rolling gambler (BD Wong), and a slippery racecar owner (Rodrigo Santoro). They’re an eccentric and slimy enough rouges gallery we can watch Smith in sharp suits and Robbie in stunning dresses flirt and fool their way into and out of lots of money without feeling bad about their victims. Everyone’s playing some sort of game here, and the screenplay unveils its twists and turns with fine relish. In the end, the flashiness fizzles – when the credits rolled I thought, that’s it?  But there’s something to be said for an enjoyably slight diversion that just wants to charm and dazzle with alluring megawatt star power and formulaic genre charms. Its surface pleasures go down silky smooth.
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