Sunday, November 16, 2014

Love & Fame: BEYOND THE LIGHTS


More than anything, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is a great romance. It’s not like we get a new one of those everyday. It’s about two people who make a meaningful connection, seeing the real souls behind images being constructed for them in the beginning stages of public personas, one a pop star, the other a politician. In the process of following their connection, the film weaves together showbiz drama and political ambitions to make a fine point about negotiations between public and private selves, and potential solace in finding a person who seems to love you for who you are, not just what you represent. It’s a sharply drawn, deeply felt story, as smart as it is sexy, as complicated as it is compassionate. It helps that it’s not a romantic fantasy, or rather, not only fantasy.

They meet at a moment of high drama. She’s Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an R&B diva on the rise. She hasn’t even released her first album yet, but she’s come a long way from getting second place in local talent competitions of her childhood, like the one that opens the film. Collaborations on hit songs – we see the video for one, a writhing, hyper-sexualized thing – with dim bulb rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker) have just won her a Billboard Music Award. Everything’s looking up, but after the afterparty, when the handsome young cop (Nate Parker) bursts into her hotel room, she’s about to jump off the balcony. He saves her life, and her grateful stage mom manager (Minnie Driver in an intense performance) convinces him to tell everyone she merely slipped. The world knowing about the suicide attempt could really derail her rising star.

A more sensationalistic writer-director might take these early scenes as a launching pad for increasing stakes and twists. Instead, the film settles into a comfortable exploration of these characters. The actors provide nicely layered performances, able to play multifaceted people with ease. Noni is grateful for her hero cop’s help, and he’s drawn to her glimmer of personality hiding under half-dressed magazine-cover poses and hip-shaking choreography. They start a flirtation that becomes a tentative relationship, hounded at every turn by the gossip press and the dictates of their parents. Her mother wants to make sure her album drops flawlessly, and doesn’t want her new beau reminding the public about her incident. His father, the chief of police (Danny Glover), is helping his son prepare a run for city council, taking meetings with donors, consultants, party leaders. He has big dreams for his son, at one point telling him Noni isn’t “first lady material.”

This perspective makes the couple into rounded, complex people instead of cogs in a machine running on cheap dramatics. There isn’t a sense of inevitability because it’s grounded where the average Nicolas Sparks adaptation prefers sun-dappled fantasy. We understand where the characters are coming from, the goals they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It makes their connection all the more potent, to know what makes them tick apart from the spark between them. Too many movie romances rush this part, defining the central couple largely by how they interact with each other. This is a melodrama that earns its every tug on the heartstrings. The film is balanced, allowing us to see the surface allure that draws each in. He sees the glamour and fame of her lifestyle. She sees him as the square-jawed hero. But we also see how fragile a manufactured star she is, as well as the workaday cop duties and pragmatic political calculations he must consider.

With fine, realistic detail, we come to understand how the world works in their bubbles, what dictates the controls over their lives, and what difficulties may arise reconciling the two. These are characters whose ambitions are boxing them in, who let in some fresh air by finding a romantic spirit in an unexpected place, even at the risk of derailing their perfect plans for public life. There’s not a scene out of place as the film develops their lives and personalities separately and together. Parker’s dazed but encouraging presence is a nice match to the stifled insecurities Mbatha-Raw brings to the fore as we see glossy awards shows, photoshoots, and meetings with record labels contrasted with police calls and meet-and-greets. They’re both clad in uniforms. Hers are clinging dresses draped in chains, plunging necklines, and her straight purple hair. His are more literal, a police uniform, sharp suits. When they’re together, they’re more casual, relaxed, themselves. The wardrobes draw off-handed focus to their bodies, a sensuality that amplifies the comfort they increasingly feel towards each other.

The evolution of their relationship is so closely observed, wonderfully performed by the talented cast, and precisely developed by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. It’s not a film that declares itself loudly, but is so confident in its characters and perspective that it grabbed me in the opening frames and never let go. It’s the rare romance movie in which I actually was completely involved in the couple’s plight, desperate for them to find a way to be together. Their individual plotlines are finely detailed, with great scenes apart from one another, the better to make their scenes together sizzle with easy chemistry and swooning charm. It’s a great romance because it’s a good story with interesting characters. It would work as drama even without the romance, about the intimacy, not only between lovers, but collaborators, business partners, and parents and children as well. It has scenes that unfold with such simplicity and restraint, I found myself taken aback by how moved I was.

Prince-Bythewood is a major, often vastly underappreciated, voice in American cinema. With heartfelt romances like Love & Basketball and Disappearing Acts, and an appealing literary adaptation, The Secret Life of Bees, she’s proven herself a subtle and mature filmmaker. Her camera doesn’t call attention to itself. Her filmmaking craft is the stuff of sturdy, expert studio construction. But that invisible skill, no less effective than a more showboating style, allows her every frame to exude a well-considered eye for emotional terrains. With Beyond the Lights, she continues to be one of the last great Hollywood melodramatists. She’s unafraid to earnestly and tenderly tell stories of relationships without apology. This is her best film, a full, stick-to-the-ribs, heartwarming drama, rich with feeling.

Here we have a beautifully told story of human connection struggling to catch fire in a world that craves only shallow fakery and transactional relationships. It’s genuinely affecting, with larger themes, most potently about the way women are treated in the entertainment business, growing naturally out of who the characters are, why they make certain choices, and what they need from each other. This isn’t an uncomplicated love-conquers-all scenario with perfect soul mates healing each other. No, this is a mature and complicatedly nuanced story that earns its every moment of drama. Because it gives us something to care about beyond the relationship, it heightens the potency of the romance. It could’ve easily been maudlin in its relationship, scolding in its look at the entertainment business. But it’s not. The script has a sympathetic and subtle understanding of love, fame, depression, and self-actualization. It’s simply clear-eyed, genuine, and moving.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dumb Again: DUMB AND DUMBER TO


Now that the twenty-year-old comedy Dumb and Dumber has a sequel, it’s perhaps better to think of the pair as harkening back to the comedy teams of Hollywood’s first half-century, and not just because writer-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly made a (pretty good) Three Stooges movie in the interim. Like the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Martin and Lewis, and the rest made films that often had plots held together by tape and wishful thinking, really just an excuse for likeable and familiar character types to do their thing. The problem with Dumb and Dumber To from where I sit is simply that I never liked the dummies. Some of the antics Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) get into – casual misunderstandings, juvenile pranks, ridiculous tunnel vision – are funny, but on the whole they’re a couple of creepy guys who spend the entire first film essentially trying to stalk a woman across the country. I’ve never found it all that entertaining.

The new film goes down easier, maybe because the guys are in their late 50s and what was creepy and off-putting for younger dummies looks almost endearing when it’s a couple of older guys. (Almost. Sometimes.Carrey puts on the bowl cut and chipped tooth while Daniels makes his hair a tousled mess as they step right back into the rumpled outfits of Harry and Lloyd. They’re just as dumb as ever, but this time the woman they’re stumbling across the country to find is Harry’s long-lost grown daughter (Rachel Melvin). It’s not quite as creepy a prospect, since the man’s in desperate need of a kidney replacement and thinks she’d be a match. He just learned about her existence that day, but, hey, he needs to make up for lost time. There’s an unfortunate subplot about Lloyd having the hots for the twenty-something’s picture, but at least it’s not the central engine of plot here.

So To is a little less gross in that respect, though there’s still a whiff of sexism here and there. But in the realm of the gross out gag, the Farrely brothers make a bid to retain their throne. Their eagerness to offend with the lowest of lowbrow is what makes them so cheerfully funny at their best, so deathly disgusting at worst. There’s nothing here as funny as There’s Something About Mary’s hair gel or Hall Pass’s fart joke, which is among the greatest in cinema history, though I must confess my memory about such things isn’t the best. What Dumber To is is staggeringly dirty, taking the PG-13 so much farther then I ever thought possible. That’s a dubious honor. The Farrelys take the rating system, stretch it, bend it, break it, toss it out the window, and pee on it. Sometimes it’s over the line in a way I begrudgingly respected, but not reliably.

This is a movie that makes use of several types of bodily fluids, adolescent entendres, and anatomical hijinks. At one point there’s a dream sequence in which Lloyd imagines defeating a ninja by using a bullwhip to rip off his opponent’s testicles, which he then holds up with a gloating grin. You could hear the disbelief in the audience. But then, I was the one cackling when a guy gets run over by a train, and when a blind man finds something horribly gory has happened to his exotic birds. So you win some, you lose some, I suppose. A few times, I laughed so hard I questioned my sanity. The rest of the time I questioned the filmmakers. It’s hit and miss.

The movie contains a helpful metaphor for what’s so essentially wrong with it. There’s a scene in which Harry and Lloyd stumble upon the furry dog-shaped vehicle that they gave away in the first film. They’re happy to see it, and it’s nice to see a familiar sight, even if it’s not as good as they remembered. They take off down the road, and the whole thing falls apart instantly. Just like the movie itself, which takes a familiar sight and proceeds to fall apart the instant the rubber hits the road. It doesn’t hang together as a movie. It barely hangs together as a collection of gags and jokes. But what is pleasant and often funny is the Farrely’s commitment and enjoyment in constructing their goofy anything-goes moments, reveling in the dumbness. We could use more of that prime brightly lit, good-natured Farrely slapstick vulgarity in comedies today. That, not the dummies, is what I responded to seeing on the big screen again. Well, that and Kathleen Turner, who has a small role, and is a welcome sight.

A real mixed bag, Dumb and Dumber To at least held my interest. Even when I felt my frustration rising at its more derisible moments, I was only fleetingly grumpy about it. I could sit through some weak patches to get to the better tomfoolery. It’s a buyer-beware sort of movie, not good enough to recommend, but hard to avoid giving the wink and the nod to the people who just might find the bad worth braving to see this brand of humor. It’s certainly not for everyone. Take the couple sitting behind me whose date went south fast as the movie played. I reproduce the best of their argument below for your benefit, since it’s a shame this won’t be available as a bonus audio track come time for the home video release.

She: “This is awful!”
He: “Shhhh!”
She:  “Don’t hush me. This is friggin’ filthy!”

She stormed out and he, as far as I could tell, sat through the rest of the movie.

Beat! Beat! Drums! WHIPLASH


Whiplash is set in the academic music world, following a 19-year-old who has a goal of being a famous jazz drummer. He’s studying at a prestigious New York City music school where he’s friendless and depressed, spending most of his free time holed up in a practice room, drumming his heart out. In order to move towards his ultimate idea of success – work in a jazz band that’ll win him the accolades and respect he desires – he must first go through a bullying tyrant of a teacher, a noted conductor responsible for the college’s premiere jazz ensemble. And so, though the film is set in the world of jazz, the film is not about jazz. It’s about an emotionally abusive relationship, as the student eager to please is drawn into a world of overwhelming anxiety by an overbearing, impossible to please teacher.

As Mr. Fletcher, the teacher in question, beloved character actor J.K. Simmons, most recently known to audiences as the loving father in Juno and the scene-stealing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s Spider-Mans, is a domineering, hectoring, frightening schoolroom authority figure. He’s scary. It’s also the kind of supporting performance that bends the rest of the film into its orbit. He has forceful, explosive anger and intensely steady confidence, intimidating in its immovable presence. He stalks the room in tight black shirts that accentuate his powerful arms and gleaming bald head. He demands nothing short of perfection, as a prestigious music expert would, but goes about it by running cruel practice sessions. He puts students on the spot, brusquely dismissing their worth. He can be warm one minute, cutting and bruising the next. He’s quick with a homophobic slur, a belittling comment, ready to use personal information about a student as a knife to stick in and twist, all in the name of making better musicians.

Simmons’ Fletcher towers over every scene. Characters respect and fear him in equal measure. When he turns his stare towards the camera, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous myself. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, in only his second feature, shows great sense of blocking by keeping the man tall and looming in the frame. Our lead, the driven student (Miles Teller), sits behind a drum kit, low in the frame, separated from the others. On the first day of practice, he cries. Later, he exerts so much intense effort his hands split open, blood pooling on the sticks and drums, sweat falling on the cymbals as he plays through the pain, his teacher demanding more and more. Late in the film, Fletcher is asked if it’s possible to go too far. His answer is simple. “No.”

Chazelle effectively narrows the film’s focus to this core student/mentor relationship, charting the perfect storm that arises between Teller’s desire to the be the best at all cost, and Simmons’ readiness to push students as far as he can at all cost. That’s a lot of costs. Teller, in a less showy but no less nuanced role that gains most of its power from the determination in his eyes and in the silent strain growing there, throws himself into his drumming. He’s feeling pressure from all sides, like a cartoonishly dismissive extended family who think his music’s nice, but his cousins’ football is impressive. He shuts out good elements of his life – a wonderfully supportive and loving father (Paul Resier) and a cute potential love interest (Melissa Benoist) – to focus on pounding out paradiddle after paradiddle until he’s perfect.

The film becomes a series of anxiety attacks as a student who feels he can’t catch a break gets pushed to the breaking point by a teacher unwilling to waver from his intensity. The young man, earnest and serious about his musical ambitions, comparing himself to Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, arrives at a point where he knows his teacher is an unfair, manipulative, and psychologically assaultive bully, almost impossible to please. Even if he did, the approval won’t last long. And yet he wants to please the authority figure still. He’s told it’s the path to success, and is determined to get there. These performances sell the relationship’s tricky nature, as the actors find the humanity and the danger in their methods and madness.

Chazelle places this core emotionally abusive power dynamic over a formula setup, transposing a music school drama onto a sports movie structure as the ensemble prepares to perform for higher and higher stakes competitions. Practices and performances alike are filmed in whip pans and cut together with percussive editing, driving the skill and suspense of the drumming to greater heights. But what starts as formula ends up with psychologically weighted drum solos somewhere unexpected and gripping. Whiplash is so committed to following its characters’ drives that it arrives at a perfectly logical but wholly surprising conclusion. We watch two driven and uncompromising men pushing themselves for control over the situation, over a relationship that’s unhealthy and yet potentially might bring about beautiful music.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Boy and His Robot: BIG HERO 6


Turns out there’s some creative life left in the superhero movie. It just took Disney Animation to step away from the endless synergy, in-jokes, crossovers, and five-year plans to find it. Their team of computer animation artists took Big Hero 6, a Marvel comic so obscure their corporate cousins didn’t want to hold onto it for their massive Cinematic Universe, and focused on telling a contained story and doing it well. The result has everything you’d expect from a superhero movie: a tragic inciting incident, tight suits, high-tech gadgets, a supervillain with a connection to the heroes, and a finale involving a massive energy beam and billions of dollars in property damage. So it’s nothing new. But by keeping it simple and energetic, Disney has made the brightest and most colorful superhero movie in quite some time. It reminded me why I ever liked these kinds of stories in the first place.

Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) create a vivid near-future mashup metropolis called San Fransokyo, filled with a variety of architectures and influences from its portmanteau component inspirations. Fans, like me, of imaginary cities should get a kick out of it, even more so in 3D. But that’s the set dressing whizzing by in the backgrounds. The filmmakers take their time building the characters, confident enough to be bustling with worldbuilding spectacle firmly in the background, as sci-fi concepts drive the plot without taking over.

We meet Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius who graduated high school early and isn’t feeling up to college. Instead, he makes money gambling in illegal back alley robot fights. But his older brother (Daniel Henney) insists on introducing him to the high tech robotics lab on campus, tempting him with promise of resources and collaborators to help him achieve his fullest potential. It’s a strong brotherly bond we observe, which makes its quick severing all the more impactful. There’s a fire at a science fair and it claims the older boy’s life, leaving the younger depressed and lonely.

Hiro’s only companion is the prototype healthcare robot his brother built and left behind. The robot, named Baymax, is the film’s best creation. He’s built to be huggable. A large, inflated, soft plastic body makes him look something like a robo-Totoro. There’s a rubbery squeak to his every movement. He speaks (charmingly voiced by Scott Adsit) in loveably logical constructions and programmed intelligence that slowly accrues personality. When his battery is low, he sounds drunk. He’s a fantastic presence, bursting to life diagnosing Hiro. Observing the boy’s depression, the bot’s programming determines that cheering him up will be his mission, even if it means helping to track down the arsonist behind the fire. Hiro doesn’t waste any time building Baymax slick armor and programming him some kung fu knowledge.

As the boy and his robot build a relationship that helps bring the boy purpose in life, the film doesn’t have time to spend moping and brooding, launching quickly into the fun. It helps to have a bright palate filled with vibrant young characters. The older brother’s robotics classmates join Hiro and Baymax’s quest for justice, and are eager to form a makeshift superhero team to help do so. It’s a typical origin story, with mourning geniuses who have access to incredible high-tech gadgetry vowing to set things right. But the film gets a great deal of humor and excitement out of the characters’ repartee and diversity. There’s a goofy geek (T.J. Miller), a sunny egghead (Genesis Rodriguez), a serious gearhead (Jamie Chung), and a muscled nerd (Damon Wayons Jr.). Together with the cute robot and precocious teen, who help them turn their lab experiments into suits and weapons, they form a group that’s fun to be around, and the sense of camaraderie and individuality doesn’t disappear when the action starts.

That’s what ultimately sets Big Hero 6 apart from the competition. Even charming superhero teams like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy get swallowed up by the spectacle. But these characters, by virtue of their animation, don’t disappear into CGI costumes and stunt doubles. Their movements and personalities are constant whether running from swarms of nanobots or sitting around a table. Their talents and gadgets are well developed for clever payoffs in clear, confident comic book framing turned fluid motion. Animation needs thought behind every motion, every gesture, every frame. They don’t waste time animating endless punching matches and collateral damage to be chopped to ribbons in an editing bay. Apparently the way to improve the culture-dominating live-action cartoons is to bring them closer to their roots.

Here rambunctious action is well timed and staged, used sparingly. There’s cleverness and coherence to the construction of these sequences, so the action doesn’t grow exhausting. It’s informed by character and, even better, manages to be exciting and energetic without imperiling thousands of innocent lives. It’s actually a buoyant superhero action movie about the value of life, and the futility of violence. You’d think movies ostensibly about characters who save people would figure that out a little more often. The more time we spend watching the interplay between the boy, his robot, and their new friends, enjoying the humor and feeling the sadness of their loss, the more impact the handful of action sequences have.

I cared about the relationships, as formulaic as they are. The voice work is appealing. The character designs are the usual rubbery realism of Disney CG animation. And their world is so colorful and full of energy. It’s a good reminder that formula storytelling gets to be that way because once upon a time the structures worked. In Big Hero 6, it works. On a plot level, there’s not a single surprise to be had, but I was swept up in its momentum and imagination. Running a trim 108 minutes, it’s the first superhero movie in a decade to leave me wanting more in a good way. What a difference having loveable characters, pleasing design, economical storytelling, coherent themes, and action that doesn’t outstay its welcome makes.

Friday, November 7, 2014

To Boldly Go: INTERSTELLAR


Interstellar is a film out of time about a man out of time. It’s set in a future world in which climate change isn’t solved, leading to food shortages, dust storms, and economic collapse. In other words, it’s our world if we don’t get our acts together. It’s gotten so bad, a highly skilled engineer and pilot like Cooper (an earnest Matthew McConaughey) has found those jobs gone, forcing him to take up farming. There amidst the cornfields he, widowed, lives a frustrated life with his kids (Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet) and his father-in-law (John Lithgow), working the land and watching the skies, lamenting the lack of opportunity not just for himself, but for his children as well. They’re doomed to work the land for a starving planet losing habitable soil by the day. His father-in-law tells him, “You were born forty years too late, or too early.” How strange to hear that said about a future person, wishing himself back in our day.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan is a man out of time as well. His brand of pop seriousness, with the likes of The Dark Knight and Inception, may be in vogue, but his insistence on un-franchised tentpoles and shooting on film (full IMAX and 70mm, no less) make him an outlier. Sure enough, he, along with brother Jonathan who co-wrote, makes Interstellar an old-fashioned science fiction tale. It’s built out of bits and pieces of major sci-fi landmarks past, with the slow build of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the workaday travelers of Alien, the matter-of-fact procedure of Contact, the trippy leaps of 2001. There’s also some Gravity, Apollo 13, and The Right Stuff mixed in. And the opening sequence even has talking heads literally reappropriated from Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl, an odd choice.

The film steadily takes its time, gets its thrills out of the power and excitement of the unknown, and finally leaps beyond its reach into an ending as intuitively satisfying as it is both literal and baffling. Cooper is recruited by one of his old bosses (Michael Caine) to join a secret last-ditch effort to save humanity by looking to the stars. The plan is to travel through a wormhole near Saturn to a distant galaxy perched on the edge of a black hole and scout habitable worlds. Feeling the weight of the doomed Earth dying fast and taking his kids’ futures with it, he agrees to embark on this difficult and potentially indefinite mission. The film, which up until this point is appealing without being gripping, achieves liftoff at the same time the spaceship does.

The scientists (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) joining the journey are embarking on exploration meant to resist the prevailing earthbound public sentiment to merely manage decline. No, they’re out to discover a way to save mankind, a standard sci-fi trope here done slowly, seriously, and well. Nolan takes the opportunity to find the absorbing detail of scientific exploration, the majesty of awe as all manner of cosmic phenomena drift by.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema makes gorgeous images out of the interplay between the gunmetal grey ship and the gleaming, glittering panoply of stars, nebula, wormholes, and singularities lighting up the night sky. A host of talented artists conjure gorgeously rendered effects as beautiful as anything Douglas Trumbull cooked up for 2001 and The Tree of Life. Hans Zimmer’s score makes use of a pipe organ, making the connection between swirling space and spiritual reverence, the resonances of hope and progress as a light in hopeless darkness, the cosmos a cathedral of wonder and fear. It’s a film that’s reaching, and often thrilling in that reach.

That’s all in line with Nolan’s typical interest in concept over all else. His filmmaking is interested in process and rules, in films that constantly explain their preoccupations with puzzling over magic tricks, rattled memories, and layers of dream spaces. This is narratively his most straightforward film, thrilling to the step-by-step procedures that launch our team of astronauts (plus a Bill Irwin-voiced faceless box of metal robot who gets all the best lines) towards strange new worlds. There they find moments of peril and thriller plotting, including a late-arriving big name put to great use in a twist a lesser actor wouldn’t sell nearly as well.

The screenplay’s construction is clever in its use of the theory of relativity’s stretching space travel time to tell two connected stories on vastly different tracks. First, the tense interstellar mission spanning what feels to the characters like weeks. Second, a decades-spanning story for those left on Earth, like Cooper’s kids who grow up to be Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, wondering if their father will ever return or if he’s lost in space forever.

This is the film’s animating anxiety, not the potential end of humanity, but a broken family trying to pick up the pieces. They’re separated by time and space, in need of reconciliation and reunion that may never come. That’s the big beating heart at the core of the film, for all its spacey wonder and eventual squishy mumbo jumbo conclusion. The stars are an impressive backdrop, and the tense spaceship maneuvers and equation crunches are gripping outgrowths of, moments as simple as a father weeping while watching his children grow up fast from afar. The people in the film are representations of ideas more than round characters, but the talented cast breathes life into them and the feelings shake through. It’s a testament to the level of craft on display that the film can routinely verbalize every idea, and then feel them, too.

It’s Nolan’s most humane film, building on the metaphors for grief that drove Inception, working towards greater heights of narrative tension as expression of character needs. In the end, these twin, sometimes fumbling, impulses towards scientific and emotional exploration lead the film into a resolution that’s partially an explosion of abstract images, but more often an overly literal explanation that actually doesn’t make much sense. But the journey there is often stirring and exciting, overwhelming and marvelous with powerful images and sensations. I couldn’t help but admire the overreach of the final moments anyway, as it turns sci-fi loops that resolve the story tightly where I might’ve preferred a greater sense of poetic ambiguity. It’s a film of great ambition, a big, uneven, intensely personal vision that sneaks up and overpowers my objections.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bedeviled: HORNS


One morning, Ignatius wakes up to find a pair of devil horns growing right out of his forehead. Because this situation is based on the novel Horns by Joe Hill, who has inherited a flair for matter-of-fact macabre from his father Stephen King, we know that this isn’t a good sign. To make matters worse, Ig is currently the number one suspect in the murder of his girlfriend at the time of this new facial feature. Not a good time to start looking overtly devilish, but then again antlers are almost never a good look on a human person. Maybe Imogene of David Small’s picture book Imogene’s Antlers could pull it off, but even then only barely. It’s certainly not something most of us have to worry about.

Here, a charge of morbid curiosity regarding this development is ignited by two factors. One, Ig is being demonized by the press and becomes an embodiment of their stereotyping, an idea more fulfilling when explored in Gone Girl, but there’s room for both. Two, Ig is played by Daniel Radcliffe, sweet, pure, innocent, heroic Harry Potter himself. The film certainly wants us thinking about that, making some use of his screen persona to stack the deck. We’re supposed to be on his side right away, because surely Harry Potter wouldn’t murder his girlfriend. His history, and earnest performance, provides a modicum of transgression to scenes where he gets drunk, swears, smokes, has sex. He’s bad in quotation marks, a figure who’s literally no angel, the most literal Biblical allusion in a film full of them, including an Eve’s Diner, complete with a neon apple out front.

What’s odd about the freshly sprouting horns is how little others seem to notice, shrugging them off and going about their business. What’s especially strange is how small Ig’s reaction is. He goes to the doctor, and when that doesn’t help he just wanders around. They’re just another burden to bear. But he soon discovers the horns cause even worse reactions. They have the power to get people spilling their deepest, darkest secrets, allowing him to discover that the world is a perverse and ugly place held barely in check by a sense of propriety that fast erodes when he’s around. He goes to his parents (Kathleen Quinlan and James Remar) who instantly confess they think he killed the girl. “And she was my favorite thing about you,” his dad says. That hurts. He decides to use this thorny truth power to track down the real murderer and clear his name.

This is a fine concept, and Keith Bunin’s script allows the movie to glancingly incorporate a variety of tones and styles, creating a genre mélange that ends up a comic body horror thriller neo-noir supernatural murder mystery. But it thinks it’s weirder than it is. The revelations of his fellow man – one wants to binge eat, another wants to be a flasher, yet another’s a secret arsonist – seem rather pat, all things considered. And the gee-ain’t-mankind-the-real-monsters plotting gets lost in the execution that runs on a paranormal mystery the characters largely shrug at and a dead-girl mystery rotely developed and simply solved with limp twists and iffy effects. Plot threads involving Ig’s lawyer (Max Minghella), brother (Joe Anderson), a bartender (Kelli Garner), a waitress (Heather Graham), and his girlfriend’s father (David Morse), all stumble towards the conclusion with him to little effect.

Director Alexandre Aja has made a career out of going all in on bungled execution in horror movies like the ruinously twisted High Tension or the traumatic gleeful bloodbath Piranha 3D. With Horns he enthusiastically embraces every cracked corner of the concept, taking it far further than it should go, but not as far as it could. With lush colors and handsome photography, and a few unfortunately overplayed choices in needle drops, it goes from sudden outbursts of dark comedy and gore to surprisingly sweet (sometimes) childhood flashbacks that melt into borderline sexy young adult romance. These flashbacks, which give Juno Temple slightly more to the role of girlfriend beyond mere corpse, take us out of the main narrative, but it’s so ambling and rambling in the telling anyway that it only cuts off theoretical momentum. Give Horns credit for trying something new, even if it ends up only fitfully working.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Same Old Story: ST. VINCENT


Over at Forbes, Scott Mendelson wrote that St. Vincent, the new Bill Murray/Melissa McCarthy film, “could have been written in a quirky indie comedy Mad Libs book.” That’s precisely the reason why I was set to ignore it. I went to see it last weekend and paid good money to do so, but the experience left me completely empty. There are a few sweet touches to the performances, but I could barely hear them over the clunks and clanks of the plot machinery.

It’s a movie about a cranky old man (Murray) whose quiet life of sleeping, gambling, and drinking is interrupted by new neighbors, a single mom (McCarthy) and her precocious ten-year-old son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) he reluctantly agrees to babysit after school. Reading that sentence, anyone who has seen any comedy-tinged indie-adjacent drama knows that Murray’s crusty exterior will soften enough to let his warm heart through, McCarthy’s harried mom will find a new support system, and the kid will learn life lessons from an unlikely source.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling familiar stories, but writer-director Theodore Melfi brings absolutely nothing to latch onto. It’s not even a tired story told with fresh perspective or confident familiarity. It’s just exactly what you think it’ll be every single step of the way. Like the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod said, “A bad neighbor is a misfortune, as much as a good one is a great blessing.” And sometimes you can find both in the same neighbor, especially if you have someone like Murray who can play up the sarcastic grump as well as the likable schlub with a tragic backstory.

The performances are all fine across the board, including the stacked supporting cast with the likes of Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, and Terrence Howard. They’re good, and Murray has his charming curmudgeon act down as perfectly as McCarthy has instant audience sympathy. Then there’s young Lieberher, who has the right amount of believable intelligence behind his eyes to sell even the most specious precocious moments. But the material is just not up to the level of the performers, who simply can’t make something out of nothing. It’s not that anything goes too terribly wrong with the film. But nothing was engaging or interesting, either. It’s agreeable, but empty, like Melfi’s obvious plot beats, simple sitcom staging, and bright cinematography.

I was all set to let St. Vincent pass uncommented upon by me, but the box office held up surprisingly well in its second week. It’s starting to smell like a modest performer, the kind of warm, undemanding, unsurprising movie that three weeks from now the guy in your office who almost never sees movies and doesn’t particularly like them anyway tells you he saw and wasn’t it something special? I suppose it is a totally competent version of this kind of movie. The performances are good and the final notes of redemption, complete with the typical big school event and a grown-up running in at the last second to show off misty eyes and a solemn nod of support, do ring with a certain earned pleasant feeling that can yank on audience heartstrings. But it’ll be far more entertaining the fewer movies you’ve seen.
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